Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Virgin boss "too sick to live in Britain"

The pointy finger points

In an interesting article on Britain's favourite plutocrat, David Runciman notes that Branson "has always  been keen to point the finger at others whenever he has had the chance." So it's no surprise to see a man who "made his fortune out of the regulated parts of the economy, which he has milked to extract government subsidies, tax breaks, licensing agreements and protected income streams" deploying the pointy finger* to discredit a man whose support for the popular cause of rail renationalisation threatens to derail the gravy train that makes all those sunny days in pampered tax exile possible:
In 1971, when he was getting going in the music business, Branson was caught evading purchase tax in the UK. Since then he has been very careful about when he pays tax and to whom. He owns property in a wide variety of locations, though his primary base is his ‘holiday’ home on the island of Necker. His wish to avoid being taxed by the British government means he cannot spend more than ninety days a year in the UK. Given his peripatetic movements few other governments can lay a hand on him either. His businesses are registered under complex schemes across a range of different jurisdictions, including the Virgin Islands, where the holding company for Virgin Trains (very much a UK business) happens to be based. Branson has spent forty years denying he is a tax avoider and for the most part his reputation as a carefree spirit, partying his way around the globe, has trumped the idea that he is just another cautious plutocrat squirrelling away his wealth.

As always, he has been keen to point the finger at others whenever he has had the chance. 

* Not to mention probably breaking data protection law (hat tip).

Friday, 19 August 2016

Burkini bedlam

After Trump and Brexit, along come the French to prove that these aren't just isolated aberrations - people all over the industrialised world are totally losing it.

This Burkini ban. Now I'm as secular as the next person (in fact, I'm quite likely to be more secular than the next, randomly-selected human). But this idea is just completely barking mad. Even if we put to one side the feelings and rights of people who have done nothing more antisocial than choosing atypical swimwear, what problem is this intervention supposed to solve?

Seriously - if "banning people from wearing full-length swimsuits to the beach" is the solution, what, in the name of sanity, is the problem? If Monsieur Lisnard had said something like "heatstroke" that would have sounded implausible, but still vaguely rational. Instead, he just shrugged his shoulders at reality and went full Trump:
The burkini is like a uniform, a symbol of Islamist extremism. This is why I am banning it for the summer.
"Like a uniform"? Yeah, that really makes sense. Because, now I come to think of it, when countries decide to celebrate the awesomeness of the motherland with a great big parade of people marching about in spiffy military uniforms, they always include  a 1970s Miss World-style swimwear section.

OK, they don't really. That snark was for comic effect, although I don't know why I bother when reality does comedy so much better, with classics like self-appointed defenders of the liberal,* secular state enforcing arbitrary dress codes with all the po-faced zeal of those morality police tasked with upholding conformity in such enlightened parts of the world as Saudi Arabia.




*"Liberal", in the sense of letting people get on with their lives unmolested, so long as they're doing no harm, as opposed to one of the definitions of "liberal" which involves some specific flavour of political economy.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Bleeding heart illiberals

Here's a pitiful complaint from the people who've spent the last few years telling the rest of us that you can't have a robust exchange of views, or even a bit of banter, in modern Britain because political correctness:
Workers who voted for Britain to leave the European Union in the referendum in June have complained of experiencing hostile remarks, harassment, and “cultural bullying” from Remain-supporting colleagues.
Turns out that the brave little soldiers who Took Our Country Back aren't that brave after all. Who'd have guessed?

Apparently not Harvard's Yascha Mounk, who's been thinking about Brexit as a local expression of global Trumpism. "Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own" he writes. I suspect he's wrong here. I don't think think that political elites are genuinely "terrified" of illiberal democracy.

Firstly, because so many backers of illiberal democracy, like the hereditary plutocrat Trump and the newspaper tycoons and millionaire City boys behind the Brexit propaganda machine are members of the elite.

Secondly, because they know that underneath all the bluster about "taking our country back" and "making [insert name of country here] great again", the Global Trumpists'  noisiest, most strident followers are really unimaginative, weak, insecure, conformists who just want to obey a strong leader. Which probably doesn't terrify anybody who's comfortable with hierarchical top-down politics, which is why the content-free blather of the Global Trumpists has been tolerated and even accommodated by existing political elites.

What would really terrify unrepresentative elites would be a challenge to the ideology which keeps the establishment gravy train running on time. To be fair, Mounk totally gets this part of the problem and describes it rather well:
To get elected, politicians need to prevail in a primary system that emphasises the voice of a small number of radical ideologues. To bankroll their campaigns, they need to raise contributions at a constant clip, making them dependent on the good will of major funders. 
Which is why establishment politicians have a vested interest in shouting down anybody who dares to suggest a return to anything resembling mild, slightly more egalitarian, social democracy as an advocate of some kind of wild-eyed far-left Stalinism (or Trotskyism - as the PR industry has taught them, you don't have to be logically consistent as long as you're being loud and repetitive). This sort of change - which is a relatively cozy and consensual form of politics, compared to their own ruthless, radical version of winner-takes-all Social Darwinism, but does actually threaten their power and authority - really does terrify political elites.

That's why I think they're so unbelievably tolerant of the the noisy bawling coming from the Global Trumpist crybabies.



Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Life in the post-space age

I haven't been doing more than skimming the news over the last  few weeks, because so much of it has been so discouraging. But I did notice that somebody did a survey which generated headlines like this:
Net overload 'sparks digital detox for millions of Britons'
I'm not inclined to take these headlines at face value.

They hype something that's not particularly earth-shattering into sounding dramatic and important. The BBC article kicks off with the scary-sounding language of addiction ("59% of those surveyed considered themselves hooked on their devices"), before admitting that the survey doesn't really address the question of whether or not people are getting "hooked" and tuning into device junkies ("[experimental psychologist Andrew Przybylski] added that it was important to understand that the survey was not a study of internet addiction ... 'That is not a recognised psychiatric disorder'").

And what, exactly, does "detox?" mean here? If the concept of digital detox is as ill-defined and misleading as the notion of "detoxing" your body, probably nothing.

But the general idea that there is some kind of problem still sounds vaguely, anecdotally, plausible. "Detox" may be a nonsense word, but maybe people are spending too much time interacting with, or via, their devices (but how much time is "too much?"). I've sometimes had the guilty feeling that I've had too much screen time and could have been doing something more useful or fulfilling in the real world. Or inwardly tutted at a couple, family group, or bunch of friends sitting together, fixated on their individual devices, ignoring one another.

Perhaps the digital world really is so compelling that we're being diverted from important things by an overload of information, a lot of it trivial.

As a child of what we then called the Space Age, I can see how the volume of information, entertainment and communication has rocketed, since my formative years, spent with three channels on the black and white family TV, immobile phones tied to buildings or call boxes and a family music collection consisting of twenty or so vinyl discs, played on a Dansette mono record player. Maybe we've gained bandwidth, but also lost something valuable - after all, there was less distraction back then, so much more time for getting out and doing stuff in the real world. Less is more.

Maybe. But maybe, if Britain has a device problem, it's not the sort of problem being framed by all those moral-panicky "digital detox" headlines, with their implied individual battles against temptation (a virtous elect shunning the broad primrose path that leads to social media sin and clickbait damnation, in favour of the narrow, virtuous way of digital self-denial).

Let's think about this a different way. I mentioned what people had less of, back in the Space Age, in terms of entertainment and communication. I didn't say what many people had a lot more of - space. Never mind scare headines about some maybe-problem of individual digital self-indulgence; people in post-Space Age Britain have plenty of more plausible headlines and real problems to worry about:

Meet the young women beating the housing crisis by living in a van

This is a housing crisis, and without intervention it will bankrupt the welfare state


Rent rises with a week's notice: we can no longer afford our 'affordable' housing

Generation rent: young, married, pregnant and stuck in a house share 

London rents now a 'major risk' to UK economy

Millions to face affordable housing crisis

Home ownership in England at lowest level in 30 years as housing crisis grows

'Shoebox homes' become the UK norm

Our prime ministers aren’t building houses – that’s why there’s a crisis

I'm not suggesting that the Space Age was some kind of housing Utopia for everybody - it was the age of Cathy Come Home, too, but the cost of an average house wasn't quite such a crazy multiple of earnings, there was more social housing, rent controls were in the realm of thinkable policy and homes were, on average, bigger.*

Under these circumstances, maybe spending more time with your devices is a rational choice. You haven't got the personal space to invite a gang of your mates back to hang out at home, but hanging out together on line takes zero extra space. If you're pressed for space, you can't own so much stuff - maybe you don't have room for all the clobber that goes with many analogue pastimes. There are, however, digital substitutes - your record collection is now a bunch of MP3 files, or whatever. Your bookshelves are, for practical purposes, spaceless when they live inside your eReader. Video games (other than the WiiFit type) may not provide the exercise benefits of actual sports, but there's no sports kit to find room for.

Where smug boomers are embracing downsizing and decluttering as opportunities for humblebragging about how much stuff they could have, if only they weren't so totally not materialist ("I had so many things but they weren't making me happy - I feel so much freer now"), space-deprived Generation Rent is light on physical possessions out of sheer necessity.

We moralise about individual digital addiction in much the same way as we moralise about debt. Perhaps a more useful way to think about these things is in a structural way; when real wages are flat, but somebody needs to keep spending to keep the real economy on the road, debt is the substitute that keeps the wheels turning.

If you're not creating enough affordable space for people to live in, virtual space is a substitute that keeps the rabbit-hutch dwellers sane and allows them to tolerate a a system that isn't really working for them. The credit card allowed people to spend money they didn't have - networked digital devices allow them to enjoy personal space they don't have. To keep it classy, I'll end with a Shakespearian quote which sounds wierdly appropriate:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2




*I'm not making the simple assumption that big homes always equate to more living space per head; a lot of Britain's big, old-fashioned houses were built to cram in big, old-fashioned families, but by Les Trente Glorieuses, with council house building peaking at 250,000 a year in the 1950s and the combined total of private and council house building peaking at 400,000 in the 1960s, I'm assuming that we really did have more space per capita, not just in absolute terms.





Thursday, 4 August 2016

Greece: a modest propsal

Courtesy of a tourist souvenir T-shirt...
I'm old enough to remember when the Common Agricultural Policy gave us the European cheese mountain.* I suspect that any feta-based programme for making serious inroads into Greek debt is going to need a whole mountain range of dairy products.


*Sober afterthought - I'm pretty sure, now I come to think about it, that it was a butter mountain, not a cheese mountain, which constitutes evidence for the counter-intuitive idea that there can be such a thing as too much beer and sunshine...

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Cheap holidays in other people's misery

Time for a moderately well-earned break from the disunited kingdom of Brexshit, so we're off to a country that might more reaonably complain that it's been screwed by the EU.

In lieu of the usual beach pic, here are some weapons of moderate destruction - a torpedo commemorating the feats of Greek submariners, with a Philip Green-style superyacht (not your actual Lionheart - that was being mooned in Malta when I took this) in the background. Abnormal service to be resumed shortly...