Osborne’s Feeling Moody

Well the inevitable’s happened this week, with the UK losing its Triple A credit rate from Moody’s. I have long warned that this would happen and its been long threatened since its been clear that the government’s ill-conceived ideas regarding austerity have merely increased it instead. And of course it is deeply ironic indeed that primary justification for this policy of austerity was to protect the UK’s triple A rating!

Of course I would argue that the idea that austerity was justified by a desire to sort out the UK’s deficit and protect the triple A rating has always been a load off….BS….or HS these days :DD

The Tories policy has always been to try and find some excuse to cut the taxes to the wealthy and pay for such taxes by cutting anything that benefits the middle and working classes. Its wealth distribution upwards. Even when the economy was booming under Thatcher the Tories followed this principle (private industry can run things better, we should cut spending and privatize public services), when the economy tanked under Major, again the policy was the same (more belt tightening, more tax cuts to the rich “to encourage growth”).

Why is anyone surprised that they have proposed the same thing again? And surprise, surprise it has blown up in their faces (again!). The only real question is how come the lib dems were so dumb to let them get away with it.

Oscar Pistorius and Gun safety

Buried in amongst the tragedy of the Oscar Pistorius case and the alleged murder of his girlfriend was another issue – that of Gun control and gun violence.

Now I’m going to suspend debate about the “did he do it or not” variety. Suffice to say (even if we believe his side of the story, and of course the police would argue there are some serious holes in his version of events) shooting at someone through a door is a pretty reckless and stupid thing to do. Even if it was a burglar it would still count as excessive force (he gave no warning) and thus murder or manslaughter in some form or another.

Advocates of lax gun laws often argue that “guns make us all safer”. This is unfortunately a fact not borne out by statistics. The fact is that countries with lax gun control, either by design or because the authorities (as in South Africa) simply don’t enforce gun laws properly, all have much higher rates of gun related deaths than countries with stricter gun control laws.

And its not just a matter of drug lords doing drive by shootings on each other. No, in regions with lax gun control there are more murders in general (by gun or otherwise) and more suicides. Inevitably one must conclude that in the heat of the moment, people pick up a gun and do something stupid, be it turning the gun on themselves or on family and friends (or girlfriends who they’ve just had a row with!).

I met someone from Switzerland the other day and as she pointed out that while yes her country has some of the highest per capita gun ownership rates, that is not to suggest that gun regulations in Switzerland are lax. Most of these guns are actually government property handed out for national defense purposes (big government very much on people’s back!). In fact the regulations in Switzerland are very tight. There is a gun register (something the NRA have long opposed for the US), moving or carrying guns, while allowed, is subject to strict control. The Swiss even implement a form of bullet control, whereby certain types of ammo cannot be obtained legally (unless there’s a war on!) and you can’t just buy other types without a legitimate reason (with such purchases being recorded, excessive purchasing of ammunition earning you a visit from the local police).

But even despite these measures, Switzerland has a much higher suicide rate than neighbouring countries in Europe. And an unfortunate number of those are committed with guns, often with the government issued rifle.

Guns offer, not security, but a false sense of security. Like drivers in a 4×4, you might feel safer, but the reality is that 4×4 drivers are much more likely to have an accident than drivers of an ordinary cars (poorer brakes, larger mass, higher centre of gravity, no crumple zone or crash attenuator, etc.) and such vehicles simply aren’t designed for the same rigorous crash worthiness standards applied to conventional cars.

Similarly if you own a gun (legally or otherwise) it’s more likely that you or a family member will be killed by that gun (at your own hand or another’s) than you being killed by a burglar.

Ian Duncan Smith is a right slave driver

One of those other stories I’d been meaning to comment on but a back log at work prevented me, was that of Cait Reilly (a geology graduate) who, along with James Wilson (an unemployed HGV driver), successfully challenged the UK government’s “welfare to work” scheme, or as I prefer to call it “the welfare chain gangs”.

In short she successfully argued that her giving up her existing time, which meant she had to stop volunteering at a local museum to stack shelves for Poundland was not only a complete waste of her time (time which she could have devoted to trying to get a proper job) but also amounted to forced labour, or as its more popularly known “slavery”.

Of course Ian Duncan Smith, the Home Secretary (now titled we assume Government chief slave driver) tried to extricate from this mess by accusing Miss Reilly of being “too proud” to stack shelves, obviously a well thought out piece of spin that his allies in the tory tabloids could get millage out of.

However all that IDS response demonstrates is that he simply doesn’t get it. The whole reason for having a minimum wage is that it represents the subsistence level needed to work at a job and support oneself. It also puts a defined value on a person’s hourly wage. If we allowed employers to set wages arbitrarily, then pretty quickly we’d end up with many people paid a pittance, so little that they couldn’t afford anything but the basics, and I’m talking bread, water and a shack in a shanty town sort of basics! While others at the other extreme would get paid ridiculously outlandish salaries for doing very little. This is exactly what happens in third world countries that lack a minimum wage.

By forcing people to work on these schemes for no wage, or if we calculate on the basis of their job seekers allowance a measly £1.80 per hour, we are effectively bypassing this principle. Naturally Poundland and other employers are likely to reduce their recruitment (not hire more staff) as its always going to be more profitable to hire someone at £1.70 an hour than £6.19. Indeed its interesting to note how shortly after Tesco’s pulled out of these schemes last year they then immediately announced tens of thousand new jobs (obviously this represents the jobs that would not have been created had they participated in this scheme).

If indeed the Daily Mail types in the Tories insist on people “working for their benefits” it would make more sense to pay them the national minimum wage and have them put in say 9 hours or so a week and leave it at that.

The bottom line is that this case merely highlights how out of touch the Tories are on the issue of unemployment. They don’t seem to understand that people who are unemployed are often fairly busy people (busy trying to find another job for one thing!) or will take up other activities like volunteering, etc, to pass the time.

Then there are also people in some professions who are forever in and out of paid work, but are always working (if you know what I mean). It was once pointed out to me that those working in the theatre or film industry (so called “below the line” workers) frequently work for free on projects to begin with in the hope it turning into a paid job later. Obviously forcing people like these to partake in government vanity schemes is either going to drive them out of work or force up the costs of such industries up to the point where they relocate overseas.

I suspect Miss Reilly’s decision to volunteer in a museum may have been motivated in part by civic duty but also out of the possibility that such volunteering eventually turned into some sort of a job.

Yes there are some “professional unemployed” people who laze about all day drinking buckie and committing crime. However, these welfare to work schemes are unlikely to work with these types as no employer wants these sorts of people on the premises (in case they come back later and rob the place! or just do a really bad job and wreck everything) and in any event they just won’t show up. But these individuals represent only a small minority and what IDS proposes is essentially a form of “collective punishment” on a mass of people whose only crime was to find themselves out of work due to the incompetence of the present government and their failed economic policies.

On horsemeat and Lassie Faire….and that’s not a type of Lasagne!

Was extremely busy the last few weeks to the point where everything (even getting my hair cut!) got put on hold until I could clear the back log of work.

I was going to make a horsy joke out of the last line but decided against it, I think people are sick of hearing them or hearing about horsemeat and how they might have unwittingly been dining on Shergar or Black Beauty.

Now the authorities have been quick to point out that it’s still perfectly safe to eat horsemeat, the French do it all the time. But I think they are ignoring the fact that the meat processors weren’t putting this stuff in the food for our health. No, they were doing it as a result of a conscious effort to cut corners, which sort of suggests that this horsemeat issue is merely the tip of the iceberg of corners cut and food safety standards ignored.

Of course many have been quick to point the finger in various directions. The tabloids were practically foaming at the mouth while collapsing in a catatonic fit when it was suggested that Romanian abattoirs were responsible (it has since come out that the British ones were equally at fault). Bloody Romanian horses coming over here, taking jobs off of British cows! :))

The supermarkets have been quick to point the finger every which way they can. They firstly tried to blame the EU (again an obvious Spin tactic as they knew the tabloids would pick up on it) for reclassifying how the labelled “meat” (those bed wetting eurocrats decided that reconstituted bone and gristle couldn’t be called “meat” anymore, meaning that as “pink slime”lasagne doesn’t sound too appealing they had to cut corners and use ground up pony instead). Then they tried to blame local councils and even customers themselves for trying to cut costs and buy the meat the supermarkets put on the shelves (the nerve of them!).

In short the attitude of the supermarkets doesn’t appear to be that far removed from that of a burglar who, having been caught stealing blames the person he robbed for having all this shiny stuff lying around the house and not having better security in place to deter him.

Ultimately the reason why there is horsemeat and who knows what in the meat is due to the supermarkets and their near Victorian era policy of brutal competition. Frequently supermarkets will arbitrarily impose a price cut on a product and inform a supplier of this cut after the event and leave it up to him to figure out how such cuts are going to be implemented. Of course the thought of how the supplier is supposed to implement such price cuts on a product already being produced and sold at below the price of production does not occur to the supermarket. Nor does it seem the thought that the supplier faced with the choice of loosing a major buyer or cutting a few corners will choose the latter and let standards slip. But inevitably if they are selling a beef lasagne for a pound when the corner shop down the street’s selling the same thing for £3.50, corners are being cut somewhere. Economies of scale only go so far.

The solution is to break the near monopolistic powers of the supermarkets. Breaking them up or putting limits on store sizes, etc. is sorely needed. There is also a need for suppliers to grow a spine. They need to rediscover what brands are all about.

If BMW or Boeing were told by their lead buyer that they were going to be paid 20% less from now on for the product, but they could avoid the breadline if they say removed all safety equipment and made the brake disks out of cardboard. I suspect they’d tell the buyer to go take a hike. Both these companies know that any issue of safety will come straight back to them and in an industry as well regulated as they work in such a scandal could prove fatal to the company and its image.

Similarly the brands who supply to supermarkets need to remember what they exist for. The history of brands came about because back in the bad old days of the Victorians the lassie-faire economics of the era led to all sorts of cheating going on. Unscrupulous retailers would put industrial chemicals into toothpaste and other cosmetics, mix saw dust into food too bulk it up or mix paint into foods to make the right colour and indeed pass off horsemeat as beef. The idea of brands came about because customers would be assured that when you bought say Heinz beans you were buying quality.

Inevitably the lassie faire policies of the supermarkets has driven us full circle. The brands themselves therefore need to realise that they must resist the powers of the supermarkets, stand up to such aggressive tactics and not cut corners. After all Warren Buffett only paid 28 billion for Heinz the other week because its perceived to be a good quality brand. If horsemeat shows up in their food he could quickly find himself in negative equity.

There is also a need for us the customers to realise that there is a price to be paid for low prices. If we keep buying the bargain basement cheap crap, the supermarkets will keep selling it. I generally buy my meat and veg (where I can) from either local butchers or farmers markets. While I pay a bit more I can, unlike many, tell exactly where my food came from. So vote with you’re feet and buy local!

Climate Skepticism revisited

I put up an article on my Energy Blog a few weeks ago entitled “why do people deny climate change?”. While a recent surge in climate denial seems to have halted and reversed (probably as a result of recent “extreme weather” events both sides of the Atlantic), an unfortunately high number of people still believe that the overwhelming evidence supporting AGW is merely a con and tens of thousands of the world’s top climate scientists are involved in some sort of elaborate mass conspiracy.

In this article I concluded that we can pin this tendency down to a number of factors. Inevitably a misunderstanding of basic science and climate behaviour play’s its part (some of which is counter intuitive in nature, Chris Beck of Grist tackles a couple of these, I discussed this previously here). And of course there are plenty of professional deniers out there who are ready to exploit this lack of understanding. This article from the Daily Mail, plus a rebuttal by the Met Office and Realclimate.com is a good set of examples.

In part we can also blame a natural skepticism among some people of government and its motives. That, for example, the state is merely using climate change to further its own tax and spend agenda. Now on the one hand, I would argue that scepticism of governments is actually healthy in any democracy, after all it’s our job as voters too keep the government in check.

But climate skeptic’s, like a large number of other conspiracy theorist, take this natural skepticism to a whole new level. i.e. they have the world’s scientists conspiring with politicians of both the right wing and the left….for some ill defined reason. The crux of the infamous “Great Global Warming Swindle” docu-fantasy was that right wing politicians such as the Thatcher and Reagan conspired with lefty green groups and academic professors (and one assumes the Roswell alien & Jimmy Hoffa!) to create this myth of global warming…as a way of getting back at the coal miners!…or something!

And inevitably those on the political right are more likely than anyone else to engage in such tactics. Climate change confronts right wingers, in particular those of the Libertarian persuasion with a bit of a conundrum. The earth’s atmosphere is a global commons and so long as someone can profit by dumping stuff into it, someone will continue to do so until some sort of regulation or tax is imposed to discourage such activity.

But (the libertarian is forced to ask) how can we get big government off our back’s / drown it in the bath tub, if issues like climate change exist and create a constant need for some sort of “authority” (who for lack of a word we’ll refer to as “the government”) to enact laws to ensure these issues are properly dealt with?

And of course, even if we can dodge the AGW bullet, there’s still issues such as peak oil, water resource depletion, environmental pollution (I would argue climate change is merely a symptom of this wider problem), extinction of endanger wild life, over population, etc, all to worry about!

In essence a free market accolade has essentially two choices at this junction, admit that his philosophy is seriously flawed and that yes there is some role (limited or otherwise) for governments to perform…or denying that the problems mentioned above actually exist.

Inevitably the zealots within the political right opt for the latter option. As this libertarian blogger all but admits, they deny climate change because they have too! And when those pesky annoying facts get in the way, they resort to dubious pseudo-science quackery or propagating wild conspiracy theories to fill in the gaps.

For example, unable to accept that America might have a gun problem, right wingers will often propose unworkable solutions (arm kinder garden teachers and 6 year old’s with assault rifles!) and propagate wild conspiracy theories (such as the various 9/11-was-a-inside-job lunacy) to explain such incidents as Sandy Hook away.

Some may query whether it is fair for me to dump climate denialist into the same boat as conspiracy nuts who think NASA didn’t land on the moon or young earth creationists. Well actually, that’s the point, much of the tactics used by these different groups are one and the same.

As this article in Climatecrocks highlights, a joint study by psychologist’s from the University of Zurich and University of Western Australia noted similarity between the tactics of these groups and how if you’re a believer in, say UFO’s or creationism, you’re statistically also more likely to be climate change denier too (indeed more Republicans believe in demonic position than climate change!). Predictably the response of the denier community is to claim that this paper (remember a scientist wrote this study….i.e. one of the “them”) proves that the climate change conspiracy runs ever deeper.

SG Collins, a former cinematographer has a You-tube video discussion about the lunar landing Hoax. He points out that it would be technically impossible for NASA to have faked the moon landing footage. Indeed it would have been actually easier just to go to the moon and film everything there! Much of the supposed “proof” behind the lunar hoax conspiracy (much like climate denial) relies on a miss understanding of how light behaves in certain conditions or how cinematography works. But of course the lunar hoax conspiracy theorist will come back by inventing elaborate technologies (that would be harder and more expensive to develop than a Apollo moon rocket!) and massive government conspiracies to paper over the cracks….much like the climate denier is forced to do the same.

Indeed Collins leaves out the most compelling piece of evidence, the Americans needed the co-operation of other nations all around the world (since the earth rotates and they needed access to dishes on the other side of the planet) to keep track of the Apollo spacecraft and maintain communication with its crew….including the Russians! So in short, the lunar conspiracy would only be possible if the Soviets (America’s arch cold war rivals) were in on it!

Similarly climate denial only works if every government on the planet and the army of advisors, civil servants and scientists these governments rely on to function were all in on it and none of them thought to leak the conspiracy to the world. Indeed when you start to assemble the facts you have to conclude it would be easier for the government to just get us all to dump vast quantities of carbon in the atmosphere and cause climate change, than fake the evidence of global warming.

When you have to start playing mental gymnastics to make a theory work, you’re well past the point where logic or reasoning depart and paranoid fantasy begins. Take the latest delusion from Fox News(again from climatecrocks), solar energy can’t work in America like it does in Germany (30 GW’s and growing) because Germany gets so much more sunshine than the US….actually Germany’s at about the same latitude as Newfoundland! And the only State in the USA that receives less solar energy than Germany is Alaska! Many US states get double or more the sunshine that Germany receives (i.e. if solar energy works in Germany, it should be a slam dunk in the US).

In short denial of climate change is both irrational and silly and well have you resorting to the wearing of tinfoil hats before you know it!

America has a gun problem

An interesting statistic I saw from the Beeb the other day. It shows that as developed countries go, America stands out for the sheer number of gun related deaths. In America there are 3.2 gun murders per 100,000 people v’s 0.1 in the UK. Even other developed countries with a strong tradition of gun ownership and liberal guns laws do not have anything like this level of gun deaths. In Switzerland (where gun ownership is practically compulsory!) its 0.8 per 100,000 (8 times higher than the UK but a quarter the US rate), 0.5 in Canada and 0.4 in Sweden.

Now while there are developing countries (or those with wars going on in them!) with higher gun deaths, there is typically a reason behind this. Indeed the drug war in the Central American states puts several of them towards the top of the world gun murder table. But as far as “civilised” developed nations go, Americans clearly need to accept they have a gun problem.

One could draw a parallel with alcohol, yes some people can handle it, others cannot and need to quit drinking. While yes, some countries (like Switzerland or Canada) get by and can handle gun ownership, America is a different culture and clearly that culture can’t handle gun ownership. Some sort of legislation to regulate their vast arsenals of guns is needed.