Blogging Catch up

As always, a busy time for me, had to go travelling for a bit to meet students on placement, one or two job interviews, some conferences, etc. So no time for blogging, so time for a catch up…

How can 4,352,251 people be so dumb?
Of course the big political story of the last few weeks was the European parliament elections. The results showed a jump in support for UKIP. Of course this had the tabloids (who are largely to blame for this given their tendency to blame foreigners for everything) both dancing a jig, but also having kittens over the obvious threat this poses to the Tories chances of re-election, given that the main loser to UKIP was the Tories.

Of course inevitably the result will be the Tories panicking and inventing more laws to clamp down on the perceived threat of “migration”. Of course as I pointed out in a prior post, its questionable if the UK has anything to fear from migration (the tabloid myths simply don’t stack up when you examine the statistics) and indeed that UKIP’s solution (leaving the EU) is unlikely to have any effect in curbing it.

One has to consider the negative economic effects. Migrants into the UK tend to be of working age who contribute more to the UK economy in taxes than they take out in the form of services, so the consequences if lots of them leaving is likely to be a drop in economic activity, tax take and inward investment.

And similarly the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU is likely to be negative. And far from this restoring powers to parliament, the result would be that the EU will continue to pass many of the UK’s laws, except now the UK government will have no authority to overrule or veto those laws, as it will have to implement them without question in the interest of maintaining a free trade agreement with the EU. And even before the UK was out the door, its likely the EU would have its pound of flesh by imposing “crippling” terms on such a deal to the detriment of traders in London (this probably explains why UKIP did so badly in the capital itself!).

And as I previously mentioned the integrity of the United Kingdom itself could be threatened by a “in/out” referendum. Euro-scepticism is a largely English phenomenon, its interesting to note the marked difference between polls in England and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where UKIP did not do nearly as well. UK independence Party? They should call themselves the English Bankruptcy Party.

And of course, contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe there seems to have been no real change in Brussels. The EPP (centre right) will, looking at the results, likely form an alliance with the liberals and centre left and carry on regardless. Indeed given that the pro-EU parties (of both right and left) will now need to co-operate more rather than squabble, the chances of the euroskeptics or the Tories getting their way is actually reduced. The EPP is proposing to make a Federalist the new EU commission president.

In part this is because politicians in Europe understand what is going on here far better than those in Britain. A good deal of UKIP’s support is the usual anti-establishment populism which has been seen in other EU countries before. Generally such parties do well, until they get the slightest whiff of power….and then collapse! Obviously it’s easy to throw rocks when you’re the guy outside the glass house. Furthermore as I’ve illustrated many of UKIP or the other far right parties proposed policies are simply unworkable and would be hugely unpopular with the very people who support them (next time someone says we should have an in/out referendum point out to them that this means taxes going up, you’re mortgage or rent going up, cuts to pensions and the NHS, etc.).

Indeed one need only look at the drumming the previous flavour of the month that was the BNP took in this election (losing both they’re seats), to see what’s in store for UKIP longer term.

But in short the many who voted for UKIP perhaps need to take stock of their actions. Where you really voting for further xenophobia and bigotry? Did you really want it made harder for the UK to negotiate with the EU? And do you really want these sorts of nutters we see in UKIP as you’re local councillor? Already one’s gone due to racist remarks he made :crazy:.

We had the same thing happen in Ireland last election. Many didn’t want to vote Fianna Fail (the party in government) due to the mess they’d gotten the country into. So many went and voted for Sinn Fein. When asked why they didn’t vote for someone sensible like the labour party or Fianna Gael instead they’re response was “oh they’re too left wing”…so they voted instead for a party to the left of not just the labour party but many of the socialists instead !?! :??:

Cleg Phobia
Of course a perfect example of how this anti-government populism can backfire when said party gets into government can be demonstrated by the liberal democrats… although we should really now refer to them as the liberal democrat (note lack of plural!) as they’re down to just one seat in the EU now.

“Cleg mania” seems to have been replaced by “Cleg phobia”. There’s been calls from within his party to resign and even a very typically liberal attempt to oust him which amounted to fisty cuffs at ten paces.

Would the lib dem’s do better in the next election without Nick Clegg? I doubt it. The problem is that they are the victims of the Tory policy of using them as a shield against public opinion. Of course several years means that this shield has now been cut down to a small buckler.

If the lib dems are to survive the next election, they need to set out their stall and put clear blue water between themselves and the tories. I’d even consider, if I were them, challenging the Tories on some issue (say bankers pay or the 50p tax) and essentially either forcing the Tories into a climb down or walking out of government and triggering an early election.

Housing bubble
There is more evidence of a growing housing bubble within the UK. Prices are set to rise, which risks worsening already dangerous inequality within the housing sector, between the “have’s” who got on the ladder at the right moment and the “have not’s” who for various reasons didn’t. This situation will only get worse with new lending rules which make it harder for anyone without a fixed income, such as those on contract type jobs, to get a mortgage, even if they are actually better paid than someone on a regular salary. And of course if this bubble bursts the consequences will be another recession and a crash, except this time there will be no bailout.

And it seems likely the Tories are deliberately provoking this bubble in the hope of creating a spurt of short term growth to make their numbers look good before the next election…even if the whole economy crashes shortly after. While they’ve been keen to claim that their help to buy scheme isn’t contributing to the bubble, there’s lots of things they are doing which clearly are contributing.

A policy of very low interest rates and quantitative easing into infinity for example. This means that anyone putting money into savings is getting hammered. I was slow to set up an ISA this year and then realised I shouldn’t have bothered. I would have actually been better off just converting it all into Euro’s and putting it into my current account in Ireland. As the Euro is gaining value against the pound, this would have netted a better return than the interest on any British savings account. With these realities facing them it explains why many have been putting money into property instead.

The government’s options (labour, tories or the lib dems) unfortunately are either to be a little unpopular now or very unpopular tomorrow. They have to either interfere to try and stabilise the property market, even try and bring down the costs of homes (by for example mandating that a certain percentage of all housing developments in London must be either council flats or affordable homes sold off at a discount) or try and discourage the sort of “casino landlords” who now dominate the housing market. And of course, raising interest rates would help by both making buy to let’s more expensive and risky, but also encouraging savings.

The only other alternative is wait for the crash and face the situation we face in Ireland (or in places such as Spain and Greece), where many live in negative equity, tied to property they can’t sell (without losing hundreds of thousands) and can’t rent out without supplementing the mortgage from their own income….which means they can’t retire, even if they’re past retirement age!

More bad news for universities
One thing that gets to me as a lecturer is how universities have become ever more commercially orientated to the point where some are probably more corporate, greedy and money grabbing than many corporations, led by an increasingly unacademic corporate culture.

And one of the areas where we see this at its most ferocious is the issue of student recruiting. While most of my students are pretty good, I sometimes wonder where the university finds some of them. Some have dubious if not non-existent qualifications, can’t do the basics such as applied maths (critical for an engineering degree) and no motivation to work.

Well the Guardian has a piece out demonstrating some of the practices of recruitment teams at a London university. This includes recruiting people who can barely read and write, or have zero computer literacy skills or indeed hanging around outside job centres or tube centres like a bunch of spiv’s. A previous expose from the Guardian talked about lecturers giving classes to virtually empty classrooms (paid for by the taxpayer) as part of some elaborate student loan scam.

The student fees policy has had many negative effects. Its led to much inequality, with a divide between those who can afford to go to uni via the bank of mum and dad, those who will have to scrape by on a student loan (they’ll likely never repay) and those who can’t hope to ever go to uni regardless of how bright they are. But this corrupt commercialisation of universities is actually the thing that worries me the most, as it threatened to kill the golden goose which the UK’s universities have been for the country.

I’m sometimes tempted to invent a new sport, university executive fights. It works much like cock fighting, you put two university vice chancellors or recruitment agents in a cage, toss in a fiver and watch them tear each other apart for it! :))

Noah
I missed that film Noah the other month, although that’s probably just as well. The idea of Russell Crowe as Noah makes about as much sense as casting Bruce Willis to play Jesus (Die Hard with a Crucifixion? :>>) or Schwarzenegger to play Moses (Hasta la vista Pharaoh? :)) ).

Oddly enough this film was criticized by both the religious right and the atheists. Naturally the Richard Dawkins brigade were against anything remotely religious as a theme for a movie. On the other hand the religious right criticised the film for NOT mentioning God. They also felt that the film pandered to namby pamby environmentalism, which they are effectively allergic too.

Of course one has to bring up the matter of the Ark itself. As others have pointed out, the idea that you could get by with just two of every animal ignores everything we know about genetics and evolution. And the ship Noah would need to hold all those animals, insects, plants (trees wouldn’t survive being submerged underwater), fish (ditto fresh water fish) and birds would be colossal, bigger than any ship ever built to date (nevermind how they all got to the ark…trees and fish can’t walk and kangaroos can’t swim!).

Indeed even building the much smaller boat mentioned in the bible would have represented a serious engineering challenge. Wooden hulled boats like the Wyoming (largest wooden ship ever built), built with modern techniques, iron reinforcing and steam driven bilge pumps still foundered in far more timid conditions than any Ark would have endured (even though it was about 2/3’s the size of Noah’s supposed Ark).

Now the response of the believers in the Ark myth is to paper over these cracks by repeating the phrase “god dunnit” until blue in the face. But one has to consider that he’d have had to bend and twist the laws of physics and reality so severely that if all he wanted to do was kill off a few million naughty people he could have easily had a plague wipe them out, or got them addicted to junk food or something.

…Or perhaps a more realistic appraisal is to realise that at the time the bible was written allegorical literature was very common. One would often tell a tale which would make a good story in of itself, but which carried a moral point. Thus when Jesus brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t making bigoted comments about Samaritans (in truth there probably was never any guy by the side of a road, no Samaritan nor anything else, it was just a story). It was a tale with a moral point.

However for bible literalists, accepting that the bible isn’t literally true isn’t an option. Thus they are forced to support utterly implausible propositions such as Noah’s ark or the world being created in 6 days or even a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Which is why I’d argue they aren’t really Christians to begin with as the simply don’t understand the point of the bible.

MH 370
With no sign of the missing Malaysian airways flight, the mystery of what happened to it deepens yet further. The latest from the searchers is that if there’s one thing they are sure of, its that the plane ISNT in the area where they’ve been searching.

I’ve talked to one or two colleagues who are experts on aviation and they can only think of a handful of scenarios that would explain this ranging from pilot suicide to a failure of the Aircraft’s air supply system (this would cause the crew to first turn around when they realised the danger, but also to act erratically, possibly turning off things they shouldn’t have before losing consciousness as the plane continued on autopilot till it ran out of fuel).

However they would be keen not to put too much weight to either theory. Past experience has seen many strange aircraft disappearances where the actual causes turned out to be radically different. Take the story of Air France flight 447. There was much speculation regarding this plane’s disappearance, which later turned out to be not true, once the black box was recovered. So it is like I said a mystery, one which may never be solved.

Glasgow Art school fire
It was sad to see one of Glasgow’s most iconic buildings going up in flames over the last week . I used to live around the corner from this Art school and would go past it often on my way to work. And spare a thought for the students. Many were setting up their final year portfolios at the time the fire started and saw their whole course worth of work going up in smoke.

Word is the building might be restored, but it is still a bit of a loss for the city.

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More random thoughts

As usual term time, been very busy, too busy to do much blogging but over the week I picked up on a few random stories.

Immigration is good for the economy
A group of London economists have conducted a study that has concluded that immigration provides a net benefit to the economy. Immigrants are substantially less likely to claim benefits than UK citizens and contribute more in taxes while ultimately costing the taxpayer less. In short, the current strop the tories are pulling about “benefits tourism” is a myth and in all likelihood it will cost more in admin costs to the country than it will actually save.

There where one or two specific groups of immigrants who did claim more in benefits than they paid in taxes, but this probably relates to working tax credits for families with children. As I’ve pointed out before working tax credits (to everyone in the UK who works, foreign born or otherwise) represent a substantial portion of the welfare budget, far more money is spent on them than on job seekers allowance (just 3% of the welfare budget is spent on jobseekers allowance (to all claimants, foreign and UK) which represents just 0.7% of the entire UK budget).

And this study is far from the first such report to reach this conclusion. Indeed anybody whose even vaguely glanced at the relevant national statistics would quickly reach a similar conclusion. Then again, right wing nuts aren’t exactly known for their skills at “reading” and doing basic arithmetic. This is how we end up with global warming denial, creationism and anti-vaccine woo.

Ultimately I would argue that what this study shows is that if anything the government needs to change tactic. Tell the UKIP bigot mob to get lost and encourage immigration. Or indeed try and get more of the UK’s unemployed into the labour market. And no, cutting benefits won’t or putting them into welfare chain gangs in Poundland ain’t going to help.

Many on benefits are a mix of genuine hardship cases or people who would like to work, but realise that with a family to keep or the high rents and transport costs demanded in some UK cities, they simply can’t afford to work at the rate of pay offered by many employers. Instead I’d consider increasing the minimum wage as a way to encourage the latter group into employment. And of course, rather ironically, the government were themselves berating some employers for not offering a living wage to employees. Well why not force the issue and raise the minimum wage?

Actually he is smoking crack
And speaking of right wing nuts with a poor grasp of reality. I’m often known to accuse some of the more extreme voices on the right, be they UKIP types or the US Tea party types or the Tony Abbott (Australia’s newly elected climate change denying PM…when do we take back the colony?) or Steven Harper (Farrage’s evil Canadian twin) of being on crack or something.

Well I might need to be more careful about that in future as Rob Ford, Toronto’s notoriously right wing Mayor (notorious for being a blow hard buffoon of epic proportions) has admitted to smoking crack.

Well there’s a surprise! And it does explain a lot of things. Then again if you believe certain rumours G. W. Bush was snorting coke on the Oval office table, so I think this isn’t an uncommon practice among those in power.

The real price of drugs
Which brings us to the issue of where Bush’s or Rob Ford’s Charley comes from. Which is generally from somewhere in South America but via Mexico (possibly by submarine) with a substantial profit for the transaction going to some psychotic drug lord in Mexico. And I’m not just tossing words around, a few weeks ago there was some controversy over Facebook censoring a Mexican drug cartel death video’s.

However lost in that story was the wider story about Mexico’s drug wars. The demand for drugs in the US has led to vast corruption within the Mexican police and political system (hence why nobody in Mexico has been able to, or is willing, identify the victim in these videos). It also means that there is a defacto war going on within the country between rival drug gangs, the military and the few honest cops with many innocent bystanders getting caught up in the conflict. Estimates are that over 90,000 people have been killed in this conflict to date.

This is the very real price to be paid by certain peoples (and generally we’re talking the better off, such as Wall Street traders) cocaine habits. Like blood diamonds, the ethics behind such a habit is morally reprehensible.

And indeed one has to note the obvious parallels between this story and the history of prohibition in America in the 1920’s. Then US religious conservatives (the sort who would now be members of the Tea Party) succeeded in getting alcohol banned. The result was to unleash a massive nationwide crime spree and the root of organised crime to take hold. Even though prohibition was repealed within a decade, it was the 1980’s before the major criminal gangs set up on its profits (notably the Italian Mafia) were finally brought down to their pre-prohibition levels.

The only difference now is that this present era of prohibition has led to history repeating itself on an even vaster scale worldwide. The global narcotics trade is now believed to be a $320 Billion a year industry. Indeed the corruption within Mexico is a common problem across South America. Many of the nation’s here are hampered in their development by their own internal struggles and corruption often fuelled or sustained in one way or another by profits from drug trafficking.

And ultimately what’s driving all of this is demand in the West. Or more to the point the hypocrisy of us on the one hand banning drugs, but then quietly accepting that many of the rich and powerful can and will use them, just not in public. Inevitably, given that present policies are failing, one is forced to question whether it might be worth trying a policy of decriminalisation instead.

Certainly however I would argue that if we’re going to keep drugs like cocaine illegal the only thing that will work is to choke off demand. In other words start arresting the rich and the powerful caught doing drugs and making examples of them (such as Toronto’s Mayor).

Indeed I recall hearing of some US Police forces who came up with the tactic of rather than arresting (predominately black) drug dealers on the streets of working class neighbourhoods, they started sting operations in more affluent areas to catch the drug consumers. Within a few weeks the result was usually significant drop in drug consumption across the city with the gangs really feeling the pinch (they can replace dealers and the drugs but not customers!). Unfortunately political pressure has often halted such as it seems city hall doesn’t like the image of mainly white upper class professionals being perp walked into court.

The ultimate hoarder
German police made a startling discovery recently of a vast collection of art that had originally been confiscated by the nazi’s and had long been assumed lost. Indeed records of the existence of some of the paintings had been lost and forgotten altogether. The result is a treasure trove of a billion euro’s worth of modernist art.

Oddly enough it was in the process of investigating tax fraud that the paintings were found. They were searching a cluttered apartment looking for evidence in this case when they located the paintings under piles of rubbish and other odds and ends. Turns out one of the guy’s relative worked for the nazi’s and had built up this collection during the war.

Ironically it was the fact that the nazi’s considered such modernist art “degenerate” that has created something of a demand for it and hence the high value of this collection…not that its “owner” will be seeing much of that!

Indeed these paintings are just one of a handful of lost or stolen works of art, notably Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt and The concert by Vermeer, both stolen along with 13 other dutch paintings from a museum in Boston in 1990.

The Burka Runaway
Then there was the story of a “terrorist suspect” who went on the run, evading the cops by dressing up in a Burka. I recall seeing the photos in the newspapers and even before I read the article my thought was, what’s that guy doing wearing a burka? I think those UKBA agents should consider a career as a referee!

Inevitably this story has the usual suspects calling for the Burka to be banned…So he’ll just have to dress up as santa claus next time!

The end of Britain?
I came across this add for some right wing rag which talked about “the end of Britain”. It turned out to be the usual libertarian disaster porn. However I also came across this blog by an economist who picked it apart.

Ultimately the UK economy is not exactly in a healthy state, the Tories can dress mutton up with lamb all they like and policies like QE are probably counterproductive in the long term. But comparisons with the Weimar republic or Mugabe’s regime is just childish paranoia.