Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lines in the sand

A debate took place on the on the Facebook page of one of my friends last night regarding Amina Tyler, the young Tunisian woman who is pictured topless online with script across her chest in protest against the treatment of women (http://bit.ly/10wF4PA).  This is something I wrote about a couple of weeks ago already (http://on.fb.me/10wFwgM), but the debate raised the broader issue of what limits society and culture should place on the freedom of the individual.

Several comments were made about how I was viewing this through western eyes and that I needed to be more understanding of Tunisian culture. As a 40 something white British male working in the City, I guess I am the epitome of the classic image of Western imperialism, but equally, I am a creature of the modern world of globalisation; I live in London, probably the world's most cosmopolitan city, my friends, my clients and my interests are spread around the world, I am married to someone from another continent and I try to absorb as much information and understanding of the wider world as I can.

Britain has faced its own issues with dealing with the different cultures of people moving to this country; forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour crimes are just three such recent issues, and the same issues are raised. I don't believe that these are issues that can be pussyfooted around; they are just wrong, and it has nothing to do with where anybody comes from.

I don't know Amina, but I do know that it is wrong for anybody to be treated as a second class citizen because of their gender. It doesn't matter what was written in a book, whether that book is 2,000 years old, 1,300 years old or published last week on Kindle; this is something that is wrong and as the human race has developed we have realised is wrong, just like slavery and human sacrifice. I don't want to care who you pray to, what you read, what you eat or how you live your life; that is up to you. As long as you do not impose your views on others or expect others to involuntarily support you in your life, then go ahead live your life as you chose.

So to all people everywhere I say that if you that if you wanted to be treated with respect, that if you want the benefits that the modern world can bring, then start treating everybody as equal, whatever their gender, race or sexuality. If you try and crush the potential of half your population, you will forever stay poor and stupid. respecting the individual does not kill a culture, it enhances it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reds Under the Unmade Bed

Those of you with long enough memories will remember the Cold War fear that there were Soviet sympathisers everywhere, just waiting for their opportunity to overthrow capitalism; "reds under the bed" was the common turn of phrase.  But then came Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discrediting of the Soviet economic model.  At the same time, Western leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan provided new impetus for market based economic reforms.  This trend continued into the 1990s, converging around centrist policies promoted by Blair, Clinton and the EU.

The next turn came in 2008 with the crash of the financial system, and holes began to rapidly appear in the consensus as the debt fuelled expansion in the private, public and banking sectors all came to a grinding halt and the full difficulties in paying back those debts became apparent.

In Britain, one of the main focuses of the coalition government has been to reduce the ever growing welfare bill, and this has created one of the biggest fault lines in British society, and one that is likely to grow wider.  On the right, the argument is that a system of welfare dependency has been created, leading to large numbers of people for whom living off benefits is preferable to low paid and/or unfulfilling jobs.  The evidence for this is that Britain has more people in employment than ever before, but with increasing numbers of those  low paid and/or unfulfilling jobs taken by immigrants, as benefit drawing Brits either refuse to take them, or are so unemployable that no sensible employer would hire them.  On the left, the argument is that the the poorest members of society are being blamed for the chaos caused by the reckless behaviour of financial institutions (they never blame over borrowing individuals or governments, who must also surely share the blame?) in the pre-crash period, and that a return to economic growth will solve the ballooning welfare costs.

I want to reflect on a slight tangent - is this British underclass starting to to resemble aspects of Soviet era society?  I know it sounds crazy, but here is my thinking.  In the Soviet bloc unemployment was practically non-existent, but productivity was almost practically non-existent; if they had not, their economies would not have collapsed in the way that they did. The Soviet bloc economies could not meet the requirements of their population due to the ever increasing productivity gap with the west; just compare east and west German industry - Trabant -v- Volkswagen.  Capitalism works because it makes people hungry, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically in terms of what they wish to achieve or acquire. The benefit system creates a kind of mini-Soviet bloc society within a broader capitalist society, with people paid low amounts but with no expectation of productivity or profit. Like Soviet society, its members live with petty, often vindictive rules, and a standard of living that does not compare to the mainstream capitalist economy, but it is also undemanding on its citizens. They receive free healthcare, sufficient income for a basic standard of living and none of the issues associated with life in the tooth and claw of capitalism. Somebody recounted the experience of a job centre advisor (albeit in Canada) about people returning to work not being psychologically prepared; I would argue that it is not work but capitalism that they are unprepared for, and when they then try to enter or re-enter the mainstream workforce, they find similar cultural difficulties to those experienced by Soviet bloc citizens post the collapse of communism and their attempts to join the capitalist economic system.

The question is, will this sub-economy collapse in the same way that the Soviet economy did?

Nick

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I can see clearly now

It struck me today that the latest Budget is tangible evidence of the path down which the Coalition Government wants to take the country, and the radical nature of this path.  I think Cameron is portrayed as a smoother but more limited version of Thatcher, but the policies are possibly more radical, albeit in a different direction.

20% Corporation Tax was never even remotely achieved in the 1980s.  The reform of the benefit system creates a much greater incentive for people to move to work than anything attempted under Thatcher.  But most significantly, inflation, the totemic enemy (along with the Soviet Union and the left in general) of the 1980's now appears to be the unspoken ally instead.  Inflation will erode the horrific debt levels (both in the state and private sectors) and the accompanying depreciation of the Pound will increase the competitiveness of exports (at least in the short term), but it will result in a continuing erosion of living standards.  The big gamble is will this lowering of real living standards, reduced corporate taxes and tougher benefit rules turn Britain into a lean, cost competitive but also high value added economy, or will it just lead to constant decline?  It is one hell of a bet.

Nick

Credibility in the Vatican

I can't say I know that much about the new Pope, but the election of a non-European Pope appeared to indicate a modest move in terms of realising the world in which the Catholic Church now exists.  However the sight of a despot like Robert Mugabe being treated with such reverence at the inauguration suggests that they have learned little, and that the Catholic Church remains one of the more reactionary institutions on this earth.  To denounce contraception, abortion and homosexuality while laying out the red carpet to a murdering thug who has destroyed the second strongest economy in Africa seems perverse in the extreme.  I can't somehow see Jesus giving the thumbs up to that one.

Nick

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's the end of the tie as we know it

I work in the financial sector and have done for over 25 years, so I am no stranger to suits and ties, but I think it is time to commit them to history as work attire.  The world is moving in a different direction and the formal business suit and tie will soon be gone the same way as the telex machine and the typing pool; a relic of 20th century business culture that has outlived its usefulness.  They are uncomfortable and impractical, so why do we persist with something that adds no value?

I work advising entrepreneurs, in particular in the technology and natural resources sectors; they want advisers that they can empathise with and trust to be a key part of their business, not someone who seems distant and condescending.  How many clients (not other advisers like lawyers and accountants) actually wear suits and ties?  Certainly a minority of the ones I come across, and the number shrinks every year.

The last decade has seen has two of the greatest seismic shifts in the business world of modern times: the rise of the internet from the play thing of geeks and pornographers to become a dominant and still growing part of modern business life and the financial crash of 2008.  One of these was led by guys wearing hoodies and chinos and the other wearing Saville Row suits; who have been the successes and who the failures?  Bankers, politicians and estate agents are all reviled by the public and all well known for their suit and tie wearing; where does the trust lie?

I am someone who reads widely on business, economics and society, and the key to the future is not to be left behind.  The business world of the next decade will be about being smarter in the non-sartorial sense.  We should be worrying less about whether we wear ties and more about how much we know; that is what our clients and prospective clients are worrying about.  

Instead of worrying about whether we look like a GQ model, we need to seriously increase the level of learning and development we undertake, and by that I do not mean the box ticking of "continuing professional development"; we need to be smart in the networked, global, 21st century sense of the word.  The world is moving so fast that to rely on knowledge acquired 20 years ago and just keeping up to date through experience will just mean that you fall behind.  Unless you have the knowledge you cannot know whether you can deliver what is needed or not.  

I work at a small firm that cannot rely on a big balance sheet or captive customers; we need to be both the smartest guys in the room and the one that the client feels in their bones to be the closest aligned to their interests; we need to be more Steve Jobs and less Bob Diamond.

Nick

Monday, February 4, 2013

Idle British Youth? What is the truth?


The article below was posted by an acquaintance of mine, Tom Winnifrith (http://tomwinnifrith.com/) who writes on financial and political matters as well as owning a pizzeria Clerkenwell, London.  The simple question I pose is why he has received no applications from young British people to work at his restaurant?  It is in a location that is well connected by public transport and is not a location that is nasty to work in.  Working in a pizzeria may not be everybody’s dream job, but it is certainly not a horrible one either.  So why the lack of British applicants when so many young people in London are without a job?

"When I discuss unemployment and welfare abuse with my father, step mother or any other deluded middle class lefties, it is their insistence that those claiming benefits would rather work, feel shame in claiming benefits and that they maintain only a marginal economic existence on welfare. The evidence, of course, shows that they are wrong. But if you watch the BBC, read only its sister publication (The Guardian) and have no contact with either the working classes or the private sector you can be forgiven for having such a world view. But it is profoundly wrong. 

The case arose about ten days ago of a couple who picked up total benefits of £18,000 a year and flatly refused to work. Having stated this publicly it seems odd to me that they can still be allowed to claim the "Job Seeker's allowance" since they are patently not seeking any job but I guess that the chances of them losing that (let alone having past payments taken back since they were by their own admission made fraudulently) are nil.

I do not actually blame this couple. They are playing the system. And it is the system that needs fixing. The reality is that if this couple both opted to work they would need to generate well over £20,000 of taxed income in order to be as well off as they are on welfare. The two reforms needed are a dramatic increase in the thresh-hold at which anyone pays tax and a dramatic cut in welfare benefits. Surely if the average wage in the UK is £25,000 on which tax and NI is payable, the amount that those who are NOT working should be getting should be far, far lower than that. 

Somehow, I suspect that the benefits culture is now so ingrained in some quarters that even the seismic shifts I propose would take a while to change the attitudes of some folks. I noted before that when we advertised for a waitress position at The Real man Pizza Company we received ZERO British applicants who could be bothered to make it in for an interview. A good waitress with tips could be making £20,000 per annum. You do not need a degree just a willingness to do a bit of hard work and put in a 35 hour working week. But not one Brit could be arsed. Hence, we have a Polish waitress. 

And now I am hiring a cook. Guess which language he or she will speak? English as a mother tongue? Forget it. I think I have hired someone who as it happens has experience in the kitchen but wants to improve her skills. Her English is rotten but since most other folks speak perfect Italian at Real Man that is not an issue. She wants to improve her English. If she improves her English and culinary skills we will increase her pay but pro tem (and I almost feel guilty about this) I am paying her 1p an hour above the minimum wage for 32 hours a week. Not only will she take the job but at zero notice she trekked across London on Friday night just for the chance of that job. Her take home will at the start be less than half of the amount paid out in benefits to that couple who elect NOT to work. And you know what? I could hire another dozen or so waiters or cooks on the same rate tomorrow and ALL would be non English as a first language speakers. I do not stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting a native Brit to take on such a job, even if it offers a stepping stone to improving their hourly rate, number of hours, skill set and thus offering a real wage and a career. 

Our welfare and tax system has become so lopsided that there is now not only an economic but a cultural battle that must be waged. If Britain is to avoid bankruptcy welfare spending must be slashed. And if the UK's private sector is to regain competitiveness wages must be cut. That could actually lead to an increase in disposable income if tax thresholds were increased dramatically. 

I might sound like a capitalist ogre but what I propose would see reduced Government spending and increased disposable income for those in work. And welfare transformed from a lifestyle choice to a safety net. That some families on benefits "earn" a sum equivalent to the average (pre-tax) national wage is a disgrace and an unaffordable one at that. Benefits should be strictly capped at half the post tax national average wage. Having raised a generation of idlers it is time for some tough love."

Nick

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pakistan - Just stop acting like total idiots (Pt.2) and Principled Statements

I thought I would repost by earlier article (http://chairmannick.posterous.com/pakistan-just-stop-acting-likely-total-idiots) partly because I screwed up the title (obvious considering I used the word “idiot” in the title) and also because someone commented it was “controversial”.  It struck me that this is a problem that effects our social and political system – it is increasingly controversial to make principled statements.  We seem to either pussy-foot around a subject for fear of offending cultural sensitivities or have a mass outcry when something tips over an ill-defined precipice.  To carry on my Pakistan theme, there was a perfectly reasonable outcry about the young girl who was shot for standing up to the Taleban view that girls should not be educated, but why did it take that?  Why did it take this?  Why was the pressure not being put on the Pakistani government about the treatment of girls in general?  It seems like “principals” have become increasingly identified with a lack of tolerance, and that should not be the case.  Saying that women in Pakistan should have equality with men and that their society and economy will suffer until they do is not being imperialistic, it is not being racist, it is not showing a lack of cultural sensitivity, it is just the right thing to do.

 

Nick