Monthly Archives: May 2010

Beckmesser’s revenge

Rules are useful: without them we’d have chaos.

Except of course when they’re not.  When they become the enemy of commonsense or progress; the crutch of the jobsworth.

Sixtus Beckmesser is the narrow-minded, pettifogging town clerk: mediocrity incarnate.  When he encounters Walther’s true talent he is lost, and falls flat on his face.  Fortunately in their world all turns out well, as the sage Sachs, the voice of reason, is able to reconcile the old and the new, the rules and the constructive rulebreaker.

The story of our new government’s first public trouble – the circumstances of David Laws’s resignation – shows Beckmesser’s heirs in the ascendant in our time.

Laws is MP for Yeovil in Somerset, a constituency from which he couldn’t possibly be expected to commute to Westminster, so he was entitled to claim expenses for living in London.  The rules would’ve permitted him to claim over £20000 a year of taxpayers money, as most of his fellow MPs (including some who could easily commute) have done.  For that, he could have paid either rent or mortgage on a pretty nice place, and one big enough to house an MP’s family.  Or spouse, or any other kind of partner.

But instead of that, Laws rented a room in a shared house, at a much lower cost to the taxpayer (AIUI something in the ballpark of half what most of his colleagues claim).  Sounds like a Good Thing™ to me.  But it turns out that his landlord is also his partner, and that’s against the rules.  So he had to go.  He “should” have claimed twice as much and bought a new home, thus – if money is the object – freeing up his partner’s home to be sold or let at a big profit.

This is verily Beckmesser’s world.  It has cost us a minister who, in his very short time in office, had started to make a Very Good impression – more indeed than any of his colleagues (though I still have hopes of good things from one or two of them).  I don’t think the country can afford to lose him.

Meanwhile, his colleague and successor has apparently not merely claimed his full allowance (which is fair), but “flipped” to avoid paying CGT (which isn’t).

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In the family

My brother vet and I have both been blogging for a while.  Now our mother has joined us!

She asked me about it when I was with her last weekend: I said just go to one of the big providers and sign up.  Even offered to go through following the link from my blog to sign up @wordpress, but it seems she’s gone to the other side.  And my comment hasn’t appeared on her first entry, with no explanation of why not, so please fix it to tell me what’s going on when I submit!

I shall look forward to reading more words of … erm … well yes, ’nuff said.

Personal faults

Idea shamelessly nicked from a forum I frequent, and injected into the blogosphere.

Name two personal failings you have, and post them to your blog.  Not necessarily your greatest faults – that’s probably pretty subjective in any case.  But be honest, and bear in mind the potential for comments from those who know you well if you’re less than frank!  Think of it as free online therapy.

OK, here’s my attempt:

  1. I’m a chronic procrastinator.  If I’m not procrastinating, it’s probably just because I haven’t got around to it.
  2. I get annoyed far too easily, not only when I have good cause, but also at trivia.  But I often lack the courage to address an issue, so it just festers.

Now I really should tag a few poor buggers to make a meme of this.  But I don’t have the guts to do that.

Beach Hell

In Brighton[1] for long weekend.  Friday was mother’s birthday, so we went to one of Hove’s many restaurants to celebrate.  Sri Lankan cuisine: somewhat like Indian, but to my great surprise, completely mild, with none of the heat one usually associates with Indian and many other Asian cuisines!  Quite nice, but I wouldn’t choose it ahead of, say, Indian or Thai food on a regular basis.

Today we went in to the city centre, to a shop where my mother had seen pint mugs meeting my needs.  They even have bigger mugs, so I picked up one pint-size and one at 1.3 pints, to make a really good cuppa for these hot summer days.

Then I walked back to Hove along a very busy seafront.  It’s bright and sunny, and the warmest weather we’ve had so far this year.  I expect the city-centre stretch to be challenging due to dense crowds.  But that’s not a problem: I just have to navigate between lots of people, and keep an eye out to steer clear of smokers amongst them.  What was a problem not only in the ultra-crowded city stretch, but also on the wide promenade into Hove, was the number of barbecues spewing out thick, oily smoke.  There must have been upwards of a dozen in a mile’s walk, and nowhere really clear of them.  Turning away from the seafront, the traffic fumes of the main road were a positive relief by comparison.

Later in the afternoon I went down to the beach further west for a swim, and found it busy but not suffering the smoke.  But I was disappointed again: the water is looking unwholesome, with great clouds of something (I know not what – it looked a little like something between sand and mud) floating on it.  Swimming out some way it didn’t clear up (seemed denser/thinner in stripes), so I headed back to the beach and back home for a very thorough shower.

Evidently I’ve picked a bad weekend to visit the parents 😦

[1] Hove Actually[2]
[2] (note capitalisation)

Book burning

A nasty nutcase is convicted of terrorist offences.  His teenage son is convicted of possessing a book called the Anarchists Cookbook, available openly from Amazon.  And the judge says all copies of the book in the UK should be destroyed (link).

OK, if a man has been manufacturing ricin and intends using it to kill, then he needs to be locked up.  But the son is another story: he may have been complicit in a crime, but if so he should be put on trial for that.  Not for mere possession of a book!  His conviction is a grim reminder of how far we’ve slid into totalitarianism.

Perhaps someone should remind the powers-that-be that within living memory we were at total war with Nazi Germany, yet there were no restrictions on owning or reading Mein Kampf.  Once upon a time, Britain stood for freedom!

I was wrong!

So, not a minority government with passive self-interest support, but a full coalition!

I can’t see inside the politicians’ motivations, but I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt.  They’ve done a courageous and responsible thing for the benefit of a country in crisis.  Let me wish them, and us, all the best.

Naturally, I reserve the right to revise the above views in the light of events as they happen 😉

Alternative Vote

Well fancy that!  Both Labour and Tories offering a possibility of AV voting!

I could support AV as preferable to the present system.  Whereas our present system is commonly described as first past the post, that’s a misnomer, because there’s no post to pass.  AV is a true first-past-the-post system with a post at 50% of the total vote.  Most importantly, it rids us of the motivation for the fundamentally antidemocratic abomination of tactical voting.

And it deflects the libdems campaign for proportional representation.  Easy for them to campaign against a system that’s obviously wrong; less easy when a defensible system is on offer.  No wonder they’re whoring and playing hard to get – though that could also be down to some of the dumber members falling for Labour’s honeytrap!

Of course, a change to AV does nothing with the regular problems of our system: gerrymandering, rotten boroughs, electoral fraud, and above all the Westlothian question (which suddenly becomes an acute constitutional crisis if the Nationalists were to abandon their moral high ground and enter a “rainbow coalition”).  But neither does it make anything worse: it’s orthogonal to these problems.

One new argument the libdems might put in favour of PR: a regional list offers a defensible mechanism for social goals, like getting more women into parliament.  Just put quotas on how the lists are constituted, and you have more balance without the blatent discrimination of barring men altogether from standing for some constituencies, as Labour has done.  Can’t see the tories giving it a hearing given their strong attachment to the fiction of the constituency link, but some in Labour might bite.

Tax return

Today I have submitted my tax return to HMRC.  Looking forward to a substantial refund – my biggest to date – and hoping it won’t be delayed without explanation like last year.

I expect a lot of people due tax refunds will be submitting around this time of year, just as soon as they have the relevant documentation.  I wonder if the level of tax refunds in the first quarter of the tax year might offer a measure of the Laffer effect?

Unfortunately it won’t, because it can’t tell us anything about revenue lost due to economic activity that simply hasn’t taken place because tax renders it worthless.  We know that low-income jobs (and voluntary work) are often taxed at effective rates in excess of 100% due to loss of means-tested benefits, which is why only foreigners can be recruited to many jobs.  I understand now a lot of high earners such as doctors are cutting down on work rather than pay marginal rates of 74% (rising to 76%), and for the same reason I’ve lost the appetite for a payrise.

Minority government

OK, let’s try a bit of amateur punditry.

The election results seem to put the tories ahead but short of a majority.  What should and will each party do for its own interests, and for the country’s interests (for that is surely the order of priorities).

Labour seems to think it has nothing to lose, and wants an all-but-tory coalition.  Nick Clegg has rightly told them where to go: who would want to get the blame for keeping Lab in office, no matter what the reward?  I expect Lab’s attitude may change quite quickly, especially if they remove Brown (though that’ll be a tortuous process if he doesn’t go voluntarily, and it might be in their interests to keep him and blame the tories for the demise of “the recovery”).

That leaves options of a tory minority government or a tory-led coalition.  The latter would almost certainly have to include labour and/or libdems for the numbers to work.  I’m predicting they’ll try a minority government.  And it’ll work, for a while.

In particular, I wouldn’t foresee a tory-libdem coalition.  The issue of electoral reform looks like a showstopper for that.  But it could suit the libdems to let the tories govern and take the blame for economic chaos to come.  That means they’ll want to avoid anything that would give them cause for an early election, 1974-style.  A “gentlemens agreement” at daggers drawn.

On that premise, the way could be pretty-much clear for a stable minority government for some time.  That leaves the question, will the Tories try it?  They’ve hinted that they will, and if they judge they can get away with it, it seems likely.

Another possibility could be a “government of national unity”.  Unlikely, but if the markets pull the plug quickly enough then all bets could be off.  Markets that have been giving us benefit of the doubt in anticipation of a new government.

Νέμεσις

Could today be nemesis for Greece’s tragedy?

News reports tell us three people were killed in a bank firebombed in a riot today.  And that the demonstration organisers were shocked into calling it off when they heard the news.  Could it be that history will put today down as the day they turned the corner, lost the appetite for destructive protest (those who have it), and buckled down to try and work their way out of their troubles?

If so, let me wish them all the best.  Not that anything I say matters.  More importantly it seems Mrs Merkel is trying hard to help them to help themselves, steering a perilous course between a Σκύλλα and Χάρυβδις of conflicting demands. And they perhaps have the Irish model to follow.

What will it take to move the UK on from hubris?  With all the manifestos still firmly in denial, tomorrow’s election is a lost opportunity.

[edit to add] Showing my ignorance here.  Of course I meant to say Κάθαρσις and strike a much more optimistic note.