Wednesday, 31 December 2014

There's Foolish....And Then There's FOOLISH

If I set you all a challenge: see how many clowns you can gather together in the shortest time, you'd probably contact all the circuses in the UK. Beth Granter at Care2 Petitions has shown us an even quicker way; she has gathered together a whopping 20,471 clowns (at the last count - it's undoubtedly more by the time you're reading this) who, despite the fact that City Link is an insolvent business that reeks of loss-making for its investors, wish for it to be nationalised so taxpayers' money can be fuel added to that flame. That's impressive clown-gathering at its best.

The City Link insolvency was due primarily to larger competing forces, but also inefficiency in performance too. Better Capital is a private equity firm that invested quite a few million pounds in City Link, and it proved to be a bad move. Of course, private equity firms are subject to market forces like everyone else - sometimes they make lots of money, other times serious losses. People are happy when the former occurs and unhappy when the latter occurs, but the market is the best determiner of efficiency and inefficiency there is. Bankruptcy is bad for those involved, but a good thing for the country overall, because it's a signal that inefficiency is giving way to other competitors' efficiency  

Better Capital structured the company’s finances to ensure that it would recoup the funds if the firm collapsed - which, of course, is bad for the people now redundant, but is also a security measure that goes on to be profitable for other firms when investments are sound.

Evidently, this was a disastrously misjudged and, as it turns out, calamitous investment. What's making the general public unhappy is that Better Capital bought the business by securing a protected interest loan from creditors, writing the investment value down in the event of liquidation, meaning creditors get paid off before staff because the creditors are the equity-owners. This is the kind of thing that causes dissonance on the economic left, as it's easy to forget all the successes when failures are lamented, particularly when lots of people are now out of work.

However, and here's the telling point - sympathy for people's losses is one thing - out and out foolishness is quite another - and it is about as foolish as it gets to campaign for the nationalisation of an insolvent company that proved to be poorly managed and inefficient against competitors. Making a loss means, quite literally, losing value by being in operation - the very last thing on which one would want public money spent. Why on earth would anyone think that a firm failing to compete against more lucrative/efficient competitors would be any better under State ownership, where inefficiency and profligacy is even rifer?

It's a scary thing that in just a couple of days over 20,000 people came forward as being either so ignorant that they had no qualms about supporting this madness, or so pliable that they signed such a petition without giving it a moment's thought.  

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Thomas Piketty Winning Business Book Of The Year Is Like Luis Suarez Winning Football Ambassador Of The Year

The recent bestseller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by the French Marxist economist Thomas Piketty has been rattling a few cages this year, and I now hear it has been named the 2014 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year. Week after week we keep seeing politicians, social commentators and bubble gum celebrities making allusions to his book and how it can influence society positively. I had meant to write about this sooner, so let's see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

So what actually 'is' the fuss all about?

Piketty's central thesis is that income inequality is likely to increase to devastating effect as the accumulation of large capital brings the rich ever further from the poor.
Is he onto something?
The answer isn't an all out 'no', but alas, there are all sorts of ways in which Piketty is allowing his readers to be skewed by a false picture. I will paint what I think is a more accurate picture.
Thanks, but there's no denying the fact that the free market is a heartless system that causes lots of poverty, corruption, exploitation and maltreatment, and that it needs endless tweaking to make it less repugnant, is there?
That is the first and perhaps most important assumption that needs correcting, because the only people who would say such a thing are people who don’t understand what the free market is. The free market is literally the sum total of all the billions of units (pounds, dollars, Euros, etc) that have been exchanged in mutually beneficial transactions. Therefore, the free market cannot be a bad thing - and save for some necessary light regulation from the government (anti-monopoly regulations, health and safety laws, Pigouvian taxes, etc) there is not much the government can ‘tweak’ to make the market any better than it already is, because no politician knows the incentives and desires of the individuals better than they know themselves. Critics of the free market are only criticising instances where the free market has not been allowed to operate. Where there is poverty, corruption, exploitation and maltreatment, there is a lack of freedom, and thus the qualities related to those mutually beneficial actions dissipate.
But nevertheless, big corporations deserve their share of public opprobrium, don't they?
Sometimes, but that general assumption is the next big error that needs correcting. Corporations often get hit with criticism - but a lot of the time the criticisms are absurd. Most large corporations control a huge share of a particular market niche between them - but if the market exists because of the corporations' innovations, it is foolish criticising them because they are supplying to meet a demand*. In most cases it is only through outperforming their competitors that corporations get such a lion's share of the market (as Tesco, Sainsbury's etc show).
So, many of the people that complain about inequality are unwittingly doing their bit to engender more of it?
Yes, but that's fine. When Sainsbury's shareholders become rich it is because the general public spend their money in the stores, preferring it goes to Sainsbury's in exchange for groceries instead of going to George Osborne in exchange for public services. The same is true of rich people like 2014 headline-grabber Gary Barlow - when millions of pounds are spent on Take That CDs the public is saying they are willing to pay the price of seeing Gary Barlow becoming rich in exchange for hearing his music on their CD player. It may upset the likes of Piketty** that he lives in a world in which this can happen, but the wealth of people like Gary Barlow comes from mutually beneficial transactions, where a lot of people distil a lot of pleasure from his music in making him wealthy (even if he is not my cup of tea).
And Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' metaphor is important in all this too, right?
Yes, in society, the Smithian invisible hand acts as a social mechanism that channels collective objectives toward meeting the needs of the people that make up that society, by ensuring competition between buyers and suppliers, which channels the profit motive of individuals into providing products that society desires at prices which are rarely above cost. This means that in a market in which consumers are free and happy in being able to make mutually beneficial transactions, it would be expected that sellers or entertainers who could make a lot of people happy would naturally have a lot more capital than the majority of people who can't. This is what makes the argument for laissez-faire economic philosophy so compelling - it is that markets automatically channel self-interest toward socially desirable ends. 
Piketty's tax projection on capital seems to want to tweak the status quo with some radical tax reforms on capital. However, the Chamley-Judd Redistribution Impossbility Theorem demonstrates a proof that it’s actually impossible to make the worker, or the workers, better off by taxing capital.
Wow, that's news to me. Why haven't more people heard of the Chamley-Judd theorem?
Yes, why isn’t this proof more widely known? I suspect the reason is the same reason a lot of libertarian qualities are not widely known – they involve lateral brainpower to work out, but also they are largely unappealing to the majority of people who prefer leftist delegation rather than laissez faire individual responsibility.
Is that everything?
Not quite. The global evidence of wealth-sharing just doesn't support Piketty either. Here are a few facts that the economic left will find uncomfortable. The past year has seen more wealth generated than any time before - but also it has never been spread so evenly either. In the year 2000 the UN's MDG 2015 target was to halve the number of people without drinking water and the number of people living on less that $1 a day. It achieved this with time to spare.
The vast majority of this mass escape from poverty is happening not through government aid (although that is vitally important) but through free market of global capitalism. In the past decade or so we've seen tens of millions of people lifted out of poverty; child labour has fallen by a third, as well as extraordinary advances in standards of living in the world's poorest countries. There is still plenty to do, but all this improvement has been going on, and at a time when rich personal wealth has grown too.
I heard that Thomas Piketty’s book favours the solution of heavily taxing capital – he’s apparently even calling for as much as an 80% income tax rate on earnings of £500,000 or more.
Such a desire is so absurd that one wonders if Piketty has a VIP card in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. For a very short while taxing at such high rates may bring about an immediate redistribution of wealth in a way that isn’t completely disastrous. But as anyone on the outside of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land knows – increased tax rates does not mean long-term tax revenue can be increased. Once you reach a tipping point, tax hikes will only disincentivise innovation, and cause a contraction in the markets of labour and consumption. Moreover, if you tax capital income and transfer that revenue to workers, then long term there will be a diminished capital stock. And considering that capital stock is what workers rely on to generate wages, the tax on capital will diminish their wages.
So, to summarise
Not having read the book, I don't know how Piketty thinks a global tax system would work, or what kind of tax it would be. He was probed about this earlier in the year on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman but he didn't give an answer. But even without having studied Piketty's every detail I have no trouble seeing that a global tax system intended to redistribute wealth from rich to poor is full of complex problems. If we try to imagine it at a microcosmic level, we can propound some kind of tax system that correlates income with consumption. Tax on consumption can target individual earnings but it doesn't always achieve this. If Alan Sugar and I both buy an HP laptop, then any sales tax or value-added tax is borne equally by both of us. Whereas if consumption tax was geared more specifically towards luxuries such as buying Ferraris and private jets, then I'm not likely to pay as much as Alan Sugar.
The good thing about trade is that diversity in the market is what gives us excellence of opportunity and consumptive satisfaction. If we were all farmers, or all taxi drivers, we’d be all but flatlined by homogeneity. Taxi drivers don't need other taxi drivers, what they really need is people needing lifts, and mechanics, and petrol and food sellers. If a taxi driver loves making a living driving his cab, and you can't drive, you'll find it easy to get a ride and he'll find it easy to transport you. If the reverse is true, you'll be the driver and he or she the one being transported.
This template serves to inform us about the whole system of a market economy - we innovate because we interact with a diverse range of people that have different needs, skills, and experiences to us. Clearly an underlying factor in all of this is that incomes are diverse too. You're just not going to get an economy in which everyone has the same capital or anything close to the same. A rich department store owner won't stay rich for long if no one will work on his tills or in his store room. I don't think that anyone sensibly denies that diversity of income is a good and necessary thing. Consider that if everyone earned too much to be a taxi driver then there would be no one to transport you ten miles across town in rapid time; or if everyone earned too much to be a dentist then most of us would have bad teeth and be in lots of pain.
So it's not inequality that's the problem, it's how much. But that then begs the question - how much is too much? To answer that we need to look at some recent history. With good government policies (when good often means 'few'), a stable society, rule of law and protected ownership rights, we find that inequality lessens over time, not increases. History shows us that rich countries are more equal than poor countries. It's true that even in rich countries there is wealth stratification in terms of income, but that is offset by the fact that those without earned income have welfare and many public service benefits not found in the poorest countries. If you're one of the poorest people in the UK you still have many of the standards of living that the poorest in the world could only dream of.
Furthermore, after taxation, disposable incomes are much closer in rich countries than poor countries. The Financial Times research brought the conclusion that global inequality was on the rise, but that it peaked in the year 2000 and has been declining in the 14 years since. It's perfectly understandable why this is the case - in the eighties and nineties the global financial boom and technological exponentiation left behind countries that didn't have a stable society, a rule of law and protected ownership rights. In other words, without those basic fundamentals, as well as proper access to the global market, a lot of countries couldn’t enjoy the benefits of capitalism because they couldn't partake in it as fully as others.
One of the main troubles with the Piketty-esque socialism is that it has redistributive policies that forget the main wisdom of absolute improvement. That is, what matters most is how well people are doing in absolute terms, not in relative terms. One look at historical trends, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, has shown that capital accumulation has brought about growth in living standards that people like the Ancient Greeks or Romans couldn't have imagined. The reason being: unlike in, say, the Roman dictatorship, it is not just the owners of capital who benefited, it is workers too. Future capital accumulation may increase inequality, or it may narrow it - but that doesn't really matter, as long as everyone's absolute well-being continues to progress as it has in the past 150 years (give or take a few backslides in some areas).
This is one of the fundamental errors of Piketty's thesis - he wants a global, information-sharing effort whereby large capital is never under the radar, enabling huge tax efforts against the wealthiest. But even aside from the practical difficulties of this (which even Piketty admits are enormous), it is hugely undesirable. It is standard textbook stuff that when capital increases the absolute wages of the workers associated with that capital will rise too. What Piketty is asking for, then, is a system which makes the workers a little bit poorer in order to make the rich a lot poorer.  
Don’t forget too that when someone accumulates lots of capital it generates other people’s opportunity to earn a living. My impression is that those outside of the top-earner category think that the richest few have colluded to be in league with each other, rigging the wealth in their own direction through State-cronyism rather than earning their money fairly through the open market. If so, they haven’t done a very good job of it when you consider how much tax they pay, and the multiple times that their capital is taxed.
If you earn £1 and use it to buy a share of stock, you’re taxed when you earn the £1, then again through corporation income, then again through stock dividends, then again through capital gains when the stock is sold, and in many cases for a final time through inheritance tax when you pass it on. When you think of it like that, it’s easy to see why the Chumley Judd theorem states that capital taxation should be zero, and that we should discontinue capital taxation, enriching everyone in the process. And given that wages are determined by capital rates, the Chumley Judd theorem naturally entails that discontinuing capital taxation will be better for wages too.
But the story goes deeper, because to understand how money changes hands is to understand that taxes on capital and taxes on wages are knotted together - it’s just that the rope extends between lengthy time periods. When you tax labour directly the tax occurs equally in the periods, but when you tax capital you concentrate the tax to an earlier period in the cycle. Equally, when you tax capital you indirectly tax labour, because the capital ‘now’ was earned in the past ‘then’ by labour – so a tax on that labour then would have reduced the capital now and the concomitant income stream. This means that even discontinuing capital tax still hurts capital owners indirectly through taxes on labour.
When you see inequality occurring in individual nations, you can seek solace in the fact that it almost certainly means that inequality is decreasing at a globalised level. It's fairly obvious why; those who can expand their enterprises beyond their own borders are those who are providing prospects to people in other countries. As a consequence their wealth will rise, which increases the gap between them and their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
Suppose Adele is not a global superstar but instead only known in the UK. Her record sales, concert tour revenue, merchandise, magazine deals, sponsorship, and so forth would also be confined to the UK. She'd be one of the richest women in the UK, but not by as much as if she became a worldwide phenomenon. When Adele went global then suddenly her record sales, concert tour revenue, merchandise, magazine deals and sponsorship were no longer confined to the UK, they extended to America, Sweden, Japan, and so on. In the globalised process Adele became richer, which also meant the wealth inequality between her and the majority of Britain increased. The point being, while inequality inside particular countries is rising (mostly countries on the up), as one would expect from increased globalised markets, inequality at a global level is falling, also due to increased globalised markets.
Lastly, a word from others
Surprisingly, Paul Krugman, who many believe to be one of the world’s most sound economists, is in some way convinced by Piketty;
From Paul Krugman...
" “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, is a bona fide phenomenon. Other books on economics have been best sellers, but Mr. Piketty’s contribution is serious, discourse-changing scholarship in a way most best-sellers aren’t. And conservatives are terrified. Thus James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns in National Review that Mr. Piketty’s work must be refuted, because otherwise it “will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged.”
Well, no worries Paul, there have been quite a few substantive counterattacks to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. All I've seen in recent months is that there is evidence that Piketty Can’t Even Get His Basic Tax History Right, as well as some other indictments of his thesis by well respected economists (see here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and in particular here).
And as Bob Murphy points out in this article, Piketty's weighty tome does not seem to be a set of ideas about how we can help the poor - it is mainly a lament against the rich, and a cynical desire that they'd be a lot poorer. Murphy also criticises Piketty for an omission which I often have to point out when I debate with hard leftists who have a bee in their bonnet about expanded capital in concentrated areas - that it just won't do to pay no regard to how rich people became rich in the first place, as my article here points out.
* It is worth noting that marketing strategies are often manipulative - but there is, as usual, an easy solution - don't buy into it if you can help it. The moment you don't worry about status and social pressures attached to faux-prestige, you are no longer subsumed by it. But there's no denying it's there. If the ‘invisible hand’ that drove Adam Smith’s economy is the consumer’s liberty in freely chosen acquisition and the seller’s liberty in freely chosen products, then what drives the modern consumer-based ethos is more like an ‘invisible fist’.  Behind the scenes of broken Britain – be it the drugs, celebrity obsession, binge culture, or what have you – is an invisible fist that tries to alter people’s psychology.  Beliefs and values are psychologically driven; therefore the way to drive people into the habits consistent with acquisition is to wave the invisible fist in a way that consumers see nothing but an innocuous hand.  The teenage girl who wants to get on reality TV and be like her pop star idol may feel like she is pursuing an innocent ambition, but unbeknown to her she is under the thrall of the invisible fist of greed acting behind the scenes.  Whether the attention is on subscription to TV channels, travelling, hotels, cosmetics, clothes, media magazines, CDs, DVDs, concert tickets, websites, or whatever – the girl (like millions of others) is ensnared by corporate machinations, intent on making themselves richer and her poorer. That's why, if you're no longer seduced by the futility of relative trend status in competition with your peers, you'll be inured to it.
** I note that Piketty had been topping the Amazon sales list in several countries, including America. This is hugely ironic of course, not just because his anti-wealth, anti-inequality diatribe will probably make him wealthy, but because every economic leftie who buys his book is doing their bit to make the world a little bit more unequal. :-)


Sunday, 21 December 2014

My Top 68 Albums Of All Time

After writing a blog post on what I think are overrated albums, I thought I'd give it a fuller context by writing one about my favourite albums - by which I mean the albums I consider to be the best popular music works I've heard. I'm not one of those music fans who thinks there is an easy measure of 'best-ness': There are all sorts of criteria one could measure. For example, Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey has stronger vocals than Bob Dylan's Freewheelin', but possibly less good lyrics. Pink Floyd's Animals has a more sumptuous musical arrangement than, say, Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, but arguably less skilful guitar playing.

Therefore when it comes to best-ness, what are we judging: arrangement, lyrics, guitar playing, vocals, or a combination of various qualities? For that reason, I don't think there is such a thing as a best 50 or best 100 albums. Music depends not just on the criteria you're looking for, but on the mood of the listener too (incidentally why not a best 63 albums, or best 89 albums, or best 104 albums?). If I want some chill-out music for a party then Massive Attack or Portishead are better albums than Black Sabbath or The Who; if I want dance music for a disco event then Faithless or Michael Jackson are better albums than Aimee Mann or Nick Drake.

So, given the foregoing preamble, here are my top 68 albums in terms of personal favourites, listed in alphabetical order, based loosely on what I think are albums I wouldn't want to be without.


PET SOUNDS - The Beach Boys

SUNFLOWER - The Beach Boys

ABBEY ROAD - The Beatles

REVOLVER - The Beatles

RUBBER SOUL - The Beatles




HUNKY DORY - David Bowie

LOW - David Bowie





DÉJÀ VU - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

THE DOORS - The Doors






FLEETWOOD MAC - Fleetwood Mac

RUMOURS - Fleetwood Mac


WHAT'S GOING ON - Marvin Gaye




TAPESTRY - Carole King


LED ZEPPELIN - Led Zeppelin

LED ZEPPELIN IV - Led Zeppelin




SUPERFLY - Curtis Mayfield

TIGERLILY - Natalie Merchant

BLUE - Joni Mitchell

ASTRAL WEEKS - Van Morrison




DUMMY - Portishead

OK COMPUTER - Radiohead

THE BENDS - Radiohead



UP - R.E.M

EXILE ON MAIN STREET - The Rolling Stones

LET IT BLEED - The Rolling Stones

STICKY FINGERS - The Rolling Stones

SIMON & GARFUNKEL – Bridge Over Troubled Water

ADORE - The Smashing Pumpkins

HORSES - Patti Smith


THE SMITHS - The Smiths


LET IT COME DOWN - Spiritualized



THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO - The Velvet Underground

WHO'S NEXT - The Who




FREAK OUT - Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

EDIT TO ADD: If I can have a 69th, it would be MEDDLE - Pink Floyd, a 70th would be SCARY MONSTERS & SUPER CREEPS - David Bowie, and a 71th NO MORE SHALL WE PART - Nick Cave

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

10 Supposedly 'Great' Albums That Are Overrated

……well, in my opinion of course!!

This album got a lot of credit because it helped set new boundaries for music, allowing anyone from musical illiterates to young rock and pop star wannabees to pick up a guitar. The truth is, I think it's a pile of garbage from a bunch of foul-mouthed, manufactured, cacophonous airheads. Whether the punk movement was important is neither here nor there - the music on this album is very amateurish and the lyrics exhibit a vile and ill-educated worldview. The Clash's London Calling was pretty good: this is just unpleasant to me.

THRILLER - Michael Jackson
Often cited as the quintessential pop record, which revolutionised music for black artists and the music video, and still sounds as fresh today as it when it was released. But once we get beyond the three genuinely good songs - the title track, Billie Jean and Beat it (with a guitar solo to die for by Eddie Van Halen), and perhaps Wanna’ Be Startin’ Something (if you're feeling generous) we have an album of pretty mediocre songs, and in the case of The Girl Is Mine (what were you thinking of Paul McCartney?) and Baby Be Mine, absolute stinkers.

Ok, I don't mind the Nirvana sound, and the bone crunching anthems are good musically - but for me the qualities of this album have been hugely exaggerated. Maybe Kurt Cobain is just someone with whom I don't really connect, or to whom I don’t really relate. Perhaps you have to feel that connection and relation in order to love this album as much as many do. I think The Smashing Pumpkins were much better, and their album Adore is, for me, the high point of grunge, and one of the most underrated albums in the world.

IMAGINE - John Lennon
A whole host of stars were present here in the studio for the making of this album, including George Harrison, Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins and producer Phil Spector. But apart from the excellent Jealous Guy, and the reasonably good How, I think the songs aren't really up to much. The perennially overplayed title track has got to be one of the most overrated songs ever, with puerile lyrics and sententious tone, with Crippled Inside and How Do You Sleep (both petulant attacks on Paul McCartney) being more or less as bad, and Oh Yoko being perhaps his worst song as a solo artist.

You know, I love REM - I think they are one of the best bands of the past 35 years. And this album is good, of course (REM don't really make bad albums) - just overrated in my view. Songs like the truly awful Radio Song, Shiny Happy People and Belong put this album down a few notches, and sit uncomfortably alongside classics like Losing My Religion, Country Feedback, Low and Near Wild Heaven. Not a bad album, for sure - just not quite the 90s classic many thought it was.

On a good day it's easy to think that Led Zeppelin were at their creative best here with this double album - a diverse collection of songs in what was a daring venture at this point in their career. But apart from Kashmir - one of their very best songs, with its mystical lyrics and brilliantly crafted string arrangements, the other songs don't really match the quality found on their first four albums. Still not a bad album by any means - but I think that the passing of time has edged this album into a more realistic appraisal of its qualities.

Quite why Oasis get the superlatives they do is beyond me. I think they made a few ok rock anthems (Live Forever, Wonderwall, Half The World Away, Champagne Supernova) but their once self-proclaimed status as 'Britain's best band' is surely one of the biggest jokes in rock. Even at their best they are only about half as good as they think they are, and not even up to the standard of other Britpop contemporaries like Pulp, Suede and Blur, (who were, to me, always musically and lyrically much more eclectic and interesting), let alone in their generation's rock pantheon with the likes of The Smiths, REM, Radiohead, Spiritualized and Belle & Sebastian.

THE HOLY BIBLE - Manic Street Preachers
I know these guys were poster boys for a generation of melancholic, angst-ridden teenagers back in the 1990s, with this being the album that struck the biggest chord, but this band and I are just not on the same wavelength. For this kind of thing, give me Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley or Jim Morrison any day. It might be me, but I just don't connect with these Manic Street Preachers at all. There are times when Richey Edwards' lyrics hit the mark - the posthumous Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky being one example - but generally I think there are more interesting and profound troubled souls out there. And as for Nicky Wire, I think he sees himself as one of the great socio-political voices of his generation, whereas personally, I see him as a pretentious pseudo-intellectual with nothing much of interest to say. Aptly, he was once quoted as saying "I do consider myself to be something of a pretentious wanker.", which at least shows he's a good judge of character.

IS THIS IT? - The Strokes
A friend copied this for me about ten years ago; I played it a few times, and never got what all the fuss was about. I think this kind of stuff has been done better before, with The Strokes being, to me, little more than a sub-standard regurgitation of superior rock bands like Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges and Television.

THE STONE ROSES - The Stone Roses
Possibly a contentious inclusion this one, as I do think it's a very good album, with a seminal influence on the British pop scene, and the skilful combination of a sixties pop sound with funky acid rock. But apart from the excellent opening track I Wanna Be Adored, and the even better closing number I Am The Resurrection, I'd say the rest of the songs hardly add up to constitute the album's so-called 'classic' status.  

That's my view anyway. So to recap, this is not a blog post about bad albums – it’s a blog post about overrated albums – some of which are pretty good, just not (in my view) deserving of the absolute classic status they have been afforded.

One thing’s almost certain here, you probably won’t agree with my assessment; you might agree with some of it, but there’ll be albums above about which we disagree – and that’s only to be expected. The appraisal is only my personal one, based on how music connects or doesn’t connect with me.

To end, generally I don’t like to be negatively critical, so to make things more positive, next time I’ll list some albums I do highly appreciate.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Let's Have Social Beneficence With A Big “S” & State With A Small ‘s’

Oh ah, a day after my blog post on the recent issues surrounding charity, the church and the State, we have The Guardian’s Zoe Williams perpetuating the leftist complaints that food banks are supplied by the Trussell Trust charity and not by a State agency.

Consequently, I feel compelled to add a tiny bit more to this debate, because we have lots of hard-right-leaning folk lamenting food banks as emblematic of a culture of welfare-dependent decadence, and lots of hard-left-leaning folk calling their very existence a national disgrace and emblematic of a failing State. Underpinning this is the hard-right view that welfare-dependent people are mostly useless wasters, and the hard-left view that the State should automatically be the custodians of everyone's skills, wages, vocations and social well-being. To me, both sides clearly are wide of the mark.

The State has a responsibility to its citizens, and should apply it better to our welfare needs, particularly those not in work. For me, finding the right balance is about seeing that both the State and we as individuals have a role. It's easy to delegate responsibility to the State to such an extent that we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to each other. In fact, I'd argue that we have been so accustomed to the State's role in our lives that we've forgotten just how much of our past, present and future relies on our own social beneficence (let's call it social beneficence for simplicity's sake). By 'social beneficence' I mean our necessity to help one another, show love, grace and kindness, and to generally demonstrate mindfulness for each other's well-being. We already do this all the time, of course - for friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues and people in our social groups - but the Christian message is that everyone is to be included in that mandate. 

As studies in evolutionary biology in the past few decades have shown, this mindfulness of our fellow humans in implicit in our mental hardware - and was an instinctive part of our evolution long before we developed sovereign States and trading. That is to say, we couldn't have arrived at those progressions without an up and running mindfulness of our fellow humans and developing empathy towards their needs. So while the Smithian notion of a free market of self-serving interested parties demonstrably engenders major social and cultural progress, the financial economy is obviously not the be all and end all of our social well-being - our social beneficence underpins a great deal of it.

It's strange to hear so many people automatically deferring problems to either the State or the market, without recourse to the most powerful of all human qualities - the freedom and ability to be socially beneficent to one another. The work of the Trussell Trust Christian charity represents the best of social beneficence, and serves to remind us of how much better society would be with even more beneficence on top of that. Yes of course the State needs to sort out its own bureaucratic house and ensure that people's welfare entitlements are paid, but I fancy that many modern humans of today may have become so accustomed to the State sovereignty and its involvement in our affairs that they've been habitually primed to give too little regard to our own individual responsibilities to each other. If you recall, the Christ-influenced acts of grace, love and kindness that spread through the societies in the New Testament portion of history were not bootstrapped by a benevolent, democratically elected sovereign State - they occurred in a society oppressed under a Roman dictatorship, with no welfare state or global free market. The solution, I think, is to have Social Beneficence with a big “S”, to enable us to have State with a small ‘s’.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Award For Biggest Misunderstanding In An Article This Year Goes To………..

Aditya Chakrabortty, for this moment of half-wittery in his Guardian article:

"Officers and researchers sat down and worked out how much money Enfield's 300,000 residents sent the way of big businesses: 11 Tesco stores, for instance, provided the PLC with around £8m of its annual profit. And what did the area get back? Not very much, but the highlight included a community toilet scheme and some charitable giving from the supermarket’s corporate social responsibility department."

Actually I don’t want to be too harsh – up until that point Aditya Chakrabortty was doing okay and asking one or two pertinent questions about the relationship between the State and the market. But then - "What did the area get back? Not very much." What the heck is this wally on about, not very much? A chain of supermarkets that made £8m profit would have sold around £200-300m worth of groceries. The value of a supermarket is what it produces, so what the residents of Enfield got back was the £200-300m worth of shopping they wanted. Consequently, as well as the community toilet scheme and some charitable giving, Tesco gave value to Enfield in the form of providing them with somewhere to park, shop, and somewhere to obtain the multitude of goods they wished to buy for their weekly shopping.

So it shouldn’t surprise Mr. Chakrabortty to know that what Tesco and the Enfield residents got out of each other was exactly what they hoped they would; Tesco got £8m profit from the transactions, and the Enfield residents got all their fruit, vegetables, meat, tinned food, and so on. I will agree that any more the big supermarkets can do to help with food banks, fair trade, etc, the better – but to exclaim that the residents of Enfield got back ‘not very much’ from Tesco is ridiculously short-sighted.

* Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Church of England & The State Should Play To Their Strengths

The Church of England has some confused views about economics. In my mind there are too many church spokespeople calling for us to move away from capitalism and give increased power to the State to intervene and tackle all the so-called injustices that occur in a free market economy. Even if we ignore the fact that for all intents and purposes it's impossible to 'move away from capitalism', the church is still doing itself no favours on this issue.

For several reasons the Church of England would have more social credibility and greater societal relevance if it argued for less State intervention, and departed from its erroneous view that the general mechanism of the free market is lacking in ethics. As I've argued before, the free market is not this illusory moral vacuum devoid of ethicality - its success depends on moral agents being honest, reliable, trustworthy and diligent in their outputs (read this book if you want your doubts quashed).

Try to remember what Christ’s incarnation was like on earth - He vocally opposed the oppressiveness of the theological State and establishment teaching, and He was no friend of the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities. Whatever the topic - be it religion, economics, politics, or whatever - authoritarian top-down management from the State is not the optimum situation for citizens governed by that State. For the church to obtain more social relevance it should be championing a smaller State not a bigger one. The church is precisely the institution that should be filling in the gaps left by the overarching forces of government and the market. In other words, the places where the State and the market can't reach are the places the church should be most prominent: it already is when it comes to theology and salvation issues - it should be with ethics, charity and social justice too. The church's involvement in food banks and soup kitchens, for example, is exactly the sort of societal influence it should be having, and thankfully is.

The fallacy of enforced generosity
The same can be said of charity - it is the church that always ought to be leading the way here (and again, often is). I remember a couple of years ago hearing David Cameron defending the governmental increase in the foreign aid budget on the basis that 'Britons are generous people'. No, this is wrong. Somebody should give the Prime Minister a dictionary and get him to look up the word 'generous'. He'll see that being generous means giving away something of your own accord. It doesn't mean being forced to give away something over which you have no control. If I draw out my life savings and bail out Harty's Diner then I have been generous (wisely or foolishly) - but I have been generous because I wanted to bail out Harty's Diner. If the government taxes me with the threat of imprisonment and bails out Harty's Diner (wisely or foolishly) on my behalf then I have not been generous, because I had no say in the matter.

Now I'm all for increasing in the foreign aid budget and helping the world's neediest, but David Cameron had his reasoning backwards there. The governmental increase in the foreign aid budget must have been necessary because too many Britons are not that generous of their own volition. Giving to the world's neediest of your own accord is more generous than the government giving to them on your behalf after taxing it from you. If Britons were increasingly generous people it would lessen the need for governmental foreign aid not increase it.

As I argued here, when the church leaders and spokespeople advocate a bigger State and more substantial governmental redistributive policies they go against their own fundamental Christian theology. Further, we should never forget how Christianity is so often worse off once political influences are infused and soaked into its material, and how Jesus’ teaching regarding His Kingdom being 'not of this world' confers onto the message a marked boundary line that is likely to be burred when Christianity and State become excessively commingled.

As usual The Guardian has got the wrong end of the stick about food banks, but alas so has the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, as he asserts that the government should get more involved with them, and that the very fact that people need food banks is a national disgrace. Naturally a lot of people who fancy themselves as leftist revolutionaries have the same idea.

In this blog I explained why a rise in food bank users doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in poverty. Let’s broaden it out a little. Apparently according to The Guardian article 60% of food bank users received only one sanction, which basically means they were one time users, probably due to temporary hardship. From what I can gather from looking into it a bit further, many of these cases are due to missing appointments, penalties for misuse of the system, and various bureaucratic issues that delay benefit payments for a week or so.

But even if we make allowances for these cases, it is true that many people in the UK are suffering genuine economic hardship. And when that happens people are quick to play the blame game, with the first target for opprobrium usually being the government. In my view this is lazy-thinking. Sure, the government makes mistakes, and it has some counterproductive policies, but should anyone really be satisfied with blaming politicians when in doing so it exculpates people from the decisions they make in life? It's not as though the British government is making a total mess of things - the recovery is stronger than it might have been, and healthy compared with the rest of Europe. As well, unemployment has continued to fall, inflation remains low, interest rates are falling, and the pound is fairly strong. And also the government has finally cottoned on to the necessity of a rise in the threshold at which low earners pay income tax.

For many struggling people, the cost of living exceeds their income, but I'm not sure why the government gets the blame for this, as politicians don't control wages in the private sector, nor do they control prices of goods and services (except for this caveat: by often making them artificially high due to subsidies, tariffs and other regulatory measures). We have to face facts, there are a lot of things that go on that are not the fault of the government. People make life choices - some good some bad - and Christianity, if it insists on one thing about our life circumstances, it is that there is a good deal of reaping what one is sowing (Galatians 6:7).

Now the job of the Christian (and, as it happens, the compassionate citizen of any belief too, but particularly the Christian) is to show mindfulness and understanding when we see people in difficulty, even those whose difficulty is largely their own doing. To deny that reaping is causally linked to sowing is to not help anyone.

Myths and generalisations
And one thing is clear on this; blanket generalisations won't add any intellectual gravitas to the discussions. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. The other day in his Guardian column Owen Jones was complaining that wages are too low for people to make ends meet, and that this apparent Dickensian misery that plagues the UK at present is down to low paid workers being treated unfairly. The obvious thing wrong with his claim is the same thing that's usually wrong in his reasoning - he only thinks in hasty generalisations and he fails to ask the right questions about causality. So yes, it's true that a lot of people have a wage that is low enough to make them feel the struggles of daily life, but there are many reasons why people are on low wages, and most of them are not down to government measures.

There is no denying that most people would like more pay for the work they do, but that's not to be confused with the so-called 'injustice' of low pay. There are reasons many people are in low paid work, and it is alarming that these reasons are never mentioned in articles written from the hard left. Let's start with the general pattern; low pay is a price signal that indicates an abundance of agents able to sell their skills or labour at that price; and high pay is a price signal that indicates a scarcity of agents able to sell their skills or labour at that price. To use a particular example, that's why there are more people ready to stack shelves at Sainsbury's than there are people ready to be the Chief Executive. If there is a plethora of people in the lower end market it would suggest that many people are not receiving the training or education needed for the demands of the market.

But moving away from the general onto particulars, there are a multitude of reasons why people start and remain in low paid jobs, other than the fact that they don't have the skill sets to do the higher paid jobs. Many people are in low paid jobs because they want to be. It's easy to imagine why - for many people the trade off between higher paid jobs that entail further training, more responsibility, better people skills, unsociable hours, more pressure, greater risk, and so forth, leaves them favouring the lower paid positions with less responsibility, less pressure and a safer day to day working life. This is a fact I see on a weekly basis in local authority - a promotional position will come up with the majority of employees being uninterested in applying for it. Many are older people in the latter years of their working lives, some are mothers for whom it wouldn't pay to earn more or increase their hours; some simply don't have the ingenuity to try to further themselves; some are intermittent workers; and some are happy having a comfortable 9 to 5 job and focusing more on their extra curricular talents and interests.

We’ve digressed, but it has been to make an important point – that general criticisms are faulty when people don’t get to the finer details of causal links. Just as not everyone on low pay is the victim of injustice, similarly not every incidence of charitable help is due to injustice either. As I said in the blog link above, rather than food banks always being an indication of injustice or increased economic hardship, they most likely are a demonstration of our increased ability to respond to economic hardship with donations of food for those that need it.

Or to put it another way, food banks are a great achievement of the Trussell Trust  - a private Christian charity, because they provide help and retain a social relevance highly consistent with the church’s ethos. As things like the food bank scheme and soup kitchens become better known and grow in efficiency, it's quite understandable that more people will use them. Government involvement in this would be a bad idea - it will come on a wagon train of bureaucracy, as well as increased inefficiency, and it will discourage much of the voluntary beneficence that motivates people’s giving.

The Guardian writers often complain that food price rises are exceeding people's living capacity, but these are just as much due to the aforementioned government subsidies and regulations that stop the market forces that would lower food prices.

One irony about many people's biases (both in the church and outside) is that in wanting to make the world a better place by constraining the free market and tempering corporation power they are pulling their own hand away from the problem they are trying to solve. Basic first year economics informs us that a freer market and fewer regulatory protocols is the best solution to corporate power. So what's usually thought of as "the government isn't doing enough" is, in fact, usually the case of "the government is doing too much". State regulations create artificial barriers to entering the market, which stultifies competition, and artificially drives up prices, giving us a rinse-and-repeat cycle that brings people to need to use food banks.

Just as the church embarrasses itself and tarnishes its reputation when it distorts established science in favour of the delusive and counterfactual claims of young earth creationism, so too it embarrasses itself and tarnishes its reputation when it displays ignorance of basic economic principles and loads up that ignorance to unleash misjudged social commentary. The success of food banks is one of the church's greatest achievements in modern society - it gives exhibition to conscientious, caring individuals who want to do their bit to help struggling people. If this isn't the playing out of the instructions given by the writer of Hebrews to "not neglect to do good and share what we have", I don't know what is. The church should be seizing on the momentum already gathered and using it for even greater good by encouraging more and more people to be kind, caring and conscientious citizens, not furtively attempting to compromise this momentum by transferring the emphasis back on the bureaucratic State.

* Photo courtesy of Euronews