söndag 30 mars 2008

...for fear of the Jews

"The door was closed... for fear of the Jews". Nevertheless, Jesus, the Risen Christ, came and stood among them. The phrase, in this week's Gospel (John 20:19) is there to make the express point that the post-resurrection Jesus does not have a normal physical body but one that can pass through closed doors. On the other hand, the post-resurrection accounts tell of Jesus having a wounded body, with pierced hand, feet and sides, and one that eat normal food. Thus, the appearances of Jesus between the Resurrection and the Ascension are paradoxical.

But what is this bit about the Jews? It makes me uneasy. All the disciples inside the room were Jews. So which Jews is St John referring to, that the disciples were afraid of? Clearly, it is the religious authorities. Unfortunately, unless the matter is thought about, the opprobrium rubs off onto all Jews, which is understandable but absurd, untheological and ultimately leads to hatred.

Christian preachers need to make the point when this passage is read. But the most important part of the passage is this:

"Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. "

torsdag 27 mars 2008

The sinking pound

I have drawn attention several times to the falling value of the Pound against the Euro, which was worth about €1.50 when the Euro was instituted in 2002, €1.40 last summer and has now slid to €1.27, a drop of over15% in less than a year.

At last the issue is being noticed. There was talk on the radio this morning of allowing it to fall to 1 pound to the Euro, a devaluation of one third since 2002. In any case it should not be forgotten that the Euro has been subject to inflation of around 15% over the same period. This recent fall in the value of the £ against the € will quickly show up in higher prices in the shops, though it is good news for British producers and manufacturers, and exporters in particular.

Personally, I suspect that the Euro will itself drop before long, which will lead to a flight of investors into gold and commodities. It is a pity that Gordon Brown sold half the UK's gold reserves when the metal was at its rock bottom price, as they could have been sold now to support the currency.

Part of the present problem is that the € has gone up as people have shifted their US$ balances and has nothing to do with anything in particular that has happened here. However, some of the fall is due to the UK balance of payments deficit which has resulted in large sterling balances being held abroad. How has this happened? There has been a consumer spending spree. And some of it has been funded out of the property (land price) boom as people have borrowed to release equity from their homes.

Amongst the things that I was taught when I learned economics were that (1) Land is not wealth and (2) Not to borrow except to pay for something that would increase one's ability to produce ie actual physical capital.

If this were widely and properly understood, banks would not be lending money on the security of land as collateral and people would not be borrowing money to pay for holidays or to buy cars other than those used for business. So this latest problem would not have arisen and we would not be about to see substantial inflation.

The reason why people believe land is wealth is because it can be traded, often at a profit. But what is actually being traded is the capitalisation of the real or imputed income stream, known as rent, from the land, which is a different matter. It is the same thing as buying an annuity. The only way, ultimately, to prevent this nonsense is for governments to collect the rental income from land and use it as its principal source of revenue, instead of troublesome and destructive taxes such as Income Tax and VAT. Then the whole stupid practice of over-lending and over-borrowing would have to stop, bringing with it an end to these disruptive land-fuelled boom-slump cycles which appear to recur at intervals of around 18 years.

How would banks function in such a fiscal environment? Perfectly well, is the answer. When making loans they would need only to make an assessment of the likelihood of getting their money back and make a charge according to the risk. There would be no need even to charge interest as they could simply have a fee scale based on the cost of administration plus risk cover. They would no longer make spectacular profits and losses but would instead operate in relatively stable conditions earning a steady return for the work they did.

Interestingly, such a system would be in accordance of the ordinances of the major religions which have always condemned the practice of lending money for interest. Given the misery that is about to be inflicted on nearly everyone, it seems as if they were on to something.

onsdag 26 mars 2008

De-roofing set for revival

The Government is changing the empty property relief from business rates by applying the full business rate to properties that have been empty for three months or more – and removing the exemption from industrial and warehouse property so that the full rate will be applied if they have been empty for six months or more. These reforms will take effect from 1 April 2008.

In an interview on the radio this morning, Liz Peace, spokesman for the British Propery Federation, suggested that it could lead to a resurgence of what is known as "Constructive Vandalism" such as de-roofing, in order to avoid the tax. It could also encourage developers to defer completion of new buildings. Peace claimed that the rules were unfair as the average time for a re-let was 24 months.

If I heard this correctly, it is incredible, as it shows that whilst owners obviously want to keep their premises let, they are willing to wait a considerable time to squeeze the highest possible rents from their properties. Such a volume of property being held empty must itself be a contributory factor in causing local shortages and maintaining rents at excessively high levels.

The government is on to something in trying to raise the cost of holding property empty, but it is going about it the wrong way. If all buildings were exempted from tax and the charge levied on sites alone, regardless of what was on them or how they were used, nobody could avoid it by "constructive vandalism".

Unfortunately, Liz Peace's prediction is likely to come true.

Easter Altar

The altar was decorated again for the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. The big candlesticks are used at festive periods. The rest of the time we have the Pugin pattern candlesticks. One of them has got bent because someone knocked it off the altar in the middle of Mass one Sunday morning. If the altar had been in its proper position against the east end of the church, the accident would not have happened, so I would take it as a sign from the almighty that He is displeased with the altar being where it is and wants it moved back to its original place. But at least with the proper frontal the altar looks better than I have ever seen it.

tisdag 25 mars 2008

Why do booms and slumps happen?

Why do these periodic booms and slumps occur? According to Paul Ormerod, writing in the Sunday Times, it is all due to the summation of people's optimism and pessimism.

Well, it's a theory, but there is a more plausible explanation, which is that it is due to the interaction between the land market and the banking system. Put simply, booms turn to slumps when the capital values (selling prices) of land are driven up to the point that the actual yields (rentals), as a percentage of those capital values, are unacceptably low. What drives up these land prices is indeed optimism, the expectation first, that capital values will continue to rise and second, that the rentals that ultimately underpin those capital values, will also keep on rising. The latter expectation is ill-founded and the capital values are themselves boosted to unreasonably high levels as the banks become recklessly willing to lend for land purchase by recklessly willing borrowers with unrealistic expectations of capital appreciation. This reckless lending is on the security of the land whose value is being driven up by the same over-easy lending by all of the banks.

This is a classic self-feeding bubble. And since rents tend to rise, if at all, at quite a modest rate, the yields, as a percentage of selling prices, tend to fall. The point eventually comes where the slightest shock to the market can cause people to panic as they realise that they are over-committed and cannot pay back what they have borrowed, with the lenders realising that they have lent to people who cannot pay back, on the security of collateral whose value turns out to have been a bubble value. Pumping money is a cure of sorts as it depreciates the real price of the loan, but it is at the expense of the prudent, including savers and those who have lent prudently, who find their loan repaid in depreciated currency.

The pessimism Ormerod refers to has a real cause and is not just a mood-swing. Which seems to be where the economy of both the US and UK have got to. Underneath the pessimism is a genuine problem that only just starting its wretched course.

söndag 23 mars 2008

Catholic MPs refuse to support embryology bill

Catholic Labour MPs are refusing to support the government's bill to facilitate research with embryos. Are they slaves of the church, incapable of independent thought, or what?

Research with embryos could well produce useful information. It might even lead to the discovery of cures for serious and presently incurable diseases. But is that reason enough to permit such research?

Immoral means should not be used to obtain scientific information. Experiments on prisoners in German and Japanese concentration camps during World War 2 is an example of immoral means being used to obtain information. It is wrong to kill a person or carry out operations on that person which could harm them. It is better to forgo the information.

But what is immoral about embryo research? An embryo is just a blob of jelly, surely? The problem comes down to the question of when does a human life begin? It is obviously before the time of birth, but the difficulty is in establishing when. Any time other than the moment of conception is bound to be arbitrarily defined, and the moment of conception is indeed the time at which the person becomes an individual, even though at that time it is only one with the potential to become a person. That is what is wrong with it.

In practice, there is a further danger. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if an embryo were allowed to develop beyond the minimum permitted period. Soon or later somebody will not be able to resist their natural curiosity.

This is why the Catholic church is opposed to such research. It is not being obtuse or awkward. Such research is fundamentally immoral and has the potential for great harm. The government is being badly advised to permit such research, but at the very least MPs should be allowed a free vote.

lördag 22 mars 2008

Good Friday church

In Catholic churches there are normally lots of flowers and candlesticks, and the altar is covered with a cloth and other decorations. But not on Good Friday or on Easter Saturday before the vigil service. Then everything is removed and the church is bare, like this, the altar having been stripped after Mass in the evening on Maundy Thursday. It is differences that create meanings. The liturgy is a highly sophisticated semiotic system. Our parish priest has got the measure of it and so, following the example of the Pope, is reintroducing practices which have long been abandoned.

torsdag 20 mars 2008

Poor transport links hit wealth of outlying northern towns

The economies of northern towns are falling behind their southern counterparts because transport links to the big cities of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle are inadequate, according to a study by the Centre for Cities thinktank. There is a comment on the report in the Guardian.

The study focuses on the poor local public transport and road links in the satellite towns around cities such as Manchester and Leeds, compared to those with better connections, and, more generally, in comparison with London and the south-east. Average pay is lower where transport connections are bad and the report argues the case for improvements.

What the study fails to mention is the sky-high housing prices - in reality, land values - in the prosperous areas of the UK, which gobble up much of the advantage of the economic benefits of better transport.

Suppose, for a moment, that substantial investment was made in transport around, say, Manchester, leading to higher pay and improved economic performance. This would quickly push up land values, with higher house prices, and higher commercial and residential rents. In other words, the benefit of the investment would be mostly taken by land owners. Little of the return from that investment would turn up in higher tax revenue, and then only slowly and haphazardly.

If, on the other hand, a tax on annual land rental values was in place, the increasing values resulting from the investment would be captured and provide the revenue stream which would repay the cost of the investment. Indeed, the projects could be paid for from bonds issued on the strength of the enhancement to land values and consequently raised revenues. But it is not going to happy any time soon.

Poor transport links hit economies of northern towns.

The economies of northern towns are falling behind their southern counterparts because transport links to the big cities of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle are inadequate, according to a study by the Centre for Cities thinktank. There is a comment on the report in the Guardian.

The study focuses on the poor local public transport and road links around cities such as Manchester and Leeds, compared to those in London and the south-east, and gives this as a reason for lower average pay in those areas.

What it fails to mention is the sky-high housing prices - in reality, land values - in the prosperous areas, which gobble up much of the advantage of the economic benefits of better transport.

Suppose, for a moment, that substantial investment was made in transport around, say, Manchester, leading to higher pay and improved economic performance. This would quickly push up land values, with higher house prices, and higher commercial and residential rents. In other words, the benefit of the investment would be mostly taken by land owners. Little of the investment would turn up in higher tax revenue, and that only slowly and haphazardly.

If, on the other hand, a tax on annual land rental values was in place, the increasing values resulting from the investment would be captured and provide the revenue stream which would repay the cost of the investment. Indeed, the projects could be paid for from bonds issued on the strength of the enhancement to land values and consequently raised revenues. But it is not going to happy any time soon.

onsdag 19 mars 2008

The behaviour of British politicians

Parliament, originally uploaded by haleyhughes.

It is only in recent years that the proceedings of parliament have been broadcast. To listen to the behaviour of British politicians is not edifying. They sound like adolescent schoolboys trying to score points off each other. Though they are old enough to know better, rowdy confrontation is often all that seems to be happening. Hardly ever is there a sense of there being a group of people trying to work together, approaching problems from different points of view and attempting to come to decisions which will achieve the best results all-round. They are not listening to each other. They are just shouting each other down a lot of the time. In such an atmosphere, sensible solutions cannot emerge. Comparison with the Riksdag is instructive.

What a way to run a country.

Just a crisis of confidence?

Are the present troubles just a crisis of confidence or is there something real going on?

"Credit" comes from the Latin word "credo", meaning "I believe", and refers to the trust that has to exist between individuals and companies in order for the economic process to function. And so, to the extent that the economy depends on credit, the collapse in confidence is itself a real economic effect.

But there is something more substantial going on as well. For production to take place, three factors must be available and brought together. These are Land, Labour and Capital. The yield to land is called Rent. Essentially, it is the productive advantage of the site or location and appears as an income stream.

Analysis of a slump
The fundamental value of a piece of land is this income stream. The purchase of land is in principle the purchase of an income stream, the rental value. And if that were all there was to it, land prices would be such that ratio between rental value and the the land price was much the same as the general interest rate, which is usually around 5%. Land values are normally expressed in inverse interest rates known as Years' Purchase (YP), a figure which at 5% would be 20.

But rental values have a tendency to rise, and so the expectation of future rentals is factored in to land prices. Thus yields from land tend to be lower than yields from other investments.

At the bottom of an economic cycle expectations are low. But as the economy pulls out of recession, expectations of rental income growth start to rise and land prices with them. As time goes on, speculators, seeing land prices on a fast-rising trend, pile into the market and push them up further, thereby depressing yields well below the general interest rate.

It then gets worse. Banks, who use land as collateral for their loans, become increasingly willing to lend money for land purchase (usually property purchase, but it is the land element of the property that is behaving according to this description). This drives up land values still higher and depresses the yields still further.

Eventually, yield rates become absurdly low and loans become increasingly difficult to repay out of the earnings from the land investment. Things are on a knife edge and the slightest hiccough will bring the hollow edifice down, which is what was initiated by the sub-prime loan crisis last year.

What happens next? There will be some distress selling. The housing market will slow, which will cause related industries such as construction and furnishing to slow with them. This will eventually lead to large scale unemployment. A further effect that will be seen is a proliferation of vacant factories, vacant offices and empty sites. They will mostly not come onto the market because there are many people who own them who would have to accept less than they paid, and there are also the book values of those sites that would then have to be written down. This withholding of land from the market will slow the recovery, as it has slowed the recovery from previous depressions, because it prevents nascent businesses from setting themselves up in suitable locations. There is a solution available to courageous politicians who know what they are doing, but such politicians are unlikely to appear out of the blue. And so, on this analysis, one cannot expect much in the way of recovery until around 2015.

The coming crash and the slump of 2028

Day after day the newspapers are full of reports about problems with the banks. The £ continues to fall. The US dollar likewise. Every few days another skeleton falls out of the cupboard. This is the beginning of the next big crash. Some commentators say that it will be worse than 1929. I would not go so far as to suggest that but will not be surprised.

On 16 September last year I wrote ON THE ROCKS, about the Northern Rock collapse and THIS about the likely consequences.

It gives me no pleasure to see the predictions coming to pass. This is no mere crisis of confidence but something happening in the real economy. Expect to see vacant sites, boarded-up shops, closed factories, growing unemployment and all the other marks of a full-blown depression. It was all avoidable. Indeed, any country following the right policies could have spared itself much of the misery. But the time to act would have been ten years ago.

The right policies applied now could get any country that did so into recovery quite quickly, but to prevent the slump of 2028 the time to act is between now and 2018, after which it too will be inevitable. But if the comments being made by politicians and journalists are indicative of the general state of understanding of what is happening, it would be prudent to pencil in the date of the next recession after this one.

måndag 17 mars 2008

Effects of 24 hour drinking

A common scene on our street early on Sunday mornings.

Tradition returns

Our parish priest has followed the example of Rome and is reinstating traditional practices in the liturgy, beginning with regular confession - he encourages people NOT to take communion unless they are in a state of grace and makes himself freely available for confession.

This year, for the first time probably since the 1960s, the processional cross was decorated with greenery and (below) the ugly altar now has a frontal in the correct liturgical colour and for Holy Week is veiled in purple. An other innovation is to spread the candlesticks across the altar instead of bunching them up at each end, to direct attention away from the priest, pending a reordering which will make it easier for Mass to be celebrated with priest and people all facing in the same direction.

Bricks and mortar

At the other end of the newspaper spectrum, though also from the Murdoch press, is the Times. This too was unenlightening. Its property section has the title "Bricks and Mortar", which is misleading as the most important thing about it is the land purchase and sale opportunities. "Little in the Budget to help the majority of would-be homeowners" ran the headline, critical of the Chancellor's decision to leave Stamp Duty much as it was.

Now Stamp Duty is a very bad tax, but not for the reasons that are usually given. It is a tax on moving and therefore discourages people from moving. This gums up the market and encourages people to stay in accommodation long after it has ceased to be suitable for them. Which in turn creates a shortage, depriving those at a different stage of life, for whom that accommodation is exactly what is needed.

But whilst abolishing Stamp Duty would be of indirect benefit to everyone by freeing-up the market in general, it would not help first time buyers by making places cheaper to buy. Without the tax, purchasers in general would have more money available to spend on properties and prices would simply rise; it is sellers who bear the burden of the tax. It is worrying that even property journalists cannot see this and that consequently the public remains ill-informed on the subject.

The land element of real estate should indeed be taxed but not as a charge on selling prices when people move or die. It should be a regular tax levied as a replacement for other taxes.

Harry's Hero

Also in the Sun was an article about one of our boys, who was on the same flight back to Britain as Prince Harry. The is a picture of a fit young man called Ben who was talented at sport but has lost an arm and a leg in a "horrific" landmine explosion in Afghanistan, just before his 21st birthday. One wonders when landmine explosions are not horrific, but the picture shows Ben in his "before" condition. He has has four major operations lasting up to ten hours each.

A few years ago I advised a young man in the Swimming Club against a career in the army, which he was contemplating. It was nothing to do with pacifism - I am not a pacifist - but that the army is abused for the aggrandaisement of politicians in pursuit of their dotty ideas. I think, and hope, he took the advice, as the last time I saw him he was working as a lifeguard.

Blair deserves to go down in history as having caused much trouble due to his delusions of grandeur, imagining himself as some kind of saviour. There was a feature on the Blair wars on last night's radio, "celebrating" the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. Apparently, this was part of a policy called "Benevolent Intervention".

The trouble is that putting in armed forces to intervene in someone else's quarrel quickly leads to the "saviours" becoming part of the problem. This is what happened in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and it is only because, in the last few years, the Unionists are coming to realise that membership of the Union is depriving them of economic opportunities, that the problem is going away almost of its own accord.

Western armies cannot solve problems of Moslem societies. People from the secular/Christian west are simply not trusted or respected, especially when there may be ulterior motives for the intervention. Ultimately, people will have to work things out for themselves, whatever is done. The Iraq invasion only made matters worse. The goings-on in Afghanistan will achieve nothing in the long run. It is a clan society with a terrain made for banditry. The British found this in the nineteenth century, the Russian had the same experience in the 1980s and one wonders why those who are making the decisions do not just look at the history. The one useful intervention that could be made in Afghanistan - buying up the opium crop for medical use to alleviate the present shortage - is seemingly off the agenda. And so brave and adventurous young men are having their limbs blown off - for what?

Sun slams budget for hitting motorist

Not having seen a British newspaper for a couple of weeks, I browsed through a few on the way back from Harwich.

The Sun criticised the budget for hitting Britain's hard-pressed motorists under Labour's "war on Mondeo Man". It claimed to have found the only person in Britain who LIKES the Budget - a non-smoking teetotal bike-riding woman from Leeds who works as a fitness instructor. Judging from her photograph, she looked pretty good on it, incidentally, which is some sort of advertisement for the lifestyle, especially in comparison with the fat ugly men shown on the same page, who were complaining about the extra cost of drinking and driving.

First thing seen back in Britain

I arrived back in Britain at Harwich. This is quite a pleasant way to come and go. But you arrive on the station platform just in time to miss your train to London and have to wait an hour for the next one. Perfect miss-timing. The ferry and the train companies obviously do not talk to each other.

As it turned out, this was quite convenient as it reminded me I needed to book a return trip back to Denmark.

Down on the station platform, all the digital clocks are out of order and look like they have been that way for years. Pride in the job? What is that?

Solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute

Apse, Hagia Sophia, originally uploaded by vittoriosa.

The argument against Israel's existence is that the land was taken by force and they ought to give it back to the previous occupants. If one accepts the argument then Turkey should return Constantinople to Greece. It was, after all, bombarded by the Turks and the inhabitants massacred in 1453 so this is obviously an unjust occupation just like Israel. Perhaps the Israelis should offer to depart from their country on condition that the Turks hand back Constantinople. I think they would be safe to assume that the offer would never be taken up.

söndag 16 mars 2008

Oppression in Tibet

It is strange how the oppression in Tibet by the Chinese does not attract the same sympathy for the Tibetans as the Palestinians get. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), for example, had nothing on their web site on the subject - in fact, their silence is deafening.

If the Palestinians had support the kind of leadership shown by the Dalai Lama, the problem would have disappeared long ago, and to that extent, their continuing suffering is something they are bringing on themselves. But that seems to be the Moslem way.

onsdag 12 mars 2008

How to kick the oil habit

DSCN8919, originally uploaded by Sou'wester.

An idea whose time has come?

Dodging the tax clampdown

Europe's most expensive real estate, originally uploaded by Bēn.

British tax dodgers will soon find a way round the Chancellor's latest attempt at a clamp-down. Like this, perhaps There is no limit to people's ingenuity.

Living in Monte Carlo would not be my cup of tea, but people are mobile. If governments try to tax them, they will dodge. Land, on the other hand, is fixed and cannot be removed to a tax haven or hidden. If governments base their revenue-raising on land holding, then they will not lose their revenue through tax avoidance.

If you see this and have the Chancellor's ear, could you remind him, please?

Budget to address child poverty

Today's UK budget is being billed as "giving priority to tackling child poverty." Apparently, ministers define the child poverty target as ensuring "no children live in a household earning less than 60% of national mean income, before housing costs".

How strange to exclude housing costs, since this is the biggest single living expense, but then the whole concept of poverty definitions is dubious. I used to work in Catford, a poor part of South London. Yet customers who were obviously not well off had their trolleys piled high with expensive prepared junk, costing several times more than the basic ingredients. Like tinned potatoes, for heaven's sake. The food industry wants people to buy these things, which are called "added value products", though really they are subtracted-value products.

This stupidity is not confined to poor working class families. The middle classes are no better. Marks and Spencer's branches now have yards and yards of shelf space filled up with expensive ready-made meals - priced at around a fiver for 50p worth of goods, most of the cost being preparation, packaging and profit. It is, however, a peculiarly British phenomenon; you can buy junk food in a Swedish supermarket like ICA or Konsum, but the shelves are mostly filled up with normal basic things which means that you don't have to walk round and round the shop looking for something edible.

To return to the budget. Given the government's commitment to the tax system in essentially its present form, nothing that the chancellor can do will have more than a marginal effect on poverty, since the tax system itself is a major cause and any changes are mere tinkering. But what is really disturbing is that, after eleven years in opposition, the Conservatives have failed to come up with any radical alternatives. They can't even see there is a fundamental problem and so are in practice conniving in perpetuating this state of affairs.

Surely the row over "non-domiciles" and the revelations about tax havens show that the system is a relic of a bygone age and needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history? Yet, to judge from comments by journalists and recent letters in the papers, one might think that the present tax system was part of the natural order.

Engineering lesson

This streamlined locomotive of the Battle of Britain/West Country class was designed by the engineer Bulleid for the Southern Railway during World War 2. It went to the scrapyard in its original form with a streamlined casing, which, as the photograph shows, conceals a conventional locomotive boilder underneath. But most locomotives of the type and all the larger Merchant Navy class were rebuilt with the air smooth casing removed - it was considered a nuisance as it obstructed access. The same happened to the LMS streamlined locomotives, while the Gresley streamliners also had some of the streamlining removed for access and to prevent overheating.

The other problem with these locos was the special chain driven valve gear which ran in an oil bath and there where incidents when the oil caught fire. So the rebuilds had conventional valve gear. But they had outside admission piston valves and these could not be altered easily so there is still (many of these locomotives, including this one, are still running) a potential problem with high pressure steam leaking out through the glands where the rods pass through the steam chests.

It is a pity that Bulleid did not construct to conventional designs in the first place, his locomotives was too clever apart from the utility Q1. On the other hand, he had useful improvements made to a lot of older locos

This is a lesson that present day railway engineers have forgotten, which is why modern trains are plagued with "teething troubles". Watch how the replacement for the HST develops into an expensive repeat performance of the same kind of fiasco.

tisdag 11 mars 2008

Religion and politics in Britain

Over the past few years there has been a resurgence in conflict between religious and political interests. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s problems following his comments on the role of Sharia Law in Britain were one aspect of the problem. Controversies have also surfaced around so-called “gay marriage” legislation, proposed changes in abortion law and the rules governing scientific research on stem cells, embryos and reproduction. Developments in bio-technology mean that the latter issues are going to come under repeated scrutiny, whilst a related area of dispute concerns what are referred to as “end-of-life” issues such as euthanasia on the one hand and the practice of prolonging life through the use of technology to keep people barely alive, which spills over into the care of people who are old, frail and have perhaps lost their mental faculties. Concern amongst religious groups tends to focus on these topics, but with varying degrees of clarity, consistency and logic.

Religion in Britain, and, for that matter, in Western Europe in general, has a bad name. It has come under increasing intellectual attack, led by well-known militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins; that the arguments are directed primarily against naïve literal fundamentalist religion has not protected more sophisticated religious philosophies from the tide of ridicule unleashed.

The opprobrium suffered by religion in Britain today is not unjustified. The Catholic church has come under well-deserved criticism due to cover-ups of child abuse, and there is also the evil legacy of the brutal teaching style of the Irish Christian Brothers. Scriptural fundamentalists hold themselves up to ridicule by their denial of the theory of evolution and absurd defence of creationist views, based on a literal interpretation of scripture, which amounts to an abuse of ancient texts which were never intended to be read literally. Islamic social practices and Islamic terrorism are also seen as grounds for rejection of religion in general, whilst the US religious right are widely regarded are intolerant warmongers. Small wonder that religion has been pushed to the margin.

In this hostile environment, what role can Christians play in the political arena? Where medical and reproductive ethics are concerned, the matter is clear. They need to speak out. So too, should they speak out on war and peace issues. But one area they would do well to stay out of concerns what people to by mutual consent in their own bedrooms. The response to “gay marriage” is a case in point. In practice, following the initial fanfare, there has been little demand. But what was it really about? Mostly, the point of “gay marriage” seems to have related to property and pension rights, in particular as they interact with the tax system. And in the UK, the introduction of “gay marriage” has left other people who live together in an anomalous position; an example might be an elderly woman who was cared for by her niece, and would fall foul of inheritance tax legislation and could lose her home when the aunt died. Thus, the “gay marriage” legislation was primarily a means of dealing with a wider injustice which remains unaddressed. Christians might have picked this up and speak out but failed to do so, being excessively focussed on the narrower issue of what people were doing in their bedrooms.

Drawing attention to the major injustices, surely, is where Christians have an important role to take up, from which they have hitherto shied away. There is unjust legislation and there are unjust practices. Things do not get better. The controversy over the non-domiciled tax privileges is one example. The entire tax and benefits system is riddled with unjust anomalies and is, arguably, unjust in its core principles. There is the whole debate about rights and duties. Nobody has rights unless others carry out their duties. One of these, for instance, is the universal human duty, if they able, to support oneself and one’s family. But in order to exercise that duty, there is a basic economic right to earn a livelihood, a right that people are routinely denied.

Current affairs, too, ought to be seized on. The present financial crisis, which is only in its opening phases, is essentially about finance, credit, interest and the role of money. In the past, Christian doctrine has given much attention to these matters. Indeed, had the precepts not been forgotten, the present troubles would have been avoided. But who is speaking out today? Religious doctrine, for example the body of Catholic Social Teaching, has the potential to bring clarity to the present confused state of affairs.

Only the little people pay tax

"Only the little people pay tax" was the phrase famously uttered by American millionaire Leona Helmsley when caught out for tax dodging. It was the title of a piece on the privileges enjoyed by the non-domiciled residents, written by Martin Wolf in the Finanical Times last Friday (7 March). In his view, their privileges are unjustified. What he failed to pick up was the possibility that is that there could be an underlying problem with the tax system itself. And nowhere in the course of the present debate on tax evasion and related issues has the point been made in any of the papers, neither in editorial comment nor in letters from readers.

Taxes are indeed a deterrent against whatever is taxed - windows, smoking, drinking, betting, etc. In some cases, that is their aim and purpose. But modern taxes fall primarily on work and enterprise, which cannot be right, since their effect is to impoverish. And they are levied primarily on people and companies, which is no longer practicable practicable, since people are mobile, companies are increasingly globalised and it is possible to transfer large sums of money between countries at the click of a mouse button. The consequence is that taxes that are supposedly based on "ability to pay" are, in practice, anything but. It really is in the nature of the system that "only the little people pay tax".

Low taxes are not the solution because goverment at both national and local level needs vast amounts of money to maintain the public realm to the standard a civilised nation can reasonably expect. Given that the present tax system has been shown yet again to be unfit for purpose, the only alternative is to levy taxes on entities that cannot move, such as real estate. Land cannot be hidden or demolished or removed to a tax haven. If taxes are tied to land titles, compliance is easily enforced; in the first instance, governments can make attachment orders on rental income, and as a last resort, titles can be forfeit in the event of non-payment.

If governments are losing tax revenue, the problem is self-inflicted, since practicable and politically acceptable solutions are available to any that are serious about dealing with the issue.

måndag 10 mars 2008

Christian political parties - are they a good thing?

christian democrats, originally uploaded by friendly-fire.

I came across a blog recently which was highly critical, quite reasonably, of the Swedish Christian Democratic party, on the grounds that it had been giving support to policies that compromised Christian principles. The solution, in the author’s view, is to establish a new party.

From a British perspective, the notion of a Christian Democratic party on the Western European model is alien. All three of the British political parties draw on a variety of roots. The Conservatives have long included a strand of Catholic/Anglican tradition, represented by MPs such as the late Enoch Powell, a High Anglican, Norman St John Stevas, a Roman Catholic, Chris Patten, a liberal Roman Catholic, and Anne Widdicombe, a former Anglican and convert to Catholicism. The Liberals grew out of the Whig party but there were Quaker and Nonconformist adherents. Labour, too, had Methodist and other Nonconformist support in its early days, and was also the party of choice for working-class Roman Catholic immigrants, especially in areas like the London docklands and Clydeside. More than occasionally, as the original idealism wore off, the latter were liable to become infected with corruption and sleaze.

But the British parties, which are essentially loose, ad-hoc and pragmatic alliances, have also drawn on other support. The Conservatives are the natural party for those with landowning and business interests and a strong in their promotion of consumerism, whilst Labour has been and still is heavily influenced by atheistic Marxism. A committed Christian of any stripe is not going to feel completely comfortable in any of the British parties.

The British two-and-a-half party system is sustained by the first-past-the-post electoral system, and under a more proportionate voting arrangement, it would probably break up, giving perhaps half-a-dozen parties. But in countries where this is the situation, the parties must inevitably form ad-hoc and pragmatic alliances in order that governments can form and act. Compromise in inherent in such a system.

Where does this leave any party attempting to apply religious principles? In a society dominated by secular values, the options for a political party are either to compromise or stay out of the main arena and attempt to influence from the edge. In the long term, eschewing power and staying on the sidelines is probably the better way as it is just not possible to impose religious views on people who do not subscribe to them. But though UK politics are in a bad state at the moment, perhaps the British way has much to recommend it. Christians can join a party of their choice, but they must accept that they will have to work with people with some of whose views they will not agree, and at times will be forced to compromise. If they do not want to do that, there are, in a democratic society (or even a non-democratic one), many other ways of exerting influence than through party politics.

But even in a favourable environment, a Christian political party would be faced with particular difficulties. Politician have to establish fiscal, economic and foreign policies. Christian teaching often gives little guidance as to what should be done. Sometimes it is unclear how principles ought to be applied. For example, it cannot be right to apply a policy which would leave a significant proportion of the population in poverty, but without a sound understanding of economic mechanisms, governments can and often do implement such policies out of plain ignorance. I hope to return to this subject later.

söndag 9 mars 2008

The state of British politics

I find it easier to comment on British politics from a safe distance away. What struck me as interesting today were the Liberal Democrats' spring conference in Liverpool and kind of budget he would introduce if he were the real chancellor instead of Alistair Darling.

The LibDem leader, Nick Clegg, is critical of the winner-takes-all electoral system which sustains Britain's two-party system and squeezes out alternative views. It is not going to change, for the same reason that turkeys do not vote for Christmas. That is the way that Britain will always be unless something drastic were to happen that would force reform, but in that case it is unlikely that would be for the better. It is probably a more productive use of energy to stand back and really try to understand what is going on and attempt to influence opinion from the sidelines rather than get sucked in to a bad system.

As for the shadow chancellor - the depressing thing there is the lack of any sign of fresh thinking. The tax system leaks like a rusty old bucket. Perhaps a better description would be that it is an attempt to collect puffs of smoke in a string bag. Any would-be chancellor with a scrap of imagination would see that the system is indefensible, in a state of near collapse and ripe for reform. And the fact that tax systems are little better elsewhere ought, one might have thought, have given added incentive. Whilst Osborne delivers some well-aimed criticism at Alistair Darling's stupid proposals for change, he offers nothing beyond a little bit of tinkering.

The sad thing is that the old Liberal party actually had radical views on taxation, but dropped them when the party amalgamated with the Social Democrats. And so all the parties are offering the same policies, with same ingredients only in different proportions. It seems there is nobody in power who recognises that the whole concoction has gone off and needs to be slung out.

IEP - an expensive mistake in gestation

National Express HST, originally uploaded by Cabert.

This photograph illustrates the problem faced by those trying to find a replacement for the Inter-City 125 trains. The train is diesel powered although the line is electrified.

This train is probably going to Aberdeen, so it will run the 400 miles to Edinburgh under the wires and then continue over the non-electrified part of the route.

It would probably be worth extending the electrification to Aberdeen and it may be that the Scottish parliament will give this the go-ahead. But these trains also run to Bristol, Penzance, Plymouth and Cardiff, and also over other routes which are not likely to be electrified because the civil servants who are now in control believe that some new form of power will be available. If this were to happen, they think any money spent on electrification will be wasted. But so far, the hoped-for new traction system still has to be invented and so the trains will have diesel power for operation over non-electrified routes.

These considerations have given rise to a specification for a train which can run under electric power under the wires and under diesel power over lines which are not electrified. This is the so-called Inter City Express Project (IEP). It is also meant to be able to run at 140mph, weigh less than its predecessors and carry the new European Train Management System for signalling. It is turning out to be the most complex train ever built. And since there is no demand for such a train outside Britain, the production run will be relatively small and the unit costs, which must include research and development, will be high. Which amongst other things will mean that the fleet will be smaller than will really be needed and yet again no doubt, the seats will have to be squeezed in to the already tight British loading gauge to cut costs. Passengers can look forward to yet another cramped and uncomfortable train with insufficient luggage space.

The whole concept is in any case incredibly wasteful. Heavy and costly diesel powered units will be spending much of their time idle, being dragged as deadweight over lines that are electrified.

Whoever has developed the concept has lost sight of the overall picture and presumably is not aware that the problem is not a new one and was solved in a much simpler and more economical way in the past, for example on the Waterloo to Weymouth route. Electric trains were made up from three units each having four cars, with a driving cab at each end. At the London end of the train was a unit with sufficient power to haul another two units which were not powered and had in fact been converted from old stock previously hauled by steam locomotives. The train would run with 12 cars from London and when it reached the end of the electrified line, at Bournemouth, the four-car powered unit was uncoupled and a diesel locomotive attached to the remaining eight cars, which it would haul on to Weymouth. In the reverse direction, the locomotive would push the eight cars to Bournemouth, where it would be attached to a waiting powered 4-car set. The diesel locomotive at the back would be uncoupled and 12 car train would then return to Waterloo under electric power.

The same principle could be applied to whatever replaces the HST. As it is, the project is already becoming overblown and Alstom, one of the competitors, has already pulled out on the grounds that it was consuming too much of the company's engineering resources.

The whole wretched thing, which is likely to run years late and hugely over budget, shows what happens when civil servants are allowed to get involved in the details of engineering projects.

lördag 8 mars 2008

Stonehenge Underpass buried

Stonehenge #1, originally uploaded by seadipper.

This is the best view you will get of Stonehenge. If you try to go closer, you will have to ignore the car park and a busy road which runs close by. The monument these days conveys little sense of magic. There was a proposal to bury the road in a tunnel but now the government has buried the scheme, having concluded that the £500 million bill is too much, and poor value for money.

It is a pity, but I am inclined to agree. It is just a piece of expensive tinkering. The press of people and traffic around Stonehenge is a symptom of a bigger problem. This is best seen by looking at a map of Britain and drawing a line starting at Bournemouth and taking in Bristol, Birmingham, Greater London and the south coast conurbation This encloses an area that contains about 80% of Britain’s population. Within this zone, paradoxically, people, industry and other facilities are relatively spread out, to the point that huge numbers of are dependent on cars for their daily activities. In the early 1960s, around, say, Oxford, there was a network of quiet lanes that were ideal for cycling to explore the then beautiful countryside and virtually unspoilt villages.

Fifty years on, too many of those villages are surrounded by a sprawl of badly designed and badly laid-out housing estates and the quiet country lanes are so busy that it would be suicidal to attempt to cycle along them.

The plight of Stonehenge is a fate that has overcome a huge tract of England. The only consolation is that it is not "sustainable" as it is entirely dependent on having a supply of cheap petrol to hand.

Promenade Concert row

Royal Albert Hall, originally uploaded by VT_Professor.

The row over the inaccessibility of the Proms was strange. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine that Culture Minister Margaret Hodge was set up?

If working class children are being cut off from what in Japan is referred to by the useful descriptive term “Western Art Music”, a major part of the blame must be placed on schools which have dumbed-down the music curriculum. This has come about as middle class teachers have come to belief that working class culture should be given its place, and that it is somehow demeaning and oppressive to promote middle class art forms.

Formerly, many children were exposed to classical music though religious education, but the traditional hymns that were current fifty years ago have been largely replaced by banal, folk-style tunes. Catholic children were particularly privileged, as they were routinely taught Gregorian chant out of the book called “Plainchant for Schools”, and could encounter the best of sixteenth century polyphony in regular liturgical use.

It is unfortunately the case that teachers and clergy often believe that such music is too difficult for the younger generation. If the established classical music repertoire is inaccessible to working class people, it partly because, for dubious reasons - a misplaced notion of egalitarianism - educationalists have made insufficient effort to expose working class children to this kind of music.

Easy way to travel

On the Dana Sirena, originally uploaded by seadipper.

DFDS ferries are an easy way to travel to Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Baltic countires. The boats are comfortable, the food is excellent and the charges are reasonable. Departures from Harwich and Esbjerg are in the early evening and arrivals are around midday. As the crossing takes about 18 hours and the boat is also carrying cargo, I doubt if the carbon footprint is excessive.

DFDS Ferries

fredag 7 mars 2008

This conflict is insoluble

The Palestian cause gets lots of support from well-meaning people in the west, who stand outside shops like Marks and Spencer and ask customers to boycott Israeli goods. News reports talk about collective punishment and the high death toll in Gaza due to Israeli reprisals against the rocket attacks.

The inhabitants of Gaza voted for Hamas, an organisation that expressly denies Israel's right to exist at all. They knew what they were doing when they cast their votes. In other words, they would like Israel to vanish into thin air. Had they the power to make this happen, they undoubtedly would. It would be a re-run of the Constantinople massacre of 1453, and nobody would come to the aid of the Israelis until it was too late for anything but expressions of regret.

Next... if a French government did nothing but give tacit support to groups of irregulars who lobbed rockets across the English Channel towards the south coast towns, it would not be long before there was a demand to use the RAF to do something.

Finally... the most disturbing aspect of the affair was the footage of cheering youths in Damascus, following the attack on a school in Jerusalem. The Israelis may be killing innocent children as a consequence of what seems to be a scatter-gun approach. But you do not see pictures of cheering Israelis.

In this situation, there is little reason to give support to either side in the conflict, which in any case is insoluble. Perhaps if this was openly recognised, means might be found so that people could live with their differences in a less lethal manner.

Brexit row over brand protection

As part of the acrimonious Brexit negotiations, there is a row over protected product names such as Melton Mowbray pies and whiskies general...