Saturday, 10 November 2012

Words For Teenagers

There's a social media meme attributed to John Tapene, principal of Northland College in New Zealand that's been doing the rounds for a couple years. I had to share it. Quoting a judge who regularly deals with youth, Tapene says -

John Tapene
 "Always we hear the cry from teenagers 'What can we do, where can we go?'"

"My answer is, "Go home, mow the lawn, wash the windows, learn to cook, build a raft, get a job, visit the sick, study your lessons, and after you've finished, read a book."

"Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun. The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something. You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in poverty or sick and lonely again."

"In other words, grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone. Start behaving like a responsible person. You are important and you are needed. It's too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday. Someday is now and that somebody is you."

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Dutch Sikh

Afghanistan has been a permanent fixture in the news for over 30 years now, and always for the wrong reasons. While the Western media's coverage lately has been about the loss of Western resources - life and money, we are slowly desensitized to the plight of the general population in this Central Asian nation. Little thought is given to the conditions of women and the minorities, of which there are many. Afghanistan straddles the famous Silk Route and the centuries have seen influxes and influences from all over the world. The assumption that Afghanistan is a homogeneous society of tribal communities with superficial differences is a common fallacy. The mish-mash that is Afghanistan comprises of culturally distinct influences from the Greeks, the Mongols, the Russians, the former states of the Soviet Bloc, the Indians, the Buddhists, the Persians, the Arabs, and the Chinese.

One such community is the Sikhs in Afghanistan. This is the community I am from. Afghanistan is where my roots lie. Where, if history had been different, I would still be. Like many Afghans in far flung corners of the world, I miss it, I lament it's state and I know that a return to the carefree days of my childhood will probably never happen. My children have never known the land of their forefathers - apart from what they've seen in the media or in The Kite Runner or The Bear Trap. Maybe they never will. As for me, I'm not sure. I once wrote a poem about this, which you can see here.

A week ago, I received an email from a man who calls himself The Dutch Sikh. Based in London, Pritpal Singh is a former Afghan refugee, now a Dutch citizen and a journalist by profession. Pritpal recently visited Afghanistan, bringing back a treasure trove of images that I have been poring over for days, trying to recognise the locations, looking at the faces of the people in them and the country raped by three decades of barbarism. 

Pritpal is currently working on two documentaries of his trip to Afghanistan, one titled Mission Afghanistan based on his experiences of visiting the land he'd left years ago and the exploration of his roots. The second documentary would be a travelogue the historical Hindu and Sikh shrines in Afghanistan, something that has never been done before. While we wait with bated breath for their release, Pritpal has put together a teaser trailer for Mission Afghanistan on You Tube. See below.

The photoset of his travels can be seen here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Priorities, priorites

Saw this floating around on the internet, not sure who it's by.

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes".

The professor then produced two beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

"Now," said the professor as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things - your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favourite passions - and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else - the small stuff."

"If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first - the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."

A silence descended on the class as they took in the deep insight. 

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled and said, "I'm glad you asked. The beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of beers."

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Frothing over coffee

I've had it with the Starbucks outrage. Not a word is being said about the gross inaccuracies in the figures reported. No mention is being made of the contribution Starbucks makes to the wider economy and the number of Starbucks coffee shops that AREN'T part of the company, i.e., they're franchises - tiny little operations that are connected by brand name and product lines alone. So while they guzzle down Frappuccinos and Americanos, wearing branded clothing and fill up on products from Big Oil, these protesters fail to see anything other than the fact that some companies are bigger than others. Those companies did not grow big because the government handed them money. They became successful and grew because someone worked really hard and took huge risks. That’s what life is about.

No mention is made of the fact that Starbucks employs thousands of people, and pays national insurance on their wages. No one talks about how Starbucks tends to operate from the most expensive real estate wherever they have an outlet, paying the highest business rates possible; no mention is made of the payment of VAT, which is 20% of pretty much EVERYTHING they sell. 

The average cost of a cup of coffee at a Starbucks is two, sometimes three times as much as your local Kelly's Cafe, but you're too 'educated' to be seen there, aren't you?

It can be argued that government and regulations favour larger corporations. Yes they do. All regulation squeezes out the little guy. The larger the government, the more promises it makes to voters, the more its need for money to blow on frivolous schemes, social experiments and feel-good appeasement. A different argument altogether, which I'm sure I'll end up having some time soon on here.

If there's anything the protesters need to learn, it's this: Whining because you went to university and no one will hire you isn't going to help, no matter how much you whine. A business will not give you a job because you have a degree; they'll hire you because you bring profit to their company. If you don’t bring in more money than you cost the company, why on earth should they hire you? They’re not a charity; they’re a business. And if they were a charity, where would the wages to sustain you come from? 

You earn your keep. That's how it works. Your work ethic, your motivation, your problem solving skills, initiative and inventiveness are going to be far more important than whether you produced a cracker of a report at university. That doesn't mean all university degrees are bad, but are they relevant to what any business needs? In the end, it’s whether or not you’re flexible enough to keep learning new skills so that you can contribute to the business. Get a degree, by all means. It will teach you structure, it will give you in-depth knowledge of an industry or vocational or academic sector, but don't bet on it to be the be-all, end-all of your existence. It's not. You are, your adaptability is. A degree and all its learning is just one of your many weapons. The Star Trek TNG world isn't happening yet - as a species we're not ready. 

Giving. The big word you constantly scream about. It's time you did some, like your forefathers did. The world is built on the sacrifices of people who gave more than they received. We're going nowhere until we hard-wire that into our brains. A previous generation gave everything, while we just want everything. Go work out how you can give and add value, not moan because people aren't handing you anything. Besides, there’s nothing left to hand out. You can complain all you want that some people are rich, or that no one will give you a job, or that no one is giving their hard earned wealth away, and why should they? Government has no money, apart from what it can borrow (which of course we and our children will have to pay back) or levy on others. The more they take from others, the more the economy slows down. Are you even looking at the stories emerging from Greece? Or Spain? Or Italy? Look it up - you have a degree ferfuxake!

Get out there. Learn a skill, volunteer if you must. Get some expertise - something the world wants. Hustle, push hard, build something, do something. Make yourself marketable. Learn how to recognise your abilities and strengths and then sell them. Get help if you need to. The government spends millions to help you learn to fish, but you'd rather just have the fish, isn't it? 

That, is part of your problem.


With effect from today, I'm switching over to Starbucks. I don't rate their coffee highly, but hey I'm no connoisseur. I never did care where my 8 AM kick comes from. I'm gonna have to now. 

This mindless vilification of companies that pay the highest business rates in the land, millions in national insurance, collect and administer millions in VAT on behalf of the government, and employ thousands will mainly hurt pension funds and small investors.

Agreed, there'll be some 'big boys' with a large holding, but to get at them we'll be screwing over a lot more people; a bit like cutting your nose to spite your face. 

PLUS, the lower the corporation tax, the higher the dividend, which in turn means higher personal taxes. 

A significant number of Starbucks stores are franchise stores - businesses owned by what you would consider the 'little guy'. This witch hunt will decimate their tiny little enterprises and affect their employees in ways you never intended.

Corporation tax is immoral. Period.

Thursday, 11 October 2012


There are and will continue to be various dissections of David Cameron's speech at the Conservative Party Conference; what he said, what he didn't say, what he should have said, what he shouldn't have said, what he avoided saying and so on. So-called political pundits, most of them with very little at stake, armchair activists and indignant bloggers will second-guess and interpret what they read between the lines. We'll hear more about what they think he said instead of what he actually said, ignoring that he leads a party with a splintered opinion, which in turn governs a nation with an even more splintered opinion. Most of course don't have any idea how difficult reconciling everything into one coherent message is. But then that's just how the game goes.

I liked the speech. I liked it a lot. Pretty much all of what he said made sense to me. It would, after all I voted for him and his party. The direction we're taking and the things he said ensures I will continue to do so.

There was however, one part of the speech that hit home more than any other. It actually brought a lump to my throat, and yes, I gave in. I did cry a bit. It was the part about his Dad. It sounded like someone I know.

As it happens, I do have a hard luck story. My Dad was a buccaneer of a businessman in what is best described as the wild frontier of the wild, wild west. Except it was in Afghanistan of the 80s and the 90s. Of two decades of severe collectivist ideology - the first one communist (the Soviets) and the second religious (the Taleban and their predecessors). Having lost him over 22 years ago, I have learned one thing: The true value of the wisdom you consider overbearing preaching, the protectiveness you consider undue smothering and the boundaries you consider to be some kind of imprisonment only dawn on you when they're gone. Today, I would give anything for 10 minutes with him, if only to ask, "What do I do now, Dad?" and yes, "I love you Dad." Somehow I always feel I never said that enough.

The eldest of four, my Dad was afflicted with polio at a very young age, probably even before he learned to walk. He spent the rest of his life with one leg in steel callipers, a stick in one hand and in constant pain. His three siblings and his four children surpassed his height even before they hit puberty, but my Dad towered over everyone else. From less than humble beginnings, his indomitable will and determination built a business spread over five countries from scratch. He was a pioneer; among the first of a generation to travel the world, to own a colour television, to buy a Mercedes Benz, and to send his children to a boarding school - which he chose by simply asking, "Which one is the best?" instead of how much. He was going to find the money, somehow. While rockets flew overhead and bombs exploded at every street corner, he slaved away, in the snow, in the cold, against all odds, living for his family - his parents, his brothers, his children, his mother. All this despite his disability and his health. He wasn't an only child, but as I learned later in life, he was a lonely child - perhaps even a lonely grown-up. Even so, he was always optimistic, his glass was always half full. And yes, it was usually with something alcoholic in it. His peers called him 'Tiger', and the name stuck. He was just as rare as one.

In the end it wasn't his health or disability or refills of his glass that got him. It was the goodness of his heart. He gave. He gave like no other, while others took without as much as a 'by your leave'. It was his broken heart that slowly withered him and eventually his little frame gave in. As a teenager, I watched it happen before my very eyes. Today I am constantly surrounded by faces of those who took and though the rage inside me has fermented during all these years, I know how he would have wanted me to be. He'd want me to get on with it. He'd want me to know that I'm powerful beyond my wildest dreams and that all I need to do is work hard. He did it with one functioning leg while carrying his parents, his siblings, his children and a surprising number of dependant extended family members on his shoulders, in a country where if you don't work, you die. He turned his hard luck story into a hard work one. 

David Cameron's speech just reminded me that I have to do the same.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Thoughts as I watch the closing ceremony...

Filled with pride watching the closing ceremony. I am reminded of a little rant by Steve Hughes on Live At The Apollo; he said it in one breath...

"This is England! You made Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Venom, Motorhead, Def Leppard, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles, The Smiths, The Cure, The Damned, The Jam, The Police, The Sex Pistols, The Crush, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker, Davie Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Supertramp, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy.

And if you're watching the X-Factor after a resume like that, I'm just telling you, you are a bit of a bastard."

THAT would be one hell of a line-up though...

On another note, here's something Team GB put out:

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the preface to the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. Next on my reading list.

"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equ
ally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become
a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right."

Friday, 1 June 2012

Musing by the lake

Musing by the lake, in quiet contemplation
Of stagnant water
And of floating waste

I listen, I hear, I comply
What is there to see?
And I'm tired

I hear beating drums; I'm not in step
This is how it's done, they insist
This how it's done

I listen, I hear, I comply
But I can't see
And I'm tired

I hear bleating souls; they make no sense
Do this, wear this, eat this, they insist
See this, read this, be this

I listen, I hear, I comply
I still don't see
And I'm tired

I hear fleeting whispers; about me
You're not with us, they insinuate
You're with them

I listen, I hear, I comply
I won't see
And I'm tired

I hear my beating heart; listen to me, it says
No one has to know, it says
No one has to care

I listen, I hear, I comply
I see
And I'm refreshed

~Banti Singh, Cowley, London, 01 June 2012

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

50 Reasons to Back Boris

This is taken from Boris Backer's blog. 

 In no particular order, and in what is by no means a comprehensive list, I give you 50 reasons to back Boris.  

1. London’s murder rate is now at its lowest since 1969, down 26% since Boris took office.

2. Tube delays are down 40% since Boris took office. He pledges to cut delays by another 30% if he wins a second term. 

3. London Underground is now the safest metro system in Europe, with tube crime down by 20% since Boris took office. 

4. Boris has fully-funded, fully-costed plans to create almost 200,000 new jobs across London over the next four years. 

5. Boris has launched the biggest upgrade of the Tube in its history – increasing capacity by 30%, new signalling, new trains, station upgrades, air-conditioned trains, vastly improved disabled access and more. 

6. Boris froze the mayor’s share of council tax for his first three years, and cut it this year. He pledges to cut it by a further 10% over the next four years. 

7. Boris has met 91% of his 2008 manifesto pledges – as outlined in his ‘Progress Report to Londoners‘. 

8. Crime overall is down 12% since Boris became mayor. 

9. Boris delivered the New Bus for London - complete with cutting edge, environmentally friendly, hybrid technology. He pledges to put 600 on London’s streets by 2016, if he wins a second term. 

10. Boris has quadrupled the number of Rape Crisis Centres in London. 

11. Boris has cut £2billion of waste from across the GLA group, with plans to save a further £1.5billion next year. 

12. Boris has created 54,000 apprenticeships, with figures showing that 84% remain in continued employment. He pledges to generate a further 250,000 apprenticeships by 2016. 

13. Boris has delivered 52,000 new affordable homes since he took office. He’s on course to reach 100,000 by 2015. 

14. Boris is investing £221million to transform local high streets and support small businesses. 

15. Boris, more than any other candidate, is able to unite London – uninterested in playing different communities off against each other. 

16. Boris pledges to boost Safer Neighbourhood Teams, with an extra 2,000 police, including adding up to three police officers and three specials to every team. 

17. As part of a cycling revolution, Boris has introduced Boris Bikes and delivered Cycle Superhighways. He pledges to expand the hire scheme across London and treble the number of superhighways if he wins a second term. 

18. Boris has a +20 approval rating, the kind of popularity that Cameron (-27), Miliband (-41) and Clegg (-53) would probably kill for. 

19. Boris is a moderate, centrist, tolerant representative of London. According to opinion polls, Boris has a huge lead amongst Londoners when it comes to who they want to represent them both abroad and at the Olympic Games. 

20. Bus crime is down 32.9% since Boris become mayor. 

21. Boris scrapped the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge Zone, resulting in a negligible impact on congestion or traffic speeds, but providing a boost to local businesses. 

22. Boris scrapped the bendy buses (otherwise known as ‘Ken’s Chariots of Fire’).

23. Boris has delivered 10,000 street trees and pledges to increase the number to 20,000 if he wins a second term. 

24. Boris supports a green economy, pledging to retrofit tens of thousands of homes to reduce households’ energy bills, rolling out electric car charging points across London and investing £6million to improve 300 acres of parkland. 

25. Boris rolled out the use of Oyster cards on National Rail and Thames Clipper services. 

26. Boris secured £22billion of investment – thought to be at risk, due to the government’s cuts – for Crossrail and the tube upgrades. 

27. There are now 1,000 more police on London’s streets than there were when Boris took office. 

28. Boris has made knife crime a priority – taking over 11,000 knives off the streets and tackling reoffending with initiatives such as the Heron Unit at Feltham. 

29. Boris launched the Outer London Fund, aimed at addressing the historic neglect of the outer boroughs. 

30. Boris has visited every London borough more times in four years that Ken Livingstone did in eight years. 31. Boris has helped deliver the Olympics on time and on budget, and with the enthusiasm of a genuine sports fan. 

32. There are now one million more police patrols each year than there were when Boris took office. 

33. Boris introduced the highly successful ‘Earn Your Travel back’ scheme, whereby young people have their free travel removed for bad behaviour, and can only earn it back by volunteering in community activities. 

34. Boris pledges to introduce the first driverless (though not unmanned) trains on the London Underground, ending union barons’ ability to hold Londoners to ransom. 

35. Boris launched Team London, liaising with hundreds of organisations to mobilise thousands of volunteers across London. 

36. Robberies are down 16.3% since Boris took office. 

37. Youth violence is down 13.8% since Boris took office. 

38. Boris launched the Mayor’s Fund for London, a charity aimed at helping children and young people get out of poverty. 

39. Boris has doubled the number of Special Constables in London, from 2,500 to 5,000, since he became mayor. He aims to double the number again if he wins a second term. 

40. To aid transparency and accountability, Boris ensured that all spending decisions over £500 are published online. He now pledges to go even further – by publishing all spending over £250 across the GLA group, as well as the expenses of all senior staff and mayoral advisors. 

41. Boris introduced a permit scheme for road works, reducing road works by 17% and saving London 150,000 days of street works in just 12 months. 

42. By a significant margin, opinion polls show Boris’ policies are thought to be the best to boost businesses, create jobs and help London get out of recession. 

43. Boris has a good working relationship with the government, and has been able to secure significant funding and concessions as a result. 

44. Boris scrapped Ken’s highly unpopular Thames Gateway Bridge plans, which had prompted nearly 5,000 objections during the public consultation. 

45. Boris maintained the Freedom Pass, extending it to 24 hours and for disabled people. He pledges to reverse the last Labour government’s decision to stop Londoners getting their Freedom Pass at 60. 

46. Boris has fully-funded plans for a true Olympic legacy – including 10,000 jobs, 11,000 new homes, and a £30million sporting programme which will benefit 250,000 Londoners. 

47. Boris pays all his taxes. (Yes, Ken, we’re still waiting…) 

48. Boris will create Safer Neighbourhood Boards in every borough, giving local Londoners and victims a greater voice, giving them a say in offenders’ ‘Community Payback’ and investing in their local and hyperlocal crime prevention projects. 

49. Boris pledges to launch a new £70million London Growth Fund, investing in job and skill creation programmes, and providing low-cost loans to small and medium-sized businesses. 

50. And finally… Boris is a one-man gangbuster - rescuing a woman from an armed group of “oiks”. 

And then there are 50 reasons NOT to vote for Ken Livingstone.

Friday, 27 April 2012

I hurt

Insulated from my cares
You'd never know
How I hurt

The prism you hold
Throws ugly colours
And I hurt

A day in my footsteps
I let no one live
I still hurt

Frivolous and mindless
My scrutiny
And I hurt

Nothing about me
And I hurt

Nothing about me
And I hurt

You give, forgetting
You get
And I hurt

I had dreams
Dreams they remain
And I hurt

Don't tell me
I don't want to know
I hurt

Friday, 24 February 2012

Dear Jobseeker

I run a little business. I have no vacancies, but I could make some room for you to come in and learn how my business works. I can't afford to pay you, but you're welcome to sit around, shadow my staff, ask questions, and hopefully gain some valuable skills.

In return, I'd like you to respect my business, my staff, my customers and not be a drain on my resources - limited as they are in these tough times.

If you're able to demonstrate an ability to add value to my business in terms of reducing my costs or improving my revenue, there could be scope for hiring you into a paid position, after all, who doesn't want to grow? In any case you'll learn more than your school, college or university ever taught you.

Make it work for me, and I will make it work for you. If you have it in you to do what it takes, as long as it takes and as long as you understand that I don't owe you and you don't owe me, and that only you owe yourself, I'm desperate for the likes of you.

Use your initiative, learn about me, tell me what you can bring to the table. Let's talk.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

National Minimum Outrage

I recently posted this on Facebook:

"When you set minimum wage levels higher than many inexperienced young people's labour is worth, they don't get hired. This is not rocket science." 

As expected, I got a bit of a response. I could have answered right there, but then there'd be a limited audience to that. This needs a bigger airing, so here goes:

CS: What do you think is a sensible minimum hourly pay?

Me: There isn't one. Young people with no experience and low skills have to compete with people who do. The only bargaining chip they have is the price at which they can offer their labour - and it's the one thing they're not allowed to do. As it stands, the distortion prevents them from working for say, £100-£150 a week - learning all the while - to doing nothing for a third of that. The longer they spend earning meagre amounts, the more they learn - the longer they spend on unemployment benefits the less likely that they'll ever skill up.

RS: When you set minimum wage below poverty level you subsidize the workforce of large corporations to reduce their wage bill and increase their profits. Higher tax is expected to be collected to pay the benefit bill. But doesn't always go like clockwork.

MR: How do you quantify how much one's labour is worth without giving the employer the scope to bring back slavery? First hand experience, 45hrs of back breaking labour every week for £90. Bargaining chip, yes, but with numbers so high, the lowest price can dip below £1. There has to be another solution. Mandatory labour as part of the agreement for unemployment benefits(with tiny wiggle room) might just give the younger ones the right push to skill up.

CS: There has to be a starting point, Banti. The current starting point is minimum wage. You want your starting point to be zero. People can't live on zero.

As RS rightly says, if you pay 50 pence per hour we, tax payers, have to subsidise those wages.

I'm for a living wage. I'd also be for the cost of living to come down so people didn't have to rely on handouts. But business owners would rather make fat profits and pay less. And landlords only think of themselves. You really need to stop demonising people who want to earn a decent wage to support themselves and look at other issues, Banti. How about increasing wages so we can decrease benefits? Or building more affordable housing?

MW: Hi Banti, my only query is that if the work has to be done the an employer will pay the rate. without a minimum wage, the taxpayer will always be helping out an employer with a pay packet through tax credits.

The odd thing is, they're all right from where they're standing. This is what makes any kind of debate difficult.

'Poverty' is quite the abstract concept here. Who decides where the poverty line lies? The worst of the worst in Europe pales into insignificance when compared to the kind of poverty that exists elsewhere in the world. The fact that wages have to be subsidised by the taxpayer (through tax credits and such like) to support an arbitrary figure we have deemed to be a living wage is a consequence of this kind of price-fixing and not the cause of it. Think about that.

No one has the right to quantify the worth of anyone's labour but the worker. And no, a starting point of zero would be ridiculous. You'd never get staff that way. Yes, there is scope for exploitation, although I wouldn't sensationalise it by calling it slavery. You sell your labour freely and without coercion. That is not slavery. And by the way, Workfare isn't a part of this argument. Different debate altogether.

You have to understand, wage levels are the largest determinant of the cost of any product or service. All inputs in any business - labour, materials, transport, etc. are affected by wage levels. Wage inflation is a false economy - increased money supply reduces real wages and any rises are negated by the resultant inflation and the cycle continues. Every year there are renewed demands for the NMW to be raised, when all along it alone has been the reason for it's need to be raised. It's flawed from the word go. This is in no way pure and unfettered capitalism, regardless of what people will have you believe. Capitalism does not work like that.

There seems to be a default setting of sorts in western Liberal thought, that all employers are this Mr Burns type of character sitting in a deep Chesterfield behind a mahogany desk, rubbing his hands in glee while he gloats over the misery of his 'slaves'. The media loves throwing that image out. Nothing sells better than a victim mentality. The fact is, most people are employed in tiny, really tiny businesses, little  mom-and-pop operations with less than 5 people. It is those that are hit the hardest. This distortion gives your Mr Burns a huge advantage. It makes little businesses - future competitors - unviable. Again, regardless of the stories you hear and the public protestations they make - big business will ALWAYS support minimum floor wages, they will ALWAYS support increased legislation and regulation. It unlevels the playing field - in their favour. It wipes the little guy out. Do remember, 20% of all wages are picked up by the government as National Insurance. (10% from the employer and 10% from the employee). 20% of all profits are subject to corporation tax, some 25-40% of all earnings are subject to income tax. Most of the rest that you take home are subject to a further denudation from VAT. The government rakes in more than you do for every Pound Sterling you take home to your family.

I'm not demonising anyone - far from it. I'm anti-coroporatism, anti-cartel and anti-big business. Most 'welfare policies' we cling to play right into the hands of Mr Big Corporate. Prohibition in the United States MADE the Mafia what it is today. There's something about legislating morality and charity that makes it all so very wrong. We've tinkered and toyed with economics and changed the environment faster than we can evolve ourselves. And some very smart people have made a lot of money from it. We all want the same thing in the end, but it's how we go about it that differs. The national minumum wage on paper is brilliant. And it's one hell of an easy sell. Social engineering of this type is like trying to combat global warming by shutting down plants here and setting them up in China. As long as there are people in the world who think the UK NMW is a fortune compared with what they earn - it will always be a distortion and nothing more. 

Most other issues, like affordable housing, are closely tied to this one. The fact that people (or the state on their behalf) will pay a given rent keeps prices high. Instead of demand dictating prices and rents, it's artificially imposed prices and policies. That is what makes housing and house prices unaffordable.

And then the question of a 'living wage'. Again, it's an arbitrary figure. You only need to look at the successes of one immigrant community - who generally shunned benefits (or weren't allowed access to them) compared to the failures of one who saw it as a natural right to see how that turned out. Are we all pretending we don't KNOW that there are people that work well below the NMW? The government turns a blind eye to the grey economy - the only truly libertarian, market force-led form of business that has created untold opportunities for wealth & job creation in the UK. No one dare speak about it, but it's there, churning away, working away, without complaint. And it produces real wealth.

There are no easy solutions, but every one of our (developed world's) problems - deprivation, poverty, economic exclusion are due to bad policy. The blanket NMW is just one of them. Germany does not have a blanket NMW policy. It lets industry sectors decide. It seems to work for them. Of course as a nation, we're too far gone to obliterate any of it now, but we must move towards a freer economy. This will a require a major rebalancing, but it is inevitable. As long as a worker in another country can produce something cheaper than we can, the NMW will always be an artificial and unsustainable construct, benefiting only big business. As long as it's more profitable to come to the UK and work for what WE consider a pittance than stay where you are and till your fields, the NMW will work against us. The perverseness of the system is best illustrated by what the benefits cap is trying to address. As a normal working person, you choose where you live based on what you can afford. As someone wholly supported by the state, you're under no such compulsion. Who in their right mind would deem that a fair deal?

Coming back to my initial Facebook post: Faced with an inexperienced youth with no skills and someone with references, experience and the capacity to do the job, which one would the employer choose, if the remuneration has to be the same for both? The youth loses out time and again and is added to the scrapheap. Before you know it, the youth is an adult, still inexperienced, unlessoned, unschooled, hovering on dependency on the state, and sadly, in most cases it's forever and even more sadly, generational.

Murray Rothbard said it best when he said, "In truth, there is only one way to regard a minimum wage law: it is compulsory unemployment, period. The law says: it is illegal, and therefore criminal, for anyone to hire anyone else below the level of X dollars an hour. This means, plainly and simply, that a large number of free and voluntary wage contracts are now outlawed and hence that there will be a large amount of unemployment. Remember that the minimum wage law provides no jobs; it only outlaws them; and outlawed jobs are the inevitable result."

If you liked this post, or were appalled by it, you might want to read this.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Tim Harford on Toilet Seat Etiquette

(Financial Times, April 1/2 2006)

Dear Economist, Should I leave the lavatory seat down, as my wife demands? Or, with gravity on her side, should she be lowering it herself? 

Michael Govind, Cirencester

Dear Michael,

Jay Pil Choi, a (male) economist at Michigan State University, has demonstrated what men find obvious and women seem unable to grasp: that the “status quo” rule (leave it how it was when you finished) is more efficient than the “down” rule (put it down afterwards) under most plausible assumptions. The reasoning is that the seat should be moved only when necessary – just before someone uses the lavatory.

If a man visits the WC twice in a row, the “status quo” rule saves the cost of lowering the seat when leaving only to raise it when returning. Choi also shows, using some fancy maths, that the “status quo” rule is still superior even if the inconvenience cost to your wife of moving the seat is nearly three times the inconvenience cost to you.

Why, then, the continued controversy? Richard Harter, a (male) mathematician, has calculated the incremental costs of moving from bachelorhood or spinsterhood to connubial bliss. Since men sometimes need the seat down, they are used to bearing the cost of moving it. Women who live alone or with other women need never move the seat at all; therefore the incremental costs of moving to a mixed household are obvious.

Yet I feel that these thinkers have missed the bigger picture. Assume two types of man: the considerate gentleman and the selfish pig. It is famously difficult for women to distinguish them at first sight. Nevertheless it is easy for the gentleman to signal his “type” by returning the lavatory seat to the horizontal. This is a profitable lesson, and one that I learned early.

Tim Harford

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

What you'll never learn at school

There's a popular urban myth about a certain speech Bill Gates is said to have given, setting out 11 rules kids won't learn in school. He didn't. The text originated from an article by Charles J. Sykes. It first appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune on the 19th of September 1996. This is what it said:

Unfortunately, there are some things that children should be learning in school, but don't. Not all of them have to do with academics. As a modest back-to-school offering, here are some basic rules that may not have found their way into the standard curriculum.

Rule #1: Life is not fair. Get used to it. The average teenager uses the phrase, "It's not fair" 8.6 times a day. You got it from your parents, who said it so often you decided they must be the most idealistic generation ever. When they started hearing it from their own kids, they realized Rule #1.

Rule #2: The real world won't care as much about your self-esteem as much as your school does. It'll expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. This may come as a shock. Usually, when inflated self-esteem meets reality, kids complain it's not fair. (See Rule #1)

Rule #3: Sorry, you won't make $40,000 a year right out of high school. And you won't be a vice president or have a car phone either. You may even have to wear a uniform that doesn't have a Gap label.

Rule #4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait 'til you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he's not going to ask you how you feel about it.

Rule #5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grand-parents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity. They weren't embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about Kurt Cobain all weekend.

Rule #6: It's not your parents' fault. If you screw up, you are responsible. This is the flip side of "It's my life," and "You're not the boss of me," and other eloquent proclamations of your generation. When you turn 18, it's on your dime. Don't whine about it, or you'll sound like a baby boomer.

Rule #7: Before you were born your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, cleaning up your room and listening to you tell them how idealistic you are. And by the way, before you save the rain forest from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your bedroom.

Rule #8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn't. In some schools, they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. Failing grades have been abolished and class valedictorians scrapped, lest anyone's feelings be hurt. Effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life. (See Rules #1, #2 and #4)

Rule #9: Life is not divided into semesters, and you don't get summers off. Not even Easter break. They expect you to show up every day. For eight hours. And you don't get a new life every 10 weeks. It just goes on and on. While we're at it, very few jobs are interested in fostering your self-expression or helping you find yourself. Fewer still lead to self-realization. (See Rules #1 and #2)

Rule #10: Television is not real life. Your life is not a sitcom. Your problems will not all be solved in 30 minutes, minus time for commercials. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop to go to jobs. Your friends will not be as perky or pliable as Jennifer Aniston.

Rule #11: Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.

Rule #12: Smoking does not make you look cool. It makes you look moronic. Next time you're out cruising, watch an 11-year-old with a butt in his mouth. That's what you look like to anyone over 20. Ditto for "expressing yourself" with purple hair and/or pierced body parts.

Rule #13: You are not immortal. (See Rule #12.) If you are under the impression that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, you obviously haven't seen one of your peers at room temperature lately.

Rule #14: Enjoy this while you can. Sure parents are a pain, school's a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you'll realize how wonderful it was to be a kid. Maybe you should start now.

You're welcome.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Iron Lady

The other day, my son and I were invited by Xenia Coudrille and Peter Smallwood, a pair of young Conservatives from the Brunel University (and Hillingdon Conservative Future group and their friends. Most of them were barely born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and this was going to be a pivotal moment for them - they were going to see a visual representation of the icon of modern British politics. They were going to look at a full-colour, moving-picture of a person admired - and loathed by the generation that raised them.

I went in, sceptical. Sadly for most part, I was right.

The Iron Lady doesn’t do enough to capture any of Thatcher's dynamism. Instead what I saw was a caricature of a frail woman reduced to a schizophrenic has been. I was not impressed by Phyllida Lloyd's voyeuristic emphasis on the fictional rather than the legacy. The account of a delusional woman battling dementia while she hobbles along, living out the remainder of her days is hardly the impression I wanted to my son to get. Less than half the film depicted the Margaret Thatcher that we would like to remember. As Margaret Thatcher would say, "No! No! No!"

The film is interspersed with clips from her past - her origins as a grocer’s daughter, her fight to enter the male-dominated political arena and her rise to national power. Little thought is given to thought processes behind her actions. The labour strikes, the IRA bombings, the Falklands War, the controversial taxes come and go in a confusing stream of flashes - the kind you'd find in a Quentin Tarantino film. Not that there wasn't enough time to bring out the flamboyance of her life and legacy, there was, had the movie not lingered on the so-called 'artistic' aspect of her conversations with an imaginary Denis. I failed also to see the relevance of a scene where she is  leaving in a cab, while her children are screaming for her.

To a generation who doesn't know, the sinking of the Belgrano appears as a shoot-from-the-hip decision with little consideration. I'm not sure that was accurate (although the depiction of her grief at the loss of lives was handled well). There was no background to the major events that defined her premiership. There was little exploration of her ideology, her mindset and what drove her to become the one of the most influential leaders in the modern world.

Having said that, the film is a cinematic delight. Meryl Streep is in her element, bettering what she does best. Beyond the questionable account the film pretends to be, Streep comes out with the performance of dare I say, a lifetime. I'd recommend the film for that reason alone. Alexandra Roach, as the young Margaret Roberts/Thatcher was superb. I just wish there was more of her.

What did shine through though, in spades was that Margaret Thatcher was not afraid. She was not afraid of what people thought, she was not afraid of the people that surrounded her and she was not afraid of being hated. She knew she was right and she knew that someone had to do what needed to be done. She was not afraid that it would have to be her.

You must see this film, if only for its artistic, not factual merits. Here's the official trailer.