Magazine subscriptions

I subscribe to two weekly magazines – the New Statesman and The Economist. The former for twelve years, the latter perhaps four years. The Economist is an essential read for my work. The New Statesman feeds my interest in political debate. I took up reading it when I ended my daily subscription to the Guardian newspaper.

NS_coverWhen big public holidays arrive, both magazines publish bumper editions – sufficient to keep readers satiated for the two weeks that the magazines are on holiday, as it were. The New Statesman’s bumper edition is, generally, full of pap and even some of my favourite columnists let the side down. This year, for example, Will Self has taken to writing about another columnist in the same magazine! And to make matters worse, when that columnist started a few years ago, I only managed a couple of weeks before I lost the will to read any more, life being too short and all that. Holding the fort are the veterans Peter Wilby and Hunter Davies.

The Economist, however, fills out its pages with features on history, culture and science. Although it is unashamedly Economist_coverconservative, neo-liberal, it is at least well written and thoughtful. Hence I’m prompted to relay one of those features to readers (20 December 2014, pp82-84). It tells the story of the rise of pork as a symbol of affluence in China. It is a favourite food. Seemingly, Chinese citizens eat the equivalent of half a pig each per year (that is 500 million pigs annually). Such is its importance for the Chinese government seeking social stability, it is subsidised to the tune of $22bn per year. However, this leads to environmental and resource challenges.

Most are factory reared. Consequently they are routinely fed antibiotics to stave off disease that could decimate what is increasingly an in-bred, non native pig population. They are mainly fed on cash crops, particularly imported soy beans. These are grown predominantly in South America on land much of which has been cleared of rain forest. Moreover, the Chinese pork industry is responsible for 50 per cent of the total global soy market. Each kilo of pork requires 6kg of feed.

PigThen there is the waste. Each pig produces, apparently, 5kg of waste per day. Traditionally, pig excrement was highly valued as a fertiliser; however, mass produced pigs generate contaminated waste – antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc., not suitable to spreading. There is also too much of it. Pigs and pig waste have become increasing sources of water and soil pollution.

Moreover, the pigs themselves produce methane and nitrous oxide. These are potent greenhouse gases somewhat more damaging than carbon dioxide (300 times more so, it is argued).

I gave up meat 35 years ago. I may give up the New Statesman in 2015.

Why calls to keep the East Coast rail franchise in the public sector are folly

logo_eastcoast_3The East Coast rail franchise has been successfully run by the UK state organisation, Publicly Operated Railways (POR), since it was abandoned by National Express in 2009 when it failed to meet its financial targets.

East Coast will return to the private sector in April 2015 after a protracted bidding process was finally won by the joint Stagecoach/Virgin venture (90/10 shares respectively). The Department of Transport somehow avoided awarding the franchise to the French state railway bid (Keolis and Eurostar joint venture).

The anti-privatisation debate has been championed by the Labour party and is logical. PoR has made healthy returns to the Treasury, why hand these to a private company when the public sector has done so well? At the very least, why could DoR not bid to run the franchise?

The Conservative government’s response, essentially, is that anything that the public sector can do, the private sector can do better. Notwithstanding the fact that often they cannot as two of the franchisees for this route – GNER and National Express – have failed. However, the Stagecoach/Virgin alliance has worked on the West Coast route and Stagecoach has been running the London commuter franchise, South West Trains since privatisation in 1996. But ultimately, the Conservative government has an ideological fixation with the private sector. Many of its members have positions in private sector firms that benefit from government contracts.

For me, however, keeping individual franchises in the public sector is a red herring. These are companiesNetwork_Rail_imagesCA0ADM11 that have no assets. Whilst they are the main channel for passengers to access railway services, they are far from being the railway. The assets of the railway are arguably where the value is. Now, fortunately, the key assets – the permanent way, signalling, stations, etc. – are public sector assets after the demise of Railtrack in 2002. But these assets do not generate surpluses. Quite the contrary. Despite announcing a pre-tax profit for 2014 of £1.035bn, the cumulative debt amounts to £20bn.

Class171By contrast, the owners of the rolling stock make a killing out of leasing trains to franchisees. There are three major players whose profit margins after tax seem to be around 10 per cent, according to a Channel 4 News investigation. Whilst there may well be some shrewd investment and management involved, ownership of these firms lacks transparency (two have registrations in Jersey and Luxembourg). Moreover, these businesses were sold at privatisation for a song. Porterbrook Leasing, for example, was sold in November 1995 for £527m. It was resold in July 1996 to Stagecoach for £825m. In essence, it costs a lot of money to lease trains to generate high profits for the leasing companies.

My argument, then, is this. The railway is only meaningful when it is an integrated whole in terms of its ownership and operation. Keeping franchises in the public sector when the real money is made by those with whom they must contract in order to provide train services; namely, rolling stock leasing companies, is to miss the point. It gets the Labour Party off the hook. But it is not public provision of public services.

Picture: Class 171 Mackensen

Public housing

Bill_RandallI was very pleased to hear Councillor Bill Randall being invited on to Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday to discuss current inequities regarding housing in the context of the acute shortage experienced in Brighton and Hove where he is a senior figure and a distinguished housing expert. This being the BBC, he was pitted against Adam Memon (right) of the Centre for Policy Studies an apologist forMemon continued expropriation of public housing by private landlords and provision of public subsidy for this through high housing benefit allowances. Seemingly in Brighton and Hove, 6000 council dwellings have been sold since Thatcher’s flagship ‘right to buy’ policy of the early 1980s; one thousand of these have passed into the private rented sector. Another tranche have been resold to private sector buyers from outside the town – Brighton, in particular, is extremely expensive and ex-council houses are sought-after properties. A cursory glance in the window of an estate agent shows a three-bedroom example for sale at £275,000. The exchange has been captured here:

Picture: Bill Randall: brightonandhovegreens.org; Adam Memon: CPS

The oil price is a problem

Oil_wellWhilst I am delighted to see that I can fill the tank of my ever-so reliable van for a fraction of what it cost this time last year and fly until my heart is discontent in the knowledge that the value of the airlines (share price) is increasing, they having done nothing more than survive three months since the oil price started to plummet, it is bad news. Why?

First, burning hydrocarbon fuels is bad for the environment and price is a key regulator of consumption. Second, many oil producing countries – some of them not the richest – have set their budgets at anticipated levels; for example, $100. The shortfall of $35 (reflecting today’s price-per-barrel) can make the difference between life-and-death. High oil prices, then, can be good transfer payments between rich and poorer countries.

Third, oil company shares are down sharply. With these stocks being some of the key investments made by pension funds, meeting obligations becomes more difficult. Fourth, investment in renewables will be hit. Suddenly it is only cost-effective to burn oil. Fifth, geopolitics. When demand goes down, price is often regulated by cutting supply. This is not happening for reasons which are currently unclear. However, there are some suggestions that it is a power battle between oil producing countries particularly in the middle-east rendering the region even more unstable than it already is. That is also not to mention the situation in Russia. Very much an oil economy that is suffering also from ludicrous EU sanctions. There is unrest ahead.

What about the positives? Well, I can think of one key positive. The glut in demand is, in part, caused by shale oil production in the USA and tar sands in Canada. These two practices are very damaging to the environment. $65 a barrel is not sufficient to warrant such production. Whether the firms will cease their activities remains to be seen, but what is clear is that where fracking has not yet started, it is unlikely to do so.

Picture: Flcelloguy/Wikipedia

Few cigarette campaigns over Festive period

DSC00549In Germany the tobacco companies, I assume, do not try to compete with the more traditional Christmas advertisers – alcohol, mobile phones, chocolate – for expensive billboard space. The L&M brand, however, seems to have decided to be the smoke of the season promoted by this inspirational effort “5 Euro and more inside” (left). No frills, essentially.

The more, I assume, is the fact that there are 20 cigarettes inside the packet (other brands have fewer). But you get what you pay for, no doubt. In the case of cigarettes, conceivably, the no frills product offers the chance of death before Christmas. Not worth the billboard cost, if you ask me.

Nick Robinson and friends

Nick Robinson is a familiar voice and image as the BBC’s political editor. With that, I always thought came responsibility. Of late, Nick Robinson seems to have been pushing the boundaries of his brief. During the Scottish Independence campaign, Robinson was accused of pro-union bias.

But Robinson is increasingly indiscreet when it comes to images of himself. For example, in posing in aRobinson_selfie_1 ‘selfie’ by the Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (right). Essentially, his though must have been that anything that is good enough for President Obama (he had a selfie with Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandala’s funeral) is good enough for him.

Well, maybe, but how does one explain his latest photo opportunity? At the election jayda-fransen-nick_3113661bcount of the recent Rochester By-election in the UK, he allowed himself to be compromised with a shared picture with the fascist candidate Jayda Fransen, of Britain First (left).

He has argued that it was a mistake. He was invited to have his picture taken and without too much thought, he posed. But he is the political editor of the BBC, not some trainee. Moreover, his penchant for photographs featuring himself is worrying.

As for Jayda Fransen, what a coup. Let us not forget, also, that Britain First removed themselves from the ballot paper and pledged support to UKIP so as not to split the right-wing vote.

Picture: Fransen/Robinson, Britain First

 

Germany: Memories of a nation exhibition at the British Museum – Part 1

GermanyNaturally, this exhibition displays an authentic VW Beetle; though you do not need to pay the £10 admission fee to see it. It merely entices visitors in.

First, let me say that I went with my German partner. Her endorsement of the exhibition is praise indeed, knowing all too well that the English, particularly, focus on the country’s Nazi past. This exhibition has something else important to say about the German Nation’s history.

Okay, now to a few quibbles. First, normally I expect to be able to take photographs in an exhibition, not least to upload to this blog. But,book here, photography is not allowed. And it is enforced. One assumes this is to protect the value of the accompanying products that one can buy in the shop including Neil MacGregor’s thick tome (right).

Second, the British Museum is huge. For some reason, the powers that be at the Museum have located this exhibition in, what amounts to, a cupboard. The space is far too small not only for the numbers of visitors, but also the exhibits themselves. And for some inexplicable reason, the British Museum does not seem to have learned too much about exhibiting.

For example, in the years of German hyperinflation, German towns produced their own currencies -they being as valuable as the national currency. Such is the nature of hyperinflation. The towns printed their own bank notes. They were often colourfully printed with very particular designs. In essence, they demanded a very close scrutiny. But the museum has made it virtually impossible to scrutinise these artefacts. They are locked in a glass case set against a wall. They are three or four abreast. Unless one is 2 metres tall, inspecting the detail is impossible.

Strasbourg_clockAnd even those artefacts that are not in glass cases (most seem to be), they are not exhibited at the height that best suits most of us. Take, for example, the exquisite Strasbourg Clock (left). This image features Neil MacGregor, the boss of the British Museum and the author of the book and presenter of the 30-part BBC radio series accompanying the exhibition. The clock enjoys amazing detail in terms of figures and engravings over-and-above the feat of timekeeping technology that makes it work. And rest assured, it is amazing. But actually, I saw more of it on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p028bdxq) than I did at the exhibition. I’m just not tall enough.

 

 

Landing on a comet

Philae lander lander seen from RosettaThe European Space Agency has, in the last 10 minutes, landed a probe (left) on the surface of a comet for the first time. This is important as it may help explain the origins of life on Earth as comets were there at the formation of the solar system. Notwithstanding the technical feat associated with achieving a landing on a rocky object travelling at 18km/s and is 510 million kilometers away (it takes over 30 minutes to get a signal back to Earth from the craft).

There is a real UK political dimension to this captured brilliantly in a tweet:

Justifying the unjustifiable

Theresa_MayThe UK Conservatives now argue that too many people – cast out on to the Mediterranean Sea in unsuitable boats by unscrupulous traffickers – have been saved by benevolent Europeans. So much so that it generates an incentive for more people to try it, safe in the knowledge that they will be rescued when the vessel capsizes.

Even if this were true – and no hard evidence to my knowledge has been presented to back it up – it is immoral. Knowingly ignoring victims of traffickers, fleeing from wars, economic crises and penuary caused largely by us is criminal.

And again, leading the way is the Home Secretary, Theresa May (above left). I used to think that these illiberal and racist policies were a response to UKIP. Now, however, I sense that UKIP is merely an excuse. The Conservatives really do believe in these policies.

Privacy and the Internet

GCHQ at Cheltenham, GloucestershireThe new boss of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, this week wrote a much-reported article in the Financial Times arguing that in order to stay safe we must give up our [right to] privacy. We must accept blanket surveillance of our online communications. He is frustrated that the large US tech firms that dominate the social media world are uncooperative. Consequently they are the ‘command and control networks of choice’ of international terrorists and paedophiles.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Here is a man whose job it is to do communication surveillance. In recent years – and certainly since Snowden – its legitimacy has been questioned. We may have asked, ‘in whose interests is this surveillance’? And if it is for us – citizens – then how would we know? We are never given the data that would tell us how effective it is in preventing attacks or the abuse of children.

Now, Mr Hannigan (right) has asserted that all of CGHQ’s surveillance is undertaken to protect us against attack from whomever orhannigan whatever. Again, there is no evidence that surveillance protects us, but the security services remain powerful arms of the state. The more surveillance they do, the more money they get. The more they convince us that only more surveillance can protect us – and we believe it – the more resources they will command and the less free we will be. And bearing in mind they tell us that surveillance is needed to keep us free, one wonders what kind of freedom they have in mind.

Naturally, the ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ argument still resonates. But as Martha Lane Fox – one time government-appointed Tsar for digital inclusion and founder of lastminute.com – and anything but a crazy libertarian – said through a number of new and old media yesterday, “I would not want GCHQ to come and rummage in my front room and that is how I feel about whatever device I am using”. Moreover, the security services already have significant powers to investigate communication, not least through DRIP which a subservient UK Parliament rushed into law before the summer recess in 2014. Again, at the behest of the security services.

But what these people really dislike is the idea that ordinary people can encrypt their own communication. On the whole, our communication is unencrypted. The devices that we use are easily accessible to outside forces (with a few exceptions, notably Blackberry handsets). When we download an app we invariable sign away privacy in order to use it. But I do feel that I – and others – have a right to privacy and that the security services have enough power already to investigate any wrongdoing on my part. But they do need, first, to have sufficient evidence to get the warrant to invade my privacy. They are not the rights holders. We are.

Picture: GCHQ – MoD; Robert Hannigan – gov.uk

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