Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A Short Story About Fairness

Imagine you went to the supermarket this afternoon. It's a nice sunny day, all is well with the world, and you have nothing major planned for the evening, so you decide that you'll buy something nice for dinner.

You pick up a decent-sized pair of pork chops, some exotic-looking salad and a colourful trifle for dessert. You'd normally spend far less than this on dinner, but you've had a long day, worked hard, served the public admirably despite some very difficult circumstances, and frankly, you deserve it. You go to the counter, hand over a £10 note, and retire to your modest home and start cooking.

The pork chops are sizzling in the pan and smelling delicious when there's a knock at the front door.

You take the pan off the heat and get to the door to find that it has been opened for you, and that the supermarket manager is standing in the doorway. You recognise him from his picture, which you saw earlier above the supermarket's most prominent advertising slogan. He is dressed in an extremely sharp suit and has a no-nonsense expression on his face.

Slightly nonplussed, you say, 'Can I help you?'

'Yes sir,' (or miss, or madam). 'There's a bit of a problem, I'm afraid. You see, the supermarket is experiencing some financial difficulties and I need to speak to you about the goods you purchased this afternoon.' He points past you to where the salad is arranged neatly on your plate.

'I'm sorry,' you say, 'I'm not following you.'

'Sir, I understand that you purchased a number of items this afternoon for £10. I'm sorry, but the cost of those goods is now £20, and I must ask you to make up the difference for me now. It's only fair to those of us that work in the supermarket.'

You think you may have misheard, but he is not finished yet. 'Furthermore,' he continues, 'I'm afraid you didn't spend long enough in the shop today.'

You laugh. He doesn't. 'How much longer should I have spent in there?' you ask.

'In order to purchase goods in our store, you must spend at least an hour there each time you shop. It's only fair, because our service is quicker than people get in other stores.'

You are dumbfounded and cannot say anything. The manager waits patiently while you absorb what he has said. After a minute or two, he says, 'Sir, I'd like to ask you to pay me that extra £10 now and return to the store with me for another twenty minutes. Oh, and I'll have to ask you to return those pork chops as well, please. No refunds, I'm afraid.'

By now, quite angry, you demand to know why you should return the pork chops.

Smoothly as anything, the manager says, 'It's only fair, sir. Not everyone can eat pork chops.'

QUESTION: Are you angry at the supermarket for moving the goalposts after you have agreed terms?

If your answer to this question is 'yes', please support tomorrow's public sector strikes over pension reform.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Banks Like Us

In another strangely-twisted hour of creativity, Four Thousand Words has seen fit to butcher another world-class song for political imperative. Apologies in advance to any Bruce Springsteen fans.

Banks Like Us (to the tune of Bruce Springsteen's 'Born To Run')

In 2007 we hit a wall while chasing an American dream
We siphoned profit from the sub-prime market in a suicidal scheme
In just twelve months we'd loaned out more
Than the entire whole of the country's GDP
Millions or billions, it's all the same
When you're a poor man playing a rich man's game
And now everything's up for sale
Because banks like us, baby we were bound to fail.

Escalating property prices caused overconfidence
We channelled funds from East to West in a move that now looks dense
RBS, Lloyds TSB
We'll loan till we drop, our reserves could never run out
Wooooah, even Bradford and Bingley
And other stalwarts of UK plc
Well, now we know how it feels
When the homes are repossessed and the value just isn't real.

With the end of trust in the banking system
Borrowing is just too hard
Investment arms don't know what to do
And the fund managers are scarred
A run on the counters might be just too much
We've got no liquidity
We're dying in the shadow of Northern Rock
And we've crashed the economy

One, two, three...

We've billions in mortgage securities with a government guarantee
We've got three years to pay 'em back so you can raise my salary
Give me my bonus, whack up the charges
Show me who'll stop us, what are you going to do?
You can't let us fail, we're just too big
Too important to die so you'll just have to pay eight hundred billion pounds bail
So banks like us, baby can afford to fail
Because banks like us, we were always going to fail!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Dear Chloe Smith

I received a letter today from the youthful and enthusiastic MP for Norwich North, Chloe Smith. As my local Member of Parliament, Chloe clearly feels a responsibility to inform me from time to time what she's been up to on my behalf, and she wrote me such a charming letter that I had to reproduce it here for your benefit, along with the response that I would make to her. For your ease of reading, I have placed Chloe's text in red text and my own response/comments in normal text.

Letter begins:

Dear Resident, it's an honour to be your Member of Parliament.

Thank you Chloe, it's an honour to receive your letter and I look forward to many hours of dedicated service from you.

I'm working hard for you here at home and away at Westminster.

That's good to know. It's so hard for a constituent to gain some idea of an MP's effectiveness. I note from official statistics at that you haven't spoken in a single commons debate this year or received an answer to an official written question. However, you are one of a handful of MPs to have attended every one of the twenty-six meetings of the Welfare Reform Bill Committee, which shows a certain level of commitment, and possibly a degree of masochism.

Times are hard at present.

It's good that you've noticed this. You may wish to suggest to Mr Cameron that he come up with some way to assist the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, as they're the ones really feeling the pinch just now.

Everyone knows that the country is in a shocking financial state.

It's good that you've noticed this as well. While you're communicating the previous comment to Mr Cameron, you may wish to ask Mr Osborne to do something to resolve the issue. And when I say something, I mean something a bit more creative than simply cutting the budget of every government department and local authority that looks at him in a funny way.

We have seen the biggest reckless overspend in our peacetime history.

Your Blairite predecessors used a trillion pounds of public money to sustain the immoral activities of a number of key financial institutions whose continued survival is nonetheless inextricably linked to the future economic prosperity of the nation. It's not ideal, but we can't say for sure that we wouldn't be in a worse mess if this hadn't happened. Plus there's always the chance that in the long run, we may see some return on our investment. Oh, and prominent workers from these same financial institutions are responsible for more than 50% of the donations that support the activities of your political party.

Actually, when you read it back, it does look like a right mess, doesn't it?

This is why we have to look so carefully at everything the nation spends.

That is indeed one way to resolve the deficit crisis. The other is to increase direct and indirect taxation. Arguably, your party has looked at this by raising VAT, but the benefit of this has been cancelled out by the reduction in corporation tax which has been offered as a financial stimulus to increase growth potential for business. It's a sound idea and I applaud it, but there are other opportunities for increasing taxation on those with massively high incomes, and closing tax loopholes to ensure that both business and individuals who generate income in the UK pay their fair share of taxes here too. I remind you that we are all in this together, so if you could look into that, it would be much appreciated.

It's like a credit card: when you run up massive credit card bills, the longer you leave it, the worse it gets.

Except in this case, it's the banks that owe large sums of money to us, rather than the other way round. There are of course a myriad of ways to make savings, such as cutting down on luxury expenses. For me, this makes your decision to vote in favour of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent system a strange one.

If we don't take steps now to live within our means we'll end up paying higher taxes or making deeper spending cuts to pay off the debt.

I realise this kind of blanket missive isn't intended to go into great detail about the functional deficit but the use of the credit card analogy neatly explains the concept without actually providing a lot of useful information. Our debt is approximately 80% of our GDP, a substantial sum and apparent justification for much of the government's activities. However, that still ranks well below the average level of debt as a percentage of GDP in Europe, with riot-stricken Greece in debt to the tune of a scorching 150% of its GDP. In national terms, the interest on our debt is annoying but certainly not unmanageable, and it is wrong that social care and education, two cornerstones of civilised society, should face cuts on the scale that they have. Modern Conservatives are all in favour of redistributing powers via a localist agenda - this should include the power to set council tax rises where residents feel that this would be a suitable alternative to cuts in vital services.

I will work hard for more jobs for Norwich.

We appreciate your efforts. It's a shame that those same banks we discussed earlier don't appear to wish to lend money to new business ventures. Given that the Chancellor's whole policy for increasing investment in the UK comes from a simplistic 'reduce-corporation-tax-and-wait' perspective, perhaps you could suggest an alternative approach?

I will continue to stand up for public services whenever I reasonably can.

So does this mean you'll be voting against the government's plans for pension reform?

I will stay on the case of local councils to stick up for council tax payers.

Though I'm sure you will also view the needs of those councils sympathetically and petition national government to divert the necessary money to local authorities in Norwich to ensure that those local people who need services can receive them in a timely manner.

I like to be my own woman.

No-one here will ask you to be anybody else's. If you ever actually read this reply and it seems glib in places, perhaps you will consider this at least to be a serious response - don't be afraid to stand up for your constituents, even if it means going against your government. There are serious issues to consider here and it's vital that Norwich residents can bank on you doing what is right for them, rather than what is convenient for your party.

We sincerely wish you all the best - after all, your success is ours too.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Paris Syndrome

Paris: city of love and light, home to some of the world's most eminent cultural landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Cur and the Louvre to name but a few. Visitors to the beautiful French capital may sample le petit déjeuner, stroll arm-in-arm along the Champs-Elysees, enjoy a boat ride along the Seine and end the day with a glass of wine and a trip to the celebrated Moulin Rouge.

Of course, being a city with a population of two million people and with that fiery Gallic reputation, a visitor to Paris should expect to experience the proud and passionate French temperament too. The English, especially those that make no attempt to speak the language, may feel that they are not especially popular in Paris, but why do a number of Japanese tourists each year suffer transient psychological disorders from the sheer physical experience of visiting the French capital?

First identified by Professor Hiroaki Ota in 1986 but only journalled as a genuine psychopathological condition in 2004, Paris Syndrome appears to primarily affect Japanese visitors, something which is widely attributed to the role that Paris plays in popular Japanese culture.

As already identified, to the outsider, Paris has a strongly romanticised image. There are significant cultural differences in the way that communication is conducted there in comparison to Japan and these are exacerbated by the obvious language difficulties. For those who are used to the polite and respectful Japanese society, it can be a massive culture shock for an exhausted tourist, who has travelled halfway round the world to find that waiters in Paris can be forthright and gesticulative to the point of apparent rudeness.

Symptoms reported by travellers include dizziness, tachycardia, hallucinations and other anxiety-related conditions. The Japanese embassy in Paris even has a dedicated helpline set up for sufferers. It receives, on average, one to two calls a month, but embassy staff have gone on record with their belief that a great many more people are affected but choose to suffer in silence.

Doctors have commented that the syndrome appears to share common characteristics with Standhal Syndrome (the light-headedness and fast heartbeat associated with being in the presence of art) and Jerusalem Syndrome (a type of spontaneous, religious-themed psychosis that can be brought on by exposure to religious influence, such as a visit to the holy city of Jerusalem.)

Up to one third of sufferers experience symptoms that are so serious, they are only relieved by leaving the city altogether. So the next time that you are tempted to loudly question the misleading instance of the 'service compris' tag on your Parisian restaurant menu, spare a thought for the poor Japanese tourist that you could be seriously traumatising on the table next door.

Friday, 3 June 2011


'I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time.'

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 'Memories of My Melancholy Whores'

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Who Cares?

While the shock of seeing the assaults and abuse inflicted on those with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View in Bristol will still be fresh in the minds of those who have seen this week's episode of Panorama on the BBC, news is also emerging that one of the UK's largest healthcare providers, Southern Cross Healthcare, has imposed a unilateral reduction of one-third upon the rent that it is willing to pay landlords.

It has been something of an open secret within the industry for some time that Southern Cross has been suffering financial difficulties. Purchased for a sum in excess of £150m in 2004, Southern Cross quadrupled in value in two years under the stewardship of the Blackstone private equity group.

However, accusations have since been levelled at the private equity group that they asset-stripped the firm prior to selling it in 2006. Central to this accusation was the conversion of equity-to-debt in 2005 at a time when it was extremely cheap to borrow. Most of the company's premises were subsequently sold and leased back at what have since proven to be uneconomical rates. Worse still for the company, rates of occupancy have fallen and local authorities have frozen the amounts that they are willing to pay to providers.

At Southern Cross, income is falling as costs rise, and this may be the perfect storm that sinks the company and makes 31,000 people homeless while the former owners sail into the sunset with billions of pounds in profit - proof, if it were needed, that this government's aim to privatise as many of its functions as possible does not necessarily guarantee the best outcomes for users of those services.

Providing social care for the next generation in Britain will be the single largest challenge that local authorities face in the future and is likely to be a major issue in deciding the outcome of the next general election. Here in Norfolk, the single largest outlay that Norfolk County Council makes is on social care provision. There is also a major shift towards personalisation in care, meaning that more individuals will be taking on the responsibility of becoming employers, with all the legal complications (sick pay, pension and holiday provision, etc.) that come with that role. Thankfully in cases where service users are vulnerable, at this time the council still takes responsibility for directly commissioning services.

With Southern Cross frantically trying to keep the wolves from the door, instances such as the Connaught collapse in Norwich and an intensifying drive for transparency in government spending, the pressure upon authorities to make the right choices when commissioning services has never been greater. Regardless of central government's obsessive desire for councils to become commissioners rather than providers of care, it is that very same duty of care that means that councils may have no choice about doing the jobs themselves if responsible private providers cannot be identified.

Increasingly, I feel that there should be a legal obligation for local authorities (or indeed any government bodies) to assess the financial strength of care home operators and other providers of essential services before placing valuable contracts with them. There should also be a independent body working alongside councils with a set responsibility for vetting care homes and performing random checks on standards to ensure that scenes such as those seen at Winterbourne View are never repeated.