Posts from October 2011

Ranting about occupations

Tuesday 25th October 2011

If you’ve seen the news recently, no doubt you’ve heard about the various “occupations” which are occurring in various places. It’s all spread from “Occupy Wall Street” in the States, and in the UK we have our own version in “Occupy LSX”, who are currently occupying that well-known fortress of capitalism, er, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Hmm, oh well.

As far as I’m aware, one of the main messages that they’re trying to get across is the idea of the “99 percent”; or the idea that 99% of people are struggling in the current economic climate whilst 1% are prospering, and that the 99% are angry. It’s a simple idea. Okay, for all sorts of reasons it’s also a little bit inaccurate, but the general thrust is good enough. Because fundamentally, the protesters are probably right to say that most people should be pretty pissed off at the state of our economy. But the protesters are angry at banks and stock markets (wtf?) and capitalism in general. This seems to me to be a little bit confused. Do they really want to dismantle capitalism?

A protest, last week.

Capitalism is generally taken to mean things like the right to private property and to free trade. And are the Occupiers honestly against those things? Well, if I went down to the  occupation camp and tried to pinch their big anti-capitalism sign, one of their tents, or the iPhones they use to post updates to Twitter (yes, the poor 99% who can afford some of the most expensive consumer electronics in the world), I think they’d be rather keen to uphold their right to private property. And are they against free trade? Well, by choosing how to use their labour, arguably they are exercising precisely that right. Because a part of free trade is the right to freely trade your own labour; and in this case, the occupiers have exercised that right by choosing to use their labour to protest the state of the economy (and so one can argue that implicit in their protest is the idea that they’re protesting against their right to hold that protest. Consistency FTW!). If the government (or anyone else) tried to remove that right – by arresting the occupiers, for instance – then I’m confident that they’d be pretty upset.

So to be angry at capitalism is, I think, a mistake. At least, it’s a mistake to be angry at properly-implemented capitalism. OccupyLSX shouldn’t necessarily direct their anger at the banks or stockbrokers (unless they own shares in a bank which has lost value, in which case, feel free). They should be angry at governments, for oh so many things. For allowing themselves to be open to lobbying, and bowing to the influence of vested interests. For meddling too much in the economy, trying to maintain the housing bubble which lead to this crisis. For the arrogance of the Euro project and repeating the mistakes of the past. For spending too much in the boom years, ramping up debts which we now need to repay. For breaking one of the golden rules of capitalism – that bad businesses must fail – by bailing out the banks which behaved so irresponsibly prior to the downturn.

The problem isn’t capitalism; at least, not capitalism in it’s proper form. The crisis is not the failure of economic liberalism, and the answer is not something like a laughably-impractical “Resource-Based Economy“. Actually, we want our government to be more liberal; to spend less, to leave more money in the pockets of the populace, and to not interfere in matters best left to the market. Because when you trace it back, a good chunk of our problems stem from bad government interventions, or the “crony capitalism” we see at present.

Of course, this would involve politicians deciding to make themselves less powerful. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the type of person most likely to want to be a politician, is not the type who is likely to take power away from themselves once they’ve gained it. So we’re probably screwed.

Photo by flickr user wheelzwheeler, licensed under Creative Commons.

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Meandering Musical Meanings

Sunday 23rd October 2011

As occasionally often happens, a while ago I started to listen to “just one more song” before turning the computer off and doing something else, and ended up listening to music for a while, rather than just 5 minutes. One of the songs that I listened to was Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Deep Blue Something. No particular reason, just happened to listen to it.

When I listen to music I quite like to read the lyrics and think about what the song is about. Sometimes that can be quite tricky; people like Bob Dylan or even Radiohead, often have lyrics which can be interpreted in many different ways. On the surface, not so here:

You’ll say we’ve got nothing in common 
No common ground to start from
And we’re falling apart
You’ll say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us
Still I know you just don’t care

And I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s
She said I think I remember the film
And as I recall I think we both kinda liked it
Then I said well then that’s one thing we got

So yeah, probably pretty easy to interpret that. But whenever I listen to the song, I wonder if there are two potential meanings. Either it’s the absolute final end of a relationship, they’ve decided they’ve got nothing in common and that it’s over. But one of them remembers this film they both liked, and so they remember that. It’s over but “well, that’s one thing we’ve got”, it wasn’t all just a waste of time. Or, it’s the turning point in an argument. She said they’ve got nothing in common, he remembers the film they both liked and maybe then they think of other things they have in common as well.

In the latter interpretation, I suppose the song ends with an ellipsis; that’s one thing we’ve got…. perhaps there’s some other stuff too. For the former, it’s a full stop. On balance, it’s probably a full stop. At least, judging by these lines:

So what now it’s plain to see we’re over
And I hate when things are over
When so much is left undone.

Anyway, pretty good song. And the film it takes its name from isn’t bad either. Although I couldn’t decide if I liked Audrey Hepburn’s character in the end; I couldn’t shake the feeling that she’s just a bit shallow and manipulative. So it made it the end a little bit dissatisfying. Maybe that’s just me though.

Ooh, while I’m on the subject of good songs that are related to films, I direct you to Year of the Cat by Al Stewart. Only realised recently (after I’d seen the film) that it draws pretty heavily from Casablanca. Well worth seeing that if you haven’t already, very good film indeed.

Posted In: MoviesMusic Tagged: | 1 Comment

Is the minimum wage working, or just stopping work?

Wednesday 12th October 2011

It’s been announced today that unemployment is at a 17-year high, and that 16-24 year olds are being particularly affected. In that group, unemployment is higher than it’s ever been.

Back when the minimum wage was introduced, there was a particularly interesting argument put forward against it. This was that it would have an adverse impact upon people whose labour is not worth the minimum wage. In particular, it was argued that younger people with less training or experience, would simply not be worth hiring any more. Given today’s unemployment figures, this argument seems at least plausible.

The intention of a minimum wage is – presumably – to ensure that people are paid enough money to allow them to have somewhere to live, food to eat, and some sort of good standard of living. And that’s an absolutely good intention. But is pricing people out of the job market really the best way to deliver this? Isn’t it better that people work for whatever wage they’re able to collect (and, of course, are willing to work for) so that they’re at least gaining experience which increases the value of their labour, and allows them ultimately to secure better-paid employment? And if a wage is deemed to be too low, wouldn’t it be better for the government to supplement it, rather than trying to force employers to pay over the odds?

Is it time to scrap the minimum wage and come up with a more intelligent way of dealing with this? Perhaps something like a negative income tax?

Posted In: Politics Tagged: | 4 Comments

F1 waffle

Tuesday 4th October 2011

If you just looked at the statistics, it’d probably seem as if Formula 1 in 2011 is thoroughly dull. Sebastian Vettel is absolutely dominant; in the 14 races so far he’s scored 9 wins, 11 pole positions, has only finished off the podium once, and even then he managed to finish fourth. To win the drivers’ championship he now only needs to score a single point from the remaining five races, which should just about be possible given that the Red Bull he’s driving is by far the fastest car in the field. But that’s only part of the picture, because despite the rather predictable nature of the championship, the majority of the races this year have been fantastic.

One of the fascinating things this year has been seeing how the other top drivers have been coping with not always having the machinery to challenge Vettel. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have both been driving superbly, and have both made the best of what they’ve got to challenge as best they can. Button in particular has put in some stellar performances; in fact he’s probably driving better now than he did in 2009, when he won the championship.  He’s very intelligent about how he structures his race; his qualifying pace isn’t generally the quickest compared to Lewis Hamilton, his team-mate, but during the races Button is very good at working out when to push hard and when to take it easy and look after the car and tyres. The result is a very impressive season indeed.

It’s fair to say that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t have such a measured approach. Hamilton is without doubt one of the fastest drivers in F1, if not the fastest. He’s also one of the most exciting to watch, but that’s not always for the best of reasons. When it comes to overtaking other drivers, a driver like Button is generally quite calm, and only makes the move when they’re sure it’ll work. Hamilton… not so much. He’s very aggressive, and tends to take more risks than some of the other drivers. And to be fair, in the past it’s often worked out for him. But this year it really hasn’t, and so he’s been involved with more collisions with other drivers than he really should have done.

From the outside, it very much looks as if Hamilton is frustrated. Whether that’s a cause or effect of his collisions this year – or perhaps a combination of the two, in some sort of feedback loop – I don’t know. It can’t help that Vettel is running away with the title, and becoming (statistically) more successful than Hamilton in the process. Racing drivers have to think they’re the best in order to perform at the highest level, and so it must be extremely frustrating to be incapable of competing with someone else. Hamilton thinks he’s the greatest driver out there (and for what it’s worth, he very possibly is), yet someone else is getting the wins, the success, the plaudits. And perhaps that frustration is causing him to take slightly bigger risks, to overdrive the car to try to make up some of the deficit, and in the process allow these little errors to creep in.

To be honest, as a fan of the sport, it’s really frustrating to watch someone with such obvious talent have such a poor season (although, when we say it’s been a poor season, lets put this into perspective: he’s taken 2 wins, 4 podiums and 3 fastest laps thus far. That this can be considered to be a poor season sort of shows what we’ve come to expect). Because he is a great driver, and so it’d be much more entertaining to see him giving the sort of performances which we know he can deliver, rather than having silly little mistakes compromise his races.

It’s a pretty tough sport psychologically; as Jackie Stewart likes to remind everyone, a successful driver needs good mind management in order to get the best out of the car, to be able to find it within themselves to push it to the limit of what’s possible, and to then race in close proximity with other drivers. And once a driver lets poor form get to them, it can so easily knock their confidence or make them frustrated, causing more bad results. The contrasting fortunes of the McLaren drivers this year is just the latest illustration of this.

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