Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm pretty sure this is wrong actually...

Cheaper than a Big Mac...

As Tim says, I'm quite confident that Zoe Williams is talking out of her backside here:

I've lost count of the number of rows I've had about that, many in public, one live on telly, during which the broadcaster Jonathan Maitland said this was a problem of education: if she knew how to shop better she would have been able to afford a more balanced diet. This is total tripe (which, although famously cheap because it is famously disgusting, is still probably more expensive than a Big Mac); certainly, you could shop differently with the same money and win the approval of nutritionist Gillian McKeith, but if your aim is to avoid being hungry, you could not do that more cheaply.

Well, you can get enough tripe for 3 people for £3.50 so that particular argument doesn't stand up. But more generally, as the commenters to Tim's piece note, if you go for supermarket value ranges of things like pasta, bacon, onion and so on, you can get a solid healthy meal for 4 at very little more than 50p a person. But even if that gets boring, you can make really remarkably good meals for not much more money - certainly less than processed ready meals cost. For the sake of the argument, lets stick with the Big Mac Meal that Zoe refers to as the cheap calorie mecca. £4.59 gets you one Big Mac Meal.

So. £4.59 per serving. I'm a flash bastard, so I do my shopping at Waitrose, making this something of a handicap event as far as I'm concerned, but lets see if I can't beat that. My current favourite 'it's cold I want something comforting' meal is slow cooked ox cheek. How much is that? 500g of ox cheek sets you back about £3, and makes enough for 4. A pint of stock, since we're being frugal, comes from a stock cube, from a box of 6 for 75p. A red chilli, from a bag of four for 60p. Some garlic, at 52p for a whole one. A tablespoon of flour, from a bag costing 48p for 500g. (If we're pushing the boat out, we can add a slug of sherry, at £5 a bottle, but you don't need to). To go with it, some rice (£1.62 for a kilo), and some spring greens for 99p. Where does that leave us? £8 if we're being frugal, £13 if we're splasing out. In other words either £2 or £3.25 per serving - and we'll have lots of stock cubes, garlic, chilli, flour, sherry and rice left over for next time.

What makes the Big Mac Meal more attractive is not its price. It is its convenience. The meal set out above takes about half an hour to prepare, and about 3 hours to cook. That's fine by me, because I enjoy cooking and at weekends I will almost always have half an hour in the kitchen where I can concentrate. That's genuinely not fine for a lot of people, who have neither the knowledge to prepare the meal, nor the time to cook it. Zoe Williams is right that it's poverty that causes poor diet, but it's poverty of time and poverty of education in equal measures, and not poverty of money.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Coming to terms with defeat

Sunny Hundal has an interesting piece up at the Guardian. Yes, I was surprised too. It's not immune, however, to a little bit of wishful thinking.

It took the Conservatives more than a decade after 1997 to seriously start asking why no one would re-elect them. Labourites, by contrast, aren't willing to wait that long.

The idea that the Tories weren't asking themselves why they were electorally unpopular until 2007 is a bit of a stretch - they did nothing but ask themselves that right from the moment they were turfed unceremoniously out of office. The problem was that having identified the problem quite early on (that people didn't like them, essentially), and that the solution was to 'modernise' the party's image and win it back a hearing, they weren't able to do it. Hague got cold feet when the polls refused to move and ended up trying to consolidate the party base. IDS tried too, but got swamped by his general uselessness. Howard only became leader as the next election loomed, so concentrated more or less entirely on making the party less of a shambles. It was only with Cameron in 2005 that the original answer to the original question was actually put into effect.

Labour's problem is slightly different to the Tories' old one. Basically, it's not that we don't like them, it's that we don't trust them. Sunny identifies the keystone of New Labour - high tax revenues from a fizzy property market and dominant financial sector could be used to pay for better public services - and notes that this equation doesn't work any more. The problem, as he sees it, is that Labour haven't yet come up with a bolder vision of the future.

Well, that's a problem to be sure. But there's a greater one. While the ideological heft of New Labour could be summed up by the equation above, its electability was based on a simpler one - economic competence and social empathy. With the Iron Chancellor demonstrating prudence in No.11, and Tony lavishing the fruits of that prudence on schools'n'hospitals, New Labour were fearsomely hard to beat. But Labour's lasting legacy will be the economic crash - even Iraq will be a footnote.

It is this that Labour need to address - last time they were in power they ruined the public finances, why should we give them another chance? That's a very straightforward question, and it needs a good answer. Until Labour have thought of one (and it's hard to see how they can with Ed Balls as part of the answer) they're going to stay in the wilderness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

200 years of foreign policy?

One of the common responses (and not just of the Euro-philes) to the Brussels non-Treaty has been that Cameron has just broken with 200 years of British foreign policy. Jonathan Powell, not a man crippled with self-doubt, put it this way in the FT:

For 200 years since the battle of Waterloo we have expended enormous efforts to maintain a leadership role in Europe. It is a betrayal of that history to turn our backs on the continent.

While the Dude is rather more direct:

British foreign policy has been remarkably consistent towards Europe for the last 500 years, since the English monarchy abandoned its rightful claim to the French crown. It can be summed up by the simple observation that, seeing as the Hegemonic power of Europe cannot be England, no other hegemonic power should rise to dominate Europe.

Well, up to a point and all that. Powell may view the course of British history from 1815 to 1914 as one of British leadership in Europe - I have to say that history does not particularly support him in that. Throughout the Pax Britannica in fact, Britain made only three really substantial interventions in post-Napoleonic continental European politics - the Crimean War and the two Berlin Conferences of 1878 and 1884. And it's these exceptions that really prove the rule, because the driving force behind each of them for Britain lay outside Europe.

The Crimean War was fought to prevent Russia from carving up the Ottoman Empire. Britain's area of concern, however, was Central Asia - Persia and the 'Stans - because of the perceived threat of a Tsarist army poised to invade British India. The 1878 Berlin Congress was part of the fallout of the Crimean War, and Britain's involvement was principally to protect its interests in the Mediterranean from Russian encroachment. Why? Suez and the route to India.

The Berlin Conference in 1884 was supposed to prevent colonial expansion in Africa from triggering a Great Power war. Bismarck famously said at this conference that "here is Russia, here is France and we're in the middle - that's my map of Africa" - for Britain, the situation was the reverse - it's strategic concerns were East of Suez, and it's equivalent "map of Europe" would have been Suez and the Cape.

Historically, Britain has seen its role as a global power, and neglected continental politics for as long as it could get away with it. Far from being a confirmation of a long-standing policy, the Entente Cordiale was a dramatic change of direction. And why was it seen as necessary? The rise of Germany as a naval power to challenge the Royal Navy. And why was that such a threat? Because Britain's role as a global power depended more or less entirely on the Royal Navy. Even in World War Two, look at where Britain did most of her fighting - Egypt and Burma. Spot the connection?

The real dislocation in historic British foreign policy was the decision taken to try and become a European power (now rather an anachronistic term) at the expense of Britan's global role. At the time the decision was taken, this looked like a pretty safe bet - the coming economic powerhouses were West Germany, France and Italy, while Britain was mired with slow productivity growth, disastrous labour relations and a civil war in Northern Ireland that looked like the ongoing death throes of Empire. Now? Well, continental Europe doesn't look like such a good bet, and the exciting area of growth is East of Suez again (and in another old British stomping ground, South America).

In this context, moving to decouple ourselves from the continental European economy, and looking to new markets in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as consolidating our markets in the US doesn't look like a bad idea. It certainly doesn't look like a betrayal of half a millenium's foreign policy - it looks like a return to it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Banging on some more about Europe

It's all rather odd. Cameron's veto at Brussels last week has the usual suspects either furious, or depressed, or both. Look at Bagehot in the Economist for instance. Now, the Economist is a terrific newspaper, but it does have a decided position on European politics (I believe their editorial position is still in favour of the UK joining the Euro for instance) and this does tend to colour their reporting of the area.  Anyway: a depressed Bagehot:

Oh yes, the banks. The City of London is very important, and the EU has some bad ideas for regulating it. But I find it hard to cheer the idea that Mr Cameron took an extraordinarily big decision last night about our relations with Europe because he was so convinced he could not win arguments in Brussels about those regulations.

And what was Cameron trying to do? What was it that Cameron went to the mattresses over? Bagehot again, but quoting the Financial Times:

Mr Cameron insisted that any agreement to tighten fiscal discipline in the 17-member eurozone should not distort the single market covering all 27 member states. He also wants a separate protocol to protect the City of London from excessive EU regulation, including an agreement to let Britain enforce bank capital requirements that are higher than the proposed European maximum.

Other demands include an agreement that the new European Banking Authority should remain in London and protection from EU regulation of London-based US financial institutions that do not trade with the rest of Europe.

Mr Cameron also wants a written guarantee – making explicit what is already the case – that unanimity should apply to any proposed “user charges” for financial groups, including any variant of the controversial European financial transactions tax.

As seen above, Bagehot thinks this was a pretty weak bit of positioning from Cameron. Who on earth has he been listening to? Well here's a thing. When I read up on what actually happened at Brussels it fired a neuron. 'I remember writing about this before, ages ago' I thought. Tory policy on Europe has always been muddled by an inability to work out what our actual bottom line is - what points of principle cannot be negotiated away. In the aftermath (or anticipation, I think) of the final ratification of the Lisbon Treaty various bloggers were casting around for something to pin a solid Tory European policy on. Someone had a pretty good idea:

The tough fight is on financial regulation. In their dreams, half our EU partners would like to impose martial law on the City of London, under some French general in a képi. In theory, lots of EU financial regulations could be decided by qualified majority vote. Sane countries like Sweden say they cannot imagine imposing regulations on the UK against our will, because the impact on us is too big. Get that in writing: a political pledge from the other leaders that Britain has a veto on financial regulation affecting the City.

Good advice that, and it's pretty much exactly what Cameron did in Brussels. Whose advice? Well, the thing is that it was Bagehot's, back in the days when Bagehot was Charlemagne. I wonder what changed?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Being horrid to women

I sort of missed the great furore that erupted last month about the rampant misogyny that lurks in the bottom half of the internet. My initial reaction was that this was another illustration of Gabe and Tycho's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, that Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad, but on reflection I think it's pretty much uncontroversial to say that female commentators, both the proper grown-ups on the newspapers and the ones down in the blogging playpen like the rest of us, get both a greater degree of vituperation, and a nastier, sexualised variety of it.

So, how guilty of this am I? Well, I don't post threats to dismember or rape people (of either sex) so I think I can be excused of the greater sin here, but what about the lesser? Am I effectively sexist in the way I treat female commentators? It's a slightly tricky one this, because the case for the prosecution is a bit haphazard. Look at Nick Cohen in the Speccie, where he damns young Daniel Knowles of the Telegraph as being, (or at least encouraging others to be) a "hollow-eyed masturbator". This is a touch unfair on Daniel, (whose greatest sin is really that he's increasingly unsound) but Cohen's main point is really this one:

No male writer gets the kind of going overs Polly Toynbee, Laurie Penny and Melanie Phillips receive as a matter of routine.

I don't tend to mention La Phillips on this blog that often (basically because she strikes me more as the sort of person to back away slowly from than the sort to argue with or poke fun at), but I can add two more columnists to this list - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mary Riddell. All of these have at one time or another caught my attention and been subjected to my irrelevant savagings. But does that make me a woman-monsterer? Why concentrate on these women in particular?

Two things: the first is that these women make near-perfect blogging fodder. If you want to write an interesting post about a column (interesting to write that is, I don't flatter myself about them being interesting to read) then it needs to be either a genuinely new and fascinating point of view, or an infuriating and easily rebuttable argument. Lets just say that Toynbee, YA-B and Laurie are pretty reliable at fulfilling one of these requirements.

The second thing is that, as far as I'm concerned anyway, I have two far greater journalistic bug-bears, on whom I've wasted far more time and vitriol than any of the three above could ever aspire to - Simon Heffer and Johann Hari. And the reason is the same - they write things that infuriate me, and that I want to respond to. In that sense, the amount of vituperative reaction that these writers get is almost a good sign (again, obviously this excludes the deranged stuff) - it would be far worse, surely, to drop your words into the ether and receive absolutely no response.

So, let's distinguish between the acceptable and the unacceptable forms of abuse and, while acknowledging that women fall foul of far more than their share of both varieties, at least consider that the former may occasionally be more of a compliment than it might at first appear.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What's kinder here?

I have a lot of instinctive sympathy for Stella Creasy's campaign against legal loan-sharking, which I first heard about back in February. It seems monstrous that it can be legal for money lenders to charge interest of 2,500% a.p.r.. It's all too easy for a small loan to transmogrify into an enormous unpayable burden by the wondrous power of compound interest. At a time when people are inevitably going to be feeling the pinch, and reports are that more and more are considering this sort of short-term, high-interest loan surely Something Must Be Done?

Um. Well. Quite. But, over and above this instinctive cri de coeur, something nags at me (and did from the first).  Let's look at why interest rates on payday loans tend to be so high. Firstly, they are intended to be very short-term loans for relatively small sums. Poor old Joanna Bloggs has to pay £10 to borrow £100 for a week (figures being purely illustrative here). This works out as an a.p.r. of 521% - which seems very high. Arguably, though, a.p.r. isn't a terribly helpful way of measuring a weekly loan. If, instead of borrowing the cash from Honest Bob, Joanna had gone £100 over her overdraft limit (assuming she has one of course), the bank would have charged her £35 for the privilege, which works out as over 1800% a.p.r..

The other reason that charges for these loans is high, obviously, is default risk. Why can't Joanna just borrow the money from the bank? Because, by and large, she can't. The reason she can't is because she's too bad a risk for the bank to make - especially in these days of higher capital adequacy ratios. There are, in short, perfectly good reasons why payday loans are so extortionate, even beyond the fact that the lenders are bastards. Even so, the emotional response is clear - it's not fair that such rates should be charged, and they should be capped, even if the result is that payday loans effectively vanish.

Fine, so we abolish legal loan-sharking. Job done, and we can all feel that nice warm glow of a good job well done. But hang on a minute - all we've done is addressed the supply side of this problem. Joanna still needs that £100 - to fix her boiler, or get her car past its MOT or whatever. We've just ruled out a payday loan, and the bank's are still not going to lend to her. Where does she go now? Is illegal loan-sharking really so much better? Isn't 'You may lose your house' a qualitatively better sort of warning that 'You may lose your fingers'?

The problem I have with this proposal, therefore, is not that I disagree with its aims, but that I worry that it will fail to achieve those aims, and may even make the problem worse. After all, we do have some empirical data on what happens when Governments try to deal with a social problem by prohibiting supply and ignoring demand.