Thursday, 30 June 2011

On second thoughts...

Despite my earlier meanderings over the public-sector pension protests, I decided this morning that in a spirit of solidarity I would withdraw my labour for the day in protest at how poor my own pension will be.

Being self-employed, the first step was to picket myself from my own home office. Well, actually, the first step was to have the usual cup of coffee and a smoke in the sunshine outside. But straight away after that, I picketed my office and brandished a banner at myself every time I even contemplated going in to do some work.

I've never crossed a picket line in my life, but all the computers in the house were in the office, so I couldn't even get onto Facebook to see how my fellow strikers were spending the day on Facebook. I remonstrated with myself at this outrageous restriction on my own freedom of movement. After heated dialectical debate, I and I took the protest onto the street, where at least I could smoke while shouting slogans at myself. The mood got ugly, and the neighbours became alarmed. It seems the noise I was creating during my entirely legitimate protest was disturbing them from their day off. Thank heavens for community policing, as officers were able to mount a fully proportionate response and calm me down before I nutted myself.

During the afternoon, I'm glad to report that I was able to persuade myself that the sensible, adult way forward was to get round a table with myself to thrash out the issues in a civilised manner. Obviously I and I couldn't agree on a suitable table in my own workplace, so we settled on a table on neutral ground owned by a third party. I believe Greene King own the pub, and I and I thank them for hosting the negotiations at the very reasonable price of £2.30 a pint.

The talks continue, and may do so for some time.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The last rose of someone

Mrs QO and I moved into this Victorian/Edwardian semi 20 years ago - almost to the day. We found out that the next-door house was empty, as the elderly Polish gentleman who'd lived there had recently died.

The gardens in this row of houses are all pretty small, so options are limited, but our Polish not-quite-neighbour evidently loved roses, as there were quite a few running wild as we could see from our side of the boundary. The house was fairly soon bought by an investor and let to students, and the garden is just kept clear and clean by her contracted gardener. But one rose is left.

We never knew the man who lived next door, but the last of his roses is giving us much pleasure two decades on.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Addendum to the previous post

On re-reading my masterly analysis, I do have a little concern that I might be seen as sneering in some way at Greece. Far from it. My Observations suggest that the UK economy is heading in exactly the same direction, and we don't even have the benefit of lots of goats, which can be eaten when famine strikes.

The one thing in our favour, of course, is that Rupert Murdoch is already buying up the country, so we may just escape.

For further and more detailed coverage, see Sky News.

Olympian fail

The financial crisis in Greece has been absorbing me for some time. I blogged about it last year and have been following it in the news since.

For those who haven't been following the drama in depth, we present the QO's 'Dinner party expert' guide to what's gone wrong, Hellenically speaking. Should your fellow diners look at you with admiration, seek your opinion on many other topics you have no real idea about, and propose that you sleep with them forthwith, please mention this blog. Should you find that your fellow diners' considered opinion is that you're a tedious, economically illiterate tit, well, you're on your own. Repeat after me: 'Believe Nothing You Read on the Internet'.

All that said, here are some notions that should at least provoke interesting debate.

The root cause of the Greek economic crisis is twofold: Europe - or more precisely, the Euro - and the Greeks. Joining the eurozone should not have been possible for Greece under EU economic criteria, but of course the EU leaders were gagging for another country's worth of taxpayers to join. Little did they know that the Greeks are notoriously bad at paying tax. Greek companies are also very bad at paying tax. The black economy is rampant in Greece at all levels.

Having put the Greek economy (officially largely based around the public sector, tourism and things to do with goats) into the eurozone, the Greeks can no longer let their own currency float... sink... to an appropriately low level, but must perforce stay where the euro stays for the good of Germany. This sucks, economically.

Governments have virtually no sources of income other than tax revenues and borrowing. Since annual Greek tax revenues amount to around 57 euros and a handful of olives, this means that huge borrowings are required. This money has indeed been forthcoming, in large part from avaricious private banks across Europe and the rest of the world, plus monies from other European states.

The private banks, now realising that the Greek sovereign debt they hold is increasingly worthless (as nobody really wants that many goats or olives), are getting very edgy and don't want to lend any more money. Since huge numbers of Greeks are employed by the Greek state, which doesn't have any money of its own, the monthly salary cheques might be a bit of a problem. More importantly on a global basis, they won't be able to meet the next round of sovereign debt repayments. This is the dreaded sovereign default, which everybody says can never happen and often does. (See Iceland and Argentina for recent examples.)

And so our EU leaders, those wise men of Brussels, are also rather troubled. They have a sneaking suspicion that the private banks not only hold huge amounts of near-worthless Greek debt, but all sorts of other toxic "assets" and are in reality worth no more than your average doner-kebab stall. Should Greece default, some of those banks will come unravelled big-stylee and doubtless come running to national governments to be propped up. With humungous wads of taxpayers' moolah, which is in somewhat short supply at the moment following similar cock-ups over recent years.

Other members of the Euro might join in the game of fiscal dominoes. Ireland and Portugal are looking increasingly bollixed, and Spain's not too good either.

More importantly still, for the evangelical believers in the European project, this scenario could lead to an economic state of affairs known to city traders as "tits-up for the Euro". This would not look good on the CV of the Brussels Gnomes, nor would it help the wider European project, i.e. the United States of Europe, complete with European Government, common currency, common laws, same rules on doner-kebab stalls, care of goats, the lot. This is not going to seem an appealing prospect to member states if they can't even get the dosh sorted.

Most money traders and independent economists say that Greece will default. There's no way it can be avoided. The EU is desperately trying to find a way of pumping enough money in to stop a default, despite the fact that lending more money, at high interest, only makes things worse. The very best that might be achieved will be to postpone the inevitable for a bit, and hope that in the meantime all those banks magically find themselves with so much real money that they don't mind losing a bit on the Greek debt. Frankly, even this will take some doing.

So there you have it. The QO's guide to the Greek crisis. Oh, and I have a solution, too, and it's really quite simple. Sell Greece - lock, stock, barrel and goats - to Rupert Murdoch. He can make money out of any old tat, as his TV stations and newspapers prove. I have every confidence in his ability to make millions out of goats. Sorted.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

So, farewell then...

Brian Haw has died. He set up his tent in Parliament Square ten years ago to protest at Britain's treatment of Iraq and his camp became a focal point for wider protest at the invasion and, more generally, at the erosion of civil liberties in this country. His occupation of Parliament Square survived quite a few legal challenges, though eventually Mayor Boris managed to get him off the grass, so he camped on the pavement instead.

His form of protest rather polarised opinion, and many thought that the peace camp outside Parliament was just an eyesore created by noisy nutters with not enough to do. His supporters point to the fact that his presence in that place meant that the protest stayed alive and in the media far longer than any one march or petition could have done.

I admired his persistence, and take some comfort from the fact that despite enormous effort by The Powers That Be, the justice system in this country allowed him to stay there and continue his protest. Illness, not the law, brought it to an end. My sympathy goes to his family and friends.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Pensive over pensions

While understanding the feelings of public sector workers over the proposed worsening of their pension entitlements, my sympathy is somewhat limited. I'm more than content to pay tax that goes towards employing people to provide services that benefit society, and I'd certainly argue that they should be decently paid for what is often undervalued work. I also accept the argument that taxpayers should fund pensions for public sector workers. In the private sector, employee pensions are funded out of profit, and employers provide them to attract and retain good staff. If we as a country want to attract and retain good people for public services, which don't make a profit as such but benefit society generally, then we'll have to put up the money. But it's far less clear to me why my taxes should pay for pension schemes that are generally accepted to be far better than a private sector worker on similar pay could expect.

I exclude from this the armed services and the emergency services; the hazardous and unsocial nature of their work amply deserves special treatment. But I do often think many in the public sector have no real idea what it's like in the private sector. Virtually nobody in the private sector has a defined benefit pension any more; it's all defined contribution. In other words, no promises what you'll get, you take the risk of how the investments go. And for self-employed people like me, my entire pension contribution is literally cash out of my own pocket. I saw figures from PwC that said that the average private sector worker would have to put nearly a third of their salary away to get a pension of the same level as an equivalent public sector worker with the same years of service.

The public sector also has the advantage that their pension scheme is underwritten by the state, and the management charges are tiny when spread across the number of participants. I bear all the charges on my modest plans. And I don't get paid holidays nor do I get paid to be off sick, nor do I get any kind of pay-off if I lose a contract. That's all part of the territory of being self-employed, of course, and I knew all that before going for it. But I pay tax and NI at the same rate as everyone else, and I look at my pension statements and the news that much of the public sector is threatening to strike over the pensions that even after reduction will be far more generous (partly at my expense) than I can manage for myself, and you'll excuse me if I don't come on the march...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Our daily bread

The BBC news website has an interesting story marking the 50th anniversary of the 'Chorleywood' breadmaking process. By all means read the full text, but here are some of the salient points:
Soft, springy, white bread - that did not go stale quickly - was what the public wanted. The research bakers at Chorleywood discovered that by adding hard fats, extra yeast and a number of chemicals and then mixing at high speed you got a dough that was ready to bake in a fraction of the time it normally took. It allowed bread to be made easily and economically with low protein British wheat.

But with industrial bakers quickly adopting the process, rather than helping small bakeries, the research at Chorleywood helped put thousands of them out of business.

Evidently 80% of British bread is now made this way. The process requires some ingredients that traditional bakers didn't use: enzymes and oxidants are added.

I think most of us know that the only use for this kind of bread is the bacon butty, in which the bread is only a kind of edible tray and brown sauce dispenser. I use the word 'edible' in a strict sense.

For well over a year, my talented Mrs QO has produced real bread - the sort that's labelled 'artisan' these days. Here are the last two loaves:

Most of her bread is sourdough. This is old-style baking at its best, and involves leaving organic flour mixed with a little water around the place until it's colonised by naturally occurring wild yeasts. These little guys get some of their lactobacillus friends round to party and before long you're getting carbon dioxide and lactic acid into the mix. Add more flour to keep the party going and you're off.

Now I shall have to leave Mrs QO to outline the fine detail of the production process from there, but the end result is a loaf with texture and flavour that is simply startling if all you've ever had is Chorleywood. (I hazard a guess that if you live in Chorleywood you're missing texture and flavour in all sorts of things, but that's by the by.) And because of the slightly acidic nature of the bread it lasts very well indeed. And it's cheap. It means having to do some work at home, of course.

I wouldn't be the first to draw parallels between the kind of bread we like to eat and the kind of lives we lead. I'm sure you can fill that in for yourselves. One last comment from the BBC story:
Almost a third of the bread bought in Britain - 680,000 tonnes a year - is thrown away.
A third is thrown away? Well, I guess that's a start.