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Why minimum alcohol pricing is a terrible idea

December 30, 2011 9 comments

Governments in both England and Scotland are planning minimum-pricing regimes for alcohol. These are a terrible idea, not only if you’re a liberal, but even on their own terms. There are three main issues associated with minimum pricing, all of which are conflated by minimum price proponents (this article is a good example of their muddled thinking, and indeed their sanctimony; this piece is expanded from a comment I left there).

1) is it reasonable to expect the government to take measures to reduce the harm that alcohol does to people who aren’t consenting adults?

Yes of course. Hence, tougher powers for councils to revoke the licenses of pubs and clubs associated with violent behaviour, tougher enforcement of bans on sales to minors, better treatment for domestically abusive alcoholics and support for their families, and so on are a good idea.

Nobody has come up with any evidence *at all* that minimum pricing would have any impact on this. Booze consumed in pubs and clubs is always going to be above any minimum price level that encompasses off-trade sales, because *that markup is what pays for the pub to exist*, so the town centre violence argument is nonsense; and bottle-a-day alkies are merely going to have less money to spend on other, less important things like food.

2) is it reasonable to expect the government to impose restrictive measures on consenting adults, based on the probability of health risks in later life *to the person being considered*?

Not in my opinion. If people choose to lower their life expectancy from 80 to 60 but have a better time on the way, that’s entirely their lookout.

This is where the puritan wing (‘teetotalitarians’) and the liberal wing of the left diverge: the puritans want to compel everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate. Which, y’know, is pretty much exactly the same as religious fundamentalists compelling everyone else to live in the way that they view as most appropriate.

3) Even if you accept the puritan argument, is a minimum price a good way of achieving it?

Absolutely not, it’s a fucking terrible idea, because THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF THE POLICY GO TO THE BREWERS AND THE SUPERMARKETS. Suddenly, there’s a floor to price competition in the market, which means that everyone involved makes far more profit. This is what a cartel *is*.

If Cameron wasn’t in the industry’s pocket, he’d be suggesting that alcohol tax were raised to ensure that, based on the current lowest-cost production, all forms of booze cost at least 50p a unit (formal policy, actual rates reviewed every year based on what was available in the market). This would have the same impact on consumption of cheap booze as the proposed policy on drinking, whatever you think that impact may be, but the money raised would go to schools’n’hospitals rather than to Mr Tesco and Mr Heineken. At the same time, it would encourage people above the ‘cheap booze’ cutoff point to moderate their consumption, which is a desirable goal if you support the puritan argument (d’you think Christopher Hitchens drank cheap cider or Special Brew? Not exactly…)

The only reason to support a minimum price over higher tax is if you think the poor should have their lifestyle choices forcibly controlled by the state, but that the middle classes shouldn’t. In which case, you’re a bit of a scumbag, nah?

(disclosure as always: I’ve done consulting work for the drinks industry in the past and will probably do so in the future.)

This little thing? Oh, it doesn’t matter; here you go

December 30, 2011 8 comments

Via Tim, I find a very cool article on the Aussies who worked in Melbourne under Bletchley Park’s command, breaking the Pacific Axis’s codes during WWII [*]. Very cool, and – unlike the (shamefully underfunded, GIVE THEM MONEY) museum at Bletchley, not even remembered at all. Should be.

This obviously gets me onto the history of the computer: so the calculator invented by a Victorian lady and her partner; was ignored. Almost a hundred years later, a very hardcore calculator invented by Polish geniuses to try and not be invaded by the Germans AGAIN was the genesis of the proper modern computer.

So we set up Bletchley for Polish, UK and general Commonwealth geniuses and a supporting cast to work together on similar grounds. And it was aces, and we cracked a bunch of codes, and a vast quantity of moral dilemmas were created for governments (‘do we save the people of Coventry when doing so would risk blowing the D-Day landings, as it would let the Germans know that we know their codes?’ – while there are some aspects of the conduct of Mr Churchill and Mr Harris that I question, anyone who could answer that question with the correct answer, rather than turning into a blubbing wreck at the horribleness of the thing they’d just chosen, is a better man than me), and we started turning the direction of the war, and it was the first time ELECTRONICS WAS FUCKING ACES.

At roughly this point, a gay English genius invented the first electronic computer. Which was even better at doing sums than the electro-mechanical ones that had been going down before. At roughly the same point, the war was won. This was not a coincidence: it’s how WWII went down: we lost at actual battles, then we broke the Nazi and Japanese codes, then we stopped losing, because we knew where they were going to be, and they didn’t always know that we knew this. Both sides had highly skilled coders. Well, the Commonwealth, Germany and Japan had highly skilled coders [**]. But the Commonwealth chaps did better, largely thanks to Poles, geeks and queers. Meanwhile, the USSR won its battles for for, erm, nastier reasons.

Then the war ended, following the USA’s scientific contribution and the USSR’s entry into the War in the East. The USA’s manpower and materiel contribution to the war was unequivocal and without it, the outcome would have been terrible. Its scientific contribution meant that the USSR was scared off occupying Japan, which probably worked out best for even the people of Japan. Hurrah! Brief John & Yoko moment.

So. To recap, the Commonwealth diverted her finest scientific brains and vast resources to Bletchley and its satellites. This secured an extra advantage in close-matched battles, that made the Normandy landings feasible and won the Pacific naval war. After that, everything was bloody, grinding and attrition-y, but history, and WE INVENTED THE FUCKING ELECTRONIC COMPUTER.

You might assume, at this point, as an impartial sane reader from Mars, that you’d be reading this on a computer that ran on Turing-OS, or perhaps on something cutely named for Oxfordshire.

As if. Guess what the British government did at the end of WWII? Set up an endowment of millions of pounds to develop computers for civilian ends? Said to the brilliant scientists who won the war ‘sorry, we’re broke, but why don’t you develop these for civilian ends and you’ll share the money’? Probably the latter, right? The British government was fucking broke at the end of WWII, and it might be a struggle to show the benefits of new technology, so pass on the rights to the folks who sorted it out and let them make money…?

As if. THEY GAVE THE ENTIRE FUCKING TECHNOLOGY, LOCK STOCK AND BARREL, TO THE USA, AND THEN MADE IT ILLEGAL FOR ANYONE IN THE COMMONWEALTH TO EVEN TALK ABOUT IT.

So the USA took this in the intended spirit, right? (fuck knows what the UK’s intended spirit here was, other than the spirit of ‘technological & industrial suicide’) Well, guess which company which was THE KEY TECHNOLOGICAL ENABLER OF THE FUCKING HOLOCAUST they passed the details onto, almost straight away, so they could market their Business Machines Internationally [CHALLENGING ANAGRAMS]. Whilst, just as a reminder, anyone in the UK would have been jailed or hanged for using any of the Bletchley computer secrets in any kind of industrial work.

I don’t blame the US government for this. If I were PM of anywhere, and someone gave me blueprints to THE MOST AMAZING TECHNOLOGY THERE WAS, then I’d immediately give it to every industrial company in my territory. But fuck, it changes one’s take on Attlee somewhat, doesn’t it? Yes, land fit for heroes, NHS, pensions, great, it is well fair. But you didn’t really need to TAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF THE FOLLOWING 100 YEARS AND FUCKING GIVE IT TO THE AMERICANS AND THEN FUCKING MAKE IT ILLEGAL FOR YOUR OWN CITIZENS TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT AT ALL, did you? I mean, really, that wasn’t necessary.

So yeah. End of UK as anything important is exactly equal to the point when the idiots in charge decided that the computer was so irrelevant we might as well give it to the colonial cousins, they understand that sort of thing don’t you know. And the miserable, horrific hounding to death of the one man who did the most to save civilisation in WWII, Mr Turing, was hardly a surprise after that – once the computer had gone to America, what use is someone who invents something that nobody in your own land believes to be worth the square root of fuck all?

[*] That quite good war, before we returned to the pre-1939 model of only fighting wars that were pointless and stupid (apart from the one in 1982, which is only opposed by scumbags who hate democratic self-determination. And yes, I otherwise hate Madame T).

[**] The only USA code that remained unbroken during the war was the Navajo code. This is unsurprising, given the tale of the US Senator who toured the Melbourne coding facilities and then “went back home and told American newspapers how American ingenuity had cracked the Japanese codes”. Whichever member of the Australian government let a FOREIGN BLOODY POLITICIAN tour the facilities really should have been horsewhipped.

Being for the retirement of Mr Hartnett

December 11, 2011 2 comments

So, you’re a lifelong civil servant. You’re quite competent, and you’re amazingly good at tolerating people who aren’t, especially your political ‘masters’. You’ve spent over 30 years in the service, and you’ve risen to be in charge of collecting tax and that.

You’re well aware that a lot of companies are headquartered in the UK, that it costs them a grand and a few Ryanair flights a year to be headquartered in Ireland where there’s hardly any tax at all on foreign earnings instead, and so any company that makes the majority of its money outside the UK is only not sodding off to Ireland because the boss quite likes his office on the Thames/being among the London advisory community/and so on. But that this isn’t necessarily worth billions of squillions of squids.

So, given that the government’s official ethos is “we’re OK with people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their bills”, rather than “fuck everybody we don’t like TO DEATH”, you come to deals with people, under which the UK gets shedloads of tax money, far more than if the companies in question had just fucked off to Ireland, and nobody has to fuck off to Ireland.

Then, you get a disastrous recession, caused more by the governing ethos that both parties have shared for 20 years than anything else – and which you’ve bought into wholly, as did everyone except for some marginal cranks (no, shut up, as did everyone except some marginal cranks). And it all goes to ratshit, and the incoming government declares war on the public sector.

What better to do than to a) strongly encourage you-as-lifelong-public servant to quit now; b) smear you to fuck as a FATCAT PUBLIC SECTOR SALARY PERSON, even though the pension difference is vastly less than the enormous lifetime paycut you accepted for working in the public sector in the first place?

It’s not quite fair to view the current UK scenario solely as an excuse to fuck over people who work in the public sector. It’s also massively fucking over people in the private sector, but they have to meekly take it because FINANCE IS GOD. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, as played convincingly by Corinna Harfouch, that’s the perceived medicine for everything. “Oh, you’re poor? Well, we’ll stop helping with your rent and your dole, then you’ll be less poor”. < - FACT | SATIRE -> “Oh, you’ve got cancer? Well, here’s my asbestos-themed cigar bar; also, this lady in heels will kick you in the genitalia whenever you care. After all, you wouldn’t want to bring kids into such a world”.

(I lied with the Harfouch resemblance. At lest Mrs G got the “not wanting to bring kids into such a world” part).

But yeah. Everything’s fucked. Dave Hartnett devoted his life to making the best job of public service, for paymasters who haven’t (at least yet) been hanged. Until and unless we hang them, we owe him that deal, just as much as we owe everyone else who rejected easy private sector money in order to do hard stuff for crap money with the sole benefits being a smile on your face and a tolerable pension.