All posts by John Band

You know you’re flying too often when…

The redhead girl from the BA safety video really is cute, isn’t she? Shame she’s clearly still very much in love with the vaguely-Barack-Obama-lookalike father of her adorable kid. Ah well…

– me, various points, the last 18 months.

Even more tragically, for those of you who don’t fly BA, the video is a cartoon.

Newly sharpened

I’ve a slightly snarky new piece at the Sharpener, on how ‘fuel poverty’ isn’t nPower or EDF’s fault (or, indeed, a very meaningful concept).

Some of the discussion about this issue has reminded me of how bloody annoying it is when hacks and bloggers take £ profit numbers as meaning something in their own right. “BT’s made a profit of £35,000 per second, but they’re outsourcing call centres to India – outrage“, etc.

Profit numbers are only meaningful as a percentage – whether of revenue, of share price, of number of customers, or of the same number last year. Even then, you need to be very careful not to overstate things: when your values of y and z are similar, x = (y – z) can produce very large variances in x for small variances in y and z.

And if your y varies in the long term (say, retail energy prices) while your z varies in the short term (say, wholesale energy prices), this can produce massive apparent swings in profits that really don’t mean very much…

On that ‘who subsidises whom’ thing

There’s a great deal of controversy and bitterness over whether the parasitical Scots steal money from the hard-working English to spend on whisky and deep-fried Mars bars, or whether in fact the evil colonial masters are stealing the Scots’ money to fritter away on Pimms and linen suits.

The problem is, despite the statistical data on where tax revenues are generated and where they end up, there’s no answer to the question of who’s right.

If you believe North Sea oil belongs to the Scots [*], then it’s clear that the Scots are subsidising the English, as annual North Sea oil tax revenues of £9bn for 2006/07 are way in excess of the Barnett payments of £7.5bn. If you believe North Sea oil is a shared resource between all citizens of the UK,
then it’s equally clear the English are subsidising the Scots.

Since the answer to that question is dependent on one’s beliefs about political philosophy, equity and the nature of nation states, and also on unresolved questions about the UK’s constitutional status, it’s hardly bloody surprising that the controversy exists…

[*] i.e. if you believe that oil reserves should be allocated between England and Scotland based on the Law of the Sea, which under most estimates would give the vast majority of oil to Scotland.

Automatic comment generator

This is an absolutely superb generator of ignorant nonsense. It’s nominally a tribute to the BBC’s Have Your Say, but is quite an effective simulation of most right-wing blog comments.

Sample:

Twas ever thus. here come the pc brigade and the nanny state! Gordon Brown is going to put us all in Death Camps. It is vital that we string them all up. Why did nobody listen to Enoch Powell all those years ago?!!

Gordon Clown Out Now England

Don’t axe Crossrail – double it!

Local press exclusives on specialist topics are seldom the most reliable or accurate commentaries you’ll ever find on anything ever. Nonetheless, I’m concerned by the East London Advertiser’s current alleged scoop on Crossrail.

The ELA claims that:

Crossrail chiefs fear the deteriorating economic climate, spiralling Olympic costs and the election of Tory Boris Johnson as Mayor of London will persuade Mr Brown to delay construction.

The source said: “It’s only my opinion and not the corporate line, but my strong feeling is that in the current circumstances, the Government will more than likely delay the project by a few years.”

If the ELA is right, then the government are making a very daft short-termist decision swayed purely by bean-counters and spurious “OMG, debts are evil” worries.

Simply put, Crossrail is a 10-year project with benefits over 30 years. Dropping it because of short-term budget constraints would not only be utterly ridiculous, it would be the worst possible choice the government could make. Economic bad times are a positive reason to build Crossrail, not a reason to shelve it.

The ideal time to build a massive infrastructure project paid for largely with public money is during a construction recession, when the workers, managers and contractors responsible are unable to find sufficient private sector work. This would not only make Crossrail cheaper for the taxpayer, but will also prop up the wider economy, stemming unemployment and reducing the impact of falling private sector demand on GDP growth.

What about actually finding the money? Well, governments are able to get credit on good terms right now, since they’re among the lucky few for whom the markets believe they’ll be able to pay it back. And UK national debt is in reasonably good shape as a proportion of GDP – 37% now against 43% in 1997, so there’s no obstacle to ramping up government borrowing to buoy demand and cushion the tough times.

Yes to sceptics, the 37% figure is too low, since it does not include finance leases under PFI that would be accounted for as debt under IFRS. These amount to an extra £30bn on top of existing debt of £530bn, taking real public sector debt as measured under IFRS to 39% of GDP. Some people account for PFI by counting all future PFI liabilities including payment for services which haven’t yet been delivered but if you do this then you do not understand how accounting works [*].

Sorry for that digression. The point is that the government has plenty of room to borrow money to stimulate the economy over the next couple of years, and building Crossrail would be one very good way of doing this. Financing it entirely through public sector borrowing would raise the national debt by 1% of GDP, which is entirely affordable. Axeing it would be somewhere between a short-termist capitulation to Treasury interests, and a deliberate attempt to screw things up for the incoming Tories…

[*] If I sign a billion pound contract with the government to provide them with and maintain their widgets for the next 40 years, and I book sales of £1bn for year one, then I go to jail. This is precisely what people who count PFI liabilities at £100bn are doing, except for the “going to jail” bit.

Good news, everybody

You’ll be delighted to hear that The Sharpener is back online and that I have a new post there on why it’s right to treat politics as a trivial and irrelevant sideshow.

Also, now that the Sharpener is back up, I’m going to try and get back into the habit of putting my political stuff up there, and random finance / transport / IT geekery / lifestyle stuff on here. Whether that will improve either place is a question for thee and not for me…

On antisocial behaviour

A comment on this Guardian thread, about the prospect of extending the insane Tube drinking ban to – even more insanely – cover all public transport expresses confusion over why this is a problem:

“I haven’t lived in the UK for some time but where I live in Europe I frequently see people drinking in public and have never seen any trouble of any kind.”

Unfortunately, he goes on to wonder why things are worse in the UK. This isn’t the point – the UK is exactly the same as the rest of Europe. Our problem is that we have an unusually high concentration of paranoid nutjobs who think anyone found Having Fun should be arrested, stirred up by the Daily Hate Mail’s propaganda lying that crime and Anti Social Behaviour (whatever that may be) are serious problems.

The truth is that crime is falling, that drinking is fun, that binge drinking is not a serious problem, that you are incredibly unlikely to be the victim of drink-related violence, that even if you are it is unlikely to do you much harm, and that the number of people seriously harmed through drink-related violence every year in a country of 60 million people is sufficiently low that only the statistically illiterate or the paranoid and gullible need worry about it.

[there is one exception, an example of a crime from which a large proportion of the population have suffered in which alcohol is a trigger factor in large proportion of cases: domestic violence. However, this doesn't fit the nonsensical 'terrorised by ASBO yobs' narrative beloved of the tabloids; nor is it visible; nor is it increasing; nor is it more prevalent in the UK than eslewhere...]