The joule in the crown

An excellent piece from the generally excellent Metric Views on food energy content labelling. A calorie is a nonsense unit that means nothing; a joule is a real unit that makes sense.

One of the things that I very much like about moving to Australia is that, for all its stereotyping as backward, the country has almost completely moved over to sane units of measurement. People talk about their weight in kilos, they drive kilometres, energy on drinks cans is stated in joules. Stupid measurements are a thing of the past, rather than having been retained to appease fogeys and xenophobic bigots.

For all my disapproval of democracy, I’d certainly vote for any party that promised to finish and enforce metrication in the UK. Particularly if the enforcement was on pain of death (wouldn’t it have been lovely had the Metric Martyrs [*] actually been burned at the stake?)

[*] or “swindlers who refused to display their goods’ correct prices”, as they should more accurately be called.

Being shouted at is your goddamn job

I never shout at customer services people. Literally never. Occasionally I mute the phone and scream; on very rare occasions I excuse myself from the physical situation and scream; but I’ve never shouted at a customer services person of any kind and hope never to do so.

In most cases, this is because they don’t deserve it. We’re all fully aware that customer services people are hired to follow rules, that rules are laid down by managers, and that managers are frequently useless idiots (I defy anyone to quibble with that proposition).

If someone’s enforcing a stupid rule which is actually a rule laid down by management, they admit that it’s a rule laid down by management that they have no authority to do anything about, and they don’t BACAI, then being anything other than civil and polite with them is morally wrong. We all have to eat, and anyone drawing parallels between Boncentration Bamp guards and junior call centre bods is a knobend.

However, the situation becomes slightly different when you’re dealing with someone who actually thinks they’re a force for good, rather than merely enforcing a stupid rule that they’re too stupid to understand is a stupid rule. This encompasses about half of the people wearing uniforms in airports who don’t have advanced training in flying aeroplanes, firing guns or spying, as well as the vast majority of security guards and PCSOs elsewhere. In fact, it’s pretty much solely confined to occupations where you can wear a uniform and exercise power over people despite knowing fuck-all and having fuck-all skills (the other 50% of people in such jobs fall into the first category, of knowing how pointless and stupid the role is but needing to get paid. They deserve nothing but respect and sympathy).

I’m not rude to these people, except in abstract. Not because they don’t deserve it – they do, and if everyone treated them with the lack of respect that they deserved, uniformed-muppet-interaction situations like airports would become much less unpleasant. I remain polite to them at all times partly because I believe that publicly losing one’s temper generally loses one the argument, and partly because there are lots of them and have the right to kick me out of their mall/airport (and in the event that the only way to resolve the dispute is to call the real police then “being in the right, completely calm and that’s backed up by the CCTV footage” is a helpful way of ensuring that you win in the longer term [*]).

However, that’s solely a personal, pragmatic decision. I don’t hold anything whatsoever morally against people who react to the latter group in the manner they’ve entirely provoked.

And hence, the title of this post. Nobody should be spat at or subjected to physical violence as part of their job, unless they’re in a punk band or a boxing match. But if you take the point of your job as “being an arsehole”, then “having people be rude to you” ought to be a part of your job description, not something which is oh-so-terrible-and-traumatic from which you deserve legal protection. And on that basis, as long as the reaction remains verbal rather than spit- or punch-based, I’m 100% in favour (standing offer to all readers: provide evidence of a public servant’s arsehole-y ness, and evidence that you’ve verbally abused said arsehole, and I’ll buy you a drink).

I’m aware of claims that people in customer services roles who react in the former manner, by apologetically following the rules, are also subjected to abuse. I simply don’t believe it – every customer services person I’ve ever seen abused was one who followed the rules gleefully, rather than empathetically. I’ve never seen a customer services person who actually appeared to understand and care about a customer’s problem get into any trouble whatsoever [**] [***].

[*] the one interaction with arsehole-ish authority that I’m still grumpy about giving up on was Christmas Eve a year and a bit ago – a South West Trains ticket inspector demanded a penalty fare despite the fact that I had a valid ticket, and I was barely-on-time for a family dinner – if I’d had nothing better to do, I’d have happily called the police myself and calmly noted that a burly man was holding me under false arrest.

[**] this is the difference between “you should have been here 30 minutes before your flight” and “I’m sorry, but the management has said I can’t let people on within 30 minutes of the flight. No, I don’t understand the rule either, I know you don’t have any luggage and you could easily make it to the gate, but I’m not allowed to let you on. Here’s a complaints form, please write to the management and ask them why they enforce this policy and if they could change it”. I’ve seen both done; the first makes people boil, the second deflects any boiling to the people whose fault the boiling actually is.

[***] before posting counter-examples from personal work experience, I recommend thinking very carefully about whether they reflect primarily on my argument or your skillset.

Back to the coal face

Holiday over; new life commencing. As the twitter updates might testify, I now have an Australian flat, bank account, enormous selection of IKEA furniture, etc (not quite a driving licence yet, due to bureaucratic stupidity, but it’s on the cards).

This should (both in the moral sense and in the predictive sense) mean a return to regular blogging rather than microblogging via Twitter updates. I also need to redesign the site to be a bit more professional-showcase-y (not affecting the core blog writing, don’t worry – although some of the more business/economics-y stuff might end up shifted to another ‘professional’ blog, if I get around to it and can make WordPress work the way I want it to.

But basically, hello again. Also, anyone know any good Australian business/economics/generally worthwhile blogs?

Reversion to the mean

The BBC has an article based on an interesting House of Commons report on alcohol consumption… well, more accurately, it’s a very bad report on alcohol consumption with some interesting data.

The data shows that, before the global descent into miserable puritanism around World War I that led to prohibition in the US and draconian licensing rules in the UK, alcohol consumption was around its current level.

It then spiked after the war ended, fell during the Depression, rose slightly during the mid-late 1930s and WWII, fell in the austerity period, and then rose fairly consistently from 1950 onwards – accelerating slightly since 1995 due to increased wine consumption [*]. We’re now at about 9 litres of pure alcohol per head per year, compared to 11 litres in 1900.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that, with miserable busybodies out of the equation, 10ish litres per head is the natural level that Brits want to drink, that this is all well and good, and that the puritans should be deported to America on pain of pain, as we did in the good old days.

The House of Commons report instead draws the conclusion that OMG FFS AAAGH the sky is falling. Particular stupidity lies in:

Ten million adults drink more than the recommended limits and between them knock back 75% of all alcohol consumed in the country. More than two-and-a-half million adults (8% of men and 6% of women) drink above the higher-risk levels – more than double the government’s daily guidelines.

…but we know that the daily and weekly guidelines are based on *nothing at all*. And we know that, on aggregate, the only people who show a greater risk of mortality or morbidity from alcohol than teetotallers are those who drink more than 30 units a week, which is equivalent to 17 litres of pure alcohol a year. So we can crank up our national drinking by another 70% before we need to start worrying about health impacts.

Paraphrasing the report’s conclusion:

It was not inevitable that per capita alcohol consumption was only one third as high in the middle of the 20th Century as its natural level. The decline was fuelled by miserable prohibitionists lying about the data, a draconian licensing regime and massive propaganda budgets. Now that we’ve returned to normal levels, let’s bring back the 1950s. Who needs fun anyway?

[*] which, as it’s mostly consumed in moderation and with meals, mostly doesn’t have negative health effects anyway.

I’ll drink to that

An excellent piece on CiF on the neo-puritans and their efforts to wage class war on the poor through banning and taxing booze. Killer quote:

The 19th-century temperance movement was defeated by an alliance of liberals and the working class, and it looks like a repeat performance might be required. A prohibition bill was squashed in the Commons in 1859, the year in which John Stuart Mill in On Liberty savaged the “beer house purism” of the religiously inspired anti-alcohol lobby.

Let’s face it – irrespective of the issue, if you’re lining up against JS Mill, you’re most likely on the wrong side of the argument…

Quick Icelandic banking redux

Just for the avoidance of doubt:

1) the democratically elected Icelandic government, under EU/EFTA financial regulation equivalence rules, agreed long before the crisis even began that it would guarantee compensation of the first EUR20887 of deposit to retail depositors in Icelandic banks from other EU countries.

2) the Icelandic banks, with explicit permission from the democratically elected Icelandic government (as part of the economic boom that vastly enriched Icelanders for many years), actively marketed their savings accounts to depositors from other EU countries.

3) The Icelandic banks then went bust and lost their depositors’ money.

4) This means that, unequivocally and in every possible sense, the Icelandic government is responsible for paying the first EUR20887 of compensation to retail depositors in Icelandic banks from other EU countries. They agreed to take on that debt, and retail depositors in the Icelandic banks made the deposits on the basis that the Icelandic government weren’t a bunch of ropey shysters who’d refuse to pay debt that they owed.

5) For understandable reasons of domestic harmony, the governments of the UK and Netherlands (where the majority of Iceland’s victims were located) agreed to pay the compensation themselves, and subsequently chase the Icelandic government for the money it owed.

6) Today’s populist refusal by Iceland’s president to pay the UK and Netherlands government the US$5bn it owes as a result, despite the extremely generous payment terms they’d been offered, represents every single Icelandic person nicking more than US$10,000 from British and Dutch taxpayers.

If that’s democracy, screw it.

Obvious scam is obvious

The usual suspects are in full-on froth mode about the non-news on Goldman Sachs allegedly moving to somewhere godawful to escape a small, one-off tax on salaries.

Obviously, like nearly all right-wing frothers nearly all the time, they’re talking complete and utter bollocks. US culture site the Awl nails it on why:

Goldman Sachs “is understood to be considering its options in the wake of the UK’s windfall tax on bankers’ bonuses, a new 50pc top income tax rate, and increased banking regulations” is hilarious, and it is also a dead giveaway that the Telegraph uses the phrasing “is understood” to introduce this idea. Let’s see: here’s an incredibly-secretive, super-private financial institution of which it can be “understood” that they’re going directly to the papers as the first volley in a bargaining plan. But: hilarious! They’re going to pretend that they’re willing to leave London? They’re going to offshore the London office? To where? Glamorous downtown Sofia? Belfast? Tallinn or Toronto? Think it through, boys. Nobody who works in that office will leave London! What’s the point of being rich if you have to live somewhere crappy? It just doesn’t work like that. You can near-shore and off-shore the jobs no one wants to Salt Lake City or wherever—but you can’t move the income producers to a town where they can’t get a cab and a fat steak. If you give Goldman Sachs anything at all to stay put, it means you both are huge morons, just like New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg was when GS pretended it was going to move from downtown Manhattan to more expensive quarters in midtown, and they wouldn’t even have done that. Ever.