Category Archives: Business

A coin has two sides

Every coin has two sides and I am beginning to wonder whether or not that is the most important political statement that can be made. On the face of it, that is a ridiculous idea but I will try to demonstrate that it could be the key to the political problems that we face here, in the UK, today.

Personal freedoms are important to many of us – the freedom freely to express an opinion with fear being pretty well at the top of the list. But that freedom creates problems unless it is exercised with great care. I don’t think the idea of one person’s freedom being almost always at the expense of others occurred to me until I stayed with a cousin of mine in the delightful village of Bottmingen just outside Basel. (In passing, I haven’t been there for over thirty-five years and I expect it is now just another suburb of the city so, if you know that to be true, please don’t tell me – I want to remember how it was then).

My Canadian cousin and her Swiss husband had very different ideas when it came to personal freedom. One of the laws (whether local or national I am not sure) stated that at weekends it was forbidden to have a record player or radio on in the garden. As Max pointed out this meant that everyone could be in their gardens at the week ends knowing they would have peace and quiet. Joan, on the other hand, considered this to be as near as maybe an infringement of her personal liberty. That coin had two sides and both side could claim the moral high ground if they wanted to. It is, actually, a political coin.

So who was right, Max or Joan? As a libertarian who, by definition, considers most regulations to be a response to a human failing of one sort or another I find myself siding with Joan. I feel we should be able to rely on the good manners of those with whom we live and that cultural pressures should be sufficient to ensure people respect their neighbours. Yes, I know that is hoping for more than can be expected but regulations reduce the sense of community responsibility within the population generally and I do not believe that to be a good thing.

This all started, I suppose, because I and others became antagonists on Twitter in the matter of the so-called bedroom tax. I explained all this on a previous post (Capping Housing Benefits). For the record, as a result I have now discovered one person who has been adversely effected by that cap and I shall be meeting her soon to hear her side of the story. Why we got ourselves into a muddle was that we did not think of it as being a coin with two sides – which is exactly what it is.

On the one side you have all the people who, often through no fault of their own, are living in housing the cost of which is being borne by the state and on the other side you have all the people who are giving up a part of their earnings in order to meet those costs. In a properly grown-up democracy, we would look at both sides of that coin and seek a modus operandi that removes the present conflicts that are causing so much fear and hostility.

That is a big ask.

Any move to alleviate some of these costs is seen as a personal attack by those to whom the state says, “you are taking more than your fair share of the available resources”. I am pretty certain that if I were to be in that position I would feel the same.

Meanwhile any move to suggest that it is reasonable to increase taxation to meet what could so easily become a bottomless pit (as has the NHS) is seen as an attack on people who would describe themselves as decent, hard-working and responsible members of society who put in far more than they take out.

Both view are, of course, wrong. Both views are, of course, extremely human – as are the people provided for by the state and the people fortunate enough to be able to not only support themselves but to be able to make a contribution to the well-being of others. But we humans are by no means perfect: some are selfish, some are greedy, some are lazy. You will find them on both sides of the coin. Also on both sides of the coin are people who are unselfish, generous and hard working.

So it is that some of those who have been told to find smaller accommodation have (if it is available) said, “Fair enough” and they got on and done it. Some feel the same but can find nowhere suitable without moving away from those who support them or make life worth living: friends and family. There needs to be provision for these since moving them could well increase the overall cost to the state despite a reduction in housing benefit. However, there are also those who seem to seize the opportunity to become victims.

Likewise among those who pay taxes you will find those who say, “There but for the grace of God go I” and are happy to pay higher taxes but there are also those who feel very differently.

Do I have an answer to that big ask? Not really but I have the hint of a suggestion.

During my lifetime I have seen that the people who suffer most when the nation’s “cake” becomes smaller are the poorest and most dependent.

When the national coffers dry up, there is no possibility of increasing welfare benefits and existing benefits tend to be eroded by inflation. Furthermore, reduction in activity in the private field and the need to economise in the public field both add to unemployment – and the unemployed pay very little in tax and need a good deal in benefits. Thus the existing poor become poorer and they are joined by more of their fellow citizens.

When the country is really open for business and doing well, however, welfare benefits can be increased in line with (and possibly above) inflation and more and more people will find gainful employment or self-employment. The existing poor may not be better off but are no worse off and their number drop as more and more people find work.

Thus I want to see a regime that does all it can to increase the size of the national wealth to provide the resources required to support those in need. This can be achieved only be reducing the regulations that strangle the growth of businesses and that will mean that some employees would have to lose some of the protections they presently enjoy. It will also mean accepting that the wealth generates will become wealthier and that the gap between the poorest 5% and the richest 5% will widen.

I do not have a problem with either. This country has been built in large part by people putting themselves on the line and starting their own businesses which means no guarantee of income and no guarantee of the business remaining viable. Compare their situation with those in employment (and especially those in the public sector) and I find myself thinking that it is time these people shared some of the pain. As to the gap between the rich and the poor: I do not mind how rich the rich get but I do want to live in a country where none are suffering from poverty. If the price of lifting everyone above a certain level is a an increase in the wealth gulf, so be it.

However, I want to add another burden on whomever is running the country: yes, get the wealth generating machine running properly but always ensure that you have the compassion to use that wealth for good.

I do not expect my left-wing friends to agree with this.

Eh?

The main problem with being deaf is, and I know this sounds silly, that you can’t hear things. One thing that is especially difficult to hear is someone over a telephone. To make matters worse, you cannot lipread a telephone. Even then it is all pretty variable: one person will come over clearly and another sounds like a succession of muffled “meows”. People think in terms of loudness (and some is needed) but the main problem isn’t volume but clarity.

I use all sorts of modern technology to help. The latest hearing aids from the NHS are so much better than anything I have had before that I feel churlish when I say that they still do little more than deal with the easier situations where there is no background noise and no echo. My Contego which Marcia and I use in our daily life is wonderful for one-on-one but no good in company. Email me for details of this system if you ant to know more – usual address: mail@rodneywillett.co.uk.

So, you are a writer and a communicator and still a bit of a political activist and you are deaf. That means, or at least this is how I read it, that you have a duty to do what you can for deaf people who are not writers, not communicators, not political activists and have little option but to put up with the problems deafness brings. One of those problems is dealing with big companies and the one I am concerned with today is my bank: the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For all its faults and failings and the problems it has faced in recent years, I have to say that I am totally happy with the RBS. I shall be pleased to see it morph in a new bank to be called William and Glynn in the near future (as itr is now almost certain to do) as that will be a bit of a home coming for me: I banked with the old Willam and Glynn forty odd years ago. I should add that I think their online banking is extremely good and I like the fact that the send a text to my mobile whenever I (or, of course, anyone else) does something unusual so that I can act swiftly if need be. If you need help on the RBS bankline, they have a chat box.

So I was extremely upset to receive a letter from the RBS Chatham Customer Service Centre which ignores the problems of the deaf. We have recently moved. Actually this is a bit over the top. When we moved I emailed our business bank manager and gave him the new address (which I confirmed in writing); then I emailed our private bank manager and gave her our new address (and confirmed that in writing); then I and Marcia each received two letters from Chatham (one to the old address and one to the new) with forms enclosed for us to return to confirm the change of address. To be fair, the RBS takes security very seriously. Now, I cannot imagine that many people need assistance when it comes to filling in these simple forms but in the letter you read this sentence.

If you would like any assistance, please call 0345 301 6075 and a member of our team will be happy to help.

The problem is that some deaf people can’t use the telephone (and some – I am one – find using text phones such as Minicom a total bore). This shouldn’t matter to those who are deaf and computerate because there are other ways of communicating. My favourites are emails and chat boxes. RBS, of course, offers both BUT THEY DON’T SAY SO IN THE LETTER. Why not? It would cost them nothing. So I have been moaning at them on Twitter and @RBS_Help has asked to see a copy of the letter. Click on the link below to see it.

RBS Chatham

 

 

The Co-op wants us to have our say.

I have just completed an online survey for the Co-op. Here’s the link: http://www.haveyoursay.coop/

Many of the questions raise other questions which is, of course, the case with many surveys. The sort of questions that force you to give false answers include “Please indicate how likely you are to recommend our services to a friend. I go for a 1 (extremely unlikely). This sends the wrong signal but has the merit of being honest. It isn’t that I have a problem with the organisation, in this case the Co-op, but that I never consider it my business to recommend anything to anybody unless they ask me to. In that case I try to find out what they really want and suggest what I feel would be best for them.

I can offer one example: an elderly woman arrived in our village (this was many years ago) and we soon found ourselves on good terms. She wanted some electrical work carried out: could I suggest someone? This posed a bit of a problem as there were two obvious candidates. One was a rather scary looking young man who was a first class electrician – the other was a comfortable middle-aged chap with a huge sense of humour. Which to suggest: the better electrician or the one most my near neighbour was more likely to feel comfortable with? For the record, I chose the latter. However, under no circumstances can I hear myself saying, “Have you tried out our local Co-op? Really they are wonderful. Not only do they offer really low prices but they take great care to promote all sorts of local activities, are hot on Fair Trade, paying all their taxes, caring for the environment, giving priority to employee rights and training AND they will give you a divi of between £5 and £10 each year if you are a loyal member.” No, not my scene.

That, however, leads me onto two matters about business and politics.

The prime concern of any business is to make a profit. That is why it is there. There is no other reason. That profit will be used to recompense people who have invested in that business – the that in terms of cash or effort. Before taking this any further, we should remember that those investors will include an awful lot of people: people with pensions plans, managed savings plans, life assurance policies and so on. They will not all be bloated plutocrats.

Now it may be that a business will improve its profits by doing things that have nothing to do, on the face of it, with making a profit. These may well include taking great care to promote all sorts of local activities, being hot on Fair Trade, paying all their taxes, caring for the environment, giving priority to employee rights and training and so on. It is not, however, their job to do these things per se: they do them to increase the profits they make or they go to the wall.

Many great men – from Cadbury to Bill Gates – use those profits on a personal level to do things that matter to them. We call them philanthropists and they are the salt of the earth. Interestingly, though, within the business environment such men tend to be a tough as old boots – which is exactly how it should be.

Incidentally, I do think it was a mistake by the Co-op to raise this matter of corporates paying taxes and not “wriggling out of them”. We have tax laws for a good reason and if the powers that be make a hash of getting those laws right so that nobody really knows quite what should and should not be taxed then said powers create conflict with the tax collectors wanting one interpretation and the tax payers another. No blame should attach to either side in these conflicts: it should be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the those drafting the laws.

Now for the second matter: the relationship between business and politics. The Co-op (as is well known) supports the Labour party in a number of ways (including allowing them cheap loans through the Co-op bank). Do I approve? Well, I certainly do not approve of the Labour party but that doesn’t stop me using the Co-op here in the village because it is either that or get into the car. However, when I am in a place where there are other options then I would not use the Co-op (something I could not express on the survey but which I would imagine the Co-op would like to know).

In an ideal world, no politician would be beholden to anyone in business but there is little point in aspiring to such an ideal: it just won’t happen. The best policy would be to work towards a situation where we take money out of tribal politics but is there such a policy that is doable? This needs a bit more thought but I would welcome any bright ideas anyone might happen to have.

Digital copyrights

This morning I read an interesting post by my friend Miljenko Williams called My wife’s no copyright infringer – but if this was digital, a crime would’ve been committed in which he talks about a subject that should probably worry me but I refuse to let it.

I put it that way because a lot of my work is in the public domain and I should be very worried that people are stealing it. Actually I took the basic decision some time ago that if they did – they did. It was not going to cost me anything although I accept that I might have earned more than I have had I been more careful. I could, for example, have put a watermark on all the photographs and videos on the blogs and web sites – but that is tiime consuming and a bore and then you have to have a system of selling them without the watermarks – and that, of course, assumes that someone wants to buy them.

Some of my video work is rather more commercial but this is sent to Newsflare who handle it for me and their watermark appears unless the clips are sold. Meanwhile, if I am commissioned to take photographs I get paid for what I supply. The rest? Well, I like to feel that they bring a bit of pleasure to a few.

Sadly this attitude is unusual and I can understand why that is so. It’s quite hard enough to make a living as a freelance without people stealing your output. However, some of the methods now in place to crack down on the sharing of music, videos and images etc. has become draconian and is probably catching the innocent and the minnows. None of which is to suggest I have the answers. I am, of course, grateful that most of our income continues to come from normally published works (both printed and as ebooks) which probably means I can afford to be a bit careless when there are others who can’t.

A pot mess called the UK

It really is time that we completely rethought the way in which the UK is governed. Yes, I know this is a recurring theme in my blogs and other writing but that is because it is something we need and need quickly – and it is very difficult to see how to set about it. All efforts so far have failed. Why? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Nobody believes it is needed
  • Nobody believes it is possible
  • Nobody is really prepared to think about what should be done
  • Nobody is really willing to work our how “what should be done” can be put into doable practice
  • Nobody cares

Have I left anything out? What other reasons are there for a country to be:

  • running on empty
  • shuffling what we have to those that don’t need it at the expense of those that do
  • failing to earn a living in the modern global economy (although there are some really good examples of private enterprise bucking the trend who tend to be forgotten)
  • driving the real wealth producers (entrepreneurs, that is) abroad
  • ending up with a rotten health service
  • ending up with poor education for our children
  • reducing the freedoms we enjoy
  • reducing tolerance to those who are “different”
  • creating a society in which people no longer want to take responsibility for themselves
  • creating a society in which the people no longer trust the police, the politicians or anyone else on whose services we rely

What a mess.

Marks and Sparks get their knickers in a twist

Not many political bloggers use their blogs to explain that they tend to live in briefs supplied by Marks and Spencer. Indeed, I hear a few voices saying, “enough already – too much information”. Stick with it, I have a serious point to make.

Confession number two: I am over-weight, not much but a bit. My waist measures just under 42 inches in the winter and rather less as summer progresses only to increase again as the weather gets colder. M & S size their briefs using letters: X Large is for those with 30 to 41 inch waists while XX Large covers those more rotund measuring from 42 to 44. No doubt you begin to see the problem. 

All briefs wear out in time – probably because of all that aggressive washing – and some of mine are now ready for retirement. So I wanted some more: ideally I wanted more of the same only, why am I surprised? – my knickers are a discontinued line. So I ordered what I thought would be the closest equivalent. These duly arrived and I sent them back with the following letter which is, I think, self-explanatory. 

Please find enclosed four pairs of trunks recently ordered and supplied as attached paperwork (copies have been kept). 

These are to replace old trunks which are nearing the end of their lives. The old style is no longer available – a 3 part set 6983 789. The size is XX Large. It seemed looking at your web site that the nearest equivalent was the 2 part set 07910227 and so these were ordered in the same size. 

Putting to one side that it is extremely irritating to have a 41½” waist when sizes come in X Large (39-41) and XX Large (42-44), what is astonishing is that the enclosed are so much larger than the ones they are to replace (see photograph). I cannot believe that the old ones have shrunk that much. 

This poses a problem: have they been wrongly labelled and I need XXL or should I have ordered XL? 

If the former, please replace with correctly labelled XXL – if the latter please replace with XL.”

This morning I received an email from M & S thanking me for being a customer and so on – and advising me that my account had been credited with a refund. Grrr. 

Now for the serious stuff. I have been talking about the need to employ more people and the fact that there are times and places when men are better than machines. This is just such a one. I assume that this is all the problem of computers driving people rather than the other way around. No doubt whoever unpacked the return parcel was forced to select one of a limited number of reasons for the return of the goods and the computer took over from then on. My guess is that two boxes were ticked: “wrong size” and “refund”. 

A person reading the letter would have dealt with this situation very differently and I am sure that many reading this would agree that the thought of having to contact “customer services” tends to send a shiver down the strongest of spines. 

We should not blame these companies: employing people to do things better is only acceptable if at the same time they more than cover their costs. In the final analysis, people are an indirect cost that hits the bottom line and should, therefore, be kept to a minimum. This, of course, impinges on the unemployment statistics. Lower the cost of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people: lower the administrative costs of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people. 

Thus there are two areas where the government could do something to help: scrap NI which is no longer a contributory insurance payment (much though politicians would have us believe otherwise) and scrap most of the employment laws leaving behind a general duty of care (which would work both ways: employers having a duty of care to their employees and employees having a duty of care to their employers). Note I say nothing against the minimum wage which should remain in force albeit perhaps with more steps. 

There is a third. Make it far far easier for people to slip into and out of unemployment benefits. Many will not take a temporary job because it is then almost impossible to get back onto benefit in a reasonable time scale. 

Yes, there would be less protection for employees – is that such a high price to pay for a more fluid employment market with less people unemployed? 

What about the loss of revenue caused by scrapping NI? Put it all on income tax: that way you begin to narrow the gap between the net income of poorest and richest (although in this context, many of the “rich” already think of themselves as “overtaxed”). 

 

More on men and machines

There are two headlines in the Guardian today which call for anybody in the business of political blogging tas does a bone to a dog. They are “Accountancy giant signs up ex-HMRC boss” and “May’s plans to tackle extremism face backlash”.

However tempting these are I have decided that both will attract a great deal of comment which I would like to read and brood upon before I add my mite (assuming that I do). So, putting temptation to one side I want to return to my theme in my last blog – the concept of a humanitarian revolution.

First I would like to pick up from the comment made by my friend Richard Curtis (which you will find under the last blog). He is, of course, quite right but . . . If you take what he says to an ultimate conclusion, I suspect that there is a real risk that this would widen the gap between those who find living in the UK society a rewarding experience and those who don’t. I know that I am walking into troubled waters – on the Times Online on this subject someone asked me what I would want to “uninvent” – and the answer is “think outside the box, that is not an option”. Clearly we would want to continue to use machines to take the drudgery out of life and, indeed, to carry out boring and repetitive work that they do better than we can do. However, there are many areas where that is not the case – and yet we still use machines.

Let’s start with something essentially easy – cleaning streets and civic spaces in urban areas. This can, and is, be dome using machines. Machines don’t do the job as well as people but the end cost is deemed to be cheaper. Here is a case where the answer to the question “can man do this instead of a machine?” must be “yes”. Do it, do it better and take pride in the result. Furthermore, bring observation and intelligence to bear and see things that need attention before they cause real trouble le (such as a drainage system that is not working properly). Some places still use people equipped with no more than a broom, shovel and barrow but others go for the machines of one sort or another.

The problem is that this is paid for by a local authority – an authority that is not really overly concerned with meeting the costs of the unemployed (although, of course, they will pick up some of them – housing benefit – and suffer from loss of rates).

Being an essentially rural animal I can only comment on the situation in the countryside. Years ago there was a lengthsman who, virtually single handed and with simple equipment, was responsible for a given length of roads and lanes. He (in those days it was always a ‘he’) was generally proud of his length and knew where all the problems would arise. I knew one who, in the autumn, would turn out in the middle of the night if it was raining especially hard in order to deal with a drain that he knew would become blocked by falling leaves. Some authorities awarded prizes for the best kept lengths and where that happened competition to win was keen. Another memory: there was to be an inspection of lengths and on one wide verge there was an area of grass that had not been cut. When the inspector arrived a very shy and embarrassed young girl approached him. It turned out she was the daughter of the lengthsman and it was her job to tell the inspector that there was a bird (I think a skylark but my memory may be at fault) nesting there and so her father had left the nest alone but, she assured the inspector earnestly, he would be cutting it down as soon as the young had left.

Could that also apply in urban areas? Perhaps one of you living in a city can provide the answer.

Could that be extended to other areas of life? Thinking outside the box: words such as ‘craftsman’ and ‘artist’ (a word derived from the Latin ars as is ‘artisan’) come to mind as does the intense satisfaction I have met with people who lay hedges, build dry stone walls, grow vegetables and so on.

Perhaps all we need to do is to change a few simple things. At the moment employing people is a costly and difficult affair – what if, instead of making it better NOT to employ if at all possible, we turned that on its head and actually provided a tax incentive to employ and reduced the burdensome regulations. Sure. If we scrapped some of the employees rights it would be hard on some people in employment. Is that too high a price to pay for others to be taken off the self and socially destructive dole queue?

Then there is self-employment. Try that if you are on benefit. Again we do everything possible to deter people when we should be doing everything we can to encourage them.

So, it’s a bit more than man versus machine but that is a good slogan so long as it is not taken too literally.