Monday, 25 April 2011

The no luck of the Irish

The thing with the Orish (not the North) situation is how utterly fucked up it all is in ways that provide an exaggerated insight into how shit was here to an extent that makes this report into what happened quality reading. So like Ireland also had a property bubble to be sure (to be sure) and greedy fuckwit former building societies that got out their league lending like morons to golden circles of businessmen/property developers, but then it also had bankers and politicians who did things just that bit more blatantly than here when it came to cheap credit, all expenses paid, no questions asked shenanigans.

However, the biggest, fundamental, will potentially have an impact that will last for at least 5 years difference is the legal system. I recently had Ireland described to me as a “debtors paradise” by someone who’d dealt with problem loans there a coupla years back. This was because of their legal system and the way it, compared to British law, favours debtors i.e. borrowers, over lenders. And so it should you might say especially when it comes to residential mortgages people have taken out to buy themselves a home. Except the guy I was talking to had been dealing with millions of pounds that’d been lent to businesses and as he put it the delays, then the need to take things before a judge who had a thing or two to say about nasty British banks let me tell you and was teeing off next Sunday with the guy who ran the business that’d borrowed the dosh in the first place, made it an utter fucking nightmare.

Now this, as the Japanese lost decade makes abundantly clear, is a bad thing. If shit can’t get sorted out, well then shit won’t get sorted out and will instead drag on and on and on. Need a loan for a new business? Sorry, the banks are all tied up at the moment with their existing bad debts. The other thing is the terms reached on Orish agreements tend, going by the chat I heard, to be as friendly to the debtor as possible, which given so much of what's already coming before the courts involves property developers who took a punt on a bubble strikes me as a tad iffy. The context here of course is that given the Orish taxpayers have nationalised some banks, recapitalised others and put themselves on the hook for the entire system's deposit base, then what’s good for the banks is very much good for the Orish people; it's no longer the case that it's nasty bankers trying to do down some County Kerry boy made good, rather its more likely to be a pish-ripping Dublin based multi-millionaire whose transferred all his assets to his surgically enhanced peroxide wife. So perhaps the Orish legal approach to bad debt needs looking at pronto? In the meantime this provides some nice examples of the kind of shite already being seen.

Personally, I doubt any significant changhes will be made. The other thing we’ve seen in Ireland an exaggerated form is the willingness of politicians to sacrifice taxpayers for the good of the banks and their chief executives to an extent that I think (only think mind), even yer average British punter would take umbrage at. My personal favourite example of this was the way the initial haircuts on NAMA were set and only subsequently reduced after some newspapers got wind of how this government agency was planning to pay way over the odds for bank debt to help them out whereas here the Bank of England took a far more aggressive approach at the outset (compare say this with this). So nah, what I think is Orish politicians a bit sore that they never got some of the good time gravy will keep coming out with oh so tough bullshit rhetoric to wallpaper over the same ol' system wherein politicians, top bankers and big customers keep making or at least keep millions and billions and the Orish taxpayer keeps taking all the risks. And yeah, yeah, that’s the same as here except when you read about say Bertie Ahern and his boom time, Boomtown, grubby, fiver grasping antics you realise no it thankfully isn't quite.

The businessification of the world

To find out what’s happening in the economy on the BBC website you click on a link called “business” and there mixed up with articles about profit warnings and new CEOs you find out things like the latest inflation figures and house price stats. For me conflating “business” with “the economy” like this places a distorting lens in front of a determining aspect of all our lives.

Institutionally, I’d argue “business” can never provide such a totality, but is instead only ever part of a broader economy that includes such significant institutions as national/local government, non-profit organisations and co-operatives run by aggressively predatory lesbians. Plus, key economic indicators, institutions and the cost and supply of key factors of production are influenced by things that are fuck all to do with “business”, oil prices and political and military events being the most obvious example. Or is this conflation meant to impose an interpretative slant on how we should approach these other events? Like does the war some madcunt despot is waging against his own (Libyan) civilians only register due to the impact it’s having on oil prices and what that means in terms of say BP’s profit margins?

I’ve also consistently put the word “business” in inverted commas because what actually registers as “business”, be it in the Financial Times, the BBC, the Economist etc. is itself only ever a distorted subset of well business. For me the best example of this involves Christmas trees, Irish Christmas trees to be precise. A mate told me how he knew someone who, having inherited a patch of land, decided one December to sell Christmas trees. Everything went hunky dory until the bloke who usually sold trees in the village turned up with a few mates and explained to the new boy that he’d better stop it pronto if he knew what was good for him.

There are loads of similar stories. There’s the scaffolding firms that regard specific parts of a city as “their patch” and who, besides intimidation, take down and/or steal the scaffolding rivals put up in “their patch” (much the same can apply to skip hire as I understand). Or there are the taxi firms that, via the power of a few backhanders, get cushy local authority contracts at inflated rates to take special needs kids to school.

Taxi firms in turn introduce the world of cash businesses and all that means in terms of pubs, restaurants, puggy parlours and latterly tanning salons, in terms of money laundering fronts (or even just, like so many small hotels and takeaways, keeping cash to one side to dodge the taxman). I’d add nightclubs, but really that’s always been a balance that waxes and wanes between who runs the doors and the nightclub owners when it comes to managing the drugs trade inside. And all of these of course pay professionals; the accountants, lawyers, financial advisors and what not, who frequently know damn fucking well what’s going on, but turn a blind eye give or take setting their fees accordingly. Then on a more industrial scale you get plant hire and the horrendous percentage of machinery dotted all over Britain’s motorways that A stole from B to sell to C with no questions asked who in turn hired it out to D.

Sticking with the construction industry you encounter the lovely motto of screw the subbies wherein main contractors fuck over sub-contractors on major, landscape changing developments because they’d rather delay paying a subbie for work (or just not pay everything that was originally agreed) than pay the interest on their working capital facilities in a situation where the subbie knows damn fine well that if he doesn’t keep schtum he’ll never get work off the main contractor again (to be fair there are the specialist construction courts, except all that proves is how rife to the point of being institutionalised this kind of behaviour is). When you start adding all this together – the Christmas trees to the taxis to the skips to the screwed subbies and what not – the more apparent the vast, never-reported world of business becomes despite “business” equalling “the economy”. Instead, “business” equals just big PLCs and a biased smear of self-publicising SMEs, the best Scottish example being of course Ultimo.

Alongside this obvious selectivity, listening to or watching any BBC shite on “business” you also realise the “business” that does get reported is a distorted, self-serving bag of shite. Now am sure any glaringly obvious examples of theft or intimidation will appear on the BBC in the crime section, except by definition, reporting that kind of shit in such a way presents it as an exception as opposed to a frequent rule; that the aforementioned backhanders feature in the awarding of local authority taxi contracts is just the way thing are.

The thing is though this can also apply to the big businesses that do get reported on, the best recent example being the £280m fine imposed on Unilever and Procter & Gamble for operating a cartel that fixed prices on household name products in eight European countries between 2002 and 2005. Now, I reckon that’s worth a wee pause and a moment’s reflection; for years price fixing was presumably integral to the marketing strategy of 2 global multinationals. And there are plenty other examples of dubious practices built into the way “business” is conducted, like have a nosey at the Competition Commission website or a think about the EU and Microsoft. Nor is this especially new given say that for c. hundred years the insurance industry was essentially a series of rigged cartels until Direct Line cut through it all by using phone lines instead of intermediaries to sell product.

All these examples make abundantly fucking clear we are rarely talking about one-off mistakes by rogue employees who no longer work for the company and whose unsanctioned, secret antics have been fully investigated to the point where they’ve generated a suite of lessons that have been learned from, applied and documented in a code of conduct. Rather, this kinda shite is as much a part of “business” as the shite that actually does get reported on. In fact compared to what does get reported on it’s arguably more real, more valid and a damn sight more accurate.

To give a practical example, I reckon at least some of the following factors influenced Halfords move into selling services alongside things:

It’s close to saturation point in its existing markets with limited scope for diversification into additional product areas that are anyway also subject to the downturn in discretionary spending: The services chosen provide a logical extension of an existing (utterly fucking shite) brand; competition in these markets is highly fragmented indicating there is clear scope for an aggressive, major player intent on consolidation and leveraging its existing scale economies and actual service prices have frequently risen well above inflation indicating good margin is available.

Except when I click here the Halfrauds CEO, David Wild, instead talks about Tesco in a way that leaches off the latter’s credibility, then spins some homily shite about how he “always think about the customer” when making business decisions. Now this is kinda lovely except it implies he bases multi-million pound investment decisions on him putting himself in the shoes (and cars) of yer average punter as opposed to say ordering detailed cost-benefit analyses, gathering deep market research, buying in strategic consultancy advice on formulating and implementing strategy and what not i.e. the kinda shit that actually happens. As a result he sounds like an unprofessional twat.

Alternatively, he’s simply doing what most PLC CEOs do, which is bullshitting in a Harry G. Frankfurt type style on behalf of his company because to a large extent he and they are largely figure heads used to reassure and warm-up fund managers, key suppliers, big customers and other stakeholders. The thing is though if that’s what CEOs do, why the fuck don’t we get to hear from bods who actually know how shit is in “business”? Obviously, Halfrauds would never let your local store manager appear on the box to talk about the reality of how Halfrauds sells shit shitely, well at least not until he or she had been on a media management course. But, if the alternative is David Wild’s bullshit, then why the fuck bother and why present the programme David Wild spewed over as being a “business conversation show with people at the top giving insight into what matters”, given they patently don’t provide insights and don’t talk about shit that matters?

One argument I guess is that the programme’s editors consider themselves lucky to get such senior bods to talk (in exchange for handing over a free advertising platform and smearing a patina of credibility all over them). This is lovely, I guess, except, business in Britain luxuriates in a distinct lack of scrutiny; when David Wild started bullshitting should he not have been challenged on his bullshit, like should his strategy not have been considered in terms of its success to date and impact on other businesses (and employers)? Rather, we live in a media-defined world where instead of analysis, “business” gets routinely equated with the economy and, the fetish of executive personalities aside, reporting means spewing out the same predictable, exclusionary cultural tropes wherein BP equals a potential environmental disaster, car manufacturing the next campaign to keep production of an SUV designed elsewhere in some horrible English town and utilities the next pensioner crippling price rise and so on and so on.

It could be worse I guess, like US telly has all these kerazee cunts in braces over-enthusiastically jibber-jabbering about the next hot stock pick. Except we know they’re clowns who neither matter nor give much insight into anything whereas our equivalent is more fucked up because it's taken more seriously. So besides business speak oozing into common discourse like a wet one leaking out a pair of boxers, the biased, selective, version of “business” we get spoon fed keeps getting presented to us as a cultural paragon we all should aspire to and learn from because of its great efficiency, customer focus, leanness and so on. Indeed, here “business” is an imperative stick routinely used to beat us over the head; the public sector NEEDS to get more “business” like, we NEED “business” leaders to tell us how universities should be funded and all that kinda bollocks. Except, business can also mean threatening to kick a rival Christmas tree seller’s head in, multinational price fixing arrangements, tax dodging, cutting costs until lives are lost and Halfrauds complete disregard for the personal safety of their customers i.e. there’s a selective, political rhetoric of “business” used every day to justify all sorts of shite in a hegemonic type style. Cunts.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Current day shite in context

This is a post about someone usually regarded as being as right on as Sting, except Sting is a dick unlike this bod.

I mind being told a story about Professor Harold Perkin, the dead social historian, by some bod that’s now a high falutin’ academic at a top notch university. By way of background there’s all these wannabe who’s who and Debretts type shite kicking about that send out reams of spam email asking you to pay them cash, in return for which they’ll stick you in their forthcoming international guide to top notch professional movers and shakers. Harold it seems had fallen for the hype, stumped up the cash and had all of the resultant certificates stuck up on his wall to prove that he was indeed top notch.

The irony of the story was that he was top notch regardless of the certificates. Anyhoo, reflecting on my post on the forthcoming Scottish election and the jerkwads campaigning for our vote and more generally about the ongoing assault on the public sector, public sector gold-plated pensions and public sector Ts&Cs and what not more generally minded me of Harold.

Most of the arguments made against public sector employment conditions are couched in terms of fairness and pragmatism; why should they have that when us private sector bods don’t and anyhow its unsustainable, etc., etc., Now personally, being a private sector bod, my beef with public sector bods is they don’t have a fucking clue what life is like outwith their world, but despite that I’m still conscious of how the overall thrust of shit is that rather than levelling private sector employment conditions up to public sector standards, its instead about levelling down the public sector to all the shite us private sector bods have to contend with, i.e. a fucking race to the bottom hurtling towards the vast the majority being forced to work til they die in exchange for less money, more debt and fewer public services.

But, that’s me and I’m being specific, whereas quoting from dead Harold’s Times obituary on the other hand I find these wee, bigger-picture gems; “by the mid-20th century, Perkin argued, the professional ideal had triumphed as completely as the entrepreneurial ideal had done a century before. But, just as the entrepreneurial ideal had started to decline in the moment of its triumph, the professional ideal started to lose its glitter when it achieved moral and cultural hegemony. Public service professionals were confronted by a backlash led by their private sector cousins. And, by a strange paradox, this private sector backlash took place under the banner of a new version of the entrepreneurial ideal of 150 years before….. almost everywhere, he gave warning, professional elites were abandoning the service ethic of their forebears and feathering their nests at the expense of their fellow citizens, whom they treated as “dairy herds to be milked to exhaustion”. The great question was how to prevent them from abusing their power. But did we really want to prevent them? Or were we “content to let the false prophets of individual greed and unenlightened self-interest lead us down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire?”

Following on from that I was going to phrase the following in terms of the public sector ethos vs private sector “realism” , except the triumph of said private sector “realism” has been so complete, so all-encompassing and so increasingly applied that the notion of “vs” seemed pointless. They (me) won, so deal with it, which is cool except the credit crunch we’re all living through, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, highlights both the true costs of that victory and its consequences for the vast majority of Britons. Shame there was never a debate about it all.

There again something Harold’s academic peers made a point of ensuring was that that would remain the case. This is understandable given how many retain a juvenile fascination with implausible, left-wing theory driven notions of what a fairy-tale werking class might have one day achieved when it wasn’t beating up the wife after getting paid on a Friday. Then there’s Marx himself who accidentally omitted the rise of the entire fucking non-manual, white collar salariat in a that calls his entire oeuvre into fucking question to the extent Harry Braverman later tried and failed to save the argument with his deskilling thesis (with people in turn making efforts to justify Braverman's deskilling thesis).

Compared to them Dead Harold suffered from never being sufficiently trendy (no Marxist, neo or otherwise or post modern shite for him I'm afraid) to attract the naive and had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide that his peers were fully aware of as per the introductory story. Like this wonderfully dismissive review by some Prof here is an example of how Harold got belittled on a personal level so his ideas could be dismissed, which is a pity because I reckon they provide a fantastic insight into and means of understanding the present. Or to give a practical example, given what we’ve all learned about public sector owned bank bonuses and free bank subsidies and what no, yer man Harold’s comment about how the socio-economic elite might view us droogs as “dairy herds to be milked to exhaustion” is utterly fucking spot on.

Am now trying to think of a point to this post now, err, howzabout gie us a better pension ya cunt and see thay politicians wanking on about applying private sector values to the public sector, howzabout they all get their faces gangraped by donkeys the next time they say “business model”? There, that’ll do.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Scotland's democracy = Scotland's mediocrity

Fuck Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, that nyaffy wee shite stain of a machine politics placeman who resigned as First Minister over an expenses scandal is the real symbol of Scottish politics and devolution. Like the Scottish parliament, McLeish tried out for the premier league (Leeds United), but ended up in the second division (East Fife). Similarly, like so many of the mediocrities that have sat and sit as MSPs, McLeish is a public sector man born and bred given after football he taught Town and Country Planning, which would add a potentially quaint aspect to it all if planning didn't involve local council jobsworths disruptively imposing Stalinist notions of a good life on the rest of us give or take pocketing backhanders for pushing cheeky wee property developments through on the QT. And does anyone have any memory of him ever no coming across as utterly average at best?

So for me the life history, behaviour, values, experience and "achievements" of that curly heided muppet tells us all we need to know about the true nature of the forthcoming Scottish elections. It’s like fer fuck sake when you think about the candidates, like I have no idea who the Labour lot are individually, but am guessing en masse it's a load of career shifter brains who are the son of or married to someone with clout in the Labour party plus some former teachers who couldn’t get promoted before they fired themselves into being councillors. And fuck only knows about the Tories also, like is it the usual shiteload of scrabblingly, upwardly mobile chancers, Bearsden/Morningside respectables plus the odd aristo? LibDems? Who cares given they’re gonna get utterly fucked, which just leaves the SNP.

Now to be fair Alex Salmond stands out a mile in the parliament compared to pretty much everyone else, except that’s because by British standards he’s middle ranking as opposed to an utter fucking no-mark i.e. its no that he’s that good, rather its that the rest of them are so utterly fucking shite. Aside from him though fuck knows, like besides Alex there are some genuinely interesting figures, but also some utter mental SNPers who, from personal experience, unthinkingly go the whole hog on blut und boden notions of nationality. Plus, there’s some public sector jokes who’ve fallen for the SNP as standard bearers of the Scottish social democratic tradition/to the left of Labour shite and all that. As to what that leaves the answer is fuck knows (and certainly not they wee arrogant, smug Green bastards let alone Margo McDonald).

So yeah, the Scottish election is looming, one where the reality and the future have already been determined by the credit crunch, which the candidates will presumably have a sound grasp of both in terms of its causes and consequences for the electorate. More than that, I'm sure they’ll be able to articulate what that means in terms of practical policy measures as opposed to moaning on about Whitehall being mean to all us Jock Tamson's Bairns and how that means they can't throw as many taxpayer fivers at things as they used. Alternatively, the forthcoming election, the calibre of the candidates involved, the debates and associated examples of mediocrity will provide ample evidence as to why the idea of an independent Scotland is a big fucking, scary joke.

(What actually makes it scarier AND more tragic is things like the Institute of Governance at Edinburgh University where serious attempts by reasonably clever people were made at providing a devolved Scotland with the intellectual infrastructure needed to be well devolved really. You wonder what the academics there actuallty think about it all, like are they too nationalistic to see, are they ever hopeful that one day some political prince - but no one of they Italian types - will come, do they simply cringe in-between filling out funding applications or are they so ivory towered as to no give a fuck? Christopher Harvie will have a view I'm sure).

Monday, 4 April 2011

Shape of things to come

In a lovely wee article John Kay pointed out how any government wanting to get all strategic about the economic future of an economy would typically fall into the trap of asking today’s big corporate beasts about tomorrow’s economic prospects.

The neat wee example he gave to illustrate the fundamental flaws in such an approach
was how a government looking to figure out an IT strategy a few years back would have asked Big Blue IBM what they thought whereas the reality was that Microsoft, a then tiny wee company that wouldn’t have registered on any government’s radar/have hired a lobbying firm to spew its vested interests allova any politician that happened to pass nearby, was actually the future (cue reference to IBM making the fundamental strategic mistake of ignoring the subsequent importance of PCs and software as opposed to fuck off big complex hardware). Aye, that was what a fabulous person linking to UK Uncut’s rationale for having a go at Fortnum and Mason’s got me thinking today anyway.

The thing with UK Uncut though is, as they very rightly point out, the way things are is horrendously unfair; big companies dodge big tax bills cos of all the offshore holding companies and terribly clever accountants they employ. Except, however justified that may be, it’s still little more than a moral critique. And while morality is all very good, your moral values and mine differ i.e. they're open to endless debate and anyhow someone will sneak in some pragmatic shit about necessary evils and the game would be rendered a bogey. So instead, let’s construct a more effective “economic” argument.

The ability to aggressively negotiate a low tax settlement with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs constitutes a competitive advantage i.e., if a big PLC can negotiate a proportionately lower tax bill than a smaller rival, it can undercut said rival, regardless of actual product quality/service, efficiency and so on, and doing so positions it very well to drive said competition out of business. So really it’s in all our interests for every company, no matter how big, to pay the same % tax as each other (the alternative being us being short changed to finance the removal of competition that might otherwise deliver better products, services or job creation opportunities). So yeah, fuck one off deals reached against a backdrop of companies threatening to relocate their headquarters elsewhere. Instead, get every fucker to pay the same corporation tax rate and lets establish a level playing field that will let the Microsofts of tomorrow take over from the IBMs of today (ooh, a rhetorical flourish).