Monthly Archives: February 2014

This is what can happen when a politician sets a target without thinking about whether it has the power to meet it, never mind whether it is a good idea:

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Like many people from Edinburgh, I once worked at Standard Life. It was the summer of 2001 and I spent an enjoyable few weeks opening, sorting and delivering mail alongside a pony-tailed Australian with a fondness for somnolent afternoons. Working for the big fund manager full-time was a popular idea among my peers; it was a running joke at my school that the careers advice office should be renamed the Standard Life recruitment department. My neighbour with the nice car worked for the company.

The point of these hokey anecdotes: Standard Life is a big employer in a city where one in ten people work in financial services. I suspect most people will know someone – or know of someone – who works there. The charts below from Edinburgh City Council show the capital’s top companies by pre-tax profits (2011) and employment (2012). The latter also includes public sector organisations; Standard Life was the sixth biggest employer and the third biggest private sector employer in Edinburgh as of 2012.


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The chart below marks a moment in the history of English housing:

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In January I visited my old school in Edinburgh, where I met four pupils from its gifted and talented programme. When I asked the 12-year-olds what they had been doing that day, one explained they were rewriting fairy tales. Her friend picked up the thread; once upon a time Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, had turned Jasmine, the heroine from Aladdin, into a similarly semi-aquatic character. Jasmine drowned. This ploy was meant to clear the way for Ariel to seduce Aladdin. Unfortunately for the princess, he turned out to be gay. His marriage to Prince Charming was imminent, continued another pupil. The End.

This story would not score well on the Programme for International Student Assessment. Pisa compares student achievement in OECD countries. Its latest results have worried western governments and parents; Chinese pupils, even those from poor backgrounds, are scoring higher than most of their American and European peers. Perhaps I should be horrified that the clever kids I met were sounding more like Roald Dahl than mathematicians. Read more

In the film There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview, a monomaniacal oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis, tries to lowball the Sunday family, whose hydrocarbon-rich land he covets, by claiming that he wants their acreage for quail-hunting. But Eli Sunday knows Plainview’s real intentions. He asks for $5,000, ostensibly to invest in his evangelical church. Many years later, Eli, who never received the money from Plainview, tracks the multi-millionaire oilman down in his Xanadu. Eli complains of past grievances and brings a quixotic plan for future exploration of the Sunday land.

I won’t spoil the ending but there is something – an admittedly tenuous something – of the Eli Sunday in the Scottish National party’s arguments about North Sea oil and gas. Alex Salmond’s party is right to be critical of how opportunities were wasted but it is too sanguine about what oil and gas would offer an independent Scotland. Read more

David Cameron, prime minister, has described his government’s “welfare” reforms as a “moral mission”. I support much of what the coalition is trying to do; for example, the effective marginal tax rate for people such as Natalie should come down under Universal Credit. (It could also have come down without a massive project but that is for another post.) Any government taking power in 2010 would have had to cut the social security budget.

But the government’s haughty self-righteousness is risible in the face of evidence of unnecessary suffering. The rhetoric around benefits and the millions who receive them is already toxic. We could do without the idea that pointing out problems is somehow treacherous. If you look at what the Christian leaders are saying, as this atheist has, they are careful to focus on the practical consequences of specific decisions. There was only one side talking the language of crusade last week and it was not the ones whose job it is to promote the idea of ascension. Read more

If you are an overseas investor curious about British people, or at least their property, I suggest you spend an hour watching the popular television programme Location, Location, Location. A typical episode will feature two couples, each looking for a house. At the outset, they tell us about their budgets, which are tangible, and their dreams, which are intangible but often manifest themselves through the medium of original fireplaces.

The tension between reality and aspiration, heightened by a pair of plummy presenters, makes the show. After a tour of the local market and the ritual sacrifice of an interior design fantasy, prospective buyers will find a place and make an offer, usually from a pub. Cue music. Will the owner accept the bid? Not for that price, surely? Yes! I would not say I enjoy the anxiety but, like millions of others, I cannot turn it off.

They call it reality television for a reason. Britain has mass angst about housing. Prices and rents are rising across the country, particularly in London, where growth is in double digits. In December, official figures showed that the average UK house price had for the first time risen above £250,000, or about 10 times median income. The divide in wealth between those who own property and those who do not is growing, and with it a gap between equity-rich baby-boomers and “Generation Rent”. Read more

Roger Angell is 93-years old. His body has “become sort of a table potato”. He is a “a world-class complainer”. And his essay on life as a nonagenarian is the best writing I have read in a long time. Angell gently destroys aged stereotypes about aged people, with the panache one would expect from E.B. White’s stepson. No slouch, this guy.

Beginning with his physical condition and trips to the hospital (“my human-wreckage gym”), the New Yorker writer describes life in the nineties in a way that undermines the conventional notion of ageing as decline. He is still working and, yes, loving, or at least thinking about loving. Sure, an eye is blurry and a knee is busted. But why do we think physical wear and tear means decline? Here is an old man that is living in every sense that remains possible. Decline? Try ascent.  Read more

One of the arguments made by proponents of a higher minimum wage or a “living wage” is that it would raise more revenue for the Exchequer. Higher wages would, they argue, mean higher income tax and National Insurance receipts, and lower spending on tax credits; the state would pick up less of the employer’s wage bill. It is an argument that encourages some fiscal conservatives to support a wage hike.

But the government disagrees. Read more

Alex Salmond’s speech on Monday was billed as a response to George Osborne’s rejection last week of a formal monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. But this formed no more than a quarter of the first minister’s speech. Mr Salmond was keener on rejecting what Mr Osborne said in 2010 (announce cuts to public sector spending) and what David Cameron said in 2013 (promise a referendum on UK membership of the EU), than what they said in 2014. Read more