Monday, October 27, 2008

I read this story about Osborne and...

...thought it was incredibly positive about the guy. It makes him sound sweet. Or maybe that's just me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Can the poor afford BUPA?

Tristan Mills has a somewhat contentious post up attacking public-sector and pseudo public-sector employees as parasites. While I don't agree entirely with his taxonomy (I wouldn't call people providing front-line public services or line-managing people who do parasites) he has a good point. People who receive a salary from the government without providing a useful service in exchange (most managerial and policy-making roles, non-execs at quangos, all public relations types, etc.) are leeches on society and deserve no more respect than tax-dodgers and benefit cheats. Ditto the management consultants who get rich providing bad advice to them.

Unfortunately he provokes an attack in the comments from someone who says
Do we really want a society where the only people that get healthcare are the ones who can afford BUPA??
Well, lets look at what it takes to afford BUPA membership. I am "paying" (technically my employer pays, but the cost was taken into account when we negotiated my salary) £46 a month for a group BUPA policy which is available to anyone at my workplace under the age of 65, with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions. This isn't a special deal - it is available to any employer who sets up a group policy. That works out at £552 a year. The minimum wage is now £5.73 an hour. Someone working 40 hours a week and 52 weeks (less four weeks paid holiday, which is now a right) a year on this rate is earning £11918 a year. On this they pay £1177 in tax and £710 in employee's NIC's (for which they no longer get any useful benefit - contribution based benefits are not much more generous than means tested ones, and you no longer need a full NI record to get a full State Pension) and "pay" £827 in employer's NIC's. In other words, if they weren't supporting the parasitic class, the poor could afford BUPA almost five times over.

Is Chandilla Fernando a real financial professional?

Femme-de-R's investigation of the first Liberal Democrat presidential candidate to be beaten by Lembit Opik inspired me to do some sleuthing of my own.

Bedford Newhall Capital turns out to be a brass plate company. Its registered office address is c/o a firm of professional company administrators. It doesn't say what its principal business is in its Companies House filings. And it hasn't submitted any accounts since it was set up in March.

This doesn't look like a hedge fund to me - mostly because a hedge fund would be a brass plate company somewhere exotic (and tax-free) like Grand Cayman, not somewhere dingy (and overtaxed) like Walthamstow. There would be a management company associated with the hedge fund, but this would almost certainly be registered by lawyers or chartered accountants, not a general-purpose admin office.

Given that Fernando "travels around the country visiting companies and working with them on sales, marketing and finance driven projects", it looks like he bills through his personal company. This is quite common, mostly for tax reasons. The lack of a professional website suggests that he isn't making that much effort to drum up business.

In other words, since March of this year Fernando has been a consultant, in the sense of "I'm not unemployed, I'm a consultant". Or perhaps he is working too hard at Liberal Vision to have much time for the day job.

I also took a closer look at Vercor, his previous employer. The first point is that "Managing Director" does not mean as much in an investment bank as it does in a normal business - about a tenth of the employees at Very Big Bank where I work are Managing Directors. The "Our Professionals" page of the Vercor website strongly implies that almost all their professional staff are given the title.

The other point is that the "Our Offices" page does not show a London office. I guess the office shut down when the single employee left.

The final question about Vercor is whether it was actually bringing in Cityboy kinds of money. Their website claims that Vercor people have facilitated over $500 million in transactions. This kind of business takes a 6-10% commission, so the total revenue is $30-50 million. But not all of this business was done at Vercor - it includes deals done by Vercor people before they joined the firm. So technically the claim would be true if one of the MD's had proofread an offer document for a big corporate deal while he was a graduate trainee at Lehmans. Looking at their "Past deals" page shows only two transactions which were actually advised on by Vercor - both shredder companies on the US West Coast.

Since Vercor did no deals out of their London office, Fernando probably wasn't bringing in much revenue. And given that the average Vercor MD has brought in less than 2 million dollars over their whole career (much less if they did some of their deals as a junior at another firm) before expenses, they probably didn't have much spare cash to invest in an overseas business. So I guess Fernando was about as gainfully employed at Vercor as he is at Bedford Newhall.

Conculsion - the guy is a dilettante with an entrepreneurial streak but no proven business success. Probably not suitable for running a medium sized bureaucratic organisation. Definitely not suited to play a key role in a major UK political party.

Update: Chandila Fernando's occupation - the mystery deepens

The mystery deepens - a quick scout about Google, LinkedIn and Facebook reveals he works in financial services and may be some sort of investment banker or hedgie.

His Facebook profile says he attended Royal Holloway in 2000 and is currently at Bedford NewHall Capital. Googling this doesn't turn up anything useful except that the company is registered to 92A Forest Road, London, E17 7JQ (Walthamstow). It doesn't have a website listed on Google and isn't in the yellow pages ( Whoever they are, they aren't attracting business by having people stumble upon their services. I'm speculating that it's a hedge fund - venture capital firms need to advertise.

LinkedIn says a Chandila Fernando who went to Royal Holloway works in 'financial services'. This Chandila Fernando is listed as 'owner' of Vercor. Vercor is an investment bank providing mergers and acquisitions services to middle market firms. In 2006, this Chandila Fernando became Managing Director of their UK office. Is this the same Chandila Fernando? If so, he was only 28 at the time.

If this guy is a 30-year-old hedge fund staffer who previously headed up the UK arm of an investment bank, why isn't he shouting this from the rooftops? Do Lib Dems really hate investment bankers that much? Can anyone solve this mystery?

What does Chandila Fernando do?

The Lib Dem presidential manifestos tell me that Ros Scott was Group Leader on Suffolk County Council and a non-Executive Director of Anglia TV, and that Lembit was Global HR Training Manager for P&G.

Chandila Fernando's manifesto says he has industry experience in banking, catering, etc., works in business development and has 'been involved in a variety of political, community and commercial projects'.

He says he is 30 and only mentions a BA (Hons) so he must have been working for around eight years, but his experience sounds so vague. After all, I have industry experience in commercial property - I worked as a receptionist for a day at a commercial property company.

Does anyone know what he does?

Monday, October 20, 2008


Tonight's dinner was a vegetable pot from the ever hip and ecologically correct Innocent folks.

The packaging contained two glaring lies.

Firstly, they use a large symbol awfully close to the standard symbol for recyclable plastic (Innocent fruit pots are made of microwave safe plastic which is non-recyclable). The attached text offers lame suggestions about how you could reuse the pot.

Secondly, they claim that "No vegetables were harmed in the making of this product (apart from some light chopping)." This is untrue. Plants died to make this vegetable pot. Vegetables are not fruit - they don't want to be eaten (this is why vegetables are an acquired taste, whereas fruit is nice and sweet). Being chopped into small pieces is considered harmful.

Presumably Innocent think they can get away with this crap because a small company with smiley faces on its packaging just must be greener than a large food company. This confirms my suspicions that most greens are pointy-headed wowzers who want to make a lifestyle choice into a moral imperative.

You can save the world by driving and flying less, buying less stuff, and eating less meat. You can't save the world by buying a non-organic ready meal packaged in a non-recyclable container made from oil, even if it is made by a company whose owners talk about hugging trees in public.

Is Sarah Palin the Lembit Opik of the GOP?

We wondered, does Sarah Palin have a celebrity career ahead of her, somewhat independent of her political ambitions?

[NB: See the clip with the dancing moose]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rage against the meringue!

I'm loving this.

Protesting in the street is funky enough to overcome my general wedding loathing. Regardless of how unconventional the person, once they meet that special someone, they end up jammed into a fancy frock in a stately home/club someplace. I blame the parents.

But perhaps the anti-wedding planners don't go far enough. Why invite anyone at all? Given how much I hate weddings, the worst thing I could conceive of is inflicting one on my friends. Are people who've known you for years going to be moved by an awkward, archaic public address about your love? Do your single friends really need their noses grinding into your coupledom over the space of several excruciating hours?

But at least they can content themselves with eating, drinking and making merry while knowing just how stressed and miserable the 'happy couple' really are. Because a wedding is (I understand) rather like a party conference. As the intrepid anti-wedding planners discovered, it involves lots of complicated arrangements made over several months and, just like a party conference, everyone involved has extremely strong views (i.e. the relatives). Oh, and it can be wallet-busting - the average wedding costs £15,925. I am told there are tears long before bedtime.

The scary thing is that no one will own up to this. Be out and proud, people! And, if in doubt, elope!

NB: Femme de R awaits outrage... Before anyone says anything, I am about as romantic as a spinach bomb. Always have been, always will be.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Anti-consumerism has a point

This week, I interviewed a group of anti-consumerist squatters who were trying to set up a money-free social centre.

I thought about them when I saw this picture gallery in the Guardian. It should be retitled: "The credit crunch: Continue buying unnecessary stuff... but for less cash."

Do cash-strapped families really need £30 (each - I checked) scatter cushions? And how are these £30 (each) cushions a bargain?

For a REAL bargain, Wilkinson offers a sleek, cord number for £4.99 or visit Argos to buy two sets of appliqu floral cushion covers and four cushions for just £38! Yes, that's FOUR cushions for slightly more than the price of ONE!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Class: A vicious spiral of poverty and culture

LibertyCat responded to James Graham's post about class. He wrote:
The reason why meritocracy doesn't work is that the social problems of poverty are caused by some poor people being lazy and feckless. There is no reason for someone who cares about their future to smoke. There are not many reasons for them to eat junk-food daily.

The story of how Jake turned bad is quite long, but only once was material poverty mentioned. The early interventions that might have worked don't involve dramatically improving Jake's standard of living... they involve giving him experiences which might cause him to change his behaviour for the better.
I don't agree material poverty is only a minor part of the problem when compared with culture. I think there is a messy spiral of poverty and culture, which need to be tackled together.

Our cultural norms are formed slowly by adopting the values of the people around us. A two-week jolly to teach Jake [what?] is not going to stop him becoming a criminal if he returns to a street where the 'cool' boys push drugs. And there's no point teaching Jake to cook with fresh vegetables if his area has 15 kebab and pie shops, a corner shop selling slowly decaying onions and no supermarket.

Unfortunately, Jake can't take a bus or train to buy fruit and vegetables even if he wanted to. He can't decide to buy a new cooker or something else to make his new lifestyle easier. Neither can he decide to move away. There is a reason for this - he's too poor. He doesn't have the capital to make choices that don't exist in the places he can afford. Surrounded by people who scoff at his fancy cooking and smoke like chimneys, he's unlikely to stick with the new things he's been taught. People who have fat friends are more likely to be fat themselves.

To make a real change to Jake's life, there needs to be a critical mass of people in his community who want to do something different and have enough money to make a change. Culture and money are both important here. You often need more money to make minority choices.

People who change also need to remain in their community to pass on the benefits. This is where housing policy comes in. Ghettos of the totally desperate are hard to change because, once people become slightly less down-on-their-luck, they don't stick around. This is why there are few places in London that feel as soul-destroying as large tracts of my home town of Hull. If you make it in London, you probably stay in your community and commute. You can't make it in Hull so you move to Leeds.

Once enough people in an area demand cheap vegetables, local shops will start selling them. People unprepared or unable to travel outside the area can now buy vegetables too. And once there's a significant minority of people buying vegetables, buying them doesn't make you a weirdo who should be beaten up. Hey presto! A cultural shift! 

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

In which the word "class" is used correctly by accident

An interesting post by James Graham points out three Guardian articles which touch on issues of class. The first is about the evils of right-to-buy, where James correctly points out that the lack of a land value tax is the real problem (although neither James nor the Guardian's John Harris talks about the artificial shortage of housing generated by restrictive planning laws, which affects all tenures). The second is about food, and the third is about smoking. Both of these make the same point.

James attacks the idea of meritocracy, defined as
The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it - unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with.

The reason why meritocracy doesn't work is that the social problems of poverty are caused by some poor people being lazy and feckless. There is no reason for someone who cares about their future to smoke. There are not many reasons for them to eat junk-food daily.

The same issue came up when I went to a fundraiser for CHICKS (who are wonderful - you should send money). A social worker who sends children on CHICKS holidays went through a case study of how "Jake" turned into a criminal despite having £750,000 of taxpayer's money wasted trying to stop this. His argument was that the right kind of early interventions, such as identifying at-risk kids and sending them on country holidays, can stop this happening cheaply.

The story of how Jake turned bad was quite long, but only once was material poverty mentioned - Jake lived in cramped accommodation, which meant that he couldn't stay out of the way of his older brothers. Jake was one of five children and didn't live in a particularly cheap area, so even upper middle class parents would have trouble affording a room of his own for him. Jake's problems were caused by his mother having five children by multiple fathers, his father beating his mother, his older brothers abusing him, and his friends on the estate recruiting him into a criminal gang. And the early interventions that might have worked don't involve dramatically improving Jake's material standard of living (which is why they are cheap) - they involve giving him experiences that may cause him to change his behaviour for the better.

The Polly Toynbees of this world tell us that the reason why the poor don't cook real food (which is usually cheaper than junk) or take exercise is that they are too tired after working two hard manual jobs to put food on the table. How this explains the behaviour of Jamie Oliver's "star" pupil (who is long-term unemployed) or Jake's brother is unclear. In any case, if the Polly Toynbees were right and material poverty did cause all these social problems, then they would have been worse in the 1950's, when all classes were poorer than they are now.

When writing about "class", the Guardian writers are trying to suggest that these problems are caused by income inequality. But, as I have blogged before, class has several meanings, and the most common meaning in ordinary British English is about culture and values, not about income. This post is all about class in that sense, so the Guardian writers are right for the wrong reasons.

The social problems of poverty are intractable because they are about class (in the ordinary English sense), not about poverty. Changing class-based values is hard, and a lot of the interventions that work look like Guardian-reading middle class silliness because that is the whole point - to teach middle class values.

The problem is that the "respectable working class" has largely ceased to exist. It suffered a blow when the expansion of higher education turned a lot of its natural leaders middle class, and was systematically crushed by Thatcherism. Most of the people affected ended up lower-middle class (often as a result of right to buy), which is a good thing. The ones who didn't became the underclass, which is a bad thing, because they didn't have the social capital to stop their children growing up as chavs.

P.S. This post and the linked articles and comments are hinting at the same issue in America, and are heartily recommended.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Irfan and modern day witchhunts

Mark Valladares' posts about Irfan on the Lib Dem aggregator scared me somewhat.

Is he seriously suggesting someone be barred from the aggregator based JUST on this post?

Or thrown out out of the Liberal Democrats?

I don't know Irfan. From reading his posts, I suspect he is a teenager (correct me if I'm wrong). Certainly, he isn't that practiced at getting his thoughts down on paper?

Was he homophobic and defending abusive comments? Was he concerned about homophobia and wanted freedom of speech in his comments' box? Or was he just bringing the number of gay cabinet members to everyone's attention? And is the latter homophobic or just random? 

I don't know. I can't understand the point he was trying to make in his blog post or subsequent comments.

When confronted, he seemed confused and defensive. As he grew more confused and defensive, he was attacked for compounding his original mistake. He could be defending homophobia. Alternatively, he could be confused by why his post was misinterpreted so badly.

Throwing Irfan off if he's just expressed himself poorly means LibDemBlogs is a 'talented writers only' area. Writing is hard. It's even harder if your writing must be impossible to misinterpret.

If Irfan has been clearly offensive on numerous occasions, I will change my mind.

Otherwise, Mark might consider unblocking Irfan and offering some writing tips. Irfan obviously wants to write and being clearer will improve the experience.

Irfan - I write for a living, but it took me years to learn and there are still things I can't do. I love teaching other people since writing is hard. If you want to avoid the risk of being misunderstood, leave me a comment and we can exchange tips by email.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

VP debate: Something of a letdown

LibertyCat and I were so bored by the VP debate (which we watched on YouTube last night) that we gave up halfway through and watched Paris Hilton's campaign address instead.

Both Biden and Palin answered so far from the question that it was only found again, tens of thousands of years later, by astronomers using radio telescopes.

The potential VPs rambled more than tourists lost on a moose hunt. 

Biden appeared to have come straight from a disastrous botox session since, while we were watching, he didn't move a muscle and delivered every answer in a drawling monotone. Palin managed at least three facial expressions and some vocal range, as such, clearly won.

Long before the candidates or the PC power button put the debate out of its misery, LibertyCat and I had taken to speculating about an Obama/Hilton ticket. Finally, I concluded Palin and Biden should just swap tickets so Obama could launch his new campaign slogan: "America says no to white-haired, boring, elderly dudes".

Friday, October 03, 2008

Palin: Not dumb and not out

The Guardian, not a pro-Republican rag, thinks Palin held her own in last night's debate against Biden.

I haven't watched the debate yet, but hope it confirms my suspicion that Palin isn't dumb, she's just scared and ill-informed.

I agree that maybe running for VP isn't the best time to learn, but if she isn't dumb, she can learn policies. The thing she can't learn is a small-town American background. It's scary that someone can be so America-focused that they believe representing a state adjoining a foreign country makes them know more about foreign policy than a governor from the interior. But it does represent the views of many Americans. They need to have a candidate in the election. I just don't want them to win.

1) LibertyCat argues that Couric's Iran question was easy and could have been answered with a simple "yes" or "no". That Palin couldn't answer it, suggests she was frightened rather than purely clueless. 

2) Although she is an experienced Alaskan politician, she's now standing for VP and is on a much larger stage. She knows, as well as the pundits do, that she hasn't got the experience and during the Palin interview, she may have lost confidence in herself. I argued in my post that a man, in that situation, would have become aggressive, rather than started babbling. 

If McCain's team had been drilling her with facts and figures to get her up-to-speed, it would probably have worsened the problem and confused her . There's nothing like knowing what you don't know to make you scared to say anything at all. 
3 ) No one knows why Palin dropped out of several colleges. But does that matter? A lengthy string of academic qualifications do not guarantee you are not an idiot (Femme-de-R ignores cheap shot at LibertyCat). Life choices are a result of your background and priorities as much as your brains. 

4) Although, on average, teachers and their children are bookish, it also depends on temperament and subject. Remember, Palin's father was a science and PE teacher. My experience at school was that it's difficult to recruit science teachers so some PE teachers taught science when they weren't on the pitch. PE teachers often go into teaching because they like sport and kids. Does LibertyCat genuinely believe that all Alaskan PE teachers sit debating the Israel/Palestine situation at the dinner table?

5) Biden is a bad example to use. He's got a reputation for being patronising and blustering (type 'Biden' and 'Patronising' into Google). If he is aggressive, he is going to look aggressive, rather than aggrieved.