Jul 052012

The Guardian reports that thirty NHS trusts have accumulated between them a deficit of £300 million.  Presumably, the government will have to bail them out.  That shouldn’t be such a grand task for Whitehall’s busy bees – after all, they’ve had plenty of practice in recent past of hand-over-fist bailouts for the banks.

Meanwhile, I also read the following from a short article in the Telegraph this morning:

[Bob] Diamond, along with David Cameron, was a very public supporter of John McCain, the last Republican candidate for the presidency, when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. [The current Republican candidate for the American Presidency] Romney earned a $50,000 speaking fee from Barclays in 2011.

Now I suppose you could argue that as Barclays wasn’t nationalised at the time (though this, of course, could quite easily change), such a payment to a foreign politician was purely a matter for Barclays and their shareholders.  But I do wonder if even a significant minority of customers were aware that the profits their business generated for the entity were being employed to fill the already deep pockets of American presidential hopefuls.  Customers are also stakeholders, aren’t they?

Or so they say …

The truth of the matter is that the price of success has clearly become massive failure.  Yesterday, I quoted from another Guardian article where it described how the atmosphere of fear amongst ordinary bank staff clearly made it impossible for alarm bells to be sounded.  I remember, myself, when I used to work at data-inputter level for a bank, how we would get bombarded with messages and training courses from HR insisting on the importance of learning from mistakes.  However, the only real lesson we learned from making mistakes was not to run the risk of making them again.

And one of the biggest mistakes you could commit in a bank was to question the exhortations of your bosses.  Especially as an ordinary worker you were only assigned a five percent bonus on a salary less than the national average.

Your importance was clear.

So it comes to pass: Mitt Romney is no longer friends with Bob Diamond.  As the Telegraph also reports:

“When we first started organising it, Bob was perceived to be a respected captain of industry in Britain, and precisely the sort of man that Mitt would want to be photographed with when he comes here,” one of the organisers of the event tells me. “Obviously, the situation has since changed somewhat.”

Which leads me to arrive at the following conclusion: if the price of success, especially short-term corporate success, is becoming awful and consequential failure for everyone – CEOs, managers, workers, customers, the poor, the rich and the squeezed middle too – do we not define success incorrectly?

For if failure involves committing the mistake of daring to question what others do, we are surely in the world of Nuremberg all over again.

Stalinism has won, hasn’t it?  Only now it exists behind the closed confidential walls of large companies across the globe – companies which have learnt to avoid paying social taxes through a multitude of tax-havened schemes.  No wonder telling your boss he or she’s got it wrong has fallen so dramatically out of favour.  The environment of secrecy which must grow up around such mentalities leads everyone to see shadows almost everywhere.

In truth, we’ve forgotten the true definition of success.

And – in that short and unprepossessing conclusion – we inscribe the enormity of our failure.

Jul 022012

There’s been a bit of a competition on Twitter to think up #BobDiamondSongs.  The first half of the title of this post is my contribution.

But I’m not going to labour the point: all I can say, from my humble position as citizen and occasional voter, is that Vince Cable got it right when he called the City a massive cesspit.  In the meantime, all this talk of the financial services sector reminds me of a bar that once used to exist (may still do for all I know) in the northern Spanish city of Burgos.

I think it was called La Bolsa (the Stock Market) – and it had a most intriguing thesis: the prices of drinks varied according to demand.  So if, for example, you wanted a whisky and didn’t mind which brand, you looked up at the moving price list above the bar itself and chose the best-priced one at the time of asking; that is to say, the one fewest people were buying at the time.

Brilliant idea, eh?  The laws of supply and demand applied to drinking.

I do wonder now, however, if it wasn’t all fixed: they knew which stock they needed to shift and so priced the drinks not in terms of demand but in terms of supply.

Is this what happened at Barclays – and perhaps twenty other banks?  I don’t know – and am beginning to not care.  I can really truly understand why so many young people chose to drop out and create a counter-culture in the Sixties.  That’s exactly how I feel right now.  I spent almost seven years of my life working under the top-down heavy governance which my banking employer imposed on us: no social media access; no Skype or chat; no freedom to show initiative; no chance to imagine better worlds.  All in the name of the need to follow process and procedures.

And all the time we were being screwed down to our chairs, and were being told that we couldn’t do this or that because laws structured everything we were, the people at the top were screwing the customers and a wider society: fixing interest rates in their own interest; fiddling the books, in fact – whilst the rest of Western civilisation was burning.

All I can say is that I am glad the two football teams in yesterday’s Euro 2012 cup final were from the southern half of Europe.

Those most disastrously affected from what I assume will be an ever-growing cesspit of scandals – to paraphrase Cable – deserve some kind of space where they can remind us of the grand culture, intelligence and beauty they also represent.

So here’s to Italy and Spain – two countries which yesterday added so much to our store of footballing knowledge.

A massive olé from myself, my Spanish wife and my three Spanish children.


Further reading: a few days ago, I wrote on the subject of tiki-taka and bullfighting.  If you haven’t managed to read these two pieces, you can catch up here and here.

The mathematics of honour, indeed.  We need more of that.

Jan 102012

On the day that the Guardian announces schools will be seen “as they really are”, as they have to endure no-notice Ofsted inspections, I stumble across this introduction to Parent View, a subsite of the Ofsted web (the bold is mine):

Parent View gives you the chance to tell us what you think about your child’s school.

Parent View asks for your opinion on 12 aspects of your child’s school, from the quality of teaching, to dealing with bullying and poor behaviour. We will use the information you provide when making decisions about which schools to inspect, and when.

By sharing your views, you’ll be helping your child’s school to improve. You will also be able to see what other parents have said about your child’s school. Or, if you want to, view the results for any school in England.

Interestingly, and quite by the by, it concludes by saying:

Please note that Parent View does not currently include independent schools.

Lucky them, then.  But not unusual in a wider context.  More of that anon.

Incidentally, I looked up my children’s school and at the time of writing this post there have been exactly zero responses.

The idea, however, is worth pursuing.  But I do wonder why, in our fascination for achieving transparency, where we have it – that is to say, in social media and other online activity – we are critical of its presence; where we half-do – that is to say, in the public sphere – we can’t wait to use it to knock sensible discourse on the head; and where it refuses to exist – that is to say, in the private sector – we are letting our governments give companies (as well as “independent” schools) of all sizes the sorts of freedoms to hide stuff which we don’t allow our state education system; don’t want to allow our MPs and public sector environments; and now think totally preferable even where of late impossible to maintain when ordinary people take matters into their own tweeting hands.

So what is it really that we want of life and truth?

Why are we so disconcertingly uncertain about whose transparency we want and where we wish to apply it?

And when will we be able to order no-notice inspections of executive boardrooms, CEOs, financial services whizzkids … in addition to all the other supposedly “private” sector actors whose behaviours impact so fiercely – as well as so clearly – on the wealth and material living standards of a generally blameless public?

For surely if you want to make money out of hapless consumers, you ought to admit the existence of a wider constituency interested in whether you’ve done it on a level playing-field.

Unless, of course, that’s only good for teachers.

The rest of society having absolutely no obligation to anyone.

A View Of Top Executives anyone?

No.  I didn’t think so.

Nov 222011

Apologies for the title, for the more sensitively minded amongst you.

This morning, however, from the Guardian, we get two articles on high executive pay and how public trust in the private sector is being corroded.  The first runs as follows:

Warning high pay is “corrosive” to the UK economy, the High Pay Commission calls for greater transparency in the setting of executive pay and says employees should sit on remuneration committees. Its recommendations come in the most comprehensive report yet on the need for action on top salaries.

The report shows executive pay has risen sharply – the pay of the head of Barclays is up nearly 5,000% in 30 years – while average wages have increased just threefold.

The commission was set up by the leftwing pressure group Compass and backed by money from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. A government source said on Monday, however, that the work was being taken seriously.

Meanwhile, the second takes us equally firmly by the hand as it reports thus:

The boss of one of the UK’s most valuable public companies has admitted the country is losing trust in British businesses after a new independent report on “stratospheric” executive pay.

Andrew Witty, the chief executive of pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline, said: “Trust in business has clearly eroded and needs to be reconstructed. It’s very dangerous if a country doesn’t trust the private sector.”

And then goes on to underline that:

The comments were made to the High Pay Commission, a body set up by the left-leaning thinktank Compass and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to probe executive rewards, and are quoted in the final report of its year-long inquiry, which lists 12 recommendations aimed at curbing rocketing executive rewards.

The study, published today, adds that the public believes “senior company executives are ‘rigging’ the system for their own ends”, and that “excessive high pay damages companies, is bad for our economy and has negative impacts on society as a whole … This distortion creates an impression that business leaders are ‘in it for themselves’ and is damaging trust in British companies, especially at a time when most workers are seeing little or no increase in their pay”.

But it’s not only boardroom pay which is rocketing.  There’s the barely ever commented case of supermarket chains whose profits are multiplying even as people have less money to spend (and still they claim inflation is being kept in check by the supermarkets’ probity – well, I’m sorry: I really don’t see it in my weekly spend).  So is this a case of Giffen goods perhaps?  Or something rather more unpleasant?  As Europeans for Financial Reform point out:

The sharp increase in the prices of food and agricultural commodities, as well as of oil, in 2007 and 2008, raised many concerns. The high price of basic food commodities contributed to social unrest and an increase in global hunger, undermining development and people’s right to food as defined in the Universal declaration of Human Rights. The IMF price index of internationally traded food commodities increased 130% from January 2002 to June 2008, and 56% from January 2007 to June 2008. This period of exceptionally steep price increases ended at the time the financial crisis intensified, mid 2008, with food commodity and oil prices showing a sharp decrease. However, late 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a new warning about rising food prices.

As the press release goes on to point out:

[…] The two fundamentals that traditionally constituted agricultural commodity prices are roughly described as (1) demand side factors (e.g. more people needing food, income growth, and increased demands for bio-fuel) and (2) supply side factors (e.g. yield growth or bad harvests, the prices of inputs, and availability of food reserves).

Manipulation of these fundamentals, e.g. by keeping commodities away from the market (hoarding), causing shortage that results in price increases, is the kind of speculation or price management that might still play a role in today’s commodity markets.

So whether this is intentional or not, those who already have plenty – at least in the UK, that is – would appear to be on the point of benefiting from the wider crisis on both a personal take-home pay basis as well as at a more general corporate level.

That is to say, the ratios relating to relative standards of living between workers at the bottom and executives at the top may not only have increased through the stratospheric remuneration of the latter but also – via the actions of those whose responsibility it is to marshal commodities – through the manipulated market behaviours of those who buy, sell and hoard.

For if you thought it was bad enough that people might speculate with your money, how very much worse would it be if they chose to speculate with your food?

May 152011

Trademarked straplines are becoming the bane of our life.  I was going to write a post entirely made up of them – but, as is always the case, someone wiser than I am got there first.

I suppose my biggest gripe with these irritating pieces of marketing-speak doesn’t lie in how they are constructed and integrated into the wider brand image (some of them are quite clever and to the point, it has to be said) but, rather, what they are symptomatic of.  And, I’m afraid, this brings us back to the subject of our beloved corporations and transnational companies.

Let’s take the example of industrial music and see where it leads us.  Throughout the history of 20th century pop music, large companies have infiltrated our mindscapes with catchy songs which are designed – much as 20th century tobacco – to hook us and make it impossible for us not to incorporate them into our daily lives.  How many singles were sold by word of mouth, by someone singing to their nearest and dearest the latest chapter and verse of the coolest band on the block?  The kind of quoting in full which the most fearsome copyright owners these days fight tooth and nail to prevent in social media.

And yet, surely, social media is the virtual equivalent of talking with the neighbour over the garden fence.  Social media is mostly just like that informal conversation held in a pub with a pint and today’s newspaper to hand – read, reread and shared most promiscuously; reread and shared and handed out by the landlord without so much as a peep from the newspaper moguls.

Arguably, file-sharing on the grandest and most legal scale there ever was.

So.  There is a historical precedent.  Just as software companies used to tolerate home copying as a marketing device to encourage business take-up, so music and film companies have throughout their existence allowed people in the real world to quote freely from their product in the interests of furthering sales growth.

When, for example, did you last hear of someone being taken to court for asking Sam to play it one more time?  When did you last hear of judicial sanction being applied to that Man United fan proclaiming that they are the champions?  Yet these are both examples of reusing so-called intellectual property in public spaces without paying a single royalty to anyone.  And thus, in the interests of greater income, it has always been.  And thus, in a sense, we are both owned and given a certain freedom of movement – simultaneously held on a certain leash and allowed to wander somewhat.

Trademarked straplines, then, operate in similar territory.  They take simple and quite innocuous phrases (Amazon – and you’re done™, McDonald’s – and then some™) and devise broader marketing strategies around such building blocks.  Simple enough for even the dullards amongst us to be able to remember and repeat and quote (if only mentally) – and proprietorial enough to prove to anyone who cares to think more deeply about the matter that even the English language is becoming a legal minefield and barrier to free and spontaneous communication.

If the 20th century showed us our freedoms were at risk of being destroyed by the all-consuming and pervasive centralised economies of Communism, Eastern European socialism and the hybrids that were countries like the ex-Yugoslavia, it is the 21st century where it is becoming only too apparent that the centralised economies which are now removing and excising our liberties – often quite despite themselves and their avowed philosophies of community engagement and corporate social responsibility – are these large companies I mention above: large companies which – caught up in fearsome battles to the corporate death – become torn and twisted away from their original missions of serving the customer.

Just as Communism aimed to free the worker, so these corporate behemoths – at some point or other in their histories – also aimed to serve the customer splendidly.

Only it’s now happening conversely.  They, in their never-ending realities, end up – instead – serving themselves of such innocent clients.

And so now, more and more, we’re owned™ – even as we like to think we are being released from the burden of government which so many commentators believe is the real problem with 21st century existence.

Yes.  I’m happy to admit it.  Government is the problem – even as it is the solution.  But the government which is causing us most problems is not only to be found in the parliaments of the world.  It is also to be found in the boardrooms.  And until we take this fact on board, nothing but nothing is going to improve.