Why Cambridge Council should be sacked

Well, they might rightfully say that since I don’t pay their council tax or business rates I can go and stick it, but these incompetents really showed me why councils can’t be trusted to run services. They are inward looking with no sense of customer service.

I went to Cambridge on the 27th December for some Weimar Germany inflation porn at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Obviously I wouldn’t dream of using the train, although the actual return train fare is only a couple of quid more than the fuel, but there were two of us, instantly doubling the cost of using public transport, ruling it out for anybody rational. DGF went to university at Cambridge, so she knows the town well enough to know where to park near her old college with an acceptable hike into town, but in a momentary fit of madness we thought we would consider the park-and ride. Street parking costs about a fiver for the amount of time we wanted.

Times are hard at Cambridge - no snow clearance at the P&R

Obviously they’re paying somebody too much at Cambridge council, as nobody was up for the overtime to clear the snow. Or it’s all going to keep the Chief Executive in Château Lafite, anyway we had to slip and slide along the uncleared footpath to the bus stop/ticket hall.

Typical council notice of all the things they won't do for you

Here we were greeted by this notice, telling us all the things that the council wouldn’t do for us. Including give change, or accept £2 coins. The £2 coin has been in circulation for 13 years so we aren’t talking some new-fangled Johnny-come-lately here but a coin of the realm over a decade in service. Never mind, you can buy the ticket on the bus.

Buy your ticket on the bus - for a 10% surcharge!!!

Yep, they can fix that for you. For a small fee of a 10% hike in the ticket price. That’s what the public sector does with such a lack of grace. They are so used to being the only source of something that they behave in a high-and-mighty monopolistic manner.

Well, I had a choice. I was not going to be rushed by these self-serving, arrogant toe-rags so we went right back to the car and berated ourselves for the temporary fit of madness that made using this council service look like a good idea.

Cambridge council score extra black marks here since we consulted their website for the park and ride ‘service.’ Nowhere does it tell you some of the essentials like:

  • how much a ticket costs
  • that tickets are per adult, so only single occupancy drivers need bother
  • their usurous 10% tickets on the bus surcharge
  • that ther ticket machines don’t give change
  • that their ticket machines don’t take £2 coins

We’d have been able to raid the piggy-bank beforehand, carefully setting aside those pesky £2 coins of course, had they had the customer focus to tell us some of these fundamental limitations in their operation. That would have got them the business. All in all, the whole experience stank of the laziness and complacency that has come to epitomise some council services, particularly boring Cinderella services that are easy revenue earners, like parking. Why couldn’t this be paid for using a mobile phone FFS? Or a debit card? Cambridge is meant to be the UK equivalent of Silicon Valley, and unlike some councils up North they’re hardly strapped for cash. Do the businesses in Cambridge know that the council is so hostile to their potential customers? Wasters, the lot of them…

Just to show a contrast, Tesco at nearly the same place, same day, same time of day managed to totally clear their car park

Tesco can clear their car park

We’d actually gone here to get some change to avoid the 10% charge, but on seeing this car park we saw that Cambridge Council clearly didn’t give a damn about our custom and couldn’t bring ourselves to patronize such an incompetent organisation.

This wasn’t about the extra 60p. I can easily afford the 60p surcharge. It was about not letting Cambridge Council take the piss, and not supporting such a customer-hostile operation.

Tesco shafts you every step of the way, from their ‘value’ to ‘finest’ branding which in more than one blind test I couldn’t favour one over the other though they were different. But they’re not so damned arrogant and brazen about it. That’s what private enterprise does right about shafting its customers – it does it with a smile, makes them want to be suckered, rather than slapped around the face with a wet kipper with the simplicity of “it’s our way or the highway mate”.

Winter of Discontent battle lines being drawn

Well, Gideon’s had his say yesterday. I figured I’d wait around for the churnalists to go through the fine print before taking the opportunity to shoot my mouth off, or perhaps to bleat that it’s unfair, because middle class me is taking the bullet in some way akin to our army of fragrant Guardian-reading SAHMs.

Well, they’ve failed me dismally, or perhaps as a homeowner in the sense of being the party on the deeds without sharing it with a bank and part of a child-free couple, there is compensation for ten years of not getting any free gravy from Labour. Not getting any in the first place means Gideon doesn’t get to take it away. Obviously there are the macroeconomic hazards in future rang out by distant bells tolling but I didn’t take it straight between the eyes yesterday. That I’m aware of so far, anyway.

That’s not to say that I’m unaffected. If I were to want to go somewhere by train, the original small mortgage I’d need to raise for the ticket is likely to go up to a mid-sized mortgage as a result of the subsidy change. Obviously VAT is going to go up. But the place I am going to take it is in the back, in a mightly subtle way.

Gideon’s taken out an awful lot of money from the British economy. If he were flying a plane he’s kicked the throttle back from Gordon Brown’s full bore to about half. He has to avoid a stall.

What he will probably do is get the Bank of England to hit the old QE button and create money. That’s the nice thing about being the government, you can make money. If you or I did that in our garages we’d get nicked for it, because it creates inflation. But when Mervyn King does it, it’s a good thing, and it compensates for all that wedge the government isn’t spending, and gives us something to pay unemployment benefit to the half-a-million people who will lose their jobs.

Merv doesn’t have to make money in his garage, he has a computer to do it, and if he has to get physical then he has those nice chaps at the Royal Mint to do it. Lately even they have been complaining about inflation, as it is costing too much money to make money, particularly those danged 5p and 10p coins.

Last time that happened we made the buggers smaller, but there a limit to how far that can go before we can’t see them any more. The problem is the copper price has gone up so much the copper in the cupro-nickel now costs more than the coin it’s made of. Maybe I should stockpile some of these, and heat them up in a metal bucket over the fire in the desperate times to come, so I can release them onto the London Metal Exchange when Peak Copper has happened. Anyway, for some reason Merv doesn’t think this is a problem, he’ll simply get them to make the 5 and 10ps out of pressed steel, like they did with the coppers a while ago. So your silver coins will become magnetic for the first time. The need to continually debase the coins of the realm is not usually an indication of fastidious economic management.

Inflation will destroy chunks of my wealth held in financial instruments of all sorts, though this will particularly affect cash holdings like my cash ISA which is worth about 2% less this year than last.

Wealth held in non-financial instruments like Real Stuff will probably weather the storm better, though I’d draw the line at claiming that my house will be a hedge against inflation (the inflation hedge rationale behind that article applies equally to a property bought at home).

So the places I will take the bullet aren’t as explicit as the places many people will be taking it. But take it I will. I will concentrate my energy on adjusting my risk profile and asset class spread to minimize the damage, but I won’t bother writing into the Guardian about how dreadful it all is. I don’t think Patrick Colllinson will be as nice about people like me as he was about hard-done-by SAHMs that everybody was so mean about.

If they have got any brains, the Argies are likely to have another bash at taking over the Falklands in the next ten years as we launch our shiny new aircraft carriers, without any aircraft on ’em. I guess that indirectly affects me as there is oil there which will be kind of handy in a post-peak world and so the punch-up is more likely, and actually about something real rather than the need to get Thatcher re-elected. I don’t normally have much time for the old goat Norman Tebbit but I can’t help agreeing with him that you need planes on an aircraft carrier in the same way as beer is rather useful in a pub. Part of the problem here is there is no sense of competence or personal responsibility in people who draft the byzantine contracts in these things.There’s apparently some wizard wheeze about using giant rubber bands to launch paper aircraft later on.

Before someone takes me to task for being a warmongering SOB I really ought to say that it is way beyond my competence to know whether or not Britain needs aircraft carriers and a blue water navy in the 21st century. That’s why we have guys with gold braid on their shoulder pads and handlebar moustaches to think about stuff like that. But this much I do know – if we do need aircraft carriers then we need aircraft on the darned things and not just a few choppers to break up the stark expanse of the landing deck a little bit. It’s not like we’re going to use the pointy bit as a battering ram are we 😉

It seems to be part of a general disease, this casual approach to dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. I suppose I didn’t specify that I’d like to have the wheels and the engine when I bought my last car, but I’d have been mighty pissed off if they hadn’t come with it, as well as looking a bit silly when I got in the thing to drive it away. It isn’t the sort of minor detail that escapes you in buying something.

It’s not just the MOD, it appears that our fine friends over the pond have been getting a bit slap-happy with the paperwork in issuing mortgages, and as a result they can’t really work out who a house belongs to, which at least is giving some people a break by freezing foreclosures for a while. Sometimes I wonder about our American friends. The rule of law and secure property rights are meant to be axiomatic to human freedom, and I am suprised at the casual approach to this in the US, this will cause endless pain in future if the property registration system ends up subject to undisclosed future claims and liabilities.

It was not until researching this observation about the rule of law, which I had been taught at school, that I realised that it was quite so right-wing in its derivation 🙂 Anything which needs references from the Adam Smith Institute and where the wikipedia article cites Hayek and the Austrian School is usually the signature of a community that considers Genghis Khan as a bleeding-heart liberal, but in this area I’m with them.

The half-million souls hammering the public sector is due to take is asking for a fight, we only have to look over the Channel to see some of the brouhaha we could be in for. As a gratuitious aside, I love the comment that after years of continual man-eating, Carla Bruni supposedly said that she graduated to marrying Sarkozy because she wanted a “man with nuclear power“. There’s no way up for her afterwards, so Sarko has gotta smash the unions. I don’t know if SamCam feels the same. And no, I have no explanation for Thatcher’s behaviour on that line of reasoning at all 😉

Some events mark generations, and one of those was the Winter of Discontent, a punch-up between the unions and the Labour administration of James Callaghan. Well, it looks like the brothers are getting ready for another rumble, along similar battle lines.

Some things are different, of course, gone are the days of Scargill’s flying thugs pickets, and the time may yet come again when taxi drivers have to look nervously at motorway bridges for the descendants of Art’s enforcers innocent hot-headed boys with concrete blocks that just happened to be in their hands when they accidentally let go of them into the traffic.

Part of the problem is that many people just don’t get it. We have been living beyond our means. Michael Lewis put his finger on it in his Vanity Fair article about the astonishing carry-on in Greece.

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.”

What did we Brits want to do when the lights were out, I wonder? We wanted to inflate the price of our houses, and feel rich that way. Oh and we preferred not to get round to the tedious business of paying down the mortgages that went with them, preferring to stick with paying the interest only.

Of course, our inflated house prices made us feel rich, so we liked to take that money out and fritter it away on holidays and trinkets for the kids. All the while telling ourselves that our houses were making us more money than our jobs were, and never asking ourselves where did all this money come from?

Then some bugger turned on the lights, somewhere in late 2007, and we’re now spitting bricks, because they also seem to have turned off the free money tap. The trouble is, many of us also seem to have got infantilised at the cheap credit teat, and now it is gone we don’t seem to get it.

Living standards are going to fall. If we’re lucky, they will only fall to where they should have been without the sugar rush of almost free credit. If we’re unlucky, we will get to find that they fall further as we share the world’s resources with a burgeoning middle class elsewhere.

We’re also going to find out that we were carrying a lot of passengers. In the good times we had money to spare for all sorts of frippery. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you have the money then why not spend it to make a prettier world.

This save the arts video strikes me as a classic case of self-interested bleating. The trouble with ‘funding’ is it allows people to go right up their own backsides. At least when the King sponsored art the artist had to please him. Mozart, Beethoven and Michaelangelo didn’t get government funding. The very fact that the arts need funding means that they don’t speak to enough people to pay their way.They need to do better now.

Some of those passengers are also an awful lot of these unions’ members. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Some of the cuts will be way over the top. Some will be cutting stuff that we can’t afford to do any more, like buying aircraft. There’s an awesome special interest pleading that these cuts will hit the poor hardest. It really isn’t that hard to understand. The poor have been the major beneficiaries of the benefits culture. Any attempt to roll that back is gonna hit the poorest hardest. They can’t hit me with benefit cuts because I don’t get any. The only way the poor can not be hit hardest if for taxes to go up. I think some of that was discussed at the election, though I am not sure the Lib Dems are exactly delivering what their voters expected.

Cameron Tells Us to Get On Our Bikes, The World Doesn’t Owe Us a Living

Actually he didn’t, any more than Norman Tebbit did all those years ago, but I couldn’t let the truth stand in the way of a good title. It’s pretty much what he meant, anyway. And I like it. He’s put his finger on it

“I think too many people in this country are living under the delusion that a prosperous past guarantees a prosperous future. But it isn’t written anywhere that this country deserves a place at the top table.

It was once said that freedom once won is not won for ever; it’s like an insurance premium – each generation must renew it. Economic prosperity is the same. Just because we’ve had it before doesn’t mean we’ll automatically get it again.”

He’s nailed it. In Britain at the moment too many of us have the viewpoint that somebody else needs to come along and sort out our problems. All of ’em.

And therein lies the rub. There are some pieces of misfortune that afflict people that we should collectively help out with – illness, accident, specific misfortunes. But if we just can’t be bothered to shift ourselves, well sod it. Why should other people help out with our lifestyle choices?

I want to retire 8 years early. I am not asking anybody else to pay for me to do that – essentially I have to both reduce costs and save up to be able to bridge the 8 year gap until my main retirement savings come on stream. Or make money some other way by selling skills. Nobody else is asked to pay for my lifestyle, and nor should they. If I’m so damn precious that I want to stop working then it is up to me to sort myself out so I can do that.

So this article in the Grauniad from a guy earning 43k whingeing about the budget “Am I really a Fat Cat” really hacked me off. The short answer is “yes you bloody well are, mate”

Said individual earns £42k, has two kids 8 and 10, his wife hardly works, receives £1000 in State child benefits,  and he’s struggling if he  loses £545 of child tax credits and pays more in VAT. Struggling, that is, to have TWO holidays a year. I haven’t had one holiday last year. Not because I can’t afford it, but because I want to do something else with the money! Holidays are a luxury, not a right, FFS.

The last priceless whinge was

“Has the government committed an own goal to match Gordon Brown’s 10p tax rate blunder? Only time will tell. The budget was certainly tough, but was it fair? Not from where I’m standing.

One thing I do know, though, is that there will be a lot of very unhappy parents, many of who have already seen their pay frozen, when they realise that they are ones that have suffered by far the most in this budget. Thanks, George.”

Suck it up mate. As pasty-faced Dave said, the world doesn’t owe you a living. The child-free have taken a soaking during Labour’s tenure, and it’s payback time. Twice in my life I have asked myself the child question, and both times I came to the conclusion that I didn’t earn enough to be able to support any putative progeny and maintain a lifestyle that met my needs and wants at the time. So guess what? I didn’t have them! I never factored in child tax credit this or whatever, it was could we manage to raise a child on one salary? If the answer was no, the course of action was obvious.

There are many people that raise two kids on less than £42000. They just have a lower material quality of life. The fact that people keep doing this presumably means that weighed in the round, the joy of having your own kids outweighs the hit it takes on your material wealth. Which is great. As a child-free individual, I don’t even mind subbing schools and all that – in the end this is all to the good and makes our society better. I’d like to see a sponsorship process paid from taxation, for poor bright kids to be able to go to uni without being crippled by debt, to invest in future Britain.

But what I do mind is subbing the individual lifestyle choices of people like Miles Brignall, who has to “ask if a family income of £42,000 really puts you in the ranks of the well-off”

The answer’s yes, mate. It does. If you want to lower costs, get a better quality of life and see your kids more, take a 25k job nearer to home to cut commuting costs and get your wife to work, since the kids are school age. Bingo, no Higher Rate Tax or £3k season tickets to King’s Cross.

The reason London prices are inflated is that there are a lot of rich people there. If you want to swim in the same pool as them and have your salary in the upper 10%, then you have to take the decor too, and some of that is higher-rate tax and expensive commuting.

Pasty-faced Dave hit the nail on the head. It’s time more of us in the UK took responsibility for our lifestyle choices, because the world doesn’t owe us a living.

Does Paying People More Get Better Performance?

You usually get what you pay for with many things. A Mercedes is a better car than a Nissan Micra; at least from a reliability and driving experience point of view. Buy cheap, buy twice is an old adage that if you skimp on quality you often get unreliability.

So it goes with pay, we assume. The market sets pay for scarce skills – the reason footballers get paid astronomical salaries is that their skills are rare, and the market therefore drives the price up. At least their skills are testable on the playing field.

What about CEOs? You have to pay the going rate is the clarion call. Pay a CEO a normal sum of money and he just won’t be bothered to roll out of bed and do the difficult job of…losing shedloads of money like Fred the Shred, Kenny-boy Lay (deceased), Rick Wagoner. People moan about footballers’ salaries, but if they performed like that on the field scoring repeated own goals they’d be out on their ear PDQ.

Paying shedloads of money is one thing, but there is a hidden assumption behind CEO pay, and curiously enough it doesn’t seem to hold up to testing. You would think it stands to reason that paying someone more if they do well is a good way of getting better performance. Funnily enough, it turns out that this is not the open-and-shut conclusion of studies, indeed the converse seems to be true, as it encourages excessive risk-taking and a lack of self-critical thinking. Sounds familiar?

Here is an interesting video that describes the results of some tests of this assumption. It turns out that for simple mechanical labour, you do indeed get more performance out of people if you pay them more for more production. But once things become even slightly cerebral, and that includes simply memorising strings of numbers, paying people for results breaks down, often wrecking the performance compared to paying them a regular wage. There is, of course, the caveat, that you have to pay them enough so that pay is no longer a concern. Paying enough to keep you and I happy may not be the same as paying enough to keep a CEO happy, since they have a more expensive lifestyle. However, continuously ramping pay doesn’t seem to be necessary at all, so perhaps it is time that we as shareholders challenged high CEO pay.

Before the pointy-haired-bosses reading this get any ideas, the conclusion was not that pay is irrelevant, right. Pay zilch and nobody turns up for work. You have to pay enough, so that the issue of pay is not a concern. However, after that, giving people more self-determination in their work, and letting them achieve mastery over the tasks in hand, ie improving their skills, is largely reward enough, and you get an engaged workforce. Changing things in this directon from the usual command and control hierarchy is very difficult. It means changing a culture, and that is notoriously hard to do. It’s probably more expensive in the short term than upping pay – a fair amount of senior management may need to be re-educated or made redundant 🙂

There is a corollary to this. Most people assume that more pay will make them happier. That isn’t necessarily so as this post from Monevator seems to indicate.

As I think back over how my own job has changed in two decades, much of this gels with me. Two decades of MBA-as-career has given us in the western world an increasingly talentless management in too many of our larger companies that attempts to micromanage everything, and make people interchangeable with each other. In doing this, companies introduce far more ridiculous reporting and under-the-microscope sort of activity. These companies have been able to get away with that because the past couple of decades have favoured capital as a result of globalisation.

Economies of scale and wage arbitrage in outsourcing work to lower-wage economies can be used to offset the sclerotic process that is seizing the creative arteries.  Just because technology allows something to be measured, doesn’t mean it should be, and this has been death to creativity, and has led to a diminished engagement as people feel their contribution is valued less.

In my company, this has gone against a backdrop of deskilling – digitalisation has genuinely reduced the skill levels required of a lot of the work, and the weakening business case of the company makes management correctly shake out some of the fat from what was once quite a prestigious organisation. However, I recognise this trend to ossification, risk-aversion and micromanagement.  The company I work for follows the trend across western business and education, with the emphasis on objective setting, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals and all the rest of the manage-by-numbers claptrap.

W Edwards Deming - Out Of The Crisis book
Deming's book, Out Of The Crisis

Perhaps it is not surprising that the developed world is driving our economies into the ground – in our search for measurable results we are trashing the performance, job satisfaction and quality of life of the knowledge workforce at the same time as real incomes stagnate.  No less a luminary than W Edwards Deming, in his book “Out Of The Crisis”, had this to say

“The performance appraisal nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics… it leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.”

I know that for myself, I am reasonably happy in what I do, and the pay is okay.  I have progressed through the company, gaining rank and pay as the job demands more skill. At the moment, I am working in a niche built on experience gained a few years ago – the rest of that group has been disbanded or take early retirement, so I have a reasonably challenging task that will result in something real on the ground.

What has made me virtually disengage with the company’s aims is the “performance management system” that I find alienating and positively demotivating each time I have to deal with it each quarter. I had no problem with the yearly appraisement process before, but this particular micromeasurement technique with its talk of raising the bar every year makes me want to puke. I am old enough to be able to mostly feed this revolting system what it wants, so I am okay in the metrics.

I will perform the task to the best that I can because that is the professional thing to do, and I don’t want to let  people down; but as for HR’s infernal performance management system I’d walk away tomorrow to get that out of my life. Let us take a look at the mission statement of SuccessFactors, the fly-by-nights that produced it and sold it the the HR department of my company.

Our integrated suite of on-demand applications is relied upon by thousands of customers worldwide to align their businesses to their strategies, arm their organizations for success and incite their employees to greatness—every day.

By focusing on two key elements of executional excellence, Business Alignment and People Performance, SuccessFactors helps organizations of all sizes realize maximal business results. Execution is the difference™.

Too bloody right they are. Execution – as in the killing off of creativity, innovation and pretty much anything worth having in a workforce. Of course, the SuccessFactors software is the means of disengaging the workforce. The true problem is the pillocks in charge of companies that believe that micromanagement by SMART objectives are the way to get the best out of their knowledge workers. This sort of micromanagement is why office work is bad for you. It saps your soul. The tragedy is that it is a lose-lose situation – the company doesn’t get a better deal for sapping your soul!

whither manufacturing, and whatever happened to leadership?

There’s an election going on, and what strikes me most is that, quite frankly, all three leaders strike me as weeds.

In Britain, we’ve spent all our money, and then some. We have got fat and lazy on a decade of easy money. We need leaders who have the cojones to upset people, and stand by what they say and do. Brown’s cock-up wasn’t so much slagging off that woman in private, it was the craven apology that made him look weak to me. I don’t want nice, I want effective. We need to learn to save before spending, on both a personal and collective level. Cameron came over as somewhat more competent on the telly last night, but it was hardly barnstorming.

Some of the proposals seem downright harebrained. Everybody seems to have discovered a love for manufacturing industry. Guys, wake up and smell the coffee. Last time Britain did any serious manufacturing was in the 1970s before Thatcher, ably abetted by the trade unions, destroyed it. Or perhaps it was the unions, ably abetted by Thatcher. Either way, the result was the same.

That was over forty years ago. A generation and a half has grown up since then, and wisely targeted their learning away from science and technology on the grounds that it was harder to pass in these subjects and there was limited chance to apply the skills in the workplace. I have been working in this field and I’ve seen swathes of British engineering firms go bust, including some I never thought would go. Plessey, Ferranti, GEC, Marconi, where are they now? Unlike previous generations, today’s graduates had to take significant financial risks to go to university, so who can blame them for avoiding tough STEM subjects. As this University World News article says

Countries around the world are trying to prevent a continuing decline in interest among students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM – the so-called key vulnerable subjects. Professor John Holman, director of STEM subjects at the UK National Science Learning Centre, said Britain was not alone among advanced economies that had experienced shortages of graduates in these areas. While other EU countries, Japan, the US and Scandinavia were also suffering, the picture was different in developing nations.

We are hosed. Exactly who is going to staff these engineering and manufacturing companies? Are the few able young scientists and engineers going to have to call the ageing greybeards away from retirement to swell the ranks, or will science and engineering be put on the list of special skills that the UK border control will accept? And even if they are, will we offer enough money to attract enough people in without hamstringing the companies with labour costs.

In case we and our politicians hadn’t noticed, in the intervening four decades, the Iron Curtain has fallen, two generations of hard-working Chinese have joined the global workforce ready to work for a damn sight less than the National Minimum Wage, capital controls have been removed and all sorts of other things have happened. We are never going to manufacture as much as we used to relative to the rest of the world, because other people will do it cheaper in other countries.

It’s payback time. Living standards are going to fall for most people in the UK. More of us are going to have to get used to doing crap jobs again. We may not like the City slickers and Masters of the Universe but the money they sucked into our economy paid for us to decide that we were happy to look the other way while other people picked our vegetables for less than minimum wage with some of us on the dole. Now most of us are going to have to pay a bit more for our veg and have them picked by Brits, hopefully on the NMW at least. All sorts of other things that used to be beneath us are going to have to be done by Brits again, because we just aren’t as rich as we thought we were before 2007.

We haven’t got enough money to decide that certain jobs are beneath us – we either get to do them or they don’t get done. Labour did a good job of fixing much of our infrastructure which was run down and knackered after years of Tory cost-cutting, and hopefully they built it well enough that it can last at least another term of neglect.  I am old enough to remember what the Economist meant when they  reminded me of what Britain was like before 1997

voters have forgotten what Britain’s “public realm” looked like before 1997, even as their expectations for it have become more demanding and consumerist. The once-crumbling physical infrastructure of schools, job centres and hospitals, […] has been thoroughly renovated.

The paint will be peeling again and the hinges will squeak after the election, regardless of who wins. Well, perhaps with our newfound passion for engineering then somebody will oil the squeaky hinges. I feel a bad moon rising and this track seems to fit…

Somewhere it all went wrong. We was robbed – you and me and everyone else

A last look at our unscarred friendly skies before flights resume

The recent hoo-hah over the flight ban caused by Eyjafjallajökull makes me wonder. As a kid in the 1970s I remember being told that the future would be a relaxed one of more leisure time, a three or four day work week and the chance to pursue our visions and dreams. The grunt work of keeping the economy going would be done by robots doing our every whim. It all seemed possible then, that the advances in technology would serve us all.

Somewhere along the way we all took a left when we should have taken a right. Why exactly is it that so many of us are working in crap jobs, in hock to the Man for our mortgages and dreams, and we live for two weeks abroad? Two weeks of escape, versus forty weeks of quiet desperation. Where did we sign on for that, how can we get off? In the past it was possible to raise a family with the income from one man’s wage. Now a typical family needs both adults working to service the mortgage. What happened to the promise of a shorter working week? The current two day weekend was only introduced in the 20th century, a change from the old Sunday off pattern for agricultural workers. Imagine the bleating from the ‘business community’ if we tried to take out another day.

I feel for all the poor folk stiffed by Fate this last few days. But isn’t this all a wake-up call, is it really worth packing ourselves like sardines to be abused by so-called low cost airlines for 10 days of escapism which doesn’t always turn out all it’s cracked up to be? Travelling is rarely improved by haste.

What I want is more time, to travel slowly and overland, not have to pack my experience of other worlds into two weeks mandated by the desires of some corporation. I want to taste the food and feel the plains of Europe slowly give way to the mountain ranges, to follow great rivers from the sea to the source. I want to do it over weeks, not hours, and do it well.

Somewhere in the three decades since that dream of a longer weekend was sold me and now, something went wrong. We collectively bought into the false dream that Stuff would give our world meaning, and joined the wild merry-go-round of buying more and more of less and less.

Somewhere in these friendly skies unscarred by the vapour trails there is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve done without air travel for a few days. Nobody has died, and all the inconvenience has been because of the unexpected nature of the shutdown. Air travel is nice, but it isn’t essential.

Maybe it’s time to charge it for the external costs it imposes on the rest of us. Tax fuel at the same rate as other transportation. Charge it for the loss of the quiet times and the uglification of our soundscape and our skies. Ban all night flights between 11pm and 6am, so that the Many can get some sleep at the expense of the Few that are in such a damned hurry. Air travel has gotten away with too much for too long, externalising its costs in terms of noise and nastiness. But most of all, perhaps we should ask ourselves why it is that we put up with this enervating haste, for so little return in terms of quality of life? Why are we rushing around so much, if it doesn’t seem to make us happier?