Echoes through time: the things that delight or trouble foolish men

Everything that happens is as normal and expected as the spring rose or the summer fruit; this is true of sickness, death, slander, intrigue, and all the other things that delight or trouble foolish men.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 120 – 180), Meditations (4.44)

Particularly pertinent for our times.

Quieter deeds of longer gestation

We live in shrill, hysterical times where the media (social, print and broadcast equally) gorge themselves on the public’s prurient fascination with the sexual misdeeds of the celebrated. The air is wearyingly thick with manufactured outrage, boiled up in the echoing vats of Facebook and the 24-hour news channels.

So, David Aaronovitch’s column in yesterday’s Times is timely and welcome:

David Cameron is a privileged Old Etonian who will be remembered for calling and losing a referendum that will have an enormous impact on our lives. No one likes him any more. But, as Jim O’Neill reminded me, Cameron is also the politician who, possibly more than any other in the world, began taking action to avert the disaster that could prevent antibiotics working. …

Like Cameron on antibiotics, once Thatcher was convinced of the science of ozone layer depletion and that it was caused by man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), she badgered the rest of the world into taking action. She gave a magnificent speech to the Royal Society in 1988 and then another a year later to the UN general assembly making the case for altering behaviour in order to safeguard the future. …

George W Bush, the fabled half-chimp, half-man who couldn’t pronounce words properly and who invaded Iraq. Which must be his eternal legacy, must it not? I interviewed him in 2007 and he wasn’t at all stupid. He told me then that one reason he was impatient with the UN was just how long it took to get anything done. “We’ve been developing this programme to fight malaria,” he said. “We just decided to do it, so we got on with it.”

In 2005, having been convinced that malaria could be eradicated, Bush set up the President’s Malaria Initiative. Since then the initiative has bought 320 million antimalarial treatments, given out 140 million mosquito nets and delivered 175 million diagnostic tests. Since 2000, deaths from malaria worldwide are down by 50 per cent.

It’s not easy to look beyond the outrage of the moment and value the importance of quieter deeds of longer gestation.

 

Image: cnn.com

Echoes through time: a brief sojourning in an alien land

In the life of man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 120 – 180), Meditations, Book 2, verse 17

Production versus Productivity – @ASI

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Eamonn Butler at the Adam Smith Institute.

He discusses the difference between measures of production, such as GDP, and growth in actual productivity as enabled by technology.

From the humble washing machine to the new iPhone, technology enables us to do more, but that isn’t reflected in GDP. Similarly, inequality is measured by (relative) wage growth, but ignores that the poor as immeasurably better off than they were before:

The poor in particular have gained from entrepreneurial breakthroughs, the growth of new inventions and technologies, mass manufacturing, and other parts of the capitalist system. The prices of what poorer groups buy have plummeted more than most, while the quality of what they can afford has skyrocketed. Wages may not be rising fast for the poorest groups, but there are more fringe benefits as standard, and money buys a lot more than it did twenty, thirty, forty or any number of other years ago. So people who talk about ‘rising inequality’ are up a gum tree. The income figures greatly overstate inequality, because the poorest groups are so much better off than they have ever been in history.

Definitely worth a read.

 

Photo by frank cordoba on Unsplash

Build more or cut immigration – @MattwRidley

Matt Ridley’s Times column on the UK’s infrastructure challenges.

As ever, it’s an objective and data-driven argument:

Of the 1,447 people that Britain added every day in the 12 months to the end of June last year, roughly 529 were births minus deaths, 518 were net arrivals from the European Union, and 537 net arrivals from elsewhere, minus 137 departing British citizens. Given such a flow, our unemployment rate of 4.3 per cent and employment rate of 75.1 per cent are remarkable, if not miraculous. We are one of the world’s great workplaces, which, of course, is why people come.

and …

Though a densely populated country, Britain is not in any sense running out of land. Only about 7 per cent of the land area is classified as urban, rising to almost 11 per cent in England. But of that 11 per cent a great deal is still not concrete: gardens, parks, water and so forth. So the actual paved-over percentage, even just in England, is about 2.27 per cent according to the National Ecosystem Assessment in 2012, and more like 1 per cent for Britain as a whole. This is why a flight over southern England, let alone the Pennines, gives a very different impression from a car journey through the ribbon development along the roads: there is vastly more farmland and woodland (13 per cent of Britain and rising) than concrete.

As so often these days, we suffer from a long-standing failure to have made the case.

Here is the column in the Times.

Here is the same column from Ridley’s own blog, which includes links back to the data sources.

Over decades, we have failed to make the case for development.

We had the Brexit vote (at least partly) because we failed to make the case for immigration.

People deify that nice Uncle Jeremy Corbyn because we failed to make the case for free markets.

Is the shrill intolerance of no-platforming, safe-spacing, snowflake students the result of past failure to make the case for free speech?

 

Photo by Stephen Crowley on Unsplash

Philip Hammond eyes £1bn budget raid on freelancers – @TheSundayTimes

The Sunday Times reports that the Chancellor is considering another attack on sovereign professionals. The concern seems to be, as before, “disguised employment” and the Sunday Times’ coverage is couched in terms of “levelling the playing field” and “significant tax advantages”.

The reality of course is different.

When running properly, individuals operating through personal services companies are each individual businesses carrying all the risks of business and not enjoying the corporate comfort blanket benefits of traditional employment. If the cost to the client company is higher than employing a traditional employee (and often the fully loaded costs are not as far apart as crude comparisons of “day rates” suggest), then the client business benefits from flexibility and agility that no commitment, on-demand services provide.

A tax raid risks damaging the supply of this important flexibility while also increasing the cost to client firms. This has already been seen in the public sector where restrictions similar to those imagined here have already been implemented. It’s a short-sighted and ill-considered move.

Does “disguised employment” actually exist? I’m sure it does. A number of recent court cases suggest that there has been a trend for some employers to seek the cost benefits of using freelance contractors whilst retaining all of the control traditionally associated with  “permanent” employment. Those cases should rightly be pursued, but not by painting the self-employed as either downtrodden, abused workers or system-abusing fat cats.

Being a sovereign professional is a choice. It has real benefits – not least in flexibility – but it comes with risks, costs and responsibilities. A suitable test of employment would investigate the extent to which those risks are real, rather than simply punishing providers of needed skills through a flexible model.

 

Photo by Lily Lvnatikk on Unsplash