Monday, January 15, 2007

So just what is progress?

Inescapable advances made over the past 30 years in computing and communication technology are all around, but is there actually anything to show for it all that someone from 30 years ago could regard as progress in the UK as a whole? Is crime down? Not at all. There are no-go areas, crimes that are too commonplace to be worth investigating and fewer police visible on the streets.

Is job satisfaction increased? Apparently not. Do we feel more secure? Nope.

Is health improved? Maybe we don't get scurvy and rickets these days, but now that the antibiotics are losing their impact on increasingly resistant bacteria, the worrying incidence of TB in immigrant areas is not a good sign after it once been all but eradicated in the UK.

Is overall life expectancy increased? Technology pretty much means that money alone can keep anyone alive for impressive amounts of time; but that moral dilemma is no clearer than it ever was. As the NHS is running out of cash, who will direct resources towards the most worthy cases? After all, it's necessary to keep a few tax payers going for long enough to pay the taxes to care for the rest.

Are our political leaders any more intelligent, less easily corrupted and more inspirational? Hah - give us a break! They have rarely been more reviled, mistrusted and mocked. Ironically, and despite everything, HM continues to elicit a generally good response from her subjects.

So then, are we any better off? We are certainly fatter and more slovenly. The domination of business by computerisation means that youth continues to sideline old age and experience.

We can certainly get hold of more goods for the same money as a result of being willing to support economies like China where the workers operate on the basis of salaries and conditions that no Eu country would even begin to countenance. Plus there's more tat on the telly than anyone can shake a remote control at.

Football has become a circus; increasingly desperate entertainment has spawned the cult of the "beyond Z list" celebrity, and art is half a dead cow in formalin.

Taxation on enterprise and effort has increased everywhere; home sales tax is hugely increased, yet gambling winnings remain untaxed.

In the past 30 years, we seem to have created any number of non-productive jobs in various forms of big brotherliness and nannying. There has been a rise in the notion of "best practise" and all types of "standards". The tyranny of ISO9000 and its ilk has been used to replace common sense in many cases, and afforded work for legions of folks who would otherwise be unemployable in a productive economy.

The amazing thing is that the people of the UK seem ready to put up with this astonishing catalogue of failure - perhaps because they are too busy surviving to pause for long enough to think through their overall situation and that of their kids.

The homogenisation and "pasteurisation" of politics has meant that there are no more clear choices as the focus groups tell the politicians the same things, and so they have spent the past 10 years pinching each others suits of clothes.

But the one lesson that we have learned time and again throughout history (and forever ignore to our peril) is that ALL people are much more effective spending their own money than other people's money. This principle applies on almost any scale, so the one overriding theme of any policy should be to reduce direct taxation to allow people to be responsible for themselves and their own families across a much great range of topics.

The one thing that can set a country apart and head it in new directions is an inspirational leader. Margaret Thatcher was one, John Major was not, and in Blair many thought we had found a modernising leader ready to smooth off some of the harsher edges of the Thatcher years without introducing the sort of rampant socialism that Labour had always nurtured at is core with anthems like the Red Flag, and an unrepentant desire to nationalise.

But it has since transpired that Blair was no more than an accomplished actor with barely a notion of his own, directed by Alistair Campbell and his tartan mafia with their "remain in power at all costs" agenda, and the sinister Cherie Blair with her bizarre personal lifestyle and strange fixations around "human rights".

What a shambles. Can Gordon Brown do any better? He's been about as inspirational as one might expect a dour Scotsman without a personality might be. But the really scary thing is that there is absolutely no one, repeat no one, that looks even vaguely like a credible alternative in the Labour Party. They were and remain a very unimpressive array of largely talentless individuals who now have failed in almost every department. It is an entire government that is more obviously "unfit for purpose" as each day passes.

The Boy David is a nice enough bloke with a pleasant demeanour, but without experience as a product of the politics/spin industry, and that may catch up with him at some point. Alex Salmond is the most robust and best performer of all party leaders by a country mile, Alan Duncan is far and away the best prospect the Tories have - and who's to say that after springing the triumphant surprise of the first female PM, it might not also be their remit to provide the first (openly) gay one..?

Moreover, Alan Duncan would have the moral opportunity from which to re-reform many of the more absurd extremities of the mindless, ruthless and strident inclusivity after ten years of minority rule. Stranger things have happened.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The greater good - or BOGOF?

There are only two core functions in any economic cycle that are guaranteed to be necessary whatever else happens:- payment processing and goods handling.

Innovation and manufacturing are risks to be avoided at all costs, and because we are nation increasingly ruled by unimaginative accountants, "efficient" operations like Tesco have been able to exploit the IT revolution very effectively to get well on top of the logistics of the entire consumer business. Moreover, thanks to the granularity of modern demographic analysis, such warehouse operations are virtually risk-free sidelines for retail property developers.

News that Tesco continues to storm onwards by snapping up more than half of the retail space available last year was greeted by concern and joy in equal measure. Concern from those that recall a commercial monopoly is usually deemed to exist at around 20% of any given market, and delight from those who are claiming that is in fact Tesco that single-handedly controlled UK inflation by sitting on its suppliers' margins.

News that "certain retailers" extend their control of suppliers by forcing them accept retrospective price cuts and provide additional labour to stack shelves suggests that UK retailers are fast becoming little more than property developers with computerised CRM. They clearly have obtained more direct control of the market than is healthy in any competitive economy. No producer can afford not to be on the shelves of the retail cartel , and the cartel knows it.

As the Boy Campbell observed recently, the ability of major retailers to put the arm on their suppliers is a two edged sword, and if retailers continue to throw their weight around cartel-like when dealing with producers, something will have be done about it before the UK agriculture scene gives up and turns itself into yet more golf courses and theme parks.

The only good thing to be said for Tesco and its relentless consolidation of retail mediocrity is that it is now also doing to Johnny foreigner what it has done to its UK competition, with the sort of military precision not seen since the East India Company provided the commercial backup for the Victorian adventuring that turned the globe pink.

The Christmas festive season is now little more than a punctuation mark on the retail campaign calendar. And retailers' shelves are already creaking under the weight of Easter eggs.

Tesco's domination seems likely to continue unhindered, and although Sir Terry Leahy might not actually be as provocative as to declare "Am I bovvered?", increasing numbers of observers (including TMP) are starting to ponder the consequences of allowing the extermination of all other UK retailers.

Tesco is very effectively clearing the way for assimilation by the true Borg or global retailing - WalMart, whose quite holding position with Asda might yet turn out to be a Trojan Horse.

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