Monday, 26 March 2012

The Minimum Price for Morality

This post is an attempt to rectify a previous blog-post. I believe that I came across as somebody simply having an angry rant, someone whose justifications for an argument against minimum pricing for alcoholic beverages as ‘anti-freedom’ are shallow at best. The government sees fit to intrude into the exchange of goods in any number of ways, much of which is done with our permission and as such it is important to explain exactly why minimum pricing is such a bad idea and more importantly, why anybody should care about it.

I like many young people on a budget often gather with friends to drink socially before attending a late night bar or nightclub. This is a practice that the Secretary of State rather cutely termed ‘pre-loading’ and, hilarious as it was to watch her frown her way through this shocking new discovery that University students enjoy drink and won’t pay through the nose for it, her attitude conveys something more insidious. But more on that later.

In my ‘pre-loading’ session I go to the super market to purchase either wine, cider, lager or spirits- though usually lager. I chose my product based on the information that I already have, whether I like it or what sort of social event I’m going to and information available at the shop, what is in stock and how much they would like me to pay for it. Then what usually happens is I simply grab a crate of urine-esque Carlsberg, but regardless, my behaviour at this point is between me, my own experience and the vendors concept of marketing and what they think that I could afford.

Step in, the UK government. You see they are a teensie bit worried about youth drunkenness and for many cases rightly so. The PM himself can attest to the horrors of young adult inebriation, having heavily participated in it in his youth. What they have come up with is a plan imported from Scotland, whereby all drinkers must pay a certain amount of money per unit of alcohol. No vendor is allowed to charge less than this amount of money even if they want to.

Here are just a few problems. First, the government has imposed this measure on moral grounds. They assume that cheaper alcohol sold at wholesale prices will be used by those on low incomes who simply want to intoxicate themselves and cause trouble and strain our health system. If that is the case, then why the blanket charge? The government is intervening through pricing against those who may simply have chosen to drink one brand of alcohol over another, or a person who buys wholesale alcohol to store it as part of their weekly shop. For the poorest of us pennies matter and government intervention in the pricing of goods to make them more expensive doesn’t seem sensible.

Now granted alcohol is a luxury. But again, why does an elected representative get to choose over individuals as to which consumable goods are luxuries and more importantly, why does simply on the grounds of them not being essential good leave them open to price interference by the state?

Second, what is the point in a blanket charge? It will immediately punish poorer consumers, yet it is necessarily low enough not to discourage real alcoholics (as if pricing alcoholics out of the market is something that would ever actually work). Blanket charges aren’t permanent after all. Price inflation will mean after all that for individual consumers, a minimum charge will mean rather less, but for smaller wholesalers as opposed to large supermarkets who can afford and indeed perhaps benefit from the shift in consumer behaviour.

Let’s move on to who actually pays the charge. Consumers do, but to whom? This isn’t an alcohol tax after all so pretty much every penny of this minimum charge is going to go to the sueprmarkets, publicans in chain pubs are going to be benefitting very little and independent pubs are weathering the recession storm by developing microbreweries and so on. The beer producers who actually make products and respond to consumer demand or lack of by either a) failing or b) creating a new product that is better.

Ah, says the government, but these people aren’t doing enough to curb alcoholism. Probably because it isn’t their job. But for the record, they are. Beer producers of imported lager have voluntarily lowered their alcoholic percentage, pubs have found that old English trope of real ale sales booming especially in the under-30 demographic and alcohol consumption has overall actually declined in the last decade.

To address a final point. Who cares? Why do I care enough to type out an article that will almost certainly be unread.

Because this law is symptomatic of a government that like the one before it passes laws not because they are rational acts to protect our individual freedoms or economic equality (depending on what party you support), but simply because “something must be done”. The key word being ‘something’. To end with a quote from Sorkin’s West Wing, “often this office is just as much about not doing things.”

People self correct based on the information that they have at the time and there is no reason to assume that however popular, an elected representative has any more insight into your immediate decisions such as whether to buy a 6-pack of imported lager or not than your next door neighbour Joe and as a result, there is no reason why they should have the power to intervene.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Little Focus

I am going to be turning this blog into a proper personal website over the next few days. The reasons should be obvious: it is unfocussed, unorganised and relatively unread.

The website will do a couple of things: first it will showcase my portfolio and my passions and second it will have a big old page of my ad hoc opinions about things.

Sound pretty similar to this blog you say? Well yes I suppose that's true, but it'll look better, include a lot more fun stories for you to read and be actually organised.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Suck my Magna Carta: Let's Have a Drink.

I've decided to clump together all of my political rants into one title, 'Suck my Magna Carta'. This is for a whole load of reasons, the main one being that I'm quite immature and the rest are more boring things like clarity.
I've used the Magna Carta because it was a document that was a) imposed by peasants onto Lords which given the class ridden nature of British society, I rather like and b) because it was arguably the first written charter of rights in the Anglo world. 
I think I've made it pretty clear how much I value freedom, especially individual freedom before, but these posts will cover more specific issues, from the fundamental to the rather silly. I'm going to start with an issue that is both of those options: the consumption and attempts to regulate alcohol in the UK.

Now I'm going to make a disclaimer right here right now: drinking lots of booze is really bad for you. It messes with your liver and generally makes you act like a dick (actually not necessarily- a unit of alcohol takes nearly an hour to process through your system so if you just had a shot and suddenly feel elated, light-headed and inclined to high five and start wet t-shirt competitions it's either earlier booze or the result of your brain dumping dopamine onto you because you've trained it to associate alcohol with good).

However, just because it's bad for you doesn't mean that the government should fuck with your right to sink a bunch of cheap lagers after a week of hauling shit around at the factory or being beaten down by your condescending boss.

I say cheap lager for a reason. The government isn't for example limiting imports of the high alcohol  'gets you smashed at weddings' drink i.e. champagne but is instead targeting cheap lager, the type bought in supermarkets by poor people because if there is nothing worse than poor people it's drunk poor people.

The pint, especially a true British pint is a holy thing for the Brits. The government aren't going to mess with it except to tax pubs out of existance and then moan about how poor people are buying piss-weak foreign lager instead of just meekly paying higher prices they can't afford.

I also get that we have a National Health Service which we all pay for and dealing with boozy people is expensive. So is looking after old people though, in fact that's pretty much the most expensive thing. I'm not try to equate alcoholics with say, your lovely gran, but the point is that lots of things cause health problems and we are still paying them. Actually that isn't the point at all. The point is that enforcing a collective morality on people of low incomes is a flat out terrible thing to do, especially since people of middle and upper income actually drink more 

That's OK though since they work hard unlike say someone who slogs through hours of a depressing job just to pay an extortionate rent in London since it is next to impossible to find anywhere cheap to rent in the city since much of its economy is driven not by actual enterprise but through rent collection.

Also they're probably wealthy because they drink. Poor people on the other hand: fuck them they can't enjoy a few cold ones because they might behave in ways you don't like and then who knows what will happen.

I'm not ignoring the blight of alcoholism on a culture, ours especially. I'm saying that government intervention is logically fallacious and morally wrong. See for example how Real Ale is making a comeback all on its own with the re-emergence of microbreweries as a place to visit and the fact that people now value individualism in their drink. Minimum pricing and cross-board tax can only harm growth in an industry that is actually entrepreneurial: you know, the type where you actually make a product and then sell it and the best product sells the most.

As a final addendum, I'd point out that in Japan you can buy alcohol from shops 7 days a week and 24/7, the citizens there get blind drunk too and yet the crime-rate is relatively low.

Anyway, this is really quite a silly post and though perhaps confused at times, I hope highlights what I generally feel about government i.e. they should absolutely not be in the business of 'promoting responsibility'. Especially given the character of those who are actually elected into office.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Malaise in Malawi

I’m learning to love alliterative blog-titles, even if they are completely inappropriate and don’t really mean much. Both apply here.

Anyway, I read with interest a new BBC article regarding Malawi’s President Bingu regarding foreign donors who are, according to him, plotting to have him overthrown.

It is difficult as an outsider to gauge exactly the threat that Bingu is for the Malawian people. He arrived in the post-Banda era of a new-found multi-party politics as a talented civil servant, educated in India and Los Angeles who quickly advanced through the ranks to be elected President in 2004 before his successful handling of the economy had him reelected in a landslide in 2009.

He inherited a nation ravaged by AIDS with over 50% below the poverty line and fast fuel and food shortages despite growth in neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Bingu was and still is keen on his relationship with Western powers and still is a capable economic technician. Whilst aid has declined over the last few years, the situation in Malawi in terms of fighting HIV, food supplies and fuel shortages has drastically improved.

Sadly, Bingu’s technocratic micro-management of the economy is often reflected in his social views. Homosexuality was made illegal in 2010 but despite describing it is ‘bad in the eyes of God’, the Malawian government promised to review the law in December 2011.  Discrimination against homosexuals is par for the course in certain parts of the world, which is a cheap shot to make, but I only bring it up because it was asked of me by a Malawian native when I visited last July.

Actually, a lot this post is going to be based on things people said to me, but for someone who visited only once and drew from that everything that I know about the country I have little else to go on.

Malawi is a nation stretched around the vast Lake Malawi. It provides a major route for resources being transported through East Africa and forces a strange sort of local town planning. Unlike much of South-East Africa where towns are clumped and easily discernible, in Malawi settlements stretch along the road side intermittently, a few shacks here, a couple of houses there, slowly building into a larger settlement. People string the roadside too, mainly children. Life expectancy here is low and the lack of adults means that a good amount of these kids are orphans, many of whom have formed their own social strata and town life.

Most of the tourist attractions are to be found round Lake Malawi, an awe inspiring stretch of freshwater with a lot of tourist destinations attached to educational missions. Khandi beach in particular is attached to a lively town, obsessed with soccer like most of Africa and home to a number of educational establishments and clinics.
Khandi beach is also the home of Chibuku festival, a yearly dance party that brings European and global DJs together to dance on the lakeshore. The name is taken from a product incongruous to the country, the wheat beer Chibuku, a disgusting but strangely moorish local drink.

I was at Khandi beach when the president himself arrived, motorcade in tow for a supporters rally. Despite his calls for youth-league members to crack down on protest, local Malawians were vocal in their disliking of the man.

“He is just stupid,” said one, “He promised much when we re-elected him, but he has not done these things.”

I asked whether they thought things had got better under Bingu, “Yes,” they said. Credit where credit is due I suppose, but there was a caveat. “He has done some good things, but not enough. He does not like how little we care about him.”

That lack of care became apparent rather fast. I do not know what numbers the president expected to turn out for his rally, but most people were happy to simply get on with their day once the motorcade had gone past. The rally was televised I am told by locals, with crowd noise added.

There are two points to be made at this stage: Malawi did elect Bingu, and from an outsider’s perspective at least, his leadership has done a lot of good things in Malawi. He is worrying autocratic, but has delivered a surplus in food supplies and increased attempts to fight HIV. Moreover, it is not always clear that Western tactics of decreasing aid and in the case of the UK, pulling out diplomats are working. Malawi’s national identity is only just establishing itself and it would not do necessarily to encourage anti-UK nationalism when there lives a sizable minority of Europeans and Indians in the country. Also, for all his bluster, the president seems keen to keep his allies sweet in order to get Malawi growing again. The capital shows signs of growth, complete with a lively affluent shopping centre, bookshops, gyms and a Nando’s though naturally these are way out of the reach of many citizens still.

If this is sounding too much of a ‘I saw things on my Gap Yah’ then feel free to tell me. I’m not trying to impose my opinion on the situation, I’m just telling it how I saw it at the time and for the most part what I saw was this: Malawians are relatively optimistic about their future but with major caveats. There did not seem to be much rebellious sentiment about their current government, more a healthy opposition and from many, complete ambivalence. Of course for people in power, to be ignored is often a worse crime than outright hostility and the current president must be watched.

Malawi is a beautiful place and like any number of curious, sometimes disruptive and sometimes observant western explorers before me, I was bewitched by the place.

I can only hope that something good will happen.

NB Photos to follow.

Bromley Exposed

As the vile little town I always though it was...

Bromley is where I grew up, a relatively affluent but otherwise nondescript suburb in Greater London. Google Bromley and you'll get an article for the Independent on just how mind-numbingly boring it is.

A land of sensibly mid-priced shoe shops, Bromley's attractions include: Dixons, Clarks, Wetherspoons, several places that sell Fish and Chips and a whole bunch of shops that sell all sorts of things that can get in literally any other place ever.

What's odd about small towns like Bromley though, is it isn't even a  small town. It's literally 6 miles from central London, 15 minutes on the fast train from Bromley South and yet you just don't feel like it. At best you feel like you're somewhere in maybe Essex, certainly somewhere provincial. And like all provincial places, here comes the provinical attitude.

From the local media...

To more recently, Twitter pages dedicated to the town. I.e. Bromley Exposed.

Image nicked from Vice, feel free to ask me to take it down. It's not like I love the look of it.

I mean, where do you start? 

I get that people think that it's banter, that it's funny, but here's the thing about banter. It's not banter when you don't reveal who you are.

Of course, aspiring to make your town the UK equivalent of Gossip Girl is about the best Bromley is ever going to be, but seriously guys what the fuck? 

Quite apart from the obvious misogyny of the page, defended by some lovely fellow explaining that lads sticking up for girls were clearly "just trying to get their dicks wet" the way that anybody who dared get a little bit upset when nameless cowards posted crap about them were then 'revealed' with a whole load of other slander was frankly disturbing.

I get that a lot of the people on there were kids, or at least I hope they were, but Bromley Exposed didn't shock me in the least: if anything it was confirmation of what a nasty vindictively minded place these semi-affluent, semi-convenient and not really anything special places can be. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A little afternote to my previous post...

I recommend to everyone to listen to the truly excellent little radio feature about the RU/RL divide on radio 4.

The Great Divide (Radio 4)

And of course this erm... highlight by one of RL's biggest names: Sam Tomkins.

Super League

The Super League is one of the UK’s best kept sporting secrets. Of course, everybody knows that Rugby League exists but more most of us it is at best a curiosity but more likely to most a complete non-entity. It is as northern as flat-caps, towns named after types of cake and Yorkshire puddings. Rugby League rarely fills out vast 80’000 seat stadiums like its cousin, Union and has very few stars that are known beyond those who already care about the game. This year, despite an increase of viewing figures on Sky TV where most games are shown, the start to the Super League was overshadowed by the Union 6 Nations and will almost certainly be smothered this summer by football and the Olympics.

Which is a shame really, because this season is looking like it’ll be an absolute cracker.

Rugby League is in an odd position right now. Viewing figures are up, yet attendances are way below what they were a couple of decades ago. The truly passionate support is still confined to very small parts of the country: Wigan, Bradford, Warrington... It’s not that people don’t know that the game exists, they are simply not exposed to it enough. Yet take a trip to Wigan on match day and compare the sheer level of support amongst the lads around town and you’ll see a passion to rival and Football club.

I think that people should watch the Super League for two main reasons. First, it is an empirically great game. Second, it is fantastic entertainment.

Don’t believe me then take a look at this:

And whilst we’re at it, did you notice that scoreline? Have in mind whilst you do that tries are only 4 points in League, with a converted try set at 2 and you’ll see straight away what a shootout some of the games are.

Not that shootouts are always great. Some of the greatest games of Football ever have been 1-0.

Yet, for all the media hype over the 6 nations and the supposedly ‘improving’ England team, there surely is only so long somebody can watch sludgy, tepid game-play. Especially when there’s a whole different game of dazzling finesse, brutal tackling and pure entertainment that’s happening right under our very noses.

I implore you. Take the time and watch a little Super League. You won’t regret it.