Sunday, 22 December 2013

Songs of death and jealousy

No, this is not about a previously undiscovered Leonard Cohen album.

I was letting iTunes play random music to me this afternoon and seemed to be feeling in a rather contrary mood, because I suddenly viewed in a new light two songs that I already knew well.

First up was Don't fear the reaper by Blue Öyster Cult (1976), which I normally like because of the music, although the lyrics are rather fanciful. This time, I heard it and thought of my mother lying dead on a hospital bed in March this year. She didn't look different, she just looked as though she'd been coshed on the back of the head. But she was quite still and not breathing, and I knew it was the end. My mother and I have never believed in an afterlife, but there was an awful finality to seeing her dead like that, and the lyrics of the song suddenly seemed today a fantasy in bad taste. Maybe this is a temporary reaction and I'll get over it.

A while later, iTunes threw up Run for your life by the Beatles (1965), which I've been hearing for most of my life; and I suddenly realized what a nasty song it is. Some people think a lot of John Lennon, and his character did go through major changes during his abbreviated life; but in his early adulthood he seems to have been a seriously unpleasant character.

To be fair, Wikipedia notes that “Lennon designated this song as his least favourite Beatles song in a 1973 interview and later said it was the song he most regretted writing.” It remains odd that I've listened to it for decades without really taking it in.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fings ain't wot they used t'be

I've tried looking on the Web for the original lyrics to the title song from the Cockney musical comedy Fings ain't wot they used t'be, by Lionel Bart, but all I can find are the different lyrics sung to the same tune by Max Bygraves. As I have on CD the original-cast recording of the show from 1960, here's my transcription from the sound. This is undoubtedly garbled, because I can't make out all the words clearly. However, I was rather pleased to make out the reference to the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality and prostitution, published in 1957. If you can improve my transcription, please let me know.

I used to lead a lovely life of sin
(Dough! I charged a ton!)
Now it's become an undercover game
Who wants to read a maggis in a window
Massaging done
Somehow the business doesn't seem the same.

It's a very different scene
Well, if you know what I mean
There's toffs with toffee noses
And cooks in coffee houses
And fings ain't wot they used to be.

There's short-time low-cast mysteries
Wivart proper histories
Fings ain't wot they used to be.

There used to be class
Doing the town
Buying a bit of vice
And that's been a grass
Couldn't go down
Under the union
(Christ, not likely!).

Once in golden days of yore
Ponces, killed and lazy whore
Fings ain't wot they used to be.

Cops from universities
Dropsy, what a curse it is
Fings ain't wot they used to be.

Big hoods now are little hoods
Gamblers now do Littlewoods
Fings ain't wot they used to be.

There used to be schools
Thousands of pounds
Forcing across the bay
There used to be tools
Flashing around
Oh for the bad old days

How we used to fall for 'em
I got news for Wolfenden
Fings ain't wot they used to be
(Did they love they used ter)
Fings ain't wot they used to be.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


The subject of secession is rather topical here at the moment, so here are my thoughts on it.

Firstly, I believe that in principle any group of people should be entitled to secede from a country. The principle being self-determination: the idea that you're not entitled to govern without the consent of the governed (as some early Americans once put it).

However, in practice, the smaller your group, the more important it becomes to negotiate an amicable separation from your country. If you declare unilateral independence, you have to consider various possibilities, including:

  1. Your ex-country declares war on you. In my view this is immoral, but it has happened repeatedly in the past.
  2. Your ex-country closes its border with you. In my view this is distinctly unfriendly, but not immoral.

Bearing this in mind, the idea of me declaring my house to be the independent country of Palfreyland is effectively ruled out for practical reasons, as are many other small secessions.

The secession of Catalonia from Spain (for example), would probably be infeasible only if Spain declared war as a result. The closing of the border would probably damage both sides without achieving anything.

In this case, Catalonia also has to consider the possibility of being refused admission to the EU, which seems not unlikely and would presumably cause some significant problems.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Reflections on Margaret Thatcher

I haven't thought about Margaret Thatcher for a long time, and would have allowed her death to pass without comment. However, as everyone else is making such a fuss about it, I suppose I may as well slip in my own two cents' worth.

I was 25 years old and living in England when Margaret Thatcher came to power in the election of 1979, but I abstained in that election and in the following one in 1983, not being persuaded by any of the parties. By the time of the 1987 election, I'd left the country; so Margaret Thatcher was the last prime minister I experienced as a UK resident.

Wikipedia sums her up as follows: "Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions."

As I agree now with all of these policies, and would probably have agreed with them then, it's rather odd that I didn't rush out and vote Conservative. However, I've never been in love with the Conservative Party, and perhaps what was on offer wasn't as clear then as it seems to commentators now in retrospect.

I believe quite simply in liberty, which is what you have when no-one is threatening to use force on you. I could never see Margaret Thatcher as a libertarian; she had some policies that were all very well, but she was too fond of getting her own way. I was offended, for instance, by the way she squelched local government. I believe in local autonomy, but she didn't.

The Community Charge (or poll tax) was introduced long after I left the country; from a distance, I viewed it with puzzlement. It seemed a curious political mistake and I wondered why she was so set on it. Perhaps, by then, she thought she could walk on water. Well, she couldn't; and I think it put an end to her career. I don't blame the Conservative Party for ousting her at that point; she seemed to have passed her sell-by date.

As far as I remember, I took little interest in her foreign policies, though they seem to have been partially successful. The Falklands War was pretty much an accident. Once Argentina had made the mistake of invading, to let it keep what it had rudely taken would have been humiliating and spineless, as a matter of principle; and yet in practice the Falklands were a small thing to fight a war over. It is a great pity that the world has no effective international law to settle such disputes once and for all.

Perhaps the great weakness of Margaret Thatcher, which still makes her own party rather embarrassed by her, is that she was so lacking in charm that she stirred up a large nest of furious enemies. The Economist comments that "Tony Blair won several elections by offering Thatcherism without the rough edges." It seems to me that being willing to antagonize people is not an asset in politics, in the long run. The most successful politicians are those who not only implement their policies but persuade people to like them.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

What is the free market?

As a libertarian, in principle I'm keen on the free market, along with other forms of freedom. But this doesn't mean that I'm keen on the kind of economic system that we currently inhabit, or the results that it produces. As you may or may not have noticed, there is no such thing as a free market anywhere in the world: economic transactions are everywhere shaped, constrained, distorted by laws, regulations, taxes, tariffs, etc.

I don't mean to say that I'd abolish all laws, even if had the power. There is a such a thing as a 'bad freedom': for instance, the freedom to kill other people, which reduces their freedom to zero and thus depletes the total amount of freedom in society. Laws are necessary to constrain such behaviour, although it seems to me that the laws we have are too many and too complex.

It's common for opponents of free markets to point to the outcomes of our present system and blame "the free market" for them. The obvious reply is, "What free market?" There is no such thing in the world. We have markets constrained by law. If we want different outcomes, we can get different outcomes by changing the laws. And, indeed, I agree that the current system and its outcomes are not ideal and that some changes could be beneficial.

The basis of the free market is that someone grows apples and offers them for sale at a price; customers buy the apples if they want apples and find the price reasonable and competitive. Most people understand this system and accept it. The problem is that, these days, we have complications that people don't understand or accept so well. Such as the concept of the limited company, the concept of intellectual property, and the growth of financial transactions that enable people to make money by playing with money, without producing any goods themselves. These modern concepts are of course defined and shaped by laws, and I think these are the laws that should be considered for tweaking in order to produce outcomes that people like better. I don't think the present laws are really doing a good job; and of course they don't represent "the free market" in action, because no system constrained by laws is free.

Given that we have an unfree market anyway, and we are always likely to have, the question is in what ways should it be unfree? What minimal set of laws will permit a maximum feasible degree of freedom while being understandable and acceptable to ordinary people? I can't provide an answer to this question, but I think it's a question worth asking.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why I'm not a vegetarian

First of all, I think we should probably all be vegetarians. The argument goes like this. Suppose that we're visited by aliens from outer space, who are significantly more intelligent and powerful than we are, and regard us as animals. They decide to start systematically farming, killing, and eating us. How could we regard them as wrong, or criticize their behaviour? It's merely what we've always done to others.

In practice, I think it's rather unlikely that aliens from outer space would find humans either tasty or nutritious, but it's possible, so we should take it into account.

So far, I haven't thought of any good answer to this argument, and I suspect that humanity will gradually turn vegetarian in the future. However, I list below an assortment of my personal excuses for not yet becoming a vegetarian myself.

  • If the aliens turn up, they'll observe that humanity in general farms, kills, and eats animals. I don't suppose they'll distinguish between one human and another. So going vegetarian at this point wouldn't do me any good.
  • Having grown up in an omnivorous society, it's what I'm accustomed to, and it's the way society encourages me to live. Going against the grain of society is difficult in various ways.
  • If there were no humans on the planet, animals would rarely be able to die peacefully in their sleep. I think the normal ways would be to die painfully at the teeth and claws of some other animal, to die of disease, or to die of starvation when unable to get enough food. By killing and eating animals, humans aren't really introducing anything new to the situation: animals eat each other and most of them die painfully, one way or another.
  • On an ideal farm, animals may actually live better lives than in the wild. They're looked after, they get food and shelter in winter, their illnesses are treated, they're not usually attacked by carnivores, and in the end they're killed humanely. On a modern intensive farm, life probably isn't worth living, and they may die unpleasantly too; but that's the choice of the farmer. It can be done either way.
  • I'd be happy if all farms were ideal farms, although meat would then be much more expensive and most people would eat it only occasionally (which would probably be good for them). If farmers mistreat animals, that's on their conscience. It's not on my conscience, because I neither do it myself, nor do I force them to do it. If I buy their products, I give them a tiny encouragement, but it's so tiny as to be negligible. Whether I buy meat or not is not going to make any difference to any farmer's decisions.
  • In principle I should seek out ideal farms and buy only from them, but even if this is feasible it would involve considerable time, effort, and expense, and I have to balance it against the negligible practical effect that my efforts would have.
  • These days my wife buys the food, anyway!