bookmark_borderWill excessive regulations make it hard to restart growth?

When I spent a summer holiday in Russia in the early '90s, and especially when I lived in Tbilisi in Georgia for a year (1996-97), private initiative was everywhere. People might have been dirt poor after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the upheaval also meant there were very few regulations, so ordinary people set up language schools in their living rooms, bakeries in their cellars, they sold fuel in their backyards or apples in the open-air market.

However, because it’s only the economy that has collapsed here, not the state, we still live under boom-time regulations.

Until recently, it was reasonable to assume that I could get a big loan from a bank to start my own business, either by presenting them with a business plan or by releasing equity in my house. Now most people would be turned down if they tried that.

But how do you start a business without money?

If I started selling home-baked treats to the high-school kids passing our house during their lunch break, I’m sure I’d get a nasty visit from some government official. The same would happen if I started brewing beer and selling it online, or if Phyllis set up a photo studio in our garage.

Of course some regulations need to stay in place, but I’m sure many more businesses would appear from nowhere if 90 percent of regulations were suspended for the next five years.

bookmark_borderWas the Soviet Union needed in the West?

Soviet Postcard (4)
Originally uploaded by pdxjmorris

I sometimes wonder whether the collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster in the West.

Don’t get me wrong, I think communism as practised in the USSR was a hideous construct, and I think the World as a whole is better off without it.

However, when I blogged recently that salaries for ordinary people in the US have not risen in real terms in the past thirty years, it made me wonder whether the collapse of most communist countries throughout the eighties and nineties had anything to do with this.

In particular, I’m wondering whether it’s a combination of two factors.

Firstly, did the socialist parties (such as Labour) need to believe that a socialist country would be a better place than a capitalist one in order to try to achieve useful benefits such as worker protection, minimum wages, generous pensions and real annual pay rises? Was it because of the disappearance of the communist alternative that New Labour lost its soul?

Secondly, did the conservative and capitalist forces (such as large company owners and Tory politicians) need to fear the attractiveness of the Communist block in order to treat workers well? Would they have maintained good pensions and proper pay rises if they still feared a socialist revolution?

I hope the answer to these questions isn’t yes, because I would like to believe that a capitalist system can be created that benefits most people without making people elsewhere suffer.

However, capitalism was rather brutal until the early 20th century – when socialism and communism became influential – so perhaps the answer is no.

bookmark_borderBanoffee Pie

I’ve made banoffee pie several times, and it always seems to go down well, so here’s the recipe. It’s based on a recipe from Good Housekeeping: Step-by-step Cookbook, which is a really nice cookbook, but I’ve made a couple of minor alterations:

150 g digestive biscuits
75 g unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp ground ginger
450 g dulce de leche toffee sauce
4 medium-sized bananas
juice of one lemon
285 ml whipping cream

Put the biscuits in a food processor and whiz to a crumb. Add the melted butter and ginger, and process for one minute to combine.

Line a cake tin with greaseproof paper. Press the biscuit mixture into it. Pour the toffee sauce on top. Peel and slice the bananas, toss them in the lemon juice, and put them on top of the toffee sauce. Chill the pie.

Remove from the tin, whip the cream and put it on top. Optionally, decorate with chocolate shavings.

If you can’t get dulce de leche, make it like this: Pierce two holes in a tin of condensed milk. Place in a pan. Pour water three-quarters up the can. Simmer for 2 to 4 hours, topping up the water as needed.

If you can’t get condensed milk, make another pudding.

bookmark_borderThe disappearance of America’s middle class

Originally uploaded by Milton CJ

There’s a brilliant (and scary) article in Der Spiegel’s English edition.

It’s describing how the middle class in the US is getting poorer and poorer, with the effect that the country will soon have only two groups of people – rich and poor – if the development continues. (The lack of a middle class is, of course, a common trait of many third-world countries.)

Most of the information in the article isn’t new, but it’s still well worth a read.

Although the article is about the US, much of it would apply to the UK and other European countries, at least to some degree.

Here’s what the article has to say about the growth in incomes in the past 30 years:

The boom in stocks and real estate, the country’s wild borrowing spree and its excessive consumer spending have long masked the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans derived almost no benefit from 30 years of economic growth. In 1978, the average per capita income for men in the United States was $45,879 (about €35,570). The same figure for 2007, adjusted for inflation, was $45,113 (€35,051).


While 90 percent of Americans have seen only modest gains in their incomes since 1973, incomes have almost tripled for people at the upper end of the scale. In 1979, one third of the profits the country produced went to the richest 1 percent of American society. Today it’s almost 60 percent. In 1950, the average corporate CEO earned 30 times as much as an ordinary worker. Today it’s 300 times as much. And today 1 percent of Americans own 37 percent of the total national wealth.

bookmark_borderThe effect of the new government in Scotland

Act of Union_stamps
Originally uploaded by CowGummy

If I haven’t blogged very much about the new UK government, it’s mainly because it’s so hard to blog about from a Scottish perspective.

Most of the interesting things they do don’t apply to Scotland, and you can only blog so much about their deficit reduction plan.

I’ve found two good articles about this.

The first one is by Iain Macwhirter:

[F]rom a Scottish perspective it’s hard to pass much of a judgment on the performance of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition so far because, in terms of domestic policy at least, it’s almost completely passed Scotland by. Of the many initiatives that have been launched by the coalition in its first 100 days, very few actually apply here, apart from the deficit reduction programme and that hasn’t been implemented yet.

The second one appeared in the Caledonian Mercury, and it describes well how radical the new government is in England:

England is embracing the free market, a smaller state and weaker local authorities and Scotland is sticking with what it’s got – comprehensive education, a totally state-run health service and powerful councils.

So, if all this is happening in England, where does this leave Scotland? The blunt answer is: in a mess. Scotland is going to get the cuts but without the reforms. It is going to see swathes of public servants thrown out of work but without anything new structurally to take their place.

Although it might not have been the coalition’s intention, I think it’s becoming abundantly clear why Scotland needs full independence, or at the very least full economic autonomy. The alternative is the abolishment of Scottish devolution, and that wouldn’t go down very well north of the border!

bookmark_borderTi og tis

Starting primary 1
Originally uploaded by PhylB

Léon er nu begyndt på anden skoleuge, og han har fået lektier med hjem for første gang i dag.

For det første skal han synge nogle talsange, som jeg sikkert ikke kender. 🙁

For det andet skal de øve ord, der kan skrives med ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘s’ og ‘t’.

På engelsk er der sikkert gode grunde til at begynde med disse fire bogstaver (de prøver vist at undgå bogstaver som ‘e’ og ‘r’, der hyppigt er stumme), men på dansk er der altså ikke ret mange ord, der kan skrives med dem.

Jeg skrev fluks en one-liner til at finde alle ordene, og her er en fuldstændig liste:


‘Ais’, ‘asiat’, ‘sats’, ‘stat’ og ‘statist’ kender han helt sikkert ikke, og ‘at’, ‘i’ og ‘sit’ er nok ikke de bedste ord at begynde med (konkrete substantiver og den slags er nok bedst), så tilbage bliver blot ‘sti’, ‘tast’, ‘ti’ og ’tis’.

I Léons aktive ordforråd bliver denne liste nok til reduceret til ‘ti’ og ’tis’.

Jeg glæder mig til senere på ugen, når han også begynder at bruge ‘n’ og ‘p’ – så kan vi da tilføje nogle nyttige ord såsom ‘ananas’, ‘pasta’, ‘satan’ og ‘spinat’.

bookmark_borderEnglish grades vs. ECTS: A* should be called A, and A B

The A level results for England are here, and about 8% got an A*, while a plain A was awarded to 27% of pupils.

As far as I can tell, this means that when mapping English grades to the ECTS grading scale, A should be mapped to B, and A* to A. The mapping is not perfect, given that the ECTS system stipulates that 10% should get an A, and 25% a B, but it’s definitely very close.

I don’t understand why the education authorities in the UK don’t try to get rid of grade inflation by adopting a statistical system such as ECTS.

Otherwise, they’ll need to introduce a new grade such as A** in a few years’ time, then A***, and so on ad nauseam.