Tuesday 31 August 2010

Book Festival - the final days

Other events that I went to were: Ewen Cameron and Christopher Whatley

Alexander McCall Smith

Iain Dale and others

Robert McCrum

Doug Saunders

And last but not least:

Frederick Forsyth

Frederick Forsyth
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

After all that it was time for a bevvy in a nearby hostelry:

Mathers Bar
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

Wednesday 25 August 2010

The new Los Angeles Tram System

A new (government) school in LA is going to cost a modest $578,000,000.

For that kind of money they could get a new tram system, although it probably wouldn't get as far as the port...

According to this report:

The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $29,780 per student in fiscal year 2007-08. That’s way above the $10,000 as advertised by the school district, and as used in most studies.
For that kind of money they could all be sent to Fettes!

After India

I see that Denmark has qualified for British foreign aid.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Saturday 21 August 2010

Austrian Economics

Or real economics as I would put it.

Here is a PDF version of Eamonn Butler's recent introduction.

Friday 20 August 2010


This morning I heard John Kay talking about Obliquity – how our goals are best pursued indirectly. I'd heard Kay speak in Edinburgh a couple of times before and this was a fascinating session.

Kay had once served as a director of the Halifax Building Society who voted in favour of demutualisation. This resulted in Kay's receiving an e-mail saying: "Now we know who caused the financial crisis"!

Book Festival on Thursday

On Thursday morning we went along to hear David Kynaston talking about his new book Family Britain 1951 - 1957. The previous book in this series was Austerity Britain 1945 - 1951.

This was an enjoyable session, especially for those of us who (just) remember the fifties. Unsurprisingly, Kynaston was in "on the one hand and on the other hand" mode. Just as I was taught to say in essays:

On the one hand Marx said ...... and on the other hand Rothbard said....
I did get away with that!

Back to Kynaston. On the one hand people were perhaps too repressed in the fifties but on the other hand crime was very low indeed. I think that most of the audience were more interested in how to get back to an era of low crime without necessarily agreeing that they had been particularly repressed back in the fifties.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Nice work if you can get it

There's been a big row over high "pay and perks" going to executives at the taxpayer-funded Scottish Enterprise (sic).

Rightly, some MSPs are speaking out:

Mr Park said: “These sums are absolutely astonishing. Most public-sector employees are being told that salary increases will be pegged at 1% but it appears there are different rules for those at the top.

“It is time the Scottish Government told these people to start living in the real world.”

Fair enough, but who exactly is this John Park? He is a Labour MSP!

Calling for a government to start living in the real world!

Truly, you couldn't make it up.

No surprise here

I see that the UK's favourite university is a private one!

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Badger's Lair

I went along to hear Alistair Darling's much reported and pre-reported speech last night:
The Scotsman revealed yesterday that Mr Darling was preparing to launch a thinly-veiled attack on former prime minister Gordon Brown, saying Labour lost the General Election because it ignored the deficit.
Actually, despite being given several opportunities I didn't reckon that Darling was very critical of Brown at all.

The Donald Dewar Lecture was chaired by BBC Scotland's Brian Taylor who introduced Darling as a friend. Now, Taylor's a good chap and is probably a friend of most of our leading politicians. But "BBC Scotland journalist a friend of Scottish Labour politician" - not exactly the revelation of the week...

Darling was convinced that he'd done a good job and I accept that he was probably more competent than any alternative Labour chancellor, including his predecessor. But I heard no evidence of any real understanding of the nature of the economic crisis.

We heard some of the usual Labour tricks. Cutting government expenditure was "taking money out of the economy". I hoped in vain for Taylor to pick up on that Brownism. But, to be fair, it took David Cameron weeks to catch on to that one. Darling talked about Labour's plan to halve the deficit in five years. How many others in the audience realised that such a policy would mean that total debt would still be rising? As indeed it is under the current government.

Clearly there are no Austrian School economists in the Treasury, as Darling told us that no one saw the crisis coming. Actually, I think he quietly corrected that to "almost no one." Perhaps he saw this constituent lurking in the back corner...

Darling told us that the banks had made many mistakes. Often, they didn't know what sort of assets they were buying. He's right there of course. But he was wrong in saying that the British banks had avoided the subprime mess that hit the US ones. Northern Rock was invested in subprime mortgages and the big British banks bought the bulk pre-packaged portfolios of subprime from the American banks.

The most worrying thing was the total lack of any questioning as to why the banks were able to act so recklessly. The idea that the fundamentals of the very monetary system itself are wrong has clearly never entered Mr Darling's head. But he's not alone in that. We'll keep on going through these financial crises until we learn the lesson.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

An extraordinary life

On Monday morning I went along to hear a 90-year-old Scottish pensioner by the name of Alistair Urquhart.

Mr Urquhart has had an interesting life.

As a young man he lived in Aberdeen and was keen on ballroom dancing. In September 1939 he was conscripted into the Gordon Highlanders. They sent him to Singapore where the officers assured everyone that they were safe from the Japanese. Urquhart won a medal for ballroom dancing but was told by a fellow dancer who was in the Signals Corp that the Japanese were indeed a threat to the Lion City. And so it tuned out...

Urquhart was captured and made to march through Singapore seeing the severed heads of thousands of Chinese stuck on bamboo poles.

He was sent to work on the Burma railway. He helped build the Bridge over the River Kwai and cheered when it collapsed under the weight of the first train. The poor workmanship was deliberate. Punishment was meted out by the Korean guards. The Japanese punished the Koreans. The film was crap.

Eventually Urquhart was sent to Japan on a prison ship. Many prisoners died in the over-heated hold just as others had done on the way to the Burma railway. But the prison ship was torpedoed by a US Navy vessel - they had no idea that prisoners were on board. For a while he drifted on a cork life raft alongside a Japanese officer in full regalia.

Eventually a fishing boat rescued Urquhart. He was taken to the mainland to work in the fields outside a major Japanese city. One day Urquhart saw a lone US bomber flying overhead. Suddenly there was a flash of light and a hot wind. The Japanese guards started to run away. The city was Nagasaki...

The survivors were rescued but made to sign affidavits keeping secret the existence of the atomic bomb. But Urquhart "signed with his left hand"!

Arriving in the US, the survivors got a hero's welcome. At Southampton it was a one-way ticket to Aberdeen. Some things don't change.

At the end of the session Urquhart was asked about "this ballroom dancing thing". He still dances four times a week. Why? "It keeps us old folks from causing trouble out on the streets."

And here he is:

Edinburgh International Book Festival

We went to our first event on Sunday morning. Ferdinand Mount was talking about his new book:
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, is a quietly passionate account of how our modern mindsets and practices are much closer to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans than we might realise.

An enjoyable session. Mrs F&W had already started the book and I expect to read it soon.

Time ran out before I could ask my planned question: "Your ex-boss, Mrs Thatcher, was both a scientist and a war leader. Would she have been more at home in ancient Greece or ancient Rome?"

Monday 2 August 2010

Forget debits and credits - blame Thatcher

Brian Monteith has this article in Think Scotland and also in today's Scotsman.

Here's an extract:

When Thatcher came to power in 1979 some 67 per cent of Scottish homes were rented, nearly all of them from the state, while 33 per cent of Scottish homes were owned. By 1997 the figures were reversed and the rented sector had a new and growing private sector from buy-to-let owners.

The change was not just about creating the property owning democracy as a buttress against socialism, it was about enriching peoples' lives by giving them an asset against which they could borrow, an asset that could act as a pension fund and provide an inheritance that could help families accumulate and retain their wealth.

The only thing I'd disagree with is that the houses were "given".

Blaming everything on "Thatcher" is a copout used by almost all Scottish politicians. It's a great pity that the SNP government seems to be quite unconcerned with financial reality. Ring fencing NHS expenditure is madness and bodes ill should Ms Sturgeon becomes the next SNP leader. But it's not just her, is it? Is there no one in the SNP who has an ounce of business or financial sense? Surely John Swinney cares about how he'll be seen by history.

Sunday 1 August 2010


St Margaret's Hope
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

Italian Chapel
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

Ring of Brodgar
Originally uploaded by David Farrer

Lots more photos are here.