27 February 2009

I'm alright, Fred.

A lot has been said this week is about Sir Fred Goodwin, former Head of RBS, for refusing to relinquish his full pension. And of course it would be easy and childish to add to that furore. But no less fun for all that.

Most of the anger seems directed at the amount of money Sir Fred will get every year for his pension. Now I accept that £675,000 is a lot of money. Some would say £1 is a lot of money for Sir Fred to walk away with, given the circumstances. But rather than focus on the amount, I prefer to look at the reasons why Sir Fred believes he has nothing to apologise for in taking that much every year. Yesterday, he published a letter written to the government explaining why he would be declining their kind offer to give up some of his entitlement, which boils down to three arguments - let's look at them in a bit more detail:

1) According to Sir Fred:

My contract of employment provided for a 12 month notice period, which I voluntarily waived in October of last year. This amounted to a loss of 1 years' [sic] salary, and I discussed this with you at the time, when you indicated that it was both an appropriate and sufficient recognition of the circumstances.

To my mind, notice periods are what you work when you resign. In other words, to leave a company on good terms. If I had exposed the company I work for to a risk that would ultimately prove ruinous, I think I might reasonably expect to be fired. No notice period. In allowing Sir Fred the dignity of his exit, quibbling about notice payment might seem undignified.

2) Sir Fred's second argument is that the pension represents the acme of all the work he has done over his banking career. Poor Sir Fred, spending all those years toiling away at the coalface of high finance, with only an exorbitant salary for reward.

I call this the Leni Riefenstahl argument. Leni always bemoaned wistfully, during her long life after World War 2, that no-one would see her post-war films, preferring instead to focus on the time she spent making films for Hitler. Such a shame, people can be such gossips.

This is a similar line peddled recently by The Economist - that we shouldn't be quick to judge the Banking industry, while forgetting about how rich it made us the the previous 20 years, though I note that even The Economist seems to have dropped that argument of late. I prefer to draw the analogy of the use of asbestos as roofing materials in many buildings, which has been exposed as a public health hazard. Rather than focus on the cancer it has caused, maybe we should instead be grateful for the shelter the roof gave us for 20 years?

3) The best argument of all is how Sir Fred nobly has forgone all claims to share options he would have been entitled to:

I agreed to waive my entitlement to the share related awards and proceeded to subscribe for my full allocation of shares in the ensuing share issue.

I wonder how much, exactly, such shares would be worth now? In fact - go on, Sir Fred, knock yourself out. Take as many RBS shares as you can fit into those grasping mits. I tell you what, we'll do a deal - all the RBS shares for your pension entitlement. What do you say?

22 February 2009

stand and deliver

Two contrasting news stories about the railways this week demonstrate contrasting priorities of the British public and the rail operating companies. The Liberal Democrats announced that UK off-peak rail fares were the most expensive in Europe, using the less-than-helpful yardstick of comparing how how far you could get in Serbia for £10 versus the UK. Apparently the average Serb gets to enjoy over 500 miles by rail for ten quid, against a miserly 26 miles in this country.

Although this was widely reported in the British press, no-one seems to have questioned what £10 would be worth in real terms in each country. A quick check reveals the minimum wage in the UK is about 1200 Euros per month; in Serbia it is less than 100. So although you may be able to travel a long way from Belgrade for your money, you'd have nothing left to spend when you arrived.

Of more parochial interest was the news that Warrington Quay station is erecting signs forbidding kissing - or, rather, designating it to parts of the station that won't inconvenience other travellers (story here). Apparently those dropping off loved ones are spending such a long time in parting clinches they are holding up other passengers, causing delays. Personally I wouldn't need much incentive to leave Warrington more quickly, but I think it's a bit rich for Virgin Trains (for it is they) to accuse these travellers of holding up passengers. At £115 for a standard single to London, it seems to me the only hold-up seems to be happening at the ticket office.

14 February 2009

Bankers' bonuses - this time it's personnel

When is a bonus not a bonus? This is a question that has vexed the media, as poor performances by British banks have failed to dim the earning expectations of the higher echelons of management. And it is one that could soon be troubling m'learned friends, as Personnel Today warns that "if investment banks sought to pay no bonuses, or to reduce them beyond the level justified by reduced financial performance, they would be subject to legal challenge".

I'd really be interested on what grounds such a challenge would be made. A bonus by definition is something given or paid over and above what is due. If it is something that is always paid regardless of the performance of the business, then surely it cannot, ipso facto, be considered a bonus, but becomes part of salary. This is regularly explained away in the press by the unchallenged fact that such largess is "in the contracts" of senior investment bankers - implying the unwitting banks are over a barrel.

To which I would reply: how many Lehman Brothers ex-employees are looking forward to receiving their bonuses? When the bank went belly up, did its senior staff shoot straight to the top of the list of creditors seeking bonus payouts from whatever assets remained after they'd filed for Chapter 11? I'd imagine they were pretty far down, somewhere between window cleaners and stationery suppliers. Every bank that was rescued by government cash is, in effect, a "virtual Lehmans". The slate is wiped clean. To pretend otherwise would be ludicrous - by the same logic, banks would not be able to make any staff redundant.

If senior investment bankers truly have contracts that guarantees income in the event of total global financial meltdown, effective bankruptcy and the largest crisis of capitalism in nearly a century, and that is defensible in law, then it's not the bankers we should be directing our ire at. Rather it is the HR departments and their legal advisers that could draw up such terms and conditions in the first place. Personnel Today has so far been silent on that subject.

The balance of views

It's been a busy week for freedom of speech in the UK. Geert Wilders, a Dutch MP, has been banned from the UK for trying to show a film at the House of Lords. Clearly they are a tough crowd because the UK government feared his presence would constitute a threat to national security, public order or the safety of UK citizens. In my experience of watching what goes on in the upper house, I would have thought the only threat posed was to waking up some of the more senior members.

Although the ban clearly represents a blow to freedom of speech, it somehow seems rather charmingly naive - that somehow by keeping Mr Wilders off these islands, we can stop his nasty ideas from upsetting people. As if we can't all just go to YouTube and watch the film anyway, should it really be of interest (and you can bet it will now interest a lot more UK citizens than if Wilders had just come and gone quietly). You could argue that, if Mr Wilders work does constitute a threat to UK security, the associated publicity caused by the ban, and likely increase in people watching his film, has actually increased that risk.

The main blow struck has been against the credibility of the British government, who seem to have used a non-event as an excuse to win favour amongst British Muslims. The real reason for the ban was it represented a chance for the UK government to show 'balance' in dealing with peddlers of prejudice: Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi enjoys a following amongst certain Muslim audiences, but he is banned from entering the UK in order to "protect community cohesion". Now the government can show it is happy to ban extremists from both sides.

The irony is that Wilders would like to ban the Koran, which does somewhat damage his freedom of speech credentials. And amongst the debates that have raged this week, the Voltairean maxim of "I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it" has been repeatedly wheeled out. I'd prefer a less well-known quote from a now-forgotten American politician, Hubert Humphrey: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

13 February 2009

The fugitive.com

It's very difficult to realise exactly how the leaps in IT have transformed our lives these last dozen or so years. Almost as difficult as contemplating how many things that we can do at such speed, that would have been unthinkable comparatively recently. You only realise such things when you see a slice of life from, say, the early 90s and notice how manual life was.

This was brought home to me tonight as I watched the excellent thriller The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble, on the run from the police and trying to find the real killer of his wife. A taut two-and-a-half hours in 1993 would barely have lasted 10 minutes these days - Dr Kimble could have tracked down the man with one arm in a couple of hours on a library computer. On the down side, of course, the movie-stealing Tommy Lee Jones probably could have picked up Kimble from any one of hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras with face recognition software and popped him back in the slammer before the end of scene two.

It also made me realise exactly how much more difficult it is to disappear these days - our connections to the sources of our survival are a series of Faustian pacts with information hoovers who monitor our every move, taste and nuance in order to be able to sell us better targeted products. As John Darwin found out to his cost, when he posed for a random photograph with an estate agent in Panama. The succession of easy trade-offs that enables us to find the shops with GPS or pay for car parking via a mobile phone is invidious but barely noticeable. These days we can still run but we can't hide.

09 February 2009

It's feline like the 70s

Hot on the heels of the spike in oil prices last year comes a worldwide recession - and if this summer brings us a heatwave, it will be just like the 1970s all over again. In keeping with this pattern, we have also witnessed our first outbreaks of wildcat strikes across the country, starting with oil refineries, and now spreading to Arriva trains in Wales.

This got me pondering why unofficial strikes are described as "wildcat" industrial action, and what that poor beast had done to deserve the association. According to Wikipedia, the Wildcat is extremely timid and avoids approaching human settlements, preferring to live alone - three characteristics that hardly seem synonymous with trades unions.

I guess it could be because both are now extremely rare. And often host to parasitic worms.

08 February 2009

True grit

Although this week's "snow event" is still happening across large parts of the country, the fact that it no longer affects London has demoted it to second or third place in the national news. The new angle on the story doing the rounds on the TV News is the dwindling stocks of salt and grit employed by councils to keep the roads clear, or at least passable.

Tonight on the BBC News - in a live report from Harrow council's salt warehouse - a solemn reporter warned the nation that, although councils only had supplies currently for the next six days - the Local Government Authority advised the public not to panic.

I'm trying to imagine how likely such a "panic" would be and what it would look like. On hearing the news do the authorities imagine we would suddenly start forming queues of vehicles outside quarries, desperate to fill our boots with a personal supply of rock salt? Assuming we could get through the snow anyway.

05 February 2009

Don't you know who I am?

A curious development in the BBC-Carol Thatcher rumpus. Norman Tebbit weighed into the debate today in his usual measured and balanced view, claiming the BBC took the decision to "sack" Carol Thatcher from The One Show because she is Margaret Thatcher's daughter.

It would certainly be an ironic twist for Thatcher Jr to be denied work because of her mother, as I always thought it was the other way around - her modest talents enjoyed exposure beyond any reasonable expectation because mummy was PM.

Leaving aside the absurdity of the BBC waiting until now for 'revenge' (for what, I am not sure, and having broadcast at least three fawning programmes about her premiership in the intervening years), I can think of at least two reasons why this can't be true:

1) Most people who work in TV, it seems to me, are about 21 years old. So the most likely response when faced with such an accusation would be "Margaret who?"

2) Thatcher Sr. now has dementia, as Carol is ever-keen to tell us. If the BBC was going to stick the knife into the old girl, via the proxy of her daughter, you'd think they have done it when she could at least remember it long enough to matter.

Lust for life insurance

Are you the sort of guy who is too cool for insurance? No Claims Bonuses - grrrrrr - not my bag baby, no way. I'm, like, Born to be Wild, man - the Iggy Pop of medium-sized family car drivers. Hey look, there's Iggy Pop selling car insurance for swiftcover - that's the cover for me! What Iggy Pop wouldn't know about Excess Fee Damage Waivers ain't worth knowing. Wow-ee, I'm hip to that strapline "Get a life. Get swiftcovered".

Almost as painful and embarrassing as a car crash. Not to mention depressing, seeing once credible artists as tamed corporate shills. As usual, Bill Hicks said it best:

"You can print this in stone, and don't you ever forget it: Any - any - performer that ever sells a product on television is for now and all eternity removed from the artistic world. I don't care if you shit Mona Lisas out of your ass on cue: you've made your fucking choice."