Blog: Personal finance lessons for UK PLC

My economics degree, career in finance and debt issues have taught me a few things:

  1. Economists have a tendency of overcomplicating pretty simple matters by slapping things onto a graph;
  2. Financiers, in the main, are finding out what works and what doesn’t by trial and error – they don’t control markets, the markets control them
  3. Speculation enslaves economies – credit rating agencies and market traders live by them.  They forget that markets have no memory
  4. Government budgets are pretty pointless “statements of aspiration” rather than anything concrete – it almost invariably leads to disappointment and has taken on an almost ceremonial quality

But perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that managing debt (like losing weight) is hard, it’s slow and, fundamentally, it’s easy.

With the Eurozone seemingly teetering at the precipice of economic oblivion and the government seemingly clueless about which to do first – cut or grow (Cameron today in a speech at the IoD said, “deficit reduction and growth…they are not alternatives.  Delivering the first, is absolutely vital in securing the second…we cannot blow the budget on more spending and more debt”) – perhaps the solution lies not in the corridors of academia or the glass walls of the City but somewhere much closer to home.

Open any personal finance/debt advice website and you’ll find the following bits of advice – UK PLC could do worse than to learn from them:

Check your credit file

There are a few critical questions you’ll need to address here:

  • Have you been the victim of identity theft – are creditors out there thinking you’re France?
  • Are there inconsistencies in your credit file – did you pay the Saudis or Big Scary Banks Ltd when you said you would?
  • Are you on the electoral roll? – are you still registered to determine affairs in foreign countries or registered to vote in your own?
Once you’ve had a good look, call Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch ratings agencies to correct these errors.  But caution: credit ratings agencies don’t really know what they’re doing but get paid a lot to determine things that, frankly, they are inept at doing.  Nevertheless, it’s good to keep them sweet.

Budget for your critical payments first – mortgage, council tax etc.

  • Make sure you’re housed, fed, watered and breathing whilst paying for any associated costs.  Maybe UK PLC should make sure houses, food, water and…er…breathing…is readily available
  • If you’ve got contractual obligations to, I don’t know, unscrupulous governments anywhere else well…you’ve signed a contract.  Just make sure they’re paid – you don’t want a visit from bailiffs for this or run the risk of (re)possession
  • Avoid risk of default – no one wants to feel the wrath of the agencies even though you shouldn’t really be thinking about borrowing at all.

Budget for your minimum payments on non-critical debt – credit cards, loans, overdrafts

  • You owe money to Big Scary Banks Ltd so negotiate a minimum payment plan.  Oh and remember, Big Scary Banks Ltd also owe money to other Big Scary Banks Ltd.  You might default with them, but they’ll probably default with someone else. Either that or they’ll create sub-prime funerals and exotic derivatives to make sure they don’t.  Because that’s just what you do.
  • Keep your payment plan printed and on the wall in front of you for everyone to see.  They’ll support you if you know what you’re up to.

Streamline your spending

  • This isn’t the same as cutting.  This is about going on price comparison websites and making sure you’ve got the best deal. By all means, get rid of what you can do without (such as payments to the “Exclusive Golf Club memberships at the Across The Atlantic Club”), but try and get the best deal.
  • But remember this, because you ARE a government and not an individual, it’s just that little bit easier to make things cheaper for you by making it yourself.
  • Take your own lunch to work instead of buying it from Pret.  Or China.
  • Think of ways to pay out less money to people WHO ACTUALLY WANT TO EARN MONEY THEMSELVES! Young people.  The unemployed.  Able-bodied lazies.
  • See “Invest in Yourself” for some more ways to streamline your spending

Snowball your debts by tackling your most expensive ones first

  • This is great, and really easy to do.
  • Tackle your most expensive debts first with the extra money you “save” as a result of taking in your own lunch
  • For a moral victory, tackle the smallest debt first and give yourself a pat on the back.  Like not making life difficult for old people.  Or children with “special educational needs”

Commit to saving for a rainy day and find more ways to save more

  • Aim to save at least 3 months worth of income for a rainy day.  Don’t touch it.  Put in an ISA and watch it grow tax-free.  Or send it to Switzerland.
  • Set up a savings and investment club and call it “The United Kingdom”.  Get everyone who’s in the club to commit to saving and investing their savings too.  You’ll see everyone getting a little bit more responsible with their money.

Invest in yourself – it might be your only way to earn more

  • The above plan will keep you stable and cutting debt for a while
  • But of course, the more money you earn, the easier it becomes
  • You might have streamlined by taking your own lunch in, but how about building your own cars? Here’s what happens – you get people who you’re paying benefits to working and PAYING YOU TAXES (earning money) and what they create is bought by other people PAYING YOU VAT AND OTHER SUCH TAXES (earning money).
  • How about learning a new skill or undertaking a qualification? We know you’re loved up with service industries but the Chinese aren’t genetically different to us that makes them better with computers.  Or are they? Maybe they are…
  • Be healthy in mind and body too – don’t be afraid to start losing weight or taking up a new hobby.  It’ll help you tackle your debt problem and keep you in it for the long haul.  Weight loss could include less fixation with what the papers say (at parties) and your new hobby could be running government (instead of trying to run the economy).

Blog: Sex-grooming – Paedophilia is the problem, not Pakistanis

A second child-sex grooming ring has been uncovered in East Lancashire and on BBC’s The Big Questions this morning, a debate raged around whether or not this is a “Muslim British-Pakistani” problem.  The Daily Mail-esque question was “After the Asian grooming case, does the Pakistani community need to get its house in order?”   Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are of the opinion that they do.  A fair few have also been careful to be as politically correct as possible.  No one wants to be accused of racism now do they?  But I am disappointed in the reactions to this in the public domain to this.

My first disappointment is that popular media and debates have firmly placed this issue in the “identity politics” category.  It is a crying shame that the abhorrent crime at the core of this – the grooming and sexual abuse of young girls (overwhelmingly white, but some were also Bangladeshi) – has been somewhat lost.  Instead the fashionable, paper-selling criticism of Muslims/Islam (note, they aren’t saying just British-Pakistani) takes primacy over and above the remorse we should be showing these unfortunate young victims.

As I write this, I am watching a programme on Star Plus discussing child sexual abuse in India – harrowing stories are being shared by men and women who were sexually abused as children in a country where there is no law to address child sexual abuse issues and where 53% of people say they have been subjected to sexual abuse as a child.  And it wasn’t just Indians who were at it.  In 2001, the Anchorage Case saw Alan Waters and Duncan Grant (two very Muslim and British-Pakistani names), two British ex-naval officers, charged with running their own sex ring.  They are known in India as “The British Paedophiles”.  Under the pretext of running a shelter, these two men scoured the streets of Mumbai offering food to children living on the streets.  These children were then passed around to adults – native and foreign – to be sexually abused.  The nature of India’s legal system meant that it wasn’t until 2011 that the Supreme Court were able to serve justice thanks to the perseverance of the world’s largest children’s phone emergency outreach service, CHILDLINE India Foundation and the Maharashtra Government.  Waters and Grant are no different from the Khans and Alis charged in Rochdale – they are all cut from the same disgusting cloth.

Our first reaction should always be to support the victims – they’ve done nothing wrong and there is no better response to any abuse than to see those abused rising above it and, hopefully, preventing a repeat of this anywhere else.  In fact, experts, commentators, policy and sociologists/psychologists aren’t going to prevent girls from falling into this trap again.  Those who have been abused are the only ones who can possibly understand the circumstances, feelings and nuances that led them to become victims.  These young girls should be supported and empowered to overcome their trauma.  They are the only ones that other victims can possibly trust to understand and empathise with their predicament.

Instead, most people are fixated on who to blame and how to frame that blame.  I hope and pray that justice is served swiftly and firmly.  But, moreover, I hope and pray that we uncover existing abuses (if there are more) and prevent, as best we can, any in the future.  The critical point is that throughout all societies there are, and will always be, some that will exploit and prey on the vulnerable.  That trait is not limited to Muslim British-Pakistanis.

And it is here that my second disappointment lies.  I am all for calling a spade a spade.  But the spade most of us seem to have chosen here is the wrong one.  There are fundamental issues that meant these girls were vulnerable and “prey-able” in the first place – that should be our first concern.  Why were they in that situation in the first place?  Why are girls as young as 11 in situations where they can be preyed on, venturing into unwelcoming environments.  Before you throw your toys out of the pram, yes everyone should be free to go wherever they like without fearing perverts.  But if that were the case, we wouldn’t need any policing of our streets.  There would be no need for discipline from parents to children.  The vast majority of victims were from difficult backgrounds – why don’t we address these issues first?

As for the ethnic make-up of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.  We should not be surprised that Muslim British-Pakistanis in Lancashire hang out together.  That’s how communities are formed.  People gravitate to those who are most similar to them – white working classes, British Asians, Bullingdon club government ministers… Even within these communities, there are sub-communities – Millwall/West Ham football fans, doctors/engineers, News International chummies.  In the case of Rochdale, it was their collective paedophilia that brought them closer together – not their faith or their ethnicity – to carry out these atrocious acts.

Even the cultural “explanations” based on the perpetrators’ ethnicity is, to my mind, a little lazy.  Muslim British Pakistanis aren’t the only ones that can’t talk about sex openly in their communities.  They’re not the only ones who have arranged marriages.  They aren’t the only ones that act as though it’s ok to bully women.  In fact, the thing that should alarm us most is the seeming increase in child sexual abuse cases since 2004/05.  NSPCC can point to an increasing number of calls to Childline about sexual abuse since 2004/05.  Would it be safe for me to then say that the UK, culturally, has an increased tendency to sexually abuse their children based on the evidence? Probably not.

In such a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone’s business, that nobody thought to report this before it had gone too far (one is too far) says more about those that knew it was happening than those that did it.  Perhaps the overwhelming majority of that community were Pakistani but this isn’t a solely Pakistani problem.  Crimewatch didn’t come into existence because British Pakistanis weren’t reporting crimes.  Catholic priests didn’t get away with their crimes because British Pakistanis weren’t reporting them.

According to Rochdale’s most recent Community Plan, 11.43% of its population is BME.  Newsflash: that’s still a minority.  It has been widely reported that white people are overwhelmingly represented on the sex offenders register.

We should be dreaming of a society where there is no need for a sex offenders register.  We should be dreaming of a society where young girls are not preyed upon by unscrupulous men – alone or in groups.  Until then, let’s try not to create a schism from which there may be no turning back.

Blog: France 2012

France is going to the polls today to determine who will walk into the Elysee Palace as its new President – the incumbent, centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy or the centre-left Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

The results will have important implications outside of France too – what will the election tell us about France’s relationship with Germany, critical to the recovery of the Euro? What will be the ramifications for an already vilified immigrant community in France and beyond? And will bankers really feel the wrath of French Socialist ideals?

But perhaps the most pressing question for the British audience is this.  Will British newscasters and reporters continue to sound as ridiculous when pronouncing the candidates’ names over the next 5 years?

In the run up to this election (first round included) I have heard a wonderful array of pronunciations for these two candidates, not least because of the incessant adoption of their best possible French accents when doing so.  It’s ‘Allo ‘Allo gone wrong.

I’ve taken the liberty of transliterating some of the pronunciations:

For Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicholas Sarkozy

Nicola Sarkozy

Nicola Sarrhhhhhhhh Cozy

Knee Col-Ass Sar-Cou-Zee

Ni. Co.  La.  Sa. Ko. Zee.

But none of these compare quite as hilariously to the pronunciations of Francois Hollande:

Fran SuarZ Holland

Frghan Sua Oll Ond

Frghan Sua Oll Ond Eugh

The centre-left French Presidential candidate FRWAN SWARR OLLLLLLL OND

Of course, it’s not uncommon for people to try and pronounce foreign words as foreignly as possible.  Listen to people talk about Les Miserables or Paeeeyyyyaaaa (as opposed to Paella) and you’ll understand what I mean.  The associated actions and total change in voice (most reporters are adopting a deeper voice to sound as French as possible when talking about the candidates) are a great source of comedy for me.  It’s as though, for that split moment, Andrew Marr is the most French of French people.

So more than anything, I want Francois Hollande to be elected just so I can listen to myriad ways his name will be pronounced.  And, if he does indeed build closer cultural ties with Britain, I look forward to pronouncing words in French for no apparent reason whatsoever.

C’est bon!