Thoughts of a fly on the bar wall

It is 50 years since I started visiting bars, since then I have sat in more bars, in more places than I want to remember. I have worked behind, cooked in, served in, and managed pubs. I have conversed and argued with painters, Pakis (Ladies and Gentleman from Pakistan if you must), parasites, Parisians, parliamentarians, peers of the realm , perverts, players, pleaders, plebs, plumbers, Poles, poofters, prime ministers and prostitutes. I have written and broadcast about far cities, elegant restaurants, bordellos and mismanaged disasters.
I have heard absolute rubbish, absurd claims, downright duplicity as well as much good sense and enormous doses of reality.
Put it all these conversations together with my last few years thinking, reading and writing about the way we live, about our governance, our mistakes and our future and you get to this blog.

Sam Worthington

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Why are politicians so useless?

I was sitting ruminating on why our politicians are so bad?
In the Philippines, where I live, they all appear to be corrupt and even the Filipino press calls them that – but they still get re-elected. Of course getting elected costs money – the people have to be ‘encouraged’ to vote the right way. To a certain extent I understand a Filipino politician – assuming he or she can actually get into some kind of power position then riches are assured - it is not a bad career move. For the people of the Philippines the total corruption of their governance is a disaster; that is evidenced by the abject poverty of vast swathes of the country, power shortages, regular avoidable disasters, shanty towns and a very rich elite.
It is in all of Asia, not just the Philippines, where politics is a business – pay enough money to whomever you need to get elected and then steal it back once power is achieved. And somehow they seem to be able to square that with having powerful religions – Buddha, Mohammad and Christ make strange bedfellows when it comes to corruption. But no South East Asian politician can survive without at least paying lip service to their country’s deity.
But what about the west? I do not think many will contradict me when I say most of our politicians appear inept at best and downright stupid at worst. And as the whole point of democracy is that we get to vote for a politician: if all the choice are bad what is the point?
The aspect about politics that irritates me the most is its pettiness. Big issues are reduced to an argument between parties who simple will not agree because it was the other guy’s idea, or it will give somebody an electoral advantage, or something equally crass. And when there is a coalition no single idea is allowed to go forward – it always has to be a compromise. Compromise inevitable means that a good concept is watered down to being a half good concept: even if total contradictory concepts are often better than the compromise.
I was having a lively discussion the other night with a German colleague who was convinced the problem is that western politicians are not paid enough – his contention was that if the CEO of a multi-national gets a 7 figure salary so should the country’s leaders – that way the best people would want to be politicians. My view is the opposite – I fall back on the public service concept. People who have made a career can retire early and give something back to the community by going into parliament and offering their experience – I want semi-professional politicians who have experience. I suppose the compromise is what we have at the moment – politicians paid a middle managers wage: thus we have got middle managers running the corporation.
I can see the attraction to wanting to lead your fellow man – years ago I was involved at the very junior level of politics. But I could see even then that the party system did not really want officers it wanted foot soldiers first and foremost. If I behaved and did all the right things – which included staying on side with the position of the party – even if I disagreed – I might weasel my way up the system. I decided that to me the whole point of being in politics was to promote my views on how things should be done – and if in order to get near enough to the top to do that meant I had to abandon all my principals on the way – then what was the point. By the time I got anywhere I would have been honed into being a party foot soldier.
I understand the point of the party system – it is rather the same in a corporation – there need to be common objectives or there is no direction. And rather like a corporation the direction comes from the top and those below are supposed to carry on as directed – and not complying is not a an option for those wish to stay in the employment of that operation. But it is a poor business that does not listen to its employees – however modern political parties tend to use opinion polls, rather than their members, to manage direction. That inevitable makes the process soulless and directionless. People join a political party because they consider its approach matches their own believes. When I was young there were fundamentally two directions – those who believed in the free market and those who did not. Now there seem to be many shades of grey and not much commitment one way or the other. I suspect that is because modern politicians are not, nor can they be, principled – they are simple in it for what they can get out of it. In the Philippines we talk of corruption in its most direct way, however in the west the bloating of bureaucracy has created thousands of jobs for the party faithful and those who need to be rewarded. An Asian politician may get it in readies, but a western politician just get 5 years on an unimportant QUANGO at a generous salary.
Needless to say politics is only really about one thing – getting elected. A person has to be selected by his peers before he can direct those same peers. So modern politics has become all about working out what to say, and or do, that will persuade people to vote in a certain direction. That is part of the problem – there is little or no passion. Politicians no longer lead by instigating debate and striving to win that debate.
With November 5th. almost upon us it is worth wondering what would happen if in the UK we had a modern day Guy Fawkes – a successful one who blew up the Houses of Parliament when they were full. The UK would suddenly need a large number of new members of parliament – would they be better than the current crop. I doubt it. And I suspect the same would apply to any parliament in the world.
So the realities are the only a thief can survive in Asian politics – which is hardly conducive to getting the best – and in the west the system weeds out the principled. Not a wonder our politicians are so bad! 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Is helping always a good option?

Anybody who has lived in the Philippines will know what I mean when I say yesterday there was (yet another) family emergency. That means a family member decides that they cannot handle a problem and they need another family member’s help – inevitable the help is financial. The whole process usually takes a few hours and it starts off with a text message, which is followed by a tirade of ‘why must I help them again,’ I say it is about time they stood of their own feet. Then a decision is made to help them - but this will be the last time – I point out that last time was the last time as was the time before and the time before that.
I was sitting nursing a beer some hours later reflecting upon the issue – not really angry I have been in Asia long enough to know that family is the support system. In Thailand we used to call it the sick buffalo syndrome – buffalo sick please send money. Of course the buffalo may have been symbolic but it was also the all-important farm implement – no buffalo equals no rice.
The family support system is an essential in a country with little or no social security. For most people there is no free doctor, no unemployment pay, no free drugs, and no pensions: instead there is an extended family that are bought up with in the belief that family is all important; and you must support your family whatever happens. Part of the idea is that what comes round goes round; so a family member helping another will, in time, have the favour repaid. But like all families there are good and bad members, and reality is only a few work hard and do well. Almost inevitable as soon as one starts doing well the rest of the family persuade themselves that the one rich relative has a duty to look after all the poor family members. This is particularly so when the poor family members live in abject poverty in the provinces, where they live from hand to mouth often struggling to earn 100 pesos ($2.20) per day.
As I reached for the second beer a thought occurred to me – what happened 25 years ago before the age of the mobile phone? The one item even the poorest Filipino has is a mobile and text messages are cheap so for a peso virtually any Filipino can ask for help from a family member. And my thoughts went back to that first contact and how easy it had been for somebody to unburden themselves of a problem by passing a text message. Then it became somebody else’s problem. But 25 years ago they would have had to handle that problem themselves – or write a letter which would take 7 days to arrive.
Then I thought of the UK and my discussions over the years with a few doctors I have known. The older ones in particular were horrified by how more and more people came to them with comparatively minor ailments – when they started in practice most people who came into their surgery were sick – after 50 years of the National Health Service most people were not really sick. But of course now it was free and the patients knew their rights. But it is not just doctors but the whole UK social service system which was designed as a safety net to ensure people were looked after if all else failed, has now has become a system that is expected to solve any and all problems. As a result the whole system is overloaded and creaking and those who are honest, will look at the economics, and say it is not sustainable. The main reason it is not sustainable is because too many people are abusing the system.
And getting back to yesterday’s family crises one day it really will be the last time – the reason will be because the system is being abused.
Communication has bought the world together - most of us see that as an enormous plus. Years ago I remember traveling to France from England and that narrow waterway meant I was out of touch with what was happening at home. If I had a problem I had to use my bad French to resolve that problem. When I travelled to Asia for the first time – after two weeks I feared my home and everything around it had somehow disappeared. Of course it had not; but no communication plays on the mind. Only a few generations ago traveling to the Philippines from Europe would have taken months. Communications makes us all feel safer – it means we feel there is help at the end of an email, a text message or Skype: that maybe reassuring but we are still responsible for our own actions and our own welfare. If this new interconnected world means we can no longer look after ourselves - and every time something goes wrong a begging hand goes out – then I fear we will all become poorer for it.
Consider the comparison: in December 1897 a typhoon swept through Tacloban causing massive carnage and destruction – it took weeks for the news to reach Australia. No help was sent and the survivors simple picked themselves up and got on with it. In 2013 Typhoon Yolanda swept through Tacloban causing massive carnage and destruction – three weeks later survivors were still waiting for help and nearly 12 months later the rebuilding process is still getting underway.
In a politically correct world we are told that helping others is a duty: is it?
It goes back to the line about giving a man a fish makes him a dependent – teach him how to fish and give him a fishing rod makes him independent. A thought that we should all consider as we hand out aid!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is the best government really the one the people have a say in?

It is said we live in the sound bite era – there is little of no debate - politicians simple have to use a few words to expound an idea. Needless to say that means there are few new ideas which need expanding, or even good ideas that need defending – instead politics is wedded to fixed ideas and the mantra for political correctness makes certain of those ideas are sacrosanct.
However there is a growing concern that democracy is not working as more and more people are looking at western style democracy and saying – is this really the best way to run a country? In part the reason they are saying that is because of the economic success of the non-democratic countries – China in particular – as opposed to the western democracies where economic growth has stagnated on the back of high welfare costs and burdensome regulation; all compounded by administrative inertia.
Universal suffrage has been highly successful and has seen the living standard European style countries rocket over the last 200 years – but is that because they were democratic or because of technology? Steam engines were new idea in 1814 – the industrialisation of Europe started around 1830 which coincides with the beginning of political reform. Whether there would have been one without the other is a moot point. Once industrial centres started appearing - bringing together armies of people-  managing those peoples perceived fairness and rights was essential. Socialism tricks the people by saying it is working for them – by the people for the people – but in the end it is about management of people’s expectations. You can argue that religion is the same – people need to believe they have rights and there is an achievable objective. So along came democracy as the solution to managing people – if people believe they are selecting their leaders, then they cannot complain when those leaders screw up. 
But as Alex De Tocqueville pointed out “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy.”
Winston Churchill was equally scathing about democracy but concluded it was the best of a lot of bad options.
When in the mid 1830’s De Tocqueville wrote his definitive works - Democracy in America – he was comparing that system with the aristocratic system – or a ruling class - as Europe had before the political changes mentioned. Needless to say there were good aristocrats and bad aristocrats – and those aristocrats who understood the words duty and responsibility did a good job and visa a versa.
Democracy limits what politicians can do – it can stop them making good decisions, as well as bad decisions. The voters will not always support the best way forward; and that is particularly true when it comes to free government services. But there is worse: the cut and thrust of politics is not for the feint hearted. At one stage there was an implied duty to public service – now politics has become a lifetime career which means not only do politicians have little idea of the real world; the profession itself does not attract good people.
The world is confronting several major problems which require individual countries to make very tough decisions. Planet plundering – asset striping our planet – is one; but maybe another just as important is outlined in this article by Jeremy Warner; he points out, too many countries are living on borrowed money – few governments are even pretending to run a balanced budget because that would mean depriving the voters. And the interesting point about Jeremy Warmers article is that China is just as guilty; because even though it is not democratic - in the sense of one man one vote – the communist party needs to keep the population onside. That means much the same consideration must be given as in a democracy.
In this article Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suggests that China cannot move forward without allowing universal suffrage. His contention is that China now needs to be inventive and creative in order to grow beyond simple being the factory of the world – that means letting the creative juices flow and the demand for democracy will inevitable grow out of that.
The only way the undemocratic can keep control is by holding the development of their country back – North Korea springs to mind as does Zimbabwe but I was reading an article by a Philippine commentator saying much the same thing – the title says it all ‘fake-democracy.’ The Philippines are by no means the only country where democracy is firmly controlled by a wealthy cartel – who buy votes and generally fix elections.
Many will say the ideal system is a benevolent dictatorship (or a good aristocrat) – but in this era of enlightenment and communication would anybody accept such an arrangement; and who says what is good and bad? As the current demonstrations in Hong Kong show young educated people always think they know best. In many ways HK is a phenomenally successful city state – is a change of leadership going to improve anything?
So there is the dichotomy: the best governance will not come from democracy but the people will always demand a say in their government
It was the problems of government that led me to write the Aquitaine Trilogy. The three books trace the development of new society – new because nuclear Armageddon had devastated the world and killed off all governments. That was a fascinating exercise to think through how to govern a people – what to set up when looking at history. In my opinion western democracy is failing – or you could say has failed – but it is also clear that people who have lived in a democracy – for better or for worse – are going to insist upon living in one again. So in my new society the people had a parliament but members were only allowed 3 terms and had to be over 40 before they could become a member. The real government was technocratic in nature with a strong civil service that supplied the ministers. The Elders were appointed for 10 years, must be over 45 and should hold a senior position in a major institution. There were strict controls on what the government could borrow and spend – the two parliaments (The Elders and the Representatives) and the civil service formed a triumvirate which had to agree on any change of direction. Otherwise the civil service brief was to steer the ship of state in a straight line. The constitution was approved by a popular vote and could only be changed by a referendum with a super majority.
I am sure readers will all have different ideas. Of course the reason I killed off the world before starting my brave new community was because, as the old Irish joke goes, if I wanted to rearrange the world order and governance, I would not start from here!
So how would you rule?