Monday, 23 February 2009

And then it was done.

At 2.42 am I finished the first end-to-end draft of the climate change book.  It has been a little like birthing an elephant but I think it's because we've engaged and re-engaged with the content on so many levels, as well as developing what I think is a completely new format with Badger's wonderful left-page-right-brain illustrations.

Thank you to everybody who has read and chatted about ideas within the book - there's a lot I've bounced around on the blog as a way of getting myself going when I lost my confidence in my ability to write. It has been a key part of the process for me in many different ways.

Anyway, this week I need some readers.  It's going to a proofer / editor but what I also really need is a bunch of people to read all or some of it and let us know your thoughts.  Probably what I'll ask people to do is direct feedback to the proofer / editor (the cornish cowgirl) and then she can filter through it and protect my ego for you, so you don't have to worry and can just tell me the nice things ;)

Let me know if you're interested!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

A genuine proposal for a crazy experiment in economics

Society is all about experimentation. I've been saying it a lot recently.

Public health care, education for all 5 to 16-year-olds, income based taxation, child benefit, law and enforcement of law - none of it is divine wisdom or pure science, it's just social experimentation. It begins from someone, or several people, sitting down and saying "Bear with me for a second - I think I've got an idea. What would happen if we... ?" and some time later, often many years later, we get to experience the concrete world's clues about whether it was a great idea, a terrible idea or a pretty-good-but-flawed idea.


Bear with me for a second - I think I've got an idea.

What would happen if we decided, collectively, that house prices were approximately correct ten years ago, at which point they'd been near enough stable for a decade?

What would happen if we said that anyone who had bought a house in the last ten years had been mis-sold to, and we accepted that as a society we have a collective responsibility through having allowed, and often encouraged, our housing to become a pyramid sales scheme?

What would happen if we opened up the option for anyone who had bought a home in the last ten years to have their mortgage reduced to the recalculated value of their home - taken as the price 10 years ago adjusted for inflation - in return for an agreement that should they sell it in the next decade they would have to do so at this new valuation readjusted for further inflation?

What if we provided the liquidity and bad asset underwriting the banks are scheming screaming for through this method? Of course they'd lose out on some of the profits they might otherwise make off the 125% mortgage they mis-sold to people who are now in negative equity... but isn't that their own fault for having been a huge part of the problem? After all, the Halifax & co released statements along the lines of "House prices will go up and up and up next year!" and thus pushed up unsustainable price inflation.

I have been asking this 'what if?' for a couple of days, and I think most concerns have an answer.

What if home owners don't want to say their home is worth £100k instead of £200k? Won't they be losing £100k?

- That's fine, it's not compulsory. If they believe they would be losing a fantasy £100k that no longer exists then they are welcome to cling on to it, and keep their £180k mortgage. If they agree that their house is only worth what someone will pay for it then they might see it as dumping £80k of debt instead.

Some people will get more debt relief than others!

- Yes. They will. If you believe that you miss out when someone else eats chocolate then you're likely to see it that way. I don't even have a mortgage. I just would like to live in a society where average families can afford avergage mortgages on average houses without both parents having to work two jobs. I think that's good for the world generally.

Some people won't deserve it - they were greedy to try to buy the house they wanted.

- True. But most people have just been desperately stretching themselves to buy normal family homes with a tiny patch of garden for the kids to mess about in. If 90% of recipients are deserving does it really matter if 10% should have made better decisions? Does it matter because it's character building for those ten percent to face repossession, even though housing homeless families, providing legal aid to people facing repossession is expensive to society too?

Most people didn't buy a home in the last ten years.

- True. But most of those people had bank accounts with the banks that provided the mortgages, so we collectively funded the whole scenario even if we didn't drink the kool aid ourselves. And if you were born early enough to have a salary sufficient to buy a house in the 1970s or 1980s does that really make you morally superior to folk who only turned 21 in they year 2000? Should you congratulate yourself on having cleverly decided to be born soon enough to get on the property 'ladder' before the latest boom cycle, or were you just lucky?

What about people who have buy-to-let mortgages and second homes?

- People who bought for investment purposes should have balanced the risk with the reward.  A home that you live in isn't an investment - it's a place to live. While I'm personally a fan of renting I can understand why many people, especially those with kids, felt that if they wanted stability and decent quality housing they had no choice but to buy a home. This would only apply to first homes - the one you actually live in.


The banks will get the money anyway. I believe that the best way of giving it to them is through clearing mortgages which should never, ever have been provided, which the government, the banks and the rest of us who didn't flood the streets protesting against an insane upward spiral in house pricing all collectively contributed to the existence of.

If you are interested in finding out whether the folk who make decisions about this sort of thing might take this proposal seriously then blog a link to this post and comment. I'll gather a list of links in, combine it with the comments, and send it as a petition to anyone I think might take an interest.

You never know.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

How long is the world's washing machine cycle?

We use an analogy in the climate change book about the washing machine of the concrete world. 

Until we throw our abstract ideas, hopes, dreams, plans and theories through a couple of wash-rinse-spins in the Real World we've really very little to judge them by, other than ethics.

Simple theories can produce real-time concrete feedback from which we learn quickly - children building block towers don't have to wait to find out whether their positioning of the next block is just right or just wrong.

But most of what we do as adults doesn't bring real-time feedback at all. The greater the impact of the decision the more likely its consequences will only be visible shortly before, or even after, our deaths.

What I find astounding is how dramatically our judgement, our felt-truth about whether something, or even someone, is good or bad, can change - without them making any new decisions. The city dealers and heads of our banks who until a few months ago were generally considered to be entitled to their fat salaries on account of the huge profits they were producing suddenly appear to be greedy, ignorant and foolish. They haven't done anything different or new, and if there was a 'tipping point' then it was simply the first visible crack which led us to look more closely at the real state of their affairs.

It has also become clear that while they were happy to personally make vast sums of money on profitable deals they were not prepared to lose vast sums of money when they didn't come up trumps.

I have no doubt that mums and dads of people high up in the banking industry felt proud of what their kids had achieved. Would you want to tell your neighbour your child was a stockbroker today?

To me, the most intriguing aspect of what the washing machine has spun for us recently is that 'we', in our hundreds of millions, could not bring ourselves to do the simple addition that revealed the house of cards before.

I am not unsympathetic at all to those whose jobs and homes are lost or in jeopardy, but home ownership and investment in business had become some sort of bizarre pyramid sales scheme in which most people were hoping for their slice of free pie, without really recognising the nonsense of it. They were prepared to be winners without really acknowledging that such gains require a balancing loss and the creation of losers too.

Looking around the UK today I think we're all losers - we've pumped our housing market up to a level where the only practical option for most families is for both parents to work full time. I have no concept of how single parents begin to approach buying a modest family home with a small garden. Never mind the social change of women in the workplace, the economic truth is that looking after our own children, whatever the gender of the carer, has become unrealistic. But don't worry, we've all made 100k of pretend money which we can't unlock without going back to renting or moving into a caravan.

And who has really profited, while houseprices spiralled and mortgages grew larger and larger? Oh - the same estate agents and bankers who kept forecasting houseprice growth! Goodness, what a co-incidence. I don't suppose they had any selfish interest in selling that concept did they?

What if the value of our homes was actually about right ten years ago? What if we agreed en masse that ethically a home should be a place to raise a family, live a life, be a citizen, not a financial investment? What if, in order to have a generation of children who can grow up with values about kinship, we had to not just sit back and watch house prices trickle down but actively engage in a discussion about what a home should cost in the UK such that an average family can afford to have at least one adult raise those kids?  What if we held our banking industry to account for their part in house price hysteria and instead of just bailing them out with cash directly, we provided that fluidity to them by paying off a chunk - proportionate to the disparity between the perceived value at sale and the ethical value we agree on - of every mortgage taken out in the last decade?  I don't have a mortgage... but I'd still vote for that to happen.

The truth of the concrete world is that we can only add value by adding value. Industries which don't add value can only ever be sustainable by taking a reasonable charge for the convenience of service, allowing those who add value to get on with adding value even more efficiently. Stockbrokers don't add value. Mortgage brokers don't add value. Estate agents don't add value. They are middle men, no different and somewhat less honest than folk selling fruit on a market stall. The idea that they should be rewarded for this as if they were brilliant surgeons, engineers, inventors or scientists - simply because their lemons are more expensive - is one of the capitalist felt-truths which I hope this washing machine cycle has scrubbed away.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


Frank is back on mousing duty... it has become clear that he is in training for some sort of serous cat mission.

He will not lay on a comfy cushion for any longer than a 10 minute stint without removing himself and spending twice as long laying on the cold ground or a rough service.

I have been gathering photographc evidence of Frank in training as you will see from the below shots....

Shot 1: Stealth position, the most uncomfortable spot in the lounge, a huge sofa and 2 dog beds to choose from but no... he goes for the over filled magazine rack.

Shot 2: Laying 'next to' his bed on the hard wood. His bed on this occasion being my old orange fleece. It is old and no longer worn by me because it is orange with red paw prints, need I say more.

.... finally Shot 3: I spotted this orange spot in the distance out the back of the house way up smack bang in the middle of the field, with no protection from the elements at all... and I must add here that it was freezing cold. Upon retrieving the binoculars I saw that it was indeed Frank doing more stealth hard core training.

Lets hope he catches alot of mice and all that hard boy training pays off!