Grasping nettles (not), governmental probity (not), the role of shareholders (not), the United States (not) and racing pigeons

22 November 2020

“Unstoppable Johnson cruises to record-breaking triumph” read a headline that caught my eye this week. 

Disappointingly, it turned out to be about a golfer, but a much better golfer than Boris Johnson is a prime minister – well done Dustin Hunter Johnson who won the 2020 Masters Tournament with an all-time record score of 268, 20 under-par.

And we appear to have a choice of effective Covid-19 vaccines.  Matt Hancock expects the bulk of the roll-out early next year and, with his record just on PPE and ‘test, track and trace’, who could doubt that?

In government, the report of a formal investigation by the Cabinet Office found the Home Secretary guilty of bullying civil servants by shouting and swearing at them.  Priti Patel said that it wasn’t intentional and Johnson not only failed to sack her but urged senior colleagues to defend her.

Johnson’s own ethics adviser, Sir Alex Allan, was so disgusted by Patel’s and Johnson’s lack of integrity that he resigned saying “I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the prime minister’s independent adviser on the [ministerial] code.”  In plain English, this means something like “Boris and Priti are so bent I no longer want to be associated with anything they do”.

Patel’s obviously onto something that will benefit the rest of us no end: 

“If I was speeding, officer, it wasn’t intentional”.

“In that case sir/madam, off you go, have a good day”.

But she’s got to go – and may already have gone by the time you read this.

Nor is Labour doing much better after allowing Jeremy Corbyn back into the party.  He was originally suspended because he said the problem of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party …”  What he hasn’t explained is who ‘we’ are when he talks about “our opponents”.  The Labour Party covers a wide field and should be finding commonalities rather than alienating sub-groups over comparatively minor differences.

I’m not belittling the horrors of racism but surely it’s more important to work together to increase the party’s influence?

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given billions to commercial private businesses to help them survive the pandemic and is now realising he’s got to find the money so, naturally, he’s limiting public sector pay.  (Anybody notice the clever shift from ‘private’ to ‘public’?)

And Johnson’s volunteered an extra £18bn for the military after people had had to back him into a corner and kick him until he accepted that poorer children still need to eat in school holidays. 

Many more billions have been given to private contractors who coincidentally happen to have connections with senior members of the government.  Charity trustees (who don’t get paid) are legally required to declare any interest that they or their families or close associates have in the charity’s decisions.  What a pity a certain hedge fund manager with a blind offshore trust (hint:  initials RS) can refuse to disclose his interests and other MPs and their advisers aren’t required to demonstrate the same level of probity as charity trustees.

According to Altus Group, big supermarkets have received £2bn in rates relief despite increases in their profits during the pandemic and have paid huge amounts in dividends to their shareholders.  There’s outrage across the political spectrum that the subsidies weren’t returned to the government – and that’s just the supermarkets.

Wouldn’t it have been fairer to restrict rates relief (and all other financial support) just to smaller independent business that aren’t part of large groups and to provide additional support for the self-employed and those on benefits?

If times get tough for companies, that’s what their shareholders are for.  In good times, they take dividends out and in bad times they should put it back in, not expect the government to bail them out.  And why not restrict directors’ total remuneration and perks to a maximum of (say) ten times the median wage of their UK employees?  That would leave even more money in the company for Covid-type emergencies.

San Francisco has overwhelmingly backed a new law that imposes an extra 1% tax on companies that pay their chief executives more than 100 times the median of their workforce and this surcharge increases by 0.1% for each factor of 100 that a CEO is paid above the median (to a maximum).  San Francisco reckons this will raise somewhere between $60 and $140m a year which will be spent on improving housing and healthcare provisions for the city’s poorest people.

This is just a start but it shows it can be done and the potential is huge.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and the third richest person in the world, trousered £450,000,000 last year, almost 10,000 times the median salary of all his workers.

Any old-school capitalists now shouting at me should remember the context:  the average San Francisco CEO’s pay has increased by 940% in the last 30 years so they’re now getting 10 times what they were before the ‘greed is good’ demon sucked out their souls, while the median pay of their staff has only increased by 12%, or one eighth.  Windigos rule OK?

Meanwhile, Johnson’s doppelgänger in America is getting increasingly worried that, having lost the election, he might not be able to continue as president and many people are getting very frightened.  He even asked if he could bomb Iran’s nuclear sites before he goes but was warned this could trigger a broader conflict, which hadn’t occurred to him.

Trump’s mental health problems can be judged by substituting ‘Democrats’ for ‘Communists’ in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, written in 1963.

Trump has met senior Republicans to try to get votes for Biden set aside so he can win in the swing states despite the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency saying “we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections”.

Chris Krebs, CISA’s director, now expects to be fired by Trump.

The problem is that almost 74m Americans voted for Trump (Biden got almost 80m votes) and his actions could lead to some extremely dangerous divisions in America.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota has said “[Trump’s] behavior is even more erratic than usual”.

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes has said “The risk is that he takes his country down with him.”

Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, has said “His response should surprise no one … it continues his pattern of declaring victory, regardless of the actual facts”.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican top election official in Georgia, has said “I’m a conservative Republican. Yes, I wanted President Trump to win. But … we have to do our job … I’m gonna walk that fine, straight, line with integrity. I think that integrity still matters.”

Trump’s also being investigated for the possibility of fraud into possible payments of illegal consulting fees to his utterly resistible daughter Ivanka.  Her defence is to accuse the investigators of “harassment”.

Coincidentally, I’d emailed Ivanka just before this was reported saying, very nicely, that her father’s refusal to hand over to the president-elect made “[him] and his family a laughing stock”, and pleading with her to convince him that, if he wishes “to retain any credit for the good things he did”, he should concede for the benefit of all Americans. 

I haven’t yet had an answer. 

So let’s end with another puzzle and some good news.

The puzzle is that Harvey Weinstein is still facing charges of sexual assault in Los Angeles which could attract prison sentences of up to 140 years to life.  Do you think they will, as a kindness, knock a century off the minimum sentence if he’s convicted?

The good news is the auction in Belgium last week which sold a racing pigeon for 1.6m and reminded me of one of Terry Pratchett’s characters who “made a fortune selling homing pigeons, and he only had the one”.

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