Pragmatism vs. Idealism strikes again.

Please read this. It shows pretty clearly how Tory healthcare plans have more to do with idealism than “facts”.

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Pragmatism vs. Idealism

A happy new year to everyone!!

I’ve had some time off over the holidays, which I’ve spent with my family and friends.  This is time well spent and I don’t regret a minute of it.  However, the world doesn’t stop when I do, and news continues regardless.  In the UK we’ve seen the murder of Jo Yeates and the subsequent media witch-hunt.  This is a true pickle, with the Police and news media both displaying their glaring faults for all critical eyes to see.  We’ve also seen the aftermath of the pre-Christmas transport chaos ignored.  It made fantastic news TV to see those poor people stranded in airports up until Christmas Day itself, but then all coverage of the story stopped, despite many people having to wait until the 28th December for their airline to “catch up”.  So a big hand goes out to all those who spent Christmas away from their families at airport hotels, waiting for the flight to take them home.

With the end of year feel and reflective mood that comes with it, many people will be doing a retrospective on how political parties and causes fared in the year 2010.  In the UK and Germany we are seeing the challenges of coalition government.  The politics of compromise laid bare.  In both cases the minority partner Liberals seem to be copping the flack rather than the dominant conservative Leaders.  However, both the Lib Dems in the UK and the FDP in Germany have reneged on key campaign promises once reaching office.

My major thought coming off the back of a very nice Christmas season is that the battle of pragmatism vs. idealism is alive and well, but many people don’t understand it.

My major concern is that pragmatism is being used as an excuse to force an unpopular idealism upon the country.  This is no truer than when talking about tuition fees for higher education in the UK.  In reality the average University leaver more than pays back the cost of their additional education in increased tax receipts.  However, under the banner of budget deficit pragmatism the Conservative government has decided to impose massive economic penalties on those who go to university.  This should wound economic mobility in the UK, potentially enforcing a massive gulf between the “haves” in the south east and the “have-nots” in the north.  Conservative idealism seeking to marginalize the heartlands of their chief opponents being enforced upon the population in the name of economic pragmatism is a low blow, and one which Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will pay for at the next General Election.  The UK needs University graduates, any investment into this area is positive for the country, because it’s investment into the future competitiveness of the country.

I am a genuine pragmatist.  I believe that there are some roles the government is better suited to than the private sector, and vice versa.  It’s very easy to become bogged down in the failings of that past.  The NHS is a prime example.  Of course the NHS is one of the biggest money traps in government, and therefore one of the biggest candidates for structural change in the name of economic pragmatism.  However, every system of private healthcare in the western world has been proven to cost more per head than the NHS, so you have to believe that any changes proposed by a Conservative government would have more to do with political idealism than economic pragmatism.  The economic argument for the NHS wins every time unless you are stupid enough to believe the fake pragmatism argument.  That’s not to say that the NHS can’t be run more efficiently.  Doctors should be in charge of spending decisions rather than managers in my opinion.

Watching the news these days you will see any number of political decisions, unpopular decisions, justified on the basis that it’s the pragmatic decision to make.  I suggest that in the vast majority of these situations this is purely an excuse for imposing an idealistic policy.  The Conservatives want to retain economic power within their home counties heartlands.  Labour wants to grow the economic importance of its northern and urban heartlands and the public sector economy in general.

When it comes to politics, the idealism will win out against the pragmatism every time.  But the pragmatism will always be used as the excuse for the dirtiest deeds.  Be sure to question everything.  The UK’s economy is not in the dire straits often presented by the Tories.  Not being a part of the Eurozone has been positive, and there has been no suggestion of increasing the risk factor on UK debt for about a year now, yet George Osborne still talks up the precarious nature of the economy.  This is purely political, and has nothing to do with pragmatism in my opinion.

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Tuition Fees

UK Government proposals to raise the maximum fee that Universities can charge for a year’s tuition to 9k pounds in England were narrowly passed this week.  The policy itself is fairly complicated and the detail around the loan agreements themselves sounds really quite commercial; a long way away from the student loan I began in 1996.

The Government argues that despite increasing the fees, the poorest 25% of students will be better off under the new scheme.  This is of course a potentially very misleading claim.  To simplify the policy, only those people who earn between 15k and 21k a year after leaving Uni will be better off on a monthly basis under these proposals.  Everybody who reaches the 21k threshold will end up paying significantly more.  In the long run everyone will pay more!  There’s no logic that can argue a loan twice the size, taken out over a longer period, with a higher maximum interest rate will cost the borrower less.

One of the most worrying aspects of this policy is that it will effectively trap students into these loan agreements for the vast majority of their working lives.   There is no allowance in the policy for paying back the loan early, if a student is able to do so.  David Willets has said that higher earners should not be able to “unfairly buy themselves out” of the system.  If the point of this policy were just to fund higher education, then how can the government have a problem with people paying back the fees plus interest accrued early?  Why trap them in the system, when they don’t need to be?

Alas this is just wishful thinking, because the majority of students won’t be able to repay 30k+ worth of debt even if the system allowed them to do so.  Consider also that this debt will be taking 9% of a person’s income at a time when they themselves are starting families and will be struggling to save deposits for a house / flat, support their families, and no doubt save up so their own children can attend University.  It seems to be creating an even bigger vicious circle of debt that will affect the next generation too.

It’s a huge dis-incentive for people to attend higher education.  Whilst I don’t believe that University should be for everyone, the UK economy needs smart people to further their education, especially in the sciences, engineering, medicine etc.  You make it harder for these people to get the education they’re capable of and you’re effectively shooting the economy in the foot.

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Has Rev. Spooner struck again?

It was always going to be a risk selecting somebody with the surname Hunt for the Cabinet. We can all be thankful that his given name isn’t Michael.

This morning James Naughtie lived up to his name and mispronounced Culture Secretary Jeremy’s surname in a barely plausible spoonerism (see Mr Hunt wasn’t introduced as the Hulture Secretary, yet somehow a C usurped the H at the beginning of Jeremy’s family name. Poor boy, must have been like Public School all over.

This is all pretty funny in an immature way, but Mr Hunt was appearing on the Today Show to talk about plans for expanding super-fast broadband internet coverage in the UK. A recent Ofcom report suggests that a lowly 0.2% of UK households have a super-fast (100 mbps +) broadband connection; compare that to 2% in Germany (where I live), 7% in the USA and 34% in Japan. See

It would be a shame to see an albeit funny Spoonerism overshadow a debate on the Government’s strategy for one of the most crucial 21st century infrastructure issues.

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Sunday Evening Music

A beautiful end to the weekend to everyone!

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So people in Government are angry, because a website has published lots of information about their dark methods that we already pretty much held to be true anyway? I’m waiting for the “bears pooping in the woods” memo to emerge.

Surely, going to such Orwellian lengths to try and stop Wikileaks only amplifies the message, and makes the whole issue a bigger deal than it need be.

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Is the internet killing music?

You all have Graham Linehan (@Glinner) and this article on to thank for my starting this blog.  I studied Business at University and I continue to work in Marketing and Sales; combine that with my passionate love of music and this article really got me thinking.  It challenged my perceptions of what is really happening in the music industry.  I don’t want to seem melodramatic, but after reading this I really did spend literally minutes thinking about the issue, and I resolved to write about it.  140 characters weren’t sufficient.

Jeff Price in his article (via Cory Doctorow on boingboing) makes the point that today more revenue is making its way back to the artist than in pre-internet times, despite the overall revenue generated by the music industry suffering a dip.  I am all for this in principle; it’s the artist’s work, they should profit the most from it.  The article also makes the point that whilst revenue is down, the actual number of individual music purchases is up significantly since 2006 according to Nielsen, and if Nielsen can tell us how many people watch a TV program they must be able to tell us how many songs have been purchased.

So the consumer is getting more music for less money, but with more money going back to the artist.  It must be a dream scenario right?

It certainly seems like a Utopian situation.  Everybody wins apart from the big, bad record companies and music publishers.  Yet there is also a groundswell of artists, including Lily Allen, James Blunt and Gary Barlow of Take That, who broadly support the record industry and clamping down upon the dark side of digital music and the internet, namely file-sharing / copyright infringement.  (See this article.)  You often read about established artists saying that they make their money only through touring and merch, and no longer through recorded music.  I fundamentally believe that artists should be able to make a living directly from the sale of their work, and as consumers we have no right to expect it to be free.  It should also be noted that Jeff Price and Tunecore as a digital music distribution service are effectively in competition with “traditional” record companies.  Nobody is ever going to big-up their competitor, no matter how altruistic their business model might seem.

So now I’m left thinking that maybe the music artist isn’t quite as badly off as I did before, but it’s the record companies that are clearly losing out though broad access to music online.  Should this be reason for celebration?  By adopting Jeff’s business model would we not all cut out the middle man and get more music for less money?  The artists would have complete copyright control over their work and could promote, use and package it in whatever way they want.  The artist would also reap all of the profit generated by their work.  Personally I am all for these things.

However, this model does appear to place responsibility for all the commercial aspects of the music industry, bar digital distribution, onto the artist.  It also places the entire financial risk of creating, and most significantly promoting the music onto the artist themselves.   Social media has opened up so many outlets for bands and artists to promote themselves that this model seems feasible.  An artist can open up Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. accounts, and without spending any money they potentially have access to a huge audience.  The artist is then only saddled with the cost of creating their music, which with today’s computer software needn’t be very high.  The big “but” is that in reality the scope for promotion via social media is limited for the vast majority.  Even if you assume that an artist could attract a thousand fans on Facebook or a thousand Twitter followers, and each of those buys an album at $10 a pop, it might be enough to cover the cost of making the record, but it certainly isn’t enough to make a living out of.  Fine for passionate hobbyists, who will be happy to recoup costs, but where will our pop and rockstars of the future come from?  For every Justin Bieber who achieves hundreds of thousands of YouTube plays as an unknown teenager, there are thousands of artists, who struggle to achieve a hundred.

Record companies are here to stay I think.  The great thing is that today the balance of power in the music industry has tilted strongly towards the artist.  Record companies have been battered, but they still hold the competences in selecting artists and music that will appeal to either a broad or narrow base, then promoting and distributing that music to its base.  In the future I expect to see record companies moving closer to the business model advocated by Tunecore; working as service providers for artists, rather than as the owners / patrons of the artists’ work.

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