A few columns of meaningless names and numbers pop up on screen. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The night the Estranged Wife and I decided to take a look at our investments

I’m not planning on retiring, but sometimes the world has other ideas, so it is wise to make plans.

Once again, we come to that time of year when the last Test match has been played, the first proper chill of autumn seeps into summer, and I celebrate, if that is the word, the anniversary of my moving into the Hovel. Seven years. Jesus. Not for the first time, I think about moving somewhere else, only now it is not so much in the way one wants to change an itchy jumper, but with the urgency of someone who smells smoke when there shouldn’t be any. A new lodger will be joining me: a young woman called Daisy, who, as one of my children observed, looks more like someone called “Daisy” than anyone else who has ever been given that name. She dresses, by her own admission, in the style of a hippie and is studying music at Soas. Oriental or African music? I asked. I wanted to prepare myself for whichever style of percussion instrument was going to haunt my evenings. Both, she said.

I think I could afford to live in Kettering, I realise after doing some research. There is always the possibility of moving to Gothenburg but although there would be the presence there of someone I really want to be with, the Swedes have a very different approach to breakfast from mine. It involves yoghurt and muesli, and a couple of slices of cheese, strictly rationed, if you’re lucky. Some establishments choose to serve the muesli in decorative bowls, but as far as I’m concerned tipping the contents of a bird feeder into a heart-shaped ramekin does nothing to alter the essential nature of the food. I also fail to see how I could persuade every publisher in the country to start mailing the books they think I’d like to review to Sweden.

Things are looking grim, then, so when the Estranged Wife calls to say she’s coming round to help me sort out my pension, I do not have the strength to say no.

A little word about pensions. As everyone in the country has worked out by now, these are things into which one pays a sum – generally around £100 a month – to a company that invests the money with all the expertise and cunning at its disposal, so that when the time comes for you to retire you will have a guaranteed income of about 50p a year.

I’m not planning on retiring, but sometimes the world has other ideas, so it is wise to make plans. The problem is, as the EW understands all too well, I have the financial acumen of a bumblebee. And not one of those brainy, hard-nosed bumblebees who have been to business school and got an MBA, but the dreamy, vacant kind of bumblebee who cares for little more than buzzing from flower to flower in search of nectar for his little ones.

In my case, my pension pot has been managed with all the skill one might expect, and I am the kind of customer (or, strictly speaking, “mug”) that a callous, neoliberal, grasping financial firm dreams of. I simply give them the money and hope for the best. But the EW, who has a 50 per cent stake in anything I own, has spotted that something is amiss in the way the sums are being invested, and has been nagging at me for something like four years now to Do Something about it.

Luckily, relations between us have reached the point where the proportion of laughter to recriminations has been reversed, and we get on well, although I am aware that if anything is going to put a strain on things, it is going to be this. I once changed the master password to my account in a panic when I feared she was going to do something unilateral, but I had misjudged her. I now know it is safer for her to have the password because invariably I forget it.

So, fortified with wine, we go down the rabbit hole and look at the eerie world of my personal long-term finance. A few columns of meaningless names and numbers pop up on screen. (Annoyingly, I had remembered the password.)

“I see our holdings in Venetian Tarmac seem to be underperforming somewhat,” I say, “although not as badly as our shares in Tongan Aerospace plc.” We stare glumly at the screen, then turn away and drink some more wine. When we look back again, we have been timed out, and I have to re-enter the password. “Damn, it worked,” I say.

In the end, we decide that we should swap some money around from one useless stock to another one that seems to be marginally less useless. God, these things are, excuse my language but it’s necessary here, such a f***ing con. I suggest, by way of a last feeble, desperate throw of the dice, taking the lot out and investing it in fine wine. And then, I do not add aloud, drinking myself to death with it. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What is the New Hampshire primary, and why does it matter?

Although the contest has proved less influential in recent years, the New Hampshire primary is still a crucial event.

While the Iowa caucuses are the first electoral event in the US’s presidential process, the New Hampshire primary is the candidates' most important early test before the action explodes across the rest of the country.

The stakes are high. If the nominations aren’t decided soon, the campaigns will be damned to a marathon of costly state primaries and caucuses; New Hampshire is their first best chance to avoid that fate. But it didn’t always work this way.

Primaries only became the key element of the nomination process relatively recently. Until the postwar era, presidential candidates were chosen at the national conventions in the summer: in the run-up to the 1960 election, future president John F Kennedy famously entered only one primary (West Virginia’s) to prove that a Roman Catholic could win a Protestant state.

It was only after the turmoil of the 1968 nomination, widely perceived as an establishment fix, that the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the Democratic party’s rules to end the power of the “smoke-filled room” over the nominating process, prompting many states to adopt meaningful primaries for both parties' nominations.

First in the nation

Unlike caucuses, which generally are used in smaller states that would rather not pay for full-scale ballots, primaries are secret-ballot elections that allow voters to choose who will be their preferred nominee. But not all primaries are the same.

The parties sometimes hold their votes on the same day, as they do in New Hampshire, or on different ones. A primary may be open (allowing any voter to register a preference) or closed (allowing only pre-registered party supporters to vote). New Hampshire has a mixed system which allows voters to register in a primary on the day before voting without declaring a party affiliation.

That means that while all voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s ballot, the New Hampshire result often hinges on these unaffiliated voters. Because they can vote in whichever ballot they like and can register so close to primary day, the state is notoriously difficult to poll.

New Hampshire has cemented its first-in-the-nation status by passing a law that requires its lawmakers to move the state’s primary to pre-empt any other state’s, no matter how early. That means it’s traditionally been not just an important indicator of how candidates are faring, but a way of winnowing the field and generating or killing funding. Candidates who perform poorly generally find their access to money suddenly dries up.

The arguments against New Hampshire’s outsize role are many. Like Iowa, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole, being a small state with an overwhelmingly white population. And while (unlike Iowa) it has no powerful evangelical Christian element, it retains a very distinctive tradition of small-town New England politics that demand a particular kind of face-to-face, low-to-the-ground campaigning.

But this time around, other factors have cut into New Hampshire’s significance.

On the Republican side, the primary’s winnowing role was in large part pre-empted when the TV networks holding debates allowed only the higher-polling candidates on stage, effectively creating a two-tier system that tarred lower-polling candidates as also-rans long before voting began. Meanwhile, the financial calculations have been transformed by campaign finance reforms that allow for almost unlimited outside fundraising – allowing candidates to build up the reserves they need to withstand a humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, a truly surprising New Hampshire result could still change everything.

Shuffling the deck

New Hampshire hasn’t always chosen the winner in either the nomination contests or the general election. But it has provided more than its share of political upsets and key turning points, from persuading Lyndon Johnson not to stand again in 1968 to resurrecting the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008.

The incremental campaigns for the nominations are all about the perception of momentum, and a notional front-runner can be dislodged or destabilised by a poor performance early on. That’s especially true in this year’s cycle, in which both major parties are grappling with huge surges of support for outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Mainstream Republicans have spent months trying to end Donald Trump’s noisy domination of their crowded field. Trump was indeed defeated in Iowa, but not by a moderating force: instead, it was radical conservative Ted Cruz who overturned him.

Cruz is loathed by the party establishment, and he stands little chance of appealing to mainstream voters. Marco Rubio’s strong showing in Iowa briefly made him something of a standard-bearer for the party’s moderates, but a disastrous turn at the last debate before New Hampshire has thrown the future of his candidacy into doubt.

The primary will also reveal who, if any, of the more moderate Republican candidates – among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie – will survive. While Bush has a massive funding advantage (albeit with precious little to show for it), Kasich and Christie both need a strong showing in New Hampshire to reinvigorate their financial reserves.

On the Democratic side, the key question is whether Bernie Sanders can make good on the surprising energy of his populist, grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton. He is currently the heavy favourite in New Hampshire: even if Clinton somehow pulls off a miracle win there as she did in 2008, the closeness of the race is already stimulating both campaigns' national organisation and spending. And with what could be a long race between them heating up, the two’s growing mutual acrimony may yet start to undermine the Democrats' national appeal.

Gillian Peele Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.