No sooner had Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address – taking credit for how the stock market had “smashed one record after another… great news for America’s… retirement, pension and college savings accounts” – than the Dow Jones, the index of shares in leading US companies, began its steep downward trend. Investors were frightened mainly by the prospect of interest rate rises, but Trump’s reckless tax cuts, increasing the risks of a government debt default, were also a factor.
Will Trump, as they say, “own” the fall in share prices as he “owned” the rise? By the time you read this, shares may have recovered somewhat, allowing him to take the credit again. But if the fall continues, he will on past form have the answer. He will “expose” a plot between Democrats and their Wall Street friends to undermine him, accuse those responsible of treason and call for them to be locked up. Unthinkable? Remember, you read it here first.
A speech from a leading police officer, saying that motorists should be punished for exceeding the speed limit by even a few miles per hour, draws predictable protests from the motoring lobby and its Tory friends. It would “make criminals of good drivers”, says one MP. The police should crack down on “violent crime and yobbish behaviour” and stop being “overly aggressive… towards motorists”.
Most “yobbish behaviour” doesn’t kill. Motor vehicles kill more than 1,700 a year in Britain. The laws of physics explain when the risks are greatest. Pedestrians hit by a car travelling at up to 30mph are likely – though by no means certain – to survive. Hit by one travelling at 40mph, they are 90 per cent likely to be killed.
Current police practice is to take no action in a 30mph area where motorists drive at up to 35mph, and to send them on a speed awareness course if they exceed that but remain below 43mph. In other words, motorists face penalties only when driving so fast that if they hit anybody they are almost certain to kill. It is as if we said that a man firing a gun in the street should be let off provided he doesn’t use more than four bullets. (Full disclosure: I am a lifelong non-motorist.)
Two rights are wrong
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how something we all thought we knew – that general election turnout has been falling since the 1950s – probably isn’t true. Here’s another example. We all know that Britain earns its living from exporting services, particularly in banking and insurance, thus compensating for its failure to make things that anybody wants to buy. That’s why governments dare not upset the City of London and why Theresa May and most of her ministers are so anxious to protect its position after Brexit.
Britain’s figures indeed show a trade surplus of £55bn in services. According to analysis by the Office for National Statistics, however, data from other countries shows we have a trade deficit of £28bn. We think that in 2016 we exported more services to the US than we imported, to the tune of £22.5bn. The Americans think they exported £10.4bn more to us than they imported.
Even with Trump in the White House, both cannot be right.
To love or not to love
The late Harold Pinter’s love letters to Joan Bakewell, now available to read in the British Library, demonstrate his mastery of that quintessential late 20th-century art form, the verbless sentence. “Oh love,” he wrote in 1967 during his seven-year affair with Bakewell. “The dreams. Making love to you. All the images of it. You darling under me. Over me. Always always always.” I had assumed that the fractured speech of the characters in Pinter’s plays was intended satirically. But it seems that he spoke, or at least wrote, like that himself. Frankly, you’d think that, in the summer of love, he would have made more effort. Bakewell would surely have appreciated something more Keatsian: “The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest”.
In Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, the winter dawn breaks. I leap from my bed, hurry downstairs and stride eagerly to the front door hoping to find the morning newspapers. But no, those days are gone. Like the mail, newspapers now arrive at unpredictable times and usually after breakfast.
I can get news online, on TV or on radio and it will be more up-to-date than anything printed the previous night. I prefer the tactile pleasure of flicking through the morning editions, however. Besides, print has sustained me in work for 50 years and I feel a certain loyalty. Yet even my patience is wearing thin. No wonder print circulations – still a larger source of revenue than digital clicks – are declining.
My newsagent tells me the wholesale distributor is to blame. He complains “but they just don’t care”. Newspaper distribution is in effect a duopoly, with the market carved up between Menzies in the north and WH Smith in the south. Newspapers brought this situation on themselves. In 2009, they awarded all their distribution contracts to the big two, putting a third big firm, Dawson, out of business along with several smaller ones. Retailers’ protests were ignored. Free-market capitalism, left to itself, always tends towards monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. Newspaper publishers, mostly friends of free markets, have cut their own throats just as members of the equally short-sighted printing unions once did.
Baggage of ageing
Re previous columns on being treated as older than you think you are. It’s getting worse. Young people of both genders are now offering to carry my case.
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry