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Some Random Stuffs

Posted by | Posted in Geek Stuff, Politics, Technology | Posted on 11-05-2010

Wow, I managed two whole posts last month. That must be a new record for this year! I’m not sure that today is the best day to be publishing another blog post, as my caffeine levels are high and sleep levels are low, which usually means I’ll end up rambling in some nonsensical way.

Nothing new there then.

I guess the biggest news at the moment (as it has been for he last week or so) is the British general election. Last Thursday saw the country take to the streets, much like the angry mob in various Simpson episodes, in order to cast their votes about who they’d like to see as the next Prime Minister of the UK, although most of us did so with less anger, pitchforks, and flaming torches than is often seen in Springfield.

Even though I take a vague interest in politics, I’m by no means an expert, but I have been keeping up with what’s been going on, and I followed the election results carefully throughout all of Friday. I have learnt a lot about the workings of elections, though, which will certainly come in handy next time round.

The situation thus far is this – the House of Commons has 650 available seats, which represent the various constituencies within the UK. A number of MPs stand in each constituency, and depending on who gets the highest number of votes within that constituency, the seat is allocated to one of the MPs (the one with the most votes, of course). So out of 650 seats, any one political party needs to win 326 or more seats before they have a majority, and therefore win the election and the right to govern the country for the next five years.

As it turned out, no one party actually gained 326 seats. The Conservatives won 306 (the most out of any party), while Labour won 258 and the Liberal Democrats won 57. It came as no surprise that this was the result, but what it means is that the country has a ‘hung’ parliament, which means that two or more parties need to come to an agreement about their policies enough for them to join forces to form a coalition government. So far, the leaders of all three parties are in talks to decide which parties should join together, and, of course, who should be Prime Minister.

Like the moral citizen that I am, I cast my vote along with many other people on Thursday night. News stories broke out on Thursday night and Friday morning about a large number of voters who weren’t able to cast their vote before the polling stations closed, which left a lot of people rather upset. Personally, I don’t understand how they ended up in that situation. I know the polling stations can be busy, but they’re open from 7am until 10pm, which is 15 hours in which people can vote at their leisure.

There was also news that a 14 year old boy managed to vote (for the Lib Dems, as it happens) although this was more to do with a mix-up with ballot papers rather than the boy actually trying to commit fraud.

All in all it’s been an exciting week in politics, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can always tell that you’re getting old when politics starts to become interesting…

In other news, Twitter plugged a rather large bug in it’s code-base today that allowed people to force other users to follow them. It wasn’t so much a bug (as far as I can tell) but rather a feature that was left in, when it should have been taken out. Still, it appears to have been fixed now, so all is good. Except for those users who’ve had their accounts reset, of course…

Details of WordPress version 3 have been released, and although there are not as many new features contained in this new version as there was when going from version 1 to version 2, they’re still very useful things to have, and can affect a lot of website administrators (myself included). I look forward to seeing how much more like a CMS the system is, rather than just being a glorified blogging platform. I imagine it’ll cause a few issues for people with lots of plugins, however.

Going back to the topic of politics – Greece is in some trouble at the moment. I’ve not been following the story as closely as I should have, perhaps, but from what I can tell, a combination of ridiculously early retirement packages, and the massive amounts of tax fraud that occurs, has basically brought the country to it’s financial knees. And to “help”, the EU is offering a 110bln euro bailout plan.

It’s essentially a loan, that will be paid back with 5% interest on top. The real debate from most EU citizens, however, is whether or not Greece actually deserves to be bailed out at all. The biggest argument against it is that many people see the situation as being Greece’s own doing, and now that they’ve “made their bed”, they should “lie in it”. Others think that as Greece is part of the EU, it’s the EU’s responsibility to make sure it’s citizens are protected from the horrible but inevitable consequences that will occur as a result of a country going bust.

There are many pros and cons for the bailout, and most are probably far too complicated for me to explain (or even understand myself). But I’ve never really been sure what benefits the EU has brought to the UK. I’ve seen some of the disadvantages – a massive amount of immigration into the country, for example, that’s put a strain on housing, education, and jobs – but I’m not sure that anyone in the UK (at least, not the common folk) has benefited much at all. I imagine that being part of the EU has allowed businesses to improve trading, and cut their costs (thanks, in no small part I suppose, to the abundance of cheap labour) but most of the general population would hardly see that as advantageous to them.

So do I think that Greece should be bailed out? Morally, yes, we should help. It’s never great to a see a whole country go down the swanny, when we can see it happening before it does, and are able to prevent it in some way. On the other hand, every country (including those within the EU) have their own problems to deal with, especially as we’re only just coming out of a global recession, and from a purely patriotic point of view, each country should see to themselves and their own citizens before tending to others’ needs. The way I see it, defining or grouping countries together under one banner is purely a political or administrative function, and bares no relation to how a country deals with it’s affairs. Unfortunately, that isn’t actually the case, and a lot of the action that is taken is done for purely political reasons, or to better the PR of the country in the eyes of other nations. While this in itself can have it’s advantages, there’s only so much aid we can give to other countries before the local populous decides that the government has gone too far, and is not acting in it’s own country’s best interests, and not doing all it can to help it’s own people.

Can we here in the UK afford the £8bln it would cost us if Greece defaults on it’s loan payments? For the moment, yes. But seeing as we’re £150bln in debt ourselves, any expenditure that doesn’t help the citizens of the UK first and foremost is likely to go down like a lead balloon when asking the public what they think of all the hoopla.

It sounds harsh to say that Greece should fend for itself. I do wonder if the same aid would be available to the UK if we were ever to get into the same situation. But as you might have guessed, by constantly bailing out countries in financial difficulty, we’re not only encouraging the sort of reckless spending and lifestyle habits that caused the crisis in the first place, but we’re putting ourselves nearer to the edge of the same financial pitfall. And if we all make ourselves poorer by helping other people (to no avail, some might say) than who will be left to help us…?

As someone who doesn’t fully understand the global economic inner-workings, I’m pretty sure I represent the majority of people everywhere. There’ll be some who work in the financial sector, and know how everything relates to everything else in the minutest of detail, but for the most part, people don’t really have a clue. And in that light, a couple of questions pop up in mind.

Warning: political rant and general cluelessness lie ahead…

Where does the buck stop? At the end of the day the global economy, influenced by many things though it may be, is still a self-contained entity. It isn’t affected by anything outside of this Earth (yet) and so ultimately we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves when the entire capitalist world falls apart. But presumably it starts somewhere. There are many factors that influence the various components that make up an economy, be it local or global, but there must be one major deciding factor that in some way affects everything else. One starting point that gets the ball rolling… surely?

I for one, would like to know what or who that is. Some people say the housing market affects the economy of an entire country, and may well be one of the biggest influences on it. And I think they’re probably right. If people can’t afford to pay their mortgage, for example, their houses get repossessed. This leaves people homeless, but it also floods the market with unwanted (or unneeded) houses, which drives down house prices everywhere. In the near future, this causes houses to be worth less than the money the owners borrowed to buy it, and leaves them with negative equity. It also means that if the occupants decide not to pay their mortgage, or simply can’t pay it for one reason or another, then even if the bank repossesses the house and sells it, it won’t cover the money they lent to the previous owner to buy it, and so the bank is at a loss. As, in it’s most simplest explanation, the bank effectively lent out money that it didn’t have (and can’t “pay back”) it finds itself in debt. This causes the sorts of problems as seen by the Royal Bank Of Scotland, and forces the government to step in to bail out the bank.

So the housing market is the starting point of it all, you might say. Well, not exactly. What caused the owners of the house to default on their mortgage payments? A lot of the time, people struggle because the cost of living has gone up. Sometimes, it’s because they find the interest rates on their mortgage have gone up as well. This is all due to inflation mostly. As the price of everything goes up, people find their wallets stretched thinner and thinner, and with the recession that the world found itself in recently, people’s pay cheques weren’t expanding as fast as their debts.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was general inflation and/or the recession that has the most influence on the global economic climate. But what caused the recession? Ask a lot of people, and they’ll tell you it was the banks. In part (or in full, you decide) they’re right. In the good times, the banks lent out billions of pounds in mortgages, some more honestly than others, but I won’t go into that here. As I mentioned previously, the banks don’t actually have (or need) enough assets behind them to cover the value of all the mortgages they lend. They effectively lend money that they’ve “created” out of thin air, which is possible because they’ll not only receive all of the money back, but they’ll have have earned a reasonable sum of money on top of that, in the form of interest. So while the idea of lending money that doesn’t exist sounds strange, wrong, and even unlawful, it works. That is, in theory.

Again, as mentioned before, if the value of the property that was bought with said mortgage (a house, for example) drops, then the bank no longer has any security against the loan. In the normal course of events, the house would be repossessed and sold in order for the banks to make back any money they lost by the owners not repaying the mortgage. But if the money the bank would receive for selling the house is not enough to cover the amount of money it lent out, then the banks get into debt. And when banks get into debt, two things can happen. They get bailed out by the government, meaning that billions of pounds of taxpayer money is used to prop up a failing bank, leaving other national services short of cash, or; the bank goes into liquidation, and everyone who has a mortgage with them loses their house, and any customer investments and savings are lost. Of course, the government guarantees that savings up to £50,000 are “insured”, for want of a better term, but again, that just means the country has to use taxpayer money, or borrow more money itself, to repay the customers of the failing bank so that their savings are not lost forever.

This, puts the country further into recession. The further into a recession we get, the tighter everyone finds their belts, and the more people get into trouble. It’s an endless cycle, but as I said at the start of this enormous rant, there must be a starting point, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. As a wise old movie character once said, “everything that has a beginning has an end”. As we seem to be looking down the business end of a loaded gun in terms of our financial security at the moment, the end is surely nigh. So where did it all start? Who should we burn first in our inevitable witch-hunt?

I don’t know. I’m not even sure that anything I’ve just said is true, or accurate, or even right in any sense. Then again, I guess I could take comfort in the fact that I represent the majority of everyone, everywhere, in that I don’t have a clue.

EDIT: One thing I forgot to mention in the article – there’s quite an interesting selection of comments on the BBC’s Have Your Say website. I’d suggest reading them to get some good, varied points of view on the matter.

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