I loved the contribution by Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, on “The Week in Westminster” (BBC Radio 4) yesterday (13.11) morning. I am not a supporter of her party, nor am I that well informed on the green agenda, but every time I hear her speak I am impressed. She talks a lot of sense; moreover in a courteous way, even when confronted with the leading questions beloved of interviewers, such as this one: “ … are you not coming to the conclusion that you alone can make no difference …?”

The Commons had been discussing economic growth; Ms Lucas wanted the debate to be wider but felt she was the only MP who believed we should look at the quality of growth. She went on to say: “How useful is GDP as a real measure of that growth? Are we better off?”

I agree totally. To take solely the relationship between GDP and jobs, I wrote in a blog post on 27 October, when a higher-than-predicted monthly GDP growth was in the news: “However … a growth in GDP does not necessarily – and quickly – improve the lot of the majority of people in this country, particularly those who are already in debt or who face losing their jobs as a result of the recently-announced spending cuts. Our economy is still rather dependent on relatively non-labour-intensive sectors, e.g. financial services, so today’s good news is “necessary but not sufficient”.

Can you measure happiness?

So Caroline Lucas asks, “are we better off?” Back in “the good old days”, i.e. before the credit crunch and the recession, there were several studies (including those quoted in Oliver James’ famous book “Britain on the Couch”) showing that British citizens’ self-perceived levels of happiness (or contentment or well-being, call it what you will) had not increased over the previous 50 years even though, by every financial measure, we were indeed all greatly “better off”.

OK, let’s leave aside this hard-to-measure or even impossible-to-measure quality of happiness, or maybe the spiritual wealth of the nation if you like. Are there other measures than GDP with which we could assess the economic wealth of the nation? I don’t know the answer but I’d love to hear your views.

UK plc as a company: turnover? profit? What else?

For example: years ago, when I was in the chemical industry, I remember an Irish customer of mine saying, as his annual financial results were published: “Turnover is vanity; profit is sanity.”

Isn’t the GDP of a country somewhat analogous to the turnover of a company, being the sum of its outputs? So what might be the equivalent of profit for “UK plc”? What measures of “added value” could we track?

Obviously our government is supposed to do more than deliver profit to shareholders, so how best can it – and we – measure how good a job it is doing? As Ms Lucas’s question implies, GDP is not the only measure.

“Answers on a postcard”. As they used to say, back in the day.


For a link to Caroline Lucas’s interview on “The Week in Westminster”, go to:

For information on “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to


House prices up?

I read recently that domestic property prices in the UK increased by an average of 1.8% over the last month. That seemed surprising, given the economic situation but, according to a friend who is “in the know”, it isn’t a meaningful trend because the volume of sales is still small.

… or down?


However this rise followed “a big drop” the previous month, according to the Halifax. (I think it was 0.7%) Such a wide variation from month to month would seem to support the fact that these are not really meaningful trends. The less volatile three-month index showed a drop of 1.2% in the quarter.


First-time buyers still priced out


When last month’s drop was announced, a newsreader on BBC Radio 4 actually added: “however, first-time buyers are not taking advantage of the drop in prices”. Well, is that so surprising? Even if that month’s price drop had been a meaningful statistic, which it wasn’t, 0.7% is not much of a drop.


More importantly, UK property is still greatly overpriced. Who says so? The “Economist” magazine’s survey of international house price comparisons, taken in turn from official stats on price/rent ratios. According to the table the magazine published in late October, average UK property prices increased by 3% year-on-year; more importantly, property here is 32% overpriced.


To compare countries’ housing data over time, including price-to-rent ratios, see

To view my guide to personal debt, “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to




Last Sunday I was listening to “Broadcasting House” (aka “B.H.” to fans) on Radio 4; one of the highlights of my listening week.

First up, there appeared to be a wonderful opportunity to find out what two heavyweight economists thought of the current situation and of the government’s policies. They were Lord Desai and the current professor of the subject at Cambridge, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten and probably won’t get around to checking. Sadly, the discussion didn’t convince me that economics, famously called the dismal science, is really a science at all. Their responses to a simple question of what tests we should apply to the new measures to decide their possible efficacy were predictably obscure; at least they were to me. No matter how brilliant these men must be, their communication skills left much to be desired. You’d think the BBC could have wheeled out two better communicators. As there are now chairs for the public understanding of science, and as economics is a sort-of-science, there is a strong case for creating a post of Professor (at the University of Life, of course) for the Public Understanding of Economics. Neither of these two luminaries would have got my vote.

B.H. presenter Paddy O’Connell, however, does get my vote, as an interviewer able to mix gravitas and humour according to the weather conditions. (I’m not joking; he even interviewed people queuing for the grand re-opening of the pier at Weston-super-Mare, during a downpour) I particularly liked the way he chaired the segment where guest reviewers cover the Sunday papers. Sunday’s panel comprised Craig Brown, whom I found disappointing for such a well-known columnist; there was a novelist whose name has escaped me, and the find of the day, Emma Harrison, who runs a recruitment agency called A4E, specialising in helping long-term unemployed people back into work; a worthwhile purpose and seemingly a delightful person to boot.

While many other people on the show, including her fellow-panellists, seems too be recycling the gloom-and-doom aspects of the media’s response to the UK government’s cuts package, Emma Harrison was a lone voice proposing a more positive approach. As the person who clearly had the most experience of working with the people who potentially could be among the worst affected (if the cuts are indeed regressive – see an earlier post) it was encouraging to hear her say that the glass-half-empty approach that tends to be favoured by our media (bad news sells papers, dear boy) can be totally counterproductive. Well said Emma; she’s the only guest on the whole show whom I shall look up on Google.

Finally, a piece about corgis was narrated by Tom Conti. Maybe he needs the work these days but why choose a Scots actor, seemingly exaggerating his native accent, to read a not particularly funny (IMHO) monologue in the person of a dog that is famously Welsh. (This last item is from my “I think you’ll find …” Department of Pedantry). Maybe there was some comic subtlety about this that passed me by.

Finally, I heard a new definition: an optimist is someone who picks up the crossword with pen in hand.

Despite my gripes on this occasion, B.H. still rules for me.


Are the measures announced in HM Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review progressive or regressive, i.e. do they favour the poorest or the richest, relative to their respective incomes? Or are they totally fair, as claimed? You might well think that this debate has been flogged to death, so I won’t add my inexpert economic analysis; however the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now states their view that they are on balance regressive.

That’s also the view of Tim Harford, presenter of “More or Less”, one of my favourite radio programmes. Here’s a clip of what he said on the radio on 21 October:

(BTW, I found that clip easily, from the very user-friendly “Today” website. The programme is of course a National Treasure, though that other NT, Sandi Toksvig, says: “I love the Today programme: twenty minutes of news, crammed into three hours”)

BBC’s "PM" news magazine under fire

Listening to “Points of View” on BBC Radio 4 today, I was interested to hear that the BBC had received complaints that its “PM” programme is “dumbing down”. Admittedly the complainants, being good Radio 4 listeners, (a club of which I count myself a member) didn’t stoop to the over-used dumbing-down cliché. They were more specific. The programme, they said, seemed to be straying from its mission statement; sorry, from its purpose. The programme was “becoming light entertainment”.

“Coverage and analysis of the day’s news” is the one-line definition of “PM”; this on the BBC’s website, no less. But these correspondents / complainants were objecting to recent trivialising and unnecessarily jokey initiatives: for example sexing up the programme’s weather bulletins by adding sound-effects; and, crucially, asking listeners for ideas on how to make those same weather bulletins more memorable. In general, the charge was that the BBC was becoming more interested in what “PM’s” listeners and bloggers had to say about stories than the views of their own journalists. Didn’t the BBC have enough expert journalists to cover the stories?

I was pleased to hear this: I had noticed these trends myself and found them irritating at best, so it was good to know I was not alone. But insult was added to injury when “Points of View” wheeled out the producer of “PM” to answer the charges. Her defence, IMHO, did not really take the complaints seriously; in fact I detected a whiff of complacency. She insisted that by canvassing and broadcasting listeners’ opinions, they were expanding the range of expertise they could call on. My view on that is that yes, some of the listeners may well be expert on some topics, but by no means all of them. Who should moderate the inputs to decide which are grounded in sufficient competence to be broadcast? A BBC journalist specialising in the topic, perhaps? Then let’s hear the journalist’s views instead.

As for the memorability of weather bulletins: leaving aside the question of whether the weather (sorry!) needs to be given such prominence in a news programme (when the BBC already has plenty of dedicated weather bulletins elsewhere) the producer’s defence of the puerile stunts that had been tried, was centred on the fact that this topic had promoted lots of e-mails. My own view anyway is that the necessarily brief weather bulletins in this kind of programme are so general as to be useless in a country that’s famous for local variations. They can’t even tell us what the weather is doing now, never mind what will happen in the future: it’s bizarre to hear a presenter say, “today, it will be dry everywhere” while outside my window the rain is pouring down.

The final complaint levelled was that incidental music was creeping into what was previously an all-speech programme in a virtually all-speech channel. The offender was the introductory music to the stock exchange report “Up-shares down-shares”. A listener who was unemployed thought that the introduction of music and in fact the overall style of the piece was inappropriately jokey when talking of such serious matters as the state of the economy, especially when most of such news is uniformly bad these days. This criticism was quickly brushed off by the producer on the grounds, as far as I could tell, that they had had an e-mail (maybe more than one but I didn’t hear it) from a listener who loved the music. Why should that apparently random listener’s views matter more than those of the listener who’d lost his job and was offended by the trivialisation?

Written in sorrow more than anger, by a devotee of Radio 4.


I’ve been reading a report on Arts and Health ( ) about the health benefits of a variety of artistic activities: both for therapy and disease prevention. One of the sections talked about the benefits of singing. Stuff you already know anecdotally, if you ever sing, whether in the shower (alone or with a partner), in a choir, or even on a stage. Singing, especially with other people, makes you feel good; and this report demonstrated it can also do you good. Physical as well as psychological benefits.

Yesterday, another endorsement of this most enjoyable pastime, from a totally different source and angle. The “Thought For The Day” in BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, started by enthusing about Venezuela’s system of youth orchestras – the best-known is the Simon Bolivar – improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan kids by teaching them to play classical music.

There are similar initiatives in the UK. Many of them are about singing rather than instrumental music; that avoids the cost of instruments. (Of course we are not such a rich country as Venezuela, are we?). The payback seems to have been fantastic. Check out the link; ( and go to 1 hr 49 mins)

I liked the comment of a Yorkshire primary school head teacher who reported greatly improved behaviour since class singing was prioritised. Her explanation:

“You can pay a fortune for sports equipment and coaches; one of the by-products is that the children learn to be competitive. Hire a part-time singing teacher and they learn to be cooperative.”