Film of the Year No. 10


10. Charlie Wilson's War

Set in the early 1980s, and based on a true story, Charlie Wilson's War stars Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman – a fun-loving, hard-drinking, womanizer (Cinesmith's kind of politician, in other words), who uses his membership of several key committees to covertly fund Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviets.

The film succeeds in being very amusing, and in making its political point – not surprising given that it was written by West Wing creator, Aaron Sorkin. But while Charlie Wilson's War manages to keep the sharp dialogue and tight plotting of Sorkin's TV work, it never falls prey to the preachiness that characterized The West Wing in its lesser moments. Credit for that is probably due to director Mike Nichols, the man behind classics like The Graduate, and top political satire Primary Colours.

Tom Hanks gets excellent support from Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a CIA analyst with 'anger management issues', while Julia Roberts supplies some additional star-power. If only working in politics was really so glamorous. Watch the trailer here.

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"I Pencil" turns 50 years old this month. It remains, for the layman, the best explanation of how and why markets work. Worth spreading the word about it.

To a rather more complicated question. How much is climate change likely to cost us and how much should be willing to pay to make sure that it doesn't?

Benford's Law strikes again! Bernie Maddox's investment returns breached the law.

Which is more truthful? That the Maddox strategy was symptomatic of the private investment business or more so of the entire public sector?

A truly excellent idea. Paying banking bonuses in illiquid sub-prime mortgage securities.

Something that various greens (and Greens) could learn from an environmental economist. Yes, those green collar jobs are a cost of such schemes, not a benefit.

And finally, on how the experience of felling your own Christmas tree can be ruined by British public  information films.

The return of monetarism


In the early years of the Thatcher administration, monetarism ruled. Taking their cue from the economist Milton Friedman, the government took the view that inflation was caused by too much money being in circulation. The more of something there is, the less value it has, and money is no exception.

But this kind of monetarism fell victim to Goodhart's Law. Various things can be included in the definition of 'money' – notes, coins, instant-withdrawal bank accounts, but maybe short-notice bank accounts and lots of other things too. Whatever sort of money the government tries to control, those clever people in the City come up with some new kind, and things carry on regardless. So the government's anti- inflation policy changed. Instead of trying to limit the supply of money, it turned to trying to limit the demand for it. High interest rates would reduce the demand for loans, people would cut back their expenditures, and prices would be bid back down again.

That's pretty well where we have been for the last twenty years. Milton Friedman didn't like it. He said that trying to control prices by changing interest rates was like trying to control the output of cars from Detroit by changing the price of steel. It has some effect, right enough, but a very crude one, and one that messes up other things too. But now the Federal Reserve has set interest rates at 0%-0.25%. They can't go lower than 0% – that would mean people would actually be paying to have cash in the bank – at least, not for very long. So what's the answer? Well, the problem now is not inflation but deflation, so the Fed has let it be known that it's very happy to start printing money again. (It will do it electronically through something called quantitative easing, but it amounts to dropping dollar bills from helicopters across the US economy, in the hope that folk will rush out and spend, and prices will turn up again.)

So Milton Friedman, and monetarism, are back. It's a funny old world.

Protecting the Big Three


Amidst the current financial turmoil, at least one of the Big Three could be on the brink of extinction. Their cries for help have registered in Washington. Yesterday the Bush administration confirmed a deal to provide $17.4bn (£11.6bn) in loans to GM, Chrysler and Ford. This will exacerbate a problem that has deeper roots.

Time and again, the U.S government has sought to provide help to U.S. industries, but this has proven to be at their expense. In 1981, Reagan made it clear to Japanese officials that they should accept ‘voluntary’ import quotas or face having harsher restrictions imposed on them by the U.S. Senate. As the Heritage Foundation argued back in 1985, protectionism allowed the car makers to raise prices without losing business to foreign competitors. It is estimated that the excess cost to the U.S. consumer as a result of this protectionist policy was $3.2 billion in 1984.

The results of such policies can now be clearly seen. Protectionism has jeopardized the industry’s very survival. To overcome the trade barriers, Japanese carmakers began opening production plants in the U.S. and hiring highly skilled U.S. workers. Their focus continued to be on market forces, wages and benefits and innovation as they invested heavily in developing and sustaining the production of fuel-efficient vehicles. At the same time U.S. automakers put innovation on hold, as they required a constant flow of cash to meet their high operating costs. The cloak of protectionism essentially hindered these companies from making the difficult decisions that would have allowed them to remain competitive. The current financial situation has merely acted to bring their ineptitude to the forefront.

What governments have failed to realize is that the economic system exists to serve the needs of the consumer. By propping up failure through various policies, governments fail to understand that consumers are at the very heart of this economic system. Government actions are essentially seeking to limit the choices consumers can make.

Also showing...


The countdown of the top 10 films of the year starts tomorrow, but first, a few of 2008's also-rans:

Quantum of Solace: James Bond is back, and he wants revenge. This is the shortest and most stylized Bond film to date, and I loved it. True, Quantum lacks some of the things we've come to expect from James Bond  (no Q, no Moneypenny, no 'shaken, not stirred', etc), and it takes itself rather too seriously. Nonetheless, Quantum comes very close to capturing the spirit of Ian Fleming's original books, while also succeeding as a film in its own right.

Flashbacks of a Fool: Also starring Daniel Craig, this one's about a disreputable, embittered Hollywood movie star who is devastated to learn of the death of a childhood friend. Most of the film is a flashback to the actor's youth in rural England, and the terrible chain of events he inadvertently triggers. This won't be to everyone's taste, but it's beautifully shot and packs a real punch at the end. Great soundtrack too.

Mamma Mia
: Speaking of great soundtracks, I can't overlook Mamma Mia, the film adaptation of the Abba-inspired musical. Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth amongst others, this has become the UK's biggest box office hit of all time, and its fastest selling DVD to boot. I found the female characters highly annoying, and the men just can't sing. Somehow though, it doesn't matter – Mamma Mia is pure, escapist fun.

The Dark Knight: Everyone else seemed to like this sequel to 'Batman Begins' a lot more than me. Personally, I thought it was too long and too self-indulgent. Minus half an hour and a handful of sub-plots, it could have been fantastic. The film still succeeds thanks to a brilliant final performance from the late Heath Ledger – as Batman's psychotic nemesis, The Joker – but it should have been so much better.

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What type of fiscal boost increases GDP the most? Correct! Tax cuts!

Why Bayou is going to make the Madoff untangling even worse than we thought. Plus, the person who made the most may have been the person we all think has lost the most. And Ms. Horlick does have a question or two to answer.

How to build a really customer centric company.

How BP became a cropper in Russia.

Rum goings on at ACPO. You'd rather like the police themselves to be a tad more truthful, wouldn't you?

Netsmith has been to trade shows that felt like this.

And finally, the next investment craze.

Also known as...


It's called fractional reserve banking. Banks assume that their depositors won't all want their money out at the same time, so don't keep enough cash in their vaults to pay them all. Most times that is just fine, but if savers think that the bank is in trouble, and they do all come in at once to close their accounts – Northern Rock style – it causes problems.

If you can be pretty confident that there won't be a run on the bank, then it makes sense for banks to lend out the money, where it can create businesses and jobs, rather than keep it locked impotently in their vaults. But a surprising number of people have put the case to me recently that this policy, though rational, is in fact another name for trading while insolvent.

Of course, if the banks can call in their loans as quickly as savers could demand their money back, there would be no problem (except to the borrowers - who would know from their lending agreement that the bank could foreclose on them suddenly, and who would therefore have to be prepared for it). Ideally, a bank should match the length of its loans to the notice period on its savings accounts, so that it can pay its 90-day depositors by calling in 90-day loans. But many banks give mortgages of twenty years and more, while their depositors don't want to be locked in for anything like that time. So the banks just have to pray that savers don't all want their cash at once.

Right now, the government is pulling the banks in different directions. They've lent too much, came a cropper, and now they are trying to build up their reserves. So they're keeping loans hard to get. But the government wants us all to borrow and spend more so that we stave off recession, and are pressuring the banks to lend a lot more. Well, that's what got us into this mess in the first place. Despite everything, I think that bankers are probably better at running banks than are politicians.

Free to work


The European Parliament has voted to end national opt-outs on the 48-hour week, setting up a clash with member states. MEPs voted by 421 to 273 that the opt-outs should end by 2011.

Ignoring the increasing insidious usurpation of accountable democratic power by these tin-pot dicto-bureaucrats, and not even touching upon the fact that these are chains that no other human should ever burden another with, this act shows how utterly out of touch the passengers on the Euro-gravy-train are from the recession that is now striking the people of Europe.

While most people across Europe feel lucky if they still have a job, the European Parliament has once again voted against the interests of the man or woman on the street. Of course union leaders such as Unite’s joint general secretary Tony Woodley are very happy with this turn of events. It would help bring down the more productive non-unionized workers to the level of the unionized workers. Unions are paid to represent the workers, not the rest of us.

France scrapped its 35-hour week for very good reasons. The IMF sums up as follows:

In sum, the 35-hour workweek appears to have had a mainly negative impact. It failed to create more jobs and generated a significant—and mostly negative—reaction both from companies and workers as they tried to neutralize the law's effect on hours of work and monthly wages.

John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director is spot on when he states that this will "replace opportunity with obstruction". The question for Cridland and all right-thinking people is: "If your partner has lost their job, should Brussels stop you from putting in extra overtime to support your family?" Exactly.

The worst films of 2008


Given the lack of interesting policy news this time of year, I'm going to use the holidays to indulge another interest on this blog. Specifically: movies. Having been to the cinema more than 50 times this year (I know, misspent youth...), I feel I can do the subject some justice. So in the run up to the New Year, I'm going to be counting down my top ten films of the year, starting on December 21 and concluding on New Year's Eve. But before we get to that, here's a round up of the three worst films I've sat through in 2008:

#3: RocknRolla is Guy Ritchie's third stinker in a row (after Swept Away and Revolver). It was so bad I almost walked out more than once. Incoherent and populated by deeply annoying characters, RocknRolla is a far cry from Ritchie's Brit-gangster classic, Snatch. Shame too, because you can tell he's really trying.

#2: Zack and Miri make a Porno
is every bit as bad as the title suggests. It's too long, too crude, and not remotely funny – a pretty serious flaw for a supposed comedy.

#1: Righteous Kill should have been great. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the same film? How can you go wrong? Well, a woefully bad script is a good start, and a complete lack of suspense (this is meant to be a thriller) coupled with a monumentally stupid plot twist seals the deal. Just watch Heat again instead.

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On the stupidity of the new law on "extreme pornography".

Car sales are down, yes, but might this simply be because consumers are poorer than they used to be?

Yet more on Madoff. If it was anything other than a Ponzi scheme then he would have, alone, been trading more options than there are options....

Good grief! Al Gore actually gets something right!

On why we actually get the Nanny State in the first place.

This GCSE question is an excellent piece of public choice economics. Unfortunately it's a science paper.

And finally, what is meant by "undivided attention".