Merryn's Blog

Why our politicians are like crisp pickers – in a bad way

If you hire people, they need stuff to do. If they don't have useful things to do, they'll do either pointless things or stupid things. Maybe both. That's why we need fewer politicians.

No one likes to find caramelised or discoloured crisps in their bags, so manufacturers make a huge effort to make sure that they don't. How? They use pickers.

After the crisps have been fried they pass along a conveyor along which workers stand picking out the ones that don't make the grade. The question is simply how many pickers you need to make sure all the substandard crisps are removed. I am not entirely sure how I got into this conversation with Sir Michael Darrington (ex CEO of Greggs) this morning, but I did.

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He tells me that at one time Greggs used to make crisps for two different food brands: one low-end and one high-end. The crisps were fried in the same fryer. However, their paths then diverged. The low-end conveyor belt had two pickers. The high-end just to make absolutely certain there would be no caramelised crisp issues had six.

You'd expect the six to pick out fewer crisps each than the two, but that isn't how it worked. All their hands moved all the time: the eyes of the six didn't just pick out black brown or green crisps, they went for the least perfect crisp in their vision area at any one time and the hands removed those too.

The point is simple: put more people on to a job and they do more, whether it needs doing or not. It is something, Darrington and I agreed, that fund managers and politicians might like to think about or rather those of us that employ them ought to think about.

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Fund managers famously trade far too much in the name of 'doing something', they buy and sell stocks pointlessly, usually making their performance worse and their costs more outrageous along the way.

And politicians and ministers? The more of them you have, the more interference and the more regulations you get. No politician can ever be seen to be doing nothing. Everyone has to do something, even if it isn't of any use. That doesn't make any sense.

Just as your mother always used to tell you that if you couldn't think of something nice to say, you should say nothing at all, it is surely right that politicians, if they can't think of something to do that is certain to make a situation better, should do nothing at all.

In this context, consider the idiotic new housing policy. I wrote about this yesterday and spoke on it on Newsnight last night. But even I haven't yet listed all the things wrong with it.

Capital Economics make some more excellent points, including the fact that the supply of mortgage finance available in the market isn't likely to rise as a result of the policy. Wholesale funding is getting more expensive and banks are supposed to be boosting their reserves so it is entirely possible that the policy will merely result in the redistribution of funds from non-first time buyers to first time buyers. Which isn't much help really.

The whole thing represents a desperate need to be seen to be doing something about the housing problem in the UK. But that's all it represents: it won't actually do anything useful about it.

We just don't need this kind of meddling mini-intervention. They don't work for anyone except for the crisp pickers of politicians we have landed ourselves with and in this case the housebuilders.

It is time we let our politicians know that we'd prefer them to spend their days thinking, not doing. And if they can't do that, we'd like them to cut their numbers and retire to use their ill-gotten parliamentary pensions to boost consumption in the countryside somewhere.

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