Monday, 31 December 2012

2013 is Going to be the Best Year in Human History.

It is tempting, writing on New Year's eve when the West is mired in the fourth year of a persistent slow-down to be pessimistic about the future. But I am not a pessimistic about the future. The reasons are many, but here are a few.


The scourge of war is receding from human experience. Though they are still going on, they involve fewer combatants and kill fewer people. As people get richer, and pass through the dangerous middle-income phase, they have too much to lose by fighting.

Several states in the US have signaled the abandonment of the war on Drugs (well Marijuana at least). Sense is starting to become mainstream in this futile area of Government policy. Former UN secretary Generals, US presidents and heads of state from countries afflicted by the trade in illegal narcotics are starting to advocate a different approach.

The giant emerging economies are creating wealth at a rate unprecedented in human history, by the simple expedient of abandoning the socialist choke-hold on creative economic endeavour. Billions of people who just a few short decades ago were using ox-ploughs and suffering regular famine are now struggling with the problems of plenty: traffic congestion and obesity. Different, smaller problems for people who are vastly better off, enjoying much greater human potential.

There are still Billions of people who are yet to enjoy the fruits of this economic growth. We've only just started.

That greater wealth of the emerging giants is not a threat, but an opportunity to the west in general and the UK in particular. Already the UK legal and financial systems reach around the world. Dubai exported financial regulation wholesale from London. Close ties to Hong Kong and India and the luck of having the global language of business and science mean we're well placed to take part in this explosion of wealth.

The financial crisis isn't a crisis of capitalism, but part of the normal creative destruction cycle. The recession which should have happened in response to the dot com crash in 2000 was postponed. The longer recessions are postponed, the worse they are. If we can learn the lesson: No more 'Greenspan Puts' we can stop trying to legislate against the business cycle. 

The innovation driving economic growth is still happening, and it's still happening where it's been happening for the last couple of centuries: Europe, North America and the rich world. But the big emerging markets are starting to harness the creative talents of billions more people into this process. The creative capacity of man is improving as ever fewer people have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

The poorest parts of the world are the fastest growing. Even if inequality in the west is rising a bit, and that's debatable, global inequality is falling.

Stop bleating. Capitalism works, is working and will continue to work to ensure the unequal distribution of happiness. The developing world has worked out this is better than the equal distribution of misery of a controlled economy.

2013 is going to be the best year in Human History, even if it's a bit tougher for us. But we're the richest people who've ever lived, where even our poor have access to fresh fruit and vegetables (even if they don't use that access...), even in December. This was unimaginable to all but the nobility just a century ago. Who, really, cares about a few years of slow growth in the West, when so many billions are getting so much better off? And there's an outside chance that the worst is over for us too. 



Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Plebgate

So... Chanel 4's report on plebgate is devastating. None of the allegations made against Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell stood up. Not at the Gates of Downing Street, and not in any of the meetings he had subsequently with the police federation. It appears Andrew Mitchell's account is more believable than that cooked up by police subsequently. He has been near-completely exonerated.

Furthermore, it's apparent that senior ranks were in on the conspiracy.

The police lied, and conspired. And they thought they could get away with doing so, not against some kind of 'usual suspect' on the 'swamp estate' but against a Cabinet Minister. I can only surmise that the police federation saw an opportunity to discredit the Government as they implemented cuts to police numbers.

Think about that for a minute.

The police conspired to discredit a Government as they sought to implement policy.

This isn't just about the police. The public sector, as a whole grew fat and complacent under Labour, and when the money ran out they thought it appropriate to lie to maintain their fat headcounts, salaries and pensions. This Government isn't a "shambles" because it has the wrong policies, but because the public sector is actively resisting implementation of policies. This isn't just a copper lying. It's corruption bordering on treason.

My attitude to the police is ambiguous. I know several, some of whom I count as friends. They know my views. I have never trusted the police. But I do trust, by and large, individual police officers. The problem is that power corrupts, and the police have simply been given too much power. They are able to fabricate evidence in pocket-books in the expectation they'll be believed. The proliferation of (effectively) strict-liability offences like Section 5 of the Public Order Act, means the Police will be believed, and Joe-citizen won't be. The abandonment of the concept of an "arrestable offence" means you can be arrested merely for swearing at or near the police. The police log recorded "several members of the public nearby looked visibly shocked and alarmed". This is just a standard trope, trotted out to justify an arrest under Section 5. It's usually a lie, given to justify the police unnecessarily arresting someone who's being uncooperative. It's just too easy to arrest someone who irritates you for being lippy. The servant thus becomes the master, and the UK becomes a police state.

This 'section 5 lie' is used to arrest young men up and down the country every day. As the police deliberately wind them up, they can usually be persuaded to do something more serious. This incident is just the tip of the iceberg of casual lies the police use every day, for their convenience.

The vast majority of police, especially the older ones, seem genuinely willing help in a crisis. But there's an arrogance, an unbecoming swagger about some of the younger officers I've met. They expect not just obedience, but deference, and threaten arrest for mere disagreement. They feel confident that the allegation of "swearing" justifies arrest under section 5. And without proof, who do you believe. Perhaps everyone should now take my lead and record every single conversation you ever have with the police. The police are not your friend. Though they remain, for now, trustworthy in a crisis and brave in the service of the public, they need to be brought down to earth.

Mitchell is right. The police do need to relearn their place.



Monday, 17 December 2012

In a War on Drugs, Why are Humans Going to Gaol?

Read this excellent post. Ewan Hoyle is a Liberal Democrat from North of the Border, likely an endangered species. But at their best, the Liberal Democrats are prepared to say what they think, hoping in vain that being right somehow correlates with being electable, which in the main, it doesn't. In doing so, he asks one pertinent question:

The passage up the lower slopes of the political mountain is getting increasingly smoother, as can be seen in the substance of the Home Affairs Select Committee report that was published last Monday. But when the arguments reach the political pinnacle, they are met with the usual intransigence and a gentle nudge off the nearest cliff-edge
The reason is of course the cost-benefit analysis. The UK is a signatory to the UN conventions on Narcotics. Much of the Popular press is extremely hostile, as is the majority of the (voting) public. As soon as something other than the simplistic 'war on drugs' is suggested, Leah Bett's parents will make damn sure that which ever politician introducing the changes will be Personally associated with front pages like this.


Never mind that the Rachel Whitear was killed in an environment where the strictest penalties are enforced for supplying heroin, and that it seems likely that while there may be more users (and in a liberal drug environment, I doubt even that), there is a simplistic cause/effect narrative that will be played upon HARD by opponents of reform. Ewan argues passionately in his post that a new narrative is needed and that confronting the political class with the need to admit failure is the stumbling block.

I disagree.

To take an extreme example: The German people collectively admitted guilt after WWII, and now they are model Global citizens, dominating others only with the excellence of their engineering the hardness of their work-ethic, economic prudence, and environmental concern. The drug warriors need to be demobilised, just as completely as the Wermacht in 1945 because they are WRONG, and nearly as murderous, destabilising entire continents in a utterly futile attempt to stop people self-medicating.

So why don't I think there would be more Rachel Whitears in an environment of legal and readily available supply? Because she died because of an overdose due to an unusually pure dose of street smack. This isn't going to a problem with a legal supply chain producing medical-grade products of known and predictable strength. But won't there be more people tempted to experiment? Ask yourself this: If you could get cocaine or opium, why would you experiment with injecting yourself with Heroin, something that is associated with catastrophic social outcomes? Very few people want to become junkies. Ultimately the reason there are 330,000 problem heroin addicts in the UK is the highly efficient criminal supply-chain which sees mid-level users recruiting new addicts in order to fund their own use. There weren't this number before the misuse of drugs act. If you cut out the criminal supply-chain, remove the profits and the incentive to recruit new users, we would go back to Heroin being an addiction of a small number of people, most of whom in pre-prohibition days became addicted in Hospital. Opiate addiction used to be known as 'the soldiers disease' for this reason.

 Where Hoyle skillfully deploys libertarian arguments, I agree wholeheartedly with him.
The 21st century war on drugs should instead take inspiration from ancient history and adopt a distinctly Roman style of capture and enslavement. It should be defined by the goal that drugs can be be our slaves but never our masters
Yes. Why do people share a bottle of Chilean Merlot after work. Because the alcohol is a relaxant. A bit of alcohol in the blood feels nice. Funnily enough, that's why people smoke pot too.
And that goes for all drugs. When a hard-working citizen returns from work on a Friday night and demands a soothing head massage from their servant drug, who are we to dictate whether that drug be a glass of red wine or a cannabis joint. The state has a role in educating on how a drug best be handled, and if a drug looks like it has ambitions to become a citizen's master, the state and citizen need to be able to work together to put that drug back in its place
However where I part company with Holye is where he takes the prohibitionists "research" at face value. The link between cannabis and psychosis is a correlation for example. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc? Are people prone to psychosis drawn to cannabis? Certainly people get psychotic without regular cannabis use, and many smoke daily without significant harm. However everyone who smokes cannabis who gets psychosis, you KNOW his family will be sure to blame the drug, because it's easier to believe than the other options. Cannabis use starts in adolescence, as do many mental health issues. Without research which isn't funded by governments desperate to prove that the war on Drugs is justified we'll never know if correlation implies causation.

Likewise, the evidence that "skunk" is uniquely wicked and is not the "mild stuff"your parents smoked is extraordinarily weak. Well maybe, but that's as likely due to freshness of domestic supply rather than the imported, dried and...old stuff our parents smoked. The figure of 33 times stronger, oft cited, doesn't bear scrutiny. The fact is, without research  we won't know. But accepting the prohibitionsts lies and exaggerations without question makes it unlikely we'll ever get answers, until we change the environment in which research is conducted.

The inertia that led to Nick Clegg being slapped down for calling for a Royal Commission on drugs, is the total buy-in of a medical-regulatory complex and total capture of of the debate by law-enforcement; people who simply don't see the need to examine the evidence. Drugs are a social evil in their view, and must be fought. All "experts" have until recently been drawn from this community. Even Professor David Nutt, who's said some sensible things on drugs, often seems more intent on banning Alcohol. Where I really disagree with Hoyle is the trust of the state, and the mistrust of private enterprise.
the problems that might arise if there were companies who would profit from the artificial promotion of cannabis, or particular strains. It might therefore be wise for commercial interests to be excluded from the market altogether. The best way to prevent advertising and marketing encouraging consumers to make decisions against their interests and those of society is to as far as possible ensure that nobody's wealth would be dependent upon continued use of the drug or of particular forms of the drug. It is quite possible a state monopoly is the only model that can demonstrate to the voters that legalisation is a process we are embarking upon with appropriate care, with the highest regard for the health and happiness of the nation.
I simply don't trust the state to set the price appropriately, supply efficiently, and conveniently enough to deny a market to the criminal enterprises which will seek to maintain their market. It is unlikely a state supply of MDMA would be available where it's wanted: civil servants don't attend nightclubs on a Saturday night. Dealers do. By all means tightly regulate the market in terms of quality, and supply to minors. But let the market do its work. Trust people to make decisions based on what they want. What they want, often isn't the alcohol which is the cause of much blood and vomit on a Friday night. They also don't want to become junkies. So I agree the state has a role in education, research into effects and quality control, and the provision of addiction services, but leave the supply to people who might actually make it more convenient than the illegal supply-chain.

Until there's a mature debate around why people take drugs from Cannabis to Cocaine - because they're fun - and can play a part in a productive life, people will continue to die unnecessarily from dirty drugs of unknown quality and strength. Skunk treated with fungicides without regulation may even be the cause of some of the psychosis. Who knows?
Drug policy reform is not about liberating drugs. It's about liberating people from ignorance, persecution and the drugs that have power over them. Can we please finally declare a war on drugs so that we can capture and enslave them and put them to work easing our pains and helping us smile. Without a proper war on drugs with sensible, realistic goals, too many people will be left to fight and lose their own personal battles without the knowledge, help - and in some cases drugs - that they need to triumph.
Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, and countries like Portugal with successful decriminalisation experiments, drug legalisation is now firmly on the agenda. It will be a hard push. But first we must persuade people who read the Daily Mail that it's the Drug war that's killing kids, not drugs. And we won't do that by accepting lies told by people who're totally invested in the status-quo and who believe they're doing God's work. Ultimately, decriminalisation is an utterly unsatisfactory half-way house, because it will leave the supply-chain in criminal hands, and THAT'S WHERE THE PROBLEM IS. Decriminalisation should be resisted, lest it discredit what might actually work. And let's not beat about the bush: The war on drugs has failed, and the collateral damage isn't worth the outcome. Let's put the blame for the tens of thousands of deaths worldwide where they belong.



Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Those who loved Sir Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy will love this movie. Those who didn't, won't. It's  as simple as that.


It became a family tradition that I would take my family to see the Lord of the Rings movies at Christmas as they came out. My Brother and Mother, who'd both read the books as children, and re-read them since, loved the movies. My father, who hadn't, didn't. He even opined that Gandalf was derivative of Dumbledor, whereas of course, the opposite is true. He thought the movies over-long, muddled and unsatisfying. In the final movie, I could hear him mutter "and... cut" several times, as the movie reached a natural ending to the story, whereas those who'd read the book knew there were several story-lines still to come.

There are those critics who will think the movie "plodding" and over-long. That's a complaint with Tolkein's utter disregard for narrative arc. Indeed, it's this lack of tidy endings, and profusion of sub-plot lines that make the mythology so compelling. It's more like reality than many gritty cop-dramas or action movies today. There may even be purists who may take issue with the additions to the book's tale, but as these are telling back-stories and tying the Hobbit deeper into the Lord of the Rings narrative, it didn't bother me. I'm not sure why they feel the need to monkey around with Tolkein's prose though: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty-dirty hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell... This was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort." Became some nonsense about "all the comforts of home". WHY? 

As it happens, Gandalf turns up roughly where he does in the book. His absences are explained more fully than they are in the book. The "necromancer" in Mirkwood is clearly explained for what he is: The witch-king of Angbar, re-animated by Sauron's spririt, which Gandalf suspects long before the other guardians of Middle-Earth. We meet Radagast the Brown and Saruman. The Dwarves are all given characters (and regional British accents). Thorin Oakenshield is a properly hard bastard. Bilbo is well imagined. Many of the other characters are familiar from the Lord of the Rings. There are more comic moments than in the previous movie, but this too is in keeping with the book. 

The company of Dwarves isn't the hand-picked band of mighty warriors that the Fellowship of the Ring was, but ordinary (if short) blokes united by faith and loyalty. This is a thread which runs through all Tolkein's work: the idea that free people thrust into extraordinary situations will do remarkable things. Tolkein never claimed to have been influenced by his experiences on the Western Front in 1916, but it's clear he was. He asserted there to be no analogy to the second world war in his books.

Gandalf's greatest insight is that Hobbits - a sort of idealised rustic Englishman were a better bulwark against evil than the great princes and warriors of greater strength and  fame, who're too easily corrupted by power.  This is perhaps the reason the mythological cycle of which the Hobbit forms a part is so appealing to the Anglo-Saxon world: it speaks to a dimly remembered folk-memory of doughty farmers and nascent local democracy dating from the dark-ages. The idea that we're free, and they're not.

There are those who'll complain about the CGI or the 48 frame-per-second technology.Some think the pace plodding. I disagree. I could have easily sat through the entire story told at this pace, and I'm slightly miffed I have to wait a whole year for the next installment. I will struggle to not buy the DVD so I can watch it before I go and see the next installment: Through Mirkwood, or whatever it is going to be called, and wait for the Director's cut trilogy boxed set in 2015 or so.

If you're an unashamed owner of the extended, director's cut boxed set of the Lord of the Rings, then go and see The Hobbit: An unexpected Journey. If you thought the Lord of the Rings to be an overblown fairy-tale, don't bother. Ultimately, you know the world, you know the story that's going to be told. Sir Peter Jackson has created another masterpiece.



Friday, 14 December 2012

Sleeping in The Car.

The RAC with Fair Fuel Tax have released a report this morning about the effect of high fuel taxes in the UK. Basically, taxes hurt, because they take money which could be used for other things. People have to make choices over how to spend their time and money. This is presented as a shattering observation. Bizarrely, this was most fully reported in the Canberra times.

Motorists in the UK are so desperate to avoid paying for fuel, they have resorted to sleeping in their cars, a report has found. The study, conducted by automotive services company RAC in conjunction with fuel price lobby group FairFuelUK, found that one in 16 (or 6 per cent) regular commuters in the UK had resorted to spending a night in their car to save money on fuel costs.
6 per cent you say? Well, if that's slept in their car ever, you can include me... As it is, I've no sympathy for people with 60-mile commutes. If you have to drive that far to work every day, move, or get another job, you stupid, masochistic dick-head. There is nothing short of bereavement or divorce quite as stress-inducing and misery-making as a long-commute. This has long been known.
Further to that, one in 32 motorists (3 per cent) had admitted to camping close to work to avoid the drive home.
That's the same number of people who cycle to work, and we get absolutely no help from the Government, so... fuck 'em.
The report also found that 75 per cent of the 9000 motorists surveyed had used their car less in the past year because of rising fuel costs. 
Yes, that's the point of high fuel taxes, demand slopes downward. This isn't an earth-shattering observation. So people drive less on our congested roads. Without high fuel taxes, no-one would get anywhere. This is a good thing.
The survey also found that in the UK there are 2.9 million “ghost cars” that are used less than once a week.
They say that like it's a bad thing. If you want to have a multi-thousand pound piece of depreciating metal you use once a week, that's up to you. How many of these are hobbyists cars, classics or sports cars for use at the weekend? How many of those are owned by people who walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work, yet want to see their old mum at the weekend? This stat tells us nothing.
Quentin Willson, national spokesman for FairFuelUK, said the findings showed that the UK government needed to tackle the cost of fuel by lowering fuel duty. “As a society we've never seen this sort of financial pressure put on personal mobility,” Willson said. 
It shows no such thing. Why should "society" subsidise a habit as sub-optimal as daily car use? The school run clogs roads, yet because of cars, it's too dangerous to get kids to school any other way. Kids remain molly-coddled for longer being driven to work by anxious parents. Parents remain taxi-services until the 17th birthday, and kids don't have the independence that Dutch children do of getting to the school or friends themselves.

Cars make us fat, miserable. Cars lead to soulless communities without local amenities. Cars kill the local pub. There is almost no social problem to which widespread sole-use car infrastructure has not contributed.  Motorists should pay their way.
The fuel duty raised by the government amounted to £26.8 billion ($41b) in the past financial year, down on the £27.2 raised in 2010/11. The drop, said RAC technical director David Bizley, showed just how much less people were willing to spend on fuel. 
Good. Motorists ARE paying their way. And in doing so, people are finding other ways to get about or are taking fewer journeys. This is a good thing. People deciding to walk to the local shop rather than drive to Tesco's makes the local environment better.
"People are also telling us that they are facing tough choices about their careers with some now weighing up whether it is actually affordable to commute to work,” Bizley said. 
That's economics: the study of the use of scarce resources, like road-space at 8-30 am. I've always moved to be close to work, because commuting long distances is for fucking idiots.
“And we had a significant number of pensioners telling us that with a fixed income there was nothing they can do but simply cut out social and non-essential trips altogether and even stop doing voluntary work.”
Of course, without the universal, sole-use car-infrastructure, we'd know our neighbors  local amenities would be within walking distance, and the loss of the ability to drive (which happens to all pensioners as they age) wouldn't be the isolating disaster it is now. All this last paragraph shows is how dependent we are as a society on the car. This is something high fuel taxes are meant to address.

If Quentin Wilson gets his way, journey times will increase, daily gridlock will be inevitable, and he'll be banging on about the need to build more roads. More roads, more demand and greater congestion at the choke-points (mainly near destinations) lead to greater congestion.

No. We've passed 'peak car'. Society is moving on from the 70-year experiment of organising itself around a single means of transport. Young people are driving less. Company cars are being issued less. Motoring enthusiasts will wail and scream. A few chavs will continue to define themselves by the car they can afford. The rest of us will see the private motor car for what it is: a useful, but increasingly anachronistic tool for getting about, one of many, each one appropriate for different journeys.

This sort of report is the last great wail of a still-healthy industry which knows it's nearly finished. The great car economy is coming to an end. My guess is the collapse is nigh, and will be occasioned by driverless cars. Once cars drive themselves, I suspect the incentive to own them will disappear. Fleets of autonomous taxis will circulate, to be summoned by mobile phone in a couple of minutes. You could specify the nearest, or if you needed a large vehicle to cope with objects and pay appropriately. As cars are currently in use less than 10% of the time, this would represent a far more efficient use of resources. Algorithms could ensure maximum occupancy, reducing bills for those willing to share. Vehicles, freed from the needs of human reaction time, could communicate allowing bumper-to-bumper travel on motorways, increasing capacity and reducing fuel use. Junctions will be safer, as the risk of motorists not seeing each other during saccades is eliminated. Cars, communicating with each other would be able to move into smaller gaps in the traffic, increasing capacity. Stop-start would be eliminated.

Country pubs will face a surge in business as driverless cars (with wipe-clean seats, probably) will pour you home, full of beer with no need to organize a dedicated driver.

It's not just people: Reliable point to point courier services could be set up, facilitating a further refinement of just-in-time production. Deliveries, freed from the needs of people's working capacity and the tachymetre could be arranged around the clock, at your convenience. And all this cheaper than the depreciation and fuel we waste now. This extra efficiency of use in transport infrastructure is where the next wave of economic growth is going to come from.

Soon we'll be able to sleep in our cars while they're moving. And you thought I was going to rant about bicycles, didn't you?



Thursday, 13 December 2012

Scotland and the EU.

Baroso is on record as saying "an independent Scotland would have to negotiate entry into the European Union". Finland's negotiations took three years. The SNP counter with "but of course they would let us in, why wouldn't they?" and that negotiations would take just 18 months. The answer to that is simple. Several countries in the Union have regions with significant secessionist movements: Spain (Catalonia, the Basque country), France (the Basque country), Italy (South Tyroll). Spain have already indicated they would have serious issues with Scotland being let in without at a fight, lest it encourage the Catalans who're voting soon in a non-binding referendum.

It shouldn't matter, but it does. The Scots are therefore probably about to have a referendum on continued EU membership, and they're the most Euro-enthusiast nation of the UK. There's no reason why a small country can't prosper outside the EU, like Norway one of the Richest countries in the world, so why is the SNP's line so patently dishonest?

Can someone with better knowledge of Scots politics tell me why the normally competent Alec Salmond has let himself be caught in such an obvious bear-trap?



The War on Drugs is Unwinnable

Cocaine grows wild in South America, and has been cultivated for the stimulating properties of its (highly nutritious, by leaf standards) leaves for centuries.

A comparison of coca with other major food sources has shown that it is an excellent source of vitamins B1, B2, C and E, and in particular of mineral elements such as calcium, potassium and phosphorus.
It's also excellent for warding off altitude sickness, and so coca cultivation is allowed in Bolivia, where Yields of 1.3-5 tonnes of Sun-dried leaves per hectare are common and prices on the illicit market (Peru, 2003) are around $2.50 per kg.

So, coca can be bought for a few dollars a bushel, and one kilo of sun-dried leaf yields between 2.5g and 4.5g of pure cocaine hydrochloride. The costs of the sodium carbonate (or cement powder) sulphuric acid, petrol and caustic soda used in the production process are negligible amounting to a few dollars. It is unlikely to be $200 to buy and process 50kg of leaves, if you're doing it in bulk.

50kg of coca leaf will yield 125g of pure cocaine hydrochloride. On the street in Europe, where street purity would be around 10-30% (assuming 25% to keep the maths simple) and the drug retails for £40-50 (assume $72) a gram, your 50kg of leaf and chemicals bought for $200 generating $36,000 (£22,500) of retail sales. The input costs are negligible, and the difference is profit shared entirely by an illegal supply-chain. Narco-lords, mules, warehousers and distributors and street dealers. The majority of the risk is run by the street dealers, mules (or more accurately, those who direct and orgainse them) and narco-lords so this is where I expect the majority of profits to flow.

With such an economic pull, is it any wonder people do things like this?
Spanish authorities have arrested a Panamanian woman who arrived at Barcelona airport with 1.38kg of cocaine concealed in her breast implants.  
That's 1,380g of cocaine worth (on the calculations above) nearly $100,000. Even if the mule captures just 20% of this, and this is probably an underestimate: getting the drug from Bolivia to a European city is the difficult bit; it is simply impossible to prevent a resource from rolling down so steep an economic slope.

The only sane response: just legalise it, and take that mark-up as better wages for Andean farmers and generate a lot of tax. More money for Government coffers, while generating many fewer bodies as it would be companies competing over taxable profits, not criminal gangs fighting for untaxed ones. Finally Governments such as the US would not need to spend the $7bn on fighting the drug war. To put this in perspective, the US spends just the gross profits from 2,800 hectares of Coca, or about 10% of the Bolivian crop alone.

We cannot stop the flow of cocaine from South America any more than Canute could order the tide to retreat. The laws of economics are stronger than the UN Convention on the illegal trade in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, 1988.



Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Why I can't Vote for UKIP

While I sort of agree with them about Europe, in common with most of the electorate, I just don't think it's that big a deal, and we're probably going to get what we want - a 2 speed Europe - anyway. I simply don't know to what practical problem "pull out of the EU" is a solution. There is a democratic deficit at the heart of the EU of course, and I would like a bit more parliamentary sovereignty  But UKIP seem to imagine EU membership is without benefits and leaving is without cost. Most of what makes the UK a shitty place to live is home-grown. Our politicians have (alas) not been as effective at protecting our basic liberties as the European courts.

Points 1 & 2 in "what we stand for" deal almost entirely with Europe as if it's a mill-stone round our necks, preventing democracy and prosperity. If they get their way, and I hope one day they do, there are going to be a lot of disappointed UKIPpers who are going to have to find another boogeyman to blame for their inadequacies.

They claim to want to cut the deficit but make spending commitments in areas of defence, law and order, and offer tax-cuts all round, paid for, it seems by a local sales-tax to replace VAT (this is a EU-mandated tax, you see...) and the benefits of leaving the EU. This is, obviously laughable.

I cannot live with their immigration policy which is pure demagoguery allied to 'lump of labour' fallacy idiocy.

Their law and order policy looks like an expensive and unjust march towards a police state and mass incarceration along red-state US lines. I cannot support this.

They plan to re-introduce Grammar schools. This has long been on the Tory activist wish-list. I am not sure separating the sheep from the goats at 11 is just, or that it will appeal to the majority who know, in their heart of hearts that little Johnny will be a goat. The only reason the Tory 'free schools' policy isn't supported is that it can't be sold to golf-club bores as a return to a better yesterday.

"Our way of life" is a bit more than smoking in pubs and fox-hunting. And for a 'libertarian' party, there seem to be a fair few dog-whistles about 'multiculturalism' and 'immigration'. Yes, yes, yes. I know it is possible to debate the meaning of the word, and abhor the "seperate but equal" apartheid for which it stands. But that's not how the white working class electorate see it: in the North UKIP are competing with the BNP for ex-Labour voters. The party may not be racist, but they are certainly gunning for racists' votes.

UKIP have a thin veneer of libertarianism, masking an unpleasant demagoguery. In common with most small parties, they can afford to have uncosted and simple policies, as they will never be called upon to implement them. At heart they're mere Poujadistes, anti-intellectual protest-votes for people hankering for an imagined past. People who feel the Tory party, competing in the centre-ground for votes, has abandoned them, or never represented them, in all their resentful, chippy glory. I'm just disappointed so many clearly intelligent correspondents seem taken in. Farage aside - he at least has wit and energy - the party is rather unpleasant.

My prediction: the Party's current polling is an ephemera which will last until the next round of Euro Elections. Nadine Dorries will defect to UKIP, and sit as their MP until the next election. You're welcome to her. They may even come first in the popular-vote at the Euro elections but this seems unlikely  and this is a measure of the public's contempt for the institution. They will then come fourth, behind the Liberal Democrats in the general election, and win no seats.



Thursday, 6 December 2012

Chancellors and Recessions

The greatest lie in politics is that economic growth is in the Chancellor's gift.

Because the economy is usually growing, it pays for chancellors to claim credit for it, but this is just Game Theory. As soon as it starts shrinking, the opposition start shouting about how the "chancellor's failed". They're both lying to you (and probably themselves too). Chancellors do influence the economy, but more subtly than the simple -/+ve GDP growth number.

I did not credit Brown for the boom, which was global, I did not blame him for the recession, which was global. I do blame Brown for the deficit, or at least that part of it which isn't automatic stabilisers and bank-bail-outs, but that is NOT the same thing as the recession. I do not blame Brown for the boom and bust because in the main, I don't think the business cycle is particularly amenable to manipulation by chancellors. And insofar as they are able to influence GDP growth, I don't think this is the Chancellor's main role.

So what are chancellors for? Even Gordon Brown knew this: to balance the budget (or nearly so) over the business cycle. This was his "Golden Rule" (remember that?). In this, he failed, spectacularly. This is not about the bank bail outs - that bit of the deficit from 2008/9 is fine. While I disagree with Brown's policy to bail the banks out, but I don't regard the policy as idiotic: it's certainly one of a number of possible solutions to a genuine problem. My problem is with the growth in state spending from 35% of the economy to 50% in 13 years, the over-complex tax-code (which is giving so much wiggle-room to "avoiders" right now) and the borrowing during the boom to fund a worthless army of state apparatchiks, which is causing so much pain now. In running a structural deficit to fund a massive expansion of state employment, Brown weakened the economy, removed the room for manoeuvre when the inevitable bust came, and arguably made the inevitable recession deeper when it did, and the resultant recovery slower.

So Chancellors do have an effect on the economy, but it's far more subtle than "is the economy growing?".

The longer the boom, the more painful the bust, and the UK enjoyed 16 years of economic growth (which started under the Tories...). Some of Brown's policies may have prolonged the boom - the UK version of the Greenspan Put certainly contributed to financial recklessness, but it was an approach shared by the USA and elsewhere. I doubt a Tory chancellor would have done much different. Ever cheaper money certainly contributed to the housing price bubble which has arguably not yet deflated. Even with all that cheap money, the biggest boom was in the state sector, where almost all the net new jobs of 13 years of Labour rule were created.

It is this army of state apparatchiks which kept the boom going, giving the impression of growth, where the private-sector had stagnated long before 2008.. Cheap money and diversity outreach-coordinators can only manipulate the GDP numbers for so long. And it it this Army of state apparatchiks being culled en-masse which forms the biggest component of "austerity". Yes it hurts for the PCS and UNITE to lose so many members, but those UNITE members are handing in their membership cards and joining the growing Private sector. Even during a slump, which Labour will tell you is the worst since the war, as soon as the Public sector stopped hiring, the private sector started. It's almost as if there was something in this "crowding out" theory. True many of these new capitalist running-dogs are "under-employed" self-employed or part-time workers, but these are the seed-corn of the next generation of small businesses.

So. Gordon Brown can arguably have made the current recession worse with his policies. And George Osborne's austerity might at once be slowing growth in the short term, and also be necessary. Just because sacking civil servants depresses GDP, it does not follow that not sacking them is the right thing to do. GDP growth does NOT generate lower deficits when that GDP growth is simply deficit financed spending on worthless, return-free state prod-noses.

In the parts of the economy where the state is dominant, the recession is brutal. Jobs are non-existent. In London and the South-East where the state is relatively small, people are saying "what recession?". Just as Labour's boom was an illusion created by a chancellor gaming (deliberately or accidentally) the GDP number by splurging money at the public sector, this "double dip" is the result of a chancellor (in my view) doing the right thing in attempting to balance the books and reign in a state-sector which had been growing over-mighty. When winds of austerity stop blowing through the public sector, we will be left with an economy carrying a much, much smaller burden of state jobsworths, with a lot of under-employed people in the private sector. This sounds like a recipe for growth to me.

The other lie politicians tell is the deliberate confusion (by both sides, when it suits), of debt (the size of the mortgage, if you like) and the deficit (the amount extra borrowed each year to cover income shortfalls). The deficit is falling, yes, slower than expected or desired, but it is falling from nearly 12% in 2010, to 6% now. This doesn't look to me like "failure" on reigning in the debt. However thanks to Ed Balls' former master, we still have a deficit therefore the debt is rising. Pointing out that the UK is borrowing more now than it did 5 years ago is just dishonest. It is obscene chutzpah from Balls to blame Osborne for failing to deal with what was, and remains the biggest deficit in the western world in just two years,when the biggest part of the extra borrowing is ... wait for it... debt interest. The solution to this growing part of Government expenditure is not Ed Balls' solution of "investment" (by which he means 'spending'). It involves driving interest rates down, and hoping inflation does the work for you.

The point is the boom pre-2008 wasn't as good, and the bust post 2010 isn't as bad, as the politicians or the GDP numbers would have you believe. GDP numbers are a lousy way to judge a chancellor's performance.



Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Cyclists' Dark Clothing and No Lights.

In my last post, I thought I had dealt with all the boring Tropes about cycling. But no. Apparently not content with looking for red-lights to run and achieving the miraculous feat of being simultaneously "in the middle of the road" and "on the pavement" we also all delight in wearing dark clothing and never have lights.

On this I have some sympathy with the motorist. I drive, and I am hyper aware of cyclists. However when I see one in dark clothing, at dusk (it's worse at dusk and dawn than in the dead of night) without lights, I think it's barely sporting to not give the motorist a chance to see you. Most cyclists, however want to survive their commute to work, and so deck themselves in blinking lights, high viz & reflective rucksack covers, Tabards, Sam-Brownes, Rucksack and Helmet covers, stickers, projecting lasers and so forth.

There is a whole sub-industry of bicycle accessories which are designed to make sure you're seen. A set of effective lights can cost less than a tenner. You need to spend more if you want to see where you're going without street lights, but a tenner will get you seen by an approaching motorist.

For my part, my bag is reflective and apparently lights up like a Christmas tree in the headlights. I always have a seatpost blinker, one further on my bag, and one attached to my helmet. I pump out 300 lumens front.  I never go out without my lights. Of course, it is one of the few things the police can stop a cyclist for. And in my experience, they do, quite reasonably stop cyclists without lights.

Let's also deal with cyclists being "in the way". I was told to "get out the way" this morning. See the video below.



This also deals with the "red light jump", which is a simple non-issue. I agree, blowing red lights at speed is dangerous. Rolling through them, after the pedestrians have gone just gets you out of the way of the traffic behind, to everyone's benefit. Traffic lights are more about not allowing cars to block junctions, than they are about safety, and bicycles don't block junctions.



Monday, 3 December 2012

"I was almost knocked down!" and Other Journalistic Tropes About Cycling

There are a number of Journalistic tropes trotted out when cyclists are mentioned in the press. There's the idiotic "They should pay road tax", when, of course, road-tax was abolished in 1937, and cyclists are more likely to own a car than the general population. Furthermore many cars are 0%-rated for VED, smart-cars, or many old vehicles for example. These don't pay "road-tax" either. Are these less entitled to the road than a Range-Rover.

There is the stupid idea that cyclists on the road should be compulsorily insured. Of course in an accident, the cost of wiping blood off a car is negligible.  And in any case, cyclists are to blame for serious accidents in around only 7% of cases (where someone, almost exclusively the cyclist himself) is killed or seriously injured. The chances of a cyclist killing or seriously injuring a motorist, or damaging their vehicle, are so low that it really isn't worth the bother. Dragging a motorist out of its vehicle and beating it to death with your bare hands is covered by existing statute. Alas. Most regular cyclists are insured, for their own protection. The public liability cover is given away nearly free, as it is so rarely needed.

Licensing cyclists so they can be caught breaking the law is another silly idea given a regular airing by fuckwits in the press. This has never worked, anywhere, ever. Everywhere where it has been tried, it has been abandoned as a costly and intrusive failure. Red-light jumping by cyclists get wankers hot under the collar because they think as the mondeo-man is held up, everyone else should be too. If you find yourself whinging about red-light jumping cyclists, please repeat this phrase: "bicycles are not cars and cannot block junctions". Red lights are to keep the traffic moving through junctions, and are not about safety.

Cyclists should be made to wear helmets? All that does is reduce the number of cyclists. Of course some would hail that as a victory, but given one of the tightest correlations between a city's "livability" and quality of life is its bicycle modal share, this is idiotic. No-one wears a helmet for utility cycling in the Netherlands, because no-one needs to. Helmets and other individual protective equipment such as High-viz clothing is a sticking-plaster on the gunshot wound of unbelievably hostile roads.

Removing free on-street parking is always criticised by local businesses, especially if a cycle lane is put in its place, because people routinely over-estimate the importance of driving on custom, often by orders of magnitiude. Even now, cycling and walking play a much greater part in the short shopping trips to town than most people realise. Pedestrianising streets and protected bike lanes increase footfall, in New York's case by up to 25%. Walkers and cyclists take up less space, stay longer, visit more shops more often.

Finally, there's the "I was almost knocked over". I have never met anyone who was actually knocked over by a cyclist, and in two decades of regular, urban cycling, I have never hit a pedestrian, nor seen one get hit by a cyclist. My guess is that "I was almost knocked over" actually means, "something fast-moving in my peripheral vision startled me, and I cannot tell the difference between an involuntary endocrine reaction and danger" As the number of cyclists increase, maybe pedestrians will start to look out for us, as they do currently, and without complaint, for the cars which do, far far more regularly ACTUALLY hit pedestrians. And of course the consequences of hitting a pedestrian on a bicycle are usually vastly less severe than doing so in a car. However special ire is reserved for cyclists.

If journalists are to be believed, all cyclists run red lights, get simultaneously in the way of motor vehicles, and ride on the pavement. They are all dangerous scofflaws while the saintly motorists obey the rules of the road. If a motorist makes a risky pass on a blind corner, this is justifiable in the face of provocation from "lycra louts" who deliberately get in the way. Did we mention that all motorists obey the rules of the road, well of course we meant apart from those silly rules about maximum speed and parking of course, which are part of the "war on the motorist". And if a cyclist ends up crushed by a motor vehicle driven by a near-blind illiterate who hasn't slept for 20 hours, then he's only got himself to blame for not wearing high-viz and a helmet and riding "in the way" not in the gutter where he belongs.



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