Friday, 7 April 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.


Wednesday saw my 40th Birthday, and to celebrate I went to see Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic with a Chum. While Daniel Radcliffe & Joshua Maguire lead, the show is stolen by a magisterial performance by David Haig as The Player, a sort of luvvie-pimp-cum-impresario who holds the whole play, in its absurdity, together.


The play is Hamlet, seen from the point of view of two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of Hamlet's. The hapless pair spend the play wondering what they're doing and why, having been recalled to Elsinore by Claudius to find out why Hamlet's being such a dick, moping about and talking gibberish to himself ("to be, or not to be..." etc). They are eventually betrayed by their friend, who suspects them of working for his uncle which they are, sort of.

The play is therefore a meditation on the futility of existence, and the limitations of people's personal agency. Most people get on with their lives, as bit parts in a greater drama, not really sure as to the direction of events, or even of the past. After all, what have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got to go on, but what can be gleaned from a few words of Shakespeare's, as metaphor for everyone's flawed and self-serving memory. Any interrogator or detective will tell you about the reliability of eye-witnesses and the difficulty of establishing the truth.

From everyone's point of view then, even when we're at the centre of events, most of the action is happening offstage. There will have been some point at which you could have said "no", but you missed it. Then you die.

If you can get tickets, do so.



Thursday, 6 April 2017

Minimum Wages, Immigration, Culture and Education.

Net migration to the UK has run at hundreds of thousands a year for decades, of which about a quarter since 2004 has been "A8 countries", Poland, the Baltic states, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary, another quarter from 'Core EU' and the rest from non-EU countries, mainly India, Pakistan and West Africa. 13% of the population of the UK was born overseas, of whom over 2/3rds are non-EU migrants. This is an unprecedented migration to the rich world from the poor, and It's not clear from this EU migration is the underlying problem. The Poles will integrate fast, and leave imprints on the culture like a higher incidence of catholicism, bigos (a stew of meat and Sauerkraut) and some hard-to-spell surnames. They're often better educated than the natives, and work harder.

In general the view I've taken over the years is that minimum wages are a bad thing, arguing that they are mainly paid for by the people who otherwise wouldn't get a job at all. Only a job can lead to a better job, and if people are unemployed for a long time, they often become unemployable. So by this logic, keeping unemployment down should in the long-run be better for the poorest.

But, there is a trade off. When I grew up, late '80s and '90s, I cannot recall seeing cars washed by hand. When my father wasn't exploiting child labour by getting me and my brother to do a rubbish, half-arsed job for which we expected to be paid handsomely, we went to see the "blue Dougals" at the petrol station. The UK as a wealthy country, had substituted Capital for Labour, and cars were washed by big machines at every petrol station. But a team of a dozen hard-working and cheerful eastern Europeans can set up a car-wash, do inside and out for very little capital outlay - a jet washer, and some sponges, so when the EU accession countries citizens moved to seek work, this is what many did. The car wash machines were gradually removed and replaced by people. This is the opposite of progress.

Let's take a step back and look at the big picture.

Europe's wealth, it's vitality, its progress didn't spring from European individual or cultural superiority. It started when half the population was wiped out by Yersinia pestis in the 14th Century. There was a certain amount of luck - the same event increased the power of the landowner in Rice states and in pre-feudal societies farther East, but in Northwestern Europe, this created a shortage of Labour, and the peasants rose up a generation afterwards to demand higher wages from their lords. When this happened in Italy, the energy was put into sculpture of the nude male form, and was called "the Renaissance". When wages rise, it makes sense to build machines rather than employ labour, which has a virtuous feedback loop: skilled people running the machines drive up production, and become richer, which creates an incentive for further innovation. More widespread desire for, and access to education is grease in the wheels of this, the motor of progress that led to the industrial revolution.

The opening up of America, a nation with a perpetual and long-lasting shortage of labour not only added another motor to that European culture of innovation which grew up after the Black Death, but also absorbed the excess labour of Europe. While there is a labour shortage, immigration can be managed, though immigrants in large numbers have nowhere, ever been welcomed by the people they move to. Even when the people are kith and kin, the 'Scots Irish' (in reality, families originally from Northern England and the Scottish Borders) were moved on by the Germans and English who'd already settled the East coast. They ended up in Appalachia.

It's clear, then in the short run and in aggregate, wages aren't "driven down" by migration in a market economy. Part of that, in modern times may be due to the minimum wage, which protects some of the people most vulnerable to substitution, but also the 'lump of Labour fallacy'. Immigrants, especially young workers with families bring demand as well as supply and these things more-or-less balance. They aren't "taking our jobs" but they are changing the nature of jobs available. And the vast supply of excess labour from the subcontinent, africa and the poorer bits of Europe is not exactly an incentive to invest in productivity-enhancing machines, as the car-wash example shows. The mass immigration from the poor world has the potential to stall the western motor of innovation and may contribute to wages not rising as far as they might, especially for the lowest skilled workers.

The UK has a problem with productivity. UK employers have got good at employing the excess Labour of a serious chunk of the world, UK wages have been flat for a decade, and these things are linked. So the Chancellor is hiking the minimum wage in the hope of good headlines, and to incentivise investment to drive productivity. So. What effect will this have on immigration. Will it draw more migrants to the UK hoping for higher wages, like European immigration to the USA, or will it price low-skilled immigration out of the Labour market and allow the motor of progress to continue?

Splits that used to be geographic - some countries were rich, and others poor and the movement between the two was rare, is moving to one where there are still two countries, it's just the divide is social, educational, and cultural. You have a global, liberal, free market culture, which values education and novelty. And you have national, 'c' conservatives who just want their own culture, don't care about education all that much, won't move to find a job, and expect to be looked after who stay put and resent incomers. And the latter are disproportionately annoyed about foreigners moving into "Their" neighbourhoods while it's the former who have more to fear in the short term from highly skilled competition, minimum wages see to that. And if minimum wages rise far enough, low skilled workers will not be able to get jobs and they will stop coming to the UK. The problem is, the lowest skilled people are often native. The cost of a raised minimum wage will be borne by those least able to cope.

If we are to avoid society fracturing permanently into Morlocks and Eloi we do need to manage migration, to keep that motor humming. We cannot let the world come at will. But there was no need to pull up the drawbridge against EU migrants who always looked like collateral damage to me.

It's not all about economic self-interest, nor is it wholly naked in-group preference (what educated, open minded people call "bigotry"). It is the interplay between the two. Ultimately the stagnation of UK wages over the last 10 years isn't due to migration, but the recovery from a balance-sheet recession of 2007-9. It's the feeling of ennui caused by a decade of stagnation which has caused the anti-immigration nonsense, the rather blameless Poles have just become a Piñata and for a population that was persuaded to lash out at the EU when they really wanted to lash out at "the Muslims". The tragedy is all this happened just as we were getting back to normal.



Monday, 3 April 2017

Why the Blue Passport Matters.

People have spent the day on Twitter saying "why does the colour of a passport matter"? While the Daily Express is cheering the return of the Blue Passport to the rafters. For most people capable of abstract thought, this is a mystifying detail, the importance of which to their opponents is utterly baffling. Of course, I am a remain "ultra", and my views towards anyone who voted leave swing between total contempt, and genocide. But I did swim in the same intellectual Milieu as the Brexity-Trumpkins for decades and know many serious Brexiters personally (though none I would ever count as friends any more). Having spend decades rationalising the EU-obsessed madness and stupidity of the Tory right as a harmless eccentricity that they don't really mean, I do have, with hindsight, some understanding what these deluded animals think.



Why does the passport matter?

For the Tory Brexiter, the underlying issue is Sovereignty. They object violently, strenuously and on principle to ANYTHING that comes "above" the Crown in Parliament. The jurisdiction of the ECJ is for them, an insult to the courts and other institutions of the UK. The idea is offensive that any law-making organisation, especially one that Jacques Delors told the trades unions is basically for stopping the Tories Torying, could be "supreme" over parliament.

Of course the ECJ mainly deals in trade disputes and represents an international court to settle international issues and ensure consistent interpretation of EU law. It isn't "making the law of the land" and nor is it a "supreme" court in a meaningful way as far as the average citizen is concerned because it doesn't deal with those issues. If you're up in front of the Magistrate for punching a rotter, you're not going to be able to appeal all the way to the ECJ. Criminal law stops with the nation. Appeals of bad people going up to the European court of Human Rights on seemingly spurious grounds get funnelled into this narrative (shhh, I know), so the impression is obtained that "Crazy Euro-Judges" are "over-ruling parliament", and demanding prisoners can vote or should be allowed hacksaws to avoid trampling on "Human Rights" or whatever the tabloid outrage du jour may be. This then reinforces the narrative that the EU is "anti-democratic" and "makes all our laws". And once you have this narrative, flawed as it is, it's jolly easy to amass an awful lot of corroborating "evidence" because the Tabloids spent 30 years deliberately feeding it.

Sovereignty vs Influence; there is a trade-off. The UK, broadly, wrote the Financial services legislation for the entire continent. In return, the Continent got access to the only truly global city in Europe. The French did this for farming and got the CAP, while the Germans got the Eurozone's interest rates and got to destroy Southern Europe. The EU which contains (rather like the UK and trade negotiators) no-one who CAN write decent financial services legislation legislation, because most of those people are British. Thanks to Brexit, the quality of the legislation on financial services will go down, both in the UK which will be compelled to have regulatory equivalence to keep banks' access to the single market and the EU. The UK will have become a rule-taker rather than a rule maker. I fail to see how this reclaims "Sovereignty". The organisational source of the legislation will remain unchanged, but we loose any ability to influence, let alone write it. Multiply this catastrophe across an economy and you see why the "sovereignty" argument against EU law is, on any rational basis, stupid.

The parliament, the very existence of which takes on the aspect of a supranational government in waiting, rather than a simple means to have democratic oversight of an organisation which employs fewer people than Manchester city council, distributes about 1% of GDP and writes trade law. This unwarranted grandiosity once again suits both the Brussels apparatchiks, and the simian oiks of UKIP whom the British public sent to Brussels as a mark of the National contempt for the institution. The parliament is, to my mind is a risible little potempkin affair, barely worth considering,

So there's the error. Back to the passport.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation sets the dimensions, so the writing was on the wall for the old British hardback passport, fabulous though it was, it didn't really fit in the back pocket of your trousers.  However once you believe that the EU tentacles are slowly creeping into institutions to turn you into a province of the "EUSSR", then you start to see this everywhere. The EU is foolish to seek the trappings of a national Government before they had built a demos, and absent any desire for it from the people. Symbols matter. The UK doesn't have an ID card. So when Brits talk about nationality they might say "Australian passport-holder" rather than "Australian citizen". I am not sure if any other nationalities use this formulation. The passport is slightly more than a document. No? Try losing one abroad.

The EU resolution on Passports is here. For anyone who thinks the EU "made" the UK have a Maroon passport, here's EU Croatia's. .



The EU suggested the Colour be harmonised and the words "European Union" be put First. At the top. Above the crown, First. Symbolising, perhaps inadvertently that the EU was more important than the nations. And there you have it. And no-one working on it thought to object. Changing the colour of the passport was a key symbolic gesture that irritated many people, and reinforced an utterly false narrative, to no end or benefit to anyone. There is simply no need for European Union passports to be uniformly coloured. It merely satisfies the bureaucrats' desire for order. And it is my belief that it is this symbolic bureaucratic exercise in territory marking by the EU that revealed, and still reveals, a fundamental disconnect between the Brussels Panjandrums, the people of the EU and the British in particular. The Eurocrats want a Federal Europe with the EU as a Government. The Nations, broadly supported by their governments don't, and have resisted any attempt.

The EU hasn't made Britain less "sovereign". All EU law, necessary to trade with as little friction as possible, is of the type that by whom it is written doesn't matter. With trading standards does it really matter WHAT they are, just that they're as universal and consistently applied? I don't need to tell you that it was never illegal to display prices of potatoes in Lbs and Oz, just that you HAD to display the price in KG and g too, in case any Frenchmen walking through the market didn't know how many Lbs are in a KG. I don't care who writes the regulations for the import of Duck eggs, just that it's done.

But there it is. The Brexiters shooting with the accuracy of a semi-trained recruit who's just dropped LSD at every figment of their fevered imagination, egged on by equally deluded fantasists who still think they're creating a Federal United States of Europe. These two groups of lunatics needed each other. And so, the passport, with 'European Union' at the top was barely noticed on the continent, but seemed to some Brits as evidence the EU was after their democracy, their identity and their Freedom. However stupid this belief is, a Blue passport could've been delivered cheaply as a quick Tabloid-Friendly win for Cameron and such was the narrow margin, it would have probably been enough.



Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Nicola and Theresa. Phwooar.

The Daily Mail's headline "Legs-it" about Scottish First Minister and British Prime Minister Theresa May's shapely legs was pathetic. But remember, the Mail is written by women, for women, and women judge each other, all the time, harshly and vindictively. Judged especially harshly are women more accomplished or better looking than the average Daily Mail reader.


To call this "sexism" is to miss the point. This isn't about women being held down by sexist male tittle tattle. Clearly, two of the most powerful people in the country haven't been held down in any meaningful way. Any executive head of Government is fair game for any and all criticism. What these women have done is rise above the level at which society normally seeks to protect women from abuse.

Male politicians are made fun of for their appearance and clothing all the time. It's the sea men swim in. Whether it's Donald Trump's expensive, but ill-fitting suits and too-long ties like he's stepped out of a 1980s pop video caricature of a businessman, or Cameron's forehead, or the fact that middle-aged men are always assumed to be repulsive, this abuse is normal.  The ridicule a male politician faces when he's seen in public wearing anything other than a blue suit is extraordinary. From Tony Blair wearing a clean barbour, to William Hague's baseball cap or Cameron's beachwear, there's a reason male politicians dress identically. When women's clothing (far more interesting by the way, than the sober suits of most male politicians) is commented on, it enables a personal brand to be created that much easier. Theresa May's shoes are like Margaret Thatcher's handbag. True, women do have to think harder about their clothing - too much leg, cleavage etc... and you immediately invite scorn (of other women, mainly), but the fact the female wardrobe stands out against the endless blue/grey suits and red or blue ties of the male is as much an opportunity as it is a minefield.

Any comment about May's shoes, for example is part of her deliberately curated brand, and shoe-designers are falling over themselves to get their products onto her feet. This isn't sexist. Women like shoes, and there's no reason why Theresa May shouldn't have fun with them.

Lower down the pecking order there's a taboo against men commenting negatively on a woman's appearance, lest you hurt the poor dear's feelings. Yes male 'locker room' banter will discuss who's attractive, but it's rude to do so in front of women and by and large, gentlemen don't. Women don't typically have these conversations about men in earshot of men either, but describing men as "revolting" or "creepy" is so normal as to be unworthy of comment, and completely unnoticed. May and Sturgeon have risen above this social protection, and are subject to the same rules of engagement as men are. i.e that if we have feelings, tough.

These women are grown-ups doing important jobs. If you think the Mail's light-hearted front page is an insult to them, you're an idiot. Of course Sarah Vine who wrote the thing, knows exactly the response it would get, howls of idiot outrage from the usual suspects on Twitter, and from Sturgeon herself. This allows the paper to swat the complaints aside with contempt. This signals to their readership that the Mail is on their side against the bien-pensant left with their idiotic & totalitarian outrage about human trivialities. May by rising above it, does the same. The Mail is one of the Best-selling papers in the UK, and one of the world's most visited "news" (ish) websites. Who won that exchange?

The po-mo left, obsessed with identity politics, used to being able to bully dissenting opinion down STILL hasn't got the new rules of the game. Someone's pointed out the Emperor's naked, but he's still acting like he's in charge and hasn't noticed the mood's changed. Yet.



Completely unrelated, but thank you to the Anonymous commenter who wrote this. It cheered me up.



Thursday, 2 March 2017

On Class, Culture and the New Politics

The two tribes of politics, broadly the Tory and Labour parties divided over the 20th Century principally on the matter of economics. Simplifying: Tories preferred market solutions to state planning, and preferred lower taxes and less generous state spending.
The Labour party, which when it abandoned clause IV, surrendered on the economic question, not coincidentally a few years after the Berlin wall came down.
As a result, the great battles since then have been essentially cultural. Gay rights, racial integration etc. The confusion stems from there being no consensus within the Tory or Labour tribes on these issues. Plenty of Tories are happily socially liberal, many of the Labour tribe are socially conservative, especially when you look at voters rather than representatives.
Which brings us to the tribal division of Britain: class. The middle class: liberal, internationalist, universalists; vs a working class: authoritarian, insular and particular world view. The former is comfortable with diversity and immigration. The latter isn't. The former's kids live a long way from home, and move for work, the latters kids live in the same town and expect the work to come to them. The former don't speak to their neighbours, the latter care what their neighbours do and think. These labels are correlated roughly with, but independent of, economic status. It's possible to be middle class, in a local-authority home living on benefits, and working class, earning seven figures and living in a manor house. (Though it's likely these people's kids will change tribes)
There are elements of these cultures in all major parties in the UK, but the rest of us rarely communicate with people from the other tribe. The people you have round for dinner will most probably be from your tribe. Half the country holds its knife like a pen, yet none have sat round my table. When the two tribes meet, it's awkward. Those difficult bottom-sniffing conversations seeking common ground are easy to conclude when two members of the same tribe meet, and difficult when you meet the other half.
There have always been working class Tories, because much of the working class is as comfortable with the certainties of heirarchy as a shire Tory, and doesn't much care for this freedom and opportunity nonsense, preferring a better boss instead. And it's interesting to watch the Tories dangle the protectionism and insularity the working class has long demanded. Middle class labour fabians and the working class methodists have always sat uncomfortably together. Brexit has shattered that coalition, the labour party has been handed to the idiot socialists and will die, unless somehow moderates can oust corbyn before 2020.
Which brings us to the Tory coalition. The high-Tory have promised the old certainties back to the white working class. Meanwhile, middle-class liberals who make up most of the parliamentary party are distinctly uncomfortable with much of what is being done in Brexit's name, but will stick with the Tories, because they offer the promise of power, and however dreadful Brexit is, Jeremy Corbyn is worse. A new coalition is being forged between the Tory squirearchy, and the Working class based on nationalism, social conservatism and heirarchy, directly taking Labour's core vote. This is why UKIP, a working class movement that thinks it *is* the conservative party, apes the style of a country gent. The working class have always got on well with the Gentry, sharing sociailly conservative values. Both despise the middle class.
Brexit split the country down a line more on class values, split the country and handed it to the socially authoritarian party. Whether this is the new politics, with the Tories moving from being the middle-class party to the working class party, as the Republicans did after the war in the USA, or whether the middle-class will wrest back control over both parties in time waits to be seen.
I suspect unless May softens her tone, and thows some bones to the liberals, her coalition will only survive until there's a credible opposition. A more appropriate division of politics would be a ConservaKIP'ish alliance of WWC and high-tory squires, vs LibLabCon middle-class liberals. Therea May seems to be actively seeking it.
Over the Channel, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen exemplify this split. The candidates of the parties of left, Socialists; and right, RPR are likely to be eliminated in the first round. Macron is likely to win comfortably. His movement 'En Marche!' was only formed a year ago. There's a lesson for British liberals there.



Monday, 16 January 2017

Tories have profoundly damaged the UK. You Should Join the Tories.

2016 happened because decent people don't join political parties, leaving the business of Government to socially inadequate, physically repellent gits with an axe to grind*. In normal circumstances, this makes politics easier for genuinely impressive people to progress through the flotsam of monomaniacs. To be a Grown-up in the Tory Party 1997-2010 was to be able to consider an issue beyond the EU. For Labour it's all about not dreaming of Strike Action by "the workers". Thus the Liberal Centre consolidated a hold on the country, but became complacent to the poison seeping into parties even as the Smug centrist consensus made everyone fat and rich.
There has been a steady, and persistent hollowing out of the political parties. Labour used to be allied to a Trades Union movement that delivered services - health insurance, education and so forth to its members. The Trades Unions of Pre-War Britain where an overwhelming force for good. Atlee's welfare state nationalised all the good the Trades Unions used to do, and so corrupted both the principle of welfare (now far, far from Beveridge's original vision of low, universal payments like Child benefit, topped up with contributory elements) and the Trades unions which became a mere tub-thumper for more state spending. This left the Labour party with the sole purpose of defending a welfare settlement that is not under threat, and a Trades Union movement whose purpose had been nationalised so simply became resistant to all and any reform which might make the system as is function better; unions a mere vested interest of public-sector workers. This isn't a place where people capable of holding more than one idea at a time feel comfortable, and so the Labour party was colonised by people who think not shaving is a political act.
This malodorous and poorly groomed cancer has destroyed the Labour party. It's over, there's no point being in Labour unless you're a Identity politics obsessed Corbynite who laments the end of the Soviet Union. 
Labour, 2010-Present
The Tories at least had the sense to try to vomit the most toxic of their nutters into a bucket marked UKIP, a bucket the dog is unfortunately returning to. The Conservative party my Grandfather joined (from CPGB, as it happens, Labour even back then were cliquey dick-heads) used to be a forum for the upper middle class (and anyone who aspired to join them) to meet, mate and do business. But the horrible young Tories of the '80s, and the Euro-nutters of the '90s meant that by 1997, the Tories were only really suitable for people who were prepared to discuss "Europe" endlessly in ever-more foaming tones, persuading themselves that the EU is a historic enemy like Napoleon, the Kaisar, Hitler or the USSR. To their credit, the Tory Leadership has long known what to do. All David Cameron ever asked of his party was to "stop banging on about Europe". They couldn't stop picking at the scab, and the result is a catastrophe that has already crashed the Pound, weakened the UK (perhaps fatally) and may yet cause a political crisis in Europe and embolden Putin to start rebuilding the USSR.
Tories, 1997-2010
The more say over policy and leadership given to the membership, the more the membership has dwindled (unless, like Labour, the membership criteria are designed to invite entryism for the purposes of choosing a leader - by people who've been quietly loyal to the Bennite project for decades). Giving members a say in who leads the party is absurd. Who the prime minister is, should be a matter for MPs, and MPs alone. It is they who must give the Prime Minister a majority and internal party democracy risks, well, exactly what has happened to Labour. 
However, that Rubicon has been crossed. Party members now expect a vote on the Leader. The question is what to do about this, and the answer is to choose to be a member of a party at all times, hold your nose if necessary. Do NOT identify with the party, but consider which is best placed to advance your objectives. At the moment, the foul bigots, monomaniacs and morons of UKIP are being re-absorbed from a position where they can do little harm beyond foaming at the mouth and masturbating to Daily Express editorials, to one where they can choose the next prime minister, and Mrs May isn't a healthy specimen. The ex-'KIPpers chance may come to choose their PM sooner than expected.
I'm often asked "How come you're still a Tory?"  
Were the Liberal Democrats stronger, I'd be considering them, but I don't trust them on electoral reform (about which they're as silly as Tories are about Europe). But as the Lib-Dems are so far from power, I don't see the tactical benefit of leaving the Tories in a huff, and I broadly agree with the Tories on everything except Brexit. What I'm worried about is the 'KIPpers who're returning to the fold. Unless you want a foul, divisive and ignorant Brexit headbanger to replace May in 2023 or so (Gove for example), Join the Tories, because thanks to Labour's meltdown, Tories and Tories alone will choose the next PM. All not joining a party does is strengthen those (*we) weirdos who still do. Labour moderates, disgusted by Corbyn should cross the floor to the Tories or Liberal democrats, instead of flouncing off to the V&A and opening the way for UKIPish Brexit-o-twats to fight and win a by-elections under Tory colours. Were Tristram hunt now a Tory, not only we could soften this brexit idiocy but also signal just how broad a church the Tories are. 40% of Tory members voted Remain. The tribe that needs to understand the value of a bit of entryism is the liberal centre, who need to abandon any loyalty to their Parties and go to where the power is. The Liberal Centre is complacent because they have for so long occupied the ground sought by all parties, they've not really had to compromise. 
At the moment the business of Government is, and will be for the foreseeable future, a Tory-only affair. That need not look like Nigel Farage, but it will, if Remainers abandon the Tories entirely.



Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The End of A 'Belle Époque'. 1991-2016.

The interlocking webs of policy which 'politics' seeks to knit are complicated. Whole books can be written on how two individual policies interact. PhDs in Economics are awarded for small snapshots of the whole cloth. Most people don't have the time to keep abreast of developments or read sufficient history to understand why some policies are bad. Thus, people use heuristics - rules of thumb - to make decisions  about that which they aren't expert. "Is this person trustworthy" is a key issue, and we tend to overweight the opinion of those near us. "He is my brother, and I say he's ok" says a friend, you are more likely to believe a mutual friend, than the opinion of a stranger on the same issue.

In the evolutionary past, such a question was a matter of life and death. People only really had to trust those with whom they shared a close genetic relationship. Since the development of agriculture, we've been steadily widening that circle of trust. The wider you spread that circle of trust, the richer your society will be. Even before it had a name, Free market economics allowed people to become blacksmiths, knowing others have water, food, shelter and so forth covered in return. More specialisation, greater productivity, means greater wealth.

Eventually, this requires trust in people we've not met. Towns' food supplies require that farmers unknown and distant supply the basics of existence. Nowadays, It's unlikely the west could quickly supply all available plenty currently manufactured in China. Nor could China supply quickly the complex components and tools shipped from Japan, Europe and USA. Both China, and "the west" are richer from the exchange. And yet, we still don't trust "globalisation".

Most persistent fallacies in political economics are the result of simple policies that appeal to some base heuristics, but which when applied to the larger and wider society, fail catastrophically. Thus egalitarianism in one form or another pops up every 3 generations or so and succeeds in making everyone equal, but some more equal than others, and even more, dead. Then nationalism comes along, and says it's all [another, arbitrarily defined group of humans with slightly different modes of speech] fault, leading to more waste and piles of corpses. And even when the results aren't catastrophic, we seek out the views of those who agree with us on say, Nationalism to inform our opinion on, say, whether or not people are responsible for climate change.

Which political tribes stumble into being right or wrong on any given issue appears arbitrary, because no-one's asking for the evidence before they decide on the policy. Instead of asking "what's right", we're asking what's popular (amongst the coalition of tribes that voted for me) right now. That an opponent comes out with an identical policy, for different reasons is reason enough to oppose something, forgetting completely prior support for it. After all, whatever [another political tribe] thinks must be wrong, right.

Thus

The Labour party opposes ID cards. The Labour party has always opposed ID cards. The Tory party is for the Free market and was never in favour of the Corn Laws. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Perhaps if we could think for ourselves rather than just accepting tribal dogma, we'd get better governance. But none of us have the time. So "Democracy" is merely a means to give temporary permission to one coalition of tribes to push through dogmas over many issues, until either the population notices, or the coalition of tribes breaks up, and the electorate takes a punt on the other tribe's prejudices for a bit, and then gets on with whatever they were doing before.

Society ultimately advances by eliminating prejudices it's acceptable to hold thus widening the circle of trust, and increasing riches. By falling back on ancient heuristics to answer the wrong question ("who's fault?" is the wrong question) 2016 democracy has delivered the worst political outcomes on a broad front, as a result of which, we are poorer, and more likely to start fighting as a result of the collapse in political trust we have seen over this year. The post Cold-War 'Belle Époque', which saw half of humanity, 3 billion people, lifted out of poverty, is over.

Idiots cheer.



Monday, 19 December 2016

This was my Market Report 6 months ago... (Before the Referendum).

The UK markets have been hit hard by the threat of leaving the EU. The consequences, at least in the short-term would be a short sharp fall in UK stocks and Sterling. Depending upon what happens to the necessary capital flows which fund our current account deficit, (as well as our trade and fiscal ones), we might suffer an interest rate shock too. If the Foreign direct investment dries up, the UK may suffer a prolonged period of stagflation, falling currency and higher interest rates, choking off the recovery. If foreign capital flows do not dry up, then the recession or slowdown will be much milder. The fear of this outcome therefore has held markets back, even as US jobs data, and even Chinese numbers have surprised on the upside.
It is unusual for political events to so impact the markets, but we don't even know if 'Leave' would mean leaving the Single Market (Gove and the EU seem to say 'yes', a lot of Leave campaigners say 'No') and the government's contingency planning is silent on the issue. It is possible we could leave the EU but remain in the EEA which would be far less disruptive. Markets do not react well to not knowing such crucial bits of information.
So, the outlook is utterly dependent upon a "Known unknown" (the referendum) followed by an "unknown unknown" (how foreign capital reacts) to use Donald Rumsfeld's unfairly mocked phrase.  It's not even clear overvalued gilts would make a safe haven in the event of brexit, as if Foreign Direct Investment dries up, interest rates will have to rise. Only index-linked offer much of a safe-haven, but they seem overpriced. There is much else to report, but this month, it simply doesn't matter.




Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Boston Dynamics and The Late Sir Terry Pratchett

Everyone knows how driverless cars will work: they will be like ordinary cars, except you read a book rather than acting as pilot. And so, people's understanding of what a technology can do is clouded by what the old technology it replaces does. Which means people without imagination, Head of IBM Thomas Watson, for example, say things like

"There may be a world market for maybe five computers"
and get it wrong. In 1943, computers were used for cryptography, and that's it. (At least he knew what a "computer" was, which few did back then). Predictions are hard, especially about the future. But it's probably worth noting here that the famous World Wide What? front page of The Sun, was in fact rather a good a spoof, by The Sun.


Boston Dynamics makes robots.


via GIPHY

Who needs Robots? Well, like computers or the internet or driverless cars, the technology is coming. And it will change people's behaviour in many, unpredictable ways. For example, mobile phones were conceived as portable analogues for the phone on your desk or in your hall. SMS text messaging was added as an afterthought, but became THE dominant means of communication. Calling someone is now rude, often you text first to see if a call would be convenient. Who (apart from mums) leaves voicemail messages any more? Few predicted that change in our behaviour. The smartphone is now ubiquitous, and is more about accessing the internet than calling friends, but wasn't imagined before the internet, Except by Douglas Adams (and John Brunner of whom I'd not heard until I discussed the issue on Twitter). Driverless cars will be as close to the car, as the car is to a buggy and four. And robots, when they become ubiquitous, will be unlike anything we've considered.

I look at Boston Dynamics Robots, the big dog is conceived as a load carrying mule for soldiers on rough terrain, and I think of The Luggage, Rincewind's inscrutable companion on the discworld. I suspect everyone will one day have a robot the size of a dog to carry daily necessaries, following them round. You could send your luggage to someone else, by smartphone app to pick something up. Your luggage could take your shopping home and collect it from the store for you. Large luggages could be sent on ahead with bags. Small luggages could replace handbags and briefcases. The labour and time saving would be vast, spawning whole new areas of employment, servicing and modifying your faithful electronic companion and providing for the opportunities they create to effectively be in two places at once. Freed from the ownership of motor vehicles by the fact we'll be taking taxis everywhere, our Robot luggage will perhaps become the next status symbol around which society is built, replacing the car.

Like cars, I suspect the battery technology will be the limiting step, and like cars, I suspect the fuel cell will be the answer. Small fuel cells will one day power your smart phone too.

But think about the opportunities for people from smart phone. There are tens of thousands of app designers round the world now, a job that had barely been considered as recently as 2007, when the first iPhone was released, and that is similar to how the jobs which will be taken by the robots, will be replaced. That is why people who fear of a "post-jobs" future were wrong in 1816 and are still wrong 200 years later. The world's only limitless resource is human ingenuity.

Anway. I for one welcome our new robot overlords, and this guy should totally be locked up.


via GIPHY



Saturday, 26 November 2016

Fidel Castro is Dead. (Some of) his Legacy will Live on

Let's be clear, Castro was a murderous bastard who impoverished his country, and whose views on homosexuality and on the importance of brevity in speeches were nothing short of horrifying. It's true, Cubans do have access to better healthcare than many countries of equivalent GDP per capita, and if I had to choose a Communist hell-hole to live in, it'd probably be Castro's Cuba. But the Cuban healthcare system is not the fantasy of western dewey-eyed left-wingers, and Cubans often are excluded from what excellence there is, as it's one of the few means the country has of generating hard currency earnings. Rich foreigners get the best doctors, and more are exported to other successful "progressive" regimes like Venezuela.

"But he was an anti-imperialist". So why were cuban troops in Africa in support of the USSR, which was by any measure or definition an Empire? Anti-Imperialsim is just the justification leftists give for knee-jerk anti-Americanism. And the flood of people risking death to reach the USA should tell you all you need to know about the relative merits of America's and Cuba's system.

Contrasting the attitudes of the USA to Castro, to their attitude to equally murderous bastards like Pinochet misses the point. The US embargo on Cuba is one of the legacies of the Cold war, kept bubbling by the politics of Florida, home to so many Cuban-Americans. There is no Doubt that the US blocade has impoverished Cubans, and that with the fall in the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR, such an embargo was no longer justified. However politics are what they are. Fidel Castro's death provides an opportunity for further thawing in relations.

The USA supported "our son of a bitch" all over the world, turning a blind-eye to horrific human rights abuses, though often (albeit less often than we should) working behind the scenes to try and mitigate the worst behaviour. Thatcher is rarely credited with preventing the execution of Nelson Mandela, but she consistently urged Mandela's release, even as she argued against sanctions and branding the ANC "Terrorists". This is one reason why the cold-war piles of dead of Nasty fascist bastards are usually lower than those of nasty communist bastards. I also think the point made by CS Lewis holds. Right wing dictators rarely pretend to be GOOD, making their appeal more on effectiveness.
"The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
And one by one, following the collapse of Communism, the support from the USA and its allies for these disgusting regimes was withdrawn. Apartheid South Africa, much of South and Central America saw right authoritarian regimes fall. Genuine democracies were often created in the rubble. The USA didn't support dictators because the USA is an imperialist power, but because it IS a power, and with that comes responsibility. They judged at the time the alternative, Communism, was worse, and represented a genuine existential threat to the USA and its core allies.

This is why for example the USA and its allies mostly support the Regime in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime is repellent, but given the probable alternatives wouldn't be nice, liberal, democratic-minded progressives, they'd be salafist nutcases who'd have access to billions of dollars of oil revenues and the legitimacy of being the Guardians of the Two Mosques. The House of Saud is all that stands between the West and a plausible salafist caliphate with sufficient legitimacy and money to one day threaten the west. We'd rather do business with nice, stable democracies under the rule of law. But seeing as we cannot do to every country on earth what we did to Germany in the late 40s and 50s, we make the best of the options given.

Castro appeared to be a true beleiver in Socialism, so he refused to recognise his philosophy had failed, and his island limped on, a socialist throwback in the age of globalisation. The current poverty of Cuba is partly America's doing, but mostly due to decisions made by Castro himself, policies which set him and the Cuban people at odds with the regional hegemon, in persuit of an evil idealogy. Fidel Castro was on the wrong side of history, and his people suffered because of his stubborness. Now he's dead, it's Cubans turn to make the most of the positive legacy - Cubans are the best-educated poor people on earth, and the mighty economy of the USA is right on their doorstep. There is going to be a lot of money to be made there, and this time, for the first time, Cubans will share in it.



There was an error in this gadget