Monday, 23 February 2015

Meet the UKIPpers

British politics is a pretty unpleasant sight. There's an anti-politician mood stalking the country. Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are being hauled over the coals for things that aren't against the rules, nor even against British interests. Rifkind especially should feel aggrieved that for offering to arrange meetings between a foreign firm and British diplomats, he should be accused of Sleaze. In this mood comes the "tax-dodging" witch hunt, where people's perfectly legal and normal (for those with the cash) Tax planning is being called "tax avoidance", which is being equated, and used interchangeably with "tax evasion", which is a crime. People who've taken perfectly reasonable tax-planning steps, are being excoriated for things that are neither against the law, nor against the spirit of the law. The crime, in the rather envious eyes of the British electorate, is to have wealth and be involved in politics. And politicians are being assumed to be corrupt and on the make, with journalists happy to fuel the mood.


And the only politician to speak any sense on the subject of tax is Nigel Farage: "Of course people avoid tax, but they do so mainly for their Children", before going on to talk about the UKIP policy to abolish Inheritance tax. And the media left it there. UKIP having a popular policy that isn't bat-shit insane isn't news. But they aren't called on its implications, like a major party would be, not yet. The Tories, for whom Inheritance tax has also been a popular cut, would be asked "what would you cut/taxes would you raise?" And the policy of abolishing inheritance tax would immediately become about where the £3bn or so it raises each year would come from. Would farage make cuts, raise taxes, or borrow more? We do not know.

No 'KIPper would consider, having found a policy that works, the potential downsides of abolishing inheritance tax. The long-term accumulation of assets in families for example. Inheritance tax is the only tax where the money raised is not its principle function. Mega-inheritance is not conducive to social mobility, and nor is it always good for the economy. Why is it fair that someone is able to inherit vast sums, tax-free where others are taxed through the nose for money they earn? For me,  if it's a choice between cutting £3bn off inheritance tax, or taking it off income tax, I'd rather the income tax cut (and the Tories agree with me there...). Whilst I think Inheritance is mostly an iniquitous tax on the unlucky, or those unwilling to confront their mortality, it's not a priority to cut right now, not when we still need to balance the books. The Tories have taken most ordinary people out of the tax, while leaving it in place for the very wealthy. When you think a UKIP policy through, quite often what sounds right, as a black and white abstraction, is often rather stupid.

But it's refreshing to see Farage refuse to dance to the media's tune, even if the average UKIP policy isn't thought through at all. When asked where the £3bn would come from, you get boilerplate blather about "fully costed policies being in the [as yet unwritten] manifesto". And the problem with UKIP is that vague grey area between idea, aspiration and policy invites 'KIPpers to fill in the gaps. And they do, with abandon, but without any learning or understanding.

British politics is as refined a dance as a regency d├ębutantes' ball. And like the refined movements of the dances, they are designed to exclude those who don't know the steps, and so utterly baffling to outsiders. UKIP, whose main dancing experience, if we're extending the metaphor to breaking point, is in the Mosh Pit of a metal club, aren't invited to a Queen Charlotte's ball, because they haven't got the right clothes, don't know anyone there, what they're doing or why. UKIP gatecrashing a Season ball will ruin it for everyone, and they will look stupid. Because UKIP aren't prepared to answer the "so what...?", they aren't taken seriously: they haven't bothered to learn the steps to the dance. They're not even aware that such dancing exists and so they're confused when they see it. 

Which brings us to Meet the UKIPpers on BBC2, which showed UKIP members filling in the policy gaps, with all the creativity and skill of a slow-witted four year old at a colouring book. Of course the TV show was superficial. Of course it was selective. But it was revealing. The utterly incompetent election agent, the Twitter question about the "mosque" (Actually Westminster cathedral...), the Creepy, inadequate couple who collect clowns, and the hilariously bigoted old bag who couldn't see that she wasn't kicked out for saying "negro" but for saying "I have a problem with Negroes with their Shiny skin, fuzzy hair and big noses" and who then went on to talk about "Jewish noses with a curve to them", as if that was some kind of defence. This isn't a one-off bad-apple spoiling the barrel. This is the mood-music of the UKIP. Janice Atkinson, a UKIP MEP described an Asian constituent as "...a ting-tong from somewhere..." (I find for some reason the indefinite article especially damning), while Mark Reckless actually thought UKIP policy was the forced repatriation of immigrants and was prepared to say so out loud and in public. Both survived in post.

This isn't pogrom-inciting, paki-bashing racism that smashes people's windows. It's the quiet bigotry of profoundly stupid people, of a sort that you probably do get at every family gathering involving multiple elderly relatives. There's always one who will openly opine about how terrible the country's got since we "let the wogs in". But the problem is, those nice, racist nans instil ideas into kids, who'll become angry young men, who will then go out and set fire to a mosque. Which is why such racist talk has been ridiculed and shunned since Warren Mitchell invented Alf Garnet. UKIP is a party for people who haven't got the joke in 'Til death us do Part.

The same cavalier attitude towards policy that allowed Roseanne Duncan to riff freestyle on why she has a problem with Negroes while the cameras were rolling, allows the more intelligent UKIPpers to imagine their freestyling on tax, or immigration policy is Party policy. The reason 'KIPpers are so certain the party agrees with them, is they're quite openly making it up as they go along. UKIP agrees, because there is no policy, only opinion. The only "policy" is what Nigel decrees, and he'll let 'KIPpers hide behind the defence of "free speech" for any idiocies the media turns up. Yet even this "free speech" defence is idiotic. Of course Roseanne Duncan is entitled to her views. But the 'KIPper view is that it's all OK, so long as the media don't see it. Which is why the 'KIPpers were kept away from the news during the Rotherham by-election. There are a lot of racists in the party, and the party knows it. And why the "Meet the UKIPpers" filming was shut down after Ms Duncan went off-piste. UKIP is a party for stupid, bigoted people. Yes, the political elite has become too distant, the political dance has become too complicated and superficial. But UKIP is not the answer.

'KIPpers will blame a media conspiracy for misrepresenting them. They will rant about LibLabCon "not listening to the views of ordinary people", insulting "ordinary people" by the suggestion they're like Roseanne Duncan. UKIP is not the answer to the problems that ail the UK, and nor will the "media conspiracy" make UKIP "more popular" as 'KIPpers often allege. All it will do is taint the few good ideas it has, by association with people like Ms Duncan and Janice Atkinson, while bringing back a kind of low-level bigotry we'd once thought abolished back into political discourse. UKIP is poisoning the well of debate. But on the bright side, the more the views of ranty, stupid people whom the party has seen fit to put in positions of responsibility see the light of day, the less attractive it will become. These people are freaks to be pitied and laughed at, which is why they're stuck in depressing shitholes at the end of the line, and working with UKIP not a grown-up party. Anyone with talent or drive has left, and UKIP's South Thanet constituency branch is left with a detritus of lost souls, confused by the modern world, whom another party would happily let deliver leaflets, but whom they would calmly not call when they needed anything more serious doing.

Is there a media conspiracy against UKIP? Only insofar as the Body Politic needs antibodies to expel a parasite. Expect more revelations of nonsense from 'KIPpers in the run up to the election. Expect scrutiny of candidates and activists in places where they might win. Only a loony could think this unreasonable. UKIP has drawn the bigoted, Euro-obsessed puss from the Tory wound, and will roll up the bigots and opportunists from other parties before destroying itself. The only question is how much damage it does to the country while this process goes on. UKIP are poisonous. But it will be fun to watch them tear themselves apart.



Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Triumphs of British Foreign Policy Are So Complete, We Take it For Granted.

The British Empire was founded on Trade, not conquest. We largely bought our empire, then co-opted its citizens by encouraging them to get rich and take up cricket. And then when they tired of the British Empire's excesses, the Empire became too expensive to run, and we left. Trying, mostly with some success, to leave functioning democracies behind.

We left behind the world's Largest democracy, India. And British ideas influenced the Second largest: The United States of America.

There are two models of democracy: Broadly the Franco-Yankish model with an executive president, and the British Parliamentary model. And of the two, the latter is much, much more stable, because it doesn't concentrate power in the hands of a single individual with a personal mandate, and so the constitution is harder to abuse. The legislature finds it easier to hold the executive to account when the executive head is chosen from the legislature. But equally, there are fewer veto points, so legislative gridlock is less likely. (See this excellent essay by Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs)

The European Convention on Human Rights was written by British and American Lawyers, on British and American principles, and underpins the European Union, the enlargement of which to the East was a British-led project, against French wishes. The EU has strengthened institutions in Eastern Europe. Poland's democracy was not a given when the Berlin wall came down. Thanks to the EU, Britain has a large, growing, increasingly prosperous ally in NATO, and the EU. Poland's democracy is secure.

The World Trade Organisation seeks to Promote free trade, long a British principle. The EU is, thanks to Britain, a leading proponents of free trade in the Great councils of the world, something the French mutter about, but about which they cannot do anything. The Germans largely see it our way.

Across the world, the English Language is the language of trade, science and diplomacy. This is not going to change any time soon. We've exported our way of Government more successfully than the Americans, and not just to former colonies. And people yearn, across the world to be part of clubs we're in. Georgia flies the European Union flag outside its new Parliament in Tiblisi

In Ukraine, the Eastern Quarter may have a majority which wants to be Russian. This is debatable, because no-one's asked them properly. It's probable a majority of Crimeans indeed want to be Russian. We'll never know, because that referendum was neither Free nor Fair. The rest of Ukraine now looks firmly west.

Intelligent political commentators are overawed by the scale of Russia's military spending, and the tactical subtlety of her annexation of bits of Ukraine. Yet mistake tactical for Strategic success. We have struggled, it's true to come to terms with Russia's doctrine of "information war", as we cannot ascertain her goals. Meanwhile Russia is spreading disinformation, using extreme parties of the left (the greens are against Fracking which threatens Russia's economy) and the Right (Jobbik, Le Front National and possibly UKIP which want to break up the EU) enjoy Russian support, and whose spokesmen turn up on Putin's grotty little propaganda machine, Russia Today, with depressing regularity. Most of the people most enthusiastically backing Putin, and claim he's winning, are on the loony fringes of politics.

Putin wants a Buffer between him and "the West" which he fears, because the west represents a threat to his power. It does, of course. Mainly because our world-view is better and more attractive than his. Putin has probably captured a wretched little  rust-belt, which will forever need his country's financial support, while inviting the EU to his Border. Kiev will be an EU city within a decade, and there is almost nothing Putin can do about it. He could invade in a couple of weeks, but it would bankrupt him, and I doubt he could make it stick in the long term.

The fact is countries are clamouring to Join the EU and NATO, to exist under a security umbrella largely provided by the Americans, and to enjoy the institutional security of the EU, while more or less designing their democracy along British principles. Poland, for example has a Bicameral legislature, with a symbolic head of state, and the executive head of Government chosen from the legislature. Neither of the EU nor NATO are perfect, by any means. But to imagine the EU a greater threat to the UK's interests than Putin's Russia, as many 'KIPpers do, is just insane. The EU ploughs mostly British Foreign policy in Ukraine, in the WTO and elsewhere. That foreign policy isn't what 'KIPpers think it should be, but it is consistent with 500 years of history.

The inhabitants of a damp, foggy archipelago off the north western coast of Europe, a medium-sized population, have nevertheless managed to shape the world in their image, and continue to do so, despite being overtaken by larger, wealthier powers. Somehow, it always goes Britain's way in the end.

Real global great powers do not have trouble keeping their satellites in orbit. The West is built on British ideas, speaks English, and enjoys overwhelming economic, military and cultural dominance. The world watches English Football, listens to American and British music, and its most able people want to come to our cities, risking death and mutilation if necessary to do so. Compare with Russia, which will be just China's petrol station in 3 years, lacking (our western) money, their military spending will be unsustainable. Russia's people, as soon as they have money, leave. If the oil price stays low, Russia will be bankrupt in 3-5 years. Even China herself knows her power such as it is, is based on access to western Markets. The west, confident and united, can stand against any power, or combination of powers that could possibly be ranged against it. We can lose every tactical battle, Ukraine for example, and still win the war.

All it requires is that we don't blink.



Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Autonomous Vehicles Being Trialled in Britain

The UK is aiming to become a hub for driverless car technology, and has sought to iron out the obvious legal and regulatory issues prior to the technology becoming widespread.

I am going to use the word "moron" a lot. This is not a pejorative. Everyone is a moron behind the wheel. Humans are not evolved to process information fast enough, for long enough, to drive safely. We have significant blind spots and cannot see anything at all during saccades, the brain instead approximates, which explains why people often fail to see oncoming cyclists or motorcyclists and even cars, and pull out in front of them at junctions, often fatally. They genuinely, honestly didn't see. We evolved to over-react to surprising movement in peripheral vision, such as a cyclists passing quite safely on the drivers' side in a queue of stationary traffic, which triggers an involuntary endocrine response of cortisol and adrenaline, which cause stress and make drivers angry and aggressive towards cyclists. This in turn makes them drive faster and less carefully, because these hormones affect risk-perception. Driving is boring, dangerous and stressful; a significant contributor through that cortisol and adrenaline not subsequently 'burned off' through exercise, to obesity. It's enormously fatiguing on the brain, reducing productivity during the day.

Even if you think you are a "good" driver, this is only relative. You're not. Consider this: Racing drivers are people who do have better car control, and more practised reactions behind the wheel. They are not considered good insurance risks. Attitude is more important than risk. You want to enjoy the thrill of speed, driving a vehicle. As soon as they are available, the insurance industry will quickly price human driving off the road, effectively forcing driving enthusiasts to get their fix on a race-track. After all, why should other road users who're just trying to get to work bear unnecessary extra risk for what will be soon after cars can drive themselves, a hobby? This requires remarkably little legislation; just a bit of thought now, and the market and technology to do the rest.

People are suspicious of new technology, and over-rate (often grossly) their own competence behind the wheel, and feeling in control is not the same as being in control, morons don't realise this. Insurance companies, who rely on statistics rather than rules of thumb which evolved to help bands of hunter-gatherers on the African Savannah, are comfortable with underwriting risk, once driverless cars are seen as more competent than morons. The liability in the event of a crash, the single obstacle cited most often by morons objecting to this technology, has already pretty much been solved. The driver will carry liability, for the car he's travelling in, as now. Perhaps there will be some shared liability with the manufacturers in the event of software failure, another risk massively over-stated by morons, as they don't notice the software currently keeping them on the road in their car, right now. But it matters little because the insurance industry has indicated it is happy to wear the risk, because they assess it will be less expensive to have fallible robots controlling 1.5 tons of metal at 70mph, than human morons.

Surveys that say half of people would feel unsafe driving with autonomous cars on the road, and a quarter would never get in one are unsurprising. People are morons because they use inaccurate heuristics to calculate risk. Heuristics which worked for our ancestors, but which are inadequate for the modern world. I, reasonably feel unsafe around morons driving, and welcome technology which will take my life out of morons' hands and also their lives out of mine for I am too a moron behind the wheel. The views of morons who've never considered the issue can be ignored. Once they see autonomous vehicles work, and realise they can read a book, masturbate, or watch telly on the way to work or sleep rather than struggling to stay awake on a long motorway drive, they will quickly accept it.

Google's driverless car, which cannot yet tell a scrunched up paper from rock, or recognise temporary signs, has had two crashes in the 700,000 autonomous miles (as at mid 2014) driven, but were being driven manually both times. In Google's words, the car is already driving better than a tired or drunk human. And by 2017, they aim to make it better than the best driver in the world.

Coventry and Milton Keynes are testing the Lutz driverless pods which will initially run on separate paths before being integrated onto the roads. Finally Greenwich will trial passenger shuttles which look like big golf buggys. Not all driverless cars will make you look a wanker, though. Bristol's Venturer consortium is testing a BAE Systems wildcat, which is probably the hairiest-chested vehicle on the roads, and these are looking at congestion reduction and interactions with other road users.

The implications of driverless cars will be enormous. Some implications are obvious. It will first be employed to replace commercial vehicles, reducing cost of transporting goods and facilitating just in time delivery. Bulk freight may well be moved by long trains of autonomous lorries, saving fuel which can break up nearer destinations.  Car ownership may well be reduced, as urban journeys in one's own car are replaced by commuting in pods which pick you up as needed. The space not needed for on-street parking may well yield more road space to cyclists and pedestrians. Equally, the prospect of having a car drop the children at school, swing by the shops to have pre-ordered deliveries loaded into the boot, and return might yield more, not fewer vehicles on the roads.

It is likely autonomous vehicles will encourage urban sprawl and long commutes as the commute becomes productive, or relaxing rather than stressful. This may change the design of cities in ways we cannot predict. Just as horses and cyclists' mass lobbies gave way to the motor car, autonomous vehicles will almost certainly kill the driving lobby and accelerate the move back to "liveable cities" perhaps cities will become like fried eggs with a "liveable" urban core, surrounded by autonomous-vehicle friendly suburban sprawl. Maybe bigger cities will be amoeba with several urban cores, with a cytoplasm of sprawling suburbs. Who knows. What is certain, when I'm cycling, I'd rather share my road with a robot, designed specifically to see me, than with the kind of arsehole who thinks buying a BMW is in any way acceptable behaviour.

I yearn for this technology. Because most of my driving is long-distance, and frankly I'd rather be reading a book than stare at the back of a Vauxall Zafira at 70mph for 90 minutes. And who, really, honestly enjoys a long slog up the motorway?



Thursday, 5 February 2015

On that One, last, Insurmountable Inequality Between the Sexes.

If the Pompeii Graffiti and Punternet agree, the price of a shag with a lady of negotiable virtue has remained about a working man's daily wage for at least 2,000 years. With this in mind, let's not try to pretend human nature has changed all that much. We are still the same upright Ape that wandered out of African savannah 100,000 years ago. And as such, modern life is not what we evolved for. It's stressful enough without trying to alter what we are and what we find attractive in the opposite sex. And with Internet dating, those of us with an anthropological bent have been given an enormous amount of data to see what people actually want. It isn't usually what they say they want, or what society pressures us to want.


Slavica totally married Bernie for 24 years because of his looks and famous charm.

Let's think about human mating as a transaction, because it is. Men trade intimacy for sex, and women trade sex for intimacy. And then there's the whole bio-mechanics of seeking a fertile mate. Females seek a provider, and males seek a fertile and healthy woman to maximise their mutual chances of offspring being successful. And then there's the cost of Gametes: men will seek to spread their seed (cheat), while women face an incentive to get impregnated by a "better" mate should their provider be a bit unsatisfactory (cuckold). And the reason paternity isn't routinely tested is often alleged to be because society couldn't cope with the result.

We are not evolved to be monogamous, as there is significant sexual dimorphism. The hidden ovulation and permanent receptiveness of the human female is extraordinarily unusual.

We are a highly sexual animal. Yet both genders seem pathologically incapable understanding the simple fact that men and women want different things of each other. Any attempt to generalise about this invites ridicule. But, physically, broadly, women desire a man taller than they are. This is why so many women, if they put anything in their Tinder profiles at all, it's their height, to male bemusement. Men simply are not interested in how tall a woman is. And men, displaying their abdominal muscles look faintly ridiculous. Physically most of what a man wants in a woman can be described as 'not fat' and they're assuming women desire the same in men. Women desire a high status man (a man who can make people laugh is almost always in control of the room). Men desire youth, beauty, health and a caring nature.

I remember being asked recently by the friend of a lovely-looking girl who was thinking of breaking up with her nightclub bouncer boyfriend "are you an earner?". I was shocked. Essentially it's the female equivalent of going up to a woman and saying "show me your tits". But it's those unused to hiding their base desires who most often reveal what is in the human id.

The female lawyer, saying "I'm strong and successful, why don't men find me attractive?" is making exactly the same mistake as the sad-act sending out pictures of his penis to women on the internet from his Parent's basement and being confused by the responses. They're both guilty of projection. I desire this of men/women, so they must desire this of me.

Women want a man they can admire. Men, broadly do not want to be competing with their other half and would rather be supported by someone they can cherish. Given this - it's not a mis-match, is it? - complementary nature of desires, it's not surprising that fewer women, having found their higher-status man and persuaded him to commit, give up on the rat-race. After all, what's in it for them? Most women, in my experience do want to settle down, raise their children more than they want to become a partner in the law firm. And the man, to keep up his end of the bargain, will work his fingers to the bone for the rest of his life to provide for his wife and kids.

And this act of providing for a family provides the same deep sense of satisfaction to a man as motherhood does to a woman.

Women suitably qualified, often leave their professions, for long periods of time to raise children. And so the women who're qualified don't end up putting themselves forward for professorships or indulge in the savage politicking necessary to get to the top of a corporate pole. They are, like my mother, quite happily looking after people they love. And many such women, of enormous wit, intellect and brilliance take offence at the idea that this is a waste of their talents. The lack of female CEOs is certainly partly down to the choices many women make to not bother with the corporate game. So long as there is no discrimination against those women who DO choose to climb the pole, I fail to see why this is a problem.

There are costs to equality and women's emancipation. At the other end of the social spectrum, with the welfare state providing for the women and children at least as well as men, the men become utterly worthless to their womenfolk, completely disposable sex-objects, valuable only for fertility. Which is why there is so much violence on the sink estates. Big muscles on the nightclub doorman give him status in a world where men, without economic or social pull, have little else but psychological and physical abuse to keep 'their' women in orbit.

Men who suddenly find themselves unable to provide for their women through unemployment are often quickly and efficiently ditched, whereas women's relationships often survive unemployment. A man supports a woman, whereas a man isn't "supported" by a woman, he "lives off her". Society judges. Unemployment is a leading cause of male suicide. As is Divorce. To a married man, unemployment is therefore a much, much greater threat than it is to a married woman as it opens up a yawning chasm of social worthlessness. There are men who'd happily be taken on for the ride as a supporting player to a successful woman, but such a woman would find him revolting. You can send your much more successful wife off to work while you change the nappies, but she'd probably end up shagging the boss of a bigger firm. And when the divorce comes, she's off, and he's.... already been emasculated, has a gap in his CV and is worth little to employers or eligible women. This is why female breadwinner, male childcare families are rare and unstable and most female breadwinner families are single-parent.

So, the psychological, social and sexual rewards to men are greater for an equal degree of professional success, and the punishment for failure is far, far more severe. Is it any wonder men work longer hours, will take the shitty jobs with anti-social hours, and don't prioritise family time and flexibility? And these incentives are innate to us. They are not social constructs. Women like wealth and status like men like a nice high, firm, round bosom.

"So Debbie McGee, what attracted you to Millionaire Paul Daniels?"

Measuring equality in society by the number of female MPs or FTSE100 CEOs is just stupid, because the cost, effort and time invested in becoming a successful politician/architect/CEO/Formula 1 impresario pays off  for men in the only currency I can find which has never depreciated: access to a desirable mate. But it doesn't pay off for women in that currency, all that much. (Both Dennis Thatcher and Joachim Sauer were already successful when they met Margaret Roberts and Angela Merkel). Men are defined by their social status, for which earning power is a good proxy. Short, odd-looking rich men like Bernie Ecclestone and Paul Daniels do have their pick of attractive women, in a way Angela Merkel doesn't have muscular hunks dripping off her arm (instead, a hugely respected research physicist). Wealthy, successful female lawyers who tell you they paid for their own BMW, thank you very much, are often single. Wealth and power is irrelevant to female attractiveness to men. Wealth and professional success enhances (is...?) male attractiveness to women.

Rich professional, single women like to think that men are intimidated by strong women. I think that's a comforting myth spun by women whose biological clocks are ticking, but who haven't worked out what it is men want. And old, short, odd-looking rich men like to think it's their charm and wit, rather than their money and power, that's attractive to the leggy amazon they're escorting. Yeah.

And so, in the currency that matters, the one that ultimately drives us, access to a desirable mate, wealth helps men, but not women, achieve what they want. That which women can leverage to secure that high-status man is a wasting asset, drifting away while they're chasing the career. Women can get through the glass ceiling, if they're prepared to risk celibacy and loneliness with the successful women who have it all dangled as a tempting carrot, which is unlikely to ever be universal. Men do not face that trade-off, but they do face a great deal more pressure to succeed. Most people get this intuitively. That, not discrimination, seems to be the main reason a FTSE100 boardroom is a sausage-fest.

Please note, if you're minded to comment, that I don't believe this is as it SHOULD be, but how it IS. And I don't imagine there's a great deal that can be done about it. We are wired up how we're wired up, and that's that.

The author is currently single.



Monday, 26 January 2015

Charybdis and Scylla

Alone among the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain), Greece was running a massive structural deficit before the crisis. Ireland and Spain in particular were torpedoed by the financial crisis, despite running prudent fiscal surpluses in 2007, which was the only bubble-cooling option available to their governments in the absence of monetary levers. The Irish and Spanish were not partying on Germany's tick, but were instead trying to manage the structural flaws in the Euro. The Greeks on the other hand were using Germany's credit card to pay the settlement of their civil war.


Since the 2008 crisis, the Greek right has, inflicted enormous pain on the population, removing graft and non-jobs which had become a birthright for many, and tried to deal with the widespread tax-evasion (evasion probably isn't strong enough. Many Greeks simply ignored the need to pay much in the way of taxes). Tax rises (for that is what making people accustomed to not paying cough up is) and cutting spending (for that is what dealing with graft and non-jobs is) represents a fundamental re-structuring of the Greek economy, which is now 25% smaller than it was before the crisis. This is beyond depression, and looks more like an economy emerging from a major war.

However, on its own terms, Greece's austerity has worked. The population now has a GDP per capita more appropriate to their actual productivity, and the country is running a primary (ie before debt service) surplus. More taxes are paid, and public sector jobs mostly exist and require their holders to turn up. This is an appropriate time to default as the smoke can clear before the country needs to tap the bond-markets again. The Greek right will take the opprobrium for the pain of the last few years, the left the plaudits for the recovery. Ain't it ever thus?

Germany, for its part, will have to wave goodbye to the money it lent Greece, and muse on the fact that it has the European empire the desire for which has burned in the Teutonic heart since the country was unified under the Hohenzollerns, and that means it must sometimes pay others' bills. Think of it as payback for living under the US security guarantee, which costs American taxpayers 4% of GDP, when Germany spends 1%. With power, comes responsibility.  

Greece should default. Germany should pay. Greece cannot default unilaterally, as they lack the resources to stand behind their banks, so they need Troika co-operation to do so. There's ultimately no need for Greece to leave the Euro, even though this would probably be better in the long-run for everyone; this would allow the Greeks to default, devalue and move on. However there is no political will for this amongst the players that matter (Greece and Germany), however much British anti-EU types yearn for it. Grexit won't happen. The default and devaluation would probably mean another 2 years of economic uncertainty, and Greek society may not be able to cope without descending into violence, and it's probably not worth that risk.

Syriza will not be able to deliver promised spending increases, though the austerity is probably going to be a lot less severe from now on. This is going to leave a lot of people very disappointed. The non-jobs, the state pensions paid for life to siblings, the fictional tax returns Greeks used to enjoy are not coming back. The only certainty is whatever happens, Alexis Tsipras is going to get a very sharp lesson in economic reality and power politics when he sits down in front of Frau Merkel.

Muddling through with a Grumpy German taxpayer picking up the bill for a Battered Greek economy, leaving the fundamental structural flaws of the Euro in place is probably the least bad solution all round.



Friday, 2 January 2015

Politicians with their own views, whatever next?

The normally excellent Tim Worstall (who is a UKIP supporter, see comments) succumbs here to one of his party's central idiocies: That it is the job of the politician to reflect the views of the electorate.

I’m pretty sure, in this democracy thing, that a political leader is supposed to reflect the desires of the electorate, not mold them.
This is, for example why Douglas 'Judas' Carswell voted against gay marriage, despite being personally in favour. I am not accusing UKIP here of hypocrisy, just being wrong.

Running a country is complicated. The control levers available to Government are only loosely connected to the machine of Government. Much of the day to day control is in the hands of a cadre of long-term civil servants, whose job is to implement policy and who act as dampers on any control input. I think of it like a rowing galley, where the tips of the oars are hidden from the captain's view. He's trying to steer the galley by guessing the movement through the soles of his feet. Some of the the galley's rowers can't be bothered, and many of the rest, don't want to go where it's going, and so pull in the direction of where they want to go anyway, and the other half who are pulling in the direction the captain wants to go, aren't much good. Ultimately the captain can barely see what difference his changes to the beat of the drum and nudges to the tiller make (especially as everyone's free to choose their own tom-tom drum, and progress through the water is barely steering-way) until long after he's been ousted by mutiny.

I like this metaphor, because the command economy, where the rowers are chained and incentiveised with whips, go much faster through the water to some direction chosen by the management, but the Captain still can't see to the tips of the oars, and they inevitably hit the rocks.

Sometimes the people on the watch-tower (think-tankers, philosophers, policy analysts, economists) see a looming shape in the fog off the prow of the galley. They shout to the captain who's only just in earshot. If he's lucky, the captain can, with almighty heaves of the tiller and a bit of cajoling of the rowers down below (those who can be persuaded to agree with him anyway) avoid the rocks (Thatcher) Sometimes not (Blair).

This metaphor can be extended indefinitely.

Politicians are the people to whom we outsource political economy. This is every bit as sophisticated, with arcane knowledge as being a Gas engineer or Lawyer. And when a Gas Engineer starts looking at political economy, he's staring at a fog of unknown-unknowns at least as complete as were Ed Miliband to have a go at servicing his own boiler. The difference is Ed Miliband KNOWS he doesn't know what he's doing. But EVERYONE thinks they've got the political answers. Everyone thinks their politics are "common sense".  But if you don't know what's been tried, you're going to come up with some 'common sense' which is already proven wrong. Rent control, for example which is the great, unflushable turd of political ideas, or Free Parking.

There is a particularly UKIPish line of thinking which runs thus:

  1. I am reasonable
  2. Therefore my views are shared by reasonable people
  3. Everyone I know thinks [x]
  4. Therefore everyone who doesn't think [x] is by definition, not reasonable
  5. A not reasonable belief can only be held for malign reasons
  6. Therefore the Government fails to agree with me because of conspiracy or incompetence.
Go on. Go to a pub in London, and ask the punters whether rents should be controlled or whether parking should be free. Then go and find an economist who agrees. 

Of course 
  1. Everyone think's they're reasonable, but not everyone's got the same information to be reasonable about. Even twins disagree on stuff.
  2. People seek out like-minded souls and avoid controversial subjects such as politics with people who's views you don't already know. Tories particularly sociable around the "sound".
  3. This is called selection bias.
  4. This is an incorrect but common logical inference (the mistake, if you will in this chain of reasoning)
  5. Attribution of motive is pure projection, and particularly common on amongst the stupid, particularly by Labourites, who cannot grasp the more subtle cause and effect of  'right wing' economics, and by UKIPpers who cannot grasp the right end of a shit-stick, let alone a political argument.
  6. This is the crowning idiocy of UKIP the sheer lack of belief that a reasonable person might not be in a frothing frenzy about EU fish quotas or the Bulgarian who moved in next door. The belief that policy is run for "their mates in big business" or the despicable EU cabal.
But there is no British Political Elite. It's true the sons of politicians find it easier through name-recognition and nepotism to get a foot in the door, but they also have the benefits of experience gained through osmosis in how the controls to the galley work. This is why people from all walks of life often end up doing what their parents did. But if you really, really want to be Prime Minister, you need the talent, luck, charm, skill and so forth, and you go for it. No-one will stop you. It's easier for sure, if you read PPE at Oxford, but there are plenty of MPs who didn't.

If there was a British Political establishment, you'd expect to see it represented at the top.

David Cameron's dad wasn't an MP he was a stockbroker. Neither was Gordon Brown's who was a minister of religion. Nor, for that matter Tony Blair's who cavorted in fire with little horns on his head, a black cape and goat's feet (Leo Blair was an actor - but he may have been cuckolded by Belezebub). Or John Major's who was also on the stage. Margaret Thatcher's dad was a Grantham shop-keeper. Jim Callaghan's dad, also Called Jim, was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. All of these people entered politics, not because they wanted to join a self-serving elite (anyone think someone like Cameron would settle for a measly £142,500 a year in any other job?) but because they thought they could do it, it interested them, they got the skills and qualifications and they took their chances. They sought a safe-seat. Then they waited for an opportunity, building a reputation, getting to know the means to climb the greasy pole, until there was a leadership election in their party. Then they went for it. Then we voted for them by the million.

That's not to say everything's perfect. I even agree with your average UKIPper on many individual issues. But the job of the Politician is to apply his judgement, experience and knowledge of his electorate, to try to be a man FOR them in the job, even if he doesn't always do what a simple majority of the noisiest ones want. Representative democracy isn't a tribal headcount, and it is not majoritarian tyranny. It's at least as much about what the majority can't do to a minority as it is reflecting 50%+1's views. 

Worse: there was no local referendum that say Carswell vote against equal marriage rights for homosexuals, but rather by his own admission, a look the contents of his letter bag, from a collection of angry, poorly educated bigots living in his god-forsaken, depressing retirement home at the end of the line, and who've now gone over to UKIP with him. The people who write letters are not the cheerful, sound fellows you sometimes meet down the pub, but the sour and bitter old bags who complain about the noise. 

Is that who you want running your country, or do you want to have people who've at least tried to work out cause and effect before they pull on that tiller?



Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2015 Is Going to be the Best Year in Human History

Last year I wrote some predictions How did I do?

The FTSE100 will reach an all-time high, for the first time since 1999, and will continue the bull-run. 7,000 will be left behind. Thanks to tightening money, The Oil Price will fall below $100 and stay there. The Brent/WTI spread will narrow from 99/111.
Yup, I spotted the fall in oil price. But I didn't bet on it, nor did I expect so precipitous a fall. I think the FTSE will break out in 2015
The Labour lead will fall from 6-8%. UKIP will win popular vote in the European parliament elections, then their support will drift back to the Tories thanks to a strengthening recovery. Scotland will vote 'No' to independence. Ed Miliband will remain a worthless union stooge. The voter-repelling and emetic Ed Balls will remain shadow Chancellor, because his boss is a spineless dweeb, with shit for brains and "Red" Len McClusky's hand up his bum. Tories will post a lead, but I doubt it will be done consistently.
Labour's lead has fallen, UKIP did top the poll in the Euros and are now fading. Scotland voted 'no'. Ed Miliband's utter unsuitability for Prime Ministerial office continues to be displayed every day.
The Syrian civil war will not end, but Assad will regain control of much of the country, leaving an islamist insurgency. The world will continue to look the other way. China's growth will slow. The rumblings of dissent new riches have smothered will start to grow louder. The Communist Party may seek to use Sabre-Rattling with Japan to detract domestic opinion from the looming economic crisis. Something dramatic will happen on the Korean Peninsula.
I didn't really predict anything specific, nor was I far from consensus. But Korea? Was I prescient?

So onto 2015.


  • I think 2015 will be the year the FTSE breaks 7000. One day it will, one day I will be right.

  • Oil will fall to $40, and maybe below and stabilise in the $40-60 range. USA becomes the world's swing producer
  • The Conservatives will win a thin majority in GE2015. There maybe 2 elections. Don't ask me how. no polling backs this up. But the country doesn't want Miliband, and Cameron's actually done a pretty good job under difficult conditions and doesn't deserve to be sacked. UKIP to win 3-5 seats, Farage to fail in Thanet, the party's national vote share in the 10-12% range.
  • China's growth over the past few years will prove to have been overstated. China's slowdown to get worse. India to continue to develop rapidly. Modi proving his critics wrong: He may be the man to get India working and taking its rightful place as a major economic power.
  • Russia will try to save whatever face it can for Putin, as it withdraws from Ukraine in response to the falling oil price and continued sanctions. Russia will be set up to rejoin the world financial system in 2016.
  • IS will be reduced to a rump by the end of the year, as having been stopped in their tracks on a number of fronts, they will find the supply of jihadis will dry up.
  • Darfur will be the international flash-point to watch.

We live in a time of miracles. 3-D printed lungs, and people landing space probes on distant orbiting rocks. The benefits of these miracles are unequally distributed. But they do eventually benefit everyone. Luxuries once unthinkable even to Louis XV such as the world's knowledge at the touch of a button, are available to most, through the miracle of stable institutions, and the creative destruction of free-market capitalism.

This provides opportunity for self-improvement, but also can be a productivity-sucking distraction. Who manages to make the most of the opportunities will set the agenda. Wars end, elections happen. The relentless search for better ways to do things however doesn't stop. Nations hold elections. But policies can be reversed, or turn out to be right all along. But people keep passing on knowledge, which is accumulating at an ever-accelerating rate. We will work stuff out. In time.

Meanwhile a billion people still subsist by patchy subsistence agriculture. Between the relentless march of new miracles, and the acquisition of already acquired technology by new users, there's centuries of improvement in the human condition, economic growth, right there. Meanwhile Britain is climbing UP the economic rankings. Real wages appear to be growing sustainably and the growth returns.

Signal to noise ratio, people. Neither the world, nor Britain is 'going to the dogs', there's no need to vote UKIP. 2014 was the best year in human history. 2015 will be even better.



Friday, 19 December 2014

Women in the Front Line

Women do a fantastic job throughout the Army. On the operations the Army has undertaken over the past twenty years, women have been vital. There are things a woman can do - dealing with survivors of rape for example - where a man would be inappropriate. And they are in harm's way while they have been doing their jobs; nearly every job in the military is open to women, and rightly so. An army should reflect the society it protects. But I don't think women should be allowed  to serve in the infantry or Royal Armoured Corps.

This is certainly not a slur on the female soldiers' courage, or desire to fight. But it is a simple fact that women are not as strong as men. The job of a combat infantryman involves carrying weight, fast, over rough ground. The loads are enormous, especially in these days of Osprey body-armour.

Despite the TV fantasy of 8-stone martial arts-trained women hurting fit 16-stone men, in a fight, a good big-un beats a good little-un. I am nearly 18 stone. I know of no woman who could lift me out of a fire-trench, let alone carry me, were I wounded, to a Company Aid Post. A woman in the platoon would always be the weakest link, because she would always be the weakest.

Women's bodies do not respond to training in the same way as men's. Women lay down muscle slower, and never get as strong. I went through basic training when "gender neutral" tests were in force. Less than 10% of the intake were women, yet they made up well over half of those back-squadded through injury. The vast majority of women strong enough, will not be fast enough over the ground when carrying kit. The vast majority of women fast enough over the ground will not be strong enough to carry the kit. There will be a tiny number, both fit and strong enough to keep up with the boys, but too few to make it worthwhile building the barracks and facilities to house them separately.

Do women's rights trump those of the big boys to have comrades capable of lifting them when they catch a bullet for queen and country?

There is a reason adult women don't play rugby with adult men. Combat is tougher than rugby.




Friday, 12 December 2014

Kill All Drug Users?

I don't know if any of you are on the YouGov site. But it is addictive. A bit like twitter, but with 500 characters. I wrote an Opinion on the Legalisation of Cannabis.

Why do we gift the most profitable industry in history to criminals? Successful Interdiction of supply is incompatible with a free society, so why bother? Legalise. Enjoy the benefits of police no-longer alienating swaths of the population enforcing ridiculous prohibition, who can be deployed elsewhere. Tax the trade. Enforce quality standards, Treat problem users medically rather than criminally. EVERYONE is better off.
I received the following comment
EXTERMINATE once the users , dealer and growers are suitably dead there will be no further problem And anyone calling for legalisation MUST be tested one trace and its guilty
So there we have it - some people getting high is more of a problem than a murderous state executing people without due process. That's the level of idiocy we're up against, people. And for the record, I suspect this is what he genuinely believes. I have come across plenty of police who think like this.

You cannot stop people desiring to get out of themselves chemically. Whether it's booze or narcotics. And in a free society, you cannot meaningfully interdict supply of psychoactive chemicals. To some people such as my correspondent above, that means a free society is the problem. Perhaps he needs some time in the salt-mines to learn the value of freedom?



Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Oil Price Collapse, & why No-One Starves in the West.

Two years after the fall of Soviet Communism, a visiting Russian official seeking to learn about how free market systems worked, asked the Cambridge economist Paul Seabright "Who is in charge of Bread Supply in London. He was astonished by the answer: "No-One".

No-one has starved in a free market system since the Potato Famine in Ireland in 1740-41, which happened because of the failure of a staple crop, and despite significant Government initial efforts to alleviate it. The free market failed there, for a huge number of reasons but that remains the only example, and much has been learned since. Many of the other famines in what were nominally free-market systems, like the Bengal Famine of 1943 can be put down directly to interventions in the markets such as the (democratically elected) Punjabi Government preventing the export of food to Bengal, whose other major source of food, Burma, was having a little local difficulty which became known to history as World War 2. Because of this intervention by the Punjabi government in the market in response to shortages, and subsequent inaction by the Indian Government, over a million people died.



The oil price rose throughout the '00s in response to the rise of Chinese demand, lower interest rates and increased car use in the developed and developing world. Then people started to hurt. Oil price protests rocked the world. The cost of maintaining subsidised petrol in the non-petro-state middle-east is one of the sparks that lit the 'Arab Spring'. In the west, cars got more efficient as the price (and taxes on petrol) rose. People bought smaller and more efficient cars. Highway speeds fell, as cars started to have 'fuel economy' displayed on the dashboard and people realised how much more it cost to drive at 90mph than 70. People changed their behaviour and drove less: 'Peak car' was in 2005 in the USA.

Meanwhile, engineers went looking. We had long known about 'Tight oil' (oil soaked into porous shale or tar-sands), but it was expensive to produce, and uneconomic to extract, until the prices rose. And when they did, engineers sought means to improve production efficiency. And they were successful. The spike of Oil prices in response to cheap money and the recovery from the credit crunch led to an enormous explosion of production in Texas and North Dakota in particular. The USA became the world's largest oil producer in 2013. Cost of tight-oil production in Texas is around $40 and falling. In much of the traditional reserves in the North Sea, it's $35.

There is the equivalent of five Saudi Arabias worth of reserves in the Eagle Ford shale in East Texas alone. (1.25tn Barrels of Oil Equivalent vs 255bn BOE) . And it is ALL economically viable to extract so long as oil remains above $50 per barrel. And there's the Bakken in North Dakota and others. Peak Oil? Um... no.

So the response to a temporary shortage of Oil was for people to use gradually less in response to a price signal, and for people to go looking for more, in response to the same price signal. And the result is the glut of Oil the world is currently enjoying as oil that was prospected when the price was $120 is now hitting the market. My guess is we can expect $45 or so and then stabilisation around $50-70. Having got used to Oil at twice that price, it will feel like a tax cut for the world. (Except Nigeria, Venezuala, and Russia...).

What is true of Oil - the price goes up when demand exceeds supply - is true of wheat, and pork bellies, and olive oil, and corn or Tea. And the substitutes, barley, chicken, rape-seed oil, Sorghum, coffee, and so forth get used instead. People economise and substitute. So long as the market remains, it will become increasingly profitable to move stock from places of low value to places of high value where things are scarce.

Even the much-maligned speculation, or what used to be called 'hoarding' helps, by creating a reserve  in anticipation of higher prices to come, to be released onto the market in response to shortages. Hoarding ensures the commodity is always available at a price. And so no-one starves.

And the lessons: how to grow crops or burn fuel more efficiently, cannot be unlearned. So when supply returns, prices often collapse, the speculators often get badly burned, but the economy as a whole is richer as a lot is being done more efficiently.

Ah... I hear you say... but what about Africa: how can Africans pay the same prices as Europeans? But 21st century famines in Africa are almost never SUPPLY problems, but DISTRIBUTION problems. This isn't about cash-crops being removed even as people starved, like Ireland in the 18th Century. We in the rich west are not taking African food because we can pay more, indeed quite the opposite. There's often plenty of food, grown in the region or supplied as Aid, but due to poor infrastructure or more often, war and banditry, it cannot get to where it is needed. Where the rich west is holding Africa down is by preventing much of the continent from developing a cash-crop economy. The Africans are actively prevented from supplying our markets with cheap food by rich-world Farm subsidies, So roads aren't built, and when the crops fail, food cannot get in from outside, either in response to rising prices or even Aid. Aid which often as a by-product, destroys the livelihoods of local farmers by undercutting them.

The European Union, USA and Japan, to name the most egregious examples have their boots on the face of Africa, keeping him down, but not in the way you'd think. African farmers cannot compete against our heavily subsidised farmers and so cannot invest or develop their production, even if they wanted to. The market for the end product isn't there. Without that bottom rung, the rest of the development ladder is much harder to climb. Then, by demanding Africa opens up their economies to everything, except the one thing they have a comparative advantage, African economies struggle to compete and struggle to develop.

The fact Africa now contains some of the Fastest-growing economies on earth is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Imagine how much better it'd be if we'd not retarded African development by to appease French farmers' selfishness. Every famine since 1740-41, everywhere in the world is BECAUSE, not despite a Government somewhere intervening in the market. And the same is true of poverty. The African governments and their trade partners who've worked this out are doing well. But it took millions of lives, and is still not widely understood.

Rising prices are merely the means by which no-one starves and the pumps still have petrol. Would you rather we ran out occasionally?



Share it