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 PiƱata 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". But I did swim in the same intellectual Milieu as the Brexity-Trumpkins for decades and know many serious Brexiters personally. Having spend decades rationalising the EU-obsessed madness of the Tory right as a harmless eccentricity that they don't really mean, I do have, with hindsight, some understanding what these creatures 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.



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