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Friday, 20 October 2017

Ecological Disaster

Almost certainly, the most important news from Europe this week is the result of a long-term study of insect life in the German countryside. This has shown that over the last 30 years - an incredibly short period in evolutionary terms - up to 84% of the TOTAL of insect life, over almost all species, has declined when the incidence of creatures is counted at the peak of the summer [when the populations of most insects should be at the highest level].

The importance of insects in the crop cycle for most plant types has been recognised by humans for millennia, and it has been re-emphasised as the population of bees has declined over recent decades with a whole series of diseases and alien species destroying the populations of hives and also the survival and reproduction of solitary bees. That this catastrophe has befallen almost all European insects in a very short period is truly alarming. Insects and plants have evolved symbiotically over millions of years; and mammals are utterly dependent on that symbiosis for their foods.

The culprits are well recognised, especially a small range of herbicides and insecticides that are used in massive quantities - particularly in Europe - with the desired effect of protecting crops in the short term. The lobbies for these substances to be banned will grow larger and louder from now on, with many farmers joining in as the risk to pollination of their crops hits their pockets.When the necessary measures have belatedly been taken, nature will almost certainly act as it usually has, and provide the climatic and other conditions in which populations can rebuild themselves quickly. But it may not work that way: the ecological disaster may already have gone so far that the spaces left by the vanished insects could be taken up by alien species that do not support the main farmed crops, and present health hazards to human beings.

There have been many, crystal clear warnings from various ecological pressure groups, not least the ludicrously-named 'organic' movement [who ever saw an inorganic cabbage?], and they have been ignored. The German data are incontrovertible, and are largely replicated across the continent: so something most be done, and will be done, and things may just turn out all right.

A parallel crisis has been reported from the mass use of antibiotics in cattle and other mammalian species of farmed animals and in zoos: the powerful chemicals become dispersed in the waterways and thus return to the life-cycle of which humans are a part: accelerating the rate at which viruses and bacteria evolve to counteract the effects of the drugs on their own ecology. The British medical establishment has warned that when the rate of evolution of bacterial and virological resistance to antibiotics outpaces the development of new and replacement antibiotics, it will become unsafe to perform almost any form of surgery. I include viruses alongside bacteria here because it has become common to give antibiotics to people experiencing virological attacks because in many cases patients find it has a placebo effect: thus they demand antibiotics and doctors often succumb to such demands in order to avoid complaints from patients. This matter has been presented to the media for several years, and the impact of the message has somewhat been muted by the development of more advanced antibiotics; but there is no assurance that the pharmacologists will continue to outpace the evolution of bacteria, and it is irrational for people to assume that science will always triumph.

There is nothing new in the reported decline of insect species: the decline in several bird species has been associated with the decline of their prey for several decades. But nothing adequate has been done about it, and now the 'eleventh hour' has passed and Europe is in the twelfth hour. This is a far more massive challenge than Islam, Jihad, populism, Putin or Trump: and it cannot be avoided.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Mrs May's Incomprehension

In an emotional Commons sitting yesterday, Mrs May displayed her total incomprehension of the realities of life for the very people she has said she wants to convince that 'Britain is a country that works for everybody'. She absolutely refused to pause in the roll-out of the new single benefit, even though Tory MPs had lined up to warn her of the stress that this was causing in households up and down the land. She lauded the principle of the benefit, and gloated that it was forcing people to take low-paid jobs [though, of course, she did not formulate it quite in those terms].

The government more generally have emphasised that people can get an advance of 50% of their benefit for the six-plus weeks they have to wait to draw the main sum; downplaying the speed with which repayment of the advance is required once receipt of the benefit is confirmed. It is a matter of indifference to the government whether the 'helpline' charges 50p+ per minute or is free: no doubt, if more people can access, it more of the callers will find it constantly engaged.

The same day, figures were produced that show that more than a quarter of young mothers all over the country and of the people in north-east England lead the large league table of people who are locked-in to low-paid jobs, with no hope of shifting to better situations in the short term. Thus more people are more deeply depressed than have ever been since the introduction of the welfare state; with the food banks planning for a bumper Christmas this year.

A long way beyond Mrs May's comprehension is the fact that as more people are driven into low-paid employment, that is also low-productivity employment.  So the more people 'gain' from the single benefit, the lower will be the average wage and the less will be the average output per head over the whole workforce: so the lower will be the average 'productivity' of labour: brilliant!

Today Mrs May is off to Brussels, to reveal her equally profound incomprehension of the plain English, French and German in which she and David Davis [and their team] have been told what the EU expects before they are willing to talk about giving Britain special access to the EU single market after Brexit. The Tory headbangers have sent her a formal warning not to be led into making any 'concession' to the EU: as if the UK has any real choice in the matter. Of course, none of the clots who have issued the warning lives on the breadline. None of them are dependent on the minimum wage, or on the single benefit; indeed, many of them have no need to earn their current income at all as they are rentiers or pensioners [or both]. So none of them will be in the categories who would experience extreme deprivation in an economically-isolated UK; but there are millions of people in Britain whose precarious living standards would be smashed to smithereens under WTO Rules. Thus these Privy Councillors and party hacks are showing the same arrogance of affluence as Mrs May and her Secretary of State for Work and Pensions showed yesterday. They are flexing their power to destroy the Conservative Party: perhaps they should be allowed to do just that; before the final vote in Parliament on the implementation of Brexit is held.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

A Macron-Merkel Plot to 'Destroy' London?

The world has been so intrigued by the bizarre conduct of President Trump that far too little attention has been paid to the oddity of the French president. Mr Trump has been ridiculously intrusive in sharing his rapidly-changing views with the media and in the Twittersphere: M Macron has been tight-lipped to an unusual degree; and there have been many reports of his contempt for the media. He has been reported as saying - to his own staff - that there is no point in him giving interviews and press conferences because his intellect is so far superior to the norm that people simply will not understand his statements and his answers to questions. His path to office has been engineered by the old establishment of the 'higher schools', who experienced the agony of the Hollande regime and were determined to seize upon the national consensus that politics had reached a nadir. Thus they presented a new sort of candidate from a new generation: a man with few friends and a most peculiar private life. His allies engineered a parliamentary landslide, and he appears to be in an unassailable position with a clear popular mandate - to be 'different' - backed by a parliamentary majority.

With these assets, he is attempting - as half a dozen of his predecessors did - to attack the established position of the trade unions and of the farming interest, and to try to change the culture of work generally in France. Given the fact that recorded French 'productivity' is very much greater than the British, and not far inferior to the German, it is unclear why he thinks that such disruption is desirable or necessary; but he is having a go anyway: and it fills column inches in the press.

His career record includes a few years with a major international bank, where he greatly refined his spoken English and learned how far ahead of French practice in banking and finance are the systems in new York and London; and how much bigger are the financial markets in those centres - and in Singapore - than in Paris. He also gained a perspective an the depth of support that the London finance sector has, from a huge array of specialist lawyers and a raft of support professions such as actuaries, arbitrators, loss assessors and adjusters. Some English-speaking critics reckon that he has developed a profound envy of these markets, and that he came into office with a determination to push Paris as a rival to those centres even though the ancillary trades there are massively under-developed.

Doomsters in London have now come up with the idea that he has decided to use the Brexit opportunity to diminish London massively: and that he has enlisted Angela Merkel and the gnomes of Frankfurt to his plot. This is seen as the hidden agenda behind the determination of a loyal, ambitious and deeply egocentric Frenchman, Michel Barnier, to use his role as EU negotiator with the UK to delay and diminish whatever settlement the UK can achieve with the EU. This sort of conspiracy theory can be very powerful in times of massive uncertainty; and the absence of any such plot  - as with any negative argument in politics - is ultimately impossible to prove.

Mrs Merkel grew up, graduated and worked in the German Democratic Republic, and presumably had to learn Marxist dogma sufficiently to be allowed into university and into a research post. There is very little evidence that her education since 1990 has included any significant familiarisation with serious political economy. Her chancellorship has been supported by strong and well-informed ministers who have dealt with economic affairs and with business: she has read appropriate speeches, but no significant initiative has been attributed to her [other than the catastrophic decision to open Europe to mass immigration, which will mark her rule throughout future history]. It is possible, but improbable, that she has actually committed to any scheme systematically to attempt to smash the London market which - as is being stressed today - is an irreplaceable asset to world trade that even Germany and France rely upon heavily.

As a boy growing up in Lancashire, I became used to hearing older people say: "The French will never forgive us for saving them in two world wars", whereupon a minority said: "the First World War, yes: they don't like admitting that they needed us. But in the Second they hated us for disrupting their comfortable collaboration with the Nazis: remember, we bombed them and fought our way through France. DeGaulle was very much in a minority until the Americans put him in power."

It would be no surprise to discover that Macron grew up surrounded by the French mirror-image of such sentiments.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Intellectual Property and Corporate Power

One of the key components of my 'dissident' approach to economic science [or political economy] is my assertion that all ownable things - assets - come in four categories:

1. Keyn. anything in the category that J M Keynes described as chartalist in his definitive Treatise on Money. These are all the immaterial creations of the human mind that can be claimed as the possession of the person who invented them, or of the person who was able to capture such command over them as would be recognised in a court of law. Thus people and corporate entities [governments, local government, institutions, companies etc] come to be the 'owners' of control of the land, and owners of shares, stocks, bank deposits, patents, copyrights, brand names, trademarks etc. Most defined keyns can be sold . The most massively increasing category of keyns in the contemporary economy are items of intellectual property [or 'intellectual keyns' shown as ik in my text].

2. Quon. A material asset whose price includes both the costs of assembling the material thing and a charge for the intellectual property that the owner of the object is able to enjoy with the material thing. The owner of the ik sells the user a right to enjoy the benefits of their brand, and the intellectual property that inheres in the object.

3. Jev. A material asset whose price when resold is determined by its perceived rarity and aesthetic quality, rather than by its cost of production or its contemporary usefulness in any material sense to the owner. Thus this category covers antiques, works or art etc; which can be bought and sold and which - over time - often appreciate in retain price, so they can be assets of increasing inventory 'value'.

4. Marcom. These are commodities which are sold at prices that equal, or are close to, the cost of production and delivery [allowing for a reasonable return on capital to the producers and distributors], with no premium for any ik such as occurs in the price of a quon.

There are huge implications that arise from this differentiation of assets. I refer to two today.

A. Firms that are licensed and regulated as 'banks' have huge privileges. In particular, because they manage keynic money for natural and corporate persons they get special guarantees from the state. The most extreme version of this protection was the 'rescue' of the banking system in 2007-9, whose effects are still affecting everybody in the advanced economies. Despite the huge direct and indirect cost of 'saving' the banks, governments and their agents, the central banks [e.g. the Bank of England] have done nothing that definitively separates the socially-necessary and economically-indispensable banking functions of the huge complex firms that include banking divisions from the parts of the firm that trade in stocks and shares, bonds, investment advice, creating and trading in derivatives and futures and other speculative keyns. Thus the entire western world remains at risk from rogue trading or sheer incompetence in these pampered businesses. This remains one of the biggest risks to civilisation; even allowing for jihadism, rogue states, cybercrime, plague and famine.

B. Hundreds of thousands of people and firms own ik that has become increasingly desired by more and more people over the past twenty years. Computer games, films and records and all accessed from cyberspace, and social media have become massive foci of consumption; and although the ownership of such assets is widely diffused, a small number of points of access are used by the vast preponderance of users. Thus Google, Alibaba, Facebook and a few other leading points in the cyberworld are absolutely dominant. The creators of these platforms have established their intellectual property with immense rigour, and are constantly extending their [patented] means of checking on their customers so that they can increasingly tailor 'special offers' that will tempt them to spend their money and their time at the profitable direction of the ik owner. This gives more power over the consumers and their world to a small number of firms than has ever been held by firms that control material commodities. Economic models have not even begun to cope with it: the Econocracy have been content to monopolise their fantasies while Silicon Valley has established a much firmer hegemony than the professors can comprehend. Politicians are increasingly exercised by the new sort of power that is held by the dominant holders of the ik that shapes hundreds of millions of consumer's lifestyle; and don't know what to do about it. They can't even work out how to tax the massive cash flow that they receive.

My basic taxonomy of economic assets forms a basis on which public control, exercised by the political system of the state, can properly be established over the cybernauts within a sensible structure of political economy. One small step for man?

Monday, 16 October 2017

Disrupting the Econocracy? Thaler's Prize

The mutual admiration event of the Econocracy's year is the award of the 'Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science', which is announced at about the same time and in the same sort of way as the real Nobel prizes. But this prize was funded by Scandinavian banks, many decades after the original Nobel benefaction; before the absolute triumph of the 'rational expectations' dogma but well into the era when Economics had been captured by the neo-Keynesians who were about to show the dangerous impact of their views as applied [on their advice] by governments when the inflation that was the inevitable result of the flawed dogma began to bite into individuals' welfare and to undermine government strategies. Through the later nineteen sixties and into the 'seventies a back-catalogue of economic writers from the previous forty years were rewarded with the new prize, which was often split between two or more winners [thus quickly building-up the list of 'Laureates'] . After that the prize has been awarded to a mix of writers who have [in general] more or less closely subscribed to the increasingly tight dogmatic requirements of the Econocracy as they have tightened their control of the standard syllabus in Economics for students [as explained in the text Econocracy, frequently mentioned in the blog and created by the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester].

There have been occasional exceptions to this command of the prize by the dominant faction of Economics grandees, achievable because the electors' view of the world from the expanses of Scandinavia is broader than from Chicago, Princeton, the LSE or Cambridge; and thus other points of view have had a look-in from time to time. But those individuals have deferred, in general, to the overriding assertions of 'scientific' rigour, purity and authority that has been claimed by the Econocrats.

Thus this year's prize has been hailed as a novelty, a breakthrough; maybe as the gateway to a new era. This is the award of the prize to the hugely respected Richard Thaler, best known as the advocate of the 'Nudge Theory': a psychological insight that can be said directly to contradict the assumptions about humans' behaviour that lie at the heart of Econocratic dogma. Thaler has drawn on psychology to suggest that people do not behave as Alfred Marshall assumed in his Principles of Economics [1890] and which subsequent authoritative figures have built up constantly as the core of current theory. The critics have been delighted to welcome this award to Thaler as evidence that even the committee awarding the pseudo-Nobel Prize are open to the view that homo economicus - 'economic man' - is not a true or fair representation of real, living and breathing human beings.

The entire modus operandi of the Econocracy is based on the assertion that people will act 'rationally' if they have enough access to the facts on which they should reach economic decisions. Individuals will allocate their scarce resources to those purchases that will maximise their welfare over their lifetimes; thus dividing their spending between present needs and the demands of the future [such as providing for pensions and medical care in old age]. Recognising that resources are scarce, economic man will always buy what will do him most good and and least harm: always assuming that sufficient evidence of potential outcomes is available to him.

A few minutes' observation of real humans gives the lie to this daft assumption. Stand in any street and watch the obese people waddle laboriously along, eating something from a packet. Look at the flashy cars that young men can only afford to hire-purchase at the cost of making no provision for the future [and often not insuring the vehicles]. Look at the drunk, drugged young women in the gutters in any major city at weekend. Read the data on early deaths and completely burnt-out people still in their twenties.

Since real people behave so irrationally, it cannot be expected that whole communities whose coalmine or steelworks is closed down on the basis of fake data by a Thatcherite government [whose real objective is to eradicate the trade union that is embedded in the 'redundant' plant] will abandon their community, their homes and their connections, and migrate as individual families to places where there may or may not be new jobs for them. How do five hundred redundant miners assess such a situation? They can't: and anyway even a Thatcherite government is subject to the 'irrational' need to win the next election: so they maintain the denizens of the pit villages in situ with social security payments, early access to pensions and other means by which no 'rational' economic decisions need to be taken by the population. Hence both people and their political systems can be seen to be 'irrational' every day.

Thaler does not approach the issue as I do in this comment; but he suggests means by which people can be 'nudged' more constructively to react to the situations in which they find themselves. In doing this he has performed a major service: not just to 'economic science' but potentially to humanity. But this does not rescue Economics from its guilty hold on the essentials of human interaction: Thaler has cast light, and proved that his theories have traction in reality: which is great. But much more is needed to smash the Econonocracy; who can choose to teach their students that real people can be nudged to behave more like homo economicus: which would be the worst outcome of all.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Austria's Choice

Today, there is to be a general election in Austria. Thanks to the actions of Angela Merkel two years ago, the conclusion of the election in this neighbouring country to Germany was clear before voting began. The overwhelming majority of Austrians agree that there are now too many Muslims in the country, that the strain they have put on the social assistance and housing and education and health systems is unacceptable; and that no further significant immigration - however desperate the plight of people claiming to be 'refugees' might be - should be permitted. The government that will emerge from the election will be a coalition with a more right-wing structure than any since the re-unification of Austria [after allied occupation] in 1956. The two stand-out policy positions that it is expected to adopt are to seal the frontiers of the EU against immigrants, and to review and restrict access to the social security and related systems.

Neigbouring Hungary has had a government with policies designed to minimise immigration from outside the EU for several years: access to that country is very heavily controlled, with high wire fences and a strong presence of border guards. To the south-west of the Hungarian frontier is Austria's border with Italy, which has already been 'strengthened' to limit the onward passage of any of the tens of thousands of economic migrants who reach Italy by sea every year. No doubt that border will further be toughened: but there will also be sympathy for the Italians in their situation of receiving the migrants, which is resulting in right-wing politicians rising through 'populist' movements there, too.

There will be resistance in Austria to any attempt by Germany to impose any quota of Muslim [or, indeed, any other category of] immigrants on any EU country. It is widely expected that Austria will adhere to, and may even join, the 'Visigrad' group of countries [Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary] that have 'ganged up' to resist pressure from Germany and France. Thus there is already the making of a very powerful subset of the EU that will simply decline to go along with aspects of the settlement that the USA imposed on 'liberated' Europe after 1945. The Liberal Consensus to which Roosevelt and Truman, Churchill and deGaulle subscribed is fading fast.

The right-wing AfD in Germany has gained seats in the Bundestag, sufficient in number to harass whatever coalition government Mrs Merkel may be able to cobble together. France has a completely unproved president; and there are huge questions as to whether his parliamentary majority and constitutional authority will be enough to overcome the inertia of the trade unions, farmers and other vested interests. It has been noted above that Italy has strong and growing right-wing parties, and the legacy of Fascism is ceasing to be seen as an embarrassment. Those countries in north and west Europe that have a couple of centuries of constitutional government [Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Luxembourg; plus non-EU-member Norway] have all seen some emergence of minority anti-migrant movements. The three Baltic States [Estonia Latvia and Lithuania] have no significant problem with Muslim immigrants; they have suffered, to varying degrees, net emigration to the more affluent west of the EU.

The Balkan EU members, and aspirants to membership, want to prove their democratic credentials; but they have limited resources to accommodate immigrants [balanced by limited means of keeping them out]. They will sympathise with [and envy] the countries to the north that have the means and the will to seal their borders to a significant extent.

Thus the European Union that is harassed by the Brexit issue is a very different political and emotional structure than it was at the beginning of 2015: the year in which Cowardy Cameron launched the Referendum as an election pledge. It is quickly becoming an entity about which any true democrat would have serious questions. Britain is so beset by a useless government that it has not yet faced up to the point: but there is a growing doubt as to whether we would wish to join, if that was the issue before us.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Politicians' Earnings

There is a glorious row rumbling on about the salaries of Vice-Chancellors [general managers] of Universities. A new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford feels constrained to defend a salary of less than £400,000 as the head of one of the half-dozen most powerful and effective academic communities in the world: and that is quite inappropriate. To attract a significant global academic-cum-manager needs that amount of money: though it is only a couple of decades since Sir Colin Lucas occupied the office of Vice Chancellor for a couple of years as Master of Balliol College. Colin was able to persuade the powers-that-be in the university that the time had come to drop the hit-or-miss rotation of the Vice-Chancellorship among the heads of colleges and to employ a top manager on a longer-term contract. Cambridge did the same thing about the same time, and so far the two institutions between them had some successes and some embarrassments: but nobody is proposing a reversion to the medieval system.

The silly title of Vice-Chancellor implies an assistant or deputy to the honorific head of a university, who may be a member of the aristocracy [even a minor royal] or a politician or a benefactor or a distinguished scholar or scientist: but who is in no way involved in the routine management of the place. Several vice-chancellors have added titles like 'president' to their portfolio [evincing a painful need to say 'I'm really the boss'] and Scots avoid the whole morass by being known as 'principals'.

The route to being a vice-chancellor is complex, but now that there are some 120 of them it has become obvious that both the institutions and their general managers are of very different quality. The vice-chancellor of Bolton University [yes, there is even one there now] has waded onto the media several times, bragging of his importance despite his institution wallowing near the bottom of the league. He claims to be worth what he is paid, in a way that would perhaps justify £50,000 a year plus expenses and pension: the fact that he is within spitting distance of the top 'earners' is absurd on any objective criterion.

The row started with somebody making the observation that all the vice-chancellors are paid more than the Prime Minister is paid. This has been developed into something close to a vendetta by the obsessive proponent of the useless HS2 railway, who has been unable to make any inroad into the system; while the government looks most unwilling to intervene. There are at least twenty world-class university institutions in the United Kingdom, including the leading colleges of the University of London. Their heads need to be global figures. But for the rest of the so-say university system the salaries are indeed inflated. How did this happen? I was there at the time. During the 'seventies and the 'eighties of the last century several 'polytechnics' were created, usually by amalgamating teacher-training colleges and craft colleges with city technical colleges. These institutions grew quickly as they 'produced' graduates more cheaply than did the 'traditional' universities; so their Directors were able to negotiate high salaries with their local-authority-dominated  employers. Then the government decided that the polys should be given 'parity of esteem' by being designated as universities. Then the pre-existing vice-chancellors found it impossible to ignore the fact that their median salaries were below those of ex-poly directors; and a game of catch-up went crazy: resulting in the present system.

Then somebody drew in the comparison with the Prime Minister: if she gets a much more modest salary for 'running the country', then it can be claimed to stand as self-evident that V-Cs are paid 'too much'.

This is daft: everybody knows that most prime ministers in recent decades have been quite young people, who had a great deal of lifetime remaining in which to make a great deal of money, if they are so inclined. Gordon Brown is not so inclined: he has a comfortable existence doing global good works. But his old sparring-partner Blair was quickly notorious for the millions that have passed through his personal accounts as well as through the charities that give him a public profile that has not yet diminished his odious personal reputation. David Cameron's cowardly exit from Downing Street and the Commons was followed by the purchase of a hut-on-wheels in which he is writing the memoirs that he hopes will begin the repletion of the fortunes that he and his wife have inherited. Mrs May's impending departure will give her the opportunity to accumulate a cash pile to set alongside her husband's City earnings; starting, again, with heavily-supported memoirs.

The 'granny of them all' among ex-politician big earners, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is in the UK now to promote the memoirs that have been written and published in quick time since her election defeat last November. Like her husband, she had outblaired Blair himself in the league of big post-political earners. So to make a current prime minister's salary a template for anything is simply silly. Some civil servants, NHS managers and others in the public sector are necessarily paid more than the prime minister. If Labour re-nationalise any industries or utilities, they will have to pay their managers more than the prime minister, if they want the re-nationalisation to work. That is the way of the world. Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor of Bolton University will be the living proof that some people in the semi-public sector are indeed overpaid.