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Friday, 18 August 2017

Constitutional Conformity

The absence of a 'written constitution' in the United Kingdom has enabled the political class to elevate the office of Prime Minister to a level where almost all the powers of a medieval monarch are now concentrated in the small clique of people who control the country from the complex of buildings that have a modest front door at 10, Downing Street. The Prime Minister is personally responsible for the actions and statements that emanate from the buildings, though it is manifestly impossible for the responsible individual to produce the required throughput of work personally. Nevertheless, the general tenor of policy and the basic substance of statements must reflect positions that the PM is willing and able to defend.

One of the greatest mistakes that has been made by "number ten" in modern times was the decision to hold the referendum on EU membership of the European Union on June 23, 2016. Having been given the means of showing their contempt for the political class [in London and Brussels, especially] and having been pumped-up with ludicrous scare stories derided as 'project fear', a  narrow majority of the electorate voted to 'leave'. No particular means, terms or conditions for leaving were adumbrated, and this has enabled the 'Brexiteer' minority of Tory MPs insistently to pressure 'number ten' to adopt a perilous path that may well end up with the UK being economically isolated. The isolation of the UK by U-boats in two world wars almost starved the population: economic isolation could have a similar effect. 'Number ten' is not yet aware of that prospect; which probably means that they will sleepwalk towards it.

Meanwhile, in the USA the written Constitution has heavily been researched as this this-skinned, vain and intellectually challenged president displays increasingly challenging behaviour. On taking office, Mr Trump was determined that everyone should believe that his tenure was the most popular in history; hence his and his spokesman's absurd insistence that the crowds who gathered for his inauguration were the biggest ever. More recently, his extreme sensitivity has been shown by his abolition of his consultative bodies with US capitalism as soon as a few members resigned. His remarks about the riots that surrounded the statue of Robert E Lee in a small Virginia town have sparked a major storm, providing leverage for the left-inclined groups who want to be provoked by him to challenge everything that he says or does, and everyone who appears to align themselves with him. It is now a matter of speculation whether he will become bored with criticism to the point where his ego forces him to resign, or whether he will be goaded into actions that qualify for impeachment.

In both the USA and the UK there are campaigns to demolish statues of colonialists or slave owners from past eras, and to remove their names from the schools, colleges and hospitals that they founded. In some colleges, History, Sociology and Politics have degenerated into shouting-matches where 'white men' are blamed - as such - for all the misfortunes that have befallen 'white' women and men whose skin colour includes any hint of genes that are not definable as 'white European'. Academic institutions have been captured by people who promote these ridiculous non-historical assertions, and where any dissent is suppressed.

Women and minorities [including the men in many white minority groups] have been oppressed all over the world through many centuries; but such oppression is less prevalent now that it ever has been in the countries that one would recognise as being constitutionally democratic. It is possible to construct an argument that Robert E Lee was leading a campaign for states' rights, as a legal principle. The fact that victory for the Confederacy would have enabled him and his officers to keep their slaves is undeniable; but it can be argued away as a subsidiary matter to the constitutional principle. It suits the new left in the USA to ignore the constitutional issue altogether, and just to concentrate on the history of oppression and the perceived need to eradicate oppression [and all memorials to its perpetrators]. In so doing, they are prepared to use undemocratic and unconstitutional means to make their point: and thus they bring up the danger that extra-constitutional 'direct action' can be justified. President Trump is displaying an ability to fan the flames of such a movement, and could thus become very dangerous indeed. His way of defending the Constitution could endanger it.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Uses of University

The principal social purpose of universities today is to keep around 44% of the age group 18-22 out of the jobs market and [in the main] in a life of sufficient social indulgence to keep them from radicalisation in support of any real or imagined cause. In England [which forms the bulk of the population] the cost of achieving this objective has been shunted from the state budget into a La-la-Land where it appears as a debt owed by the graduate community; which no one believes will be repaid in full, or even in half. The fact that the interest that is added to the accumulated debt has now increased to more than 6% - compound - makes the dream of repayment even more laughable.

It is still argued in some quarters that the universities have an economic purpose, to train the inventors of the future and to nurture some of the best researchers as teachers in the universities who combine their pedagogic work with the selection of the best students to join their research teams who will thus extend and perpetuate their work. This happens, on a depressingly small scale in comparison to the massive size of the university sector overall. Some buildings that were provided by the state in the nineteen sixties and seventies for university schools of science - especially of applied science and engineering - have been 're-purposed' to take some of the expansion in social studies: especially business and media. Where applied science capacity has been maintained, since the mid-seventies it has been occupied by an increasing proportion of overseas students [at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels] who mostly take their skills to competitor countries after graduating. Around the best scientific, medical and engineering departments have been gathered spin-off companies, which have developed innovations formed in the academic context into potentially successful businesses. Where these grow into conspicuous successes, the probability of them being taken over and developed by aliens, rather than by British capitalists, is overwhelming.

It is also worth noting that much of the best spun-off development has been in business parks funded by richly-endowed colleges, especially in Cambridge; which have been better resourced that spin-offs from Manchester or Sheffield Universities. Bullshit about the Northern Powerhouse has drawn heavily on the resources of the universities in the region for its rhetoric: but the Oxbridge endowments have not been matched by state funding for spin-offs from the multiple universities in Leeds or Birmingham.

The chief function of the universities is indeed to maintain intelligent young people in suspense over a period of years in which they have a good chance of being softened by drink, drugs, sex and idleness, or of being diverted into sports and hobbies that absorb their attention in ways that are not economically or politically disruptive. The school results that determine which university and course [if any] pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will take up are being announced today, and the universities are competing vigorously to attract the best talent [insofar as it is revealed by A-level results]. The short-term motives for this are to be able to claim a 'high quality' of intake to keep a flow of good applicants coming to the university, and to get their fees through the university's books. The longer-term objective is to be a survivor when the inevitable cull of the over-bloated higher education system is begun. Economic and social usefulness will then be asserted as the criteria for selection as to which institutions should be culled and which retained: but the objectivity and validity of those criteria will be subject to challenge. The outcome, as to the size, shape and orientation of the higher education system cannot now be predicted.

There still are great scholars and sensible researchers in the British higher educational system. One such has just challenged the increasing optimism of government and the media about the extent of the oil and gas supplies that can be gained by fracking shale. He has gently suggested that the shales that are to be found in the UK are mostly too new [in Geological terms] to yield much that is economically useful. So another bubble may be about to burst: which shows how important it is - and always has been - to develop and retain the applied sciences: they can provide counterbalance to the fantasies that emerge from the Econocracy, which currently corrupt far too great a proportion of the university population.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Brexit and Ireland

At least since the time when the only English pope 'asked' King Henry II of England to take full possession of his Lordship of Ireland, there has been an endless and fascinating sequence of tense relations between the rulers based in Westminster and the people of Ireland. Several times, kings and the Cromwellian republic tried to settle conformable populations of Scots and English in Ireland, and between 1670 and 1690 the great Sir William Petty wrote extensively about his plan to resettle half the Irish population on the island of Britain and/or in British colonies elsewhere, replacing them in Ireland with Brits, so that a short period of interbreeding could eradicate the difficult characteristics of the native Irish. Often, British policy in Ireland has been highly revealing about the actual character of British government and the real intentions of British policy.

Thus the publication yesterday of a less-than-half-baked paper on the future of the Irish border under Brexit is in that revealing context. As I have commented previously in this blog, the present UK government can not possibly give effect to any sort of Brexit that involves leaving the European Economic Area whilst retaining the policy of austerity. Actually to erect realistic customs borders and controls on the passage of people all around the UK - which would be necessary before Britain could begin to trade with anybody under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, outside the EU - is totally incompatible with austerity.

Yesterday's UK government paper on the Irish border rejects any hegemonic physical line, either on the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland or enforced by frigates in the middle of the Irish Sea. One radio commentator summed up the potential control methods as "an iPad in every truck's cab". Interestingly, this looks as if it would put the primary cost of compliance with any new system of "technological" border and customs control onto the private sector; but, of course, billions of pounds would have to be spent for the government to acquire the equipment and train up and pay the skilled people [who probably do not exist anyway] who would be needed to create and maintain the records that would be needed of the passage of people and goods over the borders. The notion implicit in yesterday's paper is simply potty.

Both the British and Irish government are adamant that there cannot be a hard border in Ireland: not just prosperity, but also peace is dependent on free movement of people, goods and arguments.

Ireland will prove to be a sticking-point: the first - and probably the most fundamental - of all. Any genuine Brexit is not affordable to the British state, even if Osbornian austerity were relaxed. Corbyn will not understand this; but, more importantly the headbanging Tory Brexiteers - on whom Mrs May relies for her parliamentary survival - will not understand it: some because they do not want to, and some because their intellectual capabilities do not stretch that far.

The Irish Question will again be a determining factor in British history: and [as Sellars and Yeatman said, in their inimitable 1066 and All that] the English will never solve the Irish Question because whenever they come up with an answer, the Irish change the question. This is certainly the present situation, where the new Irish Prime Minister has set new terms for the discussion of the border: and we can be sure that the great bulk of the European Union will back him to the hilt. Nigel Farage and the 'hard Brexiteers' will claim that the electorate is being betrayed as a 'transition period' mutates into continuing membership of the European Economic Area [but without membership of the Brussels political set-up]. The 'betrayal' will come from the incomprehension and incompetence of the political class: against which a majority of the nation voted on 23 June 2016. Hence, the political class - the very people who are least trusted by the nation - froth and posture about 'taking back control'. They don't know how to do it, because there is no affordable way to achieve it within their mental universe.

Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Draining the North Sea

One of the most frequent assertions made by critics of the government's austerity programme is that the UK is 'the fifth richest country in the world'. This is correct, in terms of the recorded turnover of the economy, the Gross National Product. But the country has been living on its reserves of capital, goodwill and material assets for many years [probably since 1915], and has disgracefully been wasting the talents of its people; not least, by selling off their inventions to foreign companies who then reap the profits from the ideas. The medium-term prospects are bleak, even before one considers the idiocy of the politicians who the rest of us allow to remain in control. The position paper on the Brexit process, issued today, dreams of a customs union of undefined size, shape or duration: more like something from a naive fourth-former than from the government of a great country: I will leave that concern aside today, and look instead at two basic facts.

First, coal. Britain led the world into modern industrialisation, using the abundant coal resources under the ground and under the surrounding seas [as in County Durham, where pits stretched a couple of miles beneath the North Sea]. The entire coal mining industry [with trivial exceptions] has been shut down, as other countries use old British ideas to develop uses for coal that do not involve atmospheric pollution. If we decided to return to those developments, we would be far down the queue.

Second, oil. Before North Sea and Irish Sea oil reserves were discovered, I grew up in Lancashire with the legend that the Romans' main reason for coming to Britain was to exploit the 'Tockholes Treacle Mines': a tale vindicated when oil was found in the area; and now a focus of protest as [further west, towards Blackpool] fracking is under way. When I was an undergraduate in Durham the university was demonstrating that there were potentially massive oil reserves under the North Sea. This geological observation was confirmed, and oil deposits are still being found offshore all around the United Kingdom.

The availability of that oil came just as Mrs Thatcher's deindustrialisation of the heartlands of production was developed, and it helped to balance the country's payments while a huge proportion of the population was deprived of the context in which they could work profitably, providing exportable commodities to exchange for the imports that are inescapably necessary. Instead of building up a massive investment portfolio, as Norway and the Gulf oil-exporting countries have done, the UK just mitigated the accumulating deficit with the rest of the world by its sales of oil [and by not needing to import so much as oil as would otherwise have been needed] as the unemployed and early retired were maintained, exiguously, on benefits.

Then, in 2016-17 [according to figures from HM Revenue and Customs, published early in July], the amount paid in tax by the companies that exploited our diminishing oil and gas reserves declined so far that the rebates paid to companies for decommissioning former oil and gas wells [and other permitted expenditure] exceeded the amount of tax payable. It was bound to happen one year: our luck means that it pretty well had to occur at the very time when Brexit loomed. Back in 2011-12, when Osborne was just stepping up the austerity programme, net revenue from oil and gas was £10.9 billion; in 2016-17 the net figure was MINUS £312 million.

The numbers will get worse, with occasional relief as new wells are opened and new ways of exploiting abandoned reserves give a short extension to the 'life' of some facilities.

These facts are so horrific, in their implications for Britain's economic survival [let alone, its tenure of the fifth place in the big league table] that they have largely been passed over by the media. We must not forget them: they must be a spur to new action and new thinking about the whole shape and future of the economy.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Brexit: Trouvez la Femme

So now we know, for sure; definitely.

As on the previous Sunday, when I went to get a copy of the Mail to check on the context of remarks by Vince Cable, so yesterday I bought the Telegraph so that I could read exactly the piece attributed to Philip Hammond and Liam Fix. It was cited on the radio as representing the formation of a joint strategy for Brexit, and thus the conclusion of a cabinet spat that has been reported over this year's 'silly season' by much of the media.

It was a short piece, attributed to the two men [and doubtless accepted by them] but indubitably crafted in 10, Downing Street, and polished by party professionals. It represented what had generally been understood to be Mrs May's position ever since she made her sublimely idiotic remark that "Brexit means Brexit". Since it was coined, derived from 'Grexit' which meant the threatened departure of Greece from the eurozone, the term Brexit has simply meant "the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in response to the referendum decision of 23 June 2016". Mrs May was asked how she interpreted the terms: did it mean withdrawal from the European Common Market and the Customs Union? Did it simply require departure from the political institutions only? What mix-and-match of possible options did she favour?

None of this has been clear: either in her much-cited 'Lancaster House Speech' early this year or in her disastrous election campaign. Nor has it been any clearer whether she favours a 'hard Brexit' [undefined] or some 'softer' version. Two things that do appear to be consistent in her few and often oblique remarks on the matter are:
1. Her proclaimed determination to reduce net immigration: the great 'failure' of her six year tenure of the Home Office which she apparently thinks she can achieve from Number Ten. If she does achieve it, she will alienate industry and commerce, the universities, and the immigrant communities from the Commonwealth who had seen a reduction in EU immigration to the UK as a chance for them to bring more friends and family members into the country.
2. Her equally definite declarations that there is no place in the UK post-Brexit for the European Court are equally likely to make for an extremely difficult negotiation with M Barnier on trade matters that should be straightforward.

Lewis Carroll, in one of the most brilliant satires on society, has a character declare that they can think of six impossible things before breakfast. Mrs May, without saying anything on those lines, has made it abundantly clear that she has one impossible thing on her mind all the time: the removal of the British economy from its European Economic Community context without significant damage to Gross National Product or to the standard of living of the mass of the nation.

It now appears that Fox and Hammond have accepted that they must both support this point of view, at least publicly and for time being. This is a consensus that cannot last. The crisis in British politics will continue: well done, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Odious Osborne!

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Expulsion of the Holy Ghost

The vast majority of the population of Europe, including the United Kingdom, has severed any material connection with the Christian religion. Thus the immense number of quotations from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer that are used in daily speech have been severed in the public mind from any appreciation of the texts from which they come.

When the Muslim population are speaking English, they virtually always deploy religious phrases in Arabic; which is the language in which they hear them in the mosque; whatever may be the language  used by the preacher in linking the religious phrases with the point that is being made. Thus very few quotations from the Koran have come into everyday secular English usage.

As one of the minority of the population who still does regularly attend church, I am increasingly aware of how few Anglican churches make any use of the King James Bible and of the Book of Common Prayer in their regular worship: thus for many young people who are taken to church the resonance of the 'old' phrases has been lost. In most churches awful, clumsy late twentieth-century versions of the official liturgy are giving way to non-liturgical 'popular' or 'family' events where the clergy simply make up what they think the congregation will find a happy experience. In other cases, the laity are simply encouraged to use the space, lighting and heating of the church to create their own event; with the intent that they shall go home feeling 'better' for the encounter. Traditional, authoritarian preaching is at a huge discount among Christians and Jews; while Islam faces up to the problem that some traditional preaching can easily verge on 'Islamism'.

Among the secularisation and debasement of religion, which is particularly prevalent in the Church of England [where it has driven away the majority of former adherents], to me one of the most interesting changes has been the removal of the 'Holy Ghost' from the usage of the clergy. Almost universally, the phrase 'Holy Spirit' has supplanted the ghost. I can find two reasons for this:
1. In the relatively recent English Language Mass, the Roman Catholic church adopted the 'Spirit';
2. Naive Anglican clerics, whose training includes little reference to [or respect for] traditional usage of any kind, are told that the phrase 'the Holy Ghost' might make people think of spooks, boggarts, zombies and other scary creatures of the human mind.

Such clowns do not seem to realise that 'spirit' can also refer to a powerful intoxicant, and thus their adoption of the term 'Holy Spirit' is simply carried forward. The words of well-known hymns are changed to incorporate this, and other changes of usage that are thought to be more politically correct. The result has been to remove both beauty and character from the Sunday services that become an unwelcome duty for people who can remember better days.

The occasion for writing thus is that I received during the past week the annual Report and Accounts of the Prayer Book Society, and realised that fewer than four thousand people - in the whole wide world - care sufficiently about maintaining some use of the Book of Common Prayer as to contribute to the body that makes efforts to allow all candidates for ordination as ministers of religion to handle, read, think about and - possibly - use the root source of what used to be the strength of the Church of England and it affiliates worldwide.

I have long anticipated a reaction against the shoddy state of the Anglican Church; but there has been no serious sign of it. One could, just possibly, take a sort of comfort from the emergence of radicalism in the Muslim population; in that young people are seeking to express their contempt for the degeneracy of contemporary society: even though that search can lead to jihadist destruction of society and of the perpetrators . It is a very sad fact, that such a search for enlightenment can lead to medieval violence and social oppression. There must be a better way, for the people who could benefit from any of the world's great religions.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Not Another Party, Please!

When it looked as if Jeremy Corbyn was leading Labour to the expected [and deserved] electoral catastrophe a couple of months ago, siren voices were calling for a split in the party; which could lead to the 'moderates' joining up with the LibDems and hoping to attract some Tory Remainer MPs; and thus forming a coalition that could reverse the Brexit decision. The depth of politicians' squalor was again confirmed when Mrs May lost the election and Labour was beefed-up as being a potential governing party. So, although Labour MPs are viscerally split between those who are keen to compromise with Corbyn and those who know him for what he is [an unreconstructed Marxist who has a wide range of casuistic devices], the party has been held together by the fragile cement of ambition.

Subsequently, other voices have been raised - now, within the Tory ranks - hoping to cobble together an anti-Brexit coalition. As with the SDP, it would be impossible for such a party to gain traction with the electorate; even if they had a period of years available to make the attempt. As it is, the Brussels clock is ticking down to March 2019; and the chances of getting Mrs May to understand anything of the ruin to which she is driving the nation are minimal. There is not time enough to reconfigure British politics, or to educate the prime minister.

The great majority of MPs, mostly with regret, accept that the referendum vote was decisive. The question was whether the UK should "leave the European Union" or "remain in the European Union". There was no definition of the European Union. It was left unstated whether the European Economic Area, or the European Economic Community [the common market and customs union] - as Mrs May now says is inextricably the case - were included in the vote. This is the basis on which honest men and women who accept the referendum result can legitimately believe that the vote was to withdraw from the political aspects of the EU - the Parliament, the Commission and the Court - but not to undermine the economy by withdrawal from the economic area.

From everything that I have heard and read in recent weeks, there could well now be a strong majority of the electorate in favour of splitting the economic from the political aspects of the Union. The Economic Community pre-existed the Union, and membership of that club was clearly accepted in the referendum on withdrawal that was held under Harold Wilson's premiership. The electorate was not allowed an opinion on the transmutation of the Community into the undemocratic morass of Brussels under the nomenclature of the Union [and with the intention that the Union should become 'ever-closer': which means 'ever less accountable to the people']. I believe that a national petition - a reflection of the People's Charter of the 1840s - might be the most effective way of proving to the boneheaded Brexiteers that a very clear majority of the nation is capable of making the distinction between the Community and the Union.

If that could be proven, I like to think that majority of MPs have sufficient dregs of integrity then to act as representatives of the nation, and compel the government [whether the present shoddy shower, or a coalition containing the heavily-compromised Corbyn] to make a sensible and mutually beneficial deal to remain in the Community.

The issues of the European Court and of migration would remain to be resolved; but they will be much easier to define within the context outlined above. Time is short, but there is enough time to implement this suggestion of a People's Charter, deploying the resources of up-to-date social media.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Settlement, Colonisation and Exploitation

The recently-concluded trial of several men in Northumbria for sexually exploiting children and young women has been recognised as a representative case of a type that has arisen in several English towns and cities. Muslim clerics have been among those who have recently made statements to the effect that here is a pattern of behaviour that is unacceptable in modern Britain. Women of indigenous British origin are first classified as being beneath the contempt of Muslim men, and once the whole female population has been condemned to a less-than-equal status, weak individuals within the category can be selected for sub-human exploitation.

It is notable that the so-called Islamic State has also classified the women of some non-Islamic tribes and religions as worthy of enslavement and concubinage; and it can be noted that this behaviour is of much more recent origin than the exploitation of girls in Rotherham and other places in England. The Nazis exploited Jewish women as "field whores" for the army; as did the Japanese Empire with Korean "comfort women". Thus it can be emphasised that nothing in this piece assumes that the cases in the UK over the past two decades  [many of which have not yet been brought to the courts, and some may never properly be pursued] are a particular aberration of British Muslims. It is a tragically recurrent theme in human history; but its recent appearance in the United Kingdom merits attention against the broad sweep of history.

One of the major achievements of the nineteenth century Factory Acts was to ensure [eventually] that children were not unduly exploited in the workplace. A feature that is less well-remembered is that overnight working by women was banned from the factories and workshops, where there had been cases of extreme intimidation and bullying as well as sexual aggression. That provision against women working at night continued after the Second World War, and it is firmly embedded in my memory that as the Lancashire cotton industry collapsed in the later nineteen-fifties, some of the more successful firms decided to expand production by 24-hour working, In the absence of an available male workforce, some of the mills began recruiting Commonwealth citizens, mostly from the Indian sub-continent. In the first instance the men came alone: only later did they bring their wives [or import their brides]. Then there developed a pattern of settlement, whereby as the native Brits withdrew from the terraced houses where their forebears had lived while they were in the mills, abundant cheap housing was available for more immigrants to occupy. Ethnic sub-groups attracted their families into the areas where they were becoming settled, and eventually colonies of like-minded people created mutually self-reinforcing communities who became big enough for ethnic food, dress and religious traditions to become installed. Settlements had become colonies; and just as the British and the French had tried to establish settlements in the territories that they occupied, so these mainly-Islamic groups did in the UK and in the French Faubourgs. Some of the European colonies - especially in Africa - have been eradicated, or eroded, Algeria is no longer part of France, but there is a huge swathe of Africa where the language of education and commerce is French. Robert Mugabe is progressing his plan to eradicate the British-descended settlers from Zimbabwe; but English will remain the language of trade and teaching. Further south, there are members of the ANC would would like to deal with white South Africans as Mugabe has done with those who called themselves Rhodesians.

The tragedy of the British towns and cities is that immigrant colonies based on religious, ethnic and cultural similarities have been allowed - in some cases, encouraged - to regard themselves as distinct from the rest of society, protected by the concept of 'diversity' and by the pressure within the police force to eschew 'racism'. This has ensured that most of the colonists have been exempt from the application of the law and the prosecution of crime as they are applied to the indigenous British [and to the Afro-British population, where matters like stop-and-search have become extremely sensitive].

Minorities of the colonists have developed into exploiters. They have formed moralistically reinforced views on the degeneracy of British society, and twisted the outcome into a licence to treat weak and ignorant individuals from outside the colony as fair game for any sort of exploitation.

Add to that mix the option for any colonist also to decide to embrace a violent Jihadist interpretation of the prevalent religion [usually to the horror of their family and friends, whose lives can be endangered along with those of the targeted group] and we have the situation that Lord Evans has predicted will lead to a supply a Jihadist recruits from the colonies for at least two decades to come.

The situation must be recognised and understood as it is, before either the specifics of the protection of minors from the 'host population' or the roots of Jihadism can be tackled. No government willed it to turn out this way, but a mixture of past affluence and constant concession to the racism of the colonists has created a mess that must now be resolved.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

How British Governments Have Made Life a Misery for Millions

Academics in the University of Manchester have published data [mostly derived from well-known official data] which shows that death rates among younger people in the deprived areas of northern England have increased over the past twenty years, while in the south there has not been a similar outcome even though dangerous drugs have become more common and alcoholic abuse has continued. The difference is that more people in the north take intoxicants more prolifically than in the south, and they do this in cold homes where their bodies are less well fed than those of the majority of southerners.

As one commentator on the TV said, as she was shown with the background of a canal and a derelict factory, this was the ambiance that viewers expected to see as she summarised the Manchester data. In the course of this presentation the term 'diseases of despair' was deployed to describe the effects of depression, alcohol and drugs in a society which appears to offer no hope of a better lifestyle. The lives that are to be seen in soap operas and other apparently-commonplace programmes, seem so different from those that the inhabitants of deindustrialised backstreets as to be unattainable. Coronation Street, Victoria Square and Ambridge occasionally present a denizen with a drink, drug, psychiatric or personality problem; and such individuals appear as searing exceptions to the societal norm, that enter into the script with the approval and encouragement of the lobbies who try to highlight those problems; but after a point has been made, the problem is removed from the script, and the characters return to lives that may be far from ideal, but which are far superior to those of hundreds of thousands of the most deprived people.

I used personally to bridle at the use of the term 'deprived', whether used of the people who experience these diseases of despair or the areas where they live; but as austerity has tightened the grip of despair and disease in these places I have recognised that these areas and these people have indeed been deprived. The schools are less well equipped and the teachers are more dispirited than in 'nice' southern towns; the hospitals have less resource and the dedicated staff are less able to give time to patients when the demands on them are swollen by staff shortages; provincial public transport is cut dramatically as London contemplates Crossrail Two; across the country Libraries are closed and the entire social infrastructure is squeezed.

Today, August 9 2017, has a good claim to be the tenth anniversary of the day when it became absolutely apparent - to anyone who understood the financial world to any degree - that there was a major problem emerging from the apparent technicalities of the financial markets which would affect the real lives of everybody in the money-using economy. It took fourteen months until the 'financial crisis' [or 'credit crunch'] reached such an intensity that government action, co-ordinated with the Bank of England and the authorities in the USA and the major European markets, was unequivocally necessary. It was essential that something absolutely drastic was done was done, or the financial world as we knew it could simply cease to function.

How had this happened?

The Thatcher governments were guided by Economists who suggested that 'the market' could grow best without government interference, and that organisations like trade unions impeded the market in finding the optimum way of allocating resources through society. So the Thatcherites deliberately removed support from coal mines and shipyards, and protectionist cover for steelworks and other industries that has previously been regarded as 'essential'. Simultaneously they reduced the excessive 'rights' that had been given to the unions under Labour governments; to the extent that workers' rights were placed at a discount of almost 100%. The result was massive deindustrialisation across much of the country. The Conservatives ignored this dereliction, because the financial services were largely replacing the losses to national income that came from factory closures. The 'big bang' of 1986 set the financial institutions free to develop their own fantasy markets: just at the time when computers placed unprecedented processing capability at their disposal. Transactions could become more complex and take place much faster than had every been contemplated when unknown forces were freed.

The economy continued to grow - in terms of gross aggregate turnover - because the growing financial sector constantly found new ways of creating purchasing-power from thin air, by creating new financial devices; of which one of the most prominent was securitisation. This device enabled the 'retail' banks and building societies to lend far more money than they could have loaned if they had remained dependent on their depositors to provide them with the stock of money to be lent. Now the lenders simply lent more, then bundled the mortgages and the credit-card 'balances' into blocks or 'packages' which they sold to institutions in the new 'wholesale' financial market. Thus money could constantly be recycled through new loans; and it was considered a triumph of innovation: until it became apparent that many mortgages [starting with 'sub-prime' mortgages in the USA] would never be repaid. Concern about the security of the 'securities' escalated during 2008 as more and more of the financial 'instruments' that had been traded through the wholesale finance sector came under suspicion as having no substance behind them. Eventually the Bank of England [backed by the government] promised to buy enough 'securities' [using newly-created credit] to keep the financial sector funded with : and they created billions of pounds of 'cash' every month for several years to keep the system rolling on.

In saving that fantasy world, that had been created by a tiny fragment of the population, the real world in which most people lived had to bear the cost of the exercise. At first, it all seemed to be a technical matter; but later a conflict opened up between the demands of the financial sector and the real economy: and by then the government was so committed to saving the financial world that real people in the real world had to forced to accept lower living standards and lesser public amenities. This began slowly under the Gordon Brown government, and consequently the government rapidly expanded its borrowing to continue funding social commitments.

Then came the coalition government, in 2010. To the incoming ministers, the amount of debt that the former Labour government had been incurring was unsustainable. Month after month, as the taxation that people had paid stagnated, the government had borrowed what was necessary to keep public and social services going. Large areas of the economy - especially of the real economy - imploded and ceased to pay taxes to the state or wages to former employees [who also ceased to pay taxes when their incomes failed]. Thus the temptation to borrow yet more to compensate for the failure of the material economy was pressed upon the new government: which boldly decided that the deficit must be eradicated. So austerity became the essence of the coalition's economic policy; and mass misery was ensured. Since most of the misery was well away from Westminster politicians and civil servants could ignore the consequences of their actions. And because there was no place for humanity or reality in their model markets, the Econocracy could ignore the situation entirely.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Can Democracy Prevail in Africa?

Kenya has a General election today. Already, before the election, a senior electoral official has been found dead, with irrefutable evidence of torture on his body. Massive preparations have been made to ensure that the voting is properly conducted, but opposition leaders are ready to claim that the presence of security officials at all polling stations is for the intimidation of voters rather than for securing the fairness of the poll. The electronic voting machines will prevent any tampering with paper ballot forms, but can give rise to massive possibilities for malpractice in the processing of the votes. The last election was followed by a period of violence in which at least a thousand people died; and a repeat of that horror is dreaded by the peaceful mass of the population. Much of the voting will be on tribal lines, which gives the Kikuyu the strongest chance of retaining power since they remain the largest tribe.

Kenya, at least, has elections; with are conducted with every appearance of propriety. Most of the people obey the law, and most of the elected opposition MPs take part in civilised debate, most of the time; and the civil service is broadly professional, and corruption is not crippling to normal economic processes. Not many African countries have a similar level of adherence to the sort of constitutional norms that the former colonial powers left them with.

Most African countries' boundaries were set by conventions between the European occupying powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is little concession to ethnicity in the allocation of people to states, which were given independence by their former occupiers within the nonsensical frontiers that their colonisers had compromised upon. Thus some parts of some tribes live in reasonably prosperous countries where to some extent the rule of law is respected; while their ethnic cousins are repressed and suppressed in adjacent states.

From the northern tip of the continent to the extreme south, and from east to west, with just a few exceptions like Kenya where a form of democracy prevails, there are two options for the state to operate: strong-man dictatorship with reasonable social stability, or anarchy. Some states, particularly in central Africa, have been in anarchy for decades; with internationally-recognised governments controlling little more than the capital city, the airport and the ultimate pinnacle of corruption in the distribution of the mineral royalties and international aid that comes into the country. China has been willing to exploit such situations where a Chinese corporation has been able to secure a defensible area of land for exploitation for farming or mining, and in some cases that has helped greatly to stabilise the country in which this takes place. But in general, from Libya to South Africa, the tragic abuse of the majority of the population goes on.

The umpteenth attempt to rid South Africa of its demonstrably corrupt president is taking its course, and may at last succeed: shortly before his term is due to come to an end anyway. Many of the formal procedures and processes that were established by the British colonial regime, and retained by the white supremacists during the apartheid era, are still maintained; thus it is curious to see forms of procedure that seem to accord with the European democratic tradition still being used to cover the chaos into which South Africa seems inexorably to be descending.

I was studying politics when the first former colonial territories were granted independence; and was bemused to see tribal politicians wearing western suits and ties as they sat on parliamentary benches modeled on those of their former coloniser, in some cases - briefly - deferring to a 'Mr Speaker' in a black gown and a white full-bottomed wig. Such images quickly disappeared from the world's newsreels. There is now little reportage in the west of the day-to-day politics of any African country: the stories are all too sad and too familiar. Nobody expected the election in a former Belgian colony last week to produce any result other than what happened; just as nobody expects change in Kenya. There is a chance that the logjam will break in South Africa, but the prospect for returning to the 'rainbow nation' image of the first years of Mandela's presidency are slim.

A small part of the tragedy can be ascribed to the colonial frontiers and the colonial legacy: but, after half a century of independence, most of the blame for the chaos is ascribable to Africa: and so the solutions must emerge from African minds and become accepted in African hearts. That is the only way in which true progress in politics and in economic affairs will be achieved.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Vince to Rescue the Mail?

Yesterday's Mail on Sunday had a feature that I so little expected to appear that I went out to acquire a copy to verify with my own eyes the account that I had heard on the radio. Sure enough, the LibDem leader, Vince Cable had produced an article which they published. Sadly, the headline [doubtless chosen by some minion of the Mail] was misleading. It suggested that the MPs who are pressing for a 'hard Brexit' are "masochists": when the reality is that they are aiming to torment the British nation with lower living standards. These individuals might - just - share to some degree in the pain if there is a 'hard Brexit', but they will remain relatively privileged compared to the mass of the population.

It is understood that 'the Brexiteers' are pushing their influence to the limit, as it becomes obvious that more and more of the Leave voters are recognising the idiocy of the extreme Brexiteers' position. It is taken for granted that the referendum result will be respected, and Britain will cease to use the EU flag, will cease to provide members of the Commission and the Parliament and the Court, and will open a new era of sovereign diplomatic policy. But to leave the European Economic Area would be madness. To quit Euratom would be seriously dangerous. Even to think that the UK could have most-favoured-nation status with the USA - to the exclusion of the EU and Mexico - would be a demonstration of insanity. Yet these issues are now becoming apparent: and it is reported that some members of the Cabinet, perhaps including the Brexit ministers, are on the side of the tormentors.

The Mail group of papers was among the advocates of 'Leave', for very good reasons. Now it is allowing alternative opinions to be aired on where Brexit should aim to end up, as shown by yesterday's LibDem article. But much more significant is the opinion piece that is set alongside Cable's, which recognises the finding of serious researchers, that some Conservative 'Leavers' failed to vote Conservative in the recent general election - and some voted LibDem or Labour - in despair at the crazy determination of some Conservative to press for a 'hard Brexit'. Provided some compromise can be achieved on the migration of people within the area, the Mail wants to UK to be within the European Economic Area. The dawn of sense, in a very significant influencer of Middle Britain!

It is highly improbable that a person with such a bad dress-sense as Mrs May has very much commonsense. It is questionable what contact she has ever had with 'ordinary people' except as her father's parishioners, and subsequently as shop assistants, college and parliamentary servants, the layers of Bank of England minions who have recently been on strike; and others whose role is to serve. She may, however, continue to be presented with a digest of the media every day, as her predecessors have been: in which case whoever edits it should have marked this twist of the Mail's tale with a big, black exclamation mark. It means that hundreds of thousands of Mail readers are already forming the sort of opinion that the paper presented yesterday. It explains why Mrs May 'lost' the election, and why the Conservative Party will plummet lower and lower in the polls unless the 'hard Brexiteers' are pushed aside now.

As Cable says - and it might even be in his own words - "The cliff edge draws closer. For the Brexit martyrs, paradise beckons. No longer Project Fear but Project Near. After that it will be Project Here."

Cable has helped the Mail to signal a major shift in the opinion of middle Britain: let us hope that it is in time!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Politics, Economics and Science

There are degrees that purport to qualify their graduands in 'Political Science': there are even some professorships under that title in British universities. That there is some degree of scientific precision in some aspects of the study of politics has been proved in recent British general elections, where 'Exit Polls' that systematically ask voters how they have actually voted have displayed an astonishing degree of accuracy; as demonstrated 24 hours later when all the votes are counted. I describe this accuracy as "astonishing" because it contrasts with Opinion Polls conducted right down to the day before the election, which are often wildly wide of the mark; thus, politicians and commentators who rely on them can grossly be misled, as were most of both those groups when the Tories' chances were over-rated and Labour's popularity was grossly under-reported in the polls before the election this year. This appears to show that people are in large measure unsure how to vote [or whether they will vote] until the last minute, while it can be inferred that many do not tell the truth in advance of their casting their ballots. After voting, people seem more confident that they can not be swayed in their decision-making by the lift of the questioner's eyebrow or their sniff of disapproval; so then they tell the truth, and the statisticians and psychologists who set and assess the actual questions to be asked are vindicated in the precise methods that they use.

The scope of 'Political Science' is much wider than this, of course. Where it combines statistical rigour with sound social analysis or experimentally validated psychology, interesting and potentially useful data are produced. But where it attempts to explain the underlying factors which make a population of humans behave in this way or that to determine the direction of government it can only follow the conclusions presented by sociology, psychology or history: and within each of those disciplines there is no agreement on what are the rock-bottom principles emergent from the study that should be followed by government with the same degree of authority as applies to Botany, Geology or Medical Science. There are, of course, fundamental disputes within the natural sciences; but there is also a sufficient consensus to validate measures that are taken to support public health, safe transport and the control of thousands of potentially dangerous substances.

Politicians with some degree of common sense - and many such people still exist, though their expression of their views is often limited by the need to have the support of their party at the next election - make a mix-and-match pragmatic personal portfolio of ideas drawn from the natural sciences, and from academic politics, history, psychology and sociology; and accept that they must be willing to change their understanding in line with new facts [including new false interpretations that capture the public mood]. This inner assessment of the situation is necessarily combined with what the electorate in the particular constituency where the politician is based understand and want. This is a precarious situation to be in and politicians usually recognise their vulnerability within the nexus of shifting popular opinion.

The biggest intellectual problem that many politicians face is that of Economics: the pseudo-science that has been captured by the Econocracy, the hegemonic advocates of the crazy dogma that markets can become so developed - on their own - that they produce results that could not be bettered by any amount of detailed direction from the political machine. The tragedy to which that dogma has given rise is that in the countries that have partially opened up their markets to untrammeled competition it has increasingly become apparent that untrammeled [or even relatively unrestricted] free operation of markets conduces against humans having an inner sense of wellbeing. This is now the very nub of political debate in the USA and in the United Kingdom, and must be a major theme in this blog for the next few days.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

A Bad Week for Democracy

For anybody who retains a belief that democracy, though a very unsatisfactory way of structuring politics, is better than any known alternative, this has been another depressing week.

Rwanda has been through the form of holding an election. The only question at issue was whether the dictator would claim a 97% or a 98% majority: beyond that, the answer was unquestionable.

Venezuela was pushed further along the path towards consolidating the dictator's power, through the charade of a Constituent Assembly.

The President of Turkey demanded the right to appear in the show trials of the people who were allegedly involved in last year's coup, as an aggrieved party. No doubt, he will have his way.

Nick Timothy, formerly head of Mrs May's kitchen cabinet, has told the Torygraph that the Conservatives' disastrous election result was due to control of the campaign being seized by the party's electoral machine, leaving the original campaign [that would have been centred on Mrs May's reforming zeal] high and dry. Be that as it may, the Tories are in a terrible mess. This situation was highlighted by the Irish Prime Minister's speech in Queen's University, Belfast, yesterday in which - quite politely - he pointed out that the government of the UK has not shown a clear hand on any major matter of policy since the electoral disaster. This drift towards departure from the European Economic Area is accelerating, even though its calamitous effect on the economy is beyond doubt.

The egomaniac rhetoric emerging from the President of the United States continues unabated, as the problems confronting his government become more clear and the impotence of the world's strongest democracy is demonstrated.

In the face of that weakness, the boldness of the North Korean dictatorship in unabated. The regime has developed considerable capacity to disable computer systems anywhere in the world, as a second string to their strategy of global blackmail. As the first string, they will soon have nuclear-armed missiles capable of inflicting damage anywhere in China, in Japan, in Asiatic Russia and on the US West Coast. The unwillingness of China to put a stop to this [despite their country's front-line vulnerability] is incomprehensible to western democrats, but it could end up in massive ransom demands from Pyongyang. The ordinary people of North Korea have been starved and enslaved to enable to country to develop its extraordinary aggressive power: they could now be rewarded by the bounty that the American people have enjoyed being handed over at gunpoint to the North Koreans. Trump trumpets that it could not happen: I am not sure!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Lambing Time in Cloud Cuckoo Land

All the major organisations that represent farmers in the United Kingdom have come together to express their acute concern that the government has not given any of them a hint as to what sort of economic structure there will be surrounding the farmers after Brexit. There is a broad and vague promise that the existing level of EU payments to farmers will be paid from 1 April 2019 until the end of the present EU budgeting period in 2022: and, after that, nothing

This is almost certainly because nobody in government has the faintest idea what sort of regime they can fund, or organise, or administer. Mrs May is just obsessed with the idea that we MUST be in full control of immigration to the UK from the date of Brexit, and [as far as she seems to be concerned] all else is swept aside from serious thought or planning. Self-styled 'Brexiteers' in her government are running around, with one breath promising us free-trade agreements with the half of the world economy that has any serious economic clout; and with the next breath saying that it is too early to say if we will be expected to watch British farms go bust as consumers [with ever-more-quickly declining incomes] are steered towards buying hormone-fattened beef and chlorinated chicken from the USA.

The government has become a conspiracy of silence against any valid information being presented to the nation: and behind that lies abysmal ignorance of the implications of any action upon which the cabinet decides.

So let us take an absolutely basic example. Most members of the government, and even a sizable proportion of the civil service [and, just possibly, some Econocrats] know that due to the ecology of the sheep-farming regions of the UK it is only feasible for our sheep to produce their offspring in the spring. Some parts of the country have earlier and milder spring weather than other parts, thus they can arrange for the lambs to arrive early in the calendar year; while the areas with a more robust climate arrange for the lambs to arrive at the end of the winter. Thus, later in the year, lambs are ready for slaughter over a period of several months. The amount of lamb that is produced in Britain in those months is more than British restaurants and households are able to use: so prime British lamb, in season, goes to Europe and other destinations. Over 40% of the annual production of lamb from the UK goes to the other EU countries, currently without tariffs or other hindrances.

In the parts of the year when there are few lambs ready for slaughter from UK farms, the New Zealand, Australian and other southern-hemisphere farms can supply the EU [including Britain] with lamb: so the UK exports 40%+ of the lamb that is raised here, and imports about the same proportion of the lamb that is consumed over the whole year. This is an entirely sustainable and sensible process; and common sense indicates that we should stick with it. This would work, if Britain has the basic good sense to think straight and act accordingly.

Sadly, it appears that Mrs May has placed fantasists in key positions: so as she dreams of making a niche in history by closing our borders to immigrants to rectify her 'failure' to reduce net immigration below 100,000 when she was Home Secretary; reckless of the long-term economic damage that a 'hard Brexit' would cause, other ministers have been freed to pursue their own fantasies.

I would like to think that this characterisation  of the current situation is an alarmist fantasy of my own: but in the absence of any evidence of rational policy-making, one is licensed to expect the worst.  

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Another Showery Thursday

Now that virtually all the school holidays are under way, in the whole of the United Kingdom, the weather is - at best - indifferent, and in some parts of the country today will be unpleasantly cool and rainy. Nobody can claim to be surprised by this: it is the recurrent weather pattern for the time of year, over many decades. Sometimes the weather is exceptionally warm and sunny, sometimes colder than this year: but this is pretty well in the middle of the experience of the normal adult. For children, it can be disappointing; and this used to knock-back on the parents who had to turn their disappointment into constructive activity.

But here we can note the great societal change of the past decade. Thirty years ago, before the internet was accessible to households, children played; indoors if cold or wet weather was prevalent, out of doors much of the time when the weather was reasonable or good. Now it is difficult to get many children to go out to play [even in 'safe' places] because of their preoccupation with chat-rooms, on-line games and other experiences that they get on their phones, tablets and laptops. Virtual reality and instant communication with other sedentary communicants have replaced the interaction that really used to take place in meadows and hedgerows. But with this change there has developed a deeply unhealthy intensification of the downside that always existed in children's play.

In previous generations it was common for a child to run home to complain that she or he had been excluded from a game, or that the owner of the cricket bat had taken it home [thus ending the game] because they refused to accept that they were 'out', or that some fight had become too serious so that someone was hurt, or that the group had descended to name-calling and abuse that had become hurtful. These were all incidents in a session of play between people in who were in direct physical contact with their peer group; and usually the same afternoon the same groups of neighbourhood children would start play again with the relationships between them reset.

In the new generation, abuse, bullying and other offensive behaviour can build up over days, weeks and even months. Suicides are not unique, though mercifully they remain rare: but many thousands of children abuse each other, and receive abuse, online. Though most of this negative behaviour is at the intellectual level of the children; an increasing proportion of it is not. Children can access adult sites [even if their parents think they are barred, the means of getting around censorship are transmitted between open-minded young people] and discover ranges of abuse that extend far beyond pornography.

Just as their behaviour towards other real children whom they do not meet in the holidays [or ever] can become abusive, conducted from the privacy of their own rooms and their private devices; so their understanding of the world they live in - both the world of children and the world of adults - is shaped for them individually by what they discover for themselves in the infinite collective memory to which they are able to gain exposure. It is increasingly difficult for any child to be innocent of the dark side of human nature, including their own instincts and interests; but it is easy to conceal what they have learned on the net when parents try to assess their development. Most children are adept actors, especially with the audience that they best understand: their parents; and most children resort to untruth, at least occasionally, which is not always recognised by adult interlocutors. Thus children's world has changed, and is changing ever more quickly. Immature minds can access worlds that could be kept from their parents' generation, and [despite a increasing media coverage of the phenomena] there is very little guidance for teachers, parents and other carers - not least, grandparents - in coping with stubborn silences that mask shameful knowledge.

Thus is growing up a generation of economic decision-takers whose base in knowledge and in on-line experience is utterly different from that of adults who emerged into society in the nineteen-seventies. There are many good signs: smoking and drinking heavily are taboo - except for the minorities who descend into dangerous substance abuse. Young people are polite and helpful, in general: but does this mask their real attitude to society and to their elders, as formulated in the privacy that lies behind their passwords? These questions will be of fundamental importance to the economy, as a new pattern of consumer preferences comes to predominate. I am prepared to bet that they will take the reality of economic life ever further away from the simplistic supply-and-demand models on which the Econocracy have built their elaborate superstructure.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Ambiguous Apples

The apple is one of the most accessible forms of food for human beings. It grows on smallish trees, and when it is picked up from the ground or plucked from the tree it is ready to eat. Apples of different varieties mature at different times from early summer to late autumn, and many varieties can also be stored well into the winter; though it is well known that if one apple in a barrel goes bad, it quickly causes the rest to rot: hence the phrase 'a rotten apple' applied to a disruptively antisocial person.

When people in the earliest stages of civilisation created their accounts of how society came into being, they built up a marvelous story of the creation of the world, of humanity being set into that context as a uniquely competent species, and how that species developed a power to be destructive as well as constructive. The tale that of the first woman, Eve, being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit - an apple - and leading her male partner to do the same is still fascinating as an insight into human nature. The idea that there are good and evil impulses in humanity, derived from the fatal decision of the first people to break the orders they had received from the universal creator, became well set in religion in the 'fertile crescent' in the middle east [the area now being devastated by 'Islamic State'] and thence globally. The humble apple remains a symbol of the power that human beings have to use their abilities constructively and creatively, or destructively in terms of how their actions impinge on other people.

Isaac Newton apparently really did get the idea that the force of gravity is universal by exercising his imagination on the simple question of why do apples - among all other terrestrial objects; and with the earth's moon - tend to descend towards the centre of the earth unless that progress is stayed by some intervening force or structure. Thus the apple is recorded as part of the origin of scientific thought.

Today the corporate results for Apple are due to be published, which are forecast to confirm that it has been consolidated as the biggest business in the world; by turnover, profits and the valuation of  its stock by the markets. The apple - with a human bite taken from it - was chosen as the logo of a business which was not a substantial processor or manufacturer of any material commodity. While the huge oil companies and motor manufacturers sold billions of dollarsworth of material commodities, many of which were processed into final products by the application of manifold patents and sold under copyright brand names, their ultimate dependence on material resources was unambiguous. Apple grew by franchising out the manufacturing processes, and thus the capital that had to be tied up in material manufacturing facilities came from other sources. Apple could incorporate products - some of them highly sophisticated - that were devised by other firms into the products that they sold, and thus maintain the momentum of their inventiveness without the burden of investment in factories or in the sort of human resources management that inevitably attaches to material production.  

Apple, Google and the other leading brands in what is [rather strangely] called the 'technology' sector of the economy are not dependent on the ownership of materially productive facilities. Most of the 'hardware' through which customers access their intellectual property are made by other corporations. The assets held by the tech companies include billions of dollarsworth of financial assets that have been accumulated from their past profits, alongside their ownership of the patents and copyrights and trademarks and brands that are defended at huge cost from 'piracy' by anyone who tries to make illicit use of their technology.

The essential difference between these 'tech' companies and those that trade in material assets is that the companies in the material sphere, exemplified by the big oil producers and by the firms that make the components of the iPhone [and assemble the final product], are selling products made from finite resources of which reserves are limited. Constant exploration has so far found enough new resources to meet foreseen demand into the medium-term future, but the material components of the planet are finite and a growing population is capable of exploiting them to the point of exhaustion.  The assets belonging to Apple are capable of indefinite expansion. New ideas can be implemented all the time, new experiences can be offered to customers, and there is no obvious limit to that expansion as the collective of human minds appears to be capable of delivering an infinite expansion of intellectual property. There is a potential limit to the physical facilities through which intellectual concepts and processes can be accessed, of course, when the human race destroys the resources of the planet on which our material existence depends. At some point in that final self-destruction of the human economy the material ability to generate electricity will fail, and then the 'technology' sector will be unable to operate; but that point will be well down the process of societal and economic decay.

I was privileged to know the mathematician who served as a professor of English Literature and who explored the capabilities and ambiguities of the human mind in an unusually profound way; who wrote a book entitled Seven Types of Ambiguity. He could have selected more than seven types but his message was that the expression of human thought is infinitely flexible, and ultimately all concepts are ambiguous. That is the basis on which the 'tech' sector has been founded, and from which its continuing productiveness will stem.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Mrs May's Curtsy

I have no idea how many people in the UK yesterday watched the live BBC presentation of the scenes near Ypres, where a solemn commemoration was rightly being held to mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres. As a child, I was soon aware that almost every older man in my circle had served in the First World War: they were tight-lipped about their own roles, but they all shared reflections of the sheer horror of the Somme and what I heard as 'Passiondale': the battle that was commemorated yesterday. What was really remembered - unashamedly - was the absolutely unnecessary slaughter that marked such events.

There has been a long-running debate about the generalship that sent tens of thousands of men to be [literally] drowned in mud, for no military gain whatsoever. It has fascinated me that there have been defenders of the supreme commander Haig - of the whisky family - and his colleagues, other than their own descendants; and that a sort of stalemate has been reached on the historiography of events like Ypres III. When it started to rain, heavily, on the third day of fighting and it became blatantly obvious that over the ensuing wet days the artillery shells from both sides stirred the land into deep mud, the campaign should - at the very least - have been suspended for long enough for the suitability of the ground to bear a battle to be reassessed. But no, the 'donkeys' at HQ threw more and more men into the slaughter: and no gain could be made for over a month, until dryer conditions returned.

The centenary ceremonies yesterday and on Sunday did not re-open the historiographical debate, directly; but the general direction of commentary was that the battle stood as an example of the utter waste and devastation that war can cause. In attendance were the King and Queen of the Belgians, the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, various Belgian luminaries, Commonwealth representatives, and Mrs May: who read from the old testament of the Bible. For once, the prime minister's clothes were not bizarre: she had chosen to wear a smart black suit, with a hat that looked like it could accommodate a substantial beehive.

Had the prime minister been a man, he would have greeted the various royalty with a handshake and a 'neck bow'; which can be made to look like a friendly nod: but Mrs May went the whole hog, and curtsied: which is a pretty abject form of submission. It seemed normal for the Duchess of Cambridge to curtsy to the Queen of the Belgians - it's what royalty do, within the trade - but for the prime minister of Great Britain to make such obeisance to junior royalty in a foreign country in the second decade of the twenty-first century seemed strangely out-of-place and out of time.

It was even more surreal, for me, when the news bulletin that followed the broadcast from Belgium cited  a 'Downing Street source' as shutting down the open Cabinet rift over how Brexit is to be implemented. The prime minister had, apparently made it clear [before or during her trip to Ypres] that the free movement of EU citizens into Britain would end on the day in March, 2019, when the two-year negotiating period begun in March 2017 would end.

So while she was showing anachronistic subservience to present and future kings and their consorts, the prime minister was wielding the muscle of a modern head of government in the most damaging possible way. It will not be practicable to shut the ports and airports in March, 2019 without absolutely devastating the economy. There is no way a government committed to austerity that is working with a quantitatively and qualitatively devastated civil service can set up the border posts and the equipment and trained manpower that would be needed to effect a 'hard Brexit'. Far from reasserting her authority, Mrs May has again demonstrated her uncomprehending irrelevance.

This is not a matter to gloat about: it is as tragic for the people of Great Britain as were the events that the prime minister went to Belgium to recall.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Odd Ministers at Odds

Dr Liam Fox is a non-practicing physician, which means that he might have some advantage over a person with a doctorate in Economics when it comes to diagnosing the mind of the British population. But for him to suggest that it would be some sort of breach of faith for the government to seek a 'soft Brexit', or a period of transition from membership of the common market to some other status, because a small majority of the voters in the 2006 Referendum voted to "leave the European Union", would be too far to stretch credibility.

I voted to leave, partly because I thought that we 'leavers' would loose but that a strong marker could be put down against the continentals' nonsense of developing an "ever closer union" with its own military capability. When my side won, I hailed the narrow victory as a licence to negotiate a rational settlement with the remaining states of the European Union that would get the United Kingdom out of the morass of the Brussels and Strasbourg institutions but keep this country in the close European free-trade pact that pre-existed the Union. That Dr Fox is now putting up his version of what the vote means is in some ways helpful; because it shows that the Tory 'hard Brexiteers' are truly dangerous for this country.

The rhetoric around the time of the last general election, that both Labour and Conservative parties accepted the majority decision in favour of [undefined] Brexit, masked the underlying fact that most Members of Parliament from both parties who were to be returned in the election had voted to remain in whole shebang of the Union in the referendum. It would now appear that most Members of the Commons do not know how to interpret the referendum result, while an overwhelming majority of the Lords are opposed to the whole concept of Brexit but recognise that they cannot blatantly overturn the decision of the electorate.

The present constitutional position appears to be that referendum result stands as an historic fact, but the sovereignty of parliament was not abandoned by that result. Thus any resultant agreement with the European Union - as with the USA, or Australia, of Belarus - will be made with the assent of the Queen, the Lords and the Commons.

The present political fact appears to be that a small group of headbanging Brexiteers have been given licence by Mrs May to discuss half-baked promises of potential free-trade agreements with various governments that all have the common purpose of clinging on to power by not upsetting too large a proportion of their electorate. These tentative discussions about trade treaties appear to be understood to mean that the hardliners can simply effect a British exit from the European Union with no comprehensive draft treaty with the EU in place. This is infantile absurdity. If such a cliff-edge Brexit were to be undertaken, in a world characterised by point protectionism [as defined in this blog: do a word-check], it would be a recipe for economic devastation in this country.

Mrs May seems to have been flattened by references to her past 'failure', as Home Secretary, to reduce net immigration to a few tens of thousands of people annually. She seems to be caught in the headlights of a juggernaut that is bearing down on her, terrified lest she would be seen to oppose those few party colleagues who assure the electorate that they can keep out mass migration without detriment to the health service or the wider economy. The spectacularly dull Chancellor of the Exchequer is bringing some sense to the discussion, and thus earning the odium of those parts of the press that enjoy the power to press for reckless policies simply because they cannot be held responsible for any outcome. Those same media constantly carry stories to the effect that before the election Mrs May wanted to get rid of Mr Hammond, and can not now do it because of the precariousness of her own position. If the sort of sense that Hammond is promoting is swept aside by the 'hard Brexiteers' the country will be brought to a point of crisis which Mrs May shows no sign of  a capability to control.

 What Liam Fox was reported to have said over the weekend is gravely alarming: so the sooner the Democratic Unionists abandon their contract with Mrs May to sell her their votes, the better. The collapse of the government into backbiting is the harbinger of collapse; so let it all happen soon.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Very Basics

It is some time since I simply stated the basic assumption on which this blog is based. Although it was one of the earliest principles of Political Economy to be established, I have repeatedly cited Millicent Fawcett's introduction to the topic in her Political Economy for Beginners, which was published for use in the elementary schools which all children were legally enabled to attend under the Education Act of 1870. The book can be accessed on line via the Library of the University of California. I recently commented that it is highly appropriate that Mrs Fawcett is to become the first woman honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, Westminster.

It is a truism today that when the British economy comes under examination, there is a focus on the deplorably low productivity of employment in this country. Just scratch the surface of any such discussion, and the shocking fact emerges that productivity has scarcely improved [and in some sectors of the economy it has declined] since the financial crisis took hold in 2007.

When she mentioned productivity, Mrs Fawcett also dealt with productiveness; which is virtually never mentioned at all in the current discussions. Yet for Mrs Fawcett - as for me - it is the very key to understanding the basic economic problem that bedevils the country.

Productiveness means the extent to which any economic activity yields a surplus [of output, that can be converted to cash] that is used for investment. The investment may be applied to expanding or updating the plant that yielded the surplus, or to training the people who work there, or to recruiting better-skilled people; or it can be invested in other sectors of the economy. There are three main ways in which such cross-economy investment is facilitated:
1. by firms transferring profits from one part of the complex organisation to another, or
2. by the surplus being given to shareholders or bondholders as dividends or bonuses, which they can reinvest at their discretion,or
3. by firms that retain some profit as reserves or receivers of dividend depositing the money with banks, which the banks then lend to firms with ideas for expanding or improving production.

In any of the above circumstances, there is a realistic prospect that many [though not all] of the investments will improve the productivity of the sector in which the investment is made. Sometimes an investment fails, because it is wrongly timed, or a mistaken choice of technology is selected, or inept individuals are selected to manage the investment; or for a dozen other reasons: and the more risky the investment is, while it may yield spectacular returns, it also carries a higher degree of probability that it will fail.

The crucial fact is that the only way to raise productivity [and production] in general is if the productiveness of the system is properly understood and a sufficient proportion of the surplus that is generated sector by sector is applied optimally to investment in those sectors that will contribute most to the  productivity and productiveness of the economy in the future. In simple terms, unless investment is the absolute focus of business thinking and of economic policy, the economy can not succeed optimally: because everybody in a decision-making role is looking in a wrong direction. Warren Buffet has become an international celebrity by persuading people to let him make investment decisions with their money; and by delivering excellent results [overall] for decades on end. Mrs Fawcett would have approved of him, strongly.

In Britain, especially since the crisis of 2007-8, profitable businesses have been piling up cash reserves and returning cash to investors [through special dividends and share buy-backs]. In the current circumstances, shareholders who receive these cash bonuses use them to meet current spending because real earned incomes have been tightening; rather than making their own independent investment decisions for the future. This situation has greatly been exacerbated by the combination of institutional and policy disasters that have meant that major investing institutions [such as pensions funds and insurers] are discouraged from making equity investments.

Economic policy has become a conspiracy against productiveness, rather than a stimulus to investment. That is contrary to the basics that Mrs Fawcett set out for elementary schoolchildren in 1870: and the shocking fact that cabinet ministers have no notion of the concept of productiveness is a wonderful measure of the intellectual regression through which Britain has descended since the nineteen-twenties, when fantasy Economics was allowed to supplant the truths of Political Economy: because simplified mathematical models were easier to teach than the complex inter-relationships that are exposed in Political Economy.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Insurers, the Fire Service and the Grenfell Tower Tragedy

Not many years ago, the local Fire Brigade would have been needed to certify the arrangements for controlling the risk of fire in the Grenfell Tower, Kensington; as they were for all such buildings. Since the millennium, governments of all parties have slackened the regulations and the Fire Brigade has no statutory role in fire protection. Whether or not the London Fire Brigade was aware of the innate vice in the sort of cladding that was recently applied to the Tower is a moot point, because the brigade was no required to verify the suitability of the material.

The local authority [as the ultimate owner of the structure] and the management company did what was minimally necessary to comply with safety law: which was thereby shown to be grossly inadequate.

In parallel with the slackening of standards for fire certification of structures, so insurers made economies [thus keeping down the cost of policies] by becoming much less interventionist in regard to the structures they insured. Half a century ago, an early stage in the career of any promising recruit to the insurance industry included a period - usually a few years - serving as an Inspector. By sending inspectors to make announced and unannounced checks on the buildings and the processes that they insured, the insurer could be reasonably satisfied that the conditions applied to the policy were being met. Thus the subject of the insurance was compliant with the law on structural soundness, health and safety and any special regulations relating to what the building or the machinery was used for. More recently insurers have shunted the burden of verification to the insured, who simply "warrants" that the conditions of the policy, including legal requirements, are fully met.

 If, in such circumstances, a George Osborne heavily influenced by the Econocrats come into power, the fire brigade and the insurer have no direct influence in the operational decisions taken by the occupant of a building [such as a housing management company].

On a national scale, admonished and applauded by the Econocracy, young George pursued his historic mission to eradicate the deficit on the national accounts: by imposing austerity. The only other way to remove a deficit of the size of the British budget deficit in 2010 would have been by a massive scheme of investment to kick-start economic growth: which was ideological anathema to the Econocracy. The coalition government in which George was loosed upon the economy deliberately decided on the austerity policy, as a whole government of Conservative and Liberal Democrats. Thus they were - entirely unintentionally - responsible for the impact of austerity on the Grenfell Tower. Combine that with the previous Labour government's decision to reduce the cost of the fire service by removing their role in building certification, and a diabolical cocktail of governmental failure was served up to the residents of Grenfell and [apparently] dozens of other towers.

Little local people all went along with the flow, and some may be faced by charges of personal liability; but the real chain of high command that was responsible for the tragedy is unambiguously clear.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Rethinking Economics and the Econocracy

Yesterday, after I had issued my lament for society on this blog: in which I specifically deplored the large number of students who receive degrees in Economics, I opened my TIMES to find a piece by Richard Barwell and Anthony Yates in which the 'basics' of Econocratic dogma are defended against the relative attractiveness of 'fashionable concepts'. Yates is a professor of Economics in Birmingham and Barwell is 'senior Economist' in a bank, and the article makes it pretty clear that students in Birmingham are not going to be encouraged to dabble with the growing international network which sometimes uses the descriptor Rethinking Economics. 

Yates and Barwell deny that Economics has become a narrow programme of dogma, which takes comfort in adapting simplified versions of mathematical models that have been tested and proven in Physics and Engineering, apparently to vindicate their assertions about how aspects of the economy can be understood. They refer to awards of a pseudo-Nobel Prize [called the 'Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics', and endowed by a group of bankers many decades after the real Nobel Prizes were set up] to individuals in various 'applied' areas of Economic comment and research. The Times writers imply that students can - if they so wish - divert their attention to the byways around Economics that have been explored by some of these pseudo-Nobel 'laureates' [this is my summary of their point] but such deviant study does not help them to become Econocrats.

To be gazetted as an Economist, apparently, the student must accept that the models developed by their teachers upon the work of their teachers are uniquely logical because they are mathematical. This is a re-run in these depressing times of economic failure of the argument that was first advanced in the eighteen-sixties, a period of great economic optimism, by one of the first Economists. William Stanley Jevons who held the professorship of Political Economy in Owens College, the forerunner of the University of Manchester, wrote that if Political Economy was going to be developed into a real science it must become mathematically based. He had himself come to Political Economy from a base in science. As a young man he had experienced the thrilling period of the Australian gold rush when - as in California and the Yukon - the news that gold nuggets were to be found lying on the ground and at the bed of streams brought a rush of hungry, ambitious men from all over Europe to try their luck. Jevons went to the gold field as an assayist, verifying gold discoveries and frequently disappointing those who had not found the real thing. He had plenty of time to observe the weather, the sky and the common astronomical phenomena. At that time, there was a high level of sunspot activity; which was very visible from Australia. Jevons was not the first person to form the notion that the level of sunspot activity affected the amount of solar radiation coming to the earth, and that this must surely affect the weather; but he extended the notion to become a putative explanation of the trade cycle. He wrote extensively on the applicability of statistical data to the economy, and thus earned his professorial chair. He even caused the creation of a Royal Commission - the highest level of government inquiry - by his publication of The Coal Question a book in which he declared that the entire prosperity of the United Kingdom since the first stirrings of the industrial revolution had depended on the development of steam power [both in locomotives and ships, and in stationary engines in mines and mills]. Steam power was derived from coal. Coal was still abundant in Britain in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but demand was increasing and Jevons recognised that if the coal ran out, the economy would come to a full stop. Thus he tried to calculate the nation's coal reserves, set this against expanding demand, and concluded that well before the date when the lines expressing the depletion of reserves and the rising demand for coal converged, the national debt must be paid off and a whole new energy basis for the economy would have to be found. The Commission took evidence, cogitated, and decided that the crisis was far enough in the future not to be bothered with the issue in the short term. Jevons' two most significant attempts to cause the economy to be managed according to statistical data to which he had access were unsuccessful, but as the university system expanded teachers of Political Economy preferred to be called Economists, and tried better to develop Jevons' insight that their subject could gain credibility if it was shown to align with statistical data and mathematical models.

The first half of the twentieth century was disfigured by two world war and the removal of Russia from the normal world economy. The half-century after 1950 saw a divided human community, where the 'capitalist' states tried the flawed 'neo-Keynesian' model for economic management until it led to the chaos of the seventies, then the 'rational markets' [monetarist] model which gave the world the crash of 2007-8 [which the Econocracy did not foresee]. Economics has never given society at large any models that align with reality and with political imperatives. Thus the assumption by Barwell and Yates that the way for students to gain a broad understanding that will help them to serve humanity usefully is by learning the models that the professoriat have a vested interest in, carries no credibility. Hence contemporary students from Jevons' old stamping ground of Manchester began the challenge to the Econocracy which is simply based on the assumption that 'enough is enough'.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Education, Immigration and Austerity

More than thirty years ago I was Dean of Social Sciences in a major English University, from which I had previously graduated. As a graduate, I regularly receive information from the university, accompanied by invitations to make donations to various aspects of the work that goes on there. In the latest issue, they gave figures for the numbers of graduates in each faculty: and social sciences was more than twice as prolific as any other Faculty. When I was on the staff, social sciences were similar in size [and therefore in numbers of graduates] to the arts, science and engineering faculties.

During the time when I was Dean, the worst of the Thatcherite destruction was being done to the steel and related engineering industries in the region: which had the impact of reducing dramatically the potential for growth of the materials sciences parts of engineering. In the subsequent decades demand from students - especially, from UK students - has been pathetic in applied sciences [which mean that there has been plenty of capacity to train tens of thousands of scientists and engineers and metallurgists for emergent economies], poor in pure sciences and weak in the 'hard' arts like languages. The result is that Britain has been preparing people to do parasitic jobs in the media and other sectors where no material product emerges, and in financial services [which, at high risk, brings significant income to Britain from the world economy: and which could now be threatened by Brexit].

The material economy requires workers to do jobs that are alien to UK graduates, who are 'too good' for farm work or for ordinary jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors, or in building and construction; so those jobs have been taken up by migrants, many from the EU and many from beyond Europe. Thus it is important to note that simply barring EU immigrants will not make the total net migration statistics 'look right'; but it will denude agriculture, construction and hospitality of their essential workforces.

The educational system has totally failed to create the British workforce that Britain needs. Teaching tens of thousands of young people every year the dogmatic nonsense that is uttered by the Econocracy makes the situation worse, because it renders reality incomprehensible to the people who are supposedly educated to illuminate economic life.

Thus the material economy has stagnated: except for those areas of the services sector which largely import the material components of the things they use, and import their labour: to which the British population comes - largely with borrowed money - to buy consolation for their nagging awareness that their incomes have generally not grown [in real terms] for more than ten years. Companies are hoarding their profits, or returning them to shareholders in buy-backs [in the cases where they still make profits, usually in overseas markets]. The only conspicuous sphere of investment is the proliferation of branches of quirky dineries, nail-bars and bars; none of which are famous for longevity.

The misapplication of neo-Keynesianism in the later nineteen-sixties and early' seventies means that it has been impossible to persuade an 'Economics Profession' dominated by 'rational markets' nonsense that a keynesian stimulus would restart the real economy. Instead, successive government have adopted and stuck to the policy of austerity; which has clearly become a mantra that will eventually provoke a populist revolt. The misdirection of education over the last four decades means that the economy lacks the people who could implement a Keynesian reflation of the economy; and the economic devastation that the Thatcherite monetarists achieved means that many of the means by which a traditional Keynesian restoration of economic growth could be accomplished do not exist. Yet is is only by a strong pattern of state support for the revival of construction and manufacturing that the economy can be rebuilt. It will be a task of immense complexity; but it must be achievable.

More of this in the coming days.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Enervated Economy

When I was a schoolboy the immensely tall Canadian economist, J K Galbraith, produced a book called The Affluent Economy, which had huge success. It gave a message that both North Americans and west Europeans wanted to receive: that the traumas of the Second World War and [in the case of Europe] of post-war reconstruction were pretty well over. The British had re-elected Harold MacMillan's Conservative government with their slogan "You've never had it so good!" The French were coming to a settlement under deGaulle after the traumas of losing their south-east Asian colonies and Algeria [which had been accounted part of metropolitan France]. The Federal Germans were proud of the 'economic miracle' that had been achieved under Chancellor Adenauer and economy minister Erhardt, and of their country's rehabilitation within the western alliance. Life did seem good, society seemed stable and politics were - broadly - honest.

Now, in 2017, we Brits agonise over economic growth figures as they weaken, and accept that the economy is likely to 'slow down' as wages rise more slowly than prices, and as millions of households reach their debt ceilings [especially as the banks are being urged to lower the headroom] and are thus unable to prolong the false economy in which consumer spending has been the 'driver' of the economy. Exporters are maintaining their earnings by raising the sterling prices of their products, so that they get an approximation to the pre-Brexit real-world price in external markets, rather than significantly increasing the volume of exports. This is disappointing, because in historic experience when a currency is devalued relative to others [as the pound has been since the Brexit vote] exporters from that country have been able to maintain a price advantage over their alien competitors to gain to greater share of the export market for their produce; and thus maintain employment for their factories and their employees. Indeed, in several post-devaluation periods Britain's exports have grown significantly, enabling firms to pay overtime wages to employees and sometimes to take on more staff and expand their investment plans.That is not happening now.

British industry has very few current schemes of major capital expenditure actually coming to fruition, whether the produce would be aimed at domestic or export markets. Yet, as is often mentioned in this blog, British firms are at least as innovative as at any time in history, but they are prone to alien takeover because there is a dearth of imaginative investment support in the country.

The media are celebrating the decision of BMW to keep production of the mini in the well-worn Oxford factory where it was first introduced six decades ago; but the electric engines for a new version will be imported from Germany. The innovatory element will not be British: typical of the international firms that use established plant in the UK. Even though manufacturing in Britain is continued, a foreign-owned firm can gather its cash reserves for use anywhere in the world while the UK factories are run down. So long as British labour is cheap, and the factory can be patched up, it can carry on. This is a dispiriting view, and not wholly typical of British plant today, but there is enough of it about to be worrying. The economy is increasingly enervated: lacking in energy, vigour or drive.

The announcement that new petrol and diesel cars are to be phased out completely by 2024 is no surprise; but one automatically sets beside that announcement the lack of any coherent policy to generate the necessary cheap electric power to enable the masses to run their own vehicles in 2041. In virtually every aspect of the economy a lack of vigorous innovative energy is apparent. Even the Brexiteer ministers who are supposedly planning a bright future for the UK "outside the EU" show all the signs of physical exhaustion and intellectual stagnation: of enervation.

Then, today, we get the headline news that the male human sperm count has declined catastrophically, with the prediction that reproduction may become difficult to achieve by the time petrol cars are banned. That is a cheerless prospect!