Thursday, November 17, 2016

Not a good year

So, for the second time this year I sat glued to my computer, watching with growing incredulity as a country I thought I knew placed its vote for "democracy is too hard".

Because what else can you call it, when the demagogue who pretends everything is simple trounces the professional politician who's spent her life learning how the system really works? Rejecting her, in great part, because she's had the temerity to learn these things.

So long, democracy. It was a noble experiment.

If you should find yourself a little way north of Los Angeles, take a moment to stand and listen. That rhythmic rumbling you hear is Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, as his party - the Republican party - hands control of the Whitehouse to a Russian stooge.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The American nightmare

Dear USA,

Snap out of it.

Putting up Donald Trump as a primary candidate was funny. I must admit, I thought he'd burn out long ago. In particular, I couldn't see how the religious wing of the GOP could ever support such a transparently debauched man, one who - unlike, say, George W Bush before him - does not even pay lip service to repentance and redemption, his own or anyone else's. (Note, I'm not accusing GWB of lip service - I think he was quite sincere, for whatever that's worth. But Trump doesn't even pretend to be anything but a satyr.)

But that joke stopped being funny roundabout the time of the Republican convention.

This man has vowed to repeal the 16th amendment, to turn the US army into a mercenary corps, to sharply raise the national debt (including, he makes no attempt to conceal, taking as much money as he can stuff into his pockets for himself), to start a trade war that looks set to make people nostalgic for the Great Depression, to introduce a religious test for would-be immigrants (and even tourists, for that matter), and to look the other way while Russia rebuilds the Soviet empire - thus, incidentally, throwing away Ronald Reagan's greatest achievement.

People make excuses for all this. They say things like "the media is out to get him" - ignoring the fact that everything they know about Trump comes from "media", the only choice being between "media controlled more or less directly by Trump" (which says nice things about him), and "media that isn't" (which, for the most part, doesn't) - yet a large number of Americans have somehow persuaded themselves that the former are more trustworthy than the latter. Or they say "he always takes an extreme position to open negotiations, so he can make concessions" - which, apart from sounding like something that could have been said of Hitler, also implies that you know the man's lying but you give him a pass, because of course what he really means is whatever you happen to want him to mean. He's projected himself as, effectively, a blank canvas onto which people paint their own ideas, and delude themselves that he shares them.

I'm sorry the Democrats couldn't find anyone better than Hillary to run against Trump. Yes, she's uninspiring. Unlike her husband, she's never been a good orator. She's too old, too unprincipled, and has too many skeletons in her closet. Yet on all three counts, she's still somewhere between "much" and "infinitely" better than Trump.

But if you want to know why the Democrats couldn't find anyone better, look in a mirror. Hillary's route to power, unlike Donald's, has been one that's open to any middle-class American. If you want to make that kind of change, 30 years down the line - start now.

I know there's a popular idea that the country is run by and for powerful, corrupt elites. But that's bullshit. It's very popular bullshit, because it gives everyone in America an alibi for why their life hasn't worked out the way they wanted - but still purest, weapons-grade bullshit, peddled by people like Trump and his friend Mr Putin, because both of them have put a lot of effort into disempowering ordinary, middle-class Americans.

And if you were even thinking of voting for Trump, be ashamed. The man is the opposite of everything that made America worthwhile:

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement [...] [A] dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

If Trump has his way, then "the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position" will become the only thing that matters.

What's horrifying to me is that it looks like almost 50% of the country - including, if the polls are to be believed, a clear majority of the men - are in favour of this programme.

I don't know if America can ever recover from this fiasco. If Hillary could (contrary to the polls) score a landslide victory on the scale of Reagan in 1980, that would go a long way to repairing the damage. But if the election is close, or if (God forbid) Trump wins - that will mark a step in US decline comparable to the reign of the Emperor Commodus.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In his own words?

I'm curious about this "Corbyn" phenomenon.

As an outsider to Britain now, I'm exposed to even-more-than-usually selective news about what goes on there. I know I have an impression of Jeremy Corbyn. But it's quite different from my wife's impression. How can I get some real information?

Let's start from the premise that all the press is biased. The Grauniad is mostly pro-Corbyn, the other broadsheets are virulently anti-him; wherever I see any discussion about him, it's couched directly in these adversarial terms, which makes it impossible for me to form any opinion of my own. That's - pretty worrying in itself, actually. A personality that provokes such strong reactions will find it hard to foster helpful and constructive debate. Corbyn will have to bend over backward to encourage free expression and exchange of ideas to compensate.

But I want to base my assessment on the man himself, not his supporters or detractors. What face does he choose to present to the world?

That's - actually, quite hard to find. His record at labour.org.uk was last updated in September 2015. Googling his name turns up 'jeremycorbyn.org.uk' - apparently all politicians nowadays have their own vanity domains - but he seems to have got bored with that back in April, it hasn't been updated since then. Besides, most of the material there is just transcribed from Hansard, which is pretty dumb because if I wanted to read Hansard I could read Hansard. (Actually that might not be the worst idea, and I may yet try it. But let's hold it in reserve for now, because it'd take a long time to piece together a position on a given topic from that record.)

One of the nice things about Mr Corbyn is that his name is distinctive - it turns up very few false positive search results. And so it's with some irritation that I discover his most current campaign has dropped it, and is just running as "Jeremy for Labour". (At a ".com" address, no less - none of your parochial ".uk" for the Jez.) This site appears to be up to date, but it's hard to tell because its own updates are undated.

(Contrast with Theresa May. Say what you like about her, at least her website is visibly maintained.)

Not impressed with Mr Corbyn's ephemeral online presence. It seems to me that "repeatedly switching between platforms" is pretty suspect behaviour in a party leader. If there is no continuity of platform, what does that tell us about the policies? Only that someone is, either intentionally or naïvely, making it gratuitously hard to check for continuity there.

Putting that aside, let's look at his current incarnation. Under 'Respect & Unity':

There should be no personal hostility and nobody should feel intimidated at any time. So no foul or abusive language will be tolerated and all candidates should be listened to with courtesy and respect at hustings, meetings and events.

In particular, there should be no demonstrations or protests targeting any individual candidate or outside any MP's office or surgery - and no personal heckling of any candidate at any hustings, meeting or event. [...]

There will be no tolerance of abuse on social media. All candidates should ensure that anyone who acts in an abusive way on social media is referred to the Party for investigation.

No heckling at hustings? What the heck is a hustings for, if not to heckle? No demonstrations or protests outside any office or surgery? "No tolerance of abuse" - without any definition of either "tolerance" or "abuse", this is basically a blank cheque for censorship. This is the very opposite of "encouraging free exchange of ideas". Indeed, it probably goes a long way to explaining some of the very strong adverse reactions.

But let's be generous, let's concede that the rules have changed and the idea of candidates being required to stand up for themselves and face down their enemies is... Well, actually on second thoughts let's not. Isn't that a pretty reasonable requirement for a politician ("someone who chooses to take a public part in the political process")? After all, if you can't stand up to hecklers within your own party, what chance are you going to have against a Putin or a Trump?

Enough of "respect". Let's move on to actual "pledges".

We will [...] guarantee a decent job for all

It doesn't say exactly how "we" will do this. There's the usual guff about investment and innovation and "new industries", but it seems to me that the only way to "guarantee" jobs for all is for the state to employ them directly. Jeremy: whether that's what you mean or not, please say so, so that we can talk about the idea on its merits.

We will end insecurity for private renters by introducing rent controls, secure tenancies

Oh gosh, where to start... This may be the only housing policy that's actually worse than the current "rent subsidies". One of the very, very few things on which Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman unequivocally agree is, rent controls are a bad idea.

We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job

I've seen this one from both sides, as an applicant and managing my employer's recruitment process. And I'm here to tell you, a probationary period makes the whole thing much easier. Do away with it, and employers will work around the law by giving people short-term contracts before offering them a real job. That's the same end result, but with more paperwork and less employee benefits. Don't do it.

NHS, education - I don't feel qualified to comment on those. Environment, though - this is my language:

We will deliver clean energy and curb energy bill rises for households - energy for the 60 million, not the big 6 energy companies.

Look, this isn't hard. The cleanest energy of all is what's never used. Give people heat pumps, low-energy lightbulbs and insulation, encourage them to trade in their old fridges and TVs and washing machines, and you'll do more to cut their power bills and improve their living conditions and cut their carbon footprint than any plausible amount of changing the mix of generation. But whatever you do, you'll need the energy companies' help to do it. Start off by casting them as The Enemy, and you're screwed before you begin.

I could go on, but it's as disheartening to do as it is, probably, tedious to read. I can see three possibilities, none of them good.

One, and I think this is probably the correct answer, is that he is so - disassociated from reality, from his own memories and life experience, and from the advice of anyone who's not a card-carrying, certified-ideologically-pure Old Labour apparatchik, that he really believes all of this is a good idea. No word of dissent is ever allowed to reach his ears, and his own memories have been effectively scrubbed by decades of brainwashing.

Two is that Corbyn is self-consciously (and clumsily) trying to drag the Overton window to the left. I could sympathise with that as an aim, but not with his way of doing it - which, instead of progressive socialist policies, self-consciously harks back to an imagined "golden age" of pre-Thatcherite Britain. Worst of all, if that is his aim, it comes at the cost of reducing the British Labour party to irrelevancy. That's bad for - well, everyone. I remember Neil Kinnock's battles with Militant in the mid-80s; at this rate, after Corbyn, the next sane leader - if one ever emerges - will have all that to do again.

Or three, that he's another Donald Trump: an incredibly vain man, who doesn't much mind what people say, just so long as they're talking about him.

A tool, a fool or a troll. I'm not sure which is worst.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Don't let a good disaster go to waste

(Edit: This is easily the most thoughtful analysis I've seen of Brexit. Summary: yes it's bad, but not nearly as bad as it's made out.)

Last week, as you may have heard, my country got voted out from under me. ("My country" in this context being, of course, Europe.) I wonder if this is how the Serbs felt, all those years ago.

I wasn't present to witness the campaign on either side, but nothing I have seen of it leads me to believe that any sort of rational thought went into that vote - on either side. Neither Leavers nor Remainers made the slightest attempt to explain the issues soberly, they both went straight for the id. It was pure - instinct. The instinct of people who have spent their whole lives being protected from their own instincts, because that's what modern civilisation does.

But second-guessing the result is a mug's game. Lots of things could have been changed. If the Greeks had been forced out of the euro, if the French had been a bit more competent at policing (and protecting) their own immigrants, if the Germans had been just a little less high-handed in their treatment of everyone else in the HRE - sorry, I mean EU - if the Irish had managed their own banks better, if the Labour Party hadn't adopted its insane "democratic" leadership election process, if Nick Clegg hadn't made that stupid pledge about tuition fees in the first place...

But they did. And there's no point guessing what might be going on in a thousand parallel universes where history was a little different, because there's only one that we get to live in. There was a vote, and it went the way it did. Everything else is so much applesauce.

So let's at least try to be constructive. What should happen now?

Well, first of all, there's the position of the 3 million-odd non-UK EU nationals currently living in the UK. They should be guaranteed a place for life. Every single one of them, without exceptions, right up to and including the mass murderers among them, should be allowed to remain in the UK just as long as they want to, and to come and go as they please, forever. Anything else would be so unjust, it would bring lasting shame and well-deserved vitriol on the whole country.

Then there's the however-many non-EU immigrants. It would be odd if, having just voted out of the EU, the country's first independent act was to discriminate in favour of EU citizens at the expense of other potential partners and allies. So they'll be staying, too.

There's all the EU red tape about consumer products. This is, of course, already built into UK law, and I heartily recommend that the UK adopts the same policy as New Zealand does toward Australia - viz, if something meets Australian product standards, it can also be sold in NZ with no further paperwork required. (The Australians, in turn, also accept EU or US certification and testing.) However, this doesn't have to be reciprocal. That would mean you could sell things in the UK that would not be legal in the EU.

This could, of course, be a very bad thing. But it's just as likely to be beneficial. A lot depends on the next government's attitude to consumer protection.

Manufacturing that's required to be inside the EU will move. Let's make no bones about it - that will be a disaster for many areas, e.g. Sunderland, whose early declaration was so foreboding on the night. There will be a huge temptation for the next government to move heaven and earth (i.e. pay out ungodly sums of money) to prevent this, but it would be a catastrophic mistake to give in to that pressure. Instead, they should pay out some of that money to people who are willing to set up new enterprises to employ people outside the EU. (And not just "manufacturing", either. Don't be dogmatic about what sort of industry it should be. A job is a job.)

Presumably, EU R&D programmes will no longer be portioned out to the UK. I'm pretty sure most UK researchers will see this as an unmitigated disaster. It's natural to see "disaster" when the assumptions that you've based your career on are changed. Natural - but not rational. In those areas where British researchers and departments are among the best, the Europeans would be fools to exclude them. Where they're not, they're fools now to include them, and I think that might go some way to explain the glacial pace of EU R&D over the past 40 years. Academically and intellectually, I think Britain could be better off out than in - IF, and it's a honking big "IF", the best minds don't get swept away in the current tide of anti-intellectualism and ideological hysteria.

And the City of London will lose much of its current business. Again, what can't be cured must be endured. Worst case, this might result in a massive recession in the British banking sector. Or to look at it another way - the beginning of the much-longed-for redistribution of wealth away from the top 0.1%, and the long overdue decline of house prices in southeast England.

So cheer up, Remainers. Whatever you did to win the vote it wasn't enough, so now you've got a lot more work to do in the aftermath. One thing I'm sure of - that if you spend your energy now on denial, recriminations and fantasies of fleeing the country, the UK is screwed. Because those same people who voted it out will be running it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Shock and ow

Exchange of texts between me and my sister-in-law, on Friday:

Sarah: What's your thoughts on England leaving EU? And do you think the other countries will allow it? (hope you're not impacted by the currency fall)

Me: I am quite a lot affected by the currency fall, but that's life. It's a scary thing, leaving the EU. The bright side is that the shock might just possibly be enough to inspire the EU to reform itself a little. The downside is World War 3. Some of the Brexit leaders have been saying some very stupid things about doing deals with Russia, and if anything could provoke a full-scale European war, that's it. It worked a treat the last time we tried it.

Sarah: Do you think England will become stronger for exiting?

Me: Hell no. Well, not economically or politically. Maybe culturally, because chaos is always creative.

Sarah: Strange turn of events then. Why do they want to leave?

Me: Because - apparently - there's only so long you can go on treating people as idiots. Even if they clearly *are* idiots. Even idiots have their pride.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shake it all about

At one point last week, my favourite referendum pollster was projecting a 48.5% Leave vote. That is, as the Duke of Wellington might have put it, a damned nice thing.

Today the odds have slipped back to 46.5%. Which is still closer than it was last month.

Now, we know there is tendency for polling margins to narrow, as major votes approach. I don't know how well studied or documented this is, but I'm reasonably sure it always happens. Landslides are no fun, and more importantly, they don't make for good copy. As a vote approaches, journalists will do whatever is necessary - including commissioning as many spurious polls as necessary - to make both sides believe the margin is much closer than it is. (Which is why both of Obama's elections were billed in advance as "too close to call", even though, by electoral college rules, they were never in much doubt.)

Even politically, it makes sense. A side that thinks it's losing will keep changing its strategy, finding new avenues, until it finds something that improves its standing. Whereas the top dogs will just keep doing what they "know" works - until they feel threatened, at which point they'll get a bit bolder, and the gap will likely widen again slightly.

(There must be some way to make a profit from this rule. If only Ladbrokes had a mechanism for placing a bet, then 'trading it in' later when the odds change - but I doubt if they do, because it'd be too open to abuse and corruption. You need to be a banker to get away with that sort of thing, bookies are too closely watched. But if anyone knows a practicable way to do it, please do tell.)

I must confess - if I had a vote at all, I'd be increasingly tempted to vote 'leave'.

Not because I think the UK or its people would be "better off", for any material definition of "better". Anyone who thinks the UK would be richer, or freer, or better run outside the EU is someone who simply hasn't been paying attention, this past quarter-century. No, the only sane and rational reason to vote "leave" is if you believe it would lead to the breakup of the European Union itself.

Why would you want that?

Much as Niq argued about Scotland leaving the UK - the EU is broken. The UK actually does pretty well out of it - those really suffering are the Mediterranean countries. The Greeks, Italians, Spanish and Cypriots are looking at youth unemployment rates well over 30%, and the Germans have made it very clear that they're not taking any nonsense about "democracy" from those countries - they are governed by bankers, until such time as German voters decide to let them go.

And they've made it just as clear to Britain - that even without the financial stranglehold they have over the Med, they won't put up with any wandering from their prescribed policy. "Stay in the EU", their message has been, "and you will play by our rules. Leave, and we will do everything in our power to punish you. Moreover, we regard your 'democratic process' as a pistol to our head, and we will not negotiate under such terms." (Working out the terms under which they would be willing to negotiate is an exercise for - who, exactly?)

This cavalier attitude to democracy is bad enough within Europe, but outside its borders it becomes positively dangerous. We've all seen the disastrous consequences of EU meddling in Ukraine and Georgia; and if the Baltic States survive, it will be thanks to a sterner stance by NATO, nothing to do with the EU. (In fact, here's a prediction: if Trump wins the US presidency, at least one of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania will be overrun by the Russians within four years.)

Game theory teaches us that "playing nice" is a good strategy, only as long as the other players hold to it too. If you carry on being nice when they play dirty, you get screwed. Of course there is a price to be paid for breaking the tacit agreement, even if the other side has already broken it first; but if you show you're not willing to pay that price, you can expect to go on being screwed until you are. I have personal experience of this dilemma. I voted "out" then.

If you're in Britain this week: voting "out" will certainly cost you. Probably, a lot. (There will be people who will come out of it better off - but believe me, those are people who've laid their plans and invested their money and made their friends accordingly. In short, they're Not You.) But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the wrong thing to do.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Shoot the Moon

I see Ladbrokes is projecting the UK to remain in the EU by a very similar margin to the Scots' vote to remain in the UK. Currently, they're offering evens on the 'Leave' vote being over 44.5%. Which sounds about right to me, but of course there's still a month to go.

One marked difference between the Scotland/UK and UK/EU votes, though, is the attitude of the larger partner. The UK pathetically begged the Scots to stay with them; but the EU is, notably, doing no such thing to the UK. Cameron has been begging for concessions, and the EU has, apparently, been laughing at him, which goes to show they're not as silly as the Leave campaign would have you believe. Compare and contrast how Salmond treated the English during his campaign.

Which goes to show, I guess, how useless a negotiator Cameron really is. Both times, he's given ground like snow in springtime, and his opponents haven't budged.

He should take tips from Donald Trump. Ask for the Moon. I mean, literally - Britain's demand should be "we leave, and we take the Moon with us. We're going to build a giant space shield over Europe that will stop it from seeing the Moon. (Except Ireland, of course, because that would be impractical.)"

Because every news outlet in the EU would run that story. EU politicians would queue up to explain why the idea was impractical, impossible, illegal and immoral. Engineers would explain how it might be done, what it would cost, and what the impact would be. Everyone in Europe would be talking about it for weeks, even though every single person concerned knows that it's total bullshit.

And that, as Donald Trump knows, is the way to get concessions.