Remain or fade

The big day is here. A referendum that should never have happened, forced by a minor extremist party, allowed to happen by intellectual lightweights in government. The EU Referendum decides whether Britain keeps its seat at the table or is pushed outside to listen through the keyhole. So despite my libertarian leanings I’m voting to stay.

This is why. (Note: I have Masters training in finance, statistics, and behavioural economics, so while not a pro, I’m at least an informed amateur). Here we go:

Pretty much everyone believes a Brexit means economic difficulty for a while. Opinions as to how bad it’d be vary, but nobody – Remain or Leave – is pretending it’d be hugs and puppies by Monday. With even Leavers generally agreeing there’ll be a year or two of pain.

Now while we can predict broad economic outcomes a few years out with some accuracy (it’s called the Short-Term Debt Cycle) nobody can predict much beyond that.

So: there is 100% agreement we’ll have a couple of painful years -a timescale we can predict. Versus a 50% belief we’ll grow faster afterwards – a timescale that can’t be predicted.

In other words, Remain’s economic case is grounded in reality, whereas Leave’s is based on wishful thinking.

Someone on the street offers you a choice of £10 today, or a 50% chance of £12 in five years. Which would you take?

If you like Gaussians, then assuming the first guess falls within two SDs and the second within the third, this means there’s over 95% chance the economy is best off with Remain, versus less than a 5% chance it’s best off with Leave.

Based on simple statistics, the economy is better off if we Remain. Because a Remain vote is grounded in solid reality, whereas a Leave vote is wishful thinking. If you’re voting on the economy as I am, Remain is your best choice.

Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Why should right-wingers support the Living Wage? Try £10bn on GDP

The political map has moved on since French nobles sat to the left or right of the King, but most would still class me as a classic Right-winger. So why do I support a wage floor for the UK – and not just the minimum wage, but a Living Wage and beyond?

Targetting low wage earners...After all, I laugh in the face of unions (economic wrecking balls) who you’d think would be working towards the same goal. And my contempt for the Labour front bench – a mob of jerk-offs and whack-jobs incapable of simple sums – is total. I believe Occupy is shorthand for “Stand and deliver” and that Russell Brand is an overhyped self-indulgent uber-flake, circle-jerking the right-on juice for an audience of Guardian journalists. (Well, no argument there I suppose.)

Yup, the British Left is a joke, and the Conservatives aren’t that much better. I’m a hardcore Libertarian, in the extreme top right corner of the Nolan Chart. High social freedoms and high economic freedoms for all, and the main job of a small government is to protect those rights, not take rights of its own. The rights of society must stem from the rights of the individual, otherwise it’s just masters and slaves.

(As every State that’s ever dabbled in Communism discovers.)

And that’s why my stance is unusual. Isn’t the free market about invisible hands, supply and demand, efficient allocation of capital and all that? Libertarians are supposed to support laissez-faire. A minimum wage is a market distortion, and, the dogma goes, market distortions are always bad.

I still believe that. I’m a Libertarian even among Libertarians. But I also want to live in a civil society. And one of the few arguments against a Libertarian society is that it might not be a civil one.


Just to get things straight: I’m not developing a social conscience here. (Perish the thought.) Don’t worry folks, I remain a self-centred, individualist, rat-racing me-first Social Darwinist who glorifies the I over the We in true Objectivist tradition. Enlightened self-interest is the only personal philosophy that makes any sense, and darling Ayn got everything right, including not liking Libertarians. I enjoy BioShock for all the wrong reasons and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge ranks among my favourite fictional characters. And now we’ve got that sorted…


… anyone working fulltime at the lowest pay grade should be able to afford a decent life.

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.Not a life of luxury. Not a life of eating out every night – or even once a week. But a roof over your head and cash for Asda, with enough left over for a change of clothes and a broadband connection, isn’t asking much. And that’s all anyone needs to get onto the ladder of self-actualisation. The dignity of work should be matched by the dignity of pay… because those dignities give you the opportunity to pull yourself up.

And a society of 60m people with those opportunities is a successful, economically dynamic one. That’s the kind of place I want to live in.

So let’s look at what really matters to a small-statist: what does it cost?

The answer: a lot less than you’d think. And the benefits are enormous.

Back of envelope: the cost to employers worst-cases 58bn. That’s if Britain’s 12m lowest earners get £9.15 an hour. But many of them work part-time, bringing it down to £26bn or so. And some earn Living Wage already. (Including, to their credit, many local councils – although it’s easy to be generous with other people’s money.)

That brings us down to £22bn on the cost column. And the good news continues.

Because increasing these wages won’t make the jobs go away. Most low-wage jobs are non-exportable. They’re the cleaners, the waiters, the guys who sweep your streets and mix your drinks. You can’t outsource these jobs to Vietnam. A living wage won’t reduce employment.

What’s more, many employers among our EU neighbours already face real costs above this premium: try employing someone in, say, France. Britain’s beyond the economic stage where human labour is a costed commodity; low earners don’t make aircraft engines or devise new drugs. A living wage will have no effect on Britain’s global competitiveness.

Looking for that 360 degree view? Call Chris.Third, most of these extra costs can be recharged directly to customers. Anyone paying £2.50 for a Latte can afford £2.62, and if you begrudge the guy with his hands in your toilet an extra two quid, you need to rethink your priorities. I estimate £15bn of that £22bn moves straight into the revenue column; a living wage carries little real cost to employers.

So we’re down to a £7bn real cost to employers. What else?

Well, surprise surprise: put an extra £400 a month in people’s pockets, and they spend it on stuff. That £15bn charge-out becomes a £15bn economic boost. Which means greater sales for the companies who employ them. Leading to economic growth, higher employment, higher VAT receipts at the Treasury, and an increased feel-good factor among the teeming hordes. Would that cover the £7bn and bring the real cost of this change down to zero? I think so. (And yes, I’m aware how Keynesian this makes me sound. Suck it up.)

There are other benefits. A reduced need for Housing Benefit. A lower bill for income support. And a greater incentive to get into work; that extra £98 a week might, who knows, persuade some lard-assed wasters away from the Sky box. And with the minimum income of a full-time worker – over £18,000 – now significantly greater than most people can score from the Social, the number of people claiming benefits would fall anyway. It’s all good when work pays. An extra £3-4bn boost to GDP?

These positives, of course, also reduce the appalling complexity of Britain’s welfare state. All the edge cases – what percentage of this guy’s rent should we cover? How many hours of this woman’s childcare? – go away, and with them the armies of functionaries who adminster them. (Maybe they can all get jobs in Starbuck’s instead.) A living wage means a smaller State. What’s that, £1bn off the Public Sector payroll?

So there you have it: I estimate a living wage carries a £5-10bn benefit to the UK economy. Not far off a full percentage point on growth. Are you listening, Osborne?

Societal discounting: why white male privilege doesn’t help me

I was chatting about white male privilege recently. Let’s start by stating outright: I know it exists. I’m pretty chuffed I was born male, middle-class and of european extraction. But here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t help me as much as you think it does.

And a bit of research backs it up. But first, the theory.

White male privilege exists

It started with a throwaway thought: that the benefits of being white and male, while real, are already “priced in”.

Priced in is a finance term, meaning those who buy into a benefit aren’t getting as much value from it as you might think. Value is “priced in” when expectations of future profit are already fully reflected in the stockmarket valuation of a company.

In other words, buy that stock now and you’re unlikely to make a profit on it. The expected benefits are already part of the stock price.

But its benefits are “priced in”…

How does value get priced in? By a basic financial mechanism: discounting.

Since the benefits of buying a stock or share are in the future—and the future is unpredictable—investors balance their expectations of profit by applying a discount factor to those forecasts, usually a percentage.

The higher the risk of not making a profit, the higher the discount rate. A couple of percent per year for a Fortune-500 company, high double digits for an Internet startup.

Discount factors take expectations of profit down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing.

… and society, knowing this, discounts it

I’m arguing that society recognises the existence of WMP, and applies a discount factor to its treatment of white males that reduces the benefits of being white and male.

I call this balancing effect “societal discounting“. (Hey, it sounds nicely sociological—a bit fuzzy and obscure—so it’s halfway to academic acceptance already.) White males enjoy a status perceived as privileged… so societal discounting acts to “takes them down a peg or two.”

Which wouldn’t harm a lot of white males, me probably included. But how does societal discounting actually work?

One trait of societal discounting is the tendency to not take any protests of prejudice experienced by white males seriously—he’s a middle-class white male! What could he possibly complain about?—and seeing white males as fair targets for levels of bigotry unacceptable when expressed towards any other demographic.

That paragraph will probably make some people angry. If you’re one of them, breathe, because it’s not meant to. I’m not sure of the degree to which societal discounting reduces the benefits of being a white male, but I accept it probably isn’t 100%.

But you’re doing it. Even if you’re a white male yourself.

This discounting negates the benefits of being white and male

Societal discounting is why it’s okay to publish a blog titled “The White Guy Problem“, deriding a behaviour that’s entirely unpleasant, yet not at all confined to white males. (And which, happily, only an ignorant fraction of any community indulges in.)

It’s why Salon republishes a feminist post singling out white males’ inability to “listen to the experiences of others”. (I’m not going to diss the writing style: its author never intended it as more than a Facebook status.) If you make it down the page, one sentence jumps out:

“[you] are being infantilizing. . . You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.”

The author is right as far as she goes. But would she listen to the “lived experiences” of white males with the same degree of open-minded empathy she wants from them? Could she have aimed this valid advice at any other group without being tarred as a bigot?

But she directed it at white males, towards which almost any degree of prejudice or racism seems to be okay. (Maybe she hedged her views at the end of the article, but these pieces tend to run long copy: I’ve yet to make it to the end of one.)

It also happened in the chat that inspired this blog. The conversation was civil, but when I mentioned my “priced in” idea, the consensus quickly arose as an implicit and unquestionable understanding: I was one of those white males. Part of the problem. In inevitable sequence came the accusations of misunderstanding (true) and trolling (false.)

This is societal discounting in action. Understanding that white male privilege exists, and taking actions to discount it back towards some more reasonable norm.

And if you’re surprised by that word “reasonable”, then you haven’t been listening.

Maybe societal discounting is the right thing to do. Maybe white male privilege really does create such a distorting effect that discounting it back towards the mean is entirely reasonable.

Next, some research findings.

Some non-academic, non-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research

Back-of-envelope research needs easily accessible data with a reasonable chance of finding something in it. What follows isn’t statistically valid (although it is statistically significant) nor qualitatively appropriate. In other words, it’s a judgement sample rather than a rigorously controlled one.

So I’ll note here: I have some training in econometrics, and use modelling and analysis every day. I do understand the limitations of a sample. So unless you know your CI from your SD: whatever your complaint about my data or findings, I’ll already know it.

TV sitcoms and semi-comedies were my data landscape. (Cue laughter track.)

Why? Because comedy tends to a) magnify societal mores, and b) lag a bit behind the times. (Statisticians might call them a judgement sample of society.) Sitcoms aren’t exactly a mirror of society; they’re more like a shaving mirror, emphasising further bits that already stick out. Soap operas would work too, but I’ve never watched any.

In an attempt at control, I chose them all from the last 20 years, from both the UK and USA, and with a mix of characters from diverse backgrounds. This meant classics like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince got nixed, but The Simpsons and Buffy (known for strong female characters) made the cut. I found 61 in total.

Why sitcoms were no laughing matter

The results were startling. Of those featuring a white male lead character, in 84% of cases that character had a negative trait—and the trait was remarkably consistent, over two-thirds strongly biased towards a bumbling nature or loveable idiocy.

Just 18% featured a female lead character with a negative trait—and in 8 of these 11 shows, the trait came from a range of comedic stereotypes (the scatty blonde, the socially inept nerd) rather than a consistent characteristic of idiocy.

There was another finding. A random subsample of plotlines demonstrated that of the shows featuring a bumbling white male lead character, that trait substantially defined the plotline of many episodes. (Think of how often Homer’s idiocy is saved by Marge’s better nature.)

The cod conclusion: societal discounting against white males is an integral, unquestioned norm in the media we consume.

It’s okay to make fun of white males, in ways unacceptable about other ethnicities or genders.

White males reading this might feel aggrieved at this finding. I don’t. Because I understand why it happens. It’s just societal discounting, taking white male privilege down a peg or two. (Bear in mind most of these shows, including those featuring ethnic and minority characters, are written and produced by white males. British and US comedy shows aren’t exactly a feminist plot.)

And society hasn’t exactly collapsed because of it, has it? I laugh at The Simpsons too, you know.

But here’s the kicker: it’s okay

In discussions about sexism or racism, my experience is that of many white males: I’m either not allowed an opinion or seen as part of the problem. My own lived experience is discounted, by the same people who say I should be listening to theirs.

And you know what? Understanding societal discounting, I’m okay with that.

Because I am, after all, still white and male. Still defined by my ethno-cultural background. A quick scan of my Kindle reveals a great many white male authors and surprisingly very few women or people of colour. The writer most in tune with my personal philosophy was female, and I admire Toni Morrison, but I realise I’ve never read any of her books whole.

However, I did live overseas for a large part of my life, where I was a minority in race and mother tongue. I went to university in my 30s, on a course where white males were a tiny minority. Today, I live in one of Britain’s most diverse neighbourhoods; my (non-white) partner has suffered serious racism although she never let it slow her down.

So I do know a bit about this stuff. I’m not perfect, but hey—neither are you.

Modern society treats white male privilege as damage and routes around it. This blog won’t get lauded as a piece of social commentary, or even accepted as valid. Because if you’re non-white, non-male, or have ever experienced prejudice, you’ll discount it.

And that’s ok.

Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.

And I’m sorry.

From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.

But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?

Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.

But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.

  • I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
  • I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
  • And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.

Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.

 

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.

Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.

(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)

The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.

That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.

Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11.  Big win for the honest citizen.

The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.

This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)

That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.

We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.

 

 

One Good Muslim

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

Here’s an idea. In the wake of a soldier’s murder by Islamic maniacs, two people have been arrested for a heinous crime: Tweeting. I’ve no idea what these two idiots Tweeted – presumably some racist claptrap – but it made me think.

Every day, in thousands of mosques and madrassas across Britain, imported Imams – often non-English-speaking and with no real conception of British society – spout sermons of hate containing the most incendiary anti-Western rhetoric imaginable. Much of it aimed at white people. Burn them, kill them, cut their heads off. The sort of stuff that’d see you down a cop shop before your feet touched the ground. If you said it in an open forum, instead of a semi-public space in a foreign tongue.

Perhaps someone – just one per mosque – could note such things down, translate it into English, make a complaint. Anonymously if necessary.

After all, these are the men providing the toxic narrative that turns under-employed young men into raging jihadis filled with hatred. Taking down the men they see as teachers is the first step towards bringing them productively into British society, instead of forever raging at its fringes. Perhaps they’ll never come all the way in – but that’s ok. One of the truly great things about Britain is the way it’s big enough for a great many cultures to live side-by-side, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And no, this idea isn’t “racist”. If you think it is – I ask: what race is Islam, then?

Is it South Asian? A lot of people in the deserts might dispute that. Is it Arab? I know plenty of Persians who’d take issue there. And there are millions of Muslims in the regions around Russia that gave their name to the term “Caucasian”. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a belief system. And thankfully in the UK we’re allowed to question, criticise, even insult a belief system without falling foul of the law. (There are many belief systems I criticise, including Nazi ideology, socialism, the tooth fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

If you’re a mosque- or madrassa- going Muslim who speaks English, why not familiarise yourself with your local police station’s non-emergency number or its online equivalent today, record accurately any racist comment your Imam makes at his next sermon, and report it once you get outside? Include the name and address of the mosque and the name of the Imam in your complaint, plus the date and approximate time the comment was made.

Is there, in every Mosque in Britain, just one good Muslim who could help?

The Hundred Year Club

Here’s an idea I’m developing: a plan for living a healthy lifespan of 100 years.

Here’s my reasoning. I don’t want to die – ever. But attaining immortality is like any other human endeavour; it’s a project of many parts. So the first part is to work out what it’ll take to be independent, healthy, and productive at 100.

Which is hardly a ridiculous goal. Take Sir Norman Foster, in his 80s but with the body shape of a far younger man. Compay Segundo from Bueno Vista Social Club, active at 90 when the documentary was made (and who lived another five years.) Designer Robin Day, star of British design in the 1950s, worked into his 90s. What’s more, I’m from long-lived genetic stock on both sides: no heart disease, no cancer, no addictive tendencies.

In short, I’m in with a good chance.

It’s even possible the major problems aren’t medical. Albert Camus’s notion that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. In other words, is there enough in life to make it worth living? Can you stay relevant to the world as you age? Can you continue succeeding on terms true to yourself? Will you want to? A positive mental attitude is as important to hundred-year-clubbers as broccoli and bicycles.

And there’s a longer-term goal: anyone under 50 today who manages to live to a hundred may never need to die at all.

A full understanding of the human genotype and phenotype, complete control over cancer, custom cell repair, personalised telomere editing, in-body diagnostic nanotechnology, and other medical advances that aren’t even concepts yet may eliminate death as a medical condition altogether. Life-threatening cancers can be spotted in childhood, kept in check until they’re worth dealing with, and whacked with a designer drug keyed to your genome alone. Badly dividing cells can be snipped out with molecular shears, ejected from your body, and a fresh pair cloned without you ever needing to do anything about it. You’ll still need to take care of your body, but unlike today, it won’t eventually wear out with use.

Yes, it sounds farfetched. About as farfetched as transplanting major organs did in the mid 20th century. I’m in the Hundred Year Club.

£100k to £10m: a ten-year project

ad73b-37barsinbunkerGiven my modest life goals, I’ve been thinking about how achievable a rich but not ultra-rich level of wealth really is for the average middle-class taxpayer over the course of his working life. So I’m exploring a challenge-to-self: can one individual, operating alone with a job and a bit of capital, build a £10m wealth portfolio in ten years?

It doesn’t involve following some get-rich-quick scheme. (Nobody who gets rich quick ever does.) It’s about doing the right things: developing solid client relationships, doing the right kind of work, understanding your market. Most of all, it’s about the numbers: credit leverage, asset allocation, yields and margins and revenue streams. It sounds like complex financial stuff, but it’s not. Remember there are only two questions in finance, the cost of capital and the return on it. The assumptions below are reasonable: around 5% capital appreciation, 4% cost of capital, reinvested profits and average rental yields.

I’m not the type who employs people (people suck) so owning a big business is out of the question; startups come with such a high risk factor it’s not reasonable to build this strategy on a business anyway. So this is more about what’s possible for a lone wolf. Someone intelligent and self-actuated, but without infrastructure beyond the benefits of living in a stable nation like the UK. I can’t remember a time when I lived without risk (there’s a factor of seven between my worst and best-earning years); the novelty of this strategy is that it takes risk out, aiming for a positive outcome without requiring assumptions multiple SDs from the mean.

Here’s what to do. (As if I needed to say it, this isn’t financial advice; it’s a hypothetical plan I want to follow myself and you should ignore it totally. I don’t really want you competing with me for hot properties.)

Year One: the setup year.

You need a solid income, whatever it’s from: regular salary, sales commissions, client retainers, whatever. It doesn’t need to be a six-figure monster: my plan needs £60-80k. A high-but-not-skyscraping salary for the UK, not even in the top 1% of earners. If you can only hit £40k or so, it’s still possible but it requires a change in mindset. Cancel the Sky subscription, rent your spare room, sell the car and take the bus. Act like the low-income person you now are. People live healthy lives in the world’s priciest cities for under £20k.

Intertwined with this is your credit rating. All the big ratings agencies allow consumer access: Experian, Equifax, CallCredit. Check your score. If it’s low, take active steps to raise it; not much less than a top-decile credit score allows the balance of credit and yield in this plan. Your goal for this year is to have £100k in investable assets in two years, most of which you’ve got already in less investable forms.

Year Two: the savings year.

With discipline a careful worker can save £20-30k/yr. By Year 2 you’re looking to make first use of it. The only longterm asset capable of paying for itself is property; most great fortunes are built on it. My preference is for small freehold houses in secure locations;  land has been a well-regarded asset for 5,000 years, and things like management fees in flats can eat away huge amounts of cashflow. Furthermore, with no-one living above or below to worry about, risk is minimised.

Britain’s property websites allow awesome depth of research; leverage them. My plan involves two shabby but structurally sound 1/2-bedroom homes, on a good street in an up-and-coming area, in a sweet spot like London’s Zone 2 near a Tube. Too fiddly to attract commercial investors, most private buyers get turned off by stale decor, and the market is spotty enough there are bargains at the edges. Find them with a ruthlessly critical eye. It’s not your house to live in, it’s your asset to sweat.

Let’s say costs are around £200k each. Allow a £40k deposit for each plus £20k for stamp duty and solid kitchen and bathroom refurbs, then approach mortgage vendors with your credit rating, income statements, and deposit. Spend two months refurbishing both. Use all the tricks – constant flooring throughout, lots of brilliant white paint, and little touches like making sure all lightswitches and sockets are the same type and free of paint flecks. (I’ve just done this to my own house and it raised the rentable value by £200 a month.)

Two mortgages of £160k carry repayments around £2200/mth. Renting the houses to young professionals brings in around £2600/mth, and capital appreciation another £20k on paper over the first year. Two primary goals are answered: you want capital growth that outpaces inflation (as London’s market is likely to do longterm) and loan repayments covered about 120%. You control a £420k portfolio that pays for itself and your £100k of initial capital has earned a 25% return on paper: you’re on your way.

Year Three: we’re in business.

You’re still saving. And it’s getting easier since you’re pulling in an extra £5k or so from rentals. By December there’s £40k to buy a third Buy-to-Let. (Let’s say it costs £210k.) Your first two properties add £20k to your equity during the year; your portfolio’s past £600k. And we’re just getting started. The biggest risk is to lose sight of the ten-year goal, sell up and splurge: Rule One is that these are long-term assets that grow over time, even while you’re driving a hatchback and watching basic satellite. If you have a surplus, use it to pay down mortage sums to increase your equity.

Year Four: do it again.

The prices are higher, but so are the rents you can extract. (One reason property works as an investment is that it builds in inflation: rents and capital appreciation tend to track.) At the end of the year the portfolio spans four properties and over £1m on paper; it’s producing a solid surplus of over £1000/mth in rent and in the next 12 months will rise £50k in value. The plan is starting to show concrete results. You need to look at tax planning here: your surplus of rental income over interest costs is now significant and the authorities look at this very, very closely. Be open, be honest, but explore all options for carried interest and remortgaging with your financial advisor.

Year Five: that sustainable vibe.

After another year, we’ve reached the halfway milestone: not portfolio size, but a self-sustaining buying strategy. The 40-50k to purchase each additional property is now mostly covered by rent yield: your portfolio is now pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. You’re using money to make money. Portfolio size: around £1.5m, with a third of it equity.

Year Six: the Long 15.

There’s a way to go, and on paper you’re less than 20% of the way there, but there’s a story behind the numbers. Your sixth purchase, taking price rises into account, puts your portfolio in the £2m range with free cashflow of over three grand a month. You’ve been working and earning a long time with few luxuries, but – hey – what are luxuries? The luxury to do what you want each day beholden to no-one: that’s luxury. And you’re better than halfway there.

Year Seven: getting lucky.

By the end of this year you’re at the point where the equity in your portfolio balances your remaining debt, at about a million each way. (If this sounds a lot, remember you’ve funded it to the tune of £350k or so out of your own pocket plus another £350k in reinvested rents: if you neglect capital appreciation for a moment, your return is less than 50% spread over seven years, not much better than a good savings bond.) Of course you DON’T neglect capital growth, which has been around £350k too, and 14% per annum taking it all into account is a far juicier average.

Year Eight: rolling in it.

With your mortgage repayments starting to bite into the capital sums you borrowed, the yield curve is looking good: you’re bringing in twice as much each month in rent payments as cost of capital, with your equity to debt ratio seeing two-to-one on the horizon and you’re comfortably a millionaire after liabilities.

Only one million? Yes – don’t forget tax. Britain has been good to you: it’s the UK’s strong institutions and stable government that gives investors and residents the confidence to come here, supporting your rental market and your capital appreciation. In most places in the world this can’t happen. Look at tax not as a cost, but as your contribution to civil society.

Year Nine: the end in sight.

Portfolio size: over £3.5m. Gross income over costs of over £10,000 every month, with over half your loans paid. With nine properties under your belt by year end, about as many as you’d want to handle working alone, it’s time to start planning the endgame: what you’re going to do in another year or so.

But it’s also time to start congratulating yourself: you may have deprived yourself of Lamborghinis and Breitlings, but let’s face it – they’re just stuff. You’ve probably discovered you don’t need them anyway. It’s time to give up work and concentrate on your portfolio.

Year Ten: the finish line.

No purchase this year, but your portfolio’s valued over £4m and the income allows you to pay down all remaining mortgage amounts. The tax implications here are  sizeable: make sure you make provision for all the tax… your contribution to the social stability that’s enabled your plan to work over the decade.

Outcome: you own £4m of net assets outright, plus a revenue stream of over a quarter of a million pounds a year: another £4m of Net Present Value right there. Over the next year, £250k of revenue plus a further £200k of capital appreciation give you a track record a larger scale investor will look at: an asset delivering stable returns close to £500,000/yr is the sort of thing pension funds get interested in.

All options are open now, from a straightfoward sale to exotic derivatives that securitise your assets and income streams. Remortgaging the lot gives you very high returns over costs (at least six percentage points) due to competitive loan rates now available to you. For the rest of your life, you can enjoy the returns associated with a £10m fortune while steadily accumulating an actual £10m in capital value. The work is done: your portfolio will climb to £10m over the next few years without further work. You’ve made it.

Of course, this plan assumes you find the right properties, capture the right lending deals, keep it rolling and disciplined over multi-year periods. But that’s the point. Not everyone can do it. And for people prepared to put in the work, research the market and sweat the small stuff… there are rewards.

Twelve skills for surviving in the postnuclear wasteland

If we’re really headed for a nuclear apocalypse, would you want to survive? I would. And if you’re not zonked into your component molecules by the blast itself, so would you. Survival is a natural human instinct.

But today’s civilised city-dweller, with his supermarkets and indoor plumbing, isn’t naturally equipped for life in the postnuclear wasteland … much less thriving, building a new life and business adapted to the radioactive desert. What if we changed our perspective? What if we treated life in the radioactive aftermath not as decades of torment, but as a decades-long Burning Man festival? Here’s my guide to the skills you’ll need; you’ve got 3-5 years to develop them.

1. Understand radiation.

The postapocalyptic landscape will be populated by slavering hordes of two-headed mutants, right? Nope. This one’s first because of all the aftereffects of a nuke, radiation is the most misunderstood.

It’s not the eternal bogeyman, blighting the world and its chances of recovery forever. Nor, if caught in the eye of the firestorm, will you acquire superpowers as many expect. It’s time-limited, unevenly spread (the road may be safe, the bushes alongside it deadly) and follows predictable patterns guided by relatively few factors like the weather. Knowing where the safe areas are ups your survivability quotient hugely: one woman in Hiroshima survived to old age despite being just 300m from the epicentre.

Alpha radiation can basically be stopped by a wet paper towel; Beta by a sheet of tinfoil. Both fall to survivable levels in just a few days, even near your local Ground Zero. The one to watch is Gamma (the only one of the big three that’s actually radiation to start with) and fallout, the dust and smog of the fireball’s afterbelch. The basic rule: put mass between you and the source, and cover your skin including your nose and mouth. (Lead isn’t necessary: it’s the mass in lead that makes it useful, not any property of lead itself.)

The most dangerous radioactive material is the stuff you ingest, so keep facemasks and wet towels to hand when you go out. Of course you’ve stocked up on Geiger counters: learn the units (rems or sieverts) and the difference between a count and a dose, which will tell you where you can go and for how long you can stay.

Fallout doesn’t stay dangerous forever – it falls to about a thousandth of its potency within two weeks and a ten-thousandth within three months – so the length of time you need to hole up isn’t beyond the pale; the main risk longer-term is how much of it gets into your body. Just never let your dosimeter leave your side.

2. Learn to build and fix.

2a. Build. Even if your house was outside the detonation radius, a timber-framed econobox isn’t much protection against desperate radiation-ravaged maniacs – so you need four walls and a roof that can withstand the inevitable nightly firebombings. (This one’s high on the list, because you die more quickly from lack of sleep than lack of food. Getting somewhere secure to spend the night is a priority.)

Carpentry and smithing smarts are great, but remember to learn some heavy-lifting skills like how to assemble a pulley or cantilever a platform. Mechanical advantage will help you do great things. But first, if you’re approaching a big project – let’s say a steel-walled compound with floodlighting and barbed wire – you need a sense of the bigger picture. Read a book on architecture, and learn the principles of how masses enclose spaces for human habitation. It lets you start with a plan. Then read a couple of engineering texts on statics (basically, how forces and loads act on each other) and dynamics (moving parts) and you’re ready to experiment.

Then revisit your DIY skills. The basic ones aren’t hard. How to measure and saw and drill, how to nail and screw and bolt. Plus some extra bits: working with bearings and gaskets and washers, all the simple helpful elements developed by engineers that make things work better. (After all, you’re building, not bodging – with the bonus of no planning regulations to comply with except the laws of physics.)

A basic toolset is worth listing.

For small jobs, I swear by my Leatherman Wave: a pocket-sized toolbox that should always be with you, as should a Zippo or matches. And you can’t beat a Stanley knife, the snappable-blade one, for basic scratching and scoring. Larger, but still backpackable if you’re out and about, are a folding spadesawaxepick, wrecking bar and machete:  those from Gerber are excellent. And of course a flashlight.

A decent adjustable workbench – sadly, Black & Decker’s once-great Workmate is now a cardboard-and-plastic parody – makes a base, with a vice and measuring tools. Plus a measuring tape and spirit level of course.

In your lockable tool trunk back home (guard it well) should be a (solar) charger and its reasons for being: electric drill, nailgun, circular saw, and angle grinder, with all the bits. Among the manually-powered stuff, include some heavy-duty wrecking bars, saws in multiple sizes, a pick, shovel, hoe, and sledgehammer, a set of screwdrivers, a set of spanners, pliers, some claw hammers and big scissors. If you like working with metal, an oxyacetylene torch lets you cut and weld, about as useful a skill as you can have in the wastes – if not, a heatgun for melting plastics together and cleaning surfaces helps. Add lots of consumables – nails, screws, duct tape, glue, sealant, paracord – and a big book of DIY tricks. You’re set.

Practice with brackets, hinges, clamps and clips to join different masses together; experiment with rubber strips and sealant to see what works best in the gaps. Think modular. Countless modern building supplies are designed to go in fast and do one job well, from No More Nails to that old favourite duct tape. Learn how different materials work together, and find a set of a dozen things you can get results with, whether it’s breezeblocks, planks of wood, or concrete sections. (That list is then your action plan every time you go scavenging in the wasteland.)

When planning your postwar home base, remember it doesn’t need to be underground or have fancy airlocks and filters; it just needs insulating mass, all its cracks and gaps blocked with sealant, and all the openings sealed against dust. The carbon paper you find in oven hoods is great.

Getting ambitious, if you’re able to move them shipping containers are brilliant. Weatherproof, room-sized, stackable and lockable with nonporous walls, you can build substantial dwellings with them; many have ductwork inside you can run cables and hoses through. (The downsides to container living are heat, noise and condensation due to single-skin walls, but that’s something you’ll fix early). Also, a container on each side of your living space stuffed with rubble makes an excellent radiation shield. What you really want is a half-dozen TEUs buried beneath a mountain of concrete in a defensible position, but that’s not something you can establish before Zero Hour itself, so knowing how to improvise is the next-best thing.

2b. Fix. Buildings are largely static structures; in the wasteland you’ll need dynamics too. How to gain mechanical advantage through pulleys, gears, levers and cantilevers; how to rebuild engines so you can generate power and get around the blighted landscape. The human body’s an incredible machine, but other machines can leverage it.

Consider learning about simple vehicles. Bicycles, motorbikes, jetskis, Jeeps, Land Rovers, old VW Beetles, the Lotus 7, microlights, light aircraft, paragliders : they’ll all be good choices in the wastes because they’re beautifully simple. (A large percentage of all Bugs and Rovers ever built are still on the roads.)

These vehicles are simple enough to be comprehended and repaired by a single skilled person with the right knowledge, and robust enough to give service for decades. Something with wheels will make you a force to be reckoned with in the wastes; something with wings gives you range far beyond your home base. (There’ll be plenty of blacktop to land on.)

3. Establish your health.

Avoiding death and disease in the first place is a lot easier than curing them. Keeping your body in balance – with exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements – is your greatest defence against death in the wasteland: in a world where a small cut results in life-threatening infection, knowing how to use medicine and its trappings is a vital skill.

So learn the natural products with medicinal value and where to find them, starting with honey and lemons (natural antibacterial and disinfectant). Because you can grow your own First Aid.

But at the core of your post-nuclear health plan should be keeping yourself and your environment clean. Squeaky-clean body and breath make life in the wastes feel a lot less toxic, while scrubbed floors and walls dispel fallout and bacterial risk. Sodium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride are your three basics to work with; they may sound like complex chemicals, but caustic soda, baking soda, and salt aren’t actually that hard to find in any blast-torn supermarket. (For speed, use the “Looting 8 Items or Less” lane.)

There are dozens of recipes for cold-mixing soap, toothpaste, and cleaning agents; find a few and learn them. (Of course, all this assumes your skin is not sloughing off in great papery sheafs in the aftermath of the blast.)

Health isn’t just of the body: a disciplined and calm mind is an equal or greater tool to a strong and fast body. Yoga soothes both body and mind and builds old-age flexibility you’ll need for your long years in the wasteland: no retirement homes or health insurance now. (Just don’t mistake a radioactive crater for a Hot Bikram class.) Meditation might help shut out the desperate wails of a thousand feral children hammering on your steel-clad door. Of course, after the blast you may be in a trance-like state already.

4. Learn how to purify water.

There’s always water around, whether it’s a tarpaulin harvest at dawn or a filthy puddle. Making it drinkable takes surprisingly little gear: filter papers, a big steam kettle, some plastic piping. All can be improvised out of the spoils from any burned-out DIY store. (A repurposed immersion heater is ideal.) It won’t be Perrier (unless your wasteland scavenging turned up a few carbon dioxide cylinders) but it’ll be clean and drinkable, and with a steady supply you can make yourself the most popular guy in the wasteland. However, there’s one thing about distilled water: it tastes disgusting. (More correctly, there’s an absence of taste most humans dislike.)

One idea is to do what people did in the Middle Ages: drink beer instead. You can get a hundred pints from a few kilos of malt and it’ll store at room temperature for months; face one end of a shipping container onto the street, and you’ve opened a wasteland bar, where you can trade information and food with fellow survivors. Making yourself indispensable to the postapocalyptic community is a sound survival strategy.

5. Learn how to generate electricity.

Nothing will lift your jaded spirits like the sputtering into life of an LED bulb with no bills to pay at the end of the month. Arguably this comes before growing food, because with electricity you can extend the day and the season, make ice, cook from cans, keep food cold and yourself warm. All the things that make life worth living. Just 5kW can power your well-insulated shipping container home.

If space allows, ambient solar and large-capacity batteries are the way to go, silent and low-maintenance with ways to get hot water, too. (There’ll be tons of solar panels around and no planning regulations to stop you using them.) Today’s panels can generate around a hundred watts per sq m peak, meaning you’ll average about a third of that… needing rather a lot of panels to fill all your needs. But ultimately your first step is some first-year physics on AC, DC, volts and amps and how batteries work. A single day of learning now can result in decades of comfortable life during those dark nuclear winter evenings.

6. Learn to grow vegetables.

Anyone with a kitchen garden knows it doesn’t take much land to produce crateloads of beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, squashes – and it’s even easier to grow the things that make eating them worthwhile, such as herbs. Vertical growing and greenhousing (you need glass to keep the fallout off anyway) make it possible to feed a family of four from a tenth of an acre: that’s a square just twenty metres along a side, an area you can wall off and cover with glass in a week.

If you have a chance, grab a few open-bed shipping containers, pile pallets inside in steps, cover the top pallets with a ton or two of soil, and lid them with salvaged windows. (The pallets create space underneath from which you can irrigate and nourish the soil; with lighting you can even have three “floors” of mini-fields per container.) Instant secure food factories, built from a template you can repeat and scale.

(Pay special attention to soybeans. Tofu is the perfect nufood: compact, portable, protein-packed, and goes well with almost anything. You can live on the stuff if needs be, with nothing more than a crate of seasonings and some oil.)

That’s why you learned to generate electricity first; a greenhouse can be lit and heated to moderate your growing cycle year-round. In postapocalyptic times, organic growing will come into its own: learn about it. How placing certain plants next to each other fends off bugs; how crop rotation can replenish the soil for the next round; the proportions in which you can grow different plants together for maximum yield. Fresh organic produce every day will be a principal reason you’ll not only survive, but be happy as a wasteland survivor.

7. Learn guns and self-defence.

How to handle weapons, and how to handle yourself. There’s going to be some bad people out there… and if you’ve trained yourself to get stuff, plenty of others will want to take it away from you. Krav Maga is a skill that lets you fight off attackers quickly even in groups; you can learn it at home with a punchbag and dummy, although it’s best put into practice in class. Perhaps its biggest benefit, though, is simply the physical confidence Practitioners acquire: fewer people will mess with you in the first place.

In close quarters at a time when the law’s become history, there are some tools to magnify your fighting smarts. Brass knuckles, blackjacks and switchblades are small and deadly. A larger blade is as much a tool as a weapon; even swords may make a comeback. But where the best defence may be a good offense, you’ll need muscle that works at a distance, too, and that means being able to use things that go bang. (And ideally knowing your way around an ammo recycling bench.) Before law and society break down, you may want to acquire a crossbow or longbow; they’re legal today and you can reuse the ammo. Expect archery skills to be prized post-nuke.

In guns, everyone has their preferred loadout, but five guns should answer most situations. (All illegal or hard to obtain this side of the Atlantic, but hey, we’re planning for lawlessness.) First up is a handgun, something tried and tested like a Glock or Beretta, with plenty of spare magazines and 9mm ammo. (You carry this one all the time; it’s for unplanned situations.)

Your second workaday weapon is a shotgun. Leave sawn-offs to the movies; go for something 24″+-barrelled in 12-bore, ideally a semi-auto with tube magazine. (A decent-length barrel allows a decent-size tube – some hold up to a dozen shells – and the more shells up your sleeve the better; box and drum mags are harder to carry.) There’s a big choice of rock-solid ones: the Spas-12, the Mossberg 500, the Remington 870 are all provably awesome.

A shotgun is basic because unlike rifles or handguns, it lets a beginner aim at targets more than a few metres away and actually hit them. The spread pattern at 50m can reach several metres, enough to make a glare-crazed pack of feral dogs think twice. A shotgun is also the ultimate modular weapon: slugs and beanbag rounds turn it into a short-range rifle or a nonlethal deterrent, while more exotic ammo takes you into sci-fi territory (there’s even a Taser shell out there.) Ammo is valuable in the wasteland and a weapon that lets you scatter a gang of scoundrels with one shot should never be far from your shoulder. (Take this one everywhere beyond your barricaded front door.)

Third and fourth, some sort of assault rifle – even a spray ‘n pray AK-47 will do – for when you can afford to plan your To-Do list in advance, and a long-barrelled sniper rifle – the Barrett .50 is top dog here – for when acting at a distance is an option. (Keep both these back at your base; they’re mission-specific.)

Lastly, a submachine gun like an H&K MP5 makes a solid companion for when you need to shock and awe the slavering feral gangs that roam your territory into submission. If you never learned to shoot before the bombs dropped, start by remembering the basics:  aim without anticipating recoil, squeeze don’t pull, and train yourself to lift your finger immediately. Short bursts are where it’s at. (This last one’s also mission-specific: basically, whenever you need to go room-by-room.)

8. Learn how to capture and cook animals.

This is lower down the list, because understand your days of enjoying animal protein three times a day are over. Even if you’re a farmer by trade, the concentrations in which fallout will accumulate in mammalian tissues preclude raising cows and sheep even if you have the grazing space. It takes a hundred kilos of vegetable matter to make one kilo of beef; it’s just not feasible to farm large mammals post-apocalypse. (Especially if you want to maintain your green principles: remember “free-range” now means “Someone else’s dinner.”)

So the only animal protein available in the wasteland will be wild. Don’t expect to see many rats, cats, or dogs the month after the apocalypse, while chickens in barns are the low-hanging meat: so overbred they can’t even walk. (Bernard Matthews will go down in wasteland history as a god.) Bambi will be a memory, since deer are relatively easy to bring down in the assymetrical confrontation with an armed human.

Foxes and rabbits will be numerous, suddenly freed from human population control measures, but you’ll earn your meal: they’re wily. Longer term, when farming returns, the best fleshy crops aren’t the conventional ones: ostrich will be the rich man’s staple meat, rabbits will be mass-produced, and pigeons will be battery-farmed. (The birds get big on scraps, the leporines reproduce without encouragement.) The one large mammal with a future may go Oink: pigs are such useful creatures for waste disposal the economics may just work. If you acquire a few, remember the closer animals are to us genetically the more diseases you can catch from them. Pigs are very close, so sear that pork to a crisp.

The key skills here – slitting and slicing – transfer well from species to species, so learn how to seperate skin, flesh, bone and organs and how to use the various bits profitably. (There’s a lot of meat on just one rabbit if you know how to get at it.) Learn to slay and love offal, and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh meat when you see the opportunity.

9. Develop a cash crop.

This is where you stop surviving and start thinking about thriving again. An economy of sorts will arise even if 99% of the world’s population is wiped out; buying and selling stuff is a basic human driver. So you need something you can sell, with a large target audience (starving humans), and that ideally doesn’t cost anything but labour to produce. With a cash crop you can keep yourself supplied with other of life’s essentials: meat, wine, 9mm Parabellum, anything.

You might try wheat, rice, or potatoes, but in the lawless wastes an excellent saleable crop could be hemp. (Cotton takes a lot out of the soil, and it’s not as if you can afford to let land lie fallow for a year.) You can sell marijuana to take the edge off life under a burning sky; you can weave the stalks into textiles people can use for clothing and bedding; you can turn the remnants into burnable biomass.

Whatever cash crop you decide on, do it well. You’re not subsistence farming here; you’re bringing to market an exciting new product and want to max-out your profit margins and consumer surplus. Develop sound operational processes with a Continuous Improvement ethic, thinking constantly about how you can reduce your resource costs while upping quality.

Nurture an audience of repeat customers and incentivise the best with discounts and dealership opportunities. Get hold of some dyes, seals and stamps, and brand your product in a non-easily-copied way: your packages then become a trusted name, enabling you to start wholesaling to a network of retailers. Whole communities may become economically dependent on you, with a stake in keeping your brand valuable. (At worst this gives you a few rings of fleshy cannon fodder to use up when rivals try to “chip away at your competitive advantage”.)

Build as much brand equity into your crop as you can, to prevent it becoming a commodity: it’ll help maximise your ROI while everyone else is hardscrabbling. In the wasteland, you can survive… or you can thrive. Other options: tea, grapevines, tobacco and their higher-margin finished goods further up the value chain.

10. Have a wealth strategy.

In the first months, “wealthy” will mean anyone who drinks clean water and has all his skin intact … but before long, systems of barter will give way to conventional economics, simply because portable, fungible stores of value are more convenient. Once your income stream is working, think about how you can leverage it towards actual wealth. Gold coins, silver ingots, single-carat diamonds, even antique books or bottles of wine in a pinch: things that are small and have broadly recognised value in today’s society.

Find out where such things are (a  list of safe-deposit offices is a start) and how you can acquire them in the event of a nuclear catastrophe (hint: demolition bar). Even better, start building your stash beforehand. Society will arise anew, and when it does, there will be wealth and poverty once again. As you progress from survivor to citizen again, you’ll find wealthy is better.

11. Get connected.

What they (erroneously) said about DARPA’s “Internetwork” in the ’60s will eventually prove true: the Internet will survive a nuclear war. Enough people will escape the big firestorm that there’ll still be thousands of people in Britain capable of setting up a radio station, or booting a server, or understanding IP. Those first post-apocalyptic IP nodes won’t stream video and there’ll be no Google, but they will form the beginnings of the next Web, and every node that gets added rebuilds it faster.

Perhaps it won’t even take a year before a few thousand people with laptops are stringing social networks together with wifi and retrofitted satellite dishes. Perhaps the key drivers of search, trade, jobs, news, and human interaction lead to new global websites and the next wave of fortunes, before it’s even safe to return to the cities. Civilisations come and go, but the Internet won’t die until the second-to-last node is destroyed. Find out who’s starting the revolution, connect to them early, and keep yourself at the forefront as the world rebuilds.

12. Keep your mind alive.

Last – but not least. Survival and thriving are of the mind, not just the body. You need to stay self-actuated, remember what life’s all about. Even if Britain turns into a toxic wasteland, it doesn’t have to be a cultural one.

Under your flickering LED lightbulb, enjoying a rare rabbit stew and a joint from your personal crop of an evening, devote an hour or two to reading. And watching, and listening, experiencing the shows and songs of the Old World. But it’s one thing you have to plan for in advance. The main threat to electronics isn’t the blast but the EMP, which will silently deep-six every phone and computer for kilometres around. (Believe me, nobody will be calling from the blast radius to say they’re on the train.)

A few well-stuffed laptops, Kindles, iPods, USB hard disks wrapped in thick layers of heavy foil under corrugated iron in a locked basement will still work after the blast: your cellar may become your generation’s Library of Alexandria. So if you unwittingly find yourself custodian of ancient knowledge, remember to pay it forward.

If you’re part of a community, teach the children, train the adults. Try to ensure the learnings of society get passed on to the next generation, so we can salvage as much as possible of what we lost. In doing so, your survival becomes part of a larger idea: that a ragtag bunch of survivors can be a civilisation again.

As a final word, the most important survival skill you’ll ever acquire is a positive mental attitude. The ability to live in the moment while looking forward to each new day; to enjoy small tasks while building towards larger results. That’s what’ll sort out the men from the boys in the wasteland. And I plan to be one of them.

POSTSCRIPT: The images on this post are from My Fallout New Vegas Tour, trips I took in 2011 exploring the real-life locations parodied in the game “Fallout: New Vegas”. If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at that one too! – Chris

The coming apocalypse: seven billion reasons

705px-Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001Some say I’m cynical. Actually I’m not: all I do is try harder than anyone else to see the world as it really is. Here’s the truth of it: I’m a happy person. I think the UK is the greatest place in the world to sleep soundly, build a business, or be a citizen in.

Which is why if I’m negative on tomorrow, it’s worth a shake.

And I am negative. Not for my personal situation, but for the world as a whole. Because I can’t stop thinking of where the megatrends are going. All the social and economic factors that collectively decide what’s going to happen seem to be pointing one way, and when the streams cross, there’s only one outcome.

We’re heading for another world war, on a 3-5yr timescale.

I’m not talking a regional conflict, or even the assymetries of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m talking the Hundred Suns scenario, global thermonuclear war, toxic wastelands from Los Angeles to Leningrad and tribal affiliations co-opting civilisation. Consider the evidence… then consider how they interact when they all happen together.

nuclear-explosion1. Our unrepayable debt. The “rich” world owes approximately thirty-two trillion US dollars. And it’s expanding 1.7 percentage points faster than its economies are growing. Britain alone pays nearly a billion pounds a week in interest on its borrowings. You can’t pay back amounts like that in a New Normal of low growth. You can’t inflate it away, either. Not with households throttling back spending, companies hoarding cash, and central banks around the OECD keeping interest rates low. Our trillions of dollars, Euros, pounds and yen in debt are crushing us.

2. The attitudes preventing progress. Despite our debt, the West’s citizenry is clapping its hands over its ears – whole populations with a rising sense of entitlement on both sides of the Atlantic that everyone’s needs must be catered for, without limit, forever, paid from government coffers. (Who fills those coffers? Er, nobody much.) And they won’t vote for anyone who can solve it. Nobody wants to do the right thing, and a billion Westerners do nothing but stand around with their hands out and their mouths open.

3. China is peaking, not rising. It might seem unstoppable; in fact, the big red blot is already on a downward trend. All the IP-stealing, all the Fake Banks, all the new money – nothing there is sustainable or backed by real assets. The Communist Party took a gamble a couple of decades ago, betting they could keep the illusion going for enough years to bootstrap the country to real prosperity: it almost worked, but the West is getting wise to it, and its companies are starting to be recognised for the straw men they are. The tensions this is creating within China – mass unemployment, wealth inequalities, political impotence – will only have one result: a strike outwards by an uncontrolled military. All it’ll take is one sea captain to make an ill-advised landing on an island inside the fantastical nine-dash-line, and NATO gets dragged in. China is the flashpoint, and a billion Chinese will want someone to blame.

4. The Islamic assymetry. The Muslim Brotherhood – a more cohesive and on-message global organisation than Karl Rove’s Republicans in the Bush years – has quietly stepped into the chaos of the Arab Spring, and is putting its people into positions of power across the Arab world. But a day is coming when the West no longer needs the oil that finances our “real” enemies like Saudi Arabia. (The ultimate source of most terrorist financing and investment in mosques and madrassas staffed by imported imams who pour hate into frustrated youth all day, every day.) Meaning this quiet consolidation across the Ummah is happening without schools, without jobs, without prosperity to take the edge off their frustration and rage.  And the Muslim world will start to see extremists as the way out. Terrorism won’t be a few million fanatics, tacitly supported by a few hundred million sympathisers and opposed by the rest. We’re heading for one billion extremists, today’s assymetric war on terror multiplied a thousandfold, pushing political resources beyond reason. A billion Muslims will turn on us, and on each other.

mid-Greenhouse_George_Early_Fireball.ogv5. This angry Earth. Whether or not global warming is inevitable, cyclical, or chaotic, you can’t be pumping a billion tons of noxious gases into our atmosphere each year and expect any good to come of it. 80% of the world’s population lives near coasts; the majority of their homes are beneath the waves with just a few extra metres of sea level. (The amusing thing here is that it’s happened before; we conventionally think civilisation is just a few thousand years old, but there are coherent societal structures – cities – on the ocean floor over eighty thousand years old that used to be on the shores. The only reason this isn’t widely known is that historians aren’t generally scuba trained.) Pressure on the West to do the right thing, while the developing world has a license to keep doing wrong, creates no incentive for anyone to do anything, and a billion Africans who never caused it are already feeling the heat.

6. The end of the rains. There is no Peak Oil, but there is Peak Water. We’re drinking the deserts dry and desalination is too energy-intensive to replace freshwater sources; few cities outside the northern temperate zone are genuinely viable, and those that are are at risk of drowning in brine. Water is a scarce commodity, and billions in the South are already thirsty.

7. The fall of democracy. The compact between citizen and State is broken; with professional politicians inhabiting our Houses and psephology now so advanced a pollster can predict an election with 100% accuracy in every US State, politics is turning ever more polarised – concentrating on the extreme edges, the swing votes, only the few thousand people who can affect the result. The US Capitol is partisan beyond belief; younger democracies in Asia and Africa are just family and tribal businesses working under a pretext. Government has been co-opted by the fringes, and we can’t do anything about it.

When you take all these trends together, there’s only one logical conclusion: it won’t be a crash, but a war.

War is how China’s leaders will deflect attention from their failings. War is how the West will forget its debt. War is how the angry young men of the deserts will fill their time.

There won’t be ground invasions: there’ll be a few days of skirmishing, then someone in China will miscalculate and take it nuclear.

Then there will be blood.

Hundreds of millions will die. Billions more will suffer. Nations will dissolve; tribe will build wall against tribe; family will fight family. Packs of feral children will run naked in the toxic streets, and we shall hunt them for food. Society will be deleted, and there will be no Undo button.

atomic-blast-imagesSome regions may escape. There’s no obvious reason South America will be dragged in, but that continent is at risk of becoming one big narcostate anyway. Australia’s leaders may take the hard decision not to support NATO, and escape the nuclear carnage: Mad Max will tread the fallout everywhere but his homeland. India may go on being India, in all its chaotic complexity, although I expect Pakistan to take its chance once the birds are in the air. But for Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, decimation is the only outcome.

And maybe – just maybe – it’s for the best. (And not just because a nuclear airburst is the most beautiful thing imaginable.)

We can’t inflate away our debt, stop China stealing, make Muslims respect us. We just can’t. As with every great crisis, the best solution may be to start over.

I’ll survive; probably even prosper, given the opportunities every great upheaval presents. (Chris Worth, Marketer to the Thames Valley Wasteland.) But I worry about the rest. Billions will suffer pain, all because we couldn’t make the few big decisions that really need taking.

Watch this space.

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

According to The Economist, Britain now spends £175bn on welfare, mostly housing benefit and income support. In a country of 30m taxpayers. C’mon guys; every taxpayer paying £6000 a year of someone else’s rent isn’t sustainable.

So here’s another of my simple solutions to complex problems: if you rely principally on government assistance – say two-thirds or more of your household inflow – you don’t get to vote.

My simple solutions are all about making one change, then getting out of the way and letting second-order effects work. (Note they’re simple ideas, not simple to implement.) Let’s take a look at the effect this change would have.

First, the vast bloc of voters whose votes are essentially purchased rather than won are instantly out of the equation. (It wouldn’t be party political, either. Older voters tend Tory; younger claimants towards Labour.) Politicians can form policy with a much longer-term view.

For example, the great pensions problem affecting much of the developed world would disappear in 10-20 years. With upping state pensions no longer a vote-winner, it’d probably be replaced by something contributory and defined-benefit… perhaps not individual accounts, but “notional” accounts that show you how much you’ll get in retirement based on what you pay in. Everyone becomes responsible for their own retirement; these people don’t count as receiving government support, and retain their vote. Simple.

Then there’s welfare. If you want to vote for a party that puts money in your pocket… well, you’ve got to work. It’s the ultimate incentive, to a genuinely concerned citizen, to get a job and make sure their government assistance, if needed, comprises less than two-thirds of their household income. (It’d also make corporations behave better; wage structures are often cynically set to take advantage of availability of housing benefit rather than get workers off it.)

This works because it’s not a black or white policy. Plenty of people are genuine workers, but by circumstance or accident have to rely on a certain amount of help. They’ll continue to get that help. But if they want to affect policy in the most basic way, they have to do some level of meaningful economic activity. The two-thirds level doesn’t even affect that many people; probably less than two million.

And over a decade or two, policy will become less knee-jerk. Without a couple of million of society’s less useful to skew the ballot, the country’s financials will improve sustainably. Policy can be constructed from proper data rather than tabloid lobbying. And the UK will get back to work, driving economic activity from the right source: people’s hard work, not state spending.

It’s so simple. But like all my simple solutions to complex problems… somewhat harder to implement.

The 99kg challenge

Ready for a fast journey using the contents of a backpack? Call Chris does Content.Having just got rid of 80% of my library, I’ve set myself a new challenge: by the end of the year, everything I own will weigh less than 99 kilograms in total.

Why? Because it’s refreshing. I’ve always been a minimalist, but home ownership and relative affluence lead to surprising volumes of clutter in your life, and I’m no exception – most people would be happy all their possessions fitted into a 25 sq ft cupboard, but for me that’s a crushing gravitational pull that anchors me in one place and puts a brake on opportunities. Never have anything in your life you couldn’t walk away from in ten minutes.

Even with that attitude, it’s not going to be easy. I own a couple of big items: bikes, a heavy punchbag. So the challenge is going to include big decisions: one of the bikes is a classic XTR’d Orange Clockwork from 1991, a 10kg chunk right there, and I’d be loath to part with it despite riding it perhaps once a year. But that’s the point. When your possessions own you, it’s time to get rid of them. Simplify, simplify.

IMG_2156Of course, technology makes it easier. CDs, DVDs, books, magazines are now all weightless, spread across hard disks and Kindles. And my laptop itself weighs in at barely a kilo. So all the lumpy stuff that grows on bookshelves is easy to part with; just rip and organise. While clothes are easy, too: a couple of suits and shirts for smart, a dozen identical black T shirts and half as many 501s for everyday. The shoe rack needs culling, but at 15 pairs I’m hardly Imelda Marcos. Not quite the Jack Reacher lifestyle, buying $20 of clothes every few days and discarding them rather than laundering, but they’ll fit in a single bag.

And there are caveats: I’m not going to include furniture, or kitchen appliances, or my car, or the house itself. (After all, those things can be sold or rented out with ease, providing assets and cashflow without the burden of occupancy.) So 99 kaygees looks like a doable, if slightly stretched, goal.

But ultimately, this isn’t about weight or possessions or lifestyle; it’s about simplicity. When you own less, you worry less about what could happen to it. The stuff you do keep gets used and worn out without getting precious about it. Living in a house without valuables means you need less insurance. Worry less about crime. Spend less time cleaning. Enjoy small spaces more, because the clutter’s gone. Not to mention the savings you make when you move house, or refresh your wardrobe. You’re automatically spending less, because you’re using the few things you own to their theoretical limit.

The 99kg challenge is the essence of Zen: a few good things, central to life and appreciated fully.

And after that? Maybe a 9kg challenge…

Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Costing the Jack Reacher lifestyle

Jack_Reacher_posterOn the surface, a lot of guys will find the Jack Reacher lifestyle attractive: self-sufficient loner, no ties or responsibilities, just a rugged individualist living life his own way. A fair few of us without many ties to government will empathise. But is it reasonably possible?

For example, I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life overseas and today work for myself;  I file a tax return and maintain an address and that’s about it. Conceivably I could hit the road tomorrow – just me and a laptop – and effectively drop off the grid except for a few client emails and a bank account.

So if your basic driver in life is to be left alone, today’s always-on, everyone’s-connected world makes it possible in principle. But here’s the kicker: Jack doesn’t do Web. He draws his military pension at Western Union and carries, no phone, no laptop, nothing to take advantage of APEX fares on online-only deals with.

So let’s look at it from a more practical angle: what does the Jack Reacher lifestyle cost?

First, let’s recap what we know of Jack from the film. (I haven’t read the books, so to all Reacher fans: apologies if what I say doesn’t reflect the character in print.) Jack makes even the way I travel (a month-long trip into a laptop bag) look like I’ve hired a team of Sherpas and a herd’s-worth of steamer trunks: Jack carries nothing, nada, just the shirt on his back. (And he’s only got one of those).

Wearing the same jeans and shirt every day means they’ll wear out faster, and taking the ass-kicking into account he probably needs to replace them every two months minimum. Let’s say his wardrobe costs are $50/mth. (I’m assuming cheap shoes, which he’ll wear out often.)

Furthermore, Jack travels by bus: without ID it’s the only option open to him. Greyhound discontinued its Discovery Pass a while back, so Jack now needs to pay for each trip separately. Without a phone or web skills, he’ll be buying the most expensive kind of fare – at the station, just before the bus leaves.

So his seat on those glorious obloids of Americana that criss-cross the American continent is probably costing him upwards of $25 every couple of days; sleeping on the bus saves a night’s accommodation of course. Let’s say his bus tickets total $200 a month. That’s a fair chunk out of his pension already.

Next, overnight accommodation. Jack’s a military man, so spending the odd night under the stars counts as fun for him. He’s also one for the ladies – the film has an oddly gratuitous scene early on with the requisite brunette-getting-out-of-bed-topless content – so doesn’t always need to pay for a motel.

However, he’s not the  kind of drifter so funky that rats ask if there’s a window to open. (Remember, the ladies like him.) So he needs a shower at least every 48 hours and a launderette to scrub the blood out of his jeans every, oh, two hours or so.

This is where the costs start to mount: let’s say four motels a week, anything up to 20 a month, and even in the mega-cheap USA that’s a big chunk of change for someone who can’t get the online deals. Even in summertime, when the livin’ is easy and the women are just like the livin’, he’s realistically spending at least $800 a month in beds he’s had to pay for.

Whoa, we’re up to $1050 a month and Jack hasn’t had lunch yet.

Fortunately for Jack, the USA is the world’s premier destination for cheap calories – although how you maintain a Krav-fit body on lard and carbs beats me – so his budget doesn’t need to be too high here. Let’s say he always gets the $3 breakfast special, picks up a Big Mac for 99c, and ends the day with a $10 steak’n’beer at a dive bar to fuel himself for the inevitable fisticuffs outside later. Call it $420 in basic subsistence.

On top of that – surely at least a few of the laydeez that take a shine to him need a drink bought first? Call it $50 a month. (Jack tends not to splurge on a date.)

So technically Jack can survive spending $1520 a month.

But we’re missing a lot of things here. Without even a Wal-Mart bag’s worth of travel gear, he has to use the cheap half-toothbrush and sachets of shampoo available in motels – and many motels charge for such items these days; they sometimes gouge you. (Plenty of mid-to-high-end hotels across the USA have never heard of shower gel.)

So when Jack’s scrubbing other people’s body fluids off his perfectly-defined abs, he’s doing it in the most expensive way imaginable: buying fresh toiletries every day. (Come on, he doesn’t carry spares in his jeans pocket – as anyone who’s “liberated” the odd sachet from a hotel knows, that leads to disaster.) And that can’t be less than $5 a day when you add up disposable razors, decent exfoliant and the odd self-suturing needle. Another $150 in cold hard cash down the plughole.

We’re up to $1670, and that’s just basic necessities.

No second beer for him, no movies, no bowling, no gym membership. Life isn’t worth living! We can assume Jack’s not big on the auteurs, but he must spend something on stuff not strictly needed for continued existence; perhaps $200 a month.

So the absolute minimum needed for a Jack Reacher lifestyle – as spartan as humanely possible – is $1870 a month. While Americans pay a lot less personal tax than us in the UK – all the USA’s financial troubles stem from this, taxing like a small state yet spending like a big one – it’s still the best-case take-home from a salary of over $26,000. And Jack’s on a pension, so our disbelief isn’t willingly suspended yet.

So let’s move onto Jack’s income. In percentage terms a US military pension is one of the best deals out there – index-linked and backed by the State, available to veterans as young as 37. But while Jack’s a retired military policeman, I doubt he completed the 30 years service needed for a full 75% final salary arrangement (does Westpoint count?) and probably isn’t a reservist; you tend to need a permanent address for that.

So his monthly draw is probably lot less than the $35,000 a lucky few might get – and taxes (how does he file, I wonder?) continue to be levied. So let’s stretch a point and say Jack takes “home” about $2000 a month. He always uses money-service offices to draw it, which charge at least 5%, so he’s spending another $100 a month in fees alone. Which makes his income around $1900 a month.

So: it’s a close-run thing – but yes, Jack Reacher can afford his lifestyle on his pension. The question is, could you?

Which, of course, is the ultimate irony. This rugged individualist is entirely reliant on his public sector pension. Because these days, only public sector pensions (the defined-benefit kind still reasonably common in public service, anyway) are index-linked, rising each year with the cost of living. Reacher’s $2000 a month will rise, and keep rising as he gets older. He has to worry about a lot of things… but not about inflation eating away his livelihood.

Which makes people like me – building their own pension pots, doing everything they can to grow a investment worth enough to provide an income in retirement – far bigger risk-takers than our Jack. Nothing’s index-linked in our world, there are no government guarantees or cost of living hikes each year. Far more than Reacher, we private sector people are utterly alone.

Still an insult, no longer an offence

Finally! The word “insulting” has been removed from the UK Public Order Act’s offence of “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”. It’s about time: like all laws written with the best of intentions, it’s been abused time and again to bring people who merely disagreed with a litigious person into a cowed defensive posture.

It’s not far enough – British law still favours people with “beliefs”, constantly letting them off societal and legal obligations simply because they made a big noise about their imaginary friend in the sky. (Witness the way “faith schools” are allowed to discriminate based on what ancient text pupils’ parents prefer, or the way an organisation sending 26 people to the House of Lords is allowed to deny people a certain job rank simply because they’re female.) But it’s a step in the right direction.

Introduced in the 80s, the law’s been abused by countless thin-skinned people who think anyone criticising their beliefs should be jailed. (Interestingly, some of the biggest numbers of both plaintiffs AND defendants in such case have been Muslims. Proving once again that religion is principally a divisive force, something for playing up our differences, not bringing us closer together.)

So at last, UK citizens are once again free to voice nonviolent opinions and concerns as they please. Can I just mention that you are stupid and ugly and your mother dresses you funny?

In praise of White Van Man

220px-White_vans_OxfordHe gets a lot of stick for his black-and-white politics. His attitude to the taxman is somewhat less than servile. And the way he drives earns a lot of ire. But I’m a big fan of White Van Man.

White Van Man is the working-class (stress working) male who spends much of his day in and around his vehicle. He’s the builder with your new front door in the back, the handyman hooking up your plumbing, the removals guy lugging your mattress across town for a quick fifty. He’s usually white, left school in his teens, and gets a bit lost on the finer points of Keynesian economics, yet he’s more cheerful (and more resourceful) than a senior manager at any FTSE-100 member. And that’s why I like him.

White Van Man is that freak of nature in today’s society: someone who doesn’t demand anything more than the most basic of safety nets from the government. He’s not a parasite, not even a socialist (although he may vote Labour.) He works hard, often for himself; his days start at dawn and his kids are often asleep by the time he gets home. But he doesn’t complain.

White Van Man pays his taxes. (Although perhaps a smaller percentage than the tax code strictly specifies.) But his needs aren’t high; he doesn’t march on Whitehall when his pay hasn’t risen in a year like Britain’s ultra-mollycoddled Public Sector drones. He wants a hospital for his parents, a school for his kids, maybe a house where the rent leaves a fiver left over for chips, and… that’s about it.

He doesn’t expect anything he hasn’t paid for – and he often pays more tax, more consistently than any other group. His earnings of £25-50k deliver around £5k a year to the Treasury and much more to the broader economy. Think about it: a self-employed builder putting up a conservatory a week increases the nation’s housing stock by a million pounds a year. A gift that keeps on giving for decades on our overcrowded island, even if you abhor those forests of uPVC wrapping Britain’s suburban brickwork.

And he keeps on doing it, in all weathers, in conditions most salaried workers would consider appalling.

Yet White Van Man doesn’t ask for much. He likes to watch the football, enjoy a beer, do his job with a minimum of hassle. And all he needs to do it is to be left alone. He wants the freedom to make the odd off-colour joke; to hold views offensive to some groups without being prosecuted for them; for the traffic cop to show a bit of understanding if it was an empty motorway in good weather.

He wants a bit of give and take, a bit of common sense to apply, without having to worry about a twenty-point Code of Conduct or densely worded contract. These opinionated, chain-smoking, sarcastic men are the backbone of Britain, if you treat them well.

I always let White Van Man out at busy junctions; after all, I’m on my way to a comfortable office, he’s got to make a one-hour delivery slot or his family goes hungry. I’ll add extra for a job well done and make sure they’ve got all the tea and biscuits they need. I won’t load extra tasks into the brief or be late for him, because all he wants out of life is to get home by 7 to watch Arsenal.

And beyond that, the resourcefulness of White Van Man means makes him a valuable friend. He’ll know someone who’s selling a fridge, or can tile your outside wall, or can get rid of that overhanging tree your neighbours complain about. (Or the neighbours themselves, depending on which part of town he’s from.)

That’s why I always try to make life a bit easier for White Van Man…. and why you should, too.

Abu Hamza: the trouble with believing in freedom

Hmmm, not sure how I feel about Hooky Hamza being extradited to the USA.

An appalling little toad defined by hatred and bigotry? Yes; his “sermons” have turned many young British muslims into jihadist scum. A failure as a man? Yes – five of his wastrel sons are convicted fraudsters. A workshy shirker? Yes – his huge family lives on benefits. A costly nuisance? Yes – he’s cost the British taxpayer about £3m.

But… all his crimes so far (for which he’s been held in prison for years) are for what he says or thinks or reads… not acts of violence he’s actually committed. (If there’s a case for these extraditable crimes of actual terrorist involvement, why isn’t he being prosecuted in the UK?) Being an unpleasant little fucker isn’t a crime; if it was, we could empty a fair few buildings in my neighbourhood into the nearest jail.

What it comes down to is this: in the mother of all Parliaments, the cradle of law and human rights, we are arbitrarily detaining someone without trial for … holding unpleasant opinions. If we truly value freedom of speech, we must be prepared to defend it at its least savoury edges. (For this reason, “incitement” shouldn’t even be a crime. “I did it because he told me too” isn’t a mitigating defence; Nuremberg established I was only following orders isn’t an excuse, even under compulsion.)

Sometimes, believing in freedom of speech leaves a very bitter taste.

Let’s look at what he’s spent years in jail for. Owning a “terrorist manual” – i.e. a book. “Preaching prejudice” – i.e. speaking freely about his beliefs. “Inciting hatred” – i.e. talking to a willing audience.

There’s a case for saying we shouldn’t extend tolerance to those who are themselves intolerant, and treating this guy humanely is perhaps not the way natural justice would have it. (Many men in Britain would enjoy ten minutes in a locked room with this beardie weirdie.) But if we believe in democracy and the rule of law – that we subsume some of our gut feelings to a system evolved over centuries, a system that tries to treat everyone as having equal rights – it’s legally very troubling.

Not that I’ll be queueing up outside Belmarsh crying miscarriage of justice – he’s stolen enough from the UK taxpayer to deserve a life in the American prison system, and good riddance. (Extradition fully concords with my personal sense of justice, but that’s not the point I’m making here.) But ultimately, being civilised requires us to think carefully about these things.

Otherwise, all we have is what the muslim world suffers from – the rule of a thuggish mob too feeble-minded to negotiate the modern world. And I believe we are better than that.