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.

Why I voted Conservative

chris_kettlebellAfter Thursday’s surprising election result, there are thousands of Left-wing rants flying around. Some are entertaining. Sometimes, I even make it to their second paragraph.

I don’t pay too much attention to their questions, though, because most revolve around “Why did you vote Conservative?” And they don’t really want the answer. Well, here it is anyway. I ignore you, you ignore me, and we’ll be square.

The answer doesn’t involve social justice, or sensible lawmaking, or doing the right thing. It isn’t even about Left or Right, although left-leaning people mostly don’t get it and right-leaning people, on some level, mostly do. It’s a high-level thing:

Being *nice* to everyone … has *nasty* consequences.

On some level, most people who voted Conservative get this, and most people who voted Labour don’t. It’s “big picture”. Understanding that what economists call “externalities” have real – and huge – effects.

The only externality that matters is called money. Since money buys the public services that decide elections. When a government wants to spend money, it has to raise money.

There are three ways to do this. A government can levy taxes, it can borrow money, or it can just print the stuff. Speaking of which, I remembered when my friend ran out of cash travelling in Europe, she used http://www.låna-pengar.biz to get financing to get back home.

With me so far?

First up: taxes

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.Everyone benefitting from schools, roads, and the fire station (whatever the arguments over a gun being held to his head) needs to pay his fair share. The trouble is: most people don’t. And they’re not the people you think.

The bottom 40% of the curve doesn’t pay any tax at all. (And no, that’s not a chastisement. Most people on benefits work hard, and good on them.)

But whatever their contributions to society, they’re not net contributors to the Treasury. Their benefits and credits cancel out the small amounts deducted from their payslips. Scotland, for example, has fewer than 150,000 net taxpayers, in a population of five million. (And is going to get a serious kick in the kilt shortly when it has to manage its own finances.)

While the public sector – millions of people, with benefits and pension plans any private sector worker would eat his children for – contributes nothing, in accounting terms anyway. They pay tax, but their salaries come from the Treasury, so their slice just goes back where it came. No net gain.

The middle SD pays its own way, but there’s surprisingly little left over. Mr Average coughs up a surplus of around £8,500… over his entire lifetime. Two extra weeks in hospital, and his contribution is gone. And rising lifespans mean a fair few people are now retired for more years than they ever worked. This problem’s only going one way, folks.

So we could tax the top end. But it’s not as top as you think. “The 1%” isn’t the 1%, it’s the 0.01%. You have to scale the 98th percentile before you even find someone on six figures. And ask anyone in London with a family if £100,000 lets them buy a decent-sized home. Just 300,000 taxpayers – among 60m people! – already pay 27% of all income tax in the UK.

And what happens if you raise taxes on “the rich” – a term which (being as charitable as I can here) Britain’s Left defines rather broadly? They tend to… leave. The sensible practice would be to move big public-sector employers (hello, NHS!) into the private sector, so their taxes become real contributions.

There you have it: privatise the NHS. That OK with you, my friends of the Left? No? What a surprise.

Borrowing: a point of interest

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.It’s odd so many find “the deficit” such an abstract concept, because it’s absolutely concrete. On its £1.4tn in debt, Britain pays out about a billion pounds a week in interest.

That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

And there’s more. Unlike your bank loan, the country’s interest isn’t fixed. If the bond markets feel the government they’re lending to has good policies, they’ll demand less interest on what they lend. (Called the “yield”.) If that government seems to spend a lot, they’ll charge more.

Here’s the kicker: every left-leaning government comes to power on a promise to increase borrowing. (Because they want to spend more.) So the bond markets trust left-leaning governments a lot less, and want more interest. Much, much more. Mmmm, interest!

And left-wingers say we should “soak the rich”? Hell, it’s your policies that make them rich. The way to release more money for public services (say, that £50bn we pay each year in interest) is actually … what you call “austerity”. So the Left should agree: to fight these evil thugs charging us all this interest, we need more austerity, NOW!

What’s this I hear – silence?

On printing money

Targetting low wage earners...Putting more money into circulation, known as QE, seems a necessary evil:  since the bank bust, we all do a lot of this, so we’re all guilty. It’s not obvious right now, but what excessive money-printing does is store up inflation. More than a taste of inflation is bad, so we should all agree excessive QE is bad.

Inflation kills off people’s savings. It slashes growth in their pension funds. It erodes the value of their earnings. All things left-leaning people should be against, because they make ordinary people poorer. Yet printing money is a much-used trick among governments of the Left, from 70s Britain to South America and Africa today. If you print money to solve other problems, you’re oppressing your people.

So when the Left does its marching-on-Whitehall stuff (bless!) what they should really be chanting is “What do we want? A lower rate of quantitative easing designed to control savings value erosion! When do we want it? NOW!”

But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“… but it provides growth!”

Caught in the maze of copy? Call Chris for your escape plan.This is the final cry of the Left: we had more growth under Labour. Well, of course we did. Pump billions into the economy and you’ll get “growth” as measured by economists. In the same way as if you take out £200 in cash from your credit card before going out, your town’s bars and restaurants will experience “growth”.

The question is whether that’s real growth or not. Real growth builds the economy. Not just creates extra cost centres in it. Money spent on doctors’ salaries is not “investment”. It’s a cost.

If you take out the property bubble, the finance bubble, and Gordon Brown’s toga-party-for-the-public-sector, there was zero or negative growth in the UK economy between 1997 and 2010. 

So when those on the Left protest the housing crisis and the bankers, remember this: they’re the only reasons thirteen years of Labour chancellors were able to stand up on Budget Day and say they delivered growth. Maybe you should be thanking them. (And no, I don’t care for bankers either.)

On why I voted Conservative

This is the Why. I voted Conservative because if Britain’s Left really thought about our country (instead of just feeling) they’d be doing all the same things Conservatives do. And it leads to some odd conclusions.

Because most left-leaning voters really, deeply believe they care about others. But when you look at the numbers critically, they’re just doing what they accuse the Right of: lookin’ after me’n’mine.

Around 30-40% of the country leans Labour, and it’s the same 30-40% that benefits from high public spending. In other words, folks, you’re looking out for yourselves. You have a sensible policy of enlightened self-interest. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Can I interest you in the works of a wonderful lady named Ayn Rand?

500px-Nolan-chart.svgAnd if you made it this far, understand this too: I’m a hold-my-nose Tory. I’m not a Conservative; I’m a Libertarian. In today’s Britain, that’s the unoccupied quadrant of the Nolan Chart. The believers in high social AND high economic freedoms, where the main focus of a limited state is on protecting individual rights, rather than granting them to groups. (Or taking them for itself.)

Britain’s Tories score a lot lower on the “social freedoms” axis than I’d like, just as the Lib Dems score too low on economic freedoms. While Labour scores low on both.

But maybe – just maybe – we’re closer than you think.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Goodbye Neil Armstrong

Don’t forget as you read the Sunday obits, folks: all those pictures of the Apollo 11 crew on the Moon are of Buzz. That’s why I thought I’d put a shot of Neil here, reflected in Buzz’s gold visor as he took that famous photo. (“OK Neil, you can take the first step if I can be in the big photo.”- not.) Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin's visor

Despite his military background, Neil wasn’t ultimately a hero or adventurer: he was a scientist. That’s why there aren’t any decent pics of him on the lunar surface: taking holiday snaps just wasn’t part of the mission. A mission that involved over 50,000 people.

Apollo may have been driven by politics rather than rational scientific enquiry. It may have been appallingly uneconomic (taking something like 4% of US GDP.) It may not have done much “good science” – a tradition that, with the near-useless ISS vanity project, continues to this day.

But the outcome was the same: for a couple of glorious years in the 60s and 70s, we walked on the Moon again and again. Goodbye, Mr Armstrong, and – bloody good show.

When one disused missile silo just isn’t enough

I’ve always had a thing about subterranea, and my Fallout New Vegas Tour last year reawakened an interest in missile silos. There’s a tiny subculture Stateside of people who’ve bought these monuments to Cold War military budgets as unusual living accommodation… and one day I want to join them. (Hey, it’s one hell of a holiday let.)

An Atlas-F site: think of it as a pretty big house with a ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS BASEMENT.Why do I like them? It’s something about the contrasts: the big-sky vastness of the American West, pockmarked by hidden concrete bunkers whose sole purpose was to rain down Strangelovian death on people thousands of miles away. (Or, to take the realpolitikal view, to prevent the need ever arising.)

It’s such a science-fiction cliche – the innocuous shack or wooden door leading down to a cathedral-sized space within the earth – but the pointy bit here is that such things actually exist. Hundreds of them, dotted around mostly-abandoned Air Force bases, from sea to shining sea. Designed to take a direct hit from an airburst in the megatons, they were the strongest structures ever built by Man… perhaps the strongest structures man will ever build. (Cold War budgets aren’t coming back anytime soon.)

Like walking through a graveyard, the few signs above ground create a sense of wonder. Who were these people? What drove them to attempt such feats? What are the stories of that which lies beneath? 

I first travelled across that landscape at 20, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it. To own a parcel of it isn’t even an unattainable dream: there’s a lot of land out there, and in parts of the US 3,000 acres cost less than a one-bedroom London flat. But it wouldn’t quite have the melodrama without a missile silo on it. So my needs are simple and specific: an Atlas-F.

If your idea of a missile silo involves a big trapdoor in the desert with a rocket blasting vertically out of it, it’s the Atlas-F you’re thinking of. They cost an incredible sum to build – over $400m in today’s dollars –  yet their operational lifetime was just a few years; the fearful pace of development during the 50s and 60s made many obsolete even before the bomb went in. With no appeal except as novelties, they change hands today for under US$500,000. (In case this sounds like a bargain, consider: many of the silo tubes were imploded or flooded to discourage trespassers, and I know of no case where the tube itself has been remodelled.)

With an Atlas-F, you get a bit of land above ground, the “Command Centre” to convert into a dwelling, and – down a subterranean corridor – the missile silo itself, minus its erstwhile resident. Many are within commuting distance of major cities; the surburbs sprawl broader today. Most of the Atlas rockets eventually got used for peaceful purposes – launching satellites and whatnot – but their amazing garages remain. Gigantic Euclidean solids under the earth, temples of technology to a war that never came.

I saw one years ago, and the sense of being somewhere Man was never supposed to be is hard to describe properly. So that’s my goal: to own an Atlas-F site.

And now, what comes onto the mMash of the Titans. They didn't make many of these; even the Cold War had a budget limit.arket but a Titan-1?

There’s always a bigger fish.

The Titans were the biggest land-based nuclear missiles ever – able to deliver their megatons of radioactive death to any point on earth. A Titan site is basically an Atlas F site… in triplicate. THREE enormous vertical cylinders, a huge fuel dump and machine shop for each, plus a command centre complex, all connected at deep level by half a mile of tunnels. Now that’s what I call a project!

And one of the very few ever built is on sale. If only.

Unfortunately the price is over £2m. And let’s face it, remodelling the equivalent of three 17-storey skyscrapers through a hole in the sand is one hell of a development project. My dreams continue…

Why Nations Fail: not a book review

A great new book provides a useful further confirmation as to why socialism and the left wing in general are wrong: Why Nations Fail, by Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson. (Although the authors, as academics and probable lefties, may not like their work being seen as a vindication of global capitalism.)

The book’s main idea: whether a nation turns into a prosperous land of citizen-stakeholders, or a lawless wasteland with a venal elite, is all down to how its institutions develop.

If they’re “inclusive” – applied to everybody equally, as Britain’s broadly are – rule of law and economic growth happen as a natural consequence, because everybody’s got a stake in things getting better. If institutions are “extractive”, sucking power out of the hands of the public to serve an empowered minority – as in much of Africa and Asia – the pie never gets larger, and all you get is a gaggle of guys in sunglasses seeking an ever-greater share of an ever-shrinking pie.

In the second case, even revolutions rarely change things for the better, since once the rebels are in the presidential palaces they tend to need extractive institutions to cement their newfound powers.(Hi, Big Men of Africa!) Acemoglu and Robinson use countless examples, both in their book and on their blog – from Argentina’s early success and current basketcase status, to why China will fail in the long term despite its apparent juggernautism today. (That’s something else I agree with: Chinese mercantilism will not lead it to global leadership, the Yuan will not become a reserve currency, and it will all end in tears around 2020. Call it a Big Short.)

But there’s no reason for us Brits to feel smug. Because whether countries go one way or the other depends on some very, very small nudges near the beginning. For example, I’ve long thought that the reason for Britain’s dominance of the world in the 19th century was a simple and subtle accident: the fact that British adventurers were allowed to be in business for themselves, rather than acting as agents of the State like the Conquistadores. English Kings and Queens of medieval times were weak, and didn’t really get to order the merchants around…. which led to us developing the boundless potential of big empty places full of promise, like North America and Australia. We weren’t better by nature; we became better thanks to a happy circumstance. There wasn’t anything deliberate or insightful about it, but Britain nudged itself in the right direction around 1600, and became perhaps the most inclusive and successful nation that ever has, or ever will, exist.

Fuzzy-thinking Labour and Liberal voters (is there any other kind?) will doubtless disagree with my take here. After all, doesn’t “inclusivity” sound more like the all-are-equal dream of the Left, and “extractive” sound like fat cats getting rich off the back of the masses?

But this is down to what (I feel) is the great misunderstanding of the Left: life isn’t a zero-sum game. Nor should it be. There is not a fixed amount of work to be shared out among workers (the false reasoning behind France’s 35-hr workweek), nor a set volume of wealth that must be divided equally (the apparent belief of Britain’s grab-it-all public sector.) Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcome. In an inclusive system, anyone can start a business … but not everybody will prosper from it. (If the outcomes are guaranteed, there’s no reason to work hard at anything.) Some fail, some succeed, the markets allocate capital accordingly, and the system pushes itself upward. In the capitalist system, an “inclusive” system, the pie gets bigger.

It’s why Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, the Kims, and champagne-swilling charlatans like Marx were wrong. It’s why the worst of British leaders, like Blair and Brown, were wrong. It’s why today’s woolly-minded lefties like “Gogglehead Ed” Miliband are wrong. But of course, plenty of people like the comfort their wrong views provide… like Britain’s wrongheaded public sector. We won’t get rid of the scourge of leftism for a while – but in the long run, it hasn’t a chance.

Don’t go West, young man

That’s it then. In the last 48 hours, the balance of world power shifted from West to East.

With Xinhua reporting China’s “demand” that the US address the structural deficit that drove S&P to withdraw the USA’s triple-A credit rating yesterday, the leverage across the Pacific finally changed direction. (There was the little matter of a $2 trillion rounding error, but a credit downgrade is a credit downgrade.)We all knew it was going to happen, but not quite this soon.

With much of the USA’s debt held by the Chinese government, Beijing now calls the shots – just as the roof over your head is ultimately there because your bank extended you a mortgage. Thanks to its UK-style profligacy in its public sector entitlements, its expensive war efforts, and its absurdly complex tax code that raises very little money, the USA has lost any power over China. And it lost it … yesterday.

I spent a lot of years in the Chinese world and like Chinese culture a lot, but this has nothing to do with Chinese characteristics – or indeed socialism. It’s realpolitik. One country manoevring for advantage in the shadows until it was time to press the button.

The West woke up this morning to a fundamentally changed world. And only time will tell if it was for the better.

 

 

The day the Earth changed

I doubted… but at 3.15am this morning, I knew. When ultra-conservative white states like Iowa vote for Obama, it meant the game was up for the Republicans. Obama’s dream came true, thanks to a thousand details of decisionmaking and hard work.

Back in Chicago, Obama learnt the system, built his machine, worked it and made a difference in one of the most corrupt parts of the USA. During the candidacy, he organised again and beat a Democratic aristocracy at first opposed to him. In the campaign itself, he broke through racial barriers and appealed across the board, using the same skills of arranging things in order and getting things done.

If he can bring the same sense of organisation and discipline to the presidency, then he may be more than just the first black, or Hawaiian, or whatever else President; he may be one of the great ones. Another Lincoln. Or Roosevelt. He’s definitely got the spark in him.

Today the USA regains its dreams, and starts to live again. Well done, Obama.

Voting machines with a mind of their own

The Diebold machines already seem to be giving trouble… now, a machine failure I could understand, but flipping your candidate choice? Only weird when you consider a senior guy from this company is a prominent Republican. Grrr, what that party has done to the best of all political philosophies – enlightened self-interest, minimal government, and personal freedoms. A conservative party’s got to go pretty damn wrong for me to end up hoping a Democrat wins tonight.

Voting the Texan way

The Houston Chronicle has a useful article telling Texans how to vote. Amazingly, it doesn’t give Texas-centric advice – such as ‘Where it says punch a hole, this is not an invitation to use your six-shooter’, or ‘Only vote for the candidates with initials JM or SP’, but it’s still interesting to read just how complicated American voting forms are. It’s no wonder so many Americans voted for the wrong candidate last time.

But what’s that about being assigned a PIN number once you’ve identified yourself, which you then type into the voting machine before voting? “It is not used to…” Yeah, right. Does anybody, anywhere, seriously believe that such information isn’t recorded? And used?

The last 72 hours…

The time’s nearly here. I love American politics, and this is the most important election since the 60s: as far as the rest of the world is concerned, an Obama victory would basically wipe out the evils of the Bush years, and give the USA back the respect and admiration Dubya squandered so totally. But while the US’s mainly liberal press seems quietly confident, I still have nagging doubts. From day one I thought Obama would lead the campaign, but McCain would squeak through on election night. I hope I’m wrong; I fear I’m right.

Fortunately, some red states on the Eastern side – Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida – will declare before I get to bed on Tuesday, and if Obama wins any of these things start looking positive early on. McCain can’t afford to lose any of them. But Obama’s leads aren’t as big as the polls suggest: maybe a percent or two, but that could go up in a smoke of redneckism inside the polling booths. And that’s without outright voting fraud (as seems to have happened in 2000 and 2004; it’s a scandal that the USA’s intimidated press never really looked into the patterns of behaviour that led to Republican victories in Democrat-leaning little towns far from the TV cameras.) I’d say Obama is a long way from safety.

But I live in hope. Let’s have Obama for two terms and start the world healing. And politically, I’m not even a Democrat in the American sense.

Elephant in the room, or maybe a pit bull

Or maybe even a moose. The US elections are going pretty well for those of us outside the USA: Obama’s an exciting young healer, McCain’s a decent man, both could put America back on the right course.

But there’s something that we in Europe just don’t like to even think about.

The ultimate horror of….

….. a President Palin.

While John’s face is unlined and his spirit strong, he’s still pushing mid-seventies, and if the Republicans win next month – the lead isn’t that clear, Obamaniacs – she’s only a faltering heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

I mean, there we were thinking nothing could be as bad as the Bush years, yet a Prez Sarah ‘God buried the dinosaurs to test my faith’ Palin might be worse than Bush. Next to her, the rootin’-tootin, honky-tonk, rinky-dink yeehaw Dubya looks like an urbane liberal. On basically every newsworthy issue she’s either flat-out out wrong, intellectually incomplete, or just plain illogical.

Abortion. Nothing illustrates the differences between Britain and the USA so clearly as the abortion issue. In the USA it divides families and chooses senators; in the UK it’s barely even a debate, and Marie Stopes has just been honoured with a Royal Mail stamp.

Evolution. This young-earth creationist probably thinks the bible was written in English, like approximately 45% of the USA’s god theorists. Logic and rationality once again take a back seat to whatever feels right accordin’ to Momma. Risky. Very risky.

The god theory. A Palin presidency would mean the triumph of private feeling over rational decisionmaking. Anyone who understands religion at the meta level (‘why’ people believe – it’s a perfectly valid evolved trait, since shared beliefs allow societies and civilisations to form) gets frustrated by people who push their invisible friends as genuine explanations rather than comforting stories. And Palin’s a real get-the-kids-prayin’ type.

The War on Terror. Palin would be like Bush, only more so. Expect an Iran invasion within months, maybe Syria after that. Gotta keep those guns blazin’ at those nasty foreigners, ‘cos we sure as hell know what’s best for ’em. Worrying. At least she wouldn’t have Dick Cheney pulling her strings.

Hold on… a Palin presidency would mean a spare VP slot…

Oh dear.

Just do a switcheroo

Having thought about it, I think Joe Biden and Sarah Palin should just swap places. That’d give Americans a clear choice based on the factors people actually vote for – a) are they young, b) are they cute, and c) do they look like me. It’d be old crusty America versus young exciting America. C’mon guys, let’s add some spice to this campaign!