Monday, November 30, 2015

The Political tactics of the Tory Shits

I wouldn't normally bother to comment on the resignation of a junior minister in the UK, but the fall of Grant Shapps is interesting for the light it sheds on the inner workings of the Conservative Party. The casual nastiness and infantile ruthlessness of the team that Mr. Shapps largely recruited has certainly rebounded on him- indeed has forced him to quit as a minister. That the bullying seems to have driven one young man to suicide is not merely tragic: it reflects a culture as brash and excessive as much as Mr. Shapps' own brand of politics.

For this is not the first time that Grant Shapps has been involved in the disreputable side of the game of politics- he has credibly been linked to Internet smears on other political figures, including some in his own party. He has also been found to have lied about his earnings from other sources, which he claimed had ceased when he became an MP, when they did not. Indeed there are allegations that some of Mr. Shapps' business dealings may have been less than honest.

The fact is that Grant Shapps is not a particularly intelligent man, but he is certainly a greedy and ruthless one. His sharp elbows have not been restrained by custom or taste and he reflects a certain kind of vulgarity that regards common rules of restraint and decency as being more for they other people than for he himself. It is arrogance pure and simple.

Unfortunately David Cameron has plenty more of these shits in his Parliamentary party. 

If Labour were not themselves in deep trouble as the hard left around Jeremy Corbyn plot to remake the Labour Parliamentary party in their own, unlovely, image, then the disreputable and dishonourable in the Conservative ranks would be being outed on a far bigger scale. 

The Tories only have a slight majority, despite their triumphalism, and there are many more people like Grant Shapps out there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A (Nationalist) sinner repents

I heartily dislike the politics of identity.

I believe in the politics of values. 

The creation on a political credo based on some assumed identity is, to my mind an exclusive, dangerous thing. Making judgements of others based on identity very quickly becomes dangerous: national identities create nationalist a nationalist agenda, class identities creates a revolutionary agenda, religious identity - well, we have all seen what that can create. In fact all can quickly lead at best to discrimination and at worst to violence and death. The politics of identity builds walls. It diminishes our sense of collective responsibility.

The politics of values, on the other hand is not an exclusive identity- one simply chooses to agree or disagree with a given position and there is no sense of intrinsic exclusivity- in fact the politics of values are inclusive and transcend national, social or religious identities.

Scotland has been undergoing a convulsion over the past few years. The politics of Scottish national identity have, under the SNP, become the litmus test for almost all aspects of political and social choice. The centralisation of the police force and emergency services was done, not to deliver better or safer services, but to reinforce the power of nationalist politicians in Edinburgh against the perceived threat of London. The gradual stripping of the independence of the Scottish University system eliminates dissent, again in support of the nationalist agenda of the SNP, rather than to the benefit of Scottish academic life.

Yet the anti-democratic centralising discipline being imposed by the SNP on Scotland's public affairs has just reached a serious problem: reality is beginning to contradict the SNP's stated economic and political positions.

One of the major reasons for the defeat of the Yes campaign in the referendum last year was that the SNP and their allies were so desperately unconvincing on economic policy. Their position was that a newly separate rUK would nevertheless continue to support a common currency with a newly independent separate Scotland. Yet this was not only at total variance with the stated explicitly stated British position, but even the shortest pause would have made it clear that it was simply economic nonsense. It was attempt to convince the Scottish voters that independence would not require major economic changes, when it was becoming all too clear that the entire structure of the public sector, of finance, of economic policy in general would have to undergo wrenching change in order to avoid a serious economic breakdown. 

The SNP's blustering answer was that all of the North Sea oil revenue would accrue to Scotland and off set any problems. Even if that were true, and under the law of the sea, it would have been debatable, the fact is that when those of us who opposed separation pointed out that oil is a volatile and unreliable commodity, and that the economics of the North Sea were precarious even at $75/bbl we were denounced with extraordinary venom. We were laughed at and told that the oil price would hold up at above $100/bbl for the foreseeable future. As I write, Brent North Sea crude is trading at just above $43/bbl and large chunks of North Sea production is being mothballed. To say that the SNP forecasts have been utterly discredited is simply a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Not that the SNP leadership would agree- they continue to act as though the referendum was just a way station on the inevitable road to separation. The fact is, though, that many, if not most, people now recognise how close we came to disaster last year. Alex Bell, the former policy director of the SNP has come out with a pretty obvious statement, that the case that was made for independence is simply dead. It is a simple statement of truth, and naturally has sent the Nats into a frenzy of recrimination and witch hunting.

Personally the intellectual case for Scottish independence was sketchy at best, and as the The Economist noted, it was routed in a kind of Scottish Peronism.  The subordination of all things to the goal of separation is dangerous and poses a threat to the prosperity and the the intellectual freedom of all Scots. It will also fail.

Personally I continue to hope that Scotland can rediscover a more open minded political agenda, one which does not rely on the exclusivity of small minded separation and instead trusts to a more open and innovative political culture. Any intellectual justification for Scottish Nationalism is being weakened by the day. The blustering SNP point to the polls, which suggest that notwithstanding the death of their economic policy, the SNP may even make gains in the May 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. 

This may be small comfort. 

As we found in May 2015 polls can be wrong. Even if they are accurate, it can not be too long before the blind refusal to accept the need to a wholesale change in direction will lead to the SNP hitting the political buffers. Discipline is easy when you are winning. When things fall apart, identity politics tend to be pretty thin on new ideas.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Fools Rush In

The attacks against the innocent in Paris of course spur a deep compassion for those who have suffered and a righteous anger against those who planned this disgusting act of reckless violence.

However, the inevitable call for immediate and violent retribution is giving me some pause. The fact is that with clear hindsight, the response to the attacks of September 11th 2001 was not necessarily the right one, in that the goal of eliminating terrorism was not in fact achieved, indeed the threat of terror has grown, even as the war on terror reaches new heights of violence. It is not that the West should do nothing in response to this outrage, but given the escalation of violence against ISIS is so predictable in the wake of these attacks, we should beware of being manipulated by the ruthless and reckless men behind this Islamic death cult.

More to the point, there may be a yet greater conspiracy. There is a clear connection between the Chechens and the emergence of ISIS, and Chechens hold some of the most senior positions in the organisation. The fact is that Western analysts are still disputing precisely what ISIS is and what the exact nature of the threat is.

That there is a threat is obvious. The barbaric, irrational thuggery unleashed on Iraq and Syria is intolerable to anyone who holds the Western values of rational, sceptical tolerance. This death cult- a bizarre mixture of suicide and murder- offers no room for compromise, the snake must be de-fanged or the poison will challenge every aspect of our open societies.

The military defeat of ISIS, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, is probably a necessary condition to end the threat, but it is not the only precondition and possibly not even the most important. The challenge is not merely to defeat this particular manifestation of religious bigotry, but to establish a social environment where there is simply no attraction in the nihilism dressed as religious fulfilment that it represents. 

The Islamic world is convulsed with injustice and poverty. Despotic governments disguise their weakness with repression and the convenient scapegoating of their political enemies, whether liberals or religious fascists. For as long as this remains the case the attraction of rebellion, even of the vile barbarism of ISIS, will remain.

Neither will opening Europe's borders to refugees from the Middle East work- and may irrevocably change both European and Arab societies in a way that currently seems outrageous. In any event those who have fled would surely have preferred to stay peacefully in their homes- if they could.

Air strikes- a relatively safe way to inflict damage at a distance- will not, I predict, be sufficient to defeat ISIS. It will require -as in Afghanistan- boots on the ground. However, as we know such operations carry great risks and may not achieve their principal objectives. Neither is a long-term neo-colonialism likely to be too popular either in the West or in the Arab world. Yet realistically it is easy to see how we could be sucked into such a bitter quagmire. It may even be the least worst policy.

So, as the burning calls for revenge and an escalation of the violence echo across the front pages, it seems to me that the leaders of the West must now do a lot more hard thinking as to how to defeat this death cult. The West must establish clear, long term strategic goals and stop the short term reactive think that has characterized the response to the crisis in the Arab and Islamic world so far.

Otherwise the bitter lessons of GW Bush's failed "War on terror" will need to be relearned. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Can't beat them, join them.

One of the most positive aspects of life in Estonia is that the average level of education is so high that you get used to people making good quality decisions. Intelligent, well-thought out government services, innovative and interesting technology and so on.

This is why, when one does encounter Estonian examples of stupidity, it can be rather shocking. 

There are small examples, such as allowing graffiti to get out of hand, which in the end creates far bigger and more expensive problems than an early zero tolerance policy does. There are bigger examples, such as the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) whose small minded, identity based political world view insults the visionary thinkers, such as Jaan Tonisson, who understood from the beginning that Estonian identity must rest on universal, European values. The identity politics of the barnyard that EKRE, Argentina's Peronist party and the SNP all, to varying degrees promote, can quickly descend into racist or homophobic bigotry- and does.

The biggest mistakes of all, however, also seem to be the most expensive ones. Estonian Air, the national airline of Estonia, was a small, well run and efficient operation. However, at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009 it received assistance from the Estonian government which the European Commission now deems to have been illegal. At the time, the Estonian Government was clearly warned that the actions they were taking needed to comply with EU law. However the then minister, Juhan Parts, failed to recognize the problem. The result is that now, after over three years of consideration, the EC has ruled. The result of that ruling is that Estonian Air had to repay €40 million and has ceased flying and over 300 people have lost their jobs.

Now, however, the Economy ministry is trying to create a plan B: a new airline, Nordic Airline Group, has been created and in due course may take on EA's old route network, but at least for the time being, €40m is available to maintain flights to Tallinn. To be honest the ramshackle start to the new airline makes me think that this is already €40 million wasted. It would now, surely, by far better to inject the money into Air Baltic, the surviving (Latvian) Baltic Airline, and get them to expand their network of flights from Tallinn. EA's demise is already seeing SAS restart their flights to Tallinn, and thus reduce the scope that NAG may have to maintain an Estonian connection to the Scandinavian markets. Meanwhile, Air Baltic too scents an opportunity from Estonian Air's demise. The competitive environment for Nordic will be much worse than for Estonian Air- and that was an only marginally profitable airline. The intelligent solution must surely be to work with Air Baltic, but alas, the Ministry has spoken.

Unfortunately it is the same ministry that seems set to cost the country even more money. They have continued to dispute the pricing regime previously agreed with Tallinna Vesi, the partly British owned water utility. However it is becoming clear that in this arbitration, as with Estonian Air, the Ministry has misjudged. Tallinna Vesi are set to win outright, and with it will come the right to sue the government for around €70 million in compensation for lost revenue. Again the Ministry was warned, indeed I myself personally attempted to find a mediation point. However, again, Juhan Parts disregarded the advice he was being given.

€100 million is a lot of money for a small country, and that the loss was avoidable is very frustrating indeed.

Still, perhaps I should not be too surprised that governments everywhere- even in Estonia- seem to cost more money where they are less accountable. The actions of Minister Parts and his advisers might therefore usefully be the subject of an investigation by the Estonian Parliament- after all lose another €100 million here or another €100 million there and we might be talking serious money next time.    

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Students should be *tort* the difference between objective and subjective wrong

Students are meant to convulse - if one can not rebel during late adolescence, then pretty quickly you run out of time and the varied pressures of earning a living, maintaining a relationship and/or a family enforce a conformity of one sort or another.

The inventive and occasionally wacky ways that students rebel stretch from placing traffic cones on the heads of statues, toga parties, to Trotskyism. Sometimes students get more serious and do things that require some kind of intervention, like an addiction to Class A drugs, attempted suicide and supporting Stalin (Yes, Seamus Milne, I am talking about you).

So far, so juvenile.

However, in both the US and the UK, there seems to have emerged a class of student whose infantilism rejects the entire course of Western civilisation. Someone has offended their feelings with statements that they disagree with. Yet instead of responding to a challenge to their point of view in the the approved academic way- with rational argument- they have sought to attack their disputants with threats and bullying based on the idea that because they themselves are offended, that this forms the sole point of view to judge the case and to punish the guilty- for guilt there must be.

Yet there is no crime in propounding views that others disagree with- or at least no statute crime. There is, in Common Law, the concept of tort, which is to say the claiming of civil remedy where the plaintiff alleges actual harm has been created by the actions of the defendant. This is what has distorted (no pun intended) the legal process in both the UK and the US, for after all who is to say where mental distress might be found? Physical harm, and actual loss are fairly straightforward- for there is physical proof. Mental distress is a function of opinion, and in the case of these students, they suggest that only their own opinion of how offended or upset they may be is valid. This flies in the face of thousands of years of Western thought by placing subjective feelings above objective analysis. 

Of course the side effect is that freedom of speech must be ever more diminished, and in the end any self-selecting group can shrilly claim hurt from those they disagree with. Even in the US, where freedom of speech is a right protected by the constitution is struggling with this illiberal challenge, in the UK the threat may be graver still.

So even though I may disagree with a point of view, and indeed no matter how offensive I may find find such views, I will indeed "defend to the death" the right of my opponents to have their differing points of view. The sole limit is a legal one: where threatening behaviour is used, then that is an objective, statute crime (SNP cybertrolls please note).

Being nasty to each other might be a moral wrong, but it is not a legal one. In fact it is those who have hectored and bullied who are in the wrong, both subjectively and objectively too, since they objectively threaten the root of our entire system of freedom.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

George Osborne's Fundamental Mistake

It is, or ought to be, true that a citizen who is full time employment should be paid enough to live on. 

So, unlike many on the so-called progressive wing of British politics, I am not in principle a supporter of tax credits. To me. the fiendishly complicated system devised by Gordon Brown was not a "leg up to the poor" but a subsidy to corporations who would not or could not pay a fair and sustaining wage. So when the British Finance Minister announced in his Budget that he intended to phase out tax credits and institute a much higher minimum wage- the so called "living wage", I did not leap to the defence of the expensive bureaucracy that the tax credit system has created. 

However, George Osborne enjoys the game of politics far too much to want to play fair. 

His agenda of the abolition of tax credits has now been subsumed into a wider ideological battle. In principle Osborne believes in a small state. He has a stated preference for simpler and lower taxes and less government activity overall, for what it is worth, that is a valid intellectual position. However in his policies Osborne actually going against both of his publicly stated preferences. First of all, despite the mess of the tax credit system and the wider welfare system, it is not the most urgent problem in UK government finances- the largest item in UK public spending remains the 20% spent on pensions, which contains egregious and unsustainable waste and not the 15% spent on welfare for the poorest. 

The fact is that "austerity" is hitting the wrong target: Mr. Osborne is working for the interests of the Tory-voting better off, and his clumsy handling of taper relief on tax credits is going to cause real problems. The fact is that Mr. Osborne says he wants to reduce the size of the state, but is partisan and unfair about what parts he would like to reduce, and his political games will end up costing the government more in benefits than it will gain from winding up tax credits. This is rightly being attacked from across the political spectrum- including Conservatives. Even if you do not believe in the tax credit system, and I for one do not, Osborne's tactics seem ultimately inept and self defeating.

Yet there is still worse. Mr. Osborne, as we note, has said he is in favour of a simpler tax code. However this budget has actually added still more pages onto the morbidly obese UK tax code. The nearly 17,000 pages of the UK tax code make it by far the longest tax code in the world and almost all of it is designed to disguise the fact that it is a profoundly regressive tax system. The cost of administration of revenue collection is over £20 billion a year, with tax credits about the same.  The totally of over £40 billion a year is about 7% of total tax revenue just on administration. The HMRC has more staff than the entire British Army. The Department of Work and Pensions and the HMRC combined are nearly twice the size of our entire armed forces or about the same as the rest of the civil service put together.

The fact is that the cost of government administration of the UK employment market is vast, bloated and deeply unsustainable.

But there is worse.

The fact is that the UK tax code has become a thieves charter. City of London has attracted huge flows of extremely questionable money and, for example, London Property has become a safety deposit box for every Russian criminal oligarch or Arab despot. These assets are held through off-shore companies because we will not tax either the property or the acquiring company. Shady deals at the limits of legality are disguised as tax avoidance schemes, when they are actually money laundering of criminally gotten gains pure and simple. When we learn that even the HMRC itself has placed the ownership of its own buildings "off shore" , it should tell you how much the system needs complete reform. Transparency is minimal and accountability is non-existent, and that is precisely because of the way the UK tax code has been set up. Arguably it is the very goal of such a system- it is certainly not to provide open and sustainable revenues for the UK government.

Mr. Osborne, instead of tinkering with tax credits, has the opportunity to show some genuine leadership and start to recast this disaster. Unfortunately he is too busy playing partisan political games to capitalize on his opportunity and so will doubtless be remembered as perhaps a less disastrous Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK Finance Minister) than Gordon Brown, but mediocre just the same.

Extremely expensive, deeply inefficient and promoting wholesale crime: the UK tax code is more than just a blunder- it is a full-going, out-and-out disaster.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Why you won't have a job in the 22nd Century

That, over time, societies evolve is a truism. 

Yet those that survive and prosper over the longer term seem to evolve in a specific way: towards greater social complexity. The point is that more innovative societies tend to amass greater wealth and thus the ability to deploy greater resources in their own defence. As a general rule then the ability to innovate is a critical feature in social progress and international power. Over the centuries we have seen an evolution from a hierarchical social order, to a more egalitarian order, which permits the freer exchange of information and thus greater innovation. Yet the exchange of this information was for long limited by geography. Until only five hundred years ago there was no knowledge of the European civilizations in America and vice versa. Even where contact existed- between the Chinese, Arab and European civilizations, for example- there was only limited technological transfer and thus it was by innovation, rather than by exchange, that most technological advances were made.

Yet despite this isolation and seeming diversity, the civilizations of the pre-Columbian world were surprisingly similar- the Inca Empire and the Chinese Empire, for example, were both generally centralised on a single Imperial figure, albeit one surrounded by a bureaucracy and army that had their own will. Even Europe nominally owed allegiance to a common church and an Emperor who derived much of his legitimacy from that church. Yet in the social chaos that followed the Black Death of 1346-8, Europe was convulsed by religious and social revolution. The shortage of human labour to work the land required the end of the hierarchy of feudalism. The subsequent creation of an more urban society was the focus of much study by Karl Marx. he observed that as the agrarian revolution of the late middle ages promoted the emergence of a "bourgeois" class, so in his own day the industrial revolution had created a new class- he used the Latin term "proletariat"- that despite its lack of wealth would nonetheless come to dominate the social order. Based on the revolutionary activity of the early nineteenth century, Marx and his collaborators believed that the end of "bourgeois" society would be violent, but the rise of the proletariat was inevitable.

However Marx, for all the interesting insights and ideas in his work, had not made the leap of imagination that he might have done. His ideas are essentially those of a sociologist. Yet the evidence is increasingly clear that the battle of social and economic groups- he called it "Class War"- is not the only mover in social progress. Indeed the creation of the industrial proletariat itself was the result of the innovations of the earlier industrial revolution and their consolidation into ever larger units of production- a process that Marx believed would continue long into the future. He did not foresee that in the longer term innovation had the power to maintain the levels of production with ever less use of labour, and that as a result labour itself would be deployed into an ever expanding innovation frontier. The necessary consequence was that far from the inchoate masses of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the former proletariat would evolve into a highly educated and ever wealthier group. Instead of growing to an unstoppable revolutionary mass, the constituency to overthrow this ever more comfortable society grew ever weaker.

More to the point the massed proletariat, despite the agitation of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, began to fracture. Society was no longer a battle of "Capitalist Exploiter" versus the revolutionary "Exploited", but an ever more complex mosaic of social groups. As property ownership and share ownership became commonplace, so it has grown ever more difficult to identify which side of the the nominal class divide any given group or individual might be.

Yet there remain profound social hierarchies. These exist not only within the authority of the nation state- that cultural and political fly in the ointment of Marxist beliefs- but also in the world of work. As we have seen, large scale production initially required the deployment of huge numbers of workers, and although the role (and the power) of the state declined, large scale corporations rose, and in many cases were able to deploy similar, or even greater financial resources than most of the states themselves. The second half of the twentieth century saw the zenith of huge organisations- some, like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space programme, were organised by governments (but in the case of Apollo enacted by large corporations). The hierarchies involved hundreds of thousands of individuals. 

Then something remarkable began to happen. The State, financially enfeebled by the repeated crises which began in the 1970s, stood back from many of these projects: whereas once the provision of power supply was a state responsibility, for example, increasingly it became the domain of private corporations. Yet these corporations themselves were far less powerful than they had hitherto been. Financial discipline tamed corporate egos and shareholder pressure began to limit corporate ambitions. As post war boom gave way to financial stringency, corporate bloat was challenged. 

The consequences were that the number of people working for the very largest corporations began to fall. Steel production, for example, which had required massive labour forces was now transformed to a more automated (and much safer) process. Machines -at home and in the office- eliminated the drudgery, whether that drudgery was washing clothes, typing letters, adding bills, or cooking food. For many that transfer has proven traumatic. The loss of long term and guaranteed jobs in mines, mills or manufacturing has created social upheaval. Yet the economic upheaval overall has proven to be surprisingly small. The level of unemployment, although fluctuating, has not led to a cadre of the workless, it is just that the culture of work has changed- just as it changed from the world of agrarian cottage industry to industrial production at the time of the Luddites two hundred years ago. The emergence of 3-D printing, for example, as a production method drastically reduces the required resources for manufacturing, making it not just more sustainable, but also no longer tied to any given geography. 

19th and 20th century work patterns over a single career often tended to be long term with large, single employers. That employer would often provide compensation above that of the salary- a pension, for example. Increasingly the burden of pensions or social insurance has become an individual responsibility, since neither the state nor the corporation can afford the burden. Over the past two decades work has become far more project based, and the result is that each individual has had to become more mobile and flexible in terms of how they work. Furthermore they have been able to use technology to work independently of any given location. At the technological frontier, from the geographic determinism of nationality and workplace has emerged the chance to work remotely with teams across the planet.

As we have researched the psychology of human beings, it becomes clear that large scale organisations are extremely inefficient- humans prefer to work in groups of a few tens- which may be the size of the average human band as we emerged as a species and therefore an innate preference. These teams of people, as with an army platoon, may combine with larger units, but the cohesion of such larger units is always weaker than the smaller units. It is extremely interesting to note that innovation businesses always seem to degrade more rapidly after they pass a hundred or so employees. Thus even large firms now seem to work in small groups. As understanding of the different human psychological and social needs improves we are seeing collaboration between teams, rather than large scale hierarchy. Innovation seems to require collaboration, rather than organisation.

So we can think about the trends in global employment. 

The key variable we note, is that geography is become ever less important for communication and even for production. The idea of a set work place is increasingly less important, and although small face-to-face social networks add to personal well-being, it maybe the case that fellow members of a work station may be working on different things with different remote teams. Although face-to-face contact remains important- and is the driver of such critical locations as Silicon Valley, the fact is that even the Valley is a centre for much that is nowhere near California. Indeed places like London, New York, San Jose, Berlin or Tallinn have increasingly strong networks with each other than they do with their own geographical hinterland. To be a node in such a network is far more important than where that node is actually located.

The second is the social evolution. A more complex society requires greater education. This is not simply a function of academic or school qualifications, it is a question of insight and the ability to process. I do not happen to believe that poor school qualifications should lead to social under-performance- otherwise Einstein would have been a fool, not a genius. We understand that the plasticity of the brain is reduced once one has become an adult, but as Edward de Bono has suggested, thinking is still a skill than can be learnt, rather than necessarily the result of innate intelligence and social habituation. In more complex systems, It is critical that the gigantic resource of human imagination and creativity is not wasted, and therefore the process of thinking will assume a more central part of the creative process.

The third is economic and technical evolution. The demands of the technical frontier require a sense of ownership and buy-in from the team members. In a sense organisations already speak the the language of the auto-capitalist when they talk about ownership in the sense of responsibility. However over time it is likely that power will shift from those who deploy physical capital- in the shape of factories or finance- to those who deploy intellectual capital. Already we are seeing the unpicking of the hierarchical financial system as peer-to-peer and other disruptive finance technologies and networks evolve, meanwhile the barriers to entry in manufacturing are dissolving as the resources required diminish further.         

Global networks; smaller, none geographically specific teams; more open access to capital and production; greater levels of education and insight are all notable current trends. All of this is set to combine with the same kind of demographics that sparked the political and social revolutions after the Black Death: by the 22nd century global human population is projected to be falling quite sharply. The result may be a revolution even more profound than the Renaissance. Already in Estonia each individual often owns a company to handle their own social welfare and the result is that the employment contract has given way to a contract for service provision. The hire-or-fire hierarchical corporate world is going the same way as the life-or-death control of the hierarchical state.   This trend is the first step to the point where individual auto-capitalists will provide services, be responsible for their own social welfare but also capture more of the rewards for their contribution.

So complex social evolution is in prospect. More egalitarian economic organisations, although not necessarily great social equality. More open access to financial and production resources. Smaller organisations, linked more by contract than by control. The world of employment in the next hundred years may be the greatest source of personal liberation since the emergence of representative democracy in the 19th and early 20th century. 

As to how the political world might change in response, well that must be the subject for another day.

Saturday, November 07, 2015


The average Human brain consists of at least 86 billion neurons and perhaps ten times more glyial cells. Yet each neuron, through synapses, can connect to as many as ten thousand other cells. The estimated number of neural connections is thus in the order of trillions: in fact an estimated 0.15 quadrillion connections. Brain specialists believe that each Human Brain may be capable of processing as much as 2.5 petabytes of information through these synapse connections. This is about seven times larger than the entire library of congress.  Incidentally, to build a computer of similar power on current technology would require the power of a small city to run it. For the brain it is not the total number of cells, but the connections between them that makes its processing ability so powerful. 

As for the Brain so for other systems.

In information systems, the value of an individual computer, no matter how fast its processing power or how large its memory, is as nothing compared to the power of being connected to the Internet. For decades, Moores law, has predicted logarithmic increases in the processing speed of computer hardware. Yet even as we may be reaching the molecular limits of materials such as silicon or gallium, the prospect of continued advances in processing power based on cloud-based Internet solutions or even quantum computing is still offering fantastic increases in performance. Yet the very name the "Internet" was only adopted by the FNC on October 24th 1995. We are still establishing the early parameters of the global system. The success of the system is based on open architecture and the ability, as with the human brain, to make as many connections to as many node points as possible.

Both the brain and the Internet derive their power from the ability to make connections, yet there is a vulnerability: connections can be relatively easy to disrupt. Brains can suffer degenerative conditions and lose the power to connect across synapses, the results can include Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. With the Internet, the system relies on physical connections, such as undersea cables, and these carry so much traffic that even a relatively minor disruption could effectively unplug whole parts of the planetary network from each other. More pressingly, cyber-attacks are used across the network, especially by the closed societies of Russia and China, to attempt to deflect information that may challenge the official point of view. In this sense the exponential growth in the number of node points on the Internet carries not merely the opportunity of greater knowledge and interconnectivity, but also the threat of the eventual disruption of the network as malware and cyber-security failures combine to attack critical pathways.

Yet it is not simply in the abstract that open connections generate strength. Trade is more powerful than the mere possession of assets. The successful experiment that Kyle MacDonald made to trade one red paperclip up to a house, is a classic example of how trade can add value- and to both parties. Being [;aced at a trade node point thus has been a far greater source of wealth than simply possession of any given asset, such as land or minerals. Again it is the network that generates power within the system. Thus Singapore, despite possessing essentially no resources- not even sufficient water- has grown far more rapidly than either Indonesia or Malaysia, its neighbours, because it is a more open node point with greater connections than any city nearby. China, by opening its economy to the world after the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, has raised 250 million people out of poverty. Britain, a small island but open to global sea connections, has always been richer than Russia, despite the fact that Russia has the largest territory and possesses the worlds greatest supply of natural assets from gold to oil. The point is that Russia was, and remains, a closed society, with far fewer links to the rest of the planet, despite its gargantuan size. Singapore or Britain, like a healthy neuron, have general integrity in their systems - especially clear rule of law- and thus are able to reach out without interference or damage.

This, then, is part of the root of my optimism about the increasingly global society that seems to be emerging. Open societies, in such a world, have critical competitive advantages. An efficient and informed allocation of resources, greater opportunity for its citizens, greater innovation and ultimately a more complex foundation for a happier society.

Yet open societies have critical vulnerabilities too. As the fall of the Roman Republic shows, it is perfectly possible to disrupt and destroy even the most powerful and legitimate open system from within, if critical weaknesses are not addressed. The most obvious threat to the open society is irrationality. This reduction in social efficiency- like aluminium platelets reducing the efficiency of the brains of Alzheimer's patients- can have strongly negative effects. We see, in democratic states, that irrational and ignorant populists may seek to close down open debate, may seek to claim- for security or corruption reasons- part of the popular sphere as their own domain, and above all may seek to impose corrupt rent-seeking practices which both reduce the efficiency of the economy and wider society and thus reduce its legitimacy. Open societies rely on the consent of the governed, and corruption corrosively reduces this consent. The critical elements of a successful society, as Mikhail Gorbachev understood so clearly, are openness and accountability, which he called "glasnost". A free and informed population is a critical part of this, but it is also necessary to have a political system that makes its leaders accountable- and that has been a perennial struggle since well before the inception of democracy. 

Of course the threats of irrationality may come from external sources too. The ideology of Nazi Germany was not rooted in any legitimate science, but untrammelled by accountability, or even morality, it led to almost limitless brutality. Yet, even such an advanced country as Germany was fatally weakened by its disassociation from the wider global community. As its scientists and thinkers, such as Einstein, went into exile, they were able to warn the free world of the capabilities that Hitler might have gained and to work in, for example, the Manhattan project, to contribute to his downfall.

In our own day we see the attempts by Vladimir Putin to seal-off Russia from interactions with the open societies of the West. The allegedly high popularity of the Russian leader may be a chimera based on his temporary control of the Russian information space, but as propaganda and reality diverge, it is hard to see that Mr. Putin can maintain control against truth for ever. However, he has the capacity, as Hitler did, to lash out and using nuclear weapons and attacks on critical Internet nodes to disrupt the platform of global connectivity. As with Rome, it is not impossible that a new Dark Ages may yet come at the hands of the barbarians. Nor is the threat solely human- a global event, such as a caldera eruption or a comet or meteor strike could equally destabilise the open society to beyond its limits.

So, yes there are risks to the myriad processes of globalisation and integration. And yet, still, I am inspired by the positive opportunity of the information sphere of the planet. As we continue to learn, we can overcome both our own political and social shortcomings, we can create technological solutions to the threat of a meteor strike, for example. We can create sustainable systems to improve not only our chances of survival, but offer greater opportunity and greater wealth for humanity and the whole of the wider global biosphere.

So using our brains, we can create a rational basis for mutual respect and openness, tempered with both scientific scepticism and tolerance for those who have different views. After all, like the neurons in the body and brain, we are part of the wider, atomic structure of the Universe, but we are actually directly related to the entire biosphere of the Planet. From the molecular structure of the brain to the whole of the biosphere, it is connections and connectivity that will dictate our success or failure.