On trust

Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none.

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.1

Among the many crises that beset the modern world is a crisis of trust, or so we are told. People are losing their trust in the institutions of government, in corporations, even in the pronouncements of scientists. This is generally held to be a bad thing. But is it?

It’s undoubtedly true that a certain baseline level of trust has to exist in order for society to function. Money, for example, only works on the basis that everyone believes that these particular pieces of paper have value. Families and friendships can only hold together on the basis of mutual trust, and the loss of it is Kryptonite to any relationship. Without trust, there can be no love.

The cause of trust has not been helped by the economising mindset, which frames all human relations as a set of transactions in which the other party is always trying to do you down. Of course hardly anyone really sees the world like this, even economists, apart from paranoid schizophrenics. (Revealingly, perhaps, this was the affliction of the economist John Nash, subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind.) But it encourages distrust of others. So also does the fact that so many people live among strangers. This has always tended to be the case in cities, which have historically had a high turnover of population, but only comparatively recently has urban living become the majority lifestyle.

Trust creates the possibility of betrayal. In politics, a leader will inspire loyalty only up to the point that they can be trusted. A striking example of this from recent history is Margaret Thatcher. You knew where you were with Mrs T. You might not like it, but you knew. She had her principles, and she stuck to them.

The contrast with our current leadership in the UK is either comic or tragic, depending on your point of view. The excitement du jour happens to be about flouting of the rules concerning lockdown at the height of the pandemic, but they’ve flouted pretty much every other rule as well, awarding lucrative contracts to their mates, breaching their own code of conduct without repercussions, and even violating international treaties which they had themselves negotiated. The only principle they seem to believe in is that they can do what the hell they like because nothing will ever happen to them.

This kind of thinking has been seen before, and it rarely has a happy ending. The ancien régime in pre-Revolutionary France thought along those lines, for example, and how did that go?

It couldn’t happen here…

Governments need the consent of the governed. It is difficult to get or keep that consent if the governed can’t see anything in it for them. When nobody believes your promises, you are going to have a hard time of it. The same thing did for the Soviet Union, after all, which was a superpower not so long ago.

If someone is undeserving of trust, it makes sense for others to withdraw their trust. Nobody is surprised when someone leaves their partner after that partner has cheated on them. Indeed they would risk being thought a fool if they didn’t, if there were no other circumstances to be taken into consideration. Being mistrustful can often by a rational decision.

For wholesale abuse of the public trust has become commonplace, in a way that would never have been countenanced even a generation ago. For example, news media have always been the creatures of corporate interests to some extent, but these days the only way to get any idea of what is going on is to consume multiple disparate sources and triangulate from their known biases. And even that won’t tell you about the stuff that’s going on that they don’t want to publicise.

So people turn to the Internet. There are certainly plenty of alternative voices there, but which can you trust? Some of them are corporate shills, some are ideologues of various stripes, and others are just nutters. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is difficult, time-consuming and error-prone. Many people don’t have the time or the skills, and end up believing whatever’s in their feed for lack of anything else. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely gullible. There is a high level of background cynicism, and a good deal of it is justified.

One of the many sins of Donald J. Trump was that he drew attention to the omnipresence of “fake news.” I believe this is one of the things that struck a chord with the American public. Much of it is fake, of course, simply by being presented as if it were newsworthy. The world will not be a significantly different place if celebrity X marries (or divorces, or remarries) celebrity Y. The public interest is not the same thing as all the stuff the public is vaguely curious about. There’s a nice demonstration of this in the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up.

Another example is public trust in science, particularly as embodied by the pharmaceutical industry. You don’t have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing anti-vaxxer to notice that the extravagant promises made about the various Covid-19 vaccines have not exactly been borne out. They don’t stop you catching it, they don’t stop you getting ill (although they may make you get less seriously ill), and they don’t stop you giving it to someone else. They jury is obviously still out on potential side-effects, particularly long-term ones, but it’s reasonable to expect that there will be at least some.

If people notice that they are being lied to, a loss of trust is the inevitable result. But the fault is with the liars. Trust has to be earned, and it is a good deal easier to lose than is to regain – rather like Louis XVI‘s head. Certain politicians might be well-advised to think about that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On taking the long view

In the long run we are all dead.

John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

How long is the long run? At one extreme, there is a principle attributed (perhaps wrongly) to the Iroquois that decisions should be taken in the light of their possible effect seven generations hence, which is at least two hundred years; at the other, the corporate mindset, driven by financial results and ultimately by investors, which considers six months to be pretty long-term and five years to be the realm of prophecy.

Economists argue, plausibly, that the future is uncertain, which is true up to a point, but only up to a point. If I push my coffee-mug off the table, it will fall to the floor, although it may or may not break. The connection between levels of atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures was published science back in 1896. The exact amount of the stuff we can put into the climate system without rendering the planet uninhabitable is as yet undetermined; apparently we will discover it experimentally.

We are led to believe that our species, the self-styled “wise man” Homo sapiens, is uniquely endowed with the power of forethought. The evidence, however, hardly bears this out. Plenty of other species, whose intelligence we fiercely deny, seem to be able to live without completely destroying their environment. They modify it, to be sure – termites, moles and beavers all do so in various ways – but the changes they make are harmless and indeed in many ways beneficial.

Perhaps we are so reluctant to allow intelligence to these other creatures because they make us look so stupid in comparison. The failure of squirrels to dig up all of their buried acorns we attribute to lack of memory, rather than a natural desire on their part to propagate oak-trees. When you look at the results, frankly, the squirrels’ mental processes are beside the point. No beaver would ever have built such a monstrosity as the Three Gorges Dam, even it it were possible.

Of course immense amounts of planning and calculation went into the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, but very little thought seems to have been given to the future consequences of building it. The same can be said of the plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport at a time when (1) we are supposed to be cutting back on CO2 emissions, to which air travel is a major contributor, (2) aviation fuel is likely to get increasingly more expensive, and (3) many fewer people wish to fly during a pandemic.

The only consequences anyone seems to worry about are financial. Whenever a corporation is caught behaving recklessly, the defence usually takes the form of claiming that nobody could possibly have foreseen that the awful consequence du jour would result from their actions. Since corporations are treated nowadays more or less as sacred persons, they generally get away with this, however obvious the awful consequence clearly was.

For example: who could possibly have foreseen that prescribing opiates – a notoriously addictive family of drugs – to large number of people might result in widespread addiction? Evidently not Purdue Pharma, whose flagship product OxyContin is apparently still available despite the company having declared bankruptcy after pleading guilty to criminal charges. The settlement was for $8bn, compared with around $35bn in revenue that Purdue garnered from the sale of OxyContin since its launch in 1995, so financially it was a massive success. The human costs, of course, are a mere externality.

Examples could be multiplied: the insouciance of mining companies about toxic wastes, of the nuclear energy industry about its unimaginably long-lived radioactive by-products, or of fracking companies about the (permanent) poisoning of groundwater in the areas where they operate. Is our ignorance of the future really so profound that we cannot foresee any ill-effects of poisoning the same water that local people are accustomed to drink? Anyone who has seen the documentary Gasland (2010) will recall the footage of people actually setting light to the fluid coming from their tap. Exactly how much research is needed to establish whether or not it’s safe to drink that stuff?

Closer to home, British Telecom are planning to do away with landlines by the end of 2025. This will make your phone dependent on mains electricity, as opposed to the current system where the phone line also supplies power. Thus if your power is cut off, for example in a storm, and you don’t happen to have a (charged) mobile phone (and coverage), you won’t be able to tell the power company or indeed contact the emergency services. There are also implications for such things as burglar alarms, fire alarms and traffic lights, which will also stop working the moment mains power goes down. BT’s excuse is that it would be too expensive to fix the existing infrastructure – which of course they haven’t been maintaining adequately, presumably on the off-chance that it would miraculously go on working forever.

If the people doing these things genuinely have no knowledge of the consequences – which I very much doubt – then they have no business being in charge of anything, let alone a major industrial enterprise. Frankly, they should be locked up for their own safety as well as that of others. Presumably they also park without applying the handbrake, or indeed locking the car. It’s an open question whether they put any clothes on before leaving the house.

Presumably the truth is that they do know and they don’t care. They are completely insulated from the bad outcomes of their decisions, just as the Sackler family are protected in perpetuity from fallout from the Purdue Pharma debacle. Except, of course, ultimately this is a delusion. Even billionaires need to eat, which is going to be a tricky proposition without topsoil. They also need breathable air, drinkable water and a living space which isn’t underwater. If the forthcoming shortages of these commodities are simply dismissed as part of an unknowable future, they will become part of an uninhabitable present.

It is revealing that the insurance industry, which depends on making accurate assessments of the future, is one of the few parts of out establishment expressing concern about climate change – for example in this report. Nobody else, apparently, is really bothered, except in so far as it can be made into a money-making vehicle.

The seven-generation standard may be an unreachable ideal, but we aren’t even aiming for a one-generation view. Anyone with children is already invested that far ahead, or so you would think. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren; the squirrels would seem to be thinking much further ahead than that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On beginnings

VLADIMIR: It’s the start that’s difficult.

ESTRAGON: You can start from anything.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but you have to decide.

ESTRAGON: True.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

So here we are in 2022, and – if you’re anything like me – looking forward to it with some apprehension. But there’s no denying that a new year is a good opportunity, if only psychologically, to review what might be possible and to reflect on some of the positive actions we can take.

I am not a great enthusiast for New Year’s Resolutions; they have always struck me as a reliable way to set yourself up for failure. What none of us needs right now is an additional source of tension. Look on the following as a set of helpful suggestions, rather than a to-do list. But maybe consider doing at least some of them.

  • Repair and extend your personal networks. By which I mean networks of actual people you know in real life, not just online. (Social media has given the phrase “imaginary friend” a whole new meaning.) We all have friends and family members we have drifted apart from, especially with lockdown. Get back in touch. You’ll feel better, and you’ll have – and provide – that little bit more support. This is a big part of what keeps society from unravelling, and we’ll certainly need more of that.
  • Learn a real-life skill. Anything that takes your fancy. Knitting. Sailing a boat. Welding. Map-reading. (How many people can read a paper map these days?) Learn another language, or a card-game, or how to bake your own bread. Something that has been on my list since forever is brewing beer. Apart from anything else, it will get you away from the Internet, and you might even meet other people with the same interests (see above). And you never know what use it may be in the future.
  • Make time in your life for reflection. As Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” This has become an even more acute issue since his day. We all need to wean ourselves off the river of guff that pours over us daily on all sides. I don’t know what is of real importance in your life – and neither do you, if you never stop to think about it – but I can guarantee you it isn’t in your Facebook feed.
  • Get to know the place where you live. Explore its history too. Why did people come to to live there, and where from? Have those reasons changed, and if so, why? Learn to love it, if you can. (And if you can’t, why not? Is there somewhere else that you should be?) Too many of us have no real connection to where we live; rootlessness is no better for people than it is for trees. Which brings me to:
  • Plant a tree. If you don’t have space for one, find somewhere that does. Especially in urban areas, there are lots of green corners that nobody cares about. There is an Indian proverb to the effect that everyone should plant five trees in their lifetime, and certainly if everyone did that the world would be a better place in many respects. George Orwell expressed regret that he had never planted a walnut. As he also said:

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.

Finally, I have this suggestion – which could also form part of my first one, depending on who you choose:

  • Forgive someone. I’ve written elsewhere on this subject, but it’s a very simple thing to do, even if it may not always be easy, and it will certainly benefit you and perhaps them. Why carry that burden for another year? Don’t you have enough of them already?

Those are my thoughts; I’d welcome yours in the comments. And let me take this opportunity to wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Predictions for 2022

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Well, it’s that time of year again. In this post, I’m going to re-examine my predictions for 2021 and indulge in some equally ill-founded speculation for the year to come. We’ll see how well I do…

So here were my five predictions last time:

(1) Julian Assange to be extradited to the USA

Surprisingly this hasn’t happened (yet), partly due to the slowness of the legal machinery, although it looks like it’s getting closer. I’m going to give myself half a mark for this.

(2) Boris Johnson to leave office

Even more surprisingly, this also hasn’t happened yet, at least as I wrote these words, but his days are clearly numbered. It’s hard to see how he can survive the sheer number of scandals surrounding himself and his government, especially after the disaster of losing Shropshire North in a recent by-election. Another half-mark.

(3) The USA to suffer its Suez moment

One word: Afghanistan. Not just the fact of the US withdrawal, which as bound to happen at some point, but the ham-fisted way in which it was carried out. A full mark.

(4) Covid-19 to rise again after victory has been declared

I suppose victory hasn’t quite been declared, although a lot of people who had been making very self-satisfied noises have egg on their face now that the Omicron variant is running rampant. The vaccines have been shown not to be the silver bullet they were supposed to be, not that that has stopped governments everywhere administering them to anything that moves. I’m going to award myself a full mark for this one.

(5) Another major global financial crisis will hit

Nope! Not in 2021, although I still expect one to come along shortly. No marks.

So that’s three out of five, which isn’t too shabby. Now for my predictions for 2022. I won’t go for Julian Assange or Boris Johnson, as that would be shooting fish in a barrel. Instead…

(1) Russia to invade or annexe Ukraine but not start World War III

Well, Russia doesn’t start World War III in the average year, so this might seem an odd one, but a lot of people seem to be expecting it to happen and I don’t believe that it will. Vladimir Putin is many things but he is not an idiot, especially not by the standards of contemporary political leadership. If he can get what he wants without a shooting war, that’s the way he’ll go.

Given that much of Europe is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and that the USA is currently something of a paper tiger, I don’t see any real opposition. And when you remember that histories of Russia general start with the Principality of Kiev – currently the capital of Ukraine – from the Russian point of view it seems quite reasonable for them to want at least eastern Ukraine.

I’m not saying, incidentally, that Russia won’t invade Ukraine in 2022. I certainly expect borders to change in 2022, one way or another, but I am not expecting the nukes to fly.

(2) China not to invade Taiwan and not start World War III either

Continuing the theme of exciting geopolitical events that won’t happen in 2022, I don’t expect the Chinese to do anything drastic against Taiwan. I do expect them to be more assertive in the area of the South China Sea – again not perhaps completely unreasonably; there’s a clue in the name – but they’ll let the USA start any trouble. It’s possible that the USA will start trouble, of course, but they may have some difficulty building a coalition outside the region.

Again I am not expecting armageddon. There may be a regional-scale hot war, but in that event my money would be on China. My prediction is for tension to keep on ratcheting up but without any actual explosion, at least in 2022.

(3) Donald J. Trump to announce his candidature for the US Presidency

I will put my hands up: to some extent I just want this to happen for the entertainment value. I don’t think it would be a good thing for the USA, because it would mean the 2024 presidential election would be even more divisive and disputed than the last one, which is saying something. It might also encourage the current administration to do something stupid in foreign affairs, which is a common ploy when a government wants to distract attention from failures at home (Argentina’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982 being a classic example).

The idea might well appeal strongly to Mr Trump, who does not strike me as the world’s best loser. It might also appeal to many disaffected elements in American society, of which there are plenty. It’s also a really, really bad idea, but that has never stopped people from trying such things. In an extreme case, it might even lead to drastic changes in the current political arrangements in the US, whether that takes the form of constitutional changes, secessions by various states (attempted or successful), and/or military action of one sort or another.

In predicting this, I may be under-estimating Mr Trump’s patriotism and good sense. I’d like to be wrong, honestly, but I’m guessing he’ll give it another go. If he does, it will be… interesting.

(4) Scotland to demand another referendum on independence

I don’t claim to know exactly what form this will take, but now seems to be an excellent moment for the Scottish National Party to go for broke. They already have a very strong political base at home. The UK government is falling to pieces in front of their eyes. Scottish voters are currently split on the independence question, but this could change rapidly. If the EU were to make it clear that an independent Scotland could (re)join quickly, that might swing it for a lot of people.

If Westminster drags its feet, as I expect it will, the Scots might even hold one unilaterally, along the lines of Catalunya in 2017. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have all come into prominence since Covid struck, with the unavoidable inference that they have handled it markedly better than England. What else might they do better, given the chance? Mr Johnson’s administration has not set the bar especially high, after all.

I don’t say the referendum will occur in 2022; it may not even occur at all. It is likely the courts will be involved. But my prediction is that there will be a serious official request to hold such a thing.

(5) Global supply-chains to deteriorate to the point of causing serious shortages

Arguably this is already happening. The UK has been remarkably short of Christmas cheer this year, and has been obliged to import turkeys for (as far as I know) the first time in modern history. Australia is struggling with shortages of urea. Examples could be multiplied.

But I am talking here about long-term shortages of daily requirements. I am talking about food riots in industrialised nations. I am talking about large-scale governmental interventions to subsidise or buy up and distribute necessities; perhaps even rationing.

I don’t know where this will happen, or what goods will be affected. I expect multiple instances across several nations, though. Thanks to Brexit, and the imminent imposition of further restrictions on the movement of goods between it and the EU, I would certainly expect the United Kingdom to feature prominently. But other places may suffer too, even the US.

Those are my five prognostications for 2022. I expect to be wrong on some of them, and frankly I would rather be wrong on numbers 3 and 5, but we shall see. As ever, your comments are very welcome.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On endings

No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

In the northern hemisphere, where I happen to live, today is the shortest day of the year: midwinter, a time of customary celebration – Christian or otherwise – when people gather together around a fire, feast and make merry, and generally tell themselves that the worst is behind them. Of course this isn’t really true. Winter is just getting going now, and while the solar year may have ended, and the calendar year isn’t far behind, there’s a good long way to go until spring.

It’s also a time to look back on the year just gone and reflect and what it has brought us or taken from us. Latterly the second category has seemed to outweigh the former, in many ways. Not many people are better off today than they were a year ago, let alone two years ago – unless they hold shares in Moderna.

Usually this time of year is about hope, and I would never discount hope. Only an optimist would get out of bed in the morning, especially when it’s still dark. But today I want to strip off the sugar-coating and focus on the underlying pill. Things come to an end, including lives; and while this is also a necessary process it’s not always an easy one.

I don’t usually talk about personal matters in this blog – if you want Facebook I’m sure you know where to find it – but I’m going to make an exception this time, because it’s relevant to the theme. A few weeks ago, my brother died, quite unexpectedly. It wasn’t from the dreaded lurgi but a common or garden heart attack, so he won’t even be a statistic; then again, he won’t be a political football either, which I suppose is some consolation. Just a part of the usual processes of attrition that are quietly going on all around us, as noticeable as the sound of falling leaves.

In this case, it’s not just a life that’s over – he had children and grandchildren, and leaves a widow and more behind him. There are things that would have happened if he had lived that will not now happen at all, or not in the same way, now that he has died. That is something we can speak of as an ending.

He leaves behind not just his family but a number of creative projects, some of them involving me, which will now no longer come to fruition, at least in the way they would have done. To that extent, the world is certainly a poorer place for his leaving it. Of course it is just as true to say that the world is a richer place for his having been in it: he was a talented musician, artist, designer, photographer and songwriter, and perhaps no single lifetime would have been long enough for him to do all that he might have done.

This video gives some sense of a good ending. It’s the band’s final performance of their most famous song, live in front of their home fans. I include it here not just for the song or for the performance, although I happen to like both very much, but for the way the band members are with one another at the end. It’s the kind of parting I would have wished to have had from my brother, but of course I never did.

I’m not getting into any metaphysical discussions about the after-life here; I’m not a theologian, and don’t even play one on TV. The quotation from Terry Pratchett at the head of this piece must however certainly be true, as far as it goes. (For what it’s worth, it’s more or less what the ancient Greeks believed about the after-life, in as much as the ancient Greeks agreed about anything.) I’d like to think that my brother will have something more than that, though. I tend to find the notion of reincarnation intuitively appealing, as that’s the way that ecosystems seem to work in general. He had a natural burial in a biodegradable coffin, so at least on the physical level that’s what awaits him.

Beyond that I’m not qualified to say, and perhaps nobody is. I’ll find out for myself one day, when my turn comes as it will for all of us. The Anglo-Saxons used to reckon age not in years but in winters, and at this time of year it’s easy to understand why. Not all of us will get to see the spring.

Eat, drink, and be merry….

In memoriam Will Shaman, 1956-2021

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On craziness

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Many people would agree that we live in crazy times. But I think there’s some value in trying to distinguish between the various kinds of crazy we are seeing, if only to keep ourselves (comparatively) sane.

Some of it is just flat-out randomness – the weather, for example, as with the recent multi-state tornado in December (the usual tornado season in the US is April-June). That’s an extreme example, but there have been a lot of them about lately. There’s also the kind of craziness that assumes you can treat your supporting ecosystems like a waste disposal unit without there being any blowback from such behaviour.

There’s definitely no shortage of craziness of the plain old psychiatric variety. Most, if not all, industrialised nations are seeing huge rises in what are euphemistically termed “mental health issues.” Frankly, a lot of the depression people are reporting nowadays is simply realism, given that in most areas of life and for most people in those nations things really are getting worse with no realistic prospect of getting better. In such circumstances, would happiness be more rational? Is it really mysterious that so many people turn to drugs and alcohol?

We can also find that kind of insanity supposedly defined by Einstein as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The current poster child for this is the worldwide mania for giving people extra doses of a vaccine that will accomplish nothing of medical value. Why? For no better reason than that people think something ought to be done, and this is something which can be done, and so we’re going to do it.

Then there is the fine old tradition of the Lord of Misrule, where for a day social norms are inverted, government is handed over to those unfit to govern, such as children, and it is permitted to do all those things we are meant to refrain from doing. It is hard to contemplate the present government of the UK without being reminded of this phenomenon. Certainly our rulers have reversed plenty of social norms, such as not lying, at least pretending to be embarrassed when caught lying, not contravening the law of the land, not abusing public office to enrich their mates, not selling seats in the House of Lords in exchange for political donations, and so forth. Except that this has being going on for rather more than a day now, and some people are getting restive.

Yet another aspect of craziness is the Holy Fool: a figure who flouts every convention and yet has access to deeper truths than conventional wisdom can offer. Now there is something to be said for conventional wisdom a lot of the time. In the UK, for instance, it is the conventional wisdom to drive on the left-hand side of the road, and even if it were objectively true that it would be in some sense “better” to drive on the right you still wouldn’t want to try it on the M6.

Nevertheless in many cultures and in many times and places the Holy Fool has had an honoured place in society. One could definitely place St Francis of Assisi into that category, for instance. After all, conventional wisdom is fine for conventional situations, but sometimes you need a different perspective. That seems especially true today, because when all is said and done it was conventional wisdom that got us into this mess – or rather this intertwined mess of messes – in the first place.

Where, then, are our Holy Fools? It’s easy enough to find unholy fools; the newspapers are full of them. The College of Cardinals doubtless thought they had found one in the hermit Pietro Angelerio when in 1294 they chose him as Pope Celestine V, an experiment that was only slightly more successful than driving on the wrong side of the M6. But this was in response to a crisis: in this case, a two-year vacancy at the top due to the cardinals’ inability to agree on a successor to Nicholas IV. We have no shortage of crises at least as serious as that one.

“When you have eliminated the impossible,” says Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Similarly, when conventional wisdom sinks us deeper into the mire, we should look elsewhere for advice. Of course the trouble with seeking advice from people who seem crazy is that quite a few of them actually are. This is a strategy of desperation, but if this isn’t time to be desperate I’d like to know when it would be.

So then my advice – and I might be crazy too – is to seek for answers in the margins. Look again at ideas that have been forgotten, or relegated to the attics of our culture. Listen to the people who don’t get interviewed on prime time. Listen critically, of course; as the saying goes, don’t keep your mind so open that your brains fall out. But there are more things possible – and thinkable – than we are generally led to believe. Search them out.

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, any more than you should believe everything you read in the newspapers. (The only thing you can believe in some newspapers is the date on the front page.) Don’t even believe this. But do experiment. Try different ideas on like clothes. Read widely. Use multiple search engines. Talk to people. Open your mind. Above all, don’t worry about what other people might think.

I call it grey sky thinking.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On having an opinion

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I have a friend – let’s call him John. John is one of the smartest people I know. He’s a pure mathematician by inclination, and when I say pure he can’t even tell the time on a digital clock after 12 noon (he subtracts the wrong number) but if you can solve it using group theory he’s all over it. He once wrote a paper on optimising the Malaysian rail system, which is entirely single-track, without once using the word ‘train.’ That’s the kind of person John is.

I’ve known John for a very long time; since we were twelve, which is longer ago than either of us would care to remember. But he is defined for me by something he said to me when we were at university together: “I am prepared to have an opinion on anything.”

In saying this, I think he was in advance of his time, because nowadays everyone, it seems, is prepared to have an opinion on anything. My favourite Internet acronym is IANAL: I Am Not A Lawyer. Or, to put it another way: I am aware that my opinion is of no value whatever, and yet I am still going to tell you what it is. This was going on well before social media, as Usenet veterans will tell you, but it is everywhere today (and indeed Usenet itself is still a thing, believe it or not).

Now you might say that this sort of thing is a bit rich coming from someone who has a blog. After all, isn’t a blog just a vehicle for someone’s opinion? And that’s true, of course, and if I didn’t think my opinion had value I would be deep in IANAL territory. However, I tend to write on subjects that I have thought about in some depth, and usually researched in some depth as well. I don’t pretend to be the font of all wisdom, but I like to think there is some wisdom in there somewhere.

Sturgeon’s Law would lead us to expect that 90% of Internet content would be crap. In reality, the percentage does seem to be considerably higher. Why? Because it is mere opinion. It is not the product of thought or of research. It is just the content of someone’s head at a given moment.

Such content has been put there by some process. For most people, most of the time, it has been put there by someone else. This is not in itself a bad thing. A rough definition of culture, after all, is the stuff which has been put into our heads by other people: this is good to eat, you should avoid that, and people who do that other thing are beneath contempt. Every choice excludes other possible choices, and culture is nothing if not a shared set of possible choices. All societies are defined in this way, and I doubt if you could find any group of people anywhere, at any period of history, who did not have some form of self-definition along these lines. We would certainly miss this in our society if it weren’t there.

But you can be more or less aware of your culture. Most people, most of the time, just go with the flow. In such cases, your opinions are largely pre-fabricated. It’s one thing to have opinions; quite another when your opinions have you. Very few people raised as an orthodox Jew, or as a Muslim, or indeed as a vegetarian, will spend much time on the question: “Should I eat this bacon sandwich?” For me, as an ex-vegetarian who has raised his own pigs (and baked his own bread) there is much more to it. How did the pig live and die? How was the bacon made? Was the bread baked using the Chorleywood process? Is there proper brown sauce?

You can see from this example how much easier it is to have a ready-made answer to hand in these situations. To the extent that the ready-made answer will do well enough it is, from a Darwinian perspective, better to have one and use it. People got around the world quite adequately using Ptolemaic astronomy as their guide. We put men on the Moon using Newtonian physics; it may not be “the Truth™” but the maths is so much simpler than Einstein’s version, and it’s accurate enough to do the job.

Problems arise, however, when the ready-made answer no longer cuts the mustard. It seems to me that many of the issues we face today exhibit this problem. For example:

  • The economy is failing to deliver the goods we want at the price we want. I’m sure you can think of multiple examples of this from your own recent experience. Several responses suggest themselves: want less; pay more; do without; roll your own. But no: we prefer the canned answer: Grow the economy! Because there will always be more stuff, amirite?
  • Politician X has made claim Y that I simply can’t believe. Again, I’m sure you can think of plenty of specific examples; God knows I can. Here there are two canned responses, depending on whether politician X belongs to your party; either Politician X is a lying scum-bag like all the rest of the Z party or Politician X was misquoted and really meant to make the different and more defensible claim Y’. Neither of these responses allows for the possibilities that politician X was (a) high on drugs, (b) said so on behalf of corporation Q, who will be offering her/him a well-paid sinecure when she/he leaves politics, (c) is so genuinely dumb that she/he knows no better, (d) is a space cadet pure and simple. Frankly, most of those explanations are more plausible these days. If I could get my hands on whatever Boris Johnson is smoking lately, I’d be sorely tempted.
  • Disease X is killing Y people! This is a hot one, for reasons that could do with unpicking, but in the past many theories have been proposed for this kind of thing: the wrath of God being a popular one in Western culture (the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death both elicited this response, which was a stock one for that culture). You could also consider that this has been a thing ever since the Neolithic Revolution; you could also consider that the Hong Kong flu of 1968 also killed a lot of people and the world continued to revolve around its axis. But the canned response? Vaccines will save us all – they will doubtless save some of us, but all of us? They will doubtless kill some us, too, as vaccines are wont to do.

This is just a list of some generic opinions which are commonplace across the Internet, which is to say the common space of public discourse today. I’m sure you can come up with plenty more examples if you care to reflect on the matter – which in my opinion, too few people do.

Of course, you may disagree. I’d be delighted to read your own opinion – if indeed it is your own.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On protest

Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Wendell Berry,. What Are People For?

As I write this, the present government of the United Kingdom is preparing to pass legislation that will make public protest illegal. It contains plenty of other objectionable measures, but this is the one getting most attention. Its announcement naturally provoked public protests – which were of course pointed to by the government as further evidence that such things cannot be tolerated.

I am not sure, actually, that public protest has ever accomplished a great deal in terms of convincing governments to change their mind. There was, for example, an enormous rally in 2003 to protest against the UK’s involvement in the second Gulf War; the reported number of people involved varied depending on whether the newspaper reporting it was for or against the war, but it was certainly very large, on the order of hundreds of thousands in London alone. We joined the war anyway, and the electorate failed to eject the New Labour government at their next opportunity.

Long before that we had the Chartist movement, which aimed at turning Britain into a democracy – something it has never actually been, despite what people say. Their methods consisted of drawing up a charter stating their demands, holding public meetings, and submitting petitions, all of which were ignored. When the rest of Europe was ablaze with revolution in the heady year of 1848, the Chartists submitted a third and final petition. (Of course these days we have online petitions, which allow public opinion to be ignored much more efficiently.) Needless to say, the practical upshot of all this was essentially nothing.

Given that governments can and do ignore these events, it is perhaps surprising that they are so keen to restrict them. They already require police permission to occur in the UK, and are banned from taking place in Parliament Square, where Members of Parliament might be obliged to take some notice of them. I can only suppose that it is part of the growing tendency amongst governments across the world to feel that people should just shut up and do what they are told.

The ongoing pandemic has offered many opportunities for this tendency to display itself, in the UK and elsewhere. In a recent essay, Paul Kingsnorth has surveyed a few of these, and it is already looking quite disturbing. In parts of Australia, we have already reached the point at which citizens are being put in internment camps by the military. I don’t think you have to be paranoid to find this a worrying development. The same goes for compulsory vaccinations, as we are now seeing in Austria, and soon in Germany too by all accounts.

This is not a public health issue, by the way. The vaccines do have a value in terms of reducing the severity of the disease, should you be infected by it. If you are likely to be severely affected, I advise you to get the jab; I have myself. But they do very little in terms of reducing transmission. It therefore makes very little sense to vaccinate and re-vaccinate people in low-risk groups, especially when you consider that none of these drugs has passed the normal clinical trials (nor are they likely to, given that the control groups have now been vaccinated).

What this is about, increasingly, is governments asserting their authority over individual citizens. It may well be that for many, perhaps most, people it is more rational to risk infection than to risk taking the vaccine – leaving aside the possibility that it may well not work against the variant du jour in any case. But rationality has nothing to do with it. The government wills it thus, and therefore it must be so, and anyone who doesn’t like it will feel the full rigour of the emergency legislation.

Emergencies, of course, can go on for a long time. Income tax was brought in back in 1798 to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Those must have been some pretty expensive wars, because we’re still paying the tax. (It did go away briefly in the early nineteenth century, to be fair.) Once governments have powers, they rarely choose to relinquish them. Even if the current government is forced out of office at the next election – which seems vanishingly unlikely – I doubt whether the current bill, doubtless law by then, will be repealed wholesale. A show will be made of getting rid of this or that provision; they might even re-legalise public protest. But they will keep as much of it as they dare.

So what can we do? Should we all take to the streets? Perhaps if enough people did so the system would be swamped, but that is a little akin to the idea current in my childhood that if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time it would cause an earthquake. (If you want to do that, fracking is much more practical.) In other words, it probably isn’t going to happen. How could such protests even be organised in an age when telephone and digital communications are monitored both by governments and by corporations whose interests those governments serve?

We live in dark times, but there is always something to be done. We can all put a little grit into the gears of the machine from time to time. There is a lot to be said for opting out of those things we still can: such institutions as Buy Nothing Day are helpful (and of course can save you a packet too). Passive resistance can be surprisingly effective. The best way to get a bureaucrat to ignore you is to be slightly more trouble than you are worth. Let the good soldier Švejk be your role-model.

The art here is judging what you can get away with. Big obvious things, like going on one of those illegal protest marches, will probably land you in jail. But there is always a gap between the official reality depicted in legislation and the actual situation. That is the space you want to inhabit. If rules are bent often enough then they cease to be enforced and eventually become unenforceable. The rules governing corruption in public life in the UK are approaching that point now, for example, as the case of Owen Paterson demonstrates.

MPs, of course, get to change the rules that govern them (and sufficiently senior MPs get to ignore them altogether). The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Time, however, is on our side. All governments rely on the consent of the governed, and if that consent has to be extorted by force then an expensive and potentially unreliable machinery is needed to do the extorting. I am not sure, for instance, that the current UK government is as well-beloved by its police as it might need to be, after long years of “downsizing.”

Let us remember that even large things that appear permanently established may not in fact be so. When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was one of the great givens of geopolitics. Then, quite suddenly, it went away. Perhaps history will surprise us again. For this too will pass.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On rent

I love you

You pay my rent

Pet Shop Boys, “Rent”

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in rented accommodation. Why is this?

The relationship between landlord and tenant goes back at least to the feudal period, as does much of the legislation governing it, at least in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions. Now the feudal period gets a lot of bad press, to the point where there is a school of historians who want to deny that “feudalism” was ever a thing. but without getting into all that there is one characteristic of feudalism that I want to stress: economic (and political and military) arrangements were based above all on personal relationships.

This is so utterly alien to the way we do things in modern industrial society that I want to explore it a little. Your typical mediaeval peasant would have a landlord. In all likelihood, he would know his landlord personally. Indeed, quite often the landlord wouldn’t be all that much richer than some of his tenants. The rent would not however be paid in money but in kind (so many bushels of wheat, say), in service (so many days a year of labour), or in some combination of the two, to an amount that tended not to change much over time. The peasant’s family would live in the same village for many generations, and the landlord’s family would stay in the same manor-house for many generations. This makes for dull history, but remember what the Chinese are supposed to say about interesting times.

The landlord himself was in turn probably the tenant of someone else higher up the food-chain, right up to the tenants-in-chief, who were technically tenants of the king. We don’t tend to think of, say, Warwick the Kingmaker as a tenant, but legally he was. Only the king really owned the land, at least in theory, and Warwick the Kingmaker had a personal relationship with the king – in his case, with several of them. At the Warwick the Kingmaker level, rent would usually take the form of military service. This is how mediaeval kings raised their armies, and also why their armies tended to disintegrate once they had better things to do, like get in the harvest. This obligation to military service went all the way down to the peasant level, which is where foot-soldiers came from, and also why mediaeval foot-soldiers were generally seen as a bit rubbish.

Now I am not arguing that this was some ideal form of society, although it lasted for enough centuries that we can assume that it had its points. But where it differs most dramatically from our current arrangements is that it was a set of personal relationships, and that there were obligations in both directions. A good lord would look after his tenants, and his tenants would look after him. Of course in practice there were plenty of bad lords and for that matter bad tenants, but that was how it was supposed to work, and on the whole it seems to have worked well enough most of the time.

None of this obtains nowadays. I spent many years in rented accommodation, and I only knew two of my landlords personally. (One of them, indeed, was an insurance company, and not knowable personally at all.). My rent consisted of a monetary payment, which was subject to review (read: increase) every year. Usually I dealt with a management company or some other intermediary, paid by my landlord and therefore acting in his/her/its interests. And the arrangement was always assumed to be temporary. Indeed, it was defined as such.

These are not conditions which encourage good relations. In fact, they almost prohibit such relations. They are also not conducive to stability, either at the individual level or at the social level. The mediaeval peasant may not have owned his tenancy, but neither was there any serious danger that his family would be thrown out of it when he died. The modern tenant may have some legal protections, but once the person whose name is on the lease hops the twig, it’s game over.

Now this is part of a wider trend, in which people become increasingly isolated and atomised and the cash-relationship is substituted for every other kind of relationship. In such an environment, stability is an impossible dream – rather, it becomes a nightmare, since in a static world there is no scope for arbitrage. The fantasy of those who promote and profit from this world has been nicely articulated by an acolyte of the delightful Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum:

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city.” I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes.

Ida Auken

If you follow the link to that article – go on, I dare you – everything is described as being free. But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever paid rent could really believe that, because the one unquestioned fact about our world is that, if money can be made from a thing, someone is making money from that thing.

And I would wager, dear reader, that you have paid and are paying rent. Even if you “own” your house, if you have a mortgage then you are paying rent on the money you used to buy it – and the bank still has the deeds. The same goes for your car, or for anything else you “bought” with borrowed money. For many people, this goes for the fuel they use, the water they drink and the food they eat. We already live in a world in which ownership is concentrated in very few hands; as few as in mediaeval Europe. What we don’t have is the slightest reciprocity from the owners.

Because housing has ceased to be something that exists primarily for people to live in. It has become an investment vehicle, a cow to be milked by those who own it. And it isn’t just housing that is going this way. There are very few enterprises you can make money from these days, and so the wealthy are increasingly becoming what economists call rentiers. A rentier is someone who does absolutely nothing productive, but owns an asset – an apartment block, a patent, a copyright, a tract of land, a monopoly – from which money can be extracted, because other people need it to use it.

Entire books have been written on this phenomenon – recently, for example, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? by Brett Christophers (Verso, 2020). The reason it has become so prevalent is not, I think, simply the fact that rich people want to get even richer; that was the case well before even the days of Warwick the Kingmaker. The reason is that you can no longer make money they way you used to, by having some kind of productive enterprise like a farm or an iron-foundry or even a software house. There are no good investments, as we used to understand the term. On the contrary, real wealth is contracting already, and I don’t see it expanding any time soon.

So I don’t happen to think that 2030 will look the way Ms Auken invites us to imagine. Dr Schwab and his merry pranksters have a little over eight years from the time of writing to bring that scenario about, and the omens are not propitious. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if global property markets – and stock markets – were to experience what is euphemistically known as a “correction” between now and 2030. Frankly, I would be more surprised if that didn’t happen.

You may see this as good news, or bad news, or not news at all. Like most news, I expect it to be mixed. But to paraphrase Michael Hudson, rent that can’t be paid, won’t be paid. What that means for you, dear reader, depends on whether you are a landlord or a tenant. Prepare accordingly.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the perils of accountancy

Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

When I graduated from university, back in the 1980s when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, there used to be an institution known as the Milk Round, whereby various corporations toured universities hoping to recruit the nation’s best and brightest. Rather disappointingly, to my mind, most of these seemed to be after future accountants. They had a point, in that the CEOs of many large UK businesses already came from a background in accountancy, and the trend was for this tendency to become more pronounced. “Become an accountant, me hearty,” they didn’t actually say but I suspect secretly wanted to. “‘Tis a man’s life! The smack of the salt breeze in your spreadsheet….”

You have to realise that prior to this time accountancy was generally seen as very, very boring. There was a well-known Monty Python sketch in which an accountant by the name of Herbert Anchovy seeks to break out of the stereotype by re-training as a lion tamer. He says of accountancy: “It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.” The joke, of course, is that when he realises how scary lions actually are he changes his mind.

Looking back, I dodged a couple of bullets at this moment in my life. I didn’t go into accountancy. I also didn’t go into academia, which was what I thought I was going to do, but that’s another story. Accountants did, however, go on to rule the world, and I think this is no longer helpful, if it ever was. Let me explain.

An account is, fundamentally, another word for a story. In the sense accountants use the term, it’s a story about financial transactions, and it is told to an auditor – literally, a hearer. These stories are not, for the most part, especially riveting. My point, however, is that like all narratives they construct a reality. In this case, the reality is based around arithmetic, which is itself an abstract view of the world, and what is being counted is money, which is not of itself a real thing.

Our oldest written records are financial accounts, but when they speak (for instance) of the movement of ingots of silver there is good reason to believe that no physical ingots ever stirred from the temple treasuries in which they resided. As I have discussed previously, we should always bear in mind that money is not the same thing as wealth. Interested readers are referred to the works of Michael Hudson concerning ancient Mesopotamian economics, and to the late David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House Publishing, 2013).

Now the idea behind keeping accounts is to have an accurate and verifiable record of financial transactions – originally for the purposes of keeping track of tax liabilities and payments, but the practice is now used by pretty much any organisation that uses money, which is all of them. But like any account of the truth, it is capable of being adapted for the narrator’s own purposes. “Creative accounting” is not a compliment. It is the kind of thing that led to the collapse of Enron, and when people are caught doing it they can end up doing prison time.

Because accounts are supposed to be a true description of affairs. That is their whole value. For this reason, we have a system of supposedly independent scrutiny by external auditors which is meant to ensure this. Notoriously, Enron’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, failed spectacularly in this regard. But without going to such extremes, accountants can choose to represent basically the same underlying facts in different ways in order, for example, to reduce their client’s liability to taxation. Whatever you may think of the morality of this, it is perfectly legal and quite a substantial industry in its own right.

This is an example of how changing the narrative can have real-world effects. I remember hearing the political economist Mark Blyth remark in a lecture that in the previous year he personally had paid more tax than America Airlines did. A further real-world effect of this might well be, as he went on to suggest, that Americans would cease to be willing to put up with this sort of thing, which might not be such good news from American Airlines’ point of view.

Now this may be reprehensible in the financial sphere, but it’s downright dangerous when we apply the accounting mentality to other things, as we are so prone to do. The poster child for this is CO2 emissions. Many industrialised nations claim to have reduced their emissions when in fact what they have done is offshored them – that is, transferred them to the balance-sheet of some other, poorer nation. This completely overlooks the central fact that the global levels of actual, physical CO2 in the atmosphere are what counts.

Massaging statistics does not and cannot affect the underlying realities. The map is not the territory, nor the accounts the reality they describe. Our physical environment is not a tax system. You might be able to fool the Inland Revenue, but not Mother Nature. This goes for all other forms of pollution, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, social issues, and so on. The stories we tell ourselves will not help us unless they relate usefully to what it actually happening and suggest practical action.

As I write these words, COP26 has yet to produce a definitive agreed text. I very much doubt whether that text, when it emerges – and something or other will have to emerge to justify the thing being held – will meet either of those criteria. There will be pledges. There will be nice-sounding generalisations. There will be continued growth in CO2 emissions and in all the other harms we are perpetrating to the living world to which we belong and on which we depend.

Nothing to see here, move along.

We no longer have the luxury of pretending that manipulating numbers in Excel is the same thing as making effective change in the world. We’ll probably keep on doing it, of course, because it’s what we do. But there will be a reckoning, and it will entail more than just a tax bill.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.