Kim Jung Gone

So Kim (not so) Jung and (clearly very) il has kicked the bucket. Reports are that he had a heart attack, although my suspicion is that he simply falling over in his platform shoes, or caught his Bouffant wig in something! :>> Few will mourn his passing, even in his home country. Indeed it was interesting to see the stage managed grief with everyone standing to attention in neatly regimented rows! Sort of reminded me of the two minute hate in 1984!

Indeed the parallels to 1984 are baffling. North Korea is one of those places that it seems difficult to believe exists. if I were to write a book about North Korea and label it as fiction, it would probably be rejected on the grounds that it was too implausible and clearly a rip off of Orwell’s work! From the capital in Pyongyang the Politburo of the (don’t laugh!) Democratic People’s Republic of Korea run a hermit like like anthill, whose head of state (Kim il Sung) has been dead for 17 years, and which boasts levels of oppression that would have Joe Stalin calling for Amnesty International to do something.

While outside observers have long noted that North Korean food production is going down year on year, the party instead reports increases. People are regimented, even forced to wear uniforms depending on their role. The citizenry are split into three groups, depending on their perceived loyalty to the state. Only the most loyal group may live in the capital city, where loud speakers constantly blare out patriotic slogans and music. Every home has a radio inside the kitchen that cannot be turned off (which rattles off the usual long list of Newspeak from the ministry of truth) and can only be tuned to approved channels. The internet is also banned as well as mobile phones. Conditions are such that many escapees into South Korea have to be taken away send to special training camps, so that they can cope with the inevitably culture shock! The Beeb did a nice piece on Newsnight about life in North Korea a while ago, a video of which can be viewed here.

The Crazy Gang
If there’s one thing that sums up North Korea perfectly it’s the nickname that the Pyongyang communist party have picked up from the CIA analysts in Langley. Apparently they refer to the DPRK government as “the crazy gang” :crazy:. Or failing that they use the acronym CFC: Crippled, Fearsome, Crazy. Crippled in that North Korea is essentially destitute and forever on the bring of starvation and economic meltdown, fearsome in that they have the world’s 5th largest army and now (more than likely) nuclear weapons to boot, and Crazy in that…we’ll I don’t think I need to explain that one!

What now?
It seems likely that Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s…yong’un :)) (I’m wondering if the North Koreans know that a yong’un is an Irish expression of a kid! when I first heard his name on Irish radio I thought that they didn’t actually know his name and were taking the piss! :DD) is taking over the reigns of office. His transition to power has been on the cards for years, but its taking place a little earlier than many, both inside and outside the country, had planned. Consequently it’s questionable whether this plump twenty something can manage the running of a country like North Korea. Indeed, they don’t seem to have even had time to sort out his totalitarian dictator’s stage name yet (all dictators have a stage name, such as “il Duce” or “the Fuhrer” or “Dear Leader”…sort of like how WWF wrestlers call themselves “the Rock” or “the Hitman”). A couple of months ago his stage name was reported as being “the Young General”, yet now he’s apparently being called “the Great Successor”…I presume the “great” refers to his waistline ;D!

Of course we should note at this point that strictly speaking North Korea is not a communist state. They are more a Feudal Confucius monarchy that uses the language and tools of communism to maintain their grip on power. Communist governments for example, do not have hereditary rulers, nor do they turn their dead leaders into demi-god like figures or rely on fanciful creation myths such as those surrounding the Kim family. They also at least try to maintain at least the illusion that all the farm animals are equal…even when some are more equal than others!

The fear is that if Jong-un can’t hold things together that there will be a power struggle inside the country, either for the post of power behind the throne, or that he’ll be ousted and someone else put in his place. It’s this instability that has people worried, could it see a war start with the NK army pushing South and restart the Korean war? We could see the regime implode and collapse? Or could it be that (the) Jong-un could try and bring about reform to the country and turn it into an factory for cheap crap for Walmart (as the Chinese did across the border). Let’s pick these options apart and see how likely they are.

The Crazy Gang goes South
Clearly another Korean war would be the worse case scenario, but it’s also I’d argue a pretty unlike one. Why? Because while the Politburo in Pyongyang might be crazy, but I doubt that they are that stupid!

While the North Korean army might looks scary on paper, with its million soldiers (goose stepping in perfect formation), 4,000 tanks, fighter aircraft and tens of thousands of artillery pieces, most of that gear is poorly maintained and hopelessly obsolete…and I mean in any other part of the world it would be in museums! Air power will figure highly in any war and while the backbone of the South Korean Airforce are F-15’s and F-16’s, the bulk of the CPAF is MIG-21’s and MIG-23’s. What few modern planes they have (about 40 MIG-29’s although its unknown how many are in flying condition) probably lack the hardware (missiles and radar) to take on modern western jets. Fuel shortages probably mean the pilots likely lack sufficient flying hours to survive long in combat against a modern airforce. As one CIA officer commented on this topic “there’s a world of a difference between an army with 4,000 tanks if half of them don’t work”…or the regime lacks the fuel reserves to drive them all any more than a few miles!

By contrast the South Korean Army is well equipped with the latest in western weaponry, including several systems designed locally, specifically for use in a Korean theatre of operations (most notably the K1 MBT and the recently intorduced K2, rated by some as the best tank in the world). As recent conflicts have shown, third world countries with obsolete weapons cannot hope to last long against a modern well equipped western army. In the first gulf war, even in situations where the Iraqi Republican guard could engage the Americans ground forces on something approaching a level playing field (i.e. without the US airforce bombing them into the stone age), they found their T-72 and Type-69 tanks hopelessly outclassed. And that’s not even a fair comparison to the situation in Korea, as the Republican guards had some prior combat experience (Iran/Iraq war), were better equipped, no fuel shortages (chronic fuel and power shortages are a serious issue for the DPRK) and the Republican guards weren’t half starved and malnourished like the DPRK…indeed maybe that’s the solution, rather than lining their border with tanks, the South Koreans should line it with Mc Donald’s and Burger King outlets :>>. If the NK invades, they just hold a special offer, a free big mac and fries in exchange for a Kalashnikov ;D! I doubt the NK troops, used to black bread and straw, will be able to resist!

Jokes aside, in all the balance of probability is that if a war did kick off, even if the North Korean’s achieved the element of surprise (which is unlikely) and the Americans stayed neutral (which they won’t), while the North Koreans could do a lot of damage, and possibly advance some distance into the South (hence why the South Koreans don’t want to provoke a war) such success would be short lived. Inevitably once the South began to counter attack, and their airforce gained air supremacy (which would take either days or more than likely hours!) any North Korean advance would be swiftly halted. Indeed probably within a matter of a week or two (or again maybe even days or hours!) what was left of the North Korean army would be retreating back across the border in disarray with the South Korean army in hot pursuit. And I doubt the South Koreans would stop this time until they reach the Yalu River.

The time has come to push the button
I suspect that the regime in Pyongyang are well aware of this reality, indeed the very fact they went to all that trouble to develop nuclear weapons, suggests to me that they are resigned to the reality (at least in private) that their vast army is little more than a paper tiger. Of course it’s the fear of nuclear retaliation that keeps the South, or the Americans, from attacking the North (again CFC) not to mention the thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul.

But what if Jong-un decides to push the button? Well first of all, he and the crazy gang have to contemplate the reality that they’d be effectively committing suicide by such an action, as the retaliation from the west (whether it comes in the form of a Trident missile or a swarm of smart bombs in the front window of his palace) will be swift and brutal. Also there’s the thorny issue of delivery. While it’s probable they North Koreans have a nuclear weapon, there’s a world of a difference between a crude first generation nuclear bomb that’s the size of a small car and one small enough to be put on the top of a missile. America’s “Fat Man” weapon for example weighted about 4 tons, well above the 1 ton payload limit of North Korea’s most advanced missile. And a missile that actually works would be an additional bonus too! The Kim’s have a big problem you see with their Dong’s, as they are small and take ages to get fuelled, erected upright and ready for action, plus they have a habit of exploding within seconds of starting off :))

Jokes aside, it would be deeply embarrassing, to say the least, if the North Koreans launched a nuclear missile at America (or Japan), only for it to blow up after it barely got off the ground and scatter radioactive waste over their own country. The only risk posed to America is that Obama laughs so hard at this he might crack a rib or something! Also the crude liquid fuelled rockets the North Koreans use take many hours to prep for launch, which leaves them vulnerable to being destroyed by air strikes before they can be fired.

Using an aircraft? More plausible, but as noted, their Air force is obsolete and its highly unlikely they could get a bomber close enough to an allied city without being shot from the sky. So short of them putting a nuke in a fishing boat and sailing it into Tokyo or San Francisco bay, it’s fairly improbable that they’ll be nuking anybody but themselves any time soon.

War is peace
Of course I’m not suggesting that the NK politburo have turned into a bunch of make-love-not-war hippies. Far from it! The constant fear of an enemy is a key crutch that the state relies on, in order to maintain control…much like America under Bush with his constant “terror alerts”. Peace is the last thing on their minds! Recent events such as the sinking of a South Korean destroyer and the shelling of a small Island, the equivalent of a trapped animals rattling the bars of its cage (the only difference being the Politburo put themselves in the cage!), will I fear continue purely for reasons of domestic politics. And if Jong-un does turn out to be little more than a puppet, then there will be a strong incentive for various factions within the politburo to regularly launch attacks to gain favour within the army and to distract the public from the regime’s failings. Of course the risk is that eventually the South Koreans will tire of such provocation and strike back. This does bring the slight risk of escalation. But given that the DPRK government knows they can always spin a crushing defeat into a major propaganda victory (like how they won the world cup against Brazil a few years ago!) its not a huge risk.

Reform
For North Korea to reform there needs to be a strong incentive to the regime to do so. Given the tight grip on power they possess, and that any loosening of the reigns could run the risk of they loosing control completely. Thus, I suspect they Politburo in Pyongyang has long concluded that this is a risky option and they’ll be unwilling to pursue such a policy. And again, the comparison with China’s economic policy isn’t accurate, as the North Koreans aren’t strictly speaking a communist country to begin with (they are actually a form of Feudalism).

The all important army would be very fearful that any reform could see an end to the Military First rule which means they would suffer…and its not the number of tanks or guns the army brass would be worried about, no it’s the Cognac bottles and good food that might stop arriving that would make them oppose such a move. Given Jong un’s relative weakness (at least in the early days) and the competing forces with DPRK, any such reform either won’t happen or will be implemented very slowly.

Revolution
A revolt against the current regime, again this seems unlikely, regardless of how badly Jong-un screws up…or the cronies who will inevitably run the country on his behalf! Control by the state in North Korea is simply too rigid for any movement to get started. In Cold war Europe for example, the seeds of revolution was the trade unions movement. Indeed interesting aside there, yes those Trotskyist’s in the unions did more to bring about the downfall of communism than the CIA, MI6, Thatcher, Reagan and the western military combined! Unfortunately, the North Koreans have already adopted policies advocated by Clarkson and Boris Johnson and banned any such unions, as we don’t want the people standing up for their rights or anything do we!

But I digress again! Unfortunately there is simply no obvious way for a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, to get going within North Korea. The only possibility is a palace coup. But that’s more likely to be just another power hungry dwarf in platform shoes or hardliners from the military, than any reformer.

Collapse and China’s syndrome
So in conclusion, North Korea will almost certainly continue its hermit like existence under Kim Jong-un, or whoever else takes over the role of Dear Leader/Emperor…when they’ve finished stuffing his father and putting him on the mantelpiece! Event if he doesn’t retain control, his replacement will follow a relatively similar line. The DPRK politburo has little to gain from either a “proper” war, a revolution or reform.

Of course the fundamental problem for them is that their regime isn’t stable in the long term. So eventually if they don’t reform, it will simply keel over and collapse. Like the euro right now, its merely a question of when and how. Indeed if it weren’t for the support of China the DPRK government would have collapsed along time ago.

China is often described as “North Korea’s only ally”. I doubt the Chinese would agree with this one! Our ally? With friends like this who needs enemies! Wikileaks have notably revealed that the Chinese regard the North Koreans as being a liability rather than an ally. No, to the Chinese, North Korea is like some sort of crazy old grandfather who they are nursing at home, who keeps going on about what he did during the war (even though they knew we was merely a shipping clerk), running over the flowers with his wheelchair or shouting racist slurs at the nice Indian couple next door.

If the Chinese could get shot of the North Koreans tomorrow, I suspect they would. Indeed in the event of a war with the South, far from the Chinese coming across the Yalu to save the country from the west I suspect the opposite would happen (the Chinese would either make clear they planned to sit on their hands and do nothing, or make the offer to the West that if they stayed South of the parallel then China would send in its own army to take care of “the crazy gang” once and for all). The only thing stopping China from turning off the life support and hold a pillow over North Korea’s face is some form of communist nostalgia among the old guard in Beijing and an unwillingness to deal with millions of refugees. But inevitably, I suspect the day will dawn where they decide they have to bite the bullet and that spells collapse for the DPRK’s. With the Chinese either accepting a soft landing and a smooth transition to democracy and reunification…or with them trying to arrange for a more pro-Beijing administration to take power!

The last Emperor
So if I were Kim Jong-un I’d stay off the lobster and cut back on the Cognac, as I doubt he’ll be getting either in the Chinese/South Korean prison where he’ll likely be seeing out the last of his days. He may well be the last emperor of his country.

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The COP 17 cop out

One can draw a parallel between my previous post regarding the failure to rescue the eurozone from collapse, or the economic crisis in general and the failure of the COP 17 talks recently in Durban. Wait? I hear you say, I thought they struck a deal in Durban. Ya, they did, but I could paraphrase the results as an agreement that:
– Warming is bad
– We need to do something about it at some indeterminate future date, but only if nobody objects, coughs or sneezes, in which case we’ll drop the idea at once and go make ourselves some nice coffins instead.
– Connie Hedegaard could be like, way prettier if she like did something with her hair or something.

I’m trying to use humour to hide my disappointment but I don’t see what else can be said. If you’re actually genuinely interested what happened I’ll direct you to two nice summaries of events here and here. The only reason why the announced the meeting as being a “success was to save everyone the embarrassment of another dismal failure, such as Cancun last year.

The reason why the euro, or indeed the dollar, is in crisis right now is because of the short term decisions taken by politicians trying to be popular. Had governments clamped down on the housing bubble building with the US, Ireland or UK (much of these three housing bubbles extending into the Eurozone and laying the seeds for the current crisis) by for example raising property taxes or interest rates, or increasing regulation of mortgage lenders, then the housing bubble and thus much of the current financial crisis would simply have never happened.

But terrified that taking away the punch bowl when the party turned rowdy would have them labelled as squares, and the many voters who had deluded themselves that this bubble was making the rich (as opposed to sinking them further into debt) meant successive governments both sides of the Atlantic failed to do anything about this pending crisis, until indeed it became a major crisis.

Similarly, the present eurozone crisis could have been solved months or even years ago had certain EU nations been prepared to take a minor hit to their nation’s finances. However, again, as this would have been unpopular with some voters they have failed to take action. Now as a result the euro titters on the brink of collapse within months and anyone with a saving account or pension in the euro (doesn’t matter which country), or indeed in neighbouring countries such as Britain (if the French and German banks go down, the British ones will follow them into collapse), can likely kiss their money goodbye. Had governments taken action earlier on the eurozone a few moderate measures, such as direct ECB lending, could have saved it. Now severe Qunatative Easing or a devaluation of the euro are about the only thing that stands a chance. But even faced with the stark choice of loosing small or loosing big, politicians are choosing to loose big.

Similarly our current and pending climate crisis is a solvable problem. We have the technology to solve climate change, but nobody wants to take action as it might be unpopular in the short term with the Nouveau jet-set, SUV drivers and Mondeo man. Unfortunately if we continue to ignore climate change (or peak oil) then sooner or later the result will be a major and very damaging crisis. One that will likely costs $70 Trillion+, depress the living standards of everyone on the planet for a generation or more, kill a few million people, produce an extinction level event that will kill off a significant proportion of the planet’s wildlife (and the biosphere we depend on) and that could just be the opening acts! And when I say “depress standards of living” I mean thinks like private motoring, overseas flights, out of season fruits and commodities from abroad (Tea Chocolate, coffee) or central heating in winter suddenly falling into the “luxury” category, rather than being seen as essentials!

The simple fact is the longer we defer action on climate change the more severe will be the repercussion of climate change and the more drastic the measures we will need to take to prevent or mitigate it. Let us consider the following scenario; suppose back in 1997 the Kyoto protocol had actually succeeded. That is that all the major industrialised countries had signed up (and stuck to) a deal of significant and binding cuts in CO2 emissions. We would now be well on our way towards stabilisation. While India and China would not have been in that original deal, now the idea that they could stay out and call themselves responsible members of the international community would be unthinkable.

Yes such a turn of events would have led to some economic pain. But if you look at certain countries, notably Germany or Denmark who cut their emissions considerably, the economic effects would certainly not have been crippling, indeed the spin off industries would have made cancelled out many of the negatives. But yes certainly the massive economic growth seen over the late 90’s and 2000’s probably won’t have occurred at the rate that it did. But then again, as I think we can all agree that won’t be such a bad thing either, as equally with a more restrained economic growth rate, its likely that the present economic crisis would never have happened. In short I suspect that if you gave G. W. Bush access to a time machine, he’d go back in time, not to 11/9/2001 (to tell himself not to look like a dithering twit) but to April the 3rd 2001 when he announced that the US would not ratify Kyoto, bash himself over the head (forgetting about Causality, then again Brains was never one of Bush’s strong points) and instead take to hugging baby seals, etc.

The longer we delay action on climate change, the more severe the action we will need to take becomes. A 1997 start date would have left us looking at modest targets along the lines of 1-2% cuts in emissions per year, with a good deal of leeway (if a nation wanted to take a “emissions cut holiday” to deal with a short term crisis that would be okay). Now we’re probably looking at cuts in the order of 3-5% per year if that all important 2’C warming Rubicon is not to be crossed. And if that sounds like cutting too much too quickly wait awhile and it will jump to 6-10% or 10-20% per year!

The fact is, it is the duty of governments to take decisions in the best interest of the country, not try and win a popularity contest. This is not a junior high school! A government’s first responsibility is to secure the nations long term future. And sometimes that means taking decisions that in the short term will be deeply unpopular with some voters. But its the professional duty of a politician to do this, much like its a doctors professional duty to tell a patient he has a terminal illness, or its an engineers duty to tell the board that a proposal they’ve come up with is just technically impossible to implement. What sort of world would we live in if professionals like these tried to be “popular” and not upset anybody? Well probably one without technology that works and modern medicine! If any politician, be it Stephen Harper in Canada or David Cameron in the UK or Merkel in Germany feels that they lack the backbone nor initiate to take decisive leadership, do us all a favour, resign at once and let us appoint in you place a leader who does possess such qualities.

The Euro – two minutes to midnight or two past midnight?

The summit of EU leaders over the weekend was billed as a do or die meeting to save the euro. Given that, to quote one leader the agreement appears to be “a blank sheet of paper”, I assume that the decision is that the euro’s now officially dead?

I could make an analogy of this weekend’s summit as it being like all the European leaders holding a meeting on the bridge of the Titanic. While the Irish and Greeks Able-seamen were pleading for permission to turn hard to port, Captain Merkel and Commodore Sarkozy instead suggested chairing a panel (to meet in 6 months time) to discuss stricter Board of Trade rules limiting the speed of large vessels in ice prone seas as well as mandating more lifeboats on board. Meanwhile Coxswain (or should that be Cocks man) Cameron, shivering at the sight of the icy waters below, say’s well whatever happens I ain’t gettin in the life boat with him (pointing at Sarkozy) why I can smell the garlic from here!

We need two things to save the euro, and immediate short term solution (Quantative Easing, Eurobonds, lending from the ECB ) to stabilise things and scare away the market vultures. Then later, when we’re not in the middle of an economic crisis we need to negotiate a longer term plan to prevent a repeat of these events. But the Germans and French seem to be more interested in doing things ass backwards – or not at all. As I pointed out with regard to the street theatre over the summer where the US came near to default (if you believed the media, the point as I made is that they are already essentially in a state of default) there’s a credibility issue here. Nobody in the markets actually feared that Obama was going to come out with the US government piggy bank, smash it open and reveal nothing but a few gum rappers. The problem which that episode laid bare, which eventually led to a downgrade of US sovereign debt, was that it became painfully obvious that the US government lacked the political will and ability to solve its debt problems. Similarly the markets are now of the view that the Eurozone lacks the political will or resolve to save the euro. I’m starting to think they may have a point.

The meeting at Brussels far from reassuring me that the euro will be saved did the opposite; it convinced me that the Merkel is quite happy to drive the euro over the cliff purely because of short term political considerations within Germany. Much as is the case with America’s debt problems, nobody neither Republican nor Democrat wants to sign up for the sort of tax rises or deep spending cuts that would rescue the dollar from doom. Similarly the fact that some savers in northern eurozone countries might take a small hit means politicians there won’t do what needs to be done, ignoring the possibility of an economic depression that will occur if the euro goes down in which case these voters loose most (if not all) of their savings and pensions (likely then punishing the politicians by voting Merkel out of office and consigning her party to the political wilderness for a generation, as happened to Fianna Fail in Ireland recently).

At the Brussels meeting it seemed to me that many politicians were more interested in engaging in political point scoring than actually trying to save the euro. The French (who’ve massive debts and could easily be in the same boat as many other eurozone countries if and when their ratings are down graded) used it as an excuse to go after Ireland’s low corporation tax. Merkel seemed more interested in winning concessions for German industry. And of course Cameron didn’t even attempt to negotiate anything but just showed up, gave everyone the two fingers and screaming “you’re all squares man!” as he ran out of the room.

The euro sceptics were dancing with glee over the weekend thanks to Cameron’s veto. They are now talking about putting together a vote on EU membership. However what they don’t realise is that Cameron used the veto in order to stop them getting a vote, not to give them one. Think about, how could Cameron object to “a blank sheet of paper”. Obviously because he knows that once there’s a new treaty on that piece of paper he’d come under intense pressure from the Dad’s army brigade in his party to give them they’re cherished referendum on EU membership. If he refused, he’d likely split his party in two. Of course if he conceded the Lib dems would walk out and the government would fall. In essence Cameron’s veto was about saving his government from collapse and his party from splitting in two. However, I hope Cameron has learnt this week that appeasement just makes the aggressor more aggressive. Already the euro sceptics are talking about ambushing Cameron in the new year over Europe.

Of course its interesting to note the reactions to Cameron’s veto, which largely prove all that I said here when I pointed out why England can’t leave the EU. Such a move would likely lead to a break up of the UK, it would send many businesses in the city of London scurrying for the channel ports and likely lead to an ending of Britain (sorry England’s!) “special relationship” with the US. In the wake of Cameron’s veto, Alex Slamond got very upset about the effect this had on Scotland (he was mumbling on the Today programme about the effect on Scottish fishing rights), likely because he was never consulted in advance. And many of the UK’s largest companies were reportedly spooked by the long term prospects of a UK more isolated from the world’s largest economy.

But what now for the euro? Well funnily enough a blank sheet of paper ain’t going to save anything. Even what they propose to put on the paper, doesn’t amount to much. One idea is to have rules enforcing budgetary discipline. Hang on? I thought we already had that? Oh! wait ya everyone ignored that rule! But the new EU treaty will impose financial penalties on countries which disobey it! So you’re solution to a government with financial problems is to impose yet more costs and charges on it, isn’t that exactly how Greece and Ireland got into trouble in the first place?

There’s also the thorny issue of ratification. In Ireland that will almost certainly mean having a referendum. Now the Germans and French, peeved about past rejections of EU treaties by Ireland have suggested that the terms of any referendum should be a straight “in or out” referendum, i.e. that the Irish would have the choice of accepting the deal or leaving the EU altogether. Such an attempt to bully the Irish electorate I fear would likely backfire…badly! What if the Irish call the Germans bluff (as we’ve done twice before) and actually do vote to leave? While Ireland’s sovereign debts are just 108% of GDP our private debts are a good 1,000% of GDP, a grand total of 1.2 Trillion euros, much of it owed to British (€104B ), American (€39B ), German (€82B ) and French (€23B ) banks. The only way Ireland could solve its debt crisis without an IMF/EU bailout would be to reintroduce the Punt and immediately devalue that massively – In essence we’d be leaving about a Trillion in IOU’s on the door steps of various EU countries on our way out. Such a default of debt could easily destabilise much larger countries such as Italy or France and would probably bring down a British or German bank or two (it took just a £37B loss to bring down RBS in the UK). And the Irish won’t even need to vote No to do this. Inevitably the public mood in Ireland is very hostile towards the EU (due to the austerity measures and a lack of action by the major EU states) consequently its likely opinion polls will show a likely vote against, which will spook the markets who will panic with each preceding opinion poll. Consequently by the time the Irish vote on the referendum it will scarcely matter which way they vote, the damage will have been already done and the eurozone will be already will into the process of collapse.

And as my little bit of future gazing shows, if they Germans, French and British think that they have the smaller more heavily indebted countries over a barrel and can start extracting concessions out of them, they need to realise that arguably it’s the other way around. The repercussions of Greece or Ireland or Italy going down would severely harm these economies. To return to my Titanic analogy, if Merkel and Cameron continue to argue about the arrangement of deck chairs on the sinking ship sooner or later the Irish, Greeks and others will tire of this dithering and say feck this for a bottle of Ouzo, hop in the last remaining lifeboat and start paddling away, leaving the Brit’s, French and Germans to go down with the ship.

As I’ve mentioned above and discussed in previous posts (see here and here) there are various ways the Euro could be saved. But there is a strict time limit on these measures. And the clock may have already run out. The recent announcement of possible downgrade of the debt of many EU countries such as France and Germany (which for once seems logical, as I’ve pointed out above even if a small fry like Ireland went down it could have massive repercussions for Germany). This means it’s unlikely the option of ECB lending or Eurobonds will now work in the short term. No, instead the only way to save the euro is likely through a significant policy of Quantative Easing, and I mean much more than the measly Trillion or so the British or Americans have gotten up to. Failing that a straightforward devaluation of the euro might now have to be considered. Of course these are the very measures that German savers fear the most (as it will impact on their savings, note I’m a saver too, but I’d rather have some savings that see the euro become worthless and have none). German savers have only themselves to blame for this turn of events if it happens, due to their support of spineless and ineffective leader like Merkel.

But even this may not be enough. We could well be in the final phase of a eurozone collapse, indeed if my predictions regarding an Irish EU referendum prove accurate we may even now know how the final act of this Greek Tragedy (or should that be an Irish Tragedy…or a German one!) is going to play out. And it will be the failure of our current generation of politicians who will be responsible for this.

What worries me most about any such collapse is that we were here before in the 1930’s. Then, as now, the mainstream politicians were too caught up in their squabbling and trying to be popular with electorates. They led the world into an economic depression. They were of course resolutely punished in the polls by the electorates, which then saw the rise of many populist politicians, such as Franco, Hitler or Mussolini. Already we can see populist politicians on the rise, both in Europe and in the US (with the Tea Party movement). Now while I don’t see any of these guys putting on Swastikas…well aside from a few in the Tea party and a Tory MP, inevitably some politicians of that persuasion WILL rise to power in some nations, and that is the real danger of a Eurozone collapse we need to worry about.

Bottom Gear

Jeremy Clarkson has gotten a bit of a name for himself attacking all manner of things, from advocating Communist style repression of striking workers that even Joe Stalin would regard as going too far :no:, to insulting disabled people U-(, the families of suicide victims, lorry drivers, caravan’s (welll I can understand that one! they are a strange lot!) and nature lovers. He’s also pissed off the electric car lot by allegedly staging breakdowns of their vehicles |-| (he’s being sued by Tesla motors and Nissan claim to have evidence from a GPS tracker unit that their Leaf electric car was intentionally discharged by driving around a roundabout and the scene of one being pushed was staged).

Now he’s started on Mountaineers, bemoaning the amount of money spend rescuing them each year and the fact that poor prince William is being forced to fly around Snowdon every weekend and pick up commoners :oops:. His arseiness said :lalala::

“But why should I fund the rescue of a rambler?….He or she chose to go out there in the mountains. He or she knew the risks. And I’m sorry but if they fall over and get gangrene, they can’t furtle around in my wallet for assistance.”

Well firstly lets get our facts straight, the key lynch pin of Mountain Rescue is not the helicopters but the many thousands of unpaid volunteers members of Mountain Rescue Teams who co-ordinate searches, ultimately find the people for the helicopter to pick up and as it were do the bulk of the rescuing. They are a shining example of what Jeremy’s buddy Cameron calls “the big society”. And its not just fellow mountaineers that they rescue, but motorists (like Clarkson) whom they helped rescue the previous winters, and on one occasion the crew of an RAF helicopter that actually froze up in mid air during a rescue operation.

Of course if we take Clarkson’s attitude then next time there’s a snow storm you’d best keep a credit card handy :>>. After all those motorists who went out driving in the snow and then had to be rescued by the police/mountain rescue, they “knew the risks” and should obviously be made liable for the cost of their rescue, or drag their frostbitten I-pod deprived kids across the snow for several miles to find help. And how about getting motorists to pay something approaching the true costs of motoring? (about 3 times more than they currently pay!) Or how about a certain idiotic TV presenter who goes by the nickname of “Hamster” who went and nearly killed himself trying to drive a drag racing car and had to be evacuated by air ambulance. Clearly he “knew the risks” and why should my taxes pay for his rescue and treatment? No, if we follow Clarkson’s point of view, his moronic co-presenters should have been forced to carry him while trying to hold his brain damage skull together, to the nearest A&E where a matron should have been waiting for them with a credit card swipe.

There’s also a fallacy here that the RAF/RN helicopter pilots roll their eyes skyward every time they get the call to pluck some rambler off the side of a hill. Actually they are more than happy to do it. Why? Because to them its good training, allowing them and their crew to clock up more of those all important flying hours under challenging conditions (given that rescues are often at night and in bad weather). One of the key things any young aviator needs to do is build up his portfolio of flying hours, as this determines future promotion or the chances of a combat posting (which leads to yet more flying hours in a challenging environment and thus good promotion prospects). It’s no surprise that Prince William has been posted to one of the country’s busiest rescue centres as that will allow him to clock up lots of flying hours very quickly. And at some point they’ll need to promote him to senior rank (as they do to all royals) and to avoid the accusation of “fix” the military will whip out his flying record and show how much flying he’s done under difficult conditions and that its perfectly normal for such persons to be promoted.

Indeed I do note that there seems to be a much stronger willingness of the RAF/RN to commit a helicopter to any rescue in the UK, compared to other countries. So this is good news for everybody; aircrew, mountain rescue, the police, coastguard, those being rescued of course (of which mountaineers are but a tiny fraction). Everybody that is – unless you’re HM Treasury! Who are probably getting a bit sick of all these invoices with the word “rescue” written on top landing on they’re desks. This explains why they want to privatise search and rescue services. Unfortunately as the RAF/RN pilots will still need to train (else you’ll end up with a lack of experienced aircrews and the same Troy lot crying about search and rescue costs will be moaning about how the Irish aircorps have more experience pilots than the UK). So it will just mean two sets of slightly smaller bills landing on the treasury’s desk, one labelled “training” the other “rescue”. My suspicion is that when you add them up, they’ll work out higher than the current status quo, so it’s a false economy.

The fact of the matter is that we all do risky things from time to time. Often the most dangerous time of the day for a mountaineer can be the drive to the foot of the mountain. Do you have any idea how many car accidents and fatalities there are on the roads each year? And what about the pedestrians and cyclists who motorists knocked down? A range of figures comparing different statistics for sports (against other activities) can be found here and here. As you can see they both rate mountaineering (and even rock climbing) with a accident/fatality risk well below other sports such as soccer, watersports or motorsports (these three vive for top place depending on how you do you’re counting) or indeed other activities such as driving in general. Even on a per capita basis (i.e. taking into account that so few people climb against the many more who play football) mountaineering still only rates as “moderately” risk (i.e. less risky that driving!).

Oddly enough this link from America puts cheerleading on top 88| for danger….I’m afraid to ask if that includes the risk of STD’s :no:! Never understood the point of cheerleading other than a form of soft porn…or is American football really that bad :yawn: that fans need some distraction to pass the time!…but I digress!

It’s actually the people who don’t go out and do any exercise on a weekend that have me worried…such as overweight smokers like Clarkson :crazy: himself. We have an obesity epidemic in this country, with rates of diabetes and heart disease soaring. And do you have any idea of how much it costs NHS to treat hundred’s of thousands of these people each year? A lot more than we spend on mountain rescue I think! Indeed I used to know a Pakistani bone setter and he preferred to work weekends (so he could skip the Friday night graveyard shift and not have to deal with drunks). Inevitably most of his “customers” would be people involved in sporting activities who’d “over excreted” themselves or others who injured themselves doing DIY over the weekend. As he pointed out you were better off taking the risk of seeing him on Saturday afternoon, than seeing Dr Brooks in heart surgery on Monday morning, particularly as about 1 in 12 of heart surgery patients don’t last a year! Then again Clarkson would say that they “know the risks” and presumably should be just pushed in a corner and left to fend for themselves (with a donner kebab one assumes), himself included!

So we need to look at the bigger picture here, mountaineering might be risky and yes it might have certain costs to society, but such risks (and costs) must be seen in the context of many other activities we regularly engage in that are even more risky (and costly), such as driving…or eating big macs!…or how about having “affairs”? Can’t talk much about the last one as I think there’s still a super-injunction out >:XX (so I’ve just guaranteed you’ll all go to Google and type in “Clarkson AND super injunction”).

But if we take Clarkson’s attitude, i.e. that mountaineering is an unacceptably dangerous risk that society cannot bare the cost of, well we’d best ban driving then too, and all water sports, jogging, cycling (then again the biggest hazard to the last two is cars so maybe they can stay), smoking, cheerleading (actually that doesn’t sound like a bad idea), DIY, football, Rugby (not that I’m volunteering to tell the players mind, we’ll leave that to the cheerleaders :))), big mac’s and nihilistic womanizing TV presenters. Indeed why don’t we just replace the country’s flag with a hammer and sickle…on a denim background!

The Mad hatter’s Tea Party – A rebuttal to Libertarianism

Obama is increasingly starting to look like another Jimmy Carter, good in principle, but the last things Americans want is smart guys who are all “logical” and stuff. No these tea(bagging) partiers want people who are as mad as themselves, i.e. nuttier than a granola bar. Many want “definitely not married to a gay guy” Bachmann, “bubbl’in” Perry or Ron Paul as president. But what exactly are the Tea Party’s policies? Aside from superlatives and patriotism and silly idiotic things about birth certs, gun rights and abortions (there’s been scant to no real change in the laws regarding the latter two for decades) I don’t hear a lot.

Both Parties? Define “both”!
Tea partiers say they aren’t a party as such but represent members from “both” parties. But what they don’t say is that the “both” refers to the more extreme elements of the Libertarian and Republican parties. It occurs to me that this policy vacuum within the Tea Party is being taken over by the Libertarians (or “underpants gnomes”) and they’re leader Ron Paul. Now while you’d have to commend him for saying something’s that needed to be said (speaking out against the patriot act, voting against the Iraq war, etc, though I would note he’s gone rather quiet on these issues since joining the Tea party), but it’s the other things coming out of his mouth, that have me worried. Furthermore, identifying problems and highlighting the hypocritical behaviour of the US government is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel. Coming up with coherent polices to solve these problems that will actually work and not do more harm than good – that’s the hard part! Furthermore, its getting such polices through the snake pit of Congress intact, as Obama has shown, is the really tricky bit.

But it all begs the question: who’s in the Tea Party is crazier, Bachmann? Perry? or Ron Paul and his underpants gnomes? I would argue that the libertarians and Ron Paul are actually the people in the Tea party whose sanity should really be the one under scrutiny. I would caution that this is going to be a long post. The libertertarians, Ron and Rand Paul being some of the worst offenders, have thrown up a lot of crazy stuff over the years which need’s reputing point by point.

Big government? We can’t afford it!
Libertarians point out that America’s deficit spending is unsustainable, and they are right. Even the US GAO (see video here and here) agrees with this assessment. Keep it up and eventually the US will go bankrupt (sometime between 2030 and 2040 mandatory spending will exceed government revenues), most likely taking the British economy down with it and possibly half the rest of the world too. Indeed I’ve written several articles about this issue (see here and here) to hammer home that very point.

But it takes two too tango! Governments get into debt by taxing too little and spending too much. Now in all likelihood I reckon it’s a bit of both, but to the libertarians it’s been caused purely by governments taxing and borrowing too much.

But are they right? Well if they are right, then logically the countries most committed to the “tax & spend like a sailor on shore leave” Kenyesian model should be the ones in the worst financial state with the biggest deficits and highest levels of debt. The Scandinavians states, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark have some of the world’s highest taxes and most bloated public services (thanks to following the so-called “Nordic Model”). And what is the state of their finances? Pretty good actually; Finland with debts equal to 50% of GDP (against nearly 130% for Greece and 92% for the US) a budget in surplus, Norway 54% wt a surplus again, Sweden 42% wt a current budget deficit of 7%, and Denmark 42% of GDP. Now I wouldn’t say everything is rosy in the Scandinavian garden (we’ll discuss that another day!), but clearly these economies are in a far more healthy state than the UK, USA, Greece or Ireland all of whom went for the neo-liberal economic model instead. Indeed its interesting to note that the one Scandinavian country that took the neo-liberal economic route, Iceland up till the 2007 crash, is the very one that’s in trouble!

Another bugbear of Libertarians is government orientated “Central Planning” (say that again in a dark forbidding Boris Karloff sounding voice) and all its evils. Libertarians argue that it is centrally planned economies such as the US under the democrats (whoa! there’s a plan!! Can we see this plan by any chance? I’m sorting hoping this isn’t it) that perform much worse in the long run than those economies that trust to the “magic of the market”. Again, let’s put this claim to the test. Those countries that allowed the markets and the banks to rule the roost (that would be us!) are the very ones in trouble, while the centrally planned economies, such as China (which still puts out those commie 5 year plans can’t get more “central planning” than that!) or India or Brazil, are booming!

In short the facts suggest that if anything Libertarians have everything ass backwards (we should tax and centrally plan more not less!). I would counter that actually it’s more a case that their simplistic, politically naive and fantasy driven world view simply cannot cope with the day to day realities of real world politics, cultural factors and economics. Suffice to say the devil’s in the detail!

Big government get off our backs!…wait is that pink slip for me?
In short what the Tea partiers, don’t seem to acknowledge is that solving the US deficit is going to involve either raising taxes to European levels (as America has European levels of public spending) or drastically cutting public spending or a bit of both. Again they inevitably favour tax cuts and major cuts in public spending to “get big government off of our backs”. What’s the largest piece of discretionary spending in the US budget? ……The Military budget (18% of total government spending!)…..a large proportion of whose employee’s are registered Republicans! Add in the various contractors to the military, a host of corporate welfare programs the US government sponsors (I discuss these a little further here), not to mention farm subsidies, road building contracts, Medicare/Medicaid (again, both basically a massive subsidy to the pharmaceuticals industry) Cut these and you’d find that a lot of Tea partiers and libertarians will be out of a job!

For example, I happened to be looking up Colorado Springs (the very heart land of the tea party) the other day and I noticed a statistic which showed that 25% of jobs in the county are directly linked to “big government” in some way including 8 out of the top 10 employers in the city! Consider also Colorado’s farmers (many of which are large ranch’s owned by the better off) receive $316 million in federal subsidies, that represent’s unsustainable farming methods and a frankly ridiculous farm subsidy systems. And if there’s any Tea bagging plumbers from Colorado (or elsewhere) reading this who say “well I don’t work for Uncle Sam nor do I get any farm subsidies” and how well do you think you’re business would do if +25% of you’re customers suddenly lost their jobs and moved out of the state? Indeed its interesting to note that many right wing leaning states (and in particular the states where the Tea Party is popular like Colorado, Arizona, Kansas, Idaho, Utah etc.) are “welfare queens” (graph on that here), in that they take in more money from Uncle Sam than they pay out in tax! These states would be utterly hammered by Libertarian policies. So much so that they’d probably undergo severe population loss, as without the Federal gravy train effectively subsidising the local economy many residents would have to move out of these states to look for work.

So given how unpopular such policies would be if any Tea Partiers did their sums (fortunately for the Tea Party candidates maths doesn’t seem to be its supporters strong point), it is unsurprising that instead Ron Paul proposes to cut “non essential” things like International development aid, (just under 1% of the total US federal budget), much of which is recycled back to the US companies mentioned above). While 70% goes to US “allies” for “strategic” reasons, the rest of the development aid goes towards various important projects helping the very poorest people on the planet (so he’s basically advocating taking the bread out of the mouths of starving people).

Another favourite target of Ron Paul is the US department of Education (1.3% of the US federal budget in 2010) which he proposes to shut down as well as privatising all public schools (suppose it makes perfect sense to someone who home schools their kids or sends them to an exclusive private school). Most working class Americans simply can’t afford private tuition, and one of the key things schools do in a society is to get the Wee’ins out from under the parent’s feet so that they can get to work. So this would have an immediate and rather negative effect on the economy, i.e. more people on welfare (cancelling out any savings), less people working, never mind the long term effects of American education and literacy rates declining (so bang goes the knowledge economy). And of course there’s the effect on democracy itself. An essential feature of democracy is that is that it requires a well educated and literate populace to keep government in check. If education standards slip further in America then literally democracy itself will be at risk. Does Ron Paul seriously suggest we should sacrifice democracy before his altar to the free market gods?

Ron Paul also want to get rid of the Department of Energy (less than 1% of the US federal budget, would the last one out please turn off the lights….for the entire country!). Granted, post-deregulation by Bush the US DoE is sort of a bloated organisation which no one seems to able to work out what it’s supposed to be doing. However, energy is so critical to a society’s needs, the fact America like the rest of the world will likely face a major crisis this century related to peak oil and climate change, something that will inevitably push energy policy up to the top of the political agenda (if’s not already there, anyone really believe the Iraq war had nothing to do with oil?). All of this points to a need for a strengthened and revitalised DoE, else the sort of new energy infrastructure the US desperately needs will never get built.

Indeed its interesting to note the reasons why the department of energy was founded. It was set up because of the 1970’s oil shocks to coordinate federal energy policy. Also before the US government began “central planning” on this issue (in the 1900’s), energy supplies in the US (with a similar trend in other countries) were erratic and prone to major fluctuations (both in terms of reliability and price) depending on where you were and the current energy situation in a particular area. This was the era of “robber baron” cartels such Rockefeller’s standard oil. Environmental pollution and exploitation of workers (many of them poor recently arrived immigrants) was practially routine. Does Ron Paul really think it would be wise to return to this era on the verge of a global energy crisis?

Other targets in Ron Paul’s sights include the IRS (so people can cheat on they’re taxes without fear….ya that’ll solve the deficit!) and ironically enough the department of Commerce (well given that after a year or two of Tea party/Libertarians in power there won’t be much commerce being done in the US anymore this mightn’t be such a bad idea!). Oh, and Ron Paul also wants to reinstate the gold standard and allow people to keep and trade other commodities as units of currency. Again given that his policies will probably destroy the US economy and render the dollar worthless, it’s probably not a bad idea on reflection!