Varsity blues

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I’ve meant to comment more fully on the Varsity blues” case for sometime, where rich parents have been paying middle men to get their kids into university. This has involved faking documents or claiming athletic merits (in sports they didn’t even partake in), bribing of admissions tutors and the rigging of exams. We’re talking corruption here on a level that would cause even the most corrupt governments on earth to blush. I’ve heard of helicopter parenting, but this is ridiculous.

Oh and it turns out one of the students in question, going to USC (I assume that stands for the University of Spoiled Children), is basically using her time in uni (bought at such a high price) as little more than an opportunity to party, rather than study. Those millions were well spent then!

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Yet the thing is that this is simply the tip of a corrupt iceberg. There’s all sorts of shady practices that go on in US universities. From how universities disproportionately take on students from wealthy backgrounds (presumably just a coincidence!), or how whites are vastly more likely to attend a top tier uni than anyone else. To academics farming themselves out as paid experts to anyone who offers them enough cash.

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And while academic standards in Europe are usually enforced pretty well (if you fail you fail, see you again next year, no exceptions), in the US, there’s all sorts of shenanigans, with the jocks from the football team being given extra tuition or the opportunity to earn extra credit (what we call in my uni “cheating”) just to allow them to pass.

And if the dodgy recruitment policies weren’t bad enough there’s the sky high fees, which immediately put academia beyond the reach of so many Americans (if you think fees are high in the UK, ask an American sometime about how much uni costs, I’d advise having something soft nearby to faint onto). Plus you’ll need somewhere to live on campus. Which could well mean joining a sorority or frat and go through hazing. Aside from the issue that they have been labelled as “hot beds of racism and sexism”, they are also the epitome of the term “white privilege”, as they are largely for the better off. In corporate America its not what you know, but who you know. You could be top of the class at Yale, but some rich jock who struggled to pass (and only did so with generous use of contract plagiarism) gets the job ahead of you, just by waving around his fraternity ring.

But at least by going to UCLA or Harvard, I’ll be taught by Nobel laureates? Think again, most students in the US (even the top universities) are taught by teaching assistants who are overworked, on minimum wage and struggling to get by. To the point where some are living in their cars. The only way you’ll get to see an actual professor is if you bump into them in the lift, or get a 2nd job as a cleaner.

Now okay, you may say I’m being unfair. There are some examples of good teaching and world leading research at US universities. Take for example, the recent imaging of a black hole. But this is the problem with US academia, the standards are extremely patchy, both in terms of teaching and research. For every Katie Bouman, I can point you to some woo pedaller, such as some of her colleagues at MIT who were pushing that water woo stuff I talked about awhile ago.

Go to a US uni and yes its possible you might get a professor who actually gives a crap, shows up to class and tries to help you learn. Or might get one who sends one of his PhD students to do the teaching, as he’s way too busy prostituting himself to some corporation, or ripping off his own PhD students work and passing its off as his own.

And as I’ve said before, the direction of travel here in the UK is to copy the US academic system. Both in terms of the high fees, the unequal recruiting policies to the dodgy financing and shady deals with corporations. In fact only this week we had the revelation that UK uni’s have spent £90m on staff gagging orders, in just two years.

And the thing is there is a straightforward way of fixing the US admissions system – centralise applications through an independent, government regulated, third party. In Ireland for example, we have the CAO system, whereby you apply to the CAO rather than the individual universities. The CAO system assigns every student a number and only the computer knows which number corresponds to which name, with selection on the basis of merit (i.e. you only get to go to the best university if your grades are high enough). There’s also separate programmes for students from a disadvantaged background (where it might not be fair to solely judge them on grades alone) and well as various schemes for mature students.

Furthermore, fees in Ireland are largely covered by the state. And while universities are independent and self governing in Ireland, as they are financed by the state, they are also regulated by the government. which tends to cut down on the sort of funny business we see in the US. And the EU also supplies various research funding schemes for universities, so they aren’t necessarily dependant on compromising their academic standards just to get funding.

So its strange how in the wake of this scandal, both sides in Congress aren’t pushing for these sorts of policies. One has to conclude its because they WANT a university admissions system that is unfair and benefits the rich. These issues I raise are not an unfortunate side effect of the commercialisation of US academia, they are the deliberate intention. The purpose is to game the system in favour of the better off against everyone else. And like I said, this is the route of travel for academia here in the UK.

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Some other news

Splitters!

This week seven eight members of the Judean people’s front labour party split from the party, blaming Corbyn’s toxic leadership style. And its entirely possible that they will be just the first of many out the door, with dozens others apparently considering quitting, particularly if Corbyn tries to steer the party towards supporting May’s brexit plans.

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This was followed up by several centrists Tory MP’s jumping ship too. This is arguably a good deal more significant, as it means that technically May no longer has a majority, even with DUP support. Fortunately for her, Sinn Fein don’t sit in parliament (because they are a party of protest and taking their seats would involve doing something useful), so she can still get thing through (thanks to so-called “Republicans“), but only by a margin of one (yes if one Tory or DUP MP says no, that’s it the bill fails).

To be honest, I’m not surprised, in fact I’m only surprised it was only a handful and it took this long. In truth these MP’s didn’t leave labour (or the Tory party), the labour party left them. Its now the cult of the one true Corbyn (v’s the cult of the one true brexit). I mean seriously, labour members need to read through “top ten signs you are in a cult” and compare and contrast to the labour party under Corbyn. The only thing you can do in a cult is get out quickly, you aren’t going to convince its leader to change. Corbyn will take the party over the cliff and then expect them all to line up and drink the kool aid.

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Corbyn’s labour party might be all about him, but its not a cult, Corbyn’s honour!

Indeed the reaction of the labour party to these events is very cult like. They called for byelections (so you think the referendum result should stand now and until the end of time, but constituents who voted for their MP last year should be made to vote again, even though the odds now are they’re will be another election within a few months). Or they want to ban MP’s from leaving their parties (ya and why don’t we put shock collars on em and not let them out in public without little star armbands). One labour MP even speculated that this all might be an Israeli plot (not that antisemitism is a problem in labour!).

At the other extreme, some of Corbyn red shirts have been egging on these MP’s to quit for sometime. And now they are having a nice laugh about it all. But consider this is what happened in France with Macron. He left the socialist party and everybody in the party laughed. Then gradually more and more joined from both major parties until it was the largest party in parliament. Needless to say, they stopped laughing sometime ago.

While I’d consider a UK version of En Marche unlikely (thanks to the FPTP electoral system), but an electoral alliance with the lib dems, Greens and SNP is a very real possibility (meaning they’ll avoid standing against one another next election). These three parties could also form what’s called a “technical group within parliament, giving them more say (they could table bills, ask for parliamentary time, or if enough labour MP’s leave, potentially even challenge Corbyn for the post of leader of the opposition).

Do the electoral maths and baring a massive swing to either the Tories or labour, it might be impossible to form a government without one or more of these centre ground parties. Which means there could be a 2nd referendum on the EU sooner rather than later. So what’s the point in forcing through a brexit deal nobody seems to want, if within a year or two there’s a 2nd referendum? Won’t it be better just to have the people’s vote now?

Brexit news

While I want to avoid dwelling too much on brexit, its like a elephant of the room for everything right now. Oddly enough the Dutch government now has a brexit mascot, which appears in TV adds in the form of a big blue monster, which is an apt metaphor (thought I reckon they should have given it Boris’s blonde hair, Gove’s glasses, Mogg’s bowler hat, jackboots for Tony Robinson and a pint and a fag for Farage). Which of course also just goes to show how much better the EU is at preparing for brexit compared to the UK.

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Case in point, the ferry contract given to a company that didn’t actually have any ships. The government, under Failing Grayling (who unbelievably is still a minister, probably because he makes the rest of them seem vaguely competent), says that no money was spent on this, as the deal is now off. But its only been cancelled because one of the Irish parties involved walked away. And they claim they were never formally part of the deal in the first place (they’d never signed any contracts).

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And yes it has cost taxpayers money, some £800k to “consultants. Although quite what they were consulted on is unclear. About the only redeeming feature of those behind this ferry contract was they were members of the good old boys network and they were British. Because all of the other ferry contracts (indeed most of the contracts related to no deal perpetrations) are being handled by European companies. Yes, if brexit means brexit, it means millions to EU firms to ferry stuff across the channel, including those blue passports.

Its also being confirmed that the government is going to be sued by Eurotunnel over their handing out of these no bid contracts (Eurotunnel used to own a ferry company at the low cost end of the scale, which they were forced to sell off by the government some years ago, citing competition concerns). This is likely to be the first of many brexit related lawsuits. And rather foolishly, the government isn’t doing the sensible thing and settling this case out of court. Which raises the possibility of ministers (or even the PM) being hauled in to testify under oath.

Meanwhile, the brexitous continues. We have the story of another airline failing over brexit, news that Honda is indeed shutting down its Swindon plant at the cost of thousands of jobs (been on the cards for months, expect similar announcements from other firms shortly). We have a report from the bank of England confirming that the economy is now slowing down and, even thought brexit hasn’t even happened yet, its already cost the economy £80 billion, or about £800 million a week (so the slogan on the bus claiming an extra £350 million a week was, much as I predicted, off by a factor of negative £1150 billion a week…should we really be trusting the fate of the economy to people this bad at maths?). According to the brexit job losses counter btw, this takes the total brexit related losses to over 200,000 (about an average of 1,500 job losses every week since the referendum).

Oh and yet another brexiteer billionaire is jumping ship, heading off to Monaco to get a passport. Because brexit is going to make us all so rich, we won’t need his tax money anymore.

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The Tories unveil their new election slogan

In fact this is kind of the point about brexit many are missing. As this excellent piece from the director of Policy Research (IPPR) points out, brexit does not mean a medieval siege. There might be shortages afterwards, but that will be the fault of a bungling UK government. The real trouble starts when the UK finds itself competing against a trade block of over 500 million people, with the EU dangling carrots in the face of UK businesses to tempt them over the channel. And with no hope of getting trade deals on the same terms the UK currently enjoys (to date the UK has signed just 7 out of the 69 it needs which covers only about 1/8th of the overseas trade the UK does with countries outside the EU) , never mind getting better terms, it means the slow quiet dismantling of the UK economy.

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And just to add confusion to confusion, Michael Gove told farmers recently that the UK would be bringing in heavy tariffs to protect farms  from external competition. This runs contrary to the suggestion that the UK would wave through food shipments to avoid lengthy queues at the border, as well as to preserve the good Friday agreement. In effect he’s saying that yes Kent and Northern Ireland are going to become lorry parks in a months time, food prices are going to soar (tariffs can be as high as 50% on food), shops might run out of food and a show down with Washington is looming over the GFA…..or maybe he’s just copying May’s policy of winging it and saying whatever the audience wants to hear so he can get out of the room without being lynched.

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Of course this serves to explain why the UK is so unprepared for a no deal brexit. Because even with a few weeks to go we’ve no idea what the government’s policy is. What documents the government has published are often vague and directly contradicted by another department. “fucked if we know” seems to be the official government policy.

Gunboat undiplomacy

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Meanwhile Failing Grayling (and Gove) has some competition for the prize of most incompetent minister, from defence minster Gavin Williamson. He claimed that the UK’s defences forces would have its “lethality enhanced, although quite how the EU has been holding the UK back wasn’t really explained (no doubt he believes all those bent banana’s and H&S regulation was stopping squadies doing their jobs). He’s also talked about forward deploying the UK’s new carriers in the Caribbean and Pacific and send the new carrier on a world tour.

Given that his department is shouldering a multibillion pound overspend one has to wonder where the money to pay for all of that is going to come from. Plus the thorny issue of the fact that the carriers aren’t currently in commission and don’t have any planes operating off them. And recall those planes are the controversial F-35 (an excellent aircraft….so long as the enemy doesn’t have an airforce and spoiler alert, both the Russians and Chinese do!).

And forward deploying the carriers would leave them vulnerable to sneak attack (I don’t know if Gavin’s heard of Pearl harbour?) by long range anti-ship missiles, either ballistic or air launched. And its worth noting that China, India and Russia all have such missiles. And Russian TU-22’s long range anti-ship aircraft also operate out of bases on Cuba and Venezuela.

Perhaps inevitably these comments went down like a lead balloon in Beijing, forcing the Chancellor of the exchequer to cancel his trip to China after the Chinese took offence. And I mean, can you blame them? Tip to brexiteers if you want to get trade deals off people, it might be a good idea not to go around sabre rattling and threatening to park aircraft carriers off their coast.

And just to show that he’s not alone in incompetence, Liam Fox and Jeremy Cunt Hunt managed to piss off the Japanese, to such an extend it seems they were prepared to walk away from trade talks, as they tried to apply the hard sell on the Japanese. Needless to say, it takes some skill to have pissed off both the Chinese and Japanese in a single week. But they need to realise, you are not double glazing salesmen trying to pressure some old granny into a sale. Trade deals take time and requires compromise (because as noted, you ain’t going to get a deal as good the EU enjoys). This is kind of what being outside the EU looks like.

Of course in his brain fart, the defence secretary allows the brexiteer mask to slip, and betrays the dreams of empire 2.0 and another era of gunboat diplomacy. But it also shows how out of touch they are with the realities of the modern world. How most of the world doesn’t share their nostalgia for the British empire (quite the opposite in fact). How the likely response to a British warship in their waters isn’t going to be a favourable trade deal, but a blunt order to turn around asap or we’ll sink you.

Holocaust denial

Case in point, consider the recent comments from Jacob Rees Mogg in which he attempted to deny the British use of concentration camps during the Boer war. Because the truth is that the UK invented the concentration camp, not the nazi’s, and tens of thousands died in these camps.

In fact what is interesting about these comments is how few of the major news media covered his comments. Those that did gave similar apologetic’s to Mogg (typically by saying Dunkirk & Churchill over and over again, after all it was the Boer’s fault for dying in the camps basically, not the British for setting them up) or just ignored the whole thing. Even the BBC didn’t run a story on it, despite the fact he made the comments on the BBC’s question time. Which just goes to show, Mogg was expressing an opinion that is widely shared by many ex-public school boys.

In fact it is interesting to compare how the media ignores the institutional racism and bigotry within the Tory party, yet the slightest hint of anything within labour is blown out of all proportion. Yes there is definitely an antisemitism problem within labour (this is one of reasons for the recent defections), but the media are making a big deal out of it because they can and its a cheap shot they can take against Corbyn. But they are also willing to ignore far worse within the Tories, UKIP or the DUP. I mean imagine if one of labour’s MP’s was to express a similar view to Mogg about the holocaust. There would be uproar.

These public school boys in the UK have been subject to a level of indoctrination and radicalisation on par with the sort you’d get in an ISIS run madrasa. As far as they are concerned the British Empire was a glorious thing and they were doing the world a favour by conquering them (and shooting a few locals every now and then, forcing them into concentration camps, stealing their grain, etc.). Why the colonies (and I’ve heard that term used to describe countries in the modern day) were only forced out of the empire by a bunch of bed wetting liberals back home and many in places, like India, yearn for the day when the Empire returns.

If you’re a neutral scratching your head unable to understand why the Tories aren’t supporting May’s deal (knowing its the best they’ll get), this is why. As far as these public school boys are concerned, they did the EU a favour by joining and now that they’re leaving, why should they have to pay. After all they might not afford the EU the privilege of trading with their vast (and non existent) empire.

Dark satanic take aways

A recent episode of the BBC’s panorama focused on the dark side of takeaways. Recently in the UK, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of takeaway apps, which means you can just dial in to your local takeaway, place an order online and about ten to thirty minutes later your food is delivered.

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However, as the report shows, your food might not be coming from an actual restaurant. The firms behind these apps have been setting up, so called “dark kitchens, which are basically kitchens in windowless shipping containers under an overpass, or on waste ground somewhere. This raises a number of issues.

For example the fact such apps don’t include any information about hygiene ratings (which actual restaurants and takeaways have to provide). And there’s been worrying stories about to what extent such restaurants understand issues related to allergies (The panorama team ordered a meal, sent it away for testing and found it contained stuff it wasn’t supposed to). And some restaurant owners claimed that they were pressured into purchasing slots towards the top of the list of local takeaways (suggesting that if you pay enough you’ll be the first a customer sees, regardless of how good or safe your food actually is).

And these dark satanic mills of our time are also often set up without planning permission. Which is a bit of an issue for local residents who suddenly have to contend with mopeds coming and going all night. What this all shows is how the disruptive effects of the internet aren’t always positive once they move into the real world. And how there is a need for governments to keep on top of events and not be afraid to regulate new industries to stop things running out of control.

Unfriending Facebook

Case in point, facebook. This week saw a UK parliamentary committee turn in a scathing report, going so far as to call the company “digital gangsters and calling for facebook (and google) to be regulated. A good idea, the UK should do that. But isn’t facebook’s European headquarters in Ireland? So how exactly are you going to regulate them after you leave the EU? What’s May going to do? Threaten to unfriend Mark Zuckerberg.

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Jokes aside, my guess is that we could well see the pendulum swing from one extreme, where internet companies have been able to do what they want, when they want, not even bothering to pay taxes. To now facing heavy government scrutiny and regulation. Which is both a good thing (a crack down on fake news and the unethical practices of some internet firms is long overdue) and bad (given the potential danger of governments meddling in social media or censoring content).

Broken Britain

One of the reasons some have given for voting leave in the UK relates to the abject poverty now present in parts of the country. We now face a scenario, where homeless people dying on the streets is becoming a more common occurrence, where 14 million people in the country now live in poverty to the point where the UN is feeling the need to get involved. And perhaps with good reason. For as food bank use has soared, Dickensian diseases such as rickets have re-emerged in the UK.

Granted this is a little unfair on the EU (whose structural funds have actually helped parts of the UK in peril), when this is mostly the fault of Tory policy, either those of the Thatcher era or a decade of punishing austerity. Indeed, even the government has recently had to acknowledge the link between the roll out of their Universal Credit system and a rise in food banks.

But we are where we are. And where we are is that the Tories are quietly ignoring this inconvenient little fact, which should hardly come as a surprise (when have they ever cared about working people in this country?) and pushing through with a brexit policy which will leave many in the country even worse off. In short if you voted leave as some sort of cry for help, I’m afraid what you voted for was to be ignored and forgotten even more than before.

And across the pond, similar trends exist in Trump’s America, with poverty on the rise. In fact, an interesting video here from ABC about the death of the American dream. But isn’t Trump’s new tax cut going to help out struggling families? Oh it will help alright, to push the over the edge and onto the bread line. In effect he’s raised taxes for most Americans, cutting them only for the super rich like him.

And I know its cruel to say so, but seriously, why is anyone surprised? You vote for parties that favour the 1% and surprise, surprise the screw over everyone else and make themselves richer. Did anyone really expect that the Tories would push for a socialist friendly brexit? (or end austerity after the referendum result). Or that a professional conman like Trump, whose spent his whole career screwing over his own work force and investors, would behave any differently once in office. As the old saying goes people vote for the government they deserve and that’s what they’ve gotten.

Unfit for office

Speaking of Trump, everyone had a good old chuckle about how the president spends an inordinate amount of his time on “executive time (an average of about only 3 hrs of actual work per day), which is basically code word for him sitting around watching Fox news, tweeting, ringing up his friends and supporters, or bouncing off the walls about the horrible things the NYT says about him.

But I think there was a meaning to this story that was missed. Basically, Trump has, consciously or subconsciously, been deemed by the US government, lobbyists and even his own White house staff as unfit for office. So much so that they see good reason to involve him as little as possible in any actual decision making. Preferring instead to leave the boss baby puttering in his presidential play pen, only taking him out or involving him in matters where its legally required (i.e. they need his signature on a piece of paper).

Consider that previous presidents tended to have a fairly full schedule, as numerous people beat a path to the White house door looking for some of the president’s time. Senators, congressmen, ambassadors, lobbyists for corporations or NGO’s, department heads from the various branches of government, etc. Clearly all of these people are avoiding contact with the White house because they judge that Trump is just too incompetent to be of any actual help. So the US under Trump is something of a rudderless ship. But worse still, that also means that there’s ample opportunities for well juiced in cronies of Trump to line their pockets.

And on the topic of Trump an interesting article here about the potential floodgate he could be opening, if say a future US president were to invoke “the Trump rule” and declare a national emergency to fight climate change. Powers said president will be able to exercise include being able to divert tens of billions of dollars to renewable energy, being able to rescind oil drilling contracts, cease energy industry assets or restrict supplies and apply restriction on cars and vehicles (e.g. mandate much lower speed limits or ban gas guzzlers altogether).

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A young UK convert to ISIS recently turned up in a refugee camp. And even thought she’s unrepentant (even saying ISIS terrorist attacks against the UK were justified) she wants back into the country. And Trump, no doubt acting under orders from Moscow, seems to agree and wants her and other members of ISIS returned to their home countries.

This caused media fury, how can we let a supporter of terrorism into the country?….you guys do know that the DUP (who also have links with terrorists) are literally in government? Pot calling the kettle black I think. And, won’t it be better to get her back into the UK and prosecute her? That said, I’ll admit there is an argument to be made that by joining ISIS she rejected the UK and thus forfeited her rights to all of its laws and protections. Its a little late for her to turn around now and say that’s unfair. If she wishes to apply for citizenship again, fine, but presumably she’ll have to renounce terrorism and ISIS first.

Universities on the edge

The UK government recently released a study on student finance and among its recommendations is that fees should be cut, potentially by as much as 30%. This does kind of make sense. As I’ve pointed out before, students are getting a bit of a raw deal and as they often need to borrow money to go to uni (which they often don’t repay in full), so its just shuffling money around so the government can hide some of its debts off the books.

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However, what worries universities is there is no indication that the government is going to fill this funding gap with money of its own. So in short, universities are being asked to swallow a 20-30% cut in their income. Which raises the risk that some will go bust as a result.

Recall that university finances are under enough pressure right now, largely down to brexit, as they face raising costs (inflation making equipment and running costs higher, plus staff demanding higher salaries), falling number of international students (EU student numbers are down, but so too are those from outside the EU, as many are put off by the risk of a no deal brexit and May’s hostile environment, which has seen international students swept up in it) and the prospect of reduced research funding (once the EU turns off the tap). Oh and they are also facing rising pension costs too. So a cut to fees would be something of a prefect storm. Frankly, it won’t be a question of if a university went bust, it would be when.

Now the Tories seem to think this is okay. So what if a few ex-polytechnics go bust. Well firstly, we’ve already had this conversation, last year a university came close to bankruptcy and the government blinked first. This set a precedence. You can’t say to other uni’s (and their students), we’re only bailing out the ones posh kids go too, you pleb’s are on your own. No sorry, what applies to one has to apply to the others, otherwise the government risks being sued. And consider that some of the ex-poly’s have done really well for themselves. But at the same time some of the red brick institutions have declined (in fact of the uni’s I’d be most worried about its an even mix of red bricks, plate glasses and ex-poly’s).

And finally, the thing that really worries me is that the government won’t be able to blink and bail a uni out. Its creditors, looking to get their hands on its billion pound city centre real estate portfolio, might force it into insolvency. And like I’ve said before, once one uni fails (for whatever reason) its likely several more will follow, leaving the government with an awful mess to clean up afterwards.

The Founding Fallacies of Privatisation – University bankruptcies loom

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For sometime I’ve been speculating about the consequences of the Tories/New labour defacto privatisation of universities. As a result, some universities haven gotten in way over their heads financially and its just a matter of time before one goes bust. But the government’s official policy is that there will be no bailouts of third level institutions. And, as can probably guess, the other week we learn that, contrary to this policy, a university WAS bailed out to the tune of nearly a million pounds.

As I’ve mentioned before, several universities in the UK are in dire financial straits. At least three uni’s were recently reported as being close to bankruptcy (living hand to mouth on short term credit), with one (presumably the one that was bailed out) already in talks with insolvency lawyers. This should not come as a surprise. Universities were encouraged by the government to expand and market themselves aggressively, in particular overseas. As well as to seek out research funding, both private and public, with the EU being a major contributor.

Now however, international students are shunning the UK, thanks to Theresa May’s hostile environment. And both EU students and EU research money is drying up thanks to brexit. Furthermore a demographic necking means less home students being recruited (quite apart from the fact that quite a number are going to university in the EU, where they can, at least for a few more years, get free tuition). Some uni’s are now so desperate for students that they’ve dropped their entry requirements considerably. A third of UK applicants last year got unconditional offers (meaning they were effectively guaranteed a place regardless of their A level grades).

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On the spending front, some uni’s borrowed quite heavily in order to expand. And, in line with government policy, they did not allow salaries of staff to rise with inflation, which means all lecturers in the UK have taken essentially a 12% pay cut since 2009. Now with post-brexit inflation pushing up the cost of living yet further, staff are demanding higher salaries (and with less international staff coming in, uni’s will likely have to cave in to those demands eventually). Interest rates are rising too, pushing up loan repayment costs. So universities are facing a perfect financial storm. Thus it should be no surprise that some have gotten in trouble and this bailout is unlikely to be a one off.

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University campuses in the UK have recently been rocked by strikes

That the government was forced to blink first in its stand off with university vice-chancellors should also hardly come as a surprise. A university represents a significant economic entity. It collapses that’s tens of thousands of well paid jobs lost to the local economy, many times more of indirect employment (shops, bars, restaurants, etc.), a crash in local house prices and of course a lot of disgruntled students who’ve just blown tens of thousands on a degree they can’t finish. Indeed, given the drop in council tax revenue and business rates resulting from a uni collapsing, its likely many councils (given the less than healthy state they are in) would also go bust as well if their local uni went down. In short, for any politician to let a university fail would be political suicide.

What I find interesting about this story however, is the covert manner in which the university was bailed out. According to the government, they only “lent” the money to the university in question for a week or so. This sounds somewhat dubious. A uni that was in talks with insolvency lawyers manages to find a million pounds down the back of the sofa around the same time the government lends it money. Ya sure! And if you believe that, I’ve got some magic beans I can sell you. More than likely what actually happened is that the government used the money to arranged a line of credit with the banks, with it taking on the uni’s debts, in return for them lending money to the university.

And these cloak and dagger tactics should come as little surprise. The situation with universities mirrors the difficulties the government faces with local councils (bankrupted by LOBO loans), ex-state owned utilities (rail, water and power companies) with similar large debts, as well as the £300 billion in PFI debts the country owes. Then there’s the +£100 billion in student debt, that’s unlikely to be paid off in full.

The truth is that the Tories policy of austerity has just been smoke and mirrors. Yes the cuts in welfare spending are very real and creating lots of hardship, but they don’t save a lot of money, given that only a tiny fraction of public spending is on welfare (compared to what is spent on pensioners for example or the NHS or the MoD).

Also its questionable whether such cuts save money at all. Sack a civil servant and replace him with a private contractor, whose employer charges three times the amount, well that’s hardly value for money. Less so if our ex-civil servant starts claiming benefits. Cut his benefits, that leave it up to food banks and local councils to pick up the pieces. And this has been the problem with austerity, its just moving numbers around a ledger to hide the fact that the Tories haven’t reduced anything, in fact they’ve made things worse. Tory economic policy since 2010 has been little more than a set of Enron style accounting tricks to hide debts, rather than reduce them.

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Even the UK’s official debt is higher than it has been for decades

And, much as with our unnamed university, once one of these quango’s gets in trouble, despite government protestations to the contrary, they will quietly bail them out. Recall how East coast rail was bailed out as were the creditors of Carillon. The government has to bail them out (same as our unnamed uni), because if they don’t they risk a very damaging unravelling of firms in a similar position. Its likely that if one uni goes down (or one rail company or water company) in the UK, several more will quickly follow (as nobody with a lick of sense will lend money to any other UK uni’s nor sign up for their courses). Which is of course exactly the problem with public services, they are by definition too important to be allowed to fail. So one has to question the wisdom of making them part of the private sector, as all you are doing is privatising profit and socialising risk.

And this isn’t just about saving the Tories ideological blushes. Basically what the government is doing is legally questionable. If any company or an individual did the same we’d be led away in hand cuff’s to the tune of inner circle.

The danger for the government is that at some point the rating agencies and banks are going to argue that these hundreds of billions of public debt that the government is essentially responsible for, needs to count it as part of the UK’s public debt. Which would leave the UK’s public finances looking worse than they did when the Tories took over (and Gordon Brown was dealing with the worse economic crisis in a century, while the Tories have essentially created an economic crisis). In fact they’d look worse those of Greece (which is now well into recovery and growing faster than the UK)…..and they want to at least wait until labour takes over before dropping that bombshell (so they can blame it all on Corbyn).

Of course the trouble with this Tory strategy is that events might be taken out of their hands. For example, a uni’s creditors decide to force it into liquidation, regardless of what secret offers the government makes, as they’d prefer to get their greedy paws on its billions worth of city centre property. A quango running a public service goes to illegal lengths to hide its debts, meaning the police get involved and force it into insolvency. And recall many of the UK’s public service quango’s are owned by foreign companies (many based in the EU), so its not necessarily a matter the UK government can influence.

But either way, we get the uncontrolled meltdown of a public service, council or university, with all the negative consequences that brings (as again, once one goes down, several more will likely follow). So its a case of watch this space and expect fire works in the future.

News roundup

Back from an overseas business trip, thought it would be time for a catchup…

The not so big blue wave

So the results of the US mid terms are in and it turned out much as predicted. The democrats took control of the house, but the GOP still hold the senate and hence can block impeachment and keep nominating supreme court justices.

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Missing big blue wave, if found please forward to the DNC

While one has to call it a victory for the democrats, not that you’ll ever get Trump to admit to that. But at the same time, its pretty clear that any idea that the GOP voters will rebel against their party was wishful thinking. The fact is that the Republicans are less a political party and more of a cult, a cult of anti-liberalism. They don’t have any real policies, other than to opposite whatever it is the left are calling for….and of course doing some favours for their corporate donors along the way.

What is clear from this election is that republicans know exactly what they were voting for back in 2016. They know Trump is incompetent and not fit for the job, but they’d rather have an incompetent fascist than a competent democrat. They don’t support him despite his racism, his unchristian like behaviour and the fact he stands for everything the GOP has opposed since the civil war, but because of it.

Thus the democrats need to quit taking the moral high ground and grow a spine. My advice would be to pull every dirty mean trick they can to now shut down Trump’s and wait out the rest of his time in office. Its basically what the GOP did to Obama, so its only fair the democrats do the same.

And when they get back into power, then what goes around comes around. He’s going to appoint a couple of pro-lifers to the supreme court, we’ll just appoint a dozen 20 something members of the ACLU and the Brady foundation (then make any further changes to the structure illegal without the unanimous approval of every member of Congress).

Similarly if the GOP are going to cut welfare programmes, then once in power the democrats need to make clear they’ll be doing the same. An end to farm subsidies (which predominantly benefit republican voters), reforms to military spending and government contracts (which benefit the 1%) and ending the practice of democrat voting states effectively subsidizing republican voting states all needs to be on the table.

Only when confronted with the threat of such measures will the republicans be brought to heel.

 

The not surprising October surprise

The election also included the usual “October surprise, which is basically something completely irrelevant to the campaign (e.g. Hilary’s e-mails) which the right wing media will blow out of all proportion. In this case it was a immigrant caravan…which is still hundreds of miles away from the country.

And you’ll notice how they only started talking about it to deflect attention from right wing terror attacks…sorry I mean a Trump supporter getting a little too carried away. Because when a white guy goes and shoots people (or mails bombs) that’s not terrorism apparently. And the immediate aftermath of such an attack is not the time to talk about new gun legislation, or the remarks made by Trump that inspired such an attack. But if a Muslim doesn’t anything…..

 

Wheels coming off in Italy

For me it was always a case of how long before the wheels started to come off the populist 5S/league horseshoe government rather that if. And it looks like we’ve not had to wait long.

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In Rome (under the control of a 5S for several years now) there’s been protests as regards the collapse in public services, notably public transport (with bus fires still a major problem) and rubbish collection. The irony is that one of those stars of the party is access to good public transport and public services. So they can’t even get this right!

Now it has to be acknowledged that one of the difficulties that 5S faces is the enormous levels of corruption that exists within Italy, notably the public sector. However, the fact that 5S has gone into coalition with the very people behind that corruption (the league and their ally Berlusconi, not to mention members of 5S itself) doesn’t exactly help. And it highlights just how naive and inept 5S actually are that they didn’t anticipate that this would be a problem.

Meanwhile 5S’s fascist allies have been busy, well, doing fascist things. For example, one of them recently compared a black politician to a monkey. And not only did he not face any sanction over this, but when she called him out over it, he sued her. Yes this is Italy under a horseshoe government, its okay for politicians to be racist, but its illegal to criticise them over it.

You go into power with fascists, they’ll do fascist stuff, shock horror. I mean did any supporters of 5S really think this won’t happen? You did at lest google the term “Liga Nordbefore voting to approve this coalition?

About the only thing that unites the two parties is their hatred of the EU. And inevitably their budget proposals have been rejected by the EU (in part because they know most of the extra cash will simply go straight into the pockets of the mafia). So it looks like they’re going to fight city hall and inevitably lose.

 

A sign of the times

The other week some racist brexiter nutter was caught on a Ryanair flight making racist remarks to a fellow passenger (an African granny). What I thought was interesting was how the Irish media made a federal case out of it (which seemed to be more along the lines of why didn’t Ryanair land immediately and sling Mr Gammon straight off the plane).

However, the British media (and it was a brit involved) largely ignored it. Post-brexit, racists making racist comments in public falls into the “dog bites man” category and just isn’t news worthy. Which I thought was an interesting contrast with the Irish media’s response.

 

Leave means LEAVE!!!!

The British, with just months to go, still don’t seem to understand the consequences of brexit. There’s even an organisation with the passive aggressive name leave means leave (or presumably that should be leave means LEAVE!!!!), which it will come as little surprise to learn is almost entirely made up of greyhaired old white men with sweaty red faces (like our racist in the previous story). But the thing is they don’t seem to grasp what leave actually means.

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Spot the leave voter…..

For example one of the more serious consequences of leaving, as I mentioned before, is the UK’s decision to leave the ECJ at the same time. There have been test cases in Ireland which have seen people getting away with crimes, even in one case murder. It would appear that what leave means is that if you break British law and make a break for the border you can literally get away with murder.

And the British solution? Refer the matter to the ECJ! Yes the very body they are now leaving is being asked to pull their ass out of the fire. It would appear that the British think that just because they are pals with the Irish they can have some sort of associate membership of the ECJ (which presumably they aren’t going to pay for). And is not as if giving the Irish (or any other EU state) that sort of leverage over the UK won’t come back to haunt them later.

The real world consequences of this are not good. Basically if you live in the UK and someone from the EU owes you money, after March 2019, you’re stuffed. You’ll have to go to a European court, which means hiring an English speaking lawyer in the relevant country (which won’t be cheap) and waiting a long time, as the wheels of justice in some EU states are very slow to turn (as in years), especially when it comes to civil cases (they prioritise criminal cases, assuming that the longer they leave a civil case, the more likely the parties will settle out of court).

Should you be wondering at this point, why isn’t their a body to get around all of these problems? Well there is. Its called the ECJ! And it was set up because the British and Germans were sick of having to deal with the courts in countries like Italy or Spain (oh and in some EU states the law often varies depending on the region, a court in Catalonia cannot command local officials in Andalusia).

And this brings up the political fallout too. Take the position of the DUP. While one understands their opposition to the EU’s proposed backstop (that Northern Ireland remains part of the customs union), it at least settles the issue. That’s a far better alternative, where there’s a hard border that cripples the Northern Irish economy. The more people effected by brexit, the more will vote in a border poll to join the south. While previously you’d struggle to get a majority of Catholics to support a united Ireland in the North, now the polls show an overall figure with a margin of just 3%. Some that a bit of economic disruption will easily overturn. In short, if there’s ever a united Ireland, we’ll have the DUP to thank for it, rather than Sinn Fein.

I’m reminded of an ex-flat mate of mine. He decided he was spending too much money on nights out, so his solution was to cut back on expenses….which didn’t include his nights out. Instead he decided he didn’t need to pay his share of the gas bill any more (because he never turned on the heating), nor the TV license (ditto). He was also a member of a sports club and cancelled his membership. But given that all his friends were members he kept sneaking in and using the facilities, or going to social events.

That’s kind of where the brexiters are with the EU. They want out, but they still want all the benefits of being a members, just without paying for it. In short, it seems to me that many brexiters don’t seem to realise that leave actually does mean leave.

 

News flash – the UK is an Island

Dominc Raab gets a lot of stick for being…well a little bit thick. But to be fair he’s only been in the job as brexit secretary a few months and he’s doing better than his predecessor, who spent a grand total of 4 hours negotiating with the EU in the space of a year and a half. Then again, part of the price we pay for brexit is that fact that a lot of idiots have jobs in cabinet, simply to maintain the delicate balance that props up the PM.

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Well anyway, Raab’s returned to the UK with news of an important revelation that he was unaware of. Apparently Britain is an “Island and therefore needs these things called “ships” to trade with the rest of the world. This means Dover getting clogged up due to a no deal brexit might be kind of bad.

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Dominic Raab…life is like a box of chocolates and he certainly doesn’t know what he’s going to get!

I mean who could of known. I remember going to Dover once and thinking I might walk to France, but then I my feet got wet. Well now I know why. Expect the Daily Mail to claim that the English Channel is moat dug by the French to punish the UK for brexit.

And if you think that’s a joke, consider that the head of HMRC (a lowly customs official) received death threats from angry Gammon’s when he pointed out the potential costs of leaving the customs union would cost businesses £20 billion a year.

 

So long and thanks for all the fish

But at least brexit will benefit the fishermen. That the one line you keep on hearing, the fishermen, the fishermen, deer god will someone think of the poor fishermen….who are going to get royally shafted by brexit.

Of course the people who own the fishing boats and fish quota’s, well that’s a different story. And who are these people? well a recent survey discovered that a small group of wealthy families control much of the UK’s fishing quota’s.

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The UK takes control and goes from being able to fish in all of these waters, to just some of them

Just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List hold or control 29% of the UK’s fishing quota. More than two-thirds is controlled by just 25 businesses or families (half of whom are linked to criminal activities). And in England alone nearly 80% of fishing quota’s is held by foreign owners or domestic Rich List families. Half of Northern Ireland’s quota is held by just a single trawler.

This is the reality of brexit, the only real winners will be a handful of the very wealthiest, whose wealth and offshore assets leave them immune to the negative effects of brexit.

 

Trust gone

Another brexit related story was that of a phone conversation between the Irish PM and the British one. Almost as soon as he put the phone down, the Irish PM rushed out a media statement explaining what was said. Why? Because he’s all too aware that he’s dealing with a bunch of deluded manics back in London, who will have only heard what they wanted to hear and that the UK media will just make stuff up about what was actually said.

And the EU is now saying they won’t even consider holding a summit until the UK has basically decided what they want, written it down on paper and signed. That’s how low the trust between the UK and the EU is now. They don’t even trust the British to remember what was said over the phone a few minutes before and report that honestly.

 

The people’s will

Universities minster (and Boris Johnson own brother) Jo Johnson has just resigned, calling for another referendum. Which of course ain’t going to happen.

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I mean consider that for months now, you even remotely question the wisdom of brexit, you’ll be told its “the will of the people”, ignoring recent polls suggesting the people are rather sick of it and would rather call the whole thing off.

In short, the “will of the peoplehas become the people’s last will and testament. A national suicide pact that only about a quarter  of the country voted for, without knowing that this was what they were voting for.

 

University bankruptcies loom

Brexit has made for choppy waters in universities. We lost a number of staff, through either redundancies or the fact they decided to tunnel out of the lunatic asylum and escaped back to Europe. Research funding has been cut and EU student numbers are down. But the thing is my uni don’t have it that bad. A recent report suggests that several of the UK’s universities are “one policy change away from collapse”.

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Some have lost hundreds of staff through redundancies and the non-renewal of rolling contracts. And while the loss of a few students and a bit of research funding hasn’t exactly helped our situation, spare a thought for some other uni’s in receipt of hundreds of millions a year of EU R&D money, with courses almost entirely made up of fee paying foreign students. And remember we’ve not actually even left the EU yet, the real bad news is yet to arrive.

So with several universities literally circling the drain, it is time to address the question I asked sometime ago, what happens when a UK university actually goes bankrupt? The government seems to think, it won’t matter, it will serve to scare the rest straight, the magic of the market will fix everything. My fear is that opposite will happen.

Overseas students (from the EU or further a field) will flee the country (taking their money with them), R&D money (from the private & public sector) will disappear and banks will start cutting off lines of credit. So one collapse will probably be followed by several more. And in the context of brexit, its the larger more prestigious uni’s (basically any dependant on large EU research grants or with a large intake of foreign students), which are potentially in the firing line, not just the ex-polytechnics.

In many cases the local uni is the main local employer in its area and supports many tens of thousands of jobs (those student take-away meals don’t cook themselves!) and props up local property prices. So the political fallout of such a bankruptcy is going to be massive. And once one goes down, and others looking wobbly, this impact won’t be restricted to that constituency.

So the political price the Tories will pay if they allow such a thing to happen is going to be massive, more than enough to potentially swing an election Corbyn’s way. Hence why the question is are they actually prepared to pay that price? Or will they, as has happened so often when a privatised company gets in trouble, just be forced to step in and prop the universities up, same way public money is being used to prop up the failings of the privatised energy, water and rail industry?

Because that’s the reality of Thatcherism, make a mess of a perfectly functioning public service, let the private sector run it into the ground, then skip town with all the money, forcing the government to step in and pick up the pieces.

 

Moorside nuclear plant cancelled

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Hinkley C is increasingly looking like the hill and which the UK nuclear lobby are going to die on. This ridiculous boondoggle has so poisoned the well, that it could well be the last nuclear power station ever built in the UK.

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Case in point, we now have news that the proposed Moorside nuclear project in Cumbria has been cancelled. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock. As I reported before, the bankruptcy of Westinghouse last year meant this was probably inevitable. However, it does highlight how bad the situation is for nuclear energy.

Consider that Toshiba would not have taken this decision lightly, its going to cost them about £125 million just to walk away with nothing to show for it. And there were efforts to try and get someone else (notably a South Korean firm) in to take over the project, but inevitably they weren’t interested in polishing a turd. Of course this highlights all the problems with the Tories unhealthy obsession with nuclear, lavishing money on expensive boondoogles that the private sector won’t touch with a barge pole, while punishing renewables for their successes.

 

Mars colonisation nixed

Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars may have taken a bit of dent due to a recent study published in Nature. Its behind a paywall, but the gist of the report is that in order to terraform Mars, you’d need to heat the planet up. That would involve releasing lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to bring up the atmospheric pressure and temperatures. Well the researchers did an inventory of available CO2 resources on Mars and concluded there isn’t nearly enough of it available to do the job.

And since we’re talking about it, the “heat the planet up” part of terraforming would be the easy part. Creating a stable oxygen rich atmosphere would be the harder part (this process took billions of years on earth). Along with stopping the solar wind eroding away the atmosphere again, much as happened to the original Martian atmosphere. And as Mars lacks a magnetosphere, colonists would still be vulnerable to things like solar flares even with an atmosphere.

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So this seems to suggest terraforming Mars might well be impossible. However, it doesn’t rule out the option of para-terraforming, whereby you build a large dome over a deep Martian valley or crater and terraform the atmosphere within that dome.

 

No dogs, disabled or poor

A survey by the housing charity Shelter has revealed that 10% of rental property ads in the UK include the phrase “No DSS (this is the scheme through which disabled and the unemployed get their housing benefit). In essence its the equivalent of putting up a sign saying “no working class scum need apply” or including a skin colour chart saying you must be this white to get a flat.

Now the only thing I find surprising about this is that its only 10%. I suspect its in truth a lot higher than that. Under UK law it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or economic background. But the shocking thing is that while you could probably pull some of these landlords up for putting such a thing in their ad, under the current law prosecuting them for actually discriminating against people (even racial discrimination) is nearly impossible.

This is the problem with the UK, its property laws are like something out of a Dickensian novel. For too long UK law has favoured landlords over tenants, which is perhaps not surprising in a country where parliament is made up of the landlords rather than renters.

News roundup

The Pedo party

Is it just me or does it appear like the major qualification you need to get ahead in the Republican party is to be a pedo, kiddy fiddler or sex offender of some form or another? Since Trump took over we’ve seen a long line of dirty old men going into the white house. I mean they even set up a dating site (for straight blue blooded republicans) and the male model they chose in the ads turned out to be a sex offender. Its like Trump is some sort of magnet for this sort of thing.

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Consider that evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote GOP, have gone from being 80% likely to say that a president should resign for having an affair (and quote a bible verse), to being 80% likely to say, ah it doesn’t matter, the bible? Well that says lots of things, I mean its not as if we have to take it literary!

At least it does go to prove my theory of conservative flip flop syndrome. In essence the Republicans, much like the UK Tories, aren’t really a political party anymore. They have no actual policies, no direction. They are just a cult devoted to follow which ever random nutty sex offender/tax cheat happens to be in charge at the time. And once he loses power in disgrace, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say so what, then forget about him. Recall how back in the Bush days, or Romney in 2008, they were the true messiah, failing to support them was treason again the US….until they criticised Trump! Of course, like any cult, the GOP needs funding, so they’ll happily sell their services to whichever random billionaire can afford to bribe them.

What this shows is that the democrats need to take the gloves off. The GOP won’t fight fair and you won’t win a fair fight when they’ve stacked the system against you. I’d propose that as soon as they get power back, prioritise shoring up the checks and balances. I’d federally mandate how electoral districts are organised (the states draw the line, but according to rules set by the federal government, overseen by non-partisan officials) and introduce proportional representation. Both would guarantee that the party that wins the most votes gets the most seats (the only reason why the GOP get so many seats is gerrymandering). It would also open up the possibility of smaller parties getting representation.

As for this Brett guy, once a democratic president is in charge, I’d give him and any other Trump justices a choice, resign or we stack the supreme court. There’s nothing in the constitution that stops a democratic president/congress either setting term limits on supreme court justices (which would force all but two to resign and be immediately replaced) or say appointing a few dozen twenty something women (and card carrying members of the ACLU) to the supreme court (this incidentally is what FDR threatened to do). Suddenly its likely he’ll remember some important yard work in needs to catch up on and retire.

Jacinda and the peacocks

At the UN there was controversy when some delegations showed up with babies, but at least the NZ PM’s baby didn’t make a speech and crap all over the place….unlike America’s baby (who got laughed out of the room).

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Much was made of the NZ PM’s speech and the contrast between it and Trump’s. She spoke of unity and fixing global problems, he spoke mostly about himself and blaming others for his problems. I was reminded of something a military officer once told me about the traits that the military look for in a good officer (good judgement, leadership, team player, etc.) and there are red flags which signal that this guy should never be given command, as he’s likely to become a dangerous liability (who’ll march his unit into a minefield and get them all killed).

Well we see a lot of those red flags on display at the UN summit. Selfishness and putting oneself first is always a worry (note to Trump, there’s no “i” in team….although there is a “u” in c*nt!). An officer like this is likely to send in his boys, then take off in the other direction when the shooting starts. I recall Oliver Stone once mentioning that on his first day in Vietnam his officer put him out on point!

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Other worrying red flags include impulsive behaviour (Trump again, he who dares….usually walks straight into an ambush), or equally bad, indecisiveness (Theresa May). Its important for a commander to be aware of what’s going on around them, so a detachment from reality (Trump or the brexiters) is very dangerous. And a good commander needs to listen, a bad one ignores advice (Trump again) or even punishes (Corbyn) those who offer it.

However of all of the traits you want to avoid in a commander, its one who blames others for his misfortune (such as foreigners). He berates his own men for disloyalty (have you given them reasons to be loyal, or plenty of reasons to question everything you say?). Or worse, blaming the enemy (if the enemy isn’t co-operating with your plans, well that’s kind of supposed to happen!). In short, the buck stops with the commander and any who is unwilling or unable to accept that is unfit for command.

All in all, this populist wave has left us a world led by strutting chest puffing peacocks, all of whom won’t be so much as put in charge of anything more dangerous than a stapler if they joined the military. All we can do is hope there isn’t some sort of crisis in the next few years, because I have very little faith in the majority of the world’s leaders. And its no wonder NZ is becoming the bolt hole of choice.

Hilary would have been worse

How different it would have been if the person who got the most votes had won. Mention this of course to Trump voters (or the Bernie or bust brigade) and they’ll mumble something about “Hilary would have been worse”. Really?

Would Hilary have appointed a long list of sex offenders to senior positions? (granted she’d have had to lock Bill in the basement or put him in a chastity belt). Would she have appointed a bunch of incompetents (purely on the basis of loyalty rather than ability to do the job) to senior government positions? Would she have left hundreds of important posts vacant? Would her aides have to brief her using cue cards and take stuff of her desk in case she did something stupid? Would she have gone to Russia and buried her tongue up Putin’s a*s?. Would she have started rolling back environmental protections and workers rights, or given a massive tax cut to the super rich? Would she have started a trade war for no good reason? Would Chelsea Clinton be jetting around the world acting as the defacto foreign secretary? Would she have started to use the US treasury as her own personal piggy bank, striking deals with countries on the basis of what most benefited her personal businesses? Would America have fallen from the world’s most respected nation to the butt of the world’s jokes?

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As I said from the beginning, Hilary would not have been my first choice as President. But in the election you had a choice between her and the pus*y grabber in chief. I know which of those two is the lest worse scenario. This is why I do worry about the mid terms. The democrats seem to be at war with themselves. The only condition that should apply is are you willing to oppose Trump and if possible get him impeached? Anyone who meets that criteria gets my vote.

On which point btw, I strongly advise voting for republicans, even the moderate ones critical of Trump. As recent events have shown, they can be leaned on by the party and made to toe the line (probably because having had their snout in the feeding trough for so long the GOP and its donors have a lot dirt on them that they could easily leak to the media).

To draw an analogy its like the US was this town out in the old west and the position for sheriff was open. The choice was some guy in a black hat, who had a English accent (despite being German), a large scar and an evil laugh (and when he laughs birds drop dead out of the sky). Or some other guy (the man with no name), who while not being necessarily a good guy, he clearly ain’t the baddie. But no, some of the town want to vote for old man Bernie, despite the fact he’s been pushing up the daises up on boothill for the last couple of months. Well now they’re getting bull whipped by the black hat, while he burns down the church (with the preacher inside) and they are trying to console themselves that might have been worse.

Musk out at Tesla

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So Musk managed to get himself banned from running his own company. Well to be honest this was a train wreck that was going to happen sooner or later. There’s a certain discipline that comes with being a CEO, not unlike some of those qualities I mentioned earlier. However, they are really only optional. There is in fact one key skill which a CEO must have above all else – keeping your big mouth shut!

A CEO is the face of his company. Anything he says is going to have an impact on the share price. This is why most tend to be fairly guarded about what they say, often taking the view that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything. Hence why some of the statements from CEO’s regarding brexit should be setting off alarm bells.

Musk got himself in trouble thanks to his efforts to stop short sellers driving down Tesla’s share price. Yes, this was unfair, but on the other hand, he was kind of making it easy for them. What with calling a British diver a pedo, refusing to answer questions at a press conference because “they weren’t cool” or smoking pot live on the internet. As his downfall should show, the markets are decidedly unfair. They are a bit of a wild west. Yes the corrupt sheriff can send out his one spurs to rob your farm. Yet when you set out to take revenge its you who ends up swinging from a rope, regardless of whether or not you shot the deputy.

Which is slightly ironic given his, and other tech billionaires, affinity for libertarianism. In a libertarian world it would be even worse. Ford and GM would in fact have likely crushed him along time ago, same as Standard oil would destroy its competitors. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

Minister for starvation

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Its difficult to avoid talking about brexit. Firstly we have the story than given the difference between where the UK would be if we hadn’t voted for brexit and where we are now, the UK is now 500 million a week worse off (you’ll recall those ridiculous promises of an extra 350 million a week!). The UK has been forced to appoint a minster of starvation supply (for the first time outside of a war).

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Meanwhile, back in fantasy land, at the Tory party conference, they were trying to outdo each other with their different brexit fantasies. It was less a conference and more of a unicorn horn measuring contest. Brexit to the Tories is more about who they want to be the captain of the Titanic as it sinks and whether or not they should burn the lifeboats before anyone can use them. Meanwhile, a bunch of young Tory activists got caught with racist and classist slogans on their T-shirts, but of course that’s allowed, yet a labour supporter did it, the newspapers would be wanting Corbyn to be hung.

On a positive note, it was noted that Theresa May never mentioned her Chequers plan in her speech, which could hint that she’s going to roll over and accept whatever the EU offers her….Or it could be because she knows that if she so much as mentioned that word, it would be like playing the rains of Castamere at a wedding. Within seconds they’ve have all started stabbing one another. So probably more of a survival instinct than anything.

Increasingly it looks like we’ll just have to wait for all the brexiters to die off and vote to re-join the EU….which probably won’t take too long, ironically thanks to brexit. The NHS (which again the bus ads promised would be better off) is already in crisis, with a Breixtus of EU staff leaving, not surprising when brexit threatens to turn them into 2nd class citizens. The government’s solution? Oh, we’ll just have the nurses train as doctors or shorten their training time. I mean its not as if people die if hospitals make a mistake or something.

Making rent

Housing The Homeless

I’ve come across quite a few stories over the last few months about homelessness in California, one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. And we’re in many cases talking about people with jobs who are homeless, as its become difficult if not impossible to make rent in California, to the point where some are sleeping in their cars or living out of campervans. Let me repeat that, we’re talking about people with jobs, who work hard, who have kids and a family living in their cars. Welcome to Trump’s America.

Now too be fair, this is part of the hangover from the financial crisis. And we really have to pin the blame for that on past US presidents (notably G. W. Bush). And of course Obama’s recovery was a rising tide that didn’t lift all ships. Governors of California (who have come from both parties since the crash) also have to take some share of the blame. That said, Trump has cut federal housing aid, and who did he appoint in charge of housing? Ben Carson (the first person to conduct brain surgery on himself).

So there’s plenty blame to share out, the question is how to fix it. Well clearly a lack of rent control is part of the problem. If you let landlords charge $2000 a month for a flat (with a two month deposit on top), then nobody except the better off will be able to pay that. And there’s a lack of good affordable social housing. In Europe for example, try to get planning permission for a hundred luxury condos and you’ll be told nope, not going to happen, unless you add in a few dozen affordable homes or council houses.

Of course there’s an elephant in the room here we’re ignoring, one you can clearly see if you’ve ever flown over California and looked out of a window – urban sprawl and low density housing. While we’ve got problems with urban sprawl in Europe yes, but never to the same extend as it occurs in the US. Developments that would be refused in Europe are routinely approved in the US.

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In fact, government policies intended to promote car ownership are a major contributory factor, by for example legally requiring large parking lots everywhere. By contrast, getting planning permission for car parks in Europe is tricky and will often be refused (we’ve a long standing issue in my block with parking, long story but the bottom line is the council will routinely turn down applications for parking lots, unless you’ve got a damn good reason for having one and even then they’ll insist its underground).

The end consequence of this is vast spread out cities where you need a car to just get around. Case in point, the population density of LA is around 1,000 per sq km, while in London is closer to 5,000 and Paris 21,000. If the oil ever runs out LA is going to starve to death, given in some LA neighbourhoods you can literally get picked up by the cops for just walking. The US has legally mandated a country full of vast parking lots, now its got them filled with homeless people rather than apartment blocks.

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And, as always, this highlights the shortcomings of the libertarian politics of the tech billionaires. Their lassie-faire approach amounts to them amassing vast fortunes and living in huge mansions, while the serf’s who toil away making all that money have to steal food from work, then find a quiet parking lot to catch some sleep in and hope they don’t get mugged. This is what a libertarian world looks like.

A real magic money tree, scientific publishing

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An interesting article here from George Monbiot about the racket of scientific publishing. If you are an academic, in almost all cases you have to publish your research in a peer reviewed journal. Many academics will in fact have it in their contract of employment that they must publish a certain number each year, often in specific journals.

However these journals are owned by private companies, notably Elsevier, which was the brain child of Robert Maxwell. So in essence we academics use public funds to generate intellectual property that we are then obliged to hand over to a private company, who then charge our own university library a small fortune to be able to access it. In essence we are being contractually obliged to participate in a wealth transfer scam from the public sector into the pockets of media billionaires.

This situation could be solved relatively simply. Either the government just nationalises these firms and makes their data publicly accessible free of charge. Or it puts in place a rule prohibiting uni’s from setting targets for staff based on for-profit journals. This would mean we publish in open access journals more frequently. Faced with the risk that the intellectual property they own would quickly become worthless (scientific data tends to get obsolete pretty quickly), the private publishing houses would then likely be forced to go open access themselves……

Comcast buys Sky, Murdoch on suicide watch

.So why you may ask, aren’t governments trying to move towards open access journals? Well because they don’t want to upset media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch of course. The media is something of a closed shop, a forbidden lawn onto which politicians dare not tread….or the Sun will publish an article calling them gay.

However, in amongst all the other stories recently, a little story slipped through that’s actually of significant importance. For many years now Rupert Murdoch has sought to take full control of UK broadcaster Sky. However, while the UK’s politicians are a spineless lot, they ain’t stupid enough not to see the danger with letting him have full control of all the newspapers and half the TV audience. So they’ve been obstructing that process, although more about going through the motions than any real opposition.

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Well the phone hacking scandal forced those plans to be kicked into the long grass for a while. Brexit provided good cover to resume the process, but the chaos it unleashed slowed things down somewhat. However now at the moment of truth, what’s gone and happened? A rival firm, Comcast, has swooped in and bought Sky right out from under Murdoch’s nose. And if to make matters worse, its CEO while republican, is more of a moderate (read a greedy rich as*hole, but at least one whose vaguely sane). So its likely he’ll start to shift Sky more towards the centre ground of politics, rather than constantly supporting the Tories.

Keep in mind that for much of recent UK politics this has been going on in the background. Murdoch has supported this candidate or that and got his newspapers to sing their praises regardless of how nutty or ludicrous what they were proposing was. He’s more responsible for brexit or Trump than probably anything else. And now suddenly, in no small part thanks to Trump and brexit, he’s been pipped at the finishing post. Well, what goes around, sooner or later, it comes around. Karma can be a bitch!

Not so cool news

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I had a bit of a rant before about Game of Thrones season 7. However my main bone of contention was with I’d call the “cool dude” school of film making, that seems to have taken over. This brand of film making views the plot and the script as secondary and merely a way of stitching together various epilepsy inducing CGI sequences (the point of which seems to be to get the audience to say “this is cool dude”).

The trouble is that this is a style of film making that gets boring very quickly. And as its necessary to throw away much of what makes any particular genre appealing to its fan base, it tends to piss off the fans. A situation not helped by hiring directors or producers whose knowledge of say, star wars/trek is limited to whatever they managed to google while in the cab on the way to the studio.

Well it would appear the wheels are starting to come off. On the back of poor box office and bad reviews several leading actors in the latest Star trek film have quit, reportedly over pay disputes (if the film ain’t making as much they need more of those dollars for the CGI budget, which the actors seem unwilling to accept). Its possible the next star trek film might be cancelled. There’s even a crazy rumour going around that the studio is so desperate they’re going to hand it over to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Romulans? The hateful Klingons? Vulcan fiction? Kill Kirk?).

Also on their way to the job centre are the actors playing superman, batman and Cpt. America. Meanwhile, the star wars franchise is in such disarray after the Solo movie flop (that was a train wreck you could just see coming!), that it looks like any further movies (bar the ones too far into production to halt) are also going to get canned.

In short, the customer is always right. Piss off your fans, they’ll vote with their feet. I mean I’ve not been to say very many of these movies recently because, to be blunt I’d be as well off shining a strobe light in my eye for two hours.

Ultimately the problem is these major studios have a monopoly on the story lines, nobody else can make a star trek film without the risk of being sued, even though its a genre that’s over fifty years old and its original creator has been dead for twenty years. If you left any other company (cars, laptops, washing machines, etc.) with the exclusive rights to produce a product and they’d never innovate, their products would become increasingly bloated and over priced.

So this is probably one situation where we should let the markets sort it out. Let anyone who wants to make a superhero/sci-fi movie do so. Yes some will be dire and laughably bad (the Russian film Guardians for example), but others might well be much better than anything the mainstream studios can come up with.

Katla is isn’t going to blow….for now!

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If you are a tabloid reader, you might have heard that the Icelandic volcano Katla was about to erupt. For those who don’t know, Katlia is the bigger brother of the big E volcano (I ain’t even going to try and get its spelling right!) that erupted in 2010 and disrupted all of those flights. Well Katla is many times larger (with a Caldera 10km’s across) and it erupts about every 100 years. When was the last eruption? About 100 years ago! So an eruption from Katla would be far worse and could last for much longer (possibly months).

However, before you start digging a shelter or stockpiling food (a sensible idea perhaps, but for other reasons!) no, that’s not what the scientists studying the volcano actually said. In fact they pointed out they could see no signs the volcano was in imminent danger of eruption. The study did reveal a lot more about the potential impact of its eruptions. For example, in one past eruption it created a flash flood with a flow rate the Nile, Mississippi, Amazon, and Yangtze combined.

So while its unlikely to go off tomorrow, the warning is that we probably won’t get a huge amount of warning prior to any future eruption. Which given how disruptive this could be, it would seem to make sense to put in place some contingency plans for how we are going to cope, if say transatlantic flights had to stop for a few months…..so not really something the British have to worry about after March 2019 then!

Should we abolish exams?

University students from King's College London, sitting exams

Tis the season (or one of them anyway!) where we are marking. The summer exam period is particularly important for those who might have failed in the spring (or been forced to defer) as its the last opportunity for final year students to graduate this year or for the rest to progress into their next year of study. So it can be quite a stressful time for students.

Which does raise the question, are we stressing out the students unnecessarily? In other words, should we give them marks at all? Or indeed should we abandon exams and assessments in their present form altogether?

Its not quite as crazy an idea as it sounds. In many professions you don’t do an exam. And if you do it tends to be more of a pass/fail type exam. And the minimum passing grade (if it exists) is a lot higher than 40%. I mean would you want the pilot who has you at 30,000ft to have passed his pilot’s exam having gotten 60% of it wrong?

In most professions, instead, its a competency test. The obvious example is a driving test. Yes, you sit a theory element, but that’s more about making sure you know what a stop sign is before you take the tester out on an open road (and drive into the path of an 18 wheeler!). But the driving test itself is a simple case of either you pass it, or you fail it. There’s no middle ground.

And some tests are intentionally hard and decidedly unfair. I was told once by a pilot that many of the tests (written, in simulators or in light aircraft) that they do are excessively hard or even impossible. Sometimes they can be presented with Kobayashi Maru type scenario. In other words they are set up to fail. Which sounds unfair, but then again the whole point of such tests is to push the students and see how they react under pressure (if you can’t take the heat in a nice safe simulator, how well do you think you’ll hack it in a real emergency at 30,000 ft!). So how academia handles assessments, is very different from how industry handles it.

A lot of students these days are obsessed with their marks. When I was a student, we just accepted what mark we were given. We might go get a bit more feedback if we hadn’t done as well as expected, but that’s about it. We didn’t take it personally if we happened to get a lower than expected grade. But these days some them seem to want to challenge everything and wail like a banshee if they get anything less than an A. And some are taking to min/maxing the system. If you want to send students into a deep coma (before an operation for example), tell them such and such a thing isn’t on the final exam, but it is important stuff you’ll do next sems…..oh wait, they’re already asleep! And of course if they’ve got the slightest cough or cold within a month of an assessment (even if its after the hand in!) they’ll be looking for a deferral.

Some of this can be blamed on the defacto privatisation of UK universities, with students (and their parents) seeing a degree as a commodity that they are buying. And this is leading to students becoming increasingly perfectionist, which can lead to issues such as depression.

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However, the truth is that students don’t seem to realise is that your marks aren’t as important as you think. Certainly for your first job, when you’ve nothing on your CV but your degree, it makes a difference. Having a 2.1 makes it more likely you’ll get that first foot in the door than having a 2.2. But beyond that first job, its relevance diminishes with each iteration of employment. Case in point, is there anyone reading this who has hired someone in the last year or so? Assuming they aren’t a recent graduate, can you honestly remember what was their final grade? And follow up question, did it make any difference to your decision to hire them?

And I bring this last point up because it does highlight just how silly it is to obsess over grades. Recall the story I mentioned last year, where an Oxford graduate sued his uni over only getting a 2.1 (fortunately he lost!). Note that he did this 10 years after graduation. Needless to say, if your career is still in the tank after 10 years, its not your degree that’s the problem! You want to know what it is? Go look in a mirror!

Because the truth is we in academia have increasingly been found out by employers. They know some students are gaming the system. They know that some uni’s are caving in to pressure from students and going easy on the marking. (not in mine uni, but if you’ve been following the grade inflation recently its clearly happening in other uni’s). And they know all about contract plagiarism and all the other tricks.

So they are responding with more detailed an exacting interview processes. This can include several rounds of interviews including a technical interview, as well as exams and other competency tests. Other companies will recruit several people as interns for the same job and basically whittle them down one by one survivor style. Now needlessly to say, any student whose been min/maxing the system, you ain’t going to last long in an interview process like that. Regardless of what grade you got (such as our Oxford graduate), you’ll be found out pretty quickly.

And its worth noting that in the secondary or primary school sector, some schools, under similar pressure to ourselves, are experimenting with abolishing marking. Instead they just give feedback. Of course, in academia, we’d need some sort of pass/fail system. However, that could take the form of some sort of competency test.

I’m told by lecturers in other countries how in addition to all the usual assessments students face, they’ll also have to do a viva every semester, where you go into a room and face off against a panel of lecturers who can literally grill you on any question about any topic you’ve learnt that year. And if you don’t pass mustard, they don’t let you proceed into the next phase of study.

Now while some students would breeze through tests like that no problem, others would struggle, which would mean more exam stress for them, plus probably a higher failure rate. So while it would cut out students obsessing over marks and cut exam stress for some, it won’t entirely solve all of the problems. Although it would prepare them better for the real world.

So, in the absence of any other plausible alternative, perhaps we have little choice but to keep exams.

News roundup

Do panic

A few months back the brexiters complained that they wanted the Royal Mail to celebrate brexit by issuing stamps to mark the occasion. Well RM seem to have met them half way by issuing a set of “Dad’s Army” stamps. Clearly someone at RM is trolling the brexiters.

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Inevitably perhaps, others have been creating their own versions of potential brexit stamps.

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Our Brexit, hallowed be thy name

Meanwhile, back in the mad house, Saint Theresa of Maidenhead May suggested that an extra £20 billion would be available after brexit for the NHS thanks to the “brexit dividend.

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This was met with incredulity by many. At the time of the referendum when they made similar claims, it was pointed out that the UK only really spends about £8 billion on its EU membership, once farm subsidies, rebates, research funding, structural funds and other things Brussels pays for are taken into account. Of course the implication would be that, much as I warned might happen prior to the referendum, this could indicate that the Tories do not plan to pick up the tab for these bills. Farm subsidies will end in March 2019, the fishermen and deprived communities in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall will see their lifeline cut off and universities will see research budgets slashed, with a knock effect to the many high tech start ups who depend on that research funding to get them off the ground.

And there’s the not so small matter that the UK will be stuck, not with a brexit dividend, but a brexit deficit. There’s the exit bill the UK will need to pay, £40-50 billion net (depending on rebates and currency exchange differences, since its calculated in euro’s). And then there’s the economic cost of undertaking brexit (about 3-7% of GDP, best guess £72 billion).

Plus, what do you think the EU does with all of that cash? They spend it on hiring civil servants to administer all the EU regulations, that May is trying to squeeze into UK law. It was improper regulation on the British end that led to the Grenfell tower fire. In China, there’s a controversy over baby formula, leading to shelves being emptied in Australia because some mum’s don’t trust the Chinese stuff anymore. So regulations are something you neglect at your peril. And the three immediate areas that will need tackling are nuclear materials, medicines and food safety…..so no pressure then! And in any event the conditions of any trade deal, be it with the EU or other parties, will need to include a budget to account for paying for the regulation of that deal.

In short, never has a UK Prime Minster said something so inaccurate since Lord North told parliament that the Americans loved being part of the UK so much, they’d happily pay a bit more for tea. But as I’ve said before, brexit is now the state religion of the UK.

While May, perhaps sensing what she was implying, did backtrack and mubble something about a tax rise to pay for the extra money until the (non-existent) dividend kicks in. But even this is worrying. Basically what she said was that the Tory party is abandoning its manifesto and sacrificing it on the altar of brexit. And while more money for the NHS isn’t a bad thing, its almost certain that this new tax burden will fall on the middle and low income earners (this is the Tories after all, which is more likely, they give up smoked salmon once a week to pay for hospitals, or they get the plebs to pick up the tab?).

Brexit is now to the UK what Juche is to North Korea. The excuse upon which anything can be sold. A tax rise? Its for brexit (but don’t worry we’ll pay you back later). An end to farm subsidies? Privatise the NHS? Strip workers of their right to strike? Its all to make sure brexit works!

Of course the problem with this attitude is it means they just can’t understand why for example Rolls Royce or JLR would suddenly want to move thousands of jobs out of the glorious thousand year reich British empire mark II (because they are companies with shareholders perhaps?). Nor can they understand why the EU are being such assholes and threatening to cut the UK off from intelligence data and the European arrest warrant (because they have this thing in Europe called “rights” and “laws” and the UK will join Belarus and Kazakhstan as the only non-signatory to the ECHR). In other words, they are blind to the consequences of their actions. Like the suicide pilots flying their plane into the world trade centre they cannot see the obvious insanity of what they are doing and genuinely think they’ll be going to a better place.

Lock em up….by which we mean the kids

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In between picking fights with China, Trump has been busy locking up kids in cages after tearing them out of their the parents arms (what’s the bet he’ll put Roy Moore in charge!). Conditions at the facility where the kids are detained, referred to as the dog kennel, are described as inhumane and equivalent to a prison. Experts warn of the emotional scaring this will inflict. Parallels have been made to concentration camps and the detention of Japanese Americans during world II.

The day you know you’re living in a fascist state is the day you hear your justice secretary (soon to be named ministry for state security) deny he’s running concentration camps. The irony is one of the justifications of the Alex Jones mob for opposing Obama was that he was black was planning to set up FEMA concentration camps.

Oh, and for good measure the US is quitting the UN human rights council. Because clearly the words “human rights” and “America” should not be sharing the same sentence right now, even Trump can figure that one out.

Let’s be clear if you voted for Trump (or voted for a third party in a swing state, which is basically the same thing under the US system) then this is what you voted for. And frankly it shouldn’t surprise anybody, its exactly what was warned would happen if Trump was elected. At least now when reading the history books and you wonder, how could the Germans vote for Hitler, well now you know how and why. And part of the reason why international pressure failed to contain him, wasn’t because Neville Chamberlain was a weak and naïve leader. It was because he was leading a divided Britain, which had more than a few (Daily Mail reading) fascists of its own, who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Trump, upon realising that this might not look so well, immediately tried to dodge responsibility, blaming the democrats, the immigrants themselves and pretty much anyone else he could think of. Its worth noting that something similar played out during the holocaust, the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide, in which often those in senior roles were separated from the actual atrocities and generally tried to avoid taking responsibility for such things, leaving it to a handful of fanatical racist nut cases to do the dirty deeds. This of course made it so much easier to order more of the same and treat as mere bureaucratic exercise. Forget the lessons of history and they will repeat themselves.

The really big short

Trump’s tariff policy has sent stock markets crashing to the point where all of this years gains have been wiped out. And the main losers won’t be in Wall street, they’ll be ma and pa firms across the US, as well as many ordinary Americans who are about to see their living costs rise in response to these tariffs (you’ll be paying them, not the Chinese). It sounds like typical Trump. He’s not doing it because he thinks its a good idea, its an action driven purely by ego…..

Or is it? Given that Trump has not actually fully separated himself from his businesses (which is illegal btw), we need to consider the possibility that he’s colluding with others, and doing a little bit of insider trading. Its possible to profit from a falling market by shorting the market. If you can correctly guess that the stock of a particular company is going to fall, you can bet on the share price declining (by borrowing shares, selling them at a high price and then buying them back later after the price has fallen).

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However, shorting is a risky business. Its the equivalent of betting that Brazil or Germany were going to lose their opening matches. Now while this will happen occasionally (as indeed happened to Germany….guess they won’t be eating Taco’s for a while!), but the odds are you’ll be wrong more often than you are right. And to make matters worse its possible with short selling to lose more than your original investment if the market moves against you. Hence most traders will often hedge their bets (basically bet both ways, but slightly bet higher one particular way). This reduces the risk, but also the profit margin.

Of course if you have access to insider information, e.g. you are the president and you know there’s a big tax cut coming, or you’re going to impose tariff’s on the EU, then change your mind and then impose them anyway. A trader with advanced knowledge of this could easily adopt short positions and profit considerably from this.

But, not only is it illegal for a president to be in any way linked to these sorts of deals, but insider trading is also illegal and for good reason. Because if you get it wrong (and markets can be difficult to predict, even if you have access to insider information) things can go from bad to catastrophic pretty quickly. Consider how rogue trader Nick Leeson managed to lose over £800 million, wiping out Barings bank.

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Indeed one has to look at Trump’s real estate losses in a new light. People laugh and say oh Trump is such a loser he can lose money running a casino. How can you do that? I mean people literally walk into a casino and hand over their money!

Well, not if your running a casino skim operation. Its possibly that Trump, under pressure from his mob connections, was deliberately running the joint into the ground. Its just they miscalculated. Normally you skim just a little off the top, but not enough anyone will notice, nor that might risk bringing down the racket. But Trump was such a balloon head, or he and his co-conspirators just got too greedy, they managed to bleed the place dry. Which doesn’t bode well if this same lot are at the helm of the US economy.

Enabling fascism

Speaking of fascists, in Italy the populist horseshoe government is split because one of their leaders, looking to emulate Trump, wants to build his own concentration camps….sorry I mean happy camps (I’m sure they’ll come up with a more PC name!). He also wants to count Roma gypsies and presumably make them go around with little stars on them, I mean nothing bad ever happened from doing that. He’s also suggested that an anti-mafia journalist, who criticised him should have his police protection removed.

This has all come as a bit of a shock to a number of 5S voters. But what should it? You enabled a bunch of fascists and helped them into power, now they are enacting fascist policies. What did you think was going to happen? They were going to go door to door handing out milk and cookies?

Its possible that this might bring down the horseshoe government a little earlier than was expected. Which I’d consider a good thing…..if it weren’t for opinion polls suggesting a likely win for the Northern League and Forza Italia (Mr Bunga Bunga’s outfit).

The Glasgow school of art fire

In Scotland the Glasgow School of art burnt down. Designed by Rennie Mackintosh, the Mac, is to Glasgow what the Casa Mila is to Barcelona. This fire occurred just four years after another fire, which destroyed the college library, which was in the process of being rebuilt. Incidentally, lost in the story about the art school fire, was the fact that another important building, the neighbouring ABC theatre, had also burnt down after the fire spread to it.

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Two fires in the space of four years is more than bad luck. Clearly there’s something up with the building in terms of fire safety. My understanding is the contractors for the restoration after the previous fire were on site, so they’ll have some questions to answer.

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The library of the Glasgow school of art, prior to the fire in 2014

But clearly there’s some issues with fire safety that needs to be addressed. And this is not just a problem for the school of art. There’s been several large fires in older buildings in Glasgow and the basic problem is, they ain’t up to current fire codes and need to be modified accordingly. This article discusses some of the issues, although in the context of post-war era buildings, but much of the same policy should be applied to Victorian and Edwardian era buildings. E.g. fitting external fire escapes (as in New York) and sprinklers, fire resistant barriers, etc.

Meanwhile the question now being asked is whether the art school can be rebuilt. Some suggest it might not be feasible, others feel it is possible. We’ll have to see. There will inevitably be a strong desire from the art community and the Scottish government to rebuild it, but some polls suggest there might be opposition from the public, if it costs too much money.

For the moment, given that its basically now a burnt out shell, the best that can be hoped for is facade retention. Which would have to be undertaken quickly, given that its on a hill and exposed to the winds (it probably won’t survive the winter in its current state). Even then if the building were rebuilt, you’d be rebuilding everything inside that retained facade. And as noted, you’d have to modify the design to account for modern fire codes, which would require considerable modification from the original. So it would be more of a replica, rather than the real thing.

The thinking wing nut’s troll

The Toronto academic Jordan Paterson has been in the news recently, largely thanks to an encounter on Channel 4 news earlier this year, which has made him something of an intellectual hero for the alt-right. However, in truth he’s just a slight better inform right wing troll, who engages in many of their same tactics (gish gallop’s, contrarian arguments, weasel words, etc.)

Take this example where he attempts to argue that much as the right is basically anti-liberalism ID politics (his alt-right followers only hearing what they want to hear will have no doubt filtered that out) that the left is basically the same. That many on the left for example only support social welfare programs that they’ll never benefit from due to a similar commitment towards ID politics.

This position combines a number of contrarian arguments based on a falsehoods. It relies on the myth that working class people tend to vote conservative, and its the “champagne socialists” who vote for left wing parties. However, data from both the last UK election and US elections show that those who are working class tend to vote for left wing parties. When those on right try to claim the opposite, they are often forced to use weasel words statements (e.g. focus on white men over 40 in specific states).

But certainly it is true that a certain portion of those on higher incomes do vote for left wing causes. As I happen to be one of those, although real ale socialist would be more accurate, I can tell Mr Patterson my views have nothing to do with ID politics. Its because I understand that I might end up needing that social welfare safety net myself someday. No matter how hard working you are, or how well paid, all it takes is one accident, cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy of your employer or misadventure and suddenly you’re in a world of trouble.

For example (and this is just one of many examples I could give), I know a guy back in Ireland, hard worker, used to lead scouting groups, took a fall at work one day. He seemed to be fine after a few days, but as the months and years passed he developed ever worse back problems (not unusual for these to take time to surface) and eventually he had to give up work. Now if we take the right at its word, he should be dragged to the side of the street and left to die just because he had the misfortune to have an accident that wasn’t his fault (should you wonder why he hasn’t sued, his employer went bust during the crash and it was only a small building firm anyway, there won’t have been any money to sue for).

That’s all it takes to ruin your income. I wonder if Mr Paterson has paused to consider what would happen to him if he, or one of his relatives, were to fall ill and need expensive medical treatment, which his HMO wasn’t willing to cover (pre-existing conditions and all that). In fact I know of a lecturer who found himself in this very situation. A relative got ill and he had to drop everything, give up his well paid job and fly home to Pakistan. Now while last I heard he’d gotten a part time job over there, but I’m going to hazard a guess its paid a lot less than a lecturing post in the UK. And given his likely outgoings I suspect he’s probably only just about managing. Voting in favour of social welfare is not ID politics, its basic common sense.

Indeed perhaps more the question is why is it that some, notably those over 40’s blue collar workers don’t vote for left wing parties. I would argue that this stems from a long instilled ideology of rugged individualism (you’re considered less of a man if you ask for help), as well as the usual right wing lies and propaganda. And more crucially this tendency does tend to be growing (while those on lower income tended to vote overwhelmingly for left wing candidates by at least 80/20, now its closer to 60/40). So its more a sign of desperation and frustration than meaning an increase in support for the politics of the right. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given how the right doesn’t really have a political philosophy anymore, other than “anti-liberalism”.

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The calm rational logic of Trump voters

But either way, the only real difference between Mr Paterson and Alex Jones (and they are both believers in the paranormal, living on wing nut welfare, which kind of makes his point regard social welfare more than a little hypocritical), is that Paterson knows how not to look and sound like a nut, even when he’s saying pretty crazy things.

The Wakanda conundrum

I came across an interesting little video on youtube, which discuss the Wakanda conundrum. For those who didn’t see the movies (Black Panther, age of infinity), or don’t read comic books, Wakanda is a small yet highly advanced African country which has kept itself hidden from the world for many centuries (for reasons we won’t get into right now). It owes its formation to the arrival of a meteorite from space made of a strange and nearly indestructible metal. As a result its now extremely wealthy and century’s ahead of the rest of the world technologically.

So what’s the problem? Well there’s simply no way such a society could exist. No matter how valuable this resource is, without trading with the outside world (and thus sharing ideas and technology) they’d struggle to figure out how to exploit it. And without trading this resource, they’d never be able to earn any cash from it and thus never be able to buy in the stuff they’d need to exploit the resource and develop their economy. In short the economic policy of Wakanda is basically the same as that of North Korea, and they ain’t exactly the richest country in the world, nor the most advanced (I’m sure Trump would tell you differently tho!).

And speaking of which, the government of Wakanda is an absolute monarchy, with kings picked by barbaric fights (okay, if you’ve ever seen a bunch of politicians fighting over whose in charge, its not that much different maybe). The problem with such a system is all it takes is one bad king to ruin everything. And essentially, that’s the plot of the Black Panther film, but they ignore the consequences of that.

Then there’s the matter of the so-called “resource curse”, which means that small countries with valuable resources can sometimes end up worse off than countries without any. While this doesn’t apply in every situation, Iceland and Norway or Bahrain, for example. But generally countries tend to only avoid the resource curse so long as they’ve got open borders, good trade and a reasonably free society and competent government. Inevitably Wakanda would hit the buffers sooner or later and descent into a corrupt, autocratic mess.

And the other problem with having resources is it tends to draw attention to you. African dictators surrounding Wakanda, not to mention western colonists (notably the Belgians), would soon learn of it and be very quick to swoop in and try to take over the country. And given how in the last film the Wakandian army got the snot kicked out of them by a large pack of dogs, I doubt they’d be able to hold off an invasion, regardless of how advanced their technology.

Uber scooters

A number of silicon valley based firms have begun to set up dockless bike and scooter hire schemes. The logic is, rather than the traditional bike hire schemes, where bikes are picked up and dropped off at designated spots (which can mean trucks rolling around transporting bikes from docking station to docking station). Instead, the system is more free flowing. You pick up the bikes wherever you find one (a mobile phone app directs you to the nearest one) and then leave it wherever you are when you’re finished. Simple!

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So what’s the problem? Well many of these schemes are being set up by companies without the support of local governments and councils. This is causing all sorts of problems, from people riding bikes and electric scooters on pavements, then abandoning them in the middle of the pavement, where they represent a trip hazard, particularly for blind people.

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I think this is a good idea that needs to be developed more, indeed I’d be curious to see if its possible to marry this idea with current car sharing schemes. However, clearly there needs to be some sort of regulation. Frankly the operators of these schemes are lucky councils didn’t just classify all of their scooters as litter and bin them (then fine the company for waste disposal), which is actually what happened in China. No doubt these rules would specify where the bikes and scooters could be used and that where they can be left (if not at designated docking points, then off the pavement and parked neatly). Presumably a system of fines imposed (and/or penalty points) on those who break the rules might bring some discipline to the situation. So it would be a good idea for these firms to start working with local authorities, rather than trying to go the whole uber.

So long and thanks for all the fish

The one shining reason for brexit we were told was the fish. The fish, dear god will someone think of the fish! Those poor fishermen, Farage said as he cried crocodile tears. Well, aside from the fact that this ignored the realities of how trade deals work, and that the Tories have already screwed the fishermen over, there’s a more specific problem – the fish are moving.

As a result of climate change North sea cod and north Atlantic cod are migrating northward out of UK waters and into Scandinavian waters. You would think the Scandinavians would be delighted about this, but they aren’t. Their preferred fish is the Arctic cod and the increasing presence of North Atlantic cod is not only making fishing difficult for them, but threatens the long term viability of their industry. While I’m not much of a fish eater, I’m told by those who do that there’s a distinct difference in taste between the two types and that as a result, the Arctic cod is considered a more valuable product. So you can see the problem. Its issues like this that underline the need for action on climate change.

One possible temporary fix would be for the Faroese, Greenland, Norwegian and Icelandic governments to agree to let EU boats into their waters (for a fee of course) to catch the North Atlantic cod and basically take em back down south. Of course given that the UK is leaving the EU, its inevitable we’ll be cut out of any such deal. Given that all are part of the single market, its going to make a lot more sense to deal with the EU than the UK. So it looks like the UK isn’t even going to get a smoked kipper out of post-brexit fishing deals.

Free range parenting

I got into a discussion on another blog recently about how parents are becoming increasingly controlling of their kids, so called helicopter parenting, and how this wasn’t a good idea. Well now its official. A study from America suggests that overly controlling parents can lead to behaviour problems.

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I’d argue the problems go much further. We end up with students in university, who are used to having every little obstacle swept out of their way and thus haven’t learnt how to strike a work life balance or think for themselves. Its long been my observation, as both a student and a lecturer, that students from the strictest parenting background tend to be the ones who become complete tear away’s in uni.

They’ll show up in the first week of term dressed like a Mormon, or in full islamic dress, but by the end of the first semester they’re complete party animals (for whom breakfast consists of peeling last night’s pizza off their face before eating it), who start missing classes and falling behind. By contrast those from more “liberal” backgrounds (who’ve already learnt how to manage their time and say no to a night out) are able to maintain focus. And they tend to be the ones more likely to drop out, not least because it can sometimes turn out that their parents picked the course and uni for them, which turned out to be something (or somewhere) they didn’t want to study.

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In contrast to this is so-called free range parenting. Rather than for example, walking the kids to school, parents take the view, well he/she knows what time classes start, they know how to get there, so its the kids responsibility to get up on time and get there. If they don’t, its going to be a steep learning curve. While there are merits to this, there are problems with it, not least of possible legal issues.

But my view is that parents need to think of the long term impact of what they are doing. While you have to have some rules and boundaries with kids, if you don’t give them some level of independence, they’ll never learn it. Then you are stuck with them living at home and you have to get them evicted. Birds won’t leave the nest if they don’t learn how to fly.

Not going out

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The great outdoors, Rannoch Moor Scotland, with the mountains of Glencoe in the background

You may, or may not, have heard the story that Penn State university has banned their outdoor recreation club, because its too dangerous for their students to be let out in public. Which from a PR point of view doesn’t exactly send out the right message. Come to Penn state and you’ll be so hopeless at everything you can’t be trusted to go outside.

Let’s be clear this has little to do with “elf & safety”. I cannot help but notice that the American football team, water sports (generally anything involving water carries a certain level of risk), skiing (who tend to be more at risk from avalanches than hikers) and boxing clubs aren’t being closed down, even though some of these would be much more risky. And any contact sports is where we’d expect to see the bulk of injuries to students. Instead this is more a case of “liability avoidance” or what I refer to as Save Ass Policy Schemes or SAPS for short.

Admittedly, being a mountaineer and a bit of an outdoorsy type myself, it has to be said that the risks involved with such activities are difficult to quantify, as is often the case with many adventure sports. A route that some would find suicidally dangerous (e.g. the Cullin ridge on Skye), experienced climbers will do while wearing boxing gloves and roller blades….or riding a bicycle. Similarly even the most experienced climber in the world would be putting himself at an unnecessary risk if he went up certain routes in the wrong kind of weather (the guides on Skye won’t go up the aforementioned Cullin ridge in bad weather, its just too dangerous).

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One person’s inaccessible pinnacle is another person’s Sunday morning bike ride

So context is very important. Indeed this is kind of an important life lesson mountaineering teaches you, how to manage risk. Which, can be a useful thing to put on one’s CV or cover letter. But clearly the SAPS in Penn State are too dumb (or scared) to understand that. I bet employers will be queuing around the block to hire these graduates after they hear of this!

I would note that said SAPS are probably reacting to parental pressure. US universities are increasingly having to deal with not so much “helicopter parents”, but what are referred too as “snow plough parents” who expect every possible obstacle to their little darling to be swept out of his or her way. I’ve seen several situations where students stuck with a course that they didn’t like simply because their parents insisted. And when he got caught cheating, it turned out that this was the parents idea. That is kind of what universities are having to deal with right now.

You could argue the most insulting thing you could say to a mountaineer is to call him “experienced”. Because often you learn from your mistakes (so when I say I’m an “experienced” mountaineer, that means I’ve “extended the trip” or “explored alternative routes” on a few occasions). The trick with student clubs is to create a safe environment for people to learn without putting them in danger.

In Scotland we have a pretty good system set up in which the university clubs and the various mountaineering organisations (the mountain rescue teams, guides & instructors, RAF/RN rescue, McOS, BMC, SMC, etc.) arrange various safety courses towards the beginning of term. There’s events in early autumn (just a few weeks into the 1st semester) focusing on general mountaineering safety with further courses run in January/February focusing on winter mountaineering skills (just about the same time the snow’s started to accumulate). This allows new recruits to clubs to pick up the necessary skills pretty early. The clubs also tend to ease people into it, taking them on easier routes first, so they can learn some sense…rather than taking them straight up Tower ridge on Freshers week.

And this is the thing, far from improving the safety of students by shutting down this club, instead Penn state is putting them at risk. The reason for all the courses in Scotland I mentioned earlier is a little statistically anomaly. University clubs rarely get into trouble (given all the precautions they take and the fact they tend to be pretty well equipped). However, students in general are involved in a very high proportion of mountaineering accidents.

So by removing this “safe space” in which students can learn good practice, Penn State is arguably putting its student’s at risk. I won’t be surprised if, irony of ironies, they are sued in a few years time after a student gets into difficulty after being denied access to safety equipment and denied the opportunity to learn safety skills by the university.

Of course I’m going to guess America being America there’s probably a gun club in Penn State and I’m going to assume that there’s no way they’ll get banned (as nobody in senior management would want to pick a fight with the NRA). And given that Pennsylvania is an open carry state, that they ain’t going to say a word about anyone carrying a gun on campus.

Well there’s the solution, change the name of the Outing club to the Outing Gun Club. They carry on as normal, just always carry guns around while doing it (you don’t have to shoot, or go hunting or anything, just carry guns while muttering about your 2nd amendment rights). In addition use NRA style language to get out of answering any pesky questions from uni admin e.g. “Where are we going this weekend? That sound’s like an attempt to run a background check. Deep state! Deep state!”. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

But either way, this sends out all the wrong messages. It suggests the uni doesn’t trust its own students. In which case why should any employer consider hiring them? People accuse millennial of being “snowflakes”. Yet when they try to do anything remotely adventurous, they get told not to do it. If you don’t let people learn how to manage risks, they’ll either never try anything adventurous, or worse, go out and do something incredibly reckless and foolhardy. Which hardly sounds like the sort of life skills a university wants to encourage in its students.

Why tuition fees have to go

I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that they would give student better value for money in their education, more choice, it would increase funding to critical courses, such as medicine and engineering and it would cut student numbers. As these statistics show, in all three cases they have failed and the opposite has happened. Students, saddled with increasingly high levels of debt have becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their courses. Given that engineering and medical courses are more expensive to operate, the mercenary nature of some universities has seen them cut back on these course, as well as shutting down various specialised courses and restricting student’s choices (I don’t think I’ve worked in a uni where one course or another wasn’t in the process of being wound down).

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As for cutting student numbers, they’ve been going up until recently. This is just as well, for as I discussed in a prior article, we are entering into an increasingly technology driven age where its going to be harder and harder for anyone without some sort of qualification (a degree, college cert, trade, etc.) to stay employed.

However thanks to the brexit effect and Tory cuts to student grants they are now getting their wish and student numbers are down slightly this year, by about an average of 4%. Now within the meta data there are some alarming numbers, with a 23% drop in nursing, this on the back of a 96% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK to work. So this raises the risk of some serious staffing shortages in the NHS in a few years time.

Another impact of brexit, is that not only have lecturers and researchers begun to leave the UK, but UK universities too are looking to establish campuses in Europe. I recall suggesting that this might happen in the event of brexit a few years ago, and well, now its happening.

Meanwhile students in the UK are now looking at leaving uni with an average of £57,000 in debt. That is a lot of money to end up owing, made worse by the fact that the interest rates are now set to go up to 6.1%. Indeed this is sufficiently high that it for most graduates earning an average entry level salary they will will struggle to pay off just the interest on that loan, and will likely see the principal written off, which basically means the taxpayer pays it.

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So in effect the entire student fees system is little more than a tax on millennials to exploit the fact that they don’t vote, while pensioners (who either went to uni for free or paid a fraction of the amount) get an above inflation pension rise every year. Of course, increasingly, it seems the millennials aren’t willing to pay this “tax” and will vote for a party that promises to scrap it and the brexit voting pensioners can go spin on it (again I recall pointing out something like this might happen after a leave vote).

Also we need to consider a more fundamental issue, effectively by raising tuition fees Osborne and Cameron pulled an old fashioned accounting trick. The accumulated student debt in the UK now exceeds £100 billion, which we’ve established will mostly be written off, but the government won’t have to pay that off for a good few years. So in effect they set up a sort of buy now, pay later scheme and create the illusion that they were cutting the deficit.

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Now “only” £100 billion doesn’t sound so bad against the back drop of a UK debt level of £1,737 billion, 86% of GDP, noting that it was only 65% of GDP when the Tories took over (and the Tories were elected because they claimed that labour had let the debt get out of control). However given that student debt is rising at about 16% a year, so it will be closer to a figure of £300 billion in 2025 (not accounting for inflation). Add in the expected cost of brexit and its economic impact (another £100-200 billion depending on the breaks) and its not too difficult to see how the UK’s debt levels could exceed the critical threshold of 100% of GDP within a decade, worse than every European country, other than Italy and Greece I might add.

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If want to scare away your creditors, you can do it very easily if they discover that you’ve been playing silly buggers with them and there’s a whole block of off the book debts that you’re on the hook for. This is what happened to China recently. The rating agencies cut China’s credit rating due to concerns about debts run up by state owned companies. I was in China at the time and suffice to say, they were less than pleased about this, pointing out that its highly unlikely that all of these debts would go bad all at once and that China’s economy is in a vastly more healthy state than any western state.

Well the danger is that at some point the penny will drop, the rating agencies will apply a similar logic to the UK and we could see a ratings agency downgrade of the UK debts (again!), both public and private. A rating agency cut remember will make everything more expensive, mortgages will go up, personal loans, car loans and yes student loans. So its altogether bad news. Oh and since we are talking about it, as things stand the rating agencies are jittery, telling the EU to go whistle over the brexit bill, you might find its the Chancellor who is whistling if that provokes another credit rating cut.

Now the Tories will probably argue that this is the whole reason why they are trying to sell off student loan debts to the banks. However this risks making the situation worse. Firstly the whole reason for increasing the interest rate was to facilitate this sale. But increasing the interest rate on any loan will increase the default rate yet further. You are also selling off an asset which you know is going to be defaulted on. Its like sub-prime mortgages all over again. And you are creating a mechanism by which a contagion of debt can spread from one institution to another (or to the government). Again, the whole logic behind the Chinese debt downgrade isn’t that the rating agencies doubt China’s ability to pay, its their worry that a default on a loan in rural Gansu province, could lead to the collapse of one local bank and then ricochet through the system until it threatened the finances of the whole country.

Furthermore, saddling young people with an economic millstone and putting them under the thumb of the student loan company (who are known to “punish” students for disloyalty to the UK by ramping up their interest rate), leaving them living on baked beans for many years and putting off important spending decisions (such as buying a house) is not good for the economy. It could lead to economic stagnation (which would prompt another rating agency downgrade!). And why should banks get to profit from that?

So all in all, something has to give. In the first instance, if we don’t actually expect students to pay off this debt mountain, then why make them. Set up a debt forgiveness scheme and cut down student debts to more manageable levels.

As for fees, I still do think that students should pay something for their education, if they can afford to do so. A graduate tax is one idea, or some smaller, more limited level of fees. Alternatively, as pensioners will directly benefit from graduates (i.e. doctors & NHS nurses), maybe going after wealthy pensioners and taxing them (or breaking the triple lock on pensions) might be another solution.

But certainly the current system is just a recipe for disaster. It will lead to skill shortages in key areas, its creating a third level system that is increasingly unfit for purpose and could actually threaten the financial health of the country.

The future of work

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Many from working class areas of Britain voted for Brexit because they fear their jobs are under threat from migrants. Similarly support for Trump has been growing in parts of the US rust belt. And there’s a major divide, both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to education. If you have a college degree, you are very unlikely to be a Trump supporter and less likely to have voted leave.

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Now it has to be said that the argument that migrants are taking jobs isn’t backed up by the facts. A strong leave vote was seen in the parts of the UK with the lowest number of migrants, while places like London with very high rates of migrant tended to vote for remain. Similarly, major US cities, where migrants tend to concentrated tend not to be the places where there is strong support for Trump. So either these migrants are holding down three of four jobs (and presumably being rapist, drug dealers and claiming benefits in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows them), or the risk they pose is being vastly overestimated.

When I hear the story about how, oh I can’t get a job because the company down the road just hired a load of Poles/Mexicans who will work 60 hours a week for 3 bucks an hour, my response is A) don’t you think you should report that to the proper authorities? because its kind of illegal! B) leaving the EU ain’t going to help, you do realise Switzerland and Norway have more migrants per capita than the UK? C) In a globalised world, restricting the movement of labour will result in jobs moving overseas, so its foreigners staying at home and taking your job we need to worry about (far more jobs have moved overseas than have been taken by foreigners moving here) and D) do you have these guys number? cos I’ve got this bit of decking…..

But there’s an elephant in the room here that I think both sides of the debate are missing – automation and technology. In short, even if it were true that you’re in competition with Poles or Mexicans working for £3 a hour (which you aren’t, its just a neo-fascist myth), how do you expect to keep your job when you are competing against a machine that will do the job 24/7 for nothing?

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Like the frog in the saucepan, technology has crept up on us and we’ve not noticed. And yes it is changing the workplace as we know it . Think about it, when was the last time you rented a video? I’m guessing you get your video fixes from youtube or netflix these days? In fact when was the last time you saw a video store? Are there any young people reading this who need me to explain what a video store is? How about booking a holiday or flight in a travel agent? And I mean in an actual office, not online? Same with car insurance or other financial products. What about paying your taxes online? don’t tell me you actually take a day off work so you can go down the tax office and do in manually (obviously you’ve way too much free time!).

Online shopping is now much more common. And in shops these days various tasks are becoming more and more automated. We have those self service checkouts. Its conceivable in the not too distant future that shelves could be stacked by machine (we have machines that can do that already) or even provide customer service (yep, they’ve prototype machines that can do that).

Automated cars are now being developed and while I reckon it will be some time before they become a day to day reality (not because the machine’s aren’t smart enough, but because they have to share the road with dumb humans). But they are probably going to happen eventually, which will have numerous implications…. and meaning a whole host of jobs disappearing or changing radically. And there are similar plans to automate entire ships, cargo planes or trains.

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Could the Johnny cabs of Total Recall become a thing of the future?

In short technology has changed the world of work and it will continue to do so. There will still be jobs available, but many traditional jobs will disappear, and the skill set you need to get those jobs still available (or the new jobs created by technology) will continue to rise. This is the problem facing certain segments of society. As they see it, the bar keeps going up, they can’t get over it anymore, so they have it in their heads that we can somehow lower the bar again and keep everything the same, but we can’t, not without reversing many recent technological trends and isolating ourselves from the globalised world.

In manufacturing engineering for example, we are well ahead of the curve. There’s still plenty of people working in UK factories and the UK still makes lots of stuff. Prior to the Brexit vote the UK was on course exceed its 1970’s peak in car production by the 2020’s, even though the work force is a fraction of what it used to be (i.e. automation has made a smaller workforce more productive). However, nobody gets a job these days in a factory without some sort of qualification. The days when, like in Bruce Springsteen’s “the river”  (or Jimmy Nail’s “big river) , your dad could have a word with the guys down at the plant and you could walk straight into a unionised job for life are long gone.

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Many traditional jobs will increasingly disappear in future

And my prediction is that this will now roll out across the entire economy. The blunt message I’d give to people is that if you don’t have some sort of third level qualification (a degree or professional qualification of some kind) you will probably struggle to remain employed in future. So for those who voted Brexit, or are thinking of voting Trump, I’d say leave migrants alone, they are not the main threat to your employment, you need to get educated.

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And to be honest, you won’t want to be employed in future if you don’t have a qualification. What few unskilled jobs that remain will be increasingly the really crappy jobs that nobody wants, with the highest levels of job insecurity and the worst pay. The sort of jobs which will only be taken by students (who will take anything while they pay their way through college), recently arrive migrants (who just want some cash while they settle in), or those suitably desperate who can’t find anything else. Indeed, the employees of Sports Direct will argue this is already reality for them. You could argue that quite a number of those who voted Brexit (or Trump) are the canaries in the coal mine, as they are already seeing these effects.

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Feel worthless at work sometimes? Others have it worse

However, their actions are likely to prove counter productive. Restricting migration does not mean locals will find it easier to get work. What’s likely to happen is employers will just move jobs overseas, or you’ve just given them a very strong financial incentive to find a way of developing a machine to do those jobs instead.

So clearly such a future of work means some profound changes for society. Obviously the costs of third level education means its beyond the reach of many. Hence why I think of all the proposals from Bernie Sanders that Hillary needs to endorse, its reducing college tuition costs. Yes, I realise that won’t be cheap (i.e. can she afford it and still reduce the deficit?), but I suspect it will be a necessity in future, if a massive level of social stratification is to be avoided.

And in the UK far from putting up fees, we need to start cutting them. Is it any coincidence that in countries like Germany where higher education is free, there is less unemployment and less people whinging about migrants?

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And this is not just for the benefit of those who don’t have a degree yet. Even those of us who have one will likely need to return to university to learn new skills from time to time. A recent trend in academia has been a move towards what are called massive online learning courses. And these are mostly aimed at post-grads (rather than undergrads) looking to learn a new skill. I won’t be surprised if a few years from now, the main job of universities is supporting courses like this, rather than teaching degrees to undergrads in RL.

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The future of work will likely be a future where we need to accept the fact that change is good, its normal. We need to be intellectually curious and willing to learn new things and try out new ideas. Of course if you’re a conservative voter, changes are you’re not intellectually curious and you don’t want things to change. You are also more likely to reject ideas like global warming and evolution. The roller coaster of technology is going too fast, they want it to stop so they can get off.

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In the future all of us will need to re-train and change careers from time to time

But getting off the roller coaster would mean giving up what we have. Given that I can’t see us banning the use of the internet for commercial purposes (I mean how would you even police that!) or introducing soviet style jobs for the boys policies (you join one queue and then another), I don’t see how these future trends can be halted. Technology has created many problems for our society (e.g. global warming) and often as not, the solution to these problems is more technology (e.g. renewables, electric cars). So the “getting off the roller coaster” option that conservatives are aiming for would come with a price and I don’t think they understand that this price is probably more than they are willing to accept (you’d have to live sustainably without fossil fuels or renewables…. so basically become Amish!).

Another question we have to ask is whether full employment is a realistic goal for future society. Our entire economic system assumes that anyone who can work will work, but that may not be true in future, there might not be enough jobs to go around in the future.

Now in theory this shouldn’t be an issue. Technology merely means making a smaller pool of workers more productive. In Germany and Scandinavia, yes the manufacturing sectors are smaller than they were a few decades ago. But they avoided the wholesale decimation of working class areas seen in the US or UK, with some districts being reduced to little more than welfare colonies. This I would argue is because the bulk of these job losses were due to miss guided neo-liberal economic policies in the US and the UK. Reversing these policies would seem a sensible solution, although voting for Trump or Brexit amounts to asking for a double helping of more of the same.

So in theory, full employment is still a possibility. But we need to remember that more productivity often means more energy and resource consumption. Now with good recycling policies and a 100% renewable energy grid this shouldn’t be a problem, but we don’t have that yet. So its possible that full employment will not be possible in future (at least for some period of time). Which means some profound changes to society. Given that already the number of workers is falling in Western states thanks to an ageing population, this means even less and less people having to pay more and more of a nation’s taxes to fund the welfare for those who aren’t working.

Social_Security_Worker_to_Beneficiary_Ratio

Migrants are increasingly needed to help fund retirement for an ageing population

And incidentally curbing migration, which means less young people coming into the workforce and paying taxes to fund the pensions and healthcare of retirees, is likely to prove entirely counter-productive. It could well be a recipe for national bankruptcy.

My view is that we may need to change how the entire tax system works. This is one of the reasons I’ve long favoured a system of carbon taxes, or taxes on things that are generally bad for society (e.g. high VAT on alcohol or fatty foods), a Tobin tax (i.e. a tax on financial transactions) and of course higher rates of corporation tax. In all cases, the goal here is to spread the tax net away from simply funding everything off of income taxes and pushing those rates up every time the state coffers run bare. Which of course tends to provoke much whinging from the fewer and fewer workers stuck paying incoming tax.

And as for distributing welfare, well one alternative to the current system is that of a basic national income paid out to everyone. This would be enough to fund housing and keep people out of poverty. You want more money, you want the luxuries, get a job and work for it. No more whining about lazy people on benefits, everyone is on benefits, indeed presumably this system would come with the clause that such payment would be withdrawn if anyone commits anti-social behaviour (e.g. petty crime, dodging taxes via your offshore account, the usual!). Just this year the Swiss at a referendum on implementing this. Now while it was rejected, I think this was because many didn’t understand the underlying issues. So I won’t be surprised if such ideas don’t catch on in future.

So in essence our society is at a crossroads. I’d argue that we are at the end of a 2nd gilded age. Like the first gilded age, this was a time when neo-liberal capitalists ran wild, we all had a big party and nobody complained a lot because everyone was doing rather well out of it (as this moment of Zen from the film Margin Call summarises). But now, like in the 1920’s we’re stuck with the hangover. And like society in the 1920’s we face a choice.

On the one hand we can opt for a new deal of continuing down the path of social and technology progress. And let’s face it, progress is good. The factories of past era’s, yes there was full employment, but they were awful places to work. Repetitive backbreaking labour while being exposed to extremes of heat, noise, toxic chemicals and rotating machinery. Many had to retire from such jobs in their 50’s because their job ruined their health. Technology means that cars and other products these days are safer, more reliable (used to be the best way to make money from TV’s was selling warranties to fix them), more energy efficient and more user friendly. I mean is anyone reading this seriously suggesting that they hate Microsoft/Apple/Google so much that you want your old Commodore 64 back?

Or, as some societies did in the 1920’s and 30’s, we may end up taking the regressive path of fascism, blaming foreigners and other convenient scapegoats for all of our ills, restricting trade, reversing past policies, going backwards and focusing inward….until said leaders realise they need a war to prevent national bankruptcy and likely end up starting world war 3 in the process!