News roundup

Unfit for office…or opposition!

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I would argue that that there are two problems with British politics right now. Firstly a radicalised Tory party, whose broken every one of their pro-brexit promises, that seems to be committed to some sort of pointless and unconstitutional brexiter banzai charge. Which they will of course blame the EU for (as well as migrants and anyone who voted remain). But part of the problem is also a lack of effective opposition.

Labour have been facing the biggest open goal in politics for 3 years now, but have actually gone backwards in terms of support. And this is largely why we’ve gotten to this stage where no deal could be seriously considered. If labour were providing effective opposition, going up in the polls and largely seen as a government in waiting, there is no way the cabinet and Johnson’s ghoulish minions would even be considering no deal.

Case in point, given that an election after a vote of no confidence isn’t guaranteed to work, as there might not be time remaining to hold one (or time afterwards to form a government and do something). And that’s assuming labour’s poor poll ratings don’t see them get annihilated. So the sensible solution proposed by a number of pro-remain MP’s is a government of national unity to sort out brexit one way or another (revoke article 50 or a 2nd referendum) then dissolve itself and call an election.

This government would be led by an interim PM, likely a veteran politician with some prior ministerial experience (this would reassure allies and businesses that there was a safe pair of hands at the helm who wasn’t going to do anything crazy). Such a unity government would have a very narrow mandate beyond brexit. All they can do is slap a few band-aids on public services to undo the damage the Tories have done. Anything more radical (re-nationalising the railways, major tax or welfare reform, etc.) won’t be possible as they’ve have no electoral mandate, no guaranteed support in parliament, insufficient parliamentary time and the lords would just block it anyway. So it would be something of a thankless task. Likely candidates for this role include Dominc Grieve, Anne Soubry, Vince Cable or Tom Watson.

But no, instead Corbyn is insisting that he’ll be PM (why? ego one assumes). Indeed he’s implied that labour won’t even negotiate with the other parties, but try to force through a minority government. His deputy McDonnell even suggested (and I’m hoping he was joking) that Corbyn would go to the palace and demand to be made PM if they win a no confidence vote (so basically he’s going to launch a one man coup d’etat…presumably armed with a cucumber from his allotment). It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

Basically this means one of two things. That Corbyn and his cabal really are so deluded that they think that they can just walk in and take over the government, wave a magic wand and put everything right in the world….while ignoring completely the impending crisis of brexit and its aftermath. Honestly Trump seems to have a better grasp of politics than Corbyn et al. And they are ignoring polling which suggests they will at best lose dozens of seats, or worse, potentially finish 4th behind the lib dems and brexit party. The last thing he wants now is an election.

The alternative theory is that Corbyn is really so desperately anti-EU that he’s willing to put the country through a no deal brexit shredder and scupper his chances of ever becoming PM to achieve it. If he sabotages any effort to form such a unity government then a no deal brexit will have his grubby paw prints all over it. And you can be guaranteed this will be pointed out to voters next election.

And in another facepalm moment, McDonnell also suggested that labour won’t block a 2nd indy ref in Scotland. While this is a sensible strategy, it was a grave error last time for labour to whip its members and MP’s into backing remain, but its the sort of position that needs to be rolled out tactfully. You’d only want to adopt it once it was clear a referendum was imminent and use it as a bargaining chip to make sure the SNP behave themselves (i.e. they don’t go the full Cambridge Analytica).

Inevitably the right wing media reported it as labour is in favour of Scottish independence (no they aren’t that’s not what he said). And because he’d not cleared this with the Scottish labour party leadership first, it got a very angry reaction from the Scottish wing of the party.

All in all it shows us that Corbyn’s cabinet is as dysfunctional, factional and chaotic as the one in the white house. He’s completely delusional, has no clue what he’s doing and seems to have no real goal other than making sure brexit happens at all costs, even if it destroys his party to achieve it.

Dragging the queen into brexit

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In another example of how utterly dysfunctional both the main parties have become, there’s the fact that both seem determined to drag the queen into the debate about brexit. Either by getting her to intervene in the selection of who is PM, the date of any election (till after brexit happens) or by asking her to suspend parliament (i.e. suspend democracy) and force through a no deal. This is politically very dangerous. The queen, like any head of state (America being the exception) is supposed to stay out of politics (and this I’d argue is the flaw in the American system). As it can get very messy very quickly if she does get involved.

For example, let’s suppose she backs Boris and a no deal brexit. That is going to upend the lives of millions of people. Families will be split up, millions of jobs will be lost, the UK’s GDP will go down but 6-10%, there might be food and medicine shortages (we might even run out of bog roll!). And any issues with the NHS or medicines means people will die. And all of that the Queen will now be responsible for, with it all played out on the 24 hr news cycle.

So the royals will now have millions of angry voters who’d be wanting a referendum alright. But not on re-joining the EU, but on whether to packing her off back to Saxony. We’d be in the same situation the royals were in after Princess Diana died. And the only got through that thanks to Tony Blair. Boris by contrast will quickly toss her under the first passing bus to save his skin. And Corbyn has co-signed bills looking to remove the queen. And such a train wreck could re-invigorate the republican movements in Canada, Australia and NZ, who might also have similar votes.

So the trouble is that once she makes one decision she’s going to have to make more. This is exactly the sequence of events that led to past royal dynasty’s failing or kings loosing their heads (recall it was proroguing parliament where Charles I troubles started).

So for example, what if Scotland wants independence? Let’s suppose she backs Boris and blocks an official referendum. The danger is that if SNP can demonstrate enough support in an unofficial poll, then they can force their way out of the union by just making themselves such an pain in the ass that the rest of the UK throws them out (e.g. they could ask Scots to refuse to pay UK income taxes, refuse to hand over oil or VAT revenue, run up massive debts on the UK’s credit card then refuse to service those debts, organise wild cat strikes which lead to power cuts and gas shortages in England in the middle of winter, etc.).

All the queen will have done is ensure that Scotland becomes a republic (as Ireland and India did) and it increases the chances of a disorderly Scottish exit. Or worse, the Scots might take a leaf out of Norway’s book and invite some member of the royal family to take the crown of Scotland. Meaning there would be two British monarchs and allies (such as Canada, Australia and NZ) will have to decide who to back. The one whose kingdom is let by racists and disintegrating largely due to actions taken by her (and her heir apparent is Charles remember). Or some dashing new Scottish king (Harry and Megan maybe?), whose kingdom sits on lots of oil, has whisky galore and is applying for EU membership.

The sensible thing for her to do in such a situation would be to either respect the poll but ask the SNP to negotiate an orderly exit (which would be a bit rich given how she supported no deal with the EU), or ask for a 2nd official poll (after she helped Boris block a 2nd EU referendum) or call for some sort of compromise (Devo Max). Of course while this would preserve her crown, it would put her on a collision course with the PM and the cabinet.

Or how about a UK-US trade deal? If that goes through after brexit, farming and manufacturing will be devastated, the NHS sold off and we’ll be eating chlorinated chicken (meaning more people die). So she might have to get involved in that or block it entirely. Putting her on collision course with the government. And the same equally applies if she backs remain. She ends up with lots of angry people beating down her door.

My point is that both Corbyn and the Tories seem to think the queen is some sort of jack in the box. They can take her out of the box, get her to sign a national death warrant and they climb back in her box and stay there. But of course, she can’t. Its impossible to predict what way she’d go (and my advice to her would be, stick to protocol, throw it back at parliament and if they can’t decide, put to some sort of public vote). And once she gets involved in politics its very difficult to untangle her from it.

The channel hop

A French man recently demonstrated a flying platform (basically an enlarged drone) and flew it over the English channel. As Trevor Noah pointed out, you can imagine the reaction of brexiters, they got brexit to keep out the foreigners and next thing you know some flying Frenchman lands on the white cliffs and starts chasing after their daughters.

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A flying foreigner, every brexiter’s worst nightmare

But jokes aside, and while this flying platform does have certain limitations, it does show how quickly technology can change. And how that change has many consequences. For example, we can make multiple criticisms of Trump’s wall and the ease with which it can be breached. But its one fatal flaw is it can’t stop planes and aircraft. Yes, you have some chance of stopping illegal migrants at airports….assuming they are dumb enough to tell you they are entering on a tourist visa with no intention of leaving.

Now we’ve gotten to the stage where drones can carry people, that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Notably of Mexican people smugglers at the border offering migrants an air taxi service into the US. Such a drone could carry people several km’s into the US (i.e beyond the zone currently patrolled by border agents), drop them off and then flying back and pick up somebody else. This would negate the wall completely.

This is one of the problems with conservative governments, their inability to see future trends and changes in technology. Hence why they tend to get blind sided by them and their knee jerk reaction is to try and get it banned.

Case in point, when mp3’s and online file sharing first came out the entertainment industry tried to get them banned. They poured millions into anti-piracy ads that were often parodies of themselves. How can we make money off a service that we just give away for free they said?…to which Google, Facebook and You-tube responded, hold our beer….Now streaming is a massive multi billion dollar industry and the main means of distributing media.

The oil industry and its vested interests, promote climate change deniers, even despite the fact that the oil industry is losing money hand over fist, with 50% drop in oil stocks over the last few years, while renewables are a growing industry. The brexiters want to bring back Britain’s trading empire, ignoring how globalised trade in the 21st century works. They also want a 3rd runway and a new terminal at Heathrow, which will involve demolishing several nearby historic villages and subjecting London to more noise pollution. This despite the fact that airlines are ditching their large planes and abandoning the hub and spoke model in favour of smaller planes and more direct flights, largely due to the availability of newer more fuel efficient aircraft (such as the Airbus A350).

This to me just serves to demonstrate the fatal flaw in conservatism. You’ll get a lot of kicking and screaming. They’ll tell you that television, flying, rock and roll music, gay marriage, abortion, gun control or acting on climate change will be a slippery slope to the end times. Yet in the end they are forced by circumstances to adopt it anyway, upon which they’ll conveniently forget their opposition and move on to the next artificial controversy.

UK College goes bust

The UK government has spent quite a bit of time recently promoting private colleges and universities as it attempts to emulate America’s heavily commercialised higher education system. I’ve long opposed this because I know how ridiculously unfair the US system is. It means large sections of the population simply can’t go to uni as they can’t afford it. And even those with better off parents often still leave uni with massive debts that cripple their finances for life.

Of course the other problem with the US model is the frequency at which their universities go bust. Something that’s practically unheard of in Europe. And such bankruptcies have very real and serious consequences, as this news piece on one such failure discusses. Not just to students, but to local businesses and employment. There are some small towns or neighbourhoods in the UK whose economy would implode if the local uni shut down.

And inevitably one of these new colleges, GSM London has now failed. Fortunately, it doesn’t look too bad…suspect any students or staff caught up in this will have a different view on that! But I’m talking about the wider impact. Its in London, so the impact will be dampened somewhat. Hopefully they can all find alternative employers or courses to enrol on. However, it is a worrying sign of the times.

While the UK government has shown a willingness to quietly bailout uni’s in trouble. Much as I predicted, that’s not always possible. They might be in such a state to be beyond saving. Or the creditors, anxious to get their greedy paws on the valuable city centre real estate the uni owns might refuse any bailout and force through a bankruptcy.

And its also worth keeping in mind that government’s plans are to cut tuition fees. Which would be a good idea. Only they aren’t planning to provide any additional funding to universities (so they are expecting that they can just cut their funding by 30%, on top of the drop off in student numbers from the EU and loss of research funding and expect the uni’s to cope). Naturally its been pointed out that this would be disastrous and almost certainly push many universities over the edge. So we might not be so lucky next time.

A most convenient death

Word is that the alleged sex trafficker to the rich and famous, Jeffrey Esptein, has apparently killed himself in his NY cell. Now call me a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, but when someone that well connected (Trump, Clinton, Prince Andrew, you name it) magically happens to die, just days before he can be put on trial and such connections were due to be subjected to legal scrutiny (which could have involved said individuals being required to testify in court under oath), well its a little bit suspicious.

Which probably explains why his victims are arguing for the investigations to continue. Perhaps even try him posthumously. And there is a legal precedence for this. But of course, fat chance of that happening! I mean why do you think they killed him/let him commit suicide for in the first place? So they can brush the whole thing under the carpet of course.

Loosing sleep

The Caledonian sleeper is (or perhaps I should say was) one of those hidden gems of UK transport. Its a train service running from London to the highlands of Scotland, with stops in the central belt (and Northern England) along the way. So you can literally go to sleep in London after a night on the town, wake up in Fort William the next morning, grab some breakfast and be on the summit of Ben Nevis before lunchtime.

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The Caledonian sleeper works its way across Rannoch Moor in winter

However, the rail companies have long hated it, as it means keeping lines open at late hours, screwing up their maintenance schedules. So they’d like noting better than to cancel it. Unfortunately, as its quite popular, plus its also used by MP’s to travel between their constituencies and London, any talk of cancelling it has been thwarted. So instead they tried to let it whither by not investing in it or just making the service poorer. For example, you used to be able to book half board and share a cabin with somebody else, but they’ve tried to did away with that due to “customer demand” (we are too believe there are customers out there who prefer to pay double for their tickets!).

Well now it seems they’ve figured out a solution. Invest money in the sleeper service. Because nothing in British transport will royally screw something up and make things worse than investing millions of pounds in it. Since this £150 million revamp the service has been dogged by complaints of late or cancelled trains (keep in mind, you are showing up to the station at 23:00, you can’t just wait for the next service, that’s not till the following morning!). Others complain about poor catering, lights being left on all night (which can’t be turned off) and noisy air conditioning.

So it seems like the rail companies will finally get their wish and do away with the sleepers…by trying to make them better! To them their own incompetence is now an asset.

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Populists, corruption and disaster capitalism

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If I was to tell you about a newly installed government, whose minsters and party donors were making millions betting against their own country via offshore firms, who openly earn large sums in kickbacks for a few hours of supposed work (e.g. after dinner speaking fees, “consultancy fees”, etc.), a government that was now using a crisis to give out sweatheart deals to its cronies, you’d probably assume I’m talking about some tin pot dictatorship in the developing world. But no, I’m talking about the UK under Boris, which has got to count as the most corrupt in the country’s history. But its actually the new normal (you think this is bad, wait till they are in coalition with Farage!).

Recently Channel 4’s dispatches did a piece on “brexit millionaires and how many in the Tory party, or their donors, were cashing in on brexit and making millions. Front and centre was Jacob Rees-Mogg, aka the right honourable member for the 18th century, the new minister for silly walks leader of the house of commons. In between being a grammar nazi (he’s set a whole bunch of grammar rules for civil servants, rules he has himself broken 700 times), he has been profiting from brexit. His offshore investment firms have racked in millions since brexit started. With him personally profiting to the tune of at least +£7 million. So much so he can afford to buy a a multi-million town house in London (to go with his country estate) and pay for it in cash. This is corruption, pure and simple.

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Rees Mogg’s little country cottage

And he is by no means alone. Boris is going for a no deal brexit, not because its what people voted for (he and his ministers have been challenged to provide an example of when in the referendum they suggested the UK might have to leave without a deal, we’ve yet to get an answer). In fact polls show the public would rather just cancel brexit all together than except no deal. Even Teresa May is warning no deal threatens the union (pity she didn’t say that while in office!). But the cabinet backs it because they know its the best way for them and their mates to make a quick buck. Food and medicine shortages! millions loosing their jobs! civil war in NI! Scottish independence! how is any of that their problem?

In fact here’s a good one, from a young Tory whose whinging that Boris can’t ignore him and implement no deal against the wishes of parliament and the country. LOL, the naivety of youth. He can, he is and he will. If you have a problem with that you shouldn’t have voted Tory.

And in other countries we are seeing similar trends. Trump hasn’t drained the swamp, he’s made it deeper and released alligators. In Italy, the horseshoe government of populists are now literally surrounded by steaming piles of garbage as the cities public services have collapsed. And corruption is as bad as ever (if not worse), so much so some are thinking of voting for Berlusconi. And if that sounds unlikely, well consider that in Greece, the populists there made such a pigs breakfast of things that the very party who got the country into a massive mess in the first place have just been voted back in.

Rome is now in such a mess, tourists are been giving advice about the risks to their health while visiting

Many people voted for populists because they were appalled at self serving politicians divorced from reality. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, voting for even more corrupt and incompetent populists has just made the situation worse. The very same elites these voters hate, just took to bribing and manipulating the populists. And guess what, they are even dumber than the regular politicians and cheaper too! In fact they’ll do things the regular politicians won’t dream of doing (because the latter are prone to rare moments of clarity where they actually giving a shit).

Angry desperate voters, voted for the most extreme option on the ballot paper thought they were sending a message. But the message that arrived in elites HQ was that these voters are even more naive and stupid than we thought, so let’s take full advantage of them (I mean they could have voted for some established third party candidates, or others who can’t be bought, then we’d be really screwed, but instead they vote for some complete idiot whose in our pocket). The elites can basically do whatever they want now, just so long as their boy remembers to make the odd racist dog whistle and some vague promises that they’ll never have to keep.

The fact is that populists leaders know that they aren’t held to the same standards as other politicians. It used to be a politician made the slightest gaffe, that was it, game over. Remember how Ed Miliband lost because of one photo of him looking awkward for a second eating a bacon roll, or the whole plebgate business. It used to be a politician said something to the media that was inaccurate, or broke the ministerial code and they’d be gone within a week (a good example, Brian Lenihan and the 1990’s Irish presidential election, he went from odds on favourite to being sacked and losing by a landslide over one phone call he made back in 1982).

Now they can get caught in a lie live on air and nobody bats an eyelid, because its one in a string of so many lies nobody can keep up (well unless you are a member of the labour party of course….or black….or worse both). Its understood that voters will ignore this, they are voting based on anger and tribal loyalties, not facts and policy. So long as said leader stays on message and keeps them angry (i.e. they have absolutely no good incentive to help these voters in any way, because then they might calm down and start acting sensibly) he can get away with anything.

Consider for example how both the Tories and the GOP have abandoned their long term commitment to balanced budgets. Both came to power talking about the dangers of deficit spending and how they would be pro-business. Now the policy is bollix to that and fuck business. Like Trump, Johnson seems to be planning to spend like a sailor on shore leave. But not on hospitals, schools or helping the poor (Tory policy here has been branded by the UN as ‘mean-spirited and callous), but instead on no deal preparation, tax cuts for the rich and big infrastructure projects than can be farmed out to Tory donors.

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The Tories new motto

I mean seriously, why do you think Boris gets paid over a £150,000 to show up and give an after dinner speech? You think they like the sound of his voice that much? No its a bribe and now they’re going to cash in. And its hardly as if any of this should be a surprise, given his past performance as London mayor and foreign secretary.

Of course the fact these policies, combined with the economic impact of a no deal brexit (or Trump’s tariffs), will make a mess of the economy and wreck the public finances doesn’t matter to them. They’ll get rich, who cares. In fact they’d even see a silver lining to that. They can use such a crisis to sell off state assets (such as the NHS) to themselves and their allies and dismantle the welfare state.

Its a strategy the rich have been applying in developing world countries for decades. They’d take advantage of the country’s naive or incompetent populists/autocratic government, to swoop in and wreck the economy on purpose, knowing they and their allies (juiced in local elites) would be able to take advantage of the chaos. Now they’re just doing the same in western countries (what goes around comes around I suppose).

And furthermore, even if some leftie such as Corbyn or Bernie ever gets into power, so what! They’ll not be able to afford to implement any of their policies or even reverse the mess the current government is making. In fact, the conservatives can just blame them for everything (as they did with Obama). What’s that? the lefties might putting up taxes? So what! let em! all their money is offshore….course if the UK was only part of some big pan-European club which was determined to do something about such tax avoidance …just a thought!

Trump and the truth about taxes

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Some details of Trump’s tax returns leaked recently, which seemed to suggest that he hasn’t paid any taxes for ten years due to the fact he’s lost over a billion dollars over that period. So doesn’t look like he’s such a great businessman then. Trump (America’s court jester in chief) then preposterously claimed that this was a deliberate strategy to avoid payment of taxes (essentially all but admitting to tax fraud). However it does highlight a number of important issues with regard to tax and the wealthy.

Firstly it shows that most Americans, in particular republicans, don’t understand how marginal tax rates work. That even if the 70% Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes was applied, it would only apply to top earners and only the portion of their income in the tens of millions. In truth they’d be paying closer to 20-35% on their overall income, particularly when you consider the various deductions that would apply. Which is about what the average American pays in tax, so it would more be about levelling the playing field. After all Warren Buffet pay less tax (as a proportion of their income) than his secretary.

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An example of a marginal tax in action, this person might be paying a maximum rate of 50%, but only pays 32% overall

But such is the naivety of many Americans that Trump can make a logical fallacy and many fall for it. What he’s essentially saying is that if you’ve got a 100 dollars and the government is going to take away half of it, your best strategy would be to not only burn the $100, but burn another $100 you’d borrowed from somebody else….whereas if you just paid the tax you keep $50, probably more like $75 once you account for the effect of marginal rates.

Another cause for concern is that Trump’s businesses just happen to involve several industries (construction, hotels and casino’s) where its remarkably easy to fiddle ones taxes. Which probably explains why he’s going to such extraordinary lengths to prevent any probes.

A building site for example will be a hive of activity, with hundreds of contractors and sub-contractors coming and going, as well as a steady stream of trucks pulling in to making deliveries. Its all too easy for a developer to simply award a contract to someone for work that never gets done or award a contract at a vastly over inflated cost (e.g. they claim it took a hundred guys a month, when it only took a few dozen a week’s work). Then the developer and contractor split the difference (with the developer writing it off as a business expense). Or buying your concrete and other supplies at inflated prices (or simply inflating the amount used). And its worth noting that some of Trump’s suppliers and contractors were mob connected firms.

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As for hotels and casino’s, there’s all sorts of ways you can fiddle the books to milk the joint dry, without the IRS or the investors getting wise. You could for example just order lots of booze and gourmet food in the front door on the company books and then sell it out the back door for cash in hand. Employee expenses can also be fiddled. And there is of course the infamous casino skim racket, which I’d say was almost certainly in play in Trump’s Atlantic city casino.

So there are many good reasons to go digging into Trump’s tax affairs. Not only could this see him in a cell wearing a number, but it could lead to a number of mobsters being brought to justice too. Keep in mind this isn’t a victimless crime, his investors, employees and Atlantic city all got shafted. And the mob might well have been using this operation to launder drug money (as that’s often the whole point of such rackets).

Which also btw leads one to be suspicious of his recent tariff policy. Suddenly imposing tariffs and sending the markets into freefall, silly idea right? Well not if you’ve got connections with some boiler room hedge funds, who know this is coming and position themselves to take advantage of the drop in advance. Its entirely possible that Trump is deliberately sending out messages on twitter to manipulate markets. Of course, the danger is that the Chinese, who aren’t in on the scam, retaliate and they do have a nuclear option, start selling off US bonds.

But I digress. Certainly however, Trump’s statements on tax do show the limitations of tax policy. Those on the left will often cite “tax the rich” as their go too solution to everything. But as Trump shows there’s all sorts of ways the rich can fiddle their taxes. Certainly yes there are good reasons why the rich should pay more in taxes. They have more disposable income. Asking them to pay a few grand extra a year amounts to a choice between the gold and the silver trim package for their super yacht. While asking a low income family to pay a few quid extra a month amounts to a choice between feeding the kids or heating the home in winter. So its only fair higher earners pay more.

But, even if we ignore the various tax fiddling options, the numbers just don’t add up, something I’ve discussed before. The rich are asset rich, but don’t necessarily earn as much in terms of taxable income as you think. Just because a billionaire is worth several billion doesn’t mean he makes that much money every year. In truth he might only make a few million. And much of that will be speculative wealth (e.g. the value of the shares he owns goes up, but of course if he sold the shares all at once they’d lose value). And again, a few fiddles can cut that down even further.

Hence even if you applied the 70% tax Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is calling for, you’re not going to pull in nearly as much money as you’d think. At best you’d be able to cut some of America’s deficit spending (or spend some money on climate change prevention). Or here in the UK you’d be able to reign in some of the worse of Tory austerity measures. Which would be a good idea, but not quite the effect many on the hard left seem to think it would have.

And, as noted, the big problem with the rich and taxes is just getting them to pay any in the first place. Personally, I’d settle for getting to just pay what they owe. Hence why I’d argue the focus should be on cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance and reigning in tax havens. But of course that requires strong international institutions (such as the EU), which some left wing populist oppose.

In truth however, if you want to increase tax revenue, you’ve really got to do it for everyone, although obviously the rich will get hit the hardest by such a rise. Putting them up on as much items as possible is a better strategy as this spreads out the impact and makes it harder to fiddle the system and avoid taxes. This is what the Scandinavians do. They also often charge a wealth tax, which means you pay tax on your net worth (typically about 0.1-1% per year) as well as property and land value taxes. But again, such taxes hit everybody. And putting taxes up for middle income voters (who tend to be the ones who decide elections) is easier said than done.

Hence the trick with tax rises is selling them properly. For example, the SNP recently put up taxes here in Scotland, with all tax bands rising (other than the very lowest bands), with the highest rises effecting the highest earners. This was sold on the back of avoiding the sort of austerity measures being applied down in England. Which I thought was fair enough. And if polls are to be believed, it seems most in Scotland agreed. By contrast in France, Marcon has gotten himself in all sorts of trouble with his tax rises largely because he didn’t sell them properly and introduced them too quickly.

This is the risk the left run if they plan on selling “tax the rich” as the snake oil solution which will cure everything. It will raise some money yes. It will help restore some equality to the system yes. But its not going to magically solve everything overnight. And it might well produce a populist backlash, that the right will exploit.

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.

The fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for the modern world

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I stumbled on this youtube channel, Historia Civilis which, amongst other things, presents the fall of the Roman republic in quite an interesting and entertaining way. Worth a look, if you are a history buff. It occurred to me however, that the downfall of the Roman republic presents several valuable lessons for us in the modern world. As one can see parallels with current events and those leading up to the fall of the republic.

At the heart of the matter were three men, Julius Caesar (who presumably needs no introduction!), Pompey (the veteran general, not the football team) and Crassus (the richest man in Rome and victor over Spartacus). These three men formed the a loose alliance known as the Triumvirate in order to help push their various political agendas through the Roman parliament, the senate.

Key among there demands was money. Pompey and Caesar needed financing to maintain their armies (Crassus was also keen on various tax reforms), but also there was the issue of looking after their retiring soldiers (after all if they didn’t look after them, nobody else would sign up and pretty soon they’d have no army and a lot of angry ex-soldiers gunning for them). There was also the issue of land reform, putting land the republic owned to better use (possibly by settling the former soldiers and commoners of Rome on it). Caesar was also keen on making northern Italy a formal part of the Roman republic (many of his soldiers came from here, which means they’d all become voting citizens and would likely give him control of a vast voting block).

So a lot of their demands, weren’t that unreasonable……unless you were a member of the Roman upper classes of course! They formed a conservative faction within the parliament, the Optimates (or conservatives, think the GOP), who were opposed by the Populares who favoured the commoners or plebs (think the democrats). The triumvirate really didn’t care who was in charge so long as they got their way. But there was a tendency, particular with Caesar, to favour the populists.

In essence friction caused by the conservatives attempts to block the triumvirate’s demands led to an increasingly hostile and partisan mood in parliament, ultimately eroding support for the senate. This eventually spilled onto the street, with political debate becoming increasingly tribalist, hostile and eventually violent. Then fighting began between the triumvirate members, which led Pompey to align himself with the conservatives.

Towards the end the two factions morphed from populists v’s conservatives to Caesarian’s v’s Pompeyan’s, with both sides effectively backing a dictator, while accusing the other faction of being autocrats tying to put a dictator in charge. After Caesar’s victory the senate basically became a rubber stamp facility for him to get his way. After his assassination by senators, things got even worse, leading to the rise of the first Emperor (Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and chosen successor), upon which it eventually became little more that a debating club.

The “will of the people” can be used to justify anything, even dictatorship, slavery and genocide
Beware of anyone who cite’s “respecting the will of the people” as the justification for their actions….but then seems suspiciously reluctant to allow the people’s wishes to be confirmed in some sort of free and fair vote. This went on all the time in ancient Rome, where it was used to justify pretty much anything, murder, ignoring the law, violating parliamentary procedure, genocide, slavery, burning down of temples or public buildings, theft and ultimately dictatorship.

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Roman legions enact the “will of the people” by enslaving non-Romans

In short, the many checks and balances we have in society exist to stop autocrats doing this. Part of why the Roman republic collapsed was because many choose to ignore those checks and balances, in order that they could “respect the will of the people”.

And another factor was how populists manipulated the public. While the Roman republic was a democracy, it wasn’t a very fair one, it decidedly favoured the rich (even when we ignore the corruption and bribery that went on). Part of the reason why the plebs began backing extremists was probably out of a certain level of frustration with how the upper classes treated them (why does that sound familiar). They also backed Caesar, in part because some of his policies did appeal to them. But mostly because the Optimates hated him.

Beware of ideologues bearing grudges
Good politics is about good compromise. And there were several ways that the disputes between the populists and conservatives could have been resolved. But passions ran high on both sides and eventually the senate descended into partisan politics, where bills were passed more as a means of scoring points against rival factions, rather than any real purpose (such as you know like maybe running the country!). And needless to say, filibustering and numerous acts of skulduggery were rife. In effect the senate stopped governing Rome, which created a power vacuum and it was inevitable something else would come along to fill the gap. And the void was filled by the autocratic rule of first Pompey and later Caesar (then later on an emperor, important to note that at no point was Caesar appointed emperor).

Again, one can draw direct parallels with modern politics. On any topic, healthcare or gun control in the US, brexit in the UK, there are a number of ways a compromise could have been reached to resolve these issues. But the parties (notably the conservatives) have refused to compromise. Again, this leads to a government that doesn’t govern. One that misuses procedures to ensure nothing gets done (or railroad through legislation that clearly doesn’t have majority support). Parliament fiddles while Rome burns. As Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

God is a busy person, he seems to be always on everyone’s side….and always against your opponents
Modern day politicians, particularly those on the right, are always banging on about religion. Being very quick to say how their policies are inspired by Jesus….which leads one to wonder how they managed to skip the bit in the bible about Jesus throwing the merchants out of the temple, or claiming that it would be easier for a richman to ride through the eye of a needle than get into heaven. Well, misusing religion to justify your policies aren’t a new phenomenon. It happened regularly in ancient Rome.

For example, at one point Julius Ceasar managed (by which we mean bribed) to get himself elected to the post of Ponitfex maximus, effectively the Roman equivalent of the Pope. He then set about exploiting this for political gain. And his opponents would do likewise, getting legislation they didn’t like or elections they disagreed with overturned on the basis of “bad omens”. Naturally this proved to be a major problem as it led to a general breakdown in the rules of the house.

Beware of “spontaneous” street protesters turning violent
Like I said, the tribal politics on the senate floor quickly spilled out onto the street and political debate took on a darker more tribal tone. While pushing, shoving and maybe the odd punch up were not that uncommon in Roman politics, gradually this fighting became worse and worse. Eventually, people started carrying weapons to political events. And it was only a matter of time before they started using them, leading to much violence and blood on the streets of Rome.

One can draw direct parallels with, for example the tea party types showing up with the guns outside polling stations, or the recent harassment of politicians in the UK outside parliament. Hence why its important that this behaviour gets nipped in the bud, presumably by making it illegal to use violence to pervert the political discourse (or the threat of it and I don’t see how showing up with a gun to a rival political rally, or a polling booth in a predominantly black distinct can be interpreted any other way). Its worth noting that under the laws of the Roman republic you could be executed (or banished) for showing up armed at political events (or so much as laying a finger on certain government officials). While that’s probably going a bit too far today, but some time in the clink to cool their heels would seem appropriate.

Not least because this violence in Rome wasn’t initially as random as it seemed. Its quite clear that many of these thugs were working on behalf of various members of the triumvirate. Similarly, call me paranoid, but I find it more than a little coincidental that the tea party’s stated goals just happened to meet those of plutocrats in the GOP (and its strange they seem to ignoring the fact they’ve reneged on a number of the tea party’s stated goals and nobody’s making a fuss about it). Similarly, are we to believe that these yellow vest protesters in France are a “spontaneous” anti-government protest….which just happens to align itself with the goals of the far right.

The problem in Rome was that this violence soon ran out of control. Which should hardly come as a surprise, that’s kind of what happens with a brawl. Its easy to throw a punch, what’s harder is getting everyone to stop. Those behind the violence were soon fighting each other, with Roman citizens, the senate and triumvirate getting caught up in the cross fire. Things came to a head with two factions, one led by Milo (from the conservative faction) and the other mob led by Clodius (of the popular faction) fighting each other in the streets of Rome. This violence eventually led to Clodius being murdered by Milo’s gang and Milo being expelled from Rome.

Eventually this violence on the streets forced first Pompey and later Caesar to move armies into Rome to put down the violence….and maybe help them rigsupervise” an election or two. This is of course the danger. Look at any other country (recently in Brazil or Venezuela for example) and once the military start getting involved in policing protests, they get involved in the politics. And its difficult to predict the outcome of that. Because in the end the Roman senate, and its inability to reconcile its own differences, left them faced the choice between two dictators.

Cooler heads don’t always prevail, smart people do stupid things and never underestimate a dumb person
One of the things we often get told, is oh don’t worry, nobody wants a no deal brexit/Trump dictatorship, cooler heads will prevail. Why our leaders are smart people, they’ll come up with an answer. Well that’s not what happened in Rome. In fact very smart people did very dumb things, leading them to be out manoeuvred by street thugs (such as Milo, Clodius) and the less than intellectually gifted (such as Mark Antony). Largely because they were too caught up in their own ideology and too busy settling petty scores with their rivals.

Take the Roman senators Cicero and Cato. I’m guessing that even if you know little about Roman history, you’ve probably heard of them. They were two of the sharpest minds in the Roman world. Yet they committed various howlers during this period that I suspect even Trump could have seen coming. At one point for example, Cato got tricked into taking up a task in Cyprus, which put him out of the senate at a crucial time. While Cicero found himself on the run facing trumped up charges. They’re own arrogance became their undoing.

By contrast, the members of the Triumvirate weren’t exactly a bunch of heavy weight intellectuals. In fact some accounts suggest Pompey was kind of “slow” and not exactly the sharpest tool. However, they managed to command armies in battle and lead them to stunning victories. And they outmanoeuvred their political opponents on several occasions.

In fact, one could argue the most sensible of the triumvirate was the one you hear the least about, Crassus. He cashed out early, gaining control of the wealthy province of Syria. So he kind of made off like a bandit. It could have ended well for him….if he hadn’t made the crass decision to start a war with the Parthian Empire and dying on the battlefield.

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Crassus died on the battlefield fighting a pointless and illegal war in what is now modern day Syria….why does this sound familiar?

The frog in the saucepan isn’t true, but the political metaphor is correct
There’s the old saying that a frog put into boiling water will jump out, while you put him in tepid water and warm it up he’ll sit there and get cooked to death. Well firstly, its not true (yes somebody has actually checked!). But the political metaphor is correct. Like I said, the decline of the Roman republic was gradual. At no point did either Pompey nor Caesar declare themselves emperor (although they were made dictators). It would be difficult to put your finger on the exact point where the republic’s collapsed.

I would also argue that neither Pompey nor Caesar set out to become an absolute ruler. They were certainly greedy and ambitious men, but I don’t think they intentionally destroyed the republic, no more than Cato or Cicero intentionally hastened the decline of the senate. It just sort of happened that way. Because once they pulled the pin on the autocrat hand grenade, they couldn’t put it back in.

One of the reasons for example, why Caesar marched on Rome, was that he was facing the risk of prosecution for his actions as consul several years earlier. Just prior to his assassination he was made consul for life (which was one of the reasons why he was killed of course), because he didn’t want events to repeat themselves (he was planning to leave the city and go off campaigning again). And one can draw direct parallels with modern dictatorships. Castro in Cuba, Maduro in Venezuela, Trump in 2020 or Putin in Russia. In other words, the boiling frog applies to the would be dictators as well.

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The Ides of March, Roman senators express no confidence in Ceasar’s rule.

Of course, Caesar’s violent death at the hand of 23 senators, several of them his friends and allies (notably Brutus), was unfortunately to set something of a precedence for future Roman rulers. Indeed, a horrible histories fun fact about Rome was the frequency with which Emperors met their doom at the hands of the praetorian guard, the men who guarded emperors while they slept. And of course, we can draw similar parallels to many recent dictators (Gaddafi or Saddam for example). In short, being an autocrat can be hazardous to one’s health.

Beware the law of unintended consequences
Which brings us to the final and perhaps most important point, it is remarkably easy to break a democratic system. Many people in the west, having lived their entire lives in a democracy, having never witnessed the sort of civil unrest or break down of the social order seen in other countries don’t seem to be aware of this fact. Hence they just don’t have any concept of life without it. We’re not even aware of the idea. Hence how Francis Fukuyama can naively proclaim the end of history, without getting laughed out of the room.

After all, think how the Romans at the time of the republic felt. Their republic was many centuries old. From Rome they controlled a quarter of the world’s population and half the known world. No doubt, they too were supremely confident that the republic would survive anything, even a little political crisis, that seem to just drag on and on. After all they’d faced similar crises in the past. If there’s one lesson we can draw from the Roman republic, its that the surest way to kill a democracy, is probably to assume it will never fail.

Now this will be something that some will react with glee to, as truth be told, many on the right (and some on the left too) want to bring down democracy. But be careful what you wish for, as you are unlikely to have any control over what replaces it.

Like I said, neither side the Optimates nor the Populares wanted the republic to become an empire, but that’s what ended up happening. So similarly, Putin in his efforts to undermine the EU needs to think carefully of the consequences. Because while he might break up the EU, NATO (which is the thing that really worries him) remains as united as ever. Does he really want NATO forces on his border, run by various populist mini-Trump’s itching for a fight, while inviting other states, such as Ukraine or Georgia to join (and basically encircling him).

Or alternatively, I’ve heard it argued that the problem with the EU is its too decentralised. A federal state (not unlike the “united states of Europe” Churchill once argued for) with a democratically elected president, plus an upper and lower house might be the solution. So anyone committed to break up the EU needs to be aware the danger is that by provoking such a crisis, the very EU superstate of their nightmares might be what replaces it. And similarly, the Tories, in their effort to create a fantasy cartoon Britannia 2.0, might end up driving the country to the extremes (a far left or far right government) or even cause the UK to break up.

And plutocrats in the GOP who want to shrink the US government and drown it in the bath thumb, ya and what will be the end game after that? I see two possibilities, an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian administration (think handmaidens tale). And if you think Bernie Sanders is anti-business you need to read the bible sometime (some of the stuff in it would make Ocasio-Cortez look like Rand Paul). Alternatively, you might find the wealthier and generally left leaning parts (Eastern seaboard, new England & Northern states) of the US cede from the union, forming either their own country, or perhaps merging with Canada (Super Canada?).

My point is, be careful what you wish for. It might come true and you might find you preferred the status quo, but by then it will be too late.

Far right terrorism

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Let me paint you the following scenario, imagine if a Muslim terrorist ran into a church in a western country, screaming fanatically, shot dead dozens of people at prayer, posting his rampage online. Then it turned out that he’d been radicalised by various radical preachers and activists online (including the president of another country sympathetic to his cause) and received training from other radicals groups via the internet. A little investigating reveals these same individuals have inspired numerous terrorist attacks in the past, both overseas and within their own country. And this against the backdrop of a rising trend of terrorist attacks inspired by the same people.

And not only do the country’s hosting these terrorist sympathisers refuse to arrest them or curtail their activities, but one or two of politicians even make speeches praising them, or blaming the attack on the victims. I suspect we’d not be entirely surprised if drone strikes start, or some of these radicals get abducted by a load of special forces and spirited out of the country to face justice.

Well basically that’s what happened in New Zealand last week, only in this case substitute the word “far right” (or “Trump supporter”) for “Muslim”. And, he probably wasn’t acting entirely alone, he had help from others and his acts were inspired by far right ideologies online, some of whom are hold office in various countries, notably the US, Australia and Europe. We need to start calling things what they are. And inspiring someone with lies, bigotry and hatred such that they go out and kill people (or training them in weapons use), that makes you an international terrorist.

Oh and rather than just sending her “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, the NZ PM is instead planning to change the countries gun laws (and I mean change them ASAP not at some ill determined future date), even thought gun control is a tetchy subject in NZ. This in effect is how a grown up politician responds to an event like this, as opposed to the spineless weasels you’ll find in the US congress.

And actions should have consequences. I’m all for freedom of speech, but that ends when you start using lies and bigotry to radicalise others into committing acts of terrorism. Now while I’d be against drone strikes and extra-judicial killings (that said, if the NZ PM decided to now authorise drone strikes or targeted killings against leading members of the US far right, it would be hard for the US to argue against this, given that they’ve done the same themselves after they were attacked), clearly some level of punishment is in order. Lengthy prison sentences would seem more appropriate. And politicians who inspire acts of terror should be removed from office immediately and barred from seeking re-election or public service.

Also the matter of how the media treat this. Back during the NI troubles it was a matter of routine that the media didn’t interview known terrorists, or those who inspired them (they might well report on what they said, but they’d put it in the proper context, rarely would they directly broadcast what they said). One has to question whether similar rules should now be applied to the far right (which to be clear would include the likes of Trump or the Italian and Hungarian presidents).

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.

Brexit means ??????

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.

Brexit and Immigration

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Brexit has been interpreted by Theresa May and the Tory party, as the UK voting to make itself poorer, in order to cut immigration. Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, this is a false narrative, which comes from a fundamental misreading of immigration statistics.

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If leaving the EU is about immigration, how come non-EU countries have far more immigrants than the UK?

But either way, that’s their policy and the proposed immigration bill has now had its second reading in parliament. And oh boy is it bad. Basically, all of the EU citizens already here are being tossed into the meat grinder of May’s hostile environment. As will it also impact on any new migrants foolish enough to come to the UK, be they from the EU or further afield. Oh, and minsters will be allowed to change future immigration law without parliamentary scrutiny. So its basically a massive power grab by the home office, all but guranteed to lead to another Windrush scandal.

Because already we’ve heard numerous horror stories as a result of UK immigration policy. A British citizen with a disabled husband and an autistic daughter forced between choosing which of the two to abandon post-brexit. A 90 year old with severe arthritis being told to return home and appeal a visa rejection on a technicality (which as he’s no house or family back in the US would mean him living on the street). A women threatened with deportation (with two hours notice) on the basis of evidence from her abusive ex-husband.

And these are some of the milder stories that have made it into the news. I’ve heard other examples of outright racism from UK border staff. Individuals who’ve gone into debt with pay day loan companies due to some cock up by the UKBA (who basically don’t understand their own rules). Even cases of border agency staff admitting to applicants they hadn’t read the application in full before rejecting it. And May is proposing to add another 3 million to that and doesn’t expect any problems?

They’ve also set an arbitrary wage limit of £30,000 below which all workers are considered as “unskilled”…which pretty much tells you just how out of touch the Tory party is. Earn less than 30k, you’re a scullery maid or a tradesman and thus an unwashed pleb and there’s enough of them here already.

To say this policy is bad is too put it mildly. It has the potential to be an even bigger job killer than a no deal brexit. The myths of the “Britain is full” variety are based on the false assumption that the number of jobs in the UK is fixed, when its not. Migrants can actually increase the number of available jobs (as more people spending money in the country means more employment) and by paying their taxes, they can contribute to better public services (of course the problem here is the Tories haven’t been spending that extra money on public services, but instead gave wealthy people a tax cut or hiding the fact that privatisation of public services has often made them less efficient and more expensive to run).

This new immigration policy seems to assume that there are no skill shortages below this arbitrary wage limit, when in fact there are multiple ones, notably in areas such as agriculture, construction, engineering, the NHS and care homes. It is no exaggeration to say the consequences of this policy would be major engineering projects being cancelled, crops left to rot in fields and many of these red faced gammon brexit voting bigots dying on hospital floors in a pool of their own piss.

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The UK is heavily dependant on foreign qualified doctors. So post-brexit, try not to get ill…ever!

But can’t we get brits to do these jobs? Well no. As I’ve pointed out before, if the answer was that simple, they’d already be doing those jobs. For example, most junior employees often have a very low starting salary (which can include nurses and other medical practitioners). And in some professions, its hard to prove your exact income as employment is often on a contract, piecework, or journeyman type basis. And, as I discussed before, with regard to the energy sector, such a wage limit will create labour shortages across the nuclear, fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors.

The agricultural sector (and fishing) will be severely effected by this new policy. Most of the jobs in this sector are seasonal, typically spiking in the autumn and spring. The growing season in the UK is shorter than in southern Europe but longer than in Eastern Europe. So its possible for farm workers from other parts of the EU to come over, work for a few weeks, then move on and eventually return to their own farms to plant/harvest their own crops.

The idea that instead of experienced European farm hands, you’re going to drag a load of unemployed townies out of the UK’s cities, bus them off to work in farmers fields (many of whom haven’t so much as mowed a lawn before), and put them in charge of dangerous farm machinery, its farcical at best. And what are the supposed to do for the rest of the year? And yes farmers have tried this in the past (most recently as part of the Tories welfare chain gangs) and their experience is it ain’t going to work.

And even if they could get it to work it would probably be more expensive, which means food that’s a lot more expensive. And more than likely (given the tight margins on food production), rendering uneconomic much of the UK’s farms, leading to closures in the sector on a scale similar to what happened to the coal miners in the 80’s.

And at the other end of the scale one has to question whether we necessarily need more workers in the middle to high income salary range. Is there really a massive shortage of lawyers, interior designers, city traders and accountants in the country? And even if there were, such a policy could actually cost many British their jobs (because as noted migrants create more jobs). While companies like to keep a mixed bag of staff of different experience levels, push come to shove they will prioritise the hiring of a more experienced staff over a recent graduate, because they are more valuable to the company. Ultimately, if the only way to hire an experienced German lawyer or a Belgian accountant is to put enough zeros behind his contract to get him in the door, that’s what they’ll do, even if it means cutting back on the number of graduate recruits to do so.

In fact in my own line of work we’ve hired hardly any UK PhD graduates since the referendum. And now that I mention it, several who were already on the pay roll were the first given their marching orders in the months after the vote. And given that there’s been a significant drop in UK students undertaking PhD’s (due to fees, nobody wants to rack up further debt when they get to the end of their degree), how exactly are we going to recruit the next generation of lecturers, given the brexidous on UK campuses, with both UK and EU academics heading off to European universities. I don’t know, maybe we could go back to the old British tactic of press ganging? (get’em drunk at a conference and they wakes up in a lecturer theatre). Or maybe we can get Failing Grayling to give the lecturers? That seems to be May’s solution to everything these days.

And remember what applies to foreigners in the UK will be reciprocated by other countries. British overseas are already in a panic over the possible consequences to them of a no deal brexit. Many might be forced to return home (and most are retirees) or renounce their UK citizenship (which risks breaking up families). And UK graduates won’t be able to avail of employment opportunities in Europe, leaving them in the worst of both worlds.

Of course, if you’re a wealthy oligarch and willing to invest enough money in the UK, you can avail of a golden visa. No messy forms to fill in, no awkward questions (notably as to where you got the money in the first place!), no queues or waiting period, you’d don’t even need to work or pay tax. Just come on in. As always, the Tories are drafting a policy that favours the wealthy plutocrats at the expense of everyone else. The horrors their policy are inflicting, and will continue to inflict is lost on them. They’ve transcended the nasty party and become the sadist party.

But once the second coming happens Corbyn gets in he’ll put everything right in the world, won’t he? Actually no, Corbyn and much of the labour party were absent from the second reading of the immigration bill. In fact the original message sent out to MP’s was to abstain. The reality is that Corbyn has been taken in by the same toxic bigotry that migrants are a drain on the UK and drive down wages (which again, just isn’t true). He’s willing to talk to the talk about how the Tories policy favours the rich, or how human rights are important to him. But push come to shove he’s quite happy to see millions in the UK stripped of their rights and thrown to the wolves, while he sits in his allotment shed dreaming of his socialist workers paradise.

What’s that the Corbynites say? He’s got to play the long game and pretend he’s in favour of immigration controls (or brexit) to appease northern lexiters, then when he’s in power he can repeal these laws. Well, firstly that’s the cynical politics of manipulation at its worst (and I thought Boris was bad!), and secondly he can’t. Protocol dictates that governments do not revisit past legislation without good cause or reason. So unless he actively opposes this bill or fights an election with such a policy on the party manifesto (so presumably he’ll be hoping lexiters can’t read), then he can’t repeal it. The speaker won’t allow him to schedule time to debate it, the lords would probably veto it and the queen is within her rights to withhold royal assent. And as 35 year veteran MP he surely knows that. Its just he also knows there’s a large body of millennial’s who’ve been so badly screwed over by the Tories, they are desperate enough to believe any old tripe he comes up with.

All I can say is the sooner that the grown ups within both labour and the Tories wake up to reality and leave their respective parties, the better. And with labour membership down 10% in the last two months and polls saying Corbyn’s failure to oppose brexit will cost him dearly next election (and this was before him suggesting he might support May’s brexit deal), that seems to be what starting to happen.

As for the Tories, with new utlra-right wing parties being formed and the conservative party itself being infiltrated by the US far right, they need to learn that appeasing the far right doesn’t make them go away, it emboldens them to ask for more and more until they have everything.

Brexit update: Running down the clock

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Recently the Guardian’s business editor Nils Pratley asked the question, when does the no deal panic start? One could ask the same question as regards Trump’s trade policy and the recent shutdown. Well in some respects, its already happening and in another respect the panic will not be televised, or at least it will be kept as quiet as possible.

While companies are quick to advertise good news, they try to keep any bad news out of the media. After all, good news means the share price goes up. Bad news, sends the share price down. And if you want to destroy employee morale and reduce productivity, let the staff know you might be considering job cuts. And furthermore the economic issue with brexit is more the long term impact it will have, not the short term shock. As the saying goes its not the stag investors who take fright at the first sign of trouble you worry about, its a long protracted bear market. Because bears have claws.

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Beware the brexit bear!

And already we have seen several worrying signs which shows the economy flat-lining. P&O for example has announced its re-flagging its ships under a Cypriot flag (Rule Britannia….Cyprus rules the waves?). Barclay’s is one of a number of banks to announce plans to move £166 billion and hundreds of jobs to Ireland, with others are planning to set up in Paris or Frankfurt. Dyson has moved to Singapore, which apparently is nothing to do with brexit (and if you believe that I’ve got some magic beans I can sell you). Meanwhile, the construction industry, which was just about recovering from the EU referendum result, is now reporting a decline in building projects due to uncertainty over brexit.

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So far Germany seems to be winning the race to house bankers post-brexit

Now in any normal economic times any of these indicators would send waves of panic around Whitehall, but it would now appear that the UK government’s official motto seems to be “fuck business. Which probably explains why up to a third of UK companies are actively considering relocating out of the UK post-brexit. Hell, we have the Norwegian government now advising students not to go to university in the UK.

But probably the biggest blow by far recently was Nissan announcing its u-turn, that they will not locate X-trail production at Sunderland. This is a huge blow, given the very public backing Nissan gave to brexit, thanks to a letter they received from Theresa May. While the current jobs are safe (for now!), the problem is that once a company stops investing in a factory, its not long after that when the job losses start.

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While there’s still be some direct investment in the UK car industry, its clearly on a downward trend and going to turn negative relatively soon

And with the publication of that infamous letter, it seems that Nissan were offered a very substantial bribe to stay in the UK, with up to £60 million in direct investment and several hundred million indirectly (via investment into electric vehicle research, charging points, etc.). Of course, given that the former Nissan chairman is under investigation for corruption, its entirely possible that a brown envelope might have been involved as well. After all, May is currently trying to bribe MP’s with peerages or promises of slush funds to their constituency. In short her government is now guilty of the sort crony politics we’d have expected in the days of the Regency. But even that doesn’t seem to be working, as she literally can’t pull off a bribe successfully!

Of course what this highlights is that Nissan have decided that whatever promises May has made, they can’t believe her anymore. After all we now have the absurdity of a backstop that was her idea in the first place, which she got parliament to vote against, and she’s going to go to Brussels to see if it can be removed. But then a few days later she says the backstop can stay, but she’s going to insist on some unspecified changes to it, which will make everything okay…!?!

Its becoming rather obvious that May is winging it, something she’s been doing since day one. And while she is clearly running down the clock, I’m not sure if this is a deliberate strategy or just a coping mechanism to get her through to the end of the day. You would be a very foolish MP (or car maker) to stake your future on any promises made by her, because 24 hrs later she’ll have not only have broken them, but forgotten what it was she’d promised.

And this letter to Nissan might still come back to haunt her. It implies tariff free access to the EU (which as things currently stand isn’t going to happen). If she doesn’t deliver on that, Nissan might sue the UK government seeking financial compensation. And if that sounds far fetched, its looking likely the owners of the channel tunnel are going to sue the government over brexit. To be blunt, the only winners in a no deal brexit will be corporate lawyers, who’ll be having a field day.

And while May’s act of looking utterly pathetic to the point where the EU feels sorry for her, has allowed her to get some concessions, its doubtful it will work this time (and in any event, the EU will want something in return). The EU needs to consider whether they can believe a word out her mouth anymore (or anyone else from Westminster). Can she be trusted to deliver on her side of the bargain? And I seriously doubt, even if she got some significant concessions, she’d get her party to back her deal. They’re making a big deal about the backstop because they can. If it goes away they’ll find something else in the 500 pages of the deal to moan about. Ultimately they don’t want to take ownership for what they know is going to be a deal that leaves the UK worse out than in.

Meanwhile Corbyn can’t be seen to back it either, preferring to do his usual Humpty Dumpty and stay sitting on the fence, even as his party disintegrates around him. Labour party membership has now fallen by 10% in just two months, about 360 members per day are now leaving.

Meanwhile, across the pond, we’ve heard the first rumblings of discontent as the US congress wakes up to the consequences of a no-deal brexit. A resolution has been introduced in the US Congress opposing the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. This was something that was always going to happen. Firstly, the Good Friday agreement was brokered with the help of the US. If the UK were to renege on it, this would be hugely damaging to the US and its international reputation (if the US can get its oldest ally to back a treaty it brokered, what are the odds of North Korea or Russia sticking to any?). And secondly 33 million US voters identify themselves as being of Irish descent. That’s a voting lobby no politician in the US can ignore, particularly as it includes many swing voters in key swing states (a significant number voted for both Obama and then Trump).

Of course the problem here is that Americans understand the politics of Northern Ireland even less than the Tories. Expect them to make several perfectly reasonable suggestions over the next few months, but ones that May and the DUP have already ruled out. e.g. “why doesn’t NI just stay in the Single market?” “Say, why don’t you guys just leave the EU but stay in the EEA, that’ll avoid a hard border?”. In short good luck to May trying to explain NI politics to Trump and then get the US congress to support a US/UK trade deal in an election year. Notably because one of the key committees that will approve or veto a US/UK trade deal just happens to be led by an Irish American senator with strong pro-republican sympathies.

But isn’t the EU going to blink first? Well stranger things have happened. However, the fact is that the UK has to make its mind up pretty soon (Greg Clark suggested as early as the middle of next week), otherwise the trickle of companies either hitting the panic button or heading for the door will become a flood. And we’re assuming no deal is even an option, because the institute for government says it would be impossible, given that almost none of the required legislation has passed, nor will pass in time.

So the UK can’t really wait for the EU to blink, while the EU can wait not only until the 29th of March, but even beyond it (i.e. wait for the UK to come crawling back after descending into chaos). I’ll say it again its May’s original deal (and probably staying in the customs union or single market long term) or no brexit, you have to chose one.

Managing the shutdown and Trump

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The thing that I don’t get about the US shutdown is how can the government just shut down and stop paying its workers? This is the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in a failed state, where corruption meant the president (or one of his cronies), emptied the treasury into an offshore bank account and fled. Its clearly a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Again, imagine you’re and investor in, well any other country on the planet, and you heard the government had run out of money. You’d be pulling your cash out of there and making for the airport right quick.

And, don’t US workers have some sort of rights? I mean in most countries, your boss stops paying you he’s in breach of contract. You are within your rights to withdraw your labour, quit without giving any notice and potentially sue for back salary (or redundancy money), even force your employer into liquidation if he refuses to pay up. Or is this one the things we can look forward too after the UK leaves the EU? And keep in mind that this exactly the problem facing US private sector employers who might have to start laying off staff soon.

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Its worth noting that the shutdown effects some states more than others, and a lot of them are swing states or republican….

Speaking of brexit, as a last ditch way of stopping a no deal brexit, its possible the UK government’s tax collecting powers will get vetoed by MP’s. While that won’t cause a UK government shutdown straight away, obviously there’s only so long the country could keep going if the government loses tax income. But certainly, such shut-downs, or even the threat of one, should tell you something has gone terribly wrong in that country and the political system has essentially failed to do its job.

The sticking point is Trump’s wall. However, given how much he’s flip flopped on this issue, its far from clear what he actually wants. Within weeks of his presidency starting it was pointed out to him by border agents, and all of the US states who line the US/Mexico border that they don’t want a wall built, for a variety of simple practical reasons. He seems to have accepted this and stated that instead we’d be getting a fence. But trouble is there already IS a fence. It doesn’t cover the entire border, but largely because it doesn’t have too. Natural barriers, such as the Rio Grande, high mountains, fields of desert cacti, etc. present formidable obstacles to anyone trying to cross (more so than his wall). And putting up a fence/wall here would present various practical problems. For example, ranchers on the Rio Grande need access to the river bank for their cattle.

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Already most of the US/Mexico border is covered by fences

So on the one hand the $5+ billion he’s asking for is too much to upgrade the existing fences, and far too little to build his fabled wall. Keeping in mind that a wall (or fence) would be ineffective without someone there to guard it. As I pointed out in a prior post, any determined group of fence jumpers will make short work of Trump’s wall (delaying them for perhaps 20 minutes to an hour), unless there’s an army of border guards to stop them. Which would cost several billion a year to operate. And speaking if which, I thought Trump said the Mexicans would pay for the wall. And doesn’t he claim to be worth tens of billions? Surely he could afford to build it himself and then the Mexicans will pay him back?

Furthermore Trump says we need the wall to stop the flow of drugs. Well there was a BBC episode of “Stacy Dooley investigates” recently which looked at drugs smuggling into America and you know where most of it was coming from? CANADA! Yes, America’s friendly neighbour to the north just so happens to be the main source of Opioid’s, Methamphetamine’s, MDMA, illegal Cannabis, etc. as well as the source of ingredients for numerous other narcotics. And there’s no fence and very little security (during the show they took them out to remote spots where literally one side of the road is the US, the other side is Canada, you can just show up with two pickups, toss bags between the two). So you’d think it would make more sense to beef up security at the Canadian border.

Of course this highlights the real reason why Trump and his supporters want the wall. It has nothing to do with security and more to do with security theatre. He and his supporters are racists and bigots and they want to turn the US into some sort of giant whites only gated community. You can sell illegal drugs in the US (or commit acts of terrorism, the majority of which are committed by white males) all you like. Just so long as you are white, they don’t mind.

In essence Trump is trying to blackmail congress into signing a blank cheque for reasons that are racially motivated. And if there’s one thing that Congress doesn’t do, its sign blank cheques. In fact its strange the Republicans aren’t up in arms over this. I mean Obama asked for the slightest amount of money for anything, even things that were essential and good value for money and the GOP howled with fury and claimed he was trying to bankrupt the country. Now the deficit be damned we need our tax cuts and our wall. It just goes to show the GOP has become little more than the cult of anti-liberalism. They are in favour of things because the democrats are against it.

So, where do we go from here? Clearly the democrats backing down to Trump’s childish behaviour would be ill advised. Appeasing chest-puffing, table bagging vain autocrats never ends well. In fact I’d argue where in this mess because in the past congress has given in to the boss baby, just to avoid total national paralysis. This for too long has been a flaw of the democrats, their willingness to be the grown ups in the room and concede ground to the GOP, for the sake of the country. But, like a spoilt little child, this just encourages more bad behaviour from the GOP. If the democrats do concede, what’s the bet Trump will shutdown the government again in order to get the Mueller investigation stopped, or the election rules changed in his favour, or maybe try to rig the election with threats of a shutdown for the full duration of the transition period.

One possible way out would be to concede to Trump, but with the caveat of some independent review of border security and its needs. Given that such a review will inevitably conclude that such measures would be a waste of time and money (instead the focus should be on border crossing, airports or, as noted, the Canadian border). And by the time it reaches this conclusion he’ll have been either impeached or voted out of office. While Trump might not go for it, it would at least allow the democrats to ensure the blame falls squarely on his shoulders alone.

If that doesn’t work, the democrats will just have to be strict parents. The worst thing you can do as a parent, if you’ve got a screaming brat, is spoil him and give in. Rewarding bad behaviour, will result in worse behaviour. If Trump rejects the above, I’d suggest the democrats withdraw the offer, as well as the current offer of $1.6 billion for extra border security and end all negotiations with the white house (keeping channels open with moderate Republicans of course), focusing instead on something that will infuriate Trump (such as the Muelller investigation or publishing his tax returns). This (after a bit of kicking and screaming) will force Trump and the GOP to act like grown ups and come up with some sort of compromise.