Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: economic doctrine

Cui bono res publicae?

I have already got my fingers of both hands covered in ink from the ribbon on the typewriter, and to be honest am thoroughly off-piste with this interruption of my well deserved sabbatical.  Some of those whom I had considered friends, until now, have been harassing me with their proposed solution to the Brexit chaos (to be known in the history books of the future as Cameron’s Catastrophe.)  They apparently believe it is urgently necessary to get the signature of every member of the writing classes in all European territories with any kind of constitutional link to the British monarchy (and that apparently has flushed out some very rum customers in eastern Europe not to mention three Atlantic islands some 180 miles west of Lisbon, which geographers had believed sunk during a volcanic eruption a century or more ago) on a petition pleading for a ‘non-controversial’ referendum on whether to have a new referendum with a more intelligent gamut of options – forget the whole business, sell the country as a going (?) concern to its inhabitants (somebody evidently remembers the Trustee Savings Bank farce/scandal !), put the whole country up for auction with the highest bidder then doing what the hell he likes with it, declaring war on America hoping they will treat the nation the same way they treated Germany after WWII (Churchill turned that option down in 1949 on the grounds that Britain might win) and half a dozen others.

   Lunatics!  This journal has, I believe, the only realistic solution, not that anyone is going to pay attention, but here it is in a dozen lines.  A delegation of a dozen or so citizens from the cloud-capped peaks of the British realm must attend upon the Queen, and respectfully show her the necessity of taking up immediately her inherited rights, delivering a bill of attainder upon every member of the House of Commons (with perhaps the exception of that stout fellow, Bercow).  The Serjeant-at-arms will then expeditiously arrange for every last one to be taken down the river under military escort, and installed under lock and key in the Tower of London.  If they question their situation they will find the Serjeant-at-arms to be a ‘negotiator’ very unlike the current prime minister.  Thereafter the governance of the nation to be in the hands of Her Majesty and such advisers as she shall see fit to choose.  She has for decades given more evidence of a capacity for taking good advice, for sound judgment exercised with moderation, and for avoiding foolish or disastrous entanglements than can be claimed for a very high proportion of those who in that time have presumed that bigotry and buffoonery, lying, xenophobia and careerism did not bar them from trying to take a share in influencing the administration of the nation.  And see the reults of their activities!

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Pulling the typewriter out of the old army kitbag in which it is stored (in case the roof leaks when there is a rainstorm) I found another text which seems unfamiliar, but highly relevant today, when capitalism appears proud that it has just propelled the world’s largest economy up to a pinnacle of $22 trillion of debt.  And just in case that was not a large enough investment the president of that nation has sent the government machine a request for the largest military budget ever recorded (in that country, though there may well be larger figures in some Hollywood movies.  Perhaps time, as they say in the movies, to feel very afraid.)  I append herewith.

            One does not hear much talk about the trickle-down theory of wealth these days but the assumptions behind it still seem to be holding up well.  The idea, roughly speaking, is that if you get a stratum of serious wealth in any given area then its members will, to put it crudely, spend their money in diverse ways thus spreading wealth through the community.  They will buy goods, engage services, and start businesses.  They will buy cars and pianos, employ butlers and drivers, and establish media companies.  Then the shopkeepers and the butlers and drivers and the editors will have more money than they ever had before, and in their turn they will spend more on the things they want, need and like.  And so on all the way down the economic slope.  As in all the most comforting fairy tales, it leaves everyone better off.  Therefore we should always fight for rich people and rich companies to have the lowest possible taxes, to help the whole wonderful process to work (and it is said some governments even hand out free grants under the name of privatisations to promising candidates to make sure they have enough wealth to keep things going).  But all this is rather abstract stuff.  Let’s try to envisage a practical example.  Let’s take a large group of bankers fleeing their native country somewhere in Asia perhaps, to save their lives and wealth after a leftish government has somehow got elected.  They decide to settle together on the pleasant island of Arbyesse in the Bay of Bolivia, which up to now has maintained a moderate prosperity on the basis of fishing, tourism, and the manufacture  and sale of artefacts attributed to the first bronze age settlers.  The first thing that happens is that they buy the finest houses on the market for their families, equip them with the most modern computer systems, and furnish them with exquisite period furniture bought after whirlwind shopping expeditions to Paris and Hongkong.   You will notice at once that the latter two forms of expenditure do nothing for the local economy, but for now let us pass over that point.  After that they set up a new bank employing some dozens of local staff, some formerly unemployed but most of them attracted by the higher pay from their previous jobs in various local businesses.  The bankers also establish firms dealing in financial investment and advice, facilitating of course dealings with their own previous contacts in other countries.  The purchases continue, notably including two private yachts but also a number of expensive cars (which naturally have to be bought from overseas firms).    They are careful to adopt a low profile in local life though some do offer support for one respectable local party, obviously well-favoured by the population since it wins the next three elections in a row.  Investors and friends of the bankers overseas see Arbyesse as a stable, investible target and pile in.  Hotels are built and infrastructure projects take shape.  So the economy after a few years achieves substantial growth.  Local construction companies (in which the bankers have invested heavily) have done well, as has the airport (foreign-owned).  There is a new ‘Omnimercato supermart’ with 60,000 different kinds of items, on the site of the old vegetable market, which still exists but has moved to a convenient site near the lagoon south of the capital.  Shopkeepers, and owners of other small businesses like the smith who turned his hand to making ornamental ironwork drive respectable cars.  But one night a young trainee accountant, cycling home after a celebratory dinner with some friends in El treinta de julio, a beachside café, noticed several down-and-outs sleeping in doorways, something he had never seen as a child.  He thought about it when he got home, and these thoughts led him by chance to realising that though he seemed to be earning quite reasonable pay, somehow he and his wife still could not afford to buy a number of desirable additions to their home, and had to be very careful with their monthly expenses.  She commented that it was much the same for most of her friends, while her aunt, though married to the man who had successfully turned his small taberna into an upmarket wine-bar specialising in imported wines, was always ready to deplore the drain on her purse when she went to the Omnimercato, and to denounce her husband who insisted they must save one more year for the bathroom suite she had set her heart on.  The accountant, Federigo, became curious and he found it quite easy to get information, sometimes in detail, about the assets of other inhabitants.  It seemed that typical members of the uppermost straturm had assets that would compare quite favourably with those of wealthy individuals in advanced countries.  The next level, senior managers in the construction companies for example, were also quite well off.  But as one went down the scale it seemed that the level of wealth diminished, not just individually but when all citizens of that level of the economy were added together.  He also tried to find comparative data on incomes.  This was harder since the tax authorities were rather more conscious of confidentiality than the private branches of the wealth system.  Nonetheless it seemed that a similar variation existed there.  The most striking thing was that in both cases it appeared that the figure dropped to zero before one reached the lowest band of the population.

            Perhaps foolishly, he started talking about his findings in company.  He was frankly puzzled as to why the ‘ever more vibrantly pulsing economy’ (to quote from the Trombón del Amanecer) pulsed so feebly in its lower depths.  Most who heard him did not share this reaction; they simply regarded it as a natural aspect of human existence.  However, he was finally offered the reason, at a gathering over a few beers one evening with some friends as the rain lashed down on the same beach-side café, the night before he was arrested.  Once again he plaintively voiced his puzzlement and once again saw the same resentful but apathetic impotence.  As often, one of them muttered about ‘all this money around.  Not much filtering down to us.  The only thing that filters down to us is higher prices’.  This time, however, the amiable Irish beachcomber in the corner, a regular customer over many years but one who rarely spoke, added an unexpected coda.  “It’s just what you should expect, you know.  The economists don’t like to talk about it much, but it is an economic law.  ‘Prices rise to meet the money available to pay them’ .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 I use the term in its old-fashioned sense, of providing useful and valued service in return for some kind of financial benefit; no link whatever to the term ‘compensation package’

MMQQ9

Next regular posting scheduled 16-8-2018

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The Editor writes   Many years ago when I was teaching at the University of Toronto a nice young woman came into my office and remarked that she was prepared to do anything to get an ‘A’ on the course I was teaching as this would help her to get enrolled in medical school.  Fortunately, I think, for all concerned (including perhaps future patients) no plan of action linked to her remark ever emerged.  But this was merely an atypical example of experiences which on the whole left me with a quite genuine respect for the thoroughness and determination with which the inhabitants of that particular academic community pursue their goals and enquiries.  Another reached me not long ago.  All too often teams that get their university or institute into the news media  (winning a free ‘Community Outreach’ mug – normally sold in the campus shop at €5-90 – from their V-C) get their reports placed on inside pages headed ‘Science’ or ‘Technology’ and giving in 100 obscure words such sharply chiselled facts as ‘Link between hair loss and number of friends among men over 60’ or ‘Cats prefer Beethoven’.   The recently arrived report summarised the outcome for operations performed during a period of eight years by more than three thousand surgeons, with conditions of operation scrupulously matched, all performed at the same hospital.  The death rate for patients following surgery was low, but interestingly 12% lower when performed by a female surgeon than with a male doctor operating.  (With current standards of literacy and political spinning being what they are ‘spokespeople’ for ministries of health are requested not to put this as ‘after a woman has operated the patient may be 12% less dead.’)  Some have taken this as proof that women are better surgeons than men.  The Toronto team went on, as proper investigators should and as far too few do, to speculate on why this might be.  Here, though, if the report as filtered through popular journalism was exact (which is highly questionable – journalism is journalism after all) the team took the higher female excellence level as a given premiss.  This may be justified but, starting from a situation where the surgeons are exactly equally competent,  male surgeons (almost certainly on average more senior) may try to insist on taking more prestigious cases, or in some instances – see again the first sentence of this piece – may actively try to give more straightforward cases to female colleagues.  (Factors like that may also weigh when acknowledging that women doctors are less often struck off.)  It is quite reasonable to accept women’s superiority in surgery; there is plenty of evidence for instance that women are better at observation of small details; but for the sake of future patients, there should be full investigation with no more risk of influence from assumptions based on gender and occupation and unchecked tradition than there is in recruitment to coalmining or plinths in Trafalgar Square (or the presidency of the United States?)  For goodness’ sake doesn’t modern technology bring us at last to a better prospect of taking individual people as they individually are, not as representatives of a group – or a quota.

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We are reviving a series we used to run, solving problems of society free of charge

Easy solution (1)  Received from a reader: ‘A report I have seen says that the polls show about 84%of the population, who have no ready-made way to fill in the gaps when they are not using social media (for example pauses between dreams when asleep) are asking for more sport on television.  But about the same proportion find that sport on television interferes with their surfing on the billows of social media, and so they are asking for a ban on sport on television, if possible supported by a detox programme for addicts.  How can this be, and who is right?’

            When questions like this are thrown in our direction we feel (‘we’ includes Simon at present as his computer has developed stress symptoms surpassing his own and even those on my foul object, and he’s been round here most evenings blubbing about not seeing Louise) we feel, as I was saying, irritation verging on fury, principally because of the disgusting lack of clarity in the formulation of the issue, and the absence of any indication about the kind of response expected.  ‘How can this be?’ you ask.  Unaided by any clarification on your part, Max D, I neither can, nor wish to, come to any conclusion about what you may be trying ask.  I do fear, though, that with the flabby naiveté typical of so many in your country you thought that the results of an opinion poll exploring support for contradictory views should add up to 100%.  Great heavens man (or boy, or whatever you are), this was a poll of social attitudes and therefore has no obligation to produce results that make any sense in any way at all, and equally little likelihood of doing so.  Normal intelligent adults consider in any case that the notion of exploring social attitudes by making enquiries of unsophisticated members of the public is itself a senseless enterprise.  Enough said!   As for your ‘Who is right?’ I must point out that an answer would depend on many things, evidently far more than you realise, but in particular on a clear notion of what counts as ‘sport’.   Until a decade or so ago, most of us here at the time naturally assumed that ‘sport’ meant ‘sport’, for instance, fencing, riding to hounds, amateur boxing, rowing, polo and all the rest of the familiar gallimaufry.  Increasing amounts of evidence arrive, however, suggesting that there has been a mysterious change in the population’s attitudes, with many now attaching ludicrous proportions of interest to such activities as football and ‘golf’.  The former was indeed once a sport but has bizarrely metamorphosed into a strange ugly twin of what nowadays is called the ‘entertainment industry’.  Following a suggestion of Simon’s I went to a local bar to view what was said to be a programme with ‘all the news about sport’[sic] .  It consisted of, first, interviews with middle-aged men sitting behind desks uttering a puzzling mixture of platitudes, meaningless slogans, implausible predictions and comments about various financial matters, with occasional 2-second-long glimpses of men leaping around on a grass field.  There followed a series of ‘clips’ of men dressed in ordinary clothes strolling  through some unnaturally smooth countryside, and playing with little white balls as they went, evidently trying to knock them into holes in the grass, while crowds of apparently normal people watched and applauded.  Of this I could and can make no sense, but in your own case, Max, given your weak grasp on how to attempt enquiries aimed at greater understanding, I recommend that you abandon the attempt and maintain your subscription to the Daily Telegraph.

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Trump and captivity  (Regrettably this is not a report on the appalling treatment of children and their mothers and fathers at the American frontier, on the orders of the American president.  We do not have enough detailed information to give it even half the treatment it deserves.)  Trump declared Germany a captive of Russia, on the grounds that the country was buying 50% of its energy needs from Russia.  Three points: (1) what matters is not how much a country depends on foreign sources for its needs, but how far it depends on sources that are not easily replaceable.  (2) The figure is wrong; gas from Russia represents about one fifth of German energy needs.  (3) By Trump’s own metric there appears a considerable possibility that he is himself captive, in respect of political resources, on the tiny layer of ultra-wealthy Ameican business.  (Fn) Is it not still true that unlike previous American presidents he has not allowed public view of his tax returns?

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Easy solution (2) (This solution provided by Berthold via electronic messaging.)  The problem is global warming, now accepted as real by more than 40% even among those with a Trump quotient of 8 or more on the ЯFN4U scale.  Some have realised that it brings a serious threat to the life prospects of large numbers already born as well as to the viability of coastal cities all round the world.  The most important factor in the whole business (after political inertia and rampant short-termism of human administrations of course) is methane.  Curiously carbon dioxide seems to have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines (having cut a special deal with Murdoch perhaps?) but methane is much the more deadly menace for two reasons.  Volume for volume it is not just more effective at producing the warming; it is thirty times more effective.  The second factor is that in the northern parts of the planet there are vast areas where gigantic deposits of methane lie in the soil.  Until recently they were largely ignored and regarded as locked out of geophysical calculations, being frozen hard.  However, as climatic warming proceeds it will release the southern fringes of the methane deposits which will then join all the other factors contributing to global warming, which will therefore proceed at a slightly faster rate, thus releasing more of the methane from the southern margins of the deposits, thereby accelerating… and so on.  For quite a long time it was claimed that kangaroos could rescue the planet.  It was said that emissions from the tooth-free end of animals (not excluding human beings) contributed somewhere between 14% and 18% to the effect of climatic warming, but that the contributions of different species were extraordinarily different by factors as large as 1 to 180, and, promisingly, a kangaroo’s annual production of the stuff was 1/600th of what emerged from a milch cow.  So all could be more or less hunky-dory.  All the human race needed to do to slow global warming down dramatically was to farm kangaroos instead of cows?  Actually that last figure of 1/600th turned out to be nonsense.  However the middle part was in fact soundly based – (11  relatively harmless pigs) x methane  =  approx. (1 atmospherically devastating cow) x methane .  And the first part is agreed to be in the right range.  (Australian annual air pollution via animals’ digestive tracts slightly exceeeds pollution via backsides of vehicles.)  So on condition we abolish the cow, a surly animal whatever animal ethologists would have you believe (and anyway homo sapiens  has shown itself easily capable of wiping out species, in some cases without even noticing) there ought to be some hope that oncoming catastrophe (‘D Day’ for ‘Disaster Day’?) will hold off for a few decades.  Or more exactly there would be some hope of respite (Editor: make damned sure any millennials reading pronounce it right – [réss pit not ri-spite]) – if, of course, the planet was inhabited by an intelligent species.

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The end is nigh, but getting there depends where you start from

We are a very kindly and tolerant outfit. I believe somewhere in the early records of this journal there is a mention of Joseph Stalin (or was it Mr Blair?) which is willing to credit him with a certain measure of good intentions in some business which unfortunately had a dire outcome for almost everyone else.  But I had thought we always knew where we were with our Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems; emollient casuistry, and some kind words where possible for the deserving poor, but fundamentally a firm defence of those who understand what is needed for the rational management of a vibrant and growing economy – what we might call the Economist mode. So it was a bit of a shaker when he sent in this little curiosity. In my view, Berthold has left it rather late to turn into some sort of a social commentator, and, to be blunt, a bit of a lefty. We allow him his effusion on this occasion, but shall be keeping a sharp watch on him hereafter.

When faced with ugly shapes looming bulkily on the economic graphs portending imminent disaster a common refrain sung soothingly by investment advisors, bankers, and others in the GHOPM business (Getting Hold of Other People’s Money) has throughout history been ‘Ah, but it’s different this time!’.

They had better hope that the lyric turns out to be equally untrue today. Usually the last notes of the last renderings have been cut short by the first rumblings of the crash about to overwhelm the customers whom those rhapsodes were advising. There were always some experts who thought they could safely leave it till the last moment before heading to the executive lift, to set off for the well prepared safe haven from which in fact only one in two would return, with not many of those returning in the pomp to which they had been accustomed. (Those, however, are the ones you will have read about in the media.) But cool-headed analysis suggests that now we really are facing a major change in the economic climate.  Add together the converging geophysical disasters both natural and humanly contrived, wars between and within states, terrorism, the population curve surging upward while technical developments increasingly find people unnecessary, the blind rush to extract more and more resources where less and less remains, and at the same time continuing and extending reliance on those same resources; add all those together and as each threatening crisis hoists itself up on the shoulders of the ones that are already trampling on the livelihoods, and indeed the lives, of the poor (and, these days, the formerly middle class) you should reflect that human history knows epochal cycles larger and in proportional terms more devastating than mere ‘business cycles’ of a few years or so. As these megacycles come towards their end they have a graphic shape dramatically different from anything like the sinusoidal curves in the economics textbooks. Look at things on the same scale as that adopted by Arnold Toynbee, and you will see that even after generations – even in some cases after millennia – of success and economic growth, human societies end in failure, and nearly always failure accompanied by the sound of galloping hooves as four horsemen come on the scene.

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An editorial note: Berthold is distressed at hearing his name mispronounced. Modern education, being a thing of shreds (ill-fitting) and patches (artificial fabric), joined together by irregularly shaped lacunae, has left many people unable to pronounce their own name correctly. Berthold has asked me to include the advice to learners that the first part of his family name is properly pronounced ‘Fanshaw’.

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An extract from another e-mail from the Mad Doc, which we offer in case it may be a useful warning to any readers considering holiday plans.

Before the great Asian crash of 1997, one of the delights of Thailand, if you could find a car to hire, was driving between cities, so long as you remembered to fill up with gasoline wherever you found it being sold. Road surfaces were remarkably good, which was largely because there was almost no traffic to show how badly the tarmac was laid You could drive literally a hundred miles and meet maybe just seven or eight other motorised vehicles. The only things to watch out for were sharp bends, which might be concealing a slow-moving buffalo cart in the middle of the road, or very occasionally an elephant. In the city the only real problem was again the sharp bends but this time because the few drivers around operated on the principle (still widely observed today) that if they couldn’t see something coming, then it wasn’t there. The 1997 crash changed all that. The IMF ably following the instructions of the US made the country safe for multinational exploitation, as a condition of providing financial assistance. This was followed by the prime ministerial reign of a canny operator, who from being a humble police colonel quickly became one of the richest men in southeast Asia, following modern commercial principles and helping his compatriots to feel rich either by selling their assets or by borrowing money. (Britain seems to have been rather a slow learner, but under the Tories has been going at it hammer and tongs for some years now.) One result was that most males in the country hocked themselves to the eyeballs, or else sold off parts of the family farm, and bought first a motorcycle and then a pick-up truck, and rushed out onto the public roads, with most of them learning to drive over the next two or three years. Consequently in a city like Chiangmai there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of cars, vans, pick-ups, SUVs, trucks and trucks-with-trailers. There are five or six major double carriageway routes from out in the country into Chiangmai, and seven days a week each of them has three or four kilometres of traffic jam creeping slowly along in three and a half lanes (ie three and a half lanes’ worth of vehicles on three lanes of road, on each side) from 7.30 am much of the day to 6 pm. This has two paradoxical results. First it has slightly reduced the number of serious accidents, an economic activity in which the country far outdoes the notorious French, because it greatly reduces traffic speed. Second, it has produced an even more phenomenal increase, from almost zero, in the number of cyclists, since you have a good chance of evading the worst traffic blockages entirely, by taking little alleyways or other walkable shortcuts, and generally can actually be faster (as well as finding somewhere to park at the other end) if you use a bike so long as you survive the journey. At any red lights now you see not merely motorcyclists (traditionally insane in this country) but also the engineless amateurs inserting their lives into non-existent gaps between the ranks of vehicles, as they edge their way to the front of the pack before – maybe – the light goes green. The effect on the previously staid and sedentary Thai middle-class is uncertain but could be dramatic.

            Another result is that we now lead the world except for China in rates of several kinds of air pollution if measurements are made within half a kilometre of a road. These days, as viewed from the Hangdong Road dawn is seen to be a heavy smoker, her hands not rosy-fingered but yellow-brown. And to all these chemicals we have to add the alien organisms pouring into the Thai atmosphere with the Chinese tourists bringing bacteria hitherto unknown except in remote regions of Inner Mongolia or Yunnan, and the westerners (Russian, American, Australian) similarly bearing viruses developed and nourished in far flung corners of the domains they have stolen from the indigenous inhabitants (viruses which evidently in some cases affect mental or at least political function). We need more and fiercer air pollution to kill all these pests, provided of course that all local inhabitants can be either equipped with truly effective filters and masks, or else genetically modified.

Dr Malory Philipp von Hollenberg

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Observation of the week (from Monty Skew, our political correspondent)

A civilised country (and a civilised union of allegedly independent nations) would support economic development in the interests of improving education, not education so as to support economic development.

 

What you may learn, what you should learn, and what you don’t learn

Editorial note: This journal will now go off line for the remainder of the year, and would-be contributors can save themselves the trouble.  How they fill in their time is not my business, though it would do no harm if some of them were to attempt some improvement in their English and – my word, is it necessary to say this! – their spelling.  The publications may resume on 5th January, although this is not guaranteed, since it is as yet uncertain how much time may be taken in the disposal of my bonus.

If any barbarians are thinking of galloping to Brussels to lay waste european civilisation, they can save themselves the trouble.  The European Commission is there already.  As an example of what they can get up to, take the attitude to education.  In her policy priorities for the next five years given on the Commission’s website the Commissioner gave broad policy guidelines, and goals.  As the first of the broad policy guidelines she offered ‘improving skills and access to education and training, focusing on market needs’.   And specifically on the topic of education, her three first priorities are to (a) help Europe compete globally; (b) equip the young for today’s job market; (c) address the consequences of the economic crisis.

   If you have just read the previous two sentences you may need to have it confirmed that we are talking about the policy statement of a Commissioner for education!  Let us hope that some 450 million citizens will say clearly and loudly that they want a great deal more than that to be listed among the priorities for the education of the next generation.  The next generation exists not merely as a money-making machine for the European Union; they exist as people, and they, and their parents, have every right to insist that they should be as fully developed in their human potential, and in the capacities for contributing to a better life (not interpreting ‘better’ in the disgracefully narrow sense of ‘with more figures written in black on the balance sheet) as possible.

   In any case, we can be sure that any approach to education along the lines so remarkably stated above is highly likely to be an expensive mistake.  There is a well-justified belief that most generals develop great expertise in how to fight the last war.  In commerce and economics, too, ‘market needs’ change.  One need that is highly likely to shrink is the need for workers.  Indeed we are already seeing this as one factor in the high levels of unemployment in western economies.  First automation, and then computerisation have meant that factories can now be staffed with a handful of technicians where once they required hundreds of manual workers.  (The rejoinder is often made that the technical development leads to overall increase in the size of the economy.  This looks like ideological bluster since there is a severe shortage of evidence that the loss to society of those jobs has been a causal factor in the economic development that will have been taking place anyway.)  The sudden recent take-off of 3-D printing bids fair to accelerate the process.  Imagination, or social inertia, may have fitted a ball and chain to it in the west, but do not bank on this being the case in the new rich emerging nations.  After all the breadth of the market in what can be bought from a card-reading machine in Japan (up, or rather down, to second-hand girl’s knickers) amazes visitors.  And after 3-D printing, what next?  We cannot predict, because the full possibilities of the next new technology are not there in the past, for all that its precursors are.  In any case, even if there is a need to develop drone workers, why waste the rich European educational tradition on producing them?  There seems from a cynical point of view an odd lack of fit with the general determination to resist unskilled immigration (or rather immigrants who lack printed qualifications).

   And just another point, Leonardo not only failed to get an education focusing on market needs to equip him for the job market, he never went to university; he simply had the schooling of an ordinary village boy, and not a very intensive one at that.

Hooke Landsknecht

Prestatyn

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In the old days subliminal advertising was a matter of inserting an image or slogan, not chosen on the basis of any particularly perspicacious advice, and exposing it for a twentieth of a second or so in the transmission of a film or television broadcast.  Are we really to suppose that in this field, in the years since those fumbling efforts, there has been no government research and no further technical development?  Perhaps now far more persuasive messages – or commands – are being passed, with far greater care in their placement, and with far greater strength.  Could this be of relevance to the increasing uniformity, in the view of some people, of any given country’s public opinion?

Douglas Parode

Crediton

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Does the Tea Party’s foreign policy group feel that American westward policy should pivot around India or China?  I think we should be told.

Raziq Silversmith

Sherbrooke

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I gather that the Olympics bigwigs are puzzling over what new sports to incorporate into their festive jollities, to increase public interest (and boost the takings, dare one say?).  I personally would like to put in a word for conkers, a favourite pastime of my own youth, my champion (soaked for two weeks in vinegar before it entered combat) having become a seventy-niner before Hoptrott minor shattered it in the finals of Maybank Preparatory School under-11 championship in the summer of 1943.

            Might I, however, urge that there is another avenue open and leading towards the same end which they could explore at the same time.  They could keep many of the existing activities, but very easily introduce changes which would make them more exciting and more interesting for spectators.  As an example, with modern technology there should be no difficulty about arranging for the barriers in the steeplechase to change height at unpredictable intervals in the course of the race, thus putting the runners to a test of alertness as well as stamina.  I wonder if some such ideas could be put before the Committee for their consideration.

Donald Johnson

London

Proposed French legislation

I recently heard a recording of a very interesting interview on my local (French) radio station, and I thought your readers might like to hear about it.  I wrote to the broadcasting station  and asked if I could have a transcript.  I am pleased to say they agreed, and I have translated it as here:

   We are pleased to have with us today the distinguished gastronome and philosopher Louis-Gustave Capper, winner of the Prix Cinqroutes for innovative cuisine in the year 1931.  Professor, thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us.  As you know the French Assembly has again begun a project of law with the idea of imposing fines on clients of prostitutes.  We should be glad to have your views on the project and, if you will permit, I have to begin by putting a question which a number of our female listeners insisted should be put to you, when they heard this interview would be broadcast:  Are you a male chauvinist?

   (Capper)

   There are several answers to this question.  As often with such questions of a social nature, the answers vary according to the person giving them, and have nothing useful to do with the nature of the person or subject under investigation.  Perhaps we may proceed to more substantive issues.

   Do you think that there are different categories of rape?

   I do not think any sane person can believe rape to be anything other than a very serious crime, whether committed against a male or a female.  However, there is reason to think it is especially heinous when the victim is female, to judge from the fact that on occasions it leads to suicide, whereas such an outcome seems to be extremely rare when the victim is male.  Having said that much, however, is it not evident that extreme brutality, for example, will make the crime worse?

   The supporters of this legislation say that it will reduce the incidence of trafficking.  Do you agree?

   Trafficking is a term that certainly admits of different categories, since it means in essence no more than trading in some commerce that a government dislikes.  Some forms of such commerce should be encouraged by all honest citizens.  I think, for example of the illegal export of necessary medicines into countries despite political sanctions against their governments.  Iran’s citizens have long been at risk when travelling by air because of severe difficulties obtaining spare parts for civilian aircraft.  Historically there have been many countries which banned certain books which most urgently needed to be distributed in great numbers in those very countries.  I myself look fondly on those who supply me with imported cigarettes which would cost me three times as much if they were imported legally.

    I think in this case, however, they are speaking of trafficking in people.

   Now it may be that here they are talking of people being treated in such trade as objects, and this is of course wrong, though let me point out that the worst offenders in this kind of treatment are governments themselves.  But in any case they are clearly misusing the language (a lesser offence but still one where governments are egregious offenders) since as I have said trafficking is simply commerce of which a government disapproves.  And I object most strongly to morally repugnant restrictions being placed on the crossing of frontiers by human beings.  We are told that humanity benefits from a free market (an obvious falsehood since those who benefit from a free market are those who have access to the knowledge and control to take advantage of it) but even as the words are spoken we see that they do not mean at all what they appear to say.  There is to be free movement of money and of physical goods but not of people, who are by the way the ones who do the work.  A poor man loses his job in Africa.  He goes to the embassy of a European country to get the visa which, as an African, he must get so that he can travel there to earn money for his family.  It is refused, because he cannot show that he has money to support himself in Europe (and would be refused even if he could).  So he sells half his possessions to pay for a trip to the coast, where he must hand over all the money that remains to him so that he can board a rotting boat which may take him to Europe.  Is he not an investor?  He has invested until he has nothing left.  He has struggled for weeks to make the journey.  He is a man.  He wants to work.  But if he reaches the other shore, he has no papers.  He will be held in a camp like a prison until he is sent back because he is an economic migrant.  So where is the theory of capitalism now?  It is lacking one of its two main motive forces.  However, I think that here too those who complain of trafficking really mean something different from what they are saying.  They are not concerned with the crossing of frontiers but with what may happen thereafter to the people who cross them illegally.  Now we know that some are forced to work as slaves, on farms, in brickyards, in factories, or private homes and that is so obviously wrong that I have a question of my own.  In all countries that claim to be civilised there are laws against this, but not very much happens to stop it, and I would like to know why?  Could it be that it is for the convenience of friends of the government?   The other major crime committed against those arriving illegally is that they are forced into prostitution.   Holding a human being prisoner in a network of prostitution is both kidnapping and rape.  And there is rape every time that a client is served.  Again there are laws that state clearly and loudly that these are crimes, and again I am puzzled that they do not seem to be used as much as I would expect and I wonder why.

   So then you would support this proposed legislation?

   Absolutely not.  I have no objection in general to the fining of customers of prostitutes, male or female.  Some clients will be caught, and the lives of those households will be shipwrecked.  Blackmail will flourish (a doubtful benefit to society).  The earnings of some poor women who have no chance to get reasonably paid work in socially approved employment will be disrupted.  And those who continue to work in this way will be forced into more repellent and more dangerous places unless they are to risk a police raid while the transaction is proceeding.  A very serious issue is that where the prostitution is enforced the gangs that exercise control will undoubtedly find ways to provide unchecked access, and that will make them more powerful.  The number of reported incidents will be reduced but prostitution will continue.  Are they not dealing with behaviour resulting from one of the three major human motives functioning to keep the race in existence?  Perhaps the most serious result, however, will be that some of the potential clients, the most dangerous ones, will try to assuage their sexual hunger with crime.  It is certain that there will be violent attacks.  Are the supporters of this law so totally ignorant of the history of prohibition in America, where crime was driven by an urge strong enough, to be sure, but less deeply embedded in the human framework than this one.

   Surely it is desirable that this unattractive aspect of society should be repressed?

   I do not speak as an habitué of this milieu myself.  Such a dérive is neither necessary nor conformable to my inclinations, and I have no difficulty in accepting that some find this aspect of society displeasing, but then I wish to ask why this is so.  Combine to dishonour any social group and push it into a disagreeable style of life where the majority would not wish to go and even if it does not in reality become unattractive it will be so perceived by the lack of thought of the respectable.  You can doubtless think of one well-known group so harassed today, in our country and to our shame.  It is the instinct to drive out the ‘different’ and to declare that you do so because it is wrong or ugly or immoral.  But the truth is not that it should be repressed because it is unattractive; instead, the fact is that it is treated by our society in such a way as to make it unattractive.

   But the legislation is strongly supported by women’s rights groups.

   It is to me extraordinary that they do not distinguish between those who are forced into this unpleasant and dangerous occupation, and those who choose it as they have the right to do for reasons of their own which we have no right to enquire into.  These groups say that prostitution demeans the woman.  Yes, a thousand times over – when it is enforced.  There is something distasteful in beholding a woman whose talent or fortune of birth offer her a comfortable life in easy circumstances but who denies the right of a free woman to exercise the talents she is born with.  Has she not the right to make choices of her own about her own body, just as do those who strive to become athletes, opera singers, film stars or restauratrices.   Among those women’s rights groups is it not a majority who defend the right of a woman to make choices about her own body in the matter of pregnancy? Let them fine clients of prostitutes if they must (but know that unfortunate consequences will follow).  Let them take firm and powerful measures against slavery and enforced violence against women, and men.  But what they need to do is to make the simple distinction between an activity and abuses of it.  Even the most authoritarian state does not ban reading because citizens might use it to read work on political liberty.  Or to offer you another analogy, the cars of France cause pollution, problems of health, noise, fights, and most serious, accidents.  Should we ban them or instead legislate against the evils they cause, punish those who transgress, and try to reduce to the maximum their nuisances while increasing to the highest level possible the assistance they can provide to the nation’s life?

Adrian Jenkins-Lejeune

Roeselare

How rich are economists? Yeovil’s public library and the Art of War

It is often said that history is written by the victors, and this must be a factor encouraging many to believe that right wins in the end.  While no expert in such matters, I would incline to think that on the contrary in military matters there is no very strong link between moral standing and success, and insofar as one exists it is likely to be in favour of the scoundrel rather than the white knight, if only because the former will resort to ‘dirty tricks’ which the latter would eschew.  However, my point here is to pose the question whether a similar principle may operate in the economics we see in the media.  I am not thinking of the many pieces which are deliberately biassed for one reason or another, but rather of those that purport to be, and may in all honesty set out to be, careful and balanced assessments of this or that economic issue.  There is a saying to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail and in economics (as in politics) we face a sophisticated version of a rather similar skewing of judgement.  For with an infinitesimal number of exceptions the views that receive widespread coverage are written by those who have done well out of the economy, with salaries soaring in some cases far into six figures of pounds or dollars, not to mention ancillary sources of income.  This will apply whichever side of a given issue they support, and however hard they try to avoid ideological bias.  No matter how wide the field of data at their disposal, how can they not base their interpretations on their own experience, and the experience of their friends and associates, who will very largely share the same background?  Even before that, their own experience will influence the data they choose to use.  But the proportion of humanity with salaries in six figures is tiny.  With the best will in the world these analysts cannot notice all the factors and understand wholly the situations that confront the vast mass of humanity.  And so the most recent issue of the Economist argues firmly for action by governments to raise prices.  It says that deflation (prices dropping) has been deeply damaging to Japan.  This may be true if by ‘Japan’ you mean the rich corporations, but it is highly questionable if you are speaking about the standard of living of nearly all Japanese.  ‘Since loans are fixed in nominal terms, falling wages and prices increase the burden of paying them’.  Some unclarity here.  If prices drop that will help the vast majority of the population to pay off loans.  As for wages dropping, that will be a factor but it depends how ruthlessly businesses try to hold on to their profits by cutting wages, how soon they cut and by how much.  There have been plenty of examples in recent years, notably in Germany, of wages being reduced only by moderate amounts and with the employing business doing its share by accepting a loss of income.  (Incidentally, should we be hearing any talk about cuts in management salaries?  That may be a small fraction of the total costs of most – but not  all – businesses, but it would make a vast difference to the willingness of everybody else in the mix to tighten belts and compromise.  But is that how senior layers of management view the issue?)  ‘Low inflation…tends to go with a weaker economy and higher-than-necessary joblessness’.  This is loose.  The Economist gives three countries’ jobless rates, but even if the inflation rates were added, this would remain only a claim of correlation, and in a plainly complex relationship, more would be needed to count as evidence for a useful causal connexion.  ‘Nominal incomes grow more slowly than they would if prices were rising faster.’  This sounds alarmingly close to a truism, but no figures are given, even as examples, and in any case what matters crucially is the relative speeds of the increases in incomes and prices.  ‘Low inflation makes it tougher for uncompetitive countries within a single currency to adjust their relative wages,’  True enough (and it is pleasing to see some explicit recognition here of what we might perhaps call the social factor).  But as with the linkage between low inflation and unemployment (above) this is a moderately complex relationship, and there is more than one way out, the most drastic, single-track exit being (notoriously) to stop sharing the same currency.  ‘Too little inflation will undermine central bankers’ ability to combat another recession.’  Fair enough, up to a point, but beyond that point a very important question is how severe the recession might be (and what combination of factors caused it).  It is understandable that those who look at economies from the point of view of large companies and the significantly wealthy will see any recession with its reduction in profits and ‘growth’ as a failure, and for those committed to an ideological version of capitalism it will count as ‘deeply damaging’.  But whether it can be so described for the population affected, with for instance massive loss of jobs and really substantial disappearance of income and assets, is another matter.  (Let me refer you to the Japanese case again.)  And that, incidentally, depends on how far those who control the levers of commerce and economic power are determined to look after their own interests rather than those of the nation at large.

Ernesto Keynes

Melbourne

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I was able to help Ollie B with her enquiry about Sun-Tzü, personally, because she goes to the same college as me in Yeovil, and she showed me the letter she had on this website.  (By the way, the editor said I could only put this letter in if I gave her real name, which is actually Auliffe Baratsch, but Ollie said that was okay.)  It’s pretty well true that Sun-Tzü did come close to saying that the best way to win in war was to make the enemy not want to fight, even if he didn’t use exactly those words (in Chinese, anyway).  That sort of angle is big in his third part (which you aren’t supposed to call chapter apparently).

Seeing as I am writing on this site anyway, I wonder if I can set a puzzle for the readers?  Which leader of a nation now is a reincarnation of Syngman Rhee?   Clue 1) look up about him, especially what the newspapers said about him (in English) in the time of the Korean War.  Clue 2) for the answer look around the countries in the Middle East today.

Veronica Mallinckrodt

Yeovil

Editorial note: You appear to have been spending a lot of time in the East Asian reading room of the Yeovil public library, if that town has a public library.  A much better way for a young lady to spend her time is to get out of doors and play some healthy outdoor game; I would suggest tennis or hockey or lacrosse perhaps.

A sadly understated economic law

Editorial note: I have decided to overrule the fad among my young contributors for using an initial or sobriquet instead of their full name.  From this date forward please note that writers must give a real name, even if it is not their own, and also at least a figment of an address.  I must also very definitely dissociate myself from the view expressed in the following item.

One does not hear much talk about the trickle-down theory of wealth these days but the assumptions behind it still seem to be holding up well.  The idea, roughly speaking, is that if you get a stratum of serious wealth in any given area then its members will, to put it crudely, spend their money in diverse ways thus spreading wealth through the community.  They will buy goods, engage services, and start businesses.  They will buy cars and pianos, employ butlers and drivers, and establish media companies.  Then the shopkeepers and the butlers and drivers and the editors will have more money than they ever had before, and in their turn they will spend more on the things they want, need and like.  And so on all the way down the economic slope.  As in all the most comforting fairy tales, it leaves everyone better off.  Therefore we should always fight for rich people and rich companies to have the lowest possible taxes, to help the whole wonderful process to work (and it is said some governments even hand out free grants under the name of privatisations to promising candidates to make sure they have enough wealth to keep things going).  But all this is rather abstract stuff.  Let’s try to envisage a practical example.  Let’s take a large group of bankers fleeing their native country somewhere in Asia perhaps, to save their lives and wealth after a leftish government has somehow got elected.  They decide to settle together on the pleasant island of Arbyesse in the Bay of Bolivia, which up to now has maintained a moderate prosperity on the basis of fishing, tourism, and the manufacture  and sale of artefacts attributed to the first bronze age settlers.  The first thing that happens is that they buy the finest houses on the market for their families, equip them with the most modern computer systems, and furnish them with exquisite period furniture bought after whirlwind shopping expeditions to Paris and Hongkong.   You will notice at once that the latter two forms of expenditure do nothing for the local economy, but for now let us pass over that point.  After that they set up a new bank employing some dozens of local staff, some formerly unemployed but most of them attracted by the higher pay from their previous jobs in various local businesses.  The bankers also establish firms dealing in financial investment and advice, facilitating of course dealings with their own previous contacts in other countries.  The purchases continue, notably including two private yachts but also a number of expensive cars (which naturally have to be bought from overseas firms).    They are careful to adopt a low profile in local life though some do offer support for one respectable local party, obviously well-favoured by the population since it wins the next three elections in a row.  Investors and friends of the bankers overseas see Arbyesse as a stable, investible target and pile in.  Hotels are built and infrastructure projects take shape.  So the economy after a few years achieves substantial growth.  Local construction companies (in which the bankers have invested heavily) have done well, as has the airport (foreign-owned).  There is a new ‘Omnimercato supermart’ with 60,000 different kinds of items, on the site of the old vegetable market, which still exists but has moved to a convenient site near the lagoon south of the capital.  Shopkeepers, and owners of other small businesses like the smith who turned his hand to making ornamental ironwork drive respectable cars.  But one night a young trainee accountant, cycling home after a celebratory dinner with some friends in El treinta de julio, a beachside café, noticed several down-and-outs sleeping in doorways, something he had never seen as a child.  He thought about it when he got home, and these thoughts led him by chance to realising that though he seemed to be earning quite reasonable pay, somehow he and his wife still could not afford to buy a number of desirable additions to their home, and had to be very careful with their monthly expenses.  She commented that it was much the same for most of her friends, while her aunt, though married to the man who had successfully turned his small taberna into an upmarket wine-bar specialising in imported wines, was always ready to deplore the drain on her purse when she went to the Omnimercato, and to denounce her husband who insisted they must save one more year for the bathroom suite she had set her heart on.  The accountant, Federigo, became curious and he found it quite easy to get information, sometimes in detail, about the assets of other inhabitants.  It seemed that typical members of the uppermost stratum had assets that would compare quite favourably with those of wealthy individuals in advanced countries.  The next level, senior managers in the construction companies for example, were also quite well off.  But as one went down the scale it seemed that the level of wealth diminished, not just individually but when all citizens of that level of the economy were added together.  He also tried to find comparative data on incomes.  This was harder since the tax authorities were rather more conscious of confidentiality than the private branches of the wealth system.  Nonetheless it seemed that a similar variation existed there.  The most striking thing was that in both cases it appeared that the figure dropped to zero before one reached the lowest band of the population.

            Perhaps foolishly, he started talking about his findings in company.  He was frankly puzzled as to why the ‘ever more vibrantly pulsing economy’ (to quote from the Trombón del Amanecer) pulsed so feebly in its lower depths.  Most who heard him did not share this reaction; they simply regarded it as a natural aspect of human existence.  However, he was finally offered the reason, at a gathering over a few beers one evening with some friends as the rain lashed down on the same beach-side café, the night before he was arrested.  Once again he plaintively voiced his puzzlement and once again saw the same resentful but apathetic impotence.  As often, one of them muttered about ‘all this money around.  Not much filtering down to us.  The only thing that filters down to us is higher prices’.  This time, however, the amiable Irish beachcomber in the corner, a regular customer over many years but one who rarely spoke, added an unexpected coda.  “It’s just what you should expect, you know.  The economists don’t like to talk about it much, but it is an economic law.  ‘Prices rise to meet the money available to pay them’ .”

Brandon Fitzhenry

Chicago

Spoons in the east, beetles underfoot

(1) Editorial note   (2) tasers   (3)   muzak in the wallpaper  (4) self-contradiction in the EU  (5) capitalist competition in reality  (6) footnote

 

The Editor writes:  The next distribution which we hope to make is pencilled in for 30 OctoberPlease note that this time there will be no earlier supplementary distributions.  In the first part of the intervening period we shall be conducting our annual ceremony of respect and honour for Rupert Murdoch.  We should like to speak highly of his private life and of the doubtless many and ingenious methods by which the enterprises he has fostered pursue their noble goal of disseminating to the world news that the world should be told, but shall forbear; these are matters of which we have no privileged knowledge and we hesitate to repeat mere hearsay, no matter how warmly it glows.  However the steadfast loyalty of this cosmopolitan magnate to his determination to lead the world’s foremost publishing and media group has been obvious to all.  How can we not see that his companies have set cultural standards for the nations of the earth, providing their populations with a new understanding of what counts as fitting behaviour and social mores, and seeking to offer ever more attractive visions of human life to those who would view them.  Who will deny that those who have been touched by the influence of his enterprises even at second, third, or fourth hand are moved to greater love for their fellow human beings and an almost irresistible desire to do whatever they can to promote peace between nations, and equal and fair dealing between all?

  Thereafter, those of us in this office will each be spending two weeks in rather different fashion, undergoing a renewal experience (despite mockery from certain critics in more sedentary – or sedimentary – sections of the media; they know who they are).  Our goal is to place ourselves in a framework different from our life in Guernsey in as many ways as possible, socially, geographically, meteorologically, philosophically, and even gastronomically.  For instance, I am to be zipped into the costume of a giant panda and sent out to entertain the crowds in an American theme park by dancing and singing nursery rhymes in time to recorded music operated by a switch in my backside.  Manos has just returned from London depressed, after learning that the official who finally agreed to allow him an interview to discuss his innovative proposal for velcro strips on future banknotes ¹, was the deputy to the director of the Bank’s car pool, and his encouraging reaction may therefore count for little.  Nevertheless, and even though this is his first year with us, Manos will be the assisant cook on a trawler taking mentally disturbed children on three-day trips in the Bay of Biscay.  (The Chief Psychiatrist of the institution where the children are held believes that the combination of fear and seasickness is a splendid method for producing a recovery of normal behaviour patterns.)  Our hope in these ventures is that we shall acquire a deeper understanding of others and their ways, and return with a far less simplified grasp of our own situation and presuppositions (which by no means excludes the notion of condemning ignorant and self-indulgent critics). 

  Jeremy alone will not take part having kindly agreed to feed the guard dog, since we were unable to find any alternative solution to that problem, meanwhile taking online a course of (very expensive) Californian psychotherapy intended to cure what the counsellor who recommended the course described as his ‘guilty, unnatural and self-destructive lust’ for olives (one of a number of remarkable cures offered by this estimable consultancy).  (Personally I think it is just another example of the trouble one can get into through trawling the internet.)

   We wish our readers well until 30 October, when we hope to be able to give news of a controversial new theory about Stonehenge.

¹ [see distribution 15 September]

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taser mysteries  from 10-10-2012

Legal proceedings are under way in Sydney into the death last March of a Brazilian student aged 23.   He was reported to police as having been involved in an armed robbery.  In fact he was unarmed, and it turned out that he had taken two packets of biscuits without paying for them.  A policeman who tasered him, twice, using the weapon directly on his skin, denied hearing him cry out ‘Help’ and ‘What did I do?even though at that time the victim was lying on the ground handcuffed and apparently virtually naked.  The weapon was used against him in bursts of between five and fourteen seconds.  It was stated that he had taken a dose of a hallucinogen and was in what was described as a psychotic state; reports did not clarify whether he had realised that those who had attacked him and thrown him to the ground, initially six although in all there were eleven around him as he died, were policemen.

Legal mystery: the proceedings are described as an inquest to discover how he died.

Social order mystery: what are the prospects for the mentally ill, or indeed the merely eccentric, who go out at night in Sydney?

Educational development mystery: what are the current prospects for universities trying to attract students from overseas?

Continuing mysteries: when will we get an answer to the question put in the second item in the distribution of 5 June?  And if none is forthcoming, why?

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Deviathon, the well-known multinational conglomerate based in Madagascar and tax havens throughout the world has triumphed again.  Its new ‘musepaper’, muzak-impregnated wallpaper, claimed to be superior to anything else on the market, is intended to entertain and soothe the housewife as she moves around her house through the day.  It comes in two ranges.  One has mostly abstract designs, and it is the colour and colour combinations in these which control the easy-listening muzak that emerges whenever the sensors register the approach of an occupant of the room.  The ‘superpremium’ wallpaper of this type is especially suitable for those with a creative itch, since the muzak is not pre-recorded but will be made up of different tones resembling the sounds that can be produced by electronic synthesisers which indeed they are, so that pitch, quality, and volume can be varied according to the speed and position of the human, or indeed animal, movements in its neighbourhood.  The brochure foresees hours of fun as you teach your pet to wave its paws and move this way and that so as to produce weird new versions of popular television theme tunes.  The other range of musepaper includes photographs of your favourite performers set in a variety of tasteful striped and floral designs.  A close approach to e.g. the late, great Nate Butley will start a shortened rendition of one out of his five greatest hits.  Most of the performers featured will of course be in the current charts, since the firm is counting on built-in obsolescence in the muzak and pop industries.  This, they anticipate, could reduce the use-span of the average roll of wall-paper from its presentday eight to twelve years down to less than six months, with a corresponding dramatic increase in profits.

  Asked if there were any plans to produce a range with pictures of classical composers so that a close approach would elicit a few favourite bars of some symphony or concerto, the spokeswoman responded ‘What is a concerto?’ and when this matter was cleared up, answered simply ‘No’.

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Readers’ letters

  Madam, Can any of your readers find a rational explanation of what looks like a piece of self-contradiction?  In February 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from the rest of Serbia.  This event was apparently favoured by the benevolence (towards the Albanians of Kosovo) of a strange combination of the European Union and Nato, but we pass over this unusual feature, as also the allegations about questionable aspects of the Kosovan government.  Although a considerable number of nations still do not recognise the validity of the declaration (which seems to be in contradiction of the UN charter), there is no doubt that the core administration of the European Union does accept it, apparently on the basis that it was a change of national boundaries made necessary in order better to match the ethnic pattern of the populations in the region.

  Since then there has been a consistent and very strong demand from the overwhelmingly Serbian population of the three northernmost municipalities of Kosovo, that their territory should be restored to Serbia and detached from the rest of the traditional Kosovo.  The European Union’s administration resists this firmly, apparently on the basis that national boundaries should not be changed even if in order better to match the ethnic pattern of the populations in the region.

  It is not easy to explain such an inconsistency; it could not possibly be on the basis that one particular ethnic group, here the Serbs, has simply been classified as ‘the wrong sort’.  Such ideas would not exist at any rational level of politics in the modern world.  Would they?

Lobelia Helgasdottir

from Luddites Gazette

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Economic shorts

  The assertion, that while state enterprises in a nationalised sector inevitably lead to inefficiency, competition between private companies will lead to improved operation and a better deal for customers, does not sit comfortably with this news just out of the U.K.

  Gas supply to households in Britain was technically privatised in the 1980s but remained a regulated monopoly until 1996.  Now a number of private firms compete.  All of them have decided to raise the price to consumers in the coming year by between six and nine percent.  The current rate of inflation on the other hand is 2.5%.  The biggest supplier is British Gas, affiliated to Centrica.  Centrica made a profit of £1.45 billion in the first six months of this year; £345 million of that was attributed to supplying gas to domestic households.  Incidentally, fears have been expressed that deaths among the elderly poor are likely to result from the price increases.

  It may also interest some to know that according to media report a Mr Laidlaw, the boss of Centrica  had a total ‘compensation’ package (pay + extras) last year of £4.1 million plus an entitlement to shares in 2014 anticipated to be worth £5 million, provided that company profits show a satisfying increase.  It is not thought, however, that prospects for an increase will be damaged severely by the increase in price to consumers.

from Luddites Gazette

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sour observation

some might describe the views of well-paid economists that ‘increasing wealth of a country’ = ‘increasingly satisfactory situation of its population’ as two fallacies folded into one economists’ superstition: that what is true for an ensemble is true for all its members, while ‘increasing wealth’ = ‘increasingly satisfying condition’

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honor honestique floreant