12 February 2018

Not All People-Centred Politics is Marxist.

I was looking at an article by a Anarchist this morning. Interesting guy. He reminded me that not everyone on the political left is a Marxist. Socialism predates Marxism, and Anarchists often see Marx as an authority figure to be rejected.

I think Marx's critique of British politics 150 years ago was prescient, but the idea that the British would achieve what the French did in their revolution has always been laughable. The British Class system kept everyone in their place.

Things have changed since the mid 19th Century, of course. Still, class is a major factor in British life. There is still deference to authority here in spades. And of course the Left are deeply divided as portrayed in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Living in Britain has radicalised me to some extent. Most New Zealanders were socialists - we had a generous welfare state, my education and healthcare were paid for out of taxes. At least until the Neoliberal virus hit us in the mid-1980s. Growing up in NZ did not prepare me for the political right here.

The UK is largely run by people who inherited wealth and therefore power. Britain briefly went socialist post-war but it has lurched to the right since then and seems to be becoming increasingly right-wing. The welfare system has become punitive, university education is no longer free, local councils are going broke. The National Health Service is gradually being strangled by under-funding and is being outsourced to badly governed, unscrupulous private companies who are taking on massive debts in order to keep paying out dividends to shareholders. My local water company paid out more in dividends than it made profits in the last ten years.

And why? So the people who could afford to pay for services could pay less tax. Rich people don't mind paying a premium for personalised services at inflated prices. They do mind paying tax so that everyone benefits.

Another story today, in Forbes, points out that even if Brexit goes very badly, the leading proponents of it in government are so rich that they won't really be affected by it. But they also seem to be deeply deluded about the effects it will have.

It's not that the EU is perfect. The EU has major problems. But I think the key problem for Brexiteers is that Europe is republican and federal. Britain is monarchist and imperial and the ruling classes don't want to give up their power.

British politics is now highly slanted towards the desires of the rich. Our legal and tax frameworks cater for rich locals and rich foreigners as well. We're not even too bothered how they came by their money. No one is really interested in tax reform or tackling tax evasion. We have 10 times as many staff investigating benefit fraud than we do for tax evasion, and the value of tax evasion is 100 times greater. That's symbolic of the orientation of the nation.

As employment levels rise, but pay and conditions continue to be eroded, and workers get further into debt, the demand for goods and services is weak. Consumer spending fell in January. Richard Koo has described a situation in which businesses with debts no longer prioritised maximising profit but instead look to pay down debt. Similarly with indebted households. Eventually they realise that carrying debt is a drain on their resources and they tighten their belts in order to pay down debts.

The thing business people don't seem to understand is that if the workers get too small a slice of the profits of enterprise, they can't buy things. At present the lion's share of profit is going to shareholders and highly paid executives. These people don't pay taxes in the UK, they move their capital off-shore to tax havens, and they don't reinvest their money in the real economy to create jobs or raise wages. They are sitting on vast pots of uninvested cash. All the big tech companies have huge cash reserves for example.

This is not rocket science and it's not Marxism. Capitalism works best when workers are well paid and spend their money on goods and services. The accumulation of unused capital is anti-capitalist.

28 January 2018

Brilliance on Twitter

People who moan about Twitter often say that it cannot convey complex information. This tweet by @biolojical shows how, with some imagination, one can convey complex ideas.

Mass in grams

10^33🌞 . . . . 10^28🌎 . 10^26🌖 . . . . . . . . 10^17🗻 . . 10^14🌀 . . 10^11🌉 . 10^9🌲 10^8🐋 10^7🐘 10^6🦏 10^5⛹️‍ 10^4🐩 1000🐇 100🐀 10🦇 1🥜 0.1🐝 0.01🐞 0.001🐜 . . . . . 10^-9🔘human cell . . 10^-12🔵bacterium . . 10^-15🔹virus . . . . . . . 10^-23⚛️

11 January 2018


Watching the NHS creak and groan under the weight of winter flu causes me to reflect on changes in the UK since WWII.

We started out with a basic generosity and altruism in which the government worked for the benefit of the people and made everyone better off. Building and funding the NHS was part of this. The economy boomed, there were jobs for everyone, and more or less everyone could afford to rent a house, if not buy one.

Since about 1970 we've gradually changed to a culture of selfishness and greed. And the government works for the benefit of large corporations. The value of people and work has declined precipitously, while rents have gone mental and hardly anyone can afford a house. And yet the 1% are doing better than ever.

Adults who saw WWII and perhaps WWI as well, were keen to make the world a better place in practical ways and to pay for it in taxes. But the children born afterwards, the so-called "baby-boomers" seem to have been spoiled by all this generosity. Ironically they *talked* about making the world a better place, but as a generation they prioritised and even festished self-interest (think Economic Theory and Ayn Rand). Witness the Beatles complaining about the tax rate (with John still in his trademark NHS spectacles).

Now we have low taxes and some people have more individual wealth but the health system is not able to cope. As a nation we are poorer and weaker than we have been for a very long while.

The worst thing is that our present prosperity is built on personal debt which has risen to about 100% of GDP and about 150% of household income. Debt mines our future prosperity. We have more now, but less in the future, because it costs money to borrow money.

04 January 2018

Don't ask for a raise or we'll replace you with a robot that will work for free

In the news today is a story warning us not to implement a living wage because the pay rises will mean more jobs being lost to "automation".

The living wage being the minimum amount you need to actually live in the UK without government subsidies. Quite of a lot of people in full-time employment are still dependent on govt handouts to make ends meet.

Anyway, the gist of the story is:  Don't ask for a raise or we'll replace you with a robot that will work for free.

But the thing is that about 15 years ago New Labour opened the floodgates to migration from Europe flooding the UK with cheap labour from Eastern Europe. The results are that we are now leaving the European Union, we have the lowest economic growth of any country in the EU (on a par with Greece and worse than Italy!).

In other words its an empty threat that we know will backfire spectacularly.

Falling wages and rising personal debt has meant that there is a demand crunch - rising inflation is only making it worse. Unemployed people don't have much to spend and they tend to spend it on rent and food. Landlords and budget supermarkets do OK, but no one else who relies on the real economy does.

If you replace all the workers with robots who do not earn anything, but also do not *spend* anything, then the robots will make products that no one can afford and you go out of business. It's a race to the bottom. Meanwhile top CEOs are being paid 120 then average wage, to win this race to the bottom.

The only rational policy for a government is to aim at full employment, at rates of pay which provide for what everyone needs and a little more. If employers won't pay employees a living wage then the government has to legislate to make them. Yes, shareholders dividends might be a littler smaller, but fuck em, they're probably not even paying tax on their income.

The irony for those conservative business people who favour small government is that their refusal to offer a fair wage for a fair day's work is the biggest impediment to small government there is. Welfare would be minimal if there were jobs for all and fair pay and conditions. It is the greed and intransigence of business people that fuel the need for big government.

07 December 2017

Panglossian Wonderland

It's quite maddening to watch as politicians do an obviously bad job of Brexit and then give Panglossian self-reviews to the media. We are required to believe that current disaster is the best possible outcome in the best of worlds.

It's as though we've gone down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Up is down and sense is nonsense.

But this theme of of disaster being spun as a great victory is nothing new. Remember the Alamo? The Alamo was a failed attempt to withstand a siege. All the US soldiers died. The Charge of the Light Brigade? A suicidal cavalry charge at artillery. Everyone died. The more suicidal some mission is, the easier it is to sell failure as success.

While the news is focussed on the Brexit disaster something weird is going on.

Here in the UK the government tops up earnings for almost every working person in some way. And meanwhile the top 1% of the wealthy are squirrelling more and more wealth away in tax havens.

The government subsidises low wages so that wealthy shareholders can take an ever greater slice of the profits of industry. In-work benefits don't benefit workers struggling on subsistence wages, they benefit employers who have no incentive to pay a living wage.

 Landlords are subsidised to charge rents much higher than most people can afford, because govt meets the difference. Business owners are subsidised to pay low wages, or offer zero-hours contracts knowing that govt will top them up with "benefits".

And this is called "Free Market Economics"? Pull the other one. This is market manipulation to favour the rich. It's welfare that is being targeted at the rich. It is one of the biggest confidence tricks in history.

The really creepy thing is that the turkeys are all voting for Christmas and attacking anyone who suggests they should support the turkeys instead of the farmers.

I'm reminded of Monty Python... "Terrific race the Romans, terrific".

Anyway there's some really fucking evil genius at work here.

30 November 2017


Corresponding with a colleague I summed up life's problems like this.

We're self-aware, which has many advantages. However, it has the disadvantage of making us acutely aware that life is short, precarious, and unjust.

Like all living things we have an imperative to persist. But self-awareness tells us the awful truth. We are going to die.

We need certain things to survive--shelter, food, companions, etc--but self-awareness informs us that getting these things is often beyond our control. Nature just does its thing regardless--floods, fires, hurricanes, predators, draughts, etc.

And finally evolution has prepared us for living in small communities where we know what everyone is doing and following the rules cements the social cohesion that makes the social life-style so successful. So self-awareness has given us the ability to create small scale just societies, or at least societies in which principles of justice can be applied. But it also tells us that nature doesn't follow our rules. And in large societies people are not bound to follow the rules in the same way, so some feel free to break them. And of course we die. Life, from a human point of view, is on balance not just or fair.

Now some of us by luck and hard work can become reasonably insulated from hardship or injustice. We have enough to eat, access to clean water, live in a safe neighbourhood, and have either natural protection from nature, or the ability to rapidly rebuild after a disaster. Some of us manage to make life much less precarious and much less unjust. Its not perfect, but some of us do pretty well.

But no one escapes death. Everyone, every living organism dies. Communities persist much longer, but even they eventually die. Death is the one thing that we cannot escape; and yet we have this cellular imperative to persist. All living things have this imperative to keep going. Life never simply gives up, it always dies trying.

If you want to understand human beings this is one angle that must be considered. We know, we cannot avoid known, that in the end life is short, precarious, and unjust.

What do all religious leaders and politicians promise us? They promise to deal with the easy problem: resources and justice. Work, fair pay, fair prices, decent housing. The whole idea of the market economy was that it would efficiently deliver these. That is made everything worse except for the very wealthy is because it was based on mythology rather than science.

And they promise to be tough on crime. They will keep us safe from threats domestic and foreign.

The only thing that religion offers that is different, is immortality. Religion tells us how to cheat death. And when lose faith in the organised religions, we latch on to the New Age versions of these myths (ironically largely recycled and remixed from organised religion).

Here's the thing though. It is possible to deliver security and justice, at least to some extent. Ok, we've been going in the wrong direction for a few decades because we were hijacked by an ideology, but that doesn't discredit the whole enterprise. It just tells us that strong government and intervention are required to address the precariousness and injustice of life.

What cannot be delivered by anyone anywhere is immortality. Priests of many varieties promise it to us, *after* we first die, but it is not possible. It won't happen. It cannot happen. We have to make our peace with this. But it is much harder it sounds. To really face your own death is horrifying for most people, especially when you're young. Though illness, especially mental illness, can make death seem welcome. For most people the imperative to persist is the strongest motivation they have. People survive concentration camps and all manner of deprivation or brutalisation. They hang onto life.

And to me, if there is only one life, then it is all the more precious. What I do with my life is all the more important. Yes, it is difficult, and sometimes I wish I was dead. But I'm usually sure I can hang on for one more day.

If I'm right about this, and I think its all fairly self-evident, then if I'm going to make a difference, the obvious place to apply my lever is the areas of the precariousness and injustice of life. That is, *helping people*. There are many ways to approach this. We all have different things that spark us off. Not everyone needs to be the Secretary General of the UN. For me being part of a community with a vision is important, because people working together are more effective than individuals. What I do can help make our collective more effective at addressing the problems that people have, even though my personal contribution might be quiet small and obscure, collectively we amount to more than the sum of our parts.

And of course sometimes we have to keep chipping away without much sense of progress or success. The 19 blows that weaken the rock, make it possible for the 20th blow to split it. Persistence is a great virtue.

I think most, if not all, of us know this stuff, at some level. We are all trying to make things better around us. We don't all have effective strategies and tactics, but we're trying (sometimes desperately). We all face the same existential problems. Nothing much has changed, in this sense, in thousands of years (millions even).

We don't need to love everyone or take on the sorrows of the world. All that grandiose rhetoric. We just need to do what we can to make life better for the people in our sphere of influence without making it worse for anyone in the process. If we all put the effort in locally, the global change will come.

23 November 2017

Müller’s daṇḍa

I seldom get to write comedy in my articles, but this line comes close:
"It is possible that Conze was influenced by Müller’s daṇḍa."
Of course I'll have to explain. The word daṇḍa means literally means "stick, rod". It is used figuratively to mean "beating, punishment". It's pronounced a bit like English "dunder" which from the 1620s was used in the (Germanic sounding) expression "dunderhead" ("a ponderously stupid person" according to the OED). The origin is obscure, but it might come from Dutch "donder" meaning "thunder". Both Müller and Conze were German by nationality, though Conze was in fact born in the UK (which enabled him to claim citizenship in 1933 when he fled from the Nazi's - he wasn't a Jew, but he was a communist).

Anyway, daṇḍa is also the name of a Devanāgarī punctuation mark, like this | And, as with all such things, there is always the Freudian connotation. So yeah, this is almost a dick-joke.

In 1884 Müller was working at Oxford University and he produced the very first Sanskrit Heart Sutra published outside Asia (only about 1000 years after the first Chinese printed books). Unfortunately, he inserted a daṇḍa where it should not have been. Conze (presumably following Müller) inserted a full-stop in his Roman script edition in 1948.

The result is that one sentence becomes two, but the second one is a fragment with no verb and no subject, just a string of adjectives hanging around causing trouble.

It would be unfair to refer to Conze as a dunderhead, after all, he spoke 14 languages, but the man was sloppy and often cut corners. He was a kind of intellectual cowboy (in the modern English, rather than the classic American sense). We really need to tear down everything he did and do it again properly this time. It puzzles me that he was ever revered, but he was and still is.

Of course the fact that the text everyone has translated from is garbled and incomprehensible at this point, has never stopped anyone from translating it as though it made perfect sense (though Red Pine slyly switches to translating the Chinese version at this point).

I am writing an article arguing for the removal of the extraneous full stop. In 2015, I made a killer argument for adding a dot over one of the letters, so this kind of balances things out. I get my laughs where I can.