It’s too close for comfort This heat has got Right out of hand

But first, let’s hear from the 1980s.


Enjoy? Good. (It’s a great song, by the way, and if you play it on C tuned guitars and slow it down then it sounds like awesomely evil grind core, and that’s a good thing too.)

So whilst everyone’s hot taking on the #EURREF, I have a little, probably unprovable thing that I want to run by both of you. It’s about the 80s, the 80s left, what the 80s left did next, and why that’s come back to haunt us. Here goes.

Back in the 1980s a significant fraction of the 80s left despaired of the fact that despite the obvious correctness of their views, the public kept voting for Thatch. This was very disappointing to them, because they were obviously correct. Unfortunately, they could not do a Brecht and vote in a new populace.

What was then to be done? Some stayed with the parliamentary approach, and kept faith even when the populace, unaccountably, voted in Major. They eventually came to accept that Labour had to change, and by accident of a) death of John Smith and b) the man being in the right place at the right time, came to be the New Labour party of Tony Blair’s movement.

But they weren’t the only important faction. Another faction decided that party politics was for losers and went into the NGO world, to become ‘shapers’ of civil society. They became the pressure groups and lobbies that influenced the party.

The third arm entered various public sector positions – Local government, academia, NHS, civil service etcetera. There, they gradually, probably even unintentionally in some ways, shifted arguments towards the territory followed by the second group.

The second group had significant contacts with both first and third. They drove arguments towards various campaign positions – on single issue by single issue fights. They were very successful in doing so establishing a broad consensus™ on many of those issues.

Along the way, however, those positions slowly began to alienate people who weren’t members of the Society of People Holding Appropriate Views. Sometimes this was because they supported some of the views but not others, sometimes because they disagreed entirely over priorities or over needs or values, and sometimes because they never supported anything like that agenda, and became disillusioned because there was now Cross Party Agreement™ on that sort of thing and therefore they didn’t even get to signal their disapproval at elections.

The outsiders therefore did what they could. They revolted successively at elections. And yet, because there was Cross Party Agreement™ about those sorts of things, they couldn’t shift the government to one more of their liking. When the Great European Question of Referendum was therefore put to them in 2016, they spotted a chance to give the broad consensus™ a bloody nose, and did.

Result, the Cruel Summer of 2016, when Calamity Reigned over the Body Politic and the Dead Came Back to Life and Squirrels Lay down with Pigeons.

Simplistic, yes. Unprovable, yes – though I suspect that there are very strong elements here behind the rise of UKIP and the fracturing of the party system. The whole explanation? I don’t doubt that it’s only a part of it, but at some stage you have to say that it’s likely to be like the Murder on the Orient Express (Spoiler Warning They all did it. ) and this is one of the suspects.


Whereas: Modestly Proposed

Whereas Her Majesty’s public hath voted in their wisdom by a simple majority to advise Her Majesty’s government to leave the European Union,

And Whereas Her Majesty’s Government and all who sail therein hath said we’ll think about it and maybe press the button,

And whereas Her Majesty’s Scots hath said, “hey wait no, don’t do that, we’ll leave you to your exiting treasonous English ways and leave you”,

And whereas, both sides of Her Majesty’s Brittanic Populus, do squeal and squeal, those against continued membership of aforementioned European Union that they still can’t determine who gets to be a member of Her Majesty’s Great British Subjecthood, and those for such aspiration towards continued membership of aforesaid European Union and the distinctive likenesses thereof that Her Majesty’s Great Unhosed are a bunch of screaming nasties,

And  whereas the aforementioned European Union of Europeans hath said “Well get on with it and do it and see if we care”

And whereas the commentariat of Her Majesty’s Great Trouserless Horde hath not decided yet what it is Her Majesty’s Great Shoal of Pilchards hath decided, nor what it is that Her Majesty’s Great Rampaging Herd of Wilderbeesties should  have decided,

And whereas everyone, Her Majesty’s Great Bouncy Castle of Sugar Rushing Infant Schoolers, Her Government, who may be similar of ilk to the aforementioned, Her Commentariat, who make the aforementioned two types seem particularly reasonable, The European Union of United Europeans and Boris Johnson are now de-calmed to an extent not relieved by a nice hot cup of tea,


That proceedings in respect of National Kerfuffle be invoked…

That the business of Government be placed into a holding pattern, neither increasing nor decreasing the the quantity not quality of legislation, nor pressing that bloody Article 50 button..

That a period of time be allowed to calm the bloody hell down..

That no commenariatism be committed but that a period of actually bloody listening be done, however objectionable the commentariat finds both Her Majesty’s Smelly Socked Peasanthood and their relevant opinions..

That the legislative aims of our friends in the European Union of the Unity of European Unionists be met with a ‘well, we might get round to it, but we’ve got bigger things on our mind for a little while’

That following such period, a set of realigned positions are put to Her Majesty’s Electing Idiocy at a New General Election

That once a new parliament has been constructed, the question be re-put to Her Majesty’s Subjectivity of Dunderheads, but only following a protocol of “The Legendary Decency and Decorum of Public Debate for which Her Majesty’s Subjectivity is Famed”

That Biscuits be provided to all.

That the aforementioned period be referred to in all History Texts or The Distinctive Likenesses Thereof as “The Year of the Duvet”.


Think about it. Don’t get crumbs everywhere.


You looked but turned away

Sorry to exhume the corpse of Cast (Britpop beat combo, 2nd division, m’lud), but it was the first song that came to mind today. It is here, should you wish to co-exhume it with me.

Anyhow, the populus has spoken, and has advised Her Majesty’s Government of its wish for Her Britannic Majesty’s Queendom to proceed forthwith from membership of the European Union. We’re also now down a Prime Minister, and by the end of the day possibly even a Leader of the Opposition (sorry, can’t remember who that was supposed to be) and a Chancellor of the Book of Bouncing Cheques Exchequer. Doubtless, some of you will have heard. Doubtless, some of you will have read, or uttered, a hot take or two on this momentous event. Doubtless, you will have agreed with, argued with, shaken your head or fist at any or all of those hot takes. I’m therefore, most Britannically apologetically going to utter another one.

No, don’t go away. Please don’t. It won’t be that awful. I hope.

The first thing to note is that as Jack of Kent reminds us, the referendum is advisory. It depends on the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and already, we hear, a blonde buffoon named Boris is counselling no rush. But really, with Her Majesty’s House of Commons in the “right royal kerfuffle” it is currently in, nobody really has any mandate to do anything right now. So in a sense, although something has happened, nothing actually has, and even if the Article 50 button were to have been pushed there would be a decently long period of pointless windbaggery, useless negotiation and other stuff to go on. So we are in a position of Schrodinger’s Poker, where hands have been both dealt and not dealt and bids made and not made.

The second thing that I want to note is that it ought be no surprise to the good people of twitter that distance from the metropolis – economically and politically speaking, if not always geographically speaking – is correlated with vehemence of voting out. It ought not to be, but it seems to be. It would be nice if this led to a period of pondering, preferably accompanied by vigorous listening, with or without the lubrication provided by cups of tea, but I suspect that the metropolis knows its mind and is well versed in the art of projecting motives. Hence, Pre-Brexit, the North, for instance, was a victim of NeoLiberalism™ and Post-Brexit a hotbed of racialism, fascism and every other nastyism.

But the third point is where I want to dwell- and that is that this is emblematic of two things. First of all, the UK has changed party system, and second, a realignment is still going on.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Giovanni Sartori wrote about party systems contrasting three major types found in Europe (and other places – one of his examples was Allende’s Chile). Bipartite systems, like the British one, had two monolithic parties contending against one another. Sometimes the result was consensus, sometimes discord, but the result was a middle ground that tended to shift over time. However, most of Europe, largely because of the PR systems prevalent, experienced either a multipartite system that was characterised by moderate pluralism or by polarised pluralism. The former tended to produced moderate centrists governments, the latter political chaos. Sartori found the polarised pluralist system in amongst other cases, the French fourth republic, Weimar Germany, Allende’s Chile and Italy during the anni di piombo. A polarised pluralism system (I’m taking this from Ivo Daalder in West European Politics 1983 ) has four characteristics:

  1. A number of relevant parties (five-ish plus). Of most importance is that some of them are anti-system parties, with blackmail potential, i.e the ability to blackmail other parties into doing their bidding.
  2. A high degree of ideological stretching – the polarisation. This means a low level of consensus amongst parties, so it’s hard to find middle grounds between them.
  3. More than one or two poles in the system.
  4. The above three characteristics leading to centrifugal drives – that is, parties trying to inhabit space on the wings and not in the centre.

Any of that starting to look like Britain in 2016? In essence, the great monolithic parties that head butted each other over the post war period to 1979, became centrifugal in the 1980s, realigned around a different consensus post 1997 and finally, fractured in the noughties and teens, leading to a position, today, that looks a lot like Sartori’s recipe for chaos where, to nick a bit of Yeats, the centre cannot hold.

And that’s where we are, today. I’m pretty sure that once we start asking questions, and more importantly listening to answers, we’ll find that it all seems so obvious. But that brings up the second point – what’s the realignment about, then?

Ok. Here goes.

In order to build change, you need to assemble a very broad based consensus for that change, which means that you need to take enough people along with you to achieve that change. Now, if you keep insisting, centrifugally, on some set of core values that alienate people along the way, you lose the broad base of that coalition. That’s what Blair and Brown did over the course of their governments (Cameron and Clegg never appealed to those voters and didn’t really care). The result was in some ways good – yep, I support gay marriage among other great endeavours of the period- , and in some ways terrible – Iraq, the licensing of austerity because people lost faith in Blair-Brownism. But mainly, people who were outside the narrowing consensus of the period felt left out, and left behind economically. That’s a combination that’s not going to draw people back into your fold. It’s also no accident that this period coincided with many  British people feeling the narrowing of the class background of our political and governing classes and the failure of the social elevator. In short, government became something that was done to us, rather than a process we participated in. And eventually, the political classes, smiled at us, paid us and passed us, but quite forgot. And then, when people spoke – they didn’t know how to listen, because they were hearing objects, not people speaking.

Sartori thought that his analysis led, ineluctably, to Italy falling apart. It didn’t quite happen that way, largely because of the magic of transformismo and the ability of politicians to do deals that we may not have predicted in advance of the event. In Britain, now, the need is to actually engage, not isolate, and find a centre that draws in the excluded. It’s a shame indeed that the dealignment of Britain has found its expression in something like the EU vote – largely because it makes it easy to simply project racism onto people who simply feel they have no say. But, the dealignment has to be confronted. In the short term, it will mean all sides having to readjust their perspectives and settle more for what they can get to hold a coalition together. That’s the really big challenge, and irrespective of Eurovotism, it’s the one people are going to have to cross.

Rationality is a modelling assumption, not a diagnosis.

Listen, sunshine. It does not matter whether or not someone is making a rational choice, because rationality has nothing to do with rationality whatsoever.

Yet another book jacket blurb advises that ‘choice architecture’ or some other form of ‘market compliant paternalism’ is needed because people do not make ‘rational’ choices. Unfortunately, the next adoring quote on the jacket was not Hume saying “Commit this book to the flames because it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That’s a shame, as no economic concept is more misused than the economic concept of rationality. So here it is straight:

Listen up, people! Folk take decisions on all kinds of bases and in all kinds of ways. They’re romantic, impulsive, ornery, all kinds of states that might mean that they don’t make the ‘best’ choice available. It actually doesn’t matter how they take the decision, as long as they are able to take the decision in the first place (i.e. they have agency and choice). That’s when we come in – we can see a decision and want to explore its implications. But because we aren’t carrying around psychiatrists or brain scanners or whatever, we don’t have any way to reconstruct their decisions for the sake of modelling them.

So what do we do? We use a set of axioms for modelling preference that you can take together as being called ‘rationality’ in the economic sense. Because they are used for modelling they are stated mathematically – and no, I don’t think there’s a single one of us who actually believe that human decisions are actually best viewed as mathematical constructs. Those things ensure consistency when you are doing modelling so that you can at least infer something about the decision. They do not say a single thing about how the decision was -or ought to be – actually arrived at.

The problem is that rational has another meaning, to do with some psychobabble stuff allegedly. This rational is actually not necessarily economically rational. A person who always made rational economic decisions would actually be fairly irrational to a normal person who’d find it odd that someone could be so creepy about the way they choose – we’d be talking about Spock or Lecter, not a normal human here. (And in fact the overwhelming evidence is that people take decisions only when there is some emotional component to the decision, and that people who don’t associate emotion with decision actually become indecisive!)

But the two rationals are not at all alike. One, psychological if you like, is a diagnosis based on the body of literature created by psychologists to determine who is aberrant to better enable their social punishment, and the other is a construction used to get a sensible answer to difficult questions involving understanding decisions whose dimensions you don’t fully understand. Eliding the meaning of the two, or applying the latter to normative questions about what people should choose (as opposed to what they do choose) is not even wrong, it’s creepy (You don’t make good decisions, so I’ll take your control over them away. That’s actually how abusers operate, sheeple.)

So in short, it does not matter to an economist how a person takes a decision, and nothing in the construction of the decision is of any here or there importance to us. Only the results are observable, and the mathsy bit is there to help analyse that. Rationality is not a justification for overruling a person’s decision, just an assumption that allows any modelling to be done at all.

Thank you. You can go about your business.

(The author is the author of Business classics “What Fooking Bastard Ate My Cheese, I’ll have the Twat” and “Achieving a New Reality: Leadership Lessons from Phillip K. Dick”)

And if you see my reflection in the snow covered hills…

You know how it goes. You push ahead, doing your thing, ploughing your furrow and then….

Well, as a Florentine bloke put it:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

And here I am, midlife, in those dark woods, looking for the exit route. Luckily, Virgil’s too busy hanging out with Scott, Alan, Gordon and John to come along and bother me with a package trip through the allegories of hell. Unluckily, mainly for you, Gentle Reader, that means that I’m going to have to work it out, in public, on the internet. And so, I’ll lay out the starting point, less cryptically:

I’m not so well endowed with faith in economics these days. There. Said it. No the Truth isn’t setting me Free – I’m reminded of Chesterton’s observation that people who give up on religion end up believing in everything, or anything, rather than nothing. Instead, I’m thinking of what it is that is really wrong with economics and what to do about it. Rather too much, as it happens. Partly this is because attacking economics has been about the easiest fish and barrel shoot in town for a while, because people will listen however inane your attack when the target is as obvious and unpopular as the trade has made itself, which means that what used to be called column inches have been filled with guff that attacks what people imagine the field to be, rather than what it is. Partly it’s because some people have made much more intelligent attacks that have called me on some of the less defensible parts of the enterprise. And partly it’s just because I’ve been listening to Landslide too much. But really it’s because observation and theory keep telling me different things and I can’t cope with more than three voices in my head at once.

So far, so good, and I’m sure people of some ideological perspectives will be applauding a Damascene conversion to their viewpoint. Thing is, I make no such conversion. I’m still a Catholic (have been since before I was born), even if I don’t go to mass and do break some pretty strict edicts now and then, because I was immersed in that culture and see many things through a lens that I learnt to use at catechism. I’m still an economist, just one who has arrived at some views on the practise of economics, the dimensions of its analyses and the culture attached to those two, and finds himself in some disagreement with his trade (and with himself, to be honest).

What I do think, though, is that mainstream economics has left me. In short, I think that it’s focus has narrowed excessively. It has stopped paying attention to ideology and imagined itself to be purely technical as if that were possible in the real world. It frequently uses the wrong tools for analysis, even from the ones in its pretty formidable toolkit. It behaves as if entities of entirely different scales were equivalent. It has allowed itself to become a tool of oppression. It has imagined that solutions are not entirely contingent on many external factors, and lapsed into hubris. It’s become the 1990s Tottenham Hotspur of the social sciences, living on past glories and not investing its future. It frequently asks the wrong questions and then gets surprised when it gets silly answers. It’s insufficiently 1) human, 2) ecosystems oriented, 3) questioning of its root ideas and at the same time excessively 1) over quantified, 2) atomised and 3) looking for logical purity over explanatory power.

(Colleagues may well disagree with the above. I think that at various times one or several of those factors apply, not necessarily all at the same time)

So what would I want to do with it? Not rescue it or salvage it – not my job – but expand it. Go a bit meta. Start from a new jumping off point and see if that makes a difference. My opening salvo comes from the really difficult task of telling someone who hasn’t studied it -Hello, Mum! – what it is that economics is, should be, or even could be doing. So here’s my operational beginning in re-opening the mind of homo economics:

Economics is the study of the human ecosystem. The human ecosystem is distinguished from non-human ecosystems in two ways – 1) except over the very long run, the carrying capacity of that system is not fixed and 2) the participants in the system have volition and agency and can use pieces of information about each others valuation in order to trade resources or opportunities with each other. That’s really it – it’s a special case of ecology as much as it is any other form of enterprise. All the rest of the endeavour start at these two points. You are really looking at a very specific ecosystem with some very specific properties.

How does this change things? Firstly, I think the operative part of the word is system. Economies are massive, interconnected and complex systems where diversities between the participants are as important as the similarities between their actions. Secondly, it opens up space for discussion of evolution, and in particular its complete disregard for teleology and the way it makes predictions of the future state of a system entirely contingent. Thirdly, it allows economics to be mucky in the way ecology is. Fourthly, it allows you to be more creative about modelling strategies since you are now actually thinking about the interplay of different types of actor within the system rather than the individual decisions each makes.

Overall, I’m not at all confident that I’ve nailed any of the problem, I am just sure that it is a problem, and that this is one way to take the discussion forward in a way that isn’t likely to result in bad government or miserable societies, because one look out at the world (admittedly in the middle of a dark, dank London autumn) and you can see both those risks likely to materialise around you. I’m pretty sure I’ll have recanted this view and provided an alternative definition by the time I get to the next post. It’s just that nos in illis mutamur an’ all.

After all, time makes you bolder and even children grow older. Here’s the Dixie Chicks brilliant version of that august song.


Battle come down.

The Guerrilla Economics Manifesto is quite clear on what it thinks is up. It says

People, we are at war. The Machines have taken over and Kyle Reese ain’t coming to babyfather no-one. You aren’t in their game, you’re just the collateral damage. Your choice is not over who gets to play. Your choice is over whether you get to smash the fucking board.

In less pungent terms, the course of recent developed world history, since its definitive end in 1989, is a story of how we built Skynet and how we’ve let its operations corrupt us all and how we’ve turned from a world that promised so much to one that has closed its imagination to all the possibility and only sees fear and conformity, and one that instills little hope in the future. The people responsible have come from all sides of the political spectrum and are united simply by their contempt for anyone who is not them and does not hold their ‘superior’ values. We are the external cost of this.

The evidence piles up around you. Why would it be that after five years of coalition torment – oh come on, that’s what everyone’s telling us we felt isn’t it? – that Labour could not get in. Answer – because Labour was a coalition, and the Skynet classes within Labour broke the coalition by focussing on their pet policies rather than simply leaving people alone. As a result, principally working class supporters drifted away, and well, five more years an’ all, yo!. What about Europe? Arch case of technocrats versus the people. What about that whole Diesel Engine brouhaha? Came from Government – We handed out the incentives to switch to the smelly sods because they emit less CO2, but didn’t even think about particulate matter or NOX, and when standards were brought in, no-one could simultaneously hit the two conflicting objectives so they cheated. How’s our services delivered? Well by Theory X management that sees people as essentially incentives and tools. How you feeling? Like a person? Or like a thing? Guess what, if it’s the latter it’s because you are a thing to Skynet, and if not then it’s because you profit from it, and fewer and fewer of us feel that we do. (I’m in the system and I don’t, so Chthulu knows how someone who isn’t in it feels.).

And it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s an equilibrium that’s ripe for disruption, and can be simply just by demanding that your essential humanity, whether you’re a sinner like all of us or a saint like none of us, is respected. But you won’t do that, probably because you’ve got Stockholm Syndrome from living under Skynet. What’s the end product? A tent that’s getting smaller and smaller and more impervious to people on the outside pissing in, evitable conflicts, blame duckings, rituals crucifixions by social media, avoidance of real issues, security theatre over real security. These are all connected, and all come from society, Western, Eastern, Middle North by North Western, being governed by the most hubristic, the most bombastic, the angriest and worst citizens and those best able to play the inside game while those outside are kept in zero sum conflict, and you, I all of us are participating, even if we think we’re not.

John Connor will once write “No fate but what we make.”. Right now, it’s not a great fate we’re making. Maybe we want to change the programme and shift the paradigm and disrupt the shit out of our thinking, because we won’t get the chance come Judgement Day.

Nutwood City Limits…..

red squirrel

Cute, huh? Everybody loves a red squirrel. Maybe it’s the effect of Ladybird books or Beatrix Potter (who I believe was secretly a Furry). Despite the irrefutable fact that a squirrel is essentially a rat with an expensive PR agency, you have to love them in all their acorn munching, tree scampering, tasting brilliant in Majorcan style paella cutitude. Because that’s what we do. We love animals that look cute. Trust me, the internets are full of them.

But what matters  in a system? The cute species or the OMG fugly earthworm that aerates the soil and allows the plants to grow upon it, and therefore provides the plant feedstock upon which the cute creatures live? Why doesn’t the WWF use a blind ugly worm as its logo? Naturally, we tend to focus attention on the big cute species, but that’s because of their significance to us not to nature.

And so to industrial policy. The red squirrel effect is an effect in industrial policy that I have just made up to describe the tendency to focus on cute species rather than systems. For good Ol’ squirrel Nutkin, you can insert a given champion/sub-sector/favourite policy example and extol its virtues to your hearts content and then turn round and say that therefore makes a case for some kind of industrial policy or other. It’ll look superficially great. You’ll compete to have an opportunity to associate yourself with its success. Then in twelve months, it’ll launch it’s new product. A Leyland Princess. It’ll tank. There’ll be angry enquiries. Taxpayers, that subset of the population represented by the Daily Mail, will be furious. Reports will be written, recommendations made, policies changed and you’ll be back at square one. That’s how industrial policy worked in the UK in the 1970s, for a given value of worked of course.

The fact of the matter is that if you do want to operate an industrial policy, you have to do so given that you have concern for the system in which industrial activity takes place. If you don’t have an ecosystem niche for a red squirrel then it doesn’t matter how many red squirrels you try to support: they will all die out regardless. If, on the other hand, you have a forest with the right type of basic feedstocks, the right overall balance of species within it, and importantly the right predators, then you have a chance of introducing a red squirrel colony and having it work. (Incidentally, the Heck brothers who, supported by Goring, tried to breed back the extinct aurochs found out the hard way: their breed, Heck cattle, were never able to thrive in the wild because they had not co-evolved to work within that system. As a result, Hecks that escaped into Belarus died out pretty soon. The remainder became a) domesticated and b) studied and found not to be so similar to the original aurochs, to the extent that Spanish fighting bulls are probably a closer match. But that’s for another day.)

So if you are going to have concern for a system, then you need to start with the root species. For any given industrial system these are going to be “general purpose” or “basic and enabling technologies”. Both of these descriptions are actually misnomers. The ‘technology’ is technology in an economic, not engineering sense, and therefore means ‘way of changing inputs to outputs’ and are described as people, methods and things, i.e. capital, labour and way of combining the two to make an output. I emphasise this point because it is not sufficient to have a general purpose technology without the people and know how needed to make it work. The feedstock of industrial systems is therefore a stock of human and technical capital that enables technologies higher up in the food chain to access the root feedstock. Now the existence of root feedstock is something that government should be able to help manage: after all, it has oversight of the bulk of the education system turning out people who understand the feedstock and its access points right? (Er,,, well,,,,)

The second aspect to a general systems approach to industrial policy that you have to consider is the question of what’s so special about red squirrels anyway. Every politician has their favourite example to hold up. None of them are any good. They might be profitable, glamorous, or anything else for a while, but they are only contingent and temporary. We worry about preserving red squirrels because they are being outcompeted by grey squirrels. But the forest actually doesn’t care. Whilst red squirrels are the most efficient users of feedstock energy, they will have the niche. When something else comes along, it will have the niche. What is key for industrial policy is that it looks at the feedbacks between species as much as it does any one species. Change will happen whether or not it is directed, but a change which cannot co-exist with the system is going to do either of two things: either it won’t take root or it will invade and damage the system around it. How you manage these effects are better strategic choices in general than trying to preserve a system as it is, which may take more energy (=money) to do than can be generated from the preserved system.

A third point is that systems are fuzzy at the boundary. In ecosystems we would be looking at transition zones between systems. For an industrial system, it is recognising that the bounds of the system are open and porous. Entry and exit points have to be kept open enough to keep allowing new sets of entrants to the system or  those who can no-longer exist within it to leave as painlessly as possible. An insular industrial system within an interconnected world doesn’t imply that preservation is worth the effort. It usually implies that you are preventing some flow to another system, making that system behave sub-optimally as well as the system you are trying to preserve.

Finally, the most overlooked feature of an industrial or other system are the ‘hyphens’ within it. Hyphens connect two elements of the system in some way. Intra-system connections are as important as inter-system connectors: they provide essential specialisations which connect, inter-alia, different capital stocks (‘IT in biotech’), expertise (‘technology lawyers’) or people (‘networking’, to the extent that it is actually real does this).

What you emerge with from the systems perspective is an absolute mess of factors that could be control variables if you chose them to be, but would be better off not doing so because their effects on other systems components might be deleterious. Those effects are hidden to you as a ‘system strategist’ working only from a system description. They are often not known to participants within the system (who rely on signals rather than direct outputs). The control variables that make sense are those which improve the quality of the whole system (so good general technological education would be useful. As an aside, I’ve had many reports of what was learnt in IT at schools, and a good many of them were something like “remedial MS office”. How do people learn IT and not C or whatnot? Does the education system really think that the Her Britannic Majesty’s Commonwealth is best served by people who can type a letter when they’re told to rather than people who can hack up a new word-processor if they need to? Don’t answer that. We already know the answer is yes.) and enable transitions from one state of the system to another. (Systems exhibit chaotic transitions. People don’t handle that so well, so gearing unemployment towards managing transitions and enabling people to do the next thing would be useful. That’s just an example for labour. It could be discussed in the same way for changing a quality of capital or a type of input).

Ultimately, unlike biology, economics only takes place in the wild. In the wild, technologies and companies only exist within systems. If we forget this, industrial policy becomes an exercise in futility. If we learn this, we can make fewer and better decisions and be rewarded with more robust and more dynamic systems.

Adios, El Bonko.

For a long time, I have had a notion for to write about the post scarcity world (or verse ) typified by the Culture. A couple of days ago, @Frances_Coppola was tweeting about Citizens Income schemes. Today, I found my battered and dogeared copy of Excession. Crom had obviously spoken unto me and I should finally write up that post I was thinking about, joining the dots between the various post scarcity utopiae and the direction in which we’re heading, which, I would call a ‘global non-scarcity plus local scarcity dystopia” if I were trying to be accurate and for which I probably have a simpler, more anglo saxon name.

The starting point is a very simple observation about markets, which is that they function as a mechanism only when there is scarcity. Markets cannot function in a situation where there is no need to ration. In a situation of global non scarcity, there are no allocation problems as anyone can just take exactly as much of what they want without affecting anyone else. In other words the marginal cost of consuming anything is zero (global non-rivalry). As price would tend to get driven down towards marginal cost, markets would have terrific trouble in pricing anything, at least if they are competitive. (Markets not being competitive is one of the ways to have giga production of free stuff and yet markets existing. c.f. Peter F Hamilton, or better still Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan graphic novels, which everyone should read immediately.). This, incidentally is the natural state of affairs in one set of industries (those that solely produce and distribute information), and has had many solutions in the past (advertiser paid three cornered markets, US TV; public funding via tax, most of European TV until the 1990s; Public funding via licence , UK TV; Conditional Access mechanisms, most premium tv; these are just examples from one subsector of the information industries. None of them are perfect, all have at one time or another been considered viable second bests, and all rest on creation of artificial scarcity via intellectual property rights or other legal mechanism).

In the Culture, there is no practical global scarcity. This, believe it or not, is entirely possible once you start to consider the very long term economics that only apply to societies at this level of energy yield. The Kardashev Dyson scale, for instance categorises civilisations by their exploitable energy resources, such that:

  1. At KD 1, a civilisation has fully exploited all global energy resources available to a planet. (we currently estimate Homo Sapiens to be somewhere between KD.65 and KD.8 , these estimates themselves are subject to much variation as it’s not always possible to estimate how much energy is available or usable prospectively as opposed to retrospectively).
  2. At KD 2, a civilisation has energy exploitation equivalent to a solar system. Note that although the energy yield is an order of magnitude higher, the long climb from KD1 to KD 2 will mean that at some stages available energy will exceed energy usability and therefore there will be global non-scarcity of energy within some periods of the transformation from KD1 to KD2.
  3. At KD 3 a civilisation has access to energy equivalent to a galaxy.
  4. K and D did not do this themselves, but one could extend the KD scale to 4 (supercluster of galaxies) and beyond, to ∞ (Universal energy use, practically godhood).

On the path between KD states there will be stages when energy is cheaper to get hold of than there is use for it. Consider landing on a fertile, but empty continent. Or for that matter what happens when we start to build colonies at the Lagrange points who will get energy to cheap to meter as Space is full of it and there is no pesky atmosphere in the way.

But this does not imply that there is no local scarcity. Even on masaq orbital or the GCU:Of Course I Still Love You  you would have pockets of local scarcity. Consider a performance by a noted mezzo soprano. There would only be as many seats in the front row as there are seats in the front row. That means that the seats are bargainable over. Or consider the reputation of a person. Again, this can be a reasonably scarce, and bargained over good. What is required, however is that two parties have something that is “locally scarce” to the other party, and a valuation in terms of exchange.

It also requires that both parties are free to trade, and this is a second dimension of the Culture argument that needs to be considered. The Culture disperses power, imperfectly for sure, but to some degree and in some way reminiscent of Murray Bookchin’s post scarcity anarchism. The analysis of post scarcity has to consider this second dimension, because if stuff is not scarce but power is (i.e it’s tightly held), you just end up at another system of control that replaces markets as allocation system with access to a Commissar of some kind. So it makes sense that Banks’s utopia is libertarian and decentralised.

Here’s where I bring in Ellis: In Transmetropolitan, energy scarcity has been resolved by a solar collector on Mercury that beams power back to Earth. However, the fabricators in people’s homes require “maker codes” to transmute base matter (the stuff used to make stuff is actually called a “base block” in the series), and these are controlled and scarce. For this reason, the market economy of the city can make sense. People have to work to get the credits to buy the new codes to make up whatever they want, and some people have better expertise at making and distributing stuff, so local scarcities can exist within the system. Power is also scarce, so it can be fought over. As a result, there are two conditions that help to generate some kind of market economy that we would recognise. (BTW, I wholeheartedly recommend Transmet as reading. It’s awesome. Consider me a major Fanboy).

After all that, though, I want to return to reality, and the world that is coming to the developed countries (first.). As we get more efficient, our production will get delegated to Robots. Thus, production jobs (which might include jobs that are currently analytical as these are replaced by autonomous decision support systems.) will go. The demand for labour will bifurcate. At the top end of the market, increasing salaries for scarce “stars”. At the bottom, commoditisation and replacement. This means that in the bottom market salaries will be falling: as jobs can be done cheaper by other entities, markets will move to replace those jobs. At the top, salaries will rise as markets seek talent who can create value, largely by replacing workers with machines. In between you will get a zone of brutality where competition between suppliers of labour gets intense. Over the longer period, this intense competition will result in 1) winners pulling the drawbridge up behind them, 2) restriction of access to the superstar market on connections rather than talent 3) permanent rewards to failure as those who have won use their leverage (and the fact that people tend to get embarrassed about having chosen nutters to manage their companies) to extract rents even after failing.

If you think this is an issue, there is one other consideration. Replace the word ‘machines’ with the word ‘Chinese’ above and you have the UK economy in the first decade of the 21st century. The only difference for the majority of an industrial or post industrial society’s population is who is replacing the worker, not that the worker is replaced.

Now think about the potential solutions:

  1. Create public jobs.There are many problems here, not least that you will in some cases be so generous that you wipe out local value creation within an area (I think the evidence points towards this happening already in some towns in the UK). Also, you don’t have to be Hayek to argue that this increases the probability of paying people to tell other people not to do things rather than actually making or creating stuff. Finally, you have all the arguments about how public resources should be extracted and allocated, but you won’t have solved the root problem which is that too few people are getting a share of created value.
  2. Citizens income.This, I think is a bullet that will have to bitten. A citizen’s income, or universal entitlement is not desirable if you want to preserve incentives to work, but at least allows us to look as though we are treating people as ends rather than means. On it’s own it has every possibility of creating a new serf class as people are tied in dependency. Meanwhile it does nothing to help with power inequalities (later, when I slag off the Spirit Level, I’ll bang on a lot more about how we don;t even think about power inequalities properly, but that’s for another day).
  3. Squad rotation.Would we be as gnarled by inequality if it were only temporary? If it meant, for instance that you served as a CEO via some kind of sortition and could only do so for a limited period before you were back on Citizen’s Income/basic Income/ JSA/Supplementary Benefit for those who remember such a thing? In practice, I’d detest a non freedom compliant solution such as this.
  4. Enabling Creative DestructionYes, I’m kind of a Schumpeterian. I bang on about this. But actually a point here is that if we manage on the basis that we can tolerate two different labour markets, as long as the same participants do not keep ending up in the same labour markets, the public wealth could be used to ensure that people are consistently upskilling beyond the level of the current labour market and developing new ideas to make current products or services obsolete. That would help to ensure a turnover between the two labour markets. In practice, however, it requires a perfectly functioning and unbiased labour market (ha-ha !), being able to come to terms with short product development life cycles (because the next new worker is going to be upskilled to improve or destroy your offering on a shorter life cycle than your product development horizon).

The terrible truth about all these potential solutions is that they are awful in one way or another, and likely to lead to  a more feudal world than a post capitalist one. Which brings me back to Banks. Whilst The Culture is definitely well above most utopias in my pecking order, it has the troubling property that it is not ridiculous to call humans pets of the Minds. The degree of complexity, which I’ve just assumed away in all the above, means that production and resource decisions above a certain scale are really properties of how much of its computational power a Mind will allow you to use. In a way, this isn’t much different from George Martin having a distribution system that depends on how much of a castle’s productive capacity a Liege Lord will allow a Bannerman to use. In at least one way, Banks’s anarchy turns out to be semi-feudal. We should be unsurprised that this holds a fortiori in our less perfect world.

These go up to 11

This ain’t a scene it’s a God damn Arms Race!

No actually I’m not a Fall Out Boy fan, but it is a good chorus, and it might illustrate some of the things I will be banging on about to talk about arms race competition. There’ll even be models an’all later, but here’s some of the basics in a couple of little cases and a long explanation of my favourite engineering tool.

(I probably didn’t mention, I have a bit of a background in sitting at the console in a recording studio so if there are technicals that a) don’t seem right to fellow recordists then I’m probably oversimplifying for non recordists and b) if there are technicals that don’t make sense to non-recordists then I’m probably trying too hard to get across their purpose etc. Either way, I’m probably annoying both of you, and I’m very sorry)

You’re there, watching television, comfortably settled in front of the sofa, when a programme reaches it’s commercial break. Suddenly, the adverts begin, seemingly twice as loud as the programme. You fumble for the controller, perhaps wishing you’d just downloaded the show from the internet, where some kind soul would have pre-edited out the adverts.

The loudness of adverts is a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, deserving of the “first world problems” dismissal at best. However, they also form an interesting case in both the uses and abuses of technology and in the type of incentives that lead to loudness competition. The technology in question, the family of devices known as limiters or compressors, is one of the most useful tools in a sound artists kit. They are used for giving punch and presence to mixes, gluing disparate sounds together or sweetening vocals and their use is common throughout the recording or broadcasting industries. However, they can also be put to use in making the overall sound product ‘louder’. It is this use which is the main pre-occupation of the story.

Before we get to that stage it’s worth considering what a compressor or limiter actually does in principle. The device is actually an arrangement of two simpler components. The first, an envelope follower, takes the output of a signal and, as its name suggests, follows it. When the level of the signal is above a given, generally user specified, value, the thresh-hold, the envelope follower sends a signal to the second component, the levelling amplifier. This reduces the level of the parts of the signal by a specified amount, usually denoted by a dial marked ‘ratio’. The signals are then re-combined, often being passed through a second stage of amplification, generally called “make-up”. The result of this process is that sounds whose peak volume is greater than the thresh-hold are attenuated. The dynamic range of the whole signal is therefore ‘squashed’, showing a smaller difference between peak and troughs in its volume.

If it seems counter-intuitive that an amplifier that reduces the volume of loud signals would make the whole signal louder, you need to consider the difference between peak volume and average volume. The peak is, as it’s name suggests, the level of the loudest signal (‘transient’) in the whole. Reducing the gap between peak and floor and then re-amplifying the signal afterwards means that the average volume of the signal will be higher. Peak volume, in broadcasting terms, is given as an iron limit that may not be exceeded. Average volume, on the other hand, is not so simple to define, and as a consequence technical standards for loudness are far more recent. So when an advert wants to grab your attention, the avenue of shouting at a higher peak volume is closed. Instead, it gets attention by shouting every word.

The use of loudness as a competitive tool is not restricted to broadcast advertising. In recorded music, listener attention is also a desired reaction, and the cheapest way to get it is to simply make the average volume of your song higher. It will come as no surprise that the average volume of recordings has been rising consistently since the introduction of digital recording to the mass market in the 1980s. The process pretty much reaches it’s apotheosis with Metallica’s Death Magnetic album, which I find pretty much unlistenable on the grounds of its loudness. This process is generally held to have a couple of different components. The first, the technological change component is an expression of firstly the greater headroom afforded by digital recording and secondly the greater prevalence of devices tailored to using that headroom. The second is the demand component and is a little more complex in the sense that it has to account for 1) greater concentration among media outlets leading 2)greater homogeneity of outputs across media “strands” which means that 3) competition becomes less about diversity of niche and more about being the biggest thing in the centre of the market place.

This process is generally called “The Loudness War”, and the important things to remember, as I said, before I even think about giving any of the modelling stuff away, is that it is

  1. Dynamic. Arms races are  expressed in terms of the change in something over a period of time. This becomes crucial when we finally do take the plunge to modelling.
  2. Bounded. This can either be in terms of carrying capacity (for ecological arms race models), diminishing marginal benefit (economics models), or technology (in fact in this case a limiting factor is that the ultimate of a continuously amplified signal is just a square wave.

  3. Impose External costs. The participants in an arms race competition act according to their own interests. Costs or benefits may fall on non-combatants. In this case the ultimate listeners of Metallica’s Death Magnetic album pay the ultimate external cost of the participants need to attract radio attention.

(There are few resonances you might have noted here. One is that the process of competition leading to external costs when individual participants are engaged in an arms race is very similar to the cost of increased safety in SUVs. Brilliant Paper by Michelle White (2004) here. The second is that this framework is a bit, well Marxish. Actually that’s true: Marx’s insight that capital and labour fight over profits is approximately equivalent to a Lotka Volterra framework with negative feedback. An arms race is the same type of framework with positive feedback: i.e. Bees and flowers rather than foxes and bunnies. Finally the interesting feature is the runaway use of something that is actually quite useful in another context, which is generating that nice bit of round, warm presence in your mixes.)

Arms race competition is not a bug, it’s a feature. It is absolutely central to any type of competition where one of the key dimensions is technology. (Technology is present everywhere, but it’s not always the most important part of the competitive environment).  The next time you do the fumble for the remote at the ad-break, remember, it’s not particularly personal, you just got in the way of a gunfight.

Valar Morghulis.

The funny thing about the confusing nature of the world is that it’s become genuinely hard to put myself on the political spectrum. It used to be that you knew where you were. For the first 18 odd years of my existence, these were fairly cast-iron verities. The enemy was obvious, whether you began from the perspective of being a leftist (handwringing pinko) or a rightist (capitalist fascist Pig Dog).

But now? I couldn’t honestly tell you what a leftist or a rightist or a centrist or a person on the fourth dimensional axis wants. Perhaps all ideologies have been submerged into a we know what’s best managerialism. Maybe there are no more ideologues (who at least propound something and allow you to be clear about what their premises are). Maybe people are just too afraid to come out with it (and dear Crom was it not a very quick fall from the open information Utopia we dreamed of in the Nerd Nation of the early 90s to the” Orwell meats Phillip K Dick in a crack lounge world” we seem to be on course for?). For whatever reason, it feels to me that whilst we have hit a set of what I suppose I am supposed to politely call challenges, there is a depressing dearth of solutions, and those few around seem  to be more about rebooting the last cycle of the economy than doing anything new.

“So what should we do, O wise one?” you plead. Obviously you do. I give you a simple, two word answer: “Break Stuff!”. You, equally obviously, then make a face that says “Wierdo” and run away to whatever convocation you feel happiest in. I am left pondering what it is about stasis that people find so attractive.

You see the thing about breaking stuff is that it doesn’t have to  actively require you to think about the stuff you’re going to break. It just requires you to get resources that would have bee used for the thing you are going to break to be used for whatever it is you wish to do rather than what the incumbent wishes they be used for. In other words, make something, break something else. I think of this as the Shiva principle, after the splendidly destructive Hindu God/Aspect of God, but if you’re of a more Chinese bent you can express it with the three straight lines of the trigram Heaven, or if, like me, you’ve come from the deep dark depths of industrial organisation theory, you can just call it Creative Destruction. All three express a simple point: that if resources are rival then any act of creation will also carry an aspect of destruction.

Now to me, Creative Destruction is actually as much of the left as it is of the right. No seriously. “Smash Capitalism and Replace it with Something Nicer” is as much a statement of creative  destruction as Gordon Gekko’s spiels. Evolution is not teleological. It has no direction save adaptation and no purpose save it’s own occurrence. How we choose to adapt to it is a human choice, and all too often the choice we make is to attempt to resist. This is often false kindness, a transfer of resources away from adaptation or embracing change into preservation of structures that might have fallen because better ones have come along. What’s leftist about conserving our current arrangements? If you complain about how unjust they are, wouldn’t you want to advocate an alternative?

The implications of accepting that creative destruction is a fact about the world are that you can take good actions in managing it. Consider, if you accept that technological change will create some economic distress, then build your systems about mitigating that distress by helping the displaced into new technologies. This is not something that any of our systems are good at. For instance what we in the UK do is insist that people are deployed in work that may well be skill depleting (and probably at minimum is not skill enhancing for people who haven’t been very long term unemployed and or have just come out of education), and in any case requires a subsidy from the taxpayer to be viable. Thus we neither respect an individuals endowment of ability nor try to increase it before we find a job for them that still needs everyone else to pay for it. Why aren’t both capitalists and socialists at the barricades for this?

So to both of you still reading this, what will follow are a series of posts which loosely theme around the possibility of taking an accepting view of change and the likelihood of being able to live with it, based on an evolutionary approach to technological change. It will take in the really big challenges (dealing with robots, getting off the planet) as well as the trivial ones (sorting out the financial crisis) and make a point or two about why predicating systems on change is a good idea, why competition is good and contestability vital and these are not inconsistent with re-wiring our assumptions so that we don’t write off so many people along the way. There might also be some heavily London N17 and N22 related rants, for which I apologise.

Valar Dohaeris