Wednesday, 30 May 2012

What kind of world do you want to see?

Rather than capitalism and socialism/communism defining the political divide, perhaps the end justifies the means. Defenders of communism say that communism as applied in the USSR was not a proper application of communism, but far be it from me to argue that doing the wrong thing righter is a good approach, and if communism in any/every guise is wrong, then there is no point doing it less wrong.

And there are capitalists who are not hardline and do not wholly subscribe to the compete to survive concept. They may genuinely believe that capitalism is a valid way of attemptiong to achieve what socialism/communism wants (or says it wants) to achieve.

So is there an as yet unexpressed  or inadequately defined template, model, paradigm that has yet to be tried, and what are the shared aims - the 'kind of world' indicators?

If the kind of world you want to see (or the kind of world you accept as necessary or unavoidable) is one where babies die of starvation or technically preventable disease in their mothers' arms, then I cannot disagree with you more. Of you think capitalism can prevent this evil, then I'm interested. I'm prepared to consider that applied capitalism has not achieved what theoreretical capitalism wants to achieve, and if it wants to achieve increased human well-being, then good. If it sets up its market / financial ideology in lieu of humanitarian goals then I have to maintain that it is wrong.

So what might be the untested paragdigm? We know for a fact that resources are finite. Any model that doesn't incorporate this fact is by definition seriously if not fatally flawed. So, in the light of this fact, do we co-operate or compete? This is not black and white. We mix these two modes at the moment as can clearly be seen in the EU. It is intended that the EU works together to compete with the rest of the world, yet we see individual ccountries within it also competing. In a competitive set up people/organisations combine/federate/co-operate so as to compete better, but on spaceship earth, surely we have to co-operate for the good of all? Our 'competition' is with the forces of nature and finite resources.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Jobs and growth

Text of letter submitted to Barking & Dagenham Post, for publication:

Like many politicians, Barking’s MP Margaret Hodge repeats the jobs and growth fable. In her MP’s column (BD Post, 23 May) she hints at jobs in defence and Aerospace. British Aerospace makes an impressive fighter jet – if we could sell more of these we could create more jobs. The best thing to do would be to sell them to all sides in any conflict as this should help extend the conflict, increase demand for the planes and create more jobs. Perhaps we could also make and sell land mines - if we don’t already - as there’s a lucrative market in devices to find and neutralise them as well, which we could expand into. The destruction wrought by war is excellent for economic growth, as it creates the need for lots of construction work, not least for hospitals to treat the wounded combatants and innocents. Our own involvement in any conflict will also increase the threat (real or perceived) of attacks on our country. This will generate lots of work for the security services and industry, armed forces and police.

This extreme example of the very serious failings of growth in GDP as a goal for our planet’s economy  may seem sarcastic, but it’s very real. “Growth” sounds positive, but lift up the bonnet and examine more closely what growth in GDP actually entails and it quickly loses its attraction.

An increasing number of people – though apparently not politicians - are realising the truth that we live on a finite planet, so growth cannot continue for ever, and advocating  as the economic goal for ‘spaceship earth’ the well-being of the creatures on this planet, especially humans. First and foremost this requires the meeting of the biological needs of people on the planet – nutrition and water, shelter and such basics that a large number of our fellow human beings want for.  I think the ‘spaceship earth’ metaphor is a good one. On a spaceship you would look to conserve resources and co-operate to ensure the success of the mission. You would mininimise the amount of work needed to fulfil the mission, especially the work done by people (by use of automation). In our homes we broadly welcome the labour saving brought by technology, yet our politicians cry out for more jobs, meaning , more work to do  except  for the public sector, where they say they want greater efficiency, which pretty much entails fewer jobs.)

The future for our species is the use of science and technology to increase human well-being directly, within the finite resources available. Jobs and growth have nothing to do with this."

Friday, 25 May 2012

Rubbish distinction

Walking across a litter-strewn footbridge today, I contemplated that cuts in public services mean that sweeping is probably less frequent. In the private sector, litter would be a good thing, because it generates work, all the way up stream from the landfill site via the lorry driver to the roadsweeper and the people who packaged the product and the people who manufactured the packaging. Introduce the public sector, though, and these same operations are seen as inherently wasteful - and so they are, but irrespective of whether the clear up is paid for by taxes or not.

Popular economics

I don't really expect to see any particularly cogent comment on the letters pages of Metro, but today's crop of letters about the euro crisis are particularly meretricious. The first is a poorly extended shipping metaphor. "Greece is an anchor pulling down the eurozone ship. If you cut the anchor free the ship will not sink." What? Maintaining the shipping metaphor, the writer compares the eurozone to The Titanic. The eurozone's iceberg is "debt created by greed'".

So the Titanic (eurozone) has struck its iceberg (debt/greed) but it will not sink if its anchor (Greece) is cut free (presumably removed from or allowed to leave the euro. I don't actually think the Titanic's anchor was a significant factor in its sinking. It was the ingress of water through the hole made by the iceberg.

Next up - "The reason the whole of Europe is in financial distress is because throughout the continent the public sector is far too large. ... because of hundreds of thousands of EU-introduced laws and regulations." Remember the assumption that more private sector jobs is good, but more public sector jobs is bad. More phone shops, £1 shops, fried chicken shops, coffee shops? Yay!

Let's get to the nub of this. The vast majority of money is created by private banks and lent out at interest. The interest cannot all be paid back, because the money to pay it back does not exist. Therefore people / organisations / countries have to go bust.

That writer continues "Mr Brown [the previous UK Prime Minister and before that finance minister] reckons it's up to us to get us out of the mess he drove us into." I'm not here to defend Gordon Brown, but we can't lay the entire national debt at his feet. And even if he did drive us into this mess all by himself, he can't get us out of it.

Next: "I would have thought that the former Chancellor [Gordon Brown] would have been well advised to keep his mouth shut on the subject of debt.". This is practically straight out of a common comedy line: 'Oh, just ome other thing. Shut up!'

Finally: "What a cheek for Gordon Brown to say that Europe can't save itself. This from a man who acted like he saved the world a few years ago." Setting aside the non seqitur (GB did a, therefore he cannot say B), we have to examine whether what GB said is correct or not. If it's true, why shouldn't he say it?

None of this carping from the sidelines shows any understanding of the actual causes of Europe's or the world's problems, nor (unsurprisingly) does it provide even the slightest suggestion of any solution or ameloration.

OK, one write says there's too much EU legislation, but you can't just weigh legislation and neither can you arbitrarily decide how much is too much. Is the writer suggesting we randomly remove legislation until the "financial distress" stops? Presumably not and therefore we have to look at each piece of legislation. The writer does not cite any example, making his comment just rhetoric.

Picking up the Titanic theme, I would say that what is happening is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, that is pointlesly solving or ameliorating a problem that will become irrelevant in the event of the impending disaster. Moving money from one fund to another does not solve the problem that all the money that exists is owed to banks, and then some.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Critique of current economics by economists

BBC Radio 4's 'Start the week' programme today featured a very temperate debate on 'Money & Morality' between Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle and Grigory Yavlinsky.

Although it did dig into ecomomics, it only (in my view) got as far as society in the abstract, and didn't really get at the concept of the human/biological needs that the economy truly needs to fulfil.

Towards the end of what (in their defence) was only a 28 minute long programme, Coyle gave an opinion with which I strongly disagree. "We need growth ... because it brings jobs." I won't restate here wy I disagree with that, but I will try to contact Coyle to tell her why I think she is wrong to say that.

Nothing new (or much) to say

So the g8 summit can be summed up in 2 words: Jobs and Growth. Fantastic conclusion to an international summit - a two word summary ('more' jobs is to be inferred). I suppose the summit itself generated work for people, making it good in itself by the reckoning of these sound-bite economics.

Are they not even bothering to break down these buzzwords a little bit? Do they just say them now? Jobs, growth austerity, debt, deficit? They have nothing new left to say and nothing new left to do. They are a spent force.

They can't start to relate these terms to actual human needs and problems, because if they do, they immediately expose the inbuilt contradictions in the system.

Growth cannot be infinite on a finite planet
Growth is growth in GDP, and GDP includes things we do not want to see, but which nevertheless cost £ and so count in GDP. GDP also excludes things we do want to see.
Jobs. Why do we want more jobs? We don't want more jobs at work, or in our homes. We don't want our services to cost more, but more jobs will do just that.
And even 'they' don't want more jobs in the public sector. Public sector jobs are bad jobs and must be privatised or got rid of. Private sector jobs are good, even though the private sector needs to be efficient nd therefore achieve the same with fewer jobs.

The only way we can get more jobs without being less cost efficient is by consuming more - there's you growth - and being less resource efficient. When we've used everything up or polluted the planet so it can no longer sustain us we will all die and there won't be any more need for jobs or growth. Meantime, we need to rush as fast towards this cataclysm as we can.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Quantifying planetary resources

This short and clear presentation by Jason Lord entitled "visualising a systems approach" quickly gets to the subject of the planet as a closed system. To manage a closed system we have to know about it. In an RBE we want to manage the system for the benefit of society generally - that is we want to use the finite carrying capacity of the earth as efficiently as possible to sustain human life. This means the radical minimisation of waste.

To know what the carrying capacity of the earth is we have to collect data and take measurements, and this talk gives an important example of where this is already being done - namely NASA's Earth Observation System of satellites. The point is this is now, not in the future.

In the talk Jason also explained how using data gathered from this site in a super computer, they ran a weather model that predicted the planetary weather for 20 days with very good accuracy.

Monday, 14 May 2012


BBC TV's Click ran an item on MOOCs, featuring Stanford's udacity heavily, but also udemy, which is a portal to various on line courses. The University of Phoenix offers something similar as does MIT under the MITx brand, and the University of Michigan as Coursera; and I-tunes offers I-tunes U.

It was impressive to see the academics interviews talk of their desire to remove the elitism from education and of offering their materials for free. In a resource based economy, as many limits to education as possible would be removed - and we already know that there are people who are motivated by education itself to spread education far and wide -  a task that technology can really assist.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

support for business

I know politicians need sound bites, but I still have a problem with easily parroted maxims that don't bear any real exxamination. I heard newly re-elected London Mayor Boris Johns on talk of "support for business" and it kind of sounds good. It's got the word support in it, which is a warm word, like growth.

But business is an abstract thing. It has no physical referent. We have to go through / past it to find such a referent. Businesses provide jobs and deliver goods and some services.  The goods and services will at least in part be worthwhile things. The jobs, in the main, will be a means to get the money to procure the goods and services one needs.

So if someone speaks of support for people, they are closer to a physical referent; we can quickly see how that support might entail people having adequate nutrition and water, protection from the environment, and access to education, amongst their human needs.

If people want to support business because it will lead to the fulfilment of human needs that's fine, but why be indirect? When people say specifically that they want to support business, it naturally arouses suspicion that they don't in fact want to see that human needs are fulfilled. And if you press them on it they fling out labels - socialism, communism.

What is it that they in fact want to see happen by the supportuing of business? We suspect it is the enrichment of their friends and them at the expense of others who have to work in those businesses to stave off the day when they can no longer pay the increasing amount of money they owe.

Friday, 4 May 2012


I watched a very interesting TV programme on the history of bread in the UK (part of the Timeshift series).

There is a subtle interplay of science and monetary economics. The technical developments in bread production enabled far greater volumes of bread to be produced more cheaply, thus enabling poorer people to obtain it. But there was little hesitation by the bakers interviewed or in the developments depicted about the benefit in financial terms to the bakers and corporations.

The primary purpose of food should be to deliver nutrition. In the early days of the period covered by the programme,  British wheat with low nutritional quality was used to make a bread which was unpalatable and hard to eat by people with poor teeth (a feature of poor hygiene and nutrition). So white bread, even though it is nutritionally inferior in theory, through being more palatable and softer, could yet have been more nutritionally valuable, but that the labour costs of refining the flour rendered it costly and therefore sought after as a sort of delicacy.

It's well known that people's diet during the second world war was on the whole very good. What people should/could eat had been studied from a nutritional point of view. Whilst there is no reason that people shouldn't enjoy bread from an aesthetic point of view, at a planetary level, the number one priority for food is its nutritional function, not its aesthetic, nor its ability to produce financial gain for its producers. The defence of current free-market capitalism that it can produce benefits through the profit motive would have a problem for me even if the evidence of millions starving didn't undermine the claim. If you want to adequately nutrify a population, you have a technical problem to directly be addressed. Why construct a complex free market system (using) some of society's best minds to produce a secondary funcion of nutrifying the world's inhabitants? Is there a theistic belief in the free market capitalist system such that anything society wants done must be (or claimed to be) contingent on it? Or is it just a distraction from the task in hand, critcisms of which are deflected or met by the claim that it can deliver social goals?


With various local elections happening in the UK yesterday (May 3) there is pleny of coverage on news broadcasts of results as they come in, and the views of pundits. The non politicians focus on the figures, the impact of individual votes on the outcomes for the various bodies to be elected. The politicians play down any worsening of their electoral success and play up any increase.

Politicians featured in the news I have seen (not much) have said things that suggest they should change what the party does/stands for in order to achieve electoral success. One peer opined that the "economy is flat on its back" but went on to refer to the effect of this on their electoral success, as if that were more important.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion from what I have seen that politicians are just using gaming strategies; what can we say (which is really nore important for their purposes than what will we do) to bring ourselves electoral success.

Stripping away the analysis about what will bring electoral success to see what it is these politicians are offering to do for the direct benefit of their constituents, specifics are hard to come by: jobs, growth, more police on the beat, reduced fares. These are the kinds of bullet point 'policies' we mainly hear.

From my point of view, I want to know what these politicians can and will do for the benefit of the human needs of their constituents. This may include what they will press for as well as what they can actually deliver, though in the latter case I don't think there is actually much. This is because it is only science and technology that can actually deliver true benefits to humanity.