Friday, 26 December 2014


It's always hard to pick what historians will talk about years hence when you're immersed in the noise and chatter of what seems important to us here and now, but New Year seems like a good time to attempt this while reflecting on 2014 and looking forward to the new year.

There's no stand out event like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attacks on the World Trade Centre to mark 2014, instead it seems like a sort of building year where complacency and inertia continue to drag us blindly along the road to the next catastrophe which will seem inevitable to those reading about this in centuries to come.

From a British point of view the three sources from which this disaster may eventually come, all different but all linked, in no particular order are: The ongoing dirty war between Islam and the west, the potentially nasty spat between Russia and the the European Union, and the idiotic piling up of debt by western governments.

The so called war on terror is almost too ridiculous to analyse except to say that attempting to fight organisations like IS with a military that was never designed for such a task is about as ludicrous an endeavour as we could possibly embark upon. While the media and politicians would have us believe the Hollywood friendly narrative of a shadowy organisation headed by malevolent masterminds who hate the west and seek to turn the whole world to fundamentalist Islam, I am increasingly convinced that it's little more than a loose confederation of lone nut cases like Man Haron Monis whose bizarre seige of a café in Sydney could not have been prevented by all the smart missiles in the world other than by a random chance; and of localised militias in areas like western Iraq - troubled and desolate places where years of neglect and oppression have fermented into extremism. While certain targets may warrant very carefully selected military action this is hardly going to lead to a lasting solution, and since the last two military adventures in Iraq have only succeeded in making things worse you would have to put a lot of faith in the "third time lucky" maxim to try again.

This is a moral and intellectual war where are strong arm will be needed, but must also be used intelligently. I am convinced that future students of our time will view our impotent bombing cow sheds and warehouses in a region that is already tearing itself apart without us, while simultaneously allowing our own caliphates to develop in British cities is about as far from this as you can hope to be.

If in 2015 we can change trajectory more towards getting our own house in order and less towards the vain attempt at being a world power then we will be happier and safer for it.

Nearly as insane would be attempting to provoke a conflict with Russia. Which is exactly what "we" in the European Union are busily engaged in. Having got a reaction in Crimea we now seem determined to push this even further, and with the Russian economy going badly wrong and Putin emboldened by the wave of nationalism that was inevitable with sanctions we may well get another reaction in 2015. However our spat with Russia plays out it is hard to imagine history will be kind to the western leaders who provoked this conflict through their interference in the Ukraine.

Peter Hitchens has written extensively and well on this topic, and it suffices to say here that Britain has nothing to gain by involving ourselves in an age old continental spat between Russia and Germany.

If the 2015 general election produces the strongly anti EU result I am hoping for then my hope is that this will disengage us somewhat from continental politics which can only harm our interests.

However the prize for the greatest stupidity of all must go to the policy of running up debts with no real end in sight. Despite all the rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and tough decisions to make cuts, the British government have failed to get anywhere near a balanced budget during their term in office and few western countries have. With the aging population problem already starting to bite and likely to become ever more acute over the next 20 years, this is exactly the time that we should be paying down debts and getting our economy prepared as best we can for a situation where over half the population is not actually productive. Instead we are continuing to pour money in to idiotic schemes like HS2 and pretend that this problem isn't happening. It certainly is happening, unlike the expensive and implausible phantom of global warming - it's easy to avert something that isn't happening anyway - and it will be only a few short years before the tax payers of the next decade or so are looking back at today with the sort of scorn we now hold for the trade unions of the 1970s and their wanton destruction of British industry.

Foolish as each of these policies are in isolation attempting them at the same time is more foolish still. If the future holds a determined and genuine Islamic attack, or a new cold war with Russia then the last thing we need is to be struggling with an existing debt burden that is wholly unnecessary and born entirely of political vanity. Even if the future is less dramatic and only holds what we can easily foresee, having these levels of debt helps us not one bit and can hinder us a great deal.

In May 2015 Britain will go to the polls notionally to choose it's government. In reality it will be more likely to reject it's current government without being especially enthusiastic about any of the alternatives. As analysts pick through the results and engage in the great guessing game of deciphering what the public actually thinks, there will be the usual loud and shrill voices calling for more spending, more tackling of global warming and all the usual din of day to day politics. Let us make sure that sensible people also get our voices heard to give ourselves the best possible chance of dealing successfully with whatever the next few years hold.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Moment of Truce

Several Christmas messages and articles this year have chosen to focus on the unofficial truce between British and German troops, where soldiers put down their weapons and played football instead,  sharing food, cigarettes and general festive cheer.
Despite being commonly over romanticised it's a heart warming story of people on the ground seeing a folly that those in positions of power do not.
It's fashionable now to criticise the generals for their incompetence and arrogance, but they were only truly dangerous because people were prepared to heed them.
When I reflect on this though, it becomes sad more than it is heart warming. It is an inherently sad proposition that we celebrate some of the world's most advanced countries temporarily suspending the mass slaughter of each other's youth during the season of goodwill in their shared religion. And it is sad that even with nobody to shoot at these young men were kept hundreds of miles from their homes and loved ones.
Saddest of all however that after they had defied the authorities to meet and fraternise with each other, they returned to their respective sides, picked up their arms and resumed what was to become one of the most brutal and destructive conflicts in history which achieved nothing positive for any of the original protagonists.
They could so easily have returned to their homes and averted so much of this damage - the ruination of Germany that would eventually lead to the second world war, the hasty overthrow of the Russian monarchy which led directly to the horrors of the Soviet Union and the decline of France and Britain to the point that neither will able to effectively thwart the rise of fascism or contain Germany, even bound by sanctions and struggling economically as it was.
It's of course impossible to measure the impact any of these things or say with certainty that modern Europe would be a better place had World War 1 not happened, but it seems highly likely that it would be a much better place,  and that just a small step further through an already open door would have spared us this gruesome episode.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Cuba - The Nice Dictators

Cuba is a curious topic of conversation, and one that has come up again as Obama seeks to "normalise" relationships with the communist island state after nearly nearly 6 decades of a trade embargo.

The country has cultivated an image of being a sort of nice, slightly eccentric left wing enclave, run by Fidel Castro for decades who was a funny bloke with a beard - could have been an art teacher or some sort of liberal journalist, and now has now been handed over to his brother, who was also part of the revolution along with the dashing Che Guevara. This mythical land is well run with world class healthcare and is only poor because of the wicked Americans and their sanctions, according to this view, but they stand their ground and stick to their principles, and earn the admiration of middle class western liberals throughout the western world for it.

It's all complete rot. Cuba is by any measure a nasty dictatorship run by a cabal of gangsters who exploit and even sell their own people, who are essentially prisoners not allowed to leave the country, living on meager rations, paid in a worthless currency and isolated from the outside world. It was propped up for years by the evil Soviet regime as a strategic and symbolic dig at Washington, and Castro's request for Soviet nuclear missiles brought the world to the brink of an all out nuclear war. 

On it's apparent merits, in particular healthcare if the statistics are to be believed and anything read into them it proves the lack of any link between health spending and outcomes, but little else. If Cuba has a good healthcare system then fine. It doesn't excuse political repression, forced labour and the myriad other abuses the Cuban regime visits on it's population.

People will tell you that you should go and visit Cuba to see it for yourself rather than just relying on the news. I'm all for this but there's only so much a holiday there will tell you even if you do get off the beaten track and into the "real" country. Try instead to express any criticism of the Cuban government, try to earn a living there or try to communicate with your friends and family overseas, not from an international hotel but as if you were a normal Cuban. These things are every bit as real as the friendly people and the timba music which persist in spite of, not because of the despotic regime. 

The US is far from blameless, and it seems likely that it's interference in Cuban affairs has only served to increase the determination of the Cuban regime to defy Washington. The right  also have their pet dictatorships and they're not generally any better, but they tend to be seen, wrongly in my opinion, as a necessary evil rather than something actually desirable. You don't see students with Georgios Papadopoulos T shirts.

I'm generally against sanctions because I don't believe governments should tell private citizens what they can buy from whom abroad, and because they are usually counter productive anyway and actually strengthen oppressive regimes hold over their population. While I do think the sanctions should go, it should be made very clear that this is not an endorsement of the Cuban government.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Profile of a Terrorist

There is an unusually detailed profile of this so called terrorist Man Haron Monis on the BBC site here. As I write Monis and two hostages have been killed following a 16 hour siege at the Lindt Coffee Shop in Martin's Place, Sydney. An upmarket area of Sydney's central business district.

I expect the profile will be pulled down at some point so read it while you can. It will be worth Australians remembering these details when the inevitable calls arise for more snooping, spying and general erosion of liberty and privacy in the wake of this.

A quick run down of relevant points:

Monis was already charged with being an accessory to the murder of his wife, and was somehow out on bail.

He was facing 40, yes forty, charges of indecent and sexual assault.

He had previously been convicted in 2009 of sending offensive letters to the families of deceased Australian soldiers.

There is no indication of what his current immigration status was in Australia before this incident but he claimed asylum in 1996, and given the above didn't seem to be making great efforts to integrate. I would expect and hope he never gained citizenship, but nothing would surprise me.

Yet despite all the above, he was still able to wonder around freely, procure gun and walk into the heart of Sydney's business and financial district unchallenged. In Australia, a country where you can be fined for taking an apple across the desolate border between the states of South Australia and Western Australia.

The threat from terrorism is as nothing compared to the threat from our own stupid governments who have wasted billions and now seem eager to waste more running around Iraq and Afghanistan "fighting terrorism" and generally involving ourselves in the affairs of middle eastern countries we have nothing to do with, and yet at the same time take absolutely no meaningful steps to prevent an obviously dangerous lunatic from causing major problems.

This man should clearly have been locked up or deported years ago, and not a single extra phone tap, email snoop or airport check would have been needed. Just the political and moral will to punish people who break the established laws we already have. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Boom, Bust, Cuts and Debt - Perception and Reality

There's an unfounded rumour that the current government has been generally good for the economy, but has made deep cuts to government spending. According to this article in the Guardian some 32% of the people asked would trust Cameron and Osborne to run the economy, which puts them neck and neck with the only rational answer to that question - None of them. 

Of course if you compare the coalition with Labour then they're a model of financial responsibility and prudence, but by any other measure they're awful. If you compare their plans with the simple reality that the government is still spending significantly more than it's bringing in and appears politically unable to make significant cuts then it's a looming disaster.

I don't believe that the general public really grasp the scale of the problem, and vote hungry politicians have been in no great hurry to tell them. We're absolutely swimming in debt. We're paying £45 billion, or 3% of GDP just on interest on the debt. That's £750 a year for every man woman and child in the country. It's an appalling waste of resources. The idea that a few "efficiency savings" in public sector bureaucracy combined with 2-3% annual growth can solve our problems is pure fantasy. 

There will always be some level of borrowing for specific infrastructure projects for instance, or to level out spending during a major economic downturn when tax receipts are down and payments up. Routinely borrowing money for current consumption and vanity projects throughout the economic cycle, as Britain has been doing since about 2001, is absolutely nuts on a government level in just the same way as it is nuts for an individual. More so in fact. 

Spending on public services might have fallen a bit, quite significantly even in certain areas, but if you look at government spending as a whole then it's carried on going up throughout the current parliament, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of GDP, and the immense national debt which I highly doubt will ever be repaid is still going up as well.

Based on official figures reproduced here.

Given this huge level of debt and the ever growing cost of servicing it, the only real current objective of any rational government looking beyond it's own immediate popularity should be to reduce and as far as practical eliminate "public" debt and put an end to the current ridiculous situation whereby we are essentially taxing the productive economy to service our enormous debt and simultaneously adding to that debt with excessive spending. No country serious about reducing it's debt would be even contemplating something like HS2, let alone the grand festival of waste that has been our military adventures in the middle east in recent years.

The other aspect that we need to do better on is actual growth. First of all we have to be honest with ourselves that we've been under-performing economically for decades. Depending on the measure you use our GDP per capita is about 90% that of France, the apparent sick man of Europe, and much further behind that of other comparable economies like Germany or Australia. And it's roughly 2/3rds that of the United States. I know there are limitations on GDP as an accurate measure of a country's prosperity but discrepancies of this magnitude tell us something. Britain is currently more comparable with Israel or Spain than with Sweden or Canada.

In the so called "boom" years before 2008, growth was hovering around 2-3% which is healthy for a highly developed economy, but if we were serious about catching up to the levels of the countries I (and I believe most people in the UK) feel we should be judging ourselves against, then we need more. 

There is no magic bullet for growth, but there are a few things that would make sense: 

Much more aggressive cuts to public spending that would allow meaningful tax breaks in future. 
  • A serious reduction in fuel duty and scrapping of the associated climate change nonsense which strangles economic growth. 
  • A real bonfire of planning restrictions that would permit more development and hopefully pop once and for all the perpetual house price bubble that leads us to the insane situation whereby most people quite rationally aspire to be saddled with huge debts for most of their working lives and end up with a fantastic amount of money tied up in a modest house. 
  • A genuinely stable monetary policy that doesn't revolve around hiding inflation. 
The alternative, which we appear to be taking by default, is a continued decline through the ranks of mediocrity to total irrelevance, and the savage stupidity that goes with it. I think there are people in Britain who genuinely want this, and think some sort of moral salvation will come from being poor. I will expand on this weird line of thought in a future article but for now it suffices to say I'm not one of them.

For those of us who actually want a successful country, Britain is in a hole that will take a few decades of hard work to get out of, but remains bent on solutions that will look good on this evenings news and make us feel better. I'm not of the "benign dictator" school I've sometimes occasionally heard discussed. I can see their point, but we have enough hallmarks of a silly, third world country as it is.  What's needed first and foremost is a strong political and public will to actually get on top of the situation, and an acceptance that it will take a few years of paying down debt before we can spend money on nice things. None of the political parties have shown anything of the sort.