Saturday, 17 June 2017

Head Over Real

There’s a certain amount of absurdism surrounding Donald Trump, and it’s not even in what he says or does. Rather, in my opinion, it is absurd how much he says and does. Of course, for a politician this might be seen as praise, but it isn’t.

If it isn’t something rather bigoted, or misinformed (those two aren’t mutually exclusive), or petty, or Russian, it’s something else. I’ve previously discussed the issue of supply and demand that comes with the 24-hour news cycle, and there’s no doubt the story that keeps on giving that is Trump is in part fuelled by the insatiable appetite of the media. But there’s another reason – Twitter.

Now of course Twitter isn’t the full picture, but it is synonymous with the President, and it is redefining presidential protocol.1 No, Twitter is more illustrative of another point – the world is faster than it’s ever been, and the cracks through which issues may slip are wider than ever.

Trump’s tweeting, such as the infamous Covfefe-gate,2 is just one example of what I’m talking about. Another is perhaps the speed at which information surrounding the Conservative party and habitation legislation surfaced in the wake of the London tower block fire.3 Or, for that matter, the spread of the naughtiest thing in the world – that which involves a field of wheat.4 In the same kin, we could look at the situation consuming Uber5 (a company many, I’m sure, would tout as prized for a place in building the future) and their leadership, or the controversial Daddy of Five story,6 or more I’m surely forgetting about.

My point isn’t that these situations are all of an equal severity – each must be considered with a fair amount of context and information. My point is that these stories represent ones where the narrative has moved extremely quickly, and the ability to control the story’s traction has collapsed.

Everyone knows the Internet forces the likes of politicians to be more careful (*cough* Anthony Weiner, *cough*), though it has mostly been stressed due to the permanence of information online. But the ease of Twitter in that it allows someone like Trump to say what’s on their mind quickly and without the oversight of a speech writer, or the ability to share a video on Facebook enabling a gaff like Fields of Wheat (I really don’t want to use the -gate suffix) to blow up, represents a different danger of the Internet – immediacy.

In the same vein (perhaps) as Uber is that of United Airlines, whose treatment of a passenger on an overbooked plane dominated the news and web forums such as Reddit in a matter of minutes.7 Or take that of Justine Sacco, whose tweet about AIDS whilst boarding a plane meant that as she landed she was trending globally.8

These cases illustrate a new way of being in the Internet age, and whilst something like Covfefe is amusing, it underlines a much more important point. That in various arenas, be it political, commercial or entertainment, we still operate with a slower mindset. The Trump administration is evidence of this dissonance. I think Theresa May could be described as similar. And many and more. 

We should all wish to run with the pack, but we must keep up. Literally.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Everyone's cross about Brexit

After the general election, Nicola Sturgeon is quietly bleeding. For all the respect I have for the woman, I do not want Scottish independence, and it seems much of Scotland agrees. She’s walking wounded. However, that didn’t stop her making one of the most sensible suggestions I’ve heard in a long-time: that Brexit should be negotiated by a cross-party delegation.1

The idea sounds immediately brilliant. So brilliant in fact I have to wonder why is isn’t what we’re already doing? It sounds democratic, and representative and conciliatory. But that’s not what we’ve got.

Instead, in the furore and fallout of the 23rd of June 2016, we got Theresa May. She capitalised on Brexit, perhaps trying to look strong and stable, later announcing what she thought Brexit meant2 (Brexit, obviously…) and what her plans for the negotiations were.3 Some even began calling her Supreme Leader4 for her style of control.

And yet now we have a general election result which has destroyed the Supreme Leader in the most painful of ways,5 and it has (accidentally) thrown the questions of how and who re: Brexit wide open. YouGov recently did a poll which showed support for Mrs. Sturgeon’s idea (an idea, let’s be honest, that only came about because Sturgeon hasn’t gotten what she really wanted), with 51% of participants wanting a cross-party delegation.6

Now, 51% isn’t much of a majority, but considering Brexit is an issue because of 52%,7 I’d be hesitant to dismiss the poll quite so soon if I were a Tory Brexiteer.

That’s besides the fact that YouGov were one of the few pollsters during the general election that seemed to get anything close to the actual result.8 Indeed, we can criticise methodology sometimes – and I very much encourage people to do so – but right now YouGov are having their moment in the sun.

The idea seems sensible for another reason. If the government of the day must lead the talks, who will lead when we don’t exactly have a legitimate government? Of course, we can debate the word legitimate, and yes Corbyn didn’t win, but neither did May, or anyone else for that matter. Following Mrs. May’s own mantra, surely now she must cede some control of the talks to Labour, the SNP and others? Surely, a Brexit for Britain should be a Brexit that represents Britain, no?

But this will not happen. For the same reason that Mrs. Sturgeon’s current weakness has prompted her to soften her position, Mrs. May must harden hers. To cede any say to any other party, to give Mr. Starmer or anyone else (besides maybe someone of the Northern Irish9 persuasion) a seat at the table, or to make Corbyn look even vaguely legitimate as a leader, undermines her near hollow position.

For Mrs. May, the noose is already around her neck. But in the name of Tory preservation the party has stayed the execution. A cross-party delegation would almost certainly cause her to fall through the floor, and she knows it.

Friday, 9 June 2017

So... Who Won?

Elections are like high school drama. You kind of hate them, but you also secretly adore them. Though I’ve got to say, this election might be the first I’ve found genuinely exhausting. I suppose maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe it’s because it’s a nice day up North (that’s not a political nod to anything) and as I watch the coverage – eyes glued to the screen, obviously – the Sun is dehydrating me. Like the election, there’s a lot of things to consider.

Or maybe I should say blame. Who does Theresa May blame for what is most certainly a huge loss, but at the same time is technically a win? Who does Jeremy Corbyn blame for Labour’s indisputable loss that has the smell of victory about it? Who do the electorate blame for telling them there’d be a landslide victory, and (not so subtly) who do the TV pundits blame for giving them terrible polling results?

This is a weird election. I believe all elections can be weird, if you drill down into the demographic data enough, but this is weird because you don’t need to do that too much.

Let’s look at turnout, which was at its highest point since 19971 and particularly high amongst young people2 (there is a figure of 72% doing the rounds, but as the BBC points out, there’s no reliable data yet). Lord Ashcroft published an article on June the 6th noting that the number of Tory seats falls as the voter turnout rises.3 It’s worth pointing out that Ashcroft’s model predicted a Tory majority, even under high turnout scenarios – “The higher turnout scenarios, meanwhile, estimate a lower range of majorities,” so maybe Ashcroft isn’t the best go to guy to talk about turnout data.

The point is this – if the Tories knew that a high turnout would go against them, then, just from data alone, we must place some blame for the result at the door with all those people that chose to, well, step out of their doors and vote.

One thing that was in Mrs. May’s pocket, one thing she could rely on to win, was Brexit, no? Even I wrote on the 31st of May, “If tonight's debate is about Brexit, Theresa May will win even in absentia.” Certainly, early in the night some commentators were finding comfort in the fact that Leave seats were seeing a smaller swing compared to what the Exit Poll would suggest, but one must ask the question: if the British public believed in a Conservative Brexit, indeed, if they believed in Brexit at all, why didn’t Mrs. May win a majority?

Some will bark that the referendum result shows the British public clearly care about Brexit, and others will argue that the collapse in the UKIP vote4 (from 13% in 2015 to 2% today) shows that Brexit was a trump card for the Tories. But that’s a reductionist view of UKIPers (I find that statement oddly ironic). In my mind, there’s three reasons for the collapse in UKIP. The first is the Hard Brexiteers have defected to the Tories, accounting for some fall in UKIP and some rise in the Tories. The second is that the (potential) rise in the 18-24-year-old vote essentially diluted the UKIP vote, and what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily movement (on this, I very well could be wrong. I’ve not been able to compare the raw number of votes to confirm this idea). The third is that many of those who voted for UKIP don’t care about Brexit.

This sounds dumb. UKIP, almost undeniably, were a one issue party, which was Brexit. Yet, as many in the media seem to forget, UKIP for the longest time were a protest vote too. And Brexit, in my opinion, was more of a vote against the establishment order than anything to do with the EU. So, when Theresa May runs on Brexit (and UKIP run on enforcing the integrity of Brexit), many UKIP voters just don’t care. She’s establishment, and some would argue, responsible for many economic issues facing the lives of that group. And Corbyn, the leader of the (still) second largest party, markets himself as outside the establishment, and importantly, as anti-austerity.

If Brexit isn’t as big an issue as the media and the Tories think, and austerity is the real creature that they must slay, then the picture quickly emerges of why the result was what it was.
But what of the media? They told us this election would be dull. There were murmurs of low election turnout;5 Brenda articulated in the most adorable when the sense of fatigue the whole country felt. And yet on the night (and throughout the election, let’s be honest) it wasn’t boring. In fact, little of what the pundits said turned out to be true, except for of course the Exit Poll, which many, “[couldn’t] believe.”

In fact, many of the pundits seemed so sure that no one saw that result coming. Except… YouGov6 and Survation7 saw it coming about a week ago. Now, to the credit of at least the BBC, they acknowledged that those two polls were bang on the money, and that they, with their commentary, had missed a trick. What was that trick? Well, both YouGov and Survation factored in a higher number of young voters than other polls.8 There’s that old stick-in-the-mud again.

I’m not going to say much about the Tabloids that, on both sides of the argument, were far too dispelling in their coverage. Nor am I going to linger on the problems the mainstream media had covering this election, in terms of being correct or being complacent. I can be accused (rightly) of both myself. And of course, the Exit Poll, YouGov and Survation were (to varying degrees) off in their predictions. But the media must realise that they’re losing creditability, and that’s bad for all of us. Did they play a factor in the election, perhaps as a whispering sound in Theresa May’s ear as she was walking on holiday?9 I think someone should be asking what role the media will play in the future.

And that’s about it. Well, it’s not. Theresa May was a disastrous candidate with a horrible manifesto, whereas Jeremy Corbyn was (by most reporting) a disastrous candidate with a popular manifesto; the Dementia Tax swung the polls more than Labour ever actually did;10 nationalism remained a prominent force, whilst whispers across the channel played their role too; “Strong and Stable,” repeat ad infinitum. I don’t see the point of talking about these things, because I don’t need to. Switch on your TV and absorb the analysis, with a free side of cross-analysis thrown in.

I’m trying to get to a point, and I think it’s this. Firstly, the youth vote (probably) swung this election massively, which is good for democracy, bad for functioning government, and a much more significant trend than it is currently being given credit for. Secondly, Brexit wasn’t the issue it was meant to be. That’s not to say it didn’t matter, but Brexit is derivative of austerity policy, and is not in itself the cause of political turmoil. Austerity (amongst other policies, such as Social Care) drove this election result; if anything, Brexit is this election’s cousin, not it’s father. And thirdly, the media got predictions very wrong throughout the campaign. Some will say the media was horribly biased; all I’ll say is it felt frustrating at times, and caveats exist for a reason – use them!

Anyway, I’ll see you in Autumn… (maybe)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

We Are Not Cavemen


It is, in my opinion, a common ailment of the 21st century world (or, I concede, perhaps just the Western world) to take a paradoxically good and bad view of the future. It is my thesis that these contrary yet simultaneously occupied outlooks merely reflect a disparity in perspective. For the average Westerner living today is probably experiencing an existence that is – on average – significantly improved compared to their contemporary from any period prior, and so, surrounded by an abundance of items they believe necessary for the continuity of their existence, and safe in the assumption that such abundance will continue (for, perhaps you could argue, they have never known any different) will, from this perspective, project their future life to be quite a positive one.

However, that same Westerner, when pressed on their supposed future from the perspective not of what do they have now compared to what others did not, but rather what do they want in the future compared to what others have now, will take a more cynical view. It is possible this is an anecdotal perspective, and if that is the fatal weakness of this piece, so be it. But I believe it speaks to the human condition that we see progress as more challenging than preservation. I am not an evolutionary scientist, but I would hypothesis there is something primal about this condition, for if one can eat tonight, why risk it on the hope of eating tomorrow too?

As a means of function

If we wish to explore this phenomenon, and perhaps to discuss solutions to the problem this creates, it is useful to understand the paradigms in which the phenomenon exists. Almost all debates in the Western world are phrased as opportunities, with – I’ve often found – most dichotomised debates ultimately offering, regardless of outcome, the pathway to the same opportunity. Education is framed as an opportunity, and so is business, with risk existing not just as a hazard, but as an opportunity prime for exploit. Even disaster is an opportunity for some. The phrase, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” could quite easily be, “when Earth gives you earthquakes, make infrastructure improvements.”

Opportunity, on a basic level, must exist to keep the average person content with their place in the world. For we are often not content creatures for very long, and so opportunity, even in the form of change, must linger within our social zeitgeist constantly, or else peculiar things will happen. Furthermore, opportunity as an ambiguous concept (though if I had to describe it I would suggest the word is meant to conjure visions of rolling green pastures and warm bathing sunlight) is useful as a product for universal agreement. It is a product in the sense that it can be bought and sold, often bought at the ballot box and sold in a catalogue one might call a manifesto published several weeks prior.

In fact, I suggest the packaging of the idea of opportunity in such a way has not just been politically useful, it’s been politically revolutionary, moving politics away from trivial issues (triviality, often I’ve found, being proportionally higher the more local the issue, but that is an issue for another day) and towards much more personality-based, grandstanding, universal ideas (whether these ideas, which are often long-lasting, national and legacy building policies, are actually any of these things is, as always, debatable).

John Kay in his book, Other People’s Money suggests the idea of financialisaton; similarly Sandal in his book What Money Can’t Buy and the authors Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins in their book The Econocracy. Financialisaton, as an idea, speaks to the ever-increasing quantification of previously unquantifiable (or previously dubiously quantifiable) entities/products/concepts, often with little thought given to the human and/or environmental narrative behind that which is being quantified. I believe the same is true for opportunity.

But opportunity is different in that it doesn’t necessarily suffer because of being quantified, but rather can advance society when given prominence, which quantification does do. Let me be clear: it is good that politicians regularly, almost to the point of annoyance, phrase their arguments in such a way as to emphasise the return to You, the voter. It is only right that, on a certain level, the democratic ritual of voting can be viewed as a transaction between the electorate and the elected.

Of course, it can also be argued (and it has been) that it reduces politics down to personality competitions and soundbites – perhaps called slogans – as politicians peddle their opportunity-cum-wares, but that is a wider discussion for another day. No, the issue with opportunity as a quantified and sold idea is the same as is experienced by any product – it is an economic one of supply and demand.

As a means of preservation

It would take a fool to argue against universal opportunity, if for one reason it will (on average) benefit the fool, but, for a second reason, it benefits society too, provided of course it works. Machiavelli pointed out, in much more exemplary terms than I, that if you must wrong anyone, you should ensure you do not wrong the largest group, or, failing that, the most powerful. Opportunity, as a means of advancement (which I would argue is how politicians will almost always phrase opportunistic ideas) is a policy idea that wrongs the fewest number (but arguably the most powerful) of people, namely those at the top, and even here, the wrong is more a lack of perceived benefit rather than an actual ill being committed. But this is a short-term perspective. However, when we accept the promise of opportunity being made by a politician, and pay for it with our vote, we create an expectation of eventual delivery.

Here we observe a second advantage of opportunity – ambiguity in timing. The politician that promised to make the entire electorate rich overnight would be a politician that succeeded only in making the electorate poor in a day. People accept, quite obviously, that change (particularly substantiated change, and particularly change for the better) takes time, if for no other reason than we, as a collective and under the guise of the elected few, must encourage our societal caveman to step out of our comfortable, safe cave. But just as a caveman would curse the alluring horizon if he found, upon arriving there, that the land was harsh and barren, so too will the electorate curse the elected if, after forming a sacred bond at the ballot box and perhaps suffering hardships since then until now, they find themselves stuck and stagnant and above all without opportunity.

As an aside, one should remember that once the promised benefit that comes with promised opportunity is met, that does not eliminate one’s obligation to those they have provided said benefit too. Citizens, rightly or wrongly, will always seek more, and as such will always demand ever present opportunity. Therefore, one cannot rest on one’s laurels; you must add rungs to the ladder and offer those below you a hand to reach ever growing heights, as opposed to being satisfied when touching the ceiling.

As a second rule of political practice, any idea that is powerful in moving the people in your direction can be just as powerful in moving them against you. And it is a most fatal error of the politician to be deemed unable to provide promised, substantiated opportunity to their masters. Let’s return to the idea of supply and demand to articulate this point. A society might function, though be dissatisfied and in famine, leading to co-ordination such to ensure the small amount of resource the society does have is shared equally. In this hypothetical, whilst the baker will never have queues of expectant customers outside their door, they will never be longing for willing customers.

As an aside, if there is another lesson to be learnt here, it’s that dissatisfaction is not necessarily unsustainable, provided an alternative to dissatisfaction is never proposed. See above: one does not have to break through the ceiling if one does not help another climb the ladder in the first place.

But suppose one day a new baker opens shop, and this baker, keen to maximise their sales, professes to have enough bread to feed the whole starved society. Well, what would we expect other than all residents to queue for as long as is necessary to receive the food they have been promised (implied by their being part of the society)? This baker may well have found a solution to the society’s famine, and if so they will most certainly be the most popular baker in that society for a long time (subjectively). But if it transpires that, after a lengthy wait (of which the starving populous were initially quite happy to part take in), that the baker is all out of bread, or is perhaps so overwhelmed by demand they cannot bake the bread quick enough, and in that time those already starving have now starved and fallen to the ground immobile or worst, well that baker will be destroyed in reputation (if not worst) and that idea they promised will die.

Obviously, the bread is opportunity.

As I have said above, without society believing that opportunity is always present, peculiar things will happen. In the baker analogy, the bakery shuts, and people fall ill, and cynicism re: a solution to the famine spreads as fast as the hunger and the anger. Now one could argue that the fault of the baker is not in their aspiration to feed all the people, nor in their secondary aim of benefitting themselves, but in their execution of their ambition – in their marketing their proposal as an immediate panacea. And this is a valid argument, though, I would suggest, only in a meritocracy, where the honour of advancement (opportunity) may only be bestowed at the whim of those already powerful and following a set of criteria only few can complete without prior (often inherited) advancement. So, whilst panaceas are dangerous, we cannot escape the need for them, as for a democracy to have opportunity, it must be universally attainable, or else that society is not a democracy.

(Maybe?) Understanding the problem

Hollywood will often tout the phrase, “nothing left to lose.” The same phrase can be applied to a society without opportunity.

On one level, one could argue adherence to the laws or social norms of a land is through the basic good of humanity, for we often do not seek to wrong those for whom wronging would not benefit ourselves. On another level, adherence is through fear of the consequences. But a fine bears little threat when one is already indebted; prison bears little threat when one is already trapped; death bears little threat when one already sees little worth living for. On an extreme level, opportunity keeps societies together, and its lack of tears them apart.

It is here then we understand the ground on which the Western paradox stands. In the wake of financial crisis and growing inequality, as well as perhaps cultural changes and automation, previously held notions of advancement, and in turn notions of opportunity, are being strained and challenged, if not abolished.

In Alec Ash’s book Wish Lanterns, there is a brief discussion of the materiality of modern day China versus the implied more developed West, the notion being that when the material is provided for, as it is in the West, people will focus more on personal development, identity and spirituality. This makes sense if we consider the caveman analogy again: once the caveman has food, he has time to ponder much more intricate ideas. I bring the idea of materiality up as a means of explaining my belief that Westerners in the 21st century (again, I concede this is very general, and a flaw within this piece) are, in the short-term, rather optimistic about their lives, but in the long-term are not.

Materiality explains the short-term because the Western world is very good at supplying what its citizens need, and as such those short-term desires such as food and water (and, I would suggest, technology, or at least electricity) are readily met. In the short-term, we have it pretty good. But greater materiality, in part due to decreased income (which I argue is directly related to opportunity) suggests materiality is being used as a supplement for a lack of quote unquote hope for the future – the long-term spiritual desires (if not needs). Aspiration is the word that comes to mind here, and the lack of opportunity proceeds the lack of aspiration, which in turn demands short-term reward over long-term gain.

Forgive me for not providing an exact reference, but if we accept the idea that humanity exists as two pillars, one spiritual and one material, then we must accept that when one is falling to support the structure the other must grow to carry the weight. Spirituality is vague, and purposely so. But materiality is immediately obvious and so very tangible. It is so much easier to grasp (literally). Opportunity should facilitate the short-term materiality and the long-term spirituality that make us fulfilled, but in its absence, the material suffers less than the spiritual.

As an aside, I dislike using the word ‘spiritual,’ because it conjures up doctrines I do not wish to bring into this discussion. Alas, I find myself without an appropriate alternative, or perhaps just without a thesaurus.

This thesis may explain other phenomena. The rise in nationalism across the Western world in the mid-2010s is explained by many pundits and political sciences drawing on data and observation. I rely only on observation. For if the State serves any purpose other than protection and governance it is to provide individuals with an identity larger than themselves. To bolster the individual by making them part of a collective. However, the need for this bolstering seems to only exist when one cannot find something deeper in themselves on their own, or one is not enabled by others to find this. In other words, when opportunity is not provided by society to the individual.

I have spoken in broad terms, and this is not helpful. But this is a problem we must tackle, or at least acknowledge honestly. Short-term consumerism will do little but leave a great many dissatisfied from what is ultimately a nihilistic endeavour. It will breed apathy in some and radicalism in others, as well as mistrust and distain between all of us. Universal opportunity betters all our lives; a lack of opportunity degrades all our lives. Let us not be cavemen frightened to pursue the horizon for fear of being left in the cold.

Cryptocurrencies and Corpocracies

Cryptocurrencies are not libertarian. To be sure, aspects of cryptocurrencies, and the blockchain technology on which they are built, reso...