Scottish secession? A failure of governance?

In the previous post, I discussed the issue of secession, admittedly, because it was a blog post and not a book, in a very oversimplified way, but the question remains, why join, or why secede? First, union. Groups unite because together they are stronger than when separate. Historically, strength was important to save the citizens from being exploited, or even pillaged. The US is now so strong militarily that probably nobody can defeat it, but that would not be the case if it comprised fifty squabbling separate countries. Similarly, the fact that the US has such a strong economy means that it alone of all countries can print the world’s reserve currency. However, to form a union, the various disparate groups have to give up things. Why secede? My guess is, at least one of the various groups feels it has been discriminated against. Thus in Iraq, the main problem is probably not religion, but rather the corruption of the various leaders who use religion to support their positions and suppress others. We see that at present in Iraq where the US set up a “democracy”, and al-Maliki set about suppressing the Sunnis. But shortly, Scotland will vote on secession. What could have led to that? The question is important because it shines some light on the nature of governance. Points to note are that the Scots have not been deliberately treated differently from any other citizens in the UK, which in turn has been quite reasonably governed. There has been no selective discrimination, and no clearly bad governance or corruption. So why? 

My guess is the ignition point came from Margaret Thatcher. Her ultra right wing policies caused the end of heavy industry in the UK, which in turn was largely in Scotland. The problem was not restricted to Scotland, as the Welsh coal industry shutdown, and the English automotive industry was effectively ended, but the damage to Glasgow was probably far greater than anywhere else. So, why did Thatcher do that? It most certainly was not just to deal to Labour party constituencies. The problem was that the industries in Britain had become very inefficient, and could not stand on their own two feet.

There were various villains. First, the cost of labour was not competitive with the cost in places such as Korea. The options for Clyde shipbuilding, for example, were to pay workers on Korean levels (that was not going to happen), sell their ships for higher prices (how?), or they had to make them more efficiently. The German automotive industry faced the same challenges, and it succeeded by accepting it would have to sell cars at a higher price, but they would make them better. The key was to give value. Many British industries did not follow this strategy, which required intense investment in R&D, and in modernizing their factories. Management failed Britain, and management is also part of governance.

The Unions were also part of governance, and were part of the problem. To protect employment, they demanded over-manning. The classic example involved changing a light bulb. It has been stated that an electrical worker had to change the bulb, a rigger had to hold the ladder, and there had to be someone from stores to bring the new bulb. This in turn has given rise to a range of jokes. One of the more biting examples is:

How many theoretical physicists are required to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two. One to hold the bulb, and one to rotate the Universe.

The joke has nothing to do with light bulbs, or employment.

Another problem is that union requires sharing, and agitators leap on the advantages of not sharing, when there are such advantages. Thus if Scotland secedes, Scotland will get the oil money. That will make some Scottish politicians salivate. There will be a price, and whether the voters hear about such prices is another matter. I have no idea what the Scottish voters will decide, but it raises the issue that as the size of a union grows, what matters most? Economic efficiency or fairness? What should be done to promote what you choose? Any thoughts?


Syria, Iraq and Ukraine: Is Secession right?

Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall a number of posts on some of the issues involved in these countries. What is common to these countries is that all have armed uprisings to achieve either overthrow of the government, or secession. We might also note that many in Scotland want to secede, BUT they are going about it by having the Scots vote on it. Further, my guess is that if Scotland secedes, there will still be a substantial fraction of the Scots who do not wish to. If we think of Ukraine, the question of secession by the East may well be answered differently if only the east votes, or if all Ukraine votes. Majority have to win a vote, but the majority of whom? If there is an armed uprising, for the uprising to end, there has to be a good reason to lay down the arms. So to end the uprising, either concessions have to be made, or the rebels have to be removed from the field, either by arrest or by killing. Now, not everybody can get their way, so why do they want secession? Alternatively, why does Union work?

The most obvious example of where union works is the US. There we have fifty states, many of which would qualify as powerful countries, and they are held together by a Union. The United Kingdom almost works, but is apparently a little creaky at the seams. So what are the differences here? The most obvious one is history. Scotland and England spent many centuries warring. The parts of the UK still consider themselves separate countries within the Union, which makes it different from the US. One important aspect of the US is that the educational system imprints the importance of being United, and the citizens accept that. So, in my opinion, a United system works best when everyone speaks a common language and has no more than location to identify citizens as being different. Notwithstanding that, a Federal system works quite well when there are regions with different languages and different cultures, provided the Federation accepts the differences and shows pride in them. Thus Canada, although occasionally a little creaky, basically works well. In the US there are differences between states, and again these are accepted and praised. The Federal government makes a major effort to see that all states are treated more or less equally. Also, a fair application of fair law is required.

Now if we look at our troublesome regions, Ukraine is plagued by a section that uses a different language, and worse than that, the Western Ukraine has in the past seemed to want to suppress that language, and there is no reason to believe that attitude will change. Poroshenko has promised that suppression will stop, but the problem there is nobody believes him. That gets to the next obvious requirement for a Union: the various parts have to trust the whole to treat them according to agreed rules. Ukraine fails because law is not strongly founded there.

When we look at Syria and Iraq, the problem is reasonably clear: governments based on religion do not work when there is more than one religion. Governments must be secular. It is here that the West has failed these regions. Yes, Saddam and Bashir are not exactly examples of good governance; they have been brutal and of course they are/were anything but democratic. However, provided you obeyed the rules, you were generally safe there, and until the West started bombing Iraq the first time, Iraq was prosperous, secular, safe, and reasonably liberal. Now it is a feeding ground for Jihadis, who cannot wait to get revenge on the West. Now, the Shia government has decided to get revenge on past suppression, and it is actively discriminating against the Sunni minority, which is hardly desirable when that minority provided most of the military class previously. The US hardly helped either by effectively making the Kurdish part a separate entity.

The question now is, what should be done? My view is that everybody else should keep out. Yes, what is going to happen is not going to be pretty, and a lot more blood will be spilt, but this is largely due to outside intervention. There has been no sign of competence so far, other than in bombing, so why does anyone think there will be an improvement? The problem is, politicians visualize the ending they want; they do not seem capable of visualizing what they do not want.

Why should my comments count? I have no special experience that makes my opinion more important than yours, and my one and only experience that is relevant was being caught up in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which I talked to people from both sides. On the other hand, I have thought quite a bit about the issues in general because in the future history novels I write, I have “invented” various forms of governance to support the themes related to abuse of power. After all this thought, I do not know the answers, although I think I can guess what will not work. If you, the reader, feel you can contribute, please do.

Finally, remember the reduced prices on my Mars novels this solstice; see the previous post for details.

Solstice Promo Special

And now, a quick commercial break! Four of my fictional ebooks are on special at Amazon from the solstice for a few days, including the one that was actually the cause of my developing my alternative theory of planetary formation. The fiction required an unusual discovery on Mars, I invented one, and an editor had the cheek to say it was unbelievable. Now editors in publishing houses have a right to criticize grammar, but not science, so I ended up determined to do something about this. So, to celebrate/get over the midwinter solstice (our Saturnalia!) there are significant rice reductions on these novels.

Specific details:

On June 21 my four “Mars novels” are price reduced to 99c on, and 99p on Amazon UK. The prices gradually increase through to June 27. The ebooks are:

Red Gold: the colonization of Mars, which gives the opportunity for a stockmarket fraud. Also possibly unique in that the writing of this led to an original scientific theory (outlined in an appendix).

Then the “First Contact” trilogy.

A Face on Cydonia: a small number of mutually incompatible people form an expedition to find out for once and for all whether the “Face” is an alien monument, and they each find exactly what they do not want. Also an outline of a future economy starved of resources.

Dreams Defiled: One member of the party, who received the Greek gift, sets out to ensure that nobody else thrives.

Jonathon Munros: A tale of revenge, and unintended consequences, including self-replicating androids intent on their revenge.

Inequality by country

In the previous post, I produced an oversimplified model that showed why inequality in income is inevitable, and that raises the question, can something be done to modify that, and if so, is it desirable to do so? To answer that sort of question, first we should look at where the inequality is, because different countries have different economic policies. First, there has to be a measure of inequality, and economists have created something called a Gini index to measure this. This registers a country using values between 0 (everyone has exactly the same wealth) to 1 (one person has the lot). The journal Science produced maps to compare countries. The US had a Gini index of 0.4 in 2010. What does that mean? Apparently, the top 1% controlled nearly 20% of US income, but the 99% is also unevenly spread, as my crude model would have predicted. In 2012, the top 20% of Americans enjoyed over 50% of the US income, up from 43% in 1967, and this is presumably due to very many more higher incomes for the tech-savvy graduates of Silicon Valley and similar places. Thus this increase is in part due to more investment in education, and that does not seem wrong, at least to me. The middle 20% received about 14% of all income, and the bottom 20% about 3% of the income. That should not be a total surprise to those who followed the logic of my crude model.

Now, if we look at other countries, we see some odd results. One of the more common results in the Science article was “no data”. However, the countries with most equality tended to be Scandinavian countries, parts of the old Soviet Union (some “Stans”, Belorus and Ukraine) and some of the old “Iron Curtain” countries, such as what was Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and one or two others. The most uneven country was South Africa, with some African and South American countries running fairly close behind.

What can we conclude from that? The extreme value for South Africa probably lies in the historical tying up of the mineral resources such as gold and diamonds by a few hands. The second point is that for historical reasons there is more than one society there, and while efforts are being made to integrate these and give more opportunities to those previously deprived, in fairness there is only a limit to what can be done in a short time. Whether that limit has been reached is another matter. Equality does not depend on wealth, but probably more on social policy, thus Scandinavia has plenty of wealth, particularly Norway, but the money has been mainly put aside by the government, thanks to royalties on oil production and very progressive taxation. Similarly, many of the countries in South and Central America have been plagued by right wing governments, including dictatorships, and these are centres for much greater inequality.

This suggests at least two points. The first is that inequality is the greatest the further the society is away from general near equality. In other words, as my model suggests, the more time there is to develop free of external influences, the greater the inequality. The second is that the more progressive the taxation, the more equal the society. Unfortunately, that is not a free ride, as it often leads to a transference of wealth, when the rich simply pack up their bags and go to somewhere with a more friendly taxation policy. What to do about inequality, if anything, is quite a difficult question to answer.

Inequality in Society

By now, just about everyone will have heard about Thomas Piketty, who has claimed that the world inequality is getting worse and inevitably it will get much worse, on the grounds that wealth generates wealth. He has been attacked from various quarters, usually on relatively irrelevant details, for example that some of the data in his statistics are not quite right, but so far nobody has provided a knockout blow. Now, in

a recent edition of Science, where a number of articles addressed this issue of inequality of income in the world, one particular item took my attention: it arose from some physicists who argued such inequality is natural and arises from considerations similar to those of the second law of thermodynamics. Very specifically, they consider the statistical origin of entropy, and argue that a distribution of wealth where everyone has the same is just one of very many distributions, so it is extremely improbable when one considers how wealth evolves. 

One way to illustrate the concept is to construct a simple model, and this is instructive (in my opinion, anyway) because it also shows something about models. Consider a game with these rules. There are 128 participants, and they play in rounds, and every round the players earn one credit. At the end of the round they may spend any of what they have, or they can save. If they get four credits, on the next round they get a bonus credit (return on investment) and they also have the choice of borrowing a further four credits. To further simplify, assume there is a fifty per cent chance of taking a specific option from the choice of two, and if the option is to spend, the choices of how much is evenly divided amongst the options. Now, watch how this game evolves.

At the end of round 1, each player has 1 credit, and half elect to spend it, which gives 64 with 1 credit and 64 on zero. Following round two, half of the first 64 continue to save, and half of those who choose to spend use one credit and the other half both credits. So we now have 32 with two credits, 48 with 1 credit and 48 with none. The reader can keep this going for himself, but it soon becomes apparent that 8 soon reach the 4 credit mark, at which point they get their bonus, then two will further invest, and of these, 1 will take the option of borrowing, and that one gains two each round, even though by borrowing he effectively has to repay at some stage. So, after five rounds, out of 128 originals, 1 has got ahead of everyone else, and only one other is close behind.


The analogy with entropy is as follows. In statistical thermodynamics, the entropy of a state is proportional to the logarithm of the number of ways of forming it, and the more ways, the higher the entropy. The second law says a system tries to maximize entropy. There is only one way to get to maximum wealth, while there are many ways to get a low wealth.

You may protest that this game is too crude, and you would be right, but it shows something about models. The first point about models is you have to get all the equations (a numerical statement of the rules) down and you have to accurately fix all the constants and functions. In this example, all earnings are in units of 1 (a constant) but in practice, it will be a distribution. Similarly with investment returns, and there are a number of other problems. Nevertheless, this simple model gives a qualitative result that matches reality: the distribution of wealth will always be unequal because different people make different decisions on what to do with what they earn, and the effects become very pronounced quite quickly. What this model has really done is not to predict social behavior, but rather to show the effects of a proposition, and that is where models are strong.