The Poor in a Democracy

One issue that is finally coming to public notice is the issue of inequality. When the virus started to make an impression, Jeff Bezos’ net wealth increased by tens of billions of dollars and that was effectively a free result of the increased significance of Amazon. Yes, Bezos did very well to set it up and he deserves a life of wealth, but that much? At the same time, a very large number of small businesses around the world were going bankrupt, workers were being fired, and in lands of plenty, very large numbers of people cannot afford a proper place to live, they struggle to buy enough food and electricity, and their children are hampered because they do not have the money to use internet technology for their learning. 

Let’s forget the virus. Before that, if the nation’s GDP went up, the lower incomes remained stationary; if there was a recession, the poor’s net wealth, if they had any, gets obliterated, and if they get sick they are in real trouble. The State makes policies that favour the rich, the bankers, and so on, and it is the poor who pay for it. How does this happen in a democracy? That it happens is shown by India, the world’s largest democracy. It is now a middle-income country, according to statistics, but it has the world’s largest number of extreme poor and the third largest number of billionaires.

A recent article on democracy in the journal Science used water as an example of 

a resource in limited supply. Suppose there is just enough for everyone to drink and wash. Now the rich can pay for huge private swimming pools so they make political donations, they get their water, and the poor get rationed through water meters and charging. The costs are trivial for the rich, but the poor cannot pay for the cost of the meter and the bureaucracy associated with charging and have enough income left over to pay for children’s education. So why did this situation occur? Essentially because the politicians permit it. The simple answer would be to ban swimming pools, but the rich will never permit that, and their power lies in the fact they fund the politicians’ election programs. There may be sufficient voters to have the overall power, but they cannot organise that advantage.

Further, politicians and parties become weaker if information flows improve. One of the first things you find out about governments is they seldom come clear with what they are doing. Politicians make grandiose generalized statements that sound good, but seldom show what is really occurring with any accuracy. That comment is sparked by the fact that New Zealand is having an election soon, and one thing that happens is there are TV slots in which senior politicians are asked questions from the public. Very seldom is a question answered properly. If you think that is just New Zealand, consider the debate (??) between Trump and Biden last night. Trust me, the NZ debates shine very brightly compared with that chaotic fiasco.

Nevertheless, when the word inequality was raised here, it got swiftly deflected. A recent question related to the effect of low interest rates. Strictly speaking, our government has no say in these – they are set by the Reserve Bank, but nevertheless the argument produced was that lower interest rates means less is paid on mortgages, and hence the poor get the benefit of easier accommodation, with money left over to buy food, etc. 

Yeah, right! Lower interest rates tends to lead to an increase in house prices. First, those with money see less return on bank deposits so take the money to buy assets. Accordingly, you get a booming house market and stock markets have record highs, even though thanks to the virus, businesses are not necessarily doing better business. That means house prices rise, so anyone buying simply pays a similar fraction of their income to the bank in interest, but their capital debt is higher. Because house prices rise, rent rises. The poor have just as little money to spend, or even less, business does not turn over better, while the rich stock up on assets, and probably work out ways to get tax relief for them. Thus lower interest rates are yet again another way to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Those who have houses tend to benefit, but they are not the poor.

We also have parties promising lower taxes. The poor would get enough to buy the odd extra loaf of bread a week, while the rich get serious increases because these tax reductions tend to be proportional to the tax. Rent/housing costs increase and that extra loaf of bread is gobbled up by the bankers, plus a lot more. Worse, we have quantitative easing. Either that has to be paid back (and that will not be paid by the rich, even though they are the only ones to benefit) or it will inflate the currency, at which time again the poor lose because the rich have their wealth tied up in assets. If you don’t believe the rich don’t pay tax, see the recent fuss over a certain Donald Trump.So why do the poor put up with this? There seem to me to be two reasons. The first is the poor cannot get themselves organised. They tend to be the ones who don’t vote. They say no party cares about them, but if they are not going to turn up and vote, guess why the parties concentrate on those who will vote. Another interesting point is that parties that nominally favour the poor usually have politicians who are quite wealthy. Getting elected by the poor might be easy, but getting nominated for a party with any show is hideously difficult. Parties pick candidates that will be trouble-free. Donors must not be upset. Which ends up with getting politicians whose major skill lies in getting elected. Asking them then to do something creative, as opposed to doing what the lobbyists want, is too much. Asking for a conscience is just plain silly. It ain’t goin’ to happen any time soon.

We Need Facts, not Fake News

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled “Conspiracies and Fake News” (https://ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/19/conspiracies-and-fake-news/) and needless to say, I have not succeeded in stopping it. However, it seems to me this is a real problem for changing public policy or getting people to comply with the new policy. To be effective, policy needs to be based on facts, not on what someone would like it to be or fears it might be, or worse, doesn’t even care but feels the need to be seen to say something. Recently, our TV news has had about four different quotes of President Trump saying New Zealand is in a crisis regarding COVID – 19. I don’t want to give the impression it is like Utopia here; it isn’t, and we have our problems but we have a population of five million and so far the total deaths come to 22. Take your own country and multiply that 22 by your population in millions and divide by five. I think you will find we are doing some things right, and our current problems are almost certainly because the quarantine restrictions for returning citizens were too kind. Most obeyed the rules, but there were a very small percentage who did not. Here, the policy did not recognize the fact that some people are totally irresponsible. A few days ago someone who knew he had the virus broke out and went to a local supermarket for something. You cannot run a quarantine like that, and that selfish oaf will have made things much worse for future entrants.

But for me, the worst things are those who spout what can only be termed “fake news”. One lot of people, particularly young people, argue the virus is just like a mild cold. Well, fact check. Mild colds do not kill 800,000 people in a little over half a year. It is true that for the young it seems to be not very hazardous, but for the older people it is serious. Why? Here, understanding of causes might be desirable. Part of the reason may lie in angiotensin-converting enzymes, of which for the present there are two important ones: ACE1 and ACE2. These modulate the effects of angiotensin II (ANG II) that increases blood pressure and inflammation, which in turn leads to various tissue injury. The elderly tend to have more ANG II, which leads to higher blood pressure, etc. ACE2 mitigates the pathological effects of ANG II by breaking it down. However, ANG II does have useful effects, and so the body has ACE1, which leads to an increase in ANG II. If you are wondering where this is going, I apologise, but now to the virus, SARS-Cov-2; it binds to the ACE2 receptors as a way of getting into the cells and stops its action. As a result, ACE1 is busy stimulating ANG II, and too much of that leads to cell scarring, etc. As partial good news, ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure, block the activity of ACE1, and so may help stop the bad effects of the SARS virus. As to why the young are less affected, they seem to have fewer ACE sites. (The very young also have lower levels of androgens, which stimulate viral reproduction.) The reason I have gone on a little on this is because as you learn the facts, it becomes a little easier to see how this virus might be defeated. You win by logically applying true facts.

Another objection I have heard is the flu is worse, and I heard one assertion that in the 2018 season it killed 1.5 million. The CDC website says the figures are not yet in, but the biggest earlier figure was a little under 800,000 infected sufficiently to be hospitalized. On request for where the 1.5 million came from, no reply. It appears some figures are made up. Another figure that gets bandied around is the infection fatality rate. This is cited as extremely low. How? Because the number of infected are estimated. You can estimate anything you like! However, if the number of harmless infections and hence those with immunity were true, the virus problem would be over. It isn’t.

Some other bad news. First, masks don’t make much difference, then suddenly, yes they do and everyone should wear one. How did this situation arise? In the absence of tests, and hence facts, various people have expressed opinions. Here, you have to ask what you are trying to defend from. If you are trying to defend against coarse droplets any mask will do, but if you want to defend against an aerosol you need something more sophisticated, and it has to fit properly. On the other hand, a mask will not make the situation worse, so from mathematics if you don’t know, wear one and hope.Perhaps the worst news: vaccines are bad. Apparently someone made up the claim that vaccines have mercury in them, or aluminium nanoparticles. There are even claims that vaccines will contain nanobots that allow the authorities to keep track of you. The fact that these do not exist (application of energy conservation laws will indicate a minor problem with them) and if they did, someone in the vaccine business would object is no problem for these near paranoid rumourmongers. If someone knows that such pollutants occur, why don’t they take the samples to the authorities so the perpetrators will get long jail sentences. Oh, didn’t you know the government is out to get you? They are encouraging this to kill off citizens. That is the most ridiculous balderdash out. OK, Putin appears to have ordered specific attacks on people like the Skripals, but besides being incompetent, that is not general, and Western governments would not do that, and if they tried they would be exposed. However, it leaves the question, how can society survive if this sort of nonsense and non-critical thinking continues?

How We Got to Our Current Economic Problems

A little while ago, Nature (582, 461) ventured an item on our economic problem, and it is of interest to reflect on this. Most economic presentations, especially those that concern politicians, involve microeconomics: what happens to individual, families, businesses, etc. That is natural because that is where the votes lie, and to some extent it is what politicians can control. The main point of the Nature article revolved around macroeconomics, which involves cross-border capital flows, the role and behaviour of central bankers, the role of global financial markets, and the role of the US Federal Reserve, which, despite its grandiose name is actually not a government owned or controlled institution. The owners of the Federal Reserve are effectively members of the plutocratic class that own the economies.

In 1944, Franklin D Roosevelt decided to make some attempt at fixing the macroeconomic situation and he invited qualified experts to set up a useful system to form an international financial system that represented the needs of diverse geographical regions with diverse economies. Of considerable interest, bankers and financiers were barred, as Roosevelt did not trust them to put aside their own interests. FDR understood them very well. The result was the Bretton Woods system, named after where the procedures were devised. This arguably worked well, although I have little doubt it could be criticized.

In 1971 Richard Nixon dismantled that system and replaced it with, er, not much. A special place arose for the US dollar, which, because the US economy was so large that no single transaction would appear on the overall “balance sheet”, this was the only real currency that was considered to be stable. The idea was, if there were anything resembling an idea, let the market rule. A subsidiary idea was (although this was never openly stated) it gave a special position to the Federal Reserve, who could print what they felt like printing. The market is the proper place for fixing the price of things that are traded according to available supply and demand, and each of those is free of external constraints. The concept is, if something is in short supply, the price rises and new suppliers enter the market. However, if a cartel can control supply, say, as with OPEC in the 1970s, price rises get out of hand, but great profits are made by the cartel. Currencies can be open to manipulation. The very rich can withhold to raise the price and sell at huge profits when more is needed to settle other trading. You see a large number of very rich people who got that way by trading currencies, generally through inside knowledge of what is going on in the broader market. However, that trading does not create anything of value; it merely skims from those who do, so such trading is little better than a bunch of parasites who also precipitate the financial crises we seem to have gone through since 1971. Of course, on the other side of the argument, the value of a nation’s currency should not be set by politicians with other agendas, because long-term, only too many suffer.

This market rules system has led to much greater world trade, it has raised the living standards of many, but in the western world it has done this by permitting the very rich to become ridiculously more wealthy while punishing what we can loosely call the working class. Manufacturing has been shipped to the lowest cost labour, and the multinationals from a limited number of countries built manufacturing complexes, often with very little regard to the health of the local population. Pollution occurred at levels that would be totally unacceptable in the countries where the companies have headquarters. I recall driving through Cubatão, which is just inland from Santos in Brazil, one evening in the mid 1980s. One chemical plant was pouring out clouds of white stuff, which I provisionally guessed was phthalic anhydride. The health effects of this sort of pollution on the locals were terrible, there was no excuse for this, but because general safety and pollution control was absent, the product would be cheaper. So the net result was that a surprising amount of manufacturing fled the West to places that did not care, while workers in the West joined the unemployment queues.

Thus fortunes for the very rich increased dramatically, but at the expense of the not so rich, many of whom became the new poor. The real money was made by bankers, and as they grew richer, not by doing traditional banking but by selling financial “products”. After the 2007-2008 crisis, you might think things improved, but no, the world is still flooded with junk bonds, leveraged loans, and huge debt. You might have expected the US Federal Reserve to act responsibly and limit the potential for excess credit, but after 2009, why, no, they allowed the private credit market to expand to $US 9 trillion. Since a certain virus struck, the Federal Reserve has made a massive cash injection, but where has this gone? Largely to bail out what the Nature article calls “Monetary chicanery”. In short, the bankers pass go and again collect 200 billion.The question then is, can markets provide affordable health care, affordable housing, affordable higher education, security in times of crisis? I leave you to find your own answers, but I suspect the answer will often be no. Then there is the question, what will happen to all this created money? So far it is sitting harmlessly on ledgers, but what happens if enough of the rich decide to cash out at the same time? Who saves the poor, and the innocent? This is a system that needs fixing, but where do you find the fixers? Not from those who have the resources to fix it because they are the major beneficiaries.

After Lockdown, Now What?

A number of countries are emerging from lockdown and New Zealand is in the select group in which there are very few new cases, and indeed we have days in which no new cases are recorded. Now comes the damage. The Economist ran an article that summarized what happened in China following the release of lockdown. Rides on public transport are down by a third, restaurants have 40% fewer clients, and hotel stays are a third of normal. Bankruptcies may be up to 20%. People are still wary, either of the virus or their wallet.

It is one thing to open shops, but another thing to get people to go to them and buy stuff. If the disease is still around, while some will take the risk, many others will not, although on this front, in NZ shops initially had huge days. It is not totally bad for those shops that can last the distance because for many things provided people have the money, they will still buy the same amount, other than, perhaps luxury consumables. However, the question then is, will they still have money? Different countries will have different problems here. Apparently in Europe a fifth of the labor force are in special schemes where the state pays their wages, but that presumably, cannot go on indefinitely. In NZ, after a week following lockdown, the jury is still out. People are working, but are they becoming wary?

In New Zealand, the State offered wage assistance to companies that had their income reduced by 30% due to the lockdown, which was a lot, but a number of companies, including the airlines, shed a lot of staff because it was obvious they were not going to operate at anywhere near their previous level. Airlines create a rather unusual situation: pilots rightly earn a lot of money, so would they be prepared to share work with another pilot, each at half-pay? The company keeps pilots on its books for when things improve, and most importantly for the pilots, they keep their minimum required flying hours up to date. That approach won’t work for low-paid workers. But then airlines may not have much work anyway. Here, there has to be social distancing. The passengers may at last get reasonable leg room (Yay!) but either ticket prices increase sharply or the airline realizes there is no point in losing money with half-full planes through social distancing.  The simplest way to raise ticket prices is to cut out the “specials”, so designed to fill aircraft. If the expensive ones with a small markup still sell, the airline may remain viable. So what should the pilots do? The question then comes down to predicting the future.

Herein lies the problem: most people will have choices, and those who more correctly accommodate themselves to whatever happens prosper. Those who make unfortunate choices, or worse, bad choices, will suffer. Governments also have choices, and they tend to be influenced by the next election, which in our case is this year. Propping up zombie companies is bad for the economy, but mass unemployment is bad for votes. What will happen? The pandemic will uncover some scabs in our society. Here, half of our deaths came from badly run rest homes. My guess is the biggest economic price will be paid by the poor, or the small business owner who is joining the poor. Furthermore, governments may still not be able to stem the downturn. In New Zealand, the Government announced a big spend-up in infrastructure, and shortly afterwards the biggest construction and civil engineering company shed 10% of its staff.

What happens to globalization? What most people do not realize is how interconnected the world economy is. As an example, Boeing assembles aircraft, but the parts come from a wide-ranging source. For a Rolls Royce motor, it too will depend on parts from a wide range of sources. If any of these sources break down because of the pandemic, there will be a problem. Equally, with a great reduction in international flights, maybe Boeing will stop buying when it can’t sell. Widespread unemployment could cascade out. Meanwhile, selected industries will clamour to their governments for bail-outs. There will be a cry for protectionism, without realizing how much “local” industry depends on elsewhere.The odd thing is, we now have a rather unique chance to shape the future. Can we do it sensibly? And what, really, is sensible? And how do you prevent the spoils, such as they are, going to the already super rich?

Government bails them out, but then what?

In New Zealand, I am far from certain that anyone knows what to do when our lockdown ends. The economist thinks that the money supply will fix all things and reserve bank has done what it has not done before: embarked on quantitative easing, Many other governments have done the same and the world will be awash with money. Is this a solution? It is supposed to compensate for the lockdown Two questions: is the lockdown worth it, and is the money supply the answer? To the first question, here the answer appears to be so, if you value lives. After two weeks of lockdown, the number of new cases per day were clearly falling, and by Good Friday the number of new cases had dropped to almost a third of their peak. They continue to drop and the day before this post, there were only 20 new cases. However, if we look at the price, our Treasury Department has predicted the best case is something like 10% unemployment, and if the lockdown lasts significantly longer than the four weeks, unemployment may hit 26%.

To the second question, the jury is out. Around the world, Governments think yes. The US Congress has prepared a gigantic fiscal stimulus of $2 trillion, which is roughly 10% of GDP. Some European countries have made credit guarantees worth as much as 15% of GDP to stop a cascade of defaults. New Zealand is rather fortunate because its national debt was only about 28% of GDP prior to the virus. Some predict the stimulus may reach 22% of GDP, but it has room to move before reaching the heights of some other countries. However, it is far from clear that it will successfully prevent a raft of defaults.

First, defaults always happen. In the OECD about 8% of businesses go bust each year, while 10% of the workforce lose their jobs. Of course, since economies have been expanding there was an equal or greater creation of business and jobs before this virus. That won’t happen post virus. Take restaurants as an example. Restaurants closing down may well re-open under new management, without the old debt, and not so many workers. That may not happen post-virus because people under financial strain or fear that unemployment might be imminent will not eat out, and the tourists, who have to eat out, will not be here. Therein lies the problem. If people fear there will be a slump, there will be; such fear is self-fulfilling. 

There will be changes, and some may be guided by the virus problem. Some businesses will cut costs by specializing in home delivery, and they should be doing that now because first in that performs well probably wins. For manufacturing, the relief of the lockdown may well retain heavy restrictions, such as expecting people to devise a way for working so they remain two meters away from others. That requires significant investment to do this. Will it be worth it? It seriously raises costs, so will people buy the more expensive products? But will this happen? The basic problem for small business is that it is almost a waste of time planning until the government makes its future laws and regulations clear, and once stated, sticks to them. I have run a small business since 1986, and the one thing that has always made things difficult is a change of rules. You get to know how to operate in one set of rules, but when those change the small business has too many things for too few people to do, and a successful small business is light on management. The owner tends to do everything, and I found new regulations to be a complete pest.

Meanwhile, the governments of the world have some interesting choices. Historically, when governments intervene, they seldom let things go back to where they were. If governments get used to regulating, will they let go? If you prefer to leave it to market forces, will that lead to greater wealth for all? As I heard one man say on the radio today, those with money will be looking to buy up assets, i.e. company shares that have become somewhat undervalued. Unfortunately, while that makes some richer, it does nothing for the general public.All of which raises the question, what should they do? That depends on what is required to get out of the slump. The obvious answer is to start additional businesses to replace what has failed, but how do you do that? One of the things that is critically required is money, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.  Throwing money at such things is usually a waste. A business needs three basics: technology (more broadly, how to make whatever you are selling), the ability to sell whatever you are making, and management, which is essentially getting the best us of your money, staff, and other assets. Only a very moderate number of people are skilled in even one of those, very few can handle two, and nobody can cover all three well. This is why so many small businesses fail. And that raises the possibility that what governments need to do is to somehow bring the required people together. And that is something with which governments have no experience.

Ebook discount

From April 13 – 20, A Face on Cydonia,  the first in a series, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. In 2129, Fiona Bolton has her life before her. She is a world expert in sonic viewing with a corporation-funded University chair, but when her husband protests against that corporation she finds herself recording his murder. She wants justice.

Jonathon Munro so wants to be important in a corporation, but he has no talent that should be needed by any corporation, until he finds himself in a position to help a senior conceal a murder. If he wishes to advance he must ditch his girlfriend, Sharon Galloway, who is developing a special digging device. Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to explain why, on a TV program, a battered butte on Mars morphed into the classical face and winked. Grigori Timoshenko forms an expedition to settle this “face” for once and for all. He needs Fiona to image the interior of the rock, he needs Sharon and her digger, and he gets Jonathon anyway. With hidden agendas, a party in with members hating each other, the gloss of visiting another planet soon wears thin. A story of corruption, greed, murder, the maverick, the nature of Mars, and with the problem of why would an alien race be interested in such a disparate party. Book 1 of the First Contact trilogy.

The Virus Strikes

By now it is impossible to be unaware of the presence of a certain coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2, causing COVID-19) that is sweeping around the world. (Wouldn’t it be better if some nit-pickers could stop changing the name and do something more constructive to deal with it?) Unfortunately, the time for containment has passed. It may have been that the only chance was early on in Wuhan because China can do things to stop the personal lack of consideration of others; the possibility of 5 years in a Chinese jail would inhibit most from personal stupidity, but the authorities did not get started quickly enough. This, in turn, may have been because the officials in Wuhan did no alert Beijing until it was impossible for Beijing not to notice. That golden opportunity was missed.

In New Zealand, we started with a law passed by which all people coming into the country had to self-isolate for two weeks. Within about two days a small number had been arrested for breaking that rule. In Wellington here we had someone fly in from Brisbane. He had been tested in Brisbane, but would he wait for the test results? No, he felt he wasn’t sick (so why was he tested?) Did he stay isolated until the test results? Of course not. When you are that self-centred, you do not suddenly become responsible. Wellington now has the second most cases in the country.

There was one woman who arrived in Auckland from overseas and was feeling ill.  At this stage she was advised to self-isolate but the law requiring her to had yet to come into play. So what did she do? She convinced herself she wasn’t so ill after all, so she flew to Palmerston North, where she discovered that maybe she really was sick so she flew back to Auckland. The net result of this is we shall get some idea of how easily this virus really does spread. So far, Palmerston North has three cases, but if there is an inexplicable surge over the next few days, we shall find out something. If, on the other hand, there are no such cases, we may be able to breathe a little easier. (It is not just the people sitting close on the aircraft; recall how people behave prior to boarding, during boarding, collecting luggage, and if using public transport, getting to and from the airport.)

While we were relying on voluntary compliance, the virus was actively spreading. The government has now required a complete lockdown, going out only for essential services. Will that work? In principle, if everyone on the entire planet stayed home for a month, all would be well. Those who had it would have to recover, but the virus would run out of people to transmit to. Simple? The problem there lies in everyone doing it at the same time. In the West, people want freedom of movement. Asking them to give this up seems to be beyond them. In New Zealand this might work. The police and if necessary the military are there to enforce it, and China appears to have shown this can work. We shall see.

As for me, I am self-isolating, only going out for groceries, but in my case, because I am retired it is no big deal. My day-time job used to be to do chemical research on contract for companies wanting to develop new products. That work has dried up completely. When potential clients are having problems staying open and paying their wages, research is the first to be stopped. As it happens, I was approached to write a chapter for an academic book on hydroliquefaction of algae, so writing that will keep me occupied. Searching the scientific literature can be done on-line these days.

The main tactic is not to get close to people. However, there is also the problem that the virus may land on something and you touch it. Staying at home is fine, but you still have to get groceries, and some people have to work.  Hand washing is important, but if you touch something after washing hands, that wash does nothing for what follows. The virus on the hand does no damage, but how often do you touch your face? What I intend to do is make a blocking gel to smear on my hands when visiting the supermarket. Two functions are desirable. One is to kill viruses. The second is to make the virus immobilized on the gel, like flies on flypaper. The coronavirus has a “crown” of protein so something that binds protein is called for. I won’t know for sure it works, but one advantage is that while I cannot get it tested for efficiency, I can back my own theoretical ability for myself.So, keep well, everyone. If all goes will and we all cooperate, this will pass. Finally, good luck all.

Conspiracies and Fake News

Heard any good conspiracies lately? Global warming is a plot by scientists to get more funding and have an easy life?  2019-nCoV was developed in Wuhan as a bioweapon? NASA beat the Russians to the Moon by faking it all in Arizona? The US government is hiding evidence of aliens? President Kennedy was shot by someone else? Vaccines are designed to infect and are just outright dangerous. Conspiracy theories come in all sorts of forms, some just plain ridiculous, some are sufficiently possible that they cannot be put to sleep as they should. The Kennedy assassination comes to mind. Oswald was that good of a shot? A top-grade sniper with a top-grade weapon, yes, quite plausible, but Oswald? Then, just to add to the confusion, every now and again such a conspiracy theory will be shown to be a fair representation of the truth. Oops! So why do these theories emerge and spread so widely? The simplest reason is people do not trust the government to tell the truth.

Sophia Rosenfeld, a Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a book called “Democracy and Truth. A short history.” According to Rosenfeld, the occurrence of “fake news” has a long history, and the democratic ideal of truth never lived up to its promise. Gaius Julius Caesar was a master at promoting what he needed to get to the fore, and possibly the first to report about himself in the third person. The net result was the end of the Res Publica

However, things are getting worse, through technology.  Photos that have had serious adjustments, or are just plain fake, lies asserted to be true, truth “shown” to be lies, and the problem is, no single person can wade through this morass, yet the concept of representative democracy requires people to analyse and vote. What is supposed to happen is the wisdom of the crowd prevails, but what actually has happened for a very long time is information has been vetted and evaluated by an elite that controls what they do not want you to “know”.

Deterioration has got worse recently, and Rosenfeld argues this is because there is an increasing distance between the governed and governing classes. Because there has been clear evidence of the governing being less than truthful at times, the governed simply do not believe them. Sometimes those governing have been just outright clumsy. An example, in my opinion, is the Roswell wreckage. To assert it was a weather balloon was stupid when locals who saw the wreckage could clearly see it was not. Had they come out straight away and said it was a failed experiment from the nearby Defense weapons development site, everything would have been forgotten. “The military made something that did not work,” would have ended everything right then because it would be believable. Mind you, I gather it was not exactly a failure as Roswell is an otherwise unlikely tourist attraction.

Rosenfeld apparently believes science is part of the problem since science has “experts” and these are out of touch with the people. Maybe that is true. Whatever, the problem then is that people embrace emotions, intuition and “truths of the heart” over dry scientific evidence. Of course science can also be wrong, because it is based on the interpretation of observed evidence. The fact that scientists often resort to complicated mathematics does not help, and sometimes their explanations remind me of that TV show “Sledge Hammer”: trust me, I know what I am doing! Intuition will tell many people that if scientists did know what they were doing, they could explain everything in reasonably simple terms. The ordinary person can accept that he or she has to take “how they worked it out” on faith and a broad statement of the evidence behind a conclusion should be adequate. If the conclusion is wrong, other experts will clear that up. 

Conspiracy theories tend to arise in part from attempts by ordinary people to make sense of often overwhelming information, based on personal values, and they do not wish to make the effort to sort out the truth. As an example, “Chemicals are bad!” Yes, some are, and here comes a problem: if the governing can be shown to be lying at some other time, then it is not a problem to assume they are lying now. Now, it is easier to spread distrust than make the effort to use logic. In my example, the statement is simply deficient. If we amend it to “Some chemicals are bad” most people would agree and there would be no problem, except that the conspirator would have to do some work and find evidence for the particular chemical. The bad news here is that many are at fault. The evidence is often either unobtainable or so widely scattered as to have the same effect; the government often wants to keep unpalatable news away from the voters; officials often conceal for no particularly good reason. So the governing tend to remain simply by spending more money on remaining., and that means those governing are even more separated from the governed. Positive feedback that makes the problem worse!

Brexit Strikes Again

Last week, I reblogged a post that I found to be quite interesting. It appears that currently there is chaos in Britain regarding Brexit, and it is worth looking at how we got here. As Philip Henley pointed out, the vote to leave the EU in accord with the results of a referendum was passed by Parliament by 498 votes to 114 votes. That became law and is the default position should a deal not be made. The May government then set about negotiating a deal with the EU, and the EU became very hard-nosed: its attitude was that it would make the situation as tough for the UK as it could reasonably do to discourage others from leaving, but also leave an easy route to remain. One of the provisions of this deal was the so-called Irish Backstop, nominally a transition period to ensure the Irish border could be kept open, but with the proviso that it would remain in force until the EU decided that it was no longer needed. The net result of this is the possibility that it could refuse indefinitely, in which case Northern Ireland would effectively become part of Eire. This deal was rejected by Parliament three times.

As her tenure as PM came to an end, Parliament came together and the ordinary MPs rebelled and took over the House, claiming they were trying to reach an agreement. At first they came up with eight possible options, but when put to the vote, all eight were rejected. Obviously, they were a negative bunch. After a panicking weekend, they reduced the number of options, but again nothing got a positive vote. Missing from the choice was “no deal”; the reason being that the Speaker stated that was the default option. That meant that everybody who wanted the “no deal” exit voted no to everything and those who wanted various deals cancelled each other out. Of course, there was no alternative deal that was realistic; both sides have to agree for there to be a deal and the EU stated there were no alternatives. Accordingly, the “no” vote won. What we learn from that is that in such a situation, the order you do things is important.

Part of the problem appears to be there are a number of hidden agendas. Nicola Sturgeon wants another referendum, as do the “Remainers”. Sturgeon simply wants a precedent for another referendum for Scotland leaving the UK, and presumably taking the North Sea Oil revenues with it. The “Remainers” simply won’t accept they lost the Parliamentary vote. Corbyn merely wants to be Prime Minister. I have heard no clue what he really wants to do about Brexit, other than annoy the government.

How could this have been different? First, decisions should be final, and the first decision was whether to leave or not leave. An overwhelming majority took the leave option. MPs then had the obligation to make that decision work. That vote was the time to argue whether the first referendum was fair, binding, or what. They declined because they did not want to come out and tell their own constituents they don’t care what they think.

The next step is to negotiate a deal. The mathematics of decision-making is called Game Theory. In terms of mathematics, there are clear requirements to get the best from a negotiation, one of which is that if the bottom line is not met, you will walk. For that to mean anything, it has to be credible. If the UK politicians want anything better than the May deal, then “No Deal” must be on the table, and it must be credible that will apply. Johnson is as near to credible as possible. If he is undermined, the UK is highly likely to lose.

At this point, the behaviour of some MPs is unconscionable. They have no proposal of their own, they have heard Johnson say he will try for a deal, and Johnson has laid down just one condition – the Irish backstop must be replaced. He should be supported in his efforts unless they have a better idea. There is talk of Johnson being undemocratic for suspending Parliament for 23 days. As Philip Henley has pointed out in the previous post, 23 days is far from being unprecedented. Johnson has the job of negotiating some sort of deal with the EU with a pack of yapping dysfunctional MPs offering a major distraction. The fact is, none of them have come up with something workable.

Now Parliament has voted to block a “no-deal” exit. Does that mean there must be a deal? No, of course not. First, the bill must be passed by the Lords. Since they are largely “Remainers”, they probably will pass it, although when is another matter. However, for that to be effective, there actually has t be a deal on offer. The only one that is the one they have voted out three times. The EU says they will not offer another one, although what would happen if Johnson offered a workable option to the Irish border is uncertain. The Commons also voted that the UK request another extension. Whether the EU would be interested in that is less certain; they must be on the verge of saying they want rid of this ridiculous situation. Note if only one EU member votes against it, it fails. Then after demanding an election for the last few months, Corbyn has vetoed one before Brexit date, deciding instead he wants another referendum. (His problem is that many of the Labour seats come from regions that voted strongly for leaving.) Just what that would solve with this dysfunctional lot of MPs eludes me. However, the so-called blocking vote has arisen because a number of Conservative MPs have defected. They were always “Remainers”, but their defection means Johnson at best runs a minority government that will not accept anything, or everybody else votes in Corbyn as Prime Minister. That is unlikely, so it will be Johnson who goes to Brussels to ask for a deal or an extension. The question then is, how intense will his asking be?

Space Law

One of the more notable recent events was the launching of a non-government rocket by a company run by Elon Musk to the International Space Station. Apparently Boeing is going to do something similar in the not too distant future. In some ways this is exciting, because one way or another, human ventures into space will increase markedly. I recall in 1969 sitting in front of a TV one morning (I was in Australia) getting direct feed from Parkes to see the first Moon landing in real time. (OK, there was a slight delay due to the speed of light, and probably more due to feed looping, but you know what I mean.) There was real tension because while everyone was reasonably confident that NASA had selected a good site, it was always possible the ground was not as solid as it might appear and it only needed for the lander to roll over and the ending might have been less than happy. Additionally, the landing was not entirely optimal, and fuel consumption was a little higher than anticipated. This may not seem important, but it did at the time. But all ended well. There were several more Moon landings, and apart from Apollo 13, the program was brilliantly successful. The recovered rocks are still yielding scientific information.

Then the program ended. And nothing more happened. We constructed the International Space Station, with reusable shuttles, but somehow this has had limited value. Certainly, it has permitted the testing of the effects of long periods of weightlessness on people and on other life forms. The best part of this was we got international cooperation. Arguably, humanity was going into space and not just various countries. We have sent a battery rovers and space craft through the solar system, and we genuinely know a lot more about our planetary system. When I was a schoolboy, I believe I knew as much about the planets, other than their orbital details, as anyone. That may sound ridiculous, but I believe it to be true because basically nobody knewvery much at all. They guessed on the basis of their observations, and their guesses were largely wrong. So that part of the space program has been a resounding success, but it brings into question, what is the point of acquiring that information if we do nothing with it? If we do, who does? If different parties go to space, what will be the rules they must follow? Who decides? It is much better if we can get this sorted before various parties get there.

There are two schools of thought. One is, we should stay here and leave the rest of the solar system for careful study, or if we do go somewhere, like Mars, again it should be for study, and we should leave it alone. The other school of thought is the solar system is a resource, and we should be free to tap into it. Which brings up the question, who decides? And what happens if someone does something another group decides should not be done? What happens if one government decides to do something, and a private company decides to do something similar in the same place? How are issues such as these to be resolved?

On Earth, we use the courts to resolve many such issues, although for some issues, governments decide, and of course the split between governments and courts varies from country to country. Worse than that, there is often no real logical reason to prefer one route over another, and the decision is made through politics. Again, different countries have different political systems, so two countries might reach very different decisions based properly on the way they conduct their affairs. Often enough, the various countries find that there is an impasse in finding common ground. What then? Carl von Clausewitz’ “war is a continuation of politics by other means” is not where we want to end up.

There is another problem. For a court to resolve something, there has to be law, and law follows from sovereignty, that is, the right to impose the law, AND the means of enforcing it. So, what happens in space? There is no sovereignty, and suppose there were settlers on Mars, why should they not have their own sovereignty? While they might start off as a colony, through needing a lot of support from people on Earth, their laws should not be imposed by people who have no concept of what life is like there. For example, environmental laws to conserve nature on Earth should not be imposed on Mars, where settlers would struggle just to get what they need to stay alive. Additionally, why would Russian settlers on Mars have to obey American laws, or vice versa? We might argue that the United Nations should set the laws for space, but unless all countries interested in exploring space agreed to them, why should they? Why should countries with no interest in space have standing in setting such laws?

Then there is the question of enforcement. The US is creating a “Space Force” so what happens if they try to stop Russians, say, from doing something in space that the US does not like? Settlements on planets are another matter. There, in my opinion, enforcement will have to fall on settlements, if for no other reason than if a crime is committed on Mars, we cannot have the situation where everyone has to wait for possibly a year and a half to get investigators from Earth. And if anyone thinks there will be no crime, I say, think again. The history of colonization is littered with crime. The US had its “wild west”, Australia its bushrangers, and the history of New Zealand has serious crime, the most spectacular being armed hold-ups of gold during the gold rush days. There will also be other opportunities for crime that are a little more sophisticated, such as in my novel “Red Gold

But there will also be serious commercial disagreements, particularly if some want to use something and others want to preserve it. I believe everyone has the right to their opinion, but there have to be rules and a means of enforcing them to avoid conflict. This procedure should be fully established beforeit is needed. There is plenty of time to argue now, but not in the middle of a dispute, and it is wrong to impose restrictions on an activity when huge sums of money have already been spent.