Drought? It’s a Fecking Desert

Say what you like about America but, once Britain had wearied of empire-building, the USA pretty much invented the modern world single-handed. China is a great country now coming into its own. But, like its prosperous Asian neighbours their recent growth comes from leeching off American innovation and technology by doing cheaper (and sometimes better) knock-offs. The gung-ho, can-do attitude among Americans is infectious and goes some way to explain how a liquorice allsorts of immigrants could forge the world’s leading nation our of a wilderness.

But this has a down side. Because they never know when to quit, they take on just about any environment if there is money to be made.  They took simple windmill-pumped we;;s on isolated ranches and ramped this up in California’s Imperial & Central valleys, as well as Arizona’s Valley of the Sun to make those areas among the most productive agricultural acres anywhere. To achieve this, massive projects trapped, stored and transported water from the great rivers of the Southwest. The mightiest of these was the Hoover Dam across the Lower Colorado River, storing its 22,500 cu.ft./sec flow for use. That’s an acre-foot or 334,000 gallons every two seconds. While the huge Central Valley is watered by the snow melt on the lofty Sierra Nevada, Los Angeles, San Diego, the Imperial Valley and almost all of Arizona squabble over this bonanza. A century ago, when settlements were barely villages and Arizona barely a state, almost all of the water flowed unimpeded on to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

Those days are gone. Now only a muddy trickle makes it all the way. Technology like air-conditioning, automobiles and swimming pools make life in the sunbelt not just possible, but desirable, the explosion in population soon followed. As most of the land was desert, development could be expansive. As the weather was both hot and predictably, the growing of high-value crops was both easy and profitable. The original citrus groves soon gave way to more exotic produce. While California could satisfy its own water needs if it could shift water from the wet North to the dry South part of the state, the same can’t be said for its partner in Colorado River consumption: Arizona. Although the forested North of the state around Flagtaff receives rain- and snow-fall, the lower half is the Sonora Desert, normally capable of sustaining cacti, chaparral, lizards and the odd coyote. Water made the desert bloom and agriculture become big business. Cattle, lettuce, cotton, melons, greenhouse plants and even water-thirsty rice are grown in quantity. As a result, these soak up half Arizona’s water allocation—about 4 million acre-feet a year (about 1,3 trillion gallons or five weeks of flow in the Colorado River). Sprawling Phoenix now houses 4m of Arizona’s 6m residents and soaks up 1,4 million acre-feet a year (about 440 billion gallons or twelve fays of  Colorado flow.

These are intangible numbers. But measured against annual water use by an American family of five at one acre-foot, this means Arizonans consume water at twice that rate. Why should that be?

For a start, there are 615,000 swimming pools—one for every 10 residents. With an average area of 400 sq. ft., each pool loses 10,000 gallons each year from evaporation in Arizona’s arid climate. That’s a day’s flow of the Colorado right there. Double that for leakage. Add in evaporation and leakage from many artificial bodies of open water. Arrowhead Lakes(!) development includes over 43m sq.ft. of open water, losing over 1bn gallons of water each year. Nearby 10,000-acre fishing spot Lake Placid alone loses four times that.

Then there are the 185 golf courses that spray with 29bn gallons each year, most lost to evaporation. That’s almost two weeks of Colorado flow right there. Add in massive amounts of landscaping, even if much has been converted to heat-hardy native planting you start to see how Colorado’s bounty is literally running out. And we haven’t even started on 6m people’s domestic use of toilets, showers, washing machines, etc.

Because of several years of below-average rainfall/snowmelt upstream, an urgent conference called for December 12th in Las Vegas to square the impossible circle of satisfying all users in the Southwest of Lower Colorado water was something of a non-starter because the Arizona delegation could not agree on a position. Farmers, Municipalities, businesses and Indian tribal lands have stretched the state’s demand for river water well beyond that allocated and are furiously pumping artesian water out of aquifers that, being beneath a desert with 12 inches of rainfall, are not being replenished. Over 40% of Arizona’s water use now comes from this source, which is unsustainable.

This is where American’s irrepressible gung-ho/can-do would appear to lead them into an incipient car crash. Arizona offers a California-like climate at 2/3rds the price, so this will get worse. With the population forecast to grow by almost 50% to 9m people by 2025, attracted by lakeside living and golf courses, the problem of supplying adequate water appears intractable. California and Nevada are desperate to increase their own share of the Colorado, so any increase from that source seems unlikely. There are no other substantial rivers to tap. Yet the business machine keeps development sprawling ever wider across the Valley of the Sun, lawmakers run scared of not boosting their patch and the whole fragmented layers enshrined the US shibboleth of a constitution mitigates against anyone having clear authority to bang heads.

The fact that the last few years has seen waters supplies shrink certainly exacerbates the problem. But it has bot caused it. What caused it was a gravitational shift in American population from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt and the blessing that the country’s second-biggest river flowed between the Sonoran and Mohave deserts. How this riparian car crash can be avoided is not clear. It is a hot spot when commerce and environment clash—and my money’s on the latter. I would not counsel investing in a lifetime membership of the Arrowhead Lakes Golf & Country Club as wise.

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“The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”

For a nation at peace, the United States packs a hefty military punch.  Apart from a ten-division Army, 286-ship Navy and a 5,000-plane Air Force, they also can deploy 190,000 in the US Marine Corps—a force larger than all Britain’s armed forces put together. Unlike the Special Forces role of Britain’s Royal Marines, the USMC  is actually more like British paras, tasked to deploy in large units overseas, with their own aircraft and support units. Known as ‘jarheads’, marines are known for their young, aggressive attitude, which cause some unrest and high profile around the 20 marine bases scattered down America’s coasts. A recent crash of a marine F-18 fighter refeuling off the coast of Japan was a reminder that there are also another 20 marine bases scattered around the world.

But if jarheads don’t fill the role of commandos, who does? The less well known and probably most effective of the many weapons in the US arsenal are the Navy SEALs. Their name derives from their ability to deploy and be effective by SEa, Air and Land. Formed in 1962, their first deployment was to Vietnam where they quickly earned their spurs. While the bulk of the 500,000 U.S/ troops deployed (including Marines and Air cavalry)fought a conventional was against the elusive Viet Cong, SEALs were deployed to beat them at their own game.

Trained not just as elite infantry but they deployed specialist skills, including parachutist, frogmam, stealth, unarmed combat, survival off the land and fluency with various weapons and explosives. They were, as the Americans say, some mean dudes, especially those assigned to Long Range Patrols, known as ‘Lurps’. Navy SEALs are called on to perform missions of ‘strategic importance’. including: Direct Action: Neutralize, Capture and Kill Enemy Forces Offensive strikes against an enemy target using tactics like raids, ambushes and assaults. Special Reconnaissance: Observe and Report. Heaven help the village commissar they were tasked to eliminate. Deployed in small squads of four, they  penetrated all over South Vietnam, far into Cambodia and Laos and even deep into North Vietnam as far as Hanoi.

While such tasks could be undertaken by other branches of service but the trickiest tasks—and certainly those to be carried out deep hostile territory—would be entrusted to SEALs. That requires a rare breed: men at the peak of fitness with unswerving dedication, guided by astute intelligence, able to read and react swiftly and decisively in a myriad of unforeseen circumstances. All of this needed to be carried out professionally under the pressure of imminent death and a fierce loyalty to the handful of comrades taking the same spine-chilling risks with you.

SEALs proved so effective they have been used in every serious conflict the US has been involved in, from Somalia to Iraq, through Afghanistan to Syria and now in the Sahel. Eight ‘teams’ of several hundred each, ready for deployment and split between home bases at Coronado CA and Little Creek VA, But the toughest assignments must have been the myriad missions executed in the early days in Vietnam. Not only was this against a wily, tough and experienced enemy, but had to develop many of the skills now commonplace. These included exiting from a submarine at periscope depth and HALO (high altitude, low opening) parachute jumps to achieve safe and stealthy insertions.

Such an adrenalin-pumping life took its toll, The enemy was almost the least of the worries—very few SEALs died on engagement. But years in Vietnam of the tension of engagement and exposure to chemicals such as the Agent Orange defoliant in the field left returning SEALs with even more difficulty with re-entry in and acceptance by American society than the ‘grunts who served their 364-day ‘tour’. Even now, SEAL veterans are tight-lipped, stay close to buddies who walked through the same hell, show huge mistrust in ‘the system’ that put then in harm’s way and sometimes left them there unsupported to preserve ‘plausible deniability that America was ever involved. This extends to politics and government, for whom they have a bitter distrust.

And can you blame them? Their country created some of the most flexible, autonomous and effective fighting units, honing them to be fiercely self-reliant and trust no-one. Like a peak athlete or intrepid explorer, how do you return to the soft, easy civilian world and be content with it?

 

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Ultimo Tango in Roma

“After a fight with cancer, film director Bernardo Bertolucci died on Monday 26th in Rome, surrounded by family.”

Most famous for his Oscar-laden sweeping historic “The Last Emperor“, acclaim had come earlier in his career with the 1970 “The Conformist” But he achieved an almost permanent notoriety with “Last Tango in Paris” in 1972. Even allowing for the sexual revolution still echoing from the sixties, this film pushed the boundaries of taste to the point that one of the backers (Transamerica Corporation) withdrew from the publicity.

The story is straightforward: While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne (Maria Scneider), encounters Paul (Marlon Brando), a mysterious American expatriate mourning his wife’s recent suicide. Instantly drawn to each other, they have a stormy, passionate affair, in which they do not reveal their names. They are driven to this by different demons: Paul struggles with his wife’s recent suicide and Jeanne has a last fling before marrying her besotted fiancé, who is making a documentary about her.

They both arrive to view an empty apartment at the same time and there is sudden chemistry between Schneider’s coquettish innocence and Brando’s brooding intensity. Many audiences at the time were outraged by the explicit sex scenes, especially one involving anal sex. But feminists especially rail against what they see as an egregious  brutality of behaviour and an exploitation of the innocent Jeanne on a vein against which the Me Too movement has vigorously campaigned recently.

It’s hard not to sympathise with that view. But I feel this is selling Bertolucci and his empathy for humanity short. In the earlier scenes, Paul is definitely cavalier, even callous in his ‘no names’ treatment of Jeanne as a sex object. But he is clearly tortured by incomprehension of his wife’s suicide and virtually punishing himself, as in the anal sex scene, which she performs on him. For her part, Jeanne is a willing partner, experiencing an excitement her ardent but sweetly innocent fiance seems unable to provide.

The brilliance of the movie is not the shocking sex but how the dynamic of dominance shifts in Jeanne’s favour. Their exciting, nameless intimacies revive Paol from his slough of despair and he starts to court Jeanne, as if he wants a serious relationship.  This shatters Jeane’s fascination as he takes her places outside the apartment that has been their sole connection, including a dance hall full of older people intently dancing the tango.

Appalled by an age mismatch with this and with Paul, Jeanne flees home, only to be pursued by Paul—roles now reversed— right into her parents’ apartment, where the terrified Jeanne shoots him with her father’s army revolver. The final scene has Paul standing on he balcony, mortally wounded, staring out in incomprehension at a beautiful view over the roofs of Paris and Jeanne repeating sotto voce: “I don’t know who he is. He just broke in…

It is a heart-rending masterpiece of how a brutally wounded soul in the midst of the beauty of Paris can find the innocence he had lost—and find it more brutal than his original anguish. To focus on the sex scenes (not, in my opinion, rape scenes), however distasteful they may be, and not see them as a necessary element in this arc of tragedy is to miss the insight into humanity that Bertolucci achieved.

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Get Yer Wellies Out

Like a spoiled kid in a toy store, President Donald Trump has played with just about every lever of American government available to him. Unlike his moderate predecessors, he has rampaged about, playing fast and loose with immigration laws, trade deals, long-established alliances and America’s hard-earned status as a champion of human rights. But the most egregious in its long-term effects has been his implacable disbelief in climate change and global warming. He tore up the Paris accord, decimated the EPA and declared open season for exploitation of mineral, fuels and forestry resources. As a part of this, his Administration sneaked out a hugely important document on Black Friday )the day after Thanksgiving when everyone is out shopping) in the hope it would go unnoticed.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report has a dire warning for all humans within its more than 1,650 pages: People need to take immediate action on global warming to avoid “substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.” The report, produced by 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies, is hard-hitting in its conclusions by being specific how the American economy and way of life will suffer if global warming continues to be ignored by the biggest economy in the world. The report begins:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.”

The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid. Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts. The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases.

While Europe may have experienced unprecedented temperatures and storm violence, because of  its size and varied ecosystems, the USA is dealing with a wider range of problem and their severity. From hurricanes in the Gulf, to drought in Colorado and Nebraska, to wildfires in California, authorities are struggling to cope and need little convincing that climate change is the driver. The future will see more:

  • high temperature extremes
  • heavy precipitation events,
  • high tide flooding events (esp. Gulf of Mexico)
  • ocean acidification and warming
  • forest fires, especially in the US West
  • more severe and more frequent tornadoes in the Mid-West
  • more severe (category 5) and more frequent hurricanes

Despite insouciance radiating from the White House even normally sceptical Republicans are shifting their stance. Originally, Republicans supported “developing the technology to meet our environmental needs by providing market-based incentives to advance said technology”. More recently, a number of more thoughtful members have realised that long-term profitability requires a stable and benign environment. Trump is starting to look isolated.

Many climate change effects are projected to increase. By the middle of this century, annual losses in the United States due to climate change could reach hundreds of billions of dollars. Global climate is changing rapidly compared to the pace of natural variations in climate that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. Global average temperature has increased by about 1.8°F from 1901 to 2016, and observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming; instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause.

The American press is raising quite a stink of the report and whether it was covered up. On p[resent form, Trump will dismiss this as another piece of ‘fake news’. He is just egotistical enough to keep that up for the rest of his term. If America does stick its head in the sand, things will get out of hand and, in the large portion of our land mass lying within 10 metres of sea level,  it would be wise to get yer wellies on.

 

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Are We All FICO’d?

It is a constant amazement how much we still need to learn, no matter how old we get. Six years ago, as I was disengaging from a highly active political life, I set up a small tour business to keep me  busy. For this purpose, I needed a large, comfortable people mover and needed a five-figure sum to secure such a vehicle. I walked into my local RBS branch where I held a four-figure balance in an account I had held there for over 40 years.

After receiving a polite rebuff and a phone number, I found myself talking to a “Business Account Manager’ who appeared to be reading from a script. After printing off the six-page application form she sent me, I realised that I required a credit score to complete it. Further phone conversations established that, because I had none, no loan could be forthcoming. The reason, it appeared was that I had neither mortgage, not credit card history; The careful stewardship of debit cards, prompt punctual payment of bills, nor forty years of healthy balances with the same institution counted for nothing.

Rather miffed by all this, I secured a business loan elsewhere (paid off with punctual instalments in three years) and have been fulminating about personal and small business finance ever since. Having run my finances since my penny-pinching student days as a card-carrying Scot, I had not realised I was such a fiscal outrider.

The most widely used credit scores are FICO Scores, the credit scores created by Fair Isaac Corporation. 90% of top lenders use FICO Scores to help them make billions of credit-related decisions every year. FICO Scores are calculated based solely on information in consumer credit reports maintained at the credit reporting agencies. Here’s how it works.

In order to establish a credit score, you must assume debt. Although this may seem counter-intuitive but more debt is better. The sole proviso is that you must make the agreed payments on your debts. Though any new lender might, FICO doesn’t care if you are in over you head and stealing your grandmother’s pension to make payments. As long as the payments are made, you FICO score will stay robust or even rise. Advice given to young people wanting to buy a home is to get into debt in the fist place but using credit cads or buying major appliances on credit. A fat bank deposit is not enough, as it will do nothing to establish or raise a credit score.

It is, in fact, a hugely profitable collusion among financial institutions. Pay day loans may be usurious but credit card rates between 15 and 30% are hardly bargains, especially when most people do not pay the balance off each month to avoid such interest rates. It is not unusual for a family to be £10,000 in debt on various credit cards and paying £200 each month in interest alone. Because many want a mortgage, they boost their FICO by running up such debts but seldom find the cash to pay them off once they shoulder the mortgage burden. Many fixate, or even boast, about their FICO scores, ignoring the damage their debt burden does to their disposable income. And it is always too easy to make some large purchase with a card as the world is now too impatient to save.

Banks and other lenders love this system. No longer is it necessary to invest huge time and effort to know your customer, your sales staff need little training and PR damage by refusal is minimised by blaming it on a faceless rating agency. But, worst of all, millions are encouraged to get in debt over their heads, with ‘financial advisers’ and a major marketing machine encouraging them to do so.

Is there a way to avoid this? Not unless your dad is rolling in it—or you never want to buy a house. But you need not go n over your head. Use a couple of credit cards each month but pay the balance off immediately. Buy big items you really need (TV; sofa; fridge) on credit and set up direct deposit to ensure payment. Best of all: make yourself so rich (or frugal) that you don’t need credit and you can thumb your node at the money-grubbing pencil=necks who want to FICO you.

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Lessons from the Land of the Car

Europeans can can get sniffy about public transport in America. Outside of New York, they have a point. But, despite the money we Scots throw at public transport, we should not be so smug. Santa Cruz county is a satellite of Silicon Valley, much as East Lothian is of Edinburgh. A commuter and recreation component of the greater metropolis, it is linked by one trunk road artery— in their case the tortuous 4-lane Hiway 17, which snakes over the intervening 1,000-foot mountains. These prevent any rail link with the main urban centre.

Yet their Santa Cruz Metro (SCM) bus system knocks ours into a cocked hat. Instead of our rag-tag of six different bus companies, each running a couple of services that link with beither train nor other buses, SCM runs an interlinked system across the county.

Granted, their population is larger—240,000 versus our 105,000. But it serves a comparable area, running thrice as many routes, most at 30 minute intervals. And its cheap: while we pay a fiver to cross our county, their flat fare of $2 (£1.50) or £3 (£4.50) day ticket covers theirs. There’s no free travel but seniors pay half fare; 75p breaks nobody’s bank. The whole system works to a unified timetable, abailable in two languages (1 in 3 residents are Hispanic).

All of this does come at a cost: SCM’s budget is $40 million (£30m), which dwarfs ELC’s £3/4m. But adding in £4.5 million concessionary travel cist, adjusting for population and SCM driver wages at twice East Lothian’s gives a budget of £10m to provide a comparable service here. Finance for SCM buses comes 20% from the fare box, with the rest from State fuel and local sales taxes. Both ridership and fare box revenues are better, here leaving a £3m shortfall to make up. If such bus services were rolled out across Scotland, the bill wuld be £60m. This is barely 1/3rd of current concessionary travel costs—or 10% of the income tax tweak to be levied on Scots next year.

Instaead of sitting around girning about bus re-regulation, it;s time for Wur Parly to realise how even the land of the automobile is luring people out of traffic jams by making bus alternatives cheap and frequent. East Lothian would be the perfect place to try this out and—at only£3m—a snip.

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A Testing Time for Democracy

With Brexit and Trump testing the resilience of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, will it cope with a possible fiscal fallout should either fail to address imbalance in wealth?

Much to the annoyance of Young Turks with no memory of the 20th © or of TV before The Simpsons and reality shows, older people are still prone to musing wistfully about the “good old days” when life was better. It is true that such ‘buftis’ often lack any social media skills or even the smartphones on which to display them, and so miss out on gifts of modern life . But sometimes they are right. The benefits to civilisation of gunpowder, machine gums and ICBMs are, to say the least, a matter for debate. On a similar vein, have resent frenetic social and financial developments made the world a better place?

Social and financial developments are more subtle in their impact, but just as pervasive in their effect, Among these, political systems have evolved to govern such advances. Though they still have adherents, neither Dictatorship (of which Monarchy is a hereditary variant) nor Communism offers a viable form of government, acceptable to its people. So, with exceptions of the strange hybrid of China and some grubbier corners of the globe, Democracy has become dominant, even though it may be, in Churchill’s prophetic words “the worst form of government—apart from all other forms of government”.

Given rising standards of living over the last couple of centuries of those living under Democratic rule, it deserves some praise. But, because of its present role as “the only game in town”, scant attention is paid to its drawbacks, let alone its vulnerability. In one respect, it is no different from Monarchy, Dictatorship or Communism, in that it relies on a belief in its rewards and authority. If it fails in either,  the result is revolution.

Revolution may not come as pitchforks and torches descending on the palace.  In Portugal, the Soviet Union and Zimbabwe, scarcely a shot was fired. Only belief in “the system” running the country by the bulk of its people will resist and see off attempts at radical change. The foundation stone of such resistance is a constitution—or, in the case of fuddy-duddy states without one like Britain, long tradition having a similar effect. This provides both authority and common cause as long as citizens believe in it. But when constitution is seem as constipation, history shows instability, then misfortune for all follow: Weimar Germany; pre-civil-war Spain; Allende’s Chile. Currently Venezuela—an ostensibly rich democracy—is sliding down this slope.

Pillars of Western democracy, such as Britain and the USA, are considered immune to any such disruption. With centuries of political stability and increasing affluence behind them, why would any significant part of their population feel disaffected enough to cause unrest? The British union of 1707 led to 250 years of profit and prestige, right up to 1945. America fashioned a rich superpower out of boundless space and eager immigrants, using civics and wealth as common cause: widespread belief in the Constitution and the American Dream. This found its peak in the period after WW2. There was reverence, not ridicule for Kennedy when he said “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”.

Shocks from oil prices and the Vietnam War dented nut did not damage America’s belief in itself. Britain, on the other hand, underwent a traumatic transformation under Callaghan and Thatcher. The miners’ strike and Toxteth tore British social fabric deeper than Watts did in the States. The Reagan boom years and military prowess displayed in the Gulf Wars restored Americans’ belief in “the system”. British faith was restored later with the salary and property boom around the millennium..

Boom times both sides of the Atlantic ended in the financial crash of 2008 when a witches’ brew of opaque financial derivatives, irresponsible lending, “Master of the Universe’ hubris and sloppy oversight laid several major financial institutions low. The British public was landed with eye-watering bills to clean up the mess. It was in the resulting austerity that cohesive belief in the system—in equality of opportunity and fairness on both sides of the Atlantic started to erode. In America, Joe Sixpack had pulled down $30 an hour building autos in Detroit, bulldozers in Ohio or airliners in Seattle found Toyota, Komatsu and Airbus had eaten their lunch. In Britain, from Cleveland to Coventry, British ex-miners, ex-steelworkers, ex-factory hands, etc found themselves on the economic scrapheap. On Canary Wharf or Wall Street, P45s fell on a few minions while board member and CEO carried on, remuneration unscathed. Fred Goodwin might have said ‘sorry’; Philip Green sweated a Parliamentary Committee easily. Both laughed all the way to the bank.

IncSpread

Comparison of UK Incomes, by Decile

With incomes now differing by a factor of nine, even after tax, the stage is set for the two horsemen (we can’t afford four)of the economic apocalypse: Brexit and Trump. The former being driven by a privileged Home Counties few using disaffected ex-workers in the North as democratic pawns. It is an unholy alliance that may drive Britain into an economic river-of-no-return and polarise the population in a rift that tears acoss party lines. Both repentant Remainers and hard-line Bexiteers are disowning a government that appears to speak for fewer and fewer people. Brexit is now inevitable. But the ‘Brexit Dividend’ appears to be, id anything, economic damage to a wide swathe of people, most of whom were not rich to start with, This bode ill for peace and stability.

But potential civil unrest here will be dwarfed by what is going on in the States, two years into Trumpdom out American cousins are digging themselves into a political feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. America has long lived with an institutionalised two-party system and massive wealth disparity. As long as a generous amount of bi-partisan agreement mitigated the former and everyone believed they had a shot at rectifying the latter, things happened that benegited all. It wasn’t Trump who invented blinkered partisanship. But he has developed it into public entertainment in the style of a wrestling match or reality TV show. The recent political circus made of the (supposedly apolitical) appointment of a Supreme Court judge was largely of Trump’s doing. But, since the Democrats chose to engage in the debate with the same mid-wrestling absence of restraint and dignity means their chances of sweeping next month’s mid-terms are doubtful, even with outraged women incentivised to vote.

But, whatever the outcome, constipation in politics will we dwarfed by the effect of constipation in social mobility. Even before Trump came to power, weallth disparity in the States made  Britain’s factor of ten inequalities seem positively minicule. The chart below shows wealth distribution by single percentile in 2016—before Trumpr’s tax breaks boosted the wealthy even further.

USwealth

Wealth Distribution in the USA by Percentile

Were this $94.2 trillion distributed evenly over America’s 124 million households, each would have a tidy $760 million to bequeath the kids. But the lower 50% average $11,000 or under 1% of the wealth. In gact, the tip 1% owns more than the bottom 90%combined: a worker must toil for a month to earn what a CEO is paid in an hour,

What the media both sides of the Atlantic fails to realise (and therefore to cover) is the great mass of ordinary people, possibly even a majority, who are appalled by what has happened to those who represent them. They see them turning into self-absorbed, dogmatic pit bulls; many are repelled by the whole shooting match. In prosperous times, this might not have mattered. But people harmed by Trump’s tax break for the rich or by Brexit fallout will start looking for scapegoats.

This is dangerous.

Whereas monarchs could lop off dissenting heads, fascists could wheechle them into forced labout and communists could cattle truck them off to some KGB gulag east of Tomsk, dissent in democracy is a ticklish thing. It is never hard for politicians to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. Indeed it is a brave politician who risks his/her career by being honest. Present politicians on both sides of the Atlantic mostly lack such moral candour. So, when frustration with ineffectiveness of a vote between party rent-a-quotes makes more people angry and frustrated, them—Constitution or no— watch out.

Without a Constitution to check its government, the British have, until now, relied on  good sense and fair play among MPs to find tolerable solutions. Thatcher broke the mould on this but May is exploiting what has never been exploited outside of times of war; the almost untramelled power available to her. It will need no more than a botched Brexit with no deal for the degree of disgust outside of political and media circles to boil over into something very un-British and very ugly.

To some extent, the Americans have it easier. There is still faith in the Constitution and its ability to handle aberrations as crassly insensitive and partisan as Trump. The fist line of defence is the Legislature—but it is being as tribal as the President. And, now that the Judiciary, in the from of the Supreme Court, has been stuffed with two Trump appointees. as check  on White House demagoguery must be in question.

Americans are even more pecuniary than the British.  As long as Trump’s claim to have boosting jobs and manufacturing holds, then the broad population can keep believing the American Dream is theirs,. But, should the ‘trickle-down’ effects of last year’s tax cuts for the rich not compensate for the massive budget deficit they imply by growing the economy and spreading the wealth, then a narrow rich elite will get even richer and the vast majority get poorer. Should that majority ever conclude the much-vaunted Constitution does not protect them and has become the tool of wealthy lawyers protecting their super-wealthy clients, this could get ugly. If Trump’s luck does not hold then the Constitution will mean no more than it did to those fomenting the LA riots of the 1990s. And once faith in any democratic system collapsess, it is a long, hard, impoverished road back. Ask any Venezuelan, or Zimbabwean.

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Our Future Begins Here

Those of you who were off broiling yourselves on some distant beach this summer will no doubt have taken along a couple of juicy potboilers to while away the hours on the lounger. If so, you would have missed three ‘good reads’ that have appeared and which, taken together, pretty much pose the question of what will become of Scotland. For once, this is not a Mexican stand-off between Indy and non-Indy tribes but they pose a more fundamental debate, one which no-one seems to want to have.

The key document, published early this month is “Delivering for today, investing for tomorrow: the Government’s programme for Scotland 2018-2019” Snappy titles are not Holyrood’s forte (we’ll call it SGPG for short). But the Executive Summary does contain some lively intentions, including:

“We will make it our mission to steadily increase annual infrastructure investment so it is £1.5 billion per year higher at the end of the next Parliament than in 2019-20…On current estimates that would mean around £7 billion of extra infrastructure investment by the end of the next Parliament.

Were this to come to pass, there is a strong likelihood of it triggering  an economic boom, much as Roosevelt’s New Deal dragged the USA out of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. There are two questions that must be answered before knowing whether such good intentions pave the way to Scotland’s heaven or its hell: 1) Where is all that money coming from and 2) Which infrastructures will receive that level of investment? For the first any benefit will be offset if the money used us diverted from other, essential services and investment; for the second, though the construction of popuar swimming pools and community centres may win votes, it does little to boost GDP.

The second document, which gives a context within which the is SGPD operates is the Sustainable Growth Commission’s Report of May 2018 (SGCR). Part A of the report considers the performance of the Scottish economy, set in the context of the global and UK economy and assesses the potential for improvement. It sets out principles for a new Scottish economic model and long-term policy strategy. The approach is to grow GDP by focusing variously on productivity, population and participation (inclusive) growth. The central argument is that Scotland should be seeking to emulate the performance of the best small countries in the world, rather than sticking to its current position as the best of the rest of the UK.

This position is reinforced by the third document, Wealth of the Nation, (WotN and a deliberate reference to Adam Smith), published by the David Hume Institute this month (September),  It puts Scotland’s productivity in an international context, where it fares much less favourably than in comparison with the rest of the UK. Some definitions:

  • GDP (Gross Domestic Product) = income generated in a country over a year
  • Productivity = GDP, divided by the total number of hours worked
  • Value added = a much trickier thing to measure per worker than the hours worked

By these raw  measures, Scotland (and, for that matter, the UK) is not doing well. To quote WotN and show one of its charts:

Scotland’s productivity over the last fifteen years has been largely stagnant and has under-performed, compared with many other European countries.”ScotProd

Scotland enjoys a low unemployment rate and its workers already work a high number of hours. Meanwhile, its working-age population is shrinking. This means that productivity growth will be of central importance to future increases in Scottish incomes and living standards. This is compounded by two decades of the Scottish Parliament focusing on social, rather than business priorities in its legislation. Though nobody would question the social value of hours worked by social workers or NHS staff, the extent to which they increase the actual wealth of the country, as compared to a farmer or oil worker, is less clear. It is not simply a question of services versus goods production—financial services contribute prodigiously to national wealth— but not all employment contributes the same “value added” per hour worked. The series of case studies within WotN suggests ways in which such questions can be addressed in Scotland. The turnarounds in the case studies involved:

  • focus on the evidence, (Scottish public bodies dwell on intention, not outcome)
  • consensus and collaboration, (multi-body working is rare or superficial)
  • credible and strong institutions, (work done by juniors who are not empowered)
  • focus on skills (time served does not mean experience and, even less, qualified)

The SGCR emphasises Scotland has very significant comparative economic assets and advantages, in terms of natural resources, the education and skills. Yet, median income of the group of 12 small advanced economies is 14% higher in GDP per head; a
gap of £4,100 per person. To redress this, two fundamental lessons are clear: Scotland must become more engaged, not less, in the global and European economy in order to boost growth. And the opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, that growth must be more widely shared—as in those countries.

Will the EGPG achieve this? Consider the suite of bills that form the backbone of the programme:

  1. Budget Bill
  2. Biometric Data Bill
  3. Census (Amendment) Bill
  4. Consumer Protection Bill
  5. Disclosure Bill
  6. Electoral Franchise Bill
  7. Female Genital Mutilation Bill
  8. Non-domestic Rates Bill
  9. Scottish National Investment Bank Bill
  10. South of Scotland Enterprise Agency Bill

While not every piece of legislation can be a barnstormer, much of the lists are re0treads from last year with a whiff of populist grandstanding thrown in. The promise of funding a mental health worker in each high school sits badly with a promise made last year to fund extra staff that were never provided.

With the exception of the one on an SoS Enterprise Agency (which will do little beyond shore up damage from decline in Borders knitwear and atrocious transport options along the Solway coast), there is nothing to make Finance Ministers in Ireland, Denmark or Singapore quake in their Gucci loafers at the impending appearance of a Scottish tiger on global markets. And none of these bills come near the inspirational. There is certainly nothing that can hold a candle to even the Land Reform Bill in terns of social impact.

So, if we do see “£7 billion of extra infrastructure” materialise in the life of this and the next parliamenst, the probability it will be in the shape of a myriad pork barrel projects with plausible social cover but little leverage to boost the economy is high. If Messrs Mackay, Hepburn and Ewing were worth their ministerial salt as Finance, Business and Tourism champions, respectively, we might all wake up in 2026 with a world class global hub airport, or the Aberdeen/Ventral Belt triangle electrified, or a world-beating renewables sector, or a Munich-quality transport system for our constipated capital. Infrastructure vision on that scale could light a roaring fire under our national productivity.

But ah hae ma doots…

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Reasoning with the Reivers

On Wednesday, I was down in the Borders and lucky enough to hear Mike Russell MSP speak on the vexed topic of Brexit to a crown of over 200 at Selkirk’s Victoria Hall. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it stands full0square against Brexit. But it was inspirational to hear lucid and cogent arguments supporting such a view coming from someone clearly on top of their brief.

Despite their history of fierce reiving, today’s borderers live peacefully in their unspoiled towns and prosperous farms, proud of local traditions and politically conservative. After presenting a pragmatic evaluation of where we stood vis-s-vis the guillotine poised over next March 29th, and presenting practical approaches to the dilemma ensuing, he did not get an easy ride on questions—some of whom would not have been out of place playing the Ettrick Shepherd or a character in The Dandy’s Black Bob.

To Mike, the whole Brexit debate is too important to be deformed by party politics, Joining the EU was as instrumental as any other factor in bringing Britain out of the severe economic doldrums of the 1970s. Apart from the issue being obfuscated by being caught up in internal wrangling within the Tory party that has gone on for 40 years, a key reason why we are facing Brexit lies with the over-55s, whose votes to leave overwhelmed a significant surge in your voter participation who anted to stay. But the over-55s are not the ones who will have to live with the damage to GDP which will result.. That there will be damage is agreed by every objective observer and is not simply another ‘Project Fear’, as ardent Breciteers claim. The only way to prevent or reverse such damage is to stay in the Single Market.

Remaining in the Single Market has been the compromise position sought by the Scottish Government over the whole two years of largely fruitless discussion that has taken place to date. Failing this, there needs to be a Free Trade agreement, along the lines of that forged with Canada. The third and least desirable option is to follow the Brexiteers strident argument and simply be bound by World Trade Organisation rules. But this last means, effectively, walking out with nothing, i.e. the ‘Hard Brexit’ that most people—including the EU itself—fear. Originally, Westminster decried this option. But now it seems to be considering it likely, due to the difficulty in getting agreement on the “Chequers’ white paper that so many Tories have publicly decried.

There is much talk of second votes, either in Westminster or even a referendum. There is scant chance of that. What is most galling of all is that, in two years, no evidence at all of concrete advantages accruing from Brexit have been presented. All of the talk of new trade deals could be pursued without having to leave the EU.

The practical issues that need to be clarified, Mike asserted, revolve around three items:

  • People
  • Regulation
  • Money

In terms of people, Scotland is more dependent on a healthy flow of workers than England. We hire many foreign nationals in our Food &Drink, our Tourism and our Health sectors. Some 80,000 people in the Highlands alone are nearing retirement and need to be replaced. One in four researchers in Scotland are EU citizens.

On regulation, almost 98% of current legislation is both good and useful, but it is EU-based. It will need to be brought into Scots Law—a massive task.

And, as for money, the scale of capital investment made possible by the European Investment Bank (mostly as catalysing seed funds that brought in other investors) has already dropped to zero. A replacement source of funding is not obvious.

Mike answered a whole series of questions that ran the gamut from virulent EU skepticism through indifference to a total Europhile. But, while he was clear in articulating his (and the Scottish Government’s) position that staying in the EU was the preferred option and one the country had clearly voted for, the chances of achieving even the next-best position of staying within the customs union looked poor and were diminishing by the day.

 

 

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Aggression As Entertainment

For some retirees, the amount of time now on their hands is a curse. But, for me, it is a blessing. Now I can indulge my weakness for film. Between the re-runs on sundry TV channesl and my DVD collection, my cup runneth over. Last week, BBC2 ran a series of cult British WW2 films, all of which I remember seeing at my local cinema as a boy. Leaving aside nostalgia for Pathe News, a cartoon and 6d for an ice cream as well as the ‘main feature’, the shift in social context and audience expectation was glaring.

In Which We Serve, The Dam Busters, Dunkirk, The Cruel Sea, Ice Cold in Alex, Reach for the Sky, etc are all fine films, distinct in the stories they tell. But they have much more in common, using violence, hardship and a common enemy almost never seen to bind a war-torn populace together with a sense of purpose in the trauma all had shared. The Americans were doing the same with Sands of Iwo Jima, Bridges at Toko-Ri, Run Silent, Run Deep, etc. On both sides of the pond, they satisfied both a civilian curiosity what had been done in their name and a mawkish venting of pent-up hostility towards a common enemy few had seen. Even in the films themselves the enemy rarely appeared as more than faceless targets or corpses.

By the 1970s, fim had moved on. Ass well as using colour, some showed a brutal enemy all too starkly (Sessue Hayakawa as Col Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai or Jose Ferrer’s Derra Garrison Commander in Lawrence of Arabia). This was carried over into serious attempts to portray a balanced view from both sides, as in Battle of Britain, Tora, Tora, Tora! and even Waterloo. In his brutal Cross of Iron, Sam Peckinpah pushed this so far that Nazis were heroes and the Russians faceless cannon fodder. A parallel development was the introduction of humour (Krlly’s Heroes) and satire (Catch 22) to broaden appeal and make more mordant commentary. But, though the one-sided moral simplicity of earlier films was gone, the violence inherent in war seemed justified ‘for reality’.

Outside the genre of war movies, violence seemed restricted to noisy and unrealisticrirefights, whether in Westerns or Police dramas. Clint Eastwood changed this almost single-handed with Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry franchise. Because of Vietnam (and clunkers like Green Berets), war fell out of favour, but violence didn’t. Sly Stallone and Scwarzenegger brought military mayhem into civilian life with the Rambo and Terminator franchises, which opened a whole series of violent, weapons-laden film franchises that continue to this day, such as the Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Hulk, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, Kill Bill, Lethal Weapon, Predator or Transporter spin-offs. Unlike James Bond or Men in Black, all take themselves seriously enough to be confused with reality.

In so many filmd made recently, violence is standatd and very much a part of the appeal, as calculated by the producers. Over three dozen films have grossed over $1bn worldwide and half od them are from violence-oriented franchises listed above. For every Toy Story, there is a Battleship. The phenomenon is not limited to cinemas, where access is controlled. Adding a massive DVD market, with video streaming and game tie-ins, the relative exposure in the population down dwarfs the popularity of cinema in its glory days.

So what?

Violence in general and war in particular used to be something only a fraction of the population ever experienced. Cinema changed that in the interwar years but those post-war b/w we started with restricted violence to a war environment where it was clinically restricted to circumstances far from the everyday. That has changed. Modern film violence seems almost willfully framed within circumstances very close to our lives, such that the threshold of horror most people use to distance themselves from it is eroded. It has become a commonplace part of our entertainment; why then, should it not become a more common part of reality?

The transition can be traced to the scene in Rambo, where he shakes off his police pursuers in the forest. The whole film to that point had been building sympathy for Stallone’s character—a Vietnam special ops veteran struggling to find a life who is hazed unnecessarily by small-town police. In reality (or were it a 1950s film) Rambo’s character would have slipped through the woods and disappeared. But that he stayed, furiously building lethal traps for his pursuers taps into our modern, more revengeful attitudes.

Blockbusters like Avatar are violent, but of the old school. Beautifully done, their surreal creativity transports us literally worlds away from reality. But the slick brutality of Tarantino or the everyday brutality of The Sopranos, immerse us in a dog-eat-dog morality becomes an integral and unavoidable part of life in a way  the almost prissy exposure in small doses of the 1950s never could.

Many people leading balanced lives will not only cope with this but broaden their mind by appreciating the creativity and entertainment value involved. But, when it comes to those less socially integrated, such as loners, criminals or even children, the increasing incidence of fatally unhinged, if not actual terrorist actions, might be traced to exposure to unjustified and gratuitous violence being peddled in the name of entertainment.

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