Homage to Ozack Van-Damme

I loved my car. A Renault Clio Tourer Dynamique with a 1.1 engine, though the engine size didn’t stop Renault selling it as a; “sport edition.” Every time I renewed my insurance I had to convince the person on the other end of the phone that it didn’t have spoilers and nitrous but it did have a large boot for shopping and it shook when it hit 71 mph.

When Ozack Van-Damme shuddered to a stop on a busy dual carriageway I had no idea he was going to be a write-off. The recovery guy told me it didn’t look good before he winched it onto the back of his van and drove Ozack and myself to my local garage.

A couple of days later I got the call. He was as dead as dead can be. A piston shot through thrle cylinder and there was nothing I could do without materialising a couple grand. The next day I found myself emptying Ozack of all those things a car holds. Receipts. Emergency kit. Log book. Ice-scraper. No matter how hard I jammed my fingers down into the gap between driver’s chair and handbrake I couldn’t reach that two-pound coin.When it was emptied, I watched it get hauled onto the back of yet another recovery vehicle. Why didn’t it have scrapyard or car funeral service written on the side instead of “recovery vehicle” as if it was going to give Ozack another chance at life?

Ozack took us around Europe, large boot crammed with camping gear and three weeks-worth of clothes for three of us. He had taken us across the flat expanse of the Netherlands, along the no-such-thing-as-a-speed-limit autobahn and up the steep mountain roads of Switzerland.

It is because of Ozack that we accidentally discovered a dogging spot and caught sight of two people going at it in the back of an old faded red Vauxhall something-or-other, pale naked figures illuminated by our headlights as we swung out of the car park. Men and women stood around the Vauxhall looking like rabbits caught in headlights, others refused to look up and instead kept their heads down. I made out furrowed brows as if they were pondering the universe and not whacking off as they watched two strangers going at it. Though we didn’t see any spectator flesh so maybe it was too cold.

My partner and I had spent many a night huddled under duvets in the back of Ozack, the car perched on top of the cliffs of Cornwall. We were rocked to sleep by harsh coastal winds and awoken by morning light draining in through the windows.

It saddens me to think that he is being put through the works at the local breakers yard. But I guess like so many dead bodies he is being plucked of organs so other machines can last that little bit longer.

Living with a (tired) teacher

I was spread out on the living room floor, reading a bulky sci-fi novel when I heard an intake of breath. Not exactly a snore. But kinda like a snore.

My fiance (let’s call her “Tired Teacher”) was sitting cross-legged on the couch. A four-colour bic hanging from her hand and a student’s English book spread on her lap. Her head was on her chest and her eyes were closed. Asleep.

This is common. I reach over and shake her leg. She comes to, head snapping up like she had never stopped marking. She offers an exhausted, embarrassed smile and gets her pen ready.

I get another paragraph in, a boy trapped underwater, his best friend struggling to get to him. The adults are racing to the scene but who knows if they’ll be there in time – another not-quite-but-kinda-like a snore.

Her head is down again. Eyes closed. Pen at the ready.

I shake her awake. Tell her to go to bed. She nods and puts her student’s book into a large bag. The same bag she lugs in and out of the car and somehow hefts to and from school Monday to Friday.

When the book is away she slumps sideways across the couch and is asleep. It’s 12.32 in the morning. She’ll be getting up at six-thirty.

Spectating The Spectator: Trading places

Image source: Pindex

The Spectator’s 10th August, 2019 edition of The Spectator opened up with a piece called Trading places.

The article considers the argument that the UK should look positively on a trade deal with America in place of the trade deal which we already have with the EU.

“The reality is that free trade is almost always on balance a good thing, regardless of which country is it conducted with. That said, there will always be compromises to be made. Vested interests to be tackled. Product standards have to be reviewed…Good trade deals can even destroy native industries – but the overall effect of global trade is to boost the creation of wealth…The important thing is to make the right concessions.”

The U.K already has these concessions with the European Union but with the extra added benefit that, as a democracy, the United Kingdom also has a vote and therefore a voice in the passing of European law. The author of this piece is essentially trying to argue for a position that would make the UK worse off.

“Free trade with the US is opposed by some Remainers for no better reason than because it is advocated by Leavers.”

The author is clearly a hypocrite. What kind of bias does it take to argue that getting away from our closest allies (culturally and by locality) and toward the US would be preferential over the kind of deal we already have? To say that Remainers oppose a deal with America for no other reason than Leavers want it seems exactly what this piece is arguing…only the other way.

‘…the NHS has always outsourced some of its services – which last year accounted for 7 per cent of its budget. There is no reason why US providers should not be allowed to compete for this work on equal terms with British companies.”

That was not the line towed by Leave supporting parties and groups throughout the 2016 referendum and there is also solid reasoning why the US should not be competing on the same terms with British companies: American health care standards are lower than the UK’s. Not only are American health care standards lower, the introduction of more private interests within the NHS goes against public polling which shows that people want private companies kept the at the biggest possible distance from health care system.

The NHS is not the author’s only area of attack. On GM foods:
‘No one can point to ill-effects, and for good reason: GM foods are subject to far more scrutiny than non-GM foods.’

The reason for the GM foods being held to higher scrutiny is because…well…they are genetically modified. A crop created as opposed to one grown is no doubt going to undergo far more scrutiny because it has to pass myriad tests that would decide whether said food was safe for consumption.

The simple truth is that America uses GM crops as it helps mass production which ultimately makes the crop cheaper to make. European food standards are among the highest in the world whilst America have been time and again castigated for packing out their foods with copious amounts of highly addictive and highly fattening corn-syrup.

‘Then there is the practice of washing chicken in chlorine, which has been continuously cited as a reason why we shouldn’t do a trade deal with the US. Even the EU, when it banned chlorine-washed chicken in 1997, came to the conclusion that the practice was perfectly acceptable from a food-standard point of view – but banned it anyway on the flimsy pretext that it might provide farmers with a sense of false security. A better explanation is that it spied the opportunity to snuff out US competition for less efficient European producers.’

The pretext was far from “flimsy”. For instance, the European Commission decided that using chlorine to wash chicken dramatically lowered standards because it allowed farmers to get away with providing poor conditions. As highlighted by Ben Chapman writing for the Independent (Sunday 3 March, 2019) – “Advocates of this approach” (not washing chicken in chlorine) “say that it leads to higher standards of hygiene and animal welfare because farmers must take care at each stage of the process rather than relying on a chemical bath to kill any harmful pathogens after animals are slaughtered.”

The idea that European farms are supposedly “less efficient” is exactly because European standards are higher and do not lower themselves to mass-production quality levels, which results in questionable practices like washing chicken in chlorine. The author also argues that the EU was being protectionist in its endeavours, something which many conservative thinkers is one of the best outcomes of Donald Trump’s America. When the EU tries to put EU farmers and food safety levels first, it is chastised.

What it comes down to is facts. Is chlorine washed chicken okay to eat? Looking back on Ben Chapman’s piece for the Independent, the answer is quite clear.

Are we so loathing of the European Union that we would opt for subservience to the US and lower not only our standards but our global standing?

A new nuclear power struggle

On 8th August, the inhabitants of Moscow were surprised when their televisions flicked from their standard programmes to a blue screen with a single star. It was a weather warning telling the people to find shelter. It then disappeared leaving people wondering just what had happened. At the same time in Severodvinsk, a small town in the North-West not far from the Finnish border was exposed to gamma radiation 3x higher than is permissible for human health after an explosion at the nearby Nyonoksa top-secret testing facility.

The explosion at Nyonoksa facility killed several including nuclear scientists. Russian weather service, Rosgidromet, recorded levels of radiation 16x higher than normal levels within the vicinity of Nyonoksa. In true Cold War style, residents were quick to stockpile iodine, known to stop the Thyroid from absorbing radiation. The explosion killed several including nuclear scientists working on the project.

After more correspondence it was finally let on that the explosion was down to the failure of an “isotope” power source. Russia was testing the infamous Storm Petrel missile at the Nyonoksa site. The Storm Petrel missile – called Skyfall by NATO – was unveiled by Russian president Vladimir Putin at the State of the Union address in 2018 and boasts a propulsion system powered by a miniature nuclear reactor which gives a potential flight time that could be measured in days, weeks or even months.

Having extended range plus cruise-missile capabilities – meaning that it can change direction, move around objects and evade interception – would mean that the missile would be harder to detect and defend against.

Another new and chilling piece of kit that Russia are working on – Poseidon – is an autonomous drone submarine which is programmed to unleash nuclear warheads on key enemy locations on the US west coast should Russia “go dark.”

Due to a series of agreements, Russia and America have not tested nuclear devices for twenty years. However, Russia have breached the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Donald Trump responded by removing America from the pact. The New Start agreement which ensures Russia and the US have a limit on how many intercontinental nuclear missiles they can produce, runs out in 2021 and may not be renewed, thus giving America and Russia free reign to progress their arsenals and potentially make another power grab.

The US has been stepping up spending in nuclear warfare infrastructure with former President Barack Obama developing a $1.2tn plan to “maintain US air, sea and land-based nuclear weapons.” Donald Trump has gone much further putting an additional $500bn including $17bn for the production of a “low-yield” tactical nuclear weapon, essentially a mini-nuke that can be used on the battlefront.

It is rumoured that some factions within the Pentagon and within the defence contractor sector believe that Russia’s move away from agreements is a step in the right direction.

America’s nuclear defence capabilities are ageing and therefore, like many wars before, this will drive innovation and strengthen America’s standing.

Tensions are rising not only between the US and Russia (who between them hold little over 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal) but with China, Iran and North Korea all flexing their muscles, we could be looking at the age of a new Cold War with new frontiers.

The point by point scaling up of nuclear armaments is not the only evidence of a new Cold War. Russia and China flexed their muscles during the Brexit and Presidential election campaigns with industrial scale levels of spreading disinformation. Seeing their success during these campaigns, Vladimir Putin is pushing further. At what cost?

Rail fares hit environment

Rail Fares

Rail fares are due to rise by 2.8% as of January, 2019, hitting not only people’s pockets, but the environment as well.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) protested at key locations yesterday in response to the increase in fares which come at a time of slowing inflation. For example:

2017

Rate of inflation: 3.1%
Rail fare increase of 3.3%

2018

Rate of inflation: 2.48%
Rail fare increase of 2.8%

2019

Rate of inflation in 2019: 1.84% (predicted)
Rail fare increase: a 2.8% rail hike due in 2020

The cost of rail travel is the highest in Europe and it is only getting worse. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has stated that the “cost of train travel had increased by twice as much as wages over the past decade.” Since 2009, wages have grown by 23% whereas the overall cost of train travel has gone up by 46%.

The changes will add more than £100 to many annual season tickets.

There are a few worrying trends in this data. The first is that the rate of inflation over the past years has been sluggish due to uncertainty over Brexit. The second is that prices are exceeding the rise of inflation, therefore putting more people either further out of pocket or else unable to use such methods of transport as stated by Bruce Williamson from campaign group Railfuture that travellers “will either find another job or another form of transport.”

The problem is that other modes of transport are fossil-fuel intensive meaning raising many concerns that greener methods of transport are being unfairly overpriced making them unacceptable for many members of the public.

With many annual tickets touching four figure sums, cars and buses might very well become the next alternative and whilst this could result in an increase in car-sharing schemes, the amount of cars that would be put on Britain’s, adding to the already congested road transport network, is incalculable.

Suspicious…

I was left somewhat confused when Sir Kim Darroch stepped down as British Ambassador to the United States. Leaked documents had shown that Darroch had called the President of the United States, Donald Trump, “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional”. After much pressure from Donald Trump, who retaliated by calling Darroch “the wacky ambassador” and a “very stupid guy,” before claiming that “we will no longer deal with him,” Darroch handed in his resignation letter.

Before Donald Trump’s visit to the U.K earlier this year (in fact whilst in the air on his way to Stansted Airport) Donald Trump took to Twitter to openly accost Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calling him a “stone cold loser.” This is alongside comments made regarding Theresa May regarding the Brexit strategy in which he all but trounces her for not listening to his advice on how to proceed regarding withdrawing from the European Union.

So why is it that a diplomat speaking in confidence is bullied to step down when a president can openly proffer trash-talk and see absolutely no retaliation?

Writing for the ‘i’ (09/07/2019), Kim Sengupta raises a very important issue regarding the backlash faced by ambassadors whose primary role is to comment honestly and freely regarding issues within the respective countries in which they are placed:
“The real risk of the UK being ill-served will come from an ambassador who fails to send a transparent, candid account of what is happening in Washington because of ideological reasons, such as adherence, for example, to the jihad of hardline, doctrinaire Brexit.”

Ambassadors are required to give honest accounts of their host countries. Are we prepared to believe that ambassadors within the UK are not reporting back to the superiors commenting on the shambles of Brexit or the ineptitude of the current government?

Perhaps the most controversial part of this story is that of the leak itself. It has been reported that two years-worth of emails had been stolen, stored and eventually leaked meaning that the information gathering had been taking place since roughly the time that Donald Trump became president. This is not an act of whistle-blowing (since it has already been ascertained that Kim Darroch was simply doing his duty) but is instead an act of political sabotage.

This became much more plausible when Brexiters called for a more Brexit-minded individual to take up the ambassador role. Nigel Farage used his LBC segment to call out Kim Darroch and push for someone else to take up the position. This is all the more severe when assessed alongside the recent finding that the leak of Kim Darroch’s emails were from Isabel Oakeshott, Brexit Party MEP Richard Tice’s partner.

Could we in fact be witnessing a political coup?

The End of GDP?

‘The GDP was contrived in a period of deep crisis and provided an answer to the great challenges of the 1930’s. As we face our own crises of unemployment, depression, and climate change, we, too, will have to search for a new figure. What we need is a “dashboard” complete with an array of indicators to track the things that make life worthwhile – money and growth, obviously, but also community service, jobs, knowledge, social cohesion. And, of course, the scarcest good of all: time.’

– Rutger Bregman – Utopia For Realists

One of the problems with GDP is that it does try to combine all of human welfare into one number, and fails…

– Annie Quick

Social scientists often recommend that measures of subjective well-being should augment the usual measures of economic prosperity, such as GDP per capita.’

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina & Max Roser

The GDP model was invented in the inter-war years before being properly adopted in 1941 as a means to understand how much economy activity was taking place in order to determine what resources could be allocated for the war effort.

Since then GDP has become a globally recognised measure of progress and prowess. With a high GDP should come a better standard of living, the general consensus being that hard work pays off.

With polarisation between the rich and the working and welfare “classes” widening, with fiscal inequality rising and with social care, health and welfare systems being drastically underfunded. The trickle-down economic system – the system by which wealth is created in the upper echelons and eventually trickles down to smaller businesses whilst providing welfare support through taxes for those in need – has been shown to be more or less fanciful thinking than a reliable model.

The trickle-down economic model relies on the philanthropic and altruistic endeavours of wealthy individuals and organisations, companies abstaining from using automation and, most importantly, everyone paying the correct amount of taxes and not squirrelling their money away in off-shore tax havens.

Recent research suggests that off-shore tax havens are hiding half of the world’s money.

If the trickle-down model theory was put into practice, the United States, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom (the top 5 strongest economies) would not be experiencing such vast levels of criminality, an abundance of mental health issues, homelessness, shortages of social care for the elderly, strangled social-mobility and ever-increasing levels of “working poor.”

Perhaps an answer to the failings of the GDP measuring system and to the trickle-down economic model; last week New Zealand made public that they were going to replace the GDP model with a new “welfare budget” in which the plan is to ‘prioritise well-being over economic growth.’

The change was announced last week by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden as part of her reformist agenda. Jacinda said: ‘Today we have laid the foundation for not just one wellbeing budget, but a different approach for government decision-making altogether.’

The Welfare Budget will focus on 5 key areas:

– Improving mental health
– Reducing child poverty
– Supporting indigenous people
– Transitioning to a low emissions economy
– Thriving in a digital age

There has been opposition to the welfare budget by (none other than) opposition parties who claim that the budget will starve essential services, including healthcare, education and housing. It has also been pointed out that the welfare budget has come at a difficult time, as the trade crisis has worsened between the United States and China – New Zealand’s biggest trading partner. Critics have also pointed out that the N.Z government are also putting more money into defence and army departments which seems to be at odds with the welfare budget.

Amy Adams of the opposition National Party had this to say about the Welfare Budget: ‘Apparently it’s about measuring your sun and moon feelings, improve you locus of control, and understanding your ability to be yourself…I have no idea what that means and, outside the Wellington bureaucracy, I’m not sure anyone does.’

A particularly derogatory statement but not one without reason. After all the welfare budget moves from providing immediately available and quantifiable results to a long-term approach at battling NZ’s dominating issues. It is a fact that budgets cannot provide cash injections of equal value into every aspect of life, but the five prioritised areas outlined above have been highlighted as New Zealand’s most pressing problems.

However, upon closer inspection, the welfare budget is arguably a more comprehensive system to improving New Zealand’s economy than through small, intermediary solutions.

20% of New Zealand’s population struggle with mental health issues, a figure not that dissimilar from the U.K. Countless studies show that preventative measures, or early-intervention, would help save billions through both easing the pressure on reactive healthcare services and also on businesses. Globally, mental health issues are the leading cause of work days missed.

By approaching and dealing with mental health issues in the early stages pressure would be alleviated from New Zealand’s health service (on which they currently spend 5% of GDP or $12 billion on acute mental health services) and businesses would benefit by avoiding the costly disruption of absenteeism and lost productivity.

The same can be said for reducing children’s poverty. By providing children with means, with education and with access to services, the welfare budget may break the poverty cycle thus easing welfare costs in subsequent generations and, more importantly, improving the lives of New Zealanders.

Whilst certain branches of capitalists might consider the idea of properly funding the welfare state “fluffy”, the truth is that the new welfare system would do more to combat the inequalities faced by New Zealanders than relying on the aforementioned trickle-down system which does very little to tackle social issues head on. When talking on podcast ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, senior civil servant and economist Gus O’Donnell said; ‘People using GDP as a measure of how well you’re doing really do need to kind of grow up…’

New Zealand’s plan to move to a low-carbon economy is not revolutionary. It is, if anything, well overdue. Green energy economic models have been put forward for decades in pursuit of a sustainable future and it does not take a great deal of insight to see that the green energy market is being gripped by nations and companies alike.

Wind-farms, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cells, hydrofoil technology, wind-sail and of course solar power are shaping domestic and business infrastructure and green energy design, production and maintenance will likely take the place of oil production and distribution as the dominating global market force.

In an age of nanotechnology, biotechnology and gigafactories, it is nothing short of embarrassing that we are still using fossil fuels to power our cars and aeroplanes.

So no, New Zealand is not doing anything revolutionary, it is simply taking a step in the right direction. When it comes to the future of the planet, the battle to fight rising temperatures, rising sea-levels, rising levels of pollution and particulates, the only people who would see this move as in any way reductionist behaviour would be those who have interest in fossil-fuel companies or else those economists who fail to see the necessity and profitability of a green energy market.

The long-standing argument that the move to green energy would lead to a loss of jobs is demonstrably true because, yes, of course it would lead to a loss of jobs, within that sector. However, within the U.S, solar power alone employs more people than oil, coal and gas combined. By offering to teach new skill sets or by altering knowledge to suit the new green energy market, job losses would be minimal and the production of new jobs would far outweigh any interruption during the changeover.

In regards to thriving in the digital age, Yuval Noah Harari speaks widely of the issues that humankind will face in the rise of the digital world. From recognising and combating ‘fake news’, the rise of automation, the change from a product-driven economy to a service-driven economy to the proliferation of biotech (the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes) and information technology. In the face of such vast and complicated change, any nation, business and individual would do well to prepare themselves.

By making “thriving in a digital age” an objective of the welfare budget, New Zealand is taking a step toward future-proofing their economy. Digital education has the potential to increase business reach and maybe even divert some of the entrepreneurial talent from places like Silicon Valley. There is also the benefit of teaching people how to spot fake news articles, recognising malware, and safeguarding children from malicious intent/content.

Social media has the ability to change the political landscape. The influence of Russian bots on twitter and facebook throughout the referendum of 2016 to leave the European Union and throughout the presidential campaign of the same year cannot be overlooked or underestimated. MP Bob Seely noted in his paper put before parliament; Russian Federation activity in the UK and globally, the danger of Russian interference within political processes throughout the world. China is also doing the same.

Having protection against this kind of intervention (digital warfare?) is absolutely key in a world where 2.1 billion people use facebook or facebook owned services every day.

There has been no hiding the fact that the welfare budget is an attempt to stymy the progress of populism within New Zealand.

Changing from the GDP to a more representative model (or from objective well-being to subjective well-being) has the ability to continue allowing nations to monitor their progress, but also take into account sustainable and improved living. As said by Christoph Schumacher; ‘GDP is a good measure of economic growth but doesn’t provide us with any information about the quality of the economic activity or the well-being of the people.’

The extra benefit of the welfare budget is that it means politicians can no longer use the GDP as evidence that all is well. It is the difference between objective well-being and subjective well-being.

Nobel Prize winning economist and inventor of the GDP system, Simon Kuznets: ‘The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.’

The creation of wealth is integral to our way of life but the problem with only focusing on the GDP model is that it does not provide solutions long-standing problems. At least, not in decent time. Trickle-down economics has, until the date of writing this piece, never officially worked. So the hell with it. Why not try something new?