All posts by Manuel Werner

Automation and the Roman Grain Dole: A Cautionary Tale for Universal Basic Income Schemes


As the Roman grain dole, begun in the 2nd Century BCE, was supposed to be the solution to the massive displacement of paid labour by slaves, so the Universal Basic Income (UBI) is touted as the solution to the displacement of modern day labour by robots or automation. Although the outcome of the compensation experiment for Rome was not good, UBI may be just the perfect solution for the 21st Century’s similar problem. Or it may prove just as deleterious.

At the end of the 3rd Century BCE Rome became master of the Mediterranean after crushing its most substantial rival, Carthage. One consequential outcome of Scipio Africanus’ victory over Hannibal was the long term explosive flow of slaves into the Roman heartland. For example,  “in 167 BC Aemilius Paullus captured 150 000 people in Epirus,” and this was just one of many examples when very large numbers of people were shipped to Rome where the uber wealthy found them a much more convenient and less costly resource than their paid workers, even at the already low wages being earned.

The catastrophic economic and social results were predictable and had to be managed. Towards the end of the 2nd Century BCE, distributing free grain to the growing legions of poor became common practice. Ambitious men like Publius Clodius Pulcher, Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey the Great) and others used the readily available mobs on the grain dole to undermine and eventually deliver the death knell to the Republic, paving the way for the Imperial period and the eventual demise of the Pax Romana.

Obviously slaves are not machines. But there are some significant similarities. While some may feel the need to now and again kick a recalcitrant apparatus, it is only the foot of the impatient kicker that may be injured. Other than that equipment must also be fed (energy), maintained, housed, very similar types of costs required for slaves but much lower than those for paid labour. And that is not even considering the costs of complying with labour laws, unions, the ups and downs of productivity and much more that have no equivalent in machine costs.

In the 21st Century, in recent years, there has also been much handwringing and considerable discussion about how to deal with the growing displacement of jobs by robots, from lower skilled assembly line workers to the highly educated such as those, for example, giving financial advice and much in between. These discussion forums, including the well known one at Davos, have involved both governments and those now sitting on heretofore unprecedented wealth and earning dazzling incomes. The interests of both these groups are unambiguously aligned as economic power more and more seamlessly integrates with the political infrastructure of the planet’s multitude of nation states. Both politicians and the wealthy would like to maintain social stability in a world that seems to increasingly point to an army idle labour displaced by machines in a vastly expanded cross section of work types. As noted above, It is not only in the low level jobs where workers face unemployment, it is now also the highly educated that face the grim prospect of being supplanted by clever computer programs. It is not difficult to imagine accountants, lawyers, surgeons and engineers being sidelined by highly advanced algorithms, and that’s without even considering true artificial intelligence.

On the other hand, there is the classic argument against luddites worried about automation creating armies of unemployed, which usually take as an article of faith that because automation always created more and better jobs than were lost it will always do so. Whether the jobs were better is debatable but that they were more plentiful is not contentious. This certainly was the case during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1760 – 1830). It was also what happened until the waning years of the 20th century as new technologies and entrepreneurial initiatives in transportation, services, manufacturing and, of course, in computing power created an explosion of employment in new types of work.

But everything comes to an end. There is no trend that is eternal. All things, both good and bad must eventually expire.

It is tempting to say that “this time is different,” a phrase that has come back to haunt its speakers time and again. It is routinely intoned by a chorus of greedy optimists each time security or real estate markets reach stratospheric highs. And each time reality inevitably  kicks it in the teeth, leaving catastrophes like the 2001 dot bomb and 2008 financial collapse in its wake.

And in the sense that automation cannot possibly continue to create new and better employment forever, this time is no different either. And, unless it is addressed with intelligence and good faith, it will eventually have deleterious consequences for democracy, social systems, peace and good order. A growing mob of working poor and unemployed, which will number in its ranks those who previously felt secure in well paid professions, will not be good for anyone, including those accumulating all the wealth.

It is why the very rich are also part of the debate. It is quite important, though, that their concern should not be mistaken for altruism or empathy. That would be delusional and lead only to unworkable solutions. It should be taken as given that their apprehensions are driven entirely by self-interest, as was the grain dole in Ancient Rome. It is hardly credible to think that the gentlemen of the Roman nobility, mentioned earlier, Publius Clodius Pulcher et al, had any deep connections with the masses, no more than did the medieval nobility or, as we like to call them today, in our more ecumenically sensitive times, the elite. But that is normal human behaviour which, whether we approve or not, is a fact we must live with and get on with thinking about solutions to the automation problem in that context of unvarnished realism.

While on the theme of human behaviour, once the Roman gentry weaned themselves off the rabble as a source of labour, relying on the much more convenient supply of slaves, they found plenty of time to turn on each other. This produced interesting ways to describe certain periods in Rome’s history, like the year of the three emperors and the year of the five emperors when the powerful, with an unlimited supply of cannon fodder (perhaps spear and sword fodder would be more appropriate), engaged in the ultimate competition for the “purple.”.

It is not unimaginable that modern elite would do the same, having at hand unlimited mob and troop material. They are not, it is quite important to keep in mind, a monolithic group of natural allies. They already engage in vigorous competition in the what passes for a marketplace but is in reality a monopolistic arena (an oligarchy in other jurisdictions). For this crowd, making the transition to a more hostile, deadlier competition would not be as large a step as might be thought.

So, back to the main story, the UBI. Once again, there is a building problem, clearly recognized by the major actors, the uber wealthy and their compliant governments. To be fair, all power blocs do not have the same cozy arrangements. Some are more progressive than others, at least in the short term. While China and America, among the giant economic actors have morbidly severe income/wealth inequalities and serious government-industry inbreeding, Europe seems to be making, at present, a valiant effort to keep the baying hounds of libertarian markets more tightly leashed. Libertarian, of course, does not rhyme with fair.

The UBI could be a good thing if it were tied to a rebalancing of income and wealth distribution, and not an attempt to eliminate entirely the inequalities, which would like be impossible, but just to make them less extreme.

However, a UBI, that is substantially nothing more than a modern Roman grain dole will not work. And it wasn’t only bread that the ancient nobility, from the emperor on down, handed out to the poor. There were the endless games and publicly financed festivals (the famous bread and circuses combo) which distracted the plebes for good parts of each year. An information piece from highlights the political/social control aspect of these games and the grain dole: “It was Juvenal that coined this system, a mechanism of influential power over the Roman mass. ‘Panem et Circensus,’ literally ‘Bread and Circuses,’ was the formula…., and thus a political strategy… efficient instrument in the hands of the Emperors to keep the population peaceful and at the same time giving them the opportunity to voice themselves…” It is not a stretch to imagine the current industrial entertainment complex, running from straight out family entertainment to more gladiatorial events like mixed martial arts all owned by both governments and the uber rich, serving the same purpose as the circus end of the bread and circuses tandem.

One possible alternative or, I daresay, an enhanced UBI, and already proposed by Bill Gates and others, would provide some way for the masses to share in the bounty produced by automation. A way that likely involves a stake in the robots that have displaced them, a stake with growing returns. This would, of course, solve the problem, not addressed here, of impecunious, unemployed, poor consumers unable to purchase the output of all this automation.

However, if we consider history as little more than the story of human nature, there is but a very small probability that the private wealth – government complex will make a good decision. Humans are hampered by the evolutionary baggage of short term thinking and it would take an indifferent Hobbesian Leviathan or a Platonic Philosopher King to look to the long term welfare of society. That either of these will emerge to direct thinking about the displacement problem is a vanishingly small likelihood.

DUMB LUCK: The Real Reason Trump Won


Trump did NOT win: because he was anti-establishment; because he offered hope; because he was the best candidate; because he is irresistible to women; because he is charismatic; because he is in thrall to Putin; because he hates the Chinese; because he had a brilliant campaign team; because the people who voted for him are all deeply stupid; and because, the most cringe worthy and too oft repeated, the voters finally turned against the elite.

Trump won because of DUMB LUCK. People did not massively turn out to vote for him. On the contrary, they came in far fewer numbers than they did for Romney. Suddenly enlightened Democrat voters did not massively switch to the slouching beast. His campaign team was, at best, of mediocre intelligence. They dabbled in the all too common, for such extremists, outright lies, conspiracy theories and most recently, Orwellian Newspeak, like the most admirable one from Kellyanne Conway, “Alternative Facts,” to mask the garbagy smell of shameless lying.

Trump’s extraordinarily lucky victory rested on the interplay between the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) choice of candidate, low voter turnout and the mechanics of the US electoral system. It did not, in the least, depend on people believing his largely incoherent, deeply stupid messages or the cleverness of his campaign team, it is worth repeating.

Trump’s election victory luck began with the choice made by the Democratic National Committee that it’s primary objective was to elect Hilary Clinton. It was not, as it should have been, to beat Trump. Had it been the latter, then Biden may have entered the race, rather than decide against because he knew that the fix was in for Clinton; something that Bernie seemed not to have grasped until it was too late. The upshot being that the DNC chose the absolute worst possible candidate whose sole hope of winning rested on the dubious proposition that Trump was even more unpopular than her.

Those who are outraged at the proposition that Clinton constituted a crucial piece of the great good luck explanation will surely point to the FBI director, Comey, as the game changer, turning potential Clinton voters against her, should think again. Had she not been such a weak candidate to begin with the Comey factor would not have had any more negative effect on her than did the unsurprising revelation that Trump was a sexual predator. But it did.

Then there is the ludicrous argument that potential Clinton voters did not come out because they were convinced, by all the polls, that the election of Clinton was a foregone conclusion. This may very well be the case but is hardly credible, except if those voters also had to hold their noses when voting for someone they considered reprehensible. These voters who used the flimsy excuse that they don’t need to make the effort because Trump would not win were not turned off by the email server misuse issue. They were tired of that overblown piece of nonsense. They were turned off by the Democratic National Committee’s extraordinary insensitivity to the shabby treatment reserved for Bernie Sanders during the primaries; a shabbiness highlighted by the absence of any punishment for the likes of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC dirty tricks  bandleader.

In the end, my friends, while it is comforting for DNC/Clinton apologists to fall back on nonsense denial arguments, and for Trump supporters to play up the anti-establishment rhetoric, the narcissist who is now POTUS got their by the dint of DUMB LUCK. While it may have been the case that this was a Tipping Point, where voters finally decided to reject the elites in favour of an outside change agent, it is worth noting that all episodes of Dumb Luck are not Tipping Points but that this Tipping Point was inevitably also an episode of Dumb Luck.


Finally, to emphasize the almost certain central role of Dumb Luck in this election, it is further worth noting that less than 28% of the electorate has given power to a singularly unqualified individual over 100% of the population. Even taking into account the rigged (yes, rigged, as Trump repeatedly warned) electoral system, Trump could never have pulled this off without the overwhelming role of Dumb Luck. And the fact that he never expected to win is blunt testimony of the out sized role that luck played.

It’s Possible to Stop a Trump Presidency

trump-the-7-year-oldThe way to stop the man with the seven year old mind, no better than a schoolyard bully, Donald Trump, is not very complicated. All that is needed is the will to keep America from becoming the toy of a very small minded, extraordinarily thin skinned Mr. Trump and the way is clear. And it is not by asking the electors to vote in Hilary Clinton. That would not go over very well since the Republicans did carry the day playing by the Electoral College rules. It might be gratifying for Democrats, as Clinton did win the popular vote, but it would be unfair.


The way would be for the 232 electors set to vote for Clinton to consider, instead, voting for someone from the so-called moderate wing of the Republican party. It could be Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Colin Powell or any of the 50 or so people from that moderate wing. Such a gesture will, hopefully, show the way for many of those Republican electors who, after sober reflection, have also been considering how to keep America safely out of a child’s hands. Along with the 232 Democrat votes, only 39 such courageous men and women would be needed from GOP ranks to put a stop to the terrifying nightmare that is a Donald Trump presidency.

Hilary More Dangerous than Trump: Bernie Should Run as Independent

Hilary more dangerous than trump_cropped

The big worry is that an unhinged Trump will be swinging his big campaign dumpster towards moderation and reason, so reworking his Neolithic image into something more 21st century presidential. This concern is misplaced, as his advisers bewilder even the GOP experts. Judging from Trump’s recent speech unveiling his nutbar foreign policy, and the reaction to his wisdom, “The Most Striking Aspect Of The Speech Was Its Repeated Contradictions,” “Populist Pandering Masquerading As A Strategy”, these advisers are not from the school of elite policy wonks. He will end up but trading outrageous bluster for incoherent inanities spoken, albeit, very presidential.

Strange as this may seem, Trump, the political thug, may be far less harmful to America and, by extension, the world, than Hilary. The conventional wisdom, the same sort that assured us Trump would never survive the primaries, is that the disenfranchised, those casualties of liberal trade policies and growing income inequality, are the ones swarming to his camp. While there are some of those, most are of an uglier variety. You see, Trump knows how to appeal to two million year old homo erectus basic instincts. Instincts that tend to neatly short circuit intelligence. Take, for example the lure of sexual adventure, which has a top physicist languishing in an Argentinian jail. Or General Petraeus, who flushed his brilliant career down the proverbial toilet for Paula Broadwell. For Trump, it is the race card and deep seated resentment that a black man has taken over America, which he plays to the hilt. Let us not count his musings about incest with his daughter or the potential bosom size of his newest grandchild as playing the sex card.

Trump is but a dangerous thug, with the behaviour patterns of a five year old (“I know lots of words, I have lots of money, he started it, and so on”). If elected, and that is much more likely against Hilary than Bernie, he may destroy the world but more likely will be thwarted from such fatal actions by most institutions in America, whether congress, the military, the plutocracy, all of the previous.

Hilary, on the other hand, has her hammer at the ready to knock the final nails into America’s democratic coffin. She has handed out an uncountable number of IOU’s to the people who believe rich folk should have more votes than those of lesser wealth. The crumbling foundation of a democratic society, equality of opportunity, will be swept away for good after eight years of a Clinton Princeps. And, to the extent that such a system has never, in all of recorder history, been sustainable, Clinton will irreversibly embed in America the path towards chaos.

This why Bernie must be a presidential candidate, even if it means the I word, running as an independent. What about the fears of Bernie guaranteeing a Trump presidency by splitting the Democratic vote, through an independent run? Nonsense. It would almost certainly be a three way race since Bernie would pick up not only dissatisfied Republican voters but a large majority of Independents, as well as the huge numbers he already has of Democratic supporters. He may not win a majority but will almost certainly capture a plurality of votes, both popular and in the electoral college.

So, if the Democratic Party doesn’t see the light at their convention and the super delegates don’t all rally to Bernie, to give him the nomination, he should definitely run as an independent and save the world (or the “common people,” if “the world” is too melodramatic for the staider amongst you readers).

Mass Migrations: Nothing New; They’ve Never Been Stopped

visigoth invaders


We already know the outcome: the mass of would be immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other miserable places hostile to human habitation will not be stopped. The Europeans and the rest of the wealthier parts of the western world may as well accept this fact now and get on with the arduous task of keeping it more or less peaceful. Amongst the three readily available solutions to this rapidly growing crisis, integration and temporary comfort are the best bets. Compared to the third possibility, these two are probably the only workable ones. The other alternative out there, making Syria, Somalia and other bits of hell on earth, prosperous and happy and attractive enough to keep asylum seekers at home has only a vanishingly tiny chance of actually working.

Perhaps unstoppable is too strong an assessment of the current refugee waves. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to say there’s about as much chance of stopping the flood as Canute (Cnut) had of stopping the waves. It’s never happened before. Mass movements of peoples have almost 7500 years of history. From the nomads and peripheral peoples surrounding the Sumer cities of circa 5000 BCE to the 20th and 21st centuries’ waves of refugees, today’s human tide of the desperate and poor is no more than a continuation of an unending historical phenomenon.

There were always two broad groups within the ranks of  migrant waves: those seeking better living standards, the so-called economic refugees, and those fleeing for their safety from war and political repression. By now familiar groups such as Goths, Huns, Vikings, Nubians, Mongols and others came to pillage, plunder and take over the wealthier territories of ancient  Egypt and Rome, the lands of the Middle Kingdom, up and coming Frankish territories of the early Medieval period, the emerging Saxon kingdoms of Britain and so on. These were the economic migrant waves.

What we are seeing today is akin to those fleeing the Apocalyptic Horsemen who were often displaced by a sort of domino effect. Far off peripheral peoples would move towards the wealthier areas and displace others who would flee before them, also towards the richer zones. That flight would almost always end in violence as the haves tried to keep them out.

This is the salient lesson of history: desperate people have nothing to lose and will eventually resort to violence if that is what it takes to survive. The invaders (nothing pejorative meant here) always end up being either exterminated or prevailing and integrating. There is no reason to believe that it will be any different today. It is why, as the Borg were fond of saying, “resistance is futile.” Best to find a peaceful solution now.

That solution must involve a combination of integration and making the lives of fleeing refugees reasonably comfortable for some indeterminate period, a period within which the homelands they are fleeing once again become hospitable. Both are slow processes. While it may take years for the conflicts that drove them from their homes to end, it could take one or more generations to integrate the refugees into quite very different societal cultures. The alternative, however, is worse and, without a doubt, vastly more costly, not only in treasure but also in lives and misery.

It costs about $3,500 per person to make the lives of refugees in Jordan livable and about $13,000 in Germany. It is a no-brainer, that paying Jordan to keep refugees more comfortable is a better bet. And, not only because it is cheaper but, more importantly, because the likelihood that they will eventually return to a close by homeland, which is what most refugees would like to do, is much higher than if they are resettled in a faraway country.

What are the chances that this will happen, that a peaceful solution will be found? With the rise of populist, xenophobic political parties in Europe – Marine Le Pen in France, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party in Greece, the growing popularity of anti-immigrant parties in the UK, Denmark, Spain and others – this is unlikely to happen. Unfortunately the one thing history has taught us is that we hardly ever learn from history.

Oil Prices are Going Way Up

Oil Prices & OPEC
Oil Prices & OPEC

Clearly a counter the herd statement. Of course, depending on where you stand, this is either good or bad news. If you’re among the many hoping for Putin and the Ayatollahs to be driven from power by disloyal citizens unwilling to continue down the fast road to poverty, then this is not a welcome prophecy. On a more pedestrian scale, if you’re a purchaser of fossil fuels, then this is also not good news. However, should you be a peddler of the goo then it will make you happy.

Abelard has put pencil to paper and done the math and come to the conclusion that a sharp spike in price is but around the next corner. He reckons that Saudi Arabia is getting about 308 million dollars a day, less expenses, by selling 7ish million bpd of crude on the open market at just under $44/barrel (for the Brent crude variety). If they let the nice American frackers keep producing all they can, without trying to punish them for taking away market share, as they have been doing for some months now, and themselves cut back their own production by about 2 million bpd, they will do much better. Indeed, the price would fairly soon double and they’ll be selling 5 million bpd at $88/barrel. That would make them better off by some $132 million dollars per day. This is about a 43% jump in revenues, for those who prefer relative measurement.

So, what are they waiting for? The Saudis are going broke. Probably don’t want to look like they’re throwing up their hands in a price war they started. Their decision will be preceded by some lamentations about how sorry they feel for their suffering OPEC cousins like Iran and Venezuela, and perhaps some hand wringing about how much these low prices are hurting Harper’s chances of being reelected Prime Minister of Canada in Next October’s polls.

You heard it here first. Generous rewards will only be accepted in viable currencies; no Canadian dollars, any future Greek Drachmas, Ruthenian Pengos or barter goods like crude oil, copper, gold or small furry animals.

The Least of all Evils: Election Day Choices

Eve Adams, Justin Trudeau

Wouldn’t it be nice if it was the case that the candidate of our choice was motivated by a “need to serve,” “a need to do something for us” or just a plain, Google like slogan, “not to do any evil.” I suppose that’s just me. Most people, I suspect, don’t care for much more than “what will this person do for me.” I the absence of anything more substantive it, of course, helps if the candidate has a refreshingly superficial physicality about their person. Looks tend to create the excuse for not doing the hard research into an aspirant’s actual qualifications to deliver on promises. Research is hard work and most of us would rather devote our time to other, less tiresome, pursuits. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was the case that the candidate of our choice was motivated by a “need to serve,” “a need to do something for us” or just a plain, Google like slogan, “not to do any evil.” I suppose that’s just me. Most people, I suspect, don’t care for much more than “what will this person do for me.” I the absence of anything more substantive it, of course, helps if the candidate has a refreshingly superficial physicality about their person. Looks tend to create the excuse for not doing the hard research into an aspirant’s actual qualifications to deliver on promises. Research is hard work and most of us would rather devote our time to other, less tiresome, pursuits.

Rand Paul wants to run America in 2016 and he will not shrink from any hypocrisy, no matter how obvious, because he is tired of being just a plain old senator and common variety ophthalmologist. He wants to run things because it might be lots of fun. Is he qualified to run America? Yes, much more so than, say, Sarah Palin, or Alfred E. Newman, but less than George W. Bush, and we know what happened during his sinecure. That he might switch positions from libertarian to moral watchdog as easily as he switched from stolid anti-vaxxer to committed vaxxer, is a testimony to how he sees these political races as being between pure hypocrites and clever pure hypocrites.

Canada, I wish I could firmly affirm, is different. Meritorious, uber qualified, altruistic are not, alas, adjectives which best describe that country’s wannabe leaders. Let me be clear: we are all, even saintly me, driven by self-interest. Politicians are not alone to be saddled with this evolutionary baggage. But, is it too much to ask that they also be qualified for the positions they seek, so as to limit any damage they might do? This doesn’t, of course, ensure that a qualified leader will not harm their constituents. Herbert Hoover, Boris Yeltsin and others come to mind. But qualifications, even if they offer no guarantees, do confer some small advantage over ignorance, particularly if a politician is serious about minimizing harm.

The choices in Canada may be a little better than those of its immediate southern neighbour but they are still lamentable. Of the three main candidates for Prime Minister in the next election, there are two who are, at the very least, qualified to run a government. Whether we agree with their politics is another matter. That is fair game. Whether they will follow through on their promises made to entice voters is also beside the point. We’d like them to do so, but we’d also like to think they are qualified to do so if the unlikely happens.

Stephen Harper, the incumbent, while quite ruthless in his politics and openly disdainful of democracy, as evidenced in the way he tried to undermine the Supreme Court and the Chief Electoral officer, is at least moderately qualified to lead. He has experience, and education, even if no national vision, as his politics are principle free. He brooks no opposing views, exercising an iron control over independent thought in his party. He will do and say anything to further the interests of his party and, by extension, his own, such as knowingly repeat untruths, as he keeps on doing when he claims the official opposition wants to impose a carbon tax , a claim that has multiple times been debunked. But, in the end, while I would never vote for him, I can at least point to him with but only moderate embarrassment, as my leader.

Tom Mulcair is also qualified but mistrusted because of the deeply left dogmatism among many members of his party. People might like Tom, even if they have to wink at his mercurial personality, given to angry outbursts. They just don’t think he can control the strong-willed left extremists that still call his party home. This is too bad, as Mulcair seems to have his driven self-interest layered with some decent principles. Fighting against income inequality, for transparency and social safety nets and ensuring an independent (of America) foreign policy are all strong suits for governing a western democracy. His cozying up to the sovereignists to score electoral points in Quebec, where most of his party’s seats are held, is definitely a red light indicator that self-interest has laced his principles with at least some intrigue. But he is experienced, educated and ultra articulate and, so, qualified to run a country.

Finally there’s Justin Trudeau. Would I be embarrassed to point to him as my leader? Absolutely. It is unknown to me whether he is striving to become Prime Minister out of pure self-interest or has just been manipulated by even more cynical members of his party who believe his name alone will help the Liberals regain their status as Canada’s natural ruling party. He is, from any standpoint, wholly unqualified to lead a country (other than, perhaps, a small, depopulated, desert island). He has little education, is an intellectual dwarf, has no relevant experience and gives speeches that sound like auditions for drama roles in upcoming productions or, at best, high school essay contests. This, on top of a complete inability to think on his feet. He attracts to his cause those whose only goal, it seems, is to have positions of power and influence. Melanie Joly and Eve Adams come to mind. The former, a high powered marketer, ran for mayor of Montreal in the 2013 elections and, in spite of her insistence that she was in municipal politics for the long haul, very soon after her defeat she left for other pursuits. She clearly thought it would be fun to run a major metropolis because I can’t imagine that she was driven by all the wonderful things she could accomplish for her constituents. Now she thinks it would be fun to represent a bunch of people in the federal parliament and her friend Justin is just the chap to help her out here. And there’s Eve, another grasping candidate personally welcomed by Justin to join his crusade to redeem Liberal fortunes and, I suppose, his own. Eve, a committed conservative, forever faithfully towing the Harper government partly line, suddenly finding herself abandoned by the Conservatives, overnight became a zealous Liberal. And so it goes.

If all this wasn’t so bloody predictable, if not outright hilarious, it would be depressing. Is it a sign of decay that we, like the Romans and Greeks, have so many unqualified people battering down the doors to leadership? That there are the unscrupulous trying to curry favour so as to advance personal, driven self-interest, is not in itself an omen of decline. Self-interest and not altruism, is the norm. It is where evolution has taken all of the planet’s species, not only humans. What is worrisome is that there seem to be so many more of them, fearlessly displaying utter disdain for the damage their unsuitability for high office might cause. We have always had to make the choice, in electoral contests, among the least of all evils, but those evils, in our times, seem to be fast approaching a nadir. Or, is it only me?

Continue reading The Least of all Evils: Election Day Choices

Scottish Independence: Yes Vote Winners

Alex Salmond

Which of the four following groups will come out as a sure winner if the Yes forces win the Scottish Independence ballot?

a) Life in the Alpha Centauri star system; b) The Scottish people; c) The Klingons; d) Alex Salmond. (The answer, for the impatient, is near the end of the text).

Let me say, at the outset, I do not care which way the vote for Scottish independence goes next Thursday, September 18, 2014. But I do have a strong curiousity as to why such a vote is even being held. I admit to being baffled. Been looking for the human tragedy that is Scotland, that provides the fuel for revolt or, at the very least, agitation for change. I’ve looked for the hate literature on British sites and come across Jock, Schemie, Thistle Arse, and other fairly tame insults; couldn’t find any “dirty Scot,” “death to the Scots,” “Scot pig,” or other really hateful language; surprisingly, Scottish prisons don’t seem exceptionally packed with the local Haggis eaters.

Of course, I thought, it must be the poverty, through which being part of the UK has dragged the benighted Scotsman. But no, outside of Greater London, Scotland’s people are wealthier than most other regions of the UK.

So, what is it that drives Alex Salmond and his minions to flights of rhetorical fantasy in their quest for Scottish independence? Perhaps, yes, just perhaps, he doesn’t see any downside in the adventure to which he is inviting an otherwise prosperous, well-liked and happy (maybe cheerfully dour) people. How can this be possible? No risk and only huge economic benefits. Am I missing something here? Of course, a bet that has no possible loss and only delicious gain is irresistible. Indeed, it would be misleading to call it a bet. The usual term is “too-good-to-be-true.”

Depending on North Sea oil may not be such a brilliant strategy, as it is rapidly being depleted and this decline is expected to continue no matter how much hope is being invested in technological innovation to reverse the trend; as for increased government employment to help with standards of living, the higher the ratio of public sector to private employment grows so will the prosperity per person decline, and not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with government jobs or, indeed, government itself, it’s just that government isn’t in the business of making stuff, which is what creates jobs and prosperity.

How many ambitious institutions, like the Church and political parties or striving, aspiring individuals have we ever heard say “although this change I am proposing will be great for me, it could be bad for everyone else, but I’m asking you to take the chance….?” Exactly zero. The line we’ve all heard over and over again is now familiar to everyone: “Trust me, I am doing this for you and we will all benefit.” If you don’t have the time to really think about whether the Promised Land is really around the next corner, then trusting Alex is really attractive. What is conveniently glossed over and forgotten is the entire generation Moses wasted in the desert on the way to paradise, while he was enjoying the usual perks as the top dog.

So, for those who are still struggling to figure out who would be the sure winner in a Yes vote, the answer is ‘d’, Alex Salmond. It may also be the case that the Scottish people and less so, the aliens, will reap some benefits but that is harder to see. The Scottish people are already doing well on all key measures – social, economic and political – so it is very difficult to see how the principle of reversion to the mean (everything eventually gets pulled back to the average), of which we are all prisoners, could possibly make an already above average group even better off.

Good luck to the Scots on their fateful day, and fondest wishes for a happy and prosperous post referendum life.


Open Letter to Warren Buffett: Paying your fair share, Part II


Dear Mr. Buffet,


You must have the hugest brain on this planet. It would be no exaggeration that you are the Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton of the financial engineering world, particularly as regards the complex arithmetic of tax calculations. I know the math is less involved than, say, in Quantum Gravity, but the way you are able to shift huge parts of the tax burden you would normally be expected to pay to everyone else is just so clever. Happily all those lesser minds in the 99% will be there to fill the gap of funding all those wasteful social programs like medicare, social security, food stamps, unemployment insurance and so on. Not to mention, of course, all that other stuff that needs money and that you probably don’t really care about, like road maintenance, since your helicopters probably don’t use them, and sanitation, since you probably have your own arrangements, perhaps just being really cool and cleverly tossing your stuff into a public bin. Continue reading Open Letter to Warren Buffett: Paying your fair share, Part II

Be a Facebook Star: How to Successfully Post


As far as I can tell everyone is on Facebook for one reason and one reason only and that is to market. You may have thought “enlightenment,” but no, it’s mongering. Okay, perhaps there are passive types, one or two, that are there only to be marketed to. But even they will eventually be won over to the ease with which one can tout oneself and thereby become a commented superstar. So, what’s everyone marketing? A legitimate question to a serious bit of reductionism. This is by no means scientific, Continue reading Be a Facebook Star: How to Successfully Post