Debunking right wing myths – migration, jobs and wages

A common myth of those on the right, one even some on the left fall for, is that immigrants compete against locals for jobs and help push down wages. Neither is entirely correct and indeed restricting immigration can end up leading to less jobs being available for locals.

Firstly we need to get around the Victorian era view that everyone should be working. Or the notion that the number of jobs available in a country is some sort of fixed constant. Neither is true. The number of jobs available varies depending on a host of factors, such as the state of the economy (whether or not you are in a recession), inward investment (damn foreigners coming over here, giving people jobs), government policy, public spending, trade deals (i.e. leaving the largest single trading block in the world is going result in lots of job losses) and the ease by which employers can recruit.

If an employer can’t find enough employees to do the work, they can’t half run their business. That means half the harvest being left to rot. A pub can’t hire enough staff, what do you propose they do? Have the staff just man the tills, but the customers have to pour their own pints and cook their own meals. As I’ve discussed before, restricting immigration serves to create a massive trade barrier, which can actually reduce the number of jobs available to locals. In short migrants can create far more jobs that they take.

Also a country is not a unified job market. Yes there are currently lots of vacancies in agriculture right now, which is good news if you live in the countryside, near one of these farms, have relevant experience and won’t be busy during the harvest season. But you can’t really expect someone from a city, with no farming experience to move to the countryside, pay rent in two locations for 3 months of minimum wage work. Similarly, it hardly matters how many job vacancies there are in London, if you live in Scunthorpe. And an employer would want to be offering a lot more than minimum wage (and a fairly long term contract) to justify the costs of moving to London.

Similarly, there’s a shortage of truck drivers. So good news if you are unemployed truck driver. But not much good for anyone else. Training a new truck driver to meet these shortages is expensive and come with practical problems (lots of rookie HGV drivers hitting the roads all at once, what’s the worst that could happen). And, like so many things, a lot of this work is seasonal, so what do they do for the remaining 6 months of the year?

Also, is this sudden brexit and pandemic induced demand for farm/drivers permanent? Automation and technology, the impact of post-brexit trade deals (which are likely to screw over farmers and manufacturing), could mean job losses in these sectors at some point in the near future. There’s not much point having someone train for a new career only to lose that job in a few years time.

And this isn’t Stalinist Russia. What if people just don’t want to do these jobs? I drove a single axle lorry once (a quirk of my Irish driving licence) and I found it really daunting and I won’t want to do it as a career. Working in agriculture you need to be an out door’s sort of person, fairly physically fit with a good constitution, otherwise you just ain’t going to cut it (and this is what farmers say, majority of UK recruits quit within the first day). If you aren’t a people person, you ain’t going to cut it in the hospitality industry.

Plus, as I’ve also discussed before, by restricting immigration you run the risk of companies moving overseas or automating processes (in which case they don’t just use robots to replace the foreign workers they can’t hire, they’ll fire all the British workers as well). Far more jobs have been lost to these two factors than any amount migrants could ever hope to take. And also one needs to consider the reverse also now applies. UK workers cannot easily travel to Europe for work, as has often been a life line for some when times were tough. And for some UK industries, such as the entertainment industry, this is likely to be crippling. Inevitably its going to cost more jobs than it saves.

As for wages, you are talking about creating an artificial shortage of workers in order to drive up salaries. That’s a terrible idea. Often times the wage an employer pays is driven by the demand side. If the price of your morning coffee or lunch goes up 10p or 20p I think most will just swallow that, particularly if they know its going to pay for workers salaries. But if goes up too much people will eventually start bringing in their own coffee and sandwiches, reducing demand. And higher salaries can lead to higher rates of inflation (which means the cost of living goes up and workers will want an even bigger pay rise in a few months time). This was a big problem in the UK back in the 70’s prior to the UK joining the EU.

Worse still, while an artificial shortage might make it easier for workers to demand a higher salary in good economic times. In a recession, the reverse can be true, as employers can play workers off one another and drive down salaries. This is sort of the whole point of a minimum wage. It sets a floor for wages to prevent workers being exploited.

Studies have shown that the impact of immigrant on wages is tiny and arguably counter balanced by the other positive factors mentioned (plus a modest increase in the existing minimum wage in the UK would large cancel out any negatives anyway). Furthermore, providing workers with better welfare protection, means an employer is going to have to treat their employees better, if they want to retain their workforce.

But why do so many believe these myths? Well because its more politically acceptable to argue against immigration for some supposed (if entirely fake) economic reasons, rather than the real reason – that many who advance these arguments are racist or xenophobic. And note this can be a particular issue when it comes to those from ethnic minorities (white people do not have a monopoly on racism, just look at Priti racist Patel). By pretending to cry crocodile tears at the poor honest workers (whose taxes they’ve just put up and they’ve refused to increase the minimum wage), it means they can pretend that their racism and bigotry has some sort of intellectual economic argument behind it. Even thought it is really no different from the sort xenophobic myths that have been spouted for centuries.

This is why the Tories current talk of turning the UK into a high wage economy should be ringing alarm bells, particularly if you are a low wage worker. Based on the experience in countries like Dubai, Japan, Singapore or parts of the US, this will likely end up with one of two scenarios. Firstly, significant outsourcing of low wage jobs out of the UK (call centres, back office, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.) alongside increasingly heavy use of automation (eliminating jobs across whole sectors).

Alternatively, those strict immigration rules are just ignored, either officially (with exemptions granted for certain industries) or unofficially (juiced in party donors get a free pass to ignore immigration rules). Which just means local workers end up being driven out of an industry completely (as has happened for example in meat packing in the US or construction jobs in the gulf states). Granted from time to time (generally around election times), governments will have to “discover” how their strict immigration rules aren’t working and lock a couple of kids in cages, maybe deport a few people. But its all just for show. Its worth noting that during Trump’s tenure, the number of migrant workers in the US workforce didn’t significantly reduce.

In either case, the end result is that many of the low wage entry level jobs simply disappear, turning a large chuck of society into an underclass of the unemployed, underemployed and unemployable. And, to make matters worse, remember a high wage economy means a high cost of living. In quite a few of the countries I mentioned there’s a sort of cultural apartheid at work. The poor are effectively excluded from much of society, due to their lack of income (they can’t eat out, go to the theatre, frequent certain bars and are likely to be picked up by the cops just for walking around a posh neighbourhood).

The reality is that immigration is a normal part of the job market. Restricting immigration will actually have the opposite effect that’s assumed, it will serve to reduce the number of available jobs and drive down wages. The trouble is the Tories (like so many anti-immigrant parties) have to stick with their current plan of gaslighting the public with the promise of unicorns for all at some ill-defined future date. Brexit is effectively now the UK’s state religion. Reversing course is simply not an option.

Posted in cults, economics, history, news, politics, technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The danger of scamcoins

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I’ve talked quite a lot about online scams as well as cryptocurrencies recently. So what happens when they collide? You get the mother of all ponzi schemes! And unfortunately there are now several examples of fake cryptocurrencies doing the rounds, from Bitconnect, Plus token, USI tech, Qoin, and the daddy of them all Onecoin.

The BBC recently did a fairly deep dive into Onecoin and its missing Cryptoqueen Dr Ruja Ignatova, who was recently found guilty of fraud (in absentia) by a US court. While I’d recommend you listen to the full BBC podcast, I’ll do a quick summary of events (alternatively, here’s a video on the topic from cold fusion).

In 2014, in middle of all the hype about bitcoin, Dr Ruja, a Bulgarian previously convicted of fraud in Germany, set up her own cryptocurrency called Onecoin. The marketing was…

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Posted in aviation, crime, cults, economics, news, politics, scams, technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

How lies can bring down a state

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An element at work in the panic buying in the UK has to be, somewhat ironically, the government constantly telling people everything is okay and not to panic…which caused a spree of panic buying! Because when a government who routinely lies to people tells you everything is ok, that’s probably the point where you should start panicking! And this has been a trend that has played out many time before throughout history. And it helps to explain why Boris and the brexiters should have resigned or been booted out the minute it became clear they’d sold brexit on a web of lies.

Why did Afghanistan fall so quickly to the Taliban? Well, as the Economist points out, because it was a Potemkin village, hollowed out by corruption. Corruption was so bad even the honest military commanders had to bribe their corrupt superiors in order to…

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When project fear became project-we-told-you-so

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From my other blog……

So we have a crisis, building since January, that’s finally reached a point where even a biased media can’t hide the truth any more, forcing the government into damage limitation mode. Which predictably involves using the army (how wannabe autocrats love to call out the army), or conscripting prisoners into working in meat processing plants (so the Tory solution to a labour shortage is to give criminals access to large knifes, what could possibly go wrong!).

Oh, but its got nothing to do with brexit, its covid, why other EU countries also have driver shortages too. And this came from the transport secretary. Honestly, if he knows that little about transport logistics, he should be sacked and replaced with a potted plant, as it will at least know more than him.

Back in reality, its not just a shortage of lorry drivers. If that were the case, then the supermarkets would just load up a few extra pallets into each truck and retain a larger floating stockpile in the back of the store, so they can cope with less deliveries. Its not a long term fix, as shops prefer to carry as little inventory as possible, but it gives them some breathing space. This is likely why there isn’t nearly the same level of empty shelves in the EU, despite the fact they are dealing with the exact same problems the UK has to cope with, including a driver shortage (not as bad as in the UK mind).

The problem in the UK is that its the entire supply chain that’s been screwed over by brexit. If there’s a shortage of workers on farms and in factories, then when the lorry does show up, there’s no load to pickup. If you are bringing in stock from the EU (or anywhere else in the world, as most international shipping goes through Amsterdam) that means a lot of new paperwork, which a shipping agent needs to fill in. And guess what, there’s a shortage of them too. Without that paperwork, the trucks don’t move.

And of course once the truck reaches the UK border, it has to wait in a queue, potentially for several hours. And if you’ve got a lot of your trucks tied up waiting in queues (or loading yards waiting for a load/paperwork) well that effectively means you need more trucks. A situation made worse by the fact that the difficulty in getting goods out of the UK is now so great many trucks go back empty (but they still need to queue up and be inspected of course), effectively doubling the cost and halving the effectiveness of that lorry.

Plus if the situation gets sufficiently serious (and by all accounts it has), then things can snowball. Shortages of critical supplies like carbon dioxide can slow down food production even further. A lack of fuel due to a lack of truck drivers, as well as panic buying, impacts on lorries ability to transport goods. Higher demand for food (again due to panic buying) can quickly exhaust stockpiles, no matter how many lorries on the road. And an energy crisis with soaring gas prices is going to push up the cost of everything (much as I warned would happen).

As for the pandemic, well like I said, the EU has had to deal with the same problems. They just haven’t voted to impose sanctions on themselves like the UK did. Hence the EU has more levers to pull. Disruptions like this aren’t anything new. They can occur for a variety of reasons, bad harvests, strikes, severe weather, etc. So if, say a company in Germany can’t get their vegetables from their usual supplier for some reason, a few phone calls and they can usually source them from somewhere else in the EU. There’s no lengthy paperwork, no visa’s, nor work permits needed (and likely all transactions in euros). As for transport, there are freight companies who are setup to handle these sorts of loads (I’ve used them myself, you go online, you tell them what you want moved, where too and when and the different carriers will issue you with bids for the contract).

Similarly an Irish company has a shortage of skilled staff, a quick internet advert later and they should be able to find some people (across the whole of the EU) who have those skills and is willing to travel (again, no visa’s needed, no hostile environment). And I bring up Ireland because we are geographically isolated from the rest of the EU, even more so since the loss of the UK landbridge post-brexit. If it was anything other than brexit, Ireland should look like soviet Russia, but instead there are no shortages (I know cos I was there a few weeks ago).

This also serves to highlight why the solutions the government propose won’t work. Temporary visas for EU drivers for example. Well if there are driver shortages in the EU, why would they travel to the UK? Would you rather get a job somewhere in the EU. Or, run the gauntlet of the UK’s xenophobic hostile environment, which subjects you to a sea of paperwork and mistrust at every turn (such as regular “right to work checks” i.e. making sure your papers are in order). Then having to deal with entitled racists, hurling abuse at you for having the nerve to come over here and help put food on their table.

Plus, while the UK government is gutting workers rights, including those for truckers (they want to remove safety limits on working hours), the EU is trying to raise the bar. Now I’m sure you’ll get some to come over, if you pay them enough of course (which will push up inflation), but not nearly enough. The government are talking about only letting in 5000, when the UK is short 100,000. Its pissing in the wind.

But what about all the other shortages? You’ll be bringing over these drivers, at great expense, only for them to sit in a queue, or drinking tea in their cab waiting for their load, due to all the other supply chain issues. And they are only going to allow them in temporarily for about 3 months. What then? Presumably more chaos.

The long term solution proposed by the government is to train more drivers. Which would take years, not months to sort out. And again, how does that solve all the other bottlenecks in the supply chain? Also the demand for lorry drivers varies both seasonally and regionally. For example one of my ex-students was a lorry driver. He’d drive tour buses in the summer and gritter lorries during the winter. And I know one or two farmers who have a HGV license which they use to make a few bob when things are slow on the farm (typically in the run up to Christmas). So we’ll train up all these drivers…then sack half of them and tell them to come back next September.

Furthermore, its my understanding that just being qualified to drive a HGV isn’t enough. Nobody (other than the Tories perhaps) thinks its a good idea to take a 18 year old greenhorn and put him in charge of a 40 ton petrol bomb rolling down the motorway at 70mph. Instead, they’ll give him something easier to do, like driving a van or a garbage lorry for a bit, until he’s got some experience. So this hardly solves the current problems.

And of course if you think things are bad now, keep in mind brexit isn’t even fully implemented yet (and yes I know its been more than 5 years, brexit is a process not a destination). The UK has yet to implement full checks on all incoming goods, something they’ve repeatedly put off doing (likely because they know it would trigger massive food shortages). And the NI protocol hasn’t been fully implemented either. So we aren’t even seeing the full effects of brexit yet.

But by even considering relaxing immigration rules it makes a mockery of the Tories entire brexit policy. There were softer brexit options (custom’s union, single market) that would have avoided all of these problems. But to satisfy the bigot brigade (otherwise known as the Tory base), they prioritised strict immigration controls over all else.

So far brexit has gone pretty much as I expected, sporadic shortages here and there, empty shelves for one reason or another, a spike in energy bills and soaring inflation. Because, that’s the way things were before the EU, the single market and freedom of movement came along. Its only logical to expect such shortages to return as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

So there is a simple choice for the UK to make. Either accept these shortages and higher prices as the new normal. Or abandon the current brexit strategy altogether. Pick one of two options.

Posted in cars, economics, EU, fossil fuels, history, news, peak oil, politics, transport | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brexit means…conceding sovereignty to Australia

I’ve long warned the dangers of the brexit mentality, or more precisely the dangerous world view that drives it. And the recent fiasco over nuclear subs highlights why. The UK has managed to convenience Australia and the US to stitch up the French with a deal that does very little to improve security. In fact all it really does is undermine NATO unity, risk the UK being drawn into a conflict with China, all just so the brexit brigade can score a few points and indulge in their fantasy’s of Empire 2.0.

Supposedly, Australia needs nuclear submarines to protect them from China, because of China’s recent aggressive moves in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan….both of which are thousands of miles away from Australia! Furthermore, a nuclear sub is a blue water asset, intended for warfare in the deep ocean. A shallow sea or strait, like these areas of water, would not be the best environment to use nuclear subs (most other countries have conventionally powered coastal subs for that). It would be all too easy for the Chinese navy to simply close off the entrances to these seas with a picket line of destroyers & strategically laid anti-sub mines, then use their anti-sub hunting ships & aircraft to flush out any hiding subs.

Its quite clear that nobody thought to consult the other countries in the region, as the responses have either been entirely negative or muted (with the noted exception of Taiwan, but then again, their national sport is trolling Beijing). And why are we only giving this technology to white people? (and only those who speak English). Hardly sounds like a strategy for winning friends and influencing people!

Recall the South China sea dispute is a stand off between multiple countries over a wide range of issues. This kind of interference makes the situation worse as it will just encourage the Chinese too dig in their heels. If they didn’t have an excuse to fortify these Islands before well they certainly have one now. Oh plus are we also going to just totally ignore the fact that Australia is doing the same or worst to East Timor. in an effort to steal their oil reserves. Or does it not count as theft when white people are doing it to non-whites? (like the Ferengi rules of acquisition, a deals a deal but only between Ferengi).

And while the French could have started building subs already, if the Aussie’s hadn’t been dragging their feet, these new Aukus subs will take decades to build (between 2030’s ro 2040’s). By which time the current crisis will have long since passed. Likely because these artificial Islands China’s just built will have been swamped by rising sea levels. Or China’s many internal problems (such a housing bubble, various economic woes, including a possible Lehman brothers moment and a demographic time bomb to name a few), will have forced them to seek a diplomatic solution. I’m guessing this is probably the long game the rest of the nations involved in this dispute are playing. But Aukus threatens to derail this, as it might make the Chinese more reluctant to settle this dispute and be seen to be giving in to ex-colonial powers.

And there is also the question of nuclear proliferation and storage of waste. Generally, the rule with nuclear waste is the nation that uses it, disposes of it. So is Australia now prepared to dispose of this nuclear waste? Do they have the facilities to do this? Do they realise how expensive that’s going to be? It seems instead the UK will be taking on that task. Which is a problem, because the UK is struggling to dispose of its own nuclear waste. Currently there are 7 rusting hulks of decommissioned UK nuclear subs sitting in Rosyth dockyard awaiting decommissioning, just a few miles from Edinburgh and several other Scottish cities. The UK is struggling to cope with its own nuclear waste, now they are going to add someone else’s waste on top of the pile.

In fact nearly all of the Royal navy’s facilities for handling nuclear submarines (after they are constructed) are located in Scotland. So what are they going to do in the event of Scottish independence? Ya they could try squatting in these bases for awhile, but all the Scot have to do is install a 24 hr webcam watching the base to defeat that (subs rely on their stealth, if the Russians or Chinese can watch their comes and goings they can have their own subs out waiting to shadow the British subs as they leave). An agreement to allow temporary use by the Royal navy, while facilities in England get built, is possible (although that depends on the attitude taken by the English, they act stroppy like they did during brexit talks, the Scots will likely tell them to get stuffed). But there is no way the servicing of Australian subs will be allowed (not least because that would be painting a big nuclear bullseye on Scotland in the event the Australians get into a shooting war with China).

The French are understandably fuming. In part because they’ve lost out on a valuable contract in an election year, but it goes deeper than that. Its the two faced behaviour of both the UK & Australian governments, pretty much lying to them. Its also the fact that the EU has been trying to put diplomatic pressure on China over its overseas bases, notably in Africa. Then there’s India’s construction of a base in the Mauritius (likely a counter move to China’s bases in the region). Well Aukus pretty much blows any diplomatic efforts on this front out of the water. Keep in mind these overseas bases will be able to refuel planes and aircraft, giving both of these Asian powers the capacity to act in and around the middle east, or even into the north Atlantic. So please explain how giving the Chinese an excuse to send their subs to patrol off the UK coast improves UK security?

Of course there is one winner in all of this, the defence contractors. Now that the war on terror money burning party is over, they need another fix of taxpayers cash. And its not just a few subs, once the Chinese inevitably start to respond by building up their own forces, expect new orders for a whole host of new super-expensive equipment….even if some of it doesn’t actually work. Its worth noting that a key player in these contracts will be BAE systems, a UK/US defence conglomerate with its fingers in many pies….including pies that many in US congress, both democrat and republican, have their snouts firmly shoved in. In any other country in the world we have a word for this “corruption”. But again, when rich white people do it, its ok.

The Dangers of Appeasement

But I bring this up because it serves to highlight why the approach of appeasement just doesn’t work. The EU has been way too conciliatory towards the UK since brexit. The NI protocol should have been implemented in full on day one, no more of these grace periods. Any violations of the protocol and the EU should have taken the necessary action (they would be legally entitled to hit the UK with sanctions and punitive tariffs). But instead by appeasing the brexiters they’ve just emboldened them and they will continue to ask for more and more, until they go too far.

Similarly Biden has been trying to appease the brexiters as well, rather than taking them to task over threatening the Good Friday agreement. Same as he appeased the Taliban and we all saw how that ended (while the debacle that followed was not entirely his fault, he has to take his share of the blame). Rather than prosecuting Trump for his crimes, he’s let him get away scot free (so he’s now free to start plotting a return). And rather than trying to undo the damage of Trump and strengthen US institutions against any future wannabe autocrat, instead he’s appeased the republicans. Which they will have seen as a sign of weakness, with the all to predictable results seen recently in Texas. No doubt once they’ve taken back control of the senate in 2022 (which now seems likely, there’s been way too many unforced errors from Biden) they’ll be able to dismantle what little gains he’s actually managed to achieve.

My point is that appeasement doesn’t work, not when you are dealing with wannabe autocrats. The EU should immediately enforce the NI protocol in full. Furthermore, given that the UK is breaking international law by not fully inspecting good coming into the UK from the EU. The EU should insist those checks are put in place and maybe even threaten to stop cross channel trade until this is done. Yes this would cause immediate food shortages (worse than at the moment) but until British people are confronted with the realities of brexit, there can be no progress, as the brexiters can keep gaslighting the public.

Another roll over by the brexiters involved climate change, as the UK withdrew any commitments towards climate goals in order to get a trade deal with Australia (remind me, when did the UK vote to yield its sovereignty to Australia? That’s taking control!). And they are about to host a climate summit. I’d call for the boycotting of this event. Nobody who cares about the climate should go. Yes there are important issues to be discussed, but they are plenty of highland hotels you can hire out and they’d be happy for the business.

And in any event, the brexiters (or the GOP stateside) will comply anyway. I’ve had to adopt this same strategy with co-workers and students (or indeed children & pets). You appease them, they’ll keep demanding more and more. They will take you for an absolute ride. You lay down the law, ya they’ll hiss, whinge and complain to your boss. But ultimately once they realise you are serious and that the rules apply to everyone, themselves included, they’ll start to behave themselves.

Posted in climate change, defence, environment, Global warming denial, Japan, news, nuclear, politics, power | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Afghanistan: anatomy of a fool’s errand

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The algorithm’s running social media seem to be getting darn smart. Because just the other day, 55 days: the fall of Saigon popped into my feed. And to say this is eerily similar to events in Afghanistan is an understatement. You even had incidences of desperate people trying to hang on to a rescue aircraft as it tried to take off. Then I turn on the news and the very same thing is happening in Kabul.

But its not another Vietnam we are assured by the Americans. And in some respects it isn’t, its actually much worse. The Vietnam war was an attempt by the US to enforce its cold war policy of containment, fought largely for ideological reasons (because they had such confidence in capitalism, they were convinced if Vietnam fell the whole continent would go communist). But the Vietnamese weren’t launch terrorist attacks against the…

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Should doping be allowed in sports?

So the Olympics has seen more than a few positive drug tests, not to mention positive covid tests as if the athlete’s didn’t have enough to worry about (you do have to feel for these athletes, they are essentially prisoners within the Olympic village). But it raises the question, why is doping banned, and should that continue?

Firstly doping is not new, even in ancient Greece athletes weren’t against taking a few liberties. There’s also the famous case in the 1904 marathon where the winner was given an injection of strychnine as he struggled to finish (and if you think that counts as cheating, the original winner was disqualified for hitching a lift in a car for much of the route).

The logic behind banning doping is that it takes away from the athletic performance. Athletes were expected to be amateurs. They were supposed to compete unsupported, else it becomes a competition between doctors, trainers and sports scientists. And to give you an idea of how seriously this was taken, in the 1913 tour de France one rider broke the front forks of his bike. The race officials won’t allow him to get a new bike, he had to find a village forge and repair it – himself. He was required to weld the forks back together with his own hands. However, because he allowed a local boy to work the bellows in the forge, he was given a 10 minute time penalty.

Contrast that with sports these days. Now there are few if any amateur athletes at major sporting competitions. Athletes receive a significant level of funding (private sponsorship or government funding) and lots of support, ranging from custom made equipment, support technicians, personal trainers (one climber said she had a trainer for her fingers and another for her arms!), sports doctors, sports scientists, dietitians, physio’s, computer analysis to improve performance, etc.

And these measures come with a significant advantage. Indeed, it would be very hard for an amateur to compete, given they’d lack the same level of support. Plus an amateur won’t be able to cover the costs associated with all of the above. Often times the main reason for a professional athlete retiring is because they’ve lost their funding and can’t afford to pay all of these bills out of their own pocket.

By way of example, there’s controversy with a new type of supershoe at the Olympics, which significantly improves performance (by about 2-3%). In cycling bikes have gotten so advanced, in 1997 they briefly looked at splitting the hour record into two categories, one for traditional bikes (using a similar bike to the one used by Edie Merckx in 1972) and a 2nd one for more modern bikes . While this ruling was reversed in 2014, the difference between the two sets of records is about 10% (which is within the ball park for the benefits you’d get from doping).

The other factor is of course the risks associated with doping. It introduces both short term risks (heart attacks, strokes, exhaustion, etc.), as happened to Tom Simpson, who died in during the 1967 Tour de France on a mountain stage (due to amphetamines and heat stroke). As well as the longer term health risks, which can include cancer, mental health issues, liver damage and, some what ironically, reduced athletic performance over time (as they leave an athlete more susceptible to injuries that end their career).

That said, these risks have to be put in context. Many of performance enhancing drugs were originally developed for medical use and suffice to say we wouldn’t be using them if they were unsafe (I mean they give the same stuff to kids and old granny’s!). The exact level of risk is a matter of debate (in part because we don’t exactly know how many athletes dope, making it hard to correlate the risks), but its generally agreed that the more you take and the longer it goes on, the greater the risks. Of course that would suggest banning doping and driving it underground is part of the problem, as this means you are creating an unregulated free for all.

And there is an ever growing list of banned substances, given that its a game of whack-a-mole between the testers and the dopers. Its gotten to the point where athletes have been banned for taking cold medicine or a dodgy burrito. One of the athletes absent at this year’s games was banned for marijuana (even thought she lives in a US state where’s its legal and only smoked a joint after hearing some bad news about her mother). Many athletes live in fear of inadvertently taking something that yields a positive test. And naturally this means they are heavily dependant on a knowledgeable sports doctor (i.e. the sort of people who can help them dope without getting caught). Plus most of the items on these banned lists are what the rest of us would call “medicine”.

Then there’s the testing process itself. Athletes can be subjected to surprise tests at almost any time. Which pretty much means athletes have to give up their privacy and let testing officials know where they will be 24/7, weeks in advance (if you are an athlete big brother is literally watching you). And, somewhat ironically, given that there’s so much money at stake (if not national pride), if an athlete is doping, elaborate measures will be taken to hide this. So much so that doping controls are unlikely to detect it. Its worth noting how many of the recent scandals (such as Lance Armstrong or the Russian doping scandal) were not detected as a result of failed tests, but through detective work, or investigative journalism.

Plus any danger from doping has to be balanced with the dangers of the alternatives to doping. For example, blood doping in cycling largely came about due to the banning of EPO and improved tests for it. However, while EPO is dangerous, blood doping is worse. All it takes is an athlete mixing up their blood with a team mates and you’ve potentially got two dead athletes.

Another tactic is to use altitude chambers to simulate a higher elevation, in order to improve performance when training or sleeping. However, I’d argue that’s fairly dangerous. Firstly altitude sickness is a tricky illness to pick up on. Usually its symptoms give you enough of warning to descent (or exit one of these chambers) but not always. I’ve heard stories of mountaineers who were fine one minute and then keeled over unconscious the next. And keep in mind hypoxia impairs judgement (so you can’t rely on being able to think straight if you succumb to it) and the quicker you go up (such as stepping straight into a faulty chamber set to too high an elevation) the worse the effects and the faster symptoms begin to appear.

More importantly, any mechanical system that relies on a pressure sealed environment is by definition dangerous. You can die inside a confined space like that scarily fast. All it takes is a few grams too little oxygen, (or too much carbon dioxide) and you’re dead. So you’d have to question why are these are allowed, but performance enhancing drugs are not.

My point is I can’t see how you can say that smoking weed in your free time isn’t allowed, nor is taking medicine to cure an illness. But all of these other measures are ok, even thought some of them come with a much higher risk (and offer a much higher improvement in performance). If anything the rules now favour a professional system of well sponsored athletes rather than amateurs. We’ve gone full circle.

To my mind this raises the question as to whether doping should be allowed, but carefully regulated. This would permit some use of performance enhancing drugs, so long as this use is declared and managed by doctors, whose priority is the athlete’s long term health (no licensed doctor is going to risk a six figure salaried job so some athlete can run a half a second faster).

There would still need to be doping controls, but that’s more a matter of an audit to confirm they are only being administered safe doses and prevent the proliferation of unsafe practices. Thus an unexplained positive test, while it would need following up, it doesn’t mean suspending an athlete immediately (innocent until proven guilty, it could just be some other medicine they took). Of course, repeatedly failing tests which show high doses, or evidence which suggests they are using dangerous tactics (such as blood doping) would prompt a ban.

This would also use a form of honour system. For teams with a good reputation for sticking to the rules, it can be more light touch regulation. However, those with a history of heavy doping and unethical practices would be more heavily regulated. On which point, while Russia would be on that list, so to would the US (Lance Armstrong, Tyson Gay, Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, need I go on?).

And this idea of regulation at a team level is particularly important considering what’s coming in the future – genetic doping or genetic engineering. One of the reasons for sport is to inspire kids. Well if they are up against athlete’s with this level of advantage, no amount of dedication and training is going to make up this deficit. Hell at this point you may as well abolish national teams and compete on the basis of pharmaceutical corporations (team USA is replaced by team Monsanto, team GB replaced by team GSK).

And speaking of which, while its probably a bit too late to resurrect the old amateur athlete system, trying to remove the profit motive would help reduce the incentive to cheat (Ben Johnson’s probation required him to go around to schools and tell kids don’t do drugs…while driving a ferrari!). Rather than sponsors buying the athletes a fancy watch or having them do TV ads, how about they pay their college tuition and offer them an internship (or better still a job). That way, they have a post-athlete career mapped out, something that doping would put at risk, thus removing the incentive to cheat (or cave in to pressure from unethical coaches).

But certainly, ignoring the issue isn’t helping. The current system is completely hypocritical. It doesn’t actually make athletes safer, nor does it level the playing field. All it does is punishing those who get caught, for the crime of getting caught.

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The paradox of sustainability

One of the obstacles to sustainability can be human nature. Scientists and engineers have a habit of seeing everything as a numbers game. If we reduce the carbon footprint of something by X amount an apply that across the board that will be good….right? Well sometimes not, sometimes such measures can increase pollution by making it easier and cheaper to consume more. We are not factoring in cause and effect.

For example, back during the 80’s it became a bit of trend to install conservatories in houses, either purpose build or retrofitted to existing homes. One of the arguments for this is that by absorbing solar energy in spring and summer, they can reduce the heating bill for the house as well as providing somewhere to grow plants. Similarly, office buildings can use large glazed facades to cut down on heating and lighting costs. And its worth noting that historically, before we had oil fired central heating and electric lighting, many Victorian era homes would have a conservatory for these very reasons.

However, in order to prevent overheating in the summer (and glare from too much sunlight), its important that such areas have shading devices. And in the winter they can get quite cold, so you’ll need to have a way of isolating them from the rest of the house (Victorian houses would often shut off such areas of the house for the winter). However, many modern buildings didn’t have shading devices (so you’d come in to the office and find all the blinds down and the lights on in the middle of the day) or the buildings were open plan, so any energy savings in heating were cancelled out by more energy devoted to cooling in the summer. And some homeowners took to install radiators in their conservatories, effectively increasing their heating bills.

Different types of shading devices, critical if you are using glazed facades in buildings

Energy efficiency improvements haven’t always produced the level of gains expected. For example, we have the effect of low energy light bulbs. While they have reduced electricity demand, but not by as much as was hoped. Why? Because people are more likely to leave light on. Case in point, its daytime while I’m writing this and I’ve just realised the light’s are on in my kitchen, even thought there’s nobody in there. When I was growing up the instruction was that if you were the last person to bed, you turned off all the lights (and there would be hell to pay if you forgot). Now when I’m back home its that you should turn off most of them.

Similarly improvements in building energy efficiency have led to average indoor air temperatures to increase in cold countries and decrease in hotter countries (I remember having to wear a hat to bed in Singapore because it was so cold inside the bedrooms!). And more fuel efficient cars have run hand in hand in an increasing number of driving miles in some countries (thought not always and these increases might be related to other factors such as new roads encouraging driving, or more cars making it less safe to cycle).

My point is, its important to consider the consequences of any action and look at how it may effect patterns of behaviour. Some of these can be positive, e.g. plastic bag taxes very rapidly led to a reduction in plastic bag use. But that’s not always the case (at the same time in the UK that the plastic bag came in, there was a large increase in trolley or shopping basket thefts!). It also serves to highlight that, while energy efficiency is important, on its own it can’t solve the problems of climate change and sustainability. Only by moving away from fossil fuel altogether can these problems be solved.

With sustainability the devil can often be in the detail. Biofuels for example can lower carbon footprints, but this largely depends on how the plants are grown, processed and then transported. Even a slight change in how they are grown, for example draining bog land to create area for the trees (which results in a big pulse of green house gases) or transporting them long distances, can significantly increase the carbon footprint.

With biofuels there can be quite a wide variation in the carbon footprint, which are often governed by very small changes in production methods

We see a similarly issue with alternatives to plastics. On paper by moving away from fossil fuels this can can lower the carbon footprint. But if you are growing material, how is it grown? Does it require fertilisers? (which come from fossil fuels) or climate control (which might also require energy input from fossil fuels). If its much heavier and bulkier that’s going to make it harder to transport (more fossil fuel’s burned). If its harder to mould into shapes compared to plastic (which can be injection moulded), again more waste. And how is it disposed of? If its not recyclable that’s going to be a problem unless we have a means to collect and incinerate it safely (and that incineration process is also going to produce some emissions).

Its here were life cycle analysis is key. This is a process by which engineers can undertake an accounting exercise to work out the carbon footprint of each step of a product’s life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, its production phase, transportation to customer, its use phase and its end of life (is it recycled, incinerated, or does it go into landfill).

This data not only allows for good decision making, but also tends to highlight where the main issues are. For example, with a car, the main source of carbon emissions is going to be the usage phase when its driven around for hundreds of thousands of miles. Anything you can do to cut this down is generally going to be a good idea, for example by making the car lighter. Even if this pushes up the carbon footprint of the production phase, this will be off-set by lowering the impact of the usage phase. By contrast, in some consumer products it can be either the material production phase or the end of life phase that has the most dramatic impact. This tells engineers where to focus their efforts next in improving the product.

But again, this can have the problem that engineers are working in isolation and not understanding what’s going on in the real world. The cautionary tale of Jatroba is a good example. This appeared (at least on paper) to be an excellent potential source of biofuels with a low carbon footprint (in some cases negative as it helped to lock away greenhouse gases into the soil). It could grow on non-arable land (thus not taking away land from food production), with little need for fertiliser. However, the yields from Jatroba grown under such conditions were low, leading to it being grown on arable land with fossil fuel based fertilisers used to increase its grown rate (largely negating the supposed benefits).

And the switch from meat to vegetarian foods has created a high demand for such foods as asparagus, avacado’s and coconuts, all of which have quite a high carbon footprint and water demand, at least compared to other vegetarian options. While this doesn’t mean that a vegan diet is worse than a meat based one, it again serves to highlight its a trade off, a least worse option. And the benefits are going to depend a lot on how and where its grown, e.g. out of season fruit in green houses (which is then imported long distance by truck or air) is going to be a lot more carbon intensive than fruit grown in season in a field locally.

The problem with climate change and sustainability is that they are very large and complex problems. If there was some easy silver bullet solution it would have been implemented ages ago. There are solutions, but they require a bit more of a complete understanding of what the problem is and how people are likely to react to the proposed solutions.

The life cycle analysis of any product can become quite complicated

This had led some to suggest the solution is to use smart technology. So for example if a driver has a heavy foot (lots of acceleration and heavy braking) the cars computer could be programmed to recognise this and switch to a more energy efficient driving style (so it won’t allow the car to accelerate as quickly, de-rate the engine, and if a hybrid, try to extract as much energy from the braking phase as possible).

Similarly home appliances could be programmed to de-rate at night to reduce energy consumption. If you dial up the thermostat and your home heating system knows you feeling cold has nothing to do with temperature, but instead its the humidity, so it ignores your request and adjusts the humidity instead.

I’d note that this sort of technology is nothing new, its used in aviation where the planes computer is programmed to fly the plane in as fuel efficient and safe a manner as possible, by interpreting the pilot inputs and not necessarily doing exactly what they ask it to do. If the pilots do something they are not supposed to do (e.g. try to pull off a manoeuvre the computer knows would exceed the aircraft’s envelope) the computer will adopt a more moderate response, or even override the pilots completely.

However, I’m not sure how people would react to this. Some might argue its an affront to their freedom (just look at the anti-vaxx / anti-mask brigade). Already there’s a people who have been hoarding incandescent light bulbs or insist on rolling coal. In short we need to appreciate that human nature is as much a part of the climate and sustainability problem as anything else.

Posted in Biomass, clean energy, climate change, cycling, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, Passivhaus, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bitcoin crackdown

Inevitably, a push back against crypto seems to be underway. China is planning to outright ban several crypto currencies, starting with Bitcoin. While the US DoJ, in the wake of the colonial pipeline attack, has started a crackdown against crypto. They have shutdown crypto exchanges and are making efforts to recover funds stolen by hackers and scammers. The FBI & Europol even set up an elaborate sting operation using their own dark web encrypted messaging service. (Can only imagine the google reviews for this service won’t be great…then again I don’t think you get access to google in prison!).

But then we have news that El Salvador wants to make bitcoin legal tender. So what gives? Well firstly I think we need to understand that most crypto currencies, bitcoin in particular, aren’t really currencies as we’d define them. The price volatility and the lengthy time to process transactions (60 minutes to a day or two…long time to wait for a coffee!) means its not really a convenient currency that could ever be used by the majority of people. It would be more accurate to describe them as a sort of digital bearer bond.

Now while yes, you can pay for goods in services with bearer bonds, but generally you don’t, as they likely won’t be accepted and the costs on your end (not to mention the processing time) means its not practical. Similarly, given the issues with crypto, only a few companies are willing to accept payment in crypto and then only really for ideological reasons (as the boss is libertarian bitcoin bug). If more customers actually used crypto as their main means of payment and companies were forced to bare the financial costs of delayed/fraudulent payment & price fluctuations themselves (which would become exponentially worse with more transactions), they’d quickly abandon it. This is pretty much what happened with Musk and Tesla recently. Causing Musk to go from libertarian hero to Bernie Sanders socialist in the eyes of bitcoin bugs (and as if to aid insult to injury a recent bitcoin conference has turned into a covid superspreader event).

The other problem with bearer bonds is that you are going to get more than a few odd looks if you try to use them. While there were some legitimate uses for them, notably as regards investing and money transfers between countries. But an awful lot of the time they are used to launder money or help dodge taxes. And similarly, while yes there is some use of crypto is for legitimate investment purposes. But they have also become increasingly the tool of choice for criminals looking to launder cash, move it overseas or as payment for extortion (bitcoin being used 95% of the time).

So you certainly understand why this crackdown is ongoing. As for El Salvador, well its one of an number of offshore hubs who profit from the more shady aspects of offshore financial activity, crypto being a particular speciality. So you can see why they wants to try and give bitcoin some legitimacy and avoid it being banned completely. Although one should note, they just want to make it legal tender, they are not adopting it as a national currency or anything like that.

Now crypto advocates would say that this shows why banning it will never work. Ya, until being in possession of bitcoins, or accessing a digital wallet, becomes a crime in of itself (similar laws with regard to cash, jewels, bonds or other assets means that if you can’t prove they were acquired legally, they can be confiscated under anti-money laundering legislation and you can be prosecuted as well, just for being in possession of them).

But suppose a country actually tried to use bitcoin as its national currency. What would happen? Probably several months of chaos and then collapse! The government’s ability to borrow, issue bonds, or control its money supply would be effectively impossible. And the rapid and volatile swings in its value would result in all sorts of problems. e.g. you pay the public service in bitcoin, but in between collecting taxes on a Friday and paying them on a Monday the price drops 20% so either you have to cover those costs out of the state coffers or the workers would have to be happy to accept an effective pay cut.

Now libertarians would say, but this is the point. We don’t like central banks (and there will be no public sector employees in the libertarian workers paradise) and we want to stop banks just printing money and borrowing recklessly. While I’d agree governments have gone a bit crazy with the money printers and borrowing over the last few years (you should be saving in the good times for a rainy day). But the pandemic (a rainy day!) shows why this is sometimes necessary.

Without central bank intervention, the response to covid would be very different. No lockdowns to flatten the curve (meaning hospitals get overwhelmed), no furlonging of workers (so mass unemployment, means massive claims for unemployment benefits) and no money to pay for medical PPE or the fast tracking of vaccines. In short you’d be looking at millions of extra deaths and a far more serious level of economic damage.

In fact, somewhat ironically, crypto being backed by a major government would be the last thing libertarians would want to happen. The first thing the US, the EU or China would do, is acquire large amounts of this digital currency, enough to allow them to gain control over it (either individually or collectively via the IMF). And note that when I say “acquire” I don’t mean buy. They’ll just confiscate it off criminals (about half of all bitcoin transactions involve criminal activity). Or pass some law allowing them to cease privately held accounts and set the price for compensation (if the bother paying compensation at all). This is pretty much what happened to US private gold reserves in 1934 and in other countries on various occasions (one of those pesky facts libertarian gold bugs tend to ignore, the gov’mint can just take your gold…and bragging about it online btw makes that alot easier, or they’ll make its sale or transfer illegal/heavily taxed).

The banks would join in and you’d be left with a monetary system even more under the thumb of the regulators, the government and the banks than the current financial system. Which is probably wants going to happen eventually. There are already proposals from various financial institutions to launch their own crypto currencies. Given that these will have the backing of the banks and, eventually governments, they can offer a level of convenience, security and price stability that existing crypto’s cannot.

Bitcoin and other crypto’s might survive for awhile, as a sort of digital gold, but only if they can clean themselves up. Crypto advocates need to accept that this criminal activity is going to result in unwanted attention. They need to start taking measures to contain the problem. You fight the law, the law tends to win.

Posted in budget deficit, crime, cults, economics, environment, future, history, news, politics, scams, sustainability, technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

More brexit betrayals and the rise of the brexitbots

Brexiters gave many reasons for voting leave, but immigration was certainly the main reason. However, its now quite clear that if you voted leave over immigration you are about to be betrayed by the Tories, much as you were warned would happen.

Firstly there are many myths and falsehoods about immigration, as I’ve discussed before. But the main one is the false belief that British workers are in competition with migrants for a fixed number of jobs. The number of jobs available in a country or region depends on a host of factors. For example, the ease by which businesses can get access to credit, government policy (if there’s lots of big infrastructure projects going on, there will be more jobs) and also the availability of workers (as an employer will prefer to set up where they can more easily hire employees). In short, migrants can help create more jobs than they take. And thus immigration restrictions can act as a pretty significant trade barrier and can actually decrease the total number of jobs available, leaving less for the locals.

To give an example, you are run a fruit farm. You need 100 workers to pick the fruit over the harvest season, but post-brexit restrictions means you can only find 50 British workers. Which means you’re only going to be able to harvest half the amount of fruit, which could mean the cost of paying their salaries plus overheads (e.g. the cost of growing the crops in the first place) won’t be enough to yield a profit. In which case you’re better off sacking the 50 British workers, leaving the fruit to rot and doing something else with the land that’s less labour intensive.

Similarly, in academia some specialist courses in a number of universities are being pulled due to brexit. As without the EU students, its not worth our while running those courses. This is leading to staff being laid off and the choice and options for UK students being reduced (oh and without those EU students, fees will probably have to go up too!).

And we are seeing further examples of this in many parts of the economy. There is a shortage of truck drivers post-brexit, which could lead to some businesses shutting down, higher prices and risks a shortage of food items like chilled meats. Building projects are being put on hold because of supply shortages (due to extra delays at Dover) and a lack of workers (so British builders are losing their jobs because there ain’t enough Polish plumbers).

And as mentioned farmers are struggling to hire enough workers to meet demand. Plus, they can no longer effectively export, which is decimating some parts of the agricultural sector. This could lead to a reduced harvest (leaving the UK more dependant on food imported from Europe) and probably eventually some farms closing, as they won’t be able to compete with foreign competition in places like Australia.

This was the lie that was told to those who voted leave. We’ll turn back the clock to a time when many UK industrial towns had full employment and Britain had an Empire. But that was always a fantasy. It only worked back then because of a lack of automation (industry was still fairly labour intensive, requiring a larger work force), much of the UK industry was state owned (who tended to treat them as a welfare to work scheme), there was little to no overseas competition (as Asia had little industrial output & half the world economy was the other side of the iron curtain), with massive trade barriers and protectionism to defend UK trade.

But that was then and this is now. Imposing such measures now would just render the UK uncompetitive, meaning they’d be lose out to foreign competition. Its not immigrants coming over here and taking your job you need to worry about, but them staying at home and your job simply moving somewhere else. And smugglers will just find a way around any trade barriers anyway. That is after all one of the reasons why such polices were largely done away with in the first place.

And its pretty clear the Tories ain’t going to help, given that they are running around signing trade deals with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the world. Trade deals which often favour the other country at the expense of the Uk. For example, while UK traders have to fill out dozens of forms and go through customs checks, EU lorries entering the UK typically get waved through, as the UK dare not impose more complete checks knowing it would probably lead to empty shelves in supermarkets. Which should not come as a surprise, as trade deals tend to benefit the larger trading block or the country who can just walk away from the table (something the UK can’t really do).

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Brexit: Rise of the Machines

Furthermore, what is the governments response to businesses complaining about how brexit red tape is hurting their businesses and risking unemployment for workers? Oh, just move to the EU and set up there (i.e. sack all your UK workers and hire foreign workers instead). And when the aforementioned farmers complain about a lack of seasonal workers, what is the government’s response? Oh just switch to using robots to pick fruit instead (British jobs….for robot workers?). Let’s just unpack that one.

Automating a process cost a lot of money and its questionable if any, but the very largest of UK food companies, can afford that (certainly not small farmers). There is also a long learning curve because when robots screw up, they tend to screw up in a big way (e.g. crash, smash, burn down the factory, weld something together they weren’t supposed to do).

But ignoring the obvious practical obstacles, if farmers could switch to robots, they’d aren’t going to simply replace the 50 or so they can’t hire from Europe. No, they’ll sack ALL their UK fruit pickers as well. They will still need some workers yes, but generally these will be people with an education to program the robots (a college or university diploma), which generally most of the sort of people who work in farming will lack (and I’d also further note most college graduates voted remain rather than leave, so this is a move that benefits remain voters at the expense of Tory leave voters).

This is pretty much what happened in Japan, where strict immigration laws combine with automation to eliminated a whole host of working class jobs and entry level jobs. This created a “lost generation of Japanese who haven’t worked for many years (if ever), creating a sort of underclass within society. And as this impacted on tax revenues ( unemployed people claim benefits…and robots don’t pay income tax) it led to the land of the rising sun, becoming the land of the rising debts, a trend we are likely to see replicated in the UK’s finances.

Post-brexit we could see something similar happen in the UK, particularly in those northern brexit voting towns. You see, there’s another thing about immigration. Most migrants tend to head for the larger cities (which voted overwhelmingly remain and where support for the Tories is at its lowest) where there are employment shortages. They tend to shun areas with high unemployment (which tended to vote leave).

Post-brexit these trends will continue to become even sharper. What foreign workers and foreign investment does come in will mostly go to the major cities, which should continue to see some job growth (though just not as strong as it would have been without brexit). While in rural or ex-industrial towns, the job market will collapse. This will lead to further inequality in the UK and more people being driven into poverty. And already poverty in some parts of the UK is already so bad the UN has had to give involved. But, much as they were warned, brexit and immigration controls aren’t going to help these communities. They are going to make an already bad situation even worse.

Posted in budget deficit, economics, history, news, technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments