Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Street violence: Britain is now in a state of emergency.


Tonight I am furious. A young man has been rushed to hospital after he was stabbed repeatedly in Hyde Park, London. A large fight broke out with several youths armed with knives seen stabbing the man as he fell to the ground. I saw machetes. The only time I've seen similar footage is from Soweto in Sough Africa.

From what I can see, and to the surprise of nobody, they were black. This, just a week after Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson was shot in the head by four black gunmen.

Beyond the fury I feel, it just break my heart because for this to happen in Hyde Park, London, in the fading daylight, we have fallen a long way. Britain is supposed to be better than this. It used to be better than this. This stuff is not supposed to happen in my fucking country. We have imported the third world thus we are becoming the third world.

And what saddens me most of all, this probably won't even register as a front page headline tomorrow. We are so used to knife crime that this no longer shocks us. This is just a particularly egregious example.

And I just know that tomorrow, Twitter will be a torrent of equivocation and denials if it even lasts in the news cycle past lunchtime. Just like when there is an outbreak of antisemitism, politicians have to qualify their condemnation with a concurrent mention of Islamophobia. The same will be true on this. Rather than speaking frankly we will skirt around the issue that this is black on black violence and it has nothing whatsoever to do with "systemic racism" or any other claptrap sociological fad. This is pure savagery.

I could talk about the drugs trade. I could talk about the lack of youth services and the lack of good male role models. I could talk about gang culture and its glamorisation in media. But it all seems like intellectual masturbation that isn't actually connected to anything because for all the endless debates and academic papers, it's getting worse and it's getting to a point of no return.

If we are now at Soweto levels of criminality then this is no longer a matter of being careful not to tread on race sensibilities. We need police out on the streets in large numbers and they need to be where the gangs are and they need to be stopping and searching people and cars, and they need to be putting these scumbags away for a very long time and where necessary, deportation.

We need the police to be able to get out there with the full support of the politicians, ignoring the shit stirrers and the race baiters and do what the majority demands. I am not interested in the bleating of David Lammy and Dawn Butler or the race relations industry. When third world savagery is brought to our streets we owe nobody any explanations for doing whatever is necessary to prevent and deter.

But then there is no long term resolution to this until such a time as we have an immigration system worthy of the name. It must act with prejudice with public safety as its primary driver. I'm not interested in lectures from leftists about racism when young black men are bleeding to death on the pavements. 

Yes we know not all blacks are like that. Yes we know not all Pakistanis are child molesters. But when you have your doors open to the armpits of the world, you have no chance of maintaining a civil society.

We have reached the sorry turning point precisely because we have listened to the equivocation and denials. If there is any chance of arresting the decline then Britain cannot be open to all comers and their extended families. It's not fair on anyone.

But then we all know this is not going to happen because our supposedly hard line "far right" Tory government is not going to lift a finger, and the odious scumbag mayor of London is going to sweep it under the carpet. The police will retreat every time there is a moral principle to uphold precisely because they cannot count on the backing of the politicians and because they will be smeared and slandered just for doing their jobs.

It therefore falls to the rest of us to voice our anger like never before and stop voting for all the parties who delivered this abject failure. We cannot allow it to slide off the news agenda and we cannot allow the media to distract us with yet more trivia. It is we who must set the agenda and demand better before there's nothing left to save. Enough is enough.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Sorry, not sorry.


Wearing a yellow star at a protest, according to Twitter, is strictly off limits. No debate allowed.

I would agree that it's in very poor taste but groupthinkers will always declare contentious assertions to be in poor taste and off limits rather than engage with the substance. It's a highly effective way of discouraging people from airing contrary opinions. Whenever I'm at the centre of a Twitter storm, which is at least every three months, it's usually because the blue tickers of polite society have declared something I've said is far beyond the pale. I'm not just wrong... I'm evil.

I'm of the view, though, that if your protest isn't prickling the sensibilities of polite society then you might as well go home. Protests are meant to spark debate. It's not for blue tick luvvies to dictate what is and isn't offensive or off limits.

I suppose though, that if you are going to invoke the Holocaust, as the protesters did, they can expect a rough ride of it. Invoking one of the worst human rights atrocities of all time over what could be described as "first world problems" is crass.

But then as free thinking adults we are able to park our revulsion and interrogate the assertion made. The protesters clearly think there are parallels, and it is for us to judge  if they have a point. Of course the polite society mob is highly selective. As illustrated above, liberal progressives feel able to recruit the Holocaust in service of their anti-Brexit cause. 

In their minds, though, I can see why they think what they do. At the time we were negotiating a new legal status for EU citizens against a backdrop of rising "recorded hate incidents" (for whatever that's worth), and quasi-fascist propaganda from Arron Banks's Leave.EU. There are parallels with 1930's Germany but only if you rob the circumstances of any context or nuance, so they have to stretch a point to absurdity in order to make it.

The more pedestrian truth is that a spike in recoded "hate incidents" is statistically meaningless and nobody in charge of delivering Brexit had any intention of formally discriminating against EU citizens beyond that which is commensurate with leaving the EU citizenship framework. Remainers then invoked Windrush as evidence of a racist agenda, but that's largely the dead hand of bureaucracy at the Home Office as it attempts to meet impossible targets on immigration.

But this is hardly the first invocation of the Holocaust in reference to Brexit. Remainers repeatedly assert that our departure from the EU is the leading edge of a wave of right wing populism consuming the country, where even Theresa "field of wheat" May is cast as a fascist demon. Remainers have whipped themselves up into a frenzy of paranoia, and built up a web of ever more outlandish conspiracy theories ranging from Russian bots and shadowy computer algorithms through to outright vote rigging.

This peddling of conspiracy theories in polite society raises no eyebrows, nor does anybody take responsibility for whipping up sweet little old dears who take to the streets wearing yellow stars. In fact, it's considered award winning journalism.

But then I don't get prickly about the use of yellow stars. I'm hardly one to condemn for making a point in poor taste. It's a highly effective to make a point, hence the runaway success of South Park. And if we really do mean "never again" we always have to evaluate the slippery slopes in our politics to ensure we don't repeat mistakes of the past - and the Holocaust is certainly a relevant benchmark.

In this the anti-lockdowners see their own parallels in events. And they're not conspiracy theories. What started out as a series of public precautions has mutated into an incoherent bidding war between politicians to see who can be the most draconian, contributing to a climate of fear and paranoia. What we're now seeing is aggressive demands for absolute conformity with the most absurd whims of these politicians. That's where the very frightening parallel is.

There is nothing quite so casually brutal and dangerous as a mob imbued with the idea they are acting in the greater good when they take vigilante action against individuals. I've seen that zeal up close and it cannot be reasoned with. It is exactly the same fanaticism of the SS. Leaving aside the politics and the historical context, the behaviours on display are absolutely identical.

Most Covid measures seem to make sense on paper but you can't help but notice that in real life, outside of the cities, it's just risible, indefensible bollocks. London imposes its stupid rules on the country yet the further from London you are, the less necessary they are. But Britain being what it is, the further north you go, the stricter the implementation and enforcement. So Easingwold is enforcing covid rules best confined to London and city public transport while London flouts the rules it sets. It's ridiculous.

I'm fine with wearing a mask in our tiny low ceiling village co-op, but in a deserted Boroughbridge Morrisons at 10am on a Wednesday morning you can't help but notice that Covid controls strictly enforced by staff are just daffy. You'd like to think that people would use their common sense but it's actually not that common. Little Hitlers lurk behind every supermarket aisle, and with your average plod being thick as mince you defy your own good judgement just for an easy life.

And that's the danger. Nobody wants to risk a confrontation with a paranoid lunatic or end up on a police cell for talking back to a plod, so we comply. Nobody wants an argument so if a vaccine passport is demand, even by those who have no right to make such demands, we will simply show them our papers. Anyone who then doesn't have the right paperwork is a legal other, and a threat.

We all want to take sensible precautions but the British jobsworth mentality simply cannot be trusted with more powers. It enjoys being petty, and the most unhinged and paranoid among us are the enablers of it. If they can't allow themselves agency, they'll ensure nobody has it.

I don't know where the off ramp for all this is, but I'm pretty sure we have to get off it now before it goes any further simply because it can and will deteriorate the long people are drip fed with a steady diet of scare stories even though we are not longer at the epicentre of the pandemic. It's summer, we have a vaccine, hospitals are now adept at treating Covid, and with it now being endemic, like it or not we now have to manage the risks. We can go into lockdowns to save granny but while we're saving granny, we're killing aunties, brothers and nephews waiting for cancer treatments, while we steal the best years from young people who should be living. 

If then we have to take to the streets and trample on the sensibilities of polite society and Twitter's blue tick luvvies then so be it. As it happens I am not anti-masks or anti-lockdown but we constant have to reassess and re-evaluate measures that were right at the time and ensure we are not building a prison for ourselves, losing liberties we will have to fight to reclaim. A lot of this stuff; masks, social distancing, the lockdowns felt on balance the right path, but that doesn't mean it feels at all necessary now and those saying so seem unable to assess and reassess a fluid situation.

As the use of yellow stars by anti-lockdown protesters is condemned on Twitter, there is an attempt to misframe the argument as though it's just people whining about marginal inconveniences - and comparing it to genocide is simply unacceptable. This is an attempt to shut down the debate. There were Germans after WW2 who confessed to being able to see what was happening. It didn't happen overnight. It was done by small increments over time.

At any point people could have spoken out but chose not to. Like anyone, they kept their mouths shut for a quiet life. Where the parallel falls apart, is that the consequences for speaking out are not quite the same. Speaking out against the Nazis and the persecution of the Jews would see you rounded up as one of them. Speaking out was too dangerous.

Thank goodness, we are nowhere near that and for the most part we still have freedom of speech, but this is a country where making a quip on Twitter can see PCSOs knocking on your door, and you can be heavily fined for the crime of being "grossly offensive". We are drifting into a culture of censorship where by social media companies can and will shut you down for expressing an opinion counter to the groupthink, and forces on the left are working to ensure there are irrecoverable consequences for falling foul of their ever mutating framework of what is permissible to say in polite society.

The convergence of this culture of censorship with growing demands for absolute conformity with the whims of politicians in their ham-fisted attempts to control Covid ought to alarm any lover of freedom. In respect of that, the Holocaust as a historical benchmark of tyranny cannot be off limits to public discourse - on this or any other matter. Every re-examining of the Holocaust not only informs our present day debate but also keeps those memories alive. As is our obligation to do so. 

Sunday, 25 April 2021

The Twitter mob is at it again



I've stirred up a hornet's nest on Twitter. Again. This time regarding the people who showed up to the anti-lockdown protest wearing yellow star badges.

Straight off the bat I said it was crude and "perhaps inappropriate" which is not unequivocal enough for Twitter so all the blue tickers have piled in to call me an antisemite for pointing out that there are certain parallels, assuming that the point pertains to vaccine passports.

Just for clarity, I have absolutely no animosity toward Jews or Israel except for the horrible paint job on their F15s which caused me no end of problems when I attempted to model it.

The thing about Nazi Germany, though, or indeed any authoritarian regime, is that it did not happen overnight. It happened by way of salami slices over time to which the public largely consented, or did not offer any outright opposition. Though the motivation comes from another place with Covid measures there are two similar patterns. One of casual acceptance and secondly, herd conformity.

The concern with vaccine passports is that they could be used as a mode of bureaucratic coercion, and as with masks, if you don't conform, you are then singled out and ostracised.

No vaccine passport? You can't shop here.
No vaccine passport, you can't come in this GP surgery.
No vaccine passport, you can't apply for x benefits.
No VP, you cant...
Where does it stop?

You then see individuals and mobs taking vigilante action against individuals, especially so in a climate of irrational fear - which is going to happen when the media is running lurid scare stories and the government is at it as well. When you formalise it by way of vaccine passports, essentially creating vaccine apartheid, you enable irrational prejudice.

The more pedestrian truth of the matter is that someone in a beer garden who isn't vaccinated or isn't wearing a mask in a beer garden is unlikely to kill you. Especially not with half the population vaccinated and in what we can essentially call summer.

At no point have I said it is directly comparable with the Holocaust, only that the exact same authoritarian human behaviours are on display. So that leaves the question of whether such parallels are proportionate. Perhaps not but do recall that we went from handwashing advice through to partial lockdowns through to politicians openly debating compulsory vaccination, curfews and putting soldiers on the streets. It could happen because politicians pander to the worst instincts of curtain twitchers unless there are enough people willing to speak out.

As ever, the reaction on Twitter largely confirms much of what I fear. Today I've been called everything but a child of god, with subsequent demands to simply "wear a mask" even though that's not actually what the debate was about. I'm not unequivocally anti-mask as you know. Or anti-lockdowns for that matter.

As usual people are piling in to register their disapproval and disgust. This isn't about safety. This is about their self-righteousness and a demand for conformity. And that really IS the point. They demand I obey, do not question, and insist that dissent is off limits and indeed debate is simply beyond the pale.

It is precisely that kind of herd conformity and thought policing that makes people hesitate to express a different opinion. In my case it doesn't matter because I've already been cast as an "actual nazi" for having expressed far right opinions such as joining Efta, increasing the foreign aid budget and clamping down on people smugglers. It's a wonder I'm tolerated in polite society at all.

But when you successfully silence people you are then free to take whatever freedoms you like, There were plenty of Germans who could have spoken up but didn't.

I am told this comparison is strictly off limits. Far beyond the pale and utterly offensive. But of course offence is subjective. The protesters have certainly highlighted the the issue and started a debate - which is what protests are supposed to do. No protest has ever succeeded by minding its manners, being careful not to tread on the sensibilities of polite society. I doubt I would have gone that far, but if there is a lesson from the Holocaust it is that things you didn't think were likely or possible in your country do happen, the people who think they're the most virtuous are usually accomplices to it, and it always happens with public consent.

I've seen for myself on Twitter multiple videos of individuals harassing people in shops for not wearing masks. When people are living in fear, their worst instincts take over. Ordinarily good, decent people will give way to their fears, and they will gang up on anyone they've been told is a threat. We therefore have to be very careful about any government measure that effectively codifies a basis for such prejudice.

It all comes down to how much you trust British jobsworth bureaucracy with your freedom. I'm not a Covid denier, nor especially a lockdown sceptic or an anti-masker, but I do think twice about lending government powers they are unlikely to return. That above all is the lesson from history.

Britain is at the end of its Covid tether


There was a huge anti-lockdown demonstration in London yesterday. About this time last year I was saying the people led us into lockdown and they will lead us out again when the time is right. I do not know for a fact if that time is now, but I generally trust the instinct of the crowd if not their arguments.

The facts are that Covid is generally a winter virus. There is a vaccine the powers that be thinks is going to work, masks are of limited use, and people are fed up with it all.
 
So is that latter factor reason enough to open up? To a point, yes. Government has to be by consent. A partial lifting of controls for many is no different to a complete lockdown. Particularly business owners. There is little merit in waiting for the young to be vaccinated. For the most part they don't need it.

The protest most certainly had its crank wing, and the civil liberties complaints do seem a little unhinged, and on balance I probably wouldn't have joined the protest, but I am glad they did it all the same if only as a gentle reminder that there is only so much we will take. I don't want to see vaccine passports and the sooner we can put our masks in the bin the better.

What one should note about the protest is the lack of silly face painting, SWP placards and Unison banners. This was no orchestrated middle class white whinge. This was 100% authentic. And it was massive. There were no rich lobbying organisations paying to bus people in like the so-called People's Vote marches. This is only going to grow and it's not going to ask for permission.

I think the government will likely take note of it and it will probably influence policy unless we see a new surge of the virus in which case we will probably see a continuation of current controls but no tighter restrictions. Anything over and above what is presently asked of us will likely see repeated demonstrations which could evolve into a yellow vest style movement across the country.
In the meantime we will no doubt see every "expert" and his dog chiming in to condemn it, but like Brexit, people will ignore the hectoring and come to their own conclusions.

My hunch is that it's all a bit premature and there is no room for complacency but by the same token, the government has had its window to get its act together and if it hasn't by now then it never will. The virus is now endemic, and to a point is controllable. The public cannot be asked to make further sacrifices to make up the shortfall of government competence. We're going to have to manage the risks.

Over the summer months I think we can afford to ditch social distancing, and masks in most instances save for public transport and small shops. Depending on what the numbers are doing in late October should inform the next move, but I'm inclined to think, given people's natural propensity to semi-hibernate over winter, further lockdowns are not required and cannot be sustained politically. The government is going to have to devise a coherent shielding policy if only for propaganda purposes.

We will likely see panic in some quarters as India and Brazil struggle to cope with a Covid surge but it should be recalled that it works globally the same way it does nationally as a series of outbreaks bubbling up all over concurrently. There are no "waves" as such. Just outbreaks of varying concentration and intensity.

As to whether we have now established a national "herd immunity" is well outside my capacity to comment, but it is reasonable to assume we have being that it has now swept through every town and village. The job of the government is now to ensure hospitals can cope with surges. With new established treatments and the vaccine, the rationale for further lockdowns looks weak. At this point it should be able to cope. If it can't then it's a management issue, not a medical issue.

I'm not quite ready to join them at the barricades just yet but I am certainly leaning in that direction. This is as much a political assessment as a medical one and on balance we have to consider the growing mental health crisis along with cancer backlogs. As a public health issue, we can no longer afford to give Covid the exclusive priority and the young need to live. We need to see from the government that the direction of travel is away from sledgehammer measures especially when it keeps missing the nut.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Brexit: customs in the digital domain



The media likes to talk about "customs paperwork" as though it were an insurmountable nightmare. It used to be but it's far simpler now than it ever has been. There are dozens of free-to-use online portals to create the necessary documentation.

The forms themselves are designed to a UN standard - United Nations/Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport (UN/EDIFACT), approved and published by UNECE.

Every form, be it a certificate of origin (eCert) or SPS certificate, has its own XML schema which are now universal. There's about forty different types but for most exporters only three or four are required - depending on what you're exporting.

Electronic customs data exchange is nothing particularly new, but UN/EDIFACT comprise a set of internationally agreed standards, directo­ries, and guidelines for the electronic interchange of structured data, between independent computerized information systems. The data standards allowed developers to build form standards into their own software while more causal exporters can use third party online portals.

This has been moving toward a single window system for some time where exporters log on to a portal to fill in and submit documents, and request the necessary electronic approvals from regulatory authorities. Your applications then get an electronic rubber stamp. Single windows mean standardised information will only need to be submitted once - and your transactions pre-authorised by a chamber of commerce.

The electronic from standards and exchange protocols have been around for a long time, and in 2018, the EU built mandatory e-declarations into the Union Customs Code. The next step is to build in smart contracts to automate stakeholder compliance tasks. The aim is to eliminate all paper from the process, while creating a secure portal that contracting parties, regulatory and customs authorities can see, based on Blockchain. Data is then immutable thus eliminating the possibility of fraud and port corruption. Fans of The Wire will recall why this might be useful in container ports.

As it stands the system is not all that onerous, particularly if you have a dedicated shipping manager responsible for customs formalities. Standard data exchange formats mean that business mainframes can automatically populate the certificates and central data repositories can do all the rules of origin maths from a data bank of trade preferences.

The technology is already there, as is the methodology - and once a consignments loaded on to a truck and dispatched, if the system knows the registration of the lorry, the ANPR cameras as as good a means as any to notify ports and border authorities that goods have crossed a border. Though ANPR is probably antiquated now.

Authorities can flag registration plates if they have any cause for concern and intercept. As per the TCA and UCC, Customs controls, other than random checks, "shall" primarily be based on risk analysis using electronic data-processing techniques.

There is presently no real reason, short of a failure to invest, that Norwegian truckers passing into Sweden should have to queue in a portacabin to get their certificates stamped. That this was ever held up as an example of trade friction EEA members experienced was ridiculous.

Similarly, there was never any reason to outright dismiss technological solutions as part of the solution for Northern Ireland. As we noted at the time, though, the regulatory checks were the larger problem and as yet there isn't a computer system that can stick a thermometer up a chicken's bum.

As the Commission reminded us frequently during Article 50 talks, a customs union alone would have accomplished very little and the the only value as such would be to reduce exposure to tariffs demanded by rules of origin - which would likely be of considerably smaller concern had we joined the PEM convention.

The only problem with this is that single window as a concept is not fully mature - but had it been ready ten years earlier - or we'd have delayed leaving the customs union a while, we'd have eliminated a lot of tiresome arguments. Put simply, customs "paperwork" is going the way of the dinosaur, rendering customs unions all but obsolete in terms of "frictionless trade".

What is surprising though, is how the trade fraternity have made absolutely no mention of this, or that the TCA explicitly says "Each Party shall endeavour to establish a single window that enables traders to submit documentation or data required for importation, exportation, or transit of goods through a single entry point to the participating authorities or agencies". It's happening.

I'm unsure as to the extent of current HMRC software developments, and I highly doubt this much has been understood by MPs, so whatever replaces the current customs system maybe short-lived as single window renders it obsolete. The advantage to much of it being based on open standards is that a lot of it can happen in the private sector with government opting in as an when it is ready.

As is gradually dawning on business just lately, the real headache is the third country controls and the loss of the right of establishment that goes with single market membership. More could have been done to reduce certification problems by investing in the technology but the regulatory barriers were always going to cause problems. Still, though, an incurious media continues to bleat about "customs red tape".

One way or another single window will become the universal way of doing things. Based on global standards and adopted by the World Customs Organisation, and being central to new plurilateral WTO eCommerce agreements, we can expect to see rapid proliferation. It has become a central pillar of trade facilitation and new experimental value chains in Uganda are already using it. The first world is actually behind the curve.

Though we have ended frictionless trade as we know it presently, there is actually no reason why ports can't establish efficient routines. Much of the chaos we have seen comes from a lack of familiarity with third country processes, a failure to prepare and widespread confusion as to what the TCA was going to contain. The lasting hit to business will be the inherent loss of single market particpation rights which will affect non-goods trade even harder.

As regards trade in goods, as single window matures and regulatory processes are built into software protocols and automatically updated, linking in with things like RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) and authorisation systems, in a decade or so, much of this won't even register as a concern. Trade in goods has become an unfortunate distraction from more lucrative markets and the new frontier in trade is in the digital domain.

Throughout Brexit, trade in goods has dominated because it's much more relatable than digital trade issues, Lorries on ferries is a tangible manifestation of trade whereas digital rights, privacy, data protection, intellectual property are not readily accessible. They are perhaps more important though. With homeworking taking off and businesses no longer limited to the locality for finding the best talent, digital rules will be key to creating and protecting jobs.

These are the new global arguments ahead of us. We have recently seen the potential for harm of unchecked monopoly power among tech giants. We can't afford to be distracted by interminable rows about fish. Trade in goods may be getting simpler, but everything else is becoming a whole lot more complicated.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

CPTPP: What do you mean by "comprehensive"?


While we're on the subject of CPTPP, I thought it interesting that the media's third favourite trade wonk, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama (and to my mind the only one ever saying anything worthwhile), should confirm much of what I had assumed. In an older paper written for Daniel Hannan's Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), Makiyama writes:

First, CPTPP and other FTAs do not contain provisions that actually set regulatory standards, but ensures the sovereigns regulate in the most non-discriminatory fashion possible. In other words, CPTPP and other trade agreements voluntarily bind its members to refrain from certain, specific discriminatory practices, like a rulebook against discrimination in national legislation – but do not replace the national legislation itself. This is how CPTPP (and other FTA texts) deal with a complex matter like food safety in just sixteen pages, while the national legislation often runs several hundred pages long – the current UK law, implemented via EU regulation (Regulation No 882/2004) on feed and food runs 196 pages in the Official Journal.

Second, six members of the CPTPP have existing agreements with the EU. In order to ensure consistency between agreements, these countries had to be certain that none of the commitments in their bilateral FTAs with the EU could or would contradict potential TPP pledges. In other words, these countries have already scrubbed commitments which could cause potential conflicts between the CPTPP text and the EU FTA template, as they have signed up to both. In addition, Japan, New Zealand and Australia also had comprehensive mutual recognition agreements (MRAs, based on conformity assessment) with the EU, even prior to their EPA/FTAs. In highly regulated sectors, such as on motor vehicles, Japan and Australia have also unilaterally accepted or incorporated European standards into their systems.

Evidently, as nothing in the CPTPP agreement precluded Japan and other CPTPP countries to conclude a comprehensive FTA with the EU as well, the UK would in theory be able to pursue both. However, in the opposite direction, whether the EU body of law in its entirety would pass CPTPP commitments, is a different question that is discussed in the following sections.

First off, one would note the disparity of language. The agreement is often described both deep and comprehensive, which it may well be through the narrow prism of tariffs, but by way of the above, it is neither deep nor comprehensive. What it confirms, though, is that in terms of standards and regulations, as discussed here yesterday, it does not go much further than the WTO baseline and merely reinforces WTO principles and ongoing trends in regulatory coherence initiatives.

It is also important to note that CPTPP remains a thin agreement precisely because key members prioritise deeper and more comprehensive agreements with the EU. This point has evidently escaped Daniel Hannan and the various luminaries behind the IFT. In particular, Korea has adopted the EU's REACH system for chemicals. This prioritisation of EU trade is an inherent expansion limit to CPTPP, and I suppose acts as a safeguard against it becoming anything more political. 

What Makiyama doesn't say, is that the respective EU FTAs primarily adopt global regulations and not "EU standards". In the case of motor vehicle, all EU FTAs, including our own, adopt the full stack of UNECE regulations. This is becoming a curious blind spot in the trade fraternity.

Moreover, if the mutual recognition on conformity assessment within CPTPP is tailored so as not to offend the EU, then it doesn't present the obstacles I was imagining, but by the same token, it is not likely to be comprehensive, thus of limited value. That further substantiates my belief that CPTPP is not at all comprehensive. The only slam dunk argument I can see is that it simplifies and improves rules of origin among signatories, but that will very much depend on how it interacts with EU rules. They cannot be looked at in isolation when it comes to complex value chains. 

As to food safety, Makiyama does indeed make the point that it is necessarily a complex area, and a territory upon which CPTPP fears to tread, thus it cannot be said that the agreement does very much at all for non-tariff barriers, and nothing beyond which the parities are already committed to via their own WTO rule based EU FTAs. Meanwhile, by way of geography, the UK's SPS regime will continue to be heavily influenced by the EU whether the government yet knows it or not.

More than anything, the UK's accession looks more like a dual-use move; to establish a diplomatic presence in Pacific trade conversations, and to broadcast our "Global Britain" credentials. It certainly won't live up to the hype, and so far as the consumer is concerned, against the unfolding consequences of leaving the single market, it is likely to make no noticeable difference.

As with Brexit, the CPTPP debate will largely concentrate on tariffs, ignoring services, and will completely neglect any consideration of non-tariff barriers. As per the discussions over the TCA, Geneva will remain the elephant in the room. That neither the media or its rent-a-quote trade wonks are remotely aware of it speaks volumes. 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Actually, CPTPP isn't a bad idea


The UK is applying to join a free trade area made up of 11 Asia and Pacific nations, under its post-Brexit plans. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership - or CPTPP - includes Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Hitherto now I've been somewhat sceptical in that one wonders what value there is in joining a regional trade agreement on the other side of the planet comprising of members we already have comprehensive agreements with. Furthermore, it is not a regulatory union, and not all that deep in terms of regulatory cooperation. It largely builds on copy-outs from WTO agreements and GATT.

Comprising of only 10% of our current exports, it's difficult to see what noticeable value it will have. It goes no way toward softening the impact of leaving the single market, America is unlikely to join it, and the rudimentary mutual recognition of conformity assessment within it doesn't really do much for us. More than likely it will complicate our remaining exports to the EU. The further we move away from a Europe first policy, the bigger the problems we have. But then since we seem to be hell bent on ruining most of our exports with the EU anyway, that's something of a moot point.

From a trade point of view you could easily conclude that CPTPP isn't worth the bother. But in taking such a narrow view I'm falling into the trap of seeing relations only in terms of their more immediate material gains. More than likely the government is taking a more strategic view to strengthen trade and investment ties with the Asia Pacific region. The agreement itself doesn't appear to go very far on investment but it does have that potential, and though it is not a regulatory union, it does commit the members to working on regulatory coherence and standardisation.

This pans out quite well for the UK in that it doesn't really require much of us. The UK is already at the global benchmark in most areas, while other CPTPP members have committed to reaching that bar by way of their deals with the EU. The UK, therefore, is well placed to consult on these matters. By driving forward the convergence agenda, the UK recruits more non-EU partners to its own initiatives, thereby counterbalancing EU clout in various international organisations.

Ultimately the UK needs a presence in the region and it also needs to upscale its regulatory diplomacy operation, and CPTPP is as good a place to start as any. Though the EU and UK may have set the standards for trade in goods, areas such as digital trade and electronic commerce are still relatively virgin territory out in the big world. There are threats and opportunities on the horizon, and CPTPP, if nothing else, is a good early warning system. One might even argue that if the UK is going to rebuild its trade and diplomatic capabilities we can't afford not to join, and sitting alongside Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand, we are at least among friends and allies. 

Where there is genuine concern about CPTPP is the lack of transparency over the decision-making and the complete absence of public debate - and the debate that does exist in Westminster is a low information debate among politicians and journalists whose understanding of the issues has not meaningfully advanced since 2016. Meanwhile the government seems intent on avoiding all scrutiny.

We will no doubt see a great deal of scaremongering over CPTPP, be it food standards or carve outs for the NHS, or ISDS, most of which will be irrelevant noise and party political gaming. It that respect, it wouldn't matter if there was a system for parliamentary scrutiny since MPs are usually distracted by the trivia, recycling the same old themes while utterly neglecting things like services and digital trade - and even if they were asking the right questions, they tend not to understand the answers. There likely are problems with CPTPP but we likely shan't know what they are until it's too late. But then that was true of the EEC, so we are at least consistent, I suppose. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Brexit: towards a new normal


Not because of Brexit, but because of decisions taken by the Conservative government, Britain is going to lose a substantial chunk of its trade. This will be single market based trade we've evolved since the mid-nineties. Trade that didn't really exist before and now we've lost those contracts will probably lose out to EU based competitors permanently. We're no longer part of those value chains. The red tape and the third country controls will see to that. 

It is going to hurt more than it ever needed to because of a number of faulty assumptions during trade negotiations and because our preparations were wholly inadequate. Much of the system relies on software that simply isn't designed to cope with the number of declarations and submissions. We could have bought ourselves more time by extending the transition - which would also have led to a more comprehensive deal but Boris Johnson in infinite wisdom decided that wasn't necessary.

Worse still, the the EU has a fully developed system for handling third country interactions, the UK does not. We do not as yet hold the institutional expertise, nor have we established a routine. We are inexperienced in these matters. There isn't the capability to sort out the problems. Business is unprepared, government hasn't a clue, the infrastructure isn't ready and there are not enough trained or experienced people on the job. It's all building up to a perfect storm.

Sooner or later warehouse stockpiles will need replenishment, informal grace periods will expire, and the French will get up to speed with implementing third country controls. This will get messy. I do not think that we have seen the worst of it. Any Brexiteer who thought we got away with it is kidding themselves. 

I do, though, think we should be able to sort it out. It is going to take a number of years. It's going to take a year at least to fully comprehend the causes of the bottlenecks and then a further two years of refinement followed by a process of installing a more permanent system. 

The new system will be heavily influenced by the EU's Union Customs Code. The TCA compels both parties to harmonise their data requirements for import, export and other customs procedures by implementing common standards and data elements in accordance with the Customs Data Model of the WCO. From this we will see a proto-Single Window emerge, which was always the direction of travel, largely eliminating paper declarations and more can be done in terms of customs cooperation and trade facilitation to get the routine running smoothly. 

It will likely never run quite as smoothly as it did before but we will arrive at something within tolerance. By this time, if I've understood the TCA, we will have Authorised Economic Operator systems in place so that regular exporters will have a much easier time of it and we will see improvements to the TCA in the fullness of time. 

From this we arrive at a very different way of doing this where much of the activity moves from behind the border to the ports, and in many ways it will spur some much needed modernisation. The good news is that we are already seeing tech-startups utilising the respective data standards to help navigate complex procedures such as Rules of Origin. Ironically the UK could become a global leader in customs and trade facilitation technology and setting the standards worldwide through international organisations.

In this it is even conceivable that the end point could see a return of relatively "frictionless" trade. Frictionless trade is as much about routine and predictability. When we have the systems in place and trust is established, though the same third country controls will still exist we'll be a lot better at managing the impact. In this we should note that trade has it has existed is not frictionless as such. There is still a great deal of "red tape" only it is conducted elsewhere. Some sectors such as food and chemicals will continue to face obstacles, but anyone who wants to stay in business will adapt. The question is whether they can continue to compete.

Though the present mess is still a disaster for current exporters, especially those who have failed to prepare, it is conceivable that when we arrive at a new regime (likely five years from now, give or take a software procurement scandal) things will being to look normal to the casual observer. Being that businesses will continue to use ISO and UNECE standards, their main area of concern will be product authorisations and testing. Any future government will likely press the EU for mutual recognition of conformity assessment and seek equivalence agreements based on retained regulation. The EU is likely to play hardball but I wouldn't rule it out if it's in the EU's material interests. Both parties will have Covid recovery imperatives.

What we can say is that it's going to get substantially worse before it gets better and it's going to create serious problems for Ireland. Already Irish supply chains are breaking down but this does not register with the media to the same extent as the Dover-Calais route. The former is seen as more local news whereas Dover is the international gateway. That is also where the government will focus its main attentions, and being that UK-Ireland relations are not in good health, the Tories will likely treat Ireland with a degree of contempt. Every time the EU makes life difficult for the UK the UK will seek to pass on those difficulties.

This is motivated largely by a sense of Tory victimhood. On Brexiter Street, Ireland is seen to have cosied up to Brussels with a view to weaponing the Irish border leading to the unhappy NI protocol now in force. The Tories also believe they can bounce Ireland out of the EU by making life difficult for them. I don't think it's likely to succeed, but the difficulties Ireland faces could be interpreted as the EU failing to live up to its promise of solidarity. I do not think the politics are clear cut. 

Though Ireland has made alternative arrangements to transfer freight from mainland Europe, the length of the voyage creates its own problems - particularly for Ireland's race horse sector. With an overall retraction of commerce from the British Isles, Brexit could end up hurting Ireland almost as much as the UK. Depending on what the UK does in the distant future, Ireland may be forced to rethink its relationships. In those stakes I don't see UK-Irish relations improving until Boris Johnson is gone.

In any case we've bought ourselves a decade of diplomatic and bureaucratic stress not entirely dissimilar to the process of joining the single market. Only this time the media will report it because it's politically useful to do so. We shall see no abatement of Brexit bickering but ultimately we just have to get on with it until we find our new normal. 

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Brexit: time to get on with it


I rather thought I was going to enjoy pulling the wings off ultra-Brexiteer types as their delusions were skewered by the encroachment of reality but it's turning out to be meagre pickings since many of them are too stupid to even realise there is a problem and the rest are unwilling to believe it has anything at all to do with that thing they campaigned so intensively for. 

The other problem is with me. I just can't be bothered. There's no real sport in it if it's easy prey. And of course, it scarcely matters now. What's done is done. The fishing industry is mostly getting what it deserves and I don't have that much sympathy for British manufacturers either. Rules of Origin should not have caught them off guard.  

Moreover, Just In Time supply chains are not necessarily about rapid transit, rather it is a matter of planning to ensure goods get to their destination precisely when they are needed while spending as little time in warehouses as possible. 

Though the precise trade regime was not known until the last minute, the writing has been on the wall for some time that we would assume third country status and though government communications have been poor, there was nothing at all preventing them from doing their own groundwork - yet a great many of them sat on their hands. 

Of course, nobody can say that the government has upheld its own part of the bargain. Customs software isn't up to scratch, the support isn't there and the trade deal itself is barely worth having for all the use it is. Brexit is done and we've made a pig's ear of it. 

The energy, therefore, is better invested in thinking how we make the best of it. I do not believe that re-joining is likely, possible or even desirable, and if Efta EEA was a losing bet before then it is now for much the same reasons. The argument for remaining inside the EEA regulatory sphere was to maintain EU trade but by the time we re-joined it, our trade would already be a distant memory and would likely never be the same again. Our current value chains are the product of thirty years of evolution. 

I will never stop beating remain MPs over the head with the fact they voted against EEA Efta, but for better or for worse the TCA is the foundation we must build on. It is now a fact of life that, for the time being, things are going to cost a bit more, we're going to export substantially less to the EU, and business will have to adapt or die. I don't like it but there it is.

Of course the remainers are going to whine for an eternity, particulary about any regulatory divergence. In their minds any divergence is bad, and any way that isn't the EU way is inferior. But that never has been true. Regulation has always been used by the EU as a tool of integration where it never particularly mattered if it was bad regulation just so long as it was uniform throughout. Though it gets improved over time, improvement is always a suboptimal compromise - and still more concerned with finding an acceptable average than tackling the problems regulation is notionally designed to solve.

There are aspects of environmental law and waste policy, only tangentially related to trade, that could now be reformed without that process of negotiation. Energy, water and waste policy is now up for grabs. Moreover, the UK is now, to a point, free to make its own decisions on product regulation. We have long been a dumping ground for substandard Chinese counterfeit output, which the EU system failed to prevent.

The EU's system has, in fact, encouraged corporate irresponsibility, instilling a culture of "plausible deniability", where retailers and their suppliers can plead that the "paperwork and procedures" were in order, thus dumping the blame for any failures on anonymous producers, largely keeping their own reputations intact.

While people were complaining about the opening of our borders to the inrush of immigrants from other EU member states, another revolution was taking place. Our borders were forcibly opened to a torrent of cheap, often substandard imports. And, as long as they carried the "magic talisman" of the CE mark and had the correct paperwork, local port inspectors were effectively prohibited from examining the goods.

What were termed "technical inspections" were condemned as "barriers to trade", on the basis of which the commission rigorously pursued their agenda of dismantling port controls. Furthermore, once in the shops, the official presumption is that goods bearing the CE mark are "safe", so that officials such as trading standards officers are actively dissuaded from carrying out spot sampling. And no longer do local authorities make budget allocations for routine tests. 

That is a large part of the problem in UK governance. Across the board, adoption of EU regulation has weakened enforcement and lessons from enforcement are not fed back into the system - and where they are there is little reflection of it.

Among national politicians there is a presumption that technical governance of this nature does not require them to be familiar with it, being that it's an EU competence and the sharp end of it is handled by local authorities. Enforcement is then a matter of mere budget allocation rather than governing philosphy. This we have seen with the sweatshops in Leicester where there is no shortage of regulation on treatment of workers and health and safety, but what good is Rolls Royce regulation if enforcement is still British Leyland?

As much as there is an overreliance on the EU and international organisations to provide the regulation, there is a presumption that the system is self-maintaining without the direct involvement of our politicians. To a point that's true, but that's how we get to critical decision points like 2019 and the average MPs has no concept of what they're even debating.

Under the terms of the TCA it is unlikely we shall see that "bonfire of regulation" and suppliers to global corporates will still elect to follow international standards. Britain will still have to make its own representations to the global bodies where the rules are made, but over time the EU will lose interest in monitoring what the UK is doing internally, particularly as its attentions turn elsewhere, by which time there should be policy space to rethink how we do things.

Since we have already damaged our trade beyond repair we now have little to lose by experimentation and regulatory innovation. In terms of animal welfare and disease control there are obvious advantages to having a distinct system to the EU, and though we should still look to liberalise our trade, there is no reason why we should continue to allow China to abuse the certification process in order to keep dumping fraudulent goods on our market.

Though trade metrics report of volumes and values, they don't give us an idea of the economic, health and social costs of a profligate society living for conveniences, always sacrificing quality for price. The mentality of the last forty years has been geared toward the maximisation of trade volumes but with scant regard for the wider implications. With Covid and geopolitical trends interrupting globalisation, we could certainly use a "great reset" in the way we think about trade and regulation. 

Wokeness: echoes of East Germany


We're having some technical problems on Turbulent Times tonight so I'm posting here 


What have the woke left and the East German secret police got in common? Quite a lot as it happens - you won't be surprise to learn. A cornerstone of the contemporary leftist thinking is critical race theory. I must confess I'm no expert on it, but it appears to be a ranking system according to your victimhood credentials; a social grading system that determines whether your opinion has any right to exist. 

A new California curriculum in the news this week uses racial distinctions to divide people into those who are considered white (and therefore privileged) and those who are non-white (and therefore oppressed); and in the case of Jews, it combines the two, pitting "Jews of color" against Jews who are tarred with "conditional whiteness" and its attendant "racial privilege".

This is essentially rhetorical weapons system designed to bake in discrimination. It comes as no surprise that the woke left puts Jews in their crosshairs first. The system is based on a ranking of what they term "privilege" which is based on all the old left wing bigotries and stereotypes, so it was only a matter of time before Jews became the target. And these people pretend to be "anti-fascists".

But it does fit with history. Communists have always defined themselves primarily as anti-fascist. GDR authorities officially referred to the Berlin Wall as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the "will of the people" from building a socialist state in East Germany.

Drawing from the work of Maoz Azaryahu, it's worth looking at East Germany. Following a period of direct military occupation by the victorious allies, in 1949 both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR) were founded as successor states to the German Reich. For both German states, the evaluation of the Nazi past was central to the construction of their respective national identities as German states that represent and embody a ‘new’ Germany. West German society was bent on forgetfulness and suppression of the inconvenient past, whereas antifascism became the founding ethos of GDR.
In communist East Germany, the commemoration of the Nazi past was designed in the framework of anti-fascism (‘anti-Fa’) as a state doctrine. The legacy of anti-fascism juxtaposed the fascists with their victims, but at its core was the celebration of communist resistance and martyrdom as well as the solidarity between communist and non-communist resisters, such as social democrats and clergymen.
Significantly, communist resistance in Germany was construed as an aspect of the struggle led by the Soviet Union against fascism, and the Soviet victory was also the victory of East Germany over Nazi Germany. Especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, the designation ‘fascism’ also applied for West Germany, which according to the East German propaganda represented the continuation of fascism.

As both a historical legacy and political argument, anti-fascism was an instrument to legitimize both the Communist state and the hegemonic role of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in East Germany. Grounded in Marxist-Leninist interpretation, the East German doctrine of anti-fascism regarded Nazi Germany as the local context of a broader phenomenon, fascism, that expressed the crisis of ‘monopoly capitalism’. The Nazi extermination policy against the Jews was seen not in a German context, but as a result of the ostensibly criminal nature of ‘late capitalism’. The doctrine of anti-fascism absolved all East Germans – provided they supported the communist regime, and irrespective of their actual biographies – of sharing the burden of the Nazi past.
Having developed its founding ethos, it then needed its national heroes and founding mythology. According to the East German narrative, the liberation of Buchenwald on 11 April 1945 was a self-liberation by the communist-led underground organization that took control of the camp shortly before American troops of general Patton’s Third Army arrived. Celebrated as the victory of anti-fascist resistance, the ‘self-liberation’ of the camp belonged to the foundation narrative of the GDR as an anti-fascist state. 

Another important symbol of anti-fascism was the ‘Buchenwald Oath’, in which members of the underground organization, shortly after liberation, pledged their resolve to continue their struggle. In East Germany, the ‘Buchenwald Oath’ became a credo of the anti-Fa doctrine.
Buchenwald itself became part of the mythology, becoming the "museum of anti-fascist resistance", juxtaposing Nazi barbarism and anti-fascist resistance and martyrdom, while emphasizing that Nazi 

Germany was but an aspect of the general crisis of capitalism. In the wake of the collapse of the GDR, the narrative of heroic resistance and anti-fascist martyrdom lost both its credibility and authority on the revelation that between 1945 and 1950 the former concentration camp had served as a Soviet detention camp for Germans. This goes some way toward explaining holocaust denial on the left in that the reintegration of Buchenwald into a more accurate record of history discredited the heroic character of "anti-fascist resistance" mythology.

More broadly, GDR was famed for its suppression of speech, a ruthless secret police, mass state surveillance and military borders in order to keep people from leaving. Nobody was risking their lives to go and live in this socialist utopia.

Though my linkage to the modern woke left is not entirely serious, they both define themselves by what they're not and both rely on a rewriting of history. Their whole identity is fashioned on their opposition to fascism which in their minds makes them righteous by default. The authoritarian behaviour is similar because the foundation construct is so flimsy it depends on the policing of language and thought. The transgender lobby has attempted to appropriate Alan Turing as one of its martyrs in the same way that GDR incorporated the memory of Ernst Thälmann. In no way does this stand up to scrutiny but activists become immediately aggressive when challenged. As offensive as that is to me, so to is the attempt to write transgender people into the holocaust.

Though the left doesn't have a Stasi of its own to enforce these doctrines, it does employ doxing and by way of their capture of institutions, it's quite easy to have a sceptical academic removed from their post or a public official sacked - or a book withdrawn from publication.

Though America is not yet turning down that road, one can almost imagine the Antifa mobs of Portland settling the issue once and for all by replicating the Berlin wall around the city - assuming they can find any males who can work construction. Gender studies degrees are going to need a structural engineering module. The woke women will all be too busy in the HR jobs in Silicon Valley.

What particularly piqued my interest in Azaryahu's work, was the concept of "late capitalism" - a pillar of the communist dogma at the time. This have been revived of late, particularly through the medium of memes, and I never realised the significance. Nothing of the current leftist rhetorical construct is remotely original. 

Whoever dreamed up the modern left's playbook and lexicon seems to have been almost exclusively inspired by the GDR. Everything about it is centred on indoctrinating its adherents into thinking that anything in the outside world is fascist - and to disagree is a moral failing.

The only thing original about this is the way in which this iteration of communism has infected the USA by donning the clothes of racial justice and gender equality. The murder of George Floyd last year gave it a window of opportunity and with the election of Biden, it now feels it has a foothold. If enough Americans see it for what it really is then reconciliation is impossible. Civil war may well be on the cards. Either way, unless it is defeated, the liberal democratic America we have known in our lifetimes is dead.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Wind down.


I've slowed down on the blogging over the course of the lockdown. It's nice to have company in the house but I don't get anything like the same uninterrupted thinking time. A lot of the blogging process is reading and thinking in the quiet hours. Moreover, I think I've taken it as far as I can go with blogger. Hits are still showing a steady increase but growth is glacial and you know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results.

With that, and having moved past Brexit, we've also been having discussions about The Leave Alliance and EUreferendum.com. The Leave Alliance site has been more or less dormant for a few months and it has served its purpose but now it's just sitting there costing money. As to EUreferendum, we feel the name puts limits on exposure, especially with the referendum being a distant memory now.

This then presents the question of what next? Well, we've toyed with the idea of a multi-author site for some time. I was actually me who took some convincing, since we've attempted to bring in other writers before to find that good writing is something of a rarity and taking on the workload of editing as well as producing a daily blog is too much to ask. Now, though, I feel less inclined to blog daily since I'd rather produce less at a higher quality. Much of what is said on this blog is repetition, which is fine for a campaigning blog, but in my view it's getting a bit stale.

So with that, we are now moving to turbulenttimes.co.uk. Himself has long complained that my ASP.net content management system was laborious, and not having my head fully in the programming game means even small edits is a major undertaking for which I seldom have the energy (or interest) so I'm finally giving up the ghost and moving to a Wordpress based system.

For the most part the website is ready but we've still some fine-tuning to do which will happen over the course of the next few weeks and eureferendum.com will gradually migrate. Rather than the big launch approach we're going to run it concurrently for a while to iron out the bugs and establish a presence. Once we're confident with it and have the routine down we will then look to take submissions from other bloggers.

I will keep this blog open and will post the occasional piece if it doesn't fit on the main site, but I'm done bashing my head against a brick wall. There are other subjects I'd like to write about and a new start is just what the doctor ordered. When we've migrated I will clean up eureferendum.com as an archive site. It will stay online but I'll be downgrading the hosting to save money.

With that I'd like to thank all of you who've supported this blog over the years, especially those of you who've donated. I try to to send thank you notes to each of you so apologies if I missed you. Being an introvert I struggle to make contact with people. It is, nonetheless, hugely appreciated and means more than I can say.

On that note, our new venture has cost us quite a bit to get going. I've paid a proper developer this time meaning we should have the full spectrum of functionality. If you would like to donate to the cause, you can do so here, but as ever, please keep up the retweets and shares etc. Migrating a site always means a slight dip in hits so your support matters now especially. As ever, thank you for reading, and see you over at the new digs.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Failing at every turn


Twitter is not so much a website as a state of mind. When you're plugged into it, it is all consuming. It can be used productively to inform the debate if you have the time and the energy but it can suck you into the distorted Twitter brain state whereby you end up being distracted and absorbed by trivia. In respect of that this lockdown has been a welcome diversion. I've taken to my modelling bench in a big way, scarcely concerned with the outside world.

Now that I'm outside the Twitter bubble looking in, I do wonder how it ever managed to consume so much of my time. Scarcely anything I scroll past is worth a nanosecond of my time. It tends to gravitate toward petty partisan bickering, neglecting the central issues almost entirely, to the point where its denizens have lost sight of what is actually important.

Part of the problem with the national debate is that we are a nation of news junkies, always waiting for the next big thing which begets a media always trying to engineer the next big thing. Reality, though, is much less interesting. Things seldom happen in rapid succession. The Brexit saga was weeks of inactivity, speculation and churn, only periodically punctuated by something of actual consequence. That's partly why this blog has drifted away from the subject. I keep an eye on it, but there's nothing especially new that's worth a post.

As it happens, Corona is unfolding in much the same way. There are milestone events with a cacophony of noise in between. More causal consumers of news rely on mainstream outlets such as the BBC trusting their judgement as to what is actually important. Consequently there is little hope of any kind of informed debate. The BBC is readily distracted by soap opera and lacks the capacity to do thorough and far reaching journalism. The important news stories will drift by unnoticed.

As to the online debate, very few are actually interested in what's really going on, consuming media as ammunition for their own agendas. In aid of that people tend to prefer filtered narratives even if they have only a passing relationship with reality. Primarily it's about media consumers abusing news for personal entertainment.

This is where Corona and Brexit have yet more interesting parallels. Whether or not the lockdown was the right thing to do, the more important debate is how we get out of it now that we are in it. Like the Brexit debate, people will churn over the former question for years on end rather than address themselves to the mechanics of the situation, largely because it requires a level of greater understanding and a much more objective outlook.

In these such situations you have to understand all of the moving parts - their history and function, and how we got where we are. The adjacent debates, though, are far more accessible, more popular, and more profitable if you're in the business of harvesting clicks and likes. The more I see of that dynamic, the less I want anything at all to do with it - especially since it isn't remotely productive in any sense. Twitter influence is not influence. If you are influential on there then chances are you are part of the problem.

With Corona I've been less able to analyse events not having any prior knowledge but my experience on the Brexit front lines has taught me that if there are answers out there, or at least better questions, then the media and their favoured prestige experts are of zero value and the people who rate them can't be persuaded of anything because they're wedded to a tribal narrative construct.

One such example is the trading of graphs on Twitter. Every single national epidemic curve graph on the internet is fiction. No exceptions. Every national epidemic curve chart is based on ropey data, but more importantly an aggregate curve gives you no clue as to what is happening in the country as a whole, or what will happen when the lockdown is relaxed. They have no epidemiological value in terms of trying to control the disease. A declining aggregate curve may simply represent one large area in decline while concealing a number of other areas with small outbreaks which are rapidly increasing.

We have to control this epidemic one infection at a time, one outbreak at a time. We are looking at several peaks so the notion we are "through the peak" of a fictional political construct is PR spin and should be disregarded as irrelevant. The decline we see is really only the result of the lockdown but the virus is still out there and there is no indication the government has understood or implemented the necessary toolset to avoid a second spike. There is simply no evidence that current government activity other than the lockdown has been in any way successful at controlling outbreaks - and it may even be counter-productive. 

Then on a deeper examination of the issues, we find that there is a major missing element to our understanding of the virus where exposure alone is not enough to cause illness. If that turns out to be true then it will be used as a vindication by all those who said the lockdown was never necessary whether they too the time to understand or examine the issues or not. That's the other part of the problem. Media consumers seek vindication for their predispositions and validation. Information and understanding is optional. This is why much of the corporate media has abandoned its obligation to inform.

If there is indeed another dimension to the virus we have not yet understood then a great deal of the current controls are unnecessary, and most of the necessary controls are not being applied or applied incorrectly. The contact tracing system crucial to hopes of easing lockdown will be outsourced to private call centre operators including Serco, The Times reports. This ought to be the sole domain of local authorities based on local knowledge and conducted by trained field operatives. This is just going through the motions. This should be the main story of the week but that's unlikely with our trivia addicted media.

As I understand it strategies do exist to control outbreaks based on high quality intelligence gathering, focussing resource where it is most likely to occur but instead the government is pegging its hopes on gimmicky contact tracing app for the general population - which from a technical perspective is problematic but highly questionable also in epidemiological terms. Standing back from the media noise, there is no apparent signal that anyone in the government has really grasped what we are dealing with or has any real idea what to do. Much like Brexit. 

It seems the Downing Street machine is adept at spin, mobilising its supporters to cement narratives in the general population but it doesn't have the ability or institutional knowledge to handle anything of complexity and importance. That's something of a problem when the entire business of government deals with matters of complexity and importance. Our system simply isn't fit for purpose. and it's costing us a hefty price in blood and treasures. 

Friday, 1 May 2020

Games with numbers


At the moment I'm more cautious than usual about venturing an opinion. This epidemic has too many moving parts to understand exactly what is happening. There are plenty of forceful opinions about but not much in the way of useful or accurate data, and even if there were, data alone doesn't necessarily clarify anything, and a figure like daily deaths is a somewhat arbitrary statistic since it's an aggregation of multiple outbreaks in various states. 

Particularly, there are a number of reporting irregularities while we also have a hidden epidemic where there is really no way to tell how severe it is. We're getting conflicting information where what is actually happening could be the exact opposite of what you might reasonably assume, all the while (much like the Brexit debate) the nation conversation is polluted by half-understood notions and alternative political narratives which again have no bearing on the real world. Time and again the same dynamic applies with cynical actors using events to stoke discord. The right are as bad as the left.

As regards to the politics, it again mirrors Brexit where we have a poorly advised executive attempting something it doesn't understand while fending off a feral and largely ignorant media, leaving the rest of us in the dark, where the more you expose yourself to the daily soap opera, the less likely you are to get an an accurate picture.

Meanwhile the lockdown argument continues to rage. Whatever the science says, the continuation of the lockdown is 100% a political decision. At some point it has to end simply because it is not economically sustainable and the public don't have the stamina or the means for a prolonged outage. 

We are told we are through the peak, but the peak is a narrative construct based aggregated data. This tells you this government has no idea what it's doing. If they're looking at a national figure they're still treating it as a single outbreak rather than several concurrent outbreaks at various stages. The virus could easily become endemic and we simply have to adapt to living with a highly contagious deadly virus. That probably means sustained social distancing measures coupled with track and trace while treating Covid patients in separate facilities. It may be some time before anything close to normal is resumed.

What makes this virus especially problematic is that we know so little about it. Any easement of the lockdown is a political gamble that could see a second surge, and with country to country comparisons being next to worthless we have no yardstick. A worthwhile look at this appears in The Guardian.
"But, of course, people are not so interested in the numbers themselves – they want to say why they are so high, and ascribe blame. But if it’s difficult to rank this country, it’s even trickier to give reasons for our position. Covid-19 mainly harms the elderly, with the average age of deaths above 80, and its fatality rate doubles every seven years as a person ages. Italy’s population is elderly (it has a median age of 47), while Ireland’s is much younger (a median age of 37), so we would expect different effects. And Covid-19 is a disease of crowded areas – New York is rather different from Reykjavik. An obsessive comparison is being made between Norway and Sweden: Sweden’s more relaxed social distancing policies may or may not have been instrumental in their current death rate being 233 per million, compared with Norway’s 38.
Even – if we can imagine it – we reach some sort of stable situation, will we ever know the direct and indirect health effects of the epidemic, taking into account reduced road accidents, the benefits of reduced pollution, the effects of recession and so on? Many studies will try to disentangle all these, but my cold, statistical approach is to wait until the end of the year, and the years after that, when we can count the excess deaths. Until then, this grim contest won’t produce any league tables we can rely on."
For now we're having to make policy on the fly on the basis of assumption and guesswork, where only time will tell. Unhelpfully we'll remain in the dark as government continues to shift the statistical goalposts. So long as the party faithful submit to the narrative they can successfully distort the national debate to cover up a multitude of sins. With a lazy and incurious media failing to investigate, we may never know how it's unfolding.

Ultimately the economics will be the decider. This lockdown is quite an expensive do for this government and there are no more rabbits in the hat. The various bailouts and funds to prop up businesses and individuals simply cannot be long term measures. This is cartoon physics. The coyote is over the cliff but hasn't yet looked down. The function of Corona funding is to keep the pilot light burning on the normal order of things, but the longer this goes on the less likely there is a normal to go back to. What is done is not so readily undone. The mantra will eventually shift from "save the NHS" to "save the economy".

Thankfully the government is now displaying signs of having exhausted all the possible errors so unless they get creative they might just start getting a few things right. That, though, is going to take some time to come to fruition so we can reasonably assume the lockdown has to roll on a while longer. Having dismantled a great deal of local capability we are faced with rebuilding our response apparatus from scratch. No easy feat.

In the early days of this epidemic we didn't have a clear idea what to expect. With only heavily redacted Chinese news to go on and Italy only just climbing the curve, we had to assume something approaching the worst case scenario. It doesn't appear to be as bad as expected in that it's not a movie style apocalypse, but that's no reason for complacency. This virus is still filling up morgues and we still have no idea what will happen in the near future. Those still claiming it's just the flu haven't grasped that the flu has a high degree of predictability. The unpredictability is what has authorities spooked, and it was politically impossible for any government to take a reckless gamble on the basis of unknowns.

As it transpires, the inaction on the early days was because the government was following a plan to deal with a flu like epidemic. It's precisely because Covid isn't like the flu that our limited containment strategy never stood a chance of working. As to whether it's more deadly than the flu, we simply don't know being that our methodology for recording deaths from either is highly questionable. Ultimately all the "it's just the flu" brigade have succeeded in doing is convincing me to take the flu much more seriously. As a younger person it doesn't really feature in my regular concerns but it probably should. The danger here is that our response to Covid is so inept it simply becomes another mass killer that we all ignore until it affects us.

I haven't looked at any news reports in any serious depth for a week now largely because I'm unconvinced that any of the headlines give us any real information. News from other countries is interesting but not especially useful, and the UK press is mostly toadying sycophancy or shrill, unhinged bleating which is even less useful except as a further marker in the decline of British political culture. That, in the long run, could be more deadly than Corona and more expensive than the lockdown.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Media: Better off without


It has been a very very long time since I received any television channels. I don't feel I'm missing out on anything. It's certainly not useful for news or analysis and from what I see vomited on to Twitter, it gets worse all the times. I think the rot started when newsreaders exchanged their desks for sofas, losing any sense of seriousness or formality.

Particularly loathsome is the rise of the anchor person, spawning a new breed of A-lister lobby hacks and pundits who continually try to make themselves the centre of the story. They're smug, smarmy, condescending, out of touch and their output is inane.

There has long been a debate about media bias. I was once part of the anti-BBC crowd complaining of pro-EU bias. Undoubtedly there is an institutional pro-EU bias but that is born of its more serious metropolitan bias. As it happens I'm not that bothered by it anymore. You can take or leave it and I choose to leave it - and encourage others to do the same.

Where the media is most problematic is its inanity. I can tolerate the bias because I, like most, have my own system of critical faculties and my own opinions derived independently from book learning through to lived experience. What bothers me is the low quality. Instead of informed debate we get uninformed debate between the two polar extremes of any given issue where usually both sides are parroting carefully crafted slogans and factoids without challenge, largely because the interviewers tend to be empty vessels who have never worked outside of London and have never worked outside of media.

As much as the make up of the media is wrong, being largely Londoncentric, it wouldn't actually matter if you moved them all out to Manchester. They still exist within a bubble of their own making. The fundamental problem is their arrogance believing that viewers are incapable of grasping nuanced debates, and don't have the attention span to absorb in depth exploration of issues. Everything is fighting for a sliver of air time where we get only surface level discussion where they even manage to get the basics wrong.

What pisses me off the most, though, is that our A-list hacks are complete wastrels. By way of having privileged access to politicians they have repeated opportunities to ask intelligent, probing questions that could easily show the politicians up as being out of their depth, lacking a clue, and dishonest. Instead they play their own inane little "gotcha" games that the public are sick of, failing to add anything of value and leaving people no better informed for it.

We saw this during Brexit where the media was more interested in the soap opera than the actual issues. Journos didn't have the first idea what the difference between a customs union and the single market was, but had they even half a clue, they would have understood the implications of what they were being told which would have generated more and better questions that could have steered us to a viable, sustainable outcome.

With Corona we see more of the same, with the focus on PPE and human interest stories, unable to interrogate vents intelligently - when they could have asked why Corona was being allowed into hospitals when we had Nightingale hospitals up and running and ready to take patients. Effective media has the power to change government policy yet here we are some weeks into the lockdown and the government is only just getting to grips with the basics with the media lagging behind.

As it happens I don't think the media can be reformed. It cannot reclaim the seriousness it once had. With media now being an internet driven partisan battleground, and with a media unable to bring any depth to the issues, the media itself has become a participant in our politics but one that is largely concerned with its own brand prominence. It's not going to improve until news consumers vote with their feet.

But here we have a problem. There is presently some public pushback. It has not gone unnoticed that the media is dire over the course of Corona. But I don't think it's genuine. They'd be happy with a fawning and subservient media that told them what they like to hear. The right on Twitter seem to regard it impudent to question government at all. They are no more interested in an effective media than the media themselves.

I don't know if it's the lockdown that has changed my habits but lately I'm not even interested in Twitter news. Good analysis is rare as hen's teeth and the questions I have remain unanswered. If I want answers I'm going to have to get them myself. I certainly have no interest in the opinions of Twitter denizens and I'm not interested in playing by their rules in what is essentially a sordid popularity contest among insular tribes who are barely even aware of each other.

The only news yesterday of any particular interest to me was the release of a new set of Notices to Stakeholders, which I will revisit over the next week, but that came to me by way of a mailshot from the EU Commission. It seems I just don't need the media and I suspect a great many more don't either. We are better off without them. Whatever function it serves, it isn't news.