Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Countries, Law & Consent

Countries are legal people. International Law is the set of rules that allow agreements between countries to be binding. It requires countries to delegate authority to supranational authorities to adjudicate over disputes, e.g. International Criminal Court or the European Court of Human Rights. Most International Law is consent-based, so the countries are still in charge... they just agree to play by the rules, or not play. Like a game of touch rugby, poker, tennis or chess works better if you know the rules. Ideally the same rules apply to everyone. If the world were actual people, there would be about 200 of them. Fatties like China, with populations of 1.4 Billion, and minions like the Vatican City, with a population of about 1000. Ms Qatar would earn $127,660 a year, and Ms Central African Republic would earn $652 a year. 'The People' that make up countries don't speak with one voice, and the rules treat the 'The Peoples' differently.


Istanbul was once known as Constantinople and Byzantium. Its commercial and historical centres, and two thirds of its population, are on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait (which separates Europe and Asia, there, a little further North you have make up other play play divisions). Istanbul is the world's 7th largest city proper. It was founded in around 660 BCE as Byzantion, and reestablished as the Imperial Capital of Rome by Constantine (the first Roman Emperor to claim conversion to Christianity) in 330 CE. It stayed the Capital of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of the West, and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire when it was conquered in 1453. The population of the city has increased tenfold since the 1950s, as migrants have come to the city in search of a better life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Cry (Sindile)

I've read the bible front to back 3, maybe 4 times (I can't remember), and probably two of my favourite books are Ecclesiastes and Lamentations.
Neither book resolves.

Both books are packed with the darker elements of human emotion; both books are raw and uncomfortable and face the relentless meaninglessness and even loneliness that assails us, that is so wrapped up in the human condition.
I like Lamentations precisely because it is a book that doesn't ask people to "praise through the storm" or a book that holds up some future hope, in fact it is the minimal hope, the misery, the wailing and almost crushing sense of destitution that moves me in the book..........
While I understand the exhortations in the Psalms and other places, I despise happy clappy religion; religion that reduces the mess and complexity and excess of the human experience, that dulls the cry of the heart, because it is in only facing our own darkest emotions, in being able to sit silently while the tears stream down and face ourselves that we can find our humanity, our deepest sense of compassionate wisdom.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, most translations say the man was "moved with pity"(or some derivative of it) when he saw the man beaten, lying on the side of the road. If you read this passage in the original language, a better translation would be to say that, "his guts writhed with compassion" when he saw the man destitute and beaten, that is to say he had a visceral, gut-punch, a deeply human response when he saw the man and because of that he was moved to go the absolute extra mile for him.
He knew.
He knew destitution. He knew brokenness. He knew it could have been him and unlike the Levite and priest, his humanity superseded any rules of cleanliness, any excuses not to help the man, because he saw himself in that man.
He knew at that moment what it meant to love his neighbour as himself...........
We are human first and everything else second.
I hate happy clappy religion so much, precisely because it loses sight of this, loses sight of the mess and complexity and excess of being human, because out of those things are born neighbourliness and compassionate wisdom and love, because love perfects through suffering.
"Elahi! Elahi! Lama Sabachtani" is viscerally human.
It's messy. It isn't resolving. It's just the cry of a human heart.
Other Guest Posts with Sindile Vabaza

Hand to Mouth

If you spend what you earn, you need to earn what you spend. Living hand to mouth makes you completely dependent on the hand. It keeps the hand busy. In an agricultural world, this made sense because food couldn't be stored without going off. This made a 'work ethic' vital because you only got to eat if someone else was doing the work. You were a free loader. There was still some storage for the Winter. Ant Stark may have kept telling Grasshopper that Winter was coming, and Winter would have come like clock work to reinforce the need for a work ethic.

Winter keeps coming

As the world has broken its chains from an agricultural life style, this has changed. Much of our capital continues doing its thing without our efforts. If you have any wealth, are you a free loader? Wealth comes in different forms. Social Capital means that your labour has a bigger impact. It's easier to get a job, and if you get a job, it is likely to pay more. Laws, business practices and the country you live in give an opportunity to work not available to others. An opportunity to plan. An opportunity to own stuff. If you have financial wealth, it also carries on making money, even if you don't.

The idea of being 'self made' only made sense in an untouched, agricultural world. No one starts from scratch once roads have been built, languages have been formed, money has been minted, and laws have been fought over.

If you invested the same amount as what you spent every year, and that investment earned 5% real return (i.e. 5% more than inflation), then after 15 years your capital would be making as much as you. 50% at 5% for 15 years = Freedom.

If you were then a good custodian of that wealth, and spent less than it made, it would survive. An engine can be passed on to the next generation. 

Beyond the hand to mouth phase, is the growth and reinvestment phase. We are entering the custodial phase. Our contribution will gradually be a smaller and smaller component of the what we receive. Where we are all 'freeloaders' on the wealth created by those who came before, with a shared responsibility to those who will come next.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Make Do

There is something very empowering about releasing anyone from all their obligations to you. Entitlement is a passivity trap. It stops you from taking responsibility, and accountability, for whatever happens next. No one owes you anything. So what are you going to do next?

This is fun story to tell to create wiggle room to get out of responsibilities. Particularly for things we feel bad about, but don't know how much it is 'our fault' or what to do about it. It is easy to trot out forgive and forget, or starting from a blank page, if you have the tools to move forward.

As Trevor Noah pointed out, there was nothing Common about the Common Wealth. By moving forward, Jamaica just has a chance to win their gold back one medal at a time. 

I am not a Nationalist. I don't believe in the concept of sovereignty of The People. In order to create a The People, you have to create false boundaries and differences. You can choose language, sport, music, heroes, wars, skin colour, toe size, nose shape or any other form of common distinguishing mark. Then you can reinforce those differences. I grew up in Apartheid. I can smell its stench a mile away, and so sorry. I'll pass.

The truth is The People only exists by agreement, and that agreement is constantly renegotiated. The best agreements are transparent, clear and enforced by trust.

Looking back at the past as if anyone owns the fault is missing the point. What we know is The People never existed. Stories were told to dominate and compete. Our history is dark. Our agreements were weak or non-existent. But we have learnt a hell of a lot. We learnt it painfully. If we want to move forward, honest eyes and ears are necessary in the way we look back.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Base Inequality

Consumption inequality bothers me far more than wealth or income inequality. Even then, base inequality more than than total consumption. If one person having extra stops someone else from having the basics. Conspicuous consumption is when someone peacocks how well off they are in the face of other peoples' struggles. If they are consuming some luxury good that is only expensive because it is rare, not because it is essential, then they can crack on. That is a stupidity tax. Have as many gold studs on your phone as you want. It is still a phone.  Inequality in general doesn't concern me if people are not held back. Conspicuous hoarding is when excess is held for personal use, but not even used. Don't have 10 spare bedrooms, and have daily baths, if you live in Cape Town. That is Scrooge McDuck style pools of wealth. The wonder of capitalism means that wealth held in that style also gets a stupidity tax through lost opportunities. Most wealth nowadays if held in businesses, is not hoarded. It is doing stuff. Until everyone has the basics, the question remains - is it doing at least enough of the right stuff.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Inflation & Universal Basic Income

The key drivers of inflation are (1) expectations, and (2) supply and demand

1) As we become used to inflation, we expect wage increases. Everything gets more expensive, so we are no better off, but most people don't think in mathematical terms - so they are happy because the number is bigger.

2) If there is no more stuff, but more people want the same amount of stuff - the price will go up. Fewer people will want the stuff as it gets more expensive. More people will provide the stuff as it gets more expensive. Inflation is a signal to use less, or make more.

Inflation happens most rapidly as a signal that there isn't enough production. Hyper-inflation happens is a great signal that things are falling apart. You have to spend your money quickly, because it won't be worth anything rapidly. It is a the most tangible sign that things are running out, and everyone is living hand to mouth.

If a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is funded by a transfer, there is no more money in the system. It is just changing hands. Expensive luxury goods may get cheaper if the net contributors have less money to pay for those luxuries. Basic goods may get more expensive, because people can now afford them. This would shift the incentives from producing luxury goods to producing basic goods. All good.

Even if a UBI was funded by printing money, if it was distributed universally, it would effectively be the same thing as a transfer. It would just be sneakier. Same total amount of goods, but more money. People who had nothing would now have at least a minimum (even if it was worth a little less). Basic goods may be more expensive, but (1) this would encourage more production, and (2) the UBI would be paying for that increase for poorer people.

If this doesn't make sense, just think of the sneakiness of normal inflation. A salary can increase without you being able to buy more! Money isn't actually a thing. It is a law. It is just a way of accounting for who owns what. An agreement. We could just decide that everyone owns enough to survive.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

15-hour Work Week

"In the 21st century a 15-hour work week will suffice, as we turn instead to "how to use freedom from pressing economic cares."
John Maynard Keynes (1930)

Constraints are powerful. Liberty isn't the lack of constraints and rules, it is consent. More than consent, it is willing and enthusiastic participation. Liberty is belief and participation in the social contract you have with others. I love the idea of working towards a 15-hour constraint on the work week. Not on 'work' in the sense of doing something fulfilling, but work in the sense of doing an activity that can be monetised. The best chess players are neither people, nor computers. They are people using computers. Technology can play a part in freeing up our capacity to think about other things, because we have done the bits we have to, faster. I would love to get to the point where I can allocate just 3 hours a day to the stuff that meets the rules of money. Where the people I love also have lots of 'free time'. 3 focused, productive hours on stuff we can count, so we can spend the rest of the day on stuff that counts (but can't be counted).