Blog

Thirty Years

I arrived in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong on the First of July, 1987.

I’d first like to thank President Xi for coming to town to attend my trigintennial celebration. China promised that there would be fifty years of no change (五十年不變), and they have delivered in style: shame on anyone who says that the Chinese Communist Party can’t be trusted to keep their promises.

However, although Hong Kong’s political and economic system has remained unchanged since the handover, even the CCP is (gasp) not omnipotent, and a couple of changes have slipped through the cracks: cheese and trees.

When I first arrived, despite an expat community of several tens of thousands, cheese was almost unobtainable. The Chinese regarded milk as a drink for babies, and found it unimaginable that any rational person would put coagulated baby food in her mouth.

And that was just the start of the cultural divide. Although there were local adaptations of Western food available in Hong Kong (just as there are of Chinese food in the West), the thought of sitting down to gnaw through a lump of half-cooked flesh with semi-raw vegetables on the side was – well, pretty much what the idea of chicken’s feet was (and is) to most Westerners.

Now, walk into almost any supermarket, and there’s cheese a-plenty. A sign not only of changing tastes, but also of the fact that many of those who were attending university overseas when I first arrived are now parents whose children have acquired those same odd tastes. And a sign also that the divide between expat and local society, although still there, has narrowed.

And trees. I’ve hiked in Hong Kong since I arrived, but when I first arrived nearly what little forest there was, was planted, and with non-indigenous species. It wasn’t for want of indigenous species; it was because at Ching Ming and Chong Yeung in spring and autumn, families went to traditional sites to sweep graves, left incense burning, and, after they’d left, those smouldering joss-sticks set whole hillsides on fire. All hillside fires in Hong Kong are man-made – the only source of natural fire is lightening, which only happens in monsoons and typhoons so is always followed by rain. As a result, indigenous species, unlike those in, say, Australia, never evolved fire-resistance. Every hill fire – and they were beautiful ribbons of orange – killed whatever new growth had taken root.

During Chris Patten’s time, one of those fires killed and severely burnt a party of hiking children. Since then, the number of fires has dropped. The result is that the local species have prospered. And today, walking in the New Territories, the forest floors are in primary growth: clear of leaves, with most life thirty feet above me in the canopy.

So: though it’s none of my doing, Hong Kong has changed for the better in some ways. A fact that will be completely lost on Xi and his entourage, and their endless gabfests about Hong Kong people concentrating on the economy, blah blah blah, when it is their own mis-governance that has seen the economy stagnate. Fifty years of no change, delivered.

Welcome, President Xi

It’s official: Xi Jinping is coming to town.

Here’s an early and famous photo of Chris Patten’s early days in Hong Kong:

Patten Tart

He wasn’t surrounded by security goons, the police didn’t have to glue the bricks to the ground to prevent people from picking them up and throwing them at him, and although this may have been staged, it didn’t have that feel to it.

A couple of years later I was out for a hike and came across him, a retired dignitary and their wives. There was no security. Perhaps the two drivers were armed – I don’t know – but I wasn’t stopped, frisked or the like: Patten gave me a friendly nod, which I returned, and we went on our respective ways.

President Xi, by contrast, will be staying at the Grand Hyatt where “For security reasons, hotel rooms in several floors will be vacated and people will have to receive a security check before being allowed to enter the hotel” and will be too busy on the Great Hong Kong White Elephant tour to sample egg tarts.

So here’s a little ditty to welcome him (by the way, “X” is pronounced “Sh” in Chinese, and Jin would rhyme with “bean”, so “She Jean-ping” is about as close as I can get in spelling that a native English speaker would recognize):

You’d better watch out

You’d better not cry

You’d better watch out

I’m telling you why

Xi Jinping is coming to town

Well he’s bringing lots of tanks and guns

And a great big army too

And when he brings them to Hong Kong

He’s gonna drive them over you (splat)

[Chorus]

He knows which books you’re selling

He knows when they’re taboo

He’ll get that filmed confession

And that’s the end of you (oo)

[Chorus]

He don’t like independence

He knows just what’s at stake

So he will change the Basic Law

And a pyre of freedoms make (yeah!)

[Chorus]

There’s National Education

And we are all Chinese

And if you’re not on board with that,

Well, get down on your knees.

[Chorus]

And if that doesn’t earn me a knock on the door at 4 a.m., I take it all back.

Educating Uniformity

In a recent article, George Monbiot agonises about how the media got it so wrong on Corbyn. Monbiot’s complaint is that the journalists and pundits listened to each other telling each other how awful Corbyn was rather than listening to Corbyn himself.

The reason this happened, Monbiot says, is how the media recruit journalists. In the old days, he says, journalists came from all walks of life. Many had little formal education, and few had university degrees. Now, journalists have university degrees, and this leads to a remoteness. As a result,

[journalists] spend too much time in each other’s company, a tendency that’s fatal in an industry that is meant to reflect the world… What counts is not only the new people and new ideas you encounter but also the old ones you leave behind. The first ambition of a journalist should be to know as few journalists as possible; to escape the hall of mirrors.

The malaise which Monbiot identifies is, I think, a lot more widespread than he realizes. I think it is also true of life in large corporations, governments and NGOs.

When I first looked for work, most of the world was run by people without university degrees. In the 1970s, only about 10% of school students went on to university. Some went to polytechnics (which have since become universities) and others to vocational training. But the vast majority went from school directly into the workforce.

As a result, most of the managers I then knew, both as friends and as colleagues, had started at the bottom and worked their way up. The first job of one friend was filling the inkwells at a bank branch; another was offered a job on the basis of his ability to catch the rugby ball unexpectedly hurled at him during the interview. Both of them, and many others like them, went on to hold senior jobs with major responsibilities.

Looking around the corporate world today, it is almost impossible to find such people. No large corporation will employ anyone who doesn’t have a degree.

At the same time, universities in the Anglophone world have become much less diverse places – and I don’t mean in the ethnic terms by which they measure diversity. I went to university in 1979. The composition of my cohort was reflective of the general population: probably 70% were from working class backgrounds and many were the first in their families to go to university.

In 1981/2, between my third and fourth years (Scottish universities had four-year courses then), Thatcher slashed university funding. This resulted in a drop in the university population and a rise in polytechnic and college populations. The value of student grants had already been severely eroded by inflation, thus putting parents under more pressure to top-up the grants. This hit low-income families disproportionately. The combination of these two factors – perhaps a kind of tipping point – resulted in a sudden demographic change: the 1982 cohort was observably not working class.

What academic research I’ve been able to track down reinforces the point: when loans came in, working class families didn’t want to take on the risk of a loan, (see also here) and the introduction of tuition fees has further exacerbated the problem. Higher education is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the well-off.

The result is that universities lack diversity (warning: I don’t have access to the full text of this paper, so I may be taking the findings in the abstract out of context). The people universities take in are raised in a near-identical middle-class way, those they spit out are even more uniform. And, when the graduates go into the corporate world, any originality they may have clung on to despite university is soon scorched out of them.

The result is twofold. As a consultant, I frequently have to attend meetings at which a whole bunch of people with identical upbringings, career trajectories and prejudices reinforce their own mistakes. The result ranges from mere inefficiency to magnificent follies.

The more pernicious effect is societal: opportunity denied. The fact that social mobility has tanked since the Thatcherite colonization by the middle-class of the university system may be an unexpected consequence, but is no coincidence. And this brings me back to Corbyn and Trump. I am neither a Corbynista nor (as readers may have inferred) a Trumpite, but their appeal was to those for whom opportunity lacks: the working class and the young. I’m not saying that Trump’s or Corbyn’s (diametrically opposed) policies will work, but that’s who they targeted and hence the press’s inability to predict it, and the corporate and governmental inability to comprehend it.

(My thanks to SB for lambasting the original of this post. That forced me to back up my statements with research – always a good thing.)

Epistle to Carrie Lam (1)

Dear Carrie Lam,

Welcome to your new job. Since before you started, you have been the target of a lot of criticism. One of the most consistent is that you are resistant to new ideas.

However, in your thirty years in the civil service, the Hong Kong government has executed many bold new ideas. They built the mid-Levels escalator and a waste compacting plant in a giant cave under Mt. Davis. And, for that matter, in a quiet revolution, the government has made the delivery of its own services almost completely electronic.

The problem is not your government’s ability to execute original, life-improving ideas. So, in the spirit of can-do optimism that characterizes Hong Kong, in this series of posts, I’m going to present a few ideas of my own. These ideas are intended to:

  • Improve the quality of life for Hong Kong people in a day-to-day way.
  • Be bold. There’s nothing like timidity or stopping half way to ruin a good idea.
  • Result in something the HK government can showcase.

Here’s my first: pedestrianise the whole of Tsim Sha Tsui. No, really. All of it. Read on.

Nearly all major cities in the west have large pedestrian precincts. They lead to vibrant inner cities, much lower air pollution, and bustling businesses.

Those cities have much higher car ownership than Hong Kong; here, less than a fifth of the population owns a car. The four fifths who don’t own cars are squished on to narrow pavements that are made crowded by the need for road space for, and forced to breathe the pollution emitted by cars belonging to the one fifth. So more pedestrian precincts in Hong Kong would materially improve our lives, and could be made to do so in such a way as to minimise the inconvenience to the one fifth who do own cars (and who are themselves, at least some of the time, also pedestrians).

Why TST? It’s self-contained in a way that almost no other old part of Hong Kong is. Unlike say, Causeway Bay or Mong Kok, it’s not on the route from somewhere to somewhere else. It’s a destination, not a transit point. So the traffic impact can be more easily predicted and managed. And also, because it’s my own spiritual home in Hong Kong and I think it could be much more pleasant than it is.

Here. courtesy of the omnipresent google, is TST.

TST

It’s full of good stuff for tourists and locals alike – shops, restaurants, hotels, museums. But it’s unpleasant. Drivers trawl around in constant traffic jams, pedestrians are constantly ducking cars, buses and the usual vehicular idiocy. The pavements are jam-packed and the street-level pollution is awful. What should be a fun experience is a chore.

So the idea would be to make everywhere south of Austin Rd, east of Canton Road (with the exception of Kowloon Park Drive), north of Salisbury Rd and west of Chatham Rd, a pedestrian area. Crudely (as I have no other tools available to me):

TST PZ 2

This begs a few questions:

First: Why these boundaries? The thought is this: in order to get people (and vehicles with permits) in and out, it makes sense to allow vehicular access on all sides. The circuit formed by Chatham Rd, Salisbury Rd and Kowloon Park Drive / Canton Rd, and the existing bus terminus at the Star Ferry, do this.

This circuit already has numerous bus stops served my many routes. It has three MTR stations (TST, TST East and Jordan) to ferry people in and out by public transport. And, of course, it has the Star Ferry.

Second: Private cars: where will they park? The main car parks in the area are on the roads in the circuit above: Ocean Terminal and Harbour City on Canton Rd, the new New World Centre on Salisbury Rd., and many in TST East on Chatham Rd.

Within the area itself, there are only two car parks of any size. One is in Austin Tower, which could be served by keeping the first 50m or so of Austin Ave open:

Austin Ave

The second is the much larger car park in the basement of Mirimar Tower on Nathan Rd, of which more in  a moment.

That still leaves hundreds of metered spaces. What about these?

I suggest they go under Kowloon Park. That’s right: under, beneath. Hollow out a huge, artificial cavern and turn it into a combined car park and public transport interchange.

This may sound barmy. But the underlying geology is rock and, if engineers can fit the South Island and the Shatin-Central MTR lines under Admiralty, and the latter also under Hung Hom stations with (thus far) no disruption, surely excavating a huge hole in the bedrock under Kowloon Park is do-able. It will be expensive – but the advantages outweigh the cost.

This also could give access to the Mirimar car park:

Mire Kln Park

Those red lines are intended to indicate tunnels. That little road between Austin Rd and Hillwood Rd that’s so small it doesn’t even have a name would become a steep down ramp into a tunnel that leads to both the Miramar and underground Kowloon Park car parks, and the exit would be on to Austin Rd. The Kimberly Rd exit / entrance to the Miramar car park would be shut (and the landlord allowed to convert it at no land premium to valuable retail space).

Third: Nathan Rd. Be bold! It makes no sense to have a pedestrian area cut in two by a major traffic artery. Extend Kowloon Park into the part of Nathan Rd. north of Haiphong Rd, and turn the part south of Haiphong Rd. into an open mall. Provide covers and sitting-out areas so that it’s pleasant even in rain or strong sunshine. Encourage street food, buskers, that kind of thing.

A lot of buses use Nathan Rd. However, Kowloon Park Drive, Canton Rd and Chatham Rd will have much less traffic as a result of the massive car park, so most buses could be re-routed along these. But also include a public transport interchange in that big hole under Kowloon Park so that services could terminate there, beneath Kowloon Park, at the north of the area, rather than at the Star Ferry or the PIT at TST East Station.

Fourth: Local access within the area can be provided by bikes (like Boris-bikes in London), tricycles and, for those with limited mobility, solar-powered golf carts such as the ones used by the Jockey Club in the Kau Sai Chau public course.

Fifth: Vehicular access for residents and businesses in the area. This is surely no problem. All major cities in the West have huge pedestrian precincts, and management of the permitting and limited traffic access that residents and businesses need is a solvable problem (and one that will require numerous “study trips” by senior civil servants to these cities – listening, guys?).

Sixth: East-to-west public transport. This is a non-objection as there is currently no east-to-west public transport within the area. The government once mooted, however, a monorail from Kowloon Station in West Kowloon running all the way to Hong Hum station. perhaps it’s time to blow the dust off that plan?

Seventh: Carve-outs. The danger of making exceptions is that they soon become the rule, and what started as a bold scheme becomes a timid tweak. But I can see two cases for carve-outs. The first would be the Kimberly Rd / Austin Avenue area, which provides access to two car parks and quite a lot of hotels:

Cut out 1

The idea being that the area south of the red line is pedestrianised and the area north remains as-is.

This has a big impact on the overall pedestrianisation: There are lots of little shops and restaurants in this area that would gain from it. On the flip side, most of the remaining residential stock in TST is in this area, and residents may have a view. (As most don’t drive and have nowhere to park even if they did, I suspect they’d support pedestrianisation.)

The second area is in the south: the three blocks containing the Sheraton, Peninsula and YMCA would gain little from pedestrianisation:

Cut out 2

Middle Rd would remain open to traffic, and traffic would be able to cross Nathan Rd at Middle Rd. The Nathan Rd pedestrian area would start at the red line and extend north.

At first blush, then, it seems that the objections can be overcome. As to the advantages, anyone unconvinced can visit TST on the date of your inauguration, 1st July, when, for a few hours, TST will be fully pedestrianised.

ExecuTweet Orders and Sadiq Khan

Simple question: who’s looking more presidential right now?

Please Forward to All Americans You Know

Dear President Trump,

On September 11, 2001, nineteen foreign nationals hijacked four planes on American soil and murdered over 2,500 innocent civilians.

Within 24 hours, America’s NATO allies came to her aid and invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty We did so without hesitation, without shirking, and without bickering about money. Whatever history’s view of the subsequent wars, our soldiers fought shoulder-to-shoulder with yours, were injured with yours, and died with yours.

In your speech to NATO on 25 May, you did not mention that America’s friends came to her immediate aid. No. You came to bicker about money. To do so, you lied about the nature of a mutual defense pact, and you lied about how that pact is funded.

In your speech in Saudi Arabia earlier this week, you did not once mention that 14 of the 19 murderers on that day were Saudi nationals; that in the aftermath of 9/11, Saudi prevaricated; nor did you mention that Saudi has never publically acknowledged, let alone apologized, for its nationals’ actions. Instead, you applauded their religious tolerance in a country where the practice of Judaism, Christianity and even some types of Islam is in effect banned; you praised their advancement of Women’s Rights in a country where women are not even permitted to drive, or leave the country without the permission of their husband or guardian, and you announced funding for “Global Centre for Combatting Extremist Ideology” in the home of Wahhabism, the most extreme ideological form of Islam, and the direct motivation of the 9/11 terrorists.

Rex Tillerson has earlier said that shared values will take a back seat to practice, and Newt Gingrich observed on Tuesday that your Saudi remarks amount to a major foreign policy shift. Your words tell us and your actions now confirm that values such as fidelity, loyalty, honor and mutual respect have no place in your future world. So craven are you, that neither does shame: in your Saudi speech you announced she purchased US$110bn of American weapons, and a Saudi investment of US$400bn in the US.

A nation is great to the extent that it is worth defending. By this measure, America’s greatness is soon to be over.

Yours Sincerely,

A former proud friend of America.

Axis of Evil

Trump is no doubt proud of the US$100bn order for bombs that he received from Saudi Arabia this week. This is huge. It is a win of the kind that he promised.

It is also about double UNICEF’s annual budget. If Saudi were instead to spend that huge amount of money on education, HIV elimination, clean water, nutrition and child protection, imagine how much better the world would be, and for billions of people. And imagine how much impact that would have on the root causes of terrorism.

But they chose bombs.

So I wondered about Trump’s choice of destinations on his first visit to The Rest Of The World, and was reminded of his Republican predecessor’s “Axis of Evil” speech. This, you may remember, singled out North Korea, Iran and Iraq as somehow evil.

North Korea’s subjects live under a corrupt dynasty that denies them the vote, enriches itself at the expense of its subject’s lives, has no hesitation in killing political opponents, has a tightly regulated press and internet, and will almost certainly cause a horrid war as it spends most of its surplus on arms. The only reason it exists is because it has a powerful sponsor (China) that turns a blind eye to its obvious sins and shields it from its adversaries. Now cross out “North Korea” and replace with “Saudi Arabia” (and replace “China” with “USA”).

Iran is ruled by a corrupt theocracy which nevertheless cloaks itself in some of the trappings of democracy, practices a form of apartheid that discriminates against its own subjects on the basis of their religion, and has an economy that is permanently fucked because none of its neighbours like it. Now cross out “Iran” and plug in “Israel.”

Iraq, at the time of George W.’s speech, was run by a lunatic who got off on big guns. Cross out “Iraq” and write in – need I say more?

Carbon Democracy and the Road to Serfdom

Carbon Democracy is a book about the links between the oil industry and the current world order. The basic hypothesis is that many of our political institutions, both in the developed world and in the rest of the world, are shaped by the oil industry.

When I read it, and without faulting the detailed footnotes and bundles of research, my reaction was that the author asked too much of the data, and didn’t give sufficient consideration to other explanations. But that was pre-Trump.

I took the book’s point that many developing countries which have oil have been ravished by oil companies, and beaten up when their respective peoples tried to organize themselves to get part of the action. Iran in 1953 democratically elected a prime minister who was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup d’état (ironically in the interests of British Petroleum) when he nationalized Iran’s oil; Ken Saro-Wiwa paid the price for standing up to Royal Dutch Shell when the then government of Nigeria hung him on trumped-up charges and Shell failed to intervene, thereby winning an extension of its concession. The list goes on.

I also took the point that, just as Imperial Britain in the nineteenth century imported tea at such a vast rate that it had to export opium to make up the balance-of-payments gap, the West imports oil at such a vast rate that it has to export arms to cover the difference. Hence most petro-cracies are armed to the teeth – even if incapable of using those arms.

But, I thought when I read the book, oil doesn’t have Western democracies in its pocket in the same way. Yes, the author pointed out that, with oil reserves becoming increasingly difficult to find and expensive to bring to production, oil companies are now turning to the developed countries for reserves – hence, fracking and tar sands – and that the people who live next door are not enjoying extraction on their doorsteps. Poisoned groundwater just isn’t the same. But the developed economies, I thought, were sufficiently diversified that this would be a side-show

No longer. Tillerson aside, the US government’s agenda is essentially oil. To the extent that it has a discernible policy, it is to bring back manufacturing, and especially car manufacturing, to bring back coal-fired power stations and coal mining, and to burn, burn and burn. As the oil industry’s proxy, on top of their well-publicized de-funding of the EPA, etc., Trump’s administration has been quietly removing references to climate change from the US Government’s website.

The Trump administration is not exactly dominated by intellectual heavyweights. In fact, they’re noticeable by their absence. But the tradition they draw on stems from Hayek, the intellectual father of neo-liberalism. It was Hayek, they say, who decried government interference and regulations that increase the cost of doing business. Perhaps the later Hayek did – I don’t know; I’ve only just started reading him – but his earlier work, The Road to Serfdom (I’ve chosen a gee-wow review) doesn’t mention regulation at all. The thesis is that, when a government becomes singles out any industry or group of industries for favorable treatment, totalitarianism is round the corner.

There’s no doubt that Trump has singled out a group of industries for his favours; you don’t need The Economist to point out that Trump and his team seem barely even aware that there’s more to the economy that digging fossil fuels out of the ground and finding various ways of burning them. What, I wonder, would the father of neo-liberalism think of this?

Writing on how totalitarianism states come into being – a process that he lived through in pre-Nazi Austria, so had seen (and suffered from) first hand – Hayek sets out the steps. First, choose an industry or group of industries for favour (√). Given finite resources, this will come at the expense of other industries, so throw away the free market (think trade treaties: √). Because this will disadvantage those who are not favoured, win them over. As it is likely that the majority will be so disadvantaged, this is no easy feat. So some mass psychology is needed:

The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve [in the transition to totalitarianism] is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they… have always held… And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarianism regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language.

I don’t it takes a critical reading of Trump’s abuse of language to see this in action. “Security” becomes the deprivation of rights, “fake news” the utterances of anyone opposed, and the like – so √ again.

The part of Carbon Democracy which I thought the author got dead right is that peak supply of oil has almost certainly passed, and that peak demand either soon will or has already happened. The result is that a massive and very powerful industry is dying – and knows it. Massive things are at their most dangerous in their death throes. As the oil industry is dominated by Anglo-American companies, it’s perhaps not surprising that British and American democracies will be the main victims.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. People of similar dispositions and interests collaborate all the time without conspiring. It is, rather, the confluence of various independent historical trajectories that makes totalitarianism in Britain and America almost inevitable. But not quite. Because, as another hero of the right said, all it takes for the success of evil is for good men to do nothing – and good men are doing something.

Update: The UK is advancing Teresa May’s Snooper’s Charter. According to The Telegraph, the Hom Office wants to extend the already highly intrusive Investigatoy Powers Act seeks to give the government the right to read all communications in real time, and to ban the encryption of such communications. If that isn’t totalitarian, I don’t know what is.

Fakebook Democracy

Thank you to my friend, JT, for pointing me at a long, detailed article exposing just how much technology the right-wing threw at winning Brexit. In short, a small coterie of right-wing billionaires applied data-mining and psychological profiling technology to social media data, to identify those undecided and target on the one-hand those disaffected to go out and vote for Brexit, and on the other hand those unaffected to stay at home. And it worked. We will probably never know how many people voted Brexit as a “fuck-you” to the ruling classes and how many because they believed Britain was better off out, but no one voted “Remain” as a fuck you: our billionaires exploited this asymmetry in voting patterns to great effect.

Now, I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, and influencing voters is part and parcel of politics. And anyone reading this can judge the article on its own merits. But let’s just say that, in this case, there’s smoke because there’s fire. Extraordinary advances in technology have made invasive influence possible, and an elite have exploited that. But why? Why would Brexit matter so much to this coterie of billionaires? I guess they’re motivated by more than just money, but what would they gain either financially or ideologically from such an exercise?

In the case of Brexit, nobody really knew, either at the time of the vote or now, what the impact would be.

The economic arguments for and against Brexit were, to say the least, inconclusive. To say a little more, they bordered – on both sides – on incoherence. Remain threatened an instant economic melt-down if Britain left; Leave stated at one point that Britain’s contribution was (something like) £350 million a week which, on the back of an envelope, is £18 billion a year. In an economy of about £1,200 billion, this is 1.5%, which although it’s a huge amount to me (and probably you), is rounding error in the overall scheme of things – and was never substantiated. So, to your average plutocrat, case not proven.

The security arguments were at best xenophobic and at worst racist. The Syrian hordes, we were told, were arriving in their hundreds of thousands; the EU nationals working in the UK were doing so at pittances that no self-respecting “Brit” (I use the quote marks because what they mean by a Brit and what I mean are two different things) would.

Neither of these positions seem very pertinent to a billionaire: the world’s plutocrats worry about borders only in as much as they present opportunities for arbitrage in investments and tax. There may have been a mild ideological inclination to Brexit, but it was at heart a sordid little referendum in an island that is increasingly irrelevant. Why bother?

At first blush, I was tempted to say “because they can” – manipulating the Brexit vote was a kind of alpha-male dick-waving exercise. But, in the course of writing this, I wondered if there was more to it.

And I think there is a plausible explanation: I think the real prize was not Brexit, but the US, and that the Brexit exercise was what IT people call a Beta-test. Our billionaires had some great technology, and wanted to use it to sway the US election, but they weren’t sure it would work. Britain is culturally very close to the US, and the psychological profiling on which the technology hinged based would be more likely to be repeatable between the UK and US than profiling developed for, say, China or Arabia. In addition, votes for Brexit and Trump have deep structural similarities: both were to a large extent framed as votes against the status quo rather than votes for something. (As I’ve said before, I’m still not sure what Trump stands for.)

So the structural similarities between the Brexit and Trump votes, coupled with the need for psychological profiling that would transport across cultures, made Brexit a perfect test ground. Once they’d proven their technology in Brexit, the way was open for Trump.

And boy, did it work. One very telling thing: the activist Linda Tirado withheld her vote for Clinton for the usual reasons – Wall St., corruption, Benghazi. None of these reasons stands up to inspection: everyone in politics (or business – a propos Trump) in US has connections to Wall St., The Clinton Foundation is not corrupt, and numerous Federal and Congressional investigations absolved Clinton of any blame. These memes were put out there by precisely the people Linda didn’t want in power. Yet people like her fell for the right-wing profinling by staying home just as much as those who cast protest votes for Brexit and Trump did by coming out to vote.

It may be said that all parties are free to use this technology. But this kind of invidious and invasive technology is more than influencing people’s rational decisions: it’s a corruption of democracy: making informed choices is a very different thing to be bamboozled into a vote you don’t understand. And if Internet companies regard personal, private data as a resource to be sold to anyone with the money, irrespective of the use to which it will be put, democracy is dead.

So the real challenge is to take that power away from the big Internet companies. That’s for another post, and probably much more techy blog than this, but I believe it can be done – by technology, not by statute.

[Updated: thanks to Andrew, who reminded me that the claim was £350 billion with a “b”, not an “m”]

[Thanks to JT, who sent me a photo of a bus with £350 million a week on it. So I’ve changed that bit, but it doesn’t really affect the overall flow of the argument.]

Articulation, at Last!

Rex Tillerson gave a speech yesterday. Setting aside the folksy language that has come to dominate US political discourse, it was the first articulate expression by the Trump administration of anything at all, and I commend it on those grounds alone.

That said, I can’t say I liked all of it. Tillerson set out what he has learnt in his first three months, and where he is taking the US in the world. The entire subjects of Europe and climate change were conspicuous by their absence. But, on the positive side, he’s the first Secretary of State to recognize in public how clapped-out our Cold War institutions are, and, perhaps unlike his boss, he does seem aware that foreign policy consists of many parts and that those parts interlock in strange, curious and often unpredictable ways.

The ethical core of the speech, according to The Guardian, was this: “In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals” – i.e., sometimes you have to deal with bad guys to get good things done. The Guardian, however, read no further and condemned Tillerson without even pausing to mention that all governments and indeed most people sometimes turn to distasteful means to achieve worthy ends. This is a shame in part because this take renders the piece opinion rather than news so fuels the fake-news fire, but mainly because it misses the more revealing aspects of Tillerson’s approach.

A more telling quote is: “We must secure the nation. We must protect our people. We must protect our borders. We must protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore. And we can only do that with economic prosperity.” This is very clear: economic prosperity is good only in as much as it secures the nation. Or, to put it another way around, economic prosperity is subordinate to security: if there’s a choice between the economy and security, security will win (which perhaps explains why the economy prospered under Clinton and Obama, tanked under Bush and George W. and augers ill for Trump.)

So what does Tillerson mean by “secure”? He doesn’t spell it out but, as “security,” “foreign policy,” “defense” and similar terms are all politically correct terms for war, let’s turn to that.

Since Reagan, securing the nation and protecting the people has rested on the war on drugs. Since George W, it has further rested on the war on terrorism. Those wars are conducted because drugs and terrorism are bad. (This may seem obvious, but historically both of these “wars” were knee-jerk reactions to crises – crack cocaine and 9/11 respectively. Before the crack-cocaine crisis, drugs were merely one evil amongst many, and before 9/11, few Americans had a clue what terrorism was, and indeed many even funded it – think IRA).

But the point is not whether or not drugs and terrorism are bad – I’m simply saying that what is bad is disputable because it is to some extent fashionable – but that, far from divorcing policy from values, Tillerson’s stance is a reinforcement of policy by values. Securing the nation means ridding it of drugs and terror for the very reason that drugs and terror are bad.

If this is the case, what Tillerson means is not that exporting values per se is bad, but rather that “freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated” can be sacrificed, but that the wars on drugs and terror can’t. In other words, negative values (preventing bad things – security) are more important than positive values (engendering good things – liberty).

This is a depressing approach. If freedom and human dignity are to be switched off as soon as drugs or terror are involved, the reason for keeping the nation secure is already lost. And I’m not the first to observe that, in the tide of history, those who sacrifice liberty to gain security end up with neither.