Monday, 30 June 2014

Pernickety about Piketty

In preparation for this weekend's stag do in Brussels, I've been reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. I don't want to find myself blind-drunk in a nightclub chatting to some Eurocrat and be unable to remember whether return on capital (r) is greater than economic growth (g) or the other way round. How embarrassing would that be?

So that I don't get confused, I have invented the handy mnemonic "rum is better than gin". I imagine this will soon be adopted by economics teachers the world over. 

Piketty's main argument is that the rich get richer because having money earns you more money than merely working. This has been the case throughout the history of modern capitalism except for a brief blip during the Twentieth Century when the wealthy nations felt guilty about all the suffering they had caused during the two World Wars and briefly introduced some laws that redistributed wealth. Since the 1970s things have been returning to the status quo - money goes to money and screw the poor.

This is all explained in the introduction and then he presents several hundred pages of evidence. This is remarkable because it is something that no economist has ever thought to do before (even all the raw data is available online). Smith, Marx and Keynes all wrote enormous tracts on political economy with no evidence whatsoever. (And don't get me started on the Marginalists and their neoliberal apologist successors). Some of the evidence has been disputed by the Financial Times, but nothing which affects the central premise.

Spoiler Alert! The following paragraph contains an equitable solution for the future of humanity: 

Piketty concludes that the only way to change things is to tax the wealthy. Actually take their money and spend it on things that benefit everybody.

And that is the message I will be taking to Brussels... on a stag do... during the World Cup... I'm sure everybody will be hanging on my every word.



Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Proverbially speaking

A coffee shop has recently opened up next door to the pub I work in. This is great news because now when someone asks for a coffee, I can give them my best withering look that says "Really? You want to pay a pound for a cup of Nescafe instant in a stained mug when there is a coffee shop right next door serving the best flat white north of Haringey?" I have to communicate this sentiment using eyebrows only. If I said it out loud I would probably be sacked. 

The only downside of this coffee shop is that the owner insists on littering the pavement with blackboards bearing soul-destroyingly cheerful messages of hope, love and encouragement to buy coffee. "Think Big!" an A-board yells at me as I autopilot my hungover body back to the bar I left only eight hours previously to clear up the mess that I left only eight hours previously. As I fumble for the key to open another day's drudgery my peripheral vision is assaulted with meaningless chirpy aphorisms: "Only YOU control your life", "A journey of a thousand miles begins with just a single coffee", "Happiness is in YOUR hands". You get the idea. There are new ones every day, including the comically ill-situated one pictured.

*Not to be taken literally
 The grammatical and semantic oddness of "The best things in life are Coffee" deserves a blog-length deconstruction all of its own. Maybe I'll come back to it. 

But it has been a while since I brought up that old favourite of this blog: Donald E. Brown's list of Human Universals. This is the anthropologist's list of things that are either (in the weak interpretation) common in every human culture or (in the strong interpretation) universal to every human being. It's a fascinating read that I like to revisit whenever I need reminding that humans share a lot more in common than is commonly appreciated. Anyhow, way down the end of the list, 28th on the additions since 1989 addendum, is: "Proverbs and sayings in mutually contradictory forms" (An example from English would be: "too many cooks spoil the broth" and "many hands make light work").

What do I conclude from this? Not much and much. There is much that is contradictory in human behaviour. I suppose our proverbs would reflect that. I read this Anglo-Saxon one the other day and it seems as relevant today as when anonymously penned (or quilled or carved or whatever they did in those days) more than a millennium ago:

Man deþ swá hé byþ þonne hé mót swá hé wile 

Man does as he is when he does as he wishes

Or, as philologist Tom Shippey translates more coloquially: "You show what you are like when you can do what you like." It works on many levels. I like to read it as a moral lesson showing the worthlessness of the idle rich, but also as a reminder to myself to spend my free time productively. I have a day off today. Maybe I'll go for a coffee.  


Saturday, 14 June 2014

Broccoli and (propositional) calculi

One of the good things about being alive is that life is forever affording you the opportunity to learn little lessons so that you can conduct the rest of it with less difficulty than you have previously experienced.

Take for example this simple (and I imagine, universal) rule: If you have in your possession a Brassica and you don't have a specific meal planned that involves it, in three weeks time you will be dragging a plastic bag full of cauliflower sludge out of the fridge. This can be formulated using a fairly standard notation as (p & ¬q --> ¬p).

Human brains are brilliant at rearranging such logical formulations and I expect you will quickly notice that (¬p v q) follows and so next time you're browsing the broccoli aisle you can think to yourself: Either don't buy it or make a plan to use it now. 

And that is the lesson that I had intended to implement in the coming weeks. Except then I had to buy a sweetheart cabbage today because otherwise my shopping would have consisted of a bottle of wine and a pack of butter and I don't want to be judged by the staff in Lidl. Although, I think they might have judged me because I was the only person who wasn't buying or wearing something with the St George's cross emblazoned on it.  


Friday, 6 June 2014

World Cup Questions. Answers sought.

There's a kind of fever sweeping the nation and I'll give you a clue it's not yellow or dengue. It is, of course: World Cup Fever. I'm talking about the Association Football World Cup that starts in Brazil imminently (sorry to disappoint those of you who are gearing up for the lacrosse World Cup in July but I try to keep it topical). Last week at work, I watched six grown men spend three hours swapping stickers and casual xenophobia in an effort to complete their commemorative sticker albums. 

Naturally, all this has got me thinking: What is it for? Why should we care? I reject the tribalism inherent in supporting a team as I am suspicious that it teaches a kind of jingoistic nationalism, an unquestioning subservience to power at which I instinctively recoil. Do fans support a team because they wear the same colours as them or do they wear the colours because they support the team? Why do fans pin their emotional well-being to the failures and successes of people they have never met and probably wouldn't get on with if they did? 

On the one hand it seems arbitrary: Why are teams divided geographically? Why not by height or hair colour or age? If we are to have geographical teams shouldn't they be drawn from constituencies of equal size? Why all the fuss about this World Cup and not the one played by the other gender? In tennis, equal coverage (and pay) has been granted to both genders (after a long struggle). Why is football so far behind?

On the other hand it seems sinister: The massive corruption at FIFA that their internal investigation process is amazingly unable to investigate because... er... there's a World Cup starting. The billions spent on stadiums in Brazilian cities with barely functioning hospitals and no public transport. The hundreds of migrant workers enslaved in Qatar (due to host the tournament in eight years time) their passports impounded on arrival, forced to work and watch their colleagues fall to their deaths. The beautiful game.

I would quite like a caxirola though.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

n = 5/24(n cubed + 17n + 30)

Like any anarcho-syndicalist blogger, little makes me angrier than unearned income. Now suddenly I have some. And I've been experiencing guilt about the value of bitcoins. I will assume that my tech-savvy regular readers are familiar with the electronic currency, but for anyone who may be reading this from a future (perhaps researching a doctorate in the origins of the philosophical-bartending movement that came to dominate poetry in the mid Twenty-first Century) where bitcoins have gone the way of the groat and the ecu, a brief explanation follows:

Bitcoins are mined by setting a computer to solve increasingly difficult equations. There is a finite number of bitcoins available. For each equation solved a bitcoin is earned. All the easy equations have been solved now, so you would need a supercomputer to be a miner. However, the coins can be exchanged for 'real' money and then swapped back or spent at the limited number of places that accept them. They are a volatile currency to say the least. Early adopters might have spent a hundred bitcoins on a pizza. Before Xmas last year, a bitcoin was worth nearly $1200. They have since crashed in price and I bought a fraction of a bitcoin (0.038 to be precise) at the recent low in May. That £10 investment is now worth £15.07.

Fortunately, my local pub is one of about three in the country that take bitcoins, so I can spend my windfall on a couple of pints of bitter this afternoon, instead of worrying about getting a fortnightly 50% dividend which would net me... *grabs pen and back of envelope*... one moment... *opens calculator app*... bear with me... *opens Wolfram Alpha calculation engine*...Ahem: Which would net me £3760 by the end of the tax year if they continued to rise at this rate.  

Incidentally, the simple equation this blogpost has as its title is the one for which I had to consult Wolfram Alpha in order to reach the total £3760. My old maths teacher Frederick J. Clarke would be ashamed of me. Also I couldn't work out how to get the little superscript '3' in the title so I had to write 'cubed' instead. This would have come as no surprise whatsoever to my old computer science and business studies teacher Louise Absom.