Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Book Review: The Box by Marc Levinson

I come from a port city. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Dockers seemed to be a protected species. They seemed well-off (a relative concept) and always at home. They were on strike often. The history of dock workers and their fight against exploitation through casual labour has been told, but I was not aware of it as a child. I inherited the prejudices against feckless dock workers. Levinson, however, confirms that in England, pay gains by dockers in the 1950s were “robust”. So much so that they earned 30 per cent more than the average male by the 1960s. This is precisely the period of my growing up.

The history of life on the “waterfront” is revisited by Levinson as he chronicles the economic and social history of the shipping container. There’s a paradox. One function of the shipping container mirrored that of the steam engine in capital’s fight with labour. It handed power to plutocrats and oligarchs who owned the specialised ports whilst simultaneously, making the work of dock workers – or those who were left – much safer (docking at its height was more dangerous than construction).

Without the shipping container, globalised supply chains would not have been possible. Prior to containerisation, the Waterfront was a huge cost to exporters and importers. Loading and unloading required a lot of men; and it was skilled, too. A badly loaded ship could capsize. Containerisation brought shipping costs down, considerably. So much so, that it became almost costless – a fraction of the overall costs of production. It enabled a true Ricardian revolution of comparative advantage. Of course, the externalities don’t feature. The use of dirty and carbon-laden fuels in ships is on no ledger.

Levinson details the machinations of port employers, unions and shipping companies. It is a story of men with egos – union leaders in New York and New Jersey on the east coast, and their counterparts on the west coast (LA and San Francisco). It is a tale of rejecting mechanisation and fraught negotiations (and strikes) over how many men not only each ship needed to be unloaded, but how many men per hatch. There’s a huge cast of sometimes unsavoury characters to keep track of. It is a story of demarcation – labourers vs crane drivers – and the difference between negotiating to get the best compensation for members’ job losses and negotiating to keep all men in work (on the west coast, the union negotiated a compensation scheme that enabled many men to retire, which was a most welcome opportunity after a life of hard dock labour). It’s a story of competitive politics resulting in public investment in NY Harbor’s piers and creaking and congested supporting infrastructure by politicians trying to maintain their own privilege but failing to see that the future was different and the investment was misplaced. Because all the while, the shipping companies – two in particular – were developing their own docking facilities on virgin land for the logistics of international containerisation.

There was a huge problem, however, preventing the diffusion of containerisation globally. There were no standards. There were firms that had invested in their own standards such as Sea-Land in New York, owned by one of America’s most iconic of entrepreneurs, Malcolm McLean, who constantly outflanked competitors, legislators and dock workers. McLean’s success was one of ad hoc decisions. “Find me someone who can design and build me a crane in 3 months” sums up this approach. By contrast, a west coast shipping company, Matson Navigation Company, a transportation and sugar conglomerate, took a very scientific approach under its President, John E. Cushing. Cushing brought in a university professor to consider holistically the business of containers – from the containers themselves, their loading, fitting, hauling, lifting, to the ships that would carry them and the trucks that would haul them. To use Levinson’s words “Matson moved deliberately. Pan Atlantic [Sea-Land’s original name], under McLean’s control, was a scrappy upstart building a brand new business, and it risked little by acting quickly.” (p80).

Standards

An upstart though McClean may have been, he did patent his design for a fitting device that locked containers into place in ships, on trucks or next to one another. If agreeing on a standard size of containers was not painful enough involving a cast of technocrats from organisations such as the ISO, The American Standards Association, The National Defense Transportational Association, The United States Maritime Administration (Marad), the fittings debate was fraught. These standards-setting bodies locked horns with the transportation firms and manufacturers of trailers such as Fruehauf – still a familiar name – Strick Trailers and the National Castings Company. The outcome was a classic fudge because an international standard had to reconcile global differences, whilst enabling firms that had already invested in containers not to lose too much money in converting their existing operations. McLean released his patent. It was then hastily modified over two days in Utrecht where the drawings for the final fittings were made in preparation to be presented to the ISO committee meeting in The Hague on 24 September 1965. That was not quite the end of the story. The new standard had never been tested, so when used on ships or trains they failed. Another group of engineers were needed to add strength to the design. In June 1967, the new design was approved much to the chagrin of existing transportation firms that had invested heavily in the old standard. Lesson – don’t approve standards in haste.

There’s more on standards, but not for this review. I had not realised just how much regulation the freight industry was subject to in the USA at this time. Freight bosses had to be as adept at navigating these restrictions as they did the roads and waterways. There were regulators trying to enforce “fairness”, operators trying to work with and around them, and politicians intervening. The rail companies were hidebound by both regulation and non-standardised gauges. But there were innovations, some of which still run today. A number of these companies rejected containers and provided unique services. The Trailer Train, for example, was an innovation in putting truck trailers on trains. It was run by the Pennsylvania Railroad between Chicago and St Louis starting in 1954. It also innovated in inviting all other rail operators to join creating economies of scale and a standardised operation including revenue collection and sharing. As is ever for these operators, they had legacy stock – boxcars, in particular – that would be redundant if containers were adopted.

Containers on rail passing through Crewe, UK
Containers on rails

In Europe, rail operators were keen to facilitate containerisation. In the UK, British Rail sought to develop freight out of Felixstowe; German and French national rail operators out of Bremerhaven. Rotterdam and Antwerp, were also developing their container operations. Seemingly containers bound for the United States were full of whisky!

And then something I had not really thought about, but troubles me as I write. Malcolm McLean’s success – like many of his ilk – was built on amorality. Business is business. What is legal is to be pursued. In the early years of the container revolution, the Vietnam war was ramping up. With 60 thousand soldiers in the country, the supply lines were vitally important. Vietnam had very poor infrastructure and only a single deep port, Saigon. Military logistics were struggling. McLean said he could he help. McLean transformed the fortunes of a second deep port, Cam Ranh Bay. Before McLean arrived, US military logistics had towed a DeLong pier – a whole 300ft pier – from North Carolina through the Panama Canal and across the pacific to be sunk into the bay. It was then re-inforced to support McClean’s monster cranes, suitable for lifting containers full of armaments and, separately, refrigerated foods.

The operation was hugely profitable for McLean, made more profitable when McLean opted to return to the USA via two Japanese ports, Tokyo/Yokohama and Osaka/Kobe to fill empty containers with consumer electronics. This was, apparently, a typical McLean venture – off the cuff. He is alleged to have simply said, “does anyone known anyone at Mitsui”? Two weeks later, a delegation from Mitsui was inspecting the Sea-Land docks in Newark, New Jersey. Profit and business notwithstanding, Levinson is bold enough to state that without McLean a sustained war effort by the US in Vietnam would have been unlikely. Knowing what we know now, that would perhaps have been a good thing? McLean actually enabled and prolonged the war.

McLean was also behind the development of one of England’s foremost container ports, Felixstowe. Similar to Sea- Land’s development of the container facility in Newark, NJ, Felixstowe was not encumbered by union agreements. it was a small and private wharf dealing with grain and palm oil. In 1966, Sea-Land reinforced the wharf and built a container crane at the fraction of the cost of the Tilbury (London) docks. By 1969 it was the 9th biggest container port (by volume) in the world. Leading the way in Europe was Rotterdam with its deep water, co-operative labour unions and necessary post-war reconstruction.

Supply chains – just-in-time delivery

The shipping container was a driver of globalised supply chains. For as long as shipping costs were high, cheap labour and other resources could not realistically be harnessed. As shipping containers got bigger and ports enabled “inter-modality” and computerised loading and unloading, the unit costs of each container went down, driving trade, economic growth and consumption. The containers became mobile warehouses rendering inventory stock outdated. And one-time empty containers being returned found themselves full of commodities such as soya and even grain. We are also at liberty to think about all of the waste – often public – associated with building container ports. Many were developed without tenants – and never got any. Others did, but tenants migrated to other ports with better facilities or access. These were all paid for by taxpayers. Our consumer products could have been even cheaper had ports and regions not speculatively competed with one another.

Climate

The most famous container ship, the Ever Given for getting stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021

Whenever I read books and non-fiction in particular – I am on the look out for environmental factors; acts that become normalised and pushed back nature. Sea-Land’s enormous container operation in Newark, NJ, is a case in point. I have subsequently viewed the area courtesy of Google. It even has a massive Amazon warehouse on it. The development was described in a very matter-of-fact way. The marshland that it colonised was “waste”. Though we know now that it was probably rich in wildlife that was displaced by the development. However, maybe there is a slip of the pen on page 263 in reference to Oakland, CA:

“…a timely $10 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, intended to generate jobs in the depressed city, supplied construction funds. A new terminal was rushed into construction, without a tenant, before new environmental regulations took effect.”

I say “slip of the pen” because I cannot gauge whether Levinson thinks that beating the regulation was a good move or not. Certainly if the development was assumed to have violated forthcoming environmental regulations, then it was not good. And those behind it, knew it. That is a story of environmental destruction, the world over through time. Those who do it, know what they are doing. They know what the impacts are, and they still do it.

The only silver-lining I could find was – cutting a long story short – McLean invested also in land. One piece of land was bought to turn into an intensive pig farm. When the shipping going got tough, the land had to be sold, it is now a park. No pigs.

Levinson’s book is one of these master works. it needed to be written. And it was done well. It is a social history told through the development of a familiar artefact. We are all part of its story and we of it’s. A metal box.

Pictures:

Ever Given By Robert Schwemmer for NOAA’s National Ocean Service – Flickr: Container Ship, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19073448

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.

(p151)

The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.

Pictures:

Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiU0AlDsiPgPeace in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96380874

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16373401

Book review: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency by Andreas Malm

Gripping title, even more gripping content. It is made up of four elements: this is the climate emergency, this is Corona, this is how they are related to one another (be rest assured, they are) and this is what we do about it. The latter section is effectively a call to resistance. The word “sabotage” is used, and there are plenty of references to Marx, Soviets and Rosa Luxemberg.

Book cover

Let me take one step back. Malm is, in my opinion, one of the 21st Century’s great thinkers in the fields of climate, capitalism and now pandemics. Let me just qualify that – one of with the caveat that he is white, male and prosperous. If any readers can direct me to thinkers in his area that do not have this profile, please let me know. I genuinely want to understand these dynamics better. However, Malm’s earlier book, Fossil Capital, is transformative as a text on capitalist ideology – in the league of EP Thompson’s, Making of the English Working Class and, more esoterically, Nick von Tunzelman’s Technology and Industrial Progress: The Foundations of Economic Growth (both texts widely discussed by Malm). Where Fossil Capital was uncompromising in its extended narrative and detail, Corona is short, 175 pages (though with extensive end notes), and with pace that is difficult to keep up with. But we must, such is the real emergency here.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the arguments surrounding climate change, these are rehearsed in the early part of the text. Malm refers extensively – and rightly – to his earlier work. Humanity’s – by which he means capital’s – pursuit of growth enabled by the extraordinary store of energy captured in fossil fuels, is at the root of the current emergency. Growth has led to wealth, both absolute and relative, even in the poorest and most unequal societies and countries where capitalism is practised. Capitalism is inherently extractive and that means destruction of habitats. Now we can look at habitats – forests, for example – as exploitable resources, or we can look at them as places where there is essential biodiversity – counterintuitively, higher biodiversity correlates with lower transmission of pathogens (p41) – and the place where animals carrying pathogens live out of harms way . It is in this destruction and the stress it imposes on other creatures, according to Malm, that the pathogen makes the leap – zoonotic spillover – from animal to human.

We know that Covid-19 – or Sars-CoV-2 as it is now known – was likely to have been transmitted from bats (though probably through an intermediary animal). Prior to reading Malm, I did not really know anything about bats other than the fact they are flying mammals and they use some form of echo system to navigate at night. I certainly did not know that they very peculiar physiology – they being the only flying mammals – makes them supremely good hosts of viruses. In fact, Malm paints the picture of them as flying virus hotels (my image, not his). The bats have a unique immunity to the viruses and so close contact between humans and bats in, say, for example, a wild animal market in a densely-populated city, can have devastating consequences.

Malm reserves a special place for aviation in linking climate change and the pandemic. We should already be familiar with the arguments about aviation’s contribution to global emissions – not the highest but a significant contributor. The warming leads animals and birds to migrate further north, taking their pathogens with them. Fauna not used to mixing, goes Malm’s argument, do so and the pathogens take the opportunity to jump – so-called zoonotic spillover. Furthermore “[M]ost of the tens of thousands of novel pathogen exchanges anticipated along these routes will take place between one species of wild animal and another, but it will be a moving laboratory of genetic recombination, in which parasites may learn to make longer jumps: And their hosts will bump into, or skirt past humans. Viral sharing events are likely to be most common in places with fairly dense human populations, such as the Ethiopian highlands , Indonesia and – crossroads again – eastern China.” (p87)

The extent to which this is fact or hypothesis, I’m not sure. Malm’s extensive endnotes are detailed and derived from valid academic and informed sources. The causality of zoonotic transmission from animals to humans is not yet clear. Writing in the Conversation and reproduced in the Guardian, Dominic Dwyer who was on the recent World Health Organisation mission/investigation to Wuhan can only confirm that the likelihood of the virus being manufactured in a lab is very small indeed. The probability that the source is bats is very high, but the transmission route remains unclear. The Wuhan “wet market” is a viable option, but there remains no evidence that the transmission to took place there, despite the presence of bats, civits, pangolins, bamboo rats and ferret badgers, all viable carriers of corona viruses.

Whatever the particular circumstances surrounding the particular case of Covid-19, Malm’s argument is a wider one, the more humans encroach on territories of wild animals, destroy their habit and force migrations north and into the human world, the greater is the likelihood of zoonotic transmission. Deadly though Covid-19 is, the next one could be a lot worse, and it will come sooner rather than later.

Back to aviation. Aviation is a contributor to a warming planet – becoming like Venus, as he puts it. It was also a transmission bridge or mechanism for spreading the human Covid-19 around the world in a remarkably short space of time. This book is full of linkages of this kind, one almost makes a list as he reveals like participating in a treasure hunt.

What is to be done?

I remember as a student this translation of Lenin’s question relating to the October Revolution. Malm draws on Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Rosa Luxemberg; though interestingly, not Gramsci. He does this because he believes that “the time for gradualism is over” (p121). It is time for the state to reassert itself (he having flirted with anarchism as a younger man). But more than that, for us to take control of the state. That by my reading is revolution, not a reassertion, at least in the first instance.

Drawing on Lenin again, Malm reminds us of Lenin’s other major text from 1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It. The catastrophe was different, but of the same magnitude for the people of Russia. The people were engaged in combatting the catastrophe and the state took control of the means of production, food supplies and land, essentially declaring war on need. By contrast, of course, humanity (capitalists, more precisely) has declared war on the planet. Those of us who want either to survive, or pass something liveable on to those who come after us, need to declare war on capital.

Capitalism has to go because it cannot be a solution to the warming planet. First he suggests that if we leave it to capitalists to solve, carbon capture will have to be marketised – turned into a product that has commercial value. This is not possible because of the scale of carbon capture needed and the price that can be levied on, and for, carbon. The state has to have carbon capture as a function, not as a market opportunity. Indeed, as Jason Hickel reminds us, carbon capture is factored into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Carbon neutrality is contingent on carbon capture! Second, left to the capitalists, geoengineering will be imposed upon us. This means sulphate aerosol injection – what he calls a pseudo-solution – that will pay handsomely for suppliers, but have unanticipated – and predictably negative – consequences for the planet’s inhabitants. It is a shield from the heat needing regular topping up, as it were.

A state following a doctrine of Economic Leninism then, is one that [takes] “control of trade flows, chased down wildlife traffickers, nationalised fossil fuel companies, organised direct air capture, planned the economy to cut nearly 10 per cent of emissions per year and did all other necessary things…” (p166).

And so back to the link between Covid-19 and climate change. The link is real, even if direct causality is difficult to establish. Plundering of the earth in pursuit of growth and human gratification must end. States have reasserted themselves in tackling Covid-19, albeit imperfectly. To do it “perfectly”, the state needs to be much more robust and undertake a paradigm shift either leading its people or, even better, the people leading it. Finally, “[m]ore precisely, zoonotic spillover of this earth-shattering magnitude should make it clear that defending wild nature against parasitic capital is now human self-defence. But the conscious organisation of such defence is solely up to humans” (p173).

I have nothing more to add.

Book review: Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now

I did not start reading this book (below left) as a piece of science fiction, I actually thought it was a straight political and economic manifesto by a radical thinker. Bless him (not in a God sense), he has tried another route into our consciousness.

Another Now cover

His construct is the following – three different people, all disaffected by the present, meet or are introduced to one another with the express – and contrived – purpose of “trialogueing” the ideas that are obviously keeping Varoufakis awake at night. One of his characters, Costa, is an IT expert liberated from daily work by having anticipated 2008 and bet against it (or for it, whichever way one thinks). Costa was working on an alternate reality that one could choose to enter but only in the Hotel California sense (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). Having created his new reality in a game called Freedom, he finds that holed up in it is another being, Kosti (also from Crete), who shares Costa’s DNA and past. Kosti inhabits a world know as the Other Now, in contrast to that which Costa inhabits; namely, Our Now.

Kosti engages with Costa until he becomes bored, at which point Costa visits once again his two other protagonists, an ageing Marxist academic who gave up on politics to create tapestries (Iris) and a libertarian banker (Eva) who became disillusioned about finance after the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008. This is the date, conveniently, that the fork in the realities occurred. So, these three characters interrogate the alternate future and its mechanisms.

So what is the alternate system that so successfully functions in Other Now that Our Now should aspire to? And how? I am loath to be a spoiler, but the object of the book is to achieve a mobilisation and create a coalition for change. Unless blogs like this share the ideas, then it really is just a limited work of science fiction. So here goes.

  1. elimination of retail and investment banks
  2. universal basic income (UBI)
  3. employee ownership of firms and the elimination of hierarchies
  4. socialisation of land

1 and 2: The elimination of retail banks is linked to the form and function of the UBI. The UBI in this alternate world has three components in a Personal Capital (PerCap) account. First, Accumulation made up of basic pay and democratically-allocated work bonuses; Second, Legacy – which is paid on birth, but not redeemable until adulthood and a plan for using it! Third, Dividend, which is the UBI element funded by a tax on corporations at 5 per cent of gross revenues. The payments are stored in an electronic wallet and transfers are made independent of retail banks. Borrowing is replaced by a peer-to-peer lending scheme rather than by banks as we currently know them. That does not quite amount to the elimination of the need for retail banks, but comes close. Investment banks disappeared because they no longer trade their complex derivatives and create fictitious money. They are reduced merely to lenders and have no advantage over peer lending.

3: Each employee is given one share of equal value to all other shares in the company on Day 1, or when they join. The stock market has been dispensed with by the radical activists who brought about the change (see below). Firms become democratic with no senior bosses telling others what to do. And the surpluses created by firms are allocated by peer assessment on a points system. Those who are particularly creative and/or productive are recognised by their peers and given credit points that equate with a portion of the excess. These points can also be used by future employers to assess the suitability of a candidate.

4: Landlords received inflated unearned income. The socialisation of land in Other Now resulted in a new commons being created through Ground Trusts/Commons (gComms). By law all freehold land passed to the gComms. Leases were awarded to landlords and democratic businesses were also privileged. Two zones – one for commercial housing, the other for commercial businesses, enable communities to extract maximum rents in these areas to pay for social housing.

Getting there

The mechanisms for getting there are radical. In the Other Now, movements such as Occupy Wall Street were not defeated as they were in Our Now. They were transformed into a guerrilla groups that organised successful payments strikes (delaying instalment payments on bank loans and utilities such as water and electricity) that brought down the banks and caused the nationalisation of the utilities. Guerrilla groups targeted firms with poor employee relations and environmental records sufficient to get pension funds to divest. Another guerrilla group set about big tech – succeeding in bringing down Facebook and gaining property rights over data for users of social networks. Those companies that avoided attack by these guerrilla groups did so only by investing in green technologies, leaving stock markets and transferring full voting shares to their employees.

International organisations such as the IMF were completely reformed. Instead of being an organisation that gave loans to defaulting nations in exchange for the privatisation of public assets, the International Monetary Project (IMP) has a remit to stabilise the world economy and invest in countries or regions without indebting them. The resources for this come from levies on exports and capital transfers.

Yanis Varoufakis

Core to the success of the system and the security against exploitation and a return to some oligarchical system is transparency. The very systems that were turned on citizens to monitor and punish were instead directed at the powerful. An appropriately-named piece of software, the Panopticon Code, developed by a guerrilla group of coders, infected every computing device on the planet. Suddenly everyone could see everything about one another and particularly those “clinging to power”. As a reader, one can see that Varoufakis is perhaps not so keen on this as an absolute (everyone’s secrets are exposed with the negative impacts that would entail), but the longer-term impact on the Other Now was a democratisation of society on a global scale. Corporations were held in check by their internal democracy and Citizens’ Juries (with the power to dissolve bad companies). These, of course, required a high-level of engagement by the population to enact and maintain. A socialworthiness index (as a replacement for credit ratings and the agencies that generate them) helped to divert resources towards the good things in life that were not captured by GDP (a real bugbear of mine).

On immigration, states in the Other Now recognised the contribution of immigrants to host economies and also supported the communities in which they lived including providing sufficient school places, healthcare services and housing (the latter helped by the socialisation of land and management by gComms).

Other Now is a modern app-based world. There’s an app for PerCap and its funds. There’s an app for social media data trading – after all users of social media services were given property rights over their data. They now trade data with social media firms and receive payment for them. This had tragic implications – which are for readers of the book to discover (p169). Using an app and receiving the payment in the PerCap app! The proliferation of apps is an indicator of a vibrant digital sector, freed from the constraints of the former Techno-feudalism endured by Our Now citizens.

Why Other Now is not better than Our Now

Other Now is no Utopia. Varoufakis uses Iris to detail its residual failures that the elimination of capitalism did not banish. And in 2022, Other Now does have its own financial crisis caused by imperfections in the regulatory framework around gComms and PerCap. Again, I will not spoil it because this is the part where Varoufakis loses himself in his story telling. There is nothing original in what happens next – I am pretty sure that any seasoned SciFi fan would work this out before Varoufakis had written it, after all, he’s an academic economist. But we are asked, through his characters, whether we would elect to transfer to Other Now or stay in Our Now. This is an existential question. The identity of the characters prepared to transfer and which not, and their reasons for the choice, again, are not a surprise.

I bought the book without reading the cover. Fortunately. Readers know that fiction – and particularly science fiction -are not my thing. Varoufakis demonstrates that they are not his either, but he has a fair shot at it – and certainly his main points about the nature of change – and critically the process of change – are well made. Probably better in this format than a straight monograph, of which there are many. I come away with some ideas of my own. But also with a dilemma. Not only should I go to Another Now if I had the chance; but seeing as though I don’t have that option, should I try to create Another Now? Now. The answer…I am not into tapestry.

Picture: Twitter

Book Review: Banking on it by Anne Boden

Banking on it book cover

Anne Boden, a 50-something female banker with a long career at RBS decides to leave. She gets headhunted to work at the failed Allied Irish Bank (one of the major casualties of the financial crisis in 2008). Whilst she is terribly excited about the innovations in technology deployment at the bank, as chief operating officer, actually, her day job was making people redundant. She left after 18 months.

Boden comes across as someone who doesn’t sit still for long. She mused over her future and decided to set up her own retail bank. Only this one would not have any legacy systems, branches, and crucially, it would not have an IT department. It would be an IT department. The bank would be, as the book cover suggests, an industry disruptor – a business that would strip down products to the basics. No frills. And what it did do, it would do better than any other retail bank. It would interface with customers through a mobile phone app. The core product would be the notoriously unprofitable current account; rendered profitable by a low cost base and intelligent rates for borrowing and saving.

There is much to recommend in this book. We know the ending – Starling Bank was launched and is on the cusp of profitability. It is award winning – though I am never really sure what that means. And as we might expect, the journey to this point has been fraught, involved near bankrupting herself, two unexplained burglaries and a big fall out with the core team about strategy. As a 50-something bloke, the idea of a 50-something becoming a successful entrepreneur is inspiring. I am myself embarking on ventures that perhaps should have been done a number of years ago. But there you go. What this story tells us that there is never a wrong time, but don’t expect to have a life if you try. And if one is going to set up a bank, expect to have to do a deal with the Devil (more of this later).

Here are a few things of note for budding entrepreneurs:

  • Silicon Valley’s investors may not be receptive to non-Silicon Valley start-ups;
  • contingency fees from consultancies and lawyers may not be honoured by investors;
  • even if one thinks that the idea is original, it is not. Someone else is working on it simultaneously and they may be competing for finance with you;
  • scalability will be important – can the business be expanded/grow without adding costs? (p33);
  • build a network full of goodwill (being 50-something can help, providing one has not hacked people down on the way up in a previous life) – (p63)
  • if the business is a disruptor, the incumbents will not sit back and watch (p66); but in mature industries – like banking – they might not know how to respond (p251-2);
  • watch out for a coup attempt – those brought in to develop the business may see themselves as better able to build the business and launch. The leader of the coup will require the rest of the team to choose between you and them (pp125-6);
  • the media will pounce on stories about a coup/disagreements. PR needs management;
  • failure is normal for entrepreneurs. Investors value experience. In Silicon Valley, recording failure is part of the culture. The place where this is done is medium.com (p138);
  • it is possible to lose a whole team, be close to ruin, but start again and learn from the mistakes – primarily, getting the right people. The signs are there if one cares to look;
  • it is staggering how much can be done just using email;
  • so-called Real Options are revealed sooner than expected, but must be embraced. Setting up the businesses is only the start;
  • the team that launched the product is not necessarily the team to see it in to the future;
  • potential stakeholders/investors are watching – keep an eye on the email. Unfamiliar names may not be all bad.

Talking of bad. The bank got approval from the UK banking regulator to trade. I’m not quite sure how this works, but it does involve a lot of meetings, paperwork, disappointment and finance. It may not matter where the finance comes from. In Starling Bank’s case, Boden got an email from a mysterious investor, Harald McPike. Austrian, apparently. The eventual deal was done in the Bahamas on board a 92 metre yacht. £48m was pledged in exchange for 2/3 of the equity. So, essentially, Starling Bank is owned by a secretive financier based in the Bahamas.

That led me to a wider question about motives. Boden sees her core customers as younger types who live largely from their mobile phones. I get that. But why did the bank need to ape existing ownership models; namely venture capital based in the Bahamas? In these post-financial-crisis days, surely more of the same, albeit on a mobile, is falling short of truly disrupting? Why not a co-operative or other mutual model? Democratise banking and roll back the bank-as-an-end-in-itself principle.

There is absolutely no sense that Boden (left) might have had any reservations about the source of her capital, and that the profits would be offshored. It is not only McPike, she also sounded out Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh, in New York and John Thain famous seemingly for spending $141k on rugs for his office whilst he was at Merrill Lynch.

And what about ethical standards? The only mention of ethics was in a discussion as to whether it was ok to buy a competitor’s domain name (p197)! The website does have an ethics statement which explicitly excludes certain business customers such as arms traders. There is a commitment to planting trees, some reference to energy and supply chains. Nothing, though, that says, “this is the bank for me”.

Pic: Anne Boden, Charlottelorimer 

Book Review – Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World

Book cover

“Degrowth the economy” has a ring of “defund the police” about it. It sounds bad, counter-intuitive and a threat to security. Surely, if we degrow, we become poorer and less able to provide services that society needs?

These are obvious questions, the answer probably starts with the issue of notions of rich and poor. As much of my most recent reading has highlighted, for as long as wealth is measured in terms of money and its exchange value; i.e. the amount of stuff we can buy with it, the poorer we become as a species. But that is largely what GDP is, a measure of value in terms of the quantified and expressed in units, usually a currency, that are convertible and comparable with other currencies.

Hickel’s final chapter is thought provoking. He’s an anthropologist, not an economist; it is that multi-disciplinarity that is so helpful in debates about economies and climate change. Hickel takes us into the disappearing world of indigenous peoples living in the forests of South America and Asia. These people live in very close proximity to nature, are reliant on it and are deeply conscious that over-exploitation will lead to shortages. Take too many fish and they will not reproduce in sustainable numbers. Sustainable here means the same for the fish as those who rely on them for food.

These indigenous people do this by viewing the natural world not as “other”; in our “developed-world terms, as objects to be exploited. Rather, the natural world is full of subjects that, for some indigenous peoples, have souls. Having a soul (note that is not humans granting other living things a soul, rather other things having immanent souls). Hickel (below right) is not just talking about higher mammals; this stretches to plants (way more sophisticated than we give them credit for) and (even the) micro-organisms that digest our food and manufacture the nutrients that make us work.

Of course, if we have a view of the world where other living things have souls – though that does not make them the same as us – then it necessitates a less exploitative relationship with “other”. As we have seen so often in the developed human world, if we ascribe other living things object status rather than subject status, they become eminently exploitable. And in any way that the exploiter sees fit. We do this to the indigenous people (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil seeks to exterminate indigenous Amazonian people to exploit their lands); but our favourite economic system – capitalism – was based on subject-object distinctions. Colonialisation is a case in point. Indigenous people find themselves objects even if they themselves had seen the colonialists as subjects (albeit with weapons). 

If anyone thinks that it is not possible to ascribe subject status to things that are not human, one does not have to go much further than the US Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution to include corporations as having the same liberties as individuals – at the time, of course, white males with property. That said, that decision was much to the chagrin of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who could see the dangers (Mintzberg, 2015).

And so to capitalism. Capitalism is a system dependent on unsustainable exploitation of resources. Our measure of GDP does this for us. It is the measure that tells us that we are in growth, recession or depression; but perversely, we can increase it by wrecking a ship full of oil because GDP measures the “clean-up” operation but not the damage done by the oil on the landscape, the wildlife and the eco-system more generally. 

Governments revel at levels of 3 per cent growth and we are amazed and envious when countries achieve 8 per cent and more. We must process what that means. At a rate of 3 per cent per year, an economy will effectively double in 30 years. That is double the resource extraction, too. As we now know, this is unsustainable. We need, argues, Hickel, to degrow.

Capitalism extracts from us more and more work. We once thought that technology would enable us to spend less time working. But it has not proved to be the case. The machines, like the one I am using now, makes it possible for me to do things that my predecessors would have given to others to do. In my work at a university, I am an imperfect IT technician as well as a lecturer. I do administration, too, all facilitated by technology and all displacing work from – and for – others who are not rewarded with more leisure time, but rather with unemployment and poverty. The excess goes to owners and executives.

Hickel reports that if we have more time, we use it not to consume more, but to spend time with family and friends. We also volunteer more. We are healthier. And we emit less greenhouse gas. Actually, we take more short flights when we work long hours as we seek, through the logic of capitalism, to “make the most” of the free time that we have. That has become synonymous with consumption. And what’s more “…nearly a third of all labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half century has been done to make rich people richer.” (p29) That stays with me as a thought.

This is what degrowth means that:

  • we work less but are more productive in the process; remove the scarcity of jobs that leads to people working longer and for lower wages. There is actually no scarcity of work in modern economies; 
  • we should advertise less and reduce the creation of wants over needs;
  • built-in obsolescence in products is ended – everything is repairable;
  • we share more (shift from ownership to usership). Equally, expand the commons – land, in particular. 
  • ecologically damaging industries are scaled back (e.g. red meat production);
  • we invest in meaningful jobs and guarantee them (in line with Stephanie Kelton’s thinking
  • we reduce inequality – more equal societies consume less and are less wasteful. The people are happier;
  • debt is cancelled for poor countries (so-called Jubilee). In order to pay the debt, countries exploit natural resources unsustainably;
  • we end debt-based currency – banks create currency from every loan they make. Compound interest is also ended;
  • we broaden democracy and participation, end lobbying/political advertising. Elite control of news media is ended. Industrial democracy becomes the norm in firms. Monopolies are broken up;
  • the power structures in key global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are flattened.

Degrowth book coverLike all of the books I review, there is much more to them than the contents of this blog post. Hickel has a style that is satisfying. As an academic, he eschews too much anecdote and comprehensively gives citations and endnotes. This contrasts with Rutger Bergmann who is equally erudite, but less academically rigorous. However, it is annoying that Hickel’s book does not have an index, but that is labour-intensive, I know. My next task is to backtrack a little on degrowth with D’Alisa et al (left). 

Hickel photo – Goldsmiths College

Mintzberg, H (2015), Rebalancing Society.

Book review: Stephanie Kelton, the Deficit Myth

Without my reliable book seller, I would probably not have read this book. It arrived one day through my Covid-barrier letterbox. Once I had started reading, it completely changed my way of thinking and boosted my mood amidst the gloom that is modern politics and economics. Kelton demonstrates that, contrary to the British Prime Minister’s assertion, there actually is a magic money tree. I am going to resort to bullet points here. Here’s what Kelton tells us:

  • we do not pay tax to pay for services, we pay tax to “provision” the economy
  • governments do not tax and spend, they spend and tax
  • governments’ budgets do not work like household budgets
  • countries that have currency sovereignty (i.e. “issue” their own currency), cannot run out of money
  • the role of fiscal policy is to manage inflation, not the deficit.
  • austerity is both unnecessary and damaging economically and socially
  • deficits are a sign of a healthy economy – economies that are balanced are not innovative
  • a negative balance of payments does not mean that foreign powers have power over countries whose currencies they keep
  • currency “holders” convert their cash into interest-bearing bonds
  • countries with currency sovereignty can, and should, have full employment
  • the resources are there for countries with currency sovereignty to transform to carbon-zero economies.

That is almost enough for one book. There are plenty of reviews of this book for my readers can draw on, for example, Despan, 2020. As ever, there is no substitute for reading the book oneself. But let me take just a few of these bullet points and metabolise them.

Take Covid-19, the British Government has found £30bn to fund the furlough/job retention scheme to enable employers to retain staff when revenues are hard to generate. The Government found money to build emergency hospitals; purchase PPE (albeit inefficiently); and even pay us to eat out. The government has not disclosed how these initiatives will be paid for. The Conservative Government has spent millions of pounds on Brexit, most notoriously a £13.8m contract to a ferry firm without ferries. Oh, and those expensive nuclear weapons. Essentially, the Treasury is paying by creating money. Though by contrast, it would seem that Government spending on welfare payments to poorer people, on education, social care, etc., have to be justified and balanced by tax revenue.

Tax, more generally, is not as it seems. Kelton makes the argument that the reason that we pay tax is not to fund spending, but rather for provisioning. Governments need people to be economically active, to make things, to provide services, for progress. Tax, therefore, is the incentive for people to be economically active by ensuring that people have to give their labour and time in exchange for currency (money). There is a secondary purpose to tax, that of wealth redistribution. The obscene wealth concentration in the hands of a few known-individuals – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel – does not serve society at all. The rich who get more money tend to save it rather than spend it. Give poor people money and they will spend it in the real economy. Take a $1bn off Jeff Bezos in tax and he is left with $109bn. Would he really notice? Plus, how much has Bezos increased his wealth during the pandemic which has necessitated large-scale public spending commitments? What can civil society do with $1bn? Rather a lot, I think.

People will argue – particularly in the USA – that rich people are serious philanthropists. Bill Gates’ foundation gives billions to the fight against malaria. Warren Buffet has endorsed Gates and will donate his fortune to Gates’ foundation upon his death. There are two problems – at least – with that argument. Many billionaires have become so rich by exploiting workers, communities and natural resources. Suddenly to give excess money “away” to causes that they decide are worthy seems wrong. They distribute excess money (they do not become St Francis of Asissi). They live well and maintain their political influence. And who is to say the causes selected by philanthropists are worthy and the most efficacious? Where is the transparency, the democracy, the accountability?

Back to Kelton’s main arguments, government deficits are, by definition,  surpluses or credits to others. I buy something (debit) and give money to someone else (credit) in return for something that I actually want. But unlike governments, my debit does have to be covered either by savings or borrowing. Governments only get into trouble when they borrow in currencies that are not their own. Cases such as Argentina are often floated as examples of how deficits are bad. Notwithstanding the fact that Argentina’s 2001 inflation-led crisis caused a default on foreign debt, it did reconfigure its economy to one that focused on domestic growth and full employment. Its government moved away from US dollars both in cash terms and also uncoupling interest rates to a foreign currency.

Inflation, unemployment and climate change

Inflation is a problem for economies. In my lifetime I have seen high inflation; though nothing compared to the hyper-inflation suffered by Germany in the 1930s which still scars the landscape and leads to economic conservativism within the country and forces austerity on countries such as Greece that share the currency (the Euro). Inflation is usually controlled by notionally-independent central banks. They increase interest rates to dampen down demand. 2 per cent inflation seems to be a common target in modern economies. Overshoot and the central bank will raise interest rates. That will also impact on the unemployment rate – but modern economy managers trade off inflation and employment. Higher unemployment is a price worth paying for keeping down inflation, unless you are, of course, someone being made unemployed. This trade-off can be seen at work in a recent article by Gordon Brown, UK PM during the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, he writes: “Now I am the first to say that the Bank needs a more demanding constitution, one that imposes a dual mandate: to take unemployment as seriously as inflation. This should be matched by an operational target stating that interest rates will not rise or stimulus end until unemployment falls to pre-crisis levels.” (Guardian, 15 September 2020).

Kelton argues convincingly that countries with sovereign currencies can run their economies with a “good jobs guarantee”. Monetary policy has it that there is a natural level of unemployment – NAIRU. The Economist Martin Goodfried puts a figure on it: 7 per cent! In the USA, that might be as many as 12 million Americans “naturally” without work and a whole lot more who are under-employed. To keep that number of people unemployed is not some law of economics (there are no laws of real economics), it is purely a political decision predicated on a non-existent law of rising wages caused by too much employment and hence bargaining power of labour leading to inflation. When wages rise, interest rates should increase to prevent inflation from occurring.

Mainstream economics has it that unemployment benefit is sufficient to provide for the needs of people without work. Critically for the neo-liberal economists, the rate needs to be set sufficiently low so as to provide the incentive for the unemployed to take any paid work rather than be idle. The gig economy is, arguably, the result of this mentality; that is insecure and sporadic work. However, this argument is pretty phoney – most people are motivated by a sense of purpose, much of which comes from engaging in meaningful work. But the rich – for example, those who earn six-figure sums – do not work harder the more they receive in salary and bonuses. They merely accumulate believing themselves to be worth the money they are paid. Moreover, they bias the policy of their firms in order to maximise the benefits they receive. For example, if remuneration is linked to share price, CEOs may engage in share buy-backs rather than invest in innovation and new products.

Kelton identifies seven deficits that do matter. These are: employment, infrastructure, education, climate, democracy, health and savings. Let me take a couple of those deficits, starting with employment. Kelton argues that progressive governments would use the state apparatus to employ all unemployed labour on a wage that sustains individuals and families until full employment returns in the natural economic and business cycles. A good job guarantee (the good is important here) can maintain aggregate demand even in a downturn because everyone who wants to work can do so. This potentially makes the downturn of shorter duration. All citizens would be covered (not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits either because they have not paid-in to the insurance system, or they have exhausted their “entitlement”) and purposeful work is at the heart of such a programme. Moreover, skills are retained and/or enhanced. Kelton argues further that these public works should be based in communities and the work itself should focus on developing communities – whether it be public service, caring (for elderly and children alike) or business development/entrepreneurship. It is also clear that such a job-guarantee programme could be beneficial as societies pursue environmental sustainability. It is also feasible for people to change their own direction from accumulation to sharing and “de-growth”.

That leads to the second deficit that matters, climate change. Kelton rehearses many of the arguments made by key writers in this field such as Mike Berners-Lee, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Lang, Bruno Latour, etc. If governments persist with a neo-liberal, deficit-avoidance economic mindset, then climate change will impact human society at the upper, catastrophic-end of the climate-modelled scenarios. There is no financial block on investment in green technologies. It is political. Sovereign currency issuers such as the USA and the UK can generate the financial resources needed to eliminate carbon as the source of all energy and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

In conclusion, Kelton is a credible critic of existing monetary policy. She demonstrates how we can as a society have the things we need. Society has never been provided for by taxation. It has always been spend and tax, not tax and spend. Tax does not provide the resources for public spending, it is primarily a tool of redistribution. Some rich people are not keen on that, for some reason.

Updated, 15 September 2020 to incorporate quote by Gordon Brown

My last Samsung

A few years’ ago, I watched a documentary about corruption at Olympus (the Japanese camera/optics firm). I was rather disturbed by it. To the western viewer, there was unacceptable fraud being perpetrated by Japanese executives. The British-company president at the time, Michael Woodford, found that dealing with it was not straightforward and could be dangerous. What he could not understand with his capitalist mindset was that losses were not only about honour in Japanese society, but also about social welfare – the interests of generations of employees (Olympus people) were intertwined with the fortunes of the company. The Japanese executives did what they could to avoid the collapse of the company for that reason – something that is difficult for a western mindset to embrace.

So in reading Geoffrey Cain’s book (left) about South Korea’s Samsung corporation, packed full of examples of fraudulent business activities, should I try to understand the cultural imperatives and conclude the book was a good read? Which it is, though the style as a thriller is annoying, but that is just me again. Samsung is a family business traded on foreign stock markets. It is the cornerstone of the South Korean economy, run as a business empire with a patriarch who can be convicted numerous times for services to the ruling family and somehow evade the full force of the criminal justice system. The book concludes just at the point where the current patriarch, Lee Jae-yong (Jay Lee), was facing a re-trial on bribery charges after a successful appeal by prosecutors to the Supreme Court.

The charges are intimately linked to Lee Jae-yong’s attempts to retain control over the company and not pay much inheritance tax in the process. Although Samsung is traded on stock markets,

car

1999 Samsung SQ5, later called SM5

investors do not buy a stake in the parent; there is a lot of cross-shareholding that does two things. It blurs the precise nature of who owns what whilst ensuring a controlling role for family members. It is a conglomerate, but at the same time not. Family members control the affiliate businesses including a theme park, a hospital, shipbuilding, fashion and chipsets. It made motor cars in my lifetime (right) The cross-shareholding allows the family to retain control with relatively small shareholding. The structure is frequently adjusted in the interests of the Lee family.

In 2015 one of these adjustments involved two affiliates merging to the considerable detriment of the financial interests of the existing shareholders of one of those affiliates, C&T such that it was being valued at less-than zero. As Cain notes: “Samsung argued that this was an attempt to consolidate business units…Jay Lee owned a 23 percent stake in Cheil Industries, the company acquiring Samsung C&T [Construction and Trading], which in turn owned a 4 percent stake in Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel. The merger would simplify and solidify Jay Lee’s control of Samsung Electronics through this shareholding web, starting with Cheil at the top” (p245). To make matters worse, the family managed to convince one of the largest institutional investors, The National Pension Service (NPS), to support the merger despite it not being in the interests of its own stakeholders; namely, South Korean pensioners and those hoping to retire on a pension. In the end, a combination of the devaluing of the NPS’s shareholding and the stock market’s response, it lost $500m – a straight transfer from the people to an industrial elite!

Even a US hedge fund, Elliott Management, led by Paul Elliott Singer, failed to stop it. Singer himself was described by Bloomberg as “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Samsung engaged in some pretty unsavoury propaganda to discredit him. Singer is Jewish and Samsung went full-on antisemitism even going to the point of setting up a website called “Vulture Man” with a slide show depicting a vulture, thought to be a caricature of Singer, “whose sadistic practices consisted of plotting and preying on the poor and disenfranchised around the world” (p250).

Samsung’s origins are uncomfortable from a 21st Century context. Its founder, BC Lee, was educated in Japan and was enamoured to say the least by Japanese Zaibatsu, powerful family-dominated industrial and financial business empires, which fell victim to post-war reconstruction. Lee’s first business operation was in supplying vegetables to Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. That story itself has unsavoury implications, though from a business perspective, perfectly reasonable. A man familiar with Japanese cuisine supplies vegetables to customers in Manchuria. The fact that they were an occupying force is neither here nor there.

After WWII, the South was invaded by the North; 3 years’ of war saw most of Lee’s assets taken or looted. Lee then entered sugar refining and wool spinning, banking, insurance and chemicals. Samsung was intimately involved in the economic transformation of the country arising from the military coup in 1961 led by General Park Chung-hee after some horsetrading over the scope of Samsung business interests. Actually, the state wanted the banks.

selfieThe transformation into an electronics firm started to take shape with the acquisition of a semi-conductor firm in 1974. Always a supplier, Samsung powered the first iPhone. In fact without very close collaboration between the two firms the iPhone would not have made it to the market and that infamous 2007 presentation by Steve Jobs at the Macworld convention would not have happened. That event is itself a tale of trade-off and compromise.

Samsung seems to have been obsessed with beating competitors. First, Sony in terms of design and LCD screens/televisions. More famously, beating Apple, particularly in the American market for which Samsung employed a crack team of marketers led by Todd Pendleton. Their White Glove project culminated in one of the most famous non-selfies when Ellen deGeneres tried to make a selfie  with Meryl Streep using a Galaxy mobile at the Oscars ceremony in 2014. It ended up being the most-retweeted Tweet (right) featuring other stars such as Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto. And Kevin Spacey.

It is at this point in the book that I realise how meaningless life is.

The politics are much more interesting than the marketing; and much more unsavoury. Further words are expended on the PR disaster of the Galaxy Note 7 and the company’s insufficient recall policy and unwillingness to come clean about the cause, or indeed the danger. Readers will not be surprised to learn that there turns out to be considerable institutional causes over-and-above the design flaws. And then there is the premature release of the folding-screen phone that was so delicate that it broke by looking at it. Cain concludes, however, that we, the consumers, are just seduced by good products in nice cases. We will overlook the behaviour of the manufacturer in pursuit of consumption. My Samsung  S8+ is now into its fourth year. That is a testament to the product (and a bit to my care and attention to it). My next mobile will not be a Samsung.

25 October 2020 – death of Lee Kun-hee announced: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/oct/25/lee-kun-hee-samsung-electronics-chairman-dies-aged-78

Pics: Samsung SQ5: raul • CC BY-SA 3.0

Why solar power is the answer

illustrative

Demonstrations against nuclear power, Hull, 1983

Again, showing my age, there was a time before chiller vending machines. I had just started at college and one arrived on campus. There seemed to me to be two things instantly wrong with them. First, the drinks – sticky water really – were packaged in aluminium cans. Giving back aluminium cans to supermarkets had been one of my earliest experience of environmental activism. I’ve never liked them because of the energy required to make single-use containers. Second, chillers used energy to chill something that really did not need chilling. It was purely an aesthetic, especially in the middle of winter. Chillers just multiplied from that point onward. It seemed to me throughout my formative years that we used energy for things that did not need energy. Shop windows at night. What was that all about?

It kind of didn’t matter in those days. Aluminium smelters were located near to hydro-electricity stations and there was plenty of coal and generating capacity to burn it. Plus, chillers and lit shop windows made life better. Apparently. It is true, it was a piffling amount of energy relative to the big users: iron and steel producers, paper mills, bitumen manufacturers, water-treatment works, industrial-scale refrigeration. What I did not know before reading Chris Goodall’s book, The Switch, was that some smart people run businesses that sign up some of these large energy users and gain permission to turn off their equipment when the grid is under pressure at peak times. One Belgian company, REstore (now part of Centrica), operates a platform that monitors the real-time use of electricity of its clients and gauges whether they can be taken off-grid for a certain amount of time to level out demand. The platform is clever – or at least the people behind it are – in that it works out just how much energy can be taken from a big customer without affecting production. For example, molten steel stays that way for some time. Even 5 minutes off-grid can provide enough capacity to keep everyone else secure in supply. The company receives money from the grid in exchange for its clients coming off grid when requested to do so.

illustration

Hastings Railway Station: why no solar panels?

Why is this important? it is important because despite the startling fact supported by a logic that I am not going to argue with, photovoltaics (PVs) can supply humanity with all of the electrical energy that it needs more cheaply than by any other renewable mode. Contrary to what I had thought about chillers and well-lit shop windows, actually energy consumption is declining in developed countries. In the UK, apparently, we are back down to levels of consumption as of 1970 driven by two things. First, it is actually difficult for those in the rich west to consume much more. There is unlikely to be more chillers because – probably – there is nowhere to put them and we cannot realistically drink more sugared water. Second, many of the things we still consume are getting more efficient, in particular lighting (see below). Semi-conductors, too, are becoming energy efficient, exponentially so.

How much electrical energy does humanity need? Goodall thinks that a decent standard of living can be achieved by a total running energy demand of 3kw per person (one-third more than the running demand in 2015). Scale that up, that is about 30 terawatts of power (twice the level in 2015). Goodall notes, too, that the amount of available solar energy is: ten times that of the nearest renewable alternative, wind; one-hundred times that of biomass; wave and hydro are some 13 times less than biomass. All we have to do is collect the solar energy and covert it. Well, not quite.

illustrative

Roofs in Hastings. Spot the solar panels

PV cells are getting cheaper. Goodall uses the concept of the learning curve to explain this. Essentially, the more units manufactured, the more learning about how to manufacture them quicker and more efficiently. The decline in the costs of manufacture has a name, Swanson’s law (Like Moore’s law in semi-conductors, but bigger).

And maybe my chiller and shop window lighting gripes are actually valid? In a solar-dominated world – and especially in the temperate North – energy use peaks between 1600 and 2000 daily. There is an overlap between businesses shutting down and people arriving home, turning on lights and cooking dinner. Goodall reminds us how crazy it is that we do not have demand pricing for energy at these peak times. In the zero carbon world, we are going to have to turn off our lights and appliances at peak times. Ensuring that all light fittings are LEDs, seemingly would make a huge difference – demand can be reduced by one-third by this very simple change. Goodall goes further and advocates we all sign-up for smart meters on the basis that, in the washingend, suppliers will be able to shut off energy-hungry appliances at times of stress for the grid. He’s thinking particularly of our washing machines, tumble driers and dishwashers. My supplier invites me weekly to install a smart meter; I have been reluctant to let them into my house, but maybe there is a utilitarian case for it?

So, controlling demand at peak times is one element of the solution. Another element is alternative sources. As noted above, wind is the second-best option here; conveniently there is an inverse relationship between solar and wind – when it is not sunny, it is often windy. Wind turbines, however, cannot compete on price with solar. At the time of Goodall’s writing, the best solar conversions were coming in at US$0.06 per Kwh. Swanson’s law suggests that this conversion can go down further. However, such prices are half that of the best performing fossil fuel sources (p47). Wind can do about US$0.07 in its best places (Texas, for example), so it is a good complementer, and works at night and when the sun does not shine so brightly. Wind’s experience curve, however, is much less steep and sustained. It is also more expensive to site turbines (rental charges can be quite high; offshore has quite high maintenance costs).

SpongThere is also room for public policy – a south-facing roof in a city should have solar cells mounted on it. Equally, dwellings need to be made energy-efficient. A bit of insulation is insufficient. Rendering UK housing stock energy-efficient, in particular, is a major task. It is going to take central government support to transform regular houses, but companies like Energie Sprong (right) in the Netherlands (operating in the UK) show the way; though at £30k, it is quite a commitment. One house in a block seems a little pointless. We may need to do a bit of getting together to make this happen. Though disappointingly, there was no sign of money for these kinds of developments in UK budget statement of 8 July 2020.

Then there is the battery solution which has been driven by a rapid diffusion of electric cars. Elon Musk’s Tesla vehicles’ high performance depends on high capacity battery storage – in his case based on lithium ion technology (fast discharge). Seemingly there is enough lithium on the planet to build the necessary batteries. The United States Geological Service estimates that there is 13.5m tonnes available, which is more than enough and is recyclable. What Goodall doesn’t tell us, however, is whether this lithium is accessible, subject to geopolitics and/or would have environmental implications if it was exploited. There are other battery technologies – flow batteries are slow discharge, so not much use for cars, but work for other less dynamic applications such as mobile phone masts.

illustrativeThen there is pumped hydro – excess daytime electricity is used to pump water up for hydro-release when the sun does not shine. There is one in the UK at Dinorwig in Snowdonia (left). It can react quite quickly at peak times. But scaling up is not easy; there would be more damning needed and lots of power lines. Effectively, we are still short.

Fuels are stores of energy. Fossil fuels are particularly good because they are concentrated stores which means you get a lot of energy per bundle rendering it possible to have meaningful fuel tanks in cars and aeroplanes. Goodall doesn’t hold out too much hope in the hydrogen economy – it is way too dangerous and difficult to store and is not particularly dense in its energy. Time to turn to microbes. Carbon neutral fuels are possible. Here’s the logic: take hydrogen and carbon dioxide, literally feed it to known microbes in return for energy-rich molecules containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. These can be stored in existing oil storage infrastructure – a bonus for what will need to be a rapid switch.

Goodall advises us to keep an eye on a couple of pioneering companies – Electrochaea and LanzaTech. Both use microbes to convert various elements and compounds – carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide oxygen and hydrogen – often taken from the environment, sewage installations or from industrial plants such as cement factories before emission, and converted into a liquid fuel – methane and ethanol – that can be stored and used when needed. Just like with hydro, excess summer electricity is used in the conversion process. The excess, argues Goodall, is actually worthless. PV generates more electricity than is needed in the summer, so putting it to good use is no bad thing.

Finally, there is air capture of carbon dioxide. This is inherently a good thing as it would actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It does not require the burning of fossil fuels to capture it to then use it to make liquid fuels. A company called Climeworks in Switzerland leads the way here. Carbon dioxide is captured, combined with other elements to produce liquid fuels. It is expensive at the moment and would benefit immensely from the world adopting realistic carbon taxes as Climeworks’ carbon dioxide would be tradeable. Investment costs are equally important. Low interest rates help in the development of technology and installation, particularly of PVs for consumers.

I am still convinced that saving energy is still important and might contribute to reducing the deficit between what renewables can achieve in the winter and dark months. It does not seem to me just to be a case of our appliances becoming more energy efficient. Those drinks chillers and shop windows can still be turned off.

Pictures:

Energie Sprong – https://www.energiesprong.uk/

Dinorwig – https://www.fhc.co.uk/en/power-stations/

 

Book Review – Rutger Bregman, Humankind

illustrationI was going to start with what I dislike about this book, but that would be contrary to its whole ethos. I had in my head that there was something opportunist in Bregman’s prose, and hence the man himself. I have to say that this book could be life-changing, or in the case of oldies like me, a bit of a booster, like one gets to top up a vaccine every now and again. In life I can see myself slipping into pure cynicism. Bregman is a check on that. So I am going to change the criticism to give readers some idea of how I should be thinking rather than the way that I have come to think.

So, here is the re-writing of my original first paragraph (I’ve moved what was the original first paragraph to the end of the review for anyone who is remotely interested).

Regular readers know that I do not watch much television, though I did when I was a child. As I got older and was allowed to stay upillustration later and watch adult television, my father insisted that we watch documentaries rather than sit-coms and soaps (we’re talking the 1970s). The format was always the same: an expert or knowledgeable person (or both, James Burke, right), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense, even then. With hindsight, one of the reasons for the no frills was limited bandwidth. Broadcasting hours were fewer back then, and there were no specialist stations. It was broadcasting in the true sense. There was insufficient airtime to waste on unnecessary graphics, or choreography. In recent times, I have been reading much more than I used to – the pandemic has helped. I have noticed a style of writing in popular non-fiction (a genre that I have traditionally avoided out of snobbery). It is akin to current TV documentary style. There’s a soundtrack, an extended narrative with cliffhangers and expansive prose. I realise that this book in this style is not produced for me. Though if it gets people engaged with science, current affairs, art, philosophy, then all well and good.

SONY DSC

I started reading this book, not because I want to be convinced at how kind humans can be – which is the point of the book – but because I know Bregman is an important commentator. I finished it, incidentally, because I wanted to be convinced of how kind humans can be. Bregman made a big splash at Davos in 2020 in telling rich people that they should pay their taxes, and in the US when he took on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. He is not going away in a hurry. I commend him for that because ultimately he is on the right side of history, albeit a white history. But the style of writing is not entirely to my liking but I know this view is not shared!

The first part of the book seeks to debunk the hypothesis that there is a human predilection to violence and being beastly to one another. I have not checked the veracity of many of the claims made in the book, but here are a few that I really want to be true:

  • blanket bombing of populations in war does not result in the surrender of those subject to it
  • soldiers do not like shooting at other soldiers, even if they are deemed to be the enemy
  • Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction; left to their own devices, boys will create order and manage their way through
  • the people of Easter Island did not engage in tribal warfare that decimated the population (colonialists did that)
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment was a contrived hoax to enhance the reputation of social psychology and academics

illustrationThe philosophers at the heart of Bregman’s analysis are Hobbes and Rousseau. The Hobbesian world is that of the Leviathan – the human need for strong leaders, discipline and order to prevent a state of chaos, barbarism and cruelty. The Rousseau-ian world is one of the social contract, cooperation and common interests regulating behaviour. Bregman makes the argument that it all started going wrong when private property was conceived, when people – who became powerful and rich – were able to enclose common land and exploit it for private gain. These people built a civilisation on slavery, private property and the exploitation of natural resources. This has been a theme of other books that I have recently read; namely, Adreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain.

There’s a chapter on Stanley Milgram and the “shock machine” – an experiment in 1961 where volunteers administered electric shocks of up-to 450 volts to so-called “learners” in an adjacent room. Milgram was Jewish and, claims Bregman, devised the study to to offer an explanation for the Holocaust. People follow orders, hypothesised Milgram, irrespective of the implications, genocide being one of them. All is not, however, as it seems. Bregman argues that the experiment did not test obedience, as stated, rather it tested goodness! The subjects, although paid, participated because they believed that the research would result in a contribution to knowledge. An explanation for the Holocaust was a worthy study. There was trust in the research and people in white coats who kept insisting that they needed to continue to administer the electric shocks for the research to be valid.

It was also the time of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Bregman’s case for human kindness could not exclude a discussion on the Holocaust. I do not have the authority or knowledge to engage with the terms of Eichmann’s guilt. What is recorded is that Eichmann presented himself as someone who just followed orders. Hannah Arendt who witnessed the trial first hand coined the term, banality of evil, to capture the essence of the Eichmann phenomenon as she saw it from the courtroom. There is much debate about exactly what she meant, though it was largely interpreted as her accepting Eichmann’s defence. Bregman concludes that Eichmann’s motive for his actions was actually a commitment to a cause that he believed would lead to a better society, however perverted.

What about the German citizenry who fought to the very end of the war, despite the inevitability of both the eastern and western fronts being breached? The evidence points to camaraderie, argues Bregman, rather than ideology as the cause of seemingly pointless resistance.

More optimism

Bregman takes us with him to visit some interesting people. For example  trained nurse and economics degree dropout, Jos de Blok (right), not someone I’d previously been aware of. He runs a large healthcare company in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg. He does this not by dillustrationesign, but as a consequence of working in the sector and realising that it the care service was not fit-for-purpose. Care is not delivered optimally as a product (i.e. commoditised) and by people who get their orders hierarchically, rather by people who work in small autonomous teams. De Blok is not unknown; he is in receipt of the the Royal Society of Arts’ Albert Medal. Previous recipients of this medal have been Stephen Hawking (physicist), Tim Berners-Lee (the www) and Francis Crick (DNA). So, he’s in good company.

Then there is the story of the transition of South Africa from Apartheid state to inclusive democracy under Nelson Mandela. The period between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the presidential election in 1994 was precarious. I was aware of the ugliness of Eugène Terre ‘Blanche and his Afrikaner Volksfront. I was not aware of the Viljoen twins. The family resource meant that only one of them could go to university. Constand said that brother Abraham should go. Constand (left) joined the army and became a senior officer in the South African Defence Force in Apartheid South Africa. Abraham studied abroad and found himself irreconcilably parted from his brother and aligned with the ANC and Mandela. Constand joined Terre ‘Blanche. I’ll leave it there – it is worth reading the book just for this section and only goes to raise my emotions. Mandela is the leader that we all need.

If any reader thinks that I have covered everything in this book, I have not. It is packed with ideas about positive reforms: education, democratic, penal, protest and warfare! The protest issue is so pertinent as I write at a time when the USA is convulsed by the racist Murder of George Floyd. Drawing on a study by American sociologist, Erica Chenoweth: “In the real world, she thought, power is exercised through the barrel of a gun. To prove it, she created a huge  database of resistance movement going back to 1990. ‘Then I ran the numbers,’ she wrote in 2014. ‘I was shocked.’ More than 50 per cent of the nonviolent campaigns were successful, as opposed to 26 per cent of the militant ones. The primary reason, Chenoweth established, is that more people join nonviolent campaigns. On average over eleven times more. And not just guys with too much testosterone, but also women and children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Regimes just aren’t equipped to withstand such multitudes. That’s how good overpowers evil – by outnumbering it.” (p359). At a time of Covid-19, however, maybe not.

Bregman keeps caveating his narrative with admissions of imperfection in the characters and methods he presents. Deliberative democracy works sometimes, not others. There are some truly bad people around – power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely in Lord Acton’s famous phrase. But Bregman is right, too, that if we treat one another badly in our places of work, jails, schools, communities, we cannot be surprised if it is reciprocated. We have seen during the pandemic real goodness in people, communities coming together to help one another and even the act of self-isolating and observing the lockdown are unexpected demonstrations of togetherness. Let us try to retain some of that as we move on, starting with the rewriting of my first paragraph.

Here is the original first paragraph:

The more I have been reading recently, the more I have seen this style of writing. Now, I do not watch much television these days. But when I was growing up – I know I keep going on about this – television documentaries used to have an expert or knowledgeable person (or both), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense. One of the reasons for this succinctness, I imagine, was limited bandwidth. TV programmes did not start showing until late afternoon and TV stations shut down by midnight, apart from at the weekend. And then it was half-past midnight. There was such a shortage of airtime, so every minute mattered. Hence the quality of the output. Bregman’s book is a documentary with music, and is excrutiating for it. Moreover, it is extremely patronising: “This may get a little technical, but we need to understand where he went wrong” (p88). It then proceeds to be not very technical.

Pictures:

Bregman: Victor van Werkhooven

James Burke: https://archive.org/details/james-burke-connections_s01e10

Jos de Blok: https://www.josdeblok.com/biography/

Constand Viljoen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constand_Viljoen