Tuesday, 20 June 2017

BT help, BT — help!

BT help, BT — help! 

I wonder if readers will think I am paranoid in seeing a possible malfeasance in the following story.

I get a crescendo of letters and emails from my Internet Service Provider (ISP, namely BT) suggesting I upgrade to 'Infinity Broadband'. (I ignore these as the 15 megabit/s download rate is sufficient for my needs). The last email from BT said they would waive the conversion fee of £50 if I decided to upgrade before 23rd June. Then my hub becomes disconnected from the internet for two or three hours on Sunday afternoon, which is distressing because we spent several wasted hours trying to transfer money in Mexico. Then we are connected again, till Monday noon. Then disconnected again during Monday afternoon when the Mexican banks become open (BST+6hrs).  I phone the helpline and a young welsh woman spends some 45 minutes “running tests” all of which come up negative. So BT say there is “no fault” and therefore no way they will replace or upgrade my hub free of charge. 
The only remedies she could offer were (a) to replace at a cost of £50 the hub(1) I currently have and remain on the same monthly contract as at present, or (b) upgrade ‘free' to a new hub(2) and contract at a considerably higher monthly cost, or (c) a mixture of the two whereby I pay £20 to come onto a moderately raised monthly rate. 

I say there certainly is a fault; and the service, for which BT and I are contracted, is failing, with no apology from BT and no mention of compensation. Not only that, but BT has failed to find the fault, and thereby wasted another hour of my time.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The need for Proportional Representation

Is there an honourable case against Proportional Representation?

It struck me recently, that there would have been no need for a referendum if we had had proportional representation (PR) in the House of Commons. So, who is against PR? And why? 
     One prominent Tory MP is recorded as saying: “The principle argument against the present system is that it is not fair – it is not a proportional system. However, proportional representation is a narrow concept. The ‘proportionality’ relates only to the relationship of votes to seats and not to the proportionality of power. Under PR, 10% of the votes are designed to produce 10% of the seats, but not necessarily 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. Indeed, a party with 10% of the seats may be in a position to wield disproportionate negotiating power.”
     She seems to be raising two objections to PR; that it is a “narrow concept”, and that while the votes may be distributed fairly under PR, the power is not. I do not understand the first point, unless it is intended as a summary of the second point. The second point is familiar. Politician on left and right have long been aghast at the thought of centre parties holding “the balance of power” whether under a Tory minority government or a Labour. But surely this is a relatively simple error. 
     Suppose the House of Commons contains 300 Tories, 280 Labour, 30 Lib-Dem. Suppose, on a Tory motion,  Lib-Dem and Labour MPs vote (in a principled way) against, and the motion is therefore defeated. The power that defeated the motion does not reside in the Lib-Dem portion of the opposition, but in all 310 opposers !  The motion is defeated only if there are more MPs against the motion than for; each MP counting for one vote. Surely I have said enough!
     My protesting Tory MP seemed worried that centre parties in a proportional parliament have more power than extreme parties.  But that is also nonsense isn’t it?  No one can seriously advocate disenfranchising the moderate middle merely to give the extremes a chance to govern!  It is a lunatic suggestion. Anyone who is against the moderate voices being in the majority is up against an immutable natural law — the bell-shaped curve of the "Normal Distribution" shows that the majority ARE in the middle. I hope no one will oppose PR on foolish grounds.
     I have heard other objections to PR. Some people (arguing against PR) say, “Look at Italy”. To which I would reply “Look at The Netherlands”.  Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the combined opposition unanimously wanted to vote strategically, playing games with parliament and the whole process of government. But that argument is answered by a number of considerations: such behaviour defeats good government, the perpetrators would be punished at the next election, the same game could eventually be played against them. The concept of parliament, and democracy itself, is based on the assumption that MPs do not play silly games. It is sometimes remarked that the present flip-flop system makes for large majorities and “decisive” government.   But that is surely the DISADVANTAGE of the present system, and by no means its strength? There is little virtue in being decisive if you are going against the wishes of the country; and none if you are plain wrong. When one party holds a large majority for 5 years, legislation is not tested. Furthermore, the backbench and opposition MPs have little to do. Add to that the devastating effect this flip-flop system has on morale in the country; the people cease to vote, for they see that their votes are not counted, and the MPs overuse their privileges. 
     Perhaps we should consider also the problem of stasis; getting stuck on the fence. But this also is to underestimate the good sense of the House? Ocean liners do not routinely run aground for inability to decide whether to pass to the left or right of an obstacle.)
     Proportional Representation is not a new concept. Many (if not most) countries have adopted it. The referendum of May 2011 was not about PR; it was a choice between staying with the present system or changing to the 'Alternative Vote' system which is not proportional, has few advocates, and few users.

     The ‘First Past the Post’ system favours two large parties, and large parties cynically favour it in return. I hope no one will oppose PR on dishonourable grounds. But perhaps I have missed something.

Yours sincerely, Cawstein
(South Northamptonshire.)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Programme Notes — romantic piano

Nocturne in F minor (Op 48, No. 2) —  Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

A nocturne is supposed to be inspired by, or evocative of, the night, or at the very least played at night. Mozart wrote 'notturnos' for mixed wind and strings, but the Nocturne as a short piano piece was more-or-less invented by the Irish pianist/composer John Field (1782 – 1837).  However the form was made his own by Chopin who, between 1830 and 1846, wrote 21 of these characteristically short, moody, pieces. This nocturne was written in 1841 and published the following year. It is marked Andantino.

12 Etude Opus 25   ———   Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

Chopin wrote 27 Studies in all; 12 in the opus 10 set published in 1832, and 12 in this set written over a space of 4 years but published in 1837. They are, of course, studies for the establishment of fundamental piano technique, and many piano virtuosi have composed studies for that purpose, but these by Chopin rise far above the majority in artistic merit, and can be seen as compositional studies over and above their technical role. Chopin himself performed this opus 25 set at a concert, greatly impressing Robert Schumann. Except that 2 and 11 are both in A minor, each is in a different key.

++++++++ Interval ++++++++++++

Rhapsody Opus 79/1 —— Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

The two " Klavierstücke " of opus 79 were written in 1879 at the summit of his career. They were dedicated to his musical friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (herself a composer), and it was she who suggested the slightly pompous renaming of them as 'Rhapsodies'. This No. 1 Rhapsody is like a compressed sonata; the Agitato outer sections (in 'sonata-form') are in B minor, but they surround a more lyrical section in B major.

Nutcracker Suite — Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)/Mikhail Pletnev

This is a piano transcription made by our contemporary Russian virtuoso pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev (1957 - ) of Tchaikovsky's Suite for Orchestra which lasts 20 minutes. The original ballet of 1892 was based on a story by ETA Hoffmann and is in two acts. In Act 1 the characters are human (adults and children) and the toys are toys; in Act 2 they are fantasy — the toys coming to life. There are 23 sections in the ballet, all with evocative titles like 'Decoration of the Christmas Tree', 'Children's Gallop and Dance of the Parents',  'Waltz of the Snowflakes', in Act 1; while in Act 2 taking place in the Land of the Sweets there are: Chocolate (Spanish dance), Coffee (Arabian dance), Tea (Chinese dance), Waltz of the Flowers,  Pas de deux (Sugar-Plum fairy and her Chavalier),  a Tarantella, the famous Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, and a Final Waltz and 'Apotheosis'. In Pletnev's version there are 7 pieces:  March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella, Intermezzo, Trepak (Russian Dance), Tea (Chinese Dance), Pas de Deux.

Scherzo & March (Love of Three Oranges) Op. 33 tert – Sergei Prokofiev

When Prokofiev was in Chicago in 1921 he was commissioned to write an opera. Fortunately he had a draft libretto for a satirical opera in his bag. Knowing as little English as the Americans had Russian, the opera came out first in a French version – "L'amour des trois oranges". The critics were initially doubtful ("The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it."). Prokofiev prepared a 20 minute orchestral suite derived from the music (Styled Opus 33 bis); and from that himself prepared this Scherzo and March for solo piano (Op. 33 tert).

Piano Sonata A minor, Op. 28  ––––  Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Prokofiev composed his first opera when he was 9. His father died in 1910 and with him financial security, but the 19 year old son was already becoming known as a composer, albeit in a very 'modernist', polytonal, discordant, vein.  Prokofiev's 3rd piano sonata was 10 years in the making; it was published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution (Feb), and Prokofiev's departure for America (May). It is a short (8 min) work in one movement, and illustrates Prokofiev's interest in departing from the norms of the romantic school; in shock, dissonance, harsh clusters of notes, and dynamic surprises. (Apparently, he was throughout his life an excellent chess player.)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

String Quartet in D, K. 575   —— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 1791) 

i. Allegretto;   ii. Andante;   iii. Menuetto (Allegretto);  iv Allegretto

In April we heard Mozart's Quartet No. 22 in B flat major (K589, Prussian No. 2); today its predecessor, No. 21, the first of the so-called 'Prussian Quartets'. In April 1789, Mozart's wife claiming illness and needing a spa cure (where however she flirted to Mozart's distress), left Mozart desperate for money. Hope came when Prince Lichnowsky, an aristocratic pupil, offered to take him to Berlin and present him to King Friedrich Wilhelm II (himself an amateur cellist). He came back to Vienna intending to write 6 quartets for the King and 6 'easy' piano sonatas for his daughter Princess Frederike. Of the latter, only one was written — Mozart's last piano sonata. Of the quartets, Mozart wrote only 3. Somewhat neglected, these quartets are overshadowed by his earlier 'Haydn' quartets and the later quintets. Some of his contemporaries got the impression that Mozart wrote with a facility bordering on flippancy for he would write out the score without errors while talking to friends, but others insisted that he spent much of the night at the piano, and it was only his extraordinary memory that enabled him to write the fair copy at speed. A distinctive feature of all 3 'Prussian' quartets is the prominent and interesting cello part, intended for the king himself to play. In this, the first of the set, 3 of the 4 movements are marked allegretto ('mildly cheerful' ?). The outer movements are in D major; the andante second movement is in A, the minuet (in D) has a trio section that swithers between D and G.

String Quartet No. 2, (Op. 17)   —— Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

i. Moderato;   ii. Allegro molto capriccioso;   iii. Lento

At the age of 21 Bartók, travelling abroad as a virtuoso pianist, was stimulated by Strauss's Zarathustra to try his hand at composition (Kossuth in 1903). In 1904, hearing a nanny sing a folk song he was stimulated to take up the collecting and study of Folk Music as his main preoccupation and life's work, with only occasional diversion into composition: the 1st quartet (1909), an opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), 2nd quartet (1917), the ballets Wooden Prince (1916), and Miraculous Mandarin (1919). In 1909 the 28 yr old Bartók married 16 yr old Marta. By then, he was living in Budapest as professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music (where one of his pupils was Sir Georg Solti). The First World War was a relatively peaceful time in Hungary. For Bartók and his colleague, great friend and fellow collector Kodály, it meant that they had to give up their travelling abroad collecting folk songs onto wax cylinders and return to Hungary; turmoil came with Hungary's Soviet revolution after the war. So Bartók spent most of the war simultaneously writing the Wooden Prince and his 2nd quartet; both showing the influence of Debussy. Bartók apparently described the first movement as being in sonata form, the second as "a kind of rondo" and the third as "difficult to define" but possibly a sort of ternary form (Wikipedia). It is not in his 'mature' style, which developed only in the twenties and thirties.

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, (Op. 13)     Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Adagio/allegro vivace, 2. Adagio non lento, 3. Intermezzo (allegretto con moto/allegro di molto), 4. Presto

This quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18 years old, is actually his first, as Opus 12 (though called Quartet No. 1) was written two years later. It astonishes the listener with its assured mastery of the medium, and its bold originality; but then we remember that he wrote his superb String Octet (1825) two years before that. Many musicologists have compared Mendelssohn's opus 13 with Beethoven's late quartets, the last of which, though not performed in public till 1828 was published in September 1827 (Beethoven died March 1827). (See e.g.: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/mendelssohn-quartet-in-a-minor-op-13.)  While most contemporaries regarded these late Beethoven quartets as flawed, and even 'horrible', the young Mendelssohn must have obtained and studied the score in the weeks before writing his opus 13. An easily conceded but trivial similarity between older and younger master is that the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet (Op. 135) opens with a musical motif under which Beethoven wrote "Muß es sein?" ("Must it be?"), while in the last 5 bars of the opening adagio, adolescent Mendelssohn quoted the "Ist es wahr?" motif from a song he had previously written (of which the words run "Is it true, is it true that you are always waiting for me in the arboured walk?"). But the one utterance is a disturbed, existential question, while the other expresses the uncertainty and excitement of a youthful romantic yearning. So differ also the works.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Programme Notes: Schubert piano works

Four Impromptus, (Op. 90), D. 899    Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

These 4 impromptus were composed in 1827 (a year before Schubert's untimely death), and published the same year; the first half of a set of 8. In that year Schubert composed, besides these exquisite short piano pieces, yet another failed opera (The Count of Gleichen), a superb German Mass, the E flat piano trio and the sombre song cycle "A Winter Journey". A year of great happiness and sadness; a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral, letters from 3 publishers asking to publish his compositions, a holiday in Upper Austria (said by Hutchings to be "perhaps the most happy time Schubert had ever known outside Vienna, or in it"). The first Impromptu, in C minor, is a set of variations on two themes; both slow. It ends peacefully in the major. The second, in E flat major, is in ternary form, but with a B-like coda (ABAB'). The A section is a moto-perpetuo of running triplets for the right hand; the contrasting B section drops into a minor key and, approaching the return, it intriguingly combines hints of the running triplet figure. The third, a peaceful, lyrical, reassuring piece in G flat major (6 flats), was reissued 30 years later by the same publisher in G major (1 sharp; for amateur players?)  The fourth Impromptu, in A-flat major, is perhaps the most famous of all Schubert's piano compositions. Its opening consists of cascading arpeggios in the right hand, nowadays usually trivialized by being played too fast in an attempt to bring out the left hand melody. It begins transiently in A-flat minor, though this is written as A-flat major with accidentals. It is in ternary form (ABA) with a calmer middle section. Was this set a sonata taken apart? Probably not, as Schubert numbered his next 4 impromptus 5,6,7,8. However, these 4 impromptus played in this order fit nicely together in mood and key.

Three Piano Pieces, (Op. 90), D. 946   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert died on 19th November 1828. Between March and the beginning of November he wrote: the C major String Quintet, 3 piano sonatas, 2 piano duets (includning the profound Fantasie dedicated to the young countess Caroline Esterhazy), these 3 Klavierstücke, The Shepherd on the Rock, the Schwannengesang songs, and 3 pieces of church music. It was doubtless the fugal writing of the latter that prompted Schubert to turn up on 4th Nov with friend Lanz on the doorstep of Simon Sechter's house for lessons in counterpoint. He missed the second lesson on 10th, and took to his bed 4 days later, fiddling still with the unsuccessful opera The Count of Gleichen. So, a year that saw written much of his sublimest music. These 3 Klavierstücke, written in May, were published (by Brahms) in 1868. It seems likely that there were to be 4, but it is not clear whether they were to be Impromptus or Moments Musicaux, nor even that they were conceived as a set. They are more complex in structure than the preceding set of impromptus (e.g. the 1st is in what could be called compound ternary form: A,B,A',C, D,E,A,B,A',C), they favour remote keys (e.g. 6 and 7 flats), continuous triplets and repeated semiquavers or tremolo effects; all typical of late Schubert. The first is in E minor and marked Allegro Assai. The second, in E major is Allegretto. The third is an Allegro in C major, in which it sounds as though the left hand is behind the beat, but it is really the right hand that is before the beat.

Sonata in D major, (Op. 53), D. 850   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

1. Allegro (vivace), 2. Andante (con moto), 3. Scherzo & Trio, 4. Rondo  (Allegro moderato)
After Schubert's despair in 1824, 1825 was a relatively happy year. He was solvent with Esterhazy guilders, and becoming known to publishers and the musical world of Vienna. He spent from May till September in the ravishing countryside of upper Austria with the retired opera singer Vogl who was a native of that area, moving from place to place, singing and charming as they went, welcomed and dined by the local big-wigs, and charmed in their turn by the young ladies. But it was not all sight-seeing and letter-writing, for Schubert composed his Great C major (9th) Symphony, the Walter Scott songs (which include his Ave Maria), and this D major sonata. For the last 3 weeks, paid for by a well-wisher, he and Vogl stayed at the famous health spa of Bad Gastein (therapeutically investigated by Paracelsus 300 years earlier); so this is called the Gasteiner Sonata. Schubert's composer brother Ferdinand, when offering to sell it to Diabelli after Schubert's death, distinguished it as a Grand Sonata; perhaps on account of its length. It is, however, relatively light hearted, and in many passages has an improvisatory feel. The 1st movement is vigorous; the long andante (in A major), dreamy rather than sombre or painful; the scherzo, rousing, with a sharply contrasted sweet trio section; the rondo almost cheeky in the nursery-like simplicity of its recurring theme.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Speed of clouds

Speed of clouds 

Suppose I lie on my back and look vertically up. I can see a cloud passing overhead, and measure the time (t, in seconds) that it takes to change its angle from the vertical by one degree. If I knew the height (h, in metres) of the cloud I could calculate the distance moved by the cloud in the horizontal plane, and thus the speed (v) of the cloud in metres per second. Tan (1º) = 0.01745; so, if the cloud were 100m above me, the 1º would represent 1.745m in t seconds. (Multiply by 2.2369 to get the answer in mph.)  But I do not know the height of the cloud. Here is a possible method for determining both height and speed. 

Object: to determine the height above ground level of the bottom of a cloud layer, and its speed across the land.
Equipment: 2 observers (A & B) at 2 different known locations some 500 - 1000 m apart, 2 mobile phones, 2 astrolabes or sextants, 2 compasses, 2 pencils and paper.
Method: Observer A identifies a cloud (C) of which the shape is sufficiently distinctive to describe uniquely (e.g. "the one shaped like a hen"). He rings B and waits till B has identified the same cloud. Each observer then determines and records the inclination above the horizontal (a) of C and its compass bearing (b).
Calculation: The data is then passed to a 15 year old with a slide rule or "scientific" calculator. He is going to assume that the two compass bearings on the cloud define two vertical planes ACD and BCD that intersect at the cloud and the point D that is the projection of the cloud on the ground. The orientation and length of the line AB between the two observers is known. The point D can be identified by drawing the lines AD and BD on the map. If the observations are repeated after 1, 2, 3, etc minutes the speed and direction of the cloud can be determined. 

The angles CAD and CBD provide two series of estimates of the height of the cloud (distance CD). (Comment: If the terrain is not flat to the horizon in all directions, observers will also need a bucket of water in order to determine a "false horizon" by which to determine the inclination angles; the true inclination will be half the angle between the cloud and its reflection in the bucket.)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Nostalgia and Brexit

Nostalgia and Brexit

Nostalgia: “The pain of homesickness”
     I love words and was delighted to learn, recently, that the word ’Nostalgia’ means ‘homesickness’. It is a word concocted around 1688 from the Greek ‘nostos’ = returning home, and ‘algos’ = pain (c.f. neuralgia), to describe “severe homesickness treated as a disease; occasionally with fatal outcome”.
     I had an ‘aperçu’ in the middle of the night, as follows. I watched a film in bed, and my last few wakeful minutes conceived a romanticised image of coal miners in 1970 issuing from their mine at the end of the working day; grimy, tired, cheerful and fulfilled. I woke from a dream with the realization that this type of work is a thing of the past; as dated as horse-drawn vehicles. There are in Britain many thousands of people who, in the seventies, would have felt the cheerful exhaustion of manual work but who now find themselves unskilled for the present, and gloomy about the future. From 1800 to 1950 the North of England was the powerhouse of our economy. You could almost say it was the workshop-of-the-world, as they build railways for Argentine, and wove cotton saris for India.
     That glory has gone. They are left with their allotments, leeks and whippets, watching the Eastern Europeans come over to pick our carrots and mend our ball-valves. We have witnessed in a shockingly short time the redundancy of a whole social class. Could that be the real cause of the startling outcome of the Brexit referendum, at least in the north of England?  

The loss of status.
     There were two quite different reasons for voting “Leave”; but both can be described as nostalgia for loss of status.
     I doubt the ‘manual working classes’ ever thought themselves to be ‘as good as’ the landowners, or factory owners. But they could justifiably think of themselves as ‘utterly essential’ to society; and even (with justification) as ‘carrying’ the whole of society on their shoulders. Who, after all, sowed, reaped, and milled the corn, who built the houses, mined the coal? Not the vicar, nor the squire nor the school teacher. Nobody needed to feel equal, because everybody knew they were all family. Today we import much of our food, and 65% of our cars (Of the 2.4 million cars sold in UK in 2015, 35% were made here). Unemployment, at 5%, is not that different from the seventies, and is much less than in the eighties. So there are jobs; but it is not men’s work.  A degree of nostalgia for the lost status of ‘the manual worker’ is very understandable.  
     However, I meet many who admit to voting “Leave”, but who never were employed in manual work, and whose jobs are not remotely under threat from abroad. So they do not fall in that category, and are not nostalgic for a vanished personal status.  Nevertheless, I find that they also are yearning for a bygone era. Someone talked of ‘cricket on the green’, someone else wanted to revive trade with the ‘Commonwealth’. I sense, in this second category of leavers, a nostalgia for the time when this country was know (officially and throughout the world) as Great Britain. 
Is this the real Brexit mindset — a desire to restore the fifties, and sixties?  
     Those who voted to leave unified Europe may have made some canny calculations about wages, or realized that we are already severely overcrowded on this little island. But I doubt it. There may be incisive reasons for exit. But I do not hear them. Most ‘Leavers’, though now a little subdued, as they begin to realize the giant task ahead, still re-affirm their commitment to leaving. For them, there never was a reason for leaving, just an emotion. 

The Future
     Whatever the terms of Brexit and whatever the rôle of Britain in the next 20 years, it will NOT be as it was in the fifties, sixties and seventies. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

What is Wrong with Macroeconomics

Macro Mess
     People complain that macroeconomics is a confused mess. It is said that macroeconomists disagree among themselves, that the government is pursuing the wrong policies, that the opposition is not mounting an effective opposition. 

     Diane Coyle in 2012 put the case in a well argued lecture (1), and again in a shorter, less formal, way in a passionate blog (2). Jonathan Portes, in his rebuttal blog (3), summarizes Coyle’s case succinctly as:  
a) "although macroeconomists will insist that there are known scientific facts, they do not appear to agree on what these are”,
b)" the discussion among macroeconomists is so shouty”,
c) "all economists need to do far, far better at explaining their work to the general public”.  
Portes partly rebutted each charge, but in doing so seems to concede each, in large part. 

     That was in 2012; but the argument persists. Last month ‘Unlearning Economics’ (4) weighed in against macroeconomists, and last week Simon Wren-Lewis rushed to his own defence in Mainly Macro (5). But now the argument brings in the extra dimension of politics. Both these bloggers assume ‘progressive’ means ‘distributing downwards the benefits of labour’, and is ‘good’, while ‘regressive’ means ‘reinforcing the power of capital’ and  is ‘bad’. 

     It seems rather pompous of me to join this learned debate, but I have a point or two of my own that I want to make. In my own field of expertise I have seen intellectual tribalism, and well understand a reluctance to grapple properly with alternative ways of rationalising the data. “Intellectuals”, my illustrious colleague often said, “seldom  concede; but they do eventually die”. Natural scientists can usually (in time) be shamed into testing their theories against data; arguments can only persist if both theories are able to rationalise the facts. Does this hard filter operate adequately in macroeconomics?

     However, much of the argument is occurring at levels less rational than the purely academic; between politicians, business men, media commentators, bloggers and the average voter. There are hidden agendas, and consequent confusion, not only about the means, but about the objectives of government policy. Are we trying to increase GDP, or actually trying to reduce taxes, trying to decrease unemployment, or secretly trying to increase it (to bring down costs)? Are we seriously trying to bring down the cost of housing when we ourselves have houses and are getting rather rich thereby, or are we trying to increase profit margins in the industry? Are we simply trying to win an election?  Even phrases like ‘fair taxation’ sow confusion, for some will think it means making the relative burden equal across the spectrum of wealth, while others may think it means we all pay the same absolute amount, like the 'poll tax'. 
     It alarms the laymen when they see professors of economics disagreeing (6) and calling each other idiots (7).  It is fair to say that the subject matter of the discipline is complex. But most cutting-edge academic work is complex, and effectively closed to the layman. Macroeconomics, however, is additionally hampered by a traditionally cryptic exposition. Keynes was obviously very clever, which enabled him to conceive the most convoluted and arcane pronouncements (8). Imagine the thrill of finding that your academic competitors do not see the relevance of IS-LM. You will need to explain it! (9), but not clearly enough to be understood; you do not mention what I,S,L and M signify, do not explain that the graph is rotated 90º and uses jumbled axes. (c.f. wikipedia, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTr2PVbbpxg). 

     Yet there is a simplicity in macroeconomics, as in most things, if you have a mind simple enough to see it. Suppose government wants businesses to produce more goods and employ more men, so that more people have more money and buy more goods. It urges the Bank to lowers interest rates. The people with money buy, those without money borrow and buy. The businesses borrow and build, take on workers, who in turn can now buy goods. Success! But what if interest rates are already near zero? And still people are not buying. (There is clearly no requirement for cash, no point in building factories, no confidence in the near future.) What does 'Marcoeconomics’ suggest? "Fiscal loosening”, says Krugman; but does he mean increasing government spending, or lowering taxes to leave more money in the people’s pockets, both of which increase public debt? (See Chick and Pettifor, 10). 

Now here comes the real problem. What does government do but cut Government spending, and flood the banks with ‘quantitative easing’. (Hadn’t we just established that it was not money we were short of but ‘demand’, and confidence?) The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and there is barely a flicker of a recovery. The bosses can invest in new plant! — but there is no point, as there are no customers, no demand.

It is not so much that ‘Macro got it wrong’ as ‘Macro got ignored’. But Macro did get it wrong, twice. It failed to get its point across to those who would have heeded. And in my opinion cutting taxes is not remotely as effective as increasing taxes and increasing government spending; it is merely easier. (See my “Tax and Spend”, 11).  There was no need to scare the public by increasing public debt; and therefore no point in advocating it. Crikey! 

(1) https://www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/downloads/news/tanner_lecture_2012_text.pdf
(2) http://www.enlightenmenteconomics.com/blog/index.php/2012/06/a-macroeconomist-tells-me-off/
(3) http://www.niesr.ac.uk/blog/macroeconomics-what-it-good-response-diane-coyle#.WNkH0GU0mdE
(4) https://medium.com/@UnlearningEcon/no-criticising-economics-is-not-regressive-43e114777429#.iwfjl01sl
(5) https://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/on-criticising-existence-of-mainstream.html
(6) https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/dont-blame-macroeconomics-wonkish-and-petty/?_r=0
(7) https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2016/12/25/paul-krugman-gets-his-recessionary-macroeconomics-wrong-again/#5cc30754701e
(8) http://occidentis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/keynes1.html
(9) https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/is-lmentary/
(10) http://www.debtonation.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Fiscal-Consolidation1.pdf
(11) http://occidentis.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/tax-and-spend.html

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

George and Dragon (1)

George and Dragon (1)
     Sitting by the fire in the George and Dragon with with my new ‘mates’, one mentioned a regular they called ‘Prozac’. I was amused, and wondered aloud at the mood-altering effects of the absent ‘Prozac’. 
     “Yes,” they said, “quite different in temperament from ‘Viagra’. And they call him that to his face. I once heard someone call out to him, as he was leaving, ‘Bye, Viagra’, not realising the effect that would have on diners at the adjacent table, where a lady dropped her fork.”
     "Then there is 'Basher', of course." 
     "I wonder," I mused "if I have seen Basher". "Oh, you would know him if you saw him,  ― but he has been banned from most pubs now." 
     John and Andy go back a bit; both retired, but both graduates of Chelsea College, one in geology, the other in physics. 

     A minute later, when someone mentioned ‘Posh Pete’, I laughed out loud and wondered what they called me behind my back. No hint from Andy, just a wisp of a smile.  I would not object to 'Prof', which I occasionally heard in Thrussington, and regularly heard in The Forge at Ulgham.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Exchange Rates and Balance of Payments

Translation and Comment on:

“Summary and conclusion (as posted by FRANK SHOSTAK  on Cobden Centre 13 MARCH2017)
"Contrary to a popular belief, the state of the balance of payments has nothing to do with the determination of exchange rates. The key factor behind the rate of exchange determination is the relative purchasing power of various monies. The trade balance statistics could be however useful in ascertaining the diversion of foreigners’ real wealth from the rest of the world to the US given that the US dollar is the most popular money created out of thin air by the US central bank and the US banking system. As long as the floating exchange rate regime is allowed to function the more severe damage is inflicted onto the process of real wealth generation. One way out of this mess is the introduction of a gold standard.”

Let me try to understand what is being said in the above quotation.  I shall simplify by dropping the first 5 words, as they declare themselves to be irrelevant.  I shall next suggest that the “state of the balance” is “the balance”.  Perhaps “the determination of exchange rates” can be understood to mean “determining exchange rates”. For “monies” I shall write “currencies”.  For his “... rate of exchange determination” perhaps we could try “The key factor determining the exchange rate between two currencies is their relative purchasing power.”   So it seems that Shostak is suggesting:
The balance of payments has nothing to do with determining exchange rates. The key factor determining the exchange rate between two currencies is their relative purchasing power.
I disagree with both statements. I think the Trade Balance is a major factor determining exchange rates (ER), while not the only factor. And I think the link between exchange rates and relative purchasing power is so close as to make it hard to decide which "causes" which. (Does sunset cause the onset of night or vice versa?)

I believe the exchange rate US$:Yen is determined by a number of factors all round the world among which I would include: the desire of the Japanese to acquire dollars, and their desire to sell goods to the USA, and reciprocally the need in the USA for yen, and their need to sell goods to Japan; plus a host of smaller influences like tourism and trade flows with third countries. But there are two other big influence that need to be recognized: capital flows, and reserves. If Japan has a positive trade-balance with the States they will have dollars to: [1] sell, or [2] to invest, or [3] to keep in reserve. If Japan sells their dollars for Yen the exchange rate will be affected (the dollar will devalue). But Japan may be content to keep the dollars as “quasi-gold”, or they may invest in the USA to gain interest.  (Of course, the States may reciprocally hold Yen or invest in Japan.)

The Balance of Trade used to be the main ‘determiner’ of the exchange rate, but now there is (apparently) far money shooting round the world looking for ‘interest’, than looking for ‘goods’. Many countries maintain a trade imbalance for many years, because capital flows and interest rates are not taken into account.

Suppose a basket of mixed goods costs 550 Yen in Japan and 5 US$ in the United States. However, the current ‘exchange rate’ in the money markets is 111 Yen:US$. The “real exchange rate (RER) is calculated by correcting the ratio of the basket-prices by the ratio of the currency-prices to produce a dimentionless number. In theory, with perfect markets and large baskets, the “real exchange rate” is 1.0 ; in our example 550/5 x 1/111 = 0.991. It can be imagined that if the basket contained tuna the ratio of the prices (Japan:USA) might be 650/5, and our view of the “real exchange rate” would be distorted by the Japanese love of tuna. We need a large basket.

RER(Japan:USA)= 650/5 x 1/111 = 1.171.

Likewise, if interest rates were higher in the USA than in Japan the desire to hold US$ could distort the “real exchange rate” the other way. In time, and with perfect markets, the RER should relax towards 1.0

RER(Japan:USA)= 550/5 x 1/121 = 0.909

In short: I think Shostak underrates the role of trade-balance in determining exchange-rates; it remains funtamental, though it is by no means the only factor. For me, the value of his article is that it has forced me to go elsewhere to understand the matter.  I suspect it has only won a place on the Cobden Centre website because of the miraculously irrelevant mention of gold. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party

Leader of the PLP

Dear Christine Shawcroft,
     I heard you on the radio this morning, and I looked up your website. I approve all your attitudes, and applaud your massive efforts in support of those attitudes. But I come to a different conclusion. 
     You were advocating lowering the requirement for MP endorsement for the selection of a future Leader of the Labour Party (LLP). It seems to be a matter of observable fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not follow Jeremy Corbyn. And that the Membership will not follow anyone else. So, we are at an impasse.
     Why not scrap completely the requirement for MP endorsement? Let Congress/NEC/Membership/Affiliated unions select a Chairman/President/Leader.  You may see no reason why 229 MPs should frustrate the democratic wishes of the 515,000 Party members, merely on the grounds that they have won a parliamentary election?  
     But the team in Parliament needs to be a team. I would like the PLP to get their act together, and to put their best parliamentarians forward to advocate effective opposition. They need to create the semblance of a Government in Waiting. Let the PLP select their own leader, unanimously — a shadow Prime Minister, if you like.
     If you question the democratic authority of the PLP, bear in mind that 229 MPs represent 229 x  75,000 = 17.2 million constituents; and are therefore voted for by 229 x 37,500 voters; i.e. approximately 8.6 million voters. That makes the Party Membership seem almost irrelevant. 

Yours sincerely, Cawstein

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Future of the Labour Party

The Future of the Labour Party


     ‘Power’ in British politics requires commanding the ‘interest' of 51% of the population. The movement called 'New Labour' in the nineteen nineties grasped the truth that our ‘first past the post’ voting system leaves no room for parties that  appeal to minorities: to Trade Union members, Manual Workers, Recyclers, Climate Changers, or Liberals. To campaign honourably and passionately on behalf of the weakest sectors of society may inspire 30%; but not 51%. Climate change may worry 30% of the country. But unless these interest groups combine, and combine with others, till their consortium comprises a majority of the population, they will never have the power to form a government and change the law.
     It may be that 'New Labour’ grasped the even more depressing truth that the biggest umbrella to cover the biggest interest group is money. If you can convincingly claim to have policies that will make 51 percent of the population richer, you will gain power. If you offer to raise disability allowance you may gain some respect, but will gain a mere handful of votes for your cause.

     What New Labour did not grasp, however, is the importance of proportional representation. Had they introduced proportional representation when they had the power to do so, the forming of these alliances would have become a much simpler task. Parliament would have become more representative and more powerful (relative to Government). Our present electoral system is a system for generating disgruntled voters. With three or more parties we have the triumph of some 30% and the eventual despair of the 70%.  The system disenfranchises the majority of voters and throws their votes away. Voting turnout falls. (In ‘Safe Seats’ voting is always pointless for supporters of the 2nd 3rd and 4th parties.) It is perfectly possible to devise a system where at least some account is taken of the 70% of votes that are lost in the present system. The first step would be simply to publicise the figures.

     Labour surely arose as a class-based party. Its success doubtless stemmed from the  fact that there were many more manual workers than owners. If the many little people combined and unified, they could take on the big guns. But automation has progressively eroded the manual work-force, and we have seen an enormous growth in the numbers of white-collar workers. Today the Labour Party probably attracts some traditional workers, and some others who are the loyal sons and daughters of former Labour voters. Labour’s support for the underprivileged, and the unemployed may appeal to another bunch of voters, and this altruism may attract further voters with ethical issues. But this is inevitably a weak alliance. Without the power to make law, it is hard to convince the electorate that Labour would reduce CO2 levels better than Green Party.

     There is an enormously important factor in deciding the outcome of constituency elections which is barely touched on in the media, and that is the intellectual and moral quality of the candidates. Unless a party can field good quality candidates they will not win elections. And failure to win elections feeds back on the ability to attract good candidates. Unfortunately the hysteresis in this feedback loop is vey long — maybe extending to a generation. After a by-election, there is much discussion of the issues, and voter responses to those issues, but scarcely a mention of the candidate. However, in a general election it is possible to detect candidate-specific results as ‘results that buck the trend’. Though these seldom attract the attention of the press unless that candidate wins. However, it is quite clear that there are good candidates and weak candidates; and that voters can tell the difference.
     In a two-party system the ‘official opposition’ can be seen as a government in waiting.  The quality of the party in opposition will be judged very largely by its performance in the House of Commons. It may wish to oppose at every opportunity, or it may wish to appear judicious. But need we have a two-party system and an ‘official opposition’? We should think outside that box.

     Any two-party system is divisive; it causes, exploits, and perpetuates a split in opinion. The original Right/Left nomenclature comes from the French Revolution when those wanting little change sat on the right side of the legislative chamber and the new radicals who wanted to change everything sat on the left. It was not in essence a Rich/Poor divide, but of course there is a tendency for those who are already well off to resist change, while the dissatisfied will seek it. In nineteenth century Britain the split was not based on wealth but on source of wealth; land versus commerce. Both sides of the house were wealthy, and all MPs were gentlemen. The issues included: free-trade, empire, education and the franchise.  In the twentieth century the Labour party brought to parliament the clash between capital and labour, which had already existed for a hundred years on the shop-floor. Success was its undoing. Leap-frogging wage-claims forced Britain out of world markets, and annoyed the country, with Thatcherism as the result. New-Labour was hardly a Labour party. It adopted many capitalist concepts (and faults), among them the idea that money is the only motivator, and that every issue should be judged by 'the market'; but it won three elections. Since 2010, the Tories have run with the same baton, though surely the banking fiasco should have put paid to this discredited system. Unfortunately, economics is a complex intellectual puzzle and academic economists are as split as the politicians. The current Labour party, with a tenth of the expertise of the Tories, was just beginning to focus on economic fairness when a second divisive issue arose in the field of foreign policy. It gradually became clear to thinking people that our military adventures in the middle east were both immoral and damaging. Jeremy Corbyn rode into the ring on this latter issue, supported by a wave of disgust at militarism, elitism, and a feeling of grass-roots-powerlessness. But his appeal is not currently sufficient to win 51% of the country. The moral high ground, alone, is not enough.
     The country was split more or less 50/50 in the nineteenth century on the issues of free trade and imperialism. The Labour/Capital debate of the twentieth century produced an unstable equilibrium (and needs further thought — see below). The present split of Self/Others will of course always be won by ‘Self’ interest, though there are now the issues of Europe, immigration, and ‘populism’ to divide us further.

The Future

     Pending proportional representation there should be as much deliberate and courteous pre-election discussion as possible between opposition parties; like the Primaries in the United States;  Labour waving a popular LibDem candidate through in one constituency should be matched by an uncluttered two-candidate fight in another where a Labour candidate has a good chance of winning. Scores can be kept, and there should be an explicit agreement to support PR at all times.

     Quality candidates must be sought and cultivated.  It is infuriating for the grass-roots to see resignations and firings of able front-benchers. The method of choosing ‘the party leader’ must be re-examined. Indeed the very concepts of 'party leader' may need re-thinking. I suggest that the Parliamentary Labour Party must be a team and have a unity of purpose; the 'official opposition' must be seen as ready to take office. Party Leader in the House must be agreed unanimously by the MPs, probably for his qualities as a chairman. He may not have the qualities of a cross-examining barrister required at Prime Minister’s Question time, but need these questions come from the Party Leader in the House?
     The Party membership, and the trade unions can certainly choose a leader; a president perhaps, or Chairman of Congress, but clearly cannot foist their choice on the MPs.
     The economy must be thoroughly and visibly understood by any party of government. A beginning was made in 2015 when John McDonnell, as Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, formed an economic advisory committee, but that has broken up and vanished. Why? Was it from faulty chairmanship, or perhaps from lack of funding?  The Danish Labour Movement formed their "Economic Council of the Labour Movement" (ECLM) in 1936. Where is ours?

     Post-war Germany developed a unique political philosophy they call Ordoliberalismus, believing that the state must actively protect and regulate the operation of the ‘free market’. “Ordoliberal ideals drove the creation of the post-war German social market economy”. We talk about the German Economic Miracle, but do little to understand and imitate; we suspect that it involves hard work and leave it at that. Why?       (Word count = 1,452)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Letter to a Sanguine 'Leaver'

Dear Max,
You have a very clear head. What you say sounds perfectly straight-forward and, once it is said, it sounds obvious. Brexit terms ‘should’ end up as 'zero tariffs both ways, free movement on reciprocal bases, co-operation on police, security and intelligence'. But:-
[1]  It is largely true (is it not) that the big “Leave” voices have disappeared or gone quiet (Gove, Farage, Leadsom, Boris). We are left with Remainers trying to implement (gestate) the other camp’s baby (May, Hammond, the Civil Service). And why is that??

[2]  It is unfortunate but true; the terms of Brexit will be at least partly determined by the 27 and not by us. So it is reasonable to fear that the Junckery-type people (who were our bogeymen in the first place) will see their job as 'preventing exit from being beneficial’ (in case Europe unravels). (It is a pity we did not have the foresight, force of character, or interest, to curb these people when we had the chance. Whyever is the head of the European Civil service called a President? )

[3]  We look back with pride and astonishment at the first two years of WWII  alone against the fascists. We remember a Commonwealth extending round the world. (People born in New Zealand still referring to Britain as “home”, selling us butter and lamb and buying our cars). But some of this will not come back, because the world has moved on. Some of our capital is spent, some of our coal and oil burnt. India, Brazil, China and the Far East,  have developed. But we also ‘remember’ the long hot summers and the crisp snows of our youth, even though the meteorological tables accuse us of misremembering. 

[4]  Europe took it into its head to include the ex-communist states of eastern Europe and the ‘sunny’ states of southern Europe. We were perhaps doubtful, but saw them as possible markets and went along. The time to object to the extension of Europe to the east was back then, but we missed our chance. They are of course a burden and a problem to which the remaining core states of Europe are bound and with which they are lumbered. We now opt out of Europe and its burdens. But the 27 will (probably) not let us compete using both hands when they have one tied behind their backs. There is (I suppose) an honourable side to trying to weld a cultural entity at considerable personal cost, but the practical English do not see it that way; they see only the costs. And I suppose we on our island never did have to rub shoulders with the Balkans in the way that Austria, Germany, Italy and Poland have been doing for 2 millennia. 

Though I voted 'Remain', I was not over-enthusiastic about remaining in Europe and hope not to lose friends over Brexit. I expect there will be some compensations to counter the loss of influence, status, and wealth that will result from opting from a trading bloc of 360 million to one of 60 million with a GDP resembling the assets of a middle sized commercial company. There is a whiff of excitement, as on beginning any new relationship. But I do not expect the 'long hot summers' that some leavers have been dreaming of. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The National Health Service

Dear LabourList,

There seems to be widespread concern about the collapse of the National Health Service around here (Banbury). It is important that the country should know the Labour party line on the NHS? I trust the Labour Party done the research and got the answers? 

Should there be more Government money spent, to match the fraction of GDP spent (per head) by Germany and France?

What do we say if the Government retorts that they are spending more now than ever before? That it is still not enough? That the population has risen? That our spend is a lower fraction of GDP than in comparable first-world countries? Can we defend our figures? 

What do we say if the Tories say that Tony Blair started the sell-off and Private-Public-Partnership concept? That we now regard that as a mistake?

Do we subscribe to the idea that we must squeeze out inefficiency and waste? Or do we point to the global efficiency of our NHS compared with USA or Germany?  Is our NHS more efficient or less efficient than USA or Germany/France? On what metric. Can we defend these figures in Parliament. 

Do we think there is Mission Creep in the NHS, with an ever- increasing list of treatments, procedures and medicines?

Would Labour advocate 1p/£ increase in income tax specifically to fund the increased demands on geriatric care, rather than see closures and sell-offs? Say, 20% 'basic rate' rising to 21%; as advocated here some 4 years ago. 

(Trying to help! ) Best wishes, Cawstein

Friday, 3 February 2017

Bank of England mis-estimates spending buoyancy

(Yesterday   tweeted misestimated the buoyancy of consumer spending. Perhaps they overestimated the amount of gloom caused by Brexit vote. Ha ha.)

Yesterday (2017/2/2) the Monetary Policy Committee revised its estimates for both monetary growth and wage inflation downward, admitting that its November estimates misread the future in two (compensating) ways: Wages were not rising as fast as expected, and consumer spending had not fallen as expected [1]. 
Mark Carney, at his press conference, made several suggestions as to wages: perhaps increased population, or changes to taxes.
I make here one suggestion as to buoyant spending. The Monetary Policy Committee probably thought everyone in Britain would all be as shocked as it was at the vote to leave the European Union. But they overlooked that fact that a majority of the country actually welcomed the idea of "taking back our sovereignty", and doubtless found in Brexit a harbinger of good times ahead.  
(Haha ! They keep catching us out.)

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35493474

Live Chat with The Times (London)

(I am quite in favour of the new “Live-Chat” method of providing immediate help. Not, however, on the following occasion. But at least they gave me a transcript of the conversation!)

Chat Started: Friday, March 18, 2016, 15:40:30 (+0000) Chat Origin: TNL-SERVICE Agent Martha C ( 1m 41s )

Martha C: Hello, you’re chatting with The Times Live Chat Team. How can we help? ( 3m 7s )
Cawstein: Thanks. I submitted a Letter to the Time 14th March. It is of course exclusive to the Times, unless they do not use it. How can I tell? Or how long should I wait. ( 4m 36s )
Martha C: What do you mean ? ( 5m 32s )
Cawstein: I shall send the letter elsewhere if the Times does not publish it. Have They published it? ( 6m 14s )
Martha C: What letter Ian ? ( 6m 50s )
Cawstein: Er?? A Letter to the Editor of The Times (London) ( 8m 5s )
Martha C: We would not have received this letter as they are a different department. ( 9m 41s )
Cawstein: I can look in the times of today 18th March. But I do not have access to the Times of 15, 16, 17th March. Where can I get access to check? ( 11m 18s )
Martha C: To check what Ian ? ( 13m 21s )
Cawstein: For goodness sake Martha!!!! What is the use of having a person like you answering queries? Incidentally, it is not THEY who are a different department it is YOU !!! I am sorry to have wasted both your time and MY TIME