Tuesday, 21 June 2016

First, Do No Harm

OK, I know I've left this late. Quite irresponsible of me not to weight into the Brexit debate far sooner. I've been in two minds about whether to comment at all, but I'm quite concerned that Britain is standing on the precipice of irreparable harm to its future, and some are engaged in a manoeuvre worthy of a Tennyson poem, based on some ridiculously small-picture thinking.

I was finally jarred into action after watching a beautifully pragmatic assessment of Britain's role on the world stage by Sir Nicholas Saomes.

Here, Sir Nicholas talks about the formation of the EU, the history of the associations and events that led to its formation, and the role that it, and its member states, play in world politics. He points out, quite correctly, that the EU is a community of 500,000,000 people, wielding significant power on the world stage, and that removing ourselves from this framework massively reduces Britain's influence on politics in the world, at a time when there is increasing uncertainty and unrest.

I was away the last week, and had opportunity to speak to a group of Brexiters in the market place. I won't bother going into detail, but their entire position consisted of headlines. Sound-bytes that amounted to little more than jingoism for the most part.

When the topic turned to economics, they couldn't actually give a proper treatment of what economy is, what money is, or what it's based on.

 So, what is money? At bottom, money is no more nor less than a promise. Ultimately, it amounts to energy, but that's a conversation for one of the thermodynamics posts. Money is simply the promise of energy. On UK currency, it even says it right there on the banknotes 'I promise to pay on bearer demand the sum of x'.

I should note here that I'm not an economist, but I do know about systems and, in fact, I know a reasonable amount about how economy as a general principle works in systems, not least because economy is one of the central principles of physics, and one of the 'guiding' filters in natural selection, because ultimately it's all about efficient use of energy.

An economy is a system of promises. The currency itself is a reification of an abstract expressing of the number of promises, and therefore the amount of energy available in the system.The promises are the resources of the system. As with evolution, the system benefits most when there are a lot of resources available. Species thrive in such environments. More importantly, though, because the system is based entirely on promises, there's something that can radically affect the number of promises in the system; confidence. When the system takes a knock, as it inevitably will, there's always an impact on confidence in the system, which manifests itself as a lack of new promises paid into the system (we stop buying). This is when we experience recession, as people hoard their promises, starving the system of input. 

What the Brexiters are proposing, then, is to remove ourselves from a system with 500,000,000 sets of promises. Not only does this disadvantage Britain, it disadvantages Europe. The one and only experience we have to draw on that's remotely relevant is when Britain pulled out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which was close to catastrophic.

One of the issues with the EU actually stems from Britain's perennially lukewarm attitude to its membership therein. When the sub-prime mortgage crisis came to a head and shattered the economies of Iceland and others, the entire system took a big hit. One of the reasons for that is that, although we're a member state of the EU, we don't use the Euro, and we pay a premium for that in all our dealings with Europe. As non-members, those premiums will increase. More importantly, we have access to a large number of trading agreements as members of the union that we will not have access to in the same way should we exit the EU. European traders will simply take their deals to other member states, because it's cheaper for them to do so.

Had Britain adopted the Euro at its inception, it's entirely probable that the sub-prime crisis would have been easier absorbed, because the Euro would have been stronger and more resilient, meaning that the problems with the dollar would have had their impact attenuated.

I should add that I had a chat with Tim Goodacre, an Aussie mate of mine, the other night who used to work in the City in London, and knows his way around. He pointed out, quite correctly, that the knock-on effect of Britain removing itself from that system will be such that it's highly likely to fuel serious issues for the world economy:

This effects the whole world. Brexit is just one of a whole bunch of wheels coming off the cart right now, as people retreat into emotional reactionary positions (as some have described it, "post-truth politics"). It's of a part with Trump, the far-right movements across Europe and everything else that is going so wrong right now :( There are good reasons to both stay and leave the EU none of which are the subject of the Brexit "debate".

The economic consequences will be huge I think. In part this is because markets don't like uncertainty and no one at all knows how an EU secession would work. For the British, it'll clear the way for the UK govt to pursue its neoliberal policies to the fullest extent which is great if you are super rich. It is hard to see any economic good coming from this for anyone else, both in and out the UK.
From the UK's point of view, the EU is important for a few reasons. Most of the UK's trade is with the EU, and the EU is the framework for that. The eurozone is important here because trading with half a billion people with a single currency is -much- more efficient than dealing with 25+ currencies.

But the EU also allows British people a court of appeals and some other things that they can appeal to beyond the UK for things like human rights (and this government has been actively trying to weaken human rights). There are lots of other things too, trivial in isolation, but important in aggregate. It is true that the way the EU works needs some attention, but, baby, bathwater and all that.

I understand that people are concerned with immigration. My own view is somewhat radical in this regard, and unlikely to contribute much to this discussion because it's an outlying view. However, immigration has been wonderfully good for Britain. My own family were immigrants, and indeed my immediate progenitors remember a time when they faced all the usual prejudices, despite having a somewhat pivotal role in the modernisation of Britain with the construction of the motorway network and many, man houses, shopping centres and other infrastructure vital to Britain's economy for the last 50 years and more. We've certainly had large movements of people in and out of Britain in the last century, but this has mostly been a good thing. Lest we forget, our national dish is from India. Our previous national dish is half-Belgian. Our national drink comes from China, India, Sri Lanka, etc. Our population is among the most diverse in the world, to the degree that the entire concept of  'foreigner' becomes absurd and nonsensical.

There's also the common trope concerning 'taking back control'. In real terms, we have to be certain about what, precisely, we mean by control. Tim's covered some of it above, but in reality, the only thing that we'd be taking control of is immunity from the protection of our rights that members of the union must agree to abide by. We're removing what control we have

We live in an extremely interesting time in our understanding of all sorts of things. Among them, we're now able to generate the conditions that, according to our models, obtained in the first moments after the Planck time. This has required a colossal amount of collaboration between many nations, and the Large Hadron Collider, the largest experiment ever built, is a product of such collaboration. It's opening windows that, only a little over a century ago, we as a species were incapable of even fantasising about the existence of, let alone being able actually to peer through them.

Another massive influence, probably the single biggest influence of the modern age, also grew out of that collaboration, and it's responsible for my ability to share my thoughts on this topic. The internet is a direct product of that same collaboration.

We've recently heard that gravitational waves have been detected and confirmed at LIGO, a Nobel-worthy event if ever there was one. There's another player in that game, namely LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, the European Space Agency's space-borne gravitational-wave observatory, the pathfinder mission for which was launched in December, and which will increase detection sensitivity by six orders of magnitude.

Funding for research can be difficult. Being a member of such a large group of nations, all of whom have something to contribute to these big scientific collaborations, means that there is a bigger pot for scientific research to be targeted, and for funding for very large-scale projects like LISA and the LHC. Our voice in such research and our ability to plug into funding for important and ground-breaking science will be seriously diminished if we leave the EU.

Ultimately, this is a hugely complex problem, and certainly far too complex to allow ourselves to be drawn into rash decisions without first conducting a rigorous cost/benefit analysis to ensure that, if out it is to be, it really is the right choice.

When the referendum has taken place, that's only the beginning of the process. I've heard figures from 2 years to about 7 years before we see the final effect. We'll be still inextricably linked to the EU for that length of time while the exit negotiations take place and a framework for our extrication to be put in place, and that will be a process in itself, so we can see no benefit for at least that length of time, even assuming for the sake of argument that benefit will be the result. In all this time of being tied at the hip to the EU, we'll be able to take no part in the decision-making process, we'll have no voice in the discussion on decisions that directly affect us.

There's an ancient oath, credited to Hippocrates. It's one that doctors historically had to take before they were allowed to be loosed on unsuspecting patients. A central tenet of this oath can be summarised as 'first, do no harm'. Often erroneously taken to be part of the oath, this phrase is one that is particularly pertinent to the present discussion, and this is why I wanted to write this, specifically to those who are as yet undecided on what or whether to vote.

If you really don't know which way to vote, you still need to vote, because failing to act is acting and, in this case, doing harm. If you are undecided, you MUST vote to remain. We can vote to leave any time, but we should not vote to leave unless we're sure it's the right decision.

It's telling that the vast majority of the world's economists, scientists, historians and political commentators say that pulling out would be a mistake. The exceptions are those who will either not be affected, or who will benefit from the spreading of the rich/poor divide.

Yes, the EU has its share of problems. That's no different to any nation, Britain included. That doesn't mean that we should secede from the union any more than it means that Manchester should secede from the UK.

In summary, the short-term effects will all almost certainly be negative, the long-term effects seem only to benefit the rich, we'll be relinquishing control rather than taking it back and our actions will probably have a massively negative effect on the world economy. And just to reiterate, this is, to all intents and purposes, an irreversible decision.

If you're undecided, there's only one choice. Set aside all the blather and you're left with one conclusion.

You MUST vote to remain.

Here are some bits and bobs others have been saying.

Simon Schama
Stephen Hawking
Jon Oliver

Even Kate Bevan's cat, Daphne, says we should vote to remain.

Who could argue with that?