Chris Maden's Blog
January 15, 2021
January 4, 2021
Review of Lake Crescent, A Creature X Mystery by J.J. Dupuis, Dundrum Press, due out on 3 Aug, 2021
Call me superficial, but what attracted me to this book was its cover. What a superb piece of cover artwork! Dark, mysterious, and a ripple on the lake to imply something nasty lurking beneath the surface.
The blurb is roughly this: a TV crew turn up in a remote part of Newfoundland (yeah, okay, already a remote part of Canada) to make a documentary about Cressie, the giant eel said to inhabit the eponymous lake. Immersed in a small town of slightly off-beat characters, the filming progresses until they uncover a cold-case murder.
Like any whodunnit, :Lake Crescent offers a spectrum of characters in closed community. Unlike the doyen of the form (Agatha Christie – who else!) whose detectives always operated alone, Dupuis gives us more of a Scooby-Doo group with its own dynamics, rivalries and friendships. This did give the novel better texture, but by the same token, for a relatively short work, there were too many characters to keep track of. To put it another way, the group dynamics distracted from trying work out what had happened and who was the bad guy.
The other slight disappointment was the sense of place. Here’s their arrival:
We took Highway 360 around Halls Bay, one of the many fingers of the Atlantic that held Newfoundland in its grasp. Aside from the powerlines that ran parallel to the highway, only the mouth of the odd gravel driveway reminded us that we weren’t the only people on this part of the island. There were patches where the shrubbery thinned out and the evergreen trees stood like fenceposts, holding back the untamed wilderness. The road curved and we came to a bridge that spanned a river. A shrub-covered mountain filled the passenger window. The odd car began to appear on the horizon…
This is all well and good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Where are the colours, where is the wind, the temperature and the smells? Is the sun a burning disc in the sky, or a white shadow on the horizon? What of the river? Rapids or a gentle burble?
There were places where the dialogue came across as stilted. This is someone speaking:
“To be honest, I didn’t really like you at first. You humiliated me that first night we met. But I knew you were smart. I knew you were going to make something of yourself. Then I heard about the stand you took. That was brave. I thought to myself, I need a smart and brave woman like that on my team….”
As an internal monologue, I have no issues with that. But for one character to say it to another?
Another let down was the creature itself. Laura, the leader of the band, is a cryptozoologist, and the creatures she seeks in this book are eels. We find one: a massive, seven-foot long conger eel. Other than being long and thin, I have no idea what such a creature looks like – are its teeth sharp, what colour is it, what do its eyes look like? – and the story left me none the wiser.
Now, this is a whodunnit, not a travel guide or a biology treatise, and as such it reads well and has sufficient action and vivid enough characters to sustain the tension until the end. There’s a nice strain of black humour, and a couple of outright jokes. All in all, a fun, if somewhat underwritten read.
December 26, 2020
That’s the first half of the review. Here goes with the second.
The religion chapter in Haidt’s work stops short of tying things up, so I’ll do that for him. Haidt;s six axes of moral psychology are: Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation. Everyone rates the first three, though the liberal definitions tend to differ from the conservatives’ (which is can be seen as a polite way of saying that the liberals and conservatives do not agree). However, liberals attribute little importance to the last three, while conservatives tend to rate all six evenly. Or, to put it the other way around, liberals tend not to attribute any great importance to Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity, while conservatives do regard those as being of equal importance to Care, Liberty and Fairness.
Where Haidt doesn’t join the dots is that whereas Care, Liberty and Fairness are universal, and Loyalty falls somewhere in the middle, Authority and Sanctity are specifically religious virtues. Sanctity, in Haidt’s account, starts out with the deep taboos that all groups have about certain things: asking a Brahmin why excrement is dirty, or a Muslim why pork is haram, is a non-question, they just are. Whatever account liberal social scientists may come up with is irrelevant; whatever the story, the result has become reified. Equally, some things are quite simply sacred; there is no “why?” You can joke with a Buddhist about karmic cause and effect, but you cannot question whether karma exists.
Similarly, it seems to me that religions everywhere are hierarchical. Whether it be a tribe’s shaman or the Pope, certain people have a position of authority, and the religion only works if others recognise that authority. This is because, whether it be a tithe or a child’s heart, the clergy demand sacrifice. In the absence of force, one man (and they’re nearly always men) can only make that demand through authority. It’s extortion, not sacrifice, if it’s obtained at the barrel of a gun.
Now, to me, this raises a question. If, as Haidt says, we have evolved to favour religion, then why did secular people survive? In other words, if groups that are religious have a better chance in the genetic lottery than groups who are not, why did non-religious groups make it through? Or could it be that, as secular groups clearly have made it through, there are circumstances under which secular groups have the advantage.
I rather suspect that the answer has a lot to do with urbanisation. We evolved for groups that, by today’s standards, are quite small: a tribal group of a couple of hundred in which everyone knows everyone else, in which social and moral norms are easily enforced, and which face the vicissitudes of man and nature together. Under these circumstances, loyalty is paramount because you can only attack if you trust the person who has your back; authority is vital because, in a crisis, someone needs to take charge. As to sanctity, it underpins that authority.
That’s an advantage if your tribe is roaming its territory, on the one hand exploiting and husbanding its resources while on the other protecting it from incursion by neighbouring tribes. However, in a modern urban setting, warfare is the exception rather than the rule, so loyalty is of much more limited value. While there are social hierarchies of wealth and influence, authority in the sense of commanding people to achieve certain shared goals doesn’t make very much sense, and, as authority is not very useful, sanctity isn’t needed to prop it up.
In fact, I’d go further. I’d say that loyalty, authority and sanctity are disadvantages in a modern city. Our social lives are not constrained to a single group of friends but, to the contrary, we tend to have multiple, overlapping groups of friends – work friends, sports friends, parents-of-other-kids-at-my-kid’s-school friends – and loyalty to any one group costs us the others. It’s a zero-sum game – we only have so much to give – so don’t play. Similarly, where a tribe protecting its land has the single, unifying purpose of protecting that land, a city has no such purpose: we have different careers, social lives and leisure activities, and the idea is that these all co-exist. Without that singularity of purpose, authority becomes moot. Yes, we may have situations at work or on the sports field, where authority comes into play, but its value is instrumental, not existential.
And, without authority, sanctity finds itself rather orphaned.
The thing is, cities are only going to get bigger, and whatever adaptations we once made to survive as tribes in the wild are only going to become less useful to we homo urbis. And, to use Haidt’s labels, but to contradict his result, this gives liberals the long-term advantage. As a goodreads reviewer pointed out, for conservatives to accommodate liberals requires only that conservatives set aside Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity as political goals; for liberals to accommodate conservatives requires that liberals accept Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity – with which they may violently disagree – as political goals. I.e., in the former, the conservatives agree to live and let live, where in the latter, the conservatives essentially ram their beliefs down liberals’ throats. This is not a tension that polite coffeeshop debate will remove, but it is a tension that will, in a generation or two, seem as inexplicable as the Inquisition. Sadly, I fear the transition will become violent.
December 18, 2020
December 12, 2020
Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, Melville House, 2011.
Another take on the rottenness that has come to inhabit the state of neoliberalism is David Graeber’s compendious history of debt. This was inspired by the specific question of debt forgiveness by the IMF for loans made to Madagascar: a country that was so saddled with debt that malaria, which had been wiped out, recurred because the country had to spend its meagre income on servicing debt rather than preventing malaria. A person commented to the author that for Madagascar to not pay its debt would be immoral: why, the author wondered, would that be?
From this springboard, the author traces the origins of debt, of money and of barter. The approach, however, is not an economist’s one, but an anthropologist’s, and this lends a certain charm and character to the account – and also a certain iconoclasm.
The conventional, economists’ account of debt goes something like this. In a village economy, if I had three chickens and wanted a goat, I would need to find someone who had a goat and wanted three chickens. This would be difficult to do – perhaps the goat owner didn’t want chickens or perhaps he wanted chickens but loved his goat more – so money was invented as a way by which I could sell my three chickens and buy a goat from someone who didn’t particularly want three chickens. This soon evolved into a situation whereby I could use my three chickens as surety, borrow some money to buy the goat, and hope that the goat produced enough milk to service the interest. Hence money and debt.
This state of nature story, Graeber points out, has one flaw: no village society in history has ever operated that way. Villagers exchange favours, every person has a rough idea of what favours he owes and is due, along with a vague notion of the relative value of these favours. Over time, the favours tend to cancel each other out, and there is rarely any need for settlement. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, English villages had a six-monthly reckoning at which everyone sat down and worked out what everyone owed to each other. For the most part, the debts cancelled each other out, and any left over were rolled over or settled for cash. Barter tended to be between communities (the cloth from our cotton fields for the arrows from your mine), and negotiations were often accompanied by elaborate social rituals to avoid war breaking out.
This is not to say that there were no units of account. Most records we have from 5,000 years ago are accounts, often from temples, of debts due and paid, but credit was often extended in the form of actual things: bushels of grain to help farmers whose crops had failed, and the labour – debt peonage – to pay the debt off. Because debts tended to aggregate over time, debt amnesties, which was the original meaning of the word “jubilee,” were declared, which wiped the slate clean (and the peons allowed to return home).
So debt has been around for a very long time. Although it’s difficult to say with any certainty, it’s almost certainly been around for longer than coinage. And coinage was originally just a way of keeping tally of debts: there were many places where, when two parties agreed that one owed the other several some-things, they would make marks on a stick and break the stick in two to keep track of those things. Those sticks became transferrable and, over time, what the original thing was became irrelevant. Hence, coinage.
Coinage, however, was hardly used in village economies. But it was intrinsic to war. The first problem with war is feeding the troops in their own country. The troops had nothing to offer in return for the huge amounts of food they consumed, and there was no practical means for villagers to hold them to account: first, troops were armed and second, they tended to come and go. However, war also produced plunder, and the loot was often in the form of precious metals. These were melted and coined, and those coins were used to pay the troops, who in turn used the coins to buy food (and prostitutes’ services). This, rather than intra-village brokering is where markets come from.
Money as coinage has come and gone – it largely disappeared from about 600 A.D. to 1400 A.D. – but debt and reckonings have remained a constant throughout recorded history. What’s happened in the modern era is the monetisation of everything. In Adam Smith’s day, most people everywhere either exchanged favours or ran tabs, and settled them sooner or later; now, we pay cash and have intermediaries (such as credit card companies) to run the tabs for us. For most of human history, steps were taken to protect debtors – mostly to stop them rebelling – now, our institutions increasingly protect creditors.
And thus Graeber’s history comes to an end, with the most recent three centuries packed into a chapter that is more of an afterthought than an analysis. Like many others writing in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial crisis, the author on the one hand points out that those who made bad decisions to lend were let off the hook with huge public bailouts while those who made bad decisions to borrow were savagely punished, and on the other hand laments that no alternative to neoliberalism was on offer – so we’re stuck with that system.
Triteness aside, the trouble with this is that Graeber does himself a disfavour. He fails to recognise the fundamental change that happened to the nature of debt in the last century, and especially in the past fifty years.
Up to the start of the modern era, a moneylender had a room vault full of coins and, when he lent money, he gave a bunch of coins to the borrower. This meant, of course, that he could only lend as many coins as happened to be in his vault.
However, debt in our world dispenses with the coinage. A loan is a simple accounting entry – Chris has twenty bucks more and Banca del Exploitacion has twenty less. Because of this, creating money is no longer a question of mining gold, silver or seashells, but of creating a simple entry in a ledger.
The borrower does not for the most part get coins, but a promissory note and, as a result, the lender can lend as much as he likes; the only constraint is his ability to persuade people that his promissory note is good.
The lender’s ability to persuade people that his notes are good is in turn based on the lenders’ assets – coinage, property and future cash flows from repayments and interest. Because of this, lenders lend several times what their assets are: the predominant way of doing this is fractional reserve banking, whereby banks must keep a fraction of their loans in reserves against a rainy day. This is fine when it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it reflects a very fundamental change to the way that debt works, and Graeber doesn’t seem to get that point.
What is even more fundamental is that this system starts at the top. At Bretton Woods in 1944, when today’s modern financial system was hammered out, the US succeeded in making itself the world’s banker. Other countries would hold dollars and, if a country needed gold, it had to exchange its dollars for gold – with the US. In 1971, Nixon reneged on the bit about the exchange for gold, instantly enriching the US and impoverishing every other country, but the architecture remained the same: to participate in the global financial system, a country must hold dollars. If it does not, it will be excluded.
This means, in effect, that every country in the world lends money to the US. They do this by buying US treasury bills (T-bills), which pay interest. However, although the bills to mature and are repaid when they mature, the vast majority are rolled over: as Graeber points out, the vast majority of these loans will never be repaid.
There is a good reason for this. Graeber makes the point while missing its significance that debt was traditionally between equals (if it isn’t, it’s called “theft”). This is true of the village economy: I go to the local moneylender or pawnshop, he lends me a shilling and I later pay back a shilling and a penny; if I don’t, there is social opprobrium and perhaps even confiscation. But in the vast majority of modern lending, there is a contract. That contract authorises force which, politeness aside, is backed up by violence. In the case of sovereign debt with the US, that violence is nukes: demand full repayment and your country is likely to become very radioactive, very soon.
So, the US itself is a fractional reserve lender. That means that, for every dollar out there sitting in other countries’ central banks, the US will lend several dollars to other countries. The T-bills pay interest, but the loans pay interest at a much higher rate, and for every T-bill that is paying 1%, there will be a dozen loans that pay 5%. You lend me $100 and I agree to pay you $1 interest and maybe the $100 in some distant future. On the back of that $100, I lend $1000, charge my borrowers 5%, and so earn $50 in interest. After paying you back, I have a profit of $49.
The actual numbers are hard to come by because the system is diffused through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and a whole bunch of other front-men, but the principle is simple. The US has access to basically all the world’s free money. Every central bank in the world is a debt peon to the US, every bank is debt peon to its central bank, and every customer – even those with no debt – is a debt peon to his bank. To say that this is an arrangement between equals is laughable.
But there’s another factor which Graeber misses, and that’s the nature of capitalism. In our inter-connected world, it’s easy to envisage a system in which all of our daily needs can be fulfilled by a global barter system – that I can jump on to Facebook and find someone somewhere who’s happy to swap my three chickens for his goat. But capitalism isn’t about that; it’s about capital: the capital needed to build multi-billion dollar things such as skyscrapers, oil refineries and microchip factories. Setting aside the fact that a barter system for these would be unimaginably complex – what exactly can I offer in exchange for building a Burj Al-Khalid? – no one anywhere would use their own money when they have access to debt.
It’s not just about using someone else’s money; it’s about sharing risk. If the capital project turns out to be a dud, the lender is stuck with it. I, as a borrower, lose whatever seed investment I made, but I walk away from the dud.
Now, put these together, and our modern conception of debt is not something that anyone who lived before about 1700 A.D. would recognise. Indeed, as Graeber points out, the main use of sovereign debt up to then was to fund wars and the main means of repayment was a distribution of the spoils of war. There were no capital projects to fund because the industrial revolution hadn’t started; cathedrals, castles and follies were paid for in cash. Moneylenders had vaults full of coins and, when the coins ran out, they could no longer lend money. What other credit instruments – letters of credit, bills of exchange and cheques – existed were promissory notes, which are not quite the same thing as debt.
The trouble is that, when it comes to fixing the system that gave us the Global Financial Crisis, two things need to be fixed: the first is to stop being debt peons of the US, and the second is to come up with an alternative that can fund massive capital projects. But the real problem is worse. We can invent as many currencies and technologies to transact them as we like, but the only one that matters is the one that a government will accept as payment of tax. And all but one government must pay its tribute (or extortion money) to the US in dollars. Until that changes, the system we have is here to stay.
A fundamental flaw in the DNA of cryptocurrencies is the notion of the double-spending problem – that no coin should be spent twice. This is anathema to modern fractional reserve banking.
Between that paragraph and this, by a weird coincidence, someone pointed me at a video of Simon Dixon’s commentary on the IMF’s recent decision to Do Something about the effect of covid-19 on the world economy. The commentary takes the position that the entire global financial system is a giant Ponzi scheme poised on the brink of collapse, creating ever more money out of thin air and dumping ever more toxic assets on an unwitting population – a position that reminded me what is missing from Debt, but which Jamie Crawley draws attention to in his The Birth of Now.
December 2, 2020
It’s always nice when one’s own story is singled out in a review of a collection. Here are two reviews of the latest HKWC anthology:
November 17, 2020
Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism, 2nd edition by Jim Stanford, PlutoPress, 2015.
Economics for Everyone (E4E) is book whose title can be read two ways: it is both an introduction for everyone to economics, but also a commentary on how the economy can serve everyone.
As an introductory treatise, the book starts out with the basics – work, tools and profit – and from there builds out a comprehensive picture of the modern, capitalist economic system as it is and has been since the advent of neoliberalism in the Thatcher / Reagan era. This is done in a systematic and structured approach, and explains jargon in way that is clear without being condescending. Unfortunately, as someone who’s studied the subject, I found myself wishing there was a Concise E4E written for those who would rather focus on the critique than the economics.
A central premise of the critique is that much of what is taught as economics is, in fact, not economics in general, but the economics of neoliberal capitalism. Non-capitalist economics such as Marxist and socialist economics are barely even discussed in academia, and a great deal of economics discussion takes for granted that there are things such as, for example, a natural rate of unemployment, when this is in fact a political decision. The reason that myth is perpetuated, Stanford argues, is that companies have owners, that paying staff is a major expense, and that having a population that is frightened of losing jobs means that the staff are less likely to demand better wages. To put it the other way around, it would be economically possible to have full employment, but if the employees are not frightened of losing their jobs, the employers will have to pay higher wages, reducing profits.
Another neoliberal myth is that government deficits are inherently bad. This myth has been used time and again, often to ensure that banks in wealthy countries continue to get interest payments from people in poor countries by ramming through austerity policies that result in widespread misery. To the contrary, Stanford argues, deficits can be used to turbo-charge growth by investing in education, healthcare and infrastructure, and those social benefits generate more than enough economic growth to cover the interest payments – as happened in China in the two decades at the end of the last century (and, although E4E doesn’t mention it, Britain in the late 1700s, when it had issued consuls – government debt – that amounted to more than 250% of GDP: the highest in recorded history.)
These points and others like them are well made, and important to raise. And, as Stanford says, and as many other have commented, the crash of 2008 was a signal that neoliberal capitalism was out of control; that economics was no longer serving the common good but rather protecting the fortunes of those who were already immensely wealthy; that the time was ripe for an alternative. Yet no alternative was available. There was no new narrative, no novel system. The 2008 crisis could have shifted the balance back to the common man but, because there was no alternative, failed to.
If anything, E4E shows why that moment was lost. The book concludes with two shopping lists. The first is a series of tweaks that could nudge, say, the USA to a system more like those of the Nordic countries, which have much more even distributions of wealth. The second list presents non-capitalist ownership structures: state owned enterprises, cooperatives and the like, that seek to maximise social outcomes other than private wealth creation (or “profit”).
The problem with the first list is that the developed democracies have each charted their own courses. It’s all very well saying “the Americans should…”, but if a population makes an informed and free choice to elect successive governments that do not offer non-private ownership structures, that is their choice. The fact that one American government after another has elected gloves-off capitalist governments, and that one Swedish government after another has elected socially democratic governments, does not indicate a malaise in the American system, but a legitimate democratic preference.
The problem with the second list is that socialism has been tried and it simply did not work. Socialist Russia may have put a man in space before capitalist America, but Russians were queuing four hours for bread while Americans picked it up at the supermarket. While individual Russians in the socialist era made enormous contributions to areas such as theoretical physics, Americans invented microcomputers. When I first visited China in the mid-1980s, everyone received the same wage – and the same shitty service. There was no incentive to do better.
As to non-centralised ownership structures such as cooperatives, as E4E says, most legal systems effectively limit the purposes of corporate bodies to be profit-seeking or charitable. Shared ownership structures are indeed a difficult beast. But what Stanford fails to consider is that, of the 85% of people he estimates are in wage labour, a very large proportion are okay with top-down ownership. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur; not everyone wants the burden of responsibility that comes with ownership, even partial ownership. Given how precarious life used to be, how many people died of famine, drought or disease, let alone the human-inflicted miseries of war and oppression, perhaps we are pre-programmed to be risk-averse.
The collective bargaining Stanford advocates also seems rooted in the past. Coal mines and factories – workplaces where thousands of workers were doing essentially identical jobs – are the places collective bargaining began. In the developed world, those jobs have been taken over by robots. The rest of the world does not lack labour laws, but rather enforcement.
This is not say that the current global system allocates wages in a fair way. Far from it: our global trading system fosters brutal exploitation – see Naomi Klein’s classic No Logo for more. But tweaking the system isn’t going to change anything.
What I’d propose is a different angle. First amongst neoliberalism’s failure is its reversal of social mobility. This has led to a gradual diminishing of well-being. To find out why this may be, let me look at the neoliberal proposition:
Well-being is maximised by wealth generation.
Wealth generation is maximised by individual profit-seeking.
Individual profit-seeking is hampered by regulations.
Well-being is maximised by minimising regulations.
This formulation offers many points of attack, not least of which that social mobility doesn’t warrant a mention – it isn’t even part of the promise. That aside, I’m going to focus on the first one, the basic premise of neoliberalism, that well-being is maximised by wealth generation.
Let’s start at the bottom of the economic heap. It is obvious that there is a certain level of poverty below which people are incapable of well-being. If you can’t put food in your own belly and that of your family, if you live in constant fear of drought and famine, the issue is not well-being but survival. And I think we can all agree that no human being should live on the edge of survival; that every child who is born should have nutritious food, running water, decent health care and education.
These are normally spoken of as “basic needs,” and basic needs are increasingly spoken of as a human right. But the thing is, there are many people who don’t live in poverty – whose basic needs are met – yet who still live unfulfilled lives because they live hand to mouth and because they have no way out of that trap. And the reason there is no way out is because the trap is that all of their income goes to servicing their basic needs.
People in that position do not have the choices that I took for granted as a middle-class kid: holidays, hobbies and parties; studying more or less what I chose and pursuing more or less the career that I wanted. A prerequisite to having choices is not basic needs, but what I will call “basic affluence,” and a working definition of that term is that, after meeting her basic needs, a person or family has money left over to spend as she will: she can blow some on a party, some on a horse, some on a holiday; she can save to buy a new home, a university degree or start a business. In other words, enough money that she has choices in life. And the problem with neoliberalism is that, especially in terms of wages, ever larger numbers of people are not basically affluent; they are living hand-to-mouth. And this is borne out by one source after another – not least E4E – which shows the stagnation in real wages since the Thatcher-Reagan era.
As neoliberalism has undoubtedly achieved a huge increase in global wealth, but not a corresponding increase in well-being, the first premise of the neoliberal argument is, therefore, false: well-being is not maximised by wealth generation.
Why would that be? The premise is based on a truism that collapses the economic status of a person into two levels: poverty and well-being. If I am right that basic affluence is a pre-condition for well-being, there are more than two levels: poverty, hand-to-mouth living, basic affluence and wealth. Neoliberalism, by putting wage levels largely in the hands of capitalists, exacerbates the problem: there may be fewer people in the world living in absolute poverty, but many are trapped in hand-to-mouth living, and fewer are basically affluent. The wealthy themselves, of course, are a different species.
This is not a conclusion I expected to reach, but the most glaringly obvious fix for this has already been mooted: a minimum income for everybody. This is not a minimum wage; it simply means that what the wage doesn’t provide, the government will.
But I don’t think that a minimum income on its own will be sufficient. And that is because of another point that I haven’t found mentioned – although E4E touches upon one of its symptoms – and that is the vast amount of money that is sitting around doing absolutely nothing useful. E4E cites estimates that over 95% of global financial cash flows are purely speculative and, as Stanford says, not productive. They only thing those cash flows produce is more money, and the occasional crash.
Stanford thinks that this cash should be deployed in some productive manner. But I believe the reason for these huge financial flows is that the money simply has nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. The world does not have enough sexy toys to buy, enough glowing projects to invest in, enough latest fads to go wild for. The money is dead. Or, not so much dead, as zombie money. It inhabits a world of its own, unrelated to human needs or even human activities, and is used for no other purpose than keeping a few investment bankers in jobs while contributing absolutely squit to human well-being.
Now, while I have no doubt that putting some of this zombie money to use could improve the human condition, I suspect it’s mostly an easy political target. Rather, I think zombie money wanders around the world’s financial systems in the same way that cockroaches wander the sewers – distasteful and ugly, but not actually harmful. The problem, I think, is not zombie money, but rather zombie property. At the same time that nearly every country in our crowded planet has a housing crisis, so too nearly every country has a stock of palaces and mansions that sit empty most of the time, and a stock of private land set aside for the rich to kill animals with guns for a month or two of each year.
This is far more insidious that mere zombie money because it isn’t only the super-wealthy, but also the basically affluent who rely upon it. Most of us fear dying in poverty, without even a roof over our head, and owning your own house solves at least half of that problem.
But the consequence of this is a vast global middle-class who are not merely complicit, but who actively support the system of property ownership. And it isn’t just about a roof over our head. At a personal level, I well know the pride of having a house of my own. Owning provides more than a roof over my head; it adds the joy of making a house into a home.
So what if, in addition to a minimum income, each government simply gave a house to each citizen upon coming of age? Rather than demeaning citizens with low-rental housing, which normally degenerate into crime-ridden ghettoes for the poor, simply grant each and every person a plot of land and some money, or, in cities, a pre-built unit of their own? And, on their death, take it back.
Let’s put this a different way. In business, we often talk of capital and operational expenditures. Capital expenditure means buying things – things such as houses or factories – and operational expenditure means spending money on things – mostly wages and food (food for factories being electricity, raw materials, and so on) – that keep the wheels turning. If basic affluence is to be more than an empty phrase, then it needs both aspects: a minimum income, one that is large enough to permit meaningful choice without extravagance, and a minimum asset base – the starting point being a house.
That would put power back in the hands of the people.
And this brings me to the fundamental conceit of neoliberalism. Human well-being is measured on more than one axis. One does not have to be a Buddhist hermit to be-well without being rich, but without the basic affluence to make the choices involved in being-well, a large part of humanity is consigned to be-badly. Basic affluence would require a fundamental reordering of society – no question about it – and it would be no panacea, but it may offer a foothold to create an alternative to neoliberalism.
It has been argued that populations are the targets of systematic and insidious campaigns that reinforce value systems that make people vote against their best interests. But there is an element of intellectual snobbery about that line of thought that repels me: either a person knows what’s in his best interests, or he doesn’t. If he does, or is at least willing to find out, and his assessment doesn’t agree with yours, tough luck. Reasonable people can, almost by definition, disagree. The he’s-being-fooled-but-doesn’t-know-it-line is not a disagreement between reasonable people, but the intellectual snob’s argument that I know better than he what’s good for him – which blends into the classic autocrat’s argument that the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them.
A friend of mine was once offered a temporary role as CEO. He declined. His words were, more or less: “You know all those dumb arguments that start between A and B and go to A’s boss and B’s boss and spin out of control. All that shit ends on your desk.”
Capitalists will hate the idea as workers will no longer be constrained by the choice of working or starving. Wage costs will go up. But capitalists are throwing stones in glass houses. Gone are the days of Henry T. Ford paying enough that the workers can purchase the products Ford made. Gone, too, in large part, are the days when capitalists reinvested their profits to create new wealth. Capitalists – and especially their scions – horde their billions. They are making themselves a very appealing political target.
Yes, that list excluded people. The rich don’t think that way.
It is commonly held that most of that zombie money is in the hands of a few hundred immensely wealthy families. While it is true that wealthy families own part of that money, it is also true that governments sit on top of untold trillions. In the past two decades, a new kind of entity has come into being, the “Sovereign Wealth Fund,” which invests governments’ money. The governments in question are often of an authoritarian bent – not the types of government to return money to citizens in the form of lower taxes: Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s wealth funds are massive (both boast about low taxes, but levy huge regressive taxes in the form of massive land prices instead).
There are some, of course, who will say that basic affluence – a house and a minimum income – will engender parasitic behaviour, that people not merely should but must work. Setting aside the Calvinist overtones, this view is elitist. There are many sportsmen, actors and politicians who are paid large amounts of money to do exactly what they would do if they had none. Nature does not bestow its gifts evenly; basic affluence would give those who are not so endowed a chance to be-well, and make them economic actors rather than parasites.
November 4, 2020
The plan for this year’s trophy-hunt in the Himalaya had been Yala Peak. My hiking friend, DC, and I were all set to go to Nepal in March to conquer it, but then covid-19 arrived in full force, and that was pretty much that. By summer this year, it was becoming apparent that it will be mid-2021 before travel is even possible, and probably many years before it becomes as cheap and easy as it once was.
So, DC and I decided on an adventure (well, a hike) nearer to home. The previous trek we did, which we both enjoyed thoroughly, was the Manaslu circuit. After some “research” (i.e., a vague notion and ten minutes on the web), we decided that a broadly equivalent effort in terms of distance and ascent per day would be to combine Hong Kong’s Wilson Trail, Lantau Trail, and the Plover Cove Reservoir Loop. These would not involve Hong Kong’s highest peak, but they were off the beaten path and, we hoped, less crowded than the better-known Maclehose Trail.
The Wilson Trail starts at Stanley with a horrendous pair of hills known as “The Twins,” which consist of an endless concrete staircase, several false summits, but with a pretty good view at the top over the south of Hong Kong island. Unfortunately, the weather was and remained hazy, and the view wasn’t that great. No photos, but we slogged on, down the even steeper steps on the other side, up more concrete steps to Violet Hill, and on to the second section which goes over Jardine’s Lookout and then along a spur. By the time we got that far, the weather had cleared and we did get a photographable view:
Onwards, and we dropped down into urban Hong Kong and, in the spirit of Himalayan hiking, stopped for curry:
This turned out to be the First Big Mistake – far too much food! We headed over the harbour to complete the day’s hiking with section 3 of the trail, which is graded moderately difficult but long. It starts, however, with a stiff incline, and I just didn’t have the energy to digest an enormous meal and keep the pace. I lumbered up, with DC disappearing out of sight ahead of me. We made it, nonetheless, and wrapped day 1 – though not without stopping at a local market for the obligatory beer:
Day 2 turned out to be a delight. For the first part of the day, we had the trail more or less to ourselves. It snaked through virgin woodland, and was quite flat so gave my somewhat stiff muscles a break. There was a steep bit, but the effort was well worthwhile, with magnificent views out over the Sai Kung peninsula and beyond:
The next section was unremarkable – along the ridge, down and along a government catchwater – then over the Tai Po road and along Smuggler’s Ridge to the Shing Mun (Jubilee) Reservoir. Another obligatory beer in Tsuen Wan, and it was back to our respective homes. Muscles: still stiff. Appetite: massive.
Day 3 was the easy one by design. Section 6 of the Wilson Trail is a flat, long path around the shore of a reservoir, and the following section consists of gentle inclines up and down Lead Mine Pass and into Tai Po, though with a final flourish that introduced me to a part of Hong Kong that I had no idea even existed. We splashed out on a first-class seat home on the train and, as it was barely 2 p.m., forwent the beer.
We had planned to put the Wilson Trail on hold and switch to the Lantau Trail starting on Day 4. This involved a horribly early start, packed breakfast on the ferry, and the most brutal single day’s walking Hong Kong has to offer, up Sunset and Lantau Peaks – 1400m ascent in a single day and, at times, a very steep 1400m. Many of the steps are over a foot high, and the gradient is more than 1:1.
The good news was that we had both hit our stride. Going up Sunset Peak is only steep towards the top (which is not technically on the Lantau Trail, but it seemed like cheating to skip it); going down the other side is easy. Lantau Peak is steep no matter which way you attack it, but I made it and we tumbled down the other side. DC and I walk at about the same speed over distance, but he’s faster going up (though his pack was much smaller than my 10kg), and I’m faster downhill, so that worked out. Sadly, the views didn’t work out: the weather was perfect for hiking, with a strong wind and the right temperature, but it was too hazy for photos.
On the way to our rented accommodation, we purchased our de-riguer beers from a ma and pa store. The owner turned out to be 78 years old – he barely looked 60 – and made it a point to hike for five or six hours a day, five or six days a week (and showed me his hiking boots to prove it). He was one of the most contented men I’ve ever met.
Our wives came to Lantau to join us: we went for pizza, beer and an early bed. The next day, we got better conditions on Keung Shan: here are some unexpected prayer flags:
And here’s a folly that’s been around for ages:
It had been almost thirty years since I had last hiked that section: it used to be a favourite of mine, but is too steep for my wife. I’d forgotten how remote and beautiful that part of Lantau is. We joined our wives for lunch at Tai O and did the easy part of the day along Lantau’s rugged and almost unpopulated south coast:
We’d planned the route so that Day 5 would end pretty much at the accommodation we’d rented, and that the accommodation was close to Lantau’s best restaurant, The Gallery. The restaurant lived up to its reputation, and we retired, almost too full to walk.
The final day in Lantau was the least challenging, and we knocked it off without much thought. We did come across a beach where a few independent families were staycationing in tents. They’d hung a swing for themselves:
Soon after, I came across this delightful waterfall. That’s Sunset Peak peeking through the haze in the background:
The Lantau Trail was grueling: 78km and about 3000m ascent in three days, and we felt justified in a celebratory beer.
Just to the left of DC’s head, in the sunshine next to the mooring bollard, was a fellow who had achieved an admirable degree of inebriation: he was barely able to get his bottle of cheap wine to his lips, lighting his cigarette was beyond him and, although he managed at times to pull himself up to his elbows before collapsing once more, standing was well beyond him. And then this sailed in:
Not just any old gin palace, but a massive one. His? Someone else’s? We never found out, but it would have been so Hong Kong had it been his.
On the way home, there was a stunning sunset:
And Hong Kong’s streets at their best:
The next day, Day 7, was the big one The last three sections of the Wilson Trail consist of Cloudy Hill and the Bat Sin Leng, a grueling but stunning ridge. We again set off early. Going up Cloudy Hill, many people were doing their morning calisthenics (and one fellow chanted a Buddhist mantra through a microphone hooked up to his phone). Soon, they were soon behind us. Cloudy Hill was not particularly steep but, like the Twins, had one false summit after another. Again, the weather was too hazy for good views. We dropped down to a reservoir which neither of us knew existed, and then started up a massive flight of stone stairs.
The top was stunning. A sparse beauty, desolate and almost haunting:
Sadly, that’s about the best shot I have. Again, conditions were not good for photography. Though we did come across this brook on the way down.
And that was our second triumph: we’d finished the Wilson Trail.
DC has a billion points in airline and hotel imaginable, so we had a night of luxury on his points at the Hyatt at the Chinese University of Hong Kong: the next day was the killer. But, for me, it was not optional: I don’t like to use things I’d do anyway to raise sponsorship money, but I’d found out a friend was terminal, and the sponsorship money would double if I could pull off this last day.
The Plover Cove Reservoir Loop is about 22km, so quite long, but it has lots of ups and downs, and many of those are on very loose ground. On our very first downhill run, I came across a lady who’d twisted her knee. I offered a pressure bandage (that 10kg pack does contain some useful items!), but realised I hadn’t a clue how to apply it. I hope her partner worked it out.
Up and down, up and down. The peaks are not as high as those in Lantau or the Bat Sin Leng, but there are lots of them and they pile in one after another. The views were still hazy, but here’s one of Double Haven in the north-west of Hong Kong
And here is some of the red rock for which this trail is famous.
and the last incline – of course, it turned out not to be – which shows why the Plover Cove loop is so difficult – scree all the way:
And, after 180km in eight days, and about 6,000m ascent (and descent), here are the hikers enjoying a well-earnt celebratory beer.
A friend of mine suggested that I should make something more of the trek than just another hike. I’m not very imaginative about such things – I suppose with a little more planning and thought, I would have liked to have contributed to documenting where the most litter is thrown away on Hong Kong’s lovely trails, but I was maxed out at work and didn’t really manage to get very far with that project. However, my wife loves flowers, so here are a few:
To my surprise, there were also some berries:
and a few critters…
And let’s not forget that lichen is also a plant:
It grows best where the air is cleanest – and that was the best aspect of all.