CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The DayBusiness

Money

I’m typing, 36,000ft in the air, on my return flight from Milan to Gatwick. Guess how much my flight cost, just for me, without a bag? £12. Two hours, plus taxes, for £12.

 

A few weeks ago in Harrogate, I bought two drinks in a bar: a pint of beer and a large glass of red wine. Guess how much I paid? £15. And it wasn’t even table service.

 

In Tenerife, a few weeks ago, at a locals’ restaurant, I paid £5 for half a chicken, chips, salad, bottle of water and a glass of wine. And remember that Tenerife has to import the overwhelming majority of its goods, from mainland Europe.

 

None of this makes intuitive sense to me.

 

In 1998, when I started university, the average salary for a solicitor was around £42,000. Fast forward twenty-five years and the average has increased to £50,000. In the same period of time, the average house price has leapt from £70,000 to £276,000, yet wage growth has been miniscule. During this time, petrol prices have trebled.

 

A few months ago, due to my poor health, I sold my business. I paid a tax rate of 9.5% on the sale price. In contrast, high income earners – as opposed to sellers of capital – pay tax at 45%. As switched-on readers of my blog might have spotted, a few weeks ago, Prime Minster Sunak released his tax returns on the day that Reckless Boris appeared before the Privileges Committee over Partygate. On substantial earnings, Sunak paid a tax rate of 22%, because his earnings came from capital gains, at a rate which he voted to lower. As I discovered and as Sunak knows, the system is rigged in favour of the owners of capital. Employees, generally speaking, get hammered by tax.

 

A few weeks ago, my primary school-aged son received a lesson about money. The key takeaway was that debt is bad. Although 11-year-olds might not grasp the finer points of macroeconomics, the lesson was deeply flawed (and he knew it). As the statistics above reflect, the higher the inflation, the faster that debt is eroded. Therefore, if being rich is your goal, it is usually prudent to borrow as much as you can and let inflation erode away your debt.

 

High inflation is a gift to owners of capital, but disastrous for those who are least well-off. This, in part, accounts for the rise in the number of billionaires and the widening disparity between the super wealthy and everyone else. Owners of assets benefit most from rising prices. If you therefore think that the powers that be want lower inflation, I suggest that you think again.

 

Psychologically, many people dream about paying off their mortgages, but this is quite often financial madness. Furthermore, in the UK, if, say, a couple, whose children have left home are living in a £500,000 house, with four bedrooms, if they then want to downsize to a £250,000 house, if house price inflation is at around 10%, then by moving home to something more sensible, each year their financial pot is depleted by around £25,000. The system, as configured, favours house-blocking, with millions of vacant bedrooms in the “wrong” hands. I am not proposing a fix – as I don’t have one – but I am pointing out how ridiculous our system has become.

 

During the pandemic, we saw second hand cars – not classic cars, by any stretch – change hands for more than the equivalent new version of the same car, even though VAT isn’t payable on second-hand vehicles. This hasn’t occurred before. A new car for less than a second-hand version! And readers might recall that, for a time, oil had negative value – i.e. the producers of oil had to pay people to take it off them. Read that again: not just free oil, but oil producers would pay you!

 

The recent spike in inflation appears to have caught the Bank of England by surprise. This is bizarre given that the only iron law of economics is that if money is printed – as it was during the pandemic to pay for furlough etc – inflation will inevitably rise. Hey presto, that’s precisely what happened. If printing money was always the answer, no government would need to levy tax and every political party would run on a manifesto of zero tax.

 

Internationally, what has escaped scrutiny in the UK is the rise of the organisation BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. These countries are hatching a plan to create a new currency to supplant the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Such a currency will likely be tethered to precious metals, akin to the gold standard, and therefore such a new currency could not be printed, willy-nilly.

 

And with Saudi Arabia selling oil to the Chinese in Yuan, rather than in dollars, the dollar’s dominance is under attack. As a by-product, any nation whose economy is tethered to the US will be in trouble. Here, in the UK, with the highest inflation in the G7, with Brexit battering our economy, with an economic cycle which follows the US, and with our reputation for financial prudence destroyed by the Truss Budget, we should expect further financial craziness.

 

Let’s consider physical money. These days, most payments are made by contactless. As a result, our relationship with money is changing: we don’t get the feel of handing over money. Money, therefore, is becoming less real. What will accelerate this is the creation of digital currencies by nation states. Such government-sanctioned digital currencies – as opposed to the Wild West of cryptocurrency – will lead to greater government control of what we can and cannot purchase.

 

With high inflation proving sticky, with most people experiencing below inflation pay rises, with the near total dominance of contactless payments, and with asset prices out of kilter with incomes, we now live in a world in which what we – the majority – think about money is wrong. Money – we should never forget – is just a means of exchange, and units of currency come and go. My advice: be prepared for rapid change.

 

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Trump and the Massacre in Goa

Oops: I should have applied sunscreen today. My face is red. Silly me.

 

I’m typing in a hotel bar, then sipping my first Venezuelan rum. Here in North Tenerife, it’s raining, as it has done for most of the day, but with a brief interlude – hence my mild sunburn. I haven’t stayed in such a basic hotel since I holidayed in Albania, ten years ago. It does the job, though. Just.

 

Over the last few days, I have spent my time with a British couple, who are selling their business. I’m interested, very interested indeed, in acquiring it. If nothing else, here in Tenerife the ambulances, hospitals and emergency call-handling, all function.

 

Back home in Broken Britain, good luck getting medical care today. “Don’t do anything remotely dangerous today” instructs Sunak’s Government – (such as allowing 50,000 excess deaths). In more sensible times, presiding over so many unnecessary deaths and a falling life expectancy would be grounds for a lengthy custodial sentence. But most of the public are distracted by Prince Harry.

 

But enough about that. Over the last few weeks, I have been chewing over an issue which vexes me.

 

………………………………………………………………………………

 

Let me tell you a story.

 

Twenty-one years ago, on 9/11, an hour or so before those awful events, my good friend – let’s call him “J” – collected our Iranian visas from the Iranian embassy in London. We were going to Iran!

 

Then, two planes later, our travels plans were changed, as was the world. Instead of travelling from Greece to Burma/Myanmar overland, given that travel insurance to most of the Muslim world was voided, we went to India instead.

 

By the third week in India, we found ourselves – as a backpacking cliche – in Goa. We hired scooters – of course we did – bumming around the beaches and bars, before retiring to our 50p per night hostel. Rinse and repeat, day after day.

 

Everything changed one fateful day when J ordered a chicken sandwich from a hut – a hut which didn’t have a refrigerator. We had been the first – and last – customers of that day. We both recall the look on the faces of the staff as J bit into that sandwich.

 

Delhi Belly beckoned: horrendous for him and vicariously for me, given that we were sharing a crummy room. As J’s condition deteriorated, I summoned a doctor: pills were prescribed, so was the strong recommendation that we checked into accommodation more salubrious.

 

Not far from our lodgings, I found better huts, with intermittent warm water in the shower. Unusually, these new digs had a swimming pool. At £5 per night, shared between us, it was comparably expensive. This attracted a different sort of backpacker.

 

As the days passed, J’s condition improved. Eventually, he was well enough to swim. In the pool, the could-have-done-with-some-filtration water was far too low, making it quite taxing to clamber out.

 

One sunny afternoon, J noticed that there were dozens of frogs drowning in the pool. They were, he thought, marooned, unable to get out. Ever the nature-lover, J swam around, carefully scooping the frogs out of the pool, depositing them safely on solid ground. Mission accomplished.

 

Listening to my Walkman, I watched with fascination, proud of my friend’s good work. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the surrounding trees became increasingly lively with movement: birds – lots of them and goodness knows the species – began to assemble, like onlookers to a playground fight.

 

In sync, the birds dive-bombed towards the pool, scooping-up every last frog, before returning to the trees to devour lunch. It was a feeding frenzy. J was crestfallen. Every frog met its maker.

 

(Only later did we appreciate that the frogs were, in fact, cooling down, and could easily get out of the pool when they wanted.)

 

Loosely, tangentially, this incident reminded me of, one, Donald Trump.

 

Trump is vile, with every unpleasant description of him, justified. He’s the very worst example for children. But notwithstanding his awfulness, dispassionately, we should remember his many good deeds and sound predictions.

 

Trump crossed the DMZ between North and South Korea, which delivered a short-lived rapprochement between these two warring parties. For a time, “Little Rocket Man” stopped firing rockets. Now, under Biden, North Korea routinely fires its rockets over Japan.

 

In the Middle East, spearheaded by Trump, several Arab nations signed peace deals with Israel, under the Abraham Accords. More Arab countries will follow suit. On Trump’s watch, let’s not forget that the Taliban didn’t control Afghanistan and Russia didn’t invade Ukraine, nor did China routinely fly into Taiwanese airspace. Although Trump was addicted to tweeting childishly, the world was more peaceful on his watch. A prospective nuclear exchange was not, as it is now, a possibility.

 

And we should be fair to the Donald, for on multiple occasions Trump demanded that other NATO countries paid their fair share for their own defence, reasonably asking: why should US taxpayers pay a disproportionate sum to protect Europe from Russia? And most presciently, Trump repeatedly advised Germany not to rely upon Russian gas. If only Germany had listened, Russian might not have felt emboldened to attack Ukraine. He was a vile embarrassment, but on the international stage – and I cannot believe that I am writing this – the world was safer with him in the White House.

 

I won’t comment on Trump’s tenure from an internal US perspective, for I don’t feel suitably qualified to express a fair view. And, before any reader point it out, Trump was wrong on environmental issues.

 

I remain troubled that my friend – J – with the very best of hearts and with impeccable motivation, inadvertently killed dozens of frogs. Conversely, Trump – whom I detest on a personal level and was most probably erroneously motivated – performed acts worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama received a Nobel Prize for his vision and oratory, but deeds are infinitely more powerful than words. Internationally, do we need Trump again? Do you feel safe today? I don’t.

 

I am compelled to conclude that the world is even more complicated than I had thought. Good people can – by commission and by omission – cause mass suffering and, conversely, dreadful human beings can do so much good. My homework? To re-evaluate what I look for in a leader.

 

CategoriesHealthEnvironmentInternational AffairsTravelPolitics

The Sick Man of Europe

(Written during take-off from Tenerife South, Airport)

 

Travelling on a rickety bus in rural Thailand, back in 2000, I had my only epiphany. The vast distance from home – turbocharged by the cultural punch in the face that South-East Asia delivers with aplomb – afforded me 20:20 insight into how my life was going, and what the future might look like.

 

And it wasn’t a pretty picture.

 

For context, I had just finished my second year at university: a year I could barely recall due to too much booze, insufficient studying and little progress on the friend front. Frankly, I was a mess. As I realised, to continue on that trajectory would lead only to a 2:2 degree – or worse – with the resulting deleterious impact upon my career.

 

Encouraged by the bone-jangling bus – where only moronic backpackers sit at the back, being the most bone-jangly seats – I made myself a solemn promise. On return to the UK, I’d get my act together, and achieve a 2:1.

 

One year later, it was mission accomplished.

 

Travel does that, doesn’t it? It provides the gift of perspective. Perhaps perspective is the best reason to just go – and to go anywhere. And it’s from my literal vantage point, as I type, 30,000ft up, zooming away from Tenerife, that I feel confident to write the following.

 

The UK is poorly, not irreversibly sick, not yet on life-support, but we are in desperate need of a reset. Deep down, I think all Brits know this. Naturally, we have much to be proud about; the high net migration figures is sufficient proof that we live in an enviable land. But we are on the decline.

 

……

 

One week earlier, leaving the UK, from Leeds-Bradford airport (which is it: Leeds, or Bradford?), is a traumatising, harrowing experience. A national embarrassment. Twice now, in a matter of months, I have nearly missed my plane due to the unfathomably lengthy queues to get through security. And neither time was I travelling during peak season.

 

This time, with the knowledge that another horrible queue awaited me, I had ummed and ahhed about having special assistance at the airport, for I had been feeling somewhat unsteady on my feet those preceding days. I opted against help. I’d brave it, I thought.

 

Big mistake.

 

Feeling like something that you would scrape off your shoe, standing for 90 mins, with heavy hand luggage, it was tougher than a marathon. And I’ve run two. All around me, patient Brits – and all other nationalities – queued without grumble, for this is the national sport.

 

Conversely, at the far busier airports of The Canary Islands, security and passport control is so speedy that I do not recall the experience. Financially, the longer people wait in queues, the less that they can spend. Intellectually and economically, how can British airport operators justify such a delay? And why should we highlight our incompetence to the world by making travel to the UK so disagreeable?

 

Anyway, after a mad dash to the plane, setting-off over gorgeous, awakening and misty Yorkshire, several – just a few – relentless, small wind turbines, brought me joy. But within an hour, my joy had turned to despair, for we were flying over rural Ireland, which was carpeted by far larger, functioning glorious wind turbines. Why does Ireland get it, but we don’t? Growing up, Ireland was the butt of every joke. But who’s the fool now?

 

Never forget that David Cameron essentially banned onshore wind turbines, and no Tory leader since has changed the policy since (though Truss had covertly planned to do so). Future generations will be rightly furious. I’m enraged now.

 

To compound my misery, arriving in Tenerife, I was greeted by legions of massive turbines, standing proudly, purposefully, environmentally. See: Brits are the odd ones out! Onshore wind is a no-brainer.

 

What’s more, wind turbines and airports aside, in The Canaries I have repeatedly observed that the traffic flows; the hospitals function; ambulances arrive, with the utmost haste; pavements pose no danger; parking is easy and free; the people are warm and polite; the children are driven and respectful (I witnessed a language school in operation); there are public electric charging points, unlike in Harrogate; inflation is lower; life is slower; and the general costs are cheaper. Sure, not everything is better, but this isn’t the world’s 5th largest economy I was travelling in.

 

And what really hammered home the difference between the two countries was a sign outside of a lawyer’s office which stated that the firm closed at 2pm every day! Just imagine that, lawyers.

 

Perhaps the Spanish mainland has the same sort of problems that we have in the UK; I cannot say. Possibly, until recently, the blank canvas provided by The Canaries – for they are volcanic islands – allows for more sensible policies, uncoupled to outdated ways. Perhaps what we need in the UK is a metaphorical volcanic eruption of our own; to let us start over, taking the best bits of the UK and scrapping the worst parts. Perhaps Brexit was that eruption. Only time will tell.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0

We are living through a more dangerous period than the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet nobody is talking about it.

With Russian ground forces getting pulverised, with its air force still without air superiority, with its navy hiding and with 300,000 poor conscripts mobilsed, Russia is in a jam of its own making. Russia is losing: it is no longer a conventional war threat to NATO countries.

Last week – the same week as Putin road-tested his nuclear capabilities – Russia blamed the United Kingdom for the following:

  • Training the Ukrainians in how to create a dirty bomb.
  • Deploying personnel on the ground in Ukraine, which directed a number of successful drone attacks on the Russian Navy.
  • Blowing up Nord Stream 1.

In addition, in a speech, Putin highlighted Liz Truss’s nuclear sable-rattling during the Tory leadership contest. This is war talk.

In normal times, such allegations would be all that sensible people would be talking about. But we are in a de facto war against a nuclear nation and still people are not talking about how we have become, after Ukraine, target number 2 in the world. Not only are we supplying Ukrainians with weapons, but we are also training tens of thousands of their conscripts here in the UK. It seems to me that we are way beyond just waging a proxy war against Russia.

I am not arguing that our policies are wrong, rather, I am highlighting the fact that we are an increased risk of annhilation and yet this is not what people are talking about. During previous threats of nuclear catastophe, some people stockpiled food and built nuclear shelters.  But why not now?

Before the conflict, Dominic Cummings blogged about the possibility of a nuclear accident triggering a war. He wrote:

“The cumulative probability of disaster grows alarmingly even if you assume a small chance of disaster. For example, a 1% chance of wipeout per year means the probability of wipeout is about 20% within 20 years, about 50% within 70 years, and about two-thirds within a century. Given what we now know it’s reasonable to plan on the basis that the chance of a nuclear accident of some sort leading to mass destruction is at least 1% per year. A 1:30 chance per year means a ~97% chance of wipeout in a century…”

During peace times, we have become accustomed to living with the risk of a nuclear accident wiping out mankind. Oddly, in times of war, it seems that, for most people, the calculus has not altered. I’ll level with you: I am worried, particularly as a Brit living near a US spy base – Britain, island nation, severed from Europe both physically and politically.

With power cuts expected this winter, hospitals in dire straits and with Tory Austerity 2.0 en route, these are the most precarious of times. I can understand why people would want to leave. One perverse crumb of comfort is that, as Putin expects, the difficulties Europe will face in winter might tip the balance towards settlement. Secondly, though nobody noticed, read Sunak’s words about Ukraine as he stood outside Number 10 as Prime Minister:

“…after all the dislocation that caused in the midst of a terrible war that must be seen successfully to its conclusions …”

Now contrast those words with Lizz Truss’s leaving speech regarding Ukraine:

“We must be able to outcompete autocratic regimes, where power lies in the hands of a few. And now more than ever we must support Ukraine in their brave fight against Putin’s aggression. Ukraine must prevail.”

Barely, imperceptibly different, but different in emphasis. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but my estimation is that Sunak will be less hawkish on Russia and will likely prioritise the economy over Ukraine. If so, hopefully a negotiated settlement can be reached.

Whilst this plays out, I shall remain dismayed that my fellow countryman are disinterested in the risk to us, here in the UK. But As Twain puts it: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The DayBusiness

Seven Recent Observations 

  1. On the Budget from Dumb and Dumber

As I highlighted in my penultimate blog, Truss is an ideologue. She doesn’t hide it. Her recent budget was a piece of work: never has a new Prime Minister committed political suicide so quickly. I will, though, defend Truss to some extent.

During the unfathomably and unforgivable leadership campaign, during which we had no functioning Government, despite being mired in crisis, and with Reckless Boris taking two holidays – holidays he could have taken following his jettisoning from office – few people would have noticed that Truss said in an interview that the ideological, swingeing cuts to the State between 2010-2015 carried out by – until this week – the worst Chancellor in British history – George Osbourne – went too far. That is an understatement, but she was right. Those cuts triggered a double-dip recession, a rarity in post-war Britain, because they damaged confidence in the economy (as well as diminishing the State’s massive spending power). I shall award half marks to Truss for understanding half of the lesson from that period and having the guts to say so.

For me, campaigning against those wicked cuts in or around 2010 remains something that I am proud of (though I might have gone too far by making our baby deliver leaflets in the winter).

andrew gray cuts

To her credit, Truss understands that economics – and I studied it – is no science. Truss knows that modern economies, particularly ones built on the service sector and the housing market, react to psychological factors, more than anything else. Hence her misjudged budget of boosterism on steroids.

This was not the time for financial imprudence, as Sunak kept telling the Tory members, but they didn’t listen. Cuts to taxes, particularly to stamp duty, with the hope that this will stimulate our economy, would always be counterproductive if the independent Bank of England had to rapidly increase interest rates to stave-off a run on the pound. This last week has wreaked havoc to the nation’s economic psychology and guarantees an end to Tory rule, with Labour enjoying a massive poll lead, even though they have nothing to say.

Although flawed and damaged goods, at least it was Truss who had to handle the Queen’s passing. My guess is that Reckless Boris’s tenure embarrassed the Queen. It remains fascinating and more than coincidental that she died so quickly after the ejection of Reckless Boris. Classy to the end.

  1. On Dealing With Putins

Having litigated for 17 years, I have learned a thing or two about disputes, particularly about the psychology of a dispute. One memorable and nasty piece of litigation I was involved with, reminds me of the situation facing Ukraine today.

In my case, the Defendant had all the appearances of a smart, sophisticated and logical opponent, but they then made decisions which dumfounded my colleagues and me. As a litigator, we are taught to put ourselves in the position of our opponents, in order to second-guess what moves they will make. In this case, our opponent made illogical and self-defeating moves. Rather than emboldening us, we were left – and still remain – bamboozled. Settlement followed due to the erratic nature of our opponent, despite the weakness of their position. The litigation was hellish but as Robert Louis Stephenson once said: “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.”

Litigation is a form of war – war in a legal context, and with some rules, which are zealously enforced. War, on the contrary, is not really bound by any enforceable law. My view is that the situation for Ukraine is, sadly, unwinnable. The threat of nuclear escalation is real: what might deter a tactical nuclear strike is the prevailing wind. Of course, Russia isn’t going away any time soon and any successor to Putin might be more competent as well as being equally determined to seize Ukrainian land. In international affairs, bullies with nuclear weapons succeed – that is realpolitik.

Absent any new world policeman – which of course is prevented due to the Russian veto on the Security Council – a rapid settlement is urgently needed. Although I have seen not one single report of recent settlement talks, the only signal of a possible settlement is the Truss-Kwarteng budget. If peace is declared, the real – and psychological – world-wide boost, will promote financial growth internationally. In that case, the Truss-Kwartang budget was clever, but premature. (For clarification, absent an immediate ceasefire, the budget was lunacy.)

  1. On Doing Business Deals

From my experience as a lawyer and an entrepreneur, I can tell you that exchanges of emails, or letters, is the worst way of negotiating business deals. If you can, do it in person, when everyone has eaten and had enough sleep. The written word can be poison. The same word spoken always lands more gently and is therefore more conducive to finding agreement.

  1. Thoughts on the Queen

By far the most interesting analysis I have seen on the passing of the Queen was from Professor of Psychology, Jordan Peterson, here. Peterson was delivering a live Q & A when the news of the Queen’s death landed, so he had to think on his feet. To cut a 14-minute monologue short, Peterson’s key point is that the alternative to a constitutional monarchy is an elected Head of State. Peterson said that most people cannot handle the fame of being Head of State, pointing to Donald Trump, who acted like a Tzar. To have one family, albeit a financially hyper-privileged family, carrying the burden of fame and constitutional power, solves many of a nation’s difficulties. I don’t like the idea of a monarchy, but perhaps the alternative is worse.

Peterson’s second point is that there is wisdom baked into our monarchical system. He said that the Queen was able to intimidate the 14 Prime Ministers who served under her – and listening to former PMs talk about her, it seems that Peterson was onto something.

Would I want to live with a President Johnson? No. Would I like to live in a country with an elected President in addition to a Prime Minister? Probably not. Who is the President of Germany? Exactly. On the countless times that this nation was embarrassed internationally by Reckless Boris and now by Truss, at least these two were not our only figureheads.

But would I bow to a Queen or a King? Never. Would you? I should add that I pity the royal family: just imagine having your relative’s funeral televised for billions to see. No thank you very much.

  1. Magic Mushrooms and Philosophy

Someone recently told me of the psychedelic effects of eating the “right” type of mushrooms – mushrooms which grow throughout Yorkshire. For clarity, I don’t support, nor recommend, such actions: it seems dangerous to me, as well as being illegal. The description of the mind-altering “qualities” reminded me of my recent experience of Nietzsche’s key findings (I know this sounds pretentious.)

But I challenge any reader not to be thrown by Nietzsche’s ideas, particularly that of nihilism. Nothing clears my mind better than a batch of Nietzsche – the YouTube videos do a superb job of summarising his work, as his writings are, for me, mostly impenetrable. This quotes sums up his work for me:

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

Meditate on that if you will: imagine that there is no right way – no right way, of anything, of being, of thinking! All value structures fall away: now that is mind-altering!

  1. On Onshore Wind

Over the last few months, I have become increasingly interested in onshore wind. With the country facing an energy crisis (years in the making), we must remember that it was Cameron’s Government which made onshore wind virtually impossible, due to their draconian planning regs. This point was hammered home by opposition MPs during the recent House of Commons fracking debate.

But what was most interesting about the debate on fracking is that – not once – did Jacob Rees Mogg let on that anything would change in relation to onshore wind, despite the barracking he was taking. Then, the next morning, without fanfare, his department declared that they would permit onshore wind. You couldn’t make it up. At last, commonsense has prevailed.

  1. On Inflation and Crypto

Where has all this inflation come from, people are asking. Simple: although I have seen wildly different figures, between 40-80% of all dollars in circulation in the world – remembering that dollars are the world’s reserve currency – were printed since Covid. Digest that fact.

This printing of money, deployed by most countries in the world, is the main factor behind inflation. High inflation is no surprise. If there is an iron law in economics, then is it that the printing of money will eventually lead to inflation. And when there is inflation, coupled with low interest rates, there is no point putting money in a bank account, hence why people buy assets, which then inflate prices. High inflation post-Covid was obvious.

As an owner – and an advocate – of crypto currencies, my view is that crypto or other digital currencies soon to be deployed by governments, stand to gain significantly from global high inflation. So far, this hasn’t occurred. On the contrary, crypto is down this last 6 months, due to the strength of the dollar, because, in tough times, people buy dollars. But give crypto time.

If inflation remains a global issue, which I suspect that it will, particularly if Ukraine and Russia settle, my ignorant recommendation is to have a portfolio of crypto assets, if only £10 here and there, just to get a feel for how it works.

CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The DayBusiness

Duolingo and the Future of Geopolitics 

For those who don’t know, Duolingo is an awesome app which helps you to learn a language. Each day, for the last 112 days (as Duolingo tells me), I have studied Spanish on this app. Averaging 20 minutes per day on this app – bolstered by weekly online Spanish lessons with a real tutor – I now comprehend quite a lot of Spanish. At school, I despised language learning.

Duolingo gamifies language learning and uses the latest research to enhance the tutee’s time on the platform. Me encanta Duolingo! When I look at the apps assembled on my phone, there are only a few which bring me joy; most are there for functional reasons. Duolingo is good for me. Opening the snazzy app each morning brings me great pleasure.

Duolingo’s methodology of cajoling tutees to stay engaged ought to be copied by all learning establishments, because it works. Over 1.5m people have used the app each day for over one year. Using Duolingo’s simple user interface is a pleasure. I recommend that everyone has a play with this app: 97% of users don’t pay to use it. With half a billion users, Duolingo has improved the planet and made a massive profit.

Yesterday, I listened to a podcast interview with the co-founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn. Nice guy. For me, there were two important takeaways from the wide-ranging conversation. First, Duolingo’s mission to – for free – educate hundreds of millions of people motors most of the platform’s staff to keep improving the tech in order to educate more people. The platform’s commitment to its mission is the reason for its success. It is a potent example that the best businesses have a mission over and above profit-making. In fact, without their missionary zeal, their wild profits would not have materialised. My own experience is that colleagues working in a mission-driven business go above and beyond.

The second key learning point for me is a cultural one, which I believe will shape geopolitics for decades to come. The co-founder explained that, broadly speaking, of the half a billion users, there are two distinct groups of learners, roughly in two equal camps. Half of users are people learning English language because they need to for financial reasons: to get on at work; to get into a better university etc. The other half are, like me, learning for fun, and usually opt for languages such as Spanish and French.

Surprisingly, given that the top echelons of society are forcing their children to learn Mandarin, only around 1% of the tutees are choosing to learn Mandarin. In fact, possibly more people are learning Korean than Chinese, because of the brilliance of South Korean movies. People are voting with their fingers and eschewing Mandarin. Before hearing these stats, I would have guessed that around one-third of tutees would have been learning Mandarin.

With the meteoric rise of China as an economic and military force there is much talk that this century will be China’s. This is what I assumed would happen, but given that hundreds of millions of people are still choosing to learn English, my interpretation of these stats is that there is significant and worldwide hostility to Chinese influence. And with hundreds of millions of people voluntarily choosing to learn English it seems to me, that culturally at least, the West – primarily the English-speaking West – will remain dominant, even if economically its superiority has been neutered. English remains the lingua franca.

Certainly, part of the reason why people don’t learn Mandarin is due to its inherent complexity, but having travelled in China – albeit twenty-ish years ago – it is not a country that I am eager to return to. When I reflect on my time in China, I do not do so with any warmth. Seemingly, hundreds of millions of people have a similar antipathy towards China. My estimation is that the vast “soft power” provided by the English language and, to a lesser degree, its culture, ought to mean that although Chinese economic and military power will continue to rise, Chinese cultural dominance will not occur this century.

 

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Ukraine

Like many people, these last few weeks, I have been glued to the news regarding Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. I have read and watched vast amounts about the conflict in the hope that I could form a sensible view. My experience as a Burma campaigner taught me to be sceptical of popular opinion – opinion usually based on scant knowledge of the subject.

On Twitter, I have seen hundreds of smashed and deserted Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, land rovers and logistics vehicles. I have seen circa one hundred captured Russians, mostly conscripts, and, sadly, seen dozens of dead Russian soldiers and slain civilians. I have watched Russian planes and helicopters be shot down. I have seen Russian cruise missiles fly overhead and watched Russian cluster munitions land in residential zones. The “pornography of war” available for those who seek it, all consumed on my phone.

Furthermore, I have watched some right-wing US pundits applaud Putin – reminding their audience that Biden’s son was caught up in some sort of scandal in Ukraine. I have listened to Democrats remind us that Trump’s impeachment centred on a call to the Ukrainian president.

Like many caring British people, I have been appalled by our Government’s shameful attitude to refugees. Our European friends have taken 2.6m, whereas we have taken – reluctantly – a few thousand. Even Ireland has taken 5,000.

I have watched most news channels show their audience how the Ukrainians are creating stockpiles of Molotov cocktails, and I have seen some be thrown on Russian vehicles to deadly effect. I think of how most media outlets treat the wars in Yemen and between Israel and Palestine, and note the double standards.

Today, our family signed up to offer our spare room to a Ukrainian family. We would have signed up yesterday, but the website crashed. Sadly, I have little confidence that the Government will accept our offer, or the offers of the other thousands of people.

My personal analysis of these last few weeks:

  1. The background to the conflict goes back decades and is complex. The West, NATO, EU and Ukrainians have all contributed to the state of affairs: however, as complex as it is, I believe that this is a conflict that demands that sides are taken. And I side with Ukraine. In my lifetime, this is a resistance which satisfies all the criteria of the Just War doctrine. I see parallels with why George Orwell fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s (and nearly died).
  2. The response from the West, including the reportage, makes it clear just how racist most of us are, and that how – we humans – are content with the mental contortions of double standards. I ask myself: would our family have signed up to host an Afghan family, in the way that we have volunteered to house a Ukrainian family? The question was never asked, but I don’t know that we would have done. I am ashamed to write that sentence. I need to interrogate this thought.
  3. It can come as no surprise to watchers of this Government that they did not foresee the risk of a humanitarian disaster, even though they had been predicting an invasion for some months. And it comes as no surprise that the Government’s instincts towards Ukrainian refugees was inhuman, bureaucratic and at times patently dishonest. Their instincts and ability to govern – the two key areas of competency for any government – are not fit for office.
  4. The Russian armed forces, though numerous and though fighting in their backyard, are largely clueless, lacking in professionalism and leadership; devoid of ethics; ill-equipped, with poorly maintained equipment; lacking in logistical support, air support and modern communications; and their soldiers lack the will to fight, given that they have been misled.
  5. We, in the UK, are at war, just not a kinetic one. These days, war is fought through economic policy, cyber attacks and good, old-fashioned supplying your enemy’s enemy with weaponry. I doubt that most British people are aware that we are waging war. We are, so expect a Russian response.
  6. The Russians offered settlement last week, yet few outlets properly reported it and its terms are not being discussed. Very simply, Russia demanded recognition of Crimea as Russian; recognition that Donbas and Luhansk are independent states; and amendments to the Ukrainian constitution to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU. From where I am sitting, this offer ought to be accepted. The lack of attention on this settlement proposal should give us all pause for thought: who benefits from the continuation of this war?
  7. Putin has gravely miscalculated the response from the West and over-estimated the capabilities of his forces. It is doubtful that he is receiving accurate information. I suspect that his health is in serious decline.

I have no idea what might come next.

CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The Day

Almost Lost in Translation on the Longest Day (in 2004)

Below is a copy of my email to some friends, which I sent in August 2004, from Yunnan Province, China. That day, I had saved an American’s life. As I typed, I was knackered, discombobulated and tearful.

I record this email here, for posterity, for my children, as well as a record of what I thought – at that time – of Chinese medicine and their approach to SARS. This makes more sense to me now, 17 years on, given the initial approach of the Chinese government to Covid.

I really detest my writing style – so many typos! But more than the typos, I don’t like the tone of the person who wrote it – me – particularly the cultural tone. I am glad that I have changed.

As at a few years ago, Greg was still alive and well. We remain connected.  

………………………………….

Dear All,

I write this email to you a different man that wrote the last. I have a lump in my throat, a potential tear in my eye and I am semi delirious through lack of sleep.  Maybe this should not be in an email but I have nobody else to talk about it with.

Last Monday was to be my last day in China as my flight from Bangkok was today, however, I had been placed on a waiting list to extend my stay by one week. The kind lady in Bangkok had bought my story that I was ill in China and granted me my extension. Delighted, I returned to my guest house to break the great news to my two travelling companions.

So, we decided to go to something called the Tiger Leaping Gorge in a remote hilly area of Yunnan bordering Tibet (dont worry if you have never heard of it because I hadnt either). The gorge is possibly the largest in the world, with 3900m between the top of the mountains and the Yantse river below. The only problem we had was that the gorge was closed because of the wet season which made it even more prone to landslides than before. Many travellers and locals had died on this gorge.

We arrived in a ghost town. Only one cafe open and managed by an eccentric Aussy woman called Margo. After settling into our hotel, which for some bizarre reason possessed a western loo, we returned to the cafe to pick up some info on the next day’s trekking. She made us some delicious food which did not contain the following: chicken feet, heart, head, eyes or bones. We began to settle down and drink beer.  Margo told us everything that we needed to know, including the fact that we must start walking at the crack of dawn and the first three hours would be a 1000m assent.

As we relaxed, whilst listening to Savage Garden, Margo received calls from other points along the trek that an American couple that had set off from her cafe hours earlier were in serious trouble. She began to panic but we continued to drink beer as there was nothing we could do and the beer was good.  As the afternoon became evening and the locals had begun their annual torch festival, the heavens opened. We made friends with an American (yes, another American traveller in China) and a shy Chinese guy called Wang Wei ‘Wrong Way’. More calls came in from the almost deserted Gorge that the American couple were in need of desperate help. We just sat, drank and watched a local child in beautiful traditional dress pull the wings and legs off an unfortunate huge insect. More calls came in.

Suddenly, out of the rain, emerged a Chinese man, shaking. He was saturated and scared. The atmosphere amongst us five travellers changed. The problem was here. An American woman burst in a minute later in a state. Her boyfriend, Greg, was in the local hospital across the river. He was seriously ill. He set off in the morning with a cold and when he was 3000m up his chest began to hurt, he vomited, went into a fit and fell 5-feet down the gorge, landing on his head and swallowing his tongue.

Margo called the US embassy (a bunch of useless bloody morons) and I ran to the ‘hospital’. Can you imagine what this ‘hospital’ looked like in a rural village of 1,000 people? I found a crowd around the patient and the American girl, Liz, wailing. The patient, Greg, had his eyes open, fixed in one position, whilst he was in a constant fit. His arms and legs moved uncontrollably, as they had done for the last three hours and continued to do so for next 12 hours. I cannot think of a hospital I would less like to be ill in.  The crowd around the bed consisted of 15 people, including the drunk chief of police, a doctor, some nurses and anyone else who wanted to see a foreigner in risk of losing his life with only Wrong Way who could translate for us. Liz was delighted that there was a Westerner around who understood what she was saying.

I cleared the room, with the help of Wrong Way. Greg, the patient, continued to scream and fit. I assembled the doctors in the next room and, with the help of Wrong Way’s very broken English, I managed to understand that Greg was in danger and that we owed 700 yuan (80 US). The consensus was to take him by ambulance (van with flashing lights) two hours to a little city with a better hospital.

It took 8 men to carry Greg, with drips coming out of him, to the van. Liz wanted me in the van, as a friendly face, even though we had never met, and Wrong Way got in to help translate.  The journey was crazy. Greg was unconscious, but yet his arms and legs would not stop. Liz talked to him throughout. The journey was undertaken at midnight on roads that were prone to landslides, through the rain. To make it worse for me, I had been drinking most of the afternoon. I called all the people that Greg knew in the US, insurance companies and anyone who would listen to me on my mobile, as you need a special phone that is registered with the communist regime to call abroad (bastards).

We got to the hospital OK and were put in a ward with a bemused old man. There was only one doctor on duty and nobody that spoke English. The nurses filled him with drips, as Wrong Way tried to explain what had happened. Greg’s breathing deteriorated, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The night was horrid. We took him to have his brain scanned. Wrong Way held his head in place and I pinned his legs down, as Liz held his hands and tried to talk to him but he couldnt hear. We think that the scan was OK. No blood on the brain. Small mercy.

We took him back to the ward where there was urine and blood all over the floor. A vision of hell. In China, there is a rather do-it-yourself approach to health care. We had to hold the oxygen over his face and often had to hold the drips in place.  One vision that will live with me forever is Wrong Way holding Greg’s hand in place from pulling his drip out, whilst Wrong Way slept. I tried to doze but needed to reassure Liz that he was in a good place which I didnt believe. Liz didnt sleep and just talked to Greg with more love than I have ever witnessed.

The morning came and so did 30 non English-speaking doctors. The monring was so horrible. His condition got worse and his heartbeat was erratic at best. Liz remained calm. I tried. Wrong Way tried explaining what had had happened and I rang International SOS to get Greg out.  He was moved to another room with an expectant mother. Doctor after doctor came in. It was such a novelty to see a Westerner, especially one naked, having a fit for hour after hour. Every medical student came for a look and so did every patient in the hospital and those visiting those already in hospital. In fact, I feel sorry for all the other patients who lost the doctors and visitors just to see Greg. The Chinese had no shame: they stared with impunity at someone close to death because he is Western.

Greg’s father, with the help of me on the phone, managed to organise a medical evacuation but it was so hard to do. I think the fact that his Greg’s father is a wealthy state representative must have helped. I took call after call from his parents and made calls to speed things up.

All of a sudden, the situation got worse. He stopped breathing. There was 15 doctors around his bed trying to save him from an illness that they have only seen six times before and they all died. Liz, who was wailing, was taken to another room to be interrogated by another 15 doctors using a local business man who spoke quite good English. I remained with Greg, threatening law suits to International SOS, whilst crying at the same time. I was put onto an English doctor who reassured me that the Chinese would intubate him but they hadnt. Muppets. Eventually he was intubated and his life saved for the time being.  Maybe I should mention that this is the place where SARS started and the Chinese’s botched response to it began.

Greg stabilised and he was eventually intubated. International SOS got their act together (once a massive cheque had cleared) and called the hospital. All was not over. The doctors had a meeting where THEY were going to decide what to do. My mission was to stop them touching him again until the plane from Beijing arrived. Are doctors the world around so condescending??  Just as China seemed like hell, Wang Wei ordered us the equivalent of a KFC and paid for it. This single gesture was magic. The only time that Liz smiled. She is the strongest of women at 23.

The plane was now fours away with English-speaking, English trained doctors, onboard. I granted myself a smile. When things get good over here something always happens that reminds you that sometimes this place is so backward. The police arrived. Three menacing brutes in uniform and two pretty female undercover agents who wanted to know why were at the gorge and how the accident happened. Liz had to sign yet another form – all in Chinese – but what did it say? Who knows.

At 6pm, 26 hours after the accident there was a commotion at the door and the crowd pulled back from the door. It was the SOS team!!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. They spoke English and they knew what they were doing. The equipment that is standard in the West fascinated the Chinese doctors. It took two hours to move him onto the trolly with crowd now at standing at 40.

I will never forget two things. First one, English-trained doctor and one English trained nurse could do what 30 Chinese doctors and 10 Chinese nurses could do. The second was a Chinese doctor saying to the English trained doctors that the patient’s salt levels were low and the better doctor retorting ‘It’s irrelevant’. The Chinese doctors looked on with disbelief. We could trust these two angels from the sky. Liz’s credit card had maxed so I paid half of the 700$ so he could be discharged.

The crowd and I waived the ambulance off, shattered.  According to the insurance company, Greg is still alive and is in Hong Kong. My prayers are with this man that I have cried over but have never spoken to. If he recovers, both Wang Wei and I have been invited to the wedding.

Dont reply. I had to write it.

Andrew

on a lighter note, never tell a Chinese hairdresser that you only want a little bit off your hair and show them a small space between your fingers to show them a small amount as they will cut it to that size. I now have a number three all over and wear a hat to cover my shame.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Voices For Burma (Wikipedia entry)

(What follows is my Wikipedia entry for the organisation which I co-founded in 2003: Voices For Burma (VFB). Wikipedia removed the entry, so I add it here for posterity. Hopefully historians of that period will locate this page, and perhaps my kids will be proud of their father. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi was regarded as a saint until 2017, but we campaigned against her 14 years before that).

Voices for Burma

Voices for Burma (VFB) was a Non-Governmental Organisation founded in 2003, closing in 2009. Founded in the UK, Voices for Burma campaigned on two fronts. First, to examine the complexities of the tourist boycott of Myanmar promoted by Aung San Suu Kyi and secondly to educate visitors to Myanmar on the need to travel in the country ethically.

Original Founders

Voices for Burma was founded by Andrew Gray, Anna Laycock and Zishaan Arshad, following Andrew Gray’s visits to Burma/Myanmar in 2002 and 2003.

Change of Leadership of Voices for Burma

As Cherie McCosker and Emily Pelter joined Voices for Burma, Zishaan Arshad and thereafter Anna Laycock stepped aside. Andrew Gray remained throughout.

Campaigning

Voices for Burma was supported by Dr Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition and several British former diplomats and Myanmar scholars. On their key message that ethical tourism to Myanmar could be undertaken ethically, Voices for Burma took the counter position to The Burma Campaign UK which had maintained strict adherence to Aung San Suu Syi call for a total tourism boycott.

Primarily, Voices for Burma educated potential visitors to Myanmar through its website (now defunct) and through Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree online travel forum. The website was created and managed by Burmese refugees living in India.

Voices for Burma was invited by Lonely Planet editors to advise on the 9th edition of the Burma/Myanmar guidebook, referenced in the 2005 edition.

Publications

In 2006, Voices for Burma submitted written evidence to the UK House of Lords on the efficacy of the tourism boycott here. Voices for Burma concluded:

“It is VFB’s stance that the UK Government’s policy on tourism to Burma is at best confused and at worst irreconcilable with its commitment under the Common Position to assist the poorest sections of Burmese society. It is not VFB’s argument that the Travel Boycott is fundamentally flawed, as VFB discourages some tourists to Burma, however the boycott policy has not been evaluated and has not engendered any positive societal shifts.”

In 2006, founder Andrew Gray appeared in the New York Times here.

“When I was in Burma, I’ve never met anyone who said that I shouldn’t be there,” said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia’s poorest nations.”

In 2010, though now defunct, Voices for Burma appeared in The Guardian at here.

“While favouring engagement, Voices for Burma and the Free Burma Coalition urge tourists to do as much as possible to help private Burmese citizens and not put money in the government’s pocket, and in fact it is possible to do so now as a tourist.”

 

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Buy a Generator, Just in Case

Political nerds like me are fascinated with Dominic Cummings. So interested, in fact, that I pay him a monthly fee to read his excellent newsletter. I know: I have just lost a chunk of my audience at that announcement. (You can sign up here. Previously, I blogged about Cummings here.)

In a recent lengthy post, Cummings writes:

“If you will live in the UK over the next 6 months take steps to ensure you and your family can cope with a 4 week major disruption — e.g a cascade of logistics and energy failures. The only safe assumption is that the true situation is much worse than the media are telling you. This was true in spring 2020 and autumn 2020. It’s true now. Making some basic preparations is extremely low downside and extremely high upside. Keep in mind, some of the people I know who were most right most early on covid and other things have bought generators they can plug into their homes…”

In a more sensible media landscape, the suggestion from someone as senior as Cummings that we should consider purchasing a generator would be a major headline. But the media landscape is warped, fixated on personalities and trivialities.

Cummings is in good company, for Goldman Sachs has warned of a “non-negligible risk” of power outages, too.

With a number of energy providers having gone under in the last few weeks and with 12m people soon to get a whopping 12% hike to their energy bills, we should examine the reasons why, which, according to Deloitte, are:

  1. Natural gas prices have quadrupled over the past six months.
  2. Gas provides the UK with 40% of electricity production and 80% of the heating of homes.
  3. There is ongoing maintenance work in the North Sea.
  4. Wind speeds are low.
  5. Droughts have reduced hydropower.
  6. Unlike in Europe with their 20-30% storage facilities for gas, we stand at only 2%: there is no wriggle room.
  7. Fixed-rate tariffs and price caps don’t easily allow price increases to be passed onto consumers.

And we haven’t opened a nuclear power station since 1995. If Norway and Russia don’t increase supply, and if we have a cold winter with low wind speeds, we are in serious trouble, according to the experts.

Risk-assessing this situation, buying a generator – and the fuel if you can get any! – is a sensible course of action. If Reckless Boris says that there is nothing to worry about, then there is everything to worry about.

Think clearly, folks.