24 January 2012

Wampum Magic (tally ho part 2.1)

You're a wealthy person if you have a lot of what you value.

You're rich if you have a lot of whatever currency your culture trades in.

In the good ol' days Lancaster folk could trade in the 'Lune', a currency named after the beautiful river that flows through our fair city. Being a practical sort of chap I was damn near a milluneair by the time the system fell into disuse. I could trade plumbing and building skills for a lift with something heavy in the garden, or for a massage, or an old bicycle, or whatever.

The Lune was a printed token in various denominations of riverwater that the Lune traders could barter their deals in. When the currency collapsed, I became a poor Lune and my tokens became worthless bits of laminated paper. C’est la vie, apparently!

Anyway, the point is that currency can be anything. When the new world settlers started to trade with the five tribes of the indigenous Iroqois peoples in north America, pounds were no use: they didn’t have them anyway, so they had to find an medium of exchange, a form or reserve currency that was accepted locally: this was the Wampum, a black or white bead, the white ones fashioned out of a whelk shell and the black ones out of a quahog or poquahock clamshell, both found around Long Island Sound. – hence Iroquois ‘People of the Longhouse’.

The beads were often fashioned into beautiful belts as a convenient way of carrying a lot of them around. You can still see them in the British Museum.

So it was a very local currency in the same way that the Lune was a very local exchange mechanism. It was not much use anywhere else: but in the locality, could be used as a store of value and a medium of exchange for valuable beaver pelts or anything else of utility. Not that we have many beaver pelts in the Lune valley, as far as I know.

So trade, as a driver of communication and exchange and development between cultures, has always been crucial and we’ve developed ever more sophisticated and clever ways of lubricating the mechanisms of trade ever since, along with all its positive and negative consequences.

In England, up until the latter part of the 17th century, the lubrication of English trade was in hammered coin, created by placing a piece of metal between two dies and striking the upper die to imprint an image on both sides of the coin.

A laborious, labour intensive and inefficient process that simply wasn’t up to the job of lubricating trade at all. There wasn’t enough of it to go around, so even if you wanted to start up a business you could struggle to get enough to pay your suppliers or your workers or whoever else. The coinage was very irregular, it could be forged pretty easily, (by 1696 10% of the coin in circulation was forged), and at one point it made more sense to melt the metal down, take it to the continent and sell it as bullion because the metal content was worth more than the coins face value, so that’s what people did.

In short, it was a total mess and didn’t stand a chance of being able to lubricate the vast increase in trade that was coming just round the corner in the beginnings of the industrial revolution. So, on 10 June 1696 a Proclamation was issued requiring “all Receivers and Collectors of the Publick Taxes to take hammer'd Silver Money at five shillings and eight Pence an Ounce” and change it for nice shiny new machine minted money of a standard weight and metal content. It still wasn’t a total success because the silver bullion value of the coinage exceeded the face value until it could be worked out how to make coins out of cheaper metals: so they had another ‘Great Recoinage’ in 1816.

Oh well, the idea was there, and it gave Isaac Newton (who they'd made Warden of the Royal Mint), a nice day job; at night he could mess about building the first refracting telescope, work out the laws of universal gravitation, develop differential and integral calculus, work out the laws of mechanics and motion and optics, figure binomial series out, have a bash at turning base metal into gold and work out how to make holes in jam doughnuts (only joking). Lazy sod, he was!

Still, by the time Newton died in 1724, we had a money that could service the development of trade and commerce properly, we had the Bank of England (1694), we had paper money in circulation, we had a reliable coinage of standard weight and quality that was much more difficult to forge than the old hammered coin and we were set up to service the industrial revolution and a continuous rise in living standards for the next couple hundred years.

Onwards and upwards, tally ho! What could possibly go wrong?

22 January 2012

Tally Ho (part the second)

By the beginning of the 13th century, there was a fully functioning market in government debt. One that came about as a result of a very simple technological innovation: namely the use of the Tally Stick.

After William the Conker had clocked us all and our land holdings and property and chikkins and wotnot in the Doomsday book, he was in a much better position to levy tax from us all and had the requisite paramilitary inland revenue force to do it. Or else!

Thereafter, the king could agree, with John O' Gaunt say, that Lancashire would pay £1000 tax to the realm and it would fall due on April 1st. Then they would get a stick, any old stick, and carve notches on it indicating the amount owed, who from etc and then split the stick in two. A handle would be carved on the stick and this was called the stock - hence stock market.

["the distance between the tip of the forefinger and the thumb when fully extended ... The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood".]

The king kept one half and our John the other. When time came for payment the two halves of the stick were brought together - tallied up - and the debt settled. The king usually couldn't wait for April 1st though as he had a pressing need to go and trash the French, or the Scottish [again], and he needed instant cash to pay his army and provide them with Bovril and so forth.

What to do?

He could sell his half of the tally stick to someone in return for the cash he needed immediately. This is how a whole market in government debt was built up and the market got pretty good at trading in, and working out a market 'value' for it. The value might be dependent on when the debt fell due, how far away it was to go and collect it, and the liklihood (confidence) in how probable it was that this debt would be honoured and reliably paid up. If it didn't look too promising, the debt could be 'discounted' or written down in value.

So, Tally sticks formed the basis of the money markets we know today. They were in use up until 1826, but then withdrawn and stored in the Palace of Westminster. By 1834 there was a mountain of sticks to be got rid of, but instead of being sensible and giving them to the poor to burn as firewood, they stuffed the whole lot into the Palace furnaces and the flues got sooooo hot they set the whole building alight and burnt it to the ground. Turner witnessed the event on 16th October 1834 and immortalised it in this famous painting.

You couldn't make this stuff up, could you?

The point is that this market came about as a [possibly] unintended consequence of the application of technology to manipulating finance. Which brings us to what the digital age is going to further do to money, given that it's already well on the way to doing away with cash.

20 January 2012

Tally Ho (part the first)

Both Cameron and Milliband are trying to position themselves as the reforming white knights of capitalism: they want a fairer, sharing, caring and responsible sort of capitalism, one which, sais Cameron “….recognises that people are not just atomised individuals, and that companies have obligations too.” And, “…is a genuinely popular capitalism, which allows everyone to share in the success of the market." Milliband is whingeing because Cameron is stealing the moral high ground from under his nose…."I welcome the fact that other leaders are coming onto the ground that I set out last September... about the need to tackle predatory capitalism." Adding that he [Cameron] would be judged "on his deeds and not his words". “Banks should not be able to get away with fleecing their customers,” he said yesterday with charming naivity, adding ….."Many people feel they are being ripped off in their everyday lives." No shit Sherlock!

Cameron and Milliband seem to think that playing the dumb innocents, who’ve only just come to realise how wikkid and unfair capitalism can be, and how they are both going to step in and change all that, is going to sit well with the electorate. I think maybe we’re a bit beyond all that…..twenty years ago….perhaps.

This is no passing ‘little local difficulty’ that a few political blandishments can reassuringly banish.

Since the collapse of Lehman Bros in 2008 the crisis has escalated from concern over the bankruptcy of banks (too big to fail), to the bankruptcy of sovereign states, despite all the frantic and desperate measures being undertaken, like bank bailouts and quantative easing [read: printing money] and the rest.

So, there IS a lot of wringing of hands and soul-searching going on (at least, there is amongst those politicians and economists who have a conscience, and who are not totally sociopathic). They are beginning to question the basic assumptions used in the economic modelling they use to determine policy; they are beginning to question the wisdom of having allowed a credit free-for-all to build up layer upon layer of both private and public debt – as though it ever made any sense, at all - ever.

Across the world, a gullible public are told of the inevitibility of reduced public spending, raised taxes, lowered wages, falling standards of living, pension reform etc etc, all to be accepted with a gritting of teeth and a tightening of belts, (because ‘we’re all in it together’, are’nt we?), while out of the Capitalist 1st aid box are dragged the stikky plasters of tougher financial regulation, debt reduction, bigger capital cushions for the banks to survive downturns, and other measures to make banks less vulnerable to crisis intervention.

One of the assumptions was that sovereign debt was without risk and so was a good source of credit – and that may be true up to a point - but in the case of the EU, (which was structured so that the sovereigns within it were no longer currency issuing authorities – the European Central Bank having adopted that role), they are in the difficult position of being hamstrung by the remit and powers given to the ECB by Europe. This is such a structural flaw in the EC that it may yet well kill the European project unless the ECB can be freed up to act in a way that, say, the Bank of England could do in dealing with a crisis in the pound sterling.

But, setting aside the origins of the crisis, you have to wonder whether the patience of the Germans and the French will crack at the profligacy and corruption of states like Greece and Italy and begin to seriously consider what is in it for them, whether the EU project is worth the candle, or whether they wouldn’t be better off pulling the plug and going it alone again. Who knows?

But that’s not really the purpose of this screed, which is to look at why capitalism was suited to the agricultural and industrialisation phases of society, but why it isn’t to the digital information age that we’re now in. That will be Tally Ho part the second, coming soon to a cash point near you.

12 January 2012

ticky tacky

What does a world beyond capitalism look like? What does global justice mean? How does it work? It's pretty obvious to all that capitalism hasn't produced a fair or just social system, not even for those countries that are at its apex, never mind the billions in the third world for whom even the poorest of us are rich beyond imagination.

One of the products, (apart from the 'stuff' - together with the demand that we 'consume' the stuff), of capitalism, is the social structure itself in which some people are rich and a lot of people are poor and are obliged to work for the rich in one way or another. In a way, the more the poor produce for the rich to sell at a profit, the more they are entrenching the priviliged position of the rich and contribute to their own domination by the rich by being increasingly dependent upon them. In this social structure people are alienated in damaging ways, not only in the classical Marxist sense of being alienated directly from the fruits of their labour, but from the social structure itself which underpins it. Taken as a whole, the structure removes from humans the ability to productively pursue those things which most make humans what they should be, creative, free, passionate and productive: with drives towards beauty, music, art, literature, relationship and so forth.

Capitalism drives a wedge between those things in that the frenetic drive towards endless production and economic growth reduces humans to the level of a machine working a production line and that what we produce turns toxic and comes back to haunt us as pollution, as environmental degradation, as disenfranchised, alienated, marginalised citizens without a sense of worth or communal purpose. The whole thing is like a snake eating its own tale, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it will destroy itself in the process: and that seems to me to be a decent enough metaphor to descibe how the whole of global capitalist system operates. Worse than that, an effect of the system is to divide us from one another and put us in our little boxes. So, you go to work and produce one thing (or more likely, a part of a thing), I go to work and produce another, or provide a service, and someone provides another, health, education, whatever, and each function might be specialised, even very highly specialised, and from the outside it looks like the system works because this whole co-ordinated division of labour produces vast quantities of goods and services that we can go out to the marketplace and buy and take home to our little boxes and enjoy. But that in itself alienates us from one another because the currency of our relationship becomes reduced to a financial transaction rather than human contact: and thinking about [read: not thinking about] what the effect of that has on other human beings, our communities, our planet, is turning us lemmings rushing towards the edge of the abyss.

So, what's the alternative? We've only had civilisation on this scale for a tiny fraction of historical time and we're just in our infancy at it, so let's not be too hard on ourselves about it. But we do have to come out of our little boxes now to try to find out what social morality, what global justice is going to mean in the 21st century.

06 January 2012


Andrew Brown's latest screed in the Grauniad "Assisted suicide is never an autonomous choice" scrapes the barrel of mindless inchoherence so thoroughly that the bottom just fell out. He sais

"The arguments over assisted suicide are mostly conducted with obvious flaws on both sides. Defenders of the status quo are wrong about the sacredness of life; those people trying to change it are wrong about humanity."

OK. Good...nice humble start: Everyone is wrong except me.... good job I'm around to straighten you all out then. He goes on.....

"The actual, practical issue is tiny. No one wants either to prolong the life of the elderly into a grotesque torture, or to bump them off as soon as they become inconvenient, although these spectres lurk in the shadows of the argument."

Wrong on both counts. Many religious seriously do want to prolong the life into grotesque inhuman torture of not only the elderly but also those suffering from incurable, terminal or untreatable illnesses against their wishes while mouthing platitudes that all that is required is better palliative care which, however good it is, is evidentially shown to be incapable of dealing with intolerable levels of pain in some instances. On the second count, there are people whose may want to relieve some people of their inconvenient lives. Often they are called dictators. Sometimes they are even called doctors! In either case the word he is looking for is murder - not assisted suicide.

"There is clearly a point in many lives after which life is no longer worth living and should be ended as painlessly as possible...."

Really? Sais who?

"....The question is who should decide when it has been reached. Under the old dispensation, doctors chose, and their decisions were tacitly accepted. Surely it is more modern, less authoritarian and more reasonable if patients make the choice, quite openly, for themselves?"

No, doctors didn't choose like that. They might have made tough palliative care decisions which had the secondary effect of hastening death in a greatly suffering end of life patient bu they have to operate within the law and sometimes on the boundaries of it too. It was never as simple as Brown attempts to make it sound here.

"The difficulty I have with this has nothing to do with religion, or with the supposed commands of a supposed God. It is about the nature of humanity. The thing that worries me about allowing patients to choose is that this isn't the kind of decision that we can reasonably make alone."

Rubbish. It has everything to do with religion: the vast majority of the lobby opposing assisted dying is religiously motivated: it is a projection of the religious idea that (human) life is sacred and comes under ~God's jurisdiction, not yours. It's truly appalling how terribly worried Mr Brown is about decisions we can reasonably make alone. Obviously it would be much better if we all consulted Mr Brown about our decision making in case we get it wrong. But who will Mr Brown consult about his decision making about our decision making? Or will his decisions just be the right ones every time?

"Some people make the decision to die entirely on their own. They talk to no one, not even the Samaritans. They just do it. And, perhaps, if you have no one at all to talk to, this can be a reasonable decision. But it is almost always wrong to suppose that there is no one with whom you can talk: although it is one of the most common feelings in depression, it's false and wrongly reasoned."

This is just gibberish. He is trying to equate suicide with depression in the mind of the reader by talking about the Samaritans. He is confusing issues. Of course there are correlates between suicide and depression and mental illness in general. This is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the issue of assisted dying in the context of persons suffering intolerable suffering or terminal illness and about taking control of how those deaths play out in a civilised society. So why is he trying to confuse the issue I wonder?

"Either way, there are always people to talk to in the context of assisted suicide. It's at this point that the notion of autonomous choice breaks down. Once other people's opinions are called into the picture, so are their interests. And these interests do not necessarily align with the patient's.
Professionals can be trained to strict neutrality. But they aren't the people on whom our self-esteem and self-worth mostly depend. Those come from the people who like us, or even love us, unprofessionally. And that's a feeble crutch. There aren't enough of them, and their sentiments are much more mixed than we would like."

More inchoherence. Is he saying because you talk to someone your autonomy to make a decision is forever compromised? You can never make an autonomous decision uncontaminated by the sentiment and feelings of others? Jeeeezus! It's enough to make me want to quit right now!!

"In this context, it's worth remembering that it is believed Harold Shipman killed well over 200 people before any relatives became suspicious: suspicion followed only after he began changing the wills of his victims so that he profited, and their relatives to an equal degree lost money. Until then the deaths of the old were seen as part of the natural order."

Oh, fuck off Brown! Harold Shipman was a serial killer. He was a murderer!! Get it? M u r d e r e r!! You are not even remotely on context trying to make equivalence here.

"I have known personally only one old person deliberately killed by their carer for the money. Even then nothing could be proved, despite his remarkable feat in signing into his online bank account half an hour after his own death to transfer to his carer £10,000 in recognition of services rendered."

See response given above with the obvious modifications.

"But I know many whose children will not unduly lament their passing. Some older people are unsentimental about this. Mary Warnock has on occasion said that she would rather pass on her money to her children while it is useful for them, and my own mother has said much the same. They don't want to be a burden, and they do want to be useful. I feel something of this urge towards my own children, but it's essentially asymmetrical. I am a reasonably loving and thoughtful son; nonetheless I would hesitate to die for my mother, whereas if I really had to choose between my life and one of my children's I would give up mine without much dithering."

More non-sequiturs, turning his non-points into an unintelligible morass of mangled confused thinking.

"It's already abundantly clear that Britain has hundreds of thousands of old people whose lives are worth very little to anyone else, and who are neglected at best, abused at worst. Let's suppose that only one in a thousand of them thinks their lives are hardly worth living – and that's a very low estimate. That still means hundreds of people who would take the chance of assisted suicide if it were offered without pain or condemnation; and if we treat their decisions as wholly autonomous there is no reason to argue with them."

More emotive poppycock. The country has millions of old people, who mean the world to their loved ones and who are cherished and cared for to the very best of the ability of families and professional medical and nursing carers. Because this is not universally the case, we must treat all of them like babies unable to decide things for themselves?

"But we know that in fact their actions and decisions would not be really autonomous....."

It's getting difficult to tolerate any more if this utter bullshit Mr Brown.....

"They are reactions to a world that others have made, and that we all have a part in. The fraudulence of this kind of autonomy talk is obvious when it's applied to poverty. Rich and poor alike are free to choose to sleep under the bridges. We can all now see the damage that was done to society in the last 30 years by talking about choices that the powerless just don't have as if they were real. When Tony Blair's old flatmate Charlie Falconer extends this style of argument to judgments about life and death, the only sane response is to call it nonsense."

Oh..now what? More obfuscatory red herrings, caught under the bridges where the rich sleep in the staterooms of their luxury yachts sipping their martinis?

And are we all now thoroughly clear and settled in our minds as a result of Mr Brown's laser-like focus on this gem of impossible human pain and anguish? No?

I really am terribly cross with him this time. Only the last nine words of his piece made any sort of sense.

Robin Regio Circa

My loyal subjects,
One understands from one’s advisers that there has been some bother with money this year. Ordinarily such trifles would not trouble one, but it seems that the small screen may now be a luxury that many of my subjects cannot afford, so this year one has committed one’s regal musings to paper the better to communicate with the commoners.
It has been another eventful year for the Windsors. One’s highlight was of course William and Kate’s wedding. It was a wonderful day: William looked regal and Kate was divine, although her sister’s arse caused a bit of a stir. Poor Philip got a crick in his neck craning to get a better view. One wishes William and Kate every happiness for the future, but William is his father’s son so we were sure to set up a cast-iron pre-nuptial agreement – and Philip has a contact he can call if ever things get out of hand.
One’s eldest granddaughter Zara Philips also married this year. Her husband is a sportsman of unique looks, but sadly one nearly had cause to call on the SAS to offer him advice after he committed an indiscretion in New Zealand. However, one has been given to understand that dwarf throwing is a long-established tradition among those who work for a living, not to mention an excellent form of preparation for the catching and throwing skills required at the highest level of rugby union.
We just now need to marry off young Harry. However, like a finding a backer for a corgi at the dog track, one fears those particular royal goods may only appeal to a niche market.
There have been no funerals this year, but Charles is keeping his spirits up.
One is afraid to report that Andrew got into a spot of bother again this year, but then he’s always had a weakness for improper relationships. Over the years many have criticised the royal family for being out of touch, but we are just like every other family in the UK and accordingly have the misfortune to possess one child that brings us nothing but disappointment and embarrassment. And for someone who travels the globe as UK trade envoy, one would imagine that Andrew could be a little more inventive with his Christmas gifts than to give us a BAE fighter jet each year stuffed full with unmarked Saudi banknotes.
For William and his grandfather Philip, professionally it has been a year of contrast. William’s work in the RAF saw him saving foreigners by plucking them out of the sea, while Philip took a turn at throwing them back in when he volunteered to check passports as a stand-in immigration officer at Dover during the recent strikes.
This year we have holidayed in a number of delightful places. In Dublin one took the opportunity to express regret for incidents that had taken place in the past between Britain and Ireland, and they seemed to buy it because there was not a single mention of potato on the menu. We also travelled to Australia, our 16th visit since 1954. The media described it as one’s ‘farewell tour’, and in truth one will be glad to see the back of those uncouth beer swilling convicts. One made sure never to let one’s handbag out of one’s sight the whole trip!
During May we had the Obamas to stay at Buckingham Palace. Philip had forgotten they were coming and there was one awkward moment when he returned to see them examining some silver in the banquet room and called the police. After that he was always chaperoned during their stay and blotted his copybook only once with an unfortunate remark about ‘mid-tan boot polish’.
Unfortunately my horse was beaten in the Derby by that whipper-snapper French jockey. How Nicolas Sarkozy has time to ride horses and govern France one can only wonder.
Next year one celebrates one’s Diamond Jubilee. How those 60 years have flown. One is 85 now but with public sector pensions coming under fire it seems one will have to continue working for a while yet. Though one won’t be striking because one doesn’t want to give Charles a sniff.
Wishing all one’s subjects the very best for a divorce-free and anti-republican 2012.
Elizabeth R.