Category Archives: government

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.


These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.


Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.


Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

Sustainable capitalism – Ending exploitation

This blog is an extract from my book Total Sustainability. Just over 10k words

Sustainable capitalism

To see what needs adjusted and how to go about doing it, let’s first consider some of the systems that make people wealthy. With global change accelerating, in this period of global upheaval, the rise of new powers and decline of old ones, we have an opportunity to rethink it and perhaps make it better, or perhaps countries new to capitalism will make their own way and we will follow. If it is failing, it is time to look for ways to fix it or to change direction.

Some things are very difficult and need really smart people, but we don’t have very many of them. But as heavily globalised systems become more and more complex, the scope for very smart people to gain control of power and resources increases. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you know who could explain how big businesses manage to avoid paying tax in spite of making big profits beyond the first two words that everyone knows – tax haven? The money goes somewhere, but not on tax. This is one of the big topics being discussed now among the world’s top nations. No laws are being broken, it is simply that universally sluggish and incompetent governments have been outwitted again and again by smart individuals.

They should have had tax systems in place long ago to cope with globalisation, but they still haven’t. Representatives of those governments talk a lot about clampdowns, but nobody really expects that big business won’t stay at least 5 steps ahead. Consequently, money and power is concentrating at the top more than ever.

The contest between greedy and relatively smart business people and well-meaning but dumber (strictly relative terms here) politicians and regulators often ends with taxpayers being fleeced. Hence the banking crisis, where the vast wealth greedily that was accumulated by bankers over numerous gambling wins was somehow kept when they lost, with us having to pay the losses without ever benefiting from the wins, with the final farcically generous pay-offs to those who failed so miserably. The same could be said of some privatisations and probably most government contracts. It was noted thousands of years ago that a fool and his money are easily parted. The problem with democracy is that fools are often the ones elected. The people in government that aren’t fools are often there to benefit their own interests and later found with their fingers in the cake. Some of our leaders and regulators are honourable and smart enough to make decent decisions, but too small a fraction to make us safe from severe abuse.

We need to fix this problem and many other related if we are to achieve any form of sustainability in our capitalist world.

The undeserving rich

Magistrates in Britain once had a duty to distinguish between the deserving poor, who were poor through no fault of their own, and the undeserving poor, who were simply idle. The former would get hand-outs while they needed them, the idle would get a kick in the pants and told to go and sort themselves out. This attitude later disappeared from the welfare system, but the idea remains commonly held and recently, some emerging policies echo its sentiment to some degree.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there are the deserving and undeserving rich. Some people worked hard to get their cash and deserve every penny, some worked less hard in highly overpaid jobs. Some inherited it from parents or ancestors even further back, and maybe they worked hard for it. Some stole it from others by thievery, trickery, or military conquest. Some got it by marrying someone. Some won it, some were compensated. There are lots of ways of getting rich. Money is worth the same wherever it comes from but we hold different attitudes to the rich depending on how they got their money.

Most of us don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich, nor in trying to become so. There are examples of people doing well not just for themselves and their families and friends, but also benefiting their entire host community. Only jealousy could motivate any resentment of their wealth. But the system should be designed so that one person shouldn’t be able to become rich at the cost of other people’s misery. At the moment, in many countries, some people are gaining great wealth effectively by exploiting the poor. Few of us consider that to be admirable or desirable. It would be better if people could only become rich by doing well in a system that also protects other people. Let’s look at some of the problems with today’s capitalism.


Corruption has to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. It has many facets, and some are so familiar in everyday life that we don’t even think of them as corruption any more.

As well as blatant corruption, most of us would also include rule bending and loophole-seeking in the corruption category. Squeezing every last millimetre when bending the law may keep it just about legal, but it doesn’t make behaviour creditable. When we see politicians bending rules and then using their political persuasiveness to argue that it is somehow OK for them, most of us feel a degree of natural revulsion. The same goes for big companies. It may be legal to avoid tax by using expensive lawyers to find holes in taxation systems and clever accountants to exploit them, re-labelling or moving money via a certain route to reduce the taxes required by law, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Even though it is technically on the right side of legal, I’d personally put a lot of corporate tax avoidance in the corruption category when it seeks to exploit loopholes that were never part of what the tax law intended.

Then of course it is possible to break the law and bribe your way out of trouble, or to lobby corruptible lawmakers to include a loophole that you want to exploit, or to make a contribution to party funds in order to increase the likelihood of getting a big contract later.

Lobbying can easily become thinly veiled bribery – nice dinners or tickets or promised social favours, but often manifests as well-paid clever chitchat, to get an MP to help push the law in the general direction you favour. Maybe it isn’t technically corrupt, but it certainly isn’t true to the basic principles of democracy either. Lobbying distorts the presentation, interpretation and implementation of the intentions of the voting community so it corrupts democracy.

So although there are degrees of corruption, they all have one thing in common – using positions of power or buy influence to tilt the playing field to gain advantage.


Once someone starts bending the rules, it affects other behaviour. If someone is happy exploiting the full flexibility of the letter of the law with little regard for others, they are also likely to be liable to engage in other ways of actively exploiting other people, in asset stripping, or debt concealing, or in how they negotiate and take advantage, or how they make people redundant because a machine is cheaper. It is often easy to spot such behaviour, wrapped with excuses such as ‘Companies aren’t charities, they exist to make money’, and ‘business is business’. There are plenty of expressions that the less noble business people use to excuse bad behaviour and pretend it is somehow OK. There are degrees of badness of course. For some companies, some run by people hailed as business heroes, anything goes as long as it is legal or if the process of law can be diverted long enough to make it worthwhile ignoring it. While ‘legal’ depends on the size and quality of your legal team, there is gain to be made by stretching the law. It can even pay to blatantly disobey the law, if you can stretch the court process out enough so that you can use some of the profits gained to pay the fines, and keep the rest. So corruption isn’t the only problem. Exploitation is its ugly sister and we see a lot of big companies and rich people doing it.

The price of bad behaviour and loose values

A common problem here is that we don’t assign financial value to honourable behaviour, community or national well-being, honesty, integrity, fairness or staff morale. So these can safely be ignored in the pursuit of profit. Business is justified in this approach perhaps, because we don’t assign value to them. If a company exists to make profit, measured purely financially, those other factors don’t appear on the bottom line, so there is no reason to behave any better. In fact, they cost money, so a ruthless board can make more money by behaving badly. That is one thing that could and should change if we want a sustainable form of capitalism. If we as a society want businesses to run more ethically, then we have to make the system in such a way that ethical behaviour is rewarded. If we don’t explicitly recognise particular value sets, then businesses are really under no obligation to behave in any particular way. As it is, I would argue that society has value sets that are on something of a random walk. There is no fixed reference point, and values can flip completely in just a few decades. That is hardly a stable platform on which to build anything.

Hardening of attitudes to welfare abuse


There is growing resentment right across the political spectrum against those taking welfare who won’t do enough to try to look after themselves but expect to receive hand-outs while others are having to work hard to make ends meet. At the same time, resentment is deepening against the rich who use loopholes in the law to find technically legal but morally dubious tax avoidance schemes. What these have in common is that they exploit others. There is a rich variety of ways in which people exploit others, some that we are so used to we don’t even notice any more. This is important in helping to determine what may happen in the future.

The few have always exploited the many


A while ago, I had a short break visiting the Cotswolds (a chocolate-box picture area of England). We saw a huge Roman villa, fantastic mosaics in the Roman museum in Cirencester, and a couple of stately homes. Then we went to Portugal where we saw the very ornate but rather tasteless Palace of Penna. It made me realise just how much better off we are today, when thanks to technology development, even a modest income buys vastly superior functionality and comfort than even royalty used to have to put up with.

I used to enjoy seeing such things, but the last few years I have found them increasingly disturbing. I still find them interesting to look at, but now they make me angry, as monuments to the ability of the few to exploit the efforts of the many for their own gain. So while admiring the landscape architecture of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, and the Roman mosaics, I felt sorry for the many people who had little or no choice but to do all the work for relatively little reward. I felt especially sorry for the people who built the Palace of Penna, where an obviously enormous amount of hard work and genuine talent has been spent on something that ended up as hideously ugly. Even if the artists and workmen were paid a good wage, their abilities could probably still have been put to much more constructive use.

But we don’t want equality of poverty


I strongly believe that we overvalue capital compared to knowledge, talent and effort, resulting in too high a proportion of wealth going to capital owners. Capitalism sometimes saps too many of the rewards of effort away from those who earn them. However, few people would argue for a system where everyone is poorer just so that we can have equality, as happened in communism, and as would be the result if some current socialists got their ways. The system should be fair to everyone, but if we are to prosper as a society, it also needs to incentivise the production of wealth.

Exploitation of society by the lazy and greedy


That of course brings us to the abuse at the other end, with some people who are perfectly able to work drawing state benefits instead (or indeed as well as wages from work) and thereby putting unjust extra load on the welfare system. This of course acts as a major drain on hard working people too and reduces the rewards of effort. Those who work hard may thus see their money disappearing at both ends, possibly taken by exploitative employers and certainly taken by the state to give to others. Exploitation is still exploitation whether it is by the privileged or the lazy. We all want the welfare system, because another powerful force in human nature is to care for others, and we instinctively want to help those who can’t help themselves. But that doesn’t mean we want to be taken advantage of.

Rewarding effort is essential for a healthy economy

As a general principle, extra effort or skill or risk or investment should reap extra reward. If there is too little incentive to do put in more work or investment, human nature dictates that most people won’t do it. The same goes for leading others or building companies and employing others. If you don’t get extra reward from enabling or leading other people to create more, you probably won’t bother doing that either. Very many communes have started up with idealism and failed for this reason.

In both of these cases, a few nice people will do more, even without financial incentive, simply because it makes them feel good to work hard or help others, but most won’t, or will start doing so and quickly give up when appreciation runs dry or they become frustrated by the laziness of others.

While effort and investment and skill and leadership must all be rewarded to make a healthy economy, it is a natural and fair consequence of rewarding these that some people will become richer than others, and if they help many other people also to do more, they may become quite a lot richer than others.

‘To each according to their effort’ is a fundamentally better approach than ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their need’ as preached by communists – it is simply more in tune with human nature. It makes more people do more, so we all prosper. Trying to level the playing field by redistributing wealth too much deters effort and ultimately makes everyone worse off. A reasonable gap between rich and poor is both necessary and fair.

But we shouldn’t let people demand too much of the rewards


However, an extreme gap indicates that there is exploitation, that some people are keeping rather too much of the reward from the efforts of others. As always, we need to find the right balance. Greed does seem to be one of the powerful forces in human nature, and if opportunity exists for someone to take more for themselves at the expense of others, some will. I don’t believe we should try to change human nature, but I do believe we should try to defend the weak against exploitation by the greedy. Some studies have shown a correlation between social inequality and social problems of crime, poor education and so on. That doesn’t prove causality of course, but it does seem reasonable to infer causality in any case here.

In some large companies, top managers seem to run the company as if it were their own, allocating huge rewards for themselves at the expense of both customers and shareholders’ interests. Such abuse of position is widespread across the economy today, but it will inevitably have to be reined back over time in spite of fierce resistance from the beneficiaries.

The power of public pressure via shame should not be underestimated, even though some seem conspicuously immune to it. Where the abusers still decide to abuse, power will come either by shareholders disposing of abusers, or regulators giving shareholders better power to over-rule where there is abuse, as is already starting to happen, or by direct pay caps for public sector chiefs. The situation at the moment gives too much power to managers and shareholders need to be given back the rights to control their own companies more fully.

Reducing market friction


There are many opportunities to exploit others, and always some who will try to take the fullest advantage. We can’t ever make everyone nice, but at least we can make exploitation more difficult. Part of the problem is social structure and governance of course, but part is also market imperfection. While social structure only changes slowly, and government is doomed to suffer the underlying problems associated with democracy, we can almost certainly do something about the market using better technology. So let’s look at the market for areas to tweak.

Strength of position


Kings or slave owners may have been able to force subjects to work, but a modern employer theoretically has to offer competitive terms and conditions to get someone to work, and people are theoretically free to sell their efforts, or not.

Then the theory becomes more complex and the playing field starts to tilt. People have to live, and they have to support their dependants. Not everyone is born with the intellectual gifts or social privileges that enable them to be entrepreneurs or high-earning professionals who can pick and choose their work and set their own prices. If someone can’t sell their efforts directly to a customer, they may have to accept whatever terms and conditions are available from a local employer or trader.

Location makes traders powerful


In fact, most people have to look and see what jobs there are locally and have to apply for one of them because they need the money, and can’t travel far, so they are in a very poor bargaining position. By contrast, capital providers and leaders and entrepreneurs and traders have always been in an excellent position to exploit this. In a town with high unemployment, or low wages, or indeed, throughout a poor country, potential employees will settle for the local wage rate for that kind of work, but that may differ hugely from the rate for similar work elsewhere.

The laws of supply and demand apply, but the locations of supply and demand need not be the same, and where they aren’t, traders are the ones who benefit, not those doing the work. Traders have existed and prospered for millennia and have often become very wealthy by exploiting the difference in labour costs and produce prices around the world.

Manufacturers can play the same geography game


Now with increasing globalisation, those with good logistics available to them can use these differences in manufacturing too, using cheap labour in one place to produce goods that can be sold for high prices in other places. Is it only the margins and the balance of bargaining power that determines whether this exploitation is fair or not, or is it also the availability of access to markets? What is a fair margin? How much of the profit should we allow traders or manufacturers to keep? If not enough, and markets are not free and lubricated enough, potential producers may stay idle and be even poorer because they can’t sell their efforts. If too much, someone else is getting rich at their expense.

Making access to free global markets easier and better will help


We need to create a system where people on both sides are empowered to ensure a fair deal. At the moment, it is tilted very heavily in favour of the trader, selling the product of cheap labour in expensive markets. When someone has no choice but to take what’s going, they are weak and vulnerable. If they can sell into a bigger market, they become stronger.

If everyone everywhere can see your produce and can get it delivered, then prices will tend to become fairer. There is still need for distributors, and they will still need paid, but distributors are just suppliers of a service in a competitive market too, and with a free choice of customer and supplier at every stage, all parties can negotiate to get a deal they are all content with, where no-one is at an a priori disadvantage.

It may still work out cheaper to buy from a great distance, but at least each party has agreed acceptable terms on a relatively level playing field. The web has already gone some way to improving market visibility but it is still difficult for many people to access the web with reasonable speed and security, and many more don’t understand how to do things like making websites, especially ones that have commerce functions.

If we can make better free access to markets, then unfair exploitation should become less of a problem, because it will be easier for people to sell their effort direct to an end customer, but it will have to become a lot easier to display your goods on the web for all to see without undue risk. Making the web easier to use and automating as much as possible of the security and administration should help a lot. This is happening quite quickly, but it needs time.

Import levies can reduce the incentive to exploit low wage workers


Levies can be added to imported goods so that someone can’t use cheap labour in one area to compete with the equivalent product made in the other. This is well tried and operates frequently where manufacturers pressure their governments to protect them from overseas competition that they see as unfair. However, it is usually aimed at protecting the richer employees from cheap competition rather than trying to increase wages for those being exploited in low wage economies. So it is far from ideal. Better a tool that allows pressure to increase the proportion of proceeds that go to the workers.

Peer pressure via transparency of margins


Another is to provide transparency in price attribution. If customers can see how much of the purchase price is going to each of the agents involved in its production and distribution chain, then pressure increases to pay a decent wage to the workers who actually make it, and less to those who merely sell it. Just like greed and caring, shame is another powerful emotion in the suite of human nature, and people will generally be more honest and fair if they know others can see what they are doing.

However, I do not expect this would work very well in practice, since most customers don’t care enough to get ethically involved in every purchase, and the further away and more socially distant the workers are, the less customers care. And if the person needing shamed is thousands of miles away, the peer pressure is non-existent. Yet again, location is important.

Transparency to the workforce


In economies across the developed world, typically about half of the profits of someone’s ‘job’ go to the person doing it and the other half goes to the owners of the company employing them. Transparency helps customers decide on supplier, but also helps employees to decide whether to work for a particular employer. They should of course be made fully aware of how they will be rewarded but also how much of their efforts will reward others. In a good company, the chiefs may be able to generate greater rewards for both staff and shareholders (and themselves), but as long as the details are all available, a free and informed choice can be made.

The community can generate its own businesses


In a well automated web environment, some company types would no longer be needed. Companies are often top down designs, with departments and employee structures that are populated by staff. The reverse is increasingly feasible, with groups of freelancers and small businesses using the web to find each other, and working loosely together as virtual companies to address the same markets the traditional company once did. But instead of giving half of the profits to a company owner, they reap the full rewards and share it between them. The administrative functions once done by the company are largely off-the-shelf and cheap. The few essential professional functions that the company provided can also be found as independents in the same marketplace. Virtual companies are the 21st century co-operative. The employees own the company and keep all the profits. Not surprisingly, many people have already left big companies to set up on their own as freelancers and small businesses.

Unfortunately, this model can’t work everywhere. Sometimes, a large factory or large capital investment is needed. This favours the rich and powerful and large companies, but there is again a new model that will start to come into play.

Investors don’t have to be wealthy individuals or big companies. They can also be communities. In a period where banks have become extremely unpopular, community banking will become very appealing once it is demonstrated to work. Building societies will make a comeback, but even they are more organised than is strictly necessary in a mature web age.

Linking people in a community with some savings to others who need to borrow it to make a business will become easier as social and business networking develops the trust based communities needed to make this feasible. Trust is essential, but it is often based on social knowledge, and recommendations can be shared. Abusers could be filtered out, and in any case, their potential existence creates a sub market for risk assessors and insurance specialists, who may have left companies to go freelance too. Communities may provide their own finance for companies that provide goods and services for the local community. This is a natural development of the routine output of today’s social entrepreneurs. Community based company creation, nurturing, staffing and running is a very viable local model that could work very well for many areas of manufacturing, services, food production and community work. Some of this is already embryonic on the net today as crowd-funding, but it could grow nicely as the web continues to mature.

Whether this could grow to the size needed to make a car factory or a chip fabrication plant or a major pharmaceutical R&D lab is doubtful, but even these models are being challenged – future cars may not need the same sorts of production, a lot of biotech is suited to garden sheds, and local 3D printing can address a lot of production needs, even some electronic ones. So the number of industries completely immune to this trend is probably quite small. Most will be affected a bit or greatly. Companies that are deeply woven into communities may dominate the future commercial landscape. And as that happens, the willingness and the capability to exploit others reduces.

If we move towards this kind of system, companies will be more responsive to our needs, while providing a stronger base on which to build other enterprises. Integrated into community banking, it is hard to see why we would need today’s banks in such a world. We could dispense with a huge drain on our finances. Banks contribute no extra to the overall economy (taken globally) and siphon off considerable fees. Without them, people could keep more of what they earn and growth would accelerate.

Exploitation via celebrity?


In the UK, we don’t get very good value for money from our footballers. They get enormously generous pay for often poor performance. Individually, few of them seem to be intellectual giants, but the industry as a whole has grown enormously. By creating a monopoly of well supported clubs, they have established a position where they can extract huge fees for tickets, merchandising and TV coverage. The ordinary person has to pay heavily to watch a match, while the few people putting on the show get enormous rewards. This might look like exploitation at first glance, but is it?

It is certainly shrewd business dealing by the football industry, but mainly, the TV companies seem to be stupid negotiators. If they declined to pay huge fees to air the matches, the most likely outcome is that fees would tumble to a very nominal level quickly, after which the football associations would have to start paying the TV channels for air time to sell the game coverage direct to fans, or else distribute coverage via the net. They would have no choice. TV companies could easily end up being paid to show matches. When viewers each have to pay explicitly to watch rather than have the fees hidden in a TV license or satellite subscription, the takings would drop and the wages given to footballers would inevitably follow. However, they would still be paid very well, probably still grossly overpaid. We may still moan at them, but they would then simply be benefiting from scale of market, not exploiting. If you can sell unique entertainment or indeed any other valuable service to a large number of people you can generate a lot of income. If you don’t need many staff, they can be paid very well. Individual celebrities have emerged from every area of entertainment who get huge incomes simply because they can generate small amounts of cash from very large numbers of people. If many individuals vale the product highly, as in top level boxing for example, stars can be massively rewarded.

It is hard to label this as exploitation though. It is simply taking advantage of scale. If I can sell something at a sensible price and make a decent income from a small number of customers, someone better who can sell an even better product at the same price to a much larger number of people will be paid far more. In this case, the customer gets a better product for the same outlay, so is hardly being exploited, but the superior provider will get richer. If we forced them to sell better products cheaper than someone else’s inferior one, simply to reduce their income, we would destroy the incentive to be good. No-one benefits from that.

Entertainment isn’t unique here. The same goes for writing a good game or a piece or app, or inventing Facebook. In fact, the basis of the information economy, which includes entertainment, is very different from the industrial one. Information products can be reproduced, essentially without cost without losing their value. There are lots of products that can be sold to lots of people for low prices that do no harm to anyone, add quality to lives and still make providers very wealthy. Let’s hope we can find some more.

So even without exploitation, we will still have the super-rich


There will always be relatively poor and super rich people. But I think that is OK. What we should try to ensure is that people don’t get rich by abusing or exploiting others. If they can still get rich without exploiting anyone, then at least it is fair, and they should enjoy their wealth, within the law, provided that the law prevents them from using it to abuse or exploit others. Let’s not punish wealth per se, but focus instead on how it has been obtained, and on eliminating abuses.

In any case, there is a natural limit to how much you can use


As the global population climbs, and people get wealthier everywhere, the number of super-rich will grow, even if we eliminate unfairness and exploitation totally. But if we take huge amounts of money out of the system and put it in someone’s bank account, they will not be able to dispose of it all. In most cases, without great determination and extravagance indeed, the actual practical loading that an individual can make on the system is quite limited. They can only eat so much, occupy so much land, use up so much natural resource, have so many lovers. The rest of the world’s resources, of whatever kind, are still available to everyone else. So their reward is naturally capped, they simply don’t have the time or energy to use up any more. Any money they put in investments or cash is just a figure on a spreadsheet, and a license to use the power it comes with.

But while power is important in other ways, it is not directly an economic drain – it doesn’t affect how much is left for the rest of us. Above a certain amount that varies with individual imagination, taste and personality, extra wealth doesn’t give anything except power. It effectively disappears, and supply and demand and prices balance for the rest accordingly.

Power takes us full circle


When we have spent all we can, and just get extra power from the extra income, it is time to start asking other kinds of questions. Some would challenge the right of the super-rich to use their wealth to do things that others might think should be decided by the whole population. Should rich people be allowed to use their wealth to tackle Aids in Africa, run their own space programs, or build influential media empires? Well, we can make laws to prevent abuses and exploitation. We can employ the principle of ‘To each according to their effort’. Once we’ve done that, I don’t see how or why we should try to stop rich people doing what they want within the law.

Was the Roman villa I visited built by well rewarded workers? Probably not. Could something equivalent be built by a rich person who has done no harm to anyone, or even brought universal good? Yes. It isn’t what they build or how much they earn that matters, but how they earned it. Money earned via exploitation is very different from money earned by effort and talent.

In future, I will have to read up on the owners of stately homes before I get angry at them. And we must certainly consider these issues as we build our sustainable capitalism in the future.


You might think that the people at the top would be the smartest, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t. Some studies have shown that CEOs have an average IQ of around 130, which is fairly good but nothing special, and many of the staff below them would generally be smarter. That means that whatever skills might have got them there, their overall understanding of the world is limited and the quality of their decisions is therefore also limited. Considering that, we often pay board members far more than is necessary and we often put stupid people in charge. This is not a good combination, and it ultimately undermines the workings of the whole economy. I’ll look at stupidity in more detail later.

With corruption, exploitation, loose values, no real incentives to behave well, and sheer stupidity all fighting against capitalism as we have it today, it is a miracle it works at all, but it does and that argues for its fundamental strength. If we address these existing problems and start to protect against the coming ones, we will be fine, maybe even better than fine. We’d be flying.

Sustainable Automation

There are some new problems coming too, and sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation, a really key problem in the future of capitalism. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies. It is good to automate; it adds the work of machines to that of humans, but if you get to a point where there is no work available for the humans to take, then that doesn’t work so well. Overall effectiveness is reduced because you still have to finance the person you replaced somehow. We are reaching that point in some areas and industries now.

One idea that has started to gain ground is that of reducing the working week. It has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, maybe it is better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

However, I think there is another area we ought to look for a better solution – re-evaluating ownership.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Perhaps we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. Some of the business giants have few employees. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work, so if capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

Culture tax – Renting shared infrastructure, culture and knowledge

The key to stopping the economy grinding to a halt due to extreme wealth concentration may lie in the value of accumulated human knowledge. Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations. Yettraditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes).

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? This is where the rethinking should be focused. There is nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it, but it surely is right that they should make proper payment for the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

Ownership is the key to fair wealth distribution in an age of accelerating machine power. The world economy has changed dramatically over the last two decades, but we still think of ownership in much the same ways. This is where the biggest changes need to be made to make capitalism sustainable. At the moment, of all the things needed to make a business profitable, capital investment is given far too great a share of control and of the output. There are many other hugely important inputs that are not so much hidden as simply ignored. We have become so used to thinking of the financial investors owning the company that we don’t even see the others. So let me remind you of some of the things that the investors currently get given to them for free. I’ll start with the blindingly obvious and go on from there.

First and most invisible of all is the right to do business and to keep the profits. In some countries this isn’t a right, but in the developed world we don’t even think of it normally.

The law, protecting the company from having all its stuff stolen, its staff murdered, or its buildings burned down.

The full legal framework, all the rules and regulations that allow the business to trade on known terms, and to agree contracts with the full backing of the law.

Ditto the political framework.

Workforce education – having staff that can read and write, and some with far higher level of education

Infrastructure – all the roads, electricity, water, gas and so on. Companies pay for ongoing costs, maintenance and ongoing development, but pay nothing towards the accumulated historical establishment of these.

Accumulated public intellectual property. It isn’t just access to infrastructure they get free, it is the invention of electricity, of plumbing, of water purification and sewage disposal techniques, and so on.

Human knowledge, science, technology knowhow. We all have access to these, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be an automatic right for anyone to use them without due compensation to the rest of the community. We assume that as a right, but it wasn’t really ever explicitly agreed, ever. It has just evolved. If someone invents something and patents it, we assume they have every right to profit from it. If they use an invention in common ownership, such as the wheel, why should they not pay the rest of society for the right to use it for personal commercial gain?

Think of it another way. If a village has a common, everyone has the right to let their animals feed off the grass. That works fine when there are only a few animals, but if everyone has a large herd, it soon breaks down. The common might be taken under local council control, and rented out, returning due value to the community. So it could be for all other commonly held knowledge. And there is a lot of it, thousands of years’ worth.

Culture is also taken for granted, including hand-me-down business culture, all the stuff that makes up an MBA, or even everyday knowledge about how businesses operate or are structured. So are language, and social structure that ensures that all the other supporting roles in society are somehow provided. We may take these for granted because they belong to us all, but they are a high value asset and if someone gains financially from using them, why should they not pay some of the profits to the rest of the owners as they would for using any other asset?

So the question is: should business pay for it, as it pays for capital and labour?

This all adds up to an enormous wealth of investment by thousands of generations of people. It is shared wealth but wealth nonetheless. When a company springs up now, it can access it all, take it all for granted, but that doesn’t mean it is without value. It is immensely valuable. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to equate it in importance to the provision of effort or finance. In that case, entrepreneurs should pay back some of their gains to the community.

Reward is essential, but fair’s fair

A business will not happen unless someone starts it, works hard at setting it up, getting it going, with all the stress and sacrifice that often needs. They need to be assured of a decent reward or they won’t bother. The same goes for capital providers, if they are needed. They also want something to show for the risk they have taken. Without enough incentive, it won’t work, and that should always be retained in our thinking when we redesign. But it is also right to look at the parallel investment by the community in terms of all the things listed above. That should also be rewarded.

This already happens to some degree when companies and shareholders pay their taxes. They contribute to the ongoing functioning of the society and to the development to be handed on to the next generation, just as individuals do. But they don’t explicitly pay any purchase price or rent for the social wealth they assumed when they started. The host community needs to be better and more explicitly integrated into the value distribution of a company in much the same way as shareholders or a board.

The amount that should be paid is endlessly debatable, and views would certainly differ between parties, but it does offer a way of tweaking capitalism that ensures that businesses develop and use new technology in such a way that it can be sustained. We want progress, but if all jobs were to be replaced by a smart machines, then we may have an amazingly efficient system, but if nobody has a job, and everyone is on low-level welfare, then nobody can afford to buy any of the products so it would seize up. Conventional taxes might not be enough to sustain it all. On the other hand, linking the level of payments from a company to the social capital they use when they deploy a new machine means that if they make lots of workers redundant by automation, and there are no new jobs for them to go to, then a greater payment would be incurred. While business overall is socially sustainable and ensures reasonably full employment, then the payments can remain zero or very low.

But we have the makings of an evolution path that allows for fair balancing of the needs of society and business.

The assignment of due financial value to social wealth and accumulated knowledge and culture ensures that there is a mechanism where money is returned to the society and not just the mill owner. With payment of the ‘social dividend’, government and ultimately people can then buy the goods. The owner should still be able to get wealthy, but the system is still able to work because the money can go around. But it also allows linking the payments from a business to the social sustainability of its employment practices. If a machine exists that can automate a job, it has only done so by the accumulated works of the society, so society should have some say in the use of that machine and a share of the rewards coming from it.

So we need to design the system, the rules and conditions, so that people are aware when they set up a business of the costs they will incur, under what conditions. They would also know that if they change their employment via automation, then the payments for the assumed knowledge in the machines and systems will compensate for the social damage that is done by the redundancy if no replacement job exists. The design will be difficult, but at least there is a potential basis for the rules and equations and while we’re looking at automation, we can use the same logic to address the other ethical issues surrounding business, such as corruption and exploitation, and factor those into our rules and penalties too.

There remains the question of distribution of the wealth from this social dividend. It could be divided equally of course, but more likely, since political parties would have their priority lists, it would have some sort of non-equal distribution. That is a matter for politicians.

Summarising, there are many problems holding business and society back today and standing in the way of sustainable capitalism. Addressing them will make us all better off. Some of them can be addressed by a similar mechanism to that which I recommend for balancing automation against social interests. Automation is good, wealth is good, and getting rich is good. We should not replace capitalism because it mostly works, but it is now badly in need of a system update and some maintenance work. When we’ve done all that, we will have a capitalist system that rewards effort and wealth provision just as today, but also factors in the wider interests – and investment – of the whole community. We’ll all benefit, and it will be sustainable.

Sustainable tax and welfare

Tax systems seem to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive nations of tax. Sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients create problems for people whose income rises slightly above thresholds. We need taxation, but it needs to be fair and transparent, and what that means depends on your political allegiances, but there is some common ground. Most of us would prefer a simpler system than the ludicrously complicated one we have now and most of us would like a system that applies to everyone and avoids loopholes.

The rich are becoming ever richer, even during the economic problems. In fact some executives on bonus structures linked to short-term profits appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves. Some rich people pay full tax, some avoid paying taxes by roaming around the world, never staying anywhere long enough to incur local tax demands. It may be too hard to introduce global taxes, or to stop tax havens from operating, but it is possible to ensure that all income earned from sales in a country is taxed here.

Ensuring full taxation

Electronic cash opens the potential for ensuring that all financial transactions in the country go through a tax gateway, which could immediately and at the point of transaction determine what tax is due and deduct it. If we want, a complex algorithm could be used, taking into account the circumstances of the agencies involved and the nature of the transaction – number crunching is very cheap and no human needs to be involved after the algorithms are determined so it could be virtually cost-free however complex. Or we could decide that the rate is a fixed percentage regardless of purpose. It doesn’t even have to threaten privacy, it could be totally anonymous if there are no different rates. With all transactions included, and the algorithms applying at point of transaction, there would be no need to know or remember who is involved or why.

In favour of a flat tax

Different sorts of income sources are taxed differently today. It makes sense to me to have a single flat tax of rate for all income, whatever its source – why should it matter how you get your income, surely the only thing that matters is how much you get? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lottery wins, and inheritance, a fair system would just count it all up and tax it all at the same rate. This could apply to companies too, at the same rate; since some people own companies and money accumulating in them is part of their income. Ditto property development, any gains when selling or renting a property could be taxed at that rate. Company owners would be treated like everyone else, and pay on the same basis as employees.

I believe flat taxes are a good idea. They have been shown to work well in some countries, and can stimulate economic development. If there are no exceptions, if everyone must pay a fixed percentage of everything they get, then the rich still pay more tax, but are better incentivised to earn even more. Accountants wouldn’t be able to prevent rich people avoiding tax just by laundering it via different routes or by relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a flat tax rate of around 20% would probably work. So, you’d pay 20% on everything you earn or your company earns, or you inherit, or win, or are given or whatever. Some countries also tax capital, encouraging people to spend it rather than hoard, but this is an optional extra. There is something quite appealing about a single rate of tax that applies to everyone and every institution for every transaction. It is simpler, with fewer opportunities to abdicate responsibility to pay, and any income earned in the country would be taxed in the country.

There are a few obvious problems that need solved. Husbands and wives would not be able to transfer money between them tax-free, nor parents giving their kids pocket money, so perhaps we need to allow anyone tax-free interchange with their immediate family, as determine by birth, marriage or civil partnership. When people buy a new house, or change their share portfolio, perhaps it should just be on the value difference that the 20% would apply. So a few tweaks here and there would be needed, but the simpler and the fewer exceptions we introduce, the better.


So what about poorer people, how will they manage? The welfare system could be similarly simplified too. We can provide simply for those that need help by giving a base allowance to every adult, regardless of need, set so that if that is your only income, it would be sufficient to live modestly but in a dignified manner. Any money earned on top of that ensures that there is an incentive to work, and you won’t become poorer by earning a few pounds more and crossing some threshold.

(Since I first blogged about this in Jan 2012, the Swiss have agreed a referendum (in Oct 2013) on what they call the Citizen Wage Initiative, which is exactly this same idea. I guess it has been around in various forms for ages, but if the Swiss decide to go ahead with it, it might soon be real. At a modest level of payment, it is workable now, the main issue being that there still needs to be a big enough incentive for people to work, or many won’t, and the economy would dive. The Swiss are considering a wage of 2000 Francs per month, which might be too generous, as it would allow a household with a few adults to live fairly comfortably without working. Having noted that, I still think the idea itself is very sound, the level just needs to be carefully set to preserve the work incentive.)

There is also no need to have a zero tax threshold. People who earn enough not to need welfare would be paying tax according to their total income anyway, so it all sorts itself out. With everyone getting the same allowance, admin costs would be very low and since admin costs currently waste around a third of the money, this frees up enough money to make the basic allowance 50% more generous. So everyone benefits.

Children could also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today in lieu of child benefits. Again, since all income is taxed at the same rate regardless of source, there is no need to means test it. There should be as few other benefits as possible. They shouldn’t be necessary if the tax and allowance rate is tuned correctly anyway. Those with specific needs, such as some disabled people, could be given what they need rather than a cash benefit, so that there is less incentive to cheat the system.

Such a system would reduce polarisation greatly. The extremes at the bottom would be guaranteed a decent income, while those at the top would be forced to pay their proper share of taxes, however they got their wealth. If they still manage to be rich, then their wealth will at least be fair. It also guarantees that everyone is better off if they work, and that no-one falls through the safety net.

If everyone gets the allowance, the flat tax rate would mean that anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, any work that someone on benefits undertakes would result in a higher standard of living for them, and those on much more will pay lots. The figures look generous, but company income and prices will adjust too, and that will also rebalance it a bit. It certainly needs tuned, but it could work.

In business, the flat tax applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax could be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, the tax would be a bit higher than the VAT rate today, and other services would also attract the same rate. With no tax deductions or complex VAT rules, admin is easier but more things are taxed. This makes it harder for companies to avoid tax by being based overseas and that increased tax take directly from income to companies means that the tax needed from other routes falls. Then, with a re-balanced economy, and everyone paying on everything, the flat rate can be adjusted until the total national take is whatever is agreed by government.

This just has to be simpler, fairer, and less wasteful and a better stimulus for hard work than the messy and unfair system we have now, full of opportunities to opt out at the top if you have a clever accountant and disincentives to work at the bottom.

The economy today is big enough to provide basic standard of living to everyone, but thanks to economic growth it will be possible to have a flat tax and a basic welfare payment equivalent to today’s average income within 45 years. If those who want economic growth to stop get their way, the poor will be condemned to at best a basic existence.

Linking tax and welfare to social networks

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’. Nationalisation of social care has displaced traditional care by family and local community to some degree. Long ago, people who needed to be looked after were looked after by those who are related or socially close, either by geography or association. It could be again, and may even be necessary as care rationing is a strong likelihood. Meanwhile, wealth is being redefined in many countries now, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

Social care costs money, and will inevitably be rationed as the population ages, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be? In much the same way that financial welfare is only available to those that need it, those with social wealth could and perhaps should be cared for by those who love them instead of by the state. They would likely be happier, and it would cost less. Those that have low connectedness, i.e. few friends and family, should then be the rightful focus of state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We already know people’s social connectedness very well, it is indicated by many easily measurable factors, and every year it gets easier. The numbers and strength of contacts on social networking sites is one clue, so is email and messaging use, so is phone use. Geographic proximity can be determined by information in the electoral roll. So it is possible to determine algorithms based on these many various factors that would determine who needs care from the state and who should be able to get it from social contacts.

Many people wouldn’t like that, resenting being forced to care for other people, so how can we make sure people do take care of those they are ‘allocated’ to? Well, that could be done by linking taxation to the care system in such a way that the amount of care you should be providing would be determined by your social connectivity, and providing that care yields tax discount. Or you could just pay your full quota of taxes and abdicate provision to the state. But by providing a high valuation on actual care, it would encourage people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth could thus be linked to social tax, and this social tax could be paid either as care or cash. The technology of social networking has given us the future means to link the social care side of social security into social connectedness. Those who are socially poor would receive the greatest focus of state provision and those who gain most socially from their lives would have to put more in too. We do that with money, why not also with social value? It sounds fair to me.

Scottish Independence

Apologies to my international readers, this one is just about Scotland.

Some Scots want independence and their leader Salmond promises that he will deliver a land of milk and honey. I wrote a few months on some reasons I don’t think they should go their own way:

The economics really don’t look good if they choose to do so anyway. A survey just published suggests 38.6% of large businesses and a third of small one would consider moving out of Scotland if it gains independence. That doesn’t mean they actually will, but it does suggest a potential financial problem. This week we have also learnt that European Law would require the Royal Bank of Scotland to move to London if it happened, since they do most of their business in the UK and banks have to be resident in the country where it does most of its business.

Salmond has suggested making loads of cash from wind farms. If every hectare of Scotland were covered in wind turbines at maximum density, it wouldn’t even make enough energy to replace England’s coal power stations. Hardly Saudi Arabia is it, as Salmond once claimed? Oil is still there in the sea in reasonable abundance, they might win ownership of much of it, and they could extract it for some more years. But not many. Thanks to the recent goings on with Russia, shale gas is starting to look a lot more desirable. England’s recoverable reserves estimates increased by 50% this last week. We have a lot of shale gas, and it will be much cheaper than oil or Russian gas if we can get past the current fracking objections. The same goes for many other countries that might otherwise be tempted by North Sea oil. Even if we can’t use our own shale gas, US shale gas production can expand a lot and could fill much of our needs too. So there may not be much demand for Scottish oil for much longer.

Each Scot is currently subsidised by English taxpayers. The subsidies allow Scottish students free University education (while the English have to pay £9000 per year). Elderly care is free, prescriptions are free. Estimates of the subsidy vary depending on the political allegiance of the source, but a BBC figure of over £3000 per head seems reasonable. An independent Scotland would have no reason to expect to keep receiving that.

A study 15 months ago based on stats collected by the Office of National Statistics pointed out that only 12% of Scots contribute more to the state than they receive back in total benefits. A reasonable assumption is that some of those 12% work for the big banks and other large companies that will move to London, and some work for the smaller businesses that would also consider leaving. Some of those will leave, and that will mean that an even smaller proportion of Scots are net contributors to the state. They might feel pretty unhappy if the politics still means that they are then expected to pay even more taxes to make up the deficit, so more of those ‘considering leaving’ might actually do so. A vicious circle will force more and more Scots onto the train to London or overseas. Scotland would soon be full of net receivers from the state, used to a heavily subsidised standard of living and willing to vote for anyone who will keep borrowing more and more to pay for it. Those that can will leave.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a newly independent Scotland will very soon start to see its standard of living very significantly degraded. Even after tightening its belt a few times, it is likely to see its economy slide deeper into debt. Not a good prospect at all.

Can we get a less abusive society?

When I wrote my recent blog on reducing the problem of rape, part of my research (yes I do sometimes try to learn about something before I blog about it) was looking at the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the CSEW. (As I said, I wasn’t very impressed by it and I couldn’t accept it as a true indicator of crime. A lot of the questions are ambiguous and there are big gaps and strong biases in the coverage. Some areas would therefore be overstated in results while others understated and it lends itself far too well to political lobbies. I said it was about as reasonable an indicator of crime level as a casual chat in a pub.)

The CSEW has a large section asking questions about various forms of abuse within relationships. Not just physical abuse such as rape, but financial, social or emotional abuse too – belittling someone, not letting them see their friends, not allowing them their share of the money. That sort of thing.

Since then, it occurred to me that abuse within relationships is a micro-scale version of what we do all the time socially via politics. If you look at a country as a whole, different groups with very different ideological preferences have to somehow live peacefully side by side in the long term. If you like, it’s a sort of enforced marriage, writ large, or a grand scale civil partnership if you prefer that. 

Taking that analogy, we could adapt some of the questions from the crime survey to see whether things we do regularly to each other in the guise of everyday politics are really a form of abuse. Even within marriages and partnerships, what most of us consider unacceptable behaviour may be accepted or practiced by a quite large proportion of people – according to the figures out this week, 16% of 16-19 year olds think it’s sometimes OK to hit a partner.

If you really don’t like your own country, you could leave, and often some people will tell you to do just that if you don’t like it, but the costs and the aggravation and the ‘why should it be me that has to leave?’ are a big deterrent. So you stay together and suffer the abuse. 

So, let’s take a few of the questions from the CSEW and apply them to the political scale. The questionnaire is here:

Starting with a few questions from the section on domestic violence:

Q1: Has your partner ever prevented you from having your fair share of the household money?

(Yes that question is in the domestic violence section, and I’d certainly answer yes, for pretty much every girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s why I don’t believe much that comes out of the survey. It’s far too open to interpretation and far too tempting a tool for campaigning. Responses from people who have had serious abuse in this manner would be lost in the noise).

This one has a very obvious political equivalent, and we don’t even need to adapt it. Just about every pressure group would answer yes, and so would everyone who feels they should pay less tax or get more government support or more pay or feels the government spends too much on other people’s interests instead of theirs.

The battle between left and right often comes down to this. The left wants to take and spend more and more, and the right wants to keep their cash and spend it themselves. Each side occasionally gets their way to some degree, but there is no doubt in my mind – it is abusive, no better than a marital fight where the one currently holding the wallet or purse wins, i.e. whoever got most seats this time. We really should find a better way. It is this issue more than any other that made me realise that we ought to implement a dual democracy, (I describe that in my book Total Sustainability) and if we don’t this abuse will eventually lead to the Great Western War which I blogged about a couple of months ago:

So, question 1, and we can already confirm we are in a highly abusive relationship.

Q2: Has your partner ever stopped you from seeing friends or relatives?

(Can anyone honestly say no to that?)

This one is rather harder to translate. The human rights act is notoriously pretty forceful on this when it comes to criminals, but what does it equate to in civil abuse? Aha! Public demonstrations. Government is intercepting a lot of metadata on who our friends and political friends are, using face recognition at public demonstrations, making them much harder to organise or attend, preventing access to a demonstration and dispersing large groups more. We can all think of groups we find repugnant and may prefer not to exist, but they do exist and share our land whether we like them or not, and they are human, whether we try to portray them as otherwise or not. This sort of abuse blurs into the next form, belittling. Some of us still defend freedom of speech, the right to say what you like without censorship. Others want to clamp down on it, selectively of course; their own right to demonstrate or speak freely must be protected. After the BBC’s Question Time this week, there were numerous people demanding that certain types of people or political parties should be banned from appearing. Such demands happen often. We saw Ed Davey and Prince Charles calling anyone who disagrees with their own views names and should be barred from having any public platform to air their views, the Green Party going still further and calling for people who disagree with them to be sacked and banned from office. So coupling it with belittling, this abuse is becoming the norm in politics and even the Royal Family are guilty of it.

So, more abuse.

Q3: has your partner ever repeatedly belittled you to the extent you felt worthless?

Anyone who ever watches political debate will easily recognise the strong analogies here. These days, in the UK at least, members of all political parties often do their very best to present opposing views as worthless, unacceptable, unfair, odious, backward, prehistoric, uncivilised…. It seems the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t just the parties themselves. Anyone who doesn’t tick all the boxes on the latest political correctness fad is often subjected to abuse by people who share opposing views. Civilised debate on a wide range of sensitive issues is impossible any more.

Definitely very abusive this time.

Q4 has your partner ever frightened you, by threatening to hurt you or someone close to you?

Isn’t that what strikes do? Or riots or even large peaceful public demonstrations? Or media campaigns by pressure groups? People often feel bullied into submission because of the potential consequences they feel if they don’t comply with the demands.

Quite abusive

The rest of the questions are not relevant, being specific to particular weapons. But I think I have made my point. By the criteria we use to judge abuse in our own personal relationships, our society is as guilty as hell. I think it is getting worse year by year. I think we are heading slowly but surely towards a critical point where the fuse finally blows and social breakdown is likely.

I think that in the 21st Century, it is about time we started to work out a more civilised way of living together, sharing the same space with human dignity and mutual respect. Maybe love is a bit much to ask for, but surely we can manage without abusing each other?

Machiavelli and the coming Great Western War

In the 16th century, Machiavelli set in motion the Great Civil War that will start in Europe and spread to the USA and will happen towards the end of this century.

The problem behind it is increasingly skilled manipulation of the sequential processes of presentation, perception, interpretation, deduction and consequent behaviour. Machiavelli is often cited for his great skill in manipulating people via these processes. Centuries on, this manifests in modern society most conspicuously in the twin fields of marketing and politics. Sadly, both have forgotten their proper places.

Professional politics has been replacing vocational service for some time already, and this trend still has far to run. Politicians are less interested in genuinely serving society than furthering their own interests and maximising and holding on to power, often regardless of cost to the electorate. They treat the electorate not as a customer but as a resource to be exploited.

Marketing as a capitalist tool harnesses the most powerful tools available from psychological science and technological capability. It has migrated steadily from the useful purpose of making society aware of new things they may want towards the far less benign manipulation of the customer in favour of those products. Marketing no longer contributes to society, it now treats customers as prey and siphons off valuable resources to maintain itself. It has become a vampire.

Separately, these are already problems, but they are no longer separate. As politics has developed in the last couple of decades, the convergence of marketing and politics has matured a great deal. We call it spin and spin has become far more important than what could be considered in everyday thinking as truth. Un-spun delivery of important information to the electorate so that they can make free and informed decisions has become a rarity.

As we are becoming all too familiar, modern politicians have become highly adept at avoiding answering questions, deflecting them, answering different questions than they are asked, disguising and burying real information that they can’t avoid revealing under heaps of irrelevance and behind thick walls of weasel words. We expect now that they are will only be reasonably open and  honest with us when they are revealing good news and even then they will try to exaggerate their own part in it.

This is a dangerous trend that may eventually lead to civil war. In the everyday world, two reasonable people with different value sets can learn to live alongside peacefully. They will usually broadly agree on the raw facts in front of them. They will interpret them slightly differently, i.e. extract different meanings from those facts because they have learned to look at things differently. Due to their internal thinking processes and prejudices they will draw significantly different conclusions from those interpretations and will initiate very different behaviours as a result. In the political/marketing world we are experiencing now, the differences at each of these stages are subject to some deliberate amplification as well as some that emerges non-deliberately from complex interactions within the socio-economic-techno environment. Because of this combined amplification of otherwise minor differences, the gulf between people on the left and right of the political spectrum has been increasing for decades and will likely continue to increase for several more. It may become less and less easy for them to agree to live peacefully side by side and accept their differences. They may increasingly see each other as enemies rather than neighbours. So today, we witness clash of ideology in the Middle East, in a few decades, it will be our turn.

Reinforcement of attitudes is already being caused by technology that shows us what we are already prone to search for. People who read right wing media have right wing attitudes reinforced and affirmed. Those who read left wing media have left wing attitudes reinforced and affirmed. Neither side is routinely exposed to opposing ideology except filtered through their own media which has an interest in reinforcing their attitudes and demonising the other. They see all of the negatives and few of the positives of the other’s point of view.

Although there will remain a centre ground where differences between people are small, amplification of small differences and subsequent reinforcement means that many will be drawn to the extremes and have their positions there entrenched. With many people on either side, with a strongly opposing set of interests, and competition over resources, ideology and control, eventually conflict may result. I believe this may well be the source of a widespread civil war starting in Europe and spreading to the USA, that will take place in the second half of this century. After a long and bitter conflict, the Great Western War, I believe dual democracy will result throughout the West, where two self-governing communities peacefully share the same countries, with some shared and negotiated systems, services and infrastructure and some that are restricted to each community. People will decide which community to belong to, pay taxes and receive benefits accordingly, and have different sets of rules governing their behaviors. Migrating between the communities will be possible, but will incur large costs. We may see a large-state left with lots of services and welfare, and lots of rules, but high taxes to pay for it, and a small state right with increased personal freedom and lower taxes, but less generous welfare and services.

We already see some of this friction emerging today. Demonisation of the opposing ideology is far greater than it was 20 years ago. It is becoming tribalism built large. Each political party uses the best marketing know-how in their spin machines, making sure their supporters see the right facts, are taught to perceive them in the right way, interpret their causation in the right way, do the analysis on the remedial possibilities in the right way and therefore choose and back the right policies. Each side can’t understand how the other side can possibly end up with their viewpoints or policies, except by labelling them as demons.

How often have you heard terms like ‘the nasty party’? How often do the right portray the left as spendthrift incompetents who want someone else to pay for their lack of responsibility, while the left portrays the right as greedy, selfish judgmental people who want to exploit the poor rather then help them. I read left and right papers every day and I’d say I see those attitudes presented as indisputable fact pretty much every day. We see the arguments in welfare, education, health care, support for overseas military intervention, even environmental care. When we can only have one government in power, we ensure that half the population always feels angry.

We see frequent demonstration and even riots as the left moans about spending cuts while right wing groups moan about immigration. We see fierce arguments regularly on every area of policy – privacy erosion, crime control, renewable energy subsidies, public transport provision, health care. There often seems little room for compromise, it is one getting their way and the other suffering. It seems inevitable that if the polarisation continues to increase along current lines, that we will see each side want to go their own way. The left will want the state to remain in control and grow in power, the right will demand a degree of independence and to be rid of a community that expects them to pay for everything but appears wasteful. With a single flavoured government in each country, civil war would erupt and spread as each country realises it has the same problems and the same potential solution. Just like the American Civil War, it will be fiercely fought, and it will eventually come to an end. But with two irreconcilable policies it wont end with a structure as we have now. Democracy in it current form, where each part of the community seems only to want to further its own interests at the expense of the other, will have failed. The left and the right will have to settle with going their own way, with their own resources financing their own spending. Those who want to pay high taxes but receive high welfare and a guaranteed high service provision by the state will be able to choose it. Those who prefer a small state that interferes little with their lives, to keep their earnings and finance their own services will be able to choose that. The two communities will have their own governments, their own presidents of prime ministers, or any future governing structure they choose. Some things have to be done geographically, such as defence, roads and policing. Governments covering the same areas will simply have to negotiate until they agree on the provision levels. Above that they could add whatever they want from their own resources.

In future blogs, I will write about some of the forces of amplification that I referred to. These ultimately are the engine that drives the system towards ultimate conflict, and need to be examined. But for now, it is sufficient to raise the issue.


We should help the poor, but not via global warming compensation

At the Warsaw climate summit, some developing countries argued that the rich, developed world, should compensate poor countries for the effects of global warming such as the recent typhoon. That is a very bad path to tread indeed.

Like almost everyone reading this, I am all for helping poor people to the very best of our ability, wherever they live. But we should do so because we can help them and because we want to help them, for the best of human reasons, not because we’re being forced to via some perverse compensation scheme.

As I argued in my book Total Sustainability, if we want to live in a sustainable world, we need to fix not just those things that directly affect the environment such as pollution and resource use, but also things that indirectly affect the environment via human impacts. We need to look at economics, politics, society, business and cultural effects too, and deal with the problems therein that would eventually adversely affect the environment and human well-being such as exploitation and corruption.

Let’s ignore for the time being the fact that global warming has levelled off for 16 or 17 years now even while CO2 levels have skyrocketed. Let’s ignore the fact that environmental catastrophes have always happened, and that it isn’t possible to attribute any particular weather-related disaster to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. There is no shred of evidence linking the recent typhoon to CO2 levels. Let’s ignore the fact that the number and severity of storms has declined, so the level of problem has actually gone down as CO2 level has increased. Let’s ignore those facts because the overwhelmingly important overall fact is that we don’t yet understand what is happening to our climate, nor how much of any changes we observe are natural and how much are due to human activity, still less the attribution to particular human activities. The only evidence I need cite for that assertion is that almost all of the climate models have grossly overstated the amount of warming we should have seen by now. If they are genuinely the result of the best understanding of climate we have and not scientific corruption or deliberate misrepresentation and tweaking to get the right answer, then we can be certain that some of the equations or factors in them are wrong, or still worse, missing. 

If we don’t even understand how climate works, if we don’t understand the effects of human activity on the climate, then it is utterly ridiculous to attribute particular environmental catastrophes to the behaviour of particular countries. A sensible demand for compensation would need to demonstrate a causal link between an act and a result. We are nowhere near the level of scientific understanding required for that. Even if we were, or if we eventually get to that point; even if future scientists could conclusively show that rich countries’ CO2 emissions caused a particular storm, we still would have no justification for compensation to developing countries. Let’s help them as much as we can, but let’s not use human-caused global warming or climate change as the reason.

Why not? Here’s why:

One of the chapters in my book was called  ‘the rich world owes no compensation to the poor world’. The world only has the technological capability to support a population over seven billion because of the activities of our ancestors. Without the industrial revolution, the energy it used, the pollution it generated, the CO2 it led to, very many of those alive today would not be. We owe no apology for that. It is only through that historic activity that we are where we are, with the technology that allows poor countries to develop. Developing countries are developing in a world that already has high CO2 levels and is still largely economically and technologically locked into CO2-intensive energy production. That is simply the price humanity overall has paid to get where we are. When a developing country builds a new power station or a road or a telecomms network, it uses today’s technology, not 16th century technology – the century where modern science and technology arguably really started. Without the rich world having used all that energy with its associated environmental impact, they’d have to use 16th century technology. There would be no rich world to sell to, and no means to develop. Developing is a far faster and easier process today than it was when we did it.

Our ancestors in the rich world had to suffer the pain hundreds of years ago – they were the giants on whose shoulders we now stand. It was mostly our ancestors in the rich world whose ingenuity and effort, whose blood, sweat and tears paid for a world that can support seven billion people. It was mostly they who invented and developed the electricity, telecoms, the web, pharmaceuticals and biotech, genetically superior crops, advanced manufacturing and farming technology that make it possible. That all cost environmental impacts as part of the price. The whole of humanity has benefitted from that investment, not just rich countries, and if any compensation or apology were due to the rest of the world for it, then it has already been paid many times over in lives saved and lives enabled, economic aid already enabled by that wealth, and the vastly better financial and economic well-being for the future developing world that resulted from that investment. The developing world is developing later, but that is not the fault of our ancestors for making our investment earlier.

Amount of compensation owed: zero. Amount we should give for other reasons: as much as we can reasonably afford. Let’s give through compassion and generosity and feeling of common humanity, because we can and because we want to, not because we are being forced.

Could wind farms and HS2 destroy the environment?

Remember when chaos theory arrived. We were bombarded with analogies to help us understand it, such as the butterfly effect, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in a distant rain forest creates micro-turbulence that minutely affects some tiny variable in a very non-linear system, resulting in a hurricane forming somewhere later.

Imagine sticking up a wind turbine, and compare that to a butterfly. It is a fair bit bigger. A big turbine extracts up to 3MW of power from the passing wind, and a large wind farm may have hundreds of them. If weather is so chaotic in its nature that a butterfly can affect it, a massive deployment of numerous large wind farms certainly can.

Aerial wind farms are being explored a lot now too, using kites. I’ve proposed a few novel designs for wind energy extractors myself during idle time. It is very easy. In my sci-fi book Space Anchor I even described a feasible solution for harvesting energy from tornadoes and hurricanes, reducing their damage and getting lots of free energy.

But it isn’t free if the cost is such great interference with wind strength that the paths of the winds are affected, their ability to transfer water vapour from one region to another. We are already having an impact and it will increase as deployment volume grows. We don’t have the means to estimate the effects of siphoning of such energy. As has recently been shown, 99% of climate models have greatly overestimated the warming due to CO2. They simply don’t work. They don’t model the environment accurately, or even quite accurately.

In the arctic, last year the ice declined enormously, this year it grew back. Researchers found that heat added to river systems by mineral and oil exploration could have been important contributor to the excessive melt. It is human-originated but nothing to do with CO2, and it doesn’t appear in any of the climate models. If they’re right, it’s a good example of how we can interfere with local climate unintentionally, and also how we won’t usually get any warning from climate modelling community who seem obsessed with ignoring any variable that doesn’t link to CO2. The climate is certainly changing, just not at all in the ways they keep telling us it will, because the models leave out many of the important factors and the equations are wrong.

So how can we expect to be told the likely effects of wind farms? The simple answer is that we can’t. At best, we can hope to get some estimates of change in a few specific wind zones. Furthermore, due to extreme politicization of the whole field of energy production and climate change, any models that suggest harmful effects are highly likely to be blocked from reporting, or their results tweaked and airbrushed and generally sanitized beyond recognition. The Scottish wind farms have already been shown to increase CO2 emissions due to the effects they have on the peat bogs on which most of them are built but we still see push for more of the same, even knowing that on the only issue they are meant to help with, CO2 emissions, they make things worse.

The UK government seems to enjoy throwing money away just when we need it most. The HS2 rail link will waste between £50Bn and £75Bn depending who you believe. Wind farms are already adding hundreds per year to the energy bills of the poor, pushing them deeper into poverty. The Green Deal fiasco has wasted a tiny amount by comparison, but is another example of extreme government incompetence when it comes to protecting the environment. As part of EU environmental policies, blocking and delaying shale gas development across Europe has led to massive imports of coal from the USA, increasing EU CO2 emissions while USA emissions have tumbled. You just couldn’t do a worse job of protecting the environment.

So far it seems, almost all government attempts to protect the environment have made it worse. Building even more wind farms will likely add to the problems even further.

Looking at HS2, it is very hard indeed not to compare this enormously expensive project to build a fairly high speed conventional railway between two cities to the Hyperloop system in California recently proposed by Elon Musk. That would deliver a 600mph rail system at a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2. Sure, there are some engineering problems with the systems as initially proposed, but nothing that can’t be solved as far as I can see. If we have £50Bn to spend, we could build links between most of our major cities, instead of diverting even more into London. Instead of a few thousand rich people benefiting a little bit, everyone could. We could build a 21st century rail system instead of just building more of a 20th century one. A system like that would have high capacity between all the major places, diverting many cars off the roads, reducing congestion, acting as a core of a proper self-driven pod based system, reaping enormous environmental benefits as well as improvement of lives. HS2 is totally pants by comparison with what we could get with the same outlay, for the economy, the environment and for quality of life. Siphoning off 50 to 75Bn from the economy for HS2 will delay development of far better and more environmentally friendly means of mass transport. Compared to the right solution, HS2 will damage the economy and the environment enormously.

Wind farms and HS2 will become monuments to the magnitude of stupidity of people in power when they are driven to leave a personal legacy at other people’s expense without having the systems engineering skills to understand what they’re doing.



Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).


Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit:

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit:

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Deep surveillance – how much privacy could you lose?

The news that seems to have caught much of the media in shock, that our electronic activities were being monitored, comes as no surprise at all to anyone working in IT for the last decade or two. In fact, I can’t see what’s new. I’ve always assumed since the early 90s that everything I write and do on-line or say or text on a phone or watch on digital TV or do on a game console is recorded forever and checked by computers now or will be checked some time in the future for anything bad. If I don’t want anyone to know I am thinking something, I keep it in my head. Am I paranoid? No. If you think I am, then it’s you who is being naive.

I know that if some technically competent spy with lots of time and resources really wants to monitor everything I do day and night and listen to pretty much everything I say, they could, but I am not important enough, bad enough, threatening enough or even interesting enough, and that conveys far more privacy than any amount of technology barriers ever could. I live in a world of finite but just about acceptable risk of privacy invasion. I’d like more privacy, but it’s too much hassle.

Although government, big business and malicious software might want to record everything I do just in case it might be useful one day, I still assume some privacy, even if it is already technically possible to bypass it. For example, I assume that I can still say what I want in my home without the police turning up even if I am not always politically correct. I am well aware that it is possible to use a function built into the networks called no-ring dial-up to activate the microphone on my phones without me knowing, but I assume nobody bothers. They could, but probably don’t. Same with malware on my mobiles.

I also assume that the police don’t use millimetre wave scanning to video me or my wife through the walls and closed curtains. They could, but probably don’t. And there are plenty of sexier targets to point spycams at so I am probably safe there too.

Probably, nobody bothers to activate the cameras on my iphone or Nexus, but I am still a bit cautious where I point them, just in case. There is simply too much malware out there to ever assume my IT is safe. I do only plug a camera and microphone into my office PC when I need to. I am sure watching me type or read is pretty boring, and few people would do it for long, but I have my office blinds drawn and close the living room curtains in the evening for the same reason – I don’t like being watched.

In a busy tube train, it is often impossible to stop people getting close enough to use an NFC scanner to copy details from my debit card and Barclaycard, but they can be copied at any till or in any restaurant just as easily, so there is a small risk but it is both unavoidable and acceptable. Banks discovered long ago that it costs far more to prevent fraud 100% than it does to just limit it and accept some. I adopt a similar policy.

Enough of today. What of tomorrow? This is a futures blog – usually.

Well, as MM Wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN. Not deliberately of course, but they can’t check every line of code that some junior might have put in by mistake when they didn’t fully understand the brief.

Some of the next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and HD cameras that can apparently even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow, pulse and possibly monitoring your skin conductivity via the controller, level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify paedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, so obviously we must allow it, mustn’t we? We know that Microsoft’s OS has had the capability for many years to provide a back door for the authorities. Should we assume that the new Xbox is different?

Monitoring skin conductivity is already routine in IT labs ass an input. Thought recognition is possible too and though primitive today, we will see that spread as the technology progresses. So your thoughts can be monitored too. Thoughts added to emotional reactions and knowledge of circumstances would allow a very detailed picture of someone’s attitudes. By using high speed future computers to data mine zillions of hours of full sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure, a future government or big business that is prone to bend the rules could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state. And they could steal your ideas, if you still have any after putting all your effort into self censorship.

It doesn’t even stop there. If you dare to go outside, innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone. Thought crimes already exist in many countries including the UK. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

Cameron utters the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Only idiots believe that. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to a call centre operator? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not what Prism does and what the US authorities are giving to our guys. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions. That’s the problem. They don’t delete it. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but not malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, even if some are a little corrupt in some cases. But what if it all goes wrong, and we somehow end up with a deeply divided society and the wrong government or a dictatorship gets in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We have already lost the battle to defend our privacy. Most of it is long gone, and the only bits left are those where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Ever.

Future gender equality – legally recognise everyone’s male and female sides

My writing on the future of gender and same-sex reproduction now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.