Monday, 15 February 2016

Enter the Kimbell

In a way, I don’t really want to do this – attacking the intellectually incapable is as morally palatable as cavorting in a graveyard or shitting on a swan – but sometimes they must be slapped down, hard. While seemingly cute, the ideas of the cognitively tepid must be dealt with severely as and when they infringe on far bigger things which they appear incapable of understanding. A kitten playing with a ball of string is adorable. A kitten playing with a ball of string across the controls of an aeroplane is not.

It is in this context that I introduce my foil, @redhotsquirrel, alias Robert Kimbell, alias Robert Simon Spurrier-Kimbell, a self-styled ‘well-travelled geopolitics aficionado.’ I could have chosen any number of mad Eurosceptic tweeters, but this one cropped up first. Further stalking reveals he stood for UKIP in a local election down in Brighton last year, unsuccessfully, and failed to get into the UKIP NEC as well. According to LinkedIn, he may or may not have worked for the Financial Services Authority as a technical specialist, or may or may not possibly be an independent management consultant (I didn’t want to pry too far otherwise I might have told him I was there, thus breaking the first rule of stalking).

According to, he is in the top 0.5% of social media users – doubtless on a quantitative rather than qualitative basis. His activity is ‘crazy’, his popularity is ‘celeb’ and his responsiveness is ‘very friendly.’ I wonder if he will still be ‘very friendly’ when I dump this on his internet. He averages 123.2 tweets per day, gets a solid 8 retweets for every tweet and has an impressive 11.5K followers. He is what you might call a big fish in the UKIP pond.

I wish him well for all of this, so far. Genuinely, I do not grudge him any of this– he puts my own rather feeble efforts at online imperialism to shame.

What really grates with me, however, is the utter skull-numbing stupidity that he propounds – and the total juxtaposition of this with the air of knowledgeable superiority with which he propounds it. People like this, when given too much power and influence, tend to presage terrible things happening – e.g. the sinking of the Titanic, the Taiping/Boxer Rebellions and the fall of the Roman Empire.

Hong Xiuquan - convinced a bunch of non-Christian Chinese peasants that he was Jesus' brother so they needed to kill 20 million people and start a theocracy - seems reasonable
For a start, he gets hung up on the most trivial issues – like the colour blue on the British passport. I don’t need to point out to anyone that the substance of his gripe is utterly irrelevant to the Brexit debate, and frankly, is pretty bloody childish. However, this nostalgic fanaticism is tangibly damaging to the Eurosceptic cause because, like it or not, he is single-handedly strengthening all of the straw-man arguments with which far more competent leavers will be faced in the minds of the undecided.
Then, there is what passes for his economic analysis. Kimbell has yet to learn endlessly citing trade figures proves literally nothing more than the fact that you have read some rather lengthy, boring reports in your spare time, which probably says more about you than the reports – it does not make you some kind of guru on trade. He may as well be tweeting War and Peace for all of the relevance and expertise he brings to the debate. Tweeting that, ‘The UK exports a tasty £1.5 billion to x country, which is not the EU. We can Brexit,’ is, in substitute for a tirade of potentially libellous foul language decrying his total ridiculousness on my part, a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow from the premises).

Why should the fact that the UK exports to somewhere else mean anything in terms of the Brexit debate? It does not even show if this trade with x country is going up, down or sideways. It does not even provide a context for this trade – e.g. what industries it is in. It does not provide any argument about how that trade would be impacted by the legal implications of a Brexit, or how on the other hand, trade with Europe can be safeguarded and improved in the future. It does not mention what the existing arrangements are - e.g. do we have sectoral free trade deals? It is merely a statement of existence – as far as constructing arguments goes, you may as well try to make a fire by rubbing grass together. Oh, wait, I’m sorry – he covers all of the legal and technical mechanisms of Brexit here:

Despite the fact that Kimbell’s precious trade statistics would literally fall through the floor if Britain did as above by de facto removing us from the single market, it is a breach of treaty obligations under international law – something that Britain tends to respect in principle, not just because we would be bent over by the entire European Commission if we started ripping up inopportune bits of paper.

WTO rules imply that if we left, under the Most Favoured Nation system, we would have to allow access to the goods of the EU countries’ trade on the conditions which we set for everyone else – meaning that the only way to block EU goods would be to launch a trade war upon pretty much the entire world (apart from North Korea). As a Regional Trade Agreement, the EU is not bound by the same rules – they could impose conditions on UK goods entering the single market as they can any other third party. Effectively, upon leaving the EU through Kimbell’s route, we would have to swallow whatever the EU served us.

And for the MILLIONTH time, it would be tantamount to impossible to negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in the two years that Article 50 allows – let alone the prospective zero years that repealing the European Communities Act of 1972 would probably give us. Other similar deals (e.g. Switzerland) have taken several decades to delineate, and even then are totally unsatisfactory because they seem to have to undergo a constant process of renegotiation anyway, especially regarding immigration – another one of Kimbell’s hot topics. Leaving should be an amicable long-term process – not a sudden break followed by endless arguments over who keeps the house, the car and the kids.

Kimbell also does not appear to understand the free trade deals which he is so keen on plugging, given that again and again he makes crucial mistakes. His entire analysis is limited to Free Trade Agreements – yet the OECD lists 11 separate mechanisms through which countries can cooperate on trade. Just because the EU does not have formal bespoke FTAs with many countries around the world, it does not mean that the EU does not have a degree of free trade with them through other legal arrangements. So when Kimbell says that by leaving the EU we could sign FTAs with India, China, Australia and Japan, he is technically correct because we could sign FTAs with them. 
However, this totally neglects to mention all of the other free trade arrangements which the EU already has with said countries, and the fact that modern trade is far more suited to smaller, more flexible sectoral deals. Kimbell is right, almost certainly unintentionally, because of his choice of wording not his sentiment, which is still clearly wrong – stopped clocks tell the time twice a day but it does not mean that they are useful.

This relentless barrage of trade statistics, which Kimbell shows no signs of being able to use/understand in any meaningful way, does not ever let up. Not even for Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. One can only assume that the traditional yuletide lunch was so ruined by the endless repetition of trade statistics that it ended unseasonably early, with all participants probably still sober and rather bored – thus allowing our protagonist to return to his computer to continue his economic Tourette’s.

Another part of Kimbell’s well-worn repertoire is his aversion towards mass immigration, another position epitomised by his characteristic subtle nuance.

Kimbell’s response to such an inflammatory issue is rather alarmingly blunt – the same as if, on being told that you had cancer, and that an operation might work, you decide to go in yourself with some booze and a steak-knife immediately rather than wait for the grinding machinery of the NHS to kick into action. I guess I will have to explain the immigration-government nexus simply.

Membership of the EU supports mass immigration. The British government, on both sides of the house, supports mass immigration. Therefore, both constraints will have to be altered/removed in order to reduce immigration. If we were to elect an anti-immigrant government tomorrow, it could not reduce migration because of membership of the EU. Similarly, if we left the EU, migration would not decrease because the government is still pro-migration (Osborne’s budget figures require 185,000 migrants, and non-EU migration is running at an all-time high).

Now, we get to the crux of the matter. Leaving the EU, in the way in which Mr. Kimbell so fervently advocates, will NOT reduce migration or allow us to ‘control our borders’ (a meaningless platitude, in that it is only a very small part of immigration policy, demonstrating once more Mr. Kimbell’s lack of ability to grasp complexities). We will still have a pro-migration government – at least until 2020, but much more likely, indefinitely.

However, what we will have done is left the Single Market, leaving our trade in the lurch and ruining any chance that we might have had of getting a reasonable deal with the EU.

Now, for Kimbell and the Kimbellites to achieve their goal of reducing migration, they will still have to leave the EU and change the government. We get a chance to change the government every five years; we get a chance to leave the EU possibly once a generation, if that – I will probably be retired next time there is a vote. Clearly, therefore, leaving the EU at all costs is paramount to Kimbell’s position as the only way of cutting migration in the future (through the removal of one of two obstacles to cutting migration) – but the insistence that we adopt a ruinous exit plan, or lack thereof, just so Kimbell and his followers can have their masochistic wet dream while ruining the chances of the campaign by alienating most undecided voters is utterly unacceptable.

The number one question over the coming months, from the gloating remain side and the confused undecideds, will be ‘what does Brexit look like?’ This is a perfectly legitimate question – and frankly, talk of blue passports, strong borders and dwindling trade looks to the ordinary person like a developing nightmare, a nostalgic dystopia for an age which never actually existed. No one will vote for that vision – apart from people who already support Kimbell.

Hence, Flexcit – a plan that alleviates all concerns regarding economics and adopts the gradualist approach. Flexcit nullifies the inevitable torrent of fear, uncertainty and doubt which will be used against the leave campaign. Flexcit actually allows the public to decide on one simple question, undistracted by the immediate consequences (because there will not be any) – ‘do I want to be a part of a supranational union or do I want parliament to be sovereign over a British nation state?’ The beauty of Flexcit is that it boils down the entire debate to that question, an eminently winnable proposition, by eliminating all immediate contingent concerns – such as trade, such as migration, etc. Once parliament is sovereign, the whole implication is that parliament can then do as it likes, more or less, regarding trade and migration – but not before. The power of parliament, and hence the power of democracy, is the key issue at stake. We cannot allow ourselves to get side-tracked.

Overcoming the ‘tyranny of the status quo’ will be hard enough when the economic argument is nullified; it will be nigh on impossible if we have to deal with a boat-tonne of Kimbell’s crap tagged onto the end as well.

So, what does Kimbell think of Flexcit? Apart from clearly never having read it (otherwise he would drop the bit about EU laws and wouldn’t treat it as a middle option between Brexit and remaining) or having read much about it, he is not in favour. Which is why I feel the need to slap him down. I am more than happy for the blissfully ignorant to play around in their own negative feedback loops. I am not more than happy, however, for him to propagate his idiocy around Flexcit unchallenged, because after surveying the crowded field, it is the only thing that can win us that vote – short of pure incompetence on the remain side.

Briefly, Flexcit is not some kind of middle route – Flexcit gets us through Brexit and beyond, but much less forcefully than picking up the phone to Brussels, shouting for ten minutes about migrants and the Second World War and then telling them that they can keep their fucking cheese because we’re leaving and you can’t come in before ringing off. Flexcit is like climbing a hill; the latter is like climbing a cliff. Both leave the EU, but one might break your back at the same time.

Of course, I don’t expect all that much of Kimbell’s merry men. The fact that Kimbell is backed up by the combined intellectual firepower of ‘Big_Bad_John_4’ and ‘Triple P’ does not particularly worry me because we have rationality on my side, even though the latter’s allegation that Flexcit ‘is a poorly researched piece of excrement’ does gall slightly having seen the huge amount of work and effort poured in by Dr. North. But then again, why would you need Dr. North’s pages and pages of legal analysis when you can explain the entire situation in one tweet, as Kimbell can?
All of this is notwithstanding his copious use of the Russian state propaganda (oh, I'm sorry, 'media') outlets to explain the war in Syria, which degrades anyone in my eyes. For example, posting a link from Sputnik saying that the area surrounding Aleppo is being liberated, despite the fact that Aleppo is now in a virtual state of siege that could potentially make Sarajevo look like a primary school play - obviously, Western media is to blame. As are the imperialist Western Air Forces for blowing up another MSF hospital - in an area that only Russia is bombing. OK, yes, the picture above is a parody - not even Sputnik would be able to pull that off with a straight face.

I would at least give him credit for publicising Flexcit to his 11.5K followers – but the cretin frequently spells it wrong anyway, meaning that they probably won’t be able to find it (given that the Flexit is a Norwegian air handling unit company).

Monday, 8 February 2016

Back Again

I am recently back to writing the blog – I’ve been busy doing essays all week, literally dawn (or about 11.00) until dusk, as I started them a little late. Curiously enough, what I was writing about then is a situation that many people reading this will be familiar with (OK, I flatter myself – I’m sure both of you will be familiar with it). I have essentially been examining the impact of what happened when a bunch of do-gooding (or imperialist, depending who you ask) neo-liberals from the Western world decided to impose their ideas on everyone else without asking them first.

This is not regarding Europe, but Africa – in the 1980s, the World Bank and various Western donor nations had it revealed to them, probably from on high, that they could not possibly be objectively wrong about anything, ever, and so decided to foist a load of Structural Adjustment Programmes on backwards countries in Africa to help them develop – because otherwise they would obviously breed themselves into starvation. Structural Adjustment Programmes essentially set policies for African countries in return for money – shrinking the size of the state, expanding the private sector and letting the free market take control.

Such was their belief in their own ideas that they overrode almost all prior research to enforce this worldview (e.g. a UNECA report published in 1980 whose findings suggested that a higher population would actually benefit Africa by providing more labour for agriculture).

A prominent venture capitalist living the Ugandan dream
After 15 years of this chemotherapy, Africa had become a capitalist powerhouse – if you count rapacious warlords employing child soldiers as budding entrepreneurs. From Freetown to Monrovia, Kinshasa to Mogadishu, the continent decided to engage in commercial activity, exchanging diamonds and oil for AK47s. Governments also increasingly saw the advantages of ‘capitalism’, sometimes even collaborating with the aforementioned entrepreneurs to bring ‘capitalism’ to their servile populaces in tandem (Sierra Leone and the Congo especially).

But seriously, after exporting death and corruption to an entire continent in exchange for loans which could never be repaid because of other clauses in the agreements (which guaranteed floating exchange rates), the international community came to an inevitable conclusion: they had been right all along.

The rash of warfare that was now sweeping Africa was the Malthusian crisis that they had been warning against for so long, caused inevitably by overpopulation and climate change. So, obviously the Structural Adjustment Programmes had just been too little, too late, and it was time to start all over again – with more structural adjustment (although they were not stupid enough to call it the same thing this time, as their representatives would have been lynched in the streets of any African city they tried to sell it to).

A report that the World Bank commissioned in the mid-1990s to evaluate the effects of Structural Adjustment was noticeably upbeat on the subject, noting what a success structural adjustment had been in Tanzania (while neglecting to mention what had happened pretty much everywhere else).

I digress, but this episode does have a serious point. The governments, economists and policy-makers that gave the gift of their knowledge to Africa are exactly the same people that we are dealing with now (or the same type of person – the actual protagonists from the 1980s are probably mostly dead by now). These people are so arrogant and so imbibed on the stagnant air of their own elitist bubbles that they have lost touch with reality – it simply would not occur to them that they might be wrong – and if it did, they would do exactly the same thing anyway, because to do otherwise would involve losing face and prestige.

The tepid feedback loops of SW1 have been running this country for decades now, and nothing has got noticeably better. They are so sure of their own group-think fed opinions that they are willing to impose them unilaterally on entire nations (hell, entire continents) – and it does not matter what anyone says against them. One African negotiator, on leaving a discussion room in Nairobi to the settle the terms of aid to his country, summed it up to a journalist – trying to get the opinions, thoughts and research of people in his country (including various Western expert academics and anthropologists who had done much more detailed work than the broad-brush approach of the World Bank) across to these people was impossible. It was like trying to win a shoot-out where your gun clicks and theirs fires.

It is this pure dogmatism that we have to fight during this referendum – the establishment decided that Europe was right several decades ago. Changing their minds would literally require an act of God.

In a way, you could even say that our democracy has become Africanised, in that our establishment will say or do anything at election times to drag themselves past the post – and then try to rule as dictators as much as possible afterwards. The centralisation of political parties, the use data analysis techniques and the degradation/co-option of the media have definitely been a bad thing for democracy.

So what are we to make of Cameron’s new deal? I’m not going to bother going through it – plenty of other bloggers have savaged it better than I ever could. Three things do stand out, however. Firstly, it is pretty pathetic, even as far as blank white pieces of paper with ‘peace in our time’ go. This particular piece of paper is particularly blank and particularly white - more of a strand of grass than a fig leaf. Secondly, it is not legally binding, whatever Cameron says (lies) – exactly the same sort of guarantee was given to the Czechs to make them sign the Treaty of Lisbon, and the European parliament rejected it. Thirdly, though, and far more interestingly for me, is why did he bring this back? What the hell was he thinking? What is his game plan? Does he even have a game plan?

Sir Lynton Crosby - I'd ask for at least a Lordship for this one, personally
I am genuinely tempted to speculate that this is an instance of David Cameron actually trying to do something himself. Like a toddler trying to help with the washing up, he has totally cocked up everything, and now mummy is going to have to come in and put everything right. I can almost picture him walking out of the negotiations and getting straight on the phone: ‘Hello, is that Lynton?… ok, sorry, Sir Lynton… well, yes, I’ve done something terrible. You’re going to have to help me.’ [Lynton has been contacted already according to Sky News]

The trouble is that you cannot negotiate something once you have already made out to the other side that you will want the outcome that they want at any cost – that is simply not how bluffing works. This is what the Africans discovered with the Structural Adjustment Programmes. They needed the Western money regardless – and so they were forced to accept the Western conditions. Similarly, Cameron wanted to stay in the EU regardless – and so was forced to accept whatever the EU gave him.

Now, to me, I don’t really care what he could have got if he had driven a harder line (I’ll leave that line of reasoning to Vote.Leave, provided they still exist at time of writing) – I want to leave regardless. But these negotiations are undoubtedly important for those of us trying to exit. The ‘Leave’ campaign now has a lead of 9 points according to a recent poll, and I highly doubt that it was the repetitive immigration rhetoric from Farage that gave them this. I don’t want to argue about numbers, but clearly, the deal or lack thereof, is important to people.

If this is the final deal, that would imply that Cameron wants an early referendum. That he is willing to offer the electorate a pile of crap instead of something that even pretends to give us some of what was meant to ask for says a lot. Of course, he could bend to popular pressure and go fighting for Britain again, or manufacture a hitch in the deal (but how is he going to get a better deal out of the EU after he has already backed this one?) – but what he delivered was so mediocre that any further battling for Britain will not convince anyone, because even in the eyes of the media, it will look like ants scrapping over a dung hill.

It is extremely different for the media to portray the situation otherwise because the material he has given them is simply that weak. The media are prolific spinners, but there are limits – if Michelangelo had been given a single blue crayon to decorate the Sistine Chapel, I doubt we would have heard of him today.

Of course, there might be a much more subtle, devious play in the offing. It is possible, but I am tempted to remember the utter disarray during the Scottish Referendum, which totally caught Westminster napping. That, and if Lynton is only going to be hired now, it suggests a change in plan, not the implementation of pre-arranged one.

So, assuming for the moment that the referendum is early (pure speculation), then why has Cameron decided to cut his losses?

Firstly, the treaty negotiations, supposedly to be heralded in 2017 (which would have allowed him to get an actually binding deal) might be off. Europe is facing its first two serious crises (2011 and all that might very well quickly be forgotten in the light of what could be coming around the corner): the migration crisis, which is mainstreaming anti-European, anti-establishment parties – if one genuinely anti-European party takes control of any sizeable parliament, it will cause a lot of trouble, and the financial troubles that are now spreading out across the globe faster than the Zika virus at the ongoing Carnival in Rio De Janeiro.

Especially worrying for EU politicians is that the first dominos to fall could be the European mega-banks. Deutschebank’s exposure to derivatives is more than twenty times the entire value of the German economy. I don’t actually know what that means, but it’s probably bad. I do feel a little twinge of savage satisfaction, however, as they were some of the most prominent people warning that we should remain. Signs of imminent treaty change are thin on the ground, and may very well have been postponed because of the various crises which look like they could hit.

If there is no treaty change coming, then Cameron loses most advantages gained by waiting until 2017, unless the EU can sort out the refugee crisis (unlikely given that even more people want to come over this year than last) and transcend basic economics to sort out economic problems not just in the EU but in the entire developed world – I don’t know, maybe stick Structural Adjustment Programmes everywhere? Seemed to work last time…

Secondly, if the looming financial storm does transpire soon, it will hit Britain like a freight train. We haven’t even really recovered from the last one – interest rates are already near enough zero (the only advantage of going lower at this point is to attract money from other financial centres) and QE simply will not work for very long without making it painfully obvious to even five year-olds that the central bankers have lost the plot when the numbers they will have to conjure up will start to look distinctively Zimbabwean. Short of locking up everyone who invests the wrong way (a la Chinois), there really is not much the government/Bank of England can do to avert this.

The Harare school of economics - we don't really want to go there

There are two reasons why Cameron would hold the referendum early because of potential financial meltdown (no one knows if/when it will happen – but it is likely, and Cameron is going to have to factor that into his plans). One is simply to clear the decks. Much like the EU, Cameron doesn't want to have to deal with British euroscepticism in the midst of a monetary shitstorm because he simply will not have the time. Hence, it is possible he wants it out of the way simply because it is not that important to him relative to larger events (explaining the rubbish deal), even at the cost of losing. The second reason, which is entirely synergistic with the first, is that Cameron thinks that he can win better with a relatively stable economy than with one that is plummeting. This is plausible given the amount of trouble that the Eurozone will almost certainly find itself in – naturally, people are not going to vote to remain if Europe looks anything like what it did in 2011.

Obviously it is impossible to predict whether any of this will actually happen, or if people will react in this way – but David Cameron will be speculating against the same backdrop that I am. He doesn't know what the situation will look like in 12 months and so might not want to take chances, or he wants this vote out of the way, for fear the worst might happen.

Globally, central bankers will be trying to delay any crashes as much as possible. Far more important than a petty vote on Britain’s political future for them (or at least the all-important American ones) will be the American presidential election. The Democrat incumbents and the big money that follows them will be desperate that nothing goes wrong with the economy until the election is over, in the same way that employment figures miraculously tend to rise in election years – that happened here and is happening in America, because it would completely damage Hillary’s chances. Although, this is provided she isn’t indicted before then, as she almost certainly should have been – ‘Granny doesn’t understand computers’ simply isn’t a good enough excuse when you running to be the leader of the free world and the scourge of Russia.

A major Wall St. crash might even lead to a President Trump, or even worse for them, a President Sanders. Purely speculating, I would expect the Federal Reserve and the Treasury (the establishment) to do everything possible to prevent that unhappy eventuality – Cameron might possibly have made the same calculation and hence might seek to benefit from this more stable financial period by slotting the referendum in it.

Also globally, other events do not bode well for the long term. Having an ascendant ISIS in Libya is hardly going to cause less refugees or less terrorist attacks. Moreover, the Syrian war itself is on a knife-edge between attrition and escalation. Assad’s forces are content to siege urban population centres to starve them into submission, but there is an ever-increasing risk of Saudi or Turkish intervention.

There have been reports recently (and also late last year) about Saudi Arabia assembling a coalition of like-minded Gulf States to invade the country. I doubt that many people outside the highest echelons of the intelligence circuit (and those with access to Hillary’s emails) know how true this is, but it is highly plausible, given that Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly assertive/aggressive as a reaction to heightened Iranian influence – i.e. Yemen.

There are also rising tensions between Turkey and Russia because Russia’s no fly zone has stopped Turkish jets bombing the Kurds into oblivion, and is allowing Kurds on the Turkish side of the border to cause problems again (presumably revenge for the jet that Turkey shot down). Turkey has already sent soldiers into Iraq and could plausibly do the same in Syria. No one in the West wants this kind of brinkmanship, but Middle Eastern countries live for it.

The Middle Eastern situation probably will not mean an awful lot to the EU referendum – apart from the fact that the Middle East is going to furnish ample refugees between now and then. This necessarily means that the migration crisis can only really get worse, on all fronts, which in turn implies that an early referendum is better. The only thing that could stop this would be concerted, decisive, comprehensive EU action - which although possible is made much more unlikely by the disagreements between countries over what that action should be.

But then again, what would I know. I am only speculating, but if I were David Cameron attempting a referendum and I saw a looming financial crisis and a continued refugee crisis coupled with a lack of any promised treaty, I would definitely at least consider sooner rather than later.