A trip to the Great Wen in the Ides of March

The Ermine made a rare visit to London recently, to see the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition is striking enough – not so much about the specifics of Stonehenge but about the development of the Neolithic world-view in North-western Europe, insofar as we can determine.

Part of the trouble with Stonehenge is that it is very clearly there, after forty-five centuries, but there is no story associated. That is the enigmatic appeal of prehistory. "Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves — or desires"1 This exhibition tries to fill in some of the blanks, with analogy, with a general timeline meandering through the exhibition sequence.

The ticketing roster packs ’em in, and while it’s not explicitly prohibited to go back, it’s hard and discouraged. So if you want to admire Seahenge, the wooden circle with upturned tree trunk in the centre, do it as you pass the first time,

Seahenge exhibit, normally at Flag Fen

Because else you will be going against the tide of visitors for a long time. There’s a certain prelapsarian hint to the narrative, peaceful cooperation in the the early days, and remarkable evidence of quite long-distance communication and exchange of ideas as styles. Technology remains simple, there is a certain beauty in the collections of stone axe-heads.

Stone axes
a polissoir - how you sharpen your stone axes
a polissoir – how you sharpen your stone axes
Evidence of remarkable craft skill in gold

Until the advent of iron in metal working, and then this happens

Overall good stuff and worth the £20 a head cost of admission, if a teeny bit rushed 😉

Pendant from 3000 years ago, Shropshire
The valedictory exhibit – hand-worked gold pendant from 3000 years ago, Shropshire

visiting London

I made this day-trip by bus, a long-distance one from Somerset to Hammersmith bus station, then TFL, I took a bus to Hyde Park. You see more on buses than the hole in the ground otherwise known as the Tube, and they are cheaper, though slower. Navigation is the devil’s own job on buses, however, which is why tourists tend to stick to the tube.

I grew up and worked in London for a while, so I was able to get away with some idea of where a bus was going, even after three decades the geography of the city hasn’t really changed much. It’s got a little bit more generic, and I was surprised to pass through High Street Kensington, which I recalled as a lot more genteel from student days. Back then the Albert Memorial was perennially cloaked in scaffolding, I was quite surprised to see what it is meant to look like

Albert Memorial, Hyde Park

The fact that the parks department has to employ hi-vis people to pressure wash the London grime off the marble shows this piece of Imperial glory needs lots of TLC, as well as gold paint for His Nibs on the podium. I had intended to change from the 9 bus to the 19 at Knightsbridge, but went off-piste for this pic and a walk across Hyde Park to get to Marble Arch. I’d assumed the 19 would go that way but screwed up as it goes via Constitution Hill, so I had to get a couple of random buses to Oxford circus and then New Oxford Street and Museum Street. That’s not bad if it really only cost me £1.65. In fact the cost of transportation to the Great Wen was really not too bad – £20 from Somerset return and whatever TFL charge off-peak.

I spent rather more than that on beer, and it was hardly a major session. Some of that was in theatreland/Covent Garden-ish, so I pay the place premium. I was surprised and jarred off to be charges 50p for a piss on arrival in Hammersmith bus station, payable by Visa contactless, if you please. It’s a long-distance bus station, you chiseling bastards.

On the downside, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s viewpoint on buses when we were treated to a foul child chundering for 100 miles on the return journey. I had seen this noisy runt on the outbound journey, so exactly why it seemed a great idea to its God-forsaken parents to get this pre-school varmint up before 7am, take it to London and feed it curry before a long return journey ending at about 10pm beats me. I am not going to be able to face curry for a few months of savouring the stench of puked up curry for over an hour 😦 Thatcher had a point, as did Sartre…

British Museum from Starbucks opposite
British Museum from Starbucks opposite

The British Museum was its usual grandiose self, although the surrounding area looked more tatty, with rubbish on the street – plastic bin bag collections don’t work so well in an urban setting, as the local cats/foxes/rats have at it overnight leaving the mess out. In fact, compared to the last time I was in this general part of town, it felt a whole lot less decadent. Sure, there was still lots of money lying about, London is hardly on the skids, but the decadent ebullience has left town a bit. I didn’t feel poor, unlike last time.

In the 1980s I used to cycle back from work up the Westway from White City to Hanger Lane, and indeed coming off the Westway and going round the Hanger Lane gyratory system. Coming in on the Westway to Hammersmith on the bus it seemed the cyclists were on a suicide mission, filtering up the inside of HGVs in the outside lane. On getting into Bloomsbury I got to really hate these cyclists as a pedestrian because you couldn’t see where they were going to be coming from, the quaint custom of vehicles driving on the left in the UK was not really a thing there, particularly if there were lights to be jumped, and zebra crossings seemed to be target zones, you’re better off crossing elsewhere where you know they are all out to get you, rather than believing in the quaint concept of these as pedestrian crossings. They are there so the pedestrians can stop the motor traffic so the cyclists can jump the lights, switch to the wrong side of the road and bear down on the pedestrians who have now served their puny purpose.

So I am definitely not hard enough to try and cycle in London, and although I am excluded from driving there by all the ULEZ shit I am not sure I would want to drive within the North/South circular roads for fear of inadvertently mashing one of these suicide merchants when changing lanes. By comparison with the death-wish cyclists, the motorbikes and moped riders I saw were relatively virtuous, and even the taxi drivers have calmed down 😉 I was surprised that despite all the ULEZ intimidation which has clearly reduced traffic – Oxford street looked empty to me and I was gobsmacked at the minimal traffic on Tottenham Court Road, the place still reeks of traffic fumes to this country mouse.

The ides, and non-alignment

I spent a while grouching that the markets are high, and it appears this is being slowly addressed. Unlike the exogenous Covid shock, which seemed to clear as some things moved back to normal, this is more complex, because history is back, and I guess the peace dividend is cancelled along with a discrediting of Wandel durch Handel. There’s merit in the idea that trade involvement of Russia can improve security. Just maybe don’t make it trade in essentials without diversification, huh? This seems to be the problem of managerial capitalism writ large – without knowing what you value, you drive out costs reducing resilience and increasing fragility, to optimise efficiency. Until somewhere in this linked chain something goes titsup, and then there’s hell to pay.

This is probably the last chance the West will have to use its historical accumulated power and capital of having been cock of the rock for decades to levy sanctions on an adversary that matters significantly. We are too corrupt, lazy and decadent to stand for principles. As documented, perhaps, in the 2018 Parliament report about Russian corruption in the UK. Although Ray Dalio is a perma-bear, I found I had much sympathy with Henry Kissinger when he said that an established power (the west, or, let’s face it, the USA) can hold a rising power at bay for a while if the old guard is purposeful, has competent leadership, knows what it stands for and can make common cause. It does appear that some parts of the West are rediscovering purpose in the face of history’s reappearance. Fortunately the UK is an irrelevance in this fight, because I suspect we have a little growing up to do first before we are capable of doing that collectively.

A moment’s reflection on the idea of a golden visa, where you basically sell British citizenship for £2 million, shows this might lead to problems. It’s only just occurred to Priti Patel that it might be used by ‘corrupt elites who threaten our national security’. Who would have thunk it? What the bloody hell usually happens when you ask people to put lots of the folding stuff in their passports so you just wave them through? It’s a Sorting Hat for bad guys. Indeed half need reviewing for possible national security risks. Well done us.

The EU seems to be similarly surprised of these unforeseen consequences.

‘citizenship by investment’ schemes, under which third country nationals can get so-called ‘golden passports’, are objectionable ethically, legally, and economically. They also pose serious security risks while undermining the essence of EU citizenship, and should be banned.

Horse. Stable Door. Bolted. Selling your values for money can take you to some places you’d normally avoid even in daylight. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. Oscar Wilde called it out decades ago, the problem is knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The UK is not alone in its craven moneygrabbing to sources of easy money with a murky history – the Germans have a word for politicians who coddle up to Russian money and influence, Putinversteher. While Britain’s Tories seem to have sold tracts of London off to the highest bidder, Germany’s Putinversteher seem to have locked ordinary German households’ energy supply in to Russian gas, indeed Gerhard Schroeder is/was on the board of Gazprom, Ostpolitik made flesh 😉 Atomkraft, Nein Danke is all very well, but if the alternative is Herr Putin’s Panzerkampfwagen, Nein Danke then the decision gets a bit more nuanced.

Putin is a nutter, and invading neighbours is despicable. But he’s there, and he can afford to pay for his principles, malign as they may be. That’s the advantage of being a dictator. You get to decide what’s worth doing, and you can make others pay the price. That can lead to clarity of action, though not always wisdom of action. At the moment the dice are still rolling as to whether he gets what he wants.

History is back, the Project for a New American Century didn’t make it past the first decade. There is increasing alignment between China and Russia, and indeed Xi may well be grateful to Putin for drawing the West’s fire and highlighting where he might productively improve the resilience of the Chinese economy to any similar action for any coming great-power machinations. We will see how much we are prepared to pay for our principles, because those principles mean paying more for fossil fuels and energy. In a slightly less bonkers world it might incentivise renewables rather than fracking.

Putin will sell his oil. Oil is fungible, so not only does he get to charge more, but I am sure that there are enough non-aligned nations that will take it off his hands, at a modest discount to the new higher price. Gas is slightly less fungible because of its bulk and transportation issues, but that’s a knife that cuts both ways, as it makes it harder to substitute. The time to have started to reduce dependency on Russian gas was 10 years ago.

Character is formed in the crucible of adversity, so the result could be a bit more strategic thinking, a reflection of what Western values really are and perhaps a commitment to forswear some of the trinkets and frippery to establish and maintain those values.

For that to happen, however, then while the hour has come, I am not sure that in the UK we have the man 😉 He’s currently travelling to the UAE to ask them for some more oil, to replace Russian supplies. The UAE abstained from a UNSC vote condemning the invasion. They don’t necessarily think it was a terrific idea, but

Looking ahead, it expects China, Russia and India to play more influential roles as rising global powers

History is probably a slower burn than Covid, but a stronger force on the markets, like water dripping on a stone, it takes its time but it doesn’t give up and can’t be stopped.

It probably will correct valuations, particularly at the more frothy, tech addled end of the market. Whether it will bring us better leadership, a greater understanding of what we value and a willingness to reduce current living standards for the resilience to preserve those values is very unclear to me. I have the feeling that the UK has a very long march to go. Perhaps old Tim Morgan from Tullet Prebon was right when he titled his report "Might there be no way out for Britain" The report has moved here at the time of writing

He makes the same sort of point as Henry Kissinger did. A society needs to have enough of a shared sense of values to go through the elective privations of forgoing jam today to address strategic problems. Individuals trying to save enough to retire early do that as individuals. FI/RE aspirants may indeed do this against the good of the common weal in some of what they invest in, particularly its effects on tax revenue. As an example, I don’t want to pay more tax so people can have more than two children if they can’t afford it, for instance, and resented Tony Blair being the daddy with his pronatal policies in the first part of this millennium, and Osborne fixed that.

The existence of buy now pay later and Klarna suggest that forgoing jam today is a minority sport. Against a background were people don’t want to/can’t do short term privation even at the level of saving up for their BNPL purchase, collective privation is going to be an exceedingly hard sell. Even to address energy resilience, because resilience invariably costs more upfront.

The sale continues

Despite all that, I have bought some stuff, which is even cheaper now, because that is the conundrum of bear markets. I did have some stocks exposed to Russia and cleared these at a serious loss, because I am not able to qualify the confiscatory carry-on of the West. Shit happens, and I battle-tested The Art of Execution in the breach that time, verifying the principle of JGTFO at 20% down, well, the hard way is the best way to learn and make it stick for next time 😉 It’s not all bad, Mr Putin managed to bend VWRL so much recently that one purchase in Vanguard managed to outweigh the loss of all the others this year. Gold has beaten out the stock market losses, which probably means I have a bit too much of it, and need to off some into productive assets.

It hopefully goes without saying that I would have far preferred the relatively minor market crash to have come as a result of animal spirits deflating rather than a rush of blood to the head of a crazed dictator, and hope the death and destruction stops ASAP. While I don’t have a great love for Putin, the strange distortions of the media space here disturb me too. Particularly the phrase Western values. As Gandhi would have said, "I think that’s a good idea".

A little bit less of selling them for the highest price and a little bit more definition of what they are, and being prepared to pass up easy opportunities to make a buck and that phrase might get to mean something. But material living standards would be much lower, probably like the 1970s. Mark Carney did warn about Britain living on the kindness of strangers and the situation hasn’t improved.

Some of the pathologies that Ray Dalio cited in the puff-piece YT video for his book are very evident. Beware that Dalio is a perma-bear, he has called out about 100 of the last three financial crashes, and pessimists don’t make great investors. For example, there is this Dalio video about a full spectrum economic collapse imminent. Well, yes, but this is not actionable, arguably if it happens you are SOL regardless. Game theory would suggest why not be an optimist and if Dalio doesn’t happen you will be better off? If he’s the light of the oncoming train then you will be spread very thinly over the front whatever you do, unless you can afford a NZ golden visa like Peter Thiel.

However, the societal problems Dalio cities in the puff-piece are evident, particularly in the English-speaking world –

  • Increasing wealth gap
  • Impaired leadership
  • Increased political polarisation
  • Increased political populism and simplified solutions to complex problems
  • Increased borrowing
  • Goods and services going up as measured in currency
  • Inflation in the price of financial assets,
  • This includes houses in the UK. I read that people are buying at an 8 times gross earnings multiple in London. Think, for a moment, what that actually means in terms of a 30-40 year working life, paying at least 32% tax.
  • Declining real living standards for most people

So I would say the evidence supports Dalio’s argument about the decline of the US-led west, and it is possible that Putin is performing the role of the Vandals worrying the periphery of the declining Imperium, although I would not describe his Russia as a dynamic rising power. Historically, it takes a long time for an empire to fall, and it falls in stages, interspersed with relative quiet.

The secular decline in living standards, arguably since the GFC, is perhaps new to Western consumers. It’s not unprecedented – this is what imperial decline looks like. The pomp and power of a rising empire carries the seeds of its own decay. The American Dream was great, if you were on the right side of it, but it has been drawing out since the Millennium. That, curiously enough, is around the time when business process outsourcing to India and increasing offshoring of manufacturing to China. Donald Trump did have a point in qualifying the problem. Whether his solution of turning the clock back would have worked is unknown, though it lacks prior art historically. Perhaps that experiment will be run after 2024.

13 thoughts on “A trip to the Great Wen in the Ides of March”

  1. “This is probably the last chance the West will have to use its historical accumulated power and capital …”
    Yes. China is watching closely and taking notes. The fact that our politicians are counting its so-called neutrality as a win only goes to show (again) that countries aren’t run by the best and brightest.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this post – and I learned a few things too.
    Always a recipe for success.
    BTW, Stonehenge always underwhelms me!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First Donbas then Crimea and onto Ukraine
    The Rhineland then the Sudetenland etc etc
    Dictators are all the same
    History repeats and it’s not that long ago
    Impressed that finally we all came together -declaring Putin a war criminal-wow!
    Will it be like Afghanistan where American Stingers etc eventually forced the Russians to withdraw
    There appears to be a line in the sand being drawn by the free world
    Germany rearming-there’s a thought!
    The democracies alway appear messy and disorganised against a totalitarian regime but they have huge strength in depth and when they finally decide to roll are probably unstoppable
    Ukraine has had a taste of this and 3 weeks in have stopped the Russians in their tracks
    Remember Finland doing something the same
    We will unfortunately always have to stand and fight regularly at some point for those freedoms we value
    The time may be here again sadly
    xxd09

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    1. I don’t know why people keep mentioning Afghanistan as if Ukraine becoming Afghanistan 2 would be somehow a good thing. Those American stingers to which you refer were fired by the Taliban. And that is the uncomfortable truth about insurgency and guerrilla war. It’s not romantic, and definitely not pretty, whatever you might have seen in the movies. It turns very ugly very quickly. For the first couple of years the insurgents are freedom fighters, act like the military maintaining good organisation, chain of command, rank, cells controlled by central HQ… then as the communications start to break down and resources dry up units become isolated, have to fend for themselves, and the organisation starts looking less like the military and more like the mob. Eventually if they last long enough, as hope becomes scarce, as they realise they won’t win, they become terrorists.
      After WW2 the guerrilla war against the Russian occupation in East Europe lasted for over 10 years. Russians would have “special operations” in the woods, shoot up a group of them torture whoever they’ve taken alive, then leave their bodies in village squares. At first local villagers would steal the bodies to bury them on consecrated ground… I understand such things are considered important by some. A few years later they stopped doing it, would just leave them in the square until the Russians would clear them out. Public health and sanitation or some such thing. The partisans had become bandits.
      The IRA is another good example.
      So no, I, for one, really hope Ukraine does not become another Afghanistan.

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  4. It’s mainly about energy now, and the ‘West’ (Westworld?) now don’t collectively have enough to service their populations at this civilisational level we have become accustomed to. Europe is worse affected, being of higher population density than the ‘New world western countries’ and having had more centuries to exhaust their own finite, concentrated hydrocarbon energy supplies, as well as declined in competitiveness across most industrial sectors. The Uk deserves a special mention here though, (appropriately for a culture raised on the breastmilk of exceptionalism since birth) in having all of these problems to the worst extent.

    The only thing really keeping this country going now is servicing rich vermin from across the world needing a tax haven to launder their dirty money, and a la suisse, the central requirement for that is secrecy, so even a few token russio-phobic confiscations (to appease the sheeple) will unnerve the customers enough to quietly shift their wealth to the next lowest bidder.

    I had the misfortune over the last few days to spend a lot of time daily in a large NHS hospital and being confined inactively could observe in detail. I saw this place similarly a few years pre-brexit, so could make an interesting comparison and the initial impression is that most EU staff have now left, having good alternatives to suffering the hostile environment Treeza May gifted the nation. Back then it seemed at most a third of the staff were forin, now that figure looked at least 2 thirds and up to 85% on some wards depending on the specialism, except that they are visibly from around the world as a whole. Having worked in both hospitals and labs in general for years I was staggered by the waste of everything from food to medical consumables, it having been part of my remit in the past to eliminate waste across our systems. Having a loved one in a severe state, it was also obvious that the setup was not optimised in the best interests of patients – though most staff were genuinely doing their best and competent, few can make the rules.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Right now the media is still focused on Ukraine. But that won’t last. Something new and shiny will come up. Once attention is fixed elsewhere bad things will flourish. Remember a few months ago when our esteemed prim minister would be forced to resign for presiding over industrial scale law breaking? No one else does now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the west have responded better to this crisis than we might have expected. The Ukrainian resistance served to give the west the time and encouragement to respond. That gives some cause for a bit more optimism for the future perhaps.

    At this point the markets I’m invested in have moved a lot less than might have been feared. They have been volatile and may yet tumble further as markets do.

    I was surprised to find that our 17 year old car was ULEZ compliant, however, I haven’t chosen to drive within the North and South Circular for over 20 years because the actual road congestion and parking is taxing enough.

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  7. I enjoyed reading the post – thanks for the review of the Stonehenge exhibition, I would like to get to that if calendar alignments allow it 🙂

    I have been watching some of these CycleGeography videos by Alexie Sayle where he talks to camera riding his bike around London – here : https://youtu.be/7gk6eZwU6Lo. He may not be to everyone’s taste. It gave me some nostalgia for my student days in the 80s when I cycled across central London from intercollegiate halls to IC in South Ken. It was preferable to getting the tube but I’m not sure I would want to do it these days as roads are just heaving with more cyclists. The main issue back then was black cabs – I found you had to show some respect to them or come close to getting squished.

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  8. Two years ago oil crashed to -$40 per barrel, and now we are here.

    Vaclav Smil states that energy is the only real currency. And attempts to squeeze any more efficiency from systems are limited, so attempts to decouple energy from GDP will fail.

    This government really dont have a clue, and the youth will pay the price. Just look at student loans being extended to 40 years, and the same with mortgages. I mean 40 years, there won’t be jobs in 30 years, computers and robots will do the lot.

    Interest rates are on the rise and so is inflation. The decline is about to start, and tomorrow VAT hits 20% – no more pub meals for me!

    It’s a shame for the youth. And dont get me started on EVs, £40k for a vw id3, its no bigger than a Polo.

    Someone is having a laugh at our expense.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. > The decline is about to start

    I think it started in 1973 😉 When I was in primary school we watched people putting boots on the moon, and then oil went nuts…

    Probably worth noting I am not of the view decline = apocalypse, it takes time for the decline and fall. But it does add a sour note to life.

    Like

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