There be a rumbling and a sound of clucking chickens in the air

Or should that be Turkeys? It’s not looking good for citizens of nowhere these days. Although I don’t have their wanderlust, as a rentier I’m now probably part of the managerial aristocracy that’s been doing okay out of the TINA world order up to now. Said world order pretty much destroyed my job by first deskilling it and then exporting it to India, but I was lucky enough to be old enough to escape the rat race by sneaking under the falling portcullis.

I was never convinced by the theory of the lump of labour fallacy, and figured unrestricted low-wage immigration was going to lower wages for the poorer end of First World workers, a fair number of these voted for Brexit. Lo and behold, we seem to be getting evidence of the inverse effect of lower wages from the CIPD once the firehose of low-skilled workers is throttled back a smidgen – to wit

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said the number of applicants per vacancy had fallen since last summer across all levels of skilled jobs, and said shortages were forcing many companies to raise wages.

The number of people applying for the average low-skilled vacancy has fallen from 24 to 20 in the past year and from 19 to 10 for medium-skilled posts.

Well I’ll be flippin’ damned. Who’d a thunk it, eh? At least some Brexit voters may get some of what they wanted. The fall in low-end applicants is 20% compared to the 10% fall in higher-end applicants, highlighting who has been taking the sharp end of that shaft. It’s an ill wind…

Perhaps if our welfare and unemployment system hadn’t turned quite so vile and nasty in peddling the chimera that work is the way out of poverty for the unskilled and make them feel so shit about themselves, then we could have come to a better way of divvying up of the spoils of war. And of course these guys will have to spend some of their slightly increased wages on paying a lot more for imported goods and services on WTO terms if they are lucky, our man Jacob Rees-Mogg and the vile shit-stirrer Boris Johnson will see to that. Let’s look on the bright side, though. At least BoJo is no longer in the Foreign Office. British diplomacy used to be envied, while often suspected of perfidy. We will probably need friends in future, the great BJ never was an asset in that line of work. Continue reading “There be a rumbling and a sound of clucking chickens in the air”

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getting under the skin of Brexit

A lot of political discourse these days consists to yelling insults to the other side across an unoccupied no man’s land of the vacated centre. The Ermine is/was a Remainer, largely from the economic point of view, but I thought I would use Kindle Unlimited (KU) to try to get a understanding of what the other side thinks. I’ve already used Brexit Central, but the advantage of KU is that political screeds often end up on Kindle Unlimited, so you can sample a lot fast. 1 I wanted to try and get inside the heads of the majority, to let people develop their arguments, rather than take the soundbites. Plus people are more civilised when they think they are talking to the converted.

There’s a lot of dross on KU, some of the Brexit stuff confirmed the Guardian’s stereotype of the Brexiter as old racist white guys who hated immigrants. I wish I could remember the authors or the books in question, they yattered on about “common sense” but were basically latter day Enoch Powells without his rhetorical gift, and disliked all immigrants including white Eastern European ones. This kind of author made themselves known from the first paragraph.

I wasn’t after that, I was trying to get a handle on the case for Brexit. Two KU authors helped me get an idea, one was Daniel Hannan’s Why Vote Leave, with an honourable mention for supporting cast to his jingoistic book How we invented Freedom.  The other was Andrew Mather, who falls definitely into the category of old white guy 😉 One should always be wary of people who cite their membership of MENSA2 in an indirect appeal to authority but one should equally be wary of inferring the general from the particular, people who are wrong in some aspects aren’t therefore wrong in all. Mather’s book was

Brexit: Why We Won: What Remain will never understand about the Leave victory

which seemed to be a good place to start as a Remainer trying to understand the leave result. These aren’t the only decent books from Brexiters, but these were the ones I read rather than skimmed. I came away from the exercise with more respect for the internal consistency of the leave argument for its supporters.

The price I paid for this project is that Amazon now thinks I am  on a diet of the Daily Express, Breitbart, and this is the sort of reading they offer up, I guess one has to suffer for one’s art 😉

Last time there was a bit about trigger warnings, global warming conspiracies and social justice warriors, so I seem to getting less intolerant with distance from this exercise. I didn’t realise that Brexiteers swam in such waters 😉

Amazon is of the view that there is some correlation between Brexiteers and climate change denial, and oddly enough those that rail against speed cameras repressing their inner Mr Toad. It’s a funny old world, and it shows the toxicity of the way filters amplify extremes. In the analogue world you would walk past the billboards for the Tories, then the one for Labour, whereas on the Internet there’s some guy running ahead fo you swapping out the opposition’s ads for ads for cars, lingerie and PPI claims before your sensitive head gets troubled with uncongenial points of view.

Some of the problem of Remain’s argument was that it was bloodless and talked in terms of abstractions,  ‘the British economy’. I quite like this description of how dialectic tends to swing between the poles of abstraction and reflection, which puts the issues more poetically than I could.

The [British] economy is an abstraction, and for the last thirty years or so it has gone along with the assumption that neoliberal assumptions of free trade, globalisation and lower taxation are all good, and indeed ‘the economy’ has expanded greatly as a result. The Britain I graduated into, less than a decade after the last EEC referendum, was far poorer in general than the Britain of 2016, but not everyone was poorer than now in every way. As JMG described, the issue with abstraction is

it becomes impossible to miss the fact that the supposed universality of the world-theories of abstraction has been obtained by excluding countless things that don’t fit. Some of those excluded things are bits of data that contradict the grand theories, but some are much vaster: whole realms of human experience are dismissed as irrelevant because they don’t fit the theoretical model or the methods of inquiry that a given age of abstraction happens to prefer.

Let me take one example of human experience – youth unemployment. I graduated into Mrs Thatcher’s first recession, and found my first job a month after unemployment reached its high-water mark, worse for that age group than at any time since. I was unemployed for six months. The experience left enough of a mark that I never took that chance again,  finishing work from one company on Friday and starting at the next on Monday, until I went to work for the very last time 30 years later. Continue reading “getting under the skin of Brexit”

Millennials can chill about not having massive savings

… because they’re young. Young people generally don’t have savings, and it beats me where the idea came from that they should have. H/T to Monevator, who introduced me to the idea that people in FT land are feeling troubled that only one in six millennials have £100,000 in savings. My personal reaction to that was WTF, what do these guys know that I didn’t?

I was in my late 40s before I ever saw an account with six figures to my name. Apparently you need a deposit of £100k to buy a house in London. Housing has always been expensive in London. I was born in London, went to university there, and spend the first decade of my working life there. I had job-switched a few times and the Bank of England inflation calculator tells me I was earning reasonably well for a twenty-something. I was single and child-free.

What was the best housing situation I could afford back then? A single rented room in a HMO in Ealing where I had to put salt round the periphery to prevent black slugs invading the place. This was an upgrade on the various rooms in shared houses I’d lived in before. I was in my late 20s, and no, I didn’t really have any savings either, other than about £5k, because I had believed that I needed to pay the fees of my MSc course myself, but it turned out that the Manpower Services Commission gave me a grant. It still didn’t help me buy a house in London.

So I moved out of London. The problem of not having a deposit was still there, but when I moved to Ipswich I was earning better and the prospects for salary increases were better for me. So I borrowed about £10k from a MBNA credit card on interest-free credit for a year to put down as a deposit for a house, perpetrating the single greatest piece of financial folly in my entire life – buying a house at a market high. I used my better salary to pay down that interest-free card over the year – I really did pay 0% on it. But I didn’t have savings of £15k from the start. Those were more innocent times, when mortgage companies looked at only your salary and didn’t ask about CC debts, because such debt was not as commonplace as now.

That £15k deposit was the equivalent of £40k now. Earlier generations of Ermine weren’t any better at saving than Millennials. There is an argument that young people start off more skint now than they used to. There is a compensation for those working in cities that they observe much faster career progression in their early 30s than previous generations

so it’s difficult to tease this appart – I would say that average and middling talented young folk had an easier time in my generation that Millennials, but high-flyers have much better opportunities now, part of a general winner-takes-all trend.

The Hemingway law of motion – Slowly at first, then all of a sudden

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is this passage summarising  economic change

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Continue reading “Millennials can chill about not having massive savings”

The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West

There have been some interesting studies of work of late, and I took a read of some of these because the general picture I am getting is that the world of work has been steadily getting more and more horrible since I quit the workforce in 2012. A gem of a book that explains a lot of what is happening to work and what happened to my job is this book, which I discovered while web-ratholing via George Monbiot’s recent column. I was always going to be a sucker for his lede

It’s untenable to let salaried work define us.

although perhaps not so much for his line on volunteering 😉

The book is called The Global Auction: the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes, and as I started reading it I immediately thought of a couple I am vaguely acquainted with who have two children. They’re not rich enough to support their desired lifestyle and send both children to public school, so they send just one. This puzzled me as it seems an obvious way to fund an army of therapists in the troubled adult future of the child who is deemed unworthy, but I suspect that it’s a terrible misallocation of capital even in the case of the Most Favoured Child. It’s not particularly that the Most Favoured one is particularly clever or the Most Unfavoured particularly dimwitted. They’re both probably slightly to the right of the bell curve, for all I know they may well be sharper than I am, but the problem is in the conventional assumptions of their parents, that learning is earning.

The prognosis in the book for Most Favoured Child1 is horrific –

We believe that everyone has a right to know that the opportunity bargain based on better education, better jobs, and better incomes can no longer deliver the American Dream.

Continue reading “The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West”

London is a different country – they do things differently there

Mrs Ermine went to the Great Wen to wrangle some business there, and returned to the provinces with culture shock. London is at the leading edge of many changes in the way we do things, and the general principle of these changes is to take something simple and complicate the hell out of it.

That’s part of the way capitalism works, of course – there’s money to be made in the gap between action and comprehension. Never more, it seems, than in the simple act of getting a drink of water hydrated. The Coca-Cola corporation has been in this biz for donkey’s years, selling us sugar water, plus endless variants on sugar water without the sugar. Hell, they even tried to sell Londoners filtered tap water, which they filtered in some high-tech way that added bromate into to the Eau de Sidcup that Thames Water had competently filtered for them.

There’s a massive hoopla about plastic waste on now, and Mrs Ermine observed this piece of equipment in Hammersmith bus station

The Mayor of London’s water dispensing gear, along with the sign showing you it dispenses water over the floor

Continue reading “London is a different country – they do things differently there”

Mankind is hard-wired to work, sez Nick Boles

Bollocks, sez the ermine. I could stop there and make this the shortest post on here, but such spurious claims should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the idea you would die if you went over 30 mph and other such folly. I’ve batted on this wicket before, but it’s a good fight IMO.

Take it away, Nick:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral,” he writes.

“Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.

Why ever the hell not? If the robots are as good as they’re cracked up to be, then let ’em have at it. Where did this argument that work was an essential part of life come from? Clearly historically human work has been needed to arrange the world to a state more congenial to human life, such niceties as having food in the winter etc. We probably needed a narrative for why things were so shit at times, in Western culture I’d suggest it started with the Bible, to wit

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;

Clearly the search for knowledge was disparaged in Paradise1, once the necky Adam had chomped on the apple he got a right bollocking, In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread and all that. No work, no eat, buster, who’s a clever boy then?

When the Ermine household still had a telly, we watched a series by Niall Ferguson titled Civilisation – the West and the Rest. The dapper and erudite  Niall was no match for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation,2 but he made the premise that this was turbocharged by Martin Luther, to the effect that the rest of the world got to eat our dust up to about 1950, curiously the date so many of us would like to wind the clock back to. The problem with elevating the doctrine of redemption by faith alone is that it is an invitation to slackers to sit on their backsides, so Luther gives these idlers a pre-emptive bollocking

Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.

and there we have it, a straight line of reasoning from Luther to Nick Boles, via the collective unconscious transmitted through culture.

In living proof that children have no taste, the young Ermine read a lot of science fiction back in the day. I recall my mother’s face blanching when I told her I had identified Asimov as one of my favourite authors at the grammar school entrance interview after the exam. I got in anyway despite this undesirable taste for pulp fiction.

Today’s readers should bear in mind this was a world where I saw Nasa putting people on the moon live on the school TV. There was no such thing as global warming, and the Limits to Growth hadn’t been published. These were the days when the white heat of technology was going to give us electricity too cheap to meter, well, that is, if it didn’t kill us first. As such the primitive awareness of my juvenile mind saw nothing wrong with the implied myth of continuous progress that underpinned Asimov’s stories, and anyway, he was a good storyteller.

I had a particular penchant for his Foundation series, but the story that Nick Boles and his fellow Calvinist work is good for you boosters need to read is probably The Naked Sun in which we are introduced to the Spacer world Solaria, settled some two and a half thousand years hence. It is populated by humans called Solarians.

Now it has to be said that Solarians are sick puppies by our standards3, not particularly physically but mentally/culturally, they hate being in each others presence, communicating with each other through screens. Anybody with teenagers probably thinks we are nine tenths of the way there already, Asimov’s genius lay in anticipating this pathology of the human makeup before it was technically viable and out there for all to see.

Solarians would never have tolerated being in the same room as each other, but we’re getting there

Solarians have the edge on our teenagers because they have cracked the work problem totally. They are vastly outnumbered by their robots, who do all the work. Our Nick really wouldn’t like it there.

Now I don’t believe for a minute that we will be colonising outer space, ever, and the pressing problem of using fossil fuels to vastly increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the energy flow into the planet doesn’t bode well for the idea of settling Spacer worlds in a couple of thousand years. It’s not impossible, because perhaps as people get richer they have fewer children and we might be able to reduce the overall population to a sustainable level and have energy left over for that sort of thing. Or we might split into the .01% who own all the robotic resources and the rest of us be left to starve. Let’s hear it from Elon Musk

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

— Elon Musk, CEO and Lead Designer, SpaceX

Yup. Makes you wonder why Peter Thiel is such a lightweight then and has given up on seasteading as being technically too hard – at least you get a free atmosphere and fish. Maybe he should hitch a ride to Mars.

One of the main issues with Nick Boles is that a lot of his vaunted work is going to be shit work, like Uber or bussing tables and getting coffee. Now if we could train capitalism to value, or at least tolerate people, then let’s get the robots to do the work. At the moment we have people doing low end work that a little bit of investment could get the robots doing, and then let’s all chill a bit and get rid of this antideluvian work is good for you concept. In a world where human work was needed to keep it habitable and people fed, yes, we needed religious prohibitions on slackers. If the robots are up to scratch then we can let those prohibitions go and stop lauding work as an innate Good Thing. I figure a universal basic income would stop companies taking the piss and employing people on zero-hours contracts doing work a bit of investment could automate. Shit work should be automated out of existence.

Neoliberals will take pot shots at all sorts of things about a universal income. The owners of capital4 like houses will drive up rents and enrich themselves because people can pay more. After all, Piketty identified the problem, which is that the return on capital is increasing faster than the return on labour, so people who have labour and no capital are losing the fight. Not many of us are born with capital to our names, although the Guardian claims there’s hope for the millennials now, as we go back to the future and dynastic wealth starts to matter.

All of these are indicative of an economy running up against natural limits to growth – capital accumulated slowly across generations in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, but when productivity was boosted there was enough so that people in decent jobs in first World countries could accumulate wealth across a working lifetime in some cases. Productivity is falling and growth is lower than it was in the Sixties when I read those stories of extraterrestrial derring-do. Nevertheless, the Solarians have a good message for us, and we can read it in the story of the uber-rich, down to the Kardashians, the Ecclestone girls and all sorts, all the way down to Ermines. You really don’t need work to have a good time. It is a way, and it’s right for some, but don’t generalise, Nick. Work is overrated.


  1. one of the dreadful things the EU has been doing with our money along with spending it on Welsh roads and deprived areas in England has been setting up a website to disseminate European art, from which I got the cover picture The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Rubens and Breughel. You can read all about it and download a massive 9Mb image so you could use your 4k TV as a display of the finest art in the continent, all for free. I really am so glad we voted to get away from such effete pursuits. Presumably the Arts Council will use its vastly improved grant resulting from the Brexit dividend to do something similar in a year or so, focusing on British artists of course… 
  2. I was a little squirt at primary school then. The Ermine household was too poor to even know anyone with a TV never mind have one so I have never actually seen this, but my mother bought the book and I read it. I am of the general opinion that children have zero taste so it was probably largely wasted on me, but perhaps some of it stuck. 
  3. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Solarians would view us as the sick puppies, and I’m minded to say they really do have a point, in a world where for example we pay the Bath vice-chancellor half a million sods plus £2 biscuit money while we condemn young people to indentured servitude paying student loans off without having the balls to tell enough of them they aren’t bright enough to realistically get any return on investment. Not to mention a world where Nick Boles shoots his gob off about work being an inherent good. 
  4. Yeah, I know. And shares 😉 This is why we need regulation, to stop the owners of capital grabbing all of it. Nobody seems to be thinking never mind pitching for the happy medium 

Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement

It is now the winter solstice, the Holly King has vanquished the Oak King. It seems a good time of year to reflect on the balance of opposites, because uneasy lies the head that wears a crown...

The search for wisdom to go with knowledge is one of the themes of the second half of life.Joseph Campbell talked about the value of myth in passing on wisdom, in his magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For nearly two decades after my mid-twenties I hardly read any fiction at all, and it probably impaired my ability to comprehend the mystery of being human. That was okay then – you don’t become an engineer because you have a burning sense of wanting to work with people and understand how they work 😉

Establishing themselves in society in the Turning Outwards in one’s twenties, most people find some aspects of their psyche easier to face the world with. The extrovert seeks the company of people, and feeds off their energy. I was not one of these, I was never going to become a salesman, a politician or a motivational speaker. The inferior function, that aspect of one’s psyche that is not normally set against the world, slumbers across the working years, it is not efficient to play a weaker hand.

In my case this is pretty much the whole of the humanities in terms of knowledge, and perhaps a gentling of the introverted nature. I didn’t pick any of this up when I retired in 2012,  perhaps the first few years were occupied with the process of recovery.

But I am picking up signals from these inferior1 functions, now that enough time has passed since stopping work, and now that I have moved. Although we knew a few people here from before, it is invigorating to start anew, and the people we are meeting here value different things in life. They are generally from a more artistic rather than an engineering background. It is early days yet, but perhaps widening the range of activities I cover offers a different kind of reward, developing what has been idle for a long time. I am learning different things – to take one example I have become a better photographer in the areas of composition and the decisive moment, while perhaps weaker in the technical control of the camera since I let this be done automatically a lot more now. I needed to push myself in different areas of the craft, ones I have left fallow too often because they weren’t my strong hand.

Jung posits that the inferior functions of the psyche  still run in the background, and as one gets older these seek expression, to maintain balance. I was surprised to come across the same concept derived from a very different angle from the author Brene Brown, with an unusual twist.

Looking at others, there is a general principle, that energy and capabilities need to flow, the water must find its way to the sea. What is suppressed backs up and will out, but I hadn’t really thought this extended to what is unused.

life as a journey

I am fortunate in that the town I moved to has several bookshops2, and on some previous visit a couple of years ago I picked up one that was remaindered for £5, titled New Passages, by Gail Sheehy. I had already read the original version titled Passages, (predictable crises of adult life) as a library book, and drew on a lot of it when I wrote Journey’s End. There was also a lot of dissonance for me in the case-studies of people as they went through the stages of life. I assumed the dissonance was due to the fact that most of the cases were American, and the book was written when I was a teenager so it describes a world several decades old.

The blurb of the new book was

At last, this is your story. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your loves. You’ll see how to use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change — to grow to your full potential.

Mrs Ermine appropriated the book so I never got to read it at the time, I figured she may as well read it first since I had already read the original version. I’ve only now started reading the new version, which was written in 1995, and the original version was written in 1976. And saw Sheehy had written about the end of my career when I was just over halfway through it.

“Just at the point when […] reached their forties. however, sweeping structural changes were revolutionising the American and Western European economies. A digital revolution happened under their noses. Worldwide industrial competition grows more fierce every year”

This did happen to The Firm, when I was in my thirties. I had just foolishly overpaid for my first house, so I kept my head down and sucked it up. I was lucky enough to be too young to be the obvious target for the massive rotating axe swung above the workforce’s heads in 1997. Some of those guys got fantastic payoffs, some in their 50s being able to draw their pensions immediately with no actuarial reduction, effectively transferring the cost of redundancy payment from The Firm to the pension scheme. And Sheehy foresaw that, and in applying it to the generation 10 years older than me, foretold what would happen to me just over a decade later.

Sheehy’s description of the experience of the American blue collar workers presaged Donald Trump’s base. I shared  with them a roughly fixed work identity after I had job-switched in my twenties. I was intellectually agile enough to change field entirely, from electronics engineering to software/IT/networking as well as leading people as I drifted up the greasy pole. But it’s nothing like Peter Drucker’s3 exhortations

“you have to take responsibility for knowing yourself so you can find the right jobs as you develop and as your family becomes a factor in your values and choices. […]Simply being well-educated is no longer enough.[…] When you don’t communicate, you don’t get to do the things you are good at.”[^4]

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. because all the decision trees that fan out from any one state have been collapsed into what did happen, the one path pruned from the bushy growth of potential outcomes. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the younger Ermine had picked up Gail Sheehy’s signal earlier. I can’t even take solace in the thought that others didn’t see that coming – Jim at SMHD saw the writing on the wall in his thirties,

I used to worry about losing my job in my fifties quite a bit, and it was quite a driver behind the saving and investing that I did in my thirties and forties.

Jim SHMD

and I am a similar age. Jim may have been ahead of the curve here. The Cambridge alumnus magazine4 Cam 81 has a spine chilling vision of the ‘new normal’ global economy 3.0 where everybody should worry about losing their jobs, pretty much stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. It’s automation wot’s doing it, and

the reason firms in high-income countries want to pursue automation is because they are under competitive pressure from foreign imports.

A deadly economic flat spin coming our way. But hell, the bear case always sounds smarter, so let’s all whistle a dancing tune and invoke the optimist’s cure-all ‘human ingenuity’ and hope it doesn’t happen, eh? Having seen Sheehy be right on the economic forces, I figured I would see what she had to say about the more personal future. Continue reading “Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement”