Scottish Independence: Putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others?

At the end of May I returned from a week in Scotland on the Newcastle to Amsterdam ferry. By coincidence it was exactly 15 years to the day after I took the same ferry to begin a new life in the Netherlands. Post-independence referendum and post-UK General Election (in which the Scottish National Party gained 56 of the 59 Scottish seats) there is a definite change in the country I grew up in and last visited in 2012. A little prouder (in a good way) and more self-certain perhaps. The issues of whether Europe needs yet another country, whether it’s all about nationalism and hating the English, and whether the Scots would be a few pounds better or worse off was all rendered surprisingly clear.

saltireThe backgrounds of the people I met that supported independence were diverse. “Immigrants” (from EU and other parts of Britain), taxi drivers, company directors, paramedics, blacksmiths, lecturers, designers, engineers, shop assistants, but they all had one thing in common: the belief that the Westminster based politics is corrupt, unfair and unsustainable. And it will need a massive shock such as Scotland leaving to instigate change. The lack of investment in home-grown business and infrastructure, and the indefinite austerity that is hitting the weakest and most vulnerable cannot persist without grave repercussions for the fabric of British society. The people of Scotland for the most part appear to be highly politically attuned. They are hugely sceptical of the trickle down economic model and have no doubts that there is a massive shift of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest percentile.

As an engineer I have strong views on access to high quality education. In England many young people are already in debt to the tune of £40K by the time they have a three year Bachelors and are 21 years old. Meanwhile their Scottish based counterparts have paid no fees whatsoever (by the way things like medical prescriptions and bridge tolls are also free in Scotland). Such personal debt greatly controls subsequent opportunities and decision making, restricting the paths that are open to us (e.g. how readily would you quit a job if the employer locked you in by funding your studies?). Furthermore I believe investment in important research areas such as renewable energy is lacking in the UK. The threat of the UK exiting the EU should also be a cause for concern: loss of EU funding and collaboration, restrictions on the free movement of knowledge workers, impact on international trade, a likely exodus of multinationals, and possible repercussions for European stability and peace.

Last year a professor from England working at St. Andrews University succinctly said on Radio 4: “I would have liked to have saved the whole UK but I will settle for saving a little part of it.”

I actually believe that an independent Scotland would quickly bring about a change in the rest of the UK. One would hope regional assemblies would better address the needs of areas outside the Southeast and that following Scotland’s example a more progressive and liberal politics can take a foothold.  To expect this to happen without Scotland’s exit is naïve.

Programmers, Engineers and Politics

Should engineers and other technical people be more involved in politics?  Yes, we probably should.  With our analytic problem solving minds we could or should be able to provide a stabilizing hand to the sound-bite laden hubris.  However that means dealing with the kind of people that we’d normally prefer to avoid.  Almost universally there has been a rise in a political class – career politicians with no experience of the world beyond that of politics.  There is the amusing anecdote of former British minister for health under Tony Blair, Alan Milburn who by default was in charge of one of the world’s largest employers – the NHS.  He actually had business experience having run a second hand book store in the 60s caused Daze of Hope, which more usually went under the name Haze of Dope.  This is still more than could be said of his fellow ministers with the exception of John Prescott, who had been a ship’s steward in the 1950s.

English: John Prescott, British Labour politic...

English: John Prescott, British Labour politician, during his last day as Deputy Prime Minister. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The political class are the game players that have come to increasingly rule the landscape of governance, intelligence and even that of business.  And game is the apt word even if they are literally dealing with the welfare and lives of millions of people.  The financial crisis of 2008 and its continuing fall out remains a complex scenario.  The causes are well discussed and apparently were clear to see for many in the know, plus the all-knowing man in the pub who at heart knew that we can’t all get rich off selling each other houses with fantasy world values.  What remains a greater mystery is the inability to decide on a means of exiting the recessions and declining fates hitting many economies.  Is it possible to look at this as an engineering problem?  Here is my take on it.

First there was the bailout.  Now that was essentially done to stop global meltdown and general bad news by ensuring that banks could still lend to each other and keep the flow of money going.  Many too big to fails with men in the right places ensured that their institutions not only survived but were rapidly back to declaring record levels of profit (of which next to none is paid out in tax).  Meanwhile thousands of real world product and service businesses small and large went to the wall as they saw orders placed on hold or cancelled and their lines of credit drying up.

Second we saw the complete lack of prosecutions, or Too Big to Jail.  Unlike the Savings and Loans Crisis of the late 1980s we saw comparatively few prosecutions of guilty bankers – outliers like Madoff going to jail until the end of time and some French wet behind the ears minion (Jérôme Kerviel) getting a fine of €5 billion were meant to assuage our anger and thirst for blood.

English: Bernard Madoff's mugshot

English: Bernard Madoff’s mugshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirdly, governments discussed how we may best reanimate the wavering economies.  Interestingly the weakest economies were dealt an additional blow when their credit ratings were downgraded which in turn increased their cost of borrowing.  Even more interesting is that the credit rating agencies that now chose to downgrade whole countries were the same agencies that saw fit to put AAA ratings on the toxic subprime mortgage packages.  And in parallel the same politicians who allowed the whole mess to occur were the same to decide how we’d crawl our way out.  Primary solutions involved slashing interest rates, quantitative easing and austerity.  Now the former two are essentially giving the banks access to more money in the laughable hope they will lend it to businesses that can resurrect the economy.  Austerity is even more controversial.

From what I can figure almost no country had ever managed to successfully use budget cuts to get out of a financial hole.  Yes there is no point in wasting money, but not every country is as extreme as Greece and therefore vast overspending on internal costs is rarely the key issue (Greece also received massive loans before the proverbial hit the fan in order to continue consuming foreign goods that they could ill afford).  Basically countries are forced by world or continent level banks (World, European, etc) to conform to certain economic indicators.  These include trade deficits, interest rates, spending, etc.  At stake is our ratings doled out as discussed previously which in turn affects borrowing rates.  Bizarrely enough making gross cuts in things like welfare and education scores big points with the lords that be, even if it is likely to result in a more unstable society and long term skills shortage.  When the public protests we hear “We’re all in it together, we must all suffer.” Unfortunately if you are earning €10K per year and you lose 10% of that, this is far more painful than losing say 10% of €100K.  Yes really.  Cutting back on care is also an idiotic move that is rooted in fiction and exposes a cruel element of human nature.  A government says they need to cut €1 billion from the home help budget.  Now has this got anything to do with needing that €1 billion somewhere else?  Let’s forget any level of human compassion here and act like a hard, cold blooded money man.  That €1 billion is paid to carers who help old and disabled people stay at home longer.  We cut it and watch the real consequences.  First of all those carers pay tax, so we get a decent whack of that back anyway.  Secondly, we end up paying unemployment money and housing benefit to have some capable person sit at home, or if welfare not present we risk increasing crime rates.  Thirdly we need more places for old people in nursing homes which is far more expensive.  Fourthly we lose flow of money that these now out of work people would bring to their communities, the sales tax and the taxes these people pay.   Such cuts have nothing to do with economic reality.

Despite being told by financiers that we engineers do not understand the complex world of national and global economics, that does not mean we cannot apply some hard pragmatism.  As far as I know finance does not break down as we go to the world level as Newtonian physics does when moving to the subatomic.  No, it is quite simple at heart and all the layers of shenanigans above are just that, a means of disguising and delaying hard truths.  Goldman Sachs fudged the books for Greece and in the 1990s and 2000s the Irish gave an impression that they were the Celtic Tiger and were richer per capita than Germany.  This was, as was borne out, complete bullshit.

A country within its own borders need only decide what standard of living it wishes to maintain.  Is there a minimum level that we refuse to see people live below?  We then as a society distribute the work to ensure we meet that level.  Infrastructure such as roads, power generation and distribution, water and sewage, roads, railways, airports need building and maintaining; we need healthcare, food, transport, education, and we want entertainment, some luxuries.  If we can meet all these needs within our own borders the state bank need only create enough money to grease the system.  The money is invented from thin air as it always could be and still is.

Hoover Dam Bypass

Hoover Dam Bypass (Photo credit: dherrera_96)

After the great depression of the early 1930s the USA embarked on a series of massive public projects.  They were broke but they could still invent the money to get the work done.  How successful this was is still debated, with many believing that real growth in the USA only began after World War II.  The rise of Nazi Germany was in response to the devastated German economy of the 1920s.  But if the economy was so poor how could they afford to build the greatest war machine in history?  And amazingly even a broke country busy with cutting social services can pull plans out of the hat to build say a high speed railway or fight yet another war in a far flung land?

Ultimately the country draws parallels with the family – if we decide to outsource our housework then we better have the means to pay for it in an external valid currency (at home we can choose to use monopoly money or barter, outside our home we typically use the national currency but there are also local community currencies and the likes of Bitcoin).  If we choose to close our own coal mines and steelworks because it is cheaper abroad then we better have enough foreign currency to pay for it.  That means we need to export enough other things.  When we don’t then we need to borrow, so we need a good credit rating.  The good rating is dependent on factors like our trade deficit.  This can be hidden by making arbitrary cuts in internal budgets and playing in the casinos that our financial centres resemble, but ultimately a country cannot go on forever importing more than it exports.


Challenger (Photo credit: jesvwilliams)

Richard Feynman famously said that at the conclusion of the Challenger enquiry “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”.  I’d say this equally applies to economics and society.   As engineers, scientists and programmers we can keep this in mind next time we’re downwind of a mob of game playing bankers and politicians.