måndag 11 december 2017

Bit coin futures trading

The BitCoin mania reminds me of tulip mania. I might be mistaken, since a currency has a value as a medium of exchange as long as enough people have confidence in it. The energy now being consumed in computing to “mine” bit coins is immense. A friend one described his computers as fan heaters which did computing as a side-line. There is a data processing centre in Helsinki which uses the waste for heating an office block. Perhaps BitCoin mining could develop in a similar way.

What, though, is one to make of trading in BitCoin futures? Is it the equivalent of trading tulip bulb futures? Luke 12:13-21 comes to mind. What could possibly go wrong?

lördag 9 december 2017

Balance of payments surplus - good or bad?

A balance of payments deficit indicates that the value of the wealth coming into a country is higher than the value of the wealth going out, which is exactly as it should be. Goods are always worth more to the buyer than to the seller, and worth more in the country to which they are imported than they are in the country where they are exported form. That is why international trade takes place. A balance of payments surplus means that wealth is leaving the country in exchange for claims on wealth flowing back in return ie foreign exchange balances. A country with a balance of payments surplus is experiencing a loss of wealth.

Sterling balances held abroad are the driving force behind UK exports since they create demand for UK goods and services, and generate foreign investment in the UK. Thus a country must import in order to export. That is why the the EU Single Market is so damaging, since it sets up an obstacle against imports from the rest of the world.

This is pretty much the opposite of what is generally believed these days about international trade. The prevailing view is a revival of the mercantilist idea which dominated until it was refuted by the classical economists, starting with the Physiocrats, and then developed by Smith, Ricardo, J S Mill and Henry George. The last named wrote the most accessible work on the subject, “Protection or Free Trade”, published in 1884 and still in print.

The threat to the financial services “industry”

Financial services have concentrated in London not as a result of a conscious decision but for particular reasons which make it the optimal location. By preventing EU businesses from making use of London-based services, it is forcing them to employ consultants operating sub-optimally, which will incur not only the cost of the initial disruption but also ongoing additional costs; such is the foolishness of the EU's trade policies. How things develop remains to be seen. Some of the business may eventually return to London for the very reason it has concentrated there in the first place.

The present over-concentration of financial services in London is unhealthy and leads to a raft of problems. The departure of those businesses leaves premises in London vacant. The owners of the buildings they occupied will want to find tenants and so new opportunities will open up for other commercial users; they could be involved in design or technology-related activities. The important thing is that the owners do not sit on their real estate and leave it vacant for years on end.

From the mid-nineteenth century until the advent of the Nazis, European banking was concentrated in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. That, too, happened for specific reasons which we are not likely to see re-created. You can read the story in "The Hare with the “Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal.

Dictator Pope - a book not to read

I will not be reading the book “Dictator Pope”, which has come out under a pseudonym. Were I to do so it would make me angry. That would be bad for my eternal soul, and probably for my heart also, which I need to be careful about. An ECG last week showed that it not altogether as it should be; I seem to have inherited something from my father, though he died at the age of 93 from a different cause altogether.

The problems at Rome did not begin in 2013, or with the Second Vatican Council, or with the First Vatican Council, or even with the schism in 1054. They are a product of Roman Catholic ecclesiology and emerged slowly from around the year 700.

Rather than engage with the Roman problems, I am walking away. I would advise others to do the same. Jesus Christ is the head of the church. His clear instruction was, “Follow Me”.  That is enough of a task. We do not need to concern ourselves with church politics which are plainly the work of the Devil.

fredag 8 december 2017

Min andliga resa till Ortodoxin

Snart kommer jag att bestämma mig. Det finns olika skäl som driver mig i samma riktningen. Det blir till helgen ingen Traditionell Latinsk mässa som sig bör. Inte på grund av brist på präster, utan för att alla andra präster (det finns åtminstone 10 präster i och omkring Göteborg) vägrar att fira mässan i denna uråldriga form.

Detta är bara en liten knuff som driver mig österåt. Jag kan inte ange exakt när resan började men säkerligen var det för många års sedan. Resan tog fart på allvar år 2013 när Påven Franciskus blev vald. Valet stämde inte i sig då den nya påven var jesuit; medlemmar i jesuit orden är efter löfte underställda att lyda påven. Detta i sig borde ha uteslutet en jesuit att kunna bli påve. Man kan sonika inte lyda under sig själv; det är en paradox i sig.

En annan knuff i aktuell riktning var påvens besök till Sverige i oktober 2016 för firandet av 500 års minnet av Reformationen. Gudstjänsten i Lunds domkyrka var minst sagt märklig, samt mässan dagen efter på Malmös fotbolsplan.

Situationen i min lokala city församling är inte heller som den ska vara; vi har en massa musikalisk talang men valet av liturgisk musik skapar nästan aldrig en känsla av katolicitet.

Liturgin var det som i början lockade mig till Ortodoxin, men liturgin i sig räcker inte som skäl att för lämna den Romersk-Katolska Kyrkan, vilken menar sig vara den enda sanna kyrkan.

Vändpunkten kom efter en noggrant omläsning av “Orthodoxy and Catholicity” av John Meyendorff, utgiven år 1965 strax efter det andra Vatikan concilium. Orsakerna är de vanligaste; De påvliga påståenden var/är överdrivna. Visserligen har vi haft många redbara och heliga påvar, men under de senaste 1000 åren blev tjänst som påve en slags belöning från de romerska adelsfamiljerna. Under 1300-talet flyttade påven till Avignon. Under några år fanns det tre påvar samtidigt. Påven Julius II måste betraktas som den högst ansvariga för Reformationen. Historien är inte någonting att känna stolthet över som Latinare.

Den romerska strukturen förlitar sig på en särskild tolkning av Matteus 16:18. Därifrån utmynnar tolkningen om hur kyrkan ska regeras, med påven som en slags kejsare. Olika tolkningar gäller likväl. Ortodoxins syn på biskopar vs kyrkan är att alla i princip är jämställda, eftersom kyrkans huvud inte är någon annat än Jesus Kristus själv. Patriarker och metropoliter betraktas som viktiga då de har ett andligt ansvar för en stor befolking som i fallet Konstantinopel och Alexandria. Strukturen i sig själv är platt/vågrätt istället för vertikal/pyramidformad och alla biskoper håller koll varandra för att den sanna Tro ska bevaras.

Ej att förglömma är det sk Filioque tillägget i vårt universella Credo. Dvs att den Heliga Ande utgår av Fadern och Sonen. Formuleringen motsägs av evangelisten Johannes i kap 15:26 där det står att "Hjälparen kommer som jag skall sända er från Fadern, sanningens ande, som utgår från Fadern." Filioque blev aldrig godkänt av något ekumenisk koncilium och leder till en obalanserad syn på Den Heliga Treeningheten vilket nedgraderar den Helige Ande på ett förunderligt sätt. (om än oavsiktligt från Rom)

Har även funnit att Ortodoxin har rätt i sin teologi/förkastande av ett antal Romersk-katolska post schism dogmer: synderfall, skärselden (gnistan som tände reformationen), den obefläckade avelsen, bruket av osyrat bröd under eukaristin och om det omdömeslösa i transubstantiationsläran - en spekulering runt Eukaristin i vilken den katolska kyrkan nästan verkar omfamna någon slags tro på en kemisk förvandling i Brödet & Vinet.

Jag kommer inte att hasta iväg österut men det verkar i det långa loppet oundvikligt att konvertera till den Ortodoxa Tron. Den slutliga resan dit kommer både att bli obekväm och krävande.

onsdag 6 december 2017

The Journey East #7

I am coming close to making up my mind. There are several factors prompting me in the same direction. This weekend, for example, there will be no Tridentine Mass at my parish, not because of a shortage of priests but because all but one of them (there are at least a dozen in and around the city) refuses to celebrate it. What does that say?

This is, however, only one little push moving me along on a journey which began,  imperceptibly, many years ago but gathered momentum following various events in 2013, including the election of Pope Francis, but also the local situation. The election of Pope Francis struck me as odd from the outset. A Jesuit, having made the special Fourth Vow of Obedience to the Pope, should have ruled himself automatically out of the running since obedience to oneself is meaningless or worse.

Another push was the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which took place in Sweden on 31st October last year with a strange ecumenical liturgy at Lund Cathedral, followed by an equally strange celebration of Mass at the Malmö football stadium the following day. Then again there is the local liturgical situation where a wealth of musical talent is available but is applied to the production of liturgies that usually turn out as pick-and-mix liturgical concerts, with something for everyone but which add up to nothing coherent. Yet another was the negative response by the Bishops in England and Wales, and then by the Pope himself, to Cardinal Sarah’s appeal last year that priests should celebrate Mass ad orientem.

Although liturgy was my point of entry the consistently good quality of the Orthodox liturgy would be a bad reason for joining the Orthodox church if the Roman claims are true.

What tips the balance comes from a careful re-reading of “Orthodoxy and Catholicity” by John Meyendorff, written in 1965 in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The reasons are the usual ones. The Papal claims do not stand up. There have been some fine Popes, but for too much of the past millennium, it has not been an illustrious institution; rather, it has been for long periods a trophy for aristocratic Roman families to pass between each other. At one time there were three contestants for the office. Julius 11 was responsible for precipitating the Reformation.

The whole Roman edifice rests on a particular interpretation of Matthew 16:18. From this is developed an entire monarchical ecclesiology which is, arguably, the cause of the present troubles in the Catholic church. There are other possible interpretations. Within Orthodoxy, as Meyendorff explains, there is a “flat” episcopal structure whereby they all keep each other in check and so maintain faith and praxis.

The other big issue is the Filioque clause in the Creed. It is an alteration which is unscriptural and has never been endorsed by an Ecumenical Council. It also gives rise to an imbalance in the Holy Trinity, in which, on the Orthodox view, which is derived directly from scripture, the Son is begotten of the Father before all worlds, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The end effect of the “double procession” implicit in Filioque is to downgrade the Holy Spirit.

Further points in which the Orthodox appear to be correct are in not defining as dogmas of Original Sin, Purgatory (the spark which ignited the reformation), the use of leavened bread, the Immaculate Conception, their understanding of the Real Presence and avoidance of discussion on the mystery of Transubstantiation, as though it were some kind of mystical chemical process.

I am not making any hasty move but it seems inevitable that I must do so eventually, uncomfortable and demanding though it will be.

tisdag 5 december 2017

Mercantilismus redivivus

Seen from a non-mercantilist perspective, ie the view which was held by classical economists from the Physiocrats, via Smith and Ricardo, to Henry George, roughly 1750 to 1890, the picture looks very different from the usual anti-Brexit narrative. EEC/EU trade policy would have been castigated by the classical economists as a revival of the mercantilism which they had worked so hard to refute.

The contemporary return of mercantilism was never based on a rebuttal of the classical view. It is just that the power of sectional producer interests has turned the majority of politicians, commentators and professional economists into mouthpieces for policies which work to their advantage; essentially, it is rent-seeking behaviour.

The interesting thing for future generations to ponder will be how it is that these  producer lobbyists, acting against the well-being of the public at large, succeeded in getting so many members of the intelligentsia to speak for them.

Brexit financial services exodus

An exchange of views in the FT discussion columns got me thinking about the sheer stupidity of the way the EU trade rules have been set up in the first place.

This is really an issue of finding a balance between the interests of producers and consumers - and between different EU member countries.

Producers should be able to look after themselves. They should be aware of what the competition is doing and stay ahead, or step sideways - which is what the UK heavy chemical industry did very successfully.

The policy can be changed as interests evolve. Tough discussions on anti-dumping have been going on for years, and will probably continue (as the United States could tell you). So when the UK leaves the EU, your business may indeed be free to import cheap Chinese steel into the UK. But wait and see whether the EU will allow the UK to export anything made of cheap Chinese steel to the EU. 

So the EU will get in the way of consumers and producers wishing to purchase UK products because they contain Chinese steel? That's insane.

There is something called « rules of origin » which the UK will have to renegotiate from scratch, and there will be quid quo pros for each concession. If at the UK national level, the UK has chosen to favour financial services over anything to do with steel, do you really think that in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU the UK will trade access for financial services against your sector’s desire to import cheap Chinese steel? I would be very surprised if it did.

There are reasons why financial services have concentrated in London. I don't know what those reasons are, and it does not matter. The point is that firms located in London are able to offer the best services ie those that customers chose by preference. So what you are saying is that the EU will force firms in the EU to purchase inferior or more expensive services. That's insane. It may be that alternative locations will prove equally good as London in time, but at heavy costs in disruption and reorganisation. That's insane too.

These are the sorts of realities the UK is going to be faced with over the coming months. Unless you are importing purely for use and resale within the UK, your situation is not likely to much different - and certainly not much better - than it is now.

Economics theory assumes rational behaviour on the part of the actors - ie that all participants will attempt to to what is best for them. Selling goods at less than the cost of production is an example of such behaviour. The EU's economic and trade policies (VAT, CAP and the Single Market) are another. That is the principal reason why neither the UK nor anyone else should be in an organisation which insists on this irrational behaviour on the part of its members. Hopefully the country where I live will quickly follow the UK out of the lunatic asylum, then the EU will have to do without SKF ball bearings and high grade iron ore since it will have to impose tariffs to keep imports out.

It is of course very difficult to deal with people who insist on behaving in ways that are irrational and against their own interests, but it they are the losers and the only option is to exploit the situation in the best way possible. An open door to imports, and low taxes on goods, services, corporations and individuals are the way to go, post Brexit. This leaves the government with no alternative but to raise most of its revenue through the taxation of real estate, but that is in line with OECD recommendations and it gets rid of the avoidance problem at a stroke. EU politicians will huff and puff but there would be nothing to stop them from following suit.

WTO rules and the Irish border

Remainers refuse to accept that the problem over the Irish border is one created by the way the EU Single Market operates and is in principle an EU problem.

When I posted under this Guardian piece that "The Republic don't want goods coming INTO their country from the post-Brexit UK. It's their problem and people in the Republic are the losers. I don't recall any threats from the UK to penalise Kerrygold butter etc and make it more expensive. What would be the point of putting up prices in UK shops unnecessarily? Getting out from under the tariff wall is one of the most important reasons for Brexit. UK consumers should not be forced to pay through the nose for stuff", responses were mostly offensive, or they referred to WTO rules
  • "Absolute bollocks...... complete and utter." 
  • "why don't you look up WTO Trade rules to see what tariff free trade will await you when you hard exit from the EU. Way to shoot yourself in the head uk. Clap, Clap ,Clap."
  • "Under WTO rules if you let in Kerrygold butter tariff free you have to allow in butter from every country in the world tariff free... goodbye british farmer." 
The arrogance and rudeness of so many of those in the remain camp is stupendous, which in itself gives no credence to what they say. If you ask people to quote the relevant WTO regulation, they cannot, so just about all the commentators are barrack-room lawyers. "Goodbye British farmer" is interesting, though, because Minford has said the same thing. It cannot be so. UK farm rents range from £50 to £250 an acre. This is a "cushion" against lower prices. As food prices fall - to the advantage of every household in the land - we need to be clear about who is paying for the present situation - then farm rental values drop. At some point, the poorest land is no longer rent-yielding and drops out of use as farmland. All other rents drop likewise. The tide is a precise analogy for the phenomenon, which is the classic situation as described by Ricardo. It is not a case of "goodbye British farmer".

There is more. If the exchange rate drops, then British farming gets a boost, as home-produce food replaces imports. Exports become attractive. The threat of "chlorinated chicken" and "hormone beef" is also an opportunity for British farmers to bring to market food which they can guarantee is wholesome and free of suspect chemicals. There are no laws against labelling and creating brands based on their quality.

måndag 4 december 2017

The dead loss of trade tariffs

Tariffs always result in an overall economic loss because they distort people's purchasing decisions. That in turn leads to the misdirection of resources. You are good st fishing and your neighbour at growing vegetables, so you swap fish for vegetables. A tariff barrier means that you waste time growing vegetables and your neighbour not only wastes time fishing, but also has to spend money on fishing tackle. The same objection applies in principle to any tax on sales, such as VAT. This is the case however governments spend the money raised.

The chain of economic losses caused by tariffs spreads around the world because almost every country's government is at it.

söndag 3 december 2017

Scary A&E failure in Gothenburg

This evening, I accompanied a friend, whose ankle has suddenly swollen up, to the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg. This was around 5.00 pm. He was quickly seen by the reception nurse, who told him, however, that it needed to be drained and that there was no-one who could do it. The nurse wrote a report and advised that he should take the report with him to Mölndal Hospital, where a doctor was on duty who could do it.

We arrived at about 6.00 pm, he was promptly registered, and after an hour's wait, he was seen by a nurse who took a sample, and told that he would be treated within three hours.

At around 9.20 he asked the receptionist how much longer the wait would be. He was told that it would be several hours more owing to the number of people in the queue, and there was only one doctor on duty. At which point my friend concluded that he could not wait until, possibly, three in the morning as he had to go to work next day, and so he insisted on leaving.

He was, justifiably, furious, considering that Sweden is the most heavily taxed country on earth. People are willing to pay high taxes so that the services are there when needed. If they are not, then what are they paying for?

lördag 2 december 2017

EU self-punishment

People talk as if the post-Brexit lock-out of exports from the UK will do no harm inside the EU. Import substitution, they say, will quickly solve any problems.

Matters are not so simple. There are many firms in EU countries whose major or sole business is as agents or importers from the UK. Many manufacturers produce items which include UK-made components which are not easily substituted, if at all. Simple things like the positions of holes for mounting bolts may not be in the correct positions. Substantial redesign and re-tooling may be necessary. Then there is the matter of spares and consumables; equipment may need to be scrapped prematurely due to non-availability.

At the consumer level this also affects, for example, the availability of matching items, such as replacements or additions to tableware, a popular import from the UK to Scandinavia, or paints, wallpapers.

There are also popular UK foods and confectionery; import substitution does nor work if you like some particular type of English cheese, such as Blue Stilton. Loss of all of these will lead to costs and frustration within the EU.

More importantly, the EU's approach to Brexit is illustrative of a wider issue relating to its entire philosophy of trade. Trade takes place when something is of more value to one of the parties than to another. An exchange takes place which leaves both parties to the transaction better off and results in a net increase in wealth. It is not an act of charity. Anything which gets in the way of the free exchange of goods and services results in a diminution of wealth. The agent of obstruction is in most situations government.

In constructing a single market inside a tariff wall, the EEC/EU has stymied the production of astronomical amounts of wealth which would otherwise have been enjoyed by the half billion people inside it. Any economist of the classical school, from the Physiocrats, via Smith, Ricardo, J S Mill and Henry George, would have been able to set out a long list of reasons why a tariff wall was a bad idea. The reason why their insights have been ignored is not because they were refuted but because politicians have been in thrall to powerful and vociferous sectional producer interests.

The loss of wealth does not stop inside the EU, but has spread all round the world. I can give a personal example. I cannot trade with my cousin in Australia because of the tariffs costs and paperwork involved; we concluded it would be too much trouble to set up a system to deal with it. Both of us have lost out due to the EU barrier to free trade. That is not the end of the loss. My potential customers lose because they cannot obtain a product they might have wanted. My cousin's suppliers, who are poor indigenous people, are deprived of a market for their produce, which would have given them useful cash income to lift them above their subsistence. So the EU trade rules create a chain of losses stretching from the Australian outback to the affluent connoisseurs in Europe. It is not just bad economics. It is stupid, and indeed wicked.

Thus, the uniting of the peoples of Europe, a noble objective in itself, was long ago highjacked by foolish or corrupt politicians at the behest of the aforesaid sectional producer interests. But then it is we who elect these foolish or corrupt politicians every time.

EU has all the negotiating cards

The EU's trump card is its ability to impose trade sanctions on itself at the cost of those inside the EU. I wonder if the North Koreans realise how lucky they are?

The Irish Border after hard Brexit

If the UK allows Irish produce in without tariffs, it will probably have to do the same for every import from the US, China, Australia, etc. Thus it not quite true to say, as is commonly claimed, that the WTO requires control of inwards movements in all circumstances. I say "probably" because Minford, who advocates free trade, unilaterally if necessary, has had one of his minions at work on the subject and has pointed out that the situation is not precisely as is usually asserted ie that the UK is required to impose border controls if it does not immediately offer unrestricted imports from everywhere.

Minford's advocacy of unilateral free trade is in accord with the conclusions of all the classical economists in the line of evolution from the Physiocrats, through Smith and Ricardo, to J S Mill and Henry George. That conclusion, which was in opposition to the earlier mercantilist theory, has never been refuted. It has just been ignored, together with most of the body of classical economics. But Minford, too, is in error in so far as he appears not to have applied Ricardian theory in his forecasts, which consequently are more pessimistic than would have been the case if he had.

The re-emergence of seventeenth century mercantilist economics has been driven by powerful, sectional producer interests, which cross the conventional political divide. This is a dangerous road; as Bastiat famously did not say, "When goods don't cross borders, armies will." Mercantilism eventually led to the ruin of Spain. In its protectionist guise, it retarded the industrial development of the USA. The abandonment of tariffs was an important factor in the spread of prosperity in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the abolition of the hated Corn Laws in 1846, (reinstated 1973).

One of the fallacies behind mercantilism is that economic activity is supply-driven, and so everything is looked at from the producers' point of view. Even the term "access to markets" has become perverted. In normal parlance, it means that customers have access to enable them to purchase the things they want or need, not that sellers can purvey their wares.

We all know from personal experience that the economy is demand driven, yet to judge from the post-referendum comments, one would come to the conclusion that people inside the EU were purchasing goods from UK suppliers as an act of charity, not because they want or need them.

It goes both ways. After Brexit, people in the UK will still want their Kerrygold butter. People in Sweden, where I live, will still want to buy their favourite British brands. All that a "trade agreement" does is get governments to agree to remove obstacles to trade that most of their own people do not want and did not ask for, but were forced on them by the sectional producer interests. The bluff needs to be called.

In the meantime, unilateral free trade gives one's own people access to markets (in the normal meaning of the term), and prevents resources from being wasted on producing goods which could be imported at the best price. If foreign governments continue to put obstacles in the way, their own people will suffer and complain, and that will lead to political pressure to put an end to the protectionism. There will also be blow-back, as countries need to import if they want to export.

The confusion over Brexit on both sides, and the EU's reaction is a demonstration of the zombie-like resurgence of economic theories which had been comprehensively refuted by 1800. It is willful ignorance on the part of the best educated. One of the worst offenders has been the Financial Times, a very different thing from what it was forty years ago when people such as the renowned Samuel Brittan presented the free trade case with consistency.

fredag 1 december 2017

EU-UK incompatibility

I received the following comment in a discussion recently about the troubled relationship between the UK and the EU.

"The EU set-up is quite comparable to most European countries that were pushed in the French administration model under Napoleonic rule or transferred to a similar system later."

In other words it is diametrically opposed to the English system (Scottish law is different). English law is based on Common Law principles as developed the case precedent and modified by statute.

In principle, everything is permitted unless it is specifically stated otherwise, on the basis that "The Law is written on men's hearts", a concept absorbed from Anglo-Saxon times and which is derived from scripture, not Napoleon. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15, Hebrews 10:18) It is this difference which lies at the root of all the conflict.

Ordinary people understand this, since it has been picked up by osmosis. It is significant that it is precisely the metropolitan intellectuals who have moved away from that position.

The "Four Freedoms" useless without a fifth

The Four Freedoms are a recipe for strife unless they are accompanied by a Fifth Freedom. Land needs to be free, free as air. And freedom to trade should mean what it says. We are not even free, in principle to trade with our next door neighbours.

What a pity that was not understood when the EEC was set up.

Curse of the wicked fairy

Christians should pray for Prince George to be gay, says C of E minister.

Christians should pray for Prince George to be gay to force support for same-sex marriage in the Church of England, a senior Anglican minister and LGBTQ campaigner has said. Very Rev Kevin Holdsworth says C of E will be forced to support same-sex marriage if the ‘Lord blesses George with the love of a fine young gentleman’.

In such an event one would not of course wish on the prince the fate of his antecedent King Edward II, (the actual king, not the locomotive, which is one of the three of the type to survive), but being gay is not something to be wished on anyone.

If William is a good father, loves the boy and spends time with him, and his mother is not over-dominant, it is unlikely that such a thing will happen. So the misguided clergyman is praying the the prince should have bad or incompetent parents.

A former chaplain to the Queen, Rev Gavin Ashenden, has described the comments as “unkind” and “profoundly un-Christian”, and said the prayer is the “theological equivalent of the curse of the wicked fairy in one of the fairy tales”. "Curse of the wicked fairy" sums it up concisely.

måndag 20 november 2017

UK's persistent low productivity

There is talk yet again about the need to improve productivity in the UK. The country's low productivity is curious and apparently persistent, assuming that the figures are not affected by recording errors or other systematic mistake. This problem is not going to be solved until the reasons are discovered. It raises some obvious questions, of which these are just a few:
  • What are people doing when they are at work?
  • How much time are workers actually at their work?
  • How much time is wasted doing nothing, waiting for other people to finish things?
  • How much time is wasted on abortive activities?
  • How much time is wasted in putting right what has been done wrongly?
  • How much time is wasted due to design not made for efficient assembly ie poor production engineering?
  • How many firms are operating inefficiently due to being in unsuitable premises?
  • How many firms are operating inefficiently due to being in an unsuitable location?
  • Are there geographical factors here eg transport costs?
  • How much resources are wasted due to logistical problems eg transport delays?

torsdag 16 november 2017

Useless talking shop



Gothenburg is in chaos this week, with roads closed, tram routes cut and buses being sent on long diversions because the city is the choice of location for an EU talking shop, under the title "Social Summit for fair jobs and Growth"

"Together with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven will host a Social Summit in Gothenburg on 17 November 2017, focusing on promoting fair jobs and growth. The Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth will gather heads of state or government, the social partners and other key players to work together on a more social Europe and to promote fair jobs and growth. 

"Well-functioning and fair European labour markets, effective and sustainable social protection systems and the promotion of social dialogue at all levels will be at the heart of the summit agenda."

Given the absence of a coherent theory of how the economy works, this expensive talking shop - with a lunch bill of £60 per head - can amount to little more than an exercise in virtue signalling.

Every EU country runs a tax system where the bulk of public revenue is raised through jobs taxes in one form or another. Sweden is one of the worst of all, with high a tax on income, starting at a negligible threshold, and a hefty payroll tax and value added tax at 25% (VAT - in Sweden, MOMS), with no threshold for registration and no exemption from food or other essentials.

VAT at a minimum rate of 15% is a condition of membership of the EU. It would be difficult to think of a worse tax, since it applies precisely at the point where supply meets demand. It is also subject to evasion and fraud on an industrial scale, as the EU is the first to admit.

One might have thought that EU leaders would be sitting down and discussing how to relieve their half-billion people of the burdens which they have imposed for the past half-century, and which stand in the way of fair jobs and growth.

The conference was a security headache and meant that those attending were effectively prisoners in the hotel compound and the conference area a couple of miles apart from each other. What made the news was a complaint on Twitter by the police on duty, which were handed lunch bags containing baguettes described as "inedible", while the politicians were sitting in the warm and getting lunches at over £60 per head. All of which has done nothing to enhance the image of the EU among the local populace.

The choice of Gothenburg was bizarre, as Sweden has dozens of suitable rural and island locations which would have been easy to secure, and would have given the politicians a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery during their breaks.

onsdag 15 november 2017

Has it worked, or is it the end of the road?

My former Parish Priest at Brighton, has written another depressing blog this week, lamenting the state of the Catholic Church.

The real question is whether the Latin church can recover? Some people point out that it has been through these crises before. But that was before liturgical reforms weakened the sacramental signs to the point of confusing Catholics as to the very meaning of the liturgy, and split the church into language groups so that it was hardly recognisable as catholic (with a small "C").

The problems also raise ancient issues such as the role of the Papacy, post-schism theology and dogma, and even the Filioque clause, which influences people's concept of the Trinity in a fundamental way.

The Latin church might recover. On the other hand, and it is difficult to see major changes of this kind when one is living inside them, it could be coming to the end of the road it has travelled for almost 1000 years.

If I were Chancellor...

I would be thinking along the following lines.
  • All import tariffs to be removed on B-day. The UK should not waste energy on trying to negotiate trade agreements. People abroad do not buy UK goods as an act of charity but because they want them or need them. It is up to them to put pressure on their own governments to get out of the way and stop preventing them from purchasing what they want. 
  • VAT to be phased out in two stages; it may result in no loss at all to the Exchequer. (this is the reason for the surprising conclusion)
  • Corporation tax to be scrapped on B-day. 
  • Additional revenue can be raised if required from the UBR (commercial rents will go through the roof if CT is scrapped, giving the Chancellor a juicy tax base). However, upwards-only rent revision clauses must be banned so that commercial rents can find their market level.
  • A national Council Tax to be raised on top Bands and G and H properties. 
  • Income Tax and NI thresholds to be raised substantially for people living and working in regions with depressed economies - at least £15,000.

tisdag 14 november 2017

Free trade case in a nutshell

That, "Industry and agriculture should be protected, for as long as we need people to have jobs", is a fallacy based on popular/populist economic misconceptions. Trump is following the line. The EEC/EU has followed the same line for sixty years.

The misconception ignores the principle of competitive advantage. You would not fry your own fish and chips if there was a perfectly good fish and chip shop across the road. Human progress has been built on division of tasks so that each does that which they are best at; the big strong guys went out hunting, while the weedy short-sighted ones stayed in the camp and made spear tips and fish hooks. Trade arises through the exchange of skills. Without specialisation, the little group of hunter-gatherers would have blunt spears and the weedy guys would have got eaten while out foraging.

The same principle scales up. A single family of homesteaders has to do everything for themselves. When a few more arrive, they can share out their tasks, take advantage of economy of scale and use their special skills to the advantage of the whole community. These benefits continue to accrue until a network of exchange relationships encompasses the whole of mankind.

Tariffs and trade restrictions get in the way of the development of the network. At the crudest level, they have the same effect as transport costs and are functionally equivalent to sanctions imposed by a hostile power. If trade restrictions were beneficial, one would expect islands, and countries like North Korea, to be more than averagely prosperous. It would also be advantageous to restrict trade between, for example, Oxford and Reading.

But it is worse than that. If you fry your own fish and chips, you have to pay retail prices for your ingredients and clean up the mess afterwards. It is an inefficient use of your time. Thus is it with protected industry. If they are less efficient than the foreign competition, they draw resources from the rest of the economy and make the whole less efficient, and indeed less competitive. Protection draws an economy into a vicious circle of decline. Even worse: if consumers are forced to pay more than necessary for some things, then they have less over to spend into the economy elsewhere, which then suffers from artificially reduced demand. Protection of one sector causes unemployment everywhere less. It is a lose-lose situation.

And that is just at consumer level. Where imports are components or raw materials used by other industries, those industries are forced to pay more than they would otherwise have done and become less competitive. The anti-dumping measures against Chinese steel are a good example. European manufacturers were deprived of access to a low-cost raw material. That did not make the low-cost steel go away. It was bought and used by manufacturers elsewhere, who were then in an advantageous position to out-compete the Europeans.

The rational response would have been to encourage European businesses to purchase and stockpile as much of the cheap steel as the Chinese would let them purchase. It is counter-intuitive, though not so very different from the way we manage our own household affairs.

EU protectionism has a particularly damaging effect at the borders of the tariff wall, as those who will be affected by the situation in Ireland have realised. But this is no different from what has been happening at the eastern boundary of the EU, on both sides. It has a particularly damaging effect in eastern Poland, Latvia, and Slovakia, where a natural trading region with ancient cultural and economic ties has been arbitrarily divided.

The situation with agriculture is slightly different. Foreign competition means lower food prices (again to the benefit of the rest of the economy), and therefore lower farm-gate prices. Marginal farms go out of business and the land is put to other uses. In the case of upland hill farms, this would be advantageous as they need to be managed for, among other things, water retention to prevent regular flooding of urban areas within the catchment zone.

Elsewhere, farmland rents drop and farmers go over to other productions. Given the terror of a wave of chlorinated chicken coming into the country, free entry of imports creates a marketing opportunity for producers of the wholesome alternative.

The idea that agriculture would cease is based on a lack of understanding of a basic principle of land economics.

måndag 13 november 2017

The terror of chlorinated chicken

I came across this in the Guardian comments section today

Will "The terror of American chlorine washed chicken" beat “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe” for first prize in the post-referendum decider?

The most recent study by the Agency showed that 65% of raw shop-bought chicken was contaminated with campylobacter. An estimated 300,000 cases of food poisoning are attributed to the bug every year in England and Wales alone.

The Food Standards Agency, Defra, the UK poultry industry, and major retailers have agreed a new target that will measure efforts to reduce the levels of the food bug campylobacter in chickens. There are three categories of contamination levels and, currently, 27% of birds are in the highest category.

The Agency's proposed action on campylobacter includes:
  • working closely with the UK food industry to trial new intervention measures on the farm, in slaughterhouses and at retail level.
  • setting a new target for reducing the levels of campylobacter on chicken.
  • helping to ensure people can protect themselves from infection with campylobacter by making sure they are aware of the need to avoid cross-contamination when handling raw chicken and to cook chicken thoroughly.
In addition to the fight against campylobacter, the Foodborne Disease Strategy outlines a full five-year programme for the reduction of food poisoning cases from all sources.

In the UK every year, around one million people suffer a foodborne illness, leading to 20,000 needing hospital care and around 500 deaths. Given the inability of so many not to poison themselves should the chicken eaters not be demanding chlorine washed chicken?

http://www.food.gov.uk/science/microbiology/campylobacterevidenceprogramme

fredag 10 november 2017

Irish border headache

One of the disputes that has bubbled up over Brexit is what to do about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It seems that the UK government has not a clue about what to do over import tariffs. WTO rules mean that it will be difficult to do the really stupid thing and impose them, even if it wants to. The chlorinated chicken will be on the shelves and if people don't want, that is where it will stay until it is sold off as cat food. That means in turn that the Republic would have no problems with getting imports across Great Britain.

It also means that that since the UK government is not proposing retaliatory tariffs so there is no reason why farm produce from the Republic should not enter the UK as now. What would be the point of making people pay more for their Kerrygold?

All the obstructionism is on the EU side as the single market rules kick in. This will cause the same trouble as is already experienced in places close to the EU's eastern border, on both sides; at Kaliningrad, Narva, Daugavpils, Bialystock, Vyborg, Pskov, Minsk, Lviv, etc.

From this point of view, a sensible option for the Republic would be to join Britain in leaving. The Republic's trade is not particularly focussed on the rest of the EU - its exports consist substantially of high value products like pharmaceuticals, which can be sent as air freight.

Fear of what would happen is largely based on a warped view of what the economy is for. Behind nearly all the comments on both sides of the debate is an assumption that the purpose of the economy is to keep people busy, that work is a good thing and as much of it as possible should be created.

We all know from personal experience that the economy exists to provide our wants and needs, whilst doing as little work as possible. There is a disconnection somewhere.  From this follows the received view is that exports are good, that imports are bad, that countries must have balance of payments surpluses and that the economy is a supply-push system.

Thus, on this view, access to markets is a privilege to be negotiated for. All of this is to forget that the worst punishment one country can inflict on another is to prevent imports from getting into that country, by sanctions, blockades and other hostile actions. If the received view were correct, North Korea would be among the world's most flourishing economies.

The reality is that the economy is driven by demand. Smuggling is an indicator of repressed demand. The idea of negotiating "trade deals" is based on a bluff. If the UK government puts a blockage on the import of Kerrygold and all the other Irish dairy produce that fills the shelves of Britain's supermarkets, the public and the trade will start to kick up a fuss.

What would be the effect of unilateral free trade? Sterling deposits would build up in the supplier countries. The value of sterling would drop, making UK goods relatively more attractive, at which point the demand for the UK goods would start to creep up again. If it did not, due to import tariffs, the supplier countries would experience a dwindling demand for their products from UK customers as the value of sterling continued to drop and imports were replaced by home-produced goods. Sooner or later the bluff would be called. The whole silly edifice then starts to fall apart as it is seen for what it is.

torsdag 9 november 2017

Nothing to celebrate

The 1989 Brighton Festival celebrated the bicentenary of the French Revolution, under the theme "A Taste of Freedom". I thought at the time that it was not the sort of thing that anyone should celebrate - mass murder and two decades of war were the consequence.

2017 marks 500 years of the Reformation and 100 years since the Russian Revolution, which took place on 8 November 1917. The first was a catastrophe for Europe, the second for the world. The death tolls in each amounted to millions. The Reformation has been the occasion of "ecumenical" services, consisting mostly of the singing of some Protestant hymns and sermons by representatives of different denominations, such as this one last Sunday at Uppsala; a dreary affair apart from an excellent sermon, by Cardinal Arborelius.

BBC Radio has filled up the week with commemorative programmes of the Russian Revolution, so that is best avoided. The Russians themselves have had more sense, having been on the receiving end of it, the event is being marked, if at all, by memorial services for the victims of Communism. President Putin, who once lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” deems the October Revolution itself, the USSR’s foundational event, no cause for celebration.

onsdag 8 november 2017

The Brexit tragedy

Brexit has been described as a "tragedy." That is a limited view. The EU was the tragedy. Brexit is just one of the consequences.

The seeds were sown when the the EEC was founded. Its leaders ignored a founding principle, that of "subsidiarity". Subsidiarity is a principle that first came to public attention in the Catholic Social Teaching encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931. It holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution.

Subsidiarity was formulated thus: "It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry." (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, 79)

Had this principle been followed, there would have been no Common Agricultural Policy, no tariff wall around the customs union, no requirement to levy VAT as a condition of membership, and no common currency. All of those policies have worked to the advantage of those at the core of the continental land mass, and to the disadvantage of those in the western maritime fringe and the Mediterranean south.
  • The CAP in its original form was against the interests of the population of a country which had traditionally imported much of its food from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and Argentina, and which was immediately cut off from this source. 
  • The tariff wall was also against the interests of a country which traditionally traded world-wide. 
  • VAT is one of the worst conceivable of all taxes, one its many ill-effects is to amplify regional geographical disadvantage. 
  • A common currency is impractical without political unity; worse still, it is damaging when interest rates are used as the primary means of economic regulation, as there is no interest rate which suits both the core regions with strong economies and the peripheral regions with weak economies.

It was not coincidental that the vote for Brexit was strong in those parts of the country which received most funds under the EU's structural fund under its cohesion policy for peripheral regions. The people in those areas received no perceived benefit. The money ended up the pockets of the large infrastructure companies and their mobile workforces, and enriched landowners in those peripheral regions. There was no trickle-down.

The real tragedy is that the founding principle of subsidiarity was betrayed and that the damage being done is not acknowledged, or even noticed by EU leaders and supporters.

fredag 3 november 2017

Digital barrier will stop terror trucks

An article in today's Metro explains that whilst not much has been done so far to prevent acts of terror with heavy goods vehicles in Sweden's largest cities, next year there are plans to introduce a digital technology which will limit access by HGVs, or restrict their speed.

One is left wondering who might randomly drive vehicles into crowds of people with the intention of killing as many as possible? The Irish Republicans have no quarrel with Sweden. As far as I know there is no radical organisation committed to independence for the Sami, or for Skåne. Nor is there any history of radicalisation among Jehovah's Witnessess or Christian Scientists. The article leaves the readers guessing. Who could the terrorists possibly be?


onsdag 1 november 2017

Let them export jam

Boris Johnson has been endlessly ridiculed for saying that Brexit Britain can live by exporting home-made jam.

I am not sure what his exact words were, but the those who ridicule have missed the point. "Jam" is a shorthand way of referring to specialist, upmarket niche products with a touch of snob appeal. They are something which the UK does very well; many retail products from the UK on sale in Continental Europe fall into this category.

Being in this market segment avoids head-on competition with Germany, where the UK is always at a disadvantage due to the added transport costs, which are a disadvantage of being on an island. Dover and Cheriton are in the extreme bottom right-hand corner of the country, whilst Harwich and Felixtowe, although better placed for Britain's industrial centres, involve a six hour crossing, plus another two or three loading and unloading; the crew of two have to be paid whilst sitting on board the ferry. The German manufacturer can do the delivery in one door-to-door movement.

This is the kind of thing that comes under the heading of "jam", in this shop in Gothenburg. The goods are Spode, Wedgwood, Portmeirion, Royal Doulton, Denby. It is not a trivial business.

Tridentine Mass last night

I went to a Tridentine Mass last night at our local parish. It was the vigil Mass for All Saints and was everything a Mass should be - the Proper sung as in the Liber Usualis, the Ordinary in a polyphonic setting and Credo 1.

I then retired to a pub with a group of friends. The conversation turned, as always in these situations, to the state of the church, and how our local priest has been marginalised and even subjected to harassment for his "conservatism".

He celebrates the Tridentine Mass every Saturday evening, on most feast days and at least one other day a week. That is impressive. However, there is not a single other priest in the locality who will stand in for him when he is away. Requests to other priests meet with a flat refusal; one gave the feeble excuse, that it was "too complicated". Can he warm up a meal in his microwave?

There seems to be a reluctance within groups like my friends to accept that parishes where tradition is holding are tiny islands in the ocean. Movements like the Latin Mass Society have put up a brave and determined effort over many decades. New Oratory congregations have been established in England. Summorum Pontificum was an immensely valuable boost; things were looking good ten years ago.

It now looks like a swansong. If one looks at the composition of the College of Cardinals, it is clear that the islands are eventually going to be submerged by the rising ocean. With the disapproval of the diocesan authorities, Our local priest will, sooner or later, be squeezed out (probably promoted into a situation of toothlessness) and the valuable work he has done will be dismantled.

How are the signs of the times to be read? How should one respond?

Free trade argument continues

If you were able to coherently tell us what your point is then I would be happy to answer.

I have but you cannot see it. It is an example of the head-vase illusion; if you are convinced there are two heads you cannot see the vase.

There is an almost universal habit of considering trade relationships through the wrong end of the telescope. It gave rise to the mercantilist principles which dominated in the seventeenth century, and were rebutted in the second half of the eighteenth, when the principles of free trade were established under the influence of Smith and Ricardo . Free trade took hold strongly in Britain in the nineteenth, the high point being the repeal of the hated Corn Laws in 1846, which were reinstated in 1973. Protection dominated in the US throughout the period; the damage done to the US economy was chronicled by Henry George in "Progress and Poverty".

Post 1945, mercantilism has crept back in the guise of populist/nationalist policies promoted by sloganising such as "Buy Home Produce". The British Empire was at it during the inter-war period, the EEC/EU has always been at it, Trump is at it. It exacerbates international tension, as is summed up in the the quote “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”, attributed to the 19th century French Liberal economist Bastiat.

Your beef seems to be the entire notion of a trading block, i.e. it should be open to all and sundry. 

Yes. I am against the entire notion of a trading block. They only happen because of the habit of looking at this the wrong way round. Open to all and sundry implies that importing is inherently a bad thing and must be controlled. That is an interference with a basic human right. People should be free to purchase from whoever they wish, regardless of whether they are on different sides of a national border.

I am afraid they don't work like that. The bull comment was flippant, but I stand by my point - you wilfully ignore the legal framework/current reality.

The current framework is not a divine ordinance. There is nothing to prevent any individual country from opting out of the game and allowing its own people to decide what they want to buy. If it is a good thing to restrict movement of goods across borders, why not have such restrictions around every town in the land, to discourage people in Oxford from bringing in goods from Reading?

And yes for my sins I am a lawyer that works with EU law in their day job.

I am surprised. I would have expected a lawyer of all people to read carefully and ponder what was said. Would you say you are a disinterested party in this debate?

Also you have switched from supply chain parts to seemingly finished products - different arguments. What is your point regarding those specific products? Simply that they are not substitutable? I think cross elasticity of demand would say otherwise given competing products are freely available. 

It is the same problem. Purchasers will have to find alternative sources or adapt to different products. I never said that it was impossible, but there is cost and inconvenience. There is, for instance, a flourishing microbrewing industry in Sweden. The raw materials grown in Kent and Essex need to be handled differently from their German equivalents. The producers will have to spend time fiddling about to get the process to work properly

Never heard of mutual recognition or complying with standards?

Standards exist outside the EU or indeed any particular trading block. Ultimately, trade is driven by demand. Suppliers have a vested interest in keeping their customers satisfied in the long term. The EU's standards are not always guided by sound principles. A few recent examples include the ending of the Esbjerg-Harwich passenger ferry due to fuel regulations which made the service uneconomic, the regulations on electric lamps which created a residue of mercury waste, and railway technical standards which were the reason why further railway electrification in Britain has been cancelled.

Nor are the standards even adequate, which has led to the development of voluntary schemes such as KRAV, Bra Miljöval, covering issues like animal welfare and residues in food.

söndag 29 oktober 2017

Protection = self-imposed sanctions

Sanctions are imposed on a country as a punishment. The ultimate form of sanctions is a military blockade - like the Germans did in the two world wars - submarines, battleships, bombers, mines, to prevent goods reaching Britain and the other Allies. Protection has exactly the same effect. It is astonishing that people find it so difficult to see the similarity.

Chinese protectionism and the sale of goods at below cost is at the cost of the Chinese. If their government is stupid enough to force its people to make stuff and give it away or sell it for less than it costs to produce, then the only rational reaction from the rest of the world is to take it and say, "Thank you very much!"

If someone in your street set up a bakery and insisted on selling the bread at half price, everyone in the neighbourhood would scratch their heads for a while and then take advantage of their stupidity. Nobody else would try to compete directly. Sooner or later the crazy baker would get the idea that customers were taking the mickey, or realise that they could not carry on like that indefinitely, but in the meantime they would make the most of the opportunity.

Economic models assume rational behaviour. When one player, in this case the Chinese, behaves irrationally and effectively gives stuff away for next to nothing, or everyone else has to work round their stupidity until they come to their senses. When and if that happens, they will want the proper price for their products.

What is the economy for, if not to enable people to provide themselves with the goods and services they want and need? It does not exist to keep people busy.

lördag 28 oktober 2017

Free trade deal oxymoron

Free trade means a country's rulers allow goods in tariff free and with minimal other restrictions. It is a unilateral action. It was demonstrated long ago by the classical economists that it is optimal for the importing country.

Other countries can do the best for their own people by following suit. Or they can cause them trouble, expense and inconvenience by imposing protectionist measures, eg the EU, Trump, Peron, etc.

"Free trade deal" is a contradiction in terms.

Trade deals

The classical economists demonstrated that if country A imposes restrictions against country B, then wealth in country B is optimised if it does not impose retaliatory tariffs. Which makes trade deals pointless and irrelevant. Just open the doors.

Obviously we do not want people selling 110 volt appliances when the national supply is 240 volts, and chlorinated chicken should be marked at least with its country of origin, but the general principle holds. A lot of issues with standards can be dealt with by control at the retail end, so that responsibility passes up the supplier chain to the importer (or manufacturer in the UK, for that matter).

The UK's vital interests

Britain's vital interests are that goods and flow freely into the country. Enemy opponents in two world wars were trying to block that flow, with battleships, submarines, mines, etc. North Korea is a potential enemy, which is why the country is under sanctions which prevent the sale of goods TO that country.

As far as I know, there has never been any threat from the EU to refuse to supply the UK with goods, post Brexit, whether it be ball bearings from Sweden, cars and washing machines from Germany, bacon from Denmark or tomatoes from Spain.

So as long as the UK government does nothing silly like imposing retaliatory tariffs, there is no problem on that score. On the contrary, leaving the EU means being free of the burden of tariffs which restrict the flow of goods into the UK and add to their cost.

At the same time, consumers and business inside the EU are faced with the same restrictions on importing goods from the UK as they already have when importing from the rest of the world. That is a burden we are well rid of.

onsdag 25 oktober 2017

Topsy-turvy view of trade

Trade takes place because goods are worth more to the buyer than to the seller. Everyone's idea of a good deal is that one buys things that satisfy their wants and are good value for money. A brand new car at a 20% discount is a good deal, in normal usage.

But in this whole debate over Brexit, the idea of a good deal has been turned inside-out. The "good deal" is that people in the UK are allowed to sell UK produce to people in the EU. It is as if people in the EU were not really buying British goods because they wanted them, but as a favour or act of charity.

The reality is that keeping out British goods is depriving EU people of the opportunity to purchase them. It is exactly the same as if the UK imposed sanctions on the EU and refused to sell its goods. In normal situations sanctions are imposed against a country as a punishment. In this case the EU is imposing the punishment on itself, not particularly because there is any desire to punish the UK but because that is the way the Single Market trade rules operate.

Why are so few people able to see this? Is it because it is too obvious?

fredag 1 september 2017

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Please pray for the repose of the soul of
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor
Bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years
Became Archbishop of Westminster in 2000
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

söndag 20 augusti 2017

The Journey East #5

Catholic Mass obligations
With the Tridentine Masses suspended for the holidays, I could not face the Novus Ordo vernacular Masses with Lutheran hymns which were all that was on offer in the Catholic church locally. I would come out feeling irritated and unsatisfied, if not outright angry at the liturgical vandalism verging on abuse.

The question that arises is this. Catholics have an obligation to go to Mass every Sunday. I have not missed going to Mass every Sunday, but the Masses I have attended have been Orthodox liturgies. Is this a sin that needs to be confessed? Can it even be confessed? Can a priest give absolution? If, at some point in the future I am received into the Orthodox church, what is the situation then?

The following reply came to my response on Fr Blake's blog
Physiocrat, I generally find that when somebody asks if something is a sin which needs to be confessed, they already know the answer - yes.

Our Lord did not invite us to pick up our crosses and follow Him only when the going was easy and edifying. We have to carry on carrying on even when we are wading knee-high in filth. Sometimes that might mean enduring banal, puke-making Masses like the rest of us have to endure on a more-or-less regular basis. You never know, God might give you the opportunity to bring a suffering Novusordo-ite to the knowledge and delight of the traditional Mass.

My response was
You might be correct about the sin in the interim period - that was why I asked, but the real question that arises is that "banal, puke-making Masses like the rest of us have to endure on a more-or-less regular basis" are unworthy as worship and spiritually damaging. Their universality also calls into question the claims of the Catholic church itself to be the one true church founded by Jesus Christ himself. How can we be sure that we are not in a schismatic and heretical church founded in 1054?

I am not sure there is any spiritual merit in putting up with atrocious liturgy. There is a failure here which stems from the top of the hierarchy and passes all the way down. We, the faithful are entitled to a worthy liturgy for our spiritual well being. If the shepherds do not feed the sheep, what should the sheep do?

Then there is the use of the vernacular. Latin is both a sign of Catholicity and a means of maintaining it. Having abandoned the universal language, can the Catholic church claim to be a universal church? This is not a theoretical thing - my own parish is divided into Swedes, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Spaniards, Slovenians, Slovakians, Croatians, English speakers - all Latin Rite Catholics - who hardly ever get to meet. There is not much universality in a church where the priest struggles to celebrate Mass in a language in which he is not proficient.

The problem originates in the monarchical claims of the Bishop of Rome. If the Papacy had held to the Orthodox view as first among equals, these liturgical changes could never have happened. Once one starts looking at the Orthodox position, other subtle but important points emerge, such as the Filioque clause, both in its substance and the manner in which it was adopted, Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, Original Sin, the use of statues, the design of churches, even the Sign of the Cross.

The Roman changes are all subtly damaging in different ways. The Catholic view of Transubstantiation seems to be that it is necessary only for the words of consecration to be pronounced by a validly ordained priest, whereas the Orthodox seem to take the far more sensible position that Christ becomes really present within the overall action which includes the building in which the liturgy is held, the music, and the Liturgy in its entirety. If the latter view was held, nobody would even have considered messing with the liturgy.

Orthodoxy is not a light and easy option to be followed because of the beauty of the liturgy, where, incidentally, standing is obligatory for most of the time, usually between 1 1/2 and two hours. It is a tough choice. During the fast periods only vegan food is permitted. There are not only the Advent and Lent fasts; there are also the four week fast before the Feast of St Peter and St Paul and a two week fast before the Feast of the Dormition (Assumption). In addition, with a couple of exceptions in the year, Wednesday and Friday in the non-fasting periods are vegan days.

The Orthodox Eucharistic fast begins at midnight and nothing, not even water, may be taken before receiving not just the sacrament but also applies to the antidoron.

If you just want some nice music, there are easier ways of getting it than by going to an Orthodox liturgy. You could stay in bed on a Sunday morning, have a leisurely breakfast and listen to whatever you want in comfort.

Fr Blake's original piece referred to the small numbers attending the EF Mass. It is a tiny minority within the church. The real picture is of a majority accepting the NO Mass but within that group an impending catastrophic decline, for which the 1960s liturgical reforms must bear an important responsibility.

The Journey East #4

A great blessing
The choir in our local Serbian church is now back in full force. They sing in the Russian tradition, in the same style as this broadcast. How fortunate can one be to have such a thing almost on one's doorstep?

fredag 18 augusti 2017

The Journey East #3

The local situation
The Catholic church in my part of the world is apparently in quite good shape. However, the liturgy is resolutely Lutheran in style and content. Far from the influence of Rome, it has become so thoroughly Lutheranised that Catholic services are almost indistinguishable from those of Svenska Kyrkan; any traditional Catholic music which happens to make its way into a Catholic Mass does so through a smörgåsbord approach to liturgy which draws primarily on Lutheran and English Anglican and Nonconformist sources. Sometimes, the result is hilarious, as when Britain’s favourite funeral hymn, “Abide with me”, was used a couple of years ago at an ordination!

I do not agree with the view of some Catholic traditionalists, that the Novus Ordo Mass is not valid. My objection is to the way it is almost invariably celebrated, which contravenes the guidelines in Sacrosanctum Concilium and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal to the point of abuse. Thus, in practice, if I am not to end up getting angry and in no condition to receive communion, I have to find a Mass in the Extraordinary Form. At my local parish it is squeezed in on a Saturday evening between a Spanish Mass and a Polish one, squeezed being the operative word when the Spanish one runs over time and the Poles are wandering in during the distribution of communion, so that one has to climb over them to get back to ones place. It is also celebrated on Sundays at a religous house out of town at 12 noon, not a convenient time for a lot of people, and at a cost of 82kr, about €8.5, for the return journey.

But it is not celebrated consistently or reliably. There are only the two priests who are willing to say it; the others are firmly opposed. So it stops when the priests are on holiday or sick, and in practice that means much of the summer.

In that situation it is tempting to look to the east for a consistently worthy form of worship. With the large influx of Christians from Orthodox countries, we are spoilt for choice.

onsdag 16 augusti 2017

The Journey East #2

The state of the Catholic Church
A few years ago I visited Riga, the capital of Latvia. At 9.30 in the evening, a crowd of young people came streaming out of a Catholic church in the city centre. This speaks of a church in a healthy condition. It is exceptional for Europe. In most of Western Europe, it is in accelerating decline. The picture is better in Poland but there too, it is not what it was, as secularisation takes hold. In France and Germany, and in formerly solid Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, the Catholic church has seen near-collapse.

It is the same story in the English speaking world: Britain, the USA, Australia; the Irish Republic, formerly a bastion of Catholicism, have experienced a precipitous decline in Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood.

In other former Catholic strongholds around the world, including South America and the Philippines, the loss has been to the evangelicals, supported from the US with vast financial resources behind them.

The Swedish exception?
There are, indeed, few countries in the world where the Catholic Church is in a healthy condition. Latvia, mentioned above, is one. Sweden is perhaps another. It was boosted by immigration and a stream of converts from the Lutheran State Church. However, even here, things are not looking as bright as they did a decade ago. The immigrant groups keep apart from each other. When parishes have Masses in half-a-dozen different languages, there is less opportunity for social gathering across the national divides. The children of the immigrants have tended to drift away. Given the extent of migration and travel, the switch from Latin to vernacular liturgy could not have happened at a worse time, for Latin was both a sign of the church's Catholicity and a means for maintaining that Catholicity.

Had the Swedish Cardinal and his advisers understood this, they would have acted vigorously to promote the universal use of Latin, and the once universally known music that goes with the Latin, in the Catholic church in Sweden. In particular, the Tridentine Mass is peculiarly suited to this situation, as the priest recites the Mass silently while the congregation follow printed texts which can be in any language as required. After all, a look at the Catholic church elsewhere shows that that tiny minority of parishes and congregations which have held to, or revived, the use of Latin and Gregorian chant have been an exception to the general trend of decline, so this could only have been beneficial in the long run.

In the meantime, at the Rome HQ...

måndag 14 augusti 2017

The Journey East #1

I became a Catholic in 1975. The circumstances of my conversion are summarised here. The subsequent four decades proved to be a something of an ordeal as the Catholic church underwent a period of radical change, to the point that I can hardly recognise it as the church I joined. This manifested at parish level in ways that were distressing for a great many. The reforms were a major factor in the implosion of the Catholic church in recent times. There was a widespread loss of faith. A handful went off to SSPX. People returning after a break during their teens found a church so different that they were unable to relate to it. My own experiences of this period are recorded in this series of seven blogs, Four decades of Catholic music.

From the mid-1990s, however, it looked as if a recovery was beginning, following the publication of books by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, such as "The Spirit of the Liturgy", and Fr Michael Lang's "Turning towards the Lord". Then, in 2005 came the election of Pope Benedict and Summorum Pontificum, which set free the Tridentine Mass, with the declared intention that it should influence the celebration of the Novus Ordo Mass, henceforth to be referred to as the "Ordinary Form" (OF). My own parish priest at St Mary Magdalen's, Brighton, embraced this "reform of the reform" with enthusiasm. There was indeed progress.

And then came Benedict's mysterious resignation in 2013 and his replacement by Pope Francis. It was immediately evident that he had no sympathy for moderating the changes which have taken hold since 1970, despite the fact that they are clearly not what was originally intended by the Vatican Council fathers, or are outright liturgical abuses.

With hindsight, the reform of the reform canbe seen to have been exceptional and sporadic. The slide has resumed, stiffened by support from "head office". Locally, the majority of priests refuse to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. In fact, they resist the use of Latin at all. They regard it as anachronistic and elitist, dismissing those who attend Latin Masses as reactionaries; in this, they are not entirely wrong, since the Tridentine Mass occurs at marginal times and only enthusiasts would seek it out.

Locally, there has been no improvement in the way the OF Mass is celebrated in the ten years I have been in the parish. It is on its third organist since I arrived ten years yet the overall sound of the Mass remains resolutely Protestant. The Proper is replaced by the obligatory four hymns which are almost invariably Lutheran, Anglican or English Nonconformist classics. The spirit of this music is entirely at odds with the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass in its traditional Catholic understanding.

I find it difficult even to maintain my hold on what is happening in the liturgy; indeed, I find it hard to avoid getting angry at the willful discarding of our musical tradition and the crass ugliness of what has replaced it.

Then there was the morning when I had to receive communion from a female Extraordinary Minister wearing jeans so tight that it was a wonder how she had managed to squeeze into them; kneeling down before reception of the host... That is not a spiritual state in which one can receive communion with a good conscience.

Other recent events have also disturbed me. There was the Pope's visit to Sweden last autumn. There were three funerals of parishioners who had been devoted followers of the Tridentine Mass, one of a man who died tragically young at the end of 2015, and the other two of very old men who had attended the Tridentine Mass whenever they could. A Tridentine Requiem would have been an obvious and natural choice for all three, but it did not happen.

In the overall scheme of things, we are, it must be said, fortunate in having two local priests who are willing to celebrate the Tridentine Mass at all; our parish priest, when he is not away, now celebrates once a week on a weekday evening, and on Saturday evenings; these are moderately well attended. Another, based out of town, celebrates on Sunday though at an inconvenient time and has congregations usually in single figures. But there is no continuity; there are weeks on end when it does not happen at all. Realistically, this speaks of an institution, and people, who stand on at the margin of the Catholic church.

The same applies to the use of traditional Catholic music within the context of the OF liturgy. It has been reduced to the status of items that can be picked from a buffet-table of choices. There is no sense or understanding that the liturgy is something given and fixed, which has to be performed as an essential component of the work of the Church.

So I find myself right on the fringe, to the point that there is almost no-one to whom I can even express my concerns without being attacked or regarded as a crank. It is not a good place to be.

Another disappointing Catholic moment

Yesterday morning's BBC4 Sunday Worship was from a Catholic establishment in Northern Ireland. With a slot of only 45 minutes, there is no time for a Mass, but there was no reason why the music played could not have drawn on the ancient tradition of the Catholic church. There was none. All we got were a few hackneyed popular hymns: Holy God, Morning has broken and Amazing Grace.

The recording is available until 10th September.

fredag 30 juni 2017

Dreadful music at Mass last night

I have pretty much given up on my local Catholic parish (there are alternatives) because the music is irredeemably dreadful. It is not that good quality music is never sung, though there was none on this occasion, despite it being the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, one of the most important in the calendar.

The real dreadfulness is the hymns. Last night's Mass began with Cecilia #132 ("Nu stiger sång mot paradis" - I have never heard it before), then came #96 ("The church is one foundation", music by S S Wesley) for the Offertory, #145 ("Jag vet till vem jag satt min tro" - I have never heard that before, either) at Communion and  #5 ("Now thank we God" music by Cruger) to finish up with.

The overall effect of that selection is a sound which is expressly and intentionally not Catholic. That is not the worst of it, because the hymns squeeze out the music which properly belongs to the Catholic liturgy; for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, these include the Introit Nunc sciovere, the Communion antiphon Tu es Petrus, and some setting of the same text, such as that by Palestrina or Byrd.

Before the Novus Ordo Mass came in, these would have been sung as a matter of course. They still should be; according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Latin texts and Gregorian settings remain the recommended first choice. Unfortunately, the guidelines are normally ignored.

In this instance I would not have known what was going to be sung and was not interested, as I had not planned to attend the Mass myself. I had guessed that I would have just become angry at having to sit and listen to it all, which is not a suitable disposition at Mass. As it happened, my fears were proved correct. I had arranged to meet a friend outside the church afterwards and saw the notice giving the list of the music.

It is particularly sad in the case of my own parish, as competent musicians are available and willing to sing the right music. One has to ask what is going on here?

måndag 26 juni 2017

The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah

Cardinal Sarah is the Guinean cardinal who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. He is also the author of The Power of Silence: against the dictatorship of noise, published by Ignatius Press.

The Cardinal has a lot to endure. Last year he put forward the suggestion that priests should return to the practice of ad orientem celebration of Mass. The response from most of the bishops was to advise priests to take no notice. The same line was also pushed by the Vatican; Sarah has run into strong opposition from the liberal wing, some of it verging on the racist.

As a prominent Cardinal he is in the running for Pope. However, given the composition of the College of Cardinals, his election to the papacy is improbable. If he were elected, he could be expected to pick up where Pope Benedict left off but he would then would run into the same problems that Benedict faced.

This is another demonstration of the critical state of the Catholic Church, which seems to be heading for a split as radical as that which happened at the Reformation. This time, the cleavage will be between the wealthy liberal church of the developed world, and the conservative church of the less developed nations. The Catholic church of Europe and the USA, is however, in a state of approaching rapid decline as priests retire and cannot be replaced due to the 40-year dearth of vocations. In some ways, the situation of the Catholic church today is more perilous than it has been since the Great Schism, since we have so changed the liturgy as to deprive the Mass of much of its signifying power.

The Cardinal's book, is, therefore, suitable reading for the times we are passing through, and thoroughly to be recommended.

måndag 5 juni 2017

Nothing to do with Islam

Following the incident in London on Friday night, there are still journalists and politicians who attempt to distance the present round of terrorist attacks from Islam and to blame them on Britain having made itself a target by interference in the affairs of Muslim countries.

The policies of UK and US governments have indeed aggravated the situation and spread the problem by destabilising, in particular, Iraq and Libya. However, since similar incidents have also been occurring in Germany and Sweden, which have done nothing but help fleeing refugees, and in the latter case, been very supportive of the Palestinian cause, that explanation does not hold water.

These is also concern about the guilt-by-association that is now affecting Muslims in general. Clearly, the large number of lapsed Muslims are not responsible, any more than those Muslims - probably the majority - who follow the peaceful parts of their religion's teaching.

The difficulty here is that Jihad is a fundamental precept of Islam. There have been some, throughout history, who have taken this to mean violent Jihad, to that extent, the present spate of terror attacks are not un-Islamic.

We should give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that the majority of practising Muslims are either unaware of this or understand Jihad in its metaphorical sense. However, in the present circumstances, they do have a duty to study their religion more deeply and evaluate it critically; in fact all of us have that duty. If they then chose to walk away, they need to have the assurance that they will not be hounded by the fervent believers who choose to hold to their faith, and society needs to offer them all the protection they will need.

Also, in the present circumstances, one has to question the wisdom and sensitivity of individuals who go about in clothing which identifies them as Muslims, thereby indicating that they are in a sense supportive of the actions of the terrorists; they are not obliged to wear the badge.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/04/theresa-may-british-values-muslims-terror-threat

söndag 4 juni 2017

Orthodox Whit Sunday



It was not my original intention today, but my plans were put out by a variety of circumstances so I ended up going to the Orthodox church this morning.

I have been experiencing a "pull" towards the Orthodox church for much of the past year, though it dates back for several years. A conjunction of events in 2013 was the initial trigger but the thing bubbled up again last autumn, after the Pope's visit to Sweden; I wrote a piece on the subject on this blog but it disturbed me in a way that has niggled ever since.

It is a considerable blessing to have a congregation locally which celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic. The parish is Serbian, but the services are also attended by Russians and a few Swedes who are spouses and converts.

At some point, Deo volente, a choice will have to be made, probably in about twelve months time. Or possibly not. I am not going to rush things. It is necessary to learn more, which will mean a lot of reading to be done.

As a non-Serbian, to be received into the Serbian church would seem strange, not to say perverse. It would take a lot of explaining. To join the Russian Orthodox would make slightly more sense, especially given the international reach of that church these days and the status of its Patriarch as a world Christian leader. Both, however, have political associations, which is the underlying problem with Orthodoxy as a grouping of national churches, not to mention the Church of Euphorbia.

There is a Swedish Orthodox church in embryo, attached to the Antioch patriarchy, now based in Damascus and under the protection of the Bishop in Paris. However, the Swedes have their liturgy on a Saturday and their church is out in the country. So from a practical point of view it would work less well. In any case it makes little difference to go to liturgy not understanding all the words in Church Slavonic or not understanding all the words in Swedish; the Serbians and Russians probably do not understand it all, since Church Slavonic is roughly as close to Russian as Latin is to Spanish or Italian. Either way, one needs to study the readings in English beforehand, and now that the priest has kindly given me a calender, I can have a look during the week.

How much more will the British tolerate?

The British are phlegmatic, tolerant and slow to rouse. Thus there was no great reaction after the terrorist attack in July 2005. The murder of Lee Rigby created a sense of outrage, but nothing more, since it appeared to be an isolated incident. Two serious incidents within a fortnight are another matter.

Since the first major terrorist incident in 2001, authority has tried to persuade the public that Islam is a religion of peace, that these were isolated events, or the actions of deranged "lone wolves", having nothing to do with Islam, or to reassure that the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack were infinitesimally small.

These assurances are are beginning to wear thin. They no longer convince. If government does not act effectively, people will take the law into their own hands. What, however, would effective action look like? What sort of effective action would not amount to rough justice for a lot of innocent people? Given the difficulties of keeping large numbers of people under constant surveillance, preventative action would involve taking many thousands into preventative detention, an action that would lead to further radicalisation. That in turn would eventually lead to the need to screen tens or even hundreds of thousands. Such measures are not acceptable in a liberal society with Enlightenment values.

Things will get ugly. The Manchester and London murders (yesterday's was the second in four weeks) will no doubt help to attract recruits to the unlovely English Defence League; retaliatory action will quickly follow the next Jihadi attack.

Thinking Muslims ought to take the opportunity to reconsider their position. Is their religion really the peaceful doctrine they have always believed it to be? Is it not time to distance themselves from it? What do they imagine is the effect on the wider community of going about with clothing that advertises their allegiance to Islam when appalling things are being done in the name of their religion?

onsdag 31 maj 2017

In the Holy Month of Ramadan...

In Afghanistan, "Scores of civilians have been killed after a massive explosion in a highly secure diplomatic area of Kabul left 64 people dead and wounded more than 300, the Afghan interior ministry said on Wednesday."

In Iraq, "An Islamic State car bomb that targeted families eating ice-cream after breaking their Ramadan fast has killed at least 17 people and wounded 32 more in southern Baghdad."

In the Philippines, "Police and security services have imposed a night-time curfew and increased their presence in a second Philippine city following reports that Islamist militants fighting fierce battles in Marawi might pose as civilians to sneak out and open a new front. More than 90% of Marawi’s 200,000 population have fled a week of street clashes and aerial strikes. Many have relocated to Iligan City, 24 miles to the north, where authorities have implemented a 10pm to 4am curfew."

Also in the Philippines, "The CCTV monitor was showing a live feed of gunmen in the hospital lobby. From the safety of another floor, Jan Yamit, a 23-year-old health worker, watched in horror as the militants shot a police officer and then a security guard before storming into the building.

“I can’t explain what I was feeling. I was nervous. I am pissed by those kinds of people. They kill defenceless people,” he said of the attack in Marawi, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

He and his brother, who worked as a lift operator in the building, sneaked from one room to another. Eventually, they found a wooden plank and made a bridge from the third floor to a neighbouring building.

“Those who were killed were Christians,” he said.

The attack on Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 people, by the Islamic State-linked Maute group this week has led to a fierce three-day battle, with the army deploying attack helicopters and special forces. At least 46 people – 15 members of the security forces and 31 militants – have been killed. On Friday, the Maute held its positions on bridges and remained hidden in buildings, despite heavy overnight artillery and airstrikes."

 In Egypt, at least 26 people, including children, were killed and 25 wounded in a gun attack on a bus carrying Coptic Christians south of Cairo.

And this was just the first week of the Holy Month. Into the second week, we now have 7 dead and 21 critically injured in London - less than a fortnight after the Manchester attack.

Bit coin futures trading

The BitCoin mania reminds me of tulip mania. I might be mistaken, since a currency has a value as a medium of exchange as long as enough peo...