söndag 29 januari 2017

The Balance of Payments problem

Imports = wealth comes into the country, claims on wealth go out.
Exports = wealth leaves the country, claims on wealth come in.

So which is more beneficial? A balance of payments deficit means that the value of what comes in is more than the value of what goes out. If that were not the case, the trade would not take place. There would be no reason for it.

tisdag 24 januari 2017

Foreigners harassed after Brexit vote

A German friend was telling me about the harassment he has been receiving, even from colleagues, since the Brexit vote. This, would you believe, is at a university. It is nasty; however, what has happened is the outcome of decades of ignoring people's genuine concerns.

Joining the EEC was never a good decision for the UK. It was imposed by a political elite for a variety of reasons, some creditable, others misguided. Edward Heath, Prime Minister at the time, and one of the driving forces, had been an artillery commander in WW2 and was anxious to prevent another war. The original conception of the EEC was based on subsidiarity but that principle was never followed, with ever more control being sucked to the centre.

Joining the EEC meant, first, the imposition of VAT, and second, import tariffs and a big increase in food prices, as the UK lost its sources of cheap food. These changes were part of the cause of the steep inflation which followed after the UK joined in 1973. Older people remember this well.

VAT was a condition of being in the customs union. It would be difficult to think of a worse tax, which, incidentally, yields little more than if it did not exist at all.There was no public discussion about it - VAT was forced on the country as a fait accompli. VAT is an administrative burden, especially for small businesses. What it was introduced, it put up the cost of goods and services which had not been subject to tax before. After 1973, spectacles, which had been free under the original NHS, not only had to be paid for but were subject to VAT on top. This was a regressive and damaging tax and was deeply resented. VAT also put up the cost of services such as building works, meals in cafes and restaurants, accountancy, even repairs to things like cars, bicycles, washing machines etc. It promotes the throw-away mentality.

Then there were the agricultural and fishing policies, which led to food mountains, the destruction of the countryside in many parts of the country, and the destruction of the inshore fisheries eg along the Sussex coast. I watched it all happen.

That was "reformed" and then we had set-aside, the scandal whereby farmers were paid to let weeds grow in their fields. After another 15 years we got another "reform", and set-aside was replaced by the present arrangement under which wealthy farmers are paid just because they are landowners - welfare for the wealthiest.

The EU fisheries policy was equally inept. For decades, the rules prevented the landing of under-sized or the wrong sort of fish, with the result that large quantities were dumped back in the sea, dead.

Free movement of labour also harmed the poorest people in the country. If we have two countries, Richland and Poorland, and allow free movement of labour between them, wages in the two countries will drop to the level in Poorland. They do not even average out. Are workers in Richland going to be content with finding their wages drop through the floor, and that the trade unions left powerless to do anything about it? It would be difficult to think of a better way of promoting exploitation of workers. That is not the end of it either, as the increase in population in Richland creates pressure on housing, leading to increases in rent. It is truly a policy for the benefit of the property-owning classes, and the "progressives" cannot even see it.

I was one of those who voted to remain in the 1975 referendum, in the expectation that the more stupid policies would be reformed, but there has never been any indication of a willingness to reform. Agricultural policy is worse than ever.

As a member of the privileged group, I am one who has gained from the EU. The vast majority enjoy no perceptible benefit. In the face of decades of bad news stories based on facts, not inventions, it is only surprising that the vote to leave was not bigger. It seems as if the EU leadership is oblivious of the problems caused by its policies.

The only fortunate thing for the UK is that it did not join the Euro. A common currency is not viable without political union. It draws wealth to the geographical centre of the area in which it circulates, and it is unworkable if interest rate management is used as a means of economic regulation. We have found the same thing even within the UK, which is too big for a single currency.

What has happened is a tragedy which could have been avoided, but the principal cause is high-handed and out-of-touch politicians. If the EU had held to its founding principle of subsidiarity, Brexit would not have happened.

tisdag 10 januari 2017

Support pulled from D-train

The D-train is a project to recycle the London Underground's District Line D78 stock, introduced in 1978. It was heavily refurbished between 2000 and 2003 with new bogies and other equipment. It is basically in sound condition and good until at least 2025, but it was decided to replace it with the S-stock to provide London Underground surface lines with, for the first time, a uniform fleet.

This will in due course almost certainly prove to have been a bad strategy for London. Railway rolling stock tends to suffer from some weaknesses which show up almost immediately, and others which show up after a decade or two, in both cases affecting the entire fleet. The thirty Bulleid-designed Merchant Navy class all had to be taken out of service and eventually rebuilt, following an incident in 1953 which revealed a fundamental failure with the design. A similar thing happened with the thirty GWR King class locomotives after it had been in service for almost thirty years. It would be good luck if the entire fleet of S-stock is not eventually affected by some defect which means that it will all have to be taken out of service for remedial action.

But to return to the D78 stock. Adrian Shooter saw the opportunity to recycle this stock for secondary services on the national system. In principle that was a shrewd move, though easier said than done, because the trains are electrically powered and the intention is to operate them on lines which are not electrified. The chosen approach was to install underfloor engines to power generators to drive the trains' existing electric motors.

This might have sounded like an economical solution, but fitting generators under the floor of a train can be tricky; the weight of the equipment is one difficulty and the lack of space another.

And so it has proved. The initial use of the trains, now designated class 230, was intended to be between Nuneaton and Coventry. However, an engine caught fire on the trial run and the backers have pulled out of the project. That seems like a precipitate decision, but the project, it is claimed, has now been delayed to the point that it could not meet the timetable set for development.

One has to wonder about the thinking that lay behind the notion. Putting the generator in a separate and reasonably spacious compartment would have been easier and less likely to run into trouble. Using the carriages as locomotive-powered push-pull sets would have been even less risky, and more flexible too, especially if the locomotives used in the trial had been of a well-established type such as the class 20 or 37, of which a number are still serviceable.

Then there is this, specifically designed for secondary routes, within the constraints of the contemporary railway environment. It is nearly eight years since the developer, DLM-AG of Winterthur, came up with the proposal. The firm has so far failed to find sufficient interest for the minimum build of twenty units, costing around £30 million in total, which would be necessary to achieve a favourable price, around 30% of that of a comparable diesel locomotive.

lördag 7 januari 2017

Schoenberg and the atonals

BBC Radio Three is running a series of programmes on "The Second Viennese School": the group of composers that comprised Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils and close associates in early 20th century Vienna. Schoenberg himself was the subject of this week's Composer of the Week.

I have never been particularly attracted to that sort of music, though if you are used to singing Gregorian chant, it is not difficult to listen to. There is an interesting background. Schoenberg, who seems to have been a thoroughly good egg who had a hard life, was trying to break out of the diatonic (major and minor key) straitjacket, which, it was felt, had reached the limits of its possibilities by the end of the nineteenth century.

What is still not widely appreciated is that the dominance of diatonic music was a Western European phenomenon which took hold in the seventeenth century. Before that, and outside Europe, modal forms and other scales were and remain the norm. But even within Europe, the rules of diatonic music were famously broken by composers such as Gesualdo, William Lawes, Purcell, Bach, Zelenka, and Mozart.

That is not all. The music of the Catholic church, and the traditional Jewish music from which it was derived, is not diatonic but modal. The mode nearest to the major scale, Gregorian mode 5 (Lydian), is nevertheless different. The minor scale corresponding to the Aeolian mode, has no equivalent Gregorian mode. The other seven Gregorian modes are distant from the diatonic scales, none more so than mode 3 (Phrygian). Thus, if one is used to Gregorian chant, there is nothing strange about twentieth century "atonal" music.

Which brings us to Olivier Messaien, whose music also breaks out of the diatonic mould, but from a starting point in the Gregorian chant which he would have grown up with. There is here a sort of convergence. Messaien famously wrote no choral settings. He had taken the view that he could not produce anything of the quality of Gregorian chant and that it was a mistake to put one's work in a situation where it would be compared. A wise decision - in my view that helps to makes him probably the greatest composer of twentieth century church music.

Diminishing returns of British high speed rail

The typical inter-city journey in Britain is about 100 miles. Now look at this table of speeds and journey times; remember that to achieve a...