Out And Into The World

UK FlagWe actually did it. I was convinced for more than a year that the vote to leave the European Union would end up in a 60/40 result in favour of remaining. Once again, UK politics has confounded my expectations, and produced a result few predicted.

So what happens next? We have a new prime minister (in the form of Theresa May) and she’s stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, and has appointed serious “Brexiteers” to the task of negotiating our way out of the supranational entity.

But what exactly IS Brexit? It’s a negotiation that could have many different forms, so which is best?

I think the result probably helps inform this decision. People voted 52% for leaving the EU, and 48% against. A massive turnout with 17.5 million people voting to leave, in absolute terms that’s more people in the UK voting to leave than have voted on anything ever before.

But is it such an overwhelming majority that gives the government a huge mandate to pursue an aggressive and ambitious (and fast) Brexit? The numbers are large, but 52/48 is still pretty close. There’s a lot of people who bought into “project fear” and are deeply concerned about us leaving the EU. I think it’s important to bring those people on-side.
So Brexit absolutely means Brexit, but the closeness of the result should influence how we transition from being an EU member state to being an independent sovereign nation. It’ll take a little longer than a quick clean break, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

In the medium-term, there will be a limited series of economic wobbles, but nothing on the scale that “project fear” was threatening. Already their big scary warnings are starting to look a little silly, (I thought they did anyway to be honest). The threatened “emergency budget” never happened, but the drop in the value of sterling and the short-lived dip in markets did shake some people up. They saw it as the beginning of the Brexit warnings coming true. The question is, how can the 52% bring the 48% on-board?

A decent suggestion would be to create a situation where they see what leaving looks like, dipping our toe into the wider world if you will. After that, moving further out would be easier.

An idea I had would be to start talking right away to the EFTA countries (Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland), and secure our membership. It should be pretty straightforward. After all, it was the UK who created EFTA originally, as an alternative to the EEC.

Once a member of EFTA, we could leave the EU, retaining our membership of the EEA (European Economic Area). You don’t need to be an EU country to be party of the EEA, after all, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland are all EEA members (Switzerland has a series of bilateral deals with the EU that don’t require EEA membership).

As a non-EU EEA country, we retain tariff-free access to the single market on goods, services and capital. We could unilaterally invoke Article 112 of the EEA agreement to apply a handbrake on free movement (as it was an area of such concern for many who voted to leave). In return for an agreement of free-movement of people in the financial services sector, it might be easier to secure the so-called passporting rights to ply our lucrative financial services to the EU member states. And that means in return that Germany can make money selling us their cars, and France their cheese and wine. All tariff-free.

A couple of years of that arrangement, and I think two things would become clear to lots of the 48%: firstly, the free-trade deals forged with the rest of the world (that we can’t do while shackled to the EU) will become striking and valuable, with a strong possibility that we’ll get our self-confidence back. We may also end up thinking that these free trade deals are so good, that we couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of rejoining the EU and giving them up. There’s a whole world out there, and the possibilities surrounding rejoining it once out of the EU are too exciting to ignore.

Secondly, they will see, simply, that the sky did NOT fall in. Free trade continues with the EU states, and life goes on quite happily.

It’s from a position like that, that we can start to unpick the EEA agreements, and replace them with a series of bilateral agreements, Swiss-style. Plus, our current laws and regulations will remain on the books, each only being rejected and altered as and when we want to. That’s not so scary.

The future outside the EU is bright and full of promise. My sincere hope is that in time, even great swathes of the 48% get to see it too, once we’re out and into the world.

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In the Land of the Free, Disruption is King

Robot ArmThere’s a very human fear of technology ruining our lives.

“It’ll replace us,” we say, when a new-fangled bit of technology comes along. But is there any real truth behind that anxiety?

It’s our instinctive reaction. But that doesn’t make it the right one.

When I was young, I can still recall a (serious) news report, commenting – with furrowed brows – how, shock horror, some children as young as 8 “had access to the internet.”

That was it. It wasn’t that they were doing something wrong, or even that they were unsupervised. It was the fear that they were using new technology. I posted a great video here a while ago featuring the founder of Wired Magazine, who says that in the early/mid 90s, mainstream newspapers were still writing articles about the web as “The Internet – Threat or Menace?” and, though that precise type of hysteria about the web has died down, general fear-peddling about new advances hasn’t ceased at all.

The truth this, technological change is part of an observed phenomenon I’ve written about before: “creative destruction”.

In my great-grandparents day, there used to be someone who’d ride down the road on a horse and cart, selling blocks of ice, so the local housewives throughout the city could preserve meat and other things for longer. Eventually a bunch of clever American and Japanese people came up with an electrical device called a refrigerator, which has become a feature of pretty much every house everywhere.

Now the ice-block salesman’s job has gone. Indeed, so has the job of the people who made the ice. But seriously, are we worse off because of it? Furthermore, are they? Did those people who found themselves out of work lose out long term?

In the short term it must have been hard, but surely with their expertise in the freezing business, they were well-placed to sell and support those buying the new appliances. And today: well, those people are long gone, and their descendants are just like the rest of us – with better jobs, better (inflation-adjusted) wages, more buying power, higher standards of living, and even more leisure time than their great-grandparents could have dreamed of.

The smart and thoughtful Roger Bootle has raised some interesting points related to robots and artificial intelligence in the workforce. His article in the telegraph, though too negative for my money, is nonetheless well worth a read.

We can’t begin to imagine the hardship of living in an early hunter-gatherer society. Where the life expectancy is around 25, things were, to put it mildly, pretty hard. The agricultural revolution must have rendered thousands of hunter-gatherer “jobs” redundant. But everything got better. The industrial revolution must have rendered millions of agricultural jobs redundant. But everything got better.

This technological revolution is, well, yes, rendering many jobs redundant. But the wisest among us shouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve been made redundant. It’s an awful feeling. But for those of us who do find themselves out of work, the stats show that it virtually always leads to better things. And the world gets more efficient, and the standard of living of the people globally continues to rise.

In the land of the free, disruption is king. Long may it last.

Why We Should Celebrate Magna Carta Day

It's 'Magna Carta Day' on June 15th, and for my money, it's much better celebration of what it means to be English, than the tired old esoteric St George's day, which has just become an excuse to endulge in vague piffle to do with “what does it mean to be English”, without giving any real answer. Except for something about a dragon. That didn't exist.

If we really want to celebrate England's contribution to the world, it should be about the best gift our nation gave the rest of the world – namely, the rule of law.

Throughout the Commonwealth – and, indeed, the Anglosphere more generally – The “Great Charter of Freedom” is venerated and highly respected. Sadly, here in the country of its origin, we seem to have forgotten about it entirely.

So, on June 15th, take a moment to remember England's great contribution to the world, that radical, revolutionary truth: we, as human beings, are born free. And any tyrant who claims otherwise, is sorely mistaken.

 

The Best Deterrant to Piracy

PiracyEarlier this year, the chief content officer of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, pointed out that in places where Neflix was available, BitTorrent traffic fell. This is an interesting correlation. Cheap, easily available access to content on most devices without restriction encourages people to happily pay for it without looking for illegal alternatives.

One of my sources in Silicon Valley has told me that there are more users of Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s latest incarnation of their professional video editing software, than every Final Cut Suite user they have ever had. Yet the percentage of pirated versions of that software is lower than ever. This is a piece of software that only costs $299 (compared to the old suite which was north of a grand) and basically allows you to run and install it on every Mac you own or are allowed to use, with no restrictions. Improvements and updates occur automatically using the Mac App Store, so you always have the latest and greatest version.

And that same source tells me that Adobe have seen estimated piracy levels fall (though all of this is admittedly hard to quantify) since launching the Adobe Creative Cloud: Full access to the latest versions of all their pro software (a good few grands worth) for about $50 a month.

There’s a pattern here. Lots of films, music, ebooks and software is expensive, and saturated in lots of restrictive DRM (Digital Rights Management, i.e. copy-protection software) that dictates how and where you can use your content. On the other hand, most pirated content online can be used – and re-purposed – in a variety of different ways with no restrictions. In short, it’s more open, and it’s (mostly) free.

But when content creators publish their content without heavy-handed DRM restrictions, and at a much more reasonable price, then a supply-side effect seems to take place, where more people purchase the content and fewer people pirate it. The content producers (and as a novelist, I include myself in that group) earn more money.

Rather than create more rules and more restrictions on how we can use content, I’m hopeful that a cheaper and more open future is the direction we continue to move in.

The NHS: Britain’s State Religion

Stethoscope“The NHS is Britain’s national religion” stated then Prime Ministerial hopeful David Cameron before the last election. The phrase was meant to show he understood how preciously we hold the NHS to our collective heart, and that he wasn’t going to “tamper” with it too much.

He’s right that we hold it dear, and he’s right that we in the UK treat it as a religion, but he’s way off if he thinks this is a good thing.

A religion is a belief that operates on faith – without any evidence. Indeed, often the absence of evidence is a requirement. Even if there is evidence to the contrary, it merely serves to boost the congregations faith and proclaim their beliefs in a louder more vocal way.

The overwhelming evidence is that Britain, with it’s nation health service, has one of the worst healthcare outcomes in the western world. Everyone (almost) can provide some anecdotal story about how their Aunty Mabel received great treatment and that the nurses were very kind, but it’s just that – an anecdote. The fact is, even lucky old Aunty Mabel would have better treatment if she’d have been treated in Singapore, or Germany, or many other countries.

I have big problems with the healthcare system in the US. But those problems are the SAME as the ones facing Britain. The narrative in the UK is you either have our post-war NHS system, or you have an “evil” “private” system like the US. But what about the other systems, many of which, unlike both the UK and US models, are fairly free-market solutions?

The thing is though, pretty much all the ills with the American system are to do with the fact that it’s not a free-market system when compared to say, the cellphone market, or the grocery business. If the grocery industry was run like the US healthcare system, millions and millions of Americans would go to bed hungry every night. And more than a million every year would starve to death. But luckily, the comparatively free market grocery “system” in America means that the problems with diet over there are down to over-consumption (type 2 diabetes, heart decease and obesity), not starvation. I appreciate there are hungry people in the US, but I think we’re all smart enough to understand the problem in context. Tens of millions in the US will not go hungry tonight.

The US government contributes about 75 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare. There are anti free-market rules about not buying coverage in a different state to the one you live in, and if you do buy insurance, (or what they laughably call insurance but is really a system to pay for everything in advance, not just to insure yourself against unforeseen problems) you’re forced to pay for coverage for things irrelevant to you. But all that is for another post.

Basically healthcare the the UK and the US is faced with the same problem: the distance between the customer and the seller. If the majority of us had to directly buy your own health services and goods, the prices would fall and the quality would rise, at levels we can’t imagine now. That’s what happens in every other comparatively “free market” capital-intensive, zero marginal cost business/service. The problem in both systems, is the state stands in between consumer and service.

But you can’t make that argument in the UK. Because our Aunty Mabel said those nurses were so nice to her. Even when she went in for a chesty cough and contracted the norovirus on the ward. They were lovely. And the only alternative is the evil private American system where people die on the street because they can’t afford healthcare, right?

Amen.

The Secret to World Peace

Summed up better by libertarian magicians Penn & Teller than almost anyone else:

Yup. That.

DRM on eBooks

wbookA great post on TechDirt about an ebook publisher that hasn’t seen any significant increase in piracy since they stopped using DRM (Digital Rights Management, or copy-protection) on their titles.

If anything, the number of copies purchased increased. I always thought this would happen if you sell your digital products that are more aligned to what the market wants – i.e. a very good price and with no restrictions on where you can make use of them – you will always be better off.

If you have heavy copyright restrictions on a song, TV show, movie or ebook, the pirated version is actually better than the legit version. And you’ve just created a kind of moral hazard – there is now an almost valid reason or motivation to remove that copy-protection and once you’ve done that, why not just add it to a file sharing site or torrent? Where as if you just have it available cheaply, and copyright-free, people just buy it, use it, and – generally at least – have less motivation to share it. Just buy it yourself dude, and use it however you’d like.

Now let’s be clear, I’m a hypocrite. All of my books are available on the Nook, Kindle iPad, etc. And all of them have DRM. But that’s seldom a decision that’s made by the author. That’s a publisher/distributor issue. And I’d love to have no DRM on my books. In fact, DRM-free pdf versions of most of my books are available and as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t increased piracy on my books one jot.