Don’t Wallow in the News of Celebrity Deaths and Donald Trump – 2016 Was the Best Year Ever

Happy New Year!

I hope you celebrated and made yourself merry last night on New Year’s Eve. I especially hope that the results of the US election (if you didn’t want to see President-Elect Trump), Brexit (if you’re a remainer), celebrity deaths (if you’re everyone else), etc., didn’t sour your personal festivities.

Last year I wrote a post about why 2015 was the best year ever for the human race and how 2016 would be better. I was asked by some, that surely I wouldn’t have the same view now that 2016 is over, given some of the “awful” things that have happened?

Not at all, I stand by what I said completely. 2016 was incredible. Yesterday, in the run-up to counting down the end of the year, I launched – unplanned – into a tweet storm of good news stories of 2017. Rather than another lecture on why the last year was such a good one for our species and the world overall, let me just post some of those tweets below.

Whoever you are and whatever you do in 2017, I wish you every happiness.

It occurred to me that this was turning into a rant of sorts at this point. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound…

See, 2016 was awesome. But just watch. 2017 is going to kick its ass.

Advertisements

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.

2015 Was the Best Year. 2016 Will Be Better.

Happy New Year.

It’s tough watching the news on TV, or listening to it on the radio sometimes. And – trust me on this – it’s sometimes harder having to read it. The grim facts of awful deeds being committed around the world are often enough to turn even the most resilient of stomachs. I can’t tell you how many times this year as a broadcaster I’ve been upset at the stories I’ve had to cover: from being on the scene of the Shoreham Airshow disaster, to having to ‘up’ the death-toll in Paris, between each hourly bulletin.

But it’s not all bad news. In fact, it’s mostly good news.

Good news doesn’t translate well into news bulletins though. It’s not a criticism of my fellow journalists. It’s pretty hard to talk about rising standards over long periods of time, but completely relatable to talk about an awful event that’s just taken place.

As we have welcomed in a new year, I’d like to take a moment – if you’ll indulge me – and point out why despite the migrant crisis, economic disasters, and sickening terrorist attacks, 2015 was in fact the best year in the history of human existence. And it wasn’t just a ‘fluke’ year. 2014 was also better than 2013, which was better than 2012, and, well, you get the idea.

Not only that, but 2016 will almost certainly be measurably better than 2015 for the vast majority of our fellow species.

This isn’t wishful thinking. Quite the opposite: it’s a simple statement of fact. There are fewer hungry people in the world today than ever before. Yes, fewer as a proportion of the population than ever before, as well as in absolute terms, and that’s even considering the fact we number over seven billion now. We’re still well on course to virtually eliminating absolute poverty in the lifetimes of most people under the age of 40.

Proportionately, there are fewer victims of violence than ever, a fact made clearly when we consider that the last century – which contained no less than two world wars – was actually the least violent century with fewer conflicts than at any time in the history of human civilisation. Yes, we’re right to worry about ISIS, President Assad, and Yemen, Libya, Paris, Charleston. But that’s just us doing what we’ve always done: paying attention to the immediate bad news. It’s much harder – and often quite counter intuitive – to step back and look at the slowly-emerging positive trends of humanity.

Many people, reflexively, intuitively, but wrongly, think that things are always getting worse. If you look at 50 or 100 year ‘chunks’ of time, it’s seldom true. In fact, year-on-year these days, the world is getting better. For example:
2015 literacy compared to 2014? Up.
2015 sexual equality compared to 2014? Up.
2015 human longevity compared to 2014? Up.
2015 infant mortality compared to 2014? Down.

We’re better fed. In 1990, the number of our fellow humans suffering from malnutrition fell to an incredible 19 percent. Fewer than one fifth of us. Amazing. But it got better: despite the increase in population, today the number of us suffering from malnutrition has collapsed to 11 percent and is falling all the time.

The rise of free markets and free trade (both of which could always be freer of course) has dramatically seen more of us healthier than ever before, and overall we’ve made remarkable improvements to the environment around the world. Cleaner water, increased biodiversity all playing a part. We’re so used to hearing that the environment is facing irrecoverable catastrophe, that it’s almost heresy to write those words. But ‘conventional wisdom’ doesn’t make those words any less true.

Another boon in the rise of ever-freer markets is the continuing decline of poverty. Earning $1 a day (in inflation-adjusted 1990 prices) is the definition of extreme poverty. Back in 1990, 43 percent of the developing world population lived on it. It more than halved by 2015 to 21 percent, and globally, it’s 9.7 percent: less than 10 percent for the first time ever. Single-figure extreme poverty. We really are going to make it history.

Even with Syria, Paris, and many other places, terrorist deaths are generally on the decline. The United States continues to wrestle with the issue of mass shootings, despite the number of homicides continuing to fall there by a steady 3,000 each year. Between just 2000 and 2015, the number of people worldwide dying due to violence had fallen by six percent.

There’s just no getting away from it. 2015 was generally for the average person, the greatest year to be a human being. I’d stake every penny I’ve got on 2016 beating it.

The Machines Won’t Destroy Us

Terminator HeadThere's been a hell of a lot of doomsday movies and books over the years, chronicling mankind's fall at the hands of the machines we've created.

While I find these stories to take on the position of the Luddite, I often find them entertaining. But it's always worth pondering their message: Will the machines one day rise against us?

Advances in neuroscience are coming on in leaps and bounds. We're entering a new dawn of artificial intelligence, combined with astonishing improvements in microtechnology. These will lead to better and smarter machines, and maybe, eventually machines that are smarter than us.

It's why a number of scientists, innovators and thinkers (not least of all Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) have expressed concerns about where this is all headed.

It's not a new worry. Every time new technology supplants old, we wonder what the tragic human cost will be. In the short term, we often see people lose jobs and so on. But factoring out what economists call “creative destruction”, basically we do okay in the long run. Things get better, and innovation leads us to a better place.

As machines get smarter, I can't see them wanting to wipe us out. Many of the top neuroscientists in this field seem to lean to the same conclusion. While we'll make strives in creating machines that share many of our emotional traits, most of the innovation that we have seen and will see in the future, will be in the neuro cortex area, dealing with logic, reasoning, and knowledge.

Machines will be able to pass on lots of knowledge, and store more information than you or I could ever possibly hope to. But that's not the same as “feeling” or anger, hate or any other traits. Machines will learn from past experience, and then (just as slowly as us in many ways) discover new ideas, and work out how effective they are.

Even if they have ideas about destroying us, and replicating themselves without needing us, the logical part of the neuro cortex programming will almost certainly always lead them to one reasonable conclusion: “Humans made us. They innovated and brought us to be. If the goal is to grow and advance, they are our best hope for precisely that kind of innovation and advancement.”

With this in mind, I don't think we have much to worry about from the technology we're creating.

Skynet's not going to be coming for us any time soon.

 

Economic Festive Cheer

It’s Christmas Eve, and as we stagger toward the end of another year, I thought I’d point out this upbeat assessment about where we’re heading in the UK job-wise.

The Institue of Economic Affairs has published this interesting piece putting to rest many of myths about the free market system. Maybe not one to take to bed after too much mulled wine, but it does point out that, as I often say on this blog, things ARE getting better.

A couple of points from the piece’s author, Christopher Snowdon:

    • Wages – Over a century’s worth of growth has led to a steady rise in wages across the board. Despite perennial claims that the poor get poorer under capitalism, government figures show that in the UK average real wages have doubled for full-time workers and come close to doubling for part-time workers since 1975. The percentage of full-time workers earning above the national minimum wage has also increased, 98% earning at least £6.19 per hour in 2013 compared to only 55% earning more than this amount in 1975 in real terms.
    • Income – Between 1977 and 2011/12, the incomes of the poorest 20% of individuals rose by 93% in real terms. The recent recession saw the incomes of the richest fifth of households hit hardest, their disposable income falling by over 5% in real terms between 2007/08 and 2012/13. According to ONS figures, during the same period average incomes of the poorest fifth rose by over 3% in real terms – the provision of state benefits cushioning declining pay.
    • Inequality – Rising income inequality and relative poverty are often mentioned by critics of capitalism. Neither offer a meaningful measurement of whether or not the poor are better off. Having peaked in 1990, income inequality in Britain has been declining ever since. Despite real disposable incomes of the poorest fifth of households rising by 50% between 1975 and 2005, the number living below the relative poverty threshold increased from 13% to 15%. Reductions in inequality and relative poverty typically coincide with periods of general impoverishment which harm the poor.
    • Social mobility – Social mobility in Britain has not ground to a halt, mobility remaining broadly constant in relative and absolute terms for at least 100 years. The majority of those that are born poor move swiftly up the income ladder, almost all becoming wealthier than their parents. Intelligence and ability play an important role in determining individual progression.
    • Working hours – Average working hours for British employees continue to fall. According to OECD figures, over half of UK workers are working less than 40 hours a week and fewer than 12% work more than 50 hours a week. Only those on high incomes have experienced an increase in their working week.
    • Economic growth – Sceptics of further economic growth should bear in mind the benefits to be had from ongoing prosperity. Between 1965 and 2000, average incomes worldwide have doubled – contributing to improved living standards and a substantial reduction in poverty. Aside from job creation and the boost to wages, further economic growth is vital in order to afford increasingly burdensome welfare spending.
In 2000, the average person in full-time employment was clocking in 37.7 hours a week. By 2011, that was 36.4 hours, with fewer than 12 percent of us working more than 50 a week. Back in 1992, it was 38.1 hours. It’s progress. Slow, but getting there.

Yes, things are getting better in the workforce. It doesn’t always feel like it, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Happy holidays.

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.

 

Cooling the Language of “Climate Change”.

Ice ShelfCame across a smart and engaging article from The Spectator’s website this morning, about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) toning down the alarmism in their fifth report.

It’s been a while (2007) since their fourth report, and even that dampened some of the alarmist rhetoric on the concept of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. The rumours are that report five will go even further:

The summary of the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be published, showing that global temperatures are refusing to follow the path which was predicted for them by almost all climatic models. Since its first report in 1990, the IPCC has been predicting that global temperatures would be rising at an average of 0.2° Celsius per decade. Now, the IPCC acknowledges that there has been no statistically significant rise at all over the past 16 years.

Let’s take the 16-year figure with a pinch of salt. Both alarmists and skeptics have been seen to use 1998 as a significant date, but in both cases it’s unfair. When the alarmists like Al Gore used it in the late 90s/early 00s, the huge spike in temperature in ’98 seemed to seal the deal. At the time skeptics were keen to point out that 1998 was the year of the El Nino and so showed disproportionally high global temperatures.

Turns out the skeptics are right, and so the recorded temperatures after 1998 were lower, but what skeptics need to remember, is that the trend of warming continues, and so should exercise caution when using it as a data point now.

However, even factoring 1998 out of the equation, the most interesting thing about our data for a decade and more is that despite the exponential rise in manmade CO2 emissions around the world, the temperature has only slithered up. Rather in-line with the lack of sunspot activity we’ve had, in fact. And much, much less than the 0.2 C rise per decade that we were warned about.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that even though the CO2 we emit contributes to the global temperature, the belief that anthropogenic CO2 is either directly or indirectly the primary driver of our climate is on increasingly shaky ground. As Michael Crichton once put it: “I’m certain there’s too much certainty in the world.” The cost of adaption – even by the IPCCs figures – is a fraction of the cost of mitigation. When will we be able to have that debate in the political sphere without people calling overs “deniers”, etc?

Just on a side bar: I wonder how many mainstream sources will report this in any depth – or at least quickly dismiss the lack of significant warming? For example, it was widely reported by the BBC et al in 2007 that by the middle of September 2013 (you know – right now) there would be no sea ice around the Arctic due to our continuing obsession with pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. This year though, the sea ice is more substantial than any time in the last 12 years and in line with what we’d expect over the last 35 years. But we’ve forgotten the alarmist story now, so we don’t notice. We’re far too busy looking at the next scary story.