Trumped Up Trade Talk

“Sooner or later every war of trade becomes a war of blood.” – Eugene V Debs

This past week has been an interesting one in terms of international trade news. President Trump announced, via a Tweet, that he was slapping import tariffs on Chinese steel and that “trade wars are good, and easy to win“.

The ripples of this announcement are still spreading but already countries and trading blocs like Canada and the EU are considering retaliatory tariffs.

The thing is, China isn’t even a particularly major player in US steel imports. It barely factors on any of the top fives by specific products.

US Steel

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The Limits of GDP

“Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” – Simon Kuznets, developer of the measurement of GDP on the limitations of the statistic.

There’s a measurement of technological advancement in science and science fiction circles known as the Kardashev Scale. It measures how advanced a civilisation is by how much energy it consumes or is able to harness using its technology.

A Type 1 civilisation is able to use the same amount of energy as falls on their home planet from their home star. For Earth-Sol, this is a power consumption of about 7×1017 Watts.

A Type 2 civilisation is able to harness the entire energy output of its home star – either by colonising many star systems or by fully enclosing their home star by energy gathering technology like a Dyson Sphere. For our star, this is about 4×1026 Watts or about 500 million times the energy consumption of a Type 1 civilisation.

Finally, a Type 3 civilisation has the technology to harness the entire energy output of a galaxy – a feat rarely reached in even the most ambitiously scoped sci-fi but see Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence for beings which are capable of at least this and more. This level of tech involves the consumption of about 4×1037 Watts or about 100 billion times the power used by a Type 2 civilisation.

And where does our wee planet sit in all of this? Carl Sagan extrapolated from these points to create a more comprehensive mathematical formula for calculating a given civilisation’s Kardashev number. He also estimated in 1973 that humans generated an average of 8 Terawatts of power which gave us a Kardashev Number of about 0.70. As of 2015, our energy generation has increased to an average of about 19 TW which makes us now a Type 0.73 civilisation. Extrapolating out linearly, we should hit Type 1 around the year 2325.


Imagine that the only thing that the scientific community really cared about was our progress up this scale. All of science was bent towards our expanding our power generation and consumption base. And all that politicians cared about was their “Kardashev Growth per year”. It wouldn’t matter if your discipline was physics, chemistry, biology or whatever. Anything that grew the Kardashev number was funded. What would we be missing if that was all we cared about?

(For my academic friends who want to draw parallels with the current obsession with citation number and impact factors…you’re not wrong, but…next time.)

It’s worth noting that whilst total global power generation has increased by a factor of 2.4 since 1973, global population has only increased by a factor of about 1.8. The “global average human” today is using about 33% more power than the “global average human” of 1973. This is due to a massive reduction in global poverty and an unbelievable expansion of buying power and access to technology around the globe.

Of course, there are limits to this kind of measurement. Technology doesn’t just get more powerful and more widespread as it develops, it also gets more efficient. The fitness band I’m wearing right now weighs less than 100g but has orders of magnitude more computing power and uses orders of magnitude less electrical power than my first desktop PC from the mid-1990s – never mind the room-sized behemoths of the early days of computing in the 1950s and ’60s.

We also must think about the environmental impact of our technology – another major difference between 1973 and now is the exponential expansion of renewable energy technology at the expense of fossil fuels.

A 2015 Megawatt emits about 20% less carbon dioxide than a 1973 Megawatt and that figure is about to fall dramatically over the next decade as we electrify our heat and transport industry.


So obviously, rendering a civilisation’s level of technological development down into a single number and then measuring the growth of that number might be interesting and may be useful as a very broad comparator but it probably doesn’t tell anything useful about the shape of that society or what’s going on inside it.

So why do we expect the same from other renderings such as Gross Domestic Product?

This measure – essentially the sum value of all economic activity within a country in a year – was developed in its modern form in the 1930s and has since become the gold standard of national statistics. Huge swathes of statistics are measured either in relation to it (think of “national debt as a % of GDP”) or as a derivative of it (GDP growth” or “GDP per capita”, for instance).

But even at its inception, the creator of it noted the limitations. A measure of the growth of GDP says very little about how that growth has occurred or who has benefited from it.

I was able to discuss some of these issues when I visited the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee earlier this week as well as in an article in CommonSpace yesterday.

The Scottish Government has, to its credit, tried to improve some of the measurements it uses via program like the National Planning Framework. One of these is the idea of “inclusive growth” which explicitly states that measures should be taken to ensure that when economic growth occurs, it should not simply accumulate with the top few percent.

It’s a laudable goal but I still have my reservations in that the metric is still pinned onto the concept of “growth”. Just as a growing economy may accumulate wealth in the top, it’s possible that a recession could increase inequality too. Imagine a drop in the economy that causes mass unemployment, reduction in working hours, an increase in casual, part time and “gig” labour whilst at the same time the wealthiest are bailed out by the state. You know…a bit like what happened in 2008.


Just as it’s possible to try to ensure inclusive growth, it should also be possible to ensure inclusive de-growth when recessions come and inclusive stasis when economies are themselves static. The government would be well advised to focus as much on inclusivity as it does on growth, maybe more so.

To be fair, there was at least some logic to using GDP as our measure of economic development. For many years, wage growth was pretty firmly linked to economic growth. If the company you worked for did well, you did well. But two great shifts have happened in the past 40 years. The first came in 1979 with the rise of neoliberalism. The economic programs enacted by Thatcher and others were coupled with a decoupling of wages and growth such that the latter started to pull away from the former. The gutting of the unions and the reduction of collective bargaining was perhaps chief among those reforms.


The second decoupling came in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis. This time it came in “productivity” – the amount of GDP generated by a given hour’s labour. It’s a complex topic but part of this has come from the rise of the “gig economy” where folk have – often through somewhat convoluted means – become “self-employed” and have lost access to even individual bargaining. With no commitment at all to the company that they “service” (rather than work for), it’s no surprise that innovation and investment have declined. Not that it’s the fault of those workers. With no commitment to them, the company needn’t care beyond short term profit extraction and share price either.


Another possible reason for the decoupling of productivity and wages (as well as the stagnation of productivity overall) is the rise of certain sectors of the economy that don’t quite fit with older measures such as “added value” and suchlike. I’m talking here about jobs like personal care. It could be possible to “increase productivity” in personal care but if that means “service more clients per shift” then what you’re asking carers to do is cut visiting times from 30 minutes down to 15 minutes down to 10 minutes…

So maybe we don’t want “productive” care. I’d prefer effective care. And maybe jobs like care don’t produce huge feedback multipliers in the economy but there are other ways that such care could be considered “valuable”. Especially to the person receiving that care.

So, just as the Kardashev Scale is for technology, GDP should only be dubiously taken as the be-all-and-end-all of economic development. Politicians really should start taking note of what’s going on underneath that headline number. It’s a harder story to tell, true, but economies are far too complex for the “simple” story to be sufficient.

And if it turns out we’re simply not measuring enough to answer our questions, well…that’s a story for another day.

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Senatus Populusque Caledoniae

(Apologies if my scant Latin has mangled that translation. If someone corrects it, I’ll see about writing it out 100 times on the walls of the Palace.)

It seems that all news is canceled this week. All of it. There’s nothing happening. Our state broadcaster (which is totally unlike other state broadcasters in that when it promotes its state’s national interests, this is a good thing and not the most hideous evil to ever despoil the airwaves) has told us that the only thing of note happening anywhere is that someone is marrying someone with Magic Blood.


This is to be a ceremony that we’ll all proudly take part in, by which they mean that we are to pay for it, despite not even being invited to the party. We’re not even getting a day off work because that would apparently cost too much.

Those in power are definitely not going to use this event to sneak out the devastating news that benefits are to be frozen again this year – that’s effectively a 3% cut after adjusting for inflation. I’m certain that they’ll be bending all effects towards sorting the gaping holes in the UK VAT system which allows more than £1 billion to be evaded every year.

They absolutely wouldn’t be cutting HMRC’s budget by £400 million per year RIGHT before the UK is going to leave the largest Customs Union in the world, would they?. They certainly would be breaking ground on all the new checkpoints and infrastructure that are going to be needed. The department should be awash with capital spending in preparation, shouldn’t it?


They certainly wouldn’t big up their having done some furiously detailed groundwork on the impact of Brexit when they hadn’t actually done any such thing and were just hoping that no-one would ask to read them…till they did.

The UK has some seriously skewed priorities and it goes from the bottom right to the top of the structure of governance. Scotland needs to have a good, hard discussion about what role it plays in all of this.

The Scottish Parliament already has a far fairer voting system than the one used for UK elections (despite the comparative complexity of the former) but should we take the step of becoming an independent country then we’ll have to have a think about some other levels of government too.

I’ve already said a fair amount about the state of Scotland’s local government so today I’d like to look at what we’d want to do ABOVE the level of the present Scottish Parliament.

For instance, we may well decide to create an Upper House to scrutinise legislation but what we absolutely shouldn’t do is copy the UK method of stuffing it full of Lords and paying them to sleep off their hard day of…doing what ever they do for £300 a day.

Image result for house of lords sleeping foulkes

Far better would be a Citizen’s Assembly. Think of it as Jury Duty writ large. We’ve already decided that the best way to determine if someone has transgressed our laws is by a jury of randomly selected citizens so we could easily set up a method by which randomly selected citizens can determine if the laws themselves are just, fair and easily understood.

And for above that? How do we represent the nation of Scotland to the world?

If you had asked me in 2014, I would have said that I didn’t really mind too much and was pretty content with the Scotland’s Future plan of keeping the monarchy in the same way that Canada and Australia have.

But I’ve shifted somewhat since then. I’m not sure I’d really welcome the appointment of a Governor General as Scotland’s nominal Head of State nor am I completely clear on what duties they would actually have in practice. The First Minister already does most of the Head-of-State meet-and-greet stuff when folk come to Scotland and it seems a little strange for that to stop.

Nor do I want a restored and separate Scottish monarchy. Again, I’ve no time for someone to tell me what to do by dint of their divine appointment or Magic Blood even if Scotland does maintain a tradition of the Scottish Monarch being subordinate to the people of Scotland. Nor should a country professing to be a democracy pride itself on  its locking citizens out from ever obtaining any governmental office even in theory.

So, if we choose to have an official Head of State separate to the First Minister then it’ll have to be an elected President and that seems straightforward enough to arrange.

Though we still need to have that discussion about what we want them to DO. As said, the First Minister already does most of the Head of State meet-and-greet stuff when folk come to Scotland so we’re faced with the choice of either actually empowering our Head of State and giving them executive controls like the power to veto laws, sign their own legislative orders or other such powers (i.e. similar to the President of the USA) or we continue to have a head of state with a ceremonial role but little actual power.

And as I think on it…whilst I think it would be an upheaval too far to actually empower a Head of State, I don’t think I feel so enthused about swapping an unelected but powerless leader with an elected but still powerless leader. It just doesn’t feel as if it’s a decision rooted in the practical. On the other hand, I’m somewhat nudged by the argument that a Head of State separate from the government may be able to say and do some things without constraint by that government (though it’s noted that our current monarch maintains a “strict” rule against saying anything at all unless they think they can get away with it).

But maybe I’m wrong.

So help me out here. What would you want from a Head of State of an independent Scotland? How would someone gain that position? And what kind of person would you expect to see in the role?

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