Friday, 21 October 2016

Friday Fungus: On fungal economics - yeast or mushroom?

Or rather fungal metaphors in economics:
Arnold Harberger offered a nice metaphor thinking about this difference in his Presidential Address to the American Economic Association back in 1998, entitled "A Vision of the Growth Process" and published in the March 1998 issue of the American Economic Review. Harberger discusses whether economic growth is more likely to be like "mushrooms," in the sense that certain parts of a growing economy will take off much faster than others, or more like "yeast," in the sense that economy overall expands fairly smoothly overall. He argues that "mushroom"-type growth is more common.
Of course both yeast and mushrooms are fungus but the metaphor in question is made better still if we understand what's happening in the two processes. Harberger sees only the fruiting heads of the mushrooms - the visible manifestation of a symbiotic growing system:
Mycorrhizal partnerships are symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationships between plants and fungi, which take place around the plant's roots. While there are many species of fungus which do not form these partnerships, the vast majority of land plants have mycorrhizas (from the Greek mykes: fungus and rhiza: root), and many plants could not survive without them. Fossil records show that roots evolved alongside fungal partners and that fungi may have been crucial in helping plants evolve to colonise the land, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Broadly speaking, there are two main kinds of mycorrhiza: Arbuscular mycorrhizas penetrate the cells of their host's roots, and most plants develop this type. Ectomycorrhizas surround the roots without penetrating them. Trees may form either type, and some form both. In each case there is cell-to-cell contact between the plant and the fungus, allowing nutrient transfer to take place.
So not only is Harberger's view of growth correct - it's unpredictable in its location, mushroom-like - but when we look closer he has a fascinating metaphor for the way in which that unpredictable growth affects the wider economy (extending mycorrhizas) and the society that economy feeds (the tree symbiote of the mushroom).

The yeast analogy, on the other hand, is a managed, planned and controlled system. That yeast converts the sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide and alcohol making the bread rise (and rise again as we bake off the alcohol). When it's baked the yeast is dead and we must start again if we want more bread. There is no beneficial system - everything is the result of external intervention.


Thursday, 20 October 2016

A reminder that economics and accountancy are not the same thing

Too much of the debate about economics - particularly macroeconomics - is nothing of the sort. I've described it as 'national accounts arithmetic' - a form of accountancy rather than the application, assessment and testing of economic theory.

Here's Don Boudreax quoting Fritz Machlup from back in 1964:
Definitely “out,” relegated to the scrap heap, is the notion that there is such a thing as “the” balance of payments. Even if full and accurate information were available about each and every transaction, “the” balance would always be an arbitrary number. There are many ways of entering the many items into the various accounts, of organizing the accounts, of interpreting the resulting figures; and there is no way of arranging the data so that they can tell a true story of the causal interrelations.
This doesn't stop people doing just what Fritz rails against. Indeed some economists and most pundits routinely confuse accountancy with economics. But as Don points out:
Most people who fret over, say, the U.S. trade deficit don’t know what it is – and far too many of the few who do know what it is treat the conventional manner in which various economic transactions are recorded in international accounts as possessing an economic significance that they simply do not possess.
The thing is that, if we didn't spend millions gathering incomplete data, loading it into inaccurate models of the economy and claiming the resulting answer is 'truth', then the economy would poddle along just fine. What all this modelling, the act of national accountancy, is perpetuate the lie that government can "run the economy". This is the worst sort of lie - the lie of those taking on the mantle of gods, hubris.

But then, as Longfellow said - "those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

In case you wondered what we do at Council meetings in Bradford

This is cross-posted from the Bradford Council Conservative Group's Facebook page. It's an illustration of the nonsense we get up to at our Council meetings. Most of the time we spend hours debating motions before resolving to write a letter to a minister. We spend very little time discussing things that we actually control like empltying bins, fixing the roads, looking after children and caring for the elderly. And when we do propose that the Council actually does something, the leadership arrange for it to be voted down.


Yesterday Bradford Council met. All ninety of us gathered to, in theory, make decisions about the things that matter to the residents or Bradford. So what did we do?

The first part of the meeting was fine. We received five petitions asking for the Council to act on various matters and these were referred to committees for further consideration. We asked questions of the leader and received financial and corporate planning documents. From a four pm start we’d concluded this process by about ten to six.

The meeting however finished over three hours later during which time we:

1.       Agreed to write letters to the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary, and the Boundary Commission. In the last case the letter concerns issues not within the remit of the commission as it simply criticises the criteria given to that Commission by Parliament and Government.

2.       Rejected proposals to recognise and support e-cigarettes as an effective smoking cessation method that is used by 20-30,000 Bradfordians

3.       Turned down taking positive action against dangerous and anti-social driving

4.       Had an hour long debate about education that resolved nothing at all (except that a majority of Councillors don’t agree with grammar schools)

5.       Voted down the opportunity for the Executive to lead on Bradford Council’s response to the flooding in December 2015. Instead Council decided it was fine for an update to go to a scrutiny committee in six months time

6.       Agreed the salary packages of two senior officers 

We spent a whole evening failing to act on things that actually matter to the Bradford public like dangerous driving, smoking deaths and flooding. Instead the Controlling Labour group preferred to spend time debating a 1984 mass picket in South Yorkshire, moaning about national education policy, and moralising about refugees.

It is difficult to justify keeping Councillors in the meeting for hours when all we do is pass motions instructing the Chief Executive to write letters to people. Yet this is all the current Labour leadership seem to want to do. This year we’ve written letters to a host of government ministers all of which are carefully crafted by officers and all of which receive carefully word answers that change nothing.

But when it comes to taking real action – doing things as a Council – the Labour leadership consistently vote down proposals. As a result, the Council is clear that it isn’t interested in reducing the harm from smoking, developing a more active road safety strategy and treating the risk of flood as a priority."


Monday, 17 October 2016

Hard or soft, eggs is eggs...the Brexit question

Except of course, just like your egg, there's not a clear line between hard and soft, a big range from barely cooked at all (very runny) to something you could use as a weapon (very hard). And everyone has an opinion - from grand economists and lawyers through to the last taxi driver you spoke with and the lady at the Co-op.

This is Simon's guide to making this decision. It's not definitive but it has the merits of being brief and information light.

1. You can make the egg harder, you can't make it softer. If a harder Brexit means removing ourselves from more of the entanglements we have with the EU then going back when we realise such a removal wasn't the best idea is more difficult.

2. The softest of soft eggs is still a cooked egg. The public voted to leave the EU - to put the egg into the boiling water. So barely cooked at all - the EEA option or similar - is still leaving the EU. And if we want it harder, we can always boil it a little more

So the logic here is to start soft - to step across the line that says "EU membership". This changes little (which is why some Brexit Ultras are opposed) but it has the merits of only ruling out things that are directly related to EU membership such as joining the Euro. Everything else remains available - from the 'semi-detached' situation inherent in being an EEA member through to the hardest of hard scenarios where our trade is determined by WTO rules alone and we have whopping great tariffs on imports (this is a really dumb idea and is why John Redwood shouldn't be allowed anywhere near trade policy).

What depresses me most is the persistence of Remain Absolutists who want to overturn the referendum result because "the people are stupid and lawyers are clever" (I summarise their position here but this is close enough - you can replace lawyers with academics, Guardian writers, bloggers, pundits or blokes who used to work at a bank). It would be rather more helpful if such folk accepted the result - ended the dreadful sophistry about it being 'advisory' - and argued for an initially soft Brexit achieved by stepping across that line.
... .

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Scribblings - on pubs, snooker, loneliness and the curse of time

I don't know about you but I think pubs are pretty important. Mostly because they sell beer and people I like go there but also because these things are central to English culture. A while ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted a study in the South Pennine village of Denholme (which for the record has a fantastic pub - one of the best - called the New Inn) that looked at loneliness. For all that this was a good study - I've blogged about it a couple of times - Old Mudgie reminds us that the pub is a sovereign remedy against being alone:
Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.
And our resident pub grump went on to suggest that maybe pubs need to think about design and layout - perhaps to better allow the chance of interaction between those like his Dad on their visits. It's a pity (and I blogged about this too that the smoking ban gave people - men mostly - an excuse never to leave the armchair in the shed).

This neatly takes us to pub games on the telly - snooker and darts mostly - and Frank Davis's gentle rant about how the presentation of these sports has been sanitised. No longer do we see Bill Werbenuik downing a pint a round or Alex Higgins inhaling 20 Bensons during a match:
But what really made it popular were the cast of characters it introduced to the world. And none was more flamboyant than two-times snooker world champion Alex Higgins. If any single person made snooker popular, it was him. And he was a bad boy. He picked fights with people, and threw TV sets out of windows, and got fined and banned. And he’d sit in his chair by the snooker table drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
The smoking bit was finished by the ban but I can't see - other than wanting to make snooker even more dull than it is already - why players can't drink. Indeed Bill Werbenuik famously drank enormous quanitites of booze so as to correct a tic that affected his game.

In the end the deal here is how we spend our time. And, as you all know I hope, the 'protestant work ethic' shtick needs putting to bed. It's not that when we commit to doing something, we shouldn't put in the effort to do it well but rather that we're not put on this earth to slave our guts out putting food on the table, clothes on out backs and a roof over our heads. Or if you're not a fan of the god stuff - that stuff used to be the fate of man (and it remains so for many millions in the world) but technology, specialisation and the wonders of neoliberalism have made it possible for us to spend a little more of that time of the things we get pleasure from.

That's when we get to grips with time maybe?
Since Einstein we have come to realise that everything is relative. Place a clock in a space craft and whisk it away at close to the speed of light and the on board clock would keep different to time to an identical clock placed in my study. Actually the clock in my study hasn't worked for years but I'm too damn idle to change the battery. Thus it seems that time, and everything else for that matter, is simply a problem of perspective; a relationship to a frame of reference. This is not to say that 'time' does not exist. In fact Einstein believed in the concept of time, but a time married to the universe. His concept of time could only exist within the reference of space-time and could not be divorced and act as an independent entity.
Got that? Not sure whether this explains how slowly time passes when your team's a goal up with five minutes to go. Or how quickly time goes when you've a 12 noon deadline for a funding application. But as they say time waits for nobody.

Might as well party then!


Friday, 14 October 2016

Quote of the day: On hate crime

This is about the sum of it:

The true story here is not that Britain became more hateful post-referendum, but that officialdom, aided by spectacularly uncritical commentators, has developed new ways of cynically constructing crime epidemics. And to what end? To the explicitly political end of demonising the choice made by voters in the referendum and depicting Britain outside of the EU as a dangerous place in which old and ugly views have been emboldened. Rarely has the political motivation behind spreading a crime panic been so obvious, so shrill, as this.

And it continues with ever more spaces and places to report such crimes. Most of which is purely and simply an attack on free speech.


Friday Fungus: We can do with out Barolo - but a world without truffles?

The New York Times reports on the problem created by the clash between fine wine and one of the most wonderful things on the planet - the white truffle:
Not only does this land produce some of Italy’s best, and most expensive, wines. It is also home to the famed Italian white truffle, which can run 200 to 500 euros (about $225 to $560) for a good-size knob that will sit in the palm of your hand.

But what happens when those resources compete? Vines require clear hillsides, and truffles need thick and damp yet clean woods. Today, hillside after hillside of Barolo is planted in neat rows of well-groomed vines more valuable than anything else that could be put on them. The forests, on the other hand, have been shrinking.
The result is that, not only are there fewer places where truffles can grow, but the loss of forest impacts the wine growers and especially those using organic methods. And the truth is that there a plenty of places where fine wines can be made but vanishingly few where "trifola d'Alba Madonna" is found - truffles are altogether too fickle for cultivation.

The result is 'save the truffle':
Save the Truffle wants to protect what has been to this day one of the most outstanding and internationally recognised products of Piedmont. Its fame has been connected to the city of Alba and the surrounding area, the Langhe and Roero, for more than eighty years.

In an area which has become a world heritage Unesco site, in which the truffle, together with the outstanding red wines, are the driving force for international tourism, Carlo and Edmondo believe that this precious fruit of the territory must be approached from an alternative point of view, without mentioning marketing and sales.
This is in the wonderful and conservative traditional of italian food campaigns - perfected by the Slow Food movement that spread across the world (although sadly has become a shadow of its origins by becoming a locavore lobby rather than a celebration of waiting for dinner and using the finest ingredients).

And we can all help - there's a crowdfunding initiative 'Breathe the Truffle' that's helping these people develop and protect the environment in which this magical, exceptional fungus thrives.