The final humbling of America (1100)

America is now being humbled, just as Great Britain was in the last century (when we were relatively even more powerful at the beginning). In America’s case it is something that has taken 70 years to start to become apparent. The story needs to be told because events in the immediate future and for perhaps a year or two to come will be so profound that they will affect every person in the world (except perhaps the Andaman Islanders or some other hunter-gatherers in New Guinea or elsewhere who have not yet been discovered!).

America forced the superiority of the dollar on its Allies (except Soviet Russia) in 1944 when it was clear that America’s mighty military machine would inevitably defeat Germany and Japan — which it did in 1945. This was the famous ‘Agreement’ at the Bretton Woods Hotel, New Hampshire, US.

By this ‘Agreement’, 43 currencies were thenceforth tied at a particular rate to the dollar, and only the dollar was to be a ‘real’ currency backed up by gold—of which, by then, America had about 80% of the total world stock in its vaults. From then on, if the 43 nations were having problems with export prices, they could only devalue their currencies occasionally against the dollar with discrete adjustments and, in effect, with the permission of America. Meanwhile, America began printing more dollars whenever it wished, thus devaluing them and enabling its own exports to prevail over all others. Prosperity poured in. Americans were able to have a standard of living far beyond anything that Europeans could dream of. America was living off the rest of the world as effectively as if it were extracting rent from it or taxing it.

But, 20 years later, the European nations began getting their industrial act together and were beginning to earn dollars by exporting to America. They then started to get stroppy — the Germans and Ffrench more than others—and began to ask for their dollar earnings to be translated into gold. This, under the Bretton Woods Agreement was obligatory. America had to do so and gold began to shipped to Europe or moved into special vaults in the New York Fed bank with the country’s ownership label attached to it.

By the early 1970s America was losing so much of its precious gold that President Nixon broke the Bretton Woods Agreement unilaterally. He de-linked the America dollar from gold altogether. By the same act he also allowed all the other signatories to devalue their currencies flexibly. All currencies became freely exchanged against one another and started see-sawing about (and downards when compared with commodity prices). By this time, however, the American dollar had already accounted for as much as 80% of the world’s currency used in trade. This meant that America could devalue its dollar faster than other countries and still hang onto a great deal of the world’s trade. It led the world in a devaluation — inflationary—race. In effect it was exporting inflation to everywhere else—and still is.

Because, in the 1970s, America still had a mighty military machine arraigned against what were, by now, deadly enemies—communist Russia and China. Its tanks and missiles were stationed in Europe and its Sixth Fleet in the Pacific Ocean protected Europe and Japan respectively. It still had great power, and part of that power exercised against Europe and Japan was the excoriation and outlawing of gold as currency. European and Japanese central banks were pressured into selling their gold reserves in order to push the price down to levels only suitable for ornaments and tooth-fillings.

They yielded until 1999 when the worms started to turn. Some West European countries started a new currency, the euro, as a competitor to the dollar. European central banks started to buy gold again. The price of gold started to move upwards. Many gold mines which had previously been driven into bankruptcy started to revive again.

This had happened very briefly once before in 1979/80 when America was inflating the dollar faster than usual and investors started to rein back on buying US Treasury bonds. The gold price spiked up to $2,300/ounce. Volcker (then Chairman of the US Fed bank) raised interest rates to 20% and investors immediately sold their gold and bought dollar bonds instead. The gold price immediately collapsed. This time, however, gold has taken 11 years to rise and has done so steadily from about $300 to $1560/ounce. This time, Bernanke (the present Chairman of the US Fed bank), dare not raise the interest rate even by 0.25% for fear of plunging America into economic depression. Nor can the Bank of England do so. The European Central Bank has raised its low rate only very slightly in an effort to reduce inflation. It cannot raise it to normal levels because, like America and the UK the Eurozone stands on the edge of depression.

But it’s America—hitherto the central financial pivot of the world—that’s crucial. Its national debt, which was only 20% more than its annual GDP at the time of Bretton Woods is now almost four times higher. As both Europe’s and Japan’s debts, it is already higher than its taxpayers can possibly repay. Sooner or later it is going to have to pay some or all of its immense debts with gold—when the price of gold reaches high enough.

There are those commentators who still say that the present rise in gold price is a spike. But scores of central banks in the world, including China and Russia and the vastly prosperous Middle East oil and gas countries, don’t think so. Gold speculators have almost been driven out now, such is the heavyweight demand for the metal. Gold is now making its way back to its traditional role as the background currency which doesn’t inflate. You can be certain that although Bernanke of the US Fed and Geithner of the US Treasury are saying all sorts of brave things to the world, they are even now thinking seriously of how to bring about a gold standard world trading currency. This is what China and Russia have been asking for for years. This is what Zoellick, of the World Bank suggested last November.

Does this mean that America is going to eat dirt? No, of course not—no more than the UK did when lost is British Empire. America will become an ordinary country again over a period of decline of perhaps 50 years or so. It still has vast resources and entrepreneurial energy. Its scientific research and development still leads the world. But it is going to have to learn to share these assets because the rest of the world is catching up. And they’ll do so even quicker when there’s a level currency playing field.

King William might not be so pleasing (500)

Tomorrow’s over-elaborate wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is, of course, a plot. Not the ceremonial fantasies but the wedding itself. Someone—we may never know precisely who—decided that the two of them should no longer live in sin—their common law marriage. Others around him—an historian might find out who in due course when memoirs are written—agreed with him (otherwise, a top civil servant). And so the plot was launched.

Why? Because, at any time, William and Kate might have produced a common law child. And that would never do, because the amount of constitutional jiggery-pokery that would have been required in order to legitimize that child as a future heir to the throne would have stretched even their bureaucratic imaginations. At all costs, a lawful, legitimate, government-approved child must be produced as soon as possible because, hale and hearty though the Queen still is at present, we don’t want Prince Charles becoming King do we?

(And, we may note, the bureaucrats are already ventilating the idea that if Kate produces a girl then she will inherit the throne directly.)

One must feel sorry for Prince Charles. He’ll put a brave face on it at the wedding tomorrow but he knows that, in 9-12 months’ time, he might have lost his last chance of becoming King. He’s regarded as a twit by many—what with his tree-hugging and talking to the flowers. And his awful upper-class accent. But even to your humble republican writer, he has one saving grace. And it’s a big one. What you see is what you get. As King, he would probably continue to say many ridiculous things but he’d also be refreshingly honest about other things. Sensible comments about architecture, for example, of which this writer heartily approves.

But the bureaucrats who’ve arranged tomorrow’s wedding spectacular had better be careful. They ought to remember the grumble of discontent that rose against the Queen at the time of Diana’s death. Essentially, this was concerning a girl who was adroitly pressured into an arranged marriage with Prince Charles. Well, they’ve done it again, even though, this time, Kate happened to be Prince William’s voluntary choice already and she’s passed all the vetting tests (genetically,as well, you may be sure).

Yes, the bureaucrats had better be careful. Even if they pull off the trick of circumventing Prince Charles’s accession to the throne then, if King William turns out to be different from the person that his present spin doctors and some of the sycophantic press have succeeded in projecting so far, then the mass hysteria in favour of him could turn against him in due course.

After all, when acclaim for royalty was at its height one hundred years ago, Queen Victoria paid income-tax. The present Queen doesn’t (by gracious permission of the bureaucrats) and has quietly become very rich. Paying no income-tax and himself becoming quietly rich, King William might not go down very well in our grandchildren’s time when they’ll still be paying off the past Labour government’s debt. It might be the last straw for this absurd Medieval institution.

The false message of politicians (600)

The Alternative Vote system (on which UK people will be voting in a referendum next week) is said by the non-AV advocates to be too complicated. This is patronizing in the extreme. It is only ‘complicated’ for many people because they can’t be bothered to understand it in the first place—because they are already turned-off from voting for politicians anyway.

(For non-UK Short Listers, AV can be explained simply. The voter applies his preference by writing 1, 2, 3, etc against the names of candidates on his voting paper. If the total of first preferences for the leading candidate doesn’t reach 50+% then the number of second preferences for that candidate are added on. If the new total doesn’t reach 50+%, then the third preferences are added on. And so on, until 50+% is reached by one candidate.)

The fact of Western elections is that an increasing proportion of people don’t believe that politicians understand the economic system or, even if they did, they (the voters and their particular class) wouldn’t benefit anyway. This is why election turn-outs have been declining steadily for decades in most advanced countries. People will only vote in high numbers when some crucial issues arise that affect all classes.

Politicians (more than anyone else) give us a false message—because it’s in their interest to do so. They say that democracy (the Western voting system) brings prosperity and welfare about. Western politicians preach the same message to the young people of the undeveloped world. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Our voting system—full adult suffrage—only arose because, since Medieval times, one by one, one class of people after another became envious of the increasing benefits that superior classes were receiving and actively campaigned (civil warfare, revolutions, street riots, etc) for a share of the governmental power that dispensed those benefits. ‘Democracy’—as we know it in the advanced countries—is a byproduct of economic prosperity, not its precursor.

Political manifestos are now far from being about how security, peace and justice for all can be improved—the basics of government—but are mainly the display of cleverly balanced lists of bribes to this class or that. But these days we are so stratified, specialized and individualized that the drawing up of such manifestos is becoming increasingly difficult. It is now becoming so difficult that, in their respective elections in recent years, Barack Obama and David Cameron could make recourse to only one man slogan: “I will bring about Change”.

Change to what, politicians don’t precisely say, unless they happen to be speaking to one particular group of people or another. Unfortunately for them, and for a variety of reasons (e.g. population-based, limitations of some resources, absence of uniquely new consumer goods which can stimulate economic growth sufficiently — such as electrification or the car or TV used to do) there is very little change ahead for Western nations. We have become locked into a particular urban way of life in which we have little daily time or energy for anything much different.

If politicians want to see higher voter turn-outs, more participation in politics, and more credibility for themselves in future years then they are going to have to turn to issues that protect what Western electorates have already achieved (and what can be afforded with no more taxation). They will have to be much starker issues such as stringent immigration control and perhaps even enforced euthanasia for some older high-cost citizens. If the liberalization pendulum has already swung too far in the last half-century or so and politicians don’t feel they can deliver these sorts of policies then we will be increasingly likely to turn out in high numbers to vote (AV or no AV!) for any new political party that is also likely to deliver a dictator also. Thus will the Western experiment in democracy come to an end.

Misguided advocates of world over-population (700)

The problem with those well-meaning Westerners who become actively concerned about world population is that they demean the intelligence of those billions of poor people who, in aggregate, are plainly over-populating the world beyond its food supply. They think that if only they could persuade the benighted masses to adopt modern methods of birth control then all will ultimately be well and that world population can at least be stabilized.

What they overlook is that parents have always known how to control the numbers of their children—and those older family dependents who are too frail to be economically or educationally useful. Parents have always done this because they themselves don’t want numbers to exceed their own practical economic comfort during the years ahead.

Indeed, this has been happening in spades for the last 30 years in European countries and white America where the birth rate has already descended below replacement rate (two children per adult woman) and is heading towards one. The reason is that, for the last 30 years, real average incomes have been declining (as opposed to nominal incomes). Previously, a man could afford to buy a house on a quarter of his wage alone and afford to raise more than two children and be able to buy the standard stock of consumer goods appropriate to his self-perceived status. Today, the average man and his wife need to spend a third of their total income in order to obtain a mortgage, while the cost of raising even one child to economic independence is shooting through the roof.

By means of infanticide, a variety of methods of abortion, and the neglect or mercy-killing of oldies, man was able to maintain balanced and economically sustainable populations whether in hunter-gatherer or agricultural times. In both eras this involved the development of appropriate cultures so that, when required, the practices were guilt-free, much as we might find them abhorrent today according to our relatively recent industrial culture.

And, indeed, it is the industrial culture of the last 300 years or so that has caused the present world over-population. Western methods of mechanized agriculture pushed increasing numbers of peasants off the land. Western methods of medicine overcame natural diseases and greatly increased the numbers of surviving children. However, cultures take several generations to change and this is why we now have a vast overhang of world population.

But, now that the majority of the world’s poor are in their new habitats—the cities—and with thousands more pouring in every day—they are becoming Westernized as quickly as possible. Almost all families are now beginning to enjoy the first fruits of consumerism—T-shirts, trainers and TVs—and family sizes are dropping swiftly by the use of one or other methods of birth control (whether Western or more primitively). Within a generation, or two at the most, world over-population will start to decline.

What will happen then? Fairly obviously population will become Westernized to the extent of not replacing themselves with sufficient numbers. World population will start to decline, slowly for a generation, and then increasingly swiftly. Governments all round the world will then want to try and increase their family sizes by means of pro-natalist bonuses. But, as France and Russia have already discovered, these are not successful. Presumably, the bonuses could work if they were raised to levels so that it paid enough parents to have as many children as possible (and buy sufficient consumer goods) without having to go to work themselves. But this would be fiercely resisted by those who work and pay taxes. This policy is just not feasible. Inevitably the populations of all governments will sink in the not far too distant future.

Birth-rates will only recover and world population will only stabilize in the longer term when the stress of buying enough of the ‘normal’ stock of consumer goods and the raising of children is at a far lower level than it is today in the Western countries. This will depend on a host of world-wide factors such as supplies of fresh water, food, energy, other resources, high educational availability and the wide adoption of a fairly uniform and comfortable way of living and working. This could be a half of the present population or even a quarter. It could even be much less—perhaps only the descendents of those whom we regard as the well-off in present-day Western countries. Who can possibly say at this stage?

Bernanke’s tall story (450)

Quite the most absurd statement ever made by a central banker was made a few months ago by Bernard Bernanke to a Congressional financial committee. In reply to a question about gold he said: “I can’t answer that because I don’t know much about its history”.

If that’s the case then why does he keep 8,000 tonnes of it in his bank? Why didn’t the US Federal Reserve get rid of it all when the US government finally broke the link between the dollar and gold in 1971? Is it some sort of reserve warehouse for the jewelry industry? Or is the bank acting as a museum for reasons of nostalgia? Or is it that the US government has not had the courage of its convictions?

Clearly it’s the last reason. For someone who was among the most scholarly of all academic economists for decades before he became Chairman, then Bernanke was either telling a fib or was suffering from selective amnesia. From the end of World War II until 1971, the Fed and the US Treasury between them forced the European central banks to de-link their currencies from gold and to sell it. The threat was that America would withdraw from NATO and leave Western Europe exposed to an expansionist communist Russia. From 1971 until 1999 the US Fed itself began selling its gold surreptitiously via investment banks such as JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs in order to bring the price of gold down. However, America found itself increasingly unable to force its ‘sell-gold’ policy on Western Europe—though in the 1980s it prevented Japan’s central bank from ever buying gold under the threat of withdrawing its Sixth fleet from between Japan and a resurgent China.

From 1999 to 2009, the European central banks had finally stopped selling gold and, indeed, the new European Central Bank actually bought a sizeable quantity of gold as a reserve when it set up the new Euro currency. Mining companies, which had almost died by 1999, started to revive production again. From 2009 the European central banks—and many others—have been buying gold.

Having been on various levels of ‘gardening leave’ for all our lifetimes, gold is now returning to the real world of work. As the dollar and the euro continue to devalue gold continues its steady rise. Good gracious me, even BBC Newsnight mentioned the long-forgotten word on its programme last night!

In her later years Queen Victoria learned to be sceptical about many of the accounts that were related to her. Whenever she suspected that she’d been told a particularly tall story she would retort, “Tell that to my Marines!”. The same could be said of Bernanke’s purported lack of knowledge of what gold has been doing in the course of his own lifetime.

Longing for 30 April (350)

We have little defence against certain sorts of super-stimuli—such as the hysteria that’s now mounting in some classes (and the media) over the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. From now until 29 April it will be impossible to avoid saturation coverage of it. The hysteria is no different in essence from that of the Manchester City fans yesterday when their side beat Manchester United, or the adulation that Hitler used to elicit when addressing massive crowds at his Nuremberg Rallies.

We have no more defence than has a hen blackbird when an ornithologist places an artificial outsize egg in her nest. She will sit on this egg to the exclusion of her normal eggs. The reason for this is that, for millions of years, millions of blackbirds have never needed to guard themselves against such an event. An appropriate instinct above that of simply sitting on normal-sized eggs has never needed to arise.

Likewise, although most of us will always show obedience and sometimes even enthusiastic followership to an appropriately appointed leader, this instinct has only arisen in the small group settings in which we and our predecessors evolved over millions of years. We cannot avoid responding in exactly the same way to the trappings of leadership—and even more so—if the group becomes super-large.

Although not all of us do. Whereas the stockbroker suburbs around London and the fashionable parts within it are falling over themselves to hold street parties, only three road closures have been applied for in Liverpool, a city of half a million people. Being sycophantic to royalty won’t improve the lives of most Liverpuddlians one little bit. Also, I guess that most of the real movers and shakers of the UK society and economy—those in the upper part of what I call the meta-class—look upon the royalty hysteria with some quiet amusement. They only go along with it publicly if it’s in their immediate interests. (Which it is, of course, among those who have shareholdings in the media.)

Like many others on this Short List, I suspect, I am longing for 30 April when the hypocritical ceremony is over and done with. We’ll still be inflicted with the comings and goings of William and Kate from then onwards but they’ll be much more avoidable. I can’t wait.

It’s all due to crystalline flint (600)

Quite the most astonishing sequence I have ever seen was shown in a recent television documentary on Africa. It concerned a particular method of hunting by African tribesmen such that 99% of anybody else would never have believed possible unless it had been filmed.

In the mid-distance, a pride of half-a-dozen lions had just killed a large deer and were beginning to tuck in. From the party of stalkers, including the film crew, three tribesmen rose slowly to their feet and, side by side, with their arms outstretched and carrying spears in their hands, walked slowly and confidently without a sound towards the lions. The lions looked up from their feeding and then, startled, ran away for a short distance, crouching down, observing this event and, undoubtedly, assessing what it was all about. Very quickly—before the lions would decide to attack—the men cut themselves a haunch of leg and then quietly walked back to the film crew and two or tthree younger onlookers from their tribe. All of them then quietly retreated leaving the lions to resume their feed.

The three men had told the film crew beforehand about this method of hunting—or, rather, scavenging—but hadn’t been believed. This event not only proved their case but had also been a convenient teaching session for their teenagers. It has also been a teaching event for modern anthropologists and archeologists because this fully demonstrated how we could have survived 150,000 years when we only had very crude thrusting spears — with stone spearheads that were far too blunt and heavy to be used for hunting. They could only be used, at best, to keep other predators such as hyenas or lions at bay while scavenging.

When, 100,000 years later, men had thoroughly learned the crystalline structure of flint, they were able to flake very thin, sharp, symmetrical, lightweight spearheads which could then be thrown at deer and other prey directly—cutting out the middleman, as it were! And then, 50,000 years later, they learned how to launch a hunting spear from a shorter, springy stick, the atlatl. This could be fired at such speed that it could even penetrate the thick hides of large slower-moving grazing animals such as mammoths. And then, 20,000 years later, men learned how to turn their atlatls into bows in order to launch even lighter, slimmer arrow-spears at high speed at almost any fast-moving prey.

Thus man migrated all around Africa and Eurasia, exterminating many species of large grazing animals (due to the atlatl) and many smaller ones, too (due to the bow-and-arrow). By and by—with the exception (broadly) of North and South America—man’s population had reached the limit of his food supply. Man then invented the hybridization of grain and the selective breeding of some animals until farming and pastoralism occupied every practicable square yard of the earth’s surface—this time including North and South America—until, by about 1500AD, we reached the limit of our food supply.

Indeed, because of Western medicine, the present intractable limit of freshwater for agriculture, and the protein requirements of a rapidly growing middle-class of China and other non-Western countries, we now have a vast surplus of agricultural workers who are now being herded into cities by the increasing number of farming syndicates which are buying up the land. In the next 50-100 years the syndicates will increasingly deflect their grain into the more profitable business of animal and fish feed for the growing middle-class of the world rather than subsistence diets for—what?—probably at least half of the present world population and more likely two-thirds. The great Population Decline is about to begin. And Sympathy Exhaustion in the media simultaneously (which has already begun).

We can put it all down to man’s scientific curiosity as to the crystalline structure of flint.

David Cameron ought to learn more (500)

Prime Minister David Cameron made a bad mistake when he accused Oxford University of racism (though he didn’t use that word) two days ago by admitting only one black student in its last intake. It turns out that he was the only black Caribbean in an incomplete list that Cameron had got hold of.

Cameron was doubly wrong—even more seriously—by revealing that he knows very little of the real reason. This can be shown by looking more closely at the almost 4,000 non-white Oxford University students among the total of 16,591. These comprise 1,477 Asians, 1,098 Chinese, 838 of mixed race and 253 blacks. Look at the Chinese number in particular. Conservatively, if we assume that 50% of the Chinese were British Chinese (probably more like 75%) rather than Chinese-born Chinese then the 0.4% Chinese of the UK population produce 3% of the OU intake while the white 85% of the UK population produce 76%—an 8-fold success ratio by the Chinese. Compared with blacks (even if we assume that all the blacks were British), Chinese have an astonishing 500-fold success ratio.

Does this imply that British Chinese are immensely more intelligent than British blacks? Not at all. On Western-style IQ tests, Chinese score only very slightly higher than white Americans or British, while African-American blacks score about the same as white Americans. Three generations ago, black African-Americans used to score very badly on IQ tests but the work of James Flynn and others have shown conclusively that it was the cultural setting of typical IQ test questions that caused this discrepancy. Now that black Americans have acculturated to normal American modes of comprehension and expression they are just as intelligent as whites when measured by IQ tests. We can safely assume that British blacks are just as intelligent as British whites when born.

So why the 500-fold difference at Oxford University? Any teacher of mixed race classes will tell you. British Chinese students overwhelmingly come from secure two-parent families in which both the parents and children are highly motivated towards education. Overwhelmingly, Chinese children are at the top of the class at school (and are less troublesome). This is to be compared with the British-born African and Caribbean black children who come from a high percentage of insecure and unmotivated families. Also, if any more convincing is needed, any neurologist will also tell you that, by the age of puberty, the repertoire of skills, potential intelligence and personality of the individual is then largely fixed for life—whatever the class or ethnicity. No amount of subsequent education can significantly alter this.

David Cameron should redirect his anger away from universities and towards the state system at nursery and primary level because this is where the attempts are made to rectify family deficiencies and where the total life pattern is finally set. In America, despite the disfavour of centralized regularity authorities and the massive opposition of teacher trade unions, the first few experiments in free (charter) schools (often in the most problematical areas of the big cities) are showing evidence of much improved motivation and performance by the children. If Cameron were to encourage this here then, 10-15 years down the line, Oxford University will be admitting far more than 253 black students.

A new Governmental Enlightenment (850)

Something weird started to happen to the human mind at around (or before) 1200BC. This was the development of self-consciousness. The first person to draw attention to this was Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist, who wrote a book, The Origin of Consciousness, in 1976. He lectured at Princeton University for almost 30 years and although he lived and died (13 years ago) relatively obscurely, he still influences a great many of those, such as Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett, who think deeply about the human condition. In my opinion, The Origin of Consciousness will one day be regarded as equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species. And, rather like Darwin’s book and ideas, Jaynes’ book will probably go to sleep for a generation or two before finding its rightful place in the educated person’s cultural kit.

In Darwin’s case, after an immediate explosion which didn’t last long, the idea of evolution was apparently dying fast for 30 or 40 years until it became joined with Mendel’s discovery of genes and burgeoned again in the following decades. In Jaynes’s case, his young man’s ideas of 30 years ago may already be taking off again due to two very recent, but revolutionary, discoveries in the life sciences. The first, in biology, is that the inherited epigenetic ‘settings’ of our genes are at least as important as the genes themselves. The second, in neuroscience, is that the frontal lobes of our brains are considerably re-developed from puberty onwards—largely dying away by about the age of about 30 or 35.

But back to the 1200BC era, Jaynes associated the development of self-consciousness—or our individual awareness of our awareness—both to within ourselves and also to the universe outside—with the Bronze Age. Self-consciousness probably arose before then but events of around 1200BC and since were still in the folklore and oral memories of those Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Indian and Chinese poets and philosophers of around 500BC who first began to write—seemingly independently—about both the mind of man and also what actually drives the world and universe outside. It was also this period that saw the spontaneous eruption of powerful and apparently independent religions and philosophies such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Scepticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Culturally, these were—and are—very different but the simultaneous way they seem to have arisen means that they probably didn’t arise independently. It is here that the Bronze Age association comes in. Bronze requires copper and tin and these two metals only occur in isolated ‘hot spots’ on the earth’s crust. The technology of bronze, once discovered, couldn’t have swept throughout Asia and Europe—as it did (it made for superb military weapons)—unless it had been traded by means of single-sailed, coastal-hugging merchants and also donkey and camel caravans on land. Short-haul though this trade might have been, and requiring recurrent transactions, it actually connected coastal provinces of north-west Europe with north-west China. Probably no single item ever travelled between the extremes of this vast land mass, but goods such as amber, jade, lapis lazuli, tin, copper, gold, pottery and silk, travelled along segments of thousands of miles.

There were also long-distance travellers in those days—perhaps merchants who decided to stay awhile in a distant culture or individuals with adventurous minds. This is how ideas would have spread. They would have not only transmitted specific knowledge of, say, making bronze but also different ways of thinking about themselves and the cause of the glittering splendour of the universe overhead (which we in the West rarely see because of modern light pollution).

Such travellers were rare enough (from what archeologists tell us about graves) that they couldn’t entirely replicate their own cultures among their new fellow-residents but they could certainly introduce new ways of thinking such as self-awareness (which anthropologists tell us is often completely absent in many stone-age groups they’ve investigated). From then onwards new thinking could be inherited epigenetically. If this is so, then the Western Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Scientific Enlightenment, of about the 1600s in Europe, was but a minor curtain-raiser in comparison with the original Eurasian Enlightenment of thousands of years ago.

This morning’s thoughts were actually seeded a couple of days ago when visited by a German friend in the afternoon and then, in the evening, reading about a four-year reconstruction and recent re-opening of China’s National Museum facing Tiananmen Square in Beijing, with the assistance, mainly, of German architects and scientists. Its main topic is the European Enlightenment. Not only is this now the largest science-based museum in the world, but where else in the world would a ‘National’ museum be mainly devoted, not to its own scientific past but to that of others? We in the West—particularly our politicians—ought not to be constantly harping on about China’s lack of ‘democracy’ (as we know it) but be open to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the Chinese forms of government. Or even that the nation-state types of governance of both the West and China might already be giving way to a new multi-stranded transnational version? Perhaps a new Governmental Enlightenment is due.

If we are really, really realistic about world population (700)

The fate of the world very considerably rests upon the next 100 million car owners of China. If the next 100 million are similar to the existing 110 million Chinese car owners then they are also going to eat a more nutritious diet containing plenty of meat and fish. Unlike the present car owners, however, the next tranche will be a part-cause of the starvation of anything between 700 million and 1 billion of the present world’s poor.

We shouldn’t blame the Chinese alone, of course, because many others in Brazil, Indonesia, India, etc—even, to a lesser extent, in Muslim countries and in Africa —will also be buying more cars and also be able to put more protein on the table. But the Chinese growth can be the main plank in the argument because the evidence of the last 30 years much more clearly points to the likelihood of at least another 100 million car owners in the next 20-30 years than not.

The basic mathematics is very simple. It takes about ten times more agricultural acreage to grow grain to feed cattle (and farmed fish) than it does to feed grain directly to humans eating a vegetarian diet. It is true, of course, that Western people (and 110 million Chinese) don’t eat an all-protein diet so we can shade the 10 ratio down to about 2 or 3. But I think we can also assume that the next 100 million car owners of China will also be accompanied by at least 300 or 400 million new car owners elsewhere. The net result of economic growth (discounting that of the West, which is now problematical) is roughly the same—the deaths by disease-weakening or starvation of somewhere around 800 million or more of the present poor.

I’ve made three underlying assumptions: (a) Due to limitations of fresh water we are now already close to the limits of grain production; (b) The oceans are now at the limits of huntable fish so, from now onwards, more fish production will have to be farmed (and fed with grain); (c) The present “peak” of fossil fuel production will, in fact, be extended for at least another 50 years due to increased extraction efficiency (and new methods such as fracking), and there being no other alternative energy technology in sight that can be scaled up to anywhere near present energy requirements in the next 50 years.

Never mind if even the most extreme scenarios of man-made global warmists are correct and temperatures rise another degree or two, gradually inundating many cities with rising sea levels, consumer-led economic growth in the non-Western world will prevail. Also in the next 100 years, it is inconceivable that non-Western governments, being dependent on taxation from economic growth, will want anything different either. It is even more inconceivable that oceanic bacteria will change its habits of many millions of years by not extracting more CO2 than is produced by land vegetation or fuel burning. Once bacteria have adjusted to the present, slight, made-made hump then the secular decline in atmospheric CO2 will continue for many more millions of years.

Demographers who have been projecting vast world populations have had to revise their forecasts very significantly in the last few years because they hadn’t previously taken into account the vast migration of the rural poor into the slum areas of the major cities where previous cultural pressures are shrugged off and where family sizes drop significantly. If anything, less than replacement fertility is now increasing due to another fact which demographers have not yet adjusted to. This is the accelerating purchase of prime agricultural land by investment consortia and sovereign wealth funds. Nor have demographers begun to allow for the market requirements for protein of hundreds of millions of Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Indonesians and so on in next few decades.

In short, if we are really, really realistic about world over-population—taking a comprehensive view into account—then we are probably within 10-15 years of world peak population. And then, if we are really, really realistic, world population in the next 50-100 years will probably drop to at least a half and probably to a third of the present world population. Demographers need to be economists, economists need to be agriculturalists and all of them need to be anthropologists and evolutionary biologists in order to really understand the status (consumerist) needs of ordinary people which follow closely, and almost as powerfully, behind those of food and sex.

If Gaddafi wins — what a relief! (350)

Although it’s unpopular to say so at present, it is possible that Western politicians will agree in a few months that Gaddafi’s victory over the ‘democratic’ rebels will have been better for the country. Of course, we don’t know that he will, in fact, win. But it’s looking increasingly likely that NATO air-strikes are not enough and that the disorganized rebels have little chance over the next few weeks against Gaddafi’s more disciplined troops.

My guess is that, although all sorts of surreptitious things are probably already going on to assist the East Libyan rebels, American or NATO ground troops will not be involved for fear of creating yet another Afghani- or Iraqi-type mess. Nor could the allied countries, all in severe debt already, afford to send in a sufficiently large army to actually proceed westwards and occupy the Tripoli heartland. Thus, the chances are that Gaddafi will reunite the country or that Libya will be split into two countries, at least for some years ahead.

Then, as always, the Western nations will talk of applying trade sanctions. But will they have the nerve to apply them? The price of oil has already gone up to $123 today, which is punishing enough for the West. Anything higher than, say $140, will almost certainly drive America and Western Europe into instant economic depression. Just as likely, as with attempts to apply sanctions against Iraq when Saddam Hussein was alive and at least 1,200 breaches occurred, sanctions against Libya would be evaded anyway.

Unfortunately in the world of Middle East Islam, might is right. This is so whether applied by Shia or Sunni dictators and ayatollahs or mullahs against their own people who want to Westernize or whether by secular dictators who are brutal to Muslim fundamentalists—which same dictators were also endeavouring to encourage secular education in their schools and universities.

Now, with Saddam Hussein, Ben Ali and Mubarak gone, Gaddafi is the only dictator left. If he wins in the next few days or weeks and Libyan oil starts flowing again (either legally or through illegal colanders) then politicians in the West might well start saying to themselves (privately, mind you), “What a relief!”.

The demographic boost of genetic passports (1150)

The meta-class of England, already largely in-breeding, is about to develop a new genetic-counselling service for its children and teenagers. It is probably in the vanguard of the meta-classes of other advanced countries for one thing because England was the first into the industrial revolution, the social consequences of which have had longer to unfold and become more defined. For another, because the science of genetics in this country is not far behind that of America.

A new term “meta-class” —or somesuch—has to be chosen because previous social categories such as “upper-class” or “middle-class” have largely lost their meaning in modern times. (Almost everybody with a house, a fairly new car, a fashionable kitchen and who occasionally drinks wine as well as beer call themselves middle-class now.) What I am talking about are the decision-makers of economic trends (and, of course social-status fashions). The meta-class of England, comprising of about 15-20% of the population, is the direct heir of the middle-class of about 10% of England about 100-150 years ago when the industrial revolution was at full spate. This in turn was the product of the very small numbers of the land-owning aristocracy plus a few professional minions plus exceptional “working-class” innovators—in total 5% of the population?—of 150 years before that. “Meta-class” is a better term than, say, “super-class”, particularly when talking of genetics, because there is still a wealth of potential in the “remainder-class” even though the latter are unlikely to benefit from the unfolding benefits of genetics to anywhere near the same extent.

Indeed, even our Tory-led government is aware of the talent potential of the “remainder-class” because it is genuinely trying to improve our declining-quality state-school system in order to recruit as much high talent as possible to join the meta-class. A country’s meta-class is going to be a government’s only resource in a world in which highly-educated specialists are becoming its predominant value-adders. A country’s meta-class will be necessary in order to afford at least minimal welfare for the remainder class as unemployment grows in an increasingly automated world which is, for those in well-paid jobs, becoming increasingly intellectually competitive.

In keeping with the above discussion, it is not surprising therefore that this country is the first—as far as I am aware—for the meta-class to propose genetic testing. Although, due to my interest in genetics, I have been thinking and writing about this for several years and have regarded it as inevitable, I was astonished to read yesterday that, already, this country’s Human Genetic Commission is recommending preconception testing for all. The purpose of this would be to identify the risk of a person passing one of many genetic diseases. These include the very rare diseases caused by harmful dominant genes (more strictly, dominant variations within “standard” genes) but mainly the many hundreds of harmful recessive genes of which, if both parents carry a copy, one child in four will inherit a doublet-version. Cystic fibrosis is a good, though poignant, example of such as disease. In such cases, the recessive predisposition becomes an inevitable disease at some stage in the child’s life.

Testing everybody won’t come about soon, however, if at all. What will delay mass-use initially (perhaps for decades) will be resistance from various religious lobbies in both the Christian camp together with that of our now quite sizeable Muslim population. The other problem is that the test for about 100 diseases is quite costly—about £400—although with continuing advances in super-computing and other techniques the cost is likely to come down quite substantially. On the other hand, the list of known recessive diseases, already in the hundreds is growing rapidly. Some geneticists say that the list will be as many as 3,000 as more are discovered in due course. (And new ones arise every generation. Every fertilization event produces mutational accidents, though most of them are neutral in effect.)

Also, genetic diseases are not always a straightforward matter of one recessive variation combining with another—giving a strict one in four chance. Most recessive diseases involve coalitions of many unfortunate gene-variations which, in the progeny, can produce even more complex variations. And many of these, in turn, can be turned on or off during an individual’s lifetime by external environmental feedback acting through what are known as epigenetic regulators.

In short, DNA determination and the potentialities of its genetic variations—the latter, in theory, almost infinite—is a very complex affair indeed. Some of the more common potentialities could, in theory, be made available to every teenager at little cost but whether all will use them before deciding to become partners or parents is highly doubtful due to lack of responsibility or education or intelligence. Then again, because the potential for genetic disease shades off into thousands of possibilities then expert opinion is going to be increasingly necessary in interpreting DNA sequences in terms of risk between any two young individuals. A consumer market of price differentials is going to develop between cheap individual “genetic passports” containing simple warnings and more expensive ones of much greater scope and precision.

The present meta-class is largely self-contained already (in England) in that its children go to select nursery, preparatory and fee-paying schools, and these then tend to go to a small band of top universities and form relationships there which become the meta-networks—including sexual partnerships and careers—which then persist throughout life. A few of the “remainder-class” manage to penetrate the meta-class by early adulthood by means of academic talent or entrepreneurial ability but, by and large, the meta-class is an in-breeding population. It is already large enough to avoid the penalties of too-close in-breeding but, assisted by some sort of graded genetic passports, its members will, in future years, also be able to practise recessive gene-variation avoidance.

This will not be the world of “designer babies” because, apart from a few simple matters such as colour of eyes or hair which depend on only a few genes, qualities of good health, looks and intelligence (all highly correlated as it happens) depend on even more subtle and numerous coalitions of genes than even recessive diseases do. But it certainly looks as though a future meta-class will be able to increasingly avoid genetic deficiencies. At the end of the day, however, will this cause the meta-class to enlarge its typical family size? At present the indigenous population for the last few decades of all classes in England (as in all advanced countries) have been breeding at less than replacement numbers and is at the point of rapid decline in the next generations or so—in theory, to extinction.

I suspect that the meta-class will reverse this trend among themselves. There is already anecdotal evidence that many meta-class women are now forsaking their high-power careers and are deciding to become mothers and housewives again, but there are no hard data of this yet. But now that graded genetic passports are in the offing, the next few years should be interesting—and perhaps extremely significant for the future of advanced countries.

The present crystal ball will do very well (750)

Here follows my reading of the crystal ball that is to hand! The 10,000 year-old period of the Agricultural Revolution is now coming to an end. Simultaneously, the 300 year-old period of the Industrial Revolution is also coming to an end. World-wide, we are now fast entering a Stasis Period. This will not necessarily be an unenjoyable period for some. It is probably going to be a fascinating and exciting period for many at any instant of time. Nevertheless, for most it is going to be a period of massive (and stressful) re-adjustment for, probably, at least a century.

What is the evidence for saying this? We are now reaching the end of available freshwater for practical agriculture. Rivers are drying up for reasons of irrigation and other uses, and underground aquifers are largely drying up or are producing toxic water. We dare not cut down many more forests for agriculture because they are significant buryers of carbon in the soil and they are significant contributors of rain water clouds. Despite the promises of GM food, agricultural production is now close to its possible maximum. From now onwards an increasing quantity of grain will be used for meat and fish production due to the increasing prosperity of at least 1 billion Chinese and other Asians who, if they were suddenly to become as fully fed on protein as the West already is, would jointly help to deny any food at all to all of the present world’s undeveloped populations.

Strong stuff? Of course. But it won’t descend on us like a clap of thunder. Things are already adjusting very fast. Due to increasing mechanization and automated greenhouses, agricultural workers the world over are fast fleeing into cities where their family size starts to fall precipitously—as in populations in Western Europe and in white America. By the years 2050 to ’80, world population will almost certainly have peaked and decreasing very fast (if present Western urban populations are any guide). When it will stabilize in, say two or three centuries, is anybody’s guess—as also as to what number.

The above is the evidence for the end of the Agricultural Revolution. What about the Industrial Revolution? Here, a two-way squeeze is operating. Western populations are already locked into a high density urban way of life in which its inhabitants have scarcely any more time and energy to use any more consumer goods and services than they do already—even if there were any uniquely new ones in the last 30 years or so apart from replacements and embellishments of existing ones. Ironically, due to increasing automation, this particular dilemma is even worse for those who are lucky enough to have interesting, well-paid value-adding jobs — because they are now working for more hours per week than ever before. As for the remainder, they are going to have even less to spend in the coming years as, due to incipient insolvency, Western governments are forced into reducing welfare payments. Even in America, almost one in eight are now having to receive food stamps.

The environment—both natural and economics-made—is now acting on us with the same powerful effect as it always does on a species. Western governments—as the all-singing, all-dancing entities they presently try to be—will also have to adjust downwards in their ambitions. Populations generally, and politicians particularly, are already sensing the coming need to devolve into smaller, more regional, city and local bodies. Like the example already set by large multinational corporations, highly centralized governments are realizing that multi-layered hierarchical command may be fit for armies but is not as efficient as lateralization in a complex society. Clear, highly focussed strategy within any speciality is one thing, carrying it out is quite another. Electorates are increasingly turned off by the woolly generalizations that politicians are having to offer.

The paradox is that just when events and problems of modern life have seemed to be more complex than ever before, the really important world-wide factors bearing on it are being revealed with a clarity as never before. Basic food production (and desired daily diet) is one of those. Increasing specialization of jobs is another. Increasing automation is another. Incompetence of the present sort of nation-state governance is another. When enough re-adjustment has taken place then perhaps another Revolution equivalent to the Agricultural and the Industrial will take over. But until then, Stasis is what we’re already approaching, and Statis is what we’ll have to get used to.

And, if the birth of the two previous Revolutions is any guide, the Revolution that follows Stasis will be characterized by a brand new energy technology. But for this I would need a brand new crystal ball.

Falling into those 1930s years (300)

We are now reaching yet another phase of beggar-thy-neighbour antics which so characterised the miserable 1930s Depression. It was then by means of protective tariffs; today it’s by means of competitive devaluation of currencies to try and keep pace with that of the dollar. (Because America makes the first move in depreciating the dollar, then it always has the advantage of cheaper exports for a while before recipient countries catch up by depreciating their currencies in turn. And so on.)

Another method is by way of governments giving substantial tax benefits to large employers of labour (at least for a few years). This used to be predominantly of manufacturing industry, such as car factories or steel works. Today, large employers include software businesses—and even large research departments. Ireland, for example, has benefited enormously in recent years from these.

This is now extending to the fast-growing financial industries, particularly the major banks. According to recent newspaper accounts, both New York and Paris are now attempting to attract the large HSBC banking headquarters away from London for its taxation and substantial trickle-down benefits. (The irony of this is that HSBC is already expanding its staff in Hong Kong and—who knows? —it may already be planning to transfer its headquarters there in due course.) Barclays Capital is another bank that New York would love to attract away from London.

Thus Western governments have learned nothing from the past. None of this augurs well for the coming years. Quite besides growing themselves into debt which will take years—if ever—for taxpayers to repay, they are now trying to shoot one another in the foot. The only gainers from this are the transnational corporations and the banks which are already proving to be the new economic structure of the post-nation-state world—where private discussions that go on at Davos (and other similar business leader conferences) are more consequential than anything that’s decided at G20 meetings.

The woffling of President Obama (350)

Since Pastor Terry Jones burned a copy of the Quran on 20 March, one can be reasonably certain that he is destined to be assassinated one day. He should, of course, have been taken into custody before doing so on the grounds that the planned act was, in effect, preaching racial hatred. Another reasonable ground would have been that he is of unsound mind and needs protection.

He wasn’t quite of unsound mind when, in September, General David Petraeus persuaded him not to burn the Quran, saying that it would only cause trouble somewhere in the Middle East. Which, of course, turned out to be the case when, two days ago, Afghani protestors stormed a UN compound in a normally peaceful Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven UN personnel, with four of themselves being killed. This was followed by a second day of protests in which cars and shops were set ablaze and nine more died. With 20 consequential deaths so far, there may well be more deaths to follow somewhere in Afghanistan or wherever.

Never mind also that hatred for the Western world will have increased generally in the Muslim world, exacerbating problems in a dozen countries where some are trying to secularise their politics. Never mind also—if Pastor Jones is indeed assassinated—that he will be treated as a martyr and the following tumult will cause the whole tone in America to be sharpened between Christian fundamentalists and those who want to see biological evolution taught in school.

I’m afraid that the lack of foresight in Pastor Jones’s case must be placed directly at President Obama’s door. He has shown lack of judgement before. A year ago, when American Muslims (no doubt well intentioned) wanted to build a mosque and resource centre so close to the site of the 9/11 tragedy, President Obama should have told them immediately that he would not allow them to choose such a sensitive site. Instead, he took their side and woffled on in the usual abstract terms about Freedom, Human Rights and so on. He almost had to be bludgeoned for several days by advisors with their heads screwed on before he retracted his comments.

The double tragedy of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (950)

The irony of Ben Ali’s downfall in Tunisia, Mubarak’s in Egypt and Gaddafi’s possible imminent defeat in Libya is that in recent years they had been doing more than most governments in Muslim countries in bringing about universal education for their children and in upgrading and expanding their universities. And, in all three cases, with emphasis on science and technology.

The result was a surplus of well-educated young people who had not been able to find jobs. They were the instigators of the recent protests. All this bears out the observation of Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of Soviet Russia from 1958 to 1964. At that time, we in the West were persuaded to see him as a clown. Once, as though to prove the point, he took off his shoes and banged them on the rostrum while he was addressing the United Nations Assembly. Nevertheless, he was no clown. Despite starting out as a barefooted herdsboy in one of the poorest villages in one of the poorest regions in Russia, he was clever enough to rise to the very top of the what was the most competitive governmental system on earth at that time.

In his Khrushchev Remembers he wrote thus: “It is one thing to control starving peasants; it is quite another to govern them once they have food in their bellies.” Exactly. And the same applies in the mental department. We in the West were lucky. Our schools and universities grew alongside the industrial revolution and the creation of a myriad of opportunities and specialities. For at least two centuries, young people of whatever their level of education could find jobs readily.

Not so today. In the advanced countries, the growth of educational credentialism (that is, job protection) on the one hand, and automation on the other, means that mismatches are growing. Also, this is fast becoming so at the other end of the political spectrum. Even in the fastest industrializing country of them all—China—millions of factory workers are now having to return to the rural interior, and millions of graduates, including scientists and engineers—even in the prosperous coastal provinces—are finding it difficult to find appropriate work.

The advanced countries of the West are quite able to make all the producer-goods and specialized high-tech products that the world wants—and develop new ones. Newly industrializing countries such as China, South Korea and one or two more are quite able to make the vast majority of the consumer-goods the West needs as well as satisfying the expanding needs of those countries which are becoming more prosperous by virtue of their exports of resources.

Most countries, however, are trapped in a developmentally arid middle ground. To the extent that some of them are able to produce attractive traditional consumer goods, offer wonderful scenery or archeology to tourists, or produce cocaine or heroin, they might earn enough to keep their heads above water. But some of the middle band are already joining the new list of what are termed “failing states”—those that registered themselves as nations with the United Nations Organization in the last few decades but subsequently fell into lawlessness.

However, there is another middle band of countries which are exceptionally prosperous because of the oil and gas they presently export. This includes most of the Islamic countries of the Middle East plus some across North Africa. They’ve all realized, however, that when the oil and gas is exhausted their country faces poverty again. So, in the last 30 years or so, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how much their Islamic clerics resist them, they are setting about improving their education systems.

The verdict so far is that the only Islamic countries which have developed school systems which are free of religious control and which resemble those of the West or China in literacy and numeracy attainments are those mentioned above in my opening sentence. Oh, and there was Iraq, too—until it was invaded. Since the departure of Saddam Hussein the country has now fallen back into medieval religionism again, the Sunnis killing scores of Shias every week in bomb attacks. Many thousands of Iraq’s best minds in the professions (particularly medicine), sciences and academe who migrated after the invasion in 2003 have not yet returned and are not likely to as long as Iraq doesn’t have an effective government.

But if ever Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were to regain the same impetus for secular control of education as they previously had under their dictators, it is still doubtful whether their hoped-for surge in scientific research and subsequent product development could ever take place. For, just as religious cultures take generations to decline, so scientific cultures take generations to develop in width and depth. It can’t be turned on like a tap. Even in the case of Japan, for example, in many ways one of the most advanced technological countries in the world, a full measure of scientific creativity—and the consequence of unique products—has hardly yet emerged. Despite 150 years of industrialization, only 15 Japanese scientists have won Nobel prizes. In contrast—but with a preceding 150 years of science under their belts—America has won 215, the UK 91 and Germany 88. These three still produce almost all the new ideas and new products in the world. Japan still has a long apprenticeship to go yet.

What is to say about Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Even if they were to gain satisfactory Western-type election procedures as a result of their mass protests (doubtful if we consider Iraq’s attempts) then it’s still unlikely that they could ever build up much by way of unique exportable goods once the oil and gas have gone. Realistically, they have a double tragedy if they want to be like us.