...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Day 3739: Money


I suppose we all like to THINK that we could take a one pound coin to the Bank of England and swap it for one pound coin's worth of gold. But if you take your pound coin to the Bank of England, all they will give you in exchange is… ANOTHER pound coin.

Of course, a moment's thought will explain why. If Great Britain, a trillion pounds in debt, were, like a dragon at Gringotts, sitting on a great big hoard of gold, wouldn't we, um, sell it to pay off the debt?

Oh wait, Mr Frown already did that.

There is a theory that money exists just because the Government SAYS that it does.

This is what is known as "Modern Monetary Theory" or "MMT", and I have recently been reading a small tome (pdf) by one of its proponents, a Mr Warren Mosler.

It's a bit like discovering a SITH HOLOCRON.

You can see how the ideas of the "other side" are put together – there is a LOT in there that clearly informs the what I call "thinking" of Mr Bully Balls, for example – but you can't quite help but feel oddly REPULSED because there's clearly SOMETHING not quite right, even if you can't put your fluffy foot on what it is!

(And I thought that MMT was a kind of TANK for BATTLE DROIDS in STAR WARS, but it turns out that's an "MTT" or "Multi-Troop Transport". Though as it happens, the Wackypedia disambiguation for "MMT" offers up both "Modern Monetary Theory" AND "Magical Mystery Tour". You can make your own jokes up, really.)

Now you SHOULD bear in mind that Mr Mosler is a RESPECTED and WORLD-RENOWN economist with YEARS of study and thought behind his works. Also he's a candidate for the US Senate. And I am a stuffed elephant. Admittedly an AWARD-WINNING stuffed elephant, but even so.

And what he has to say READS very PLAUSIBLY.

But my rule of thumb is if it sounds too good to be true it almost certainly IS too good to be true. And this doesn't half sound like the MAGIC MONEY TREE.

Money does NOT grow on trees. Unless you are the survivors of the Golgafrinchian "B Ark" that crash-landed on prehistoric Earth in Mr Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy". They adopted the LEAF as their currency and all became instant millionaires. Although there was a small problem with inflation. As we will see, this is a not untypical outcome of creating money from nothing.

Anyway, I'm going to try to explain some of the things in his theory and why I think they must be wrong. But you may prefer to read him in his own words and decide for yourself.

In this theory, since money exists because the government says it does, then taxation is just the government saying that some of the money – your money – does NOT exist any more. Similarly, government spending is just the government creating new money, as and when it needs it. And there is NO CONNECTION between the two.

Thus the government can never go bankrupt. Do you see the attraction for Hard Labour?

When the government taxes you, claims Mr Mosler, all it does is change the numbers on your bank account. When the government spends, all it does is change the numbers on the bank account of whoever it is paying.

Mr Mosler likens this to the scoreboard in a football game. (I suspect he means an AMERICAN football game, but it still counts.) When one team scores, the ground staff change the numbers on the scoreboard. They don't need to have a supply of "goals" beforehand; they just "create" the score at the point when it is needed.

This leads to the BACKWARDS-SEEMING notion that the government does NOT raise taxes in order to have money which it can spend, but instead SPENDS so that people will have money which it then collects again in taxes.

Oh dear; Daddy says his head has just turned inside out!

let me try and give you Mr Mosler's explanation:

The government demands tax from people (under threat of punishment) and only accepts payment in its own special tokens (what we call "the currency" which is "pounds and pence" to you and me or "dollars" to Mr Mosler).

This means that people have to OBTAIN currency, which they can only get from the people who create the currency, i.e. the government themselves.

Which, in turn, means that people EITHER have to work for the government directly OR produce something which they can trade with government employees in order to get the required tokens to settle their tax bill.

So, the government "creates" all the money and "puts it into the economy" (spot the Bully Balls phrase). Private business just "re-circulates" the money inside the economy like a big tumble-drier full of notes. And then the government destroys some of the money by taxation.

The illogical logical consequence of this is that if you want to GROW the economy… the government should almost always run a deficit.

(Further counter-factual arguments that follow include: "running a trade deficit is good because imports are a real benefit and exports are a real cost(!)"; and "leaving our debts for our kids is fine – they'll still enjoy all the benefits of the goods they produce because they can't send those goods back via time travel to settle our debts now(!)" – to which I have to reply: "no, but they CAN send them to CHINA to settle the debt. You IDIOT.")

Now, this is all rather like that optical illusion of those monks walking up the endless stairway. It LOOKS like it makes sense, but surely there's something WRONG somewhere.

And I think that, actually, it has the same PROBLEM as the monks' stairwell: it's a system with NO INPUT. Or, as Daddy Alex puts it: a perpetual stagnation machine!

Suppose EVERYONE goes to work for the government. The government can create the money to pay everyone and everyone can pay their taxes, and what happens? Everyone starves to death.

Look, let's just step back a second and ask the IMPORTANT question: what IS this thing called "the economy" anyway?

Well, it seems to me that "the economy" is basically a machine for turning WORK into GOODIES.

Most people have some basic needs: food, shelter, James Bond DVDs and so on.

At the most basic level: you COULD go out and fix all of these things for yourself: you could catch your own food; you could build your own shelter; you could make your own cine-camera and film yourself performing your own James Bond script… or is that just me?

This is called a SUBSISTENCE economy, or TOO MUCH EFFORT.

A step up from that is that YOU could go and gather food while YOUR FRIEND could stay behind and build shelter. This is a (slightly) more efficient use of both your time. AND it is the most basic form of ECONOMY: you put in your labour getting food and get out BOTH food AND shelter; your mate puts in labour building shelter and gets out BOTH shelter AND food.

You've both turned your work into more goodies.

It should be pretty obvious how you extend this to a BARTER economy: you and your friend might have EXTRA food left over – suppose you're especially good at gathering apples, you might have more apples than you need or want. So you can take off with some of your EXTRA apples and see if you can't find someone with something they might be willing to SWAP. Perhaps you find someone who's really good at growing potatoes.

So now, you've put in your work gathering apples and you've got apples AND shelter AND potatoes.

BARTER allows for more complicated economies to develop. If you aren't spending all your time gathering your own food and finding your own shelter then you can SPECIALISE: for example you can become an expert in making TOOLS. The tools themselves might not feed or shelter you, but they enable someone else to be BETTER at getting food or making shelter. So you make them a tool, and they use it to increase the stuff they get from their labour, and in return give some of the excess back to you.

[Even today, this is why trade is GOOD – and why exports are NOT a cost; you've converted your labour into goodies which you swap for other goodies and everyone benefits.]

So you can see how this is a BETTER sort of economy, but it's still a bit CUMBERSOME. Carrying, say, a flock of sheep around with you to exchange for stuff is a bit of a chore, not to mention fiddling with the small change.

Eventually, it occurred to people that carrying around small chunks of VALUABLE stuff – mainly lumps of gold – was more convenient.

Now, a chap called King Croesus of Lydia came up with the idea of making regular sized lumps of gold so that you could easily count out different amounts depending on how much things were worth. And he decided to have his face stamped onto each one – well, he was king, after all. This was the invention of COINS, and also why we still talk about being "as rich as Croesus" – because for a while at least he did literally own all of the money in the world.

Of course it helped that his kingdom of Lydia – in modern day Turkey – was sat on a great big deposit of gold to make coins out of. Well, electrum, actually, which is a naturally occurring alloy or what we call gold mixed with silver, though HE called it gold, and so invented debasing the currency at the same time that he invented a currency to debase!

Unfortunately for King Croesus, Lydia was also slap-bang in between Greece and Persia and – with all that gold – a very tasty target for invasion; Croesus made the SLIGHT strategic error of pre-emptively attacking the vast Persian Empire who promptly obliterated him. Still, they quite liked this "coins" notion.

So, once the idea had caught on, money in those Ye Olden Dayes was worth its weight in gold mainly because, Croesus electrum aside, it WAS gold. Or silver. Or copper. Or sometimes shiny shells. Or even leather belts. I'm drifting…

This was called COMMODITY money, because the money itself was an exchangeable commodity or what experts call "useful stuff". The economy was now basically "BARTER PLUS": that is, LIKE barter but with a sort of agreed exchange rate based on the value of the stuff you made your coins from.

This was quite a lot of FUSS, though. The coins were HEAVY and cumbersome and even if people DIDN'T try to cheat you by mixing their gold with silver (or some copper or tin or lead or whatever), it wasn't always easy to be sure you were getting the weight of gold you thought you were. Different kings issued coins in different weights so they ought to be worth less or more than each other, but some traders were a bit crafty about that too.

So, to get around all this, someone came up with the idea of PAPER money. And as most people probably know, it was the CHINESE who thought of it first.

There is a famous episode of Doctor Who where Mighty Kublai Khan gives Dr Woo some of his new paper money. And this was worth real stuff: these notes were basically written I.O.U's, which could be exchanged for the stated amount of gold, silver or silk and wily old Kublai was as good as his (printed) word when it came to his money.

Unfortunately, his descendents were less trustworthy: running short of resources, they just PRINTED extra currency and carried on spending, resulting in nasty case of HYPERINFLATION – a situation that brought down their dynasty and that the subsequent Ming Dynasty only got out of by abolishing the currency all together!

Nevertheless, Kublai Khan's cash was an early example of what we call FIAT MONEY. Now, that's NOT currency that you can exchange for a small Italian car. It is money where the VALUE does not depend on what it is MADE of, but on the PROMISE that it is worth what it says it is worth. Fiat comes from the Latin for "let it be" as in "let it be worth THIS".

Ultimately – or at least as ultimately as the 21st Century – this evolves into our system where we don't even need the paper, and the promises are recorded as electronic scores inside banking machines.

Now, I think I can see how this FIAT system LOOKS like it's the government just wishing money into existence with a "let it be"; even more, I can see how the electronic recording of money makes it LOOK even more like Mr Mosler's football scoreboard.

But I think that those resemblances are SUPERFICIAL.

You can't ACTUALLY exchange your goals on the scoreboard for anything else.

Or, on a deeper level, the rewards of the players ARE determined (in the long run) by those numbers of goals scored, so in a way they DO exchange goals for exchangeable currency… BUT, that currency is paid for from the receipts that the club got at the gates (and from television rights) so in a way the ground staff DO have a supply of "goals" before they put the scores up on the board. Money goes in – the money is "turned into goals" for which the players labour – and then the scores are turned back into money which goes out again. There's just not a simple linear relationship between these flows.

Money is essentially a DEBT: it represents the VALUE that we are OWED for the labour and resources that we have put in (or maybe that someone else, our Daddies perhaps, put in and then gifted to us); and/or it represents the VALUE of goodies we expect to get OUT in return. And that is why we are able to swap money for goodies. Or for that matter vice versa if, for example, you produce James Bond DVDs and want my pocket money.

Suppose *I* choose to create a currency. It WOULDN'T have any VALUE because no one else would BELIEVE in it.

I could call it the CURRANT. It'll be a decimal currency: ten currants equals one BUN. Actually, currants are delicious and nutritious and that's in danger of being a COMMODITY CURRENCY that MIGHT have actual value. I'm drifting again…

Mr Mosler suggests another example of a family where the parents issue the children with coupons for doing chores under the rule that the children have to pay a "tax" of ten coupons or face punishment. But again, that's another system without input. Not to mention sadistic! The parents obviously have to go out to work to support themselves and their kids, even if they just go hunter-gathering. So that's NOT like a government "creating" currency. The kids get food protection, shelter "for free" from their parents. Probably not James Bond DVDs from THESE parents, though, the swine! Again, that's not ANYTHING like the way that real governments or real economies work.

"But," says Dr Freud, "literally infantilizing everyone EXCEPT ze government – zat IZ, how you say, revealing."

No government just sits down and CREATES an entire currency from scratch just by issuing it. Even when introducing a NEW currency – like when the Euro arrived in 1 January 1999 (yes, the single currency is two years older than ME!); or when pounds and pence replaced pounds shillings and pence on 15 February 1971 (yes, our "grand historic traditional pound" is two weeks YOUNGER than Daddy Richard!) – the new currency is swapped for old currency. So in theory (if not always in practice) the VALUE – or if you prefer the DEBT for LABOUR put in – gets carried forwards intact.

So if governments DON'T create all the money, where DOES the money come from?

Well, there's a bit of a CHICKEN and EGG thing going on: because there IS money in circulation, we BELIEVE people (governments or banks) when they gives us more money.

Look, there is more money IN CIRCULATION than is just the spending of the government.

If I was a farmer with a corn field, I could EAT some of my corn, TRADE some of my corn and KEEP some to PLANT next year. I don't need ANY input of "money" government.

Suppose that the person that I want to trade my corn with DOES want to pay me with money. Must they have got that money from the government? No, they could BORROW it from a bank. The BANK (not the government) creates the money. It also creates a DEBT that will have to be paid off with some WORK sooner or later. I ACCEPT the money because I BELIEVE the bank's promise to back up the money with assets, that is that the bank will get hold of the promised labour or goodies for me either directly from my trader or indirectly from someone else who has created a similar debt.

So we've added some VALUE to the economy (my corn) and added MONEY to the economy (as a debt my trader – or someone – will have to repay, backed up by the bank's promise to make them) and the government had nothing to do with it.

In fact there is a case for saying that the value of money is not created by the government but by the fact that the banks will accept it in settlement of debts. Or ultimately that any of US will accept it in settlement of debts.

And thus, the level of money in circulation has built up over time.

The labour put in by our parents and grand-parents and great-grand-parents and so on has built up some assets that endure. Even if the VALUE of those assets is concentrated into the hands of a very small number of people (starting with the government, formerly the King), the DEBT for that Labour (i.e. the MONEY) has been spread about rather thinly.

Since the first introduction of Fiat Money, what has tended to happen is that currencies have swung between being hard guarantees of convertibility into assets to open ended government promises depending mainly on how much money the government needs in circulation compared to how much people TRUST the government.

For example, after World War Part Two, and particularly remembering the inter-war inflation in Germany, trust in governments was very LOW so governments had to stick to the Gold Standard, essentially promising that they would always swap actual gold for currency if asked.

At the start of the Nineteen Seventies, President Tricky Dickey Nixon BROKE the Gold Standard and said US Dollars would no longer be a straight swap for gold.

He did this because too many people (mainly the Swiss) kept asking him for the metal stuff and it's just a bit AWKWARD for governments to have to hold a great deal of gold in reserve, on the off chance someone happens to ask for it. Just ask Mr Frown. Ahem. It doesn't earn you any interest, just sitting there glittering, and its value can fall relative to other investments (although recently it has performed better as people see it as a long term safe store of value because it's basically indestructible, unlike – as 2008 reminded us – the stock market).

More importantly, gold is in short supply which tends to limit the amount of money backed by gold that any (or even all) government can issue.

And governments have MORE assets than just their gold. Foreign currency reserves; debts; chunks of land. And one way of looking at assets is that they are basically something that you can convert into money later, whether that is gold or land that you can sell or a debt that you will get repaid. So from that point of view, FUTURE TAX REVENUES are "something that you can convert into money later" so sometimes governments look at their future tax revenues as ASSETS too. They issue money as a DEBT, a promise of goodies or labour, and they get the goodies or the labour to clear that debt IN THE FUTURE.

When it came to breaking the Gold Standard, it was a bit dodgy for a while, but basically people ACCEPTED that America had a basically strong economy and would be good for paying the debts. And the perceived value of the Dollar stayed good.

So governments CAN "create" money, but only in the same way that banks can "create" money i.e. because HISTORY means that they have assets and because we BELIEVE them when they promise they will swap the money for a share of those assets.

The government's ability to create money relies on our COLLUSION; money is created by our BELIEF that the debt will be settled, not by the government's say-so.

And we have already seen what happens when people DON'T believe their government when it creates money by its say-so: you get hyperinflation. It brought down the Yuan Dynasty in ancient China. It brought down the Weimar Republic in pre-war Germany. And today you can see the enormous strains being placed on the Euro because the governments of Greece, Ireland and now Portugal have lost credibility.

Money has been described (by Iain M Banks fictional ultra-smug post-scarcity society "The Culture" and/or their dragged-up Doctor Who cousins "The People") as an only-slightly-better-than-the-most-inefficient method of rationing in a society with limited resources. And the hardly-any-less-smug* Federation of Star Trek also claim to have abolished money. To which I say, yes, but you're FICTIONAL.

We have to live in a world where resources ARE limited. And that applies to governments too. So even if a government COULD create infinite MONEY, there is a strictly FINITE amount of resources it could obtain with that cash. So there is a FINITE VALUE to that money.

And, as Mr Dougie Adams would tell you, any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no difference: which is why printing money makes it worthless.


*Daddy Alex couldn't disagree more! He says the Federation are far MORE smug – and with much less to be smug about! Also, they may CLAIM to have abolished money, but that doesn't stop them trading "gold pressed latinum" with the Ferengi when it suits them.

Daddy suggests that when Space Commander Sisko goes to the bar and says "give me a drink", Mr Quark says, "that will be one slip of latinum," rather than "your word and a shower of your imaginary Federation pixie dust? That'll do nicely…"

Obviously, that's NONSENSE. Space Commander Sisko would BULLY Mr Quark into giving him a drink or else the LIGHT and AIR gets TURNED OFF.

Though that DOES raise an interesting point: Mr Quark IS charging his customers for drinks, and for time in his only-to-be-used-for-wholesome-and-morally-uplifting-entertainment holosuites. So is he getting his power for replication and holograms for free from the station? If he is, do the Federation MIND him profiteering off their back? Even when THEY are the ones being charged for DRINKS? And if not, what do the "we don't use money" Federation DO with the rent they charge him?

Mind you, the Federation clearly have both technology ("replicators") that can make literally anything from thin air, or rather energy AND apparently inexhaustible supplies of cheap energy** to power them with. Under their "Prime Directive" they refuse to share this technology with their neighbours. So they have a society with limitless resources surrounded by (relatively) poor neighbours and no immigration problem… which makes you wonder what just what KIND of a society it might be.


**Daddy reckons that the Federation has some sort of perpetual motion machines, and wonders if it might not be the replicators themselves – and you know he might be sort of right: if the replicators can replicate ANTI-MATTER (and why wouldn't they be able to?) then your onto a winner.

You would need to put E=mc2 of energy IN, but you could annihilate the anti-matter with an identical mass of matter to get 2xE=2 mc2 or twice as much energy OUT.

Even allowing for a bit lost to inefficiency, that would be almost limitless free energy so long as you can keep your reactors topped up with matter in the form of any handy planets, stars, or annoying neighbouring civilisations who bug you about sharing the technology…

Friday, March 25, 2011

Day 3734: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul


Master Gideon's second budget was really quite unexciting. What changes there were were moderate and predictable.

A bit off fuel; a bit more tax on the oil giants. A bit off company tax; a bit more bank levy. Another step towards the £10,000 personal allowance.

Then Mr Potato Ed stood up and read out the speech he'd written a month ago.

"Same Old Tories ," he said, "you're just robbing Peter to pay Paul."

He doesn't seem to understand: ALL government spending "robs" (taxes) somebody to "pay" (spend on) somebody else.

Perhaps Mr Bully Balls has been "explaining" it.

If you WANT to take less tax from one person, or more realistically one GROUP of people, then you have just TWO choices: either you SPEND LESS or you have to take the tax from SOMEONE ELSE.

(Yes, you can BORROW it, but that's only taking it from a "someone else" who just happens to be in the FUTURE, i.e. when they are the someone who will have to pay back your borrowing.)

Last year, in the emergency budget and then in detail in the spending review, we decided how much we would cut spending this year, and so how much we would raise in taxes (and how much borrowing we would need too).

We haven't changed those numbers.

And that's GOOD because last year's budget was quite painful enough already! Cutting spending even more would be AWFUL. But equally, cutting spending less would only PROLONG the AGONY – if you're GOING to take a trip through HELL, swerving from side to side is only going to make it take LONGER!

So Master Gideon's budget was what we call "fiscally neutral" which just means it raises the same AMOUNT of tax but in different WAYS. Or in Mr Ed's language: "choosing to rob different people".

For example, with the cost of fuel rocketing, the Government could hardly fail to curb the fuel tax escalator, and that's what Gideon did. But forgive me if my heart fails to bleed for the oil companies whose super-massive profits will be taxed a bit more to raise the same amount of money from them instead.

What we're doing is moving the tax burden from families who are finding it hard to make ends meet because of the price of petrol going through the roof onto the oil companies who are seeing their profit margins soar because of, er, the price of petrol going through the roof.

When Hard Labour do this, it is called "redistribution"; when the Coalition do it, apparently, it is called "robbery".

Someone clearly slipped Mr Ed a bit of paper at the end of his peroration, pointing out that his reply to the budget speech had not actually mentioned any of the points IN the budget speech, so he tacked on a bit about the 1p cut in fuel to say "ah ha, but you put up the VAT which added 3p to the cost of petrol! Ha!" So, what, Mr Ed would have preferred us to KEEP the fuel escalator price increase and put petrol up MORE? What's that you say? Hard Labour would have reversed the VAT increase? If you were PAYING ATTENTION you would have heard Master Gideon say he'd LOOKED at that and it would have been ILLEGAL.

And of course it would have been three times as EXPENSIVE. That is, we should have had to raise three times as much tax from somebody else to make up the difference. Or cut spending by ANOTHER six billion pounds on top of all the cuts that have been forced upon us already.

(And that's why Gideon didn't reduce the duty by THREE pence and cancel out the VAT increase – it would have had to come from somewhere!)

NEITHER of these options are in the Hard Labour way of budgeting: they would DUCK the difficult choice and just BORROW the difference.

Which of course is robbing Peter's CHILDREN to pay Paul.

And remember, the WHOLE POINT of this Age of Austerity is so that we STOP DOING THAT!

That's why we've raised more in taxes – VAT, National Insurance, bank levy and others – and why from next month we really start with these awful spending cuts. It's not for a laugh or for ideology or through sheer bloody-minded ignorance of the state of the economy; it's so that we will start to close the gap between what the government gets in and what it pays out.

This, fundamentally, is the difference between the Coalition's position and the one that Hard Labour are espousing (as much as they'll admit to ANY position): WE say that we have to get the country's finances under control in order to achieve economic growth; Mr Balls says that you've got to achieve some growth before you can hope to get the country's finances under control.

This is why he reacts with such GLEE to every new BAD statistic that comes out. He likes to say that the economy was in recovery until the Coalition yanked out the IV drip of continued borrowing.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that the figures are NOT bad; in fact I think they are appalling – inflation is up (again!) to 4.4%; unemployment is up (again!) to a seventeen year high, and, worse, an ALL TIME high for youth unemployment; and in some ways worst of all, Government borrowing, the POINT of the whole thing, after a good month in January is up (again!) in February.

But I do not think that these are our fault. Economies just don't turn around that quickly. We were left with an economy badly damaged from the banking crash that, far from recovering, was in fact screaming out of control just as Labour were ejected from the driving seat. Keynes may be RIGHT that you can kick-start an economy out of recession by investing in public works, but Labour have spent YEARS borrowing money to fund the ILLUSION of economic activity – public sector jobs and construction projects – so much that it's now a busted flush. Like the Wizard of Oz you HAVE to keep beavering away behind the curtain JUST to keep up the illusion, because when you stop, well, THIS happens!

So I think that these figures are a RESULT of a decade of Labour's mismanagement, covered up by borrowing and now revealed as we stop shovelling money into the black hole they've left.

Of course, Mr Balls, contrariwise, says that the figures are caused by US, by the Coalition's plans to bring borrowing under control i.e. caused by the cuts that, er, haven't happened yet, just as December's poor sales were caused by the VAT rise in, er, January.

Of course, Mr Ball's ALSO says that there was NO structural deficit during Hard Labour's time in office. Well, since they clearly DID run a deficit every year, he must be saying that his government presided over an EIGHT YEAR LONG RECESSION. And THEN hit the banking crash!

So if SOMEONE from the Hard Labour front bench tells you that if they had still been in power there would NOT have been a contraction in the fourth quarter last year… you can be sure that it's BALLS.


You may well think that I've concentrated too much on Mr Potato Ed's REPLY to the budget, but really, Master Gideon just wasn't that INTERESTING.

With not a lot of money left, there were lots of LITTLE schemes – enterprise zones, apprenticeships, support for first time buyers, some stuff with railways – but nothing startlingly major. After all, there are only so many ways he can say: "No changes; economy still rubbish; nothing to see here."


Lib Dem manifesto, front cover, pledge to increase the basic allowance to £10,000 by the end of this Parliament; today's Budget, another big step to delivering.

Tory manifesto, big speech by Master Gideon, pledge to cut Inheritance Tax; today's Budget, umm, tax cut limited to charitable giving.

I think that's what we call a LIBERAL DEMOCRAT-Led Coalition.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Day 3719: Stars


My mum died and the universe ended.

We are made of stardust.

In the Doctor Who episode "The Big Bang" there is a Richard Dawkins who believes in stars even when there are none in the sky.

But our Professor Richard Dawkins, in his book "The Ancestor's Tale", says:

"It's hardly surprising that we see stars when we look up into the sky at night, because stars are a necessary prerequisite for organisms that see."

He means that the elements necessary for life – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen – are only created through nuclear fusion, and thus only in stars.

So the evidence of our own existence requires that there must be stars, even if we do not see them.

So the Richard Dawkins in the story is not a blind believer but a rationalist who has inferred the stars' existence from the very fact that we are here at all.

Listening to the 500th "In Our Time", Melvyn Bragg and his guests, philosophers all, discussed free will and spent the better part of forty minutes trying to find different excuses for why determinism doesn't rob us of choice.

Determinism is the belief that given any one arrangement of physical space, the laws of physics determine that there is only one possible thing that can happen next. If that's true, then even the atoms that make up our brains, the patterns of electrons that describe our thoughts among the neurons and axons, are just one "arrangement" and physics determines what will happen next: what we think, what we do is determined by simple physical laws and any experience of choice is an illusion generated by the chemistry, our "will" no more than along for the ride.

Obviously, this presents a huge problem for morality: if we truly have no choices then how can it be fair to judge anyone by their actions? Yes, yes we would have no more choice about whether to punish or not and the punishment itself would be inevitable – but suppose you believe in a god outside of the laws of space and time: how could it be moral for such a god to set up a deterministic universe and then judge people to heaven or hell based on actions they cannot control?

But that can't be right, can it?

I believe in free will. And I believe that even if I'm wrong, I have no choice but to believe in free will. But I see the universe as intersecting matrices: space and time; matter and energy; observation and awareness. In Quantum Mechanics, in the Copenhagen interpretation, all possible outcomes of quantum event occur simultaneously in multiple "superposition states", all stacked up – super-positioned – on top of each other and our observation collapses this into a single state that we see, without necessarily disturbing the others.

If our awareness, our continuous observation of our own existence, our long reiteration of "I think therefore I think I am", if that means anything then it means we can and do choose the quantum superposition states that we observe.

We can, with our actions and choices, change the universe, even it is only the universe that we ourselves are aware of, passing like ghosts along one path through the myriad observable superposition states.

In another Doctor Who episode, "Utopia" by Russell Davies, the TARDIS carries the Doctor, and Martha – and Captain Jack clinging to the outside – to a hundred trillion years into the future, to the End of the Universe.

That's almost right. We live in the Stelliferous Era: the Age of Stars. And in a hundred trillion years the Stelliferous Era will come to an end as the last stars go out.

In his "Wonders of the Universe", Professor Brian Cox took us there too. He presented us with the Heat Death of the Universe as an inevitable consequence of Entropy, the scientific measure of disorder, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: "In a closed system, entropy increases". Or as it has been satirised: "Things Can Only Get Worse".

That's bleak, very bleak, and not a little controversial – it is by no means a certain thing that the Universe will end that way.

In a nice simple universe, the Big Bang scatters matter in all directions and gravity tries to pull it all back together. If there is enough mass in the universe, then eventually gravity stops all the bits from flying apart and pulls them back into a Big Crunch, a reverse Big Bang that ends the Universe as it began in a fiery cremation of all matter, energy and time; if there isn't enough mass then things just expand into the cold and black forever.

Astonishingly, the amount of matter in the universe – the stuff we can see and the so-called dark matter that we have to guess must be there from the way the rest of space moves – is right on the borderline between being just enough to stop the acceleration and not quite enough to stop it going forever.

But whatever happens, that expansion should gradually slow down and slow down under the pull of gravity.

Except that's not what we observe. The expansion of the universe actually appears to be accelerating.

So we DON'T live in a simple universe; and until we have any idea what the "Dark Energy" powering the acceleration is, all bets are off.

The law of entropy, that Second Law of Thermodynamics, means – says Professor Cox – that nothing is forever.

But that's not right, is it.

Not even nothing is forever.

Quantum Mechanics tells us that particles can just happen, appearing out of nowhere in matter/anti-matter pairs. In our busy universe of stars and matter they almost always collide and vanish again. Almost always. But who knows what the rules are for a cold, empty universe, trillions upon trillions of years after the last stars. Our universe began in a single point of time and energy bursting into existence: everything from nothing. Perhaps that is how the next universe will begin.

Not even nothing is forever; there is always, always something new.

I believe in hope and I believe in choice and I believe in life.

Mum is with the stars now.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Day 3715: The Murdoch Shilling


So, Mr Rupert Stavro Murdoch gets to gobble up BSkyB thanks to the decision of one his biggest lackeys fans: the Hulture Secretary, Mr Jeremy Spoonerism*.

Be fair! In return, Mr Jeremy got a promise from Mr Murdoch that he will not interfere with the Sky News… Just like EMPEROR PALPETINE promised he'd never interfere with what DARTH VADER was up to.

But only an ABSOLUTE IDIOT would believe that Sky News will be REALLY fair and balanced and… and…

…and Daddy's done WHAT? Again? Oh bottom!

So, that Barnsley by-election then…

Run Sky VT…

*And congratulations to the Tell-lies-o-graph and (for shame) Mr Dr Vince for, between them, getting the decision taken OUT of Mr Dr Vince's hands and handed over to Mr Murdoch, er, Jeremy.


Daddy didn't actually get a PENNY much less a whole SHILLING for doing this!