2020-02-03

Brexit. What happens next?


A (tidied-up) Twitter thread which seems to have broken in two on the site.

It's been interesting listening to @BBCr4today recently because they're actually doing what they should have done[i] before the referendum (and subsequently) and trying to examine our various options outside the EU and what they imply.

But, as ever, it is very difficult to read the runes as to where we are really going.
I suppose the EU will view Raab's insistence that following EU rules after 2021 "just ain’t happening" as it now views May's insistence that a customs border within the UK (between GB and NI) was something "no U.K. Prime Minister could ever agree to".

Raab, of course, is delusional (and ill-informed) enough to really mean this, but what Johnson (who will make the actual decisions …. with a little help from his friend Dom) will decide cannot be gleaned from anything he says now.

Either way, we now seem to be heading for a very hard Brexit indeed - with a regulatory and customs (and possibly a tariff and quota) border between GB and the EU (and between GB and NI).

One problem is highlighted by the UK government's former insistence on calling the "transition" period the "implementation" period - something which seems to have been quietly dropped "in real life" but which can still be found on their website:












The difficulty here is that nothing that could be implemented has been agreed yet and, once it has been agreed - presumably towards the end of 2020, there will be no time to implement any of the agreed new procedures.
.
But - if anything the UK government are saying is to be taken at face value (not necessarily a given) - we are, at best, going to need significant new border and compliance infrastructure: sheds, waiting areas, IT, customs brokers etc and, at worst, even more of such things. There is no sign that the UK government is making any such preparations in a serious fashion.

We have, of course, been here before; except this time around, we head towards a cliff edge locked into an international treaty that protects (some) citizens' rights; enforces a customs border down the Irish Sea; and mandates us to pay the EU a lot of money.

In other words, these issues can no longer be used as the basis of threats against the EU. They never increased the strength of the UK's hand greatly anyway, but agreeing them has weakened that hand still further.

In the meantime we can predict (with reasonable confidence):
  • Increased fulminations from the DUP in NI, as the true consequences of Johnson's WA dawn on them (though they have painted themselves into a corner and have nowhere else to go).
  • The rest of EU manufacturing continuing to prune the UK from its supply chains.
  • UK manufacturing (especially car manufacturing) to continue  slowly dismantling itself and moving away.
  • A continuing decline in the numbers of Drs, nurses, midwifes, care-workers, agricultural workers, top academics etc coming here from the EU - perhaps combined with a last minute rush of EU citizens coming here before the drawbridge in drawn up at the end of the year.
  • Continued remonstrations from industry about the lack of any clarity when it comes to the details of what they will have to prepare for.
  • & c

None of these (and similar processes) will dent the faith of the true believers who, let's face it, are essentially like a millennial cult. Even a severe recession and chaos at our ports would not dent their faith. They would just blame the EU and insist that Brexit needed to be even harder.

I suppose the key agreement we need to look out for is one on fish [sic]. Everything that has happened thus far would seem to point to Johnson betraying the UK fishing industry (as he did the DUP) and agreeing to the EU's terms (albeit with some cosmetic concessions from the EU.)
As with the DUP, our tiny fishing industry - having made its bed - will just have to lie in it.  Fishing is supposed to be one of the issues that is agreed quickly - though it would be in both sides' interest to keep any agreement hidden from view for as long as possible.

If Johnson capitulates to the EU on giving them access to our waters in return for giving our fishermen/women access to the EU market (the only sensible course of action) perhaps he will soften on other matters too. If he stands firm, we are looking at very troubled waters ahead.



[i] Pace the preposterous over-promotion of Nigel Farage's views, there was actually a pretty fair balance of opinion throughout on @BBCr4today; and we should recognize and cherish that fact. There was, however, an appallingly skewed imbalance of uninformed perceptions versus facts (or at least informed commentary).

2020-01-15

A Belgian Letter


This was a letter recently sent to Guy Verhofstadt by Brandon Lewis (Minister of State for Security and Deputy for EU Exit and No Deal Preparation). He recently re-tweeted a link to his missive:




and I thought inclined to point out its inaccuracies:
(My comments are in dark blue.)

####################

Guy Verhofstadt
Member of the European Parliament
Brexit Co-ordinator and Chair
Brexit Steering Group
European Parliament Office
1047 Brussels
13 September 2019

Dear Guy,

CITIZENS’ RIGHTS AND IMMIGRATION

I saw your tweet on 11 September claiming that Home Office treatment of EU27 citizens is unacceptable and settled status isn’t working. I wanted to write to put the correct position on record, and to express my disappointment and frustration that there continues to be misunderstanding about the EU Settlement Scheme.

There is no misunderstanding. The EU Settlement Scheme is very well understood by Guy and his colleagues in the European Parliament.

Such misconceptions, along with inaccurate press coverage, undermine the reassurances we are seeking to provide to EU citizens in the UK, generate uncertainty and cause unnecessary worry and stress for individual citizens.

In the UK, approximately 80% of the press (by readership)[i] is pro-Brexit. The current UK government would seem to be in a weak position when it suggests that its reassurances on Brexit have been undermined by the UK press. And there has been no suggestion that Die Welt misreported Mr Lewis’s affirmative answer to their question about whether people who meet all the conditions for settlement but fail to apply in time will be deported[ii]. That statement has certainly caused a lot of worry for EU citizens.

Above all, the UK Government wants to reassure EU citizens in the UK that they are welcome to stay and that we are committed to protecting their rights. Even if we leave the EU without a deal, the Prime Minister has made clear that EU citizens living in the UK will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain.

It is hard to reconcile this statement with the repeated votes in Parliament to deny EU citizens their rights[iii]

or with Theresa May’s characterization of EU citizens as “queue jumpers”[iv]

or with the refusal of our PM to honour the promises he made during the Brexit campaign that there would be no change for EU citizens lawfully resident in the UK; that such citizens would be automatically be granted settlement; and that they would be treated no less favourably than at present[v]

or with Johnson’s recent complaint that EU citizens “treat the UK as if it's part of their own country”[vi].

Far from “protecting” the rights of EU citizens, the UK government is abolishing their existing status as of 2020 January 31 and forcing them to apply for new reduced rights. There is no certainty – “absolute” or otherwise. Some applicants are being turned down outright[vii] and 43% are only being granted pre-settled status. Citizens who successfully obtain settled status will thereby obtain the right to “live and remain” in the UK – providing they do not go abroad for too long, in which case they will lose their status – but they will lose other important rights and some of their ability to enforce their rights[viii]. Their rights and the protection of those rights would be further eroded by a “no deal” exit from the EU.[ix]

We have launched the EU Settlement Scheme to give EU citizens their rights in UK law, to ensure that they can continue living in the UK after we leave the EU – deal or no deal. The scheme is set out in Immigration Rules made under the Immigration Act 1971. The status granted under the scheme – settled status (indefinite leave to remain) or pre-settled status (five years’ limited leave to remain) – is a status under UK immigration law and will guarantee the person the same access to work, study, benefits and services as they currently have under EU law on free movement.

As noted above, the EU Settlement Scheme does not “give EU citizens their rights”, it takes some of them away (if applied for successfully), and all of them away (if an application is refused). Moreover, the EU Settlement Scheme does not guarantee the same access to benefits and services as they currently have[x] and the government has recently legislated to take away some entitlements to benefits from EU citizens with pre-settled status[xi].

The secure evidence of that UK legal status which the EU Settlement Scheme also provides will ensure that, years from now, EU citizens and their family members can continue, easily, to prove their status and exercise the rights and access the entitlements which, deal or no deal, are protected.

“The secure evidence” is a digital code which EU citizens who successfully apply for settled status will be given and which potential employers, landlords, NHS staff etc will have to enter into a web site in order to establish the legal status of EU citizens they deal with. No physical card or document will be issued, and this was a key criticism in the Home Affairs Committee report on the Scheme[xii].

The facts are that the EU Settlement Scheme is working well. More than 1.5 million people have now applied, according to our internal figures, and by the end of August more than 1.1 million applicants had been granted status under the scheme. There is plenty of time to apply – until at least 31 December 2020 – but we are keen for people to apply as soon as possible and will shortly be renewing our communications campaign, with a particular focus on supporting the vulnerable.

Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of vulnerable EU citizens (who may have lived in the UK for decades) are going to miss the December deadline and thereby become liable for incarceration and deportation.[xiii]

There has been much media speculation about grants of pre-settled status, including allegations that we are deliberately seeking to grant pre-settled status to people who are eligible for settled status. I would like to emphasise that nobody has been granted pre-settled status without first being offered the opportunity during their application to submit evidence that they qualify for settled status.

This is a complex issue and there is a dearth of hard information with which to construct an overview of what is actually going on. There have been stories in the newspapers about individual cases when deserving – and apparently highly competent people – have failed to obtain the correct status[xiv] but, since the Home Office have thus far avoided collecting any data that would show how many people expecting to get the full status failed to do so, it is difficult to know how representative the cases in the press are of a general problem. That being said, in 2018 December, the Home Office change the interface to include the following question:



The Home Office’s decision to start asking this question would seem to suggest that – pace Lewis’s remarks – the UK government have accepted that there has hitherto been a problem.

Pre-settled status aligns with EU law whereby someone generally only acquires permanent residence status after five years’ continuous residence. As soon as EU citizens and their families have accrued five years’ continuous residence, they can apply for settled status, which gives them leave on an indefinite basis. The proportion of those being granted settled and pre-settled status is broadly in line with expectations, based on the Annual Population Survey figures for the UK’s resident EEA population.

It is odd that Lewis seeks to justify UK policy by appealing to EU law. It is usually emphasized that one of the main aims of this whole exercise is to assert the supremacy of UK law[xv]. There is no reason why a more generous offer could not have been made to EU citizens who have not lived here for five years, or who have but are unable to evidence this fact. The insistence on only awarding pre-settled status ensures that there will be more problems in five years’ time when hundreds of thousands will have to re-apply.

If any EU citizen feels they or their family member have erroneously been granted pre-settled status – or if they need help with any other aspect of their application – I would encourage them to call our dedicated helpline 0300 123 7379. It is open seven days a week and there are hundreds of staff standing by, ready to assist with queries.

The provision of a dedicated helpline is one of the few positive aspects of the settlement scheme, and perhaps the Home Office might consider its extension to help EU citizens applying for UK citizenship or with other immigration problems. This facility has not, however, been without problems[xvi].

I hope you can agree that the arrangements described in this letter honour the obligations and commitments the UK Government has made in respect of citizens’ rights, including safeguarding the employment status and social entitlements of EU citizens resident in the UK.

The arrangements described in this letter certainly do not honour the commitments made by three key members of the UK Government: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Priti Patel. On paper, the arrangements described in this letter do honour the obligations and commitments the UK Government has made in respect of safeguarding the employment status of EU citizens, but, deprived of a physical document with which to evidence their status, there are many reasons to think that, in the real world, employers will discriminate against EU citizens. The arrangements described in this letter do not honour the obligations and commitments the UK Government has made in respect of the social entitlements of EU citizens resident in the UK.

I trust you will be urging the EU27 to adopt similarly generous approaches that will provide UK nationals in the EU27 with the certainty and security that they need. It would be good to see the EU27 matching our offer of a fee free process and a deadline of at least 31 December 2020 for UK nationals to secure their status.

This is probably the most disingenuous paragraph in the whole of Lewis’s letter. It is the UK that is stripping its own citizens of their EU citizenship and thus their rights in the EU/EEA. This means that, by default, UK citizens in the EU/EEA are left at the mercy of whatever rules each member state has for third-country immigrants.

Imagine that (say) Australia withdrew from the Commonwealth. Australian citizens living in the UK would, thereby, lose certain rights here – such as the right to vote (a privilege denied to EU citizens). Now imagine how the UK Government and our newspapers would react if Australia began lecturing us about our treatment of their citizens. They would say to Australia “this was your choice”; and that is what the EU and its members will say to us.

Having said all that, the EU could require its members to grant uniform privileges to UK citizens after Brexit, if all those members voted for such arrangements, and the UK could have tried to negotiate for this as part of the withdrawal agreement with the EU. The EU was open to this and originally argued that all citizens (EU in UK and UK in EU) should retain all their existing rights. Unfortunately, it was more important to the UK to deprive EU citizens in the UK of their rights than it was to protect the rights of our citizens living in the EU. Given the principle of reciprocity (which both sides agreed to) we are where we are, and we simply have to hope that all the individual EU member countries will be more generous towards our citizens than we have been towards our citizens who made the grave mistake of exercising their freedom to live, work, study, and fall in love in another part of our continent.



Minister of State for Security and Deputy for EU Exit and No Deal Preparation


Addendum

Steve Peers (@StevePeers Professor of EU, Human Rights & World Trade Law, University of Essex) has just brought my attention to the fact that Lewis has also got the date wrong here. And, following from that error, he has got his facts wrong in another way too.


Assuming Brexit goes ahead with Johnson's "new" (Withdrawal Agreement (WA)  - which is all but certain now - EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will have until six months after the end of the "transition" period - i.e. until at least June 2021 to apply for settlement under the terms of the WA! In other words, Lewis's call for the EU to match our offer of a "deadline of at least 31 December 2020" is completely nonsensical.

Lewis is, however, correct (as I understand it) that some (or all?) EU countries have (modest) charges in place for UK citizens now forced to apply for residency in those countries as the UK originally insisted on for EU in UK. Again, the UK government could have easily tried to negotiate free schemes for all had it been so inclined at the time, but this would have meant the UK putting the plight of its own citizens above its desire (at that stage in the proceedings) to penalize EU citizens.





[ix] This is all a rather complicated area. The main loses of rights relate to absences from the UK (for example to study, work, or care for a family member abroad); rights to use a national identity card rather than a full passport; rights to family reunion; reduction of the criminality threshold (so that what were hitherto considered more minor offences may lead to deportation or refusal of status in future); and loss of certain appeal/enforcement rights. See eg Citizens’ Rights - EU citizens in the UK andUK nationals in the EU (Policy Paper).
[x] Again this a complex area (see eg How canEU nationals access UK benefits?). Those granted “pre-settled” status would seem to be a in far more precarious situation with respect to obtaining benefits than those granted full “settled” status. It should be noted that, hitherto, the UK has been more generous to EU citizens than a strict implementation of “EU law” would have required. The implication of Lewis’s remarks would seem to be that this generosity will end. Lewis masks this issue by his use of the phrase “the same access […] as they currently have under EU law on free movement” which sounds like “the same access […] as they currently have”, but isn’t the same.
[xiii] See Has the Government learned from theWindrush scandal? In the Home Affairs Committee report for discussion of this issue.

2019-11-09

How living "behind" the “Berlin Wall” cured me of being a socialist

We shall, today, hear much of the “fact” that it is 30 years to the day[i] since “the Berlin Wall came down”.



Actually, the Berlin Wall did not come down on that day. And people confuse the wall/fences around West Berlin -an enclave in the middle of East Germany (“the GDR”) – and the wall/fences between the GDR and West Germany (“the BRD”). But, on the evening of 1989 November 9, the authorities let people cross both these frontiers completely freely for the first time – probably since the end of the second world war. Controls were quickly restored – though these for GDR citizens these involved simply showing their ID cards or passports at the borders – and only disappeared fully with the later unification of the GDR and the BRD.

This is, I suppose, pedantry. But I feel justified in my pedantry when, by way of marking this auspicious anniversary, I hear my wireless and TV sets issue unremitting streams of hackneyed clichés about the GDR. You see, in the mid 80s, I lived there.

Now I realize what I have to say next is going to sound a bit like a “say what you want about Hitler, he was always kind to animals and children” style apologia for something indefensible. But that is not where I am going with this (the clue is in my title). Moreover, what I have to say below happens to be true.

The two things everyone “knows” about the GDR are “the Wall” and “the Stasi”.

The border controls (enforced by guards with orders to shoot people attempting to evade them) prevented GDR citizens from travelling freely to Western countries, or to the other half of their own capital city, without difficult-to-obtain official permission, or from moving to live and work in another part of what had previously been one country. These facts caused huge resentment and everyone – even staunch communists – bemoaned the situation. Some were even prepared to risk their own lives to leave the GDR and several hundred died doing so. But most people go abroad on holiday no more than once per year and most people most of the time (all over the world) are highly reluctant to leave where they live in search of pastures new[ii] - even when where they live becomes a war zone. Nearly everyone rejoiced when the GDR’s frontiers were opened but these frontiers were not at the forefront of most people’s minds most of the time as they conducted their everyday lives, and most stayed put once they were free to leave.

After the fall of the GDR, we learned that about one third of the GDR’s population had worked, in some capacity, for the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the “Stasi”). A great deal has been written about this subject and many individual victims of the “MfS” suffered appallingly. But, again, for most of the people most of the time, the one of the most striking aspect of this system of social control was its sheer banality. Most of those recruited to “spy” on their fellow citizens were not recruited to supply useful information about other individuals, they were recruited so that they would become complicit in the system. Such recruits would fear to step “out of line” themselves and would supply information to the authorities (in a country without opinion pollsters or meaningful democracy) about the public mood.

In line with the clichés, the GDR was a country with a chronic shortage of consumer goods (including vital spares and parts). But the GDR was also a country without unemployment or homelessness or rampant inequality or significant crime where everyone had plenty to eat and drink.

But most people most of the time got up in the morning, went to work, came home, read books, watched TV, studied, fell in love, had children, had hobbies, undertook voluntary activities for the public good, got drunk, vacuum-cleaned their houses et cetera. And what I began to realize was that – for all the differences (good and bad) between “socialist[iii]” and “capitalist” societies - for most people most of the time, the lives of people in the GDR were not so remarkably different from people who lived in the West.

And even if all the more onerous aspects of life in the GDR had one day been fixed – a future I naively hoped for at one stage in my life – it would never, thereby, become some kind of utopian “new society”. Most people most of the time would have continued leading broadly similar lives with broadly similar concerns.

More fundamentally, I came to realize that most of the things that were wrong in the GDR were not magically going to be fixed by virtue of the fact that the means of production were publicly owned – any more than most of the things that were wrong in the UK were magically going to be fixed by simply reversing moves to privatize the means of production[iv] here. Who owns the means of production is simply not, I came to conclude, the pivotal issue when it comes to designing social policies that will improve lives.

Thirty years ago today, Germany and the whole world changed irrevocably – mainly (though not exclusively) for the better. But when I visit remoter villages in the East of what is now simply “Germany”, it is easier than you might think to imagine you were still back in the GDR.

The world, however, has new concerns and many countries – including my own - are busy erecting new barriers to the movement of people rather than tearing them down.

The problems we and our world faces are complicated. Those problems will not be solved – any more than the GDR’s were – by restricting the movement of people; and there are no universal panaceas to society’s ills in the form of specific economic models: “planned” socialism or “deregulated” capitalism.

The history of post-war Germany is replete with lessons for the rest of us, but it took me a life-time to learn some of those lessons. It seems that most of my fellow compatriots have yet to open their books.



[i] And, coincidentally, my birthday.
[ii] Despite what the “We need to take back control of our borders” brigade here in the UK would have us believe.
[iii] I use this term as it was used in the GDR to denote a society in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are held largely in public rather than private hands. I would still consider myself a “socialist” in the sense that term is sometimes used to denote a left leaning social democrat.
[iv] Nor, I thought, was privatizing everything in the UK magically going to produce the benefits promised by fanatical devotees of this policy. But that’s an argument for another day.

2019-11-08

How living "behind" the “Berlin Wall” cured me of being a socialist


We shall, today, hear much of the “fact” that it is 30 years to the day[i] since “the Berlin Wall came down”.



Actually, the Berlin Wall did not come down on that day. And people confuse the wall/fences around West Berlin -an enclave in the middle of East Germany (“the GDR”) – and the wall/fences between the GDR and West Germany (“the BRD”). But, on the evening of 1989 November 9, the authorities let people cross both these frontiers completely freely for the first time – probably since the end of the second world war. Controls were quickly restored – though these for GDR citizens these involved simply showing their ID cards or passports at the borders – and only disappeared fully with the later unification of the GDR and the BRD.

This is, I suppose, pedantry. But I feel justified in my pedantry when, by way of marking this auspicious anniversary, I hear my wireless and TV sets issue unremitting streams of hackneyed clichés about the GDR. You see, in the mid 80s, I lived there.

Now I realize what I have to say next is going to sound a bit like a “say what you want about Hitler, he was always kind to animals and children” style apologia for something indefensible. But that is not where I am going with this (the clue is in my title). Moreover, what I have to say below happens to be true.

The two things everyone “knows” about the GDR are “the Wall” and “the Stasi”.

The border controls (enforced by guards with orders to shoot people attempting to evade them) prevented GDR citizens from travelling freely to Western countries, or to the other half of their own capital city, without difficult-to-obtain official permission, or from moving to live and work in another part of what had previously been one country. These facts caused huge resentment and everyone – even staunch communists – bemoaned the situation. Some were even prepared to risk their own lives to leave the GDR and several hundred died doing so. But most people go abroad on holiday no more than once per year and most people most of the time (all over the world) are highly reluctant to leave where they live in search of pastures new[ii] - even when where they live becomes a war zone. Nearly everyone rejoiced when the GDR’s frontiers were opened but these frontiers were not at the forefront of most people’s minds most of the time as they conducted their everyday lives, and most stayed put once they were free to leave.

After the fall of the GDR, we learned that about one third of the GDR’s population had worked, in some capacity, for the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the “Stasi”). A great deal has been written about this subject and many individual victims of the “MfS” suffered appallingly. But, again, for most of the people most of the time, the one of the most striking aspect of this system of social control was its sheer banality. Most of those recruited to “spy” on their fellow citizens were not recruited to supply useful information about other individuals, they were recruited so that they would become complicit in the system. Such recruits would fear to step “out of line” themselves and would supply information to the authorities (in a country without opinion pollsters or meaningful democracy) about the public mood.

In line with the clichés, the GDR was a country with a chronic shortage of consumer goods (including vital spares and parts). But the GDR was also a country without unemployment or homelessness or rampant inequality or significant crime where everyone had plenty to eat and drink.

But most people most of the time got up in the morning, went to work, came home, read books, watched TV, studied, fell in love, had children, had hobbies, undertook voluntary activities for the public good, got drunk, vacuum-cleaned their houses et cetera. And what I began to realize was that – for all the differences (good and bad) between “socialist[iii]” and “capitalist” societies - for most people most of the time, the lives of people in the GDR were not so remarkably different from people who lived in the West.

And even if all the more onerous aspects of life in the GDR had one day been fixed – a future I naively hoped for at one stage in my life – it would never, thereby, become some kind of utopian “new society”. Most people most of the time would have continued leading broadly similar lives with broadly similar concerns.

More fundamentally, I came to realize that most of the things that were wrong in the GDR were not magically going to be fixed by virtue of the fact that the means of production were publicly owned – any more than most of the things that were wrong in the UK were magically going to be fixed by simply reversing moves to privatize the means of production[iv] here. Who owns the means of production is simply not, I came to conclude, the pivotal issue when it comes to designing social policies that will improve lives.

Thirty years ago today, Germany and the whole world changed irrevocably – mainly (though not exclusively) for the better. But when I visit remoter villages in the East of what is now simply “Germany”, it is easier than you might think to imagine you were still back in the GDR.

The world, however, has new concerns and many countries – including my own - are busy erecting new barriers to the movement of people rather than tearing them down.

The problems we and our world faces are complicated. Those problems will not be solved – any more than the GDR’s were – by restricting the movement of people; and there are no universal panaceas to society’s ills in the form of specific economic models: “planned” socialism or “deregulated” capitalism.

The history of post-war Germany is replete with lessons for the rest of us, but it took me a life-time to learn some of those lessons. It seems that most of my fellow compatriots have yet to open their books.



[i] And, coincidentally, my birthday.
[ii] Despite what the “We need to take back control of our borders” brigade here in the UK would have us believe.
[iii] I use this term as it was used in the GDR to denote a society in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are held largely in public rather than private hands. I would still consider myself a “socialist” in the sense that term is sometimes used to denote a left leaning social democrat.
[iv] Nor, I thought, was privatizing everything in the UK magically going to produce the benefits promised by fanatical devotees of this policy. But that’s an argument for another day.

2019-10-30

Pedantry and Funny Letters


I suppose this issue first came to my attention, in pre-computing days, when I was a small child. I was lucky to be provided with lots of books and had noticed that encyclopedias were sometimes styled “Encyclopedia”, sometimes “Encyclopaedia”, and sometimes – even more mysteriously - “Encyclopædia”. I later learned that formations like “æ” are sometimes called “ligatures”, but we were taught nothing about such things in school and I am still rather unclear about why “ae” is sometimes rendered as “æ” and why this rendering is far less common these days.

Living close to Haworth, as we did and as I now do again, I was also aware of the “Bronte” sisters – sometimes so rendered, sometimes as “Brontë”.

As a borderline dyslexic (and frankly obsessive) child I found such things confusing and the inconsistencies downright disturbing. These traits and experiences (and my subsequent experiences trying to teach English as a foreign language for a couple of years in Germany) impelled me – later in life – to do copious research on English usage – even though I was, and am, very much on the other side of cultural divide famously described by CP Snow.

Being a “one-eyed man in the land of the blind” entitles me – I often feel – to shout “FEWER!” at my science and engineering colleagues when they use “less” in the “wrong” places, and to decry their dreadful punctuation.

But playing the role of a pedantic old fart, you eventually learn that pedantry is rarely justified when it comes to the English language. It still grates when my IT colleagues reinterpret words like “issue” and “deprecate”, but I long ago realized I was fighting various losing battles. Language changes and nearly all “rules” have exceptions.

Nonetheless, the pedantry (serious or ironic) of humans is as nothing when compared with the pedantry of computers.

#######

Most languages other than English are riddled with funny letters. These often (though optionally) crop up (in English) in words, like “protégé[i]”, we have borrowed from other languages or, as in “Motörhead” where, I presume, the German umlaut is used for stylistic effect. Restricted as they were to the original ASCII set of 26 letters of the English alphabet (upper and lower case), ten digits, and 32 special characters; early computer programs were unable to cope with stuff like this. Germans could write “oe” for “ö” since (historically) this is what “ö” is an abbreviation for, but I suppose French people and Nordic types (with their Øs and Ã…s) were a bit stuffed. I do not believe that “oe” was – in this context – ever written as the ligature “Å“”, but I may be wrong.

Now we have ISO/IEC 10646 and can render over 136,000 different characters, including – I recently learned as part of my day job – the Korean Hangul characters “ë°˜ and “기문 that stand, respectively, for “Ban” and “Ki-moon”.

Some problems remain in my field of data exchange and sharing however. It is wonderful that I can now send a computer someone’s given-name rendered either as “Ban” or “ë°˜”, but I must still tell the receiving computer what I am sending it somehow. If I say I am sending a “given-name”, and someone else says “GivenName” or “first-name” or “Vorname” or “Christian name” our exchanges are going to be technical (and possibly diplomatic) failures. So the problem of getting everyone to do the “right” thing (i.e. the “same thing”) returns at a new level.

I was reminded of this yesterday when Sarah Churchwell[ii] (@sarahchurchwell) brought it to my attention on Twitter that The New Yorker’s style-guide mandates “coöperation” where most people – American or English, journalists or otherwise – would write “cooperation”. The problem – that “coop” invites the pronunciation employed in “chicken coop” – is more often solved by inserting a hyphen: “co-operation”, but more often still, not addressed at all. The diaeresis[iii] in “coöperation” informs the human reader that the second “o” should be pronounced separately, but the computer receiving the symbol “ö” is quite unable to distinguish between its usage as a diaeresis or as a German umlaut – except (I suppose) by context (as, indeed, we humans have to).

So what is the poor data sharing engineer to do? Sometimes we can allow multiple synonyms and treat “Encyclopedia”, “Encyclopaedia”, and “Encyclopædia” (or “cooperation”, “co-operation”, and “coöperation”) as the “same” things – without needing to judge which is “right”. Even then, we have to have agreed terms for these sets of synonyms.

So it is “déjà vu all over again”: at some level, we do have to force everyone to do the “right” thing when they supply information as text.

As users and authors of ISO standards, my colleagues and I are mandated to use Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) preferred spellings and usages. Because the OED prefers “ize” ending over “ise” endings (e.g. “standardize” over “standardise”), I am constantly having to explain that we do not use “American” spellings and that our American cousins are being truer to “proper English” in using “ize” than most Brits are. In other areas, the OED has changed its recommendations – in response to changes in usage – from under our feet. We are left insisting on stuff which we can no longer justify by pointing at the OED but which our computer programs still expect.

In short, we have to live with funny letters and funny (and changing) usages of letters and words; and we have no ultimate basis for judging any of this. But judge we sometimes must.


[i] The name, as it happens, of one of the programs I use.
[ii] Professor of American Literature at the University of London.
[iii] We were taught about this in school – in connection with the nearby Brontës.

2019-09-07

Immigration, jobs, and living standards

If I make a scientific prediction e.g. "if I throw this heavy ball and this light ball from this tall building they will both land at the same time" I have to add an infinite list of caveats to make it true (the balls are the same size, have the same surface air resistance, don't contain hidden magnets, .... etc). The fact that this list is infinite is why you can never prove things in science in the sense you can in mathematics or logic. You can, however, try to control for the most likely things that might cause this prediction to fail or, when making the prediction, add the get-out clause "ceteris paribus" - "all other things being equal".

It is relevant - given what I am going to go on to say - that most scientifically illiterate people assume (a priori) that the heaviest ball will hit the ground first. This assumption can be challenged either by performing the experiment or by a thought experiment in which the balls are held together with a wire or chain. Galileo who allegedly performed the actual experiment from the tower in Pisa, first performed that thought experiment.

And now to economics.

Suppose I predict that "increasing immigration will not increase the rate of unemployment or lower living standards". I have the same problems as above ... times one hundred (or more):

  1. These claims are counter intuitive.
  2. Any prediction in economics comes with a list of plausible ceteris paribus clauses so long and so pertinent that they are impossible to control for in real life.

The ceteris are never paribus in economics and this makes even vaguely accurate prediction in particular cases almost impossible. This fact in turn tends to make "real" (natural) scientists feel all sniffy and superior when they consider the work of social scientists like economists.

We can, however, perform thought experiments in economics that exclude the ceteris to a greater or lesser extent. Such thought experiment are what often fill the pages of economics text books. Let us perform one for the case in hand:

Mr Crusoe lives alone on a tropical island. He spends half each day catching/gathering food and half repairing/improving his shack. The tropical winds are not kind to bamboo shacks.

One day an immigrant arrives on the island - Mr Friday. He needs food and shelter. The two men could address this in various ways but they decide that Crusoe will spend every day gathering food and Friday will spend every day fixing shelters. Both are feed and both are fully employed.

And here, we have already exposed that fallacy behind the assumption that immigration - the growth of population - increases unemployment or (in contradictory claims) pressure on the supply of the things (like public services) that employed people supply. Migrants increase both the supply of labour and the demand for labour.

Unless (lots of increasing unlikely things that might cause this claim to fail) immigration will not raise the rate of unemployment.

In fact, migration to the island in our thought experiment has made things better. Both men now have company and the division of labour described might have further advantages - especially if Crusoe is better at gathering than building and Friday is better at building than gathering. But we are trying to keep everything as simple as possible.

So what about living standards?

Let us suppose a third migrant arrives on the island: Ms Thursday. She is good at building too and offers - to Crusoe - to do this work for half the food he is supplying to Friday each day. Various things could then happen, but let us suppose the following scenario initially unfolds:

  • Crusoe continues to spend each day gathering food. He keeps half for himself and gives one quarter to Friday and one quarter to Thursday.
  • Thursday lives on half rations (which is still better than what she was eating on her previous island) and spends 3/4 of each day fixing 1.5 shelters.
  • Friday spends also spends 3/4 of each day fixing 1.5 shelters but has had a drastic reduction in his standard of living.

But what happens next? Thursday and Friday have a 1/4 day each free that they can now spend gathering food. They do this and, very quickly, they are both on full rations.

Now various other scenarios are possible, and we can all think of ways (in real highly complex economies) in which other considerations prevent everything evening out like things do in my simple thought experiment. Some things may happen in one part of the economy and other things in other parts of the economy in a particular country. This is why empirical research into this phenomenon gives conflicting results. But the thought experiment exposes the fallacy that the entry of migrants prepared to accept lower living standards necessarily lowers overall living standards. In other words we can confidently predict:

Unless (lots of increasing unlikely things that might cause this claim to fail) the arrival of migrants with lower expectations of will not cause overall living standards to fall.

The full truth can only ever be established by collecting data from the real world, but there is absolutely no reason to assume a prior (as so many people do) that immigration will either reduce overall job opportunities or wages.