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 Ås) were a bit stuffed. I do not believe that “oe” was – in this context – ever written as the ligature “œ”, 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 “ 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 “”, 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 fed 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.

2019-01-23

Windrush 2.0


How the UK is engineering a new Windrush scandal for Continental Europeans living in the UK




In August 1985, my wife Karin (then a GDR [“East German”] citizen) and I moved to the UK.



The British Embassy in Berlin had stamped “Given leave to enter the United Kingdom for an indefinite period”. This was valid for a single entry. Each time we went abroad we had to first apply for a re-entry visa to the UK. Needless to say, this was a rather onerous procedure.



The passport with this stamp inside it was valid until 1991 March, but the GDR did not make it that far.



In June 1990, Karin received her shiny new “BRD” re-united German passport:


The days of endless paperwork to live a normal life in the UK were over ... or so we thought.
So what now that Brexit has upended Karin’s legal status and our life together once again?
The UK Home Office website has the following advice:



Which, if you follow it through and answer all the questions, takes you to:



So, in theory, Karin does not need to do anything. She can continue living in the UK using the indefinite leave to remain [“ILR”] that was stamped in her old passport.

It would, however. be extremely imprudent of her to follow the Home Office’s advice here. The Home Office long ago destroyed all records of people in Karin’s situation and her only evidence of her legal status is a rather dog-eared passport from a country that has now failed to exist for longer than it ever existed. It is hard to imagine that those expected to police EU citizens in future – NHS staff, employers, landlords and others – would recognize the validity of her documentation, and if that documentation were lost, stolen, or destroyed, she would find herself in the same situation as the “Windrush” community who were so badly served by Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment”.

Though this fact has not been widely publicized, Karin (though not a national of a Commonwealth country) could apply under the scheme set up by the UK government to help Windrushers:



I wonder how many people in the UK are aware of this fact?

Now the precise details of Karin’s situation are somewhat unusual. But her problem of historical IRL, and the precariousness of evidence for that status, exists for tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Europeans who came to live in the UK before Freedom of Movement and whose old documentation was rendered obsolete by EU membership and the Treaty of Maastricht which the UK signed in 1992.


Karin will of course ignore the Home Office and apply for the new “settlement” status for EU citizens. (Confusingly, it should be noted, the term “settlement” is often used as a synonym for “ILR” by the UK Home Office.) A small number of Europeans in percentage terms – but large in absolute terms – will heed the Home Office advice, or assume they need to do nothing, or will not have the capacity to obtain the new settlement status and will – perhaps years or decades later – find themselves unable to evidence their right to be here. Like the Windrushers they may face detention, deportation, and being torn from their families.

I do not see how our politicians will, next time round, be able to pretend they never saw this coming.