The times they are a changing

Change is a strange thing. Not many people feel comfortable with it, quite a few are actually scared of it, which is strange considering how normal and completely unavoidable it is. I suppose we get comfortable with what we know and the result of change means that what we know today will be different tomorrow. This is made worse by the fear of the unknown and that the state at the end of change may actually be worse than what it is now. It would be interesting to see an analysis of every change that’s ever happened to see what percentage of the end results are bad versus good or equal. Of course we’d need a computer the size of Venus to work all that out, today of course, at the rate of change we have in computing this might end up being the size of an atom.

Changes on Earth happen at different speeds and on different scales. At one end of the spectrum we have large planetary changes like moving from ball of nasty gloop to the life-supporting planet we know and love. Ice-ages, continents wandering around….all very big scale and slow. At the opposite end we have small personal things like bastard mosquitoes and iPhones. A couple of weeks ago we were free of mosquitoes, today they are a bloody nuisance. A few months ago I had no iPhone, now I have one.  Small changes but changes nevertheless and requiring of a change in behaviour to adapt to them. In one case a positive end result in the other negative. Nothing like the scale of adaptation that would be required for a new ice-age of course!

You only have to look at how things have changed in the last 50, 100, 500 years to know that 50, 100, 500 years from now things will look very different to how they do today and quite a bit of that is going to happen within your lifetime.

Somewhere in the middle of the extremes of change we have two things that have been bouncing around in my head recently and occupying a fair amount of background processing power:

  1. The change from West to East
  2. The changes within the European Union

Clearly both topics are so huge that I’m not likely to be adding anything to the debate beyond a bit of personal blathering but they are, in terms of changes in my lifetime, quite big ones.

The first has been newsworthy for some time now and most of it revolves around the USA vs China although to ignore others, India in particular, is not seeing the full picture. I was therefore interested to watch Niall Ferguson’s session from this years Hay Festival where he talked about his new book ‘Civilization-The West and the Rest‘. The book has come in for roughly equal amounts of criticism and praise. I think a lot of criticism revolves around his trying to ‘dumb-down’ such a subject by selecting six ‘killer apps’ that helped the West become the powerhouse it is/was. His primary tag-line is that for the first time since 1872 we have the real and imminent probability that another economy will be bigger than that of the USA, namely China where current GDP is already around 90% of the US and closing the gap fast. The Soviet Union never got anywhere near that close. The USA has gone from 20 to 10% of the worlds population and from 20 to 5 times richer than China.

His killer apps are:

  • Competition  – between the various feudal states, nations, etc.
  • Science
  • Rule of Law – property rights and personal liberty in particular (notably something China has yet to embrace in the same way if at all)
  • Medicine – life expectancy in particular
  • Consumer Society
  • Work (ethic)

Whilst I think this is an interesting, thought provoking, way of looking at things I’m not really convinced that it can possibly work out as simply as that. Almost certainly China will overtake the USA in terms of economic power and without doubt the shift of emphasis will continue from West to East but I think the underlying or feintly implied idea of Eastern Empires, a relocation / redefinition of ‘Civilization’ or an impoverished West are far-fetched and verging on scare-mongering (for Westerners). One could argue that the West will continue to successfully exercise its 6 killer apps and quickly learn how best to apply them to good effect in the face of the new reality of China and the East. There are, for example, considerably more Westerners taking advantage of the East, China in particular, than there are the other way around. So far at least. Overtaking the West in terms of GDP is one thing but what they do with their new economic power is another.

What is more stimulating is to wonder what completely new killer apps will be created by the rising powers in the East and how they might be either turned against the West or just be beneficial to everyone. We live now in a far more transparent world than the one that saw the rise of the West and so the West is able to react in real time to what happens in the East, not something the East could do for most of the years since 1872.

In any event, this change is a big one and will therefore have a significant effect on the lives of people in both East and West – a very high percentage of the world’s population. One to watch, as they say.

My second change is what is happening within the European Union. It is perhaps more embryonic and less certain than that of East vs West but is no less significant. If one of Ferguson’s drivers of Western civilization’s advance is competition then it should come as no surprise that bringing nations together in harmonious accord, as implied by the EU and single currency, does not appear to be working as well as planned. Then again, it is another of the killer apps, consumer society or at least the associated greed that can arise from it that has got the Union into difficulty with some countries consuming considerably more than they could really afford whilst hiding under the invisibility cloak of the Euro and the EU in general.

Bailouts have already been handed to assorted EU nations and one of them, Greece, is now bust by any reasonable definition of the word. Fear hovers like a fart in an elevator that bigger defaults from the likes of Spain and Italy are around the corner and that these would completely sink the whole idea of a single currency or even the EU itself.

Here’s what someone going by the name of Balle Clorin said about Greece on a web page I was reading just now:

The problem in Greece is rampant everyday corruption, a large black economy, an enormous and inefficient public sector, an aging population, and tax evasion on an epic scale.

Whether that is true or not doesn’t really matter because that is for sure what most of the people paying for the bail-outs either already think or will come to think. The same thinking will no doubt be applied to other nations not renowned for their following of rules laid down by the state, for example Italy and Spain, in fact I suspect that most countries with a Mediterranean outlook on life will be tarred with the same brush. If you follow that thinking further into the future do we have the makings of an almighty North/South EU divide forming? The Northern, traditionally beer drinking countries with their stronger work ethic and considerably better record at paying money into the system versus the wine drinking Southerners with their “lazy, cheating attitudes” only interested in taking as much out of the system as they possibly can?

There is a whiff of something amazingly unfair going on here. I appreciate that part of the reason the bail-outs are happening is because it is better for Germany, for example, to give Greece a hand-out than to see the collapse of the Euro / EU but that’s just the better of two evils, both evils having been generated (in the mind of the majority) by other people in Greece, Portugal, Ireland…wherever. I’m ignoring the larger question of who let them in the EU in the first place.

Do you blame the people for having got their country into trouble, or their governments? More likely the latter as no individual can see the whole extent of a country’s finances and commitments but then neither was any citizen under the illusion that money grows on trees and that a policy of giving the government less than you should is likely to provide enough money to run the country.

Wherever the blame does lie, it is the country as a whole that needs to deal with the consequences. You can change your government but you can’t run away from the hole you’re in and here also we have noticeable differences with some citizens taking their austerity measures seriously while others throw their toys out of the pram and look for people to blame.

Alongside all this we have the question of which system is going to serve Europe better in the “fight” against the East? A single fully integrated European superpower state or the old system of each country doing its own thing? We don’t have either of those right now so perhaps it is, more by accident than design, a good time to move clearly in one direction or another.

As I’ve posted this on Polandian I really must find a way to mention Poland at least twice! So, how are my two changes likely to affect Poland…I wonder? Is it perhaps extremely well positioned on a fence somewhere in the middle of both sides in both cases? In line to adopt the Euro but not having set a firm timetable for that yet? In the EU but not (as far as I know) a huge net contributor. Getting help from the EU but at the same time having the work ethic and reasonable rate of tax income as the “good guys”? Not really a traditional part of either the old Western Empire nor the emerging Eastern one but able to take advantage from both?

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5 thoughts on “The times they are a changing

  1. Such good, thought-provoking articles are the very stuff of blogging.

    A propos of the north-south divide; a few years ago I was driving to a conference in Sandomierz. It was January, the car thermometer was reading -26C. I could see an old woman emerging from a forest, a sack of firewood on her back. It occurred to me at that moment, that at -26C, there’s no such word as mañana.

  2. Good post, Scatts!

    Re China and India. I think the countries are going to shift the balance, but I don’t think it’ll happen so soon. That’s because I hope/predict that in the near future the old regime in China will fall.

    We’re living a revolution on a world scale. What happened in the West in the 19th century, and in the East Central Europe in the 20th, is going to happen in the Middle and Far East in the 21st. Then the people will need time to adapt. It won’t happen at once. But I do think that internet is going to get us through this. If the Russian people knew the world trends a century ago we’d likely be spared Communism. The power of people from all over the world to freely communicate in real time cannot be overestimated.

    Re European South and East. I think it’s a good example of what I mean. Countries like Greece never learnt because they entered the club without having to learn the rules. Things like corruption, tax avoidance etc come from the presumption that “everyone does it”. Today, someone in the internet will tell the newcomers that no, we don’t do that. We know that to keep our countries going we must provide for them.

    I do think that quite many people are under the illusion that money grows on trees. What they need to learn is that in order to become a citizen you must understand that it’s your own money or, in the case of Greece, it’s the money of German and other citizens.

    Did Poland learn the lesson? Not yet. It’s over 20 years from the fall of Communism, over 30 since our revolution has begun, and we’re still learning. But I think that we came to this point where we know we need to learn. And also, I think we had a good start. After all we’re ready to put restrictions on ourselves when we see the need. It’s what got us here in the first place.

  3. It wasn’t all that long ago that I recall reading a lot of debate about the racial situation in Poland stemming from the events surrounding the death of a Nigerian street vendor in Warsaw.

    Now what with the riots in London, I can’t help but recall how some commenters were so absolutely emphatic that the police in England would never act like the Polish police did in that market.

    I guess a quite a few rioters in England disagree.

    BTW, what did happen with re, the investigation into the death of the Nigerian? How come there’s been no follow-up on the story here?

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