Friday, 31 January 2020

A day of the most profound sadness

The country of my birth, the country in which I was raised and educated, the country in which I started my career, has just performed the most monumental act of self-harm upon itself.

For the three years and seven months since the Brexit referendum, I have been asking two questions which Leavers have failed to answer - namely "in what way has living in the EU these past few decades hurt you in your life?" and "how is the UK going to become wealthier after leaving the EU?"

Not a clue.

When Poland left the Soviet bloc - or rather when the Soviet bloc disintegrated and communism fell - it was a time of joy and triumph of good over evil. Anyone could see the old system was rubbish. Shops were empty, your right to travel abroad was at the discretion of the state, if you were not in the party your career path was limited, the economy was crap, history was distorted and lied about. If I asked anyone (who was not a party member of client of the system) why they wanted to leave the Soviet bloc, the answers came thick and fast and were meaningful and direct.

I only know a handful of intelligent Leavers whom I can take seriously. The rest are of below-average intelligence. They gloss over their poor understanding of how the economy functions, using glaring generalisations that are mainly wrong. Their skim-reading of the headlines in papers owned by egregious tax-avoider non-domiciled billionaires has given them the impression that the EU had been doing them down. "The Brits are a glorious nation, victims of foreign deceit," would rail the Sun, the Mail and the Telegraph. Example? "Having to accept European laws!" "Name one." "Straight or bendy bananas! (can't remember which now)".

Brexit cannot end well for the UK. For the next 11 months, while a free trade agreement and a political agreement are being hammered out, the UK will continue to accept the entire corpus of EU law, having no say in it, its MEPs and civil servants having departed Brussels for home. And will continue to pay into the EU coffers. When those agreements are finally in place - let's hope by the end of this year to avoid another no-deal cliffhanger - then what?

If UK business wants frictionless trade, will it get it? Without the UK being in the single European market or the Customs Union, getting this will mean having to swallow EU regulations wholesale, again, with no say in their creation. 'Divergence of standards' says the government. What will that mean? The UK already has some areas such as product safety and food hygiene which differ from EU regulations. But this only imposes costs on UK manufactures and pushes up prices of EU imports.

Imposing friction on trade in goods between the UK and the EU is like imposing sanctions upon oneself - it's a retrograde step that no developed country on earth has ever chosen to take.

The break-up of the UK is only a matter of time - though it's likely to be decades rather than years away. The joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman who walk into a bar and leave because that's what the Englishman wanted carries a weight of truth; 55% of Scots wanted to remain in the United Kingdom but 62% wanted to remain in the EU. Scots will not be happy with being dragged out. And last month's general election saw a historic result in Northern Ireland - for the first time the province voted for more nationalist MPs than unionist ones.

The reason why a small group of people in power with a bee in their bonnet about an issue that has hardly any relevance to most citizens' day-to-day lives - Britain's sovereignty vis-a-vis the EU - got it over the line is because of immigration. Tony Blair's decision to allow citizens of the new EU member states unrestricted access to the UK labour market in 2004 swung it. And the looming prospect of the EU's Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive kicking into force prompted the press barons to ramp up the rhetoric - with success, because registration of offshore money-pots would have started tomorrow, 1 February 2020. In the background, the ever-present barrage of Russian social media trolls, just one part of a massive effort of interference in UK politics. Where is the Russia Report of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee? Then there's the whole Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. Did you see this ad? Unlikely. It appeared on Facebook pages of the dim, the hard of understanding, the malleable, the easily led community.


For Poland, the loss of the UK from the EU is a blow. The UK was a natural counterweight to the Berlin-Paris axis and to the 'club Med' of weaker southern European economies, a force around which the countries of CEE, Scandinavia and Holland could rally around. Most of all, the lack of the UK from the EU will encourage Putin to become even more aggressive in its divide-and-rule activities aimed at weakening the Western world.

Last year, I took part in two massive pro-EU marches, which attracted over a million (some sources say the October one was nearer to two million) anti-Brexit protesters. We lost. Where were the pro-Brexit marches? They never attracted more than a few hundred rather ill-tempered demonstrators. One mass meeting in Westminster attracted maybe a couple of thousand. There's simply not the groundswell of informed opinion to justify leaving the EU. People banging on about 'unelected bureaucrats in Brussels' (like a bureaucrat was ever elected!) annoy me intensely, as do those who compare the EU to the USSR. (Where are the EU's Gulags, when was its Great Terror, its Holodomor, its Katyń etc.)

It is entirely feasible to think about the UK rejoining the EU, in the timeframe of 10-15 years, maybe sooner if Labour chooses Kier Starmer as its leader and not another useless unelectable Trot. Demographics are on the EU's side. The youngest voters in the referendum voted 73-27 to remain. And no one born this century voted for Brexit. The disappointment and resentment at having their rights to study, live and work across the EU taken away from them by the old will gnaw away at their political consciousness. Don't forget that around a million Leave voters have died since the referendum. (UK mortality runs at around 560,000 a year. Multiply that by three years, seven months and one week, then divide by an 83% turnout among the over-65s, of whom 60% voted Leave).

Talking of death, my father, an ardent Remain voter, who died three months ago, would have faced a hard time had he survived beyond 1 January 2021. Would his two beloved Polish carers been allowed back into the UK? My father was a man who never swore. However, he would only use one word in reference to the UK's looming departure from the EU - 'Brexshit'.

This time last year:
Vintage aerial views of the ground

This time three years ago:
Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - review

This time four years ago:
Ealing in bloom

This time five years ago:
Keeping warm in January

[This year: tomorrow it will be 11C]

This time six years ago:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

This time seven years ago:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time nine years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time ten years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time 11 years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?





Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Late first snow; last snow?

First snow of the season, heavy and wet. First snow of the season at the end of January. Since starting this blog in 2007, there have been first snows in November, a couple in October - the earliest on 14 October 2009. Below: coming out of Rondo ONZ Metro station, I snapped this young woman filming the snowfall on her phone with a look of joy on her face - is winter here at last?


Below: ulica Świętokrzyska, although the temperature never fell below zero, the snow settled for a while because of its sheer mass.


Below: no weather for scooters, electric or petrol...


...and no weather for cycling either.


Below: view from my office window...  it puts me in mind of a classic photo, but not even with Google's reverse image search can I find it - anyone help?


Below: going home, Palace of Culture to the left.


There's still fresh snow on the grass, but not on the warmer paved areas.


By the time I get to the station, the snow has been trampled into slush, walking is unpleasant, shoes get soaked through, trousers splashed. Horrible.


Today's daytime minimum was +1C, coinciding with the heavy snow shower. Two hours later, it was +3C. The temperature is forecast to reach +10C by Saturday afternoon. No more snow in January, nor in early February. Gone are the winters in which I could walk home across a frozen lake each evening?

I look forward to a more detailed blog post by Student SGH on Politics, Society, Economy in a few days' time.

This time three years ago:
Nikon Coolpix P900 put to the test

This time four years ago:
A modest proposal regarding the zloty

This time five years ago:
Warsaw Spire getting higher and higher

This time six years ago:
Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

This time seven years ago:
Is this winter's end?

This time eight years ago:
The other Jeziorki station

This time nine years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time 11 years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?

[STILL WAITING FOR THE BASTARD]

This time nine years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Too good to skip over

I know little of the north; not much of the south, and far less of the east. "From the Mile End Road to the Matchsticks, Becontree," sang Ian Dury in Plaistow Patricia. The Mile End Road I know, but Becontree and Plaistow are places that I have never been to.

My London is Central - City and West End - and West. Below: Kingsway - a thoroughfare built at the beginning of the last century; it was unique for having under it a subway for trams - double-decker trams. Sadly, it closed in 1957; cars now use it. Tuesday 21 January - a beautiful sunny day!


Below: mystery location - a beautiful tympanum, replete with meaning, over a church door. Anyone know where it is - and what the church is?


Back in the suburbs... below: approaching Perivale station on the Central line.


Below: the lychgate outside St Mary's church, Perivale, its tower visible in the distance, down the footpath. Corpses en route for the church for burial would be kept under the roof overnight, before the funeral service.



Below: the sun sets over the Gurnell Grove estate (visible on the horizon), the river Brent flowing through Ealing Golf Course in the foreground.


Below: Meadvale Road, Ealing, soon after sunset. Pitshanger Park lies behind the houses to the right of the photo.


Below: Cleveland Park bus stop - a 297 and an E10 bound for Ealing Broadway pass.



Back to Warsaw via Heathrow. Although my TfL Rail train from West Ealing to Heathrow Central also known as Terminals 2 & 3 was on time, there was a problem with the (free) connection to Terminal 5, provided by Heathrow Express. For some reason, it was cancelled, the next one would be in half an hour. No good. So I made my way to the Piccadilly Line station, also named Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 (formerly known as Heathrow Terminals 1, 2 & 3 until Terminal 1 was closed in June 2016). The TfL station and the Tube station are about a ten-minute walk away. Here, I could catch a Tube train to Terminal 5 (also for free). And while here, check out this beautiful mural of Concorde tails (below) by Tom Eckersley, dating back to when the station was opened in 1977.


This time two years ago:
The Hunt for Tony Blair
[Apologies to UK readers - the YouTube link is geo-blocked there]

This time four years ago:
Lux Selene

This time seven years ago:
David Cameron, Conservatism and Europe

This time eight years ago:
Citizen Action Against Rat Runners

This time nine years ago:
Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

This time ten years ago:
Building the S79 - Sasanki-Węzeł Lotnisko, midwinter

This time 11 years ago:
My return to skiing after an eight-year break

This time ten years ago:
Moni's 15th birthday

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Minimising #Flygskam

The Swedish word for 'flight-shame', flygskam, has become trendy. Or indeed #Flygskam is trending. Flying contributes massively to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that's changing our climate. (Late January, no snow!?!?!?). Much as I like rail travel, considering it superior to car, bus or plane, it's not optimal for journeys such as Warsaw-London, a journey to which I am condemned by accident of birth. Once there was the Hook-Moscow Express - board a train at Liverpool Street Station in the morning, on to Harwich, by ferry to Hoek van Holland ('Hook of Holland'), then a wonderful train that would pass through Berlin in the wee small hours and be in Warsaw in the early afternoon. Around 26 hours all told.

The flight takes two and half hours and costs a fraction of that of a train ticket; in any case, the train journey has four legs and requires three changes. Warsaw-Berlin, Berlin-Bonn, Bonn-Brussels, Brussels-London. An alternative is Warsaw-Berlin-Cologne-Brussels-London. All in all, expenses and hassle. [Some tips for London-Warsaw by train here.]

So what can I do - what can we all do - to limit CO2 emissions as we travel around?

This is a handy guide from the BBC website:



I tick most of the boxes here. I can't remember the last time I flew with a suitcase in the baggage hold. I fly with a rucksack, taking the bare minimum - laptop, chargers, camera/lens. I have clothes in London, which makes it easier. I fly directly from nearest airport to nearest airport; I can walk to the station at both ends for a short electric-train journey to and from the airports. I never fly business or first (for a two-hour flight it makes no sense). The front of the plane has two-plus-two row-seating, the rest is three-plus-three. The fewer people sit up front, the further forward the curtain separating the two classes is positioned; the more people on board to divide that CO2 by.

One more tip from me - don't buy food on the plane - there's an inordinate amount of packaging waste involved. Yesterday I indulged in the tapas box on BA. Two little aluminium containers (one with cheese, one with a meat paste) with foil lids; two plastic bags, one with olives, a second with mini bread-sticks and crackers; two strips of plastic foil containing jamon de Serrano; another plastic bag with napkin and toothpick (for the olives); the whole thing in a cardboard box sealed with a disc of sticky plastic. Given the demands in airline galleys for speed and efficiency, I doubt there's any segregation of waste into metal, plastic and cardboard; it's all too fiddly to separate by hand.

OK - so doing all these things, how many kilo of  COam I saving? According to the ICAO carbon calculator, a one-way flight from Warsaw to London generates 237kg of CO2. How much less for flying light? I don't know. But every little helps.

Now that my deal old father has passed away, I feel less need to fly to London frequently, there's business, someone from the firm has to be in London for this event or that meeting, and given that I don't rack up hotel bills, it makes sense for that person to be me. But if we can move this meeting back a month, and double it up with another event - well, that makes sense too.

In the mean time, I shall keep on walking, eating less meat, buying less stuff and staying conscious about my effects on Planet Earth.

This time two years ago:
Notes from the Arena of the Unwell II

This time four years ago:
Ice - pond - night

This time six years ago:
Sorry, taki mamy klimat - Polish rail in winter

This time eight years ago:
Music of the Trees

This time nine years ago:
Studniówka - a hundred days before the exams

This time ten years ago:
It's all in the mind - but where's that?

This time 11 years ago:
Roztopy - the big melt-down

This time 12 years ago:
The year's most depressing day



Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Car disposal day

A sad, sad parting - my father's car, bought new in December 1992 (via Austin Rover's Journalist Discount Scheme), was finally taken away for scrap. It has been standing outside the house, undriven, since it's last drive out to the Polish War Memorial in Northolt in June 2018, where it failed to start. A rescue van came, the guy said the alternator was no longer charging the battery. And the clutch plate was slipping. Total cost of new clutch plate and a new alternator parts plus labour would have been around £350; you can buy a runner for less. Because my father reversed it into the wall, creasing the boot, right at the end of his driving days, the car was not suitable for restoration - too many bent panels.

Had it become a classic? In my younger days, a car over 20 years old would have been considered one - no vehicle excise duty to pay, cheap insurance - but now, a classic car is recognised by the state as 'historic' if built before January 1979 - 41 years.

It was SORNed (Statutory Off-Road Notice) and left in the drive where it had always stood since new, now as a gate guardian. A part of the landscape.

Below: from space, three views of the family house in West Ealing, the first from 1999, the earliest on Google Earth, the second from the spring of 2015, the third from last summer.


The last photo, 07:10 am, Tuesday 21 January 2020; over 27 years since it first arrived. There was an overnight frost, which made it hard for me to open the doors to place the documents and keys inside. I checked the interior for belongings and found about 65p in the hidey-hole for coins, a tiny leather football, a button, a till receipt, a pay-and-display parking ticket.


I came home from a business meeting in town, and it had gone. On the doormat - a cheque for £165 (exactly as much as the online scrap-car price calculator had quoted me) and the slip that I had to send to the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency. By the evening I had received via email a DVLA Certificate of Destruction, to print out and keep. Praise for the scrapping company, Redcorn - very efficient and trustworthy operator.

Below: the sight that greeted me on return home - note the moss, the tyre marks, the condensation drips from the exhaust pipe - and a small oil stain under where the sump would have been.


Gone - but never to be forgotten. In particular the smell of the interior, which reminded me of summer holidays in North Wales when the children were small. It will always be 'Dziadzia-Auto' to us.

An old post here, outlining the car's history with our family.

This time two years ago
Notes from the Arena of the Unwell

This time three years ago:
The magic of a dawn flight

This time four years ago:
Warsaw as a voivodship

This time six years ago:
Around town in the snow

This time eight years ago:
Reference books are dead

This time nine years ago:
A winter walk to work, and wet socks

Monday, 20 January 2020

Legal London's finery

London - the capital of Common Law, the law of England and Wales, the legal system underpinning the ones used many English-speaking countries around the world. London and law - one associates buildings such as the Old Bailey - the Central Criminal Court - and the Law Courts (officially the Royal Courts of Justice, below).

Despite the fact that the practice of law in London has an extremely long history, both the Old Bailey and the Law Courts are relatively new buildings. The neo-gothic Law Courts date back to 1880, and the Old Bailey is an Edwardian edifice, completed in 1902, the year after the death of Queen Victoria.


Neo-Gothic ages well. In my 1960s childhood, I could have imagined these buildings being around at the time of the Court of King Arthur, Merrie England and Henry VIII. Looking along The Strand, right at the edge of the City of London, the turrets and towers are entirely medieval in appearance. To the right (partially obscured by scaffolding) - Temple Bar, marking the entrance to the City.


Turn off the Strand, however, enter the Middle and Inner Temple - two of London's four Inns of Court (the other two being Lincoln's Inns and Gray's Inn). All barristers practising law in England and Wales must have their chambers (offices) in the one of these four Inns of Court.

Hang on a second - Inns of Court - karczmy sądu? Inn = karczma, zajazd, oberża, court = sąd, dwór, dziedziniec? Justice in medieval England was meted out in inns? Not quite. Henry III prohibited the practice of law within the boundaries of the City of London, and so the places where lawyers lived, studied and conducted their professions were located just to the west of the City's boundaries. From 1320 the Inner and Middle Temples (originally set up by the Knights Templar - Templariusze, taken from them by the crown and turn to use as a centre for legal activities), joined later by Lincoln's Inn (1427) and Gray's Inn (1569). This is where London's legal district was - and remains.

Below: looking down towards Middle Temple Gate. Beyond the gate, the Embankment and the Thames.


Below: chambers in the Inner Temple. Solicitors are to be found in every high street across the land, but barristers - only in the four Inns of Court, in a tiny area of London bordered by Theobalds Road to the north, Shoe Street to the east, Embankment to the south and Kingsway to the west. And clustered around them, the London offices of the biggest law firms.


Below: the Inner Temple has beautifully-kept gardens, walled off from the casual passer-by trying to take a short cut or the tourist throng. You need to know London well to know how to get in here! Across to the Thames to the right - One Blackfriars ('The Belly'). Weather - beautiful.


Left: some of the newer, Victorian, architecture of the Inner Temple. Traditionally, the Inner Temple was where lawyers resided, the Middle Temple was where they practised. Today, they are exclusively business premises, the chambers are no longer residential.

The Temple itself, built by the Knights Templar, seized by the Crown after their downfall, is at the heart of this complex. Well worth a visit.
Right: on to the Middle Temple, further west. A town within a town, a refuge from the bustling streets that surround it. But unlike Mayfair, there are lights on in the windows and plenty of signs of activity within. And here is a double pillar-box, once separating mail for London from that destined for the rest of the country; today 'stamped' and 'metered' mail are posted separately.

The Outer Temple? Was there one? It's shrouded in legend, you know. The Knights Templars... mysteries... historical controversies... Over this threshold one crosses into a covered passage that leads into the Middle Temple.


The Inner and Middle Temples are worth a visit. There's limited access, you need to have a local guide or do some research, but you can generally wander around without restriction during the working day.

This time last year:
Winter walk through the Las Kabacki


This time three years ago:

This time six years ago:
Rain on a freezing day (-7C)

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time nine years ago:
Winter's slight return

This time ten years ago:
Unacceptable

This time 11 years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time 12 years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Cars: bigger, heavier, more powerful. WHY?

Last month saw the launch of the eighth generation of Volkswagen's best-selling hatchback, the Golf. Positioned above the Polo and below the Passat, the Golf brand has been around for 45 years. With every successive iteration, the Golf gets bigger and heavier - and needing an ever-more powerful engine to drag the whole thing around.

VW Golf   Launch year   Length (m)   Width (m)   Height (m)   Weight (kg)*   Power (BHP)*  
Mk 1 1974 3.705 1.610 1.395 790 44
Mk 2 1982 3.985 1.665 1.415 910 44
Mk 3 1992 4.074 1.694 1.422 960 59
Mk 4 1997 4.148 1.735 1.440 1,050 74
Mk 5 2003 4.205 1.759 1.479 1,155 74
Mk 6 2009 4.199 1.779 1.479 1,217 79
Mk 7 2013 4.255 1.799 1.452 1,205 84
Mk 8 2019 4.284 1.789 1.456 1,315 89

* Weight and power output for base model

Compared to the 1970s Golf, the new one is over half a tonne (525kg) heavier and more than twice as powerful in its basic version. The Mk 8 is also over half a metre (58cm) longer than the Mk 1.

The power-to-weight ratio of the base model Mk1 was 55bhp/tonne; the Mk8's is 67bhp/tonne. A more powerful engine dragging around all that extra weight gives it more kinetic energy to do more damage in collisions, therefore it needs more body armour to protect its driver and occasional passenger(s).

The car industry is in trouble. My children's generation is not interested in car ownership. Once you've Instagrammed your new car - then what? Bore your friends with successive snaps of your car at different petrol stations? Far more impressive to travel the world! More likely is that the young are spending that part of their income that their parents' generation would have spent on cars paying for property that their old folks could far more easily afford (and a car on top of that).

I have no intention of every buying a car again. (Another small motorbike? Maybe.) I am an urban man, I live across two capital cities; a car is nothing but an encumbrance.

This time last year:
Train journey to Chynów
[a year on, one track's been modernised, the other's being done]

This time six years ago:
It's healthier to live in the city than in the suburbs

[Car-driving makes you fatter]

This time seven years:
Ikaria - the island where people forget to die

This time eight years ago
Miserable depths of winter

This time nine years ago:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time ten years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time 11 years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time 12 years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts



Saturday, 18 January 2020

A walk through Lights-out London

Taking a turn off Piccadilly (below), away from cacophony... and into Mayfair, with son Eddie to take a stroll through Lights-out London.


Mayfair - the most expensive piece of real estate on the British Monopoly board since 1935, and the most expensive in reality. Reading The Inequality Paradox piqued my curiosity about this part of London, where oligarchs, oil sheikhs and ultra-high net-worth individuals (deserving or not) have brought their money and their London homes. Few actually live here, and this Saturday evening stroll confirmed that. House after house with not a single light switched on.

Below: corner of Chesterfield Hill and Charles Street, W1 (as in 'double you won'). A single dog-walker passed us on the pavement. Cars too were rare. Mansions with the occasional light on in a window. A deserted part of London. And yet London is home to more of the world's super-rich than any other city on earth...


Left: the corner of South St and South Audley St. Now, if New Bond St is posher than Regent St, then South Audley St is even more exclusive. Shops with Royal Warrants proudly displayed. This is where the super-rich buy clothes and interior furnishing. But where are they? The shops are all empty - just a few bored employees standing around... This is Saturday, late afternoon - nearby Oxford Street is heaving with shoppers.

Below: Woods Mews looking towards Park Lane. The West End is a busy place - turn off Piccadilly, turn left off New Bond St, turn left off Oxford St, turn right off Park Lane and step away from the crowds.

The concentration of the world's super-rich in London has consequences for the rest of the country. It has made London off-limits to young people wanting to come here to better themselves - they will not be able to get onto the housing ladder. My son's lucky that his grandparents bought a nice house in Ealing 50 years ago, for this where he'll be living as he establishes himself in the London economy.

This time last year:
Mid-Jan pictorial round-up

This time five years ago:
UK migration and the NHS

This time eight years ago:
Miserable depths of winter

This time nine years ago:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time ten years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time 11 years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time 12 years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Friday, 17 January 2020

London's timeless charm

To the Gherkin - 30 St Mary Axe. Not St Mary Street, not Road, not Avenue, but Axe. New home to the London office of Bank Gospodarki Krajowej - Poland's state development bank, opened in London to support the expansion of Polish businesses into the UK market. Below: the view from the 41st floor (to the south at least, unblocked by neighbouring towers) is magnificent. Tower Bridge and the Tower of London clearly visible in the shot.


Left: the Masons' Arms pub, Maddox Street, Mayfair - three hundred years old. This year marks the tercentenary of this London thoroughfare. The facade alludes to Tudor times, already history in 1720. London has many such gems, though they are rarer in the West End than they are in the City

Below: also dating back to 1720, the Jerusalem Tavern on Britton St in Clerkenwell. The pub's interior is somewhat newer (1990s).

Last week marked the 157th anniversary of the opening of the world's first underground railway, from Paddington to Farringdon, not too far from the Jerusalem Tavern. The railway's opening was nearer in time to the completion of Maddox St and the Jerusalem Tavern than to the present day. London abides. Below: the platforms at Paddington (District and Circle lines), looking much like they would have done more than a century and half ago.


Right: facade on Regent St, looking up above the ground floor. The street is packed from end to end with the flagship stores of the world's most famous clothing brands.

To the west of Regent St - the posh boutiques, art galleries, emporia and showrooms of Mayfair, all the way past Bond Street to Park Lane. To the east - the more accessible shops of Oxford Street and Soho. But since the 19th century, Regent St has been the centre of fashion.

Back to Ealing; three layers (below). In the foreground, a taste of the southern Mediterranean. I used to buy cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee here before we moved to Poland. Above the bright lights and fragrant displays of foodstuffs, the windows and roofs of 1930s suburbia. Above them in the distance, across the valley of the river Brent, a distant drizzle-soaked ridge - or is it a bank of cloud?


This time last year:
Familiarity, music and memory
[by coincidence, this post also mentions cardamom-flavoured coffee]

This time three years ago:
On taxation and (national) defamation

This time seven years ago:
Where's Britain going to be in Europe?

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki under water

This time ten years ago:
In a nutshell - the best science book I've ever read

This time 11 years ago:
Flashback to communist times

This time 12 years ago:
Pre-dawn Ursynów

Saturday, 11 January 2020

The Inequality Paradox - a summing up

You can approach inequality from the macro level, looking at it through the prism of economics and sociology.

Another approach is to look at individuals. Back at school, as sixth-formers we were interested in 'what makes people tick' - what are the motivations that drive people, how hard, and in what direction.

Drive, determination, tenacity - these are all facets of human character which determine whether we spend out evenings watching serials on TV or working out at the gym, reading books or being otherwise creatively engaged. In the workplace, that drive is about getting things done - optimally, getting others to share your vision and purpose and to get them to help you getting things done. Organisation, self-discipline, goals. Fairly basic stuff, but on your shoulder you have this little devil telling you to slack off, to slow down, distracting you with something interesting on the internet.

Some folk give in too easily, choose a life-path of least resistance, starting at school.

There are top-down and bottom-up causes of inequality. I feel that Douglas McWillams' book has had to focus entirely on the top-down causes; behavioural economics isn't mentioned at all. And yet I feel that our individual life-choices at the granular micro-level (like 'shall I get out of bed this morning?') are just as important as a system that looks too favourably at bankers' bonuses or overpaid CEOs.

As I wrote yesterday, much of the cause of rising inequality in Poland in the 1990s was due to differences in personal-drive levels between the hard-working and those happy to take it easy. Once there was a true incentive to create wealth (and the legal system to ensure you kept it), the gap between those who wanted to achieve and those who were comfortable as they were, grew.

I would argue that in the same way that there are differences between individuals when it comes to drive, determination and tenacity, so there are differences in the mean drive level across nations.

The granular nature of behavioural economics suits it to a world of Big Data. Be it the Chinese state or GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) will be building up a picture of individual behaviours in the economic sphere. How hard we work, how much we earn how much we spend, how much we save - and what factors trigger our behaviour. Are we striving for more - or are we just comfortable?

Comfort brings about complacency and laziness - it can be a conscious choice. I'd go back to the notion in the Inequality Paradox of superbabies and the preservation of wealth across generations by children born to a pair of self-selected (homogamous) university graduates. Homogamy was long practised by aristocracies to preserve and extend family wealth, and like many of their habits good or bad, it has drifted down to well-educated commoners. Whether this means I'm too deep in the bubble, but I do not - and never have done - mixed socially outside of university graduates. And I can see within this group extremes of 'drive quotient' - from the lazy to the hyper-driven. The lazy community have their rights too, you know!

In the same way that you can take 1,000 random people from a given country and weigh them measure their height, their IQ and their income, you should be able to see what is the level of their 'get-up-and-go', their 'oomph', their drive. My gut feeling is that Poland would rank quite high here, as would many of the Asian Tiger economies, and China. I also suspect that America would have a handful of individuals whose drive is stratospheric, but then a great many whose drive is modest or poor. As to the UK, I'd say that over my lifetime, I have seen it faltering. So many great British businesses have been sold to foreign buyers - iconic brands in motoring (Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar), consumer goods (Cadbury's), industrial manufacturing (Pilkington, Babcock, BOC), even new technologies (ARM). It's easier to sit back on a cash pile than to manage a business.

We are all different. We react differently to situations. One such situation is what I would call 'the comfort wall'. What happens when all your material wants are met. (Wants, not needs.) You have your nice house, your place in the country, a fine car, free time spent well - and you have a pile of cash that enables you to continue with this lifestyle until eventual old age and death.

Why should you push for more wealth when you've got this far? When it becomes an obsession. Some people are obsessed with collecting stamps or railway locomotive numbers; I'm obsessed with my heath data (walking, exercising, food & drink). Others can be similarly obsessed with wanting to grow their fortunes. An Alpha-mammal type thing, showing off, bragging.

But there's another answer, more sinister. It is the tipping point when you start converting money into power. The Mercers, the Kochs, the Barclays, Rupert Murdoch, George Soros (for the sake of political balance) - examples of ultra-high net-worth individuals using their billions to influence the political discourse.

Since the Northcote-Trevellyan reforms of the Civil Service in 1854, the British have had an unspoken dividing line between wealth and power. Early on in life, you make a decision - do you want to govern, or to make money? But things are changing. In other parts of the world money is power and power, money.

The poor and the uneducated are essentially powerless, other than en masse at the ballot box. Getting a message to them to vote for this party rather than that party becomes important in a world of haves and have-nots. The elections of Trump and Johnson shows how poor and uneducated people can be persuaded to vote against their best interests by election campaigns funded by the super rich (by no means all of them Americans or Britons!). With trade unions waning in political influence from the 1980s onward, there seems not to be an effective counterbalance to the voice of the super rich in Western democracies - and that is a threat. While I'd not wish to see a return to the situation we had in Britain in the mid-1970s, I do feel that the ability of the super rich to manipulate elections through Big Data is dangerous.

If we stratify society not by wealth or education or height or weight, we see a picture where there are those at the bottom who are striving to better themselves materially, those in the middle who've achieved a comfortable lifestyle and are happy there, and those at the top who have gathered large amounts of wealth and want to increase it. Then there are those with less drive...

I hold that biology is as much a determinant of success as being born at the right time in the right place. Humans have a pecking order, just as all animals do. The runt of the litter, the alpha male, the top dog; dominance and subservience. I have called this the Ladder of Authority. You can learn how to lead (countless courses and coaches will tell you this), but I posit that real leadership is mainly biological.

The self-regulating answer to inequality must come from an awareness of the very wealthy of their privilege. Some were either born into privilege - they need to be aware of those with less luck of birth. Or they earned it within a system that allowed them to create and keep their wealth. Those entrepreneurs who rail against high taxes and the state should be aware of who educated their employees, built and maintained the infrastructure that keeps society going, and who keeps order in society. An entrepreneur who behaves ethically, paying taxes, treating employees, suppliers and customers fairly, and who contributes to the overall wealth of society deserves our plaudits. But the rent seekers who use their wealth to get an easier ride are a problem.

Systems, even human ones, cannot tolerate absurdities too long. Situations where the imbalance between the ultra-rich and the poor in a given society can result in bloody revolutions.

A response from the truly wealthy has been the appearance of 'stealth wealth' as a thing. These two words, rhyming nicely to form a catchy phrase, have been around for a couple of decades. Here's an article of Lucia van der Post (she who edits the Financial Times' How to Spend It supplement) from nearly 20 years ago. (Interesting that Trump gets quoted, observing the switch from limos to SUVs). Part of what stealth wealth is about, says van der Post, is not so much that the super-wealthy want to hide their wealth by not being ostentatious, rather, it's that those aspiring to the status of wealthy can now afford those things - those brands - that until recently were the exclusive preserve of the rich. But times change. I suspect that today's stealth wealth is about keeping very quiet about one's fortunes. Not bragging about it for fear of those who'd want to take it away. But then if you can't brag about it, your place on the top of the Ladder comes to be questioned - all the more reason to convert money to power, so those below you won't become a threat.

And that is a threat to us all.

This time last year:
Familiarity, tradition and identity

This time two years ago:
Black hat merry-go-round 
(I've found four so far this season)

This time three years ago:
Skarzysko-Kamienna and Starachowice, by train

This time four years ago:
The world mourns the loss of David Bowie

This time six years ago:
Where's the snow?

This time eight years ago:
Two drink-free days a week, British MPs urge

This time nine years ago:
Depopulating Polish cities?

This time ten years ago:
Powiśle on a winter's morning

This time 11 years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

Friday, 10 January 2020

Inequality and wealth - the Polish perspective

If inequality in the UK has been rising, in Poland it has been falling. Unemployment in Poland has dropped (by the Eurostat measure of economically inactive) from 18.9% in May 2004, the highest in the EU, to 3.2% in November 2019, the third-lowest in the EU. Wage rates have been rising faster than inflation (chart below shows that average wages in the Polish private sector have grown by 207% since 2004, while consumer prices have risen by 139%). Things are getting, on average, better.


Inequality, as expressed by the Gini coefficient, has fallen. In 2018, Poland had the ninth-lowest inequality of income in the EU at 0.278 (on the scale where 0 = perfect equality and 1 = one person has it all). In 2011, Poland was in 17th place in the EU, with a Gini coefficient of 0.311. Meanwhile, in the UK, inequality has been rising over this same period, slipping from 21st place in 2011, at 0.330, to 24th place at 0.342 in 2018.

Communism gave Poland uravnilovka - the concept of making society equal by levelling down. An intense class war was waged by the Soviet communist proxies running Poland in Stalinist years to rid the country of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia from positions of power within the state. An entire ministry where the only person with a degree was the janitor. If your hands weren't calloused by years of physical labour you were deemed a class enemy and held back from promotion. The result was a society in which tram drivers and university lecturers lived cheek-by-jowl in the same overcrowded tenements, and czy się stoi czy się leży, dwa tysiące się należy - pretty much near-equality of pay across the economy.

Things changed on 1 January 1990. The Balcerowicz plan came into effect - total, sudden, deregulation. Currency exchange controls, import controls, restrictions on setting up businesses - swept away. You could get in a train, go to West Berlin, buy bananas and sell them on a Warsaw street corner for the equivalent of a week's wages per kilo. Entrepreneurial Poles - of whom there were many - found niches and built good businesses very quickly. Drive to Vienna, buy a van-load of aquarium fish-food and corner that market. Less-driven Poles, of whom there were also many, complained that state-sponsored arts were being cut or that the Jews were taking over. Within a few years, the blocks of flats where professors neighboured tram drivers suddenly had guarded car parks with new Audis standing next to battered Fiat 126Ps. Those with the crap cars found it easier to say that the owners of the new cars had made their money by theft or corruption than by admitting that their neighbours worked 12-hour days running shops or warehouses or transport businesses while they watched Brazilian soap operas.

Poland is still on the receiving end of the benefits of globalisation. Jobs of ever-increasing sophistication are moved here from Western Europe and the US. Having been here for 22 years, I have observed the process accelerating; once it was basic handsarbeit, moved east from Germany for cost reasons.

We used to see the relocation of poorly-paid work to Poland. That's while the country was in the throes of the first wave of globalisation. Today we're seeing the relocation of better-paid work to Poland.

Many years ago, I visited a medium-sized factory in western Poland that made hinges for a large Germany manufacturer of doors and windows, its only customer. Around 70 workers in three buildings, bending strips of metal and drilling holes in them. Dwarfing the buildings was an enormous warehouse used to store raw materials and finished pieces. Much cheaper than keeping stock in Germany.

These days, the manufacturers I visit across Poland make bits that go into aircraft engines; high technology work with advanced materials, where many on the shop floor hold Master's degrees in engineering. Delivery of raw materials and collection of finished pieces is done just-in-time; the latest managerial techniques are in use to ensure continual improvement, quality and work-flow management. More and more robots are in evidence, connected to one another in an intelligent network.

Poland finds itself increasingly integrated into global supply chains. EU-funded infrastructure projects have improved transport links within the country greatly (as this blog testifies). Labour costs are no longer seven times lower than in the UK, as they were when I moved here, but around half (and one-third those in London). That's still a big enough difference to make relocation to Poland worthwhile.

Banks are setting up sophisticated quantitative analytics centres in Poland; large corporates are moving financial and IT hubs to Poland from which they service their European, EMEA or global networks. Engineering firms and architectural practices are shifting project work here; they do little work for Poland, but their Polish-based design bureaus work on projects in the Middle East, Africa or beyond.

This squares with Douglas McWilliams' forecast that for some time to come, the biggest hit to their earnings will be taken by those in the West who are neither poor nor rich, those between the 35th and 70th centile in the income distribution curve. More of their jobs will move to countries to Poland for some while yet, until convergence with the West has risen to the point where locational arbitrage makes no further sense.

If globalisation has made the poorer British citizens poorer, it has made most Poles better off, and it has - so far - had a positive effect on the economy and society.

A factor that should not be ignored in the story of falling Polish inequality is the introduction of EU agricultural transfers post 2004, which have helped reduce the income gap between urban and rural Poland.

Poles tend to be more careful with their money. Their history has seen successive invasions, partitions, uprisings - one generation's wealth has often been wiped out by wars - or, in the case of 1989 and 1990 - inflation, reaching 800%. And then the whole process of wealth creation begins again, with a new generation. I'd argue that this is why many see the purchase of real estate as a hedge against turmoil - you own the house, the land, it's registered in the 'eternal book' (księga wieczysta, as the land and mortgage register is called). After 1990, many of the children whose properties were seized by communist governments successfully claimed them back. But cash savings were devoured by inflation.

A final summing up of this series here.

This time four years ago:
Work on rail modernisation, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
In which I get started on Twitter

This time seven years ago:
London Underground is 150 years old

This time eight years ago:
My enemy's enemy is my...?

This time nine years ago:
Some thoughts upon the Nature of Warfare

This time ten years ago:
Snow so deep it needs a plough

This time 11 years ago:
A fieldfare in midwinter