Genghis Khan, warlord and conqueror

Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, died on August 18th, 1227, aged about 65. Known in his youth as Temujin, he united various nomadic tribes and launched them on a campaign of conquest that stretch from the Pacific, across Asia and into Europe.

Unlike the Romans, who sought to incorporate conquered peoples into their domain, Genghis Khan’s Mongols practised mass slaughter of local populations, and he was feared for the brutality he practised himself and encouraged among his followers. In his 2009 Military History of Iran, Steven R. Ward wrote that "Overall, the Mongol violence and depredations killed up to three-fourths of the population of the Iranian Plateau, possibly 10 to 15 million people." Iran's population did not again reach its pre-Mongol levels until the mid-20th Century. Over the course of three years, the Mongols annihilated nearly all of the major cities of Eastern Europe. Kiev, once thickly populated was reduced to a couple of hundred households kept in slavery, such that the Pope's envoy wrote, "We came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground."

China's population declined dramatically, with the population of north China falling from an estimated 50 million in 1195 to 8.5 million in the Mongol census of 1235–36, and it was a similar story elsewhere in the Mongol conquests. Although Genghis Khan is sometimes hailed as a military leader and political genius, exalted in art and gloried in literature, he is more accurately viewed as a brutal tyrant who brought together a war machine that was superior to any that could be set against him.

Conquerors such as Augustus Caesar and his successors brought commerce, trade and the trappings of civilization to the peoples they subdued and absorbed, but Genghis Khan seems to have brought little but bloodshed. It was his grandson, Kublai Khan, who completed the unification of China and established a dynasty that enabled a long period of peace and commerce. Genghis Khan left his mark in other ways. His name is still reviled among many descendants of the people he butchered. He was also prolific in using his power to satisfy his personal desires, as most tyrants do. A 2003 study found there are about 16 million men alive today who carry his DNA.

History has long been taught as the story of conquerors and empires. Edward Gibbon wrote of the emperor, Antoninus Pius, "The reign of Antoninus is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."

Karl Popper wrote in his 1945, "The Open Society and its Enemies’:

There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world. But this, I hold, is an offence against every decent conception of mankind. It is hardly better than to treat the history of embezzlement or of robbery or of poisoning as the history of mankind. For the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them). This history is taught in schools, and some of the greatest criminals are extolled as heroes.

Genghis Khan did indeed have a great influence on the world, as did Napoleon, as did Hitler, but it is one to be deplored, rather than lauded.

There's little quite so conservative as a modern progressive

This being a general truism, that a rather large amount of today’s progressivism is in fact a harking back to some mythical past. Here the example is the High Street and the empty shops in it.

Labour will allow councils to seize abandoned shops to give them a new lease of life as cooperatives or community centres, a policy designed to revive struggling high streets.

Jeremy Corbyn is expected to announce the shake-up on a visit to a high street in Bolton on Saturday, calling the sight of boarded-up shops a “symptom of economic decay” which is lowering living standards.

Under the Labour proposals, local authorities could offer properties which had been vacant for 12 months to startups, cooperative businesses and community projects.

There are all the usual questions at this point. Who is going to be paying that rent and those rates? And if someone is at some mutually agreeable level then why is the power to seize necessary? Mutually agreeable will already have solved that problem.

However, it’s the missing of the forests that is the real problem here:

“Boarded-up shops are a symptom of economic decay under the Conservatives and a sorry symbol of the malign neglect so many communities have suffered,” Corbyn will say.

“Once-thriving high streets are becoming ghost streets. Labour has a radical plan to revive Britain’s struggling high streets by turning the blight of empty shops into the heart of the high street, with thousands of new businesses and projects getting the chance to fulfil their potential.”

That vast technological shift to online is not economic decay, it’s precisely and exactly the opposite, the deployment of new technology improving productivity, the very thing which is the definition of economic growth.

The real, real, point here though being that the proposed solution refers to a specific report, that report itself saying this:

LDC said landlords were already looking at strategies to make better use of space such as redeveloping it as homes or warehouses or bringing in leisure services such as gyms.

The number of vacant units that were demolished, split into smaller outlets or converted to another use jumped to 3,577, up from 2,706 in 2017.

Stainton said: “The significant increase in structural redevelopment of retail space across 2018 indicates that landlords, place managers and councils are starting to take action to critically review how much retail stock is in the market and how much is actually required. Over the coming months, we expect this trend to increase, and with it will come a redefinition of not just our high streets, but shopping centres and retail parks too.”

That redevelopment of the commercial property estate is already happening. Driven by the usual incentives of making or not losing money.

Which leaves us again with the question, well, what problem is being solved by allowing local councils to confiscate then award to those who won’t pay rent such properties?

And that’s even before we get to perverse incentives. You need planning permission to significantly change the use of retail property. Planning permission which comes from the local authority. Which, if they don’t grant it, gets to allocate said property to favoured clients after 12 months as it remains closed waiting for the change of use application. This will do what to the speed of the change of use part of the planning system?

The attack on Germany's super weapons

On the night of August 17th, 1943, RAF Bomber Command attacked the weapons research facility at Peenemunde with a force of 596 bombers. Intelligence reports had indicated that Nazi Germany was developing long-range weapons there, weapons that would be unmanned and difficult to intercept. Acting on Polish intelligence, photo-reconnaissance planes had brought back pictures, one of which showed a small winged aircraft on a ramp, with another showing what appeared to be the shadow of a pencil-shaped vertical object, possibly a rocket. The decision was taken to bomb.

To aid accuracy, the attack took place during a full moon, with the bombers flying at 8,000 feet instead of their normal 19,000. And for the first time there was a master-bomber directing the raid. A diversionary force of Mosquitoes and Beaufighters, codenamed Whitebait, dropped flares on Berlin as if setting targets for a heavy bombing raid, in order to lure German night fighters away from the real target.

The bombing of Peenemunde, Operation Hydra, marked the start of Operation Crossbow, designed to neutralize as far as possible the new super-weapons. The raid caused much destruction, killing 170 German civilian workers, including two of the leading rocket scientists, as well as several hundred slave labourers the RAF had not known about. Crucially it set back development and production of the new weapons by about two months, and diverted effort away from development and testing, and into the transfer to elsewhere of the production.

Those two months were vital because it meant that the V1 and V2 rockets would not be ready ahead of the anticipated Allied landing to open a second front. In fact the first V1 flying bombs began their assault on June 12th, six days after D-Day. Had they been able to launch a sustained barrage against the Allied preparatory build-up in England's Southern ports, the D-Day operations could have been compromised.

The technology behind the new long-range weapons was a leap ahead of conventional weaponry. The VI flying bomb was the first cruise missile, and the V2 rocket was the world's first ballistic missile. Each was an astonishing achievement for a nation in the throes of a war against two continental powers. Critics claim that the super-weapons diverted resources and manpower away from other, more vitally needed sectors.

The Peenemunde raid brought Britain time to develop and evaluate measures that might be effective against the new weapons. The V! attack was blunted by a combination of artillery, especially armed with proximity fuses, barrage balloons, and fast fighters that could match their speed. But even before then, their numbers had been curbed by the destruction of many of the launch ramps that pointed towards London.

There was no defence against the V2 except a relentless ground advance cross Europe that finally pushed its mobile launch platforms to where they were out of range of England. Many of the team that made the V2 were scooped up by the American after the war, including its chief scientist, Wernher von Braun. Had von Braun been among those killed in that night raid on Peenemunde, the man who made the V2 would not have gone on to build its successor, the Saturn V, the rocket that sent men to the moon, and which won a huge propaganda victory to begin the demoralization of the Soviet Union.

But the NHS should be charged for the use of a parking space

Outrage as our beloved National Health Service - that national religion - is charged for the use of a parking space. The problem here being that yes, of course the NHS should be charged for the use of a scarce resource like a parking space:

A council has faced a backlash for charging a mobile NHS breast cancer screening unit £1,500 for parking, with patients saying the fees are "disgusting".

Cornwall Council issued the bill after a lorry used to offer routine mammograms to women aged 50-71 stayed in a car park in Liskeard for six months last year.

After the figure emerged, the local authority said it no longer charges the NHS vehicle for parking following a "recent review".

One patient described the parking fees as "disgusting", adding: "The NHS is facing a funding crisis, the hospital is on black alert and health workers are struggling.

As everyone who has ever used one knows space in a parking lot is a scarce resource. Scarce resources should be charged for. The reason being that only when they are do we get the optimal use of them.

Sure, the NHS is “government funded” as is the local council so it can seem a bit odd that one arm of government charges the other. But even - perhaps especially - here the pricing structure tells us the optimal distribution of those resources.

We do this in other areas too. The Ministry of Defence needs spectrum so that it can run radio systems. That spectrum has other uses - say, mobile phones or mobile internet. So, we charge the MoD for the spectrum they use. Of course, the grant to the MoD now includes the costs of that spectrum, it’s all a bit round and round in circles. But it does still concentrate minds at the MoD as to which spectrum it really needs, how much of it.

The Americans do not so charge the Department of Defence for its spectrum allocation and it looks like the US is going to end up on a different - and worse - 5G standard from the rest of the world as a result. Without the relative values of DoD and 5G uses being expressed as plain $ numbers it’s not made obvious that cost of DoD’s squatting.

Prices actually matter, they’re information, everyone should be charged them. Even if we then subsidise people to pay them, we still need the information about resource allocation that the price system brings us.

Klondike and the barbarous relic

Gold was discovered in the Klondike region on August 16th, 1896. It precipitated a mass migration as people from the US and elsewhere surged into the area hoping to get rich. Most went via Alaskan ports, and then trekked with a ton of equipment down to the Yukon in Northwest Canada. To avoid mass starvations, the Mounties only let in those who had a year's supply of food with them. Boom towns such as Dawson sprang up to service the incomers. Dawson's population went from 500 in 1886 to 30,000 by the middle 1898. Infrastructure failed to keep pace with the influx, and Dawson's wooden houses were prone to fires, while epidemics broke out in its insanitary conditions.

About 100,000 headed there, hoping to strike it lucky, but given the arduous trek from Alaska, only about 40,000 made it. The ones who became rich were mostly the ones supplying clothes and equipment, rather than actually finding gold, although about $300m of gold was mined. This was nothing like the California gold rush of 1848-1855 that yielded $2bn - $3bn (at today's values), though again, it was mostly the suppliers who made the money. The Klondike gold rush lasted 3 years, and faded when gold was discovered at the beaches near Nome in Alaska in 1899, sending most of the prospectors up North.

Gold has always excited the imagination and the avarice, from King Midas to Auric Goldfinger. Keynes called the gold standard "a barbarous relic," echoing the words of John Austin Stevens in the New York Times of 1873 who said, “gold is a relic of barbarism to be tabooed by all civilized nations.” Its value has been attributed to its permanence, in that it does not fade or tarnish, and reacts with only a few things. Its lustre gives it value as ornament, and its scarcity enhances that value. All the gold humans have mined in history would fill about one-third of the Washington Monument. The largest nugget of it ever found came from Ruby, Alaska, in 1998, and weighed 24.5 pounds, giving it a value of over half a million dollars.

When President Nixon in 1971 cancelled the convertibility of the US dollar into gold, he effectively ended the gold standard, and by 1973 the Bretton Woods system was replaced in practice by a regime based on freely floating fiat currencies. There remain those known as "gold bugs"  who advocate returning to a gold standard to inhibit the ability of governments to inflate currencies at will, but most bankers and economists suppose this would be akin to time travel into the past, and think that independent central bankers represent a reasonable way of restraining irresponsible governments. Critics suggest, however, that the government can appoint central bank directors inclined to do their bidding.

Both the forty-niners of California and the Klondikers were lured in their thousands to endure some hardship and sacrifice in the hope of striking it rich, but very few of them made any significant amount. It was not the gold itself, but the dollars it would buy that they sought. Nonetheless, few people are as thrilled by a bundle of dollar bills as they are by the bars of that gleaming metal in the vaults of banks. People still buy gold today as a hedge against inflation and market volatility, and I played a small role in allowing Americans to do so. I was working with the Republican Study Committee on Capitol Hill in 1974 when we tacked an amendment allowing private US citizens to own gold onto an Eximbank annual appropriation bill. It was carried, and gold ownership remains legal in the US to this very day.

So half the farmers will go bust - and?

The Farmers for a Peoples’ Vote campaign is starting out and in the process they tell us this:

Many industries will suffer but the industry that would suffer the most serious economic shock will be agriculture. It is impossible to project the exact number of farmers who will go out of business. What we do know is that over 40% of them will have no net income if the basic payment is removed. If at the same time the Government removes all tariffs and so depresses prices, these two factors combined will render over 50% of farms in this country unviable.

There are, apparently, some 126,000 farms in the UK employing the thick end of half a million people. Ceasing the subsidy to those farms will mean half of them go bust.

And?

Well, obviously enough, that means that the labour of a quarter of a million people - to be simplistic about manning levels - and the land of 63,000 farms is being used entirely unproductively. We should stop doing that therefore and use the land for something else.

For that is actually what the statement is. 40% of farms will have no net income if the acreage payment stops. That is, 40% of farms produce no added value whatsoever. The inputs, in alternative uses, are worth as much or more as the outputs we gain from their current uses. The other 10% of farms that will fail are only propped up by the manner that the consumer is rooked by the high prices foisted, by law, upon them through those tariffs.

That is, between the two payments we’re all forced to pay for half the agriculture industry to achieve nothing. We should stop doing so. Organisations that consume resources and produce no value from doing so should go bust.

And yes, we’ve done this before. Coal mining used to employ 1.2 million people, it was 2,000 in 2015. Unproductive activities, unproductive producers, should go bust. We’re near entirely bereft of buggy whip makers too. And?

A quarter millennium of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 250 years ago, on August 15th, 1769. Serving as an army artillery officer in 1798 when the French Revolution took place, he rapidly rose through the ranks, becoming a general by age 24, and achieving national recognition when he conquered the Italian peninsula. He became First Consul in a 1799 coup, and Emperor of the French in 1804.

His career thereafter was marked by wars of conquest in Europe and Egypt, most of which he won. Although hailed as one of history’s greatest generals, he was more of a strategic general than a tactical battlefield one. He could take his troops rapidly, fed and supplied, to take enemies by surprise before they had time to form up against him.

Although revered as a hero in France, he made many disastrous mistakes. His appointment of his brother Joseph as King of Spain provoked a guerilla uprising aided by the British, and ended in his defeat in the Peninsular War. Although he inherited a huge conscripted army he turned into the Grande Armée, he led it into a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, and lost most of it.

He was a dictator, and like most dictators, exploited his power for what Corelli Barrett called “his personal megalomania goals.” He is praised for the Code Napoleon, doing what emperors do, codifying the law as Hammurabi and Justinian did, to extend tighter control over their whole territory. His code told people what they were allowed to do, and forbade everything else, unlike English law which tells you what is forbidden.

Like the Nazis who followed, Napoleon plundered conquered territories, filling French galleries and museums with artworks looted from across Europe. Fortunately for history, he came up against Wellington, who never lost a battle, and who finally ended his dictatorship. First at Leipzig in late 1813, then at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally beaten.

France is proud today of his achievements, but as historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, "After all, the military record is unquestioned - 17 years of wars, perhaps six million Europeans dead, France bankrupt, her overseas colonies lost." Yes, quite an achievement. Looking back, 250 years since he was born, we can set the record straight. He was just another military despot bent on power and conquest. He ruined millions of lives, as they all do.

In praise of non-selfsufficiency

The NHS has a problem feeding those who cannot feed themselves:

A shortage of intravenous feed supplies affecting hundreds of patients has been declared a national emergency incident by the NHS.

The situation has affected patients who are unable to digest food normally and are instead dependent on an intravenous feed, which bypasses the gastrointestinal tract, known as parenteral nutrition (PN). The NHS has been forced to try to source supplies from overseas to address the domestic shortage.

It has been caused by a reduction in output by PN producer Calea as a result of it being directed by the medical regulator to take immediate action to change its manufacturing process.

Something went wrong with the domestic supplier, we must source from overseas.

Those hunting for a bubbling dish of cauliflower cheese in a restaurant will be in for disappointment after the crop was killed off by the freak July weather, causing a shortage.

Britain is usually self-sufficient for cauliflower, which has become fashionable in recent years, roasted whole as a plant-based Sunday dinner and whizzed up as an alternative to rice.

As the country baked in temperatures, which hit a record 38.7 degrees, brassica plants were killed off. This means wholesale prices have been hiked from 60p-£3 in some cases, and restaurants have taken cauliflower off their menus entirely.

Something went wrong with domestic supply, we must source from overseas.

All of which illustrates the inanity of the fashionable mantra that we must be self sufficient in our supplies. The argument often enough being, well, what if something happens out there and so we can’t get any? This ignoring the bitter experience of the ages which is what happens if something goes wrong here and we can’t get any?

To illustrate, famine is a product of there not being food locally, not an absence of food globally.

Resilience of supply is a function of having multiple suppliers. Where supply is dependent upon weather, to use just the one example, then we’d like those many suppliers to be spread across many different weather systems.

That is, the perfect food delivery system would be exactly the opposite of what current fashion generally proposes. That proposal being that we should grow everything we can ourselves, only going overseas for what cannot be produced here at all. Which is, we insist, absolutely the wrong decision.

Rather, even if we can produce sufficient here we don’t want to. It is better that the - just an example - 20 areas which can grow the same crop do so and each trade 19/20ths of it with the others. If we wish to maximise the security of our supply that is. After all, we do generally recognise that monopolies are bad things and the failure of a monopoly supplier is a catastrophe. Therefore we shouldn’t have monopoly supplies even unto not having a monopoly of our food supply from one geographic area. Even if that monopoly is local food for local people.

Shutting down pop stations

The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, (known as the "Marine Offences Act"), became law in the United Kingdom at midnight on Monday 14 August 1967. It was introduced by Harold Wilson's Labour government in an attempt to preserve the BBC's monopoly of radio broadcasting.

The radio monopoly was that of the Post Office, which licensed the BBC exclusively to broadcast radio programmes. The BBC was in thrall to the Musicians' Union, which severely limited what it called "needle time" in order to protect jobs for live musicians. The result was that pop music was limited to a couple of programmes a week, notably "Two Way Family Favourites" at lunchtime on Sunday, the BBC's most popular programme of pop requests for members of UK forces serving overseas.

Teenagers who wanted to listen to pop music had to tune in to Radio Luxembourg, outside UK jurisdiction, broadcasting on 208 metres with somewhat patchy reception in parts of the UK. That all changed in 1964 when Irish entrepreneur, Ronan O'Rahilly, spotted an opportunity to bypass the BBC monopoly by broadcasting from outside UK territorial waters. A ship with a giant antenna set sail, and in March 1964, Radio Caroline began broadcasting non-stop pop music to an enthusiastic audience that soon swelled to millions. The station paid for itself and turned a profit by running adverts, something the BBC frowned upon as against the spirit of public service broadcasting, and had never itself done.

Radio Caroline was joined by others, and soon over a dozen broadcasting ships were dotted around the UK coastline, just beyond the 3-mile limit. They were dubbed "pirate radio" stations, and featured Radio London, Radio Scotland, Radio 270 and others. They were hugely popular, drawing audiences that far exceeded those listening to the BBC's output of programmes such as "Music While You Work" featuring live studio musicians.

The government’s heavy-handed response was the Marine Offences Act, which made it illegal to visit, supply or take adverts on ships broadcasting from international waters. On August 14th, 1967, the pirate stations went off the air one by one before midnight came. The exception was Radio Caroline, which continued to broadcast, supplying itself from the Continent, even though this was now against the law. In St Andrews as a student, I had to rig up an aerial that stretched round my room in order to tune in to it. We campaigned for free radio and published pamphlets about it, ones that gained some national prominence.

The epilogue was that we convinced the Conservatives of the case for free radio, and the party promised to introduce commercial radio when it next gained office. It won the 1970 election and legalized commercial radio broadcasting during its term in office. The BBC huffed and it puffed, but it was too late to blow the house down.

If only Polly Toynbee actually thought through her stories

Polly Toynbee gives us chapter and verse on how difficult it is going to be for one business to export into the European Union after Brexit. The little bit that Polly’s not grasping being that the point and purpose of trade is access to the imports, not the ability to make the exports. For sending stuff abroad for foreigners to consume is the work that we do. The benefit we gain from that work being the stuff that foreigners send us that we can consume.

Keep that in mind for a moment:

Searching for what forms to fill, HMRC’s list of codes has been impossible for his complex products, where the quantity and original source of each ingredient needs a separate coding. “The paperwork is crazy,” he says. Each form has three pages, one needed for each of his 50 products with certificates of origin relating to ingredients from all over the world. “That’s what the single market did away with in 1994,” he says.

Baker’s post-Brexit transaction costs include paying a carrier £100 a time to fill out the right forms, and a customs clearance agent to check and process duty paper work: qualified agents are in short supply. The company and each of his staff need security vetting to get exports through ports with less checking, requiring him to hire a security vetting consultant too.

The claim is that this is what it takes to export into - or import into of course - the European Union. OK, this is what it takes to export into the European Union then. Meaning what?

Meaning that the 6.5 billion people out there who are not part of the European Union currently have to face this faradiddle of pointless bureaucracy to send us the lovely things that they make and we might wish to consume. That is, every complaint about how difficult exporting to the EU will be after October 31 is a listing of the current costs to us of being in the European Union before October 31.

At which point recall that little point to be kept in mind. The point of trade is the imports, it is our consumption that makes us richer. We may well face greater difficulty in exporting to 450 million people but there’s a decent enough chance that we’ll face less in importing from 6.5 billion. Given the way trade works that’s a net benefit to us.

It’s not too much to ask that Polly Toynbee actually think is it?