20 Apr 2016

Mr Stargazer on Editing

Hail readers!

It has been a while since I last updated the Magical Realm, though I do hope you have taken notice of some of the essays I’ve bumped up. Largely, my blogging efforts have been sidelined to work on the Ark; but now that I have collaborated with my editor, and await more from her, I can find enough time to blog.

And what will I be blogging about? Well; that’s easy enough to guess. Editing! Here I will detail my experiences so far with my editor, and what it has meant for me and the Ark.

What I’ve Requested

First off, you have to understand exactly what I’ve hired my editor to do and at what stage I am with the Ark.

Now: I don’t know how much attention you’ve been paying to the Magical Realm over the past couple of weeks, but I can tell you that the Ark—my Sci-Fi novel come LGBT romance extraordinaire—is 2/3 finished. Due to various reasons (writing style, voice of narrators, and more besides) I decided to pause work and revise the Ark under the watchful eye of an editor.

I hired my editor to do three things, basically:

  1. Help me with my query letter—believe me, it’s not all that simple. The query letter sells my book to agents. I have to get it right.
  2. Give me specific comments inline of the book.
  3. Give me an assessment for the entirety of the book, covering plot, characterisation, writing style, and more besides.

The one thing I have not hired my editor to do is, well, edit. She does not actually re-write my prose or make edits to the text proper. And why, do you ask? Well; editing is time-consuming. And therefore expensive.

Hiring the editor to perform an editorial assessment with commentary, however, is cheaper and still gives me the valuable perspective of a 3rd party and an expert in the field. The only caveat is that I have to do the edits myself. Then again, that’s no bad thing—because it’s my book, my writing style, and I’m the person best placed to maintain my voice and vision throughout.

All of this, however, does involve a little work. (‘But Alex!’ you cry; ‘surely writing a book is a lot of work anyway?’ And you’d be right.)

Query Letter Writing

Writing query letters is hard. But the basic layout is fairly straightforward:

  1. You start with ‘dear [agent’s name]’ and ideally not with dear agent. Agents don’t like that.
  2. You usually introduce your novel at this point. You mention word count, genre, and possibly successful books that your novel resembles in style or form. It is also recommended that you personalise your query letter with specific reasons for why you chose the agent—something like ‘since you represented Cassandra Clare, an author I admire and whose writing style I resemble, I believe you would be an excellent agent to represent my own work.’
  3. The hook. As the name suggests, this is a short paragraph that hooks the agent into reading more. In my case, it goes: Two boys falling in love. A world falling apart. And a chance to escape it all...
  4. The meat. Here you describe your book in a bit more detail. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this should be more passive than the hook; it shouldn’t be. It should be just as interesting as the hook, only longer. Generally, the meat should be about the key conflict in your story. It could be character-focused, plot-focused, or even world-focused. A fantasy novel may be in the latter, and could start with ‘In a world where dragons fly and the dead walk among the living...’ A good length is one, two or three paragraphs and preferably no more.
  5. (Optional) Your biography—what have you written? Do you have prior publications? It doesn’t have to be a book; it could be writing in newspapers or even blogging. Other pertinent details like e.g. having a creative writing degree or winning a competition should also be included.
  6. Closing thoughts—say why your book will appeal to the market, and thank the agent for their time.

Now, that’s a lot of stuff to squeeze into a page (or close to it). And it’s not easy—you have to be both precise and informative without being overly verbose; your prose has to capture the interest, and only in a few paragraphs.

So far, my editor has proven rather helpful. For example: initially, my query letter did not have anything on why the Ark would appeal to market demands. The layout was awry, with no clear structure. There was no reference to other successful authors. And most importantly: the editor re-wrote my meat.

Of course I ended up re-writing it myself. My voice is pretty unique. However, it did give me a much needed shove in the right direction; and that led to what I feel is a stronger piece of text.

The editor was also helpful in perfecting some of my prose. My hook, for example, did not initially half-rhyme the way it does.

Edits on the Ark

The editor has given me plenty to think about. So far, she has raised:

  1. A problem with the beginning. The action and tension of the prologue did not really flow into chapter one; the tension broke like a wave, instead of cresting.
  2. The prologue was overwritten.
  3. The quotations and poetry in chapter one came in the way of the reader interacting with the book—and worsened the sense of disconnect from the prologue.
  4. The writing style was at times too poetic, and detracted rather than improved my authorial voice.
  5. The Technical Notes section would turn away some readers, being somewhat daunting and preventing interaction with the book.
  6. And numerous other minor points.

This led me to re-write the prologue. Then, I re-wrote the first scene of chapter one and made quite a few edits to the rest of the chapter. I also removed the technical notes; pertinent information is now being kept in footnotes.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, revising a book is a hell of a lot of work. But I can tell you one thing: it’s easier with an editor. An editor can tell you what works, and what doesn’t; and, once you’ve revised the prose, they can offer feedback and tips.

Also, unless you happen to be extremely experienced and able at writing query letters, I would strongly recommend you hire an editor for help with your query. This service is far cheaper than editorial work on your book (indeed my editor was kind enough to offer it for free under the price I paid for editorial assessment) and is very useful for getting your query letter right.

And good query letter = much better chance of representation.

Anyway, that’s it for now folks. I’ll post updates once I’ve done more work with the editor. And, sorry to break it to you, but my usual regime of poetry/essays will be put on hold for a while. Don’t complain; there’s a huge backlist of older essays here on this blog.

And of course, you could always take a look at my finished books—the Necromancer and the Sandman.

Now, goodbye. There’s more to be done...

15 Apr 2016

Socialism versus Social Democracy: A Question of Economics

Hello readers! I am currently occupied with editing, having taken on an editor. I will be blogging on that in the next few days; in the meanwhile I’ve bumped up this essay on Social Democracy, which has proven quite popular among the readership.

Previously, dear readers, I promised an essay on ‘Socialism versus Social Democracy’. I can now fulfill this promise; the following will detail a number of things—the meaning of the words in modern day parlance, and the economics that distinguish them, being two key examples. I’ll also answer the question: ‘Which is better suited to the modern world?’


First off, let’s clarify what we mean by the terms. Political language is often debased with lazy or ambiguous usage of the political vocabulary; and, even if it were not for this, the nature of politics is such that as ideologies adapt and morph according to different times and circumstances, the language does likewise.

Socialism has been used to mean many different things. The Bolsheviks were often called Socialists; and not entirely inaccurately, either. Certainly, Bolshevik ideology developed as a response to the injustices faced by the Russian population at the time. It fought against the poor wages and conditions experienced both by industrial workers and peasants in the countryside. It fought against the grotesque inequality and extravagant lifestyle of the Tsars.

Of course the complexities of the movement are discussed at length by historians. Some of these questions are very fascinating—why, for example, did such a movement not develop earlier? Serfdom existed in mediaeval Russia up to the 19th century. And there were a great many brutal and extravagant Tsars throughout Russian history; indeed many were much worse than the poor Romanovs.

Anyway, let’s not get derailed by all this. What Socialist ideologies and movements all have in common is that they respond to social injustice; to poverty, inequality, and the heartless and selfish leadership of monarchs, Tsars, and the elite.

Where Socialism and Communism differ—aside from the more utopian pretensions of the latter—is in their response to these injustices. The Soviets tried to bring changes more fundamental than simply improving the life of the workers or tackling systemic inequality; they tried to change the nature of economics and human behaviour at a much deeper level.

Because of this, I prefer to think of the early Soviets as more Communist than Socialist. Though, in fairness, the Soviets did not abolish all markets and often operated under quasi-market systems.

Speaking of markets, Socialists, it must be known, are not necessarily command-economists. Indeed, many Communists are not command-economists; ask many a theoretical Commie and they’ll tell you that a real Communist system doesn’t have a state (or other populus mechanism) controlling and commanding resources. These utopian Commies really believe in the structures of human life that predate agrarianism. They dream of tribal structures, where no one has exclusive ownership of goods, and everything is done collectively—including leadership.

Socialists do tend to favour certain elements of command-economies; the NHS, education, and council housing are good examples of such things. But they don’t take it to an extreme: they don’t want to nationalise every pub in England, for instance!

What really distinguishes a Commie from a Socialist is not their penchance for command economies, but their pragmatism. Ultimately the goal of Socialism is to empower the masses and make life better for everyone; anything that achieves this, goes.

But what, then, is Social Democracy?

One rather trivial point of distinction is that Social Democracy is, by definition, democratic. Socialism can still be Socialism if it is implemented by someone at the top (like Lenin). Of course Socialists are usually very keen on democracy, due in part to the history of the Soviet movement and how the elites came to be as bad as the regime they replaced, and also simply because a lot of Socialists—though not all Socialists—like democracy in principle.

There are two more significant differences. The first lies in the means of achieving the stated goal above. Socialists have a strong belief that, while markets may have their place, ultimately it falls to the institutions of the state (be they national, regional or municipal) to implement many of the key foundations underneath a Socialist state.

Social Democrats used to believe the same thing. In fact I’d say that the earlier 20th century Social Democratic movements—such as those in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and other European nations—were Socialists in all but name. Likely this was in order to avoid being confused with the Soviet movement; which, as I’ve said, was a movement that was both more authoritarian and more extreme than were the Social Democratic parties.

But I believe it is fair to say that some Social Democratic parties have morphed since their inception. In particular this occurred after the 1980s, when the neoliberal project was born.

The Social Democratic parties became… more neoliberal. While they never quite adopted it in full, there is little to doubt to my mind that they were influenced by it; partly this was as a result of the intellectual arguments put forward by the neoliberals, but also because—ironically—the economic system that brought prosperity to Europe for 30 years was the very one that allowed the upper and middle classes to become complacent and foolish.

Anyway: one key difference between Socialism and Social Democracy today is that while the former believes the state inevitably needs a strong role in the economy, the latter believes the state need only correct the flaws inherent in capitalism. This seemingly minor distinction can have major repurcessions for policy.

The second difference is that Social Democracy these days places less emphasis on equality, social justice and democratic control of the economy (ironically!) than does Socialism. Both ideologies believe in the prosperity of the many, but Social Democracy really only cares about the poor if they’re suffering. Not so if they are merely getting the short end of the stick.

To conclude this section, let’s take home the following short definitions.

Socialism: an economic system based on the concept of partial ownership of the means of production (by the state or vassals of the state) in order to deliver prosperity for the many; a good standard of living for the worse off; and income equality to the highest degree feasible.

Social Democracy: an economic system based on the idea that capitalism, with specific backing and input from the state, is the ideal. It focuses on prosperity for the many more than it does on prosperity for the worse off (unless the need is truly dire) or for equality.

Economic Axioms

The key distinguishing axioms between the two can be surmised in the following ways.

Modern Social Democratic parties—like Labour under Blair, but more widely in the Greek and Spanish ‘Socialists,’ and to less degree the SD parties of Scandinavia—accept one very neoliberal diktat:

The market will always produce and allocate goods better than the state, unless very specific social or environmental outcomes are required.

(I think neoliberalism has become more extreme than that, but it is the key assumption that began it.)

The justification for this boils down to the following:

  1. Consumers always know what they want better than the state.
  2. Command economies leave no choice.
  3. Command economies fail, as in the Soviet Union, resulting in chaos.
  4. (Free) markets are self-regulating and tend to equilibrium: over the long term supply equals demand, firms compete and consumers are happy.

Debunking these half-truths and factoids would take considerably more words than I’ve at liberty right now. If you are interested in understanding these problems, I would recommend Debunking Economics by Steve Keen as a good resource. Authors like Thomas Picketty, Hajoon Chang and Yanis Varoufakis have also written numerous compelling critiques.

Social Democrats typically make exceptions for the following:

  1. Negative externalities—e.g. pollution and climate change as harmful spillover effects which cannot be internalised in a market pricing mechanism without state intervention.
  2. Social need; the NHS and benefits for the disabled are good examples.
  3. Health and safety, anti-discrimination laws, etc.

It is these economic axioms which led to ‘marketisation’ of schools—such as with PFI schemes, where private companies built schools and now charge the government vast amounts of money for doing so—along with the privatisation of rail, utilities, the post office and many more; it was also what led to speculative finance and the 2007 crash.

A Socialist takes a rather different view. The NHS is not merely a service provided by the state to give poor people healthcare; it is a more efficient institution than any privately-run market, costing half as much as the private alternative—and frequently getting better outcomes to boot.

Markets often fail to deliver on their lofty neoliberal goals. Uncompetitive oligopolies and monopolies do not compete and shaft the customer; monopolies don’t give you choice; firms try to destroyer-price competing firms; and even competitive markets can be erratic, with badly informed consumers making poor choices (especially where branding is involved).

Socialism’s economic axioms are actually very complex; no serious 21st century Socialist applies such simplistic and dogmatic economics as in the case of the above. Rather:

  1. Every industry has its own specific conditions that leave it better suited to private control, public control, or a mix of the two. No system—public, private, or hybrid—will ever be more than the best compromise. Perfection is unattainable.
  2. Markets are products of entwined human desires; these are often irrational and unpredictable.
  3. Market systems are inherently at disequilibrium.
  4. What makes sense for every individual considered separately often doesn’t make sense for individuals taken as a whole.
  5. Everything you produce in a modern post-agrarian world will, in some way, rely on other people. Be it writers being taught how to write by their teachers; moving companies who rely on the roads built and maintained by (state-hired) construction workers; and all of us who rely on a functioning legal system, military, and political structure to live our daily lives. Nothing is strictly yours; you merely hold ownership of certain goods made at an aggregate level.

The above do of course rely on a number of complex arguments, but I’ll briefly detail a few.

Firstly, consider a supermarket. You, according to standard economic models, are to make a rational, informed decision of what basket of goods will give you the greatest possible utility. You have to know exactly how every good in the supermarket will taste, how long it will last, and how it was made; you then have to ‘utility maximise,’ deciding—from thousands of goods and millions of possibilities—exactly which combination is best for you.

But of course, this is patently absurd. In reality consumers make choices on the basis of branding, (limited) personal experience, aesthetics and product placement. And price, of course. The conclusion, then, is not that the market knows best but that the market probably doesn’t know best and is fair game to criticism.

Another interesting example is how personal wealth impacts spending decisions. A rich person may buy ludicrously expensive and frivolous items—and, guess what? Those choices may be perfectly rational considering their personal circumstances.

A poor person may buy low quality goods that break, and ultimately cost more than the somewhat more expensive, but more reliable goods. Why? Because they struggle to afford the upfront cost.

In such a market utility maximising decisions are not made when the aggregate is considered.

As Steve Keen points out in Debunking Economics, economic models assumed that the distribution of income was socially optimal when making predictions. As we can see, though, this assumption is absurd.

Even more worryingly, it seems that markets—under this assumption—would tend against the most optimal allocation of resources, more or less by definition. This is because the purchasing decisions made by consumers changes the distribution of income; the distribution of income changes consumer decisions; and so a vicious cycle is born.

I’m a bit sceptical of this line of argument, but now is not the time to go into it.

Instead I’ll simply say this: Social Democracy and Socialism clearly do have good intentions. They want to make life better for people. The problem, then, boils down to economics.

Which is Better in the Modern World?

I suspect you know what my answer to this is going to be. Socialism—of course. Social Democracy in the 21st century has become no more than ‘welfare capitalism’; a less cruel version of free market Conservative ideology, but ultimately still hobbled by the same bad economics.

I will caution my answer with some caveats. Firstly, some aspects of how markets function are still hotly debated and not well established. Secondly, some Socialists do have a tendency to be overly optimistic with regards to the limitations of Socialism (or indeed any system). Finally, current-day politics is a minefield for Socialist thinking: while numerous people find it agreeable and electable, the economics of the right, and the scapegoating populism of the anti-immigrant parties (I’ll refrain from calling them Conservative or neoliberal parties since they’re more complex that than) can prove to be substantial obstacles.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. 2008 taught us that markets can and do fail catastrophically. It is a lesson we’d do well to heed.

This article was recently corrected; previously, it stated that PFI schemes were about NHS hospitals being run by private companies. This is not in fact correct, as the revised article makes clear. Thanks to Roger Manvell for spotting it.

10 Apr 2016

On Liberalism

Dear readers: since I am busy revising for my exams and working on the Ark, I have decided to bump up some of my older posts. This essay on liberalism would, I suspect, interest a few of my readers.

Previously, I mentioned that I’d be writing on a topic in political philosophy I’d not covered before: Liberalism. As you may now be able to guess, that time has come. But before I get right into things, allow me to share a few pieces of news.

I also previously mentioned that I’d received feedback from an editor on the first chapter of the Ark; I’ve been looking for more editors, and have so far not found an offer that is more affordable or indeed more convincing. I therefore think it likely I’ll begin working with Matrice. Since my home Internet will be be back on Monday, I shall probably make my final decision there.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

What is Liberalism, Anyway?

Like Socialism, and indeed other political philosophies, Liberalism is frequently misunderstood. Partly this is as a result of political parlance—especially in America—and because parties that claim adherence to Liberalism often fail to resemble said ideology. (I’m looking at you, Lib Dems!) But this is also because, like other political philosophies, Liberalism is complex and has multiple schools of thought.

There are really two broad camps we can divide Liberalism into. The first is the so-called classical Liberalism; this is the philosophy developed by philosophers in the Early Modern period, and has some famous proponents—like Locke—though in truth proto-Liberalism existed as far back as Hobbes.

The second camp is the so-called progressive Liberalism; this movement really took off in the 20th century (at the same time as Socialism and the labour movements, ironically) though to me John Stuart Mill, in the 19th century, strikes me as its forefather.

What makes these philosophies Liberal is, as the name implies, the fact that they give a particular importance to the concept of freedom. But freedom, as we’ll see, is a slippery concept—and Liberals want a particular type of freedom.

Liberals should never be mistaken for Libertarians, with which they share a prefix but are otherwise really quite different kettles of fish. Libertarians focus on negative freedom really exclusively to all else. Negative freedom is basically the freedom from something—usually the state. (As an aside, Libertarians also claim freedom from other forms of tyranny, such as from criminals or gangs. This distinguishes it from Anarchism. Though in reality the two are hard to distinguish.)

Liberals are also keen on negative freedom, but they also value positive freedom i.e. the freedom to do something. A good example would be state education; this allows all children, regardless of background or wealth, to have the freedom to receive an education and pursue their goals in life.

Classical Liberals are distinct from Progressive Liberals because the former developed in response to what was seen as tyranny by the state; the latter developed as a response to the injustices of 19th and 20th century capitalism. (That’s why it’s similar, though different, to Socialism.)

It’s not that classical Liberalism doesn’t have a regard for positive freedom as well—it is more a case firstly of focus, but also of means. To the classical Liberals, freedom could be achieved by civil rights and democracy; to the progressive Liberals, achieving their goal required more—it required social democratic policies.

These days most Liberals are progressive; which is good, since classical Liberalism (and it’s unsavoury cousin Libertarianism) is not very convincing. To quote Lenin: ‘Freedom in a capitalist society means the freedom of the slave owner to own slaves.’ (Yes, I couldn’t help myself.)

The Naïveté behind Freedom

Let’s face it: a progressive Liberal and a Socialist aren’t going to be miles apart when it comes to economic policy. What really distinguishes the two ideologies is the whole concept of freedom.

The first problem I see with Liberalism is that it is naive. It assumes that human beings are always perfectly rational, perfectly capable of making mature and informed decisions, and that there are no such things as peer pressure, rampant ignorance, and cultural stigmas.

Allow me to use an example. A popular policy among Liberals (though it seems not hugely important to the Lib Dems) is drug legalisation. Now, drug legalisation is a complicated topic and what I will write here should not be taken as a comprehensive critique; rather, I am merely using it illustrate the point.

Liberals want to legalise drugs like marijuana—regardless of its fairly well documented negative impact on health—because they see people as being able to make their own decision. To quote my Liberal friends: ‘It is their choice if they want to take drugs, not the state’s decision. It doesn’t affect YOU. And you’re being paternalist. PATERNALIST!’

Unfortunately, I am very skeptical of both claims. Firstly, human beings—as I’ve already said—are not perfectly rational. People take drugs for stupid reasons.

For one, they take it because they’re young, and angry with the world, and want to give two fingers up to the establishment. Well, sorry to break it you: but the only person you’re giving two fingers to is yourself. It is your health that suffers. The establishment don’t give two figs—as long as they control the means of production, their quest is fulfilled. And if they catch you, they can send you to prison; and not because they’re afraid of you, but because they can.

Some people take drugs because their friends take drugs. This is obviously not a good way to live your life.

Other people take drugs in the belief that it’ll make them happy, or give them a new experience. And sure: it can make you happy. For a while. But it is the nature of these kinds of drugs—the kind that stimulate the brain to produce endorphins—for their effects to be ephemeral, for them to leave you feeling depressed after their effects have faded, and for them to be addictive.

And if you want to have a new experience, what makes you certain that the naturally addictive nature of the substances won’t have you back for a second, and third, and fourth?

In rare cases, drugs do ruin people’s lives. Drug driving can be lethal. Overdoses have killed many famous and talented young people. Addiction, especially if your personality is already susceptible, can leave you homeless. And in the current economic conditions, that’s not a good place to be in. Ditto those who take drugs in order to escape their circumstances; for drugs will only lead to worse.

Anyway, this is all getting a bit tangential. But it does lead me to a second point: the nature of social relations.

Liberalism and Social Relations

One of the maxims behind Liberal philosophy is ‘You can do what affects yourself, but not what affects other people.’ The trouble with this is that, even if—unlike me—you can accept the right to individual freedom, it is still rarely the case that your actions affect only yourself.

Some examples are obvious and Liberals readily accept. Driving while drunk is a danger not only to your own life, but to others around you. But there are other, more problematic examples. Take smoking. Smoking firstly affects yourself. It can also affect other people; Liberals concede this, which is why we all agree to no smoking in pubs and public spaces. But smoking can also affect the people who love you. If you get lung cancer before you’re forty, you can bet your spouse, parents and friends will suffer too.


One of the complaints leveled by Liberals at other ideologies is that they are paternalist, i.e. they presume to dictate human behaviour in a top-down, or at least peer-based, sort of fashion.

But you know what? That’s life. Humans are social creatures; freedom, in reality, has always been and always will be limited. There’s no point in pursuing what can never be achieved. (Indeed this is the same criticism I level against Communism, but that’s a different debate.)

There’s also a question of the rights of the state to be had here. Deontologist, libertarian-style talking points might centre around humans having ‘rights’ that must not be undermined by the state. There’s plenty that’s wrong with deontology, but Liberals are usually utilitarians anyway. And so I would present a utilitarian argument: if intervention by the state leads to more good than harm, do it. Be pragmatic rather than emotive.

Empirical Arguments of Liberalism

Alternately Liberals may take a different tack to the paternalist line. They say that empirical observation favours giving humans freedom as the best way to achieving utility maximisation.

It’s worth mentioning that Liberals employ this argument specifically in relation to social freedom not economic ‘freedom’ (if they do, they’re not progressive Liberals; they’re free-market Liberals, more akin to the modern Tory party).

Anyway, I personally am dubious of this claim. As I’ve shown, humans are not perfectly rational and they make bad decisions. I struggle to see how the freedom to smoke, for example, can possibly lead to the best consequences.

The Economics of Liberalism

An interesting feature of Progressive Liberalism is that it shares a lot of economic maxims with Socialism. These Liberals are in favour of things like the NHS; free university (unless you’re a Lib Dem, of course); regulation of key industry; and even nationalisation.

My only concern is not so much the economic policies of Liberals—which are usually solid, if a little limited in scope at times—but with the motivation. The aim of economic policy should not be to promote freedom but to lead to sustainable, equitable economic growth that provides the greatest utility. The two are rarely in contradiction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless.

The Dangers of the State

One of the Liberal pet peeves is the power of the government. Although progressive liberals are usually happy with a big state, they’re not so happy with big government. Aside from all the reasons I’ve mentioned, there’s another reason: Liberals are wary of the government. They see the potential for abuse.

This is why they make such a fuss about online surveillance and Internet rights, for example.

And you know what? The state can be abused. It is one of the most powerful forces in human existence; and it has been abused, as history can attest to. The Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, and even the CIA are well known for the evils they committed in the name of the state.

And, worse than that: look at Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot or today’s Assad.

So, yes, it’s wise to watch the state. Nonetheless, I feel that Liberals are often paranoid. Believe it or not, states can enact non-Liberal policies without being tyrannies.

There’s also the pragmatic element to this. In the words of Hobbes, life without government would be poor, brutish, nasty, dirty and short.

The Value of Self-Determination

Reading the above, some of you may be under the impression that I don’t value human self-determination (or ‘freedom,’ a word I very much dislike). But you would be mistaken. It is not that I don’t see value in self-determination; I do. I understand the desire to live one’s own life, to make decisions, to fail or to succeed on one’s own back.

But I don’t believe a political philosophy should make that its raison d’être. There is a great deal more to human existence than freedom—not least of which is happiness, safety from crime and war, and living life as the social creatures we are.

Ultimately, I don’t like Liberalism because it is a simplification and a misrepresentation of human nature. Put simply, there are more important things in life than freedom.

A Few Specific Policy Points

One of the misconceptions that the less politically astute suffer from is the idea that some of the policies that are termed ‘progressive’ (a term I very much dislike...) are also exclusively Liberal. For example: abortion and gay rights.

It is true that any Liberal who doesn’t support gay rights is not a Liberal and that nearly all Liberals are pro-abortion—though the latter rests on some empirical foundations.

But these policies are not in fact specifically Liberal at all. Indeed, the attitude of some Liberals with regards to gay rights disturbs me: Farron has stated that he believes all gay people are sinners but that he still supports gay rights because he’s a Liberal.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t like Liberalism. If people do bad things to themselves, I don’t believe we can excuse them under the auspices of freedom. I am gay, and support gay rights—along with quite a number of other more controversial positions like the legalisation of sex between relatives—because of an empirical and ethical standpoint. Being gay isn’t really that different from being straight; you can still love and be loved, marry, and live a happy life. You can even adopt children.

In short, there is no evidence to show that being gay is somehow a bad thing. You don’t need to be a bleeding-heart Liberal to support gay rights; you just have to recognise the empirical reality and make a sensible and ethical choice to support it.


My conclusion is remarkably simple and short considering the complexity of this topic. Liberalism gets some things right—it recognises the problems inherent to free market systems and it places value in self-determination. But it is also a deeply naive ideology, resting on dubious assumptions about human nature, dubious empirical claims and dubious deontological ‘rights’.

Anyway, that about sums it up. Stick with me for news on the Ark.

6 Apr 2016

April Musings

Hail readers!

I have some good news for you all. First off, we have finally been connected to the Internet; it is through an ADSL2+ cable, which offers around 16Mb/s maximum bandwidth but delivered around 11Mb/s in testing (which is more typical). It doesn’t hold a candle to fibre optic, but it’s faster than my old DSL connection and delivers much more consistent and generally faster speeds than even 4G. (Proof of the old adage that cable is better than wireless, I guess.)

Secondly, the washing machine is delivered; do not underestimate the importance of this.

Thirdly, my quest to find an editor is progressing slowly. It may not surprise you to learn that I have decided to write much of this post on something else entirely—bicycles. Yes; you heard that right.

Cycling in the UK

Recently, I attempted a 4-mile bike journey from my new house to my school. What I found annoyed me greatly, but came as no surprise.

The UK is not a friendly place to cyclists. Despite whatever our politicians may like to say:

“We are moving as fast as we can to get it all done,” Johnson said [in reference to a bike lane opened in London]. “It looks beautiful and … will be a wonderful thing for London, and this is just the beginning of a massive programme.”

He said he hoped his successor would keep the campaign going. “It is very, very important that the momentum does not stall and there is a large number of cycle superhighways still in the pipeline. There is a lot of work still to do but this is an example of the kind of transformation that can take place.

“It is vital if we are going to get people out of their cars, ease congestion and encourage fitness, walking and cycling – the things that we really need to get going.”

Source: the Guardian.

However, even Boris himself admits that there has been ‘a lot of aggro’ from his own senior parliamentary colleagues (who, surprise surprise, like to travel in cars).

Those senior parliamentary colleagues are far from atypical. When I attempted my journey, I found that:

  1. There were no dedicated cycle lanes.
  2. It is illegal to bike on the pavement.
  3. Roads are frequently twisting and narrow.
  4. There are numerous roads linking to motorways; cyclists require detours.
  5. Roundabouts often don’t have pavements, which makes them impassable to pedestrians and dangerous for cyclists.

These combination of factors, while not rendering cycling impossible, do nevertheless render it unviable for the majority of people and somewhat hazardous for those who do cycle. I’m especially worried about children and young teenagers—they shouldn’t be cycling on busy roads.

I will contrast my experience with that of Holland, where I lived for two years and biked to school nearly every day.

The most apparent difference between cycling in the UK and in the Netherlands is that in the latter, nearly all local and rural areas have fietspad i.e. cycling lanes. This is by far the safest and fastest approach to carrying bike, car and pedestrian traffic.


Cycling lanes cost less to build than roads for cars and can be added to many roads with modest expense. Unfortunately, politicians have only seen fit to grace London with any; the rest of the UK has virtually none. It’s true that London gets more of everything—it’s as if the rest of the UK doesn’t exist—but in this case I suspect Boris’ love of bikes plays a factor. It takes a determined bike-lover to get anything done vis-a-vis the cycling situation.

Aside from the apparent contempt of the establishment (and indeed many of the citizenry) for cycling, the laws are also either drafted by halfwits or deliberately designed to make cycling more difficult. (Maybe both.)

For example: why can’t bikes be ridden on the pavement? Ostensibly the argument is that this puts pedestrians in harms’ way, or at least more so than it puts bikers in harms’ way to use the road.

This argument can easily be refuted using simple physics. Energy is what determines the amount of change a body can experience; in our case, kinetic energy is the primary determinant in how likely a collision is to be dangerous.

Kinetic energy according to classical theory (which is very accurate for the speeds involved, which are far below c) is half the product of the mass and the square of the velocity.

Compare the kinetic energy of a moving bike to that of a car. A bike may be moving at around 15 miles per hour—which translates to about 7 metres per second. If a bike and its rider weighs around 100kg (a high estimate) its kinetic energy is 2.5kJ. A typical car, by comparison, might weigh 1500kg with occupants and their luggage; if it is travelling at 40 mph, it will have a kinetic energy of about 243kJ.

That’s almost 100 times greater than the bike.

Momentum can be dangerous too; in a collision, it can send objects flying, and causes whiplash in car accidents. Classical momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Here the difference is again stark: the bike’s momentum is 700Ns, whereas the car has a momentum of 27,000Ns—nearly 40 times greater.

A cyclist is far more likely to get killed by a car than a pedestrian is from a bike.

Empirical and epidemiological studies confirm this as well. 113 cyclists died in 2014 in the UK due to being hit by cars; 21,000 were injured to varying severity. (ROSPA). I can’t find any data on how many pedestrians were killed by bikes. The number is probably in the region of zero.

But Cyclists Annoy Pedestrians!

A surprisingly common argument made for this ‘sensible’ law is that if cyclists cycle on the pavement, this will annoy pedestrians.

There are quite a few problems with this line of argument. The first is that much of the time, the pavements are devoid of pedestrians—particularly in rural areas.

In the scenario of a densely populated urban area, it’s worth pointing out that cyclists will either get in the way of pedestrians or in the way of dense urban traffic. This is not the fault of the cyclists; pedestrians are given pavements, cars are given roads, and cyclists are given... nothing at all. In this kind of situation, the only fair response is to build fietspad.

Why Do We Want to Bike, Anyway?

There are some very serious reasons for promoting cycling over other means of transport (particularly car travel).

The first reason is that the UK, and numerous other countries throughout the world, suffers from an obesity epidemic. That’s not an exaggeration; the statistics are disturbing:

Data on overweight and obesity among adults (defined as people aged 16 and over) are mainly from the Health Survey for England (HSE). Results for 2014 showed that 61.7% of adults were overweight or obese (65.3% of men and 58.1% of women). The prevalence of obesity is similar among men and women, but men are more likely to be overweight.

A substantial proportion of obese adults have a body mass index (BMI) of well over 30. Women are more likely than men to have extremely high BMI values.

In England, the prevalence of obesity among adults rose from 14.9% to 25.6% between 1993 and 2014. The rate of increase has slowed down since 2001, although the trend is still upwards. The prevalence of overweight has remained broadly stable during this period at 36–39%.

(Emphasis mine) Source: NOO

There are many reasons for this debacle, but it is widely accepted that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles (when compared to ages past) is a significant factor. If people cycled regularly to school, to work, for leisure—as they do in Holland—obesity would take a hit.

Aside from your health, cycling has other advantages. Firstly it emits no noise; this is a huge boon to those living in urban areas that suffer from traffic roar, day or night. Secondly, it has an appreciable impact on traffic congestion—which incurs substantial costs to the UK economy in terms of lost time, lost productivity, and numerous externalities.

Thirdly and finally, cycling emits no pollution: be it in the form of nitrous oxides and free radicals like benzene, or in the form of greenhouse gases like CO2.

It seems inarguable to me that the benefits of cycling easily outweigh the modest capital outlay of building cycling lanes.

Some Caveats

Any proposal for mass cycling must however be cautioned with a few caveats.

The first is that cycling is obviously not suitable for many journeys due to an obvious factor—distance. While fitness and the aid of electric bikes may increase range and average speed up to a point, at the end of the day your maximum realistic range in a bike is going to be about 10 miles (assuming bike lanes, good fitness, and maybe a battery).

Secondly, the weather in Northern Europe is often poor. Nobody wants to go cycling in the rain.


All in all, my thesis on cycling in the UK highlights two major problems:

  1. A lack of investment in proper cycling infrastructure;
  2. Certain laws that make it difficult for cyclists, in particular the lack of access to pavements.

If this country is serious about resolving its obesity epidemic, its climate change commitments, and complaints about noise, it ought to seriously commit to building proper infrastructure.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

2 Apr 2016

On Picketty’s Capital: Part One

There is a substantial amount of literature already in existence concerning Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Although it may seem a little superfluous, then, to add my own thoughts, I have two good reasons for going so. The first is that as an A-level economics student, it is beneficial for me to gain a good understanding of the theses presented in Capital; and what better way to do that than by writing on it?

The second is that I have a number of minor observations regarding Picketty’s work, especially in historical terms, which I feel I ought to share.

So, with that, allow me to present my thoughts.

Capital in the 21st Century: A Bold Proclamation

The most obvious thing that immediately strikes me when reading Capital is the sheer scope of the thing. Picketty, unlike many economists, doesn’t bother with narrow micro-analysis of what is, in both historic and economic terms, an insignificant period of time. Picketty’s work spans centuries of data, not decades.

I feel this gives Picketty a perspective very much lacking in the works of other economists. Whereas other economists make bold proclamations on the basis of insufficient data—for example, by heralding a new age of growth following only two decades of postwar economics—Picketty can take a much more long term and nuanced view of economic history.

It’s particularly fascinating to see how the so-called ‘conservative revolution’ of the 80s very much resembles the economic order prevalent throughout the 19th century and into the Great Depression. I therefore find it ironic that Thatcherites claim to be ‘modern’ (and the leftists backward, by implication) when their economic orthodoxy is the very same that dominated the Victorian era all the way up to the Great Depression.

Picketty’s work also sheds light on what we’ve known for some time, but which too many economists still fail to realise: the three postward decades known as the Trente Glorieuse were Europe playing catch-up, hence the high rate of growth. A very similar thing seems to be occurring in China.

Picketty, interestingly, predicts that Europe and America’s currently high share of world output (close to half, for little more than a tenth of the population!) will decline due to two factors: firstly, nations like China and India closing the gap on per capita economic income; and secondly, low demographic growth in Europe and America compared to the rest of the world.

I feel Picketty’s analysis, while not unreasonable, is perhaps a little optimistic. I for one don’t share Picketty’s belief that the rest of the world will catch up to Europe, Japan and America too soon. China’s growth seems to be stalling (though the time period is too brief to be sure) and I suspect political factors will keep Africa and the Middle-East trapped in 3rd world conditions for time to come.

That’s the thing with economics: politics matters. Terrorism and religious fundamentalism, not to mention civil war and regional conflict, will plague the Middle-East for the foreseeable future. I’m not sure how far China can get with its approach to education, workers’ rights and business practices. And Africa’s success in combating corruption and foreign ownership has been mixed.

Speaking of foreign ownership, Picketty does make some strong points. In particular, he debunks the neoclassical theory of international investment:

In theory, the fact that the rich countries own part of the capital of poor countries can have virtuous effects by promoting convergence. If the rich countries are so flush with savings and capital that there is little reason to build new housing or add new machinery (in which case economists say that the “marginal productivity of capital,” that is, the additional output due to adding one new unit of capital “at the margin,” is very low), it can be collectively efficient to invest some part of domestic savings in poorer countries abroad. Thus the wealthy countries—or at any rate the residents of wealthy countries with capital to spare—will obtain a better return on their investment by investing abroad, and the poor countries will increase their productivity and thus close the gap between them and the rich countries. According to classical economic theory, this mechanism, based on the free flow of capital and equalization of the marginal productivity of capital at the global level, should lead to convergence of rich and poor countries and an eventual reduction of inequalities through market forces and competition.

This optimistic theory has two major defects, however. First, from a strictly logical point of view, the equalization mechanism does not guarantee global convergence of per capita income. At best it can give rise to convergence of per capita output, provided we assume perfect capital mobility and, even more important, total equality of skill levels and human capital across countries—no small assumption. In any case, the possible convergence of output per head does not imply convergence of income per head. After the wealthy countries have invested in their poorer neighbors, they may continue to own them indefinitely, and indeed their share of ownership may grow to massive proportions, so that the per capita national income of the wealthy countries remains permanently greater than that of the poorer countries, which must continue to pay to foreigners a substantial share of what their citizens produce (as African countries have done for decades). In order to determine how likely such a situation is to arise, we must compare the rate of return on capital that the poor countries must pay to the rich to the growth rates of rich and poor economies.

On top of that, he also provides an empirical argument:

Furthermore, if we look at the historical record, it does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergence of rich and poor nations. None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth. Conversely, countries owned by other countries, whether in the colonial period or in Africa today, have been less successful, most notably because they have tended to specialize in areas without much prospect of future development and because they have been subject to chronic political instability.

On Points of History

Since Picketty’s work draws from data as early as 1700, and even as far back as year zero, historical knowledge and accuracy is obviously relevant to his analysis.

Picketty draws a surprising amount of data from literary sources. Jane Austen and Balzac feature in particular. I find these literary sources absolutely fascinating: it reveals a world where money was not only near constant and inflation minuscule, but also in which inequality is well known and quantified.

For example: Picketty mentions that in Jane Austen’s works, a person was only considered wealthy if he or she were able to afford a house, a minimum number of servants (especially maids) and were able to buy proper clothing and arrange suitable transport. To do that, by Jane Austen’s approximation, one needed around the order of 900 pounds a year.

The average worker wage at that time was 30 pounds a year.

What’s especially fascinating to me is not only how well known and extreme the level of inequality was, but how it compares to the 21st century. These days, you don’t need to earn on the order of 3/4 of a million pounds a year in order to afford a nice house, car and clothes; or indeed a vacuum cleaner.

But why is this? Evidently, clothing and domestic chores have become cheaper owing to mass production and the invention of washing machines.

But inequality—is it really that different from the Victorian era? There are people earning a good deal more than £750,000 a year in the world.

Anyway, this is a topic I suspect Picketty will address in later chapters.

I did find a historical point to quibble. Picketty claims Americans have a more benign view of capitalism than do Europeans because the former have always had private property rights—the US government at one time had high rates of marginal taxation and public investment programmes, but it never had the kind of sweeping nationalisation that Britain and France did following the war.

After all, in America the state did not own half of the people’s homes (as it did in Scotland for some time), it did not own car companies like Renault, it did not own banks, it did not own telecom, rail or airlines companies.

But I think Picketty is ignorant of American and European history here. America has always had the Free Man (TM) complex: as Picketty himself mentions, Jefferson had that idea of a nation of free landowners living in equality. These free landowners owned their own land, their own houses, and could live largely indepedently from the government.

We Europeans, on the other hand, see capitalism as something deeply Victorian in nature. We see the work houses of the poor; the vagabonds looking for work, persecuted by the authorities; child workers; and factories with 60 hour weeks, abysmal working conditions, and squalor. The European view of capitalism is Dickensian, not Libertarian.

America’s capitalist fantasy (and it is a fantasy, make no mistake) came about because of a transient state. America, when founded, was a vast territory that experienced high population growth, both internally and from immigration. As Picketty himself makes clear, the abundance of land and the high demographic growth were strong convergence forces that kept inequality under control.

But while the American Dream may have been plausible in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was bound to run into the realities of capitalism sooner or later. America’s useful land wasn’t infinite. Massive population growth (from 3 million in the 1770s to 300 million today) and massive CO2 pollution—America has one of the largest per capita CO2 emissions in the world, at 17 tonnes per year—cannot be sustained indefinitely by the planet. There are no more Indians left from which to steal land and gold. (See: Oklahoma Land Race, and the Black Mountains of Dakota.) The days of slavery are over.

Picketty himself covers some of this quite well. He has extensive data on how much capital slaves constituted in the Southern states, for example—up to 300% of national income, which is a considerable figure.

But he hasn’t yet put these points together.

My Early Conclusion

So far Picketty’s Capital has proven illuminating, intriguing and relevant to the modern world. I feel much of his analysis is spot on, in part because of the vast amounts of historical data he’s amassed—but also because of his ability to clearly and logically formulate arguments and see problems in other arguments. His points regarding neoclassical international trade theory are especially adroit, but his ability to draw on literary sources as a way of enriching our understanding of economic history is also impressive.

That said, there are a few minor flaws. The first is that thus far, he’s made a few assertions which he hasn’t really backed up a posteriori or indeed a priori. For example: he claims that inequality has forces of divergence and forces of convergence. The most important example of the latter he claims to be the ‘diffusion of knowledge and skills’. Unfortunately, that seems a bit vague to me, and he hasn’t elucidated on what he means either through empirical case studies or with thought experiments.

I suspect he may detail this later on, though, so I’ll refrain from giving firm conclusions at this point in time.

Anyway, those are my thoughts so far. If you found this interesting, keep following: I’ll be writing more as I progress.

1 Apr 2016

Mr Stargazer is Back

Hail readers!

It has been a long while since I last wrote here on the Magical Realm. Don’t blame me; blame the rather less than competent engineers of BT. They were supposed to connect us to the Internet on Monday—last Monday. They then said they didn’t have a map of the exchange nodes next to our house (why didn’t they bring that when they came to connect us?) and that they would be installing it on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and went. Then they told us by Friday; that came and went. They told us they’d connect us by Wednesday this week; they didn’t. I have been forced to publish this through the university’s Internet. Suffice to say, I am far from pleased.

But really, I shouldn’t be surprised. BT have shown themselves to be less than competent before. And it’s not like we have a choice: in our area, a God-forsaken town in the Midlands, all of the phone and Internet infrastructure is owned by BT.

The situation is similar in many other parts of the country—in urban centres like Manchester or London Virgin Media has fibre optic, but much of our telecommunications still passes through BT via DSL.

Anyway, rant aside, this is an almost textbook example of market failure via monopoly. Because BT owns all of the phone and Internet infrastructure in the area, they have a local monopoly; and so they are not obliged to compete in order to improve the infrastrucure (which is still DSL and still limited to a paltry 8Mb/s in some places). Nor, it seems, to provide good service.

Our ISP is actually Sky, but they still have to use BT’s phone line and thus be hobbled by their incompetence.

There are a few potential solutions. One would be for other companies to set up their own phone lines, perhaps with public investment and other incentives from the government. The problem with this approach is obvious: telecom infrastructure isn’t cheap, and the money would have to be stumped up by the taxpayer.

A different solution is to return to what we had previously: British Telecom, i.e. have BT nationalised. Firms would still be able to piggyback on the national infrastructure (thus allowing some competition without having to replicate the same expensive infrastructure multiple times) and hopefully with some sort of democratic oversight, BT might actually serve the interests of the people.

Anyway, enough of that. You’ve probably been expecting news of my efforts in reaching an editor, so here goes.

On Editing

Due to my lack of Internet access, I have not been able to contact more editors on Reedsy. However, my phone did have access to Internet—albeit to only 2G (!) despite the fact that it’s 2016 and I live in the middle of a town. Anyway, I was able to receive an email from Elliott—the company’s founder—who drew my attention towards 5 editors he deemed open and suitable.

Thus I have now filed a new request, and hope to be getting some more quotes very soon. Once I have, I hope work can begin and my time won’t be wasted on the incompetence of others…

Beta Reading

I have also decided on sending the latest draft of the Ark, with part two complete (did I mention?) onto a person who did a beta read for the first part; that is, Margaux Espinosa, who also reviewed the Necromancer some while back.

In addition to her, I have not heard back from my secret beta reader, so they’ll be getting an update. And, I shall look for more beta readers wherever I may find them; Goodreads has proven useful in the past.

The Necromancer

Incidentally, a lady has offered to review the Necromancer (remember that?) and will hopefully post a review sometime in the not too distant future. I must say I’m curious to see what she’ll say. Oh, and thanks to the Goodreads group for helping me find her.

The Magical Realm over the Spring

With my A level exams coming up in May, I am obviously somewhat pre-occupied with revision—I’ve done a little this past week, but not much owing to my continued irritation with BT—and with work on the Ark. You can understand why theMagical Realm will be on the back-burner so to speak.

Nonetheless, I will be keeping you all updated. I can do that much.

Finishing Off

I have covered a fair amount of topics in this update, so just to recap: I have not had Internet until now and will be occupied with various tasks for the remainder of the week, in addition to my revision; I am still waiting for a washing machine to arrive (…); and I have contacted more editors regarding the Ark, as well as a beta reader.

On top of all that, I have been busy getting used to our new house. We’ve installed a number of curtains and net blinds inside. Most of the furniture is set-up, along with the TV; but my Internet, washing machine, and a few pieces of small furniture have not.

I’ve also been busy changing address with the bank and other institutions.

So, that’s most of what I’ve been doing.

On a final note, I have continued reading Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and have now read a fifth of it. (Considering that the work spans 1000 pages and is full of graphs and maths, that’s no mean feat, believe me.) I have decided to write my thoughts as I go along. These I will publish on Goodreads, and here on the Magical Realm.

And why, you might ask? Because Picketty’s work is fascinating and relevant to our modern age. Also, it will help me with my economics. ;)

With all that out of the way, stick with me. As you can see, a lot is going on…