2020xii31, Thursday: Some things don’t add up.

Counting things is important. But not everything that matters can be counted…

Short thought: Back to the Brexit deal, and what is – I admit – probably a wholly specious comparison.

I’ve been puzzled for months, if not years, by the narrow focus among Brexiteers on zeroing out tariffs, and the complete lack of attention to the far greater, and far harder, problem of non-tariff barriers. It’s as though we were marooned in mercantilist times, decades or even centuries ago. I’m no expert on international trade or the law underpinning it, but even I recognise that tariffs are, frankly, the easy bit (indeed, the bit that was solved with the customs union we entered when we joined the EEC, and the common market, 47 years ago). It could be simply that any non-tariff agreement involves giving up some mythical sovereignty (defined, it seems, by the standards of an unusually grabby two-year-old or an elderly orange-faced narcissist: “No-one gets to tell me what to do, and I don’t have to bear the consequences of my decisions”). It could be that many of them, including sadly our leaders, simply don’t understand – although I doubt that. I don’t know – although I know we’ll all be paying for it.

Now for the specious comparison. Tariffs are easy to count and thus to shout about; non-tariff barriers are by their very nature more nebulous and qualitative. Similarly, in competition, we’ve been dealing for years with the fall-out from the narrow US anti-trust focus on consumer prices (measurable) while ignoring the less measurable questions of monopsony-driven market dominance. I’m not saying there’s a connection, of course. Nor am I saying there’s anything genuinely comparable. But I do find it interesting that in both cases looking at stuff that’s easy to count, to the exclusion of other stuff that in the long run probably matters more, has led to significantly harmful outcomes.

Anyone reading this who’s had experience of KPIs or KRIs (whether in terms of personal or institutional performance) can probably think of examples where “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter”, applied thoughtlessly or reductively, has gone horribly, horribly wrong. I know I can. Let me know your thoughts.

Someone is right in the internet: Well. Two someones. First Bruce Schneier, who combines smarts and thoughtfulness like few others on security matters, with the best take on the Solar Winds fiasco that I’ve seen, noting that this should – but tragically won’t – put the final nail in the foolish argument for software backdoors. Second an old friend, Sean Maher, who’s looking at it in the context of government capacity and the decades-long ideological assault on it in the US/UK. Sean’s focus is on the investment implications – but his points are of much broader relevance.

Things I wrote: A while ago, I wobbled. In fact, like so many others in this hellswamp of a year, for a few hours or a day I broke. So many people I know and respect, and several hearts of gold that I didn’t, chipped in with support or shared burdens. So I wrote a follow-up.

(Don’t forget – if visiting a site doesn’t float your boat, you can get this stuff in your inbox. Subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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