The global economy graphed

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The map above divides up global GDP between countries and how those national economies break down by sector.

My main observation are that:

  1. Wow, the American segment of that graph is big!
  2. While Asia may be rising but it has not yet risen. A similar observation can be made about Europe’s decline. Medium sized European countries like France, Britain and Italy still make up a sizeable share of the World Economy. Germany’s economy is almost twice the size of India’s. Indonesia has a population fifteen times larger than the Netherlands but their economies are about the same size. Hence, while things like the Eurozone crisis might seem like purely regional affairs they matter for the World as whole.
  3. There are 54 countries in Africa. Not one of them has an economy larger than Austria. Indeed, the entirety of Africa’s economy can be found in the small South African section and in the modest ‘rest of the world’ one.

Hat tip: Vox

Voters know full well that Labour and the Tories have very different policies

At the last General Election, the IFS calculated that the difference in public spending implied by Labour and Conservative economic plans was £40 billion. That’s about the size of the entire economy of Croatia.

Despite this it’s not unusual to hear the view expressed that there just aren’t that many differences between Labour and the Tories anymore. In an interesting article by Adam Ludlow, a pollster for ComRes, a Corbyn supporter is quoted saying:

“When I go out canvassing, people don’t say “you’re too left wing in the Labour Party”, they say “you’re all the same as each other!”’

The problem as Ludlow details is that more systematic evidence just doesn’t bear out such anecdotes:

…when it comes to the last election, the public was well-aware of the differences on offer – and chose to reject Labour.

The chart below shows that prior to the election, the vast majority of voters thought that Labour and the Conservatives were different in their visions for the future of the country, their attitude to the economy and their attitude towards government spending. Contrary to what some might say, the public did not think that the choice on offer was just different shades of austerity. Labour did not lose because they didn’t offer a big enough alternative to the Conservatives on the big issues.

If anything, this graph shows some of the reasons why the Tories won: the NHS was meant to be Labour’s core area of strength, but fewer voters thought the two parties were different in this area than in others.

Indeed, the key to marketing strategy is to be similar to your competitors on their areas of strength and different to them on your own areas of strength. Lower-end brands emphasise their similarities to their better-known counterparts in terms of quality while simultaneously highlighting their differences when it comes to price. Better-known brands try to turn this on its head, using the existence of replicas to draw attention to differences in quality (being “the real McCoy” or “Just like a Golf”).

The story of the 2015 election can, in part, be told by the way the Conservatives reduced the difference to Labour on the NHS while maximising the difference between the parties on the economy.

I suspect that the fact that Corbyn supporters so often return to this trope is an indicator that they are rather politically cossetted. It is quite possible if you live in the right (or should that be left) part of the country, do the right kind of job and have the right kind of friends to only really meet people who wish Labour was more left-wing. But people who live such lives should not mistake their social circle for the country as a whole.

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Spy games

Two films based on classic sixties TV spy shows are in cinemas at the moment. I loved both of them but for very different reasons.

The latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise has been out for a while now. Both its box office takings and reviews have been impressive. I’m certainly not going to dissent from this chorus of approval: I had a riot watching it. All of these points have featured in pretty much every review and I agree with all of them:

  • It’s fun;
  • The action sequences look cool;
  • Rebecca Ferguson steals the show; and
  • The stunts are impressive. All the more so because Cruise does them himself.

In addition to that there were a fair number of smaller detail that made me smile:

  • It understands that villains and people who are potentially villainous have English accents;
  • Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander reprise their partnership from Rev only this time Hollander is PM, so it’s McBurney who has to grovel and scrape;
  • The trailers largely avoided showing anything from the film’s final act. That’s a nice change from promotional campaigns like the ones for Terminator: Genysis and Age of Ultron that revealed way too much; and
  • That the opening credits cleverly pastiched the iconic title sequence of the TV series.

Indeed, such is the dependability of the franchise that it shows that a frequently criticised aspect of blockbuster films can in the right hands become one of their strengths. The Mission: Impossible films are undoubtedly filmmaking as a business but done by businessmen whose approach to making money is to find something people want, advertise that that’s what they are offering and then deliver it in great quantity and at high quantity. In this case that’s watching Tom Cruise doing steadily more ridiculous things in order to save the world whilst Simon Pegg, Ving Rhaimes and Jeremy Renner provide comedic commentary. If those businessmen could go on delivering it for a while longer I would appreciate it.

Similarly, one can without great difficult understand the commercial reasoning that lead to the Man from UNCLE. Warner Bros presumably looked at the $2Bn and counting Paramount have taken from the Mission: Impossible films and thought ‘are there any other 60s TV shows about spies we can remake’. Indeed, it even appears that at one point Tom Cruise had been cast as Napoleon Solo.*

The “we want something <insert name of currently profitable property>” school of commissioning generally does not produce great results. It’s generally cynical and allows films that have no business being made to get greenlit because they feature vampires, teens in a dystopian future or whatever is considered to be ‘in’ at that moment. It also results in a fair amount of herding.

Fortunately, the Man from Uncle isn’t like this. Far from being a clone of Mission: Impossible it strikes out in a quite distinctive direction. Techno mumbo jumbo is replaced by masses of retro charm. It positively luxuriates in its sixties setting making full use of the style, music and historical context that allows. And while the M:I films are now essentially big action set pieces held together a thin cartilage of plot, the Man from Uncle is all about the characters. Indeed at one point rather than watching one of the leads engage in a death defying speed boat chase, we watch the other lead watch the action. The scene that follows lasts only about a minute and has no dialogue yet we get to see a central character (amusingly) realise that he doesn’t see the world the way he thought he did. It’s a fitting microcosm for the film as a whole. It has a genuine sweetness and elicits real warmth for its characters. It does action well but uses it for a purpose rather as an end in itself. And it generally avoids doing what you expect. Nothing in the way Guy Ritchie directs the film is revolutionary but he nonetheless avoids it ever feeling derivative; he always appears to be doing his own thing rather than copying anyone else.

Summary: both films are solid 8/10s. Despite their similar conceits they take very different approaches to delivering popcorn entertainment yet both succeed admirably.

*That was probably a bullet dodged.

India is about to replace China as the world’s largest country

The UN has revised its estimates and now thinks will India will have a larger population than China within a decade. That changes more or less everything.

It’s a commonplace observation that we are moving into an Asian century. Indeed it’s rather trite. But that’s not the same as a Chinese century.

The Middle Kingdom will in the not too distant future become the world’s largest economy but before it does it will cease to have the world’s largest population. That demographic crown will pass to India. In the absence of a one child policy it’s birthrate is significantly higher than China’s: the average Indian women has one more child than her Chinese counterpart.

The UN has recently updated its projections and now believes the two countries will switch position as soon as 2022. And what’s more the gap is likely to continue widening. Indeed, it seems likely that for much of the century there will be 3 Indians for every 2 Chinese.

Anyone assuming that we are heading into an era of Chinese hegemony or of China and America carving up the world between them may be in for a surprise. We might soon be looking at a world where India has the largest population, China the largest economy and America the most powerful military. That potentially makes for messy geopolitics reminiscent of the run up to World War I. As that comparison suggests such complexity is dangerous with a rapidly shifting balance of power allowing nations to kid themselves that conflict is in their interests.

India’s rise may also require us to change how we think about democracy. Not for nothing is the American president unofficially known as ‘the leader of the free world’; since at least 1945 the success of America politically, economically and culturally has been the barometer of democracy’s success. But as Asia becomes more central to our perceptions of the world as a whole and India rises demographically and economically it rather than US may become the paradigm example of democracy. It is (somewhat simplistically) argued that America one the Cold War because people behind the Iron Curtain wanted Levi’s rather than Ladas. Soon people in autocracies may judge whether they want to change their political system by comparing what Indians have with what the Chinese do.

Source: the Economist

Less is more

I find some films almost impossible to review. Some like Mad Max: Fury Road are so overwhelming that they’re hard to process. Others don’t seem worth bothering with; I managed to write a paragraph on Jurrasic World as part of a post about velocirapotors.

By contrast, the review of Ant Man basically writes itself. I complained that its predecessor in Marvel canon, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was overblown and unable to contain all the characters, subplots and mythology jammed into it. Ant Man, a film about someone whose superpower, is shrinking himself avoids this problem.

Writing that seems trite but coming a few months after the overstuffed Age of Ultron it’s very welcome. Rather than a globe spanning adventure containing every character Marvel can get the IP for, its cast of characters is basically composed of two (broadly defined) families. That allows it to savour its most appealing elements while staying reasonably compact. Its run time is less than two hours rather than closer to three – a difference my bum and bladder both appreciated – yet of the two films it feels by far the less rushed. And in such a compact story the conflagration of the different elements feels natural rather than contrived for the sake of epicness. Ant Man thus delivers more entertainment with less endurance than Age of Ultron.

That this film has been a modest success is a substantial triumph. Not only was there a real risk the core concept would appear ridiculous but the path from that concept to the screen was rather fraught. It was initially supposed to be directed by Edgar Wright, who’d previously made cult classics like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. However, he walked out in protest at the changes Marvel demanded to the script he had written with long time collaborator Joe Cornish.

Fortunately for people who like Wright’s work – and there really should be no other kind of person – Ant Man still feels a lot like one of his films. His trademarks, like action synced to music, are all there. Strikingly the most Wrightesque scene, in which someone delivers a ridiculous piece of exposition accompanied by fast cuts that might as well end ‘and go to the Winchester and wait for it all to blow over’, was apparently added after Wright’s departure from the project. That suggests he style remained an influence on the new creative team. And if, as I suspect, the climactic battle aboard a toy train set was Wright’s invention then it will rival the killing zombies with records sequence in Shaun of the Dead as his most entertaining set piece.

This is not to say it’s perfect. The plot moves along grooves which are sufficiently well worn that one can tell what will happen at least ten minutes before it does. And while the gang of goofy ethnically stereotyped petty criminals undeniably provide some of the funniest moments of the film, it’s still not great that there’s a gang of goofy ethnically stereotyped criminals.

Despite this Ant Man is massive fun and an unmistakable victory for Marvel. Nonetheless, it is potentially a bad indicator for the studio’s future films. If smaller is better, then colossal projects like Civil War and the Infinity War are likely to underwhelm.

Summary: 8/10 – just the right amount of a good thing.