Sep 28, 2015

Lord of the Rings LCG: Over the hills and far away

One of the reasons I was so excited to play the Lord of the Rings living card game was how nicely it dovetailed with my Tolkien-reading project. Since I'm currently working my way through the Hobbit, the most natural choice for our first big purchase was obviously the first Hobbit saga expansion. For those of you not familiar with the structure of the game, the Lord of the Rings LCG is made up of cycles of individual adventure packs: the first six can be played with the Core Set, and the subsequent cycles all start with a larger deluxe expansion. In addition to these, there are the saga expansions, which run through the stories of Tolkien's books: there are two saga expansions for the Hobbit, and four Lord of the Rings expansions are out as of this writing. Each comes with several heroes, a pile of player cards, and three quests.

The first Hobbit expansion is called Over Hill and Under Hill, and the appropriate title of its starting quest is We Must Away, Ere Break of Day. You get Bilbo as a fourth hero, and off you go. It's quite an experience the first time around. The initial quest stage is easy: a little bit of light pottering about in the Wilderlands, at worst being harassed by a crow. Unsuspecting, we moved on to the second phase, and boom: Roast Mutton. Suddenly there are three trolls, and they will just straight up murder you. As I insist in not spoiling quests before I play them, we literally had no idea that we would have to take on the trolls the instant we hit the second quest phase. I was playing two-handed with my brother and his Beorn-inspired Leadership/Lore deck (Aragorn, Theodred, Denethor), and the trolls destroyed us completely.

There are two ways to deal with the trolls: either killing them or questing enough to get past them. Seeing as how my deck really isn't built for combat, I figured I should be going for the questing, but it just wasn't working out: I would be overwhelmed by the second stage every time. Either several trolls would come at me, or so much threat built up in the staging area that I couldn't get any questing progress - meaning the trolls came at me and I got murdered. To add to the misery, every time a troll engages you, you have to draw a card from the frankly awful Sack deck, which basically disables one of your heroes every time. I think I tried half a dozen times before deciding to give up and sleep on it.


The next day, I had it figured out. It was pretty obvious that in order to survive the second stage, I was going to need two things: a low enough threat to keep two of the trolls in the staging area, and enough questing allies to make progress while they were there. It could be done - barely. My strategy would be to take the first quest phase as slow as possible while getting my allies into play, and making use of Eleanor's treachery-canceling ability to avoid Roast 'Em or Boil 'Em?, which would just destroy everything. I would hope to use Galadhrim's Greeting to keep my threat low while I built up my forces; since I'm only playing with a single core set, I only have two copies, but with Dwarven Tomb and Will of the West, I can potentially play it six times, theoretically reducing my threat by 36! Not to mention Gandalf. (side note: every damn time I see Will of the West this starts playing in my head)

I got off to a strong start with Mirkwood Runner, Protector of Lórien and West Road Traveller in my opening hand; the first two would deal with the troll, while the last would start up my horde of questing allies. I also lucked out by drawing the irreplacable Henamarth Riversong early, letting me know exactly what the encounter deck was going to throw at me. So I hung out at the first quest stage, using Henamarth to get pretty much exactly the right amount of questing in to keep the staging area manageable but not progress to the second stage yet, and using Eleanor's ability to avoid the horrible ally-destroying treachery. I built up an army of allies that would provide me with enough questing to get through the second phase, and got a copy of Troll Camp in the staging area, which lets Bilbo deal with the Sacks. I managed to draw both copies of Galadhrim's Greeting; at one point I reduced my threat to 18 - low enough to qualify for Secrecy!

So on we go to stage 2 of the quest, i.e. bring on the trolls! My threat was low enough that only Bert engaged us, and I'd managed to hang around long enough to attach both Troll Key and Purse to him. The trick to this quest is that it isn't enough to just beat it: you also want to get your hands on the treasure cards, whuch you can then carry over into the next quests with you! For that, you need to explore Troll Cave, and you can only do that with Troll Key. Seeing how well I was doing, I obviously wanted to get this done as well.

Everything started decently: I quested enough to get some progress in, Bilbo took care of the Sack, and Eleanor held off Bert with Protector of Lórien, while my Mirkwood Runner started whittling away his hit points. Next turn, we managed to grab the Troll Key off him. Then, disaster: Wind-Whipped Rain wiped out my attachments. I couldn't counter it with Eleanor's ability, because if it was replaced with Roast 'Em or Boil 'Em, I'd be toast. Next, More Like a Grocer wiped out Bilbo's resources, meaning I not only had to deal with Bert's 5 attack without the benefit of Protector of Lórien, I had to kill him and wait around for a bit before I could travel to Troll Cave.

In the end, we did it! Several of my allies tragically gave their lives chump blocking Bert, but I managed to defeat him, travel to Troll Cave and finish the quest, treasures in hand. I'm very happy about this, because it's really the first time I've taken on a quest solo with a plan, and seen that plan more or less work out. And this isn't an easy quest, especially if you want the treasure cards.


The next quest takes us over and under the Misty Mountains, with both storm giants and goblins galore. It's actually very similar in structure to the first one, with an initial hanging-out-and-gathering-allies phase, followed by a fight with the Great Goblin and his horde - thematic, but not a great quest. I beat it on my second attempt, with Gandalf making an appropriate entrance just as the orcs rushed us. Beravor, unreasonably dual-wielding Glamdring and Orcrist like a Dúnadan Drizzt Do'Urden, dealt with the Great Goblin, and we made our getaway.

To be honest, I wasn't crazy about the second quest; it felt a bit rushed, and the two separate encounter decks really just feel like a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn two quests into one. Also, the mechanic of a sort of preliminary stage where you build up in order to face the next phase is exactly the same as in the previous quest. The third quest, Dungeons Deep and Caverns Grim, splits your party into two: Bilbo is cordoned off into a special "riddle area" with Gollum, while everyone else keeps on questing through caves and goblins. I tried it once, and to be honest, I hate it. The riddle mechanic is awful, and the more conventional side of the quest is very similar to the previous one. It's also really hard and requires extensive deck customization, neither of which I associate with fun.

Coming to this expansion straight after the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, many of the quest mechanics feel a bit fiddly and unsatisfying. Having seen Over Hill and Under Hill recommended quite strongly, I was maybe expecting more. Mind you, I'd still buy this just for the first quest and the player cards! But don't expect too much from the two other quests.


While solo play is all well and good, where the game really comes into its own is, for me, multiplayer; it was obviously high time to try the Hobbit quests four-handed. Our lineup was, again, my Amazons, Team Boromir (monosphere Tactics with Eagles), a Leadership/Lore deck and a Leadership dwarf deck. Having learned from our initial crushing defeat and my solo experiences, we figured we'd take it nice and easy, build up our forces, and take on the trolls when we were good and ready. Or at least that was the plan. What actually happened was that we drew three treacheries in our first staging phase, so boom: trolls. Some of us had threat scores high enough that two of the trolls engaged us, so out came the sacks and off we went.

It was a complete disaster, but we did our best with it. Appropriately enough, the dwarf deck started laying into Tom at once, while the Tactics guys did their best to hold off Bert, leaving the rest of us to quest. My latest addition, Arwen, was worth her weight in gold with her special defence-boosting ability, and when things started looking a bit grim, I found that Arwen makes a wonderful combo with another card I'd only just added to my deck: Gandalf!

My solo attempts at this quest had finally convinced me that I needed Mithrandir Stormcrow's help, but since we're running three separate decks from a single core set, I only have one copy. I'd been a bit dubious about the Over Hill and Under Hill version, but since he was all I had, I added two copies to my deck. As it turns out, a wizard who quests at four willpower and can then defend with a strength of 5 and sentinel from Arwen's bonus is actually quite brilliant! I kept him around, too, even with the additional threat; the way things were going, my threat was the least of our worries. With Gandalf helping out on defense, we just barely managed to keep the trolls at bay until we quested through the encounter deck and the sun came up to save us. No treasure, alas, but a hell of a ride. We'll have to try it again and see if we can't score some magical swords.


Here's the state of my deck at the conclusion of our Hobbit adventures:

The Amazons

52 cards: 27 Spirit, 21 Lore, 4 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 8 attachments, 16 events


Allies: (25, 13/9/3)
Elfhelm x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel x2
Escort from Edoras x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker x2
West Road Traveller x3
Haldir of Lórien
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 8 (1/6/1)
Unexpected Courage
Forest Snare x2
A Burning Brand x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom

Events: 16 (11/5)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Will of the West
Elrond's Counsel x3
Lore of Imladris x2
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2

Like I mentioned before, my solo attempts at the Hobbit quests finally convinced me that my deck needs more Gandalf in it, so I went for his Hobbit-era incarnation - which actually turned out brilliantly! To make space for the Grey Pilgrim, I dropped my Lórien Guides. At a cost of three each, I always seemed to have something better to spend those Spirit resources on. When I got my hands on the Watcher in the Water adventure pack, I also had no compunctions getting rid of both copies of Favor of the Lady for Arwen: not only is she an excellent questing addition, but her defense-boosting ability will make my life that much easier - and above all, since the theme of my deck is Amazons, how could I not include her? Also, since she's a unique Noldor character, hello Elrond's Counsel. Threat management is pretty vital to my deck when playing solo. I never did get to use Astonishing Speed, as it is a bit expensive, and while Ancient Mathom is nice, I'm already doing okay for card draw, so I swapped them for three copies of Elrond's Counsel.

The last additions to the deck come courtesy of Conflict at the Carrock: the ever-necessary A Burning Brand, and a copy of Song of Wisdom so I can get one on Eleanor. (side note: every damn time I see A Burning Brand this starts playing in my head) I ditched Strider's Path to make room for it, and decided to try going with 52 cards from here on. We'll see how it goes! I'm looking forward to trying A Journey Along the Anduin solo with my new additions, and next time, we're taking on the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs. Also, I can't wait for the Grey Havens expansion!

Sep 21, 2015

Simpkin's iceberg

Something quite surprising happened yesterday: a British general, speaking anonymously, said that the army would mutiny rather than serve under Jeremy Corbyn.

The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.

This is astounding: a serving officer threatening a military coup in a Western democracy. Or is it?


Brigadier Richard Simpkin has, through his magnum opus Race to the Swift, been a considerable influence on my thinking. I re-read it as I was working on my thesis, and one particular section struck me again, as it's done in the past. In chapter 15, The Supple Chain, Simpkin is discussing the choice between a professional and a conscript army. He takes rather a rosy view of conscription, but the interesting bit is when he moves on to talk about professional armies.

By contrast I have lost count of the number of United Nations members ruled by their military or by governments placed and kept in power by the armed forces. We now know that practically anything can 'happen here', whether here in Britain, the Federal Republic, France, the Netherlands or the United States. So let us for the moemtn [sic] focus on the political threat implicit in the existence of long-service standing forces.

One saw first the danger in Britain in the sixties, with the ending of conscription and the butchery of the reserve forces. Even where strong local links exist, the standing forces, notably the Regular Army, have become divorced from society as a whole. This is perhaps no more than an accentuation of a trend which has been evident in England since the days of Cromwell, and was one of our earlier and more enduring exports to the United States. Over the past 25 years, however, the tip of an exceptionally ugly and menacing iceberg has manifested itself more than once in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Prudence dictates gobbledygook here. Se let us content ourselves with "extra-parliamentary activity of a paramilitary nature", and let who runs read.
- Race to the Swift, Brassey's 2000 reprint, pp. 250-251.

The very last bit is a biblical reference. From the context, it seems clear that Simpkin is talking about the threat of the professional armed forces interfering in the political process. Unfortunately he then leaves it at that and moves on to his next point. Prudent, no doubt, especially from a general officer, but I can't help being fascinated by this passage. I've tried to find some exegesis or commentary of this and have failed, so it's time to crush prudence to the sward and try to decipher this on my own.

The reference to Germany, I think, must be to his belief that Willy Brandt was framed (Race to the Swift, p. 285). It's absolutely fascinating that Simpkin, who was fluent in German and had ties to the Bundeswehr, seems to have thought that the German armed forces were involved in ousting Brandt. If the reference is to something else, then I have no idea what it might be. A 25-year time frame from the 1984 publication of Race to the Swift strongly suggests that the French reference is to the Algiers putsch, which must anyhow be the first instance that comes to anyone's mind on the subject. A conventional interpretation of the American reference would be General Walker and the John Birch Society, which would fit the timeframe. So, of course, does the Kennedy assassination.

But when a British general officer mentions "extra-parliamentary activity of a paramilitary nature" in the UK, this has to be the focus of interest. Again, an obvious reference is to the Troubles, specifically the collusion between the British Army and Ulster "loyalists". But is that what he means? As nasty as the secret war in Ireland undoubtedly was, is Simpkin really comparing it to the Algiers putsch? My interpretation is that what he's referring to is the coup plot against Harold Wilson. For Simpkin to mention it in the same list as Algiers is, in my opinion, significant. Leaving aside the MI5 angle - I've read Peter Wright's Spycatcher and didn't quite know what to think of it, but Christopher Andrew's official history is unsatisfactory, especially given his own comments on it - to me, Simpkin's brief statement here has been a strong reason to take the allegations of a military coup plot against Wilson more seriously than I otherwise might. Again, I can't think of anything else he could be referring to. If there's something I'm missing, do let me know!


This argument that professional armies will become more divorced from societies than conscript armies is quite a common one. What's rarely stated is the flip side: a society less distant from its armed forces is also a more militarized one. Simpkin also talks about the fading away of western "bellicism", or the belief that war is, if not actually virtuous, then at least an excellent way of settling differences. Even today, western countries mostly tend to see military violence as a policy to use against overseas others, whereas in the past war was the go-to solution in the metropole as well. My question would be whether this increased distance between the people and armed forces isn't both a cause and effect of the downward trend of bellicism. Our public understanding of conscription as indoctrination is sadly deficient.

But nonetheless, although I'm quite sure that most of us Europeans think of military coups as something that happens to other countries overseas, this isn't actually the case. For a Finnish example, see the Mäntsälä rebellion, which had supporters throughout the army. With better (read: less drunk) leadership, the movement might have become a national insurrection, and crucially, it had so many friends in the army that had Finland not been fortunate enough to have had a commander of the defence forces so dedicated to democracy, it's more than likely that Finnish democracy would have ended in the 1930's.

So the anynomous general's comments in the Sunday Times are quite surprising, but hardly unprecedented. The specter of military intervention in domestic politics has hovered over quite a few Western democracies in the cold war years, and the massively militarized xenophobia of the "war on terror" will hardly have exorcised it. It's not a law of nature that Western countries should be democracies; for the vast majority of their history, they've been anything but. To echo Simpkin, practically anything can, indeed, happen here!

Sep 14, 2015

Sipilänomics, or Finland's fake austerity

While everyone is more or less horrified by the ongoing train wreck that is the Donald Trump presidential campaign, it's worth remembering that in Finland, we elected our own version of Trump prime minister. Juha Sipilä, a Christian millionaire businessman, became an agrarian party MP in 2011, was elected party leader in 2012 and went on to win the 2015 parliamentary election and form the current cabinet. This fall, he's been busy shocking the nation with unprecedented cuts in education, social security and now public sector salaries. All is, however, not as it seems.


The recession of the early 1990's hit Finland particularly hard, not least because it coincided with the collapse of our friendly, co-operative and helpful major trading partner. Government debt, already rising in the 1980's, exploded during the recession when unemployment hit 20% and the economy contracted dramatically.

Even though growth resumed, we'd only gotten about halfway through the debt before the collapse of Nokia and the current financial crisis. Again, the economy contracted, and growth since has been slow or nonexistent, with the government running multi-billion euro deficits for several years in a row.

This is the essential background to the previous election. Even though neither the debt or deficit are alarmingly high in themselves, all parties except the extreme left agreed that this couldn't go on, and we needed to balance the budget. Sipilä didn't so much make a convincing case that he could do this, as he maddeningly refused to commit to any concrete measures whatsoever before the elections. Instead, what I think happened was that his general aura of masculine leadership was felt to be exactly what the country needed. In other words, he ran Ray Smuckles's election campaign, and won. Welcome to Finland.


After the election, Sipilä formed the first majority right-wing-only cabinet in Finnish history with the Coalition party and the populist racists who have the effrontery to call themselves the "Finns party". The new cabinet came out swinging, with a political program that promised four billion euros of spending cuts over their four-year tenure. The main targets were welfare, health care and education; on a personal note, the University of Helsinki, where I study, is set to lose at least a fifth of its government funding over the next couple of years. Sipilä then summoned the labor unions to negotiations over what he hilariously called a social contract, in practice a program for lowering salaries to boost national competitiveness. When the unions predictably refused and Finland, presumably, returned to a state of nature, the cabinet announced they would implement their competitiveness measures unilaterally.

Last week, we got a taste of what this Sipilänomics was going to mean in practice. The cabinet announced considerable cuts to salaries and benefits: Sunday pay will now no longer be double, but rather 175% of normal, the first day of sick leave is unpaid, a couple of holidays come off the calendar, overtime pay is halved, and public sector workers lose a bunch of vacation days per year. Overall, this adds up to savings of over a billion euros.

Our professor of economic history estimates that the net effect of these cuts will be to increase our government deficit by half a billion euros. No, I didn't mistype that. First of all, lower salaries also mean lower tax incomes, but crucially, the cut package also includes a 1.72% deduction in social security payments from employers, which will henceforth be covered from the government budget. This comes with a price tag of some 800 million euros, wiping out over half of the nominal savings by itself.

Of course, the idea is that the deduction in employment costs will encourage companies to hire more people. Our minister of finance, Coalition party leader Alexander Stubb, has blithely assured us that the cuts will create "tens of thousands of jobs". At least one prominent economist dismisses this entirely, believing the cuts will create no new jobs whatsoever. The cabinet has generally been criticized for overly optimistic views of the future, and this seems to be an excellent example; with world trade the way it is, plus the fact that the cuts will reduce domestic purchasing power by 3%, it's very difficult to understand where the tens of thousands of jobs are going to come from. The net effect of the cuts was calculated ceteris paribus, so it's entirely possible that the cuts will increase the deficit even more.

So if the government's cuts are actually going to make the deficit worse, where does the money go? Effectively, the Sipilä government is subsidising corporate payroll expenses by almost one billion euros. So the newest round of spending cuts aren't actually spending cuts at all; they're a wealth transfer from workers, and especially public sector workers, to corporate shareholders. If the net effect of the cuts really is to increase the deficit, then they are, in fact, a transfer of wealth from all taxpayers to shareholders. This isn't balancing a budget, let alone austerity; this is the opposite. The Sipilä administration is increasing our public deficit in order to redistribute income.


For a number of years, the political and economic debate in Finland has been framed as a juxtaposition of balanced budgets and stimulus. Supposedly, the right wants to cut spending to balance the public budget, while the left insists that the correct course of action is countercyclical stimulus. Their version of the story has Finland gripped by merciless fiscal austerity under a succession of penny-pinching right-wing governments.

For comparison, this is what austerity looks like: (image: Wikipedia Commons)

Greece underwent an extremely painful process of austerity, at great human cost, to almost eliminate their primary deficit. Until Syriza came along, that is. But in terms of statistical indicators, the above is austerity: a clear and sustained drop in government expenditure, ideally to the point where borrowing is no longer required. At that point, the budget can be called balanced.

I've put together the following graph from official government statistics collated by the Taxpayers Association of Finland and Statistics Finland. The blue line shows real central government debt in millions of euros; the red line is net central government budget expenditure. The time is 1990-2014.

Would any of our left-wingers like to show me on this diagram where, exactly, the Finnish government has done anything that even remotely resembles austerity?


As the graph shows, in this millenium Finnish central government expenditure has, with very few minute exceptions, only gone up. The national debt is skyrocketing. In short, at no point since the beginning of the current series of financial crises has there been any austerity whatsoever in Finland. Overall government spending has not been cut.

To anyone who's lived in Finland, this is a massively unintuitive conclusion. Surely we know for a fact that several successive right-wing-led cabinets have made several cuts to public spending? The university cuts I mentioned, for instance, were only the latest in a long series of cuts and budgetary interventions by the state. So where the hell is the money?

To answer this question comprehensively would take a lot more work and expertise than I can put into this blog post, but I'll give a couple of examples. Sipilä's agrarian predecessor Matti Vanhanen's cabinet removed the Social Insurance Institution payments from employers. This came with an estimated cost of 800 million euros, and because of the particular progression of the payments, chiefly benefited large, capital-intensive corporations. According to the rhetoric of the time, this was supposed to generate thousands of jobs. There are no good reasons to think that it created any at all. At one point, a regional experiment actually tried removing employer social security payments entirely - and found no overall benefits whatsoever (h/t to the sadly defunct Markkinakohinaa blog). So the end result was that government spending went up, and a billion-euro subsidy was delivered to Finnish corporations. Sound familiar?

The agrarian cabinet was finally ousted by a Coalition victory, which brought us Jyrki Katainen's six-party cabinet. One political measure all parties could agree on was, rather surprisingly given the presence of the Left Alliance and the Social Democrats, lowering Finland's corporate tax rate. This made a dent in the budget of approximately a billion euros, but the "dynamic effects" of the tax cut were estimated to increase revenue by at least half that, and, of course, create ten thousand jobs. Before writing this, I had no idea that ten thousand jobs and a billion euros is the Finnish government equivalent of about tree fiddy. Predictably, the dynamic effects never showed up; corporate tax income fell by, coincidentally, 800 million euros, and the jobs were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the money seems to have mostly been paid out as dividends to shareholders.

In both these cases, the failures of the stimulating effects was chalked up to the poor performance of the world economy. Or to put it another way, in both cases Finnish politicians had been far too optimistic about future economic growth, and gave up sizeable chunks of government revenue to boost growth that never happened. So against this background, it's hardly surprising that the Sipilä cabinet has come up with a billion euros of cuts, which he intends to use to directly subsidize corporate shareholders because economic growth is just around the corner. Apparently this is what we do in this country.

But to sum up, it seems to me that a large reason why government spending continues to rise despite expansive cuts is that the money saved has been given away, saddling the central government with more fiscal responsibilities while leaving it with lower tax revenue.


Having been quite critical of the left, I have to say that the right's rhetoric is also at times unbearable. The cuts the current administration are making are not the only possible way to respond to our fiscal situation. Even if you firmly believe that the deficit needs to be cut, there are other ways of going about it than these specific cuts. The right has been alarmingly succesful in creating a rhetorical environment in which any criticism of the government's cuts means fiscal irresponsibility. At worst, they pretend that the cabinet has no choice but to make these exact cuts, and couldn't possibly make any others. This is an outrageous lie. Choosing to make cuts that disproportionately impact the poorest citizens, women with low incomes and higher education, while barely touching higher income classes and giving money to big companies and farmers, are all political choices made by the current administration. It takes an astonishing degree of willful blindness and idiocy to maintain that there are no alternatives. We incessantly hear the right bleat about the massively expensive welfare state, and never acknowledge that we already pay more in farm subsidies than in unemployment benefits. The vast sums of money wasted in botched information systems are similarly completely exempt from cuts. These are all political choices, not the inevitable functioning of economic realities. It's deeply reprehensible for the right to try to deny its own political agency.

By far the most ludicrous aspect of right-wing rhetorics is the constant posturing over fiscal responsibility. If you believe the right, heroic right-wing politicians have been tirelessly trying to plug the deficit while an evil, greedy labor union movement does everything it can to stop them. Rightists moralizing about balanced budgets are equally welcome to show me on the diagram where, exactly, a succession of right-led cabinets has done anything at all to curb overall spending. Until you can do that, it might be smarter to not pretend to champion some fiscal responsibility that the parties you represent have no intention of executing.


There are two conclusions to draw from this. Firstly, for all its pseudo-corporate jargon and pretense of novelty, the Sipilä cabinet is doing exactly what its predecessors did: making sweeping cuts to government spending, only to give the money saved away to big business. I hate to sound so much like a socialist, but unfortunately that seems to be the reality of what our politicians do. This includes all parties of the left, who have enthusiastically participated in subsidizing our corporations and their owners. While this may seem surprising to an outsider, it makes perfect sense in a country dominated by a nationalist-corporatist ideology of national competitiveness. One of the most widely held articles of economic faith in this country is that the only sector of the economy that produces real value is the export industry. This is completely nonsensical, but articles of faith often are.

The second conclusion, which I wish would propagate even a little, is that the all-pervasive debate on austerity and cuts versus borrowing and stimulus is senseless. Not one single party in this country has at any point shown the slightest intention of balancing the budget. There has been no austerity; there will be no austerity. Instead, each party has its own particular schemes for ensuring the competitiveness of our export industry for when the upturn comes, which is literally the only way we can conceive of of reducing the deficit. The Sipilä administration's plan to reach a primary surplus by 2021 is nonsensical - unless you assume that the world economy will boom and Finland's exports will boom with it. If that doesn't happen, and given what's going on in China one is tempted to say when rather than if, we're screwed. No party is willing to even contemplate the idea that slow growth might be the new normal.

The only substantial fiscal policy difference between Finnish parties outside the lunatic fringe is which sectors of government spending that aren't farm subsidies to cut in order to transfer more money to our major corporations.

So a reasonable prognosis for the future is that Finnish parties will continue to engage in public spending cuts with dramatic impacts on our quality of life, human capital and purchasing power, in order to fund various hare-brained stimulus schemes with imaginary "dynamic effects". Although that's probably unfair to rabbits. It's utterly pointless for the left to rave about imaginary austerity and budget-balancing when no such things are even being attempted. Actually challenging the economic policies of the current administration requires critically dismantling the myth of national competitiveness through exports, and the endless optimism that sees 5% annual growth perennially around the next corner.

The problem is that the general Finnish population is completely economically illiterate. I personally know intelligent, academically educated people who can't even understand the simplest market transaction, let alone what economic policy even is. Because they don't understand that they don't understand economics, most people are faced with two alternatives: accept the right-wing neoliberal narrative that the only possible thing that can be done is cut welfare and salaries, or embrace some lunatic fringe theory that economics and money are all a scam. I'm honestly kind of surprised we don't have sovereign citizens in this country, and that the political left is doing so badly, because the complete ignorance of economics that so much of the population demonstrates would seem to be fertile ground for both brands of nonsense.

The biggest single reason for this is the unwillingness of our school system to actually teach any basics of economics. These days, there is one compulsory course on economics in high school, but this is a fairly recent development. What exacerbates this into a serious issue is the ignorance of our media on the same subject, which leads to the same effect on its pages: Finnish journalism will, in general, either parrot the government's competitiveness narrative, or challenge it with conspiracy theory garbage. Mostly, our media seems to see its task as explaining the government's actions to the people, rather than doing actual journalism. The run-up to the elections was a pathetic mess, and after it they've regressed to reporting on the government and then reporting on the opposition's reply. No analysis is being done, or is going to be done, because there's apparently simply no-one to do it. To question the competitiveness narrative, let alone massive money sinks like farm subsidies and conscription, is to question nationalism, which in a small, xenophobic country in thrall to its invented heroic past is simply not done.

Because of the dominance of the economic doctrine of national competitiveness, and the extreme difficulty of challenging it due to popular ignorance and media ineptitude, it's difficult to see how Finland can expect to escape the debilitating fixation on labor costs and export industries. Add to this the nationalist lunacy of wasting billions of euros each year on maintaining the illusion of agricultural self-sufficiency and "area equality", and it seems inevitable that things are going to get much worse before they get better. Despite the right's scare-mongering, Finland is far from going the way of Greece, but not only are the constant cuts to health care and education destructive right now, they'll be rebounding on us later with far greater effect, like they did after the previous recession. Because we can only conceive of competitiveness in terms of labor costs, we're effectively eradicating our human capital. This is complete madness.

The only thing that can save this country is if there's an upturn in world trade that boosts our economy before the pseudo-austerity of "competitiveness" wrecks it completely. If this happens, the main question will be whether the upturn lasts long enough that we can repair the damage. Last time, it didn't, and we entered the next downturn with a massive debt burden and huge structural problems. Next time, it'll probably be worse. The way it looks now, I don't think our political system can solve this problem. In the long term, we're a failing state.

Sep 7, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 12: Inside Information

For a long time the dwarves stood in the dark before the door and debated, until at last Thorin spoke:

So, if the previous chapter was a very short tension-builder, this one's got everything and a dragon in it. Now that the door into the Mountain is open, Bilbo heads inside to burgle the dragon. If that seems completely insane to you, you've clearly been paying attention. Balin comes along for a short way, but Bilbo is basically left on his own to make his way down the ancient dwarven passage, right into the lair of Smaug the dragon. On the way in, we get a description of Thorin and company, which finishes with this:

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

This is pretty well in line with what we've seen of them so far - at least if you don't assume that they're necessarily very good at calculating. I quote this to once again point out that the racialized notions in fantasy where dwarves are Always Good don't originate here.

So Bilbo heads down the pitch-dark passage, and we're treated to some pretty good buildup as a dim red light and vague throbbing noise slowly begin to resolve into a sleeping dragon. What follows is a decent take on courage:

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

I don't care what you call me, but I very much like the idea that the real test of courage isn't murdering orcs or fighting dragons or whatever, but rather that it's facing your own fear of what's to come, alone. Poignant stuff from a veteran of trench warfare.

Having mastered his fear, on Bilbo goes, right into the lair of Smaug the dragon. Of the various Hobbit covers, my favorite has always been John Howe's, because it captures this magical moment so well:

Smaug, lit by a red glow, lying on a massive bed of treasure. The dragon's hoard isn't just any pile of treasure, though: as in Beowulf and the Volsunga saga, it has a magical quality of its own, and that enchantment, "the desire of dwarves", holds Bilbo spellbound. Eventually he recovers himself, and deciding to establish some better burglarizing credentials, grabs a cup from the hoard and heads back outside.

The dwarves are absolutely delighted by their first piece of treasure, patting Bilbo on the back and making grandiose plans to recover the rest of it, when Smaug wakes up and finds his cup missing.

Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he came to the Mountain! His rage passed description - the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.

Tolkien on privilege?

As Smaug comes roaring out of the mountain, the dwarves panic, and Bilbo has to take charge and start hustling them into the tunnel. Suddenly they remember that Bofur and Bombur were left behind in the lower camp. No doubt because Bombur is fat, as they rarely tire of pointing out. Dwarves are apparently really big on body-shaming. They manage to rescue him and Bofur, but then Smaug flies by and all they can do is hide in the tunnel, barely escaping being roasted by his fiery breath.


While Thorin and company camp out in the tunnel and their poor ponies are eaten by a dragon, a discussion is had that is somewhat satisfying to the attentive reader.

They debated long on what was to be done, but they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug - which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out.

As I've said, up until now, it's been a complete mystery how a traveling circus of unarmed dwarves witty enough to walk into a troll ambush was ever supposed to be able to even mildly annoy a dragon. Now we know what the great plan to defeat Smaug was: nothing. There really never was one in the first place. Frankly, this whole expedition seems completely barking mad. The only real question is why Gandalf chose such an incredibly elaborate way of getting Bilbo killed. When I played Oblivion and did the Dark Brotherhood assassination quests, I murdered a particularly challenging target by crafting an enchanted shirt that did constant fire damage and reverse pickpocketing it onto him so he put it on when he got up in the morning. It was entertaining watching him go about his daily routine while noticeably on fire. Up until now, I thought that was a moderately elaborate way of committing murder; it never once occurred to me to persuade my target that he's a burglar and sign him up with a posse of incompetent dwarves who intend to assault a dragon without so much as half a plan.

The current plan, as near as we can tell, is to hide in the tunnel until something happens. In the meanwhile, Bilbo volunteers to sneak back into Smaug's lair, trusting in his magic ring and assuming that the dragon will be sound asleep. Of course, he's quite awake and expecting Bilbo, and their encounter is one of the best scenes in the book. The dragon tries to tempt Bilbo out into the open, but Bilbo knows better - because naturally a solidly middle-class gentlehobbit who's more like a grocer than a burglar knows how to talk to a dragon. There's a bit of repartee where Bilbo (and the reader!) thinks he's come off quite well, until his parting shot nearly gets him broiled alive. In reality, Bilbo didn't do nearly as well as he thought, since his clever riddling did give away that he'd come from Lake-town; our intrepid burglar has paid the people of Lake-town for their hospitality by siccing a dragon on them. Smaug has found out this and more, and planted a seed of doubt in Bilbo's mind as to the honesty and intention of the dwarves - but in his fatal vanity he rolled over to show off his under-armor to the hobbit, who clocked his weak spot. So in short, this epic dialogue between the hobbit and the dragon sets off the climactic events of the whole book, and in great style. Simply a brilliant scene.


Bilbo barely makes his getaway up the tunnel, and finds his way back to the dwarves. A long conversation on treasure, dragons and whatnot ensues, confirming that not only do the dwarves really not have any kind of a plan, but they're also a bit mad about the dragon's hoard, Thorin going particularly my precioussss over a fabled jewel called the Arkenstone. The talk is punctuated by Bilbo's unease as he uncharacteristically throws a rock at a nearby thrush, and eventually begs the dwarves to shut the door before the dragon gets there. They do so, barely in time to avoid certain death as Smaug batters the mountainside where he's worked out the door to the passage has to be. Having failed to catch the thieves, Smaug resolves to make the Lake-men pay for helping them, and swoops off to wreak his vengeance.


Next time: spelunking, and an absent dragon.