Banks and ice

Some years ago, I happened to be reading William Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World when I was mildly startled to see a reference to the magnitude of America’s 19th century ice trade. Startled because I’d never heard of this trade despite that fact that ice was America’s second largest export tonnage (second only to King Cotton) at the time of the Civil War! I immediately resolved to learn more and a few moments of augmented intelligence (ie, Google) threw up the name of Frederic Tudor, the “Ice King” who invented the industry. From there it was a quick jump to Gavin Weightman’s The Frozen Water Trade, one of my favourite books.

The story of Frederic Tudor (perhaps “yarn” might be a better description) ranges over most of the seven seas, taking in privateers, shipwrecks, invention, speculation, enterprise and vision on the way. Tudor had an idea and spent years, in a truly American fashion, pursuing it until he had created an entirely new market and had satisfied it through an entirely new industry. When he shipped his first cargo of New England ice down to Martinique in 1806, he thought he would have a sure-fire success. But the inhabitants had no idea what to do with it: if you’ve never seen ice, would you buy some? Eventually he found using it to make ice cream a moderate economic success and was encouraged to continue. A decade later, his breakthrough came when he began shipping not to the Caribbean but to Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans and the business began taking off.

At the same time, an ice ecosystem began to develop. Downstream, the waste water coming off of the melting ice was sold as a cold draught rather than poured down the drain. Upstream, the demand for sawdust (used to insulate the ice cargos) from the Maine timber industry (previously a nuisance) generated more wealth. New technology was applied to cutting, storing and hauling the ice.

Frederic’s marketing strategy was dynamite. He created an insatiable demand for two main products: ice cream and cold drinks. When opening up a new town, he would provide free ice to bartenders knowing that customers would never go back to warm drinks once they’d tried a mint julip or an iced tea. It seemed to me slightly reminiscent of the bottled water industry today: create a demand, satisfy it and the use brand to drive up the price. Indeed, Weightman notes that the only difference between “Wenham Lake Ice” (one of the main brands of the time) and other ice was purely marketing.

Tudor was a ruthless businessman, seeing off competitors by lowering the price of his ice to ruin them, but not a perfect one. Some of his enterprises outside ice went well (graphite mining and property) and some not so well (he lost a fortune speculating on coffee futures). In any case, by 1849 the ice trade he had created was going so well that he ran out of ice in Boston and had to send a ship and a crew north to cut chunks off of icebergs!

“To speak literally, a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description…” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

From The ice men come to Walden Pond (Walden 186) | The Curious People

By the time Thoreau was moaning about the ice trade disturbing his peace on Walden Pond, Tudor was shipping ice to Calcutta (where the grateful British Raj coined him a medal), round the Cape to San Francisco and even to Australia. In America, ice was no longer a luxury item but an essential comfort.

Naturally, as I followed this wonderful tale, I couldn’t help but try and extract key messages around the intersection between economics and technology. In this field, there is a definite paradox around Frederic and I find it fascinating. Frederic was not a luddite by any means and appears excited by the new inventions of the time. In 1830, he predicted that “steam will soon take the place of horses” and went on to say that “the times are surcharged with novel inventions and improvements of all kinds… steam seems now the ordinary power: in all probability some other and more convenient one will be discovered”. And, of course, it was.

Yet as Weightman notes in passing, it never seems to have occurred to Frederic that someone might “undermine his ice trade by manufacturing ice or making an artificial refrigerator”. Perhaps it is some kind of innovator’s curse, to imagine change in all businesses except the one they have created: it’s why Bill Gates didn’t invent Google and why Akio Moirta didn’t invent the iPod.

As it turned out, when artificial refrigerators did arrive, they at first bolstered the trade by providing an inexhaustible, year-round supply of clean ice for shipping through the existing supply chain before, in time, they destroyed the trade by decentralising ice making to the point of consumption. Destroyed the trade so thoroughly, in fact, that few people remember that it ever existed. The market that Frederic’s genius created is still with us, but the industry he created to service it has melted away.

This is how I see the banking sector. As the former CEO of Barlcays, Anthony Jenkins, said (I paraphrase), banks digitised banking rather than make it digital and are facing the “Uber moments” to come. The digital financial services revolution has barely begun. Our cool new finance stuff is running on some very old rails.

The banks have indeed spotted the invention of refrigeration and they have taken the first primitive refrigerators (e.g., the blockchain) and are using them to make blocks of ice that are then packed in sawdust and sent off in sailing ships just as they were before (by which I, of course, mean the legacy information technology infrastructure). Meanwhile, other people (the fintechs, the internet giants, new businesses yet to be born) are looking at decentralisation and are shipping the fridges rather than the ice. They are looking at using blockchain technologies to create new and decentralised markets founded on translucent transactions and ambient accountability.

I hope this isn’t too clumsy a metaphor for taking a look at the 21st century technologies that are already upon us (ranging from biometrics and the blockchain to artificial intelligence and the internet of things) to try and see what they will really do to the financial services sector in general and the banking industry in particular. I think I have a fairly structured way of thinking through these issues and, more importantly, I think I have an idea for a new book…

The Taylor report is right: we should get cash out of the “gig economy”

The Taylor Report was released today. It’s a report about the “gig economy” and contains a number of proposals for reform in the labour market to modernise the various systems (e.g., tax and benefits) and improve the lot of workers. I don’t propose to comment on any of those proposals, also having recently entered the gig economy myself, I can attest to both benefits and annoyances, but I do want to comment on one point made by the report that was picked up in the media. 

Cash-in-hand payments to builders, window cleaners, plumbers and other trades people should be discouraged through a technology revolution to collect up to £6 billion more in tax, a Government-commissioned review urged today.

From Abolishing cash-in-hand jobs ‘would raise £6bn in tax and benefit workers’ | London Evening Standard

The report notes, entirely correctly, that allowing people to exist in a cash-in-hand economy is not only bad for them (because law-abiding employers get undercut) but that it is bad for the rest of us too. Here’s a short extract from my new book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin on this point:

Professor Charles Goodhart (London School of Economics) and Jonathan Ashworth (UK economist at Morgan Stanley) have studied the subject in some detail. They note that the ratio of currency to GDP in the UK has been rising (as you will recall from Figure 7) and argue that the rapid growth in the shadow economy has been a key cause. In their detailed examination of the statistics, the authors make a clear distinction between the “black economy” (e.g., drug dealing and money laundering) and the “grey economy” of activities that are legal but unreported in order to evade taxation. When your builder offers you a discount for cash and you pay him, you are participating in the grey economy. When your builder offers you crystal meth and you pay him, you are participating in the black economy. They define a total “shadow economy” as the sum of the black and grey economies.

…Two rather obvious factors that do seem to support the shape of the Sterling cash curve are the increase in VAT to 20% and the continuing rise in self-employment, both of which serve to reinforce the contribution of cash to the shadow economy. The Bank say that there is “limited research to confirm the extent of cash held for use in the shadow economy”, but Charles and Jonathan make a reasonable estimate that the shadow economy in the UK could have expanded by around 3% of UK GDP since the beginning of the current financial crisis.

…According to Tax Justice UK, that expansion means that there were £100 billion in sales not declared to UK tax authorities that meant a tax loss of £40 billion in 2011/12 and that will rise to more than £47 billion this year. The IMF have noted that while Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is not good at estimating losses outside the declared tax system, which is why their latest estimates for the tax gap are low at £33 billion for 2011/12. And while we all read about Starbucks and Google and other large corporates engaging in (entirely legal) tax avoidance, half of all tax evasion is down to SMEs and a further quarter down to individuals (according to HMRC).  There are an awful lot of people not paying tax and simple calculations will show that the tax gap that can be attributed to cash is vastly greater than the seigniorage earned by the Bank on the note issue. Cash makes the government (i.e. us) considerably worse off.

The suggestion made in the Taylor report should be uncontroversial. However, there are people out there who think that forcing law-abiding persons such as myself to subsidise money launderers, drug dealers and corrupt politicians is a reasonable price to pay because the alternative is unpalatable.

In a world without cash, every payment you make will be traceable.

From Why we should fear a cashless world | Dominic Frisby | Opinion | The Guardian

My old friend Dominic Frisby is of course, completely mistaken about this.  Whether the electronic money in your pocket is completely traceable, completely untraceable, or somewhere in between, is a design decision. As I point out in my new book (did I mention that I had a new book out?) where exactly that dial is set between anarchy and totalitarianism is something that our elected representatives should decide and then ask technologists to deliver. This is subject that I know a rather a lot about and so I can assure you that the technology that we already have is perfectly capable of delivering electronic money anywhere on that spectrum.

My own prediction is based on William Gibson’s prediction in the pages of Count Zero. There, one of the characters in this future fiction notes in passing that “it wasn’t actually illegal to have [cash], it was just that nobody ever did anything legitimate with it”. Therefore I expect to see a variety of different kinds of anonymous electronic value transfer systems that are used to deliver pseudonymous electronic money systems and I expect some of those pseudonymous electronic money systems to be used by banks and others to deliver the special case of wholly traceable payment systems.

That, however, isn’t the point of this post. The point that I want to make is that we need an intelligent and informed debate on what we want to replace cash, since it’s going to happen. It should be society that determines how it wants electronic money to work. Whether cash is going to burn out or fade away, we should be planning its 21st-century replacement now. It’s an interesting question to ask whether that means Bank of England Bitcoins or not!

Csfi jun audience

On which topic I was invited along to take part in the CSFI roundtable on “‘Formal’ digital cash: The currencies of the future?” with Ben Dyson from the Bank of England and Hugh Halford-Thompson of BTL Group last month. The event, held at the London Capital Club, was hugely oversubscribed, which I took to be evidence of renewed City interest in the general topic of digital cash and the specific topic of digital currency.

My good friend Andrew Hilton, long-standing captain of the good ship CSFI, framed the discussion in his invitation ask the basic “what if”. “What if some central bank issued a digital coin that was as widely accepted as a bank note? Or, if not a central bank, what if a group of banks or payments operators issued a similar digital coin?”.

For me, the roundtable was both an opportunity to plug my new book (did I mention that I have a new book out by the way?) and an opportunity to learn in the best possible way: by answering hard questions from smart people. I won’t attempt to summarise the discussion here except to say that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what form a central bank currency might take and it wasn’t limited to the people in the room.

“Such risks could be reduced if central banks offer digital national currencies, which the IMF defines as a ‘widely available DLT-based representation of fiat money’.”

IMF urges central banks to study digital currencies |

Now, why the IMF would define digital national currencies this way is unclear. A national digital currency, or e-fiat for short, may be implemented in any number of different ways. A “widely-available DLT-based representation” would be only one such option and even then it is not entirely clear what “DLT-based” actually means in this context. For that matter, it is not entirely clear what “DLT” means in this context either.

It’s important to separate the topics to move the conversation along: do we need e-fiat and if we do, then how should it work? To the first point I think the answer is probably yes. To the second point, the answer is “well, it depends”. It depends on what we want the e-fiat to do. Should it deliver anonymity or privacy, for example. Should it work like M-PESA or Bitcoin? That’s a fun discussion. How much would it cost to set up “Bank of England PESA”? It wouldn’t even have 100m accounts and Facebook has a couple of billion. If they were to look at some form of shared ledger solution, where copies of the “national ledger” are maintain by regulated financial institutions (e.g., banks – whereby taking part in the consensus-forming process would be a condition of a banking licence) and the entries in those ledgers related to transfers between pseudonymous accounts (i.e., your bank would know who you are but the central bank, other banks and auditors would not) then it would be a permissioned ledger (without proof of work) that could work pretty efficiently. Either way, my point is that it’s doable, so we ought to do it. 


ZCash and The Glass Bank

Interesting to see the cryptocurrency ZCash in the news today, since it’s one of the ones I focussed on in my new book (in case I haven’t mentioned it, it’s called Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin and you can buy it from all good booksellers). As I said about Zcash in the chapter “Counting on Cryptography” written toward the end of 2016, “people, companies and governments will not use the underlying anonymous currency but instead use the privacy-enhancing kinds of money built on top of it”.

This is indeed what J.P. Morgan just announced at Consensus 2017 (see “JP Morgan Chase to Integrate Cash Technology to its Enterprise Blockchain Platform“). Or, as American Banker put it in their story “So, just to be clear: JPMorgan isn’t using Zcash”. As was set out by the parties themselves, what they intend to do is to use the Zcash technology of zero-knowledge proofs on their own Quorum blockchain to deliver privacy into financial markets where the participants want the advantages of shared ledgers but do not want to disclose the contents of transactions to all participants. I think this is quite a big deal, but that’s because the institutional use of these new technologies to create markets that work in more efficient ways accords with my own mental roadmap for shared ledgers. 

In a paper I co-wrote a couple of years ago with Richard Brown, the CTO of R3, and Consult Hyperion colleague Salome Parulava [published as Birch, D., R. Brown and S. Parulava (2016). “Towards ambient accountability in financial services: shared ledgers, translucent transactions and the legacy of the great financial crisis.” Payment Strategy and Systems 10(2): 118-131.], we adopted the term “translucent” to mean transactions that are transparent for the purposes of consensus (in other words, we can all agree that the transaction took place and the order of transactions) but opaque to those not party to the trade or the appropriate regulators under the relevant circumstances. I gave a talk introducing these concepts at NextBank Barcelona back in 2015.

It seems to me that the JP Morgan / ZCash announcement takes us another step forward in this direction and moves use towards the era of “The Glass Bank” (something I used in client workshops for many years and that I first blogged about back in 2011), an era in which translucency develops as a response to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and as a fundamental improvement in the way that financial markets operate, and which I have already decided will be the title of my next book!

Mo’ identity, mo’ money, mo’ book

In his book “Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind”, the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes perceptively and entertainingly about things that are fundamental to our economy and indeed our society: money, trust, reputation and the like. I found his description of the “cognitive revolution” quite compelling, especially where he talks about human beings gaining the ability to communicate information about relationships and therefore reputation (or, as I might simplistically label the basket of concepts linked together here, “identity”). He talks about the ability of the neolithic clan to remember the mutual obligations that bind people together when they can grasp the idea of a future, and how memory does not scale into the settlements of the agricultural revolution, thus necessitating the invention of money. He writes that

When trust depends on anonymous coins and cowrie shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values.

Yet we needed them. The problem, as Harari framed it, is that trade cannot exist without trust, and it is hard to trust strangers (but easy to trust their money – indeed he later talks about this saying “if they run out of coins, we run out of trust”). As society scales beyond the ability of individuals the local (including the money) is given up to the global.

In short, then, when we cannot share memories about information about identity, relationships and reputation we have to come up with some other way of making payments to support trade and increase prosperity. Which leads me to speculate that if there is indeed an identity revolution, a new way of sharing memories, underway because of the transition to online-centric life then we might need to rethink the modus operandi founded on central banks, nation states and fiat currency. As Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England wrote in his End of Alchemy, banks and central banks “are man-made institutions that reflect the technology of their time”. 

Perhaps their time is coming to an end. The way that we think about identity today is simply not working (identity fraud in the UK is at an all-time high and still rising). We need some different ideas. The always fascinating Jan Chipchase pointed me to this section of a very thought-provoking Medium piece on identity by Dan Hill:

“How might we be able to think more richly of ‘both/and’ in terms of identity, of being part of nations, cities and the world, of respect for both the local and the global?”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Yes, yes, yes. More identity, not less. In my previous book “Identity is the New Money” I wrote how social media and mobile phones and cryptography restoring the reputation economy of the neolithic clan but at scale, making the point that while our ancestors lived in one community, we live in many. Community is no longer geography.

In my new book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin” I explore the intertwined evolution of technology and money, which I hope will provide the general business reader with some useful structure for thinking about the future of banks and Bitcoin, leading to an exploration of community and value. I finish by putting forward the idea that the multiple monies of the future will be linked to the multiple communities we will inhabit and, as the quote above makes clear, the multiple local and global identities of the future.

“Our identity is framed in terms of street, neighbourhood, region, nation, biome — all are meaningful, alongside various forms of communities of interest” 

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

My personal suspicion is that while this is certainly true and that these identities will all be meaningful, a generation from now the city identity will be the most important. Indeed, Dan Hill goes on to say that

“Europe has functioned via urban centres for millennia, rather longer than our modern understanding of states. In some respects, this is a more meaningful form of organisation than that relative latecomer, the nation state, for all the benefits that the latter has accrued.”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Dan makes the point that Manchester and Estonia are similar in population size and while we are all familiar with e-residency of the latter perhaps, rather as Gill Ringland suggests in her financial services scenarios for 2050, e-residency of desirable cities will become a valuable right and the basis for one of a number of demographic asset classes. He goes on to speculate, as I have done, on whether a new Hanseatic League or a new Mediterranean Economic Union might be viable structures. I’m not sure I agree with his views on EU e-residency (because the EU is rather an artificial structure) but it’s certainly an interesting position to discuss, not least because it forms a money-issuing community of the kind that I discuss.

My general view is that we are returning to Harari’s “local traditions, intimate relations and human values” as the basis for trade because those new technologies (mobile phones, social networks and so on) mean that we can recreate the clan, the widespread and diffuse memory of obligations, on a population scale. Hence it is not implausible to imagine that new forms of money will arise that map more closely to the values of the communities they serve.

One last thing. Those communities will not be limited to people. Much if not most trade will be between machines, between my car and your garage door, between my flying car and your Amazon drone. We might see communities of robots developing their own money to reflect their own values. Will we be allowed to use it? I don’t see anyone in Star Trek using money, but something must be going on in the background to allow my starship to use your scarce crystals for power. I don’t claim to have all, or indeed any, of the answers but I hope that my framing of the questions will help you to think more clearly about an inevitable future of more identities and more monies.

By the way, you can buy an advance copy of the new book (which will be launched officially at Money2020 in Copenhagen next month) for the giveaway price of £17.50 if you can put up with having a copy signed by me. The pristine, signature-free copies are £22.50. Run, don’t walk, over to London Publishing Partnership and reserve your copy now.

After the euro, the digital euro

Hello. It looks as if the number of currencies in the world is set to go up again. Across the English Channel, satisfaction with supra-national monetary arrangements is waning.

[Marine le Pen] said she could see the EU setting up another currency like the ECU, or European Currency Unit, which the bloc used for internal accounting purposes before the euro was introduced in 1999.

From China Media Warn Trump of ‘Big Sticks’ If He Seeks Trade War

Now, younger readers may be unfamiliar with the ECU, but I’ve written about it more than once on this blog. The idea of restoring the Franc while simultaneously creating a new pan-European currency actually makes sense and I’m rather in favour of it. Which makes we wonder how she got hold of the draft manuscript for my forthcoming book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin: From Money We Understand to Money That Understands Us” that the good people at the London Publishing Partnership have agreed to publish in June? Oh well, since the cat is out of the bag, I may as well give you a sneak preview…

I remember hearing the Chancellor of the Exchequer talking on the radio during the great financial crisis. He referred to the difficulties of currency union and spoke about the problems in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. He spoke about the problems of maintaining monetary policy across currency unions between economies with different fundamentals. All true. But he didn’t explain why this is different for the UK. How is the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between Germany, Luxembourg and Greece any different to the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between England, Wales and Scotland? The fact that they are in a political union does not alter the facts on the ground: they have fundamentally different economies. The Chancellor was arguing that if Scotland opted for independence, it would be impossible to maintain a currency union between England and Scotland. But surely that is true now! The best monetary policy for England is not necessarily the best monetary policy for Scotland, and technology means that what was optimal for commerce at the time of the Napoleonic Wars may no longer best for the modern economy.

If the argument for currency union is only about transaction costs within economic zones, then former Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major set out a potential way forward in 1990 (although the idea dates from 1983) with his alternative to the euro, which was at the time was labelled the “hard ECU”. The ECU was the “European Currency Unit”, a unit of account set using a basket of currencies, that was intended to help international business by minimising foreign exchange fluctuations. Major’s idea for the hard ECU was a fully-fledged currency with a “no devaluation” guarantee (Hasse and Koch 1991). Whereas the ECU reflected the weighted average of inflation rates in the countries concerned, the hard ECU would be linked to the strongest currency (which would have been the Deutschmark, of course). This guarantee would be backed by a commitment from participating central to buy back their own currency or make good exchange losses in the event of devaluations.

Imagine what that kind of parallel currency might look like today. It would be an electronic currency that would never exist in physical form but still be legal tender (put to one side what that means in practice) in all EU member states. Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs, even in a post-EU England, and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs. Tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union without penalty and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency (you would still able use Sterling notes and coins in British shops) and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

The reason for doing this is to minimise the costs of doing business across Europe while giving each country control over its own currency. But the more general point that I want to make is that the advance of technology gives us new choices in the way that money works. The way that money works now is not a law of physics: it is a set of institutional arrangements that could be changed at any time. Thus, if anything, Ms. le Pen is not being radical at all. Why have nation-state control over money? Why not allow regions to have their own currencies? Why not use Google Money? Or Islamic e-Dinars?

I’m not the only one who thinks this, by the way. Check this out from “The Futurist Magazine” in September 2012, where as part of a compilation of pieces envisioning life in 2100, the article asks if we will still have money in 2100, and speculates on what form it may take if we do:

It is quite likely that we will still have money in 2100, but it may not be issued by governments any longer.

[From European Futures Observatory]

I couldn’t agree more. But if not governments, then who? One of the things I discuss in my book is my “5Cs” model for thinking about future issuers: central banks, commercial banks, companies, cryptography and communities. My good friend Rob Allen from PwC was kind enough to use this model in Sydney this week and, frankly, if people like Rob are taking it seriously then I know I’m on the right track.

It’s time to start thinking about the future of money and not just because I have a book about it coming out in June (did I mention that before?) but because the current industrial age monetary arrangements do not support the post-industrial economy.

The Wall

The American President recently re-iterated his plans to build a “beautiful” wall along the border with Mexico, for no reason that I can fathom except to provide stimulus to the Mexican economy at a difficult time. As a good friend of mine says, we should not get too exercised about what is after all nothing more than a harmless public works project of the kind often undertaken by national leaders to secure a place in the national imagination.  

I don’t think it will become an object of awe and admiration, though. This 1,000 mile long, 40 foot high barrier, a vanity project of unusual cost and complexity, may never become a tourist attraction to rival the Great Wall of China (the most astonishing man-made object that I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve been to the City of Manchester Stadium) but it may become a new Maginot Line for future generations to study.

Who knows. All I can say with absolute certainty is that it will make no long term difference to smuggling, immigration or the security of American citizens.

How do I know this?

Well, we Brits have been there and done that. We built a wall. We built a wall that was twice as long as Mr. Trump’s wall. And there is nothing left of it today. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Dronning victoria

In the days when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was not only our ruler but also the Empress of India, the British administration in the subcontinent had, amongst other depredations, increased the hated salt tax (which later spurred the noted insurgent and rebel Mahatma Ghandi to begin his campaign against the many benefits of British rule with the Dandi March). The salt tax was particularly despised because hundreds of millions of people in India’s interior were dependent on salt from the coast to survive.

The British salt tax was not the first (under the Mughal Empire, for example, there was a salt tax of 5% for Hindus and 2.5% for Muslims), but it became a cash cow under British rule and the price of salt more than tripled. The natural result was that salt was smuggled from the Bay of Bengal to the interior.

Other things were smuggled too — opium, people and such like — but it was the smuggled salt that upset us Brits the most. So the East India Company decided to do something about it. Remember, India was ruled by the Company until 1858, when it was taken under the wing of the Crown following the rebellion of 1857.

The Company decided to build a wall down the middle of India. A big, beautiful wall. And they made the Indians pay for it.

This wall, or the “Inland Customs Line” as it was called, turned out to be quite hard to build. In large parts of India, there wasn’t the rock needed to build it or bricks to build it from. But a British civil servant thought laterally and came up with an amazing solution. Allan Octavian Hume, a man who remains unknown to the masses but who should be as celebrated and revered as a Barnes-Wallis or a Dyson, was appointed Commissioner of Customs for the North West Province (1867-1870) and the Line was officially his problem.

Allen Octavian Hume A British innovator: political reformer, ornithologist, botanist and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.

Hume had noticed that along various sections of the Line, thorny hedges had taken root. In 1869 he began to experiment with different shrubs. As a result of his work, the British were able to grow a thorny barrier that stood in for rock, bricks and other traditional materials. A green alternative had been found!

From Above Top Secret.

Yes. You read that correctly. The British built a 12 foot high thorny hedge to stop the smuggling of salt, opium, cannabis, sugar and who knows what else. This living wall, as described in one of my all-all time favourite books, Roy Moxham’s The Great Hedge of India, eventually extended for some 800 of the Line’s 2,500 miles 

Now, it wasn’t only smugglers who found the Company’s Line  inconvenient. The British Viceroys of India didn’t like it either because it was an impediment to trade. They did not feel that the tax collected to the benefit of the East India Company would compensate for the reduction in trade and, in the end they won. You can read about it in “The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule: From the Rise of the British Power in 1757 to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837”, where Romesh Chunder Dutt writes:

The East India Company would not willingly sacrifice even a revenue of £220,000, or any portion of it, for the prosperity of the internal trade of India. Professing the utmost anxiety for the material welfare of the people of India, they were unwilling to sacrifice a shilling to promote that welfare.

By 1872, the Line had a staff of 14,000! There were customs posts every mile, and in order to pass through you had to pay the tax. No tax, no deal and you would be detained. Many of the customs posts had a police cell where smugglers could be detained on the spot. These were called “chowkis”, the Indian word for a police station (from the Hindi cauki). This is why English people of my parent’s generation (my grandfather served in the British Army in India in the 1930s and my mother lived there as a small girl) still refer to prison as “chokey”, the anglicisation of the word.

So what happened to the smuggling? In some places the smugglers just drove laden camels through the hedge, in other places they threw the salt over it. Smuggling was reduced, but at what was eventually seen as an unacceptable cost because apart from the running costs it led to clashes between smugglers and custom officers (including an event in 1877 when two customs men attempted to arrest 112 smugglers, with predictable results) as well as stimulating bribery and corruption. Dutt again:

evils had grown under British Rule as compared with the state of things under the Nawabs of Bengal; manufactures were killed and internal trade paralysed by the Customs’ Officers who were paid so low that it was possible for them to live only by extortion; travellers were harassed and the honour of women passing through the lines of customs houses was not safe; and that this huge system of oppression was maintained for the sake of an insignificant revenue.

In the end, the Viceroys won. After all of the work it took to build this incredible artefact, in the end it was abandoned. Work stopped in 1879. When India became independent in 1947, the remnants of the hedge were torn up. In some parts of India, the Inland Customs Line provided the only surveyed straight line and so it was used for the route of highways in the new country, which is why nothing remains of the Great Hedge of India. No Ozymandian testament stands as a reminder.

The wall was an exercise of corporate power, not a sane economic proposition, and what eventually ended the smuggling was tax reform, as it always has been and always will be, but that’s a story for another time.

 Sir John Strachey, the minister whose tax review led to the abolition of the line, later described it as “a monstrous system, to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilised country”.

So, my advice to Mr. Trump is to create a cheap, green and sustainable wall out of thorny cacti, which flourish in abundance in places like Texas and New Mexico. After all, since the wall won’t make any difference, why waste money.

P.S. I notice that there are expert tunnellers in Mexico, so the wall needs to go down about 50 feet and I’m not sure cacti can really help with that, sorry.

P.P.S. Exciting update! One of my favourite BBC radio programmes “Long View” with Jonathan Freedland recorded an episode about the Great Hedge following this blog post!

Freedland Twitter

My new favourite property is “everywhereness”

I’ve been reading The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott. It’s subtitled “Ways of Being in the Digital World” and I found it thought-provoking in a very positive way. I particularly like the core conceit of social media as another dimension, outside our normal time and space, a dimension we are able to traverse as starships are able to traverse our universe through wormholes into parallel spaces. Think of it as a kind of Flatland of our time, explaining spheres to squares, so to speak.

Everywhereness” describes how it feels when there is no longer any experience – meeting a friend, looking out of a window, feeling momentarily exasperated or exhilarated – that is particular to that moment, that place, those people. Social media make each moment four-dimensional.

This makes complete sense to me, and makes much more sense than Interstellar did (that was dreary in all four dimensions, and I especially hated that stupid robot TARD). Everywhereness. What a great word.

Of course, since the days of Flatland we’ve had Einstein and the idea of space as the fourth dimension. Perhaps it’s time to readjust the paradigm. Scott makes me that that as I traverse the mundane plane, tracing out a four-dimensional time-space trajectory as envisaged by Einstein, I’m also tracing out a five-dimensional time-space-media trajectory. You may not know my exact location and momentum simultaneously, but you may be able to deduce strong approximations from my Twitter feed.

The official blockchain quatrain

The moving finger writes; and having writ

Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit

shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.




OK, I added the hashtag, but the rest is from Edward Marlborough’s 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát of mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Ahayyám (1048-1131).

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!