Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
The Tory idea is “look after the money and all will be well”.[A] Tory policy during a recession that was brought on by globalised speculation and gambling has been to cut government spending. They also do as much as they can to ensure that the speculators and hedge funds lose as little as possible. They want nothing that will hinder such people from getting “back to normal” as soon as things pick up.
This is entirely right according to Thatcherite ideology. Edward Heath upheld traditional Tory values when he spoke of the “unacceptable face of capitalism” regarding some much milder wheeler-dealing. Thatcherism enshrined the notion that every part of capitalism is absolutely beautiful. No one must stop them following market signals. And the state is a gigantic burden that has grown beyond all reasonable bounds for no good reason.
Thatcherism failed to shrink the state. She transferred some industries from public ownership to private, much of it ending up controlled by foreign companies. But she and her successors bumped up against the reality that a big tax-funded state is actually essential for a modern economy.
She also shifted power away from workers and back towards owners and managers, by allowing massive unemployment and weakening trade unions. And to shift the blame onto the people who could no longer get the sort of well-paid manufacturing jobs they had been used to. The same thing happened in the USA, but even more drastically.
The New Right succeeded brilliantly in what they set out to do. But this led to an unhealthy society, one in which everyone distrusts everyone else.
When Thatcher and Reagan broke the dignity of labour, they broke something fundamental in the society. This was fatal to their broader conservative intentions. There had always has been a Chav or ‘Chancer’ element within the working class, but it was unionised labour that kept it in check. With work devalued, it multiplied greatly.
Keeping capitalism in check under the Mixed Economy from the 1940s to the mid-1970s was fairly successful. There were problems that sounded alarming at the time, but they seem tiny compared to what we have now. Letting capitalism rip produced high unemployment and greater inequality, without in fact improving on Britain’s rather sluggish growth-rate. The USA appeared to do better, but in fact production per head did not improve. They did let in vast numbers of immigrants, many high-quality and well-educated, so actually they should have done rather better than they’ve done. And of course, the addition of so many immigrants has bust the assumptions that the USA once ran on and has encouraged the roar of despair that the “Tea Party” movement actually amounts to.
What should be said – and so far is not being said by Labour politicians – is that Thatcherism was an enormous wrong turning. The Mixed Economy is the best system anyone has yet devised. Attempts to get away from it have now created a Great Slump that shows no sign of ending.
“Last week’s cave-in by Starbucks, which has agreed to pay £20m in corporation tax over the next two years, was one of those giddying moments when grassroots campaigners get a taste of their own power.
“The US-based corporation, which is blamed for driving hundreds of independent cafes out of business, appeared to decide that avoiding a consumer boycott – and being seen as a corporate baddie – was worth £20m. But aside from revealing how sensitive even multinationals are to jibes about ethics, the move underlines the arbitrariness of the international tax code.
“A new paper from the Tax Justice Network by Professor Sol Picciotto of Lancaster University suggests ditching the long-established ‘arm’s-length principle’ under which multinationals are allowed to treat subsidiaries in different companies as distinct firms, and pay tax accordingly.
“‘The present system treats transnational corporations [TNCs] as if they were loose collections of separate entities,’ he says in the study. ‘There is currently only weak co-ordination between tax authorities, and this ‘separate entity’ approach gives TNCs tremendous scope to shift profits around the globe.’…
“With help from well-paid advisers, international companies use a network of ‘transfer payments’ between subsidiaries. The UK arm of Starbucks, for example, pays hefty ‘royalties’ to its operation in Luxembourg – a conveniently low-tax location – for use of the Starbucks brand. While this is completely legal, it is all but impossible for HM Revenue & Customs to establish whether such payments are being made at a fair price.
“Picciotto argues instead that multinationals should be taxed ‘not according to the legal forms that their tax advisers create, but according to the genuine economic substance of what they do and where they do it’.
“He says tax authorities should insist on ‘unitary’ accounts, showing a multinational’s worldwide operations. They could then assess where their profits are really made, using three factors: the number of staff the company employs in each country; its fixed assets, such as factories and machines; and its sales. That would prevent large profits being attributed to, say, Luxembourg or Ireland if there is nothing there but a glitzy headquarters and a few staff. Use of this unitary approach has a colourful precedent: the US state of California used it for decades from the 1930s to prevent Hollywood film studios from routing profits through lower-tax Nevada.
“Picciotto offers the example of Amazon, which claims that all its UK affiliate does is order-fulfilment, deliveries and logistics; sales are actually made by its Luxembourg operation, where most of its profits are booked (though George Osborne’s latest cut in corporation tax, to 21%, means the rate in the UK will be the same as that in Luxembourg’s from 2014).”[B]
It would need a mass campaign – one based on the general thesis that the heavily regulated system we had up to the 1970s was better than the Thatcher / Reagan alternative. But also recognising that times have changed and we need to move on. Call it the Campaign for Real Taxes, maybe. A simple system based on actual wealth and not the surreal nonsense dreamt up by lawyers and accepted by the authorities.
The New Right view of 20th century history might run as follows:
Capitalism, expanding from its original base in Britain, was liberating humanity up until 1914, when it suffered from an inexplicable outbreak of Trench Warfare. It bounced back, but then a fairly normal economic slump at the end of the 1920s caused unjustified panic and capitalism was in the 1930s replaced by capitalism. Then after World War Two, in an admiration of excessive admiration for the Soviet Union after it had merely saved the West from Nazism, there were still more drastic changed and capitalism was replaced by capitalism. But in the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan rescued us by replacing capitalism with capitalism. Of course there is still much more that needs to be done to replace capitalism with capitalism in the West. And China, while owing all of its successes to capitalism, faces all sorts of disasters unless it urgently replaces capitalism with capitalism.
They don’t put it like that, obviously. But the label ‘capitalist’ is stuck onto almost all of the various political-economic systems that the West has had in the 20th century. It is also applied to the post-Mao system in China, which has actually been changing continuously and has always been massively dominated by central, regional and local government.
All successes are credited to capitalism, but at the same time each of the actually-existing systems is condemned for deviating from the ideal capitalism devised by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. And they slide different bits of history from ‘capitalism’ to ‘socialism’ and back again for different parts of the story.
The 20th century actually saw a number of alternative and rival economic systems. Most included a strong element of capitalism: the exceptions were the Soviet Union under Stalin and China under Mao. All without exception put curbs on capitalism, to differing degrees. But if you view them as different and alternative systems, you’d conclude that heavily regulated capitalism tends to work better than capitalism unleashed.
Let’s try giving names to the main alternatives, arbitrary names that avoid the half-theological question of whether a particular system is or is not capitalist:
- System A, from Britain 1760s up to 1914, fairly smooth-running but based on a dominant ruling class that believed itself to be above capitalist values. It was also very slow by modern standards, with an annual growth-rate of 1% to 2%.
- System B, Bolshevik alternative. Shifting from War Communism to the semi-capitalist New Economic Policy, and then Stalin’s highly successful planned economy. The first two kept things together but failed to raise the economy above its pre-war level. Stalin’s work produced the massive economic base that produced the war machine that did at least two-thirds of the work in the war that broke Nazi Germany.
- System C, Original Mixed Economy, as practiced by Fascism in Italy from the 1920s and Germany from the 1930s. Fairly successful, and Hitler’s power and prestige rested on his success in getting Germany working again after the Weimar system had led to stagnation and slump.
- System D, USA, the New Deal copied Mussolini’s Mixed Economy model within the existing multi-party and pluralist system. This got the USA working again, after speculation had jammed the economic system.
- System E, an expanded New Deal system and with a military-industrial complex that was highly successful economically, whatever you think of it morally. This was the system that gave the West its key advantage from the 1940s to 1970s. The system that successfully incorporated former foes in West Germany, Italy and Japan and enabled the West to pull ahead of the Soviet Union economically.
- System F, the replacement for System E promoted by Thatcher and Reagan when System E was in trouble in the 1970s. It was sold as a return to solid “System A” values. In fact it keeps the substance of System E, just adjusts it to give most of the benefits [to the rich.]
System F has no less tax-and-spend than System E. But the bias is to tax the working mainstream and spend as much as possible on things valued by the rich, armaments and warfare and bailing out failed banks.
System E favoured the utterly simple concept of welfare based on need regardless of income, and tax based on income regardless of need. This has been complicated on a pretext of fairness, and is now much more of a muddle. Tax avoidance is a big part of the success of the current business class. And they are moving towards a poor-law system that will keep the bottom of the society quiet and letting it offend the working mainstream.
(With all the talk about ‘scroungers’, you might wonder why it’s never been fixed. It’s not been fixed, firstly because a lot of it is exaggerated, and second because the dominant Overclass find it useful for keeping the working mainstream irritated at those below them rather than those above them.)
What about the Soviet failure, which gave a big boost to the credibility of “System F”? Stalin’s system was highly successful and could have been continued with some relaxation and reform. Khrushchev got greedy, he tried to change everything and create a Soviet version of “System E”, but messed it up. In China, Deng did something similar but succeeded, creating what might be called System G, a successful variant on System E that keeps Leninist politics. Note also that Mao’s version of System B had managed to get China modernised, tripling the economy during his quarter-century of rule, after China being invaded by System A had failed to do so.
One major difference between Khrushchev and Deng is how they understood the success of the West’s System E. Khrushchev was one of the first believers in the “miracle of the market”, only he believed that this must be a market operated by state entities. Deng allowed actual private enterprise, but believed that markets were not to be trusted, and proved correct.
In China nowadays, the central government can stop anything, and a foreign investor needs to first check that whatever they plan is acceptable. But the successful foreign investor will then talk to lower levels of government at the provincial and county level, get them positive about whatever it is that is being planned. And it seems also that China is increasingly able to do it all for itself.
A lot of the weakness of the Left since the 1970s has been down to the remarkable success of the Trotskyist movement in moulding the minds of 1960s radicals. The common left-wing assumption till the 1970s was that both Stalin’s Soviet Union and the 1945 Labour government had been major successes, even though you might find faults. Trotskyist influence managed to convince most of the new generation that both had been failures and disastrous betrayals. This attitude was mostly retained as those individuals moved on from Trotskyist influence.
The Trotskyist movement split from mainstream Leninism in the 1920s, claiming to be the true upholders of International Revolution. Their Leninist achievements since then have been essentially zero. Their closest to a serious revolutionary movement was in Argentina, where however they were reduced to insignificance by a military junta that practiced mass murder of suspected militants with the general approval of the West and of most Argentines. Elsewhere they never got further than being Armed Nuisances. Other movements have grown from small beginning: some part-socialist Nationalists, various Maoist groups and more recently a great variety of Islamists. Trotskyism has remained a sink of militancy, a place where young radicals accumulate and achieve nothing very much. They reject in principle the idea of reform, but are nothing like ruthless enough or realistic enough to actually overthrow any of the state machines that they have written off as unreformable.
But their failure as Leninists didn’t stopped them being hugely influential on generations of young people. The two are connected: they preserved the romance of revolution by denying the brutal reality. That justifies sabotaging reform when it is possible, and it was very possible in the 1970s. But such negative tactics get nowhere and paved the way for the success of the New Right, to which a significant fraction of the former Trotskyists defected. (This last has perhaps been useful for socialism, because those people mostly bring with them the same “wisdom” that made them worse than useless as leftists.)
[I actually over-estimated them: the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) were a mix of different leftist groups, only some of them Trotskyist. They comprehensively lost when repression became unlimited in the notorious Dirty War.]
The old and white mostly voted for Romney, the young and non-white for Obama. Will that mean a collapse of Tea Party Politics? I rather think not. I understand it as a “roar of despair” by people who figure that their world is dying. And if you see it like that, you might as well go down fighting.
The US has a tradition of fighting to the bitter end. That was how they won their War of Independence, and it was the thing that kept the Confederacy fighting till there was nothing left. Abraham Lincoln proposed compromises that would have included keeping slavery till 1900, and might have accepted an extension if the Confederacy had been willing to compromise. Instead they fought on and suffered far more than they needed to.
Though the Republicans were Abraham Lincoln’s party, they are now more or less the party of the Former Confederacy, joined by similar but weaker elements in the North. I’d also say (flatly against what US liberals will tell you) that the Tea Party’s implicit racism and defence of the rich makes them truer to the Founding Father and Early Republican tradition than the Centrists. The USA was moved a long way left by the New Deal: the tragedy was that it was done independently of socialist ideology, which therefore remains marginal in the society.
There is a looming crisis at the end of 2012, when certain budget compromises run out. As I write (10th December), it remains uncertain if there will be a deal. I’d say “maybe not”, even “probably not”. Maybe both sides recognise that the current compromise is not working. Maybe each would accept a major crisis and hope to emerge from it in control of the future direction of the USA. And I can’t see the Tea Party winning, though they may continue to frustrate whatever radical notions Obama may possess.
[As of May 2015, the ‘Tea Party’ are stronger than ever. They have even persuaded many voters to blame Obama for the crisis that began under Bush Junior and was wholly caused by deregulated finance.]
The current slump began with collapsing banks and bad debts discovered from 2007 onwards. But somehow the business-dominated media have managed to shift the blame onto governments and suggest more of the same financial poison. And they have the International Money Markets to back them up, flowing in line with New Right opinions as to what’s good economics.
But there is also quiet resistance, especially from Germany. This was helped by Cameron blundering and taking too hard a line. Under Thatcher, Major and Blair, Britain was able to disrupt and open up the European Communist on the pretext of helping it. Cameron let himself be seen as an open enemy.
The crisis of the Eurozone is not the fault of the Euro, it is backwash from the mass of bad debts and speculations that have accumulated since the 1980s. But to survive, the Euro needs more economic integration. And it seems now that it will get it. There was an interesting commentary on this recently:
“Cameron was brutally clear when he foresaw the need to intensify EU union. Such concerns may force a UK exit
“As brave europhile Brits walk in fear of Brexit and Tory Eurosceptics and their UK Independence Party cousins inhale the sweet smell of success, other Europeans watch with bemusement how Britain, after decades of obstreperous membership of the European club, may finally pick up its armoured handbag and go…
“Whether Brexit should be dreaded or welcomed as the exit of a poisonous flatmate has become a matter of serious examination in European capitals. Would British withdrawal badly weaken the economic and ideological foundations of the single market, allowing excessive statism a free rein?” [C]
I assume that “excessive statism” means a return to older and more successful methods, what I called System E. It’s better for ordinary people, both socially and economically. It would hurt only the rich Overclass that has flourished since the 1980s, and has made a complete mess of managing the wider world.
(I don’t rate them as the sinister conspiratorial oligarchs of some left-wing descriptions. I rate them as small-minded characters with a very limited vision. Reading the attempts at philosophy by Soros and by Nassim “Black Swan” Taleb suggests no oligarchic vision and not much understanding of the processes they are operating.)
To get back to the future of Europe:
“Most of Europe’s media ignored the comment because it was made on the Letterman show and most of the British media predictably zeroed in on Mr Cameron’s amusing failure to remember his Old Etonian Latin. They glossed over the far more important and astoundingly frank assertion by their prime minister that the euro zone, unless it disintegrated, must effectively become the United States of the Euro and that the United Kingdom under his stewardship would not wish to be part of ‘a country called Europe’.
“Confront British officials with this moment of prime ministerial candour and they will give you a pained look. It is a rare moment indeed when it is the head of government himself who publicly lays out a matter of fundamental political import in such starkly simple – or, as some critics would say, simplistic – terms as to leave no room for diplomatic subterfuge or political compromise.
“But if Cameron is right and the euro zone must basically become like a country called Europe if it is to survive (with which this author happens to agree), then, barring some unforeseeable economic cataclysm, a vast majority of Britons will choose to stay outside it for decades to come.
“Equally predictably, the European Union would then be reduced to some kind of glorified European free trade area encumbered with too many obsolete institutions. Whether the UK would remain in it or negotiate some other form of access to its single market would be a secondary issue.”[D]
It may be the best way forward. And I’d expect such a European project to succeed, especially if the USA self-destructs, as could easily happen. I’d be sorry to see Britain separate from it, but it’s also likely that Britain would have to re-join and accept European values at a later date. Better for ordinary Britons than what we have now.
Since last month, we’ve had floods in Britain. Expect more bad weather to come. The old norms have vanished for ever. Climate change is here.
The British attitude of “Keep Calm And Carry On” has its merits, but only when you’re already on the right lines. The captain of the Titanic refused to let himself be bothered by a mere ice-field: it seems his vast experience of the oceans didn’t include experience of floating ice and how deadly it could be.
Likewise people seem to think they can ride out all of the fuss about climate change, as if it were merely a matter of some people having the wrong opinion. How long it will take them to learn is anyone’s guess.
Even before Mubarak was overthrown, I gave my opinion that the mostly-liberal protestors were being a bunch of fools. As I write (10th December), President Morsi has withdrawn his brief attempt to rule by decree, but insists on keeping the planned referendum due on 15th December. And no one doubts that he will win that vote/
The liberals demanded Western-style democracy. This duly happened, and the Islamists won overwhelmingly. This was completely foreseeable: secular liberalism never has amounted to much as a grass-roots movement. In Britain, the top liberals were skeptics but the base were devout Puritans, and liberalism withered when this base did. In Egypt they had nothing much outside of the ranks of the privileged and Westernised, and should have known it.
Here, as in Iraq and Libya and now Syria, they seem to learn nothing and forget nothing. The liberals want to punish large sections of the army and police: the ruling Muslim Brotherhood have wisely decided to forgive them. So the protestors are confronting a combination of the legally elected authority, the mass of the population and the security apparatus. Sensible?
I recently heard a Western minister hoping that the Syrian opposition will exclude “violent, extremist people”. Which is hardly realistic: those are the sort of people who take to war like a duck to water.
When you see a brutal and intolerant government, you usually find a brutal and intolerant citizenry. Or occasionally a citizenry outraged at bad treatment, as with Germany and Italy. Regardless, when you remove a repressive regime you find yourself face to face with all that it’s been repressing.
It’s quite possible that the Assad government will lose Damascus and retreat to the Alawite heartland. This would be likely to be followed by total chaos, with Islamists likely to emerge on top. And Western pundits will once again view this as utterly unexpected and not the fault of the West.
If it hadn’t been for one of the victims taking her own life, I suppose that the impersonation of the Queen by two Australian DJs would still be viewed as a grand joke. And any attempt to crack down on such things would be “interference with the free press”.
“Free Press” originally related to the right of the press to criticize the government. It had to be fought for in Britain, with the Tory Party as the main resistance to such freedom and the judges taking a mixed line. It was actually extended quite gradually and there are still limits. But in the end, it established a fairly general right to criticise.
“Freedom of the Press” should not extend to a right by the press to intrude on ordinary people for the brief entertainment of their audience. Humiliating innocents. Wrecking ordinary lives.
Unless you are harsh about any breach of the rules, you’ll let things drift until someone gets hurt. Broken rules are slow to heal and may in fact perish.
If it were up to me, I’d forget about the DJs, who were only doing what was expected of them. You don’t expect DJs to be sensible: you do expect their managers to put limits on them. So blame the organ grinder, not the monkeys.
The guilty station is 2Day FM, and it has gone beyond decent limits before now. Also suffered some penalties, but not enough to stop them doing worse.[E] Maybe we should be asking ordinary Australians to boycott that station, put it out of business, wipe out the investment of its owners. That would teach the whole “shock jock” branch of the media an unforgettable lesson. Unless you do that (or else lynch a few of them) then you are giving them implicit permission to go on and offend again.
The Leveson Report was unexpectedly mild. It was quite clear that a lot of existing laws had been breached, including paying money to police officers. But all that was proposed was a statutory back-up to the ‘self-regulation’ that has already failed.
Depressingly, everyone has allowed the debate to shift to whether Leveson’s Mouse should be put into law, or whether we trust the media to voluntarily give up their long-established bad habits. One must suspect a successful diversion of interest rigged by the establishment, defusing what should have been an explosive issue.
Critics let the press get away with saying “freedom” to describe a situation where there is already some government regulation, mostly on military / security matters. And where vicious libel laws work so nicely to protect the guilty-but-rich that it seems likely this was the intention. And where business interests dominate.
There also seems no serious questioning of ‘Investigative Reporters’, which amounts to reporters as Secret Police. Of course people say ‘Undercover Agent’ when they rate the investigator as on their side. And they seem happy for reporters to poke their noses into private lives when it is really no one else’s business.
It’s all part of the Coolheart mentality, a belief that individual acts of trickery and deception will somehow produce a better world. It has visibly not happened.
Horrible incidents like the murder of a Dutch linesman in an amateur football game will obviously be condemned. But who will condemn the hyping of competitiveness that has led to a great many such incidents?
Violence and dishonest protests have become part of modern sport, it was allowed to happen. In tennis, John McEnroe should have been disqualified when he started making excessive protests against every unfavourable decision. In football, it was bloody obvious who was doing the ‘professional fouls’ and it could have been stamped out. But it made for good entertainment, which brought in money. It also encouraged the general attitude of all-against-all, which has been so useful for the New Right. So it has carried on and contaminated even sporting fixtures where there is no money involved. Places where the game would once have been seen as just a game, a matter of enjoyment and sporting spirit.
“While prosecutors continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the linesman’s death, the events that took place at this small club have sent ripples of unease across a football-crazy nation.
“Huub Bellemakers, an amateur referee and blogger for thepost.nl website, tells us about his own experience of violence.
“‘He came at me, calling me all kinds of stuff, then I showed him the red card and then he just boom, he gave me a head-butt.’ He shrugs, like it’s nothing.
“‘This kind of thing happens all the time. Kids who are six see their parents screaming at the ref and questioning every decision, the lack of respect just starts early and it gets worse,’ he says.
“‘It’s partly the culture, we Dutch people don’t like being told what to do and can’t accept when we are wrong, but maybe now this will make us think about the rules and how we can protect people.’…
“‘We have to look at the whole culture, not just the top players but everyone, the parents, the clubs – football is our beautiful game and we want to keep it this way.’
“Last month a Dutch player was jailed for killing a fan after karate-kicking him in the chest.
“Now, the actions of a few amateurs in Almere have penetrated the heart of the country’s most popular sport. But many are asking, will the death of one linesman actually change the culture?” [F]
We’ve now seen the second peaceful hand-over from living leaders to agreed successors. The first was when Jiang Zemin handed over to Hu Jintao. Jiang himself had been Deng Xiaoping’s choice, and Deng was the real leader until his death in 1997, having pushed out the man Mao chose as successor. Deng also hand-picked Hu Jintao to be Jiang’s successor, but it seems it was the Central Committee that selected Xi Jinping. Hu Jintao would probably have preferred Li Keqiang, who has the number two spot. But the whole process has gone very smoothly.
Back in 1997, there was serious doubt about whether Jiang Zemin would last long. Western experts who’d been predicting chaos after Mao were then predicted chaos after Deng. But the Chinese Communist Party is a highly efficient political machine, and it seems increasingly at ease with itself.
The current Western comment is about ‘Princelings’, power going to the offspring of senior Communists. The term first came into use during Deng’s opening-up, when there was a pattern of the offspring of senior Communists using their political connections to grow rich in the newly opened-up economy, mostly without any official position. But it then got applied rather senselessly to any senior leader who had family connections, even if they had risen normally within the hierarchy. Most notably to Li Peng, Jiang Zemin’s deputy. He was the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, but he showed every sign of having earned his place in the hierarchy by being successful in his various jobs.
In the leadership team led by Hu Jintao, there was really no one who could be called a ‘princeling’. In the new generation, four of the seven are from very ordinary families. Li Keqiang is the son of a local Communist official, and Yu Zhengsheng’s father was a mid-ranking official: not really that privileged. Yu Zhengsheng is also the only engineer among the new leadership. This is a marked contrast from Hu Jintao and his colleagues, who were mostly engineers of one sort or another. Xi Jinping studied Chemical Engineering but graduated in Humanities. He gets called a ‘princeling’ because his father was in the second echelon of Communist Party leaders. But as I said, he is the only one and there must have been dozens of others with equal or better backgrounds. China is working out as largely a meritocracy.
It also seems disinclined to copy Western politics or to increase the percentage of capitalism in its mixed economy. And to be doing very nicely on this basis.
When the probably discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced, people asked “what use is it”. If there had been an immediate prospect of anti-gravity, or of a method to modify inertia so that vehicles could stop and start very fast without jolting their passengers, people would have seen the merits. Current theory does not suggest that either of these things are possible. But if they were possible, they would become possible thanks to more advanced theories based on a definite knowledge of what the Higgs Boson really is.
It’s still no more than a probably discovery. We’re waiting for a confirmed measurement of a subatomic property called Spin (similar to but distinct from spin in the everyday world). The Higgs Boson is supposed to have Spin Zero, and if the new particle has anything else, it is an irritating mimic that would be inexplicable under current theories. Such things have happened before – a particle now called the Muon broke all the rules and was one of the things that required an expanded theory that was finalised in the 1970s and is currently known as the Standard Model. When the Muon was discovered in 1936, it looked rather like a predicted particle that is now called the Pion. At one time they were known as the Mu-Meson and Pi-Meson, but they are actually very different.[G] This is unlikely to happen again with the apparent Higgs Boson, but would be very interesting if it were true.
Particle physics can sometimes resemble an old game called Battleships and Cruisers. In this game, each player marks squares on a grid with their vessels, occupying one, two, three or four squares. Then each would ‘fire’ by calling out a grid reference, and be told if they had hit something. They would also not know what they had hit or where the rest of it was and would need to explore more to find out.
Researchers had been looking for the Higgs Boson for some time, and had proved definitely that it wasn’t in some places. They’ve now hit something with most of the features of a Higgs Boson, but more data is needed to confirm it. And also to work out if it is exactly like the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model.
Disappointingly, the new particle looks like being just that. It cannot be directly detected by current science, but its existence and nature can be deduced from the various things it can decay into. All of these can be produced by other things besides the Higgs Boson, which is why the search was tough. And while some of the outcomes suggested a particle different from the Standard Model, more data was needed. Hopeful signs of a difference in the decay to something called a Tau have vanished as more data has been accumulated.[H] Other anomalies may still there but need more data for a definite yes-or-no answer.
To have found a Higgs exactly like the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model would be slightly disappointing, because there would be no clues to better theories beyond the Standard Model. No one thinks the Standard Model is the last word: it has oddities like quarks that have exactly one-third or two-thirds of the charge of the electron. This would make sense if there are a deeper layer of particles that make up the particles we know, but there are currently many rival theories and few solid facts.
Also resembling Battleships and Cruisers is the search for Super-Symmetry. This is a cluster of theories that would have explained Dark Matter, had they been correct. But most versions of Super-Symmetry predict things that the Large Hadron Collider should have found and so far has not found. The theory is not yet discredited, but it’s been described as “running out of places to hide”.
There is also the possibility of something totally unexpected turning up. One might call this the Sedna Effect, after the mysterious planetoid that was found during the search for objects in the Kuiper belt. From as far back as the discovery of Pluto in the 1930s, there had been suspicions that Pluto was just a large member of something that could be called an ‘outer asteroid belt’. From the late 1980s, other members turned up, including one larger than Pluto, and Pluto was downgraded to the status of Minor Planet. But Sedna is something else: it goes vastly further from the sun than any Kuiper belt object and it’s a real puzzle how it got there.
The Large Hadron Collider will be shut down in 2013 and upgraded to use even higher energies when it resumes in 2014. Till then, things may go quiet. But there is also a mountain of accumulated data that may yield an interesting result to some clever investigator.
[The collider restart was actually delayed till April 2015. No important news as of May 2015, but new discoveries (if any) are likely to needs months of running.]
[A] CF “look after the roots and all will be well” from the Peter Sellers film Being There.
[G] The Muon is a second-generation lepton, a heavy-weight cousin of the electron and an elementary particle, not composed of anything smaller according to current theories. The Pion is composed of two first-generation quarks. Both are short-lived: both are much heavier than an electron but lighter than a proton. If you want to know more, there are good accounts on the Wikipedia.
[H] Higgs boson is too saintly and supersymmetry too shy: From issue 2892 of New Scientist magazine, page 12.