Guangdong Satellite Imagery 1985 – 2017

A new area of interest has been developing for me. Could I look at satellite imagery and find interesting things? With a historical bent, I thought I could look at satellite images over time, and see what I could do. This is an experiment, and I’m starting with Guangdong, looking at the massive changes in China since its reform and opening. Good satellite images begin from 1980s, and I start with 1985. Witness the “farmlands to factories” and into the current Pearl River Delta urban conurbation that is probably the largest in the world.

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Guangdong 1985

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Guangdong 1990

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Guangdong 1995

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Guangdong 2000

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Guangdong 2005

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Guangdong 2010

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Guangdong 2015

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Guangdong 2017

If you have ideas about how I could take it further, let me know!

Guidelines For Navigating Crowded Spaces

Here’s some guidelines meant to help people on how to navigate in crowded spaces.

These “Guidelines” is meant for anyone who has to navigate around crowded spaces. It is meant to provide a framework for anyone who has been clueless about how to respond to situations of crowdedness whenever and wherever they are encountered. The Guidelines comprise of the following statements:

  1. Everyone is struggling to get to where they want to go, including other people. You are not the only person with somewhere to go. There are other people too!
  2. You have 2 eyes and 2 ears. You can choose to be aware about what’s around you. You can still choose to be immersed in Candy Crush or IMing, provided that they do not hinder your awareness of the immediate surroundings. This principle is absolute crucial for the next principle, which is…
  3. You have 2 legs and 2 hands. You can choose to move (with 2 feet) and you can choose to signal your intentions to move (with 2 hands). You can point to where you are heading; you move to space from a crowded area. Which leads me to the next principle, which is…
  4. You need not be where you are! This is absolutely crucial. You can choose where you want to be, instead of being ‘stuck’ where you are. Even if you feel you are stuck, you can always use the next principle, which is…
  5. You have a mouth. You can use your mouth to say “excuse me”, or “sorry” to indicate that you desire some space to move into.

There is one rule that is the foundation of the other rules. And it is thus:

That, “I shall not be a bad person” on public transport.

Without this rule, all other rules fall apart. This rule means that you do not hinder the spaces of others, especially the elderly, the pregnant, those with special mobilities (wheelchairs, crutches, and so on). The rules do not restrict when one should have to give space; even if you are sitting on a non-reserved seat, one can still give space to the above categories of people.

We might not know the suffering others are going through, and we can always lessen the pain a little by giving up the space that we have to others.

 

I invite people to illustrate, make jokes, adapt it and have fun with this. I believe that we can learn to negotiate space, both literal ones and metaphorical spaces. Maybe when we learn how to share literal spaces better, we will learn how to share other spaces with others – metaphorical, emotional, and social spaces, among others.

What is a social space?

There is a sense in which Singapore does not have enough metaphorical social spaces. But what is a social space? I’m referring to the conceptual version of the term, not the literal “spaces or places to hang out with people.” 

A social space is a gathering of people in physical and virtual environments in which they can talk through, and act on, the things the gathering are interested about. More importantly, a social space is also a promise or a commitment. 

Why do I say that? I say that because it is assumed in the gathering of people, that they will commit themselves to rules to get the conversation started, that they will be constructive, and that they will to varying degrees, agree and support to further actions that might arise out of the gathering. 

What does it mean? It means that a social space is constructed, by the people who are together, and who can get to know one another, and share common interests. A social space can grow, to take on more people. 

The social spaces that I take part in all have some rules, or guidelines on how to be, to be a member of these spaces. And they have gone on to take action of some kind. I have also seen other social spaces too.

I have seen a social space for inter-faith dialogue, for people to talk through their stories of faith experiences. I have seen a social space to talk through the concepts of financial management. I have seen a social space to talk through initiatives in the social sector.

A social space is open. What I would like this to mean is that: these spaces are not structured spaces in which there are hierarchies and in which you need permission to enter. These are open spaces, where entry is based only on sharing common interest. 

A social space is participatory, which I would like to mean than anyone can come in, and provide their own views about how it could be, subject of course, to the views of others. This is neither chaos or complete order, but social spaces are also often spaces of negotiation, not just for the topic of interest, but also about the form of the negotiations. 

There are of course, loads of social spaces on other things; on human rights, on the environment (and further subdivisions exist). I think social spaces are one key requirement for addressing the challenges to come, and I hope to see more of them soon.

Fear/Hope-based notions of Policy in Singapore

This is really for dialogue — about what fears are, what hopes are, and how these things frame Singapore’s growth narrative. The first part is about the existing condition, which to me seems to be fear-based; the second part is an exploration into hope.

I want to try taking a shot at what the general direction of Singapore’s governance is based on —  sort of summary of how to think about why and how policies are made, and why certain policies are the way they are. I can’t be exhaustive and look at all the policies, so I’ll look at the ones that seem to have very big impacts.

I’ll start off by saying that the policies appeared to be opportunistic in the early years, and then they became based on fear. I’ll explain what I mean by all these, and I’ll have to be quite cursory. I’ll then end by saying that the undertone of fear remains in the strategy of keeping Singapore going, and that there are other productive ways of looking at policy making, both fear-based and not.

The lens of Fear

Singapore’s early policy in building the economy and defense — the two most important things — were opportunistic. Singapore started on an Export-Oriented Industrialisation under Dr Goh Keng Swee — how he started up Jurong as an industrial estate, making sure that companies could start quickly. The British withdrawal left behind potential assets that could be further used for the industrialisation process — the legacies are still around — Keppel’s shipbuilding is part of this legacy. The strategies worked. By the mid 1970s and the 1980s, Singapore’s economy was at full employment, and the beginnings of a modern military, with platforms such at the A-4 Skyhawks being gradually introduced.

Along the way, the labour movement had to be coopted into the political system, forming the Tripartite system — with active negotiations between businesses, government and labour. The key concerns remain: employment, and income. Employment appears to be the priority of the government and the labour. In very broad strokes, the key concern of the government remains largely about how to maintain Singapore as a platform for companies to come and stay in Singapore and provide jobs to Singaporeans. This concern appears to be the overriding concern of governance in Singapore. I suggest that this concern is one that is based on fear.

There certainly are grounds for fear. There is first, Singapore’s condition as a small island state with a declining birth rate and an aging population. The fear is that any loss of dynamism in any section of society will cause investments to go somewhere else. This line of thinking then arrives at the conclusion: Singapore — as a society, as a country — must do as much as it can to maintain its economic dynamism.

With this perspective in mind — this thinking about Singapore’s vulnerabilities, about the fear of economic irrelevance, — is a useful framework to think about how policies relate to that broader goal. For example, one reason why Singapore’s employment guidelines are relatively lax is because companies can then hire and fire easily, within some constraints. And even then, it is unclear of the constraints or rules are enforced; hence the claims of racism or national biases in the practices of some foreign companies. Will the state want to enforce employment laws more strongly? According to the fear of economic irrelevance, the answer is a “no.”

The issue of immigration makes the framework more visible. The fear of an aging population, and a declining native population makes the fear of economic irrelevance and stagnation loom very large. And it does seem that immigration is the only answer in for various time horizons. Without a dramatic change in the social and economic policies, immigration will be an important part of the answer. Immigration, with the accompanying increase in the supply of foreign workers, will make foreign companies stay in Singapore, and provide jobs for Singaporeans of all kinds. The issue here is very clear: allowing foreigners here to come and work will cause companies to stay here, and their stay here will cause Singaporeans to have some jobs. The relative amounts of jobs does not matter; only the amount of net jobs created for Singaporeans matters.

What then about the crowdedness? The response then, has been a large increase in the number of infrastructural projects, and with changes in land-use planning. The increase in the MRT lines has been one response, and by 2030, the number of MRT lines will have dramatically increased. Land-use change — such as the relocation of the Paya Lebar Airbase will have a huge impact in the development of the area. Effectively, residential density can increase markedly, as the height limits for that area will no longer apply. And there will be more development and redevelopment projects — such as when Tanjong Pagar Port moves to Tuas… These are not trivial projects. For land-scarce Singapore, these are major changes. By 2050, the skyline of Singapore will have changed again.

All of these things, are however, cold comfort to those of us living in the present, having to deal with the crowdedness and the difficulties today. But these are the assumptions that have been with us for a long time — these fear based orientations stemming from the scarcity-based mentalities, most of which are justified. But difficult questions remain with us: to what end, or at what line, do we say that we have to fence something off against this fear of economic irrelevance?

A lot of things had to give in the drive to maintain economic relevance. A lot of people with memories will still ask — did the old National Library had to go, to give way to the Fort Canning Tunnel to save a few minutes for the motorist? Did Bukit Brown had to go, to save a few more minutes? Or even Bidadari to house people? Does the Cross Regional Line really have to go through the Central Water Catchment? Some of theses things have to be accepted, others mourned. Can we build a Singapore identity that does not only include government-sanctioned infrastructure? Today the Singapore Botanic Gardens is now in the UNESCO list, but in the 1970s it was close to being removed to give way to development. Where will Singapore end up if this line of reasoning were to be continued?

There is of course, optimism that the significance of economic development is less strong than before, even though it probably it still is very important, if not the most important. For one, there is now greater attention on healthcare and in uplifting low-income groups. The former, in view of the aging population — is necessary. The latter, from the opportunity point of view is probably necessary as well. For Singapore to remain cohesive, the argument of social mobility remains important — that it does not matter where one starts; the important thing is how hard one works. Yes, there are strains with social mobility, but as long as people accept the core principles, and as long as it seems that the principle still applies, socio-economically — Singapore will remain a cohesive society. A more socio-economically mobile society however, still requires an economically-growing economy — and the growth here has to extend to all parts of the economy, and not focused on specific industries. I guess going with this logic, it is easy to see why identity and the environment get the short end of the stick in Singapore — it’s because a growing economy is necessary for a social compact to be preserved.

The government is also well aware that economic development alone cannot guarantee social mobility, and so has kept on launching initiatives in education, employment and social assistance. There are limits to the agenda of economic development, but it probably still remains the core consideration.

We’ve come a long way. We’ve seen how the fear-based mentality towards economic development is necessary for Singapore’s existence, and for a social compact. It also explains why in Singapore, things to do with heritage and the environment are lower in priority when compared to the economy.

Fear will still be necessary — this fear of economic irrelevancy. Again, the issues of aging, a low birth rate, and social mobility will be with us. For the support of the aging population and to maintain social mobility, economic growth — assisted by immigration will still be necessary. But if it was based on fear alone, Singapore will become an unpleasant place to be in — due to the fear that things such as the heritage and the arts and the environment will be severely degraded, or at least be converted into additional means of supporting economic development. The questions for this situation remain the same as those asked today: is there an idea of when does economic development go too far? What do we ring-fence as sacrosanct? What do we protect?

There is another way to look at Singapore and its circumstances. It comes from hope. The following sections will seem weird.

The lens of Hope

The narrative of Singapore’s history and its future(s) thus becomes upended. It will consider Goh Keng Swee’s optimism that Singapore could succeed, and Rajaratnam’s claims that Singapore could become a world city, connected to other cities — a statement that remains remarkably prescient reading today. This hope is not a Pollyanna optimism but a determination, that despite the circumstances of Singapore’s realities, Singapore has come so far. The social mobility that has happened so far is also one of hope — that Singaporeans eagerly took the opportunities on offer during Singapore’s development and made a better lives for themselves, and gave hope to the people around them.

The decades ahead then, can be framed in terms of hope — that Singaporeans can again, see the opportunities that lie in the future, and that given the skills and other resources out there on offer, they can be seized, and hope can again prevail. What might that look like? It starts with a reaffirmation that people are the only resource of this country, and that all of them must be given the resources to have a good shot at life. It looks at the economic competition around us, and realises that the way to remain economic vibrant is to explore niches to thrive in, and to deepen specialisations in the industries that are already here. It is a perspective that makes competition on price irrelevant — simply because competition on price alone will be deadly to Singapore’s economic vibrancy. This would require an even larger investment in education and training programmes of all kinds, and maybe current policies are taking on these positions.

Perhaps a hope-based kind of framing will also see the elderly not as a challenge, but an opportunity. Greater investments and actions in preventive health could stave off the worst effects of debilitating chronic conditions, and would actually involve greater state intervention in mundane things: through the things we eat and drink. Maybe the elderly to come will have greater agency — will be healthier, will be more active, and more able to engage with others and with all sorts of activities. Will that happen? That will to some extent, be determined by how much agency that government and society is willing to give them. This isn’t just active aging, but to see that people are inherently abundant and have much to give to each other.

Then there is the question of social support and uplifting low-income communities. The research on scarcity has made it quite clear that the question on autonomy of personal choices is a much more complicated thing than previously thought. Rather than seeing only the potential of waste, there is at least some evidence to suggest that interventions in the social space will have to be quite drastic. Nonetheless, this could be justifiable for the purpose of enhancing social mobility, and yet does not erode the work ethic. Rhetorically, this commitment to social mobility from the bottom to the middle could make the work ethic even stronger.

What about the environment and heritage and the arts? Perhaps in a context where the economy is not the most important, perhaps these things can find spaces to thrive. Perhaps an expanded Park Connector Network together with less emphasis on cars and with compulsory shower facilities will see cycling become mainstream in Singapore; perhaps with less economic constraints, heritage can find its space and so can the arts. Poetry might yet become a necessity in a country full of beauty. But these are mere rhetoric — right now I can’t imagine yet what kinds of policies or acts in the community that could arise from a new context. Maybe more imaginative minds can.

And so I guess I come head to head with the biggest notion — that all of the things I talked about will entail large increases in spending, and thus require higher rates of taxation, which will erode Singapore’s competitiveness, cause companies to leave the country, and cause Singapore to become an economic backwater.

Yes, social spending will have to increase in many ways, and yes, rates of taxation will have to increase as a result, but look at what we might have then, at the end of the process — a more cohesive country where people believe in a work ethic and with social mobility; a country where people have a great range of skills and even be more creative and see how to rearrange existing ideas into new things; a country where old people are full of agency and can act for mutual need — I think it will be a great country, one where companies will want to come to invest in, and full of economic vibrancy, and certainly not an economic backwater.

Coming to the end still — a fear-based notion of policy has worked in Singapore. I’m just thinking that it won’t be enough, and I’m just exploring how a different orientation could change the way we look at our deepest concerns.

There is one more outrageous thing that I want to suggest: that with all these promise, with all these potential, Singaporeans can go on and be of greater service to the world and make the world a more liveable place. I want to unpack this at a later time, but for now this is enough.

*This piece will see updates as I add citations and so on.

Singapore: hope, fear, faith, abundance

The poem below, is a first draft, of perhaps a more polished piece.

I wrote it, putting together some ideas I’ve had for a long time. A rambling, almost a stream of consciousness, about some ideas I’ve had for a while. To go with hope, and not fear.

Singapore: hope, fear, faith, abundance.

===

I know the limits that SG has.

I know the constraints.

But the constraints have not defined us.

We have gone so far on the bases of fear.

How far more can we go on the basis of hope?

There is a vast expanse before us,

No matter the world, no matter the circumstance.

===

If only our hearts are big enough,

Our eyes bright enough,

Our minds open enough,

To chase rainbows,

Or better,

To make them ourselves.

===

Even the dips and downs that come will not unsettle us. 

A people with courage,

And the resourcefulness,

Will not flinch (or not for long)

and come back stronger,

More determined to be in the world,

For the world.

There is still so much to do.

To save, to create, to bless, to repair, to restore.

There is still so much of the world,

Still deprived of the blessings of modernity.

Le Guin’s Omelas is here and present,

But it is possible,

To free the child,

And still live with abundance.

This Faustian bargain, 

I do not believe.

===

The things we use and wear,

Create jobs, though some foul.

The jobs that can fill stomachs, and give dignity – 

this world is possible and can come,

If we will it to.

===

We do not need to move to more abundance per se,

because we are already rich.

We can share our abundance with others.

As we remember,

This world is not our own.

It was built by others, by pioneers,

And ours is the task,

To preserve and add to it,

so that others can come and do the same.

===

This is no mere naive,

cosmopolitanism,

of a world of sentimental kumbayas,

This is a matter of belief and hope.

That Singapore can be,

Far brighter, far greater,

As the dot the world looks to.

===

From a little something to something so great,

is no small feat.

And here we are,

Dithering about our next steps,

Looking inwardly at ourselves,

A little over much.

When the world beyond,

Beckons us.

To make it kinder, fairer, greener, even richer,

More beautiful.

===

Sure, the world is not ours alone,

And laughably so – not ours to save – alone.

But the world is also us.

At our best – we shall move the world.

===

Are we not already rich?

Are we not already abundant?

Consider what we have.

A people now endowed with much comforts, and abilities, and talents.

Yet surely there still are in our midst –

yes, needing assistance – and that we can.

People in acute need, of fault of their own, and not their own,

They can have grace, 

to find their feet again.

No one chooses to fail,

though some may choose idleness,

though some may even have cause to.

But who truly knows?

And who can truly know their hearts?

And grace we still can yet give.

===

This abundance we have,

has to flow; amongst ourselves.

And we can still have much leftover,

to give to the world.

By our will we have –

created our reality of abundance.

And we can again do so,

Not from fear, but from hope, and from faith.

===

We have met Destiny

and we have in our grasp.

And we can choose to turn it, by our will.

Not just from fear, but from hope and faith.

By our will we can do so, if we choose so.

===

We are an audacious country,

to take the world on its terms,

and still prevail.

We shall be audacious again,

and now more so,

and now to move the world,

and again prevail.

===

Not about parties or manifestos,

but about us and all of us.

About we the people,

living not for ourselves,

but for the lives of others.

to uplift a country for those who are,

for those to come.

==

Us in service for Singapore,

Singapore in service for the world.

===

Yes, this comes from someone who has,

the privileges, the time and the space,

to think like this,

Yes, this privilege in part,

the same privilege to watch

dramas and games on end.

The moment we have data on the go,

that privilege is open, no longer closed.

And this is no condescension,

This is an invitation.

To choose with intention, to go.

===

Am I dreaming?

Too unrealistic?

Too hopeful? Too naive?

So what, if they are so?

And are they truly so?

We are not defined by circumstances,

and neither by nature.

All we have been are due to our choices.

And these are choices we can choose.

To be a people of intention, of a largeness of heart,

In all things: the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, the sacred, the exciting, the interesting.

And so we can choose,

Exceptional forevermore.

I/We Choose

We have grace

To live better lives.

Not the life of riches and luxury and leisure,

but the life of grace,

To find contentment in the present,

And ever trying to improve.

This grace we have,

To be kinder, better selves,

For others.

===

We have kindness,

to take a look around

(wherever we are – the train, the bus, the crowded streets)

to be gentle, and to smile.

We have grace to live well,

Not by the size of the bank balance,

But by the size of our hearts.

In the day’s end

tired we may be,

But grace we still have,

to remember the battles of others,

and then to be

Gentle and kind.

===

We have grace,

to let things be.

Not just to look for our on interest,

but also the interests of others,

not to be offended,

by the rashness of others.

This grace we have

To be with others,

Regardless of:

race, language, religion, countries

of differences galore.

Grace we have.

We choose to have.

===

We work, not for ourselves,

but for our dreams, families and friends.

We work together,

We join in our gifts to create,

the future we want to make into the present.

This future will need all our grace, our kindness, our love.

All these we have.

===

This love we have,

We choose to have.

To live not for ourselves,

but for others.

To work for our loves, and pray

on the things we lowe.

To dwell in grace and kindness,

while we live and work and love.

Every Singaporean a Talent: The Political Economy of Talent, Education, and Companies in Singapore

I’m ready to be wrong on this. To improve it, give links for resources and other arguments.

Turns out just a few things are needed to explain why it is difficult develop enough deep technical talent to have the likes of disruptive companies in Singapore.

1. Domestic conditions. That will be the most difficult constraint to overcome. Any hope of overcoming this constraint will have to come from a deeper economic integration with the region — something that will take a long while more to overcome.

The small domestic market does not encourage the rise of large companies. The companies that have become successful and relatively large companies are either those that were started by the state for developmental purposes, or due to traditional trading skills. Domestic firms cannot pay enough to attract deep technical talent.

2. Large foreign firms. Large foreign firms are here due to Singapore’s policies. These large foreign firms supported economic growth, giving jobs and skills to Singaporeans. These firms, being well-resourced, are far more able in providing a higher wage. These companies can outdo local firms in attracting the same person with more pay. As a result, small local firms cannot attract the talent they need to expand and grow.

3. The presence of a relatively large banking and professional services industry. Talented people have other avenues other than the MNCs. They can also become consultants or bankers. These industries siphon off people who could have gone to MNCs to sharpen technical skills or to build local capabilities.

4. Awkward labour. There are basically a few models of the labour dynamics from the political economy perspective. One of them is the antagonistic relationship in the US — with labour competing with capital over the conditions of work, with the government as a referee of sorts. In many parts of Europe, there are still elements of a labour system that is embedded with capital at various levels of operations. Labour in essence, makes a pact with capital on restraints, but only under conditions of shopfloor autonomy. Overall, this is undergirded by a cultural appreciation for blue-collared workers — which are highly trained and specialised in what they do.

5. Education as a filter. Then, there is the whole notion of ‘talent’ in the first place. What is a talent? How is it defined?

The current model of education is still meant to filter the top few percent as leaders for the administrative elite in the government of this country. This means that resources are concentrated at the top. Some of this is surely desirable; after all this country certainly requires excellent leadership, and starting from young is not a bad idea. Plus, elites occur in every country. However, education as a filter, together with the concentration of resources at the top, means that there is a underemphasis of the rest of the population. This has only changed more recently in the past few years with the revamp of the polytechnics and ITE, and even more recently with the ASPIRE committee.

However, a system of obsessive competition for limited slots for the elite path has been created. This system of obsessive competition creates a lot of waste, visible through the tuition mania. The notion of talent and meritocracy is still seen through the narrow lens of examinations and grades. Maybe an expansion of resources to more schools at all levels of performance might be required. This is not to say that schools should become homogenous — no, but MOE has to give more resources to allow teachers to teach better and to give students more opportunities for all-round development, including in academics.

Education cannot be a filter — it must be a moving escalator that gives and supports people the skills, training and retraining — cohort after cohort after cohort.

What’s possible?

SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model — creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.

Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, perhaps moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics.

A big elephant here — on the continued emphases on international companies — will likely remain giving longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy.

One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.

What’s possible? 

SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model – creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.

Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, either moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics. 

A big elephant – on the continued emphases on international companies – will likely remain given longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy. 

One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.

Notes

Bits of the things here are definitely outdated. I don’t know if a ‘German model’ has been able to persist since the 1990s. Comments about the German model(s) on labour-capital relations are much appreciated.

I did not write about immigration policies here, because it is difficult, and it is not the emphasis. But a few things: immigration will be necessary, because even productivity will have limits. Diversity in international experiences/perspectives will still be an important thing to have. However, immigration cannot be the substitute for the difficult reforms for a more productive economy. I apologies for the motherhood statements here, and the model to arrive here is one where immigration policies are a supplement to economic growth, one where the numbers game is not the main consideration. There clearly is more to this, but that will be another essay.

Also, please don’t see this as an end. See this as a start of an journey to see how the different pieces come together. Once again, remember to post counter arguments and links to resources at the side.

I owe intellectual debts to Hall and Soskice — on the LME and CME frameworks.

Thanks!