Monday, 27 February 2017

Fairytale in the Supermarket

What's the best way to pack a shopping bag at the supermarket?  Hands up, please. Yes, you at the back with the purple shirt and the glasses.  Hold on, can you speak up a bit please?  Well done, that's exactly right:  pack the bulky items first and then add the smaller items later.  Why do we do it this way and not the other way around?  How about the lady with the exquisite hat and glove ensemble?  Wow, that is a fantastic answer.  Adding the bulky items first is the optimum solution because the cost of moving a bulky item is much larger than the cost of moving a smaller item. It makes sense, therefore, to put the bulky items in first and then experiment with moving the smaller items around until they all fit in the bag.

Why am I banging on about packing bags at the supermarket?  Don't worry, I've not started a blog on well-known constrained search problems in computer science.  It turns out that packing a bag at the supermarket is a similar problem to signing multiple trade deals after you've just had a dizzy turn and exited the biggest trading block on the planet.  Let's look at this in a bit more detail.

Signing a really huge trade deal with your closest trading partners involves the biggest gain but also comes with the largest cost. The gain, of course, is that more trade means more profit. What about the cost?  The cost here is specifically the set of compromises that are required to overcome technical barriers to trade.  Imagine two countries A and B enter a trade deal but hit a bit of a deadlock on paint additives. Maybe country A has very strict rules, while country B is happy to poison its population and contaminate the countryside. To proceed with the negotiations one side or the other will need to compromise.  They might do that by using their willingness to compromise on one issue so that they force the outcome they want on another. This kind of horse trading leads to each side making a profit gain through increased trade but at the expense of legislative compromise.  It stands to reason that countries will only be prepared to make significant compromises when the trade deal is a huge prize.  The European Single Market is such a trading relationship.  After all, it involves singing up to all sorts of directives and regulations (compromise cost) in return for frictionless trading with some of the wealthiest countries on the planet (financial gain).  The UK Government, in all its wisdom, has decided that the cost of compromise that comes with EEA membership outweighs all the obvious gains. 
The good news is that Liam and Boris and David and all the lads and lassies from Brexit HQ have been busy preparing all sorts of trade deals.  It's our job to pack them away so let's get busy.  First item down the chute is a UK-US trade deal. It's just a tiddler so let's put it in the bag. Is that a UK-Thailand trade deal I see coming up next?  Right, another tiddler so let's bung it straight in the bag.  Argggh, what is that monster coming down the chute?  Oh my giddy Aunt, it's blocked out all the light.  Careful back there, this is going to buckle the whole mechanism.  1, 2, 3, heave.  1, 2, 3 heave.  Uh oh, it won't fit in the bag unless we take out all the other deals.  What the hell is this, anyway?  Oh, it's the UK-EU trade deal.

What did we do wrong? Of course, we didn't pack the largest trade deal in first and then sort out all the tiddlers later.  Why didn't the UK-EU trade deal fit in the bag?  Forgive my computer science joke but there wasn't enough phase space.  Ha ha ha ha.  Ha ha ha ha.  Oh dear, that is a terrible joke that will only appeal to other losers with a STEM mindset.  There are all sorts of reasons why the UK-EU deal didn't fit in the bag but let's just focus on one to illustrate the way in which each trade deal forces constraints on all subsequent trade deals.  A US-UK trade deal might result in the UK making compromises on the list of paint additives that may be sold in UK stores.  This will become a problem if the UK subsequently tries to sign a trade deal with the EU that expressly forbids the sale of those paint additives. The UK can't simultaneously ban and allow paint additives so it has to choose one deal over the other.  There's no way around the simple fact that two items can't occupy the same physical space in the shopping bag.

Life is a lot easier if all items are the same size.
 Just like packing away the shopping at the supermarket, the UK should start with the biggest item; that is, the UK-EU trade deal.  The biggest trade deal will demand the largest amount of wiggle-room be made available for compromise so it makes sense to start there before all that wiggle-room is eaten away.  The advantage of this strategy is that the UK spends its available compromises on the most valuable deals.  With the biggest deal in the bag then UK can then start to look at the second largest trade deal.  The UK has less flexibility to make compromises at this stage but that's ok because there is also less gain. As the UK works its way down the list of trade deals (ordered by size) it will start to discover that the limited remaining wiggle-room that is available for compromise limits the extent of the trade deal.  This is perfectly acceptable because it spent all its wiggle-room on the prizes it really wanted. There is no point, after all, in spending all the wiggle-room on the smallest trade deal and then finding that it diminishes the potential value of the largest. That would be exactly the same as packing the smallest items first and then discovering that the largest item doesn't fit around them.  It's far better to pack the largest items first and then work out how to rotate and twist the smaller items so that they find a slot where they fit.  Any other strategy is a waste of (phase) space.

They keep "Amateur Trade Deal" on the top shelf these days.
 What have we learned?  Trade deals should be negotiated sequentially starting from the largest and ending at the smallest. Keep that in mind the next time David Davies or Nigel Farage make outlandish claims about the speed of a UK-US trade deal.  If the UK Government starts to negotiate with Trump before concluding its business with the EU we know they are spending our finite ability to conclude trade deal negotiations as inefficiently as possible.  Brexit is just the start of a long and arduous process to even bring the UK's trading relationship back to parity with its current status.  With idiots at the helm hell-bent on favourable news headlines, they are going to mess it up completely by attempting it all once in the wrong order.

This can all be avoided by voting Yes in the next indyref,


PS Next post will be the start of a short series about Scotland in EU.   Can it get any more exciting?


  1. Terry, the numptys are just not getting it. What I'm hearing from a lot of old crusties is that sucking up to the odious Trump is essential for "trade", while being as annoyingly belligerent to the EU is essential to make them see that they need to do a sweetheart deal with the incredibly important UK.

    This is in Scotland. OK it is the old unionist voting bastards I'm quoting, but they haven't gone away. Imagine what this is playing out like in Leaver middle England.
    They haven't got a clue.... They think they are soooooo important.

    The whole EU, according to them will cave in to any demands because they need to sell BMW's and French cheese to the burghers of middle England..

    I do hope opinion in Scotland is gradually shifting. England is going the other way, down a self delusional destructive worm hole. God help us if they succeed in dragging us with them.

    1. This is all quite terrifying. I'm just a man on the internet casually musing on some of the problems facing the UK Government. Just look at the list we've all found in just a small amount of time.

      The next big item that will soon hit the skids is that T May is looking for sectoral deals from the EU. The EU will never, ever budge on that issue. We'll find out in about 9 months time. Let's hope that by that time public opinion in Scotland is in better shape. England is lost to the fever now.

  2. Easy seen what part time job you did when you were at uni. Actually I with supermarkets would employ packers full time. I'm always too busy looking for the credit card and loyalty card and then I end up putting the potatoes on top of the cream cakes and the bleach next to the lamb cutlets...

    But I digress.

    I've heard the same stuff as East Neuker from the same kind of Daily Mail people. "Don't worry", they say, "Britain has clout. They'll be queuing up to trade with us."

    But these things are all far far more complex than the layman understands them to be. Where on earth Farage got the idea that a trade deal could be done in 3 months, heaven only knows. I suspect that any deal done in such a short time would be one with so many holes in it, that you could fill it with water and use it to irrigate the Sahara... actually FLOOD the Sahara.

    I reckon that the deal we'll get from our dearest and oldest friends... you know, America First, will stuff us rotten. I was always told when you're about to make a deal, never seem too eager. So within two weeks of the inauguration of the Orange man from the Gold House, Mayhem is over there holding his hand and offering him a week's holiday for two in Windsor Castle, free of charge. Muppet woman.

    Any doubts I express about these Mail readers' self assuredness, is met with..."Well, you would say that. You're a nationalist".

    Ah, I'M the nationalist? OK, maybe that takes some digesting.

    David Davis admitted the other day that we won't be able to do without European workers for many years. So another of their major planks has cracked to destruction, allowing another pile of frustrated Brexiters to fall another few floors into the Disillusioned department.

    The first plank, of course, was when they promised £350 million a week to the crumbling health service. This, it turned out was, erm, a mistake. (Bloody big mistake or lie in colloquial parlance.)

    Now, in response, Mrs May says that she will stop allowing people to settle here when she triggers A50. (Maybe some harsh words were said to the hapless Davis, by the equally hapless hand holder in chief to the POTUS.)

    I mean, booze up in a brewery or what? And that's before you even mention dear old Liam.

    1. This whole thing becomes more reckless and futile by the day. Every Brexit promise is now broken and I wonder what advantages can be gained from it, even from the perspective of the most ardent English nationalists who don't want foreigners at the bus stop.

      The sudden announcement of the cut-off for settlement rights was most interesting. David Davies had been out to the Baltic nations trying to find alliances there. What he found was a particularly united EU. They are not amenable to any UK soft power and have firmly laid their hat in the EU ring. The UK Government then immediately respond with threats of expulsion. I'd say they've given up on trying to find alliances in the EU, not that they were particularly good at or committed to the idea. Their tactic now is clearly to attack and threaten. This is going to be ugly.

  3. Very ugly. But not as ugly as letting supermarket staff pack my shopping bags! I'm not quite sure what a STEM mind is but my OCD is very well developed when it comes to packing. I hate things getting squashed or crushed which is why the big things go in the bag first...

    You may be 'some guy' on the internet Terry but that actually makes this whole thing even more frightening. If 'some guys' like you, me & the rest of your readership can see how this thing is going to pan out, what exactly were the politicians who instigated the while affair thinking? They ought to be jailed for dereliction of duty. That's the problem with our system which produces a professional political class; no real sanctions can be levied against them so they can essentially act with impunity & to hell with the consequences to the public at large.


    1. A STEM mindset is a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics mindset. If you pack your bags at the supermarket and immediately repose the task as a constrained optimisation problem you have a STEM mindset.

      Brexit is the culmination of sorts of coincidences: a cowardly and ineffectual opposition, a Prime Minister obsessed with immigration figures, a resurgent right-wing press re-exerting their power post-Leveson, a significant population who experienced a terrible education. So many people to blame.

    2. Well, that is me a fully signed up member of the STEM club then being a former engineer with a multiple science education...

    3. I suspect a lot of STEM types are lurking around here. STEMS against Brexit.

  4. I have solved the problem of how to pack what I buy from the supermarket in a rather simple fashion. If I can get an item elsewhere I do so, and that has meant that on the last 3 trips combined, I have bought less than ten items total.

    1. That is indeed the perfect solution. I have to admit I quite like supermarkets over here because they're not quite the enormodomes that exist in the UK. I used to love it when I lived in Germany because there were loads of fruit and veg shops but I've not found so much of that in Switzerland.

    2. Interestingly enough in the USA supermarkets are food stores. They are not the a liitle of everything that they are here.

  5. For of all gainful professions, nothing is better, nothing more pleasing, nothing more delightful, nothing better becomes a well-bred man than agriculture.


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