Why the State Fails at Complexity
9th May 2013
I have rambled on here on many occasions about how we all grapple increasingly badly with Complexity.
I take my hat off to Kevin Williamson over at National Review Online for this magnificent readable analysis of just that issue. He explains why failure is vital to success, and why no one person who has ever lived knows how to make a pencil - yet there pencile a-plenty are.
So many quotable lines:
When I am speaking to students, I like to show them a still from the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street in which the masterful financier Gordon Gekko is talking on his cell phone, a Motorola DynaTac 8000X. The students always — always — laugh: The ridiculous thing is more than a foot long and weighs a couple of pounds.
But the revelatory fact that takes a while to sink in is this: You had to be a millionaire to have one. The phone cost the equivalent of nearly $10,000, it cost about $1,000 a month to operate, and you couldn’t text or play Angry Birds on it. When the first DynaTac showed up in a movie — it was Sixteen Candles, a few years before Wall Street — it was located in the front seat of a Rolls-Royce, which is where such things were found 25 or 30 years ago. By comparison, an iPhone 5 is a wonder, a commonplace miracle.
My question for the students is: How is it that the cell phones in your pockets get better and cheaper every year, but your schools get more expensive and less effective? (Or, if you live in one of the better school districts, get much more expensive and stagnate?)
Markets work for the same reason that the Internet works: They are not organizations, but disorganizations.
More precisely, they are composed of countless (literally countless, blinking into and out of existence like subatomic particles) pockets of organization, their internal structures and relationships to one another in a constant state of flux. Market propositions are experimental propositions.
Some, such as the iPhone and the No. 2 pencil, are wildly successful; others, such as New Coke or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, are not. Products come and go, executives come and go, firms come and go. The metaphor of biological evolution is an apt one, though we sometimes draw the wrong conclusion from that — Social Darwinism and all that nonsense.
I could cut and paste the whole thing. But instead I order you to read the original.
Then ponder on the fact that almost everyone taking any political decision over us does not understand what Kevin is saying.
This, by the way, is why the EU is failing. It adds all sorts of the wrong sorts of complexity in all the wrong places. This concluding passage was not written with the EU in mind, but it hits the target spot on:
They fail because they attempt to substitute a single brain, or a relatively small panel of brains organized into a bureaucracy, for the collective cognitive firepower of millions or billions of people.
Put simply, they attempt to manage systems that are too complex for them to understand. Complexity is humbling, but politics is immune to humility.
China on European Welfare Incentives
14th April 2013
Have a look at this magnificent AJ interview from late 2011 with Jin Liqun, head of China's Sovereign Wealth Fund.
The whole thing is impressive for Jin Liqun's steely logic and sense of effortless authority. But it moves into overdrive at 11.40 or so when he starts to talk about why investing in Europe is not necessarily a good idea as the welfare model is 'out of whack':
"If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack.
"Why should, for instance, within [the] eurozone some member's people have to work to 65, even longer, whereas in some other countries they are happily retiring at 55, languishing on the beach? This is unfair. The welfare system is good for any society to reduce the gap, to help those who happen to have disadvantages, to enjoy a good life, but a welfare society should not induce people not to work hard."
He goes on to say that China has accumulated its money through hard work over three decades. Is it fair to the Chinese people to risk that money by investing in a Europe where hard work is not so obviously a dominating feature?
Bruce Sterling on Technology
13th April 2013
Here is a towering example of modern American freewheeling public speaking. Bruce Sterling of Beyond the Beyond shares with us in a ramblingly insightful way all sorts of ideas and insights about technology and its impact on us.
This sort of thing would shrivel and die if you attempted to write it down in advance. He must have had a structure in mind and even some of the imagery too when he rose to speak at the SXSW2013 event. But the power of his speech comes from the sheer energy and improvisation he displays, building on his underlying confidence in himself and his ability to pour out thought-provoking ideas.
Thus he starts as all good US speeches start. With a story:
Walnut Canyon, an extremely Southwestern place. It happened to have a little civilization in it once, from about 1100 A.D. to maybe 1250 A.D. The most high-tech guys in the Southwest.
Now the interesting thing about these ancient cliff-dweller guys is that they were much, much more high tech than South By South West. Because if if you’re in Austin for South By: yeah it’s pretty high tech. But: it’s not absolutely the most high-tech place that anybody’s ever heard of, ever.
But if you’re in Walnut Canyon in 1150 A.D., these guys are totally amazing! They’ve got canals, stone buildings, and advanced ceramics. They were so far ahead of everybody they knew, that they are absolutely the smartest guys anybody has ever heard of.
They’re the pinnacle of human achievement. They’re the Stone-Age Stanford. They’re the MIT of black and white pottery. Now, of course they are not “high-tech” compared to us today. However, compared to everyone around them at the time, they are just amazingly progressive ...
Their worst problem is actually their best advantage. They’ve got no water — but they hacked it. It’s a desert. There are tremendous droughts. So, in response, they just make these big ceramic pots and they fill them up with snow.They just hold on to it while everyone around them dies of thirst. They’ve got urban water tanks in their little cliff community. Whenever it rains, they just run out and top off all the jars. They’ve got Cloud Storage in there ...
And links the doom of the Walnut Canyon people to the modern computer, making the point about how long incredibly successful things really last:
I don’t think I heard any speaker at any panel here ever use the term “PC.” Where are they? It’s just vanished like the word “Computer” in the name of “Apple Computer.”
Why does nobody talk about them? Because nobody wants them, that’s why. Imagine somebody brings you a personal desktop computer here at South By, they’re like bringing it in on a trolley.
“Look, this device is personal. It computes and it’s totally personal, just for you, and you alone. It doesn’t talk to the internet. No sociality. You can’t share any of the content with anybody. Because it’s just for you, it’s private. It’s yours. You can compute with it. Nobody will know! You can process text, and draw stuff, and do your accounts. It’s got a spreadsheet. No modem, no broadband, no Cloud, no Facebook, Google, Amazon, no wireless. This is a dream machine. Because it’s personal and it computes. And it sits on the desk. You personally compute with it. You can even write your own software for it. It faithfully executes all your commands.”
So — if somebody tried to give you this device, this one I just made the pitch for, a genuinely Personal Computer, it’s just for you — Would you take it? Even for free? Would you even bend over and pick it up?
Isn’t it basically the cliff house in Walnut Canyon? Isn’t it the stone box?“Look, I have my own little stone box here in this canyon! I can grow my own beans and corn. I harvest some prickly pear. I’m super advanced here.”
I really think I’m going to outlive the personal computer. And why not? I outlived the fax machine. I did. I was alive when people thought it was amazing to have a fax machine. Now I’m alive, and people think it’s amazing to still have a fax machine ...
So, farewell then books:
I recently wrote a new novel. Funniest novel I ever wrote. It’s an ebook, you can go and look for it if you want. It doesn’t make much difference if you do or you don’t. We just don’t live in a world where novels can be important in the way that novels used to be important.
Nobody reviews them. There are no paper periodicals that talk at great length about paper novels to people who spend their lives reading paper.
The bookstore chains have been disrupted. They are collapsing. I am a novelist. I myself don’t go into bookstores very much now. They have become archaic, depressing places. They are stone cliff houses. They are half abandoned.
If I don’t go in there, certainly my readers are not going to go in there. I know where the readers went. They’re all on the internet, or in social media, just like me.
Structure by contrast (Particular to General):
People like to say that musicians reacted badly to the digital revolution. They put a foot wrong. What really happened is that the digital revolution reduces everybody to the state of musicians. Everybody — not just us bohemian creatives, but the military, political parties, the anchor stores in retail malls, academics subjected to massive open online courses.
It’s the same thing over and over. Basically, the only ones making money are the ones that have big, legal stone castles surrounded with all kinds of regulatory thorns. Meaning: the sickness industry, the bank gangsters, and the military contractors. Gothic High-Tech ...
I have seen disruption in music, literature, the arts, entertainment publishing, the fourth estate, the military, political parties, manufacturing — pretty much everywhere except finance, health, the law, and the prison/military industry. Which is why they’ve got all the money now and the rest of us are pretty much reduced to disrupted global peons.
Computers were really, truly disruptive. Mobile devices are so radically disruptive that they even disrupted computers. They’re a bigger deal then the dead bookstores. We’ve got guys who own cell phones in this world who can’t even read.
And I’m very intimate with this spectacle. I’m very keen on all its little ins and outs.
The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.
And so to the heart of the argument. About taking responsibility for 'disruption' and understanding what it means:
And then there’s this empty pretense that these innovations make the world “better.” This is a dangerous word. Like: “If we’re not making the world better, then why are we doing this at all?”
Now, I don’t want to claim that this attitude is hypocritical. Because when you say a thing like that at SouthBy: “Oh, we’re here to make the world better” — you haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naivete.
The world has a tragic dimension. This world does not always get better. The world has deserts. Deserts aren’t better. People don’t always get better.
You personally: once you’re over middle-age, when you’re becoming elderly, you don’t get better everyday. When you are elderly, you are in metabolic decline. Every day you get worse. It’s the human condition. It’s a simple truth. It is fatuous to think that culture, or politics, or society, or technology always get better. It’s just not true ...
“There’s an app to make that all better.” Okay, a billion apps have been sold. Where’s the betterness?
... You don’t have a better-o-meter. You can’t measure the length and breadth and duration of the “betterness.” “Better” is a metaphysical value judgement. It’s not a scientific quality like mass or velocity. You can’t test it experimentally. We don’t know what’s “better.” We don’t even know what’s “worse.” Which is good. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Google doesn’t want to be “evil,” but they don’t have an evilometer. They don’t have an evil avoidance algorithm.
Ending with more startling imagery that takes the speech back to where it started - Walnut Canyon:
I think the first step, really the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment: we kill.
When you disrupt the stone box, the stone box goes empty. It’s not merely irritated or disturbed, it’s dead. It’s dead media. It’s dead, it has been killed, and to be a phoenix you have to admit your complicity in the barbecue fire.
It’s your fire, it’s not somebody else’s. Yes, we killed the past. We didn’t pull the trigger on it directly, but it died for our benefit, it died through things we did.
Own up to that. Own up to that: yes, we burned it up. No one is historically innocent. Yes, we are carnivores at this barbecue. Yes, it died, we roasted it, we ate it. And the saving grace here is we eat what we kill.
Go on, eat it. No, don’t pretend to be the child bride in white lace who thinks that babies are found under the cabbages. You’re not that young, you’re twenty-six years old. You ought to be slaughtering the hog of the twentieth century, roasting it over a bonfire. Live up to it, come on.
To kill it and pretend that that was some kind of accident, that is shameful. To kill and eat it is fierce, but it’s honorable. Because you are taking the substance of the past and making it part of yourself. You are giving it new form and allowing it to take flight.
The past is ablaze, the sky is full of smoke, but the phoenix takes wing. The phoenix is a desert eagle. The phoenix is a bird of prey.
Wow. Nice work.
Slovenia and the Green Parrot
12th April 2013
Back in Belgrade in communist Yugoslavia in 1984 or thereabouts, the then Ambassador and an unusually smart Ist Sec Econ pored over a diplomatic despatch that sought to draw attention to the dismal state of the state's finances.
The basic problem was that Yugoslavia did not have Honest Money. Yes, dinars sloshed through the economy and you could buy things with dinars. But the intellectual underpinning of a successful currency was not there.
One particularly big problem was that under the so-called Yugoslav socialist self-management system responsibility for anything in particular was dispersed to the point of vanishing completely. This meant that what looked like normal banks were 'really' extensions of the enterprises that had parked their money in these organisations. So when a bank lent an enterprise a lump of dinars to (say) build a new factory, in effect the enterprise was lending money to itself on its own terms.
This in turn meant that there was no real business distance between a bank and the borrower to check how far a new investment might or might not be commercially viable. So loans could accumulate to finance stupid projects for the aggrandisement of enterprise bosses and their political sponsors backed by ... not much.
Add to all this intrigue the untransparent and corrupt ethno-political machinations between the different republic leaders, and there was everything needed for a complete fiasco. As duly occurred.
Thus the Ambassador finally sent his long and of course prescient report back to London. He warned that accelerating economic crises in Yugoslavia might lead to dangerous political tensions in this plucky post-Tito country that presented itself to a naive FCO as 'a pillar of stability in the Balkans' haha. To make it readable he made a reference in the title and text to the Green Parrot game (where you look at a complicated picture and try to find a green parrot hidden in it). The idea was that there was a lot more to the Yugo-banking scene than met the immediate eye.
This droll drafting duly amused the FCO mandarins, but did nothing to change their complacency about the prospects for Yugoslavia. What could go seriously wrong there? Nothing! Everyone knew that the place was a "pillar of stability in the Balkans"! Gad, sir, the FCO's own briefing said so!
Multifarious ruinously expensive catastrophes later, we know just how wrong they were.
Meanwhile back in 2013 Slovenia (now a full EU member and general EU goody-twoshoes) we see the Financial Times scrutinising the unfolding Slovenian banking crisis in terms that seem oddly familiar (my emphasis - link may be paywalled):
Just as in the Cypriot case, Slovenia’s troubles originate in its wobbling banking sector. The former communist country never fully privatised its lenders. These took excessive risks and gave preferential treatment to other state-owned companies. The recession exposed the limits of the cosy ties between politics and banking. Non-performing loans have jumped to 14 per cent of the banks’ portfolios, or about €7bn.
That pesky Yugoslav/Commy Green Parrot. It just never flies away.
Eurobonds - The Time Comes? Fine Soros Speech
9th April 2013
You have to hand it to George Soros. When he goes for it, he hits the target big.
Look at this speech arguing that the introduction of Eurobonds is by far the best way to solve the Eurozone's (and EU's existential crisis).
I myself have no idea what a Eurobond looks like or why it might or might not work. But what I like about this presentation is the way he comes across as taking seriously a good many alternative arguments (both substantively and politically) and working through them in terms most reasonably expert people might understand:
Germany is opposed to eurobonds on the grounds that once they are introduced there can be no assurance that the so-called periphery countries would not break the rules once again. I believe these fears are misplaced. Losing the privilege of issuing eurobonds and having to pay stiff risk premiums would be a powerful inducement to stay in compliance. Indeed the penalty would be so painful that the rules would have to call for small doses in order not to aggravate the offending country's financial position too abruptly. At the same time a the fiscal authority in charge would exercise stricter controls and disobedience would be punished by further reductions in the amount of eurobonds allowed to be issued. No government could resist such pressure...
Guarantees have a peculiar character: the more convincing they are, the less they are likely to be invoked. The US never had to pay off the debt it incurred when it converted the debt of individual states into Federal obligations. Germany has been willing to do only the minimum; that is why it had to keep escalating its commitments and is incurring actual losses. The fiscal compact, backed up by a well functioning fiscal authority would practically eliminate the risk of default. eurobonds would compare favorably with the bonds of US, UK and Japan in the financial markets.
Admittedly, Germany would have to pay more on its own debt than it does today but the exceptionally low yields on Bunds is a symptom of the disease plaguing the periphery. The indirect benefit Germany would derive from the recovery of the periphery would far outweigh the additional cost incurred on its own national debt.
The main limitation of eurobonds is that they would not eliminate the divergences in competitiveness. Individual countries would still need to undertake structural reforms. Those that fail to do so would turn into permanent pockets of poverty and dependency similar to the ones that persist in many rich countries. They would survive on limited support from European Structural Funds and remittances.
But Germany accepting eurobonds would totally change the political atmosphere and facilitate the structural reforms that are also needed. Reforms work better when trading partners are prosperous than in conditions of widespread decline. Eurobonds offer a promising environment to structural reforms that are also needed...
The rhetorical craftiness of this speech lies in the way he makes his preferred conclusion seem calm and reasonable by whittling down the arguments against it. He even throws in the heresy that maybe Germany should leave the Eurozone and allow the remaining countries to issue Eurobonds:
Obviously, it would be better for Germany to leave than Italy and equally obviously, it would be better for Germany to agree to eurobonds than to leave the Euro. The trouble is that Germany has not been put to the choice, and it has another alternative at its disposal: it can continue along the current course, always doing the minimum to preserve the euro, but nothing more.
If my analysis is correct that is not the best alternative even for Germany, except in the very near term. The situation is deteriorating and eventually it is bound to become unsustainable. The longer it takes, the greater the damage. Nevertheless, that is Germany's preferred choice, at least until after the elections.
There is a strong case for Germany to make a definitive choice whether to agree to eurobonds or to leave the euro. That is the case I came here to argue.
And this sense of his agonising over how far to speak out and when is also cleverly done:
I reflected long and hard whether I should present my case now or wait until after the elections. In the end I decided to go ahead, based on two considerations.
One is that events have their own dynamics and the crisis is likely to become more acute even before the elections. The Cyprus rescue proved me right. The other is that my interpretation of events is so radically different from the one that prevails in Germany that it will take time for it to sink in and the sooner I start the better
So he concludes in a generous 'reaching-out' way that allows those in Germany who might utterly disagree with him to change their minds graciously. He appeals to a human sense that yup, sometimes we just get things wrong, for the best possible reasons - if so it's OK to change course.
To state my own views, my first preference is eurobonds; my second is Germany leaving the euro. Either choice is infinitely better than not making a choice and perpetuating the crisis. Worst of all would be for a debtor country, like Italy, to leave the euro because it would lead to the disorderly dissolution of the European Union.
I have made some surprising assertions; notably how well eurobonds could work even without Germany. My pro-European friends simply cannot believe it. They can't imagine a euro without Germany. I think they are conflating the euro with the European Union. The two are not identical. The European Union is the goal and the euro is a means to an end. Therefore the euro ought not to be allowed to destroy the European Union.
But I may be too rational in my analysis. The European Union is conflated with the euro not only in popular narratives but also in law. Consequently the European Union may not survive Germany leaving the euro. In that case we must all do what we can to persuade the German public to abandon some of its most ingrained prejudices and misconceptions and accept eurobonds
I should like to end by emphasising how important the European Union is not only for Europe, but for the world.
The EU was meant to be the embodiment of the principles of open society. That means that perfect knowledge is unattainable. Nobody is free of prejudices and misconceptions; nobody should be blamed for having made mistakes. The blame or Schuld begins only when a mistake or misconception is identified but not corrected. That is when the principles on which the European Union was built are betrayed.
It is in that spirit that Germany should agree to eurobonds and save the European Union.
Pow! Always praise good technique.
But will it work? If I were a German, would I trust other tricksy EU countries not to find a way to freeload on any shared Eurobond system and send me the bill?
N Korea and Washington: Jaw-Jaw?
3rd April 2013
The FT has an interesting but perhaps rather mischievous piece (££) by Kishore Mahbubani (distinguished dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore) that argues for President Obama learning from centuries of wise diplomatic practice by 'picking up the phone' to talk to the North Korean leader:
... let’s go back to basics. Diplomacy was invented thousands of years ago to enable us to talk to our enemies. It prevented envoys from having their heads chopped off at rival courts. Diplomacy was never primarily about communicating with friends...
Almost any other pair of rival states would have the phone call. This reflects age-old diplomatic wisdom. As François de Callières, the special envoy of Louis XIV of France, wrote in 1716: “Every Christian prince must take as his chief maxim not to employ arms to support or vindicate his rights until he has employed and exhausted the way of reason and persuasion.”
Mr Obama should heed the advice of the sun king’s aide. (And while he is at it, he should call Tehran, too.) Every wise leader throughout history has found a way to talk to their enemies. North Korea is a scary country and it is hard to know how seriously to take its threats. But it is even harder if you do not talk to it. The time has come for the US to follow the wisdom of the ages – and to be unpredictable.
My comment is reproduced here:
"There have been many indirect encounters between US and North Korean diplomats but this is not enough ... why did Mr Kim want to talk to Mr Obama? Because he is more worried about the threat from China than from the US"
Yes, countries that profoundly disagree usually need to talk to each other. There is not much to be said for the sort of stagnant outcome we see in the USA/Cuba relationship.
But there are many ways of doing that short of two leaders having a stilted telephone exchange, as appears to be suggested as the way forward here. If the Pyongyang regime really does fear China more than the it fears the USA, there is nothing whatsoever stopping a rich top-level secret dialogue developing between themselves and Washington and any other capital on earth on how best to manage a move to a more stable situation. Nor is there any reason to think that Washington would reject it a priori. For all we know it may in fact be happening in some way.
UPDATE: as one would expect, the Americans are indeed doing their best to talk quietly to Pyongyang
Talking is not enough, and may indeed be a device to create new objectionable realities. There needs to be some sort of plausible common ground in prospect, and that in turn requires at least minimal operational trust.
The core problem here is that North Korea keeps playing a banal game of capricious blackmail that makes it impossible for any country (including Russia and China themselves) to develop any sort of trust, not least because Pyongyang makes the North Korean (and to an extent South Korean) peoples hostages of its own ruthless eccentricity.
Thus when Kim Jong-eun says 'simply' (sic) "Please ask Mr Obama to call me", this is surely a trivial propaganda stunt. He himself can initiate a process leading to dialogue if that is what he really wants (and really needs).
The article fairly points to a deep philosophical problem in diplomacy, and in life: when do you let someone with filthy boots enter your house?
There is no right answer in principle. Different conditions can be set, according to the situation.
The other big point of course is that Washington and Pyongyang are in a strange cycle of wanting to avoid losing 'face'. The very fact that Pyongyang insists on Obama picking up the telephone is all about the symbolism of "I create the problem - let anyone who wants to solve it do so through me and only on my terms".
We had enough of that rubbish with Milosevic. It may be wise, all things considered, to let Pyongyang have a fleeting puny propaganda victory by indeed initiating that phone-call. But what if the phone-call gets nowhere and so leaves Obama looking humiliated (as of course may be part of the Pyongyang point)?
Once such a commital move is made, it can not be taken back (as Nimzowitsch profoundly pointed out). We'd all be worse off.
Some very fine points of diplomatic technique here. Thoughts welcome.
Risk v Centralisation
26th March 2013
One of the themes of this blog is the idea of Uncertainty (and indirectly Causation) and how policy responds to it. Take this example:
... insofar as this new set of norms or something like them come into force, they will have Consequences.
Some of those will, as defined by Stephen Hughes et al, be 'positive': more employed people will work rather fewer hours. But some will be negative. Employers are unlikely to take on extra people to do that work now not being done. Everyone loses.
Or take this consequence. My doctor friend in the NHS tells me that a direct result of European 'Health and Safety' requirements is that doctors are qualifying with far fewer hours having been spent practising real medicine. And that this will lead inexorably to more botched operations and more costly litigation against the NHS: "suing doctors is the business to be in"
So, Mr Hughes, tell us. When you have your complex operation in a few years' time, who would you rather have leading it?
The doctor with lots of experience gained from tiring longer hours earlier in his/her career?
Or the bright, untired less experienced doctor who tends to make more ruinous mistakes carving through your pallid flesh, thanks to the EU Parliament being unable to mind its own business?
Put it another way. We hugely understimate the fact that so many of our institutions and ways of thinking flow from the way limited information was organised by the then available technology. So arrangements set up years ago to give ourselves a better chance to cope with Uncertainty may be familiar and even comforting, but now simply not relevant in a world that allows (compels?) sompletely different ways of doing things.
Thus to this fine Reason interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. Read the whole thing. So smart.
... Let’s compare the banking system to, say, transportation. Every plane crash makes the next plane crash less likely and our transportation safer. Now, with the banking system, [a failure] leads to increased probability of failure of an entire system. That’s a bad system.
Reason: What’s the best way to stop that so you’re not allowing the problem to replicate throughout the system?
Taleb: What fragilizes an overall system? Three things: One, centralization. Decentralization spreads mistakes, makes smaller mistakes. Decentralization is where we converge with libertarians. A second one is low debt. The third is skin in the game...
... Debt leads to fragility. We’ve discovered since the Babylonians that debt has systemic consequences whereas equity doesn’t. Let’s say that you have two brothers. One of them borrowed and they both had predictions about the future—forecasts. One brother borrows. The other issues equity. The one who borrows will go bust if he makes a mistake. The one who issues equity will fluctuate but will be able to survive a forecast error.
Reason: But is it also true that the brother with equity can never really have that big payday?
Taleb: For him! But overall the system is well distributed. There’s an accounting equality. Debt traditionally has blown up systems and has been very good for governments to wage war. I’m not against credit. I’m against leverage...
... The problem we have had in almost all Western countries is that nominally they say they are decentralizing, but effectively they’ve [given] more and more power to the central government. You want decisions to be spread out. Government debt is a result of centralization, and typically the cause of more centralization. It’s a very bad circle.
Reason: When you think about the future are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? Or is that the wrong way to approach it?
Taleb: It’s the wrong way to view it. My view of the future is you don’t have to be right, you have to have a dominant strategy to act as if you were pessimistic. I don’t want the pilot of the plane to be optimistic. But I want the flight attendants to be extremely optimistic. So it’s functional. I don’t believe in beliefs...
Reason: Where are the signal incidents of decentralization that’s leading to better outcomes, broadly speaking? Where do you see that either in the United States or in the West or in particular pockets and subcultures?
Taleb: Take Switzerland as a culture, where nobody can name the president easily but they can name the president of France. This is a good society because you have a lot of volatility—but at the local level, the lower level, micro level, translating to macro level stability. So Switzerland is a well-decentralized system.
The problem is size. As size gets larger you have some gains of economies of scale, whatever it is. But you have some losses in governance, in a lot of other things.
Spot on. Government is now too big to be flexible. So it is boring money on an unfeasibly large scale to bribe voters. And in turn it is failing, and dragging us all down.
If you don't believe me, look at this graph. Something extraordinary slowly but surely is happening to the world's money supply, that looks to be trending to the Totally Unmanageable:
... the path of least resistance is simply to continue to issue more and more money (so long as it has any purchasing power). The alternative, permitting the collapse of the banking system, businesses and even government itself, is unpalatable. Meanwhile, the dollar has a brief window of zero interest rates before the effect of excessive increases in money quantities on prices graduates from inflating asset values to inflating prices for food, energy and other consumables.
These four separate problems apply to all major currencies, as well as the dollar. At some point confidence in fiat currencies will begin to slide, to be reflected in a surprise fall in their purchasing powers, evidenced by a jump in prices. This should be in the back of everyone’s mind as we navigate through the increasing economic and financial difficulties of 2013.
Debt + over-centralisation. Creating systemic weakness. And even if it understands these trends, no government is prepared to face up to the underlying logic of this situation. Who can blame them? Where to start?
Cyprus: Insolvency and National Sovereignty
26th March 2013
Here is an interesting (but not altogether clear) piece about Cyprus and 'national insolvency' by Stephen Kinsella at Harvard Business Review:
... national borrowing on the modern scale really only began around the seventeenth century. Before that in the monarchical era, so-called "court bankers" provided cash-strapped sovereigns with loans and quite often served as royal tax collectors and handled other fiduciary matters for them. Monarchical debts, when they were paid, were usually paid at the people's expense. For example the land now known as Pennsylvania was given by the Crown to William Penn to repay a 16,000 pound debt.
With the passing of the monarchical governance structure, responsibility for a nation's debt moved from the rulers to the ruled. Henceforth these were the people's debts, issued by a national bank, the Bank of England — in return for the privilege of producing its own banknotes — on behalf of the people, to their elected rulers.
I believe the analogy between national finances and insolvency is damaging. If politicians and policy makers believe their country is, literally, insolvent, then they behave differently towards their creditors. For politicians of debtor states, suddenly vast privatizations make sense, because of course you're selling some of your remaining assets.
Suddenly the will of the people of the debtor nation becomes secondary to the will of the nation's creditors. Suddenly democracy is an expensive irrelevance in the face of an overwhelming technocratic desire for a speedy, and market-friendly, solution.
There's more (my emphasis):
The single European currency project, in depriving member states of the ability to issue their own currency, has created the conditions for something close to national insolvency when economies slump. With high debt-to-national output ratios, current account deficits, fiscal deficits, and, putting it mildly, shaky banking systems, the debtor countries of Europe look very much like insolvent firms to the markets.
Their sovereign power to issue currency is gone, meaning only painful deflation through the wage channels are possible. Leaving the currency union is very, very costly. The solution is national austerity. Indeed, in some cases, like Cyprus, Ireland, and Italy, the banking systems are so big relative to the rest of the economy as to make the sovereign itself almost vestigial.
The saving of the banking system and the system as a whole is the prime concern of Europe's policy makers — typically representing the interests of creditor countries — but what will take its place?
A more or less autocratic system of coercion is the logical outcome of these policies. They come from using ideas like national insolvency to reduce the grip a people have on their sovereignty.
But there is no asset valuation concept in the founding documents of any nation state; nor should there be.
That last sentence is curious. Why 'should' there be no asset valuation concept in the founding documents of any nation state?
There is in fact always an implicit asset valuation, namely the ability of the state to coerce its own people to extract more taxes and so pay off debts. The 'asset' is the future work of the populace and the ability to extract value from it. Without that why would anyone lend money to a state when that state wanted to spend more than it was taking in from taxes?
The author is right to identify the emerging 'more or less autocratic system of coercion' as the logical outcome of EZ policies. And he's right that this reflects the fact that the EU/EZ projects do require people to have less grip on 'their' (sic) sovereignty. But that's not a bug. It's the key feature!
Nasty parochial national sovereignty is now required to give way to bold shiny higher EU-level sovereignty, in which the mass of Germans heavily outvote the puny Greeks and Cypriots - democracy! I have added a comment to the piece in this sense.
So, question. Is 'national sovereignty' (putting to one side the increasingly tricky of what a 'nation' is these days) a conservative, old-fashioned, obstructive force? Or is it something progressive and noble, the one unfailing must-be-maintained-at-all-costs barrier between the masses and the brutish technocratic markets?
Who should have more say in how the EU deals with its currency and its debts? Large numbers of Germans or small numbers of other countries' citizens? What does democracy as a basis for sovereignty mean in this context?
And, as usual, the only question that matters: who decides?
Obama's Warm Words in Israel
24th March 2013
Swing by National Review Online to catch up on conservative views on President Obama's visit to Israel and what do you find? Not much. In fact almost nothing. Which goes to show just how strikingly well Obama did in behaving warmly towards Israel.
Yes, the 'optics' of Obama appearing under a huge Arafat picture were rather strange. But what about what he actually said?
I have been looking at three major Obama public pronouncements during his visit. You can find them here at the White House site, that dutifully records almost every public word the President offers.
My analysis is at PunditWire:
During the first Obama Administration we find the Internet clogged with Obama’s many sharp disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and wider Israeli policies. The White House cheerfully let the world know that it was feuding with the Israeli leadership on issues great and small.
Now in 2013 behold the language and message of the President’s public words in Israel:
“I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word, every gesture is carefully scrutinized. (Laughter.) But I want to clear something up just so you know — any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet. (Applause.) That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.” (Laughter.)
The President even deploys the widely reviled Z-word in a positive sense:
“While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland… Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea — the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” (Applause.)
... The tone at the President’s joint press conference with the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas was completely different. Partly because what works in a major set-piece speech or at a state banquet does not work at a shared media event. But mainly because it was far harder to show underlying warmth in the political or personal relationships. For example:
“So one of my main messages today — the same message I’m conveying in Israel — is that we cannot give up. We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is.
As I said with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, we will continue to look for steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build the trust and the confidence upon which lasting peace will depend. And I very much appreciate hearing President Abbas’s ideas on what those steps could be.”
This is the solid, dull, carefully scripted language of international relations. Not words and wit shared between hard-headed friends who know that for all their ups and downs they are talking to each other on the same emotional wavelength.
The result? President Obama has certainly knocked on the head (for a while) the argument from his domestic opponents that he is 'anti-Israel'. Perhaps thereby he creates some credit in the political bank to be credible in delivering tough messages to the Israelis as and when a negotiating crunch comes. But was it wise even in those terms to be seen by all sides to give the Palestinian cause almost a desultory amount of time and attention?
Or was this visit 'really' about something else entirely, namely sweeping aside any misunderstandings with Israel (and helping Israel get back on track with Turkey) so as to be able to work with them in managing the more immediate horrendous and potentially inter-related problems of Syria and Iran? Not to forget the gruesome economic situation in Egypt.
Politics is/are all about priorities and timing. If you are a US President keen to work up a respectable second-term foreign policy legacy you might conclude that as things stand the Palestinian cause will just have to wait for a while, as other much bigger Arab/Muslim dramas unfold. And that in this failing Middle East region Israel for all its faults represents a stable partner you can more or less rely on.
Eurozone Wobbling Tightrope Walkers
21st March 2013
Back from sharing with the Croatian Diplomatic Academy some training thoughts on Lobbying and Negotiating in the European Union. With the Cyprus drama helpfully unfolding before our startled eyes.
These fiendishly complex financial/banking negotiations are impossible for normal people to follow, although anyone following my Twitter feed will have seen plenty of superb analytical pieces by different experts.
For example Frances Coppola, who has a superb writing style that explains things in ways even I can understand (sometimes):
The proposed deposit haircut of 6.75% for deposits under 100,000 Euros looks harsh and unfair. And indeed it is. But not because deposits were ever "safe". Compared with the alternative - bank failure, sovereign insolvency and unrecoverable loss of most of their money - this was a good deal for small depositors. And it may still be improved.
What is harsh and unfair is that depositors have been led to believe that small deposits were guaranteed, when the supposed "guarantee" is not worth the paper it is written on. In the Eurozone, deposit insurance is only as good as the ability of the sovereign to honour it. If the sovereign cannot honour it, it is worthless. And that is the situation not only in Cyprus, but also in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and possibly Spain. None of these sovereigns could borrow, print or otherwise raise the money to meet claims under the EU's deposit insurance scheme.
It is time that depositors were told the truth. The lack of a common deposit insurance scheme in the Eurozone means that deposit insurance is a luxury available only to those countries that can afford it - which are also the countries that least need it. Everywhere else, it is a sham.
Or try Beate Reszat, who wonders whether the time has come to retreeat to simpler and more manageable currency arrangements across Europe. Masses of subtle ideas here delivered clearly:
After 40 years experience with regional currency regimes, which eventually all failed, maybe the time has come for European monetary policy to choose a minimalist approach returning to national currencies and focusing on sporadic coordinated discretionary measures to influence market conditions and expectations, and to content themselves with being one stabilising element among others in times of turbulence.
Mitigating transition effects, regaining flexibility, and slowly and patiently restoring credibility and trust in European institutions and processes, taking along all member countries on an equal footing, should be the primary objective. Over 60 years of successful European economic and political integration would be worth it.
More generally, as regular readers here know, on our courses we explain that one way to approach negotiation is to move away from surface Positions and explore instead underlying Interests and Needs. What are those Interests and Needs in the Eurozone fiasco?
It's easy enough to explain the broad case for maintaining pan-European financial stability, even if extraordinary measures are required that set bad new precedents: the possible costs of abandoning the Euro are unfathomable, so doing that looks more risky even than the damaging new policies now emerging. The high tightrope walker with no safety-net is having to perform ever more manic gyrations to avoid toppling off, yet so far those gyrations appear to be working!
But Chaos Theory teaches us that in such radically unstable circumstances even tiny vibrations can set in motion far-reaching bigger changes. And maybe in fact the tightrope-walker starts to think that she/he is just not agile enough to stay on the rope in the conditions now prevailing, however feverishly she/he wriggles. Better to try to stay aloft in the hope that somehow balance and equilibrium can be restored? Or to try to make a controlled but risky jump down from a great height in the hope of hitting the deck under conditions she/he controls a bit?
Or maybe the tightrope walker misjudges her/his own skill, thinking that balance can be maintained when in fact (ie as events will show) a point of no return has been passed?
No 'right' answer on tactics. But for now we can be sure that the highest level guardians of Eurozone stability, namely the ECB inner elite, will do whatever they can to stay aloft. Heck, their professional reputations and salaries are at stake. They have Interests and Needs too, you know!
How about 'Fairness' as a basic Need as it might be said to underpin Trust?
This is hard to call.
On the face of it, it is Not Fair that 'ordinary' Cypriots who have money in the bank supposedly under a legal guarantee up to a certain level should have a slice of that grabbed by the state. Collectivist looting!
Yet as Frances Coppola points out (see above), those guarantees are worth nothing in a state that has bungled its finances to the degree Cyprus has done. All Cypriots have had the benefit of Cyprus scooping in global money via its comfy and not, ahem, invariably transparent tax arrangements. Plus check out this powerful piece by Michael Weiss on the many Russian (and Syrian) angles in the story.
In other words, trying to work out what any given Cypriot 'deserves' in this imbroglio is impossible. Cypriots might hoot that they have been aided and abetted by the European Union in countless ways, so the EU too should suffer. Yet even if there is a logical or accurate point there, it is a morally unworthy one:
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine
What of wealthy Russians who have invested money in Cyprus banks? They have moved funds on a large scale out of their own uncertain country to an EU jurisdiction that treated them more than generously, and that in one way or the other they tried to squeeze in their favour. No-one elsewhere in Europe will cry bitterly if such people now take a sizeable hit.
Nonetheless it is a sign of just how unstable - and weak - the Eurozone now is that top EU folk are rushing to Moscow to see what if anything the Russians might do to help. In such circumstances the Russian elite and their oligarch chums have several advantages, not least a steely cynical far-sightedness. But that does not guarantee that they'll get an outcome they like, and they might just underestimate the no less steely cynicism and acumen of the Germans who are driving EU policy. Chaotic Eurozone collapse could wallop Russia's interests too.
And let's also remember that there is little difference between the state grabbing money from your bank account and the state 'inflating debt away' by debauching the currency. Either way force is being used improperly to cheat you in ways that are less or more subtle, "but it's in your own interests".
UPDATE: Maybe there is a way forward?
Again, the benefit of all this financial sleight-of-hand was the central bank printed money for Ireland today, and Ireland didn't have to pay it back for many years. As Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times explains, it was a deliberately convoluted way of printing money for the government to hide that they were printing money for the government.
Cyprus should pull an Ireland, and force the ECB to make a decision. Either the ECB refuses to accept guaranteed natural gas bonds as collateral, and Cyprus gets booted from the euro, or the ECB relents, and the panic subsides.
In other words, make the ECB decide whether the euro is worth printing 5.8 billion euros.
What does it all mean?
Only that we have created financial systems that are in principle so unstable that managing them goes beyond the wits of even the best minds on the planet. The Eurozone is the most staggering example, but there are others. Governments in Europe are fast draining their ability to cope - their blundering moves are too slow and too inaccurate and too inexplicable to the public.
Plus there is one appalling even deeper dynamic in play: demography. As Europe's birth-rates ebb away and older people start to require ever-more expensive healthcare, the longer-term EU 'social model' is in principle unaffordable. So are our fundamental mainstream economic models (based on an historic expectation of paying later for spending now) actually sustainable, when there just may be too few people around in years to come to generate the income to service the debts?
My guess? As trust in the technical capacity of governments to run a currency honorably declines, expect rival innovative systems like Bitcoin to look more credible.
And, as if by magic, dishonest governments fear honest competition and begin to mull new 'regulations'.
This is where the real financial battleground of the next century or so will emerge. Between on the one side states and their tiny privileged elites clinging to the right to control people by controlling (and if necessary stealing) their money, and on the other side millions people demanding the choice to take responsibility for themselves.
14th March 2013
Those readers who have a significant pond may have problems with extracting voluminous pond-weeds.
We today were advised on how best to clear them.
Tie a rope securely to a metal rake, then heave the rake out into the middle of the pond. Wait until the sharp end sinks as far as it will go. Drag rake back to the bank and detach mass of weeds.
Works a treat.
Especially when you remember to hold on to the rope.
Remembering Zoran Djindic: 10 Years Later
13th March 2013
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Here is the piece I wrote on the 8th anniversary. It mentions the proliferation of insane Serbian conspiracy theories somehow hinting that I was linked to the assassination and/or lobbied for the then Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic to replace him:
These loony theories take on a life of their own eventually, as was shown by a feisty TV reporter on the supposedly sensible B92 station who asked to interview me when I was in Belgrade las t week on what happened around the time of the killing. Her questions showed the strange lines of thinking which now prevail:
Q: Did the British government warn Djindjic that he might be at risk? (Idiotic insinuation #1: that we knew about these dangers and did or did not do everything possible to help avert them)
A: I talked to Djindjic myself a couple of days before he died. I had no need to tip him off as he himself was very well aware of the risk he was running, but breezily dismissed his would-be killers as 'cowards' who would never dare take the fatal step
Q: Did the British government lobby to end the state of emergency after his death just when the investigation was getting close to eg Kostunica? (Idiotic insinuation #2: that eg HMG were 'behind' the full truth coming out)
A: HMG and other European governments fully supported the imposition of the state of emergency, but after a few weeks it started to look like weakness, not strength, a point made by many governments in a friendly way. No more than that
Q: Why had I been so close to so many politicians at the time? (Idiotic insinuation #3: that the US and UK Ambassadors were playing a full and devious part in key political decisions)
A: Because that was my job, duh. There was a huge effort on in 2001/02 to help the Djindjic government drive forward its reform programmes, with senior delegations from Western capitals arriving all the time. Of course I had to keep close to Djindjic and others to help get things done.
And so on.
Plus it has extended extracts from one of my finest FCO telegrams, sent the day after the assassination attempting to summarise Djindjic's role and significance in the Serbian story:
So a brilliant career - but an ambiguous legacy. The key thing for us is that unlike most post-Yugoslavia leaders Djindjic really understood modern Europe. He felt at home with European friends, talking fluent English and German. If he was corrupt, he wanted Serbia to move to normal European levels of corruption. He realised that to lead the bewildered and demoralised Serbia population to Europe required a vast upheaval, however unpopular that might be. His government bravely drove forward reform laws at unprecedented speed, albeit at the cost of declining ratings.
I came to know Zoran Djindjic fairly well, and saw for myself his wit, energy and insight. I will miss him. Serbia loses an all too rare local European hero. We lose an all too rare true Balkan friend.
I have been running through sundry Google searches this afternoon seeing what new nonsense and lies are being written about me.
Here is a classic passage from a piece last year at the Pescanik website, a strongly liberal and ostensibly sensible Serbian website that this time has made a complete fool of itself (my translation):
The day after the assassination British Ambassador Charles Crawford appeared at the HQ of the Democratic Party (DS) and recommended Covic as Prime Minister. This weirdo with diplomatic immunity brought kangaroos from a Belgrade zoo to a reception, he gave political asylum at his Belgrade residence to fiery English football fans whom the police had shut up in a hotel, and he handed his letters of accreditation to Kostunica instead of Milosevic
Haha. So many banal errors in so few words.
Just for the record (again), I met a senior DS official Aleksandra Joksimovic on the day after the killing of Zoran Djindjic to try to find out what the DS leadership was going to do about appointing a new Prime Minister - not surprisingly London was keen to know what was likely to happen next. I forget what exactly I said, but the essence of it was that Deputy PM Nebojsa Covic was presumably a strong candidate: he had done a superb job in working tirelessly to stabilise the restless Albanian community in southern Serbia and to promote intelligent Serbian policies on the Kosovo problem. If he got the position, London would support him as it would support any new PM in these terrible circumstances
Joksimovic (not surprisingly nervous and stressed out by the events of the previous day) angrily took this as me pushing Covic's case at the expense of other DS candidates (Covic was not a DS party member). I told her that this was definitely not my intention, but I liked Covic and thought that he would do a good job. Anyway, it was up to DS to decide so let them get on with it.
When a few days later the DS announced that the new Prime Minister would be Zoran Zivkovic, locally famed as the black leather-jacketed mayor of Nis, I reported to London that this was a solid choice and that he had made a powerful first impression when addressing the diplomatic corps.
This modest episode has metastised in the Democratic Party's neurotic imagination into something far more sinister and far-reaching, namely a key moment in a fiendish UK/US plot to overthrow and even kill the key UK/US political ally in the region.
Why would we do this ostensibly stupid thing? No-one says. But the very fact that it is blatantly ridiculous makes the depth of the conspiracy all the deeper!
And lo, as the years pass the role of Weirdo Crawford in the murky circumstances of the killing of Zoran Djindjic tends to become an article of Fact.
Two actual facts for Serbia to consider. On my last day as Ambassador in Belgrade I paid a private visit to Djindjic's grave and laid flowers in his honour. And I gave our family trampoline to his wife for their children to enjoy.
Zoran Djindjic was a politician who resembled an arcade video-player - he swerved through political asteroids and explosions, however fast and furious they came in his direction. I remember suggesting to him that his rival Kostunica had just made a good statement about something or other. "Yes, but it was about ten days too late!" came back the instant astute reply. I realised that what he had said made perfect sense - Djindjic had a startling insight into political timing.
I also recall sitting in when Djindjic at No 10 was talking with PM Tony Blair about Kosovo or war criminals or somesuch. Tony Blair said something to the effect that the most important thing in politics was holding course when things got tough. Djindjic shot back that the most important thing in politics was getting votes. Haha.
Basically, Djindjic was far too smart and far-sighted to be a successful post-Yugoslav politician. But because he was so smart and far-sighted he was a threat to all sorts of vile political/criminal interests, and so they murdered him. What a loss for Europe and his own ungrateful country.
And if (as you do) you want More on the interminable drivel that comes with being a leading foreign diplomat in the former Yugoslav space, try this exchange.
I should be ashamed of myself! Both in general and particular!
And I am.
UPDATE The good folk at Pescanik have been in touch and agreed that the article they carried was 'unstable' insofar as it referred to me. It was part of a series carrying different points of view on the Djindjic assassination, including from non-Pescanik writers. They are truly penitent:
We really hate to imagine you, somewhere at that green and rainy island of yours, upset again with some crazy Serbs
Hvala - nema problema - sve u redu! Takve stvari se desavaju.
Huhne v Pryce: Justice Resoundingly Done
11th March 2013
It's not usual that the world gets a chance to see almost live the words of a judge handing down a sentence. Yet today's sentencing of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce gave us that rare chance.
Here are the words of Sweeney J. And powerful words they are too. When a British judge is on top form, the result is peerless: clarity, precision, nuance and above all a strong sense that, yes, a good and fair decision has been reached.
Not to forget the dashes of acid wit:
On the one hand you are a man of positive previous good character (about whom others have spoken extremely well) and who has given valuable public service, you have fallen from a great height (albeit that that is only modest mitigation given that it is a height that you would never have achieved if you had not hidden your commission of such a serious offence in the first place), and you have had to wait some time to be sentenced.
The rationale for the sentences given? Again, well put:
To the extent that anything good has come out of this whole process, it is that now, finally, you have both been brought to justice for your joint offence. Any element of tragedy is entirely your own fault.
The underlying offence was speeding, the points swapping was considered and deliberate and done to gain joint advantage, the perversion of justice which resulted from it lasted for many years, and (as I have already observed) its eventual revelation and correction reflects no credit on either of you.
Offending of this sort strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system. As has been observed before, the purpose of the points system is that those who drive badly eventually have to be punished by way of disqualification, which serves to discourage bad driving and thereby to protect the public from it.
The system depends, in relation to those caught on camera, upon the honest completion of the relevant form or forms. The dishonest completion of such forms is all too easy to do, and the consequent points’ swapping often goes unnoticed and unchecked.
However, it must be clearly understood that it amounts to the serious criminal offence of doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice and that, save in the most exceptional circumstances, an immediate custodial sentence must follow.
Indeed, in my view, this is the type of offence which requires the court to underline that deterrence is one of the purposes of sentence...
"Boo! Disgrace!", some hoot. "Why these horrid custodial sentences for a victimless crime!"
The victims are all those who were put at risk by the fact that Huhne carried on driving when he should have been stopped. And the people who have had to pay taxes to get to the bottom of how this grotesque couple, lost in their seniority and vanity, lied and deceived assorted public servants over and over again. And those of us who behave honestly and take the hit as we should when the law in its blundering majesty crunches down on us.
This last one is the key point. People who enjoy every possible financial and professional privilege can be expected to set an example for behaving properly. As, for the sake of example, my wife and I do.
But that works - is credible as part of a general social contract - only if people who try to cheat the system and deliberately scheme to 'pervert the course of justice' get firmly punished in a way that hurts and deters.
Here the scheming and cheating and manifold repeated public lying took many forms over many years, and wasted far more public money than the public purse will ever get back in terms of direct costs recoverable from Huhne/Pryce themselves. So, justice has been resoundingly done.
For me the truly baffling feature of the whole case was not the blithe dishonesty of C Huhne, a fellow whose preening self-satisfaction and ambition were already copiously on display when we were both students at Oxford back in the 1970s.
Rather it is that someone as supposedly sophisticated as V Pryce allowed herself to succumb to the slippery friendship and even more slippery blandishments of Sunday Times journalist-cum-schemer Isabel Oakeshott.
The many emails between Pryce and Oakeshott tell the grisly story. For me the key one is Oakeshott's email of 1930 on 9 March 2011.
Answering Pryce's well-founded emailed concerns that the path she was on might get her too into deep trouble, Oakeshott slyly notes that the newspaper have consulted their lawyers and "there is some risk to you (it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise".
But whoosh, she then quickly moves to emphasise the bright side of the story crashing out - CH's career would be in tatters - and argues that the risk of damage to Pryce can be 'minimised' by 'handling it all very carefully': "My own view is that you would come out of it fine, if we chose the right words, but of course there would be a storm".
This email was a bright steady flame luring the gormless gullible fluttering Pryce to her doom. Oakeshott must be taken to have known from the Sunday Times lawyers that the risk to Pryce of being convicted for all her machinations was not modest but rather considerable. Hence insofar as she was asserting friendship, the only honourable advice to Pryce at this point was: "I'm sorry, but it's now clear that you too are now in very seriously deep legal waters. Get a lawyer to advise you properly. Fast. Then decide what if anything you want to do with this story."
Instead she played down these risks to Pryce in search of 'the story' (ie to boost her own name by selling a few more Murdoch newspapers with this trash), with the stunning results for Pryce and Huhne we saw today.
It is especially contemptible (NB in my own view, based on what I have read) that Oakeshott now deploys the supposedly deflecting argument that Pryce was getting proper legal advice through her Clapham friend and senior barrister and part-time judge, Constance Briscoe ("Vicky was getting advice from a judge - you can't get any better than that!"). Briscoe too has now crashed into professional ignominy through her own stupidity.
As Oakeshott knows perfectly well, there is all the difference in the world between (a) getting formal legal advice from a lawyer 100% detached from the issues who can take a hard, dispassionate look at all the facts and give clear advice; and (b) falling into the trap of cooking up mischievous evasions with a senior lawyer down the road who herself is obviously behaving with utter impropriety. To skulk behind this sort of argument is surely poor on a professional journalist level.
My old friend at the FT always used to say that journalism is simple: "the truth is the best story". Here Isabel Oakeshott herself played a key role in intricate manoeuvres by Pryce to manipulate the course of justice, with a view to wilfully harming the career of a senior serving politician for private reasons unrelated to his job. Is she lucky to escape prosecution too?
All in all, a startling tale of unforced middle-class folly and media manipulation on a grand, tragic scale. The last word with Sweeney J:
I make clear that your lies and your endeavour to manipulate the process of the court will not add a day to your sentence, although they are likely in due course be relevant to the issue of costs...
The truth is not only the best story. It tends to be a lot cheaper.
Compounding Stagnation? Meet Consequences.
10th March 2013
One recurring theme of this website is Consequences, and where they come from.
My main conclusion after scrutinising the human race for some 50 years is that this is the hardest of all ideas to understand: (i) that, yes, there was a time when what you see around you did not exist, and (ii) that the way things look now reflects choices made for more or less good reasons many years, sometimes even centuries, previously.
Another way to put it is that we ascribe to things existing now raisons' d'être reflecting our own prejudices or hopes, neglecting the true reason why they are the way they are.
Take, say, democracy. Or the mass media. Both have the current form they have for reasons of information management going back deep into the past.
It was never technically possible to consult voters quickly and measure their opinions, so it is no surprise that centralised top-down, elites-know-best principles and institutions emerged as the way to make democracy work, much to the satisfaction of both Left and Right. Does that still make sense in a world where voters can be consulted in real time? Not really. Not that flash-mob rule is any better. But the current supposed balance between rulers and voters is inherently unstable.
Likewise as it became possible to centralise expensively huge printing-presses, what happened? Huge centralised newspapers displaced ad hoc pamphleteering. TV technology was difficult and expensive to run, so at first only a very few TV channels emerged.
These oligopolistic advantage having prevailed over many decades, we all start to see them as somehow 'normal'. Whereas they are only an unmissable target waiting to be toppled as IT empowers citizens and erodes their fat unwieldy structures.
Adapting to change presents large organisations with horrendous problems, especially where IT is concerned. How to stop mid-stream what the organisation is doing and change processes and goals to what is now possible, as opposed to what fr years has seemed essential and successful? The Foreign Office, by most bureaucratic standards a fairly small if highly dispersed organisation, has suffered mightily with managing Change of this sort.
Nowhere is this dilemma more acute than in banks and healthcare. Banks and hospitals literally have to keep going day and night lest terrific damage be done to key customers. So the temptation is to do only what is capable of being done simply and safely to improve processes behind the scenes, hoping for the best that somehow the operational contradictions and missed opportunities that this improvisatory policy represents will be containable.
That often works well enough in the short term. But as time passes the internal difficulties of running improvised systems start to compound up, and the whole structure becomes more and more precariously unbalanced.
All of which is a rambling introduction to this truly magnificent piece by Frances Coppola about the legacy systems problems at RBS bank:
The existence of ancient "legacy" systems within the modern banking systems architecture is not necessarily to do with lack of investment, as Alastair Winter suggested, though fast growth and acquisitions complicate IT architectures and can make systems vulnerable. I shall return to the likely effect of RBS's aggressive expansion strategy shortly.
But the real problem is the size, complexity and criticality of these old systems - plus the fact that many of them are written in progamming languages that are not widely used now, so there are skills shortages among IT staff. Many of these systems are also poorly documented (comments in code were something of a rarity when these systems were written) and their functions are poorly understood. Replacing them without affecting functionality is therefore not an easy task.
Even replacing a single program can have adverse effects if the program is not properly understood, as I discovered when my team replaced a start-of-day batch program in a systems upgrade on one occasion: the old program was complex and poorly documented, we (perhaps inevitably) failed to understand exactly what it did and we therefore subtly changed its functionality without realising it.
Fortunately the changes we made didn't cause major problems, and it wasn't a major retail banking system anyway. But imagine that, scaled up to an entire suite of retail banking applications running millions of bank accounts, with trillions of transactions going through every day? No wonder banks have shied away from replacing these systems. The risks, and the associated costs, are terrifying
And so on. Do read it all, and marvel at the way she lays out these issues so deftly.
In other words, when we stand aghast at the 'problems of the NHS' or the 'problems caused by banks' we tend to complain only about what we see and what we can more or less understand. Those things indeed may be bad enough.
But underneath them are indeed staggering technical issues of command and control and information management that may not be properly understood by anyone at all.
The issue is not 'too big to fail'. It's 'too big and too slow to be able to manage change'.
And fail they do. Where 'they' equals banks, healthcare systems, USSR, nation states, EU, one-party rule in the Middle East, newspapers, and a very long list of other hitherto solid-seeming phenomena.
So. Farewell then, Hugo Chavez
6th March 2013
This account by William J Dobson over at Slate of the miserable failure of Hugo Chavez is the best one I have read so far. It has some splendid lines:
The political ideology Chávez left behind, Chavismo, was a demonstrable failure for the Venezuelan people, but it is not as if it ever failed Chávez himself ...
... unlike Castro and many other autocrats, Chávez didn’t fear elections; He embraced them. Most opposition leaders will tell you that Venezuelan elections are relatively clean. The problem isn’t Election Day - it’s the other 364 days ...
... Chávez took a populist message and married it to an autocratic scheme that allowed him to consolidate power. The net effect over Chávez’s years was a paradoxical one: With each election Venezuela lost more of its democracy
Chavismo as a political project is not possible without Chávez.* As a guiding force, there was no real substance to it beyond the man at the center. What does it stand for? Populism, socialism, militarism, xenophobia, nationalism, Marxism, anti-Americanism, class warfare, Bolivarian revolution, lawlessness, corruption, financial collapse—it depends on where you stand. It was always an amalgam, never something pure, clear, or fixed ... A man whose style, voice, and methods were so unpredictable that it took his opponents more than a decade to even understand whom they were opposing.
Even the pieces lauding Chavez and his work for 'the poor' are damning but in different ways. One day he met a poor person - and gave her a smart flat! Praise the Lord! The munificent robber handing out the loot!
The strange thing about these nihilistic anti-Western anti-imperialist ravers is that they really do seem to believe in magic. That through sheer intensity of abusive rhetoric and by ignoring basic issues of trustworthiness and responsibility and consistency and honour and prudence they can create a Sustainable New Order (and line their family's pockets, of course). This vapid ignorant utopianism defies gravity and the rules of the physical world. It has to crash. And crash it does.
In Venezuela's case the crash was delayed because the country has oil and so can buy time for its leaders' stupidity. Egypt? Not so fortunate. Look at how pitifully small the loans now needed are, and how even then Egypt struggles to keep its nose above water.
But that oil will sit there as useless sludge in the ground if the world's best technology firms do not help extract and process it. Chavez treated them with contempt. The lasting result of Chavismo is likely to be these firms and other serious international investors driving a much harder bargain in years to come.
And so, as we have seen elsewhere, the compound interest effects of Chavez' absurdity will echo on down the generations to come.
We Enter the Age of Cyborg Insects, Robo-Rats
18th February 2013
... let's also agree that we are at a technological and civilisational turning-point.
For now these high-precision UAV/drones and their supporting networks are still controlled by a handful of states. Good. But the technology will leak and get cheaper and better. Not so good.
In due course the terrorists themselves will get their hands on the kit that allows them to launch remote micro-attacks against us.
These days we can just about stop the IRA lobbing a mortar bomb into the garden of No 10 Downing St. How do we plan to stop a terrorist drone the size of a small soup-plate armed with a lethal poison dart wafting quietly over St James's Park and hovering in the trees near the Trooping of the Colour, waiting to zoom down using its face recognition technology and stab King William as he takes the Royal Salute? Or a flock of them zig-zagging over London, nipping to and fro and bumping off random civilians?
Things are going to change a bit.
Here are two more fascinating and chilling pieces about this technology.
The first looks at the intellectual and commercial momentum behind development in this sector:
At least 50 other countries have drones, and some, notably China, Israel, and Iran, have their own manufacturers. Aviation firms—as well as university and government researchers—are designing a flock of next-generation aircraft, ranging in size from robotic moths and hummingbirds to Boeing’s Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-fueled behemoth with a 150-foot wingspan that can cruise at 65,000 feet for up to four days.
More than a thousand companies, from tiny start-ups like Miser’s to major defense contractors, are now in the drone business—and some are trying to steer drones into the civilian world. Predators already help Customs and Border Protection agents spot smugglers and illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S. NASA-operated Global Hawks record atmospheric data and peer into hurricanes. Drones have helped scientists gather data on volcanoes in Costa Rica, archaeological sites in Russia and Peru, and flooding in North Dakota.
So far only a dozen police departments, including ones in Miami and Seattle, have applied to the FAA for permits to fly drones. But drone advocates—who generally prefer the term UAV, for unmanned aerial vehicle—say all 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are potential customers. They hope UAVs will soon become essential too for agriculture (checking and spraying crops, finding lost cattle), journalism (scoping out public events or celebrity backyards), weather forecasting, traffic control. “The sky’s the limit, pun intended,” says Bill Borgia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin. “Once we get UAVs in the hands of potential users, they’ll think of lots of cool applications.”
... The Air Force has nonetheless already constructed a “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson for flight-testing small drones. It’s a cavernous chamber—35 feet high and covering almost 4,000 square feet—with padded walls. Micro-aviary researchers, much of whose work is classified, decline to let me witness a flight test. But they do show me an animated video starring micro-UAVs that resemble winged, multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head. The video concludes, “Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal: micro air vehicles.”
But mechanical drones are already so yesterday. #Yawn.
Why not go for real flying cyborg-bugs, live insects attached to micro-technological marvels that allow the bugs to be steered remotely?
One of Maharbiz's students called up their custom-designed "Beetle Commander" software on a laptop. He issued the signal. The insect's wings began to flap. The empty white room the researchers used as an airfield filled with a buzzing sound, and the bug took flight. The beetle flew on its own – it didn't need any further direction from human operators to stay airborne – but as it cruised across the room, the researchers overlaid their own commands. They pinged the basalar muscles, prompting the beetle to weave back and forth through the room, as if flying through an invisible maze...
Imagine, Maharbiz tells me, an army of beetlebots, steered to the scene of an earthquake. The bugs could be outfitted with temperature sensors, guided through rubble and programmed to send messages back to search teams if they detect any objects that are close to human body temperature; rescuers would then know exactly where to search for survivors. Whatever the application, future insect commanders will have options that go beyond beetles. Maharbiz is working on a remote-controlled fly, which he anticipates being especially difficult to build. "The fly is so small and the muscles are so packed and everything's so tiny," he says.
Then there's the robo-rat:
As a demonstration, the researchers simulated the kind of search-and-rescue task a robo-rat might be asked to perform in the real world. They rubbed tissues against their forearms and taught the rodents to identify this human odour. They constructed a small Plexiglas arena, filled it with a thick layer of sawdust and buried human-scented tissues inside. When they released the robo-rats into the arena, the animals tracked down the tissues in less than a minute.
The scientists also discovered that the rats that received MFB rewards found the target odours faster and dug for them more energetically than rodents that had been trained with conventional food rewards. As Hermer-Vazquez recalls: "The robo-rats were incredibly motivated and very accurate."
Read them both. And be staggered.
I am helping work up some ideas for a speech on human rights. These developments have so many game-changing ramifications for privacy, control, transparency, security and the rest that it is tempting to say that we as a species are entering totally uncharted territory.
Every norm or principle laid down in all the UN and other human rights charters for the past 100 years plus rests upon unstated assumptions about how things work. These assumptions were unstated because everyone agreed that certain practical limits actually applied.
The idea that a cyborg-bug equipped with a poisonous dart might zig-zag down any street in the world threatening to kill a political leader or foment mass terror in a skyscraper by flying through an open window or crawling through an air vent was literally unthinkable.It could never happen. No rules needed to be contemplated for this situation, as it could not exist.
Yet it's now happening. These technologies now exist. And will get cheaper and more widespread in leaps and bounds.
A crazy regulatory arms-race between the state and crowd-sourced inventors and technologists will not solve the problem - the state will always lag behind the technical possibilities.
How does one begin to work out how a world like this will function, when every operational assumption about security and privacy risk management (and thus the intellectual foundation for all our human rights) collapses almost overnight?
Chris Huhne: Should we Gloat, or Not?
4th February 2013
Over on Twitter I have been having some 140-character exchanges with erudite writer and thinker Bryan Appleyard @BryanAppleyard on the fascinating subject of how far if at all it is right to 'gloat' about the catastrophic plummet from grace of Chris Huhne.
Bryan seemed to think that this was not in order:
Bryan Appleyard @BryanAppleyard
What's wrong with politics is not the sins of Chris Huhne, it's the gloating and sneering that will ensue. http://tinyurl.com/cd3c5ge
I replied that the likelihood that gloating and sneering will follow misdeeds of this sort in itself sends a market signal to people in public life not to cheat and be caught cheating. Bryan then quoted the Bible at me:
John 8.7: "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
Hmm. Curious way of looking at the Huhne problem.
I have talked before on this site about the Prodigal Son parable. The weakness in it from a moral standpoint (it seems to me) is that the 'good' dutiful older son who does not squander his money gets rather dismissed from the story: all the focus is on the wretched son who returns and grovels. The older son is merely invited to celebrate the younger one's return and spiritual rebirth.
Fine. But then what? Is there no virtue to be celebrated other than in a perfunctory way for those who behave well? I know that newspapers need bad news to get sold, but is all attention invariably on those who fall and who then beg for (or even claim to 'deserve') forgiveness? And what of people who try to change their ways but can't? Or of people who claim that they are ready to change their ways but don't really mean it?
Here is my piece at The Commentator that looks at some of these questions from the tragic point of view of someone who toiled in public service for years, never spending a penny more than was justifiable and never telling lies about it. Namely me.It echoes some points that I have made here and elsewhere including in response to the D MacShane disaster.
Conclusion? The sheer brazenness of Huhne's sustained dishonesty puts it into a stellar category, and fully entitles me to feel exultant that this odious man at long last has been revealed as such.
All praise to Guido for harrying and pushing to keep this case in the public eye and create a momentum for the eventual prosecution: today is a huge victory for the blogosphere, and a powerful example of where Leveson-type 'regulation' for the media simply misses the point.
Bryan Appleyard has written about his views on Huhne here. Here's my comment (awaiting moderation):
Our analyses cross in cyberspace.
Here’s mine: http://charlescrawford.biz/blog/chris-huhne-should-we-gloat-or-not- It links to an article I have written about this case: http://www.thecommentator.com/article/2645/chris_huhne_moral_standards_in_public_life
I think you miss an important point here, or maybe it’s that there is no easy answer Twitterly or otherwise to a chicken-and-egg issue: do politicians behave badly because the public sneer at them, or do we sneer at them because they behave badly?
The core power-relationship here is simple. Politicians have asked us to vote for them, as they have promised to uphold high standards in public life. More: they love to come down like a ton of bricks on others who fall from grace (as they see it). And they grab our money and pour out laws and directives and rules and regulations at a rate that is nothing less than objectively oppressive. So as they demand that they be judged by the highest standards, let’s do just that.
I worked in public life as civil servant for nearly 30 years. It is really not difficult. You don’t cheat on your expenses, and you don’t tell lies. If you make a mistake (as you do) you quickly go and alert people to what has happened – you don’t ask others to take the rap so that your career can continue unblemished.
The most profound moral principle in life is to accept the consequences of your own actions. Huhne is so spectacular an example of infamy because he did exactly the opposite, using his own family members for his greedy banal ends. Nothing whatever is gained by being ‘nice’ to someone like that in his hour of doom.
My point about richly deserved derision being a ‘market signal’ has nothing to do with neo-liberalism or the other fancy reductionist things you mention. Rather it simply tried to say that if people are unpersuaded that behaving properly in public office is an end in itself, they might like to consider that failure to do so may in fact have unpleasant consequnces for them and their general reputation.
And this has to be right. If you systematically abuse the trust others have in you, you must accept that their attitude towards you has to change. In Huhne’s case, his professional vanity and private selfishness went to dizzying new heights, so his fall in reputation is all the more precipitous.
There is a ‘market’ element in this, insofar as we all choose how to respond and just how far we fine-tune whatever sympathy we may have towards politicians who mess up. But the public is pretty good (I’d say) at sensing which fallen politicians truly deserve sympathy and some generosity of spirit, and which are conniving manipulators.
I’m sure that if C Huhne follows the example of Profumo and retires to do modest humble good work for a decade or two, we all might start to accept that he understands what he did. He will have earned back our respect. Alas I fear that after a few months of studied silence he’ll try to skulk his way back into some sort of prominence and power, claiming he’s ‘learned his lesson’. Ugh.
So maybe it’s the other way round. Maybe if politicians stop cheating and lying at our expense and try that for 20 years or so, we’ll be showering them with higher salaries and our warm gratitude.
To Intervene or Not?
29th January 2013
Over at Backbencher Lee Jenkins takes a look at some issues surrounding 'international intervention' from a libertarian-inclining standpoint:
Yet international relations is a sphere refreshingly free of ideology. States are motivated less by values and ideals, and more by a narrow set of objectives and interests...
Once you acknowledge what motivates a country’s actions, international relations become comparatively predictable. It is a zero sum game of medium to long term power and influence, quite different from domestic politics which seeks to alter societies. If you want a brief run down of what I think Britain’s national interests are, you can find them here.
Putting ideology, any ideology, at the heart of your foreign policy is to place yourself in a policy straight jacket. To use another analogy, it is the equivalent of going to a night club and nailing yourself to the middle of the dance floor; you are unable to walk away from confrontations you don’t want, yet you are prevented from pursuing opportunities that may present themselves.
The mistake many libertarians make is to assume that if you’re not a non-interventionist, then you must be a war-hungry Neo-Con, seeking to reorder the world by force. This is a deliberately simplistic false dichotomy. You can pursue and defend your national interest without bombing your way to a new empire.
As someone who has not entered a night club in some 40 years, I'll gratefully take his word for what happens if you get becalmed on the dance floor.
The problem with any political philosophy (including Libertarianism) is how to work out what it is and isn't in principle, and then see how that definition applies to real life.
As I understand it, hard-core libertarians want a world with far less government and perhaps even none at all. They believe that in such circumstances personal autonomy will soar to the point where people trade freely and social rules for reasonable shared living will naturally emerge. See Galt's Gulch passim.
That supposedly halcyon state of affairs looks to be some way off, and in any case attracts all sorts of obvious objections as to how far it could possibly work in real life and how far such a state of affairs would be morally desirable anyway.
So a new question emerges: given where we are now (namely a situation where we seem to get more and more worse and worse government every day), how should libertarian-minded people approach specific policy areas in the hope of nudging things in a direction they favour? And, specifically, what about foreign affairs?
Foreign policy is a tricky one for all political persuasions, as it raises a simple profound question: who is my neighbour, and what obligations if any do I have towards her/him? Even for domestic policy issues this is almost impossible to answer:
The point is that once we have a decision to make about our own money, we are capable of fine-tuning it to suit different cases.
We might decide to help those who are likely to really benefit from our help. Or we might say that those who inflict harm upon themselves need to take responsibility for their own bad behaviour, and not draw down on the good behaviour of others. Or we might give help but with robust conditions.
If these decisions are aggregated up, a general view will emerge as to how society looks at responsibility, and at cause and effect.
But look what happens when the state nationalises all those decisions.
Fecklessness, selfishness, stupid risk-taking and incompetence are then subsidised indefinitely. This may create strategically ruinous long-term disincentives, which start to skew huge resources in weird, accumulating, even system-threatening directions. (See eg the 'European Social Model'.)
How to measure the costs and benefits of that, not only in financial terms but also in what it does to relations between people, and the deepest capacity of us all to behave responsibly and generously towards each other?
The problem can be put another way, thanks to new technology:
It is one thing for the UN Security Council solemnly to debate the abstract principles of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Quite another to listen to the screams and watch live video beamed to those diplomats’ iPhones in New York from a village somewhere in Africa or the Balkans, as genocidal killers work their way along the rows of houses.
In today’s networked e-diplomacy world, who exactly isn’t my neighbour?
So I tend to look at the issue of intervention from that point of view, rather than trying to work out how states 'pursue their interests'. And as an ex-practitioner I put emphasis not on the clever arguments for or against 'intervening' but rather on how it is done in practice:
Recently a British newspaper reported the views of young British Muslims, all in good jobs, whose hero is Osama Bin Laden: “I would like to see the Mujahideen coming into London and killing thousands, whether with nuclear weapons or germ warfare. It will be a day of joy for me.
If all of us in this hall were blown up tonight by Al Quaida these neighbours of ours would be happy, even dancing. Is this politics, religion, or mental illness?
So some neighbours at home are not very lovable. But who are our foreign neighbours? Bad Governments? Or the millions of victims of a cruel regime? At what level of misery do we decide that we must intervene to protect our foreign neighbours? And if we do decide to intervene, are we any good at it?
Diplomats focus on three questions:
What is Legal? What is Achievable? What is Wise? They do not focus enough on a fourth: What is Done Well?
Even if our policies are Legal and Achievable, they may not be Wise. And even if our policies are Legal and Achievable and Wise – what if they are just not Done Well? The public can live with disagreements on policy. That’s democracy. What the public really likes is success. A tough job done well. And what it really dislikes is incompetence. Things not Done Well.
After years in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina and post-conflict Serbia and Montenegro, I have bad news. Democracies and international organisations, European and American, EU and UN alike, are not good at interventions. Nor are they good at learning lessons from their failures and successes. There are dozens of things I could say on why this is the case. But let me mention just two.
First, a core problem after you intervene successfully to topple dictators is what you do with all the nasty people who did well from the previous regime. If you marginalize them they sabotage reform. If you incorporate them they get rich at our expense and frustrate change; you seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, which dismays moderates.
There is no principled answer to this. Each case is different. But it needs to be thought through and prepared and explained in advance. The neighbours you are liberating know that their oppressors are dangerous people. They want to know if you really mean it, or whether those oppressors will be coming back in smarter suits we have paid for.
Second, we bang on about a market economy but our interventions are strikingly ‘socialist’. They are driven by governments and bureaucrats, paternalistic, top-down, all about rules, about “we know best”. I have attended many conferences and senior seminars about bringing peace to the Balkans. I almost never see a single business person there. People at these events say: “Oh, it would be nice to hear what a businessman thinks” as if it was some kind of exotic optional extra.
The Backbencher piece not unreasonably looks at trade - if the UK government does not help UK business sell stuff overseas, those UK businesses may simply lose out. Then what?
But that is not the hardest intervention conundrum. The hardest choices come when we have to decide whom we want to stop being killed by foreigners, and whom we won't protect in any way likely to make a difference. Some neighbours are more neighbourly than others.
Here the sheer awfulness of oppressive regimes as well as their propinquity (or not) work in their favour. No one dares intervene in North Korea or Iran or even Zimbabwe despite the manifest cruelty and stupidity of the ruling elite there. They are so crazy that you don't know what they'll do. Look at Afghanistan!
Syria is different, as the regime there may be wobbling thanks to pressures from within, so we can throw some fuel on the fire in the form of active support for rebels or insurgents or 'the opposition' or whatever they are called today, and hope that the ensuing blaze does not spread too far in our direction.
Mali is an impoverished dustbowl, but we don't want it overrun by Islamist lunatics, plus it is fairly easy terrain to attack using hi-tech weapons. Plus the French seem keen. But it's one thing blasting these vile militias. It's another thing to stop them re-forming like some mutating virus and sneaking back again. It's bad enough working out where it all starts. Where does it end?
Libya was a small place just over the road, so it clearly qualified as a Neighbour. But hmmm - how is that one playing out? Better the devil you know?
Bosnia is even smaller and is in the European family. Kosovo is even smaller than Bosnia. In each case the results of the interventions have been, ahem, mixed. It turns out that for good libertarian-type reasons people in such places have a mind of their own and may not cooperate with benign outsiders and all their 'development initiatives' and other clever ideas.
We can't work out who our neighbours are at any level of society, national or global. Nor can we pin down what obligations we have towards them, or they have to us.
So it's all a great big messy muddle.
The Power of Vocabulary
27th January 2013
Does it matter if you have a limited vocabulary?
Yes it does, according to this magnificent piece by E D Hirsch Jr:
Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again.
Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.
Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem.
The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.
... it’s important to grasp the extreme difficulty of narrowing the verbal gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. The problem has been called the Matthew Effect, an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more; disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students. This explains why schooling often fails to narrow the gap and may even widen it.
... How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball. In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.”
These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.
Read the whole thing to grasp the breadth and intelligence of the arguments that demolish vast chunks of modern education theory.
Oddly enough the author takes an apparently unfamiliar 'difficult' word - excrescence - and uses it to make a point about how you might work out from different contexts what it means. He does not mention that if you know Latin it's easy: cresco (to grow) and ex (out from).
Reading one's Wodehouse also does the trick.
All of which goes to explain just how far we face a civilisational disaster from the sheer scale of illiteracy among people who have been through our expensive education system and can still barely read:
According to the Trust, more than 5.2 million adults in England are categorised as functionally illiterate, meaning that they have literacy levels lower than those expected of an 11-year-old. Furthermore, the trust found that 17% of children say they would be highly embarrassed if their friends saw them with a book; more than half of the children questioned prefer watching TV than reading; and one in three children do not own any books at all.
The policy drama here is simple. In its efforts to give all children a decent start in life through madatory education, the state has standardised learning methods across the country and unerringly hit upon methods that for tens of thousands of children simply do not work. Add to that the formidable problems created by our having to organise classrooms to cope with thousands of immigrant children who may scarcely speak English at all, and you create all the conditions for a terrible mess.
When parents opt out of this state-controlled squalour by 'going private' (if they can afford it) they get denounced as snobs or elitists or whatever. But if I not unreasonably want my daughter to learn some French and Latin and Greek and to write well in English by the time she is 13 (as I do), what options do I have? Am I not infringing her human rights by putting her into a state system that can not even guarantee to get her to a modestly respectable reading level?
As I have written before, it's all a clear-cut case of something never seen before in human history: Suilinguicide.
Gun Control, Risk, Health and Safety
16th December 2012
My new piece at the Commentator explores the wilder shores of the UK's Health and Safety neurosis in the context of how we look at 'risk' - and asks rhetorically whether the way the Americans balance the risk of guns against the freedom to own them is really so unreasonable.
Liberal-minded US pundits keep ridiculing the argument that private gun ownership is some sort of defence against state-imposed tyranny. There is no evidence, they say, that the US state is aiming to impose tyranny.
But what exactly is tyranny anyway these days? If you look at it not as a crazed Soviet-style armed fist but rather an impossible labyrinth of petty controls, constant surveillance, an inefficient monopoly on violence that micro-manages a householder's right to self-defence, plus perhaps above all no serious sense of responsibility to control state spending over and beyond what the state takes by force through taxation, maybe we are a lot closer to Tyranny than we like to think.
Against that tsunami of subtle tyranny-lite measures that we here in the UK have to accept, mass private gun ownership perhaps indeed is no defence. But in the USA it surely both creates and reflects some sort of widespread steely popular determination to deny the state at least some measures of ultimate control. And it also stands as some sort of tough intellectual defence against the collectivist ideology we see in the UK and across Europe of 'learned helplessness', a subject on which Autonomous Mind has robust views.
Engage Charles Crawford as