So we have no lack of sanctions in this area, formal and informal. Just as we have the strictest laws against killing people. Yet in a country of some 60 million people some murders and manslaughters and deaths by dangerous driving nonetheless happen.
That’s the way things work. Accepting that is not being complacent or ‘uncaring’. It’s realising that there are philosophical and practical limits to what can and should be done to make everyone perfectly safe all the time.
In the case of these egregious media practices, the number of people who were either victims of media harassment or who committed the harassment are tiny. Trillions of words are published in the UK every year. The number of words or articles that are obviously egregious and damaging but not caught by existing laws is vanishingly small.
Yes, these cases catch public attention. But what is the right measure here: the volume of public clamour, or the tiny unhappy unimportance in the great scheme of things of such occasional excesses? The pain of someone caught unfairly in a media firestorm, or my right as a modest blogger/pundit to write this article without fearing the state?
Most important: how to work out the likely effects of changing the law/rules/regulations as is now proposed? Perhaps on the far margins of the media a few more egregious cases will be prevented. Perhaps not. No-one knows.
But it is almost certain that a number of stories exposing wrong-doing or impropriety won’t be written because on those same margins the journalists and bloggers will wisely fear straying inadvertently into exemplary damages territory.
That’s the whole point of these changes – to make all writers fear the consequences of their writing, and so ‘be careful’. Everyone loses. Except the powerful undeserving creep whose misdeeds stay hidden.
Ministers and MPs are in a unique position in society – they alone (with help from judges) write the rules, then send out people with sticks and guns to use whatever force is necessary against you and I to enforce them.
This means that Ministers and MPs above everyone else have to take their moral responsibilities seriously. They hold our ancient legal rights and freedoms in trust for us. They have no right as trustees to trim these rights and freedoms in a furtive midnight haggle among themselves with a well-funded pressure-group for the sake of trying to do the utterly impossible, namely to stamp out all human unfairness and unpleasantness.
What we see instead is Ministers and MPs making it up as they go along, giving no value to freedom as a Kantian end-in-itself...
See the many other examples on almost a daily basis of today's government far out of control, so big and incoherent that it has become quite detached from basic principles and common sense. How do we the people curb egregious state bullying?
So there I was down at Bristol University at the weekend for the latest Bristol International Development Conference. An event impressive for the 200 or so people (mainly students, and overwhelmingly female) who turned out on a Saturday to mull over the practice and politics of development assistance under the subtle rubric "The Underlying Motives of International Development".
My role was a puny 30 minutes in which I tried to address that vasty subject, albeit in a way billed by the organisers as 'controversial'. I made various points with which readers here will be familiar, above all that a crushing failure of development 'theory' is the way it marginalises business and private enterprise.
Thus there in Bristol we heard much praise for 'social enterprise', seemingly a category of activity that is different from but somehow far better than squalid profit-seeking 'enterprise' on its own.
What exactly is the difference here? Simple.
It's all about motives. If 'social' enterprise in (say) Africa is favoured whereas private enterprise is not, the issue quickly boils down to our old favourite, Who Decides?
Easy. Those who have the money and hand out labels/categories of 'social' and its associated privileges and access decide, namely the development-industrial complex (or #BigAid as I wittily described it). In cahoots with their favoured partners in the aid recipient governments. And so on.
One speaker made a charmingly hypnotic presentation about ... everything, that turned out to be nothing. It squeezed in Millenium Development Goals with Justice, Climate Change, Governance, Accountability and a swipe at any evil UK energy policy that might include fracking. She intoned the case for a new global consensus around everything she wanted, seemingly unaware that eg in China and Russia and Brazil almost every single person would think she was dotty. As I said to the audience for my presentation, if I had had six weeks to talk to them I could not have covered everything I disagreed with in her analysis.
The speaker showed us a scary slide rather like this one - the champagne glass of global inequality, with a small number of rich people owning a huge 'top-heavy' slice of global wealth. Horror! Not fair!
What is so striking about this sort of cliché is that displaces serious thinking, but in a specific way - it takes a snapshot of a situation without explaining why it has come about.
Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that the reason for this champagne glass distribution is simple. Thanks to modern medicine and indeed 'development' of different shapes and sizes, the number of poor people having children who do not die young has soared. This and the soaring number of children who themselves then have a sizeable family sets in motion a demographic juggernaut that creates completely new realities over over a relatively short space of time (ie a hundred years or so).
The key thing is that as the juggernaut gathers momentum there are no policies available (other than war/plague on a startling scale) to stop a surge in the relative weight of poor people in the world's population. This in turn means that every day the 'rich' by doing nothing at all can be presented as getting get better off, since every day millions of new 'poor' children are being born and diluting the 'poor' share of the pie. In such a situation burbling on about 'eradicating poverty' as the UK coalition government does is almost literally senseless. In a poor country more poor people are born every hour than any conceivable aid programme can cope with.
So, back in real life, if you want to make poor people richer, you need policies to make that happen. That means using the resource base represented by those new people themselves, and encouraging their enterprise. That in turn means mobilising the money and cleverness that is in these societies already. As is happening in China and India and elsewhere where more people have emerged from poverty in the past 20 years than at any point in history! Hurrah! But even with that happening, the absolute number of poor babies still being born each day changes the shape of the graphs to make it look to dim people as if the 'rich' are cheating the 'poor'.
As I pointed out in Bristol, after its dismal decades of communism and then conflict Bosnia's per capits GDP was reduced by the mid-1990s to a pitiful average of some $5 per day. Yet even there, a calamitously poor place, $5 x 3.8 million x 365 = $7 billion was sloshing around in cash. That sum compared favourably with any credible assistance packages. So the development trick is to focus not on our money but on theirs. See also Singapore v Cuba over the past 60 years.
#BigAid of course mainly does not do that. Its motivation is 'control'. It necessarily loves its own processes and people who manage those processes. Development practitioners. Consultancy firms. Compliant local politicians. Acronyms. Elegant conferences in Geneva. Loyal members of 'civil society' and 'social entrepreneurs' who say the right things and never rock the development boat.
As I said in Bristol, this sort of thing leads to a profound corruption. Not because the development money is lost through cheating, although of course that happens too bigtime. But rather because everyone in on this game has an interest in it continuing. Everyone knows that the whole thing is sub-optimal, yet they press on with it. The taxpayers pumping in the development funds are cheated. And the mass of poor people in the recipient countries are cheated, as junk aid displaces private energies and skews incentives.
Luckily for Africa, I said, gazillions of Africans were getting mobile phones and doing brilliantly cool things despite #BigAid and despite their own governments. The paradigm was shifting. The tables were turning!
I concluded by comparing two South African liberation heroes, Steve Biko with Govan Mbeki. Biko believed that the problem 'blacks' had was that they had allowed themselves to be psychologically subdued. To nervous titters I quoted Biko's own joke: In a brains shop, why do black people brains cost far more than white people brains? Because the black people brains have never been used.
Mbeki by contrast came from an explicitly communist background and had no truck with self-help grassroots work - people needed to be liberated only by the ANC/SACP, not by themselves!
The slogan of Biko's Black Consciousness Movement was, I noted, 'Free the land - free the mind'. Africa at long last was enjoying the real freedom delivered by technical free market innovation, and starting to free its mind from dependency on Europe and 'development' ideology. Now the proponents of #BigAid needed to free their minds too. And this would happen. But not quite yet, alas.
Anyway, I had the feeling that only a few people there had the faintest idea what I was talking about. My presentation went far beyond the formalistic comfy categories they normally heard. As one Twitter person opined, I was 'eccentric'. Another vexed older woman sniffed that I had a very 'old-fashioned' view of development: she knew many people in Africa who wanted her teaching expertise, and realised that they could not 'go it alone'. I of course had not said that that they could or should go it alone, but merely pointed to the accelerating possibilities for informal networking that would create myriad new options and hopes, including for her!
Luckily there was one smart young man there with an African family background who said afterwards that he completely agreed with me. His simple plan was to find out ASAP how airports worked in the UK, then get to Africa and build airports.
He and I are meeting for lunch soon. A luta continua!
“The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.”
Thank goodness! Will rises to the challenge and looks at the appalling fact that in some hospitals the NHS is killing its own patients on an industrial scale, and then suppresses the facts. State-imposed collectivism once again plunges into an abyss of black horror.
“As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from "wealth-destroying" regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.”
What? Isn’t this article all about the NHS killing its patients? Is he saying that that’s …OK?
“No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA's inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.”
Hmm. A good point here. If the FSA is serious about ‘ensuring public health’ it should shut down many NHS hospitals and prosecute for manslaughter dozens of top NHS bureaucrats.
And so on.
Just think about it.
Every day some 60 million people in the UK eat stuff. The number of products, ingredients and additives produced all across the planet and then brought together for our delectation must run into billions if not trillions of combinations.
Yet only a microscopic number of people get unwell from consuming all these products in their myriad combinations. The problems allegedly or in fact caused by this horsemeat so-called scandal are vanishingly small to the point of being statistically insignificant.
How does this happen? It's partly down to 'regulation'. But more importantly it's down to the disciplne and creativity and urge for market share via delivering a reputation for good reliable products that only competitive capitalism delivers.
Rather like the very blindness and 'objectivity of evolution being a driver for change through natural selection, 'capitalism' creates spontaneous order and manifold incentives towards refinement/improvement. The fact that some people along the way cheat and swindle is irrelevant, and 'reveals' nothing of consequence. After all, we massively regulate against murder yet now and again it happens. That's just the way things are. Much more noteworthy is just how rare murder in fact is.
Compare all this to the daily disasters caused by negligence or decay or stupidity or sheer bad luck or individual wickedness in the NHS. Yet far from making some sane attempt to give us all context, the preposterous Hutton seems to think that if we had a few hundred more Food Standards Agency bureaucrats civilisation would be saved. To which I reply:
The stunning reality of our time is that thanks to our ever-growing inventiveness and creativity (as handily summed up by the word ‘capitalism’) we all have access to a fantastic range of excellent foods sourced from all round the planet. The truly staggering fact is that every day this impossibly complex and ever-changing supply chain works almost perfectly, thanks precisely to suppliers wanting to maximise profits and so respecting consumers by striving to deliver good products. The food chain does not ‘degrade’. It improves!
More. No sort of state-imposed ‘organisation’, be it at the national, EU or (God forbid) global level, will ever work 100 percent. How could it, even in theory?
On the contrary, this Stalinist attitude to regulation is dying on its feet. It won’t be long before ‘capitalism’ invents cheap sophisticated food-testing devices so that every shop and home can see for itself what is in these myriad products without any state intervention or regulation whatsoever. A mass global crowd-sourced approach to food quality is more likely to catch sneaky ad hoc abuse than a tiny army of centralised food safety apparatchiki.
Finally he asserts that the horsemeat problem "reveals the existential crisis in contemporary Conservatism. British democracy needs a functioning, fit for purpose party of the centre-right.”
Good grief. How can anyone so smart write such hollow nonsense?
Here is another Commentator piece from me on a subject with moral content, namely how far is it appropriate to take into account the ethnicity (or 'race') of would-be adopting parents? Is it right to put a child from a 'minority' community into a 'white' home?
... those who hooted loudest for a supposedly progressive non-racial outcome in apartheid South Africa are those who hoot loudest for a defensive multi-racial approach here in the UK now. This shows itself in many ways, above all the enforced categorisations of ‘ethnic minorities’ that appear in demands emanating from the Cabinet Office for staff surveys and other official processes.
The categories chosen (or not chosen – don’t ever ask why, say, Poles do not feature on these lists) show how vital it is for the race relations industry to create racial/ethic categories and assign people to them. Without these formalised state-created apartheid-style categories, the opportunities for asserting control over people and processes would be hugely reduced.
These issues come to a head with adoption. We have children without a home needing to get out of state institutions into a normal family, and we have parents wanting to adopt said children. On the face of it, creating arrangements that deliberately make it less likely that ‘ethnic minority’ children are in fact adopted would look to be a massive human rights abuse.
Yet this outcome is not only what we have, it is championed and enforced by the armies and ideologies of official multi-racialists, on the grounds that ethnic minority children should be adopted only by families of the same ethnicity. Anything else risks creating ‘psychological problems’...
The really baffling thing in all this is that thanks to the more or less uncontrolled immigration policies beloved by progressive forces here, the UK really is getting quite melting-potty anti-racial.
So-called ‘mixed’ marriages and relationships are ever more common, even chic. More and more children are being born and moving on to Olympic, academic and other success with skin hues and DNA combinations that tick no known Cabinet Office survey boxes. The adoption industry’s rearguard attempts to disallow ‘mixed-race’ adoptions are now grotesquely conservative, even reactionary.
In my view anyone introducing race as a factor in adoption should be sued to high heaven for primitive discrimination. If it's unlawful for me to say that I don't want to hirte someone because of the colour of their skin, it has to be unlawful for the colour of skin to be a factor in determining how far a proposed adoption is suitable.
More lawsuits! That will solve the problem fast and well. Mind you I've been hpowling in the wilderness about this since ethnicity was first identified as a 'human need' back in 2008.
First, the Leveson report fails to grasp the most important feature of the current 'press' scene, namely that the industrial model of newspapers is busily dying. We are moving back (or more precisely forward) to something much more like the original 18th century free-for-all. We are the media. Everyone's PC and smart phone is now a printing press. Twitteristas and YouTubers report 'news' far faster than so-called mainstream media outlets can keep up.
You might think that that is better or worse than what we have now. And you may be right. The key point is that in any sense that matters this situation is a priori unregulatable, except by focused state brutality.
Second, the Leveson report lacks any sense of proportion. Yes, some newspapers connived in eavesdropping on private telephones. But the number of telephones concerned was a vanishingly microscopic proportion of all telephones in the country. Yes, some newspapers improperly or unfairly exploited private misfortune and undeservedly wrecked some reputations. But how in principle to balance those misdeeds against the mountains of normal, competent, helpful reporting and analysis represented by the industry's daily output as a whole? As a famous Ambassador used to say, some things are important – but don’t matter.
Third, and most important, in a free society there are ways to get results that empower citizens and due process alike. Existing laws against phone-hacking can be enforced. Regulations stopping police officers from leaking details of investigations can be upheld. Newspapers that tell lies about people can be sued for libel. Readers can vote with their wallets and stop buying newspapers that overstep reasonable limits. Newspapers can be shut down. And so on.
The point is that none of this requires "regulation" by the state. All that is required is that established systems work properly. If they don't work properly, why should we expect new systems to work any better?
And it concludes with my favourite quote. Unattributed, just to see who's paying attention.
For a closely argued but quite devastating look at the way a Leveson-style media sector might or might not work in practice, try Mick Hume:
Those who decline the invitation ‘voluntarily’ to sign up to the new system would be threatened with having to pay ‘exemplary’ damages and ‘one-way costs’ if they were taken to court. That is, they would be made an example of by the authorities. That looks like an indirect form of taxation on dissident newspapers – exactly 300 years since the Crown first taxed the newly unlicensed press in 1712, to try to stop the masses reading about what their rulers were up to. What is more, publications outside the new regulator would be faced with being overseen by Leveson’s proposed ‘back-stop regulator’ – Ofcom.
As for the notion of a kitemark for a ‘recognised brand of trusted journalism’, this attempt to depict the freedom of the press like the double-glazing market ought immediately to raise the questions: ‘recognised’ by who? ‘Trusted’ by who? Much of the evidence to the Leveson Inquiry dripped with fear and loathing of the popular press, and that prejudice is clear between the lines of the report.
It is not hard to imagine what view the new regulators might take of ‘good’ journalism. Their kitemark would be a form of ‘ethical’ licensing, a badge of conformism. After all, what such marks usually tell us is ‘this product is safe and child-friendly’. We might note that none of the rule-breaking convention-busting heroes of the historic struggle for a free press in Britain, such as John Wilkes in the eighteenth century or WT Stead in the nineteenth, would have qualified for any such kitemark, and were all the better for it.
... There is a striking difference between Leveson’s proposed protection and the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The Lord Justice suggests, in his usual wordy style, that it will be lawful to interfere with the media ‘insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society’, thus leaving the door open for further state intervention.
By contrast the short and sweet First Amendment states that it is illegal for the US Congress to pass any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’. In other words, it is never ‘legitimate’ or ‘necessary in a democratic society’. If Lord Justice Leveson’s almost-one-million-word report had instead echoed those few words, we would be far better off now.
These and other underlying dangers in the report give the lie to claims that Lord Justice Leveson and his supporters are committed to a free press. The entire spirit of his report is to inhibit press freedom – imposing external standards, threatening reporters with prison sentences, cutting off sources of information, restricting access to police and politicians and so on.
A very smart article by Tom Smith over in San Diego, pointing out how Government scrambles to assert to itself an inordinate share of private success but breezily overlooks all the failures it's caused:
It's difficult to even explain how pervasive, expensive, frustrating and sometimes just plain insuperable the regulatory and taxation burden of the state is. It's not what did our venture in, but it helped. It's worse in other countries, where we seem to be headed.
My engineers were in Italy. Italian counsel advised me that it was simply impossible, impractical, should not even be attempted to pay them in Italy. Even trying to do so would stir up a nest of officials and my guys would end up with pennies on the Euro. Just set up accounts in Switzerland and pay them that way, which he said was technically legal to do. So that's what we did. It's no wonder innovations by startups in Europe lag so far behind the US.
And California? -- don't even think about hiring an employee in California. Read through what's involved in that and you will think it is some kind of joke until you realize it isn't. A whole ecosystem of plaintiffs' law firms exists just to sue employers who run afoul the complicated morrass (sic) of employment law requirements. And if you survive to be a public company, they will sue you every time your stock price dips.
Some states, such as Texas, are better, but the reason they are better is not what they provide; it's just that they stay more out of the way.
Every day here in the UK too one sees new examples of crass, clunky, officious, insensitive state meddling. Perhaps above all the police, a phenomenon that seem to have lost all sense of pragmatic light touch and instead pompously and clumsily crash down on anything they feel like.
Meanwhile the ghastly London Olympics law labyrinth and the incentivising of repulsive sneaky 'community wardens' is almost enough to make me want to avoid watching any of it even in TV out of sheer embarrassment.
The good news is that for a few fleeting moments it's not raining. Much.
One of the problems with teleprompters is that you the speaker can't improvise easily. You're stuck with the pre-agreed script loaded on to the machine. Those words scroll inexorably across your screen, and if you deviate from them it is not easy for the person doing the scrolling to fathom out what is happening and so get you back on track smoothly. It all sounds incredibly 'scripted', as it is just that.
On the other hand, the problem with improvising is improvizacija. Making it up as you go along, and hoping for the best. Not always the best way to stay on track.
Thus President Obama's latest speech mishap. Or was it?
Here is the passage that has created controversy, above all these two sentences:
If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Not, on the face of it, an encouraging line for the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Here is that sentence set in the surrounding paragraphs - my emphasis:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own.
I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together. (Applause.)
So, what did Obama mean? Was he referring business owners back to the trivial fact that 'someone else' invested in roads and bridges from which they have derived benefit? This is the line furiously being pushed by the Obama team.
Or was he saying (as the Romney team insist) that business owners substantively did not build their own businesses - a good slice of the credit they arrogantly assert to themselves really does lie elsewhere?
Well, here is the video. Judge for yourself:
I think that Obama is improvising. Watch what he does.
He plays the crowd, enjoying the applause he gets from putting the balance of the argument against the Individual and for the Collective. There is an unmistakeable whiff of patronising sarcasm/derision when he says this:
I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there
In other words, he's playing a populist card, cutting down to size people who think they have achieved things. And, with that thought in his mind, he keeps talking and goes further than was wise:
If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
In my view when you watch the clip it's clear that the 'that' refers to the business.
Huge own-goal. Which reminds us of something. Now what was it?
Read this one on the accelerating genius of 3D printing - scanning things digitally then making speedy fast models in new robust materials and at stunning speed. Including for gnashers:
It's pretty intuitive to apply this technology to the automotive and aerospace industries, and jewelry has always been a big market. But one of the most exciting areas is actually dental fabrication.
You might already have a crown that was built by a 3D Printer. Five years ago, that crown would have been made by hand—hand-sanded and hand-created. This technology is taking over that task. Now you go to the dentist, and you don't bite into the clay anymore to make a mold of your mouth. Your dentist just wands your mouth with the 3M wand and makes a digital file of your mouth. It happens instantly, and then the dentist teleports that CAD file and has the implant at his office the next day.
And, of course, it's getting exponentially cheaper:
Six years ago the cheapest machine out there was $30,000, but most were $100,000. Today you can get a capable 3D Printer for around $1,299, which launched at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. At that price, the marketplace opens up to individuals like us. It could be as soon as three years from now that people will have a 3D Printer at home to make toys, napkin holders, curtain rings, and whatever is needed. That's why 3D Printing is so interesting. It's not just tied up in the engineering world any more...
How can government hope to keep up with this sort of thing by even beginning to frame rules for it? Hundreds of years of laws on copying are about to get wiped out? And be replaced by ... nothing but cheery (or not so cheery) chaos?
A banquet of food for thought. But this point about the way Nazis were dealt with after WW2 by the Brits and Americans respectively caught my eye:
If Germans could be influenced strongly in their beliefs during the Nazi period, is there any evidence of the opposite once racial hatred became an official taboo after 1945? We compare the level of anti-Semitism in the different zones of occupation. The former British zone today has by far the least anti-Semitic beliefs, even after controlling for pre-1945 differences. The American zone, on the other hand, has strong levels of support for anti-Jewish views.
Based on a detailed examination of occupation policies, we argue that these differences probably reflect different approaches to de-Nazification. The American authorities ran a highly ambitious and punitive programme which resulted in many incarcerations and convictions, with numerous, low-ranking officials banned and punished. Citizens were confronted with German crimes, forced to visit concentration camps, and attend education films about the Holocaust. There was a considerable backlash, and perceived fairness was low. The Jewish Advisor to the American Military Government concluded in 1948 that “... if the United States Army were to withdraw tomorrow, there would be pogroms on the following day.”
In contrast, the British authorities pursued a limited and pragmatic approach that focused on major perpetrators. Public support was substantial, perceived fairness was higher, and intelligence reports concluded that the population even wanted more done to pursue and punish Nazi officials...
This idea has huge ramifications for social policy and the way we look at it.
The piece suggests that simply going after Nazi Big Fish in post-WW2 Germany was far more effective at changing attitudes and instincts than going after Big and Medium and some Small fish, generally rubbing the Germans' collective nose in the vile crimes done in their name and massly supported directly or indirectly by millions of Germans themselves.
Such a policy of course has a direct cost - it allows plenty of people with dirt on their hands to tip-toe away from their misdeeds, and indeed to start to say or even believe that the whole problem was nothing to do with them - somehow they all had got carried away or manipulated.
Yet on the one key issue, namely responsibility for the whole disaster Auschwitz represented, the Pope seemed to me to fall short:
... a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people - a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honour, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.
This contrives to portray the German people as bamboozled victims, rather than people who in their many millions voted for Hitler and otherwise supported him. Not everyone, for sure. But Germans en masse were not only used and abused. In good part they brought their suffering on themselves, and set in motion untold suffering for countless millions of others.
Pope Benedict might have dealt with this by saying a word about his own connection with the Hitler Youth and the power of temptation, or otherwise addressing each individual's accountability for mass wickedness committed in his/her name. But one way or the other, the formula used here did not, for me, do the trick.
Maybe even the Pope is unable to confess fully and frankly? And perhaps that's the point?
On the other hand, if people have done wrong maybe there is merit in letting them come round to thinking about the issues in a less confrontational fashion, while still punishing the very worst offenders. That arguably diminishes Justice but increases the prospects for longer-term Peace. See war crimes trials for former Yugoslavia - it's much easier to run high-profile punishments (many of them richly deserved) than address reconciliation in a deeper sense.
Which brings us to the present UK approach to most social issues, where the effective emphasis (racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, bullying, drunkenness, obesity) trends towards the 'stamping out' or (even worse) 'kicking out' improper behaviur and thoughts.
Put to one side the explicit violent-quasi fascist nature of this sort of discourse (as seen on a poster talking about 'Kicking out Racism' seen on the wall in the Oxford DVLA offices - QED). It carries the implication that anyone thinking certain things has to be punished severely. It is not about persuasion - it is about fear.
If you want to change behaviour and attitudes over the long run, maybe a more subtle approach needs to be used? Or at least be more graceful about the way attitudes in many areas are changing, and stop screeching that anyone still who has not been converted to politically correct behaviour and thought is some sort of extreme lunatic? One for the forthcoming US elections...
UPDATE George Monbiot has written to me to point out a mistake in the piece below:
I note that in your blog post you say “This is not quite the same as listing his wealth - who knows how many ISAs and the rest he has tucked away, or the value of his house?”
If you read to the bottom of the registry, you will find that those things are in fact listed.
I have replied:
Thanks for reading. I do apologise. I'll post a correction.
Yours is certainly a hugely impressive personal initiative, but for that reason it surely won't catch on! How many of your fellow Guardian journalists would be prepared to expose themselves in a similar way.
I'd be interested in your views about how we might extend FOI to any transactions involving transfers of public money to non-government bodies and how that money is then used. That would be an important next step and would smoke out all government procurement contracts, the BBC's salaries and benefits, DFID's payments to charities and NGOs, and many other phenomena that would benefit from being a lot more open about what they do with public funds. Huge sums of money are involved here.
The principle here is simple: if you want public money, you have to account for the way you get it and use it. That might open the way to a further step in due course - if you want the legal benefits of being a company (or a fortiori a charity which enjoys even more tax privileges), 'society' expects higher levels of transparency in return.
UPDATE 2George replies:
I would be pleased to see the principle of transparency extended to all NGOs. On the issue of funding, I believe that all donations above £1000 – whether from the public or private sectors - should be listed. Then we’d know on whose behalf they were speaking. See: http://www.monbiot.com/2011/09/12/think-of-a-tank/
* * * * *
George Monbiot, fierce Guardianista, has come up with a novel idea: to reveal all his income, updating as he goes, in the name of 'transparency'.
This is not quite the same as listing his wealth - who knows how many ISAs and the rest he has tucked away, or the value of his house? (Note: This is not correct - see above.) Still, it's impressive that he goes so far.
However, he proposes to extend this to 'the private sector':
In this column I will make a proposal which sounds, at first, monstrous, but which I hope to persuade you is both reasonable and necessary: that freedom of information laws should be extended to the private sector.
The very idea of a corporation is made possible only by a blurring of the distinction between private and public. Limited liability socialises the risks which would otherwise be carried by a company’s owners and directors, exempting them from the costs of the debts they incur or the disasters they cause. The bail-outs introduced us to an extreme form of this exemption: men like Fred Goodwin and Matt Ridley are left in peace to count their money while everyone else must pay for their mistakes...
Freedom of information is never absolute, nor should it be. Companies should retain the right, as they do in South Africa, to protect material that is of genuine commercial confidentiality; though they should not be allowed to use that as an excuse to withhold everything that might embarrass them. The information commissioner should decide where the line falls, just as he does for public bodies today.
The point is that companies are just another way of describing 'us'. And insofar as the key business of companies is making money, the way they run their costs (including above all salaries and the decisions they make on procurement) is at the very essence of genuine commercial confidentiality.
'Government' despite the best efforts of collectivists and meddlers of all shapes and sizes is fairly manageable in FOI terms and predictably structured. Companies in their myriad operational forms and activities are not (that's the whole point - to create highly flexible legal space for people to be commercially inventive). So defining what is commercially confidential information is probably theoretically impossible and practically unmanageable.
But he is absolutely right to want to extend FOI to bodies that feed off public funds. So he might start with Oxfam and many other charities that depend hugely on direct government handouts. I myself proposed extending FOI to them myself a while back.
Then there's the BBC - who doesn't want to know what top presenters are paid? Imagine the squeals concerning privacy on that one, even though they are effectively spending taxpayers' money on themselves.
The core logic of FOI is that taxpayers have the right to see how their money is being spent. Companies and businesses surely have a right to confidentiality in a quite different way. Monbiot's argument to extend FOI to companies rests on a slick but unsatisfactory verbal sleight of hand:
The very idea of a corporation is made possible only by a blurring of the distinction between private and public.
Maybe, but in that sentence the word 'public' does not mean publicly funded. And if the real problem is that ailing companies demand bail-outs from the taxpayer, solve that one by not bailing them out.
Here is what appears to be the first-ever speech by a UK Foreign Secretary (maybe the first-ever speech by any Foreign Minister) on consular work. And v effective it is too.
I have written here about some aspects of consular work under Labour, not least the appalling Three Ps which Ambassadors were ordered to emote at every opportunity:
As part of a trite urge to make the FCO look 'relevant', FCO Ministers issued new instructions to the global network of Ambassadors.
If more than a handful of British citizens look to have been involved in a 'serious incident' (Note: defined at a very low level, eg a motorway car pile-up with say five deaths) the Ambassador personally is expected to drop everything (CAP reform, Climate Change, Terrorism) and go straight to the scene.
Once there he/she is expressly instructed to deploy the 3 Ps:
What the public expects to hear from you/your spokesman/Minister/officialafter a major incident :
Pity:sympathy for the victims and their families
Praise: praise for/thanks to the emergency services etc
Pledge:a promise/pledge to get to the bottom of what has happened -and learn any lessons
Is not there something wrong here? Namely a complete loss of proportion?
Hundreds of thousands of British people travel in different parts of the world every day. Just by the forces of Bad Luck a tiny number will hit trouble, of whom a small proportion alas will get killed or injured.
Of those, a proportion will have suffered because they themselves messed up in one way or the other (not least ignoring FCO warnings).
Of these, some of them or their relatives will rush to whinge to the media about the FCO support they received, merely to assuage their own incompetence or guilt.
That's how it is.
High-level official emoting-by-numbers when there really has not been a major disaster - involving (say) at a minimum several scores of British deaths in one go - is nothing other than a dangerous dumbing down of the way we all look at Life and its Priorities.
Nonetheless, the effort and sheer ingenuity devoted to consular work by the FCO are in fact world class. Imaginative use of IT is combined with smart organisation at HQ and at posts to deliver a service going far beyond what most other countries aim for, let alone deliver. Labour did a lot to boost the wholeoperation following mixed experiences in dealing with the ghastly Bali Bombing.
As always countries share consular responsibilities on an ad hoc basis. Here the Foreign Secretary tells the European Union not to mission creep its way into this policy/operational area, although one might ask quite why this stern warning makes sense: if we coordinate so many other areas of policy work with EU partners, why not this one?
For us consular services will always remain a national responsibility. Within the European Union, there is no role for EU institutions in defining the consular assistance that Member States should provide to their citizens, or in providing frontline consular assistance. These are matters for which national governments are accountable to their Parliaments and we will oppose EU competence creep in this area.
William Hague gives examples of the scope of the problems faced by the FCO in providing decent consular coverage across the planet for Brits who get into their myriad scrapes or disasters. More here.
Plus he adds some knockabout examples of the exotic expectations which some people have about what service HMG might reasonably offer. My own best example as Resident Clerk was someone calling the FCO from Texas in the middle of the night UK-time to ask about the rules for importing pets into the UK.
However, he might have been firmer on the subject of people who rush to the media to make high-profile complaints which the media lovingly endorse. Yes. some complaints will be justified, although they need to be set against the many letters of praise and gratitude. But others will be ridiculous and annoying, frothing up private unreasonableness to make a stupid selfish noise.
It also needs to be remembered that sometimes consular officials go far beyond any normal call of duty. Back in Belgrade in the early 1980s an Embassy officer had to deal with a terrible road accident involving a British family. Somehow the victim survived in a Yugoslav hospital, but the Embassy colleague kindly housed the distressed spouse for a couple of weeks as treatment continued until the injured person could be shipped back to UK.
I also note in this speech a new and very welcome adjective, all the more welcome for being so wildly unexpected - courageous:
We need courageous people, who will travel to disaster areas, comfort the victims of violent crime and comb hospitals and morgues when our nationals are injured or killed overseas.
Blimey. Whatever next?
Maybe we can extend this novel idea to those public servants who are paid to help British citizens here in the UK, to the point where they become brave enough to wade into a shallow boating pool to rescue someone rather than sit poring over the Health and Safety manual.
One Ann Kittenplan sees some sort of equivalence between 'tax avoidance' and benefit fraud: see her comments on my post about the moral vacuum that is Graham Norton, including:
I do have a problem with unfairness...
a) what are the relative costs to the economy of benefit fraud, tax avoidance, and tax evasion? b) What is the relative coverage given to benefit fraud, tax avoidance, and tax evasion?
If the issue was lawbreaking then it is reasonable to expect a proportionate focus on tax avoidance (the spirit of the law) and evasion in a subsequent post isn't it?
For instance, what about the topical practice of being paid via a limited company? Tax avoidance. How about a post on that and how it differs from the actions outlined in the OP
Let's rise to the challenge.
Ever since we can remember the state in its wisdom has asserted to itself the right to use force to take money away from people to spend on its own purposes. Here's a handy if lighthearted guide to the history of tax, going right back to ancient Egypt's cooking oil tax and Lady Godiva.
Most of the taxes thereby extracted down the centuries have been taken in conditions of no democracy whatsoever. I rule, I need money, ergo I tax. I'm strong, you're weak, you pay me. Some of the money thereby raised has gone on common purposes (roads, armies); some has gone to enrich the ruler and his tax-collectors.
If you are at all interested in how we got to where we are now on taxation and many other phenomena, read this superb book by James Scott which describes how the growing need for taxation - and therefore measurement - helped define all sorts of things, including our very names:
As James Scott explains, the emerging French state centralised in Paris wanted more money. So it taxed (say) grain. But this meant imposing nationally standardised ways to measure precisely how much grain had been paid in tax (and then demanding a nationally standardised system of names to make sure that everyone had paid). Hence the ejecting of France's myriad local weights and measures, and the arrival of our friend the kilogram.
It turns out that people do not like the state demanding money with menaces for purposes which are not necessarily wise or properly run, and that in a democracy the people have some modest say in how much money the state takes. There never have been enough 'rich' people to pay the taxes the voracious state requires, so not-so-rich people too have to cough up. Over time all sorts of complicated rules have emerged to set down the conditions under which people pay.
Mulling over this situation, the state acknowledges a problem. It wants lots of taxes. But it also mustn't overdo things (lest the rabble revolt) and it needs to keep the goose laying golden eggs. So it craftily sets up various incentives for savings, using the tax system: if you invest in X (say an ISA) you pay less tax than you otherwise might do. Plus incentives for setting up a new business (if you risk your own money and effort, you should be 'encouraged'). Plus incentives to attract wealthy people to come and live in the UK - the more of them we have, the more money they'll spend here which creates work for others. Cross the channel to France and buy a load of booze and you can bring it back tax free.
And so on.
In its blundering stupidity and inability to stop growing, the modern state in the UK and USA has created labyrinths of tax complexity which are navigable only by expert accountants who do nothing much else and expect to be paid for their efforts. It is worthwhile for wealthier people to use such accountants to find ways fully compatible with the law to advise how best to arrange their affars to minimise tax payments.
NB this does not mean that 'society' or 'the economy' are losing out. 'Society' and 'the economy' are not the state, however much some people seem to identify them.
Wealthy people usually don't hide their money under the bed. They instal fancy new kitchens or buy expensive cars or use bespoke tailors and dress designers. They buy iPads and download lots of apps, creating work for sassy app designers where we have a global lead. Their money, in short, sloshes around the economy and ends up in other people's pockets no less effectively (and in my view more effectively) than it would if the state had grabbed even larger slabs of it.
So to respond to Ann Kittenplan:
I have no idea what tax evasion (ie illegally avoiding paying tax) 'costs' the economy. Tax evasion takes many forms.
There will be a good number of criminals purloining money illegally. Then there is the stunning phenomenon of carousel fraud, involving the tax system itself and its interaction with eg 'climate change' tax and other unwise financial incentives. Not to forget the billions of pounds 'lost' to the state by cigarette and other smuggling, another industry created directly by huge tax rates.
Sure, there will be a micro number of oligarchs who have billions tucked away far from the taxperson's grasp. But most wealthy people living openly in the UK are wealthy enough to pay accountants a lot of money to find ways to make sure that everything they do is squared away with UK law in all its sprawling complexity.
So I tend to be wary of the very notion that not paying tax 'costs' the economy anything. Huge amounts of tax evasion are found all around us in home helps and smaller traders getting paid in cash and then spending their money without declaring it. You might well argue that this 'costs' the economy nothing - it is the economy!
Illegal tax evasion does not help the state, true. But the modern state is veering out of control, and losing legitimacy. So it's not surprising that people will strain not to subsidise it.
Tax avoidance is another thing altogether. It is no more than people using the rights the state has given them to organise their affairs in ways which reduce their tax burden, thereby freeing up more of their money to invest in other things and so (in principle) create new working opportunities for others. The law deliberately creates certain incentives in this sense - using those incentives complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law.
So Ken Livingstone and other famous socialists such as myself who have our own companies are directly benefiting the economy by doing just that. (Although in Ken's case some people think that he needs to answer some questions as to the propriety of certain activities done by his company.)
So far so obvious.
What about benefit fraud? It seems to me that this is in a different moral category. It involves people who are not working stealing from people who are working.
If you work hard (eg as a plumber or even as a banker) but avoid paying all the tax due, you are at least (a) working, ie paying your own way in life, and (b) contributing to society via your work and the wealth your work generates. The benefit cheat who is not working (or who is working but still claiming benefits) is primarily a leech, a second-hander explicitly exploiting fellow citizens' good will.
This explains why vox pop radio phone-ins feature so many animated 'ordinary' people indignant about benefit fraud. They see it in their own communities, and feel it quite differently.
Likewise you hear heartbreaking stories about small business people driven to distraction if not bankruptcy by oppressive tax rules and practices and other state impositions which add amazing costs to even the simplest arrangements (thereby reducing the likelihood of people being employed). You'd have to be stupid to employ someone in a small business these days. Much better to engage them as an outsourced company or sole trader and let them take the administrative hassle.
Indeed, the 'economy' increasingly is driven by these micro-businesses, one good reason why the state will proceed very carefully in stepping up tax rates on these people. It will be both damaging to any growth prospects we still may have, and incredibly unpopular with the most dynamic risk-ready section of the population.
In short. I have sympathy with people who for reasons of genuine ill-health simply can't work. I have notably less sympathy with people who are not sick but don't work at all. If they can not find a regular job and really are unable to find basic paid employment even of a part-time nature, they should go outside and do volunteer work or even pick up litter for a few hours each day. They are getting unearned benefits from society to which I am contributing thousands of pounds a month - society should get some benefit back from them. Plus they will feel better about themselves if they are doing something useful for their neighbours and local communities.
Here, of course, the state steps in once again to make even such ad hoc 'free' work problematic. You can't help out at schools or in the NHS without exhaustive checks to ensure you're not a perv. You can't pick up litter without Health and Safety training. You can't do anything which might undercut the status of those with state jobs. Blah blah.
Cheating? Fairness? In my view More State = a trend towards More Cheating and Less Fairness.
Here is a gloomy wail by Dahlia Lithwick against the conservative case brought to attack the sprawling 'Obamacare' Affordable Care Act, which now has reached the US Supreme Court:
But after the aggressive battery of questions from the court’s conservatives this morning, it’s clear that we can only be truly free when the young are released from the obligation to subsidize the old and the ailing...
This morning in America’s highest court, freedom seems to be less about the absence of constraint than about the absence of shared responsibility, community, or real concern for those who don’t want anything so much as healthy children, or to be cared for when they are old. Until today, I couldn’t really understand why this case was framed as a discussion of “liberty.”
This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms. It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another, freedom from the modern world in which we live. It’s about the freedom to ignore the injured, walk away from those in peril, to never pick up the phone or eat food that’s been inspected. It’s about the freedom to be left alone. And now we know the court is worried about freedom: the freedom to live like it’s 1804.
All of which misses the point of the litigation. Namely are there limits to what the state can force individuals to do in the name of supposedly common goals? And if so where are they definitively defined?
This case alas could not be brought in the UK. We have a system under which The-Queen-in-Parliament is indeed sovereign and can pass whatever laws they like (subject only to the European Court of Human Rights declaring them an abuse of core human rights). In the USA things are different and better. The federal government has powers under the US Constitution but, in principle, only those powers. So battle is joined on whether compelling most people across the USA to take out health insurance is an abuse of those powers.
Ms Lithwick of course confuses two things. Whether and when there is a moral obligation on X to help Y and Z. And how far it is appropriate for the state to order X to help Y and Z, in which case it's no longer a moral obligation in any important sense.
My view? Any new law of 2700 pages is an absurd and arrogant abuse of process in its very nature, and should be struck down for that reason. It is necessarily incoherent and immoral.
But if that wise and simple view does not prevail, then what? Here are conservative commenters giving a wide range of interesting ideas on what might happen to Obamacare depending on what the Supreme Court decides. One issue is obvious - if one notable pillar of this monstrous law is struck down as unconstitutional, what happens to the rest of it (the doctrine of 'severability')? Read on.
Update: See also this superb article by Walter Russell Mead which says everything I might have been able to say and so much more on the deeper problems with Obamacare and many other aspects of modern government - complexity.
Here is Francis Fukuyama giving gracious words about James Q Wilson, a towering US political scientist who recently died.
I was pleased to see him take up some of the many ideas which featured in one of Professor Wilson's many masterworks, Bureaucracy, which I urge you to buy if you are at all interested in government as a phenomenon in itself:
I bought and indeed read this book when I had my Harvard sabbatical back in 1998/99. It has one sharp insight after another on why civil servants in modern bureaucracies work and think the way they do. He describes carefully why such factors as the way public sector budgets work necessarily circumscribes innovation and flexibility:
First, public sector agencies are not allowed to retain earnings, and therefore have no incentive towards economizing costs. A public agency that ends the fiscal year with a surplus because of efficient operations cannot distribute those savings to its managers and employees as incentives, but rather is likely to see its budget cut for the next year on the grounds that it was allocated too much in the first place. This explains the rush to push money out the door at the end of the fiscal year whether the spending is needed or not, and why bureaucracies are so often inefficient...
Good grief. Been there, seen that.
The chattering classes and Guardianistas in particular who burble on about the need for 'more state' never seem to have the faintest idea about the real limits what the state can ever do, which come from its very nature. These ideas were picked up in the evidence I gave to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee when it looked at reforming the FCO:
Some of today's excessive process was invented in the previous Thatcher/Major Conservative era, with the ostensibly laudable idea of making government policy processes more "businesslike". But there was (and is) no consensus on what "business" foreign policy actually is. In fact it is a complex mix:
(a) part consultancy (top-level advice on what is happening and how to respond);
(b) part agriculture—planting seeds of goodwill and influence, knowing that some will grow into strong plants in years to come but others will not;
(c) part insurance—developing relations with senior foreign people patiently and deftly when there are no problems in sight, so that when problems occur there is a chance of having essential allies;
(d) part fire-fighting (making an impact in difficult/dangerous situations far from home); and
(e) part service provider (consular/visa work).
13. This is a unique "business" indeed. Because much solid background diplomatic work needed to get results is in the insurance sector and shows no "measurable" outcome, it tends to be devalued in Treasury calculations
In James Q Wilson we had a conservative-inclined analyst who looked at these things with a searching, open mind. Perhaps above all because he understood what was going on in government in a deeper sense he understood what might work (or not) in trying to make things better:
Wilson understood the critical importance of organizational culture as the source of good bureaucratic performance, as opposed to the shifting around of boxes on an org chart that often passes for reform (e.g., the two big reforms of the 2000s, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the reorganization of the intelligence community).
Now I see that in one of the periodic rounds of 'centralisation' which follow periodic rounds of 'decentralisation' almost all UK government training work is to be channelled through one provider.
Centralisation in this sense has (in theory and maybe in practice) real advantages - some sort of common standards, reduced overheads and process duplication, less scope for some firms 'capturing' a sector, greater transparency in what is required and by whom.
But it also has disadvantages, namely one-size-fits-all and much reduced nimbleness/flexibility - why in fact should the v small and specialised FCO (say) have to be put in a training process strait-jacket with huge Whitehall departments? Yes they have some generic training needs in common. But a lot arguably should be better done separately.
What is 'efficient' for taxpayers in this context? Not an issue of Right v Left (even if some might present it that way) - simply a question of fleeting fashion?
James Q Wilson will be watching all this from a very high place, and with a rueful smile.
Read this, a powerful argument by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryfor spreading risk intelligently by turning banks into partnerships and pursuing massive (by which he means MASSIVE) deregulation at the same time. One smart, challenging paragraph after another:
Let's work through the main objections to the partnership model:
It's antiquated. You say potato, I say potato. You say antiquated, I say resilient. The partnership model dominated the world of finance up until the 20th century. It financed the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution. That ain't too shabby. It's like your Grandma's old clunker: it doesn't have air conditioning or power steering, but by God, it'll get you from point A to point B whether rain, sleet or snow.
What's more, it's worth noting that Swiss banking is still dominated by the partnership model. Swiss private banks boast on their website that your money's safe with them because their own money is on the line with yours. Not all of them: there's UBS which tried to go the Goldman route and blew itself up in the process. The partnerships, meanwhile, did much better through the crisis. There are many words people use to describe Swiss finance, but "antiquated" is never one of them.
I think it was The Epicurean Dealmaker who said on Twitter that the mandatory disclosure/warnings for anyone who signs a financial document should be a slap in the face and the phrase "CAVEAT EMPTOR!" shouted into their face drill instructor-style.
We don't want retail investors to have trust into the system. Finance is like fire: it can be very useful, but it burns and can be very destructive. The last thing we want to do is give people the impression that we can somehow regulate away the bad consequences of fire.
Smart, intelligent, radical - and above all it puts responsibility on people, not on rules. Therefore highly unlikely to happen - too many people want to have rules as an end in themselves. But do also read the dynamic comment chain, with people arguing to and fro about these ideas from all sorts of points of view, many of them seemingly well informed.
His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit.
The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text...
... Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.
Andrei Buzin, an election expert at Golos, said that the falsifications were not widespread enough to have left Putin with less than 50% of the vote and require a run-off, but the vote was still skewed. "I wouldn't call these elections free or fair," Buzin said.
This is an important point. It is scarcely surprising that there have been crass abuses in an election on this scale, and plenty of them. But they did not happen (apparently) on a scale big enough to matter, ie to the point of seriously calling into question the strong Putin first-round victory.
In other words, Putin won because many millions of Russians really did vote for him and not for any of other candidates who in their different ways did offer alternative policies for Russia (some of them insane). That gives the result a substantive legitimacy which can not be wished away.
That's the reality.
Another reality is that unless something utterly extraordinary happens, protests against this result in Moscow and elsewhere will not build up into a significant Putin-threatening nationwide movement. Too many Russians either don't care, or if they do care prefer Putin to carry on.
The threat to Putin's position (if there is a threat) comes rather from a growing sense among the intellectual elite in Moscow and elsewhere that Russia is underperforming and letting itself down, above all through corruption. But even then a goodly proportion of those intellectuals will favour radical 'nationalist' solutions to these problems rather than more 'Western-style' pluralism and transparency.
If there is ever to be a showdown which leads to Putin's untimely fall from power it's much more likely to be in the long, dark Kremlin corridors within the ruling establishment, rather than a doomed attempt by Russian protesters to be Western Occupiers or Ukrainian-style Orange revolutionaries.
Department for Education spokesman said: “Emails are not automatically considered an official record. Special advisers are not required to maintain records of deleted emails. All civil servants routinely delete or archive emails, taking account of their nature and content.
“Government systems could not operate if every civil servant kept every email they send or received (sic). The act of deleting emails is not evidence of wrong doing.”
Fair enough? Or not?
When the FCO brought in email communication first on a clunky internal system then on a more familiar Windows-based system, the use of emails of course exploded. And the FCO had to think about what to do with them all.
Various categories of email were devised, reflecting security classifications for documents set up under utterly different conditions. So for a while until a network-wide Confidential system was rolled out to the huge majority of posts (over several years) the 'Unclassified' parts of the network could send and receive only Unclassified emails, leaving them largely excluded from the day to day email chatter at HQ in London. This was part of Craig Murray's problem in Uzbekistan - he did not have a CONF system and so substantively was isolated from much of the policy debate in the FCO. This frustrating situation led to him to start using the 'telegram' level for communicating his thoughts to a vast bemused Whitehall audience, and it all went downhill from there.
The really staggeringly stupid thing the FCO did was not insist from the start on a sound system for email retention. If I wanted to send an email to someone on the network, I just sent it. The message would be stored in my Sent box on Outlook until I moved it to an Outlook file or saved it elsewhere on my computer. Thus over time my Outlook space became clogged with all the folders of emails I'd created as a sort of private registry system. It could be searched by me but not by anyone else other than remote system controllers who were essentially technicians and network security minders.
In other words, if a member of the public or even a fellow colleague wanted information on (say) UK policy towards Montenegro, there was no meaningful way that the fast proliferating mass of emails on that subject across the FCO network could be searched. Partly this was for classic internal 'Need to Know' reasons. Better not to have a centrally searchable database open to all FCO staff lest anyone who got into the system illicitly might scoop the whole lot.
There was in fact an easy solution. Namely that before sending an email the sender would have to choose from a drop-down menu which might give one of the following options, following which the message would be automatically stored centrally and be searchable by those who needed to do so:
Ephemeral/Unimportant - Delete after three Months
Ephemeral but Operationally Significant - Delete after One Year
Policy Relevant but Operationally Insignificant - Delete after One Year
Policy Relevant - Keep
These classifications or something like them would have covered the nuts and bolts exchanges on eg organising visits, which by definition are mainly irrelevant and unneeded once the visit is over. They also would have allowed FCO officials to set timelines for keeping messages which had some current policy relevance that was set to dwindle over time (eg analysis of the prospects for Montenegro as elections approached - interesting at the time, but not mattering much a year after the election). Above all, they would have given officials a chance quickly to designate an email message as worthy of prolonged retention/searchability and eventual sending on to the Public Records Office for the national archives.
All this could have been complemented by a requirement that each email message have in its title three or four key words (Montenegro Economy Bilateral Steel) which would be a fast way of helping find emails on a certain subject in months and years to come.
What instead happened was that cumbersome arrangements were set up for 'saving' emails (or not) separately from sending them. With the result that few officers saved more than a handful. Even though I must have produced thousands of emails in my final seven years in the FCO I don't recall saving permanently any at all(!), although as Ambassador my main senior policy effort was via 'telegrams' sent electronically (E-grams) which were in a category of their own and saved automatically by HQ. Plus I assumed that if anything really important came up arising from what I had sent, I would be able to find the trail in my Outlook private filing cabinet.
That said, when I left post the whole mass of work I had sent by email was summarily deleted. Gone.
In all this it was never clear how far anything was really finally deleted once and for all. Presumably the messages were also captured on central FCO servers. Yet without some sensible way of searching through the gazillions of messages which even a small government department like the FCO generated each year, they might as well have been deleted.
In short, it is likely to be relatively easy to track down recent official working papers where the people who created them are still at their desks (see eg my request re that astounding FCO Bullying training event, where I have sent a follow-up request to get more accurate costings after the FCO said that they did not know what the event had cost).
But for anything much older the chances of getting anything like a full set of papers (if such a thing is even imaginable in our chattering e-age) are much reduced. Oddly enough if you go further back to the days of predominantly paper records things might get easier again, as physical files telling a story were kept. See eg the impressive reply to my FOI request for papers on the FCO's policy on homosexuality in the 1980s.
there has never been a policy that all official papers are kept for the main Public Record
'weeding' of papers and emails goes on all the time - it indeed is not evidence of wrong-doing (although some deleting may be wrong-doing)
FOI is never going to be much better than the ambient information management systems in any government department
in most modern democracies including our own the level of transparency is remarkable and historically unprecedented
the more the public demands that almost everything 'official' be open to scrutiny, the more likely it is that informal arrangements will emerge to keep some sensitive exchanges off the record, as has happened in the Michael Gove case
Here's another truly horrible piece at Social Europe Journal that caught my beady eye. It's by one Kinga Pozniak (someone of Polish origin no doubt, an anthropologist who lectures at the Western University in London. Not London, England. London, Canada).
It's entitled "Poland's ACTA Protests - Molecular Change in an unlikely Place". Let the fisking begin!
As the economic crisis washes over Europe, political and economic discourses across the continent make it sound as if “there is no alternative” to widespread belt-tightening that withdraws and privatizes areas of social welfare and undermines social solidarity
We know that any article including the word 'discourse' is going to be awful. Thanks for alerting us so early on. And note the superb metaphors. : Crisis 'washes'. 'Belt-tightening' 'withdraws', 'privatizes', 'undermines' - in fact almost anything rather than keep trousers safely aloft.
This discourse is certainly hegemonic in Poland, a country frequently held up as a token success story of neoliberalization.
Aaaagh. A hegemonic discourse! Note the startling Leftist sneer that follows. Poland is frequently (sic) held up (sic) as a token success story (sic) of neoliberalization.
Following socialism’s collapse in 1989, Poland eagerly embraced a variety of neoliberal reforms, including rapid privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises, withdrawal of price subsidies, cuts to state spending and decentralisation of state responsibility for social and family policy
Yup. All good policies. That's why Poland is now the EU country with the best growth rates. People working, things getting built, new investment. Solid banks, lending to new businesses. Stuff like that. What's not to like?
Since economic troubles in Europe first broke out, Poland has been on board with Europe’s austerity agenda, with the country’s major newspapers vilifying countries such as Greece for their “irresponsible spending”.
I think you'll find that Europe has had 'economic troubles' for the past 2000 years or so. The point now is that we know how to manage them. And right at the heart of sound economic policies are two simple yet profound ideas. Don't borrow money you can't pay back! Work hard!
Poland has taken these norms to heart and grown steadily over the past 20 years. Plus Poland has striven to invest wisely generous EU 'cohesion' funds, taking the Greek example as the way not to do it. Hence Poland is - not unreasonably? - annoyed that those who mess up are clamouring for funds from those who behave responsibly. This takes us back to the Prodigal Son, not the most obvious example of cruel neoliberalization in action.
And yet recent events in the country suggest that resistance may sometimes originate in unlikely places.
On 19 January 2012 news broke out in Poland that the country’s government planned on signing ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), a multi-national agreement for the purpose of establishing international standards for intellectual property rights enforcement. ACTA’s critics are concerned that it will stifle civil rights, including privacy and freedom of expression on the internet.
The news triggered a massive public outcry. As hackers shut down a number of government websites, protests numbering into tens of thousands broke out across the country, and members of the opposition party Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota) donned Guy Fawkes masks during a parliamentary session.
Resistance? I am no expert in ACTA, but most normal people would agree that there is some sort of balance to be struck between protecting intellectual property and allowing people do do what they want. So what do these resisting Polish folk propose?
What is significant about this wave of protests is that for the first time in over two decades (that is, since the opposition movement of the 1980s that led to socialism’s collapse), it is driven by young people. Until now, Poland’s postsocialist generation has been relatively complicit and complacent.
Oh. You don't tell us. Instead we get the astounding claim that Poland’s postsocialist generation has been relatively complicit and complacent. Complicit in what exactly? Complicit in getting off their butts and coming over to England to work hard? Complicit in working hard at college?
With national hegemonic discourses discrediting anything associated with the country’s socialist legacy, members of the postsocialist generation grew up convinced that “there is no other way”.
If 'national hegemonistic discourses' discredited Poland's appalling communist experience, what's wrong with that? Poland's socialist 'legacy' was impoverishment, subservience to Moscow, environmental degradation, vast networks of people spying on their families and colleagues, and periodic brutality against striking workers.
Kinga, focus! That sort of thing is what 'discreditable' means.
While other groups – such as nurses or coalminers – have, over the past two decades, periodically resisted certain reforms that threatened their work or welfare, Poland’s youngest generation is overwhelmingly pro-market, ascribing to the neoliberal rationality of individual responsibility, independence, and ability to bear risk. This is the generation associated with support for Poland’s current ruling party, the economically liberal and European Union-oriented Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska), which favours the privatization of the remaining public sectors of the Polish economy, fiscal responsibility, and decentralization of the state.
Neoliberal rationality of individual responsibility, independence, and ability to bear risk. Fiscal responsibility. Sure thing. All incredibly positive. Great news that one of Europe's largest young populations gets it. Unlike ours.
Kinga contrives to suggest that these virtues are part of a hegemonistic discourse and therefore ... bad!?
And yet recent events show that this support is not unconditional. Both the content of ACTA and the covert manner in which the government intended to push it through are perceived by many as testament to the erosion of democracy and the privileging of corporate rights and interests over individual ones.
Well, what's with this ACTA stuff? If I work hard to write some new software and try to sell it, is it OK for someone to steal it? Why should people who steal from 'corporation's have their 'rights' 'privileged'? #justaskin
So what will come out of these protests? Perhaps nothing, perhaps something.
At last, a sensible point.
But it is worth recalling that Gramsci identified revolutionary potential in “molecular changes” which, over time, may “modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes”.
Oh lordy. Wheel out the dead Italian Marxists. Just what Poland really needs now.
Poland’s ACTA protests hit home just as the government is recovering from a public upset about recent changes to a national drug refund plan, as well as trying to introduce unpopular reforms to the retirement system. Perhaps Poland’s ACTA protests are just that crack in the political terrain which may in time shift its foundations and open up possibilities for more widespread social critique in other areas.
Bring on the 'social critique' of Poland's reactionary failing policies. If Gramsci Pozniak and Co get their way, Poland and the rest of Europe can be de-hegemonised and thereby reduced again quickly to progressive Greek-style national socialist impoverishment .
Always fascinating to see self-styled progressives retreating in confusion, trying to cover their errors by (of course) blaming someone or something else. Preferably the Tea Party tendency in the USA.
Take John Weeks (economist and Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London). Here he is over at Social Europe Journal lamenting the state of the Eurozone:
Few outside of Europe (and not all within) understand the profoundly undemocratic nature of the European Union that created the current disaster. In retrospect it is clear that the long-term effect of the Maastricht Treaty and its infamous “criteria” were to remove economic policy from democratic oversight. The design of the European Central Bank completed the task.
The anti-democratic removal is not an accident of the law of unintended consequences. It is the conscious fulfilment of the central political principle of neo-liberalism, that economic policy is the preserve of experts, and should not be subject to the “populism” of democratic politics.
It is an irony that the European Union is frequently assailed by right wing politicians in the United States as a haven of socialism. The reality is that the European Union represents exactly the end of democratic oversight that the Tea Party Republicans crave.
Yes, folks. The problem is that the EU is too RIGHT-WING!
Wait. There's more?
Similarly, today in Europe a pact among the governments of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain to coordinate a simultaneous withdrawal from the euro zone would offer a viable alternative to the imposed austerity programs. Together the output of these five countries is almost forty percent larger than Germany’s. The probability of this radical but feasible alternative may be as high as one in a million...
How far we have fallen! The vision of a cooperative Europe, that began in 1950 with the Iron and Steel Community, is now realized as a collection of weak and strong countries caught in a spiral of beggar-thy-neighbor trade and austerity policies, in which the 99% are the losers (even in Germany).
The authoritarian governance of the EU has reached its fullest expression in the debt disasters of the 21st Century, bringing on a continental depression. The ideology that justified this consciously-created and unnecessary depression was and is pure neo-liberal economics.
Of all the bitter ironies of European unity gone viral, one stands out from all the others: a political project designed consciously to ensure that no country would again dominate the continent changed into the mechanism to achieve that domination.
And, yes, it's all GERMANY'S FAULT that the EU is 'authoritarian'. Arbeit macht frei!
Read the whole thing, but first take out life insurance against dying of extreme mirth.
Yet let's be fair. His idea that a group of countries leave the EU to set up some sort of more manageable formation is not a bad one.
Maybe this is getting to the nub of the whole business. The EU is just too big.
Given that there is no willingness across Europe to set up a single big country and have all the wealth transfers between richer and poorer areas run centrally and supposedly democratically as might happen (or not) in a normal country, the alternative is to have all sorts of ad hoc rules which are in substance capable of being untransparent or oppressive. Why not have a number of national groupings in Europe which share some common light-touch overall trading and strategic framework, rather than the one-size-doesn't-fit-all rigidity as we have now?
It can't be said enough. It's all about Trust.
As of this morning, the German elite have concluded that the Greek elite and Greek masses alike can not be trusted to keep their promises, and so insist on highly intrusive measures and controls to keep them up to the mark (so to speak). There is even talk of leaning on Greece to postpone elections.
The Greeks think that all this is arrogant and intrusive and object strenuously. Distrust in Germany (the main source of European money to help Greece!) soars. Loony Greeks (Left and Right) start railing against foreign oppression. And down we do spiral.
The latest news is that all is in place to give Greece yet another bail-out. But we all know that it won't work. Greece can not pay back the debts it now owes even under the most optimistic scenarios of the next bail-out working. Plus the capacity of the Greek system to deliver the measures promised even with cruel Germans manning the towering heights of Greek bureaucracy is inadequate. It won't happen.
If you want a more nuanced look at Greece/EU from a demoralised progessive point of view, try Nick Cohen in the Guardian, who points to a strange fanaticism within the Eurocracy which can not accept that its most cherished beliefs were attached to utterly wrong-headed policies:
Raised in a Eurosceptic country, we do not understand how an absolute commitment to the European project was a mark of respectability on the continent. Like going to church and saying your prayers for previous generations, a public demonstration of commitment to the EU ensured that the world saw you as a worthy citizen. If you wanted to advance in Europe's governing parties, judiciaries, bureaucracies and culture industries, you had to subscribe to the belief that ever-greater union was self-evidently worthwhile...
When historians write about the end of its postmodern utopia, they will note that it was not destroyed by invading armies anxious to plunder Europe's wealth or totalitarian ideologues determined to install a dictatorship, but by politicians and bureaucrats, who appeared to be pillars of respectability, but turned out to be fanatics after all.
The point, dear Professor, is that the EU crisis has nothing much to do with 'neo-liberalism'. The EU is a convoluted sui generis ideological potage (because nothing else could be cooked up in the kitchen) which messily combines bits of almost anything you can think of. Tedious 'social' policies, endless formalism, and 'single market' rules which do indeed rely upon some simple ideas, namely that debts should be repaid and that generous 'solidarity' transfers from one country to another require respect for honest process in return.
As a gesture of goodwill towards Scotland, let's go to Macbeth to sum up where the Eurocrats now stand:
I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,