You Decide: The Betrayal of Colonel Redl
28th May 2013
What a great story over at PunditWire about the mysterious life and suicide in 1913 of Colonel Alfred Redl, a senior officer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire's army.
Was he spying for Russia?
This passage caught my eye:
But the detectives had been favored by a second stroke of luck that day. Herr Nizetas had left the sheath to his pen knife in the cab, evidently after using the knife to open his envelopes. The detectives gave the sheath to the concierge with instructions to ask Colonel Redl if he had lost it when he came downstairs.
Two hours later, a smartly uniformed Colonel Alfred Redl descended the red-carpeted staircase to the lobby as the two detectives concealed themselves behind a potted plant. “Pardon me, Colonel Redl,” inquired the concierge, “but did you possibly misplace this knife sheath?”
“Why yes,” said Redl, absent-mindedly. Then he froze, suddenly realizing that he had betrayed himself.
Shortly after midnight, four grim-faced army officers knocked at the door of Room Number One. Redl was expecting them. One of them handed Redl a gun and they departed.
That's how to do things. You bring dishonour - and get caught. You are then offered a brisk way out.
Poland, Jews and Justice
19th May 2013
I expect that very few readers here have heard of Helena Wolinska-Brus.
Here she is. A Polish Jewish woman (or even a Jewish Polish woman) who narrowly escaped death in the Warsaw Ghetto and went on to become a ruthless post-WW2 Stalinist prosecutor, sending various Polish patriots to their murky deaths.
The Marxist Wheel of History turned. Poland's communist elite also turned against even the most loyal if not servile Jewish members in their midst. Thousands of 'Zionists' were effectively driven out of the country. Wolinska-Brus and her husband alas made it to the UK in the mid-1960s and stayed here until they died, enjoying benign liberal middle-class academic life in Oxford.
The one problem they faced was the end of communism and later attempts by the new democratic Polish authorities to extradite Wolinska-Brus back to Poland to answer for her Soviet-era misdeeds. Amazingly W-B used the argument that as a Jew she should not be returned to the “country of Auschwitz and Birkenau” where she would not have a fair trial.
Here is Anne Applebaum back in 1998 carefully if not generously describing her story and the case against her:
It is also true that she was a war hero of sorts: she escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, and later escaped again from a train headed for a concentration camp. “I slipped off and just walked away slowly,” she says. “I knew I would die anyway if I stayed on the train. But they didn’t shoot.” Eventually, she came to be in charge of the office of the General Staff of the People’s Guard, and was afterwards duly decorated by communist Poland, and, according to her husband, by communist Hungary as well.
It is also true, however, that many Poles deeply resent Jews who use their Jewishness as an excuse when they are accused of other crimes. Maria Fieldorf Czarska, the General’s daughter, says bitterly that she doubts Mrs Brus will ever come to trial: “she will say she is old, she will say she is ill, she will say we are anti-semitic.” ...
This Polish view matters, because it is Polish justice which is at stake. This isn’t an Anglo-Saxon debate, anymore than is the debate about the extradition of General Pinochet: the exploration of a totalitarian past isn’t a British passion.
One Polish government official formulates the problem like this: “Just because Jews were victims of crimes against humanity, does that mean they cannot be tried for crimes against humanity themselves?” That is not a British question, and few British people would ask it. But now it will be Britain’s problem to resolve.
In the end the many procedural hurdles that an extraditing state needs to overcome proved too high for Poland. HW-B battled away in the English courts and the case drifted to and fro depending on how zealous successive Polish governments were in pursuing it. The case crossed my desk when I was Ambassador in Warsaw and Radek Sikorski was Defence Minister - he made another push to effect a successful extradition before it was too late.
Eventually HW-B died in late 2008, and that was that.
This is an extraordinary story, when you think about it. Vigorous efforts continue to track down and bring to trial elderly Nazi war crimes suspects while they are still alive. I can't think of a case of a former communist monster being extradited to face justice.
As the HW-B case shows, in such cases the individual accused of crimes against humanity typically turn the tables, using liberal legal defences to fend off extradition and making the general case that after so much time any trial for events decades earlier in utterly different circumstances can not be substantively fair.
This trite appeal to 'fairness' argument may win some instinctive sympathy from the public, as well as benefit from active support from those who for one reason or another want to see Soviet crimes left quietly unearthed.
Yet we never hear much of the 'fairness' argument as delivered on behalf of the victims of such people by their surviving friends and relatives. Nor do we hear much about the value-in-itself of symbolic justice - the very fact that people like HW-B stand on trial and have to stare at the documents they themselves signed, describing their wicked deeds as servants of a wicked system.
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.
Meanwhile, Back on Earth
8th May 2013
So much going on these days it is scarcely worth bothing to opine on it all.
The Nigel Lawson call for the UK to think seriously about leaving the EU is a huge shift. The Unthinkable is being Thought.
The US and Russia are trying to get the warring factions in Syria to talk to each other. What could go wrong?
North Korea's threats to blow us all to smithereens have subsided for a while. Phew. I was getting worried.
Slowly but surely the Obama administration's terrifying performance in Benghazi is being exposed. Watch in amazement if not horror as Clintonian cynicism combined with Obamistic cynicism in front of the families of the victims to blame the murders of the US Ambassador and others on "an awful Internet video" when all concerned - above all Hillary Clinton herself - knew that this was just not true.
And then there's the Cleveland House of Horrors. Watch closely this beyond wonderful interview with the man who kicked down the door to help Amanda Berry and the other two women finally escape: Charles Ramsay.
This interview stands out for several reasons. First, the vivid language he uses to describe what happened and his relationship with the man keeping the women locked up. No speechwriter on Earth with the possible exception of Quentin Tarantino could have written those words down.
Then watch his gestures as he brings the story to life. At one point in the interview a nearby police or ambulance siren goes off. Is it my imagination, or does he give the slightest hint in his eyes of teasing panic that they might be coming to arrest him?
And finally, behold how the interviewer quickly ends the interview in panic as Mr Ramsay gives his forthright views on the amazing unlikelihood of a little white girl running to a black man for help:
'I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl runs into a black man's arms, I said, "Something is wrong here". Dead giveaway'
Only 'blacks' can do scathingly politically incorrect racial wit at this high level of art. Fame and fortune await him. Already happening in fact.
Framing Political Opponents
23rd April 2013
Over at PunditWire my latest piece, this time on how to use subtle framing and reframing skills of the sort used by mediators to create a subtle bad smell around people and policies you don't like, all the while pretending you're being reasonable and objective:
Framing is all around us these days in politics. Organisation activist Saul Alinsky featured it prominently in his Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
A classic version of this is the dead cat denial. You untruthfully accuse your opponent of having a dead cat on the front doorstep (or some other seemingly heinous offence).
When your opponent exclaims crossly that this is utterly untrue, you slyly reply “Ah – so now you’re denying that you have had a dead cat on your doorstep?” The ensuing hoots of anger and frustration from the opponent create a general mood that this person is a bit crazy, always banging on about dead cats. After all, if there isn’t a dead cat or other dead animal there at the house somewhere, why is s/he getting so worked up about it?
You tip-toe away. Mission accomplished. A sneaky reputational frame-up.
This applies in all sorts of areas:
A popular framing buzzword these days is ‘fairness’. Those who rhetorically champion fairness want a double framing. First, to get it established that they – and they alone – are fair, and everyone who disagrees with them is ipso facto unfair. But second, they assert the right to decide what is fair and what isn’t, and thereby grab intellectual and emotional sway over whatever issue is up for discussion. It pretends to be about substance. It’s really about control.
Another vivid example from the hard ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum is to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being ‘privileged’ and so disqualified from being taken seriously on the issue in question (or perhaps at all).
So if you are a white male, you should just shut up completely. White professional, able-bodied, Christian women with husbands need to ‘check their privilege’: only non-white, poor(er), disabled, non-heterosexual, non-Christian women are truly aware of oppression, and so qualified to pronounce on what society must do to address it.
This proposition gains traction because it has more than a ring of credibility: it is self-evident that given the history of the past few centuries ‘black’ people are better placed to talk about and identify racism than ‘white’ people. Likewise that women spot patronising sexist discourse and behaviour more readily than most (if not all) men.
But it also leads us inexorably to a ridiculous place, namely ever-shrinking squabbling grouplets of allegedly oppressed people demanding that they and they alone are at the ultimate oppresses and so should tell the rest of us what to do. Isn’t this just the latest iteration of bullying Leninist vanguardism wearing non-gendered undergarments?
Conclusion? Obvious to any professional speechwriter:
Conclusion for us speechwriters? Only that honest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to achieving compromise is one thing. Dishonest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to emphasizing division and grabbing power is another.
Both, alas, work.
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.
Thatcher in Gdansk: Turning back the Wheel of History
9th April 2013
So, there I was in Gdansk in August 2005 for some impressive ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1980 August agreements that showed the Solidarity movement gathering strength to negotiate successfully with the Polish communist regime.
The UK was represented by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who growled at some length to me in the margins about just how ghastly it had been for him back in the 1980s to hear Polish trades unionists lauding Margaret Thatcher when she was busy shutting coal-mines. Even worse, when Polish shipping union workers from Solidarity had come to the UK for fraternal discussions, they all had been 'bluddy professors'!
Still, when the time came he managed to emit some words that finessed the point well enough during an erection act ceremony (sic):
As a lifelong trade unionist I'm proud that Solidarity showed the power of trade unionism as a peaceful path to democracy and justice, British deputy PM John Prescott said at the signing of an erection act ceremony. The courage of the men and women of Solidarity, who put forth demands for simple, but how meaningful changes, aroused our admiration then and makes us proud to be able to honour them today, Prescott said in his address.
Here is a beautiful short clip of Mrs Thatcher's historic visit to Gdansk in 1988, where she insisted on meeting Lech Walesa and helped push forward the downfall of one-party rule.
This visit built on the visit by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in 1985 when he laid flowers at the grave of Father Popieluszko amidst cheering Solidarity supporters - as he told me later, one of the greatest moments of his political career.
If there is one thing the Left really can't forgive about Margaret Thatcher, it is the fact that she strode straight into the face of European communism and said Stop, to tremendous popular acclaim from workers and intellectuals alike.
She turned back the Wheel of History.
Thank you, Margaret Thatcher
9th April 2013
My own meetings with Margaret Thatcher are described at the Commentator:
My final substantive meeting with her came in 2009 at a small private dinner in London. She was frail but on lively form, making many religious references. There was a cheering consensus that Jesus had been ‘sound’ in his conservative principles. She wistfully said that she was so grateful to have friends who appreciated her work: “No-one ever says thank you to politicians”.
Well, some of us do. Thank you, Lady Thatcher, for your grasp of politics and fundamental principles:
I don’t see how one can be accused of being arrogant when one has, in fact, tried throughout the whole of the eight years I have been in office to give more power back to the people. We have abolished many controls because Government ought not to have had them.
The scale of Margaret Thatcher’s triumph – and failure – lies here: few if any politicians in any position of power or influence in the West are now capable of uttering those words. Or even knowing what they mean.
I have often mentioned here her Panorama interview in 1987 and its unswerving reference to 'honest money'. The full transcript at long last is available. It is hard to think of any politician ever giving a better sustained insight into the link between ideas and outcomes. Just stupendous:
On police numbers:
But, in the end, let’s face it, Government isn’t a dictator—we are a free country. Everyone has freedom of choice and everyone has personal responsibility for their actions. Yes, there is a good neighbour in everyone. What we have to do is to have a legal system such that those who take the course of crime have strong sentences—we have that—the right framework of law—we are doing that—a police force which co-operates with the public. All of that we shall do.
I wish, perhaps above all, to want to wave a magic wand and get crime down. In an ideal world I wish there were no crime, but man is given freedom of choice and, I am afraid the same thing that gives us power to do good is that same freedom that gives some the power to do evil. We have to deter that, and we do.
On trades unions:
The greatest division this nation has ever seen were the conflicts of trade unions towards the end of a Labour Government—terrible conflicts. That trade union movement then was under the diktat of trade union bosses, some of whom are still there.
They used their power against their members. They made them come out on strike when they didn’t want to. They loved secondary picketing. They went and demonstrated outside companies where there was no dispute whatsoever, and sometimes closed them down. They were acting as they were later in the coal strike, before my whole trade union laws were through this Government. They were out to use their power to hold the nation to ransom, to stop power from getting to the whole of manufacturing industry to damage people’s jobs, to stop power from getting to every house in the country, power, heat and light to every housewife, every child, every school, every pensioner.
You want division; you want conflict; you want hatred. There it was. It was that which Thatcherism—if you call it that—tried to stop. Not by arrogance, but by giving power to the ordinary, decent, honourable, trade union member who didn’t want to go on strike. By giving power to him over the Scargills of this world.
There is no Government in the free world which can guarantee everyone a job. I want to make that absolutely clear. Yes, you could guarantee everyone a job—in a Soviet society by total direction of labour. You do what you are told to do and you don’t have a chance of anything else. You go where you are told to go and you don’t have a chance to go anywhere else. You haven’t got any human rights and so on and so forth.
It’s in that society you can guarantee everyone a job. It wouldn’t be the sort of society worth living in. We are going about it the right way. We have got inflation down; we have got enterprise up; we are getting jobs up; we are getting unemployment down. I hope very much that that will go on. Jobs come from successful business.
I have worked too long—had to work too long—on the international scene with coalitions. My goodness me, I guess that some of them are pretty thankful that we have got in Britain a strong Government that can take decisions from which they shy away. Do you know what it is like? We will say, “What are we going to do?” to the non-governed [sic]. You will consult with them—“Oh, well we have got to meet every day”. “Oh no, we take some time to meet”. Then they go behind closed doors.
Do they decide on clear decisions? It is an argy-bargy between them. “What is the price you exact to keep you in the coalition?” Can you imagine it—a major party with a mixture of the SDP and the Liberals who are a miscellaneous group of views anyway, with the Scottish Nationalists, with the Welsh Nationalists, with several different Irish parties——
Britain governed by that? No. I would rather take it in the largest minority party, lay our programme before Parliament and say, “Deliver your judgment upon it”.
Gripping. And oddly moving, a glimpse through a murky glass at a long-lost time when our leaders really took the key decisions for our country and accepted political and moral responsibility for them.
Football Fascism (Again)
2nd April 2013
I have opined here on various occasions on the subject of Football Fascism, the strange way that collectivist politicians lose their minds and start meddling in private activity and private property just because it involves kicking a ball.
Now we see something new: a football manager who has claimed to be an actual fascist.
What to make of that insane extremism?
It turns out that Mr De Canio is in very fine company when finding good things to say about Mr Mussolini and his muscular approach to running a country. Over at The Commentator:
Mussolini hailed from an explicitly socialist-populist tradition but in classic New Labour style identified a ‘third way’ between the angry revolutionary masses and big business: huge state-run corporations to control Italy’s economic life. This and his muscular demands for discipline and sacrifice - and above all his noisy popularity - created a political formula in which everyone could find something to admire.
Thus Mahatma Gandhi: “one of the great statesmen of our time”. Or US President Franklin D Roosevelt: “I am keeping in fairly close touch with that admirable Italian gentleman”.
Here in the UK H G Wells, the towering hero of 1930s progressive thought, in 1932 used the elite occasion of the Young Liberals summer school in Oxford to make an unusually explicit appeal: “I am asking for a Liberal Fascism.” Wells argued that the way ahead lay in turning to a new form of communism: “We shall have to turn - we outsiders, that is, the young people with foresight for enlightened Nazis”. A year later Winston Churchill gushed about Mussolini as he saw him as a bastion against bestial Bolshevism: “the Roman genius…the greatest lawgiver among living men.”
With such giddy praise ringing in his ears, what could go wrong for Mussolini? Everything...
So next time Di Canio is asked about his political opinions, maybe he should meekly reply that he is only following in the tradition of some of the most famous political and intellectual leaders the world has ever seen.
Meanwhile cynics might see plenty of similarities between the modern football enterprise and 1930s machine-age mass iconography. The impossible colour and swirl of night games. The teams in bright uniforms marching out to do battle before vast choreographed crowds that roar as a single mindless organism. Bland corporate titan owners perched high in the best seats well protected from the braying masses. Leadership cults. Medals. Heroic striving. Bombast. Lithe kitschy male athleticism – and flashes of brutish violence.
Thought and Reason, subordinated to Form and Emotion.
We mere individuals must be grateful that these days such extraordinarily potent if not dangerous tendencies play themselves out not in machine-age war, but by all of us watching people kicking a ball to and fro. Above all Gareth Bale.
Did I mention Gareth Bale?
Press Regulation: Curbing 'Egregious Practices'
25th March 2013
My new piece at Commentator on how these new press 'regulations' might or might not tackle 'egregious practices':
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?
23rd March 2013
A most elegant article by John Jeremiah Sullivan about consciousness in both humans and animals, describing how over many centuries human views on this subject have changed as we have come to know more:
Entomologists mastered the dance code of the bees and spoke it to them, using a tiny bee-puppet. (For the bees it may have been as if the puppet had a strange accent). In more recent years the numerous calls that elephants make to one another across 150-mile distances have been recorded and decoded. Evidently the individual animals can tell each other apart. So there are conversations of some kind taking place. Zoologists have observed elephants having, for instance, a “departure conversation” at a watering hole, rustling their great heads together in a “rumbling,” communicating about the decision to leave; the water is no good here, we should move on. Who knows what they’re saying.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand it. It may, as it turns out, be truer to say that we wouldn’t understand it very well.
Part of the interest of the subject lies in finding words to decribe it at all:
Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech.
Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equaled brute...
... We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are.
Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.
Well done once again to The Browser for pointing us to this fine work.
Churchill Public Speaking Competition 2013: More Please
12th March 2013
Just back from this year's Churchill Public Speaking Competition for schools at glorious Blenheim Palace.
The format is interesting - and oddly difficult. Each school has a Chairperson, Speaker and Questioner. Within a timeframe of some ten minutes the Chair has to introduce the school and the team, then hand over to the Speaker to talk for four minutes on one of the themes offered, with the Questioner fielding questions from the audience and the Chair wrapping it all up.
So this is not a debate, but rather a test of many different aspects of public speaking rolled into one short session. The Speaker has to give the strong central effort. But the Chair and Questioner also have to be effective at setting the scene, fielding and answering questions, and ensuring graceful transitions to finish strongly within the given time. Quite a tall order for adults, let alone for youngsters.
In Years 7 and 8 (where Crawf Minima was competing on one of two St Hugh's School teams) six teams took part. And from the point of view of the beady-eared and beady-eyed speechwriting connoisseur (ie me), there was a lot of human interest.
Different schools set about the problem of the core speech in quite different ways. One Speaker went strictly by the book: "Here are three things I'm going to talk about. First point..." and so on. Clear, polished and methodical. But unnecessarily 'over-engineered'? As in any walk of life, you want to play by the rules in such a light-touch way as to give the impression you've never heard of them.
Another tried to be fiercely trendy, starting and finishing with quotes from the Sex Pistols. This had substantive dramatic effect as far as it went, but did not fully convince: most of the youthful audience clearly had no idea who or indeed what the Sex Pistols were/are.
Another couple of Speakers did not always make the transition from writing an essay about the chosen theme to turning it into a speech, with simpler language. Too many long and involved sentences using clunky clever words no sensible modern 13-year old should ever be writing, let alone speaking. As Ronald Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan has famously said, "Your speech should never be taller than you are".
Then there was the biting-off-more-than-you-can chew tendency, particularly on the huge theme of not damaging the English language by 'modern slang, adaptations or intrusions' (as WSC himself once put it). If you have only about 500 words, you can't afford to get becalmed in too much historical detail about the way that the English language has evolved and what textspeak means for better or worse. Find a couple of simple strong core points for and against, and build the team's output around them.
One team boldly tackled "'Harsh laws are better than no laws at all.' Should this be applied to schools?" Again, the trick lay in reframing the issue to a higher level of generalisation to look at a couple of broad arguments for and against, rather than sinking into lists of complicated explanations that, happily, seemed to end up in favour of the return of bracing corporal punishment.
The two St Hugh's teams tackled (respectively) Leadership and Popularity and History - the Most Important School Subject? Both sets of presentations came over strongly as I watched them (with studious lack of any detachment): nicely turned combinations of interesting content, teamwork, clarity of speaking and some successful humorous touches.
The second team tackling the History theme gave the overall winning performance on the day. Asked by someone in the audience to say a bit more about the idea that it falls to the winners to write history, the Speaker fired back with the Bayeux Tapestry as an example of William the Conqueror getting in his version of events at the expense of King Harold. Coo. This effortless sweep of the ball for 6 far over the pavilion rightly impressed the audience and judges alike.
It will be good to see the competition growing fast in the coming years, as the format is more testing than the standard school debate set-up. Well done West Craven High Technology College for coming all the way from Lancashire to take part in the upper school part of the competition. Oxford Spires Academy likewise made a strong showing, fielding three teams in all on the day.
How to put in a winning performance? Easy:
Keep it simple. Two or three strong, clear points delivered in a strong clear voice with a couple of unexpected lively examples will make a huge impression. No ponderously clever words that you'd be unlikely or unwise to say to your aunt.
Short sentences (ie only a few words each), so the speakers talking from their notes can confidently improvise a bit.
Finish strongly. Be you, with some added dramatic edge and a dab of raw charm. Aim to have a conversation with the audience - don't give a lecture
Above all, remember the absolute basic thing in any public speaking: It's not what you say - it's what they hear.
No-one at an event like this wants to hear densely clever stuff about history or Churchill or the evolution of language as cranked out by hard-pressed teachers. They want to hear the children and their character coming through strongly.
They want to hear 'Hmm, that was actually quite good! More, please!
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.
PunditWire: Deflecting Blame
8th March 2013
Another piece by me at PunditWire that looks at a magnificent example of using language to demonstrate that 'really' the issue is about something else.
Not a disaster. But the speaker's gloriously moral and meritorious response to it:
I promised both the government and the NHS that I would see that through and I am absolutely determined to do that over the next period… I think I have a duty and a responsibility to manage the organisation over these great changes… We didn’t see any of the information that would lead you to believe that there was all of this going on in Mid Staffordshire. As shocking as it is, that is the truth.
Imagine if a Western government had run a POW hospital like this, causing the deaths of hundreds of prisoners. War crime!
The modern British/European state. A former communist with power over almost everyone, but responsibility for precisely nothing
Sir Winston Churchill Public Speaking Project
6th March 2013
Preparations chez Crawford are intensifying for next week's fine Churchill Public Speaking Project event at Blenheim Palace at which schools compete to deliver powerful presentations on a number of possible themes.
Here's the list of subjects.
Events like this help motivate children (and, ahem, their parents) to look at the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill and think about what he did and represented. Ignoring (if we can) the fact that he smoked, we today look at his language and instincts and marvel at just how distant they seem. This is one especially famous 1954 quote:
I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the Nation. It was the nation and the race dwelling around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar
Here the reference to 'the race' is striking - the sense of the noble white British man setting the planet a fine example.
A cursory Internet search finds a vast literature on the subject of Churchill and racism, including freaky neo-Nazi groups citing his abusive attitudes to India and Indians in support of their own supremacist ravings.
Then there's the always fascinating subject of Churchill's not-so-latent bouts of collectivism and the idea that society needed to be 'properly organised'. This turned into his undiluted admiration of Mussolini in the 1920s. This is a sensible if searching look at what all that represented at the time. Progressive people railing against Churchill's supposed hypocrisy on that score need to remember that in the 1920s and 1930s adulation of Mussolini ran far and wide.
So, plenty of material to work with for the youngsters gearing up to debate some awkward questions next week.
Go for it. Don't try to sound like Churchill. Sound like you.
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.
Airline Seat Prices
28th February 2013
Read this fine article at by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic on how the cost of flying has fallen so far over the decades:
... consumers have enjoyed an amazing (and unsustainable) three decades in cheap flying while the price of fuel, which accounts for more than a third of airfare costs, has gone up 260 percent since the turn of the century.
Part of it is down our good friend deregulation. Competition creates choice and expands the market. Plus it drives out the weak or ineffective:
Between falling prices, 9/11, and fuel inflation, there have been 47 airline bankruptcies since 2001. Some companies died. Others merged. Others survived with leaner contracts. Through attrition and consolidation, a less crowded marketplace for flying is inevitable.
But the price plunge is also down to fiendishly competitive and sophisticated prcing strategies:
Continental launches about 2,000 flights every day. Each flight has between 10 and 20 prices. Continental starts booking flights 330 days in advance, and every flying day is different from every other flying day. Monday is a different kind of day than Tuesday; the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is different from the Wednesday before that. At any given moment, Jim Compton and Continental may have nearly 7 million prices in the market...
In other words, when you buy a seat on a plane you think you are buying a seat on a plane. You are indeed getting that. But you are also buying the certainty of that seat and escaping the risk of delaying buying it for a few hours or days or weeks when the prices certainly will change.
Thus the other day I was looking at flights to Croatia via Expedia. As luck had it, after my first look then mulling over dates and exploring other ideas (some 20 minutes) I went back to that option and the price had fallen by 30% or so. I just happened to be there when the algorithm twitched in my favour.
The magic of capitalism.
The Slow Death of #BigAid
25th February 2013
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!
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