Left-behind Britain

From a review of Paul Collier’s latest book (Left Behind: A New Economics for Neglected Places) in the New Statesman

Were this not infuriating enough, Collier describes the devastation wrought by the Treasury’s preference for economic theory over accounting reality. The department’s “hermetic paranoia against expertise” allowed it to be easily outmatched by multinational oil companies, for example, which have for decades paid about three times as much tax on Norway’s oil as they do on the same resource taken from beneath Britain’s part of the North Sea. Norway’s finance ministry is far smaller, but it was prepared to hire 40 accountants rather than thousands of PPE graduates. In administering taxes on Norway’s oil properly, these accountants have helped to build the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.

It would be nice to think things might change after Starmer’s landslide. There is infinite hope, but is any of it for us?

The dismal science

Industrial Policy Is a Nostalgic Pipe Dream by James K. Galbraith – Project Syndicate

As I have written before, a consensus of economists – even well-meaning progressives – is a dangerous thing. Consensus, by its nature, is the enemy of consistency and logic

I would add: no truly intelligent system should be 100% consistent

Integrity as an unnecessary business expense

Post Office scandal: how did Paula Vennells, an ordained priest, fall so far and so fast from grace? | Post Office Horizon scandal | The Guardian

In meeting notes about Crichton’s departure, Vennells wrote that the lawyer had “put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business”. (emphasis added)

Two years earlier, the inquiry has heard, in the evidence of the Post Office’s then senior in-house lawyer, Chris Aujard, it was Vennells who insisted that prosecutions of subpostmasters continue, despite contrary evidence raised in Second Sight’s interim report. Susan Crichton, Aujard’s predecessor as general counsel, had resigned after being excluded from a meeting about that report after, she said refusing to “manage or manipulate the [information] in the way that Alice Perkins [former chair of the board] was expecting me to.” In meeting notes about Crichton’s departure, Vennells wrote that the lawyer had “put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business”.

A particular dominant negative mutation in capitalism will destroy much we once held dear. Capitalism, the nation state, or democracy: you only get to choose one option. There remains the Hell option for the chosen few.

God & mammon

God™: an ageing product outperforms expectations

from The Economist

Hard facts on the economics of the Almighty are hard to come by. But the Mormon church is reportedly one of the largest private landowners in America. One study found that in 2016 American faith-based organisations (non-profits with a religious bent) had revenues of $378bn. This was more than the revenues of Apple and Microsoft combined. Better yet, churches usually pay no tax. God may be great; His full-year results are greater.

Universities in the market place

Adam Tooze has written thoughtfully about the student demonstrations at Columbia, and I came across Branko Milanovic’s post via John Naughton.

Tooze writes:

There was no riot last night at Columbia any more than there has been at any other point. The violence came from the police side and it came at the invitation and request of the University administration.

My colleague at the FT Edward Luce is right. It was the adults not the students that caused the real disorder. It is the University administration not the student protestors who have seriously disrupted the end of term and examinations. Chartbook 280 The state as blunt force – impressions of the Columbia campus clearance.

Here is an excerpt of a post from Branko Milanovic:

The novelty, for me, in the current wave of freedom of speech demonstrations in the United States was that it was the university administrators who called for the police to attack students. In at least one case, in New York, the police were puzzled why they were brought in, and thought it was counter-productive. One could understand that this attitude by the administrators might happen in authoritarian countries where the administrators may be appointed by the powers-to-be to keep order on campuses. Then, obviously, as obedient civil servants, they would support the police in its “cleansing” activity although they would rarely have the authority to call it in…

But in the US, university administrators are not appointed by Biden, nor by Congress. Why would they then attack their own students? Are they some evil individuals who love to beat up younger people?..

The answer is, No. They are not. They are just in a wrong job. They are not seeing their role as what traditionally was the role of universities, that is to try to impart to the younger generation values of freedom, morality, compassion, self-abnegation, empathy or whatever else is considered desirable. Their role today is to be the CEOs of factories that are called universities. These factories have a raw material which is called students and which they turn, at regular annual intervals, into graduates. Consequently, any disturbance in that production process is like a disturbance to a supply chain. It has to be eliminated as soon as possible in order for the production to resume. Graduating students have to be “outputted”, the new students brought in, moneys from them have to be pocketed, donors have to be found, more funds to be secured. Students, if they interfere with the process, need to be disciplined, if necessary by force. Police has to be brought in, order to be restored.

The administrators are not interested in values, but in the bottom-line. Their job is equivalent to that of a CEO of Walmart, CVS, or Burger King. They will use the talk about values, or “intellectually-challenging environment”, or “vibrant discussion” (or whatever!), as described in a recent article in The Atlantic, as the usual promotional, performative speech that top managers of companies nowadays produce at the drop of a hat. Not that anyone believes in such speeches. But it is de rigueur to make them. It is a hypocrisy that is widely accepted. The issue is that such a level of hypocrisy is still not entirely common at universities because they were, for historical reasons, not seen exactly like sausage factories. They were supposed to produce better people. But this was forgotten in the scramble for revenue and donors’ money. Thus the sausage factory cannot stop, and the police needs to be called in. Universities as factories – by Branko Milanovic

But if you look at the President of Columbia’s cv it is not hard to be sceptical of her role as a university president. John Naughton points out:

The President of the institution is Minouche Shafik, described by Wikipedia as a British-American academic and economist. She has been serving as the 20th president of Columbia University since July 2023. She previously served as president and vice chancellor of the London School of Economics from 2017 to 2023.

From 2014 to 2017, Shafik served as deputy governor of the Bank of England and also previously as permanent secretary of the United Kingdom Department for International Development from 2008 to 2011. She has also served as a vice president at the World Bank and as deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. She was created a life peeress by Elizabeth II in 2020.

John Naughton adds:

(Footnotes: Actually Shafik was the Director of the LSE; it’s only since her departure that the role has been rebranded as “President and Vice-Chancellor”. Also, it’s not clear how much of an ‘academic’ Shafik is. She was an Adjunct (i.e. unpaid) Professor in the Economics department of Georgetown University for five years, and an Associate Visiting Professor at the Wharton School, but the bulk of her career thus far suggests someone who is basically an administrator. This may be relevant to what follows.)

Whatever the lessons of these recent events, the managers of universities have over the last three to four decades undermined a key reason for their own existence and access to public funding. Better to attach a few portakabins to job centres.

The State of the UK

Two adjacent stories today

Carer convicted over benefit error worth 30p a week fights to clear his name | Benefits | The Guardian

A carer who says he was “dragged through the courts” and had to sell his home to pay back almost £20,000 in benefit overpayments is fighting to clear his name after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledged he made an innocent mistake.

George Henderson, 64, said he made a gain of just 30p a week while claiming carer’s allowance for his son John, who has learning difficulties and is addicted to heroin. He now costs the Treasury £1,000 a month more in benefits, having become homeless and too unwell to work.

Henderson said he was left suicidal after being prosecuted by the DWP, which accused him of fraudulently claiming the benefit for six years while he was caring for John, who is now 42.

And the DWP said“We are committed to fairly supporting all those who need the welfare system, while fulfilling our duty to treating taxpayers’ money responsibly.

And now the other:

Michelle Donelan used £34,000 of taxpayer funds to cover libel costs | Michelle Donelan | The Guardian

UK taxpayers have paid out more than £34,000 to cover the cost of the science secretary Michelle Donelan’s libel case, the Guardian can reveal, more than double the sum the government had previously admitted.

The legal fees racked up by the cabinet minister after wrongly accusing an academic of supporting or sympathising with Hamas cost the public an additional £19,000, on top of the £15,000 libel settlement.

She faced calls to resign from opposition parties and criticism from Tory backbenchers as she was urged to cover the cost of settling the libel action herself after apologising and publicly retracting her remarks.

There is luxury, and there is…

In Doncaster, a town in northern England, $100,000 will buy you a four-bedroom house. In Dubai, it will get you a four-bedroom penthouse—for a night. The Royal Mansion, the nightly rate for which makes it the world’s priciest suite, sits on the 18th and 19th floors of the Atlantis The Royal hotel. It comes with 1,100 square metres (12,000 square feet) of marble floors, a terrace with an infinity pool, a steam room, Hermès shampoo, $500 bathrobes, a not-so-mini bar and, naturally, a butler.

The Economist

Oodles of noodles

Oodles of noodles: how a global favourite became an economic red flag

They are a portable, resilient and long-lasting store of nourishment in times of need — from dire to impulsive and all points between. There is a reason that instant noodles have replaced cigarettes as the primary currency of the informal economy in dismally catered US prisons. This ready-to-eat grub, pioneered in the late 1950s to feed a ruined Japan in the protracted aftermath of war, takes the prize for being cheap and fast, but delicious.

I may dissent from this this view. YMMV.

Boeing, profit engineering and the destruction of value

Boeing: how not to run a national champion

The ongoing Boeing story (from the FT).

It’s not a surprise – late in life, even Welch realised that the focus on shareholder returns had been a mistake – or as he pithily put it “shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world” and that you build value for shareholders by building a good company and a good product.

Comment by BrassMonkey

Well this is what happens when you lay-off or demotivate a significant proportion of the layer of highly competent technical experts in a technology and manufacturing company. These Fellows and Senior Engineer meeting leads are the unsung glue that holds a business like Boeing on course. Ensuring it stays true to the well established aerospace principles while maintaining productivity and fighting the corner for technical professionalism against the onslaught of profit engineering . These seasoned experts ‘set the culture’ on the shop floors and ensured that it was maintained across B2B interfaces. Boeing has a serious problem of leaders that find their ways to the top who do not have technical or manufacturing backgrounds. This is in stark contrast to Airbus, where a significant number of their executive team have risen through the ranks building aircraft and factories. One sentence to sum up the whole problem. Top management don’t care about safety, they will cite “shareholder returns”, they don’t want to know about the issues just build lots of planes, do it quickly and make them cheap

Comment by Super Hank Petram

It’s not fixable. They have just appointed a new CEO-designate to succeed Calhoun. She is an accountant.

Medicine and health care is far, far, worse.

Frans de Waal taught the world that animals had emotions

Frans de Waal taught the world that animals had emotions

The young male chimps at Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem were fighting again. They were running round their island, teeth bared, screaming. Two in particular were battling until one definitively won, and the other lost. They ended up, apparently sulking, high in widely separate branches of the same tree. Then young Frans de Waal, who was observing their wars for his dissertation, saw something astonishing. One held out his hand to the other, as if to say “Let’s make it up.” In a minute they had swung down to a main fork of the tree, where they embraced and kissed.

He did not hesitate to call this what it was: reconciliation. What was more, it was essential if the group was to cohere and survive. The word, though, scandalised his tutors. Studying primates in those days, the mid-1970s, was mostly a matter of recording violence, aggression and selfishness.

Frans de Waal has died. All brings to mind the wonderful photo of the chimp and Jane Goodall eyeing each other up in the Think Different series.

That old world

Europe’s economy is a cause for concern, not panic

But as America’s population has risen by a quarter since 1994, while ageing Europe’s has grown far less, the two economies are in fact somewhat closer in terms of income per person than they were at the time of Bill Clinton and Jacques Delors. Factoring in working hours, which are both shorter and on a steady decline in the eu, leaves European workers with even less to blush about. Put very simply, the French and their neighbours toil a third less than Americans, earn a third less, and are a lot more tanned by the end of August.

When I worked in France, in Pierre Chambon’s lab in Strasbourg, Gallic pride was taken in the ability to publish ‘big’ papers before the competitors in the USA and take all of August off.

Posted on Journée internationale de la Francophonie

Yes, but what do we do about sociopathy?

Via John Naughton

Luckily, Apple has just provided us all with a reminder — its rules for in-app purchases in the US, Simmonds discovers, provide “a jarring, but not surprising, reminder that Apple is not a real person and not worthy of your love”.

Quite so. Repeat after me, all corporations are sociopathic — even though they’re run by humans. They’re what Charlie Stross calls “Slow AIs”, which is why it’s naive to ascribe their behaviour to the moral deficiencies of those who run them.

Therapy or punishment? Or revenge?

On hatred dressed as justice

Robert Badinter persuaded France to abolish the guillotine

Hatred was never so frightening as when it wore the mask of justice. Badinter had seen enough of hatred to know that; all men of his generation had. And he always mistrusted the mob. As a teenager, he had watched two armed men drag a shorn, half-naked girl through the streets because she was a “fille à Boches”—“a girl of the Germans”.

The desperate reality of a UK surgeon in Gaza

The desperate reality of a surgeon in Gaza

I came to understand why families without shelter cluster together when they are under attack, so they can live or die together.

Retired husband syndrome — Wet fallen leaves

Japanese men have an identity crisis

Not as unpleasant as that other material you occaionally step in

The great extent to which Japanese men are encouraged to commit themselves to work is another barrier to change. Retired workaholic men are described as a nureochibazoku, or “wet fallen leaf”, because, lacking hobbies or friends, they follow their wives around like a wet leaf stuck to a shoe. A staple magazine article offers advice to wives suffering a severe case of “Retired Husband Syndrome”. For men, the pain of being considered a nuisance by their lifelong spouse can be immense. Mr Fukushima laments that “so many men sacrifice themselves for work to provide for their family—only to realise later in life that they don’t belong at home.”

Le philosophe du rugby

France’s coach, Fabien Galthié, was philosophical after one of the worst defeats of his tenure, pointing to Paul Willemse’s red card as the turning point. “We played with 14 players almost the entire game,” he said. “But I told the players that this is not the time for reflection. There is too much disappointment to be lucid in our analysis.”

“The offensive performance was not there, that’s clear. Waste, turnovers, dropped balls, a lack of speed. We did not prepare accordingly. It’s a moment to live collectively. But the tournament continues.”

End of science (as we once knew it)

Citation cartels help some mathematicians—and their universities—climb the rankings | Science | AAAS

Cliques of mathematicians at institutions in China, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have been artificially boosting their colleagues’ citation counts by churning out low-quality papers that repeatedly reference their work, according to an unpublished analysis seen by Science. As a result, their universities—some of which do not appear to have math departments—now produce a greater number of highly cited math papers each year than schools with a strong track record in the field, such as Stanford and Princeton universities.

These so-called “citation cartels” appear to be trying to improve their universities’ rankings, according to experts in publication practices. “The stakes are high—movements in the rankings can cost or make universities tens of millions of dollars,” says Cameron Neylon, a professor of research communication at Curtin University. “It is inevitable that people will bend and break the rules to improve their standing.” In response to such practices, the publishing analytics company Clarivate has excluded the entire field of math from the most recent edition of its influential list of authors of highly cited papers, released in November 2023.

Corporations tend to choose survival over morality in the absence of countervailing power.

Apex predators

Acktivism | No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway

An apex predator known as an activist investor has escaped its cage and is now attacking social issues. What happens to Harvard is a sideshow. Ackman’s billionaire tantrum represents a far more dangerous virus that has plagued humans throughout history: the concentration of power.

Kings of convenience

Europe’s monarchies are a study in dignified inanity

From the Economist.

Every family has an heirloom which is too precious to throw away yet of little practical use. A dozen European countries have the constitutional equivalent. ….Like the human appendix, Europe’s royal highnesses are essentially vestigial: they serve little obvious purpose, but few think there is much reason to excise them until they cause trouble.

And who would have thought…

“Bicycle monarchies” mostly replaced fusty aristo balls. The Dutch king has been a part-time pilot for klm for over two decades. Princess Victoria, next in line to the Swedish throne, married her personal trainer.


The Notional Health Service.

Heading in last week’s Economist (13/1/2024). Sad, but true.

Not leaving your kids alone

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths: ‘The war in Gaza isn’t halfway through’

At least 136 UN workers have been killed; staff bring their children to work, so they might survive or at least die together.

And what to do?

We have to get much better at pitching into people’s souls.”

Medical science, one trim at a time

The Economist on pogonophobia and pogonophilia.

Many also believed that not shaving offered health benefits. In 1854, more than 400 members of the Dublin police force petitioned to be allowed to join the beard movement on the ground that “almost all, if not all, diseases of the respiratory organs are in great part, if not altogether, caused by the practice which obtains of shaving off the beard.” Beards were even thought to bring productivity gains. An article in the British Medical Journal in 1861 calculated that America lost 36m working days each year to shaving.

The beard craze petered out in the 1890s as fashions shifted, better razors became available and doctors took to warning against facial hair (a damp beard was thought to spread germs). Beards became the preserve of older men as the young rejected the fashions of their fathers. The army was slower to adapt. The requirement for moustaches lasted until 1916; some regiments maintained a stockpile of artificial ones for those unable to grow their own.

Note the tendency to take tenuous and marginal observations and multiple by a big number to make them seem important. Epidemiology 101, sadly, (but beloved by all grant writers).

Edinburgh’s Festivalisation

Rory Scothorne · Short Cuts: Edinburgh’s Festivalisation

The first humans​ settled in Scotland around 14,000 years ago. They must have arrived in summer; nobody in their right mind would choose to live here during the winter. Even as far south as Edinburgh, the sun emerges late only to disappear before 4 p.m., the rain eats umbrellas for breakfast and the Arctic gale is as rough as sandpaper. We don’t have much of a Christmas celebration to distract us from the gloom: the Scottish Reformation stamped out idolatrous Yuletide celebrations and Christmas only became a public holiday in 1958. Instead, we have Hogmanay.

(London Review of Books)

When capital and ideals clash, capital smothers ideals in their sleep

Mammon | No Mercy / No Malice

The collapse and rebirth of the Valley’s preeminent private company was the most bewildering business story of 2023 and an object lesson in a truth that’s hiding in plain sight: When capital and ideals clash, capital smothers ideals in their sleep. The end of the charade that OpenAI was a nonprofit signals the beginning of the end of ESG.

We are always ready, and want, to believe that this time it’s different, we will do good while making billions. The last big corporate jazz hands was the ESG movement, purporting to prioritize environmental, social, and governance concerns over shareholder returns. Succumbing to this siren call, we abdicated our responsibility to discipline corporations and curb the externalities wrought by the pursuit of profit, believing instead that one profit-seeking entity could cajole another profit-seeking entity to seek something else.

When a “nonprofit” takes a billion dollar investment from a for-profit, it has been bitten by the dead and is now also a profit-seeking White Walker.

Which reminds me (somewhat) of some comments made by Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, with respect to higher education: Institutions choose survival over morality.

Home: That nice warm feeling

Welsh couple bereft after bomb squad detonate ornamental garden missile | Wales | The Guardian

A couple who kept a live bomb as a garden ornament have said they were sorry that their “old friend” had been detonated by a disposal unit.

The missile, which had been outside the home of Sian and Jeffrey Edwards, is thought to date back to the late 19th century. The couple, from Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, had thought it was a “dummy” bomb with no charge. Sian Edwards said she used to bang her trowel on the bomb to remove earth after gardening.

On Wednesday, a police officer informed the couple he had spotted the bomb and would need to alert the Ministry of Defence. An hour later, the officer told the couple the bomb squad would arrive the next day.

Jeffrey Edwards, 77, said: “We didn’t sleep a wink all night. It knocked us for six. “I told the bomb disposal unit: ‘We’re not leaving the house, we’re staying here. If it goes up, we’re going to go up with it.’”

Just a little container of precious

The best way to invest in gold

All the gold ever dug up would fit inside a 20 by 20 metre box.

Is that all there is? I feel richer already.

All about catching thermals

Small publishers are sweeping the Booker and Nobel prizes

On this years’s Booker by Philip Lynch (Prophet Song)

What is the secret to big success for small presses? Nothing new, the editors say, but rather something as old as the book trade: picking worthy titles, editing them carefully and promoting them well. It often comes down to money—in particular, not thinking too much about it.

Publishing, by its nature, is a gamble. The recent renaissance of independent presses may fade with the changing tastes of prize committees or the fickle fancies of readers. “Sometimes you catch a thermal,” Ms Mabey says, and a book soars. “Sometimes you don’t.” But small publishers can adapt to changing winds. And with another Booker in the bag, Oneworld, like so many of its peers, is flying high.

Which is once the way academia worked. All about being the right size for the job in hand.

On the importance of not achieving anything

Psychology Lost a Great Mind – Nautilus

At a dinner one night, a first-year graduate student noted how he preferred his new intellectual freedom to the pressure for immediate results he had endured in industry:

“I like coming home at the end of the day not having accomplished anything.”

John replied, “Young man, you have a bright future in academia.”

Steve Pinker writing about John Tooby who died earlier this month.

On not being properly confused

I like orderly confusion very much. But this is neither orderly nor properly confused

Dieter Rams

His German is a pleasure to the ear.

Via John Naughton 10 November 2023 link

Departure time 2023, arrival 1943

Timothy Garton Ash in the NYRB

When I started writing my book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe five years ago, I thought that in order to bring home to young Europeans the horrors against which postwar Europe has defined itself, I must hurry to track down some of the last surviving elderly Europeans with personal memories of the hell that was Europe during World War II. So I did, in Germany, France, and Poland. But today all you need do to experience such horrors firsthand is take a train into Ukraine from the southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl. Departure time 2023, arrival 1943.