A home that no longer feels like it

Farewell to Dubravka Ugrešić, a fearless prophet | Financial Times

In 1993, Ugrešić went into voluntary exile, first to Berlin and then the US, finally settling in Amsterdam and taking Dutch citizenship. In a 1999 article, she repeated what she had often said: “I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum seeker. I am a writer who at one point decided not to live in her own country anymore because her country was no longer hers.”

Fellow writers relished her work — Susan Sontag called her “a writer to be cherished” — but unlike many of her contemporaries, Ugrešić predicted the future of publishing too. In 1997, she saw that literature had, fatally, acquired an “aura of glamour”, and that publishers wanted writers to be chiefly “content providers” (the term was new enough then to be carried in quotes). What would become, she asked, of the “outsiders, bookworms, romantics and losers” who used to make up the despised and neglected profession of writers?

Intellectuals as protectors of integrity

Via Adam Tooze

On the courage of Vladimir Kara-Murza (his words below are via Tooze)

At one point during my testimony, the presiding judge reminded me that one of the extenuating circumstances was “remorse for what [the accused] has done.” And although there is little that’s amusing about my present situation, I could not help smiling: The criminal, of course, must repent of his deeds. I’m in jail for my political views. For speaking out against the war in Ukraine. For many years of struggle against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. For facilitating the adoption of personal international sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against human rights violators.

Not only do I not repent of any of this, I am proud of it. I am proud that Boris Nemtsov brought me into politics. And I hope that he is not ashamed of me. I subscribe to every word that I have spoken and every word of which I have been accused by this court. I blame myself for only one thing: that over the years of my political activity I have not managed to convince enough of my compatriots and enough politicians in the democratic countries of the danger that the current regime in the Kremlin poses for Russia and for the world. Today this is obvious to everyone, but at a terrible price — the price of war.

In their last statements to the court, defendants usually ask for an acquittal. For a person who has not committed any crimes, acquittal would be the only fair verdict. But I do not ask this court for anything. I know the verdict. I knew it a year ago when I saw people in black uniforms and black masks running after my car in the rearview mirror. Such is the price for speaking up in Russia today.

But I also know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate. When black will be called black and white will be called white; when at the official level it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.

“Honest” Boris

Johnson looks done for from TheEconomist

Boris johnson is an honest man. It is possible to tell this by the sheer number of times he declares his honesty.

In his written submission to the committee of mps investigating whether he intentionally misled Parliament over Partygate, the word “honest” popped up around 20 times in one form or another. In a three-hour hearing on March 22nd he offered yet more honesty, at one point even “hand on heart.” And little speaks more of honesty than declaring your honesty 20-odd times in two days.

Feels like it

The England that awaits the young Mundy is a rain-swept cemetery for the living dead powered by a forty-watt bulb.

Absolute friends, John le Carré

A deceit

A deceit at the heart of democracy.

No politician would fly in a plane built by politicians.

No more big letters

Just a suggestion after looking at newspaper headlines at a news stand. That feeling of despair at the world and those who pour dirt upon it.

Could we limit the font size of headlines to no more than size 14 on an A4 page. So, small, but readable. More whitespace can surround the letter above and below. This might make the context come into where it belongs: dead centre.

VIP capitalism

Banks are designed to fail — and they do | Financial Times

But few people are capitalists when threatened by losing money they regarded as safe and nobody is better than a capitalist at explaining how essential their wealth is to the health of the economy.

Rear view mirror only

Ikea boss says Brexit has caused ‘chaos’ | Financial Times

Shapps bemoaned the lack of homegrown technology giants and promised to ape Silicon Valley, saying he would organise a “scale-up summit” later this year to bring tech and finance expertise together.

Well, that’s alright then.

The head of a sovereign wealth fund, who declined to be identified, said the recent political history of the UK including Brexit was “an unmitigated disaster”, and the country had made a “catalogue of policy mistakes” that would take years to unwind, if ever.

Vampire squids

The Economist

Rolling Stone described Goldman[Sachs]as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.

We should forgive a cliché when it becomes true.

Salve Lucrum: The Existential Threat of Greed in US Health Care

Salve Lucrum: The Existential Threat of Greed in US Health Care | Health Care Economics, Insurance, Payment | JAMA | JAMA Network

In the mosaic floor of the opulent atrium of a house excavated at Pompeii is a slogan ironic for being buried under 16 feet of volcanic ash: Salve Lucrum, it reads, “Hail, Profit.” That mosaic would be a fitting decoration today in many of health care’s atria.

The grip of financial self-interest in US health care is becoming a stranglehold, with dangerous and pervasive consequences. No sector of US health care is immune from the immoderate pursuit of profit, neither drug companies, nor insurers, nor hospitals, nor investors, nor physician practices.

Avarice is manifest in mergers leading to market concentration, which, despite pleas of “economies of scale,” almost always raise costs.

Yep. Don Berwick on fine form.

Choose 2

After Dani Rodrik, quoted by Walter Münchau in The New Statesman(26 January 2023).

Only two of the following are compatible with one another: the nation-state, democracy and globalisation.


by reestheskin on 25/12/2022

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If the personal is political, so is the political personal. Zeitenwende it is.


Two graphs

by reestheskin on 23/12/2022

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Feels about right. (From today’s FT)

White collar crime, Xanax and Viagra

by reestheskin on 22/12/2022

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The crime-writing Belgian ‘sheriff’ fighting EU corruption – POLITICO

For him[Michel Claise], financial crime has destroyed fundamental aspects of society. “White-collar crime is the cancer of democracy,” Claise wrote in one of his books, “Le Forain” (The Showman).

And prison works for white collar crime.

Belgian justice is doing what at first sight the European Parliament hasn’t done,” the country’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters in his first comments on the scandal on Tuesday. “The European Parliament has a lot of means to regulate itself. It turns out that this is largely a system of self-regulation based on voluntary efforts, which has clearly not been sufficient.

But that peacocking would be ironic to Claise, who complained in October that Belgium’s police are under-resourced, fighting a war against modern, high-tech corruption using “catapults.” Earlier in the year, he said the Belgian government was “ on Xanax rather than Viagra.” Now it’s the European Parliament he has found dozing on the job.

Trust and tax

by reestheskin on 20/12/2022

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Chartbook #181: Finance and the polycrisis (6): Africa’s debt crisis

The context for the following quotes from Adam Tooze is Ghana in particular and Africa in general.

For many African states this […steady growth, feeding an adequate tax base…] is a huge challenge.

As David Pilling writes about Nigeria in the FT:

One measure of the trust that a nation’s people have for the state is the amount of tax they are willing to pay. However grudgingly, under an unwritten social contract people agree to part with a share of their income in the belief that the state will spend it more or less wisely. The public goods provided range from schools, hospitals and roads to police, national defence and the running of the government itself. Everyone benefits from improved services, a better educated and healthier population, safer streets and protected borders. (David Pilling).

Which made me think of the UK.

Further on Tooze quotes Schumpeter:

What Joseph Schumpeter wrote in his essay “The crisis of the tax state” about the European state in the aftermath of the gigantic financial effort of World War I, is no less true for African states faced with the awesome development challenges of the 21st century.

“fiscal measures have created and destroyed industries, industrial forms, and industrial regions even where this was not their intent, and have in this manner contributed directly to the construction (and distortion) of the edifice of the modern economy and through it of the modern spirit …. The spirit of a people, … its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare … all this and more is written in its fiscal history. He who knows how to listen to its message here discerns the thunder of world history more clearly than anywhere else.

And again, I think of the UK.

Well, that’s alright then..

by reestheskin on 13/12/2022

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London Playbook: Striking back — Pestminster update — Rishi’s Christmas drinks – POLITICO

One palpably relieved No. 10 staffer confirmed everything was “a lot more chilled” under the new PM, apart from the small matter of “the country falling apart.”

And on it goes

by reestheskin on 10/12/2022

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How many more attacks can our institutions withstand? | Prospect Magazine

But when institutions are creations of the central state and (at least in significant part) paid for by it, their autonomy is limited; they risk becoming government brands, not self-created institutions as Burke might have imagined them.

They who destroy everything certainly will remove some grievance”, Edmund Burke wrote of the French Revolution: and that has been true of the Year Zero element of the Conservative party. The country isn’t working, so smash things. When that fails, smash some more.

The great storehouse of visionary imagination

by reestheskin on 10/12/2022

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Simon Schama: art versus the tyrants | Financial Times

All the stuff of mainstream history — wars, revolutions, economies — is becoming a subset of the engulfing, elemental question: the fate of the earth; what humans have done to it and what they may yet do to repair and redeem the damage. We are running out of time. But what we have not yet exhausted is what, in the end, makes us human: the great storehouse of visionary imagination. If, at the eleventh hour, we have what it takes to pull off the greatest escape act in the human story, it will not be databanks or algorithms that will have got us there, but something like a poem, a novel, a painting or a song. 

What Václav Havel, in his most original and penetrating text, called “the power of the powerless” is capable of putting despotisms on the back foot, simply by being in sync with the simplest and most natural human instincts. Authoritarians can mobilise their heavy artillery of terror, torture, imprisonment and persecution; but in the end, Havel argued, they are not that well equipped to fight the asymmetric battle between lies and truth. Havel believed that the vast majority of people are not content to be forever walled within a prison of falsehood, where the price of material security and domestic safety is the unconditional surrender of personal freedom. 

But what if Havel was wrong?

If it is not true, it will be.

by reestheskin on 07/12/2022

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Georgina Sturge interview: “The numbers don’t count. People do” – New Statesman

An interview with Georgina Sturge, a statistician in the House of Commons Library. The first quote deals with an issue I have heard about before, although I do not know further details. If it is not true it will be.

Sturge also cites the cautionary tale of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two Harvard economists whose 2010 model purported to show that, if a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 90 per cent, the risk of a negative impact on long-term growth became significant. This research was used by George Osborne to justify austerity, on the grounds that if the UK didn’t get its debt under control, the economy would shrink. The only problem? Reinhart and Rogoff had made an error, missing off five rows of data on their spreadsheet, negating their conclusion about the risk of negative growth. By the time this was spotted, austerity was well under way and its effects are still being felt now. And while it’s a stretch to say that David Cameron and Osborne would have pursued a different course had the mistake been caught earlier, bad data gave them cover for their economic programme.

If we want our politicians to use data more responsibly, Georgina Sturge argues, we need to invest in better ways of collecting it. It’s perverse that we know more about the performance of Premier League footballers than how many children are out of school.

Not really. It’s just money.

Our problem

by reestheskin on 02/12/2022

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Friday 2 December, 2022 – by John Naughton – Memex 1.1

John Naughton writes:

As you may remember, I’ve been impressed by Brad DeLong’s book, Slouching Towards Utopia and have been tracking the reviews via his blog. When I enthuse about the book to people they often ask for a thumbnail description (something like an elevator pitch, I suppose) and I struggle to come up with something compact and succinct. So I was pleased to discover yesterday that Brad now has one, courtesy of Robert Reich (who, if memory serves me right, was Secretary for Labor in Bill Clinton’s administration. Anyway, here it is:

My thumbnail description—which Bob Reich suggested to me—is that, while we have made extraordinary progress at figuring out how to bake a sufficiently large economic pie so that, potentially, everyone can have enough, the problems of slicing and tasting that economic pie have completely flummoxed us. Thus while we are rich and powerful beyond the wildest dreams of avarice of previous centuries, that is all. We can neither equitably distribute our wealth nor properly utilize it to live wisely and well, so that people feel safe and secure, and live lives in which they are healthy and happy. To say “have not been distributed particularly evenly” and “our desires have grown” catches only half of it. Distribution has not been inept, but has been positively poisonous. And utilization has fallen vastly short not just because of our rising expectations: people 200 years ago would also have hoped along with us for a world in which they were not stalked by flying killer robots, and in which sinister people in steel and glass towers did not attempt to hypnotize them via dopamine loops to glue their eyes to screens in terror so they could be sold fake diabetes cures and crypto grifts.

That’ll do nicely. (JN)

Cruelty is not a bug

by reestheskin on 25/04/2022

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When it comes to Ukrainian refugees, the Home Office can be forgiven for not predicting the latest twitch. Cruelty is a feature of Britain’s asylum system, not a bug. Welcoming refugees is a reversal of previous policy. Indeed, the department has spent the past year coming up with schemes of near comic-book villainy to deter migrants from crossing the Channel. These plans have ranged from wave machines to processing arrivals on St Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. (A deal to process asylum-seekers in Rwanda is now being mooted.) An engine built to reject people has suddenly been told to accept people, akin to slamming a car into reverse while speeding along a motorway.

The cruelty of the British state | The Economist

The Problem of Our Laws

by reestheskin on 21/03/2022

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Our laws are unfortunately not widely known, they are the closely guarded secret of the small group of nobles who govern us. We like to believe that these old laws are scrupulously adhered to, but it remains a vexing thing to be governed by laws one does not know. I am not thinking here of various questions of interpretation and the disadvantages that stem from only a few individuals and not the population as a whole being involved in their interpretation. These disadvantages may in any case be overstated. The laws a(er all are so old, centuries have worked on their interpretation, even their interpretation has in a sense become codi)ed, and while there is surely room still for interpretation, it will be quite limited. Moreover, the nobility has no reason to bend the law against us, if only because the laws were in their favour from the very beginning, the nobility being outside the law, and that is why the laws seem to have been given exclusively into their hands. There is wisdom in this disposition – who could question the wisdom of the old laws? – but it remains vexing for the rest of us. Presumably that is not to be avoided…

Franz Kafka. The Problem of Our Laws’ – ‘Zur Frage der Gesetze’ – translated by Michael Hofmann. Link

A pivot

Russia’s war will remake the world | Financial Times Martin Wolff.

A new world is being born. The hope for peaceful relations is fading. Instead, we have Russia’s war on Ukraine, threats of nuclear Armageddon, a mobilised west, an alliance of autocracies, unprecedented economic sanctions and a huge energy and food shock. No one knows what will happen. But we do know this looks to be a disaster.

Tidal waves from the GFC

Rana Foroohar In the FT

I have a dermatologist friend who recently sold his practice to a private equity firm, but couldn’t bear to stay on after because management forced him to cut the amount of time spent with patients in half, and focus more on scale and less on people…

Why does the idea of Leon Black or Stephen Schwarzman focusing on post-Covid health issues make me feel more depressed? Is healthcare going to become the new subprime, with surprise billing, crushing debt, and sub-par treatment? Our system is complicated and patchy as it is. But Peter, the larger issue is what I’d like your take on. Do you agree with folks who say that we’ve never left the great financial crisis? With debt at record levels, and the Federal Reserve about to raise rates significantly, where will you be looking for financial risk?

Dark money comes into the light | Financial Times

A worthy thought for the New Year

Endemic civil disorder could be America’s future | Financial Times

There are several reasons to worry about the future. One is the past.

Janan Ganesh in the FT.

Boom boomers… well not quite

by reestheskin on 19/10/2021

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Without an economic plan, patriotism is Boris Johnson’s last refuge | Financial Times

Martin Wolff writing in the FT today.

Yet does this really matter? One used to think that economic performance was crucial to political success. Now we know there are alternative political tactics. If economic outcomes and fiscal largesse disappoint, Johnson can return to what has worked so well since 2016: the battle of undaunted Britain against the despotism of Brussels. Indeed, we are already seeing just this in his attempt to rewrite the agreement he reached over Northern Ireland just over two years ago.

In the last resort, blame what is wrong on foreigners. This has worked so far. But the patriotism card surely cannot work its magic forever.

The west is the author of its own weakness

The west is the author of its own weakness | Financial Times

What Trump understood, as did populists elsewhere, is that the voters’ respect for established politics is rooted in a bargain. Public faith in democracy — in the rule of law and the institutions of the state — rests on a perception that the system at least nods towards fairness. There have been reforms to that end since the crash, but little to suggest they are enough.

There was nothing wrong with the ambition of the post cold war optimists. It remains hard to see how the world can work without liberal democracy and a rules-based international system. What the optimists missed then, and the China watchers overlook now, is the hollowing out of trust in democracy at home. Of course, China is a potential threat. A second presidential term for Trump would be a much more dangerous one.

It may be that history will conclude that the excessive optimism of the 1990s is being mirrored today by too much pessimism. That’s a judgment I intend to leave to others. For a political commentator, 25 years in the same slot is long enough. So this is my last column. I will continue to write from time to time as an FT contributing editor, but otherwise intend to go in search of a better understanding of, well, history.

Philip Stephens

The Lie of Nation Building

The Lie of Nation Building | by Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books

Fintan O’Toole in fine form.

The great question of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan was not whether the Afghans were fit for democracy. It was whether democratic values were strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away. Those values include the accountability of the people in power, the consistent and universal application of human rights, a clear understanding of what policies are trying to achieve, the prevention of corrupt financial influence over political decisions, and the fundamental truthfulness of public utterances. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the American republic was fighting, and often losing, a domestic battle to uphold those values for its own citizens.

Critics of the war argued that the US could not create a polity in its own image on the far side of the world. The tragic truth is that in many ways it did exactly that.

The easiest way to cope with the reality that the longest war in US history (longer than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam put together) has ended in defeat and an ignominious and deadly evacuation is to fall back on the belief that the Afghans were never capable of creating or sustaining a modern nation-state. The US, after all, spent $143 billion on “nation building” in Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than it spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Why did it not achieve similar results? The problem, it is comforting to conclude, must lie with the Afghans themselves: too backward, too poor, too inextricably entangled in medieval tribalism and obscurantist religion. [emphasis added]

Worth reading in full.

Which experts?

by reestheskin on 16/06/2021

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The following is from Pulse, a magazine that is aimed at GPs. My point is not so much about the specifics but a more general point.

Headache, runny nose and sore throat top three symptoms of Delta variant, says researcher – Pulse Today

Professor Spector said cases were rising exponentially and people who have only had one vaccine dose should not be complacent.

The UK really does now have a problem and we’ll probably be seeing, in a week, 20,000 cases and by 21st June well in excess of that number,’ he said. ‘Most of these infections are occurring in unvaccinated people. We’re only seeing slight increases in the vaccinated group and most of those in the single vaccinated group,’ he said.

He goes on to say:

Covid is also acting differently now. Its more like a bad cold in this younger population and people don’t realise that and it hasn’t come across in any of the government information.This means that people might think they’ve got some sort of seasonal cold and they still go out to parties and might spread around to six other people and we think this is fuelling a lot of the problem.

He added:

The number one symptom is headache, followed by runny nose, sore throat and fever. Not the old classic symptoms. We don’t see loss of smell in the top ten any more, this variant seems to be working slightly differently.

He advised people:

who were feeling unwell to stay at home for a few days, use lateral flow tests with a confirmation PCR test if they get a positive result.

Now comes the boilerplate Orwellian response from the Department of Health and Social Care

[A] spokesperson said: ‘Everyone in England, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms, can now access rapid testing twice a week for free, in line with clinical guidance.

Experts keep the symptoms of Covid-19 under constant review and anyone experiencing the key symptoms – a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a loss or change to sense of smell or taste – should get a PCR test as soon as possible and immediately self-isolate along with their household.’ [emphasis added]

Two points:

  1. The spokesperson, as usual, is not named nor are the credentials of this person available. How are we to assess their competence or reliability? At least you can look Prof Spector up and check out his work.
  2. Following on from the first point, which experts are we talking about? Most expertise, we know, is not within the Dept of Health. One of the most interesting features of the pandemic has been the recognition that the government nor the state (including the Dept of Health) have a monopoly on knowledge. Of course, we know they will seek to conceal and dissemble for political reasons. But the fact remains that many people now appreciate that knowledge is diffused more widely within society. David King and his alternative SAGE group have played an important role — beyond just Covid.

Questionable blood

by reestheskin on 07/06/2021

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Infected blood scandal: government knew of contaminated plasma ‘long before it admitted it’ | Contaminated blood scandal | The Guardian

From the Guardian.

Among the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, which is the subject of a public inquiry, were 1,240 British haemophilia patients, most of whom have since died. They were infected with HIV in the 1980s through an untreated blood product known as Factor VIII.

In 1983, Ken Clarke, then a health minister, denied any threat was posed by Factor VIII. In one instance, on 14 November 1983, he told parliament: “There is no conclusive evidence that Aids is transmitted by blood products.”

However, documents discovered at the national archives by Jason Evans, whose father died after receiving contaminated blood and who founded the Factor 8 campaign, paint a contrasting picture.

In a letter dated 4 May 1983, Hugh Rossi, then a minister in the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), told a constituent: “It is an extremely worrying situation, particularly as I read in the weekend press that the disease is now being transmitted by blood plasma which has been imported from the United States.”

(HIV screening for all blood donated in the UK only began on 14 October 1985.)

Rossi’s letter was considered damaging enough for the government to seek to prevent its release in 1990 during legal action over the scandal, by which time Clarke was health secretary.

In another letter uncovered by Evans, dated 22 March 1990, a Department of Health official wrote to government lawyers saying it wanted to withhold Rossi’s letter, despite admitting the legal basis for doing so was “questionable”.

Clarke has a legal background. There is a large logical gap between between denying ‘any threat’ and the statement that there is ‘no conclusive evidence’. The Department of Health would be better named the Department without Integrity. Recent events suggest things are no better now. It didn’t all start with Johnson.