Politics

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.

A sense of identity

by reestheskin on 28/05/2021

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Adam Shatz · Palestinianism · LRB 6 May 2021

Some words from Edward Said, quoted in Adam Shatz’s review of Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan. Ever more timely.

Victimhood, alas, does not guarantee or necessarily enable an enhanced sense of humanity,’ he said. ‘To testify to a history of oppression is necessary, but it is not sufficient unless that history is redirected into intellectual process and universalised to include all sufferers.’ He went on:

It does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read. The idea that because Plato and Aristotle are male and the products of a slave society they should be disqualified from receiving contemporary attention is as limited an idea as suggesting that only their work, because it was addressed to and about elites, should be read today. Marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end, so that more, and not fewer, people can enjoy the benefits of what has for centuries been denied the victims of race, class or gender.

The idea that education is ‘best advanced by focusing principally on our own separateness, our own ethnic identity, culture and traditions’ struck him as a kind of apartheid pedagogy, implying that ‘subaltern, inferior or lesser races’ were ‘unable to share in the general riches of human culture’. Identity was ‘as boring a subject as one can imagine’; what excited him was the interaction of different identities and the promise – the ‘risk’ – of universality.

Graph of the day

by reestheskin on 25/05/2021

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Terrific article from Andrew Curry. The graph shows medians, and 20 and 80 centiles His explanation is worth reading.

Citizen of nowhere

Prince Philip’s scaled-back funeral marks shifting times for UK’s royals | Financial Times

Looking from askance, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, said what was more remarkable was how uncomfortable, in all the “orgy of coverage”, commentators had been to address the very European nature of Prince Philip’s story.

“He was a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, one of Theresa May’s citizens of nowhere: Greek, Danish, German . . . British. He changed his name, his religion, his citizenship, his identity,” said O’Toole.

“In that there’s this deep contradiction of Englishness. The monarchy, guarantor of the ‘island nation’, is a multinational firm. No one embodied this more than Philip.”

And I guess he didn’t shop at John Lewis, either.


Graphically gynaecological

Whereas the Economist throws in some historical asides:

Prince Philip and the dynasty factor | The Economist

A royal marriage could reshape international alliances. Hilary Mantel describes the politics of Henry VIII’s reign as “graphically gynaecological” because it was dominated by the king’s desire to produce a son. Modernity is built on the negation of all of this.

The theatre of monarchy is not primarily a theatre of works performed and duties fulfilled. It is a theatre of majesty. The only way to fully modernise the monarchy is to abolish it: the point of the institution is to act as a counterbalance to the everyday world of value for money and performance targets. Monarchy is romance or it is nothing.

On politicians

by reestheskin on 05/05/2021

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Arlene Foster faces DUP revolt that could topple her as leader | Arlene Foster | The Guardian

Critics said she frittered away unprecedented levels of goodwill and made strategic errors over Brexit. “Her intransigence, petulance, arrogance, lack of generosity, and political myopia have been catastrophic for unionism,” tweeted Deirdre Heenan, a social policy professor at Ulster University.


Northern Ireland’s unhappy centenary | The Economist

Northern Ireland’s founders viewed the link between religion and constitutional preference as essentially fixed at birth. Ninety years later, 21st-century unionists saw those two issues detach to an extent which would have astonished their forefathers. By 2016 there was significant Catholic support for the union; not enthusiastic, certainly not flag-waving, and rooted in self-interest. They didn’t want to give up the free health care of the National Health Service or to risk well-paid public-sector jobs. Since the Good Friday Agreement (gfa) of 1998, which brought peace and set up a devolved government in Belfast, residents could be legally Irish, enjoying taxpayer support for Irish sports, culture and language while territorially within the uk.

And then unionism’s leaders blew it. In five years Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has arguably done more to advance Irish unity than the 72-year-old Gerry Adams, former head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (ira).


And then there is Boris.

Fintan O’Toole: Boris Johnson’s gibberish may be surreal but it’s also dangerous

It’s not when Boris Johnson is lying that you have to have to worry. If he’s lying, that just means he’s still breathing. No, the real danger sign is the gibbering. It’s what he does when he can’t be bothered to think up a lie. [emphasis added]


In the court of King Boris, only one thing is certain: this will all end badly | Rafael Behr | The Guardian

Third, Johnson’s character. The prime minister approaches truth the way a toddler handles broccoli. He understands the idea that it contains some goodness, but it will touch his lips only if a higher authority compels it there.

Where Scotland is at.

by reestheskin on 14/04/2021

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Dani Garavelli · Diary: Salmond v. Sturgeon · LRB 19 March 2021

Dani Garavelli is the LRB.

MSPs are fixated on these meetings because a breach of the ministerial code would trigger an automatic resignation, or did in the days before Priti Patel. But the public doesn’t seem to care about exactly when Sturgeon knew, and you can understand why. Pan out and what do you see? A woman who refused to bow to pressure to help a friend when other women made sexual harassment complaints against him: ‘As first minister I refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.’

The SNP’s problems are not all linked to the Salmond allegations. After nearly fourteen years in power, the party is exhausted. But, with or without Sturgeon at the helm, there is no effective opposition (the Tories’ Scottish leader isn’t even in the Scottish Parliament, and Scottish Labour’s leader, Anas Sarwar, its sixth in the last decade, has only just been elected). The polls were predicting that on 6 May the SNP would regain the majority it won in 2011 (despite a PR system that was supposed to prevent absolute majorities) and lost in 2016, but now a hung parliament is being forecast (and a drop to 49 per cent support for independence). I find it hard to imagine that the spirit of 2014 will ever be rekindled. Defeat back then was strangely energising. Were the SNP to secure another referendum, could a truce be called in the party’s civil war? What shared idea of Scotland would Yes supporters unite behind now? It’s been a long six years.

Pathologies of power

by reestheskin on 16/01/2021

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COVID

UK COVID-19 public inquiry needed to learn lessons and save lives – The Lancet

It is hard not to be moved nor not be angry on reading the editorial in this week’s Lancet, written by three members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested that an immediate public inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19 would be a distraction7 or diversion of resources in the fight against COVID-19. We have long proposed that quite the opposite is true: an effective rapid review phase would be an essential element in combating COVID-19.

An independent and judge-led statutory public inquiry with a swift interim review would yield lessons that can be applied immediately and help prevent deaths in this tough winter period in the UK. Such a rapid review would help to minimise further loss of life now and in the event of future pandemics. In the wake of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster on April 15, 1989, for example, the Inquiry of Lord Justice Taylor delivered interim findings within 11 weeks, allowing life-saving measures to be introduced in stadiums ahead of the next football season.

I will quote Max Hastings, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, and a distinguished military historian, writing in the Guardian many years ago. He was describing how he had overruled some of his own journalists who had suspected Peter Mandelson of telling lies.

I say this with regret. I am more instinctively supportive of institutions, less iconoclastic, than most of the people who write for the Guardian, never mind read it. I am a small “c” conservative, who started out as a newspaper editor 18 years ago much influenced by a remark Robin Day once made to me: “Even when I am giving politicians a hard time on camera,” he said, “I try to remember that they are trying to do something very difficult – govern the country.” Yet over the years that followed, I came to believe that for working journalists the late Nicholas Tomalin’s words, offered before I took off for Vietnam for the first time back in 1970, are more relevant: “they lie”, he said. “Never forget that they lie, they lie, they lie.” Max Hastings

Two of Hasting’s journalists at the Evening Standard were investigating the funds Peter Mandelson had used to purchase a house.

One morning, Peter Mandelson rang me at the Evening Standard. “Some of your journalists are investigating my house purchase,” he said. “It really is nonsense. There’s no story about where I got the funds. I’m buying the house with family money.”

I knew nothing about any of this, but went out on the newsroom floor and asked some questions. Two of our writers were indeed probing Mandelson’s house purchase. Forget it, I said. Mandelson assures me there is no story. Our journalists remonstrated: I was mad to believe a word Mandelson said. I responded: “Any politician who makes a private call to an editor has a right to be believed until he is proved a liar.” We dropped the story.

Several months later

…when the Mandelson story hit the headlines, I faced a reproachful morning editorial conference. A few minutes later, the secretary of state for industry called. “What do I have to do to convince you I’m not a crook ?” he said.

I answered: “Your problem, Peter, is not to convince me that you are not a crook, but that you are not a liar.”

The default, and most sensible course of action, is to assume that the government and many of those who answer directly to the government have lied and will continue to lie.


Canadian’s tolerance of mediocrity

Where Health Care Is a Human Right | by Nathan Whitlock | The New York Review of Books

An article discussing Canadian health care with echoes of the UK’s own parochial attitude to health care (and don’t mention Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland…).

How do such gaps and problems persist? Part of the problem, ironically, is the system’s high approval ratings: with such enthusiasm for the existing system, and with responsibility for it shared between federal and provincial or territorial governments, it’s easy for officials to avoid making necessary changes. Picard sees our narrowness of perspective as a big obstacle to reform: “Canadians are also incredibly tolerant of mediocrity because they fear that the alternative to what we have is the evil US system.” Philpott agrees that Canadians’ tendency to judge our system solely against that of the United States can be counterproductive. “If you always compare yourself to the people who pay the most per capita and get some of the worst outcomes,” she told me in a recent Zoom call, “then you’re not looking at the fact that there are a dozen other countries that pay less per capita and have far better outcomes than we do.”


The longest lasting health care corpotation in the world

Holy See – Wikipedia

The Holy See is thus viewed as the central government of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, in turn, is the largest non-government provider of education and health care in the world.[8] The diplomatic status of the Holy See facilitates the access of its vast international network of charities.[emphasis added]


The antithesis of science, is not art, but politics

There is a famous quote ( I don’t have a primary source) by the great Rudolf Virchow

“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale.”

I know what Virchow was getting at, but if only.

Inside the Leviathan

“I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant.

The above quote via John Naughton who commented

I wonder how many officials in the US and UK governments currently feel the same way.

Sinking ships

by reestheskin on 17/11/2020

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Following on from the previous post, here is a bit more economics, surely germane to Deaton and Case’s work, and which provides yet another example of where the ‘observation’ (‘facts’) may, if not shout for themselves, at least whisper that something important is going on. The graphs are from Saez and Zucman’s The Triumph of Injustice. Note the timeline for each graph.

You can learn but you cannot teach.

by reestheskin on 27/10/2020

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I have posted on this topic before, but the comments below speak to me more now than ever. They are reflections on the philosopher Michael Ignatieff’s failed attempt to run for political office in Canada. He wrote a book about these events which is highly recommended (I haven’t read it, yet). A comment on the article, He brought a syllabus to a gun fight and lost, should be understood by all those who wish to protect the academy from the current gangs of populists.

“One of the things that is extremely challenging to my teaching now is the possibility that there are some things you can learn only from experience and can’t be taught. The pathos of teaching is that some things can’t be taught — and one of them might be political judgement. I don’t think that’s a despairing thought, but it does induce humility in a teacher and make the job much more interesting.”

A comment on this article is below

As someone who spent time with Ignatieff on the hustings and whose baby he has indeed kissed, I can say with some confidence that normatively desirable outcomes never address which end of the sign stake goes in the ground. He brought a syllabus to a gun fight and lost. Canada lost more. Comment from Steven McGannety [emphasis added]

THE

2014:The UK is sleepwalking towards disintegration

by reestheskin on 26/10/2020

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It remains overwhelmingly likely that Scotland will vote in September to remain part of the union. But it is also more likely that the UK is sleepwalking towards disintegration — not in this vote but in the next. Political leaders were wrong to think they would bind the UK together through devolution, and they are probably wrong to believe giving more power to Edinburgh will now have that effect. These moves only strengthen the sense of a distinct Scottish identity. They need instead to make being British something to be proud of.— John Kay writing in the FT in 2014… 

Doesn’t look good, does it?

On this day 1966: Aberfan

by reestheskin on 21/10/2020

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I don’t remember where I was when JFK died; I was too young. And my brother, Alun,  still chastises me for not remembering where we were  when man first landed on the moon (answer: the West Cork hotel in Skibbereen, watching it on TV). I do however remember when my mother told me that Bobby Kennedy has just died after being shot. For some reason she had picked me up from school that day, and some  fragments of our conversation I can still hear. I would have been ten at the time, but an Irish mother and a Catholic school education, meant that the Kennedy clan were not too recondite for even a small boy to not know about.

There is one other ‘event’ from those 1960s days in Cardiff that I do remember well.  It was closer to home.  On this day, in  1966 I can remember the anguish of both my mother, and my Welsh father who had grown up in the Welsh valleys trapped on all sides by slag heaps, both literally and metaphorically.

From Wikipedia

The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at around 9:15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed Pantglas Junior School and other buildings.

The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million. The remaining tips were removed only after a lengthy fight by Aberfan residents, against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. Clearing was paid for by a government grant and a forced contribution of £150,000 taken from the memorial fund. In 1997 the British government paid back the £150,000 to the ADMF, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken.[emphasis added]

Some aspects of one’s politics are formed so young, you just forget where they came from.

Grahame Davies, a poet who writes in Welsh and English wrote the following words about another disaster — not Aberfan — but the deaths of 268 men and boys in an explosion at the Prince of Wales Colliery in Abercarn in 1878. They  seem apposite for my purpose.

We do not ask you to remember us:
you have your lives to live as we had ours,
and ours we spent on life, not memory.
We only ask you this – that you live well,
here, in the places that our labour built,
here, beneath the sky we seldom saw,
here, on the green earth whose black vein we mined,
and feel the freedom that we could not find.

The Aberfan disaster featured in the Netflix drama The Crown. In this dramatisation we learn that the Queen was advised to show some emotion — this was South Wales not the Home Counties. There are some heart-wrenching photographs in an article in the Smithsonian 1 — all the more powerful because they are in black and white. A quote from this article is below:

“A tribunal tasked with investigating the Aberfan disaster published its findings on August 3, 1967. Over the course of 76 days, the panel had interviewed 136 witnesses and examined 300 exhibits. Based on this evidence, the tribunal concluded that the sole party responsible for the tragedy was the National Coal Board.”

“The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above,” the investigators wrote in their report. “Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.”

Plenty of them still about.

  1. A History of the Aberfan Disaster From “The Crown” | History | Smithsonian Magazine. MEILAN SOLLYSMITHSONIANMAG.COM | Nov. 15, 2019,https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-aberfan-disaster-featured-crown-180973565/

Coetzee on the last great man

by reestheskin on 18/10/2020

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“Like the rest of the leadership of the ANC, he was blindsided by the collapse of socialism worldwide; the party had no philosophical resistance to put up against a new, predatory economic rationalism. Mandela’s personal and political authority had its basis in his principled defense of armed resistance to apartheid and in the harsh punishment he suffered for that resistance. It was given further backbone by his aristocratic mien, which was not without a gracious common touch, and his old-fashioned education, which held before him Victorian ideals of personal integrity and devotion to public service…

… He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.” 

JM Coetzee on Nelson Mandela in the NYT

The biomass of parasitism approaches unity.

by reestheskin on 09/10/2020

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Many years ago I was expressing exasperation at what I took to be the layers and layers of foolishness that meant that others couldn’t see the obvious — as defined by yours truly, of course. Did all those wise people in the year 2000 think that gene therapy for cancer was just around the corner, or that advance in genetics was synonymous with advance in medicine, or that the study of complex genetics would, by the force of some inchoate logic, lead to cures for psoriasis and eczema. How could any society function when so many of its parts were just free-riding on error, I asked? Worse still, these intellectual zombies starved the new young shoots of the necessary light of reason. How indeed!

William Bains, he of what I still think of as one of the most beautiful papers I have ever read1, put me right. William understood the world much better than me — or at least he understood the world I was blindly walking into, much better. He explained to me that it was quite possible to make money (both ‘real’ or in terms of ‘professional wealth’) out of ideas that you believed to be wrong as long as two linked conditions were met. First, do not tell other people you believe them to be wrong. On the contrary, talk about them as the next new thing. Second, find others who are behind the curve, and who were willing to buy from you at a price greater than you paid (technical term: fools). At the time, I did not even understand how pensions worked. Finally, William chided me for my sketchy knowledge of biology: he reminded me that in many ecosystems parasites account for much, if not most, of the biomass. He was right; and although my intellectual tastes have changed, the sermon still echoes.

The reason is that corporate tax burdens vary widely depending on where those profits are officially earned. These variations have been exploited by creative problem-solvers at accountancy firms and within large corporations. People who in previous eras might have written symphonies or designed cathedrals have instead saved companies hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting trillions of dollars of intangible assets across the world over the past two decades. One consequence is that many companies avoid paying any tax on their foreign sales. Another is that many countries’ trade figures are now unusable. [emphasis added].

Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International by Matthew C. Klein, & Michael Pettis.

  1. William Bains. Should you Hire an Epistemologist. Nature Biotechnology, 1997.

Words, dear boy…

Two quotes from Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB. The first, quoting Saki (H H Munro).

The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.

The second, his own.

In this demented solipsism, the entire American past is shrink-fitted so that it hugs Trumps own ample figure, cleaving both to his greatness and his victimhood as an object of unparalleled persecution.

As light as a bag of wind

by reestheskin on 25/09/2020

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In my ignorance I had always assumed that the ‘Haldane’ of the Haldane Principle1 referred to the great and singular geneticist and physiologist JBS Haldane. Not true. JBS once remarked that God must have been inordinately fond of beetles because there are so many species of beetles, so with the Haldanes; (good) fortune is, it appears, inordinately fond of the Haldane clan. A relative of JBS, Richard Burdon Haldane — who did indeed come up with the Haldane principle — is the subject of a new biography by Philip Campbell, and a witty and sharp review in the FT by Philip Stephens.

Watching today’s politicians fall over their own mistakes as they fumble with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that securing high office once required more than a few years of dashing off political columns for a national newspaper. So the life and political times of Richard Haldane, the subject of John Campbell’s engaging biography, offers a fitting rebuke to the trivial mendacity and downright incompetence of the nation’s present administration.

Exaggeration, it is not. Haldane…

…an Edinburgh lawyer and philosopher-politician before becoming a minister in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal administrations, was an important champion of universal education and one of the founding fathers of the UK university system. He also found time to create the Territorial Army, and to have a hand in the foundation of the London School of Economics, the Medical Research Council and the Secret Intelligence Service…

As Asquith’s minister for war, he created the expeditionary force that saved Britain from defeat in the opening stages of the first world war. As Lord Chancellor, his judgments did much to set in place the federalist tilt of the Canadian constitution.

And if there is any doubt about his intellectual gravitas, the review is headed by an image of Haldane with Albert Einstein whom he hosted on the latter’s first visit to the UK in the 1920s. Just conjure up BoJo or Patel or Hancock when you read the above, or when you step on something unpleasant and slimy.

It also seems that Haldane might have performed slightly better across the dispatch box than some of the current irregulars. Clark McGinn writes

He [Haldane] is also one of the few men to have beaten Winston Churchill by riposte. Haldane was a portly figure and Churchill remarked on his girth by asking when the baby was due and what it would be called. Haldane retorted: “If it’s a boy it will be George after the King, a girl will be Mary after the Queen. But if it is just wind I shall call it Winston.”

  1. The Haldane Principle is the idea that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers instead of politicians. It is named after Richard Burdon Haldane. For a recent take on the Haldane Principle see David Edgerton, The ‘Haldane Principle’ and other invented traditions in science policy here.

Those qualified need not apply

From a letter in last week’s Economist from Andrew Carroll, commenting on the Economist’s own description of Clement Atlee

He “lacks the conspicuous attributes of a leader” but “has undeniable ability, judgment and integrity” (“Mr Attlee and Sir A. Sinclair”, November 30th 1935)

Now I know where we have been going wrong.

On making humans as stupid as machines

by reestheskin on 25/08/2020

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Specialisation and the division of labour is as old as humanity, and of course it goes way back further when we are talking biology. Adam Smith may have formalised why and how it was important economically but he did not invent it. Most specialisation relies on expertise, at least it used to until Crapita and the like started mining the seams of government ignorance.

The quote below is from an article in the Economist in May this year. It is about Public Health England (PHE) and how since they only possessed 290 contact tracers, they needed to call on those wonderful experts in everything, Serco, to help them out. Of course, expertise in such tasks always used to reside with Local Government, not PHE, but Boris and his bunch of Maoists, when they are not having their eyes tested in the fast lane, have decreed that Local Government — along with the opposition, the judges, the education sector and more — are enemies of the people. Given this mindset, we are left with those whose main area of expertise is commercialising ignorance.

Firms such as Serco, a big contractor, are in talks with the government to provide the workforce. It should be possible to train new recruits fairly quickly—the requirements of the job are similar to those of 111 operators, for whom the training time is just four hours. They will work from a script that guides them through the various stages of an interview [emphasis added].

Awhile back, I ended up corresponding with somebody in the Scottish government about how misleading their self-help pages on skin disease were: they contained factual errors, and would mislead people seeking medical help. The content had clearly not been written by a medical practitioner — defined as somebody with domain clinical expertise and who might have actually dealt with patients by shaking hands with them. Asking for validation studies or some sort of empirical evidence to support the content, was unhelpful as the content was supplied by another agency and was commercially ‘confidential’. I didn’t follow up because the person I corresponded with clearly knew that his own position was both untenable, and uncomfortable. Its just business: you know, ‘new ways of working’, ‘direction of travel’, and all those other vacuous suitcase terms that just mark a space where reason or domain expertise used to reside.

Rather than making clever machines, or allowing humans to do what only humans can do1, it seems we are content to make humans behave as stupidly as Excel spreadsheets. 111 is not for BoJo et al.; 111 is for poor people waiting to be levelled up, even if the best way to do that, is to go to straight to A&E. 2

TIJABP

  1. See Norbert Wiener’s classic The Human Use of Human Beings
  2. Image at top of page via Wikimedia here

As a follow up to the previous entry

“Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it.”

Vaclav Havel, quoted by Randy Sullivan via the Economist

We should worry more about righteousness

I am no fan of Henry Kissinger (an easy statement to make), but the quote below says something worthy of careful consideration.

‘the most fundamental problem of politics… is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness’.

I am not certain where I came across the phrase so beware. If I had made it up I would be even happier.

Competence, and the lack of it.

by reestheskin on 11/08/2020

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Someone in your family has fallen ill with a respiratory infection that has already killed large numbers. Your small house means that you do not have enough room to quarantine them. Your have little money, and the hospitals are full. You contact the local public health authority.

Not to worry, you are told: A crew will be by shortly to set up a sturdy, well-ventilated, portable, tiny house in your yard. Once installed, your family member will be free to convalesce in comfort. You can deliver home-cooked meals to their door and communicate through open windows — and a trained nurse will be by for regular examinations. And no, there will be no charge for the house.

A fascinating story by Naomi Klein in the Intercept. Seemingly from a time when government knew what government was for.

This is not a dispatch from some future functional United States, one with a government capable of caring for its people in the midst of spiraling economic carnage and a public health emergency. It’s a dispatch from this country’s past, a time eight decades ago when it similarly found itself in the two-fisted grip of an even deeper economic crisis (the Great Depression), and a surging contagious respiratory illness (tuberculosis).

How Not to Lose the Covid-19 Lockdown Generation

Roll Over Beethoven it is not.

At the same time, Vox found ways of reaching groups of voters who were disgruntled by other aspects of modern life that the mainstream parties weren’t addressing. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: they do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favourable demographic. New political parties now operate like that: you can bundle together issues, repackage them, and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging – based on exactly the same kind of market research – that you know has worked in other places. The ingredients of Vox were the leftover issues, the ones the others had ignored or underrated, such as opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism; opposition to same-sex marriage; opposition to feminism; opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration… It wasn’t an ideology on offer, it was an identity: carefully curated, packaged for easy consumption, queued up and ready to be “boosted” by a viral campaign.

Anne Applebaum in the Twilight of Democracy. Her description of Boris Johnson — her once fellow traveller — is well worth a read; I am glad the lawyers thought so too.

Politics as a class of dominant negative mutation

by reestheskin on 29/07/2020

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Today many scientists describe their research as apolitical, but Haldane knew that was impossible: ‘I began to realise that even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.’

From a review in the Economist of a biography of JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian.

Two things to add. Haldane’s paper A Defense of Beanbag Genetics is a personal favourite, but sticking with the genetics theme, I think of politics, and many politicians, as examples of dominant negative mutations.

On truth

by reestheskin on 26/07/2020

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Yes, a big word. From a review by Martin Wolf of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Just pencil in your favourite organisation or person.

Her theme is not just this split. It is about the role of intellectuals in supporting the would-be despots. In this, she follows Julien Benda, author of a classic book, La trahison des clercs (1927). Benda’s target were the ideologues of his time, whom he accused, in Applebaum’s words, “of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes”.

How did people she knew come to support these new authoritarians? One answer, is “resentment, revenge and envy”. Replacing people of talent and principles with mediocrities who will do anything for success has never been difficult. Finding greedy people happy to join a corrupt new business elite is just as simple. She describes perceptively people who have done such things.

Alarm signals of our authoritarian age | Financial Times

Poor Celine

The Economist heaps praise on Ireland’s ability to get its way:

Ireland has a good claim to be the world’s most diplomatically powerful country

We learn that Ireland beat off Canada to win a seat on the UN Security Council but that like Canada Ireland also has ‘a bigger, sometimes boorish, neighbour’.

Alongside more subtle overtures, the push for the Security Council seat [by Ireland] involved free tickets to Riverdance and a U2 gig. The best that Canada could muster was Celine Dion.

Charlemagne – How Ireland gets its way | Europe | The Economist

How to be remembered

by reestheskin on 20/07/2020

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John le Carré is one of my favourite authors. There is a wonderful sense of rebellion, coupled with both dismay and hope in his fiction (and non-fiction) writings. Here are a few lines from his speech in Stockholm on 30 January 2020 when he received the Olaf Palme award.

How would Palme wish to be remembered? Well, by this for a start. For his life, not his death. For his humanism, courage, and the breadth and completeness of his humanist vision. As the voice of truth in a world hell-bent on distorting it. By the inspiring, inventive enterprises undertaken yearly by young people in his name.

 

Is there anything I would like to add to his epitaph? A line by May Sarton that he would have enjoyed: One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

 

And how would I like to be remembered? As the man who won the 2019 Olof Palme prize will do me just fine.

John le Carré on Brexit: ‘It’s breaking my heart’ | Books | The Guardian

The Dream is Over*

by reestheskin on 12/07/2020

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Britain’s universities increasingly look like the late Soviet economy, running down their social capital behind a glitzy screen of Potemkin imagery and glasnost-era statistics. Bits of it are locking up, alternately insulted and goaded by the gap between central government diktat and the reality on the ground. The result will be the same: a very long slide into mediocrity and mendacity.

Britain’s universities are on the verge of unravelling | Universities | The Guardian.

I don’t have any wise prescriptions to dispense. Stephen Downes gets it right when he says “educational providers will one day face an overnight crisis that was 20 years in the making”. But a clue is surely in his choice of words: ‘educational providers’.

* The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education. Simon Marginson