Monday, December 29, 2008

Against pontificating priests

I'm generally uninterested in the theological opinions of politicians and in the political opinions of theologians because apart from a general view on my part that religion and the state should be kept separate - both of these are generally characterised by an ignorance of the matters on which they speak.

But what with the Anglican church being our oldest nationalised industry, I suppose a certain overlap is inevitable. In these circumstances, I know who's opinion I'd rather hear. Gordon Brown knows more about their subject than these pontificating priests know about his. You'd think they might recognise this and hold their counsel but - and I'm sure I'm not alone in noticing this - Christians, by and large, don't do humility anymore.

Clerics in Germany, or one of them at least, blamed the banks - or one of them at least. Ours, on the other hand, blamed individuals and by extension the government for failing to restrain the greedy plebs:
"The Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, the Church's Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, said he feared Britain would simply return to a "financial system based on indebtedness" after the current crisis.

"The government isn't telling people who are already deep in debt to stop overextending themselves, but instead is urging us to spend more," he said.

"That is morally suspect and morally feeble. It is unfair and irresponsible of the government to put pressure on the public to spend in order to revive the economy.""
A financial system based on indebtedness, eh? How does he think banks make their money? And how does he think most of us who don't get houses with our jobs manage to get a roof over our heads, if not by borrowing? It should go without saying that this particular cleric has yet to graduate to the kindergarten of economic history.

They could, I suppose, have made more circumscribed criticism of the government - because for this there is, I would concede, plenty of scope. But there's one reason why they couldn't; it would deprive them of the room they need for moral posturing - which is, after all, their stock in trade. And there's anther reason why they shouldn't; it would be inappropriate, taking sides in party politics. But they've already done this...
"The Rt Rev Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle, said: "I agree with the Conservatives that the breakdown of the family is a crucial element in the difficulties of our present society."
It's perhaps unfair to suggest that the partisan comments of the Rev Dow are representative of all of our seasonal preaching pontiffs but in general I really have to laugh when people try and suggest that the church ever attacks the government from the left. They attack this government, any government, from the standpoint of the past - something that should be remembered by anyone finding anything 'progressive' about the pronouncements of pontificating priests.

Update: Seems the Rev Dow has form. From Don in the comments I learn he's not merely a meddling reactionary - but a bat-shit crazy meddling reactionary. He thinks Gordon Brown's government is the incarnation of the anti-Christ and that floods are a judgment from God for tolerating homosexuals.

The latter view is surprisingly popular amongst fundamentalists clerics of all hues but it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, does it? Because if that were the case, Brighton would be like Atlantis by now.*

*Stolen from here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Enough of this shit...

For 2008.

Merry Christmas and aura best for the New Year when it comes. x

Friday, December 19, 2008

Should have been from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious...

Hats. I don't do hats. As well as reducing my face to imbecility, they get goddam itchy after a while - so I don't wear 'em.

But don't dare complain of being cold if you don't have a woolly bunnet on because you always get someone saying, "Well, you should wear a hat - don't you know you lose 40% of your body heat through your head?"

I've always though this was crap - and I never understood why people believed this counterintuitive nonsense.

Today I stand hatless and vindicated by science.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Man who brought bomb terror to Glasgow faces 32 years in jail

From the Scotsman:
"AN NHS doctor who planned to murder and maim hundreds of people in terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London will serve at least 32 years in prison.

Dr Bilal Abdulla showed no emotion as Mr Justice Mackay branded him a "religious extremist and bigot" who held the most "perverted" and "distorted" Islamist views."
He could have also mentioned that this lot weren't very bright - attempting to carry out a terrorist attack in the one city where you can count on someone to punch a burning man. They're rubbish, aren't they? Trying to bring religious hatred to the West of Scotland? They're about four hundred years too late. And they don't even have a football team or anything.

None of that was mine - stole it from Frankie Boyle. Can't find the original clip so here's another one.

Filed under: Weegies, ya bass.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nanny state annoyances

Chris has an interesting post speculating whether the propensity of governments to indulge in the nannying we've all got used to has anything to do with prosperity.

The way people go on now, sometimes I wonder how me and my sister survived the 1970s, what with us seatbeltless, upside down in the back of the car with my dad tearing down the motorway smoking a fag. And our diet would be considered an abomination today. Yet strangely, we've both survived. I feel I'm living on borrowed time, myself. My sister doesn't - she's much healthier than me.

One of the points of the post is that the governments of the 1970s didn't have time to bother about this shit - they had stagflation and industrial unrest to occupy them. We might be back to this sort of thing now - but the nannying is left ratcheted up, as it were. All of which brings me to today's petty irritation...

I bought my first packet of fags with the new pictorial health warnings on them. They're just brilliant, aren't they? Mine warned that,
"Smoking can damage the sperm and decreases fertility."
Some of the words are in red just in case you missed the point. Hmph! Decreases - but clearly doesn't eliminate, I think you'll find. I have a child to prove it. Whaddaya mean, he might not be mine? He looks like me and everything - only smaller.

Anyway, the picture on the fag packet isn't one of a man looking forlorn in a playpark because he has no children of his own to drive him mental. No - it's of sperm under a microscope. And who exactly the fuck is this picture for, eh? Damn it all, I know what sperm under the microscope looks like! Not that I have examined my own in this way, you understand - that would be weird.

Here's another one - not from this country but it catches the flavour.

I mean, really! I already know what a goddam baby looks like (see above). Anyway, I've had the coil fitted recently so I'm pretty sure I'm not pregnant.

The campaign is clearly directed at smokers who don't know what stuff looks like. But how many of these are there really? I'm thinking they haven't thought this one through.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Three completely unrelated things

Embarrassing blogging

Yvette Cooper has an Msc in Economics.

Ian Dale doesn't have one of these but he does have a blog. He has also read 'The Laws of Economics'. We know this because he says, "Now, call me old fashioned but last time I looked at the laws of economics..."

It's a big book he has at home.

Survey the damage here and the doing he gets here.

I'm thinking our slogan for the next election should go something like: Vote Labour - the Tories know even less about economics than us.

Hardly a ringing endorsement, I'd agree - but it would be a refreshing change from all that messianic stuff Blair came out with, don'tcha think?

Bloody education

This article was actually emailed to me. It's not all crap but it's pretty much belongs in the usual rightwing denial school of educational thought. You know the sort of thing, incentives, paid by results, doesn't matter if you go to school dodging hails of bullets, what matters is a Good Teacher blah.

Anyway, I'll link some moderately sensible commentary on it because you certainly aren't going to get any from me. Instead there was a couple of things that caught my eye - one from the article itself that I missed the first time I read it...
"Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before..."
When you read stuff like that, you assume - or hope - that people simply don't mean what they say. I mean, do we really have to go through the experience of someone with a pulse and a college degree taking their first class stark naked with a chainsaw before people realise sometimes it might be a tad late for these 'apprentices' to be judged after they've started their jobs?

The other was from the comments in the post linked above:
"The Object of Education is to better yourself. It is a Competition as well as a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being the best. A good teacher in any field Leads. and sets the agenda,places benchmarks for advancement, there does seem to be parallels between a good academic, and a quarterback as well as a Drill instructor."
The author of this comment had the 'warm fuzzy feeling' described to him, one assumes? Either that or he went to a really shit school with Bad Teachers in it.

Modern Dentistry

I'm unhappy with it. People tell me, "It's amazing what they can do nowadays." They can do a lot more, I agree - but this has led them, in my case anyway, to overestimate their powers.

Root canal, anti-biotics, more root canal, followed by more anti-biotics. Then cut gum open and set about with wire-brush and Dettol, more fucking anti-biotics. I'm no expert but isn't taking the damn thing out a possible solution here? But that's passé, apparently.

Just because it's at the front they avoid it, presumably for aesthetic reasons. Yeah, I really look gorgeous now, don't I - with the swollen face and the haunted look of a Glaswegian deprived of drink? Whereas with the space I could get a tattoo, grow some stubble and go for the whole pirate look. Although knowing my luck, the tattoo would get all scabby and infected and I'd have to get my arm amputated...

Music commentary - FAIL!

Paulie's music commentary - fairly eccentric at the best of times - has taken a bizarre new twist as he tries to declare the End of Guitar History. Actually it ended some time ago, according to him:
"For over fifty years, all electric rock guitar..."
Electric rock guitar: should never be confused with acoustic rock guitar...
"...has featured an attempt to improve upon Carl Perkins' Rockabilly twang."
This I did not know. I somehow doubt I'm alone here. And...
"In over fifty years, no-one has succeeded."

The lesson is as follows: anyone who's ever tried to play 'electric rock guitar' and disses Jimi shouldn't be allowed to own one, in my view.

Anyway, here's the great man with some 'acoustic rock guitar'.

Christmas traditions

Apart from the usual, that is - we've had the annual "council bans Christmas" story.

And then there's Christopher Hitchens in a column he presumably gets paid for telling us he doesn't like Christmas...
"The core objection, which I restate every December at about this time..."
" that for almost a whole month, the United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state."
Does it - does it really? I'd never thought about it that way before. Actually I did - the last time you came out with this line. And the time before that. Filed that thought under 'Fucking Stupid and Boring' every time.

Thing is, like a lot of people I'm not wild about Christmas either. Apart from anything else, for those of us who have lived long enough to fuck up several significant relationships, it's a time of year that's full of ghosts. But, Mr Hitchens, the columns? Not. Fucking. Helping. For example:
"It becomes more than usually odious to switch on the radio and the television, because certain officially determined "themes" have been programmed into the system. Most objectionable of all, the fanatics force your children to observe the Dear Leader's birthday, and so (this being the especial hallmark of the totalitarian state) you cannot bar your own private door to the hectoring, incessant noise, but must have it literally brought home to you by your offspring."
Oh fuck off! Honestly!

Christopher Hitchens: Go on - have a fag and gie yersel peace, ya miserable git.

Update: Something from Norm that I was too grumpy to produce at the time - a more measured response. I'm still too grumpy. Here's Hitchens in 2005. I mean, why doesn't he just change the date, re-post and be done with it? I don't think anyone would notice because it's the same old turkey re-heated. North Korea - check. Dear Leader - check. Compulsory enjoyment - check. He doesn't even have the excuse of having never visited an actual one-party state! Enough of this crud. Oliver Cromwell indeed! Bit louche for a puritan, aren't we?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On direct action

I've read with interest what others have had to say about the Plane Stupid protestors who occupied Stanstead Airport. Via Chris, I found a handy summary here. For what it's worth, the sentiments one finds here dovetail rather neatly with my own prejudices. I don't care if they're right - I can't stand these posh sanctimonious eco-protestors.

But it got me thinking about direct action in general - a problem that swirls around in my mind from time to time. It isn't an easy problem to resolve because only Germans circa 1939-1945 ever thought obedience to the law should stand at the apex of a man's moral obligations. Unless you're big on state-worship, it is surely uncontroversial to insist that 'direct action' is at least on some occasions justifiable?

But my feeling is in general that the modern liberal or socialist rather understates the problems thrown up by this. Part of the reason is, I think, historic examples of direct action have left the history books and entered into the world of mythology. In this country, I'm thinking mainly of the way the Suffragettes' campaign of violence has been understood. Here we have a seemingly obvious case for direct action that fulfills two of the criteria that are conventionally understood as justifying it: a) a just cause - in this case the inclusion of women in the franchise, and b) an issue that the conventional party system couldn't cope with because there was no party championing their cause.

My complaint about this interpretation of history has nothing to do with the justice of their cause. Rather, like a number of people who have looked beyond the mythology at the actual history, I question the efficacy of their campaign. Like a number of of people who have examined the actual historical record, I would suggest that what proved decisive in winning women the vote was the Suffragettes' participation in the war effort - something the majority agreed necessitated putting the direct action campaign on hold.

The other thing that strikes one about the Suffragettes' campaign is that while it was shocking at the time - and it should be understood that many of their actions lost them the sympathy they'd won during their treatment in prison under that lovely Liberal government - it seems in retrospect rather mild by modern standards. For what is terrorism but a form of direct action? Which brings me to my little list of problems that the average liberal or socialist tends not to take account of when discussing this problem:

1) The problem of proportion. What level of direct action is justified? Who decides? The obvious answer here would be the government - but direct action by definition is a resort to extra-legal means. Surely even if people haven't bothered to acquaint themselves with the great Thomas Hobbes, even a rudimentary understanding of human history would inform someone that we might have something of a problem of acceleration here. Take this example from the ambivalent Neil D at HP:
"I wondered if a campaign of direct action might be in order.

The night-time slashing of car tyres, the pulling down of Christmas lights, the smashing of garden heaters, and the decapitation of the shining angel might make people think about their transport choices and use of energy. Surely such direct action is warranted given the seriousness of the situation?

Or perhaps it might make me look like a self-righteous twat with no respect for others, or the law, and fatally undermine my cause?"
For me he isn't asking the most pressing question that he should consider, which is: what does he think I'm going to do to him if I catch him slashing my tyres? By the time I'm finished with him, I suppose he could call the police - but there's two problems: one is it is difficult to see what grounds on which he could make a complaint; the other is he would be unlikely to be satisfied with any police response - he's going to want revenge. You see the problem? If you don't then you're just too damn liberal for the real world.

2) What cause justifies direct action? I'm afraid there simply isn't that many that fall into the 'preventing genocide' category. The case that prompted this post and the responses illustrate the problem here. For example, outside of the Troubles, the most prolific terrorist outfit in the UK is not Al-Qaeda or any of its imitators - it has been the ALF. They are so serious about animal rights, they reckon it's ok to harm human mammals to vindicate these rights. My own view is that they are complete fucknuts who have taken liberal self-loathing to its logical conclusion and have managed to feel guilty about being at the top of the food chain. The difficulty here is not just one of what cause but who pursues it? This leads me to my last point:

3) This is for me the most obvious point - but it's one that is invariably missed by the pro-direct action lobby. Isn't it something of a luxury to cheer on the eco-protestors? We can do so because they are armed only with their invulnerable sense of righteousness and perhaps a bag of museli. I appreciate they've caused disruption in this case but in general a lack of power is their defining characteristic. This is why we can afford to indulge them. But what if the group of protesters are in possession of something more substantial? There is one group in societies throughout human history who have at various times and in various places been so convinced of the rightness of their cause, they have felt compelled to dispense with conventional political mechanisms and act directly to address the moral urgency of the situation. This group is, of course, the army.

I didn't intend this to turn out to be quite so anti-direct action - but what motivated it is much of the comment that treats it as if it were what the Americans like to call a 'no-brainer'. This attitude strikes me as being long on moral certainty and short on history - as well as requiring a rather otherworldly unfamiliarity with the human condition.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Still more from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious

I've asked before on this space how, exactly, do you get a job doing this sort of research? Yet answers there are none. Can I impress on y'all that this isn't a rhetorical question? Seriously, I'd really like to know: how do you get a job doing research that comes to conclusions that everyone knew already anyway?
"An Australian study into the sexual history of 185 students at the University of Sydney found male science "nerds" were the least likely to have had sexual intercourse."
Filed under: No Shit, Sherlock.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Further tales from the trenches

Apologies for light posting. Been busy with various shit - not least earning a crust touring some of Glasgow's educational establishments. I was looking at a list of Glasgow's secondary schools and realised that out of twenty-nine, I've taught in seventeen of them. Now, while it is a very strong field in which to compete, I reckon I've stumbled across the most bat-shit crazy institution this city has to offer. If you can read this, presumably you went to school - with desks, pupils, teachers, shit like that. Let me assure you that here the similarity with the institution you attended and this one ends.

Consider the following facts:

1) It has a role of around three-hundred and fifty. This would be a function of the information plus voting with feet phenomenon. Those with the information vote with their feet. The rest are too drunk to notice what's going on.

2) The school has completely given up the pretence of offering a full curriculum and now only insists on English and Maths as core subjects. The rest of the timetable is taken up with what they like to call 'Future skills'. It includes subjects like hairdressing. I wouldn't know but one would presume that this involves giving the students access to scissors. I have to say, from what I've seen of the behaviour in this 'school', this strikes me as a somewhat reckless policy.

One wonders what sort of fucked-up future the managers of this school have imagined the skills they are learning here would be useful for. If they have in mind a sort of post-nuclear junior Mad Max situation where the world is ruled by gangs of feral youths, then I'd agree the skills they are learning here would stand them in good stead. If, however, they have in mind technical skills that might help them in any imaginable future labour market, I'd say that any child that attends this school is comprehensively fucked.

Think dystopian science-fiction - but dispense with the obvious Orwell and Huxley. Both of them, in very different ways, imagined highly ordered societies. How wrong they both were. Think instead of the Lord of the Flies on crack and then maybe you'll catch a flavour of what's going on in the second city of the Empire.

All of this got me to thinking about a couple of educational myths that do the rounds in what you read from what journalists and especially bloggers have to say about education:

One has to do with the ludicrous idea that the success or otherwise of an educational institution has to do with the quality of the teaching staff. This is an idea proposed by the majority who have absolutely no idea how bad bad can get in our nation's schools. I'll draw this analogy: George Harrison once commented at the height of Beetlemania how he didn't even bother to tune his guitar because the hysteria that greeted their shows meant that it couldn't be heard anyway. Teaching skills are a bit like this. Doesn't matter how much you prepare your lessons or 'hone' your skills - if you work in an environment like this, they'll never get used.

The other has to do with the strength of teaching unions. There are some - even those within our profession - who claim they are too strong. This is simply a function of ignorance - it comes from those who think they've taught in rough schools but really have no experience of the Joseph Conrad territory within which it is possible to travel in this profession. That said unions haven't insisted that their members down tools and walk out over the educational catastrophe that is going on in our inner-cities is a mark of their quintessential weakness. Anyone who argues otherwise simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Odds and sods

Just found out what a 'chugger' is - it's those earnest people wearing nylon jackets with the name of their charity on them who give you the hard sell when you're popping into Boots, trying to make you feel guilty about dolphins or something. Apparently they're not only annoying, they are evil grasping bastards who aren't doing it out of the goodness of their heart at all:
"The charity watchdog Intelligent Giving, which conducted the mystery shopper survey, said almost all chuggers may be breaking the law and many are breaking the fundraising profession's own code of conduct. It is calling on the public to boycott them and force them off the streets."
Intelligent Giving are trying to protect people who are obviously much nicer than I am, I take it - but it seems a bit harsh nonetheless. Is 'chugger' behaviour really that much different from these irritating people who have stalls in the goddam supermarket who try to sell you conservatories, or double-glazing, or try to get you to switch your electricity supplier? I don't understand people who are intimidated by salesmen. Why don't they just tell them to piss off? Or if you find this too confrontational, you should use my technique when confronted with some spiv in a bad suit trying to flog you stuff: regardless of what it is, tell them you've already got it. It's pretty straightforward and never fails. I mean what are they going to come back with when you tell them you've just had a new kitchen put in last week? "Um, would you like another one?" They never do in my experience.

In other news, a teacher has been found guilty of incompetence by the GTC in Scotland. If she's struck off, it'll be the first. She must have been really, really, really shit. Personally I'd like to know who assesses the GTC's competence. All they do is verify we're qualified to teach the subjects we actually teach (how hard is it to gather photocopies of our degrees?) and then for the rest of our careers they expropriate a sum from our wages every so often so that they can produce some really boring but very glossy newsletter that is mailed to our houses quarterly. Or is it monthly? I don't care.

On this theme, Miss Snuffleupagus discusses the whole "good teachers" thing and how to get them. I have misgivings about the anti-union, pro-management author of this blog but on this occasion she's pretty close to being spot on, dismissing the strange but distressingly popular notion that it's our job to entertain the little blighters. Listen, you can't make trigonometry more entertaining than pornography and alco-pops - and if you think otherwise, then you're mental.

On the teaching theme, my colleague at the Academy told me a story that made me laugh. Think film sequels to catch the flavour of this. He went for an interview at a Catholic school in Lanarkshire - co-incidentally the first school I ever taught in. He's of the Roman persuasion himself but he found the following question a bit weird.

Interviewer: "So what did you think of Vatican II?"

My colleague was rather nonplussed. To his credit he didn't waffle but quipped, "I thought it was a lot better than Vatican I."

He said the interviewer went ape-shit.

He is now teaching amongst the heathen.

Finally, is this a blogging first? Normblog, to my knowledge, has always only been text and has never had either photos or videos embedded in the posts. But today it has. I didn't have time to read the post but from the photos I'm assuming it's about parts of London that should be carpet-bombed as a matter of aesthetic principle?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the faithful, the cynical and the sceptical...

Responses to the election of Barack Obama.

The fact that George Bush is still the President of the United States hasn't stopped most political pundits and bloggers delivering their verdicts.

First the cynical, of which John Pilger is fairly representative:
"He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people."
Regular readers of Pilger's work will know he's strongly opposed to killing brown-skinned people - unless, of course, it's other brown-skinned people doing the killing. In these circumstances, he is often 'reluctantly' in favour. It's what we might have expected from someone who had so little positive to say about Nelson Mandela's role in the transition from apartheid - something he alludes to in the article linked above.

Beyond this, what more can one say? Pilger is the political equivalent of the Jehovah's Witness earnestly awaiting the apocalypse and to keep himself pure for that day, he makes sure he has no truck with the Methodists or the Baptists or the Episcopalians. But the parousia is delayed, leaving him and his ilk forlorn and embittered, preaching to an ever-shrinking choir of like-minded souls. Not insane, as some have dismissed him - just preaching a gospel that is too narrow to do justice to the human condition.

Having said this, I don't find much I can identify with in what the faithful are preaching. I don't find that those who are claiming that Obama will heal the world are exactly giving me much to hang my faith on. Don't get me wrong - Obama's victory, first over Clinton, then McCain was cool. Obama's cool. Everyone agrees. I don't know anyone who doesn't. I read that some people dissent but I don't really believe they exist. I certainly haven't met one. Goddamit all, even George Bush thinks Obama is cool. But when even that old curmudgeon Howard Jacobson starts getting dewy-eyed and imagines coolness necessarily translates into political substance, I start to get worried:
"His mind shines through him. We might be singing the virtues of democracy right now, but his are refined, educated looks. They are not available to everybody. An Ivy League university won't guarantee you a demeanour like Obama's – Bush went to Yale, don't forget – but you'd be hard-pressed to bear yourself that way without the assured enlightenment that education confers."
I had to laugh at this. My father was an academic - I grew up surrounded with the educated. Can Howard Jacobson really have lived this long without noticing the way the average academic shambles their way through life? Generally occupying some spot on the autistic spectrum, they can barely dress themselves - and doing practical shit like cooking or operating electric appliances usually presents something of a challenge. To this day, I don't understand how or why my father was allowed to have a driving license. Obama's deportment is a function of privilege - not just education. Nah - can we have a dose of (healthy, I trust) scepticism please? I'll give it a go. Here's a few reasons to be sceptical.

1) It should be taught in the kindergarten of American politics that Congress, in relation to the executive branch of government, is the hands-down winner of the most powerful legislature in the world competition. Yet this simple observation seems to have escaped the "Obama will wipe every tear away from their eyes" fraternity in the MSM. This is not to say that we don't get the 'coat-tails' authority that a President can have in Congress, which brings me to my second point...

2) Gene links to a piece in the New Yorker, which he feels puts Obama's victory 'in historical context'. It's a long piece. I searched for historical context but lo - I found none. Take this, for example:
"That November, Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. His election ended an age of conservative Republican rule, created a Democratic coalition that endured for the next four decades, and fundamentally changed the American idea of the relationship between citizen and state."
It is, as I said, a long piece - but frankly I think we can stop right there and take account of this: in the electoral college, Obama's victory looks like a landslide but in terms of his share of the popular vote it certainly wasn't. Consider the circumstances. We had the most unpopular President since Nixon involved in two controversial wars, presiding over an economic meltdown against the background of the fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history. His potential Republican successor was 72 - he ran a car crash of a campaign against a candidate that simply oozes charisma and 'coolness' - yet the best they could manage was a 6% lead in the popular vote? To describe this as some kind of epoch-making 'seismic shift' is dangerously complacent, as well as fundamentally inaccurate.

3) The 'change' candidate, despite not having taken office yet, is already showing signs of being the continuity candidate - if his appointments thus far are anything to go by. He clearly holds to the LBJ philosophy that it's better to have your enemies in the tent pissing out than the other way around - hence the number of Clinton-era personnel floating around his 'transition team' already. It might be a smart move but it strikes me as rather risky - the most risky being the all but certain appointment of Hillary as his Secretary of State. You don't have to share Christopher Hitchens' hostility to - some would say obsession with - the Clintons to agree with him when he said that whatever this represents, it isn't the 'change' people thought they were voting for.

4) Will he be the new FDR? Let's hope he isn't so conservative. There are two things that have, despite the evidence, cemented FDR's reputation. One was the perception that he was 'doing something' - never mind if what he actually did was particularly effective. The other is war. It was mobilisation of resources required for re-armament that rescued the US economy - who knows what would have happened without this? What we do know is that prior to this, unemployment remained stubbornly high - and that part of the reason for this was that fiscal policy was actually being tightened in the couple of years before the shift to the war economy. We can only hope Obama learns the right lessons. One thing FDR was right about was trade - opposing Hoover's adherence to the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Protectionism is a tempting policy in times of recession - especially when governments pursue policies of fiscal expansion because there's always the impulse to avoid a situation where tax-payers' dollars will bleed out into exports. But the dangers of trying to run a closed economy are greater. This at least I think FDR understood - let's hope Obama does too. And let's hope his friends that will make up the majority in Congress do too - because hitherto the evidence that they do hasn't exactly been unequivocal - to say no more than that.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The sociology of the weather

I've often thought economic and social historians, when trying to uncover the forces that shape human history, have rather neglected one or two factors that I reckon have been hugely significant in the shaping the fate of peoples, in the moulding of national characters.

One of these is the weather. If you live somewhere like Scotland, you have plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has a huge impact on people's behaviour and the feeling in your bones bears witness to this - but there's precious little in the way of quantitative research done on this subject. Or if there has been, I haven't been made aware of it - and I haven't been made aware of it because if it exists, it isn't very popular.

I reckon there's a couple of possible reasons for this. One is that people don't like the determinism of such an idea. This requires a couple of qualifications. People don't object to determinism as such if they believe History is on their side and these determining forces will one day emancipate and vindicate them. This is the case with unreconstructed Marxists, for example - also those ultra-Hayekians who hold the unfettered free-market as the last great untried utopia. It's determinism without redemption that people recoil against. I've heard it argued that this is what people don't like about Max Weber: he offered only diagnosis and no cure - Calvinism without salvation.

Added to this is the banality of it: a friend of mine argues that people don't like to think their lives can be shaped by something so mundane. Why has Scotland exported so much of its population for so long - even to the present day? There are a number of plausible economic, social and political reasons suggested for this but in all the literature I've ever read on this subject, I don't recall anyone taking the "because it's fucking freezing" hypothesis anything like as seriously as they should - which brings me to this:
"The Shetland Islands have the best quality of life in Scotland, a study has shown.

Residents tend to have higher-than-average earnings, a greater chance of being employed and better health, according to the research. The area also benefits from the best education results and has a low rate of house-breaking.

The Bank of Scotland data assesses the quality of life in regions across the UK by examining a range of factors which include housing, environment and education."
These "quality of life" assessments tend to re-enforce my preference for more traditional economics. The study also cited lower than average house prices as an attractive feature of the Shetlands - but the reason house prices are lower is because there is less demand for Shetland housing. Since we can rule out low wages, unemployment, and crap education as variables here, I'd have thought the Bank of Scotland might have given more serious thought to including things like horizontal rain, low temperatures, high winds and minimal sunlight as factors when drawing up their quality of life index. But these are the sort of people who regularly come up with Canada as the best place on the face of the planet to live in. Yeah, right - the second biggest country in the world has only 33 million people living in it? Yet another case of the failure to apply the "fucking freezing" hypothesis, I reckon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carnival of Schadenfruede

No links necessary; if you read blogs at all, you can't have failed to have noticed how everyone's enjoying the leaking of the BNP membership list. The BNP's response has been beyond parody, as the cartoon captures rather well.

But also hugely enjoyable has been the less dramatic discomfort inflicted on the Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland in the wake of the credit crunch. This is a bit rushed and I'll return to this topic in more detail later - just a couple of thoughts for now...

You might wonder why Gordon Brown's popularity has recovered, given that as Chancellor for ten years, he might be thought of as being a teensy-weensy bit responsible for everything that has happened. I'm thinking at least part of the answer is fairly straightforward. Opposition parties wheel out a number of alternative policies and make various criticisms of the incumbents but underpinning them all is usually one basic message: they present themselves as an alternative by saying, in effect, that this wouldn't be happening if we'd been in power.

The reasons why neither the Conservatives nor the SNP can say this with any degree of conviction should be fairly obvious. The number of people willing to believe the opposition narrative is shrinking simply because the opposition narrative is literally unbelievable.

I've particularly enjoyed Alex Salmond's discomfort. The SNP are the quintessential one message party. It is the same message preached by nationalists everywhere - that all the trouble in the world could be avoided if only we were independent. Does anyone believe this anymore - even in the SNP?

We don't have to take on board the cruder rhetoric coming out of the Scottish Labour party to demonstrate this - we only have to follow through the logic of what Salmond himself says. For example, when he says that being part of a larger economic unit does not insulate countries from the banking crisis, he is perfectly correct. But does he not understand that people will also see that being part of a smaller unit simply does not do for a country what he and his party have been claiming for it? Perhaps he thinks we're stupid? I hope so because it's this kind of lazy arrogance - part of Salmond's DNA, I would argue - that will be his undoing.

Then there's the Cameroons. Another essentially one message party - make the state smaller - confronted with a dwindling audience. And no wonder. It goes without saying that they cannot with any credibility claim the present crisis wouldn't have happened under their stewardship. But their response has been a disaster too. I think this is behind their present woes. It's not so much that Gordon Brown has played a blinder - it's that the Conservatives have lost confidence in their central message. Or perhaps they're simply confused. I would have thought the line they should take in the present difficulties would be obvious: support fiscal expansion through tax cuts in an effort to stave off deflation, then argue that spending should be cut in the future in order to pay for it. That would make tax-cuts 'permanent', would it not? Instead we get some drivel about National Insurance holidays for employers as an incentive to retain or recruit further workers.

The tax-cutting party has failed to advocate tax-cuts at exactly the time when they would be appropriate. The depth and scope of their failure is impressive, I'm thinking. No wonder their poll lead has dropped to only three points. Long may it continue. It should, and for good reason. Consider exactly how crap the Tories have been here. We face the prospect of a sharp economic contraction under Brown's stewardship. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that any measures the government has taken or plans to take will actually do much to avert recession or even avoid outright deflation. One of the things that concerns me about the new enthusiasm for 'Keynesianism' is that I don't think many people realise that economic history does not tend to support the thesis that recession can be avoided simply by pulling a few fiscal and monetary levers. But economic history does have plenty of cases where matters have been made worse by either pulling the levers the wrong way and/or opting to do nothing at all. This is the position the Tories find themselves in, I think.

The Tories are often said to have lost their reputation for economic competence when the pound fell out of the ERM. Labour benefited, despite the fact that they had advocated exactly the same policy. Part of the benefit of being in opposition, the conventional wisdom would hold because people notice the failings of the government more acutely than the opposition. That this benefit has failed to materialise for the Tories in the present circumstances is testimony, not so much to how well the government has handled this, but just how badly Cameron and his new model Tories have conducted themselves.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

People losing their damn minds #25

I can't be alone in thinking evolution has taken a weird turn on one or two occasions? Colosseum TV brings us news that "celebrities" - i.e. those people in our society who are celebrated - are competing with each other in a new way. The winner is whoever shows themselves most willing to eat weird shit. For this sort of highbrow analysis of the human condition one naturally turns to the highbrow journal that is the Torygraph:
The final dish was a blind course, both celebrities had to pick from a "whatever's on the stick" or "whatever's in the tub".

Swash chose the stick and was presented with parts of a crocodile's genitalia. McLean followed suit, then finished off with a kangaroo testicle, winning the trial.

The victorious model was later collared by fellow contestant, television presenter Esther Rantzen, back in the camp, who told her: "I want to know about this crocodile ball bag."

McLean replied: "It's so bad, it was so tough. I asked (Ant and Dec) whether the (crocodile) ball bag was full of semen and it is so I swallowed crocodile semen... I asked if I could get pregnant."
We have to be careful not to conflate things here - there's being merely stupid, and then there's losing your damn mind. This case illustrates the distinction rather well, I feel. Thinking that eating a crocodile's ball bag might make you pregnant is the former. But if you think this is a possibility, yet you go ahead - presumably calculating that the potential benefit of being more famous outweighs the risk of giving birth to baby crocodiles, I think we can and must say that you have strayed quite decisively into the damn mind losing territory.

Nicola McLean: I'd have a caption competition were it not for the fact that I suspect there's probably too many of you out there whose minds work like mine.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On legal moralism

Lady Warnock's piece in the Observer today was, I thought, extraordinary. This is not because she advocates legal moralism - we've become used to this, especially recently. Rather it's the ambition she has for it:
"Kingsley Amis once said, truly: 'Nice things are nicer than nasty things.' On this hangs all morality. It is because we know that some things are intolerable, and other things are admirable, that we can talk confidently about violations of human rights, or of a better society. It is only because we have this knowledge that we can teach small children to put themselves in other people's shoes, to sympathise with those who are unfairly treated, or who are suffering, and so, in turn, they can avoid treating others unfairly or doing harm. Because we have this knowledge, we can teach children the elements of morality."
She then goes on to imagine that the state can and should all but eliminate prostitution and drug abuse. To argue otherwise is, as the above selection indicates, to surrender to moral relativism:
"Most actions that are criminal offences are also morally wrong; and when morality and law begin to diverge, society is in trouble."
One would hope all criminal offences are morally wrong - because if not, why would they be criminal offences? But the converse does not hold - the idea that something is immoral, ergo it should be illegal. The law should set a floor for human behaviour, not a ceiling. This has nothing to do with moral relativism - it's just a recognition that for liberty to endure, a distinction can and must be made between what is a crime and what is a sin. To go beyond this is to go beyond even traditional authoritarian conservatism and enter the proto-totalitarian world of Calvin's Geneva.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not dead...

Just resting. Working in a place I shall refer to only as "the Academy". Like Paris, Glasgow has large public housing estates on its periphery; desolate places of high unemployment and low expectations.

There, it goes without saying, the similarity between Glasgow and Paris ends.

Anyway, the Academy serves one of these areas.

We do "setting and streaming" at the Academy. On balance I'm kinda in favour of this - although it does have some problems. The most significant as far as I'm concerned is that it is actually impossible to "set" according to ability. Sets are made - can only be made - according to performance; it isn't a mechanism that can distinguish easily between those who perform badly because they are unable to do otherwise and those who are unwilling to do otherwise.

So you end up with sets that follow this general pattern:

1) Slightly mental.

2) Fairly mental.

3) Completely mental.

4) Too mental.

The justice in a situation where the not very intelligent have to put up with the really fucking annoying isn't always obvious to me, to say no more than that. It's a microcosm of the wider "debate" about more macro strategies such as selection according to ability or the use of vouchers. They are escape hatches; mechanisms to avoid group 4. Understandable - but education is compulsory and group 4 have to be taught somewhere and by someone. Those who advocate grand schemes for educational reform would merit more serious attention if they even pretended to be interested in these. But they don't - because they're not.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Alex Salmond: mugged by reality?

Some people have effectively one answer to just about every political and social problem. Two of them haven't done very well out of the banking crisis, one being the state-shrinking fraternity and the other being the Scottish nationalists.

I don't like the purely economic arguments that are used by both pro and anti-Unionists but since Alex Salmond and the SNP are so fond of using them, I'm finding it's impossible not to enjoy his present discomfort at the way his inclusion of Iceland in his "arc of prosperity" is now being used against him.

Some of us have been frustrated by the way in which Salmond and the nationalists have used the examples of other countries to serve as a model of the prosperity that Scotland could enjoy were it independent, without providing any sensible argument that the prosperity of these countries is a function of their independence.

Add to this the inconsistency with regards to the whole business of membership of the EU and the Euro. Ireland - the 'Emerald Tiger' - was held up as an example of what Scotland could be as a small nation operating in the Euro-zone. The closest Salmond ever came to explaining the time-lag between Irish independence and its take-off in the nineties was membership of the EU and then the adoption of the Euro. He chose to ignore the fact that Scotland would never receive the level of subsidy Ireland did following the enlargement that included the eastern European states. He argued for the Euro on the grounds that the interest rates set by the ECB were lower than in Britain. Never mind the fact that these lower interest rates were probably not appropriate for the Irish economy at that time.

He also suggested that Scotland could follow Ireland's beggar-thy-neighbour cuts in corporation tax. He didn't bother to answer the question as to what would happen if Westminster chose to eliminate this competitive advantage by following suit. This being because no one asked him. They should have. Now he's going on about Ireland acting decisively to guarantee bank deposits - ignoring completely the fact that Ireland's unilateral action was almost certainly in breech of EU competition law.

Finally, you could ask what the 'levers' the nationalists think they would have available to deal with the economic crisis are exactly when monetary policy is set by the ECB and where the scope for fiscal expansion is limited by membership of this monetary union.

But Salmond only ever used the EU membership argument when it suited him - as is demonstrated by his inclusion of examples of countries that are not in the EU. He didn't pick these randomly, as some have suggested. Rather some point of similarity was identified in each case. Iceland, for example, was and is like Scotland in that it has a large financial sector. That this isn't exactly a selling point in the present circumstances would be something of an understatement.

Then there's the perennial fall-back for the nationalist economic argument: oil. Trouble here is that the price of this commodity seems to be falling somewhat and even if it weren't, isn't it a little late to be suggesting that Scotland would be in the same position as Norway is today? They've got a thirty year start on us after all.

Now the nationalists could, and will, argue the toss about a number of these points. Some of these arguments will even be plausible. But here's something I don't think they'll be able to wriggle out of. What I dislike about the nationalist argument is the simplistic way in which the nation is used as a repository for all that is good, while the lack of independence thereof is used as an explanation for all that is wrong with our country. Retarded economic growth? This wouldn't be happening if we were independent, the nationalists always insist. For inequality, poverty, poor educational performance, or whatever, we are always invited to insert the same answer: "This wouldn't be happening if we were independent." It is this formulation, this easy answer, that has been dashed on the rocks of reality. They'll continue to try and sell this line in relation to the banking crisis no doubt - but with less conviction, and to a smaller audience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lonely Planet guide to Glasgow

The dear green place has been rated by Lonely Planet as one of the world's top ten cities.

What well-travelled individual could disagree? I mean places like Paris and Barcelona? Uncivilized shit-holes compared to Glasgow.

This photograph was taken on the only day it wasn't raining in 2007. Such a snap would be impossible in 2008.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religion and democracy

The former can't be 'privatised' in the latter, argues Andrew Brown. We get the usual guff about secularism being an 'ideology', which implicitly invites the reader to understand it as another 'faith' that can have a propensity to intolerance just like any other:
"Secularism is a doctrine about how society is best ordered. As such it cannot avoid imposing itself on those who disagree. To take two recent flashpoints – the secularists in the hall would all demand the abolition of faith schools, and an end to discrimination against gay people within religious bodies."
He's showing his customary tendency to pick up the wrong end of whatever stick happens to be lying around. Perhaps there are some 'secularists' who demand an end to faith schools - I wouldn't know - but most of us who are opposed to them limit our objection to them being funded at the taxpayer's expense. Because as it stands, we are the ones who are being 'imposed on'. We are compelled to pay for a service that excludes our children.

But it's the second point that illustrates the way Brown gets his argument exactly the wrong way around: it is precisely because organised religion is not properly privatised in our 'secular' society that leads to demands that they should not discriminate against gays. The Church of England is, as Tony Benn used to say, Britain's oldest nationalised industry. It controls something in the region of a quarter of the schools, its bishops sit unelected in the House of Lords. And the Catholic church receives public funds to run schools and involve itself in the business of the adoption of children. It is the very public nature of these institutions that leads to the external pressure on them to accept modern non-discriminatory practices.

It would be refreshing just once to read something from the religious that understood this. They could then maybe move from here and realise that it might just be in their interests. No-one cares how the Baptists organise themselves or who they discriminate against. It's a matter for them because they are a genuinely private organisation. Not so for the Church of England. It is a de facto public body and it is therefore frankly childish for its members to complain if the law takes an interest in how they conduct their business.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The lighter side of the banking crisis

Here's an unexpected upside to the credit crunch, according to the Torygraph:
"Sales of maternity clothes and baby equipment have soared, along with those of pregnancy tests and sex toys.

It comes as home-delivery pizza company Domino's reported a 20 per cent sales rise in the first half of this year, while a report from financial services firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicted meals out and trips to the pub would be the first luxuries to go in a recession.

Mothercare said its sales have gone up by more than 20 per cent, while baby clothing firm Mamas And Papas has reported a 46 per cent increase in maternity dress sales.

Chemists around the country have reportedly seen a rise in sales of pregnancy test kits while online company reported a 27 per cent increase in sales.

Website spokeswoman Monique Carty said the most popular products were those specifically designed for couples.

"We are gobsmacked by the upturn in sales, while everyone else seems to be suffering," she said.

But Miranda Levy, editor of Mother & Baby Magazine, said cost-conscious couples were not thinking long-term.

"What's cheaper and more fun than making babies?" She said. "The trouble is, when they come out they are really expensive."
I find this disgusting. Domino's pizza indeed. Have these people no taste? People who like Domino's pizzas have no business breeding.

Elsewhere there was the Economist's take on the banking crisis:

Stolen from Paulie - which is ok cos he stole it from somewhere else.

And Tom Freeman explains why all this represents a black day for British journalism. What we need is some new clichés.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Economic efficiency and the Good Society

Even if it were not the most economically-efficient, Milton Friedman said of the free-market economy, he would support it anyway because it was a liberty-maximising political economy. But by a happy co-incidence, it just so happened that it was the most efficient too.

We don't know what he would have said about the present situation were he still alive but many people are rather gratified at the thought that he would have had to recant at least part of this statement. It's a feeling I understand and share to an extent but - and I hate to be a wet-blanket here - in addition to the reasons outlined in the post below, I think there are reasons why we should be more circumspect.

Or rather there is really one reason, which I want to discuss and it's this: saying one's version of the Good Society just so happens to be the most economically efficient is just a rather narrow way of saying my version of the Good Society yields a utilitarian outcome. I've been thinking that this is so prevalent that it could almost be considered a human universal. Well, maybe not quite - but I think the majority of us do this probably for most of the time.

For me, the most obvious example of this is the way in which the religious talk about the erosion of society's values as a result of declining religious belief. What strikes me about this is the way in which utilitarian arguments are used in this context. Secularism leads to the destruction of the family, they argue, which in turn is the source of many of our society's ills. This may or may not be true but as far as I'm concerned it simply cannot be considered a valid argument for religion because it says nothing about whether the religion in question is actually true and it is, I'm sure unconsciously, disingenuous because no-one every joined a church to shore up the institution of marriage or to cement society's traditional virtues and customs - they do so for the salvation of their own souls.

This is the template - the pattern from which the narrower economic argument forms itself. It in this context I think we should be careful. The God of economic history is a capricious deity; since the dawn of time She has switched her affections from one form of political economy to another for no apparent reason - or at least none that is apparent at the time - and, crucially, She does this without warning. During the Great Depression, it was Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany that weathered Her wrath better than most - yet you don't have to subscribe to the fatuous, ahistorical and frankly grotesque equation some 'bloggertarians' make between state intervention and 'totalitarianism' to accept that economic efficiency - in this case in the form of resisting mass unemployment - cannot be the final standard by which a political economy is judged.

I hope these examples are not too extreme and emotive that they obscure my point. I'll try a milder one. Here north of the border we have had for many years now a rather tedious debate about nationalism that has been framed almost entirely in these terms. The nationalists have argued for independence in these hopelessly narrow terms - we would be better off, like the Scandanavian countries are - like Ireland and Iceland - these two forming part what Alex Salmond likes to call the 'arc of prosperity'. Or should I say liked to call - a week being a long time in politics and all that. It would be tempting to argue that recent events have shown Scotland isn't viable as an independent state - but this would only mirror the narrow lines within which the debate thus far has been conducted. Scotland might be better off as part of a larger economic unit. On the other hand, it's too early to say whether the actions of our larger unit - UK plc - will have any effect on the panic currently afflicting the markets. And there's no reason to assume that an independent Scotland wouldn't be viable if it had rather better regulated banks, or even a nationalised banking system.

Better to argue on a wider basis - on the grounds of civility, of democracy, of what the Good Society might look like. But I'm wondering if an entirely purist position is possible to take here - whether a trade-off between this and economic efficiency isn't inescapable. Surely no rational person's vision of the Good Society is a model that would invite economic disaster and technological retardation; by the same token the sane and the good would not be prepared to embrace the most efficient model regardless of the social cost. I'm wondering if when finding the balance the temptation to insist on Friedman's formulation - here's my vision, it just so happens to be the most efficient - isn't irresistible to us all.

Let me give you a narrow example of what I mean. I'm half a Keynesian so I think the government could help to stimulate the economy by making cuts in regressive taxes such as VAT, along with the duty on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. The Bank of England is independent but we could also do with further cuts in interest rates. Hopefully all this would leave low to middle income households with more dosh to spend, thereby stimulating aggregate demand. I'm also a social democrat so I also think this shift away from regressive taxation would be more socially just. It would be be more equitable and more economically efficient. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The bank crisis and the left

When confronted with some issue, event, emergency, some bloggers and journalists of a leftish persuasion are fond of asking, in various ways, "How should the left respond?" I'm not always convinced that this is always a good thing in itself as it would tend to indicate that sections of the left at least are in a perpetual state of not being sure what they think about many things. On this occasion though I wish I was aware of it being asked more often because some of the responses to the current bank crisis and the subsequent government response strike me as being ill-thought out, reactive and, perhaps above all, rather premature.

You didn't ask but you're getting it anyway: my advice? The left - or at least some of it should a) calm down a bit b) stop conflating issues. I won't link them all because no doubt you've come across the sort of thing I'm referring to: this bank crisis is the end of "kamikaze capitalism", "the end of the neo-liberal world order", the refutation of the "unbridled free-market", it represents the nadir of the "Hayekian/Friedman axis of evil"... Ok, the last one was made up but you know what I mean. Naomi Klein - admittedly not one of the left's most subtle thinkers, to say no more than that - even went as far as to suggest that this financial crisis is for neo-liberalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for communism. Correction: she said it should be. Very silly, I hope you agree.

This kind of over-reaction mirrors that you find on sections of the right. Simon Heffer, for example, declares that "We are all socialists now, comrade." Because state intervention equals socialism, you see. My concern is that there are some on the left that are effectively agreeing with the bullshit coming from the virulently pro-capitalist, anti-regulation right - only of course they approve. It shows the limits of the unregulated market, of capitalism itself and demonstrates to need for state-intervention. Then they go on to imagine what might be possible if this newly-found dirigiste energy was directed into housing, or employment, into tackling poverty or whatever. It's understandable - but I think those on the left that have been pushing this line should be more careful for the following reasons:

1) It's a pretty simple point but I think some people have rather overlooked it: first of all, might it not be an idea to wait and see if this intervention actually works? For what it's worth, personally I welcome it - but what the hell do I know? I'm finding that having a degree in economic history isn't that helpful in this situation - but what I would insist history teaches us is that anyone who attempts to predict the future in these circumstances is a fool.

2) People have been too quick to claim the precedents of the past: FDR and Keynes are reborn - hurrah! Hang on. Firstly - and I have a very boring essay that I wrote on this subject once and will inflict it on you if you're not careful - FDR was no Keynesian. Furthermore, FDR has been the subject of too many hagiographies by historians of the left who have rather overlooked the actual record. I won't bore you with the details but most economic historians would today agree, I think, that was it not for re-armament, the US economy - which in any event persisted with very high levels of unemployment throughout the New Deal - would have slid back into a very deep recession from 1938 onwards. Even if the scale of intervention that was seen in the Western war economies was feasible, which I doubt - I think it's questionable at best to suggest this is automatically desirable. If I remember rightly, Keynes himself believed that the mobilisation of resources required for the war economy vindicated his theories - but Keynes was not a socialist, which brings me to the next point:

3) The 'neo-liberal' notion of a self-regulating, unfettered free-market has indeed been discredited by events but it was always a myth anyway - it is the last great untried utopia believed only by a handful of ideologues. You expect them to recant their views now? Why should evidence change their minds now when the copious evidence we have already hasn't had this effect before? Simon Heffer and his ilk may equate state intervention with socialism but anyone with even a passing acquaintance with economic history understands that capitalism has since 1945 co-existed with large scale nationalisation, credit controls, exchange rate controls, price and income controls. The 'part-nationalisation' of the banks does not alter in any significant way the essentially capitalist nature of our economy as David Osler remarks here - and such interventions, and much more violent ones, have often been a characteristic of the capitalist political economy as Richard Seymour, amongst others, have already pointed out.

4) I'm concerned about the conflation of concepts and institutions - these being collapsed into lazy cliches about "unfettered free-markets", "the neo-liberal world order" and the like. It's being done with capitalism and markets, for example. But they are two different things. The former has to do with the form of ownership under which goods and services are produced, the latter is a means of allocating these. Obviously historically these have been closely related and how the latter works is very much determined by the former. But damn it all, they are two different things. I'm very concerned that the failure to distinguish between the two, along with the apparent revival of the notion that state intervention is a Good Thing, will result in the people and the parties of the left advocating, and perhaps if they are in power, implementing ideas that would be a complete disaster.

I'm referring to trade here. I simply don't understand some people on the left and their attitude to international trade. In the 19th century, the 'liberal-left' in this country, including sections of what we would now probably describe as the 'hard-left', campaigned for free trade and against the Corn Laws on the grounds that it meant cheaper bread for hard-pressed working class families. Can someone explain to me what the hell happened? You might think, for example, that some might welcome trade with China on the grounds that this means cheap T-shirts for children in low-income families as well as recognising that the expansion of trade in this context forms part of the reason why we have seen in the East the largest rise in material welfare ever recorded in human history. Instead international trade is associated exclusively in the minds of some with environmental degradation, sweated labour and the appeasement of dictatorships. I was careful to say exclusively - absolutely no up-side at all for some folk.

Commentators who talk and write in this hopelessly one-sided and myopic fashion are simply, unequivocally, wrong. I say this because naturally in the present circumstances, the obvious point of historical reference is the Great Depression. No sensible person thinks we've arrived at that place yet but some sensible people think we might, if we have a political response that would, as it did in the 1930s, exacerbate the situation beyond measure and beyond repair. Protection: it's state intervention and it limits the evil "neo-liberal world order" - what's not to like? So far there's no particular reason to think this argument will take hold - and I'm not aware of anyone on the left making this argument particularly. But I'm concerned that in the current narrative of much of the left you don't tend see much in the way of evidence that it would be resisted should it arise.

Monday, October 06, 2008

More age of consent anomolies

Following this post, there's a couple I was reminded of in the comments that have to do with imprisonment and being a student. Here's another that I think is in some ways a parable for our times:
"Teachers should not be prosecuted for having affairs with their sixth formers, a union chief has said.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said it was an "anomaly" that a teacher who had sex with a pupil aged over 16 could go on the sex offenders register.

She told ITV's Tonight programme the law was wrong because a teacher could legally enter a relationship with a sixth former at another school."
I don't think any reasonable person could disagree that Chris Keates has correctly identified an anomaly here. The reason I think this is a parable for our times is because it springs from a confusion between rights and duties. It is clearly wrong for a teacher to have sex with his or her pupil whatever their age - but our culture seems incapable of expressing disapproval of something unless it can be shown that someone's rights have been violated.

Instead this sort of thing should be filed under a failure of duty. As a teacher you get pupils who fancy you and would potentially make themselves sexually available to you not despite the fact you're their teacher but because you are their teacher. Either you recognise this but don't care, in which case you're too bad to be a teacher - or you don't, in which case you're too stupid to be a teacher. I suspect amongst the pupil-shagging fraternity it is the latter who dominate. This doesn't make them Gary Glitter - just complete assholes who don't understand what their job is and so have no business being in teaching.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Prince of Darkness does an encore

Mandelson is back - saying he is 'joined at the hip' with Gordon Brown. What a hideous mental image. Peter is dismayed, finding this decision bizarre:
"Never mind the two forced resignations and the Millenium Dome, it is his politics that concern me. Very right wing, he was a celebrant of the zeitgeist that has just crumbled in the credit crunch. My faith in Brown's judgement has hardly been restored and my fears for the Labour Party have deepened. Depressing, deeply depressing."
I don't think it'll do anything for the Labour party's prospects either, although for slightly different reasons.

His politics don't concern me in the way they do Peter because what you could say about Mandelson you could say about Brown and the rest of them. Also, I think the concern about the place he occupies on the political spectrum is misplaced in the sense that this is not the only thing a Prime Minister has to take account of when he is appointing a Cabinet. Any Prime Minister is expected to reflect the broad range of opinion that is found in the Parliamentary party and any PM that appoints a preponderance of ideological soul-mates is doomed to failure. But - and this is the key point for me - there is no great ideological divide between these two men - their history, rather, has been the politics of pure personality and the clash of ambitions.

The appointment of Mandelson represents a willingness - desperation? - on Brown's part to put aside all this in the interests of defeating the Tories. For someone like Brown, baptized in the politics of loyalty that disfigures Scottish Labour politics, this is no small shift. Better to have your enemies in the tent pissing out rather than the other way around as LBJ said - or something like this. It is in this context stories like the one in the Sunday Times reporting that Mandelson 'dripped pure poison' into the ear of some unnamed 'senior Tory' should be dismissed as being penned from someone who has mistaken Cabinet politics for a dating agency.

Having said that, I think this strategy will fail for two reasons:

1) It's too little, too late. Brown has played the politics of personal loyalty for a decade. This is elastoplast over a festering wound.

2) It's like watching him trying to smile; he knows he now has to make an effort but it's just too damn late for him to learn at this stage. He just doesn't look natural doing it and the electorate sense this.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Age of consent anomolies

There's not a few of them in this country of ours. You can, for example, legally consent to have gay sex at 16 but not enjoy a post-coital cigarette. Also at this age you could have sex and you could watch someone else having sex - provided you aren't watching them having sex on DVD. For this you have to be 18. You can also work for a living and pay taxes - but you'll have to wait until you're 18 until you can decided which party forms the government that will decide how your taxes are spent.

Despite the fact that this situation isn't based on a coherent concept of consent, the case for rationalisation isn't to my mind overwhelming as most people understand that these legal provisions are inconsistent because they have evolved over time. Moreover, while the legal idea of consent might be a little hazy, generally speaking both English and Scots law generally recognises 18 as the age where the capacity for full adult consent is assumed.

The Scottish Parliament was therefore absolutely right to reject the SNP's stupid and illiberal proposal that the age at which Scots could purchase alcohol should be raised from 18 to 21. Hats off to Patrick Harvie of the Greens for this line:
"Speech after speech talking about the need to save communities from the demon drink by MSPs who then sauntered downstairs where huge trays of free booze awaited us all."
Who knows - maybe this democracy combined with liberty thing will catch on up here? It would make a refreshing change.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On underestimating the enemy

David Osler in confessional mode wonders whether he hasn't misunderestimated David Cameron:
"I'm starting to suspect that attempts to dismiss Cameron - pictured above - as 'the same old same old' are as wide of the mark as the Major government's laughable initial efforts to brand Blair a closet 'demon eyes' socialist back in 1994 and 1995."
Nick Cohen also argues that the left really ought to take Cameron more seriously.

They're both right - although I think it's part of a wider problem. Even in the narrow terms of Cameron's leadership, I don't think the left and Tory opposition in general has really taken on board what Cameron represents:

1) He's lightweight in many respects but - I'm repreating myself here, I realise - he knows what is wrong with his party, what was making them unelectable. He's like Blair in this important respect. People sneer at him attempting to 'de-toxify' the Tory party without acknowledging that he was and is right about this and that it was an insight that eluded his predecessors. Brown, on the other hand, has no idea.

2) His personal qualities are a small matter compared to what his election as leader said about the Conservative party: it said that they were tired of being in opposition so they gave up that fatal habit that besets political parties from time to time - mistaking your 'grassroots' for the electorate.

But I'm wondering if there's anything new about this. The Conservatives have had a long tradition of absorbing policies and positions from their opponents starting from the adoption of much of the Whig tradition. Then there was Disraeli's One-Nationism and the extension of the franchise to working men in the towns. Since then the Conservatives have supported socialist policies such as the NHS or nationalisation if they've felt it suited their interests. And now we have David Cameron.

In this context you could argue that underestimating the Conservatives has been the default position for the parties of the left. JS Mill famously described the Tories as the 'stupid party'. The Liberals, on the other hand, were and are fantastically intelligent - it's just that they don't win elections anymore. Thatcher was underestimated, so was Major, so has Cameron been. It's also a pattern we've seen in the States too - most notably with Reagan and, I'd argue, with George W Bush. I can't think of any genetic reason why the parties of the centre-left should consistently forget that it is electorally fatal to underestimate your political opponents but they do this fairly consistently as far as I can see. It goes without saying that this is a losing strategy.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On duty, privacy and liberty

A thought and form of words that has stayed with me was Chris Dillow's idea that public life understood as a revelation of one's own personality has profoundly illiberal implications. It's worth exploring because usually it's identified with the opposite - that there's something liberating about 'being yourself' and 'expressing yourself'. Duty, on the other hand, has long been understood as something stifling - oppressive precisely because it implies the opposite; the forced playing of a role that runs counter to one's 'true self'. If the former is really illiberal, I'm wondering if the latter is really more liberal; because it implies limits, it permits privacy in the way that the let it all hang out theory of public life does not. One gets the sense that the very notion of being 'off-duty' is alien to those who espouse this modern work-ethic - for how can one possibly take time off from being yourself?

A couple of recent event made me think of this again. One was personal. I was looking for some temp work to supplement my patchy income so posted a CV to some outfit running an educational helpline. Despite being qualified (able to form sentences; skint enough to accept shit wages) I could not take up the post because I smoke. This had nothing to do with the possibility that I may drop dead at any moment but rather because the employees were also expected to dispense advice about giving up smoking.

Various people were outraged on my behalf but strangely I wasn't. Because this isn't only about smoking but the more general idea that a job is no longer something you do; today it is something you are expected to be. This brings me to the next example, which was Sarah Brown introducing her man to the Labour party conference. Norm is rightly dismissive:
"If this isn't dumbing down for political dummies, orchestrated by the press, it's dumbing down for political dummies. So Sarah loves Gordon - what the hell has it got to do with his qualities of leadership?"
Absolutely nothing of course - but it's a symptom of this general idea of the revealed personality. Blair was never done with this what was for me pretty sick-making stuff about what he believed, felt, was sincere about - as if this should exempt him from further criticism or something.

With Brown this kind of shmultz doesn't come naturally and I for one wish his spin-doctors wouldn't bother trying to change this. As it is, I'm pretty tired of reading about what the 'real' Gordon Brown's like in private already - not least because we already know it's completely irrelevant to how he does his job. For example, we were told that Brown, because he's from a dismal Calvinist background, is 'careful with money'. Fair enough - personally, I'm sure this is true. However, since this obviously serves as no guide as to what's going to happen to tax-payer's money, I don't see how the fact that he served fairly cheap but agreeable champagne from Sainsbury's at his wedding is that relevant.

Hope you can catch the music of what I'm saying here because these ideas still haven't crystallised properly and I'm quite sure others have said it more clearly elsewhere. There is no longer the done thing - only one own's thing. It sounds vaguely Burkean but it was actually a lament that can be found in this volume. It's something to do with the idea that the private should be expressed in public - a general discomfort with the idea of playing a role and of carrying out duty in general. It tends to be expressed in a rejection of formalism in dress or procedure - on the grounds that this is less real, that it is inauthentic. It is why, for example, whenever school uniform is discussed, there is always a considerable constituency that argues it inhibits 'self-expression'.

But I'm wondering if this path we've been traveling down for the last couple of decades at least hasn't doubled-backed to our disadvantage? Bringing the private into the public has resulted in not a transformation of our public lives so much as a shrinking of the private sphere. I find it difficult to describe but it's the process by which the done thing is replaced with one own's thing, only to discover one's own thing is acceptable provided it's the company thing. What today's company expects is not merely for the worker to execute one's duty with competence and diligence. This would never do because this interpretation of one's responsibilities leaves out the need to believe - the essential prerequisite for being your job.

Against homework

On the subject of education, I'm confident that History will vindicate me and show that I was right about absolutely everything. I concede there's a long way to go here - but one does get the occasional glimpse of a zeitgeist moving in the right direction. As ranted about in the post below, the penny seems to be dropping that relentless testing and targets are smothering education. And today I've learned that it isn't only me that thinks homework is more or less a complete waste of human energy:
"A top-ranking state school has slashed the amount of homework set, saying that too much of it can be "depressing" and put children off learning.

Tiffin boys’ school, at Kingston upon Thames, southwest London, has called in all new Year 7 parents to explain that homework schedules are to be scaled back and replaced with a programme of independent learning.

"We felt that homework was taking over," Gary James, the deputy head, said. "We had boys doing three or four hours a night at the expense of sports, music practice or simply having fun. Something’s not right when a boy can’t sit down and watch a nature documentary on TV because he’s too busy doing maths. Ultimately I don’t think we should set homework at all.""
A depute who thinks 'simply having fun' is part of being young? How cool is that? Plus others agree. From the same peice:
"Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has called for an end to homework in primary schools and a scaling-back at secondary level, said that homework had been 'mindlessly lauded by successive governments and pushy parents'."
On balance 'pushy parents' are probably better than those that don't give a damn but boy are they intense. One of the ways they express this is by being completely obsessed with homework.

"Ooh, is he getting enough?", asks angsty parent with furrowed brow.

Man, someone's not getting enough but it isn't homework and it's not your boy. You feel like saying, "Look, your indolent son only ever makes a half-assed effort at anything he's set in class - and that's with me standing over him wearing the most menacing countenance I can muster. What's the point of getting him to repeat at home the same crud he produces in class?"

But you don't, of course - because the orthodoxy is that homework is a Good Thing. More signs that this might be changing though:
"Nottingham East academy, which will have 3,570 pupils, claims it will be the first school to scrap homework. It will instead have an extra lesson and after-school activities such as sport, model aircraft-building and sari-making."
That's a ridiculous size for a school. Still, they're getting some things right. Sari-making is clearly a more productive use of pupils' time than homework. I'm serious. Saris are useful things whereas the average piece of homework is an exercise in futility. It goes without saying that while the evidence to support this view is mounting, there are still rather a lot of people in denial:
"However, Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at London University, said Day was going too far. "Research shows homework does not make much of a difference, but..."
Stop right there Prof. Not really interested in your opinions on why this is so. Apart from anything else, it's rather distracting from the first part of your statement which relates a fact that is not at all well-known. Could you repeat it?
"Research shows homework does not make much of a difference."

Next thing you know people will realise that class, not ephemeral nonsense about 'faith' and 'ethos', is the key to understanding the differentiation in educational outcomes - or that completing a full game of bullshit bingo in the first half hour of every in-service day isn't helping anyone learn anything - except perhaps something rather unpleasant about the human condition. If this happened, I could almost become an optimist. But this is unlikely in my lifetime. So I won't.

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