February 22, 2008

Action Aid

A mate of mine who runs an advertising company is working for someone called Action Aid- who campaigns to regulate the places that supermarkets buy food. Anyway the campaign's objectives are good- to regulate the way that supermarkets treat their suppliers and in particular the way that the workers for those suppliers are treated. Anyway here is me, Tiberius Gracchus, explaining it in a funky banana costume (so much better than a page of print!)...

Action Aid's website is here, and other videos are here.

Debasing the Currency: the Decline of Political Journals

Don Paskini is right when he says that in general British political weeklies are not in an amazing state. My own view for what it is worth is that only the Economist, for its breadth, and Prospect (occasionally), for its depth, are worth reading (I disagree on the first with the Don)- the New Statesman is the same standerd as what you get in the Comment section of the Guardian every day, and the Spectator is about the same with respect to the Telegraph. One cause, as Paskini rightly argues, is that comment is now truly much freer. The internet allows you to surf sites that will beat the regular journals out of the ground- just by reading Matt Sinclair, James Hamilton, Chris Dillow, Vino Sangripillai, Unity, you can easily read as many quality articles in a day as are put out by the major journals and on as wide a variety of subject. I chose the five bloggers above to reflect what I mean- just take a brief look across them, Matt gives you political thought, James takes one area of society and provides rigorous analysis, Chris is one of the best economists out there in the blogosphere, Vino looks at all sorts of stuff briefly but often interestingly and Unity is the man for sweeping long investigations- by reading those five and more like them, you get everything you would want from a magazine that costs you a fiver (and that's in the immature British blogosphere, in the American the mind boggles as to the ammount of quality stuff)! Competition has drained the unique nature of the magazine and makes the Olympian look less austere.

But the magazines are less austere in themselves. You see ultimately all of us have day jobs, whilst the writers from the journals don't and therefore could be distinguished by specialist knowledge and research and to some extent in the Prospect and Economist that is what you get. But that is not always true. Journals have been killed in many ways by their own successes. Its interesting for example to read Byron York's essay on the American Spectator and wonder about the applicability of its doctrine more generally. York argued that the American Spectator had been killed by getting a burst of readers from a set of scoops about President Clinton: the journal bet that the scoops would continue and that the increased numbers would continue and it changed its nature and eventually it was destroyed by that change, in spectacular ways. Now noone in the UK publishing industry is being so foolish, but sometimes I wonder if in a more minature version that kind of thing is happening to the New Statesman and the Spectator in particular.

Take for example the most recent episode at the New Statesman. The journal published a poorly researched article from a journalist under the thesis that global warming had stopped: shortly after it published a rebuttal from its environmental editor. But that wasn't before the original article had caused a storm on the net and furthermore had undermined the magazine's reputation. You can imagine though the thought which led the editors to want to publish the original flawed piece- even though it was awful, it would create a buzz and a buzz is what leads to journals getting readers and hence money. The business plan seems to be to shock someone into buying the magazine in question. That means that often the quality of the article in question is neglected in the cause of its shock value. Whether that is a successful longterm strategy, I'll leave others to consider, but essentially the Spectator and New Statesman have sought to create larger readerships or to stop the decline in their readerships by getting people to sit up and notice. And its not a recent phenomena: the reason I decided never to buy the Spectator again was when they carried an item at some point in the nineties about the political preferences of the Spice Girls. The intrusion of more competition means that for the journalist its easier to rely on what they have (and what others definitely don't have- with a few exceptions) the story and to neglect analysis which its harder to be good at. In a sense the reason to read the journal becomes the inside knowledge that the journalist has, that none of us has. Whereas analysis is found elsewhere. Journalists do that because its easy in part, and because its an easy distinction to spot. I have never met Tony Blair, they have.

You see when I and Don Paskini complain about the major journals, I suspect we are really talking past their editors. What I want from a journal is something I cannot get from a blog- an involved, well written, thoughtful analysis done at a perspective. Something longer than a blog article, but shorter than a think tank report. Something digestible in ten minutes. And I want it written by someone who knows the subject, who may not be known to me, but who has worked on something for years and is telling me what they know about it: something like the TLS for example but about politics. What I get from the journals is hooraying for either side (something that I'm quite capable of imagining on my own or consuming from the papers, news or blogs) or gossip. Often in the New Statesman and the Spectator its gossip which takes itself seriously- the Peter Oborne school of journalism finds a trend in a government and proclaims the age of the lie or some such nonsense- and that reflects the desire the distinguish the magazine from the newspaper. That's why increasingly its the comment sections that the journals look like. I don't know that that is a viable business plan- to be distinct from your blogging competitors because you are in Westminster and they aren't and to be distinct from your newspaper competitors because you offer a facile kind of analysis. What I do know is that its not what I want from a journal, I'd prefer them to have people working on each article for three weeks and telling me something new- but then I'm not the consumer they want and nor I think is Don Paskini.

Ultimately I want analysis- and with a few notable exceptions there seem to be few journalists out there willing to provide anything that hasn't been said three thousand times before. The Decline of the Journal is a result of the Decline of Analysis and that proceeds out of many different forces within our society- market forces, both in terms of how journalists want to work and what they think their consumers want them to produce.

February 21, 2008

Barack Obama- Communist

Yes apparantly. Because according to Lisa Schiffren over at the National Review, there are two quite obvious reasons to think someone is a communist. One is that they go out with someone with another race and even marry them: it stands to reason that they must be a goddamn commie- and if they are the kid of an interracial marriage that's even more true- afterall when you run for office, its legitimate to begin investigating everyone back to your forefather's forefather.

It is a terrible piece of journalism and illustrates to me that this isn't going to be a pleasant campaign- the knives are out. This is McCarthyism of the worst kind- its deeply unpleasant and should have no place in political journalism. Lisa Schiffren should be sacked by the National Review.

February 20, 2008

The Man who shot Liberty Valance and the Story of America: Republican Solitude to Democratic sociability

John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart came together in 1962 to make with John Ford, the Man who shot Liberty Valance. The posters advertised the fact that the two great actors of the Western had been united together in one film- what they didn't say was that here we see the two actors as opposites, opposites that reflect the earlier histories of their careers and the history of the United States. Ford showed in the film how America had in the course of the early twentieth century chosen a future and a way forwards and had neglected and destroyed its past. In that sense the Man who shot Liberty Valance, a flawed film because in part it is too didactic (and in part because of the age of its stars- both Stewart and Wayne were in their late fifties when the film was made and don't quite come off as fresh faced heroes) is an extended meditation on the American frontier and its place within America. Far from being the society of the frontier, America, Ford implied, was the society that had turned its back on the frontier and the West and its future was the East coast.

The situation in Ford's film is not difficult to understand. On a windswept night, before the coming of the railway, a young lawyer, played by Stewart, called Ransom Stoddard comes into down on a stagecoach. The coach is held up by a gang of desperadoes, led by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) and Stewart's naive insistance that Valance live by his coscience ends with him getting beaten up. He arrives at town a couple of days later and settles down in the town cafe. The family there care for him. In town he meets a couple of key characters- a cowardly marshall (Andy Devine doing what Andy Devine was great at doing), a drunken, unstable and yet brilliant journalist, a girl called Hallie and her lover Tom Doniphon. Doniphon is the only one who can physically stand up to Liberty Valance, the outlaw, and protects Stoddard on various occasions. Stoddard arrives at the very moment that Valance is being used by the neighbouring big farmers to stop the territory applying to join the United States (which would dilute their powers). By educating the people of the town, Stoddard persuades them to vote for statehood against the farmers and eventually that leads directly to a confrontation between Stoddard and Valance and the revelation of the man who really did shoot Liberty Valance. Stoddard gets the girl (Hallie) and ends up a senator. Doniphon tries to kill himself and almost succeeds and his life after that moment is wasted and consumed in dissapation.

Stewart and Wayne are here playing roles that they had constructed over the previous thirty years of their careers. Stewart had been playing naive democrats who triumphed over circumstances since the 1930s- he had diversified in the late 40s and 50s working for Alfred Hitchcock and making Westerns- but those earlier parts in films such as Mr Smith goes to Washington still resonated. Wayne too had monopolised the tough westerner, grim and complicated. His earlier work in the Searchers is a great example of this aspect of Wayne. For Ford, placing them together, enabled him to balance two perceptions of America's past: the democratic and civic and the wild frontiersman. But the film represents less an examination of those two ideas than the examination of the decline of the second and the rise of the first. There is no sense that Doniphon would ever move East, but its significant that Stewart's character follows the advice of Horace Greeley to 'go west, young man' and conquers the minds of the people of the town.

Conquest and violence are motifs running through the film. When Stoddard arrives in town, Doniphon tells him he has to get a gun to resist Liberty Valance. That advice is repeated again and again. But the real conquest here is the conquest of Doniphon's territory by Stoddard. Through education, the townsmen seek to exclude Valance by election and law, not self defence. Stoddard offers Hallie the gift of reading, Doniphon offers her a house that he built himself, and Hallie chooses the teacher over the practical man. Through publicity, Stoddard's reputation conquers and effaces Doniphon's. After the progress of several years, noone can remember the great Doniphon, whereas everyone from the moment he arrives recognises and remembers Stoddard. The pen triumphs in this film over the sword (despite the fact that the only resolution that can work with Valance relies on a quick and calm hand on a gun). The pen though obliterates those that use the sword: Doniphon's virtue is forgotten and Stoddard's is remembered.

America has changed. Doniphon of course is independent of anyone else. He constructs and destroys himself. Stoddard is dependent on others for his own safety and his own approval. The one is a product of lonely virtuous pride- a Cincinnatus who denies any civic office. The second though is a product of the modern age- social and sociable. By the time Stoddard returns the town has become his and Doniphon's funeral is a lonely one. But Stoddard feels a regret of sorts. He feels a regret that the memory of Doniphon has faded. A regret that the honourable man he knew has lost his reputation in the wastes of time and a regret as well that he has migrated from a town that loves him, to the cities which don't. There is a strong sense in the film of community: community that may be under threat in the early days but that is looked back at with nostalgia by those that have left it. One wonders if Stoddard when he moves back to Shinbone feels that loss of community and regrets the way it has departed. He seems to want to have that lifestyle again: setting up his own law practise in a small town but he can never reach the self sufficiency of Doniphon.

The world was changing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the frontier. The change was inevitable: this film reinforces that, without Stoddard's educational work the town wouldn't have known about the plots to subvert its rights. But equally something is lost: what is lost is the magnificent personality of Doniphon. Wayne's performance is the most charismatic in the film, Ford allows it, and he allows it in order to demonstrate how the independence of the hero is lost in the rush to modernity. Stewart's character is the future for America, but its a future that leaves behind the pioneers that made America. A future for democracy and liberalism but not for classical republicanism: no matter whether you think the world America lost (of independent farmers) was worth retreiving, it is undeniable that Ford's historical analysis was right. And there is something in the emotional appeal that Doniphon has over the modern citizen Stoddard.

But in a tough minded film, its demonstrated that the emotional appeal isn't enough: with modernity comes inevitable loss and rightly the democratic character triumphs.

Student Lifestyles

Alex Singleton posts rather interestingly about student lifestyles. Its interesting- Alex sees contemporary studenthood as being too puritanical and too priggish. Too many people are focussed on careers in the City, too few on getting drunk and having a good time. I agree in part with him: the students I knew at Oxford were almost all unbeleivably stressed. One of my friends had grey hairs fall out as she did her finals (finals at Oxford are all done in a week and the results from them determine your entire degree). Partly I agree with Alex, though I think its worth having hard degrees which make people stressed. They signify more.

Where I completely agree is the focus on careers. Almost all students I knew worried about what they would do afterwards. The point that neither universities nor schools make to people is that you can make a mistake at the age of 16, 18 or 21 and change your mind still. Its perfectly sensible for people to try things and find out what they like. Career choices at university are presented as life and death moments upon which everything hinges: but they are not. Many people have not fully made up their minds at 21 and its perfectly fine to change and switch careers say until a little later in life: those who aren't lawyers by the age of 23 are not failures.

I disagree with Alex partially though. When I was a student- the one thing that really suffered was not people's social lives, but people's intellectual lives. I went to Oxford, expecting to find an intellectual nirvana, what I found were a number who were kindred spirits. But so many were doubtful and disdainful of intellectual things. Some were open say to some things (art history) and not to others (physics) which is more excusable (vice versa happened to). But the real tragedy was seeing intelligent people whose minds were shut to anything that would not earn them money in the future. That's a slight caricature, but there is a grain of truth in it, it was anti-intellectualism in universities and not the lack of party spirit that I thought was the real tragedy.

I don't know how to solve that, there may not be a solution, and I think its part of a society which occasionally prioritises wealth over other things. Partly its also about the insecurity of student life, when you get to 21 you don't realise that you can get a job and security- and part of the issue is that I wonder whether students do degrees too early in their lives, before they lose their anxiety. Its an interesting problem- but I don't agree with Alex ultimately- my issues with university were far more about how few seemed to love their subjects and some seemed to love their subjects less after doing an undergraduate course.

February 19, 2008

Should Chris Dillow be hated for living in England?

Chris Dillow justifies class hatred over on his blog: for him it is a payback for the fact that the middle class have so many advantages in life from educated parents to moneyed lives and even nepotism. Chris argues this with his usual persuasiveness- but his case is pretty bad and even Chris can't really sustain it. Its available to attack on so many different measures but I wish to concentrate on two particular reasons why Chris is wrong to laud class hatred. (Particularly as I like Chris want to erode class with policies that would promote equality.)

1. Class is not the only way of distinguishing advantage. I know plenty of middle class people who were born with MS, ME, deep diseases of the mind and body- does Chris believe that the ill are entitled to hate the well, that the depressed entitled to hate the happy. Furthermore would he not agree that irrespective of the vast class divisions in England, they are as nothing compared to the vast divisions between nations. Would Chris not agree that on the same logic he advances for class hatred, then Zimbabweans and Bangladeshis should hate that epitome of white privilege, Mr Dillow? Hating people for what they cannot change is foolish, and its even more foolish when you consider that though evaluating the desert of various classes is easy, evaluating the desert of individuals is much harder. Would Chris not agree that he deserves hatred because he was born with, completely irrespective of his merits, the talent to get a job- the genetic inheritance to do well and the luck of life to exploit that inheritance.

2. Hatred is a destructive emotion. It does not help anyone who feels it, less than those who don't. We have had hundreds of years of class hatred- but I don't see the working class storming the barricades. Rather I think hatred encourages people to try and stuff the middle class by earning more than their contemporaries who went to Harrow. Far from encouraging egalitarianism, this is a different form of Toryism: its the argument that if only we could have a pure meritocracy, the people at the top would deserve their places there in some sense. Genetic advantage good, environmental advantage bad. Class hatred, just like the even more justified ethnic hatred that on Chris's argument Africans ought to feel for anyone in the West, often makes people throw their hands up in frustration rather than achieving things in life. And some of those that succeed- assume that they are so justified by their success, that they spend money and time combatting any attempts to make society more equal. (Chris suggests that anyone middle class who hasn't ended class deserves hatred: I'm not sure why its only background that he mentions there- surely that applies to those who become middle class as well).

The truth is that noone in society deserves their wealth. We are all the product of random events from our birth forwards, and if we are successful, we are purely lucky. Genetics, environmental factors, even the moment when we got an interview and the other guy didn't all add up to make me suspect that it would take only a slight misstep for all our destinies to change completely. If we are to hate privilege, then we should hate success- which would produce interesting incentives within society. Furthermore we should pay much more attention to what people do with their wealth, than how they got it. If Chris wants to really hate someone, then why not look at the percentages of money that people give to charity from their own fortunes.

Ultimately I think that Peter Moores deserves more praise than Piers Morgan. The first went to Oxford and Eton, but then proceeded to give away 141 million pounds to charity- helping struggling artists get their lives together. The second went to a comprehensive and is nothing but a scumbag and an idiot and has used his success to hurt and destroy other people. The same could be said of leading economist J.M. Keynes, impecably leftwing and middle class, and the McCarthyite yet working class Horatio Bottomley. Ultimately it doesn't matter in life where you came from, its what you do with what abilities you have, in particular whether you use them to help your fellow man that matters.

Rejoice, Rejoice

Fidel Castro's resignation is something that all right thinking people should rejoice about. Whilst the rest of Latin America has gradually cast off the tyrants of earlier years- Pinochet and Peron are no more- and come to democracy, Cuba has been isolated in its perpetuation of a dictatorial system. Perhaps the day of Cuban liberty is still far off- Raul Castro may continue his brother's repression indeed he almost certainly will- but this is one sign that the Castro dynasty may be ending. Its vital that all friends of liberty turn their thoughts now to what happens after the monstrous dictators are removed and how we can help Cuba accomplish the transition towards what, for most of the continent is becoming the norm, Democracy.

Leo Strauss

A lot of nonsense is written about Leo Strauss, mostly by people who believe him to have founded neo-conservatism, and very few interesting examinations of his thought are put out there. I think from the little I have read of Strauss, Lady Strange's recent post sums up some of his most important contributions to western thought. I would reccomend it for anyone who wants to understand what Strauss was about- and in particular how his thought is an attempt to redefine the boundaries of what we think of as political. Strauss wanted to exclude many of the political sciences as we know them now from the purview of politics. I do not neccessarily agree with his point- though I would suggest in focussing on the character of the statesman he was absolutely right- but I still think he is interesting to look at, particularly given the influence he still has in the United States, its worth knowing about what he was on about.

Mistaken Identity

I just went and looked at who has linked to this blog and was really thrilled when I saw that Reason Magazine had linked- oh but then I realised they attributed my article on jury trial and Twelve Angry Men to Matt Sinclair- its a good article, but I'm not sure its a Sinclair masterpiece!

Note to self, obviously too many discussions about the Archbishop of Canterbury are leading to people confusing me with Matt- time for another subject! :)

February 18, 2008

A fistful of Dollars

Often rightly described as the first of the Spaghetti westerns, a Fistful of Dollars began the careers of so many greats in modern cinema. From Clint Eastwood's mesmeric performance to Sergio Leone's debut as a Western director, this is a film where history runs red on the screen. Its influences were profound- whether on its participant's own careers or on the careers of film makers like Sam Peckinpah who took the operatic nature of violence and advanced it another level- and to some extent Eastwood's taciturn character in the film defines the Western drama for years to come. The man with no name (though the town gravedigger calls him Joe) has no family, no friends and never tells anyone about himself. He just strides across the screen infusing it with authority and making the other characters- desperadoes included- crouch in his charisma. Only in the scene where Eastwood is tortured is there any doubt that 'with the cavalry arriving in town, and the American so quick on the draw' Eastwood controls every scene he is in. Repeatedly refusing to tell others where they stand in the story that he creates- he forsees most conclusions and creates most of the plot.

The plot is simple- with themes going back to Shakespeare and beyond- it is largely derived from a Japanese film Yojimbo made by Akira Kurosawa. The town of San Miguel is split in two between two mafiosi like gangs (one even presided over by a formidable matriarch). The Baxters and the Rojas have been at each other's throats for years: they despise each other and have been at war. The plot goes on with the man with no name standing between them- attempting via a heist performed on the US army- to manipulate them to destroy each other. He has no particular reason to do this, no particular love or hatred for the town (at one point he shows some sympathy but its shortlived), the man with no name seeks destruction for its own sake and his character is a vacant canvass upon which we put the images that we would like to see. Gnarled features and a perpetual cigar hanging from lips, with a hand used to holding a pistol, the man with no name is a force of nature that blows everything off course.

So what is this film about. It is not about character- though Leone's closeups are incredible- it is about politics. The film is a fable about the creation of states and the creation of order within a community. At the beggining of the film one of the Desperadoes comments that he wants to create peace which is why he has hired the man with no name. Of course the point is that the man with no name works for noone- he has no loyalty accept to himself and ends up destroying every other kind of power in the land save for that of the self. He sends both of the mafiosi cliques to their deaths through their suspisions of each other and by the end of the film, the last shots show an emptied town. However its not quite an empty town. The last lines of the film 'you mean the Mexican government on one side, the American maybe on the other and me smack in the middle' parallel earlier lines that the man with no name says about the Rojas and the Baxters, but with one difference the new situation is 'too dangerous' even for the greatest psychopath of them all. Order has been created in the final frames because the power of the mafiosi has been destroyed and replaced with the power of the states.

Another way of looking at that is to look at the role of the modern in the film. Throughout it all the characters make indications that the modern world is here to stay. They use Winchester rifles and take target shots at the armour of Conquistadors. The state is here the ultimate in modernity: Winchester Rifles can be defeated with pistols and the armour of Conquistadors can repel bullets- but what Leone is saying here is something greater that the most powerful invention of modern life is not technological but political. The state can be defeated by neither a quick hand nor an armoured chest, the state has the power to control far in advance of any gang of mafiosi and a man with no name cannot exist save beyond the frontier. In that sense Leone creates a much more vicious and primitive West than some of his colleagues in direction at the time, and he also demonstrates how the power of the state, more than any technological force, changes society and creates the possibility of perpetual peace.

February 17, 2008

Business Reporting

Guido is entirely right in this post: he is right both as the substantive issue which is the way that Newsnight misreports the market results, and more importantly right on a broader issue which is the way that the media reports about economics and business. I am not an economist nor am I a mathemetician: but I'm underwhelmed by the way that I see reporting on economics done- I think it turns people off and doesn't help them understand and often perpetuates bad ideas. (There are obvious exceptions). Lets take some basic starting points. The media's reporting about economics is often jargon filled and explanation light. So for example at the moment we have had many reports about the Governor of the Bank of England's statements that interest rates may have to stay high in order to diffuse inflationary pressure. We have almost no explanation though of why it is neccessary to stop inflation rising too fast, no explanation of what interest rates do to inflation and why they do it. I've never seen a journalist really explain that inflation isn't a measure of the level of prices but a measure of the rise in prices: when we talk about inflation rising or falling, we are talking about the speed of the rise in prices quickening or slowing. And this permeates right across economics: for example, we seldom hear about the real debate over council tax which is between those who are capital rich and income poor (pensioners with houses) and those who are capital poor and income rich (new entrants to the labour market often), or about the principles which underlie the concept of free trade.

It strikes me that this is important. As politics becomes more technocratic, more coded in vocabulary, and less about class conflict as it has become over the last twenty or thirty years, its vital that to remain democratic, we still understand what's going on. I often think that the real problem with politicians and levels of public trust in them, is that often politicians of all parties seem to be speaking in code. And people only speak in code when they want to fool you. Or politicians speak in simplicities which everyone knows they don't really believe. Compare say the debate over Northern Rock with the debate over Iraq: whatever your views on both issues, I think that the public were much more informed about Iraq than about Northern Rock. And it wasn't just that they were more interested (for obvious reasons) in Iraq. Whatever you think of the debate, the debate was conducted in simple terms and using profound ideas. Economics strikes me as one of the areas in which governmental practice and what people imagine government does diverges radically. Take regulation, the Financial Services Authority which regulates banks (but not credit cards??????) applies a 'principles based approach'- there are good reasons why they do that- but its not what I think most people think a regulator does. The FSA doesn't walk around with a code, like a Banking parking inspector, pointing to yellow lines. It regulates in a different way but I doubt that many members of the public know that.

If it matters, then why is economic literacy a problem? Firstly I do think that political literacy is a problem. I've said before that I'm not sure how far the population can run the country if they don't understand what it is that they are running. But I do think that there are bigger problems in economics. Partly its because in a broad sense the economic arguments are over: there aren't many communists left, and most unabashed capitalists at least pretend that they want a welfare state. The argument is over levels and degrees, its over principles but principles which are in some sense shared on both sides. Economics has a scientific aspect, as well as a normative underpinning. You can't have a good economic viewpoint unless you get the morality right: but once you have done that you do need to do mathematics, and particularly calculus (which is the study of the gradients of graphs) in order to turn that viewpoint into policy. Mathematics terrifies people in a way that most other subjects don't. And its a subject that has been particularly affected by jargon: partly because it is the abstract depiction of human beings rendered as integers. Economics aspires to be a kind of physics of humanity- seeing humans as particles and measuring their interraction.

I don't think that there is neccessarily a solution to this: but it opens up a political problem. Increasingly politics is becoming less democratic because the population doesn't understand the government: that's what I think distrust in politicians is really about. And that has damaging ramifications, take the rising protectionist sentiment in the United States or the absense of public discussion about pensions in Europe, we risk inventing problems and ignoring them and we risk the stability of our political system when we do that.