Archive for the 'Politics' Category

The economics of Wolf Hall

[link] Monday, February 23rd, 2015

As I’ve observed, Peter Kosminski’s wonderful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels has lots of contemporary resonances. In today’s Guardian the paper’s Economics Editor, Larry Elliott, picks up on some of the points the series makes about economics and social mobility. Sample:

What the small screen adaptation can’t really capture from Wolf Hall and the follow-up volume, Bring Up The Bodies, is the book’s broader themes. Mantel’s Cromwell tells us a lot about power and intrigue at the Tudor court. But he also tells us about class, the rise of capitalism and an economy in flux.

The period of transition from feudalism to modern capitalism was long. Economic growth in the 16th century barely kept pace with the growing population. The economy had its ups and down but broadly flatlined between 1500 and 1600. More than two centuries would pass before the advent of the wave of technological progress associated with the start of the industrial revolution.

Even so, the economy was gradually being transformed. Cromwell was not a member of the old aristocratic families: a Suffolk or a Norfolk. He was a blacksmith’s son from Putney made good. Like his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, he did not have a privileged upbringing but had talent and ambition. Karl Marx would have seen Cromwell as a classic example of the new bourgeoisie. Mantel draws a contrast between the fanatically devout Thomas More and the worldly wise Cromwell: the one settling in for a day’s scourging, the other off to get the day’s exchange rate in the City’s Lombard Street, where all the big banking houses had their home.

The inference is clear. Men like More are the past. A new breed of men, pragmatic and servants of the state not the church, are on the rise. “He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit.”

This, of course, is fiction not fact. But the challenge to the status quo from men like Cromwell was real enough…

A key factor in the story, of course, is the fact that Cromwell was an early Protestant. Elliott goes on to draw on the work of David Landes who argued in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, that the challenge to the Vatican from the new religion was a major influence because it signified the dawning of a more secular age.

Once he had made Henry supreme over the Church of England and disposed of Anne Boleyn, he set to work on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Rather like the privatisation programme of the 1980s, the main reason for the assault on the monasteries was financial: Henry was short of money and wanted the funds to fight his expensive wars. Cromwell could justify what was effectively the enforced nationalisation of church lands by pointing to the corruption of the monastic ideal, but this was of secondary importance.

Nothing really changes. Governments always seem to be short of money. A modern Cromwell charged with sorting out the public finances might conclude that the financial sector – rich, arrogant and with a lamentable record of corruption – was ripe for the picking. No question: if Cromwell was alive today, the former chief executive of HSBC, Stephen Green, would be in chains in the Tower and the Dissolution of the Banks would be in full swing.

Great stuff.

Terrorism is terrible, sure. We should fight it tooth and nail. But it isn’t an existential threat

[link] Monday, February 16th, 2015

One of the many things wrong with the “war on terror” is that it’s a rhetorical device which is used to legitimise all kinds of surveillance activities which, in normal times, would be absolutely verboten in democratic societies. A real state of war is one in which a society faces an existential threat — which is why between 1939 and 1946 the UK was, effectively, a dictatorship in which the government could do anything deemed necessary in order to prosecute the war and confront the threat. In those circumstances, the British people may not have liked many of the things that the government was able to do – which included not just censorship, but also the power to commandeer your house without notice because it was needed for the war effort — but they acquiesced because they understood the nature and the gravity of the threat.

In our time, the threats posed by global terrorism are being used to justify a “state of exception” which looks increasingly like becoming permanent. And the mantra which is incessantly used to justify this is of course the aforementioned rhetorical device. So it’s interesting – and welcome – to hear a major politician explicitly declare that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to our societies. This is what Barack Obama said recently in an interview:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the — you know, what’s essence of who we are.

Spot on. How long, therefore, before the Republicans, primed no doubt by the spooks, begin talking about the US President as a “surrender monkey”. Who knows, maybe the guy even likes French fries?

David Carr’s last gig

[link] Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Wow! What a way to go. A wonderful conversation with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden. In the New School. Recording here. Unmissable.

Why the Chinese really get the Net

[link] Sunday, February 15th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a proposition to make you choke on your granola: the only government in the world that really understands how to manage the internet is China’s. And I’m not talking about “the great firewall of China” and other cliches beloved of mainstream media. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, am I saying that I approve of what the Chinese regime does: I do not. It’s just that I think it is better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we fondly imagine it to be.

Western media coverage of China is a mixture of three parts fantasy to one part misinformation. The fantasy bit has deep ideological underpinnings: it asserts that the Chinese are embarked upon a doomed enterprise – to build a modern economy that is run by an authoritarian regime…

Read on

So where’s the ‘moral hazard’ in restructuring Greek debt?

[link] Sunday, February 8th, 2015

Good post by Joe Stiglitz. Extract:

Does anyone in their right mind think that any country would willingly put itself through what Greece has gone through, just to get a free ride from its creditors? If there is a moral hazard, it is on the part of the lenders – especially in the private sector – who have been bailed out repeatedly. If Europe has allowed these debts to move from the private sector to the public sector – a well-established pattern over the past half-century – it is Europe, not Greece, that should bear the consequences. Indeed, Greece’s current plight, including the massive run-up in the debt ratio, is largely the fault of the misguided troika programs foisted on it.

So it is not debt restructuring, but its absence, that is “immoral.” There is nothing particularly special about the dilemmas that Greece faces today; many countries have been in the same position. What makes Greece’s problems more difficult to address is the structure of the eurozone: monetary union implies that member states cannot devalue their way out of trouble, yet the modicum of European solidarity that must accompany this loss of policy flexibility simply is not there.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, the Allies recognized that Germany must be given a fresh start. They understood that Hitler’s rise had much to do with the unemployment (not the inflation) that resulted from imposing more debt on Germany at the end of World War I. The Allies did not take into account the foolishness with which the debts had been accumulated or talk about the costs that Germany had imposed on others. Instead, they not only forgave the debts; they actually provided aid, and the Allied troops stationed in Germany provided a further fiscal stimulus.

It’s impossible to overstate the ironies in the Eurozone’s (for which read German) hostility to the new Greek government. Which is why Stiglitz’s reminder of the Marshall Plan (which not only recognised the foolhardiness of the Versailles Treaty’s imposition of crippling debts on Germany, but also the wisdom of helping countries to recover from the disasters into which they themselves had blundered) is so apposite.

The madness of King Cam

[link] Sunday, February 8th, 2015

Lovely Observer piece by Armando Iannucci. Sample:

While millions were spent on allowing Scotland a full, careful debate, a debate about the future of 8% of the UK population, Cameron knocks off a cheap and quick version for the English, who make up an astonishing 84% of the UK and surely deserve something more considered. This says some unpalatable things about both Cameron and our constitution. For one, it reveals our prime minister for the slap-dash opportunist he is. This is what he does – ignores the detailed pros and cons, thinks of himself as a commonsense sort of guy and so goes on to decide he and he alone knows best. It’s what led to the bungled and inordinately destructive reforms to the NHS conducted in Cameron’s first years in office, described last week by the King’s Fund, a non-partisan thinktank, as “incomprehensible”, “disastrous” and with a decision-making process “not fit for purpose”.

Cameron’s same duckin’-and-divin’ opportunism shines out of every response he makes to the proposals for televised leaders’ debates, ie, offer cobbled-together arguments masquerading as reasonableness to make the whole thing go away. And so here he is too with his suggested constitutional reform.

The reason Cameron can do this is because he is prime minister. However much we kid ourselves that we live in a democracy where the law is deliberated over by an elected and accountable set of parliamentary representatives, the truth is that any prime minister commanding a majority of MPs can do anything he or she likes. Increasingly hands-on prime ministers have neutered the independence of cabinet ministers and their departments and run a far more presidential system of government. Advertisement

Their power to act on whim is far more sweeping than anything most official presidents can do. The president of France has a prime minister whom he can appoint but can’t dismiss and must deal with a national assembly that may have a majority made from his opponents. Even the American president, the Most Powerful Man on Earth, faces so many checks and balances to his executive authority that he can often feel powerless if Congress is resolved to block his ideas.

Iannucci’s right. Cameron has long been past a joke. Every day he is somewhere on our TV screens, speaking at some photo-op, saying how “passionately” he feels about whatever abuse/scandal has surfaced in the Daily Mail that morning and how he is determined to do something about it Right Now. He feels passionately about everything, which in fact means that he’s passionate about nothing — except perhaps staying in power and warding off Boris Johnson.

The prosecution of Aaron Schwartz – and what it might mean

[link] Sunday, February 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday, BBC Four screened a remarkable film in its Storyville series. The Internet’s Own Boy told the story of the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the leading geek wunderkind of his generation who was hounded to suicide at the age of 26 by a vindictive US administration. The film is still available on BBC iPlayer, and if you do nothing else this weekend make time to watch it, because it’s the most revealing source of insights about how the state approaches the internet since Edward Snowden first broke cover…

Read on.

Never forget — surveillance is big business. And not just for Internet companies

[link] Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Terrific column by Cory Doctorow. Excerpt:

Spying is a business, after all: BT and Vodaphone collect huge fees for giving GCHQ illegal access to their fibre optic trunks. The NSA’s massive data-centre in Bluffdale, Utah cost $1.5bn, built by the private sector at public expense.

Remember that Edward Snowden didn’t work for the NSA: he was a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that turned over $5.48bn in 2014. Every new expansion of NSA mass surveillance means potential new contracts for Booz Allen Hamilton.

In other words: spying on everyone may not catch terrorists, but it does make military contractors and telcos a lot of money. Mass surveillance is policy with a business model.

We live in a post-evidence-based-policy world.

If we ever lived in such a world, that is. I feel about evidence-based policy much as Gandhi did when asked, on his arrival at Tilbury, what he thought of Western civilisation. “Ah”, he replied, reflectively. “Western civilisation — now that would be a good idea.”

As far as evidence-based policy is concerned, there are some areas — surveillance, regulation of illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, prison reform, immigration, to name just a few — where British governments of every stripe are entirely immune to evidence.

Due warning

[link] Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015


Signature line on a friend’s email messages.

Keen still has his edge

[link] Sunday, February 1st, 2015

My Observer review of Andrew Keen’s new book, The Internet is Not the Answer:

Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fuelled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterised the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organisers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveilled world that we have been building with digital tools. In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

Read on