Saturday 10 October, 2020

What holiday cottages should be like

From my favourite village in North Norfolk


Quote of the Day

”Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears”.

  • Bobby (Robert Trent) Jones, the great American golfer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song Link


Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown

A forthcoming feature — ‘Virtual commutes’ — on Teams aims to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life, and signify Microsoft’s move into corporate well-being.

At first I thought this was a spoof. After all, if there’s one area where remote working scores it is in eliminating the daily commute. But,…

The daily commute may have caused its share of headaches, but it at least helped workers define a start and end to their workday while offering a set time to think away from the demands and distractions of the home and office. That positive side of the commute is what Microsoft hopes to re-create.

The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Instead of reliving 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.

The virtual commute feature represents Teams’ move into employee wellness, said Kamal Janardhan, general manager for workplace analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft 365, the parent division of Teams. The company historically has focused on employee connectivity and productivity.

“Enterprises across the world right now are coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t think we will have organizational resilience if we don’t make well-being a priority,’” Ms. Janardhan said. “I think we at Microsoft have a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Interesting that idea that the daily commute enables people to “set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening”. I’ve occasionally had to do a daily commute to London when working on a particular consultancy gig, and the thing I hated most about it was the evening return in a train packed with exhausted workers staring dully at their phones. Somehow, I don’t think they were reflecting on their days in a calm meditative mood. They were simply knackered.


Political Economy After Neoliberalism

Long read of the day from the Boston Review. It’s a thoughtful essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel on “Political Economy after Neoliberalism”. Fligstein is a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, and the author of The Architecture of Markets. Vogel is a Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and the author of Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work, so they’re heavy-duty thinkers.

Starting from the fact that Western democracies have for forty or more years been governed by political elites who have drunk the Kool Aid of neoliberalist ideas about the primacy of markets and the inadequacy of the state, Fligstein and Vogel argue that if anything demonstrates the inadequacy of markets and the centrality of government it’s our experience since February. “The pandemic has exposed the fallacies of the neoliberal paradigm,” they write. “The market could not keep businesses running or people working.”

As if to highlight that fact, as economies have struggled desperately to contain the economic consequences of the plague, the stock market has been roaring ahead.

Flkigstein and Vogel propose three ‘core principles’ of an alternative political economy. They then illustrate these principles by discussing the dynamics of the American political economy, focusing particularly on the rise of “shareholder capitalism” in the 1980s. Finally, they apply the principles to the ongoing national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing the United States to Germany.

What are their ‘core principles’?

The first is that governments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Without government, the rule of law, the infrastructure of public order and so on, markets will run wild. Societies need markets; but markets also need society.

The second principle is that “real-world political economy hinges on power, both political and market power. Specific forms of market governance … do not arise naturally or innocently. They are the product of power struggles between firms, industries, workers, and governments within particular markets and in the political arena.”

The third principle is that there is more than one way to organize society to achieve economic growth, equity, and access to valued goods and services.

The balance of power between government, workers, and firms differs greatly across countries and time. And the different power balances in different countries shape distinctive national trajectories of policies. We can expect that the governing institutions will reinforce the status-quo balance of power, particularly in a crisis. It is rare for any one set of actors to have total control in a society, a condition that would lead to extreme rent-seeking behavior. Instead we see constant contestation between different sets of organized actors but a general balance of power that reflects the dominance of one side or another.

The essay goes on to argue that abandoning the neoliberal lens of government versus market and the “one best way” perspective opens up the possibility of a profound rethinking of economic policy that seeks to learn from the great variety of capitalisms that actually exist.

It’s a great essay — one of the only ones I’ve seen that tries to grapple realistically with the challenge of envisaging a more sustainable economic system as societies emerge from the pandemic.


Trump’s death wish

Watching Trump in recent weeks has been a weird experience. It’s like being a spectator at a live show in which the performer is losing his mind. And as I was thinking this I came on something that Judith Butler wrote in the London Review of Book a year ago:

When commentators speak of Trump’s ‘death wish’, they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterised by compulsive repetition and destructiveness, and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfilment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life; the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution; the externalisation of destructiveness through potentially murderous behaviour. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways, and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realisation that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.

I do wonder what will happen to him when he loses the election and loses his frantic campaign then to discredit the results and is eventually — by whatever means the American Republic can muster to save its Constitution — physically ejected from office. Narcissists don’t take failure and humiliation well.


  This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


 

Sunday 16 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

““Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

  • Bertrand Russell

This was the quote that came to mind when I realised that Trump was going ahead with his Tulsa rally.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould plays Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca (4 minutes).

Link


Working from home: a dream now turning into a nightmare?

This morning’s Observer column:

Remember when it was so exciting to be able to WFH – work from home? When your boss, instead of being grumpy and taking a grudging “well-if-you-must” attitude was suddenly insisting that you had to work remotely? And how refreshing that seemed at the beginning? No more dispiriting 90-minute commutes, for example. Suddenly, extra hours were added to your day. A better work-life balance beckoned, because we had developed a technological infrastructure that had made distance irrelevant. What was not to like?

Of course there were glitches. Childcare, for example, became a nightmare when schools and nurseries closed. Not everyone had good, reliable broadband. And it turned out that not every household had multiple laptops either. Likewise, many people lived in small apartments where the choice of workspace boiled down to either the kitchen table or the cubbyhole that masqueraded as a spare bedroom. And there were still large numbers of “critical” workers whose work couldn’t be done from home. But still, wasn’t it wonderful that so many of us could?

Well, that was then and this is now…

Read on.


Reagan and the withering of the American state

Perceptive essay in Noema Magazine:

The great historical irony of America is that, for all its valiant efforts as a global power fighting off external threats from fascism to Soviet communism, its ultimate demise will likely be the result of its own internal doings — or undoings.

The paradox is that the politics of former President Ronald Reagan, who is credited with winning the seminal ideological battle of the 20th century, the Cold War, is also the politics that undermined America’s future. The inability to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced directly to his notion in the 1980s that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Reagan saw it as his mission to undo the ambitions of the welfare state, such as it was, that came into existence through the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, and the Great Society, that sought to cushion the security of the elderly and mend the racial injustice decried by the civil rights movement. His mantra celebrated the cult of the entrepreneur who could create wealth freely without the burdens of society weighing on his or her profit margins, while demoting the importance of education to upward mobility and dissing the role of taxation and regulation as critical pillars for maintaining the operating capacity of a complex modern society. Public administration was demeaned as nothing more than meddlesome bureaucrats clogging up free enterprise with cumbersome paperwork.

That sums it up nicely. Trump has done his best to finish the job. If he wins in November, he will have time to tidy up the loose ends of this destructive project.

(btw Michael Lewis’s fine book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy provides a sobering progress report on Trump’s efforts to continue Reagan’s project.)


Johnson’s ‘mandate’

I was just about to use this front page of the FT of December 14/15 2019 for wrapping garbage and realised that that would be a really appropriate use for it.

“Stonking”, I gather (having checked some dictionaries), means “of exceptional size or quality”, and is believed to derive from the verb “stonk”, which means “to bombard (soldiers, buildings, etc) with artillery”. In that sense Johnson has used his mandate to bombard the hapless British public with florid BS.

It turned out also that the electorate had given him a mandate to screw up the country’s response to Covid.


Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale

My Observer review is in today’s paper. This is how it concludes…

Remainers will probably read Geoghegan’s account of this manoeuvring by Brexiters as further evidence that the Brexit vote was invalid. This seems to me implausible or at any rate undecidable. Geoghegan agrees. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”

And therein lies the significance of this remarkable book. The integrity and trustworthiness of elections is a fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy. The combination of unaccountable, unreported dark money and its use to create targeted (and contradictory) political messages for individuals and groups means that we have no way of knowing how free and fair our elections have become. Many of the abuses exposed by Geoghegan and other researchers are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. The existential threat to liberal democracy comes from the fact that those who have successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – who include Boris Johnson and his current wingman, Cummings – have absolutely no incentive to fix the system from which they have benefited. And they won’t. Which could be how our particular version of democracy ends.


Summer books #5

Goliath: the 100-year War between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

One of the things I found puzzling when I started to think about the societal menace of tech platforms was how apparently relaxed so many people, especially in the US, felt about the new generation of corporate giants that were acquiring monopoly power. This led to a deep dive into the history of antitrust and the pivotal influence of Robert Bork’s 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox which essentially argued that so long as there was no evidence of consumer harm (e.g. by price gouging) then the size and reach or a corporation should not be a matter for concern. Since some of the tech giants I was interested in offer ‘free’ services, this view (which became very influential in US legal circles) gave outfits like Google, Facebook et al a mostly free pass from legislative scrutiny. Which baffled me: corporate power is unaccountable power, something that no democracy should be able to accept. While I was stuck in those weeds, I longed for a synoptic history of the monopoly problem — so you can imagine how pleased I was when Matt Stoller’s book arrived. It does what it says on the tin. And Stoller shares my combative mindset about these matters.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 20 July, 2020


Quote of the Day

“Biology enables, culture forbids.”

  • Yuval Noah Harari

Home working: be careful what you wish for

Interesting post by Ivana Isailović on “The ‘New Normal’ Privatization of the Workplace” in Law and Political Economy:

The changes we are seeing today seem more likely to reinforce inequalities, becoming another instance of how neoliberalism keeps reconfiguring our lives. Remote work has further eroded the weak labor protections at the heart of the industrial economy. More importantly, it risks intensifying the “economization” of our lives, by crowding out any non-work related activities and increasing the rat-race in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

More data will be needed to understand the changes that are taking place today and their long-term effects, but what evidence there is suggests that workers are on the losing end. In 2017, a comparative study done by the International Labor Organization and Eurofund (EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) showed that overall remote work tends to have detrimental effects on workers. Instead of being protective of “work-life balance,” remote work is eroding it. This result was found in both countries with traditions of strong welfare states (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden) and in countries with weak social protections (e.g. the U.S.)

One problem seems to be that remote work blurs the lines between “work” and “private life.” Workers have reported that because of the lack of clear boundaries, the working day is spread out over longer periods of time, squeezing out “free time.” Moreover, this de facto overtime is rarely remunerated as such. Remote work also intensifies the pace of work, and therefore is associated with more employee stress and burnout (see also the recent Eurofund report from January 2020).

We’re already seeing lots of this.


Mask fascism on the rise

I don’t subscribe to the Washington Post (which may be a mistake — so will reconsider later) but Cory Doctorow does, and he relayed this from the paper:

In the Washington Post, this anonymous editorial from a 63 year old with asthma who makes $10/h in a dockside convenience store in a 900-person town in North Carolina where the sheriff refuses to enforce the state mask rule because he “doesn’t want to be the mask police.”

She describes how she is subjected to physical intimidation, verbal abuse — and risk of death from coronavirus — by customers, especially weekenders from Raleigh and Charlotte who ignore the increasingly desperate signs telling people that they can only shop with a mask on.

These bullies aren’t mollified by offers to bring their orders to them outside the store if they want to remain maskless, and certainly not by the offer of a free mask. Instead, they do things like open the door and scream “Fuck masks! Fuck you!” and storm off.

They tape handbills to the storefront with hoax information about the ADA entitling people to shop without masks, call her an agent of sharia law, or ask whether she’s preparing to turn “mind control” on her.

She describes a life of fear and trauma, where every day at work is a day of abuse and threats, where she and her co-worker sometimes have to lock themselves in the storage room to sob because burly men have screamed at them and threatened them.

What is wrong with these men?


The dark underbelly of the gig-economy

Lyft Is Selling — But Not Providing — Masks and Sanitiser to Drivers.

Why? Because it can’t give them away without conceding that its drivers are employees. And if they were employees well, they’d have rights and entitlements and health insurance and stuff.


KFC is working with a Russian 3D bioprinting firm to try to make lab-produced chicken nuggets

That’s according to The Verge.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a KFC outlet, but somehow I don’t think this would make me change the habits of a lifetime.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 16 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”


Tools for blogging

Someone asked me the other day how I plan the content of this blog. Answer: I use the wonderful Little Outliner created by Dave Winer. It’s everything a tool should be — lightweight, always-on (it runs in the browser) and agile. Here’s a screenshot of yesterday’s plan.

Dave was the author of the first great outliner — ThinkTank for the Apple Macintosh. I still remember the first day I saw it. And I used it — and its successors — ever since.

An outliner is really a tool for thinking with. One of the great ideas Microsoft had when creating PowerPoint was to build into it an ‘outliner’ mode which allowed one to focus on the flow of the argument rather than fiddling with the slides.


When the world stopped

When The World Stopped from Michael S Cohen on Vimeo.

Nice idea: a photographer grabbed images from webcams all over the world, digitally enhanced them and made an eerily compulsive film.

Link


The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Sobering and perceptive essay by Evgeny Morozov. He’s long been a critic of a particular Silicon Valley ideology — “solutionism” — the belief that for every problem, social or otherwise, there is a tech solution. But solutionism has transcended

its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

Morozov sees solutionism and neoliberalism as a sinister pair of ideological twins.

If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the Internet again?

From Tech Review:

You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.

The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.

Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.

Nice piece, but it will only make sense to those of us who were early users of the Net. 1999 was the year before the first Internet bubble burst. Google and Blogging were still new. And Facebook wasn’t even a glint in an eye.

And, as Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society points out, in 1999 the Internet was much smaller. Also, many people still accessed it via dial-up lines, which meant that it could be expensive scrolling through endless messages etc.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.


Quarantine diary — Day 26

Link


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


The economic consequences of George Osborne

Last September there was a terrific conference in King’s College, Cambridge to celebrate the centenary of the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s famous pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In a mischievous spirit in the months before the event, I tried to persuade a well-known economist of my acquaintance to compose another pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of George Osborne, that we could unveil on the weekend before the Keynes conference.

Osborne, as most people know, was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Coalition and Tory governments led by David Cameron following the 2010 general election. In that role he was the prime architect of the ‘austerity’ policy of slashing public expenditure (and therefore welfare benefits) using the preposterous rationale that somehow the public deficit brought about by rescuing the banks was due to extravagant spending by a Labour administration living beyond the country’s means. In fact, working on the principle that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, Osborne used this rationale as a cover for what he always had been seeking to do, namely to shrink the state in best Hayekian style.

Sadly, my tame expert was unable to help with the pamphlet, having been unexpectedly headhunted for a demanding role which left him little time for entertaining pursuits. So the booklet remained unwritten — until now.

But it has just surfaced under a different title and with a different set of authors. It’s  Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, written by a team led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. Although the authors are much too polite and reserved to put it like this, the report shows that the consequences of George Osborne are as numerous and bleak as I had supposed. British subjects can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health, for example. Improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women. The health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas. And place really matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

In more detail, the research underpinning the report says:

  • Since 2010 life expectancy in England has stalled; this has not happened since at least 1900. If health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving. When a society is flourishing health tends to flourish.
  • The health of the population is not just a matter of how well the health service is funded and functions, important as that is. Health is closely linked to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and inequities in power, money and resources – the social determinants of health.
  • The slowdown in life expectancy increase cannot for the most part be attributed to severe winters. More than 80 percent of the slowdown, between 2011 and 2019, results from influences other than winter-associated mortality.
  • Life expectancy follows the social gradient – the more deprived the area the shorter the life expectancy. This gradient has become steeper; inequalities in life expectancy have increased. Among women in the most deprived 10 percent of areas, life expectancy fell between 2010-12 and 2016-18.
  • There are marked regional differences in life expectancy, particularly among people living in more deprived areas. Differences both within and between regions have tended to increase. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in London.
  • There has been no sign of a decrease in mortality for people under 50. In fact, mortality rates have increased for people aged 45-49. It is likely that social and economic conditions have undermined health at these ages.
  • The gradient in healthy life expectancy is steeper than that of life expectancy. It means that people in more deprived areas spend more of their shorter lives in ill-health than those in less deprived areas.
  • The amount of time people spend in poor health has increased across England since 2010. As we reported in 2010, inequalities in poor health harm individuals, families, communities and are expensive to the public purse. They are also unnecessary and can be reduced with the right policies.
  • Large funding cuts have affected the social determinants across the whole of England, but deprived areas and areas outside London and the South East experienced larger cuts; their capacity to improve social determinants of health has been undermined.

I could go on, but you will get the point.

Since being unceremoniously sacked by Theresa May, Osborne has led an exceedingly comfortable life, topping up the income from his family Trust Fund with a lavish salary as Editor of the London Evening Standard and £650,000 for working one day a week for the investment fund Blackwater.

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

What the Huawei debacle demonstrates

Nice Guardian column by Larry Elliott in which he focusses on an interesting (and under-discussed) aspect of the Huawei controversy: why a country (the UK) that emerged from the second world war with a technological edge in computers and electronics should require the assistance of what is still classified as an emerging economy to construct a crucial piece of national infrastructure. It’s a sign, he argues, of how diminished Britain is as a manufacturing force that the only rivals to Huawei are not the great names of the past such as Marconi and Plessey, but Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Huawei affair should help to puncture a few myths. In the early years of China’s rapid industrialisation, the UK took comfort from the fact that it was only low-cost manufacturing that was migrating east. Developed countries like Britain, it was said, would do all the clever, high-end, profitable stuff, while the Chinese would have to be content with churning out cheap toys and clothes.

It seemed highly complacent to assume that China – a country which was making technological breakthroughs while Europe was stuck in the dark ages – would be content with being an assembly plant for western consumer goods, and so it has proved. China is now one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence and solar panels. When the government wanted to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the Chinese got the contract.

A second myth that China has well and truly busted is that all will be well provided market forces are not hampered by state interference. China has had an industrial strategy over many decades, and has stuck to it, while during the same period Britain has seen the state’s role wane and manufacturing become an ever smaller part of the economy.

Britain’s mid-20th century edge in computing, jet engines and radar was a direct consequence of putting the economy on a war footing between 1939 and 1945. What’s more, the reason the UK retains a global presence in aerospace and pharmaceuticals is that companies have been able to rely on the state – in the form of the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – being an important customer.

Interestingly, Huawei is now trying to persuade the residents of Sawston — a village just down the road from me — that they should be relaxed about the company’s plans to build a new factory on its outskirts.

The madness of neoliberalism

This is from the front page of today’s Financial Times. It’s a vivid demonstration of what happens to governments when they have imbided an ideology that says that when there is a choice between the state providing a service or outsourcing it to a private company, then it’s always best to do the latter.

Here’s the nub of this particular act of folly:

As a result, fire services at 69 RAF bases will be outsourced to the riskiest company available.

Confirms my definition of ideology as “what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking”.