what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Deep writing

I often bemoan the quality of writing available in journals – dumbed down by marketing pressures or unreadable from the perversions of academic specialisation. A fine exception, I’ve just noticed, is the New Yorker which uses academics who can actually write coherently and gracefully. The current issue has a long and fascinating piece by Prof Jill Lepore on the origins in the 1930s of US political consulting which has removed policy content from politics in that country. The story starts with a marvellous story of the famous writer Upton Sinclair standing for the Californian Governorship under the slogan “End poverty in California" (EPIC) at a time when the Republicans held a total monopoly of power – and how he was defeated by the lies spun by the world’s first political spinners who simply planted in a major newspaper each day a phrase from one of his novels as if it was his policy. The couple behind this went on to run the campaigns against a state health system which President Truman tried to introduce.
For the latest techniques on political campaigning, see here

I realise now how ill-informed my comment about the The New Yorker was when I picked up a copy of Julian Barnes' Letters from London 1990-1995 and read the  Preface which explains the rigour of editing carried out by the TNY which he experienced personally when for those 5 years he was its London correspondent!
You can also access in the New Yorker a full analysis done by Louis Menand earlier in the year of the sort of work Mitt Romney actually did for Bain Capital and what this (and his campaign book) implies about his view of the world and leadership style. 
Romney’s program is logical (which doesn’t mean that it’s practical). He believes that if freedom is to be fostered and preserved around the world the United States needs a stronger military. For the United States to have a stronger military, it has to grow economically. For the nation to grow economically, American companies must become more productive. And, for American companies to become more productive, business has to be allowed to do business.
This means that Americans have to tolerate, to appreciate, even to encourage what Romney calls (using a phrase borrowed from Joseph Schumpeter) “creative destruction.”It’s a strange slogan for a politician to adopt at a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, but Romney invokes it in his book and he uses it in interviews, because it’s precisely what he means by business. To make the future, we have to be willing to destroy some of the present. “It takes a leap of faith for governments to stand aside and allow the creative destruction inherent in a free economy,” as Romney puts it. We can’t be sentimental. And everything can be thought of in this way, from the production of microchips to the education of children. If we want cheaper chips or better schools, we have to be willing to pay the transaction costs. The unwillingness to do so is what’s holding us back. (A famous saying about omelettes might come to mind here.)
Who or what stands in the way of restoring American productivity and American greatness? Romney lists some of the usual suspects, including multiculturalism (a “fraud”) and “the self-loathing of Western intellectuals” (an odd expression, since all the Western intellectuals I know think rather well of themselves). But readers of “No Apology” are likely to come away with the impression that the chief internal enemy the United States faces today is labor unions. Romney thinks that unions can sometimes work constructively with management but that, fundamentally, they are protectors of the status quo. They make it harder for the destroying part to work.This is why Romney opposed George Bush’s efforts to protect the American steel industry by imposing a tariff on imports, and it’s why he opposed the Detroit bailout (embarrassingly for him. highly successful). Actions like those interfere with the natural business process in the name of saving American jobs. And it’s why Romney’s well-known infelicities—“I like being able to fire people,” “For an economy to thrive . . . a lot of people . . . will suffer,” “Corporations are people,” “I’m not concerned about the very poor”—are not really gaffes, even in the unfair, out-of-context form in which his opponents circulate them. They express something true to the way that Romney sees the world.
Romney’s record at Bain Capital holds obvious interest for his political opponents. Private-equity firms and leveraged buyouts, which is one of the ways Bain pursued its business, are, after all, pretty much capitalism parading around in its most naked state. Romney developed his view of the world during his earlier, nine-year experience, with B.C.G. and Bain & Company, as a management consultant. There are several strains running through the history of management theory, and which paradigms are dominant, and at which consulting firms, depends on the economic times and the nature of the competition. At B.C.G. and Bain & Company between 1975 and 1984, data crunching seems to have been the main engine of analysis. Virtually everyone agrees that Romney was extremely good at this, and he operates his political campaigns in the same way.“He’s not a very notional leader,” Romney’s campaign spokesman told an Iowa newspaper in 2007. “He is more interested in data, and what the data mean.”
But it’s not just that Romney doesn’t have good political instincts. It’s that he was trained to distrust instinct altogether. In management consulting, gut feelings are what you work hard to take out of the equation. That’s the justification for all that painstaking analysis: the consultant who crunches a mountain of numbers to come up with an idea that the C.E.O. already has will not get far. It’s the counter-intuitiveness of the advice that justifies the fee.
It must be difficult being Mitt Romney – with a great progressive father to look up to; a sickening record of bean-counting and employment destruction (at arms’ length it must be said); a reasonably progressive record in his 5 years as Governor (although he hardly spoke to Congressmen) most of which he has had to disavow in the fight for the right-wing votes of the Republican nomination. I don’t doubt that he is a caring neighbour but he must be one sick man in his soul.

Let’s return, however, to the issue of good writing – by which I mean the ability to take a complex issue and make it enjoyable to read about (which I last discussed in mid-June). Until recently, the New York Review of Books has been my favourite journal – although the London Review of Books has been coming up fast on the inside lane. Take, for example, this magnificent bit of writing about (of all things) the British experience of electricity privatisation by the Scottish writer James Meek. Or, in the current issue, a great piece of sceptical reportage on the recent Republican Convention.

America has some great journals – I discovered Harpers when I was there in the late 1980s and also Wilson’s Quarterly. I like the latter's mission statement - 
THE WILSON QUARTERLY is a window on the world of ideas for general readers. Historical perspective and a commitment to consider all sides are the hallmarks of its articles on foreign affairs, politics, culture, science, and other subjects.By making new knowledge accessible to all, it aims to foster more informed public debate.
I don't like the fact that the current issue is the last print issue - from now on it will be available only online. I find this tragic - for all the reasons covered in the numerous articles which attack the notion of the end of books.

America has had some highly original and passionate writers and essayist – not a few of British origin! Sadly two of them died recently – everyone had heard of Chris Hitchens but not so many of Alexander Cockburn of whom Robin Blackburn writes eloquently in the current issue of New Left Review.

And, appropriately, from the superb website, It's about Time - great paintings of women reading
But pride of place - at the top of this post - is a Turner which has "turned up" (forgive the pun) after more than 100 years. I like to think this sort of painting inspired Bulgaria's Alexander Moutafov in the early part of the 20th century

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