what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Puritan Gift

I’m always on the lookout for books which challenge how we look at the world which, I’ve realized, rarely come from the incestuous and patronizing world of academia – let alone from the battalions of cheerleaders for “new management thinking”. I should know because I chose, twenty years ago as part of a career change, to undergo a crash course of reading the literature on “change management”. It’s true that I did find some useful stuff (which I summarized on pages 145-165 of my book In Transit) – particularly the (neglected) writings of Robert Quinn – but most material was pretty superficial and I probably got more out of two devastating critiques – Management Gurus – what makes them and how to become one (1993); and The Witch Doctors – making sense of the management gurus (1996)

A month or so I read a really original book - The Puritan Gift (2009) – which told a powerful story of how and why American business had changed its values in the second half of the 20th Century. A book which one of the great management writers of the 20th century - Russell Ackoff - has called 
"one of the best books I have ever read in my long life......a social history of the American nation which doubles up as a commentary on management culture"
The argument of the book (written by brothers in their 80s) is that the mid-20th century strength of American business, and the prosperity and cultural confidence that created, was due to key characteristics inherited from the country's founding fathers, the Puritan dissenters, and reinforced by many of the subsequent waves of immigrants.
The Hopper brothers list these characteristics as:
- a sense of moral purpose in life;
- a liking and aptitude for mechanical skills;
- collegiality, giving the group priority over individual interests; and organizational ability.

As they sum up: “The Puritan Gift is a rare ability to create organizations that serve a useful purpose, and to manage them well.”
The book falls into three parts. The first is a history of the early days and heyday of US corporations, which they start with Colonel Roswell Lee's Armory in Springfield, Massachussetts. It demonstrated to many subsequent businesses the importance of technical know-how, it was innovative organisationally, it was an enlightened employer, and was collegial – including outside the boundaries of the Armory itself, sharing know-how and best practice with other gun-makers.

One fascinating chapter describes the transplantation of this American approach to Japanese business through the actions of three communications engineers employed in the MacArthur occupation. The Japanese communications and electronics industry was remade in the image of the best of America, and the Hoppers attribute the success of the consumer electronics industry to the adoption of these management practices. A war-destroyed, impoverished country became the world's second biggest economy in the space of three decades.
Decay set in early, however, and the Hoppers' first villain is Frederick W Taylor. He started the process of turning efficient organisational structures into social hierarchies, with top managers increasingly less likely to be engineers or technicians working their way up from the shop floor.
Business schools continued this evisceration of the actual process of business, creating a professional cadre of managers, superior in status in pay, and with purely financial and abstract knowledge in place of the tacit skills and experience previously displayed by management cohorts. The downfall was completed by the steadily increasing celebration of greed, sucking the moral heart out of American capitalism.
It's hard to disagree with the outlines of this argument, harder to know what to do about it. The final part of the book is a brief attempt to suggest some ideas, with a list of 25 principles of Puritan management. Most of these seem very sensible without setting the heart racing. The key aspect of the Puritan Gift seems to be the sense of purpose. As John Kay has argued (in The Foundations of Corporate Success), a good business is one with a clear sense of purpose. The profits are a by-product, but without the core purpose there is no hope of sustained profitability.

Perhaps a benefit of the crisis is that the penny has dropped with some business leaders. Of course all too many are still driven by short-term financial engineering and their own bonus, linked to the share price. But it could be changing. One encouraging straw in the wind was the declaration recently by Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, that shareholders after the next quarterly profit were not welcome:“Unilever has been around for 100-plus years. We want to be around for several hundred more years. So if you buy into this long-term value creation model, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don't buy into this, then I respect you as a human being, but don't put your money in our company.”
(Quoted by Michael Skapinker, FT, 24/11/10)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hugh Stretton - polymath and social democrat - RIP

Most “social scientists” are actually narrow technical specialists – in such subjects as economics or political science – loathe to threaten their career path by taking on big issues or using clear language…
Hugh Stretton, who died earlier this month at the age of 91, was a polymath whose work should be a powerful reproof to the rubbish most social scientists inflict on us. His work ranged from The Political Sciences (1969); Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1976); to a 900 page anti-Samuelson textbook Economics; a new introduction (1999)
Forty years on, I still feel the tingle brought on by the clarity of his writing in the second of these books - and regret that I failed to notice his 1999 blockbuster which looks to deserve inclusion in any short list of key books about Economics.

There is a nice vignette of his work in this paper which stresses the social democratic essence of the man and should shame those of us who come from that tradition to do more to reassert it….(Craig Murray has a recent post about the present UK Labour leadership contest in that vein)

Sadly, Stretton’s work does not seem to have impacted beyond Australia although Steve Keen (of Debunking Economics fame) carries on the tradition.
JK Galbraith is one of a handful of social scientists who has been able to surmount the ostracism and ridicule generally heaped on those who challenge what he called “the conventional wisdom” with superb clarity of writing……

While googling for more material on Stretton, I came across this fascinating 734 page Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists which, curiously, fails to include him…….not specialist enough??????
For those wanting more on Debunking Economics – there are a couple of freebies here and here

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Culinary and cultural delights despite the Sofia heat

I don’t remember such heat as I’ve experienced this past week in Sofia – although I lived through 4 Tashkent summers; 2 Baku ones and 2 Bishkek ones. 
The saving graces for the latter 2 were the sea (Caspian) and the mountain respectively. And Vitosha mountain does give Sofia delightful breezes……

The afternoon trips to the (indoor) pool also help. The (ageing) body needs such compensations – which is why I look forward to returning shortly to my (Carpathian) redoubt which was still in June a bit cold and damp…..

In the meantime I’m enjoying the culinary delights of Sofia in my new neighbourhood – Papa Joe’s and a great street cafĂ© with very tasty Czech beer….And a great Chardonnay from a new winery in Svilengrad – Santa Maria, for only 3 euros….courtesy of Sofia’s best little wineshop (at the Russian Monument) owned by young Asen Tsekov

Sofia’s big event a couple of months ago was the opening of its new art complex in what was its Museum of European Art. It took me 4 hours to do it all justice – but I am a copious note-taker (for my ongoing project about Bulgarian art - Memory’s Veil – lifting the shroud concealing Bulgarian Art)

I shall shortly create a new folder about this on my Flickr file

In the meantime, here's a little paintings we were gifted this week by Yuliana Sotirova.....

Friday, July 10, 2015

German Musings

Tourism is one of the biggest global industries and yet gives us few real opportunities to fathom the soul of a country – although a retired generation with time and education is now beginning to experience some of the treasures which Europe offers…..and can access books from such publishing houses as The Collected Traveler, The Intercultural Press and Cities of the Imagination which offer great cultural insights not only into countries but even to a few cities  
Readers will know that I recently started my own contribution to this genre when my daughters started to visit me in Romania and Bulgaria – see the list of E-books at the top-right of the blog…..

Now I want to announce a little one on……..Germany based mainly on posts I made during a 10 week stay in Koln in 2013. The booklet is called German Musings
I have been out of the UK for 25 years – spending about 2 years apiece living and working in about a dozen countries on projects designed to improve the capacity of their state institutions. I was in Bulgaria in early 2013 when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to decide where to go for appropriate treatment.

But first I had to learn more about the condition and its treatment – which helped me understand that the surgical treatments which had become routine were now being questioned – not just because of their invasive nature but because there was every probability that the symptoms would reappear after a few years….
As an expat Brit I quickly ruled out that country – partly for the delays trying to go as a citizen without medical records would entail but also because the French and German health systems were performing better (in general terms) in the various international league tables (not least WHO). But I did want to go to a country whose language I spoke.
I narrowed the internet search to hospitals in those two countries which seemed to have a good record for treating prostate cancer and E-mailed off some queries….The French hospitals were quickly ruled out for two reasons –
-       Their focus seemed to be on surgery and I was determined to avoid that
-       They required bureaucratic paperwork which annoyed me

The West German Prostate Centre (Koln) simply asked me to send electronic copies of the diagnosis I had received and quickly gave a detailed commentary which persuaded me that this was the place to go. A few weeks later, on the first of May I touched down in Koln and remained there until mid-July – undergoing initially daily radiation treatment and then three minor operations…….

Time weighed - but Daniela and I were lucky in the choice of flat we had made – even although it involved a couple of moves….
We were in the outskirts - with great parks to walk in (the cemetery was our favourite); trams to ride; and bookshops to visit…..Unhappily. however, we found few people to talk with – apart from our last landlord……
When I eventually was able to connect with the internet, I started to blog and surf again (the habit had started in 2009) and that is what forms the core of this little offering….

I hardly mentioned Koln in the posts – let alone the treatment I was undergoing. This was rather an opportunity to sink into another culture – using the immediate environment as a trigger for questions and casual insights…… One of my delights, for example, was the open-air charity stall near my treatment which offered free second-books……..

I think you'll find the booklet an interesting read - and the annotated reading list is, I think, quite original.........

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why are most of us Financial Illiterates?

Readers know that, despite my 4 years of economic studies (and some years actually teaching it to others!), I make no claim to understand the nature of the global plague that has befallen us in the past few decades. I buy the books to help me clear the confusion those studies gave me – but find that my eyes soon glaze over….a list of books I pledged to read some 9 months ago lies almost untouched – ditto others I mentioned 3 months back.

Economics was like a snake for me – I was fascinated but scared by it. I toiled in the early 1960s to make sense of its focus on marginal calculations and “indifference curves” and probably took only the following lessons from my four years engrossed in economics books
- the strictness of the preconditions which governed the notion of (perfect) competition;
- the notion of profit-maximisation;
- the belief (thanks to the writings of James Burnham and Tony Crosland) that management (not ownership) was the all- important factor
- trust (thanks to Keynes whose work was dinned into me) in government to deal with such things as “exuberant expectations”  
- the realization (through the report of the 1959 Radcliffe Commission) that cash was but a small part of money supply. Financial economics was in its infancy then.

For someone with my education and political motivation and experience, however, my continued self-confessed financial illiteracy is almost criminal but not, I feel, in any way unusual. 
Most of us seem to lack the patience to buckle down and take the time and discipline it needs to understand the operation of the system of financial capitalism which now has us all in its thrall.
We leave it to the "experts" and have thereby surrendered what is left to us of citizenship and political power.
A future post will hopefully try to explore this phenomenon .

Two rare books which survived the “glaze-over” test were –
-       The Financial Crisis – who is to blame (2009) by the ex-Chair of the British Financial Services Agency (Howard Davies) which identified and explored 39 different explanations of its possible cause. You can see some overheads and videos from his various presentations here, here and here
-       Rebalancing Society (2014) by Henry Mintzberg

Writing about the Greek crisis tends to be governed by tomorrow’s headlines but there is one blog which gives a consistently strategic perspective and its latest post gives some useful graphs and analysis -
Greece’s public and private debt burden is just too large for the Greek economy to service, despite already squeezing Greek labour to the death – literally. The Greek public debt burden arose for two main reasons. Greek capitalism was so weak in the 1990s and the profitability of productive investment was so low, that Greek capitalists needed the Greek state to subsidise them through low taxes and exemptions and handouts to favoured Greek oligarchs. In return, Greek politicians got all the perks and tips that made them wealthy too This weak and corrupt Greek economy then joined the euro and the gravy train of EU funding was made available and German and French came along to buy up Greek companies and allow the government to borrow and spend.
The annual budget deficits and public debt rocketed under successive conservative and social democratic governments. These were financed by bond markets because German and French capital invested in Greek businesses and bought Greek government bonds that delivered a much better interest than their own. So Greek capitalism lived off the credit-fuelled boom of the 2000s that hid its real weaknesss.
But then came the global financial crash and the Great Recession. The Eurozone headed into slump and Eurozone banks and companies got into deep trouble. Suddenly a government with 120% of GDP debt and running a 15% of GDP annual deficit was no longer able to finance itself from the market and needed a ‘bailout’ from the rest of Europe.
But the bailout was not to help Greeks maintain the living standards and preserve public services during the slump. On the contrary, living standards and public services had to be cut to ensure that German and French banks got their bond money back and foreign investment in Greek industry was protected. So through the bailout programmes, foreign capital was more or less repaid in full, with the debt burden shifted onto the books of the Greek government, the Euro institutions and the IMF – in other words, taxpayers.
Greece was ultimately committed to meeting the costs of the reckless failure of Greek and Eurozone capital.The Troika’s plan was to make the Greeks pay at the expense of a 25% fall in GDP, a 40% drop in real incomes and pensions and 27% unemployment rate.
·         The government deficit was turned into a ‘primary surplus’ within the shortest period of time by any modern government. Greece has reduced its fiscal deficit from 15.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2014, a scale of deficit reduction not seen anywhere else in the world.
·         Total public sector employment declined from 907,351 in 2009 to 651,717 in 2014, a decline of over 255,000. That is a drop of over 25%.
·         Greece has gone from one of the lowest average retirement ages to one of the highest. In this sense, Greece had undertaken the most significant pension reform in Europe even before the latest demands of the Troika.
This was austerity at its finest.But the horrible irony is that this policy failed. Far from recovering, the Greek capitalist economy went into a deep depression.…….That the debt cannot be repaid is now openly admitted by the IMF in its latest debt sustainability report on Greece (here). The IMF now recognises that it got its forecasts of recovery hopelessly wrong
….. Whether there is now a deal with the Troika or alternatively, Grexit, the Greek economy needs to grow. Only this can make any public or private debt burden disappear. Take the US. The US public sector debt is huge at nearly 100% of GDP. But the US can service that debt easily because it has nominal GDP growth of just 4% a year. And the interest costs on its debt are very low at just 3% a year. As growth is higher than the interest cost on the debt, the US government can run a deficit of taxes versus spending (before interest) of 1% of GDP a year, and its debt ratio will still stay stable (but not fall). 
Greece, on the other hand, in 2011, had interest costs of over 4% on its debt and nominal GDP of -5% a year, so it needed a government surplus of 9% of GDP just to keep the debt from rising. The government was applying austerity but still a deficit. Even the small debt restructuring of 2012 in the second bailout program did not stop the rise in the debt ratio. It is still rising.

Also have a look at this very clear discussion - involving someone whose name has been cropping up in the Real Economics website - Michael Hudson. Also this 2012 discussion - how finance capitalism leads to debt servitude

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Libraries and writers

It was some decades ago I first realised how few books are produced to help people understand a subject. Publishers need to make their books stand out in a very crowded market – they therefore select books which can claim to distinctiveness, for which read "market niche" or "narrowness".
Of course we have the “Dummy” and the Very Short Introduction series catering for those who wish to get the big picture. Sadly, however, they tend to be regarded with some disdain by publishers, writers and readers alike. Personally I have found the few books I have read in the latter series both original and clearly-written - and one of the authors actually has a blog which gives practical examples of the issues his book explores.

In the past 6 months, I’ve produced 4 E-books (see top right of the blog for the list) three of which have are my posts of the past 4 years or so on a subject I was trying to understand - with the posts separated into a logical structure and prefaced by an introduction. 
I find it both salutary and stimulating to reread them with a fresh eye and to ask, in editorial style, “what is this actually trying to say…how can I express it better?.....where is the narrative - and how can it flow better??”  And, to help identify such things, I have to print and bind the book – I find I can’t edit onscreen…..

Each of the books retains the structure of the original blog – which I like to think is more user-friendly for the reader…..I hate these books which consist of endless pages of text, unrelieved by headings….I need to get a fix on the writer’s thinking by seeing some headings…..
But somehow I can’t complete the work. I know that I need to be even more disciplined in my questioning of each post. Ideally I should actually attach to each post a brief summary and identify the inconsistencies, repetitions etc But that’s too much like work!!!

So for past few days have been mooching in the library here in my mountain house…. which has a wide range of subjects and titles. I was reading recently that Susan Sontag’s library consisted of 25,000 books – and Umberto Eco’s famous library must consist of the same number….My nomadic life has meant that I keep losing my library – but the last few years has allowed me to develop quite a respectable library here in the mountain house which must amount to about 2,000 books 

Amazingly, as I have prowled amongst its shelves (which cover shelves on the top of each door and cascade over stairs) I can’t find anything to grab my interest – although I was moved this past couple of weeks by some books about economic ownership (see the last 2 posts); a highly original account of the source of American economic strength and decline written by a couple of 80-year old Scottish engineer emigres - The Puritan Gift; and Patrick Leigh-Fermour – an Adventure.

But I just couldn’t find anything else to whet my appetite…..Typically, I assume the grass is greener elsewhere and duly sent off for the books which had been languishing on my Amazon wishlist.
The first three are by authors who have given me much pleasure in the past - the first 2 being new
The Proper Study Of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (Vintage Classics) by Isaiah Berlin – whose scintillating essays I first came across at University.

Despite my disillusionment with economics and management, I am always a sucker for a new “take” on the subjects and was intrigued by -

I am always intrigued by material on Germany (see my posts of May and June 2013 when I spent 10 weeks there) and found the idea of a history written by a non-academic very appealing and therefore look forward to -
Death of a Nation: A New History of Germany by Stephen R A'Barrow; as well as a collection of historical reviews - In Defence of History by Richard Evans

Finally The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World (2012) by Evgeny Morozov whose writings I find very stimulating; and the only novel, another of the rediscovered books by Hans Fallada - Iron Gustav: A Berlin Family Chronicle (Penguin Translated Texts)