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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The end of a doomed relationship

Marriages with egoists are doomed. The relationship the Brits sought in 1973 with what was then called “the Common Market” was driven by a combination of despair and cold economic calculation. The 1960s had seen a profound critique of the state of Britain and of british industry and a feeling that joining Europe was the only option. 
But enthusiasm for that cause was muted and limited indeed to a few individuals such as Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins.
Margaret Thatcher may have had an initial enthusiasm but was ultimately horrified by what the Single Market (which she had allowed Lord Cockfield to negotiate) produced – and turned strongly against the European project in the late 80s.
Blair may have danced more to the European music but was never an  enthusiast and Brown, of course, was so embarrassed by the Lisbon Treaty that he refused to join the final signing ceremony. This history is nicely captured in this podcast
The poor Brits could never make sense of the talk of “ever-closer union” - let alone of federalism – which they tended to write off as excitable rhetoric.  

My posts last year tried to explore what it was about the Brits that made them such difficult partners….….(see pages 133-196 of To Whom it may Concern – the 2019 posts) I tended to blame the English - who have always played the “balance of power” card in their relationships with Europe but have to admit that we Scots, with our looser but nonetheless fervent sense of nationhood, did play a rather promiscuous role – not least with our French friends and our more nomadic role as mercenaries. 
I happen to have strong Germanophile feelings – but am highly critical of the current English political class for its total loss of geopolitical sense of the future risks from a German-dominated Europe – let alone one with Russian links….

With departure from the European Union being only 30 or so hours away (although things will remain broadly the same until the end of December), now seems a good time for a more measured statement of what has been at stake…And this, I am amazed to confess, I find in an article in the outpost of high Conservatism – the Daily Telegraph newspaper which I have only lightly edited -

Sadness, foreboding, and dismay that it ever came to such a point: these are the emotions that this reluctant Brexiteer feels as we finally leave the European Union on Friday.  
I feel no satisfaction in the traumatic moment. Yet I stick to my view that this dysfunctional marriage had to end. Such is the Brexit paradox.
There has been much commentary over recent days dividing us (again) into opposed camps: Remainers still angry or in mourning, set against triumphant foes of Brussels. But what about the rest of us with more subtle feelings and in many cases a deep affection for l’Europe des patries? 

Of course we recognise the advantages (for some) of being able to live and work anywhere in the EU. We know Brussels did a good job breaking down the cartels, opening up cheap air travel and (belatedly) ending the racket of roaming fees
We can see that if you are dealing with a Chinese Communist Party that sees itself in “existential struggle” with the West, or with a pathological predator like Vladimir Putin, it is better to club together in self-protection. Mark these down on the good side of the ledger. But they are not the heart of the matter.
It has been a particularly irritating habit of the British establishment, aligned with a nexus of vested interests, and their army of academic and media auxiliaries, to reduce Brexit to a matter of trade above all else. If that were the case, then one would wish to stay in the EU.  

Brexit is political – not economic

But Brexit is not about trade, and nor are the details of customs clearance or rules of origin as important as we keep being told. They are not trivial but they are second order issues.
The elemental question is who runs this country. Do we wish to be a self-governing democracy under our own courts, or a canton of a higher supra-national regime that keeps acquiring more powers – beyond its ability to exercise them competently – through the Monnet Method of treaty creep? 
There is no mechanism for removing this overweening hybrid executive in Brussels, even when it persists in error as did in nearly accomplishing the extinction of North Sea cod by sheer ecological vandalism, or when it forced half of Europe into a debt-deflation spiral from 2010 to 2015 based on economic doctrines discredited a century ago. 
How do you dislodge the European Council from the Justus Lipsius when it behaves outrageously? Can you impeach it? No, you can’t. 

Why the Brits object to the very essence of the EU

Commission fonctionnaires may be urbane, talented, and hard-working, but they are not a civil service. They can launch dawn police raids. They can impose vast fines on their own authority. They have quasi-judicial powers and the prerogative of legislative initiative. 
They are more like the Roman Curia. Nothing like this has existed in British political life since the Reformation. How do voters hold this Caesaropapist structure to account? They cannot do so. That is what Brexit is about.  
There are great numbers of us in Britain, France, Holland, the Nordics, or the Czech Republic, who think the precious liberal nation state – inspired by the redemptive values of the English Bill of Rights and the DĂ©claration des droits de l'homme – has been a resounding success.

We think it is the only forum of authentic democracy, the agent of the greatest moral progress the world has ever seen. We think the systematic attempt to discredit the nation state by blaming it for two world wars is an historical sleight of hand, a lie fed to two generations of European school children though the co-ordinated Franco-German curriculum in a systematic brain-washing exercise.
We see it as the guarantor of social solidarity and a bulwark against religious agitation, fracture, and the unforgiving clash of communitarian identities. We think it should not be discarded lightly. 

Why no sensible person should believe that the EU technocrats have learned their lesson

……..We are told that the EU has learned its limits and has stopped accreting power. Another Conference on the Future of Europe is planned: a two-year vox pop foray to rebuild trust and show EU citizens that their voice counts.
Forgive me for wincing. I was the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent when Europe’s leaders – chastened by the torching of Gothenburg – published the Laeken Declaration in 2001. This mea culpa confessed that Europe’s peoples had come to see the EU as "a threat to their identity" and that there was no appetite for "a European superstate or European institutions inveigling their way into every nook and cranny of life." 

It spoke of returning powers to the member states and restoring "democratic legitimacy" through a Philadelphia convention. What happened? EU insiders hijacked it. A praesidium under super-elitist ValĂ©ry Giscard d'Estaing picked Commission lawyers to draft the wording. 
The final text called for an EU president, a justice department, a supreme court with jurisdiction over all areas of EU policy for the first time, and for scrapping the national veto across further swaths of policy. 
It became the Lisbon Treaty, pushed through by executive nod without a referendum, except in Ireland where voters promptly rejected it – to no avail obviously.
Sure enough, the insiders are already subverting this new attempt. The European Parliament – a self-promoting corporation as much as a legislature – has picked the arch-integrationist Guy Verhofstadt to lead the charge and is already talking of stripping states of their tax and foreign policy vetoes.
Nor can the EU retreat as long as the euro exists. The logic of monetary union is fiscal union, and that path leads to a unitary superstate. The euro cannot be made to work successfully any other way, as the German professoriate warned a quarter century ago. 

Either the eurozone moves towards an EU treasury with shared debts, fiscal transfers, and federal tax powers, or it will stumble from crisis to crisis with each cyclical downturn until it blows apart. But to assume those powers is to strip the Bundestag and its peers of their core tax and spending prerogatives, without which democracy is a sham.

My readers know that, as a Brit in Romania, I am no friend of the Brexiteers – but, equally, I have always been critical of the ambitions of the European technocrats and opposed to their deliberate obstruction of democratic control. 
But I did find the  author's optimistic conclusion sadly typical of the English sense of superiority - which was vividly on display for me this week when I attended a (n...otherwise very impressive) briefing session in the British Embassy in Bucharest. On the back of the official visiting card I picked up on the reception desk for the event were two words – "GREAT Britain" - with the first word blazoned in capitals and a union jack at the edge of the card! 
How crass! But how typical of an egoist1

How the article concludes

My fond hope, the article concludes, is that by saving our democratic nation state from slow asphyxiation we will head off a drift into anomie and dangerous political waters. The dust will settle and the world will wake up to find the same tolerant free-thinking UK, under the rule of law, that it has mostly been for 300 years, and wonder how it misread Brexit so badly.  

It is Europe that the liberal intelligentsia should worry about. The EU has choked off the political breathing space of its members. It risks succumbing gradually to the Salvinis, the Orbans, and the neo-Falangist syndicalism of the AfD and the Rassemblement, as voters rebel against globalist cultural nihilism.

A liberal-minded Briton does not have to apologise for Brexit and the restoration of democratic self-rule, but that does not make it a pleasant exercise. The sadness is that Europe’s hard-driving ideological elites have led us to this regrettable juncture.
I will drink my toast on Friday to fellow souverainistes across the Channel. Join us soon.

Further Reading
- “The Missing Heart of Europe” is an excellent book produced by Thomas Kremer in 2005 which goes a long way to explain british exceptionalism
- Jonathan Storey is an historian and a Brexiteer - with long experience of Europe. This the most recent of a series of extensive blogposts he has produced on the constitutional aspects of the relationship
- UK Economic policy in the 1960s and 1970s and the challenge to learning; Oliver and Pembleton (2006) A very good extended essay on how exactly the economic issues were interpeted
- Kenneth Morgan is another historian who produced recently this very useful analysis of the UK  policy developments of the 1970s
- Chris Grey is an academic whose Brexit Blog has, each week, mercilessly dissected the arguments of the Brexiteers. On the last day before the UK left, this post summarises the 200 plus posts to help understand “how we reached this point – and where it might be taking us” 
- Collapse of a Continent – a 2014 post which contains useful excerpts from Perry Anderson’s essential but neglected The New Old Europe (the hyperlink gives the entire book) which contains a penetrating outsider’s analysis of how various types of academics have tried to make sense of the European project
- an interesting assessment of the experience of the various individuals who have since 1973 headed the British team in Brussels

- The Observer’s political correspondent gives a brief assessment of the past 47 years of UK membership

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Perils of Leaving Economics to Experts

One of the books in the list of “best reads of 2019” was a little one –  The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts- which I had, as I tend to with most economics books, dipped into briefly and returned to intermittently. But it was worth the wait – being a

concise and well-researched critique of modern economics and how it is taught in universities as well as the broader issue of public engagement with economics as part of the democratic process.

The authors define the ‘Econocracy’ as

a society in which political goals are defined in terms of their effect on the economy, which is believed to be a distinct system with its own logic that requires experts to manage it’. 

Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been an endless stream of books and articles about economists’ failure to predict the crisis, and more recently a sense that the subsequent economic response in the form of austerity policies has done more harm than good. Is it any wonder then, the book asks, that the public might be left questioning economic ‘experts’, and economics students their education? In fact, as I noted in an earlier post, student reaction to the overly mathematical nature of economics (and its lack of pluralism) began before the financial crash  

The Post-Crash Economics Society has its origins in this disenchantment, and one of the book’s strongest contributions is its critique of the highly stylised and homogenised curriculum that would be familiar to economics students worldwide. The authors contend that despite attracting capable students who are interested in the world around them, economics as it is taught at university has little to do with the real world, uncritically setting out a model based on rational individuals and an economic system that tends towards equilibrium, while also being insufficiently pluralist, downplaying debate between different schools of economics or relegating these to the History of Economics.
This argument is supported by a useful analysis of the final exam questions on core and elective economics courses at various universities. These rely heavily on what the authors call ‘operate the model’ problems: asking students to uncritically apply the taught model to a stylised situation, with no thought to whether the model, situation or answers are realistic or useful. Overall this analysis finds that 76 per cent of exam questions required no ‘critical or independent thinking whatsoever’ (51).  Even if exams aren’t perfectly representative of course content, they will very much influence student efforts, so it is concerning that critical engagement is neither valued nor rewarded. The authors lament: ‘It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is now possible to go through an economics degree without once having to venture an opinion’ (p51).

This disheartening state of affairs is blamed on a combination of factors that come under the umbrella of ‘Econocracy’: the increasing marginalisation of heterodox thought from the discipline, for example, starting with the kinds of articles that are accepted into the major journals. This, in turn, influences what research is prioritised by universities and funding bodies (currently through the Research Excellence Framework), and inevitably who is hired or promoted (the ‘curse of the top five’ journals was discussed at this year’s American Economic Association meeting).  This is compounded by the increasing financial pressures facing the Higher Education sector, with reduced funding per student leading to ever-larger class sizes and time-poor lecturers and graduate teaching assistants.

That economics discourages students from thinking and expressing opinions would have Adam Smith turning in his grave – he was, after all, a Professor of Moral Philosophy. But is hardly a new argument - Stefan Collini, for instance, has long spoken out against the worsening outcomes not just for students of the modern university, but society more broadly. 
It was only last week that I reminded readers of the 36 types of capitalism one could discern in 12 academic disciplines. And one of the most important parts of the book for me was therefore the table (at page 61) which identifies 10 different “schools” of thinking which can be discerned within economics itself…

Pluralism in Economics
Name of “school”

Humans act within…
The economy is…..
Old “neo-classical”
Optimise narrow self-interest
A vacuum
New “neo-classical”
Can optimise a variety of goals
A market context
Stable in the absence of friction
Use rules of thumb
A macro-economic context
Naturally volatile
Act in their self-interest
Their class interests
Generally stable
Do not have predetermined patterns
Their class and historical interests
Volatile and exploitative
Subjective knowledge and preferences
A market context
Volatile – but this is generally sign of health
Have changeable behaviour
Instit envt that sets rules and social norms
Dependent on legal and social structures
Act “sensibly” but not optimally
An evolving, complex system
Both stable and volatile
exhibit engendered behaviour
A social context
Act ambiguously
Social context
Embedded in the environment
This is an excerpt only – the full table is from Ho-Joon Chang’s “Economics – a User’s Guide” but can be viewed at diagram at p61 of The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts; Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins (2017)

The authors note that economics degrees are seen by many universities as a particularly useful money-maker (used to cross-subsidise other departments), being most compatible with large lectures and exams relying on stock answers and multiple-choice questions. In spite of this, the authors observe that a growing number of universities are dropping their economics degrees completely, which is a worrying trend if decreasing public engagement with economics is to be addressed.

The authors have clearly dedicated a lot of thought to the question of how to improve university economics and do offer some concrete suggestions, which mainly revolve around a more engaged style of pedagogy (for example, peer-to-peer teaching and alternative forms of assessment).  In fact, one of the most interesting contributions of this book is its account in Chapter Four of the authors’ experience lobbying their own university for reform, making this a valuable case study in campaigning and network-building for similarly motivated readers.  However, despite their tenacious optimism, even the authors have to admit that ‘reforming economics education to better serve its students, the discipline and society will be extremely difficult without a change of direction in university and government policy’ (p140).  Incremental change at the level of the curriculum can only do so much, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted (the book provides a good overview and critique of one such attempt, the CORE project).

But the broader problem of the ‘Econocracy’ beyond how economics is taught is surely the growing public disenchantment with the discipline. While much ink is yet to be spilt trying to explain the rise in populist movements worldwide, public engagement with economic debate is surely a key issue. The authors argue that while many of the factors associated with this new wave of anti-globalist sentiment are economic (including stagnant middle-class wages and the loss of blue-collar jobs), the rhetoric of these movements is decidedly non-economic, emphasising instead questions of national security and sovereignty. 
This is a crucial insight: that combatting the appealing messages of populism might not be a case of simply ‘winning’ the economic debate (the rhetoric around Brexit being a clear example of this failed strategy), but instead creating a new kind of discourse that addresses the concerns of a disengaged public and, more importantly, actively involves this public.

The book concludes with a rousing call for a new kind of ‘citizen economist’ who can facilitate this engagement, decoding the ‘econobabble’ of economists and policymakers and empowering citizens to be part of the debate. Economics has for too long been seen as a set of tools for use only by the experts.  But economics, as this book argues, is for the public, and they too can pick up these tools and decide how they want to use them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Best Reads in 2019

Just a few years back, people were predicting the demise of the book – at least in its “real” as distinct from “virtual” form. E-books, we were told, would make physical books obsolete. For once, however, the neophiliacs seem to have been proved wrong…..In 2017, for the first time real books had positive growth but sales figures for virtual books declined

Although publishing giants continue to gobble up other publishers – most famously in recent years my favourite, Penguin – small publishers somehow continue to grow and seduce us with their wares.
There is, of course, a downside to this – that we are swamped by the number of new titles which churn from the printing presses….
Indeed I have, half-seriously, raised in my blog the idea of rationing at least non-fiction books to which I am most partial

On the question of real or virtual books, I feel I can be reasonably objective since I am both a great reader of real books and writer of E-books (at least 12 if you include the edited annual collection of posts) ….
Virtual books are functional but simply do not satisfy aesthetic and ergonomic needs. 
I heed to be able to flick the pages quickly to find the index and recommended reading; scribble comments; check pages I’ve already marked,.....I need, indeed, to smell the pages….

The E-book published at the beginning of the month - To Whom it May Concern – the 2019 posts – has several annexes, including my list of favourite blogs and of non-fiction classics of the past century.
I realise it would have been useful have added an indication of the books which most impacted on me during the year – and to see whether they passed the tests I had suggested in 2018 we might use to decide whether to purchase yet another non-fiction book.

I start with the oldest. In many cases the hyperlinks explain what I found interesting about the book and sometimes the commentary there will actually allow you to access the book itself. In a few cases the hyperlink in the title itself will give you the entire book (or at least some sample pages)
 The British Regulatory State – high modernism and Hyper-innovation; by Michael Moran (2003). This gave a very different interpretation of the modern UK state from the one found in most textbooks
Monoculture – how one story is changing everything; FS Michaels (2011) A very readable explanation of neoliberalism
The Righteous Mind” Jonathan Haidt (2012). The link explains…
The New Few – a very British oligarchy; Frederick Mount (2012) Ditto
A Life in Pictures; Alasdair Gray (2012) Ditto
Dealing with Dysfunction – innovative problem-solving in the public sector; Jerry de Jong (2014) A highly original perspective on good decision-making.
The Road to Character; David Brooks; (2015) The link explains

Interestingly, the books which left the biggest impression were all produced in the last 2 years. They are -
Capitalism – the new anxieties;  Paul Collier (2017)
The Fear and the Freedom; why the second world war still matters; Keith Lowe (2017). A history book which reminds me of Theodor Zeldin in the way it uses portraits of individuals as a hook on which to hang the narrative.
The Laws of Human Nature; Robert Greene (2018)    
Bullshit Jobs – a theory; David Graeber (2018)
Lost Connections; Johann Hari (2018)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Post-Modernism – an intellectual history

The matrix presented in the last post tells the same story as did the Indian parable of three millennia ago of the blind men who encounter an elephant

They have never come across an elephant before and learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows. 

The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true

This seems to put post-modernism and its claims in its place – is it really all that new?
That’s the question which this post considers…

Some time ago I came across a reference to a short book written in 1944 which I had never heard of – The Abolition of Man – which seemed to anticipate the threat which the “anything goes” strand of post-modernism would bring (which I have taken to calling - the “whatever” response). It was penned by a very well-known figure of CS Lewis and is summarised here – the full version can actually be downloaded here.  
It seems that Lewis (father of Daniel D) took the threat so seriously that he wrote a dystopian novel about it – That Hideous Strength whose plot is summarised in great detail here; serialised here; and available (courtesy of Gutenberg) in entirety here

Rashomon was a famous Japanese film, made in 1950, which considered an event from four different perspectives – a few years before I learned this knack, operating as I have described elsewhere in the no-man’s land between classes, between different academic and professional fields and, from the age of 50, even between different countries.
And it was political scientist Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision – explaining the Cuban missile crisis (1971) which helped me appreciate the significance of what I had felt, in my youth, to be, quite simply, personal tensions.
That book set out three very different ways of understanding the events of October 1962 when the world stood on the edge of nuclear war (see the diagram at p23 of that link). His 1969 paper in the American Political Science Review rehearsed the basic argument – which outlines first a “rational model” of decision-making; then one based on “organisational behaviour”; and finally one based on “governmental politics”.

The clearest explanation of the phenomenon, however, is probably the earliest – American sociologist Peter Berger’s The social construction of reality (1966) whose significance I didn't recognise at the time
Frame analysis” – variously attributed to anthropologist Geoffrey Bateson (1972) and Erving Goffman (1974) – was the technical term given to the recognition of diverse and divergent perceptions of “reality” and one which I came across during a part-time course I was taking on policy analysis – actually the UK’s first such course in the mid 1980, run by Lewis Gunn. 
I can still remember the room I was in when we discussed the concept and the frisson experienced - although when I google the term, I can’t find a satisfactory article – all gibberish, associated with the field of communications studies.

But it was, probably, Gareth Morgan who popularised the notion that we could view organisational reality in many different ways. His Images of Organisation appeared in 1986 and pointed out that nine different metaphors (or “ways of seeing”) had developed about organisations eg as a “machine”, as a “brain”, as “cultures”, even as a “psychic prison”. And each of these have very real and distinctive effects on the way we think about organisations.
A drawing made the same point visually – see, for example, p 26 or so of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of really Effective People (1990) – some saw an old woman, others a young thing with a bonnet….

Like David Harvey in The Condition of Post-modernity – an enquiry into cultural change; (1989), I’m not sure when I first came across the expression “post-modern” to describe the age which has taken the celebration of diverse ways of looking at events to such extremes that “anything goes” and “fake news” flourishes.
Harvey is a geographer and better known for his exegesis of Marxism – and it’s only now I have come across this book of his on postmodernism which seems at first glance to be quite the best thing I know on the subject
Of course, the question everyone poses when the subject turns to postmodernism is – what was modernism? For which the best read is Marshall Berman’s All that is solid melts into air (1982) which was the subject of a famous exchange between Perry Anderson and the author in 1984 in the pages of the New Left Review 

Further reading
https://www.preceden.com/timelines/62885-postmodernism-timeline-1939-2001; The Preceden website is a very useful tool I didn’t know about – and this entry helps us understand PM
The Saturated Self – a collage of postmodern life; K Gergen (1991) A psychologist’s take on the matter
Self and modernity on trial – a reply to Gergen which contains a great summary of the book
One Dimensional Man; Herbert Marcuse (1964) which can be accessed here
Common cause (2010) a vivid example of how postmodernism now drives the marketing machine