Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dwileing away the time

The ancient (is it 'eck; it was really invented in the 1960's) sport of Dwile Flonking is now doomed by binge drinking regulations.
...a council has warned bosses at the Dog Inn that they could be in breach of the the Licensing Act 2003 (Mandatory Licensing Conditions) Order 2010 if they stick to the age-old rules of the game ... North Norfolk District Council said the legislation, which came into effect in April, made it illegal to promote "speed drinking".
Where is Henry Porter when you really need him?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Manchester and Mahler

Last night was the penultimate concert of the Mahler cycle in Manchester, the Ninth Symphony, to my mind the finest piece Mahler wrote, with its agonisingly beautiful finale of life fading away. It was a fine performance and was recorded for BBC Radio 3. It can be heard on Monday at 19.00 and on BBC iPlayer for a limited period.

This YouTube is a remarkable clip of Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal and performance, talking through his interpretation of the symphony's finale.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Patrick Barkham reports from "the most indebted country in the EU"; not Greece - Ireland.
For a decade, the "celtic tiger" economy was the poster child of free-market globalisation. Now, this bedraggled alley cat of an economy is neo-liberalism's favourite example of how to cut your way to recovery. Ireland's government has slashed public sector spending by 7.5% of gross domestic product with a series of drastic cuts this year: public sector pay by 15%, child benefit by 10%, unemployment benefit by 4.1%. Another €3bn will be removed next year, a total of 10% of GDP over three years: these measures are equivalent to the British government slashing its budget not by the £6.25bn planned by George Osborne in 2010, but by an incomprehensibly gigantic £150bn.

Yet despite the cuts, dubbed "masochistic" by the Financial Times, Ireland's debt is still growing, thanks to the desperate bailing out of its banks. Irish critics fear this economic death-spiral could lead to a decade of grinding austerity, a generation lost to unemployment and, worse, the return of a spectre that has haunted Ireland for two centuries: mass emigration.

Meanwhile, one of the better bloggers from Greece looks at life in Thessaloniki.

Sometimes it's the little thing that show you how grim things are getting here in Thessaloniki, the long lines of taxis waiting at ranks for customers to turn up even in the middle of the day when up till recently getting a cab was next to impossible. Or perhaps its the accents of wandering street vendors who are now more likely to be people from the city than some recently arrived immigrant from West Africa or a member of Greece's Rom community. The city centre has become a near ghost town on week nights, a mere shadow of its former, vibrant self with cafes uncharacteristically quiet and empty streets, this in a place that prided itself on 4am traffic jams.
He also links to this post about Latvia and its "internal devaluation" (a process bluntly described by Paul Krugman here)
Anyway, the essential thrust of the concept is that a country in a fixed exchange rate regime can still manage its relative competitiveness by reducing its labour costs through fiscal measures. For example, a country could finance a decrease in payroll taxes through increased income taxes. Such a shift reduces real labour costs and therefore increases the competitiveness of exports - while also being budget neutral and reducing consumer demand in that country. In theory, it therefore achieves a similar outcome as a currency devaluation...

In Latvia's circumstances, it seems that the term has departed somewhat from its original meaning. The IMF sponsored plan calls for 20% cuts in public sector wages, 20% cuts in pensions, an increase in VAT from 21% to 23%, rises in the average effective rate of personal income tax etc... There isn't much focus on labour productivity or unit costs. It's simply reduce the budget deficit at all costs.
And now there's Italy ... and so on and so on. And this is just the beginning of what promises to be a major European deflation in response to the public deficits that have rocketed and not just through 'profligacy'. As Edward Hugh notes, "another significant part of rising state indebtedness comes from having recently bailed out a significant chunk of the private sector".

I don't have the expertise to comment on the economics of this policy, other than to express a sense of unease and anger at the social cost. I certainly wonder if this is the wisest way to tackle the crisis. Treating this as a budgetary problem rather than a human one, other than by the routine expression of a sense of regret at the resultant 'pain' from people who will not feel it themselves, means that there is a danger of seeing the policy as somehow socially neutral, not having profound, and mainly unintended, political consequences. The historical precedents are certainly not encouraging, though economies and democratic societies are stronger than they were in the 1930s. Yet what is coming from the mainstream left? Nothing; no challenge to orthodoxy can be heard, no heretical voices. And this intellectual vacuum is the most worrying aspect of all about an economic crisis that is far from over.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't mention the Euro

Despite the successful vote in the German Parliament, some Germans are still peevish about the Greek bailout.
Cabaret artists have been making jokes about wheelbarrows of notes, or telling the one about the German and the Greek who go out to eat, the German choosing the cheapest item on the menu, the Greek gorging on a range of dishes, before the waiter brings the German the bill at the end. The audience doubles over.
But Stephanie Flanders raises a very salient point:
Whenever Germany tells you how much the Greeks are costing them, remember this: German exports to Greece have risen by 133% since the single currency started. Greek exports to Germany have risen by 13%. The resulting trade gap between the two countries is one reason why German banks are now sitting on so much Greek debt.
So maybe this is the time for a lesson in careful diplomacy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reasons to be cheerless

John Harris fingers the tone of the leadership debate in the newly defeated Labour Party.
You hear it in the pronouncements of the supposed leading candidates, and in anxious chatter around Westminster. The C2s – skilled manual workers, whose loyalties play a crucial role in so many marginals – have deserted Labour in droves, particularly men. Their key complaints are about supposed welfare malingerers, and new arrivals from abroad; and this is where Labour must focus that time-honoured ritual known as "listening and learning". So it is that the future of centre-left politics occasionally threatens to come down to kicking the dispossessed, and parroting the early summer's big Labour mantra: immigration, immigration, immigration.
He is pointing to a threat that the route to electoral recovery will be sought through pandering to a patronising and fictional vision of the atavistic instincts of a mythical white working class. He continues,
And on these most fundamental of issues, Labour's danger is not that long-imagined lurch to the left, but an ugly and reactionary step in the opposite direction.
I hope he's wrong.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Scepticism and denial

New Scientist has a special issue out about what Debora MacKenzie describes as, "denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe". Though MacKenzie, whose piece is called "Why sensible people reject the truth", does talk about the role of vested interests in spreading misinformation, she tries to take a generous view of deniers:
Here's a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right. If this seems discouraging, take heart. There are good reasons for thinking that denialism can be tackled by condemning it a little less and understanding it a little more.

Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see "How to be a denialist"). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.
Amongst the rest, Jim Giles points out the infectious qualities of a lie when presented to such an audience and Richard Littlemore writes about the corporate interests that benefit from denial.

At the heart of the phenomenon is the breakdown of trust, "suspicious thinking", something that is more pervasive than you might think. It is at the heart of the urbane cynicism, which is now a media requirement for interviewing politicians, something that has stifled any attempt at honest expression of anything other than the approved line. It has led the assault on public sector workers accused of being only concerned with 'producer interests', rather than the welfare of their 'customers', leading to a battery of targets and performance indicators as a way of controlling the brutes. It is also central to the idea of politics as nothing more than a vehicle for naked self-interest.

None of this is to deny the importance of evidence-based scepticism, but that requires work, research and the willingness to admit that you have been talking complete bollocks for the past twenty years (in my case actually teaching it) without too much embarrassment. That isn't easy. And sometimes we do have to take things on trust and, on many occasions, we will be right to do so.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

The mysterious case of the missing defence

Some astute readers may have spotted the absence of references to Swinton Rugby League Club in this blog this season. There is a reason. The pain is too great and I seem to have missed every game we have won. Tonight there was a bonus. Having been soundly thrashed by Halifax in the previous round, it was discovered that Halifax had fielded an ineligible player. Halifax were disqualified and Swinton went through to play for a place in the quarter finals this evening and were soundly thrashed by Batley. 6 -58.* And it was one of the better performances of a season where the defence has disappeared. Unless some miracles happen, don't expect too many other posts.

*BBC got the score wrong.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Famous first words

Norm has linked to a piece about the first sentence of novels and it reminded me of an interview I heard on the radio many years ago with Joseph Heller, author of the wonderful Catch 22. He said that all he had in his mind when he started a novel was the first line, everything followed from that.

There was one line that frustrated him though. He liked it, but could never develop a novel from it. The line?
"God's wife never thought it was a good idea".

Something of the night

As the newly conjoined twins of the establishment get to work, there may be wailing and gnashing of teeth in many quarters, yet some liberal voices are raised in, at least, qualified hope. I would expect Henry Porter to be rejoicing but Anthony Barnett?

Barnett thinks that the coalition has given Cameron the opportunity to abandon Thatcherism and return to one-nation conservatism.

"One way of describing it, uncomfortable as it may be for me to report, is that the transition from New Labour to a Tory led coalition promises a distinctly more progressive government in the UK. If indeed the Coalition agreement is carried out, then the new government will be to the left of its predecessor by being:

* tougher on the bankers
* more focused on helping the very poor
* more democratic
* ending New Labour’s assault on liberty
* Europeanising Westminster politics
* implementing greener policies
* reintroducing cabinet government "

There's that horrid and increasingly meaningless word "progressive" again, but hang on a second. Most of this is about governance and the role of the state. Thatcherism was essentially a type of political economy, not a theory of the state. State centralisation was the by-product of corporate-led marketisation combined with a notion of human behaviour that understood it as a reaction to the crude stimuli of enlightened self-interest. Thatcher was part of the neo-liberal intellectual revolution that broke the old social democratic consensus. This is the source of most of the mainstream assumptions about the workings of the modern economy. I don't see much of a challenge to economic orthodoxy coming from George Osborne's treasury. And let's not forget that Orange Book Liberals were fully signed up members of the neo-liberal club.

The doctrine isn't in the best of health, having taken a bit of a battering in the credit crunch. It may not be alive and kicking, but it is certainly undead. It is currently stalking the corridors of the IMF waiting to suck the blood from vulnerable, unsuspecting countries with nice weather, whilst here it is about to launch two years of unprecedented public spending cuts.

Surely the Labour Party will spend its time in opposition sharpening the stakes that would send Thatcherism to a dusty, eternal oblivion. However, listening to the platitudes of the leadership contest (do politicians really think in clichés as well as speak them?), I am not hopeful.

In the meantime we are promised six billion pounds of magic cuts this year, cuts that we are promised will miraculously not affect 'front-line services', though god knows what they will do to front-line staff. Contemplating this, I can only paraphrase Wordsworth:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be retired.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I watched the DVD of Looking for Eric tonight. Entertaining enough, it is a sentimental feel-good film where virtue triumphs over evil and lost love is restored. And after watching it, I felt good. Ken Loach's films usually capture the little heroisms of working class life, this was closer to Hollywood heroism, a fantasy.

Then, of course, there was Eric - Eric Cantona. I have seen many of the best footballers of my generation play live; George Best obviously, less well-remembered ones like Johnny Haynes and once, as part of a friendly tour by Santos, Pelé. Pelé was incomparably the finest, but Eric was something else. He was my boyhood hero.

OK I was forty when he signed for United, but I think I had a second boyhood instead of a mid-life crisis. It was not just that Eric was a wonderful player and a catalyst for all that has followed over the subsequent eighteen years, I was hooked by Eric the person. He played with a sense of melodrama, with pride and poise. And he was one of the players who expressed himself through his football; you were always watching Cantona the person, not merely the player. And he certainly was not the stereotypical footballer.

So I wallowed in the warm bath of nostalgia, unable to escape the feeling that this too was Ken Loach's excuse for making the film, which ended with my favourite moment of Cantona's career.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

First steps on the death spiral

David Blanchflower punctures the excruciating media enthusiasm for the new government.
"Anybody who is going to start cutting in that position is basically going to push us in that death spiral. That's what we've avoided until this date.

We need to stimulating growth, not withdrawing multiple billions out of the system."

"This is a scary day for the unemployed."
(I have just spotted that the video subtitle mistakenly calls him Danny Blanchflower. Those of us of a certain age will know that Danny wasn't an economist.)
Oops. It's his nickname. See comments by John.

A new era

Change is with us. This principled new government, dedicated to serving the national interest at a time of peril, has released its new anthem.

Thanks to Julie

A chill wind

It's unseasonably cold tonight with a threat of frost. I blame the government.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

Keeping things in proportion

Shuggy wavers between agnosticism and heresy over proportional representation and has prompted me to do something I never intended to do, comment on the election ... well the one in 1951 anyway.

This is because he starts by asking a straightforward and pertinent question; "Why, for example, has this election 'discredited' FPTP more than the last one"? The simple answer is that it hasn't, it is just that the media are more interested and the Labour Party have started to think, once again, that PR might just be in their interests. I do support electoral reform, though, for me, the election that discredited the current system took place a year before I was born, in 1951.

I have lost count of all the fatuous arguments I have seen about the reason for Labour's defeat. The simple answer is that it was the electoral system. 1951 was their best ever result, the largest share of the vote any party has achieved since the Second World War and a popular endorsement of Attlee's government, despite the election being held, unnecessarily, in difficult times. And Labour comfortably lost, in the nearest thing to a straight two-party contest we have seen, to a Tory Party that polled fewer votes. The Conservatives then got the political benefit of the post-war boom. It was a critical turning point.

Actually, the current clamour for PR is nothing new. In 1917, the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform unanimously recommended the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote to accompany the enfranchisement of women and universal suffrage. Subsequent attempts at legislation then became tied up in a dispute about whether to adopt STV or the Alternative Vote and I have a sense that history may well be about to repeat itself. Eventually, during another period of three party politics and minority governments, a Bill to adopt the Alternative Vote was introduced by Labour, passed through Parliament, but fell with the government when MacDonald broke his own party by forming a coalition National Government with the Tories in 1931.

So why PR? Shuggy makes a perfectly reasonable point about its limitations when he says that proportional systems tend to result in a situation where "the guy who came third gets to decide who comes first". My only answer is to point out that this is a likely, but not a necessary, outcome of a proportional system, though it certainly would be the case in most elections. What concerns me is that there is, to my mind, an even bigger democratic problem with the current system and it isn't about disenfranchisement, wasted votes, or even fairness. It is all about the representation of collective interests.

OK, under PR the make up of a government is decided by deals with minority parties, but under the current system winning a majority in Parliament depends on gaining the votes of a very small group indeed, new and swing voters in marginal constituencies. No one else really matters. And what studies show is that these people tend to be affluent, apolitical, conservative with a small 'c' and very middle class. If you don't win their support you lose. To get their votes, parties pander to their self-interest. As for the working class and for the poor? Their votes don't matter, their abstentions don't matter and so, neither do they. The current system is a neat method of political exclusion.

And so the best the poor can expect is for something like New Labour that appeals to the prejudices of the Daily Mail, whilst surreptitiously throwing a few crumbs at the lower orders hoping that their new friends don't notice. Interestingly, the Tories got this wrong by being too overtly nasty. Labour understood this perfectly by offering, to use the repulsive Clintonite phrase, 'tough love'. These voters have their self-image to preserve and Cameron's strategy was solely about being cuddly enough to make it seem acceptable to vote Conservative.

PR offers a chance to break this dismal stranglehold. However, anyone thinking that it ushers in a new era or a revolutionary new politics is wrong. There is another battle to be fought, the one for democratic choice. A politics dominated by an intellectual neo-liberal hegemony will remain a choice between lesser evils, whatever system is used. And if you want to see the raw impact of neo-liberalism, even in prosperous Europe, look at Greece.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Reading list

The newspapers' coverage of the real crisis in Greece is far better than the endless speculation engendered by the general election result. Here are a few good links:

Larry Elliott explains simply why "This Greek bailout is not a recovery plan – it is an economic death spiral" and follows it up with a longer article here.

Joseph Stiglitz writes with urgency of the need to reform the Euro or, if that is not possible, "to admit failure and move on than to extract a high price in unemployment and human suffering in the name of a flawed economic model".

Helena Smith adds her knowledgeable personal take on the "Greek spirit of resistance".

Whilst Ruth Sunderland writes about the control of market speculators.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


I have just got a spam email from someone in America wanting me to promote healthy eating.

OK, today I cooked my own pork scratchings. Delicious. I got the recipe in two parts here and here. It works.

Yum, yum.

τι να κάνουμε;

Which means, 'what can we do'? It is a stock phrase of resignation, usually delivered with a shrug or a wry smile. George Irvin thinks that the Greeks can do something though, something different.
In truth, Greece does have an alternative. Instead of submitting to the ferocious and pro-cyclical conditionality imposed by Germany and the IMF – cutting its budget deficit by 11% over three years in return for a €120bn (£104bn) loan – it could follow Argentina's example in 2001-02, and default on the bulk of its sovereign debt. This would mean abandoning the euro, introducing a "new drachma" and probably devaluing by 50% or more.
I think they should, I don't think they will.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Crime and punishment

Arriving back in the UK, the Greek financial crisis is fresh in my mind and entirely absent from the election campaign. It should not be. The consequences may well be profound for the whole European Union. Mind you, at the moment, you would be hard put to find any politicians prepared to admit that the economics situation is anything other than 'business as usual'.

Most of the press coverage of Greece has been irritating. The bedrock of commonplace analysis is an atavistic view of Greeks as picturesque foreigners in the grip of Mediterranean vices. The reality of corruption and the monstrous bureaucratic inefficiency of the state are undisputed, not least by the Greeks themselves who frequently despair of them. So too is the habit of tax avoidance. After all, the justifications go, why give money to the state when it will simply be stolen? The crisis is real and home-grown. But amidst all the talk of 'lavish' pensions, 'ghost workers' and state jobs for life, where is the coverage of the low wages, the rocketing cost of living, growing poverty, and of the endemic insecurity that provokes people to fight back in defence of their rights?

This lack of respect for Greece makes it easy to indulge in the language of austerity. The government is told to make ever deeper cuts, accept severe and 'painful' measures and make profound sacrifices in return for financial rescue, despite the importance of keeping Greece afloat to the whole European Union. Greeks are to be punished for their sins.

Surely something is missing from this discourse? What has happened to the concept of 'social Europe'? Where is there talk of investing in Greece? Where is the support for the ordinary people whose livelihoods and businesses will be devastated by these measures? Where is the help for the Greek government in reforming and restructuring the state? What about the search for ways to control the markets to prevent speculative attacks on countries? Why are we not talking of investment and reconstruction, avoiding rather than provoking recession and the creation of strong welfare states? Here, in a microcosm, is the crisis of European social democracy, a crisis that is reflected in our own election campaign.

In Britain too, the language is punitive. Calls for vengeance against those who brought us so low are commonplace and plastered on billboards across the country. Bankers? Good god no. Benefit 'cheats' are the villains of the day. (And for a depiction of reality read this excellent article by David Conn, breaking away from his usual beat of football finance).

My pre-election reading is a fine book about the politics of Gordon Brown by one of my old mates from Hull, Simon Lee. It is a little unnerving to read such a serious book by someone you have seen leaping around a football ground like a demented lunatic making gestures at Arsenal supporters, but it is an intelligent analysis for all that. Simon may not have the stylistic flair of the more celebrated Andrew Rawnsley, nor does he deal with any of the gossip about Brown's personality, instead he treats Brown as a substantial political figure, attracted to an insubstantial model of political economy.

Simon charts Brown's intellectual journey from supply-side socialism to supply-side liberalism and his attempt to implement it through a centralised, technocratic model of governance. This meant the acceptance of a neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. And when that orthodoxy failed, what then was there to replace it?

This is the nub of the lack of substance of much of the current election campaign, the absence of alternative political economies. This should be the historic role of the Labour Party. It was created and sustained to act as an advocate of democratic socialism or social democracy, the advancement of collective goals within a capitalist economy and liberal democratic polity. Instead, we have a neo-liberal consensus with differences at the margins between the competing parties. I am not naïve enough to suggest that those differences do not matter. They do, they are real and they will determine how I vote. However, without a choice between coherent and realistic alternative philosophies elections can be reduced to political beauty contests and in one of those, with its decidedly unattractive leadership, Labour is at a disadvantage.

Simon Lee depicts what he sees as the main flaws in the political economy and democratic practice of New Labour and sees them as the platform for the rise of a neo-Thatcherite Conservative Party. I don't think that any of us thought that the Labour Party could be outflanked by a party that is actually supposed to embody Liberalism; the Liberal Democrats. But then, by being unable to offer a social democratic alternative to neo-liberalism, Labour's position was open to challenge by anyone credible describing themselves as 'progressive'.

The one thing that the Liberal Democrat surge has done is to open debates about the nature of British democracy; it has done nothing to question the prevailing economic orthodoxy. This process should form the basis of Labour renewal. I was hoping for it as a consequence of the victory of 1997. Perhaps now it will be the result of the defeat of 2010.