Friday, June 29, 2012

A manifesto

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
Misattributed all over the place it may be, including to Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein though probably coming from Rita Mae Brown in her book Sudden Death, but here is another example:
Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF’s study is clear - budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now - the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.
From A Manifesto from Economic Sense.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unreality check

This piece by Tom Clynes is a really good summary article on the current state of climate change denial. Much of it is familiar, the same story of the distribution of misinformation and denigration of good scientific research, substituting wishful thinking for reality. There is also something deeply unpleasant happening; the publication of climate scientists' email addresses on denialist sites and the resulting deluge of death threats and obscene hate mail that follows. Here is one example from Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist:
“When I get an e-mail that mentions my child and a guillotine,” Hayhoe says, “I sometimes want to pull a blanket over my head. The intent of all this is to discourage scientists. As a woman and a mother, I have to say that sometimes it does achieve its goal. There are many times when I wonder if it’s worth it.”
But what struck me most were two numbers. The first comes from the Steve Milloy who runs a denialist web site. He said, "There’s really only about 25 of us doing this". Yes, only twenty-five people are claiming that, at worst, there is a global conspiracy of tens of thousands of research scientists to falsify their findings or, at best, in one of the greatest outbreaks of mass incompetence the world has seen, that they are all wrong and have been so since serious research into the impact of greenhouse gas emissions began in the 1950s. The fact that these few have recruited so many supporters is enormous testament to their skills as lobbyists and publicists and to the extraordinary power of the internet when it comes to the dissemination of information (or of complete bollocks).
The second number raised my spirits though. 

This spring, four major universities released polls showing that a clear majority of American citizens now say that the world is warming and that the country should take action. Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications at Stanford University, conducted one of the polls. He found that 83 percent of Americans say they believe that the Earth has been warming. One significant factor, he suggests, is that Americans can finally see and feel climate change happening.
In other words, this band of twenty-five, despite their deep penetration of the Republican Party and their base in the Tea Party, are losing. And they are losing because however much reality is denied, it has a funny habit of winning out in the long run. Vociferous, noisy and abusive climate change denial may be, but it is on its last legs. The fear was that the 'skeptics', as some like to be known, were winning. And now there is confirmation that they are not. They are becoming marginal, inhabiting solely the dark corners of the internet and the recesses of the political right. 

Yet, once again, mainstream politics seems to be running behind this mass outbreak of sense. Leaders seem scared to take action, putting off dealing with the problem, hoping that everything will turn out for the best. The tragedy of this is that, instead of the dystopian primitivism conjured up by denialists, action on climate change should be leading us to the brink of a new industrial revolution, one based on different sources of energy. An era of low-carbon sustainable industry and prosperity beckons and instead the skeptics wish to keep us in a warming world with disturbing potential consequences.


Hat tip to Stephen 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reality check

I can say with absolute confidence that Angela Merkel is not the most popular person in this neck of the woods. From the Greek perspective, EU policy seems to be more of a German diktat, and a hostile one at that. But in Germany this sentiment is is seen more as ingratitude. There is a huge gap in perceptions. So here are two pieces that argue that the German view is the one furthest from reality and that its actions are potentially as damaging to itself as they are to the countries of the periphery

First, Simon Tilford argues,
The current strategy for dealing with the eurozone crisis is largely a German one. But far from limiting the risks to Germany, it is maximising them. The German economy is not immune to the economic slump enveloping a growing swathe of Europe. One country after another will need bailing out, with Germany ultimately providing the back-stop. Much of this debt will not be repaid, leading to a dramatic rise in Germany's public indebtedness. Without a mutualisation of risk, the euro will collapse, with devastating implications for German exports (to EU and non-EU markets alike as a euro collapse would hit the global economy hard), the value of Germany's foreign investments, and the stability of its banking sector. These are just some of the direct economic costs; the political fall-out would be grave for Germany. Isolated and blamed for the collapse, it would be poorly placed to pursue its interests through whatever is left of the EU.
Whilst in the Financial Times Wolfgang Munchau speculates on the tactics that could be used by Mario Monti
The point is not so much to call Angela Merkel’s bluff, as some of my Italian and Spanish friends have been urging. She is not bluffing, despite the fact that a break-up of the eurozone would clearly be disastrous for Germany. Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister, said recently that by allowing the eurozone to break up, Germany would for the third time in a century have inflicted utter devastation on Europe and on itself. 
Those who advocate the strategy of calling Germany’s bluff often assume a degree of rationality that is plainly absent. The Germans have developed a strange narrative of the crisis. Following the debate there, as I do regularly, has a parallel universe feel about it. There is, for example, a denial that the current account surpluses are even remotely a factor.
What both have in common is the sense that a resolution of the crisis will be impossible until German policy makers begin to understand the reality of their impact on the peripheral countries and, most importantly, of the growing risks that austerity poses to Germany itself.


Friday, June 22, 2012

More than a game

Germans cheering on Greece. Well, they do live there.
If you want to understand Greeks, he says, you only need to watch them when the bill comes at a taverna. "The Greeks will try to sneak in and pay for everyone, the Germans will try sneak out to avoid the bill."
And then there are Greeks cheering on Greece - in Germany.
"Like most Greeks who live here, I dream of some-day going back to Greece," he said. "But the crisis in my home country continues and it's becoming more difficult to find work there. I have to stay in Germany to survive." ... 
Like most Greeks in Germany, both [the two interviewees] will watch tonight's game in the firm believe [sic] that poetic justice will secure a Greek victory.
These are from a really nice piece about popular attitudes of expats in both countries and how they crystallise around a single football match. Overall, I think that this needs repeating often:
Sitting in a beachfront taverna, Ms Hilbrecht says things would have to get worse in Greece before she would move back to Germany. "Even in a crisis this is still a great place to live." 
 But then again, so does this; for those at the bottom of the pile, it is getting less and less true.

Boringly predictable

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Against elitism

Classical music is not elitist, it can be liberating. Watch this video on the Scottish version of the famed Venezuelan El Systema.


"Eighty percent of the children on Raploch are musicians"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The times we live in

What is the worst offence? Picking up a publicly funded £420,000 redundancy cheque after working for only sixteen months planning a programme of cuts, or naming them Change to Keep Succeeding?

Election day

Whoever wins ...


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Elinor Ostrom

 Complexity is not the same as chaos
Having managed a complex programme of adult education, I would have loved to have beaten that sentiment into the minds of managers who looked only for neatness and a managerial structure of command, control and obedience. The words are those of Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate for economics in 2009, who died yesterday.

Her best known book is Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which uses empirical research to examine how, given the right conditions, self-management of what she calls "common pool resources" by their users works better than either state or private ownership for conservation and effective management of those resources. The key to allowing this to happen is good reciprocal communication and trust - possibly the two elements most frequently lacking in modern managerialism.

Her work on complex systems, ecology and common property regimes, together with her stress on inter-disciplinarity, flexibility and diversity, has widespread applications and consequences. You can get a sense of her work through listening to her impressive Nobel lecture here. Whilst what follows is an eight-minute talk on sustainability.


There is also a fascinating personal interview with her here.

Parallels

We overstate historical parallels and certainly lapse into inappropriate analogies far too often (no, Merkel is not Hitler). History is not a mechanical process. Even when governments take similar courses of action they do so in different contexts, whilst people have learnt from experience and behave differently. However, sometimes the parallels can be unnerving.

In this piece Mark Mazower pursues two of the main themes of his historical writing, modern Greece and the fragility of European democracy. 
It is one of the achievements of the European Union's insistence on austerity at any cost that Greece's democratic stabilisation now seems jeopardised. Once democracy's guarantor, Europe itself has now become the chief source of pressure upon it ... Yet Greeks have not turned against Europe: on the contrary, public opinion remains deeply committed to membership of the union... Nor do the Greeks fail to recognise the need for a sweeping reform of the public finances. The reason for the implosion of the two-party system is simply because in the absence of any plausible scenario or package for growth to accompany Europe's endless cost-cutting demands, the country's suffering and social disintegration seem futile.
The refrain is familiar,  but Mazower's voice is a warning against complacency. And his conclusion is tentative.
It now falls to the Greeks in the most testing of circumstances to demonstrate the tenacity of their commitment to Europe. And it falls to the Germans to uphold Europe's commitment to democracy itself.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Reminders

First, something for all of those who think that knowledge is valuable only for its current utility.  From this nice book review on a new history of science:
But as we read of the tentative steps of the pioneers we are led to wonder again that science ever emerged in human culture. It had to run the gauntlet of practical men and women who jeered at the scientists' obsession with footling things – minuscule animals seen through the microscope, for instance. All of the knowledge that had sustained human society until that point – processing raw food into bread, cheese, beer and wine, tilling the ground, building cathedrals, sailing across the oceans – had been the work of skilled craftsmen, uninformed by any scientific principle whatsoever. 
Secondly, from the same review, a reminder of reality for those that tout the notion of 'ancient wisdom'.
As Ball puts it, the complaints of the naysayers can be summed up as: "small and distant things were small and distant precisely because they were not meant to concern us." So much for the plague bacillus that was wreaking havoc in London when the Royal Society was born, so much, ultimately, for DNA and the computer chip. What was meant to concern us, according to this view, was the scriptures and the received wisdom of the ages. Now the power of those small and distant trifles is everywhere apparent and the wisdom of the ancients stands revealed as a tissue of arbitrary fabrications.
And finally, for all my friends in the UK, a reminder that this is what summer looks like.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Honesty

This is one way of communicating:
Greece is speechless! Totally out of control  spokesman of Chrysis Avgi (Golden Dawn) and elected MP Ilias Kassidiaris punched Communist KKE MP Liana Kanelli while on live studio on ANT1 TV on Thursday morning. Just seconds earlier Kassidiaris had thrown water against SYRIZA MP Rena Dourou. The prosecutor asked the arrest of Golden Dawn MP for “dangerous physical damage”, while he is on the run.
How obliging of the neo-Nazis to be so open about who they are.

Then there is this rather nice talk about cognitive dissonance and critical thought. It appeals to me because throughout my teaching career I have been embarrassingly wrong on so many things, but I still think that I am brilliant.



And finally, another example of the media's remarkable ability to misrepresent research in order to get a good headline. This time it is about the supposed recommendation that safe drinking limits should be reduced to a quarter of a pint of beer daily. As one of the authors the report blogs, this is not what they said. But they did come up with the finding that even relatively small amounts alcohol do increase health risks. He is disarmingly honest:
On a personal note I am not pleased by the results of our research.  I was hoping that alcohol might have been better for my health.
As for me I am going to pour myself a large glass of wine and begin to rationalise about how it is exceedingly good for me.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Beauty

"Wherever you look, you see beauty." These were the words of the official presiding over the civil wedding ceremony as he welcomed the guests to South Pelion.

Earlier the cavalcade of cars had wound up the hill, horns blaring, to a spectacular backdrop of mountains and sea. After the ceremony everyone emerged into the town square, shaded by giant plane trees, the tables laid out for a night of eating and drinking. The band was already in place, the bouzouki player tuning up against the sound of Euro pop standards from the loudspeakers. Milling around the flower display, picking their seats, were friends and acquaintances. A happy day and, yes, he was right. All I could see was beauty.

Greece is a lovely country, though there is ugliness as well. Much of this is being intensified by the crisis and the self-defeating response of the 'Troika' of lenders, described, as quoted in this article, by  Yanis Varoufakis as "the biggest idiots in the history of economics."

Later in the evening, fuelled by wine and tsipouro, I strolled over to the museum dedicated to the work of the local artist Thanasis Fampas. It was closed, but the sculptures outside were floodlit and the lights were on inside. Fampas' work is gorgeous. The on-line gallery doesn't do it justice. The eyes of his subjects are often blank, instead they express themselves through their hands and the shape of their bodies. They hold and they caress whilst the pictures caress you. As I peered through the windows the official dashed up with the caretaker and to my surprise unlocked the doors and ushered me in for my own private tour. This is so Greek, a spontaneous outburst of pride and generosity. He told me how the museum was run and maintained by volunteers and that though he was retired with a pension he would often work twelve hour days for no pay, simply for the good of the community. Beauty everywhere.

Yet despite this simple truth, Greece still struggles against the lies of the wealthy with their narrative of the chilly, industrious north pitted against the indolence of the feckless south with its Mediterranean sun. But perhaps the most pervasive self-deception that the rich endlessly trot out is the idea that their privilege is solely the result of their own merit, their intelligence and their hard work. It's never good luck, the legacy of previous generations, nor do they credit the support of family, friends or the institutions that gave them their education. And heaven forbid that there is any debt of gratitude to the work of those they employ. This attitude breeds a meanness of spirit, which suggests that the poverty of others is the result of their moral failures and that the solution lies in being more like them. Any proposal for aid to relieve suffering brings a horrified cry of 'moral hazard' - the fear that any help will only encourage the poor to continue in their unproductive ways and, thus, if it is not to be withheld entirely, it certainly has to be accompanied by proper strictures and hedged with conditions.

This seems to be the attitude of the German government with its insistence on austerity. But let's look again at what was the basis for the post-war German economic miracle. Was it the result of some inherent Calvinist work ethic as they often suggest? Or might it just have been because of the Marshall Plan? German debts were written off and investment flooded the country. It was an extraordinary act; a compound of generosity and self-interest. Help was understood to be far more likely to promote reform and prevent a repetition than punishment. And what was the sin that was forgiven? Had they sat around in bierkellers wasting borrowed money on idle luxuries? Not quite, they had launched the most destructive war in human history and committed genocide. And if that can be forgotten, surely the Greek crime of joining the Euro and spending too much buying German goods on cheap credit is worthy of a more generous response than the punishment of austerity.

So we come back to beauty. And perhaps one of the most beautiful of human qualities is generosity. You meet it here a lot. And as a moral underpinning to public policy it leads people to think that the proper response to those who are struggling is help, not punishment. And if that approach to the economic crisis had been tried three years ago it is clear that we would not be in the mess that we are in today.