Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hotting up

From sceptic to proselytiser is a well-trodden path, but this one is a very inconvenient conversion for the dwindling band of climate change deniers.
Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.
Richard Muller here publicising his views in the New York Times.  He is still pugnacious about over what he sees as alarmist claims (including the one about Himalayan glaciers that was withdrawn as an error a few years ago), but gets to the central problem in his conclusion.
I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes. Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.
Of course any scientific debate was settled a very long time before his study was undertaken, so what he is really trying to say is that it is time for him to join the party - a little late maybe, but he has turned up. However, if he thinks that this will stop denialist campaigns then he is mistaken. The reason why is in his last sentence. 

Climate change 'skepticism' was never a scientific movement, it was always a political one. Its aim was not to promote scientific enquiry, it was to at least delay, or preferably stop, any corrective measures that could affect the economic interests of its major corporate funders. It attempted to do this through obfuscation. Look at Fox News or the Republican Party in the USA today and you will see that it has had some success. And it will keep up the pressure for as long as it can.

So what will the consequences be? On a less serious level at least Minda Berbeco can offer some consolation. She points out that higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will benefit the growth of cannabis.
In a carbon-rich world 100 years from now, when our environment is over-run with poison ivy and star thistle; where rising sea levels will displace millions of people causing natural disaster refugees; where warmer temperatures will increase epidemic risks and famines globally; I think we’ll be very glad that the cannabis plant is doing so well.  We’ll probably need it.
Maybe this is what the Exxon corporations of this world need to do. Forget oil, go into dope. There's money to be made.

Thanks to Stephen for the links

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Being British

I love Greece, but as an outsider. It isn't the same as being part of somewhere. If I was going to say what I love about my own country, I could mention literature and music obviously, the scenery and the townscapes, though not the weather, and that would tell you nothing about what it is like. No, I would pick out a few other things instead. There is our glorious cosmopolitanism. Self-deprecation as a national sport is another; we find ourselves funny. Then there is irreverence, humour, satire, surrealism and, of course, sentimentality. And I have just described the London Olympics' opening ceremony.

It was different. A rural idyll destroyed by dark satanic mills; Blake and Shakespeare (Caliban not Richard II); workers and women on the march. The historian in me was pleased to see that though the WSPU colours were in evidence amongst the suffrage campaigners, the most prominent banners were those of the NUWSS. The Jarrow marchers make an appearance, the Windrush arrives, so do the Beatles, and then a centrepiece celebration of the National Health Service, which has to be saved from monsters drawn from children's literature by an army of flying Mary Poppins. And that was only the beginning. We moved on to the Sex Pistols accompanied by giant bouncing punks, James Bond and the Queen parachuting from a light aircraft, the London Symphony Orchestra featuring Mr Bean ... and ... and ... and ...  before Dizzee Rascal performed Bonkers. Quite.

It avoided being kitsch, which so many of these ceremonies are, pulling back from the brink just as you thought it was going to slip over the edge. It was rarely banal, was often wildly over the top, didn't take itself too seriously and was always supremely, utterly surreal. But then the sentimentality was beautifully understated  - Abide With Me was sung exquisitely by Emeli Sandé.

What impressed me most was that it was populist in the best meaning of the term. It was of and about the people. It celebrated them and their collective experiences, their work and, by the end, their ability to laugh and to party. And when the Olympic flame entered the arena, the guard of honour was made up of the construction workers who had built the stadium. I liked that.

Of course a particularly obnoxious type of Tory MP has gratifyingly ruined his career with his "leftie," "multicultural crap" tweets. Then again it didn't take long for another bit of pious carping to drop into my inbox from someone who would have preferred some sanctimonious agitprop. But that is not what an opening ceremony is for. Wait a minute, what is an opening ceremony for? Er ... Hold on a sec ... Oh well, if we are going to have one, why not something fun - and creative - and entertaining - and touching - and mad - like this. In short; art, popular art.

I'll end on sentimentality. It is a hot day, the cicadas are screeching, this isn't Britain, I feel like a little sentimentality. Here is Emeli Sandé's studio recording of Abide With Me. Listen, lie back, and think of England.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Being English

I was chatting in the lane outside the patio gate and my neighbour was complaining about the heat. I replied to the effect that, 'you are Greek, so of course you moan, but in England we don't see the sun and so when we come here we ...' and then I added an extravagant gesture of bliss; the wordless communication necessary when the command of language is deficient. Martin Amis put it much better in this interview about living in New York:
All I care about is the color of the sky. Have you spent time in England?
He is right - it is the brilliance of the light, the absence of the uniformity of grey, dull skies and the intoxicating, star-filled darkness of a warm night that I relish about being here.

And with the Olympics about to start, this also seemed spot on:
David Remnick said the English feel Schadenfreude about themselves—they delight in their own suffering, they take a sort of grim joy in that. 
The Olympics aren't my sporting cup of tea (to continue with the metaphor of Englishness) but friends of mine have been eagerly chasing tickets and are looking forward to the events with excitement. Meanwhile, those who would rather they turn out to be a failure are having a field day - they absolutely love G4S. There are also the usual contributions from those who hate sport and therefore think that it must be morally wrong to like it and that us sports fans have to be defective, or, even worse, pitiably deluded and unconsciously oppressed. Some leftists seem to cling to the hope that it will all go wrong and bring down the government, others just think that everything is deeply politically suspect. At least the gift for satire (as opposed to cynicism) is still alive and kicking everything within range:



The best anti-Olympic rant is Andrew Rawnsley's, simply because you can't fault his critique of the commercialisation, the costs and his argument that the supposed benefits are unlikely to materialise. He's right. Just ask Athens. Though his conclusion is impeccably cheery and utterly English in its final sentiment.
For all the blunders during the build-up, I have a hunch that the actual event will be largely successful. I hope so. Even an Olympiphobe doesn't want to give to the French the satisfaction of being able to crow that they would have done it so much better.
But for every cheerful sceptic, there is always miserablist waiting in the aisles. Hello Simon Jenkins.
I must balance the pleasure of watching young people competing for medals against dismay at the billions spent turning my city into a tacky shambles.
Dismay Simon? Come on, you're English. You're enjoying it.

I blame the weather.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Prophecy

The sagacity and foresight of that fount of all economic knowledge, the 'Troika' of lenders to Greece, is there for all to see. With confidence and self-assurance they predicted that as a result of their stern but necessary policies:
Greece' economy would contract by 2.6pc in 2010 under the austerity regime, before recovering with growth of 1.1pc in 2011, and 2.1pc in 2012.
The critics scoffed, but the results of their policies were that ... er ...
In fact, Greek GDP has been in an unbroken free-fall. It did not grow last year. It contracted a further 6.9pc, and is now expected to shrink 6.7pc this year ... Roughly speaking, the Troika has misjudged the scale of economic decline over three years by 12pc of GDP.
This from a superb, angry piece byAmbrose Evans-Pritchard in the Daily Telegraph, please read it all.

The response from the policy makers is, of course, more of the same, with a scribbled note added to the bottom of the prescription; "must try harder." And if Greece fails to comply, they will be duly punished. I have stopped thinking that the policies were a product of an ideological fixation that might respond to reality, instead we have gone way beyond even wishful thinking into magical thinking - that if we want something to happen enough, it will - underpinned by the fear that decisive action may cost them real money.

Now the Troika appear to be quite relaxed about letting Greece go. As they wipe away a crocodile tear from one eye, I would recommend that they keep the other on Spain. Already deep in difficulties, the remedies being applied are identical and still the EU think that the results will be different. And if you think the Greek crisis has been a problem - you ain't seen nothing yet.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Knotty problems

There is an excellent article on the Greek economic crisis in the Wall Street Journal from Marcus Walker and Marianna Kakaounaki.

Walker and Kakaounaki look at the impact of 'internal devaluation' on the real Greek economy. This is a brief summary of their argument: 

The IMF admit that the conditions are probably wrong for internal devaluation to work, yet continue to press it on Greece. Export businesses need internal devaluation to increase competitiveness to be able to export. In the meantime internal devaluation is sucking domestic demand out of the economy, thereby hampering the development of the necessary infrastructure for domestic growth and for those self-same export businesses. Borrowing and lending costs are too high and confidence is too low. Whilst tourism, one of the biggest earners of foreign exchange, is less competitive due to the exchange rate. What a tangled mess. They reckon that,

If the euro zone unravels, the deeper reason won't be fiscal indiscipline or political dithering. It will be because struggling nations' euro membership, coupled with Germany's approach to its own economy, leaves them with a route to recovery that some economists say is barely feasible—socially, politically or financially.
Instead of admitting their failures and dealing with the real problem, the EU seem to be following a time-honoured military strategy. Urge the poor bloody infantry in the front line to make increasing numbers of futile sacrifices, whilst securing the home front from the consequences of the inevitable defeat. It never works.

I hate to come over all classical about this, but isn't it Gordian knot cutting time?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sultry

Another part of Greece not in crisis.

Reality or otherwise

Comment is Free has done it again. This has got a lot of people spluttering on various forums. It is another in the long line of apologias, this time for ... wait for it ... North Korea.  According to the author, a football writer;
... the hypocrisy of using one-sided journalism to label North Korea a rogue, propaganda-led state is surely self-evident and fans the fire of intolerance and animosity.
It is a perfect example of the genre. It is so perfect that I wonder if this could possibly be another version of the Sokal Hoax - where a bogus and utterly meaningless jumble of jargon was accepted in an academic journal. Could the author be testing CiF's editorial control by submitting a spoof? The trouble is they have published so much of the genuine tosh it is hard to tell.

Who knows. I am probably being too kind. What it does show, however, is that the culture of publishing anything contrarian, regardless of its relationship to truth or even, in this case, common humanity, is alive and well in the Guardian's portals. You can almost hear them,  'Let's be reasonable and give a fair hearing to murderous dictatorships old boy. They deserve to have their case heard.' This is the posh paper's version of phone hacking: abandon all standards ye who enter here.

Originally via Norm.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Party time

It was the village's panegyri last night.  There was music and  dancing at the front, taking place against a background hum of inattentive chatter. Later in the evening a hot wind blew, warming an already sweltering night and stirring the sea to join in the general hubbub. I staggered home around three in the morning and as the music faded the wind grew stronger, whistling through the trees around my house, creating a different soundscape.

Bleary-eyed I opened the shutters this morning and the wind had turned round to come from the north taking the heatwave with it. The weather is now gorgeous and though the cat stole my breakfast and spilt coffee all over my keyboard when I chased it off, nothing can really spoil the day.

And all the while, the reportage that I have seen in the UK media suggests that I am in a war zone. Tourist numbers have declined sharply, yet Greek life continues and anyone considering a holiday should not be put off. This is still a lovely country and it needs your money more than ever.

But that doesn't mean that the crisis is not real enough and, of course, it is being felt much more sharply in Athens than in rural Pelion. Today, the IMF announced that both the Spanish and Greek deficits were higher than forecast.  Well, who would have guessed that inducing a recession would reduce income and raise social security costs? What a surprise. So the solution? Let's do more of the same, it might work this time. And if they won't do the wrong things by themselves, let's make sure that we do the wrong things for them, and do them even worse than they could have managed if left to their own devices. No country could have escaped the impact of the global banking disaster and Greece had many vulnerabilities that meant that it would certainly have faced an economic crisis in its wake. But it wouldn't be this one. Not one with 'made in the EU' stamped all over it.

Costas Lapavitsas thinks that we are nearing the endgame as the EU leadership seems intent on changing politics from being the art of the possible into the imposition of the impossible. But in the meantime, book your holiday and remember the message of these two inspirational posters from our local cultural association.




Monday, July 16, 2012

The unconsidered

It is John Maynard Keynes who is credited with saying, "even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist." I would add that much of what passes for technical economic diagnosis is underpinned by a whole set of social and moral assumptions as well.

At the moment one of these is that the mere possession of power confers wisdom. So moves to resolve the Euro crisis by creating ever greater integration is phrased in the language of passing control over to central authorities so that they, with a heavy sigh, can do it right. This makes much sense to people who assume that they must be correct in every way. Those of us who look on with increasing bewilderment at their actions have their doubts. Mind you, our protestations are met with disdain from those on the Olympian heights convinced of their own disinterested intellectual gifts. Good, virtuous European citizenship means respect for authority in their eyes. Meanwhile, the people who have to deal with the real impact of their policies, gaze upwards and mumble the word 'idiots'.

Their general contempt for the powerless is compounded by an ungenerous, pinched view of people's suffering. It is rooted in the old notion of the deserving and undeserving poor - a view held widely by the undeserving rich. Their wealth is, of course, entirely merited and the poverty of the poor is solely down to their failures. So they raise their eyes skywards, sugest that some may be redeemable, up to a point suitable for their station, if they pull their socks up and work as hard as the wealthy. But then reality creeps in for the un-deluded and points out that hard work, grindingly hard work, the sort that involves emptying the bed pans of the demented, caring for those whom others would rather forget, is often rewarded with poverty pay.

So, as one version or another of the latest conventional wisdom is endlessly ground out, it is nice to be shaken awake by reading something different. Near the end of David Graeber's intriguing book on debt there is this:
I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one's penchant for self-destruction. 
Even though his perspective is viewed through the rosiest of rose tinted glasses, my heart lifts. Here the most unconsidered and stigmatised are given value - what a generous view of the world. It is a reminder of the closing words of George Eliot's Middlemarch.
... for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 
 An uncomfortable thought for those who are certain of their own importance.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Following on

Nick Cohen's comment that I quoted in my previous post certainly got to George. It is one of those occasions when phrases written to impress upon the reader the urgent necessity to deal with the neglect and exploitation of a potentially 'lost generation' betray deeper social assumptions that take us beyond the words' intended meaning. Basically, there are two such assumptions at play here. They infect political life and public policy as much as our private lives. Although using the language of hard-headed rationality, they are, in reality, moral discourses. And both, in my view, are utterly wrong.

The first is that youth is not a stage in life, but is a virtue. Is it possible to have a party leader who is not under fifty and often scarcely over forty? The fresh-faced, telegenic figure is seen to be the epitome of political cool, a necessity for that elusive asset - electability. Although what I see when I look at the Camerons, Cleggs and Millibands is an almost frightening inexperience. And even if they are intelligent people, and they certainly must have a ruthless cunning, what is intelligence without experience?

The second is that dependency is a state of sin. I have touched on this before. The refrain of the elderly, 'I don't want to be a burden', is a cry of guilt from someone who worries for their children but craves their love and support. I have yet to see any empirical evidence for the much mythologised damage caused by 'dependency culture', but the appalling pain of neglect is evident everywhere.

Instead, I would argue that dependency is a state of virtue. We seek it out, longing for dependents to complete our lives. We form partnerships 'in sickness and in health', we tend gardens that would collapse into wildernesses without our constant care, we keep pets, feed and adopt stray animals, make strong friendships and feel sad when children leave home.

But what of independence? It is liberty, the essence of youth and a joyful escape from constraints. But that too is transitory as we build our own voluntary bonds and slip into dependence on others as others do with us. And that very mutuality makes us happy.

Youth and age, dependence and independence. They are the dialectic of life; unresolvable and inescapable. Our existence is bound by enigma and ambiguity, not brutal clarity. And the mark of a civilised society is one that values it all.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Divide and rule

I am writing seriously at the moment, so haven't as much time for blogging. But a bit of conventional wisdom seems to be cropping up recently that I have a vested interest in and I wanted to comment on it. Why? Well, despite being a young, vigorous buck in my own mind, the empirical reality is that I am not quite in the first flush of youth. And, actually, I have sort of retired.

This all began a little while ago. There was this argument floating around. It started as an attack on babyboomers and it was not without some validity. The notion was that the generation to which I belong had the best of everything, which is true - we were lucky, but when it came to their turn to pay for the next generation to have similar benefits they became parsimonious and demanded tax cuts instead. Now I am not too sure that it is entirely due to all of us being selfish, rather I might just suggest that a change in the elite consensus on how economies are managed could have had something to do with it. And maybe those super-rich enthusiasts for a bit of state-aided redistribution coming their way could take a bit of the flak as well. But never mind, if you have a few million people to blame instead, why not go for them?

Gradually, rather than being venerated for our wisdom and experience, we seem to be becoming the target of 'progressive' opinion. Robert Skidelsky is after retirement itself. Whilst, I may agree with this: 
... the rich and super-rich have raced ahead from everyone else; and there are 13 million households, or 21% of the population, who live below the officially designated poverty line. This group cannot reasonably be expected to trade income for leisure. They must first have more income.
How to bring about those more equal conditions of life needed to realise the promise of leisure for all is the main social challenge facing advanced capitalist countries. 
I am less sure about his view that part of the way to do this is
The abolition of the concept of retirement, with "special needs" to be attended to by a retirement agency. 
Now I have to admit bits of retirement are not easy, especially for someone like me who loved his job and retired earlier than he would have liked in circumstances that he would rather not have happened. But there are benefits, especially today as I can look out on a blisteringly hot day at my beautiful Greek garden that I had the sense to acquire when I was still earning. Now I can contemplate long, extended stays here. Yet this guy sees me chained to work forever, even if I am only working three-hour days (actually too short to do anything meaningful). Yes, state pensions and the idea of a retirement age only came in for the first time in 1908, but it was to replace the workhouse.

A couple of weeks ago in his Spectator blog post Nick Cohen also chipped in about how the Tories are targeting young people, including the horrible proposal to remove housing benefit from the under twenty-fives. Again, he makes a decent point well when he points out the fact that older people are more likely to vote and thus are a much more politically dangerous target to hit. (I would point out that older people actually have taken a number of hits, from pension mis-selling, changes to the way pensions are calculated, the rising retirement age etc., to the hidden ones like the death of non-accredited adult education, which was a lifeline to many of the retired). But then he makes a utilitarian point about the need to invest in the young.
I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden. 
Hold on a second. There is a bit of natural justice to consider. Someone leaving school at eighteen has just spent the whole of their lives being "our burden", paid for by the old. The old have worked most of their lives, contributed in other ways, such as by being carers, and coughed up taxes for more than forty years. If we get a few perks to go with our sharply reduced incomes, I would like to point out that we have bloody paid for them! The young have so far paid nothing.

Obviously, youth unemployment is a problem and a far worse one in Greece and Spain. The young need a start and wouldn't it be good if they too could look forward to some liberty at the end of their working lives or even that people should continue to work if they want to? If the problem is about how we enable the young to become the contributors they desperately want to be in a contracting economy, then the problem is the contracting economy, not pensioners. One generation doesn't have to be supported at the expense of the other. Of course, eventually they are the same people. The old were once young and the young, if they are lucky, will be old. And, if I remember correctly, there is something else that differentiates people and their life chances at the moment that seems to be a bit more permanent and pertinent. What is it again? Oh yes; class.