Sunday, January 27, 2013

Collapse of this stout party

Here we go again. The nobly sympathetic Zoe Williams reports on a conference on obesity. She observed that inevitably:
The conventional narrative – that obesity is a combination of personal failure and societal booby-trapping, where we're nudged towards unhealthy eating and inactivity, and don't put up much of a fight – remains the starting point.
And so we plunge in to the pathological diagnoses of the inadequacies of the obese - "abuse, trauma, neglect" put in an appearance, as does depression and stigma. Other activities are suggested instead of eating: - "Five minutes of vigorous masturbation ... takes up 300 calories. It can replace a light meal." One expert ponders a deep paradox:
"The government spent millions on that obesity campaign, then wondered why it didn't work. But I don't think there is an information deficit," adds Buckroyd. Obese people know very well the mathematical discrepancies of their calorie usage. "But so many people are puzzled by their own behaviour."
And yet none of these dedicated puritans seem to have noticed something that is pretty obvious, especially judging by the profusion of cookery shows on TV. Eating and drinking are pleasurable. They are sensual, relaxing and sociable. The preparation of good food is creative and, at times, ruthlessly competitive. We have a love affair with food because it is incredibly loveable. Food is at the centre of our culture of hospitality, snacks and drinks are offered wherever we go. It makes us feel good, both to give and receive. We like it. Food is more than fuel for survival, it is the social glue that holds us together. Food is nice. Overdoing it carries the extra spice of sin, a very fine dish indeed.

Williams ends with a comforting statistic:
... obesity costs £5.1bn to the NHS. Malnutrition costs £7.3bn. 
And that is in a developed country. Feeding the world rather than encouraging people to knock a few pounds off or lose the odd sagging belly is what a genuine politics of food and health should be talking about.

Of course none of this actually deals with a question that recurs throughout history. Why when indulging in this cornucopia of pleasure do some put on weight whilst others don't? So perhaps us fatties need to be a bit cheeky and muscle in on a gay anthem, insisting that perhaps the reason for our rotundity is simply that we were born this way.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


What would George Orwell have made of 2013? Who knows, he's dead. Move on now ... oh no, we don't get away with it that easily. There's still a couple of thousand words to get through yet. Gawd.

More questions are raised. Lots of them. And then we play a new game.
Indeed, there's a better game to play with Orwell than "What would he be writing about were he alive?". It's called "What did he get right?". To be sure, Orwell said that what he wrote in his dystopian novels were warnings rather than predictions, but let's forget about that for a moment. 
In other words, let's ignore about what he actually wrote and make something up. So, if Nineteen Eighty-Four was a prediction, even if it wasn't, what did it get right? The answer's simple. Nothing. No? Of course not, you have a column to fill. And so we get a few examples of egregious practices and then more make believe.
We don't have public executions, you might retort. Yes, but given how much we like spectacle of others suffering, that might only be a matter of time – hangings downloadable to your funky new Google glasses.
"Might be only a matter of time," eh? Anything, just anything so that we can conclude:
Perhaps 2013 isn't so different from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I don't know about you, but I reckon I can tell them apart. A single (or even multiple) illiberality does not a totalitarianism make.

The problem with this type of writing is that it uses the work of a long dead author as a cypher for its own prejudices, in this case those of a rampant Guardianista, stamping them with the moral authority of the blessed Orwell.

So what about Orwell's novel itself? I have written before about it not being my favourite. But I think that we have to place it in its historical context. The fears it reflected were far more real then. Nazism had been defeated at horrendous cost, but Stalinism was triumphant. Of the two vastly destructive dystopias that had wreaked havoc, one, together with its apologists, remained, carrying with it the status of victor and ally. Orwell feared its attractions as a model to a ruling class.

If you want a companion piece to Nineteen Eighty-Four, I would suggest a book that would not instantly spring to mind.  Hayek's The Road to Serfdom may come from a different perspective, his classic liberalism was utterly different from Orwell's democratic socialism, but the impulse behind the two was the same. Hayek feared that central planning in a social democratic state would be in danger of replicating the very fascism that it had been employed to defeat:
...many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realisation would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.
Similarly, Orwell thought that the national security state and an increasingly threatened elite were perfectly capable of adopting Stalinism for their own purposes. Neither saw this as inevitable. Both wrote as a warning, sounding the alarm as to the possibility, calling for watchful and determined opposition to any moves in that direction. And they were both wrong.

It was much more understandable at the time they wrote, but their pessimism was unfounded. They had underestimated both the stability of liberal democracy and its openness to reform. We took a different road and live in far more liberal societies today than we did in the nineteen forties. That is not to be complacent about the injustices and inequities of our times, far from it. We should just remain grateful that these earlier literary warnings remain only as a device to allow privileged Guardian columnists to have what they desire most; membership of the oppressed without all the inconveniences of the real thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Artificial union

Michael Aylwin writes with excitement about those "masters of innovation", Saracens Rugby Union Club, installing a new artificial pitch. He continues,
What makes it all so intriguing is that no one has ever seen a proper game of rugby played on such a surface.
Leaving aside the question as to whether Union can be called "proper rugby", I would like to point out that Widnes Rugby League Club sucessfully installed an artificial pitch a year ago and has played a full season on it. 

Once again, Union plays catch up and the press fail to notice the real innovators. Then it is League. And in Widnes. In the North. They couldn't really be expected to know about it, could they?

Rent boys

What strikes me as interesting about today's penchant for austerity, particularly in the Eurozone, is the way it has united a range of classic liberal economists with Keynesians in opposition to it. Both agree from different premises that the policy is a dismal failure and there is a measure of consensus between them about the need to maintain demand in times of recession. Whilst recognising that sovereign debt is a real problem, they are clear that it cannot be reduced without a healthy, productive real economy. Thus, they focus their critique on the extraction of rent from the real economy and the damage it causes. Here are a couple of examples.

Aditya Chakrabortty, from the social democratic left, revives the work of Michał Kalecki and in doing so stresses the importance maintaining expenditure and investment in a recession. An equitable distribution of wealth is of particular importance for maintaining demand and a healthy economy, providing the resources for the erosion of sovereign debt levels. This is something that, as Will Hutton reports, even the IMF has woken up to. Austerity certainly redistributes wealth, only it does so inequitably, filling the pockets of the rent seekers. Earnings and benefits are squeezed, depressing consumption and damaging the wider economy. He concludes, "… austerity is just code for the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands."

In a longer piece, rooted in economic history, Michael Hudson argues that the interests of a rent seeking class are embedded in an ideological hegemony, often justified by false historical analogies, that is shaping the political economy of European nations to the detriment of the wider economy. I won't repeat his full argument, the piece is worth reading in its entirety, but the following illustrates what I mean by the extent of the opposition consensus.
A political and ideological coup d’état is replacing democracy with financial oligarchy, transferring government power to banks and bondholders. The new policy is not for governments to tax the wealthy but to borrow from them – at interest, which is to be paid by taxing labor, consumers and industry all the more. To proceed down this path would reverse Europe’s Enlightenment and the past three centuries of economics. It is called classical economics – and even “free market economics” – but it is a travesty to impose this policy in the name of the patron saints of classical political economy. The Physiocrats, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Wilhelm Roscher, Friedrich List and Progressive Era reformers urged just the opposite path of what now is being taken, and indeed which the world seemed to be following until World War I and for a few decades after World War II.
So far, there is little sign of this counter argument having the slightest impact on our austeritian rulers. In the meantime there are consequences. Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsaganis have written a stimulating pamphlet on National Populism and Xenophobia in Greece, where they look at the interaction of the notion of Greek exceptionalism with the crisis to produce a nationalist populism that blames the crisis on a variety of external forces (including the bogeymen dreamt up in the wilder fantasies of conspiracy mongers) whilst absolving themselves from any responsibility. Of course, much of the responsibility for the crisis does lie outside Greece, as emphasised in the other pieces, but another dimension is the product of Greek governance, institutions and attitudes. The rise of populism is not happening only in Greece. UKIP is a comparatively mild example in this country, but is cut from the same cloth. A much more virulent version is to be found in Hungary and it is possible to argue that both German popular discourse and, more alarmingly, EU institutions seem to be more comfortable with a morality drama about the puritan north against the hedonistic south as an alternative to examining the real consequences of monetary union.

This nationalist populism could be a genuine threat to the European Union, one that it seems unwilling to recognise as it insulates itself from reality with the self-reinforcing dogma of austerity economics. What is certain is that the social stability offered by EU membership looks less secure as the undercurrent of violence, discussed here by Maria Margaronis, begins to seep from the margins. Doxiadis and Matsagianis stress the need for,
A growing economy providing good jobs, and a welfare state geared to the needs of the weakest. The most effective therapy of the underdog mentality is hope and economic security. Hope will not be created by Greeks alone: Greece’s European partners must help
It seems no nearer. But just as they call for reform, they also "…call on those who feed the paranoia and the illusions to consider the consequences." In short, their pamphlet calls for mental honesty and self-criticism at a time of increasingly deluded certainties. We can only hope that such sanity prevails.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

A new season

Rugby League kicked off for me with the friendly this afternoon between Salford and Swinton. Salford now run out to Brian and Michael's saccharine song about L S Lowry. Lowry, of course, lived in Swinton. On Station Road. A few hundred yards from Swinton's old ground.

Salford are in dire financial straits. Swinton donated a large part of their share of the gate receipts to Salford for their survival fund. In return, Salford have nicked our artist.

The match ended in a win for Salford, 52-12. Oh well.

Miserables reflections

With all the hype surrounding the new film of the musical version of Les Miserables (I have seen neither) I thought it was about time to read the book over the holiday period.  It was a fine choice to make.  Les Miserables is a vast, compelling novel, contrived in places, relying on the strings of coincidence common to the 19th Century epic novel, which keep the main protagonists linked together throughout many years. It uses gripping, dramatic narrative and then gives the reader time to breathe by interjecting long sections of reflection on everything from the Battle of Waterloo to the use of slang, before the action begins again. Much of what follows will not make sense unless you are familiar with the work, but I wanted to pick out something that struck me about the book. I saw Hugo writing not simply as a radical liberal proponent of social justice, nor as a poetic celebrant of the progress initiated by the French Revolution, but as an ironist. Let me explain.

After I finished the book I thought of the main female character, Cosette, and couldn't help but think, "what a bubble-headed wuss." Sweet and loving - yes. But a feminist icon? No way. In one sense it was part of the success of her rescue from the exploitation and abuse of her early years, spent farmed out to the 'care' of the dreadful Thénardiers, that she had the prospect of an ordinary, cosy bourgeois existence married to Marius. Being simply nice and happy is a real achievement after that start in life, a testament to the love and protection given her by Jean Valjean. The only thing is that she is not the only woman who loved Marius. He had a choice that he never considered, Éponine.

Éponine was one of the Thénardier daughters. She had become a tough street kid (Hugo's best writing is about these abandoned children, they are the most vivid and real of his characters), cunning, ruthless and hard.  But that was tempered by a touch of selflessness and immense courage. She gives her life on the revolutionary barricade to save Marius, taking a bullet aimed at him, even if it was her subterfuge that led him into danger.

Éponine didn't stand a chance. Marius was already infatuated with Cosette and he was only a paper rebel. He would always return to bourgeois respectability and reconcile with his royalist family. This is what Cosette represented, an ideal bourgeois wife. Feminine, virginal, conventional and thoroughly girly. And so Hugo has Marius embracing respectability by marrying unknowingly the illegitimate daughter of a dead prostitute. And that is irony.

You find it too in the genuinely evil Mr Thénardier. The irony here is that he is pretty useless at villainy. His incompetence means that he keeps rescuing people for the worst reason and with the worst motives. He intends to betray them, but ends up saving them. The same applies to the police inspector Javert, often seen as another villain. Instead, he is an incorruptible servant of justice. His problem is that he is unthinking and sees no distinction between law, retribution and justice. The moment he sees that the application of law can be an act of injustice, his life falls apart.

If there is one theme that animates the novel it is the crime of the abuse and abandonment of children, made worse by a world that once it has condemned never forgives. Thus, Cosette is still a triumphant character, she has been redeemed and her redeemer is an ex-convict, devoted to virtue, who can never escape his past. The novel is not an exercise in moral relativism; good and evil exist. But it does argue against social convention and that you can find both in the least likely places. For example, the ironist Hugo shows that Thénardier's evil intent can result in unintended good, whilst Javert's virtue can lead to the horrors visited on a galley slave for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread when starving and penniless.

There are many other threads and devices running through this multi-layered book. Irony is only one of the tools that Hugo used to affirm the human value of the lowest without romanticising their vices, expose the callousness of class and to forcefully show that good can only thrive in a good society. Les Miserables is one of those overtly political novels that is subversive in the widest, and best, sense of the word.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Taxing issues

First, someone should give the "troika" of lenders to Greece a lesson in the price elasticity of demand. Hefty tax rises on heating oil have meant a 75-80% drop in sales, shivering Greeks and a nasty wood smoke smog over Athens. A rise in taxation has resulted in an estimated 400 million Euro fall in tax revenue. Genius.

The UK is playing with another brilliant idea, saving money by punishing fatties. Stay fat and you could lose benefits. Mind you, with the level of benefits these days food is a bit of a luxury. The suggestion is that:
Obese and other unhealthy people (please note the association; fat and healthy? Impossible!) could be monitored to check whether they are taking exercise and have their benefits cut if they fail to do so under proposals published on Thursday by a Conservative-run council and a local government thinktank. 
Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit say new technologies such as smart cards could be used to track claimants' use of leisure centres, allowing local authorities to dock housing and council benefit payments from those who refuse to carry out exercise prescribed by their GP.
Bring back the treadmill for the poor, I say. And after that, introduce a girth tax or a corpulence charge. Us fatties are such a burden (and rather a heavy one at that).

Oh lord, please preserve us from the wisdom of our rulers.