Monday, 22 December 2014

Not the Road to Wigan Pier

What with it being a time for peace, joy, goodwill and whatnot, I think it is worth drawing to your attention (a) that Britain is not going back to the 1930s although (b) that would not be such a bad thing. Details below the break.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The most awful and deadly shambles

This is an article in the LRB about Britain's involvement in Afghanistan. It is well worth reading.

This story is one of the more light-hearted (and flattering) bits:

"Martin tells the story of one ‘Taliban’ commander who believed he’d been recruited by the British because, not knowing he was ‘Taliban’, they’d given him a card allowing him to claim compensation for damage to his house. His conviction was strengthened when his house happened to be searched by courteous British troops who somehow failed to find his hidden Kalashnikov. While he was waiting for what he imagined to be the first contact from his new British employers, he was killed by British special forces. Proof that the conspiracy theory was wrong? No, said his men; he was killed by the Americans, because he was on the books of their enemy, the British."

That's a high point.

They Shoot, He Scores

That is the headline of this piece in the Economist, about Alexandre Desplat, a man who writes film music. A minor masterpiece of the headline writer's art.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

In space, no one can hear you stagnate

This is, I suppose, a follow-up to my recent comments about Concorde. Once upon a time, so the story goes, it was possible to send a man to the Moon, using a Saturn V rocket. But you don't get rockets like that any more, as xkcd shows us by reference to horses and Pegasus (go here to see it full size).

See also here: "If we could land a man on the moon, why can't we -" "- land a man on the moon?" (It's often worth hovering your cursor over the cartoon with xkcd, certainly worth it at the latter link.)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Germans don't remember the Christmas truce in World War I

I suppose the fact stated in the headline is not that surprising: Britain's relationship with World War I seems to be much more intense than that of any other participant (and the reverse is true of World War II).

I take the headline from this piece from Sebastian Borger of Berliner Zeitung on the BBC website. It also includes one of the more surprising sentences I have read recently: "Whatever else their experience of living in Britain, most Germans here share one thing: an astonishment at the extent to which military traditions have survived in modern British society - and, at least to my mind, go more or less unchallenged." (I should say that he goes on to add that that is not necessarily a criticism.)

How strange the idea that military traditions should or might be "challenged" sounds to British ears. I suppose one can just about imagine a Frenchman noting that monarchical traditions are "unchallenged" in the UK, but somehow Borger's sentence seems even stranger than this, particularly as it comes from a German: at some level (a level at which WWI is held particularly dear), we rather have the idea that Germany has a great military tradition in which it might rightly take pride. What a shame, we might think, if their recent-ish history has led the Germans to throw out the baby of military pride with the bathwater of Nazism. But I suppose it is another example of the flippant (perhaps callously flippant, to some of our neighbours) attitude we take to WWII to think in these terms. Let us add it to the list of things we do not understand about Germans.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Second Cold War?

This is an interesting piece about two different ways of seeing the end of the (first) Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR. The first view, shared by Reaganites and socialists alike, is that what happened was that the Gorbachev leadership of the USSR came to see sense and the Soviet Union came to (re-)join the international family of nations: it was a joint victory of both sides over an 'Evil Empire'. The second view is that there was a war which the Soviets lost: there was only victor, and that was the West.

The point of this is not to decide which is the 'right' model of what happened. Rather, the point is that these two models give very different views on what should have happened since. For example, why, on the first view, should the Soviet Union ever have been disbanded? Once its leadership became democratic, what objection could there be to the country continuing in its old borders (my caveat: give or take a Baltic state or 3)?

The other point the author makes is that the facts change perceptions. It just becomes harder, in a world of (for example) an expanding NATO, to believe the Reaganite view of history: "In the same way that Germany was shocked to have learned when it went to Paris in 1919, that it was there not to sign an armistice but a capitulation on very costly terms, thus the Russia under Putin began to reassess how the Cold War really ended."  That view naturally tends to produce a narrative of defeat and revanchism.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Poor old George Osborne

Of course I'm not really expecting Osborne to get much pity but I suspect a lot of people don't know that he is a massively left-wing tax-and-spender, redistributionist and borrower.

This graph comes from the Treasury's report on the distributional effects of the Autumn Statement.

Note that these are percentage figures - and percentages of net income. 

First point from the graph: the top quintile have been made nearly 40% worse off than they were in 2010 in order to make the bottom quintile about 60% better off. That is redistribution on a fairly grand scale.

Second point: look at the 'all households' column. The additional tax is about 30% of net 2010 income. That's a lot of tax.

Third point: all fair enough, you might think, what with that top quintile being a bunch of billionaire bankers and oligarchs and so on. Well, to get into the top quintile you need a household gross income of £60,000 (see Table L here). So a senior nurse earns enough to put her/him well into the top quintile. (In fact, 2 senior nurses in one household with no dependent children have a household income that puts them in about the top 2% of the population.) Higher taxes for the rich? Sure thing - that's a pay cut for top nurses, headteachers (and just senior teachers in London) and so on. There just aren't that many very rich people out there.

Finally, Osborne is not just a big tax and spender - he's borrowing on a vast scale too. The UK's budget deficit is larger that Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden - and so on. Osborne's budget deficit is larger than Gordon Brown's back in the heady days of 2006 and 2007.

I suspect Osborne's wider social circle includes people who consider him some sort of austerity ogre who delights in grinding the faces of the poor. But his record is as debt-loving and progressive as any social democrat could hope for. If Ed Balls had the same record, it would surprise no one.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A couple of film reviews for you to read

1. The Imitation Game, by Alex von Tunzelmann. A film let down only by its inaccuracies, suggestion that Turing was a traitor and bad use of Tipp-Ex. Oh, and by being too interested in Soviet spies.

2. Lucy, by popbitch. I have not seen the film (and now I am not going to) so I can't tell you whether the review is accurate. It is certainly something else.

How the markets work

Alex in fine form today (see him in a larger size here).

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A Fruit Loopy approach to inequality

Here's a story, told by the excellent Michael Lewis in a less than excellent piece.

"Jack Kenney’s assault on teenaged American inequality began at breakfast the first morning. The bell clanged early, and the kids all rolled out of their old stained bunk beds, scratched their fresh mosquito bites, and crawled to the dining hall. On each table were small boxes of cereal, enough for each kid to have one box, but not enough that everyone could have the brand of cereal he wanted. There were Fruit Loops and Cheerios, but also more than a few boxes of the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation. On the second morning, when the breakfast bell clanged, a mad footrace ensued. Kids sprung from their bunks and shot from cabins in the New Hampshire woods to the dining hall. The winners got the Fruit Loops, the losers a laxative. By the third morning, it was clear that, in the race to the Fruit Loops, some kids had a natural advantage. They were bigger and faster; or their cabins were closer to the dining hall; or they just had that special knack some people have for getting whatever they want. Some kids would always get the Fruit Loops, and others would always get the laxative. Life was now officially unfair.

After that third breakfast, Kenney called an assembly on a hill overlooking a tennis court. He was unkempt and a bit odd; wisps of gray hair crossed his forehead and he looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a week. He was also kind and gentle and funny, and kids instantly sensed that he was worth listening to, and wanted to hear what he had to say. “You all live in important places surrounded by important people,” he’d begin. “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.” Eyes closed, talking as much to himself as to us, he described the life of not-so-quiet desperation until every kid on the hill wondered what this had to do with the two-handed backhand. Then he opened his eyes and finished: “You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” And then he moved on to why no one should ever hit a two-handed backhand [it was a tennis camp]—while every kid on the hill squirmed and reddened and glanced at each other, wondering if everyone else realized what an asshole he’d been.

On the fourth morning, no one ate the Fruit Loops. Kids were thrusting the colorful boxes at each other and leaping on the constipation cereal like war heroes jumping on hand grenades. In a stroke, the texture of life in this tennis camp had changed, from a chapter out of Lord of the Flies to the feeling between the lines of Walden.

Does this story ring true to you? Someone has to eat the Fruit Loops. And someone will prefer the Cheerios. And someone will have forgotten the subtle aside in the pep talk after breakfast yesterday morning. And then what do the children do? Take turns? Share? Let the ones who haven't had any Fruit Loops have them for the rest of the week? Eat the third best cereal quickly while no one else is watching?

The point I'm making goes to a big point made in Lewis' article. OK, I get it, the rich need to change. But how? He writes "The grotesque inequality between the haves and the have-nots is seldom framed as a problem that the haves might privately help to resolve. Instead, it is a problem the have-nots must persuade their elected officials to do something about, presumably against the wishes of the haves." I'm pretty sympathetic to the idea that personal responsibility is a better avenue for improving society than state action, but it's not stupid to think that perhaps the solution to the cereals problem was a better set of rules. As Lewis also writes: "billionaires’ activist philanthropy ..., as any billionaire will tell you, ... is as much a story of frustration as of success. (Zuckerberg has discovered this in the Newark public schools.) The big surprise about money, in this age of grotesque and growing economic inequality, may be its limits." It's a bit easier to solve the cereal distribution problems.

Perhaps what happened in reality was that the children devised the rules themselves - and enforced them with the rough and ready physical justice regularly meted out in the good old days. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I'm not convinced it tells us anything about how to deal with billionaires (or how to deal with being one).