Saturday, 20 October 2012

Faster Horses, Please!

We are currently in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. This demands a response on a par with that of Keynes’s in the 1930s in terms of scale and imagination. Yet, the state of our nation’s finances means that we cannot spend or borrow our way to growth. Rather than being dependent on a financial industry that stretches no further than the boundaries of the City of London, we should look for new sources of growth in the industries of the future to secure a strong and sustainable recovery that brings the whole country with it.

In the wake of the financial crisis, it has become apparent that much of the economic growth we have enjoyed over the previous two decades was underwritten by an unsustainable credit bubble. The health of the whole economy became far too dependent upon the health of the financial services industry. Banking boomed, while the real economy, those in the business of making and selling products and services that the world actually needs, was ignored. The collapse of this arrangement has left us with a national debt of over £1 trillion, and an unsustainable deficit.   

The regions were also neglected during the boom years.  Between 1997 and 2010, Gross Value Added, a measure of output similar to GDP, rose by 61% across England’s northernmost regions, the North West, the North East and Yorkshire & Humberside. By contrast, in the South East and London, the centre of the financial services industry, Gross Value Added expanded by 92%. Moreover, whereas job creation in the South was spurred by a growing private service sector, the north has been heavily dependent upon government spending. Between 1998 and 2007, the state was directly or indirectly responsible for 64% of jobs created in the North, compared to only 38% in the South.

At the recent Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband attempted to take on the mantle of One Nation Conservatism. However, Labour’s legacy speaks for itself. The direct consequence of Labour’s prawn cocktail offensive is that regions outside the South East of England were ignored and neglected by a party in government more interested in wooing financiers in the City. A truly One Nation response to the financial crisis would rebalance our economy away from London-centric banking and finance.

To do this, the government needs to support growth in new businesses and the industries of the future. Unlocking our innovation economy, and finding new engines for prosperity is vital for a sustainable recovery that is driven by growth in all parts of the country, not just central London. This means encouraging industries such as pharmaceuticals, energy, agricultural science and aerospace, which technology is reshaping into the building blocks of tomorrow’s knowledge economy, and where we already have a head start.

Although, Britain does not have the cheap labour of China, or India, it does have some of the finest universities and research establishments in the world, and a historically deep seated entrepreneurial spirit that saw our small island become the workshop of the world in the 19th century, exporting more goods across the globe than any other nation. Today, we should be using our know-how and passion for creativity and innovation to get strong foothold in emerging markets. With some emerging economies almost doubling in size every decade, our economic fortunes depend on developing strong trade links with them.

Take pharmaceuticals, for example. Having recently implemented better protection for intellectual property, India’s market for pharmaceuticals is expected to grow to $74 billion by 2020, and other developing countries are in a similar position. Even a small slice of this market represents a huge opportunity for growth for UK firms. Similar opportunities present themselves to our agricultural science sector. With the world’s population expected to rise to 9 billion over the next 30 years, agriculture around the world must use advances in technology to increase agricultural productivity. In these areas and others, the government must support British business in entering these markets, for example, through diplomacy and foreign policy, and making a commercial success out of British research.

Our lead in innovation is not just important in giving us an edge in emerging markets – it can even be harnessed to bring new, unforeseen markets into existence, and displace existing ones. Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Yet, by developing the methods to mass-produce automobiles, Ford not only transformed people’s conceptions of what was possible, he also made the market for horse-drawn vehicles practically redundant.

Government cannot plan for innovation of this kind. To a large extent it is spontaneous and depends upon the genius and foresight of particular individuals. However, what government can do is create an environment that encourages innovation. First of all, the government should cut regulation to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and operate businesses. Initiatives such as start up incubators, and hubs such as Tech City in East London, where entrepreneurs can collaborate and share ideas, should also be encouraged.

Our competitors, such as the US and Germany, are also investing in science, research and innovation. However, if we act now we can still unlock the full potential of our innovation economy, and make our advantages count. A focus on the knowledge-based economy, emerging markets and innovation will ensure growth is sustainable, and prepare Britain for the 21st century. Without it, any recovery we see in the next few years will be nothing but a false start on a broader path of long-term decline.  

Monday, 15 October 2012

Two Futures for America

In 2008, an electorate wide eyed with the sort of enthusiastic earnestness only Americans can affect, propelled Barrack Obama into the White House. In 2012, after four years of grandiose promises of “hope and change” running up against the realities modern government and a recalcitrant economy, that idealism has subsided. The 2012 Presidential election will be fought in a spirit of dispassionate realism.

This is something for which we should be grateful.  The last time two candidates were divided by such a wide gulf in terms of their vision for America’s future was 1964, when Barry Goldwater, a Republican with libertarian views, ran against LBJ. Goldwater carried only six states. Today there is less harmony in the electorate. Like the candidates, America itself is divided by an unbridgeable chasm on the direction in which America should be going. Better that Americans choose their path with their heads rather than their hearts.

Romney and Obama disagree on almost every area of policy. More so than anything on the issues at the centre of the election: the economy and the size of the state.  A Romney administration would be one that rolled back the frontiers of government. There would be lower taxes; drastically lower spending on just about everything but the military; and a balanced budget amendment to the constitution would also be on the table. Romney has also pledged to repeal (at least part of) Obama’s healthcare reforms. Nor is the rest of the welfare-state safe. Social Security and Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, would see deep cuts, while Medicare, the much beloved but completely unsustainable healthcare program for the elderly would be turned into a voucher scheme.       

Unsurprisingly, Obama disagrees with all of the above. Obama has presided over a fiscal stimulus program that has seen government spending reach levels unsurpassed since the Second World War; he has bailed out the car industry; and his healthcare reforms constitute an enormous rebuff to the power of the market in favour of the power of government. Though he too wants to reduce the deficit, his plan involves higher taxes and fewer loopholes for the wealthy, and less draconian spending cuts than Romney’s. His positive program, involving modestly higher spending on education and infrastructure hardly sets the world alight. Ironically, Obama has become the candidate of continuity and gradual progress, while Romney is the candidate of radical change - though, perhaps not of hope.

In other key areas the candidates are similarly divided. Romney wants a ban on gay marriage, and abortion in almost all circumstances. Indeed, Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has co-sponsored a number of anti-abortion bills in the House of Representatives. Most ominously, the appropriately nicknamed “Let Women Die” Bill, which would have allowed hospitals to refuse women abortions, even when necessary to save their lives. Another, the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act, would have required women to be given a mandatory ultrasound involving an invasive vaginal probe before allowing an abortion to take place. Obama, on the other hand, put an ended the out-dated ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays in the military, and, after much vacillation, came out in favour of gay marriage. He has also signed into law legislation that makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay, and his healthcare reforms mandate that birth control should be offered to women at no extra-cost.

On foreign policy, Obama has sought to build bridges with those nations that were left out in the cold during the Bush era. On taking office he ‘reset’ relations with Russia, and he has attempted to position America at a distance from Israel, while reaching out to the Arabs. Neither policy has been successful. Romney, by contrast, intends to brand China as a currency speculator on his first day in office; he is more hawkish with respect to Iran; and he has already offended much of the Arab with his comments during his recent trip to Israel. Such an aggressive approach will do even more to damage America’s international position.

Perhaps the one area of policy that the two candidates agree on is the environment and energy. Both candidates essentially propose to change little. However, this is not a position converged upon through a shared perspective on the issues, but ankle-deep agreement on one goal: to get the economy moving. In an ideal world, Obama would like to do more to encourage renewables, and curb CO2 emissions. However, over the past 5 years there has been a boom in oil and gas, which has had more to do with technology and the market than government policy. Obama is loathe to put at risk one of the few healthy sectors of the US economy through burdensome legislation and taxes. For Romney and Ryan, the issue of climate change is simply too far down their agenda to matter.

The choice, in short, is between big government and small government. This may seem nothing out of the ordinary. However, with the rise of extreme movements such as the Tea Party, the candidates’ positions have become exaggerated caricatures of those that have been put forward in recent decades, with little common ground between. Once implemented, policies like Obamacare or the voucherisation of Medicare will be costly and difficult to reverse. This election, therefore, will determine the character of the US state for decades to come.  

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Better dead than Ed

At this week’s conference, the Labour Party have tried to show that Ed Miliband can make a tolerable Prime Minister. Earlier in the week, the focus was on trying to forge a personal connection between Ed and the electorate. One of Tony Blair’s great strengths was that many people thought of him as the kind of guy they wouldn’t mind having a pint with. Even David Cameron has a certain affability, despite his privileged background. Ed’s team have been trying to make it seem as if he isn’t all that weird and blinky, after all. Thus, we have seen the release of a rare family photograph, it which Ed looks thoroughly normal, as well a video stating the fact that Ed went to a state comp. As the conference progressed, there has been an attempt to communicate an alternative vision of Britain’s future to the Tory version of more cuts and austerity, culminating in Ed’s much lauded ‘One Nation’ speech.

The effort to make Ed Miliband electable, is by no means futile – I do think it possible. His very impressive speech has certainly bought him some time. However, ultimately I think Labour’s apparent strategy will fail. First of all, compare Ed Miliband to John Prescott – there is a world of difference between them. One is a genuinely working class politician, complete with regional accent, another is patently not. Ed Miliband’s father was an academic, he wrote books that are on the reading lists of any half-decent politics degree, Ed is clearly of the bourgeoisie; even if it is that part of the bourgeoisie that Marx described as the “small section of the ruling class [that] cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class.” Highlighting the fact that Ed went to a comprehensive will not be enough to convince most ordinary people that he has much in common with them.

Another flaw with the Labour Strategy is that Ed really is weird and blinky. Ed’s conference speech showed personality and charisma, but it was a 70 minute highlight in a two year omnisnore. Ed cannot win on personality unless this one brief spell of good form becomes consistent charm. His near constant inability to achieve this was fully demonstrated in his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Asked about Labour’s new favourite buzz-word, “pre-distribution”, Ed opened with a terrible joke, telling Andrew Marr, apparently sarcastically, that he “loved” the concept. As he begins explaining it, he uses the words, “I’m very clear about this…” with increasing frequency, and no corresponding increase in clarity or lucidity. Quite the opposite. Then, failing to be pinned down to a simple definition of ‘pre-distribution’, he offers an appallingly vacuous definition along the lines of, “pre-distribution is about making the economy work for ordinary people”.

This brings me to the final problem. He has no substantive vision for Britain’s future that differentiates Labour from the Tories. On the major policy issue of our age, the economy, Labour would have practically the same austerity package as the Tories. Ed’s ‘one nation’ idea is utterly meaningless without some actual policies to flesh it out with. What makes it different from the Tory claim that ‘We’re all in this together’? Perhaps there is something to be said for not coming up with policies too early. Parties frequently get hung up on pledges made years in advance that are revealed to be impractical or foolish when they come into government; think of the Tory pledge not to restructure the NHS, or the Lib Dem promise not to raise tuition fees. However, there should still be some gesturing at what the policies might look like. When Brown was Prime Minister, the Tories positioned themselves as the party of austerity as opposed to stimulus without knowing where and when they would cut. We knew that they wanted to “cut red tape”, an appallingly vague phrase that still lets it be known that some regulations will be removed, even if they cannot say which ones. The ‘One Nation’ idea does not even do this.

Ed Miliband claims that ideas matter in politics, but this is nonsense if the ideas are devoid of any content.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Meaning of the Reshuffle

In the language of cabinet government, reshuffles can be used signal a change in direction, reinvigorate an ailing government, and, of course, to get rid of recalcitrant ministers. So what did David Cameron tell the country with his first reshuffle, last week? 

The political environment in which the reshuffle too place was a hostile one for the government. Early promise of radical reform to the public services, welfare and the constitution has turned into inertia. Though progress has been made on schools and welfare reform, the Government’s health and policing reforms have run into stiff opposition from the organisations the Government is trying to change. Meanwhile, each of the government’s proposed constitutional reforms – AV, elected mayors, equal-size constituencies and Lords reform - have floundered, leaving a bitter air between the coalition partners. At the same time, disgruntled Tory backbenchers are becoming noisier, their leadership having taken a younger, more left-wing mistress, in the form of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. All of these factors are magnified by the economic downturn, leaving Cameron’s government looking frail.

Political logic states that Cameron ought to have used the reshuffle to give the government new vigour in its weakest areas. Thus, we see Andrew Landsley, the man who has mishandled the health reforms replaced with the trustworthy and likeable Jeremy Hunt, shaking off some of the mud he accumulated over his support of Newscorp’s BSkyB takeover bid in the process. The government’s growth agenda is also at the fore of the reshuffle. Justine Greening, a West London MP was replaced as Transport Secretary by Patrick McLoughlin who has no constituency interests in Heathrow. Also in are the new planning minister, Nick Boles, whose think tank recommends building on the green belt, and the new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, a proponent of shale gas.

The reshuffle also saw concessions being made to the Tory right. Ken Clarke, the doyen of the Tory left, loses his department in favour of the fiercely euro-sceptic Chris Grayling, while Michael Fallon moves in with Vince Cable at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Some commentators have argued that these concessions mark the end of Cameron’s modernisation project. However, this is a misreading. The fact that Cameron embarked on his detoxification project in the first place, shows that he understands the need to appeal to a broad cross-section of society, rather than the curmudgeonly Tory right. This is even truer in the new era of coalition politics, where the Tory leader must be seen as a man who liberals can do business with.

The message of this reshuffle is subtle. The government’s headline policies of austerity and school choice remain unchanged, Osbourne and Gove staying put. While new emphasis is placed on supply side reforms of planning, regulation and infrastructure to get growth. Despite apparent concessions to the right, unnoticed changes down the pecking order are more illuminating. Within days of her appointment as a junior health minister, Anna Soubry, who has also advocated the legalisation of cannabis in the past, gave an interview in The Times supporting voluntary euthanasia. Another new minister is Helen Grant, a former member of the Labour Party. Both liberal and female, Cameron’s modernisation project is very much intact. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lords Reform

The fact that Lords reform is the most intractable question in British politics is slightly puzzling. The pre-amble to the Parliament Act 1911, the act which first circumscribed the powers of the House of Lords, affirms “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.” A century later, most Lords sit as a matter of appointment rather than birth; yet, the question of reform still lingers, and nor is it likely to go away until the composition of the House of Lords even begins to reflect the democratic principles that are taken as given in all advanced liberal democracies.

Though electing the House of Lords would unquestionably be in line with our democratic values, the quagmire that is Lords reform highlights an important truth: values and principles do not necessarily make for good government. Currently, the Lords acts as a repository of knowledge and expertise. Though many Peers were appointed based on how much money they donated to the Labour Party, the House of Lords still contains hundreds of people appointed due to eminence in their respective fields. This makes the Lords particularly effective at doing the things that the House of Commons either does not have the technical expertise to carry out, such as the work of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, or work that is not considered especially glamorous, such as scrutiny of EU legislation. How these functions could be retained with an elected chamber is difficult to see. Electioneering requires a different skill set, and attracts a different sort of person than those who currently inhabit the Lords. The likelihood is that an elected second chamber would simply replicate the functions of the Commons.

The trade off between pragmatism and principles is not new; almost every difficult political problem involves something like it. But Lords Reform is special because it is a question that is fundamental to the British constitution – by who and how our laws are made. We tend to think, in these matters at least, that principle should triumph: It is better to be a man of principle than unprincipled, and in the most important matters, principles should be followed.

Schumpeter - Political theorist
behindthe elite theory of
I am not so sure. Any reasonably adult moral outlook, which surely encompasses politics, as well as broader ethical life, cannot be enumerated by a short and pithy set of aphoristic principals. Lords reform does, I think, essentially boil down to a choice between democracy and elitism in our law making. When the people make their own laws they are autonomous, free and have the power to make their own destiny. When elites make the laws, you get better laws. The truth of the matter is that a good polity has great deal of both, which is pretty much what we have now. We already accept that monetary policy is determined by professional economists in the Bank of England, and that the detail of most policy and legislation is worked out by civil servants. It seems appropriate to me that the two houses of our legislature should represent a marriage of popular sovereignty, and elite rule – Government by the people tempered by government for the people.  

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Damien Hirst

In anticipation of going to see the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst exhibition, last week I reposted a review I wrote a few months ago of the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition. The time that has passed between then and sitting down to write this review is a good indication of how misplaced my anticipation was.

I will begin with the good things I have to say. 1000 Years – a partitioned glass box with flies hatching on one side, and a severed cow's head on the other, above which a bug zapper electrocutes scores of insects that have been lured over – comes early in the exhibition, and best represents all of the qualities of Hirst’s work I like. His Showmanship and unsanitized rawness - the stench of the box is perceptible through two vents in the glass if you get close enough. The Tate Modern has most of Hirst’s best works in these respects. The famed shark is on display, though it is less impressive than I expected. As is Mother and Child Divided, and Hirst’s giant ashtray, which gives off a heavy whiff of fag-ends, once more taking on the normally sterile setting that an art gallery presents. Perhaps the best piece of stagecraft is a room full of butterflies that hop from one person wearing brightly coloured clothing to another. This was such a draw that the gallery staff had to usher people along to prevent the butterfly room becoming overcrowded. A notable absence was For the Love of God, Hirst's diamond encrusted Skull. Although, the gift shop has been turned into an odd shrine to it, selling skull T-shirts, skull paperweights, skull notebooks, and so on. I suppose this was inevitable given that the skull touches on themes of capitalism, wealth and excess, but only served to highlight its absence.

Despite the number of works that are well worth seeing, the exhibition is littered with dull and boring twaddle. Infuriatingly this is repeated endlessly. Just when you think one medicine cabinet might have been enough, another appears, and then another. 20! 30! 50!!! Finally an entire Pharmacy is recreated. Then come the medical instruments – Scalpels and scissors by the dozen, replicated over and over. I must say, despite the number of spot paintings and butterfly paintings, they did not wear on me quite so much - some of them were exceptionally beautiful. However, once you have seen one medicine cabinet, you have seen them all. There was just so much of this exhibition that I could have quite happily walked past that it detracts from the good.

Hirst is a something of a contradiction. He has rightly earned a reputation for shock value and excitement by mutilating various animals, but the endless repetition of his works makes some of it monotonous and, quite frankly, boring. Similarly, this exhibition is, overall, a mixed bag. Go if you have an afternoon to kill in London. Otherwise, an emphatic "Meh!"

Friday, 13 July 2012

Lewis Carroll the Philosopher

Few people remember that as well as being a prolific author, Lewis Carroll was also an accomplished philosopher and logician. At the dawn of the 20th century, trying to elucidate the ‘foundations of mathematics’ had become something of a craze amongst mathematicians and philosophers. Simple truths such as 2+2=4 seem obvious and incontrovertible, yet the source of their truth is less concrete. Carroll's What the Tortoise Said to Achilles is one of the most insightful (and amusing) attempts to grapple with this foundational crisis.

In the article a pretentious tortoise challenges Achilles to use logic to force him to accept the conclusion of a logically valid argument:

       A. Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
       B. The two sides of this triangle are equal to the same.

       Z. The two sides of this triangle are equal to each other.

The tortoise claims to accept the first two propositions, but not the third. Achilles takes up the challenge of trying to set the tortoise straight. First, he points out that if somebody accepts A and B, then they must also accept Z. This seems quite sensible to the tortoise, so he adds it to his premises.

       A. Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
       B. The two sides of this triangle are equal to the same.
       C. If somebody accepts A and B, then they must also accept Z.
       Z. The two sides of this triangle are equal to each other.

The tortoise, unconvinced, claims to accept A, B and C, but not Z. Achilles, seeing triumph is in reach, exclaims, “Aha! If A and B and C are true, Z must be true.” Here, the beginnings of an infinite regress are apparent. The tortoise seems to have a point. Though we would normally simply accept the move from A and B to Z, the intermediate steps all seem necessary to license the inference, even though we would not normally state them; indeed, they are the sort of things we would say if we were teaching a child to reason.

Wittgenstein’s response to this paradox was to say that when we follow a rule, such as a rule of inference, it cannot be the case that we require intermediate steps, or interpretations of the rules, such as C, to lead us along. If it were, then we would never get anywhere, as Carroll’s paper shows, for "any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support” (Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, §198). Instead, human beings, being the sort of creatures we are, when we have been given the appropriate training, we see immediately, without interpretation or further premises, that Z follows from A and B. This is what comes naturally to most people after minimal instruction. To somebody like the tortoise, who despite plenty of instructions and illustrations, cannot be brought to see that Z follows from the premises, there is nothing to do but say, “I am sorry, but I cannot make you understand.”

This solution to how it is we are able to go by a rule, which I think is the right one, does not leave us with much less of a sense that mathematics - indeed, any rule based practice - is a precarious affair. There is nothing more underlying the fact that 2+2=4 than the contingencies of human nature; the fact that because of the things most humans share - biology, culture (in a very broad sense), primitive desires, ect., - when it comes to mathematics we mostly find it more natural to go on in one way rather than another.

Given that Carroll foreshadows the most celebrated philosopher of the 20th century, amongst the puzzles his paper raises is - Why is Carroll not regarded as highly in philosophical circles as he is in literary circles?

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Joy of Smoking

This week is the fifth anniversary of the smoking ban in England. At the time, the libertarian streak in me was stronger than it is now, and I recall that I opposed the ban on the grounds of private property rights. Nowadays, I am much less obnoxious. I still hold that the state should stay out of people's living rooms and business, but now as a rule of thumb rather than unyielding dogma. While I still tend to come back from a night boozing reeking of cigarettes, the thought now occurs to me that pubs are much nicer when they are not filled with smoke.

Recently, I had the pleasure to visit Berlin, where a smoking ban has been in place since 2007, but is rarely enforced. I can say without doubt that if England's smoking ban has achieved one thing, it has been to make smoking in cafés and bars a thrilling enterprise. I remember going into one Café, which was mostly empty save for a few customers, and ordering a coffee from the stony faced, overweight proprietor. Sitting down, I was encouraged to see that my table had an ash tray. However, looking to the other customers, neither the elderly man reading the paper in the corner nor the middle aged couple on the next table were taking advantage of the perfectly functional ash trays on their tables.

What was I to do? This was, after all, a far-off foreign land - perhaps the small red pot in the centre of my table was not an ash tray after all, perhaps it had been designed with some altogether different purpose in mind. I asked my girlfriend, who I was travelling with, her opinion on the matter, but I suspected her advice not to smoke had nothing whatsoever to do with the rules and customs of the café. Not wanting to cause offence to the German people, least of all the surly looking owner, I decided to refrain for the time being. However, even before my mind could register the disappointment, the old man in the corner plunged his hand into the pocket of his tench coat, pulled out a lighter and cigarette packet, and began puffing sweet fumes of freedom into that air. Now, with the weight of Anglo-German relations eased from my shoulders, I took my cigarettes from my pocket, and, with a feeling that I was doing something awfully bold and audacious, lifted one to my lips and began to smoke.

Would it be possible to recreate this in Britain? Repealing the ban would only normalise smoking again, taking away all the danger and naughtiness from the German experience. Better would be allowing pubs to host a weekly smoking night. One could retain the oppressive anti-smoking culture, and yet dare to transgress it once in a while. Of course, only in accordance with the law of the land.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Postmodernism - A Reproduction

I am going to see the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern tomorrow, so I may try my hand at a review afterwards. This is one I wrote on the V&A's Postmodernism exhibition last winter. Topical.
The V&A's showcase exhibition on Postmodernism, 'Style and Subversion',  closes on 15th  January. In attempting to give a surveyable representation of postmodernism, the show is ambitious, if only because Postmodernism is such an all encompassing, uncodifiable movement. Postmodernism first rears its head in architecture, and shows up in design, fashion, music, film - and that's without mentioning literature. Given its inescapable reach, the curators have had to find a way of presenting pretty much every outlet of cultural expression in a single show. In this respect, the exhibition itself is a work of postmodern bricolage.
To begin with, the movement's roots in architecture are laid bare, and we are treated to scenes from the Las Vegas strip, houses and beach huts that po-mo architects designed for their own use, and witty drawings of buildings that can never be.
Reconstruction of Charles Jenck's Garagia Rotunda
Naturally, some of the pieces displayed here are just hideous, a case in point being the reconstruction of Charles Jenck's Garagia Rotunda, a pastel blue shack with a plaster-cast Medusa head keeping look-out on one side. However, it would be difficult not to be dazzled by the neon lights of Vegas, cleverly presented in a wall-sized projection of a night time ride down the strip filmed through a car windscreen. Another highlight is Brodsky & Utkin's droll Columbarium Habitabile; a drawing of a columbarium of vast, modernist, proportions, which instead of housing statues and busts, serves as a sort of refuge for beautiful old houses.
Walking through five enormous columns, and past a screening of a short segment of Blade-Runner and a few interesting objects of the post-apocalypse, concrete turntables, and the like, you enter the next major section of the exhibition concerned with furniture and design.
Memphis' Super Lamp
The objects here are tongue in cheek takes on everyday household objects. Lamps on wheels, stools that do not look particularly comfortable to sit on, and strange, spouted creations that appear to be ironic teapots (indeed, the number of teapots showcased at the exhibition reaches the level of an amusing curatorial joke). The items here are not beautiful, but nor did they strike me as crass or tasteless. At the very least, many of them will provoke a smile, and they serve to convey an important facet of postmodernism's anti-modernist agenda: form over function.
Next comes the the performance section - after being greeted by a scarily lifelike hologram of Boy George, and traversing a walkway abreast another clip from BladeRunner, you reach the room of the exhibition that perhaps most truly captures the essence of postmodernism, and my favourite bit of the show. On each side of the room there are huge screens simultaneously showing Klaus Nomi, the Talking Heads and Grace Jones, with the audio alternating between them. At ground level there are collections of screens and monitors playing everything from music videos like Nenah Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance' and Devo's 'Whip it', to strange dancing by masked wrestlers and a pantomime horse. And high up on the walls, there are fabulous costumes from the 70s and 80s music scene, including the Grace Jones maternity dress that has been used in much of the exhibition's publicity. The room is turned into a bewildering visual barrage that might be said to be postmodernism made manifest in a single space.

There is at least one respect, however, in which the exhibition is not very postmodern at all - it tells a story, there is a narrative. This is tied up neatly by the final section, which contains some Warhol, some glitzier examples of postmodern architecture such as the AT&T building, a Han dynasty vase branded with the Coca-Cola logo (WeiWei) and, of course, many more teapots. This is a depiction of postmodernism becoming the dominant style of the corporate/commodity culture of the 1980s - a depiction of a collusion of art and capital. The tale of the exhibition, then, has postmodernism beginning as a rebellion against the rules, strictures and bland uniformity of modernism, injecting freedom, vibrancy and vitality into art and the world around us; however, postmodernism's success turns into excess, revelling in the world of commodity, a la Warhol, rather than being engaged in social criticism.
In this respect, the exhibition is a critique of postmodernism. Indeed, at the beginning of the final section the panel text quotes Frederic Jameson on Warhol's paintings - "they
One of the many teapots
ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, one would certainly want to know why." I am unconvinced by the Marxist notion that the art has to be criticising the capitalist system in order to be of any value. If later postmodern art did not make political statements, then it did make statements like, "I'm having a great time! Now look at this cool teapot!" And I do not see why that is such a bad thing.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is also a celebration of postmodernism. The curators have brought together a collection of the weird and the wonderful from all over the world - from Ghana to Japan. The finale to the exhibition is New Order's 'Bizarre Love Triangle' music video, which poses the question "Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?", which I pondered with a smug, knowing smile on my face as I followed the neon 'SHOP' sign into the giftshop. A sign which not only lights up the high quality collection of kitsch in the V&A giftshop, but also the fact that if postmodernism ever went away, it is just as strong as ever today.
Commodity fetishism didn't end in 1990
By the end of the exhibition I felt that postmodernism had made the world a much more lively and vivacious place, even if it did usher in an age of self-aware conceitedness that even the best of us can be caught in the act of. Moreover, the exhibition design and curation is stunning and stylish, and the curators succeed in tying together all of the artforms on offer, which was perhaps the greatest challenge posed by the concept of the show. If you can get to the V&A during the first two weeks of 2012, then you should, because you won't  see anything like this exhibition for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Future of the Coalition

The great strength of the first past the post system, we are told, is that it produces strong, single-party majority governments. In 2010, however, this piece of conventional wisdom failed to hold. The optimistic response to this fact would be to hope that the result of the 2010 election was an anomaly, much like the hung parliament of February 1974, and that future elections under first past the post can be expected to deliver single party majority governments. However, this view is difficult to sustain for two reasons.
            The first is the increasing number of seats won by third parties. In 1951, only 9 MPs were neither Conservative nor Labour. Yet by February 1974, this had increased to 35, and by the 2010 general election the number of MPs from third parties had reached 85. As a result, to get a working majority a party must now win roughly 100 or more seats than its nearest competitor, a feat achieved in fewer than half of the elections since 1945. The second reason is that there has been a steady fall in the number of marginal seats over the last 60 years. In 1955, there were 166 seats that would shift from one party to another on a swing of 5% of the vote. Today, that number is just 83. This means that in order to win the 100 more seats than its nearest competitor required for a working majority, a party needs to win a much larger share of the vote than in the past, thus making another hung parliament highly likely. 
With this in mind, the Conservative Party is left with few attractive strategies after 2015. A minority government would probably be too weak to implement the ongoing austerity programme and inspire confidence in the markets, and it would also jeopardise the rest of an impressively radical agenda. One alternative that is mooted without exception when a party looks like it may not win an election is to appeal to the core vote. Such a move would be foolish for a number of reasons. As well as running the risk of re-toxification, there has also been a long term decline in the number of people in Britain who strongly identify with a single party, which means that an appeal to the core is an appeal to an ever shrinking set of voters. It would also make it impossible for the Liberal Democrats to serve in a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of another hung parliament.
Instead of either of the above options, the Conservatives would do well to embrace coalition politics, and attempt to formulate a platform that can win the backing of the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the most alluring aspect this course offers is that it is the best chance the Conservative Party has of staying in power beyond 2015. However, it should not be viewed merely as a shallow strategy to remain in government. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives share enough common values and goals to back a programme beyond 2015 that is both visionary and deliverable. Below, I have indicated three areas that could form the core of such a programme.
The first is the economy. The 2004 Orange Book gave voice to a strand of Liberal Democrat thought at one with the Conservatives in believing economic liberalism to offer the best hope of increasing wealth, and thus of fulfilling the liberal social aims of reducing poverty and improving poor living conditions. Indeed, the Coalition’s raison d’être is the deficit reduction programme, and even if the government’s goal of eliminating the structural deficit by 2015 is achieved, state spending will still account for roughly 40% of GDP, which is too high for many orange bookers. The Orange Book also called for a simpler and fairer tax system by lowering taxes, especially for low and middle earners, and removing many allowances and reliefs, which tend to give excess benefits to the wealthy. With many of the contributors to the Orange Book holding senior posts in the Coalition, an economic program that combined a smaller role for the state with tax cuts for low and middle earners, as well as a substantial increase in the personal allowance, could enjoy the support of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives alike.
The most pressing public policy challenge after the economy and public finances is reform of the public services. Here, too, the Orange Book reveals a broad area of common ground between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Indeed, when it comes to public service reform the Liberal Democrats have proved themselves to be more radical in thinking, and more effective in implementation. For example, the Orange Book included a proposal by David Laws to replace the NHS with a system based on individual insurance, as well as a proposal to privatise the Royal Mail, which has almost been carried through in government by Orange Book contributor, Ed Davey. Similarly, individual choice has always been core value of liberalism. Thus expanding policies aimed at greater competition and a plurality of providers in the public sector could win the backing of the Liberal Democrats, especially where this can be shown to drive social mobility and equality of opportunity. To pick one example, introduction of for-profit provision in education would create the required incentive to expand non-state provision of education beyond a few small middle class pockets where self-motivated parents have set up free schools, thus benefiting children from more deprived backgrounds. As long-time advocates of localism and decentralisation, Liberal Democrats may not be as hostile to such reforms as many suspect, providing proper mechanisms of accountability and transparency were in place. Thus, increasing choice in public services through competition, localism and a greater variety of providers could be a radical and achievable part of a program that built on the reforms of the 2010-2015 Parliament.
Finally, the Conservative Party should be more open to constitutional reform. For one, constitutional reform is a definitional issue for the Liberal Democrats. Their hopes for reform of the voting system have already been confounded, and if reform of the House of Lords goes the same way, they may question the value of perpetuating the coalition altogether. Of more importance, however, is that the constitutional reform can and should complement the Conservative agenda of individual empowerment. New Labour’s constitution reforms were a bold attempt to rejuvenate Britain’s political system, yet devolution, elected mayors and Lords reform merely redistributed power to more political elites, while the Human Rights Act empowered judicial elites. As Vernon Bogdanor puts it in his The New British Constitution, power has been redistributed sideways but not downwards to individuals.
Despite Nick Clegg promising “the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832”, the Coalition has so far been timid in picking up where Labour left off. The coalition held Britain’s second nationwide referendum, yet the choices the were strictly limited before they were put to the electorate; the coalition plans to introduce the power for constituents to recall their MPs, yet the draft bill puts prohibitive limits on when the power can be invoked. In 1918, a Conservative-Liberal coalition recast British democracy by passing the Representation of the People Act 1918 – a bolder and more audacious second-term coalition could leave an equally large impact by introducing a much greater degree of direct and participatory democracy.
To conclude, the current state of the electoral system means that hung parliaments are to be a fixture of British politics for the time being. If it wants to remain in government, the Conservative Party has little choice but to embrace this fact by prolonging the coalition beyond 2015. To do this, it should focus on developing and expanding on policy in the areas of shared value and mutual interest with the Liberal Democrats that I have highlighted above: the economy, public service reform and constitutional reform

Monday, 25 June 2012

Banking Reform

Last September the Vickers Commission tabled a raft of proposals to reform the banking sector, including measures to increase competition, and raise capital requirements on retail banks. Both are necessary - currently only four banks control 70% of the current account market, while undercapitalisation was one of the primary causes of the financial crisis. Addressing these issues will benefit consumers, and reduce the risk to taxpayers in the event of another financial crisis.

The downside is that the recommendations will make British-owned banks less competitive. Ring-fencing will put British investment banks at a disadvantage to overseas banks able to access funds raised through their retail arms, and retail operations by British banks overseas will be hit. However, this is a price worth paying to shield taxpayers, whose liabilities for the banking crisis peaked at £1.2 trillion. 

Crucially, this will not jeopardize the City’s position as a financial centre. Although London is ranked as the world’s biggest financial centre by some indices, only one of the world’s five biggest investment banks is British. Recent growth in financial services was largely driven by foreign banks choosing to trade in London, rather than British banks. Vickers’ report protects taxpayers, consumers and the City, and should be applauded.       

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Sustainability and the Oyster

Sustainability is à la mode in international development today. To give better educated locals some basic training in teaching, and send them off to teach children the basics (and train other teachers to do the same) would, I think, be viewed more favourably than enterprises like Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, a school founded by Oprah Winfrey that offers a high quality education to academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa. In the first case, after an initial stint of training, the programme is self-sufficient – the impact is modest, but once it has begun, no more western assistance is required. Basic tuition can go on forever using the resources, skills and knowledge that the local communities can supply, and it can be gradually built upon in the future to make more substantial improvements.

There are a number of reasons why people who work in international development might be opposed to Oprah’s School. It is privately owned and funded; it is academically selective; unlike most schools in South Africa, Oprah’s school cost $40 million dollars to build, and consists of 28 lavish buildings spread over 22 acres of land. All things one would imagine to be ideologically repugnant to a rough, but largely accurate, caricature of a development worker. However, I think the objection to Oprah’s school that would rest most assuredly on their lips would be that development projects ought to be sustainable. Oprah's school breaks this conventional wisdom. Rather than relying on the human and financial resources that the more impoverished areas of South Africa can muster themselves, Oprah’s School depends for its existence upon the finite resources of a western backer

This fetishism of sustainability makes me recall the counter-example to the philosophy of utilitarianism - Haydn and the Oyster. Utilitarianism holds that happiness, or pleasure, is the single ultimate value, and all other things derive their value from how much pleasure they can produce in sentient creatures – the more pleasure, the better. Now imagine you are a soul in heaven waiting to be allocated a life on Earth. When your turn comes, the angel in charge offers you a choice between two lives, that of the composer Joseph Haydn, or an oyster. If you pick Haydn, you will meet with great success and honour in your own life time, creating and enjoying wonderful music. You will be cheerful, popular and derive much merriment from practical jokes and other horseplay. If you pick the oyster, your life will be filled with mild sensual pleasure, much like a human floating very drunk in a warm bath, but nothing more. When you pick Haydn, the angel sighs and says, “I’ll never get rid of this blasted oyster. Look, I’ll do you a special deal. Haydn will die at 77, but I’ll make the oyster life as long as you want. How about it?”

Naturally you stick with your choice of Haydn, despite the fact that over the course of hundreds of years there would be more pleasure in the life of the Oyster. I think the analogy to sustainability is apt. We tend to think that the pleasure involved in Haydn’s life – the enjoyment of classical music, friendship, love, the fulfilment of one’s most cherished life plans and projects – as being qualitatively different from the pleasure in the oyster’s life, though floating drunkenly in a warm bath is still very nice. Thus, one cannot simply tally up the pleasure in each case – it is apples and oranges. Similarly, in the case of the schooling, we tend to think (at least we certainly ought to think) that while learning to read and write is important, learning to appreciate poetry and art, acquiring the potential to produce a creative output of one’s own, and studying subjects like history where one develops an awareness of differing political, cultural, social and economic structures and their interrelationship, is far more valuable than a basic education, and not just because it is more of the same. If basic tuition and a high quality education of the sort you might find at a top western school or university were just two homogenous lumps of ‘education’, then we could say that the $40 million dollars spent on Oprah’s school would have been better spent on developing a sustainable program that gave many children a very basic education over a number of generations. Thousands of oysters would be better than a few hundred Haydns. However, I think that the knowledge and skills imparted to children at schools like Oprah’s are of an altogether different category than a basic educational program could deliver.

There is, of course, a sustainability angle to Oprah’s school. The Leadership Academy for Girls is supposed to produce South African leaders of the future. However, even if all of its graduates left Africa to work in top jobs in the developed world, my intuitive judgement, which is as good a guide as any when it comes to ethics, is that it still would have been much better than a nationwide program of basic education. By producing such a profound change in the lives of a few impoverished children, it would have added much more value to the world than a wider, but simpler program would have done.    

The reason that the Haydn and the Oyster case is analogous to the fetishism of sustainability is that sustainable development is often favoured because it produces change that lasts, thus providing more of whatever positive output that is sought when considered over the longer term. The Haydn and the oyster example shows that often, the quantity and longevity of a good thing is not the relevant question. A little of one valuable thing can be more valuable than an infinite amount of another, for the simple reason that there is no common measure of goodness, which is something that any reasonably adult moral outlook must recognise.

However, there is a disanalogy between the two cases. Another reason for favouring sustainable development is that it allows developing countries to escape a demeaning dependency upon the beneficent countries of the west, which has no parallel with the oyster case. Asking for development programs to be sustainable, then, is not a case of charging up a blind alley. However, it is important to recognise that sustainability is usually one of many competing values. Too often, the first question that is asked of a development program is whether or not it is sustainable, and if it fails this test, it is rejected out of hand. Sustainable programs are no doubt an important component in a package of support that should be delivered to developing countries, but if there is a choice between a sustainable program, and a one-off shot at improving the lives of a few people to a degree that would otherwise be unattainable, I see no reason why the former should automatically trump the latter.