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.