Friday, March 23, 2007

Economics 101

Via the Economist, I doubt there is anyone with an economics training who, on trying to make an economics argument in a debate of some kind, has never been told that economics is just 'more complex than that'. Julian Sanchez is right that it can all get rather frustrating:

". . . a defense of (relatively unregulated) markets in this or that case is (profound sigh) so Economics 101. Because, you see, you learn about things like "supply and demand" in intro courses, so they must be terribly crude and misguided notions. Interestingly, people lacking even an Economics 101 background seem to feel few compunctions about deploying this trope.

Now, the perfectly accurate core idea here is that with greater theoretical sophistication, you find plenty of conditions under which the generalizations of the first-pass, stripped-down model don't hold. (In the pedagogical context, this is probably close to being a definitional truth: There would be little point to developing and teaching a more complex model unless whatever new wrinkles you added yielded some difference from the simpler one.) . . .

What's annoying about the "Economics 101" line isn't (just) that it's a noxiously condescending way of making such an argument. It's that quite a lot of the time, it's a substitute for such an argument. Instead of being a prelude to an elaboration of why the instant case constitutes such an exception, it's treated as a sufficient dismissal in itself—as though if a more sophisticated model incorporates more exceptions to general economic laws, the ne plus ultra of sophistication must be to assume everything is an exception. But the general rules remain general rules because they're still generally true, and indeed, are often predictive in circumstances far removed from the idealizations of blackboard models. Even when you really do have an econ 201 exemption to an econ 101 rule, it's still poor form to be too supercilious about advancing it. After all, your interlocutor might have an econ 301 riposte."

Hate world. Revenge soon. Take out on everyone.

Research and Development Spending

I think that Chris Dillow has missed a few plausible explanations of why research and development spending in the UK is lower than elsewhere.

1. Continuing weaknesses in British scientific education. These have been a problem for at least a century. While we continue to produce a healthy crop of scientists and sustain a superb contribution to high-level science there are serious flaws in basic, systematic scientific education in schools and not enough students choose to study science at university. This is hard to explain by institutional differences so is often put down to cultural factors. In particular, that university is often used to signal or change class and a scientific education is seen as 'grubby'.

2. British industry is 'too' competitive. Philippe Aghion set out how there might be a peak level of competition for research spending. Too little competition and a firm has no creative destruction pressure to innovate. Too much competition and following successful research spending firms quickly enter and swarm away the profits which might pay for the research. The ideal, if your objective is to encourage research, is firms with a strong market position which they seek to defend by outspending prospective rivals on research and development. Britain's is one of the most competitive world markets as it has little protection from takeover, the state has no real inclination to support champions and the country does not specialise in niche industries.

Combine this explanation with the third on the list of explanations Chris formulated, that there is generally a poor return to firms which spend on research and development. It looks like our competitive market encourages our firms to free ride off foreign oligarchy to all our benefit. Huzzah!

3. Service companies don't do much research and development. Britain's collective lifestyle is, to a remarkable extent, paid for by this share of global financial services exports:

Service companies always spend less on research and development. In particular, the spending that goes on developing new products and remaining at the leading edge of the industry which is accounted for as R&D in manufacturing companies is often less tangible in service companies. I won't address the "is deindustrialisation necessarily bad" debate here but, suffice to say, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with focussing on services. Particularly as that means you have to engage in a lot less competition with China.

Between us myself and Chris have come up with seven plausible explanations for low UK research and development spending. Of these only one, weak scientific education, really looks like a problem that the government should be trying to solve. A couple of the others could possibly be addressed but we are likely to cause more harm than good through other, unintended, consequences.

Perhaps low research spending is one of those issues that is best responded to with a dose of British benign neglect?


I really, really enjoyed this film but it has seriously divided critical and popular opinion. At the moment audience opinion on the BBC site is at 3* but divided almost entirely between 5* and 1* ratings and the reviews largely reflect a similar divide. I'll try to examine what other people are saying as well as giving my own two cents which will, I'm afraid, make this a long film review. I'll go through some of the stock criticisms first before moving on to the positive case for this film. There aren't many plot details in this review and I expect most people already know how Thermopylae ended so don't worry too much about spoilers.

Mr. Eugenides has already done a great job fisking the ignorant Comment is Free article accusing this film of preparing the ground for strikes on Iran but I think the charge this is 'about' Iran is more broadly weak. When films want to draw parallels to the present day they're rarely coy about it; V for Vendetta is an example of what happens when film makers want to draw parallels to the present day. While Persians are, ethnically speaking, Iranians that fact could hardly be avoided in a retelling of Thermopylae. For all the Iranian government's solipism this story isn't about them. In order to chart just how thoroughly the film differentiated its Persian horde from modern day Iranians I've drawn up, just for you my loyal readers, this special graphic illustrating the differences:

There's a lot of male flesh on display thanks to the Spartan habit of fighting sans clothes. However, it seems somewhat ironic that this leads supposedly liberal left-wing commentators to, in a rather schoolyard manner, call the film homo-erotic. If the film does excite the gays I'm not going to begrudge them their arousal but the nudity is an old fashioned design motif (as old as the Ancient Greeks themselves) designed to build up the idea of Spartan contempt for physical danger. Such great warriors of the classical age are likely to have stayed in good shape.

This film isn't anti-war. Left-wing reviewers have spotted this and are so proud they almost make it sound as if that isn't patently bloody obvious. Very few people are unconditional pacifists and most believe that war can be just and necessary. Why should films always take the anti-war side of the debate?

Particularly as the war portrayed in the film is a pretty just one by most standards. Even under modern international law I'm pretty certain the Spartans are in the right as they defend Greece from an invasion. The Spartans in the film are pretty close to the ideal that the "noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation". As a result the film does not, as any film of Alexander should for example, have to grapple with the morality of aggressive warfare.

The BBC review describes it as a "valentine to violence" and finds this disturbing. Calm down, that's what an action film looks like. Audiences have been enjoying them for years and society has not collapsed. While the body count and gore was spectacular it is hardly beyond the norm established from Rambo to the Matrix and Saw. While it got an 'R' rating in the US it has a 15 certificate here. The scale of violence is necessary to make the achievement of the Spartan warriors clear. It is only gratuitous if you don't get the point of the film and only scary if you think that it is actually talking about the US and Iran.

Now, on to the positive.

Visually the film was absolutely stunning. The cinematography and blue-screen CGI work was genuinely artistic and a far better use of the technology than Sin City. It was perfectly suited to embracing the mythical nature of the story. It is hard to pick out particular scenes as the whole thing was so constantly impressive. However, the scene where the Spartans are having some kind of explosive thrown at them was a particular favourite. The entire screen lights up as if the Spartans are surviving a trip to the centre of the sun.

It should be noted that I saw this film at the IMAX. If you're able to try and do the same as this film really justifies the big screen and powerful sound. It'll give you a much better sense of what IMAX is capable of than a documentary account of Kate Winslet's opinions on fish. Equally, it is the very best showcase of the sheer splendour of this film.

The action had a hi-octane power to it. Certainly, it was the first film I've ever seen which made a phalanx feel genuinely dangerous rather than merely cumbersome. Although the action does lose this character as it goes on and there are more individual skirmishes it retains its own character. The "Asian martial-arts vibe" which troubled Mr. Eugenides seemed muted enough that the film remained distinctive and the action wasn't formulaic. In particular, the relative focus upon co-operation felt appropriate.

The story device of having the film be a flashback as Dilios inspires the troops before the battle at Plataea is very appropriate. It focusses attention upon the real importance of the battle at Thermopylae as an inspiration to the other Greeks, and the West down the ages. It also offers a ready explanation for the fantastic elements of the story.

Finally, the politics. I disagree with those who argue for divorcing film criticism from politics. A lot of art does have political or philosophical implications and refusing to discuss them in favour of "was it fun" is demeaning. What was the political importance of 300?

I must first disagree with Marc Sidwell for the New Culture Forum and Masoud Golsorkhi (the article Mr. Eugenides is rebutting) who both argue that this film casts the West as the underdog but disagree over whether this is good or abominable. 300 ends on Plataea as a large Greek army, only outnumbered by three to one, charges in the confident expectation of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Persians. In 300, as in reality, while the West may be outnumbered it is rarely outgunned.

Thermopylae's true political importance is that, along with Salamis, it forms the heroic origin story of the West. Retelling this for modern audiences is vitally important. There is no longer the serious prospect of the West being militarily defeated as could plausibly have happened without the three hundred's heroism and our struggles are neither as heroic or as demanding. However, we do need to be prepared to sacrifice in defence of the rational, free and prosperous world that is the West. Sometimes compromise with our enemies is impossible or wrong. An obvious example of where most of us massively failed this test is in the response to recent threats to freedom of expression where we preferred cowardly appeasement to risky but vital defiance. To paraphrase the Team America cliché freedom really isn't free. It is genuinely inspiring to see a film unashamedly celebrating sacrifice in the name of the civilisation which is both our most precious inheritance from past generations and can be our greatest legacy to the future.

This kind of conservative political film is far rarer than it should be as the huge box office figures suggest that the audience are receptive. Instead of tapping what is obviously a huge appetite for films appreciative of the West and sacrifice in its name film makers prefer narrow, unimpressive critiques or ugly allegories on transient political issues. Zack Snyder may just have wanted to make a cool action film but he has, along with a few others, broken the consensus that Hollywood is a vehicle for a particular, left-wing view of the world. While there have always been films in which right-wingers can find their own meaning if they care to look this shows that conservative politics are nothing to be ashamed of. If the rest of Hollywood, perhaps even the British film industry, is paying attention we might see some amazing stories being brought to life.

300 is technically astounding, creatively groundbreaking, politically important and great fun. Watch it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Dave's analysis here seems somewhat flawed:

"McDonalds is launching a campaign to change the dictionary definition of a McJob. The current definition is
"An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector"

according to the OED. McDonalds apparently had the slogan
"McProspects - over half of our executive team started in our restaurants. Not bad for a McJob."

How many of the people who work for McDonalds made it to the executive team?"

The proper test for whether McJobs should be characterised as having "few prospects" is whether they offer less chance of promotion than traditional unskilled professions. Otherwise the McJob term provides no new meaning beyond 'unskilled work'. My guess is that the rate of promotion from unskilled worker to executive has always been very low and that the McDonalds statistic that half their executives are ex-restaurant workers does denote impressive prospects relative to traditional unskilled labour.

While most McDonalds workers may never progress to more skilled work with the company all that really tells us is that being unskilled sucks. The dictionary definition of McJob is entirely innaccurate if they actually have good prospects relative to similar occupations.

The South Park Appreciation Society

If you want an example of someone taking their TV really, really seriously take a look at Cantor's piece from December analysing the Southpark Episode 'Gnomes'. The entire article is full of funny comparisons between South Park and philosophy from Aristophanes to Smith. My personal favourite section, though, is this one:

"But what about the gnomes, who, after all, give the episode its title? Where do they fit in? I never could understand how the subplot in “Gnomes” related to the main plot until I was lecturing on the episode at a summer institute and my colleague Michael Valdez Moses made a breakthrough that allowed us to put together the episode as a whole. In the subplot, Tweek complains to anybody who will listen that every night at 3:30 a.m. gnomes sneak into his bedroom and steal his underpants. But nobody else can see this remarkable phenomenon happening, not even when the other boys stay up late with Tweek to observe it, not even when the emboldened gnomes start robbing underpants in broad daylight in the mayor’s office. We know two things about these strange beings: they are gnomes and they are normally invisible. Both facts point in the direction of capitalism. As in the phrase “gnomes of Zurich,” which refers to bankers, gnomes are often associated with the world of finance. In the first opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the gnome Alberich serves as a symbol of the capitalist exploiter – and he forges the Tarnhelm, a cap of invisibility. [10] The idea of invisibility calls to mind Adam Smith’s famous notion of the “invisible hand” that guides the free market. [11]"

This is brilliantly over earnest. Forgive me doing the same for a favourite of mine. To my mind the most important South Park is the double episode 'Cartoon Wars'. If you've never seen it this might be a comprehensive spoiler but won't stop you appreciating the episode's brilliance.

The double episode is itself a part of a sequence of episodes on modern obsessions and the culture of fear. Global warming was the target for two earlier episodes. 'Smug Alert' attacked the self-righteous attitudes of the glitterati, particularly in the entertainment community. Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow mocked the hyperbole of the global warming movement. In both the South Park population went and hid in the community centre which became a metaphor for blind panic. The commitment to political content in South Park allows the show to build up these kinds of memes and make deeper points about a modern aversion to risk without needing to distract from the independent message of each particular show.

Throughout the show Fox is used as a metaphor for Comedy Central and Family Guy as a metaphor for South Park itself. This becomes particularly sophisticated as Cartman is the voice not only for the shows creators in his hatred of Family Guy's comedic style but also the evil voice of the terrorist threat of violence, actual terrorists giving video warnings fulfil the same dual purpose. This is a disarming display of humility and subtly sends the message that even when criticisms of certain artistic and media expression are correct it is still not right to limit freedom of speech.

The show's history is used as an argument against the idea some kind of double standard exists which dictates that it is not alright to mock Jews or other groups but free speech is invoked when people insult Muslims. When Cartman asks Kyle "how would you feel if there was a cartoon that made fun of Jews" the audience is well aware they are watching that cartoon. At the end of the show a fictional terrorist response to Family Guy's insult is shown which treads roughshod over every other fictional American taboo by literally shitting on the flag, Jesus and the President.

The show's message comes across loud and clear. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, the episode's literal take on the American and British response to the Jyllands-Posten crisis, we need to challenge attempts to clamp down on freedom of expression. It is unacceptable and cowardly to allow a threat of violence to destroy our most important values. Such appeasement creates a vicious cycle as other groups seek to obtain a similar restriction that they not be offended.

There is so much more going on in these episodes and I’ve only covered a small portion of their range. At the same time it manages to stay really, really funny. However, despite the combination of subtle and brutally obvious messages in the show it was life rather than art which made the point most convincingly. At the climax the fictional Fox President decides to screen the image of Muhammad. By contrast, in reality Comedy Central censored South Park’s incredibly gentle portrayal of Muhammad. Just as Muhammad is about to be shown in the fictional Family Guy episode the actual programme cuts to a black screen with simple white text. The danger to our most cherished and important values was clear for all to see when "In this shot, Mohammed hands a football helmet to Family Guy; Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network" replaced such a moderate defiance of the violent threats of our enemies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The FT on the Budget: Lex and Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf is always good value and if you want a detailed account of what the new budget means this article is well worth reading in full. This section seems particularly crucial:

"Overall, as was always expected, the Budget is close to neutral. How, then, has the chancellor been able to finance his two most exciting announcements: the reduction in the rate of corporation tax from 30 to 28 per cent, at a cost of £2.23bn from an indexed base in 2009-10, and the reduction in the base rate from 22p to 20p, at a cost of £9.64bn? The answers are simple: the former is financed by cutting capital allowances, worth £2.27bn in 2009-10; and the latter is largely financed by the elimination of the 10p starting rate of income tax, worth an additional £8.63bn in 2009-10."

An opinion that I've heard a lot from right-wing enthusiasts for this budget is that it is a lot like what we've been expecting from George Osborne, Lex argues the same although he cautions that even more strain is being put on the public finances.

This is clearly true to a certain extent. The change to the main rate of corporate tax, financed by cuts in capital allowances is a moderate version of exactly what the Shadow Chancellor proposed just a few days ago. However, there are two crucial differences:

  1. The reliance on the tax credit system to compensate poor families for the loss of the 10% rate. Given the weight of Tory criticism on their effectiveness it seems more likely that some kind of change to personal allowances would have been made. Relying on tax credits is problematic as they are neither simple (and once they are relied upon the benefits of simplification start to be lost) nor comprehensive (in particular the single poor will suffer).
  2. An anomalous hit to small businesses. This is hugely problematic particularly as the only compensation to them is an expansion in capital allowance which means the organisations least able to cope with increasing volumes of red tape will have an increase in complexity rather than simplification.

These two big differences are the most concrete departures from Tory policy. There is some suggestion in the response the Conservatives have released today that they are aware of this. By contrast, the rest of the Conservative official response is largely boilerplate: "we care about the NHS" and "borrowing is too high" without policy to address either.

It seems plausible that this budget might encourage the 'sharing the proceeds of growth' rhetoric from the Conservative Party to become adventurous. Instead of only talking about revenue neutral changes like the ones this budget is mostly composed of they now have cover, as this budget somewhat accepts the 'sharing the proceeds' logic, to start talking about what they might do if plausible growth gives them the opportunity to do some sharing. In the end this Budget was still a net tax raising budget, by hundreds of millions according to the Business, and the Conservatives could articulate that sharing the proceeds of growth will allow them to change this pattern.

Budget 2007

Recently I confidently predicted that we would see nothing interesting coming out of the Budget. I extrapolated from the pre-budget report which played safe and did little of substance. Now, we have headline cuts in the basic rate of income tax and the main rate of corporation tax. The TaxPayers Alliance blog, in their initial reaction, called for "three cheers for the Chancellor" although they noted that devil is always in the detail with Brown budgets. I was wrong and something big has happened, has something good happened?

The first thing to note is that this just can't be as good as it looks. He's been given something of a stay of execution in public finance terms but there just isn't room in the budget for big giveaways unless spending is properly controlled or the dynamic implications of tax cuts given proper prominence. Room for tax cuts combined with a continuing rise, though slowed, in public spending is limited. This has resulted in what Philip Stevens, writing for the FT, calls a "Budget worthy of the Kremlin".

The headline cut in income tax is balanced by the abolition of the 10% rate. While this sort of flattening of the tax code is a good idea in general it needs to be, and usually is in flat tax proposals, balanced by a significant increase in the personal allowance to prevent the poor taking a kicking. This does not appear to have been done and the poor will take a kicking. More will be reliant upon tax credits with all the problems that brings.

The corporation tax measures are broadly sensible insofar as they reduce allowances and cut the main rate. This is a cautious version of the plan Osborne recently announced (the Conservative plan was for a 3% rather than 2% cut) and a good idea as it simplifies the tax system. However, this is combined with a rise in the rate on small business which is unfortunate. Plenty of vulnerable businesses will be waking up this morning facing a rise in tax they will struggle to afford.

One final item to note at this early stage is the tax avoidance legislation. "A loss accruing to a company is not an allowable loss if it arises as part of arrangements which have a tax advantage as their main purpose, or one of their main purposes". This is the kind of language which makes it unclear what is illegal and what is not. It forces companies to up their compliance budgets to ensure that they minimise legal risk. This has large costs throughout the economy which can be hard to spot in accounting terms.

An interesting sign of how the politics might play out comes from Neill Harvey-Smith who asks why socialist MPs are cheering the changes in income tax:

"David Cameron was supposed to be embarrassed by the surprise income tax announcement. But he wasn't. Gordon Brown clearly doesn't understand the difference between tactics and strategy. The battle of ideas was conceded in that smug moment. If the government can cut taxes and increase spending, then Labour's biggest stick for beating the Conservatives is broken. If Labour MPs cheer tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the poor, what is the point of the Labour party?"

In particular, this would seem to create an opportunity for quite a cohesive approach for the Conservative party attacking a Brown led Labour government. If Labour are rebalancing the tax system in favour of bigger business and richer people the Conservatives can campaign as champions of the 'little guy'. It would fit absolutely beautifully with a number of other Conservative policy priorities:

Conservative support for the Third Sector allows for little people to do their work caring for people without the frustrations of control by big government regulation. Conservative opposition to too many centralised targets allows for the little guy working in the public services to get on with his job without the big state bureaucracy on his back. It would even fit with the dismal rhetoric a while back about the risks of Tesco ruining small shops; big business crushing the little guy.

I'm still trying to come up with a term to define this approach but "Shopkeeper Conservatism" might do the trick and appeals to an old understanding of Britain emerging from Napoleon's attempt at an insult. A friend suggests "Conservatism of Little Platoons" but Iain Duncan Smith may already have claimed that one. A couple of people I've discussed this approach with have suggested the term "populism" which hints at its electoral appeal.

Hygienic Party Drugs for the Noughties

"Popping animal worming tablets must rank as one of the more bizarre ways of getting high.

But the growing popularity of the pills, called BZP, among young people seeking a new form of stimulant led the UK's medicines regulator to warn yesterday that their sale was illegal.


[The] drug's active ingredient piperazine can cause problems including agitation, vomiting, seizures and allergic reactions, the MHRA said. The effects are similar to amphetamine and in extreme cases, may result in death, the agency said."

Oh my. Doesn't someone taking these things occassionally look in the mirror and think "what am I doing?"

When you're so attached to finding an artificial high you're willing to take a tablet that is so unpleasant it needs to be crushed into your dog's food or forced down its throat something has gone wrong. Take a long, hard look at your life.

The Extreme Life of J. S. Haldane

I can hardly claim to be impartial about my Uncle's book but it really does sound interesting. The story of a pioneering Scottish inventor who developed the use of canaries for mines and gas masks in the trenches of the First World War. In particular, the book is going to focus on the sacrifice of self-experimentation by this Victorian gentleman. It's out in a couple of months I believe.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Probably the best website in the world...

Set up by a collaboration of the Universities of Sheffield and Michigan Worldmapper.Org is truly brilliant. Over three hundred different cartograms displaying the world with the sizes of countries adjusted for various measures. Nice little descriptions next to them.

A thumbnail index of them all starts here.

Some highlights. Want to know why we're still able to afford imports despite the decline in manufacturing?

Where do most refugees go?

Don't take your dog to India:

Finally, compare military spending in 2002:

With war deaths in the same year:

Apparently if you want peace it really is best to prepare for war.

Will June 25th be the end of the Blair-era?

We've had these headlines before and this is somewhat qualified as it is an aide's plan rather than a set in stone date but the FT is a pretty reliable source:

"Senior Downing Street officials have drawn up a detailed draft timetable for Tony Blair's departure from Number 10 this summer, which will see him finally quit office in the last week of June.


Under the terms of the timetable Mr Blair will formally announce his intention to resign on either May 5 or May 8, one day after the first May bank holiday. His announcement on either day of his intention to leave office will trigger a seven-week contest for the Labour leadership.

This contest will culminate in the convening of a special Labour party conference at which the result of the leadership ballot will be formally declared. This conference will take place on June 23, immediately after Mr Blair returns from his final European Council meeting in Brussels."

After that happens the political phony war that has resulted from having a Prime Minister who has promised to leave before the next election may, finally, be over.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Right-wing success in Finland

Another Nordic success for the centre-right:

"The time for analysis of the results and why things went so well for the moderate conservatives of the NCP and so badly for the Social Democrats is still ahead, but one thing appears certain: as Finland shifts towards the right in what can only be described as an NCP landslide (in a country noted for small electoral swings), it is hard to envisage the new government being anything but a centre-right coalition."

According to a Finnish friend it is possible that new right-wing coalition will abolish the inheritance tax, cut income taxation significantly and take Finland into Nato. Eventually the Nordic countries will look across the North Sea and be baffled by the overbearing, high-tax economy in Britain.

BBC Report on Stern

This is an interesting BBC report on global warming (click in the top right to listen to the full report), which mirrors but expands upon some of Lawson's critiques of the assumptions in the Stern Review (via DK). Essentially, there are two key criticisms.

Firstly, Stern has chosen particularly strong assumptions, at the extreme end of the IPCC's predictions or beyond. He has double-counted costs and largely ignored the possibility of adaptation. Most of the differences are in economic prediction rather than the natural science analysis. This is the strategy of a report designed to justify a preconceived conclusion. Stern's defence of this is that the IPCC is "based on consensus" and he prefers his own analysis of the evidence but when he acknowledges that his report is only really qualified for economic analysis this is rather weak.

Secondly, the vast majority of the harms Stern identifies are predicted to occur after 2100. The BBC report mainly discusses this as a divergence from the popular understanding of the report and, in particular, the "5% now and forever" soundbite. More importantly it moves the predicted costs into a more uncertain time period. Predictions over a hundred years in the future should always be taken with a pinch of salt whether they are predictions of demographic apocalypse from Mark Steyn or global warming from the green movement.

There is a brilliant bit rebutting Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, who says we can see global warming in Britain in the Thames Barrier being raised so much more in the last five years than in the five years previous. The reporter actually goes to the Thames Barrier and finds that the truth is the opposite. However, truth has been made hostage to politics. Chris Huhne's over-confident ignorance encapsulates what makes much of the global warming debate so unimpressive.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gandhi, Churchill and Accountability

My post on Gandhi the other day was largely just a background for those who are tempted to make him a part of some kind of secular canon. It was a decidedly non-Thogger post. However, since I wrote it I've been thinking about the parallels to Churchill.

In much the same way as I did with Gandhi it is easy to find things wrong with the popular choice for Greatest Briton. He played a large part in Gallipoli, the decision to restore the Gold Standard at its pre-war parity after the First World War and then tried his luck at the 'soft underbelly' strategy again and got Allied troops bogged down in Italy. Churchill's record, if one were to count 'good' and 'bad' decisions, would be decidely poor.

The left once tried to get his election as the LSE Student Union's Vice-President (an honorary position often given to the dead) ruled unconstitutional on the basis of opinions he stated which are, by modern standards, racist and unpleasant. This is not necessarily an indictment of his character as he lived in a time of different norms and when racism meant something quite different. As such, I'm not convinced by such criticisms but for many they clearly will weigh into an assessment of his quality as well as the practical failings addressed above.

The reason that Churchill and Gandhi should still be considered great despite their failings is that they were right when at their most important. Churchill's failures of military decision making and economic analysis did not change history whereas his emphatic leadership in confronting one of history's greatest evils are as important as a single human's actions can be. Similarly, Gandhi's letters to the British people imploring them not to fight the Nazis made little impact and Indian economic policy was mostly set by successors such as Nehru. By contrast rendering the British exit from India peaceful (although the same could not be achieved for the partition) was a monumentally important achievement. Both Churchill and Gandhi were redeemed by a visionary conviction at the right place and time: Churchill's that the Nazi ideology was too aggressive and inhuman to be appeased. Gandhi's that Britain was losing its commitment to Empire and might be more vulnerable to the moral suasion of non-violent resistance than to the certainties of war.

Now, it is extremely difficult to tell which visionary, and often minority, understandings of the world will be correct after the fact. Mao's that untrained, ideologically driven effort could propel China towards great power status or Stalin's that Communism was being undermined by traitors who need to be purged may look less plausible now but managed to persuade the relevant political classes. Churchill's vision looked deeply aggressive and reactionary to those who wanted to avoid another world war. Gandhi's non-violent resistance must have sounded hopelessly naive and opportunistic to some at the time.

If one were to use accountability as the principle which underlies the modern choice of leaders to assess these different visionaries I'm not sure any would come out well. I think that with the catalogue of problems it would be tempting to avoid all of them. A conservative response, along Kieron O'Hara's lines, would be that this proves that radical visions are generally dangerous stuff and cautious, incrementalist leaders are to be preferred. However, clearly a radical break with old thinking can be necessary in order to make the right decisions, particularly in times of great stress. Those who responded conservatively to Hitler did not cover themselves in glory.

Without accountability what other method might we use to choose our leaders in hard times?

Sometimes we will be able to rely upon our own intellects and moral compass to assess their vision itself. However, during times of crisis or other great change the expected results of policies may be almost impossible to ascertain and circumstances rapidly changing. If this is the case we need to ask what sort of representative we should be looking for.

I would suggest that a key difference between Gandhi and Churchill and Mao and Stalin is that the former possessed tolerant personalities. Churchill could be catty during debates but this was always more the game of the debating chamber than a brutal intolerance of criticism. Gandhi was a barrister with the willingness to debate that entails. It would seem that the best lesson we can take from history is that the leaders best equipped to see us through hard times will be those who have the least tendency to see criticism as an assault. An open mind is the best defence against madness.