31 March 2011

Joanna Hogg’s ‘Archipelago’

As I began to read Harry Eyres’s The Slow Lane article, Spotlight on a class apart, in the FT on 19 March, I almost wanted to give Archipelago a miss:
I went to see Joanna Hogg’s latest film, Archipelago, for family reasons – not just because she happens to be a cousin of mine but also because I imagined the film, about an upper-middle-class family having a fraught holiday in the Scilly Isles, might strike some familiar chords.
then later:
Among the birdsongs featured, Hogg has confirmed to me, are those of the stonechat, chiffchaff, whitethroat, curlew, songthrush and wren
After seeing Archipelago, I’m glad my initial suspicions of Eyres’ article being little more than a shameless plug for a relative were unfounded. Most of his article is a slightly tedious apologia for Hogg having made a film about the “upper-middle-classes”. Eyres, (who at 53 may now look a tad older than in his FT photo), judging from remarks made in previous The Slow Lane columns, comes from the upper classes, even though he seems to want to demote himself to the upper-middle. Whether he and Hogg are related to the well-known Eyres family who came with William the Conqueror, I have no idea. And, as one of humble origins, I don't have to agonise about the class stuff. The question is: is it a good film?
Eyres thought it was a small masterpiece, but I’m not so sure. Certainly anyone who admires films like Woody Allen’s September or the films of Eric Rohmer will enjoy it. Conversely, if you’d rather watch paint dry, then you won’t. By the way, Eric Rohmer’s films (and I’ve seen nearly all of them) are usually about the petite bourgeoisie, not haute as Eyres says, and anyway class is different in France. The problems for me were in the photography and in the plot, not the people.

Nearly all the filming was static and long shot, with the action (actors, helicopters etc) moving in and out of frame. Rohmer fans will be familiar with this, but over-used it does get a bit tiring. For me, some tracking and panning are integral to cinematography, as is the use of closer shots of actors as a means for identifying with the characters, something which Hogg seemed to adopt only towards the end.

The plot concerns three members (mother about 50; son, daughter in their 20s) of an archipelagic family being unhappy in their own way on holiday in Tresco (one of the Isles of Scilly, west of SW England). A young woman is employed as cook. An artist coaches mother and daughter and philosophises with the son. However, the holiday is supposed to last a fortnight (in late October judging by the weather and a poppy being worn), but the action and character development doesn’t match – it seems more like a long weekend. The son’s girlfriend is barred from coming; the father never appears; the daughter, attractive, difficult, seems to have no significant other; the son relationship’s with the cook doesn’t evolve (surely not because her class!). These non-happenings detract from the credibility of a realist film. After nearly two hours in the cinema, little seems to have been resolved – just like real life, then - and the knives are packed away to be used another time.

It was good, but not in my mind a “small masterpiece”. However, I have ordered the DVD of Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, and I will watch out for her next (Archipelago is already on DVD, by the way). Eric Rohmer didn’t make the third of his Contes moraux, Ma nuit chez Maud, until he was 49, and finished his Contes des quatre saisons at 78. Hogg is a mere 51, so plenty of time for a masterpiece!

ADDENDUM 2 May 2011
I have now watched Hogg’s first film, Unrelated, set in Tuscany, and again there is an “upper middle class” family on the sort of holiday where people are paid to cook for them. They are joined by Anna, a childless forty-something escaping temporarily from a relationship problem, played well by Kathryn Worth. She tries to hang out with the adolescent children (Tom Hiddleston plays the son in this one, too) but fails and finishes up gaining solace from her own generation. The chronology and plot work better than in Archipelago and there’s a similar bags-in-the-hall scene at the end. On the DVD extra Hogg talks about her work – to me she still seems more the photographer that she used to be than a cinematographer. She explains that her use of still shots is a consequence of digital filming technology. Elsewhere, I have read that she intends to direct a third film, to make up a trilogy. She says she will be “returning to the theme of childlessness that I raised in Unrelated, combined with the continued exploration into what family means. I see something that is highly coloured, crowded with people and more physical with a redemptive, optimistic outlook.” Sounds like a holiday in India next.

Maybe I’ve got an eye for the wrong sort of detail, but in the Night Swimming scene in Unrelated, there seems to be a continuity error – or was it part of Anna’s come-on?

ADDENDUM 26 July 2012

To fill newspaper columns at this time of the year, a favourite standby is to round up some suitable names and ask them where they are going on holiday or what books they are going to read. So on 21/22 July in FT Life and Arts various luminaries were asked about their ideal summer breaks, including Joanna Hogg, Film-maker and screenwriter:

How are you spending the summer?
I’m preparing a new film but in August I’m escaping to Göcek in Turkey to relax with 15 friends on a gulet, a traditional sailing boat. …
Where would you like to go next?
Japan in the autumn with [artist husband] Nick but, because of filming, this trip will have to wait until 2013. …

Her IMDb entry sheds no more light currently.  Tom Hiddleston looks a bit busy these days.

27 March 2011

Another Brother (again)

In a post back in January, I asked:
So, what does Ed Balls think should be done about “rising inflation”, which he seems to think is a bad thing, and to secure the greater borrowing that Labour's deficit reduction plans imply – must interest rates go up? He could ask his brother at Pimco. After all, as the Sunday Times, Independent and Daily Telegraph pointed out last July: “...the bond house's European investment team is headed by Andrew Balls, brother of Labour leadership candidate Ed Balls.”
So it was worth listening carefully on 25 March when BC Radio 4’s Today programme had an item on Portugal’s debt problem which had just led to their Prime Minister resigning. The Today website later reported the following:
Andrew Balls, head of European investments at the world's largest bond traders, Pimco, told the programme that eurozone countries face "weeks of ongoing uncertainty".
"Portugal has essentially lost access to financial markets," he said, making it more difficult for the country to meet repayment deadlines coming up in the next few months.
And he added that it was "hard to see significant default risk" in United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, all of which have their own currencies, their own central banks and more flexibility over financial policy.
Evan Davis, who was Andrew Balls’ interviewer, didn’t introduce him as Ed’s brother. Andrew B wasn’t asked for his reaction to the warnings a day earlier from credit ratings agencies Fitch and Moody's that weaker growth or persistently high inflation could jeopardise the UK's prized AAA rating. Davis also didn’t ask Andrew B about the bond market’s view of Labour’s alternative to the Coalition’s economic policies. This had been set out by Ed B, also the day before, in the Budget debate, and it is interesting to read his speech in full in Hansard. A key extract:
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman please share his plan and growth strategy with us?
Ed Balls: I will gladly share our plan. First, the economy was strengthening and unemployment was falling- …Unemployment was falling and growth was rising because we were halving the deficit over the four years. The Chancellor has gone from halving the deficit to trying to get rid of it entirely in four years, by implementing the largest cuts to spending and tax rises of any economy in the world. It is not working. In fact, we heard today that Moody's, the credit rating agency, is looking at whether it needs to downgrade the British economy because of the threats to growth following yesterday's Budget.
Halving the deficit over four years was ambitious but deliverable. Eliminating the budget deficit in four years means a massive fiscal contraction. Unless we suspend all the laws of economics, assume that no international evidence counts, and believe that fiscal multipliers do not count in our kind of economy, that kind of contraction in fiscal policy and its impact on the public and private sectors is crushing. Only Greece is trying to go faster. We have already seen the biggest fall in consumer confidence for 20 years, and unemployment is up before the cuts have really started to bite.
Andrew came over as a calmer character than Ed, and I would guess he is the older brother. Is he yet another Oxford PPE graduate - like Ed, the Milibands, Cameron et al?

ADDENDUM 30 MARCH: John Rentoul today posted on his Independent blog a profile of Ed Balls which he had written for GQ magazine in March 2009. This reveals that Andrew Balls is seven years younger than Ed, also went to Oxford (subject not clear from Rentoul’s article) and also worked for the FT, but left for fund management.

24 March 2011

The Spectator’s Andrew Lambirth on Susan Hiller

The art critic of The Spectator, Andrew Lambirth, recently reviewed (19 March) Susan Hiller’s exhibition at Tate Britain which I posted about last month. Although Lambirth seems to have been impressed by Hiller’s work in the past, it didn’t work well for him this time:
… ‘Witness’ (2000), a potentially beautiful and intriguing installation of 400 dangling speakers murmuring multiple reports of UFO sightings, makes the wrong impression here, and has none of the eerie magic it had when first I encountered it in The Chapel in Golborne Road, W10. In the Tate it descends into banal cacophony. Context, with Hiller’s work, is quite clearly of fundamental importance.
So much of this exhibition comes across as sanitised, portentous and oddly dreary. However, it is quite literary in conception — which encourages commentators to write reams of pretentious verbiage about it — and this tends to reassure the word-loving English. Text is everywhere, in fact, and art scarcely gets a look-in. This is the stuff of school projects blown out of all proportion. The exhibition does no service to Susan Hiller: clearly it should not be on show in the Tate.
His experience of the Hiller show led to wider thoughts:
Since pluralism in the arts became the order of the day, categories have been bursting at the seams, and the old definitions have lost validity. No longer does visual art denote painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing, but all manner of extraneous and tangentially linked activities as well. Film, installation and performance are crammed in under the same umbrella as Michelangelo, Dürer and Monet, when it’s painfully clear they have almost nothing in common with such illustrious forerunners.
In fact, it’s extremely doubtful whether much of the stuff that currently parades under the banner of art has any justification for being there. Quite obviously, all film and photographic work should be removed to galleries of film and photography, performance should go back to theatre whence it came, and installation could profitably be confined to empty office buildings, where much of it would blend in nicely. Our great national art museums and galleries should be kept for their original purpose — the preservation and display of art.
By this definition of art, one of Hiller’s works which impressed me, The J. Street Project, would be sent off to a cinematheque. Applying it more widely, presumably the Tate curators would have to turn down offers of works like Duchamp’s Fountain or Epstein’s Rock Drill, should the originals reappear.

So how to decide what should be in and what out? Another distinction between the non-arts like installation and performance and “art” might be provided by Lambirth’s comment “Context, with Hiller’s work, is quite clearly of fundamental importance.” Presumably this wouldn’t apply to Michelangelo, Dürer and Monet? But was the experience of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in Washington in 1963 the same as in the Louvre, then or now? That loan is the subject of Lisa Liebmann’s article in Tate etc - worth a look, especially for Robert Knadsen’s photograph (which might or might not be regarded as art?).

After reviewing the Hiller show, Lambirth's article turns to what he calls a splendid exhibition of portraits in the Dorset County Museum:
"I haven’t seen the exhibition yet but the merest glance at the highly informative and fully illustrated catalogue (paperback, £15) makes it look fascinating."
- which could lead into another quagmire about the relationship between works of art and their reproductions, and what judgements on the former canlegitimately be drawn from the latter.

23 March 2011

Pret A Manger's Crinkly Old Bag

Being a creature of habit, for the last 20 years or so, if I’ve needed a bite at lunchtime and there’s a branch of Pret A Manger handy, that’s where I’ve gone in search of:
... proper sandwiches avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the 'prepared' and 'fast' food on the market today
not difficult when they have over 200 branches in the UK, though mostly in London and only a few in SW England. The other day in London, I noticed this on the counter:

Pret A Manger's Crinkly Old Bag
 The text in close-up:

The thought crossed my mind that there was something a little sexist and ageist about this wording, but I put it down to my age or the menopause (male). Perhaps the environmental message is a bit Pret-entious. We all recycle these days, and this is about a paper bag not the development of carbon capture.

PS. I don’t believe Google reads text from jpg images (or does it?) so, for the benefit of any passing web crawlers, this is what it said:

Crinkly Old Bag
The environment's a hot issue and quite rightly so. About time!
Enjoying sustainable, top quality, natural, preservative- free food is pretty fundamental as well.
The baguette in this recyclable and biodegradable bag was baked and filled right here at Pret.
(No ‘sell by’ dates and ‘display until’ labels…Hurrah!)
Of course, the bag isn't really old and what's inside is 'Just Made'.
This Crinkly Old Bag is 100% recyclable.

PPS. Apologies to any French readers, but they like to be Pret A Manger, not Prêt à Manger!

18 March 2011

Social Mobility and the Conscience of the Rich

Most of us do not make considerable fortunes – so who are we to criticise those who do or how they choose to spend their largesse? If rich men want to buy Picassos and lend them to the Tate, surely it’s up to them? Of course, there is a long history of charitable donations by the wealthy from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, and recently two Britons who made fortunes in the financial services boom have set up charitable foundations to examine issues relating to social mobility.

The Sutton Trust was founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl after a career in private equity in the US. “The main objective of the Sutton Trust is to improve educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds and increase social mobility”. Clive Cowdery, who made a fortune in the insurance industry, in 2005 set up the Resolution Foundation, “an independent, not-for-profit research and policy organisation dedicated to improving the well-being of low-to-middle earners (LMEs) in today’s mixed economy”.

The Trust and the Foundation are registered charities with a similar modus operandi. The Sutton Trust sees itself as:
a 'do-tank' which not only undertakes research and advocates policy change, but also funds, develops and tests innovative practical solutions to educational inequality. The Trust is now focusing on research and policy work.
The Resolution Foundation undertakes:
original research and economic analysis to understand the challenges facing LMEs today. We develop practical and effective policy proposals to tackle the issues we identify, and we engage with policy makers and other key stakeholders to influence decision making and bring about change.
Both organisations employ “bright young things” to get the work done, “clever old things” as trustees, and are chaired by their founders. Both get frequent media coverage of their activities, the longer established Sutton Trust probably being better-known, but the Resolution Foundation recently sponsored a high-profile event with Ed Miliband as a speaker. Both undertake research relating to social mobility, the Sutton Trust, because of its interest in the inherently long-term benefits of education, tends to look at inter-generational issues. Resolution has recently published a report, “Moving on up? Social mobility in the 1990s and 2000s”. It compared how intra-generationally mobile people a group of people in their 30s had been in the 1990s with another younger group’s experience in their 30s during the 2000s.

The Resolution report received good press coverage, eg in the Financial Times on 11 March 2011 under the headline “Social mobility ‘increased 22% during 2000s’”:
Social mobility – at least as measured by earnings – increased during the past decade, according to a study that challenges the widely held view that social mobility is static or even in decline. Research focused on the earnings of people now in their thirties and early forties shows the chances of making a significant move up or down the earnings ladder remain pretty low.
But the work, by the Resolution Foundation, calculates there was a 22 per cent increase in the probability of moving significantly up the earnings distribution table in the 2000s compared with the 1990s. Back then, less than 3 per cent of people who started the decade in the bottom 20 per cent of earnings made it into the top 20 per cent by the end of the decade. In the 2000s that percentage remained low but had almost doubled to nearly 6 per cent.
Social mobility is a politically-loaded topic. Comparisons between the 1990s and the 2000s are to a large extent between the periods of Conservative and New Labour government, so evidence of improved social mobility after 2000 reflects well on Labour. Not that any party wants to neglect the issue. The Coalition Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave a speech on social mobility in August 2010 in which he said “our long-term social policy goal is social mobility” (though this was primarily directed at inter-generational mobility). It wasn’t surprising, then, that two members of the UK twitterati with long political antennae, Paul Waugh and John Rentoul, picked up on reports of the Resolution study, asking “What does this mean for the Coalition's narrative?” and “What does this mean for the media narrative?”, respectively. This post attempts to answer their questions – and fails.

The devil always lies in the detail, so the starting point in coming up with an answer was the Resolution report, in particular Section 3, which explains that the data for the older group came from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) and for the younger group from the British Cohort Study (BCS). NCDS attempts to follow through their lives all the people born in one week in England, Scotland and Wales in 1958. The second has aimed to follow all the children in England, Scotland and Wales born in one week in 1970. Among the data collected by NCDS and BCS from the individuals who make up these “cohorts” has been information about incomes. This provided the basis of the Resolution study which used changes in earnings as the measure of mobility. Table 1 of the report (page 9, reproduced below) summarises the data sets that were used.
It is important at this point to realise that “Sample size” here refers to the number of individuals whose data was selected by Resolution from the respective NCDS and BCS cohorts. How and why this was done is explained in Appendix A and attention should be paid to Tables A1 and A2. In essence, individuals who had negative or zero earnings and individuals who were self-employed (“due to the unreliability of earnings data for that group”) were excluded.

Using the data in Table A1 it is possible to reconstruct the “Economic Activity” of the total NCDS cohort of 11469 (apparently) individual and compare it with that of the 5903 in the Resolution sample:

Again, the effect of the exclusion applied to produce the Resolution sample from the total NCDS cohort can be seen in the “Social Class” percentages:

Something similar happens with the BCS-derived sample:

Appendix A recognises the apparent over-representation of the higher social classes, particularly in the BCS sample, but goes on to argue:
To test the effect of this on our findings of mobility we re-ran the regression of log earnings found in Table A5 of the Appendix B but with respondents from the managerial and skilled manual social classes excluded from both cohorts. The results are shown in Table A3 and are purely indicative as exclusion of the managerial and skilled manual classes removes 57 percent of respondents from the NCDS sample and 65 percent from the BCS sample. Using these reduced samples, mobility is still significantly higher among the 2000s BCS cohort than the 1990s NCDS cohort. However, we acknowledge that the increased probability of inclusion in the BCS cohort due to respondents being a member of the managerial or skilled manual classes may have increased the overall estimate, but not reduced its significance.
The Resolution report then says:
Another point to note is that the rate of exclusion overall is much higher in the BCS cohort where the excluded sample contained 2,105 more respondents than the final research sample. In comparison, the NCDS excluded sample contained 337 fewer respondents than the final research sample.
This is more easily understood by reference to the table below:
The report then states:
The reason for this is likely to be the data collection methodology of the 2008 BCS survey which used a telephone interview rather than the face-to-face interview used in other NCDS and BCS surveys. Telephone interviews tend to have lower response rates than face-to-face interviews and overall attrition between the start and end points of the BCS survey (2000 and 2008) used in this research was higher than between the start and end points of the NCDS survey (1991 and 2000).
To understand the expression “start and end points” it is helpful to look at the website of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS, part of the University of London’s Institute of Education). Their NCDS page explains that the NCDS cohort (considered to be 16240 individuals) was surveyed in 1991 and 1999/2000 at the ages of 33 and 42 (cf Table 1 quoted above) and that samples of 11407 and 11419 (about 70%) were achieved. Neither of these figures is exactly the 11469 Resolution figure, but not far off, and there certainly wasn’t any “attrition” between the two surveys.

The Centre’s BCS pages are more problematic. They confirm the Resolution figure of 11261 30-year olds (out of a target 16068, again 70%) surveyed in 1999/2000 (Table 1 again) but provide little data about the 2008 telephone survey, although “the dataset will be available from the UK Data Archive in September 2010”. It turns out that the National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) was contracted by CLS to undertake the 2008 survey, and their Technical Report is available. This reveals that the intention was to survey 11843 of the BCS cohort as selected by CLS and that 8874 telephone interviews were achieved (75%) by NCSR. However, how many of these 8874 were excluded by Resolution as being self-employed or without income is not clear. If 40 % were excluded, as was the case for the 1999/2000 BCS dataset, that would have given a sample of about 3600 individuals. However, this would not be consistent with the statement in Section 3 of the report: “The size of the cohort samples which are above 4,500 in both [NCDS and BCS] cases”.

Not being a social scientist (probably apparent in previous posts about IEA and IPPR) I accept that I lack a proper appreciation of the difficulties such work presents in terms of data. Having acquired the earnings numbers, Resolution, I’m sure, crunched them competently to produce the tabulations of transitions and estimates of mobility. I wonder, however, about the errors in the data that might derive from the exclusions made by Resolution from both the NCDS and BCS datasets. Also, it is not clear how Resolution treated the much smaller 2008 BCS dataset. Its reduced size was not exactly due to “attrition” (a problem which develops over time with all longitudinal surveys) but to a change in methodology. Is it possible that moving to a telephone survey introduced a bias towards individuals with higher earnings?  Anyway, putting it crudely, the report seems to show that in the 1990s, when incomes generally were rising, the NCDS group were all getting better off with small relative changes (all boats rising with the tide) ie there was high absolute mobility.  In the 2000s, a period of largely stagnant incomes, the younger group experienced bigger relative changes (snakes and ladders).  The characteristics of the winners and losers in relative terms is going to be the subject of future Resolution research.    
So, to return to the Waugh/Rentoul questions – I don’t think I can help! Apart from pointing out that the government is more interested in inter-generational than the intra-generational mobility which Resolution was attempting to address.

What should rich men with a conscience, and a broader interest in society than making money out of it, do with their money? Of course it’s up to them if they want to set up think tanks to investigate hobby-horse issues. (Personally I would want to emulate Bryan Ferry and collect modern British art!) I do wonder, though, whether mainstream politics, where the full breadth of social issues and claims on public money have to be addressed, might be a better outlet for these undoubtedly clever and energetic individuals (quite a few of the current Cabinet seem to have made a pile). It seems undemocratic to me that certain single issues can gain more attention than they deserve, by comparison with others which don’t happen to be rich men’s fancies.

9 March 2011

Libya - Liberal Interventionism Revisited

Just what the rest of the world, including the UK and our allies, should do, or will have to do, about the situation emerging in Libya is far from clear. On 8 March, Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly UK ambassador in Washington, wrote in the Daily Mail about the UK government’s foreign policy in reaction to the Arab Spring:
The very foundations of British foreign policy need to be examined, because all is muddle and confusion. We don’t seem to be able to think straight about when, if at all, it is right to intervene in another country. In an echo of Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism, we appear to have foreign policy ambitions that once again outstrip our military capabilities.
This post revisits the origins of Blair's “liberal interventionism”, and, interestingly, it was in his 2005 book, DC Confidential, that Meyer had provided a well-informed view of the speech (The Doctrine of the International Community’) which Tony Blair had given in Chicago on 24 April 1999, and to which the concept now seems to be attached:
Blair delivered a speech of some significance. It completely blindsided the Foreign Office. Against the background of Kosovo he promulgated a doctrine of international community and humanitarian intervention, almost pre-emption: that it was justified to violate the frontiers and sovereignty of a state if within its borders genocide was about to be, or was being, carried out. This was not a million miles from one of the main arguments used to justify the attack on Iraq in 2003. They say, though I could not corroborate this myself, that the ideas underpinning the speech were borrowed from the foreign policy analyst and academic Lawrence Freedman.
The speech made a lot of people sit up. Some even went as far as to say that the basic principles of the modern nation-state, established after the Thirty Years War in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, had been overturned. In fact, it was not that radical. The right to intervene on human-rights grounds in the internal affairs of another country had, to all intents and purposes, been ceded in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the grand bargain between the western and communist halves of Europe, which became one of the pillars of détente.
The speech, eloquently delivered in Blair's evangelical style, was received with a thunderous standing ovation from the hundreds of Chicagoans who filled the cavernous ballroom of one of the city's largest hotels.
Sir (now) Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal at King’s College, London, and a member of the Iraq Inquiry Committee. On 18 January 2010 he wrote to the Inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, enclosing a memo, ‘Chicago Speech: Some Suggestions’, that he had sent to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff at the latter’s request on 16 April 1999. (Powell was to give evidence to the Inquiry on 18 January 2010).

With a few changes, Freedman’s memo provided the International Security section of the Blair’s speech. It is interesting to examine the non-trivial alterations (underlinings below are mine). Blair began following Freedman closely:
We now have a decade of experience since the end of the cold war. It has certainly been a less easy time than many people hoped in the natural euphoria that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Our armed forces have been busier than ever – delivering humanitarian aid, deterring attacks on defenceless people, backing up UN resolutions, and occasionally engaging in major wars, as we did in the Gulf in 1991 and are currently doing in the Balkans.
but then omitted Freedman’s subsequent cautionary sentence:
In the search for a peace dividend the armed forces of the west were cut back, but they can be cut no further and we are starting to worry about overstretch.
and that was in 1999, before current Western cuts/savings and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan! Later Freedman pointed to enlightened self-interest as a rationale for intervention:
As we address world problems, at the NATO summit and G8 meetings, we might be tempted to think back to the clarity and simplicity of the cold war. T here were arguments about the right strategy to adopt to contain the Soviet threat but the threat itself was well understood. Now we have the luxury but also the dilemma of choice. Our most vital interests demand very little of us these days. They are not at risk. Yet we can see values that we cherish being violated daily and images of humanitarian distress that touch our hearts and our consciences. We know that these are often symptoms of political upheavals that could have knock on effects that will eventually be felt at home.
Blair took only the first sentence here, and chose a more moral tone for value-spreading:
As we address these problems at this weekend’s NATO Summit we may be tempted to think back to the clarity and simplicity of the Cold War. But now we have to establish a new framework. No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer. As John Kennedy put it “Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved who is free?”.
He then followed Freedman again:
The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non -interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily. One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or forment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy – look at South Africa.
except that Freedman had proposed “Non-interference … has long been considered a basic principle of international order”, (and also "foment", not the malapropism “forment”).

Then Freedman’s “five tests”, on the issue of when and whether to intervene, became, in the speech, five concise “major considerations”. Among these, Freedman’s:
2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? At times we must negotiate with evil-doers and negotiate seriously. This requires enormous clarity about our concerns and objectives. Of course a desperate desire for compromise can be exploited – but so can a refusal to compromise.
became Blair’s:
Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.
and Freedman’s:
4. Are we prepared for then long-term? We have perhaps in the past talked too much of the need for `exit strategies’ for the good reason that we do not want our forces to be tied up indefinitely. But it is a matter of fact that once we have made a commitment to these unfortunate societies we cannot simply walk away once the fighting is over. There will always be a job of political and economic reconstruction. Better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than to return for repeat performances with large numbers.
became Blair’s:
Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers.
Blair then drew the International Security section of the speech to a conclusion, emphasising the role of the UN and the Security Council, with a similar, but much briefer, argument to Freedman's.

So what is to be done about Libya, particularly by the UK? In his Daily Mail article Meyer suggested:
Nor will the inevitable contradictions in British foreign policy disappear by baldly asserting that our democratic values and our commercial interests go hand in hand, or are, in effect, the same thing, as David Cameron and George Osborne have done in recent speeches. They are plainly not the same. If they were, Britain would do no more business with, for example, the autocracies of Saudi Arabia and China. But we cannot possibly cut our business links with these countries — were we to do so, tens of thousands of British workers would lose their jobs. What Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne would do well to remember is that the first responsibility of a British government is to the security and prosperity of the British ¬citizen — not to those citizens, however deserving, who yearn for freedom in foreign countries across the world.
We have to recognise that change and reform in countries come from within and not through the influence of outside powers. There is very little that we can, or should, do in Libya unless mass slaughter or genocide were to threaten. The last thing on earth Britain wants is to get sucked into a Libyan civil war. It is not a ‘vision’ Britain needs in its foreign policy, but an enlightened pragmatism.
No doubt consideration is underway relating to Freedman’s third test for intervention:
On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations that we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
as echoed by Blair in the Chicago speech, and also to Freedman’s early point about overstretch which Blair had omitted. Presumably, if as seems to be the case, the UK is working closely with partners  on a Security Council resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya on a contingency basis, the UK expects to be able to make a contribution. However, the opportunity cost of committing to Libya and then not being able to act elsewhere could be high. On the other hand, as in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, how long can the rest of the world stand by and watch a dictator turn his armour and air power against a civilian population? The nature and extent of the involvement that the US is prepared to provide will, of course, be the key factor.

8 March 2011

Paul Krugman on Graduate Jobs

In January I posted about UK university participation rates, contrasting the much larger numbers of young people going to universities now with the situation in the 1960s. I suggested that acquiring a university degree in 2010 was roughly comparable to passing the 11+ (and entering grammar school) then. On that basis, job prospects for many graduates today might be similar to those for people who used to leave grammar school without taking A levels.

It now looks as though this might have been an optimistic assessment. In particular, Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist, has made some sobering points in the New York Times recently. On 5 March in his NYT blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman revisited an article he had written in 1996, which was intended to be a look-back from 2096:
I decided to write the piece around a conceit: that information technology would end up reducing, not increasing, the demand for highly educated workers, because a lot of what highly educated workers do could actually be replaced by sophisticated information processing — indeed, replaced more easily than a lot of manual labor. ... So here’s the question: is it starting to happen? Today’s [NYT] has an interesting and, if you think about it, fairly scary report about how software is replacing the teams of lawyers who used to do document research.
Developing the post's theme of The Falling Demand for Brains, he then introduced some evidence that higher education had been oversold: the ratio of earnings for full-time working men with college degrees versus those with high school:
Krugman concluded:
In my mind this raises several questions. One is whether emphasizing education — even aside from the fact that the big rise in inequality has taken place among the highly educated — is, in effect, fighting the last war. Another is how we have a decent society if and when even highly educated workers can’t command a middle-class income.
On 6 March in an op-ed article, Degrees and Dollars, Krugman pointed out that, as well as legal researchers, electronics designers were likely to be replaced by software, and, more generally, high-skill jobs performed by the highly-educated were vulnerable to “offshoring”, further hollowing out the US jobs market.
… the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.
So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.
What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.
Krugman’s views are certainly left-wing (‘liberal’) by US standards, and how the “society of broadly shared prosperity” could be achieved is far from clear. However, his reservations about the value of university degrees certainly seem realistic. Perhaps the current UK preoccupation with issues of fair access and tuition fees is missing the point (“fighting the last war”) that the majority of degree holders (who by definition cannot attend the most prestigious institutions) will never get above-average jobs. There then has to be some doubt as to whether the government will ever recover the money it will be borrowing to lend to students for fees.

2 March 2011

Clay Shirky, Social Media and the Arab Spring

I can remember when the highly-respected journal Foreign Affairs, published six times a year by the US Council on Foreign Relations, came with uncut pages as did American hardbacks. It is still handsomely produced, but being the size of a large paperback and costing £8.95 a copy (or $67 annual subscription), is not easily found these days in UK newsagents. Now, thanks to Amazon Kindle, it appears in seconds by Wi-Fi at a subscription price of £2.98, the penalty being that only the last six issues remain available to the subscriber.

The content of Foreign Affairs is heavyweight but accessible to non-specialists who, after all, get two months to absorb it. The March/April 2011 edition has just arrived and is leading with “The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy” and “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” (I sneaked a quick look at the latter – Charles Glaser’s view seems to be that “realism offers grounds for optimism in this case, so long as ...”). But this post is about an article in the January/February edition (left).

The Political Power of Social Media was written by Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The journal summarises his article:
Discussion of the political impact of social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments. In fact, social media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere -- which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.
My attempt at a fuller summary follows. Shirky contrasts the successes of social media (texts, Facebook, Twitter) in securing regime change as in Moldova in 2009, with their failures like Belarus in 2006, Iran in 2009 and Thailand in 2010. He believes that, in reality, mass protests topple governments through the pressure of civil society, as in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. This process can be developed by internet freedom, but he regards emphasis on advocacy and enablement of the latter as “instrumental” and misplaced. He regards the key element as being the shift in the balance of power between the state and civil society: “Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak.”

However, Shirky does see social media as a powerful mechanism for developing ”shared awareness” – the ability of each member of a group not only to understand a situation, but also to understand that others do as well. The new media-enabled shared awareness leads to “the conservative dilemma” – the state's having to account for the discrepancies between its view of events and the public’s. An authoritarian state can use censorship and propaganda to counter dissent, but the alternative of attempting to shut down the internet or mobile phone networks runs the risk of alienating its own supporters and harming the economy. The Chinese government has spent considerable effort on developing systems to control the new media – [“the Great Firewall of China”]. But such efforts can bring problems – the Bahrain government’s banning of Google Earth helped alert its citizens to the extent of the monarch’s land holdings.

Shirky concludes that the US State Department should reorder its Internet freedom goals towards securing freedom of personal and social communication – freedom of assembly rather than access to Google or YouTube, and accept that progress will be slow.

It can’t be very often that a thesis advanced in Foreign Affairs is put to the test so quickly. Since Shirky’s article went to press there has been turmoil across North Africa and, to a lesser extent so far, the Gulf. It will be some time before we can be certain of the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in the countries concerned. But there seem to be two key issues worth examining in the context of the article – that of timescale, and also the significance of the new media.

My feeling is that in concluding that progress will be slow, Shirky did not consider the pressure of demographics in the Arab world, (along with other relevant data on Scribd - remember that the median is the halfway point, so in the UK half the population is under 40, half over, as opposed to 25 in the countries where it’s all happening). For people in their 20's, waiting years and decades for reforms which they see as urgently needed to improve their lot, wouldn’t be tolerable.

As to the new media, there seems to be some disagreement as to how significant it has actually been. Certainly the young middle-class intelligentsia seem to have made full use of Facebook, etc as enablers for sharing their discontent about the democratic shortfall, but for the mass of people on very small incomes and with limited if any internet access, the shared awareness may be of more basic concerns like the sharply rising price of food.

Shirky seems to have been right about the problems governments face if they attempt to shut down the new media which seem to be more resilient than might have been expected. Alexander Klimburg, a fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, points out that achieving influence over social networks involves:
“highly complex operations that take a lot of resources to accomplish, and also have a small danger. There is a possibility of a 'reverse infection', that the security services themselves are undermined in the process and [come to] support the revolution - something we have seen as well."
In his view:
"What is being witnessed, especially in Egypt, is the perfect storm of social media revolution. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have combined together with standard media [such as TV network Al Jazeera] and cross-border crowd dynamics to create a perfect feedback loop.”
"The Arab revolutions have much in common with the 1848 European revolutions, and shared three important pillars: the importance of an educated and disaffected demographic youth bulge, the impact of new media [in 1848, newspapers, the telegraph and pamphleteering], and the cross-border dynamics," with each revolt triggering and inspiring others.
It is also interesting to note, given Shirky’s policy recommendation that the US should redirect its efforts away from securing internet access, a recent blogpost in Wired: U.S. Has Secret Tools to Force Internet on Dictators. But after examining various hardware options that could impose connectivity, it concludes “This is far less an engineering problem and far more a political one.”

The comingweeks will shed more light on all this, particularly after what may, or may not, occur in Saudi Arabia.