Category Archives: Books

Books Politics

Notes from Diane Coyle’s “GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History”

A short and worthwhile one-sitting read – she can’t help in the end being an economist of her time and place, but she’s at least a critical one…

p. 13-14 Simon Kuznets in the US during the Depression was trying to calculate national income – his figures in January 1934 showed it had halved 1929 to 1932. But he saw his task as trying to measure welfare rather than just output. Quoting him “It would be of great value to have national income estimates that would remove from the total elements which, from the standpoint of a more enlightened social philosophy than that of an acquisitive society represent dis-service rather than service. Such estimates would subtract from the present national income totals all expenses on armaments, most of the outlays on advertising, a great many of the expenses involved in financial and speculative activities, and what is perhaps more important, the outlays that have been made necessary in order to overcome difficulties that are, properly speaking, costs implicit in our economic civilization. All the gigantic outlays in our urban civilisation, subways, expensive housing etc,… do not really represent net services to the individual comprising the nation but are, from their viewpoint, an evil necessary in order to be able to make a living.”

But of course there was a war coming …

“It is startling to look back over the decades and realise how recent consumerism is. … it wasn’t until 1950 that 75% of US households had a washing machine, and the same benchmark wasn’t reached in Europe until 1970. Cars did not reach three-quarters of the US population until the 1970s but the European countries didn’t catch up until the late 1990s.”

Many of the critics of PPP [purchasing power parity] conversions also argue there is an ideological bias, although usually entirely unconscious, in the process. taking the PPP-based GDP comparisons on this basis at face value makes the trends in world poverty levels and income distribution look more encouraging than they really are. And if poverty has been declining rapidly and inequality between countries not getting wider but rather possibly diminishing, as the comparisons suggest, then there is no reason to worry about the process of globalization of international trade and investment that characterised the 1990s and 2000s. This is obviously a pretty fundamental question … To some extent the answer is obvious from the way everyday life in Chinese cities has visibly changed: there has certainly been a big increase in living standards for a large proportion of China’s urban population, and that’s enough to affect the global picture. Beyond that, though, the answer does depend on how the GDP of different countries is converted on the same basis.”

p. 62
“By 1968 there had been a quarter century of absolutely extraordinary growth. … Western living standards had approximately trebled since 1950… There was a job for everyone who wanted one… A man could act as a breadwinner for the whole family, reasonably secure in his job and well paid with a secure pension.’

p. 78
“Until relatively recently, there was very little evidence on which economists could base their views about how economics grow. The number of countries for which GDP data were available increased slowly, and only reach 60 as late as 1985. For many of these, the data were of poor quality. … Even those who had been gathering some kind of national income statistics for a long period did not have data series that were consistent over time … the empirical work … was augmented by historical studies using data on GDP for a range of countries going back to the year 1000. Angus Maddison … extraordinary International Comparison Project undertook the immense task of finding from a wide range of historical sources all the raw statistics needed to construct GDP, on its modern definition, backwards through history .. now an essential resource…(but) economists now use Maddison’s statistics blithely, without the due caution required… involved a lot of assumptions and clever guesswork.

p. 82 “Wal-Mart is the leading example of how a business can transform its productivity using their technologies. McKinsey estimated that Wal-Mart on its own accounted for a substantial proportion of the pickup of American productivity in the late 1990s. To achieve this, the company developed a model of sourcing goods from China and other low-cost countries, through an extremely sophisticated logistics operation, and retailing the goods in massive out-of-town stores.” [To which of course I'd add, massive external costs not accounted for, from the health care of their workers, met by the government, to the emissions from transport and pollution from production of those goods.... and more...]
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Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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Books Feminism History

The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)
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Books History Politics

Snippets of recent political history

From A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s by Alwyn W Turner

p. 161 “Starting in the 1970s, but reaching a peak in the ten years from 1985, the big chains had concentrated their expansion on building huge superstores on out-of-town sites, to the detriment of smaller outlets and high streets…. ‘It’s a cancer,’ remarks a character in Peter Lovesey’s novel Upon a Dark Night, ‘scarring the countryside and bleeding the life out of city centres.’ The environmental impact was substantial, for the out-pf-town stores came complete with massive car parks, and the average distance travelled to go shopping rose by 14% between 1990 and 1995. A potential answer to this latter issue was the introduction of statutory parking charges for such shopping centres, a policy that was tentatively proposed by the Labour Party before being dropped in 1998. Some saw a connection between the abandonment of the idea and the donations made to political parties by the supermarkets and by individuals associated with them. Tesco was a major sponsor of the Millennium Dome project… and a key partner in Labour’s New Deal programme, while David Sainsbury, chairman of the family grocery business, was said to have become the biggest individual donor in Labour Party history: following the award of a peerage in 1997, he was appointed as a science minister the following year.”

p. 331
“the shadow cabinet … Blair had been continually irritated by the way that its proceedings found their way into the press, presumably as a result of unauthorised briefings. ‘ I’ll have to tell then that if they cannot be trusted to have serious discussion in the shadow cabinet, we won’t have them,’ Blair huffed in 1995. Given how much damage Labour was doing to the Major government by the judicious use of leaks from within Conservative ranks, such caution was perhaps understandable, if undesirable. Less tolerated should have been the continuation of the process in government, when cabinet meetings were downgraded still further. ‘They’re a farce,’ remarked Ivor Richard, leader of the House of Lords, in 1998: ‘nobody says anything.’ Lance Price, one of Blair’s spin doctors, attended a meeting of the cabinet in 1999 and concluded that all he had learnt from the experience was ‘how little real influence it has as an institution’. When someone tentatively suggested that a decision might be made, Blair replied: ‘Oh, I don’t think we should go that far.’ The inherent problem with a cabinet, of course, whether shadow or real, was that it shared power between its members, leaving its leader with the basic principle that his position was that of ‘first among equals’. Since Blair didn’t wish this to be true in his own case, it was self-evidently a system desperately in need of reform. Peter Mandelson addressed the issue in his 1996 book The Blair Revolution (co-written with Roger Liddle) arguing that ‘The cabinet is a rather inflexible vbody’ and that decisions should rather he taken in ‘bilateral and ad-hoc meetings’. As Will Hutton pointed out in a review of the book: ‘No prizes for guessing who plans to attend as many ad hoc meetings as possible.”

p. 406 On Britain entering the euro: “In October 1997 an attempt to clarify the position was concocted by Brown and his advisers, in conjunction with Alastair Campbell, and resulted in an article in The Times under the headline ‘Brown rules out single currency for lifetime of this parliament’. …. A Panicked weekend of retractions, re-briefings and repositioning ensued, and the confusion and conflicts became the story… To answer the question of when it would be right, Brown and Ed Balls came up with five tests to determine whether Britain was ready to enter the euro. It was a largely cosmetic exercise … but for the next few years, the five tests were constantly referred to as though they had some objective meaning, even if few government ministers or spokespeople could ever remember when asked what they were … The only one that revealed anything much was the question about whether joining the euro would be good for the City of London, which at least demonstrated how large the City loomed in Brown’s thinking. Derek Scott, then Blair’s economic adviser, was later to observe that ‘making a decision on one industry is like making a view on the Gold Standard based on what was good for the textiles business’.”

p. 436 On Asbos … “the talk of feral children and teenage thugs reinforced an impression that society was slipping out of control and needed the firm hand of authoritarian government to restore order. But such an image was far from new: it had been a commonplace for centuries, from the gin-sodden 1740s … to the `1820s, when Surrey magistrates expressed concerns about ‘the almost unchecked parading of the streets by the notoriously dissolute and abandoned of both sexes’. One could even go back to the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury, writing about the people encountered by the Norman invaders in 1066: ‘They were accustomed to eat until they became surfeited and drink until they were sick’ As Harry Pearson noted, when considering the pitch invasions and hooliganism that marred professional football in the late Victorian era, it was only the alleged causes that changed, not the behaviour: ‘In the days before violent videos and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools you just had to face up to the sad truth: some people like fighting.’… In recent years the cause of social disorder was said, by those on the right of politics, to be the breakdown of discipline that resulted from the liberalisation of the 1960s. New Labour’s rhetoric suggested that it shared that perspective,, implying a moral failure on the part of working-class youth and their families. It’s response was the endless introduction of new initiatives. In its first term, the government brought forward 31 Bills on law and order and introduced new criminal offences at a rate of around two a week…. The prison population continued to ruse far beyond the levels inherited from Michael Howard.”

P 446 “an emerging pattern, summed up by Michael White of the Guardian, as ‘the all-party trend towards the professionalization of politics: school, university, party functionary, MP.” … it wasn’t only in the Conservative Party that candidates were increasingly selected from what Edwina Currie called ‘idenitikit young men’. …youthful adviser surrounding the key figures in New Labour. Some of them remained backstage figures, but others went on to be elected to Parliament, including James Purnell, Pat McFadden, Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers, David and Ed. Then there was Yvette Cooper, who had been part of John Smith’s team even before the 1992 election, and Derek Draper, a researcher for Peter Mandelson. All were still in their twenties when Blair became leader of the party. Also known as ‘the creche’ .. Mike Marqusee of Labour Briefing… ‘Thye may be young, but they are socially conservative, they exist in a self-enclosed world, and they are utterly unrepresentative of young people. What have they got to say, for example, about the huge grass-roots campaign against the Criminal Justice bill?’ It was a purely rhetorical question. The reality was that policies, philosophies and positions were less important now than the appearance of competent management, in emulation of Brown and Blair. ‘This generation exudes an air or responsibility,’ remarked Dominic Loenhis, the 25-year-old adviser to the Conservative minister peter Brooke, in 1993, ‘but I don’t think there is any visionary feel or coherent philosophy.”

p. 449
“in the three elections from 1951 onwards, the two main parties attracted between them the votes of three-quarters of the registered voters; in the three elections from 1992, they secured only a half. Whatever causes one wished to ascribe to this trend – the drop in turnout, the rise of the third party, the decline of ideology – it came to the same point: the only two parties capable of forming governments were fas losing the consent of the people. And as the gap between politicians and the nation widened, it was the younger generations who felt it most acutely. According to a survey published in the Demos pamphlet Britain, 68 % of those aged 55 or over were proud of British democracy; just 7.5% of those aged under 55 felt the same.”

Books Politics

An essential political read…

Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience by Stein Ringen

I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but interesting thoughts. The author brings the perspective of being a head of ministerial research and assistant director general in the Ministry of Justice in his native Norway, and of the United Nations in New Work, and has lived and worked in Britain, France, Germany, the US and Sweden, as a political journalist and management consultant. He aims to answer the questions “how can a government dispense necessary rule, and how can the population protect itself against excessive rule.” He’s also very interested in the US, by no means convinced that it is still a democracy, but I was most interested in the British side.

p. 198-199
Britain is not going to get a government better set to rule than New Labour in its good years. But it was unable. America is not going to get a more worthy and able president than Barack Obama. But his promise was ground down by a system that took revenge. No doubt, there are other dysfunctional democracies to pick on, but these are the ones worth confronting. It is right to say that they are dysfunctional. Policy is not made, or if made not in the service of the public good, or if in the service of the public food not implemented. It is right to say that they have gone dysfunctional Until recently, these were normal democracies. In Britain, the constitutional system declined from “order” to “mess” after the 1970s..
In Britain … “what needs to be done is far from revolutionary. The agent of reform is Parliament, which has the power to reform as it wishes….

1. The House of Commons should establish itself as an equitable partner to the government in political decisionmaking and should exercise effective scrutiny in legislative and budgetary decisions. …
2. Political funding should be redesigned to prevent the consolidation in Britain of an overpowering politico-corporate complex.
3. Local government with serious autonomy and responsibility should be constituted as a counterweight to the concentration of political power to London.

p. 201 “First, the necessary funding of parties and campaigns should come from the public purse and all other forms of political money should be considered corruption in law, be it from businesses or unions, from individuals, or from candidates’ own means. This would both provide the funds that are needed and break the link of transgression between the seekers of office and the givers of money. Taxes are what we use to fund public goods. Democracy is a joint matter that we should pay for jointly and equally…. My suggestion is to institute an annual survey of voters to record the distribution of preferences for the allocation of the public allotment to pay for politics … a practical, effective and inexpensive way of putting economic power into the hands of voters.”

p.202 “The British should be given the benefit of some of that ‘municipalization’ that Quinton Mayne found had served the Danish people so well. Local units – municipalities – should be small, there should be more of them, and they should have more power and responsibility. British democracy has too few elected representatives, fewer proportionally than any other democracy in Europe. There are too many Members of Parliament in London but too few elected representatives throughout the country. There is no counterbalance to the concentration of political power in London and Downing Street.”

P. 105 “Do-something pressures come down on governments with relentless force. It comes from their own ambitions. Governments want to do good and are desperate to be of consequence. It comes from their constituents. The moment they are in office, those who have put them there line up to get them to take up their particular causes. It comes from pressure groups. Every cause has a group working for it, and poling on the pressure for government action is what pressure groups do. It comes from the press, day in and day out exposing problems that the government is not up to dealing with. And it comes from the country. Through the government’s window, the society it is responsible for governing looks like a catalogue of problems that cry out to it to be solved… No single government can do all that much. There are infinitely more problems out there than any government can take on, never mind solve. Often there are no solutions to even problems that are obvious, known and grave… Government must chose what problems to take on and they must do that by asking what is practicable and solvable. This is difficult – it really means deciding what problems to neglect – and the pressure and temptation to do more than is manageable is enormous. “

p. 107 “In Scandinavia, the routine is slow decisionmaking… [they] have a high capacity for producing necessary decisions and doing so in time … when the Norwegian parliament in 2009 adopted a comprehensive pension reform, it was the culmination of a process that had started in 2001. … The process towards decisions of this kind follows a fixed procedure that is prescribed in written regulations and establish conventions and which it would normally be unthinkable, except in an emergency, to deviate from. … a problem is identified that calls for some kind of public policy action or reform, and the government gets a nod from the parliament to start planning towards a solution. It appoints a committee of study, usually made up of experts and some constituency representatives (typically of employers and unions) with a relatively precise mandate, to undertake a study of the issue and propose solutions. The committee will typically work three to four years and produce a comprehensive report, heavy on factual study, along with a joint proposal or majority and minority proposals. The next step is for the relevant ministry to distribute the report to interested parties throughout the country in what is known as “a hearing round” with a note of guidance on matters it in particular wants views on. The government will then produce a white paper to parliament based on the committee’s reports and inputs from the hearing round, with a more or less precise outline of the action it thinks should follow… In the parliament the white paper goes first to the relevant select committee, which works it over in detail and prepares a report, which will form the basis of a first plenary debate, again with more or less precise proposals or outlines for action. The parliament then holds a debate, more on principle than on detail. It may at this time bury the matter, but that would be highly unusual. … The report of the select committee and inputs in the debate, with or without a vote or votes, will be taken as instructions to the government for the preparation of legislation. That will take another year or two and culminate in what is known as a ‘proposition’ to the parliament. … again goes to the relevant select committee which works it over and prepares a report, which again is the basis for the parliament to hold a debate in plenary, no culminating in a vote or series of votes to pass legislation. … at any time, a multitude of processes of this kind are in motion at different stages of advances … Most … will not be interrupted by a change of government… in the case of the pension reform, the process started under a minority labour government, was carried forward under a minority centre-right coalition, and was finalised towards legislation under a majority centre-left government. …. Decision making is well prepared solid and participatory, so that in most cases a reasonable consensus has been worked out, which will lend legitimacy to the eventual legislation.”

p. 23 – New Labour “never managed to articulate anything like a clear project of purpose for itself… never able to get down to the necessary prioritising. They slipped up on the first rule of strategy, according to the management guru Miichael Porter: that a sound strategy starts with having the right goal. Therefore they also failed in the ultimate rule: that the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. … inherited a system that Mrs Thatcher had been relentlessly centralising. It was easy to make policy, but there was not enough order to prevent bad ones and not enough obedience to implement good ones … they continued to centralise and condemned themselves to ever harder effort for ever less gain.”

p. 58 “I have argued 1. That the problem is obedience, 2. That governments are up against others who are always reluctant, 3. That the final challenge in good government is implementation, 4. That the turning of power into performance depends on fairness and restraint, 5. That a settlement of order depends on institutions that bind governments and push followers into compliance, and 6. That such institutions reside in culture as much as in rules … governance is also, and always, a people business. Sitting on power does not do governments much good… Power can at best and only sometimes control reluctant others, but not on its own get them into a settlement of willing cooperation. Government can in only limited ways get their will by commanding. For the most part they depend on persuading. What governments need to muster if they are to be effective is authority and leadership. To shore that up, they will want the magic of legitimacy attached to themselves and their doings.”

p. 97 “orders are of two kinds, commands and signals. These are a governments only tools, however powerful it may look. While commands are heavy handed and commanding something ministers can do with success only occasionally, it is the politics of signals that is the great constant in government action, and normative governance – informing, educating, inspiring, leading – that is the secret of the art of ruling. But once you are into the delicate use of signals, into spin, which you cannot avoid, you are susceptible to overdoing it. You cannot make yourself authoritative without spin, but unless you are very surefooted, that same spin will make you look ridiculous.”

Books Environmental politics Science

Looking back four billion years, with a very foggy picture…

(A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics)

The early evolution of life on Earth is a subject I’ve always found fascinating, but it’s a couple of decades since I last revisited the subject in any depth, and having read Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History by Donald E Canfield I now know that pretty well everything I’ve ever read or been taught on the subject was wrong. The idea that gradually algae spread around the earth, pumping out oxygen in a steady-growing stream, well it simply isn’t true.

It’s not surprising my teachers were so wrong, for as I read in Oxygen, a big breakthrough in understanding early life on Earth came in only 1999, when a colleague and friend of the author, James Farquahar, found some highly unexpected results on a study of sulfur isotopes, in Archaen rocks aged from 2.3-2.4 billion years ago. That led to the conclusion that at this time there’d been interaction between UV light and sulfur dioxide gas from volcanoes. Today, that’s absorbed by ozone, of course from oxygen. Further studies on the form some molybdenum takes in rocks of this age from some parts of the world, however, show that in some places there was free oxygen – what’s come to be known as a “whiff” of oxygen.

What was happening was that by around 2.5 billion years ago, the production of oxygen by photosynthesis more or less balanced the consumption of it by volcanic gases. Sometimes the balance shifted one way, so the oxygen disappeared, sometimes the cyanobacteria were beating the volcanoes.

It was between 2.3 and 2.4 billion years ago that “the great oxidation event” (GOE) changed that. Quite what caused it is still up for grabs. Canfield has a favourite, not evolution of cyanobacteria but a less active mantle, as it gradually cooled, cutting the production of reducing gases. Seems entirely plausible to this interested amateur.

But the GOE wasn’t entirely even – it was Canfield suggests concentrated in the atmosphere, the oceans remaining anoxic and rich in sulfide, with more sulfur being weathered from the land through oxidative weathering of sulfides. This is now known as the “Canfield Ocean” – yes after the author, we’re in seriously expert hands here.

Related to that is the likelihood that for much of the Earth’s “middle ages” atmospheric oxygen levels were much lower than today’s. (Any time machine travellers would need to take oxygen cylinders.) The author’s theory is just 10% of today’s levels, others suggest 40-50%.
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