Jun 072012

Ed Miliband made some massive mistakes on identity in his speech yesterday.  Or was that geography?  This, for example (the bold is mine):

Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism.
But even though they often don’t admit it, the logic of the nationalists’ case goes beyond politics and the economy.
It insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity with our country a whole.
After all, they want to force people to choose.
To be Scottish or British.

Personally, I don’t see it.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or just the United Kingdom if you will (yes, OK – some would even abbreviate this to Britain), is a political union of varying degrees of happiness which has muddled along as such unions might.  The British Isles on the other hand, and perhaps rather more controversially, is a geographical reality which also includes the Irish Republic.  If Mr Miliband is saying that a Scotland which chooses no longer to be a part of the political union that is the UK then misses out on the opportunity to claim its identity as both Scottish and British because it no longer pledges allegiance to London, we are clearly in the presence of a curious confusion between geography and politics which hardly helps clarify anything.

Perhaps, even more sadly though, it also reveals an unhappy understanding of the right London-based politicos reserve for themselves when defining the limits of identity itself.

Yet identity is not just a question of politics and history – those areas of knowledge which people who make and shake nations so delight in.

There is surely a third dimension which I would argue is just as important: that of place.  And place belongs to everyone, whether educated or not; whether powerful or humble.  Place was there before history and politics started; place will remain when we all have gone.

This is why Ed Miliband is wrong to conflate the UK with being British.  If he doesn’t understand the difference, he shouldn’t be talking about it.  If he does understand the difference, then he is obfuscating deliberately.

If the Scots so choose, they can be both British and Scottish and outside the United Kingdom.  It’s the lawyerly politicians who prefer not to see that politics and history and laws can be far more easily changed than the land which lies outside their codifications.

Miliband didn’t get it all wrong, though.  He is far more useful – though still revealingly inexact – in the following description of London’s role in all this antagonism:

There are some people who say that this English identity should be reflected in new institutions.
But I don’t detect a longing for more politicians.
For me, it’s not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly.
The English people don’t yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry.
Our minds don’t work in spreadsheets, just like our streets don’t follow grids.
But there is a real argument here which does unite England, Scotland and Wales:
And that is about the centralisation of power in London.
This resentment is felt in many parts of England.
A sense that our politics is too distant.
Too detached.

Curious how he says our minds don’t work in spreadsheets when this generation of politicians works with nothing else; curious how he argues that politics is centralised in London to its detriment and in the same breath criticises constitutional symmetry for being simplistic.

He says we don’t want more politicians; he doesn’t say we might not want more of the politicians we’ve got.  He argues that our politics is too detached without admitting that the reality is actually that it’s far too attached to certain powerful and wealthy interests.

He says England doesn’t need new institutions; he refuses to recognise that the United Kingdom as a whole has corrupted the ones it already has.

Yes, Mr Miliband.  London is the problem.  You’re right about that.  But you’re wrong to assume that being together through continued inertia is necessarily the answer.  The answer for the kind of politician you represent lies in making the Union so attractive that no one would ever contemplate leaving.  The problem is that London-based politicians have – quite fatally of late – failed to achieve this essential feat.

No wonder some of us want to leave.  Not our land, which will always remain where it is.  Rather, our politics, which is manifestly unfit for purpose.  Even to the point that it doesn’t understand the difference between it and our geography.

For if the Scots end up leaving the Union, it’s not the land they’ll be shrugging off but the politics.

And if Ed Miliband wants to be taken seriously in this debate, and wants to seriously pursue a long-lasting solution, he really does need to properly remember this.

Jun 072012

Back in December, I wrote an unhappy piece on the subject of blaming professionals – in particular, lawyers, bankers and economists – for a whole host of miseries that are currently afflicting us.  I concluded thus:

Though there is, of course, an alternative to making diabolic the entire financial services sector: hate the lawyer as suggested; envy the banker just in case; and commiserate with the poor economist for the impossible task he or she has always faced.

Suzanne Moore, writing yesterday in the Guardian, concludes with no such kindness.  Instead, she says (the bold is mine):

Do not complain either when economists and government ministers tell you that what you thought had a social purpose must now be profit-driven. Money must be made from schools, hospitals and looking after the elderly. The privatisation of care is one of the only growth industries. This is what you get from this dictatorship of economists, and it should be overthrown. It is wrong and keeps being wrong. The choices to be made now are moral, not economic ones. Only an idiot or an economist would think otherwise.

Which brings me to wonder if we couldn’t conflate the two concepts: no, not idiocy and economics; that – as an idea – is surely the laziness of Moore’s (and, on occasions, my) writing.  No, what I’m really wondering is whether there isn’t a place in economic theory for the matter of morality – in particular a democratic morality.

At the very least there currently exists an amorality of considerable proportions.  (Some of us on the left of the political spectrum would even see it as immorality – though, for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s settle on the former as a less inflammatory and distracting starting point.)

What’s the argument I have in mind?  Nobody these days would expect of a “proper” science a total disconnect from moral issues.  If then, as Moore alleges in her piece, and even as she charges it fails, economics aspires to such a state of scientific grace, shouldn’t it also be required to take onboard issues relating to societal right and wrong?

The problem would currently seem to be that in its socially scientific ingenuity, economics manages to get away with getting things amazingly inexact.  Like the weather forecasts we expect not to believe, economists have the grand virtue of working with complex systems with many variables to justify their getting predictions off-beam.  This may, in fact, be what’s at the heart of Moore’s little rant.  Yet we wouldn’t ask the Met Office to stop its investigations into such complexities; why, then, does she want economists to step off the accelerator pedal?

Maybe the reason is precisely that: we have learned – and have the capacity as ordinary citizens in the street – to ignore the implications of an inexact weather forecast whenever we want.  But that level of democratic disengagement doesn’t seem to exist in the application of economic theory.

Today, for example, I read that according to the rating agency Fitch, which presumably employs a number of economists to validate its periodic pronouncements, the Spanish banking system won’t need €40 billion to sort it out as originally believed but, instead, between €60 to a €100 billion (in Spanish) (Google robot English translation here).  Just imagine if we ran any other expensively rewarded profession in a similar way: being paid to get things wrong by such enormous factors.

Meanwhile – to a non-expert – another question arises: how did the banks themselves get it so wrong?

After all, money’s their business surely.  More than any of us, they should have known how far to go in getting into debt and marshalling the consequential risk.

So did an absence of the morality Moore requests of society play a part in the disasters they are now bringing to the table?  Would things have turned out differently if a democratic morality had had a place in economic theory?  And how long can economists continue to exert their profession without factoring in the social pain their experiments are apparently leading to?

Of course, Suzanne Moore is unfair in her criticism of economists – just as I was unfair back in December when I foulmouthed not only the latter but also bankers and lawyers.  Those of us who find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our ken are bound, at some time, to make the mistake of shooting the messengers.

Or mistaking the messengers for the actors themselves.

But whilst economists refuse to integrate into their assumptions their effects on finite human lives, perhaps – after all – it’s not such a massive mistake.

Not because they are idiots, though, as Moore would have us believe; rather, because they are just too undemocratically amoral for them to acquire the right to be the scientists they wish to emulate.

Economics simply hasn’t caught up with the moral progresses and societal engagements of the hard sciences.

It’s time it did.

Jun 072012

There’s a funny sketch going the rounds by that delightful American TV jester, Jon Stewart.  It’s called “The Queen Who Stares At Boats” – the reference is clear.  It’s about how CNN and others covered the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Royal Pageant on Sunday – and the stupidities that their journalists were required to mutter in public.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend of a friend of mine posted a link to it on Facebook, only for the link to go down.  I then saw a tweet flash past on Twitter, saying no UK servers were serving up the video in question any more.  My friend posted a link on her own Facebook stream to Gawker instead, a link which at the time of writing is still working – at least for me.  You can currently find it here.

From across the other side of the Atlantic, it pokes more fun at the media than the Queen herself.  If, as the tweet I mention above suggested, it has been removed from all UK servers, I do wonder whether this isn’t an example of extra-judicial social-media censorship.  As far as I know, there have been no reports of injunctions on such material – it has simply disappeared from where it originally was.

Even a search on YouTube as served up in the UK doesn’t reveal the slightest trace of this clever piece of humour.

Is this then yet another abuse of super-injunctions (more here) – or, perhaps, an example of government giving a quiet nod to acquiescent ISPs and other private companies which begin, as many have feared over the past couple of years might turn out to be the case, to do the bidding of such government without the need for legal intervention or indeed publicly transparent protection?

And if it is, what other information – maybe of a far more transcendental kind – is being silently kept from the voters?

What mechanisms are suddenly being used without due parliamentary debate – and, exactly, why?