Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why I love . . . #13 Patricia Highsmith

Neither of my parents are what you might call intellectuals, but they have always read books, and as a child I worked my way steadily through their shelves of detective stories.  Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler (hallelujah) and even Robert Robinson (Landscape With Dead Dons, since you ask).  For some reason I never got round to The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, though I well remember it being there.  Perhaps Mum and Dad thought it might be a bit strong for a nine year old - certainly other titles, The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas and Mailer's An American Dream for example, disappeared mysteriously after I was found standing on a chair looking at their somewhat racy covers.

But Ms Highsmith and I met at last a couple of weeks ago when the Males from Hale, the book group of which I am a kind of expat member (I can't afford to live in Hale) decided to take on the first of her Ripley series of books.  And what a book it is.  Any crime novel that's fit to stand alongside The Big Sleep is a towering book.  I'd go further.  I thought The Talented Mr Ripley as good as Crime and Punishment (and I love Dostoevsky).

Briefly - and no spoiler here - TTMR concerns a young American, Tom Ripley, asked to go to Europe to persuade another young American he knows slightly to return home.  It then deals with Tom Ripley's crimes and misdemeanours and his attempts to evade discovery for them.  The re-print jacket blurb says the book is unputdownable.  But I found it hard to pick up, so gruelling was the story's tension. 

Highsmith writes tersely.  There is enough description, but not very much.  The imagination fills in the details.  The book is consummately plotted, complicatedly so, but with a simple story arc that carries you past the complexities.  The pacing is true, with Highsmith able to linger painfully on some scenes yet deal with the quick passage of time lightly and unobtrusively. 

Though technically dazzling, these aren't the greatest of her achievments.  The story is told entirely through the eyes of Tom Ripley, and something about his clubbable there's-a-good-fellow name, and the way she refers to him throughout as Tom - Tom this, Tom that - gives the reader the uncomfortable feeling of being in cahoots with Ripley.  Agonisingly, as he comes closer to detection, and then further away, and then closer still, we don't know whether to hope he will get caught or, feeling his fear as vividly as we do, hope he escapes. 

Ripley is a weak, damaged and dangerous man, the kind of person on whom it never pays to turn your back.  All the other characters are seen through his eyes.  The errant young man's father.  His would be girlfriend.  Our perception of them is Tom's perception.  We scarcely see them as suspicious, grieving or heartbroken.  They are merely the tedious inconveniences with which Ripley has to deal.

So when I was reading TTMR I felt unclean; and when I finished it (twenty minutes ago) it was with a sense of admiration and relief.

Highsmith wrote another four Ripley novels.  I don't think I'm man enough to read them.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Bono smells the coffee

Every now and again I read something so striking that everything must be dropped and everything within my limited power done to bring it to a wider audience (not much wider, obviously).

Today someone posted a link on Twitter to, a website which seems to concern itself with overseas development.  An article on devex features the following quote from Bono.

"I'm late to realizing that it's you guys, it's the private sector, it's commerce that's going to take the majority of people out of extreme poverty and, as an activist, I almost found that hard to say".

How to describe this moment of eclaircissement?  A no-shit-Sherlock moment? A statement of the bleedin' obvious? Or merely long overdue?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn - strong message here

Not the least of the problems Jeremy Corbyn poses for the Left is what his election tells us about the Labour party. It tells us that the Labour party is the kind of demographic that elects Mr Corbyn. For those of us who aren't involved in political activism - and that's the overwhelming majority of British people - it tells us that the Labour party thinks Corbyn is the best leader they've got.

And what a leader he is. I didn't listen to all Mr Corbyn's first party conference speech yesterday, but I did listen to some of the highlights. Putting aside the substance (most of which, as a Blairite of old, I disagree with), Corbyn is one of the worst public speakers I have ever heard. And this wasn't an improvised soap-box rant, it was a set piece party conference speech.  Live TV on all channels. It was rambling, stumbling, flat, avoided hard questions and recycled old material from a hack speechwriter rejected by previous Labour leaders. Of course all political leaders employ speechwriters. But that's not exactly the authentic straight talking Corbyn promised.

And yet after a leadership campaign lasting months, Labour people voted for this guy. I find it baffling.

Maybe they didn't vote for him because of his speaking ability, I hear you say.  But I think that's exactly what they did. Meeting after meeting - every night for weeks - was packed with people desperate to hear Jeremy. Wide-eyed activists spoke of the electrifying atmosphere he generated. Twitter was abuzz with talk of a new beginning.

So here's another unpalatable fact. The Left hears Corbyn and goes weak at the knees. Old New Labour voters like me hear him and think, "Obsessive bloke you try and avoid at a party". Call me shallow, but as Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Graun this morning, this was Corbyn's last chance to create a good first impression. And what an impression it was.

To be clear, none of this means Corbyn can't win in 2020. David Cameron will no longer be Prime Minister then. I think George Osborne has done a good job in difficult circumstances, but he is a more divisive figure. Moreover if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an aeon. The world changed utterly between 2005 and 2010. It can happen again.

I still think Corbyn probably won't win though. The more successful he is at getting Labour to take on his policies, the further he will take the party away from the political mainstream. He didn't mention immigration or the deficit yesterday, but we caught a glimpse of what his attitude might be in the context of Trident renewal. His tactic was to mention the size of his mandate from Labour's electorate. I won with an overwhelming majority, he said, in terms, so I have the authority to rid the UK of nuclear weapons, even if not everyone in the party agrees with me.

This seems reasonable enough. I think Corbyn will have to prevail, because the alternative is for him to lead a party with policies he's on the record as opposing. That suggests that on a broad policy front, from immigration and the economy to defence and welfare Labour is going be fighting the next election on the most left wing manifesto in a generation.

Corbyn's MPs won't like it, but some of them will toe the line, because the ones that don't could soon find themselves out on their ear. For all his talk about being nice (although not to the Tories, obviously), people only survive in politics as long as Corbyn has by being masters of procedural warfare. He will know that internal opposition will have to be faced down, and I would imagine he'll set about suppressing it sooner rather than later.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Corbyn's conference speech yesterday was the bit where he read out part of the autocue stage directions by mistake. "Strong message here", he intoned. I should say so.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Pinning down the fiscal multiplier. Or not.

As a late convert to Twitter I've been surprised and delighted by the way you stumble across people with interesting things to say about all aspects of political and cultural life. Recently I've been chatting to a guy called Bruce Greig about the economics of government borrowing. Bruce's view, expressed here is that the tax returns on increased growth more than pay for the investment, even when you have to borrow the money to do it. It works because of something called the fiscal multiplier. Here's my reply.

Hi Bruce.

Firstly, let's be candid about our various levels of expertise. I'm not an economist and I suspect neither are you. We are both probably interested amateurs trying to make sense of the economic and political landscape. So we turn to outside sources to try and buttress what may be instinctive views.

In your post you rely on the IMF. Fine. But just how reliable is the IMF?

In January 2013 its chief economist admitted in a paper that the fiscal multiplier – put at 0.5 - it had used to calculate the effect of austerity measures on European economies had been wrong. You’ll remember in January 2013 the same economist – Olivier Blanchard – criticised George Osborne’s economic policy and said “there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy”; Osborne was “playing with fire”. When growth returned to the UK economy later that year Blanchard had to admit he was “pleasantly surprised” by the UK’s performance. By January 2015 Blanchard’s boss Christine Lagarde was saying, “It’s obvious that what happened in the UK actually worked”.

I recite this to show that the IMF is fallible. Its staff don’t even agree with each other. Here's another IMF paper. Its authors say on Page 1 that “the fiscal multiplier is . . . zero in economies operating under flexible exchange rates”. 

Yes, that’s zero. Not 1.5 or 2.5. 

On Page 26 we get “in economies open to trade or operating under flexible exchange rates, a fiscal expansion leads to no significant output gains. Further, fiscal stimulus may be counterproductive in highly-indebted countries; in countries with debt levels as low as 60 percent of GDP, government consumption shocks may have strong negative effects on output”.

The UK’s current debt to GDP is 82%.

Even the IMF paper you cited yourself is equivocal.  Have a look at page 83.  It states that a “debt-financed” public investment shock of 1% of GDP increases output by 2.9% over four years.
That’s a multiplier of less than 1 isn’t it? How is that going to pay for itself when you take into account the cost of the debt?

I offer you the following propositions –
1.       The fiscal multiplier will vary according to the situation.
2.       No-one knows exactly what it is in any given situation.
3.       In some circumstances an increase in expenditure will pay for itself, but sometimes it won’t. Given 1 and 2 above a degree of circumspection is understandable.

One other consideration.  Where will the money HMG borrows to fund this expenditure come from? About 70% of UK government bonds are held by UK individuals and institutions. If new bonds are issued roughly in the same proportion, most of the money will come from within the UK

In other words the expenditure HMG undertakes on the back of this borrowing will not be new money.  It will not be new demand.  It will be money that would have been spent or invested in the UK anyway.  The likelihood is that the multiplier will be reduced by 70% accordingly.

Even economists can’t agree about the effect and size of the fiscal multiplier. For we amateurs that’s a consolation, but also a warning – maybe this is a subject which is as much an art as a science. Perhaps we should be warier than we have been of stating categorically what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps we should accept that, maybe, we just don’t know.

Professor Brian Cox - overpaid wanker?

Recently I had a Twitter spat with Professor Brian Cox, the floppy fringed scientist and TV presenter.

I wrote that his having signed the so-called "luvvies letter" in support of the BBC was compromised by the fact that he worked for the Corporation. Professor Cox accused me of having made an ad hominem attack on him. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over this issue, of the handbags-at-thirty-paces variety, and the Tweeting flurry gently expired with Cox pointing out that he wasn't employed by the BBC and my responding that, since he had worked for them in the past and intended to do so again, this was a distinction without a difference.

I now rather regret not asking Cox whether he was asked to sign the letter, as others were, by the BBC's Director of Television Danny Cohen.

So far so inconsequential. But what's this? An interview in the UK Press Gazette by another celebrity who doesn't work for the BBC, the Editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop. It turns out that Hislop was asked to sign the "luvvies letter" too. He refused. Why?

Hislop said,“Had I seen my own name on the list, I would have thought: ‘You overpaid wanker - why should I care what you say? . . . But God no – entirely inappropriate. And it does no good. I mean if there was a letter from 50 midwives saying: ‘The only thing that makes our lives bearable is watching Poldark’ – that’s a worthwhile letter. To have a letter from a load of famous people saying ‘I like the BBC and I get paid by them’, I mean, so what?

Hislops other remarks are worth quoting too. "I think it’s playing all its cards very, very badly at the moment. And I think the BBC has a huge amount of things going for it. And, you know, I’m a huge fan of the Proms – I think paying for four orchestras is fabulous – I like a lot of radio, which I think is very, very good. But it’s allowed itself to get into a position where everything it does appears to be self-defeating. And I hate the thought that that’s going to end up with them emasculated and feeble. In our business you know pretty well why the Mail and the Murdoch empire, every time the Beeb do anything, they get slammed. But there’s a feebleness and a lack of robustness about the Beeb – and obviously cack-handedness – that has allowed it to be in this position of people going: ‘Ooh, the BBC, it’s a big worry.’“I mean, you look at what the does week after week and it shouldn’t be a problem. I watched two documentaries last week alone, which I think were worth the licence fee.“The quality isn’t a problem. But I think the management is.

I agree with all of that. Including the bit about overpaid wankers.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Labour leadership - why Jeremy Corbyn is going to be even worse for Labour than you thought

Many years ago when I was a Legal Aid lawyer in London I used to spend my days suing local Councils. It was illuminating. The Labour ones meant well but could not organise the proverbial piss-up. Even when your client had a very thin case it was worth pushing it because chances were the Council might be sufficiently disorganised and incompetent to give you what you wanted.

The Tories on the other hand were well run but tight as a gnat's chuff. If they said no, they meant no; and it was probably because someone capable had looked at the file and decided you had no case. My political sympathies didn't lie in their direction, but I came to develop a grudging admiration for their method.

In this context, and leaving aside the folly of giving non party-members a vote, I am still staggered by Labour's extraordinary election of Jeremy Corbyn. How could they have done such a thing?

Research carried out by Jon Cruddas confirms what many had suspected, namely that Labour lost the election because people didn't think Ed Miliband was an impressive leader and because they didn't think Labour was credible on the economy. So what does Labour do? It elects someone with a history of links to terrorists in both Ireland and the Middle East who has never run so much as Parliamentary committee. It elects someone who favours an economic policy founded on heroic tax raising assumptions and money printing which a majority of reputable economists (Richard Murphy, Corbyn's tax advisor, is an accountant, not an economist) think is dangerous.

I wrote recently about Robert Conquest's dictum that the behaviour of any large organisation may be explained by the hypothesis that it has been taken over by a secret cabal of its enemies. I suspect George Osborne has not in fact managed to infiltrate the Labour party, but if he had he would no doubt have been pushing for the Labour leader who would have least chance of becoming prime minister but would do most damage to the Party in the process of failing. Mr Corbyn fits the bill perfectly.

It's not just that the substance of Corbyn's policies have such a limited appeal in the UK. It's that he is uncharismatic, has a chequered past, showed repeatedly in his thirty years as an MP that he is incapable of loyalty to the Parliamentary Party and is unpopular with his colleagues at Westminster. He seems to have no concept of the need to co-operate with the press, already cancelling interviews and ducking questions.

He is also a truly terrible speaker. I listened to the results being announced on Saturday. The new Deputy Leader Tom Watson came over as a machine politician, unimaginative, tough, clever, the product of the Unions which have made him. But Corbyn sounded like one of those people you used to see trying to sell the SWP magazine outside Sainsbury's on Stoke Newington High Street. Rambling, bitter, obsessive.  Come to think of it Corbyn probably was one of those people. Modern politics requires leaders who are articulate, measured and sound reasonable, at least in public. Corbyn was none of these things. How is he going to cope with the necessity of getting Labour's message across?

At this stage (Monday morning 48 hours in) Corbyn's shadow cabinet is not fully formed. But Oh Jesus the people. John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor? Really? Diane Abbott? Hilary Benn? Yes, Hilary Benn - interestingly Benn said that Labour would be campaigning to stay in Europe, which is funny because Corbyn apparently told another former front bencher the opposite only yesterday.

Half the shadow cabinet have declined to serve under Corbyn. Two who haven't are Lord Falconer, an old chum of Tony Blair's, as Shadow Justice Minister, and Andy Burnham as Shadow Home Secretary. These men must be desperate. Andy Burnham argued against everything Corbyn stood for, at least until it looked as if Corbyn might win; then he trimmed his sails to try and catch some of Corbyn's votes.

The words Last Throw of the Dice spring to mind as far as Mr Burnham is concerned. He must have calculated that chucking his lot in with Corbyn is better than risking deselection and the wilderness. It is a calculation that has self-interest written all over it. Burnham may of course be right; but it's striking how many of his former colleagues thought the odds favoured the opposite move.

I think Corbyn is wrong about virtually everything - defence, taxation, the economy, foreign policy generally - but more importantly his views on these matters are at odds with those of most other people as well.  He lacks the personal qualities good leadership requires, and is going to have a lot of trouble dealing with parliamentary colleagues, who on the whole despise him.

And yet in a way this isn't the worst news for Labour. Worse still is what the Tories will tell the rest of us about Labour. They will tell us that if we want to know what Labour would be like in power, they are the party which was daft enough to elect Jeremy Corbyn on a 60% landslide. And they will be right.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Emma Thompson and the Syrian dead

The world throws its hands up in horror at the sight of an Italian policeman cradling the drowned corpse of a Syrian Kurdish boy. I'm slightly surprised about this. We have known for months if not years of the terrible plight of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East (mixed up with the not quite so terrible plight of the streams of economic migrants coming from those places). Is it really the case that there are amongst us those who cannot conceive of the realities of people-trafficking without seeing a photograph of its consequences? Apparently so.

Horror is not limited to the Left, although they do of course dominate it. Mixed in with this horror is a certain amount of hypocrisy. Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper recently called upon Britain to take 10,000 refugees. I'm as certain as I can be that Ms Cooper was one of the Labour MPs who in August 2013 voted against a Coalition government proposal to take military action to support the rebels in Syria.

The rebels were at that time, remember, dominated by moderates rather than by ISIL. I can't be the only person puzzled by the spectacle of Cooper purporting to hold the government's feet to the fire over Syrian refugees when the actions of her and her colleagues prevented the Government doing the one thing which might have reduced dramatically the possibility of this dead boy's parents having to escape the country in the first place.

Of course it's not just Syria - the chaotic space inside that country provided and still provides ISIL with the base from which its operations across the Middle East have sallied forth. And it's not just Yvette Cooper either. Someone posted on Twitter this morning a wonderful juxtaposition of Natalie Bennett, the Green party leader, berating the Coalition in Parliament in 2013 for its military proposals with a picture of the same Ms Bennett yesterday holding a placard urging support for refugees. Truly these people have no shame.

And there are lots of them too. It's not just MPs. All across the media the airwaves are alive with the chirruping of the indignant, complaining about the government's failure to do more, utterly oblivious to the possibility that their own objection to military action in 2013 might have contributed to the present mess all across the south and east Mediterranean. "So of course you supported the Coalition Government in 2013 when they wanted to intervene on the side of the moderate Syrian rebels?", ask the interviewers. I'm kidding of course. The interviewers were probably against intervention too. After Iraq, isn't everyone?

But as I have long argued, it isn't enough to point out that those making an argument are unattractive hypocrites getting off on what the writer Brendan O'Neill described as "death porn". Neither can people like me say, "I told you so" or "I wouldn't have started from here". You have to show that in this particular case they are wrong, and that some other way might be better.

So let's start with the morality of it. British law requires individuals to claim asylum in the first safe place they come to. Thus the people trying to hop onto trains and lorries at Calais are by definition not refugees. They are safe from persecution in France (incidentally they are also illegal immigrants in that country; but no-one in France seems to care and neither does the media or the political class here).

It's worth pointing out too that the child whose death has caused the current furore was not in this sense a refugee either. He had fled Syria with his family and had lived in Turkey for a year. No doubt they were living in pretty rotten circumstances in Turkey, but they were not in danger of persecution. They paid people traffickers because they thought they would have less rotten circumstances in Europe.

British law exists to keep the maximum number of refugees out. It says, "If you can get here, we'll consider your application. But if you are too weak, too poor, too unlucky or too encumbered by dependents to get here, too bad".

There is nothing moral about our refugee laws then. But before we condemn them it's worth considering the practicalities. There must be millions of people across Africa generally who could in theory claim asylum in Britain. Leave aside the economic migrants, there must be millions at risk of persecution. We cannot possibly take them all. It is simply impractical. In that context it's possible to look at our laws as a genuine attempt to allow a realistic number of people into Britain, whilst preventing a flood tide that would overwhelm our ability to process, absorb and pay for them.

Comically, the Yvette Coopers and Natalie Bennetts of this world are exactly the same people who are telling us that we have a housing crisis, that the NHS is collapsing and that there aren't enough school places to go round. They cannot conceive that this might be something to do with net migration of 325,000 per year, an astronomic number to which they are proposing the government should now add thousands of Syrians. Truly they are beyond satire.

At times like the present, plenty of decent people say, "Hang the rules. Let's just do the right thing". But what would the right thing look like? 10,000, says Yvette Cooper. Is that 10,000 this week? This month? This year? Why is 10,000 right, but 5,000 wrong? Come to that, why isn't 15,000 better still?

For those shattered into action by pictures of dead children, more is always better. If 15,000 is better than 10,000, 20,000 must also be better than 15,000. Yet even the most ardent enthusiast would have to accept that, even if taking more refugees entitles us to feel better about ourselves, there is going to come a point when we say, "Whoa there. That's enough for now". I have absolutely no doubt that Yvette Cooper is not suggesting we take 10,000 per week. It follows that there is no point in numerical terms where the moral high ground is attained: there is always going to be a higher number which would be better still.

Yet the higher number you admit, the closer you get to the limitations of practicality. Now or later we'll have to close the door on migrants, because their supply is limitless. No matter how many we take now there will always come a point at which we are going to have to limit asylum applications in much the same way as our law does at the moment. No matter how many we take the risk is that the people we don't take at number 10,001 on the list (or 20,001 and above; or whatever) die or are tortured or drown, usually unseen by the cameras. Not exactly a morally ideal solution.

It looks then as if we are not talking about doing something absolutely right, but something which is a messy compromise between practicality and virtue. It follows that there might be another approach which, however imperfect, might be better than taking a token 10,000.

Taking asylum seekers has its drawbacks. It encourages more to come. That's to say, it encourages more to take their chances with the people traffickers and their rickety overcrowded boats. How does that help stop children drowning? If you doubt me, look at the chaotic scenes at Hungarian railway stations as Germany's promise to take large numbers of refugees acts as a magnet for the desperate. And with the desperate come the economic migrants. What kind of system is which allows economic migrants to get in but keeps out genuine refugees?

Taking refugees (or, more likely, taking migrants some of whom will be refugees and some merely looking for a better life) is a palliative. It is a partial treatment of a symptom.  What we should be doing is treating the cause.  We should be removing the reasons why people want to escape in the first place. Surely this would be more "right" than taking an arbitrary number of Syrians to make ourselves feel better (and in case you feel this is harsh on people asking for kindness to individual Syrians, how else are we to describe those who did absolutely nothing for three years and suddenly discovered their consciences because they saw a harrowing photograph?)

A proper response would involve helping countries (by direct physical intervention if necessary) to get rid of despotic rulers and set up democratic governments. Allowing the youngest, fittest and most enterprising people to come to Europe only deepens the problems those countries have. If they must leave, let them be housed in adjacent countries from which they can go back, and by all means let Western countries, including Britain, pay for them to stay there.

It would really help if the section of Western societies which howled at the moon when Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, opposed intervention in Syria and are now berating European governments for failing to take the ensuing flood of refugees could shut up for a while. The Middle East and North Africa are partly a mess because, at their behest, Western governments did nothing to help moderates topple Assad.

Luvvies like Emma Thompson, who suddenly turns out to have been sufficiently expert on refugees to appear on Newsnight (someone at the BBC must have felt it wasn't digging its own grave quickly enough), are people whose heartstrings are twanging a quarter-tone sharp. They feel bad, and want to do something (preferably in public) which will make them feel good. In a few weeks Thompson will be worrying about the Oscars or the BAFTAS. What people like her aren't willing to do is argue for the long term unglamorous strategic goals which might, in the long term, result in fewer people being drowned in the Mediterranean or beheaded by ISIL.

Taking migrants is cheap. It involves those arguing for it in almost no effort whatsoever. It makes them feel good. They can then move on to other causes with - they feel - a clear conscience.  It also does nothing whatsoever to fix the problem, and may in fact make matters worse. It is understandable, but also infantile and short-termist. It is reached for as a way of making the individual feel better in the face something truly awful, not as a way of making a repeat of the truly awful less likely (I should know. I've given several hundred quid to Save the Children. I now feel great).

Long-term engagement on the other hand makes no-one feel better. It involves many dead, some of whom will be Western. It is expensive. It entails watching depressing news on the TV, sometimes for weeks on end. It is a process of two steps forward, one step back at best (and sometimes one step forward and two steps back). Politicians who advocate it face the ordeal of holding their nerve in the face of a hostile press, vocal and self-righteous opponents and ruthless enemies. Success, if it comes, will be partial and compromised. And yet it offers the only true hope of solving the refugee crisis.

Intervention, as Iraq demonstrates, is incredibly difficult. The Americans and British remained in the country for ten years, and it turned out to be not long enough. You cannot expect a country without a democratic tradition to start making the messy compromises required overnight. We are guilty of thinking that there is a solution to this problem that can be accomplished painlessly and straight away. There isn't. As the American writer Alan Wolfe said, "Behind every citizen lies a graveyard". Peace and justice in the Middle East will not be accomplished without many, many dead, some of them ours.

We'd do better to accept that sobering thought and act strategically upon it than kid ourselves that taking a few thousand Syrian kids is going to sort things out.