Getting things the wrong way round
Next posting, ‘Year-end clear-out’, scheduled for 15-12-16
We have all adopted Monty’s policy as the policy of the site: onward transmission of items welcome provided there is acknowledgment of the source, and no modification in transmission
- Prosperity? Really? 2. Inside advice
- Dim lights in the gloom 4. A heroine of bureaucracy
(Monty Skew and Karela Hangshaw writing jointly)
Tunnel vision : Judgement by appearances and the Emperor’s new clothes are not exact opposites, but close to it. If not 180o , perhaps about 150o. With the naked Emperor the audience’s beliefs (voluntary or enforced) are supposed to overpower the evidence of their senses. In the other error, perceived appearance and presentation overpower common sense and facts. (To call the latter the Reagan syndrome is not hostile to America; Americans who sincerely support their country should simply check out its state and status before and at the end of his time in office.) Now, there is at present a massive international effort to promote free trade and the setting up, on foundations as near immovable as possible, of free trade areas. This is being run at all levels from Christine Lagarde herself down to humble Dax and Footsie CEOs getting no more than five or six million a year. The standard version is that globalisation and free trade, while distinguishable, are an inseparable pair who need each other, in much the same way as a bank robber and her look-out woman. [Ed: Thank you Karela – enough of that!] However ‘globalisation’ can mean almost anything for almost anybody, and therefore must escape reasoned criticism. The story about international trade, as understood by the eager campaigners, is that it ‘creates’ prosperity. So determined, or desperate, is the promotional effort that large companies are running campaigns at their shareholders’ expense, going light on the self-praise and instead telling us international trade is a wonderful boon for humanity (on a par, perhaps, with medicine or music?). This story can only be maintained by two kinds of linguistic manipulation, which to be polite we shall call equivocations. The lesser equivocation concerns ‘creates’, and other words such as ‘leads’ and ‘brings’ which are used in this context as equivalents, to claim that trade is the foundation of prosperity. This claim is wonderful bunkum. The primary foundation for prosperity is by an overwhelming margin not trade – taking goods to another place to exchange them for different assets – but technology, the devising of new and interesting goods. It is the goods that matter, not the journey to exchange them. Whatever would be the point of travelling thousands of miles to the other end of the world’s continents if you have nothing interesting or attractive to take? Besides, the routes have been there as routes for thousands of years, from the bleak coast of Ceredigion right across the Eurasian landmass to the East China Sea, and with well-known side-routes down as far as Zanzibar. If trade was not booming along them then it was because the supply of different goods not obtainable in the purchaser’s immediate neighbourhood was simply not large or interesting enough. Very simply, you have to have the tradable goods before you can trade them. Nor is there any chance of developing a vigorous transocean trade until you have developed ships that can make the trip reliably (and a compass will help too.) The ships do come before the flourishing prosperity, really! Or again, there is now a very big complex of industries based on the use of lasers. How did this come about? We do not believe for a moment that the existence of flourishing trade centres somehow led spontaneously to the emergence of the laser. Trade routes and active trade are by-products, like pollution; primarily by-products of technological development, and secondarily of population growth. The conclusion is not to pour resources into treaties making life agreeable for business, with negative measures such as restricting trade unions, and helping employers to throw the poor out of work to save their own interests, and positive measures which some critics might refer to as fiscal prostitution….But here we are meeting the second and greater equivocation. This results from a breath-taking ability (undoubtedly involuntary with some, undoubtedly cynically chosen by others) not to notice the distinction between two very different interpretations of ‘prosperity’. When examined closely, what we call ‘prosperity’ comes down to the capacity to do things. There is prosperity of a country, taken as a whole (almost always measured in monetary units); and there is or can be prosperity of individuals. But the conditions and factors which are properly relevant when talking about individuals are so different from those for a country as a whole that using the same term is thoroughly misleading, and to assess both cases on the same basis is a simple intellectual error. (Would you try to count the number of species of tree in a forest by using a clock?) Dealing with the individuals, you need to take into account not only monetary units, but also measurements on parameters of health, types of work, living conditions and a good few other dimensions simply not representable in the same terms as financial assets.
Trying to measure either complex in the same way as the other (and it’s nearly always the ‘whole country’ version that wins, because it is the government that does the measuring) is not just an intellectual mistake. By a chain of connections which can easily be seen and understood by anyone with the least willingness to see and understand the inevitable dominance of the ‘whole country’ view leads to ever-increasing inequality between comfortable governing classes with great freedom of personal action (sometimes on condition they do not meddle in politics), and everybody else. And if you don’t want to go into the theory of the dangers which then threaten a society and its individuals (not excluding those who will protest that they were never really involved – ‘honest! – only passing by at the time’), you don’t need to. Just pick up and read a couple of comprehensive books of history.
As they sit back in the comfort of the first class on their way to the Far East to strengthen the historic and deeply rooted ties of mutual respect and self-interest between Great Britain and e.g.Tonkin, or Sulawesi, tycoons and ‘leaders of business’ from the City must be wondering at the changes they are going to see in a once familiar region. There was a time in the second half of the 20th century when you knew where you were with the countries of East Asia. ‘Korea’ in particular meant of course South Korea, a dynamic democratic republic with military overtones organised on no-nonsense lines approved by America. Now it seems that literally millions have been mounting huge street protests to get the President thrown out on the extraordinary grounds that she was taking advice from non-elected friends who were pushing their own views to influence government policies and the flow of monies. How can this be? Is this not exactly the way that things have been run for years in Britain to the satisfaction of all concerned, with only the difference that in Britain such friends are speedily taken on to be special advisors, with handsome salaries paid out of the money that arrives from tax-payers?
Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems writes : The politics of the past few months seem to have left a lot of commentators gazing morosely over the political landscape like cows jostling in the freezing fog as they wait to get through the gate of a field where a ‘work-experience’ trainee has scattered a dozen bales of shrivelled hay. One can understand why. But in a darkling world we must look for glimmers of good cheer where we can find them. And one is that the battle-weary French have at last recovered from Sarkolepsy. They thought they’d got over it in 2012 . But cleverly dodging past doubts about his campaign finances, Sarko returned and stoked up the fires on the French right believing this would bring him back to the top in a blaze of glory. In fact all it did for him was to scorch his backside as he made his exit from politics. (It seems though that the CNRS may intend to continue a little-known programme investigating whether upper-body gymnastics with invisible apparatus does indeed exert a hypnotic effect on French audiences.) But just as the French electorate escapes from one pursuer with a preposterously exaggerated idea of his own charms, almost unbelievably, Britain is now under threat. A deeply disturbing shape has risen from its political grave. I presume no one thought this possible; otherwise surely they would have planted a clove of garlic in the occupant’s mouth and a stake through its political ambition when it was interred. At present it is not certain that it will start another terrible cycle of events, but in any case let us hope that those who still feel a duty of loyalty to their country and their sovereign will study again the law relating to treason.
There have also been two minor bonuses from the recent rounds of elections. First, there is at least now evidence that the traditional rule ‘Put enough money on and under the table, and you can buy the result you want’ is not infallible for all elections. Estimates of the Democrat investment vary from $2bn all the way down to a paltry $1bn, but whatever it was it apparently outspent the other side and yet still produced a loser. And the second entry in the ‘Progress’ ledger has been to cast light on the true value of ‘professionals’ who ‘know the job’ – men and women who work and calculate and run computer simulations and collate until their imagination runs dry, while they study all the reports and data until at last they could fight the previous campaign with absolute perfection, if it was held tomorrow (and who have in fact been the backbone of the losing side in most Western elections in the past ten years). Did the Donald come with folders bulging with expertise on how to fight elections? It didn’t look like that to me. The other major benefit to be entered in the political columns (some might want to call it a silver lining but that seems a little overambitious in the circumstances – at best perhaps a pewter lining) is the obvious one that whatever the American result has given the world it has at least avoided four years of beautifully designed establishmentarian politics of the type which has served Washington and the well-off classes of the well-off nations so well, and done so little for all the rest of the world, confronted with natural disasters, economic injustice, massacres, wars and the indifference of the West.
Ed: Is Berthold heading for a breakdown? He’s certainly been poaching on Monty’s territory. Time for a serious talk.
Let’s recognise some true worth
If you are wondering who you might send an anonymous end-of-year present to, let us suggest Federica Mogherini, whose humane intelligence is fighting bravely trying to keep the EU sane and functioning despite itself.