Saturday, April 11, 2009

'The Storm' - A Thought For Easter

The informal Kelly Test of a public thinker's value is whether they speak as well as they write, and vice versa. If you're Simon Schama, this ability is a great boon.

If you're Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesperson, it isn't.

Dr. Cable's book 'The Storm', an analysis of why we are bust and how we got to be bust, is currently storming through the media. Dr. Cable is, of course, an economist by training; sadly, he is also one by habit and repute. He does his lay readers the great service of framing his arguments in English, without feeling the urge to resort to calculus. It is disappointing that much of his book reads like the efforts of an economist who has felt the urge to translate calculus into English.

Its dust-jacket is glossily embossed, and suitably attention-grabbing. It features Dr. Cable in Protean pose, head held high and angled, staring into the middle distance. When a man on the cusp of old age is photographed from below, the age-old old age problem of nostril hair might be expected to present something of an aesthetic challenge. The more sensitive reader should have no fear of unsightly thickets - Dr. Cable's cavities are both as bald as Telly Savalas. However, for the sake of completeness, the photographer could have asked him to do something about the luxuriant meadow sprouting from his right ear. It's so big, he could fence it off and call it 'Watership Down'.

By the blurbs on their dust-jackets shall ye know them. Dr. Cable himself admits that '(T)his book was written in some haste'; this reader can only reply, 'and it shows'. 'The man who gives politics a good name' - Rory Bremner. 'A heavyweight in anybody's cabinet' - Matthew Parris, 'The Times'. 'Everything a politician should be and everything most politicians are not' - Jeff Prestridge, 'Mail on Sunday' (a newspaper for which Dr. Cable has recently started writing a column). You get the picture- the dust-jacket blurbs on this edition serve little purpose other than to edify Dr. Cable.

Dr. Cable spoils his book right from the outset through his unnecessary introduction of the issue of race (Page 7). Oh, he doesn't do it in so many words. Instead, he adopts a rather sly and crafty form of words, writing of 'subtle voices seeking to scapegoat foreigners, especially yellow and brown ones...'. That particular construction's architecture made this reader think that Dr. Cable thinks that if you don't think the way he thinks about trade and economic policy, he'll think you're a racist. To that line of thinking, one can issue a one word reply very apposite to the book's subject matter - 'insolvent'. The word 'insolvent' is nothing but the word 'insolent' with a very rude gesture in the middle. I wouldn't like to think that's what Uncle Vince thinks about people who disagree with him; after all, he's Uncle Vince, a heavyweight in anybody's cabinet.

Dr. Cable seems intensely suspicious of populism. The Thatcher government's 'right to buy' policy was 'brilliantly populist' (Page 25). He even conjures the hoary old spectre of 'populist demagogues' at one point. This pathological fear of populism makes this reader wonder whether he deserves to be considered the opposite of a populist - an elitist.

Because if this book - and it's not really a book, more of an elephantine newspaper commentary begging to be a footnote in a Ph.D. thesis - is nothing else, it's an argument in defence of globalisation (or as Dr. Cable rather irritatingly prefers to spell it, 'globalization'), possibly the most elitist policy in history. Unlike the vast majority of those who tout whatver virtues might be represented by that horrible noun, Dr, Cable at least does his readers the courtesy of attempting a definition of his own. He defines it as 'international integration' (Page 117).

At which point Dr. Cable's credibility as a pundit on anything from the state of the economy to the likely winner of the 3.15 at Catford hits a very tall, broad and uncompromising brick wall. Globalisation is a policy, not a process; it is one that has never been put in front of the people for their mandate, and should therefore not be defended by anyone who purports to be both a liberal and a democrat, particularly one whose public image is founded on their possession of the virtue of integrity, not their desire for international integration. The United Kingdom's integration into greater international norms is a policy which its elites have assiduously kept from the public, largely through the adoption of internationalist policies by all the gangs called 'political parties', and their inaccurate labelling of the popular (but strictly not populist) votes they sometimes call for as 'democracy'.

In the United Kingdom, both the passage of The European Union Act of 1992 and the resulting entity's subsequent enlargement without resort to referenda are particular cases in point; truly bipartisan crimes, both stupid and evil in character. And Dr. Cable seems to be just as much of a globaliser as those who made such legislation happen.

To his by now crunched credit, he does attempt to address issues. He makes the case that there was an oil shock in 2008, though probably too much of one - in this writer's opinion, for that's ever been worth, it's much more likely to have been the case that the backside falling out of Chinese manufacturing resulted in a straightforward drop in demand. He is quite correct to condemn the processes by which the Chinese have subsidised the West, although he does not seem to spread the blame evenly - the massive expansion of the US trade and budget deficits under the last American administration were financed by the Chinese desire to hold T-Bills, so it seems perverse to make little or no mention of George W. Bush's profligacy while blaming the mess on John Q. Public's desire to buy a flatscreen TV on his credit card; because he certainly can't do it out of his depressed wages.

He is honest enough to point out that wages have been falling while returns to capital have been increasing, yet seems in thrall to the cruel and wicked notion that this is a good thing because it has resulted in millions of Chinese being lifted out of poverty. What he is in fact describing is the phenomenon best and most succinctly described as 'global labour arbitrage'; it seems a pity he just couldn't come out and say it.

What he has to say about the depressive effect that mass immigration has had on wages in the United Kingdom seems to be precisely zero. This isn't really quite good enough; the last ten years have seen a new Volkerwanderung, and to fail to mention its impact on wages renders any conclusion that the author might draw on wages virtually null and void. He writes of the British education system that 'a generation's neglect of vocational skills has led to a situation where only Polish immigrants know how to repair leaking pipes and lay bricks' (Page 155). This statement is not absolutely true. Yes, there are considerable deficiencies in the provision of vocational education, probably a likely by-product of the absurd mindset that held we didn't need manufacturing - but as the experience of men like Billy Gallagher, Martin Kelly (and yes, that is his name) and his workmates and assorted Edinburgh jobseekers has shown, the displacement of both skilled and unskilled British workers through mass immigration has been neither anecdotal not apocryphal. It has happened, it is continuing to happen, and as Lord Mandelson's pronouncements have shown, it is government policy. Such a glaring omission is enough to make an admittedly critical reader wonder whether Dr. Cable banged his book out in just too much of a hurry.

He does have the decency to admit that the policy of subsidising farmers to grow corn for no purpose other than for it to be turned into ethanol is immoral - on this at least we agree.

In a short book written in haste, his analyses must at best be shallow; like those of a hardcore blogger trying desperately to arbitrage their time between that beautiful final paragraph, and shaving before going to work.

Although hopefully fellow bloggers will 'get' that allusion, it is very possible that Dr. Cable will not 'get' it. As a man of his own era once said, 'The times they are a' changin', perhaps in ways that Dr. Cable might not quite fully understand. What Dr. Cable doesn't factor in to any of his arguments is how people like me have been radicalised by the events about which he is writing, when his book's presumption, perhaps even great conceit, is that many in the public are still willing to listen to a word that people like him, the kind of people who got us into this mess, actually have to say.

Radicalised? Sure. Why not say it? Why not? What's happened to people like me, instinctive Tories, that we have been radicalised?

For me, it was the final realisation that from its outset, the globalisation policy had been nothing but a construct, an elitist consensus built on lies and deceit. It's now pretty clear that it was never about helping as many people as possible get opportunities - as only a fact as bald as a greater return to capital at a time of falling wages can ever show, it was always and only ever about the guys at the top screwing the guys underneath. This has been manifested in so many ways that their iteration has become pointless. Personally, I think it started the moment that corporate entities began to deliberately dehumanise their staff by referring to them as 'human resources'; a very sinister development to which organised religion should have set itself in opposition, and against which the sometimes great naivety of those who lead organised religion had no natural defences. The practices of offshoring, onshoring, outsourcing and downsizing were just further steps down the corporations' descent into the mucky immorality of early 19th century capitalism; an immorality to which the boys at the top returned with the enthusiasm of dogs to their vomit.

At a number of points in his book, Dr. Cable actually endorses this moral descent, I am sure in all innocence and without malice. He frequently uses the term 'moral hazard'. There is a very great moral pitfall in the use of this expression - actions described as 'moral hazards' in economics are only offensive to the commercial immorality of the early 19th Century, the period when the expression was coined. Put bluntly, in order to use the term 'moral hazard' and mean it, you pretty much have to buy into the same Benthamite utilitarianism that forced The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 on England's sick, vulnerable and weak. This might shock Dr. Cable; if nothing else, he is a good liberal. However, perhaps his professional use of the term has become habitual and careless; in which case it has about as much meaning as a carelessly said prayer.

Now, I am very grateful, more grateful than I can say, that my particular radicalisation has been away from mainstream politics and towards the path of Catholic spirituality - Deo Gratias! Alleluia! Alleluia! Yet others who have been radicalised might not have received that grace, and Dr. Cable and the rest of the political class should be very wary of them. I would stop short of saying 'frightened'; those libertarian blowhards who soak themselves in the rhetoric of hanging politicians with piano-wire would cry like girls if the piano-wire were ever actually put in their hands. The violence of their prose betrays nothing but their own smallness. But our common British home, fated to be forever separated by words, works and water from the mythical 'Common European Home' so beloved by the political class, now contains a very large and growing number of very angry people. For all the blogging rock and roll indulged in herein, Dr. Cable's obviously sincere and well-meaning - but being sincere and well-meaning are not the same things as being correct. I got very little impression from his book that any of his proposed solutions are directed towards addressing the anger felt by many of Britain's newly radicalised people; probably white (such things seem to matter to Dr. Cable), probably mostly male, lower middle class people halfway through working lives in an economy which has always told them their labour is fungible and expendable in a way their own fathers' never was, and who face very much bleaker old ages. This radicalisation is the result of a collective and catastrophic failure of the political system which has now been in motion for two decades. While they sought to ingratiate themselves with financiers, our politicians forgot the people. But the people do not forget.

When his civilisation is failing, the concerned citizen should have absolutely no compunction about founding his own. As an ideologue of 'The Civilisation Of Truth And Love', I fully recognise that it might be a hard sell on the doorstep; although perhaps not as hard as one might think - who knows?

However, what many of the unhappy people in the United Kingdom might just be thinking is that conventional economics has failed them. This should not be surprising - it is a false religion. It was bound to fail. Solutions from conventional economics such as Dr. Cable's, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, just aren't going to cut it any more. The realisation many be dawning that the day of the economist is over; or could be, if that's what we want.

For what he has to offer is extremely conventional. Many of his criticisms are very well-founded - how can a bank have a bigger balance sheet than the country in which it's based? Dr. Cable's answers are largely founded on the bankers who have run amok through the world's economies having been stupid and greedy, abetted by poor regulation. This is true; but I'd go further. If economics is a science, there should be no reason to believe that it is incapable of producing mad scientists. In fact, it has gone full circle through the realms of worldly philosophy; it's gone from being an art to a science to alchemy.
Tradable assets like collateralised debt obligations (CDO's) were conjured from nothing, and called 'capitalism'. Quant jocks chopping formulae in backrooms became Sorcerers' Apprentices, wreaking havoc they could not control because they had unleashed something they did not understand - the system they produced was so complex and arcane that nobody could understand it. Nobody can. The difficulty with a problem created by a system nobody understands is that nobody can possibly ever understand how to fix it. In all genuine sincerity, Dr. Cable thinks that the old answers might work. In this, he is not a Sorcerer's Apprentice; he is instead like Paganini, forever fiddling away at variations on a theme.
Although Dr. Cable does at least try to provide answers to our problem, his ability to think outside the box is hampered by Euclid. What the other lot forgot is that it always was.
Yet in some ways this is also a sobering and quite unwittingly frightening book. Globalisation cannot work unless one Chinese desires to oppress another - agreed? In his foreword (Page 8), Dr. Cable quotes Marx, and describes the comment as 'prescient'-
"Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and mechanical products, pusghing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism".
Regular readers will be glad to know that I have finally finished reading Fukuyama's 'The Great Disruption'. Reading a book by Francis Fukuyama is a literary experience not dis-similar to reading Bertrand Russell - if you're prepared to wait for a very long time, the author sometimes has something interesting to say.
On Page 252, Fukuyama writes,
"Joseph Schumpeter...argued in 'Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy' that capitalism tended to produce a class of elites over time that was hostile to the very forces that had made their lives possible, and that they would eventually seek to replace market economies with socialist ones. Daniel Bell argued that abundance makes the work ethic appear unnecessary and also creates a cultural elite that is in perpetual revolution against the staus quo. The very essence of artistic modernism, he observed, is the desire to violate established norms, question authority and defy community standards. Each generation finds the task of norm violation harder because there are fewer norms left to be undermined and fewer people who can be shocked out of their complacent conformism...Ultimately, according to Bell, a cultural elite that stands perpetually in opposition to all middle-class values ends up destroying the productive basis of the market society that makes its own existence possible."
This is what globalisation has been. This is what its advocates must confront.
And this, of course, was said just as pithily by Arnold J. Toynbee over 60 years ago, when he charted the decline of a creative minority within a civilisation into a dominant minority aping the habits of its internal proletariat. In the abridgement of Vols I-VI of 'A Study of History' that sits on my bookshelf, this is what the genius upon whose shoulders all writers and readers of history sit has to say about universal states created by the collapse of civilisations; or as Dr. Cable would call it, 'globalisation' -
"...we have not yet experienced the establishment of a universal state...Another fact is equally plain; there is among us a profound and heartfelt aspiration for the establishment, not of a universal state, but of some form of world order, akin perhaps to the Homonoia or Concord preached in vain by certain Hellenic statesmen and philosophers during the Hellenic time of troubles, which will secure the blessings of a universal state without its deadly curse. The curse of a universal state is that it is the result of a successful knock-out blow delivered by one sole surviving member of a group of contending military Powers. It is a product of that 'salvation by the sword' which we have seen to be no salvation at all. What we are looking for is a free consent of free peoples to dwell together in unity, and to make, uncoerced, the far-reaching adjustments and concessions without which this ideal cannot be realised in practice".
If the hairs on the back of your neck aren't standing up by now, they should be. Whoever said 'uncoerced' ever had to mean 'democratic'? Like all parties' adoption of internationalist policies and calling it democracy?
AJT goes on to discuss our current 'time of troubles' -
"We can discern why the eighteenth century rally in the course of our time of troubles was abortive and ephemeral; it was because the toleration achieved by 'the Enlightenment' was a toleration based not on the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity but on the Mephistophelian maladies of disillusionment, apprehension and cynicism, It was not an arduous achievement of religious fervour but a facile by-product of its abatement".
And finally, he sets about proposing some solutions of his own, by way of 'Pilgrim's Progress' -
"...in the classic version of the myth we are told that the human protagonist was not left entirely to his own resources in the decisive hour. According to John Bunyan, Christian was saved by his enounter with Evangelist. And, insasmuch as it cannot be supposed that God's nature is less constant than Man's, we may and must pray that a reprieve which God has granted to our society once will not be refused if we ask for it again in a humble spirit and with a contrite heart".
This Easter Sunday, what the greatest British historian of the past 200 years seems to be saying is that Christ is Risen, while The Pie in The Sky Fairy still lies rotting in the Canongate Kirk. It is time to ditch the old ways of doing things. And listening to economists is one of the habits worth ditching.
Let me give you an example. Dr. Cable's book is titled 'The Storm'. Storms are very frightening things which cause a lot of damage - yet the horribly uneconomic clear-up operations which have to be carried out in their wake are performed in bright sunshine, with wonderfully crisp, cool winds having replaced the oppressive atmosphere that the storm has blown away.
By and of themselves, storms are not bad things. It's what come after them that counts.
A couple of minor quibbles about the book is that the lamentable state of British book-editing, a particular bugbear of this writer's, is once again thrown into sharp relief. While the book itself may have been written in haste, one wonders if it was not merely edited in haste, or if it was rushed straight from laptop to presses; that might be just about the only explanation for the marvellous typo which appears on Page 147, when Dr. Cable refers to 'a wasteful alterantive'. For a man allegedly so in touch in events, it is surprising to see Dr. Cable refer to the recently retired former Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland as 'Sir Frank Godwin' (Page 156). Perhaps he is related to the Fred Goodwin who once illustrated Treasure Island; mind you, after the recent revelations concerning his management style, allegations that Fred Goodwin, the paradigm of the definition of the word 'insolvent' offered above, sang 'Fifteen Men On A Dead Man's Chest' while wearing a parrot on his shoulder would not be surprising.

In the round, while it fails to convince, 'The Storm' cannot be said to be Vince's con either. It's just that people are looking for new alternatives; and all that Dr. Cable can offer are alterantives.

3 Comments:

Blogger PJMULVEY said...

Martin: Great post....I really enjoyed your engaging polemics against the Don Quixote's of globalism proclaiming that their actions are serving and benefiting mankind similar to the abortionists who claim they are doing a social good as they rip babies out of the womb. Yes, we have all become radicals (in Christ) since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Globalists.

A blessed Easter to you and your family.

Patrick

12 April, 2009 18:32  
Blogger Catholic Teuchtar said...

Happy Easter Brother!

12 April, 2009 19:04  
Blogger Martin said...

Thank you, gentlemen,

And a very happy Easter to you and all readers.

13 April, 2009 11:26  

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