what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Praise of the Documentary

I have come late to the work of documentarist Adam Curtis. I had registered a year or so ago his The Century of the Self (2002) which told the story (as Curtis puts it) of “how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy"; and shows how the man who effectively invented the PR industry which then went on to take over the machinery of state propaganda……. was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
And his documentary Bitter Lake (2015) about the role of Saudi Arabia in post-war politics was a mind-blowing piece which brought forth this post earlier this year with its acknowledgment that -  
Good documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject, experience of filming, appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music, and appreciation of how to fit them together

His latest (3 hour) production - Hypernormalisation - hit our screens last month – with Curtis himself setting the scene in his blog thus -
We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed - they have no idea what to do. 
This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening - but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West - not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves - have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world.
But because it is all around us we accept it as normal. HyperNormalisation is a giant narrative spanning forty years, with an extraordinary cast of characters. They include the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, the early performance artists in New York, President Putin, intelligent machines, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers - and the extraordinary untold story of the rise, fall, rise again, and finally the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi. 
All these stories are woven together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created. Part of it was done by those in power - politicians, financiers and technological utopians. Rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, they retreated. And instead constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power.
And it wasn’t just those in power. This strange world was built by all of us. We all went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. And that included the left and the radicals who thought they were attacking the system.
The film shows how they too retreated into this make-believe world - which is why their opposition today has no effect, and nothing ever changes. But there is another world outside. And the film shows dramatically how it is beginning to pierce through into our simplified bubble. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago - that were then left to fester and mutate - but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury.

Curtis is not to everyone’s taste – with some annoyance being expressed at the randomness of his narratives - which do jump around in a rather tantalizing if not conspiratorial way….with music and odd image clips (from BBC Archives). Indeed there is a short mocking video here which does capture his style….. .
But I personally like the way he tries to capture recent intellectual history – and, in particular, builds bridges across the huge abysses that increasingly separate the social science disciplines…. We need a lot more of this….

Close readers of this blog may have noticed that it has occasionally mentioned the fascinating period of American intellectual history in the 2 decades after the second world war whose personalities and books in the late 50s and early 60s helped shape my own thinking people like JK Galbraith, James Buchanan, Ivan Illich…

 An Adam Curtis Resource
The google search I did for articles and interviews about his work unearthed quite a few gems – my favourite being this long interview with him, the second of a series (the first being a fascinating account of how he came to stumble on his particular type of documentary)
"all watched over by machines"….https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not with a bang ....but a whimper......

Last year I drew attention to the fact that, despite their prolific output, economists seemed to have some difficulty in making sense of more global trends – 
It’s significant that the best expositions of the global economic crisis and its causes rarely come from economists……..somehow the framework within which the modern economist operates precludes him/her from even the vaguest of glimmerings of understanding of the complexity of socio-economic events. Their tools are no better than adequate for short-term work…..
For real insights into the puzzles of the modern world, think rather David Harvey (a geographer) and his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005); John Lanchester and James Meek (novellists and writers); Susan Strange, Susan George or Colin Crouch (political science); or Wolfgang Streeck – a Koeln Professor of Sociology. All have extensive and eclectic reading; a focus on the long-term; and the ability to provoke and write clearly. 
"Eclectic" is the key word; few economists are trained these days in political economy - which roots the study of economics in the wider context of history and political analysis...... 

Wolfgang Streeck is Director of the Max Planck Institute and an unlikely scourge of capitalism – but his texts are becoming ever more apocalyptic. He has just published another - How will Capitalism End? - a summary of whose basic thesis can be found in this 2014 New Left Review article
The NLR is the favoured outlet for Streeck’s long, clear and incisive articles eg one in 2011 on “The Crisis of Democratic Socialism”  which led to the short book Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism (2013). 
His latest book, however, explodes any idea of the inevitable arrival of a socialist paradise –On the contrary, his is a dystopian vision in which capitalism perishes not with a bang, but a whimper. Since, he argues, capitalism can no longer turn private vice into public benefit, its “existence as a self-reproducing, sustainable, predictable and legitimate social order” has ended. Capitalism has become “more capitalist than is good for it”. 
The postwar marriage between universal-suffrage democracy and capitalism is ending in divorce, argues Streeck. The path leading to this has gone via successive stages: the global inflation of the 1970s; the explosion of public debt of the 1980s; the rising private debt of the 1990s and early 2000s; and the subsequent financial crises whose legacy includes ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing, huge jumps in public indebtedness and disappointing growth.
Accompanying capitalism on this path to ruin came “an evolving fiscal crisis of the democratic-capitalist state”. The earlier “tax state” became the “debt state” and now the “consolidation state” (or “austerity state”) dedicated to cutting deficits by slashing spending. Three underlying trends have contributed: declining economic growth, growing inequality and soaring indebtedness. These, he argues, are mutually reinforcing: low growth engenders distributional struggles, the solution too often being excessive borrowing.  
The book finishes by exploring five systemic disorders – “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy…..” which Streeck talks about here and which are (very briefly) defined in this summary

Curiously, however, the book seems to give little coverage to automation…on which a recent article called Four Futures offers an insightful perspective – reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books – a review which also carried a good piece on The Supermanagerial Rich

Other Relevant Reading
David Harvey eg

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Leftist, anarchist or fatalist???

I started this post with every intention of analysing the deep gloom which has descended on “progressives” not just this year but since it became clear that neoliberalism – far from dying since 2008 - seemed to be enjoying a second coming. I discovered, however, that this required a bit of a diversion into the issue of political labelling.....so bear with me.... 

Despite my 20 odd years’ experience as an elected politician, I have never been happy with political labels…..from the very beginning (in the late 60s) I could see how my (older) Labour colleagues were closer to officials than to their constituents. And the sympathy I quickly developed for community development also gave me a slightly anarchistic approach in matters of political ideology.
I was lucky, of course, to be able to occupy a senior role at an early age - slipping into position after the Labour party locally had experienced a few years of electoral defeats - and had the luxury, after the first few elections, of knowing that my party had a fairly impregnable grip on power on the massive new Strathclyde Region which had been set up in 1973/74.

But, equally, the knowledge that the poorer citizens of this Region suffered from the UK’s worst rates of deprivation drove a few of us to set up what were at the time (mid 1970s) unique deliberative structures (at both community and regional level) which brought officials, councillors and community activists together in a creative and utterly non-partisan spirit
To this day I consider these were the best things I ever achieved…… although the community business movement which I helped set up in the late 70s rates a close second….

I’ve been out of politics for the past 25 years - and out of sympathy with British (and European) political parties for the past 15 of these. It was George Monbiot’s Captive State (2000) which first alerted me to the scale of the corporate takeover of the British state – which has intensified globally since then…..
Since the 1980s I’ve had strong “green” sympathies but vividly remember, five years ago, being deeply offended when an article I contributed to a magazine feature marking the anniversary of the 2001 Twin Towers attack was given a “leftist” health warning. This is how I reacted at the time - 

Four separate issues arise from this -
- First, do the editors not realise that use of such a label for one (only) of the articles is effectively an invitation to their readers to ignore it or treat it with suspicion? What does this say about freedom of expression?
- Second, criticism of the logic and effects of “neo-liberalism” has come from a great variety of quarters – not least the ordo-liberalism which has been the backbone of the post-war German economy.
- Third, it has been recognised for a long time that the left-right labelling makes little sense. Wikipedia has an excellent briefing on this. And I recommend people do their own test on the political compass website - which uses two (not one) dimensions to try to situate people politically. 
Finally, there is the issue of whether I deserve the label which has been thrown at me – either from the article or from the range of beliefs I actually hold. The references in my article are impeccably mainstream academia (Colin Crouch; Henry Mintzberg) and a final section clearly signals that I have no truck with statism. 
All my political life I have supported community enterprise and been opposed to state ambitions and the “evil” it brings in, for example, the adulterated Romanian form. My business card describes me as an “explorer” – which refers not so much to the nomadic nature of my life in the last 20 years as the open nature of my search for both a satisfactory explanation of how societies and economies work; with what results; and the nature of relevant mechanisms for adjusting what societies judge (through democratic processes) to be unacceptable trends.
I readily admit to having been attracted in my youth to the British New Left’s analysis of British inequality in the late 1950s - but I was profoundly influenced at University by people such as Karl Popper and his The Open Society and its Enemies, Schumpeter (his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and Ralf Dahrendorf; and, at a more practical level, by Andrew Shonfield and Tony Crosland who were also writing then about the benefits of the “mixed economy”. More recently I have generally been a fan of the writings of Will Hutton (whose stakeholder analysis of UK society was disdained by Tony Bliar on becoming PM).
As an academic I was influenced by the critical analysis of UK and US political scientists in the 1970s which went variously under the terms “Limits of the State” or “problems of implementation” and the softer end of the “public choice school” of institutional economics. But, unusually, the anarchistic/libertarian sweep of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire also got to me in the 1970s (which is why I am (unusually) located in the south west quadrant of the political compass).
I therefore not only disdained the injunctions of the dominant left and right extremes of British politics of the 1980s but, as an influential Scottish regional politician, used my role to create more open processes of policy-making. Indeed community activists and opposition politicians were more important partners for me than members of my own party. I held on to my leading political position on the huge Regional Council simply because I belonged to neither the left or right factions amongst my colleagues but was their natural second choice! The definitions I give in my Sceptic's Glossary reveal the maverick me.

It is "big business" and its abuses of power I have always been hostile to.........

The next post's analysis of the "apocalyptic" turn which progressive comments have taken in recent months and years should be read in this light......  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sofia's Annual Wine Fair

My fourth annual Bulgarian wine fair this past weekend in Sofia and what a feast if not feat!!
More than 200 wines tasted by yours truly in 3 days. And a hugely popular event as you can see from the pics.
I'm not prepared these days to pay more than 5 euros for a very good Balkan wine and twelve wineries caught my palate for their "best value" wines. Plus half a dozen old favourites........I've selected them by Region...................

Danube Region
Bononia – this was the first year’s tasting for this new Vidin vineyard, Their Istar Sauvignon and Traminer were amongst the best – for 5 euros.
Gulbanis winery is actually nearer Veliko Tarnovo and offers several award-winning whites – particularly the Moscata Bianco 2015, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay – all for 4 euros

Black Sea
BOY AR from Pomorie whose Dimyiat was only 3 euros.
Dives winery is also at Pomorie and had a Sauvignon as well as a Muscat and CS rose – all for 4 euros
This was also the price of the Miskets, Pinos Gris and Gruner Veltliners from Varna Winery
The Zelanos whites from its winery just outside Burgas were a bit pricier at 7 euros

Eastern Thrace
"Angel’s estate" wines offer a great SB and Chardonnay for 4 euros
Domain Marash is near Yambol and offered a lovely Muscat at just under 5 euros; and a tasty CS rose for 5 euros
villa Yambol had a great Muscat for only 3 euros; and a CS rose for only 2.5 euros!!

Sakar
The Malkata Zvezda vineyard is in the Rhodopes near the Greek border and offered a Traminer; Chardonnay and Rose each for 5 euros.

Western Thrace
Karabunar operates near Plovdiv and, in what they called the Bulgarian Heritage Original Collection, offered a Misket; a Dimyat and Mavrud Rose – each for 5 euros….
Zagreus also has its vineyard near Plovdiv but offers organic wines at great prices – white Mavrud; rose Mavrud at 3.5 euros each ,

Struma Valley
Zlaten Rozhen has its vineyards at Melnik and its Sandanski Misket has become a favourite of mine (5 euros); at the fair I had my first taste of its Chardonnay and Viognier – also 5 euros

old favourites
Black Sea Gold – Pentagram, Ponti 3.5 euros
Ethno – 3 euros
St Ilia (Sliven) – 3.5 euros
Targovishte (centre) – 3.5 euros
Santa Maria (south-east) – 4/5 euros

Here's last year's notes by way of comparison......and 2013

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Our Amnesia

Most of the material I come across about political economy is pretty abstract – individuals rarely figure (except those such as Thatcher, Reagan and Hayek) – rather forces…(such as neo-liberalism or globalisation).The material lacks what the literature has taken to calling “agency” ie actors who cause things to happen; or a narrative about how exactly these individuals achieved the changes being described.  

I am serialising an edited version of the article about the “Watergate Babes” simply because it restores “agency” to the narrative. It shows that things are not pre-determined but come from human choices……. I remember the Johnson Presidency – the literature on the “War on Poverty” (particularly Dilemmas of Social Reform by Peter Marris and Martin Rein; “Blaming the Victim” by W Ryan; Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky) and was duly influenced by such writings of JK Galbraith as The New Industrial State..

This next part of the edited article reminds us of this context in which the new elements in the Democrat Party changed focus all of 40 years ago; and the intellectual sources they drew on in a changed narrative….
How the thinking changed……After Humphrey’s loss to Nixon in 1968, Democrats formed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, also known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which sought to heal and restructure the party. With the help of strategist Fred Dutton, Democrats forged a new coalition. By quietly cutting back the influence of unions, Dutton sought to eject the white working class from the Democratic Party, which he saw as “a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote.”
The future, he argued, lay in a coalition of African Americans, feminists, and affluent, young, college-educated whites. In 1972, George McGovern would win the Democratic nomination with this very coalition, and many of the Watergate Babies entering office just three years later gleaned their first experiences in politics on his campaign.
 ……Meanwhile, by 1970, both civil society and large American institutions seemed out of control. The National Guard shot antiwar protesters at Kent State, showing that the fissures over Vietnam were only getting worse. The Penn Central railroad had collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Corrupt corporate executives mismanaged the nation’s train system under an outdated regulatory system. Inflation was spiraling upward, and the ongoing corporate problems of important institutions—such as Pan Am and Chrysler—were becoming more and more evident. Plus, Japanese imports began displacing American jobs.
But the new political class didn’t pin the blame for social and economic problems solely on Wall Street or corporate management—as populists like Patman did—but on a broader malaise. In 1974, Charlie Peters, the publisher of the hot new magazine The Washington Monthly, wrote: “Yesterday, Penn Central. Today, Pan Am. Tomorrow? The American system is in trouble and we all know it.” Inflation and a wave of corporate problems intermingled, indistinguishable from the claims of the counterculture. “We’ve grown fat and sloppy,” Peters continued. “General Motors and the Post Office each have over 700,000 employees. One turns out lemons. The other loses packages … The old organizations—public or private—simply aren’t doing the job.” 
A key influence………And the most important architect of this intellectual counterrevolution, the one who engaged in a direct assault on traditional anti-monopoly policy, was the libertarian legal scholar Robert Bork. His book The Antitrust Paradox undermined the idea of competition as the purpose of the antitrust laws. Monopolies, Bork believed, were generally good, as long as they delivered low prices. A monopoly would only persist if it were more efficient than its competitors. If there were a company making super-charged monopoly profits, bankers would naturally invest in a competitor, thus addressing the monopoly problem without government intervention. Government intervention, in fact, could only hurt, damaging efficient monopolies with pointless competition and redundancy. In an era of high prices, a theory focused on price seemed reasonable………. 
On the Democratic Party’s left, a series of thinkers agreed with key elements of the arguments made by Jensen, Stigler, and Bork. The prominent left-wing economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that big business—or “the planning system” as he called it—could in fact be a form of virtuous socialism. Their view of political economics was exactly the opposite of Patman’s and the other populists. Rather than distribute power, they actively sought to concentrate it. Galbraith for instance cited the A&P chain store, which, rather than the political threat Patman had decried, Galbraith declared should be recognized as a vehicle for consumer rights and lower prices. His theory was called “countervailing power.” Big business was balanced by those subject to it: big government and big labor. Inserting democracy into the commercial arena itself through competitive markets was “a charade” and “the last eruption of the exhausted mind.” Anti-monopoly measures had never worked; they were a “cul-de-sac” for reformist energy, leading away from the real solution of public ownership of industry. 
For younger Democrats, the key vector for these ideas was an economist named Lester Thurow, who organized the ideas of Galbraith, Stigler, Friedman, Bork, and Jensen into one progressive-sounding package. In an influential book, The Zero-Sum Society, Thurow proposed that all government and business activities were simply zero-sum contests over resources and incomes, ignoring the arguments of New Dealers that concentration was a political problem and led to tyranny. In his analysis, anti-monopoly policy, especially in the face of corporate problems was anachronistic and harmful. Thurow essentially reframed Bork’s ideas for a Democratic audience.
 …….Henceforth, the economic leadership of the two parties would increasingly argue not over whether concentrations of wealth were threats to democracy or to the economy, but over whether concentrations of wealth would be centrally directed through the public sector or managed through the private sector—a big-government redistributionist party versus a small-government libertarian party. Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the purpose of concentrated power, but everyone agreed on its inevitability. By the late 1970s, the populist Brandeisian anti-monopoly tradition—protecting communities by breaking up concentrations of power—had been air-brushed out of the debate. And in doing so, America’s fundamental political vision transformed: from protecting citizen sovereignty to maximizing consumer welfare. 
Early spotting of neoliberalism in the Democrats’ society………..In 1982, journalist Randall Rothenberg noted the emergence of this new statist viewpoint of economic power within the Democratic Party with an Esquire cover story, “The Neoliberal Club.” In that article, which later became a book, Rothenberg profiled up-and-coming Thurow disciples like Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas, and Tim Wirth, as well as thinkers like Robert Reich and writers like Michael Kinsley. These were all essentially representatives of the Watergate Baby generation. It was a prescient article: Most Democratic presidential candidates for the next 25 years came from this pool of leaders. Not all Watergate Babies became neoliberals, of course. There were populists of the generation, like Waxman and Miller, but they operated in an intellectual environment where the libertarian and statist thinkers who rejected Brandeis shaped the political economy.
 ……..In their first five years, the 1975 class of Democrats categorically realigned American politics, ridding their party of its traditional commitments. They released monopoly power by relaxing antitrust laws, eliminating rules against financial concentration, and lifting price regulations. 
The Watergate babies accepted Reagan’s demolition of controls; When Reagan came into office, one of his most extreme acts was to eliminate the New Deal anti-monopoly framework. He continued Carter’s deregulation of finance, but Reagan also stopped a major antitrust case against IBM and adopted Bork’s view of antitrust as policy. The result was a massive merger boom and massive concentration in the private sector. The success of the Watergate Baby worldview over the old populists can be seen in what did not happen in response to this quiet yet extraordinarily radical revolution:
There was no fight to block Reagan’s antitrust restructuring. He reversed the single most important New Deal policy to constrain concentrations of economic and political power, and… nothing. Antitrust was forgotten, because no one was left to fight for it. ….. And in response to the end of the Cold War, the administration restructured the defense industry, shrinking the number of prime defense contractors from 107 to five. The new defense-industrial base, now concentrated in the hands of a few executives, stopped subsidizing key industries. The electronics industry was soon offshored…….
A West Wing generation learned only Watergate Baby politics, never realizing an earlier progressive economic tradition had even existed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The real watershed of the modern era

1979 is the year people point to as the critical date when the certainties of the immediate post-war period ended – with the election of Margaret Thatcher (and her ally Ronald Reagan a year later); and the overthrow of the Iranian Shah and arrival of theocracy…But it was, arguably, a few years earlier that the tectonic plates moved when Nixon (in 1971) renounced dollar convertibility; and when (in 1973) the oil crisis shook the developed world   
The significance of my last post is the story it tells of a world collapsing in the mid 1970s and the arrival in Washington in 1975 of a new generation of politicians – “the Watergate Babes”….who considered those who had borne the Democrat’s flag for the previous decades as “old-fogies” who no longer deserved a place in power…..

I was part of that same generation – my first taste of power was indeed 1968 (as a town councillor and very soon a committee chairman) – although I was also holding down a position as an academic (until 1985) which gave me the opportunity to absorb the new thinking about political economy and public economics which was then being articulated in the States. Social science was still new then – and economists still few in number. We had, sadly, a certain arrogance about the new tools at our disposal and toward our elders…….Tony Crosland had been my hero - "The Future of Socialism" which followed James Burnham in arguing that management rather then ownership was the issue had been published in 1956....... 
I vividly remember the words which came from my mouth at my inaugural meeting as Chairman in 1971 with an experienced Director – suggesting I could bring to our partnership a managerial experience which was at that stage entirely theoretical!!! 

The Atlantic article gives a wonderful sense of the intellectual mood which was around then - it starts with the newly-elected young Democrats targeting in 1975/76 one of the great stalwarts of the Democrat part,. Wright Patman, who represented the proud tradition of American populism- 
In 1974, young liberals did not perceive financial power as a threat, having grown up in a world where banks and big business were largely kept under control. It was the government—through Vietnam, Nixon, and executive power—that organized the political spectrum. …. suspicion of finance as a part of liberalism had vanished.
Over the next 40 years, this Democratic generation fundamentally altered American politics. They restructured “campaign finance, party nominations, government transparency, and congressional organization.” They took on domestic violence, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and sexual harassment. They jettisoned many racially and culturally authoritarian traditions. They produced Bill Clinton’s presidency directly, and in many ways, they shaped President Barack Obama’s.                   
 The result today is a paradox. At the same time that the nation has achieved perhaps the most tolerant culture in U.S. history, the destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party has also cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century. This is not what the Watergate Babies intended when they dethroned Patman as chairman of the Banking Committee. But it helped lead them down that path.
The story of Patman’s ousting is part of the larger story of how the Democratic Party helped to create today’s shockingly disillusioned and sullen public, a large chunk of whom is now marching for Donald Trump……….
 In 1936, Wright Patman authored the Robinson-Patman Act, a pricing and antitrust law that prohibited price discrimination and manipulation, and that finally constrained the A&P chain store—the Walmart of its day—from gobbling up the retail industry. He would go on to write the Bank Secrecy Act, which stops money-laundering; defend Glass-Steagall, which separates banks from securities dealers; write the Employment Act of 1946, which created the Council of Economic Advisors; and initiate the first investigation into the Nixon administration over Watergate.
Far from being the longwinded octogenarian the Watergate Babies saw, Patman’s career reads as downright passionate, often marked by a vitality you might see today in an Elizabeth Warren—as when, for example, he asked Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” 
……..Patman was also the beneficiary of the acumen of one of the most influential American lawyers of the 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In the 1930s, when Patman first arrived in Washington, he and Brandeis became friends. While on the Court, Brandeis even secretly wrote legislation about chain stores for Patman. Chain stores, like most attempts at monopoly, could concentrate wealth and power, block equality of opportunity, destroy smaller cities and towns, and turn “independent tradesmen into clerks.”
In 1933, Brandeis wrote that Americans should use their democracy to keep that power in check. Patman was the workers’ and farmers’ legislative hero; Brandeis, their judicial champion. ….Brandeis did for many New Dealers what he did for Patman, drafting legislation and essentially formalizing the populist social sentiment of the late 19th century into a rigorous set of legally actionable ideas. This philosophy then guided the 20th-century Democratic Party. Brandeis’s basic contention, built up over a lifetime of lawyering from the Gilded Age onward, was that big business and democracy were rivals. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” he said, “but we can’t have both.” Economics, identity, and politics could not be divorced, because financial power—bankers and monopolists—threatened local communities and self-government.
This use of legal tools to constrain big business and protect democracy is known as anti-monopoly or pro-competition policy.…..
J.P. Morgan’s and John D. Rockefeller’s encroaching industrial monopolies were part of the Gilded Age elite that extorted farmers with sky-high interest rates, crushed workers seeking decent working conditions and good pay, and threatened small-business independence—which sparked a populist uprising of farmers, and, in parallel, sparked protest from miners and workers confronting newfound industrial behemoths. 
In the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson authored the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Federal Reserve Act, and the anti-merger Clayton Act, and, just before World War I intervened, he put Brandeis on the Supreme Court. Franklin Delano Roosevelt completed what Wilson could not, restructuring the banking system and launching antitrust investigations into “housing, construction, tire, newsprint, steel, potash, sulphur, retail, fertilizer, tobacco, shoe, and various agricultural industries.”
Modern liberals tend to confuse a broad social-welfare state and redistribution of resources in the form of tax-and-spend policies with the New Deal. In fact, the central tenet of New Deal competition policy was not big or small government; it was distrust of concentrations of power and conflicts of interest in the economy.
…….Underpinning the political transformation of the New Deal was an intellectual revolution, a new understanding of property rights. In a 1932 campaign speech known as the Commonwealth Club Address, FDR defined private property as the savings of a family, a Jeffersonian yeoman-farmer notion updated for the 20th century.
By contrast, the corporation was not property. Concentrated private economic power was “a public trust,” with public obligations, and the continued “enjoyment of that power by any individual or group must depend upon the fulfillment of that trust.” The titans of the day were not businessmen but “princes of property,” and they had to accept responsibility for their power or be restrained by democratic forces. The corporation had to be fit into the constitutional order. ….
New Deal fears of bigness and private concentrations of power were given further ideological ammunition later in the 1930s by fascists abroad. As Roosevelt put it to Congress when announcing a far-reaching assault on monopolies in 1938: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” In 1947, Patman even commissioned experts to publish a book titled Fascism in Action, noting that fascism as a political system was the combination of extreme nationalism and monopoly power, a “dictatorship of big business.”
This basic understanding of property formed the industrial structure of mid-20th-century America and then, through its trading arrangements, much of the rest of the world. Using this framework, the Democrats broke the power of bankers over America’s great industrial commons.
To constrain big business and protect democracy, Democrats used a raft of anti-monopoly, or pro-competition, policy to great effect, leading to vast changes: The Securities and Exchange Commission was created, the stock exchanges were regulated, the big banks were broken up, the giant utility holding companies were broken up, farmers gained government support for stable agricultural prices free from speculation, and the chain stores were restrained by laws that blocked them from using predatory pricing to undermine local competition (including, for instance, competition from a local camera store in San Francisco run by a shopkeeper named Harvey Milk).
The Democrats then extended this globally, through the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and NATO—even as the United Stated simultaneously used that decentralization to mobilize local communities around the world against the Soviet threat. For example, when General Douglas MacArthur led the Allied occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, key parts of his economic plan included importing the Glass-Steagall Act and antitrust laws into Japan. Back home, Democrats poured government financing into science, and they forced AT&T, RCA, and DuPont to license their treasure troves of patents so that small businesses could compete and so that the scientific discoveries of the corporate world couldn’t be locked away. Eventually, strong competition policy gained a bipartisan consensus, and the idea that anyone would allow concentrations of private power to dominate U.S. politics seemed utterly foolish.

I will continue the summary tomorrow - 
in the meantime, the photo is one taken at the glorious exhibition here in Sofia about the "Russian Impressionists" - "Gust of Wind" (1960ss) by Grishchenko

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Fatal Detachment

Last Sunday’s blogpost – before the Trump victory which was so obvious for those with eyes to see – focussed on populism and on the rage which one finds in Europe and northern America. Bernie Sanders was a self-confessed socialist but such was the people’s rage and need for a champion that they were somehow able (even with America’s visceral hatred for the word) to take that in their stride……
The same was true of Trump – the precariat and the left-behind whites forgave him his offensiveness (even relishing his political un-correctness) since he shared and championed their revulsion of free trade and movement of labour

Scales are beginning to fall from some eyes as the bubble in which the media lives (in their own company and that of the elites) is exposed – with few journalists having bothered to survey life in small-town America. John Harris, with Gary Younge, one of the few who bothered, used a wonderful phrase about “a fatal detachment from the place where politics is actually played out

We know about the trivialisation of politics but have not quite fathomed perhaps the extent to which even the “higher” journalism indulges in it, with its fixation on personalities rather than issues. Citizens may not be policy geeks but they are experts in the problems/issues they see and feel around them….. 

There are two articles I would urge people to read who wish to have a depth understanding of what is currently going on – first Glenn Greenwald’s piece of 9 November - 
The parallels between the U.K.’s shocking approval of the Brexit referendum in June and the U.S.’s even more shocking election of Donald Trump as president Tuesday night are overwhelming. Elites (outside of populist right-wing circles) aggressively unified across ideological lines in opposition to both. Supporters of Brexit and Trump were continually maligned by the dominant media narrative (validly or otherwise) as primitive, stupid, racist, xenophobic, and irrational.
In each case, journalists who spend all day chatting with one another on Twitter and congregating in exclusive social circles in national capitals — constantly re-affirming their own wisdom in an endless feedback loop — were certain of victory.
Afterward, the elites whose entitlement to prevail was crushed devoted their energies to blaming everyone they could find except for themselves, while doubling down on their unbridled contempt for those who defied them, steadfastly refusing to examine what drove their insubordination.

But the article which really helped connect the dots for me was this long one a few weeks ago in The Atlantic titled How Democrats killed their Populist soul.  I’ve read a lot about the “neo-liberal capture” of our political and government institutions but this is the single article that helped me understand (a) how crucial in the post-war period was the continuing commitment to anti-monopoly policies; (b) how the “Watergate babies” broke that in 1975 in the post-Vietnam and Nixon eras; and (c) the role played in that break by such writers as Lester Thurow and even the great JK Galbraith…
Basically that’s when the pass was sold on globalisation and equality; that’s when my generation lost whatever commitment it had retained to small-town civilisation….

Ina future post, I hope to expand on that…….
in the meantime the painting which heads the post is one from Tony Todoroff's latest exhibition in Vihra's superb Astry Gallery

Friday, November 11, 2016

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How to Run a Government

Michael Barber’s 2015 book How to Run a Government has what to a Brit is a rather off-putting American sub-title – “so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy
But, for at least 5 years, he was Blair’s right-hand man in the Cabinet Office trying to “deliver” better performance of carefully selected targets mainly in the educational and health sectors and has, for the past decade, used this experience to build a global reputation as a “delivery” or “implementation” guru in various parts of the world – not least Canada and the Punjab. And he is one of a small (if growing) number of people who has been able to both straddle the worlds of government and consultancy and write coherently……..

So I didn’t hesitate to buy the book from Bucharest’s Anthony Frost Bookshop – even although it failed my “standing on the shoulders of giants” test (ie its - short – reading list failed to mention some important texts from other practitioner/academic/consultants such as Christopher Foster and John Seddon let alone such writers as Chris Hood and Pollitt; Robert Quinn and the entire literature of change management)

But I’m at page 170 and thoroughly enjoying it – despite the occasional over-indulgent self-referencing….. Hardly surprising that he’s made a fair number of enemies in his time but his straightforward language and description of the various techniques and working methods he’s found useful in the last 20 years of advising political leaders in various parts of the world I find both useful and refreshing.

In 1999 I pulled together my own scribbles about reform efforts – for a new audience I was then facing in central Asia - In Transit – some notes on good governance. This was just as New Labour’s Modernising Government effort (which lasted until 2010) was getting underway. I followed these with great interest although the ex-communist context in which I was working was a very different one – see my “The Long Game – not the logframe” (2012) for its assessment of the chances of Technical Assistance programmes making any sort of dent in what I called (variously) the kleptocracy  or “impervious regimes” of most ex-communist countries.   
There are surprisingly few reviews for a book which has been out for some 18 months which says a lot to me about academics, consultants and journalists…..