30 September 2008

Midweek review

• Someone pejoratively referred to my Decline and Fall table from April — which was meant half-seriously/half-satirically and mentioned "crashes, insolvencies, credit system seizing up, market breakdown, all paper assets become suspect" — as "hysterical". Do they still maintain their scepticism after the Dow Jones index yesterday suffered its biggest-ever points drop? Actually, yesterday was not a crash; the percentage decline wasn't large enough. Crashes tend to happen when prices have got overdone on the upside, not when they're already bombed out. I suspect the worst in the decline of the modern (mediocratic) financial services industry may be yet to come. Though in typically useful forecaster fashion, I would put the date of the Big One somewhere between now and 2020.

• Postscript to the previous post and the idea of a 'right-wing' press: failure to support moving in a left-wing direction is not the same as being right-wing. To equate the two is a mediocratic redefinition of the same kind as insisting that judges are "politically biased" if their rulings are not 'progressive', or that a government is "undemocratic" if it does not support redistribution, or that you are "sexist" or "racist" if you do not approve of positive discrimination.

• Celia Green explains how she came to be involved in psychological research: it was fairly accidental.

• Can you smell the blood lust? The anti-market sharks are circling: an opportunity like this, with most voters now sold on the idea that the free market has cocked up in a big way, doesn't come along very often. The Left will try to squeeze their own agenda in as far as they can, e.g. limiting executive remuneration (a favourite idea). Tim Worstall is right to point out that what's happening is the inverse of Naomi Klein's leftist-fantasy thesis — though I'm a bit miffed he didn't mention my piece on disaster socialism, which I thought was quite amusing even if I do say so myself.

• Further to Lehman Brothers, killer instinct and dumbed-down banking. Two items via The Week: (1) LB's former chief exec allegedly "threatened behind closed doors to rip the arms off the short sellers" he believed were ganging up to destroy LB's share price. Charming. (2) The former chief exec of HBOS is described as "brash, ever-smiling ... [one of a generation of] pushy young figures who have taken over the levers of banking in recent years [and who think it is] foolish not to chase huge profits by placing vast bets."
I wonder if anyone has considered a possible connection between the decline of banking standards, and the shifting of City hiring practices to reflect the 'classless society'. Probably not, since this would offend egalitarian sensibilities. What will actually be blamed, no doubt (among other things) is a culture of fast-tracking the talented, which will be presented as having been too 'individualistic' (i.e. bad).

• Via Reason, I discover the following quote from Mike Huckabee about libertarians.

The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it's this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it's a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says "look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don't get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it."
But the point about libertarians is surely (hopefully) not that they 'care' less than others, but that they're canny enough to realise that the state doesn't ultimately deliver sustainable solutions to social tragedies, at least not without exacting an appalling price.* The price may not become apparent until several years or even decades have passed. By which time it is too late to unravel state involvement without a lot of difficulties. Of course, when Huckabee says voters "aren't going to buy that" he is quite right. A majority of people in the West want a high level of state intervention, so a party with a libertarian agenda isn't going to win any national elections. Is this because many people are innately predisposed to prefer nannying and interfering, or because we've all been indoctrinated with an il-liberal ideology, which encourages the spurious belief that liberty is an immoral advantage purchased at the cost of 'unfairness'? Probably a bit of both.

• Disabled children provide a good illustration of the issues. Rosa Monckton has personal experience in this area.
You might think, with the plethora of government 'initiatives' to help them, that disabled children have never had it so good. The initiatives include: Every Child Matters; Childhealth Strategy; Aiming High for Disabled Children and Better Care, Better Lives. But ... almost everyone seems to be involved in administering and regulating the services rather than actually providing for the disabled and their families.
Ms Monckton may wish to refer to my definitions of service and service professional. I find the quotation from Tony Blair apposite, congratulating himself on the appointment of hundreds of new state employees, "many of whose jobs didn't even exist before ... giving us the capacity to help thousands upon thousands in new ways". For "new ways", try reading "ways which avoid providing any actual real help to the individual".

• Oh dear. A couple of days ago I came across this definition of libertarian in Chambers 21st Century Dictionary:
1) someone who advocates that people should be free to express themselves, their ideas etc as they like;
2) someone who believes in the doctrine of FREE WILL and the power of self-determination.
I wouldn't apply either of those descriptions to myself. The first one sounds too much like the il-liberal elite's idea that everyone has the right to be 'creative'; and I have an open mind about the second. I prefer the Oxford Dictionary definition of individualism:
1) the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant;
2) a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.
Incidentally, someone should restore balance to the Wiki articles on right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism. At present there seems to be a bias in favour of the latter, which is much longer. Re the former, the quote from Anthony Gregory should be removed, or hived off into a "criticisms" subsection, as it is clearly hostile. I didn't even know there could be such a thing as left-libertarianism until I came across bloggers such as Chris Dillow and Question That.

• Is it my imagination or have some conservative Britbloggers moved ever so slightly to the left? Is this some kind of welcoming ritual in anticipation of the likely change** in administration? The argument that you can keep some parts of marketisation (e.g. the shopping bits) while discarding others (e.g. private capital) seems familiar. Isn't that what China does?

• A propos China. I always thought Fukuyama's idea was interesting enough for a paper, but not substantial enough to be puffed up into a book — and his use of Nietzsche's 'Last Man' as a kind of anti-hero was unforgivable. But the end-of-history thesis could still have legs; only the model we are all approaching may not be the American one but the Chinese. I.e. crypto-communism (in the sense of totalitarian-style intervention), combined with shopping and all the other benefits of markets that you can have without allowing anyone any genuine freedom.

Nicole Kidman to my mind perfectly embodies the mediocratic ethos as far as movies are concerned. In most of the highbrow films she has appeared in (especially The Hours and Cold Mountain) she has seemed out of her depth. Supposedly playing sophisticated middle-class individuals with complex personalities, her characters come across as shallow, hollow and robotic. They are ersatz versions of the real thing, perhaps meant to be less threatening to a mediocratic audience. In the fifties her roles would have been played by someone like a Hepburn or a Bergman, demonstrating genuine psychological depth. Julianne Moore is another of the fashionable robotic actresses, apparently embodying the new ideal of emotionality-without-affect. Male equivalents include chirpy chappie Tom Cruise and the uptight Christian Bale, both also often cast in middle-class roles to which they are not suited. Having said all of which, Kidman is perfectly cast in tonight's film on Channel 4, Dogville, a brilliant (though unpleasant) movie by Dogme director Lars von Trier. Dogville is best seen as a Brechtian satire on society in general, though von Trier spoils the effect by trying to pass it off as an indictment of 30s America.

• So, the US Treasury's bailout plan has been rejected by Congress, at least for now. Congressman Mike Pence, whose views are probably representative of its opponents, argues that
Economic freedom means the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail. The decision to give the federal government the ability to nationalize almost every bad mortgage in America interrupts this basic truth of our free market economy ... [This bill represents] the largest corporate bailout in American history [and] forever changes the relationship between government and the financial sector.
He has a point.

* The welfare-state solutions, because they leave suppliers completely protected from market forces, soon stop working as they should; and the resulting problems are addressed by increasingly authoritarian interventions. (In addition to the obvious price, i.e. that everyone has to be taxed more and more to pour ever-increasing cashflows into the black holes of 'nationalised' services.)
** For the confused: polls suggest the next party in power will be the 'New Tories' — you know, the party that is like New Labour, except more concerned with poverty, social justice and the environment.