03 February 2013

weekend notes #11

Once upon a time there was a world which was culturally productive but rather inegalitarian. Then the inhabitants invented ‘social justice’ as a device for legitimising their mutual hostility, and soon things were in a pretty pickle.

- more on the mythology of inequality
- note from a small island
- patronage (contd.)
- Church of England, Les Mis, Financial Times, Fifty Shades

Last time we considered the alleged link between
• increasing inequality and
• financial market dysfunctionality,
and concluded that while they may be effects of a common cause they are unlikely to be directly connected. Their coincidence may however reveal something about the current state of society.

The evidence on this is still accumulating, but it seems possible that democracy — in which ‘the people’ and the state are touted as morally superior to individual capital owners, supposedly justifying the confiscation of resources from the latter — tends to result, with time, not only in
(a) a lowering of standards [1], but also (less obviously) in
(b) an increase in concentration of power and money, in the hands of a new elite, superficially in tune with egalitarian ideology but in practice no less ruthless than their predecessors.

This hypothesis is of course unacceptable in terms of the currently dominant ideology — as is any suggestion that there might be serious intrinsic flaws to democracy [2] — and is therefore unlikely to receive much attention from the university sector. Most analysts of supposedly rising inequality focus on more ideologically palatable explanations. A popular story, cited for example by Raghuram Rajan, is that educational opportunity is failing to keep pace with economic need. This supposed market failure may well be a leftist fantasy, however. There seems little convincing evidence to support it, and plenty of counterevidence in the form of graduate unemployment.

On the other hand, there are a number of possible explanatory factors which are not considered at all by most commentators on inequality, presumably because they do not fit with the desired conclusion of more intervention. For example:

- Welfare that generates distorted incentives for having children between different social classes, leading to a relative expansion of the lower-IQ population, some of whom may be unemployable in the modern, ‘high-skill’ economy habitually referred to.

- An ideology which encourages people to have inflated ideals about the kind of work they ought to be able to do, so that the rewards available to those who would once have been employed in (say) manufacturing go to workers in developing countries instead. In other words, exalted educational expectations could be a cause rather than, as Rajan suggests, a solution.

Even if one is too squeamish to consider ideologically taboo explanations, there are plenty of others that are neglected. For example, tax, welfare and other legislative interventions may generate a disproportionately large wedge [3] between costs and benefits at the lower end of the labour market, meaning that parts of this market dry up altogether.

Aside from the question of what is causing ‘rising inequality’, there are two key issues which analysts carefully avoid:

1) A crude measure of inequality like the Gini coefficient may mask a more complex effect, namely that while a tiny minority are getting super-rich, the section of society describable as middle-middle to upper-middle class is getting poorer, once you adjust for effects like the increasing awfulness of state schools and the difficulty of getting people to do reliable work (e.g. domestic) for individual households. Neither of these latter two effects is considered by conventional analyses, which assume (for example) that state education and state medicine are worth what they cost to produce or more, as opposed to having negligible or even negative value.

2) Much of the push for interventions in the name of inequality reduction does not come from the supposed sufferers (those at the bottom end of the income curve) but from an inflated and politicised pseudo-intelligentsia, created by excess ‘university’ education and hungry to tinker with the social fabric in line with their ideological preferences; ostensibly to benefit the ‘underprivileged’ but just as plausibly because they simply enjoy exerting political power.

This second point puts a somewhat different light on the assertion by Rajan and others that government is forced by ‘democratic’ pressure to respond to inequality by (say) artificially expanding credit, or whatever it supposedly takes to appease the electorate. Is it the electorate as a whole pushing for change — including easier credit for all — or is it state-subsidised medical practitioners, state school teachers, philosophy professors, social science researchers and media folk?

1. Lower standards can take considerable time to show up in the form of macroscopically visible dysfunctionality. After banking and nuclear power, my best guess for the next most obvious victim would be air/space travel.
2. Scepticism about democracy should not be taken to imply belief in the existence of a political model that is preferable.
3. The term “wedge” is normally applied when a tax creates a difference between buying and selling price, with the resulting decrease in output used as a rough measure for the loss of economic welfare. However, the term could be used to cover any situation where an intervention results in agents facing ‘incorrect’ incentives.

Modern Britain really is a curious place. Having spent the better part of two centuries cultivating an image of hauteur, it now seems to be bent on producing the opposite effect, representing itself as a kind of repository of all that is cool and laid-back — the Rolling Stones, soccer yobs, Estuary-speak, mockney manners, irreverent comedy and so forth. Even the Queen herself is said to have adapted her accent, if not her manners, to the new climate of openness and equality.

There is still, one gathers, something called the “Conservative Party”, but it is extremely eager nowadays to demonstrate that it can “get down” and “josh” with the best of them. For example, its current leader regularly shows off his familiarity with the pop culture of (admittedly) the 1980s, lauding groups such as The Smiths, though the groups themselves do not always seem best pleased by the compliment.

Subversive comedy in particular is regarded as somehow quintessentially British, though ‘subversive’ is perhaps a misleading word now that such comedy is regarded as a more dominant feature of the cultural scene than, say, monarchy, or the City (the somewhat quaint term given to the financial services business carried on in a strip of London between Fleet Street and the former haunts of Jack the Ripper). Yes, comedy is now big business in Britain, so much so that erstwhile rebels such as the Monty Python team have become darlings of the establishment, with Michael Palin and John Cleese surely in line for lordships, or at least knighthoods.

I was therefore not at all surprised to discover (having just finished reading Bill Bryson’s amusing, and occasionally catty, take on his native America — his reputation-establishing The Lost Continent — and deciding to look up his authorship record on Wikipedia) that the aforementioned Mr Bryson’s occupations do not merely include that of writer, but also that of university chancellor. Fascinated, I went on to learn that Mr Bryson (or “Bill”, as he is known to friends and colleagues) is in fact a former Chancellor of the University of Durham, a post he apparently held from 2005 to 2011.

Of course, in my own student days Durham was still regarded as Oxbridge-upon-Tyne, and a place to which high-born young ladies and gentlemen would be admitted if they failed to secure a place at Christ Church or King’s. In those days, Durham was perhaps more likely to appoint an elevated member of the establishment — a former minister, a gonged ballet star — to its Chancellorship.

Nevertheless, Mr Bryson is to be congratulated (belatedly, if necessary) on being permitted, in line with the said climate of openness and equality, to rise to so exalted a position as the chancellorship of a pre-1850 British university. It is true that Mr Bryson is not in fact a British citizen, hailing indeed from Des Moines, one of the more charming conurbations of Iowa, USA, but in the new era of globalisation this should probably not be held against him.

Private patronage may be the best hope for a research culture that has become ludicrously collectivised and ideologised, so that on present progress it will soon begin to resemble the Soviet model. Unfortunately, the concepts of noblesse oblige (and richesse oblige) seem to have died out several decades ago.

What if one did care about reviving the process of intellectual evolution, and one had capital to spare? The popular option here is imitation. You set up your own rival sausage factory, or finance a new component of an existing sausage factory which then bears your name. This has some attractions, but it may be worth considering the drawbacks.

Assuming, on the other hand, that you go down the road of support-the-individual, rather than expand-the-institutionalised-establishment, how should you pick your individuals? Here again there are a number of options. You could (a) give preference to those who already have status and/or who are endorsed by the leading lights of the field, or (b) appraise someone on the basis of how long and extensive a training they received, and how many years’ experience they have of ‘working’ in the area in question.

There is a third possible option, though it is not exercised much these days. This is to look for someone with unusual innate ability and motivation, who clearly wants to make advances and is not interested in much else, but who hasn’t necessarily been endorsed by anyone with social status and hasn’t necessarily had years of experience. Making the right choice in this case is likely to be more difficult than in the case of options (a) and (b), calling more on your own powers of judgment and intuition, but — if you get it right — could prove more rewarding.

l have little doubt that my colleague Dr Celia Green, for example, could make revolutionary advances in any one of a number of fields if she were provided with the resources. On a tiny budget, she pioneered research on two phenomena in psychology (lucid dreams and out-of-the-body experiences) — although, as she was not financed to continue her preliminary work, their significance, as potential code-breakers for understanding the processes of sleep and perception, remains unappreciated. Ostensibly a mathematical physicist, Green showed that her abilities transported readily across subjects; the topics she chose were determined by what she thought she could obtain independent finance for, and by what could be done on a shoestring.

Trusting someone to make advances where others, more experienced and socially successful, have failed, purely on the basis of the person’s supposed intelligence and drive, and because the person says they can? Very risky. Unheard of. Sure to be counselled against by anyone in a position of authority.

The sausage-factory model, like the welfare state, has now been in operation for so long that it is difficult for most people to imagine anything different. “That is how research is done these days, it is no good touting an older model, a person needs to stick to their area of expertise, horses for courses, etc.” Oh, you mean ‘research’.

● I am intrigued by the fuss made over women bishops and gay marriage. It seems curious that these topics should be so contentious among the clergy when presumably most of them no longer believe in God anyway (the old-fashioned biblical entity).
I respectfully suggest that a schism could be in order, with existing venues apportioned between the two sides, and colour-coding for easy identification.
- One section (purple?) should do what they believe God wants them to do. (‘Purples’ may wish to consider availing themselves of minority protection.)
- The other (orange?) should concentrate on social and political usefulness. Perhaps a closer alliance with academic humanities departments could be cultivated, as there is plenty of common ground. More tea, Professor?

● Why is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables so enduringly popular? The version with songs is one of the highest-grossing entertainment products of all time, second only to Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. If you throw in viewings of the movie (said to be a notch above the Phantom film), it may well nudge into first place in terms of global headcount.
I suppose the story is intended to inspire hope. The two main characters are outsiders in a world which doesn’t care that they are being unjustly treated, who both manage to survive by dint of sheer heroic irrepressibility.
Jean Valjean is battling against a zealous agent of the collective who seeks to crush him in the interests of society. As an outlaw, Valjean can expect no sympathy or cooperation from anyone else, but must soldier on regardless.
Cosette’s story probably rings bells with those who in early life encountered people like the Thénardiers — brutal, sneering, ruthless; meanness to such a degree that they literally find being generous physically painful.
Hugo plays on a popular prejudice by linking their bad behaviour to greed, but in real life mere malice, or adherence to socialism, may provide sufficient motivation.
For some, the Thénardiers were people with whom they had to live for a time, or under whose power they came: relatives, boarding school masters, summer camp leaders. And for an unlucky few, the Thénardiers were their own parents.

● What is it about the FT’s love affair with the current US President? There is evidently some “special relationship” going on, but its origins are unclear. Possibly staff have picked up an image of the ideal political leader from their Oxford PPE tutors, and Mr Obama ticks the relevant boxes. The excitement over him certainly seems far greater than over Abe, Merkel, Hollande and Rousseff [Who he/she? Ed.] combined.
A financial newspaper must aim to be supranational these days, so perhaps the FT is trying to be the paper of choice for American capitalists — but isn’t that what the Wall Street Journal is for? I would have thought they would do better targeting Asia, where carrying a wood-based publication is still regarded as aspirational, and where they also have the Burberry factor [4] on their side.
Before the 2008 election one noticed a distinct sense of irritation with the reluctance of blue-collar US voters to warm to the new political messiah. “Why aren’t those demmed plebs voting Democrat?” it was asked. “Don’t they know what’s good for them?” [5]
The collective sigh of relief in November, when Mitt Romney bit the dust, must have been tremendous.

● It is sad when a marriage is on the rocks but — as memorably portrayed in the movie The War of the Roses — the signs of impending dissolution tend to be fairly unmistakeable. If the frequency and intensity of betrayal and gratuitous destructiveness increase with time, rather than diminishing, the chances of anything further of a positive nature coming out of the union become slim indeed.

Fifty Shades of Grey, which recently became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, and which features spanking and miscellaneous other saucy practices, is not something I am inclined to sample. Like all pornography (D.H. Lawrence included), the writing is likely to be clunky and unconvincing, because the psychology of sex is too non-rational to capture by means of verbal descriptions. Such descriptions may be arousing, but only because arousal works by association, not because the writing is realistic.
My interest was, however, stirred by seeing pictures of the book’s author, Erika Leonard. Sadly, it appears Ms Leonard is already taken.

● Although it beggars belief, it seems there are still some regular readers of this site who haven’t even bothered to buy a copy of the book. I thought I had made it clear that freeloaders are not welcome.
Not being currently in receipt of a salary, you understand I am not thrilled to be providing a gratis service to someone who is.
Arranging for encryption and passwords is tedious, so I am relying on whatever personal moral compass you may possess.
Kindly purchase the book today [6] if you have not already done so, otherwise I look forward to not seeing you here again in two months’ time.

4. English cultural iconography as an intangible consumer good; particularly popular in Asia.
5. The word “plebs” may not have been used. Memory can be deceptive, even for the professionally trained.
6. Corporate cache subscriptions by arrangement, otherwise the rule is: one book per reader. Please note, I am serious.

Lack of funding means I am limited to making brief comments on complex issues. Those with access to state finance, who could provide more detailed expositions from a similar perspective, do not.

Individuals who take an interest in culture should support the expression of unfashionable viewpoints, even if they do not themselves agree with those viewpoints.

Oxford Forum is actively seeking patrons to provide financial backing. Donations support the work of Dr Celia Green, one of the few female geniuses there have ever been, and at present scandalously ignored by the intellectual establishment.