03 January 2009

weekend notes

• What an extraordinary fourth quarter we have had. A year ago I thought there was trouble brewing, but if someone had told me that by December the US interest rate would be zero, and that two of the world's top five carmakers would be on the verge of going under, I would have found it difficult to believe. The equity markets were literally incredible for a while, with daily moves of 3-5% the norm. The charts of the indices looked fairly normal — provided one allowed for the fact that what previously took a day to happen now took an hour.
Many commentators have been quick to call an end to 'free market capitalism', or to assert that more regulation is unavoidable. No doubt we will get more regulation since that is the way the wind is blowing. However, if the failures behind the crisis involved insufficient forethought and excess belief in models, are mediocratic regulators going to be any better at seeing through phoney rationalisations for dodgy products than highly 'trained' banking staff?
Free market capitalism is surely not what we have had during the last few decades. It is not 'free market' if egalitarian ideology forces redistribution of resources down the social classes, or if it distorts lending practices to ensure that poorer people enjoy more of the same benefits, such as house ownership, as richer folk.
One possible small consolation: now that capitalism's death knell has been sounded by so many leftist commentators, we may hear a bit less of the ludicrous claim, popular with the same people, that the world is run by and for a capitalist (rather than a socialist) elite.
A propos models: I recently read that Nouriel Roubini, one of the few economists to foresee the financial crisis, was criticised for making predictions that were "not based on mathematical models" and because "sometimes the rigour of his analysis seems to be missing". As someone highly familiar with 'models' and 'rigour' in the context of economics, I find this distinctly ironic, given that overconfidence in models was a major part of the problem.
Also in 2008Q4, has there ever in the history of the world been so much global gushing about a new political leader? I was not around for JFK, but wonder whether even he generated as much uncritical enthusiasm as Mr Obama has. There is little joy in store, however, for any critics of statism. According to law professor Richard Epstein writing in Reason, Americans can expect "a warmed-over vision of the New Deal corporatist state with high taxation, major trade barriers, and massive interference in labor markets ... support of farm subsidies and a vast expansion of the government role in health care."

• Comedienne Shazia Mirza, famous for presenting BBC3's documentary F*** off, I'm a Hairy Woman, tells us about her time in New York as part of a show called Offensive Women. The remit, ostensibly, was to be offensive without inhibition — "Dead children, rape, murder, holocaust and war are all ideal topics". The website gives some supposed illustrations of what it means to be offensive, but apart from examples involving such things as homophobia or women daring to show their ankles — which mostly seem to refer to countries outside the West — it is hard to get much feel from it for anything which would be genuinely offensive to an audience raised on Western 'liberal' values.
Here are some dogmas the poking of fun at which is more likely to be genuinely disturbing:
- women ought to have the same average earnings as men,
- the state should subsidise medicine,
- art should be accessible to everyone.
I suspect my suggestions will not be taken up.
What does feminism mean these days? Demanding the right to be rude and aggressive, while carefully tiptoeing around the taboos of mediocratic ideology, perhaps. For a genuinely challenging statement by a woman, try my colleague Celia Green's suggestion that she is "probably the person in the country with the greatest claim on an academic career". Judging by people's reactions, expressing an opinion of this kind, even from a position of adversity, is breaking far more serious taboos than any jokes about dead babies or rape.

• Clive Aslet, former editor of Country Life, moans about the mediocrity of contemporary British architecture. His complaint seems not so much about ugliness, which would have been the appropriate gripe in the sixties and seventies, but about (a) oppressive scale and (b) banality. Both features can be regarded as symbols of mediocratic ideology. Massive size expresses the dominance of the mass over the individual, rather as fascist and Stalinist architecture did in a more extreme way. Banality is linked to vacuity — the rejection of meaning and content: an ideological position which (I propose) expresses the supremacy of social labelling over innate significance. Buildings whose postmodern jokeyness dwarfs the individuals who have to inhabit them, such as the Swiss Re gherkin, represent another variant on this theme.
Is it surprising that when an (old-fashioned) elite chooses buildings for itself, it goes for aesthetics, whereas when a (modern) elite chooses them on behalf of others, it tends to plump for something oppressive?
Aslet complains particularly about British architecture but, while we may have a particular line in anti-aesthetics, I suspect the tendency to dehumanise is pretty global these days. Our saving grace is, supposedly, the fact that we have "some of the best architects in the world. Norman Foster bestrides his profession like a titan." Is this the same Norman Foster as the one responsible for the wobbly Millennium Bridge, and for the economics faculty building in Oxford, whose windows started falling out as soon as it began to be used?

• To go by a report in the Financial Times, Germany's Christian leaders are no less anti-capitalist than ours. Influential bishop Wolfgang Huber is quoted as arguing that Deutsche Bank's profit goal of 25 per cent is "a form of idolatry". But reading the original interview in the Berliner Zeitung suggests to my mind that the whole religion-vs-money debate is much less crude and simplistic over there. For one thing, Huber explicitly recognises that "there is no alternative to the market for the framing of economic processes" (*). For another, he appears to accept that the financial crisis is attributable in good part to overborrowing by individual consumers, though he blames Bush and Greenspan for encouraging them to do so (**). It all seems a tad less shrill than the typical anti-market rants of our own dear clerics.

* "Die ... Erkenntnis, dass es zum Marktmechanismus für die Gestaltung wirtschaftlicher Vorgänge keine Alternativen gibt, können wir doch nicht über Bord werfen", and (reportedly) "Mir gefriert das Blut in den Adern, wenn sich Menschen gegen den Markt wenden."
** "es waren nicht die kleinen Leute allein, sondern verbunden mit einem Vorstoß der amerikanischen Regierung und der Notenbank ... Die haben den sogenannten kleinen Leuten nahe gelegt, heute muss man sagen: vorgegaukelt, dass man auch mit einem niedrigen Einkommen angesichts günstiger Zinsen solche Schulden verkraften könnte" ["It was not just ordinary people, it was connected with an initiative by the American government and the central bank ... who encouraged, indeed deluded, them into thinking that with favourable interest rates it was possible to manage such debts even on a low income."]