04 April 2011

notepad: April

The purpose of mediocratic ideology is the same as that of Marxist ideology: to make life impossible for genuine intellectuals, i.e. those who might generate real cultural progress. To mask the issue, an ersatz system of high culture has been built up, designed to perpetuate and reinforce the ideology, and to ensure no assistance is given to those whom the system carefully excludes.

• In June I wrote:
in any context where you need to consider reality in the broadest sense — risks, the possibility of unforeseen events, unpredictability, limitations of human psychology — it [the mediocratic way of running things] is potentially disastrous.

The collapse and semi-permanent degradation of the global banking system is merely the first serious large-scale symptom of the new landscape. Others will follow, I am fairly certain.
Now I am not wishing to boast of Nostradamus-like qualities. At the time I wrote this, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was rumbling on, but it was not clear how much it could be attributed to corner-cutting or to having a relaxed attitude about quality control. I now gather there was at least a certain amount of sloppiness, probably more on the part of companies other than BP to whom parts of the work had been outsourced, but unfortunately I do not have time to carry out unpaid research into the published documents to assess how much was lack of care, how much genuinely unforeseeable circumstances.
Similarly, in the case of Fukushima, I do not wish to make assertions about inadequate diligence. I have always thought of the Japanese as a managerially skilful nation, though perhaps a little too inclined to believe in the wisdom of the collective and the superiority of doing things according to scientific principles. If I had had to guess the first place where mediocracy in a nuclear context would strike, I would not have tipped Japan.
Nevertheless, it is tempting to imagine the conversation that might have taken place thirty or forty years ago.
“But Hotashi-san, I wonder whether we should not reconsider the decision to locate the new power station halfway between Quakeville and Tsunami-on-Sea?”
“No need to concern yourself. Our top scientists have verified that an earthquake, when it strikes, will almost certainly occur 150 km west of the location, leading to no appreciable damage to the facility itself.”
“Very well, Hotashi-san, I will proceed immediately with making arrangements.”

• It could be argued that science, in the sense of expanding knowledge, is always a good thing. However, one can be overenthusiastic in its application, especially if assuming that one knows all there is to know, and that niggling uncertainties can be dismissed as minor. An excessive passion for the application of scientific methods or models is often linked to collectivist ideologies, and possibly post-War Japan exhibits a mild case of this syndrome.
In the novel An Artist of the Floating World, the painter Masuji Ono — formerly a celebrity but now (in 1949) discredited by perceived association with wartime propaganda, and an object of disapproval for his own family — reports a conversation with his son-in-law Taro.
Taro’s manner became suddenly very earnest ... “The changes we made after the war are now beginning to bear fruit at all levels of the company. We feel very optimistic about the future. Within the next ten years, provided we all do our best, KNC should be a name recognized not just all over Japan but all over the world.”
“Excuse me, Taro,” I put in at this point. “Of course, I'm sure you have every reason to be optimistic at KNC. But I've been meaning to ask you, is it in your opinion entirely for the good that so many sweeping changes were made at your firm after the war? I hear there is hardly any of the old management left.” My son-in-law smiled thoughtfully, then said: “I appreciate very much Father's concern. Youth and vigour alone will not always produce the best results. But in all frankness, Father, a complete overhaul was called for. We needed new leaders with a new approach appropriate to the world of today.”
Ono is often interpreted simply as a self-deluded character unwilling to admit his mistakes, along the lines of Stevens (the butler) in The Remains of the Day, but I think we can allow author Kazuo Ishiguro a little more layeredness in this context. When Ono questions Taro further, it is not clear where the reader's sympathies are meant to lie.
“Of course, of course. And I've no doubt your new leaders are the most capable of men. But tell me, Taro, don't you worry at times we might be a little too hasty in following the Americans? I would be the first to agree many of the old ways must now be erased for ever, but don't you think sometimes some good things are being thrown out with the bad?”

• A few days after the PM first threatened a no-fly zone over Libya, the Royal Navy decommissioned its last operational aircraft carrier (Ark Royal), apparently because the government's recent strategic defence review could “envisage few circumstances where the ability to deploy air power from the sea will be essential” (Daily Mail, 17 March). I suspect the excuse that “circumstances could not have been envisaged” is one we shall hear more of in the coming decades. I believe in Japan the technique of making sensible assumptions about the future is sometimes referred to as the “just-in-time” method. If correctly applied, the technique is extremely successful, 99.9 percent of the time.
Mediocracy: it could turn out to be the “killer app” of the developed world. Literally.
[4 April]

• Hotshot analyst Quentin Lumsden believes in the super-cycle theory, and I am inclined to trust his judgment. His stock-picking track record is phenomenal.
Of course, it is one thing to recognise a trend and make the most of it, quite another to find it unambiguously positive. I am somewhat baffled by other analysts who wax lyrical about how marvellous it is that the emerging economies are “growing their middle classes” (the new euphemism for raising per capita GDP) while the West declines into its sunset era, and how this fits with social justice. Personally, I would not rush to get quite so enthused. Whatever merits — moral, political, social — there might be in being forced to take up a less dominant and less economically secure position, it seems to me that the people of the West, particularly those under the age of 60, are not well psychologically placed to cope with such a change. Let us hope that the transition is gradual enough for them to become acclimatised to it, and that it does not come about in the form of a sudden discontinuity, as a result of artificial tinkering to hold off economic pain as long as possible.

• The volume of journalistic hot air that has resulted from Fukushima is quite staggering. Perhaps I am reading the wrong people, but most of it seems to have taken the form of asserting that we should not overreact about the dangers of nuclear. When even the Guardian and The Times join the swell of macho nonchalance, insisting that expansion of nuclear power must forge ahead regardless, I start to worry about the presence of groupthink. Some of the commentators may of course have been talking their own book.

• The economic assessments have also typically been shaky. In line with aggressive pooh-poohing about the radiation aspects have come assertions that the world will benefit from the disaster. One commentator, admittedly not prone to this Panglossianism, cited a Victorian philosopher to support the argument that damage does not generate more wealth by encouraging spending, as has been suggested. Why one should need to invoke an obscure nineteenth-century writer to make this point I do not know.
The basic issue is that, for an economy such as Japan's, already operating at below-maximum capacity, an exogenous shock of the kind that HND* damage and reconstruction represents (however it is financed) might in due course result in (a) a higher-output equilibrium, or it might (b) have the opposite effect. It is impossible to say for certain at this stage, though no doubt one can construct complex mathematical models which ‘prove’ either (a) or (b), according to taste.

• People leaving state schools are “unfit for work”? Old hat. It was suggested a number of years ago, on the Educational Conscription blog. As was pointed out then, another two years of the same thing is hardly likely to solve the problem.

• It's an ill-starred day in the history of the English language when a British national newspaper finally succumbs to declining standards of spelling and starts to print typos in its main offering. (I am not of course including the Grauniad, which crossed that hurdle many years ago.) I was therefore saddened to read a key columnist for the Mail on Sunday committing a blooper. The culprit is James Forsyth, who I had assumed was being packaged as a sort of conservative super-nerd (this image seems to have become popular of late, for reasons that are not clear to me), so it is particularly unfortunate that it should occur in his column. Last month, Forsyth wrote that
This country’s [tax] planning system is a mess. It is complicated and unpredictable. Economists have long regarded it as one of the principle obstacles to growth in this country.
Principal, dear boy, principal.
Typos, mis-apostrophes and bad grammar are becoming a normal feature of everyday reading material. Many of the newsletters I read are liberally strewn with them by now, when five years ago they were conspicuously absent.
[11 April]

* Higashi Nihon Dai-Shinsai (Great Eastern Japan Earthquake disaster)

• Herewith a grant application: my colleagues and I hereby apply for initial funding of the order of £200,000 p.a. for 5 years. This is strictly a pump-priming level of finance, which would enable us to do some preliminary research and outline further major projects. These would probably principally be in the area of normal perception and perceptual anomalies (psychology and physiology thereof).
A capitalist with sense should be able to see that what is going on inside mainstream academia is extremely unlikely ever to lead to radical advances in understanding, and should be able to back his or her own judgment, rather than official endorsements, in deciding whether a given individual would be capable of making such advances if supported.
Of course the “sausage factory” goes through the motions, spending lots of money (most of it taxpayers’) and sounding triumphant about the resulting minor additions to what are getting to be very stale intellectual frameworks. A person with a bit of critical faculty, and not taken in by the PR machinery of the collective, should be able to see this for what it is: piffle, and tendentious piffle at that.
I am aware that most billionaires are more concerned with their public image than with generating long-term improvements. If there’s an ostentatious body with a name like “The Mr and Mrs Bloggs Foundation for Philanthropy”, you can be fairly certain you are dealing with a case of the former. The desire to make genuine advances in knowledge happen is rare, even among capitalists, but it is not unknown. The rewards, in terms of prestige, could be considerable. At least you would be providing one set of people with what they actually want; with a chance of something dramatic coming out of it. Contrast this with supporting global ‘aid’ projects, where one can easily do more harm than good, if good is measured by benefit to individuals rather than reinforcement of regimes and ideologies.
[18 April]

• Is there anything more tedious than politics? Yes: political theory. I am finding it hard to force myself to be interested in the detailed pros and cons of different voting systems. Why are we being compelled to choose? If we had had a referendum to decide whether to have a referendum about AV, I suspect it would have garnered no more than a 10% Yes vote. On the other hand, a referendum to decide whether to have a referendum on reducing politicians’ power over our lives by leaving the EU would, I imagine, have produced at least 20% Yeses (to having a referendum), possibly far more. So why are we having this referendum? Because politicians have decided we ought to have it, and are exercising their power over our lives.
I have no obvious preferences one way or the other, though I seem to recall a piece of folk wisdom about whether to dig while in a hole. Some French academics are disparaging AV by claiming that “continuity is a sign of good governance”, but should one take any notice of what academics, or the French, think?
I am however sorely tempted to vote No purely because I resent being manipulated. When I receive (a) an official application form for a postal vote in the referendum, in the same envelope as (b) a leaflet wallpapered with media personalities urging me to vote Yes, I call that manipulation. I am surprised this is even legal but it certainly seems dodgy from an ethical standpoint. I suppose this is an application of the dubious theory of nudge, the principle of which is that it is acceptable to manipulate people provided it is done in a direction of which the il-liberal elite approves.

Spellwatch. Opening a Private Eye for the first time in months, what is the first thing I see? Picture of a GP practice meeting, with one of the doctors looking inebriated. Caption:
“The patient's never want to see Ken and he's usually pissed, so I vote he looks after the NHS.”
The humour makes more sense if you read it as “patients”, but is the apparent misspelling part of the joke? Shurely we should be told.
(Note to cartoonist: I recommend emailing the caption next time, rather than phoning it in. Texting is also unreliable, as office staff will not be able to copy-and-paste from it.)

• If newspaper reports are to be believed, no one in Britain now claims to be upper-class. Not a single person. It would appear that even HRH Prince William, and Mrs Samantha “SamCam” Cameron (daughter of the 8th Baronet of Normanby), are “middle-class”. It is, frankly, scandalous that the idea of aristocracy has become so besmirched by decades of media- and university-driven propaganda that it is now regarded as akin to wife-beating or prostitution. Someone needs to stand up for the concept by showing willingness to be associated with it. In the absence of other candidates for this heroic mission, I should like to offer myself.
I used to think of myself as middle-class, and am still willing to defend the (old) virtues of that species, but I am getting to feel increasingly disidentified with it as it is in practice. The middle class seems more and more to be composed of bourgeois bourgeois-haters, hairshirting and breast-beating about the sinfulness of their own kind — their supposed sharp-elbowedness, their wicked golfclubbing and tennis-playing exclusivities, which they naively imagine are confined to their own milieu. Thundering from their pulpits, they demand that their own stranglehold on the cultural citadels be smashed in favour of the deserving poor. Such tirades usually seem designed to affect not the speakers themselves or their offspring, but the lives of other members of their class.

I did not attend Eton or Harrow, nor are there any titles in my family tree of which I am aware — though there is a story that one of my ancestors, allegedly the first private banker in Russia, was offered one by the then Tsar but (somewhat short-sightedly, in my opinion) turned it down. My father was not even a millionaire, and I am fairly certain I have never in my life received any kind of advantage through parental string-pulling or via an Old Boys’ Network. Nevertheless, I am confident that, in terms of genes, I make the grade. (Confidence, I understand, is half the battle.) As we live in an age in which merit supposedly trumps birth, it seems to me appropriate that I should now claim this unwanted distinction for myself, and others who care to follow.
Anyone else who feels they are innately upper-class but trapped in a working-class or middle-class persona should consider moving nearby and joining forces with us. The old upper class is burnt out. Time for a new one.
[25 April]

aphorism of the month:

There is nothing so risky as security.
Celia Green, Advice to Clever Children

The author of this blog is an unsalaried academic. Like his colleagues, he is excluded from the academic system because of the way that system is currently run. (The phrase “sausage factory” was recently used by a government minister, expressing part of the problem.) As a result, he is unable to write in detail about intellectual issues to which he could be contributing, and has to limit himself to brief blog comments.

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