Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag Dies

Via Crooked Timber: Susan Sontag has died of leukaemia. There's an obituary in the New York Times.

I read Illness as Metaphor a few years ago. It is not only lucid and clear (can one say anything better about someone's work?) but is an enormously sensitive endeavour. One of those rare books that leaves the reader feeling that the world is a more familiar, more interesting, more luminous place than they had previously thought. She'll be sadly missed.

Update:The Guardian has an obituary here as well as tributes here and other pieces here and here.

The BBC also carries the news, plus obituary, here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Rant from Sligo

Poor old Nearlythere seems to be suffering from the fact that possession of an American passport and/or accent seemingly confers the right on Europeans to engage in an ill-informed rant about George Bush et al. Now, as Mel knows, I'm not beyond inflicting the same on him, but it is a bit rude, isn't it? Back to Gita Sereny and moral self-indulgence, methinks...

Lucky People!

Lucky Newgrange punters - you book years ahead, get chosen by lottery to enter the tomb for the sunrise around the Winter Solstice, the month of December is generally miserable and cloudy and then, on the day itself, you get this!

The Dollar and the Euro

I've been meaning to write something up on the Dollar and the Euro for quite a while. So here goes. I'm not exactly revealing myself as a genius currency analyst when I say that the Dollar is in a perilous state, having suffered a 35% slide against the Euro under the Bush Administration. But what precisely does this mean for the Euro and the European project?

My factual stuff is largely cogged from Ronald McKinnon's June 2001 piece about tax cuts in the IMF's Finance and Development. But I've been pushed to think about all this again through a variety of articles in the Economist (in no particular order there, and subs required. Far be it from me to suggest BugMeNot...). I remember a discussion in this area in Crooked Timber, but I don't remember when. And of course, as you all are no doubt aware, the whole issue has been subjected to the Herculean rigours of a Fafnirian analysis

So, the basic problem I want to talk about is, as McKinnon puts it, that
For more than 20 years, the United States has drawn heavily on the world's limited pool of savings to support high consumption—in the 1980s by the federal government, in the 1990s by households. The United States now attracts more net capital inflows than all the developing countries combined. It has thus gone from being a net creditor to the rest of the world at the beginning of the 1980s to being the largest net debtor in the world — to the tune of $2,300 billion by 2000.

According to McKinnon, the fact that the value of the Dollar has not collapsed in the face of this huge ongoing indebtedness is not related to wonderful policy-making, but to 'pure serendipidy.'
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, confidence in the currencies and financial systems of all the other industrial countries had evaporated. To prevent capital flight, Japan and countries in Europe imposed tight foreign exchange controls. The relatively stable U.S. dollar was the only major currency in which international exchange could freely take place. In the late 1940s, under the newly established Bretton Woods monetary order, other nations declared official exchange rate parities against the dollar. Rather than creating asymmetry among currencies, this official monetary order simply recognized it. Thus was the dollar enthroned as the international currency of choice.

When the system of official exchange rate parities broke down in 1971, the dollar was not dethroned. To the present day, the dollar is still the vehicle currency in the interbank spot and forward exchange markets, the currency of invoice for trade in primary commodities and many industrial goods and services, and the main denomination for international capital flows. Outside Europe, governments use the dollar as their prime intervention currency—often unofficially pegging their currencies to the dollar—and U.S. treasury bonds are widely held by foreign central banks and treasuries as official exchange reserves.

So the dollar's value is maintained, not by Americans, but by people in the rest of the world who prefer it to their own currencies. As Americans sell Dollars in order to finance their livestyles, others are more than happy to buy them.

Enter the Euro.

Now, both for reasons of efficiency and because many state currencies are subject to very dodgy fiscal and monetary policies, it is no surprise that the planet would have a few übercurrencies. As means of exchange they carry a guarantee of stability and predictability that other currencies just don't carry. The Dollar has been pretty much hegemonic in this area since the Second World War. Other currencies - most notably Sterling, the Yen and the Deutschmark - have acted as secondary currencies over time, but none have really challenged the status quo.

The Euro changes may well be the currency that challenges this. It more or less provides all the advantages of the Dollar (I guess, I'm happy to be corrected on this) but has a few advantages of its own.

First, the as McKinnon seems to be hinting, the Dollar's value as a (the?) reserve currency is purely rooted in reputation. That thing about banks relying on the impression of stability to work counts for currencies too. It's all about credibility. It may well be that the Euro is just more credible as a currency than the Dollar, largely in the light of the current US Administration's budgetary lunacy. As the Economist says,
America has habits that are inappropriate, to say the least, for the guardian of the world's main reserve currency: rampant government borrowing, furious consumer spending and a current-account deficit big enough to have bankrupted any other country some time ago. This makes a dollar devaluation inevitable, not least because it becomes a seemingly attractive option for the leaders of a heavily indebted America.

In these circumstances, once people believe that there are better bets than the Dollar for maintaining their wealth, they will jump ship. The Euro seems like a good bet according to the measures that I suppose people use to figure these things out (fiscal rectitude, monetary stability, the EU's share of international trade, inflation blah-de-blah). And of course the continuing weakening of the Dollar can have a snowball effect, with each day making a switch to the Euro more attractive.

Second, US policy around the world can have an impact on the Currency. Most importantly, of course, is the position of the Dollar as the means for valuing barrels of oil. If the OPEC countries decided to shift to valuing their oil in Euros, the Dollar would be in mighty trouble. To the best of my scanty knowledge, the only state to make this shift(temporarily) was, ta-da!, Iraq! Now, I don't hold the currency conspiracy theory (see, for example here and here). Never put down to planning what you can put down to incompetence. Nevertheless, it is true that an OPEC shift to the Euro would be pretty catastrophic for the US economy. The inflationary effect of the devaluation would be made worse by the fact that American's would have to buy increasingly expensive Euros to pay for their oil (at the moment, while the price of oil has shot up in the US, Europe has been relatively cocooned because each Euro will buy more Dollars and thus more oil - the opposite would happen to the US).

Of course, the effect of Iraq's switch to the Euro was economically negligible. The point of the switch was pretty much political. So it's not a sign of anything. But it does highlight the link between currency exchange and policy. At the moment it might increasingly be in the economic interests of the OPEC countries to switch to the Euro but it's very doubtful that they would do it. But who's to say that the situation wouldn't shift? After all, US policy in the Middle East is hardly focused on reputation-building. I suppose the upshot of my point here is that an oil-valuation currency shift is like an asteroid strike. It's unlikely, but if it happens we're in big trouble.

Another political factor, it strikes me, involve the East Asia states, especially China. As things stand, East Asian central banks own $1.1 trillion in US debt (see this article in the International Herald Tribune). They have a major interest in supporting the Dollar - comparatively weak currencies provide Asians with a better trading situation in the US - but who's to say that that will last. America's advantage is that these states are locked into the international economy, and nobody has an economic interest in the US going belly-up, but America's weakness is that some states, especially China, might have interests that go beyond the solely economic.

It seems relatively obvious that policy-makers and strategy bods in the States regard China as the 'next big threat' (or, if you're cynical, 'the state most likely the scare the American people into continuing payments for the obese military budget'). I'm a little sceptical that all those missile defence shields, fantasies that they are, are designed to fend off the threat from North Korea (see here). Now, it strikes me as strategic insanity to allow a high proportion of your debts to sit with the state you regard as the major threat. But that's what's happened. Again, a change in the policy environment only requires the Chinese central bank to flog all its Dollars and shift to Euros. It might cause serious economic damage to China, but since when has the welfare of the Chinese people been primary in the calculations of their government? Again, of course, this is unlikely but catastrophic if it happens.

So, what of the Eurozone if something along these economic or political lines came to pass? Ignoring the side-effects of any sort of conflict between the US and China, there's still no room for smugness. Damage to the US economy is hardly good news for anyone, although I guess Europeans would be protected more than most by our large internal market and by the relativel willingness of states to fund economies (I'm thinking especially of the capacity for growth in the eastern part of the Union and how the western-funded expansion of markets there would be good for western private sectors. If you see what I mean). Trade with the US would become increasingly difficult. The knock-on effects on emerging markets would be pretty bad for us too.

Moreover, I'm not sure if I would like to see America in a serious recession/depression right now. The Administration is obviously not shy of engaging in foreign adventures for domestic purposes and the strain of authoritarianism in US politics makes the idea of economic peril even more frightening. Maybe I'm in a histrionic mood, but we live in histrionic times...

It's also worth mentioning that there seems to be a prevailing impression that Europe is in the hands of the US, so when strategic concerns shift away from European unification, then unification won't happen (I'm too lazy to Google for an example of this - they're out there somewhere!). Well, that's crap. It is certainly the case that American support, driven by American interests, has partly driven the EU so far. But I suspect the momentum of the Union, combined with the imperatives of a complex international system, is out of American hands now. In a sense, post-WWII American influence has eroded significantly already.

I suspect that Europe would suffer a lot from the instability that would come from a switch from the Dollar to the Euro as the world's primary reserve currency. What happens after that, presuming we're all around to see the results, is anyone's guess.

Update: Actually, re-reading this post, this is mostly about the Dollar and the US. I get to the Euro right at the end!

Update2: John Quiggin has just published a piece on 'The Unsustainability of US Trade Deficits' in The Economists' Voice (linked through Crooked Timber). I suppose I should also say what one of the commenters on CT bitchily says about Quiggin's article (although I'm not saying it's true of that piece!): this post will probably not win the Nobel Prize for its unique contribution to an understanding of the world economy. But it was fun to write!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Caffeine-Induced Homage to Texas!

Well, I was off galavanting in the States last week, and desperately writing a paper the previous week, so my career as an aspiring blogger went onto the back burner. Still, the trip was wonderful. Texas was cold, but in the bright crisp way that is a major improvement on Belfast's alcholism-inducing darkness. And even the flights, despite my grouching, weren't so bad.

Mel had given me some Lyle Lovett to listen to: a spot of local colour. Not bad, I have to say. All the same, I spent most of my flights listening to the rather bizarre Joanna Newsom. Think Bride of Chucky gets into Tori Amos or Kate Bush and then robs a harp. Wonderful, bonkers stuff. And as for the lyrics...

I'll do a quick post on the paper I presented at a later stage. For the moment, here's a quick set of impressions re Arlington, the city between Dallas and Fort Worth where I was staying.

First of all I should say that the people were just lovely. Arlington is one of those places where cars stop to let you cross and where people in shops and restaurants are genuinely curious about where you're from.

But, as I mentioned to many people there, Arlington is, in some senses, the 'anti-Belfast.' The two are about the same size, population-wise but Arlington has absolutely no public transport system. It seems like a very interesting method for creating a base-line cost for living in the city (i.e., the price of a car). Moreover, there's no city centre to speak of. The city is really just an amalgamation of suburbs interspersed with shopping malls. I found that rather disturbing, I have to say. The reliance on cars (there were no footpaths that I saw) is all-consuming. People, I found, even drove from one part of a car park to another instread of walking between shops.

It strikes me that, while this is probably largely a result of bad (or no) city planning, a switch to good planning would not fix the problem. The habit of car use seems completely ingrained. So, pedestrianising part of the city might neither attract the pedestrians nor attract the businesses that attract the pedestrians.

All that said, any gripes one has about a town like that are more than made up for by the wonderful people. I've always held to the theory that depressing places make for depressed people, but last week's experience reveals how I had that the wrong way around. Wonderful people make for wonderful places!

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Low Skilled Politicians, Low Skilled Blogging...

Er, my last post was just a little bit on the silly side, so I threw it into the cyber bin. Let's try it again. My basic point was that Northern Ireland's politicians couldn't make a deal even if they wanted to because, as well as lacking the will to do so, they don't know how.

But let's try something a little bit less petulant.

It's good to start by saying that I'm not a big fan of personality politics. The idea that the story of politics is a story of individuals seems a little bogus to me - individuals, even political leaders, are hugely constrained by circumstance and so can only have a limited influence on the world in which they work. That said, the individual's skills in addressing events as they find them seems to me to be of crucial importance. We all know the tales of political triumph (say Kennedy during the Cuban Crisis) where wile and wisdom has assisted some leader or other to negotiate a way through a crisis. Even though, as I suspect, these stories are a little over-done, there's something to the idea that the skills of influential people can make the difference.

We tend not to hear so much about the bad luck, stupidity or downright incompetence that drives other events in politics. I don't suppose that politicians tend to concentrate on these things in their memoirs, but they do happen. New Labour made some play of the fact that only two members of the 1997 cabinet (Margaret Beckett and Jack Cunningham, I think) had ever been in government before. This lack of experience did show, both in terms of unseemly silliness (Peter Mandleson anyone?) and a certain political naivety (it took Labour a while to fall out of love with the principles of freedom of information and learn to love secrecy and intrique).

Anyway, the point is that the business of government, as with any other job, takes some skill and if you've never done it you'll have to learn how.

Apart from having to learn how to master their briefs as ministers, politicians have to learn how to negotiate in the public eye. And this ain't easy. After all you have to keep your base happy, not piss the other lot off too much and reach a conclusion that you can live with and can commit to.

This requires your learning how to do the vision thing but to leave space for the fact that you'll have to work with people who have profoundly different ideas of how the world should be. You need to prioitise your objectives and, just as importantly, let your base know that you're not going to get everything you want no matter how het up they are. Whipping them up into a frenzy will do you no favours, although it may get you some votes at the time. That's not to say that the vision thing is not important. I'm just saying that politics is about getting as good a deal as you can get in the circumstances that you face, not the circumstances you'd like to face.

In the post that I haven't left up for your amusement, I indicated as to my low opinion of Irish politicians. In fact, there is only one politician on the island that I can think of (it's Saturday morning so I'm not thinking very hard) who can play the game of politics very well and that's the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern (for a good biographical note see here).

I have to say that virtually nothing the government that Bertie1 heads meets with my approval. Also, he's managed to mess a number of things up and certainly can talk shit at times. Still, I just admire his skills. If you want a deal done, Bertie is the best person to get it for you. Incidentally, he learned this skill in as a Trade Union negotiator. He does seem to lack the vision thing, but he's a terrific negotiator (maybe the two things are connected). His brightest moment so far has been his concluding negotiations on the EU's Constitutional Treaty, retrieving it out of the shambles that was the Italian Presidency. He won the admiration of his fellow European leaders to the extent that they seemed to want him as head of the New European Commission, a job he didn't want.

Now, back to last week's mess in Northern Ireland. Of course, you can only negotiate with people who actually want to agree, something that is patently not the case here (as Malachi O'Doherty pointed out, falling apart over something trivial like photos is not a sign of emotive stupidity, but simple political tactics).

The relatively trivial point of this post is to point out that doing actual real-life politics, the sort that gets things done and is oriented towards influencing people's lives, requires personal skill. And that is something severly lacking among Northern Ireland's politicians. They may not have been all that interested in doing a deal, but they don't even know how to break it off with any significant skill. Appealing to your base is simple. All you need to do is jump up and down and shout about the threats you face and the treachery of your enemies. Appealing to your base without either alienating your opponents or providing them with a handy excuse to take the easy way out (by which I mean jumping ship but blaming you) requires slighly more nuanced thinking.

Of course, politicians here are hardly challenged by the environment. You wander down to East Belfast and everyone will tell you that Paisley is right. Then take a step up the Falls and everyone will extol the virtues of Adams. So long as two elections happen here on election day, parties don't have to worry about the people they have to negotiate with. They just spend their time employing the other side as a weapon to kick their opponents in their own sides of the community.

So this lot know how to get elected, but they don't really know how to do much more than that.

I'm not really being entirely coherent here, so will probably revisit in a week or so, after a trip to the States. For one thing, my Bertie and Blair examples don't have much to do with the pathologies of Northern Ireland's politics. Still I'm onto something - I suppose what I'm saying is that being a politician requires your actually wanting to translate social and political will into action, being an author of law rather than a narcissistic poster boy for your constituents. Expect a little more nuance in the run-up to the holidays!

1 FYI, I don't actually know Bertie - it's just that everyone calls him by his first name. Go figure...

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Ireland at the Crossroads

I'm was in Dublin yesterday attending a Democracy Commission event in Liberty Hall, Dublin: Ireland at the Crossroads - Democracy in the 21st Century. The Democracy Commission, which is exploring issues surrounding democracy in Ireland, north and south, was set up by Democratic Dialogue in the North and TASC in the Republic. It was a very interesting event, although there was a little bit too much kvetching about politicians to my mind. Poor old politicos. Anyway, I thought I might report on a few thoughts that struck me through the day.

The most interesting thing for me was that very many people made an explicit link between democracy and poverty. Ireland is of course one of Europe's success stories, moving from the being one of the poorest three countries in the EEC (as was) to being one of the wealthiest. In a generation. I'm one week older than Ireland's membership of the EU, so I've seen most of that change. And a change for the better it is. Unfortunately, Ireland's wealth has not been spread evenly amongst the whole population, so as well as being one of the wealthiest countries in the Union, it is also one of the most unequal. Extreme urban poverty is obvious to anyone who's visited Dublin in the last few years. They have an enormous heroin problem (12,000 people I think I've heard, although I'd love to be corrected); homelessness is through the roof, so to speak. Dublin is quite simply a rough, poor city.

Actually, and this is a side comment, Dublin is the only place in Europe I know where it is impossible for the middle classes to hide from poverty. Even the residents of the Vico Road, the poshest, and most beautiful, part of suburban Dublin are only ten minutes walk from Ballybrack, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. And the city centre is very poor. Belfast, on the other hand, is almost completely segregated (in so many senses). When I read the Save the Children report on Child Poverty in Northern Ireland that was reported in the Guardian and on Slugger O'Toole last week, I was actually surprised. I knew that Belfast is poor, but the fact is that if you stick to the wealthy slice of south Belfast, you quite simply never encounter extreme poverty. In Dublin, on the other hand, staying ignorant is simply far more difficult. And that's just in Dublin.

Anyway, the link between poverty and democracy was generally articulated in terms that no true democracy would abandon 15 percent of the population at a time of spectacular economic progress. Or rather, would continue the abandonment of 15 percent of the population. Some people also spoke passionately about the fact that people in poverty quite simply cannot employ the tools of democracy. They are not empowered to have their interests represented in the fora that the articulate take for granted.

Which links to another theme - the connections between democracy, citizenship and literacy. It was striking how much people spoke about education. Some of the schoolkids at the event raised their dissatisfaction with civics classes as they are taught, saying that it is no surprise to them that people despair at politics when their introduction to it is so weak. But, more importantly, people pointed to the fact that political literacy requires, well, literal literacy. Without that, there is no access.

A third theme across the day was the status of Ireland as a pluralist society, with new groups and belief systems represented in the country. While some immigrants at the meeting expressed some hostility to the concept of multiculturalism, regarding it as ghettoising people, there was a real desire for new arrangements to be developed to represent Ireland's new members.

I should just mention a couple more things that could be traced through the day - first that a lot of expressions of social justice were articulated through a link to Irish patriotism. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the link, but neither am I entirely uncomfortable. This sort of talk reminds me of Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country. But this would require another post in and of itself. Second, that people felt profoundly alienated from politics, but not apathetic. As one of the students said 'people are still very political. It's parties that aren't political.'

All in all a worthwhile day. More details and an online forum at the Democracy Commission's website, I think.

Update: I really should be writing a paper, but instead am messing with the damn blog. Silly me. Anyway, Mel makes an interesting point in the comments. Ta Mel!

The heart and the hearth of Dublin

Well, Bewley's Oriental Cafés in Dublin close on Tuesday coming, the 30th of November. Not a particularly significant moment in the history of civilisation, but a rather sad event for Dubliners. Bewley's was set up in the 19th century by a Quaker family, right in the middle of Grafton Street, Dublin's primary shopping street. Bewley's was a real Dublin institution, a classy, slightly exotic institution - a café when Dublin only had pubs, where you could sit for a couple of hours in front of a real fire, nursing a cup of coffee and an almond bun. It was a place to meet people, a refuge at all times of day and night, and a great leveller, shared by all. It really was, as Brendan Keneally put it, the heart and the hearth of Dublin.
As actor James Bartlett said on a documentary about the place (what can I say, there's not much on Irish TV at the best of times!), there was five notable smells in the Dublin of his childhood: the biscuits being baked in Jacob's Bakery between St. Patrick's Cathedral and Stephen's Green, Keeve's the Knackers in the Coombe, where horses' bones were boiled up to make glue, the sniffy Liffey, polluted by the chemicals from Clondalkin's paper mill, the smell of Guinness's brewery as they roasted the hops, and the 'lovely comfortable aroma' of Bewley's Coffee coming from the café. Bartlett's a bit older than me, but I certainly remember the last three of those. My particular favourite was the Guinness smell, but Bewley's always brings back dark and rainy Winter nights, taking refuge in the warmth. And don't forget that real fire!

But I have to say that some of the uproar in Dublin at the idea of the place closing itself reflects an underlying sadness about change in Ireland. This is one more mark of how Dublin isn't what it used to be. In part people rage at the loss of Grafton Street's character, since the street has slowly been transformed into a typical British high street. But there's also a large amount of 'Dublin in the Rare Oul Times' sentimententality, harking back to an era which wasn't all that much fun. This nostalgia is at least partly a response to a general feeling that the pace of change in Ireland. In a sense this is a traumatised culture, where the place has completely transformed within, say, half my parents' generation's lifetime. So, the response to Bewley's closure fits (as a mild instance) in the same vein as blood scandals, anti-Europeanism and a range of other political troubles - the feeling that a breach has been made with the security and honesty of the past and all that is left is plastic, anonymous and inhuman. And also the ultimate humiliation, although I won't go into it here, that the new Ireland doesn't look all that different to England.

On a lighter note, it is worth keeping in mind that the cafés are closing for two simple reasons: in recent years Bewley's coffee and food was just piss poor. The place was all just a bit tatty and you could get better coffee elsewhere. And, of course, the nostalgic story for Bewley's (mine included) generally involves the idea of sitting for hours over a cup of coffee. As the owners of the place have said, that ain't a good basis for a business. And, unless the City Council takes the place over (interesting EU competition law questions there), it was just a business.

Update: Kieran Cooke has an interesting article about Bewley's in Saturday's Guardian, arguing that the place was destroyed by Ireland's nostalgia industry. It does make you wonder if we should change the name of Ireland to Irelandland...

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Letting Fly - A Guide to The Ethics of Buttonholing Politicians

When I was out last night, people raised an interesting question: how should you behave if you met a democratically-elected politician whose policies you find to be abhorrent? It's no surprise that this was raised in the context of current politics, both here and globally. Still, the general question is far more interesting. So, put that issue aside and simply imagine whatever democratically elected political leader it is you find most abhorrent. Think of someone who leaves you wide-eyed and foaming at the mouth. Someone who seems to have no shame in parading their dishonesty and political-moral stupidity for all to see. Should you bawl them out or not?

For the sake of reflection, let's qualify this question:
1. Your rage should be policy-oriented. Merely thinking that X is a gobshite (there's a great Irish word for your delectation) is not enough. They actually need to be up to something that you can disagree with.
2. It is important that whoever you are thinking of can (plausibly) be held responsible for the policy that sent you into the outer regions of frenzied apoplexy. So, I'm not talking about raving at an American or Frenchman (delete as appropriate) because you associate them with their government's policies. Even if they did support those policies, blasting their faces with invective and spittle is just rude (unless they've already stamped on your sandcastle, in which case...).

You have two options: you can keep mum and talk about the weather, or you can grasp the rare opportunity to vent your spleen and let them have it.

I'm not sure I have a full answer to the question: I suspect that I'm in favour of a venting that stops short of the volcanic. Here are my thoughts so far:

1. How often do you get to have a go at an important person? The fact that this person is dreadful just adds virtue to the occasion. Politicians are very skilled at avoiding real people, so an opportunity to take some mendacious bastard to the verbal guillotine is too good to pass up. We have to listen to them all day, so I figure that it's pay-back time: you’d be failing in a very important way if you didn’t go for it.
2. It may be that, as a moral agent yourself, you are under an obligation to object to abhorrent behaviour when you have the opportunity. This obligation is both to yourself (what sort of person tolerates the behaviour of a despicable character because they thought it wasn't the done thing to let fly at them) and to society in general (surely an important aspect of our being as moral agents is our capacity to resist cruelty etc.).
3. Your verbal assault may, at the very least, be embarrassing for your victim. You’ll add to their sneaky suspicion that they can't preen and swagger in public without someone throwing (verbal) stones. And that looks bad on camera, don't you know.
Or rather, it looks bad for them...

That said...
1. What precisely is your moral intent? Informing someone that you disapprove of their bad behaviour cannot be motivated solely or largely by the wish to get it off your chest. That’s just self-indulgence. Are you looking to change their minds? Or to shift their attention to other matters that they seem to ignore?
2. The people I'm talking about are of course elected, generally by a majority of the populace. Now, while majority votes are not particularly good methods for resolving moral questions, we surely do have some duty of politeness to the degree that someone represents the general wishes of large numbers of people. The fact that we might not see them doing the same thing doesn't justify us excluding this issue from our moral reasoning.
3. On a related note, we should also think about the political consequences of our actions. If you denounce the politician because you don't like what they're up to, an element of your calculations should be based on how you can, in your own tiny way, chip away at that person's electoral position. You should shape your statement around greatest impact. It may well be that the greatest impact is achieved through a well-pitched comment, but it may also be that greatest impact is achieved (in terms of not doing any damage) by saying nothing. Moreover, you are, I guess, going to be a bit of a persona non grata with your victim once you've done the deed. I suspect that if you've been looking to get crumbs of their table for something else, a little diplomacy might be worth it. The Bono doctrine, if you like...

In short, if you did have the opportunity, it would probably be good to let fly, but you should temper your actions with a regard to your own reasons for doing so, with respect for the person's office and with an awareness of the effect you ultimately wish to have.

And remember, sometimes it's best to stick with throwing your slippers/shoes/children at the TV.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


I'm always struck by the sorts of language that political theorists use. For example, I'm not sure I've read a book in liberal or institutional theory that the author hadn't, well, liberally sprinkled with the word 'require.'

In the same vein, people who are interested in utopian theories tend to use the term 'moment' a lot. They are intrigued by the 'utopian moment' in various literatures or ideas. Likewise, and more relevant to a liberal, Mel over on accountability bloke, talks about Bruce Ackerman's far more literal 'constitutional moment.'

I haven't lent too much thought to this. That is, beyond the fact that the moment metaphor refers to more than a unit of time, something chronological. Time is in there, alright, but it's not sufficient to explain what people seem to mean by the metaphor. It also seems to have within itself something like the Derridean concept of 'trace.' But I'll leave it at that - I'm well out of my depth with these faffy speculations. There are probably only two responses to the post: 'what?' or 'so what?'...
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Albert Speer and Moral Extinction

I finished Vernon God Little (what a bizarre book!) last night and, looking to bide my time before collecting a book from the office today, I flicking through the introduction to Gita Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. Even reading the first fifteen pages, I'm struck by what a beautiful, humane account this book is, all the more striking given that Sereny has chosen as her subject one of the most complex characters to come out of the Nazi regime.

One element of the introduction is devoted to the idea of decent people being involved with the Nazis. Sereny tells of being a young nurse in France under the German occupation. Like many young people, she fiercly wished to resist the occupation, but having no power to do so, she settled for venting her frustrations on two German officers who were seeking to help the children that were in Sereny's care. Eventually both men were re-assigned, one to the Russian front, where he died within weeks, and the other, who turned out to be half-Jewish, to a concentration camp. "They had both been devout Christians and opponents of the regime," Sereny writes,
    "We had never known. They didn't tell us, only tried to express it by showing affection to the children and helping us to care for them, which was strictly against Nazi rules. Indulging our emotions, we had abused their kindness. We had never sensed their pain and their dilemma, and that they despairingly wanted to be - and indeed were - our friends."
This sort of righteous self-indulgence, clouding a recognition of the other as a person, rather than solely a representative of injustice, is something I think I'll come back to.

One other passage in the introduction struck me especially, however. On page 10, Sereny suggests that Speer did not work at the heart of the Nazi regime for personal gain or mere vanity. She concludes (so far at least), that a large motive for him was his genuine (and reciprocated) affection for Hitler. She writes:
    Speer, I was already convince, had never killed, stolen, personally benefited from the misery of others or betrayed a friend. And yet, what I feel neither the Nuremberg trials nor his books had really told us was how a man of such quality could become not immoral, not amoral, but somehow infinitly worse, morally extinguished."
This strikes me as a perfect articulation of the self within various sort of regime - amorality and immorality are not the worst that can happen to the individual. They do not suggest the possibility of moral death. The passage also raises the question of whether, on top of wondering at Speer's moral extinction, we should think about whether working in institutional environments is bound to leads to some form of moral extinction.

I'm not suggesting, as sometimes happens, that the nasty things happening in bureaucracies is a little bit like Nazism or the holocaust - I'm sort of a fan of the 'the Nazis are a special case of awfulness' rule, but I also think that some of the mundane behaviours that sustained the regime - careerism, for example, or a non-thinking implementation of instructions, where the individual insulates themselves from the consequences of their actions - are just that: mundane, every day behaviours of people working in environments that encourage a disengagement of moral agency.

For example, and although there are certainly other moral problems here, there is something admirable about the actions of Katherine Gun in the run up to the second Iraq War, or those of Daniel Ellsberg in leaking the Pentagon Papers. But at the same time, it's a wonder that there are so few political whistleblowers. The imperatives of loyalty, of doing the right thing towards the boss, or of doing the right thing towards your sense of bureaucratic ethics, I guess, leaves you morally lobotomised. This is especially so, as seems to have been the case with Speer's relationship with Hitler, if you have genuine and heartfelt affection for the boss. So, doing the right thing gets caught up with your affections.

That's not necessarily a bad thing - liberal democracies are, at least in theory, run on a strict division of labour between elected actors who make decisions and unelected functionaries who translate those decisions into actions.
But at what point does obedience to the ethical dimensions of this regime tend towards the self being 'morally extinguished?' I think that it's too easy to say that, so long as your bosses are elected you should do what you're told. Neither do I think that you can intervene in line with your conscience every time the boss steps beyond the bounds of your conscience.

I suspect that some roughly Rawlsian concept of public reason - that (I'm being a little definitionally flexible here) your actions should be justified based on reasons that you expect other reasonable people would be able to accept - should be at play in the sorts of calculations that bureaucrats make. Rawls really thought public reason should be exercised only at pretty high levels, but I'm with Jonathan Quong (link to abstract: the full text requires a subscription) in thinking that public reason should be applied in a wider sense (I'm not suggesting that Quong would agree with this line of argument, though!). Still, some formulation of public reason might help turn moral agency outwards, towards the polity that one works for, but without abandoning the idea of the individual's responsibility.

What this sort of idea doesn't deal with is the genuine affection that one can feel for those in power. Ellsberg talks about this aspect of the cult of the presidency in the States, and it's not impossible that John Scarlett felt some loyalty towards his bosses in Downing Street during the events that led to the war, as covered by the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review. Loyalty and affection are powerful and morally valuable motivators. We don't tend to enjoy the idea of people shopping friends or family members to the police, although we do tend to qualify our attachment to loyalty by thinking that doing wrong can trump it pretty quickly. Still, perhaps loyalty and affection are simply the price we have to pay for the humanity of bureaucrats. We'd hate it if they couldn't or didn't feel these attachments but we have to live with the fact that the things that make us human can switch our humanity off.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Bye bye Pragmatism, bye bye.

On Newsnight, Sir Christopher Meyer, who was the UK amabassador to Washington, mentioned that, between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, 'you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.' This is not really news. Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack very diplomatically intimates that the two are not overwhelmed by love for each other. Anyhow, as Fred Kaplan wrote last February in Slate,
Powell's best option, after January, may be to abandon his ambitions for further public office, nab a lucrative job in the private sector, and write the most outrageous kiss-and-tell political memoir that the world has ever seen.
I wonder, given that Powell has been loyal enough to lend his huge political capital to the Bush re-election campaign, would he actually anything really really scandalous up on the administration?

And as for the possible successor: Rice? I dread to think...

Standing at the Bar

I was watching Legal Eagles, RTÉ1's excellent documentary following people around the Irish Courts, last night. One thing that amazed me was the impoverished position of trainee barristers. Poor souls, they don't earn a bean, at least until the built a business and then earn lots and lots. Nothing like solicitors though, the real objects of my jealousy.

Apparently the two-tier solicitor/barrister division is being investigated by the Competition Authority at the moment. The consultancy reports on solicitors and barristers can be seen here and here (both pdf). Solicitors prepare cases and then hire barrisors to present them to the court. The system, with barristers depending on solicitors for work is hardly transparent.

Still, it's possible that there's not much wrong here. Of course, a solicitor could just give jobs to insiders, but it strikes me that they would be better served, not least financially, in finding the best person for the job. A case of patronage driven by quality.

I'd be more worried about who ends up in law in the first place. The investment required to enter the industry is huge, and the series suggests that the law profession has come up with some great tricks to keep their shop closed to the great unwashed. Surely a democratic state should be drawing its lawyers, and ultimately under the British and Irish systems, its judges, from across society, not from a narrow band of those who are curently welcome into the profession. I'm always a bit sceptical of the idea that parliaments should look like the populations they represent, but with the legal profession I'm not sure.

Update: I only had time for a quick glance at the reports, and the final conclusions include concern over closed shops for the training of barristers and solicitors. I suspect that the consultants' worries about this 'restricting the number of entrants' into both professions are not justice-based, but are rooted in the anti-competitive tendencies that are produced by this. Still, it's interesting that they note it. I still naively hope for a moment to read the full report, though of course the Competition Authority might not come to the same conclusions as the consultants did, so anything we draw from the reports is necessarily provisional.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Owning Public Spaces

One advantage of kicking off a blog is that zero-readership encourages, well, courage. So let’s start with something easy: Remembrance Sunday. As a Southerner, born and raised in the Republic but living in Northern Ireland (long enough to know I shouldn't say anything about this stuff), I’m more than a little perplexed by Remembrance Sunday. It goes without saying that I’m hardly going to be turned on by British Nationalism – by the occasion dressed up as ‘the nation remembers’ as Channel 4 put it. And I’m certainly not a fan of the militarism of the ceremonies themselves.

Still, lots of Irishmen died in the British army during both World Wars. I have at least one relative, a great-uncle, who fought in Burma. I’d be very surprised if some digging didn’t reveal more British soldiers in my past. It stands to reason – all of Ireland was part of the UK until 1922 and even after that the British Army was (and remains to a small extent) a pretty sure financial bet. But for the most part, this element of the Irish story has been forgotten(although there are notable exceptions to this).

When I lived in England I would stomach my discomfort and stand in front of the Union Jack with Ireland’s messy complicated role in the UK’s history in mind. I can’t take responsibility for the motives of others in being there, but I was there in large part to commemorate people who – not just during WWI – were slaughtered, not for noble ideals but because they thought the army was better than hunger.

What leaves me perplexed about Remembrance Sunday here in Belfast is the degree to which one side of the community – the Unionist side – owns the event. It’s hardly a surprise, on face of it, given the inherent Britishness of the occasion. But the fact is that, to my mind at least, nationalists and republicans should be as willing to commemorate war dead, and although this day is by no means perfect, it’s better than denying their existence.

Public occasions in Northern Ireland are very rarely owned by both communities. The 12th and St. Patrick’s Day are perceived, not without reason, as sectraian attempts to stake a claim to the city for the day, ensuring that the other lot know that they’re not welcome. Remembrance Sunday itself involves speeches by paramilitary leaders (although this one was not particularly bad news) and flute bands as well as the more official British pomp. The poppy no more includes nationalists than the Easter lily includes unionists.

Neither side of the community, in its public displays, does complicated very well.

Not much to be said about that, except that I think that this, and all the links, reflect the way in which Northern Ireland is characterised by a sectarianism of truth. With some exceptions, each side of the community seems to claim that they are the primary victims of the conflict and that they themselves are only guilty of responding to the other’s provocations or crimes or whatever. Everyone thinks that their resentment is justified and that the resentment of the other side is insincere or trivial or both.

What hope for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Northern Ireland? The South African TRC was partly possible because one element of the community was willing to admit that they had been the primary engine of the wrongs upon which SA’s conflict had been founded. In Northern Ireland, there is no sense of shared guilt. The ownership of public space simply mirrors this sorry state of affairs. Indeed, when someone does try to cross the divide, their move is, perhaps understandably, rebuffed. Those who are engaged in the laudible work of creating a shared sense of the past have their work cut out.