Friday, March 31, 2006

Bob the Builder

One of the unspoken factors in reflection on government is the acquisition, use and abuse of power. Of course, we do find ourselves turning to Foucauldian-style critiques of ‘Power,’ or in analyses of how, at some macro level, certain classes maintain their privileges to the disadvantage of others, or how will (of the people, of the leader) is transformed into action through a sequence of formal procedures. What we tend not to notice is the manner in which individuals can and do pursue power, ruthlessly and obsessively and then hold on to it against all forces. Blind as we are to how such people circumvent formal technologies of government, we tend not to see the full story of how societies, states and cities are shaped.

I’ve just finished Robert Caro’s mammoth (over half- million word) study of power in practice: his biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Chances are that, if you’re from my side of the Atlantic, you never heard of Bob Moses. Chances are, also, that if you’ve ever been to New York, you enjoyed and suffered the consequences of his forty-year stranglehold over the city’s landscape and infrastructure. Moses was New York State’s Parks Commissioner and the chair of a number of NYC’s public authorities, most notably the Triborough Bridge Authority and the Housing Commission from the 1920s until the 1960s. Starting off as Parks Commissioner he constructed some of the most beautiful city and state parks in the US, starting on Long Island, as well as the ‘parkways’ that provided the new car-owning society with access to those parks. Through Triborough he built the bridges (and partly the tunnels) and highways that determined the shape of New York’s sprawl out from Manhattan.

Notionally, all Moses’s work was done at the behest of the various mayors and governors under whose administrations he worked. But Moses had, early on, used his brilliant drafting of laws to remove himself from their influence. The legislation that created the great parks he built, for example, included clauses giving him absolute authority within the parks.

It was in Triborough that his real genius was invested though. Since, after years of Tammany Hall’s misrule, NYC was for all intents and purposes bankrupt, money for Moses public works was (formally) raised through bond issues – essentially through mortgages with the city’s banks. Moses devised the bond contracts to give Triborough absolute sovereignty in the city, making the organisation untouchable and making the organisation’s chair unimpeachable. And given that contracts are guaranteed under the US constitution, once they were issued nothing could be done.

But this is the real stroke of genius and the tragedy of Moses’s reign. By law, Authorities were established in order to do a specific thing (build a bridge for example) and, once the bonds were paid off (say through a toll on the bridge) they had to go out of existence and the infrastructure would be handed back to the city. Moses figured that, instead of simply paying off the bonds, he could simply use part of the revenue from one piece of infrastructure as collatoral on new bonds to build new pieces of infrastructure. So long as he kept doing this, his authority could never be shut down (since it would always have constitutionally-guaranteed debts to service).

But this all relied on Moses being able to continuously build. If he stopped he’d lose his empire. As with most empires, the only way to keep going was to keep moving.

In order to pull this off, he built up a coalition of (sometimes very dodgy) bankers who wanted the huge profits from the bonds, trade unions who wanted continuous well-resourced work, and politicians who wanted to be seen to be getting-things-done and who wanted their palms well-greased. Using the acclaim he had received from building the great parks, he scrupulously maintained his public image so that elected officials who got in his way, say as he sought to demolish a neighbourhood and displace its occupants for a highway, could at best not get a public hearing and would at worst be subject to scurrilous and vicious public attacks.

It also helped Moses obscure the fact that, in having the city build supposedly marginal elements in his projects (though in fact they were often far from marginal), Moses was diverting almost all city funding from education health and from his primary competitor – public transport.

In essence, Moses used politics (and a reputation for being above politics) to engage in a more than three decade frenzied building programme that gave New York most of its bridges major highways. Which was all very well except that the programme was obviously not, after a while, designed with the needs of commuters or with ease of movement in mind. It was designed around Moses lust for power and around his own ego and whims.

It rapidly became obvious that the building of highways was only leading to gridlock and that, as new highways were built, new cars were coming onto the roads. Not only was each new road blocked, but all the old roads would get busier as the new ones were built. But Moses was blind to this. He refused to fund public transport or even to leave space for public transport around his roads. This was partly because of a deep antipathy he had for people, mainly black and Puerto Rican, who depended on mass transit. Indeed, by displacing funding from public transport to cars, he was actively chasing anyone who had a choice away from trains and buses and funnelling them instead through the traffic jams and toll booths on his bridges.

Moses use of power often seemed petty and mean. His parkways, for example, were the only route to his parks. But he built all the bridges over the parkways 11 feet high. Inadvertant or not, because of this, buses (that require a minimum clearance of 14 feet) could not use the parkways and (until the building of the Long Island Expressway) could not get to the parks. Moses guaranteed that his parks, such as that at Jones Beach, would not be available to the poor.

Moses's reasoning was sometimes utterly obscure, such as when he destroyed an old mixed community in Fairmont in the Bronx by running the Cross-Bronx expressway straight through it (directly demolishing 1500 homes) instead of taking an alternative route that was no less convenient to drivers but would have led to the demolition of 6 homes.

Two things eventually started Moses downfall, though so late on that Moses was in his 70s. The first had to do with his grasping on to the chair of the city’s slum-clearance programme. Moses was not at all interested in slum clearance but had grabbed the programme because it presented an opportunity to spread largesse to his various clients. But the corruption in the programme was so spectacular that it actually created larger slums on the sites of the old ones. The scandal that arose from the corruption of the programme provided the first openly visible stain on Moses’s public image.

The second part in Moses downfall was an attempt to build a car park in Central Park in order to serve the Tavern on the Green, then run at an enormous profit by one of Moses acolytes. This was utterly insignificant compared to Moses’s activities in the Bronx and in Haarlem, but this time Moses took on the moneyed classes of the city and refused to back down. The spat turned the media against him and he never regained his reputation.

Eventually Moses was sidelined by Nelson Rockefeller who combined political power as governor and, crucially, as a member of the family that owned Chase Manhattan, was able to face down the banks in whose hands Moses’s bonds lay.

Although the narrative that Caro constructs is a tale of events, the important story is the manner in which, through ambition, patronage, pr and bullying, Moses managed to construct and maintain a personal empire for so long. He was the ultimate boss – a supreme manipulator of all the interests that matter in politics. At the same time, though, his motivations were never financial: Moses manoeuvres had a purpose.

Getting Things Done might have ultimately become an end in itself but this was largely accompanied by a serious, if often stubbornly bull-headed and misguided, will to improve the city for the city's people. Theory finds it very difficult to capture the sort of phenomenon represented by Moses and, as a result, our understanding of society is much much poorer.

Men Shall Know Commonwealth

Just listening to Leonard Cohen's sublime new album, Dear Heather, as I work. One of the best albums I've heard in a while. The quasi-prose-poem Villanelle For Our Time is my favourite, methinks. Well worth the outlay.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Best Front Page Photo

The FT is not renowned for humourous coverage, but the photo (from Getty Images) on their front page today is excellent, if somewhat subtle.

According to the FT, it's a picture of Neil Aspinall, head of The Beatles' Apple Corp, as he 'arrives at the High Court where the record label yesterday renewed its long-running legal battle with Apple Computer. Apple Corp, owned by band members and their estates, is accusing the US company of breaching a trademark agreement by "selling music" through its online iTunes music store, which uses the Apple name and logo. It is the third time Apple Corp has sued the computer group over use of the Apple name.'

Haughey 'Seriously Ill'

Apparently he's been taken to the Mater Hospital in Dublin. RTÉ news coverage here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Turkey in the EU

There was an interesting debate from Istanbul on the BBC World Service last Sunday, prompted by debates in Turkey over modernity, driven in part by the question of membership of the EU.

It's a surprise to hear some of the comments and questions that are being seriously considered, notably on the role of the military, on minorities and on religion. Then again, it doesn't take much recollection of the sorts of debates that took place in Ireland over Irish membership of the Union to reveal how European Ireland has become. I assume the same will happen to Turkey and, to my mind, that's no bad thing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Joint Sovereignty in the Here and Now

So, having met up in Brussels, Bertie and Tony will come over to Belfast for a last ditch attempt at getting the whole thing rolling. I’m not so sure they’re going to be successful, at least according to the standard they’ve set themselves: the stable running of an assembly with an executive.

Isn’t it time, though that we recognised the more fundamental fact about Northern Ireland politics? That, functioning Assembly or not, joint sovereignty exists in the here and now.

People – especially across these islands – tend to think sovereignty is a simple question of which flag flies over their public buildings. Sovereignty seems to mean total freedom from outside interference.

But sovereignty is never absolute. Legislative and political decisions cannot be made free from the influence of other institutions or factors. Indeed, we’re not even free from the influence of our own past decisions. Ireland, for example, is not totally sovereign because, through referenda, the Irish people handed a small part of their sovereignty over to the European Union.

In any case, and this is just as analogously important to a discussion of joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland, even if Ireland wasn’t a member of the EU, it wouldn’t be sovereign in a full or absolute sense. Ministers would still be trapped in their decisions by their calculations over the vicissitudes of international markets and Ireland’s place in them. Sovereignty implies autonomy and that is just impossible to have in full.

On the formal level, the Good Friday Agreement, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty before that, saw Westminster handing some portion of sovereignty over to the Irish state. Just as when it joined the EU, the UN and the IMF. So, on a formal level, the implementation of the GFA treaty in Northern Ireland is a matter for the consideration of both the Dublin and London governments.

Moreover, informally, no British government will move in Northern Ireland without some degree of collaboration with Dublin. We shouldn’t mistake a much-vaunted Parliamentary sovereignty either for freedom of action or for a wish for freedom of action.

But let’s not lose the run of ourselves. Joint sovereignty doesn’t mean that decisions are made on some sort of 50:50 basis – that authority is split down the middle. Ireland’s influence over Northern Ireland is probably more akin to Germany’s influence over French policies through the EU. But, on major decisions, Northern Ireland is not best thought of as being solely at the mercy of Westminster. Whether or not there’s an assembly makes no difference to this.

This fact, as it stands, represents better news for Unionists than they may think and worse news for Nationalists than they may think.

Given the Irish state’s general credo that a little of something for free is better than having it all at a price (viz NATO) I suspect that they’re rather happy with the status quo. They are seen to be a strong voice for nationalist interests in London and (given how much higher Northern Ireland is on the Irish agenda than it is on the British one) they can set the Northern Ireland agenda without actually paying much for the place. This is probably deemed much preferable to the hallowed United Ireland. And, given that, the Nationalist’s best friend may very well not share their ultimate goals.

Unionists for their part should actually loudly welcome the Irish role. Instead of harping on about British sovereignty they ought see the Irish role as being a price worth paying for making Northern Ireland habitable for Nationalists in perpetuity. They should think of it as renting out one field so they can keep the farm. Indeed, given the fact that, ultimately, the Irish state is on their side (i.e., it’s interests lie in Northern Ireland remaining in the UK) Unionism should welcome joint sovereignty as a symbol that, on the big questions, they’ve won.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Role of the Media

I'm sure there's no real need for me to link to posts on Slugger O'Toole. If you're here you've most likely been there. But there's a fascinating debate on the role of the media in society (sparked by Michael McDowell) in the comments section of this post.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


I've just taken a look at the new Schmap city guide: pretty impressive.* This is the sort of Web 2.0 thing that will be hitting us over the next few years I suppose. It takes various bits of freeware or creative commons stuff (photos etc) and sticks it all in something between an e-book, a photo slideshow and Google Earth.

It's still in beta and I think there are a few flaws both fiddling (I think the font is too small) and more substantial. Primarily, there's no option for downloading new guides from within the player. I couldn't figure out whether I should store files I download myself or awkwardly copy it into the Schmap folder in the administrative bit of my docs and settings. After all, that's where the original city file I downloaded with the player resides. Also, newly irritatingly evangelical Linux afficianado that I am, pity it's Windows only.

But don't let that stop you having a glance. Shmap is well worth the look and I think will be a formidable addition to online work distractions as the Summer rolls in!

* Full disclosure: they have shortlisted one of my photos off Flickr for the Dublin Guide, which is how I came across it. As their blog mentions reveal, that shortlisting process is an astute marketing ploy! I should also mention that it's not entirely clear that use of the photos is compatible with the Creative Commons licences under which pictures are used. Like others, I suspect it's not. Which is why they get you to accept another licence agreement.

Friday, March 24, 2006

As they say in Dublin...

...or at least, as they said when I was in the first bloom of youth:


This has to be the most entertaining bug report I've ever read! Courtesy of The Register.

Georgetown podcasts

Since Intelligent Securocrat Pixies poisoned my water this week1 thus leaving me less able for typing-style research, I took the opportunity to listen to a few of the excellent podcasts from Georgetown Law School's site. Of those that I listened to, two stand out for me.

The first is a witty and interesting interview with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer2, who tries to give an insight into how the USSC works, and his take on various legal/political questions doing the rounds, including the concept of originalism in constitutional interpretation.

The second is a largely calm and well informed debate on Civil Defence v Civil Liberties.3 It's generally a good debate, with only one person really engaging in hyperbole. The phone-tapping affair and the ongoing detention of people in Guantanamo is addressed. Very interesting.

1I deny the unproven 'tummy bug' theory being spread about by evil Darwinist Protestant atheists.

2I can only get the audio (mp3) to work.

3And again...

Monday, March 20, 2006

Modernism in the V&A

I'll be working in London for a day in May and must make time to pop over to Kensington to see the modernism exhibition in the V&A. It looks like it's going to be fascinating. Good preview in Saturday's FT here.

Something Tells Me It's All Happening At...

...the zoo. But not quite at Belfast Zoo. We headed up there on Saturday and - thanks to the cold cold wind - all the animals seemed wisely to have hidden themselves away. We saw some penguins, some seals (which were presumably enjoying some proper weather for a change), a couple of antelopes and a peacock. And that's it. Oh, and some guys sweeping an empty elephant compound.

An zoo without creatures provides confirmation, if it was needed, that Belfast is straight out of Father Ted. Which is to say, bonkers but marvellous! I want to go back next weekend and marvel at the place!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

From the Curragh

This is another picture of the Grand Canal: the water coming in under this bridge is drained off the Curragh, thus presumably preventing it being a lot damper than it is. Oh the joys of Victorian engineering!

Monday, March 13, 2006

O'Connor Criticises the Republicans

The Guardian and NPR report a speech where Justice Sandra Day O'Connor 'blasted' the US Republicans for their attempts to undermine the judiciary in the States. There's a webcast about O'Connor over on the Georgetown site. I haven't been able to find her speech so won't comment on the substance but it's always a surprise to see judges let fly, even when they do so with some justification.

Off the Books

Via a friend in Dublin, this article comes to light, outlining some of the pre-Act of Union laws that are about removed from the Irish statute books. Apart from the legislation that would make Andrew McCann shiver with joy (like the law from 1360 "against people associating with the Irish, using their language, or sending children to be nursed among them" or from 1366 preventing the English marrying the Irish) there's this one that I think many of you (especially given the video of the recent Blog Awards) would be interested in:
Among those laws about to be consigned to history is the Tippling Act 1735, which prohibits a publican from pursuing a customer for money owed for any drink given on credit.
Update: I knew it was a familiar story: George Burns posted on it over on Slugger ten days ago. Us academics are so ahead of the curve!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Icy Spring

I took this beside the Grand Canal near Robertstown in Kildare. The light is partly digital I admit, but the ice on the canal certainly isn't.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's Wrong with Wrong Beliefs?

A post Frank put up a few months ago came to mind last week. Frank made a very cogent argument that intuitionism was a pretty shoddy approach to moral reasoning.

In a totally oblique way, this came to mind when I was listening to Thought for the Day a while back (unusual that I was paying attention at all, but there you go). A person called Anne Atkins made a very good point. Speaking about David Irving’s incarceration in Austria for denying the Holocaust, Atkins took the interesting position that although we might want to restrict people’s rights to express opinions (approving remarks about the Holocaust for example) it seems perverse to imprison them for simply saying things that are not true – statements of fact, she seemed to say, are by their nature innocuous.1 All you need to do in the face of wrong beliefs, she claims, is to stick someone on the Today Programme to counter the wrong statement (echoing Mill’s pretty strategic justification for free speech). Of course, this assumes that Irving was honestly mistaken in denying the holocaust (which is his line) and not cynically manipulating the available facts and records in order to sustain a political position.

But I wonder how we say that a mistaken belief is in and of itself innocuous – I suspect that we actually do disapprove of all sorts of false beliefs and actively regard them as dangerous and bad. Are all mistaken beliefs really on a par? Is racism or holocaust denial (both of which rely on beliefs about facts) really equivalent to, say, holding relatively innocuous mistaken beliefs, say about astrology or homoeopathy?

In fact, a quick skip around the blogosphere suggests that the general intuition is that mistaken, though sincere, beliefs are very often regarded as moral failings. We tend to think of people who hold beliefs profoundly different to our own as being more than simply fools. They're bad fools. But I can't actually think of any way we could argue for the immorality of mistaken beliefs (I'd love to stand corrected on this).

We might be able to argue against the normative judgements that invariably accompany statements of belief. Holocaust deniers, it seems, tend to be anti-Semites (or give comfort to anti-Semites) and people who believe in racial difference tend also to actively discriminate (or, again, give succour to active bigots). So maybe sometime we condemn holocaust deniers not because of their beliefs but because we suspect that they are actively discriminatory. Or we condemn pacifists because they give succour to haters-of-our-freedom etc. But that’s different to providing reasons to condemn simple holders of belief. How are passive, silent racists bad?

We could say that people who make statements of fact have duties towards the truth and towards standards of evidence. So some supposed statements of fact rely upon spectacular failures to consider evidence with any objectivity or critical eye. But we’re all guilty of this to some degree – it’s practically impossible – outside stringent experimental conditions – to assess evidence without prior intuitions getting into the mix. Even if we could identify the point when our conclusions, rather than falling within the range of reasonable difference (where the evidence could really go either way or where positions rely more upon how we prioritise competing norms), reflect our exclusion of crucial facts for fear that they would disrupt our positions, we would still not condemn the belief, but the methods by which the person arrived at that belief.

Similarly, we all tend to hide from interpretations or facts that disrupt our world views. We read newspapers that reassure rather than challenge us. We respond dismissively to unwelcome reports and even take great pleasure in shooting the various messengers that bring ignored facts to our attention. But, again, this sort of moral failure is about the information-gathering that leads to mistaken beliefs, not about the holding of those beliefs.

Maybe this is the issue. We tend to condemn people for not facing up to whatever facts we prioritise (sometimes with more grounds than others). But I’m damned if I know how a line could be formulated to demarcate innocuous and immoral false beliefs. And I suppose this is the crucial importance of intuitionism. It is not a claim that there is no space for reasoning in moral thinking. It is a claim that reasoning is not the only or total route to conclusions about morality. Moral thinking tends to carry within its sphere motives of compassion and sympathy (and hatred) which are not entirely open to articulation (though emotions they may, as Martha Nussbaum pointed out, be no less intelligent). It also tends to be cumulative – a specific moral thought reflects, in part, a personal history of moral thoughts, thus making the manner in which we reach conclusions remarkably obscure.

1David Vance also makes a similar point when he insists that holocaust denial is not a crime. Of course (pedantic old me) he doesn’t mean that holocaust denial isn’t actually a crime: it patently is in the countries he mentions. What I suppose he means is that there can be nothing inherently criminal about belief, even though it might be very wrong indeed to hold that belief. Similar points are made by United Irelander, Maca and myriad others.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Prisoner Economy

I was stuck on a piece of work the other day so started reading a piece that Mel had sent me quite a while ago: R.A. Radford’s ‘The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,’1 published in Economica in November 1945. It’s fascinating stuff. Radford’s basic point is that the P.O.W. Camp represented, in miniature, the economic society and provided a good case for some simple theories of currency and pricing etc. He found that transit camps were not particularly stable markets, with lots of people coming and going, so that profits were to be made from a dearth of information as to what various commodities from Red Cross Parcels and the like were worth. ‘Stories circulated of a padre,’ for example
who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete [Red Cross] parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect.
In more settled camps, the market grew too complicated for simple barter:
Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence. Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine. It was realised that a tin of jam was worth ½ lb. of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolate issues, and a tin of diced carrots was worth practically nothing.
Over time, cigarettes became the currency for the camp.
The cigarette became the standard of value. In the permanent camp people started wandering through the bungalows calling their offers - ‘cheese for seven’ (cigarettes) – and the hours after [Red Cross] parcel issue were Bedlam. The inconveniences of this system soon led to its replacement by an Exchange and Mart notice board in every bungalow, where under the headings ‘name,’ ‘room number,’ ‘wanted,’ and ‘offered’ sales and wants were advertised. When a deal went through it was crossed off the board. The public and semi-permanent records of transactions led to cigarette prices being well known and thus tending to equality throughout the camp, although there were some opportunities for an astute trader to make a profit from arbitrage. With this development everyone, including non-smokers was willing to sell for cigarettes, using them to buy at another time and place. Cigarettes became the normal currency, although of course barter was never extinguished.
Radford goes on to describe the development of a pure market with prices fixed by supply-and-demand. Admittedly, being free of almost all labour, it was a strange market, but it was one nevertheless. He was particularly interested in cigarettes as currency, arguing that they ‘performed all the functions of a metallic currency as a unit of account.’ Indeed, the camps even experienced inflation linked to money-supply, namely to the rise and fall in the availability of cigarettes as Red Cross parcels came. An influx of hungry new prisoners would increase the price of food. And an air raid would lead to much of the currency being smoked, thus provoking deflation.

Around D-day the camp economy was apparently so buoyant that the officers opened a very successful camp restaurant, with profits being ploughed back into the society through the bribing of guards for essential materials etc. This was on top of a long-established not-for-profit camp shop which had stabilised prices somewhat. Eventually, a paper currency, interchangeable with cigarettes (sort of a gold standard) was introduced, acceptable at the restaurant and the shop.

This is all fascinating stuff. I wonder, though, whether these dynamics would be replicated today. Radford’s story is interesting in and of itself, but also because of its emphasis on price-stabilisation and on the trend towards central control of supply and demand (i.e. the shop and the restaurant). That strikes me as being evidence, of a sort, that the psychology of the market is relatively culturally specific.

I suspect that your average economist in this day and age would decide that the most rational method for satisfying supply and demand would be some sort of auction, with people directly bidding for commodities. I suspect also that you’d have had some sort of futures market working away (which did exist in embryonic form in the camps), with people buying future supplies at future prices.

The one thing I don’t think would exist is the investment bank: I suspect this works in the real economy in part because we don’t see or don’t understand how banks make enough to cover their costs, make a profit and pay us interest. If we did, either we’d conclude that a collaborative enterprise like a bank was more beneficial for us or that we could do the necessary investments ourselves. In that camp, of course, the second thing is far easier, given the small, intimate, size of the economy. So the banker would simply not be trusted to bring us extraordinary returns. I also don't suppose that this sort of thing can develop without officers overseeing the standards of exchange (acting as a state essentially) and without some degree of freedom of movement among the prisoners (so that's Gitmo out).

1By the way, if you can’t access the article, just send me an email at ciaran_o_kelly[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk (with the [at] replaced by ‘@’ and the [dot] replaced by ‘.’) and I’ll send it on to you.