I feel for ‘the sweaty man in the third row’. We’ll all been there.November 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | 1 Comment
I feel for ‘the sweaty man in the third row’. We’ll all been there.November 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | 1 Comment
GD readers might find interesting this piece by Columbia University’s Mark Mazower, from the FT this weekend. He has a book coming out in October on the history of the idea of global governance. Brief highlights:
May 26, 2012 at 10:23 am | More on Global system | 1 Comment
“They decided without us. Let us advance without them,” reads the slogan on the website of Syriza, the leftwing Greek party that shot to prominence after elections this month. But what emerges as one reads on is less a clear strategy for the country’s future than a worldview suffused with the images and memories of its turbulent past. Here, the fight against today’s perceived enemy – neoliberalism – evokes the struggle against the military junta 40 years ago, and the resistance to Nazi occupation during the second world war…Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, is too young to remember this: he was born just as the junta fell, in the summer of 1974. However, his party’s language reminds us that the eurozone crisis is raising some deep historical questions about what has happened to politics, to democracy and to the very idea of international co-operation.
It was in Europe, two centuries ago, where the idea emerged that the world was a governable place. This idea was radically new: the term “international” itself was coined by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and only entered general circulation in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat. Although nationalism was emerging as a potent force at this time, the supporters of international co-operation were not alarmed. On the contrary, they believed that nationalism and internationalism were soul mates, that a continent of vibrant national democracies necessitated co-operation among its diverse people. Novelist Victor Hugo conjured up the vision of a federal Europe to a wildly cheering audience of peace activists in Paris in 1849; the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini inspired US president Woodrow Wilson with his idea of a society of democratic nations.
If Wilson’s ill-fated League of Nations was one outcome of such views, other internationalists fought equally hard for free trade, or for communism. But the second world war saw anti-fascists in Europe return to the idea of federation for the continent as an antidote both to the bellicose nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini, and to the hopeless high-mindedness of the League. They believed that without integration, Europeans would continue to fight indefinitely; with it, the nation could be tamed and the needs of the weakest members of society guaranteed.
The origins of the EU thus reflect the persistence of the old idea that international co-operation is the best guarantee of national well-being. US support for European integration was premised on the belief not only that it would boost growth and keep communism at bay but that it would revive democracy itself. The early decades of the common market coincided not only with unprecedented productivity gains and growth across western Europe, but simultaneously with significant falls in inequality and enhanced spending on social services and welfare.
That achievement seems to belong to an almost neolithic past. The past 25 years have seen many of those gains reversed and have thrown into question the notion that national sovereignty and international co-operation are complementary. The architects of this reversal were not philosophers such as Bentham or revolutionaries such as Mazzini but sober technocrats such as Paul Volcker and the IMF’s Michel Camdessus. Managers of the global monetary system after the oil shocks of the 1970s, they believed that international prosperity and stability depended upon the liberalisation of capital movements. Europe’s enthusiastic participation in this financialisation of the global economy has had striking if largely unintended consequences.
All international organisations require their members to give up some sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of joining the group. But in earlier times, this choice did not entail anything close to the kinds of sacrifices that are required today. Legislatures within the EU, and especially within the eurozone, are now obliged to cede discretionary power to unelected central bankers, judges, bureaucrats and industry regulators. One does not have to be a supporter of Syriza to see how this allows established political parties in difficult times to be turned into stooges of shadowy special interests.
So what is at stake in the eurozone crisis goes beyond the consequences of a Greek exit and beyond even the future of the EU itself. The crisis has thrown into question the very idea that the world can be governed.
Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.
The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:
How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain? What personal virtues should ground public service? How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.
These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).
But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.
I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Basically, success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you. Your character depends on your moral culture. The book tells the story of how the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.
The Vickys include Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Vickys, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.
In the UK, the Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, the young former policy advisor James O’Shaughnessy, who has gone back to Wellington to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose more recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism.
Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week. He wrote:
Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.
I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My new book is about the contemporary fusion of virtue ethics with empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.
But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’. (more…)May 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | Comments Off
You’ve probably already seen this but…this site is quite funny: http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/ As the name suggests, its photos of Secretary Clinton exchanging texts with various other people. For example:April 11, 2012 at 7:32 am | More on Off topic | Comments Off
The UN Happiness Conference last week looks to have been a fascinating event. The Prime Minister of Bhutan sent me a giant Willy Wonka-esque invitation, for which I’m grateful, but wouldn’t pay my air-fare, for which I’m lingeringly resentful (not really). Anyway, I didn’t go, but have spent this morning reading through some of the material that came out of it.
The main event was the publication of The World Happiness Report, edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Layard and John Helliwell. Interesting that Sachs, once a champion of ‘shock therapy’ and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, should have climbed on-board the happy train.
In fact, Sachs seems to be making a bid to be the train-driver – he wrote the intro to the report, which seems odd, seeing as he’s quite a recent convert to well-being economics, while Layard’s been banging on about it for over a decade. Anyway, Sachs (who says he’s an Aristotelian) has clearly reigned in Layard’s ultra-utilitarianism. There are five or so references to Aristotle and the Stoics in the report, many more to the Buddha, and not one to Layard’s beloved Jeremy Bentham. Sachs opines loftily in the introduction that western economists’ pursuit of GDP is “completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages”. Oh really Jeff? Do we need shock cognitive therapy?
Despite Sachs’ attempt to put himself forward as the global guru of love, the conference really marks another huge success for Richard Layard, who to my mind is by far the most influential British intellectual today – partly because of his success in British mental health policy and the spread of CBT, but also because of the global influence of the happiness agenda he has pushed.
Although there are many aspects of Layard’s agenda that I welcome (its support for CBT in particular) I remain wary of the agenda because I think utilitarianism and positivism can be too monist and authoritarian: they force an entire country to follow one particular philosophy of the good life, which they insist is ‘scientific fact’. That’s what John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, where he spoke of the danger of a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and insisted we need to encourage diversity, experimentation, non-conformity, and the right of people to pursue their own good in their own way. Layard, I suspect, would see all that as rank individualism. (more…)April 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm | More on Economics and development | 2 Comments
Well, the headline pretty much says it all, but here’s some more of the story:
A mafia traitor was beaten to death with a hammer and then eaten by Serbian gangsters, police believe. Officers said Milan Jurisic, 37, was killed in Madrid by criminals from the Zemun Clan, a mafia group from Belgrade.His remains were then ground up with a meat grinder, cooked, and eaten, according to a confession by another Zemun Clan member, Sretko Kalinic, nicknamed “The Butcher”. Later the gang reportedly threw the bones into the River Manzanares in the Spanish capital.This week, police found bones in the river and the apartment where the killing apparently took place in 2009. Jurisic is thought to have betrayed his fellow gang members by stealing money from them. He was on the run after being convicted in his absence of assassinating Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Kalinic confessed to the murder after he was arrested in the Croatian capital of Zagreb in 2010. Police believe the murder and subsequent cannibalism was led by Luka Bojovic, a Serbian gangster arrested in Valencia last month.
Messed UP. Still, you hang around with a gangster nick-named ‘the Butcher’, what do you expect? All I can say is I’m really glad I’m not a Serbian gangster. I don’t have the stomach for it.March 24, 2012 at 12:03 am | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Conflict and security | 3 Comments
It’s become an unlikely YouTube hit. No, not sneezing pandas or puppies on skateboards…but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges talking on C-Span for three hours about the triumph of the corporate state, the failure of liberals, the over-reaching of US empire, the cost of war, climate change, Christianity, the Occupy movement…everything really! Quite a performance. Posted online in January and it already has a quarter of a million views. Difficult to turn off once you start watching.January 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Conflict and security, Global system | Comments Off
Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive. He is staring into his mirror each morning, and repeating to himself: ‘I am a strong, confident, powerful currency. I am A TIGER!’ He’s so positive, he’s sent out a hefty tome called The World Book of Happiness to 200 world leaders, with this extraordinary letter. I’m quoting from the letter he sent to Barack Obama:
Dear Mr President Barack
I am very happy to present you with this copy of The World Book of Happiness…with my best wishes for a ‘Happy New Year’ but also with my request to you as world leaders to make people’s happiness and well-being our political priority for 2012 [um...what about preventing the catastrophic collapse of the euro? No?]
Positive thinking is no longer something for drifters, dreamers and the perpetually naive. Positive Psychology concerns itself in a scientific way with the quality of life. At stake are not only the happiness and well-being of individuals, but also those of groups, organisations and countries. And above all, in today’s global world we can all learn from one another. It is time to make this knowledge available to the man and woman in the street….
People who think positive see more opportunities, perform better, possess greater resilience, take more often correct and sound decisions [sic], negotiate better, have more self-confidence, maintain better relations, take greater responsibility, have more trust placed in them and so on. In short, they give more hope to others because they can experience it themselves. In order to release this positive energy, people need oxygen. Society can offer this oxygen. Positive education, positive parenting, positive journalism and positive politics play a crucial role here. This oxygen we can also create ourselves by a balanced existence or a religious or philosophical rooting.
[I love this paragraph. My favourite line is 'to release this positive energy, people need oxygen', though I also like the idea of 'a religious or philosophical rooting' - 'rooting' is a slang Australian word for shagging].
Why not address women and men from all angles of their multiple intelligence? [Why not indeed!]...By addressing men and women who are on a growth path, we all become better and happier people. We then do not turn every incident into a trend and every anecdote into a general truth. [You've lost me Herman]. As a consequence our governing will stimulate self-knowledge, reflection, sense of responsibility and commitment.
Positively inclined people see everything in its right proportions. [etc etc for a few more sentences.]
Happy New Year!
Herman Van Rompuy
Chairman of the European Council
Woohoo! I love his cheery upbeatness in the face of chaos. And quite a plug for the book itself. The author, another Belgian called Leo Bormans, blogs excitedly: ‘Will Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in the near future read in the World Book of Happiness before going to sleep?’ You betcha Leo!
Now, a cynic might suggest Herman is reminiscent of the conquistador hero of Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre Wrath of God, who dreams of ruling over new empires while monkeys swarm over his sinking raft. But that’s a cynical thought. Think positive. Think Belgian. Find a happy place!December 19, 2011 at 1:08 pm | More on Global system, Influence and networks | 1 Comment
Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal Europe about six months ago, about the effect of the internet on Russia’s stagnant politics:
In November 2010, Leonid Parfyenov, a well-known Russian journalist, took to the stage at a black-tie Russian television awards dinner. Visibly nervous, he embarked on a 10 minute critique of everything that was wrong with Russian media. The bravest print journalists are targeted with impunity, he said, while reporters on state-owned television are “no longer journalists, but rather state employees who worship submission and service”. No state television channel transmitted his remarks.
State control of television news is a core pillar of the so-called managed democracy that Vladimir Putin has built since he became president in 2000. As Mr. Parfyenov said in his speech: “News and life in general are categorized as [either] suitable or unsuitable news for television.” The state directly controls most of the national channels, and is suspected indirectly to control many others.
However, while television remains the main source of news for 80% of Russians, the internet is rapidly catching up. Internet penetration is soaring in Russia and it is a median that the state has little or no influence over. Social networking is on the rise and websites like Facebook and Twitter are becoming hugely influential forms of communication for more and more Russians. (more…)December 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm | More on Global system | 1 Comment
I was dismayed to read the Telegraph’s account of the Foreign Office’s forward planning for the collapse of the eurozone. Apparently, ministers are telling embassies to expect riots on the continent, and a flood of British citizens heading home for Blighty, in tubs and dinghies and pedalos. There was cheeriness from the FT’s Wolfgang Munchau as well, who wrote on Monday, in an upbeat piece called ‘The Eurozone only has days to avoid a collapse’:
If the European summit could reach a deal on December 9, its next scheduled meeting, the eurozone will survive. If not, it risks a violent collapse. Even then, there is still a risk of a long recession, possibly a depression.
The Guardian’s political blog tells me the Treasury is already ‘hard at work’ on a contingency plan:
They are losing sleep over fears of a run on the banks in Italy and some of the other troubled eurozone members. This is what one Treasury source told me: “The five to midnight scenario will be a run on the banks in Greece, Italy and Portugal. Spain is fine. There is already a drawdown from banks. But we haven’t got to a run on the banks yet.” [Why is this official so confident that 'Spain is fine'?]
So what will happen if the unthinkable occurs and the eurozone does collapse? I’d like YOU, the well-informed Global Dashboard community, to tell me, so I can prepare in my London bunker.
Here are my rash predictions:
1) The further rise of far-right nationalist political parties and xenophobia towards immigrants. You’re already seeing this happen in Greece.
2) The Russian government exploits the power vacuum. I’m not saying Russian tanks will be rolling down the Champs Elysees anytime soon. But one of the main ‘points’ of Europe, it seemed to me, was to act as a collective bargaining bloc with Russia, and as a collective buffer against Russia’s imperialist ambitions. What happens when that buffer disintegrates? Keep an eye on the EU’s eastern border next year, particularly Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.
Any other predictions?November 28, 2011 at 10:39 am | More on Europe and Central Asia | 3 Comments
Yesterday, I went to the British Academy to hear Richard Easterlin, the father of happiness economics, present his latest thinking, together with Andrew Oswald of Warwick University. Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service, was also there – and made an interesting interjection.
Easterlin asked the provocative question: does higher income raise happiness in poorer countries? His answer was ‘no, as far as the evidence goes’. He showed graph after graph of transition economies where the income has been rising sharply over the last decade, while the happiness levels remained flat. He focused on China, a country “where the rate of economic growth has been completely unprecedented, at almost 10% a year for the last decade. If any country would show an improvement in happiness, it would be China.” But it doesn’t. Another flat line. The only countries which showed noticeable drops and rises in happiness levels, as far as I could tell, where post-Communist countries, whose happiness levels showed a clear (and understandable) drop after the collapse of communism, and then a steady rise after that, only to flatten out again.
This famous flattening of average happiness levels despite rises in income has been called the Easterlin Paradox, and is perhaps the single most influential graph for happiness economics. It is used, over and over again, as evidence that governments should not be focusing on raising income, but instead on raising happiness.
I asked Easterlin: do any policies have any clear impact on national happiness levels? Perhaps the happiness flatlines we see in country after country is evidence not that we’re pursuing the wrong policies, but simply that our daily happiness levels are not very sensitive to major policy changes. Think about all the different political, economic and cultural changes over the last 50 years in the UK, and yet our happiness levels remain flat. Why is that? I suggest it’s because the measurement technique – asking people to rate their happiness between one and ten – simply isn’t good enough to pick up changes in quality of life over time. We adapt to our situation, and except in moments of extreme crisis, we always say ‘oh, about a seven’.
What do happiness economists expect? Do they think that, if governments pursue the right policies, the public will go from a seven, to an eight, until eventually, after say 30 years, we will all be shouting ‘Ten!’ before ascending in rapture unto heaven? Of course, given such a bounded numerical scale, people are going to say ‘about a seven’, even if their lives have actually got better or worse over time. We forget the bad times, and we also forget the good times. Our daily well-being is probably protected by our forgetfulness and our ability to adapt.
Happiness economists try to get around this by using country comparisons. ‘Look’, said both Oswald and Easterlin, ‘how Scandinavian countries are typically happier than Anglo-Saxon countries. This is because they spend more on health, education and unemployment benefits. If we did the same, we’d be happier.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what they both argued. Now I’m personally all for higher education and health spending. But that sort of cross-country comparison completely ignores cultural differences.
To be convinced, I’d like to see examples within a particular country where particular policies have led to a clear rise or fall in national happiness levels. Do such examples exist, I asked. “Yes”, Easterlin replied. “There are clear links between employment and happiness levels in countries. Unemployment in the US has dropped markedly in the last three years, and happiness levels in 2010 were at their lowest for many years.”
At that point, the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was listening attentively in the audience, joined the debate. He said: “One of the things we’re trying to figure out is the adaptation effects. There’s a new paper out by Angus Deaton, which looks at the effect of the recession of US happiness levels, and it shows that happiness levels are already back to their pre-crisis levels, despite unemployment still being much higher than it was. There’s even evidence that people adapt quite quickly to traumas like losing an arm. So what does that mean for public policy?” (more…)October 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm | More on Cooperation and coherence, Global system, Influence and networks | 2 Comments
Martha Nussbaum has another book out. Does she never sleep? This one is called Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, and looks at the necessity of moving beyond GDP by measuring a broader range of human ‘capabilities’, such as education, health etc. Professor Nussbaum developed the ‘capabilities approach’ together with the Cambridge economist Amartya Sen, who then went on to advise the French government on its launch of national well-being measurements in 2009. But, unlike her former colleague, Nussbaum seems determinedly sceptical about the value or point of national measurements of subjective well-being. She says, in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast:
It’s all a question of what you think happiness is. And this is a question that philosophers have asked for centuries. And the minute that Jeremy Bentham said that we should look at happiness in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, John Stuart Mill immediately said, “Now wait a minute, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And so he then insisted that we had to think about happiness as containing many different kids of experiences, many different kinds of activity. And well, Mill wasn’t the first to say that. He was really getting all of that from Aristotle. So I’m with Mill, and I think that the Benthamite approach, where we just think of happiness as a single feeling, has got very little going for it. If you just think about a daily experience, the pleasure I get from writing is very different from the pleasure that I get from going out and buying a very nice dress. They’re just very different things. And the pleasure that somebody might get from bringing up a child is different again. So I think that’s not a good idea. And I think we should have a much more Millian rather than Benthamite conception of happiness.
Very well, I agree so far. Others – like Charles Seaford of the New Economics Foundation, have noted this contemporary clash in well-being policy between Benthamite and Aristotelian definitions of well-being. The question for Nussbaum is, does she think this more Aristotelian definition of well-being can be measured in individuals or nations using social science? If you look at the list of capabilities Nussbaum came up with, it includes some rather intangible things like ‘play’, ‘practical reason’, ‘senses / imagination’, ‘emotional attachment’, ‘control over one’s environment’. When I say they’re intangible, I’m not denying they exist. But does Nussbaum think these capabilities can be measured for an individual, or for a society? Or does she think this more Aristotelian idea of human flourishing simply isn’t readily measurable using social statistics?
Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).