What Switzerland Can Teach Us About Development

Switzerland fragile statesInternational efforts to help developing countries start with a mental model of how government should be structured. It is based on the most common European model of state building—a model initially developed by France but shared by most countries today. European history did, however, have another model, one that is not well remembered but that may be much more useful for fragile states—the Swiss model. Continue reading

How best to argue for equality: fairness, social outcomes or economic outcomes?

It’s interesting that when progressives argue in favour of redistribution or other policies for greater equality, we tend to base our arguments either on normative ideas about fairness, or on the better social outcomes that we think result (look at The Spirit Level for an example of the latter).

In these straightened times, however, it might be that we’d reach more people with our arguments if we based them a little more on the contribution that much more inclusive growth might be able to make towards economic recovery.

This is the central thrust of an argument put forward by Nick Hanauer, one of the earliest investors in Amazon (who hence has more than a few cents to rub together), in a TED talk that’s now circulating samizdat-style on the web thanks to TED’s decision not to post it online; they thought it was too politically controversial. Here are some highlights from the transcript:

It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and its policies. Consider this one: If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.


Anyone who’s ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a capitalist’s course of last resort, something we do only when increasing customer demand requires it.  In this sense, calling ourselves job creators isn’t just inaccurate, it’s disingenuous.

That’s why our current policies are so upside down. When you have a tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.


Another reason this idea is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the median American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, we go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.

I can’t buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans can’t buy any new clothes or cars or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing consumption of the vast majority of American families that are barely squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or declining wages.

Read the whole thing.

The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

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’. Continue reading

Syria: Annan’s dilemma

Syria kofi annan talks


Kofi Annan’s efforts to pacify Syria face growing criticism. Violence continues and few hope that real peace talks can happen soon.  Diplomats are asking how long Annan can keep going.  In a new piece for Foreign Policy, I set out the dilemma he faces:

The former U.N. Secretary-General has made it clear that he knows his mission is close to failure. But it’s very difficult for him to call the whole thing off. While violence has continued in Syria at what Annan calls “unacceptable” levels, the death-rate has generally been lower than prior to the “ceasefire” he engineered in April. But whoever is attacking the U.N. observers probably wants to foment a full-scale war, and fighting appears not only to be on the rise again but also to be spreading into Lebanon.

If Annan were to quit now — precipitating the withdrawal of U.N. military personnel from Syria — he could risk a further escalation. This presents an ethical dilemma: Is it better for the United Nations to oversee, and arguably provide cover for, the current violence or retreat and open the way for something potentially worse?

Read my full attempt at an answer here.

In praise of Brooklyn

This is a bit of a diversion from the normal Global Dashboard diet, but as a Brooklyn resident I cannot help reproducing parts of a sterling defense of NYC’s better borough from 1946, dredged up by the Paris Review:

Walt Whitman described Brooklyn as “the city of homes and churches.” And it is true. View any Brooklyn-bound rush-hour subway crowd. The workday is at its fever-wracked end. Fathers, husbands, wives and loving children are anxious to reach the comfort and solace of their families. They want to take their ties off and open their collars. They want to get into their slippers. They want to listen to their radios; to laugh with the high-priced comedians, to weep with the maudlin true-life-story actors. To outsmart the experts. And what is happening in Manhattan across the river at the precise moment? Bartenders are setting them up again. Showgirls are tiredly getting into their muslin and crepe de Chine for another gay evening of smiling at out-of-town buyers on the loose. Waiters are moodily turning the table­cloths and breathing on the silver. Man­hattan flexes its muscles for a night of gaudy and artificial fun, while the good burghers in Brooklyn relax and act with quiet dignity like human beings. For Brooklyn has a heritage of culture and charming society to uphold. It was of national importance when men like Henry Ward Beecher mounted the pul­pit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and gave forth a fiery sermon damning slav­ery. The effect is still felt on every young student today, for the colony’s first free public school was opened in Brooklyn in 1661, fathering the modern-day pub­lic-school system in New York City. These are facts not easily overlooked.

Nor is the American premier of the hot dog to be lightly scorned. Here is a delicacy which brings enjoyment to all classes of people—the rich, the needy; the bright; the dull; the beautiful, the plain. Where was this savory social leveler first introduced to America? On a Brooklyn sand bar known as Coney Island, “the world’s largest playground.” A hearty German baker, Charles Feltman, is reputed to have laid the first made-in-America frankfurter tenderly between the fluffy halves of a soft roll, dabbing its succulent body with mustard, back in the happy days circa 1870. To this day, Feltman’s restaurant is renowned for its food and atmosphere.

The piece goes on about how good Brooklyn is for some time, and ends with a fine flourish:

In other, and terser, words, Brooklyn is quite a place. True, like any large community, it has its slums, its shabby and seedy districts, its low-down bars, its smoky and dirty industrial centers, its percentage of honky-tonk, its share of crime and lawlessness. There is as yet no established heaven on earth.

Brooklyn is too big, too virile to be pushed around. And much too proud and accomplished to be ignored by Manhattan. For Brooklyn is the sturdy base upon which frail and flimsy Manhattan rests. And, if in the stealth of a dark and quiet night a bunch of Brooklyn boys were to snip the bridges which shackle Manhattan to us and let the whole dang island float off to sea and destruction, it would serve Manhattan right. It was bought in a crooked deal in the first place.

Syria: war is bad for hotels and fairgrounds

The Syrian government defies belief:

In a letter to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly made public on Thursday, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, said hotel occupancy had dropped from an average of 90 percent before the crisis began in March 2011 to less than 15 percent.

“In the cities and areas where there is tension, the impact of the crisis on the tourism sector has been totally disastrous: tourism activity has come to a complete halt and hotels have ceased to operate,” Ja’afari wrote in the letter dated May 7.

“All restaurants, roadside rest-stops, fairgrounds and other leisure facilities have also had to close,” he said.

Underpants bombs – what next for airport security?

Reading about the underpants bomb episode reminded me of a funny rant on airport security penned by Shashi Tharoor in the FT a few years back when airport security measures were stepped up in response to the ‘Shoe bomber’ incident, with the following prophetic words:

Generals are always fighting the last war, and security screeners are the same. I’m just grateful it was a shoe bomber they were reacting to. What on earth would they do if the next Richard Reid tried to ignite his underwear?

We’ll soon find out… (See the full piece here.)

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