From a letter in last week’s Economist from Andrew Carroll, commenting on the Economist’s own description of Clement Atlee
He “lacks the conspicuous attributes of a leader” but “has undeniable ability, judgment and integrity” (“Mr Attlee and Sir A. Sinclair”, November 30th 1935)
Now I know where we have been going wrong.
Specialisation and the division of labour is as old as humanity, and of course it goes way back further when we are talking biology. Adam Smith may have formalised why and how it was important economically but he did not invent it. Most specialisation relies on expertise, at least it used to until Crapita and the like started mining the seams of government ignorance.
The quote below is from an article in the Economist in May this year. It is about Public Health England (PHE) and how since they only possessed 290 contact tracers, they needed to call on those wonderful experts in everything, Serco, to help them out. Of course, expertise in such tasks always used to reside with Local Government, not PHE, but Boris and his bunch of Maoists, when they are not having their eyes tested in the fast lane, have decreed that Local Government — along with the opposition, the judges, the education sector and more — are enemies of the people. Given this mindset, we are left with those whose main area of expertise is commercialising ignorance.
Firms such as Serco, a big contractor, are in talks with the government to provide the workforce. It should be possible to train new recruits fairly quickly—the requirements of the job are similar to those of 111 operators, for whom the training time is just four hours. They will work from a script that guides them through the various stages of an interview [emphasis added].
Awhile back, I ended up corresponding with somebody in the Scottish government about how misleading their self-help pages on skin disease were: they contained factual errors, and would mislead people seeking medical help. The content had clearly not been written by a medical practitioner — defined as somebody with domain clinical expertise and who might have actually dealt with patients by shaking hands with them. Asking for validation studies or some sort of empirical evidence to support the content, was unhelpful as the content was supplied by another agency and was commercially ‘confidential’. I didn’t follow up because the person I corresponded with clearly knew that his own position was both untenable, and uncomfortable. Its just business: you know, ‘new ways of working’, ‘direction of travel’, and all those other vacuous suitcase terms that just mark a space where reason or domain expertise used to reside.
Rather than making clever machines, or allowing humans to do what only humans can do1, it seems we are content to make humans behave as stupidly as Excel spreadsheets. 111 is not for BoJo et al.; 111 is for poor people waiting to be levelled up, even if the best way to do that, is to go to straight to A&E. 2
“Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it.”
Vaclav Havel, quoted by Randy Sullivan via the Economist
I am no fan of Henry Kissinger (an easy statement to make), but the quote below says something worthy of careful consideration.
‘the most fundamental problem of politics… is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness’.
I am not certain where I came across the phrase so beware. If I had made it up I would be even happier.
Someone in your family has fallen ill with a respiratory infection that has already killed large numbers. Your small house means that you do not have enough room to quarantine them. Your have little money, and the hospitals are full. You contact the local public health authority.
Not to worry, you are told: A crew will be by shortly to set up a sturdy, well-ventilated, portable, tiny house in your yard. Once installed, your family member will be free to convalesce in comfort. You can deliver home-cooked meals to their door and communicate through open windows — and a trained nurse will be by for regular examinations. And no, there will be no charge for the house.
A fascinating story by Naomi Klein in the Intercept. Seemingly from a time when government knew what government was for.
This is not a dispatch from some future functional United States, one with a government capable of caring for its people in the midst of spiraling economic carnage and a public health emergency. It’s a dispatch from this country’s past, a time eight decades ago when it similarly found itself in the two-fisted grip of an even deeper economic crisis (the Great Depression), and a surging contagious respiratory illness (tuberculosis).
At the same time, Vox found ways of reaching groups of voters who were disgruntled by other aspects of modern life that the mainstream parties weren’t addressing. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: they do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favourable demographic. New political parties now operate like that: you can bundle together issues, repackage them, and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging – based on exactly the same kind of market research – that you know has worked in other places. The ingredients of Vox were the leftover issues, the ones the others had ignored or underrated, such as opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism; opposition to same-sex marriage; opposition to feminism; opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration… It wasn’t an ideology on offer, it was an identity: carefully curated, packaged for easy consumption, queued up and ready to be “boosted” by a viral campaign.
Anne Applebaum in the Twilight of Democracy. Her description of Boris Johnson — her once fellow traveller — is well worth a read; I am glad the lawyers thought so too.
Today many scientists describe their research as apolitical, but Haldane knew that was impossible: ‘I began to realise that even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.’
From a review in the Economist of a biography of JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian.
Two things to add. Haldane’s paper A Defense of Beanbag Genetics is a personal favourite, but sticking with the genetics theme, I think of politics, and many politicians, as examples of dominant negative mutations.
Yes, a big word. From a review by Martin Wolf of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Just pencil in your favourite organisation or person.
Her theme is not just this split. It is about the role of intellectuals in supporting the would-be despots. In this, she follows Julien Benda, author of a classic book, La trahison des clercs (1927). Benda’s target were the ideologues of his time, whom he accused, in Applebaum’s words, “of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes”.
How did people she knew come to support these new authoritarians? One answer, is “resentment, revenge and envy”. Replacing people of talent and principles with mediocrities who will do anything for success has never been difficult. Finding greedy people happy to join a corrupt new business elite is just as simple. She describes perceptively people who have done such things.
The Economist heaps praise on Ireland’s ability to get its way:
Ireland has a good claim to be the world’s most diplomatically powerful country
We learn that Ireland beat off Canada to win a seat on the UN Security Council but that like Canada Ireland also has ‘a bigger, sometimes boorish, neighbour’.
Alongside more subtle overtures, the push for the Security Council seat [by Ireland] involved free tickets to Riverdance and a U2 gig. The best that Canada could muster was Celine Dion.
John le Carré is one of my favourite authors. There is a wonderful sense of rebellion, coupled with both dismay and hope in his fiction (and non-fiction) writings. Here are a few lines from his speech in Stockholm on 30 January 2020 when he received the Olaf Palme award.
How would Palme wish to be remembered? Well, by this for a start. For his life, not his death. For his humanism, courage, and the breadth and completeness of his humanist vision. As the voice of truth in a world hell-bent on distorting it. By the inspiring, inventive enterprises undertaken yearly by young people in his name.
Is there anything I would like to add to his epitaph? A line by May Sarton that he would have enjoyed: One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.
And how would I like to be remembered? As the man who won the 2019 Olof Palme prize will do me just fine.
Britain’s universities increasingly look like the late Soviet economy, running down their social capital behind a glitzy screen of Potemkin imagery and glasnost-era statistics. Bits of it are locking up, alternately insulted and goaded by the gap between central government diktat and the reality on the ground. The result will be the same: a very long slide into mediocrity and mendacity.
I don’t have any wise prescriptions to dispense. Stephen Downes gets it right when he says “educational providers will one day face an overnight crisis that was 20 years in the making”. But a clue is surely in his choice of words: ‘educational providers’.
He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash.
The above is from a stomach-penetrating piece on the life of Julius Caesar (and not Boris Johnson). I do not know whether it is an effect of age, but perhaps the more one is aware of dying —with or without dignity— the more I find such descriptions, such as the one below, are hard to let go of when you close you eyes with the hope that they might open again.
Unlike most ancient swords, the legionary shortsword, or gladius Hispaniensis, was designed for stabbing, not slashing. While longswords and sabres create horrific, often deadly wounds, even an inch of steel can deliver a lethal puncture – especially given the limits of ancient medicine. Yet as combat instructors know, stabbing another human being at close quarters is much harder than cutting them: we have a psychological block against penetrating others’ bodies in that way, a visceral aversion that must be overcome by stern, psychologically brutalising discipline. Roman legionaries were taught to hurl their spears at the enemy line, then advance with shields held close, plunging their gladii in and out of the men arrayed against them. Units that could stomach this gruelling work against heavily armoured fellow citizens were simply killing machines against the less disciplined and lightly armoured Gauls [emphasis added]
Angus Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.
From an article in the LRB by the historian of science, Steven Shapin. The book under review is The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy Winegard. The story — if you can call it that — is malaria.
There’s a pub quiz question: ‘What’s the deadliest animal?’ Lots of people guess sharks (just four deaths a year), lions (a hundred), or crocodiles (a thousand). The animal that causes the second highest number of human deaths is other humans (475,000), but the answer is the mosquito, at 750,000 deaths, many of them caused by diseases other than malaria.
The subsequent destruction of the Pontine hydraulic works was also an act of war. On the advice of German malariologists, the Wehrmacht, retreating from southern Italy in the winter of 1943-44, flooded the Pontine Marshes with seawater to bring back mosquitoes – and malaria – as an obstacle to the Allied forces who were landing at Anzio, south of Rome, as well as to punish the Italians, who had just switched sides. The outcome of the Battle of Anzio wasn’t much affected by the Nazis’ act of biological warfare – both sides suffered – but it had a marked effect on Italian civilians: in 1939, there were 614 cases of malaria in the area; in 1944, there were 54,929.
The wretched of the earth suffer from underdevelopment, which is both a cause of their malarial afflictions and an effect of malaria. And they suffer from political indifference, as the jobs of prevention and cure have increasingly been off-loaded onto charitable foundations: the Rockefeller Foundation in the early part of the 20th century, then the Gates Foundation, which now spends more on global health than the World Health Organisation. Bill Gates has pointed out repeatedly that more money goes into curing male baldness than into research on the prevention and cure of malaria [emphasis added]. Capitalism is ‘flawed’, he says, and the persistence of malaria is a failure of the marketplace.
The political swamp breeds the inequality and poverty on which malaria thrives; the physical swamp breeds its insect vector. Drain the swamps.
Facts, dear boy. Facts.
The historian Michael Howard once rebuked some gratuitous flourish of this “we did it alone” hubris in the pages of the Daily Telegraph with perhaps the pithiest letter ever sent to any newspaper. It read, in its entirety: “Sir, The only major conflict in which this country has ever “stood alone’’ without an ally on the continent was the War of American Independence in 1776-83. We lost.”
Charlemagne reports on the spat between the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the German Constitutional Court. The latter had accused the former of acting ultra vires in giving support to the bond-buying by the European Central Bank. One view is that national governments tolerate the ECJ and use dissent to any of its decisions for domestic political purposes when it suits (pace the clowns in Number 10). Charlemagne uses a colourful metaphor that some of the clowns might enjoy.
If legislators did not like the court’s actions, they could always change the law. That they hardly ever do suggests that they do not object strongly to the court’s rulings. In this sense the ECJ resembles an S&M dungeon. National governments are happy to be tied up and slapped around in a dimly lit room by people in odd outfits. However, they would prefer not to mention this fact to their jealous spouses back home: domestic courts and domestic voters.
We may be coming to realise that the people who complain about the nanny state are the people who had nannies.
Sarah Neville is the FT reviewing The Nanny State Made Me: A Story of Britain and How to Save It, by Stuart Maconie
There is lots about covid-19 that I do not understand — the biology and all that. But the NHS and government’s responses are something else. I find it hard not to assume that every statement has an ulterior motive: they are, it seems, strangers to the truth. Here is Bruce Schneier (the security guru as the Economist once called him).
“My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value,” Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told BuzzFeed News. “I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? … This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.”
I haven’t blogged about this because I thought it was obvious. But from the tweets and emails I have received, it seems not.
It has nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals is just plain dumb.
Testing, testing and more testing, please.
(Leave quickly. Go far away. Come back slowly.)
Faced with a highly contagious, lethal disease for which there is no known cure, President Donald Trump has ignored that timeless advice.
Instead, like a medieval demagogue, Trump is spouting quackery and hatred straight out of the 14th century, when panicked Europeans confronting the Black Death strapped live chickens to their bodies, drank potions tinged with mercury and arsenic, and blamed the Mongols and the Jews when none of it worked.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, analysts were quick to split the world into the winners and losers of globalisation. On the one side were those furnished with education, open horizons and language skills, who were supposed to thrive in the new order. On the other were those with no such luck, stuck in careers set to be overtaken by innovation. A third category containing southern Europe’s young must be added: globalisation’s pyrrhic victors. These people fulfilled the requirements of the winners’ club, armed with both the mindset and means—even possessing a passport from the EU, the institution that most embodies 21st-century globalisation. Yet thanks to repeated economic shocks, they have singularly failed to reap the expected benefits.
(“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift – look out out kid, they keep it all hid”, Bob Dylan)
Interesting article from a final-year PhD student in Bristol. She writes:
Around one week before lockdown, Public Health England sent a message to UK universities; it needed their help to find PhD students, postdocs and other researchers to carry out diagnostic testing in London.
Despite the urgency of the call, the email didn’t mention pay or whether researchers should have permission from their grant funders to up and leave lab projects. It also omitted any details on accommodation or travel support for those of us living outside the capital…Then, on 2 April, we received another email, apparently from Public Health England (PHE), which was circulated to everyone in our faculty calling on us to join a “scientific reserve to support regional Covid-19 testing operations”.
The email cautioned that the work would be hard, and would require ‘five or seven day on/off shift patterns with long shifts’. No mention again of whether funders approved. Are the companies that provide testing or the reagents for testing getting paid, I wonder? She speculates as to whether the government will be generous to her and others like her in the coming economic crisis.
My assumption is probably not: it will ask us to get ourselves in debt to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds to get the skills the country needs, but not pay us to work once we have them.
Still sounds very familiar.
During the Napoleonic Wars, newspapers were allowed to read and reprint naval and military dispatches in return for carrying ‘paragraphs agreeable to the Ministry’. Today, as Norton-Taylor reminds us, Whitehall departments still run their own gentlemanly lobbies in which selected hacks are allowed to see confidential papers and hear civil servants’ unexpurgated thoughts on policy, but only so long as the journalists ‘play by the rules’ and write only what their host-official permits. The lobby system, with the Number Ten lobby at its apex, smoothly controls and shapes the outflow of official information to the public. Opposition leaders are frequently gagged by briefings given on Privy Council terms.
Neal Ascherson · Secrets are like sex: Whitehall Spookery · LRB 21 March 2020
Daniel S. Greenberg (1931–2020) has died. Nice obituary about him and why he mattered in this week’s Science.
At the time, the idea of a journalist-written section in a publication devoted to publishing research papers was highly unusual, and so was the approach that Dan and his team took. They covered basic research policy in much the same way a business reporter would cover development of economic policy: as a set of competing interests…[emphasis added].
However, it was not greeted with universal enthusiasm. In a preface to the second edition, Dan noted that it sparked “reactions that flowed from the belief that the scientific community should be exempt from the types of journalistic inquiries that are commonplace to other segments of our society.” He called that attitude “nonsense.”
The millennial generation — the first to have lived entirely inside the mature meritocracy — appreciates these burdens most keenly. Elite millennials can be precious and fragile, but not in the manner of the special snowflakes that derisive polemics describe. They do not melt or wilt at every challenge to their privilege, so much as shatter under the intense competitive pressures to achieve that dominate their lives. They are neither dissolute not decadent, but rather tense and exhausted.
The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits.
(“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift – look out out kid, they keep it all hid”, Bob Dylan)
I have been reading the ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Micheal Lewis. It is a book for out time, telling many stories about how competent governments can be. Or not, as is increasingly the case in many modern states. We can blame a group of ideologues for our current crisis. A quote about the book by Cory Doctorow (in the frontispiece) strikes the right tone. The book he says is:
‘A hymn to the “deep state,” which is revealed as nothing more than people who know what they’re talking about’
The article is about government secrecy and obfuscation (“ I quite simply misled myself”) (a review in the London Review of Books of The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, by Richard Norton-Taylor)
His second point, desperately urgent in these early months of Boris Johnson’s administration, is that the law has often stood up for open government and rejected the establishment’s ingrained secrecy. Most people probably assume that when a government decision lands before a court, the judges move to the bench with a bucket of Cabinet Office whitewash ready beside their chairs. This has often been true in the past. Now it is not.
One can but only hope that the whitewash is less scarce than protection.
In one of Paul Graham’s essays, he writes about the relation between a thriving society and how parents behave (he does not use these terms). He argues that whilst it is natural for parents to seek advantage for their (own) children, in the interests of efficiency, society should try to to limit this tendency. I agree but the details matter.
In the LRB there is a review written by Adam Swift of a few books that deal with this topic. And for those who like to sell higher educationhigher education, the review makes uncomfortable reading.
Education, which promised to be the solvent that would lessen the class structure, has become an effective means of preserving it.
That used not to be obvious to me. Swift however pulls out a lovely quote that illuminates much of the smug complacency shown by some of the ‘educated classes’ and how they see the world. Many of our current political troubles have cognate origins.
Robin Cook’s memoir repeats a story told by a journalist to Roy Hattersley. Tony Blair, asked why he had sent his son Euan to the Oratory, despite the inevitable political flak, said: ‘Look at Harold Wilson’s children.’ The journalist demurred: one of Wilson’s sons had become a headmaster, the other a university professor. Blair replied that he certainly hoped his children would do better than that.
Dr Chris Day writes:
Two weeks ago, I swabbed my first positive Covid-19 patient during an A&E Locum shift. I must say back then, I hadn’t fully taken in what we as a country will have to face over the coming months. The reports from colleagues in Italy and China are beyond belief.
The UK has been left to fight Covid-19 with half the Intensive Care beds per capita of Italy. Back in 2014, the trigger for my whistleblowing case was my attempt to try and secure more ICU resources for South East London (see Private Eye).
Instead of spending 5 years and £700k fighting /smearing me and damaging whistleblowing law, the NHS could have just fixed the problem. There has never been a more important time for the public and the politicians to understand Intensive Care resourcing and what is decided on their behalf by NHS leaders.
But most of Case and Deaton’s ire focuses on the health care industry, which not only underperforms but is also wrecking the US economy. We [USA] spend twice per capita what France spends on health care, but our life expectancy is four years shorter, our rates of maternal and infant death are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, we leave 30 million people uninsured. The amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy, Case and Deaton write, than the Versailles treaty reparations did on Germany’s in the 1920s. If, decades ago, we’d built a health system like Switzerland’s, which costs 30 percent less per capita than ours does, we’d now have an extra trillion dollars a year to spend, for example, on replacing the pipes in the nearly four thousand US counties where lead levels in drinking water exceed those of Flint, Michigan, and on rebuilding America’s bridges railroads, and highways—now so rundown that FedEx replaces delivery van tires twice as often as it did twenty years ago.
In the US, health insurance accounts for 60 percent of the cost of hiring a low-wage worker. Many employers opt instead to hire contract workers with no benefits, or illegal immigrants with no rights at all.