Monthly Archives: March 2001

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Two straws in the wind of changing times. The New York Times reports that residents of Seattle are quite pleased with the slowdown. As one interviewee put it, “It gives the Seattle area some breathing room. It’s got to figure out a way to grow a little more intelligently.”

The Financial Times reviews Adair Turner’s new book Just Capital. Adair sets out to show what I’ve long asserted: much of the world doesn’t want to be like Silicon Valley (read: capitalism red in tooth and claw) and doesn’t need to be. The book was conceived long before markets turned south, but Adair’s analysis is a timely reminder that there are many alternative forms of capitalism.

The notion of the Washington consensus or l’idée unique is looking very tattered.

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Today’s Financial Times has the depressing news that asylum seekers are really a hot political topic in the UK, and not merely a desperate ploy by the Conservatives.

People who come to Britain, or any other wealthy nation, seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable groups in our society. The numbers remain modest, whatever popular opinion may think. What kind of warped political mind wants to make political capital out of this non-issue. Wouldn’t it be encouraging if a politician went on the campaign trail and said, “I want to ensure that we have country that provides a welcome and opportunity for those most in need.” Emma Lazarus said it best (sorry about one of the worst designed pages I’ve seen in a long time).

***Not sorry for the farmers
Britain is in the midst of an appalling crisis in agriculture, as hoof and mouth disease continues to spread. But I’m almost alone in not feeling very sorry for the farmers. In many cases they have brought on this and other problems themselves, by their relentless efforts to cut every conceivable corner in the food production process.

And farmers are virtually alone in modern economies in being insulated from the market. Why was it acceptable to consign coal mining, shipbuilding and textile manufacturer to the dustbin, while agriculture receives massive subsidies? The agricultural subsidies in the 30 OECD economies — the world’s rich nations — are about equivalent to the total GDP of Africa.

For most advanced economies, agriculture is a small part of the economy. For developing countries, it is often one of the few sectors of the economy that stands a chance of being internationally competitive. The rich North should give the poor South the chance to export its food to us.

***Ave Dave
Dave Winer has posted a brilliant analysis of Microsoft’s HailStorm. Read and develop a sense of history.

***Percy is but my factor
When Americans come to London, they go to the theatre. Residents (at least this one) aren’t as determined: familiarity may not breed contempt, but the imperative to organise tickets isn’t as strong.

But last night I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s production of Henry IV, part 1. It was a magnificent production, and I’m eagerly looking forward to part 2 and then Henry V (the RSC is doing all the history plays in chronological order). What’s this got to do with Davos Newbies? There isn’t a better examination of the nature of political ambition, of the dangers of overarching ambition, of the conflict, in Michael Billington’s phrase, between duty and desire.

And there’s the language. I remember from my days studying the English language that the typical author uses a total vocabulary of 3 or 4 thousand words. Shakespeare used 10,000, which is unprecedented among major authors. It’s invidious to select one passage, but I was particularly struck by Prince Hal’s comments on Percy.

“Percy is but my factor, good my lord, to engross up glorious deeds on my behalf, and I will call him to so strict account, that he shall render every glory up, yea even the slightest worship of his time, or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.”

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It’s a strange time to be living in Britain. From one perspective, things could hardly be worse: the railways are still in a pitifully poor state, following the Hatfield crash months ago; the countryside is stalked by bonfires of diseased carcasses; the weather, never anything to write home about, continues to be biblically bad, with incessant rain and floods.

That’s what you would glean from the newspapers (and foreigners are apparently cancelling travel plans to Britain in droves). But everyday experience isn’t like that. The economy continues to flourish, with unemployment below 1 million for the first time in decades, and inflation at near-record lows. And good sense rules in some quarters of government.

That particularly applies to the recent conclusions of the Patent Office on software and business processes. “The Government�s conclusion is thus to reaffirm the principle that patents are for technological innovations. Software should not be patentable where there is no technological innovation, and technological innovations should not cease to be patentable merely because the innovation lies in software.”

Going further, “There is no sign, at least to date, of a want of innovation in computer-implemented business methods, and nor was there in the US before business methods became patentable in 1998. Intense innovation has characterised this field. The Government�s conclusion is that those who favour some form of patentability for business methods have not provided the necessary evidence that it would be likely to increase innovation. Unless and until that evidence is available, ways of doing business should remain unpatentable.”

So the lunacy of the One-Click patent can’t exist in the UK. Hallelujah for (not so) small mercies. Now, if only we can work on getting a more Silicon Valley-like climate, maybe Britain could attract and retain a critical mass of independent developers.

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I’ve always been a city person. So I was heartened to read that my hometown, Chicago, has reversed 50 years of population decline. Although census details are still to come in, Boston, Seattle and Denver are also expected to record population growth.

As I’ve noted before, cities are the great economic engines of the world, both in advanced nations and in the developing economies. For a while, this was an unfashionable viewpoint, but influential thinkers like Michael Porter and Rosabeth Moss Kanter have been singing urban praises for the last few years.

The one dark sign on the horizon is what I anticipate will be something between indifference and antipathy from the Bush administration towards cities. In the near-deadlocked 2000 election, one of the most dramatic gaps (along with the gender gap) was that between urban and suburban areas. I can’t see the Bush administration spending much time on something so far from their electoral heartland.

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The Financial TimesMartin Wolf is not a natural bear. He is a sober, precise economic observer. So people who remain optimistic in the current “downturn” (president Bush’s phrase), may find Martin’s analysis today very sobering.

A few weeks ago, he wrote a generally upbeat analysis. But today he looks at the potential downside, and he believes there is a chance of a global recession. “This then is the nightmare:a huge simultaneous shift in the balance between desired savings and investment of the US and Japan. Since these two economies generate almost 45% of global GDP at market prices, the impact would be a large net reduction in demand for the rest of the world.”

Martin’s concluding advice? “The right policy for individuals is to be aware of the risks. But policymakers must respond. It may prove impossible to avoid the abyss. It should still be possible to stop before the bottom.”

***More on the dismal science
While Martin Wolf may be among the most thoughtful economic writers, Princeton’s Paul Krugman is one of the most enjoyable (and simultaneously thoughtful). Michael Wolff has a trivial but enjoyable interview with the generally gloom Krugman.