Monthly Archives: September 2002

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Working life 

A long time ago, I started my working life as an architectural critic. I’ve moved on, but the built environment and how it affects us is something in which I retain a deep interest.

So the opening of the refurbished Treasury here in London yesterday caught my eye. Sir Alan Budd, a former chief economic adviser, described the grubbiness of the previous offices to the Financial Times: “I took this as a sign to discourage anybody from asking for money. The building set the tone of the Treasury’s official austerity.”

That kind of tone is widely applauded in many business circles. When I moved from writing about architecture to writing about business, I would frequently encounter companies that were proud of their bare-bones offices (in fact, I worked for two such companies). There’s nothing great about extravagance, of course, and analysts are probably right that a lavish new headquarters is generally a sell signal. But I think there is everything right when an organisation tries to create a decent, enjoyable working environment for the place where people spend one-third of their life.

At the renovated Treasury, open plan offices and glass partitions have taken the place of dark, grubby corridors. Various experts in the FT opine that staff will have a difficult time adjusting to an open environment.

That might be true, but I equally believe that people generally work better in an open environment, so long as there is somewhere they can retreat to when they need quiet. The most inspiring office I ever visited was Centraal Beheer in Apeldoorn by Hermann Hertzberger. I can’t say there was anything beautiful about the architecture, but the offices felt like a lively, main street in an Italian hill town. The informal conversation and meetings that make for organisational dynamism were integral to the design.

I don’t think the Treasury is going to be Centraal Beheer, but it should be a more pleasant place to work.

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Yesterday in Parliament 

Yesterday’s emergency parliamentary session on Iraq lasted for 11 hours. I can’t claim to have listened to all of it, but what I heard was a good advertisement both for democracy and the parliamentary system.

I’m sometimes sceptical of the system, where individual MPs have far less power than individual congressmen. It’s a because of resources (MPs don’t have the staffs that can make good representatives and senators so effective), institutional design (parliamentary committees, although improved, don’t have the heft of congressional committees) and the power of the whips (in most votes, just about everyone toes the party line here, unlike in the US where shifting coalitions are the order of the day).

In its favour, however, is that ministers — including the prime minister — have to stand up and speak for themselves. Tony Blair was in particularly devastating form yesterday (although it’s fun to read Simon Hoggart’s witty take on the day). As Nick Sweeney comments, it was “forensic, generally well-mannered, incisive, grave”. Presidents can, and almost invariably do, avoid the kind of sustained questioning Blair faced yesterday.

They also seem to avoid laying out a case. On last night’s BBC news, the Washington correspondent explained, “Presidents don’t do dossiers.”

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Listen now 

It’s well worth listening now to the parliamentary debate on Iraq. A good example of democracy.

With friends like these 

A friend sent me a puzzle. “If Gustavus Adolphus gloriose pugnans moritur in what year was the battle of Lützen?”

It was easy enough to find out about the battle of Lützen. That’s what Google is for, after all. But the puzzle?

“It’s a chronogram. Old inscriptions are full of them.” gVstaVVs aDoLphVs gLorIose pVgnans MorItVr produces 5+5+5+500+50+5+50+1+5+1000+1+5 = 1632.

Browsing around for chronograms turned up this astounding page of 1998 chronograms by Harry Mathews. I liked “In Tirana, inept Hussein is paying fifty-eight qintars to fortify his Istrian wine with Bosnian raki”. Mathews himself has led an interesting life. Hold on: that page is a single chronogram, not a series of them. Look closely and you’ll see that Mathews uses no Ms, Ds, Cs, Ls, Xs or Vs, just Is.

It’s not surprising given he worked with Georges Perec, whose 1969 novel La Disparation doesn’t have a single “e” in it.

The dossier 

The UK government has published its 55-page dossier on Saddam, entitled Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Downing Street website seems to be buckling under the strain, but you can read the full dossier at the BBC (pdf alert).

The introduction from Tony Blair states, “The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding he stops his WMD programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with this programme; that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly; and that if he refuses, or if he makes it impossible for them to do their job, as he has done in the past, the international community will have to act.”

The BBC has done a good summary, as well as a quick analysis (the report was issued at 8am London time). The analysis takes quite a sceptical view: “In other words, Saddam really is a very bad man indeed and should not be trusted an inch. Taken together, all this may well be enough to sway some doubters, but hard-line dissidents are unlikely to be moved. What the document entirely fails to do — and possibly could never have done — is show that Saddam Hussein is a current threat, or what his future intentions are.”

The House of Commons debate later this morning should prove interesting listening.

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Why not Greece? 

Brad DeLong has some interesting thoughts on why ancient Greece didn’t have an industrial revolution. The comments are well worth following as well.

What can they be thinking? 

There was an enormous demonstration in London yesterday, allegedly in favour of “liberty and livelihood”. I have nothing against the countryside (well, not much), but I thought the Countryside Alliance protest verged on the absurd.

Far from being neglected, farmers in the UK benefit from £3 billion in direct subsidies every year. It is certainly sad that rural livelihoods are threatened, but it was sad as well that coal miners, textile workers and shipyard workers in the UK could no longer compete internationally. Fortunately, the economy overall has proved robust enough to provide alternatives in many cases. Why should farmers be a special group?

It’s not as though the problems of the countryside are unique. Cities and towns have plenty of problems, too. Apparently, the state spends about 20% more a head on public services for town dwellers, but this is easily accounted for both by the extra costs in the city (particularly London), and the greater range of problems, spanning from urban deprivation to providing for the vastly more diverse population of the towns.

Worse, although organisers claim the march was about much more, the real impetus behind the gathering was desperation to save blood sports, notably fox hunting. I personally don’t think hunting is much of an issue — I’d rather government time and resources went to things that really matter. But the reality is that a democratic majority in this country — as expressed through a representative system — wants to see the end of fox hunting. I’m sure there were people distressed at the time when bear baiting and cock fighting were outlawed.

So the march is really about resentment that there is an overwhelming Labour majority. Most of the 400,000 people on the streets yesterday think the natural order of things is Conservative (it’s reminiscent of the passion of the anti-Clinton crowd in the US for eight years — they couldn’t accept that he won two elections). The nadir of the affair is the front page banner headline in today’s Daily Telegraph: “407,791 voices cry freedom“. Do they really think this is an equivalent fight to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa?

Hutton on the euro 

Will Hutton discerns a fundamental change in euro policy that I haven’t seen commented on elsewhere.

He believes that the Growth and Stability Pact, which is in desperate trouble, could be scrapped. In its place would come a system similar to the one operating in Britain, where the central bank operates an active monetary policy within an inflation target set by government. Finance ministers would set budgets with a view across an entire economic cycle, rather than determined to achieve balance in any one year.

Hutton calls it “contemporary Keynesianism for Europe around the British model”. If true, I agree with Hutton that it would alter the terms of the euro debate within the UK. I think those implacably opposed, and they are many, would probably not be swayed, but it might push some people off the fence towards the euro.

Globalisation redux 

There have been times when I’ve thought Tom Friedman took too simplistic a view of globalisation. But I think his weekend column is absolutely on the mark.

“The debate about globalization before 9/11 got really stupid. Two simple truths got lost: One, globalization has its upsides and downsides, but countries that come at it with the right institutions and governance can get the best out of it and cushion the worst. Two, countries that are globalizing sensibly but steadily are also the ones that are becoming politically more open, with more opportunities for their people, and with a young generation more interested in joining the world system than blowing it up.”

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Literary votes 

How would Mr Toad (and others) vote? On this analysis, only Harry Potter is New Labour.

Albatross 

There’s some extraordinary information about albatrosses in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (the article is not yet posted on the site).

Some albatrosses may live beyond 60, “leading researchers to postulate that the average albatross will travel more than 3.7 million miles in a lifetime”. “Parents have been known to complete a global circumnavigation just to provide a feed for a chick.”

This is all gleaned from Eye of the Albatross, which sounds well worth a read.

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Look away now 

Other than those that are paid to do so (economists and fund managers), not many people are paying attention to the continuing train wreck of the Japanese economy. Japan is, after all, the second largest economy in the world and its travails have a global impact.

The latest act in the long-running drama was yesterday’s announcement by the Bank of Japan that it would buy shares owned by commercial banks. Here’s a sampling of the milder reactions:

“Yesterday, Japan sailed into the zone marked: here be dragons.” David Pilling in the Financial Times.

“The bank has never done anything like this in its 120-year history. Today, it has decided of its own free will to cross the Rubicon.” Nobuyuki Nakahara, until March a member of the BoJ’s policy board.

Remember that just last week, Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the US council of economic advisers, said, “When I say this [the bad assets in Japan's financial system] is a large problem, this is a very large problem.”

When I was editor of World Link, in 1998 we ran a cover story of which I was rather proud on Japan’s crash and rebirth. The thesis was that the economy needed the drama of a true crash to spur the necessary reforms for a renaissance. I think it still looks true today. The slow motion failure of the Japanese economy hasn’t, against many observers’ judgements, produced the necessary impetus for reform. I can’t say the day for change is any closer now.

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The undeterrables 

Tom Friedman reckons the Bush administration has the argument against Saddam the wrong way around. “I am for invading Iraq only if we think that doing so can bring about regime change and democratization. Because what the Arab world desperately needs is a model that works — a progressive Arab regime that by its sheer existence would create pressure and inspiration for gradual democratization and modernization around the region.”

Tom has been banging the drum for democratisation and modernisation in the Arab world for some time. I wish I had greater belief that someone in the administration was listening.

Not economics 

John Plender makes an important point in the Financial Times (no link, because it’s subscribers only): “The response of many 21st-century business people to Enron, WorldCom and other scandals, has been to highlight the reputational risk posed to companies and shareholders by poor ethics. They applaud good behaviour not because it is right but because it pays.”

Echoing New York Fed chief Bill McDonough, Plender argues that morality is just right. Incidentally, it makes economic sense.

I had a barney with an economist at the Hayman Leadership Retreat in Australia last week. I was speaking on a panel about education and he launched into a diatribe about how the education sector justified its restrictive practices just as the textile industry used to do. If foreign competition (this was in the context of higher education) meant Australia’s universities couldn’t compete, so be it.

As so often happens in these situations, the educators launched into economic justifications of what they do. I took a different tack. I don’t care whether education produces zero benefit to economic growth or productivity. That’s not what it’s for. Education is a good in and of itself, that has incalculable benefits for both individuals and societies.

Similarly, as Plender and McDonough point out, we should all exercise good moral and ethical standards whatever the economic impact.

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Pandora’s box 

It’s hard to disagree with Nicholas Kristof’s argument in The New York Times that “cookbooks” for weapons of mass destruction should be banned. “We need to confront the consequences of our own information proliferation. Our small presses could end up helping terrorists much more than Saddam ever has.”

I’m not an absolutist on civil liberties. There’s no reason why people should be allowed to publish and disseminate information solely designed to help people kill other people.

Kristof notes that the cookbooks are getting more and more accurate. But he misses the point that the widespread availability of this kind of information is inevitable as science and technology progress. Students in university biology labs routinely do procedures now that were on the absolute limit of possibility not many years ago. Drawing a linear extrapolation is always dangerous, but it won’t take much in the way of technological development for undergraduates or even high schoolers to have ready access to the equipment that could fashion bioweapons.

The same equipment is used legitimately for understanding viruses and genetics. It’s not as though one path leads to benign uses of technology and another to malign ones. Kristof’s desire to stem proliferation of loathsome weapons is right, but limiting information is a losing battle.

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Politics and war 

I’m not by nature cynical (I am sceptical, which is an entirely different matter). But it’s hard to dismiss out of hand the charges that the administration’s urgency on Iraq is not tied to the electoral calendar.

Consider president Bush on Friday: “If I were running for office, I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people — say, vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I’m going to wait for somebody else to act.” As The Washington Post points out, “Two weeks ago, the headlines were about a lethargic economy, a depressed stock market and corporate misdeeds; the news about Iraq was about policy disagreements among Bush advisers. Now, the debate has shifted almost entirely from Democrats’ preferred domestic issues to preparations for military action, a GOP favorite.”

I actually don’t think the mid-term elections are the primary motivation for the administration. But they are, after all, professional politicians and I wouldn’t be surprised (even if I would be a bit disheartened) if political calculations crossed their minds on this as on all issues. Maureen Dowd, as so often these days, gets the balance about right.

Licence to watch 

I received my latest television licence today. Like most people in the UK, I don’t really think about the TV licence, but for some reason this morning I actually read the licence. It has this wonderful phrase: “Keep your validated licence in a safe place. It is your proof you are licensed to watch television.”

I think the licensing system is a good way to fund the BBC, which deserves the money and more. But it is bizarre to think I need to be licensed to watch television.

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Hawks and moderates 

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker has one of the best analyses of the Bush administration’s war thinking that I’ve read (given how useless The New Yorker website is, I suspect the link will rot in time).

“Washington’s attitude toward the hawks seems to be official disapproval tinged with sneaking admiration. They have an incaution that usually makes holding office impossible, and yet they have gained high-ranking jobs and kept them. Their operational persistence and their intellectual boldness give them disproportionate influence — the origins of just about all of Bush’s doctrinal statements over the last year clearly can be traced to the hawks.”

One view from the US 

Dave Winer offers his view from the US: ” I’m in the US. I am against the US going to war with Iraq. Saddam has had chemical and biological weapons for a long time. Nothing new there.”

Open debate 

Yesterday I remarked on what seems to be the absence of open debate in the US over the wisdom of going to war with Iraq. A friend responded by saying, “This is because of censorship or self-censorship in the US media, and fears of programme sponsors. And the sanitising tendency in US media.”

I’m not so sure there is conscious censorship of this nature. What I suspect is equally troubling: that the editors and producers don’t even admit the possibility of alternative views. (Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post has a good summary of coverage of the UN speech.) It also seems to contradict the evidence I pick up from the US. Polls show a majority opposed to unilateral military action, with a majority in favour, provided there is UN endorsement. And although the expressed differences are muted, there are some in Congress who have indicated they are at odds with the administration.

It’s a particularly piquant contrast to the situation here in the UK. Tony Blair has been, on a global scale, president Bush’s strongest supporter. But it’s not winning him many friends at home. Blair is working hard to keep his followers and public opinion behind his line. The House of Commons debate planned for 24 September promises to be a charged event, since a good number of Labour members have come out strongly opposed to military action.

A lot is riding, therefore, on the dossier of evidence the prime minister plans to release. It’s ironic, given the US lead on the issue and the US tradition of comparative openness, that we may well see the most comprehensive case against Saddam issue from London and not Washington.