Monthly Archives: March 2003

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Djindjic assassinated  

Bad news from the Balkans today. Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in front of government offices in Belgrade. He had survived another assassination attempt last month. Djindjic as much as anyone has been responsible for pulling Serbia out of the black hole of the Milosevic years.

Rumsfeld  

I claim no particular expertise in interpreting Donald Rumsfeld (although he was my representative in Congress in the ’60s and we share our alma mater), but I think both British Politics and Stephen Pollard have it largely correct: he was being nice to a valued ally. The only other explanation that I’ve seen that makes some sense is that, in his usual non-diplomatic way, Rumsfeld was firing a shot across the British government’s bows. You may be having a tough time sticking with us, he was saying, but I can make it tougher still if you think you’re going to slink away. In an odd way, I think that’s Rumsfeld’s way of being nice.

The immediate response of Downing Street, and the subsequent retraction by the Pentagon, shows there is no prospect of the UK not standing shoulder to shoulder with the US.

Talking it up 

Edward Hugh notes two senior officials determined to talk up the economy. He rightly berates US treasury secretary John Snow for becoming a stock market seer, but he reckons IMF managing director Horst Koehler is doing is job in being cautiously optimistic about the world economy. I side with Hugh’s gloomier conclusion: “it’s difficult to see a global economy firing on only one cylinder pushing forward a sustained expansion”.

Physics-based industry 

The UK’s Institute of Physics has issued a generally upbeat report on what it calls PBIs — physics-based industry. I was interested until I read the summary, which claims that 43% of UK manufacturing employment was in PBIs. To reach such a number, the institute has to be taking the broadest possible interpretation of what it means to be phyics-based, which undercuts much of the argument.

The report seems to be advocating a pile it high, sell it cheap approach to encouraging science. More physicists must be good. That’s not necessarily so. When I was working on the relationship between science and society in the UK last year, Bob May, president of the Royal Society, told me that the UK has 70 PhD programmes in physics, compared to 140 in the US. To his mind, this wasn’t good. Far better to have ten world-class PhD programmes than six dozen also-rans.

Maintaining standards  

Rogue Semiotics, a fellow south-east London weblog, reckons he whiles away too much time both writing and reading blogs. He cites Davos Newbies and British Politics as two blogs that are far more “proper, engaged” and grown-up than his own. I’ll try to maintain those high standards.

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Another French view 

Dominique Moisi has long been one of the most nuanced of French geopolitical analysts, even if in the French context he is often branded as excessively Atlanticist. In the Financial Times he calls for a radically altered stance from the French government.

“War is now inevitable. Instead of trying to stand in its way, Europe should try to limit the damage. Europe’s leaders should work together and with the Americans to preserve European unity and shield the transatlantic alliance from the effects of the crisis. We have been burning too many bridges; it is time to start rebuilding them.”

On the same page (although hidden behind a subscriber-only wall) Philip Stephens reckons matters have spun out of control for both sides of the current European divide. “Mr Blair and Jacques Chirac share the same ambition to constrain American power. They want a US willing to temper its unique primacy with respect for the wishes and judgments of its allies — and for an international rule of law. The divide is over tactics. The British prime minister believes that the US must be chained into the international system now. Mr CHirac has concluded that the system is not worth saving if it is so blatantly an instrument of American hegemony¬Ö Mr Bush will win his war. Mr Blair and Mr Chirac will both be losers.”

Not modern  

Arnold Schoenberg: “My music is not modern; it is only badly played.”

Different models  

There’s been an enormous amount of comment on two recently posted documents: World of Ends, by Doc Searls and David Weinberger, and The Pentagon’s New Map, by Thomas Barnett. I’m still digesting World of Ends. On the New Map, I agree that it’s largely a cogent restating of what has already been amply documented about the new strategic doctrine of the Bush administration.

Fascinatingly, Tom Coates has linked the two together, to ask whether regulation of the freedoms of the global economy is analogous to regulation of the freedoms of the Internet. As someone who believes in the largely positive effects of globalisation, I’m not sure I agree with Coates’s premise, but I find the connection he has spotted envigorating. Particularly worth noting is Doc Searls’s comment on Coates’s site about the Strict Father morality of the US government today (third comment down — there’s no permalink to comments).

Horizontal v vertical prayer  

Roger Ebert (of all people): “Under Bush we have had a great deal of horizontal prayer, in which we evoke the deity at political events to send the sideways message that our enemies had better look out, because God is on our side.”

Small point  

Headline in today’s New York Times: A Senior Aide to Blair Says She May Quit. Of course it demonstrates the Times’s archaic headline style, but how could anyone describe a cabinet minister as an aide? Would they write about Colin Powell as a senior aide to Bush?

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Happiness  

Polly Toynbee suggests policy makers turn their sights from the cruder economic measures to happiness. “Imagine if they abandoned all other targets and adopted just the one — to increase the sum of national felicity. Budget day would no longer be the big event, it would instead be replaced with hedonic measurement day.”

Her column is based on lectures this week by economist Richard Layard. PDFs of the three lectures are available from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance.

I know from my government policy work, incidentally, that the subject of happiness is interesting a lot of policy wonks close to Downing Street. It’s tied to the pursuit of ideas about social capital, popularised by Robert Putnam. One of the key issues is finding effective ways to translate understandable objectives — like increasing happiness in society — into concrete policy actions. Layard seems to have provided some valuable suggestions.

Enough  

At this year’s Davos meeting, there was a session entitled, How Much is Too Much, about executive pay. When people at the Forum were still listening to me, I suggested it be retitled, How Much is Enough, since everyone knows that the ridiculous sums paid to most CEOs are too much. Needless to say, they didn’t change the title.

My thoughts stray back to this on the reports that Frank Quattrone, the former CSFB Silicon Valley banker, raked in $200 million for his endeavours from 1998 to 2000. I’m not usually one to rail about fat cats and executive greed, but that sort of sum is obscene for a corporate advisor. I don’t begrudge the fortunes of people who actually create new businesses and industries, but too much is too much. Shouldn’t people be content with enough?

My experience may be atypical, but I can’t recall meeting any truly talented person that was motivated by money. Ambition, yes. Power, yes. Challenge, yes. Ego, yes. For all the good people I’ve known, money was just a byproduct of success. It wasn’t the key factor that led them to excel. Don’t you think that most people in commanding positions — CEOs or, like Quattrone, heads of major banking operations — would do the job just for kicks (and some reasonable sum, so they could live in a nice house and take nice vacations). I can’t see the CEO of any major corporation walking away from the job because he or she wasn’t paid multimillions.

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Welcome back  

The excellent British Politics weblog has returned, after a self-enforced hiatus. The anonymous author declares, “To adapt Juvenal, It’s hard not to write a blog.” (Davos Newbies readers of course recognise the reference to Juvenal’s first satire, Difficile est saturam non scribere — it’s hard not to write satire.)

Dictators  

“Never trust a chief of state in sunglasses.” Harrison Salisbury quoted by Adam Hochschild in the Times Literary Supplement.

American and Islam 

I take issue with some of Tim Garton-Ash’s argument in today’s Guardian, notably his characterisation of “evangelical Darwinism”. But his observations on the nature of America’s religious belief are right on target.

“The leap of imaginative sympathy from Christianity or Judaism to Islam is much smaller than that from evangelical secularism to any of them. That’s why America, which has preserved the religious imagination it imported from Europe, may actually be better placed to accept the Islamic other. That’s not all. America has a rare combination of religious imagination and an inclusive, civic identity. Europe has a fateful combination of secular imagination and exclusive, ethnic identities.”

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Where people live 

Global population distribution: Based on population estimates from 1994, when global population was 5.5 billion. It is estimated to be 6.3 billion today

Kouchner on Iraq  

Chris Bertram at Junius has translated an important interview with Bernard Kouchner from Le Monde. Kouchner was a founder of Medecins sans Frontieres and former French health minister.

“I detest war, of which I have more experience than anyone, over a 40-year period. War is a really bad solution. But there is a worse one. That’s to leave in place a dictator who massacres his people. I wish that we might hear the most important protagonist in this crisis, the most directly threatened: the people of Iraq who are subjected to dictatorship.”

Depopulation  

The population decline of Europe (and of Japan) is clearly going to have dramatic consequences in the coming decades. Oxford’s Stein Ringen provides a worrying analysis in the Times Literary Supplement (only part of the story is on the web) and Martin Wolf offers some policy suggestions in the Financial Times (subscribers only).

By 2050, the European population is predicted by the UN Population Fund to be down to 600 million, from 725 million today (those figures include estimates for immigration). If the trend continues, Europe would be down to 475 million by the end of the century.

The scale of this goes beyond decline; Ringen terms it a “population collapse”. As both Ringen and Wolf point out, it is likely to spell the end of economic growth. Ringen extends this disturbingly. “In three centuries of progress, Europe has produced an outstandingly rich culture of architecture, art, literature, music, freedom and democracy. What happens if Europe falls into economic decline? Will there be a surplus from which architecture and art can be commissioned? Will governments be able to support museums, operas, theatres and orchestras? What will happen to attitudes, confidence and trust? Will we be able to afford freedom? Will democracy survive if economies collapse?”

Wolf suggests four steps: “public resources must be shifted from helping the old to assisting families with children”; “as part of pension reform, there must be an across-the-board attack on obstacles to higher labour force participation, particularly by people over 60 years of age”; “obstacles to productivity growth must be removed”; and “immigration must be managed”.

Ringen echoes these prescriptions, but he isn’t optimistic about their effect. Encouraging bigger families would probably mean lowering female participation in the workforce, which would run counter to decades of societal transformation. He notes that Sweden, which instituted family-friendly policies well in advance of the looming crisis, has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.

On immigration Ringen writes, “To think we can solve our population problem by immigartion is superficial and careless. There is something disturbingly arrogant in seeing the rest of the world as available for Europe to harvest for our needs.” He goes on to note that “serious demography does not envisage immigration to make up for low birth rates”.

Ringen isn’t, however, providing a counsel of despair. “While it may not be the answer to Europe’s population problem, Europeans need to embrace the fact that the world’s people are on the move. The future belongs to dynamic mixed-population societies. Europe is allowing itself to grow old in structures and mindsets. It would make matters worse if we were to shut ourselves off from the vibrant community of transnationalism. That is a matter of opening up borders, of course, but that we can only do if we learn to want to change and escape from our fear of what is young in today’s world.”

Better poets  

The left may not be very good at creating talk radio hosts, but it’s a damn sight better at poetry.

According to the Today programme, Poets Against the War has signed up 12,000 participants. The rival Poets for the War has 69. Whatever your politics, any literary sense will send you fleeing to the doves for your poetry. Today is an international day of poetry against the war and the UK poets are delivering a petition with 10,000 anti-war poems to Tony Blair.

Etzioni weblog  

This is exciting. Amitai Etzioni, the sociologist responsible for developing communitarian thinking, has started a weblog, where he plans to post personal and communitarian reflections. Amitai was spurred after meeting, in fairly rapid succession, Larry Lessig and Eugene Volokh.

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More exceptionalism  

Nicholas Kristof has a perceptive column on the gap in understanding about a contemporary American phenomenon — the rise in evangelical Christianity. I’m particularly depressed by the continuing hold of creationism.

“President Bush has said that he doesn’t believe in evolution (he thinks the jury is still out). President Ronald Reagan felt the same way, and such views are typically American. A new Gallup poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe in creationism, and only 28 percent in evolution (most of the rest aren’t sure or lean toward creationism). According to recent Gallup Tuesday briefings, Americans are more than twice as likely to believe in the devil (68 percent) as in evolution.”

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Turkey  

Joshua Micah Marshall has it right.

“The more I think about this Turkish rejection of US troops the bigger a deal it looks like. Perhaps it can be salvaged next week, though that seems unclear. But if you want some evidence of this administration’s diplomatic incompetence, consider this. We publicly sold out the Kurds to get this deal. We really should have made sure we had a deal before we tipped our hands to the Kurds about the price we were willing to pay for it. Now we have no deal and no Kurds.”

Incidentally, I think the current lead story in The New York Times, Turkey will seek a second decision, seems unlikely. Far more probable is the line suggested by a quote from The Guardian: “The motion has been postponed indefinitely, there is no motion in the foreseeable future.” The relatively new ruling Justice and Development party absolutely wants to avoid losing a second vote on such an important matter, which in a parliamentary system would look an awful like a vote of no confidence.

History of graphs 

Via Richard Gayle, I came across this wonderful study of the history of graphs. I’m surprised by how recent an invention they seem to be. “Graphs began to appear around 1770 and became common only around 1820. They appeared in three different places, probably independently. These three places were the statistical atlases of William Playfair, the indicator diagrams of James Watt, and the writings of Johann Heinrich Lambert.”