Monthly Archives: June 2007

Gordon Brown, intellectual

Prospect Magazine has all the goods.

I liked this description of Brown’s meeting with Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter:

As Brown commented in detail on the ceramics industries of northern Italy and machine tool industries in Germany, it gradually dawned on me that he knew more about the book’s detail than the author. Porter was fine on the broad brush, but vague when the discussion turned to real examples. (The mystery was explained by the book’s acknowledgements, which mentioned some 50 researchers who had helped to write it.)

Tennis and politics

A rare combination of two of my interests in Kamakshi Tandon’s clever The Long Goodbye. I particularly enjoyed reading Andy Roddick’s reaction to the coverage of Tony Blair leaving Downing Street (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write): “When I woke up the televised the moving van was literally pulling up, and they followed the moving van down the street when he’s moving his crap out,” said Roddick. “I watched about ten minutes of the aerial shot of the moving van coming down the street. I thought that was, um, enthralling.”

Gordon Brown: a guide for newbies

Gordon Brown and Sarah Macaulay enter 10 Downing Street
Most Americans who follow politics think they have a pretty good bead on Tony Blair. His ten years in office and his shoulder-to-shoulder act with George Bush put him in a league with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as recognizable prime ministers in the US. I’m regularly surprised by the number of friends I meet who say something on the order of, “I was skeptical about going to war with Iraq but Tony Blair swayed me.” A judgment they all regret, although Blair himself doesn’t seem to.

But what should Americans know about the new prime minister, Gordon Brown? I have no special inside knowledge, but I did live for 27 years in England and I spent a little time involved in Downing Street as an adviser to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2001-02. Here’s my take.

Brown lacks Blair’s superb communication skills. He’s not inarticulate, which would be unthinkable for a leading politician in Britain. But he won’t achieve anything with honeyed words. I think his comparative lack of charisma and smoothness will be a success in post-Blair Britain. The old-fashioned nature of Brown after the newness of Blair will be a good thing. Blair sadly lost the trust of many people thanks to the tragic error of Iraq. Brown will restore trust.

While Brown trails Blair in communications, he excels him in intellect. Blair is certainly very bright and has a barrister’s ability to absorb a complex brief quickly and ask pointed questions about it. But Brown is a truly powerful intellect and is known to be a bit of an intellectual bully as well. One of the interesting questions about the Brown premiership will be how he harnesses that intellect to the very different role of leadership. Towering intellect and effective leadership don’t often go together, as Larry Summers might reflect.

On policy it would be utterly unrealistic to expect Brown to be very different from Blair. The two politicians have been close since they both entered Parliament in 1983. Although the tensions between Brown and Blair periodically shook the government, Brown has been the second most powerful person in Britain since the 1997 election and either the originator or the accomplice on most policies.

What will, however, be very different in a Brown premiership is the tone. This isn’t just a question of spin or presentation to my mind. It’s an issue of what priorities the prime minister articulates and the manner in which he sets them out. I think it’s important that in the biography of Brown on the Downing Street website, he sums up his beliefs in this way: “Every child should have the best start in life, that everybody should have the chance of a job, that nobody should be brought up suffering in poverty. I would call them the beliefs that you associate with civilisation and dignity.”

One of the major accomplishments of the Blair premiership was the significant reduction of child poverty in Britain. That was largely the work of Brown. Issues of inequality, equity and social justice will loom large in Brown’s vision for the country. His years as chancellor (roughly equivalent to Treasury secretary plus Office of Management and Budget head) prove his deep commitment to market-based solutions (just as his regular summer holidays on Cape Cod are evidence of his love of America). So Brown will not by any stretch of the imagination turn Britain’s government back into an “old Labour” government. But the rhetoric and focus may well evoke memories of a different political time in Britain.

Another intangible about the Brown premiership is his Scottishness. To Americans that is a meaningless statement. Most Americans can’t hear the difference between the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, which astounds and amuses people in Britain. But I’ve been struck how many people I know in England express a wariness about Brown precisely because he is Scottish. Even after all those years living there, that’s a prejudice that I just can’t understand at any level. (In a similar vein, as I’ve written before, I don’t sympathize with the Scots cheering on any team that plays England. I do, in a minor way, however, understand it.) Will Brown’s Scottishness hamper his effectiveness? I don’t think so, but it’s a wild card.

I haven’t written at all about the horse race between Brown and Tory leader David Cameron. I’m interested in that, of course, but I’m more interested to see what a Gordon Brown premiership actually does before the next election. I think the odds are high that Brown will be a very successful prime minister who, while not necessarily inspiring a lot of love from the populace, will earn an enormous amount of admiration.

Facebook. Hmm

Like everyone else, although a few weeks (months, years?) behind the curve, I’m trying to figure out the fuss about Facebook. People I respect, like Martin Varsavsky, reckon it’s getting many things right.

But I have to say my early sense of it is much more like Dave Winer’s. My first experiences with creating my profile made me feel very juvenile. I entered my “relationship status” (married – very happily for 13 years, as of yesterday). I didn’t tick any boxes about what I’m “looking for”. Not my kind of thing, and I long ago found what I was looking for. Also why was I asked about my political and religious views? Dave is right that they need to add some maturity to the mix.

Children and thinking the unthinkable

My children play a game they call D&D imaginary. It’s Dungeons and Dragons, but totally invented, with one of them playing the story master, posing dilemmas, and the other making choices and proceeding on that basis. No board, no playing pieces, no hexagons, no paper. All in the mind. I can’t pretend to understand it at all, but it’s a damn sight healthier I reckon than sitting in front of some screen.

What I didn’t realize until I read Rob MacDougall’s fascinating post that they are in the lineage of the RAND Corporation, Herman Kahn and thinking the unthinkable about thermonuclear war. I know that sounds unlikely, but you really have to read MacDougall’s whole exposition to get it. Here’s a brief snippet:

RAND analysts revived the practice of serious wargaming in the 1950s, but they moved away from miniatures-style gaming with model ships and airplanes towards more free-form political games where participants role-played world leaders in crisis scenarios. Herbert Goldhamer, in RAND’s Social Science Division, ran four major “role-playing crisis games” between 1955 and 1956 that will sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s ever slain an orc. Players sat around big tables covered with maps, rules, tables, and dice. They took on the roles of various world leaders, while Goldhamer, as game director, played the role of “God” or “Nature,” devising the scenario to be played, adjudicating player actions, and introducing chance events.

This is the same move away from hex maps and miniatures that Gary Gygax and the Daves would make in the late 1960s. Instead of having a strictly limited set of options–move this piece or that piece, fire this missile here or there–players in these games could order any action that might be taken in real life. Briefs for Goldhamer’s simulation games read a little like the back of the Red Box D&D set I got for Christmas 1980: possibilities were limited only by the players’ imaginations.

Among the many things I didn’t know until I read MacDougall is that RAND derives from R&D.

Economics lessons in the airport

I’m irritated most times I fly by a common experience. At most airports, there’s a line drawn around the baggage carousels to encourage travelers to stand back a bit. It makes it easier for everyone to see the bags and safer when someone actually has to pull a bag off the carousel. But I can’t ever recall a situation where everyone didn’t press right up to the carousel, blocking everyone’s view and making the retrieval of bags a rather dodgy experience.

It’s the tragedy of the commons. If just one person steps forward, they get a slightly better view and no one is unduly troubled. But as more and more people step forward for that better view, no one sees anything.

So my modest proposal is to try to improve the situation and do a little impromptu economics education. Instead of those signs in the middle of the carousel explaining all the contraband you shouldn’t carry in your baggage or ads that jet-lagged travelers don’t find appealing in any case, why not have a little explanation of the tragedy of the commons? I doubt it would prevent very many people from stepping over the white line, but it might increase knowledge just a little bit.

I thought about the carousel in response to reading Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist. It’s a delightful, thought-provoking collection of what he calls “everyday enigmas” with an economic explanation. Frank believes that most people learn from stories rather than equations and graphs. He’s surely right. I’ve been regaling my 11-year old son with some of Frank’s little economic puzzles at bedtime and he can’t get enough of them.

Wisdom of the day

Dave Winer: “The business of the valley is not publishing. It is not advertising. It is not retailing. It is not pet food. It is cool packages of technology that thrill people with empowerment and novelty.”

There’s been a strand in the last couple of days on Scripting News and elsewhere about whether anyone but the young can be successful innovators and entrepreneurs. It hardly needs saying that the answer is, “Of course.” What’s more difficult to say is whether someone without a few decades of adulthood can be wise. There may be exceptions, but I think the general answer is, “No, they can’t.” There’s an important distinction between wisdom and knowledge. I think wisdom requires lots of time.

An honest finance columnist

Tony Jackson in yesterday’s Financial Times (subscribers only):

To sum up, if I am asked what the rise in bond yields means for equities, the honest answer is I don’t know. I make no apologies for that. There are simply too many variables. To my mind, anyone who feels sure of the answer at this point has not thought it through.

I can’t recall reading another finance columnist with such refreshing honesty. In financial arguments, for all the reams of analysis published every day, the truth is often that nobody knows anything. Few are willing to admit it.