Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Usual Suspects

The soul-searching after England's long drawn out exit from the World Cup has mostly been rueful, even apologetic. With the exception of 'Arry and his mates, few have the heart to berate the players or manager. The consensus is that the country simply lacks enough top-drawer talent at present. The eagerness to blood youth reflects a hope that another (and slightly better) Golden Generation may be just around the corner, which can be thought of as whistling to keep your spirits up (the evidence of the last match against Costa Rica suggests a long wait). While the inquiry has been half-hearted, it has still rounded up the usual suspects, so we may as well mosey through the identity parade.

The Premier League remains a popular villain, specifically in respect of the number of foreign players "taking our boys' jobs", but no one seriously expects the money juggernaut to change course. After all, if you can't shame Richard Scudamore into resigning over his sexism, what hope is there in an appeal to his chauvinism? There is also an acknowledgement that other countries seem able to overcome similar challenges. Fellow bag-packers Italy also have a high percentage of non-native players, and were pioneers in the use of imported talent in the domestic game, but they've also won the tournament four times, embarrassing defeats to various Koreas notwithstanding. You can't put this down to Fascism or "wiliness" alone.

With the exception of a few snipes at Greg Dyke, the FA has escaped blame, largely because of the increased professionalism of recent years and the tangible investment at Burton and Wembley. Dyke's recent 4-point plan was reduced by an unsympathetic media to the slightly desperate proposal for Premier League B-teams, but the key idea was actually to ban non-EU players outside of the top flight, which is a recognition of the symbiosis between the different divisions. Before the Premier League, lower division clubs operated by selling-on promising youngsters to higher division clubs and by extending the careers of older top-division players, using the latter to help develop the former. They now act more as clearing houses for Premier League academy rejects. The downward flow of old pros has reduced to a trickle, as players can retire rich after a decade in the top division, with the void being filled by cheap imports of developed players in their mid-20s. This has increased the non-native population, but there is little evidence it is reducing opportunities for native youngsters, and some evidence it is increasing quality overall.

Another popular culprit is the corrupting influence of TV money, which has funded the high-churn academies, pushed up wages (thereby attracting quality imports), and encouraged club owners to buy success. The insinuation by 'Arry that some players don't fancy the hassle of playing for the national team feeds the popular prejudice that they're all spoilt brats. However, that theory sits oddly with the greater success of Italy and Spain since the 1980s, despite the dominance of TV money (heavily biased towards the larger clubs) in those countries. As is clear from the regular stories about youth player poaching between English and continental clubs, the top European teams are operating in a single market, even without taking the Champions League into account. If money has had an effect over the last 25 years, it has been in facilitating the greater homogenisation of playing styles, evidenced in the seamless movement of top coaches between countries.

The decline of school playing fields and council facilities is sometimes fingered, but this is probably more a symptom rather than a cause. The root problem looks like the recasting of secondary education as a constant slog, with regular testing and exam anxiety depriving both kids and teachers of the hours needed to invest in organised sport. Added to convenient distractions such as multi-channel TV, Facebook and FIFA14, the issue may be a lack of bored kids as much as a lack of playing fields. That said, the grassroots game continues to produce plenty of raw talent, which is eagerly snapped up by the academies. As the Dyke commission noted, and with the happy coincidence of England winning the Under-17 European Championships this year, the problem is not producing talent at schoolboy level but progressing it between 17 and 21.

One possible explanation for this stunted growth is cultural isolation, with few English professionals playing abroad and international loans of young players limited to the non-English. Joel Campbell of Arsenal has now had spells at Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos; his London-born clubmate Chuks Aneke has had spells at Stevenage, Preston and Crewe. But the idea that English youth is missing out on advanced coaching makes little sense when they can rub shoulders with the World's best players in the Premier League and benefit from the tutelage of managers such as Wenger, Mourinho and (shortly) van Gaal. It's also worth remembering that Roy Hodgson has been anything but insular in his managerial career. The fact that neither he nor Capello could get England to look like a team that enjoys keeping the ball suggests that the problem is not poor coaching.

In the longer perspective, England may simply be finding its natural level as a middle-ranking football power: somewhere between Belgium and France. The story of the twentieth century can be divided into two periods: denial up to 1953 (the famous defeat by Hungary at Wembley), and delusion thereafter (1966 was a fortunate victory, and not just because of the Russian linesman). However, England's poor record compared to the likes of Italy, France and Holland suggests that it is objectively under-performing. Perhaps the problem is psychological: the weight of national expectation and the fear of failure. But the suspicion that a hyperbolic and frequently vicious press isn't helping runs up against the counter-argument that it is no worse than the media in other countries. This week the London papers have been tame in comparison to the outpourings of rage and self-doubt in Spain and Italy.

The general air of "to be honest, we didn't expect much" among England fans suggests that they had already mentally invested in a transition period before the flight to Brazil. Gerrard and Lampard are now history, and I doubt Rooney will be wearing the captain's armband in Russia except as a sentimental cameo. The clamour for youth looks particularly harsh on Leighton Baines, whose window of opportunity between the limpet-like Ashley Cole and the puppy-like Luke Shaw has been quickly shut. In the cases of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, the promotion of youth looks frankly reckless. It is some achievement to make Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka look good in comparison after only one match. Hodgson would do well to have a chat with van Gaal before he boards the plane back to London, to establish if either centre-back has much of a future at Manure.

Though most commentary has focused on the inadequacy of the defence, the real cause for concern should be the lack of midfield creativity. At this elite level, where defenders are well-organised and mobile (not England, obviously), you need a decent short ball-player or two, not a through-force-of-circumstances "quarter-back" like Gerrard launching long. Wilshere showed promise against Costa Rica, but struggled due to the lack of clever movement up front. Sturridge remains a player who thrives in the confusion caused by others (yes, I'm thinking of "Chewy Louie"), but is unable to unbalance defences on his own, while Sterling is a player who makes eye-catching runs because he often starts from a poor position. Ross Barkley appears to have inherited the mantle of "strong lad with quick feet" bequeathed by Gascoigne and inadequately worn by Rooney, but lacks guile and subtlety. Naturally, 'Arry suggests England build their team around him.

In the 70s and 80s, the serial under-achievement of England was put down to too many blazers at the FA, the insularity and arrogance of coaches, and the technical backwardness of the players. This produced a style of play on the pitch that was unique to England and impossible to confuse with any other nation (even Scotland and Wales managed to look more continental). The paradox of the last quarter century, from the false dawn of Italia 90 through the hyper-professionalism of the Premier League and the reform of the FA, is that an England team, made up of highly-developed players who regularly hold their own with the world's best at club level, still looks like England.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Golden Age

One of the minor amusements of the World Cup has been the adverts on ITV. In between Ray Winstone taste-testing the odds, and the iPhone bidding to become your personal trainer, the football-themed ads have been dominated by the tropes of automation and global threat, ranging from Ronaldo & co battling aliens in Samsung's high-tech gimp suits (like a shit version of The Edge of Tomorrow), through Nike's Incredibles-style humans versus clones (resistance!), to Kia's production line robots turning out standardised players and stadia (resistance is useless).

The mirthful words "Zlatan agrees", from the Nike mini-epic, ran through my head as I browsed Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy, a free e-book from Nesta, which styles itself as the "UK's innovation foundation". It's free because it comprises a collection of short essays that are little more than souped-up blog posts and extended adverts for other books, rather than any original research or profound analysis. Most of the observations about job polarisation and the relationship of technology to inequality are well-worn and bordering on the anodyne. That said, the contributions by Izabella Kaminska and Steve Randy Waldman, both of whom touch on the political aspects of technology, are worth reading, though they're pretty much in keeping with their previous musings at FT Alphaville and Interfluidity.

In a rather hyperbolic plug, one of the contributors, Frances Coppola, talks of the robot economy as an imminent "golden age", which is a reference to the cyclical theories of Carlota Perez. The idea that technology advances in long waves, alternating spurts of innovation with longer periods of exploitation, is a commonplace. Perez dates the start of the current cycle, the ICT revolution, to 1971 and the introduction of the Intel microprocessor, though the start of the Unix epoch is surely as significant. Technology wave theory remains embedded in a hardware paradigm, hence the inextinguishable yearning for jet-packs and the excitement over robot cars. This also leads to an underestimation of the multiplier effects of software, i.e. that code components can be reused and refactored even more extensively and cheaply than machine parts or manufacturing techniques.

Coppola believes that new times require new leaders: "In the past, the direction of change has been set by visionaries. In the 1930s, economic thought was led by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, and the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented far-reaching policy reforms". In reality, Keynes was a marginal figure during the period (his ideas had more impact in Germany than the USA or UK) and FDR was no fan. The Keynesian consensus is a product of the 1940s. The moral of this tale is that ideas come to the fore when they match the prevailing view: supply meets demand. Faced with an existential crisis in 1940, Britain quickly socialised its economy. Faced with the task of rebuilding after 1945, and accepting that a return to the market orthodoxy of the thirties would risk another slump, Keynes's view of a managed economy was a pragmatic compromise. Visionary it was not.

Casting round the landscape for new thought-leaders, Coppola is optimistic: "One of the defining features of the information technology and communications revolution is the decline of the individual decision-maker and the growth of collaboration, teams and sharing. ... But we are now seeing the same phenomenon in other areas too. The 'hive mind' created by social media and similar technologies is far more powerful than any individual could possibly be, and from it can come not only original ideas but a real impetus for change". I'm surprised to see anyone still pushing the idea that the hive-mind is an unalloyed force for good. It's as if Twitter had never been invented. The hive-mind is a classic hardware paradigm: imagining that multiple brains connected over the Internet are the equivalent of parallel processors. It is also a failure to understand basic mathematical laws. The reason the 'ask the audience' lifeline in quiz shows has a high success rate is because of normal distribution not aggregate intelligence.

Coppola cites as proof of this collective wisdom the coincidence that the Q&A panel at the book launch (i.e. the contributors) all agreed that a basic income was desirable, essentially as a means of maintaining aggregate demand and providing the wherewithal for people to pursue poorly-paid vocations (academia, journalism, music etc, rather than pigeon-racing). Of course, this coincidence is proof only of groupthink. Basic income has become a credible option in social and economic debate in developed countries since 2000 (ideas come to the fore when they match the prevailing view), reflecting both angst at the increasing redundancy of the traditional working class and a fear that without some form of "dole" the under-educated hoi polloi will resort to violence. The real question is what form a basic income takes, which is ultimately a debate about power and privilege.

I'm also sceptical of Coppola's reading of history. Different eras adopt different (and complex) attitudes towards the collective and the individual, which reflects the material base and consequent social norms. The reality of innovation, whether in music or technology, is a fluid mixture of contributions from formal organisation, ad hoc collaboration and individual insight. The lone genius, oblivious to the world, is as much a myth as the highly-trained, complementary team (an orchestra playing Beethoven's 9th is a perfect combo of symbols). The long march of history has undoubtedly moved from the necessity of collectivism to the possibilities of individual liberation, but the paradox is that the social and psychic damage caused by this evolution has increased the scope and value of collective action. The paradox of our "post-collective" age is that hyper-connectivity, i.e. social media, has reduced the "impetus for change" to emotivist spasms (this week's Twitchfork riot over Michael Fabricant is another lesson in futility).

The Nesta e-book shows the sherpas of thought-leadership still faffing about in the foothills, largely reluctant to address issues of class and property, and still hoping that a consensus among the well-bred will produce a "vision" of the future in which we can all, in Keynes phrase, "live wisely and agreeably and well". In contrast, the TV adverts reveal that we remain in fearful awe of technology, attracted by the promise of personal empowerment and collective perfection, but repelled by the presumed loss of humanity and the threat of alienation. The idea that our only defence is the collective neck muscles of Ronaldo, Rooney and Ibrahimovic is depressing. If they could get a tooled-up, young Ray Winstone on side, that would make a lot of difference.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Last of England

It might appear premature to write off England's World Cup hopes, but I sense that the population who think they will qualify for the knockout stage is fast approaching the size of the contingent who think they can win the tournament. During the buildup, many noted the paucity of St George's flags draped from balconies or car windows as a sign of greater realism, but the iconic moment for me was Ed Miliband's decision to pose with a copy of the Sun, presumably calculating that the negative publicity on Merseyside would be less costly than appearing unpatriotic in the eyes of the rag's "loyal readers". Talk about tone-deaf.

The lack of expectation this time round is not a reaction to the years of over-optimistic hurt so much as a sober realisation that there is a limit to how long you can polish a turd. The fact that there is still a debate about how best to deploy Wayne Rooney, a 28 year old with more red cards (1) than goals (0) in World Cup finals, is an admission of the limited talent available. Daniel Sturridge has broken his duck in his first senior tournament game, but he remains a decent support striker rather than an outstanding spearhead. He had to leave both Citeh and Chelski to get games, and his flourishing at Liverpool obviously owes much to the company he keeps, i.e. the number of assists provided by Luis Suarez. His backup is Ricky Lambert, for whom the term "modest" would appear to have been tailored.

Roy Hodgson's decision to "give youth its head" has been applauded, but that's because we all know his brief is to keep morale positive in the hope that something may turn up. His avuncular, more homespun style is gratefully contrasted to the technocratic authoritarianism of Fabio Capello, but the significance of this is an acceptance that the FA were deluding themselves in believing that throwing money at the problem would make England contenders. There is something poignant in Gary Lewin's injury, as if the national setup had returned to the pratfallish style of Graham Taylor's regime, but without the anxiety and simmering resentment. For once, the oompah band playing The Great Escape would be appropriate for the remaining group games. You might as well enjoy it while you can.

Apart from limited striking options, England have possibly their weakest defence in years. Competent during the qualifiers, the back five already look out of their depth. Facing Italy's five-man midfield, they were repeatedly out-manoeuvred and unable to provide any attacking impetus. While Hodgson's decision to play Sterling in the hole forced the Italian defence to narrow, there was no one capable of taking advantage on the flanks (Sterling isn't as penetrative as Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain). Bringing on Barkley and Wilshere didn't help. The Everton next-big-thing simply walloped the ball against the defence at every available opportunity, creating more chances for Italy through rebounds than for England, while Wilshere's central dribbles ended in dispossession as he failed to find any intelligent movement ahead of him to release a pass to.

Though the England camp seems to be a welcoming snug of bonhomie these days, on the pitch the team remains a collection of ill-fitting parts. Pace and power creates enough space in the Premier League for oddballs like Rooney to prosper, but against world-class defences it usually comes up short. It's possible England will have more joy against Uruguay and Cost Rica, neither of whom boasts Italian levels of defensive security, however this assumes that Hart, Cahill & co don't contribute any howlers of their own. It's up for grabs now, as someone once said. One prediction I feel I can make with confidence is that Liverpool will struggle in the Champions' League next season, even if they do retain Suarez.

Overall it has been an excellent tournament so far, with goals aplenty and adventurous play. The crowds have been rather bland - i.e. well-off part-timers in replica shirts and too much face-paint - but that's hardly surprising given the high ticket prices and FIFA's determination to make the World Cup a celebration of bourgeois norms. Talking of which, technology has been very much to the fore, with the goal-line system proving itself in the France vs Bosnia-Herzegovina game last night. The sound of Martin Keown patiently correcting Jonathan Pearce's hyper-ventilating confusion was priceless.

However, the star of the show has unquestionably been the ten-yard-wall vanishing spray, not so  much for being a simple idea whose effectiveness makes you wonder what FIFA's technical committee has been doing for the last half-century, but for the hilarious reaction of players trying to avoid getting it on their knitted sock boots. I'm half-expecting Cristiano Ronaldo to whip his top off and slather it over his nipples in the Germany-Portugal match later today. I wonder if it's inflammable?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Surveillance Economy

You know you are in the presence of techno-bollix when the coming wonders are sold using examples that are simultaneously "wow!" and "WTF?" I've been dubious about the revolutionary potential of robot cars since boosters started suggesting you could sleep in them, as if this could be redefined as aspirational after years of being the preserve of those who had lost their homes due to poverty or infidelity. Robot cars are coming, but I suspect they'll be less common than most people think. I also remain sceptical about the Internet of Things (IoT), largely because the iconic benefit up till now has been a fridge that can order fresh milk.

IoT technology, like robot cars and wearable computing, is essentially about better sensors and data storage rather than communications. The "Internet" bit is actually trivial. As such, these hype-fests are concept applications of Big Data, and thus surveillance, rather than examples of revolutionary new functionality. What the robot car, Google Glass and the smart fridge are selling is the idea of control, but as much in a psychological as a mechanical sense.

That the early forms of the robot car look like wombs on wheels or updated bubble cars is no coincidence, while wearable tech quite openly promises to augment and improve the puny human. Similarly, the IoT trope is less about a single device than a fully wired home, where "smart" and "secure" are synonymous. The overlap between these areas, already hinted at by Google's acquisition of Nest, was made clear in Apple's recently announced HomeKit and HealthKit, which together extend surveillance to your home and your body.

Behind IoT is a database that acts both as the controller of the home and a representation of the identity and desires of the inhabitants. This is potentially of great value to advertisers, not to mention the NSA and GCHQ, but it would be wrong to imagine a future in which the agents of the state monitor your stools and dental hygiene. IoT data is not social but personal and familial, so the estrangement experienced with social media isn't going to happen, or at least not in the same way. The privacy of this data will be a key selling point. You will be the surveillant of yourself and your dependents (there is a pater familias vibe to much of this technology). While you may backup your encrypted data to the cloud, the smart home will have an integral server this side of the firewall. Your data will finally be your inalienable property.

One by-product of this shift towards systems that enable greater user control (or at least the illusion of exclusive control) is a greater willingness for manufacturers to pursue proprietary architectures. This is partly driven by the realisation that the original Internet business model, i.e. free stuff in return for surveillance and targeted adverts, which put a premium on openness and accessibility, isn't going to work for the IoT. The devices themselves will quickly become commoditised and open, but the controller (server and database) will be closed. Consequently, the latter is where the big money will be for manufacturers, hence Google are developing a controller that could be ported to many cars (the simplicity of the prototype is intended to make this point), while Apple are determined to keep iOS and the iPhone/iPad at the centre of the domestic ecosystem.

Google will no doubt want to leverage the data produced by robot cars for advertising, just as supermarkets will be keen to get emails from your fridge, but it's worth remembering that the Google Car is designed to read the environment and react rather than follow directions from a central server or a smart road, while your fridge will conceivably be able to check prices from multiple supermarkets before placing an order on your behalf. Even if you still prefer popping out to the corner shop for a pinta, this represents a change in the dynamic. From being something that is done to us, with insufficient or ill-informed permission, surveillance will become a positional good in its own right.

This explains the alacrity with which the big technology companies have sought to position themselves recently as the defenders of privacy and personal liberty against an encroaching state. Their public ideology is shifting from a liberal bias ("freedom") towards a conservative bias ("safety"). This is an easy segue as their private ideology, libertarian bordering on anarcho-capitalist, already accommodates the paranoid and the proprietorial. A paradox of the liberal response to the Snowden revelations is that it may be helping the shift to a more conservative generation of technology represented by robot cars, wearable computing and the Internet of Things.

While the media frets about the lack of a "new must-have product" from Apple, and some worry about the civil liberties implications of mass surveillance and Big Data, we are blasé about the wider social and economic implications of digital technology. Almost 80% of the developed world (and 40% and rising of the global population) have Internet access, which makes the growth of the digital economy over the last twenty years the fastest and most extensive technological uptake in history. The lack of a new gizmo for Christmas, like the assumption that modern technology is trivial, is no longer a first world problem - it is becoming a global trope.

In 1991, Mark Weiser, the CTO of Xerox PARC, claimed: "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it". While this has much truth in it (e.g. electricity), it ignores the way that economics determines what we use a technology for, and therefore the extent of its ubiquity. While the cost of IoT will drop, there will remain a market for high-cost elite goods and capabilities. This is what Apple, who are never going to pitch to the great unwashed, are banking on. The most data-rich households will be the most rich.

The emblem for this future is Tony Stark in his seaside mansion: the tech-augmented body in a tech home. The reality may be more like Gwyneth Paltrow, monitoring her kids health and checking the CCTV for stalkers while posting updates to Gloop, secure in the knowledge that the NSA cannot monitor her inner thoughts. Apple are offering a lifestyle upgrade on the tin-foil hat.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Should We Negotiate With Terrorists?

The straight answer is: yes; at every available opportunity. And sure enough, history shows that governments negotiate with terrorists more often than not. At the time that Margaret Thatcher was insisting "we do not negotiate with terrorists", that is precisely what she was doing. This should hardly have come as a surprise, as British governments have episodically negotiated with the IRA for close on a century. Thatcher's language was a deliberate echo of similar sentiments expressed by the South African government in the 1980s. Again, it was subsequently revealed that they had been negotiating with the ANC for years. In retrospect, who could be appalled at the idea of a nice friendly chat with Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu?

Despite this, the world is never short of politicians demanding a principled refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Some even go so far as to rationalise it in instrumental terms. According to Republican Senator Ted Cruz: "The reason why the U.S. has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers". Let me see if I've got this right ... the prospect of negotiation makes it less likely that the terrorists will simply kill your soldiers out of hand, because they're worth more alive than dead. If I were a serving soldier, I'd be broadly in favour of that. Surely the real "terror" is facing an opponent who literally cannot be negotiated with. Would you rather face the Taliban or the critter in Alien?

Cruz seems unaware that the US government has routinely negotiated with terrorists in the past. His comments appear particularly dim at a time when the Nigerian government is being publicly encouraged to negotiate with Boko Haram. This doesn't just reflect the greater vulnerability (or media-friendliness) of the hostages, but a pragmatic assumption that this is the only viable option given the weakness and corruption of the Nigerian government and military. This patronisation of the lesser by the greater, and the affront of the latter when they are recipients of similar advice, is par for the course. Intransigence is a sign of strength in ourselves, and a lack of reason in others.

The "no negotiations" stance can be seen as a form of military discipline. The message is: fight to the last, because if you are taken hostage, we're not going to cut a deal for you. But in practice, this is a hollow threat. In a democracy there is an implicit contract (which may even be explicit) that troops will not to be treated as disposable commodities. Even in non-democracies, esprit de corps fundamentally rests on the idea of reciprocal loyalty: no one gets left behind. To listen to some of the American commentary on Bowe Bergdahl's unworthiness, you'd think the Republican Party wanted to institute political commisars who would shoot deserters on sight.

The issue of the soldier's personal worth is irrelevant (and so is nit-picking about whether the Taliban count as terrorists or military combatants, and whether Bergdahl was a POW or hostage). Whether he deserted or not, he remains a US citizen. Equally, the simplistic accounting of the exchange - five for one - is meaningless. As Jim Wright asked: "If our people aren’t worth four or five terrorists sitting in a Gitmo prison cell, then you tell me why we’ve spent the last twelve years in two wars, why we traded the lives of six thousand servicemen and why we killed hundreds of thousands [of] Iraqis and Afghans to avenge three thousand Americans". There is no going rate for a hostage, or for a POW in an asymmetric conflict.

The interpretation that the Taliban got the better end of the deal because of the numerical difference is stupid. If anything, the bigger the number you secure, the weaker you are. This is why Israel was happy to release over a thousand Palestinians in return for a single soldier in 2011. What matters in a prisoner exchange is not the quantum but the percentage of stock: the Taliban have no more US military prisoners, while Guantánamo continues to house scores of Talibani. Pragmatically, the swap for Bowe Bergdahl now looks obvious and timely given that Obama recently confirmed a date for the US exit from Afghanistan (and implicitly a winding-down if not complete closure of the Guantánamo facility).

There are some in government who advocate a realpolitik attitude, in which negotiation is acceptable in principle but hedged by various qualifications about the "rationality", sincerity and competence of the terrorists. This is self-serving nonsense in which the ideal terrorist for negotiating with looks remarkably like a vanquished enemy suing for peace. Governments will almost always be negotiating from a position of relative strength (if the terrorists are the stronger, then the government may not have a choice in whether to negotiate or not). As the stronger party, government can almost always walk away from the table - there is rarely an offer you cannot refuse - so there is little to lose in sitting down. Even if the potential for gain is initially small, simply establishing a relationship is a prudent investment for the future.

The only downside consideration is the possibility of bad publicity - i.e. a charge of hypocrisy or weakness from your own side - should the negotiations become public too early. In other words, the "never negotiate with terrorists" principle is essentially a media construct. The paradox is that in a democracy a government would be irresponsible and foolish not to negotiate at every opportunity, yet a free press militates against making negotiation the default policy.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Odysseus in Leitrim

Ken Loach's new film, Jimmy's Hall, has been dismissed by some as "minor key" and "exasperatingly thin". I suspect the exasperation is that this will not be, as originally advertised, his last film. Loach continues to be damned with faint praise by British (and Irish) film critics. The subject matter, Ireland in the early 1930s, suggests that this is a companion piece to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which was set during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. In the new film, the anti-Treaty Jimmy Gralton is forced to flee in 1923, driven out by a pro-Treaty new order personified by the thuggish landowner O'Keefe and the Machiavellian Father Sheridan. He returns in 1932 as Eamon De Valera and Fianna Fáil take office, which marks the final marginalisation of the anti-Treaty forces and the absorption of "responsible republicanism" into the establishment.

If the earlier film had faint echoes of The Iliad (hostages, a riven camp), this new work centres on an Odysseus (Jimmy) who has returned home to find that Penelope (Oonagh) has married another man during his long absence. His unwillingness to compromise her, despite the obvious mutual attraction, is seen as trite by some, but it surely emphasises the realisation of both that exile is his unavoidable destiny. It's just a matter of time. The chief symbol of the film is the Pearse-Connolly Hall, a social space for politics and culture that Jimmy had built during the War of Independence, and which he now decides to reopen in a misguided gesture of reconciliation. The film's title suggests that the greater hall is Jimmy's attempt to establish a socialist community. The free-thinking challenge this presents to property and the church will inevitably lead to its figurative and literal destruction.

Dotted throughout Paul Laverty's script are Homeric turns of phrase. Oonagh rejected the earlier chance to flee Ireland with Jimmy, restrained by the need to care for her parents and fearful of "following you around your battles". Since then, the wandering Jimmy has seen the world: "I've been a soldier, a sailor, a miner. I have been on the sea and under the land". Now returned from a semi-mythical America, laden with a gramophone and jazz records, his admirers say he "brought the world to us". This antique register works well with Loach's trademark use of non-professional actors, notably Eileen Henry as Jimmy's mother. You can criticise this as the fetishisation of the authentic, but it is dim to patronise it, as one Dublin critic does, as "the manner of an inexpressive speak-your-weight machine".

The echo of Odysseus is reinforced when you consider that Joyce's Ulysses was first published in 1922, the year that marked the inception of the Irish new order and the impetus to Jimmy's earlier exile. An amusing parallel with the novel is the recurrent use of cups of tea as a motif of social exchange: Jimmy is welcomed home with tea and ham sandwiches, the visiting priest must always be offered tea (and ideally scones), while the parochial house is lubricated by both tea and whiskey. The latter setting distracted some critics with its similarity to Father Ted, not least because Sheridan is played by Jim Norton (Bishop Brennan in the comedy) and despite the diversionary presence of Andrew Scott (Moriarty in TV's Sherlock) in the "Dougal" role. The serious point is that it took until the 1990s before the social reality was sufficiently distant to allow a cosy parody.

A less forgivable parallel was made by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian with John Ford's The Quiet Man, purely on the basis that the film features a bloke returning from America. This is almost as obtuse as categorising the pro-Treaty O'Keefe as an IRA man, which Bradshaw blithely does. The better Hollywood parallel is the Keystone Cops bumbling of the Gardai, tumbling out of a cottage window when Jimmy's mother locks them in. There is also a pulpit reference to "Losangelisation" by Father Sheridan, which is improbable coming from an Irish priest in the 1930s (New York and Chicago were the American Sodom and Gomorrah of the day), but may voice Loach's own disdain for a money-obsessed industry.

O'Keefe represents the fascist strain of politics that was widespread in Europe at the time and often intertwined with the Catholic church, notably in Spain and Austria. But while the totalitarian state didn't take root in Ireland (the Blueshirts were absorbed by Fine Gael), this was as much down to the dominance of the church as any scruples on the part of the politicians. Loach, like Father Sheridan, makes much of the 1932 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, featured in a newsreel, as a symbol of the church's grip on society. The other use of film within the film is the opening credit sequence, which shows skyscrapers being built and people dancing in New York - a contrasting vision of progress and democracy (Jimmy admits to dancing with black women: "The thing is, they've got two legs").

The church's paranoid strain of social conservatism remained dominant throughout De Valera's long and barren reign as Prime Minister, the fag-end of which provides the setting for Quirke, the current TV adaptation of John Banville's Benjamin Black thrillers, in which tea has decisively given way to whiskey. As well as gloom and cynicism, the era also produced the satire of Brian O'Nolan (aka Flann O'Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen), notably the ambiguous character of "The Plain People of Ireland" that lives on in the cultural notion of "begrudgery". Amidst the British TV vogue for serial killers and small town mayhem, the more subtle demands of this Irish Noir are a treat.

Quirke also foreshadows more recent concerns in its exposure of institutionalised child abuse and political graft, which brings us bang up to date. A leading analysis of the Irish crash of 2007-8 was Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools, suggesting both the claustrophobia of the nation and the desire for mobility. That tension, between insularity and cosmopolitanism, has been the chief theme of Irish culture since the Flight of the Earls and in part explains Ireland's importance to Modernism. It can be found in the works of the McDonagh brothers, notably the recent film Calvary, in which Brendan Gleeson's worldly priest rejects escape (unlike his Dougal) and instead seeks to atone for the community's sins.

What Loach and Laverty have shown in Jimmy's Hall is that the concerns of an agrarian society - property and the power it entails - can bridge an ancient past with an urgent present. This is a thoughtful and subtle film that unpicks clichés and excavates ruins, in a manner utterly foreign to the sentimentality of The Quiet Man. "Exasperatingly thin" would be a better description of the quality of mainstream criticism.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Who Let You In?

Charles "Gobshite" Windsor was a speaker at last week's highly exclusive Inclusive Capitalism conference in London (Vladimir Putin was not on the guest list). Presumably his qualification for the gig was simply being rich, though he can also claim expertise in the sensitive matter of negotiating tax payments. To judge from Christine Lagarde's comments, the political wind appears to be shifting towards the need for a historic compromise. The rich must be seen to to be making a larger contribution, though there will still be plenty of haggling over what should be taxed, with a wholly unsurprising preference for capital income and inheritance, which are easier to finagle, as opposed to wealth, which would have to be revealed and assessed (and its hiding criminalised).

Meanwhile, L'Affaire Piketty rumbles on, though the emerging consensus appears to be that Chris Giles and the FT did not land a telling blow, while Piketty has now come out fighting. This is hardly a shocker. For Giles to get the decision you'd have to believe that the rich had failed to take advantage of a sympathetic political environment over the last 35 years to fill their boots. I suspect the fight will shortly be stopped by the referee and awarded to the Frenchman. One reason why Piketty is probably a good bet for a Nobel prize in a few years is that he has restored political economy to mainstream debate. A concern is that the sudden fashionability of inequality risks distracting from other pressing problems, such as climate change, austerity and fragile banks, which is a testament to the agenda-setting impact of his book. The contrast with idiocy like Freakonomics could not be more pointed. Microeconomics has been eclipsed.

Some on the right have accepted that the game is up and that pretending that inequality should not be ameliorated is no longer viable, while some on the left have criticised Piketty for focusing on too narrow a definition of capital (material and financial wealth alone) and thus ignoring power and class (this was the chief criticism in France). I think this underestimates the radical implications of Piketty's focus on patrimonial wealth. As Mike Konczal notes: "Piketty believes social democratic reforms outside high taxation are incapable of changing these dynamics ... [H]e assigns no role in combating 'r > g' to the growth of the social state that ensures access to health, education, and income security. Labor unions and the regulatory state are missing or underdeveloped in his analysis". This is a major challenge to social democrats and pseudo-left neoliberals. We could double the minimum wage without noticeably narrowing inequality. The focus has to be on the top of the pyramid, not just the bottom.

Konczal also notes an implicit challenge to the right: "In Piketty’s analysis, the decline of high marginal tax rates are the main culprit in the large growth of inequality internationally since the 1980s. Since this major transfer of resources didn’t cause an increase in economic productivity, the cost of undoing it will be minimal for the economy as a whole". In other words, the failure of the trickle-down chicken may finally be coming home to roost. I'm sure the usual Laffer Curve bollocks will be wheeled out, but I doubt it will be effective. A further consequence of Piketty's work is that: "Understanding how the elite become what they are, and how their wealth perpetuates itself, is now a hot topic of scientific inquiry". After decades of focus on the underclass and their supposed failings, attention is now turning to the pathologies of the rich. This could spell the end for Hello magazine as much as Benefits Street.

Seth Ackerman notes that Piketty also presents significant challenges to the neoclassical synthesis, which unites both the progressive and conservative wings of orthodox economics, from Paul Krugman to Robert Lucas: "What has made Piketty’s arguments about wealth distribution so explosive is the central place he gives to the phenomenon of rentier inheritance". The neoclassical theory holds that the rate of return on capital (its price) should fall as capital makes up more of the economy (because its supply has increased), but this is disproved by "Piketty’s empirical demonstration that the rate of return on wealth has been remarkably stable over centuries". Instead of the euthanasia of the rentier, we have seen the steady strengthening of that class since 1979.

Ackerman continues: "Once this neoclassical story - where the relative demands for labor and capital are dependent on their relative prices - is 'debunked', to use Paul Samuelson’s contrite term, the competitive market economy no longer contains any necessary mechanism pushing the various wage rates or the profit rate to any determinate level. Rather, history and custom, as well as politics, laws and struggle, will determine who gets what. It’s a system of grab what you can". The elite goal will be to keep the 1% club exclusive and maintain its hold on politics and law, even if this means paying a larger fee. Whether this is spun as philanthropy or a fine, the ideology is fractured: just desserts revealed as the exploitation of power.

What we can be sure of, thanks to Piketty's analysis and despite Chris Giles's protestations, is that the problem of inequality will not go away and can only get worse. As John Quiggin notes: "it may be that the share of income accruing to the 1 per cent has grown so large that governments have no alternative but to tax it". In this light, Piketty's proposal for a global wealth tax starts to appear less like utopian fancy and more like a provocative opening gambit. But while property's dues to society are once more topical, what isn't up for discussion is the right of the elite to their ownership of that property, which will at least please the Duke of Cornwall,