Enjoying Economics

I know, I know. Those two words have never, ever been placed together before. Economics is a dreary edifice of impersonal information, presented by people who wish to demonstrate why things (particularly money, business things) have to be as they are, even though some of the effects seem to be disastrous. But not any more.

My fresh optimism has been created by reading two books in close succession:
23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang, and
Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth.

Chang takes you gently through some very complicated territory, with an approach that seems like a Dummies Guide. There are 23 ‘Things’ and each of them starts with a “What they tell you” section, followed by a “What they don’t tell you” section. It could be childishly simplified, or deeply condescending, but it’s neither. He knows a lot, and brings in all kinds of evidence but only when it’s needed, so the whole effect is to clarify and explain. It’s not difficult to read, but with every chapter you feel yourself getting wiser.

Raworth has a simple, basic insight, so amazing it’s astonishing that no-one’s latched on to it before. The potency of economic theory is carried as much through the visual (diagrams, graphs) as through the words. So if we want to know what’s wrong with previous economic theories, we need to look at their visuals, and really analyse them, rather than taking them for granted. And of course, if we’re going to see things differently in the future, we’ll need new visuals, which reflect the actual nature of our lives – interconnected people, with a range of interests and needs, living on a planet whose resources are under threat.

These are not angry outsiders, throwing stones at the evil people who have led us astray. They’re both economists, who know their field and its history, who understand how things have got to where they are. But they’re not shrill, or full of themselves, or bristling with spite because their truths have not been sufficiently recognised. They’re both clear, positive and humane, using their intelligence to point forward to a more constructive approach which might at least give us a chance of survival. Don’t take my word for it. Get hold of them, and read them both. You won’t regret it. 

Growing Up

Years ago, when I was trying to educate myself about child psychology (Bowlby, Winnicott, people like that) I remember taking on board the idea that maturity was about recognising that other people existed, equally, had their own reality, and that "how I see things" might not be the only way to see things. Fairly basic insight, but just at the moment it seems quite precious.

Two recent articles on this theme. Jeffrey Sachs, not a particular hero of mine (because of his enthusiastic involvement in the "let's educate Russia about capitalism" drive) had a really sensible piece about American exceptionalism, and how the US needed to grow out of the idea that they had a God-given mission to show the rest of the world how it's done. Not world-shaking, not before time, but welcome nonetheless. And the current Ken Burns TV history of the Vietnam war is soaked in that awareness that having their US version of the truth made them miss completely what was going on in the minds of the Vietnamese.

Then there was Peter Hain, writing about Northern Ireland negotiations, and how trivial exchanges - e.g. about a shared interest in football - could actually oil the wheels of high-powered political deliberations. which is exactly what's missing in the Brexit fiasco. All the noise, all the press releases, are about what we want, what we'll do, what we need. Not a glimmer of how things look to the Europeans - who for excellent reasons think we're out of our minds.   

Right knee, operation no. 4. Progress report.

For a couple of weeks I felt pretty despondent. Got over the op well, was up and about, increasingly independent – but had no more flexibility in my right knee than before the operation. And that’s despite my surgeon’s triumphal demonstration at the very end of the op, deliberately bending the knee so I could see the change.

But apparently this is OK. The stuff stopping my knee bending is more to do with post-op swelling than the dreaded scar tissue, and between my two weekly appointments at Bridgnorth physio I’ve made some measurable progress (the magic protractor, just like maths at school), so that I now transfer on to their weekly one-hour session in the gym, moving round various pieces of equipment, but also having some intensive 1:1 work in increasing flexibility in the knee.

At the end of October I get to see my surgeon again. This is a more realistic time scheme within which to review progress, and they’ll ensure that my physio continues for as long as is necessary. If despite that there are still serious flexibility problems then he may perform a manipulation – anaesthetic but not invasive surgery, wrestling the muscles into submission.

Which is fine, but I could/should have been told all that two weeks ago, when I had had no physio and was terrified that the knee was settling into concrete by the day. (It didn’t help that after my first knee op this wasn’t a problem; then I was trotting up and down stairs using alternate legs like a reasonable human being. The problems only set in later).

But I am a lot happier about it now, and cosily settled into my routine of 12 exercises, ten times each every day, with a couple of walks into Wenlock, hours sitting with my knee raised but nestling between two bags of frozen peas, and then a good-night injection into the gut before I go to bed. Thank God for Netflix, BT sport and the local library. 

Fear and Lies

For once, Trump's classic summary "sad" is exactly appropriate. Paul Watson, a senior NHS official, forced hospital leaders to repeatedly chant "We can do this", criticising them for not doing it loudly enough.

Watson sort of gets it. He tries to cover his tracks by saying it was meant as "light relief", but it clearly wasn't, as in his next breath he's insisting there's a serious message there: "If it seems cheesy or patronising then so be it but it does have the merit of being true."

So there. This is about power. These aren't just any hospital leaders. They're leaders of hospitals deemed to be failing, and he's just accused them of putting patients' safety at risk. Before the chanting stunt he offered them a choice - "Do you want the 40-slide version of our message or the four-word version?" Cunning, that. It means they were asking for it, that in a way it's their fault - which presumably is why none of them told him to grow up, or to get stuffed. Welcome to Jeremy Hunt's NHS. Does that sound like an atmosphere in which you'd want to do good work?    

Stewart on Lawrence

A real TV treat. To accompany the TV showing of Gertrude Bell's Letters from Baghdad, BBC4 have put out two one-hour episodes of Rory Stewart talking about the legacy of T.E.Lawrence.  It's been gorgeous - some fabulous photography of landscape and architecture, but also a detailed, clear analysis of what was going on in Lawrence's mind, and why that might matter now. And it's all done by a guy who idolised Lawrence as a kid, and then explored vast stretches of the middle East on foot, staying in bedouin tents. But also by someone who at a ridiculously young age was a governor in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who saw the idioocy of occupation in heartbeaking detail. as his conclusion spells out, it's tragic that the American military are encouraging their officers to study Lawrence - because he's a winner at fighting in the Middle East - whereas Lawrence himself would actually be telling them "don't do it better; don't do it at all." 

This series is from some time back - it shows Stewart walking thoughtfully through a Damascus souk - but I can't think how or why I missed it. Yet again, thank God for catch-up. 

Getting Ahead

I have to confess, I smiled. I shouldn't, because it's a sad story for a number of pupils, and tragic for the guy at the centre of it, but there is still a strange symmetry about the story of Mo Tanweer, the deputy head at Eton who's just lost his job for handing over exam secrets to his pupils. Go on, guess what he used to do before he went into teaching. that's right. He actually was an investment banker.

Maybe he thought he was going into public service, paying something back for the riches he'd acquired. But you can be sure they were rubbing their hands. Just the kind of hot property they wanted to acquire, a guy at the cutting edge, who'd give them an edge, let them mark out their place at the front of the field. It was always one of the drawbacks of league tables, that they fired up the guys who like to be on top, to whom it's more important to bewinners than to educate the kids in their charge.  

Climate Change

Do you really need more warnings about climate change? asks Bill McKibben, as he calmly details the various weather events taking place in North America this week. And yes, of course, if you widen it to the whole planet it's far. far worse. As he knows. He's been warning about this for thirty years. But he manages to stay calm and focused, to mount yet again the unanswerable argument:

"Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit - solve it soon or don't solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing. Winning fast enough to matter would mean, above all, standing up to the fossil fuel industry..." But that's enough. Don't take my work for it. In my paper version, it's on p.25 of the Guardian on Monday, 11 Sept. I'm sure you can find it online.

A voice of sanity

Amidst the mess and the nonsense, there are a few people thinking clearly and - usuallu - talking sense. Owen Jones, Ha-Joon Chang and, today especially, John Harris. He's made sense all through the various campaigns, ducking the hysteria and the generalisations to talk to actual people. In today's Guardian he has a terrific piece about EU nationals coming to Peterborough in search of a better life. they work hard, they move from being casual to full time, employees to employers.

Which raises a question, that Harris phrases with impeccable calm:   "Most of the EU citizens i have spoken to in Peterborough do not have a left-wing thought in their heads; they believe in a credo of self-reliance, hard work and home ownership. In a British context, these ideas are as Tory as they come. So how come so many Conservatives now want to slam the door on their most devout adherents?"

NHS staffing

"NHS England to spend £100m recruiting GPs from overseas." Hang on a minute. Back in October, in the heady days of the Tory Party Conference, I swore I heard Jeremy Hunt promise delegates that we'd have an NHS staffed entirely with pure white Brits. It wasn't right to be taking other country's doctors away from where they were needed (even though it is actually cheaper than training them ourselves), so the new post-Brexit Britain would be treated by a medical workforce that was 100 per cent Brit. Yeah, right.

We should be used to it, but they have no shame. They will say whatever it takes, for today's headlines, to solve this week's crisis. If they have to say the opposite a month later that's fine. Nobody remembers, nobody cares. It's just a game.  


There's been a ton of programmes about the India/Pakistan partition of 1947, almost all of them excellent. I feel substantially wiser, and grateful to all the people who've clearly taken this as an opportunity to invest time, thought and money in public education. Lord Reith, for once, might be smiling. Gurinder Chadha's "India's Partition:The Forgotten Story" was possibly the best of the lot, coming towards the end of the sequence, but offering a stunningly clear account of how different elements combined to produce this exceptionally bloody result. There was a lot of rather silly (apparent) toing and froing, from the UK to India, back to the UK and then to a different part of India, as though Chadha,, was jumping on and off various buses around London. But the quality of the programme was the expert witnesses it gathered to explain precisely what was going on, at each stage of the process, and from them we got the sense of how impersonal forces combined with individual personalities (Nehru, Gandhi and Jinna in particular, but also the Brits involved) to produce a toxic juggernaut which by the end was unstoppable - though it could certainly have been handled more wisely - i.e. by taking time, calculating likely consequences, rather than staying out of violent clashes and getting the hell out as fast as possible. There may be parts of our colonial record we should celebrate, but this isn't one of them. 

The State

You can't please some people any of the time. Peter Kosminsky spends a lot of time researching and then making the state, a drama in four parts, one hour each, shown on four successive nights. It's about Brits going to Syria in support of Isis. I thought it was fascinating, and really well done. A bit formulaic, heavily constricted by the need to get in tons of useful information that had been gathered, but not stupid or preachy, and light years ahead of most of the thinking that we get about Isis from politicians or the TV news. you could begin to understand why people like these could initially be attracted by some of what they hear, even if that - inevitably? - leads to later disillusion as they taste the grim and complex reality of what's involved. The Daily Mail was predictably scathing. Kosminsky was a white, middle-aged Oxbridge graduate - he hadn't actually been to Raqqa to find out for himself. Stuart Jeffies in The Guadrian wasn't much better: "Isis Drama fails to offer any answers on radicalisation." Oh right. That's why we watch plays, is it? So they'll give us the answers. Some days I think that if I could speak another language I'd emigrate.  

Hate and the Beautiful Game

It took me a while, but I finally caught up with Gareth Thomas' TV documentary about homophobia in English football. And it is that specific - there's a prominent gay American soccer player who's happy to have come out there, but wouldn't have done so here. And Thomas' own experience in British rugby (backed up by referee Nigel Owens) indicates that that's a much more civilised world in this respect. So Thomas goes looking for answers. He trawls through trolling on line, and listens to the abuse in the stands. He sees how some clubs are much better geared than others to combat it - Cardiff, for instance, have a well-trained team who will identify, remove and then ban fans who abuse black players - but would they be as vigilant about homophobic chants? As with Thomas' own case, it needs prominent players with the nerve to come out - and once that happens, they'll get backing from sponsors (great positive story) and some of the press. But before that happens, the powers that be need to get their act together, produce and then enforce a common pattern of resistance to open homophobia. Thomas tries. He really does. He works out a possible code of practice, with a supportive lawyer. He tries, endlessly, to make an appointment with one top official. He talks to another, gets a load of platitudes and good intentions, and comes out shaking his head "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." As a record of intelligence and determination confronting stupidity and inertia this is a wonderful programme; as an indication of the state of football, it's deeply depressing. 

Simple Solutions

And yes, it's Trump again. Sorry about that, but it's hard to resist, when the man just keeps on throwing up tasty little nuggets of controversy. (There's also the sense that this can't possibly last, that any minute now all the toys will go out of the pram and he'll stump back to Trump Tower, to gaze at his gold reflection.) 

This is a tiny scrap, which most media haven't picked up, but I think it's significant. After a reasonably conventional quote regretting the latest terrorist outrage (in Barcelona) Trump gets to musing about "what General Pershing did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!"

What Pershing did (or may not have done - there are serious doubts about this story's  authenticity) was to dip bullets in pig's blood, shoot 49 of the terrorists, and then instruct the 50th to go back to his mates and report what he'd just seen. Could anyone seriously believe that such an action would simply cancel out the impulses behind the current wave of terrorist attacks? Trump, apparently. Just as he believed it was simple to "drain the swamp", easy to lock up Hillary and build the wall, no problem to simple scrub out Obamacare. But look where we are now on each of those innocent childish dreams. Government actually is much harder than it looks.    

Right-wing violence

Ivanka Trump is smart enough to see that there's no justification for the aggression and violence shown by right-wing demonstrators at Charlottesville. Some issues can be fudged or evaded, but racism as crude and destructive as that doesn't leave any room for equivocation. Unless, of course, you're her dad. Yet again, Trump insists on the right to define his own universe, to pretend that the killing of a paralegal resulted from evenly distributed extremism from left as well as right, rather than being the very specific result of cultivated hatred. Partly, of course, because he's one of the ones who's been doing the cultivating, and his presence in the White House depends on the vehement support of white supremacists. Whether he'll see the need for a more mature, detached view, which doesn't relate to his own immediate self-interest, only time will tell. But don't hold your breath.   

Al Gore

Got a last minute e-mail warning me of a showing of Al Gore's latest film, at the Telford Odeon cinema. (For some reason, the only places in Shropshire which got this gig were the two cinemas in Telford). the film doesn't go on general circulation till next week, but there was a bonus of a streamed interview from a big London cinema, featuring Al Gore, responding to a range from questions which varied from the profound to the trivial. He dealt with them all with economy and grace, never stuck for a word, hugely equipped to produce relevant information. He is phenomenal, determined, relaxed and very warm, heartened by the commitment and idealism of young activists, who have - as he was keen to point out - always powered large movements which achieved radical change - civil rights, feminism, gay liberation. It's a big, tough challenge, but in his company there's no question of simply ducking it or giving up. His wheeler-dealing at the Paris summit, finding the right contacts and clout to help India choose solar power over coal-fired energy, was really impressive. Perhaps, despite Trump, we still have a chance.  

American Werewolf in Dudley Castle

Not a movie you've heard of, but that's because it was an unique and unforgettable night. Flatpack Festival is a terrific Birmingham even, annually in April, but they also run occasional one-offs. (I will admit an interest: it was set up and is run by my son Ian). On Friday we went to the grounds of Dudley Castle, with camping chairs and lots of warm clothing, to camp round the illuminated grounds of Dudley Castle, and watch an evening showing of the John Landis film American Werewolf in London. a freaky choice, maybe, but it worked brilliantly, with the added taster of a short filmed intro from Landis, who looked faintly amused by the idea of us watching his movie alongside animals in the zoo, but he wished us a good night nonetheless.

We were walking back afterwards, my wife carrying our chairs, when a couple of girls offered to help her with them. she thanked them but said she was fine, and they then were very keen to know if we'd enjoyed the film. We assured them we had, and they were delighted. They'd gone because it was one of their mum's favourite films. A gorgeous, warm little cameo to end a fabulous evening. 



Ha-Joon Chang

As valued gurus age and die (Stuart Hall, Tony Judt) so it's good to discover new intellectual heroes. One of my current favourites is Ha-joon chang, a Korean economist currently based in the UK, who writes occasional articles in The Guardian. He's always clear, patient and constructive, never full of himself or showboating, but the careful accumulation of argument and evidence is devastating. He's run a tireless campaign - much more courageously and consistently than the Labour Party - to expose the Cameron/Osborne myth that "Labour spent it all", and I've just finished "Bad Samaritans", a thorough analysis of what's wrong with the IMF/World Bank approach to third world development. He gets an intricate situation and two hundred years of history down to a couple of hundred pages; there's no way I'm reducing that to a paragraph, but I do feel clearer, wiser, more positive. Go out and get hold of it for yourself.  

Binge TV

It's all changed. Back in the day, I'd make a note of what I wanted to watch when, see in advance when commitments clashed with things I wanted to watch, and carefully set the video to record. Oh boy. those were the days.

Saturday night, I have the house - and the TV set - to myself. so I have four hours of solid viewing. an hour of Ozark, courtesy of Netflix. An hour of Top of the Lake:China Girl, which has just been launched, but launched with all six episodes available from the start, courtesy of iplayer. And then there's two episodes, back to back, of I Know Who You Are, thoughtfully transmitted on BBC 4.

Sheer luxury. and, sadly, all foreign. One American, one Australian, one Spanish. None of them perfect, but all stylish and compulsive, and streets ahead of recent Brit series I've sampled in hope and then given up on in despair - Fearless, In the Dark. Interesting ideas, promising starts, but  then they collapse in a tangle of implausible situations and ramped up hysteria.  

The mind of Trump

You're right. don't even go there. But it's tempting, reading account of Trump addressing the boy Scouts jamboree, to wonder what on earth he's thinking. He is bright enough to know that this isn't just another Trump rally. So he starts by making all the right noises;

"Tonight we put aside all the policy fights in Washington DC you've been hearing about. Who the hell wants to speak about politics?"

Well he does, apparently. He goes on a long riff about the mainstream news media getting the size of the crowd wrong, like they always do if it's his crowd. And then he rants on about Obamacare, and invites the 40,000 scouts plus families to boo Hillary Clinton and Obama. Is there just a chance he'll wake up next day and wonder "Maybe that was a mistake?"

Humphrys harrumphing again

I don't listen to Today. Can't stand the sound of Humphreys and Naughtie, assuring us that they know how the world works. but I was glad to see newspaper reports of John Humphrys coming unstuck, as he seeks to put Johanna Konta in her place. "I seem to remember" he says, acting casual, "that the Australian high commissioner, when you won the quarter-final, said 'Great to see an Aussie win.' " (HEAVY HINT so you're not really British, are you?)

She laughs (I like that bit.) "I was actually born in Australia to Hungarian parents. But I've lived half my life here now, almost, so I'm a British citizen and I'm incredibly proud to represent Great Britain."

Could he graciously accept that he got it wrong, and back down? Of course he couldn't. He has to have another go. "You were, so I read, the 388th best junior in Australia. Now, normally, people wouldn't look at you and say "Ah, she is a future champion."

She laughs again. "That's not entirely accurate as well because, actually, I won the under-12s nationals in Australia when i was a youngster, so I was definitely one of the best in the country." All right, John? Had enough? You're so lucky she's relaxed enough to be amused by your rudeness, instead of smacking you in the face as you deserve.