Avoid overlap in your answers

I think we’re seeing emergent modes of behaviour with respect to the current UK coalition government. There’s some decent champion-of-the-people stuff happening in the margins. Vince Cable thinks the retail banks are ripping off consumers: he’s probably right to think it. Rory Stewart wants better broadband in Cumbria: he’s probably right to want it.

In the centre of things, though, there’s now a queue of ministers making articulated policy statements. If this were going well, we’d be looking at some systematic law-making; something a Tory supporter could, with a straight face, call reform. What we’re actually getting is a stream of crap. There’s no coordination to any of it. Call it government by assignment. This is a model of government where ministers go away at the beginning of long leave the holidays with a homework topic; on the first day of term, they return each having prepared a presentation, which they then deliver. Conferring is strongly discouraged; ministers should show their own work. Conferring, though, might at least have uncovered some of the obvious problems.

For example, IDS has been doing welfare and benefits, but his department has just given him a D; his proposals are considered both too expensive and too socially destructive by those who’d be put in charge of implementing them. Andrew Lansley’s been doing health: we’ve more to hear on this, but the doctors themselves, as represented by the BMJ, don’t much like what they see. Interestingly, nothing much of Lansley’s presentation was foreshadowed in the Tory election manifesto; it’s good to be the one person to advance a new idea, except of course for those occasions when what’s wanted is a mandate for that idea. At those times, originality bad.

And David Cameron is about to give a presentation on what he calls the Big Society. This is Cameron’s dissertation topic, and we’ve heard about it before. Officially, the main idea is redistribution of power.

The big society … is about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.

Snark aside, there are basically two kinds of power when it comes to public services. The first kind of power is control over a budget. The second kind of power is direct authority over people in the community served (i.e. the sort of power the police, social workers, or local authority officers have).

Does the Big Society grant either kind of power to anyone who doesn’t already have it? To a first approximation: no. It might well remove some local authority power, though. In that light, the Big Society is simply wrongly named: what’s envisaged is the Smaller Society. Charities existed before the welfare reforms of the twentieth century; did they constitute a Big Society then? And charities still exist today, with tax concessions attached. Charities are doing fine, but if charities don’t already make a Big Society, they’re not about to get made into one. Access to a couple of hundred million from forgotten-about bank accounts (reminder to self: call the building society tomorrow) won’t render charities significantly more empowered. On the contrary: UK charities are themselves susceptible to fiscal austerity; they get around a third of their funding from the government. What’s being pushed at us is a deliberate enlargement of the charity domain. Normally, when we think of charities as having plenty to do, we think of earthquakes and other disasters as visited on poor and unequal societies. To be honest, we’d probably all prefer it if charities had less to do. And better societies – to my mind at least – call less for charity.

Of course, we’re likely to be shown a handful of exemplar schemes. Here the precedent of city academies almost obliges us to watch and see whether or not budgets have been discreetly and conveniently allocated. We’d be mugs not to.

Cameron is spinning and presenting this shtick like he’s got until he end of the week to get it into law. And it’s not just him. As Jamie says, all of this stuff is getting rushed. Collectively, the coalition comes across as deeply and dismally unserious. On the upside – and it’s the IDS situation that suggests this to me – there still exist those with the chops to have gotten to be senior in the civil service. The penalty for causing civil service dismay, most likely, is that your ideas are soon shown to be unimplementable. So I give the show and tell-ers two years of this.

Oh It’s All Gone Quiet Over In The Eurozone!

Or has it? According to Anchalee Worrachate in Bloomberg:

“A report from the Bank of Spain showed Spanish lenders borrowed a record 126.3 billion euros ($161 billion) from the ECB in June as investors shunned the nation’s banks. Spain’s banks increased borrowing 48 percent from 85.6 billion euros in May. That compares with a drop of 4 percent to 496.6 billion euros that the ECB provided lenders in the whole euro area. Spanish banks haven’t sold any bonds publicly in the past two months on concern the nation won’t be able to cut its deficit without hurting the economy.”

Pretty hard to argue now the Spanish bank borrowing from the ECB is simply in line with the country’s share of total GDP I would have thought. Also, after having trended upwards ever so slightly for a couple of months, Spain’s industrial output actually fell back again in May (by 0.3%) while output in Germany roared ahead by 2.9%. Obviously not everyone is getting the same benefit from the weaker euro, could competitiveness have anything to do with it, I wonder?

Quoted in the Financial Times earlier today Klaus Regling, chief executive of the European Financial Stability Facility said the fund would be “ready to act whenever the politicians tell us to act.” I guess the situation of Spain’s banks would be one of the things he must have had in mind.

Using a footballing analogy, you get to see a lot in the press about how this club is chasing this player, while that one is chasing another one, until the moment of the actually negotiations comes. Somehow, at that point the sporting press goes strangely silent.

Of course, when those much talked of stress test finally come out, we’ll all be able to see for ourselves that Spain’s banks – apart from a few ropey old Cajas that no one in their right mind would be interested in anyway – are in absolutely sterling and tip top condition (and not like their shabby German counterparts at all). Won’t we José (Viñals)?

Or are those reponsible for the Spanish banking system finally going to face up to their responsibilities, amble out of that closet they have been tightly locked away inside for the last three years, and follow the advice of Jacques Cailloux, chief European economist at RBS, by seizing opportunity provided by this months “getting it all out in the open” fest to start restoring investor confidence by really getting down to straightening out the mess? Continue reading

Is There Global Economic Slowdown In The Works?

According to Ralph Atkins writing in the Financial Times last week, “the pace of Germany’s recovery is helping dispel fears of a “double dip” recession across the continent as a result of the crisis over public finances in southern European countries”. Coincidentally, however, on the very same day, Alan Beattie writing from Washington informed us that the IMF feel “the risk of a slowdown in the global economic recovery has risen sharply”. This left me asking myself which is it: is the global recovery a question of up up and away, or are we at the start of a renewed slowdown (whether or not you wish to term this a “double-dip”)? So I thought I would take a look through some of the most recent data (both hard and soft) to see if I could make any sense of the situation. Continue reading

Croatia: On The Brink of What?

As Croatia enters the final stage of its EU membership talks, it is perhaps a fitting moment to review the other half of the picture, namely where the Croatian economy finds itself, and what the outlook might be for a continuing convergence with the requirements of Euro membership. Understandably, EU officials are fairly cautious about the likely shape and progress of the forthcoming talks (the Union has, after all got rather a lot on its plate at the moment), but Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor is decidedly more optimistic, since while she recognises that this last phase is likely to be “really difficult and demanding” she still believes that negotiations could be concluded by the end of the year, which would mean that membership in 2012 would become a possibility. Continue reading


In the wake of Germany-Argentina, I think it’s fair to say that perhaps a lot of the national soul searching about the England team is wasted. Even this initially attractive analysis. The explanation is very simple: Germany are fantastic, will probably win the World Cup, will probably win the European Championship, and might win the next World Cup as well.

In many ways, they implement one of the essential, classic approaches to football – push and run.

Chris might have a point in an inverse sense; if you wanted an anti-Taylorist approach to football, Germany would do rather well. No beanpoles, stars, ball-hoggers, or goal hangers. Just eleven very good general-purpose players with a wide range of skills, operating in a plan with broad outlines and lots of scope to adapt.

J. Carter Wood reports, amusingly, on the team’s impact on sociologists; the Prenzlauer Berg blog has a practical solution.


Roger Bootle of Capital Economics is making sense.

There are umpteen countries which are running huge current account surpluses: last year, China’s surplus was 6pc of GDP, Taiwan’s 11pc, Malaysia’s 17pc and Singapore’s 19pc. The oil producers also ran huge surpluses – 5pc in Saudi Arabia (down from a massive 28pc the year before), 16pc in Libya and Qatar, and 26pc in Kuwait. Within Europe our two big oil producers, Russia and Norway, ran surpluses of 4pc and 14pc respectively.

Among non-oil producers in Europe, Germany and Holland ran surpluses of 5pc, and Switzerland 9pc. Moreover, these countries are in general sitting on huge international reserves. This is where the money is and it is where demand should expand.

China remains the key to Asia. The Chinese government cleverly changed the exchange rate regime governing the renminbi just before the G20 summit. However, this was nothing more than a cosmetic move designed to head off criticism. The consequent rise of the currency will be minimal.

Anyway, the more important issue is the willingness of the Chinese to rebalance the economy towards consumers and away from reliance on exports…

You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level

Alex Perry, an Africa correspondent Africa bureau chief for Time magazine, writes on China’s involvement in Africa. In the process, he describes the DRC as a “sucking vortex”, citing the corrupt rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Julie Hollar at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) takes Perry to task for failing to mention US / Belgian involvement in the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba (and their subsequent support of Mobutu). Perry then makes the terrible mistake of responding to Hollar in comments while not in full control of his own sense of self-importance. Self-harming behaviour (not to mention Time-harming behaviour) then follows.

Jonathan Schwarz (Tiny Revolution) summarises the Perry / Hollar spat and takes the opportunity to quote an apposite passage from Devlin’s book about his time as CIA station chief in the Congo. It’s good, so I’ll quote it myself here:

We moved onto Ambassador Houghton’s office where we were joined by Ambassador Burden for more detailed talks concerning the Congo and its problems…During our discussions, Tim brought up a delicate matter: “Time magazine plans to do a cover story on Lumumba with his picture on the front of the magazine.” He continued, “Celebrity coverage at home will make him even more difficult to deal with. He’s a first-class headache as it is.”

“Then why don’t you get the story killed?” Burden asked. “Or at least modified?”

“I tried to persuade the Time man in Leopoldville until I was blue in the face,” Tim replied. “But he said there was nothing he could do about it because the story had already been sent to New York.”

“You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level,” Burden said pulling out his address book and flipping through the pages. He picked up the phone and put a call through to the personal assistant of Henry Luce, Time’s owner.

So: Time. Apparently at the beginning it was going to be called Facts. May I just say at this point that if news reporting on the internet as we currently know it should happen to get wound up in favour of dedicated news magazine ‘apps’ running on tightly controlled platforms, then – since you can’t link from the web to the content of a proprietary app – no one will be linking to the bullshit with an explanation of why the bullshit is bullshit. It’s pretty obvious that Steve Jobs is nostalgic for the corporate futurism of the 1960s – only now he gets to implement it, woo-hoo – and it just doesn’t look as though end user selectivity features large in any part of the Jobs vision. You’ll get what you’re given and call it knowledge.

Pretty much the only part of Africa I’ve spent any time in at all is Madagascar. I’ve visited twice. They’ve just celebrated fifty years of independence from France. Andy Rajoelina has failed to gain international recognition since he took over (with the support of the army): for what it’s worth, celebrations are reported to be muted as a consequence. I think you have to give the Malagasy population credit for two things. First, they know a stitch up when they see one. Pre-Rajoelina, a South Korean chaebol had some deal under negotiation where (in broad terms) they’d produce corn and bio-fuel on some immense percentage of Madagascar’s arable land (half of it?) and then get to keep all the corn and all the fuel. In return, the Malagasy at large would get, not rent exactly, but at least the promise of being allowed to work as agricultural labourers for the South Koreans. News of this ‘deal’ prompted the ouster of Ravalomanana. You wonder if even Philip K. Dick could have foreseen it. As it happens, Alex Perry sees good things in the ‘deal-making approach’ for Africa:

For all the heat, IMF officials admit that the Chinese model for African development has some advantages. First, it’s quick. Loan talks with multilateral agencies take years. The China-Angola discussions took weeks. “With the West, there are studies, analyses and bureaucracy,” says the Western official. “The Chinese just ask what the government wants, and they don’t question or comment or judge. They just do it.”

My understanding is that the South Koreans took a similar approach: they just asked the then president what he wanted. Lickety-split …

The other thing about the Malagasy is this. When they have a coup, they generally do it with the minimum of violence and fuss. Madagascar is not a wealthy country but it’s smart enough not to waste too much time and effort on civil war when what’s wanted is a change in the administration.

Extra cooks wanted for hot kitchen

It’s dawning on me that everyone is off on their holidays just at the moment, or is otherwise enjoying the nice summer weather, far from the screen of any computer or mobile device. Which is why it’s so quiet. Anyway, that must mean that I get to play the role of late night radio DJ for afoe, except that instead of lining up a few gentle Isabelle Boulay tracks for the benefit of Norbert Dentressangle truckers, I’ll be putting up a post every couple of days for y’all, mostly on an extremely dry topic of my choosing.

But now, back to the ArcelorMittal Orbit. It was announced today that architects Ushida Findlay have designed a ‘silver coil’ to wrap around Kapoor and Balmond’s Olympic tower of sadness. At first I thought this was a guerrilla publicity move by Ushida Findlay – a bit like the stuff the Smithsons used to do when some major project was announced and they weren’t invited to contribute – and I was quite excited. I like the idea of designers piling onto a failed project in an attempt to effect some positive change, or alternatively perhaps a terminal subversion. But turns out Ushida Findlay are part of the official team. You can see their contribution here (link intermittently paywalled, but there’s also some images here, apparently gotten from the official planning application).

And it has to be said there’s not much new to see. The ‘silver coil’ seems to have been there all along, clashes and bad geometry and all. What’s more, it’s not even very silvery.