The grinch who stole talent

Chris Dillow (of Stumbling and Mumbling), responding to Gordon Brown’s recent speech to the Labour Party, says that “economic success requires that talent not be unlocked, and remain unused”. So Brown’s call for the development of “all the talents of all the people” is “purest wibble” because “all profits come from power, and this means disempowering talented workers”.

Now Chris may be shooting for some sort of curmudgeon of the year award here, but what’s worse is that his argument is misleading. The first problem is that he politicises something which can’t be changed, which is the fact that life involves choice. Chris says:

… specialisation stifles many of our talents. The musician who becomes a lawyer never fully unlocks his musical talent. The cricketer who becomes a doctor lets his cricketing talent wither.

But these examples are chosen so to contrast the ‘world of work’ with ‘fun’ things. You could just as well say ‘the gymnast who becomes a lacrosse player never fully develops his vaulting skills’ or ‘the muralist who becomes a photographer never fully develops her drafting skills’. Even an imaginary society of extended lifespans and perfect leisure will produce these sorts of choices. I’d hope we can agree that Gordon Brown can’t be blamed for not having an answer to that.

When you do turn to ‘work’, of course, you have to agree that it does constrain people. This is because work is transactional: you have to keep your side of the bargain. But you get things in return, including things that help you to develop your ‘talent’, not the least of which may be a context through which to define your talent. The transactional framework of skill development is, in fact, wider than what is often understood as ‘work’. The trainee gymnast, for example, has to agree to stick to a certain diet and a certain training schedule. If he doesn’t, he won’t receive further coaching. So becoming a gymnast resembles work (even if no money changes hands). Many gymnasts might say it is work. Conversely, work can be fun and rewarding: you get to get better at something.

Of course, Chris would argue that while this might be an ideal formulation of ‘work’, most jobs just aren’t like that. Part of his argument is that the transaction is unequal: the ‘skills’ you get to acquire are in fact demeaning and – crucially – you’re often expected to work at less than your full capacity. True, plenty of jobs are dull and demeaning. But use any economic model you like – and Chris is using a Marxist model – the trends have been going the other way. There is more automation. There are more high skill jobs than there used to be; people live longer, and have longer retirements in which to develop other skills. There is more leisure time. Politically – and this is one of the EU’s finest achievements – there is greater labour mobility and therefore more choice of occupation. And there are more educational opportunities. Many of these things could be reversed – and our political culture will be one determinant of this – but drudgery for all is not yet a requirement.

Another problem with Chris’s argument is that he takes ‘talent’ as essentially personal. In Chris’s view, talent is a thing that lies within which can either be released or kept imprisoned. The latent premier league footballer inside the call centre operative; fully formed but denied opportunity for expression. I would suggest that a better way to think of ‘talent’ is as a predisposition to respond quickly to development in the context of a willing audience. Skills and admirers: for ‘talent’, you need both. On this understanding, latent premier league footballers don’t exist: there are only those who actually do play in the premier league. The rest (including you and me, possibly) are ‘other’ footballers. We might in some sense be ‘better’ than the premier leaguers, but we don’t have their audience. Or look at it from the other end. Imagine that the number of premier league clubs were halved tomorrow (the TV audience has declined). None of the premier leaguers are changed, physically. Their passing and dribbling skills are undiminished. But now, suddenly, half of them are no longer premier league players. So was that talent ever fully theirs?

This is significant in the context of increasing diversity, which has been the trend. There are more kinds of sports than there used to be (new sports get invented). Handball is popular in Germany but not – so far – in Britain: after the 2012 London Olympics this could change. And it’s not just sports: there are more kinds of job than there used to be. Necessarily, the ‘audience’ for each is smaller. What does this mean for talent? Less opportunity, or more? We seem to have to give a mixed verdict.

Finally, there’s personal experience. My experience of work is that there’s no limit to how challenging you can make it. You can aim to make it easy, of course, and that’s a sensible aim. But despite occasional idiocies, there are regular opportunities to do things in a new way. I think this is true at least of every profession. By contrast, here is Chris’s view of the way things work in medicine:

If you had to go to hospital for a minor operation, who would you rather perform it: the brilliant surgeon for whom the operation is a dull routine one, or the young and mediocre one for whom it’s a challenge requiring full use of their talent?

I suspect this situation never arises, and not just because surgeons, like most people, tend to work in teams so as to combine experience. The young surgeon will be committed to doing her job well – on the basis of her training – and the older one is likely to want to innovate. Both are good.

Funny, it doesn’t look like Kansas…

Though creationism does rear its ugly head from time to time in Europe, it is largely a fringe phenomenon. Unlike in America, even most religious Europeans accept evolution as an obvious fact, viewing the biblical creation stories (yes, there’s more than one) as, at most, poetic metaphor. So it’s easy for us over here to indulge in a superior smile when we observe the antics of those primitive American bible-thumpers.

At least in Germany, we shouldn’t be so quick to smile. Continue reading

Italy’s Supply Constraint

The OECD estimates the current potential capacity growth rate of the Italian economy at 1.25% a year. Actually I suspect even this very low number is over-optimistic. Growth since 2002 has been as follows: 2003 – 0.1%: 2004 – 0.9%: 2005 – 0.1%. To be sure forecast growth for this year is somewhat higher, at 1.4%, and optimists are expecting this to be more or less repeated next year. But I suspect this outcome is unlikely simply because the global economy now seems to be slowing (and in particular the ever important US economy),so the strongly advantageous situation of 2006 is unlikely to be repeated, while next year the Italian government has promised to introduce an important package of spending reductions which are bound to negatively affect growth, at least in the short term..

But why is potential growth capacity in Italy so low?
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Asia beats Europe in education

From the BBC News site comes this disconcerting news:

Europe is falling behind Asia in terms of education and skills, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It blames France and Germany which are criticised for mediocre education systems and their inherent class bias.

And further on:

“Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don’t receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families,” the study said.

It seems we are wasting a lot of potential here, not to mention the loss in future competitiveness and possible social unrest.

Turnering The Screw

The Turner Report is about to appear. The Turner in question is the UK peer Lord Adair Turner, and the subject of the report the future of the UK pensions system. Although the final report is not due till the end of the month, the FT has been ‘ leaking’ some of the possible contents.

The commission will apparently suggest that the age at which workers can claim their full state pension should, over time, rise from 65 to 67. The increase is intended to come in stages, starting after 2020 when the UK’s women’s state pension age is set to be aligned with men’s at 65. Thereafter, state pension age should rise in line with increasing longevity, the commission will say. Now this idea seems to me to be a very important one, and I’d just like to take the time out to explain why I think this.
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Europe’s Digital Divide

“A digital divide has appeared among Europeans, with age, income and education determining whether the continent’s citizens use the Internet”, at least this is the conclusion of a new study conducted by Eurostat on behalf of the EU commission.The largest divide by educational level was found in Portugal, and the smallest in Lithuania, only in the Netherlands did more than half of the retired population use the internet. Only in Sweden (70%), Denmark (64%), Finland (54%) and Germany (51%) did more than half of the lower educated use the internet during the first quarter of 2004, while the proportion of the higher educated who used the internet fell below 50% only in Lithuania (38%) and Greece (48%). Now why do I not find all this particularly surprising?

In the EU25, 85% of students (aged 16 or more in school or university) used the internet during the first quarter of 2004, as did 60% of employees, 40% of the unemployed and 13% of the retired, compared to an EU25 average of 47% for individuals aged from 16 to 74. This divide by employment status is also found by educational level: only 25% of those with at most lower secondary education used the internet during the first quarter of 2004, while the proportion rose to 52% for those who had completed secondary education, and 77% for those with a tertiary education.

Falling rate of Intelligence?

Conventional marxist theory used to argue that capitalism was doomed to regular and deepening crisis due to the impact of a phenomen known as ‘the falling rate of profit’. Basically the idea runs as follows: since on the marxist view labour is the only source of genuine wealth creation, and capital accumulation means that the proportion of active labour to ‘dead labour’ (capital investment) tends to decline, then the ‘rate of profit’ will diminish accordingly. Now I certainly have no intention of going into all this rigmorole, but I do remember some wit back in the seventies suggesting that if this was the case, then, for example, we could argue that intelligence must be falling, since the quantity of active human brainpower as a proportion of accumulated knowledge (living to dead ‘mental labour’) was constantly diminishing.

Well, low and behold, a paper out this week at the NBER argues just this case.
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Thoughts on Establishment

Not having been educated in Europe, I can’t contribute to the thread on religious education. But I want to thank Nick for putting it up, and everyone else for their comments on it. One of my pet peeves is how American arguments about religious education, and “establishment” issues in general (as they are usually described in the U.S., following the language of the First Amendment), seem to me at least to be trapped in a very narrow (judicially dictated, for the most part) box. I’m not a theocrat, but I suspect that, had America’s historical experience with religious-civic partnerships been different, we perhaps might more easily be able to relate to both the benefits, and the costs, of the sort of (I think highly admirable) experiences with religious education that many of you are describing. Anyway, your thoughts prompt me to excerpt here a post from my own blog from last September; specifically, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas, that expresses my views of the matter pretty succinctly…
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Religious education in Europe

Following on from threads on Calpundit and Crooked Timber, and given that Europe seems to be at the centre of the debate over religious education in schools at present, what with the French headscarf debate and the proposals to add atheism, agnosticism and humanism to RE in British schools, I thought it would be interesting to get a picture of how the teaching of religion is handled in education systems across Europe.

Below the fold of this post, I’ve given my experiences of religious education at school in Britain and what I understand to be the present position. What I’d like is for our commenters and other contributors to add their experiences or knowledge in the comments box and we’ll see what sort of cross-continental picture we come up with. I’ll admit to being quite ignorant of the position outside Britain (though I know some of the system in France and Ireland) and hopefully we can all enlighten ourselves!
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