Archive for February, 2013

Look to Japan

February 10, 2013

In an excellent piece fot The Observer, in which he outlines lessons he learned from his week with Japan’s power-brokers, the columnist Will Hutton outlines the  “toll two decades of deflation had levied on Japanese society”

Hiromasa Yonekura, the president of the Keidanren, Japan’s all-powerful employers’ association, told me that this lack of confidence, in his view unjustified, had become hard-wired into Japan’s culture by falling prices. It affected even the birth rate and was the chief cause of Japan’s rapidly ageing society. Nor is the birth rate the only sign of a society in stress. Young women’s role in Japanese society is being knocked back by the fashion for coquettishness and cartoon-style prettiness, complete with singsong voices and contrived ways of walking. It is a return to suffocating traditionalism masked as fashionable faddishness. A society worried about its future becomes socially regressive.

However, he does observe that Japan’s capacity to pick itself up and go about the business of recovery is  “very much greater than our own.” And why is this?

Time after time, as I questioned company leaders about their capacity to do this, I was referred to Japan’s “public interest” or “stakeholder” capitalism – committed long-term ownership, partnership with the state to drive research forward and corporate leaderships keen to find commercial responses to the giant economic and social problems of our time. It is a world foreign to our own of shareholder value maximisation and gigantic personal bonuses, where interest in social problems is seen as “anti-business”.

It certainly is.


Closure of “Closure”

February 10, 2013

When people nowdays talk about dealing with tragedy and loss these days, they find it extremely difficult to avoid the word “closure.”  When it comes to dealing the death of someone close to us, when he have to deal with the consequence of some  catastrophe or other, or when it comes to a perceived breakdown of a relationship,  we are frequently told that what we need is closure. Closure is supposed to the final healer and means by which close some chapter or other of life and are get on with rest of it.

It’s not all that difficult to see why the idea appeals. The idea of bringing suffering or grief to an end or close,  and as result begin without sorrow, guilt, or anger has to be appealing. A term that originated in Gestalt psychology has by the end of the last century become so commonplace that it is on the tip of the tongue almost everyone who wants to help in getting someone over a difficult patch.

Very recently there are people who have begun to cast doubt on the usefulness of the idea either as a theory or in practice. For example,  the American sociologist Nancy Berns, in her book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, poses  the following questions:

When it comes to the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or even a national tragedy, we are often told we need “closure.” School children are told to find closure after a shooting. A nation seeks closure after 9/11. Mourners search for closure after a funeral, and family members want it following a homicide. Families of missing persons search for closure, as do Katrina survivors and other victims of natural disasters. People are told to find closure after their pets die. Closure is a new emotional state, one that people supposedly need to find in order to heal after a loss. But do people need closure? Or is it even possible to find closure after bad things happen? Why has talk about closure become so popular?

Closure has become a central part of sales talks in the funeral, grief, relationship advice, and memorialization industries as well as a political argument for issues ranging from the death penalty to roadside memorials. Closure provides an engaging behind-the-scenes look at how and why the concept of closure is used to sell products and politics.

But what is closure? There is no agreed upon answer. Closure has been described as justice, peace, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, moving on, resolution, answered questions, or revenge. And how are you supposed to find this closure? People try to find closure by planting trees, acquiring memorial tattoos, forgiving murderers, watching killers die, talking to offenders, writing letters, burning letters, burning wedding dresses, burying wedding rings, casting spells, taking trips to Hawaii, buying expensive pet urns, committing suicide, talking to dead people, reviewing autopsies, and planning funerals. And this is just a partial list.

Talking about closure limits how we think about grief and fails to capture the experiences of many who grieve over death or other losses. Some people struggle to meet social expectations for closure when privately they resent the idea or, worse, they wonder whether something is wrong with them because they do not have closure.

 One of the pithiest remarks I have heard on the subject has been made by Stephen Grosz in his book, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, and it is this:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow.

Pithy and true? I wonder.

Across the Great Divide – The United States Congress today.

February 9, 2013

In a chapter 6, entitled The Sources of Polarization, of his book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress” , (part of which is reprinted in Salon) Tom_Allen, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and current president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers, describes a dozen years in Congress left him “alarmed and frustrated by the inability of Republicans and Democrats to comprehend each other well enough to work together on our country’s major challenges.”  He makes a case that what’s really wrong with Congress is that Republicans and Democrats now hold worldviews that leave the two parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what should be done collectively.

 Whatever the socio-economic factors that feed our discontent, our system of government was designed by James Madison and the founders to foster sustained deliberation by representatives of the people who would be committed to acting in the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Too often, the Congress in which I served responded to the short-term interests of particular industries and groups. The Senate, once recognized as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” hardly warrants that title today.

That’s not how things are viewed nowadays.

Democrats see Republicans as inattentive to evidence and expertise, unconcerned about Americans struggling to get by and reflexively opposed to government action to deal with our collective challenges. On the other hand, Republicans see Democrats as the party of a government that routinely infringes on personal freedom, as creators of a “culture of dependency” among people who should stand on their own and as promoters of change from traditional values that will leave us weaker than before.

These different perspectives drive congressional debates far more than the immediate subject before the House on any given day. Above all, the abiding clash between the view of government as a vehicle for the common good and the view of government as an obstacle to progress and personal freedom sits close to the center of our ideological gridlock. That’s why I believe that Congress is best characterized as a forum for interest-group politics overlaid by worldview politics, and it’s the latter struggle that contributes more to the dysfunctional nature of the institution.

His explanation of how these deeply rooted sources of political polarization came into being, and are being nurtured, is both illuminating and dispiriting. It’s dispiriting because, given that he that “people are increasingly sorting themselves into the party that fits their worldview and less to the party that seeks to protect their economic interests”, he must know that any project designed escape the grip of the forces that bringing this about is almost certainly doomed.

A modest proposal for the Tories by a Tory?

February 7, 2013

Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton and a member of the joint committee on human rights, writing in today’s edition of The Guardian has a few proposals which, if adopted, could mean that the Tories may  not be as unelectable as they probably are at present.

…..rather than trying to outbid Labour on political correctness, we need a positive vision, rooted in fair competition, social tolerance and meritocracy.

The Conservatives have relevant policy ingredients – for example, lifting the lowest paid out of income tax, and the right to buy council homes – but still lack a theme. For all Labour’s politics of envy, the British remain resolutely meritocratic. According to YouGov, three-quarters say Britain is not a meritocracy – but, by four to one, agree an unequal society can be fair, as long as there is equal opportunity. This should be the clarion call for Conservatives to reach out to the aspirational underdog. But what would such an agenda look like?

The British remain resolutely meritocratic in pretty much the same way as a drowning man remains resolutely boyant – what’s the alternative? But this  is a premise on which wants to build his argument.

First, the economic message of fiscal discipline should be buttressed by radical empowerment of customer choice – capitalism for the little guy. The government should incentivise companies to sign up to consumer-driven efforts to hold big business to account – like the consumer magazine Which?’s groundbreaking “group switch” of energy companies, which saved 38,000 homes an average £223 on their yearly bills. And it could steer industry towards a secure online facility for switching supplier.

Likewise, requiring banks to give customers a clear, regular, statement of fees – and portable data so they can switch banks – would expand choice and improve service by giving consumers real bargaining power.

Second, the gay marriage controversy would have been less painful for those dissenting if there were reassurance that equality cuts both ways. Yet a Christian airline worker had to trek to Strasbourg to uphold her freedom of conscience, while two Christian hoteliers were prosecuted – and their business bankrupted – for a religious debate with a Muslim guest who was not charged. A British bill of rights could rectify this sense of double standards by strengthening free speech, protecting personal conscience, and promoting tolerance.

Third, rather than doffing a cap at tokenism, we need a meritocrat’s manifesto to revive stalled social mobility. Last year the government introduced audits of 25,000 schools, police forces and councils for their ethnic, religious, gender, sexual and wider social make-up. Senior Conservatives are toying with similar ideas for businesses. But rather than promoting a society blind to social difference, these policies would accentuate them and spark bitter resentment. Likewise, pitting strivers against skivers may resonate, but it’s divisive. We need an ethos that appeals across class and community – based on aspiration, not denigration.

Take school. Reforms to restore academic rigour are vital. Yet what about ambitious youngsters willing to graft, but who don’t want to bury their heads in books? Truancy spikes between 14 and 16 years old – youngsters who are difficult to herd back into class. Yet this is the last year for Young Apprenticeships, which gave them the option to split their time between classroom and workplace. The scheme left just 1% of entrants unemployed, but Labour went cold on it. This government should revive it. Scrapping the pointless Government Equalities Office would pay for it twice over – and send an unequivocal message about the kind of equality Conservatives stand for.

We should also remove regulatory bars to non-graduate access to the professions, like law. That would cut the cost of high-street legal services for the consumer, and realise a dream for many youngsters from tougher backgrounds.

A Conservative message of self-help must reach beyond the middle classes – and give those who have had a rough ride a second chance. Fight for Peace in East London – where I volunteer – helps disaffected teenagers out of a rut. It combines boxing and martial arts, personal development, numeracy and literacy, and youth support. One review estimated that the academy avoided 175 crimes in 2011, saving the community £1m, while another study found it got 73% of those not in employment, education or training (Neets) into work or study. This is precisely the kind of initiative Conservatives should back.

Pollsters are right that fairness remains a Tory blind spot. But we don’t need to ape Labour. Strengthening consumer clout, promoting mutual tolerance and giving the underdog a shot would help define the stubborn optimism that tough times demand.

It all sounds just a little bit paternalistic to me. Give the plebs a few morsels of comfort to be grateful for and all with be well with the the world.

Gove second good decision?

February 7, 2013

This morning’s edition of The Guardian is reporting that the Education secretary, Michael Gove, is planning to announce the abandonment of his some of the plans he had for secondary education.

Michael Gove will announce on Thursday that he has abandoned his plans to replace GCSEs with a new English Baccalaureate certificate (EBC) after mounting concern within the coalition and from education groups.

In what will be seen as a humiliating reverse for the education secretary, for whom the shakeup of exams for 16-year–olds was a major chunk of his agenda, Gove will make a statement to the Commons on Thursday announcing the decision.

One wishes that quality newspapers like The Guardian would forget all mention “humiliating reverses” when reporting these things. Such colourful embellishing is both unhelpful and unnecessary, especially when reporting something that demands our serious consideration.  Most readers not to work out just how Mr Gove’s latest decision will be viewed without help from a reporter.

A good reporter should know that the opposition to Mr Gove’s original plans can be relied on to do grab at the hyperbole without his help.

The U-turn was seized on by Labour, who described it as “a humiliating climbdown” for Gove. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: “It shows why he should have listened to business leaders, headteachers and experts in the first place and not come up with a plan on the back of an envelope.”

Naturally, Labour can be relied on the grab at the stock phrase when describing what’s happened. Why could it not possibly be described as an example of Gove’s “belatedly coming to his senses” or of his willingness to “listen to reason in the end”?

Want a (long-term) career in Academia?

February 5, 2013

Do you want to be an academic? Do you want to make have a career as an academic? It may be your cherished ambition, or it may be something, your  studies have fitted you for. Well, according to today’s edition of The Guardian ,  there are fewer and fewer full time posts in academia.

When Vicky Blake embarked on her PhD at Durham University eight years ago, she believed it was the beginning of an exciting research career. Now, as part of the silently growing army of teaching staff paid by the hour in British universities, she is beginning to wonder at what stage she should walk away.

“I feel I owe it to myself to try, because I’ve invested so much in this. But I am 30 years old and I can’t keep existing on a month-to-month basis,” she says. “I have to put a time limit on how long I can hold out for a proper research job, and I think that’s really sad.”

Blake may spend her life juggling, with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage, but in some respects she is one of the fortunate ones. When she came to the end of an eight-month, part-time research assistant post at Leeds University last year, instead of letting her fall off the academic cliff, it put her on a special redeployment register. This led her to a part-time, one-year assistant post on an academic journal at the university. She has a second part-time clerical post at Leeds, a commitment-free, “zero-hours” clerical job at Durham, and an hourly paid teaching job at Leeds, for which she has to secure a new contract each term.

“If a student asked me whether they should do a PhD, sadly, I’d say take a very careful look at the other options. “”(Dr Eric Silverman).  Sensible advice, I’d say.

Student loans (USA style) in crisis?.

February 5, 2013

Bearing in mind that we are drifting  towards a crisis in the funding of education in the UK, I suggest that this Salon report is worth reading in full.

 Student loans: The next housing bubble

The American system of higher education is increasingly becoming a fiscal disaster for ever-larger numbers of students who move through it.  That disaster is being caused by a combination of terrible incentives, institutional greed — and the pervasive myth that more education is the cure for economic inequality.

The extent of this myth is highlighted by a new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which indicates that nearly half of all employed college graduates have jobs that require less than a four-year college education. Despite such sobering statistics, the higher-education complex remains remarkably successful at ensuring that American taxpayers fund the acquisition of educational credentials that, in many cases, leave the people who obtain them worse off than they were before they enrolled.

This  sugggests to me that the UK may not in the long run  be doing itself many fiscal favours by moving the student l0an sytem of funding further education.

It’s all Labour’s fault!!!!!

February 4, 2013

Its pretty much conventional wisdom to say that New Labour left the British economy in an appalling mess. The Conservative Party and its supporters in the right wing press never tire on saying so.. However, those of us with longer memories and with fewer reasons for rooting out bogeymen everytime we see a problem,  should not accept without question this very comfortable narrative.

  Firstly, we should recall the economic crash was principally a failure of the market.  Adair Turner, head of the FSA, described it as perhaps being the ‘biggest crisis of free market capitalism’ ever. Secondly, the crash was a global economic one and not unique to the UK.

 These two points are vital when trying to fully understand what happened. A properly balanced history of New Labour’s economic performance should recognise that there is little evidence to suggest that the Tory party would have either avoided the crash or would have done anything that make the UK better prepared to deal with its consequences.

 One of the main thrusts of  he arguments coming from the Consevatives is that there was insufficient regulation of financial institutions. Better regulation certainly would have  helped us to avoid some of the outcomes; of this there can be little doubt. However, the question we have to ask is whether or not the banking sector would have been adequately regulated under the Conservatives. I think not.

 Neither does the admirable Deborah Orr

In and opinion piece she wrote for The Guardian in December 2012, entitled “Why are the Tories laughing? Because they’ve got away with it yet again”, she says:

 The Conservatives have had awesome success in promulgating the nonsensical idea that the crash was caused by Labour incompetence and overspending, when it was really caused by Labour’s failure to tackle the neoliberalism introduced by the previous Tory administration. Genius. Not only do the Conservatives fail to take responsibility for the results of the banking deregulation that their party “masterminded”, they also manage to look as though they are the poor sods picking up the pieces after a socialist failure. That’s such good insurance, too. They can carry on saying, for a while yet, that the problem they inherited was huge. And they’re right. It was huge, because it had been being stoked up since the Big Bang 26 years ago.

  How do we explain the “awesome success” the Conservatives are having in continuing to lay the blame for everything at Labour’s door?

Dealing with the “malefactors of great wealth” in the USA today

February 4, 2013
This originally appeared on Robert Reich’s blog and was published by Salon on February the 4th.

Exactly a century ago, on February 3, 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, authorizing a federal income tax. Congress turned it into a graduated tax, based on “capacity to pay.”

It was among the signal victories of the progressive movement — the first constitutional amendment in 40 years (the first 10 had been included in the Bill of Rights, the 11th and 12th in 1789 and 1804, and three others in consequence of the Civil War), reflecting a great political transformation in America.

The 1880s and 1890s had been the Gilded Age, the time of robber barons, when a small number controlled almost all the nation’s wealth as well as our democracy, when poverty had risen to record levels, and when it looked as though the country was destined to become a moneyed aristocracy.

But almost without warning, progressives reversed the tide. Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, pledging to break up the giant trusts and end the reign of the “malefactors of great wealth.” Laws were enacted protecting the public from impure foods and drugs, and from corrupt legislators.

By 1909 Democrats and progressive Republicans had swept many state elections, subsequently establishing the 40-hour work week and other reforms that would later be the foundation stones for the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election.

A progressive backlash against concentrated wealth and power occurred a century ago in America. In the 1880s and 1890s such a movement seemed improbable if not impossible. Only idealists and dreamers thought the nation had the political will to reform itself, let alone enact a constitutional amendment of such importance — analogous, today, to an amendment reversing “Citizens United v. FEC” and limiting the flow of big money into politics. 

But it did happen. And it will happen again.

You have to have to wonder whether this time around there are even any idealists and dreamers around.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at More Robert Reich.

Show the NRA: This is what real patriotism looks like.

February 3, 2013