Man vs Machine


Steve Jobs works as a film because it avoids its subject’s infatuation with electronic devices.

A few months back my IPod seemed to stop working. After a couple of hours it pulled itself back together again but not before I had realised that by transferring some stuff to my phone’s SD card, I could make more than enough room for it to store all of the music and podcasts I actually listened to. And with that I stopped using any Apple devices.

I’ve never really understood the thrall in which the company holds some consumers. I don’t get why its product launches are treated like rock concerts nor why even people on even fairly modest incomes in Vietnam would shell out for such expensive products. I’m a quintessential android user – I see design as far less important than function, am not prepared to pay for gloss and I will happily accept imperfections in exchange for a less bloated price tag. I therefore find the cult of Jobs intensely annoying. My opinion of him was summed up in an article I can’t now find but the gist of which was the author noting some comments by Jobs suggesting that Bill Gates lacked vision. The author in turn noted that this is a strange way for a man trying to cure malaria to be described by one making nice looking consumer electronics! I find something dissonant about a new age counter-cultural mystique that surrounding Jobs when his was business largely depended on conspicuous consumption. So the cottage industry of biographies, biopics, documentaries and lesson drawing business books that surrounds Jobs is not something I’m greatly interested in.

You might therefore expect me to dislike a film where a fictionalised Jobs claims that the launch of the Mac is one of the two most important events of the Twentieth Century. But in fact, this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the fact that its protagonist wasn’t an especially nice guy. We are shown that his unwavering self belief is not totally unjustified but also that it starts applying to places where it is not warranted. His perceptiveness when it came to the future of personal computing seems mirrored by an inability to understand the people around him. He is depicted as a tyrannical boss, a callous friend, and worst of all a reluctant and indifferent father. But this isn’t a hatchet job. You wouldn’t expect anything as simplistic as that from the alliance of Fassbender, Boyle and Sorkin. Together they ensure that Job’s never is never in danger of being depicted as a monster. They get us to empathise with him even when we can’t sympathise. The perfectionism and drive that combined to make him such an effective engineer also make him unhappy. By reminding us that there’s a redeemable character within the ‘arsehole’ they create a source of drama: will the part of him that realises that people matter win out against the section that monomaniacally focused on computers?

Bringing this conceit to execution of course requires a great deal of skill. Boyle and Sorkin’s routes in theatre serve them well here. The set up is very much like a play. There are three ‘acts’ each centring on the minutes before one of Job’s product launches and which therefore involve a set of characters going backwards and forwards between a small number of rooms. Indeed, Boyle appears to have had his cast rehearse as if it were a play. But it doesn’t suffer from History Boys syndrome – whereby a film feels like it belongs on stage not on screen. For example, Boyle makes ample use of tricks like montages and intercutting scenes that only really work on film. That goes a long way to negating the risk it might seem claustrophobic and any remaining danger is removed by how vivid and energetic Sorkin’s dialogue is.

So whilst this is not an earth shattering film in any, it is nonetheless engaging. And its makers have done well to create a film that shows us its protagonist’s viewpoint without endorsing it. Steve Jobs might have strived to remove the possibility of human error from his creations but Steve Jobs uses human fallibility to power its story.

Stop comparing Craig’s Bond to Bourne


Spectre really is very different from a Bourne film.

A quick review

As you can probably guess, I’m writing this because I’ve finally seen Spectre. So let’s get this out of the way at the start: it’s not very good. Not terrible mind you. Craig is still a good Bond, the supporting characters introduced in Skyfall are fun especially Whishaw’s Q, the dialogue is nice and snappy and Mendes knows how to make a lovely looking shot. But the weaknesses predominate. The story is baggy and convoluted.  In particular, turning Blofeld from an elemental evil into a bloke with daddy issues diminishes an iconic villain. And making out that he’s orchestrated the events of the previous films is so artificial that it jars you out of the film. That would have been more forgivable if the action scenes were as good as those in Skyfall but just twelve hours after seeing the film, I’ve largely forgotten them. I don’t want to say that it’s the weakest of Craig’s outings as Bond but only because making that judgement would require me to go back and re-watch Quantum of Solace – something I am not prepared to do.

A tale of two spies

I’m in good company in being underwhelmed. Former 007 Pierce Brosnan told an interviewer the film was “neither fish nor fowl. It’s neither Bond nor Bourne. Am I in a Bond movie? Not in a Bond movie?” Discussing the Craig era Bond films in relation to the Bourne trilogy – people tell me there’s a fourth Bourne film but I choose to believe they imagined it – is pretty much a cliché. Even Bourne star, Matt Damon, has played up to this:

“The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s and the values of the 60s,” Damon told reporters in London. “Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes.”

“Bourne,” on the other hand, “is a serial monogamist whose girlfriend is dead and he does nothing but think about her … he doesn’t have the support of gadgets and feels guilty about what he’s done.”

Damon’s timing was unfortunate as a few months later Casino Royale came along. This was a Bond film in which Bond’s girlfriend winds up dead, gadgets were majorly downplayed and the film opens with a discussion about Bond feeling guilty about killing people.

And I would concede that at the start of Craig’s tenure the comparison was at least illuminating. Between Die Another Day and Casino Royale, Bond clearly did get more Bourne like. The films became more grounded, less camp and began engaging seriously with the psychology of their protagonist. While I can’t find any evidence that the makers of Casino Royale were directly influenced by Bourne, it would be strange if they hadn’t noticed the sizeable financial success of the Bourne Supremacy.

Nonetheless, it is probably not the case that Bond was changed to imitate Bourne per se.

The series was likely to have gone in a new direction in any event because Brosnan was hanging up his tuxedo. And bluntly, the series wasn’t in good shape. I’m not one of the people who thinks Die Another Day is the worst Bond film but it is undeniably awful. Something was going to change. And the trend at that point was to take franchises in darker directions: Batman Begins was released shortly before Casino Royale and no one thinks that got darker because of Bourne. It’s also worth remembering that Bond had been under devastating satirical attack. The Austin Powers trilogy made $700 million showing up quite how stupid most of the classic Bond tropes were. Craig himself has said that:

We had to destroy the myth because Mike Myers fucked us – I am a huge Mike Myers fan, so don’t get me wrong – but he kind of fucked us; made it impossible to do the gags.

After reading that one can almost reinterpret the darkness of Casino Royale as an attempt to stop the audience smirking because something reminded them of a joke from Austin Powers.

I would go as far as saying that if the Bourne films had never been made then we’d now have people complaining about Bond becoming Bauer.

And it’s worth remembering that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are not that Bourne like. They might be grittier than previous Bond films but they are still incredibly glamorous. There are glamorous locations, sports cars and impossibly attractive “Bond girls”. By contrast, Bourne is much more resolute in its griminess. It’s probably a long time till we’ll see a Bond film with a major action set piece set in Waterloo Station!

Meet the new boss, same as the old Bond

So I feel the Bond and Bourne comparison always had a limited value. But since Mendes has taken over directing it’s become pretty much useless.

Skyfall and Spectre have moved back towards more conventional Bond territory. Compare the interrogation/torture sequences in Casino Royale and Spectre. Back in 2006, Bond was facing a money launderer equipped with a long piece of rope. In 2015, it’s the head of a global criminal syndicate with aspirations to world domination, who has access to a machine that has purposely been designed to allow the user to insert microscopic drills into specific parts of someone’s brain. Oh and said machine is located in a secret lair in a meteorite crater. The first scene could just about feature in a Bourne film – though it would look odd – the second would just be bizarre. Mendes has thus taken the Bond films back to their (generally ridiculous) roots and thereby taken them away from the Bourne series.

There are of course, other regards in which Mendes represents a break with Bond’s previous adventures. Primarily, he’s made the series far more self-consciously artistic. Case in point, the opening sequence of Spectre that appears to have been filmed with a single tracking shot. But that only heightens the contrast with Bourne films. Their defining director Paul Greengrass came to blockbuster cinema via work on documentaries and docudramas. That’s quite a contrast with Mendes who worked in the theatre and then in arthouse cinema. This is reflected in the styles of the film. Mendes’ camera lingers, whilst Greengrass’ shudders and jolts. By accentuating the rough edges of his work Greengrass creates a sense of immediacy: he makes it seem like we aren’t watching a film but footage shot by a news crew or even a bystander with a cameraphone. It’s a similar effect as a found footage film but achieved in a less heavy handed and constraining way. In effect, rather than making his films look beautiful, Greengrass makes them look like they aren’t films at all. So the imprint left by these two directors has in certain respects pushed them further apart than they’ve ever been before: Mendes has heightened the artistry of the Bond films, while Greengrass made a lack of artistry the signature of the Bourne films.

So it’s time to stop constantly relating Bond back to Bourne. It was a somewhat useful shorthand that has been overused to the point of creating lazy thinking. Witness Brosnan’s complaint that Spectre is “neither Bond nor Bourne”. Does he really think there are only two things a spy film can? What about Tinker, Tailor or Spy? Neither of them seems very Bond or Bourne like. And is it a problem if a film goes beyond the categories created by previous endeavours. ‘Arthouse Bond film’ was not a thing until Mendes created it but it does now. There are echoes of Bourne in his films – principally in the continuing interest in the protagonist’s psychology. But it seems odd to treat the idea of three dimensional characters as an alien element that has strayed into the Bondverse from the Bourne films. The quipping caricature that Moore made Bond into is probably less like the hero of Fleming’s novels than Craig’s portrayal of 007. So I’m a little mystified why Bourne remains the most common reference point for talking about Craig’s Bond. Especially in the context of a film like Spectre whose extravagance contrasts so markedly with the minimalism of the Bourne trilogy. It’s time to think of something new to say about the Bond films.

The end is just the beginning

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History remains an insightful and compelling book but only because its author seems so unconvinced by his central thesis.

I have reached the end of the End of History. Alright not the very end – I gave the end notes and the bibliography a miss. But I’ve now read the body of this controversial book.

It was first published in 1992 just after the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. Fukuyama saw this as a particularly dramatic example of a worldwide trend towards liberal democracy. He argued that this was not merely a series of historical events but the culmination of History (note the capital H). Like Marx, he thought societies had to pass through various stages of development. Where they differed was that Marx thought bourgeois society – with an elected government and a capitalist economy – was a transitional phase. By contrast, Fukuyama argued it was History’s endpoint.

What do you write after the End of History?

The grandeur of this thesis ensured it would be discussed mostly to be disparaged. He came to be seen as the intellectual exemplar of the triumphalism that afflicted America in the 1990s. So it was common for the authors of comment pieces to note that such-and-such events showed that despite Fukuyama’s prediction, history was still very much in progress.

It was in that way I first become aware of him. What spurred me to start reading his actual books was – like some many other aspects of my political evolution – the Iraq War. As an angry teenager, I’d naturally been against the invasion from the start. But I’d been unhappy with the prevailing reasoning of the anti-war movement. The notion that it was being fought to capture Iraq’s oil was clearly a feeble conspiracy theory. I also saw nothing inherently immoral about replacing a psychotic butcher with someone democratically elected. I just didn’t see this project working out like it was supposed to. And that was what Fukuyama expressed – albeit with far greater sophistication – in his book After the Neocons. To a European liberal in their 2000s, the neocons where uniquely sinister seeming cabal of right-wing thinkers. So reading the recantation of one of their number was tantalising. What I found in it was Fukuyama brutally highlighting a core discrepancy in the movement. Its roots lie in scepticism about the ability of government to tackle urban deprivation. Yet by the (W.) Bush years it had gone from arguing that the American state couldn’t tackle poverty in its own cities to believing that it could conjure liberal democracies into existence in the harsh thousands of miles from its borders.

This call for humility in foreign policy is still one that shapes my views today and it intrigued me enough that I began seeking out Fukuyama’s other books – though strangely not till now the End of History. I became particularly interested in an argument he makes in several works, but especially in 2004 book called Statebuilding, that we understate the importance of state capacity. In particular, we tend to focus on whether the state is small or large not on how effective that state is. The Danish state does far more than the American one but life in both is generally tolerable because both states can usually execute their functions. By contrast, in many developing countries the problem is that the state struggles with pretty much all its functions including even quite basic ones like security and public health.

I used a blend of ideas from After the Neocons and Statebuilding in my master’s thesis. Essentially I wound up using the British in India as a metaphor for the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. I looked at why despite the British attempting to replicate their own education system mass illiteracy persists in India more than a century after it was eliminated in the UK. My very Fukuyama-esque conclusion was that the colonial state lacked information, finances and an effective decision making structure. It therefore didn’t have the capacity to implement its supposed civilising mission.

Less Machiavelli, more Plato

I have taken this tour of Fukuyama’s later work and my interest in it so you can understand why reading the End of History was such a surprise. I’d read him as a man who writes from an empirical standpoint about the challenges – perhaps even the futility – of translating ones ideas into reality. But the book that made him famous was about the grandest of ideas.

There’s still an empirical component to the End of History. Fukuyama feels the need to establish that there is indeed a long run trend towards liberal democracy. And his arguments for why this is happening is partly economic. He suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union was to some extent the ‘victory of the VCR’ – lest you had forgotten this book was published in the early 90s. But he doesn’t put that much weight on this aspect of his argument. He suspects that technocracies may actually be somewhat better suited to generating economic growth than democracies. And strikingly for someone who thinks bourgeois societies are the endpoint of History, he’s pretty contemptuous of a ‘bourgeois’ mentality focused simply on the satisfaction of personal desires. These practical matters aren’t the core of his argument.

Indeed, he writes more as a philosopher than a social scientist. And it’s not just any philosophy in which Fukuyama dabbles. Strikingly for someone often presented as an apologist for America, he rejects the defence of liberty offered by those Anglo-Saxon staples Hobbes and Locke and instead turns to the world of cryptic continental metaphysics.

In particular, he is influenced by Hegel. Fukuyama takes from the Prussian a version of History in which the human quest for recognition is primary. According to this narrative, initially those willing to risk their lives – and therefore to fight – subjugate their more pacific neighbours. The former class become masters, while the later become slaves. But both classes become dissatisfied because neither is getting the kind of recognition it craves. Slaves are not recognised at all and the recognition masters receive is that compelled from slaves rather than freely given by equals. Democracy provides a way out of this impasse. It makes us all masters and thereby recognises us all as equals.

What if we get bored without History?

I don’t find this notion all that convincing. In particular, I didn’t feel Fukuyama provides any real evidence that masters did in fact become dissatisfied with being recognised as superiors rather than equals. But what makes his book interesting is that he seems rather unconvinced himself.

He spends many pages meditating on Nietzsche’s critiques of Hegel. Essentially, the great iconoclast worried about the triumph of ‘slave ideologies’ like Christianity and liberalism, and felt that their demands for equality would lead to mediocrity. While Fukuyama rejects the ethical conclusions of this theory, he’s concerned by its political ramifications.

He worries democracy might actually undermine itself. It delivers us comfort, stability and equality. But what if there’s something in our souls that really craves the excitement of the struggle for supremacy?

We can’t easily dismiss this notion by looking at actually events. Russians seem happy enough to pay a big economic prize so they can once again see their country swaggering on the international stage. A certain section of the American electorate seems thrilled with Donald Trump’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy even though it often seems less focused on concrete results than with a gangster like fixation on whether America is being shown enough respect.

[As an aside at one point, Fukuyama argues one of the advantages capitalism has for a democracy is that many of the atavistic, egoistical and status seeking individuals who could cause havoc in politics instead become entrepreneurs. I’d therefore be fascinated to hear his views on Trump’s surprising rise].

And the following passage couldn’t help but make me think about current British politics:

Those students who temporarily took over Paris and brought down General de Gaulle had no “rational” reason to rebel, for they were for the most part pampered offspring of one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. But it was precisely the absence of struggle and sacrifice in their middle class lives that lead them to take to the streets and confront the police. While many were infatuated with unworkable fragments of ideas like Maoism, they had no particularly coherent vision of a better society. The substance of their protest was a matter of indifference; what they rejected was a society in which ideas had somehow become impossible.

That seems to me all too reminiscent of the Corbynites who seem to demand not results but self expression.

Maybe part of what has propelled the intense dissatisfaction with democratic politics is that in the end of History, it has come to seem mundane. It was perhaps easier to fight for democracy even with all its imperfections, when by doing so one was struggling against communism and fascism.

There is an alternative (and it scares me)

With that in mind, it’s worth considering the most common objection to Fukuyama’s thesis. Pretty much as soon as it was published people began pointing to such-and-such event – 9/11 and the rise of China are the most common ones – and saying that they show History is still in fact in progress.

Two things need saying in response to this line of argument. Firstly, Fukuyama is pretty explicit that his theory does not require all nations to become democracies in order to be true. There will be some that are too chaotic and divided for power to pass peacefully between groups following elections. Others will see it as a threat to their culture and reject it. In Fukuyama’s terms this is not History but history. History is the grand schema underlying the events that make up regular history.

He’d probably see someone like Robert Mugabe as deviating from the path of History rather than changing it. These democratic refusniks only begin to constitute a challenge to his theory if they coalesce into a coherent, potentially universalisable alternative like communism. It might have initially won power in Russia but its appeal could spread to groups as diverse as Cambridge professors and Laotian peasants. Very few of the autocratic governments that held power after 1989 had an ideology that appealed much outside their own circumstances.

The other point to note is that Fukuyama is a lot smarter than most of his critics. Indeed, it’s striking how often he predicts the events that supposedly contradict his theory.

Take this written almost a decade before 9/11:

“Islam has indeed defeated liberal democracy in many parts of the Islamic world, posing a grave threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly…however, it remains the case that this religion has virtually no appeal outside of areas that were culturally Islamic to start with”.

Or this, written when China’s economy wasn’t even amongst the ten largest in the world:

if Asians become convinced that their success was due more to their own than to borrowed cultures, if economic growth in America and Europe falters relative to that in the Far East, if Western societies continue to experience the progressive breakdown of basic social institutions like the family, and if they treat Asia with distrust or hostility, then a systematic illiberal and undemocratic alternative combining technocratic economic rationalism with paternalistic authoritarianism may gain ground in the Far East.

He even fingers the late Singaporean premier Lee Kuan Yew as a potential ideological guru for this new model as he has proven to be.

Where I think Fukuyama goes wrong is in seeing both these cases as localised deviations. Islamism clearly is but this Confucian model appears to appeal to people with no Confucian heritage. For example, Rwanda’s Paul Kagmae seems to be using Singapore as an explicit model. Indeed, it appears to have even found advocates in the long established democracies of the west.

Ironically that might actually strengthen democracy in the places it’s been longest established. If we have to defend our system against a new rival then that might be just the kind of struggle needed to reanimate our enthusiasm for it.

Selling tea to the Indians

It is often assumed that Britain acquired its love of tea from India. In fact, it was the other way round.

Some stereotypes are true. Brits do indeed love tea. We drink three times as many cups of it as we do coffee. But even our enthusiasm for tea is outweighed by that of the Indians. They drink nearly nine times as much.

It’s therefore surprising that this infatuation has a rather short vintage. In Curry: a biography (which I reviewed here), the historian Lizzie Collingham observes that:

When the interpreter for the Chinese Embassy of Cheng Ho visited Bengal in 1406, he was surprised to note that the Bengalis offered betel nuts to their guests rather than tea. Coffee had been introduced into India by the Arabs, Persians and central Asians who found employment under the Mughals….For the most part, however, the … habit was confined to wealthy Muslims and did not spread to the rest of the population. As the chaplain Edward Terry noticed, Indians preferred water: ‘That most antient and innocent Drink of the World, Water, is the most common drink of East-India; it is far more pleasant and sweet than our water; and must needs be so, because in all hot Countries it is more rarified, better digested, and freed from its rawness by the heat of the Sunm and therefore in those parts of it is more desired of all that come thither.’ In northern India the villagers also drank buttermilk, a by-product of the Indian way of making ghee, by churning yoghurt (as opposed to the European method of churning cream). If they wanted something stronger, they drank arrack or toddy.

By contrast, tea has been popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century. The nation imported so much of it from China that the effects became macroeconomically destabilising. This led to efforts to wipe out the trade imbalance by selling the Chinese opium, a venture that culminated in the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars – the injustice of which still colours Chinese views of the west today.

Another way of trying to solve this problem was to shift tea cultivation from China to British controlled India. And throughout the nineteenth century India became a more and more important tea grower. Collingham explains that between 1870 and 1900, China went from supplying 90% of the tea drunk in Britain to just 10%. The gap was filled very largely by India and Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This fostered such a close link between tea and India in the British mind that Thomas Lipton actually employed an Indian to stand in front of cafes as a form of advertisement.

But while India had become a substantial producer of tea, its population didn’t consume all that much of it. No less a figure than Gandhi observed that while some westernised Indians had begun drinking tea in imitation of the British, the practice was sufficiently rare that it could be passed over with only “the briefest notice”.

Collingham attributes the drastic reversal of this position, to the efforts of a trade body called the Indian Tea Association. It sent both European and Indian salesman around the country trying to persuade both consumers and wholesalers to buy more tea. However, these efforts only really gained momentum during World War I. The war resulted in economic hardship for Indians and the Tea Association persuaded factory bosses that providing tea breaks and samples was a way to mollify their workers.

Next, it:

….equipped small contractors with kettles and cups and packets of tea and sent them to work at the major railway junctions in the Punjab, the North-West frontier and Bengal…Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored this advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar. This milky, intensely sweet mixture appealed to north Indians who like buttermilk and yoghurt drinks (lassis). It was affordable and went well with the chapattis, spicy dry potatoes and biscuits sold by other station vendors, running alongside the carriage windows as the trains pulled into the station.

Further campaigns took tea into India homes. Then another World War spread its influence even more widely as rural Indians were pulled into army units that were served by tea vans – supplied of course by the Indian Tea Association.

Collingham says of these marketing campaigns:

They were so successful at introducing tea into India that at the end of the twentieth century, the Indian population, which had barely touched a drop of tea in 1900, were drinking almost 70 per cent of their huge of 715,000 tons per year.

Tea is now a normal part of everyday life in India. The tea shop is a feature of every city, town and village. Often they are nothing more than ‘a tarpaulin or piece of bamboo matting stretch over four posts … [with] a table, a couple of rickety benches and a portable stove with the kettle permanently on’. Men gather round, standing or squatting on their haunches, sipping the hot tea. The tiny earthernware cups, in which the drink is served, lie smashed around the stalls. Everybody drinks tea in India nowadays, even the sadhus (holy men), the most orthodox of Brahmins and the very poor, who use it as a way of staving off hunger.

She goes on to suggest that this gradual revolution has had important social impacts. She posits that as a new element in the Indian diet, tea is less enmeshed in traditional taboos. It is therefore possible for people who would be prevented by barriers of caste and religion from eating together to share tea. It has therefore been a factor in the emergence of a more modern and democratic India.

The most interesting things I’ve read recently (11/10/2015)

Dennis Healey, Pope Francis and scrapping borders.

A fighting life (The Economist)

[Denis Healey’s] relations with the hard left had never been sweet. He detested those “Toytown Trots”, and as early as 1959 had warned the Labour Party not to “teach Socialist Sunday school” but to engage with the problems of the average worker—like the man in his constituency of Leeds South East, who brought him a jar of slugs to demonstrate how damp his kitchen was. (Such episodes easily moved him to tears.) In the shadow cabinet he strenuously opposed nationalisation for the sake of it, or kneejerk opposition to NATO and the Americans. He did not mind milking the rich, gleefully anticipating the “howls of anguish”—but only in order to make their taxes proportionate to those on the poor. In 1981, “by an eyebrow”, he defeated the left-wing Tony Benn for the deputy leadership of the party. He thereby saved it to govern another day—only to live long enough to see it fall again to leftist Sirens in 2015.

Of course Pope Francis met with Kim Davis. Jesus would have by Todd VanDerWeff (Vox)

….one of the hardest things to do in an era of political polarization is to accept that those whose viewpoints are diametrically opposed to yours are still human beings, who have fears and hopes and desires as surely as you do, and who are capable of both great and horrible things. It’s often tempting to slot our political opponents into boxes that define them as narrowly as we suspect they define us.

But the central idea of Christianity aims to be an end-around of all of that. It’s not about defining people within religious or political or even societal contexts. It’s about approaching them as fellow human beings, travelers on this planet who might spit in your face but still deserve grace and forgiveness. That’s an impossible idea to adhere to, which is what makes it such a powerful one. Regardless of where he falls on the marriage equality opinion spectrum, by meeting with both Cazal and Davis, Pope Francis is at least trying to live up to the standards he ostensibly represents.

The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely by Alex Tabbarok (The Atlantic)

Not every place in the world is equally well-suited to mass economic activity. Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury.

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse—often while paying lip service to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Wage differences are a revealing metric of border discrimination. When a worker from a poorer country moves to a richer one, her wages might double, triple, or rise even tenfold. These extreme wage differences reflect restrictions as stifling as the laws that separated white and black South Africans at the height of Apartheid. Geographical differences in wages also signal opportunity—for financially empowering the migrants, of course, but also for increasing total world output. On the other side of discrimination lies untapped potential. Economists have estimated that a world of open borders would double world GDP.

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.

6 intentionally controversial ideas for new Lib Dem policies


I wasn’t at Lib Dem conference last week – Bournemouth is quite a way from Hanoi – so I had to settle for experiencing it vicariously. That’s a shame because it sounds it sounds like it was actually rather pleasant.

Writing in the Independent, Daisy Benson seems to suggest that it may actually have been too pleasant:

…looking at our agenda this week there is a retreat to old comfort zones. The issues we’re discussing are far too safe. Many of those, such as housing and the NHS, have been debated many times before. We are simply restating old policies.

Even in the discussion on the refugee crisis, an area where our new leader Tim Farron has led the public debate, as one new member reflected: “It was boring – everyone just agreed on everything.”


As controversial as the Orange Book was at the time, it stimulated debate and got members thinking critically about policy matters. We don’t need a new Orange Book, but what we do need is a set of thought-provoking ideas learned from the crucible of government, and from the public.

So in that spirit here are 6 policy ideas that meet the following criteria:

  1. a) In my opinion, they further Liberal Democrat aims, objectives and values;
  2. b) To my knowledge, they have not been Liberal Democrat policy before; and
  3. c) In my estimation, they will upset a fair number of Liberal Democrat members.

Three seem thoroughly sensible to me. I think a couple are probably right but I have misgivings about them. One is quite possibly mad. I’ll let you decide which are which.

1. Shred the planning system

The idea: Under the current structure, local councillors make convoluted plans and then sit on planning committees and make rather arbitrary decisions about whether or not applications comply with those plans. Instead, we ought to have a minimal set of transparent rules and give the role of deciding whether or not they have been complied with to an independent tribunal.         

Why it is desirable: If you constrain the supply of something, its price will rise. That will transfer wealth from those who want to buy that thing to those able to sell it. Unfortunately, in this context that means making the old and rich better off at the expense of the young and poor and thereby accomplishing the opposite of what anyone interested in equality should be aiming for.

Furthermore, while it’s true that decisions to build, alter or demolish a building will often generate externalities, the way the current system tries to manage them should unsettle liberals. For good reasons, we usually separate the role of legislator and judge. Yet in the planning system councillors perform both roles and as a result often wind up making what are effectively judicial decisions with electoral considerations in mind.

The result is a system wholly lacking a sense of proportionality: more tall buildings might be bad for the views of London but they’d be good for the people and businesses who would no longer be excluded from the city by high property prices. And that’s to say nothing of the ‘bland agricultural land conservation scheme’ AKA the Green Belt.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it:     There’s a long and ignoble tradition within the party of equating liberalism with localism and localism with maximising the power of local councillors, who not co-incidentally are a key part of our activist base. Many Lib Dems might also fear that they’d no longer be able to harness NIMBY sentiment as part of their local campaigning.

2. Determine school admissions by lottery

The idea: If a school is oversubscribed decide which children to admit at random rather than with catchment areas, admissions exams or by looking at the parent’s religion. 

Why it is desirable: It creates parity between middle and working class families. Buying a house in the catchment area, paying for Tabitha to be tutored for the 11+ and buttering up the local vicar are equally impotent to change the outcome of a lottery.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: See the above point about a desire to maximise the influence of councillors. Plus there’s probably a reasonable correlation between being a Lib Dem voter and living in the catchment area of a good school. And to be fair, there are practical difficulties that would need to be worked through. It’s also rather counter-intuitive that the way to make school admissions fair is not to try and match the right student with the right school.

3. Stop exempting family firms from inheritance tax

The idea: Currently private firms – most of which are family run – can don’t count towards the value of an estate when determining the amount of inheritance tax due on it. We should start including them.

Why it is desirable: The UK has an unusually high percentage of family run businesses. It is also a productivity laggard. These two facts are not unrelated: the fact your Mum or Dad was a good manager does not mean you will be.

However, the exemption provides incentives for families to continue managing businesses themselves. Removing, it would encourage more family firms to become companies that separate management and ownership. That in turn allows them to bring in professional managers selected for their ability to do their job rather than their bloodline.

There’s also a good argument that both equality of opportunity and outcomes probably suffer when some people have multi-million pound businesses dropped in their lap’s tax free.

It would also raise around £250 million.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It’s politically risky. The losers will easily be able to spot they are losers and change their votes accordingly. By contrast, the benefits will be diffused across everyone in the country.

4. Abolish tax subsidies for corporate borrowing

What is the idea: If a company wishes to raise money from investors there are essentially two ways it can do it. Firstly, it can issue debt either by taking out loans or selling bonds. In this scenario, in return for their money, investors receive the right to be repaid a set amount of money in the future. Alternatively, it can sell part of itself by issuing shares. Here, the investors hope to eventually make back their money by taking a share of the company’s future profits. While they serve the same basic function, for tax purposes they are treated very differently. Companies can treat the interest payments on their debt as expenditure, which they can deduct from their profits and thereby reduce their corporation tax bill. But they can’t do that with dividend payments. This effectively creates a subsidy for corporate debt.

Why it is desirable: Removing this subsidy would encourage companies to borrow less and instead rely more on selling shares. This ought to make the economy more stable. The value of a company’s shares fall in tough times. By contrast, their debt repayments remains fixed. With the same liabilities but less opportunities to earn revenue to cover them, other things being equal, more debt will increase the risk of companies going under. In this way, tilting the balance from equity to debt is likely to increase the severity of a subsequent downturn. Untilting will therefore promote stability.

There would be other benefits too. Banks are the principal issuers of debt and therefore the primary beneficiaries of any subsidy on it. Abolishing that subsidy will reduce their role in the economy. It would shut down the wheeze Starbucks uses to go tax rate shopping.

In addition to that it would raise colossal amounts of revenue.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It can be perceived as unfair to firms that are too small to issue shares and therefore have to rely on borrowing.

There’s a problem once again that the policy is counter-intuitive; because the value of shares fluctuate they look less stable than debt and encouraging more of them to be issued seems like it should make the economy less rather than more stable.

5. Commit to negotiating for free migration zones

What is the idea: In recent years with global trade talks stalled, countries have instead reduced trade barriers by striking smaller deals on a country to country or regional basis. I wonder if a similar approach might help make progress on immigration. If public opinion, is unwilling to countenance a general opening up to migrants, perhaps our government could negotiate the removal of immigration controls for citizens of certain countries on condition they do the same for British citizens. Free movement of people within the EU provides a precedent for this.

Why it is desirable: It may represent the path of least of resistance when it comes to liberalising immigration. Migrants from countries economically and culturally similar to the UK don’t generate the same kind of anxieties that immigration generally does. And the reciprocal element would provide an additional benefit to point to.

The obvious countries to make such agreements with would the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While citizens of these countries have a relatively easy time getting into the UK – and British citizens have a relatively easy time getting into them – immigration controls are still a burden that could be done without. For starters, they involve a lot of bureaucracy. And they can generate strange incentives. Take for example, an Anglo-American couple I lived with for a while. In order to get permanent residence in the each other’s countries they postponed settling permanently in one country and instead moved across the Atlantic at regular intervals.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: It would strike many as unfair to scrap barriers for rich Americans who generally don’t really need to emigrate to the UK rather than for poor Syrians or Ukrainians for whom that might be a life changing opportunity. In addition, some of the more ardent Europhiles within the party might object to anything that looks like a rival to the European single market.

6. A soft power push

The idea: ‘Soft power’ was a term coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. It essentially describes the power a country wields by being liked rather than feared. It represents the ability to persuade rather than pressure.

Why it is desirable: For the first time since the Cold War, there is a viable contender to liberal democracy as the organising principle for societies. Russia and China are devoting significant resources to their own soft power pushes. Confucius Institutes are proliferating and Russia Today – sorry RT – is hiring more journalists to produce Putinite propoganda. While these regimes may not be actively trying to export their system of government like the USSR did, liberals should still find their new ideological assertiveness alarming.

In particular, we ought to be concerned about their efforts to tilt international organisations away from a concern with the rights of individuals towards the rights of states. For example, Russia has been trying very hard to prevent the UN recognising LBTQ rights as human rights. To offset this there needs to be a countervailing soft power push from more liberal states.

Fortunately, this is a domain in which the UK excels. In fact, it may well have more soft power than any other country. We should aim to preserve and even accentuate this edge. We ought to being encouraging more foreign students to study at British universities, nurturing rather than constraining the BBC and pumping money into the British Council.

Why some Lib Dems wouldn’t like it: Soft power is still power and power plays are a zero-sum game. When Ukrainians decided they wanted their country  to be more like Europe and less like Russia that weakened Russia. Lib Dems are not instinctive Kissengerites and this way of looking at the world would make many in the party uncomfortable.

In addition, the idea of using British soft power to promote liberal values depends on the UK being protected by American hard power and America is an uncomfortable topic in the Lib Dems. The party was almost uniformly opposed to the Iraq War and to post 9/11 abuses like Guantanamo Bay and Rendition flights. But not everyone saw it the same way.

Some within the party recognised that it is hard for a global behemoth – especially a wounded one – to move without destructive missteps. Others saw the damage the US was doing as evidence of a moral equivalence between the it and its competitors and concluded that it was the real threat to international stability. Those in the later camp would not appreciate essentially acting as cheerleaders for America’s preferred international order.