The sickness at the heart of American capitalism – and where it’s leading us

American capitalism is sick. Not just “I think I might stay in bed today” sick. More like “call an ambulance” sick.

The sickness has a name. It’s called financialisation. It’s not a bug that’s appeared overnight. It’s crept up on us over decades like a degenerative disease. Or, perhaps more accurately, like a parasite.

This, in a nutshell, is the message of Rana Foroohar’s excellent – and profoundly troubling – book, Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business. It tells the story of how, in recent decades, the financial industry has ballooned in size – and at what cost to the economy and society.

Makers and takers

Today, Foroohar writes, finance represents 7% of the US economy, 4% of US jobs and a whopping 25% of corporate profits (down from nearer a third pre-crisis). It has gone from being the servant of business to being its master – and not a very benign master at that. It’s extractive. It cares for nobody but itself. And it will stop at nothing to serve its own self-interest.

But financialisation isn’t just about the growth of finance – it’s also about the way financial thinking has infected mainstream business, as well as academia (or business schools, at least) and government.

Foroohar traces the story of how financial thinking came to rule American business back to the 1940s. Not long after America entered World War II, a senior officer in the US Army visited Harvard to recruit a group of ‘the best and the brightest’, who would form a new statistics analysis group at the War Department. The group became known as ‘the Whiz Kids’ and their quantitative analysis had a big influence on US military strategy.

After the war, the Whiz Kids’ stock was high enough that they were hired by Ford Motor Company to overhaul its structure, strategy and management practices. The result was a culture of ‘management by numbers’, which, because it was pioneered at Ford, the most revered American company of the age, was soon widely replicated.

The most famous of the Whiz Kids, Robert McNamara, would go on to serve in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, where his obsession with paying attention only to things that were quantifiable was a major contributing factor to the failure of US strategy in Vietnam. But that’s another story.

In the corporate context, the trouble with McNamara’s ‘management by numbers’ was that it almost always led to a focus on cost reduction and short-term profit maximisation for shareholders and not on the drivers of long-term value. “Downsize-and-distribute” rather than “retain-and-reinvest” became the corporate strategy of choice.

But the damage caused was fairly contained until deregulation in the 1980s transformed the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street. The most significant regulatory change of that decade was the legalisation in 1982 of unlimited share buybacks – effectively allowing companies to manipulate their own stock price to keep investors happy. Almost immediately, a new breed of financier was born: the ‘corporate raider’ to his critics; ‘activist investor’ to his friends. Carl Icahn was perhaps the most famous of this new breed. Today, he’s a special adviser on financial regulation to President Trump.

Carl-Icahn-and-Donald-Trump

Icahn and his ilk have spent the last three decades effectively extorting money from America’s biggest companies. Since 2004, Foroohar reports, American firms have spent $7 trillion buying back their own stock – equivalent to half their total profits.

Add dividends into the picture too and the numbers get even more mind-boggling. Between 2005 and 2015, S&P 500 companies spent $4 trillion on buybacks and another $2.5 trillion on dividends – which represents 90% of their net earnings over the period. And still the raiders go on raiding and corporations go on meekly handing over cash. ‘In 2014, buybacks and dividends represented 105% of net earnings of publicly traded American companies; in 2015, they reached above 115%.’

No publicly listed company, it seems, is able to buck this trend for long. Not even Apple. Foroohar begins her book with the rather puzzling story of how, in 2013, a company with more than $145 billion in its bank account came to borrow $17 billion in order to buy back its own shares, thereby artificially inflating its share price. But within weeks, the sharks were circling again. Icahn was back buying up Apple stock, ‘all the while tweeting demands that [Tim] Cook spend billions and billions more on buybacks.’ In May 2015, Apple pledged to spend a further $200 billion on dividends and buybacks by March 2017. ‘Meanwhile, the company’s R&D as a percentage of sales, which has been falling since 2001, is creeping ever lower.’ Cook’s Apple, Foroohar concludes, is more in the business of financial engineering than real engineering.

The perverse outcome of all this is that public markets, which were originally set up to provide companies with the means to raise capital in order to fund their own growth, today do precisely the opposite. An IPO has become a way for entrepreneurs to cash out, not a way to access capital for growth.

Tech firms scale back innovation by 40% after an IPO. Private companies – that is those not listed on any stock exchange – invest about twice as much in things like R&D, technology upgrades and worker education than comparable public companies do. And for a sense of historical perspective, consider this: in the early 1970s, the amount of money American companies ploughed back into the business was fifteen times the amount they dished out to shareholders; in recent years the ratio has plummeted to below two.

This is both completely mad and, today, completely normal.

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Not all corporate bosses come out of the book quite as badly as Tim Cook. Former IBM CEO, Sam Palmisano, earns an honourable mention for standing up to activist investors in 2004, when he announced the company’s move out of the PC business and into services. Even though IBM was in the midst of returning $70 billion to shareholders, investors weren’t satisfied and called for Palmisano’s head. In the end, he decided to stop issuing quarterly earnings guidance and effectively told investors who weren’t happy with his strategy to shove it. The result: ‘one of the most successful turnarounds in corporate history.’ IBM’s share price doubled in the process.

Even so, the resistance to the pull of financialisation was short-lived. Soon the pressure on IBM from the markets to “disgorge” its cash began to mount again. Over the entire period from 2000 to 2014, the company spent more than twice as much on buybacks and dividends as it did on its own capital expenditures. The moral of the story: individuals can stand up to the system, but the system always wins in the end.

Jeff Immelt of GE is another of the CEOs whom Foroohar praises. In the decades leading up to 2008, GE’s financial arm, GE Capital, had grown to become America’s largest nonbank financial firm. GE had become, in effect, a ‘finance company that made a few things.’ Then, in 2015, Immelt announced that GE would sell off GE Capital as quickly as possible and go back to its industrial roots.

Foroohar pins a lot of hope on GE’s “back to basics” turn, describing it as ‘a canary in the coal mine of corporate America.’ She argues that ‘much of the future of corporate financialisation will depend on whether the company’s efforts to put its business model back in service to the real economy will succeed.’

But why should GE be different to Apple or IBM? The most likely scenario is that, even if Immelt succeeds in reinventing GE as a great industrial “maker”, he will eventually go and the next CEO of GE will play Tim Cook to Immelt’s Steve Jobs – unless the whole system fundamentally changes, which is hard to imagine happening without political intervention. And we all know how likely that is given who’s in the White House.

Not that previous administrations were much better. As already discussed, the rot set in during the Reagan era – and it only got worse under Clinton.

In 1993, the administration made a fateful decision to push through legislation on corporate pay. Sensibly enough, they wanted to cap corporate tax reductions for regular salaried income at $1 million. But, crucially, the legislation exempted ‘performance-related’ pay above and beyond that. It was a loophole large enough to drive a tank through. Unfortunately, nobody ever seems to have come up with a clear definition of ‘performance-related’, which is why bankers continued to receive absurd bonuses even after they’d crashed the whole system.

Worse still, the resultant growth of bonuses paid in stock options added another layer of perverse incentives: it was no longer just the corporate raiders who were focused solely on boosting stock prices; it was now in the direct financial interest of most company executives to do whatever it took to boost their firm’s share price – including, in many cases, “creative accounting” (a rather generous term: remember Enron?).

Then, in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era legislation that prevented banks from getting into non-financial lines of business – was repealed. As a result, Goldman Sachs and others began manipulating commodities markets by buying up the actual physical commodities and hoarding them. Once again, financial institutions were effectively able to extort money from companies that relied on a particular commodity – like Coca-Cola needing aluminium for its cans.

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Why does all this matter? Isn’t it just the rough and tumble of the free market? Coca-Cola and Apple are big boys: can’t they look after themselves?

Unfortunately, financialisation doesn’t just impact blue-chip firms. It hurts the whole economic, social and political life of the nation (and the damage doesn’t stop at the border, either). Financialisation has three inter-linked consequences that should worry us all.

First, it fuels massive inequality. Today in America, the top 25 hedge fund managers earn more than all the country’s kindergarten teachers combined. You don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to think there’s something fundamentally unjust about such disparities – especially when one considers how little social value hedge fund managers create compared to kindergarten teachers. But even if you’re unmoved by the social justice argument, there are pragmatic reasons to be concerned. Inequality on this scale leads to worse health and wellbeing outcomes for everyone – not just the poor (see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 book, The Spirit Level); it destabilises democracies (as the French economist Thomas Piketty points out, currently levels of inequality in the US are not far off where they were in France on the eve of the bloodbath that was the French Revolution); and it undermines consumer demand (the poor spend a higher proportion of their money than the rich, so as more money gets funnelled to the top end of society, demand for consumer goods – an absolutely critical component of US GDP – dries up).

Which leads us onto the second negative consequence of financialisation: it stifles growth, leading to what some economists call ‘secular stagnation’ (the secular part isn’t to do with the decline of religious belief; it means the stagnation isn’t just part of the usual cycle of boom and bust). As we’ve seen, financialisation has undercut both firms’ investment in their own productive capacity and consumer demand (the latter is partly a result of inequality and partly a result of the burden of debt). ‘The economic “recovery” that we have now isn’t a real one,’ writes Foroohar, ‘it has been genetically modified by the Fed and enjoyed mainly by the investor class.’ For most Americans, the end of growth happened a generation ago: real median wages have flat-lined since the 1970s.

But worse is almost certainly to come. There is more debt in the world today than there was on the eve of the 2008 crash – much of it carried by governments. Between 2007 and the second quarter of 2015, global debt and leverage grew by a whopping $57 trillion. In other words, though the 2008 crisis caused plenty of real suffering, that was not the bubble bursting. That was the bubble threatening to burst and being put on life support so that it deflated gently rather than bursting. But pretty quickly it started re-inflating again. Worse, we haven’t switched off the life support machine – we’ve been running down its battery and it’s the only one we have.

This is the third worrying consequence of financialisation: it’s leading us headlong towards the next crisis, which will almost certainly be much worse than the last one. It’s debatable whether governments were right to bail out financial institutions in 2008. Next time round, it may be a moot point: even if the political will is there to bail the banks out again, governments may be so weighed down by debt of their own that they’re not able to.

As the writer Michael Lewis (of The Big Short fame) puts it, ‘we have too much debt and much of the debt isn’t going to be repaid, but we’re pretending that it is.’ The final act of this drama is ‘the elimination of pretence,’ leading to ‘a more violent financial event… banks going out of business, countries having to restructure their debt, investors taking lots and lots of losses.’

There are those who think such an event will be salutary. We need to hit the reset button and start again, they argue. They’re probably right. Foroohar’s book, which came out before last year’s presidential election, is full of worthy policy recommendations – like reforming the tax system so that debt isn’t cheaper than equity – which she hopes ‘the next President’ might champion. But in the context of everything she tells us about the scale of financial industry lobbying, about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington and about the consequent ‘cognitive capture’ of regulators and politicians, this seems like a vain hope indeed. And now we have President Trump, ably assisted by Carl Icahn and ex-Goldman COO Gary Cohn.

Salutary though it may be in the long run, we should have no illusions about what the next crisis will be like. We won’t be watching with glee as Wall Street gets its come-uppance. Ordinary people will lose their jobs and homes. Law and order may begin to break down. We’ll be looking on in horror as our life’s savings disappear down the plughole, for, as Foroohar puts it, ‘we have made a Faustian bargain, in which we depend on the markets for wealth and thus don’t look too closely at how the sausage gets made.’ Anyone with savings, a pension, property or assets of any kind – in short, everyone but the already completely destitute – stands to lose when the bubble really does burst.

For a glimpse of just how grim life after the next crash promises to be, I recommend another recent book: The Mandibles, by Lionel Shriver, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future America, in which the government defaults on its debts and allows hyperinflation to wipe out all private wealth. It’s not a happy story, but it may yet prove to be a handy survival guide for what comes next.

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The Road to Utopia

Did you know that Richard Nixon almost introduced a basic income policy in 1969? In what he described as ‘the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history,’ Nixon proposed guaranteeing all US citizens a modest amount of money with no strings attached. The Family Assistance Plan, which passed the House of Representatives before foundering in the Senate (in part because the left wing of the Democratic Party thought it wasn’t sufficiently generous), would have guaranteed a family of four $1,600 a year (roughly $10,000 in today’s money).

After this defeat, Nixon – egged on, bizarrely enough, by his advisor Milton Friedman, the doyen of neoliberal economists – didn’t give up on the policy. He presented a slightly tweaked proposal to Congress in 1970 – which again died a death in the Senate.

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Friedman (left) and Nixon: unlikely champions of universal basic income

Even after Watergate, plans for an income floor continued to float around Washington until 1978, when a statistical error finally put the kibosh on the whole thing. Data from a small-scale experiment in Seattle seemed to show that the introduction of a basic income had led to a 50% increase in the divorce rate. In an America in the grip of a conservative Christian revival, that was enough to seal the policy’s fate.

A decade later, researchers took another look at the data from the Seattle trial and discovered that an error had been made. Free money had in fact made no difference whatsoever to the divorce rate. But by then the ship had sailed. Reagan was in the White House and the ‘War on Poverty’ was a distant memory.

It’s an intriguing “what if…?” to ponder. Had Nixon and Friedman got their way, would the idea of the state handing out free money to its citizens now be commonplace in the US and elsewhere? What would the consequences have been for society – and for the economy? We live in an age of stagnant productivity anyway, but would it be a whole lot worse if we’d grown used to receiving a basic income from the state?

utopia for realistsRutger Bregman, in his brilliant new book, Utopia for Realists, gives a pretty emphatic answer to the last of these questions. The impact on productivity of a basic income policy – and also of a shorter working week, which is another of the ‘utopian’ policies Bregman espouses – has repeatedly been shown to be minimal. A trial in America in the 1960s, in which 8,500 people were provided with a basic income, found that, on average, it led to a reduction in paid work per family of 9%. But, once again, when researchers re-visited the data, they concluded that this was a significant over-estimate.

As for a shorter working week, that’s been trialled too – albeit inadvertently. When, in the face of relentless strike action, Edward Heath’s government implemented a three-day working week in January 1974, pundits predicted a catastrophic fall in output. The gloomiest forecasts said it might drop by as much as 50%. Once the dust had settled and the five-day workweek had been reinstated, officials totted up UK plc’s losses. A 40% reduction in working hours had led to a mere 6% of lost output.

Giving people more money and more leisure, it turns out, does not make them significantly less productive. Nor does it engender dependency. In fact, Bregman convincingly argues that when it comes to transferring money to poor people through the welfare state, it’s not the money that makes people dependent, it’s the strings attached to it. Having to constantly prove your inability to fend for yourself leads to a vicious downward spiral: it incentivises failure and helplessness. Much better, he argues, to abolish the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor – which, whether we like it or not, still informs most welfare policy – and simply guarantee everyone a basic income.

I know what you’re thinking. Poor people would just spend the free money on booze, drugs and crappy junk food, right? Wrong again. Bregman turns to psychology in order to address the question of why poor people make bad life choices. The answer, he concludes, is that we, as humans, have limited mental bandwidth. If too much of our mental bandwidth is being used up on questions like “where’s my next meal coming from?” or “how am I going to make it through to my next payday?”, that impairs our ability to think about the long term. Being poor, in other words, makes you do dumb things, not the other way round.

Though his views on basic income have garnered the most attention, Bregman covers an impressive range of other policy ideas. He argues for shifting the burden of taxation from labour to capital. Like Rana Foroohar in her 2016 book Makers and Takers, he argues for making a distinction between forms of enterprise that create (social) value and those that destroy it – and advocates using the tax system to promote the former and punish the latter. For example, a simple transactions tax would make high-frequency trading – an activity that he sees as totally socially useless – much less profitable. Externalities like carbon dioxide emissions would also be taxed in Bregman’s utopia.

Finally – and perhaps this is the greatest heresy of all in Bregman’s book (I mean that as a compliment) – he argues for totally open borders. Not just within a relatively socially and economically homogenous continent like Europe or North America, but globally. Indeed, he provocatively labels the current system of closed – or at least heavily regulated – borders as ‘apartheid on a global scale.’

He sensibly acknowledges that opening all borders is not a policy that could or should be enacted overnight. But it’s salutary to remember just how recent a phenomenon the regulation of cross-border migration is. Passports were a twentieth-century invention, necessitated by the outbreak of World War I (governments suddenly took a serious interest in controlling their borders because they wanted to keep spies out and potential recruits in). Three-quarters of all border walls and fences in the world today have been built since 2000.

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I didn’t really expect to like Utopia for Realists. I appreciated the ‘for realists’ part, but even so, it sounded a bit too fluffy and, well, you know, utopian for my liking. But as soon as I began to read, I was completely engrossed – and, by the end, I was totally won over by Bregman’s vision of the promised land. A shorter working week was an easy sell – I’ve been a fan of the idea for years. But, prior to reading the book, I was more than a little sceptical about universal basic income.

Now, on the strength of Bregman’s argument, I’ve changed my mind. Needless to say, there are still many practical questions about the implementation of basic income to be addressed. What’s the right level to set it at? Should it be the same everywhere – or weighted to take into account regional differences in the cost of living? What about children? Do they get a basic income too? And how about newcomers? At what point do they qualify? (Concern on this last point seems to have been a significant factor in the Swiss voting to reject a universal basic income in a referendum last year. Many voters worried that being a first-mover on UBI would make Switzerland a magnet for immigrants – a fear that Bregman’s proposal to do away with borders entirely would only compound.)

So there’s work still to be done on the finer details, but of the overall direction I am completely convinced. And the point of Bregman’s book isn’t to offer up a fully worked out policy programme that could be implemented tomorrow; it’s to encourage us to raise our sights and imagine what a better future would actually look like. ‘The real crisis of our times, of my generation,’ he writes, ‘is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on… [it’s] that we can’t come up with anything better.’

Why does this failure of imagination matter? Because, as Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘progress is the realisation of Utopias.’ Ideas can and do change the world. Just look at history.

For inspiration, Bregman points us in the direction of rather an unlikely model: the triumph of neoliberalism. It started with just forty people – a group of intellectuals – in a small village in Switzerland. Their leader was an uncharismatic, bespectacled Austrian economist. A man who’d spent much of his professional life trying to challenge Keynesian ideas – and who’d been roundly beaten at every turn. Appropriately enough, it was April Fools’ Day, 1947.

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Friedrich Hayek: founder of the Mont Pelerin Society

At the time, though Keynes himself had died the previous year, Keynesian ideas – redistributive welfare policies, state intervention in the economy to stimulate demand during recessions, strict limits on transnational flows of capital – were triumphant across the Western world. That first Mont Pèlerin meeting was the epitome of pissing into the wind.

And yet, the bespectacled Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek, and his ‘naïve provincial’ (those are his own words) American sidekick, Milton Friedman, would have the last laugh. They spent 25 years pursuing their alternative vision of society in the intellectual wilderness, but when the crisis came in the mid-1970s, they were ready.

The oil “shock” of 1973 – the big oil producers in the Middle East hiked their prices up by 70% and imposed an embargo on the US in retaliation for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War – triggered a recession, accompanied by spiralling inflation. This was a combination the Keynesians had never foreseen. Into the intellectual void stepped the neoliberals – chief among them, Friedman himself.

The rest, as they say, is history. Friedman’s doctrine that ‘a corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for [its] stockholders as possible’ rapidly took on the status of gospel amongst the leaders of American capitalism. By the end of the decade, Margaret Thatcher, a committed Hayekian, was in Downing Street. (In a Conservative Party policy meeting in the late 70s, Thatcher interrupted one of her colleagues who was busy espousing a ‘middle way’ approach, by pulling a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty out of her bag and sternly declaring: “this is what we believe.”) And a year later, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in the US presidential election. (His famous quip – ‘the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ – is perhaps the pithiest expression of neoliberal doctrine ever coined.)

The deficiencies of neoliberalism have been apparent for a long time – and in 2008 it failed even on its own terms. So why has it not been overthrown? ‘When we suddenly found ourselves facing the collapse of the entire banking sector [in 2008],’ writes Bregman, ‘there were no real alternatives available; all we could do was keep plodding down the same path.’

We had failed to lay the intellectual groundwork for a counter-revolution. We knew we didn’t like the existing order, but we hadn’t really thought through the kind of society we wanted to create in its place. We had no equivalent of the Mont Pèlerin Society to lead us into a different future.

We’ve wasted one crisis; we can’t afford to waste the next one too. Now is the time to start preparing. Perhaps one day in the future, the Prime Minister will pull a copy of Utopia for Realists from his/her bag, slam it down on the table and say: “this is what we believe.”

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The elephants in the room of British politics

The cover of this week’s New Statesman caught my eye. ‘WANTED: AN OPPOSITION’ it reads, next to a picture of a glowering, moustachioed Lord Kitchener. Inside, an impressive array of pundits and politicians hold forth on the parlous state of Britain’s centre left, but their analyses offer scant cause for anything but the deepest pessimism.

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The Labour Party has become ‘the decaying tree under whose shadow nothing can grow,’ writes David Runciman. The SNP in their own way are as hell-bent on the destruction of ‘liberal Britain’ as the Tories are. The Liberal Democrats are pursuing a kind of inverse UKIP strategy – turning themselves into a single-issue, pro-EU party – that may bring them some short-term gains, but in the long term will make them irrelevant. As Philip Collins writes, ‘it is an understandable short-term tactic but, as the salience of the [Brexit] issue declines over time, and as the Liberal Democrats define themselves as the pro-EU party, that will quicken the shrinking of liberal Britain, rather than ensure its recovery.’

So, time for a new party? The prospects here are scarcely more appealing. George Eaton reveals that, in the week after last summer’s EU Referendum, George Osborne approached both the Lib Dem leader and (unspecified) Labour MPs about the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats”. His suggestion fell on deaf ears. Right idea, wrong messenger, perhaps.

But even with a different messenger, no new party can realistically break through without a change in the electoral system: just look at what happened to the SDP in the 1980s. Two years after the ‘gang of four’ split from Labour in 1981, the SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the popular vote in a general election (to Labour’s 27.6%). But, due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, the Alliance ended up with just 23 MPs to Labour’s 209.

How about a ‘progressive alliance’ then, a looser coalition of the existing centre-left parties – Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens etc? This would probably be the most tactically astute option – favoured by Robert Harris and Paddy Ashdown, among others – but unlikely to happen. Currently, none of these parties are willing to work with any of the others.

There’s a deeper malaise, too, that goes beyond the tactics of how to provide effective opposition to the Tories. ‘Liberal Britain is not being heard,’ writes John Gray, ‘because it speaks incessantly of a past that cannot be retrieved… the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism in Labour and other parties have shirked the question of what liberalism means in the irrevocably changed conditions of our time.’ In short, he concludes, ‘liberal Britain has nothing to say.’

Gray’s dissection of the centre-left’s woes begs a question that none of the contributors properly address: what should ‘the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism’ be talking about? Right now in British politics, all is subsumed by the festering, self-inflicted wound of Brexit. But this too shall pass. Possibly we will plummet off a proverbial cliff edge, though, more probably, we will muddle on through: a bit poorer, more irrelevant and insular, but still much as we are today, facing the same intractable challenges and divisions in our society.

There are, in my view, three major forces that will shape – and if politicians don’t step up, potentially destroy – Britain’s society and economy over my lifetime: climate change, technology and demographics. At present, almost nobody in mainstream politics is talking coherently and consistently about any of them.

As Andrew Simms wrote in The Guardian last week, climate change has almost completely disappeared from political discourse across Europe. It was not mentioned once in Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50. Gibraltar – a rock in the Mediterranean with a total area of 6.7 km2 and a population of 30,000 – also got missed out and there’s been no end of a fuss about that. But rising sea levels, mass extinction, the toxification of the air we breathe (which already contributes to 40,000 early deaths a year in Britain, according to the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Paediatrics and Child Health), perennial political instability and refugee crises caused by the increasingly uninhabitable climate of large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle East: meh, we’re not bothered.

We think we’re better than America because at least our politicians believe the science. But believing the science doesn’t do us much good if you then do bugger all about it. Better almost to be a denier than to acknowledge the reality of the problem and then fiddle while the planet fries. Simms rightly argues that the failure to act on climate change – or even talk about it – means that ‘those who think of themselves inhabiting some political centre are, in fact, extremists. They preside over systems calmly marching us over a climate change cliff.’

The disruption wrought by technological progress is another defining issue that mainstream politicians have woefully little to say on. When, on occasion, they try, they mostly expose the depth of their own ignorance and incompetence. Take, for example, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who invited ridicule when she told Andrew Marr after the Westminster attack that you just need people ‘who understand the necessary hashtags’ in order to stop terrorist propaganda being spread online.

Or consider this wonderfully garbled Twitter card from Comrade Corbyn, which I was quite certain was a spoof when I first saw it (it isn’t):

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At least Corbyn has heard of the fourth industrial revolution. But neither he, nor anyone else in British politics, has shown any inclination to engage with the profound implications of technological change for the future of work and the welfare state.

Fears of an imminent robot takeover and mass unemployment are overblown. But that doesn’t mean that the labour market isn’t changing profoundly. As The Economist’s Ryan Avent explains in a brilliant recent blog on ‘The Productivity Paradox’, the onward march of technology is creating a strong downward pressure on wages. ‘The digital revolution,’ he writes, ‘has created an abundance of labour.’ People can’t afford to drop out of the workforce altogether – our social safety nets are too thin for that – so instead they struggle on in increasingly part-time, low-paid, precarious forms of employment.

There’s a positive side to this story too – for lots of people, the ‘gig economy’ or ‘sharing economy’ is a liberation. Study after study shows that the vast majority of people working for old-fashioned companies with massive workforces, sprawling bureaucracies and rigid hierarchies don’t like their jobs. Why? A lack of autonomy.

So the shift to more fluid and flexible forms of employment has the potential to greatly increase the sum of human happiness – but it needs to be underpinned by a re-imagined welfare state. The old way of dividing people up – those in employment versus those not in employment – doesn’t make sense any more. We need a social safety net and a pensions system that works for a society where increasing numbers of people are neither fully employed nor fully unemployed.

The third – and final – trend that we need to drag into the spotlight is demographics. Britain’s population is ageing rapidly. That’s a good thing, on the whole – it means we’re living longer – but it once again has profound implications for the structure of our welfare state. And it requires politicians to have some hard conversations with us voters.

The pension age almost certainly needs to go up substantially. The NHS is doomed, unless we make a concerted effort to radically improve its efficiency. (Currently, neither Tories nor Labour seem interested in doing this: the former seem happy to run the NHS into the ground and the latter shirk serious reform in favour of making the case for ever-increased spending.) And, in all probability, we need more, not fewer, immigrants in order to make the sums add up. Working-age immigrants who are net contributors to the UK Exchequer will be vital if we are to support the growing weight of native pensioners.

So why does nobody talk about these things? Ask a politician and they’ll say it’s because voters don’t want to be told that they can’t retire until 75, that the NHS is being put on a radical diet and, by the way, we’re going to let in as many immigrants as we possibly can. Well, maybe so, but how close to the cliff edge do we need to get before someone has the courage to speak a few unpalatable truths?

Alas, this is a classic case of what Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has termed ‘the tragedy of the horizon.’ No government yet faces a direct incentive to properly address these issues because their consequences will play out beyond the current political cycle. The tragedy is that by the time these issues become truly material, it will almost certainly be too late to address them. Short-termism is democratic capitalism’s fatal flaw.

And you thought Labour’s polling numbers were depressing.

I know that the agenda I’ve outlined isn’t exactly likely to be a vote winner in 2020. But I for one would like to see an opposition that talks about the stuff that really matters – even when the pollsters warn you it’s suicide and the tabloids scream bloody murder. Isn’t that, after all, what political leadership is meant to be about?

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Beauty and evil: Wagner’s Meistersinger and the Goethe Oak phenomenon

Last week, I went to see Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (currently on at The Apollo, starring Tom Hollander – go see it!). Set predominantly in 1917, its central protagonist, Henry Carr (Hollander) is a Wodehousian character for whom Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas represent the aesthetic pinnacle of Western civilisation. Invalided out of the war, Carr is posted to the British Consulate in neutral Zurich, where he crosses paths with James Joyce (who’s in the midst of writing Ulysses), Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dadaism, an avant-garde artistic movement that celebrated nonsense and irrationality) and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin).

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties

One of the play’s central themes is the nature of art itself. Carr, the traditionalist, clashes entertainingly with Tzara, the nonsense poet. Towards the end of the evening, Carr discovers an unlikely ally in Lenin, who rails against modern art: ‘expressionism, futurism, cubism… I don’t understand them and I get no pleasure from them.’ Which prompts Carr to quip to the audience: ‘That’s my point. There was nothing wrong with Lenin except his politics.’

It’s a good line. Like so many in the play, it combines surface humour with deep insight. It’s a profound comment – about the relationship between art and politics, beauty and evil, and our instinctive wish for good taste to be a sign of good character – dressed up as a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that Donald Trump likes his steak well-done, with tomato ketchup on the side. Cue a Twitter storm of outrage at the President’s tastelessness. Liberals everywhere latched onto it as confirmation of what we already knew: the man’s a total philistine and an authoritarian monster.

He is, of course. But the fact that Trump is both tasteless and evil is perhaps more a case of coincidence than consequence, for aesthetic taste is not, alas, a reliable indicator of moral character.

Consider Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (currently on at the Royal Opera House, starring Sir Bryn Terfel – go see it, too, if you’re able to get your hands on a ticket). It’s probably my favourite opera of all time. When I first saw it a couple of years ago at English National Opera, I came away physically and emotionally broken.

Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs in the current ROH production of Meistersinger

After more than four hours of build-up, the opera reaches its climax when a young knight called Walther (played by the magnificent Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones in both the current ROH production and the 2015 ENO production) stands up to sing his ‘prize song’ – a last-minute entry to a singing competition organised by the Nuremberg guild of master singers.

The prize Walther hopes to win is the hand of the beautiful Eva. But he’s a rank outsider, in every sense: he’s not a member of the guild and just 24 hours earlier he was totally ignorant of the master singers’ fiendishly complex rules for what makes a master song. Nonetheless, thanks to the patient coaching of Hans Sachs, he has learned the rules and prepared a prize song. The result is one of the most achingly beautiful melodies in the whole history of music.

When I first heard the prize song live and in its proper context (ie., with the four-hour musical and dramatic build-up), I was convulsed with sobs that rose uncontrollably from the pit of my stomach and shook my whole body. I’ve never, before or since, had such a physically intense reaction to a piece of music. I live in hope, but it may well be unsurpassable.

Being a Wagner fan – and a Meistersingers fan, in particular – puts one in uncomfortable company though, for, famously, Hitler was a Wagner devotee. Meistersingers was his favourite opera too. During World War II, cohorts of Nazi thugs were dispatched to Bayreuth to sit through performances of it. Most of them hated it, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody dared badmouth Wagner to his most bloodthirsty fan.

And Wagner himself, though he doesn’t deserve to be tarnished by a posthumous association with Hitler, was a deeply unpleasant man. His anti-Semitism is well-documented. Initially born of professional jealousy – Wagner had failed to break into the Paris opera scene, where Felix Mendelssohn (who’d actually been baptised a Christian at the age of seven) and Giacomo Meyerbeer were pre-eminent – over time, his resentment hardened into racism. And the way he preyed on his patrons – both the innocent, otherworldly King Ludwig II of Bavaria and, before him, the exceedingly generous Zurich-based silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, whose wife Wagner had an affair with – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

But the music transcends the man. As Georg Solti, the Jewish conductor whose pioneering recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle remains one of the bestselling classical records of all time, wrote: ‘To me, anybody who can create such beauty, whether he be half-Jewish, anti-Semite, revolutionary, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilisation lasts.’

And yet. However much we might not want it to be so, the uncomfortable truth is that beauty and evil are entirely compatible. In his 1997 book, The File, journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash uses the term ‘Goethe Oak’ as a shorthand for the ‘intimate proximity of high European culture and systematic inhumanity’ in German history. The reference is to an ancient oak tree near Weimar, under which Goethe is supposed to have written his Wanderers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song) in 1776. It was later enclosed on the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp and may even have been used for hangings during the Holocaust. ‘Goethe and Buchenwald,’ Garton Ash writes, ‘the highest and the lowest in human history, together in one place. A place called Weimar. A place called Germany. A place called Europe.’

Prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp line up for roll-call

What’s most disconcerting about the Goethe Oak phenomenon is the possibility that there is in fact a positive correlation between the richness of Germany’s cultural heritage and the monstrous evil that was perpetrated there between 1933 and 1945. Shortly after Hitler came to power, an 18-year-old Englishman, Patrick Leigh Fermor, set off to walk across Europe, passing through Nazi Germany on his way from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul). More than forty years later, in 1977, he published a book about the trip, A Time of Gifts.

Leigh Fermor’s account of his first evening in Nazi Germany, spent in a small town near the Dutch border called Goch, sticks in my mind. Seeking refuge in a cosy, traditional tavern, the young traveller settles down to write up his diary with a mug of beer in front of him. After a while, he is interrupted by a dozen SA men who come into the tavern and occupy a long table. ‘One or two, wearing spectacles, might have been clerks or students,’ he observes.

Before long, the SA men broke into song. They sang traditional German folksongs – songs about foresters’ daughters and lovely maidens amongst the linden trees. At first, the singing was jaunty and energetic, accompanied by rhythmic thumping of fists on the long table. ‘The sound would have resembled a rugger club after a match if the singing had been less good. Later on, the volume dwindled and the thumping died away as the singing became softer and harmonies and descants began to weave more complex patterns.’

That image – of the SA men spontaneously breaking into complex harmonies – encapsulates a profound truth about the fragility of human goodness. We comfort ourselves with the notion that bad people are not like us. They like their steak well-done. With ketchup!

In our mind’s eye, Hitler is permanently stuck at a podium, gesticulating wildly and working himself up into a maniacal frenzy of hatred. But the image of the Führer sitting quietly in an auditorium, listening attentively to the exquisite strains of Walther’s prize song is, in some ways, much scarier.

Henry Carr is right, you see. Bad people are like us.

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We need to talk about duties as well as rights

For the last fortnight I’ve been doing jury service. The case I was assigned was an unpleasant one, but overall I found the experience surprisingly rewarding. My fellow jurors were an engaged, intelligent bunch. As we sat in the courtroom listening to evidence, we were reminded repeatedly that what we were doing was our ‘civic duty’.  Unquestioningly, we took it upon ourselves to fulfil that duty to the best of our collective ability. Doing so brought out the best in people and, at the end of it all, I left with a deep sense of satisfaction at a duty well done and a renewed faith in the reasonableness of my fellow citizens – notwithstanding the (guilty) man in the dock.

The trial finished on Friday afternoon and I got home just in time to switch on the telly and watch Trump’s inauguration speech. Perhaps because of where I’d just come from, I was particularly struck by the total absence of any mention of the duties of citizenship in Trump’s address.

trump-inauguration

‘Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighbourhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves,’ he intoned, unable to lift his gaze from the teleprompter even for a second. ‘These are just and reasonable demands.’

And then came the coup de grâce. ‘At the centre of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.’ It may sound innocuous compared to ‘America First’ or ‘American carnage’ but, for my money, this is the most dangerous sentence in the whole speech. It is symptomatic of an exclusively rights-based discourse and an ugly culture of entitlement, in which ideals of service and self-sacrifice have gone conspicuously missing.

There was nothing unusual per se about Trump’s invocation of nation and people. All Presidents do that. What makes Trump’s brand of populist nationalism different – and scary – is the absence of any appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ (to borrow a phrase from one of his more eloquent predecessors). Instead, Trump appeals deliberately and exclusively to his listeners’ basest, most narrow-minded and self-interested instincts.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most iconic inauguration speeches in American history. Trump’s is its antithesis in almost every way imaginable.

Where Kennedy was internationalist – ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty’ – Trump is isolationist –  ‘For many decades … we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.’

Where Kennedy’s rhetoric soars – ‘Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle’ – Trump’s nosedives – ‘America will start winning again, winning like never before.’

But, above all, where Kennedy stressed a patriotism that was about duty and service – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ – Trump stresses a patriotism that is about rights and entitlements – ‘a nation exists to serve its citizens.’

I know there are many who will use the language of rights to oppose Trump – and rightly so. But we need to do more than this. We need to re-learn how to think and talk about duties too. JFK’s inaugural is as good a place as any to start.

Watch JFK’s 1961 inauguration speech (full version)

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What’s really happening to American jobs?

It was the over-riding theme of Trump’s inauguration speech: foreigners, aided and abetted by politicians in Washington, stole our jobs. Now we want them back. ‘For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,’ yammered the new President. ‘One by one, shutters have closed on our factories without even a thought about the millions and millions of those who have been left behind.’

It’s a simple story about a simple problem with a simple solution. ‘Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’ Enhanced border controls, strict quotas for immigrants, protective tariffs on imports, an end to free trade, an instruction to American multinationals that they must unpick their global supply chains and repatriate those operations they’ve spent the last three decades outsourcing to other countries: these, plus a healthy splurge on domestic infrastructure, are Trump’s job creation policies.

trump-supporters

Would that it were so simple. The unfortunate reality is that globalisation and open borders are not the sole cause of the demise of the Good American Job. There are at least two other critical factors in play – neither of which got a mention in Trump’s inauguration speech.

The first is technology. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, observers have noted a rather anxious, downbeat mood amongst the great and the good of the tech community. Google’s party, normally one of the most high-profile events on the WEF agenda, was cancelled this year. Silicon Valley bigwigs like Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, flagged concerns that he and his ilk could become the new bankers: loathed for destroying ordinary people’s livelihoods and creating ever more inequality between the top 1% and everyone else.

There is a lively debate about whether technological advances will have an overall positive or negative impact on jobs. Martin Ford’s 2015 bestseller, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment propelled the pessimistic case into the limelight. Ford cites research conducted by academics at Oxford’s Martin School that suggests that almost half of US jobs (47% to be precise) are at risk of automation within the next two decades. The numbers for many other countries are higher – and, with advances in fields such as Artificial Intelligence, it’s no longer just manual labour that is under threat: white collar workers, too, are increasingly being replaced by machines.

robots

An Economist special report on the world’s biggest companies, published last September, offered data that suggests this process is already well underway. At the end of 2006, there was just one tech firm – Microsoft – in the top 10 largest companies worldwide (by market capitalisation). A decade later, there are five: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook have joined the list. What’s significant about this, from a jobs perspective, is that these companies have achieved enormous financial success with a fraction of the workforce of a previous generation of corporate giants.

The report goes on to make a rather telling comparison between America in the industrial age and America in the digital age:

‘In 1990 the top three carmakers in Detroit between them had nominal revenues of $250 billion, a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2m employees. In 2014 the top three companies in Silicon Valley had revenues of $247 billion and a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion but just 137,000 employees.’

Looking at those figures, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in the digital age, the link between economic success and mass employment is broken. Today’s IT giants are generating equivalent revenues and a market capitalisation almost thirty times higher than the automotive giants of a quarter century ago with just a tenth of the workforce.

Others are more optimistic. For example, Andrew McAfee of MIT, co-author of The Second Machine Age, argues in this recent video that ‘technology and tech progress always create jobs and create opportunities and they always destroy old jobs and old opportunities… Overall, the creation outweighs the destruction.’

The problem though, as McAfee goes on to acknowledge, is that the creative destruction wrought by technological progress does not tend to lead to the replacement of like with like in the jobs market. Jobs destroyed in one location, requiring one skillset are often replaced by new jobs in a different location, requiring a different skillset. At Davos this week, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com – another tech industry leader who fears a societal backlash – coined a good term for the people whose lives are disrupted by this process: “digital refugees.”

Even if you think the prophecies about mass obsolescence of the human workforce are overblown, there’s no avoiding the fact that much of the dislocation and disruption people are already feeling in their working lives is a result of technological advances. And the pessimists and optimists all agree on one thing: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The other factor that Trump ignored in his inaugural address is rent-seeking. Machines and foreigners have created pressure from below on American jobs: increasingly, they can do what someone in an office or factory in the Midwest might once have done both cheaper and better. But the disappearance of the once ubiquitous Good American Job – secure, well-paid, status-enhancing – is also threatened by pressure from above.

The last quarter century has seen the incomes of those at the very top go through the roof. The three highest paid CEOs in the US took home nearly $300 million between them last year. On this side of the Atlantic, the average pay of a FTSE 100 CEO has gone from 45 times the median pay of their staff twenty years ago to 130 times today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To get a sense of how unprecedented this is, it’s worth listening to a man who, in his own time, was the poster-boy for capitalist excess: the great Gilded Age US banker, JP Morgan. A little over a century ago, he let it be known that his bank would not invest in any company whose CEO was paid more than 20 times what the average worker in the firm got. Why? Because, he believed, a CEO who paid himself more than that was serving his own self-interest rather than the good of the company.

j-p-_morgan_2

Using that rule of thumb, Morgan would be hard-pressed to find a single worthy investee listed on any of the major stock exchanges today. And, at least in general terms, he was right. The link between CEO pay and company performance has been broken and those that suffer most are workers in the ‘squeezed middle’. Automation and globalisation have enabled corporate executives to radically reduce the cost of doing business, by laying off expensive developed world employees, but conveniently there’s one layer of the corporate structure that has been immune to these changes: the very top.

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the Good American Job has become an endangered species. But his myopic focus on just one of the three causes of this situation is dangerous and his resultant policy prescription likely to fail. Globalisation is not as irresistible a force of nature as its most ardent champions led us to believe and, yes, politicians should look to temper its worst excesses and mitigate its most damaging consequences on communities that have indeed been ‘left behind’.

But we cannot turn the clock back. Without also addressing the two linked challenges I’ve outlined – how to enable populations to adapt to technological progress, and how to counter the irresponsible rent-seeking of an overpaid corporate elite – any attempt to bring good jobs back to America will be akin to pissing into the wind. Perhaps, given his rumoured penchant for golden showers, that’s not such a bad thing in Donald Trump’s mind.

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The best 10 books I read last year

I know it’s a tad late in the season for gift ideas, but books are for life, not just for Christmas so what the hell. Here, in no particular order – well actually they’re in the order I read them in – are the ten best books I read in 2016. I recommend them all unhesitatingly.

It’s a slightly eclectic list: nine novels, ranging from satirical to dystopian, the oldest of which was published just over half a century ago, the most recent of which came out last year; and one lone work of non-fiction.

I will be getting a hard time from Katy because, once again, it’s a shamefully all-male list. I promise I do occasionally read books by women – it’s just that, to date, with the honourable exception of Zadie Smith, they mostly haven’t done it for me (and even Zadie’s gone a bit off the boil since her early brilliance, in my humble opinion). Katy did buy me A Very Short Introduction to Feminism for Christmas and I have novels by Margaret Atwood and Penelope Fitzgerald sitting in my to-read pile, so maybe, just maybe by this time next year, I’ll have mended my ways.

But anyway, here, without further ado, is my list:

  1. Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks (2015). Within the first few pages, I had that warm, comforting feeling you get when you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game. The writing is exquisite and the book manages to be both intimate and expansive. It’s a moving personal story of love and loss – one of very few books that have genuinely made me cry – but also covers an extraordinary sweep of European twentieth-century history. All the while, Faulks interrogates the fallibility of memory and the identities we construct for ourselves out of a past that is mostly unknown and if not unknown then misremembered. There’s a certain amount of geeking out over psychology that will appeal to some readers more than others, but it’s entirely forgivable in the context of a story that has enough twists and emotional bite to keep you turning the pages at a frenetic pace.

 

  1. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1996). Though it’s now twenty years old, Mistry’s masterpiece is still probably the best portrait of India out there. It’s a big (in every sense) social novel, covering the period from independence through the 1970s. It’s full of brutality. It begins with the brutality of the caste system, depicting a society in which people are routinely mutilated and murdered for not accepting their place in the hierarchy. Then it moves on to the brutality of poverty and the Indian government’s policy of ‘beautification’ – slums are cleared and the slum dwellers shipped off to forced labour camps. In the face of all this brutality, human life and happiness are portrayed as unbearably, tragically fragile. Mistry’s prose is almost Orwellian in its conciseness. The baldness of the writing only accentuates the pathos of the story.

 

  1. The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré (1991). The Cold War made Le Carré and this underrated novel is his almost nostalgic farewell to it. It’s his last George Smiley novel, dedicated to Alec Guinness, who famously played Smiley on screen in the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s really a collection of short stories – old spies’ reminiscences about the good old days before the Wall came down. Threaded through them all is a disconcerting sense that the West’s hard-won victory over Communism was a hollow one. What, asks Le Carré, was it all for? In the age of Putin and Trump, you may well wonder.

le-carre

 

 

  1. A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré (1968). Le Carré – as the man himself acknowledges in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel – was obsessed by Germany. He first visited as a teenager, just after the Second World War, experiencing first-hand the devastation and the horror wrought by twelve years of Nazi rule – from the rubble of its bombed-out cities to the horrifying stench of the concentration camps. Then he was posted to the British Embassy in Bonn in the 1960s, where he worked for British Intelligence. By 1968, he’d left the service to be a full-time writer, but his time in Bonn continued to inform his fiction, not least in this novel, which is set in his former workplace. Germany in the late 1960s was still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past. A generation of German writers – led by the Nobel Prize-winning Günter Grass – railed against their fellow citizens’ forgetfulness about the past. The election of a former Nazi to the West German Chancellorship in 1966 elevated Grass et al’s moral outrage to a whole new level, but nobody captured the mood and moral frustration of Germany at that time better than Le Carré does in this novel. And what’s more, he manages to skewer the hypocrisy and incompetence of his former employers at the same time. Rather neatly, the overriding ambition of British foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe at that time was to get into the European Economic Community. How times change.

 

  1. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013). Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than this – or at least that’s what I thought until I read number 7 on this list. Harris’ novel is a vivid re-telling of the real-life story of the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an officer in the French Army. He also happened to be Jewish – at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. In 1894, he was (as it turned out, wrongly) found guilty of being a German spy and deported to Devil’s Island – a French prison colony in the South Atlantic. Harris’ version of the story is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, a loyal army man, who took over French Army Intelligence a year after Dreyfus was convicted. As he goes back over the evidence, Picquart gradually discovers that the Army has got the wrong man but his superiors want to hear none of it. An Officer and a Spy is the story of his heroic, honourable struggle against a conspiracy of silence.

 

  1. The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013). Set in the near future, this dystopian novel about the totalitarian potential inherent in the way the internet has developed is a 1984 for our times. The likes of Google and Facebook today have access to way more personal information about way more people than the Stasi could ever have dreamt of. This book is a chilling, brilliant attempt to make us face up to the implications of that fact.

 

  1. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016). This is another masterpiece of historical fiction. Entirely based on real events, it’s the story of composer Dmitri Schostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State he unwillingly served. Barnes has imagined his way into Schostakovich’s life in an extraordinary way. The result is a novel that not only opens a window onto the composer’s inner world – imagined, yes, but well-researched and entirely plausible; it also offers a subtle analysis of the anatomy of power and the complex ways in which fallible, non-heroic, human beings interact with totalitarian authority.

 

  1. The Tin Men by Michael Frayn (1965). Concerns about robots stealing our jobs are very much de rigueur at the moment, but they’re nothing new. Michael Frayn’s debut novel – a satire set in an ‘automation research institute’, written when Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson was Prime Minister – is testament to that. The ‘institute’ includes departments working on the automation of headline writing, sport – ‘When takings at the gate have fallen low enough to cure any tendency to sentiment, people will notice that a computer is a far more suitable tool than a cricket team for producing a complex score sheet from the variables of ground moisture, light, surface wear on ball, fallibility of wicket-keeper, and so on’ – and even morality. The latter involves the development of machines that will spontaneously throw themselves off a sinking raft in order to save others. One of Frayn’s protagonists is a wannabe novelist, who starts by writing the blurb and the reviews for the inside cover, before preceding to chapter one. Another is a bluff ex-Army and public school type, who’s responsible for overseeing scientists whom he regards as an alien species – “I mean, people talk a lot of nonsense about scientists being difficult people to get through to. But I say, if a chap’s a decent chap, he’s a decent chap be he a scientist or a nigger minstrel.” There are flashes of comic brilliance but the humour isn’t quite sustained throughout. Nonetheless, much of the satire remains remarkably fresh and relevant half a century on.

 

  1. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015). The only thing that baffled me about the glowing reviews this Pulitzer Prize winner received is that so many of them described it as ‘very funny.’ It is not very funny. But it is very good. It tells the story of a Vietcong sleeper agent who’s attached to a General in South Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he follows his general to America, where he remains for years, all the while living a double life. Eventually, he returns to Vietnam as part of a doomed South Vietnamese mission to re-conquer the country and ends up imprisoned by the regime he’s spent his whole life loyally serving. They torture him for being ideologically contaminated. The book’s greatest strength of all is the wry narrative voice – the story is told from the sleeper agent’s perspective; we gradually discover that what we are reading is his ‘confession’ for the sin of being corrupted by America. It’s worthy of Le Carré.

 

  1. The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel (2016). The odd one out on my list, both in that it’s the only work of non-fiction to make my top ten and in that it’s the only one I’ve written about elsewhere. Erixon and Weigel argue, quite convincingly, that the conventional wisdom that says we’re on the brink of a golden age of innovation is based on a misunderstanding of the innovation process. Innovation is not the same as invention. It is, above all, an economic process. But capitalism is broken. It is stifling innovation by failing to create the right incentives for new products to be developed and brought to market at scale. The Innovation Illusion is a much-needed corrective to the increasingly mainstream view – often couched in ludicrously hyperbolic terms – that a tsunami of innovation is coming whether we like it or not.  Actually, Erixon and Weigel would like it to come – they think robots will, on balance, make our lives better and more prosperous – but they think that wave on the horizon is just a mirage.
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