Friday, March 26, 2010

Books I'm reading # 7

I could do a very short post by saying, 'not a lot'.  For the trouble is, I often find writing and reading to be incompatible. This might seem counter intuitive, but it is not unique - a writing friend of mine once told me she had to give up reading entirely if she was to produce anything serious - 'too distracting' she said, and I empathise.

I've also been learning to play the banjo - so there is a pile of instruction manuals on my desk: Banjo for Dummies; Absolute Beginners; Learn to Play...  Do these count as proper reading?  Not really, but I've enjoyed them nonetheless. I have always wanted to play a musical instrument though quite how it ended up being a banjo I'm not sure. Anyone want to hear my ten thousandth rendition of Cripple Creek?Believe me, you don't; you really don't.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is non-fiction at its best. Holmes tells the story of the pioneering scientists of the Romantic era: William Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, Michael Faraday. It is also an account of a time when the quest for knowledge was an exciting project worthy, of widespread public support - and a reminder too of just how much progress we have made. Admittedly, the grander projects were largely the preserve of a wealthy elite, but not exclusively so. What chance that our Monarch would pay for today's equivalent of Herschel's forty foot telescope and give its inventor an annual salary so they could use it to the full? George III did just that. An inspiring book, superbly written - my only irritation is the small font size.. 'where are my glasses!'

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers is my type of novel. Set in small mid western town, it is the story of two old friends, both dying, and two young men, whose lives are inexorably drifting and influenced by factors they cannot control. It's underlying tone is sad and reflective; the sense that 'ultimately, we are all alone' is the bass note of a story that grinds towards an inevitable, unstoppable conclusion. Slow, sensitive and heartfelt.

The Fall by Albert Camus. I had wanted to read this for years - but boy, is it dull. It is so dreary I had to force myself to finish it. The story of a self absorbed solicitor who has given up everything and lives in an existential quandary. It is written as a monologue, the lawyer talking to an unnamed stranger over a number of night.  I can't imagine why he came back; Camus says very little and what he does say is zzzzz...
The Set Up by Joseph Moncure March was an unexpected gift from fellow blogger Carol (Not Only In Thailand) in return for a very small favour. And like all the best gifts, I was delighted to receive it but probably wouldn't have bought it myself - not because it isn't excellent, but because it is very difficult to find. Carol introduced to Moncure Marsh's furiously rhyming prose poems by recommending his better known book, The Wild Party. The Set Up is equally good; the tale of a faded boxer who is expected to throw a fight, but he doesn't know it...  Here is a an excerpt from page 1:

He was supple of build,
Heavy above,
With legs slim.
Light as a cat on his feet.
His neck was solid.
His arms were long.
His bones were heavy,
And his hands were strong;
And whenever he moved, you could see the lithe
Muscles under his skin writhe.
He was slick:
Each movement was like a trick.

Brilliant. Thank you Carole.

Nocturnes is the latest book by Kazuo Ishiguro. A series of short stories on the theme of 'turning points', all linked by music and with an underlying sense of regret and lost opportunity. As you would expect from Ishiguro they are skilfully written and the book gradually comes together in a way that is more satisfying than any of the individual stories. And yet I was disappointed. Some writers (Carver or Chekov for example) are masters at the short story; I didn't get that sense with this book - simply not as good as his novels.

Grays Anatomy by John Gray is book I have mentioned before. I have been rereading large sections of his essays: on politics, on the folly of progress; on Green Conservatism. Gray is one of the very best political a philosophical writers; not everything he says is comfortable but at times it seems impossible to escape his logic. What astounds me most is that many of these essays were written fifteen or more years ago - and yet they are so relevant today; almost prophetic at times. His analysis of the issues facing society is absolute top drawer. Intelligent, serious and tough - but worth the effort.

And lastly, Flat Stanley, Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh.  All read with Dylan of course. I only read them for him.... honestly, believe me.
So not a great deal, but some ideas perhaps.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Politics - the policy void

Thomas Hobbes - from Malmesbury near my Wiltshire home - and the first book of political philosophy I read.

Yesterday a leaflet from the Liberal Democrat candidate dropped through my letterbox. It's message amounted to:' Vote for me because I live locally. Don't vote Labour because they can't win. And whatever you do, don't vote for the Conservative chap because he lives in Devon!'

And that was about it!

I exaggerate a little, and it is perhaps unfair to single out this leaflet as the other candidates' literature is no better. But when you consider this constituency has been declared a 'key marginal' is it entirely unreasonable to expect a little more substance? I suspect it is, because the leaflet is merely a symptom of a deeper political malaise.

Last week a colleague moaned, 'Ever since New Labour arrived there's been no difference between the parties.' He might be chronologically correct but it misses the point that the Conservative Party is also unrecognisable from the Middle and Upper Class alliance it once was. A political vision based on preserving establishment values is as outmoded today as at that of a centrally planned socialist state.

And so instead of the old Tory:Labour divide, we have agreement on the central issue of how best to structure our economy and society. Ironically, it is an approach first proposed by the 18th Century Whig party. Put simply, it is the view that unconstrained free markets are the best route to wealth creation and social improvement. This is today's political gospel and any variation between the three main parties amounts to little more than 'same God; different hymns'.

But why is this a problem? Nobody seriously challenges the idea of democracy as the least worst political system, and few would disagree that the rule of law is essential to a civilised society. Surely, agreement on the central issues should lead to greater continuity and less of a stop-start, us and them, politics?

It might do, if there weren't for those awkward elections. But given (quite rightly) that we are not going to give them up, it leads, in practice, to something else. For in a world where we all agree, it is the management of public opinion that becomes paramount to winning votes. We no longer debate how best to structure society; instead we worry about political scandals, minor variations in tax and public spending, and even (as on TV last week) the dresses worn by the leader's wives!

Another problem with the predominant gospel is that, like its religious equivalent, nobody takes it too literally. Genuinely free markets require there to be winners and losers, upswings and downturns. But these are less compatible with managing public opinion - and so the politicians meddle. As result we have more quangos, higher taxes, larger debts and greater intrusion into our private lives than ever before. All of which might be fine if it were directed at achieving something better, but somehow I doubt it.

I am not criticising political intervention per se, indeed that seems to me to be the whole point of government. But I am commenting on why and when political parties chose to do so in the modern context. Why, we might ask, does this Government view the prospect of a recession as something akin to Satan - and yet a spiralling property market (crucially, popular at the time) which has excluded millions from home ownership and landed many more with unmanageable debt was not considered worthy of intervention?

The sad fact is that there is a paucity of political vision. A politician I have met regularly said to me that his Government was only really interested in three things - the economy, the economy and the economy. As an afterthought he added 'maybe education and health too' - but only when they sway opinion. To be fair to the politician, the public aren't renowned for voting on the basis of other considerations.

Take the leaflet I began with: it argued that only the Liberal Democrats stood for a fairer Britain - and to prove it they would introduce tax changes amounting to £700 in the pocket of the average family. So there you have it - the great Liberal tradition comes down to seven hundred quid!  Labour and Conservatives are no better; arguably, it is only the Green Party that has a vision for a substantively different society.

We might say it was always like this; that the idea of 'conviction politics' was an aberration to a longer history of 'control and containment'.  Perhaps, but for a time (roughly 1910 to 1980) it seems to me that we did, in the UK at least, have a genuine debate on how best to organise society - to achieve what philosophers would call the 'good society'.

That last sentence reminds me of my university tutor; he was a German Jewish emigre who had come to Britain in the Thirties. Academic politics, he told us in our first lecture, is the study of POWER and how it is held - historically, domestically and internationally. It is also, he growled, about how power OUGHT to be held! The idea captured my imagination - deep down it still does - and I was to learn that Britain has a rich heritage of political thinkers: Hobbes, Hulme, Locke, Mill, Bentham, Smith, Berlin...

I wonder what they'd make of that leaflet through my door?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Collections 12 - Bikes

A small selection

OK, so I guess this is one of the big ones.

But then I have always loved bikes. And my son was (is) a precociously talented cyclist, so I have an excuse.  There are also five us of us in this family, which would help if the others rode, but they don't - in fact Jane and Dan are two of the worst bike riders I've ever known. Dylan, on the other hand, is five and already has two bikes...

All of which sort of explains why we have sixteen. Actually, that is sixteen rideable bikes; if I put together all the spare bits and pieces that number could rise considerably.

You see, the thing about bikes is that they are more specific than you think. Take Mike for example: he has a lightweight road bike for racing, another for touring, a mountain bike, a BMX and two track bikes for the velodrome (one is for sale if you're interested - a bargain at £600). So that accounts for six and I've already mentioned that Dylan has two, so were up to eight. We also have a spare junior mountain bike (useful for friends) and tag-along trailer bike - so lets's call that ten.

As for me, I have my old faithful racing bike, and a super fast thing that I've never got on with, but which cost so much I might as well keep it. Oh, and my mountain bike, of course...  and, yes, my touring bike, but I've had that for years.  Then there's the single speed for town and the folding bike I keep at the cottage...

That's sixteen, and very reasonable in my view.  Especially when you consider I have a friend whose  shed is twice the size of mine and who lost count years ago. I also know a couple who last year told me their New Year resolution was to ride every bike they own by December - they failed!

I managed to ride all mine -  only just. That's because I've spent most of the last few years holding a stopwatch as Mike flashes past me at the velodrome. Watching your children compete must be one of the most vicarious of pleasures, but it isn't good for your health. I stopped riding, I got fat, and at times I almost passed out with the stress. I think I forgot that bikes are supposed to be fun.

Last year Mike told me he'd had enough of competition. It was sad in a way; he was so talented and could have done more - but I understand. As he said to me recently, 'There is more to life than bikes, Dad; and more to bikes than racing.' Wise words for a fourteen year old.

And perhaps that's why they came to mind last Friday.

It wasn't the best of mornings, but I had nothing to keep me and the bike seemed a beter option than running on a dodgy calf. I suppose I did thirty miles, going nowhere in particular for a couple of hours, But that didn't matter. Because, as the muscles eased and the sun filtered through the grey dawn, I wondered why I didn't do this more often.

Bikes must be one of the best inventions of all time. They are simple, efficient, non polluting, healthy, affordable, ubiquitous. They widen your horizons in a manageable way, keeping you connected to the landscape, unlike cars and motorbikes.

As a child, it was my bike that gave me freedom. I'd ride into the fringes of Northumberland and go camping or picnic by the beach, and maybe visit my wonderful grandparents. I'd arrive home shattered; but shattered in a good way, the sort of fatigue that you sense will make you stronger. It still feels much the same.

Tomorrow I 'm going out with my cycle club. I haven't been for a few years but I'll stick with slower guys, stop when necessary; no doubt we'll go to the caff. I'm sure the legs will be fine.

The only question is... which bike should I take?


PS  And here is how to do it properly

If you have talent... shows in the end.
National Omnium Series 2007

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ticking time-bomb - the pension void

As we approach the general election, our local secondary school has organised a Question Time involving the constituency candidates. The school asked parents and pupils to submit questions, so I have suggested:

The under-funding of pensions has been described as ticking time-bomb. What proposals do you have to ensure the children leaving this school can retire at a reasonable age and free from poverty?

I am not hopeful. Pensions are hardly a popular subject, so it is likely the question will be shelved. And if not, any credible proposals will require prudence on a scale that modern politician simply can't contemplate.

And yet pensions are hugely important. They rank along with the health service and improved education as the greatest enhancement to the quality of life since the War. We are in grave danger of destroying that legacy, and largely because we are not prepared to face reality and take the necessary measures.

Indeed, pensions are the classic example of the modern politician's dilemma. The few who understand about pensions know it is an immense problem; they recognise we need to take action quickly; and they acknowledge the remedies will be unpopular. But here's the crunch - they also know the benefits won't come until they are long gone from office.

And so they ring their hands, whilst a generation of young people look forward to... well what?

In only twenty years we have witnessed the virtual destruction of the Company pension scheme; we have a grossly inequitable and unsustainable public sector liability; we have removed tax breaks for pension funds (technical but hugely important); and we have introduced a range of putative reforms that (with one notable exception) make matters worse.

Let me come clean here. I am a trustee of a very large pension fund - it has assets of over a billion pounds. For many of the scheme's members their share of the fund is their greatest asset. So I suppose I know a bit about pensions; and I am constantly reminded of how significant even relatively modest pensions can be to those reaching retirement. So why can't we sustain this?

The problems are many fold. We are living longer; there are more people reaching retirement; our funding is inadequate; the cost of housing discourages people from starting a pension; we don't trust the government; companies want to 'get the hell out' as quickly as possible; people don't understand how pensions work... I could go on.

But there is one significant factor to add. We have an absence of vision and political will to tackle the problem. It is negligence bordering on the shameful.

Okay, so I've defined the problem, but what are my solutions? I will come to those, but to before I do, I should be fair to the Government in one regard. The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is good idea.

In a nutshell, the PPF steps in when a Company goes bankrupt and hasn't the assets to pay its pensioners in future. It provides protection up to about £30,000, which covers the vast majority of people - and it works like an insurance scheme, so it shouldn't be a drain on tax payers. It isn't perfect, but it's an example of using creative thinking to find an affordable solution.

What more do we need to do? The answer is lots - and here are my suggestions to fill the void.

VISION. We desperately need a vision for the pension system that people can understand and buy into. My vision is simple: young people starting work today should be able to fund a retirement pension of about half their salary. And we need a system which makes this possible for everyone - not just those who work for big companies or the public sector.

COMPULSORY SAVING. Pensions are one of the few areas (along with education ) where I think the State should make us do what is in our long term interest. Compulsory saving will not be popular, but it is necessary. It is also fair that everyone should make some contribution rather than rely on benefits.

As usual the Government has fudged it. From 2012 people will have to 'opt out' of pension schemes, but the rates they suggest are too low and will probably encourage companies to reduce their contributions. The system they propose is also inflexible.

GUARANTEED RETURNS. If we are going to compel people to save, we should give some guarantee of the return. With modern pensions you build up a 'pot' of money; when you come to retire you use that 'pot' to buy what is called an annuity. But the rates vary and they are very poor - typically you need £25,000 to buy a pension of £1000 a year.

I would like to see the introduction of a guaranteed annuity rate. It isn't beyond the skill of man to devise an affordable scheme which would offer people a fair rate for the first £10,000 of their pension - thereafter it could be left to the market.

Even better, would be 'pension bond' which payed an index linked return - and the capital returned to the person's estate (suitably taxed) on their death. I believe, more than any other measure, this would encourage people to buy into pensions

PUBLIC SECTOR REFORM. The inequity between public and private sector schemes is a gross injustice - and more importantly, it holds back pension reform. To be fair it has started, but not enough has been done.

All Public Sector schemes should be closed to further accrual - this means that the benefits people have 'earned' so far would be protected, but going forward they would have to join the same schemes that the vast majority of the public participate in.

And before anyone in the public sector cries foul, this is precisely what is happening to almost every company pension scheme - the sector that earns the wealth to fund our public services in the first place.

Frankly, we have no 'fund' to pay public sector pensions. If these pension were in the private sector they would be have to be bailed out by the PPF. In my view, there is a very strong case that the same rules should apply and pensions capped at £30,000. But are politicians ever going to do that? I doubt it; turkeys don't vote for Christmas!

SAFETY NET. To be fair, we do have a safety net in the state pension. But I would like to see an additional one - a guarantee that people's retirement savings will not be means tested to the point they become irrelevant, particularly for those on modest pensions.

That is enough for now.

My suggestions are probably not right, but at least they are an attempt to start a debate. None of them would be cost free - but we make choices and I don't believe any of them are beyond the means of what is still one of the world's largest economies. As we stand now, a generation of people are facing a very grim future.

Unless we act quickly, we will - in a very real sense - live to regret it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More about values

Some serious judging - Neyland Show, Pembrokeshire

Yesterday's post on relativism seemed to raise a lot of questions. So I feel compelled to add some context that will probably just increase the confusion, but hey, I'm only back here for a while...

Some time ago I wrote a post about knowledge truth and facts. I explained that at one extreme we use statements that are necessarily true (all bachelors are men). Close to these on the spectrum of truth statements are assertions that can be 'proved', either by deduction (mathematics) or by observation and testing (scientific facts). At the other extreme we have statements that can only be verified by the speaker (I like chocolate sauce the best) - we call these preferences.

What I didn't say is that there is whole category in between these two extremes - these are called value judgements.

We use value judgements when we make statements such as, 'that was good meal' or ' it was a better essay.' When we talk in this way we are saying more than simply I 'like this meal' or 'I like that essay'. Whether we are conscious of it or not, in saying something is 'good' or 'better' we are judging it against some external standards.

So value judgements are something more than a preference, but not as objectively verifiable as fact. They are also everywhere! We use them to bring up our children, to criticise others, to pass comment on almost anything - and in practice we often treat them in much the same way as scientific facts. In some cases they are so universally accepted that people are punished or vilified for not accepting them - the law, when you think about it, is a sort of 'hard coded' value judgement.

But how do we decide on the underlying standards against which we apply our judgements? Is that not relativism in disguise?

Some thinkers (hard line relativists and what were known as logical positivists - long story, don't worry...) would agree. They would say that the underlying standards are simply preferences masquerading as something more objective. In short, they claim value judgements are nonsense.

But most would reject this view.

For whilst we can't 'prove' that certain standards are better than others, we can offer what John Stuart Mill called 'considerations for the intellect.' In other words, we can use reason to propose standards on which there is general agreement - we can debate these and arrive at even better standards - and we can stay alert to possibilities that might improve them further.

At the extreme we might even ask if anyone has a better alternative? Can anyone tell me how gratuitous torture could ever be justified? Does anyone seriously think that ignoring third world poverty is a reasonable way to behave? Ultimately, the concept of human rights is based on value judgments not scientific facts - and yet we accept them as 'true' and reasonable, as surely as we believe the sun will rise tomorrow.

If we return to yesterday's post and the relative merits of popular and great culture, are there similar considerations for the intellect that might help us? I had a look at the notes for my degree course to see if I could find anything.

It turns out that when I submit an assignment for my creative writing degree it is marked against the following criteria: technical competence, use of style, conventions, subject matter, control, emotional engagement, ability to enter characters, places and energies. And I guess that is not a bad way to explain why Jane Austin is better than Barbara Cartland. We might use the equivalent musical criteria to compare the Beatles against Mozart.

So value judgements are flexible and adaptive, but they are also based on reasoning and observation. They are not simply 'my opinion' which, taken in isolation, has no greater value than yours. They work best when they are applied to widely accepted, clearly defined criteria. And they work less well when we try to apply them to entirely different categories - comparing 'apples and pears' is a saying which sums this up.

Just to be contrary, I actually think we might reasonably compare apples and pears: freshness, organic or chemically produced, depth of flavour, nutritious content ... But as a general rule it gets more difficult and subjective the more variables we introduce and the more nebulous the concepts - comparing apples with philosophy would be a more accurate if less snappy cliche.

So where does this leave us?

Well, hopefully value judgements can give intellectual structure (comfort even?) to those of us who don't like relativism, but need more than preference. The sort of people who are are not especially offended by the statement 'the Beatles are no better or worse than Mozart' - but who can't accept that a valid reasoning for that conclusion is that they are 'simply different.'

Enough. End of conversation....

For now, at least!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Relative values

I'm back - for a while at least. So no messing about...

The other week I had an interesting difference of opinion with a relative of mine. Bear with me while I set the scene.

The difference centred on a book I had lent him:
Welcome to Everytown by Julian Baggini. Baggini is a populist philosopher, a middle-class liberal intellectual; he lives a very different lifestyle to most people in Britain. For six months he tried living as the typical UK person: renting a house in the most statistically average postcode, living off an average income, reading only popular newspapers, drinking in ordinary pubs, dining at the carvery, holidaying in Spain and watching only popular TV and films...

Everytown is an intellectual's take on Britain today, and especially our attitudes to the way things are. I thought Baggini's insights were interesting and more generous than might be expected - the main exception being his views on popular culture, which I judged as a fudge. In contrast, my relative thought the book was largely patronising - with the exception of Baggini's views on popular culture, which he thought were interesting!

That's a long introduction to the relative views of two relatives, neither of whom is necessarily right. But it got me thinking about why I disagreed so much.

For six months Baggini had exclusively consumed popular TV, films and books. (Examples being Pirates of The Caribbean, The X Factor and Harry Potter). To his surprise, he finds popular culture is better produced and of greater quality than his intellectual prejudices had credited. Much of it, he concludes, is superior to the second rate art-house nonsense that passes as intellectual quality.

So far, so good - I couldn't agree more.

But my relative interpreted Baggini slightly differently. His take was that Baggini was saying popular culture is
no better or worse than great culture - it was just different! Now that is a completely different thing. In my view, Baggini skillfully avoids actually saying this, but it is not an unreasonable interpretation as he tries desperately to appear more open minded than I suspect he is.

The view that popular culture is
no better or worse - just different - to great culture, is a mild example of what philosophers call relativism. And the problem with relativism is that what sounds reasonable in a few well chosen examples, begins to look silly as we apply the principle more widely.

My friend John, for example, might judge Zulu to be a great film (not unreasonable); Steve, on the other hand could say the same about Happy Gilmore (a truly dreadful film by anyone's standards). In the relativist view these two films, and the underlying judgements of John and Steve, are neither better nor worse, they are simply

But why stop at films, or indeed culture in general? Are not political systems relative to the historical circumstances from which we view them? And what about good moral standards, or fine food, or A-level essays, or responsible companies...

Once we allow that our judgements are merely relative, it opens up some very uncomfortable conclusions. In the hard-line relativist view, Fascism and Dictatorship are not intrinsically better or worse than Democracy - they are
just different. Our judgement of Stalin and Hitler has become a matter of relative moral prejudices.

Returning to our disagreement on popular culture, my relative argued that the music of the Beatles was no better or worse than classical music. That may be so - I'm not the best judge because music is not my area - but it cannot be on the basis that it is 'just different'.

On that basis any amount of absurdity is possible. Mills and Boon novels become just different to Jane Austen; Perry Como is just different to Mozart; the film Porkys is just different to Citizen Kane. Really? Really, really?

For all that my friends and colleagues chide me for being an 'intellectual' (
strange that it is now a pejorative term) I enjoy huge amounts of popular culture - I've watched Toy Story enough times to know the dialogue and I'm in much the same place with Gavin and Stacey. I'm also far from a connoisseur of high culture - I don't get opera and am pretty ambivalent about Shakespeare.

But that doesn't mean I think all culture is equal - frankly, it isn't.

The trouble with cultural relativism is that it dumbs down what are already low standards. A few well chosen examples may flatter our egos, but let's not pretend that Saturday night TV is an enhancing experience or that Harry Potter is the equal of Dickens. If we do, we are kidding no one but ourselves.