Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An economics reformation

I went to this event yesterday at UCL - Time for an Economic Reformation. Mainly focused on the academic discipline of Economics and its teaching, with the mission of reforming what is taught and studied - rather than about revising economic thought per se...there seemed to be a view, not explicitly stated, that there wasn't much of a need for new thinking itself, just for the academic discipline to reflect the new thinking that was already around.

Good, clear speakers - perhaps a function of the fact that almost all the panel were women? But the only man, Steve Keen, was also very clear, even though I find much of the econometrics that he presents pretty incomprehensible. Other panelists were: Victoria Chick; Mariana Mazzucato; Kate Raworth, of Doughnut Economics fame; and Sally Svenlen, of the Rethinking Economics student group.

The audience was also star-studded - Hilary Wainright, Charlie Leadbetter, and my favourite - David King, formerly Chief Scientist at DECC, who spoke from the floor with some passion - about how the extent to which our economic system had undermined the ability of our species to continue living on our planet was something of an indictment of our economic theories.

Panel chaired by Larry Elliot, economics editor of The Guardian, and event as a whole compered by Andrew Simms of the New Weather Institute (I hadn't heard of that before).

Good discussions, sensible contributions - nothing that made me groan, though equally nothing that looked like it was the key to a root and branch transformation of economic life and organisation. I suspect that one of the reasons for this, and for the slightly lackluster nature of the '33 Theses for an Economics Reformation' is that it's pitched as a conversation with mainstream economists. So though the implications of what is proposed might actually be very radical (as Andrew Simms proposed) it's all positioned as super-sensible.  Mariana Mazzucato cited Polanyi in her short contribution (which was sparkling and interesting) but there wasn't anything in the proposals that matched up to his ideas about how economies are made and unmade.

Delightfully, we were all asked to comment on the 33 Theses. I didn't contribute, but if I had I might have mentioned that the importance of 'intellectual property' - patent and copyright based monopolies - seemed to be missing; and that there wasn't anything about the process whereby economic ideas move from economists to public discourse (as discussed in this paper by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Michael Jacobs), and at length in‘Inventing the Future’ by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek - see my review here.

I think that this second aspect is really important; one of the ways in which what is often called 'neo-liberalism' has been so successful is that it's really hard to think about other kinds of economic relationships, outside the framework of 'market economics'. Pseudo-economic ideas about governments not being able to spend more than they 'earn', and about the private sector as the only place where value is created, become the commonsense of our age. Making other kinds of ideas into common sense is a key task for any economic reformation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of 'The Fencer'

Beautiful to look at Estonian film (actually a Finnish-Estonian co-production, but I've never seen an Estonian film before) set in the early 1950s and featuring a young fencer who moves to a small town to become a PE teacher and ends up starting a fencing club for his students. He's on the run from the secret police because he was conscripted into the German army and has to choose between loyalty to his committed pupils (who want to go to a fencing competition in Leningrad, where he is wanted) and maintaining his low profile. He goes, and then it turns into one of those underdog sports team films. It's well made, without cliches, and the Estonian kids are great.

It's very washed out and grim looking, and the Estonian people and landscapes look very authentic. I was a bit uncomfortable about the way the film treats his 'conscription' into the German army. Estonia and Finland both seem to me to have not really reflected very much on the fact that they fought on the side of the Nazis. It is perhaps forgiveable (if wrong) that young Estonian men thought the Nazis were the lesser evil compared to the Soviets, but some recognition that they were evil, and that they chose to do a bad thing that might have had even worse consequences seems warranted. That rarely happens.

My extensive research (well, the Wikipedia article) tells me that the Estonians who fought for the Nazis were volunteers, not conscripts, and that they fought in a Waffen SS Legion. Most Estonian Jews escapted (some taken into the USSR by the occupying Soviet armies in 1940-41 but there were massacres of those that remained, of Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Jews from other countries in concentration camps located in Estonia.

The film depicts ruthless Soviets hunting down kindly Estonians; naturally it doesn't reflect that the west was by the early 1950s running networks of former Nazi collaborators as anti-communist partisans, the Forest Brothers.

Watched at the Lansdown Film Club on a proper cinema screen on a very snowy and cold night, which made the whole experience more authentic.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Review of 'Band of Brothers'

Read this, about a volunteer company in the US 101st Airborne (paratroopers) and their experiences in WW2. I found the parts about their training, and the psychological and sociological process of becoming a unit, very interesting - the shot-by-shot descriptions of the actual fighting less so. The battles mainly seem like a series of cock-ups redeemed by the iniative and bravery of the men on the spot; curious that one of the features for which the men were screened was a positive attitude towards authority, and yet authority seems to have let them down again and again.

Very aware that I would not in any way have been capable of anything that these men went through. I'm not any kind of tough, don't have much willpower or endurance, don't have the kind of positive attitude that they did (see what I did with that cynical thought about cock-ups and authority?). Wonder what that says about me as a man, and very glad that there are more ways to be a man than there used to be.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review of "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

One of those books that you think you've read, but you haven't. In my mind it was a frothy quirky romantic comedy sort of thing. On reflection after reading the book I thought it might have been because I was influenced by the film, only then I realised I hadn't actually seen the film either...just seen the poster with Audrey Hepburn looking pretty and cute, and maybe seen a few clips. I'll remedy the film thing shortly.

But the book turns out to be really dark, and rancid, which is not surprising given that it's Truman Capote. It is a fine piece of writing, though it's hard to ignore the casual racism with which Holly Golightly peppers her speech. Holly is not quite a prostitute - Capote subsequently described her as an American Geisha, though that's not quite right either...she's more of a professional mistress, in the French nineteenth century mode. The book is very direct about what that involves, physically and emotionally. Most of the men to whom Holly makes herself available are pretty nasty - Mafia Dons, pro-Nazi tycoons, and so on. She is almost totally devoid of sentimentality herself. The denoument is not exactly unexpected, but the book is well structured and plotted, and a pleasure to read despite the material and the tone.

It's set at a time in which people like the narrator, an aspiring writer without money or success, can apparently afford to rent his own apartment in Manhattan - something that seems much further away than the sexual and social mores it depicts. Oh, and it's war time, 1943, though that barely intrudes on the narrative, apart from the odd military parade in the city. Somehow that seems to magnify the cynicism of the book.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Review of 'A Scanner Darkly' - Philip K Dick

I watched the animated film made from this book a while back, and thought it was good, but this is really powerful. I've never been addicted to any kind of narcotic or hallucinogenic drug, but this book feels right as it describes, from the inside, the dissolution of a mind and a personality. A lot of the book is autobiographical, transposed into a then-future of 1994 because Dick didn't believe he could sell a book that didn't have a science-fiction dimension. It's about the world of loser stoners that he himself was inhabiting, and contains a moving afternote dedication to the young people he hung out with who had since died or ended up mad.

The plot is about an undercover police agent, who is cracking under the strain of maintaining two personalities and narratives, exacerbated by the fact that in his report-back to his handler he must remain anonymous and invisible as a safeguard against corruption, and is required to spy on his own alter-ego,,,all while his brain is deteriorating under the impact of the drugs he is taking to maintain his cover.

It's intentionally hard to distinguish between reality and the character's paranoid fantasies and illusions. Of course stoners are often paranoid, and Dick was himself a clear example; but the real stories of what transpires in the shadowy world of parapolitics and the deep state, and its overlap with the world of drug trafficking, are as weird and alarming as anything a paranoid would make up. We'd call it all conspiracy theories, except that some of these conspiracies actually happened. Alfred McCoy's "The Politics of Heroin: Central Intelligence Agency Complicity in the Global Drug Trade" is a good place to start if you want to know more about that sort of thing.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Review of Loving Vincent

Visually remarkable animated film about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, done in the style of his paintings, and involving hundreds of artists. It's presented as a mystery, with the son of Vincent's last host going to the town where he died, ostensibly to deliver a letter but becoming drawn into elucidating the confused circumstances of his last days. Did he really commit suicide, or...

Watched at the Vue cinema in Stroud, at a special lunchtime showing.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of Carol

An oddly soulless film, given that it was supposed to be about a forbidden and taboo love affair between two women (one older, one younger) in 1950s New York. Rooney Mara looks like a young Audrey Hepburn, Cate Blanchett looks like some kind of alien - her face just isn't put together right. And although she manages to convey feeling between herself and her daughter, and even between herself and her not-loved husband, there doesn't seem to be any feeling between Carol and the young Therese.

The film is beautiful to look at, though. It's dominated by long lingering shots of things, which are beautifully depicted and very evocative. There's a shot of a camera being loaded with 35mm film, which is already more alien to many people than writing with a quill pen. We also see Therese developing a film in a darkroom, which reminded me of doing the same thing with my dad in our kitchen - does anyone recognize those smells nowadays? There are shots of Therese playing records on a huge wooden gramophone - kids today would recognize a turntable and a needle/cartridge/arm because vinyl is still alive, but what was the point of such a huge piece of furniture to host a record deck? In the unlikely event that we had gramophones now, they'd be flatpack and made out of MDF - but this was clearly something made by skilled cabinet-maker...another thing that more or less doesn't exist now.

Lots of fabulous clothes, and textures - of walls, tables, payphones. Everything was so big in the 1950s - cars, steering wheels and gear sticks (with big white balls on the end). Suitcases. Bedsteads - even though the beds themselves looked rather small - when did the King Size bed arrive?

The score is quite wonderful too; I was convinced it was by Philip Glass as I watched the film, but it's not - it's just very much like his work.

Watched on Amazon Prime on our new clever TV....two Amazon Prime films in two days. It does seem to have more good stuff than Netflix.