Monday, 29 October 2012

How the Nazis united the world against them

I don't normally watch much television history - it's too much like a busman's holiday. Who really wants to watch car engineering programmes after working under one all day? That's how I feel a lot of the time.

But I did happen to catch BBC Two's Codebreakers last night - which was very good, give or take the usual dramatic and/ or doomladen music and graphics. 'Bletchley's Lost Heroes' turned out to be a poignant look at two experts whose role has often been rather obscured amidst a focus on the deconstruction of the Germans' Enigma naval codes, or the controversy generated over codebreaking hero Alan Turing's disgraceful post-war persecution. Bill Tutte, who first broke the Nazis' top-level Lorenz codes, and Tommy Flowers, who built the first electronic computer to systemise the process, probably shortened the war by a year or even two. Hitler himself used the Lorenz machine, known to the British as 'Tunny' - and which they managed to defeat without having even seen one. And yet neither man was ever really honoured for their key role in the winning of World War Two, for the secrets of Bletchley Park (above) stayed in the dark until they began to leak out into the public arena in the late 1970s and during the 1980s.

For me, it was yet another interesting proof of how the Nazis had united the world against themselves. From Norwegian schoolteachers refusing to co-operated with their occupiers, to Greek Communist and Yugoslav nationalist partisans, from American capitalists to Stalin, from Churchill to Cripps, what the German state did between 1933 and 1945 was systematically cut off every avenue of escape from its dilemma. Nineteenth century German nationalists would have said: don't annoy the British; don't build a fleet; don't fight on two fronts at once; anti-French and anti-Russian nationalisms are your friend. Each and every one of these traditional nostrums Hitler ripped up - giving the lie to A.J.P. Taylor's absurd-but-enlightening contention that the Nazis engaged in a 'traditional' German foreign policy.

And there is one further, and actually rather optimistic, irony. The Nazis thought that they were waging a war against 'weakness' - against the different; the non-conformists; the apparently 'useless'. But who defeated them, at Bletchley Park? Jews; gays, like Turing; working women, employed throughout the Park; oddballs; academic eccentrics.

The Nazis were defeated by the absurdity of their own ideas. Which, when you come to think of it, is a pretty encouraging thought.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The UK's return to growth: two cheers?

So it's official. According to the Office for National Statistics (the ONS), the UK economy is growing again (above). And pretty quickly, too. This column has always predicted that the permafrost couldn't last forever - and so it has proved.

The UK has so many economic strengths - in high-quality engineering, in financial services, in travel and tourism, in education, and (as noted by the ONS today) in the creative industries - that it's been more of a surprise to see it so flat on its back for so long. Despite all its structural problems - particularly in housing, and in providing jobs for young people - you'd be hard pressed to hold this innovative and well-placed nation down for too long.

And there's so much slack to take up. Just so much. Take a look at the graph on the National Institute of Economic and Social Research's website. We're now four and a half years into the worst economic crisis of modern times, and we're still much poorer than we were in 2007-2008. In fact, the economy's smaller than it was even at the end of last year. It's always the same: just when we get the gloomiest, then the sun starts to peep through the clouds. Like in 1992-93. Or 1982-83. Or 1976-77. Once you really feel that you've hit bottom, then you can look upwards.

So slaps on the back and champagne all round, then? Well, not so fast. Growth had been held down in quarter two by bank holidays, bad weather and a royal wedding - and all the ticket sales for the Olympics have been added into quarter three. There's no way in the world that we're going to continue to grow at one per cent per quarter - which would amount to a stellar four per cent a year, of course. What with the Government still hell-bent on its (self-defeating) budgetary masochism, still miles from its absurd one-Parliament targets with almost all the cuts still to come, and with the Eurozone threatening to go into recession, there's a long and a rocky road ahead.

So all things being equal, we'll move ahead now, not so rapidly as we did over the last quarter, but slowly (if erratically) - though we'll be climbing out of a much bigger hold than we might have dug ourselves.

'All things being equal' is the key phrase: no Spanish banking failure, no American fiscal cliff, no deep Eurozone recession, and no insistence on ever-deeper budget cuts. That's a lot of 'ifs', I'm afraid.

This is a bit of a cliche, to be honest, but I'll try it: this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it might just be the end of the beginning.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

It's not time to call the presidential election... yet

So last night's US Presidential election debate (above) was a rather convincing, though not entirely crushing, victory for President Obama. That's three out of four in the instant polls for the Democrats, if you (firstly) ignore the one that really counted - the President's disaster in Denver - and (secondly) the testy and unsatisfying Vice-Presidential debate.

Actually, as with the second debate, there's quite a lot of evidence buried under the topline numbers (that the President came out on top - on style, substance, gravitas and just plain knowledge) that Governor Romney may have the last laugh. Independent voters, in particular, seemed to like his new 'I'm a man of peace' pledge - a sudden pivot just as unconving as all the others, at least amongst those who've been paying attention. And the President's aggressive testiness and mocking attacks may not be the best idea for a man elected on a pledge of bipartisan change - as I've been arguing all year. But still - there it is. That part of the strategy probably can't be changed now.

In fact, there is evidence of seepage among independent voters towards Governor Romney across the board at the moment. The challenger is now up among non-aligned voters in almost every poll - sometimes by very large margins. It's beginning to look like he might become President after all.

Except, except, except... Much of the data we have from the (murky and complicated) early voting ground war favours the Democrats - especially in Nevada, and to some extent in Ohio, two states that together would probably keep Mr Obama in the White House.

And we have ample evidence, from many, many elections, that that might mean very little in two weeks' time. There was the famous Dewey-Truman turnaround at the last moment, in 1948. No-one thought that Edward Heath could possibly beat UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1970 - until he did, on a last-minute swing that almost everybody missed. Al Gore seemed to be miles behind heading into the final furlong of the 2000 Presidential election, only to catch up and pass his rival in terms of the popular vote. The UK Labour Party flirted with coming third in 2010, only to find a reservoir of strength from somewhere (I'm still not sure where) in the final days of the campaign. Even polls taken in the last few days of a campaign are not always that accurate, because they can't be as people make up their minds. Even the good ones have mixed records. In a tight race like this, where almost everything is within the margin of error, they can't be accurate enough to give you the winner. Especially in state-by-state and day-by-day samples.

So the Republican probably does have his nose a little bit out in front right now. It feels like we're getting near a tipping point. But anything could still happen. History says: don't bet against it.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Government scandals don't decide elections

Well, so the UK government has been having something of a rum time. The Prime Minister 'pre-announces' completely uncooked policies, causing consternation all around (and not a little behind-the-hand gloating among his many Conservative enemies). His Chief Whip has to resign after swearing at a policeman. The Chancellor gets caught travelling in a train's First Class compartment on a second-class ticket (above).

The headlines? 'The Government's worst week'.

Well, hmm. Tony Blair used to say that 'this week is my worst ever week since the last one'.

And it's the same today - for scandals don't bring down administrations. They add to the impression of fumbling, mumbling and bumbling, that's for sure, though I fear that the public already closed their ears to such allegations years ago. They have come to believe that politicians are both all in it for themselves, and are also incompetent. There's a bit of a logical inconsistency there, but that's no bar to most popular wisdom.

Take a look back over recent history. Did John Stonehouse faking his own death and escaping to Australia really destroy Jim Callaghan's minority Labour administration? Did Cecil Parkinson's 'love child' (sorry for the lapse into tabloid-ease there) threaten Mrs Thatcher's position? Did 'toe job to no job' David Mellor help to bring down John Major? What about Peter Mandelson's many scrapes over mortgages and passports, David Blunkett's and Robin Cook's love lives, peerages-for-cash?

Er, no.

Only the Profumo Scandal, in 1963, really rocked a government to its utter core. But the Secretary for War sleeping with a prostitute, who's also sleeping with the Soviet naval attache, is a proper story. Even then, the Conservatives recovered markedly in the polls and nearly won the 1964 General Election.

Announcing rubbish policies? Swearing at a policeman? Travelling in the wrong train carriage? It's going to create a bad impression, of course - that Ministers think that they can do what they like.

But it's not going to decide the next General Election. Only the economy (now showing some signs of emerging from intensive care), and the extent of the Lib Dem implosion, can do that. Everything else is froth.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Statistics - constructed, as well as complicated

So the other day I had to admit to rushing to judgement over a single statistic - the number of 'mature' cod in the North Sea.

It just went to show how complicated statistics can be.

But they're more than complicated: they're also highly mediated social constructs, that can obscure as much as they explain - but can also reveal much, much more than the 'topline' number you're looking at.

Take two examples. As the US Presidential race stands today, it looks like a dead heat - unless you look at the Gallup tracking poll, which shows Mitt Romney - the Republican nominee - racing away towards the finishing line. Take a look below the bonnet, though, and you note two things: in this national poll, Mr Romney is doing very, very well in the South, piling up votes where he may not need them, and that Gallup is imposing a very powerful 'likely voter screen'. This may be having the effect of screening out Democrats - who despite their 'well, Obama's not bad, but I don't like x, y and z he's done' attitude, may well end up attending the polls after all.

Conclusions? This thing's very, very tight in the Mountain West and the Mid-West. And it will all hinge on whether left-leaning or liberal Americans actually vote for the President. If they don't show up, he's toast.

The British Government is also learning about the complexity of numbers today. The Prime Minister having announced that 'electricity providers will have to put everyone on their best tariff'. He clearly hadn't thought before he opened his mouth, however, because what's the 'best' tariff anyway? What if your habits change? And what if energy providers then just change all their cost schemes - putting everyone on a mediocre one? Clearly a web-based account wouldn't be much good for my internet-allergic mother, but it might be good for you. Numbers, numbers, numbers - a critical part of statecraft that busy and anxious political commentators and Ministers often overlook.

Two of the main news stories today - neatly tied up for you. You lucky people.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

What went wrong with Obama's debate number one

Gaffes. Bloopers. We've all been there. I've done it (oh, how I've thrown myself into some of these). You've done it.

Imagine, then, the pressure involved while sixty or seventy million people are watching you - roughly half of them wanting to see you fall flat on your face, and roughly half of them desperately hoping that you'll wipe the floor with the other guy.

That's a US Presidential debate for you. No pressure, then. In a race that's basically tied up, on Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's attributes, and geographically at both state and at national level, that eye-watering, blood-pressure-inducing ratchet can only get stronger and stronger.

But it needn't have been like this. On the eve of the first debate, President Obama basically had re-election in his grasp. He led in every swing state bar one, and by a stretch in the national polls. But there was a fatal weakness in his strategy. It was based on fear, and not hope. Basically labelling his Republican opponent a uncaring, job-destroying, un-American machine businessman who couldn't care less whether less fortunate Americans earned enough to feed their families. When polite, measured, articulate and reasonable 'Moderate Mitt' showed up, the whole case blew up in the Democrats' face. What's why Mitt's makeover has been so important - even if it is ultimately disingenuous in the extreme.

What did I say way back in July? Er, this:

...Obama ran in 2008 as the candidate of 'Hope'. Of changing Washington and its culture. Part of his appeal is that he's reasoned, calm and good in a crisis. And his likeability ratings are almost certainly buoying up his numbers even among voters who don't like his policies. Will slinging mud and pointing the finger at his rich, 'privileged' opponent really help him all that much?

I stand by every word. If Mr Obama would only present a bit more of the case for actually re-electing him, and he might do pretty well in the last two debates, and seal the deal. More finger-pointing and name-calling behind a rival's back, matched only by an apparently weak refusal to call him out to his face, and he's sunk.

There you go - the Presidential race in two sentences.And when it's likely to be as close as 1960, 1976 or 2000, these things do matter.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Tell me again why austerity is such a good idea

Once upon a time, the International Monetary Fund (above) backed Chancellor George Osborne's hair-shirt variant of neo-conservative hatchet-wielding. It's painful, they said, but it's necessary: otherwise budgetary deficits will yawn ever wider, confidence will drain away, the banks will get weaker, and stagflation (or worse) might ensue. The IMF provided the Treasury with much-needed intellectual firepower.

Now? Well, now they say they were wrong. In much the same way as they used to hold up their hands and say 'we admit it, we helped to ruin this African country's economy. Can we try again on another one?'

They got the spreadsheets askew. Instead of each pound of cuts reducing output by a pound, it's more like £1.70 - something Keynes could have told them when they started. And something that means that, for all the pain we've already endured, we've not got anywhere near the Chancellor's financial targets for this Parliament. And we never will, while we're on this course.

There's historical precedent for this realisation. Just when the world seemed to be creeping out of the Great Depression, another recession hit - in 1937 and 1938, the so-called 'Roosevelt recession' put the world back yet another couple of years. Goverments eased up on growth; they reduced some of their stimulus; the economic 'benefit' from rearmament hadn't yet kicked in. World leaders started talking about 'competition', 'productivity', and the like: sure signs, when you see and hear them, that they're near the end of their intellectual tether. What happened? Er yes, you've guessed it: growth sagged. Now we're repeating the trick, much to the frustration of any economically literate historian you could corner.

All this at a time when (look away, liberals and leftists) President Obama may very well now lose the Presidency, and a much less expansionist regime take over in the White House, it's all very, very disheartening.

Austerity? You can keep it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

More proof that candidates' images are critical

Well, well, well - what did I say the other day about the race for the White House?

Hmm. Let's have a look: 'Things will probably be closer in the end than they look today... remember the lesson: nothing is set in stone, even when an election looks like it should be in the bag for one party or the other'.

It's not exactly Nostradamus. But it's not bad. For after his comprehensive shoeing at the hands of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney (above), Barack Obama finds himself on the slide. Suddenly, inexplicably, he could lose. He peaked at just under an 80 per cent likelihood of winning the election on betting sites, and one numerically-minded commentator gave him an 87.1 per cent chance of winning just a week ago. Now those numbers have been cut to about 64 per cent and 74.8 per cent. Going into the first debate, the President led by between three and four per cent: now his lead has shrivelled to almost nothing. Indeed, left-leaning Americans were sent into a state of panic by a Pew Research Poll putting Mr Romney four points ahead.

What a turnaround - all of which backs up what I said before the duel in Denver. Images of candidates and policies remain critical, even in an era of cynicism and highly-developed electoral campaigning technology. Voters had heard a lot of things they didn't like about Mitt Romney. He reassured them, suddenly posing as a concerned, moderate, middle-of-the-road businessman. Take away existing health cover? He seemed shocked. Not me, he opined. Privatise Social Security? No, I never said such a thing. Where would I find all the money for my tax cuts? Why, I'll stop giving money to public television - the equivalent of paying your mortgage by selling off a few tins of baked beans in your larder. The sheer brass neck of this grand intellectual larceny was breathtaking, but that's politics.

Mr Obama, on the other hand, seemed rather tired and disengaged. He wasn't as bad as people inside the media echo-chamber say: indeed, he was clam, measured and reassuring at points. But he wouldn't or couldn't even stir himself enough to attack his opponent's half-truths and obfuscations: an unforgiveable omission on the part of a man who carries about half his compatriots' political hopes on his back. He didn't even look into the camera during his wordy summation. No wonder voters preferred his rival by a margin of two-to-one. These little things shouldn't matter - but they do.

Yes, the 'essentials' of the campaign - a slowly recovering economy, a rising Presidential approval rating, even in that Pew poll, the perceived likeability of Mr Obama himself - all point in one direction: a very narrow Democratic win.

But now it will be close. The essentials might not matter. Mr Obama has turned an amble into a sprint. All because of candidates and policies. Or, if you prefer, 'events, dear boy: events'.

Monday, 8 October 2012

An Enlightening Greek Conference

Now, where was I? Oh yes, the relevance of history to policy. Well, if I've been a bit quiet of late, it's because I was trying to get some of that stuff done - rather than just writing about it.

I've been in a warm and sunny Athens (above) talking to corporate movers and shakers about 'creativity and innovation' - in my case, about urbanity and the city's role as a historic cluster of energy, innovation and creativity. 

What did I get out of it? Well, it was fascinating to see how many corporate structures force people to think tactically and (for those of us with an economics training) at the 'micro' level - rather than strategically and at the 'macro' level.

The audience was full, for the most part, of Human Resources professionals. What they wanted to know was: how can we get people to perform with more vim and vigour? What are the roots of creativity and innovation? How can we encourage those traits? Can we listen more effectively to their needs and desires, and would that help us free our employees' potential?

And lots of the academic and business professionals speaking responded: let's look at the whole picture. What about the one-offs such as William Blake, brave enough even to be despised and pitied in their time? What about the business environment in your sector - drowing in 'red water', where everyone cuts each other up, or 'blue water', a calmer and more co-operative environment? What about the insights of psychology and the types of people you're dealing with?

In my case, the insight was perhaps this: what about the energy limitations that we're going to face in the next thirty years, overcome in the nineteenth century of course by massive inputs of coal? What about trying to locate somewhere desirable at a time when we're going to face a huge drought of young people? What about links to government and the third sector, when growth is going to perhaps come from 'softer' or less expected places?

Yes, the Government's much-derided impact agenda (encouraging universities to work with business and civil society) is cramped, short-sighted, even absurd. But history - that history for which historians have suffered and struggled, that history that can open our eyes and enrich our minds - that's not so easily dismissed.

That's what I learned in Greece.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Statistics... not as simple as they look

Here's an interesting fact: statistics are complex things.

Sure, they always look like they're making clear points. Inflation is up by this much; unemployment is up by this much; this politician is this far 'ahead' of this other one. But it's not so simple, as I've argued in print many, many times. You have to be able to interpret the data, to explore the context, to understand the history.

So when The Daily Telegraph reported the other day that there were 'only 100 mature cod left in the North Sea', it was a misleading picture. It misled your present correspondent, though not quite as badly as many in the mainstream press. What they really meant to say was 'one estimate of 13-year-old cod in the North Sea says that there might only be 100 left of that age'. Except, of course, that this isn't a very good measure of what it means to be an 'adult' fish, and there are many millions of four-year-old and above cod left in that part of the world. So this blog is sorry if it gave a false impression. We should have stuck to our previous, more optimistic and published conclusions about recent legislation - which does at least offer some sort of way out via reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and the establishment of Marine Conservation Zones. At least we're admitting it here. Many outlets don't.

All the same, Fishing Ministers everywhere have been quick to pounce on the snafu to calm public nervousness. Don't worry, they imply; there's years of fish left. We don't need to shrink the fishing fleet by much. You can keep on munching on your fish and chips. Well, it's not true. Measuring fish by the millions doesn't account for the effect that fishing them out as quickly as they mature. Numbers are still far below replacement levels, and we still need to fish less, and more responsibly. Some economists even think that a temporary freeze on all fishing would be the best way to go - and prove more profitable in the end, as stocks are replenished. So the message is still: don't eat lots of white chunky fish without the dark blue Marine Stewardship Council label on it. Otherwise, you're helping to destroy the world.

In a way, this brings us back to one of the most interesting controversies raging over the present US Presidential election. That is: are the polls 'skewed'? Some Republicans think they are 'over-sampling' Democratic-leaning sympathisers with President Barack Obama. Pollsters answer that this is nonsense: by and large, they just report the party balance of the sample they get. If Democrats become more enthusiastic (and the evidence is that they have since their party's convention in North Carolina), then their presence among respondents becomes more noticeable. Who's right? Well, given how accurate and non-partisan polls have been since the 1970s, the pollsters are probably right. But you have to delve into the past, and into the statistics, to find that out. You have to know the history.

So, yes, there aren't only '100 adult cod left in the North Sea'. But there sure as hell aren't enough, either.

A big thank you to readers: I just wanted to say that last month was again Public Policy and the Past's best month ever, with traffic up yet again by ten per cent on the month before. So to the growing band of loyal surfers: thanks, let others know about PPP, and here's to many more readers!