The West’s Ukrainian amnesia

russia_bear-vs-usa_eagle-war1Monica Attard reports in The Hoopla on a very recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he forcefully puts his country’s side of the current conflict with Ukraine.  I was especially struck by this observation:

The US, [Putin] said, had instigated a “coup d’etat” in February to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich when he reversed his decision to sign up to a trade deal with Europe rather than Russia.

The stance echoes a fundamental point of a long post I wrote a few months ago on the Ukraine situation.  More generally, Attard puts the broad situation in its Great Power context:

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One reason why Britannia ruled the waves: TQM 18th C style

 

An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless law of mutual support. Accordingly, both he and all his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgment upon the spur of the moment and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into action with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of see­ing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeuvres. . . . Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station, which is enforced upon them in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all, they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

Source:

Nelson leaves men onboard to whack polar bear: Inadvertently shoots own arm off

Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, a Spaniard writing of the Battle of St Vincent where a relatively obscure Commodore Horatio Nelson first rocketed to celebrity thrill-seeker status. Disobeying orders, he headed his 74 gun third rate straight into six of the heaviest Spanish ships three of which were 112-gun three-deckers and a fourth the 130-gun flagship. With his ship’s wheel shot away, he led his troops to board an enemy ship and then with cries of “Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory” ordered them to board another ship. Everyone ended up very impressed. The rest is history. 

 

Ray Monk Lecture at 6.00 pm tonight: Go if you can

Ray MonkAs a council member of the National Library I had the privilege of not only going to this lecture last Friday night but of having dinner with Ray, the benefactors of the lecture (John Seymour – whom I taught Legal Writing and Research alongside in 1990 or thereabouts – and his wife Heather) and some other nice people that night.

In any event, I really loved the lecture which is a tour of biography through the ages and addresses Samuel Johnson’s five questions/issues about biography. What are they? Well you’ll have to come along to the lecture to find out.

In any event, one thing I loved is that in discussing biography, and the question of whether the subject of the biography has a privileged position in understanding himself that the biographer can never penetrate. Monk discussed Wittgenstein’s private language argument in a way that had relevance for my own thinking about private and public goods. Wittgenstein’s argues for the priority of the public and the shared – just as I would put public goods – specifically emergent public goods prior to private goods.

Anyway, go if you can. As you know I occasionally get a bit carried away with enthusiasm for something or other and the chiming of the private language argument with all my priors may have pushed me over the edge into this malady, but I can also report that everyone else I spoke to thought it was a wonderful lecture. And Ray was kept to time (I think 40 minutes) by Anne-Marie, our National Librarian – an otherwise wonderful woman – who nevertheless deprived us of another ten or twenty minutes of the lecture in which Oppenheimer would have been wound into the narrative alongside fellow biographees Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell.

Time for the ‘reform’ mantra to be modernised: My AFR column of yesterday

The Hawke LegacyBy the time economic reform matured as a political project – let’s date it from Paul Keating’s announcement about its popularity with the resident galah in every pet shop – it was already on the slide into the kind of ideological formula of mercantilism that Ken Henry so powerfully critiqued earlier this week.

Australia was a standard-bearer in areas like trade and agricultural protection, the two airline policy and shopping hours. There, with the stroke of a pen, we swept away the detritus of a century’s ad hoc political favouritism. And unlike our peers in the Anglosphere, we also expanded funding for the safety net – bolstering equity.

But beyond that, as we’ve learned (or have we?), considering policy alternatives against a criterion as crude as how ‘free market’ they are doesn’t work so well. In infrastructure, utility and financial reform, where monopoly and asymmetric information problems abound, regulation remains inevitable and new rent seeking political pathologies lie in wait for those unpicking the old ones. Here our reform efforts brought forth excessively priced toll-ways, desalination plants and airports with the political and official insiders championing the changes parachuting into lucrative careers with the corporate beneficiaries of their reforms to lobby their successors. We’ve seen massive over-investment in electricity transmission and under-investment in other infrastructure.

And yet our policy elite speak as if ‘reform’ is well articulated and will take us back to the glory days of the 1990s Australian ‘reform boom’ that preceded the subsequent resources boom. “Gary Banks’ List” assembled by the former Productivity Commission (PC) chairman – is a canonical PC endorsed reform ‘to do’ list. It was – tellingly enough – cobbled together some months after Glenn Stevens assured a Parliamentary Committee of its existence. John Edwards recently suggested, only slightly exaggerating, that its adoption wouldn’t make a measureable difference to growth.

With national income falling in the most recent national accounts, here are some contemporary challenges and opportunities absent from the list – all of which escape prevailing reform formulas: Continue reading

Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading

Mid-century modern

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I recently visited the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition of 1950s furniture. I went to see Fred Lowen’s furniture. Fred was a Dunera Boy – who I became aware of towards the end of his life when he had an exhibition of drawings at Australia Galleries in Collingwood. There was also an illustrated autobiography there which I bought and read.

Lowen became aware of Scandinavian design and visited there and brought back a great enthusiasm for the clean minimalist use of natural materials which he then skillfully worked into commercially very saleable furniture. FLER was the brand started by fred and another Dunera Boy Ernst Rodeck – the brand was a spelling of their respective initials. The picture above is one of Lowen’s

It was quite an emotional experience for me. I doubted it would be just looking at Fred Lowen’s furniture and in fact there wasn’t a lot of it – other modernist designers seem to have been more prominent. Grant Featherstone seems to have been the star and he produced some very fine furniture.

But the thing the whole feel of the display rooms they’d set up was so like the rooms I was a young child in. And then every now and again a FLER chair that was exactly the same design as one I’d taken as just part of the furniture – as it were. My parents were middle class and not much in the way of trendsetters so, while there would have been plenty of homes that didn’t look ‘Mid-century Modern’ to take the name of the exhibition, there were plenty that were. And I was back in that world.

The design above was the most sumptuous and I think the most successful of Fred’s designs, though we never had it in our house. It was modern but not ‘mid-century’. This was a much plusher design from the latish sixties. Oh and if you look carefully you can see some meshing beneath the chair housing the cushions. As part of the design it jumps out at you. It doesn’t jar with the design but somehow it does seem to be calling attention to itself. Lowen was thinking of the hammocks in which they all lay, in the stinking, clammy hold of the Dunera with shit washing around the floor when the latrine bucket rolled over. That was if they were lucky and managed to get a hammock. If they weren’t they slept on the floor.

The Dunera: kicking off an exciting life

An excerpt from the Dunera News. (for those who don’t know, the Dunera was the prison ship on which my father was deported to Australia in 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging around them). The exerpt is an autobiographical sketch by Richard Sonnenfeldt (1923–2009)

I was brought up as a German boy but, being Jewish, was lucky enough to be sent to boarding school in England in 1938. I was deported on the Dunera, sent to Hay, but again lucky to be released along with six others, taken back to Sydney and on to the Dunera. The ship developed trouble, we were taken off at Bombay and freed – being left in the hands of the Jewish Relief Committee.
It took six months for the US Consul to verify my credentials and issue me with a US visa. I arrived in New York in April 1941 and joined my family who had caught one of the last boats out of Lisbon. I wanted to enlist but was not accepted due to being of German origin. But a further 18 months on in 1943, I was given US citizenship, drafted and served in the Infantry in Italy and France. Then with the third and seventh armies in Germany and Austria. I saw battle at the Bulge and was there at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, something I never forgot. Continue reading