Testament of youth: the book

RegImage result for vera brittain testament of youthular readers may know of my fondness for the recent film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, so I was intrigued to come upon this fantastic book on the subject. I say ‘book’ because in many ways this is how I think books should be written. It’s written on a Wordpress blog site as a series of essays. There’s essays on each of the characters, five essays on Vera’s response to her own grief (the author’s central contention was that Vera ultimately failed to adequately overcome her grief), five on the four men who were at the heart of Vera’s loss and five on various themes as well as an annotated bibliography.

The author is an historian though of another period and has clearly taken this task very seriously. No editors, no cost to you of reading the material. The author got deeply immersed in the material and over about eight months wrote out a book-length treatment of it. They currently remain anonymous though on my offering some comments on their site I received this email in return.

Thank you for your encouraging comments on my Testament of Youth website. While I have kept it more or less anonymous, I am happy to introduce myself via e-mail. …

I really appreciated your first comment, in which you described the ToY website as a form of book. It didn’t start out that way–I originally thought I was going to write only one essay on the material–but it evolved into eight essays and 75,000 words, so it is now roughly on the scale of a book! I enjoyed the flexibility I gleaned from posting the material in sections and editing each part as new information came in.

Anyway, I highly recommend the site. I’ve read about four or five of the essays and they always seem well-informed, well considered and humane. One thing that struck me is that when I read D.H. Lawrence’s novels many moons ago, I was always struck by how directly the protagonists communicate with each other. I regarded this as a kind of novelists’ shorthand way – psychologically realistic, even if not necessarily socially very realistic. Anyway, one of the inspiring things about Vera and her circle was how high-mindedly they communicated with each other, never afraid to go to the heart of things in their letters to one another.

I also recently picked up the book Vera Brittain and the First World War which is a short ‘book of the film’ by Vera’s published biographer Mark Bostridge.  Continue reading

Posted in Films and TV, History, Media | 2 Comments

Social systems, economics and the thing itself


In writing a series of essays last year I came to an obvious conclusion. It’s perhaps one that others had come to years ago, but then there’s something in coming to a conclusion from a position sympathetic to its opposite.1 Economics as it was constructed from Adam Smith on, was built on an insight that one could abstract from a great deal in the economy and still know what mattered to policy. Smith’s insight – following on Manderville and various other provocateurs – was that the self-interest of actors could be transformed through the alchemy of the market into the social interest. Providing markets worked ideally, the one mapped onto the other.

In many ways, this presages a hollowing out of economic discourse, away from the micro-details of everyday life towards various abstractions – like the extent of competition in a market, technical characteristics of production (scale economies and externalities for instance). Marshall, the preeminent English-speaking economist of the turn of the twentieth century was, despite being an architect of this revolution in abstraction, nevertheless proud of the decades he’d spent learning the intimate details of industrial life. Samuelson not so much. Well hardly at all actually.

Samuelson’s sensibilities have also come to dominate policy making. Before the age of economic reform beginning in the Whitlam period but strengthening into maturity by the mid 1980s, it was axiomatic that if one were building schools, hospitals, welfare services, universities, the military or any other public social institution, one would focus first and foremost on ‘the thing itself’ – on the provision of those services and the skill and commitment with which they were provided. The most important profession in building a school system would be teachers and educationists, and in building a health system would be doctors, nurses and health administrators. Of course, this wasn’t a perfect arrangement. There are other skills necessary and indeed, the expertise imparted in a standard medical degree may be a fairly poor preparation for designing or running a hospital or some other aspect of a health system.

Still, today we seem to have moved beyond the point of having much interest in the thing itself. It seems naïve, somehow beside the point with this point being replaced by somehow creating ‘markets’. We measure and incentivise and ensure things are subject to competition. The rest just falls into place. Like Bach said when asked how to play the organ “you just move your fingers up and down here and the thing more or less plays itself.”


It was with these thoughts in mind that I observed the advertisement of medical products in the US. This is prohibited pretty much everywhere else I know of unless the advertising is for simple over the counter products like paracetamol. There are lots of ways to stoke incipient hypochondria to shift medical product. Here’s Sally Field emoting all over the camera to shift osteoporosis meds.[2 As the Youtube blurb states “In 2006, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field starred in a series of testimonial ads for the osteoporosis medication, Boniva. In the wake of the overwhelming success of the Boniva spots, due in no small part to Sally’s warm and empathetic presence, A-listers in Hollywood and beyond have started to embrace the idea of pharmaceutical product endorsement as a legitimate, bona fide revenue opportunity with no negative PR.” #WhatsThereNotToLike? For a general recent history of pharmaceutical ads, try this NPR program.] So medical ads are not some esoteric part of the advertising market – they’re a substantial and growing part of advertising – running at $5  billion per year in the US Television market. It struck me as mostly pretty abhorrent. Its manipulativeness is evident. It’s wasteful and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t do a lot of damage in paving the way for lots of anxiety, wishful thinking, over-servicing and, perhaps, mis-prescription. 2

But when I watched the ad I’ve reproduced above, I did see the possibility of another side. Because I’ve been wondering if I should get a shingles inoculation and so it struck me that such an ad could be useful in prompting others to ask themselves the same question. It’s creepily manipulative. But this is the just business as usual for TV advertising. The ad is effective at stirring up anxiety and that might prompt one to act more in one’s own interests. So perhaps there’s a case for some use of such ads. More generally, this commentator makes the reasonable claim that TV commercials “may have positive impacts through breaking social stigmas against getting medical help — particularly with depression medications …”.

But. But, but, but. Continue reading

  1. As J.S. Mill wrote: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. . . . He must be able to hear the arguments of adversaries; . . . He must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of. . . . Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men {do not do this}, even those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know. They have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them and considered what such persons may have to say, and consequently, they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”
  2.  This paper finds “that low-quality drugs diffuse more quickly compared to high-quality drugs in the US relative to four comparison countries” (which include Australia).
Posted in Economics and public policy, Innovation | 1 Comment

Information and arts marketing

On completing a consumer survey for the Melbourne Theatre Company. I was intrigued to come upon this table.

Which of the following would encourage you to attend the theatre more frequently?

(Select all that apply)

Apparently, the problem that I think is central, in marketing and advertising generally, but particularly in the arts on account of the diversity of arts offerings and the diversity of tastes and values, hasn’t occurred to them. It’s extremely hard for me to know whether I’ll like anything they put on. The best way they could get me to their shows is to find a way to signal me when reviewers I respect think well of the offering but not to try to get my arse onto their seats if I’ll dislike the show. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but there you go. Looks like you’d be wrong because I know of no examples of it happening. Anywhere.

Posted in Economics and public policy | 4 Comments

Elections and development #NeverLetAGoodDeedGoUnpunished

Do anti-poverty programs sway voters? Experimental evidence from Uganda
By: Blattman, Christopher ; Emeriau, Mathilde ; Fiala, Nathan

A Ugandan government program allowed groups of young people to submit proposals to start skilled enterprises. Among 535 eligible proposals, the government randomly selected 265 to receive grants of nearly $400 per person. Blattman et al. (2014) showed that, after four years, the program raised employment by 17% and earnings 38%. This paper shows that, rather than rewarding the government in elections, beneficiaries increased opposition party membership, campaigning, and voting. Higher incomes are associated with opposition support, and we hypothesize that financial independence frees the poor to express political preferences publicly, being less reliant on patronage and other political transfers.

Posted in Best From Elsewhere, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory | Leave a comment

Coal pollution and health before WWI

Research Design Meets Market Design: Using Centralized Assignment for Impact Evaluation
Date: 2016-12
By: Abdulkadiroğlu, Atila (Duke University) ; Angrist, Joshua (MIT) ; Narita, Yusuke (Yale University) ; Pathak, Parag A. (MIT)
Atmospheric pollution was an important side effect of coal-fired industrialisation in the nineteenth century. In Britain emissions of black smoke were on the order of fifty times as high as they were a century later. In this paper we examine the effects of these emissions on child development by analysing the heights on enlistment during the First World War of men born in England and Wales in the 1890s. We use the occupational structure to measure the coal intensity of the districts in which these men were observed as children in the 1901 census. We find strong negative effects of coal intensity on height, which amounts to difference of almost an inch between the most and least polluted localities. These results are robust to a variety of specification tests and they are consistent with the notion that the key channel of influence on height was via respiratory infection. The subsequent reduction of emissions from coal combustion is one factor contributing to the improvement in health (and the in-crease in height) during the twentieth century.

Posted in Economics and public policy, Environment | 3 Comments

From healthy youth to senescent decay: a list of examples and thoughts

Image result for everything old is new again

An incomplete series of thoughts beginning with a couple of paragraphs suggesting something with grander aspirations – which of course may be realised some day – but not in this blog post. Still I’m heading overseas now, and I’m not sure how the aspirations can be realised, so it’s a good time to pull the plug, sit on the plane and play “The bomb in the baby carriage” (something I always do) as the monster takes to the sky. These are the days of miracle and wonder.


Alexis de Tocqueville sought a mentor in political economy and sent a copy of the first volume of his Democracy in America to British political economist Nassau William Senior. Admiring the work, Senior nevertheless cavilled at Tocqueville’s suggestion that America was more egalitarian than England where, in law and in social experience “the welfare of the poor has often been sacrificed to that of the rich, and the rights of the greater number to the privileges of the few”. Senior argued that workers were better paid in England than elsewhere to which Tocqueville responded:

it seems to me that you give to the expression the good [le bien] of the poor a restricted meaning that I did not give to it: you translate it by the word wealth, which applies in particular to riches. I had wished to speak, myself, of all the things that can concur in the well-being of life: consideration, political rights, ease of obtaining justice, pleasures of the mind, and a thousand other things that contribute indirectly to happiness. I believe, until I have proof to the contrary, that in England the rich have little by little drawn to themselves all the advantages that the state of society furnishes to men.

In many ways Tocqueville’s comments anatomise some of the key benefits of America being a relatively young country. So long as social institutions were functioning tolerably – as they were in the US and Australia – things went along pretty swimmingly. Some of the most important are just the microeconomics of being a young country where the plenitude of resources leads to seemingly limitless expansion with labour scarcity underpinning a relatively egalitarian economy which itself underpins an egalitarian culture. Self-help author Mark Manson explains some of the microeconomics of being a young country in this fine bit of DIY economics.

Thomas Piketty has given us much food for thought on the way in which he argues the future will play out as our economy ages as income inequality works its way into even deeper levels of wealth inequality returning us to an age in which power returns to the rentier. For a country with our egalitarian traditions, we seem to have optimised at least two of our major institutions to smooth the path to Piketty’s dystopian vision. While our tax and social welfare system is one of the most redistributive in the world, our wealth management and education systems lead the world in their inequity. Thus our superannuation system contains around two trillion dollars of Australian wealth subject to (mostly) flat and very low taxation. And in schools, Australia is preeminent in moving quite rapidly towards greater educational inequity with good educations increasingly depending on the wisdom with which students choose parents who are willing and able to send them to private schools.

But Tocqueville was also talking about all those other ‘non-economic’ aspects of life that seemed to work out so much better in a young country.


Mancur Olson proposed the idea of ‘institutional sclerosis’ explained by Wikipedia thus: Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Innovation | 17 Comments

Linkbait and fakebait

Time was (I’m guessing, if it was it didn’t last long) when linkbait had standards. You (I’m obviously still guessing here) took some aspect of something and beat it up a bit. Anyway courtesy of ZergNet (who knew) I just saw this bit of linkbait.

George Michael’s Ex-Wham! Partner Breaks Silence Following Death

Thing is the tweet in question was published on the day after the event about which he was “breaking his silence”. Some silence.

Anyway, this gripe isn’t worth more than a tweet, but it took more than 140 characters to explain. So while I’m here I may as well add my plan to save the world from this kind of thing – or save it a little bit. Perhaps this already exists. Anyway you could have a plugin to your browser which is like an ad blocker on which you can occasionally indicate that you’re really unhappy with some bit of linkbait and then program your plugin to block further linkbait from the same source.

Oh and I know there are technical issues because the links to other stories are sometimes served differently to ads. But this post started as a tweet so all difficulties with my proposal are left for the reader to solve as an exercise.


Posted in IT and Internet | Leave a comment