Passing Bull 215 –Business and politics

 

If you have lived in a small country town, you know how important it is for people who run a business in that town – such as a pub or general store – to get on with and relate to the other people in the town.  They need to be seen actively to support the town.  People in bigger companies – such as BHP, ANZ, CSL or Westfarmers – have come to the view that the same goes for them and the people of Australia.  These companies – and their employees – want to get on with and relate to other Australians.  The Round Table Conference in the U S and the Financial Times in the U K have both confirmed a shift in big business away from confining itself to the bottom line.  So do those who run MBAs. 

The FT had a note about BHP and its legal counsel.

BHP was among the companies named in an investigation begun by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines in 2015, into whether fossil fuel groups have violated human rights by causing climate change. The company formally severed ties with the World Coal Association last year, after Australian green groups urged it to quit industry lobby groups whose policies did not match the miner’s support for the Paris climate agreement. Ms Cox says climate change is high on her team’s agenda because the company knows its long-term sustainability depends on support from investors, regulators and the broader society. ‘We need the support of our communities in order to be successful’, she says.

The operative phrase there is that ‘the company knows its long-term sustainability depends on support from investors, regulators and the broader society.’ Shareholders allow a lot of money to go to directors and management to secure the long-term sustainability of the company  – they are put there to do just that, and not just try to get a good next half-year profit statement and dividend.

It is surprising, then, to find people saying that companies like BHP have gone too far in their social outreach.  It is doubly surprising for at least three reasons.  Most of the people making these claims come from politics, the press or think tanks and they have no idea on how to run a business – because they never have.  But they are usually those who shout most loudly about freedom of speech and religion – but not freedom of companies to run their business as they and their shareholders see fit.  And these critics are looking for the short-term view and narrow focus that so disfigures our public life.

In How Markets Fail, John Cassidy said that ‘Economics, when you strip away the guff and mathematical sophistry, is largely about incentives.’  He then discussed the venom injected into our commercial life by executives being paid, say, 100 times the pay of their employees.  He said: ‘In banking, the CEO incentive problem is even more severe than in other industries.’  That was nearly ten years before our royal commission into that industry painfully showed how fine is the distinction between ‘incentive’ and ‘bribe’.

I only invest in companies whose management I trust to maintain their long term sustainability.   For me, BHP is the exemplar – in large part because of the conduct that attracts adverse comment of the kind I have referred to.  I have no interest in investing in a company that is only interested in financial returns to shareholders and that takes no interest in the public costs of its business. 

It is downright silly for people who have never run a business to be offering advice on that subject to people who do.  But, then, we have a government that occasionally calls itself conservative that makes laws that will enable it to dismantle businesses it does not like.  And a government that will empower its agent, the tax man, to snitch on those citizens who are managing their super fund in a way that the government does not like.  The want of reason is at least consistent.

Bloopers

No other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail. Whether a defeated Mr Trump would actually be prosecuted — by the Southern District of New York, for example, and for any number of alleged crimes — is immaterial. All that matters is whether Mr Trump believes he could face jail. To judge by Mr Trump’s words and actions, he considers victory in next year’s election to be an existential necessity.

Financial Times, 13 September, 2019

We may have hoped that the FT was above transcendental bullshit like ‘existential’ – either with ‘necessity,’ or at all.

Here and there – Populism in Henry IV

 

Clowns have a licence to go over the top with their audience.  That is an essential part of their schtick.  The populist tends to be amoral.  He – it looks to be in the male domain – can joke about his lack of candour. He exults in his capacity to thrill his audience – whom he despises – by going flagrantly over the top.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.  (Henry IV, Part I, 1.2.212 ff)

It is so cold blooded, it takes your breath away.  But that is the hallmark and thick skin of the con man.  He will turn giving offence into an art – and be applauded by his audience.  (The Everyman says that ‘Redeeming time’ is a reference to Ephesians 5:7 ff: ‘Be not ye therefore partakers with them, for ye were sometimes darkness, but now ye are light in the Lord….Redeeming time because the days are evil.’)

Well, if a king could say ‘L’état, c’est moi’, the leader of the people can say: ‘Touch not me – I am the people.’  The French Revolution would see the glorification of le peuple, and ideologues of a certain caste glory in the term ‘the masses’.

No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.  (2.4.474 ff)

And then the prince says he is up to it in words that make the Godfather look like a croquet player.

I do.  I will.

Is he the coldest prince you ever saw?

Well, the king, his father is past all that.  His wild days are behind him.  He will not be ‘so stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (3.2.41). He can lecture his wayward son on debasing the majesty and mystique of the Crown.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’
Others would say ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress’d myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.  (3.2.46 ff )

The problem with putting yourself in hock with the motley – when he ‘enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – is:

For thou has lost thy princely privilege

With vile participation. (3.2.69, 86-87)

That’s what happens when you are truant chivalry (5.1.94).

Unsurprisingly, the man Bolingbroke deposed had a different version.

Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench…..(Richard II, 1.4.23 ff)

The populist needs more than a thick skin.  He needs more face than Myers.  When caught on a lie, he bluffs it out with pure front.

FALSTAFF: There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either
earl or duke, I can assure you.

PRINCE: Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.

FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to
lying! 

You can be gracious and condescending at the same time – especially if you went to the right school and bear the insignia of the establishment.  There is no harm in humouring the lower classes and you may get some fun between the sheets.

Thine, by yea and no, which is as much as to
say, as thou usest him, JACK FALSTAFF with my
familiars, JOHN with my brothers and sisters,
and SIR JOHN with all Europe.  (Part 2, 2.2.130)

But when it comes time to cast aside the disguise, you show no mercy.

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
…..
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.  (5.5.48 ff)

And you utterly repudiate all your former comrades – even the most pathetic, like that portable lighthouse Bardolph.  Even unto death.

We should have all such offenders so cut off…(Henry V, 3.6.112).

If that means that the people will think that their leader has killed the heart of his closest companion (2.1.91), what boots it?  They are after all just the people.  But it is quite in order for the leader to beseech Almighty God not to take it out on him because his father broke the rules in laying his hands on the Crown.

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood….(4.1.297 ff)

The parallels with today are so obvious that they chill the blood.

 

 

MY TOP SHELF -37 – VERDI

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

37

VERDI

His Music, Life and Times

George Martin

London, Macmillan, 1965; rebound in green cloth with the title VERDI blocked on the spine in yellow; yellow slip case.

In the course of this comprehensive but very readable biography, George Martin refers to a remark of Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, about life in Milan in the eighteenth century: ‘La mattina una messetta, l’apodnisar una bassetta, la sera una donnetta.’  ‘A little mass in the morning; a little cards in the afternoon; a little woman in the evening.’  There is something gratifyingly Italian about all that – like spaghetti, Ferrari, or Zegna.  Or Verdi.  His preferred game after lunch was billiards.  In this he took after Mozart, although we may doubt whether this preference was exclusive.  Giuseppe Verdi (‘Joseph Green’) was nothing if not Italian, and Anglo-Saxons may take leave to doubt whether Latins devoted their entire siesta to resting.

Opera was born in Italy, and we like to see it as an Italian art form.  In the first half of the 19th century, Italian opera was sustained by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.  In the second half of that century, the scene was dominated by Verdi.

Verdi was deeply involved in the endeavours to unite Italy, and he became greatly loved as embodying the voice of Italy.  Through works such as Rigoletto, La Traviata, A Masked Ball, Aida, Falstaff and Otello, he dominated Italian opera from 1845 until his death in 1901.  He wrote nearly thirty operas and he gave to Italian music and opera the kind of identity that Wagner did for the Germans.

Verdi had trouble with the censors, but he followed the advice of Beaumarchais who said that ‘What is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music’.  His operas spoke directly and movingly to the Italian people who chanted ‘Viva Verdi’.  Operas like Aida, Rigoletto, Don Carlos and The Force of Destiny were obviously inspired by a loathing of inequality and oppression.  For about half a century, Verdi was the voice of all that was universal and generous in what was becoming one Italian nation.  Italy was unified, and when Verdi died, the whole nation mourned.

Verdi was born to parents who owned a tavern in a village close to Busseto in the Parma region of northern Italy.  Shortly after he was born, Russian troops committed an atrocity in the local church of San Michele.  The mother of Verdi hid with Giuseppe in the bell tower and survived unharmed, but the incident left its marks.  The family was poor, but the young boy showed talent with music – which failed to get him to pass the entrance exam for the conservatory at Milan.  He took private lessons and got some work in conducting, and he then got the job of director of the Philharmonic Society at Busetto.  He married and then moved north to submit his first opera which has survived to the management at La Scala.  He became known for being single-minded and for getting straight to the point.  With help from a young soprano called Giuseppina Strepponi, La Scala accepted his unsolicited offering and Oberto, which is not offered now, was a success.  La Scala offered Verdi a contract for a further three operas.

In 1840, the deaths of his son, daughter and wife sent him into a depression.  He wrote a bad comic opera, but in 1842 he produced Nabucco.  It is a biblical tale with a political message that was just right for the people of Italy at that time.  The Slaves’ Chorus spoke directly to the needs of the Italian people, and this opera secured the fame of Verdi throughout Italy.  In the next eight years, he composed thirteen operas, most of them tragic and nearly all historical on commission from Milan, Rome, Naples and Venice.  He had begun living with Strepponi, and they would marry in 1859 in a relationship that lasted for half a century.  She was the ideal companion for a man who could be blunt and without humour.

In 1851 he produced Rigoletto, an opera based on a story by Victor Hugo, and it was followed by Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  He was now internationally famous and he became very wealthy.  He was obsessed with Shakespeare.  Macbeth was an early opera, but Otello and Falstaff are among his most mature masterpieces.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me is music drama at its most evolved.  Wagner claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house for this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with Wagner.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

The most famous and wealthy composer in the world set up a retirement home for musicians in Milan funded by his huge royalties.  He died of a stroke in 1901.  He had prescribed for his funeral ‘One priest, one candle, one cross’ but it became an occasion for national mourning.  A huge orchestra, conducted by Toscanini, played at the burial grounds.  A quarter of a million people attended the procession.  They sang the Slaves’ Chorus from Aida.

For sustained production and popularity, only Mozart, Wagner and Puccini can come close to Verdi.  He managed to blend drama and melody and his mature works gave opera a whole new direction.  About a dozen of those are still in constant circulation.  He had a natural ear for melody, and some of his greatest music can remind you of listening to a village band playing in an Italian village rotunda.  From Rigoletto onwards, Verdi was able to devise melodies that were striking and that expressed the deepest emotions without sacrificing what sounds like simple tunefulness.  Opera covers a broad range of art, but no one else ever sounded like Giuseppe Verdi.

One biographer of Verdi said this:

What, then, remains in his work if the ephemera of time and place are drained away?

First, the potential nobility of man.  In his early and middle years, Verdi saw men and women risking life and personal happiness to further an ideal, and in his operas he celebrated them, holding them up as models to be copied.  In La Traviata, Verdi wept for Violetta, but he presents her decision in her circumstances as right.  His operas, though with artistic restraint, are didactic: they urge men and women to be noble.

As a corollary, however, his work throughout sounds a constant note of melancholy.  Life, he suggests, is hard, happiness fleeting, and to death the only certainty.  He never pretends in his call for generous, noble actions that these do not often end in suffering, but offers them as the best response to death.

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote a paper called The Naiveté of Verdi.  In it, he said:

Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organisation, Verdi is the voice of a world which is no more.  His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy have done. 

George Martin says:

…..he was above all the composer of the human heart, of love and grief, despair and joy, the simplest human emotions.  With the magic of his music, he had touched depths of feeling often unsuspected in those who listened, and by it had declared to them the universality of their human condition.  For many who had been surprised to tears for Violetta, or lured to sympathy for Rigoletto, he had literally stretched the bounds of their humanity.  To be alive, to be loved, he seemed to say, was to suffer; and in the largeness of his understanding and compassion, as D’Annunzio wrote in a famous memorial ode, ‘He wept and loved for all.’

Well, people have for centuries said much the same thing about the English playwright whom Verdi revered as a god, and who gave to Verdi the scheme of three of his greatest operas.  Anyone who can make any kind of contribution to our feeling sane deserves our reverence.

Passing Bull 214 – Economics and Voodoo

 

How Markets Fail by John Cassidy (2009) is as instructive as it is readable.  On reading it again, I was struck by how evangelical many leading economists are.  They assemble in platoons preaching ideology masquerading as science.  One economist said of Hayek: ‘This kind of writing is not scholarship.  It is seeing hobgoblins under every bed.’  Friedman was the ultimate evangelist.  He could rewrite history to suit his program – he taught that the depression was not caused by market failure but by government failure. 

In 2003, one of Friedman’s successors said that macroeconomics had succeeded in solving the central problem of depression-prevention.  He reminded me of the heart surgeon who said of my chest pain that whatever its cause, it would not kill me.  Six months later, it bloody nearly did just that – because I had delayed in reporting to casualty for hours relying on his advice.  It was, as his Grace the Duke of Wellington observed, a damned close run thing.  So was the Great Financial Crisis – another painful case of a pretty syllogism broken by a sad fact.

It is not as if no one saw the GFC coming.  Mr Cassidy reminds us that in 2003, Warren Buffett told his shareholders that ‘In our view…derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.’  But there you go – the Harvard Business School had knocked back Warren Buffett.  Not the right kind of academic aura – like that of Mr Greenspan.

You can therefore imagine my relief when I read:

The economics department of Morgan Stanley…was refusing to hire any economics Ph D’s unless they had experience outside academe.  ‘We insist on at least a three-to-four year cleansing experience to neutralise the brain washing that takes place’…..’Academic  economics has taken a very bad turn in the road’….’It’s very academic, very mathematical, and it really doesn’t – I want to choose my words carefully here: it is nothing like as useful to the business community as it could be.’

Political parties and think tanks should take note.

When Mr Cassidy goes from ‘utopian’ economics to ‘reality based’ economics, we get:

….the essence of utopian economics is that the free market, by generating a set of prices at which firms and consumers equate private costs and private benefits, produces an efficient outcome.  But from the point of view of society, what is needed is a balancing of social costs and social benefits.  Free markets don’t lead to such a balancing….The market fails, and fails in a very specific and predictable sense.

This is not hard to get.  Dealing in cigarettes or alcohol has social costs – that might be met from taxation.  The same goes for dealing in carbon.  The simple thing to do to meet the social cost would be to impose a tax.

But you can’t do that if tax is an ideological blind spot. And if you subscribe to the ultimate dream of utopia – that money grows on trees.  It’s a bit like asking a keen footy fan to explain a Grand Final that his team just narrowly lost.  After the first few words, you can sit back and hear the needle in the groove as the record revolves fixatedly on its own axis until its predetermined end.

Bloopers

In a blunt message to corporate leaders, the Prime Minister told The Australian the government wanted them to step up and focus on discussions that led to better outcomes for workers and their families.  ‘If you want to advance the cause of your employees so they can earn more, there isn’t time for distractions…The most successful businesses are those that focus on that.’

The Australian, 13 September, 2019

This is hilarious beyond belief.  The Minister for Thongs knows nothing at all about business – absolutely nothing – but he feels free to tell business how to run itself – while saying that business has no place in talking about politics – which business has been driven to do because the politicians are so inept.  And this is from a political party that once had aspirations to being ‘conservative,’ but which is now introducing legislation to enable government to intervene at will in what used to be a free market.  Do those galahs really believe that we came down in the last shower?

MY TOP SHELF – 36 – Kim

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

36

Kim

Rudyard Kipling (1900)

Easton Press, Collector’s library of Famous Editions, 1962; illustrations by Robin Jacques; introduction by C E Carrington; fully bound in blue leather; embossed in gold with Indian motifs and title; humped spine; gold edged paper; pearl moiré endpapers and ribbon.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zan-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum.

To paraphrase the start of Billy Budd, if you walk down the boulevards of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, you will marvel at the range of skin colours and tones on display among what must be the most racially interwoven people on earth.  You do not get the same effect walking down a boulevard in Mumbai, but if you spend any time in India you will see that it has the greatest mixture of faiths and creeds and peoples and tribes and classes and castes on earth.  There are now many more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, but although there was mayhem at the partition of the two countries, these teeming millions more or less manage to get by most of the time without cutting each other’s throats.  India has its share of religious freaks and fanatics but, with England, it is entitled to be regarded as one of the most tolerant nations on earth.  The conjunction of England and India is not accidental – and Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, is testament to the tolerance of both.

The notion of empire is very much on the nose, and Kipling was an Englishman, writing about India when it was the subject of an English Queen Empress – the Raj – and Kipling was seen as the great apologist for the Empire.  The novel Kim will therefore look not just out of date, but out of taste.  But an uncommitted reader coming for the first time to Kim – which was said to be the favourite novel of the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, and which Nirad Chaudhuri said was the very best picture of India written by an English author – will see that it could only have been written by someone who had two qualities: the capacity to deliver engrossing narrative; and a complete affection for and knowledge of the various peoples of India.  And, you might add, the capacity to take relaxed pot-shots from time to time at the affectations of the British in India.

And if Kipling had views that no longer commend themselves to us, so what?  Mozart had an appalling lavatory humour; Beethoven was rude and difficult to deal with; and Wagner was a rolled-gold, five-star jerk.  Do these disabilities stop us listening to their music?  Why let political prissiness stand between you and a good read?  But if you would rather read about India by an Indian, read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  It is badly written and venomous toward India, but it won the Man Booker Prize, and is prescribed reading by Cambridge University for those who are literarily challenged and who can only take their literature tossed with ideology.  Mr Adiga could be India’s answer to Quentin Tarantino – the taste quotients appear to be identical, and the outcome in each case is both shocking and inane.

The second misconception of Kim is that it is a children’s story.  Its hero is a boy who has qualities and experiences that most boys would die to have.  But those experiences are divided equally between two worlds – the spiritual world, and the world of espionage.  Kim becomes the disciple of a Lama, a holy man.  He also becomes involved in the Great Game in what we now call Pakistan and Afghanistan.  (We are still playing games up there, but we are not doing so well.)  The espionage side of the tale is terrific for children – but the nature of the bond between the Lama and his disciple (chela) may be above the level of most children, at least most white children, and will be the more engrossing of the two tales for boys and girls who have well and truly grown up.

The novel starts like the Iliad and Paradise Lostin medias res (in the middle of the action) with lines quoted in the novel (and film) The English Patient set out at the head of this note.  When Kim gets a ticket for the train – ‘the work of the devils’ or ‘the fire carriages’ – he returns with the money ‘keeping only one anna in each rupee of the price of the Umballa ticket as his commission – the immemorial commission of Asia’.

The Lama is in search of the river where the arrow of the Lord Buddha came to earth.  Kim is in search of a Red Bull on a green field – the emblem of the Mavericks, the Regiment of his father.  When Kim is taken in by the Mavericks and a priest, the priest ‘looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.’

Kim is introduced to the Great Game by Mahbub Ali and by Creighton Sahib:

The dealers call him the father of fools, because he is so easily cheated about a horse.  Mahbub Ali says he is madder than all other Sahibs.

Kim survives the orphanage and the school of St. Xavier’s in Partibus, and then he goes up to Simla to be educated in espionage by Lurgan Sahib.  While the Sahibs are trying to reclaim Kim as one of their own and use him for their purposes, Kim longs to return to the Lama as his chela.  The two stories merge when Kim and his Lama end up tracking Russians near the Khyber Pass.

The Lama has a confrontation with Mahbub Ali and asks Mahbub why he does not follow the way himself and take Kim as his chela.

Mahbub stared stupefied at the magnificent insolence of the demand, which across the Border he would have paid with more than a blow.  Then the humour of it touched his worldly soul.

In the end, the Lama gains Knowledge and release.  He has a view of the River of the Arrow at his feet.  The book ends with these lines:

So thus the Search is ended.  For the merit that I have acquired, the River of the Arrow is here.  It broke forth at our feet, as I have said.  I have found it.  Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin – as I am free, and sinless.  Just is the Wheel!  Certain is our deliverance.  Come!

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as any man who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

In the 1950s MGM film, Errol Flynn played Mahbub Ali.  But the story of the Lama is played with surprising effect and taste with Paul Lucas in that role.  In the 1984 film production, the Lama is wonderfully played by Peter O’Toole, in a manner that we would see him use as Priam in that awful film called Troy.

It is hard to imagine a story better calculated to hold the interest of boys and girls of all ages.  Children may be captivated by the Great Game – especially those scenes where Lurgan Sahib is teaching the young apprentice the mind games that will become his stock in trade – but the older readers and audiences will have at least as much time for the story of the Lama and his chela.  The two stories touch when the Holy Man tells Kim:

I have known many men in my long life, and disciples not a few.  But to none among men, if so be thou art woman born, has my heart gone out as it has to thee – thoughtful, wise and courteous, but something of a small imp.

The love between an old man and a much younger one has been much touched on, at least since the Dialogues of Plato.  Although Kim was strikingly good looking and attractive to women, and doubtless some men, there is no possibility of a sexual undertone here.  This is the love between two males – one supremely and disconcertingly unworldly, and the other entirely and thrillingly worldly.  It is not like Prospero and Aerial (or Caliban), but it is not silly to compare the relationship to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  (In his book on Kipling, Angus Wilson thought that Kipling may also have recalled Pickwick and Sam Weller, and Fagin and the Dodger.)  Sancho is as worldly as Kim, but in a more earthy, folksy and matter of fact way.  While the Lama’s unworldliness derives from his holiness, the Don’s derives from his madness.  But in the result, the dialogues between both pairs are illuminated by a harmony that has endured and enthralled all kinds of readers.

The Lama is far from being mad or idiotic – he has no trouble in rustling up the money to pay St. Xavier’s.  But when the Lama in his simplicity thinks that a hooker is a nun, we are reminded of the time when the town wenches burst out laughing when the Don referred to them as virgins, and the affronted Don said:

Give me leave to tell ye, ladies, that modesty and civility are very becoming to the fair sex; whereas laughter without ground is the highest degree of indiscretion.  However, I do not presume to say this to offend you, or incur your displeasure; no, ladies, I assure you that I have no other design but to do you service. 

While Sancho forever ruminates on his master’s madness, Kim is forever astounded at his master’s holiness.  In each case, the chemistry comes about from the mixing of the elements.

The aim of art is to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  Very few novels have achieved that aim like the novels Don Quixote and Kim.  Both have that quality that is so rare.  It is the quality that children feel for a book they have loved.  They are sorry when they come to the end of the book because when they put the book down, they will have to leave a world that has given them so much and which looks to them so much more lively than their own.

Passing Bull 213 –Labels again

 

‘Virtue signalling’ is in vogue in some quarters as a label used as a term of abuse.  The other day, someone asked a sensible question.  What is wrong with virtue signalling?  Big corporates spend a fortune on it.  So do governments – although different considerations apply to different ways of spending public moneys.

Reading Richard Evans’ The Pursuit of Power, Europe 1815 – 1914, I came across some diverting labels.  In 1900, a German gynaecologist said: ‘The use of contraceptives of any sort can only serve lust.’  Given that the survival of the species depends on procreation, what’s wrong with a spot of lust – if you are still up for it?  The notion that sin is inherent in the word lust does not get much encouragement from the Oxford English Dictionary.

A Mayor of Vienna, who happened to hate Jews, was upbraided for sitting at a table with some Jews.  His answer was very simple. ‘I decide who’s a Jew.’

The word Prussian carries a connotation of militant if not military Teutonic discipline and froideur – all ghastly stereotypes.  And Bismarck was the prototype Prussian.  You might therefore be surprised to learn that Bismarck has a good claim to be called the father of the Welfare State.  The Iron Chancellor got in about a generation before Churchill and Lloyd George when he said that ‘the state had to meet the justified wishes of the working classes.’  He dubbed his aristocratic paternalism as ‘state socialism.’  That would be enough to send current Republicans clean out of their minds.’

But the prize for quote of the book goes to a Russian ethnographer who in 1836 said:

According to the observations of old timers, the climate of Kharkov province has become more severe, and it is now exposed to more droughts and frosts.  It is likely that this change has come about because of the destruction of forests.

Yes, that’s right – man made climate change was old hat in Russia in 1836.

Blooper – a good book

The book Finding my place by Anne Aly is a must.  She was two when her parents migrated here from Egypt.  She and they met the full face of bigotry about colour and Islam in Australia.  They were getting over this when Osama knocked over the twin towers and this was followed by the Bali bombing.  Reading this book, you get a clear idea of the damage done by people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones – and, I would add, John Howard.

Anne’s parents thought it would be easier for her, but that is problematic.  She went through two failed marriages.  On top of her primary degree at the American University of Cairo, she has a diploma, a master’s and a doctorate of philosophy.  Tickets don’t worry me too much, but she got the last two while raising two sons as a single mother.  That is on any view impressive.

She has a world-wide reputation for her expertise in counter-terrorism.  And she has put her training into effect.  One young Muslim who was being groomed told her third husband that but for Anne he would be dead or in jail.

The book is by turns heart-breaking and hilarious.  It is worth the price of purchase just for the spray she gave a shabby dealer who sought to renege on a sale of fencing and passed a  rude remark about Arabs.  Anne Aly does know my language.  And yes, she does sink the slipper into two politicians who – to my certain knowledge – asked for it.

I will only refer to two quotes.  This on being a Muslim in Australia after the twin towers.

There is something disempowering about hate.  If someone hates you for who you are, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.

This on being a federal MP.

I’ve never liked politics and I doubt that I ever will. I don’t rate my performance in media interviews where I’m pitted against a seasoned politician who barks out attacks and expects me to do the same, and my greatest fear is that I will become that person.

Anne Aly is the kind of person who will get right up the noses of the IPA and their ilk.  She is a Muslim woman who breaks all the templates and has made more of her life than they ever will.  This is her triumph, and I found it entirely uplifting.  I will give a copy to my oldest grand-daughter.  The language can be fruity, but the humanity of this woman is a winner for us all.

Here and there – Hitler compared

 

University examiners loved stating exam questions ‘Compare and contrast….’  At the Alfred for a drug hit – immunotherapy – I was rereading Sebastian Haffner The Meaning of Hitler.  I remarked to the nurses – one of them is from Munich – that a lot of it seemed relevant – often alarmingly so – to a contemporary populist disaster.  Sometimes the contrast was more illuminating than the compare.  See what you think.

Hitler had no friends.  He enjoyed sitting for hours on end with subordinate staff – drivers, bodyguards, secretaries  – but he alone did all the talking.

There is no development, no maturing in Hitler’s character and personality.  His character was fixed at an early age – perhaps a better word would be arrested – and remains astonishingly consistent; nothing was added to it.  It was not an attractive character……from the very start [there] was a total lack of capacity for self-criticism.  Hitler was all his life exceedingly full of himself and from his earliest to his last days tended to self-conceit. Stalin and Mao used the cult of their personality coolly as a political instrument, without letting it turn their heads.  With the Hitler cult, Hitler was not only its object but also the earliest, most persistent and most passionate devotee.

That’s a 10 in the ‘Compare’ column.

When in the twenties, Hitler had at his disposal nothing but his demagogy, his hypnotic oratory, his intoxicating and illusionist skills as a producer of mass spectacles, he hardly ever gained more than five per cent of all Germans as his followers….The next forty per cent were driven into his arms of 1930-3 and the total helpless failure of all other governments and parties in the face of that plight.  The remaining decisive fifty per cent, however, he gained after 1933 mainly through his achievements.

This is a 10 on ‘Contrast.’  Hitler had a real achievements – economic, military and foreign miracles – six million unemployed to full employment in three years.  Before that: ‘The man does not really exist – he is only the noise he makes.’  After that:

‘Those who are only vigorous destroyers are not great at all,’ says Jacob Burkhardt, and Hitler certainly proved himself a generous wrecker.  But beyond any doubt he also proved himself a star achiever of high calibre, and not only in wrecking.

Still very heavy ‘Contrast’.

And he perceived correctly that absolute rule was not possible in an intact state organism but only amidst controlled chaos…A close study of him reveals a trait in him that one might describe as a horror of committing himself, or perhaps even better, as a horror of anything final.  It seems as though something in in him caused him to recoil not only from setting limits to his power by way of a state system, but also to his will by way of a firm set of goals.

This may be the most frankly vicious insight of the lot.

The point is that Hitler’s successes were never scored against a strong or even a tough opponent: even the Weimar republic of the late twenties and Britain in 1940 proved too strong for him.

Spot on again for ‘Compare.’

Of course he was no democrat, but he was a populist, a man who based his power on the masses, not on the elite, and in a sense a people’s tribune risen to absolute power.  His principal means of rule was demagogy, and his instrument of government was not a structural hierarchy but a chaotic bundle of uncoordinated mass organisations merely held together at the top by his own person.  All these are ‘leftist’ rather than ‘rightest’ features…..  Clearly in the line of twentieth-century dictators Hitler stands somewhere between Mussolini and Stalin, and upon close examination nearer to Stalin than to Mussolini.  Nothing is more misleading than to call Hitler a fascist. Fascism is upper class rule, buttressed by artificially manufactured mass enthusiasm.  Certainly Hitler roused masses to enthusiasm, but never in order to buttress an upper class.  He was not a class politician and his National Socialism was anything but fascism.  (Emphasis added.)

Well that should give you something to chew on –and frighten the hell out of you.

For there is no denying the voluntarist trait in Hitler’s view of the world: he saw the world as he wanted to see it. That the world is imperfect, full of conflict, hardship and suffering…… This is only too true, and it is quite right not to shut one’s eyes to it.  So long as he says no more than that, Hitler stands firmly on the ground of truth.  Except that he does not state these things with the sad, courageous earnestness with which Luther calmly faced what he called original sin but with that frenzied voice with which Nietzsche, for instance, so often hailed what was deplorable.  To Hitler, the emergency was the norm, the state was there in order to wage war.

Compare and contrast – indeed.

Here and there – What kind of liar is Donald Trump?

 

In a piece for The New York Times headed ‘Why Does Manafort Lie?’, an American philosopher referred to the remark of Aristotle that some people lie because they boast, and some people lie to flatter others.  Manafort – the man with $15000 ostrich jacket – looks to be a prime example of both.  The philosopher began his piece:

Maybe Paul Manafort simply has more chutzpah than the rest of us. Here’s a man convicted of financial fraud, facing further criminal prosecution for the lies he’s accused of telling, who makes a deal to protect himself and proceeds, according to a memo sent to a federal judge on Friday, to lie to the prosecutors. Accused of lying, he offers as evidence in his defence … what appear to be more lies. There are no good reasons to believe him, and yet he seems to brashly lie nevertheless.

Another liar, Cohen, looks like a beaten man – not repentant, but beaten.  Manafort looks determined to remain pleased with himself.  There is every chance that his lying is so compulsive – so much part of his everyday life – that he no longer knows or cares if he is lying.  By contrast, Cohen looks like a common garden crook who had the misfortune to get caught.  Cohen does not look remorseful either – he just looks bloody guilty.

Donald Trump is a compulsive liar who does not follow either pattern.  But if you had to choose, you would say he is far closer to Manafort than Cohen.  Among other things, Trump is incapable of anything like remorse, much less apologising.  The only time I have ever seen Trump look like he might be conscious of the fact that he was lying was when he was asked if he accepted the explanation of the Saudis for the murder of Kashoggi.  He said that he was, but this was too preposterous even for Trump, and his response lacked all conviction.  Both have since conformed to type.  The Saudis have given about five contradictory explanations – about as many as Trump gave for sacking Comey – and Trump has confessed that the dollar trumps decency.

There are two reasons why people commonly lie.  One is that they want to improve on the truth.  These are the boasters.  They quickly get known.  You choose your own factor for their golf handicap or their income.  They just can’t help themselves.

Another reason for lying is that the truth might hurt.  Did you buy that second property so that the children could learn about life on the farm, or in order to profit from its subdivision?  If you have lied about that, you must hope that your bank manager’s diary notes do not show a more mercenary mindset.

There is another occasion for lying – what is called, dangerously, a white lie.  Sometimes we might have to choose between doing something wrong and causing someone pain.  ‘Well, Son, are you looking forward to meeting my second husband – indeed, your new father – again at Christmas?’  Well, if it’s a choice between hurting your mum, and putting a mild blot on your escutcheon of honour, most of us would stay with mum – because we prefer real life to abstract value or theory.  Goodness, just look at how all hell broke loose when Cordelia could not bring herself to butter up to her cranky old dad, King Lear.  But, in discussing the mendacity of Donald Trump, there is no such out on those lines.

In short, Trump lies because he can.  People who get more power than they can decently handle commonly feel the need to stretch that power beyond its limits.  That is Donald Trump all over, the spoiled child who never grew up or got beyond breaking his best toys.  He has no friends.  He is very dangerous to be near.  You could never turn your back on him.  And when the end comes, it will be sudden and final.  And on one charge alone, he would looking at a minimum of three years in a late bid by the nation to introduce him to the concept of humanity.

Passing Bull 212 –For or against?

 

After I had criticised a comment on where we have gone wrong as being too generalised, I was asked to express my view.  I did so as follows.

It is hard to avoid generalisation, but my sense – for what it is worth – is that the wounds inflicted on the less prosperous part of the middle class by the GFC, globalisation and technology have left them in a very disaffected condition.  They have a big grievance about inequality – which is justified on both capital and income – and an equally justified sense of insecurity. There is a loss of faith in our pillars, and sustaining conventions go west. This drives them back on to what they see as their fundamentals – their nationality or even their race – and, as in Italy and Germany in the 1920’s, this leaves them sitting ducks for populists and their conspiracy theories and scapegoats.  These people in turn fan the flames and increase division.  The inescapable word is ‘polarisation.’  It still has some way to go in the US and UK, but it is not far from the surface in the rest of Europe.  We have so far mostly avoided it – because we avoid politics.  You can forget the rest of the world.

I would be sympathetic to the suggestion that the decline of religion is a major factor but for three things.  The notion that you need God to be moral was blown up more two hundred years ago.  The behaviour of some people claiming to have God – like evangelical supporters of Trump or Catholic defenders of Pell – is genuinely revolting.  And a lot of the worst wars came out of religious schism.

They are what I see as the background to the moral catastrophe of people like Trump and Johnson.  I have the firm but utterly unverifiable notion that a big part of the problem is that for many Americans, Trump is God’s answer to their putting a nigger into the White House.  And I don’t think that too many supporters of Johnson are much better: Farage is shameless.

What we have at least now established is that when assessing a political leader it is fatuous to suggest you can ignore their moral character.

I would add two things.  The populism embraced by people like Trump and Johnson is said to come from parties that were conservative.  As I have said before, a populist is not a conservative.  And these two were born with silver spoons in their mouths.  They could not care less about the less privileged people they appeal to.  Indeed, if either has ever met a working man, that would have been an accident of history.

The result is that these people don’t stand for much. They are in it just for themselves Rather they are defined by what they are against.  Trump is against anything done by Obama, and people of a different colour or religious belief.  Johnson is against Europe – or so he says.  Both are against migrants –their scapegoats of choice.  When your politics are defined by what you are against rather than what you are for, your recipe for bitter division – polarisation – is complete.

A related issue is that people don’t win elections – the other side loses them.  That is an Oz specialty.

Bloopers

Something will have to give.  Environmental awareness is one thing but outsourcing sovereignty is something else.  Amazon fires have exposed what has long been suspected.  Despite international agreements and peer group coercion, in the end nations will pursue their self-interest.  With the passing of each survival deadline that decision becomes easier.

Maurice Newman, The Australian, 29 August, 2019

The man who wrote that was appointed Chair of the ABC.

**

In response to an ASX query about its 21% share price jump yesterday morning, OneMarket revealed it had ‘engaged in confidential discussions with a number of parties regarding potential corporate actions.’

‘Those discussions are not mature and there is no guarantee that those discussions will progress or will result in any corporate action,’ OneMarket said after the close of trade.

The Australian, 29 August, 2019

Would you buy a used share in that outfit?  What ‘action’ of a corporation is not ‘corporate’?

Here and there – Catherine Fieschi on Populism.

 

A short while ago I quoted the Financial Times on Catherine Fieschi’s book on populism called Populocracy.

The fundamental organising principle of populism is a divide between the people and the elite. The ‘commonality of people’ have an innate sense of what is right, which helps to explain ‘why so much populist politics will short-circuit discussion or examination: because the people’s preferences are innate. And because they are innate, they are just and cannot be argued with.’

The second important component, Fieschi says, is betrayal by an elite, typically one that has a greater sense of allegiance to its own members than to the people or the nation.

The third is authenticity, the leitmotif of Fieschi’s book.  By authenticity she does not mean an unvarnished image or consistent beliefs — the magic dust for all modern politicians — but a politics rooted in instinct rather than reason, ‘the politics of the gut’. It allows the populist to dismiss opponents as hypocrites and provides licence to speak one’s mind without limits, to be direct to the point of shamelessness. 

Fieschi combines conceptual analysis with real examples to chart the historic evolution of populism. Mr Le Pen was a prototype who began to write the populist manual with his use of the ‘calculated provocation’. ‘Lying as a demonstration of one’s irrepressibly authentic nature: what could be more sincere than that?’ Fieschi asks.

Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, she writes, pioneered ‘entrepreneurial’ but non-ideological populism. Anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo broke ground with his blog and web-based ‘democracy’. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard right League, is always available, always accessible, seemingly unstoppable. 

…. Her thesis is that digital technology has made us receptive to populism by exalting immediacy, simplicity and transparency. Without complexity, delay and frustration we do not pause for reflection.

I would add seven comments to that helpful summary.  ‘Populism’ does not just emerge as a result of a crisis, but…its logic is also to create a crisis.’  (Trump does this on a daily basis; shock jocks live off it.  In the old language, they are anti-social; and ‘social’ media encourages them to be anti-social.)   As well as being against elites, populists are against diversity or pluralism.  They relish their shamelessness.  (Just look at Berlusconi or Trump – or Bolsonaro’s promotion of his son.)  They look for simple answers and go heavily on scapegoats.  They have to face a quandary – how do you drain the swamp without becoming a part of it?  They are jealous and distrustful of experts.  And finally, the author does not disguise her opinion.

Yet populism’s reliance on disruption, on simplification, on a debased form of authenticity (that is shameless rather than genuine) means that it is inherently corrosive of politics….We are encouraged to leave expertise behind and embrace common sense, to deny complexity, to reject diversity and to choose the short cut of instinct – just as things are possibly more plural, more complex and more delicately balanced than ever before.

The book is very instructive – even for someone who gets unsettled by the term ‘political science.’

There is little that is new in the phenomenon.  Pisistratus was an early model in Athens and the Gracchi followed in Rome.   The great German historian Mommsen said of Caius Gracchus.  ‘On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.’  That is so ripe for most of the jerks discussed in this book.

Catherine Fieschi discusses the role of tabloids in England.  Here we have shock jocks who appeal to the same audience – with all the decency of sluts in white boots.  Complete ignorance is no barrier. Shock jocks will comment on a trial when they do not know the law and have not seen or heard the evidence.  Logic they have not. But they have plenty of front.  Hitler was the world champion of the betrayal conspiracy with the knife in the back of 1918, and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth face a different kind of quandary.  How can you sustain an Establishment, and a very rich and powerful one at that, on the basis of the life and teaching of a convicted tearaway whose mission it was to collapse the Establishment?

The key trait of the followers appears to me to be insecurity.  They cannot stand doubt.  They lack what Keats called negative capability

At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’  (Trump, yet again.)  This form of immaturity underlies their intolerance of people outside their tribe, and their blind tolerance of and trust for their leader.  Their sense of inferiority leads them to reject experts (unless they need one personally).  They get jumpy if you call them out, but if they are represented by those at Trump rallies chanting ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send her back’, they are as unpleasant as they are stupid.  They are nothing if not gullible.  Gulling them is as hard as taking candy from a baby.  They remind you of those simple minded investors whose greed allows them to be seduced by silly promises of wealth and forget the obvious – that risk rises with returns.  This insecurity, this felt lack of status, also underlies their jealous exclusivity about membership of the nation.  You can see all of this on show during the French Revolution, especially in the different ways that Robespierre and Marat manipulated the sansculottes.

The result is a kind of blindness and deafness among the faithful.  The followers do not see that their Messiah is not one of them.  As often as not, he is a paradigm example of the elite, who could not give a bugger about any of them and is there simply for himself.  They don’t even complain when the leader looks after his people at their cost.  I cannot resist citing Carlyle.

Think also if the private Sansculotte has not his difficulties in a time of dearth!…How the Poor Man continues living, and so seldom starves; by miracle!  Happily, in these days, he can enlist, and have himself shot by the Austrians, in an unusually satisfactory manner – for the Rights of Man.

Trump knows precisely how docile and stupid his followers are.  He expresses his contempt to their face.   ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’  Only God knows just how true that is.

There is something sordid about all these Pied Pipers.  The current tenant of Number 10 may have gone to Eton and Cambridge, but the mistress he is taking to Number 10 enjoys a relationship that has required the attention of the rozzers, and when he is not engaging in a domestic, he is spreading his seed in a way that may vex the editors at Debret.  Any democracy is at risk of succumbing to the lowest common denominator – not least when snake-oil salesmen – and they are all men – gull those with a chip on their shoulder with the aid of sponsored cowardice on social media.

Finally, at least in Australia, there is the added insult of people who applaud or defend populism claiming to be ‘conservative’- one of the most abused terms in our language.  Populists are a direct negation of conservatism.  They are out to destroy or disrupt, and not conserve.  The problem with using the term ‘conservative’ is highlighted by Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

conservatism  Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

It is not possible to apply either of those usages to the criteria of populism identified by Catherine Fieschi.  And, to the extent that any decent or useful meaning can be given to the label ‘libertarian’, the same goes for it.  And all that is without looking at courtesy, decency or integrity, or what Sir Lewis Namier called ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies.’  Restraint is as essential to conservatives as it is entirely absent from populists.  The spoiled child syndrome looms large in their chosen ones.  Sordid people are beyond restraint.

This book is a very good contribution.  It will be fun watching the boys from Eton and Cambridge hopping into the ‘elites’.  One objection to them is that while they can afford the cost of their disruption, most of those they lied to can’t.  Suckers of the world unite – you have everything to lose, including your brains.  And, sadly, there is one born every minute.