Friday, December 10, 2010

The last cry of the middle class

A bit homesick and longing for some London footage I have been avidly following the student protests over the news.

Am I the only one noticing how everyone interviewed on camera seems to have a suspiciously plummy accent? Even allowing for the fact that the most articulated and educated protesters are the one most likely to get interviewed and that maybe some journalists are worried of approaching less polished ones still they seemed the only one they could get their hands on. I don't know if I should make allowance for this because on the other hand it would be a good scoop for a journalist to get on camera a barely comprehensible student from East Ham.

My point is the same that I have been making for a while, the ones that are going to lose from all this are the middle classes (in the English sense, i.e. the relatively well off) not the poor they claim to speak for. That class of people (perfectly described in Millenium People by Ballard) that is squeezed between the poor and the people (nowadays made mainly of bankers and Russians) who can send their kids to a good public school without thinking twice about the cost. The people who send their kids to University because it is the thing to do, but who take for granted that it should be free because otherwise it would be a considerable expense.

The poor's situation is different. No one seems to realize (or state openly) that the real cost of a University education to someone who does not consider it as the natural thing to do is not only the tuition fees (and the living expenses) but the missed income one would get from being employed. Someone taking the conscious decision (in this situation) to get a degree will not be put off by a further tuition fee. I can hear "but it is an enormous amount!". I hope that you know what I mean. If you are someone who considers University as a natural part of your life completely severed from any financial calculations, obviously 9000 pounds seem a lot, if you are someone who made a cool headed decision to treat a degree as an investment with a clear business plan, then 9000 it will be just a different cost.

I always like to compare the rage of the middle classes over tuition fees to my own rage over air travel. 25 years ago one could travel economy and arrive 40 mins before departure with only one or two people at the check in; one could find Boeing 747 with barely 20 people in coach cabin (when is the last time you had even only one empty seat next to you?). One could travel in economy (leaving aside the guilt about pollution and waste) with some of the comfort one can only find in business now. Not being able to afford business class when I travel on my own, I feel angry at the world, at low cost airlines that have pushed everyone to cut costs, at the yobs that now scoot around Europe when in the past they would have at most traveled by bus to Ibiza and in general at how things have changed. Basically I expect something without having to pay for it. Just like the middle classes expect to get a university education without having to pay for it.

Another image from The road past Mandalay by John Masters. He was in the 30s a British officer coming from a long line of Indian British officers. Not wealthy but considering a certain position in the world as a given (like the present day protesters): on his way back from American, he is short of cash and on the boat he cannot buy first class tickets, settling for second class. On the first evening without thinking twice he is entering the first class bar when the doorman stops him. John Masters looks at him shocked, I am a British officer, of course I should be allowed to enter, my ticket type should not matter. Unfortunately it was an American ship, where things work differently ...

As The Economist said a while ago, these elections will signal the end of the era of the free stuff and contrary to popular belief it will not be the poorest to suffer the most.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The exceptionally incredible

I followed a link from Lexington's notebook which brought me to the Daily Dish. Very interesting, if sad.

As far as the incident itself I thought when I heard it the first time that Obama was being not only very tactful, but extremely mature. Finally someone who speaks like a grown up. Andrew Sullivan's post is as usual very well written, what I find a bit upsetting is that he focuses too much on proving Obama's detractors wrong rather than showing what, by putting America's exceptional nature in perspective, a mature answer he gave.

My main point is however the shock at this paragraph from Jonah Goldberg

This reminded me of the wonderful scene in Pixar's "The Incredibles," in which the mom says "everyone's special" and her son replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

I am amazed. If we think carefully, as an example we are seeing brought to the table a (pseudo-)similar situation involving superheroes (animated ones to top it off). I cannot help feeling this is only the most explicit manifestation of a nation of little boys saying, superheroes exist, superheroes exist and there is one supernation and it's us. No wonder Obama's maturity is a bit lost on them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Don't ask don't tell" is a problem only because Americans chose to turn it into one

Americans don't do subtle. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve for Americans applies to everything, everything has to be worn on the outside, including your religion, your private life and people think your are weird if you don't. When Tony Blair was asked why he would not talk more about his faith he replied "I don't want people to think I am a nutter." This very British approach would be lost on Americans. If you are religious you have to tell everyone, if you breastfeed you have to do it in the middle of a crowded restaurant so that everyone knows, if you don't drink or smoke you have to lecture everyone about it. This brings us to gays in the army.

I always thought "Don't ask don't tell" was an intelligent and pragmatic solution to a thorny issue. You don't judge my private life, I don't rub it in your face. Let us be realistic, soldiers are not among the most enlightened people around, there is a very strong chance that quite a few of them are homophobic. Is our goal really to reeducate a whole class of people which are already doing a difficult job, on the benefits of progress and a liberal mind?

One might argue this is unacceptable, society has to move forward, one should not condone intolerance and bigotry. The argument would continue saying that otherwise one would say that desegregation should not have happened since the feelings of Southern whites might have been hurt. It is different, segregation applied to a person's entire life, we are not advocating "Don't ask don't tell" as a blanket policy everywhere, only in very specific circumstances of a very specific and unique job, a job that affects a tiny percentage of the population.

I see a similarity in saying, I have the right to walk in the most dangerous part of town in the middle of the night, dressed in bright yellow with 100 dollar bills pinned on my jacket and come out safely. Considering this statement ridiculous does it mean that we condone crime? Certainly not, we just say that one has to be realistic. The state does its bit by trying to protect normal citizens going around their business, the citizen does his bit by not being stupid with the above request. "Don't ask don't tell" was a way of being pragmatic and a reminder of how Clinton could be a great politician.

Leaving all reasoning aside, I have another feeling. Advocates of the ban talk about "The right of men and women to serve their country .... ". My feeling is that gay men and women who really want to serve their country they do it keeping their private life private, advocates of the ban are just troublemakers who want to make a statement. I am always doubtful of decisions made with an argument that at the end boils down to "Why not?".

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The bitter after taste of the Kerviel affair

Behind the ferocity with which the French population treated the women who had slept with Germans after the war, one could see the frustration of men who wished had done something but instead cowardly stayed on the side.

I cannot but see something similar in the sad affair of Jerome Kerviel. First of all the punishment. What does it mean to make him pay the entire sum he lost, reducing him to a life of bankruptcy? It really looks like the shortsighted thinking of the housewife "he lost (stole) all this money and he has to pay it back". It does not work like that. If one accepts a certain system (and the French broadly speaking they do) one accepts that Jerome Kerviel was not playing with his own money and yes, even if he lost it, he has not to pay it back from his own pocket. A reckless container ship captain will be punished but will never be made to pay for the replacement of the container ship he lost.

I hate what the Italians call "dietrologia" (more or a less a penchant for conspiracy theories) but I wholly agree that someone else must have know and kept quiet when things were going well. It is unbelievable that he was made to bear the brunt of the punishment all by himself. Where is the officer spirit? A superior should always be punished and it is this responsibility that should justify a superior's role, authority and rewards. Nowhere this is better expressed than in the support the troops offer to their major in the Bridge over the River Kwai. There was only finger pointing where there should have been hand wringing. The pointing was done in only one direction.

And finally something else which is only a feeling, but I feel it strongly. BNP and SocGen are outstanding institutions and world class players. Having said that they are no Goldman or Morgan Stanley, when the going was good they played second fiddle to the American giants which means that rewards and compensation were dished out accordingly. Was everyone balancing this with the supposedly warmer working environment (of which I am not even sure) of a European bank? I doubt, there must have been some resentment. It seems to me that the punishment of Jerome Kerviel is a way of venting this frustration. Shaving a woman's head is easier than shooting a German.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Immigration, the bully and the nerd

I strongly suggest viewing this lecture from Bryan Caplan and I suggest, although it is a bit long, to view it in full.

After watching it I had the same reaction I had when I finished Caplan's book "The myth of the rational voter": excitement and sadness. Excitement that someone had finally written in a clear and brilliant way things I had thought and felt, sadness that the outcome will be absolutely useless. In a way it is the direction America is moving towards: we tend to gravitate towards people and publications (even areas, isn't there a neighborhood of Ron Paul supporters?) we have almost everything in common and we become mutually incomprehensible with the rest.

I found the lecture very witty and I enjoyed it enormously, but being an arrogant and condescending person myself, it took me a while to realize that the tone sometimes was a bit too much. We all (all of us?) agree that NY and North Dakota are not really on the same cultural plane, but is there a need to sneer saying this? I wished that the lecture had been given in a tone to convince the "others" not to rally people who more or less already share your views.

There is something more I got out of it and I will have a go at a bit of pop psychology. More than once Caplan attacks high school drop outs and more than once (or maybe just once) he mentions the high school bully. One cannot help thinking hearing this that the whole lecture, the whole being smart, Caplan's whole position in life is one big revenge against the high school bully. What I said about the arrogant/condescending bit I say it here as well, I fully understand and share. I used to love that scene in Broadcast News when during the flashback into William Hurt's character's past, he tells the school bully, I'll show you one day, of something along the lines. I understand, but are the people that need to be convinced of Caplan's ideas about immigration going to be so understanding? I doubt. Caplan says, jokingly, that his role is to stand outside society and judge, he might be right, he is not a politician after all, but it is sad that such great ideas cannot be put to more constructive use.