Embroideries is a comic by by Marjane Satrapi, best known for "Persepolis".
A collection of Iranian women tell each other gossipy stories.
Pretty good, the artwork looks deceptively crude but is good with character, and some of the stories are fun.
What I'm Reading 2
Red Tory by Phillip Blond.
Pretty awful but apparently important book, since Phillip Blond is usually described as "David Cameron's guru", and has an apparent influence on the party leaders.
The book basically falls into three parts. The first part describes the alleged breakdown of British society in apocalyptic, tabloid-columnist terms. The second part describes how this breakdown apparently happened. The third part proposes some solutions.
I found the first two-thirds book quite heart-sinking to read. One problem is that he likes to casually introduce a vast range of different ideas from different fields, which he tries to stitch together into a overarching grand theory; but he doesn't seem to understand them very well. Almost every idea seems to be misunderstood or misrepresented in some way. Because they're quite subtle, it would take a volume about four times the length of the actual book to comprehensively debunk everything.
For example, here's what he says about the philosopher John Rawls.
Individuality cuts away from human relationships and inherited traditions demand that, in order to preserve this extreme sense of identity, all individuals must be exactly like each other: this is exactly why John Rawls imagined that one could only construct a model for a liberal society by imagining a "veil of ignorance" in which no one knows what identity or social role they would occupy in any actual social arrangement.This isn't really what Rawls actually thought. Rawls thought that total equality was unworkable: we need some degree of inequality. The idea of the veil of ignorance was to help us work out the best level of inequality. We should imagine that before we're born, we don't know what life we're going to lead: maybe a supermarket shelf-stacker, maybe a neurosurgeon or rock star. From behind that veil of ignorance we would probably want to aim for a society that rewards us if we're lucky, but still gives us some security if we're unlucky.
If that was a one-off , it wouldn't be a problem, but Blond persistently misunderstands other things in ways that are time-consuming to explain.
So, people who aren't familiar with his wide range of references seem to be coming away from this book with the impression that it's a vast work of synthetic genius, combining many fields of politics, sociology, culture, philosophy and economics into a grand theory of society. In fact it's a confused farrago of semi-understood bullshit. It's quite disturbing that David Cameron and others in power seem to have taken the first view.
The first part of the book describes a broken Britain of alcoholism, an out-of-control underclass, broken homes, rampaging crime, economic weakness and oppressive government surveillance. Some of the problems Blond describes are actually real: in particular the assault on civil liberties. Some are exaggerated.
The second part looks for the causes of this in a "nihilistic liberalism", a mysterious, powerful, evil force that has been systematically ruining everything from the Eighteenth Century onwards. Blond shares G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc's romanticized vision of the middle ages as a Utopian society of stout village yeoman. It was the enlightenment that started turning all this sour, but things got steadily worse. Marx, Kant and Thatcher are all equally representative of this Nihilistic Liberalism.
Blond is also very fond of Chesterton's heavy use of paradoxes, and constantly introduces "paradoxes" of his own. These are generally used to combine things are are apparently opposites or strongly opposed into the malevolent straw man of "nihilistic liberalism".
So, you might think it's a bit odd that both Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher actually represent the exact same thing: "nihilistic liberalism", and naively think that any damage they did came from very different ideologies. Blond's trick, borrowed from Chesterton, is to smugly declare that this is a paradox, silly, and of course they're the same. "Paradox" is used as a magic word to excuse incoherent arguments.
It's not really a paradox to say Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher are same: it's just wrong. But Blond constantly uses the word "paradox" to try to give the impression that complete incoherence is actually a grand and subtle universal theory.
The main theme of the book is that as Jonathan Raban's review puts it "the liberal state is destined to become a tyranny precisely because it values individual rights too highly. " Therefore, to get more true liberty, we need less liberty. This, in Blond's eyes, is a paradox. But I think it's not a paradox, it's just wrong. Our problems have complex causes, not just "nihilistic liberalism" and require complex solutions
Bizarrely, he attributes changes in British society after the first world war not to the vast loss of life, the economic impact of the huge cost of the war, the social changes as women were assigned into the factories and then expelled back to the home; but to the Bloomsbury Group and "disillusioned members of the elite".
The last third of the book, where Blond proposes solutions, is fortunately much less irritating to read. Blond borrows Robert Putnam's thesis from "Bowling Alone" that modern society suffers from the lack of intermediate "social organizations" (clubs, churches, local political parties, community groups) and wants to strengthen them.
He's generally fairly vague about how this can be done, but does offer a few specific suggestions: mutualizing the post office, somehow "encouraging" more co-ops.
One problem with this is that since Blond's vision of how the decline of social organizations has happened isn't convincing, neither are his solutions. It seems to me that mass media and suburbanization are more likely culprits than the malevolent influence of the Bloomsbury Group. People find if more appealing to watch TV than go out to their local community group. So it's hard to see a huge resurgence from a few mild tax incentives.
Another problem is that these social organizations aren't necessarily as wonderful as they're painted: they can be vehicles for prejudice or corruption. For instance Phillip Blond's recent minor scandal where he turned out to be raiding the finances of his own social organization, the think tank ResPublica, to fund a lavish personal lifestyle. Blond talks repeatedly about virtue: a culture of virtue, a politics of virtue. But small, private organizations can encourage a culture of corruption rather than a culture of virtue.
A third problem is that the kind of small-scale co-op production that Phillip Blond likes isn't necessarily competitive against large-scale capitalist production. Blond airily waves aside economies of scale, but co-ops exist, have existed, and are being created; but don't seem to be able to out-compete large-scale capitalism. It seems to me if we want co-ops instead of corporations, we will have to radically change the tax system to give co-ops an advantage, and probably accept that the goods we buy will become more expensive.
Overall then, a pretty awful book. For a serious debunking, Jonathan Raban's LRB review is well worth a read.
I wrote a quick G+ post on the Greek situation. Main point: the Euro deal already includes a 50% default and a generous subsidy, if I were Greek I'd take it.
A disorderly default and Euro-exit would be a nightmare for Greece. Every day right now, the Greek governments spends more money than it takes in taxes. If they do a disorderly default, it means they instantly can't pay their public sector wages and pensions. They'll have to shut down large functions of the state. If the banks are allowed to open, there would be an instant bank run on every bank as everyone stampedes to convert their soon-to-be-worthless New Drachma savings to Euros. If the banks are shut, it's going to be a problem for many to just buy food for the week.
For the next year or two, it would be very difficult to live or do business in Greece. Would anyone have confidence in the New Drachma? Would any business be able to get credit for investment or to buy raw materials or to maintain a hotel in the off-season? Would there be hyperinflation?
I think there are some misleading ideas about easy solutions around. China isn't going to ride to the rescue: with a GDP of $5.9 trillion as opposed to the EU's $16 trillion it's too small, and doesn't have the self-interest incentive of the EU.
Greece isn't Argentina: Argentina didn't have the problem of a huge government spending deficit making it reliant on borrowing to run the state. Argentina didn't have an EU offering it a bailout. And even Argentina's default wasn't total: the defaulted-on bonds were paid back at about 30%. An Argentina-style unilateral default for Greece wouldn't cut their total debt by much more than the EU deal, and would hurt them a lot more because of their spending deficit.
So all the people yelling "Yay Greece, fight the evil Eurocrats!" remind me a bit of people yelling "Jump! Jump!" at a guy standing on a ledge. OK, you're entitled to your opinion, but it's not your body that's going to get splattered.
Economics. Problems of offshoring. How to do a sovereign default. Should we believe the German labour-market miracle? Market panic does not reflect the real economy. 2001 was peak of material consumption in UK: proof that economy can grow without increasing material consumption?
Pics. Tsunami cleanup.
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