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24 march 2012, bank on it

I often correct people who think that I worked in a bank, that actually I worked in a central bank. Even more different is the world bank, whose new president looks like being jim yong kim, a south korean born american academic, and an astute pick by obama. Of the bretton woods twins, I have a very much closer association with the imf. However, it's actually the world bank I have probably been more interested in, from my period at the united nations and my ongoing interest in development and human rights, which has in these last years taken a back seat to my family and my work. Whilst it is the imf that has the main role to play in squaring the macroeconomic circle, it is the world bank that needs to pick up the human pieces of poverty, inequality and recession, which is what makes the asian health specialist a sensible shift. There is no shortage of work for the "bank" to do: two in five females are aborted due to preference for a son, a sixth of girls die in early childhood, more than a third of women die in their reproductive period and 4 million a year go missing. 10, 000 staff cover more than 124 countries, so this is no small outfit, and a hugely important one in the world of development, providing the link as it does to money and global governance. The bretton woods institutions were founded to rebuild the shattered world of 1945, to ensure international economic cooperation so that the eventual results of the depression, fascism and war, did not come about again. The design, mainly of british economist john maynard keynes (to plan b or not to b), has proved a durable one. In today's circumstances, it still has a big job to do.

17 march 2012, ice to have

Although pretty much every week in the local press, I am not so often in the economist, the last time but one being about iceland. I used the bankrupt european outpost as an allegory to the uk to wax lyrical about the inevitability of it losing its own currency and eventually joining the euro (ditching the krona - is sterling next ?). Now, it looks that while the first of those presumptions may hold true, the second may not, as so bad is the euro's reputation at the moment, iceland may instead adopt the canadian dollar. This is not quite as mad as it seems (and indeed mirrors a newt gingrich proposal for the uk to join nafta) because trade flows exist, and the loonie can be unilaterally adopted, unlike the euro where iceland would first have to join the eu, with its despised-in-iceland common fisheries policy. Things will come to a head early next year with a referendum on eu membership. I am usually an optimist on such things, but although I think the eu's long term future is safe and indeed strong, it is clearly not looking quite so to many at the moment - and the euro, its strongest element and the big draw for iceland - looks weak. Thus, it may well be outweighed by the generational national survival issue of fish. As I doubt it though, perhaps it will happen...

10 march 2012, here we go again

In 1996, while I was living there, israel assassinated yechiel 'the bombmaker' ayyash in gaza. It was supposedly in retaliation for his work developing palestinian suicide bombings. Of course as night follows day it led to a whole new spate of such bombs, several of which I was caught up with on the streets of tel aviv. Israelis do panic and pandemonium in a pretty orderly way, and looking back now it's amazing how quickly you learn to live with the fact that the bus you're about to get on might well explode. I recall one friend on such a bus. 30-odd people were killed, but as he was sat at the back, he walked away with cuts and bruises - and an exemption from his army service. Still today though, words like extradition and due process aren't quite translated accurately into hebrew. Ayyash was tracked and killed when his friend was tricked into giving him a mobile phone, which promptly exploded. No such ingenuity with the assassination of zohair al-qaisi yesterday. And the palestinians don't have the means to carry out suicide attacks these days, resorting instead to sporadic rocket fire. This inevitably brings israeli retaliation, and so the whole cycle gets going again, until someone pretends to try and get the peace process going again. This will never happen until israel comes to terms with the need to speak to those it thinks are its enemies, primarily today hamas. You don't need to make peace with your friends. There's no sign whatsoever of that happening though, nor of anyone making them do so. That the agenda of the israeli prime minister's recent visit to washington was dominated by iran was a triumph. Notably absent was any pressure to move anything forward on "the palestinian track". They are in a more hopeless situation now than they were then, as is any occasional optimism (8 september 2011, 30 april 2011)

7 march 2012, any which wei

With excuses for a rare lapse into the day job, but we were everywhere yesterday. Amongst other things I was having afternoon tea in the house of lords with lord nat wei, but meanwhile our economic advisory panel were putting the finishing touches to a greater manchester "growth plan", that the chair, jim o'neill (14 january 2010), was talking about on bbc radio 4's "pm" programme (21:30). It's being launched next week with a good quorum of ministers in attendance led by danny alexander. Meanwhile, over in the south of france, our high-powered delegation were wooing global developers and investors at the legendary "mipim" propertyfest, well covered in the press, especially the "appliance of science" material based on graphene, already well covered, including in the times. Our monthly economic dashboard was also widely covered locally. We published an excellent study, and best of all that helped manchester get blanket coverage in the financial times, no mean feat. Got home late but feeling very upbeat about these things.

Attached File: Times_graphene.pdf

4 march 2012, euthymol-ient

As a family, we have conservative tastes in toothpaste. My other half, who has a homeopathic side, eventually found a perfect one for our kids, when they were young in germany, and so when we left we brought a year's supply with us. We picked up the same when travelling there a year later, giving us the excellent tale to tell of travelling to germany to shop for toothpaste; rather spoilt when we found it in a health shop in bramhall a few miles down the road. A year later though, crunch time, and failed internet shopping coupled with the acceptance that by now we should probably be using fluoride, helped bring in a second choice but accepted alternative, to be found at the local supermarket. I was frequently heard saying that my grandpa (23 january 2012) cleaned his teeth with a bit of salt and they were perfect until the day he died; that though was before everything that passes our lips had sugar in it. The adult half of the family are not picky at all. However, in the search for an acceptable youngster alternative, I did at one point buy euthymol, attracted by the beautiful art nouveau styling of its packaging, and its promise of distinctive flavour. That it was, resembling nothing more than germolene, another quirky english product my other half hates. However, I rather liked it. That helped with the imperative to practice what I preach, and not simply throw it away. Instead, I am determined to finish it, using it only in the mornings, moments before I leave for work. Though just a tiny boost to my conscience, and a smaller one to our household finances, I'll take these positives anywhere I can get them. It's worth it.

25 february 2012, melting aspic

Cyprus is just about to take on its first eu presidency. Well, two-thirds of the island is, as, across barbed wire, the rest lies outside the union. It is, depending on your point of view, either a legitimate state seeking unification, or under turkish occupation. It is a complicated issue, and one where the eu has not covered itself in glory, as one of the protagonists, greece (5 november 2011), is in, whilst the other, turkey (23 november 2011), though a noisy nato member, is out. The eu blew its best of chance of solving the problem by failing (with a greek gun to its head on the whole enlargement) to exert any leverage with the accession of the south in 2004, regardless of its attitude to a fair united nations brokered deal put to a referendum, which the south duly rejected. With the north not recognised by the union, nor the south by turkey, it has become a bone in the latter's accession negotiations, although that more represents a useful alibi for those that want to block turkey anyway. Feeling rather bad, the eu has a "special development programme" for the north, including (normal for pre-accession countries) financial aid, and also measures to increase movement across the "green line": trade across the border has consequently risen fivefold in the that time. A slight parallel is east germany (the gdr), which, with unification, became, in 1990, the first warsaw pact country to join the eu. In this case the one thing (co-operation) leading to the other (merger) took place within a very short space of time and in the very different circumstance of the big country sponsor (the soviet union) collapsing; but that the one would lead to the other was far from certain and indeed actively opposed by many for a significant time. Over a vastly longer timeframe, the eu's hopes of pulling off the same trick may yet bear fruit.

22 february 2012, brave, or stupid

Brave, though my other half doesn't agree. The deaths of a noted journalist and photographer in syria, join a long roll call of journalists "killed in action". Unlike most of the victims though, marie and remi chose to be there, running the risk for the sake of journalism, activism or glory. The same could be said though, to varying degrees of soldiers, the red cross and even many civilians who stay put in war zones through a combination of ignorance, stubbornness, conviction or fear of alternative places to go. Journalists though are surely a class apart. Marie had already lost an eye from being in a part of sri lanka journalists were banned from, where she reported on an unfolding tragedy, bearing witness to the world. Years before in east timor she did more than that, refusing to join other journalists leaving an indonesian-surrounded compound, her presence and the pictures she beamed to the world being widely credited with saving the lives of 1, 500 people. Others had left homs too over the last days, after being warned that the makeshift press centre, an obvious target, was about to be destroyed. She stayed, perhaps hoping again its output would afford the people around it some safety. This time though, it was not to be and she joins the thousands of syrians killed over the last months. She will get far more attention than any of them, through her bravery or stupidity, and it can only be hoped that the renewed spotlight it will bring on the mass killing taking place speeds its end.

18 february 2012, baron has left the building

With my time helping run trafford's hospitals at an end, I have now joined the board of a new venture, bridgewater. The difference about this particular nhs hospital trust, is that it has no hospitals - it is a "community" trust. Basically, we try to do what it says on the tin: improving health and wellbeing in the various populations we serve. In passing, this kind of care (with a big dollop of generalisation) is safer, as hospitals are the place patients are most likely to contract illness, more popular, as people generally want treating at home or close to it and cheaper, as it has much less expensive fixed costs. The latter is key in a world where the health service needs to save twenty billion pounds even before any actual cuts come through. The key is providing services away from a hospital setting where it is possible to do so, reducing hospital stays, and, upstream, increasing prevention and self care, including through telehealth, which the trust is actually doing not just talking about. It is also better orientated to be patient-centric rather than service-centric, so more amenable to innovations coming down the track like personal budgets. It's all a big new challenge for me, the sort of thing I thrive on, and hopefully cutting edge in a brave new world.

16 february 2012, the other noam

A thoughtful piece from noam chomsky, who we sort of named our second son after. He bemoans the wilful lack of any remembrance of the beginning of the vietnam war, and quickly arrives at chomsky's favourite theme of american power and its abuse, which is never apparent because in chomsky's phrase, only the weak and defeated are called to account for their crimes. That is a better formulation that the victor writing history, because that is not of course how america finished up, either in vietnam or, as chomsky moves easily to, iraq. The scale of that defeat, which chomsky sees as deeper than generally perceived, presages the flood of headlines about whether america is over. This not new: several years ago I wrote that america's unipolar moment was brief and long gone and this was the era of the move from america being sufficiently hegemonistic to veto action by others to a dramatic waning of its power to when as now it no longer only needs others' passive acquiescence but in fact their active support in order to do anything on the global stage. Chomsky sees this as feeding paranoia, this "apocalyptic vision reflects the familiar ruling-class perception that anything short of total control amounts to total disaster." He moves effortlessly on to palestine, of course, and to global warming and china. You don't have to agree with him, but it's always a thought provoking pleasure to read.

4 february 2012, china, china, china

Two inciteful economist articles tip their hat to the weight of evidence emerging that china, which we can read as shorthand for the growth (nee emerging) markets, is finally "decoupling" from the west's stuttering economies (1 january 2012), driven finally, by domestic growth. Even as its growth continued exponentially (by 9.2.%, meaning its economy has grown by 60% since 2008), china's net exports fell in 2011. Both public and private domestic consumption is on the rise, accounting now for about half china's growth. Yet, its housing boom slowed markedly, with prices falling in 52 of the largest 70 cities - a positive sign that consumer growth is not just a property bubble. Even more eye-catching, china's foreign reserves have fallen too, though that is yet to establish itself as a trend. There is no sign yet that china's trade deficit with america, the most pointed source of conflict between the superpowers, is ebbing; but the second article reflects shifting thinking in the validity of traditional calculations, using the ipad (I have one; I love it) as an example of something that appears to contribute mightily to those numbers, masses of the things being made in china and imported to the us. However, china itself imports large parts of that value, so whilst it accounts for $4bn of the reported trade deficit, a better estimate may be a piffling $150m. In terms of who gets the profit as a whole, the lion's share goes to american shareholders and workers, followed by south koreans, with chinese getting only some 2%. Meanwhile, the economist has bowed to the inevitable and last week started a whole new china section, joining america and britain (the magazine's base) as the only single countries to have such an honour; although I have frequently argued that europe (the state we're in) comes close...

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