22 june 2011, camels, eyes and needles

The ten richest people on earth are worth some €200 billion - 60% of the income of the 700 million people of sub-saharan africa. Whilst 76.9% of statistics are made up, this one isn't, and it hammers home the depravity of the level of inequality in the world, which continues to rise. In an ever more open world though, a common market for the world's highest paid talent, this is a somewhat inevitable side effect. Clearly incomes at the bottom will never keep up, meaning the differentials will rise. The spirit level is a valiant attempt to show that societies with less inequality prosper more, a thesis that has surged across the world in all sorts of fields: here, in the marmot review; globally, even the uber-urban richard florida seems to be at it. We cannot though suspend our knowledge of the inevitable consequences that the forces of globalisation tend towards, nor take an overly optimistic view of how policy at any level can affect these forces. In a global market, without global governance, arbitrage is king. This profound change, the onset of which has been relatively rapid over the last 60 years, has changed every society it has touched, and will continue to do so, ever more quickly. Like the market itself, to embrace this hyper-charged version of free trade, with its effects both for good and ill, means you can't buck it; only understand, navigate and anticipate - if you're wise and lucky.

18 june 2011, in celebration of...

Politics needs characters, even if they usually comes with the straight talking that makes them look devious or ideological. None fit that description better than ken clarke and jean claude juncker, thrown together today in a typical juncker aside about how clarke saved the euro. My strongest memory of juncker is when he virtually wrestled with the other jean claude at a press conference over the title of "mr euro", a wonderful vignette about the struggle between what in a normal polity would be seen as an overmighty central bank and a feeble finance ministry. Trichet's trump card was pulling out a euro note and pointing the assembled press to his signature. Juncker's most common (mis)quote is about why prime ministers always duck the hard choices, "we all know what we need to do, but we don't know how to get elected again if we do it" he said, actually about drugs. His harsh realpolitik was at it again recently, on how politics can influence monetary policy (that being outlawed by the treaty), "monetary policy is a serious issue. We should discuss this in secret, in the eurogroup... I'm ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious.. I am for secret, dark debates". Ken is equally open. Like juncker a heavy smoker, he is no hypocrite, "I shan't lose my paunch. I like my relaxed lifestyle. I like food. Because of my relaxed lifestyle I haven't suffered from the stress my colleagues do. I seem able to outlast them all". He's also not afraid to stake out his view of the right thing, regardless of popular consequence. As well as being for the euro, he was against invading iraq, a "disastrous decision" that "made britain a more dangerous place". Displaying another admirable trait, he adapted his views as circumstances changed, later saying "it would be immoral to walk away from the consequences of our actions, leaving behind anarchy and civil war". These two oldies will soon disappear from the stage, but let's hope for equally colourful and honest politicians waiting in the wings.

12 june 2011, two decades later...

Seen from space (or washington), the european organisation that counts has always been nato rather than the eu: guns make louder bangs than butter. Which is why to this day the uk is still america's "essential" ally in the bloc rather than germany, with paris and ankara the other pivotal players. Brussels isn't. With the soviet union poised to invade western europe - and budapest 1956 and prague 1968 showed they meant business - long-term substantial american defence investment, through nato, was easily-justified. With that as an alibi, and germany constitutionally unable to re-arm anyway, the eu happily trod the alternative path of "soft power" (the big softie), deftly deploying trade, aid, culture, ideas and international law. However, europe's inability to pull its military weight has long grated across the atlantic, and although things move in this field at a pace of years not weeks, recent barbed comments highlight that opinion is turning. Washington's generosity, paying 75% of nato's expenses, has allowed nato operations to be fuzzy coalitions of the willing. Ironically libya, the very first non-us led nato operation, has seen others more willing to lead than ever, but has come just at a point where the only two big spenders, britain and france, are significantly downsizing their armed forces - and even before that, us hardware has been needed at every turn. Libya therefore may well be the first and last, as the point of nato from a us standpoint becomes a serious question. With no enemy over the border, rich allies that can't keep up with american spending, are hamstrung in its use anyway, and stubbornly continue to function in foreign policy as a series of separate and small nations, what's in it for washington ? The current us defence secretary talks of a "dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance". Two decades ago, with the end of the warsaw pact, I presumed nato would fold too, with the eu picking up european defence through the western european union. That process, begun with maastrict treaty in 1992, finally winds up on 30 june 2011. Then we may need to move on to nato...

8 june 2011, the rocky road has no short cuts

Good coverage of monthly "manchester monitor", which surfaced in the guardian, on the basis of the city's economy being rather crestfallen and unsure, with little to drive investment or confidence. This is grist to the mill of the "time for plan b" brigade, whose basic case is that too much cutting, too quickly is leading us back into recession. Too basic. Whilst there is no doubt that a consequence of fiscal contraction is the economy's inability to create a sustained recovery, it is not its cause. That goes back over a decade to global imbalances, the credit boom, the almighty bubbles it created, especially in property, and lax regulation that enabled financial engineering to ride roughshod over the long-term consequences of the volumes hyperdrive the markets got into. There was no-one there, admitted alan greenspan, to take away the punchbowl once the party got going. Now someone has. Had they not, the consequences of that would have been much worse than the dampening effect we are experiencing now and will likely experience for a long time to come, even with the softening at the edges we are likely to see, within the wriggle room "the plan" allows. This is more or less the imf's verdict in its highly-authoritative annual "article iv" analysis of the uk economy, which concludes that catastrophe has been averted and we are climbing the long, slow and rocky road to recovery. Fiscally, they are right; but monetary-wise not. Like many others they are far too blasé about the rise in inflation (12 april) and the risks of stagflation now becoming embedded, so trapping the economy on a path to a different but equally devastating medium-term scenario; huge food and energy rises today's fuel on the fire.

2 june 2011, trichet, awaaaaay

My favourite jurist as an english law student, was lord denning, who first made his mark as a junior judge in the "high trees" case, where he essentially invented the doctrine of promissory estoppel, a legal way to stop someone going back on a promise. His dictum (obiter) was not followed, but his intellectual prowess cast a light decades in the future, where it eventually became settled law. I often use high trees to justify coming to the right answer, even when I know it is unacceptable at the time. Someone has to lay out a path. Today, jean claude adopted the same tactic, setting out a bold vision of a single european ministry of finance. The ecb has long had a cogent critique of the weakness of emu's economic pillar, scorning the futility of surveillance and sanctions, and raising the question of what economic governance can possibly counterbalance a strong single central bank; but voicing a single finance ministry is a huge step forward. Walking off into the sunset of retirement, trichet obviously feels he has earned the right to take a small meander from his central role as dour central banker, and allow his creative passionate european side to wave to a future of a much more tightly-bound union, which in some way, shape or form, was always going to be needed to regulate the integrated financial sector we already almost have. The speech worked in one of my old division's favourite quotes. It humanises "institutions" not as remote technocrats but as rules of the common good that preserve values and guide actions by managing our interdependence and preparing collective decisions, though "nothing is possible without men and women, but nothing is lasting without institutions". Thanks jean monnet, and thanks to another great european, jean claude trichet.

1 june 2011, pieces of a man

Some men add up to more than their pieces; so it was with gil scott heron. I learnt much about music from my friends, but nothing stuck stronger than gil, who I think I've seen more times than any other singer. Impossible to categorise, harder to find, it was precious gil scott heron vinyl we were all searching for whenever there was a chance to duck into a record shop; hard to imagine now when everthing is just the click of a button away. Poet, author, rebel, philosopher, teacher, best known for his songs (buy the best on glory), above all he was a poet, which was perhaps why I've listened to him from my first hearing to today. You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip, skip out for beer during commercials, because the revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a germ on your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath. The revolution WILL put you in the driver's seat. The revolution will not be televised.

26 may 2011, mladić

The bosnian war was still raging when I first travelled to former yugoslavia; and it was not long ended when I visited the war crimes tribunal, state of the art in the long arm of international justice for the most terrible crimes. Slowly, the key perpetrators of the worst atrocities that are usual guts of war, have been brought to the hague's serene proceedings to have their actions dissected and exposed: milošević, karadžić and now mladić. The tribunal lit the way to the permanent criminal court and is the high watermark so far of the value and virtue of peace and justice through international law, and one of the most lasting achievements of the united nations. Mladić was not gunned down by special forces, but was captured and will be tried, sentenced and punished, exposing to all how actions taken today can be recreated tommorow, and exposing in the cruellest light what historically is usually buried with the corpses. There were perhaps 100,000 of those, in bosnia alone, in a war taking place barely 100 miles from where I lived at the time in budapest, in europe. Fire, murder, systematic rape, ethnic cleansing and massacre were norms of policy there, as sarajevo, a city for hundreds of years the epicentre of tolerance in the balkans was shelled to destruction. Shell the muslim neighbourhoods mladić told his commander, until the people are driven mad, bomb the presidency and the parliament, destroy the hospitals, snipe the children and the market place. By srebrenica, mladić had a militia that without hesitation could systematically empty a place of its male population, gun them down in their hundreds, pile their corpses high in vans and dump them in mass graves. Then, europe and the rest of the world just looked on, seeing nothing and doing less, the modern-day equivalent of elie wiesel's onlooker, who watched the courtyard of budapest's great synagogue fill and empty for days, "The hungarian police were very cruel but I don't remember their faces... the one face I completely remember was his... he stared out of the window expressionlessly. There was neither compassion nor joy, neither shock nor rage. He wasn't even interested in what was going on... He was neither murderer nor victim; he was only a bystander. He wanted to live in peace and quiet". It may be far too little, far too late, but if it saves one life by making one man person pause for thought about the consequences of their actions, then the last 20 years work at the tribunal were surely worth it.

25 may 2011, the 28th state of the union

I have many fond memories of croatia, and still friends there. When briefing on enlargement was part of my job I kept a close eye on its progression to accession (see so much further yet to march), hanging many a potentially tricky treaty revision on the changes that each new country triggers. Such was the inevitability of the enthusiastic croats joining, that when france changed its constitution to block any further enlargement without a referendum (later dropped), croatia was exempt. Years later, talks are dragging, with still only 30 of the 35 "chapters" of the acquis closed. Not so turkey, which started the negotiations on the same day: ankara has managed just one. Whilst croatia is on course to enter in 2013, turkey is still a lifetime away. Croatia though has recently been seized by a bout of anti eu sentiment, as the hague war crimes tribunal gave long prison terms to two hero generals, seen now as victims of the bosnian war (see from dayton to brussels). Tens of thousands took to the streets chanting "go away eu", and a poll showed 60% opposed. This will surely ebb though, as have many other problems. July looks increasingly like an end date for talks, although the vogue for closer inspection may lead to a monitoring period before the eu actually numbers 28. Not so turkey though, as unless the uk does eventually peel away to anchor a looser "outer core", the moment for turkey to join has surely passed and the question is really how to diplomatically wind down the process.

21 may 2011, after dsk

Though not yet in proven guilty of anything, dominique has left the imf, making choosing its next head a vital & immediate task. Though flawed in so many ways, the importance of the institution grew tremendously during dsk's time, from one dwindling into irrelevance into both intellectual anchor of the global economic crisis and saviour of the euro zone. This latter role turned europe from imf creditor to debtor: just its outstanding loans to greece and ireland now total more than its other 20 programmes combined; and it has just agreed another for portugal. This is a fundamental shift that has given a whole new aura to the challenge to us-eu dominance in the imf that was anyway building from the rest of the world. The decision on its head though is still going to be europe and america's, as despite several small shifts, they still hold the greatest quota (meaning votes), and the G7 a plurality. To date, europe has always used this to appoint, though never in such a polarised situation where the eu wants a european, and the rest of the non-us world a non-european. Washington, the largest single shareholder, is the swing vote. I would be amazed if it was not indeed a european that quickly emerges, and now that the best candidate (super mario) is headed to the ecb, la garde looks a strong favourite, the advantage of womanhood probably outweighing the disadvantage of being french. America though will extract a price for all this. As an optimist, I hope it will be rather more significant reform towards the imf better reflecting real global economic power, and, as votes come with a bill, reward china in return for weighing it down with rather more responsibility for the global economic architecture everyone needs to buy into if it is going to work better going forward.

11 may 2011, luck of the draw

One more quick election story, from bury, in a corner of which I was brought up. With 25 seats of the 51-seat council, the labour party were on the verge of an unlikely breakthrough in this previously conservative seat, and had polled very well in ramsbottom. After three recounts, the two leading candidates both had 1,822 votes, and so they drew straws (or actually cable ties). The labour candidate won, giving labour both the seat and the council, alongside seven others in greater manchester, including jim mcmahon in oldham, the youngest council leader in the uk. Last year in stockport, where I now live, there was also a tie, which was decided by the chief executive picking a voting slip. I am reminded of a chat with a good friend in frankfurt, who worked in the development part of the german government, going around young democracies with help and experience. His particular area was the annual budget, where he stressed the importance of explaining things in advance, being clear and transparent, and rolling things out in a regular cycle over the year and so forth - except for britain, for which he had huge admiration, "you just stick 1,001 surprises in an old briefcase and throw everything into one afternoon - but it seems to work".

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