Tag Archives: #George Bush

What Erasmus can teach us about our political leaders.

Recently a visitor to my house, scoffed when he saw that I had been reading a book on stoicism. Stoicism was to him a philosophy of a dead past, which was of no relevance today. Actually the books of the past can have a lot to teach us about contemporary society. Human behaviour and motivations amongst the great and powerful change little.

Erasmus despaired about the behaviour of the petty princelings that ruled the various cities of renaissance Italy. What particularly angered him was the damage wrought on their cities by these vainglorious princes and dukes seeking to achieve fame through war. Inevitably these wars turned out badly for their cities, even if they won there was the huge cost in wealth squandered and lives lost. He correctly identified this lust for fame in the ‘great men’ of his time, as the main cause of suffering amongst the peoples of renaissance Italy. This lust for fame is still a powerful motivator amongst our politicians. Although it is not a recent example Theodore Roosevelt*, regretted that he was unable to lead the USA in some Great War. War for him was the supreme test of a statesman’s leadership skills.

War gives politicians the chance to demonstrate their virility, it shows them to be one of that elite band, those who change the destiny of nations. This lust for war was so evident in the Presidency of George Bush. Even before the Iraq war his advisors were writing articles or giving interviews in which they stated that they were eager to demonstrate the superiority of the new American military technology. While Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided just such an opportunity, it also provided an illustration of that old proverb that nobody wins a war. Iraq and the Middle East ever since has been involved in the turmoil of constant warfare, costing the US more men and resources than did the initial invasion.

Living in a country much diminished through historical mishaps our leading politicians have little opportunity to express their masculinity through war. Our military is so reduced in strength that our prospects of waging war without the help of a powerful ally are almost impossible. In the age of globalisation there is no longer the prospect of invading some weak and easy to beat enemy. They all have powerful friends who would intervene to protect their trading interests in that country. Although it was never acknowledged Britain could only wage war in the Falklands against Argentina with the permission of the USA.

Consequently our glory seeking politicians have to find a new enemy to beat. These enemies must fulfil two requirements, they must be internal so having no powerful foreign allies who could intervene on their behalf and offer the prospect of easy victories. One such internal enemy is provided by the state education system. Decades of vilification by the right wing press have convinced many that state schooling is nothing but a system of institutionalised failure. Any reform announced by an education minister will garner instant applause, as an overdue reform of a system that is failing our children. More importantly teachers and children can offer little effective opposition. Teachers organisations are too weak to resist any changes imposed by the minister. Children of course, do as they are told. Through portraying themselves as takers on of the enemy within, these politicians can achieve the fleeting glory of being tomorrow’s newspaper headline.

What these politicians really want is a foreign enemy to beat. Such an enemy can rouse the xenophobic instincts of that part of the population that distrusts anything foreign. These are the people for whom Europe is holiday destination offering sun and beaches, but nothing more. Our lusting for glory politicians have for decades waged a war of words against that enemy of Britishness, the European Union. Now they have succeeded and Britain is no leaving the European Union. They have won their easy victory. However even this war of words and policies proves the truth of the saying that all are losers hen it comes to war. They like the Italian Renaissance Princes have through their victory cost their country much. Slowly it is being recognised what damage this brutal rupture with our greatest trading partner will cause to the economy and wealth of the British peoples. Already the government is stockpiling medicines and asking food companies to do the same with food in preparation for a disastrous exit from the EU. Such is there lust for glory and a place in the history books, they ignore any evidence contrary to there beliefs. It does not matter how often businesses tell government that they don’t have the facilities to stockpile food, the government’s response is that because they have told business to stockpile food they have done all that’s needed to offset a bad Brexit. As one despairing businessman said, this lot could not run a fish and chip shop.

One myth to which these politicians refer is Britain’s glorious history, it’s standing alone against the Nazi enemy and its saving Europe from itself. However these politicians don’t realise that the war exposed the incompetencies of the governing upper middle classes. The discredit they incurred from the disasters of Dunkirk and Singapore* led to there loss of power in the post war election and the election of a majority socialist government. Now these same people are in words of a former leading politician leading the country into ‘an act of self harm’.

What Erasmus teaches us through his writings that all to often the wrong people achieve supreme power. Glory seekers who to achieve there place in the sun and doing so wreak immense harm on society in an attempt to fulfil there ambitions. His book ‘The Adages’ is full of warnings against letting such people achieve supreme power. Once this book was regarded as an indispensable read for statesmen, now it is largely neglected. Perhaps if it was still widely read our political classes would realise the dangers of having leaders who possess little more than a narcissistic sense of self belief. The political education of our leaders seem sadly lacking, as in both Anglo Saxon democracies the political classes are in thrall to narcissistic politicians.

*US President 1901-1909

*Media producers collaborate in the perpetuation of this myth. There are endless films about the miracle of Dunkirk, but none about the ignominy that was Singapore. The British commander General Percival managed the defence so incompetently that his army of 85,000 men was rapidly overwhelmed by a smaller Japanese force of 30,000 men. After this disaster many said that never again should such men (public school educated and of the upper middle classes) run the country. Now such men are again in charge and leading the country and demonstrating that as a class they have learnt nothing since 1942.

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Bad Economics and bad politicians, why the West is heading for yet another financial crisis

When I read any accounts of the debates conducted by the Republican candidates for the role of President, I am filled with despair. They all demonstrate astounding degrees of economic illiteracy, a tendency all too common demonstrated by politicians this side of the Atlantic ocean. The only economic topic deemed worthy of debate here is how to reduce the government debt. Economic illiteracy rules out the obvious solutions such as reversing the trend to reduce the tax take from the super rich and business corporations, as one conservative politician said increasing tax on the rich is immortal. Instead in one of the richest countries in the world there are constantly circulating in the media stories about how this poor country cannot afford to provide for the welfare of its citizens.

Economic illiteracy also prevents politicians in Britain discussing the more serious deficits that is those of the private sector and the banking sector, which are x2 and x5 greater than the government deficit. Only a self denying ordinance based on nonsensical theories about economics could possibly explain this strange politics.

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Ronald Regan image taken from the internet

America provides a good example of nonsense economics. Before George Bush Snr. was chosen as Vice President by Ronald Regan he described his economics as ‘voodoo economics’. What Ronald Regan was proposing was to cut federal taxes, spending on environmental and welfare programmes while increasing spending on defence and military aid to friendly states. Ronald Regan also said while doing these he would cut the government deficit. What his advisors had failed to understand was that defence spending was one of the great sources of ‘pork barrel’ politics. Many Congressmen and Senators had large defence industries in their states and what they wanted was massively increased spending on defence. The voodoo or nonsense was that while they paid lip service to cutting government spending, they constantly voted for the opposite. Under the presidency of Ronald Regan the government deficit spiralled upwards and none of the constant hand wringing over the problem did any good. It was not until the Presidency of Bill Clinton and the introduction of more economically literate policies that the budget deficit declined.

It is a truism but economic good sense is always rejected by politicians if it goes against their long held prejudices. Unfortunately British politics as with American politics is dominated by nonsense economics. One of the most common foolish prejudices is that if its not hurting its not working. This is a very selective hurting as the hurt about which British politicians enthuse is the hurt that they inflict on the poor and those on middle incomes. Great efforts are made to ensure the pain is not registered by the better off, who benefit from tax handouts or tax cuts to protect their income.

Hubris a neglected economic concept

While some economics is nonsense there are significant truths in the body of economics that politicians ignore at their peril. The temptation for any politician is to rewrite economics according to their own prejudices and personal beliefs. They can achieve this because the economy has constantly grown since the beginning of the century (apart from a few downs) and they can claim that this growth is a result of their policies. It is extremely hard to disprove such claims as the economy is such a vast complex mechanism and it is extremely difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Once in an economics seminar I and my fellow students argued for over an hour whether or not it was possible to identify the effects of a particular economic policy as by the time it began to take effect the economy had changed and it could not be known to what extent the improvement in the economy could be down to a particular policy measure or a change in the economy. The smartest of politicians took advantage of this uncertainty to rewrite economics according to their own personal preferences, as it was extremely hard to produce evidence to prove or disprove their theory. They were aided by a certain complacent belief amongst economists that the economy was self sustaining and that even the worst of economic policies would only have a small negative impact on the economy. In addition there is the Lysenko factor, that is many economists are only to willing to rewrite their economics in deference to the wishes of their employers, as that the way to preferment and prestigious academic positions.

Once politicians realised economics could be bent and reshaped according to their own personal whim, they began to treat economists as propagandists and not advisors. Economists became a servant of their political masters to be used and abused as they pleased. Whatever the failings of particular economists they are nothing as compared to that of the politicians. The arrogance of politicians is such that they are unaware of the dangers of the policies they practise. The classical Greeks had a word for this hubris, that is when ambition led men to overreach themselves. Greek tragedies featured a hero in conflict with his fate and often the Gods. In tragedy of Orestes it is foretold that Orestes will kill his father and marry his mother, yet in spite of this he continues on his path to his tragic fate, when after realising that he has killed his father and married his mother he is despair puts out his eyes. In the UK we have a number of Orestes that manage our public affairs, who as with him are blind to their fate, despite the warnings of economic soothsayers blindly commit themselves to a policy that will lead their nation into disaster. If they cared to look beyond the hermetically sealed world of Westminster they might realise that there are dangers out there of which they are ignorant.

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The chorus from Orestia

Recently I read that the British government pledged £1.2 trillion of monies to support the banks in the crisis of 2008/9. The significance of that figure is that it was almost the same in total as the country’s national income. In other words the government was willing to pledge the whole of the nation’s income to bail out its banks. Fortunately the bank creditors were sufficiently satisfied with this pledge not to demand it be honoured, it is very unlikely this pledge won’t be cashed in during the next crisis. Our politicians being supremely self confident don’t realise that they have put in place a process that will lead to the destitution of the UK.

The cause of the next disaster will be the over extended British and Western European banks. At the root of this crisis is what is termed Fiat money, money that is no more than a promise to pay. Our banks can create money by making an entry in their computer records and the only limit to their powers of credit creation or money making is what they think is reasonable. What the banks believe is reasonable is what others may term unreasonable. In 2008 the banks backed their loans or bank money with cash reserves of 2% so for every £100 of bank money they created they only had £2. In the event of a crisis the banks quickly ran out of money to pay their customers who wanted their money back and a run on the banks and a collapse of the world financial system was only avoided by the prompt intervention of governments.

Our arrogant political class has learnt nothing from the crisis of 2008/9 and foolishly believe that by manipulating the money supply and interest rates they have beaten one crisis and have the tools to beat the next. Only the foolishly arrogant could believe this as all indicators show the economies of the West are desperately weak. Interest rates (that charged by the Bank of England on loans to banks) for example cannot be increased from there historically low levels of 0.5%, without fear of that increase sparking a major recession. The complacent politicians have even encouraged the governor of the Bank of England to announce that they see no reason why our ‘financially sound’ banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to total x9 our national income (GDP). Those assets will largely be loans or bank money, which has no value other than that given to it by the banks. Already with the slow down in China there is evidence that the new recession is starting, given the arrogant blindness of our political leaders they will be helpless to prevent a rapid spiralling downwards of economic activity as they have not the policy tools at hand to prevent it.

Can I finish this essay with another metaphor, that of the ship of fools. This was a popular subject for art in the medieval world and these pictures showed a boat crewed by all the political leaders of the time, kings, great lords and Popes, often this ship was shown heading to disaster on the rocks pictured in the background of the painting. The current ship of fools is driving Western society on to the rocks of yet another economic disaster and it is their arrogance that prevents them from seeing that their world is being put in peril from there foolish misdirections.

Why politicians would benefit from reading fairy tales

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Folk tales and fairy stories with their black and white characterisation for example the evil step mother and the virtuous, noble and abused step daughter are characterised as stories only for children. Their tales of good and evil are seen as being far too simplistic for adult reading. This is a misreading as the fairy tales we tell our children are but sanitised versions of the original folk tales. In the original story the step sisters cut off parts of their feet so as to fit their feet into the glass slipper. What is not understood is that folk tales are but attempts to explain the malevolent world in which our peasant ancestors lived. Fairies were not seen as good but as spirits that had to appeased as angering them could result in misadventure. When the Church insisted this was a good world created by God, how could the misfortune that people suffered be understood except by understanding there must be a lower level of supernatural beings who were responsible for the evil men suffered. What our peasant ancestors saw was that they lived in a world in which good and evil co-existed, not so simple but realistic.

This simple world view is in contrast to the sophisticated society of today. Rather than the simple black and white world view, it a world view of greys, varying from the darkest of greys (bad) to the palest of greys (good) and between these two there are a whole series of different shades of grey. However bad is not totally excluded, but bad only applies to those people, the psychopaths who operate outside the normal range of behaviours. When morality is seen from the perspective of the political and dominant social classes there is an incredible fluidity to moral concepts, particularly when the politeriat who govern Britain is considered. This merging of good and bad can be seen in the concept of the just war. Killing is bad except when its undertaken as part of a just war. St. Augustine defined the concept when he cited the conditions under which a soldier could kill to defend his country. Others such as Thomas Aquinas further refined this concept. While there was justice in fighting the Second World War to remove Hitler the concept becomes stretched to breaking point with the Iraq war. Our leaders invented the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed to the West to make the war just. One bad example does not made a moral principle bad, however the concept is open to misinterpretation or abuse, as political leaders are always tempted to give it a meaning that suits them. Government’s never fight bad wars only just wars.

Goodness takes on an incredible diversity of meanings when used by politicians. Good for them is the greater good, a good which only they understand. Only they can make the greater good a reality. The austerity programme the UK government imposed on society is for the good of all. It will like the medieval practice of bleeding purge society of ills. All very reminiscent of Stalin, who regularly sent thousands to the death camps, for the good of Russian society. Killing thousands of Ukrainian farmers led to starvation and the death of millions. Britain’s austerity programme has impoverished millions and the spread of poverty level wages has reduced demand and slowed the recovery from recession. When political leaders define good or the greater good it rapidly loses any moral content and all kind of evils can result from this. The Iraq war was intended to achieve two goods, the removal of weapons of mass destruction that threatened the West and the freeing of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator. Instead of it being a being it good action the reverse happened. Thousands were killed in a bloody civil war consequent on the invasion and now the country is threatened with a new civil war, one against an extremist Sunni militia.

Perhaps if George Bush and Tony Blair had a sounder understanding of morality than they displayed at the time, they would not have committed themselves to the folly of the Iraq war. Politicians have long given up reading Christian moralists such as Erasmus, but if they had not, they might have come across his article entitled ‘War is sweet to those who have never tried it’. Nothing is new, ambitious princes have always through the folly of war damaged the health and welfare of their peoples.

There is a danger in our contemporary society of having leaders lacking any fixed moral reference points. If good is a flexible thing only given the meaning that the leaders and political class give it, there is nothing to stop them committing inhumane experiments of their people. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot murdered millions in the name of their self proclaimed goods. On the same spectrum but at the other end our politician practice inhumane experiments on us. Austerity is perhaps the worse, although there are plenty of other examples. Children in Britain have had to endure endless experiments with their schooling experiments of varying degrees of cruelty. Education ministers impose diktat after diktat on our schools which seem destined to introduce the spirit of Gradgrind into our schools. Schools are becoming akin to Victorian factories with child labourers repeating a series of unending mundane tasks. Experimentation is not limited only to our children but also to the sick, the disabled and the young unemployed, all the major political parties seem to be engaged in a competition to produce the most inhumane policies towards these groups. When any real understanding of the good is lacking, cruel and inhumane policies will result not so much from a sense of cruelty but an inability to see people as other than things, just another resource. Possibly the bear pit that is Prime Minister’s Question Time is the best representation of the callous unfeeling nature of our politicians.

Not recognising or understanding good is only one part of the problem, the other is the failure to acknowledge the bad. Children understand that out there are bad people, be they evil fairies, step mothers, dwarves or trolls. Politicians having no conception of bad fail to recognise bad people. The evil financial wizards who managed to make billions disappear were never recognised for what they were, in fact many of them were rewarded with titles from the government. Similarly politicians never recognise the evil trolls, dwarves and queens that populate the market. There are many bad landlords who charge exorbitant rents for unfit housing, yet politicians don’t recognise that there can be bad landlords and that only government regulation can resolve this problem. When reforms of the private rental market are suggested, a chorus of ministers, politicians and journalist cry it is impossible. They claim that any regulation would make the market worse, claiming that regulation would force landlords to withdraw from the market. Conveniently ignoring that those self same landlords have borrowed vast sums to buy their rental properties and it would be suicidal not to let them. The free market for them is an unalloyed good in which their can be no bad or evil. Bad landlords are not a problem that the market can’t resolve.A child from their knowledge of fairy tales would recognise really do exist, while politicians with a moral free sensibility cannot.

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There has always been a clash between doing what is expedient in politics and what is principled. However what is unique in the present parliament is the lack of great principled individual politicians, our current parliament is a moral free zone. All the great reforms of the past have been driven by outstanding principled leaders. Lord Shaftesbury a Christian politician was the driving force behind the ending of child labour in the factories and Non-conformist Christian politicians such as Keir Hardie, Lloyd George and Aneurian Bevan were largely responsible for the creation of the welfare system, which their moral free successors are in the process of hastily dismantling.

It would be naive to claim that the politics practised in the past was much superior to today, but then unlike today there were moral giants who could drive through measures of social reform. One has to ask why is our parliament populated by a generation of moral pygmies? Perhaps an answer can be seen in the education of our predecessors. Not so much academic education as their education in values in the wider community. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were evangelical Christians, Lloyd George and Aneurian Bevan were Non-Conformists and it was their Christian education that gave them a fierce attachment to a compassionate value system. Interestingly Lloyd George was as venal in many respects as our contemporary politicians, a womanising politician who willing sold political office; yet he was redeemed by a greater moral vision. What is lacking in contemporary society is the moral counterweight that the churches in the past provided to unbridled self interest. The great universities educate politicians in the practicalities of government, usually in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Contemporary philosophy courses teach scepticism, politics courses the art of vote winning and economics the management of society, skills needed for the second rate political Machiavelli’s. As an economist I tend to single out economics for the greatest part of the blame, it is the great leveller, a subject in which everything is reduced to a material benefit or cost, much like Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything but is ignorant of the value of anything. Economics I believe has a tendency to shrink people’s moral vision. Particularly as current Neo-Liberal economics teaches that the economy is best left untouched by government intervention and that it is the unregulated free market that will deliver the goodies that people want, be it a home or high quality medical care.

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What is moral in a government that values the interests of the drinks industry above that of the health of the community. Successive governments be they Labour or Conservative have facilitated the expansion of the drinks industry by easing the licensing laws. Our more principled ancestors (Non-Conformist politicians) recognised the evils of too free a consumption of alcohol and introduced licensing laws. Neo-Liberal economics teaches that the greatest freedom is the freedom of the individual to consume what they please. The costs to the health service of alcohol abuse, the increase of the number of babies damaged through alcohol fetal syndrome and alcohol induced violence count as nought against the individuals right to self abuse.

The present cannot be remodelled according to the ground rules of the past societies. It is not possible to reinstate the church as a powerful institution in society and it is probably not desirable. There are too many examples from the past of the church abusing its powerful position, not least with the burning of heretics. One answer is to demote the inhuman human sciences from their dominant position in the political and public dialogue. Plato does for me provide a way forward, he said that whoever knows good desires nothing else. What he meant by this was that the study of the nature of good has the potential transforms the human personality. (Such a brief statement does not do justice to the complexity of Plato’s thought, to do it justice would require a lengthy exposition.) Only Christians take the study of good seriously, university ethics courses teach students that good is an unknowable concept and at worst an emotion. I guess contemporary philosophers would be unsuitable to the teaching of good and probably only theologians could teach it without self mockery. What I desire is a reordering of the university syllabus particularly for the great and good in the elite universities. Obviously I am not naive enough to think this teaching would modify the behaviour of the great and the good that enjoy the ‘frat boy’ life style at university, but it might produce a new Lord Shaftesbury to be a moral counter weight to the moral free sheep that populate our politics.