Tag Archives: #UKIP

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.

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I am a person not a shopper

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Shopping is unfortunately the prism through which the government now views the people. People have one fundamental right and that is to be consumers. What matters is not that the government should provide high quality public services, but to provide a choice of service providers. Changes in education and health are intended to present the consumer with an array of services from different providers so they can choose the service that most meets their needs. Economists are responsible for this nonsense. Having advised governments that choice and competition are the mechanisms best fitted to provide good public service, they forgot to mention that economy theory states that this market mechanism only works if consumers have perfect knowledge. When buying vegetables it is possible to judge what is the best potato but the same cannot apply purchasing medical services. How can I know what is the best possible medical care for what may be life threatening illnesses or even know what illness effects me? When given the choice of five medical providers for my eye surgery, I had no idea which to choose. I lacked the knowledge to be able to choose the best provider. What I did was ask the optician which were the best. All she could say was that a previous patient had been a doctor and he choose this one, and in my ignorance I copied the example of the doctor.

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How did this become the accepted public policy? Baby boomers are blamed for many things unfairly, but the economists and politicians of this generation are to blame for this policy nonsense. As a member of this generation I can give an insight into this malaise. The sixties generation are often described incorrectly as the generation of ‘free love’, sexual and social liberation. What is less often acknowledged is that this is the generation that gave up on serious thought. It was not so much that this generation became obsessed with the new sensual delights of drugs and rock and roll, but their dropping of old difficult belief systems in favour of a new simpler techo-scientific belief system. A system that would deliver ‘real’ solutions to the problems facing the world. Unrealistic and unworldly ideologies such as socialism which never delivered on their impossible promises were replaced by a belief in a hard edged social realism. A dogmatic belief system called Neo-Liberalism, as one politician said it is the only game in town.

This hard edged belief system was one disseminated downwards from the social and intellectual elite. The intellectual elite schooled the new and up and coming political elite and the mass media disseminated it into wider society. Usually by highlighting the horrors of the old ways, ‘the winter of discontent’ and by simultaneously giving over column inches to the gurus and prophets of the new politics.

I as a student in London University witnessed the early stages of this new inhumane ideology. The economics professors were teaching that the dominant humane system of social democracy was wrong it gave people an unrealistic expectation of what the state could do. Two of our professors expounded the then shocking view that unemployment was too low and must increase if the economy was to grow. Yet they were part of the generation that lived through the Great Depression.

Unknown to us at the time was that the new theory of cost benefit analysis as taught then would prove a useful tool for destroying social democracy. It would replace the more subtle and complex ethical thinking of the past with the crude simplicities of technical analysis. All the benefits of living in a civilised society are difficult to price, because they are all too often the intangible benefits of the mind. Yet just as real as the material benefits. How can the deleterious effects of the noise nuisance caused by a third runway at Heathrow airport be priced? Only by indulging in a series of thought experiments can such harmful experiences be priced and by any reckoning such reasoning lacks any really sound underpinning in the reality of people’s lives. It is much easier to calculate the benefits in terms of increased passenger flights and cargo deliveries. They can easily be priced and the value of increased air traffic is calculated on a much sounder basis than the cash cost of noise pollution, so it is hardly a surprise that cost benefit analysis usually turns out to favour the proposed development. The benefits of a good life cannot be priced, they can only be part of a moral calculus. Fortunately for the developer cost benefit analysis avoids any such difficult problems.

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What was disseminated outwards from the universities was the new culture of ‘not thinking’. Calculation would replace open debate, values were dismissed as distractions that prevented a realistic assessment of the issues. Ostrogorki would shudder to think to his study how the Conservative party of the 19th century used various tricks to manipulate the popular prejudice to win elections would lead change they nature of politics teaching. Political philosophy would be replaced by the study of the means of manipulating the popular vote. The science of calculation would replace the discussion of values. Values other than those as an embodied in an ideology to get out the vote were to be regarded as an irrelevance. Politics became nothing more than the study of the mechanics of politics. As a significant number of the dominant politicians studied PPE at an elite university, it left them ill prepared for the great debates than dominate contemporary politics.

There is a danger of over stating the influence of the ‘new intellectuals’ in shaping the nations thought. Higher education has to a large extent in the UK been part of the interlocking system of social elites that govern this country, educating the members of the new political elites. The new science of ‘realism’ suited the needs of the social elite who felt their interests had been ignored and disregarded by the social democratic settlement of the post war period. A teaching of humanities that regarded calculation as the supreme virtue suited their interests as any course such as philosophy that embodied a teaching of values would expose them as a privileged elite whose position lacked any moral justification. Isaiah Berlin the great political philosopher once wrote that there could be no such thing as a right wing philosophy. No moral virtue attaches to the abuse of power and privilege.

It was no coincidence that when this group achieved overwhelming political power with the conservative governments of the 1980’s they ordered a purge of the universities, the thinking departments were to be closed. Philosophy departments shut in many universities and the liberal arts were starved of resources so as to reinforce their new second class status. Instead the humanities were to be replaced with the new ‘non thinking’ subject, business studies. A subject in which students are to be taught to do business, not to think. It is no surprise that students are beginning to rebel against the dullness and enforcement conformity of thinking that characterises British universities.

North Korea is mocked for the peculiarities of the most authoritarian of systems that cannot tolerate even the most innocuous of dissent. Even to the extent of limiting its barbers to a few approved types of hair styles. What its leaders should instead do is copy the example of the UK, the country of ‘not thinking’. People are not forced to become model citizens of the people’s republic, but have been taught to express themselves as shoppers. A much more complex interplay of forces have made the non critical culture the popular culture. Great cultural events have now become little more than festivals of shopping.

This is demonstrated by the two so called insurgent parties in the USA and the UK, where the dissent or insurgency is more confected than real. UKIP the insurgency party is funded by a millionaire, its leader is a former investment banker, one of the new privileged elite. Its policies are those intended to protect the interests of the privileged elite. The withdrawal from Europe is really a wish to withdraw from the EU regulations that control business, such as the working hours directive. Limiting immigration is a popular policy but immigration has become less necessary for business as the organised labour has been effectively destroyed and employers can now treat the indigenous population as badly as it likes so there is less need for cheap easily exploited foreign labour. Other policy measures such as the introduction of a 10% flat rate of income tax and the privatisation of the NHS are contrary to public interest. What can demonstrate more clearly a ‘non thinking’ culture than one in which the popular party is the one that has absolutely no interest in the welfare of the people, who it claims to represent.