Complacent Eno 22nd May 2009
Brian Eno’s vision of a resurgence in live music tours and festivals (May) is all very well, but it ignores those musicians who are too old or sick to tour—or are disinclined to because they have families. Even those who do tour incessantly don’t usually make enough for niceties like health insurance and have to run the risks of traffic accidents and having their gear stolen. These things may not be evident from behind the mixing desk at a U2 session, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Eno should get out into the fresh air more often and see how the other 90 per cent live. He’s far too valuable an artist and intellect to get this complacent.
Ed Ward Montpelier, France
Quantitative trouble 15th June 2009
I am flattered to be described as an “intellectual author” of quantitative easing, but very puzzled by Jonathan Ford’s other comments (June) on my position in the economic policy debate.
In late 2008 British officialdom was in a dreadful muddle about how to conduct macroeconomic policy and wrongly focused on bank lending to the private sector. In my pamphlet for the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation on how to stop the recession (February 2009), I argued that the answer was to increase the quantity of money, thereby easing the corporate cash squeeze and ending the downward pressures on demand. In similar circumstances in late 1992 and 1993 I recommended much the same approach, although it was then labelled “under-funding” rather than quantitative easing.
The answer to deflation is to raise the rate of money growth, just as the answer to inflation is to reduce the rate of money growth. To call me a “hair-shirted monetarist” is silliness. Ford might as well refer to Keynes in the same terms. In the closing pages of his Treatise on Money (1930), Keynes prescribed monetary policy—large-scale asset purchases by central banks—as the last possible option to halt a collapse that we now know as the great depression. In their monetary effects, quantitative easing, under-funding and monetary policy come to much the same thing. They are all ways of ensuring that the quantity of money continues to grow, even if the private sector is repaying its bank borrowings.
Tim Congdon Chief Executive, International Monetary Research
Food porkies 11th June 2009
Vivienne Parry (June) calls the view that industrial farming is bad and traditional farming good “simplistic.” It’s certainly simple—and a good rule of thumb. Almost every food-related health scare of recent years (both silly and serious) can be traced back to the industry’s attempts to produce food as cheaply and quickly as possible, This is most often done by placing large numbers of animals in small spaces and feeding them the cheapest protein possible. Heavy use of both prophylactic and palliative pharmaceuticals is key to the intensive system. And so we’ve had revelations about dioxins in Irish pork in 2008, salmonella in factory chicken, numerous worries over the intensive farming of fish and of course the BSE disaster, which just about closed down British beef farming. Then there are well-founded fears over the effect on human health of the use of antibiotics to stop disease in these desperately-crowded meat production facilities. And “swine flu”? Parry dismisses notions that the virus may have been born in part in industrial pig farms in the US. Clearly the link hasn’t been proved, but the chief molecular virologist at the Atlanta Centre for Disease Control has stated that unusual variants of the HN viruses have emanated from American pig farms. It seems fair to raise an eyebrow.
Parry might do better to address her scorn not at worrying foodies, but at the retailers who continue to force down farmgate prices in the cause of “value.” Until we pay a sensible amount for meat and eggs, animals will be kept in nasty and inhumane conditions with proven risks for human health. The “scrupulous husbandry” Parry hopefully prescribes is just too expensive for a public that expects bacon at £7 a kilo.
Alex Renton Edinburgh
Getting dumber? 1 9th June 2009
Donald Hirsch’s analysis of English exam standards (June) is excellent. Policy on exams is complex and confused because the underlying technical concepts are difficult and the purposes of exams are far from clear. Is our aim to recognise and reward students’ achievement, or to help the gatekeepers discriminate between potential entrants to university and employment? The debate rarely gets the attention it deserves.
Politicians and the media invest too much significance in the minor fluctuations of national pass rates. Schools and teachers are branded as failures if they do not hit targets that take no account of the context in which they are operating. To question the claim that exam grades have been consistent over time is to question the reputations of successive governments, because the maintenance of exam standards has been a mantra of public policy ever since the 1980s.
It’s also a problem that the public has come to believe that exams since the second world war—like the Royal Family and John Major’s warm beer—are part of what makes us English. The historic continuity is hard to resist: a mere pass at GCSE is now regarded by ministers as a failure; success requires five “good” GCSEs (at grades A to C) including English and maths, a profile which is strikingly similar to the O-levels of my generation or the pre-war “matric” that my father was pleased to achieve. One of the strengths of Mike Tomlinson’s 2004 proposals for 14-19 diplomas was that these would have been the only show in town, enabling a new currency to develop without preconceptions. Alas, this was not to be. The forces of conservatism have prevailed to preserve the traditional exams for our children while allowing ministers to develop the new diplomas for other people’s children.
Rob Hull Former director, Department for Education and Skills
Getting dumber? 2 4th June 2009
The potential impact of the decline of educational standards on society as a whole is much more serious than many commentators, including Hirsch, acknowledge. A generation has grown up largely untrained in self-reliance, intellectual self-discipline, self-examination and critical thought; and when those without such training reach critical mass, they will start demanding from their government what they got all the way through education: an easy life. This is something that, especially in the current economic climate, the government will not be able to guarantee, and it is reasonable to be concerned about where people will turn instead for the easy answers to which they feel they have a right. Of all the lessons we ask education to convey, two of the fundamental ones should be that life is not always easy, and that we demand the best of ourselves.
Francis Turton Newmarket
A £20bn folly 11th June 2009
Anatol Lieven (June) says that the purpose of British aircraft carriers is “mystifying,” because the US has far more of them, and who would Britain wish to fight independently of the US? The same questions should be asked of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. It is not independent. The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is under the control of US companies. British Trident missiles are hardly distinguishable from US ones, and so could not be used without explicit US sanction. In any such scenario, US interests would be engaged anyway through Nato. Why duplicate capabilities at a cost of £20bn—a folly five times as expensive as the planned aircraft carriers?
The savings made from scrapping our nuclear weapons would, among other things, enable a huge increase in the size of British special and constabulary forces, and much-needed upgrades of equipment for the stretched military. The other benefits are too numerous to mention. Otherwise, our ways and means of waging war will be disconnected from the political aims that they ought to serve.
Shashank Joshi East Finchley, London
British museum 29th May 2009
Kenneth Baker (June) cannot be more wrong in trumpeting the idea of a museum of British history. With people so inclined to look to history for identity building, conflicts that should have quickly died out get indefinitely perpetuated. Rather than teaching us to avoid past mistakes, history tends to encourage us to repeat them.
In the increasingly multi-rooted society of today, descendants of past aggressors are interacting with descendants of past victims. Stressing these events puts our future hostage to our past. A project for a better common future would be much more unifying and productive than monuments to bygone carnage.
Andrei Timoshenko Jouy-en-Josas, France
Kindness pays 30th May 2009
To Maggie Gee’s fine article on kindness (June) I would add one more perspective. Christians often used to say that suffering ennobles you. It achieves wonders for one’s sympathies as well. I possessed only a partial empathy with the handicapped until I broke a limb; now, the sight of a person on crutches elicits a surge of concern. Sickness is a great aid to compassion for the unwell. And a period of poverty is a corrective to the arrogance of wealth, as the credit crunch has taught us. Nietzche said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” It makes me a lot kinder too.
Robert Fraser Faculty of English, Open University