November 23, 2008
A self-chastisement
9th October 2008

Dear Sirs—I wish to attack myself for something I wrote in the October issue. Towards the end of my short essay on David Foster Wallace, I took a wild swipe out of nowhere at James Wood, one of the finest literary critics of the age. To explain, but not excuse: I was upset and angered by Wallace's unhappy and premature death. At such times, we strike out blindly.

My attack was also partly the result of extreme overcompression, as I tried to jam about a book's worth of ideas into the single page available. (In modest, 1/16 scale homage to Wallace's famously jammed, crammed, gargantuan essays.) Thus a long, nuanced sequence of subtle, gossamer-delicate thoughts on the subject of critic and author, worthy of late-period Henry James, got reduced to a blow from a brick in a sock.

Though I do disagree with some of James Wood's notions, I don't disagree nearly as strongly as was implied in my rude and unfair sentence. On rereading it, I am appalled. I take it back, and I would like to apologise to Mr Wood for kicking him in the knee from behind.

Julian Gough

Nobel error
29th September 2008

Andrew Rosenheim ( October) baldly states that Chicago University is associated with more Nobel laureates than any other university in the world. Not so fast!

According to Wikipedia, Cambridge tops the list. I might add that while Chicago has a lot of economics laureates, the "The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel" is not actually a Nobel prize.

Toby Poynder
London W11

Seeing red
9th October 2008

Michael Hanlon ( Letters, October) points out that my brief account of why animals cannot have rights (September) seems to also preclude those rights to those humans who cannot uphold them. Such "marginal humans," as the philosopher of animal rights Tom Regan chillingly calls them, do indeed add another layer of complexity to the argument.

But if one follows Regan and attributes rights to any "subject-of-a-life" we end in absurdity. One feature of any system of rights is that those rights must be universally applied—so, just as the right to life imposes on me the responsibility to try to prevent a lion from devouring Hanlon, the extension of such rights to animals would impose on me a similar duty with regards to a buffalo I came across in the wild, just as much as it would a cow I kept on a farm.

Clearly, then, the ethical imperatives that constrain us with regards to animals (in our stewardship or otherwise) simply cannot be of this form.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
London W11

Hamlet without the prince
25th September 2008

Jonathan Ford's article ( October) was good as far as it went. But it was a bit like Hamlet without the prince. What made the Japanese deleveraging so slow and so painful in the 1990s was Tokyo's failure to offset the negative macroeconomic effects of the financial crisis with a large and sustained programme of fiscal stimulus.

The US, I fear, risks following the same path. The country certainly has massive opportunities for increased federal spending in many areas which could have a rapid counter-cyclical effect. This could involve extending and enhancing unemployment compensation, increasing grants to the states to avoid them needing to cut spending in the face of falling tax revenues, and boosts in social security payments to poor senior citizens hurt by rising fuel and food prices. There are also major long-term infrastructure, energy conservation and environmental needs which could be addressed.

However, despite the glowing achievements of a few academics, economists and policymakers, understanding of fiscal policy has regressed substantially over the last 45 years, and anti-Keynesian shibboleths inhibit rational political discussion.

James Arrowsmith
Via the Prospect blog

Don't forget food
1st October 2008

We were delighted to see that the October edition of the magazine included a manufacturing supplement. Your timing could not have been better: just as the financial markets were going into meltdown, your supplement put some much needed focus on an important, yet all too often overlooked, component of the economy—one that is providing real stability in these very uncertain times.

However, your report glossed over the role played by the biggest component of British manufacturing: the food and drink sector, which employs some 470,000 people. Our sector has the best record on labour productivity in manufacturing, and has maintained high levels of investment in R&D over the past 10 years. In 2007, £11.5bn worth of our products were sold overseas.

What all sectors of manufacturing have in common is the image problem highlighted in your supplement. Changing perceptions of manufacturing so that we can attract the best talent available will be vital to our future success.

Julian Hunt
Food and Drink Federation

On liberty
29th August 2008

Edward Skidelsky ( September) suggests that liberals have no means to criticise or evaluate objectionable behaviour that does not violate the rights of others, such as participating in Big Brother. The programme, he says, "brings out the worst in everyone. Yet from a liberal standpoint, there is nothing to be said against it," because those involved harm no one but themselves. To support this view of liberalism, he quotes John Stuart Mill as saying that no one "is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it."

Yet, if Skidelsky had read the fourth paragraph from the fourth chapter of On Liberty, from which this quote is taken, he would see that Mill's reference to "saying to another" implies the use of coercive means, and that Mill begins by cautioning against the very misrepresentation that Skidelsky attempts to pin upon him.

Mill's liberalism does not degrade the virtues, neither does he suggest that we cannot criticise crass behaviour; Mill merely objects to coercing anyone into the "increased exercise of their higher faculties."

Does Skidelsky want such coercion? He seems to happily evade this question, but unless he is interested in state intervention against reality television, he has wasted four pages of your magazine on bayoneting a straw man.

Andreas Mogensen
Jesus College, Oxford

Taken for granted
22nd September 2008

May we hope, post-credit crunch, to read fewer remarks such as Hugh Williamson's ( September), that German left-wingers remember Steinmeier's role as "co-author of Schröder's economic reforms package—one that still sticks in the throat of SDP members, who dream of those comfortable days last century when globalisation hadn't been invented."

It may have become received wisdom that anti-globalisation measures advocated by the German left would reduce collective welfare (however measured). It is several steps beyond that to imply, as Williamson does, that such measures are incapable of implementation, or deserve only derision.

Chris Dunabin
London N5

African solutions
10th October 2008

If a brilliant mind such as Paul Collier's ( Prospect online, October) can conclude that because of what happened in the Zimbabwean elections this year, "African presidents have learned how to get re-elected without the need for good governance," then we still have a long way to go before people stop assuming that the entire continent of Africa is only one country.

Collier's article also highlights the continuing double standards applied to African politics. When the ANC, the predominant political party in South Africa, wins an election with an overwhelming majority, that is considered fine. But when an equally predominant party in Angola, the MPLA, stands to win in the 2009 presidential elections then, in Paul Collier's words, "we can expect the opposition to be allowed to gain around 40 per cent of the vote for the sake of good appearances." Unless one actually believes that nothing good ever comes out of Africa, why prejudge the conduct of an election that is still months away?

Finally, "African solutions to African problems" is not a self-serving slogan. It is the only sustainable way to deal with African issues. Those "courageous Africans" Paul Collier talks of will indeed need, and deserve, external support—but it has to be support that allows them to implement African solutions, not those imposed from outside.

Ombeni Sefue
via the Prospect blog

Ungrateful alum
23rd September 2008

Philip Delves Broughton ( September) comes across as a most ungrateful alum. Did he offer the Harvard administration constructive advice on the weaknesses he perceives, before grabbing headlines criticising them? I suspect many of the points he makes can be levelled at all (or almost all) of the top US business schools, not just Harvard.

That Americans comprise just 20 per cent of the MBA student body at London Business School, whose class includes students from 70 countries, and where there is no dominant nationality or culture (indeed 90 per cent of students are not from Britain), suggests that many students who want a world-class global business education know that it's hard to beat London.

Donald Kirkwood
London Business School