News & curiosities

May 19, 2006
Lind and the Israel lobby

Congratulations to Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, two distinguished American political scientists, for their Harvard paper on the disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby on American foreign policy—part of which appeared in a recent London Review of Books. They were only four years behind a very similar piece in Prospect by Michael Lind. The amount of grief you get for writing about this sensitive subject, even in a calm and responsible way, does not seem to have declined over the past four years. Both men are getting hammered in public and private—perhaps some kind of confirmation of the thesis. Mearsheimer told Lind four years ago that he was foolhardy to venture into this minefield. He may be wishing he followed his own advice.

Universities go metric

One provision of Gordon Brown's March budget went almost unnoticed. The chancellor announced that the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE)—the mammoth project which determines university funding by scrutinising and rating the research output of every single university department in the country—would be the last and that a working group has been set up to devise a successor to it.
Since its introduction in 1986, the RAE has divided the academic world. Some vice-chancellors have made use of the leverage it gives them to clear dead wood out of their departments, but social scientists and humanists have argued that it privileges natural science research over their own by treating a scientific research paper with ten authors as equivalent to a sole-authored 300-page book.
The government says it plans to move towards a simpler "metrics-based" system, based on measurable outcomes rather than subjective assessments of research. But some fear this could make the natural science bias even worse, as "measurable outcomes" tend to be clearer and, in the case of grants from research councils (which are distinct from the RAE), often bigger than those in the arts and humanities. One model of metrics-based assessment placed LSE, regarded as one of Britain's top institutions, in a mid-table position—a result that some say shows the absurdity of using a metrics system to assess social science institutions.

Arrivederci Euro? E possibile

Will Italy leave the euro? The Economist, in its pre-election admonition to Italians to turn out the rascal Berlusconi, declared the idea a "fantasy." In London in March, Luigi Spaventa, the budget minister in the first Prodi government, said, "It cannot happen, it would be a disaster." But one of politics' tasks is to ensure that future catastrophe is avoided by present disasters. And catastrophe is what likely awaits the incoming centre-left government, unless it rapidly reduces Italy's soaring debt, liberalises Italy's labour laws, cuts a mass of regulations, abolishes the subsidies paid to cash sinks like the state railways and Alitalia, and encourages a wholesale transformation of Italy's industrial structure.

Does that laundry list of reforms really sound likely for a quarrelsome coalition uniting liberal Christian Democrats (whose vote fell) with anti-globalisation Communists (whose vote increased), led by a mild ex-professor? Obviously not. That's why an Italian exit from the euro over the next few years must remain a possibility. It would trigger a burst of inflation, cause default on debts as the new lire sank against the euro, but quite quickly start to stimulate growth.

Begg off

De l'orage dans l'air
down at the Institut Français in South Kensington. The Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique group had held its Café Diplo talks at the institute for years, but was recently told that an event at which Moazzam Begg, the British Guantánamo detainee, was due to speak would have to be cancelled because the institute, as part of the French embassy, could not be seen to "interfere with British home affairs." The group saw rouge and decided to relocate permanently to another venue.

Centrist gags

Ben Lewis's piece inside about jokes under communism questions the idea that they challenged the system. If jokes cannot bring down governments, and presumably that applies to democratic ones too, it must be safe for a competition for the best joke about our new masters—centrist governments. How many centrists does it take to change a lightbulb? You tell us. Entries by email —and a mystery prize, rather than ten years' hard labour, for the best.

Olympic cock-ups start here

Assurances that London's transport system would be up to scratch by 2010 were key to the successful Olympic bid. But confusion now reigns over what its capacity will be. A new service named Javelin is supposed to be in place to carry spectators to and from King's Cross to the games. Transport for London says it will carry 25,000 people an hour—12,500 in each direction. But its original evidence indicated it would be 25,000 each way. Is this the first of many horror stories?