February 19, 2017
February 19, 2017
February 19, 2017
“It was obvious that bigotry was never a one-way operation, that hatred bred hatred!”
– Isaac Asimov, ‘Pebble in the Sky’
COMMENT: Readers interested in what I write should consider this a companion piece to my article describing how non-Malay Malaysians (specifically) are a tolerant lot.
Mahathir’s First Carma (Cari Makan) Journalist–A Kadir Jasin
De facto opposition leader and former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad casually mentioned last week that he was partly to blame for the demonisation of DAP. I suppose this went together with veteran journalist A Kadir Jasin’s admission that he was part of the brainwashing that went, and goes on, in UMNO. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, but I doubt that the indoctrination of Malay youths will cease any time soon when the opposition is made up of Islamic groups determined to use Islam as a political tool.
I wrote the last part of the above paragraph after the opposition had suffered a setback in the by-election where the current UMNO grand poobah was supposed to receive a black eye but apparently, the opposition punched itself in the face. A reader had emailed and asked if the schadenfreude tasted good, especially since I had predicted the results.
I take no pleasure in any opposition defeat and neither do I take pleasure in a UMNO win. This is the bitter taste of having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, when I say “evil”, do not get your panties in a twist because it is an expression and not a description of either political fronts. These days I cannot tell the difference between winning and losing when it comes to “saving Malaysia”.
As I have argued before, a country can recover from corruption scandals, but it rarely recovers from that type of Islam that neutralises the democratic imperative. In Malaysia, where race and religion are not mutually exclusive, the threat from Islamists is coupled with ethno-nationalism.
The First Malay Nationalist (or is it Racist?)
The de facto Opposition Leader is right when he says that he demonised DAP as DAP and other opposition parties had demonised him. However, the reality is that these political parties were not only demonising their political rivals, they were demonising entire communities.
So, when you want to win, and you demonise your political opponents, and by extension whole communities, the political terrain becomes a battleground for competing racial interests instead of ideological or policy ideas.
This is why I have always been sceptical of the opposition propaganda about voting across racial lines. In one of my numerous articles about race relations in this country, I wrote: “In addition, this idea that voting across racial lines as some sort of evidence of burgeoning multiracial solidarity is complete bunkum. The real test is when people vote across ethnic and religious lines in support of ideologies that run counter to the interests of their communities and by this, I mean egalitarian ideas that run afoul of constitutional sacred cows and social and religious dogma.”
While the former Prime Minister (and now de facto Opposition Leader) and the system contributed to Malay fear of DAP, the whole political system and voting patterns of Malaysians is also culpable for this sad state of affairs. UMNO succeeded because the majority of Malaysians voted for race-based parties. Racial preoccupations were the currency that sustained BN politics and still does.
The problem is that because we do not have an alternative, BN politics is the only game in town. Non-Malay oppositional voices and voters do not demand an alternative but rather that the system continues but in a more “fairer” manner.
DAP and MCA furiously battle for the Chinese vote. Meanwhile Malay-dominated so-called multicultural parties battle with UMNO and now PAS for the Malay vote. Until the former Prime Minister showed up, there was no central theme that united the Opposition.
While the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim and the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat discovered that populism does not necessarily mean racial or religious preoccupations when it comes to cobbling together a formidable coalition, the emergence of the former Prime Minister as the de facto opposition leader has given the current UMNO regime an opportunity to:
1) Revisit history.
2) Dredge up the financial scandals of the former Prime Minister.
3) Point out that their strategies for securing the Malay vote is based on his strategies that kept him in power for decades.
If anyone is wondering why questions of race always revolves around the Malay and Chinese dialectic, it is because… well, if you are going to ask this question, you have obviously not being paying attention.
All are participants in race game
When I argued that Malaysians were a tolerant lot, the thrust of the piece revolved around how systemic inequalities were a detriment to the non-Muslim population but I failed to emphasise how the non-Malay communities were active participants in the race game in this country.
Voting for race-based parties meant that we did not have to concern ourselves with egalitarian concepts that would have been the basis for a more democratic system. It was not that we were “immature” or “uneducated”, it was just easier to vote for a political hegemon that provided security and stability for decades but not the rights and responsibilities that are part and parcel of a functional democracy.
UMNO’s Money Stealing Grand Poobah
Tolerance may have been a one-way street, it was also the street where we stopped by the sidewalk and spat at the “Malays”. There is the other narrative of non-Malays engaging in subtle and overt racism, all the while supporting racial political parties that claimed inclusiveness.
The majority of us did this to ensure that our racial preoccupations were satisfied by a plutocrat class instead of demanding for an accountable and transparent government, but more importantly demanding for a principled opposition who fearlessly made their positions clear instead of championing communal causes under the guise of “multiracial/culturalism”.
The private sector was (is) dominated by Chinese polity who were perpetuating their own form of systemic inequalities and contextualising this reality as a response to the systemic inequality perpetrated by the UMNO Malay state.
While I think, there is generally “a live and let live” vibe between Malaysians, it would be a mistake to assume that this is some sort of national identity or some form of stable unity. I realise that this is political incorrect to say, but the hard truth is that while race relations have been manipulated by establishment (both UMNO and the Opposition), the reality is that there was always tensions between the various races of this country.
This is why talking about “race” in this country is such a demoralising endeavour. Appeals to emotion replace rational discourse. The fact that our constitution is compromised, the system itself is predicated on maintaining racial and religious superiority, makes any discussion about how the non-Malays react to such a system, their complicity in sustaining the system difficult to articulate.
The fault of UMNO and the Opposition is that nobody offered an alternative and Malaysians never expected anything better.
You know what the big difference is between the corruption scandals of UMNO back in the day and the one now is? The difference is that a vast majority of Malaysians kept voting UMNO-BN back then than they do now. This is a testament to not only the political strategies of Mahathir but also the apathy of the Malaysians. This of course is a boon for the Opposition because Mahathir seems to be the only person who can galvanise the opposition. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
February 17, 2017
From the very first chapter of this book to the last, it is full of detailed and astonishing revelations about the mainstream media in Singapore. It is an incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship. Indirectly, Cheong Yip Seng’s My Straits Times Story is invaluable in helping to explain the dominance of one political party through its “symbiotic” relationship to all the mainstream print media in our country.
The book begins with an account of how Cheong was appointed to his job as editor-in-chief of the Straits Times in 1986. This was not a private dinner with a publisher or a board meeting or even the result of a secret ballot at a conference of editors.
Instead, Cheong describes how he was summoned by Chandra Das, a prominent Singapore politician, on a plane to Burma with the words “The boss wants to see you”. Cheong was given a seat in the first-class cabin next to the then-Deputy Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. Goh wanted him to take over the editorial leadership of the Straits Times from the previous editor, Peter Lim, who had been found wanting.
Apparently Lim’s “sin” was that he (and the ST) had during the regional uproar over the Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore “failed to recognize the educational role of the Straits Times” which infuriated then PM Lee Kuan Yew who believed that the ST coverage “did not help Singaporeans fully understand the facts of regional life and what it took to be an independent sovereign nation.”
Apparently Lim had relied too much on the Malaysian English-language media in its coverage of the Malaysian outrage without adequately carrying some of the more rabid reactions from the vernacular media from across the causeway. This was the final straw which led to Lim’s firing as the Istana had apparently “reached the point of no return with the Straits Times.”
In the months before that, Cheong reveals, the government was planning on a “GTO (government team of officials) moving into Times House” similar to what was done with the bus company. The response by the ST leadership is instructive. Instead of protesting against this attempt at interference in professional journalism, apparently Peter Lim and CEO Nigel Holloway met the PM at the Istana repeatedly to negotiate against the presence of government officials in the newsroom. The solution they negotiated was instead a “monitor at Times House, someone who could watch to see if indeed the newsroom was beyond control”. This person was identified by Cheong as (former Singapore president) S R Nathan.
The threat of a GTO together with the presence of a “monitor” made sure that the SPH newspapers toed the party line. This is something that many in civil society in Singapore have suspected for a long time but it is nice to see it confirmed here from the best source possible.
There is more evidence of intimidation documented in this book, mainly from Lee Kuan Yew, who actually endorsed the book prominently. For example, after an early event at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Cheong was threatened by Lee with the words, “If you print this, I will break your neck”. Cheong’s response to what appears on the surface to be a brutal threat is interesting was: “I was taken aback by his thunderbolt…It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew’s ways with the media…Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as (that)…but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster approach was unmistakable.”
All said and done and for all the criticisms, Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore a great and globally admired Island Nation in the Sun–Din Merican
Such blatant intimidation is presumably rare in Singapore. The title of the book, however, describes the life of a Singaporean journalist constantly trying to negotiate the “OB” or “Out of Bounds” markers. Cheong explains the origin of the term “OB markers”, ascribing it to former minister George Yeo, who described them as “areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.”
Outside of race and religion, the most important OB marker was then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that the press could not be a “fourth estate” or center of power because it was not elected.
This is not a valid argument to me as it could be argued that the press are far more accountable than politicians as they have to seek the approval of the newspaper purchasing public every day rather than every four to five years in elections.
Instead, Lee’s view of the press was that it was a tool for dissemination and promotion of government policies. One illuminating illustration was a “furious” call from Lee’s office that was received by the (now defunct) New Nation Editor David Kraal. The editors were “flummoxed” to discover that the then PM was provoked by a photograph of a large family to illustrate a story of a happy Singapore family. Apparently, this was perceived by the PM as “subtle but effective criticism” of the “Stop at Two campaign” in which Lee sought to limit families to two children.
There are other OB markers which Cheong found “bewildering”. These included stories on Stanley Gibbons, a stamp dealer; carpet auctions; monosodium glutamate or MSG; feng shui; unflattering pictures of politicians, and scoops.
I think many Singaporeans too would find it difficult to understand why these “should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.” These are, however, hallmarks of an authoritarian regime which can install boundaries at whim without having them questioned.
Another OB marker was appearing overly critical of local TV programs. George Yeo apparently pointed out that “If the Straits Times created the impression that our TV programs were not worth watching, Singapore would lose an important channel of communications.” As a result, even the TV critics were reined in.
The issue of scoops is a recurrent theme. Cheong reports that “Lee Kuan Yew was determined to purge the newsroom of the culture of scoops”. He did not want a situation like the Watergate affair in which a dishonest president was exposed by investigative journalists who became cult heroes. Cheong writes that “The PM took the position that Singapore was not America: he had no skeletons in the closet and challenged the press to find one because he wanted to be the first to know…”
But of course, the press could not use investigative journalism to find out – they had to depend on the official version of events. This kind of Alice in Wonderland argument doesn’t seem to trouble Cheong or perhaps by re-stating the argument in this context, he is exposing its hollowness.
Cheong actually admits how much of a struggle this was for him as a journalist. He quotes Number 5 Chinese Leader Li Changchun as urging mainland Chinese journalists to go for scoops and explains his predecessor Peter Lim’s Faustian bargain for Singapore journalists thus: “it was better to produce the best story than the first story…Finding scoops in Singapore with many OB markers carried a real risk”.
Indeed, one gets a sense of how difficult life is for journalists who might inadvertently break a story that covered the sensitive subject of MSG or bad local TV programs or some other OB marker and end up being hauled up by the government.
Cheong makes it clear that while he had hoped that the “knuckleduster era” belonged to the 1970s, it could reappear any time. For example, he describes how while “recovering” from the 2006 general election, he received a phone call in a hotel in Phuket, from Lee Kuan Yew who was “livid” about a “powerfully argued column by Chua Mui Hoong” in which the deputy political editor had questioned the policy of placing opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrading works. According to Cheong, Lee was “his old 1970s self. If the Straits Times wanted a fight, he was prepared to do it the old way, with knuckledusters on”. This is depressing but not surprising to any reader of the ST today.
The extent of micro-management of the local press Cheong reports is amazing. Apparently, Goh Chok Tong had made a suggestion during the launch of The New Paper: “Why not consider a Page 3 girl”. Cheong quickly clarifies that Goh was not suggesting topless women that had been made famous by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun but rather girls that (as Cheong quotes Goh) “can be scantily dressed”. The character and direction – and not just the OB markers – of the local press are thus apparently suggested by Singapore’s political leadership.
Cheong also provides details about the ST personnel’s relationship with the ruling People’s Action Party, the PAP. He writes that “senior PAP leaders had been impressed with (columnist Warren Fernandez’s) work for us. His columns in particular have been generally supportive of PAP policies.” He was about to be selected as a PAP candidate for the 2006 elections.
Cheong then emailed the Prime Minister asking to keep Warren at the ST “unless he was earmarked for higher office. But the PM’s response was that he needed Eurasian representation in parliament”. Apparently Cheong’s email had been circulated to the PAP selection panel before the final interview and Kuan Yew agreed to keep Fernandez out of the PAP slate. Of course, now Fernandez is the Editor of the ST.
Reporting on the “opposition” politicians was even more of a “minefield”. Cheong recalls the 1984 elections when “Peter Lim, then editor in chief, was under pressure from James Fu, the PM’s press secretary, conveying the PM’s request to publish Chiam (See Tong)’s O-Level results….Peter Lim refused: he was convinced it would backfire against the PAP…The result proved him right”.
What intrigues me about the incident was not just that the Prime Minister would intervene to try to persuade the national newspaper to publish such data, but rather that the editor-in-chief refused not because of journalistic integrity but rather because he thought it would “backfire against the PAP”.
This is typical of what Cheong describes as the “symbiotic relationship” between the ST and the PAP which is in fact enshrined in the editorial policy that Cheong crafted in response to then PM Goh’s unhappiness with the local mainstream media. The three pillars of that policy are (1) “Accuracy and objectivity” of coverage (2) The nation-building task of advancing and informing the public as Singapore develops and (3) The symbiotic relationship with the government. Some journalists were unhappy about this relationship but it stayed in the ST editorial policy at Cheong’s insistence. This documentation again, is what makes this book valuable to all who read the local press.
There are many revelations in Cheong’s book. We learn that the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts kept a dossier on local press articles which they found offensive. These include not giving enough prominence to ministers’ speeches. We also learn that when editors were “called up for meetings” with then PM Lee, they had to send detailed CVs including their O-Level results and their wives’ educational qualifications.
Other specific examples of censorship included restrictions on reporting conditions in national service camps in the early days and telling stories of the people who actually lost out through the Housing and Development Board (HDB) construction and resettlement process. The latter is poignant as Cheong describes the contrast between the 30,000 square feet (including a pond and a farm) that a friend living in Kampong Henderson had to give up in exchange for less than $3,000 compensation and a much smaller HDB flat. The ST was not allowed to report on such negative aspects of our “urban renewal” process or the HDB “success story”. The threat of the disapproval of the Times House “monitor” which could cost them their jobs through a GTO ensured compliance.
Interestingly, the “foreign investors” whom we religiously try to attract to Singapore are not as keen on press controls as we have been given to believe. According to Cheong, the American Business Council, supported by the US State Department, argued that investors would be deterred without the free flow of information. Cheong reports how the Singapore government stood their ground but paid the price, in his words: “liberal democracies and some members of the Singapore intelligensia saw it as too intolerant for its own good.”
Cheong is dismissive of the online alternative media but he devotes a paragraph to responding to Seelan Palay’s film “One Nation Under Lee” specifically by explaining that the ISD agents hired by the ST were not sent by the government, they were in fact, according to Cheong, willingly brought in by himself.
Later on, Cheong describes Lee Kuan Yew’s response to the online question “Who paid for the flying hospital for his wife” as marking the legitimization of online media. Cheong acknowledges that the days of traditional media are numbered worldwide, even in Singapore. He quotes the current PM Lee Hsien Loong as admitting that he cannot persuade his own daughter to read the news pages of the ST.
The book is not all about the travails of a court announcer trying to keep the king happy. For me, the most promising section was the one describing the ST’s finest hour – exposing a scandal involving the National Kidney Foundation. Here is where you get a sense of what might have been should the ST have decided to serve the people of Singapore by performing the task of investigative journalists rather than as disseminators of official information.
Cheong was aware of “strong pro-NKF sentiments in powerful quarters” including two ministers (Lim Hng Kiang and Khaw Boon Wan) as the NKF had taken a tremendous load off the public healthcare sector by keeping alive and healthy 1,800 Singaporeans through its excellent dialysis centers.
He was initially prepared to pay S$20,000 as compensation, publish a statement of clarification about the article by Susan Long, which had the infamous gold taps as part of a “generally laudatory article” and settle the matter out of court. Cheong does not reveal who or what made him change his mind and go against Mrs Goh Chok Tong’s efforts to mediate.
T T Durai, then NKF CEO, who was at the center of the controversy, was incensed and accused the media of trying to be the fourth estate, which Cheong had already established was a role that the Singapore mainstream media had given up – except in this case!
Here the ST team excelled themselves – they tracked down the contractor who prepared the gold taps and other witnesses who were prepared to sign affidavits. In other words, good old-fashioned investigative journalism. Like the good journalists that many in the ST are (before they censor themselves), they want their readers to have all the facts, including those below the surface so the readers could make intelligent decisions for themselves.
While the stories in the book are exciting to any media watcher (and there are many more), there are many errors such as the misspelling of my uncle David Tambyah’s name and SARS was described incorrectly as occurring in 2002 in one instance (although the proof readers picked out the correct dates for the three subsequent mentions of the outbreak).
Cheong himself acknowledges the problem with the quality of English in the newspaper and says that the ST paid the price for the “neglect” of the teaching of grammar in schools. It got so bad that he had to “scour” the world for good copy editors whom he eventually found in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India.
For those of us who lament that our education system seems to have switched from teaching life and career skills to teaching what is required to top international standardized tests, that is a statement worth paying attention to.
The question on many Singaporean’s minds is: Why did he write this book? Cheong does explicitly reveal this. Near the end, however, he gives a telling account of how journalists found official spokespersons unhelpful as their priority was “reflecting better on the ministers” rather than allowing journalists to do investigative or background work. He describes frustrated journalists recounting their bad experiences in explicit detail – perhaps that is what he is trying to do himself as some kind of catharsis.
Perhaps wistfully, he talks about a time when the ST was indeed the “fourth estate” when it did occasionally demonstrate its independence – although he has to reach as far back as 1956 when the ST condemned the takeover of the Suez Canal by British, French and Israelis. British expats in Singapore were incensed and the managing director of the ST, a member of the British establishment was “spat on in the (then British only) Tanglin Club.”
When I asked a prominent civil society figure about the reasons for this book, he pointed out that when authoritarian regimes in Latin America or Eastern Europe were crumbling, “everyone claimed to be a reformer.”
I am an optimist. I think that Cheong has seen the signs from the recent general, presidential and by-elections and he knows that the people of Singapore are waking up. Establishment voices are raising questions about some fundamental assumptions.
The first step, as anyone with a serious problem knows, is acknowledging that you have a serious problem. Perhaps this is Cheong’s first step. Hopefully for the mainstream media, acknowledging the problem of control and domination will be the first step to the recovery of an independent media which can evolve into a free press, a necessity for democracy for the people of Singapore. The book is a worthy read.
(Another version of this review first appeared on yoursdp.org. Assoc Prof Paul Tambyah is a member of the Singapore Democratic Party’s Healthcare Policy Panel. He contributed this in his personal capacity.)
February 12, 2017
by Aditya Chakraborthy
Unhappy at how economics is out of touch with reality and defined by an elite, Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins sum up their explosive call for change
By making their discipline all-pervasive, and pretending it is the physics of social science, economists have turned much of our democracy into a no-go zone for the public. This is the authors’ ultimate charge: “We live in a nation divided between a minority who feel they own the language of economics and a majority who don’t.”–Aditya Chakraborthy
Riot police clash with demonstrators outside Parliament in Athens, October 2011, as anger breaks out over new austerity measures Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
In the autumn of 2011, as the world’s financial system lurched from crash to crisis, the authors of this book began, as undergraduates, to study economics. While their lectures took place at the University of Manchester the eurozone was in flames. The students’ first term would last longer than the Greek government. Banks across the west were still on life support. And David Cameron was imposing on Britons year on year of swingeing spending cuts.
Yet the bushfires those teenagers saw raging each night on the news got barely a mention in the seminars they sat through, they say: the biggest economic catastrophe of our times “wasn’t mentioned in our lectures and what we were learning didn’t seem to have any relevance to understanding it”, they write in The Econocracy. “We were memorising and regurgitating abstract economic models for multiple-choice exams.
Part of this book describes what happened next: how the economic crisis turned into a crisis of economics. It deserves a good account, since the activities of these Manchester students rank among the most startling protest movements of the decade.
After a year of being force-fed irrelevancies, say the students, they formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, with a sympathetic lecturer giving them evening classes on the events and perspectives they weren’t being taught. They lobbied teachers for new modules, and when that didn’t work, they mobilised hundreds of undergraduates to express their disappointment in the influential National Student Survey. The economics department ended up with the lowest score of any at the university: the professors had been told by their pupils that they could do better.
The protests spread to other economics faculties – in Glasgow, Istanbul, Kolkata. Working at speed, students around the world published a joint letter to their professors calling for nothing less than a reformation of their discipline.
Economics has been challenged by would-be reformers before, but never on this scale. What made the difference was the crash of 2008. Students could now argue that their lecturers hadn’t called the biggest economic event of their lifetimes – so their commandments weren’t worth the stone they were carved on. They could also point to the way in which the economic model in the real world was broken and ask why the models they were using had barely changed.
The protests found an attentive audience among fellow undergraduates – the sort who in previous years would have kept their heads down and waited for the “milk round” to deliver an accountancy traineeship, but were now facing the prospect of hiring freezes, moving back home and paying off their giant student debt with poor wages.
I covered this uprising from the outset, and later served as an unpaid trustee for the network now called Rethinking Economics. To me, it has two key features in common with other social movements that sprang up in the aftermath of the banking crash. Like the Occupy protests, it was ultimately about democracy: who gets to have a say, and who gets silenced. It also shared with the student fees protests of 2010 deep discomfort at the state of modern British universities. What are supposed to be forums for speculative thought more often resemble costly finishing schools for the sons of Chinese communist party cadres and the daughters of wealthy Russians.
Much of the post-crash dissent has disintegrated into trace elements. A line can be drawn from Occupy to Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter; some of those undergraduates who were kettled by the police in 2010 are now signed-up Corbynistas. But the economics movement remains remarkably intact. Rethinking Economics has grown to 43 student campaigns across 15 countries, from America to China. Some of its alumni went into the civil service, where they have established an Exploring Economics network to push for alternative approaches to economics in policy making. There are evening classes, and then there is this book, which formalises and expands the case first made five years ago.
Joe Earle, centre, with the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester University. Photograph: Jon Super
The Econocracy makes three big arguments. First, economics has shoved its way into all aspects of our public life. Flick through any newspaper and you’ll find it is not enough for mental illness to cause suffering, or for people to enjoy paintings: both must have a specific cost or benefit to GDP. It is as if Gradgrind had set up a boutique consultancy, offering mandatory but spurious quantification for any passing cause.
Second, the economics being pushed is narrow and of recent invention. It sees the economy “as a distinct system that follows a particular, often mechanical logic” and believes this “can be managed using a scientific criteria”. It would not be recognised by Keynes or Marx or Adam Smith.
In the 1930s, economists began describing the economy as a unitary entity. For decades, Treasury officials produced forecasts in English. That changed only in 1961, when they moved to formal equations and reams of numbers. By the end of the 1970s, 99 organisations were generating projections for the UK economy. Forecasting had become a numerical alchemy: turning base human assumptions and frailty into the marketable gold of rigorous-seeming science.
By making their discipline all-pervasive, and pretending it is the physics of social science, economists have turned much of our democracy into a no-go zone for the public. This is the authors’ ultimate charge: “We live in a nation divided between a minority who feel they own the language of economics and a majority who don’t.”
This status quo works well for the powerful and wealthy and it will be fiercely defended. As Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have found, suggest policies that challenge the narrow orthodoxy and you will be branded an economic illiterate – even if they add up. Academics who follow different schools of economic thought are often exiled from the big faculties and journals.
The most devastating evidence in this book concerns what goes into making an economist. The authors analysed 174 economics modules for seven Russell Group universities, making this the most comprehensive curriculum review I know of. Focusing on the exams that undergraduates were asked to prepare for, they found a heavy reliance on multiple choice. The vast bulk of the questions asked students either to describe a model or theory, or to show how economic events could be explained by them. Rarely were they asked to assess the models themselves. In essence, they were being tested on whether they had memorised the catechism and could recite it under invigilation.
Critical thinking is not necessary to win a top economics degree. Of the core economics papers, only 8% of marks awarded asked for any critical evaluation or independent judgment. At one university, the authors write, 97% of all compulsory modules “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever”.
Remember that these students shell out £9,000 a year for what is an elevated form of rote learning. Remember, too, that some of these graduates will go on to work in the City, handle multimillion pound budgets at FTSE businesses, head Whitehall departments, and set policy for the rest of us. Yet, as the authors write: “The people who are entrusted to run our economy are in almost no way taught to think about it critically.”
They aren’t the only ones worried. Soon after Earle and co started at university, the Bank of England held a day-long conference titled Are Economics Graduates Fit for Purpose?. Interviewing Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, in 2014, I asked: what was the answer? There was an audible gulp, and a pause that lasted most of a minute. Finally, an answer limped out: “Not yet.”
The Manchester undergraduates were told by an academic that alternative approaches were as much use as a tobacco-smoke enema. Which is to say, he was as likely to take Friedrich Hayek or Joseph Schumpeter seriously as he was to blow smoke up someone’s ass.
The students’ entrepreneurialism is evident in this book. Packed with original research, it comes with pages of endorsements, evidently harvested by the students themselves, from Vince Cable to Noam Chomsky. Yet the text is rarely angry. Its tone is of a strained politeness, as if the authors were talking politics with a putative father-in-law.
More thoughtful academics have accepted the need for change – but strictly on their own terms, within the limits only they decide. That professional defensiveness has done them no favours. When Michael Gove compared economists to the scientists who worked for Nazi Germany and declared the “people of this country have had enough of experts”, he was shamelessly courting a certain type of Brexiter. But that he felt able to say it at all says a lot about how low the standing of economists has sunk.
The high priests of economics still hold power, but they no longer have legitimacy. In proving so resistant to serious reform, they have sent the message to a sceptical public that they are unreformable. Which makes The Econocracy a case study for the question we should all be asking since the crash: how, after all that, have the elites – in Westminster, in the City, in economics – stayed in charge?
• The Econocracy is published by Manchester University.
February 6, 2017
by Marc Tracy
On the day after Christmas, I was walking through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when I caught sight of a slightly rumpled man waiting for a flight. He seemed familiar, the way figures in dreams do.
It was, I thought, Stephen K. Bannon, who had been named chief strategist to Donald J. Trump after serving as his campaign’s chief executive. When the man put on a Barbour jacket, which Mr. Bannon has made something of a trademark, I was convinced I was not engaged in waking fantasy.
Mr. Bannon was carrying a book, and when an incoming President’s guru is reading a book, you should find out what it is. I walked by and peeked. It was “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s 1972 history of the strategic errors and human foibles that birthed the disastrous American involvement in the Vietnam War. It begins with John F. Kennedy’s transition to the White House, in December 1960.
“Who’s asking?” he replied, smiling a contrived pirate’s grin. I again identified myself, adding my name, and he acknowledged who he was and shook my hand. (I am relying on my memory and notes jotted down immediately after.)
I asked if he was indeed reading “The Best and the Brightest.”“Oh, yes,” he said.
He seemed surprised that I was surprised, although really I was stunned at the situation’s surreal appropriateness. If a novelist were imagining the Trump presidency, this book, a case study in what can go wrong from the outset of an administration ushered in by a change election in uncertain times, is precisely what Mr. Bannon would be reading.
“I’m having everyone in the transition read it,” Mr. Bannon continued, later clarifying that “everyone” meant several people.
“It’s great,” he said of the book, “for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”
We talked a few minutes more — about Mr. Halberstam’s other books; about college football, which I cover — and parted ways, myself wondering which lessons of the book Mr. Bannon would imbibe.
The central argument of “The Best and the Brightest” is that the very brilliance of the men whom President Kennedy appointed to his cabinet and senior advisory roles was responsible for what Mr. Halberstam, who had reported from Vietnam for The Times, saw as epic failure.
The phrase “the best and the brightest” is frequently misused, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended,” Mr. Halberstam said in a 1992 preface. For instance, when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in November that President-elect Trump sought to fill his administration with “the best and brightest in the country,” he presumably meant it in earnest.
But the implied irony was not that the advisers weren’t impressive men (always men, usually men who had attended Harvard). They were. Rather, Mr. Halberstam’s caustic title and the nearly 700 pages that follow indict the notion that society’s smartest are necessarily the ones best equipped to tackle society’s biggest problems.
Mr. Halberstam’s bull’s-eye is painted on a specific kind of smart person. President Kennedy chose his men based on general wits, rather than on specific knowledge. Perhaps the most famous example was Robert McNamara, an ingenious scientist of managerialism, a president of Ford Motor Company, who as secretary of defense, said Mr. Halberstam, “knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics.”
“The book speaks to a concern about having a government-run by technocrats,” Fredrik Logevall, a Vietnam War scholar, told me.
It scarcely requires the effort to see how Mr. Bannon’s anti-establishment worldview and his own assumption of broad power — he has been elevated to the National Security Council’s “principals committee,” an unusual move for a political adviser — could find ballast in “The Best and the Brightest.” He is no technocrat, but a former Goldman Sachs banker, film producer and media impresario whose national security experience appears limited to several years as a Navy officer and a master’s degree.
However, also unlike McNamara and the rest, he has definite beliefs about the world.
Mr. Bannon envisions President Trump as unencumbered by ossified default norms so he is able to push, he told The Times, “populist nation-state policies.”
These policies have worried civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Bannon called Breitbart News under his editorial stewardship “a platform for the alt-right” — a movement whose tenets include white nationalism and anti-Semitism. He has also advocated “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” which may help explain Mr. Trump’s executive order banning entry to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
If “The Best and the Brightest” is a brief against the East Coast meritocracy, though, its proposed alternative is not pure ideology. It is expertise.
Time and again, in Mr. Halberstam’s telling, lower-level government officials who understood Vietnamese politics, sentiments and even geography assessed reality accurately and offered correct policy recommendations to the major characters — who shunted them aside.
In early 1964, for instance, a State Department study concluded that bombing North Vietnam to reach a favorable political settlement would fail. The finding “reflected the genuine expertise of the government from deep within its bowels,” Mr. Halberstam writes. But the higher-ups favored bombing, and so there was bombing. (Which failed.)
“You’ve got these guys that are so brilliant, but they’re generalists,” said Mr. Logevall. “There’s a distinction to be drawn, he concludes, between this abstract quickness, this verbal facility, and true wisdom, which he says was missing.”
Such a reading prompts thought of the more than 1,000 State Department employees who signed a dissent cable opposing the immigration executive order — an order that, according to reports, was written by Mr. Bannon and the Trump adviser Stephen Miller, neither of whom are counterterrorism experts (or lawyers).
In this light, Mr. Bannon seems less a repudiation than a reincarnation of the tragic protagonists of “The Best and the Brightest.” Walt Rostow, who occupied various foreign policy positions before ascending to national security adviser, comes to mind. Like Mr. Bannon, who has said he grew up in a working-class Catholic household in Richmond, Va., Mr. Rostow, the son of Jewish Socialist immigrants in New York City, began as an outsider.
Mr. Rostow was an economist, and in foreign affairs Mr. Halberstam shows him to be a dilettante. As bombs fell on Pleiku, he writes, “Rostow wandered around the White House clapping Air Force officers on the back, asking about the weather, reminding them that he had once picked targets, and he knew that weather was important.”
Mr. Rostow’s wartime experience in the Office of Strategic Services ostensibly justified his influence, much as Mr. Spicer claimed that Mr. Bannon’s Navy tenure qualifies him for full membership on the National Security Council. That’s a perch from which he might redefine American engagement with the world.
Are Mr. Bannon’s early moves “little mistakes”? To go by Mr. Bannon’s book report on “The Best and the Brightest,” we may not know until years from now — by whether they led to big mistakes later on.
February 5, 2017
by Liaquat Ahamed
After college in England, I arrived in the US in the autumn of 1974 to go to graduate school. The war in Vietnam was no longer a bitter political issue on campuses. A few months after I arrived in the US, Saigon fell to the communists. I was not especially politically engaged.
Nevertheless, with the media full of graphic images of desperate Vietnamese scrambling to climb over the wall surrounding the US embassy and of marines dumping helicopters into the sea lest they fall into communist hands, one could not help talking about Vietnam. To understand these events, a friend recommended I read David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, published a couple of years before to great acclaim. The book was a 700-page study of how the US came to be mired in the disastrous war in Vietnam.
It sounds unspeakably dull and ponderous; it was not. I found I could not put the book down. It had all the ingredients of a great novel: a tragic plot of almost Shakespearean proportions, a fascinating cast of characters, and some wonderful writing.
The book is the story of the generation who arrived in Washington in 1960 with the Kennedy administration, one of the most talented groups to have held the levers of power in the country’s history: the best and the brightest. It describes how this band of men, for all their brilliance and idealism, led the country into the most disastrous war in its history out of a combination of arrogance and hubris.
Though The Best and the Brightest is ostensibly about policy, it is mostly about people. Halberstam had a storyteller’s talent for capturing people. He had a reporter’s eye for the little details, those vignettes, which transform a story and make it come alive. What better way, for example, to contrast the lethargy of the Eisenhower years with the energy of the Kennedy White House than to tell us that while the Eisenhower people played golf, the young men around Kennedy played squash to keep themselves fit. Halberstam had spent years covering the Vietnam conflict on the ground. He wrote like the war correspondent he was, in concrete, muscular prose. And yet the final result was much more than the story of the war; it was a history of almost epic sweep that managed to define a tumultuous era in the life of the country.
In the intervening years, I have re-read the book a couple of times. I still find myself dazzled by the way Halberstam was able to weave together the various strands – the events, the people, the policy debates – into such a compelling narrative. My one regret is that I never got a chance to meet Halberstam himself (he died almost three years ago) to tell him how much his book had meant to me.
Liaquat Ahamed’s ‘Lords of Finance’ (Windmill Books) won the FT/ Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award