Friday, May 24, 2013

Eton Scholarship Papers

I sat a whole bunch of these when I was 11 and 12 in preparation for my own scholarship exams somewhere else (which I failed with flying colours). They were generally speaking bloody hard (the French paper included colloquialisms that had gone out of fashion in the 1950s). But by far the most fun was the General Paper. This didn't require any revision or prior knowledge - pretty much everything you needed for the answer was provided in the question - but it did require that you think.

Everyone has got themself into a bit of a tizzy about a paper from a couple of years ago that started off with the famous section from The Prince by Nicolo Macchiavelli ("it is better to be feared than loved" etc), and then went on to ask the following questions:

a) Summarise the argument in the passage (5)
b) Explain to what extent you find the argument unappealing (5)
c) The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral. (15)

Laurie Penny has dashed off a typically overwrought piece saying that this is typical of the way that the elite is taught to think and that if she were answering this now she'd write ‘go fuck yourself’ across the paper in my sparkliest pens. And so on and so on. Because clearly this is all an extended part of indoctrination that only Etonians can ever be Prime Minister (because there's been, ooh, one in the last 40 years).

And this is obviously bollocks. It's an intellectual challenge designed to show how well the examinee has understood the passage, and whether he is able to apply it to a contemporary scenario. In one of Laurie's tweets she gasps that this par for the course - that "in debating clubs I often saw people trained to defend the indefensible". You don't fucking say. Arguing both sides of a point (and the question above first asks the student to point out why Macchiavelli's argument is unpleasant - it's worth fewer marks because it's a much easier question) is a fundamental part of learning how to debate. And that in itself is a key to becoming more - not less - broad-minded. If you can't bring yourself ever to see an opponent's point of view you become calcified in your own opinions and inclined to dismiss all opposition as inherently evil. If you can't argue the opposite, you can't properly understand your own position.

She also sniffs that The significant line in that extended question is ‘You are the Prime Minister.’ As if you’d be anything else. Question 4 envisages the examinee as a hotel handyman. As if you'd be anything else. If you can't imagine any other school asking questions like this (and some do by the way - the Eton scholarship paper is prety much the same as for the other top schools) then it's because you can't imagine a school exam for 12 year olds asking them to read and apply philosophy. And that's not Eton's fault.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mr Grumpy

I'm late to this, but Michael Gove's speech on "what it means to be an educated person" was really rather good. There aren't many politicians whose speeches can actually be read for pleasure, but Gove's always repay attention.

The extent to which Gove attracts hatred and loathing from the left is really quite remarkable - a testament probably to the extent to which his reforms are actually working. Even so, the response to the most news-y bit of the speech has been extraordinary.
One set of history teaching resources targeted at year 11s – 15 and 16 year olds – suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a ‘Mr Men’ story.
If I may quote – “The following steps are a useful framework: Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.”
I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves' work but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat.
Aggrieved educationalists were split into two camps: those who argued that no-one would really teach like this, and that this was irresponsible sensationalism; and those who argued that this was a perfectly good way to teach, and that this was irresponsible anti-educationalism. The inventor of the approach sets the record straight here:
The activity actually starts with the following discussion point: "If the Weimar Republic was a Mr. Men character, which one would it be and why?". With a projected image of the characters on the screen it produces some interesting answers - for example "Mr. Worry" (inability and unwillingness to take firm action against the Nazis) to "Mr. Bounce" (the dramatic 'recovery' of 1924-28) and "Mr. Mean" (refusing to increase unemployment benefits after 1929 with disastrous results). Similarly, those students who regard Hitler’s speechmaking skills and charisma as the key to his rise to power will choose a different character to represent the Nazi leader compared to those who focus on his ability to merely capitalise upon the Weimar Republic’s weaknesses or those who blame the impact of the Great Depression - and so on.

I'm not sure this helps much. Reducing a polity to a single human characteristic is simply vacuous. Children's books can carry a wealth of ambiguity and sophisticated characterisation. Infants' books (and that's what the Mr Men series are - my 4 year old loves them, but if she's still a regular reader at 10 I'm going to be concerned) cannot. Reducing a complex historical period to a one-dimensional anthropomorphised emotion is actively unhistorical. What on earth are you supposed to learn by calling Hitler Mr Grumpy?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bad reasons to stay in the EU

I've flirted with the Better Off Out position, but as it stands I'm pretty undecided which way I'd fall in an in or out referendum. Nigel Lawson's magnum opus seemed to me to be a bit sketchy on the practical economic implications of exit, while Portillo barely touched on it. On the other hand, the arguments currently being mustered against exit are even worse. Take Polly Toynbee today. Leaving to one side her argument that there should be no referendum on Europe because it is so deeply unpopular with the European people, she focuses on the economic dangers of exit.
But reasons to stay are blindingly clear. US banks and financiers only stay in the City as a gateway to the EU. Japanese car-makers are only here to trade in the EU. President Obama sent an envoy to warn Cameron that a "bridge" to the US was useless if the UK were outside the EU. Cameron presides over the G8 soon, where a long needed EU-US trade deal will bring tariffs tumbling: the UK alone can never win such a deal.
So, there are four factors given there: US banks are only in the City to facilitate trading with the EU; foreign manufacturers are only in the UK to sell cars in the EU; the US/UK relationship depends on EU membership; and the UK would be unable to negotiate free trade deals on its own. I'm not sure that any ring true.

The first is perhaps least convincing. For a start, US banks and financiers have been present in the City since before the EC was founded, let alone since before the UK joined. Equally, the City is very far from confined to working with or in Europe - the City is a global financial centre, and much of its work is focused on the Far East, and other rising economies. As to the argument that it would be impossible to retain a position as a financial centre when located proximate to but separate from a greater trading bloc, I can think of two pretty clear examples of why that isn't true: Singapore and Hong Kong (especially before '97, but it remains outside the Chinese system).

The second at least has some foundation - car makers have said that a British exit would be bad for business. The difficulty is that the same predictions were made for British industry and FDI if Britain remained outside the Euro. Yet in 2007 (before the financial crash, which devestated global FDI trends) the UK was the world's third largest recipient of FDI, a fivefold increase on 2000. Repeated warnings that fail to materialise inevitable diminish in credibility.

The third is largely a diplomatic point: the UK would be a diminished power if no longer part of a greater bloc. This has superficial logic, but think of this: the UK has a larger economy than Russia, a larger and more effective army and greater ability to project force across the world. Yet which nation receives more diplomatic attention from the US? Russia, largely because the UK is considered as a part of a wider bloc (and a bloc with very limited hard power potential) and its individual importance is diminished accordingly. I think it's at least arguable that Britain would have more clout outside the EU, and not less.

The last point - that an 'independent' Britain would be unable to negotiate free trade agreements with trading partners, and the US in particular, is something of a doozy. What do the following countries have in common? Jordan, Australia, South Korea, Colombia, Peru, Oman, Morrocco, Singapore, Chile, Bahrain, Mexico, Canada and Israel? Free trade agreements with the US. Others are being negotiated with (among others) Ghana, Kuwait, Mozambique, Indonesia and Kenya. Is Polly seriously suggesting that the UK has less financial and diplomatic heft than Ghana?

And then there's this:

Trading with the EU from outside means obeying every rule with no seat at the rule-making table.

So, does this mean that the US has just signed up to obeying every EU rule in order to trade with it? The hell it does. Oliver Kamm had a more sophisticated version of this argument when he said (in response to Lord Lawson):
But note that Norway, whom UKIP cite as a possible model, does contribute to the EU budget and accepts almost all EU regulations. It does so because it wants access to the Single Market.
But Norway runs a thumping trade surplus with the European Union - it's position is that much weaker because it needs to sell things to the EU. The UK runs a substantial trade deficit with the EU - we buy things from it (indeed, even though ostensibly a bare majority of UK export goods go to the EU, this is distorted by the Antwerp/Rotterdam effect - in reality, the EU is not the destination for most UK exports). The bargaining positions are not equivalent.

I think that in/out is the only referendum that the pro-EU side have a chance of winning in the UK. But the arguments are going to have to be an awful lot better than this.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Austerity bites

I'm not an economist, as I've mentioned once or twice before. As a result, I sometimes struggle to understand even the terms of the debate. Paul Krugman, and now the IMF, clearly believe that UK austerity is hurting the economy, and should be replaced by a policy of substantial fiscal stimulus. I can understand the logic behind this - if consumption is down, then Government spending can replace it. Since GDP = C+I+G+(X-M), there's a certain mathematical simplicity about this that I understand.

Where I struggle though is at a more macro level. Apart from consumption (which I think can be at least partly explained by the fact that people are trying to deleverage their enormous household debts) the sluggish GDP growth can be put down to three principal causes: diminished production of North Sea oil and gas; depressed activity in the financial sector, and huge falls in construction.

These are all principally supply-side problems, and demand-side measures (like fiscal policy) aren't really going to sort them out. By way of illustration - there's no shortage of demand for houses in most of the UK. Problems in the construction sector must therefore be on the supply-side. I can envisage Government led solutions to this (planning reform, planning reform, planning reform) but I don't really see that an increased deficit is the most efficient way to deal with it.

Similarly with the financial sector, much of the fall in activity has been the equivalent of blowing the froth of a cappuccino. As such it's a decline in illusory production (and has indeed been partly policy-led). This surely isn't a failure than needs to be (or could be) corrected by greater public spending.

As to oil and gas - much of the fall in production is the inevitable result of an ageing oil field with diminishing reserves. More is the result of catastrophically short-sighted tax policies initiated by Gordon Brown and exacerbated by George Osborne (marginal tax rates on some fields are now as high as 81%). When you tax something, you get less of it. When you tax something punitively, you get much less of it. Here at least is a candidate for Government intervention, if only by cutting rates.

However, for all three sectors, there are signs of good times ahead. For oil and gas, capital investment is at an all time high, and production is forecast to start rising again. For the financial sector, the recapitalised banks are returning to profitability. Even construction is showing signs of stabilising. I'm not sure that any of these are really determined by fiscal policy. Austerity didn't cause their decline, and stimulus wouldn't trigger their recovery. I sometimes get the feeling that the policy battles over austerity vs stimulus are really a proxy for something else.