Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Mighty Fallen

Woolworth's gone! It feels as though a great hole has suddenly opened up in the ground. I have memories of shopping in Woollies going back six decades.

The mighty W took the decisive step to destroy the tranquility of Oxford. In 1955(?) they applied for planning permission to put a huge superstore in Cornmarket. The City Council said no, but the Minister of Housing, Harold Macmillan overruled them. And then came Marks and Sparks, then Selfridges, and soon the city centre was crowded with shoppers. Having done the damage, Woollies sold up in the 1980s and made room for the Clarendon Shopping Centre, followed by the Westgate Centre, now to be expanded. It's hard to move for the crowds.

All that happened just before the bypasses were built, after which the old centre could have been left as an academic and tourist precinct, a pedestrian and cyclist paradise with minimal vehicle access. A new commercial centre could have been sited near the eastern by-pass. So much for market forces as a method of town planning! Macmillan was rewarded by being elected Chancellor of the University. How we love those who torment us! Still, I forgive him, because he got us out of Suez and he told off Maggie Thatcher for 'selling off the family silver'.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Bank's Lament

The little ditty I wrote in September 2007 is wearing well, except I had no idea that they'd want trillions from us:


Oh dear oh dear, what shall we do?
Too much we lent, too much you spent.
We helped ourselves and helped you too.
Please understand how well we meant.
But now we want it back from you.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Boom and bust

Perhaps macroeconomics can be reduced to a few propositions: booms result in busts; the pain of busts is greater than the pleasure of booms; therefore everything should be done to prevent booms from getting any bigger than they have to. Ever since governments discovered that they could influence the economy, they have done the opposite: they have tried to make the booms get as big as possible. In the 1930s, when the world population was just over 2 billion, Keynes said it was all right to increase debt in order to go from bust to boom.

Now we realize that it isn't just the human world that suffers from the cycle of boom and bust. The whole planet is groaning under the weight of human demand. Back in 1972, when the world population was less than 4 billion, the Club of Rome report 'Limits to Growth' warned of the danger. President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study, 'Global 2000' to suggest how the US government should respond. But he was voted out in 1980, and we began 28 years of crazy efforts to grow. Now, with the world population at 6.7 billion - 220% bigger than for Keynes and 76% bigger than for the Club of Rome - we are rewarded with the biggest bust for eighty years. When will we ever learn?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A mockery of law

The Labour Government has created 3000 new crimes, which is one reason why Britain has a higher percentage of its population in jail than any other European Union country. Still, the latest proposed crime will not put many more in prison. It is proposed to make it illegal for men to buy sex from trafficked women. If the police know which women are trafficked, why don't they arrest the traffickers? And if they don't know, how will they watch trafficked women to see who buys sex from them? Imagine the conversation between client and prostitute: "Excuse me, madam, have you been trafficked?"; "Yes!" (or rather "Da!"); "In that case I cannot buy sex from you." Alternatively: "Excuse me sir, may I have your name and address, so that I can report you to the police after you have bought sex from me?" It will be just like the fox-hunting bill, impossible to enforce. It will bring the law further into disrepute.

The trafficking of women is just one more example of the evils that result from the wealth and income gap between countries. Women only want to come to Britain because here they can earn much more, even in menial jobs, than they can at home. And British men can only afford to spend grotesque sums on prostitutes because incomes in Britain are high enough to pay for much more than the essentials of life. Once our economy has shrunk to a sustainable size, we should keep it there instead of making huge eforts to make it grow again.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Greedy Twenty?

The G20 meeting has had a good press, although it produced no new vision for the world economy. The leaders of the world's 20 largest economies said hardly anything about the suffering of people in the dozens of small economies with abysmally low national income. Americans and Europeans are currently consuming several times their fair share of the planet's sustainable resources, while half of Asia and most of Africa receive only a fraction of their share. Only a transfer of wealth and income from rich to poor can remedy the situation, yet the top twenty think only of maintaining or resuming their growth.

A better view of Rahm Emanuel, Obama's White House Chief of Staff, from James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute: he points out that Emanuel was the architect of the signing of the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn in 1993. He is well liked by Arab-American members of Congress, and his talent for fixing things there will be much needed in pushing through the new Administration's programme. Remember Lyndon Johnson, derided as a 'wheeler-dealer' when Kennedy picked him for V.P. in 1960? After Kennedy's death, it was he who managed to push the civil rights legislation through Congress, without which we would not have President-elect Obama. In fact Johnson would be remembered as one of America's greatest presidents if he had not inherited the Vietnam War.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Mabruk, Baruch!

B-R-K is found in Hebrew too, most notably in the name Baruch - equivalent to Arabic mabruk, which means 'congratulations' (on your blessed good fortune!). Baruch ben Neriyah was the name of Jeremiah's secretary, who helped to edit and possibly in part to write sections of several books of the Bible - Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and Jeremiah. One of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever made was a clay seal impression of this Baruch. Nothing to do with Obama of course, but a nice reminder of the close kinship of Hebrew and Arabic and the respective peoples who speak them.

Perhaps I should add my personal theory that the ten 'lost tribes' of Israel are to be found among the Palestinians. After the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria, there is no reason to suppose that the rural population fled. They were peasants attached to their fields, and the Assyrians needed them to pay taxes. According to the Bible, many of them were already polytheists before the Kingdom collapsed. They later converted to Christianity, and still later many of them became Muslims. Their descendants are the cousins of the Israelis. It's time they were treated as equals in their own country.

Barack Hussein

There is much discussion of Obama's first name. B-R-K is an ancient Semitic root, the basic meaning of which is 'knee' or 'kneel'. The sense of a 'blessing' presumably arose because the recipient should give thanks on bended knees. In Arabic baraka is the special quality of a saint which enables him or her to work wonders. Barack will certainly need lots of it, with a virtually bankrupt treasury.

Hussein was Muhammad's grandson, the younger of two sons born to his daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali. The name is specially popular with Shia Muslims, for whom Hussein was the Third Imam (second for some Ismailis). He was killed at Kerbala in Iraq in 680 C.E., when he was trying to raise a rebellion against the Sunni Caliph. This was the martyrdom commemorated by Shiites on Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim year - January 7th next time.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Don't believe it!

Remember all that fuss when Congress was under pressure from all sides (including Obama) to vote for the $700 billion bailout? It was to buy out the toxic assets (i.e. bad debts) from the banks - lucky them! Did you believe it could work? Well, Hank Paulson, author of the most expensive plan in U.S. history, has already had to admit that it won't. He's already suggesting other ways of using the money (doesn't he have to ask permission from Congress?!). Obama suggests it should be used to bail out General Motors instead of the banks. How so? Would the government buy up all the unwanted sports utility vehicles? Clearly the politicians don't know what to do, so here's a suggestion: the fund should be given to the states to buy up the houses that are threatened with foreclosure and to let them to their occupiers at a reasonable rent. Oh dear! The state as landlord! But wouldn't that be what Americans call 'communism'?!

What is scarcity?

Copper isn't reckoned to be a scarce metal. Damnit, there are about three billion tons of it in the earth's crust, and only about a tenth of that has been mined in the whole of human history. But world production is now about 15 million tons a year, and at that rate it would take only 200 years to mine all of it - no longer than the time since Jane Austen! The amount per person currently used in America is reckoned to be about a twentieth of a ton, and if 6.7 billion people lived like them, we'd need a third of a billion tons - and that's reckoning without population growth and rising incomes. Only 16 atoms in a million in the earth's crust are copper atoms, which makes it eighteenth in abundance among metals, and many of those atoms will never be economically minable. Finally don't let's forget that mining is an immensely polluting activity and that it is very difficult to make mining companies clear up their mess. So is copper not a scarce resource?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Rose tint.

In my last blog I remembered buying mars bars on the way home from school, with the money saved by walking. Actually that can only have been true for a few happy months in 1949, when sweet rationing stopped for four months. Before and after that summer, and until 1953, you could only buy sweets if you handed over little coupons from your ration book - and my mother had mine! I think they cost three pence (£1/80). I must have saved well over a thousand pence out of my bus money - about a dozen kilos of copper, which now costs about £3 a kilo. I felt quite sentimental about the old coinage, which seemed to reach back into the depths of time. Pennies from five reigns were circulating - Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI, Elizabeth, always with Britannia on the back. This is what they looked like. I don't understand how anyone can feel attached to today's confetti coins. Roll on the euro!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Old pence

Our governments are now proposing to spend their way out of recession; for that read "borrow their way". Borrowing means creating money, which means a mixture of growth and inflation. In the past the inflation has always got out of hand, followed by higher interest and taxes - and a new recession. It's been going on all my life. From 1947 to 1952, my father used to give me a silver sixpence every morning to pay for the buses to school and back. They cost five pence, so I made a penny a day. It was two and a half ("tuppence ha'penny") if I walked home - enough to pay for a mars bar and an evening paper, which I bought if there was a good murder trial. Those were good old copper pennies, about 3 cm. in diameter. If I had kept them all, I would now have more than a thousand, the metal of which would be worth many times their face value (£1/240). And the price of a mars bar now? It's multiplied by factor of 50 or 60. Should we worry? Well yes, if the whole purpose of the operation was to enable us to keep on increasing our ecological footprint.

Remembrance Sunday

We should never forget the suffering that our wars have inflicted, but is this the way to do it? People in uniform marching around, military bands, requests for forgiveness addressed to the perhaps imaginary being that was often invoked as the sponsor of war... And the talk is of heroes and martyrs rather than victims. War is mostly a negative-sum game in which the losses on all sides outweigh any gains.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Pit-bull without lipstick.

Was anyone ready to see Obama move to the right so fast? By choosing Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, he has made real Mid-East peace almost impossible. Emanuel's father fought with the terrorist organization Irgun against the British and Palestinians in the 1940s, and he himself has been stout in defending Israel's positions in Washington. The Israeli paper Maariv has called him "our man in the White House", and Bill Clinton once said he was "a pit-bull". An even-handed approach to Israel and Palestine is essential for improved relations with Muslim-majority countries from Syria to Indonesia, so this appointment looks seriously bad. Watch out to see if Obama gives Dennis Kucinich a job; he is the most dedicated and effective radical in Congress.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Muslim President?

I expect half of Britain was awake at midnight Chicago time for Obama's President-elect speech. I peered into the faces in the crowd thinking I might see Fran, whose blog I have been following (, and forgetting that she has moved on; lovely to know that one of my ex-students was there, doing her bit to ensure his success!

I have two worries about his presidency. Will his legislation be frustrated by filibusters in the Senate, as happened with Hillary Clinton's health-care project? And will he fail to do justice to the Arabs for fear of being accused of being a crypto-Muslim?

And that makes me wonder how long it will be before a Muslim can be elected President. It has taken more than two centuries for the first African-American.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Am I being too suspicious, or is it just coincidence that American raids in Syria and Pakistan happened a week before the election? The message is after all that Al-Qaeda is still busy out there, so let's have a fighter for President. To suggest that Syria harbours jihadists is particularly bizarre: the regime is the last secular state in the Middle East, and the Shia background of its leaders make it doubly unlikely that they would be friendly with the fiercely anti-Shia al-Qaeda.

Sunni-Shia, Tutsi-Hutu, Israeli-Palestinian, Turk-Armenian... What happened to the idea that we are all human, that we all want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our families, and that the way to understand each other is to sit down and talk together? Perhaps nationalism is the greatest enemy: the notion that our people are special and need to barricade ourselves into our own territory and enrich ourselves at the expense of other nations.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Burning Orchards

One of the joys of not watching much TV is that you get more time for reading. I've just finished a magnificent novel, Burning Orchards by Gurgen Mahari. It is set in the town of Van during the years leading up to the Armenian Genocide, but it is neither gloomy nor one-sided, although the author with the rest of the Armenian population fled his native city at the age of twelve. His father was assassinated by his uncle when he was six, for belonging to the wrong nationalist party, but in spite of this he portrays one heroic member of his uncle's party, though the other Dashnaks are presented as murderous and cowardly intellectuals. Mahari wrote the novel in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, after spending some time in the Gulag for his non-Marxist views. It was heavily criticized by ex-Dashnaks, now Stalinist converts, and publicly burnt.

The central character is a loveable old rogue, Ohannes, who has no time for nationalists and who right up the end of the Turkish siege of Van is eating, drinking and being merry with his old pals, who are all wealthy business men like himself. There is a lovely touch in the epilogue, where he is comically punished for his sins. He reminds me of Abdul-Gawwad in Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, another rascally patriarch with a penchant for seducing his in-laws. Throughout the life and times of Ohannes, we are introduced to every aspect of life in Van - its lovely orchard suburb, its wonderful variety of fruits and its spicy dishes, its bustling market, its ancient churches and monasteries - all about to be wiped out forever. This is a marvellous book, up there with the best of Louis de Bernieres and Vikram Seth; do please read it!