Slow investing, slow news

As an advocate of ‘slow news’ it was good to read Tim Harford’s article on ‘slow investing’ in the Weekend FT. He argues that ‘most investors should operate closer to the six-month timescale than to the frenetic fast-twitch world in which a coffee break lasts an eternity’.

Slow news – what do I mean by that? Maybe not six months (though I have tried a month, walking the Camino in Spain) – but always go for the long perspective, avoid the cumulative effect of ‘fast-twitch’ hourly fixes. And treat the big daily bulletins with caution: they’re no more than what takes the news editors’ fancy on any one day.

Likewise investment. Check your portfolio everyday and the pain of the downs tends, according to Harford, to outweigh the joy of the ups. There’s more reason to smile if you check less frequently: good years for investors happen almost three times more often than bad years.

(Check out Delayed Gratification magazine, published by the Slow Journalism Company.)

We obsess with detail. ‘To single out one murder during a battle where there is one person killed very minute would make little sense.’ (Quoted by Harford in his article.) Morally it does of course – we lose sight of the immediacy of violence if we treat the victims as a collective entity. On the other hand, we lose the bigger picture, and we become inured to violence by the endless repetition.

Detail obscures reality. The 2009 expenses scandal was arguably as much a media as a political scandal – a drip-feed of news day-by-day by media owners pursuing their own agenda. The Brexit campaign was (and still is) all about emotive soundbites obscuring the real picture.

I’d originally included comments about the scandal involving Oxfam employees in Haiti, but I’ve taken them down: who knows where truth lies. Enough to say, I’m treating headlines and assertions with caution, and not rushing to judgement.

But should I be making judgements? Slow news can’t be a pretext for disengagement. The zenpolitics blog has always been about engaging directly with the world, and yet maintaining balance. Upekkha in Sanskrit – equaninimity. It’s a tough act.


Elsewhere in the FT there an obit of an American cyber-libertarian, one John Perry Barlow. For one, I love the idea of a cyber-libertarian. I’m not certain it’s for me, but I covet the name. He wrote of the death of his fiancée in 1994: ‘All hope has at times seemed unjustified to me. But groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having.’

That strikes a chord. Ride the daily news roundabout, and what hope are we left with? I don’t want to get into arguments about whether the world is getting better or worse. But take hope as watchword, take a long-term view, plan for the long term, avoid the news obsessed doom-mongerers – take hope, even irrational hope, as a watchword, and we will do a damn sight better than over-obsessing with the everyday.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

The British press – a view from the Netherlands

I’m not claiming what follows is original in anyway. I’m quoting extensively from an article in the November edition of Prospect by a Dutch writer and journalist, Joris Luyendjik.

He writes with real insight on Britain in Europe, or Britain out of it, but it’s his comments on the British press that strike home. It’s what many of us in the UK think, but too few dare to say. If we do, we invite confrontation, and too many of us are too nice and too polite, and the press ride roughshod.

He and his family came to live in London ‘as fellow Europeans, but when we left this summer to return to the Netherlands we felt more like foreigners: people tolerated as long as they behave. At best we were “European Union nationals” whose rights would be subject to negotiations—bargaining chips in the eyes of politicians.’

He quotes a working-class mother, the day after the referendum:

‘She had used the referendum to try to smash that expensive middle-class toy called the EU and it had worked. At last, for the first time in decades, those who felt like life’s losers openly defied the winners, and carried an election. Now her country would have £350m a week to spend on the number one worry for people like her: the NHS…’

He continues:

‘…that scene on the morning after the referendum encapsulates my disappointment with the country. Not only the division, but also the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about “foreign judges” and the need to “take back control” when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?

Before coming to Britain I had always thought that the tabloids were like a misanthropic counterpoint to Monty Python. Like many Europeans, I saw these newspapers as a kind of English folklore, laying it on thick in the way that theatrical British politicians conduct their debates in the House of Commons. Newspapers in the Netherlands would carry on their opinion pages articles by commentators such as Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash—giving the impression that such voices represented the mainstream in Britain. Watching QI before coming to the UK, I remember seeing Stephen Fry banter with Jeremy Clarkson and imagining the former was the rule, and the latter the exception. Living in London taught me that it is the other way around. George Orwell is still correct: England is a family with the wrong members in charge….

Until the tabloids are reformed and freed from editorial interference by their plutocratic owners, the rageful misunderstanding that I saw in the school playground will not go away. Tabloid readers will sometimes see through the bias on particular issues and against particular people, as many did when they voted for the demonised Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in June. But when it comes to Europe and the world beyond, the campaign of chauvinism has been so unremitting, over so many decades, that it is much harder to resist. And as things stand, the journalists at those publications could never come out and admit that they have misjudged Brexit—that would mean not only losing face, but very likely losing their job. Indeed, where is the investigative reporting about the exact quid pro quo when Rupert Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre come out in support of, say, Theresa May? Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

It’s worth repeating that last line:

‘Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

Luyendijk also brings our entrenched inequalities into his argument, our class system, along with our adversarial culture (true of many, but not of all), our superiority complex… You don’t have to agree with everything he says – though there’s substance to his arguments.

But on the British press, he’s spot on.

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

Taking time out

Time for taking time out from writing this blog. If I put that down, in writing, then maybe I won’t renege on it.

And why take time out?

Politically we’ve reached another point of stasis. Theresa May is calling for cross-party cooperation which she doesn’t deserve for a nano-second, and won’t get. Corbyn has amazingly a significant lead in the opinion polls. Brexit is anyone’s guess. Which way will the worm (yes, worm) turn?

When I started this blog I’d hoped to bring in a little bit of humour from time to time. Politics could be fun as well. But that seems like another age. That’s another reason for taking a breather.

A third reason, and maybe the best – summer holidays are upon us.

And, as for me – I’m about to move house, to a wild corner of Gloucestershire, where Labour ousted the Tories last month. There’s a canal, and steep hills, streams cut deep, and a hundred years ago Laurie Lee was growing up in the Slad valley maybe two miles away. If I write over the coming months it will be of birds, bees and flowers (we shall see!), and sunrises, or the Cornish coast path, if I escape that way. Any discussion of politics is out.

There was a R4 discussion (one final comment!) this morning about critical thinking. They referred to the fact that rolling news can be the enemy of critical thought but couldn’t understand why one young person preferred not to listen. Not listening or watching is the answer. Don’t get wrapped up in the big roll.  Find other ways to access news – take it in at your own pace, with time to assimilate.

That’s what I will do over the summer. It’s what I do already.

When I can, when furniture and books are unpacked, I will chill out. Walk the hills, or run, or get myself a small boat and a paddle, or a motor, and row or chug down the canal. That would be a good summer.


Out on the right wing

Reading the press in recent days I’m struck by how out-of-touch the old-style Tory commentators are. They influence, and reflect, opinion. It’s a closed circle. They have long been part of the problem.

There are other closed circles of course, more than ever within social media, as we build up our friends and followers, creating and extending groups of the like-minded. Not of itself a bad thing of course. But many on the left don’t have, and don’t wish to have, an understanding of the business world.

Back to the Tories …

Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph talks about giving the young more of a stake in the free-market system: he suggests building more affordable houses, and giving away shares.

What’s missing is any sense of the social divide, social justice, the importance of inclusion and opportunity, the focus on individual human rights. Corbyn voters to Lynn’s mind need to be weaned away from the hard left, but arguing about the benefits of the free-market system is not going to get him there.

Affordable homes aren’t some kind of panacea. They have to be part of a wider social action agenda.

Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, an old blinkered warhorse of the right, thinks the ‘public’ are in the mood for idealism, and looking for a bit of passion in their politics. ‘The spirit of Michael Foot has returned.’  The Tories she thinks have made little effort to combat ’old-fashioned state-socialist’ arguments, ‘perhaps because they think the arguments are self-evident’ – they need to explain how higher corporation tax would kill job growth, hurt the people Labour wants to help – the right must make a moral case.

The realities are rather different.

The young, people in their 30s, the millennials, haven’t suddenly seized on idealism and state socialism.  Idealism is an essential part of growing up, and losing it is, I’d argue, the worse thing about growing old. Patronising arguments about corporation tax aren’t going to butter any left-of-centre parsnips. (Labour proposes an increase to 26% – it was 28% in 2010, lower than many European countries, much higher than Ireland, at 10%. The extent corporation tax is linked to ‘killing’ job growth is not a question I’m competent to address. Nor I suspect is Janet Daley. But see teh current Economist -which suggests the jury is out on whether cutting corporation tax makes any significant difference.)

That said, I’m very wary of where Corbyn might take us should he suddenly find himself with untrammelled power. Many Corbyn supporters have a negative view of business, and that can easily slide into a form of ‘state socialism’, a pejorative term for many, but not for Corbyn or John Mcdonnell.

Again, back to the Tories….

There are wiser voices on the Tory side, and Tim Montgomerie (of Conservative Home), writing in the Evening Standard, I thought would be one. (Not least becasue he’s writing in London’s newspaper – it would have served him better to remember his audience isn’t made up of diehard Tories.)

Montgomerie also belatedly into building more homes in the south – and infrastructure up north. His main concerns are finding a new leader as soon as possible, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit.  (Note the way he equates the two.) And his reasoning: ‘With both established there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn.’ The argument it seems is how best to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Building houses might just do that. As a device – not out of a passion for social welfare. I’ll leave aside the idiocy of devoting energies to Brexit. If you want to connect to the young, Tim, get Brexit out of your system.

All three, Lynn, Daley, Montgomerie, need to spend more time on the front line. They are talking party politics, maybe understandbly given the current crisis in their party. But they won’t gain any friends in the wider world that way.

Above all, they need to engage, and Montgomerie did at least mention this, with social renewal. The big argument now and for the future is how to balance social justice and enterprise, the one interacting with the other. Yes, it’s the old liberal, the old social democratic argument. Not of the London dinner party kind, but the everyday kind – social action, commitment, linking enterprise and wider social needs.

Take a look at the new apartments sprouting up in Vauxhall, south of the Thames, built to the highest specifications, priced far out of reach of local people. They are a powerful example of where we’ve gone wrong.

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!