The Power Broker

Robert Caro is the author of the wonderful Lyndon B Johnson biographies, of which there is one more instalment to come.

The Power Broker – a Pulitzer winner – came first. Its subject is Robert Moses and the story is relentlessly one of the awe-inspiring, and terrifying exercise of bureaucratic power. Moses became the most powerful – and for a while the most popular – figure in New York state despite never achieving elected office.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 01.06.54Unsurprisingly the parallels between Moses and Caro’s subsequent study, LBJ, emerge frequently. Both possessed huge intellects, knowledge of the law – which they used to selectively break it – and a willingness to employ huge sums of money in their cause. (Unlike Moses, LBJ also had charm, good fortune and none of Moses’ conceited sense of noblesse oblige).

In 1934, Caro writes, Moses featured in New York papers more than J Edgar Hoover, the sensational mobster-busting FBI chief. He was the subject of 29 flattering New York Times editorials and hundreds of articles that year.

In those years Moses was a genuine reformer with a shrewd understanding of how to, well, broker power. Gradually that skill would become all-consuming. It took too long for newspapers to realise that the man they had built up was busily tearing New York City apart.

And it took too long to put the brakes on his perverse vision of urban development, which accounts for a fair chunk of New York City’s problems to this day. Through his public authorities Moses accumulated all the power of high elected office, including the power to evict tenants and raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground to make way for ugly highways, with little accountability.

Those public authorities, quasi-state entities, were initially granted by elected lawmakers as efficient means to get infrastructure built. Moses turned them into his own multi-billion dollar empires – all the while projecting an image as a frugal public servant. The special status provided by U.S. law to bondholders’ rights left those authorities, and Moses, immune to outside pressure for decades.

I’d recommend the book – at over 1,000 pages, it’s a summer project – to those interested in cities or power or both.

Trevor Kavanagh on the Sun’s influence two decades after it ‘Won It’

It may once have been ‘the Sun wot won it’ but in this year’s general election campaign, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid’s support for the Conservatives is unlikely to prove decisive.

That’s the takeaway I got from a Media Society event at the Groucho Club last week with Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of the Sun from 1983-2005.

Two decades ago the Sun said that its support for Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1992 had swung the outcome of that year’s election, which pollsters expected the opposition Labour party to win.

The newspaper, which then had a print circulation of almost 4 million, told its readers that if Labour’s then-leader Stephen Kinnock won, “will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” Two days later, with Major back in 10 Downing Street, the paper published a front page proclaiming “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.
The Sun, April 1992 Now the Sun sells roughly half as many copies, though it remains the U.K.’s most popular newspaper.

“The difference between then and now is we don’t have the circulation we once had,” Kavanagh said.

But the paper still holds huge influence because “Sun readers tend to move more,” said Kavanagh, who first met Murdoch as a young reporter in Sydney, Australia, and still talks to him about British politics.

Contrast that with readers of other Tory-supporting titles including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, who more reliably vote for the Conservatives.

Particularly in an election where neck-and-neck polls show neither party winning a majority, the Sun’s swinging readers – and therefore the Sun itself – still matters. And it doesn’t pull any punches.

“Labour’s sham manifesto is an insult to voters’ intelligence,” the Sun judged in an April 14 editorial the day after Labour launched its manifesto. “If your motivation is that Miliband will run the economy more sensibly than David Cameron, you should google psychiatrists in your area as soon as possible,” the editorial said.

60 per cent of the UK’s national newspaper market leans towards the Conservatives, an analysis of British newspaper coverage by the Press Gazette suggests. Just 12 percent favour Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Rupert Murdoch, worth about $13 billion, later described the Sun’s ‘wot won it’ claim as “tasteless and wrong” in testimony to the Leveson inquiry in 2012.

“We don’t have that sort of power,” Murdoch said. The inquiry, set up in 2011 to consider press ethics in the wake of phone hacking allegations, represented a turning point for Labour’s relationship with the News International titles, which endorsed Tony Blair before each of his three election victories.

Miliband broke ranks with other front-bench politicians, pushing the scandal – which engulfed Andy Coulson, the No. 10 communications chief – onto the political agenda.

In a Channel 4/Sky television interview last month Miliband said his criticism of Murdoch showed he was “tough enough” to be prime minister. “Thanks for 2 mentions,” Murdoch replied on twitter “Only met [you] once for all of 2 minutes when you embarrassed me with over the top flattery.”

This academic paper from the late 90s takes a look at some of these issues in more depth. Personally, I don’t think newspapers do much direct persuading any more – if they ever did.

But in so-called “agenda setting”, influencing what topics politicians, broadcasters and people in general talk about, their influence is probably still larger than any other column in public life.

Update, May 1: The British Election Study has this bar chart graph breaking down the political allegiances of newspaper readers.
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Why we need hypocrisy, mendacity and ambiguity

Reading a column by Dominic Cummings in the Times last week reminded me of a passage in a book I finished reading the week or so before that: Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here.

Morozov’s is a spirited polemic against ‘internet-centrism’ and ‘solutionism’, the idea that the human condition – not to get too grand about it – can be perfected through the innovative and enthusiastic application of ever-more sophisticated technology. Or at least I think so.

Cummings, a former advisor to Michael Gove, actually makes a familiar argument. We are badly governed because the state is badly managed. Too many “Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as a spin doctor” and too few expert managers. Aspirant leaders must “have the skills and experience of managing complex projects.” Government should be open in the extreme, managerial and where at all possible automated.

And who would disagree? One of Cummings’ worries, I take it, is that our political elite spends too much time blathering, blithering, bickering, backstabbing, backtracking and b*ullshitting.

Who would disagree? It’s fun to try, though, for Morozov attempts something like it.

“We need to challenge not just the idea that the truthfulness of a statement can be boiled down and evaluated….but also the notion that hypocrisy, mendacity, and ambiguity are ruining our politics. In extremely large does, they certainly do; but in small doses, they are more virtues than vices. They enable our political process to function.”

Take ambiguity. Morozov favourably quotes political scientist Deborah Stone:

” “Ambiguity facilitates negotiation and compromise because it allows opponents to claim victory from a single resolution,” concludes Stone. Demanding that our politics gets more precise….forcing [politicians] to be specific to the point that they would rather say and do nothing at all – all of this is unlikely to improve the state of our democracy.”

Even if I’ve straw-manned Cummings just a little, I think that’s a relevant rejoinder to his argument. If a James Dyson ran the Department for Business, Bill Gates ran Health, and Michael Wilshaw – a Gove favourite – ran Education, all measured according to the most sophisticated performance indicators possible, then we might – *might* – become more expertly government. But first Cummings has to explain why ‘expertise’ in government is the only, or most important, goal.

PPE Problems

Nick Cohen is among the dozen or so columnists I never like to miss. He doesn’t sit on the fence and the anger in his writing always bubbles up throughout the prose.

Cohen is right to take aim at PPE – 35 MPs studied the course at Oxford – and he only misses in a couple of places, I think.

He lands on the key point. “Ambitious young men and women now believe they must study politics at Oxford if they want to get on in politics,” he writes. That is worth spelling out.

I would guess that few, if any of our parliamentarian PPE-ists decided any later in life than 17 that they wished to enter the Commons one day. Arguably that amount of precocious ambition does make for bad politicians but, at worst, the course merely nurtures the hubristic sense of destiny PPE undergraduates arrive with.

Both the great merit and tragedy of PPE lies in the self-conscious way it goes for breadth rather than depth. One term I took the ‘Ethics’ paper. Kant in a week; the Aristotelians in two – that sort of thing. I was eventually examined in seven other papers, all of which haughtily breeze through their respective disciplines in terrific haste.

I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It worked for me.

The problem, Cohen (a PPE alumnus) says, is that “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do…[resulting in] world-class bullshitters.”

Fair enough. But frankly my Kantian ruminations would barely have been more informed had we allocated eight weeks to the topic rather than one. I mean it’s Kant for Christ’s sake. Nor am I convinced that my undergraduate English and History colleagues had an intellectual experience any more profound than my own.

It seems to me, quite simply, that “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do.” So for every Cameron, Miliband or Mandelson whose name is spat out as prima facie evidence against PPE, I would return fire with an Osborne (Modern History), May (Geography) or Clegg (Arch&Anth).

“Above all, the flightiness of PPE encourages puppeteer politicians, who stand above their society pulling the strings, rather than men and women who represent solid interests within it.”

Not convinced. If you do believe this critique of our political elite, then an explanation more sophisticated than an elucidation of PPE’s flaws is probably required.

The ethics of stinging

The Sunday Mirror reports today that Brooks Newmark, a Conservative minister, has resigned from the government after exchanging sexually explicit messages with a fictitious Tory activist.

An unidentified freelance male reporter (Alex Wickham, perhaps, by the looks of his twitter feed last night) assumed the profile of a young, blonde female activist, ‘Sophie Wittams’, and interacted with Newmark over several months. Ultimately, “during ­flirtatious chats and photo exchanges, [Newmark] sent a graphic snap exposing himself while wearing a pair of paisley pyjamas,” the Mirror reported gleefully.

According to a Buzzfeed report the freelance reporter had gone on something of a fishing expedition, sending tweets to several Conservative MPs. Newmark was the only one who took the bait.

Newmark behaved like an idiot, clearly. The U.S.-born politician will have followed the Anthony Weiner saga carefully enough to know that sexting has a nasty habit of precipitating ugly falls from grace.

….but, is this good journalism? ‘Stings’ are controversial because the journalists involved don’t simply uncover bad behaviour; they actively invite and facilitate it.

Often we judge that such activist reporting is necessary because it exposes worrying corruption or criminal behaviour. Recent stings include the Sunday Times (£) teasing Tim Yeo MP into agreeing to a sort of cash-for-influence arrangement. More controversially, The Sun on Sunday last year helped Tulisa Contostavlos fall into “cocaine deal shame”.

The key ethical question when it comes to stings, as Roy Gleenslade wrote in a blog post last year, is this: ‘is there enough prima facie evidence of wrongdoing by a person to warrant a sophisticated sting operation?’

The answer here is surely ‘no’.

But Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, has a riposte: the public interest defence.

How persuasive is that? The message the Mirror wants readers to buy is that Newmark’s sexting somehow conflicts with his laudable role in the Women2Win campaign group. That’s a tough case to make, to put it lightly.

A cruel passage in the Mirror’s exposé, I think, is further down. Newmark’s resignation, we are told, “comes as Westminster faces angry calls to crackdown on a culture of lechery and sexism in the wake of several sex scandals including accusations made against Lib Dem Lord Rennard by female party members.”

We aren’t told why Newmark’s messages represent sexist or lecherous behaviour.

Update: Roy Greenslade and Zoe Williams have both written pieces in the Guardian which are worth linking to

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Michael Ignatieff: Fire and Ashes

Don’t be naive about politics, Michael Ignatieff writes, but don’t be cynical either.

Thus the Canadian academic-turned-politician-turned academic closes Fire and Ashesa riveting account of the six years Ignatieff spent in the bull pit of Canada’s ruthless democracy.

Ignatieff, an acclaimed Harvard teacher and writer with political pedigree, was tempted back to Canada in 2005 by political operatives who, in an inspired but questionable judgement, believed Ignatieff could renew Canada’s tired Liberal Party.

Instead, after winning the party leadership four years later, he led the Liberals, who governed Canada for the best part of the twentieth century, into third-party status following their worst ever defeat in 2011. He lost his seat and returned to academia shortly afterwards.

The genius of Fire and Ashes lies in the profile of its author. As both a political actor and spectator, Ignatieff wrote the short book – barely 200 pages – which combines a insider’s frank re-telling of those years with the insights of a political theorist.

The best chapter is ‘Standing’ in which Ignatieff explains how he was ‘swift-boated’ by the ruthless and well-funded opposition. Having spent most of his adult life outside Canada, attack advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives characterised Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist who was ‘just visiting‘.

Ignatieff says that the ads denied him ‘standing’ in the eyes of Canadians. “Once you’ve denied people’s standing, you no longer have to rebut what they say,” he writes. “You only have to tarnish who they are.” The Conservatives were able to execute that feat months before the general election campaign, thus alienating voters from the party before they’d even considered its platform.

The ‘swift boat’ reference derives, of course, from the infamous advertisements, funded by the shady ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ 527 group, that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Ignatieff appreciates why the attacks reduced Kerry to silence, he says, but it hurt him greatly as a result. “If you don’t defend yourself, people conclude either that you are guilty as charged or that you are too weak to stand and fight….This is how you lose standing with voters.”

In the spring of the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama succeeded in turning his own campaign crisis, the Reverend Wright controversy, into a “teachable moment”. In his ‘A More Perfect Union‘ speech, Obama addressed the controversy and then pivoted, skilfully, into a discussion of race, that most anguished seam in the American story. “In doing so, he gave himself the standing to lead the American discussion on race and, in the process, gave himself the standing to become the president.”

Kerry failed to seize the Vietnam issue; but Ignatieff failed too, fighting in his speeches “for a generous, cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship against provincial small-mindedness”. A shortage of party funds and a media thrilled by the ‘just visiting’ narrative prevented the counter-attack cutting through. In that context the warning contained in the final chapter – “Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.” – makes sense. The book doesn’t shy away from the abstract or the cliched, but it roots them in an experience lived from the inside.

Another thought gleaned from that experience is a sort of revulsion or embarassment at the Canadian House of Commons functioned. In a critique that will be familiar to PMQ-watchers in the U.K., Ignatieff says that “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other.” It risks undermining “one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.”

It seems to me that Ignatieff over-estimates the degree to which partisanship corrodes democratic values and institutions. In fact I’m rather of Jed Bartlet‘s view: partisan politics stops electorates from becoming flaccid and disengaged.

And a final passage that I’ll include without much comment. It recounts an interview Ignatieff gave in which he controversially answered his interlocutor in the affirmative when asked if Quebec was a nation.

Suffice to say that the parallels between the place of Quebec, which narrowly rejected separation in 1995, in Canada and that of Scotland in the United Kingdom shouldn’t be difficult to see.

We were not a country founded on e pluribus unum – out of many, one – but instead a complex quilt of overlapping identities. We had created a country in which you could be Quebecker and Canadian in whatever order you chose. What I rejected about separatism was not the pride in nationhood but the insistence on a state, the belief that Quebeckers must make an existential choice between Quebec and Canada….It was a kind of moral tyranny on the part of separatists to force them to choose between parts of their own selves. After much travail, I said, we had understood that countries must be built on freedom of belonging. From this followed our system of federalism. We could not centralize power in this country, I said, because we could not centralize identity.

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Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Misunderstanding social mobility

More than half of top 100 media professionals attended private schools, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. (my contribution here is both late and following on from the intelligent commentary of others)

The comparable numbers for the civil service, Parliament and court system are little better (or even worse).

What can we do about that? Campaigners highlight some or all of the following: improve state education, strip private schools of their charitable status, abolish Oxbridge!

The most compelling critique of private schools and Oxbridge, I think, is that they endow alumni with an exclusive network of useful contacts. This elite uses the status and contacts from those elite institutions to take jobs that, in truth, others are more deserving of.

I think that’s half-right. Privately-educated Oxbridge types do benefit from an exclusive network, but in general it’s not one that they pick up at school or university. On the initial rungs of the career ladder family and neighbourhood connections count the most.

I have friends who’ve secured brilliant opportunities in leading newspapers, banks and political parties through a family member or family friend. Mostly, they did go to top private schools and universities, but had they not done so those connections would still have existed. The only difference, perhaps, is that the contact feels less embarrassed delivering the favour if the young person is clearly capable.

Conversely there are those who did attend expensive schools and elite universities but, for whatever reason, don’t have a team of well-connected professionals on stand-by to parachute them into a cushy job or internship.

The conflation arises, I think, because well-connected families in metropolitan neighbourhoods are more likely to send their children to private schools and Oxbridge. So there’s a big overlap between the well-connected and the exclusively-educated.

When David Cameron offered an internship to a neighbour’s child, in an important sense he was merely doing a good deed. Far better, for sure, than giving one to the child of a donor or an old school friend. But the material effect is much the same. And who knows whether that child was privately educated – his social connections mattered the most.

Why does this argument matter? The group we’re led to identify as unfairly privileged will be similar (though not the same) after all.

It matters because it suggests that public policy shouldn’t target institutions – schools and universities – but behaviour, specifically nepotism.

Private education and elite universities may contribute to inter-generational inequality in the long-run. But there are things we can do now to make a real difference. It could be as straightforward as simply outlawing any paid or volunteering position (exempting charities and small family companies, say) that wasn’t put out to competitive tender.

In some ways that would be messy and expensive, increasing the workload of HR departments obliged to consider many applicants for each position. But equality of opportunity isn’t just fairer – is that not reason enough to pursue it? – it should make organisations more effective as well.

There’s a good analogy I read once but can’t find the citation for now. It goes something like this: ‘we wouldn’t select today’s England football team from the children of those who played for England twenty years ago. So why would we accept precisely that for our political system, the media industry and the upper echelons of business?’  

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Bloomberg: who is inflation hurting the most?

I’m now approaching the end of a ten week internship at Bloomberg News in London. It’s been pretty great.

A couple of thoughts about a piece published under my byline today.

Families’ 5% Inflation Heaps Election Pressure on Cameron

The piece picks up a lot on the potent politics of the ‘Squeezed Middle’. I want to pick up a couple of bits about economics and methodology. 

In a sense there is nothing groundbreaking going on here. The ONS measures inflation for the average household according to a basket of goods. But the ‘average household’ is a statistician’s tool. Few households match the description. Some will spend a greater share of their income on food; others will be able to put aside more for restaurants and foreign travel. Different households therefore see prices rising at varying paces according to their socio-economic profile.

The top line of my piece points out that middle income families with children face higher rates of inflation than the headline 1.6% CPI figure for August suggests. Single households on low incomes, meanwhile, are seeing the price of their typical bundle of goods increase very slowly, by as little as 1% (largely because food prices are down).

The individual-specific inflation model I used was developed last year by Michael McMahon at Warwick University. The BBC’s ‘personal inflation calculator‘, which uses it too, brought it to my attention. The model can’t discern each individual’s inflation rate. But it can give us clues as to which sorts of people have seen the biggest squeeze in the past year.

A final point. Education drives the 5% figure because the increases in its price – chiefly due to the raising of the tuition fee cap – have been so steep.

One caveat when considering the effects of that price increase though. Save for the relatively few households who are paying up now, the increase will have a deferred impact on household expenditure because most students take out loans. Households with students will be paying more, for sure, but when we talk about increases in the inflation rate for those households, it’s possible that we’re making talking more about an accounting change than an immediate increase in the day-to-day cost of living. 

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London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

In a way this makes no sense. Rent in London is high relative to other U.K. cities and many category peers in other countries.

Relative to London house prices however, which have rocketed since 2009-2010, rental values are low. That’s true elsewhere too: the U.K. house price to rental price ratio is 40 percent above its long-term average, the IMF says. There are well-stated reasons why that could be a new normal. Notably the supply of new housing has failed to keep pace with demand for a decade or more.

But it could be a new bubble. One reason why rents are a good comparator is that they tend to be constrained by income. Unless you make do with continually smaller living spaces and such what, rental values can’t increase much more than income growth, which in the U.K. has been pretty flat. That house prices have gone up by 40, 50 or even 60 percent in the capital in recent years suggests, to some degree, that property is over-valued.

In the meantime, some tenants have found themselves living in properties with a million pound+ paper value, paying rents commensurate with a valuation of only half or a third of that.