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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 10 · 27 May 2010

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Education, education, etc

‘Do you know,’ I was told, in 1958, by an old Harrovian who, like me, had just arrived in Cambridge, ‘you are the first grammar school boy I’ve ever spoken to.’ A small step for us both. Harrow continues to thrive in 2010, along with the schools of Nicholas Spice, who began this debate (LRB, 8 April), and Gavin Stamp (Letters, 13 May), who put him right on the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, under which Dulwich School voluntarily admitted an 11-plus element. The grammar schools, whatever the overall system’s faults, provided a lever for change. The subsequent system has not. In illustration, from my time there, one grammar school alone eventually produced the chairman of Shell, a scientist who in Geneva helped develop what became Cern, an international concert pianist and composer, a leading legal academic, a successful playwright and, I suppose typically, senior civil servants. Unlike the excellent public schools above, my old school is no more, despite its successes. First, it became a comprehensive. Then it became a ‘sink school’. Finally adjudged a total failure, it was closed down altogether. Though a listed building the ex-school was left vacant till the roof collapsed, and the rain poured in.

This is not the place for arguing the detailed theories behind the original comprehensive school revolution, but a New Labour MP last year was asked on radio what this thinking had been. His response was this: once there were good schools, and there were bad schools, and so the government of the day decided to put that right, and it amalgamated them, so that everybody could go to a good school. The fact that we have elected an Etonian cabinet shows how far we have to go.

Will Fyans
London N5

Salmondella

Anti-Scottism must be one of the few racisms that the LRB still sanctions; how else explain printing Rob Brown’s statement: ‘Scotland has never been spoiled with public intellectuals but it is distressing to see that the species is now as rare as ospreys’ (Letters, 13 May). Brown’s claim, that among current prominent SNP members there’s intellectually nothing worth having, may be true. But he then goes on to charge contemporary Scottish nationalism as a whole with ‘intellectual bankruptcy’. This is rubbish. SNP members are not the only Scottish nationalists. Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead: all public intellectuals who have explored Scottish nationalism in their work.

It’s perhaps worth noting the results of my very own PIPHP index (Public Intellectuals per Head of Population, aggregated over the last 300 years). England comes in 127th place, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but 39 places behind Malaysia. Scotland fares much better, narrowly gaining the cognitive edge on Iran to land in 46th. Just behind Zimbabwe.

Henry Holland
Hamburg

Welcoming

I am sorry that Christopher Turner found no space for Henry Wellcome’s magnificent collection of medical manuscripts, which the library has always made accessible to any interested reader, without any of the status restrictions or charges imposed by the larger UK and world manuscript libraries (LRB, 13 May).

David Ganz
Professor of Palaeography, King’s College London

The Shudder

Frank Kermode says of Eliot’s essay on In Memoriam that it is, as far as he knows, ‘his only essay on Tennyson’ (LRB, 13 May). Eliot did write another, shorter piece, ‘The Voice of His Time’, which was published in the Listener for 12 February 1942 (it was originally an Indian Service broadcast). Tennyson is presented there as ‘the poet of melancholia, passion and despair’, with In Memoriam ‘his greatest and most moving poem’, thanks to its ‘underlying gloom’. The piece was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Tennyson’s death. (Of Idylls of the King Eliot says that compared with the ‘hearty, outspoken and magnificent’ Malory, Tennyson’s Arthurian sequence is ‘suitable reading for a girls’ school’.)

John Morton
University of Greenwich

Out with the Old

Baudelaire lamented that the form of a city changes faster than a mortal heart, and indeed the sites of ‘old’ Paris supposedly uncovered in Eric Hazan’s Invention of Paris have long since shaken off their ageing charm (LRB, 22 April). However, they were not exactly victims of finance and land-grabbing modernisers, as Hazan and, indirectly, Julian Barnes would have us believe. Where Hazan saw a beautiful, abandoned landscape of railway tracks – his book was originally published in France eight years ago – there now lies a large garden, the result of a struggle led over several years by a local pressure group anxious to do something about the disastrous lack of green space in one of the densest and most impoverished areas of the city. What Hazan describes as the disused Pompes Funèbres Municipales is today the location of a massively ambitious new art and performance centre, the 104, which is partly piloted by a group of local inhabitants. Across the park is a huge new secondary school, and all around are new and revitalised buildings, state of the art architecture for social housing. As Baudelaire knew all too well, it’s not books that are ‘fierce and necessary’ – not when compared with cities.

Anna-Louise Milne
Paris

Unforgiven

Peter Connolly thinks I want to ‘exonerate’ Ralph Nader for his role in the 2000 election of George W. Bush (Letters, 13 May). He is mistaken. For years I have been angry with Nader for his perverse insistence on contesting the race in Florida. But I do want to complicate the explanation for Gore’s loss, beyond a simple demonisation of Nader. Republican fraud and Supreme Court partisanship remain a big part of the story. Tens of thousands of Floridians – predominantly registered Democrats – were illegally prevented from voting by Jeb Bush’s administration. More than 8000 were purged from the voter rolls because they were falsely identified as felons. Minority (and mostly Democratic) districts were disproportionately troubled by police roadblocks and voting machine breakdowns, which prevented thousands of citizens from recording their votes. Even so, a completed recount – which was underway and had been mandated by the Florida State Supreme Court – would have elected Gore. (The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago confirmed this in November 2001.) The US Supreme Court’s decision to halt the recount proved crucial to Bush’s election. In any explanation for the outcome of the 2000 election, these facts must be taken into account.

Jackson Lears
Rutgers University, New Jersey

The Non-Existent Hand

Joseph Stiglitz criticises Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer, for not understanding Keynes’s theory, but in doing so reveals his own imperfect understanding (LRB, 22 April). The basis of his complaint is Skidelsky’s distinction between risk and uncertainty. Risk, Skidelsky explains, exists when the future can be predicted on the basis of currently existing information (e.g. probability distributions calculated from existing market data); uncertainty exists when no reliable information exists today about the future outcomes of current decisions, because the economic future can be created by decisions taken today. According to Stiglitz, this is a distinction without a difference, and ‘little insight’ into the causes of the Great Recession is gained from Skidelsky’s emphasis on uncertainty as opposed to risk.

But this is not what Keynes believed. The classical economics of Keynes’s time presumed that today’s economic decision-makers have reliable information regarding all future outcomes. I have labelled this the ‘ergodic axiom’. By contrast, Keynes argued that ‘unfortunate collisions’ occurred because the economic future was very uncertain. ‘By very uncertain,’ he wrote, ‘I do not mean the same thing as “very improbable".’ No reliable information existed today for providing a reliable forecast of future outcomes.

This is the very proposition that Stiglitz denies. All that is needed to provide better insight into the workings of the market, he thinks, is ‘small and obviously reasonable change in assumptions’; for example, that reliable information about the future does exist but that different individuals have access to different information. The only necessary policy is ‘transparency’: to make complete information about the future available to all. The classical ergodic axiom is correct, provided one accepts that not everyone has access to all the information that exists.

For Keynes the inability of firms and households to ‘know’ the economic future is essential to understanding why financial crashes occur in an economy that uses money and money contracts to organise transactions. Firms and households use money contracts to gain some control over their cash inflows and outflows as they venture into the uncertain future. Liquidity in such an economy implies the ability to meet all money contractual obligations when they fall due. The role of financial markets is to assure holders of financial assets that are traded on orderly markets that they can readily convert these liquid assets into cash whenever additional funds are needed to meet a contractual cash outflow commitment. In Keynes’s analysis, the sudden drying up of liquidity in financial markets, occasioned by sudden drops of confidence, explains why ‘unfortunate collisions’ occur – and have occurred more than a hundred times in the last 30 years, according to Stiglitz.

By contrast, Stiglitz implicitly accepts the orthodox view that all contracts are made in real terms, as if the economy were a barter economy. Consequently people’s need for liquidity is irrelevant. Stiglitz indicates that he and Bruce Greenwald have explained that financial markets fail ‘because contracts are not appropriately indexed’, i.e., contracts in our economy are denominated in money terms rather than ‘real’ terms. He suggests that if only such contracts were made in real, rather than monetary, terms we would not suffer the ‘unfortunate collisions’ of economic crisis. If only we lived in a classical world, where contracts would be denominated in real terms! But in a money-using economy, this is impossible.

Paul Davidson
Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, New York

In a Cleft Stick

The Single Equalities Act 2010 referred to by Natasha Thoday may not have addressed problems of transgender discrimination but it is considerably more than a mere consolidation act (Letters, 13 May). Discrimination on grounds of caste is made unlawful for the first time and it is no longer lawful for employers to impose on their employees a contract stipulating that they do not discuss one another’s pay. Perhaps of most significance, ‘positive discrimination’ becomes lawful for the first time in the area of recruitment and promotion. If there are two candidates of equal merit the employers must choose the one belonging to the less well represented minority.

With regard to Gareth Peirce’s article in the same issue, I am reliably informed that Bow Street is no longer the extradition court. It is now being converted into a hotel. The extradition court is at City of Westminster Magistrates Court in Horseferry Road.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

I had a dream

I had a dream last night … that Jonathan Lear and Christopher Bollas had decided to continue their spat outside of your letters page. Will your next issue confirm this as a wish-fulfilment?

Nigel Ganly
Exeter

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