Let’s all go to Mars
David Runciman wrote last year that Richard Branson portrays himself as ‘a plucky David in a world of corporate Goliaths’ despite having ‘made his fortune out of the regulated parts of the economy, which he has milked to extract government subsidies, tax breaks, licensing agreements and protected income streams’ (LRB, 20 March 2014). Elon Musk, whom John Lanchester wrote about, isn’t so different (LRB, 10 September). Musk, like Branson, encourages his followers to see him as a paragon of Randian individualism and enlightened futurism. As they see it, Musk’s success can be chalked up to his hardy upbringing in the wastes of South Africa, where the government’s only use was as a helpful antagonist spurring Musk’s development into today’s virtuous ‘disrupter’ of the calcified status quo.
Lanchester emphasises Musk the individualist and ignores Musk the cynical entrepreneur. No mention is made of the Department of Energy’s $465 million direct loan to Tesla, or to the State of Nevada’s $1.5 billion package of tax refunds and other direct subsidies to Tesla to build a battery factory, extracted with promises of jobs and classic Bransonian threats to accept another state’s offer if Nevada didn’t give Tesla all it could give.
To be fair to Lanchester, Musk has a proven ability to deliver on his promises, unlike Branson: governments can expect more than just empty tarmac in the desert when they throw money his way. Musk may well usher in a future of electric roadsters instead of filthy internal combustion engines; privately constructed pneumatic tubes instead of taxpayer-built high speed rail. But to paraphrase Barack Obama: Musk, you won’t have built all that.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
John Lanchester errs in placing Kitty Hawk on the Grand Banks. It is on the Outer Banks. The Grand Banks are an underwater feature off the coast of Newfoundland.
At the Crossing
I remember many years ago a crossing, similar to the one described by Andrew O’Hagan though smaller, near Trongate in Glasgow (LRB, 24 September). The busy shoppers could not wait for the lights to change, but would instead wait for a gap in the traffic flying around the corner, then move into the road en masse. My mother would grab my hand and launch herself forward, usually at the side furthest from oncoming traffic, the reason being that others would have to be mown down before the vehicles could reach us.
Andrew O’Hagan is wrong to think that the curse of the cyclist threatens the well-being only of city dwellers. Down here the local authorities and the Dartmoor National Park Authority have colluded to establish a series of ‘cycleways’ – i.e. paved roads – across the moor. Where once only a decent pair of boots and goodly sweat would permit those so inclined to go across the nearly trackless wastes, disturbance of one’s peace by cyclists, some of them drawn along by harnessed dogs, is becoming the norm. Worse, their monstrous tyres churn up the land as no other traveller on Dartmoor has done for the last six thousand years.
Bere Ferrers, Devon
‘For pedestrians, London bikes are much worse than white vans,’ Andrew O’Hagan writes in defiance of any reliable statistics. However you dice them, the figures show that motor vehicles are between 80 and 120 times more likely to be the cause of serious injury or worse to pedestrians.
Cyclists, as O’Hagan characterises them, are a ‘community’ only in an imagined and rather pernicious way. Far from being homogeneous in their sanctimony, cyclists in London range from those excluded from the Tube by rising fares and from buses by unreliability over long-distance commutes, to ‘ordinary hard-working people’, to lycra-wrapped obsessives. A proportion of them are nasty, and all of them are always already also pedestrians.
Oh, Mr Clark
When I was a child I heard on the wireless a rhyme which began:
Oh, Mr Porter, whatever shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham
And got carried on to Crewe.
Today I became so absorbed in T.J. Clark’s article on Auerbach that the cakes – for a party – in my oven burned and were inedible (LRB, 10 September).
The Duke of Windsor’s War
The Duke of Windsor appears also to have been a traitor (Letters, 10 September and Letters, 24 September). At the outbreak of war in 1939, he was made a major-general attached to the British Military Mission in France. In that capacity he would have attended Allied War Council meetings. It became known after the war that he had made a visit to The Hague in January 1940 (the Netherlands was still neutral then) and paid a visit to the German Embassy there. The following extract is from the German Foreign Policy Documents 1918-45, Series D, Vol. VIII, No. 621. These can be found online.
Minister Zech to State Secretary Weizsäcker
THE HAGUE, February 19, 1940.
DEAR WEIZSÄCKER: The Duke of W., about whom I wrote to you in my letter of the 27th of last month, has said that the Allied War Council devoted an exhaustive discussion at its last meeting to the situation that would arise if Germany invaded Belgium. Reference was made throughout to a German invasion plan said to have been found in an airplane that made a forced landing in Belgium. On the military side, it was held that the best plan would be to make the main resistance effort in the line behind the Belgian-French border, even at the risk that Belgium should be occupied by us. The political authorities are said to have at first opposed this plan: after the humiliation suffered in Poland, it would be impossible to surrender Belgium and the Netherlands also to the Germans. In the end, however, the political authorities became more yielding.
How to Do Good
William MacAskill and his followers, about whom Amia Srinivasan writes, believe that buying insecticide-coated malarial nets for Africa is an effective bit of altruism (LRB, 24 September). As noted in a report in the New York Times, these nets are modified and used for fishing in lakes such as Lake Tanganyika. The modified nets catch everything, leaving little breeding stock for future generations. Unintended consequences of long-distance do-gooding?
Birkbeck, University of London
As a doctor with experience in international health I have found that some of the claims made by the proponents of effective altruism are not merely ‘satisfyingly counterintuitive’: they are wrong. For example, MacAskill claims that deworming has better educational outcomes among Kenyan schoolchildren than increasing the number of textbooks or teachers. This notion is based almost entirely on a single study published by Miguel and Kremer in the journal Econometrica in 2004 and has recently been debunked by Aiken, Davey et al in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Deworming does not improve educational outcomes. A review of the evidence available in the field of development studies makes it clear that improved educational outcomes in developing countries are best achieved by, wait for it, a decent, well-resourced school system. The idea that a single anti-worm pill is the key to solving the deep societal injustice of poor education is another instance of the glib ‘freakonomics’ style of thinking that has hijacked much of the field of social studies. Claims for a pharmacological magic bullet as a solution to poor educational attainment in Africa dovetail very nicely with the prevalent ideology of international health governance, which is content to accept structural inequalities in wealth and power while focusing on vertical, narrow, top-down, and ultimately ineffective strategies in alleviating health inequalities.
On Not Getting Things Done
Christopher Gordon writes that St Expedite (Expeditus) ‘may be no more than the embodiment of a pun’ (Letters, 24 September). In fact his existence owes more to a misunderstanding. In the mid-19th century a package containing a finger bone and some teeth was sent by the bishop of Toulouse to a convent in Rome. The package was marked in expedito. The nuns assumed it was the name of the hermit they were asked to pray to. Miracles ensued and canonisation. But the Vatican in its own good time realised the mistake. In 1905 the relics were deconsecrated, and St Expedite was relegated to apocryphal status. Nevertheless the cult flourishes. In Catalan country he is venerated as an antidote to ‘mañana’. My local church has an altar to him, and it doesn’t lack for get-well cards. Evidently there is a pressing need for speedy recoveries.
Port Vendres, France
Cal Winslow states that smugglers were admired rather than feared by country people, as in the legend of Robin Hood (Letters, 10 September). This is borne out by a fascinating journal in which were recorded letters written by the Excise officers of Penzance to their superiors in London in the early 18th century. The journal is now in the care of the Record Office in Truro. One of these letters, dated 14 December 1749, suggests that the country people not only offered moral support to the smugglers and plunderers of wrecks, but also joined in their enterprises:
Last night was drove on shore by distress of weather in this Bay the Squirrell Snow of North Yarmouth, Henry William Master, from Salox with brandy for Bolloing in France when the Country immediately boarded her, stripped the master of everything valuable then carryed off what brandy they could and in the hurry sett fire to the rest of the cargoe so that the whole ship is now in flames. We hope yr Honrs are by this satisfied there’s nothing to be preserved either by shipwrecks or from smuggling without the assistance of a millitary force.
Another letter complains that the parish constable was unwilling to execute warrants against those suspected of smuggling, while a third protests that even those from whom the Excise men felt they deserved support and assistance were reluctant to intervene:
Mount 25 Jany 1749. Honble Sir. This morning about two o’clock Mr Colman and self met one Harris of Coverack on the western pier, we examined him what brought him there he did not satisfie us, but going on the back of the pier saw a Lugg sail boat let go her anchor. We knew we had not strength sufficient in the place. Mr Colman went immediately to acquaint Mr Elliott at Marazion and to get what help he could. He soon returned with answer that Mr Elliott was very much indisposed and that we must act according to our own discretion. Accordingly we got four hands and rowd off but Harris above observering our motion called to the people on board the boat to be on the guard and to keep us off. We were within an oars length of the boat when we demanded entrance. They swore bitterly we should have none and that they would knock out our brains which they endeavoured to do with a boat hook or long pole and oars. Then they took up stones and threw at us.
Leyburn, North Yorkshire