Sunday, 25 November 2012

"This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country".

Probably only a small number of British readers will recognise these words. This was the motion tabled at a famous debate of the Oxford Union early in 1933: it was passed. Notwithstanding which, many of the young men who voted in favour went on to serve in the armed forces during the Second World War. Some have credited this vote, which was widely reported, with encouraging Hitler in his territorial aggrandisement in later years. An early example, perhaps, of the power of publicity. Still, I have always been sceptically inclined when it comes to anything resulting from a public discussion, whether it be from a debate or a lecture. Demosthenes' Philippics didn't stop the rise of Macedon.

Recently, Garry Kasparov proposed at an Oxford Union debate that there has been a slowing down in the rate of technological change with concomitant effects upon world growth. A debate that is available online. He was supported by Peter Thiel, a billionaire and a well known investor, who co-founded Paypal. The opposition was led by Mark Shuttleworth, another billionaire, who is best known for funding Ubuntu Linux. Also speaking against Kasparov's thesis was Kenneth Rogoff.

I am one of those who regrets that Kasparov gave up playing chess professionally. Yes, he had nothing left to prove; yes, playing at his level was very strenuous indeed. Nonetheless, he could well have produced many fine games that will not now see the light of day. On the other hand, when it comes to politics, despite his opposition to Putin, possibly, indeed, because of it, he is not taken seriously by many Russians. Writing for the Wall Street Journal will not help him one whit domestically, rather the reverse.

In the debate Shuttleworth teased that Russia is not a democracy. Rogoff (In my opinion, far and away the best speaker, even though he was softly spoken. I presume he has more experience of public speaking than the other three.) later followed this theme by cracking that had Kasparov become president of Russia, he'd have become a billionaire. I was surprised when Rogoff indicated that chess playing computers have already passed the Turing test: he finds it difficult to distinguish a game played by a machine from that ventured by a human.

As so often, much of what was said was not new. I've lost count of the number of times I've read that living standards for most Americans have not risen since the 1970s. Shuttleworth rightly pointed out that what Thiel said of America was true for America; however, in Asia, for instance, many people are better off than they were. This reminded me of a quip about VI Kulik (another toady of Stalin's, one who greatly damaged the Red Army): Each snipe looks to its own marsh. This was a play upon Kulik, which can mean a marsh bird (i.e. a snipe).

One oddity in the debate was the use of the expression Hobson's choice. A way to remember its meaning is: any colour you like, so long as it's black. Hobson was an ostler who would offer his patrons only the one horse, it was that or nothing.

For myself, I was persuaded by Rogoff's arguments. Those of moderate circumstances in the West are finding it hard to obtain credit. Smaller companies and enterprises are suffering from the identical problem. He added that he wanted a stabler world and cared about the environment. He wasn't bothered whether his kids voyaged into space or not (a mild quip aimed at Shuttleworth). Thiel may be right that bubbles are more frequent now than they used to be; he mentioned the South Sea Bubble and America before the Wall Street Crash, but not the Tulip Mania in the United Provinces (i.e. the Netherlands) of the seventeenth century. However, it could be argued that the number of recent bubbles is due to poor decision making (for instance, during the Greenspan era at the Federal Reserve).

For further reading there are two articles that recently appeared in the Financial Times. The first was written jointly by Thiel and Kasparov, the second by Gillian Tett, a highly regarded award winning journalist, she has had a good crisis.

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