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Writing Worth Reading

Lunch With Raghuram Rajan

Governor of India’s central bank talks about bureaucracy, business, banking. “Central bankers have had enormous responsibilities thrust on them to compensate, essentially, for the failings of the political system. And my worry is we don’t have sufficient tools to do that, but we’re not willing to say it. And, as a result, we push as hard as we can on the existing tools, and they may create more risk in the system.” (2,490 words)

Russia, An Economic Black Hole

Russia sees trade primarily as an instrument of political control; which scarcely helps its attempts to construct a free-trade bloc rivalling the European Union. So far it has persuaded only Belarus and Kazakhstan to join its Eurasian Economic Union. “Moscow essentially bribes its vassal states with cheap gas in return for ensuring that they will never have significant trade with anyone else” (Metered) (1,070 words)

Tolstoy Translated

Tolstoy’s reputation as a novelist in the English-speaking world owed much to Constance Garnett, whose translation of Anna Karenina appeared in 1901, and of War And Peace in 1904. Earlier translations had made little impression; Tolstoy’s language was often intractable, the quantity of his writing overwhelming. Turgenev was much easier to render; until Garnett, Turgenev was considered the superior writer (1,940 words)

The Problem Of Scotland

It’s really a problem of England. Even if Scotland votes No to independence, Britain looks set to devolve more power to Edinburgh. How then will England be governed? If Scottish MPs cease to vote on English issues, the effect will be a seemingly permanent Conservative majority in England — to which Labour can hardly agree. The outcome may have to include regional assemblies for England (Metered) (1,050 words)

Monopoly Is The Democrat’s Foe

We tend to worry about monopolies mainly on the grounds that they may raise prices; and past work in economics has shown, or claimed, that the effect of monopolies on pricing is relatively small. But the far bigger arguments against monopolies are that they stifle innovation; they capture regulators and legislators; they restrict choice, and, with it, individual freedom. They are anti-democratic (1,000 words)

Collateral Damage From Punishing Russia

Economic forecasters have a hard time incorporating shocks into models. Which may explain why official forecasts seem so sanguine about Western sanctions against Russia: they are “a decimal point disturbance”. But if the EU bans investment in Russian financial assets, the effect could be profound. “Just as finance acted as a growth accelerator before the economic crisis, financial sanctions could act as decelerator” (Metered) (870 words)

Target The Planning Laws, Not The One Per Cent

Some 40% of UK national wealth is illusory. It consists of the premium in house prices due to planning and zoning restrictions. This artificial wealth has been created “not by improving our living standards but by making them worse; by building too few houses, not too many”. The effect is a transfer of money from the young and poor to the old and rich. “This is not wealth, this is plunder” (Metered) (850 words)

Anglo-Scottish Union Belongs To The Past

The Union may have been “glorious” in the Victorian age; but that is hardly an argument for maintaining it now. 18C Scotland traded its independence for prosperity and security; that bargain no longer obtains. Rather, the reverse. Only full independence can safeguard modern Scotland against “barbaric neoliberalism” in Britain, and from being dragged out of the European Union by “groundless English panic” (1,140 words)

The New Baby Boom

Lifted by immigration, live births in Britain are up 22% since 2001. The new generation inherits Britain’s changing demographics. Half the babies born in London have a foreign mother. An east London singing class for one-year-olds attracts “one white Briton, two black Britons, four east Europeans, one west African and one Iraqi”. By the time these babies grow up, the notion of ethnic minorities may have disappeared (5,100 words)

Pacifist Japan Inches Towards Normal

Japan’s post-war policy of non-militarism is ending. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has formed a national security council, enacted a secrecy bill, eased arms exports. China’s “growing power and assertiveness” has prompted the change. Japan is becoming a more normal country; all other big countries equip themselves for war. But it’s worrying that the change is happening without much public debate (Metered) (950 words)

The New Mauritshuis

The restored Mauritshuis in The Hague, “the jewel box among Holland’s museums”, reopens after a two-year closure with “a fresh hang, subtle decor and sympathetic extensions”. It may well be the “most alluring small museum” in Europe, if not the world, thanks to its quiet charm and perfect compact collection, which includes Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson; and Vermeer’s View Of Delft and Girl With A Pearl Earring (1,100 words)

Ebooks Versus Paper

Too much of the debate about screen versus printed page, and by extension about the future of books and reading, focuses on the physiology of reading to the exclusion of the psychology and the sociology. “When we sit on a train with a book open in front of us, how much has our choice of reading being influenced by our ideas of what a proper book should be like, and how a proper adult should appear in public?” (1,840 words)

A Walk Along Hadrian’s Wall

Compared to a walk across Afghanistan, 40 miles along the English borders is a mere hop. But what the region lacks in exoticism it makes up in history. “This fort contained Frisian soldiers from Holland. Further west at Carvoran were Syrian archers. Each unit would have brought their own languages, some their gods; all their cuisine. One African unit had left the remains of an African casserole dish in the ground” (1,890 words)

Selling Terror

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), now threatening Baghdad, issues annual reports cataloguing its bombings, assassinations, suicide missions, territorial gains and recruits. The aim “appears to be to demonstrate its record to potential donors”. Isis has 15,000 “hardened fighters”, funding from Gulf networks, and “internal financing” from oil, smuggling, racketeering and kidnapping (Metered) (1,180 words)

Five Whitehall Lessons

Notes from a ministerial adviser after four years in government. “There is no such thing as HM Government, only the departments – disparate organisations peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials”. Private secretaries are “almost indecently relaxed, given their elevated sphere of action”. Lobbyists do useful work. Decision-making “is a world of unwritten bargains that history seldom records” (Metered) (1,150 words)

How Long Can The Art Market Boom Last?

The current boom (or bubble) in fine art is comparatively recent — the surge began in 2004. The market is narrow: “Top collectors are only interested in the work of 50 to 100 artists, overwhelmingly modern and contemporary”. Closest historical precedent is probably “the golden age of the living painter”, 1860-1914, which was propelled by new fortunes from industry and commerce and ended with World War 1 (2,020 words)

The Economics Of Book Festivals

Britain’s big four book festivals — Oxford; Hay; Edinburgh; Cheltenham — put on more than 2,000 talks and sell more than half a million tickets. But authors are rarely paid more than £150 to talk there; at Hay the standard fee is six bottles of wine. Authors grumble. Organisers say the overheads and risks are high. “While a literary festival might run for 10 days, it may well have taken the best part of a year to put together” (2,500 words)

Lunch With The FT: Guo Jian

Gripping read — and a rare example of an FT lunch in which the participants admit to drinking freely: six bottles of beer, from which a fine conversation flows. Guo Jian is celebrated now as an artist: “A few days earlier, he had covered a large diorama of Tiananmen Square with 160kg of minced pork”. Once he was soldier. And in between, he survived the Tiananmen massacre (2,360 words)

An Astonishing Record Of Complete Failure

As late as September 2008, when the financial crash was well under way, the consensus among economic forecasters was that no country would fall into recession in 2009. “The obvious conclusion is that forecasts should not be taken seriously”. Economists should emulate dentists, who at least know how to treat problems effectively when they occur; they don’t pretend to know when your teeth will fall out (890 words)

A Split UK Is Not For A Week But For Ever

The level of public debate about Scottish independence is “almost unbelievably myopic”. Both sides exchange dubious claims about short-term economic scenarios when they should be talking about culture and history. “The political unity of the island we share made a priceless contribution to the freedom not just of the British but of Europe. This may seem less important today. But is that sure to be true for ever?” (Metered) (880 words)

China Steals A Strategic March

China’s aggressions in the South and East China seas diminish America’s prestige among allies by exposing American reluctance to fight. “Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, or rather in the sea and in the air. With each new incident, it is throwing down the gauntlet. Is it worth fighting for a Vietnamese fishing boat? Thought not. How about a submerged Philippine reef? An uninhabited island?” (Metered) (866 words)

Disarm Our Doomsday Machine

Capitalism is inherently crisis-prone. In periods of stability actors take on more risk, leading to more instability. So: restrain the actors. Options for doing so: Higher capital requirements for institutions of potentially systemic importance; reduction of tax incentives to take on debt; safer bank deposits backed by higher reserve requirements; more regulatory oversight; greater ability to resolve insolvent institutions (Metered) (990 words)

Piketty Findings Undercut By Errors

Did Thomas Piketty, author of the most acclaimed economics book in decades, base his arguments on bad data? The FT thinks so: “There is little evidence in Prof Piketty’s original sources to bear out the thesis that an increasing share of total wealth is held by the richest few”. Piketty, unperturbed, thanks the FT for its work, agrees that the data needs to be reinforced, but says his thesis remains, for the moment, intact (700 words)

The Empire Of Alain de Botton

Largely sympathetic portrait of de Botton, philosopher-king of highbrow self-help, whose moralising essays on everyday subjects — art, sex, travel, status — have sold 6m copies, but also made him an easy target for critics. “He comes up with snappy ideas. He is unbelievably productive (he rarely sleeps past 6am). He gives YouTube lectures. But all this still doesn’t quite explain how intensely he gets under people’s skin” (2,560 words)

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