BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason

Archives for September 2010

Tony Curtis RIP: The lost art of complex realism

Paul Mason | 12:11 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sometime in the 1980s I caught the overnight ferry to Paris and arriving too early in the morning had to wander around the streets in the twilight. For a long time I was the only person in sight but then a diminutive figure appeared also wandering aimlessly.

He was swathed in a checked overcoat and seemed to have hair that was both permed and brylcreemed, and a healthy tan. He nodded at me as he passed. It was Tony Curtis.
He had on his face that impish look of wonder, and a total relaxation and composure, that I now understand as the whole basis for his acting achievement.

Born in the Bronx as Bernie Schwarz, to a mentally ill mother, Curtis spent time in an orphanage and then the US Navy during World War II. He trained as an actor with some of the most radical figures in American theatre at The New School in New York, at a time when it was swamped by working class wannabee method actors - but his looks meant he was not destined for a career as a moody anti-hero.

The studios recruited him for his sultry onscreen persona but, as you piece together the bits of his early film career, Curtis gets deeper and deeper into portrayals of societal dysfunction and injustice. Films like Trapeze, the Outsider, the anti-racist drama The Defiant Ones are what made Hollywood in the 1950s a bastion of "progressivism".

But Curtis' triumph was his performance in Some Like It Hot. Here Curtis plays a saxophone player on the run from mobsters who has to act out two roles: that of a female saxophone player in an all-girl band, and a frigid Ivy League millionaire with a voice like Cary Grant.For me, Some Like It Hot stands as the 20th century's most complete comedy. It was voted the greatest American comedy film ever made, but I would happily drop the word comedy out of that accolade.

Watch the ease with which Curtis (Joe) turns from blustering, thwarted wide-boy into an involuntary girl called Josephine in the space of one phone call, in the following scene he and Jack Lemmon escape from the St Valentine's Day massacre. Watch as he acts out the very moment of establishing the fake character of oil millionaire "Junior", prompting Marilyn Monroe to famously exclaim "Shell Oil?!?!?!"

Much of the charm and genius of Some Like It Hot is in the script and direction: the creation of conceit upon conceit, but the believability and the creation of the "world" of the film is in the hands of the actors.

But the world of that film is a lost world: the world of ensemble acting; the world where actors steeped in the traditions of Brecht, Piscator and Stanislavsky could turn out intelligent, challenging, collective performances in films that spoke the shtick of the streets so fast that you had to be a city-dweller to keep up.

And something else is lost: my sometime colleague on Newsnight Review/The Review Show, Sarah Churchwell, makes the point that in the "screwball" comedies of the 1930s there are women portrayed whose personas stand as a kind of reprimand to the simpering "feminine" roles allocated to young women actors today. I think the same could be said about Curtis and masculinity.

His performances in the late 50s and early 60s contain an honesty, complexity and a centredness in the male persona that you will have to go a long way to find on celluloid today (paradoxically the best TV drama actors still achieve it - I am thinking Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire, or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano). Whether its the film business losing the will to portray people in the way Curtis and director Billy Wilder did, or actors losing their ability to deploy this complex realism, something's missing.

It's missing even more now he's gone.

Fox: I am concerned we do not have a narrative

Paul Mason | 08:39 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Earlier this month Newsweek leaked the existence of three potential military strategies under consideration by the Coalition government.

The "Adaptible Britain" scenario sees the UK retain the ability to respond to "generic threats" - retaining an army, airforce and deepwater navy, through conventional warfare. "Vigilant Britain" was code for retaining the big stick of nuclear weapons and a large Navy but with an army capable of only an "occasional foray". "Committed Britain" was code for a focus on power-projection, Afghanistan style.

Last night's leak of a letter from Liam Fox reveals not just the anger within the MoD at the scale of defence cuts, but also which posture has been chosen.

"Committed Britain" is a dead duck: the current government and its national security advisers seem to have already decided not to design the armed forces for future Afghan-style deployments. The starting point is the "Adaptible Britain" scenario - which means nuclear deterrent, aircraft carriers, tanks and a deployable ground force.

So at least, thanks to two press leaks, we now know what the military/diplomatic strategy of our country is.

However, the problem with "Adaptible Britain" seems to be that it can't be funded. This is the gist of the Liam Fox letter. The key passage summarises the aims:

"The maintenance of generic defence capability across all three environments of land, sea and air - not to mention the emerging asymmetric threats in domains such as cyber and space -with sufficient ability to regenerate capability in the face of these possible future threats were it required."

But we now learn that in order to pay for this the Nimrod surveillance aircraft, part of the Royal Navy's surface fleet, the ships, helicopters and support services needed to stage an amphibious landing; and the army's ability to respond to domestic crisis - are all on the block. Not mentioned in the letter, but widely leaked, is the proposal to lose 60% of the Royal Air Force's combat aircraft.

Liam Fox's argument is, essentially, the new stance cannot be delivered while making 10-20% cuts. I have pointed out before that the cyber and space threats mentioned in Fox's letter are new and imply extra cost (Note he is talking about threats, not capabilities, and that there is by implication an "asymmetric space threat" to the UK. I think this is the first time we have heard about this).

As a result of this gap between strategy and resources, he says:

"I am concerned that we do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly."

The threat of a hit to morale, mentioned in the letter, is borne out by briefings and discussions coming out of the armed forces: note too Mr Fox seems to be predicting in the letter "significant casualties" from forthcoming operations in Afghanistan.

"Cuts there will have to be," Mr Fox ends; "Coherence we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative."

And this goes to the heart of the debate currently being had behind closed doors and in the parliamentary committees: Britain lacks a strategy and a narrative. For this to be the case at a time that troops are on the ground in Afghanistan and the security services engaged with a very definite terrorist threat may seem to some strange.

But long range thinking identifies very different threats: to food, to energy, to the financial system, to government computer security - and they can come from sources as diverse as al-Qaeda and the People's Republic of China.

The problem is you can't do it all. As Sun Tsu famously wrote: he who defends everywhere defends nowhere. And if you do try to do it all, and weaken every element of your forces, you do not have much to take to each specific challenge. By retaining the trappings of great power status you risk not being able to bring much to the table in the so-called special relationship with the USA. That is what seemed to worry the US sources who briefed Newsweek.

To be able to ask yourself "what kind of country do we want to be in the world" is a nice choice to have: many countries don't have that choice. Mr Fox's letter reveals starkly where the Coalition is on that debate.

Brazil: now it's currency war

Paul Mason | 21:49 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

"An "international currency war" has broken out, according to Guido Mantega, Brazil's finance minister, as governments around the globe compete to lower their exchange rates to boost competitiveness." writes the FT tonight.

See my previous post for an explanation of what's going on. There will now be massive US pressure on China - and pressure within the USA for tariffs to punish so called "currency manipulators".

Data mining the PLP vote: who are the Ed-ites?

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Paul Mason | 20:27 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

The following is compiled in the spirit of Jeremy Vine on election night, or Statto from Fantasy Football League:

I've been data mining the MP/MEP voting patterns in the Labour leadership election. While it would be wrong to impute motives to indivuduals for the way they voted, you can discern patterns, specifically as to the question whether there is a "centre-left" constituency that would support an Ed+Ed coalition.

There are 85 Labour MPs (out of 256) who voted first preference for the winner, Ed Miliband. Of these, 22 voted for him only - with no preference beyond him - including Emily Thornberry, Joan Ruddock, Maria Eagle, Natascha Engel, Dawn Primarolo and Margaret Beckett. (I do not want to be the person that coins the epithet "Ed's Babes", because this group also includes 11 men. Maybe some tabloid journo will.)

Next, how do you measure the "centre-left" component of that constituency? Those who voted for Balls or Abbott second and not David? Not an easy assumption to make since the centre-left Compass grouping split, some like Jon Cruddas supporting David M as number one, and others like Chukka Umunna, putting Ed M as number one and David as number two.

However, 17 of the new leader's supporters did put Ed Miliband #1 and Ed Balls #2, and they include leftwingers like Lisa Nandy, Frank Dobson, Hywel Francis.

A further 23 put Balls first and Ed Miliband second, including Gordon Brown's former link men, Jon Trickett, Tom Watson and Michael Dugher. Apart from Balls himself, only one other MP voted for Balls alone, not wishing to choose anyone but him, and that was his wife, Yvette Cooper.

So this centre-left, Ed+Ed crossover group numbers about 40.

Of Diane Abbott's 7 supporters only 4 put Ed Miliband second, with Katy Clark putting him third after Andy Burnham and both Abbott and thwarted candidate John McDonnell voting for Abbott alone. But you can add them all to a notional left group, bringing it to a nominal 47.

There are 40 MP/MEPs who voted David #1, Ed Miliband #2, and they roughly define the "centre" of the Labour party - including David Miliband himself, leftish MPs like Stella Creasy and John Mann, through to Brown prodigies like Gloria di Piero and Brown critics like Graham Allen. Centre left figurehead Cruddas himself went for David, Ed Balls #2 and put Ed Miliband third.

Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman do not appear to have voted.

The band of MPs who wanted David #1 but put Ed Miliband fourth or fifth (as in "over my dead body and my ruined career") were small. Only Newport West MP Paul Flynn managed to put Ed Miliband fifth, and six David supporters have him down as fourth (including David Lammy, Mike Gapes).

Finally 56 Labour MPs or MEPs could not bring themselves to vote for the new leader at all, with any of their preferences. Burnham, Abbot and Balls voted only for themselves presumably as matter of etiquette. But a number of prominent Labour cabinet ministers are among those who cast no vote for the new leader: Alan Johnson, Jack Straw, Alistair Darling and David Blunkett; also a number of veteran Blairite backbenchers.

What conclusions can you draw from all this data-mining? Nothing earth-shattering. However...

If, as the newspapers suggest, Labour is about to veer left under Ed Miliband, there is a minority among the MEPs/MPs who fall into middle of a Venn Diagram of those supporting Balls, Abbott or Ed Miliband himself, numbering around 110. There are probably 40 out of the 50+ who failed to vote for him at all, who are outright political opponents, and for the rest there is the centre.

Obviously it would be wrong to impute specific motives to specific MPs' votes - but by aggregating the results you can see the beginnings of groupings within the new PLP, which were not really formed openly before because the power-broking was being done by the remnants of the Brown team. And now it is not.

The raw results are available here. Strip them into Excel and use the sort function to do your own datamining. I have not managed to calculate how the new intake of Labour MPs' votes split, but hopefully somebody will. Let me know if there are any mistakes above.

Behind the deficit row - the philosophical crossroads for Labour

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Paul Mason | 09:07 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

In one of those strange twists emblematic of postmodern politics, the debate on Labour's economic policy will now begin at exactly the moment the leadership contest ends.

Ed Balls, late in the contest, put down a marker that said Alistair Darling's deficit reduction plan had been too aggressive, and that Labour should row back from it. In his acceptance speech Ed Miliband swerved around the issue: but left and right now look set to divide over whether to stick, or not to stick, to halving the deficit in four years.

This, in turn, is a proxy for another debate that has not yet dared to speak its name within Labour - namely over the size of the state. It's become an article of faith within Labour - and not just on the left - that a big state is good: not just good in a recession but good per se. Many of Labour's union members work for public sector unions - or in industries like aerospace and defence where the state plays a major role; many of its activists are councillors running the state at local level; many of its voters live in areas predominantly dependent on the state for employment and growth.

What the post-Blair right had tended to emphasise was its opposition to this latter philosophy, which it dubbed Fabianism. According to Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, in their 2007 initiative labelled 2020 Vision, Labour needed to move away from the big and strong state; with Milburn crossing over to work for the coalition and their younger ally James Purnell out of the game, the baton has passed over to the Open Left project of the think tank Demos (now headed by ex-minister Kitty Ussher).

Writing for Open Left, Peter Kellner argues this month that "social democracy" is a business model past its sell by date. Tax revenues, he argues, will no longer support the size of state that Brownite social democracy created; meanwhile the state-provided services are destined to be inefficient and in need of ever larger dollops of cash.

That - and it's interesting that it took a pollster not a politician to write it - is probably the clearest philosophical challenge to the legacy left by Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Ed Balls, and as Ed B sets about Alistair D's deficit plan this week, it would be interesting to hear at this philosophical level what their response is.

If David Miliband becomes shadow chancellor, then his political hinterland is precisely this "smaller state" wing within New Labour; while if Balls gets the job, he has staked his territory as "Brownite deficit finance plus".

On the deficit: though long described as a "Keynesian" policy, the running of a high structural deficit has - say some of Keynes' followers - no justification in the writings of the man himself. City economist Graham Turner, among others, has argued that the true Keynesian policy faced with a private sector credit crunch is to get long-term interest rates down, and that means a zero base rate plus as much quantitative easing as the economy can stand. Deficits, in this model, can only be the palliative while the primary medicine of monetary stimulus works.

Thus, should they require it, the Miliband brothers have a ready-made Keynesian riposte to the argument that the deficit needs to be kept higher for longer.

Labour's problem this week is that a whole series of unfought battles from during the Brown era will now come to the surface. And there is little time left to resolve them: by 20 October Ed Miliband needs to be making a speech saying what cuts he will oppose and why; what level of deficit a Labour government would run and what monetary policy it would advocate alongside it.

For the monetary debate is also moving on: Ben Bernanke's Jackson Hole speech outlined the possibility not just of more quantitative easing but of raising the formal inflation target, and setting zero interest rates in place for a fixed time period. Since in the UK these things are set in the form of the Treasury's remit to the Bank of England, they are matters of party policy, not the inviolable whim of the central bank.

In fact it is worth spelling out, in these deficit obsessed times, that the monetary stimulus in the UK was 20 times the size of the fiscal stimulus; and that the overall effect of the fiscal tightening cannot be known unless you also know whether the central bank relaxes monetary policy to compensate for it.

Put simply, there are two levers in the face of the current crisis and political debate seems to ignore one as if it were a force of nature. It's worth remembering, as Darling and Balls go hammer and tongs over the deficit reduction path, that both men had it in their power to suggest a looser monetary policy for the Bank of England, but neither did. (Incidentally, it may be argued that they acquiesced in it anyway, but at this moment in the cycle, where policymakers worldwide are running out of options, overtly communicating your monetary stance is seen to be an important part of squeezing the last drops of effectiveness from it. US policy is already way beyond the nod-and-a-wink stage.)

The unresolved debate within Labour is whether or not it can achieve the social objectives it believes in with a smaller state. If it cannot, as Kellner argues, then its concepts of equal access, universal benefits, healthcare free for all etc may have to be rethought. Alternatively it has to fight, overtly, for a large state and the means to finance it.

That is the real point at issue as the press - denied any guiding narrative by the new Labour leader - busies itself with stories of sibling rivalry.

Ed Miliband: economic challenge entwined with unity problem

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Paul Mason | 18:46 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

There is acrimony; there is a kind of dull, stunned realisation among Ed Miliband's followers that a man who entered parliament only 5 years ago is leader. Remembering that the majority of MPs and party members did not support him, and that the majority of Fleet Street opposed him, and only the unions delivered victory, the new labour leader has a lot of urgent positioning to do.

On the economy, what's important is that the "statist" wing of Brownism, which had backed Ed Balls, swung behind Ed Miliband on 2nd preference. This means Balls is in a position to ask for the shadow chancellorship. Given that Balls set the pace in arguing that Labour should drop its old strategy of halving the deficit in four years - and that Ed Miliband swerved around this issue in his acceptance speech - it will be high on the agenda in negotiations between the two men.

The new Labour leader is leftish not essentially in his economic policy but in the fact that he has embraced the whole idea of community activism, the living wage, mutualism and the idea that Labour can be a social movement that participates, while in opposition, in protests against the Coalition cuts.

What's being missed also is that Labour now has an extremely green leader: Ed Miliband fought (against the pressure from the very unions that have backed him) against the Heathrow third runway, and forced Gordon Brown into the compromise and conditions that eventually killed the idea.

I don't read the hesitancy and non-specificity of his acceptance speech as anything other than a political brain calculating what kind of alliances he has to build, and going into a holding pattern until the dust settles.

The obvious alliance is with Balls: a statist centre left and a mutualist centre left commands - on the basis of the vote - a rough majority in the party.

(The pro-Balls bloggers and tweeters are swinging pretty enthusiastically behind the new leader.)

But the majority of the Labour supporting press is to the right of both of them, and the spleen being vented on the internet by Blairite commentators and former players is a signal that it will not be easy to run the party: as in the computer game Medieval Total War, all factions have highly effective "assassins" and Ed Miliband's rhetoric on unity was really a plea for them, including his own, to stand down for a bit while they figure out what to do.

The key question within Labour now is whether war breaks out between the centre left and the Blairite wing which so narrowly, and yet so decisively, lost power within the party tonight. Ed Miliband's face betrayed, I think, that it was not until he finally won that he realised how hard this was going to be.

The pressing issues for Ed Miliband will be to spell out a coherent policy platform with which to oppose (some of?) the cuts expected in the spending review. Does he go with Balls' demand for slower deficit reduction? Does he step back from the rhetoric within the Labour movement of "oppose every cut"?

What does he do on defence, where his union backers regard the building of aircraft carriers, fighter jets and nuclear subs as an article of faith. He is well aware that Labour defence policy has tended to triangulate between the White House and the HQ of Unite but has given few signals of what he will do in the SDSR.

A final thought, among these initial reactions. "Fairness" has become the watchword of the coalition government; inside Labour Ed Miliband had become "Mr Fairness" - crafting the whole manifesto around this central concept.

This will have implications for the way Labour now approaches the Lib Dems: much of the tribal response speaks of "smashing" them. But on the economy and to an extent foreign policy Ed Miliband was the candidate closest in philosophy to the Lib Dems. How he positions Labour rhetoric against "anti-capitalist" Vince will be an early challenge.

Next: QE2 - and if that doesn't work it's a currency war

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Paul Mason | 15:00 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

On both sides of the Atlantic we are now looking at what economists are calling QE2 - a second bout of "quantitative easing" in which the central bank prints money to sustain demand in the economy, which is faltering.

In the UK, the Bank of England's MPC minutes show the majority as minded to have a go at this sooner rather than later; here in the USA (I'm in Atlanta, GA) the Federal Reserve have already spelled out both the possibility and the limitations of a further bout of QE. It's worth revisiting the latter: first, Fed Chairman Bernanke warned, we don't know how to calibrate the effects of the existing QE; second there is a risk that the markets lose condidence in the central bank's ability to exit from QE. Bernanke concluded that further QE might not have much impact because the best time to use it is when everybody in the market is panicking.

The problem with QE as enacted in the UK is that much of the money printed has been taken by the banks and deposited back at the Bank of England. It has not flowed into circulation.

It's worth bearing in mind that when the central banks started to consider QE, nobody knew how to do it. Indeed, many of the economists inside the Bank of England warned their bosses it could not work, according to the accepted theories. On both sides of the Atlantic the bankers took a leap of faith and did it - but the fact they now have to consider doing more means either the policy did not work, or that other policies designed to back it up have failed.

QE purists, those who've studied Keynes in the 1930s and Japan in the early 2000s, always said it should be done as follows: you announce that interest rates will be zero for a fixed period (thereby abandoning inflation targeting); next you announce a target yield for 10 year government bonds (say 2%) - creating market knowledge that you will now intervene continually to achieve that target by printing money; next you take micro-economic powers to force the money through the banking system and into circulation.

Neither the Fed nor the BoE did this - though Bernanke is now considering both lifting the inflation target and announcing a long-term cap on interest rates.

The problem is that some 12% of GDP has been pumped into the economy but we're not sure how much that has translated into demand. If we are now looking at QE2, you would have to ask whether the stated aim - getting the banks to lend instead of hoarding money - could not have been achieved by some more hands on measure.

One option would be to accept the long-term state ownership of RBS and HBOS and to place their loan books in the hands of a state-directed investment commission (this was discussed but rejected under Alistair Darling in favour of a hands off approach to the nationalised banks). In the last Labour and first Coalition budget, both banks were set net lending targets - but this also happened in 2009 and they failed miserably to meet the targets.

Ultimately what policymakers are wrestling with is the fact that the economy is not responding to stimulus, and that's because both the UK and US economies are configured for consumer-driven growth. The Coalition has stated the aim to transform the UK economy so that private investment and exports fuel growth but that's a long-term and uphill task. The US policy debate on this remains at the position of rhetoric: the USA already has a good export and manufacturing base, but it is consumer demand that is ailing.

Both economies have one unstated monetary tool that will now come into focus: devaluation. Mervyn King is said by those who were on the inside to be privately proud of the fact he "talked down the pound" in 2008. The USA is gnashing its teeth about Japan's devaluation efforts and China's currency manipulation. (China's currency policy means the USA cannot devalue against its main trading partner). Meanwhile in Europe it's likely that the net impact of all the austerity measures will be cancelled out by the depreciation of the Euro. (UPDATE: See the FT, five hours after this post, for the basics)

The former boss of Intel, Andy Grove, called in July for a US trade war with China:

"If what I'm suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it. ... If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars--fight to win."

I've heard this quoted approvingly by left-wing Democrat steel trade union men - and by people in the Teaparty movement. It's provoked outrage among the orthodox pro-globalisation lobby but it was Bernanke after all who educated us that, in the 1930s, it was countries who devalued first that recovered first.

The Gospel according to Glenn Beck: Tea Party must tread carefully

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Paul Mason | 14:12 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

Once Glenn Beck starts speaking the language becomes restrained, moderate, not even a hint of euphemism or innuendo, indeed an insistence that the audience must reach out and persuade their political enemies, not hate them. But the warm up is a different matter.

A local pastor kicks off the proceedings. Beck - and the other speakers - he claims, "will be speaking for God": a claim Beck is not around to hear and will later contradict. Not only this, but Beck and others are the target of unspecified people who would like to kill them, the pastor insists: hence, we the audience must pray for their safety.

Next the compere, who says that America is under siege from more than just al-Qaeda:

"Today we're not only being attacked by terrorists but by those who believe in different principles: our children are being indoctrinated with liberal views on a daily basis."

And consider this, from an Iraq-style deck of "wanted cards" on sale in the sparsely populated exhibition space: a picture of Barack Obama, framed with the legend:

"Trust me. I am not a Kenyan born, lying, arrogant Muslim communist that hates America - really I'm not: Barack Hussein Obama, President USA, Socialist/Communist . The Ultimate Race Card. Done in 2102," complete with the caveat: "This is not a quotation of this person merely a funny anecdotal statement."

(See the full set here.)

The warm up for Beck is Republican Congressional candidate Jackie Walorsky. She declares ideological war on the "progressives" and warns she will vote for a law to assert "states' sovereignty" against the Federal government, should she beat her Democratic opponent.

This is the Tea Party movement in full swing, three weeks after its march on Washington. It is clearly at a political crossroads: its leaders trying to channel it onto the battlefield of mainstream electoral politics and media spin, its members still minded towards the political equivalent of asymmetric warfare with the establishment.

At his Washington rally Beck had mixed political oratory with lengthy meditations on the greatness of George Washington, the power of religious belief. Afterwards he is said to have been self critical, and vowed to focus much more on the religious message alone.

In Angola, Indiana - in a less than full sports hall at a local university - this is what he did.

Beck spoke for one hour thirty minutes, to an audience of about 2,000 paying up to $125 (£80) a seat. Having been whipped up by the previous speakers, and videos eliding images of D-Day with 9/11 and Fallujah, they were now whipped down by Glenn Beck.

His website, had already warned followers to desist from wearing historical costumes and toting self-scrawled banners open to the accusation of bigotry. So the crowd were mainly wearing Beck t-shirts ($15) and, some, beatific smiles.

Here's the summary of Beck's speech: Miracles are coming (he means this literally not metaphorically). We've achieved a lot by putting Tea Party candidates in the front seat for 2 November but now we have to go further and stop haranguing our opponents, also looking crazy on the streets. America's problems started in 1915 (ish) with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who attempted to DESTROY (Beck writes in in capitals on a whiteboard) Americans' "faith, history and Constitution". George Washington was the greatest human being ever, after Jesus Christ. A number of anecdotes are recounted from Washington's life, of questionable relevance to the matter under discussion. Whenever Beck discusses Washington he bursts into tears, which he always manages to quickly stem by returning to the theme of bashing the "progressives" and their pernicious doctrine of "social justice".

Beck here is cutting against the instincts of the audience: the only real standing ovation moments come on the two or three occasions when he lets fly the rhetoric of "take our country back from the progressives and communists" variety. For the most part he is not only trying to damp the enthusiasm but also confront the almost totally white, over-45, Christian, small-town audience with the limitations of their current strategy. He also insists, tellingly, that they should "love their enemies not hate them" and that they should not claim to speak on God's behalf but understand that God speaks on theirs.

For this reason the audience is for the most part subdued. Remembering this is America, where a 30 second TV commercial is considered long, this feeling of ennui grows towards the end of the 90 minutes Beck is onstage. There are looks of puzzlement. But the seasoned political operators in the audience are not puzzled.

Coming in the same week Sarah Palin called for "unity" in the Republican Party, the depoliticisation of Glenn Beck's rallies, together with his move against the Tea Party's street image, signals the intent to harness the movement within the confines of mainstream party politics.

The only overt policy passage in Beck's speech was this: "Private is always better than public: I'd rather go to a private hospital than a public one; send my kids to a private school than a public school; use a private toilet (pause for laughter) than a public toilet..."

In urging a return to charity, and sacrifice, Beck is not slow to give this a sharp political edge as well. He warns his followers: "You may have to give up your pension plan, your social security, so that the next generation is not burdened with debt."

Half a mile away in fact, in the "protest area" designated by the police, about 20 local opponents of Glenn Beck held placards saying "Hate is not an American value".

But there was no hate in the speech I heard. And there was very little politics. In the process of becoming the figurehead for the American right, Beck has found new depths within his own personality and "got religion" even more than he had it before. The ideological heavy lifting is being done by the warm-up speakers and by the paraphernalia vendors.

His relationship with George Washington remains in a state of evolution: in the DC march he claimed he "knew there was another George Washington in the crowd" before bursting into tears.

This time he told the story of Washington's attempt to head-off a military coup against Congress: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country". Then burst into tears.

If Glenn Beck were on the psychiatrists' couch, not a platform in front of a paying audience, the analyst might ask why his thoughts and emotions seem to come spontaneously round to Washington again and again ("I see him in my mind's eye," says Beck, and looks at a space in front of him as if, indeed, the man in the wig and stockings could soon appear there).

Could it be that Beck believes he himself is destined to play a similar role? He insists not.

Decoded, this is what I think he is trying to communicate. We've come a long way: changed the game; become power-brokers in the Republican Party - but we have to become less extreme, look less unusual, reach out and make alliances with the non-devout right and conservative Democrats. And in the process of doing this we've got to drive hatred and extremism out of our speech. And we need a powerful and selfless leader to enact a second American revolution that breaks free of Wall Street, social justice, "progressives" and go back to the Constitution of 1776.

Beck says repeatedly that the "liberal media" does not understand the Tea Party movement: darkness cannot comprehend light, as he puts it. I think this has been true up to now - the mainstream US media constantly under-estimates the momentum behind the grassroots right.

But in choosing to become an essentially religious moralist on his public speaking tour, rather than letting fly with both barrels at the politicians as he does on TV, Beck becomes easier to categorise - because there are a lot of other TV evangelists with similar views on social morality and economics. Take away the wit and barb, the unashamed populist rhetoric that made him a TV superstar, and he is in a crowded market.

I joined the line to shake his hand, afterwards, as a way to get a question to him on camera (he's not doing any interviews).

Does he want to be the leader of this movement?

No, was the gist of the answer.

"I am a reminder," he insisted.

My reports on the failure of the fiscal stimulus, the growing poverty in America and the radicalisation of US politics will be shown on Newsnight in October.

Delaware to planet earth: the grass-roots right is real

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Paul Mason | 12:26 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Christine O'Donnell's victory in the Republican primary for the state of Delaware last night has sent the US media into a frenzy today.

O'Donnell is a religious conservative who was backed by the Teaparty movement. She got Sarah Palin to send a personal telephone message to voters, but was was opposed by the Republican Party itself: that is, the party machine actually campaigned against one of its own potential candidates, with O'Donnell's former campaign chief hitting the phones to denounce her as "not really a conservative".

The upshot is: in a state they could have won by fielding a mainstream candidate, Republican voters turned out in large numbers to choose someone the media are branding as "extreme" - giving the Democrats a much better chance of holding the seat. It's being seen as - and is - a microcosm of what's going on inside conservatism in America. It is moving to the right, as the Teaparty movement ousts one traditional conservative after another, and - say analysts - making an Obama second term a lot more likely.

The Teaparty movement was born out of the rightwing populist-led protests against the original plan to bail out Wall Street, the TARP, in October 2008. As the bailout morphed into a $787bn fiscal stimulus, the demands of the movement coalesced around an agenda of tax cuts, lower public spending and a balanced budget (America's national debt is $13.5 trillion). Then it moved on again to migration, abortion, gun-control and challenges to US Federal law.

The US media's original response, as with all plebeian movements beyond Washington, was to ignore the Teaparty. Liberal commentators and comedian Jon Stewart relentlessly made fun of the overwhelmingly white, over 45s who attended the rallies, with some suggesting the whole movement was "Astroturf" - ie fake grass roots.

However, one outlet relentlessly covered (the liberals allege promoted) the movement: Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. Fox's commentator Glenn Beck openly identified himself with the movement and unleashed weekly tirades against its main enemy: President Obama.

After last night, and after a string of victories against more traditionalist conservatives in the Republican primaries, the liberal wing of America is no longer laughing at the Teaparty - and the "Brooks Brothers" wing of Republicanism also looks a little straight faced this morning. No one is anymore talking about Astroturf, because these were votes, not rallies.

What we can take away from these events, so far, is as follows: Sarah Palin has become the undisputed power-broker of Republicanism. While the centre-right old guard will now launch a serious rearguard action, the momentum is with the fiscal and religious right. On the more traditional right wing of the Republican Party a lot of people now face a choice: do they go in with the Teaparty, feed off its momentum, or not. Carly Fiorina, former boss of Hewlett Packard, was by no means politically in the same ball park as Palin, yet she won by managing to tick enough boxes with Palin. Palin withstood criticism from her own supporters over backing Fiorina - which is what powerbrokers do.

For Democrats and the left, who accuse the whole Teaparty agenda as being a front for racism, the O'Donnell victory is a signal moment.

On the one hand certain party strategists will be, as Neil Kinnock once put it, "licking their chops" at the prospect of fighting an out-and-out rightist GOP in 2012. On the other, there is perplexion and discomfort that it is the right that has harnessed populist outrage at the rigours of the recession, not the left.

As I have said before, there are clear signs that the outcome of the economic crisis that began in 2007 will be shaped by the political cycle, which is moving in the opposite direction to the way it moved in 1929-32. And nowhere more so than in America.

If the Republicans, as expected, take control of the House of Representatives in January, that blocks any further fiscal stimulus; it leaves economic policy in the hands of the Federal Reserve, whose boss says there is not much more he can effectively do. Meanwhile there is no let-up to the mass expressions of anger I have written about here before. America, under the impact of relentless downturn, real-estate collapse and budget deficits is in danger of losing its way in the world.

As I'm travelling here, in the Midwest, I am constantly seeing roadworks paid for by the stimulus, and visiting projects boosted by it. But it is sticking plaster without a return to sustainable economic growth - and as the days turn into years - (it's two years to the day since Lehman collapsed) - patience is running thin. It's the closed storefronts, mothballed businesses and repossessed homes that are driving political radicalisation.

I'll be reporting in depth about the economics of this when I get back (I'm preparing a series of reports for Newsnight from the mid-West) - but for now one more point about O'Donnell.

The Teaparty movement is mobilising the Republican mass base as never before. That means she could win. If she does, in the face of active opposition from her own party, it will take away the last comfort blanket for Democrat politicians. Many, including their supporters in the media, have tended to assume that a Palin-led GOP ticket could not beat Barack Obama in 2012; that Republicanism would fragment in the process. They have tended to dismiss the Teaparty, together with Obama's poor poll results, as a part of the political cycle. They have looked at the long-term demographics of America - which are becoming younger, more multi-ethnic, more educated - and believed the tide was flowing their way.

Of O'Donnell were to win in Delaware all those calcualtions go out of the window.

As an outsider, I think a lot of people in the USA, including the media, are missing is that the economics of the situation are new. The American Dream of self-advancement through property ownership, long hours, small business is taking a lot of punishment in this recession - as are the so-called "middle class", who in British terms are the "respectable working class". Here such people are seeing their healthcare plans eroded, their lifestyles eaten away by debt-repayments and job insecurity.

To global business types who know places like China, India, Scandinavia or Singapore first hand, the USA has long since ceased to feel like the most dynamic economy on earth. But now, and this is crucial, it's ceasing to feel like that for Americans. That's what's at the root of the seismic politics of the Teaparty movement.

SDSR poses wider questions about UK's global role

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Paul Mason | 15:41 UK time, Sunday, 12 September 2010

In the past two days there's been a flurry of briefing about the Strategic Defence and Security Review: the issue of Trident is reported to be back in the balance; a Labour MP has discovered 1.5bn worth of contracts are already signed on the aircraft carriers, and another briefing predicts a sharp cut in the number of uniformed personnel.

This flurry of briefing is no accident since it is becoming clear to those leading the process that there's an absence of informed public debate about the choices on offer, nearly all of which are painful.

I've been speaking to various interested parties on the usual basis. Here's a summary of where I think the process is leading, and how it's being viewed by people on the inside of what Eisenhower might have called the "military-industrial complex".

First, there's widespread unease - acknowledged within the MoD - at the speed of the SDSR. The only upside of the high tempo is seen to be that it limits the window of uncertainty for service personnel. Apart from that very few see it as ideal that Britain is having to take decisions that will impact over a 20 year timescale in a period of 6 months.

Second, it is pretty universally acknowledged by those close to the process that this is a "Treasury driven" review: the over-riding imperative is to cut the budget and to close the implied £35bn black hole between spending commitments and the current defence budget.

Third, and here is where we begin to get beyond the bleedin' obvious, there's a whole new part of the defence and security agenda that is struggling to get a look-in to the process, concerning new security threats and the hi-tech means to combat them. Two years ago the IPPR, with the help of various ex diplomats and soldiers, drew attention to these threats in its own contribution to the defence policy debate: energy security, food security and the UK's vulnerability to cyber-attack.

Those involved in the technologies and research effort to counter all this are frustrated because it is "invisible" within the debate, and in addition does not have a ready made general, air marshall or admiral to defend it according to the Queensberry Rules of inter-service fisticuffs.

The argument goes that, since the threats to the UK have diversified and become unconventional, spending has to increase on anti-terror, intelligence, electronic surveillance and the hardening of Britain's economic infrastructure against everything from computer hackers to electro-magnetic pulse bombs that could take down the National Grid. (Coincidentally an intelligence source has briefed today that the allegedy murdered intelligence officer Gareth Williams was working on a system to defend Britain's banks against cyber attack).

Fourth: Trident. The word on the street is that the favourite option among those being considered is to delay the replacement of the submarine fleet. However there is a strong lobby in the defence community that wants the submarine/ballistic missile upgrade cancelled and replaced by alternative methods of delivery. This surfaced two days ago, with a briefing that the National Security Council has the possible scrapping of Trident on its agenda.

Fifth: The aircraft carriers and their aircraft. There is a strong coalition of forces now that would see these scrapped: some because they see the decision to commisson the two carriers as an unwise "political" decision by Gordon Brown; some because they see the creation of a one-time-use only facility to bolt the carriers together at Rosyth as denuding the rest of the UK's naval shipyards, especially on the Clyde, of resources and manpower; others because they see the estimated cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that's supposed to fly off the carriers ($112m per airframe and rising) as another disaster in the making.

On top of this, given that the USA has cancelled not one but two attempts to commission a new fleet of land combat vehicles, Britain's attempt to do likewise - the so called Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) - looks vulnerable.

Then you have cyber warfare - which covers everything from satellite controlled drones to monitoring attempts by China to hack into Whitehall's computers. The UK is running fast to catch up with both its allies and its potential enemies on cyberconflict capabilites, and this costs money and expertise.

Finally, another theme that's emerging from the discussion is that the sheer number of life-changing injuries as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars poses the question whether the UK should not create a US-style veterans' administration and commit to looking after injured servicepeople directly, for the rest of their lives, rather than as now handing out compensation and then directing them into the NHS, social services etc. This idea has a lot of traction among former service chiefs.

The problem with the list above? It's a list of options - it's not a strategy.

People inside the complex are all too well aware of this, and that in addition it's not subject to wider public debate.

Eisenhower's famous speech on the emerging power of the US military and its industrial suppliers contained the following suggestion which, despite the small size and social footprint of the UK Armed Forces, is worth remembering:

"We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." (President Dwight D Eisenhower, 1961)

Which brings me to the last unspoken theme of the SDSR. If you did try to align Britain's defence and security forces, and its defense industry, to the UK's actual position in the world you would be faced with having to admit some hard facts.

The UK's ability to project diplomatic power and its economic importance have diminished. This is what no prime minister can stand up and say out loud but it is barely challenged in the private discussions I've been hearing around Whitehall.

That being a fact, say defense insiders, you have two choices: become a penumbra of the US military or seek much more active collaboration with the serious military powers of Europe (ie France, primarily). A third option - not supported by anybody within this circle of insiders, but occasionally mulled over - would be to go down the route of Sweden or Switzerland and design your conventional forces literally for the physical defence of your territory only, and for maximum integration within civil society, and then switch the budget to countering the new security threats.

If you go down the route of further inter-operation within Europe, then it makes sense to start buying equipment off the peg from European-based consortia and not, as now, constantly trying to be in with the Americans on the development of their increasingly space-aged kit.

You also have to confront another hard choice: is the British military to be primarily designed for expeditionary warfare or not?

If it is, you have all kinds of models to choose from but the US Marine Corps, where ships, tanks, soldiers and aircraft operate within one command and culture, is probably the most tried and tested. Canada, which fused its army, navy and airforce into one command structure in the late 1960s is seen as a model to avoid. I am told that there is no enthusiasm within the UK government to do anything radical about creating a unified structure - however it seems likely that the MoD will try and reform the existing forces to make it more easy for them to inter-operate on these kind of operations.

However, the scope for expeditionary warfare is inevitably going to be reduced if you keep the Trident upgrade, keep the other major platforms that have been ordered, and go ahead with the aircraft carriers and the F-35s. So something has to give. Because, to re-iterate, Bernard Gray's report for the MoD found a £35bn gap between budget and spending commitments even before the 10% cut expected to come out of the Spending Review on 20 October.

** Obviously this post, written on the basis of unattributable discussions, only analyses the options realistically being considered within Whitehall. Don't shoot the messenger if I have missed out a more radical option you prefer, or a different set of opinions about defence and foreign policy. I'm just trying to give a snapshot of the briefing and discussion that's actually going on.

Suddenly the way to Web 3.0 seems clear

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Paul Mason | 11:23 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

During the election I wrote about the demographic gap between iPhone and Blackberry users. In the past day I have leapt across that gap, ditching the corporate locked-down BBC Blackberry for a privately owned iPhone. Suddenly I can see a clear path through to Web 3.0, although it's not going to be pretty for parts of the media.

Basically, once you are in the world of truly smart smartphones, and proprietory applications, the old "web" looks like a legacy network. The formerly "free" information space is fragmenting into owned channels of communication, or at the very least prioritised and hierarchical channels. There is nobody at all going to "defend" the web as a transparent public place because, like the common land on which peasants grazed their sheep in the 17th century, it is very easily grabbable by self-styled landlords. And this is not all bad news, because it means people who create unique and amazing content can go back to doing what Jonathan Swift et al did at the start of mass book publishing: making money to pay the rent.

To recap about iterations of the web so far. In v 1.0 it was all about expensive, commercially-owned services and e-commerce, where only the strong survived. Information still flowed, as in the analogue age, from one to many.

Web 2.0 was where it became really easy and cheap to create services on the web, and social networks took off. Blogging was the first iteration of Web 2.0, Twitter is the latest.

But now the world of online is no longer a series of files on a server viewed through your PC. It is a series of devices and objects. For me, the "online" economy consists of the brown Amazon packages that drop onto the doormat from time to time, my iPod - an entire lifetime's CD collection stored there, my Kindle - which is clunky and not getting a huge amount of use - and until now my locked-down corporate Blackberry with its unreadably small text and slow GPRS connection to web pages that never load exactly as you want them to, especially when you are on a deadline or about to miss a flight.

The iPhone - and for the sake of balance I will also give a passing mention to its rival system, the Android phone which I have tried out and seems equally whizzy - takes you to a whole new level.

Probably the coolest thing that it has "done" to me so far is as follows. I downloaded an app that logs your running route on GPS, thereby obviating the need to buy a £300 plastic watch that's been designed to do only this. Then, as the run begins, it is announced on your Facebook page. Then, if your friends should write something like: "why are you out jogging while there's a deadline to meet", or, "watch out for the pitbulls in your local park", etc - the comment is immediately spoken, into your ear (for you are, of course, also listening to your jogging playlist on the iPhone) by a computer-generated voice.

This, I can tell you, is very weird and falls into the category for me of the famous bubble blowing machine that blows bubbles every time you say its name on Twitter. This machine caused crowds to form at a recent hi-tech trade show, and simultaneously caused all the hi-spec corporate demonstrations to be deserted as people marvelled at this machine, which cost about $100 dollars to make.

The lesson is: you don't know you want cool stuff, or have use for it, until you see it. And some stuff is so cool that people immediately invent uses for it.

There's a lot of futurology going on about what Web 3.0 will be. One argument sees Web 3.0 as a device-driven, rather than PC/Browser driven, version of Web 2.0 - in which the ability to put a commercial fence around information finally becomes socially acceptable to users because they can no longer get for free what they are now asked to pay for.

I have to say I buy this: lots of people in publishing are despairing because they don't see young people being prepared to buy anything online: music, books, etc. But I think they are wrong - it's just that people will only pay for something where the experience is enhanced - whether by its usability, timeliness or exclusiveness, or any other attribute human beings find alluring.

A more radical vision of Web 3.0 is Tim Berners Lee's idea of a "semantic web" where computers are able to make so much sense out of the existing information that they can begin to interact on humans' behalf with each other. It would be a seamless web of information that is both socially constructed and mechanically sorted.

This has also been described as the Metaverse 1.0 - a world where information and human life begin to interact seamlessly through devices. James Cameron's film Avatar captures a little of this vision.

Though I have been warned by my colleagues not to subscribe, for fear of being stalked, the application Foursquare seems to be closest to this: where you comment on, or rate, in real time, places you are in, and then your comments float around on a map nearby where you are for others to read. Meanwhile the "augmented reality" aspect of these so called geosocial services is interesting - my regular cameraman in the USA never tires of delighting us by pointing the iPhone in the direction of the nearest bar he has found on Urban Spoon and then guiding us there through the screen of the iPhone as if it were the Heads Up Display of, say, a jet aircraft.

All this has major implications for content creators that we're only just getting to grips with. The BBC is currently discussing what its "red lines" are in the world of online information - that is, what it should not do for fear of inhibiting private sector provision. News International has just put The Times, along with the Wall Street Journal, behind a paywall. The Guardian only requires you to pay (once) for an app that provides the newspaper free to your phone.

I think in a few years time most of these pay-for-information models will have settled down into a world where you do have to pay for high-spec information, or get it for free with a lot of targeted advertising attached. As the information becomes "rich" it will be hard to pirate the richness and though there will still be a counter-culture of info-piracy, and a culture of freely provided "user generated" content like blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc.

Within all this the BBC will probably be the only freely available, accurate, universal, impartial, non-commercial, simple to use source of news, current affairs, intelligent documentaries, classical music and intelligent talk radio. It's not a case of whether it "should" be doing entertainment, comedy etc - which is the Web 1.0 version of the argument. By 2020 the platforms will have evolved so much that the platform itself will define the content: what I mean is the rich, tactile, highly-personal experience you will get from proprietory devices - whether its the iPhone 10 or an enhanced gaming console - will define the kind of content that is produced, much as CGI is now driving the kind of films that are being produced. It seems axiomatic that the BBC will not be operating in all these media, but it will have to be more than just a bunch of TV shows, audio podcasts and web articles that you can now see on your phone rather than a radio, PC or TV.

It's quite a moment when all the neural pathways to the future are opened, just for a second, by glimpsing what a device can do. All this has big implications for politics and civil society too: like I said during the election - Cleggmania was a product of this generational shift in the consumption of information, and it took off essentially through the interaction of 24 hour TV and the social media, leaving the analogue tabloids standing - even despite their whizzy, celebrity-driven web presences.

For people in my business, the challenge now is to create the kind of content that sings "buy me" on these new geo-social devices. It's going to have to be more than a blog on the Newsnight website or a video clip of some FT journalist doing an explainer in the newsroom. But what is it? For certain it's going to have to have, as environmentalist Paul Hawken said in his book The Next Economy (in 1983!), less mass and more information.

Huffington Post has, for me, come closest to building a news source that exploits the attributes of Web 2.0 - where you share and recommend, and also where the editorial decisions react to the user data very fast. But what would Newsnight be like if it were redesigned for a world of realtime social interaction and delivered through highly graphic and interactive devices? (As opposed to the dumb, flat device where the only interaction possible is to throw an empty lager can at the screen).

What do you think?

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