Corruption on the Global Stage

Are we the baddies?

Why is the global south so poor compared to the global north?

One of the main explanations given in mass media is corruption in those countries. Episode 73 of the podcast Citations Needed (audio | transcript) was a very eye-opening discussion on corruption on the global stage, and the real reasons why some countries are poorer than others.

We use a narrow definition of corruption to paint those countries as rife with it and ours as squeaky-clean. But corruption is more varied than the obvious forms of when a tyrant leaches funds for a suite of mansions or an official has to be bribed at a checkpoint. And it takes place between countries, not just within them.

Only 3% of illicit outflows of cash from poor countries are caused by their corrupt leaders. Global corporations and wealthy governments are responsible for the lion’s share. Hot money, the IMF and World Bank, transfer mispricing, and tax evasion account for much of the poverty on the global scale. Especially tax evasion – nearly half of global GDP is held in tax havens!

I knew Britain is dodgy on the global stage. But here’s a section that really hit home with how cartoonishly corrupt it is. (Italics mine)

*

Nima: Can you tell us about the Lord Mayor of the City of London?

Jason Hickel: (Laughs.) Yeah. So Britain controls about 50 percent of the world’s tax havens. Okay. And most of those are controlled straight via the City of London.

Nima: The sun never sets on tax havens.

Jason Hickel: The sun never sets on tax havens, yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s interesting because again, this is a residue of the British colonial era. So a lot of these little territories, Britain never relinquished control over now remain as tax havens effectively perpetuating this extractive relationship that Britain, you know, used to have with the south and it still does. But yeah, the key elements of this system is the City of London. Now when most people hear the City of London, they assume it just means London, the city. But in fact the City of London is a small council in the very center of London, the city. And it’s interesting because it’s this ancient artifact from the 1100s where it has its own police force, it is exempt from parliamentary oversight and exempt from freedom of information rules, most importantly, and as a consequence it functions as the very center of the British tax haven network, which extends around the world. Okay. So, the City of London is where a huge proportion of the money that’s extracted illegally from the global south into tax havens flows through and they have their own mayor, which is called the Lord Mayor of London, which is quite different from the Mayor of London, which is the one we normally think of. And what’s interesting about the Lord Mayor is that the Lord Mayor respects the authority of no one but the monarchy. So it’s not subject to parliamentary oversight again. Right? And the job of the Lord Mayor of London is to promote the interests of the financial sector in the City of London. And in order to do that, he has, it’s always a man for the past thousand years, he has a multibillion pound slush fund that is for use and I quote “to expound the virtues of financial liberalization around the world” and effectively to build the city’s tax haven network in different countries. So it’s quite, you know, it’s sort of institutionalized corruption, really, which everyone seems to sort of accept as normal. But the point I want to make here is that if you look at, again, you know, who’s responsible for the rules that sort of facilitate the possibility of these illicit financial flows and the institutions that facilitate them, they’re global north countries, right? Tax havens are controlled by the global north. The WTO rules are effectively controlled by the global north and yet how do they get away with this clean rating from Transparency International despite the fact that they facilitate these incredible heists from the global south every year. That is a massive, significant and actively known cause of impoverishment and under development.

Adam: Well, the City of London is celebrating its 1000th anniversary in 2075 and I hope I live long enough to ring in that thousand years of evil colonial corruption. That’s a hell of a, it’s a hell of a marker.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. Does the Lord Mayor, like, ride around in like a gilded carriage? It just, it seems so outrageous.

Jason Hickel: He actually does. It’s bizarre. But there’s this Lord Mayor show every year where the Lord Mayor literally does ride around in kind of a golden carriage.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Wow, we were just being sarcastic.

Jason Hickel: I believe he carries a mace, things like that.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Jason Hickel: I mean it’s quite, it’s quite extraordinary really. It’s a, it’s an ancient institution.

Adam: On one level I appreciate that they kind of just lean in to being evil.

*

Whenever there’s a big charity event going on, there are also concerned discussions of the type, ‘won’t their leaders just take the money? How can we be sure it gets to the people, and does what it’s meant to? Will giving money ever really solve this anyway?’

As Jason, Adam and Nima point out in the episode, it’s not that the commonly noted sort of corruption doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem – it is. But a far more significant element of the problem is right at home. Our well-off countries and companies are effectively stealing vast sums. And we don’t really hear about it.

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Collective Aspiration

Futurama why are you cheering
Leela: Why are you cheering, Fry? You’re not rich.
Fry: True, but someday I might be rich. And then people like me better watch their step.

Congresswoman Katie Porter (D) recently challenged
JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon over how a hypothetical single mother, ‘Patricia’, could survive as a bank teller.

Porter used realistic numbers to show that it’d be pretty much impossible. It’s refreshing to have a discussion like this take place – and fascinating to think about what Dimon’s lacklustre responses show.

He refers to the role as ‘a starter job’. This isn’t an answer to how Patricia can manage her budget. The implication is she’s getting what her job title deserves, and too bad if it isn’t liveable. She has to work her way up.

The minimum wage was originally intended as a wage someone can raise a family and have a home on: a decent floor for conditions. The concept has been allowed to degrade to ‘what we pay the underclass to incentivise them to get something else’. But that means there will always be a group at the bottom, struggling paycheck to paycheck, providing services without receiving adequate pay or respect. If I want a coffee or burger or transaction made, I want the person who does that for me able to survive from their work.

Dimon can pay out unliveable wages for ‘starter jobs’ (and fill his own pocket with the surplus value). His employees cannot ask shops or their landlords for ‘starter prices’.

Later on he says ‘she may have my job one day.’ Porter replies, ‘She may, but Mr. Dimon, she doesn’t have the ability right now to spend your $31 million.’ Again there’s no answer for the present, just the promise of individual aspiration.

How many tellers are going to become CEO? What are people to do in the meantime? Dimon has no answer, just evasion and platitudes. The answer would involve him and his ilk giving back a little slice of profit, which is unthinkable – he worked his way up, he earned it.

He says something vague about wanting to be ‘helpful’. Porter: ‘Well, I appreciate your desire to be helpful, but what I’d like you to do is provide a way for families to make ends meet.’ Quite.

What I see here is a picture of individual aspiration used as a cudgel to beat down collective concerns. If you’re struggling then you, the individual, must work your way up until you are the plutocrat looking down on the struggling hordes. It’s okay, they’re in starter jobs.

Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class discussed class politics in the UK from Thatcher through to New Labour. A recurring theme is the neoliberal redefining of ambition, from a collective improvement of society to individual social mobility.

Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are prepared with promises to enlarge the middle class. ‘Aspiration’ has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice.

Further:

Rather than the old collective form of aspiration, based on improving the conditions of working-class people as a whole, the new mantra was that able individuals should ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and climb the social ladder. Of course, it is based on a myth: after all, if everyone could become middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call centres? But this glorification of the middle class—by making it the standard everyone should aspire for, however unrealistically—is a useful ideological prop for the class system.

Dimon’s response to the reality of the tellers in his banks is to – whether or not he’s fully conscious of it – justify the cruel struggle at the bottom with the possibility of a few rising up. I don’t see this as a very satisfying vision for society. It’s a brutal form of social Darwinism, the exploited masses driven to compete with each other for a chance to become an exploiter in turn.

We can do better than this.

There will always be individual ambition. People will always strive for individual goals, for self-expression, for status – this can be a great thing. But we live in a society, and the majority of individuals cannot be free in a meaningful sense unless the collective conditions facilitate it. We are not free if we’re rationing insulin, in a sweat shop, relying on food banks, or facing this gauche monstrosity.

Individual ambition to horde vast wealth gained by ripping off thousands, in a world with so many problems that wealth could solve, doesn’t strike me as a healthy sort of ambition. I aspire to a world where everyone can have a decent standard of living. We are, ultimately, all in this thing together. Collective aspiration is a big deal. Without taking it seriously, the masses are exploited, divided, and less free to pursue meaningful individual aspiration.

Without taking it seriously, civilisation is at threat. Consider climate change. A good collective goal for the planet would be becoming carbon negative. JP Morgan investing $1.9tn in fossil fuels won’t help that, but it’s good business for a few individuals. Some people might drown in hot seawater, but, hey – they were only in starter jobs anyway.

No Set Reading List

LOTR

I was finishing a re-read of The Lord of the Rings recently, just as a bit of DiscourseTM started up about whether or not it’s totally obligatory to read LOTR and anyone who hasn’t is a bad person who must be banned from fantasy.

Mild exaggeration. But you can guess which side of the debate I come down on.

From the reader’s perspective, it’s very simple. People are allowed to read or not read anything they like, gatekeeping is dumb, and there’s no reason to care if people are ‘true fans’ or not.

From the writer’s perspective, the idea that certain books are obligatory if you want to write certain genres seems like a growth on the face of a more sensible idea, which is that you should have read a reasonable range of the genre. You need to know what the well-trodden ground is, to both draw inspiration and avoid clichés. But extending that to ‘fantasy writers must read LOTR’ is a mistake.

One of the chief reasons people will give is ‘this book is particularly influential, it shaped the genre for decades to come.’ Well, if that’s the case, isn’t it fine to draw lessons from all those other books influenced by it? Of course someone writing medieval epic fantasy could use knowing about what’s already been done with elves and orcs and stuff – but they can get that from the works influenced by LOTR, as they can from the thing itself. Just because Tolkien introduced something doesn’t mean he’s the guy everyone has to go back to for it. Extreme comparison, but doctors today aren’t learning about arteries from Galen.

There are loads of books in every genre. Recommending specific works for certain things is fine (here’s me doing it), but the idea that someone has to follow your reading list to have authority in the subject just… sounds lame when I say it like that, right? What objective grounds is there to make that specific work essential reading – if influence, we can read the things it influenced; if something else, is this really objective or an opinion, or cultural bias?

Also, subgenres. Why does a fantasy writer have to read LOTR if they’re actually doing a steampunk heist story?

Even if they are writing a medieval fantasy with po-tay-toes and pointy-eared archers, let’s face it: no book is perfect. For all its influence and worldbuilding and epicness, LOTR is not the platonic ideal fantasy novel. The pacing is nuts. It has more named horses than women. Tom Bombadil. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, and fantasy writers are no different. The same applies to all genres and their ‘must-reads’.

In university I had literal reading lists with classics and works I’d never heard of. There is value in reading things considered significant and things you wouldn’t think to try. Sure, there might be value in taking a recommendation, in trying LOTR or whatever else. But this doesn’t mean you have to read specific works some person yells about to be a real fan or a good writer.

Book Reviews (10)

books (10)

The New Poverty – Stephen Armstrong

75 years on from the Beveridge Report, Armstrong’s book explores the hidden poverty caused in the UK in recent years. He speaks to people affected by unemployment, in-work poverty, exploitative conditions, and the increasingly vindictive benefits system – as well as the organisers doing their best to address the problems.

I’ve read a fair amount about some of these issues. However, Armstrong investigates important factors that I hadn’t seen represented before: the rise in DIY dentistry(!); the decline in local news reporting and its impact on democracy and corruption in local government; how lack of internet access and computer illiteracy impacts access to vital services.

A distressing picture of entirely unnecessary struggle. People shouldn’t have to resort to pulling their own tooth out, but apparently that’s where we are.

All The Fabulous Beasts – Priya Sharma

16 bizarre, macabre, gothic short stories.

Sharma’s writing is elegant, concise, and deeply atmospheric. The stories focus on family, relationships, parenting, love and loss. Some of them were a bit opaque, with fantastical elements coming out of nowhere in a way that didn’t quite land; while some others felt a bit too obvious with their symbolic meaning.

All of them, though, are well developed, with a highly distinctive style conveyed in their details, characters, and turns of phrase. I most liked ‘Pearls’, a retelling of the story of Medusa with brilliant attention to character and modern concerns. As a collection, these fit together well, giving a cohesive overview of the sort of things Sharma writes about and her approach to storytelling.

Here’s the story Egg. If you like that, you’ll enjoy the rest of these.

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

The India Office sends injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne to Peru, to get cinchona trees so the British Empire can produce its own quinine to treat malaria.

Like in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Pulley combines a well-realised historical setting and convincing characters with intricate, highly imaginative magical realism. There are nice cameos from Keita, which may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t read her first book, but I like that this is all one cohesive world.

This time the magical element takes a very different and unique angle, though it again involves time, and again intersects perfectly with the characters’ lives and their society.

The presentation of the India Office (formerly East India Company) is a deeply researched window into how imperialism worked at the time, and the natural friction between Merrick and Clem approaches similar themes – all with an unpretentious deft touch.

My only real quibbles are that some aspects of worldbuilding near the end felt like they escalated in scope a bit too suddenly to swallow, and that I couldn’t quite picture the layout of Bedlam clearly. Overall, though, another immersive work of magical realism showcasing what the genre can do.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!’ Dorian wishes, beginning a descent into an aesthete’s cold hedonism that led critics at the time to moral outrage.

At first I struggled with this. Lord Wotton rambling on in pseudo-deep paradoxes (‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’ ‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.’) and nothing much going on – certainly nothing really scandalous by modern standards.

But then Wilde simmered down on the self-indulgent speeches, things started happening, and it was great. Some dazzling writing, capturing Dorian’s twisted state of mind as his corruption advances and his suppressed conscience stirs. It’s still hard to see how everyone was so shocked by this book, since it’s actually… clearly moral in its message? (Aside from the casual anti-semitism, etc…)

Sometimes irritating, but becomes a compelling psychological downward spiral.

Slice and Dice

editing stuff

In my latest round of editing I focused on chopping out anything calling for cutting.

Here are some of the things I’ve noted deserving of the axe. If you’re looking to make your work in progress a lean mean reading machine, it might to helpful to have an eye-out for:

Scenes that can be told, not shown

In On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his wife’s critique of the main character’s back story in the early Bag of Bones:

There was also a two or three page section about Mike’s community-service work in the year after his wife dies[.] Tabby didn’t like the community-service stuff.

“Who cares?’ she asked me. […]

“He has to do something in all that time, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,’ Tabby said, “but you don’t have to bore me with it, do you?” […]

I cut down Mike’s charitable contributions and community functions from two pages to two paragraphs.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a useful pointer, but don’t go overboard. Just because an event or bit of backstory needs to happen doesn’t mean it needs to happen as a blow-by-blow account. Is it particularly interesting in its own right, or is it only a thing that needs to be mentioned somehow?

Exposition – worldbuilding, magic systems

It’s easy to bog things down with lore about the world you’re excited to have made, and the details of the magic system you worry readers won’t understand.

It’s a novel, not a textbook. I know what my continents are called and the migration patterns of the world’s humanoid species through them, but who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to a story taking place in one city thousands/millions of years later. It’s okay to know more than you include – not every detail is interesting, relevant, or necessary.

In the case of magic systems, lectures about how it works can be a sign of lack of trust in the reader. It should be fairly clear what the rules are from seeing it used. And metaphysical rambling about the underlying mechanism is only needed to the extent it ties into plot, theme, the culture, and character.

If characters are discussing something not because they would, but because ‘the reader must know’, that’s a red flag. Imagine writing a story where two characters, born in London in 1990, talk about what a phone is and how it works.

Choreographing

I.e., belaboring exactly how characters are positioned and moving.

It’s good to use gestures to show emotions rather than telling them, and dialogue is better when it’s not bodiless voices in a void. But over-egging the pudding on that score adds pointless clauses here and there which slow things down, and add up over the course of the work.

For example, I had a line where a character ‘opened the door, stepping back to let him in.’ In context, that’s too much choreography for such an intuitive action. It’s not as though she was a paranoid character whose door had special bolts, or a criminal trying to push an illicit item under the bed with her foot at the same time. So I cut the phrase down, to having her simply: ‘let him in.’

This isn’t a script for an animation or a brief for an artist – unless the fine detail of position and movement matters for something, let readers fill in the gaps intuitively.

Overstating

Repeating information at various points in the text, past the point needed to make it memorable, or past the point where anyone cares.

Excess small talk

When writing dialogue for the first time I try to let the characters speak for themselves, with a loose idea of where it’s heading. Once in the zone, their voices take charge, coming up with in-character comments I hadn’t planned that can significantly change what was going to happen.

But that leaves behind lines of dross that, while perhaps realistic to actual conversation, are boring to read, confusing, not that valuable for showing personality, and don’t lead anywhere. Cut.

A few other tips:

  • Listen to the inner critic. When writing a first draft, try to ignore it and Embrace the Trash. When editing, it’s time to let it in. When the first-draft-mode voice whispers justifications for keeping something, listen to the other whisper still saying, ‘nah it’s crap’.
  • Keep the original separate, so you feel less worried about losing something and later realising you need it.
  • Cut-paste in another document to sort through large edits, so you can fiddle around without getting lost in the whole manuscript. This makes it easier to do things like stripping a chapter down to 50 words and inserting them six chapters ahead.
  • Use chapter summaries. Short chapter summaries can help you recognise where something is complete fluff.

 

Harry Potter and the Half-Dead Author

J.K. Rowling
sauce: https://tinyurl.com/y6xep3cl

J.K. Rowling has done it again, claiming ‘Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an incredibly intense sexual relationship’… which, naturally, doesn’t come through in source material.

This is the latest in a long line of Potter-comments turning increasing numbers of fans away from Rowling herself, invoking ‘the death of the author’. Lecturer Michelle Smith agrees, discussing Rowling’s retrospective diversity:

If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?

[D]epicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.

To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.[…]

Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.

When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.

If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.

Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.

So far, so convincing. Many people are sceptical of Rowling inserting representation long after it would have been bold to do so, claiming it was there all along, with scant evidence for it in the text itself. We don’t have to be fully committed to Barthes’ theory to be a bit tired of J.K’s twitter feed.

But I found another perspective, which raises a challenge to how we think about authors and their works – Classicist Caroline Bishop, contrasting modern and Roman views of authorship:

The criticism Rowling faces for her continued dabbling in the wizarding world interests me as a sign of how modern readers punish those who do not conform to the ideal of the dead author. What I find so interesting about this is that authors haven’t always had to stay dead. In fact, I suspect that if J.K. Rowling — spin-offs, prequels, Twitter feed and all — were transplanted back to ancient Rome, or to any period in which its literary tradition held sway, she might find a more welcoming audience.[…]

Roman attitudes towards authorship have not just served as examples for literary criticism that makes a virtue of unoriginality [adaptations, etc]. Their penchant for guiding the reception of their works has long had its adherents among authors, too. Dante’s ‘Letter to Cangrande’, an introduction to and allegorical interpretation of his ‘Divina Commedia’, is one notable case. […] More recently, J.K. Rowling has found herself in the company of several other authors and film-makers who continue to comment upon and expand their universes.

Rowling’s widespread unpopularity  […] suggests these practices still make some modern readers uneasy. Perhaps it is because they remind us that claims of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. The meddling of J.K. Rowling and her ilk is a sign that authors really do exist, and that many of them can’t resist telling us how we should interpret their masterpieces. But the continued endurance of Roman literature suggests that this stance will always have adherents in addition to detractors. If we like a piece of art well enough to return to it over and over again, as has been the case with Roman literature — and up till now, at least, has also been the case with the Harry Potter books — in the long run we may come to sympathize with an author who finds herself compelled to do the same thing.

Intriguing – but are Rowling’s interventions flops because modern readers expect their authors dead? Or is it just that she’s worse at it than Cicero and Dante?

Are we all committed to authors staying dead now? Or would we have no problem with Rowling’s elaborations on the Wizarding World if they weren’t so, well, ridiculous?

Another point I’d raise is the role of choices influenced by financial incentives, rather than the internal logic of the Wizarding World. Scott Mendelson writes:

There is a real financial risk for a movie like ‘Fantastic Beasts’ having an openly gay lead or major supporting character. And I’d imagine that if J.K. Rowling knew she would be making movies featuring young Dumbledore, she never would have outed him. But now that she has, it’s an artistic conundrum that pits the fanbase against the general audiences, specifically in overseas territories with governmental censorship powers.

If authorial comments are made for commercial reasons, or other reasons separate from the integrity of the works themselves, perhaps this is a reason to be sceptical of their value whether or not we’re that committed to the death of the author.

It seems to me that the critical response to Rowling can’t be out of a wholesale opposition to writers discussing and expanding their own work. There are still people who read the ‘Silmarillion’, and curious fans routinely ask writers about aspects of their works. Hardcore Potter fans didn’t seem to have this much of an issue with Rowling in the earlier years of Pottermore, before things got so weird. I doubt everybody read Roland Barthes in the meantime.

Readers often enjoy writers elaborating on their former works – if the comments and additions strike true to the text, if they’re interesting, if they add value. If what they have to say doesn’t make us feel it was better left unsaid, or appear to have an ulterior motive. Even if author’s statements aren’t an iron law of the one objective right way to read the text, they can still be a worthwhile addition to the experience, similar to hearing what a friend thinks about it.

The problem isn’t writers commenting on their works. If their comments add something, readers will enjoy them – even if we still view the text in a way other than they intended. But if the author’s comments really stretch credulity, even an ancient Roman would prefer sticking to the source material.