Can you repeat that?

This report from the British Council talks about how being a native speaker of English isn’t as big an advantage as it might seem. A review says (and my experience agrees entirely):

As English increasingly becomes the language of business, native speakers feel, quite understandably, that they are at an advantage. But discussion often goes more smoothly when the native speakers leave the room – proceedings are not muddied by idioms and intuitive, unthinking use of slang. Conversation among non-native speakers may be more direct and pragmatic – correct, probably, yet stripped down and functional. The people who see themselves as facilitators are, in reality, obstacles. This is increasingly evident to non-native speakers, and it is having an impact on the teaching of English as a foreign language.

Most people are impressively incompetent when it comes to talking with non-native speakers of their language. The exceptions are generally those who have learnt through experience how to talk simply – businesspeople, tour guides or travellers. But it’s a skill which


be taught – it just isn’t.

Teaching of foreign languages in Britain, for good reason, farcical: a basic knowledge of French is pretty useless, when every child in France is learning English to a far higher level. Why not let kids opt out of learning foreign languages, and instead take a course in ‘how to communicate with foreigners’? Give them prose-composition excercises with a thousand-word vocabulary. Mark them down for using slang, or irony, or meaningless pleasantries that confuse the conversation. Have comprehension exercises where children must make sense of Babelfish translations, or letters badly translated from Finnish. Get them onto skype, let them talk to the Chinese kids their age who are learning English. Teach them how to rephrase and repeat, how to pitch their language according to the audience, how to figure out when a listener hasn’t understood them. It’ll be far more use than a few words in French.

Trotsky and leapfrogging

The [Worldchanging]( folks often talk about [leapfrogging](, ‘the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps’. It’s nice to see the same concept in different clothes, in a [book on Trotsky]( (who naturally had the problem of explaining Communism in Russia):

>In appending new forms the backward society takes not their beginnings, nor the stages of their evolution, but the finished product itself. In fact it goes even further; it copies not the product as it exists in its countries of origin but its ‘ideal type’, and it is able to do so for the very reason that it is in a position to append instead of going through the process of development. This explains why the new forms, in a backward society, appear more perfected than in an advanced society where they are approximations only to the ‘ideal’ for having been arrived at piecemeal and with the framework of historical possibilities.

Independent Iraqi politics, 2006

Reading [Blair Unbound](, Anthony Seldon’s political biography of Blair since 2001, I’ve been struck by how forcefully it confirms the view much of the outside world had of Number 10 in that time. Namely, that everything was driven by personalities rather than policies, with Blair rarely hearing — let alone listening to — the outside world.

[Naturally]( I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the treatment of the Iraq war. This was the first political event I was deeply involved in, and re-viewing it as history provides a chance to see what I interpreted correctly and falsely at the time. Generally, the lesson is I was most likely to be right when I was at my most cynical.

A good example of this is the casual way in which Blair and Bush controlled Iraqi politicians — including elected politicians, whose democratic selection was one of the last remaining justifications for their war.

So, when Nouri al-Maliki’s selection as Iraqi Prime Minster in early 2006, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari,

[most reports]( treated it as a decision made by Iraqis. Relatively few journalists discussed it as a selection determined by the Americans. [I did](, correctly cynical for once, mainly because I had been paying attention to [Helena Cobban](

>The US and British governments…have been using the power of their countries’ military position inside Iraq to try to subvert the results of the December election by pursuing a determined campaign against the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister.

Now it is safely in the past, Seldon is free to show that the cynics had it right:

>[Blair] became convinced that al-Jaafari should, in the interests of Iraq’s future, step down. But how? Al-Jaafari did not want to relinquish office, and so the full weight of the Bush administration would be required to shift his view….Blair told Bush that he had asked Straw to go to Baghdad to ‘bang heads together’ and suggested that Rice join him….Straw and Rice were unable to dislodge al-Jaafari during their visit, but, in making clear that they spoke with the full authority of their bosses, they made their point. Sawers and the NSC’s Megan O’Sullivan remained behind to maintain the pressure. Blair kept in close contact with them, and on 20 April, al-Jaafari eventually stepped down.

Book: China Pop

Despite the column-yards given over to news from China, I often feel that the only stories I read from that country are ones about money. There are other, less business-oriented voices around — how could there not be, given the number of people constantly travelling to and from China — but you have to go and hunt them down rather than waiting for them to arrive on the front page.

So [on Cosma’s recommendation]( I bought myself a copy of [Zha Jianying](’s book [China Pop](

Written in 1995, this is a a tour of the Chinese culture industry – books, film, television, art and the press. Zha wisely avoids the temptation to cover everything. Instead she focuses mainly on her Beijing-intellectual friends, people she understands and who will be willing to talk with her. So we get telling pen-portraits of a handful of successful artists. There is the team behind TV melodrama Yearning (ke wang), a mix of highbrow writers such as Zheng Wanglong, who devoted their energies to building a chinese equivalent to Mexican soaps. Or there isChan Koon-Chung, one of the breed of ambitious Hong Kong media entrepreneurs trying to expand onto the mainland.

Many of Zha’s subjects are intellectuals who have consciously abandoned an inward-looking and elitist ‘avant-garde’ in favour of the mass market. It all sounds strikingly like Yeltsin-era Russia, where some professors become millionaire wheeler-dealers, while many of their colleagues end up bewildered and impoverished, unable to find a position for themselves inside a new world. Even as she focusses on the success stories, Zha does manage to point out the number who have lost their way.

What’s truly striking, though, is how dated the book feels. She writes of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Beijing; now, [artfacts]( lists 149 galleries there, and Chinese influence on the international world is growing exponentially. Equally, much of the media – the press, music, even porn – has been transformed beyond recognition by the internet. I’d love to see Zha write a similar book now, and capture what has changed in the past 15 years. Unfortunately her [latest book]( won’t help: she’s devoted it entirely to the 1980s.

Dubai: Hari, plus Mike Davis

There’s much to be said for Johann Hari, whatever [uncertainties]( you may have about his reliability. He’s one of the few reliably left-liberal voices in the British media, and he’s an excellent writer. His long [piece on Dubai]( in last week’s Independent deservedly ruffled a lot of feathers. In it, he describes the life of the labourers imported to build Dubai’s skyscrapers, kept without chance of escape in what amounts to slavery:

>Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.

>Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means “City of Gold”. In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

The reaction was immense, and consisted of that odd mix of “you’re making it up” and “that’s old news” which is generally a sure sign that you’ve hit a nerve.

But in the interests of not relying on Hari alone, here’s a somewhat similar [account of Dubai](, by [Planet of Slums]( author Mike Davis:

>Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ILO labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’

Back to Hari for the last word:

>Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

Georgia: rebels without a programme

In Georgia, the [protests]( continue: [small rallies](, alongside attempts to blockade the streets outside parliament and other official buildings. Day in, day out, there are still several thousand people involved in the protests, an impressive show of strength.

The problem is the leadership; as [Paul Rimple]( writes:

>I’d really like to sympathize with the opposition, but these people must understand what a grave responsibility they bear when talking to thousands of tired and angry people. If you are a leader, people depend on you to guide them. If you don’t know what you are leading them towards you have no reason to be sitting in the chair.

They have genuine grievances. Problem is, they won’t allow any avenue to resolve them, short of toppling the government. They’ve rejected out of hand suggestions of directly elected mayors, and of a coalition government. They aren’t putting forward demands of their own, except for the unachievable one of complete power.

And if, somehow, they did manage to oust Saakashvili? The new president would instantly be beseiged by the same crowd of disaffected politicos, and there’s no reason to expect any better behaviour from the protest leaders than from Saakashvili. My instinct is usually to support protesters, but in this debacle I don’t see much to admire anywhere.

By the way, [here]( are [some]( [blogs]( following the protests.


: Judging by the [Global Voices roundup](, more or less every other blog has the same view. Doesn’t mean we’re right, of course.

A financial crisis reading list

[warning: a mainly-for-my-own-benefit big-list-of-links post]

Despite the left’s [general]( [crapness]( in responding to the economic crisis, they must have _some_ ideas, somewhere. I just can’t find them. The obvious solution – ploughing through a big pile of documents, and hoping to find something insightful buried within it. Here’s the pile – makeshift, incomplete, and poorly-arranged, likely to grow and mutate over time, but (hopefully) containing something worthwhile. My [delicious]( has even less-sorted links. Categories are very vague.

From the left

* [Mat Taibbi]( in _Rolling Stone_

* [The crash – a view from the left](, a collection of articles co-edited by Jon Cruddas. [Direct link to pdf](

* [Rowenna Davis’ LC post]( bemoaning the lack of action on the left

* Fabians: [pamphlet on green economics](, [speech by Sunder Katwala](, [focus-grouped views on bonuses &c](

* ATTAC: [new docs from France](

* [Casino Crash]( “Critical thinking on the financial and economic crisis”

* Prospect: [After Capitalism](

* The Nation: [Reimagining Socialism](

* Demos: [Lessons from the global financial crisis](

* IPPR: [Towards an accountable capitalism](, [commentary on the G20](, and (getting tenuous now) [green jobs](

* [Amartya Sen]( on ‘Capitalism Beyond the Crisis’

* [The quiet coup]( – Atlantic article on the IMF, by Simon Johnson of baseline scenario

From the centre

* [Planet Money](, a blog and tri-weekly (?) podcast from NPR. The team also made an [hour-long introduction](

* [Obama’s latest speech]( on the economy, giving an overview of what he’s been up to

* [The Turner Review]( [Guardian summary]( [Direct pdf link](

* G20 London summit: [Communiqué](, [official site](, [unofficial information collection](

* Esprit issues devoted to the financial crisis, [November]( and [December](

* Economics blogs/pundits: [Paul Krugman](, [Tyler Cowen](, [Brad DeLong](, [The Baseline Scenario](, FT [Economists’ Forum](, [Nouriel Roubini](, [naked capitalism](


* Max Otte’s book [Der Crash kommt]( has been hanging around on German bestseller lists for months. But I haven’t seen it mentioned in the English-speaking world, and there doesn’t seem even to be an English translation

* Charles Morris, the trillion dollar meltdown

* Robert Shiller, [the subprime solution](

* Nassim Taleb, [The Black Swan](

* Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes. [First Chapter](

* Friedman, The great contraction. [First Chapter](

* [Books listed in the Turner Review](

* Martin Wolf’s book [Fixing global finance](

Renting vs. buying, Sofia-style

Bulgarian anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev has some interesting articles up at Eurozine. He’s good on migrant workers; he’s downright brilliant when justifying my prejudices against home ownership.

As in the rest of the country, nine out of ten people in Sofia own the home they live in (unlike in the former GDR, for example, home ownership in Bulgaria was as high during communism as it is today). A similar proportion consider it self-evident to keep the same flat for life and see their children inherit it; to sell property is considered somehow to be an evil.

The real-estate market, abolished under communism in 1948, has been slow to come into motion. People find excuses not to sell: they waited for prices to go up first with Nato accession (2004), then with EU accession (2007). Well, prices did go up, but there was no property boom. Typically, elderly persons would live in extreme poverty, turning off the central heating in all but the bedroom, and obstinately refusing to sell their bigger flat and buy a smaller one.

This means that even after 15 years of “transition”, the spatial expression of new social inequalities has been slow to take shape. In the same block of flats, one finds growing differences in income, culture, and expectations; rarely is it possible to convince all owners to pay for the re-plastering of the façade (making much of the city look as if it had been subject to air raids). From the outside, it is possible to single out the rich owner who has covered his floor with a strip of brand-new stucco; it is said that burglars identify their targets according to the estimated price of the window frames.

The British and American faith in home ownership as a free-market idol confuses me. In personal terms, investing 300% of your wealth in one asset seems like dubious personal finance. In market terms, apartment blocks are like enclosures: more efficient than strip farming, and they free the serfs to seek their fortune in another city.

Seems to me, Britain isn’t far from Bulgaria on this. Some of the reasons for owning homes are exactly comparable: faith in ever-rising prices, and the desire to pass on a family home through the generations, despite the low likelihood of your children wanting to live in the same place.

Most of our other reasons are historical, cultural and social, conservative rather than pro-market. Renting meant government ownership, hence unresponsive management. It also often meant blocks of flats, hence New Brutalist concrete, product of cheap postwar reconstruction and a bone-headed architectural fad. Thatcher’s sale of council homes was a way to turn the richer workers into loyal Conservative voters. Pillaging public assets to subsidise this, she made buying into a genuinely good deal for anybody rich enough to afford it. Since then, we’ve convinced ourselves that house prices always rise, so anybody who rents is either a fool, or too poor to get rich. Plus, there’s that unpleasant “Englishman’s home is his castle” thing.

Despite this, we talk about home ownership primarily in economic terms. Why?

German left

The [weakness]( of the left’s response to the financial crisis is also noticeable here in Germany. Left-wing parties are somehow managing to


popularity, even as capitalism collapses around them. Even Attac — the group campaigning for a [Tobin Tax](, and generally among the better-informed critics of unfettered free markets — have failed to make a dent in the debate. [Der Spiegel](,1518,618304,00.html) nails one reason – the left’s certainty of itself, regardless of the rest of the world:

>Those who know they are always right can deal less with a specific moment than with their principles. So they miss the forward-pass from history, the breath of the moment.

>Thus the clear weakness of the left is not least their inability to react adequately to this unique historical moment, which is for many as confusing as it is threatening.

>That has always been the power of a successful protest movement: vocalising the situation in order to change it. Tangibly, surprisingly. It happened in 1968. It happened in the 1970s, with the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. It happened in 1989, as the wall fell. Always the expression of suppressed or displaced feelings played a decisive role – wit, verve, impudence, passion and a touch of genius, brought together for a ‘concrete utopia’ [all very loosely translated]


[John Gray]( likes Margaret Atwood’s new (non-fiction) book on debt:

Atwood’s project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.