“Who’s In Charge Here” by Alan Beattie – A Field Guide To Maynards

by Daniel on March 7, 2012

Somewhat later than promised, I was motivated to write my follow-up post to the Greece choose-your-own adventure one. If you recall, the decisions in that post were motivated by advice from “Maynard”, your advisor working for “The One World Government”. In actual fact, there isn’t a One World Government, and the people who have jobs similar to Maynard’s all work for a variety of international organizations which are tasked with doing a job similar to what a global government would do, but without any power to make anyone do anything. Alan Beattie of the FT (full disclosure – a mate, we were at the Bank of England together) has spent the last fifteen or so years covering these international institutions and has now written a book called “Who’s In Charge Here?” (Americans), which in a typically punchy and exasperated style, sets out the complete mess which is the state of global financial institutions today. I will now review that book in the “London Review of Books style” – ie, by writing an essay on a tangential subject of interest to myself, and then tacking on a paragraph or so about the book at the end.

I had thought it might be useful to do a bit of analysis of the different places that people ended up in the decision tree, but in the end there was nothing to analyse – nearly everyone ended up in #52 – the “full Argentina”. I think this was partly because of the way I set it up – once you have chosen the branch that says “there is no more money available”, then there are very few further branches (because there’s no money available, and therefore no decisions to make about negotiating the terms on which Greece gets it). So, although something in me keeps wanting to say that people are attracted to #52 out of a sort of Keynesian “relentless urge to action rather than inaction”, I think it’s more likely that they got there because people in general were underestimating the amount of international money that was available.

By my reckoning, the actual solution arrived at was close to #26, the “Classic Eurofudge”. A bit more short term current account finance, a bit more austerity, a more or less certainty of another crisis a year down the track and the big question being whether the Greek political system can handle the strain. My own choice was #5 (as a few people noticed), which (as Alan pointed out to me on Twitter) is basically a classic 1990s-vintage IMF program.

The reason I wrote the post was to try and get people to understand the sort of constraints that the international policy structure are working under. The CYOA format really is an excellent teaching tool for this sort of exercise[1]. Firstly, it makes it impossible for people to do what they tend to do in these kinds of debates and use a preselected ideology as a substitute for thinking about the questions. And secondly, because of the “first person shooter” aspect – by framing the discussion from the viewpoint of Maynard and his boss, you really do encourage the reader to empathise with the decision makers and the problems they face, rather than treating them as manifestations of a great big impersonal and probably evil entity. As a propaganda tool, the CYOA structure is a great way to manipulate people.

However, because it’s such a great way to manipulate people, you have to be a bit careful the way you use it. Anyone who reached #17 in the original post can see that I’ve been very careful to frame the possibilities so that the only choices in the adventure are choices which would actually be open to a European civil servant who didn’t want to think outside the box or rock the boat too hard. As a result, (as I mentioned early on in comments to the original post), it certainly is open to the criticism that it’s just erasing political viewpoints, including some that really shouldn’t be erased. One of the motivations for the post was a discussion I had with @PabloK on twitter about the Greek negotiations, in which he said, rather succinctly, that the purpose of protest was to change the space of what was politically possible. I think this is a crucial point; although it is important to make a good faith attempt to understand the constraints that people work under (which is why I wrote the post), it is equally important not to regard those constraints as necessarily being imposed by Ultimate Reality.

What will rewrite the script for Greece? I don’t know. Typically, based on the history of the EU, it will be some sort of crisis. If the bailout compromise leads to political collapse in Greece, then new things will become possible. It may turn out that the Lisbon Treaty does need to be renegotiated – as I said in #17, it wasn’t Maynard’s job to do that, but it might be someone’s job some day. So in many ways, the real adventure starts at the end of the choose-your-own-adventure; this is when you have to start thinking about the ways in which the set of possibilities could credibly be extended.

These constraints are further explored in “Who’s In Charge?”, and one of the fundamental questions is – do the problems facing the world right now require a major overhaul of the international institutional structure and if so, how the hell might that be achieved? I don’t think I agree with Alan in his conclusion, which seems to me to basically be that a lot of the work of coherent international institutions could be done by having more sensible domestic politics, although I do agree with him that the existing international institutions basically serve as an excuse factory for domestic politicians who want to avoid tough decisions (or alternatively, who want to make decisions which are “tough” on other people and avoid the political consequences of having done so for themselves). I think it’s well worth buying the book[2] and reading it, as a preparatory step for thinking about what kind of a new world system you really want to see.

[1] And surprisingly easy to write! All you have to do is a little flowchart of the structure on a piece of paper – unlike a proper adventure book, there is very little recombination of the branches, so it just looks like a decision tree which is about four plies deep. Then the best thing to do is to give each node of the tree a binary code indicating which decisions were taken, and write out each of the paths in turn. Then you can do a find-and-replace changing the codes for numbers, and copy them into a Word document in order. The great thing about the task is that it’s amazingly “chunkable” – I wrote the paragraphs on the bus to and from work.

[2] It’s worth noting that “Who’s In Charge” costs £1.99 and has 60 pages, all of which are written by Alan Beattie. A typical copy of the FT costs a penny more and can have as few as 56 pages (not counting the adverts and the unit trust prices), with the vast majority of these pages not written by Alan Beattie at all, despite the fact that he is clearly one of the best journalists there. The book is clearly better value.

{ 43 comments }

1

ajay 03.07.12 at 4:59 pm

If the bailout compromise leads to political collapse in Greece, then new things will become possible.

Has anybody got any suggested places to look or articles to read on this, by the way? Specific questions 1) how likely 2) when 3) what form collapse will take 4) what Greece will end up looking like.

2

Richard J 03.07.12 at 5:08 pm

full disclosure – a mate, we were at the Bank of England together)

Now, now, Dan, that’s not LRB house style…

3

Chris Bertram 03.07.12 at 5:14 pm

Bugger, this isn’t a real book. The first book I’ve wanted to read that isn’t available without acquiring some kind of device: that makes its marginal cost to me approximately £101.99

4

Richard J 03.07.12 at 5:17 pm

Chris – the Kindle smartphone app/PC viewer is a free download, however.

5

Daniel 03.07.12 at 5:17 pm

You can get a Kindle reader thing for free for your computer.

6

Daniel 03.07.12 at 5:20 pm

And apparently the Penguin website sells it in the form of an “ePub” file, which can be read on all sorts of strange Linux devices that Kieran knows about.

7

Brian Weatherson 03.07.12 at 5:22 pm

Chris, there are a few ways to read ebooks on any computer. For instance, this looks like an OK ePub reader for OSX, at least from the review.

That is, the marginal cost of the book should be £1.99 plus a little time to set up the software – so perhaps under £101.99 with some luck!

8

Brian Weatherson 03.07.12 at 5:24 pm

Five minutes looking up options, and already three posts ahead of me about what to do! Anyway, excellent review – I’m downloading the book now.

9

rageahol 03.07.12 at 5:27 pm

they do sell an ePub file, but whether it works on linux or not depends also on whether it has DRM. I’ve not waded into the ebook waters, but as I understand it, not many DRM schemes are supported under linux.

I’d love to take a look at this book, but i’ll wait until someone can either confirm or deny that it is DRM-free and thus usable under linux et al.

10

marcel 03.07.12 at 5:37 pm

Oh goodie, footnotes. D^2 is returning to his old form. Once he starts footnoting his footnotes again, perhaps we can expect him to ungate his own blog. And where the hell has Belle Waring been for the last 10 days?

11

Gaspard 03.07.12 at 6:54 pm

There are a few things that should be separated here, though – democratic or interest-group constraints which mean national politicians find it impossible to ‘yield sovereignty’ as Alan wishes (or for Germany, be seen to reward Greece’s supposed profligacy), bureaucratic realities which means civil servants are hesitant to displease their political masters (the story of the faked deficit data in Greece is intriguing in terms of who exactly put pressure on who and how), and lastly whether there really is in this case an obvious technocratic solution with no unfair consequences, being frustrated by national leaders.

Getting all these in a line doesn’t seem as realistic as creating less ambitious but more robust arrangements, yet these seem to have their own difficulties getting political traction.

12

Peter K. 03.07.12 at 7:35 pm

Downloaded the free kindle reader for the pc from Amazon. It comes with Pride and Prejudice, Treasure Island and Aesop’s Fables. (Then I got Beattie and Yglesias’s new ebooks. They only cost as much as a couple cups of coffee.)

Many want to argue that Europe is similar to the Ant and Grasshopper fable:

“THE ANTS were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?” He replied, “I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.” They then said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.”

The scorpion and frog fable fits better. It’s about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. “The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. “

The European Central Bank told the countries that joined the Euro that if they gave up their currencies, it would manage the European economy for everyone’s benefit. But given its nature – and paranoia over inflation – it raised rates last April and his since been overly tight with monetary policy thereby sinking the whole Eurozone.

13

Jawbone 03.07.12 at 7:46 pm

I think the odds of a fascist or communist take-over in Greece is quite high. There have already been fascist vs. communist street battles as part of the demonstrations.

14

seeds 03.07.12 at 7:53 pm

As a D^2 superfan I am going to point out that I read your twitter feed for my fix and that you owned up to writing it on flights there [shocked gasp]. Are you trying to pre-emptively appease the CT mosh-pit with all this “bus” stuff? I think we should be told…

15

Junius Ponds 03.07.12 at 8:40 pm

Chris, there are a few ways to read ebooks on any computer. For instance, this looks like an OK ePub reader for OSX, at least from the review.

Can these ePubs be printed out, so people can read them conveniently?

16

Cian 03.07.12 at 9:40 pm

Yanis Varoufakis reckons that Germany is simply trying to keep things going until Sarkozy wins the French election, and then will kick Greece out of the euro.

Dunno how likely that is, but his predictive rate is running very high, so I’d give it some weight.

17

shah8 03.07.12 at 10:34 pm

I strongly doubt Sarkozy actually could win an election, and given how much other euro states are involved in the discussion one way or another, anything as transparently stupid as playing for time and a friendly leader is going to make obviously larger problems down the road.

Perhaps, it’s just wait for the elections to be over, see who’s for what after the dust settles, and kick out Greece…

18

Zora 03.07.12 at 10:40 pm

“Can these ePubs be printed out, so people can read them conveniently?”

So that some people can read the texts in the paper format that they prefer. Others find e-texts more convenient.

19

dsquared 03.07.12 at 11:21 pm

you owned up to writing it on flights there

good point. Maybe it was the Graeber review I wrote on the bus.

20

James Wimberley 03.07.12 at 11:36 pm

Can DD, with his wizzo PYOA technology, build us a nice game called “Versailles”, starring the real Maynard as “Maynard”? The objective is to avoid WWII. But if it’s a hard constraint that French public opinion, after the bloodletting, will insist on punitive reparations from Germany, then I suspect the game has no solution. Its point is indeed to bring this out, and just maybe change French public opinion.

21

dsquared 03.07.12 at 11:45 pm

wow that is a tempting idea.

22

john c. halasz 03.08.12 at 12:02 am

“Firstly, it makes it impossible for people to do what they tend to do in these kinds of debates and use a preselected ideology as a substitute for thinking about the questions.”

And technocracy itself is not a “preselected ideology”?

23

The Raven 03.08.12 at 2:13 am

“Typically, based on the history of the EU, it will be some sort of crisis.”

This is also typical of the USA: the system deadlocks, usually in the Senate, often for generations, and then something goes wrong, like the South seceding or the Great Depression and there is dramatic change. Perhaps there is something wrong with our model of federations, or perhaps too much conservatism is unhealthy.

24

gabrielfgm 03.08.12 at 9:14 am

If Germany is waiting for Sarkozy to win they might be waiting a long time. All the polls I see indicate that Hollande is favored, e.g. here http://www.sondages-en-france.fr/sondages/Elections/Présidentielles%202012 and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_French_presidential_election,_2012#Opinion_polls_since_October_2011

25

bert 03.08.12 at 12:52 pm

dsquared -
In theory, Greece will achieve a primary balance by combining huge spending cuts with coercive taxation. An economy currently shrinking at 7% will grow steadily at 2% year on year. By 2020 accumulated debt will fall to 120% of GDP. Throughout this period, and beyond, financing will be provided by the eurozone core.

That’s the theory. A more likely future is repeatedly disappointing numbers, punctuated by political setbacks. A point will be reached when public sector creditors are clearly taking losses, when the planned path back to health and growth has lost credibility, and where the inevitable demand for more public sector credit and further losses stretches into the future. Somewhere around there we will find “there is no more money available”.

Pessimism about the pain to come was why I figured there would be a final attempt to squeeze a bit more out of the private creditors. Not a jaw-dropping prediction, but it turned out to be right. And it’s why I wound up in Argentina, not as the immediate outcome of last month’s discussions, but as an endpoint when other options prove unsustainable.

26

ajay 03.08.12 at 1:02 pm

In theory, Greece will achieve a primary balance by combining huge spending cuts with coercive taxation.

The comparison here is with the Greek tax system up till now, which has been all too non-coercive…

27

DaveL 03.08.12 at 1:21 pm

My first time through I ended up at #26. Perhaps I should start a new career creating eurofudge, and change my name to Maynard.

28

bert 03.08.12 at 1:29 pm

Yep, fair point. Taxation is coercive, at least if you’re doing it right.
I was thinking about such recent crowd-pleasers as attaching a tax demand to people’s electric bills and cutting of the lights if they don’t pay.

29

Alex 03.08.12 at 1:43 pm

Taxation is coercive, at least if you’re doing it right.

LIKE.

30

nnyhav 03.08.12 at 1:47 pm

thx4 the collision of differing acronymic senses of ‘CYOA’

31

dilbert dogbert 03.08.12 at 3:13 pm

It is things like this: ““Who’s In Charge Here?” (Americans), which in a typically punchy and exasperated style, sets out the complete mess which is the state of global financial institutions today. I will now review that book in the “London Review of Books style” – ie, by writing an essay on a tangential subject of interest to myself, and then tacking on a paragraph or so about the book at the end.” that keep me coming back to CT on hopes that DD will drop another bit of his wisdom on us groundlings. Got at least a good belly laugh at the quoted passage. Most of CT and comments are much above my pay grade so a good laugh is welcome.

32

markss 03.08.12 at 3:36 pm

Your footnote [2] made me laugh (a lot).

33

Jay 03.08.12 at 3:47 pm

At first I thought CYOA meant “cover your own A**”. It makes sense that way, too.

34

Cian 03.08.12 at 4:10 pm

If Germany is waiting for Sarkozy to win they might be waiting a long time.

He didn’t say it was a good plan, or one likely to succeed. Simply that it was the German plan. It makes a lot of sense that this would be their plan – Merkel will struggle, if Hollande wins, to push the current agenda. As for the implausibility of the outcome – since when has that stopped anyone?

35

bdbd 03.08.12 at 10:01 pm

At the same time, the FT is printed on paper colored somewhat like the color of this comment window, while “Who’s in Charge?” is printed on no paper at all.

36

Chris Williams 03.09.12 at 9:33 am

Dan, this post of Paul Mason’s, about a shift towards ‘repression’ in an attempt to inflate away the debt:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17301032
appears to concede the existence of a class of Maynards. Is it kosher?

37

dsquared 03.09.12 at 9:42 am

Yes it is.

38

bert 03.09.12 at 1:34 pm

A self-aware group of financial machers busy escalating tensions in the Gulf in order to create debtor-friendly inflation? Part of the reason I enjoy Paul Mason’s blog is that he’s not afraid to play with that kind of stuff.
It would be less appealing if he didn’t signal that playing with it is what he’s doing. And they’re right not to let him put it on Newsnight, assuming he’d even want to.

39

matt w 03.09.12 at 8:30 pm

d-squared: If you’re interested in setting up your CYOA so that you can play it by clicking on links for the choices instead of scrolling up and down in the browser window, I might be able to do it for you. Shoot me an e-mail (to the address attached to the comment, which I think you can see).

40

ben w 03.09.12 at 11:55 pm

Someone did HTML-ize it, but maybe matt means he can make it into a text adventure, which would be pretty swell.

41

Aulus Gellius 03.10.12 at 6:52 am

Heh. It took me a moment to realize that “’Who’s In Charge Here?’ (Americans)” was not in fact the full title of the book.

42

Maynard Handley 03.10.12 at 6:11 pm

I just want to say that, as someone named Maynard, I found this whole post rather disturbing!

43

Dan Tomkinson 03.12.12 at 12:59 pm

As Choose Your Own Adventure certainly accurately reflects the multiple unsavory options awaiting Greece and the Eurozone. I see the CYOA financial system as more …Cover Your Own Ass. It fits the behavior of these predators hiding in plain sight and telling us they’re serving the greater good and all that.

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