The Debatable Land #5: Reasons To Be Cheerful
(And some things about which to be sad)
Welcome to the fifth edition of my newsletter, The Debatable Land. Thank you for subscribing and onwards and upwards into 2022 and all that…
Not Everything Is Rubbish
That is from a 2013 survey of British folk conducted by Gapminder and its broadly replicated the findings of a similar survey done in Sweden. There are few grounds for thinking the results would be very different if the question was asked again today. And yet - on what is not a small or insignificant question! - the level of ignorance on display is of stratospheric heights. Here is the actual answer:
Since 1980 the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen like it has never before fallen in human history. Even if you discount China - though why would you? - a smaller portion of humanity lives in extreme poverty than has ever previously been the case. Ever. Let’s look at another chart (taken from Our World in Data, a top-ten website in my view)
More than one thing may be true at a time. Thus daily median income may be low ($7 a day) but it has also - in real terms - doubled this century. In other words, despite everything - including global warming - the world is becoming a better place for its (human) inhabitants. And yes, I insist that greater prosperity, greater access to healthcare and education, increased life-expectancy and much else besides really does = better. Because the alternative to economic growth - which may not be everything but it certainly a lot - is planetary impoverishment and a steadily declining standard of living which, as these things always must, will hurt the already poor much more than it inconveniences the already rich.
In the latter camp falls every single person who lives in this or any other western, developed, nation. The past 40 years have been great ones for humanity as a whole but, relatively speaking, poorer ones for the once mighty blue-collar classes of the western world. That explains plenty about both our politics and the mood of the moment.
Even so, to be born here is merely an accident of genes and geography. I no more earned that privilege than you did. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors and not much more than that; holders of lucky lottery tickets and it might, if only from time to time, be seemly to remember this.
There is a good game to be played about all of this: as you sit at dinner, ask those assembled what era they would have wished to live in had they been born as the planet’s median citizen. Anyone who answers with anything other than RIGHT NOW has given you the wrong answer. The facts, madam, permit no other option.
Yet many folk, including the university educated who answers to the question posed by Gapminder were no more accurate than anyone else’s, cannot or refuse to see this. As George Monbiot put it the other day we are trapped in a “cage of neoliberalism” from which we must, he says, escape. But if, as Monbiot and his pals insist is the case, the last 40 years are a story of 40 years of neoliberal ascendancy, then on any internationalist reading of the situation we should heartily wish for 40 more glorious years of life in this cage. For it is a more comfortable - and a more gilded - cage than any in which we have previously lived.
Granted, “neoliberal” has become a term almost entirely severed from any meaning beyond “things of which I disapprove” but if we take it to mean an era of deregulation and freedom - of capital and movement and much else besides - then, however unevenly shared these freedoms may have been (China has embraced capitalism without troubling itself with other freedoms) the overall picture is so clear denying it should be as obvious an invitation to ridicule as denying, say, climate change.
Again, GDP is not everything but let’s look at GDP anyway:
Even sub-saharan Africa has seen real-terms GDP double in 30 years and even within sub-Saharan Africa a war-ravaged, crisis-strewn, country such as Congo has seen GDP increase by 50%. Elsewhere, growth has been still more dramatic: Ethiopia 100%, Botswana 200%, Bangladesh 300%.
Try telling the inhabitants of those countries this is a miserable time in which to live. There would, I think, be something wicked about any such attempt.
The crisis of the moment is, in part, founded on a failure to appreciate just how extraordinary, and how lucky, this moment actually is. Disruption always causes trouble but no honest rendering of the world as it really is today can conclude it’s been anything other than worth it. If there is a difficulty it is that we have not yet travelled far enough, fast enough.
From which it may also be observed that the solutions to climate change cannot be equitably found unless they go hand in hand with economic growth, especially for the world’s poorer continents. There is no justice in reversing course and no decency in expecting poor countries to forfeit their aspirations to a better, more comfortable, standard of living. Which is, in the end, another way of saying that while government actions and prohibitions are important (a global carbon tax would also be a good idea) truly sustainable answers are only likely to be furnished by human innovation. Or, you know, capitalism as it might also be badged. Technology - which like capitalism is also the means of making more efficient use of resources - is the only true hope. And that, in turn, means a more closely-connected world in which ideas and experiments are more, not less, widely-shared is the only world which can address the challenge of climate change. More globalisation, then, not less. More, if you must, neoliberalism, not less.
Humanity actually has a miraculous story of success to tell itself just now. It is a mystery why we prefer to leave that story untold and, worse still, risk indulging those who cannot recognise it and, worse yet again, would undo it all if they could.
For think on this, as Max Roser of Our World in Data, has noted:
If you look at incomes today then you find that the income in the richest country in 1950 is very close to the average income of the average person in the world today ($14,570). Today the average person on the planet is as rich as the the average person in the richest country in 1950.
The same is true for health globally. The average life expectancy in the world today is 71 years, just 1 year less than the life expectancy in the very best off places in 1950.
What a time to be alive. Yes, really.
Give Me What I Hate; Give It To Me Now
I do not mean to pick on Mr Murphy, merely to use him as what I take to be an example of a trait as common as it is ostensibly curious: We should, many of us anyway, rather our assumptions - or prejudices - be proven right than endure the horror of our preferred outcome if that comes at the price of proving us wrong.
And there is, of course, always an audience for Disaster Miserablism. Everything is connected and all roads lead to Hell. I doubt Mr Murphy or many of those who think like him could conceive the possibility they might be mistaken, far less could they be expected to welcome such a thing. It would crash their worldview and that is a fate worse than even the thought of a privatised healthcare system.
For 20 or so years no Scottish Hogmanay was complete without the Reverend I.M Jolly’s end of year wisdom. Rikki Fulton was a kind of national treasure all the more valued for being largely unknown south of the border. How we pitied our neighbours even as we lorded it over them. For we knew and they did not.
The Triumph of the Process
Joan Didion (RIP) writing about the 1988 American presidential campaign for The New York Review of Books:
It occurred to me, in California in June and in Atlanta in July and in New Orleans in August, in the course of watching first the California primary and then the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. They had not run for student body office. They had not gone on to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice still in his pajamas. They got jobs at the places that had laid off their uncles. They paid their bills or did not pay their bills, made down payments on tract houses, led lives on that social and economic edge referred to, in Washington and among those whose preferred locus is Washington, as “out there.” They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, “the process.”
The media landscape now is not what it was back in the pre-cable (CNN excepted) era, back before there was any hint of anything like social media but certain attitudes, certain divisions too, remain constant. Or, at least, they do in the public-facing parts of a campaign:
Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these “events” they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (“They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,” the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, “He didn’t make any big mistakes”), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets.
It ain’t possible for anyone with even an inch of skin in this game to read Didion’s piece without some wincing recognition. And if all this were true in 1988 much of it is even truer now. Social media, I think we should know by now, offers an illusion of democratic engagement and a false promise of intimacy. The “inside scoop” is an entertainment nowadays parcelled out in 280 characters but the “process” and the game itself is as distant - perhaps even more distant, in fact - as it ever was.
Which is another reason to think, I suppose, that it is best not to have elections or referendums too frequently for doing so - as I surmise is now evident in the United Kingdom - may weary a people. As, for that matter, it may fatigue those inside the game too.
Trigger Warning: Cricket Content Here
I concede that Nat-hooking is not big, clever or even difficult but in these trying times for English cricket we must make the best of thin rations and find entertainment even in juvenile places.
Since few people truly thought England would have much of a chance of regaining the Ashes in Australia this winter it is less the results of the matches so far - three victories for the Aussies, in case you were fortunate enough to have missed any of it - than the manner of these capitulations. The old joke, first made by Martin Johnson of The Independent in 1986, to the effect there are only three things wrong with this team, “They can’t bat, they can’t bowl, and they can’t field” has rarely been so on point.
Of these the latter is perhaps the most revealing. Fielding ought to be distinct from batting and bowling. That is to say, batting or bowling badly should not impact a team’s ability to take its catches. Yet, through some strange confidence-sapping process, bad batting poisons everything else. England’s fielding in this series has been woeful and not all of this may be attributed to the perverse insistence on selecting the third-best wicketkeeper available to them.
A lot of nonsense is talked, however. Cricket is both a complicated game in terms of its subtleties but also a simple one in as much as ancient truths established a century ago remain valid today. If you were transported back 100 years to watch a game of football or rugby you would scarcely recognise it even as the distant ancestor of today’s football or rugby. The games have changed or evolved so much as to be, in effect, wholly different species.
Cricket is not like that. There have, of course, been changes - to pitches, batting, bowling, equipment, umpiring, and the laws - but the continuity between then and now is much more striking than the differences.
To put it slightly differently, the idiom may change but the game’s fundamental grammar remains much the same.
In this current series England have often appeared to forget this. Certain verities remain unchanged. Amongst which we may count that, for bowlers, a good length on or just outside off-stump remains the most likely means of inducing a mistake and, for batsmen, that judgement of line and, especially, length is still the single most important skill from which all else follows. Bowlers and batsmen deficient in these fields cannot expect to prosper. These are not skills easily acquired but nor are they complicated ones.
Other old truths are also still valid. In the past half century no more than a handful of English batsmen - Dexter, Barrington, Amiss, Gower, Vaughan - have ended their careers with a test average significantly higher than their overall first-class batting average. These batsmen are anomalies and they come around about once a decade. England have of late taken to picking teams in which they must, one presumes, expect this lightning to strike not once a decade but four or five times in the same team.
Runs in county championship cricket remain the best, if still imperfect, predictor of runs in test match cricket and England are picking players who cannot score runs in the championship. It is no surprise that these same men do not score heavily in test cricket either.
Nor is it such a great surprise that the cupboard of would-be test-standard batsmen is obviously empty. For, uniquely, English cricket has decided long-form cricket need no longer be considered a sport for summer. 25 years ago a county such as Somerset (my team) might expect to play at least 40 days of first-class cricket in the prime summer months of June, July and August. In 2021, thanks to a schedule everyone save those who set it agrees is absurd, they played 14 days of red-ball cricket in that time.
Batsmen need to learn to play long innings and they need good pitches upon which to learn how to bat. If first-class cricket is largely confined - in England - to the spring (April, May) and the autumn (September), this will never happen. The pressure of franchise and short-form cricket - and the distorting influence the latter, in particular, may have on the coaching of young players - is another matter but one less significant than the marginalisation of long-form cricket. No-one learns how to make runs in English cricket now, because red-ball cricket is no longer a summer sport.
Other factors are, of course, important too but this is the most significant one. It is a myth, for instance, that English cricketers play too much cricket. Or, rather, even if true this must be set aside the fact they play less cricket than their predecessors. In all forms of cricket, for instance, Stuart Broad has bowled 9,000 overs since making his first-class debut 16 years ago. That compares with the 10,350 or so overs delivered by Devon Malcolm - hardly known as a workhorse - over the course of his 16 years as a first-class cricketer. Ian Botham bowled 14,400 overs in almost 20 years as a top-flight cricketer; Jimmy Anderson, over broadly the same number of years, has bowled 11,200.
Much more fatiguing than the amount of cricket played, I suspect, is the amount of time spent travelling and sleeping in hotels. This, not the miles on the clock, is the true problem endured by cricketers for whom there is not much of an off-season and even less of an off-switch. That is what requires “rest and rotation”, not the amount of cricket played.
And, clearly, there are times when England’s players need more, not less, cricket. If they were dealt a poor hand by covid-quarantine regulations in Queensland (and by the weather which washed out some of their preparation), they also agreed to a schedule of unsurpassed lunacy. Net practice is not the same as match practice and whereas in 2010-11 - the last time England won in Australia - they prepared for the test series with fixtures against Western Australia, South Australia and Australia A (with a further match against Victoria between the second and third tests) this year they had no match practice at all before the first test in Brisbane. For all the talk of how everything is analysed and super-professional now, this was a lack of preparation no amateur team would have countenanced. Fail to prepare; prepare to fail as some folk have sometimes said.
So, fix these and there are reasons for thinking English cricket can sort itself out. That requires a willingness to return to a number of first principles but it does not necessitate any thumb-sucking ponderings on the state of the nation or flights of fancy about how English cricket is synecdoche for the troubles of England itself. Such notices, one cannot help be aware, are always written in the aftermath of disaster but only rarely in the afterglow of success.
It isn’t complicated, which is not to be taken for any assumption anything sensible will be done about it.
One of the reasons for starting this newsletter was that it might be a home for pieces of writing that might not easily have a suitable home elsewhere. Ephemera, nonsense, personal stuff. Those kinds of things. And sometimes there are things that fall into a different kind of category.
We collected Stan last October. Since then he has significantly complicated and enriched our lives. “Your only child”, as one of our nieces teasingly but accurately described him. The German Wire-haired Pointer is not a fellow to be trifled with. He has a sense of his own worth and a dignity that does not always lend itself to matters as routine or banal as obedience. He makes his own choices and sometimes they may prove poor ones. If he is stubborn and wilful, he is also loyal and generous of spirit; a companion to be treasured.
All of that is written in the wrong tense. Four days before Christmas, Stan made a final trip to the vet. There was a loose connection somewhere in his brain, some crackling which, from time to time, short-circuited his faculties. Extra training and canine therapy offered some hope but a recurrence was an episode too far, leaving us with no credible option but to take the right, but hard, choice. The risk of this malfunction happening to someone else became too great.
And now the days weigh heavily, stretching on vacantly for longer than seems wholly credible and our home feels cold and empty and oh-so-horribly quiet. It takes an effort to care very much about anything else and while time will help, time is passing mighty slowly just now.
If grief truly is the price paid for love, he was adored. In the New Year we shall cross the sea to the Isle of Jura, his happiest place, and there scatter his ashes, his spirit freed to roam the hills, chasing the deer, forever and a day.
That’s all for 2021 folks and my apologies for ending on a downbeat note. May I thank you for being here and wish you a Happy New Year.