Beppe Grillo: a master at work.

Beppe Grillo is something of a political phenomenon in Italy. Wikipedia describes him thus, while his blog has a different approach.

I thought it might be fun to see him in action. I found a speech/performance that he made nearly twenty years ago in 1998. This is more than ten years before he formally entered politics, but we can see where he is going.

I am fairly often asked about the advisability of going out into the aisles of a hall to get in amongst the audience. I don’t advise against it, but it has to be well stage-managed in order to work. Your first hurdle is practical technology: are there blind spots where your radio mic will drop out? – if you walk in front of a speaker will you get howl-round? – can you with reasonable dignity get off the platform into the body of the hall? – and so on.

Your next hurdle is you: does your message lend itself to being delivered while you are eyeballing members of the audience up close? – do you have the right sort of personality to pull it off? – can you keep moving enough to avoid sections of the audience spending most of the time looking at your back? – and so on.

If checklists like that come back with the right answers, then go for it! It is certainly very good for one of my chief mantras, namely that the audience should feel you are speaking with, as distinct from at, them.

Grillo here is fantastic! This is a masterclass on what can be done. Everything from his constant movement, changing from creeping to running to bounding, his endless variation of vocal tone, now whispering now bellowing, the daringness of the language for 1998 – I’m assuming that the subtitles are faithful – everything is brilliantly performed. You only have to see the faces on his audience to know that he is winning all the way.

Added to that, he has his stage-management issues licked. No one has to look at his distant back because there’s always a huge screen with him in close-up.

You would need to be very skilled, very brave, or downright foolhardy, to try to emulate his style. A FTSE 250 chairman delivering an AGM keynote like this could die very painfully; but that’s not the point. It is by watching a master at work that we get inspiration and ideas, and then we fashion them into something we can reach and handle.

I’m not surprised he has such a following in Italy.

 

Deirdre McCloskey: a lamb in wolf’s clothing

In my previous post I ended by saying that I needed to find someone expert enough to take Thomas Picketty properly to task.

In November 2014 the Rogge Lecture at Wabash College was delivered by Deirdre McCloskey. This was just a few months after the English language edition of Thomas Picketty’s book was published, and she tackled it head on. Please note that last pronoun. She tackled it more than she tackled him. Yes she disagreed with him and destroyed much of his case, but her approach to him was always courteous and professional.

This is worth noting, because debates across this particular philosophical line are so often absurdly acrimonious. Burnt into my memory is a picture I saw on line a few years ago of a Tea Party gathering where a young man was wearing a placard bearing just the words, “Whatever I say you will call me racist.” Though it is possible that some advocates of low tax and small government could be racist, to equate them is nonsense; but smear machines always swing into action on these occasions. That placard was no doubt shown to be justified.

McCloskey, taking the side that is so often idly portrayed as unfeeling, is wearing little discernible makeup, her hair is in a fairly severe style (she sometimes wears it down) and her trademark gravelly voice completes the image of one who is not planning to take prisoners. No one could accuse her of superficially trying to soften her case, even though the gentle gleam of her smile creeps out occasionally.

(In fact her case does not need softening, because it very quickly emerges that she is wholly concerned with helping those in poverty.)

No one could accuse her of giving a damn about anything except what she is saying, and that’s one of the things I like about her. It is the mindset I drill into my trainees: if you are concerned solely with your message so will your audience be. Do you suppose that her audience gives a damn, for instance, when at 5:54 she scratches at a mark on her skirt? It’s only people like me who notice that sort of thing, and I notice only because it indicates the right mindset. It is relevant that she is a professor not just of economics but a great many other things including communication.

McCloskey knows the anti-inequality arguments very well, because she used to be a Marxist (her life has often changed direction); so no one is better equipped to knock the arguments down. It would be impertinent of me to try to précis this speech, particularly as you can watch it for yourself and I hope you will, but for my part …

r>g

… is no more than an argument in favour of saving.

While dismantling Picketty’s arguments she points out that in his anti-capitalist rhetoric he omits mention of human capital, whence come ideas and innovation – the real drivers of progress. When researching her for this posting I watched another of her speeches which focussed even more strongly on this point, and I would have covered that one today had we not been already locked in to Picketty.

One day I will write a post on that other one, because in the first couple of minutes she said something that made me want to hug her. Like in this speech she was shooting from the hip, and in her opening she brought up the subject of her stutter.  She said that if she were to read the speech her stutter would be considerably worse. My regular readers will know why I smiled in agreement.

In every respect she is my type of speaker.

Thomas Picketty didn’t play the piano

Early in 2014 French economist Thomas Picketty published a book on economics, entitled CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a sensation. It rocketed to the higher reaches of the Best-Seller lists and stayed there a long time, assembling all sorts of awards. I have to confess to not having a copy of my own, although I have read several reviews of it …

… actually, because I have read several reviews of it.

Late in 2014 Picketty delivered a TED Talk.

How well I remember, all those years ago at school, our French teacher was exasperated at our attempts to wrap our Anglo-Saxon tongues around French vowel sounds. He would thunder at us that it was thoroughly ill-mannered to attempt to speak a language without applying at least as much effort to pronouncing it properly, so the better we could converse the worse the impression bad pronunciation would give. I remember his words every time I hear French people speaking English. The Hollywood actor, Maurice Chevalier, regarded his French accent as not just his professional trademark but part of his charm to such a degree that I believe while living in California he used to visit a dialogue coach to preserve it.

With my rhetor hat on I couldn’t care less about accents unless they impede intelligibility. Picketty’s accent impedes his intelligibility. So does the speed he speaks. Speaking subjectively,  I have to say that so does his subject matter.

r>g where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

If you are still awake I regret to inform you that this entire speech (and, for all I know, his book) is devoted to inequality of wealth, inequality of income and what can be done about it. At no point in the speech, though he may have slipped something in while I was dozing or admiring the piano behind him, did I notice him even bother to address why inequality matters.

I know that many people do get exercised that there is wealth inequality, though I don’t share their concern. I have met a few people with huge amounts of money, and they never seem to be particularly happy. I have also met many highly cheerful souls with very little. We are all much richer than our ancestors. And anyway, wealth isn’t just things.

There is only one cast-iron guaranteed way of ensuring that everyone has the same, and that is if everyone has nothing. As soon as any wealth is created, some will have more than others. The greater the overall wealth, the greater the inequality. Show me an unequal free society and I’ll show you a rich one. The richer a free society the richer the poorest in it, and that’s all that matters. How much more proportionately rich the richest have become in the process is irrelevant. Please don’t bleat to me about ‘trickle-down economics’: it doesn’t exist. Free market transactions enrich all their participants. Zero-sum transactions, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, occur almost exclusively with theft and its derivatives.

Picketty seems to assume that inequality is self-evidently bad, because at 14:45 he begins to address “what can be done about it”; and all his remedies are varieties of institutionalized theft. At 15:10 he explicitly lists “expropriation” which he dismisses only because it is “inefficient”. It doesn’t seem to concern him, or even occur to him, that it is theft.

Proper economists are probably rolling their eyes while reading my clumsy attempts to make a case on the basis of my (at best) sketchy understanding of the science, so I think I had better shut up and go looking for a speech from an expert who can take Picketty properly to task. Watch this space.

Picketty must have made a lot of money from his book. Good luck to him. I wish him well, because I don’t resent another man’s success. I would wish him better if he had played that piano, because it couldn’t fail to have been more entertaining.

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.

Thomas Sowell. How I’d like to hear him today!

Thomas Sowell talks such abundant sense that I have long wanted to address one of his speeches on this blog. I have repeatedly tried to find a speech from recent years, but have failed. They exist online in transcript but not on video – unless a reader can show me differently. There are plenty of interviews with him on video. That requires a whole different discipline and if I ever get around to covering interview technique here I may return to him. Meanwhile he is addressing The Institute for World Capitalism in Jackson, Florida, in October 1993 – twenty years ago.

YouTube has two versions of this speech (which is just the first quarter of the full address). The other one includes a lengthy introduction and a brief preamble in which Sowell says that being introduced is like getting a sneak preview of one’s own obituary. I mention that because I am able to tell you authoritatively that this speech has a bald opening and is the better for it.

If you are going to lecture an audience on a subject it’s no bad thing to start with fundamental definitions. How fundamental depends on how you define ‘fundamental’. How far upstream should you go? Sowell starts with the Garden of Eden which is quite a long way upstream.

During his fundamental definition of economics he delivers a nice little (only two elements) epistrophe at 0:40. This makes me like him enough partially to forgive his use of a script – which he actually uses pretty discreetly. Nevertheless there is a strange, hesitant hiatus just after the one-minute mark. He tells us that “rationing is inherent whether it’s under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other kind of … method.” It’s almost as if he wanted to say “ism” instead of “method”. Had he done so he would have signalled that his list was another epistrophe – ending in “ism” – and I wish he had because the sentence would have been smoother. Which word was written in his script, I wonder?

At any rate, he concludes his definition with the statement, “Scarcity is the first lesson of economics.” Then he turns to politics in which the first lesson is, “…to forget the first lesson in economics”. He harvests a well-deserved laugh but more importantly signals the essential message of this address, which is that politicians tie themselves in knots in trying to bend economics to the expedients of their utopian philosophy; and this is, and always will be, ultimately futile.

Let us for the moment stand aside from whether we regard this message as palatable. The device of setting out your stall so clearly and so early in a speech is very effective, easy and obvious, but absurdly often overlooked. How often do we sit in an audience, trying to determine from the purple prose what it is that the speaker is actually trying to persuade us? Sowell, here and there, lacks some fluency and coherence (at least he did twenty years ago), but we are left in no doubt as to his message.

So let us return to whether it is palatable. I began this posting by opining that Sowell talks abundant sense. I am a fan of his aphorisms, which I deem as wise as they are unfashionable. You can find some here. Among them is this nugget, in which he acknowledges his unfashionability –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Mark Thornton – unexceptionable: unex…anything!

Some years ago I was in a meeting with the training manager of a company that here shall remain nameless. I had already trained their CEO and this discussion concerned the possibility of my working with other executives. He suddenly asked me whether I had any sort of government-recognized qualification in teaching public speaking. I replied that as far as I knew there was no such thing, which was probably a blessing as I could imagine the joy-sucking automatons that would graduate from such a system. He didn’t seem to see the funny side of that, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.

I think somewhere out there is a school of thought to the effect that it doesn’t have maturity or class unless it’s stuffed-shirt-boring (you may recall the hatchet job I did on an offering by William Hague). This was brought sharply into focus when I came across this speech in which the speaker fought bravely to conceal as much as possible of his personality.

Mark Thornton is delivering a lecture at the Ludvig von Mises Institute in June 2011. He is explaining the difference between Austrian and mainstream economics. He favours the Austrian variety; and I felt bound to confide this information to you because in his struggle to be balanced and even-handed he comes close to hiding that detail. What we have here is 21 minutes of message-lite, emotion-free information, in plain-wrapping. It’s the sort of thing that would have a government-certified inspector of speeches biting his standard-issue clipboard in ecstasy.

Except for five seconds! For that very brief period in an unguarded moment Thornton’s passion peeps out. I’ll tell you a little later where you may witness this minor outrage.

Right at the beginning, from 0:30 there is a section where he explains that Austrian economics is at the same time the oldest, the smallest and the fastest growing school of economic thought. At this point there is a slight teasing suggestion that Thornton is going to get into the driving seat and sell the concept, but no dice.

I really do not know what else to say about this leaden performance. I am no economist, but I find the Austrian doctrine exciting and seductive. Nevertheless if this had been my introduction to it I should not have given it a second glance. It makes me crave to confront Thornton, unpin his communication wings and watch him fly.

He could very easily fly. He knows his subject, and behind all that iron control there is someone who is passionate about it. Do you want to see my evidence? Watch from 19:45, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

And the day that some busy-body half-witted politician (a description that fits too many of them) decides to create a quango to oversee public speaking is the day that I shall retire in disgust.