Roger Bootle: mildly excellent

On 28 January 2015 Roger Bootle, Chairman of Capital Economics, gave a talk at the University of Leeds. The talk was one of the Financial Times Masterclass Lecture series, and entitled The Trouble with Europe.

At this stage in the history of the UK this is fascinating: a penetrating, deeply researched and authoritative analysis of the European Union. Therefore as I did with the recent post we had of a speech by Digby Jones, I think it is relevant to put the timing of this talk into context. It was –

  • a little more than 3 months before a UK General Election, whereat David Cameron promised to seek radical reform of the EU, and then hold a referendum.
  • 18 months before the Referendum,
  • a time when the Euro was under enormous pressure.

That time-context gets particularly significant and interesting from about 41:00 onwards, and increasingly more as it approaches the end.

Malcolm Sawyer, Emeritus Professor of Economics, makes the introduction; and as we join it we see two figures standing in the gloaming before the screen. We zoom in to see which of them is speaking now and which is preparing to do so.

For me this is excellent! In these videos we seldom get a chance to watch the demeanour and body-language of a speaker before taking the stage. Bootle seems relaxed, and it is the sort of relaxation that is the preserve of one in command of his subject. He is listening impassively and slightly amused to the description of himself. Why is he carrying a sheaf of paper? Surely he won’t use a script: surely he is too adept a speaker for that. His adeptness is confirmed when he removes his wristwatch in preparation for laying it on the desk. That tells me that he has spotted the absence of a clock on the wall. It may seem a small thing but it indicates professionalism, and my expectation of speaking excellence rises – but what about those papers?

It turns out to be a list of his deck of slides – we even get a glimpse of it at one point. There are many slides, mainly graphics, and where there are words they are minimal. Very good. Accordingly I forgive the paper, except at one point when it rubs against his microphone.

He opens with some mild reminiscing about his long memories of this university. I chose that adjective ‘mild’ with care, because you can tell a lot about the tenor of a speech from the first minute. Immediately we know that however thoroughly he drills into the subject he will not hector. Nor does he. His command of the subject gives him authority, and enables the mildness.

This whole talk – fifty minutes of it – is riveting, not least because here we hear while armed with nearly five years of hindsight.

At 48:45 he begins to tell us how he will vote in the referendum, depending upon circumstances in the mean time. With hindsight we know what those circumstances turned out to be, and therefore how he probably voted. But what about his opinion nearer to today? This interview is from March of this year.

Patrick Minford is nearly tickety-boo

On 2 October, 2017, The Bruges Group held a meeting at the Great Hall in Manchester. Inevitably the theme was Brexit, and the meeting was addressed by a series of experts on the subject. We recently looked at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech. It was immediately preceded by one from Patrick Minford. Sadly the online video of that speech is in two parts, and I’m far too impatient to fiddle around with that, so instead I have gone back to another Bruges Group meeting in November 2016, also addressed by Professor Minford.

The messiness of his opening can, I think, be put down principally to nerves. It reeks to me of Hump. The speech dramatically comes together at 1:17 when he addresses the question “What was the Brexit vote for?” He gives his answer and the audience gives his answer a round of applause. Just imagine if that had been his opening – a bald opening. He’d have received that spontaneous applause within 15 seconds of starting, which would have done wonders for his Hump, and his opening would have been clean and mess-free.

Of course I understand the pressure that says that you must acknowledge and thank a gracious introduction. I equally understand the real value of the little bit of self-deprecating humour concerning the previous time he spoke there, but there are ways of satisfying both those imperatives while still starting with a hump-busting bald opening.

At any rate, from that point you can sense his nerves evaporating down to a manageable level while his natural capacity for thinking on his feet builds proportionately. A couple of minutes later he is going like a train.

I’d like to say that thereafter everything is tickety-boo, and it very nearly is because he knows his subject and can talk the hind-legs off a donkey. With a little bit of minor tweaking to the structure he wouldn’t need even that little scrap of paper that he uses as a comfort blanket. He could shoot the whole thing from the hip, everything would be tickety-boo, and that’s the way I like it.

Dambisa Moyo is wonderful

In September 2016, One Young World held a summit in Ottawa, Canada. It was addressed by Dr Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, a book that is well worth reading.

Kate Robertson, co-founder of One Young World makes the introduction, and huddles throughout. I don’t think she’s cold – not in September: I think she’s genuinely star-struck, and her words seem to bear this out. The introduction is just long enough to say what it needs to say, and short enough to infect us with her excitement.

Moyo enters from upstage, silhouetted against a brightly lit backcloth. It’s a nice production touch and I begin to feel impressed. By the time the greeting embraces are concluded she is fully front-lit as she heads for the lectern where the microphones are, except – what’s this? – she’s already speaking, we can hear her clearly, and she’s nowhere near the lectern yet. She must be wearing a radio mic, and the sound engineer is on the ball.

I have been accustomed over the years to castigating conference organisers for stage-management shortcomings which are usually technical, may be small, but are irritatingly symptomatic of a lack of professional care. I have so say, on the basis of this talk, that this seems to be a flawlessly-run conference. Bouquets all round.

Moyo more than upholds that standard. She is a very fine speaker indeed. Here we have a little over twenty minutes of stunningly well structured speech, shot throughout from the hip. If you want to see unembellished excellence on a speaking platform, here is a prime example.

If you are puzzled by that adjective ‘unembellished’ let me explain. I search in vain for any artifice. I am convinced that she is striking that most difficult of all poses: she is being herself, and that is why her message is so powerful. There is plenty in what she says that I find debatable, and would enjoy debating it, but that subtracts not a jot from my admiration of this speech.

You may think that one who tours the globe making such speeches would be bound to be brilliant, but if so you haven’t seen much of this blog. Trust me: it doesn’t follow.

This is wonderful.

 

 

 

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.