Steve Bannon speaks.

A few days ago, the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Steve Bannon.

How many times have you seen film footage of Adolph Hitler making a speech? Same question re: Joseph Stalin: same question re: Mao Zedong. I fancy the three answers are likely to be, “many times”, “never”, “never”. Hitler is widely held to be the world’s most evil person in the 20th Century, whereas the other two still have substantial followings in their own countries and elsewhere. Hitler was diabolical, but in terms of the deaths he caused he was a non-starter compared with the other two. That for me is one of the strongest arguments against the No-Platform movement, because if someone really is evil the world and posterity need to hear from his own lips how evil. If they are no-platformed, doubt will remain.

Am I, with that paragraph, comparing Steve Bannon to people whose respective body-counts are in the tens of millions? No, I’m explaining why we should be keen to watch this speech.

He starts with an account of how on 18 September, 2008, in the Oval Office, the heads of the US Treasury and Goldman Sachs told the President, George W. Bush, that only an injection of one trillion dollars would save the world from economic collapse. That is a high-impact opening.

[Let’s take a moment to look at one trillion as a number. If you’d been counting one trillion dollar bills non-stop at one dollar a second, and had just finished, you’d have needed to start around 30,000 BC.]

Bannon speaks for a smidgeon under half-an-hour and the rest is questions. There are so many questions that in conscientiously answering them he over-runs his time and we learn that he misses his flight.

The speech is so important, as are the answers to the questions, that my critiquing seems impertinent, so I’ll keep it very brief.

I am delighted and not surprised that he speaks entirely without notes. His structure could be a little tidier, both to avoid repetition, therefore saving time, and to make his message(s) even more digestible for his audience.

During questions he ducks nothing, even welcoming the most confrontational. The only time he criticises a questioner is to tell him to stop reading his question and “speak from the heart”. I raise a cheer at that.

I congratulate the Oxford Union for this talk, as I did when they hosted Tommy Robinson. Their audience, both in the hall and on the internet, is grown-up enough to evaluate people on their own account, rather than being forced to rely on second-hand views in the media.


Sheila Bair takes on the bullies

On September 19, 2013, Sheila Bair addressed the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business.

My having supplied a link to the biography page on her own website, and the fact that the video begins with an introduction from Frank Navratil, the Dean of the School, should provide all the background you need. Nevertheless, if you come from my side of the pond and you still may need persuasion to watch the video at all, it’s worth just mentioning here that Ms Bair occupied the Chair of the US Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation from 2006 to 2011, her incumbency spanning turbulent times for the economy of the USA and indeed the planet. The FDIC insures depositors in US banks, so we are about to hear from one who saw the entire drama from centre stage.

We kick off with Navratil’s introduction which is nearly five minutes long and crammed with information. He delivers it all with suitable competence, though it is difficult to get much sex appeal out of a catalogue of achievements and awards. Having done a little research on Ms Bair I find myself astounded that she can have achieved so much, and still published several children’s books. Also my mischievous instincts are amused when told that Forbes Magazine, in 2008/9, named her the world’s second most powerful woman after someone whose name Navratil then has to look up – and mispronounce. I’d sometimes like to forget that other name also.

The story Ms Bair proceeds to narrate, being the inside track on the financial crisis that we all remember more clearly than we might want, is riveting. It therefore seems impertinent for one such as I to be critiquing her delivery of it. Nevertheless there is something  interesting here that I’d like to mention.

Her eyes are as often as not on the lectern, yet she is not reading. Those words she speaks are not read words: they are spontaneously spoken words – I’d stake much on that assertion. So why is she looking down for so much of the time?

Sheila Bair is shy. It is not unusual for brilliant people to be shy: I have worked with very many such. What is unusual is for them to be comfortable enough with it not to struggle to hide it. That hint of vulnerability, in one so very smart, makes her human. Yet another reason to hear what she has to say.

So now I invite you to settle down to listen to her account of that interesting time. She hands over to Q&A at 46:35. Perhaps, like me, you will then want to read her book.

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.