Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Belgium's way out of the economists' mess

CALL me sad, or strange, but I’ve just been reading a learned article about the state of the world’s economies.
Well, I do have an A-level in economics. Which is a bit like saying I have an A-level in astrology, palm-reading or the spirit world.
But with this difference. That while economics may be a phony science, based mostly on faith and guesswork, the things its practitioners say do have effects in the real world. Sometimes very profound effects.
The world economic crisis, for example. Economists may have no good idea of how to get us out of it. But they certainly played a part in getting us into it.
John Lanchester isn’t exactly an economist. He’s a commentator on the things economists – and bankers, governments and other general messers with the world – get up to.
His book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, for example, attempted to make clear to a general reader what the 2007-2010 financial crisis was all about.
Which is fine, except that suggests everything’s got better since last year. Which it hasn’t.
His latest article examines things like tax, spending cuts and international (mostly American) politics in a way that probably isn’t for the general reader.
But in it he makes a point that’s worth thinking about.
It’s about economic growth – you know, that will-o-the-wisp thing that’s supposed to be the aim and measure of everything good in the capitalist world.
Growth may not really be such a good thing in a world rapidly running short of key resources.
But the developed economies, such as ours and America’s, need it in order to pay off the colossal debts they’ve spent the last few years racking up.
To the general gloom of economists, however, growth figures are looking a trifle stagnant (to use their term).
In the last quarter, the US economy has grown by a disappointing 0.3 per cent. The UK figure is an even shabbier 0.2pc – which happens also to be the average for the Euro zone.
Within that zone, German growth stands at precisely zero, while in France the figure is just 0.1pc.
All of which makes Belgium’s 0.7pc growth rate look positively buoyant.
So what’s different about Belgium? How come this little land, stuck as it is between the two stagnant superpowers of Europe, has been outperforming other Western economies?
The domestic political scene in Brussels is in such turmoil that for the past 15 months Belgium has had no government.
No tax policy. No agenda of “austerity”. No cuts in public service. To all intents and purposes, no one in control.
Is this, perhaps, the answer?


I SAW a heartwarming story and an inspiring bit of video footage the other day.
A story that struck a particular chord in the week after tickets for next years Paralympics went on sale.
Though this one wasn’t about a disabled person overcoming the odds. Not, at least, if you assume the word “person” to mean a human. This is more of a shaggy dog story.
A decade ago, when I was internet editor of the Evening Star, I had an excellent deputy called Isobel.
At the same time I had a good friend and colleague called Kahn. When he left to head north, he took Izzy with him. They are now married.
As well as being a journalist in Yorkshire, Kahn is now an aspiring – and very funny – stand-up comedian, while Izzy is a website manager.
But the real star of this tale isn’t either of them. It’s their 18-month-old border collie Teddy.
With the help of specialist trainers, Izzy has taught Teddy to do those clever things collies do which always so impress the crowds at Crufts.
And that despite the fact that he came from a rescue centre, having been blind from birth.
“When we first brought him home we deliberately moved our furniture around to try and improve his other senses,” explained Izzy. “We taught him words such as ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘jump’ and ‘over’, which he learned quickly.”
As he now demonstrates in agility classes, which he has progressed through with skill and alacrity.
Izzy added: “Teddy’s handicap doesn’t affect his quality of life. The fact he’s now confidently jumping over fences and running through tunnels proves how strong-minded he is and how well he uses his other senses.
“He loves the tunnels. The longer they are the better for Teddy.
“I think there would be a limit to the height of the jumps Teddy will be able to do because of his eyes so I’m not sure he will ever get to Crufts. But I would take him as far as he is happy to go.
“I’m so proud of him and of what he’s achieved so far.”
There. Told you it was heartwarming.

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