Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The austerity delusion. Why does Britain still believe it?

The case for cuts was a lie.

Paul Krugman in The Guardian

In May 2010, as Britain headed into its last general election, elites all across the western world were gripped by austerity fever, a strange malady that combined extravagant fear with blithe optimism. Every country running significant budget deficits – as nearly all were in the aftermath of the financial crisis – was deemed at imminent risk of becoming another Greece unless it immediately began cutting spending and raising taxes. Concerns that imposing such austerity in already depressed economies would deepen their depression and delay recovery were airily dismissed; fiscal probity, we were assured, would inspire business-boosting confidence, and all would be well.

People holding these beliefs came to be widely known in economic circles as“austerians” – a term coined by the economist Rob Parenteau – and for a while the austerian ideology swept all before it.

But that was five years ago, and the fever has long since broken. Greece is now seen as it should have been seen from the beginning – as a unique case, with few lessons for the rest of us. It is impossible for countries such as the US and the UK, which borrow in their own currencies, to experience Greek-style crises, because they cannot run out of money – they can always print more. Even within the eurozone, borrowing costs plunged once the European Central Bank began to do its job and protect its clients against self-fulfilling panics by standing ready to buy government bonds if necessary. As I write this, Italy and Spain have no trouble raising cash – they can borrow at the lowest rates in their history, indeed considerably below those in Britain – and even Portugal’s interest rates are within a whisker of those paid by HM Treasury.

On the other side of the ledger, the benefits of improved confidence failed to make their promised appearance. Since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity. In late 2012, the IMF’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, went so far as to issue what amounted to a mea culpa: although his organisation never bought into the notion that austerity would actually boost economic growth, the IMF now believes that it massively understated the damage that spending cuts inflict on a weak economy.

Meanwhile, all of the economic research that allegedly supported the austerity push has been discredited. Widely touted statistical results were, it turned out, based on highly dubious assumptions and procedures – plus a few outright mistakes – and evaporated under closer scrutiny.

It is rare, in the history of economic thought, for debates to get resolved this decisively. The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it. Hardly anyone, that is, except the coalition that still rules Britain – and most of the British media.

I don’t know how many Britons realise the extent to which their economic debate has diverged from the rest of the western world – the extent to which the UK seems stuck on obsessions that have been mainly laughed out of the discourse elsewhere. George Osborne and David Cameron boast that their policies saved Britain from a Greek-style crisis of soaring interest rates, apparently oblivious to the fact that interest rates are at historic lows all across the western world. The press seizes on Ed Miliband’s failure to mention the budget deficit in a speech as a huge gaffe, a supposed revelation of irresponsibility; meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is talking, seriously, not about budget deficits but about the “fun deficit” facing America’s children.

Is there some good reason why deficit obsession should still rule in Britain, even as it fades away everywhere else? No. This country is not different. The economics of austerity are the same – and the intellectual case as bankrupt – in Britain as everywhere else.

Stimulus and its enemies

hen economic crisis struck the advanced economies in 2008, almost every government – even Germany – introduced some kind of stimulus programme, increasing spending and/or cutting taxes. There was no mystery why: it was all about zero.

Normally, monetary authorities – the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England – can respond to a temporary economic downturn by cutting interest rates; this encourages private spending, especially on housing, and sets the stage for recovery. But there’s a limit to how much they can do in that direction. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t cut interest rates below zero. We now know that this wasn’t quite right, since many European bonds now pay slightly negative interest. Still, there can’t be much room for sub-zero rates. And if cutting rates all the way to zero isn’t enough to cure what ails the economy, the usual remedy for recession falls short.

So it was in 2008-2009. By late 2008 it was already clear in every major economy that conventional monetary policy, which involves pushing down the interest rate on short-term government debt, was going to be insufficient to fight the financial downdraft. Now what? The textbook answer was and is fiscal expansion: increase government spending both to create jobs directly and to put money in consumers’ pockets; cut taxes to put more money in those pockets.

But won’t this lead to budget deficits? Yes, and that’s actually a good thing. An economy that is depressed even with zero interest rates is, in effect, an economy in which the public is trying to save more than businesses are willing to invest. In such an economy the government does everyone a service by running deficits and giving frustrated savers a chance to put their money to work. Nor does this borrowing compete with private investment. An economy where interest rates cannot go any lower is an economy awash in desired saving with no place to go, and deficit spending that expands the economy is, if anything, likely to lead to higher private investment than would otherwise materialise.

It’s true that you can’t run big budget deficits for ever (although you can do it for a long time), because at some point interest payments start to swallow too large a share of the budget. But it’s foolish and destructive to worry about deficits when borrowing is very cheap and the funds you borrow would otherwise go to waste.

At some point you do want to reverse stimulus. But you don’t want to do it too soon – specifically, you don’t want to remove fiscal support as long as pedal-to-the-metal monetary policy is still insufficient. Instead, you want to wait until there can be a sort of handoff, in which the central bank offsets the effects of declining spending and rising taxes by keeping rates low. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1937: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

All of this is standard macroeconomics. I often encounter people on both the left and the right who imagine that austerity policies were what the textbook said you should do – that those of us who protested against the turn to austerity were staking out some kind of heterodox, radical position. But the truth is that mainstream, textbook economics not only justified the initial round of post-crisis stimulus, but said that this stimulus should continue until economies had recovered.

What we got instead, however, was a hard right turn in elite opinion, away from concerns about unemployment and toward a focus on slashing deficits, mainly with spending cuts. Why?

Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts in benefits

Part of the answer is that politicians were catering to a public that doesn’t understand the rationale for deficit spending, that tends to think of the government budget via analogies with family finances. When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences. Similarly, the Labour party felt it necessary to dedicate the very first page of its 2015 general election manifesto to a “Budget Responsibility Lock”, promising to “cut the deficit every year”.

Let us not, however, be too harsh on the public. Many elite opinion-makers, including people who imagine themselves sophisticated on matters economic, demonstrated at best a higher level of incomprehension, not getting at all the logic of deficit spending in the face of excess desired saving. For example, in the spring of 2009 the Harvard historian and economic commentator Niall Ferguson, talking about the United States, was quite sure what would happen: “There is going to be, I predict, in the weeks and months ahead, a very painful tug-of-war between our monetary policy and our fiscal policy as the markets realise just what a vast quantity of bonds are going to have to be absorbed by the financial system this year. That will tend to drive the price of the bonds down, and drive up interest rates.” The weeks and months turned into years – six years, at this point – and interest rates remain at historic lows.

Beyond these economic misconceptions, there were political reasons why many influential players opposed fiscal stimulus even in the face of a deeply depressed economy. Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts in benefits; suggestions that higher spending might actually be beneficial are definitely not welcome. Meanwhile, centrist politicians and pundits often try to demonstrate how serious and statesmanlike they are by calling for hard choices and sacrifice (by other people). Even Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, given in the face of a plunging economy, largely consisted of hard-choices boilerplate. As a result, centrists were almost as uncomfortable with the notion of fiscal stimulus as the hard right.

In a way, the remarkable thing about economic policy in 2008-2009 was the fact that the case for fiscal stimulus made any headway at all against the forces of incomprehension and vested interests demanding harsher and harsher austerity. The best explanation of this temporary and limited success I’ve seen comes from the political scientist Henry Farrell, writing with the economist John Quiggin.Farrell and Quiggin note that Keynesian economists were intellectually prepared for the possibility of crisis, in a way that free-market fundamentalists weren’t, and that they were also relatively media-savvy. So they got their take on the appropriate policy response out much more quickly than the other side, creating “the appearance of a new apparent consensus among expert economists” in favour of fiscal stimulus.

If this is right, there was inevitably going to be a growing backlash – a turn against stimulus and toward austerity – once the shock of the crisis wore off. Indeed, there were signs of such a backlash by the early fall of 2009. But the real turning point came at the end of that year, when Greece hit the wall. As a result, the year of Britain’s last general election was also the year of austerity.

Chapter twoThe austerity moment

rom the beginning, there were plenty of people strongly inclined to oppose fiscal stimulus and demand austerity. But they had a problem: their dire warnings about the consequences of deficit spending kept not coming true. Some of them were quite open about their frustration with the refusal of markets to deliver the disasters they expected and wanted. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, in 2010: “Inflation and long-term interest rates, the typical symptoms of fiscal excess, have remained remarkably subdued. This is regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency that can have dire consequences.”

But he had an answer: “Growing analogies to Greece set the stage for a serious response.” Greece was the disaster austerians were looking for. In September 2009 Greece’s long-term borrowing costs were only 1.3 percentage points higher than Germany’s; by September 2010 that gap had increased sevenfold. Suddenly, austerians had a concrete demonstration of the dangers they had been warning about. A hard turn away from Keynesian policies could now be justified as an urgent defensive measure, lest your country abruptly turn into another Greece.

Still, what about the depressed state of western economies? The post-crisis recession bottomed out in the middle of 2009, and in most countries a recovery was under way, but output and employment were still far below normal. Wouldn’t a turn to austerity threaten the still-fragile upturn?

Not according to many policymakers, who engaged in one of history’s most remarkable displays of collective wishful thinking. Standard macroeconomics said that cutting spending in a depressed economy, with no room to offset these cuts by reducing interest rates that were already near zero, would indeed deepen the slump. But policymakers at the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and in the British government that took power in May 2010 eagerly seized on economic research that claimed to show the opposite.

The doctrine of “expansionary austerity” is largely associated with work byAlberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard. Alesina used statistical techniques that supposedly identified all large fiscal policy changes in advanced countries between 1970 and 2007, and claimed to find evidence that spending cuts, in particular, were often “associated with economic expansions rather than recessions”. The reason, he and those who seized on his work suggested, was that spending cuts create confidence, and that the positive effects of this increase in confidence trump the direct negative effects of reduced spending.

Greece was the disaster austerians were looking for

This may sound too good to be true – and it was. But policymakers knew what they wanted to hear, so it was, as Business Week put it, “Alesina’s hour”. The doctrine of expansionary austerity quickly became orthodoxy in much of Europe. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, then the president of the European Central Bank, because “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery”.

Besides, everybody knew that terrible things would happen if debt went above 90% of GDP.

Growth in a Time of Debt, the now-infamous 2010 paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University that claimed that 90% debt is a critical threshold, arguably played much less of a direct role in the turn to austerity than Alesina’s work. After all, austerians didn’t need Reinhart and Rogoff to provide dire scenarios about what could happen if deficits weren’t reined in – they had the Greek crisis for that. At most, the Reinhart and Rogoff paper provided a backup bogeyman, an answer to those who kept pointing out that nothing like the Greek story seemed to be happening to countries that borrowed in their own currencies: even if interest rates were low, austerians could point to Reinhart and Rogoff and declare that high debt is very, very bad.

What Reinhart and Rogoff did bring to the austerity camp was academic cachet. Their 2009 book This Time is Different, which brought a vast array of historical data to bear on the subject of economic crises, was widely celebrated by both policymakers and economists – myself included – for its prescient warnings that we were at risk of a major crisis and that recovery from that crisis was likely to be slow. So they brought a lot of prestige to the austerity push when they were perceived as weighing in on that side of the policy debate. (They now claim that they did no such thing, but they did nothing to correct that impression at the time.)

When the coalition government came to power, then, all the pieces were in place for policymakers who were already inclined to push for austerity. Fiscal retrenchment could be presented as urgently needed to avert a Greek-style strike by bond buyers. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility, or whose governments pretend that difficult decisions can somehow be avoided,” declared David Cameron soon after taking office. It could also be presented as urgently needed to stop debt, already almost 80% of GDP, from crossing the 90% red line. In a 2010 speech laying out his plan to eliminate the deficit, Osborne cited Reinhart and Rogoff by name, while declaring that “soaring government debt ... is very likely to trigger the next crisis.” Concerns about delaying recovery could be waved away with an appeal to positive effects on confidence. Economists who objected to any or all of these lines of argument were simply ignored.

But that was, as I said, five years ago.

Chapter threeDecline and fall of the austerity cult

o understand what happened to austerianism, it helps to start with two charts.

The first chart shows interest rates on the bonds of a selection of advanced countries as of mid-April 2015. What you can see right away is that Greece remains unique, more than five years after it was heralded as an object lesson for all nations. Everyone else is paying very low interest rates by historical standards. This includes the United States, where the co-chairs of a debt commission created by President Obama confidently warned that crisis loomed within two years unless their recommendations were adopted; that was four years ago. It includes Spain and Italy, which faced a financial panic in 2011-2012, but saw that panic subside – despite debt that continued to rise – once the European Central Bank began doing its job as lender of last resort. It includes France, which many commentators singled out as the next domino to fall, yet can now borrow long-term for less than 0.5%. And it includes Japan, which has debt more than twice its gross domestic product yet pays even less.

The Greek exception

10-year interest rates as of 14 April 2015

Chart 1Source: Bloomberg

Back in 2010 some economists argued that fears of a Greek-style funding crisis were vastly overblown – I referred to the myth of the “invisible bond vigilantes”. Well, those bond vigilantes have stayed invisible. For countries such as the UK, the US, and Japan that borrow in their own currencies, it’s hard to even see how the predicted crises could happen. Such countries cannot, after all, run out of money, and if worries about solvency weakened their currencies, this would actually help their economies in a time of weak growth and low inflation.

Chart 2 takes a bit more explaining. A couple of years after the great turn towards austerity, a number of economists realised that the austerians were performing what amounted to a great natural experiment. Historically, large cuts in government spending have usually occurred either in overheated economies suffering from inflation or in the aftermath of wars, as nations demobilise. Neither kind of episode offers much guidance on what to expect from the kind of spending cuts – imposed on already depressed economies – that the austerians were advocating. But after 2009, in a generalised economic depression, some countries chose (or were forced) to impose severe austerity, while others did not. So what happened?

Austerity and growth 2009-13

More austere countries have a lower rate of GDP growth

Chart 2Source: IMF

In Chart 2, each dot represents the experience of an advanced economy from 2009 to 2013, the last year of major spending cuts. The horizontal axis shows a widely used measure of austerity – the average annual change in the cyclically adjusted primary surplus, an estimate of what the difference between taxes and non-interest spending would be if the economy were at full employment. As you move further right on the graph, in other words, austerity becomes more severe. You can quibble with the details of this measure, but the basic result – harsh austerity in Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, incredibly harsh austerity in Greece – is surely right.

Meanwhile, the vertical axis shows the annual rate of economic growth over the same period. The negative correlation is, of course, strong and obvious – and not at all what the austerians had asserted would happen.

Again, some economists argued from the beginning that all the talk of expansionary austerity was foolish – back in 2010 I dubbed it belief in the “confidence fairy”, a term that seems to have stuck. But why did the alleged statistical evidence – from Alesina, among others – that spending cuts were often good for growth prove so misleading?

The answer, it turned out, was that it wasn’t very good statistical work. A review by the IMF found that the methods Alesina used in an attempt to identify examples of sharp austerity produced many misidentifications. For example, in 2000 Finland’s budget deficit dropped sharply thanks to a stock market boom, which caused a surge in government revenue – but Alesina mistakenly identified this as a major austerity programme. When the IMF laboriously put together a new database of austerity measures derived from actual changes in spending and tax rates, it found that austerity has a consistently negative effect on growth.

Yet even the IMF’s analysis fell short – as the institution itself eventually acknowledged. I’ve already explained why: most historical episodes of austerity took place under conditions very different from those confronting western economies in 2010. For example, when Canada began a major fiscal retrenchment in the mid-1990s, interest rates were high, so the Bank of Canada could offset fiscal austerity with sharp rate cuts – not a useful model of the likely results of austerity in economies where interest rates were already very low. In 2010 and 2011, IMF projections of the effects of austerity programmes assumed that those effects would be similar to the historical average. But a 2013 paper co-authored by the organisation’s chief economist concluded that under post-crisis conditions the true effect had turned out to be nearly three times as large as expected.

So much, then, for invisible bond vigilantes and faith in the confidence fairy. What about the backup bogeyman, the Reinhart-Rogoff claim that there was a red line for debt at 90% of GDP?

Well, in early 2013 researchers at the University of Massachusetts examined the data behind the Reinhart-Rogoff work. They found that the results were partly driven by a spreadsheet error. More important, the results weren’t at all robust: using standard statistical procedures rather than the rather odd approach Reinhart and Rogoff used, or adding a few more years of data, caused the 90% cliff to vanish. What was left was a modest negative correlation between debt and growth, and there was good reason to believe that in general slow growth causes high debt, not the other way around.

By about two years ago, then, the entire edifice of austerian economics had crumbled. Events had utterly failed to play out as the austerians predicted, while the academic research that allegedly supported the doctrine had withered under scrutiny. Hardly anyone has admitted being wrong – hardly anyone ever does, on any subject – but quite a few prominent austerians now deny having said what they did, in fact, say. The doctrine that ruled the world in 2010 has more or less vanished from the scene.

Except in Britain.

Chapter fourA distinctly British delusion

n the US, you no longer hear much from the deficit scolds who loomed so large in the national debate circa 2011. Some commentators and media organisations still try to make budget red ink an issue, but there’s a pleading, even whining, tone to their exhortations. The day of the austerians has come and gone.

Yet Britain zigged just as the rest of us were zagging. By 2013, austerian doctrine was in ignominious retreat in most of the world – yet at that very moment much of the UK press was declaring that doctrine vindicated. “Osborne wins the battle on austerity,” the Financial Times announced in September 2013, and the sentiment was widely echoed. What was going on? You might think that British debate took a different turn because the British experience was out of line with developments elsewhere – in particular, that Britain’s return to economic growth in 2013 was somehow at odds with the predictions of standard economics. But you would be wrong.

Austerity in the UK

Cyclically adjusted primary balance, percent of GDP

Chart 3Source: IMF, OECD, and OBR

The key point to understand about fiscal policy under Cameron and Osborne is that British austerity, while very real and quite severe, was mostly imposed during the coalition’s first two years in power. Chart 3 shows estimates of our old friend the cyclically adjusted primary balance since 2009. I’ve included three sources – the IMF, the OECD, and Britain’s own Office of Budget Responsibility – just in case someone wants to argue that any one of these sources is biased. In fact, every one tells the same story: big spending cuts and a large tax rise between 2009 and 2011, not much change thereafter.

Given the fact that the coalition essentially stopped imposing new austerity measures after its first two years, there’s nothing at all surprising about seeing a revival of economic growth in 2013.

Look back at Chart 2, and specifically at what happened to countries that did little if any fiscal tightening. For the most part, their economies grew at between 2 and 4%. Well, Britain did almost no fiscal tightening in 2014, and grew 2.9%. In other words, it performed pretty much exactly as you should have expected. And the growth of recent years does nothing to change the fact that Britain paid a high price for the austerity of 2010-2012.

British economists have no doubt about the economic damage wrought by austerity. The Centre for Macroeconomics in London regularly surveys a panel of leading UK economists on a variety of questions. When it asked whether the coalition’s policies had promoted growth and employment, those disagreeing outnumbered those agreeing four to one. This isn’t quite the level of unanimity on fiscal policy one finds in the US, where a similar survey of economists found only 2% disagreed with the proposition that the Obama stimulus led to higher output and employment than would have prevailed otherwise, but it’s still an overwhelming consensus.

By this point, some readers will nonetheless be shaking their heads and declaring, “But the economy is booming, and you said that couldn’t happen under austerity.” But Keynesian logic says that a one-time tightening of fiscal policy will produce a one-time hit to the economy, not a permanent reduction in the growth rate. A return to growth after austerity has been put on hold is not at all surprising. As I pointed out recently: “If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.”

In that case, however, what’s with sophisticated media outlets such as the FT seeming to endorse this crude fallacy? Well, if you actually read that 2013 leader and many similar pieces, you discover that they are very carefully worded. The FT never said outright that the economic case for austerity had been vindicated. It only declared that Osborne had won the political battle, because the general public doesn’t understand all this business about front-loaded policies, or for that matter the difference between levels and growth rates. One might have expected the press to seek to remedy such confusions, rather than amplify them. But apparently not.

Which brings me, finally, to the role of interests in distorting economic debate.

As Oxford’s Simon Wren-Lewis noted, on the very same day that the Centre for Macroeconomics revealed that the great majority of British economists disagree with the proposition that austerity is good for growth, the Telegraph published on its front page a letter from 100 business leaders declaring the opposite. Why does big business love austerity and hate Keynesian economics? After all, you might expect corporate leaders to want policies that produce strong sales and hence strong profits.

I’ve already suggested one answer: scare talk about debt and deficits is often used as a cover for a very different agenda, namely an attempt to reduce the overall size of government and especially spending on social insurance. This has been transparently obvious in the United States, where many supposed deficit-reduction plans just happen to include sharp cuts in tax rates on corporations and the wealthy even as they take away healthcare and nutritional aid for the poor. But it’s also a fairly obvious motivation in the UK, if not so crudely expressed. The “primary purpose” of austerity, the Telegraph admitted in 2013, “is to shrink the size of government spending” – or, as Cameron put it in a speech later that year, to make the state “leaner ... not just now, but permanently”.

Beyond that lies a point made most strongly in the US by Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute: business interests dislike Keynesian economics because it threatens their political bargaining power. Business leaders love the idea that the health of the economy depends on confidence, which in turn – or so they argue – requires making them happy. In the US there were, until the recent takeoff in job growth, many speeches and opinion pieces arguing that President Obama’s anti-business rhetoric – which only existed in the right’s imagination, but never mind – was holding back recovery. The message was clear: don’t criticise big business, or the economy will suffer.
If the political opposition won’t challenge the coalition’s bad economics, who will?

But this kind of argument loses its force if one acknowledges that job creation can be achieved through deliberate policy, that deficit spending, not buttering up business leaders, is the way to revive a depressed economy. So business interests are strongly inclined to reject standard macroeconomics and insist that boosting confidence – which is to say, keeping them happy – is the only way to go.

Still, all these motivations are the same in the United States as they are in Britain. Why are the US’s austerians on the run, while Britain’s still rule the debate?

It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.

Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas. In this respect Britain seems much closer to Europe than it is to America.

The closest parallel I can give from my side of the Atlantic is the erstwhile weakness of Democrats on foreign policy – their apparent inability back in 2003 or so to take a stand against obviously terrible ideas like the invasion of Iraq. If the political opposition won’t challenge the coalition’s bad economics, who will?

You might be tempted to say that this is all water under the bridge, given that the coalition, whatever it may claim, effectively called a halt to fiscal tightening midway through its term. But this story isn’t over. Cameron is campaigning largely on a spurious claim to have “rescued” the British economy – and promising, if he stays in power, to continue making substantial cuts in the years ahead. Labour, sad to say, are echoing that position. So both major parties are in effect promising a new round of austerity that might well hold back a recovery that has, so far, come nowhere near to making up the ground lost during the recession and the initial phase of austerity.

For whatever the politics, the economics of austerity are no different in Britain from what they are in the rest of the advanced world. Harsh austerity in depressed economies isn’t necessary, and does major damage when it is imposed. That was true of Britain five years ago – and it’s still true today.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Sport is a vicious monster we make

First the win, then the spleen: Bob Willis vents at the end of the Headingley Test in 1981© Getty Images

The games we follow are brutal, unforgiving and unjust, but we wouldn't have them any other way

SIMON BARNES in Cricinfo| APRIL 2015

Sporting events are put together with a number of things in mind. The idea is, (1) to make as much money as possible, (2) to provide as much entertainment as possible, (3) to provide an opportunity for the best possible sport. Very much in that order.

The best ways to do this, also in order, are: (1) make huge demands on the athletes, (2) make even bigger demands on the athletes, and (3) make near-impossible demands on the athletes. That, after all, is what they're for. It's hardly surprising, then, that at the end of every competition, most athletes seem a bit mad.

Some are light-headed with euphoria, others are speechless with relief. Some are in a post-coital haze, others are at the compulsive-talking stage. Some love the whole world, some - even the victors - hate everyone, starting with their own team-mates. Some want someone to hug, some want someone to punch.

Steve Redgrave, winning his fifth gold medal in his fifth Olympic Games, chose the occasion for a bitter jibe at the press - and we responded by applauding him in heartfelt admiration. Bob Willis celebrated one of the all-time greatest displays of fast bowling at Headingley in 1981 with a prolonged rant at that convenient target, the press, while Sebastian Coe responded to his gold medal in the 1500 metres at Los Angeles in 1984 by shouting abuse at the great massed banks of press seats in the Olympic Stadium.

Matthew Pinsent wept uncontrollably after winning his fourth gold medal at rowing; Fu Mingxia took each of her diving gold medals with an air of complete calm; Usain Bolt looked mildly gratified that the world had cottoned on to to his greatness. It's all in the way these things take you, but it's seldom straightforward.

That's because the demands we make on our athletes are extreme in every possible way. That's what sport means. The winners of the cricket World Cup were required to play nine matches in six weeks, all in the public glare, and had to win the last three of them.

The more it costs the athletes, the greater the entertainment. We want nerves to be shredded. We long for truly exceptional performances, and accept that all great victories are built on the disappointment of others. "It is not enough to succeed," said the writer Gore Vidal. "Others must fail."

In sport that statement is not funny. It's an accurate summary of the way sport works. We must put our winners through the hell of nearly losing if we are to be truly satisfied: and put the losers through the hell of thinking they were about to win, before dashing their hopes to the ground.

Thus the England cricket team went to Australia in 2013 having won the last three Ashes series and strongly fancying themselves to do so again. They were beaten 5-0 and are still suffering from the traumas they endured.

Or take the Brazil football team, seemingly inevitable winners of the 2014 World Cup. They were the story of the tournament, and yet they lost 7-1 in the semi-finals to Germany, the eventual winners. This was a humiliation: a misery that you wouldn't wish on anybody.

And yet sport works by setting up opportunities for such misery. That is what brings people in: for reasons of partisanship, in search of drama, and also in search of genuine sporting excellence. None of these things can be done satisfactorily without putting the performers to an extreme test.

And some mourn: David Luiz and Thiago Silva after Brazil's horrific loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup © AFP

You test rather more than their physical skills. You also test the temperament, from the glossy surface down to the abyssal depths. Thus we had the extraordinary, ridiculous, hilarious and horribly cruel events of the semi-final of the World Cup of 1999.

Yes, the one when, with scores level against Australia, Lance Klusener of South Africa called for a mad single and Allan Donald at the other end forgot to run - and then dropped his bat as he tried to make up for this lapse. He was run out: South Africa were defeated in horrific circumstances. It remains a classic example of minds twisted and broken by sport.

Sport was designed as a pleasure: as a way humans could get together and test themselves in various forms of competition and mock combat. But like sex, everything in sport changes the instant people watch and when people are paid for doing it.

Sport is a triviality made serious. It was at first an opportunity in which a participant could test and savour his own courage in a comparatively safe and non-threatening way. But because of the demands of the audience - that's you and me, by the way - it has become an industry based on the breaking of human beings.

Sport is an opportunity to display bravery in public: a courage-op; and we who look on find it compelling and frequently edifying. I remember watching a super-heavyweight weightlifter set a new world record, and then Andrei Chemerkin of Russia, lifting last, had the weights increased to a level beyond even that. Then he showed the glorious strength and courage to lift it. This was at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996 and the entire hall was roaring in empathy with his giant effort.

It is absurd, perhaps even unfair, to ask such prodigious things of sporting performers, and yet we do it on a daily basis. We make still greater demands when it comes to the biggest tests of all. Always we are looking for ways to make life still harder for the athletes.

Anyone can catch a cricket ball. But when you're told that catching a cricket ball will earn you a million bucks, you might find it a little harder - even though you are twice as eager to catch it. Of course, some people find that extra difficulty an inspiration: and that's the sort of thing we are looking for when we set these extraordinary tests for our athletes.

It's like walking along a kerbstone. Most of us can manage to do this when the drop to the gutter is two or three inches. It would be a different matter if the drop was 3000 feet.

Reality television shows are all about trying to torment people: to make them cry on television, to make them crack up in public. Call it Masterchef Syndrome. Well, it may be cruel, but the participants choose to be there. If you don't like the heat the solution is in your hands.

But the greatest reality TV ever devised is sport. Sport brings us Garry Sobers hitting six sixes in an over; and for every such wonder, there's always a Malcolm Nash at the other end, the poor bowler who will always be remembered for that, rather than for his worthy career in cricket with nearly 1000 first-class wickets.

Hardly surprising, then, that there is always something a little odd about great performers in sport. They live in circumstances cruelly devised to test them to their limits. Those who achieve genuine greatness are never satisfied by victory, and are only ever inspired by humiliation. They must have no compunction whatsoever about inflicting humiliation on someone else.

In sport we search for drama and misery © AFP

Sometimes they are asked to do one extraordinary thing on one very special day: like a World Cup final, like competing at the Olympic Games. Sometimes they are asked to do the same thing again and again, day after day, for weeks, even years, on end.

The best of these are asked to produce both kinds of courage: the enduring kind and the kind that responds to the greatest of tests. Yet we are surprised, and sometimes contemptuous, when these people fail, or show themselves wanting in certain areas.

Thus the England cricket team fell apart. It seemed that the only thing that unified them was their hatred of Kevin Pietersen. So they got rid of him and found that they couldn't cope without him either. Sport tears people apart and it does so because it's supposed to.

Some teams find inspiration in the most difficult circumstances, as Imran Khan's cornered tigers did when Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup in Australia. Sometimes circumstances find the most unlikely of heroes: who would have tipped Roger Binny to be the hero at the World Cup in 1983?

The fact is that sport is vicious, vindictive and unfair. And if it wasn't, it wouldn't be any fun. Thus at the end of any great event there are always casualties, and often enough, the casualty is celebrating victory. Often the greatest success is the undoing of the person who achieves it.

Sport feeds on its victims: gourmandises on them. There's a passage in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the narrator has to consider publishing a vicious review of a new book. "So far as I was concerned the juggernaut of critical opinion must be allowed to take its irrefragable course. If too fervent worshippers… were crushed to death beneath the pitiless wheels of its car, nothing could be done. Only their own adoration of the idol made them so vulnerable."

Sport is about exactly the same process.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The three big election questions that all the parties are simply ignoring

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian
Elections have but one iron law: listen for what the politicos are not saying. Follow it, and you hear a roaring silence at the centre of this campaign. For all that Dave and Ed have jousted with interviewers and made pledges on platforms, there are three big questions that neither would-be prime minister will talk about. Yet the questions are existential, and the answers to them will matter not merely for the next parliament, but far beyond.
The three questions can be summed up as: How are we meant to live? Where are we meant to live? And who is meant to live here?
In this month’s war of words, these are the real undiscussables, the issues and the people painted out by all the main parties. Where will post-crash Britain’s income come from? How will we house everybody? And will mainstream politicians allow migrants and those receiving social security the same rights and basic human value as those sanctified hard-working families? Let me go through those questions.
How are we meant to live?
This election was meant to be all about the economy. Instead, it has been all about the deficit. Cameron and Miliband squabble over who has the most firm yet appropriate grip on the state-spending axe. This isn’t economics: it is accountancy. Yet both main parties try to pass it off as economic policy. Look at Labour’s manifesto: the very first pledge is that it will “cut the deficit every year”. Squirrelled away in there is a promise of a British investment bank and more regional banks. But a line is all those get, while “balancing the books” merits higher priority than the NHS.
Given how little politicians talk about growth, you might think it was no longer a problem – that after a few rocky years, Britain had finally got its groove back. Not so. If you fancy a fright, flick through three major reports published by the IMF last week. First, its World Economic Outlook warned all rich countries that “potential growth is likely to be lower than it was before the crisis”. For those not fluent in Washington that basically means: sorry, boys, those boom times ain’t coming back.
Second, its financial stability report observed that British households had proportionately the biggest debt mountain of all major capitalist economies – more than the Americans, more than the Greeks. By 2020, the IMF reckons, we’ll have the second biggest loan burden, just behind the crisis-hit Portuguese (see table 1.1 here).
Finally, the IMF’s fiscal monitor rubbished politicians’ claims that they will wipe out the deficit by the end of this decade – yes, the very same boasts we’ve been hearing so much this past fortnight. Part of its scepticism is because it doubts the UK will grow as much as is hoped.
On hearing the last announcement, Cameron immediately took to the rolling-news channels to say he much preferred the projections made by Britain’s own Office for Budget Responsibility to the IMF’s. Well, I’ve got bad news for him: the OBR may, if anything, be more pessimistic than the Fund.
Right at the back of the outlook it published just before Christmas, the OBR asked a simple question: what if Britain’s weak productivity – with more workers doing less – continued? The economists’ answer was that growth would drop so sharply (see table 5.7 here) that it would feel almost as bad as a recession, year after year, all the way to 2020. For each of the past seven years British productivity has just kept dropping. The OBR’s nightmare scenario looks more than plausible.
Ever since the crash, politicians and policymakers have been waiting for the economy to get back to the way it was before. It is now dawning on the economists that this probably won’t happen – that we are entering a new era in which our incomes will be a permanent disappointment. The question for Cameron and Miliband is: what are you going to do about it? It’s a question they keep ducking.
Where are we meant to live?
Both Dave and Ed accept that there’s a housing crisis; neither have any actual solutions to offer. Labour promises that 200,000 houses will be built every year – without providing any detail on how they’ll be paid for or built or whether they’ll be social, private or (that toxic euphemism) affordable. This is more modest than the 230,000 homes a year promised by Gordon Brown, but just as vague and just as certain not to happen. The Tories merely want to privatise more social housing– this time, property they don’t even own, but which belongs to housing associations. What either plan adds up to for anyone under 35 and either living at home or paying over the odds for a crap flatshare is basically: get stuffed.
Who is meant to live here?
Brecht jokingly called on the government to dissolve the people and elect another. Our politicians are actually doing it. We know which voters they like: the squeezed middle (Ed); alarm-clock Britain (Nick), the strivers (Dave). The voters who don’t pass muster are those on benefits and immigrants. Labour flogs a racist mug, while the Tories send a racist van round London. The divide is not just rhetorical: the coalition has smacked working-age families on benefits. People with disabilities – and therefore with limited access to the jobs market – have been hit worst of all. The Centre for Welfare Reform calculates that, under this coalition, those with severe disabilities have taken a financial hit 19 times greaterthan the average.
Why aren’t politicians answering these existential questions? They’re certainly smart enough to do so. But democratic leaders have parted ways with their voters – literally. Membership of the main parties has dropped sharply over the past three decades, so that there are now more vegans in Britain than members of the Conservative party. What’s replaced mass democracy is big donors and a professional political elite. It no longer pays for politicians to think hard about fair growth or build more houses, because to do so would antagonise the big corporates or the big media, or deter those middle-class and retired voters who actually do turn out to the polling stations.
This is the definition of a democratic crisis: when the narrowness of a country’s politics means it can no longer deal with the serious problems that face it. Look past the television debates and the battle buses and this is where we are.

UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which?

Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian
The competition regulator is to scrutinise allegations that UK supermarkets have duped shoppers out of hundreds of millions of pounds through misleading pricing tactics.
Which? has lodged the first ever super-complaint against the grocery sector after compiling a dossier of “dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products and baffling sales offers” and sending it to the Competition and Markets Authority.
The consumer group claims supermarkets are pushing illusory savings and fooling shoppers into choosing products they might not have bought if they knew the full facts.
Examples raised by Which? include Tesco flagging the “special value” of a sweetcorn sixpack when a smaller pack was proportionately cheaper, and Asda raising the individual price of a product when it was part of a multi-buy offering in order to make the deal more attractive.
Richard Lloyd, the group’s executive director, said: “Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.”
“We’re saying enough is enough, and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”
The cumulative impact of all these different pricing tactics is that it is impossible for people to know if they are getting a fair deal, the consumer group says, particularly when prices vary frequently, consumers are in a hurry or are buying numerous low value items.
About 40% of groceries in Britain are currently sold on promotion, according to the retail analysts Kantar Worldpanel. With £115bn spent on groceries and toiletries in 2013, Which? said consumers could be collectively losing out to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.
The right to make a super-complaint to the CMA or an industry regulator is limited to a small number of consumer bodies such as Which? and Energywatch. Once Which? has submitted its dossier to the CMA, the regulator has 90 days to respond.
As a first step the CMA could request a market study, in which it could demand further information from the supermarkets themselves, before escalating to a full-blown investigation. A decade ago Citizens Advice helped bring the payment protection insurance scandal to public attention by lodging a super-complaint with the now-defunct Office of Fair Trading.
Which? has previously made super-complaints on care homes, credit card interest rates, Northern Ireland banking, private dentistry and the Scottish legal profession.
Meanwhile, new research suggests that more than 1,400 suppliers to Britain’s supermarkets are facing collapse as the cut-throat price war takes its toll on the industry.
The number of food and beverage makers in significant financial distress has nearly doubled to 1,414 in the last year, according to insolvency practitioner Begbies Traynor.
The findings will increase the pressure on the government and the groceries code adjudicator to take action to protect suppliers and prevent large companies from delaying payments or changing agreed terms.

Examples Which? sent to the CMA

Seasonal offers: higher prices only applied out of season, when consumers are less likely to buy the item. It found a Nestle Kit Kat Chunky Collection Giant Egg was advertised at £7.49 for 10 days in January this year at Ocado, then sold on offer at £5 for 51 days.
Was/now pricing: the use of a higher “was” price when the item has been available for longer at the lower price. Acacia honey and ginger hot cross buns at Waitrose were advertised at £1.50 for just 12 days this year before going on offer at “£1.12 was £1.50” for 26 days.
Multi-buys: prices are increased on multi-buy deals so that the saving is less than claimed. Asda increased the price of a Chicago Town Four Cheese Pizza two-pack from £1.50 to £2 last year and then offered a multi-buy deal at two for £3. A single pack went back to £1.50 when the “offer” ended.
Larger pack, better value: the price of individual items in the bigger pack are actually higher. Tesco sold four cans of Green Giant sweetcorn for £2 last year, but six cans were proportionately more expensive in its “special value” pack, priced at £3.56.

Britain’s criminally stupid attitudes to race and immigration are beyond parody

Frankie Boyle in The Guardian

The anti-immigration election rhetoric is perverse – we fear the arrival of people that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them

‘Let’s not forget where coffee and tea come from: this mug is bitterly opposed to its own contents’

I sometimes wonder if satire has reached a nadir in Britain because British society has itself become a parody of itself. The Chipping Norton Set: the prime minister, a tabloid editor and a Roger Mellie-ish TV icon all conveniently living in the same little town and taking turns at being the centre of scandal, feels like a novel Martin Amis bashed out because his conservatory was leaking. Likewise there has been an element of tragic irony this week as the growing drumbeat of anti-immigration election rhetoric has been punctuated by the mass drowning of migrants.

The SNP’s growing popularity has prompted a little low-level press racism of the kilts-and-porridge variety, as an English electorate struggles with the idea that there will be Scottish people holding the reins of power for the first time since the last government. Nicola Sturgeon has been called “the most dangerous woman in Britain”, by someone who hasn’t met any other Scottish women. Of course, it’s difficult to explain to English people that we have always had their best interests at heart – if we hadn’t invented penicillin they would have all died in a Greek airport departure lounge. There have already been a couple of amusing moments in the campaign when leaders standing in front of union jacks expounding on the need for a £100bn missile system have taken time out to warn us about the dangers of nationalism. Personally, I think it might be invigorating to have a hung parliament where, before any law was passed, the government had to have an argument with a Scottish person.

“Gosh, you seem awfully good at this. Have you had some practice?”

“I’m not actually part of the Scottish negotiating team, I’m just here to take your drinks order …”

“Ah, right, could I have a cup of tea?”


Ed Miliband’s anti-immigration stance is odd: it’s hard to vote for a man who doesn’t have the confidence to defend his own existence. It seems that his main argument against immigrants is that his dad raised a befuddled fuckwit. Could you hand Labour’s “controls on immigration” mug to a guest? There’s nothing like jollying up a Macmillan Cancer Support coffee morning by making your neighbours feel like the pakoras were a little unwelcome. Let’s not forget where coffee and tea come from: this mug is bitterly opposed to its own contents. Unless you drink hot Tizer from a coffee cup, the drink inside that mug will be an immigrant. The logic of a receptacle for hot beverages provided by slavery and colonisation being anti-immigrant bears no more examination than a pair of homophobic Speedos.

Then there’s Ukip, like someone made a heavy-handed version of The Thick of It for ITV. They don’t want Britain to be ruled by foreigners – with the notable exception of the royal family. They want an Australian-style points system for immigration. Who knows what this will look like, but my suspicion is “being white” will be like catching the snitch in Quidditch. If we have become a self-satirising society, Ukip are just the broader end, the easy slapstick laughs. They even have a porn-star candidate. Of course, he isn’t the first MP to have filmed himself having sex. But he is the first to do so with an adult, whom he allowed to live.

Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.

In a further nod to satire, Comic Relief this year focused on Malawi and Uganda. I didn’t see any acknowledgement that Britain had been the colonial power in those countries. “Thanks for the gold, lads, thanks for the diamonds. We had a whip-round and got you a fishing rod.”

A lot of racism comes from projection. White Americans have a stereotype of black people being criminals purely because they can’t acknowledge that it was actually white people that stole them from Africa in the first place. Today, you have the spectacle of black men being gunned down by cops who, by way of mitigation, release footage to show that the victims were running away. This is what happens when you don’t understand or even acknowledge history. You end up in a situation where, when slavery is the elephant in the room in your relationship with African Americans, you think it’s OK to say that you killed one of them because he was trying to escape.

Britain is in a similar place with colonialism. We have streets named after slave owners. We profited from a vile crime and feel no shame. We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them. For much of the rest of the world we must be the focus of bitter amusement, characters in a satire we don’t understand. It is British people that don’t learn languages, or British history. Britain is the true scrounger, the true criminal.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Head to Head What is wrong with Islam today?

Cricket Coaching: Follow in the bare footsteps of the Kalenjin

Ed Smith in Cricinfo

What can the story of running shoes among Kenyan athletes teach us about cricket? More than I thought possible.

Nearly all top marathon runners are Kenyan. In fact, they are drawn from a particular Kenyan tribe, the Kalenjin, an ethnic group of around 5 million people living mostly at altitude in the Rift Valley.

Here is the really interesting thing. The majority of top marathon runners grow up running without shoes. The debate about whether other athletes should try to mimic barefoot-running technique remains contested and unresolved. However, it is overwhelmingly likely that the unshod childhoods of the Kalenjin does contribute to their pre-eminence as distance runners.*

And yet it is also true that as soon as Kalenjin athletes can afford running shoes, they do buy them. They know that the protection offered by modern shoes helps them to rack up the epic number of hours of training required to become a serious distance runner.

So there is a paradox about long-term potential and running shoes. If an athlete wears shoes too often and too early, when his natural technique and running style are still evolving, he significantly reduces his chances of becoming a champion distance runner. But if he doesn't wear them at all in the later stages of his athletic education he jeopardises his ability to train and perform optimally when it matters.

Put simply, the advantages of modernity and technology need to be first withheld and then embraced. Most Kenyan runners begin wearing trainers in their mid-teens. Some sports scientists argue that if they could hold off for another two or three years, they'd be even better as adult athletes. But no one knows for sure exactly when is the "right" time to start running in shoes. We glimpse the ideal athletic childhood, but its contours remain extremely hazy. 

Logically, there is a further complexity. Imagine two equally talented developing athletes, one with shoes, the other barefoot, neither yet at their athletic peak. Wearing shoes, by assisting training and recovery, would yield an advantage at the time. But that short-term advantage would leave behind a long-term disadvantage, by depriving the athlete of the legacy that barefoot runners enjoy when they begin wearing shoes at a later stage. In other words, building the right foundations during adolescence is more important than doing whatever it takes to win at the time.

Where is the cricket here? When I read about the strange influence of first learning barefoot then using the latest technology - in the admirable and thought-provoking book Two Hours by Ed Caesar, published this July - I wrote in the margin: just like cricket coaching.

A modern player seeking an edge over his opponents would be mad not to have access to the latest kit, technology, data, fitness coaching and rehab techniques. But if he comes to rely on the interventions and apparatus of coaches and trainers too early, when his game and character are still in flux, then he misses out of the biggest advantage of the lot: self-reliance and learning from trial and error. In other words, there is no conflict between homespun training methods and sports science. It is a question of the right amount at the right time. Indeed, the art of training always relies on subtly mixing technique and science alongside folk wisdom and feeling.

Consider the greatest of all cricketing educations. As a child, Don Bradman learnt to bat on his own - repeatedly hitting a golf ball against the curved brick base of his family water tank. The empirical method led him to a technique that no one had dared to try. His bat swing started way out to the side, rather than a straight pendulum line from behind him. He had escaped the greatest risk that can befall any genius: an early overdose of prescriptive formal education.

Kevin Pietersen, in his pomp the most exciting England batsman of his era, was also self-taught to an unusual degree. It was ironic, in his recent autobiography, that Pietersen was so keen to describe in words that he knew better than "the system". In his earlier days, he made the point more eloquently with his bat. Having arrived from South Africa as an offspinning allrounder, he became one of the most thrilling batsmen in the world. Think of all the money and effort - the "pyramids of excellence" and "talent conveyor belts" - expended on manufacturing great English players. And one of the best of them was untouched - some would say undamaged - by the whole apparatus. He figured things out for himself.

Connected to the question of impairing natural development is the problem of over-training and specialising too early. The now debunked "10,000 hours theory" - which holds that genius is created by selecting a discipline as early as possible and then loading on mountains of practice - is being replaced by a far more subtle understanding of nurturing talent.

A study of professional baseball players showed that keeping up football and basketball in teenage years increased the likelihood of making it as a top baseball pro. In his fine book The Sports Gene, David Epstein assembles persuasive evidence that Roger Federer's sporting education (a mixture of badminton, basketball, football as well as tennis) is far more typical of great athletes than the Tiger Woods-style mono-focus that is so often held up as the model.

When the psychologists John Sloboda and Michael Howe studied gifted children at a musical academy, they found that extra lessons for younger musicians proved counterproductive: the kids just burned out. The best players, it turned out, had practised the least as children. Diversity was just as important. The exceptional players practised much less at their first instrument, but much more than the average players on their third instrument.

So if you want an Under-13s champion, yes, buy the latest kit, bully him to practise all hours, pick one sport and make him eliminate all the others. But you are merely reducing the likelihood of producing an adult champion.

Even professionals can aspire to retain the receptivity of children who are learning by playful sampling rather than through directed orthodoxy. I once organised the first phase of pre-season training for a cricket team. I tried to change the culture from one of compliance - if I don't do what I'm told, I'll get in trouble - towards self-regulation, the ability to feel and respond to your game as you push yourself and find out what works and what doesn't. The Kalenjin have mastered that, too. Even at the very top, the athletes continue to lead the training sessions. They take what they need to from science but they trust their intuition.

*A barefoot childhood is by no means the only factor. A recent study showed that the Kalenjin elite runners had 5% longer legs and 12% lighter legs than a sample of top Swedish runners. The Kalenjin also have an unusual mixture of sea-level ancestry (they moved from the low-lying Nile Valley to the elevated Rift Valley only a few centuries ago) and altitude living. Physiologically, they are valley people who live up the mountain. There are also, inevitably, a host of environmental factors.