Tag Archives: politics

Studying politics at a time of global turmoil, in the absence of any opportunity for debate

When people hear that I am studying democracy at the masters level (I am studying Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL) I often hear things like, “Wow, what an exciting time to be studying Democracy!”, or “You are so lucky, there is so much to talk about!”.  I wish!

There is certainly no absence of big issues.  China is about to grant an unprecedented third term to President Xi Jinping—this is likely to have far reaching consequences for global politics.  What about Taiwan?  What about north Korea?  With about 2/3 of my classmates coming from China, you might think there a perfect opportunity for mutual learning.  Courtesy of Vladimir Putin war has come again to Europe—is he a dictator bent on recreating the Soviet Union or a responsible leader seeking to protect a beleaguered nation in the face of aggressive expansion by NATO?  Energy prices are soaring, bringing a cost of living crisis to many in the West—how will or should this be addressed?  How should the burden be shared? In the United States, ex-President Trump is being investigated for allegedly fomenting insurrection in an attempt to overturn an election result he saw as unfavourable. Is Democracy seriously under threat in America?  Can they not run an election which does not descend into chaos?  Here in Britain, we are about to appoint a new Prime Minister for the third time this year.  I could say that we are about to appoint our third Prime Minister, however, there is a reasonable likelihood that a thoroughly discredited politician (Boris Johnson), who abused his office and lied to the country, may be reappointed by the very same party that threw him out in June of this year (so we may have one repeating).  What does this mean for Democracy in the UK, and can this ludicrous system by which we change our leaders be changed?  I could go on and on.

Nevertheless, in the classes I am taking, there is almost no opportunity to speak with classmates or professors about these events, or the political concepts and theories with which events are concerned. Classes are about 50 minutes, normally held once a week, and more often than not even the core material is not covered.  We are encouraged to read material we rarely discuss and study concepts online we may not even touch on in class.

When I studied Political Science as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester in New York, USA, we had two 15-week terms each year and three hours per week of class time (45 hours of contact time per class/module). The opportunity to engage classmates and the professor on critical issues was considerable. If I felt there were still burning questions, I could wander along and visit a professor in their office (they were almost always there and their door was open—literally and metaphorically) and chat with them, at some leisure—they were delighted by the interest of students and saw them as junior partners in a process of academic enquiry.  Some would regularly invite students to their homes (in groups) to continue the discussion.

At UCL there are three 10-week terms in the same academic year (implying 8.3 hours per class/module), and curiously there are no classes in the third term.  In this term students are meant to be working on their dissertation.  The gap in contact time is immense and one’s ability to learn or explore issues in any level of depth is severely impaired.  In this case, if I am curious about an issue and wish to follow up I must book a meeting online, and I am only permitted a single 10 or 15 minute slot. This barely allows time for a greeting, much less a developed and nuanced conversation about issues of interest.

Furthermore, as a Masters student one might expect more interaction with colleagues, not less.  I am enjoying my learning, but essentially am doing it on my own. 

I certainly don’t blame the professors. They seem as frustrated as anybody by the administrative demands on their time and the inability to continue a promising discussion.  It is clear that they also find these short follow up meetings absurd and seem to despair, as I do, regarding the absence of debate, discussion, and inquiry which must be the point of learning.  The economic reality of underfunded universities and overburdened and pressurised teaching staff guarantees this outcome—but I find it extremely depressing.     

I have been hoping that societies existed where like-minded students could meet and explore issues of interest. However despite my searching, I have thus far come up empty handed.  With one year to go, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and have contacted a nearby pub which will enable us to meet there on a Monday or Tuesday night (when the pub often has a free room upstairs) and have a discussion about issues of interest. I will invite professors and my colleagues on my programme and other relevant programmes, and I am very curious to see how this goes.  I will try to do this twice this term and see how it goes.  The first one will be on November 15th—and if you as a reader are interested in attending please contact me via LinkedIn or by commenting on this post.

I do wonder if part of the issue is the problem lies in how my own personal goals for the programme differ from those of other students.  My objective is very much intrinsic. By that I mean that for me the reward I will receive from this Master’s degree, comes from the learning itself, and from the depth with which I can explore issues of interest.  This is not that surprising, as I am 65 years old, and I am less likely to set off on the beginning of an exciting career.  On the other hand, I get the impression that for many, the value is instrumental—for what the degree will do for them.  I spoke to a Chinese student this week who was attending UCL (a different Political Science programme from mine) and when I asked him why he came to UCL he said, “This is one of the top ten universities in the world and when I get a degree I have a better chance of getting a great job.”  Maybe his interest in learning for its own sake is rather less than mine.

Let’s see if anyone turns up in the pub on 15/11………

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—22 October 2022 

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.

Market orthodoxy, embedded inflation and fair wages

Inflation across the western world is skyrocketing. Consumer prices across the developed world are rising to near double digit levels—levels not seen since the 1970s. Similarly to the 1970s, a rapid increase in the price of oil and gas has been the main contributor. The war in Ukraine has catalysed a surge in energy and grain prices, and both are causing wider knock-on effects.  This is causing one of the worst cost of living crises in modern times.

Governments and central banks are rightly concerned about rising inflation. It imposes extraordinary hardship on citizens (especially the poor) and squeezes government budgets. On top of this there is a concern that inflation, which with substantial effort and cost appears to have been eliminated in the 1980s is now returning with a vengeance, thus threatening to undo all that arduous work.  The fear is that inflationary expectations get ‘embedded’ into the economy thereby making it harder to control.

Interest rate increases are a tool of central banks to bring inflation under control by dampening demand. Higher rates raise borrowing costs which, at the margin, reduce economic activity. However, in the current environment, it is ridiculously hard to argue that the economy is overheating—far from it.  The global economy is very weak due to Covid, the war, and other factors, but the primary cause is the massive increase in energy costs.  Raising interest rates will weaken growth and do nothing to address the cause of higher inflation.  Their effect will be to push the world economy into a recession.  This might have been a time for REDUCING interest rates, had central banks acted more prudently in past years.  I suspect they were under pressure from the finance sector to keep money loose, which supported asset prices—and this seemed excusable with inflation at seemingly low levels.  Now we are paying the price for this error.

Let’s return to this idea of embedded inflation and how to address it.  Inflation “getting embedded” is a euphemism used by officials for wages which (heaven forbid!) might match inflation.  Central banks and many governments are nearly hysterical about the need to resist this at all costs.  There is no matching angst regarding corporate profit margins—or CEO pay, for example.

The chart below illustrates the share of GDP in the United States which is represented by labour or corporate profits[1]. Notice how labour share of profits has fallen since the 1970s at the same time as share represented by corporate profits has risen sharply.  Maybe its time for some reversion of corporate profits to the historical mean?   Perhaps companies can help prevent inflation from getting embedded by raising prices at less than the increase in costs?  Profit margins might suffer a bit (from historically high levels!)—but is this not preferable to forcing the lowest paid to make choices between heating and eating?

And why do the arguments about “irresponsible pay increases” only apply to low paid workers?  It seems that CEOs have no worries about their own role in embedding inflation.  The chart below[2] shows how US CEO pay packages have risen in comparison to the pay of workers.  Is it simply inconceivable that only average workers should suffer as we ward off embedded inflation?

The next chart[3] shows how labour’s share of output has steadily declined, especially in developed economies.  Is it not time for some correction?  Given labour shortages across the western world, is there not a simple solution to entice staff back to work—just pay them more!  Why does the market orthodoxy of supply and demand only apply in the case of CEOs or banker’s bonuses (the UK just loosened the cap on banker’s bonuses, amidst this cost of living crisis)?  Do only the high-paid need to be “incentivized”?   

Paying workers in line with rising inflation in the current environment is hardly inappropriate–in fact, it’s essential, and any decent objective observer would say the same—in fact, they might say its time workers to catch up a bit.  However, I do not hear this at all. Yes, labour union leaders seek more money for their members, but I do not hear the broader point that in the interest of the nation we simply must reallocate between corporate profits and workers.  And why should these pay increases only approach the rate of inflation? Why should they not match or even exceed it? And while it is true that in the short term profit margins may suffer, we will avoid a social and economic cataclysm.  I also believe that the trendline of economic growth will accelerate if we undertake this shift. The poor and those on moderate incomes have a much higher propensity to spend any incremental income–it is sensible from a growth perspective that we put money in their hands instead of continuing to enrich the rich and the owners of assets.  Who is more likely to spend incremental income, the rich or the poor?  No points for a correct guess.  (I may write a separate blog post on this subject.)

That companies simply “have to” pass on costs (labour or materials) is just taken for granted–almost as a natural law of physics. However, the notion that workers should receive pay increases which support them to keep up or just about keep up with the rise in costs is heresy of staggering proportions. This orthodoxy needs to be challenged.

This is not just about markets, but political choices.  Governments are restraining pay increases for low-paid public sector workers to grapple with inflation.  What they should do instead is pay these workers more, raise funds to cover rapidly rising debt levels by increasing personal taxation at the high end (and lower it at the low end?), increase (not decrease, as the UK is proposing to do) corporate tax rates, and they should, as some countries are, institute “windfall taxes” on energy companies for the unusually elevated level of profits realised merely as a result of the war.  Failure to do so risks social unrest, poor health outcomes (as the poor starve, freeze and are unable to procure health care) and economic weakness as demand suffers.  In any event, they should junk the rule that says workers always have to shoulder the burden of fighting inflation.

A courageous politician would seize on this theme. Where is he, or her?

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK–14 October 2022 

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.


[1] Taken from a PGIM (division of US financial firm Prudential Financial) Fixed Income Division report, dated April 2021, written by Nathan Sheets and George Jiranek, downloaded 17 August 2022

[2] Financial Times, 13/10/22

[3] Financial Times 12/10/22

The System for Choosing Party Leaders is Ruining Britain

UK financial markets are currently in complete disarray.  The British Pound has fallen to an all-time low against the US Dollar and is tumbling against other currencies as well.  Yields on government gilts have risen sharply, which will raise borrowing costs for the UK Government, which is piling on debt to an unprecedented extent.  Mortgage holders and other borrowers will suffer a severe increase in costs as the Central Bank raises interest rates to protect the Pound and to try to reduce inflation.  This all adds a heavy financial burden to an already stressed economy, adding to the pain from the huge leap in energy prices with which households are struggling.  Make no mistake, these policies will cause suffering and hardship—people will get sick (forced to choose between heating and eating), find an NHS they are unable to access, and will die as a result.

This latest blow, as with so many others (like Brexit) has been self-inflicted.  The Conservative Party has been kicking own goals into their net with abandon for years and will surely face the wrath of the electorate by the end of 2024.  Starting with Theresa May, continuing with Boris Johnson and now accelerating under Liz Truss we are witnessing an ideological lurch to the right.  In some ways this is a pan-European trend, with the far-right recently entering the Governments in Sweden (for the first time ever) and in Italy (for the first time since Mussolini).  However, my sense is that the resultant policies will be moderated in both these countries by their coalition partners and the dynamics of coalition, however our First Past the Post (FPTP) system in the UK, which causes large majorities even on small pluralities, grants the Tories astonishing power with their 70+ seat majority.  But FPTP conveys power but does not necessarily result in an ideologically extreme programme—what brings this about?

Here we need to see the role of the leadership election system.  The system allows Tory MPs to whittle down the list of aspirants to two, and then grants the party membership the final say over who becomes party leader—and Prime Minister in this case.  However, Tory members tend to be rather more “Tory”, and ideologically committed to the cause, than Tory voters or the electorate in general.  In July, YouGov reported[1] that Britons overall preferred Sunak to Truss as Tory leader by 28% to 25%, and that among Conservative voters Truss led by 41% to 36%–which is in stark contrast to the 57% to 43% vote by Tory members in the recent leadership election.  The nature of the selection process has a built in bias towards the keenest of Tories—the bluest of the blue.

This is not solely a problem in the Conservative Party. In the 2015 contest to select the Labour Party leader to succeed Ed Miliband, the party opted for a similarly extreme ideolog in choosing Jeremy Corbyn. He won the contest by securing roughly 60% of the vote of party members, a far higher percentage than the 19% won by Andy Burnham, the 17% secured by Yvette Cooper, or the roughly 5% for Liz Kendall. Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper would have proven more popular with the British electorate, I suspect, but the system was biased in favour of the candidate who was the reddest of the red. It is hard to judge the extent of the impact of those who became members just in order to choose Corbyn, but the system already was tilted towards the more extreme candidate. I think if Corbyn had not been proven to be so disastrous in the 2019 general election, perhaps the centrist Keir Starmer would not have emerged as the party’s leader thereafter.

The extremist bias in both parties leader selection systems, combined with the large majorities generally conveyed to the winning party under the FPTP system, means that there is a high likelihood of a successive series of leftward and rightward lurches. This cannot be good for a smooth functioning of democracy, or the economy which politicians are entrusted to manage. 

Business people, who value stability and predictability also find decision-making in this environment particularly difficult.  This may lead to a reluctance to invest, which undermines productivity and thereby hampers overall economic growth.  The chaotic plans announced by Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have further undermined this stability and are likely to reduce growth and productivity, precisely the opposite of what they have sought to accomplish.  But to be fair, they are merely implementing the strategy promised to Tory members during the long leadership selection campaign—members knew what they were getting.  Sunak offered a different vision, which was rejected by the membership, but I contend would have been far better for the country—or at least less immediately destructive.  The issue is this system.  It must be changed.

Interestingly both these party leadership selection systems have developed out of a desire to improve the democratic nature of these contests. For example, what preceded the “one man one vote” system adopted by the Labour Party before 2015 was a system which granted 1/3 of the votes to the parliamentary Labour Party, 1/3 of the votes to the labour unions and affiliated societies and 1/3 of the votes to the party members.  Philosophically this was an attempt to make the process more democratic, but the results raise what in my opinion are more serious problems—the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It will require a brave party or leader to readjust the system in a way that takes power away from party members, especially where the members choose the current leader.  However, such bravery is exactly what we need—not only as it concerns party leaders.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—28 September 2022

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.


[1] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/07/27/where-do-britons-stand-liz-truss-and-rishi-sunak downloaded 11:20 on 28/9/22

The Voiceless 60% and Keir Starmer’s most important task if he becomes PM

The Democratic Chasm

There is a sizeable progressive majority in the UK—which might seem surprising given this very Tory Government and the nature of the Cabinet.  However, according to recent polls of polls[1], the support for a combination of progressive parties is 63%–these figures appear below (Note: These figures are from poll results which preceded the collapse in Tory support since the “fiscal event” and subsequent market meltdown, which would have the progressive majority at over 70%):

                             Labour                43%

                             Lib Dem              10%

                             Greens                6%

                             SNP                      4%

                             Total–4 above   63%

Conservatives   31%

The results of the last general election[2] are displayed below:

Labour                32%

                             Lib Dem              12%

                             Greens                3%

                             SNP                      4%

                             Total—4 above 51%

Conservatives   44%

The results are not as solidly progressive, but the total still adds up to a majority at 51%.  We can quibble about whether or not the SNP is really a progressive party, but the implication is clear.  The majority, or at least a plurality of UK voters are progressive, but the political system returned a Conservative majority of 80ish seats; the Tories secured 56% of Parliamentary seats on 43% of the vote (on 67% turnout).  The quirks of a first past the post (FPTP) voting system are well known and much studied, but I have seen little comment on the grotesqueness of this imbalance at the present time. And with the Conservative Party implementing legislation which moves the country in an increasingly extreme direction, the democratic chasm between voters and rulers grows dangerously large.

Those of us with a progressive bent may choose to cheer at current voting intentions–especially since the fiscal event. However, anyone with an interest in the state of our democracy must be deeply concerned at the widening gap between the electorate and the elected. How one approaches these figures and their implications will be partly determined by political orientation but also one’s mood. Allow me to feel modestly optimistic—I am praying for a Tory defeat, which I also believe is almost certain.  Regardless, they have important consequences for the Labour Party and in particular Keir Starmer in the run up to the next election, which will take place by the end of 2024.

The key test for Starmer’s leadership

Should Starmer become the next Prime Minister, there will be a bulging in-tray—the cost of living crisis, the plummeting Pound, surging interest rates, massive debt levels, etc.  However, I believe that one key issue will determine the long term political direction of the nation—and it will also tell us a great deal about Starmer’s level of courage and whether or not he is a leader with principles.  That issue is voting systems—in particular, what I believe is a necessary shift to more proportional voting.  To become Prime Minister, Starmer may have to collaborate with the other progressive parties, given the FPTP system. Even if Labour are elected with a massive majority, Starmer must resist the temptation to ignore attendees at the recent Labour conference (who voted to support PR) and make PR one of the centrepieces of his tenure.


Starmer has already demonstrated a sensible willingness to work with the other progressive parties and this is already showing results.  The first sign that an important change was underway was in the Chesham and Amersham by-election on 17 June 2021.  the Liberal Democrats won that seat with a swing from the conservative party of 25%.  Later that year, by-elections in Batley and Spen, and Old Bexley and Sidcup saw Labour and the Tories returned, respectively.

But the big sign that there was an earthquake underway, and that Amersham and Chesham was not a fluke, was in North Shropshire.  It struck me as an early indicator of what can be achieved when progressive parties put their narrow interests aside and work together. A 23,000 seat majority was massively overturned, and for the first time in nearly 200 years North Shropshire did not return a Conservative MP (a Lib Dem MP was elected, and Labour fell from 2nd to 3rd place). By-election results can often be dramatic and not a reflection of likely outcome in a general election, but the implication of the results are clear—progressive parties must put aside parochial interests and concentrate on what is best for the country.  Thereafter there was no change in Southend West and Birmingham Erdington, but the success of tactical voting was once again evident in Wakefield, where a swing of 13% saw Labour defeat the Tories (importantly, the Lib Dem share fell from 4% to 2%), and in Tiverton and Honiton saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a Conservative majority of 24,239 with a swing of 30% to take that seat.  This demonstrates the potential for progressive parties to defeat the Conservative party in the next election—to be held by December 2024.

The blockage here has historically been the Labour Party. It has held to the idea that it must run a candidate in nearly every seat, avoid pre-electoral deals, and shun cooperation. Things could have been vastly different if Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the aftermath of the 1997 general election, followed the recommendations of the Commission established under the chairmanship of Roy Jenkins and supported a form of proportional representation (the Jenkins Commission recommended the “Alternative Vote Top-Up System”). Blair and then Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown spoke at length about this before the election and many observers were surprised when Jenkins, a Lib Dem, was made Chair of the Commission.  The Labour Manifesto in 1997 also stated that, “We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.”  Who remembers that campaign promise?

Unfortunately, the Blair-led Labour Party in 1997 was just too successful.  It won 418 seats out of 659 available in that election—this was 63% of seats on 43% of the vote, making the 2019 pro-Tory allocation look mean by comparison.  It would appear their belief in a fair electoral system extended only to the extent they might need Lib Dem support to govern.  When this proved unnecessary, their principles and manifesto commitment were summarily jettisoned, and they decided to enjoy an unfair system which now worked solidly in their favour.  Starmer and his Cabinet must avoid this temptation, because today and for the last twelve years, we have been living with the dire consequences of that missed opportunity!  The Labour leader has an hoistorical opportunity to fix this tragic historical mistake. How should he go about doing it?

The tactics for a non-deal deal

Negotiating a deal between the four progressive parties will be well-nigh impossible. Although staunch support may exist for such a move in the Liberal Democrat party, the Greens will be less enthusiastic, and it would be an unnecessary distraction at this moment for the Labour Party. The SNP might be supportive, but one can well imagine what the price for such support will be and how Tory shrieks of “destroying the union” will promptly follow.  But the key problem will be the Labour Party and the fact that there is both a principled objection and a practical one.  Many potential Labour MPs will be robbed of their opportunity to win seats—and Labour supporters robbed of their chances to vote consistently with their interests (the principled reason).  And the UK public hates such formal deals (witness the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition)! And it would pointlessly give the Tories ammunition.  This is the practical objection.

However, Starmer does not appear to be as popular as Blair was, although that is beginning to change, and the Labour Party of 2022 is not the Labour Party of 1997. Also, it is worth remembering that in May 2021 they saw the previously safe seat of Hartlepool switch to the Tories, with the Conservatives winning over 50% of the vote and Labour barely held on to their seat in Batley and Spen (their vote share declined by 7% from the poor 2019 result). I guess this is a long way of saying a 1997-style Labour landslide may not take place. But even if it does, thanks to the Truss/Kwarteng inspired collapse in Tory support, progressive parties should by now have learned they must work together to ensure that Britain’s progressive majority should not be undermined by the quirks of the British electoral system.  They must work together.  But how to do this in the absence of a formal deal?

First, they need to focus on winning—and this Starmer seems to be saying and doing.  He talks about winning being the main goal (he describes himself as an extremely competitive player on a football pitch—and intends to bring that competitive spirit into the campaign) and has put in place a Shadow Cabinet which looks ready to govern—comparing very favourably against those currently in Government.  He brought back Yvette Cooper and replaced Annelise Dodds with Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor and appointed Wes Streeting as Shadow Health Secretary—these were all smart moves.  It seems clear from the extent of Lib Dem victories that Labour did not put up a strong fight in these  constituencies.  The British electorate is sophisticated about tactical voting and, to defeat the Tories, will know what to do (and sites like “Swap My Vote”[3] are there to help them with smart tactical voting advice).  People forget that in the 1997 General Election, the Lib Dems won 46 seats (up sharply from 18 beforehand) partly thanks to smart tactical voting, but this jump was overshadowed by the Labour landslide.

Labour will need to make some hard choices in order to bring both the Lib Dems and Greens onside.  The former will be much easier—the seats which could swing yellow are easier to identify and are mostly Tory-held. There are few seats likely to swing Green—the mountain is too high to climb.  Here Starmer and the Labour Party should exhibit a quality all too rare in politics—generosity—and identify a few seats where Greens could possibly have a chance at winning and effectively step aside.  For the Green Party to go from 1 to even 3 or 4 seats would be an enormous boost for them, not much skin off the other’s noses, and probably good for the country (confession: I have a bias as a Green Party member).  In Scotland, there is no need for any deal or cooperation in advance of the election—the hard negotiating will come after the election is fought and the key issue will be obvious.  Starmer can take a view then on what is the practical and principled arrangement to be struck with the SNP.

If asked by political journalists they should just repeat two things: 1) “there is no deal”, and 2) “Isn’t it an affront to democracy that the 60%+ (or 70%) of voters who want a progressive Government are ignored by a system that is sustaining a right wing cabal whose only interest is their rich mates?”.  Or given the current preference for three word catch-phrases, “Represent the 60%”.  OK, maybe its technically four words, but at least it rhymes.

Starmer needs to be practical, principled, and courageous to become Prime Minister.  I think he can do it.  I think he will do it.  Given the outcome of the recent Labour conference, it is clear that the blockages of support within the party are disappearing. And if he moves towards PR, he will help to transform himself from being “that boring guy who lacks any charisma” to being “the bold PM who fundamentally reformed British politics and our democracy.”  I told you that I was in an optimistic mood 😊.


Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—27 September 2022

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.


[1] Politico.eu downloaded 27/09/22 at 13.50

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50779901  downloaded 16:50

[3] https://forwarddemocracy.com/swapmyvote/

Will age be an issue in studying for a master’s degree?

In the process of applying for a Master’s degree (in early 2021) I thought it would be a clever idea to meet a current student.  UCL kindly arranged for me to meet one in advance from the programme to which I was applying (Democracy and Comparative Politics).  We spent an hour or so in chatting about the university and his experience on the programme. Before he left I decided to ask him a question which had been burning in my mind. Finally, I asked him what he thought it would be like for somebody at my age (I was about to turn 64). He urged me not to worry and said that he, “did not find it difficult being old”—as he was the oldest student in the class at the time. I asked him his age and he said he was 31. So the oldest student in the class was less than half my age. I gulped—what would this be like?

Regardless, I signed up for the class and am now midway through the programme.  It has been one of my best decisions ever—at least I feel that way so far.  What has it been like to study with people who are less than half my age and why did I decide to take this on despite many fears and reservations?

Firstly, I thought it would be nice to hear what this generation was feeling (the students in my programme range from their early to late 20s, with a few exceptions).  They are even younger than my children, who are all in their 30s at the time of this writing. It is therefore a generation I have little access to, and for that reason I was particularly keen to meet these young people—all of whom have come of age since the financial crash of 2008. Maybe I was also tired of hearing from my own generation and their observations, rationalisations, and prescriptions. My generation screwed things up abysmally and is therefore very unlikely to be the source of solutions.

Second, it seemed like a challenge—and I was up for a challenge.  There did not seem much point in taking something on which did not force me out of my comfort zone. And this has really taken me out of my comfort zone! Throughout my life I have felt that sometimes I need to shake things up, and this experience was destined, and designed, to achieve that. 

Third, friends of mine suggested that I would be able to contribute something unique to the rest of the class. Given that I had been working for over 40 years, it was difficult to dispute this idea–I would be very different from the other students. Nearly all of these young people were likely to be about to start their careers, and they might actually find it helpful speaking to someone who was on the “other side of the hill” (the one I am over).  This has proven to be the case.

Finally, many individuals I spoke to about this upcoming decision said that age was just something that was “in my head.”  I suppose that is true, however I have no way of knowing what is in the heads of other people, only what is in mine.  And if I am honest, I am not even sure that I know my own mind much of the time.  I also asked myself how I would feel if there was someone in my class who was 30+ years my senior. Apart from being immensely surprised by their willingness to learn, I thought that I would judge the individual based on his or her contribution—secretly hoping that these young people would do the same with me.

So far, the classmates have been absolutely lovely—my age more seems to be far more relevant to me than to them.  They seem willing to allow me to join them for lunch and even to meet them at the pub (but I respectfully leave after the second round)!  In fact, they are incredibly open and engaging and have really enhanced my learning experience. Even the dreaded coronavirus, and the many limitations it has caused, has not undermined this aspect, although obviously it has made things much more difficult.

Age is definitely an aspect of who I am and who we all are. So are gender, race, religion, birthplace, nationality, sexual preference, political leaning, and many other factors.  Like any of these, one factor does not define, and probably should not define, who you are, although I guess it does help explain a bit about what you are.  Also, the atmosphere of university education today is “tolerant” in a particular way, almost to a fault.  Perhaps that is theme I will pick up in another post? But in the meantime, I should emphasise how open minded the students I have met are to me and to each other. I think that is partly the refreshing nature of youth but also the current climate.

In any event, I am glad I have undertaken this challenging experiment.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—29 September 2022

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.

A statement of my own personal biases (or at least those which I am aware of)

Nobody can be objective
I think that the possibility that anybody can be objective, other than on a rare occasion, or about a particular subject, is exceptionally low indeed—in fact, I think it is impossible. This is certainly the case with me. People who say and think they are genuinely objective are either fools or liars. Of course, it is exceedingly difficult to fully appreciate all the ways in which we are biased. Having said that, it is incumbent upon me, as I am offering my thoughts in a blog, to help make readers aware of my biases in advance—at least to the extent that I am aware of them. Readers can then make their own judgements as to whether or not I am being honest or comprehensive in my testimony below.

Political bias
I am currently a member of the Green Party of the United Kingdom and I have been a member since 2019. Prior to that, I was a long-standing member of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK, which I joined in 1990—I left as I felt the party was going nowhere, poorly run under Jo Swinson, and was drifting aimlessly. Also, it was curiously middle-of-the-road, constantly playing it safe, which struck me as pointless for a third party seeking to break through in a two-party system. Whilst a LibDem I had served on two policy working groups (one chaired by Shirley Williams and the other by Vince Cable) and in the 1997 general election I stood as a parliamentary candidate in the Hertfordshire seat of Welwyn Hatfield. I suppose that sounds like it might make me solidly left of centre, and perhaps I am. However, in 1976 I was the campaign coordinator at the University of Rochester for the Republican Party in the USA—and I was active throughout Monroe County, New York, where the University is based. During my student days I flirted it with the Libertarians, and in 1978 I came to live in the UK and work in Parliament for two Conservative MPs: George Gardiner MP (Surrey Reigate) and Nicholas Winterton MP (Macclesfield). At that time I also had some involvement with other research assistants for other Conservative MPs. There is no doubt that I have travelled leftwards, but my political allegiances are not straightforward and also vary from issue to issue.

Class bias/background
Social or income class is particularly important, especially in the UK but even in the United States, so I disclose my affiliations in this regard as well. Both my parents were survivors of the Holocaust, and this left its indelible mark upon them and my family. They knew and experienced hunger, loneliness, and starvation. I was born in 1957 and we lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York, a lower middle-class neighbourhood– and I mean this in the US sense of the words “middle class”—my folks earned below average wages. My mother had been a seamstress and my dad cut girdles on the Lower East side of Manhattan before joining his brothers and father in the family business to drive the delivery truck. In the mid-1960s we moved from Brooklyn to Bayside, Queens, New York after my dad had saved a bit of money and started, with my mom’s help, his own business, exporting lighting fixtures and parts from Italy, Hungary, and Germany to the United States. By the early 1970s I would say that we were middle class or upper middle class and within 10 more years we were upper-class, by US standards, based upon the success of my father’s various businesses. For example, I did not pay for my university education. Having had most of my career in the City and on Wall Street I am by any standard upper-class, in the US sense of the word, which is based on income.


By UK standards it is much harder to say what I am. I do not feel upper-class, as obviously I have no connection to the aristocracy. In terms of the way I live one would probably say I am solidly middle-class. However, if class is based on the family one is born into, then I was certainly born into a working-class family—a family that had known poverty and earned its means through manual labour. This is something I have only done once or twice myself, briefly in a supermarket in the USA and also as a golf caddy—but this was as a teenager to earn some extra money and certainly not to provide subsistence. Since leaving business school in 1980 I have had professional employment and have generally been earning in the higher income brackets. I own where I live and have done so since moving to the United Kingdom in 1987—living mostly in London. All this will certainly influence my thinking although I am not always sure how.

Religious bias
I was born into a Jewish family with a mother who was a quintessentially secularised Viennese Jew (think Freud). My father was from what is now Satu-Mare, Romania. This is the birthplace of the Szatmar Chassidim, and although my father was Orthodox he did not have a Chassidic background. I attended yeshiva from kindergarten to the second year of high school or 10th grade, when I was expelled. A yeshiva can mean vastly different things, but in my case this would be a modern Orthodox yeshiva where we would wear kippahs (skullcaps) and tzitzit (religious undershirts) all day, pray nearly every morning and take classes both in English and Hebrew. I rejected this and became increasingly hostile towards my religion, religion in general and the hypocrisy I regularly observed. I cannot say exactly, but these feelings probably began when I was eight or nine, and this hostility was certainly a factor in my expulsion when I was about fifteen.


Religion played an exceedingly small part of my life for many years, and I married a woman who had a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father and had herself been to Lutheran school until she was 15 (for the record—she was NOT expelled). Bizarrely, and not at my request, she converted and became an Orthodox Jew shortly before we got married. This was an ongoing source of conflict with sometimes serious but often comical consequences. My hostility to religion remained until the early noughties, when my wife introduced Friday night dinners– a concept that went down reasonably well as the best approach to my heart or head is via my stomach. Since we separated in 2010 religion has played no obvious role in my life. Nevertheless, the imprint of my early childhood experience feels increasingly significant and has been noticed by astute observers. It is also meant that over recent years I have taken to re-reading some of the religious texts I read decades ago—they are comfortably familiar and feel like a cosy well-worn jumper. My hostility has certainly diminished and is now more than partly offset by a soft fondness for the history of “my” people, the ethical precepts (when not tainted by hypocrisy), the food (!!) and the songs.

National bias
I grew up in the USA in the 1960s and would certainly have described myself as a patriot in my early years—this may have also been manifested in my Republican leanings, mentioned above. The Vietnam war and Watergate were defining experiences and caused me to reflect in greater depth on the country I was born in and its true nature. I certainly became less patriotic and the election of Ronald Reagan as President and the subsequent Iran Contra scandal, together with other factors, cause me to leave the USA with my wife and son (we since had three more children, all daughters). My preference was to live somewhere in continental Europe, I was especially keen on the Netherlands, but my wife persisted, and we moved to the UK in 1987. I have never had the slightest interest in returning to the USA, although my wife had some uncertainty in this regard and experimented with the idea of returning there around the turn of the century. This resolved itself in 2001, shortly before September the 11th. People who know me well would not describe me as US Patriot, but rather as someone who is deeply critical of the United States, its nature, and its role in the world.


During my life, in addition to the US and UK, I have also had the pleasure of living briefly in Hanover, (West) Germany for five months in the 1970s, in Paris in 1994 for three months, in Kiel, Germany for two months in the summers of 2009 and 2010, and now spend quite a bit of time in the Haut Savoie region of France—my German and French are basic (and my fluent Hebrew has evaporated). I have also spent quite a bit of time in Berlin and Amsterdam, where I have often contemplated living. I do not feel American, or British, or English—although anyone who knows me can hear that I sound and sometimes act in a very American way. I would say I am a bit of the Londoner and definitely feel more European (like my parents) than British. I carry a US passport, which is ridiculously hard to get rid of, I am a naturalised British “subject” and a citizen of Austria via my mother. I certainly do not feel Austrian. Having said all that, most of my professional life has been in the UK, I live and study in London, and the preponderance of what I will post will be about the UK and Europe.

Gender bias
The fact that I am adding this as a “late entrant” probably reflects a gender bias, of sorts, on my part. Having said that, the growing awareness of gender and related issues makes this worth adding. Throughout my life I have been surrounded mostly by women. My father travelled for half the year, and I was largely raised by a combination of my mother and her mother. I have three daughters and a son, and he is certainly not the macho type, so our household felt more feminine than masculine, based on classical understandings of those adjectives. The overwhelming majority of my close friends have been women, whose company I have tended to prefer.


I have always been straight, from the standpoint of sexual orientation, and although I have and have had friends with a different orientation, the overwhelming majority of my friendship group are straight men and women. My children have, to the best of my knowledge, been in exclusively heterosexual relationships. Thus my thinking on these and related issues will incorporate this bias.

Racial bias

I am white and born to white parents. My early school years I exclusively mixed with white children and my neighbourhood was similarly monochromatic. In high school, university and business school (all in the USA) the student body was more diverse, but as is frequently the case in America, there was little racial mixing. Nevertheless, as a teenager I had black friends—but few. My professional world has predominantly been as white as my early years—the legacy of historical discrimination which has been slow to change—although this was modestly less the case in the social enterprise world (where I was active from 1999-2021). I will undoubtedly be strongly influenced by the privilege that comes with being from the majority race. My only experience with racism has been moderate doses of antisemitism, both in the USA and the UK.

In summary
I think I am probably your typical, urban, Jewish, secular, middle-class, straight, white, US-born liberal. My orientation will no doubt surface in my posts. Having said that, I may jump out of my stereotypical character from time to time. And where I have pegged myself may be quite different from where the reader would place me on these various spectra—but that is mostly about their bias than mine. 😊

Rodney Schwartz
London, UK—29 September 2022


I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work. For those interested in why I started this blog click here. I welcome any comments!

Why I am dedicating my professional life to democratic innovation (and why I started this Blog)

My CV is typical—did this, moved here, achieved X, spent time at Y.  I then attempt to array these facts in such a way as to concoct a coherent narrative designed for the targeted role.  We all do this—I am hardly unique.  I have worked for 42 years and only recently has a deeper underlying “story” of which I was not consciously aware become apparent—that in my professional life the greatest pleasure has come from being a student.  Ironically, I only discovered my “driving force” after leaving formal schooling (specifically after leaving business school in 1980). 

I have pursued this inclination to study almost exclusively outside of academia (at least until now), which fortunately meant that I could put food on the table. Looking back, eliminating the random noise, my career was dedicated to studying two subjects in depth—financial services (1980-2007) and impact investing and social enterprise (1999-2021), and I earned an income by leveraging the knowledge I acquired.  (BTW, I can explain the chronological overlap should anyone be interested–just get in touch.)

Hovering in the background was a third subject, politics (specifically democratic innovation), to which I have now decided to dedicate the remainder of my professional life.  At 64 I am most unlikely to get a 4th shot!  I have had several academic and professional “nibbles” in the political realm, so it is not all new to me.  I secured a BA in Political Science at the University of Rochester, and whilst studying was campaign coordinator for the Republican Party at the university and for youth across Monroe County, New York (there were liberal Republicans then, and I was one).  Moving to the UK in 1987, I became active in the Liberal Democrat Party, eventually standing as a parliamentary candidate in the 1997 general election in the Welwyn Hatfield constituency in Hertfordshire (lost the election but kept my deposit).  In 2019, out of frustration with a hopeless third party which lacked any distinctive presence or policies, I joined another hopeless party (The Green Party), which at least stands for something crystal clear and vitally important.

I despair at the state of formal party politics and the state of democracy throughout the “West”.  Thus, having chosen to leave impact investing in 2021, I decided to concentrate all my efforts on this apparently pointless field, and seek to learn as much as I could about what has gone wrong and if there is anything, anyone, anywhere is doing which is having a positive impact.  I lump all the attempts I observe into a broad category that I call “democratic innovation”.  The financial services sector I began covering in the 1980s was utterly transformed, partly through technology, but also through other vital structural innovations.  The investment industry has been and is being transformed through the introduction of ESG and impact metrics into the investment process.  This transition of investing from a two-dimensional discipline (risk and return) into one with three dimensions (adding impact) is profound, far-reaching, and growing rapidly.  Politics, at least in the OECD democracies, has hardly changed since I was a kid—and this is hardly because it is working so well.  Dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high of 58% according to the Bennett Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University[1].  So, as I entered the final years of my professional life, I thought, “what could be more interesting and important to study than innovation, or the lack of it, in western democracies?”  On this occasion I have decided to commence my study formally, seeking a Master’s Degree in Democracy and Comparative Politics from UCL in London.

Throughout my career I have been a writer of my reflections on the areas which I have studied.  As an equity research analyst with PaineWebber and Lehman Brothers I wrote thousands of pages of research notes on the finance industry, its trends and prospects, and those of its constituent companies.  As one of the early entrants into the emergent social enterprise/impact investment field, I composed over 100 blog posts, authored many articles, and two academic papers about the subject.  On both these topics, the written work seemed to generate interest, but in any case I find writing both therapeutic and clarifying for myself.  Thus I feel compelled to start writing again about my latest interest.

It feels self-indulgent and audacious to publish this work, assuming it will be of interest to anyone.  This is especially true in this subject area, where many experts already make substantial contributions—and I am extremely far from being an expert.  However, I have found that “putting it out there” invites challenge and thereby improves my own thinking—and sometimes that of others.  It also encourages debate, which I always find to be beneficial  What I can add is my experience in observing innovation in other fields of endeavour and drawing out contrasts.  I am hopeful that this will enable me to offer some positive contributions.  

Also, I am not the only one who is on a continuing journey, and I thought that by sharing some of my trials and tribulations I might encourage others.  I imagine that there are people reading this who are also worried/fed up with/scared beyond description about the state of democracy in the west—I hope this blog will resonate with them.  Maybe others are considering a similar life change—and these musings may offer some encouragement (I really am loving it—18 months in!).  I will write about politics, political economy, democratic innovation and the experience of a graduate student in politics, especially one who is more than twice the age of everyone else in class.  I welcome challenge and debate, as I believe this makes us all smarter and better informed.  Unsurprisingly, I am going to call this series “The Politics Student”. 

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—29 September 2022

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  To read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.


[1]https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/DemocracyReport2020_nYqqWi0.pdf  downloaded at 10:18 on 29/9/22.