Economist 3/11/16

  1. “WANTED: people of promise”, proclaimed ads for America’s Federal Service Entrance Examination, introduced in 1955. Applicants faced posers on grammar and arithmetic—as well as the Battle of the Bulge and why presidential aides deserve anonymity.But little more than two decades later, such exams had come under fire.In 1981 they were ditched.Last year the tests were resurrected, tweaked to be fairer and more useful.Federal agencies are now assessing candidates with USA Hire, an online quiz more relevant to the work to be done.Of the 62 countries tracked in 2010-11 by Global Integrity, an NGO, 55 had rules against “nepotism, cronyism and patronage”.Applicants can face daunting odds.Of the roughly 500,000 applicants for elite civil-service jobs in India each year, only about 1,000 make the grade.
  2. Hiring civil servants according to calibre has been rare throughout history. Most jobs have been inherited, bought or bestowed as patronage.The best-known proponent of a new-model, meritocratic civil service was Max Weber, a German sociologist who died in 1920.. Research published in 2011 by Victor Lapuente and Carl Dahlstrom of the University of Gothenburg, and Jan Teorell, of Lund University, looked at which features of a civil service cut jobbery. They found that corruption across 52 countries was correlated with neither civil-service pay levels nor whether jobs were for life. Merit-based hiring was the only aspect of bureaucracies that consistently reduced graft.Meritocracy, more broadly conceived, also saves money and seems to promote economic growth.The century-old notion that a bureaucracy should be a cadre of lifers is now facing more fundamental criticisms. The first is of the idea that civil servants should be unsackable.In some places, it means that once they have made it through the entrance exam they need never do a tap of work.The second problem is that the tasks civil servants must perform are becoming ever more complicated. Closed-shop bureaucracies can be short of essential skills, such as the ability to analyse data, manage big projects or write contracts for outsourced public services.
  3. Russia has provided Ukraine with a national hero, a Ukrainian Joan of Arc. She is Nadia Savchenko, a 34-year-old military pilot who served in Iraq. In July 2014 Ms Savchenko was captured by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, smuggled by Russian security services across the border and put on trial for allegedly directing artillery fire that resulted in the death of two Russian television journalists.Ms Savchenko’s trial, which has been under way for nearly two years, has also turned into a prosecution of the Russian legal system. She has been made a member of Ukraine’s parliament and appointed to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. Western and Russian intellectuals have signed petitions in her support.Since her trial began Ms Savchenko has posed a direct challenge to the Kremlin: either it returns her to Ukraine or she dies in jail. Ms Savchenko is not bluffing: she has been on several hunger strikes, including one that lasted 82 days.Ms Savchenko would not have become a martyr if she had not been abducted. She was one of the activists of the Kiev revolution in early 2014.
  4. At the Geneva Motor Show, which opened on March 1st, two leading British supercar firms launched pricey new models to compete with the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini: Aston Martin unveiled the DB11 while McLaren showed off its 570GT.Both make only a handful of vehicles. McLaren turned out just 1,650 last year; Aston around double that. An entry-level Aston costs nearly £100,000 ($140,000), whereas the cheapest McLaren costs another £30,000, but their flagship models cost around £150,000-200,000. Each firm has built hypercars that sold for around £1m.The two have taken different routes to this destination. Aston, 103 years old, is well known thanks to the James Bond films but has struggled of late.By contrast, McLaren’s sports-car business took off only six years ago. Though it had made road cars in small numbers it was mostly known as a Formula 1 motor-racing team.
  5. Aston is first a “design company”, says Mr Palmer. Performance and handling are important but the aim is to make the “most beautiful car on the road”. To do so Aston has remodelled itself as a luxury-goods firm, emphasising design and craftsmanship that are a British speciality, while trying to extend the brand.McLaren, meanwhile, strives to make its cars the most technically advanced. Last year the firm renamed itself the McLaren Technology Group to emphasise the importance of innovation.Although racing and supercars will remain important, Ron Dennis, the firm’s boss, is convinced that its tech business will be its biggest and most important part in years to come.Using skills honed in analysing the vast quantities of data generated by motor racing, it is developing analytics software for the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and KPMG.

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