Saturday, October 21, 2006

Liberty vs. Security

Deogolwulf, over at the Joy of Curmudgeonry, has a fine post up on liberal idealists; a choice paragraph:

Yet there is in the purest form of liberalism the seed of an insane optimism — a belief that everyone will act well and wisely, or at least not evilly, once he is set free from authority, superstition and adverse circumstance, such that society will progress to ever-greater perfection — an optimism which permits the growth of tyranny if it is not first made sane by the admission that freedom does not by itself teach goodness or halt evil. It is because liberal societies tolerate in the first place ideas, sentiments and movements which are antithetical to freedom that they become so illiberal in the end; for they allow the growth of those things against which they must eventually respond in kind, or be overthrown.

Take a read of the rest of the article; his quote from Jacob Burckhardt is a good one.

The old cliché that we have more to fear from social order than anarchy misses that the seeds of governmental security excess can almost always be found in a failure to provide the physical or material security expected from a state. Authoritarianism is borne out of a failure of a state to secure its people which leads them to turn to someone who promises security at any cost. Either that or the society falls and another mob nation is the result.

Sky News report on "The Veil Debate"

This report starts by describing popular attitudes to Muslims as being demonisation comparable to anti-semitism and racist views of Blacks; Muslims are apparently the "apparition you use to scare your children with". Its examples for this trend are Tony Blair's support for Jack Straw's comments on the veil and John Reid's call for Muslim parents to watch their children for signs of radicalism. At one point it actually intersperses ministerial comments with fairground ghouls. Painting someone you disagree with as a racist is a lot easier than engaging with their arguments isn't it?

They then skip to the "direct impact on the streets"; an attack on a veiled woman in Liverpool. What isn't mentioned in the report (but is in the BBC story) is that this attack consisted of one, silver-haired so probably old, man tearing the veil from a woman's face while screaming racist abuse. This is a deeply unpleasant act but is shocking rather than brutal, too isolated to be a direct result of an item of national news and does not imply that Jack Straw should have remained silent.

The analysis it offers as to why there has been such a change in the Labour party's stance is, essentially, that these MPs represent bi-cultural communities where political correctness "will not wash". The representative they choose for this un-PC community is a BNP councillor. By doing this the report again tars all those who dislike the veil's social impact, even a majority of Britons, with the brush of being racist BNP sympathisers. Unfortunately by choosing the BNP as a representative of the broadly held view that the veil is a problem Sky News has done that party's PR work for them.

Next up is someone from the Fabian society to argue that this has taken place because Labour can't understand religious diversity. Again, it argues that dislike of the veil can only be a result of ignorance. Strange then that some of those speaking out against the veil have been Muslim.

Finally, it signs off with the notion that the message the government offers to Muslims it hopes to integrate "boils down to 'shop your children to the police and don't wear the veil'" which is absurd. John Reid didn't even mention the police; merely suggesting that Muslim parents should be careful of possible radical influences on their children.

Not a second was given for the opinions of those mainstream voices, people like Salman Rushdie or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who argue that the veil acts to disempower women, there was no attempt to engage with the idea coming from Jack Straw that it might be an obstacle to interaction between communities and there was no critical examination of the niqab as a part of being a Muslim rather than a cultural/political statement as many have argued. The report was followed instead by an interview with Tony Benn describing this as an example of the 9/11 conspiracists favourite political theory; that governments need to scare their subjects into line.

In place of the debate this report was supposed to showcase we had a wall of ad hominem attacks on the motives of one side. How on Earth can anyone possibly still maintain the view that regulation keeps our news media objective and unbiased? All this report could possibly achieve is to convince Muslims that they are under attack and critics of the veil that debate is being stifled by the main stream media. It will contribute to the atmosphere of distrust that it purports to oppose.

The Palestinians are shooting each other again...

"Palestinian gunmen on Friday opened fire on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's convoy, destroying one vehicle in a burst of flames in the latest violence between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements. Nobody was injured."

Okay. So it's only the cars which have felt it this time but Fatah and Hamas have been steadily shooting it out for months.

"The attack came shortly after Haniyeh, of Hamas, brushed off threats by President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, to dismiss the Hamas-led Cabinet. Haniyeh travels in a convoy of more than 10 vehicles and was believed to be about a quarter-mile away at the time of the shooting."

A 10 vehicle convoy? Amazing how a man in charge of such a dismally poor part of the world is able to afford such luxury isn't it?

"Tensions have been steadily rising since the Islamic militant group defeated the long-ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections early this year. Hamas has rejected international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, despite widespread hardship caused by sanctions."

There is more in the Forbes article but I think the main point to highlight is just how well the process of unilateral withdrawal is working for Israel. The New York Sun blog's contention here that the kidnappings are a result of withdrawal doesn't stand up. They were clearly a response to military impotence which would have appealed to the Palestinians regardless of where they were fighting Israel.

While it hasn't bought peace it has shifted the attentions of the leadership towards fighting each other and away from fighting Israel. The more thoroughly this shift can be achieved and the Palestinians are fighting each other more than the Israelis the more elements of the "international community" will find it difficult to cast the Palestinians as victims. Equally, the military capacity of these movements to attack Israel has to be to some extent drained by shooting at and being shot by each other.

If Israel can maintain the move towards unilaterally creating a Palestinian state the various violent movements (the Intifada was never really about poor children throwing rocks at tanks) will have more of an interest in fighting over that state (and its revenues) than scrapping with the Israelis. The apparatus of the Palestinian state provides them with an opportunity to indulge their venality and delusions of grandeur worth fighting for. This will make the Palestinians less and less an Israeli problem, allow Israel to pretty much draw its own borders and then leave the Palestinians as another dysfunctional Middle Eastern polity.

With a border to separate them from an obvious external enemy they'll revert to the dismal Middle Eastern mean and scrap it out along tribal lines (if these don't exist they'll create them). Palestine will still be an unpleasant place and we won't have seen the back of Palestinian terrorism but the Israel-Palestine conflict as a particular danger to the stability of Israel and a unique source of international friction would seriously decline. The unique problem of having a large number of Middle Eastern Muslims and the Jewish state superimposed on each other will be largely gone.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Two Generations at the Economist on the Forsyth Commission

Compare this article from today's Economist with this article in CommentisFree by its last editor. What an improvement. Perhaps the paper might even start endorsing the right side at elections?

Cloaking Cloaks: Exploiting the Availability Heuristic

Apparently a group of American and British scientists in the U.S. have developed a material which can bend light (only radar waves at the moment) around an object to create a cloaking like effect. The researchers insist that it is some way away from being a practical proposition, apparently we need to be able to make these meta materials at a nanotechnology scale, but the military implications (hiding tanks is usually difficult) should speed things along.

Once this stuff can conceal people it will be brilliant for law enforcement. Give it to police officers so they're invisible. Make that policy very public and watch the availability heuristic (people overestimate the frequency of events which are widely reported) do its thing. The policemen won't be undetectable and major crime is unlikely to be seriously affected but petty criminals will hear a policeman in every bump in the night. You'll be able to achieve Giuliani-style broken windows policing without vast numbers.

It's like my strategy for winning the war on drugs (I'm not terribly attached to winning the war on drugs but if you want to...): every time the police seize drugs return a small portion of them to circulation laced with some kind of poison. You could have it kill a tiny number of people but the idea that your government might poison you would be so horrific and newsworthy demand for drugs would die overnight. Of course, the idea of poison cannabis isn't exactly compassionate conservatism exemplified but this whole Cameroon facade has to crack eventually.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Sharing the proceeds of growth

I genuinely bought the logic of sharing the proceeds of growth. It is possible to combine rising public spending with cutting the burden of tax. However, I'm left a little dissapointed by Osborne and Cameron's reactions to the Forsyth commission report. Their line appears to boil down to: 'we'll take the bits about cutting personal taxation but compensate for it by increasing environmental taxation' combined with 'we'll take the cuts in headline corporation tax if we can compensate for it with removing breaks to the same value'. How is this sharing the proceeds of growth?

Surely sharing the proceeds of growth over a parliament would mean that we would, in addition, be planning to actually cut the total quantity of tax? £20 billion over a parliament isn't too much. We could then use the revenue from shifting towards green taxation to go further (the report hints at profitable ways of doing this). There would still be a big share (well over half, I believe) of the proceeds of growth to direct towards higher public spending.

Bill Emmott's massively... well... stupid editorial for CommentisFree finally answers the question of why The Economist has supported the election of a Labour party which has failed to satisfy either the economic or civil liberties demands of classical liberalism. His notion that a tax reform commission must either examine the entirety of government fiscal policy or hold total revenue constant is absurd. If we are sharing the proceeds of growth then we want to know both how we can tax more efficiently with the total amount held constant and what we could 'buy' with a moderate tax cut. Combining this with an analysis of public spending is a job for another commission or the party leadership; it can more easily do so if the benefits of cutting tax by a moderate amount have already been considered.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Forsyth's Tax Reform Commission

Combine this BBC story and this Daily Mail story and we can get a decent idea of what most of the headline measures in the Tax Reform Commission's study will add up to:

£19-21bn of tax cuts

This is around a 3% cut in the total quantity of tax which is large enough to be significant but not large enough to require drastic cuts in anything. I'm actually impressed at how much they've managed to get for their, roughly, twenty billion.

Basic rate of income tax cut from 22 to 20%

This is as close to a default, general purpose, tax cut as it gets. More money in the pockets of individuals and families. One of the more sensible tax cuts in this package politically because a lot of people can directly link it to their own income and interests.

Increase the earnings threshold from £5,035 to £7,185

This is a good one for making it clear that tax cuts are not all about returning money to the middle and upper classes. This will significantly help a lot of very poor working families.

Abolishing inheritance tax and replacing it with a "capital gains tax on death"

The idea is that this will remove family homes from having to pay inheritance tax. I'll be interested in reading the details of how this measure works; the term capital gains tax on death suggests the possibility that this change is more profound than the BBC report describes.

A big question, from a right wing political perspective, is whether this might be missing the opportunity, with a broad swathe of opinion lining up against inheritance tax, to scrap it completely.

Cutting corporation tax from 30 to 25%

This tax cut is economically easily the most important measure here. It is a significant change and will help to ensure that our competitive position does not further decline. If an economic rightwinger wants a reason to vote Conservative this could well be enough of itself. I hope it is adopted by the leadership.

Politically it is more suspect; the relationship between business taxation and the interests of the 'man on the street' is not as obvious as we would like. However, I think there is a growing public perception that we are getting left behind by business tax changes abroad and this may negate some of the political logic against cutting business taxation.

Green Taxation

How all this relates into the Blue-Green agenda has to be a crucial question. Will these measures be pure tax cuts or will they be compensated for, as the Liberal Democrat plans are, by plans for green taxation? Once green tax proposals are included will they pay for additional tax cuts or will they mean that much of this report's conclusions will be used to construct a revenue neutral shift rather than a tax cut?

I have no problem with shifting tax towards green tax in place of other forms of taxation but I wouldn't want it to take the place of genuine tax cutting.


This report is a plan for significant and welcome tax cuts. Its defining feature is that it has chosen to reduce or adjust the thresholds on a number of different taxes rather than focussing on big changes in any one tax. There are two big questions that will have to be answered before we know what it means for Conservative policy:

1) How much of a priority will tax cuts be? If we have to choose between these measures and other priorities will we be willing to sacrifice spending pledges for tax cut pledges?

2) Will green taxes be used to pay for these measures, or spending, or further cuts in general taxation? I.e. will our position be aiming at a shift like the one the Lib Dems are proposing or a tax cut as this report is setting out when considered alone?

Alex Deane on liberalising TV news

Deane is spot on in his 100 policies piece arguing for the lifting of impartiality requirements for broadcasters. I've supported such a move for a while. I think the BBC would need to remain regulated or be privatised to avoid subsidising one viewpoint and it wouldn't solve the problem all at once as journalism would remain a left wing profession. However, freeing commercial broadcasters would allow them to achieve the far more balanced position of our print media.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The UKIP on Immigration

DK, has a BBC interview with Nigel Farage on his blog which he appears to be reconciling with his libertarianism by citing economic and integration problems.

Economic migrants are, and pretty much every sensible study confirms this, of huge benefit to our economy. Those who come here are not benefits scroungers (put yourself in their shoes... you'd go to Sweden) but those who want to work hard and make a success of themselves. They often arrive here already schooled and leave when they're going to take a pension, the two periods when people are most costly to tax-payers. If too many people arrive serious strains on infrastructure arise but the influxes from previous new entrants have not been that large. Equally, if you have an inflexible labour market, with collosal youth unemployment as in France for example, then you might want to worry but we do not.

In the end, the big problem with immigration comes if there are difficulties with integration. This is inconvenient for the UKIP as immigrants from Europe immigrate quickly and easily. Eastern Europeans are generally poorer and prettier than us but there is no big difference in cultures to integrate. Turkey might change that somewhat but its entry is some way away.

The big problem with integration at the moment is with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. As such, if you're worried about integration then the best solution is to support plenty of new EU entrants and impose no restrictions on their labour movement which will make economically plausible an incredibly hard line stance on other immigration. The EU actually allows us to discriminate in immigration towards those who cause us the least cultural difficulty. Whether this, rather than working harder at integration of those coming from outside the EU, is the best solution depends on how hopeful you are that integration is a practical political project but leaving the EU makes it much harder to distinguish between migrants who will prove difficult to integrate and those who will not. If we were outside the EU such discrimination would still be possible of course but would become politically implausible as it would require us to make the kind of hard headed decision, choosing between 'good' and 'bad' immigrant groups, that politics is awful at.

In other words, if you are worried about the growing difficulties with integration and "cultural clashes" then the EU is a part of the solution rather than the problem. There is little reason for Britain to worry about the economic effects of migrants from Eastern Europe. None of this is convenient for Farage which is probably why he's ignoring the contradiction between the supposed libertarian principle of his party and the anti-foreigner bias of many of his members. Unfortunately, this is a problem that the Tories have as well but it is less acute and less troubling for a party which does not claim to be as radical as the UKIP.

Why Nuclear Power is important

British Energy appears to be having some technological problems. Cracks are emerging in important pipes and plants are being shut down. Despite this the new popularity of plans for nuclear power expansion does not appear to have abated. The reason why nuclear power is not going away is that it offers a way for us to get around the crucial dilemma posed by any consideration of energy in economic policy .

Wrigley's thesis on the Industrial Revolution is that it was primarily a move from organic towards inorganic sources of power. Britain could take a certain amount of additional energy from agriculture and forestry. However, this could not nearly match up to the collosal growth in population and secure rising living standards. Fortunately at this point the Industrial Revolution technologies were developed which allowed for a transition from flows of energy to stocks in the form of coal. These stocks meant that we did not have to choose between using agricultural land, essentially the obtaining of energy directly from the sun, for the production of food or to create wood for the production of energy. This changed the calculus and allowed us to avoid the Malthusian trap we may have faced otherwise and support a growing number of people at an improved standard of living.

The world is facing a similar dilemma now. If it is to deal with, not necessarily a rising population, but accustoming a larger segment of the world's population to developed country living standards then we will need to find a lot more energy. We will also need to increase agricultural energy in the form of food to thanks to a world population which has not finished expanding. Finally, there are worries about making further use of stocks of energy whose use may have serious externalities (climate change), divert huge amounts of wealth to unpleasant regimes, as Liam Fox has recently been highlighting in his conference speech and on 18 Doughty Street, and which becomes increasingly costly to extract. These externalities do not exist with flows of energy as even if the mechanism involves burning something it is the release of carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere during the formation of the energy source and they do not require extraction or much by way of geology. The issue of using hydrogen fuel cells for transport is something of a red herring in this debate as their function is to shift the production of energy to a central plant where the hydrogen is produced rather than to produce energy themselves.

Solar, wind and agricultural (such as ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil) energy are all flow stocks and we can expand their use significantly. However, the idea that we can expand land usage, yields and efficiency sufficiently to simultaneously supply an increased population with food, replace our existing fossil fuel capacity and respond to the additional requirements from a Third World getting richer is implausible. We are working with a limited amount of sunlight and our efficiency in using it can only rise so far, so fast. What this implies is that we face a situation similar to that faced by Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution and are in need of some form of energy beyond that we can take each year from the sun.

The solution has to be nuclear power. This report suggests that the fears of uranium stocks running out are overblown and we can expect stocks to rise with usage of uranium if more difficult to recover stocks become economical to discover and mine and technology improves. Even if uranium is likely to become scarcer replacing the Middle East with Australia and Canada as the best sources of a crucial but scarce raw material is an unambiguously good thing. Nuclear power is the one source that can provide enough power to make a big difference in the struggle with climate change. It is a great way to produce the power to crack seawater and produce all the hydrogen that hoped for changes in transport fuel will require. This is a much better candidate for a replacement for fossil fuels than expanding renewables.

There are safety concerns but these should not be overstated. Chernobyl was a terrible disaster but look at the ecological disasters elsewhere in the Soviet Empire or China or industrial humanitarian tragedies, in their mining industries for example, and you will quickly gain the correct impression that the problem was a Communist failure of management rather than a general tendency of nuclear power to be dangerous. Terrorist attacks aimed at our nuclear sites are a reason to make sure they are well defended rather than to give up on nuclear power. From the estimates I have seen the results of a terrorist attack would be awful but they are eminently defendable and the consequences are not bad enough to require a 1% doctrine style approach; the plants will not become nuclear bombs and are not sighted in cities. Finally, nuclear waste is less of an issue than it is made out to be; there is an awful lot of room underground to bury it. A major side effect of these security and safety concerns is to create a need for subsidy which, despite the affront to economic liberalism, is worth paying given the wider benefits of a move towards nuclear power.

In conclusion, it is not due to accident or a lack of research that renewables cannot easily replace fossil fuels. They are, in the end, still relying upon the same source of energy in the yearly intake of heat and light from the sun and improvements at the scale and speed we are looking for to satisfy our multiple demands for more energy seem unlikely. Nuclear power is the solution that we are looking for and should be embraced in any attempt at a long term solution to our energy needs.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why the blogosphere is right wing

When people try to explain why Conservative bloggers are generally better writers, more numerous and more widely read the explanation that I keep hearing from every discussion of the subject is that it is a result of being in opposition. The idea is essentially that it is easier for an amateur to destroy than create and the wilderness of opposition gives people a greater desire for an alternate way to express themselves. This explanation does not fit the facts, however, as the right wing blogosphere is bigger in the US as well where the right is in power; Kos is the exception not the rule.

The more credible explanation for why the blogosphere is right wing is tied up in the reasons why the media is usually a left leaning profession. Left wing media bias is, like the right wing dominance of the blogosphere, something that we like to imagine has arisen in the UK thanks to unique characteristics of our political landscape; particularly the BBC and Ofcom. While these factors may exacerbate the problem they did not create it. Right wingers in the US are just as worried about a left wing media bias as we are. Fox is, again, the exception rather than the rule and less important than right wing Britons like to think.

The left bias in the media arises from the fact that young right wingers who are intelligent, politically committed and can write do not want to be reporters. I worked for the LSE student newspaper and was a very successful student journalist but I was always working in the features section and writing opinion pieces. Whereas the left wing editors and writers for the paper went on to become journalists the right wingers either entered think tanks or went for the limited number of vacancies for instant opinion journalism. The standard career in journalism, based upon starting out as a reporter, seems thankless and dull to most right wingers.

Where does this right wing taste for opinion over facts in their journalism come from?

The most convincing explanation I have heard is that left wingers tend to connect facts directly to solutions whereas right wingers thing more about policies affecting systems whether of incentives or traditions. As such, just knowing that there is, for example, poverty in Africa does not convince a right winger of the case for our providing aid. We would be far more interested, in policy terms, in analysis of the effects of aid than a greater body of facts on the extent of the problems that aid aims to solve.

Of course, this is a generalisation but I think that is is an important one. Right wingers see facts as part of a philosophical and analytical debate about the way forward whereas left wingers see facts as calls to action in themselves. This makes right wingers see opinion as the crux of the issue with reporting a relative sideshow. By comparison, left wingers see reporting as the crux with opinion being the relative sideshow in which we discuss the details of how to respond to the facts reporting turns up. This is why 18DoughtyStreet is opinion television and Fox has more opinion than other channels. It is why the mainstream media is, and will continue to be even if the BBC is privatised, biased towards the left wing. Finally it is the best explanation for why the blogosphere, focussed on opinion thanks to the financial cost of original reporting, is so right wing.