Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lawson on Climate Change

I've been reading Lawson's speech responding to the Stern report on climate change. It's trully brilliant. In fact, I'm now rather sorry I've taken my sweet time in getting around to reading it.

I have always been in the somewhat rare position of being rather ambivalent about climate change. I am conscious that I, and most people commenting, have relatively little to go on in deciding between the competing claims of different climate scientists. However, Lawson's report does a great job of explaining why these scientific differences, along with plain old uncertainties, do not need to be crucial to the public policy decision with regards to climate change.

This is fortunate because it would seem that the big difficulty with climate change is that it was the first decision we were trying to make with science as the main guide to our thinking. There have been many times we've relied on economics or philosophy but never before had we asked natural scientists to be the guides to our public decision making. It would appear they're bad at it; all the attention makes them giddy and evangelistic. Thankfully, Lawson has moved us back to the safer ground of economics and morals.

One more thing. I think the big problem that many conservatives have with Cameron's focus on the environment isn't so much the policy itself, they've reconciled themselves to more obvious intellectual gaffes (opposing top up fees) and there is a pleasant side effect to reducing oil demand in strategic terms, but the fact that they perceive Cameron to be avoiding the argument. His response at conference to the climate change skeptics was that he wasn't going to stop talking about it; as if his critics were throwing a tantrum rather than presenting a reasoned case. Were he a little more diplomatic, or less diplomatic but defended his position instead of restating it, he might find the party more forgiving.

SPIEGEL Magazine on Sex and Taboos in the Muslim World

If ever a reminder were needed that repression does not lead to more moral people it can be found in this SPIEGEL Magazine article about sex and taboos in the Muslim world. Awful stories of the brutality which can exist in the darker corners of all societies but which tends to be vastly more common in those where more healthy outlets do not exist are an easy rebuttal to the idea that the repression of women is part of protecting them. However, I think this paragraph is, perhaps, at least as interesting:

"The Internet is a refuge for hidden desires, even though it offers only virtual relief. Google Trends, a new service offered by the search engine, provides a way to demonstrate how difficult it is to banish forbidden yearnings from the heads of Muslims. By entering the term "sex" into Google Trends, one obtains a ranked list of cities, countries and languages in which the term was entered most frequently. According to Google Trends, the Pakistanis search for "sex" most often, followed by the Egyptians. Iran and Morocco are in fourth and fifth, Indonesia is in seventh and Saudi Arabia in eighth place. The top city for "sex" searches is Cairo. When the terms "boy sex" or "man boy sex" are entered (many Internet filters catch the word "gay"), Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the first four countries listed."

How ironic.

Friday, November 03, 2006

LBJ shows Vernon Robinson how it's done

The famous 'daisy' ad from LBJ highlights that even Vernon Robinson's efforts from the current election can't match up to the best in a proud history of intense US campaign ads.

The difference is that as opposed to the ridiculous character attack from Vernon Robinson LBJ was at least addressing an important issue which deserved to be taken seriously. Still, painting your opponent as a crackpot who can't be trusted with his finger on the trigger is a bit low.

Venezuelan 'fair trade'

Ken Livingstone is off to Venezuela to secure a deal for cheap fuel for Londoners. That incredibly rich London is being offered subsidised oil from rather poor Venezuela does not appear to alarm the lizard loving fool. After all, it's a win-win solution: London gets cheap oil, Chavez gets to grandstand wasting oil revenues. The only losers are the Venezuelans but they're not going to cause trouble while the sun is shining and the oil money is flowing. Good times...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Minimum Wage Trap

Iain Dale has YouTube footage of a Channel 4 report on a Labour cameraman who feels hard done by because he wasn't paid for his time as a volunteer which felt work-like. I hate to piss on a worthy bit of sniping at the Labour party but isn't this making a collosal mountain out of a rather insignificant molehill?

Every major organisation, every political party, every think tank and every media outlet takes crowds of unpaid interns/volunteers. The distinction of being "instructed" is clearly bogus; most interns do desperately basic jobs which are very similar to what they would get paid for in agency work.

The reality is that this is a non-problem created by the minimum wage. If I were offered the chance to do the job this Labour guy has I'd borrow my sister's camera and be thrilled (doing the same for Tories would be even better). The CV building effect means that it is also a pretty good idea. However, Channel 4 is right that this is criminalised as one of the Labour ministers inadvertently highlights when discussing the need to clamp down on unpaid "work".

In the end, the problem is the minimum wage. I've always thought it a shame that whereas at the beginning of the century successful opposition to the minimum wage opposed it as an illiberal measure now it can only be successfully opposed through the grubby utilitarian logic of the harms to business. I think it says something about how far liberalism has been corrupted into libertinism that only causes concerning sex are now considered liberal ones.

This debate over internships is where the illiberalism of a measure which says that someone who wants to work for free and someone who wants to employ them cannot make such a contract becomes apparent.

The LSE campaigners are big on the issue of the Living Wage at the moment. I'll write something up about that soon as I'm aware the main focus of the minimum wage isn't on low earners who are happy about that status but it is important to remember that not all people on low wages are being exploited.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

John Derbyshire on Religion

The Derb has a brilliant post up on his religion and opinions on religion. I've had many discussions with people where I'm worried I've either come across theophobic or philic depending on the person I was talking with but I think this article comes pretty close to my personal view of its effects:

"In the end, I think I’ve now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero."

On the societal effects of religion:

"Religion is first and foremost a social phenomenon. That religious module in our brains is a sub-module of the social one, or is very closely allied to it. To deny it expression is just as foolish, just as counter-productive, as to deny expression to any other fundamental social feature of human nature — sexuality, or aggression, or the power urge, or cheating."

The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don’t mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling it.

"So I guess my answer is something like: If a society accommodates the people’s religious impulses well, it’s a good thing, and if not, not."

Ross Douthat has remarked on this already and is, I think, somewhat mistaken about what is happening in Europe. He believes that Europe has done the impossible and denied the religious instinct en masse but this is not what I see happening in Europe.

My personal understanding of when religion becomes harmful is when you decide that your religious outcome depends upon the views of others. The key problem with Islamic extremism is that it takes Danish cartoons or Muslim apostates as a genuinely dangerous affront to their own beliefs; the confidence to see the views others hold of your religion as immaterial to your own spirituality is an important challenge for institutional religion.

This is also why I find some, but not all, evangelicals a little disturbing. Those evangelicals who purely think they have something wonderful to share with others I tend to find very pleasant people but those who have even a vague notion that the sin of others is corrupting to themselves or otherwise harmful to their own chances at a blissful eternity can be unpleasant.

In this sense I think what is going on in Europe is quite healthy. The numbers actually proclaiming themselves atheists is not making any serious advance. Instead people are either heading towards a view of God which is very personal or into a broader spirituality which is best caricatured as an intellectually fuzzy compatriot to Taoism or Buddhism as a spirituality not centred on a deity. This actually seems a pretty feasible replacement for Christianity to me and the only plausible argument I've heard against it is that it leaves us somehow vulnerable to alternative, non-Christian, doctrines in our midst like Islam or totalitarianism but this thesis never seems convincing. Why is "soft" religion easier to replace with extremism than "hard" religion?

The other thing I would want to note about Derbyshire's argument that religion is inescapable is that it does not mean God is necessarily alive in a Nietzschean sense. What is dead, both in Europe and most of America I think, is the fear of God; which I do not think is biologically predetermined. This means that we will need to form something new and means the questions of last man/overman etc. cannot be avoided. Religion in the modern sense is just as nihilistic as atheism.

As to my own religious beliefs, I've laid them out in more detail before. Essentially, I think the question of whether God exists is ethically unimportant. I think that if you don't believe in God the truth tends to nihilism but if you do a nihilistic conclusion is equally inescapable if you ask the question "why do what God tells you?"

The only way belief can create morality is through fear of punishment and I do not want that to be the basis of my own approach to the world. As such, I consider myself a committed agnostic; I do not want to know. What I've taken from Nietzsche is that nihilism can either give you the dismal future of a meaningless life (the last man) or allow you to create your own meaning (the overman); I hope my life is a clumsy attempt at the latter.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Michael J. Fox on Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Research is an important issue and, thankfully "dead to God" Britain is on entirely the right side of it. Even if you view a foetus as a person this is more akin to dissection (using a corpse to benefit science) or organ donation (using a corpse to save lives). The best argument I've heard for why pro-lifers might still want to attack stem cell research (beyond a blind hatred of anything connected with abortion) is that it creates a demand for abortions. However, with such a massively constrained market is seems unlikely that demand will much influence supply so they are really just rationalising using this issue as a pawn in the great game of the abortion debate. By contrast if, like me and plenty of others, you support the status quo on abortion the Republican stem cell position looks infuriatingly narrow minded.

Because of this it is a brilliant issue for Democrats, as Frum argues here (his argument that there is no likelihood of cure is less impressive than his political analysis... the Democratic party didn't invent stem cell research), they finally have a moral issue with an emotive and articulate spokesperson in which they clearly trump the Republicans. They were winning the elections anyway but purely on the basis of Republican incompetence. I think it works even better because the Republicans who may oppose abortion and dislike stem cell research on those grounds have the logic I've given above in the back of their minds so most, I think, will struggle to get really worked up about the issue.

Also, Rush Limbaugh's attempt to respond to Fox has to be one of the least effective political moves ever. It gave a platform for Fox to get on the news and do this:

Rush Limbaugh comes across hackish and unpleasant. Fox comes across reasonable and principled.

Adam Smith on the £20 note

The Times reports that Adam Smith is to become the new face on the £20 note. This is one of those ideas that, when you hear it, you wonder why no one came up with it before. If there is anyone who deserves to be on the face of a banknote, anywhere in the world, it is Smith. While I don't want to get into Greatest Briton debates (although in those debates he clearly deserved to be up there alongside Newton and Darwin) his creation of economics makes him a fine candidate for a banknote in particular.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Bristol IV 2006

I got back from the tournament late last night. We managed to turn up late after a confusion over the trains but after that, rather inauspicious, start it went well. The motions were (approximately):

1. This house would make securing an offer of a job a precondition to being released from jail.
2. This house would compensate women for a portion of their lost earnings to encourage childbirth.
3. This house would legalise beastiality.
4. This house would invite Israel to NATO.

Semi-final. This house would create a watchlist of countries from which no immigration would be allowed.
Final. This house would remove the ban on secondary picketing.

There were quite a few instances of the general thrust getting a little missed but I'm still pleased we managed to get some new ideas out there. The second motion was based on the Estonian plan for reversing the demographic decline and the motion for the semi-final was based on my thoughts on the EU and immigration. I tend to find that when I'm setting motions this blog's ideas find their way in as it is such a reflection of the topics interesting me.

The final was superb with all the teams really managing to get their teeth into the motion. The unions constitute an issue which doesn't crop up a lot in university debating so it was nice to see the teams get stuck into it. The winners (a Cambridge team) very much deserved their win with an argument centred around the necessarily political implications of secondary striking.