Saturday, February 17, 2007

Campaign Websites

If you want to get an idea of just how amateurish British politics is take a look at John McCain's exploratory committee website. The design may be what democrat blogger Atrios describes as "Imperial Stormtrooper Chic" but the clarity of the design and the technology at work is incredible. Check out the big video rollover buttons at the bottom in particular. There is also clearly so much more there for supporters or prospective supporters to do than on your average British party website, McCainSpace in particular. Barack Obama's website is similarly impressive although the technology is less startling. Hillary Clinton's is less impressive but there is still a lot going on. Giuliani's is the weakest.

In the UK the best web presence by some margin is WebCameron but it doesn't come close to the professionalism of McCain's website or the feature richness of Obama's. The ability to write your own WebCameron entries is a nice feature but there have to be questions about the value it adds, it isn't going to replace Blogger. Take a look at the networking, events and fundraising management tools on That might be a good model for what parties can do to make real use of an interactive web presence.

On another note, my early prediction that Giuliani would win the Republican nomination is looking pretty sound. Web presence isn't everything I guess.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Reconsidering some of the positive externalities to curbing emissions

When people get in a jam arguing for a Kyoto-plus response to climate change they usually resort to the classic "but there are other advantages" gambit. Common advantages cited are an end to funding terrorism and preparing for when recovering fossil fuels is no longer economic. However, neither of these justifications for curbing fossil fuel use really stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, on the conservative's favourite of ending financing to nasty states like Iran or Saudi Arabia. This is dependent upon the logic that states are dangerous because they are rich. Iran's nuclear programme may be paid for by its fossil fuel revenues but if North Korea can afford to obtain nukes it seems highly improbable than any state is too poor to develop nuclear weapons. All that is required is the will and the political authority to make the nuclear programme an absolute priority but this is already required when developing nuclear weapons involves the threat of Western military action.

On Saudi Arabia, or other similar states like Venezuela, we have to ask the question of whether it is really efficient to pay the massive costs of an early shift to non-fossil fuel power in return for the marginal effect we can have on their earnings and ability to hurt our interests. Even if we do make them poorer will this make them more compliant or will they make a priority of spending that we dislike in angry desperation? There are other methods by which the West can influence these states, classic carrot and stick diplomacy, which do not have the same economic cost to ourselves. Saudi Arabia, for example, gets very worried every time the United States gets upset and starts muttering about withdrawing its security guarantee.

Also, there are other forms of trade which have strategic implications. Trade with China is certainly feeding an economic strength there that could create a huge strategic threat. However, I think in that case it is realised that attempting to avoid a strategic threat through impoverishing an entire nation is the Arthur Harris strategy of modern international relations, hurt your enemy's populations until they give way, and somewhat immoral. There would seem to be a similar case with respect to the oil states, already poor Venezuelans in particular would suffer significantly if we caused demand for oil to fall. While their money may sometimes be put to unprincipled uses surely the best response is to stop that illegitimate use of the funds through other means rather than stopping the funds altogether. It is an unnecessary admission of failure to argue that we can only influence states like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela through wrecking their economies.

Secondly, the argument that sooner or later we will run out of fossil fuels and it makes sense to lose the addiction to oil now rather than later. Essentially the problem is that the sort of solutions we would look for are quite different. The key if our objective is to maintain our standard of living post-fossil fuels is to find a replacement source of stock energy (that which does not come from agricultural land) which can generate energy at as economical a rate as possible. As there is plenty of time on the clock there is no reason we need to rely upon the flawed renewable technologies on offer now (solar, wind or nuclear fission). Equally, as the problem is reflected in the oil price, market incentives can be relied upon to do most of the legwork in adapting the economy to a future without fossil fuels. There is a case for government action to fund basic research but the form would be very different to that required to combat global warming. Boosting funding to fusion research and throwing a pile of money at universities and telling them to think about other ways of getting large quantities of energy probably won't achieve much in the next fifty years, the time frame required to be a big help in fighting global warming, but is relatively cheap and for that reason probably well worth a shot in terms of securing the long term energy supply.

We certainly wouldn't want to use any solution which was a flow stock of energy as this would put a dramatic limit on the total quantity which could be produced in terms of agricultural land and increase the price of food, also requiring an input of land. Of course, ethanol (what people usually mean when they say "biofuel") is a liability even in global warming terms, although that doesn't stop greens proposing it. If Stern is right and global warming will cause agricultural yields to fall then a replacement fuel which requires the use of agricultural land which could be growing food will be worse than useless. It is also hideously inefficient as this study for the AEI has found it takes 29% more energy to grow a field of corn than is contained in the ethanol itself. Switching to ethanol will require more fossil fuel to be used rather than less.

Both stopping our enemies defying us and preparing for a post fossil fuel world are good ends but curbing greenhouse gas emissions is not a good means to either.

The Swedish School Voucher System

DK rightly asked, after my earlier post on the politics of school choice, if I could find some details of the Swedish system to back up my claim that school vouchers would not eliminate educational bureaucracy. I found the details in a study done by two researchers working for The Swedish Research Institute of Trade on behalf of Reform. The studies focus is on whether the number of independent schools would increase, it did, but it includes this section discussing the conditions attached to the voucher:

"However, in 1990 the system was altered and municipalities were given wider authority over their own schools. They were also given full financial responsibility for the school system. In 1992 the Swedish system was further advanced and a new school reform based on a system of school vouchers was implemented. As the objective of the new reform was to give independent schools funding on the same terms as municipality schools it radically changed the rules for funding independent and upper-secondary schools. Hence, under the new law, municipalities were obliged to give funding to independent schools on a per capita basis amounting to 85 per cent of what municipality schools received. The 85 per cent rule was seen to be necessary in order to avoid putting the municipal schools at a disadvantage, since the municipalities would still have to account for various administrative and overhead costs related to their overall responsibility for the school system. The system was further advanced in 2001. Funding of independent schools would now be decided in the same way as funding is given to municipal schools. This means that independent schools receive a municipality funding that is based on the undertaking of the school and the specific needs of each pupil. On its core, the new reform entails that anyone in Sweden can set up a school and receives public funding. Moreover, pupils and parents are free to choose whichever school they like.

Still, independent schools in Sweden must be approved by the Swedish National Agency for Education and meet certain criteria in order to receive funding. They have to meet the educational standards set up for the school system and must work in line with the targets set for the compulsory educational system. They must also be open to admit all children regardless of their ability, religion or ethnic origin. Last, they are not allowed to charge fees. Among the approved schools are schools owned by teacher or parent co-operatives, non-profit organisations and privately owned firms. Municipalities are allowed to give an opinion on whether they consider the establishment of an independent school to be harmful to existing schools, and the Swedish National Agency for Education takes their views into account. However, municipalities have no veto, and are bound by law to finance an independent school
once it has been approved. On several occasions, the Agency has approved schools against the will of the municipalities."

The first paragraph is a little uncertain as to whether the voucher is for the full amount that state schools receive or if it is still 85% as in the original legislation. However, this article makes it clear; Sweden now has a voucher for 100% of the amount state schools receive.

The first thing to note is the similarity to the Conservative proposals for education at the last election in terms of preventing the topping up of the voucher by parents from their private income. I doubt this is a coincidence and it does make the major criticism, cited in my earlier post, that this will be a subsidy to the rich invalid. It is, I believe, more limiting than the old Conservative proposals in that our proposal under Howard was for voucher schools to be able to select by ability which is not allowed under the Swedish system; this does remove the "cream skimming" critique of school vouchers although it is a sacrifice in terms of educational freedom.

The second is that, as I predicted, the educational bureaucracy has not been abolished. There is still a DFES-style national organisation to set the overall standards and ensure that schools stick to them. Also, there is still municipal authority bureaucracy in order to determine the level of funding that is required (perhaps to account for greater costs in different regions); this does highlight that we may not want perfect equality of funding as schools with the hard job of teaching in deprived inner cities may need extra funds for specialist support.

After some more investigation the evidence is that this scheme has worked well so far. In particular this study suggests that independent school competition has improved the performance of state schools. Certainly this was the story with the privatisations of the Thatcher years; privatisations shook up the rest of the economy in a very good way. Equally, it is popular:

"As early as 1993, a poll conducted by the National Agency of Education found that "85 per cent of Swedes value their new school choice rights" and "59 per cent of Swedish parents think that teachers work harder when there is school choice" (CGR 1997: 2). This was true even though only two percent of Swedes had exercised those rights. When the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994, the benefits and popularity of school choice were already becoming evident. They were felt both by the children attending new independent schools and by those who remained in the government-run system, which was starting to respond to parental concerns. As one Swedish professor of education concluded, "one cannot deny that the reform has made municipal schools more efficient" (Miron 1996: 79)."

Another positive to think about in conservative terms, not discussed in the studies, is that once the principle of school independence and vouchers is introduced I would expect that, over time, this will build a sizeable constituency for allowing fees. Once the principle of the independent financing is admitted it will be difficult to deny those middle classes who would like to spend a little to improve their schools; particularly as these schools will be happy to make arrangements for bursaries in return. This reform would build demand for further conservative policies.

In conclusion, I think that the Swedish system's results suggest that the Conservatives had settled on a very appropriate solution with their educational policy at the last election. It was moderate enough to be politically realistic while adventurous enough to make a real difference to educational performance and political reality. I am unsure whether the political advantages of disallowing selection by ability is worth the sacrifice in educational freedom; there is also possibly something in the "cream skimming" argument. However, it is clear that even under the limited terms of the voucher in Sweden they are highly worthwhile both in terms of results and politics. Equally, there is no serious evidence they are a particular political risk, while we did not win in 2005 does anyone seriously think that was because of our education policy?

A great way for Cameron to use the positive public perception of him he spent last year cultivating would be to have another go at selling school choice under the Swedish model.

Don’t underestimate the challenge of selling true school choice to the masses

I am afraid that Jamie Martin's YourPlatform article yesterday on school vouchers does not give proper respect to the strength of political opposition to the programme. He notes that there is opposition to the idea that "it gave taxpayers money to the very wealthy when it could be spent on educating the less fortunate" but thinks that "the voucher has to be universal to work, and the bureaucracy of identifying those ‘too rich’ to get the sum would defeat the point of a streamlined system" and that this is not a "particularly terrible side [effect] and more than bearable for the benefits to those less fortunate".

This underestimates the political task faced by those arguing for schools choice. If one were to create a voucher system without the clause inserted in the last Conservative manifesto that prevented parents topping up the value of the voucher you would immediately lose £2,527,250,000 of spending on existing students which would be paid to the 505,450 students, on last years numbers, currently at private schools. This is around 3% of the education budget. While vouchers might well easily recoup that out of efficiency savings this is difficult to sell to the public for a couple of reasons.

First, it does seem implausible it would be possible to entirely abolish government administration of a state funded education system. It is not within the realm of the politically realistic to remove all regulation of education. What about issues like the teaching of evolution, ensuring that what parents buy is a worthwhile education? This would seem necessary if we are to uphold the principle that parents do not have the right to not educate their children.

Beyond issues of standards that should be upheld as parents do not entirely own their children there are the mundane matters of administering a voucher system. Equally, the DFES must add some value in terms of helping schools organise. One does not need to be enamoured of public sector bureaucracy to believe that some of its functions would need to be replicated by the private sector.

Secondly, the public is generally sceptical of the ability of politicians to create efficiency savings. Conservative promises to do so at the last election, despite the means being set out in rather exhaustive detail, were not given much credence. What this means is that we are expected to offer either an extra two and a half billion in education spending over what Labour are planning or to admit cuts in funding in the name of reform. Neither idea is popular.

Vouchers, and school choice in general, are an eminently good idea but little will be served by underestimating the political challenge posed by advocating them. While this system may exist in Sweden it would be a mistake to assume that some notion of consistency will cause the Left to support it on that basis. Conservatives need to get better at making arguments on waste more convincing and an intermediary step, such as more financial freedom for schools, to make the case for reduced state control may be necessary to this end.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Credit where Credit's Due - Blair has been excellent on Higher Education

This blog is Conservative and usually pretty partisan. However, it has to be acknowledged that Blair's Higher Education policy has been not just good but much better than Conservative policy during most of his leadership. Iain Duncan Smith's opportunistic position of maintaining a subsidy to middle class voters created a significant political risk for Blair but he stuck to his guns and faced down both the opposition and numerous critics within his own party. As Blair points out to the Telegraph he has been proven right and numbers in university have gone on rising and funding has been put in place to allow the UK to maintain its leadership role. Well funded, quality universities make going well worth the cost of fees and keeping standards at university high is the best guarantee of continuing student demand for higher education.

The new focus on the endowments is more good news as it can further build up an independence and predictability in university funding which allows them to plan and make more ambitious long term investments. The idea of matching funds raising by English universities might get things rolling quite nicely.

Another interesting idea Nicholas Barr, the intellectual most associated with Labour's changes to higher education funding, suggested in a speech I saw him give at the LSE a few years ago was to increase the interest rate on student debt to the same as the government's cost of borrowing. This is still very low but allows government to significantly increase the volume of loans so that parental income is not a bar to students attending university if they are willing to face the debt. For all the National Union of Students complaints about the high volume of student debt the simple economics of the Permanent Income Life Cycle Hypothesis suggest that substantial borrowing while young to average out a life income which will mostly be earned when students are older is entirely rational and to be expected. The argument that this puts off poor students who cannot understand the logic of 'debt now, higher incomes to pay debt later' is both patronising and not borne out by the continuing increase in numbers after fees. It should also be noted that the big dangers of student debt are when students take on high interest loans from elsewhere or build up credit card debt and the proper policy response is to increase the availability of low interest rate debt as Barr suggests.

While there may be public benefits to having more university educated people in the economy, doctors are a classic example, there are private benefits to being university educated which are the market mechanism for encouraging people to invest in education and provide us all with that public return. The market reflecting higher demand for skills and creating an incentive to further education has actually the major drive behind recent rises, here and in the US, in income inequality. A public benefit to education only really becomes a public goods problem, underinvestment under the market, when there are insufficient private returns to encourage the publically beneficial behaviour but the case that this is true for university education is weak. Most of the benefits the university educated provide to society are easily captured (a doctor is paid when they provide medical care). For basic research there is a stronger case that the private sector will underinvest but that funding is still being provided. There is a case that university education is a good thing for democratic reasons which aren't rewarded by the market but shouldn't we assume that people do take some utility from being able to take part properly in democracy; otherwise why would they bother, even after being university educated?

For quite some time this was an important area of policy in which Labour were proposing more market oriented and realistic policy than the Conservatives. Thankfully, Cameron repositioned the Conservative Party to the right on this issue and we have, belatedly, caught up. Fortunately for my partisan soul Brown was on the wrong side of this debate within the Labour party. He was one of those who forced the compromises which are the main flaws in Labour's changes to Higher Education policy. Come the next election you'll have two leaders who were on the wrong side of this debate when it played out and we'll miss Blair but it won't be a reason to vote for a Brown-led Labour party.

Will this century be bloodier than the last?

The scale of warfare and the number of casualties inflicted in war during the twentieth century was vastly beyond that during earlier periods in history. This is ascribed by various historians to a number of factors such as the greater capacity of industrial societies, the influence of uncompromising ideology and nationalism and the decline of the European empires which had maintained order. Now, we turn to a new century and I've heard a few too many voices supposing that this century will necessarily be a less violent one. This is supposed to happen for many reasons, the lack of global military challenges to the primacy of the liberal democratic order (a war, even a cold one, with the Tranzis seems unlikely), widespread reliance on international trade with long supply chains that war will disrupt, a reversion to the mean after the exceptional twentieth century and even that international law can significantly restrain nations from violence.

I worry that the reverse might be true. First I'll go through why the arguments for a more peaceful twenty-first century may prove false then I'll move on to make my case for why this century could be exceptionally violent because of the changing character of major conflicts.

While ideological conflict may have formed the basis of many conflicts in the twentieth century the deeper loyalties to religion and tribe which are coming to the fore now are stronger stuff. Look at the difference between Chechnya or Afghanistan and Malaya where the insurgents were communists; the tribal loyalties of the Chechens and Afghans keep their fighters in the field. In Vietnam McNamara believes that a major US mistake was to mistake the old national loyalties of the Vietnamese for a struggle against an unpleasant ideology; had the fight really been against those loyal to Communism alone it might have been far easier to win.

That trade links will make war more costly is pretty uncontroversial but the theory, advanced by Thomas Friedman in "The World is Flat", that it will make war prohibitively costly is difficult to sustain. Before the First World War trade as a proportion of economies was vast and the financial cost of the war was expected, as a fine article by Niall Ferguson some time ago described, to be close to apocalyptic. Despite this the financial cost of war and the damage to trade was clearly a cost that the combatants chose to pay. The global economy is becoming more integrated but there doesn't appear to be much reason to assume that nations will stop coming to the conclusion that the war/peace decision should not be subject to regular cost constraints.

While the twentieth century was considerably more violent than previous centuries a crucial factor in making it so lethal was an ongoing expansion of the industrial capacity to wage war. This is unlikely to be reversed and with asymmetric warfare the economic power required to wage war is falling even more dramatically. Finally, international law is not proven as anything but a mechanism for powerful states to enshrine their own will and for tranzis to criticise liberal, democratic governments. It failed to calm the cold war and I am far from convinced that it has any capacity to curb the activities of the truly evil.

The major reason why we might expect this coming century to be more violent than the last is that conflicts are increasingly becoming struggles between demographics and firepower. While we can expect that net international inequality will continue to decline as China, India and other middle income states develop there will increasingly be a dichotomy between rich and aging countries (Chinese demographics are already looking remarkably Western) and poor young countries. This disparity leaves impoverished, envious nations with leaderships eager to blame their problems on others, the population to sustain wars and the youth to welcome them. By contrast, the West is aging and not very willing to take casualties.

It is a mistaken cliché that the problems in our relations with the Muslim world are due to its feeling of desperate helplessness. Rather, the problem would seem to be an understanding that while Islamic nations might fail to keep up with others in matters of technology or governance the numbers mean that the future is theirs. They share this opinion with Mark Steyn. Rapidly growing populations leave them in a strong position particularly when confronting nations which loathe inflicting casualties or suffering casualties beyond a certain level. Somalia is the classic case of a developing world army that massively lost a battle but won the war thanks to a greater tolerance for casualties. For the moment the lesson that those looking at the West's behaviour are bound to take is that any people willing to sustain and able to inflict casualties can cause the West to withdraw. This confidence invites ever bolder ventures against us.

Things really start to get ugly when these dynamic demographics come up against a massive amount of firepower willing to massacre in order to win. This is what has happened in Chechnya and, in a slightly different way, what happened in the former Yugoslavia. The logical conclusion of matching demography against firepower is massacre. This does not make what was done in the former Yugoslavia or in Chechnya morally acceptable but it does go some way towards explaining it.

The War Nerd has some questionable ideas but the central theme of many of his best articles is hard to avoid, that sooner or later the West, fighting wars against nations more willing to take casualties in war, will lose patience with the losses it sustains fighting wars with one hand tied behind its back and will start to really use the kind of firepower which makes even the Russian military look enfeebled. With its enemies becoming ever more confident the West will at some point face a threat in the face of which it is not willing to compromise, over which it is morally prepared to fight a war of massacres and it is at that point that this century's military carnage will leave the twentieth behind.

This is not an enticing future. Our century will be a terrible one if we cannot prevent this grim hypothesis playing out. I think avoiding our century being the bloodiest is still possible; however, I will leave my thoughts on how to another post as I think that getting used to the stakes is enough food for thought for one article.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Stick to South Park...

This is truly bad:

The libertarians are still leading the rightwing movement in comedy terms.

A Globe for New York

I've been sent this petition to support what looks like an excellent project in New York Harbor.

"On Governors Island sits a dilapidated military fortification ... and it happens to have the identical blueprint as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. We want to restore the fort and re-imagine the open courtyard as a vibrant performing arts center, however the National Park Service is about to disallow this proposal."

People from the UK are allowed to vote, it doesn't take a minute and is a good enough project to be worth an altruistic few seconds of your time even if you don't visit New York that often or at all. It is in these sorts of decisions by minor bureaucracies that public pressure can really make a difference.

History and Nationalism, continued

Gracchi responded again last week to our ongoing debate over historical nationalism. There are three points in his analysis I would particularly like to challenge or subvert: Firstly, that we have little in common with historical members of our nation. Secondly, that history is a poor vehicle for imparting national identity and literature, for example, might be a better device. Thirdly, that nationalism is best understood as an emotional instinct which should be kept under the firm control of reason.

On the first question, what do I have in common with Cromwell or Cnut? I do accept Gracchi's analysis that the answer is almost nothing. Certainly, I do not share Cromwell's vision for the United Kingdom/England. As such, I do accept that nationalism is necessarily a social construction rather than something arising out of a common objective, nature or value. However, this is just as true for those around today; what do I have in common with your average teenage mother from Stevenage? I'd expect I might enjoy a conversation with Cromwell or Cnut rather more.

If nationalism were simply a bond between those who have something in common it wouldn't be as interesting or nearly as real. Gracchi challenges me to come up with a coherent concept of Englishness but I think the fact that one ideal can bring together a group of such incoherence is its strength. Nationalism provides for a common interest and a reason to compromise between people with otherwise vastly different interests and backgrounds. Now, if this bond can mean something real between people alive today with nothing in common why can it not mean something between people from different time periods? Why is the age in which we live impossible for national feeling to bridge when differences of race, class, politics or gender are not?

With Cnut the fellow feeling would, as Gracchi points out, be somewhat one sided as it seems unlikely he saw himself as English in the modern sense but for less extreme examples like Cromwell I see no reason why some common feeling should not exist. Now, Gracchi contends that this might lead to a finessing of history as it is made subordinate to the requirements of building nationalism but I honestly think that you can take the good with the bad. For example, if I am willing to acknowledge that there is a bond of nation between myself and Gordon Brown that does not imply a glossing over of his failings. All I require of history teaching for the purposes of building a sense of nation is that it take care to include British successes in order that people can feel pride in and enjoy their nationalism as it connects them to the great achievements of British history. This would not seem to cause the problems faced by Marxist historical analysis as I am only looking for inspiration rather than attempting to impose a narrative.

On the question of whether literature can function as a substitute, I found Gracchi's chosen examples illuminating. Both Robin Hood and Arthur are, I believe, understood to be myths based around actual historical figures. Aren't they examples of the problem Gracchi is attempting to confront, the corruption of history to contemporary ideals? It seems almost certain they are far more distorted pictures of historical events and characters than anything that a modern conservative curriculum along the lines I am proposing might contain. I think these examples illustrate that historical inspiration has always been central to our sense of nation. One would hope that the more widespread study of dedicated history will prevent folk memories of events being as innaccurate in future but that does not diminish the importance of a national history to a nation's future. History will not be the only source of national identity, whether we now have some common purpose is worth considering as well, but it can make, and has made in the past, a worthy contribution.

On the final question of how reason and nationalism should interact I think that Gracchi is rather overly confident in reason's reach. I think that it is rather philosophically difficult to answer the question of why someone should sacrifice for others or why they should accept a democratic decision they feel to be utterly wrong. So long as most do not make a priority of the effort needed to consider these kinds of philosophical questions isn't it necessary that they should have the shortcut that nationalism offers? Do we think that people will turn to their philosophy books if not able to identify with others in the relatively simple terms of nation or will they look to other unreasonable divisions?

In discussing whether nationalism deserves a measure of blame for the carnage of the First World War, I have to return to the argument that nationalism is competing with other, often more pernicious, group loyalties and that history has a particular function in making nationalism more competitive through examples of noble and great achievements that people want to be associated with. The alternative to nationalism is probably not more reason but more of other group loyalties. While nationalism may have made it easier for the First World War to be as destructive as it was religion, race and even reason can certainly fill that gap; some of the most destructive conflicts of the twentieth century were ideological.

Anything that inspires great passion is necessarily dangerous but keeping nationalism within an emotional sphere would not seem to make it more accomodating to reason. Indeed, the best way to ensure that nationalism does not turn to madness would seem to be to ensure that it is founded upon pride in great contributions to the common good rather than on an emotional statement of them and us.


I just watched Leon for the first time. It's a brilliant film. The surprisingly brief periods of action are sharp enough to keep you on your toes for the entire rest of the film. Its central character is similar to that of Theo in Children of Men (easily the best film of 2006, get it on DVD) in that the hero's caring side is what makes him heroic. It isn't quite as clearcut because Leon is, of course, an accomplished assassin and there isn't an equivalent to the subtle scenes where even cats and dogs can perceive that Theo is a friend but one never gets the impression that violence is what makes Leon heroic. Again, my loathing for that film forces me to highlight the difference to V for Vendetta with a 'hero' who tortures the heroine; it's okay though because he manages to indoctrinate her into fighting the fascists.

My main complaint is that the bad guy was such a cardboard cut out. While it didn't do the film too much harm and allowed for a greater focus on the central relationship between Leon and Mathilda it still seems a shame they couldn't make him a rather more honest character as it would have meant the film didn't have to compromise its emotional quality when he was in the room. Despite this Oldman is still excellent with the crazy role given to him and is, at times, genuinely threatening.

Finally, it has to be noted that the film is improved by Natalie Portman's subsequent career. It makes the aged quality of her character all the more disturbing as you can so easily imagine an adult her in the child's place.

If you haven't seen this film already then make time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I forgot to blog about this after I saw it on Thursday. Peter O'Toole is absolutely marvellous.

It has to be incredibly difficult to choose between him and Forest Whitaker for the Oscar. The roles are so different with one a sensitive and touching role and the other a larger than life villain.

Venus is far better as a film. It felt genuinely touching as an exploration of the human response to decline and the male response to women. The other characters are well thought through and the rest of the cast encourage O'Toole as opposed to the rest of the cast in Last King of Scotland who are best when they simply get out of Whitaker's way.

On balance I would probably choose O'Toole's more rounded performance but I think to a certain extent this shows the futility of awards like the Oscars. How can two, so different but both so brilliant, performances really be compared and one judged better?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Big Brotheronomics

A friend from the AEI forwards me this piece Kevin Hassett has written for them about how the increased substitutability of celebrities should compel them to improve their behaviour. This evidence from the NBA is the main empirical basis for his claim:

"To find out, Kendall gathered data on unsportsmanlike "technical" fouls for many years. He then performed a statistical analysis to identify what set the bad boys apart. While Kendall analyzed behavior across the entire population, his list of the worst offenders is a Who's Who of sportsmanship's greatest embarrassments, including such players as Rodman, Charles Barkley and Rasheed Wallace.

The results were striking. Income matters, but substitutability appears to matter more. If you want to know who will be a bad actor, look to a player's salary rank on a team. The player with the highest salary will behave the worst.

If you have two identical players, one who makes $10 million and is the third-highest-paid player on a team, and another who makes $10 million and is the highest paid on his team, the latter will behave much worse. The fellow with the top salary believes he cannot be replaced and abandons self control."

I'm not so sure it will work out the way Hassett predicts in the wider celebrity labour market. I think that perhaps he overestimates the extent to which the audience actually dislikes the bad behaviour of celebrities, except at the extreme end of the spectrum, as many of the most tenuous talents in the UK rely upon such incidents to keep them in press coverage. While he predicts this will cost them careers there are too many examples, Kate Moss is a prominent one, of it doing no such thing and plenty of Z-list celebrities for whom the scandal is the claim to fame. As those who are most substitutable are most in need of press coverage whether positive or negative the net effect of substitutable celebrities would seem uncertain.

"No, you're a nihilist!"

The blogging catfight (I refuse to dignify it with the term "war") between Tim Ireland and Guido Fawkes has now involved Iain Dale. It is all becoming more bizarre by the day. I'm going to leave aside the more recent events in the main Guido-Ireland dispute as I don't want to inflict it upon my readership. The latest twist is that Iain Dale has become a part of the whole affair thanks to supposedly calling Ireland a nihilist.

Someone on 18 Doughty Street chose Ireland's post attacking Guido as his 'blog of the day' and described Guido as a nihilist. To this Iain responded along the lines of "isn't Tim Ireland one too?" I don't think either of the two really understand what a Nihilist is. A nihilist is someone who believes there is no objective meaning or purpose. Mr. Fawkes is a libertarian, most likely an objectivist, as can be seen from his endorsement of the crazy libertarian cartoon. As an objectivist/libertarian he believes in an almost absolute natural right to ones property which is about as far from nihilism as can be. There is no sensible reason to think that Ireland is a nihilist either.

More importantly, how is being called a nihilist an insult? I'm pretty certain that if someone called me a nihilist I'd respond in roughly the same way as if they called me a guinea pig: baffled amusement. It's a philosophical position not a character flaw. The best explanation for why Iain and his correspondent would be throwing the term around is that the guest had no idea what it meant and thought it meant "disliking the state" and Iain was just confused and trying to play it cool. As such, Ireland's taking offence at this seems somewhat feigned.

Neither of the 'lies' that Ireland identifies Iain as telling is quite a black and white issue. First, Iain didn't call Ireland anything as he merely asked a question. Second, it could well be that Iain didn't know that there was a specific discussion page for each Wikipedia entry and might have thought it was a link to a general Wikipedia forum. What purpose is really served by blowing tiny and rather implausible dishonesties into something more sinister?

When Ireland calls upon others to respect netiquette he might want to note that he has, himself, fairly severely broken that code by forcing an anonymous blogger to come out into the open. This is just as unpleasant when done to a minor celebrity like Fawkes as it was when Chad Noble attempted the same thing with the Devil. If you don't like Fawkes' response to comments then don't read his blog. Does a second wrong make things right?

At first Ireland was supposed to be trying to influence the future of the blogosphere and prevent it imitating Fawkes' way of doing things but with his hyper-sensitive response to perceived assaults elsewhere on the blogosphere (not deleting a comment doesn't imply endorsing it) he is widening this into a left/right divide in blogs that is a real shame. One of the best things about blogging are those rare moments of genuine engagement and debate across partisan lines, I would cite my ongoing debate about historical nationalism with Westminster Wisdom as an excellent example of this, such debate cannot take place against a backdrop of such hostility. Ireland may feel that he is the one who has been wronged but surely he can see it is within his power, after Iain made a call to end things, to stop the madness. Any offences Guido may have committed against blogging are surely better ignored than answered with this unseemly confrontation.

As this vendetta is pursued it looks more and more bizarre and is inviting some denunciations which I understand must be hurtful. What might have been an attempt to point out the flaws in the style of one prominent blogger has become close to frenzy and is creating a vicious cycle of unpleasant accusations. It should end.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hutton's Private Equity Hysteria

Hutton has turned from poor quality analysis of China to ridiculous hysteria over the prospective private equity purchase of Sainsburys. Apparently the purchase portends a new Dark Age and "marks a new low in the history of corporate greed. This is bizarrely unhinged.

"It is a roll call of the City of London's sharpest. There are the elite 'private equity' companies: KKR, CVC and the Blackstone Group. And there are their bankers: Nicholas 'the Stud' Jones from Lazards, not to forget Barclays Capital, home to Britain's Roger Jenkins, on a cool £40m last year. All last week, their numbers apparently swollen by the arrival of the private equity division of investment bankers Goldman Sachs, they have been dissecting Sainsbury's business. Dare they be part of a £10bn bid to take over one of our most famous high street names?

So what? The possible deal might interest the readers of the business pages, but there is no point in becoming too exercised. For most people, it's just more impenetrable financial shenanigans and another takeover in which extremely rich men get even richer. This is just capitalism, isn't it?"

Yes, the people who head banks and private equity funds are both very well paid and very intelligent. They are crucial parts of the mechanism which decides where capital should be directed to be used most productively. This decision is of massive importance and it is entirely right and proper that we pay extremely well to ensure that the best people we can find are making it. Socialist sniping at 'fat cats' is just idle envy.

"Wrong. This is not just about the technical protocols of take-overs. This is about how democracy works in a capitalist society and, as such, affects each one of us. Sainsbury's will be the highest-profile example of an alarming trend. If the so-called 'private equity' investment companies succeed in their planned joint takeover, financed largely by loans from our big banks, Sainsbury's will no longer have the responsibilities of a public company that go with a Stock Exchange quotation. It will go from being a public to a private company and our chance to hold it to account for its actions will be greatly reduced. Its sole purpose will be to pay back the £10bn spent on taking it over and create a profit besides; its owners will disclose as little as possible about what it is doing and why."

This is ridiculous. It's purpose before wasn't some kind of vague notion of the public good but to maximise returns to shareholders. Maximising the financial return to its owners remains the goal. This is how the capitalist system works in basic, Smithian, "not through the benevolence of the baker" terms. Stock exchange responsibilities have everything to do with ensuring that a broad swathe of owners can assess the quality of their investment and very little directly to do with the public good.

As for the public holding a new Sainsburys to account, that can be done through public policy creating a legislative framework or through public pressure at the tills. Shareholder revolts are over threats to shareholder value, they are again nothing to do with defending the public good, and the reason they won't take place under private equity ownership is that the owners will have more direct means of controlling management.

Hutton then rambles on about Turkey farms for a bit in a pretty strained attempt to come up with a way that supermarkets, proving cheap food to often poor people, are hurting the public.

"This will concern everyone in the food business. Public companies such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer are trying to maximise their profits by driving down costs and the more suppliers such as Matthews can squeeze costs and industrialise farming, the better. But there is a trade-off. Public companies have to watch their reputation and their share price and they know just one death from eating infected food could wreck their business. And they have frequently to disclose information to their shareholders, especially if anything goes wrong, like the chance of food being infected. You may not like aspects of what Tesco or M&S do, but they are out there as public companies in the full force of publicity and disclosure and that forces them to manage the trade-off with the maximum of responsibility."

This is ridiculous. Share prices come under threat after a public health scare because shareholders know that a company's future earnings can be affected by the public being scared off buying or politicians imposing new regulation. These threats worry private equity companies in much the same way. Shareholders and private equity firms both care about earnings.

"Sainsbury's, even when owned by private equity companies, will also suffer risks if it squeezes suppliers too much, but the terms of the trade-off will change. It will not need to provide so much information and can run the business with less responsibility. And when it is trying to pay £10bn of debts to the bankers who will have financed the deal, it will need to."

Again he cites an entirely imaginary set of duties to disclose information. Stock market regulations are for financial information which is of interest to shareholders which will certainly be disclosed to the new owner.

Hutton then discusses private equity. He uses public and private in a similar manner to Cameron arguing that his youthful indiscretions are private. In finance the meaning is somewhat different. A public company is simply one in which anyone can freely buy and sell shares of its ownership. Trying to paint private equity as some kind of shadowy netherworld just because it is 'private' therefore misses the point; all they do is take capital from fewer sources.

"What the pack is eyeing at Sainsbury's are its property assets. If the new owners could sell its stores for £7.5bn and then require Sainsbury's to rent them back, they would own the balance of Sainsbury's for £2.5bn. If they could squeeze wages and suppliers, they could boost its profits and then float the company on the public markets for £5bn. Not only would they make a profit on the deal, but they could cream off as much as 10 per cent in fees, charges and commissions. Hence Roger Jenkins's £40m salary. But at Barclays, we know his salary because, as a public company, it is disclosed. There is no such disclosure from private equity companies."

Ah, ha! I've got you, you snake in the grass! This is really about the socialist belief that the wages that a company voluntarily pays to its senior staff is a matter of public concern and should be public knowledge. Even if private equity companies do pay their staff too much those companies will pay the price themselves. All socialist arguments return, in the end, to envy.

"Will Sainsbury's be stronger after this? No. Unlike Tesco's, which owns its own property, it will have to pay fat rents to its new landlords. Will Sainsbury's be more responsible or more likely to build an environmentally sustainable business? No. That hits short-term profits. Will Sainsbury's workers be better off? Hardly; their terms and conditions of work will be subordinate to the goal of reducing the debt. Will Britain be fractionally more at risk from contamination of its food chain? Yes. The only winners will be the private equity companies."

Public ownership, in this context, thankfully doesn't mean nationalisation. Under public ownership shareholders own Sainsburys and these shareholders have just as much interest in profit as private equity companies. If you really think the only thing defending Sainsburys workers from immiseration and Britain from bird flu is the good will of shareholders then you should be rather pessimistic. Shareholders are often institutional investors themselves, such as pension funds, and many have not just an interest but a duty to do all they can to make sure they choose firms that maximise profit. Shareholding is an investment and there is no reason to expect that investors should behave altruistically.

"Public companies are at the heart of good capitalism. I think the accountability mechanisms should be stronger and their owners more strategic and patient in their ambitions. But unless we protect the notion of a public company, a great Enlightenment invention, no such improvement can even begin. Private equity opens the door to a new Dark Age. It's time our mute political class spoke out."

The public company is an entirely practical institution devised in order to pool resources for investment projects too large for private capital, the railways were a prominent early example. Ascribing some great, moral Enlightenment purpose to them after the fact is disingenuous. That private capital is increasingly able to tackle larger investments is no cause for alarm. Companies will still be disciplined by the business imperative to protect their reputations and, if this fails, regulation still has exactly the same powers to reform or abuse private companies as it does public ones.

Hating Brazil

The editor of the eXile on why we should replace our renewed hatred for Russia with a hatred for Brazil. He makes a good case for how utterly dire that state is but he fails to account for one big difference between Brazil and Russia: the Brazilians aren't important. They don't have the raw power of the Chinese or the crucial resources of the Russians. It's the same reason why no one cares that much, in strategic terms, about India. Brazil has neither the will, skill or wealth to threaten the west and the hatred cannot exist without the threat. As such, Ames' article becomes more effective as a call for pity than for anger.

"I just love your accent"


"My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar's on the rocks, or both.

Say what you will about the European tradition of aristocratic conservatism, but it had the decency to be associated with an actual aristocratic tradition. The American variety, though, is perpetually poised on the brink of phoniness: As a friend once remarked, of a conservative acquaintance who affected the airs of a character out of Brideshead - "he might as well be pretending to be a pirate.""

The European aristocrats are largely either wiped out by revolution or, worse, have become environmentalists. While once brilliant they are now hardly worthy of imitation. Hart is correct to note that the old fashioned North Eastern conservatives might have a fair amount to fear from the less polished evangelicals who are replacing them. However, creating imaginary social classes isn't exactly the way to revitalise old fashioned Republican politics. The aristocrats' glory days in Europe are long gone and they have never existed in America.