Friday, June 22, 2007

Man of Hats seeks new Hat

Dave Cole is a friend of mine from LSE. Very bright guy with an only slightly alarming attachment to his hat collection. There is a small but non-negligible chance he'll wind up ruling us like a king. His hats are sufficiently important to have claimed a special place in his blog's very fancy design. Each time you load unoriginalname38 (Dave's blog) you are shown a different hat in the top-right of the page.

Now Dave is looking to buy a new hat from the very fancy Lock and Company of St. James. Unfortunately he is rather spoilt for choice and, in a display of democratic spirit, calls upon the blogosphere to help him choose. Have your say, vote in the "Which Hat?" poll.

Jim Manzi on Global Warming

Jim Manzi's article for the National Review is one of the most intelligent descriptions I've seen of a plausible conservative response to global warming. The National Review isn't readily available in the United Kingdom but if you are at university or otherwise have access to LexisNexis it is available over that service. The article was in the issue of June 25 and is titled "Game Plan - What conservatives should do about global warming".

The first thing Jim Manzi does is correctly identify the stage of the argument that it is most productive for conservatives to address: what we do about global warming rather than whether it exists.

This is clearly the right position to take. There is room for doubt over global warming and the question of how much warming there will be remains deeply uncertain. However, the political debate has moved on and most non-scientists more interested in the political debate can engage far more effectively on the question of what to do about global warming, a question rooted in politics and economics, than they can in the scientific debate. There are exceptions, Tim Worstall's questions about the economic assumptions used by the IPCC spring to mind, but in general prioritising the "what next" debate over the "what's happening" debate is a good idea.

If we accept that the following proposition is probably true but there is scientific uncertainty then we can have the argument about what to do next properly: There is some warming, a significant proportion of that warming is caused by humans, there is a tiny possibility that something catastrophic will happen.

We do need to make it clear that this threat is not worth wrecking the global economy over. The chances of a catastrophic change are very low and a Precautionary Principle based approach cannot function in a world with a variety of catastrophic possibilities, from asteroids to nuclear war. We could spend every resource we have chasing our own demons. The challenge is to form policy which will enable us to respond to global warming in a cost effective and proportionate manner. Keeping wealthy isn't just a good thing in itself but also makes adapting to climate change far easier, as Manzi says "wealth and technology are raw materials for options".

He next argues for efforts to improve our ability to predict the climate. This is a rather uncontroversial idea but Manzi's notion of focussing the effort on getting more data and, in particular, some kind of system to get warning of an impending catastrophic event is distinctive. A similar idea is the proposed tsunami warning system that might have given important notice of the storm headed for South East Asia.

He argues for putting technology at the centre of any efforts to curb fossil fuel use. I worry that sometimes when people hear conservatives arguing for technological solutions they think we're trying to avoid taking climate change seriously. The reality is that at the moment there are too few good substitutes for fossil fuels. What this means is that any taxes will fail to achieve environmental objectives as the elasticities in demand for fossil fuels are, in most cases, way too low. This makes green taxes one more revenue raising tax that hurts industry and commerce. Conservatives are rightly sceptical of taxes that will do more to send emitting industries abroad than actually cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. Manzi's approach to creating incentives for technological development is the use of prizes. Branson's $25 million prize for the development of a 'carbon scrubber' is taken as a template. This approach has the advantage of getting the private sector involved and being remarkably cheap compared to other emissions curbing policies under consideration. The idea of keeping the prizes small enough that the incentives for interest groups to politically manipulate the system aren't too strong is a good one.

As Manzi says, "adaptation should take center stage". His recommendations for this are pretty thin. I set out a programme for an adaptive response to climate change in an article for ConservativeHome, "A Sceptics' Response to Climate Change".

The final section of the article sets out, essentially, why conservatives should have hope that they can defeat eco-socialist demands for radical changes to the economic order. He describes a bid-ask spread: $225 per month to implement Kyoto (which still doesn't come close to solving global warming) against $21 that the median US family would be willing to pay to "solve global warming".

Some time ago I set out, in a post on the politics of climate change, just why the Right has been losing the debate over climate change. We relied too much upon arguing either that there was scientific uncertainty, which could not be sustained by a scientific minority, or that the measures proposed were likely to be ineffective. As the costs of taking action to curb emissions had not yet hit home for people the response was simply that we "had to do something".

Now that people are starting to see the costs they're going to be asked to pay they are going to hold green policies to far higher standards of efficacy. The time is ripe for conservatives to be making the case against eco-socialism, particularly if we can offer alternative policies of the sort the Manzi and others are proposing.

Update: The man himself provides a link to a copy of the article. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fred Thompson at Policy Exchange

I was at Policy Exchange for this speech from Presidential candidate Fred Thompson yesterday, video via BritainandAmerica, and it was very interesting:

I thought he was extremely solid. Not the most dynamic or inspirational of speakers but he had the diamond combination I was looking for, and wasn't sure he'd display, of:

a) Recognising that in order to temper the exuberance of neo-conservativism we need a new dose of realism.


b) Recognising the problems in Iraq and discussing them frankly.


c) Still arguing for a muscular foreign policy.

Article on ConservativeHome

I have an article on ConservativeHome's Platform responding to Andrew Lansley's proposals for reforming the NHS. It discusses how rising demand for education and healthcare will cause the state to grow massively if conservatives cannot successfully challenge the principle of funding those services exclusively through general taxation.

Apologies for slow posting

Apologies for the lack of blogging since Sunday. Work means that I can't blog during the day like I used to and sometimes my evenings get busy. It should never be more than a couple of days between posts and I do plan on having new content up tomorrow.

The compensation, I hope, is that the quality is improving as my job exposes me to new perspectives and information and the time restriction forces me to only use my best ideas. My impression is that the frequency with which my posts get picked up and linked to by other blogs has increased since I've started work which does imply that my writing is becoming more interesting. I hope you're all happy with the quality for quantity trade-off.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sir Salman Rushdie

Last October Salman Rushdie spoke out in the veil debate. His ongoing willingness to defy the vile threats he is under from militant Islamists is hugely impressive.

At the time I argued that for 'Sir' Iqbal Sacranie, who famously stated that death was "too good" for Rushdie during the initial furore over his book, to have a knighthood and Salman Rushdie not was a pretty ugly state of affairs. Now that wrong is to be righted. Also, it has infuriated the Iranians whose regime issued the original fatwa against Rushdie which is a welcome bonus.

Good news.

Social Standards

Chris Dillow has a post up arguing that the choice of a criminal lifestyle is not necessarily irrational; it is possible to understand someone choosing the particular spectrum of risks and rewards that comes with a life of crime.

His post reminded me of something that happened about six months ago. I was travelling back into London from my family home in Hertfordshire. In Kings Cross I ran into someone I had known at school. He had always been a somewhat strange and creepy kid and had dropped out of school after GCSEs. I had thought little about him since.

I said hello and we exchanged the obligatory "what have you been up to?"

I reported that I had just finished my Master's at the LSE and was now looking for work. His story was more extreme. While writing this post I've realised it may have been untrue but that wasn't the impression I got and isn't important to my point.

He had set up a pornographic website. This had been quite successful and he had sold it for a fair amount of money. He was now living on that money somewhere in Chelsea.

In terms of material conditions he clearly had me beat. While I was lucky enough to be emerging from university without any debt I was, at that stage, not working and living on the end of my mother's patience. I lived in the same flat I occupy now, a comfortable Westminster two-bedroom that is affordable thanks to being near the Victoria Coach Station. My employment prospects were quite reasonable and I have, of course, since found work. However, a political career is unlikely to involve retiring early in Chelsea money.

Now, why, despite the vastly better material rewards that he had obtained, probably for far less effort, did I never feel jealous?

It could be a moral decision. Certainly I do, in moral terms, think that my career is a superior choice. However, were it purely a moral decision presumably I would feel that I was making a sacrifice. I didn't, and don't, have the feeling that I'm really paying a net price for the decision to follow what I think is a morally preferable career.

The compensation I get is social standing. While I didn't nearly have the income I had far more social status. I had finished an advanced university degree at a fine university while he had hardly managed GCSEs. Education has almost entirely replaced ancestry as an indicator of class these days. Equally, while the average person connects the word politician with something like bubonic plague there is still a respectability in the job "Policy Analyst" that there isn't in "pornographer".

While criminals and pornographers do form their own communities that attempt to make up for their shunning by respectable types they will always be aware that they are somehow outside the community proper. The only way this changes is if, for example, the career of a pornographer becomes more socially acceptable. A successful community won't let this happen for a criminal lifestyle.

Now, maintaining this social standing is important to people. It is particularly important to white, middle class people. That is deeply important to our success. One of Chris Dillow's reasons why people choose a criminal lifestyle illustrates how that has broken down in troubled communities:

"4. Non-pecuniary advantages. Success in music or crime brings you some mix of fame, respect or affection. It gets you the girls. Modest professional success doesn't. Quite the opposite. Roland Fryer shows (pdf) that blacks who do well at school have fewer same-race friends. Conventional "success" therefore, gives you isolation."

That is a very clear failure to socially reward useful behaviour.

That I not only choose to accept far lower material standards of living but do so without a moment's hesitation is the power of social standards. No law or subsidy can push people towards socially useful pursuits as effectively. Breaking those social standards down, as far too many left-wing movements have, is therefore extremely dangerous. The breakdown in standards leads, rapidly, to a wider social breakdown as choosing a civilised way of life is then not the rational choice for far too large a body of people. That is why, for all the repressive effects that social mores can have, I respect their vital importance. It is this insight, more than anything, that causes me to describe myself as a conservative these days.