Saturday, September 15, 2007


Often I find the neo-con attacks on 'defeatist' Democrats a little cringeworthy. However, after MoveOn.Org took out this ad in the New York Times to attack General Patreus they clearly deserved a decent rhetorical kick:

A larger PDF can be found here.

Accusing a serving officer of treachery just for disagreeing with you is absolutely shameful. It is entirely fair for Democrats and the broader American left to question whether the progress that Patreus has shown is significant or sufficient to justify remaining in Iraq. It is absolutely legitimate to question his account of the facts. However, neither of those disagreements requires or in any way justifies an accusation of treachery and making one against an officer with an impeccable service history is a disgusting thing to do. Fortunately, Red State have formulated a superb response:

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Quality of Life report and the Common Agricultural Policy

Part of me wonders whether the media reaction to the Conservative Quality of Life report has missed the most globally important part of its thinking. The report breaks with traditional Conservative opposition to the Common Agricultural Policy. It recommends a refined green-CAP.

This is colossally important. The CAP impoverishes Third World farmers, increases domestic food prices and, perhaps most importantly, constitutes a massive stumbling block for every WTO round. The opportunity cost to the CAP, which prevents us completing big deals for free trade, to the developing world is truly alarming. The Australian Productivity Commission found the total benefits from the Doha round at $260 billion, a lot of that takes the form of a better standard of living for some of the poorest people on Earth. When these agreements are stalled, limited or prevented entirely by the CAP millions suffer.

The British position on the CAP matters. While we haven't gotten very far in putting an end to it, largely because we haven't been able to swing the Germans yet - we can, Britain can make a big difference to the policy's chances of survival and scale if it does. To undermine Britain's position against the CAP on pretty tenuous green grounds (there have to be less costly ways of protecting hedgerows) would be deeply tragic. If a Conservative government were to give up on challenging for the CAP's abolition they would deserve real historical infamy.

Flying Monkey Watch #4

There is a truly bizarre political debate going on in India:

The Indian government has withdrawn a controversial report submitted in court earlier this week which questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram.
The report was withdrawn after huge protests by opposition parties.

The report was presented to the Supreme Court on Wednesday in connection with a case against a proposed shipping canal project between India and Sri Lanka.

Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys.

I don't think the monkey army could fly but the existence of an army of monkeys has to make producing an army of flying monkeys a more plausible objective. The organisational challenge has been overcome. Continue the research...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Food Security

Where did food security come from? The Quality of Life report discusses it a fair bit.

I'm pretty sure food security hasn't been a serious issue since the Second World War. Food is quite absurdly cheap, we haven't had any threats to supply that I can think of since the war.

Far more of the food we consume is produced domestically than was the case before the First World War, when we imported a far higher percentage. Despite far greater reliance on foreign supplies the massive disruption of war and submarine attacks on merchant shipping did not force people to go hungry in the two world wars.

Even if you are concerned about food security nowadays without the prospect of enemy naval power, and none of our enemies have significant navies, home production does not offer much of an advantage in food production terms. The best strategy to ensure food security is to have as many different sources of supply as possible so that if one supplier is forced to stop, perhaps due to ecological change, you can buy from elsewhere.

That makes the policies recommended on food security grounds, most of which were aimed at increasing local production - primarily intended to reduce food miles, a particularly bad idea. The more you limit the geographic scope of food production the more you risk events, whether political, environmental or whatever, endangering a regular supply of food.

Painting false synergies between security and environmentalist policy was a weakness in other parts of the Quality of Life report as well. The idea that improving energy security and cutting emissions go hand in hand is untrue for the United Kingdom right now. The best way of improving energy security would be to massively slash taxes on North Sea Oil. That would increase the incentive to explore North Sea Oil and would cause us to rely significantly less on foreign sources. Might not help much with cutting international emissions though.

TaxPayers' Alliance response to the Quality of Life Policy Group

The TaxPayers' Alliance response to the report is here (PDF). We're far from impressed. I'll post some more esoteric thoughts on it later.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Southern League

A while I ago I posted on one of this blog's regular topics, regional income inequalities, and Vino asked whether I thought a Southern League could arise, a major political lobby protesting that vast transfers of income (8% of the South's GDP) are going elsewhere and calling for Southern fiscal autonomy. A movement analagous to the Italian Northern League. I didn't really have an answer beyond a vague inclination that such gripes were channelled into a resentment of the more obviously unfair Barnett formula and Scotland's special treatment.

I've been thinking about the question of a Southern League occasionally since. You see, a major problem for the UKIP is that most people put the EU pretty far down their list of priorities, they don't care enough to abandon the traditional parties. By contrast with a Southern League you could promise to combine big tax cuts with increases in spending on most public priorities, more police for example. You could constantly replay the man in Ann Widdecombe's tv programme telling the employed that if they don't like subsidising his laziness and copious procreation they can "take a long jump [off a short cliff]". It could be a brutally effective populist campaign.

Despite that it seems utterly implausible that such a movement will emerge on any serious scale. I can see two plausible reasons why the subsidy to the North troubles people so much less than the subsidy to Scotland (significantly more English now support Scottish independence than Scots according to this poll from late last year):

1) The Scottish subsidy is more unfair as it is not based upon Scotland being particularly poor, this causes it to anger people more. At first this might seem like the obvious explanation but when you consider David B Smith's very convincing argument that the subsidy actually keeps the North poor it becomes less so. I'd think that after a few decades of the subsidy failing to create a serious improvement people the difference between two poorly justified subsidies would start to fade and the subsidy to the North would face serious opposition.

2) English nationalism. I think that the greater willingness to accept subsidies to Northern England might be more evidence that English national feeling is increasingly for England rather than Britain. North and South, for all the 'Northern monkey' and 'southern furry' jokes, are not thought of as a 'them' and 'us'; the question of who gets what is therefore a far less emotive subject. In a way this is troubling as it constitutes further evidence that the Union is under huge strain but there is a very definite positive side.

The Union, and British identity, has been dealt a savage blow by a poorly thought-through and unequal devolution. It's good to know that the older English identity has not been wounded in the process but has stepped back into the limelight to provide an object for the English people's common loyalty and a flag for them to rally around and justify continuing to support each other. While I do think we need to end suffocatingly high levels of public spending in the North I would want us to do that because it is the right thing for the Northern economy rather than because each region is out for itself. I'm glad we still want to look out for each other; that could be an important instinct in troubled times to come.

More reasons to worry about Pakistan

This, from CNN, is very significant:

"Interviews were conducted August 18-29, face-to-face with 1,044 Pakistanis across 105 urban and rural sampling points in all four provinces across the nation. Households were randomly selected. According to poll results, bin Laden has a 46 percent approval rating."

While the British Pakistani population are almost certainly more sensible the pool from which new Pakistani immigrants are drawn is a pretty similar population to this poll's sample. Unlike, for example, Iranians in America Pakistani immigrants to Britain are drawn from all sectors of society. The importing of radical ideologies from Pakistan was a key trend uncovered by Panorama last year. This poll shows the extent of the problem and why it is so important we start thinking more urgently about effective strategies for integration and immigration control.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Trends and Troubles in Pakistan

Current, rather bizarre, manoevring in Pakistani politics, with ex-Prime Ministers arriving and being re-deported in a matter of hours, might suggest some kind of high-stakes, top-level politics. A struggle between different leaders hoping to control the future of Pakistan. My impression is that the high-profile struggles over leadership are a lot less important than underlying trends that will, eventually, make all this Machiavellian scheming appear rather trivial.

The struggle for power in Pakistan is not as life or death as it looks. It is essentially between a political class tied up with the feudal system and hopelessly corrupt and a military leadership which has not delivered the progress to justify itself as a Chinese-style "just let us get on with it" dictatorship. None of the Pakistanis I speak to think there is much chance of a revolution, the military is too strong, but if other military leaders feel Musharraf does not have the popularity they will replace him and probably bring the democrats back to rebuild the state's legitimacy. Little of substance will change and the military will remain in the wings ready to take over if things screw up again. Like Turkey but without the Turkish army's sense of purpose. The Pakistani military prefers suspect projects like the nuclear programme and the Taleban to being a high-minded guardian of secularism.

The real change will come from the bottom up. Divide Pakistan (and this is a gross simplification, it's a complex country) into two areas. The central areas dominated by the big cities and the borders. In the borders what Gideon Rachman called Talebanisation continues apace. I have spoken to Pakistanis who suggest this might not be as bad as it sounds. The alternative is regular, venal feudalism and the authorities just need to stamp on the more violent, Al Qaeda linked elements. I think that signs of the majority being threatened into radicalism suggest storms brewing; it's a pattern we've seen elsewhere from Algeria to Palestine. There is also the ongoing struggle with Baluchistan's independence movement and the border with Afghanistan which seriously stretch military resources. This will mean that if the radicalisation of the borders turns into something dangerous, suicide bombings suggest it might, it will be very hard for the Pakistani state to do anything about it. If the state loses control an opportunity will open for a new force to come in, deliver its own form of order and claim a dangerous authority like the Taleban did in Afghanistan.

The other trend is in the cities. Again Islamist parties are doing well. They are credited with clearing up corruption where they are able to which has, for example, allowed Karachi to enjoy a quiet boom. However, the confidence I hear when I talk to Pakistanis about this: that if the Islamists go too far there will be a popular backlash seems overly optimistic to me. Getting rid of Islamists is harder than it sounds.

I worry about what is happening to Pakistan. You should too. The rise of Islamism in Pakistan is deeply connected to the rise of radical Islam in Britain. A collapse in Pakistan's cohesion could lead to a wave of immigration and radicalisation of Britain's Muslim community. Pakistan's problems should very much concern us.

"Nicholas Stern's authoritative report"

British politicians finds Nicholas Stern's report terribly convenient. It has been torn to pieces by some of the most respected climate-change economists, Tol and Nordhaus are two examples that are discussed in my green tax report. It is exceptionally pessimistic compared to the rest of the literature and clearly has a host of problems but Stern's report continues to have a huge appeal to those looking to cast themselves as green saviours or find an excuse for new taxes.

Mendelsohn, another very reputable climate-change economist, contributes a broad examination of the problems in Stern's report. Well worth reading.

BBC bias at its worst

This is absolutely shocking:

"The way America has got involved in conflicts in regions like the Middle East has made some people very angry, including a group called al-Qaeda - who are widely thought to have been behind the attacks."

"Al-Qaeda hopes its attacks will make Western countries treat Muslims differently in areas like the Middle East, the Balkans and Chechnya."

"Al-Qaeda has been accused of being behind a series of attacks and bombings since its formation in the late 1980s."

The massive bias would be depressing but unsurprising: That Al Qaeda are behind 9/11 is "widely thought", that they are behind a series of other attacks and bombings is an accusation. However, that they hate America solely because of its involvement in the Middle East and have a genuine humanitarian concern for their fellow Muslims is asserted as fact.

What is really alarming, though, is that this is a feature from Newsround. Children's news. The public are right to regard the BBC license as one of the most unfair taxes, they shouldn't be forced to pay for their children to be brainwashed.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I went to see Atonement on Sunday. Superb.

It's so refreshing to see a British film be so ambitious. Our film makers clearly have the capacity for ambitious work, think of Memento, Batman Begins, American Beauty or the Road to Perdition. While these films are directed by Britons and plenty of other films make plenty of use of British talent they are not 'British' in that they do not engage with the British experience and British cultural influences. There are other great British films but few real stars and they are too rare and too reliant upon easy niches like the rom-com, the plucky lad on the make and children's films. There's nothing wrong with the niches but ambitious, big-story, films have a particular function.

Like I've said before I do think there is a particular function to a strong national cinema. I think it would do wonders for our sense of ourselves as a nation. If we think back to the sense of nation that we've lost I don't think its an accident we would still return disproportionately to the era of the Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu and the other films around the 1960s boom. Those films were important because they had the scale in which Britain's idea of itself could really be expressed with depth rather than superficially. If Atonement isn't a lone blip then a new British cinema could do the same.

The direction is superb. The score really drives through the action and the visuals range between touching and stunning. The scenes of Dunkirk are very memorable but I actually found some of the period scenes of England just as arresting. Every performance was solid and some were spectacular. Keira Knightley has really come into her own. Every actor playing the central character Briony did their bit to build a very well-rounded character. James McEvoy is clearly an emerging star.

It managed to do a horrors of war story without drifting into suffering porn. It managed the worthy feat of conveying in a story the tragedy of lives unlived. It asked questions about the 'what ifs' of life and explored emotional themes of regret with admirable refinement.

The real question over this film's significance isn't its quality but whether or not it forms the start of something new. Will British cinema remain Harry Potter, 'charming' romantic comedies and unemployed Northerners or will we see the growth of a genuine, ambitious mainstream national cinema again? If that happened it would be glorious.

The problems with the Happy Planet Index

Informed sources think that something along the lines of the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index is going to be recommended in the Conservative Quality of Life group report this Thursday.

The purpose of the Happy Planet Index is to create a measure that captures a society’s ability to produce what we really want, long and happy lives, from what we have to work with, natural resources. To support it you have to accept two key propositions:

First, you have to accept that happiness economics properly captures true human aspirations and needs. Second, you have to accept that resource efficiency is the proper standard to hold economies by.

Both of these should be an absolute anathema to a conservative and the Conservative Party.

Happiness economics isn’t the reliable policy tool that the New Economics Foundation makes it out to be. It is based on one key observation, which Lord Layard is most famous for advancing, that average happiness doesn’t increase along with national income. As Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod pointed out in a book published by the Institute of Economic Affairs it isn’t only national income that happiness doesn’t correlate with, it’s also public spending, longevity, income equality, even levels of depression and almost any other variable you care to name. As the iea authors point out this implies that either happiness can’t be created through social policy or it isn’t a reliable measure. Either way it is toxic to the NEF’s view that improving happiness should be the primary goal of social policy. “State control with a smile”, as Corin Taylor described happiness economics in The Business, cannot be justified empirically.

Another idea that cannot be sustained is that resource efficiency is the standard economies should be held to. As the NEF suggest we do have a limited stock of natural resources, however, other resources such as human time and ingenuity are also only available in limited quantities. Both environmental and human resources have the capacity to be used in alternative ways and produce returns both now and in the future. Deciding how those resources should be used and which it is more important to use efficiently is a job the market does very well. Let’s think about that in more concrete terms, with a historical example:

At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain was far more resource efficient than the United States. We used less raw cotton for each yard of cloth produced, less coal and iron ore for each tonne of steel. However, we used far more skilled labour. This was the result of us having more skilled labour, as we had been an industrial nation for longer, but less natural resource, as we did not have the big resource endowment of the US. The market prioritised resource efficiency in Britain but efficient use of skilled labour in the United States. Resource efficiency is not an unqualified good.

The Happy Planet Index is based upon assumptions that classical liberals, conservatives and the Conservatives should all be opposed to: An understanding of what people really want and need based upon the opinion of “experts” rather than preferences of those concerned and an ignorance of the capacity of market mechanisms to prioritise the efficient use of different scarce resources.

There is a simpler, more intuitive, rebuttal though. Leaving aside tiny Pacific Islands the number one ranked country in the NEF’s index is Colombia. One of the worst ranked is the United States. Where would you rather live?

The answer is obvious. Thousands risk death each year attempting to get from 38th placed Mexico to the 150th (out of 178) placed United States. This is just one way that people clearly reveal their preference for a higher standard of living. I’m sure the New Economics Foundation can blame this on some kind of false-consciousness. The reality is that it illustrates that the free-market economies and resulting high living standards that the NEF deride are people’s real priorities.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance.