Thursday, April 17, 2008
To discuss the issues raised by the book and to write about British politics Iain is launching his own blog. There are already some excellent posts up - go take a read.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Peter responds to my charge that food security is a non-issue. His essential argument is that while we're not going to go hungry there are still serious food security concerns as the price of food imports is likely to go up.
I stand by my statement that Britain had little trouble feeding her population during the war. Let's consider the basic foodstuff, bread, in the first world war (where we started from smallest agricultural base). Here's the scenario:
1) Separated from the Continent and, crucially, Russia - a major grain exporter - that drops out of the world market.
3) Importing four fifths of our grain at the start of the war.
4) Submarine warfare making importing from the US difficult.
5) Huge numbers of men enlisted from the farms into the army - this was the real reason that land girls were needed.
6) All these conditions lasted for several years.
Did this imperil our security? Not really. There was a panic at one point in 1916 when it was feared food was running short which led to temporary rationing of some foods but not bread and there was never a real crunch. In fact, the Germans - who had aimed for self-sufficiency in food before the war - might have gotten in more trouble as that meant more of their workforce worked in agriculture and, when they were enlisted in the army, that led to shortages (our blockade didn't help). By contrast, Britain moving men out of manufacturing didn't imperil the food supply.
Short of another European land war there is little chance that we'll face similar constraints on our outside food supply again. Remember that natural disasters damaging food production don't create the same imperative to localise food production. The best way to avoid getting in trouble if the worst happens and ecological disasters threaten food supplies in a given country or region is to diversify your sources of food as much as you can. That way the effect of particular regions suffering reductions in yields will be diluted.
So, it's not really about security. The word "security" is only included because the "food security" lobby think they can break right-wingers' attachment to free trade if they invoke spurious security concerns.
Peter suggests it is actually about reducing food prices. A few points on this:
1) Forming economic policy in order to take advantage of expected changes in the terms of trade has a really bad history. The idea that some products are going to get more expensive so you'd best start making them led a House of Lords report to condemn deindustrialisation under Thatcher (foundation of our economic success since the nineties).
2) Short of actually going for autarky - which will make food cost more now just in the name of making it less of a shock if it costs more later - international food prices will still be the important thing for consumers. British output will never be particularly significant for world prices in many foodstuffs. Of course, some prices are heavily dependent on British output but those are necessarily the areas where our farmers already have a large domestic market share.
3) If you want to improve food security and prevent prices going up the most important thing to do is increase yields. As such, Peter's combining his fears of food insecurity with a love of "home-grown" and "organic" produce is something of a contradiction. It's a lot easier to feed lots of people with good, old fashioned factory farming and as much genetic modification as you can fit on a chromosome.
4) What does Peter think of biofuels? If he does anything other than condemn them as folly right now then he doesn't really care about food security.
Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com
Mr. Eugenides has a must-read post exposing just how completely the Independent has turned around on the biofuel issue. In 2005 they were fervent supporters of biofuels and the new transport fuel obligation. Now, without the slightest embarassment, they are running a front-page on the mounting criticism of the new obligation from within the green movement and the human cost of buying up large amounts of agricultural output to replace petrol.
Massive subsidies for biofuels across the developed world are creating more and more human and ecological crises - and are pushing up food prices. This disaster is a testament to the dangers of listening uncritically to a green movement that too often fails to think seriously about the effects of its proposed measures. The Renewables Obligation is another example of a green policy that has seriously unpleasant side effects and fails to achieve its objectives as I set out in this blog for the TaxPayers' Alliance.
It is unlikely that, despite the clear evidence that biofuels are a dreadful idea at the moment, the policy will reverse. There are a series of uninspiring reasons why reversing these kinds of policies is hard but this, from the EU Environment Commissioner, is perhaps the most dismally unimpressive:
"There is no question for now of suspending the target fixed for biofuels," said Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.
"You can't change a political objective without risking a debate on all the other objectives,"
While I'm on the subject of environmentalists misunderstanding agricultural economics, Peter Franklin is completely wrong on food security which is largely a non-issue for Britain. We produce a pretty large share of our own food at the moment compared to the norm since the abolition of the Corn Laws. In the First and Second World Wars, for all the "Dig for Britain" rhetoric we had little difficulty feeding our population - in fact, diet is thought to have improved. Unless Peter really thinks there is going to be a greater challenge to our food supply than the U-Boats and economic demands of WW2 then there's little reason to worry about it. Britain can feed itself easily enough if it really needs to.
Cross-posteed from CentreRight.Com
Monday, April 14, 2008
If I called Chris the Last Man incarnate, would he take it as a compliment?
After all, this is the man who said he wanted his epitaph to read:
"He made no difference."
If Chris is the Last Man, does that matter? After all, given how rarely I meet someone who can think outside the box of utilitarianism isn't everyone a Last Man nowadays?
I've said before that I think the real tragedy of Guantanamo bay is that it responded to a real problem in such a shoddy way. Terror suspects come from conditions similar to those of prisoners of war where it isn't really possible to gather evidence - as it is overseas in a conflict zone - but they are part of a conflict that won't have a clear end after which we can hand them back. That means that neither prisoner of war nor civilian law are really appropriate. Some new legal resolution was needed.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration didn't set about coming up with a real solution but instead came up with a shoddy ad hoc legal limbo.
We have similar problems with terror suspects here. They are part of a conflict so large and diffuse that ordinary criminal law struggles to cope. Too much of the evidence is from ongoing intelligence work. That means that we do need some kind of new legal synthesis. Unfortunately, one hasn't been provided and the courts have been loathe to consider any 'least bad' option.
In today's Guardian we have yet more evidence that the Commons has, with a few honourable exceptions, become utterly emasculated and decadent.
Douglas Carswell, MP and contributor to this site, wrote, in the Mail on Sunday, that "speaker [Michael] Martin must go". This isn't, outside SW1, very controversial at all. Michael Martin is the speaker who has spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in a vain attempt to prevent the public seeing the bills they've been paying for MPs' expenses. He is trying to keep MPs' expenses secret while there are serious concerns about his own use of the taxpayer's pound to pay taxi fares when his wife goes shopping. His spokesman resigned for giving "an inaccurate account" of these trips.
While some might disagree with Carswell's call for Martin to resign he has only echoed similar calls from groups outside parliament - including the TaxPayers' Alliance and former independent MP and war reporter Martin Bell. The call should hardly be a surprise or a shock.
However, the response today suggests that the Commons is trying to close ranks.
"[Denis] MacShane said yesterday that the public attack on Martin was part of a plot to discredit the government and parliamentary institutions. "David Cameron must take steps to rein in this campaign and he should discipline Mr Carswell," he said."
An MP should be disciplined for representing the views of his constituents and the public at large? MacShane has a nerve.
It gets worse:
"Tory whips were said to be likely to have "a quiet word" with Carswell, mainly to warn him such a public attack would be counterproductive and end up with him not being called to speak during debates."
A "quiet word" to warn that saying sensible things on an issue of great public concern is "counterproductive". What kind of pseudo-oligarcy do these people think they are running?
If they're worried about not being called during debates there are two options for the Conservatives:
- If they all speak out then the Speaker can hardly refuse to call the entire opposition.
- Grow a spine and stop being so pathetically easy to intimidate.
What will really be "counterproductive" is this new, shameful attempt to silence criticism of the Speaker. When the public rightly think that the Speaker is attempting a cover-up of the details of MPs' expenses the idea that a new cover-up is being launched to protect the Speaker himself will strike most as utterly contemptuous of the public that MPs are supposed to serve.
Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com