Wednesday, July 09, 2008
"The third is the soundbite “The UK is well placed to ride out this international storm”. The BBC dutifully puts into bulletins that the Credit Crunch was made in the USA, and this is an international problem. They should instead ask some of the following questions:
1. Wasn’t Northern Rock a British collapse, based on the UK mortgage market?
2. Didn’t nationalisation of the Rock remove the most aggressive large mortgage lender from the market, intensifying the mortgage squeeze?
3. Isn’t the boom-bust in UK property prices and housebuilding a UK phenomenon brought about by British monetary policy?
4. Isn’t the UK government in a bad position, having borrowed and spent too much in the good years and now unable to reflate the economy with tax cuts?
5. Didn’t the UK government use off balance sheet vehicles and creative credit devices itself on a large scale, fuelling the credit boom of recent years?
6. Hasn’t UK competitiveness declined significantly in recent years, making UK adjustment more painful?
7. Why did the UK fail to add more to non fossil fuel electricity capacity during the good times, to ease shortages now?
8. Why does the UK impose some of the highest taxes on oil products, and increase them during a period of sharp upward movements in oil prices, exacerbating the squeeze?
9. Why did the government increase North Sea oil taxes, putting companies off from more exploration and enhanced recovery?
If they asked some of these, they might see that repeating uncritically the notion that this is entirely a US or international problem is just not the case. The UK dimension to this crisis reveals serious flaws in the conduct of policy in recent years."
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Many of the problems that social conservatives such as Theodore Dalrymple have been drawing attention to for some time are going to become a lot more critical. This, from the best essay written in my lifetime that I've ever read, makes that point:
"Ultimately, the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites is responsible for the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain, a disaster whose full social and economic consequences have yet to be seen. A sharp economic downturn would expose how far the policies of successive governments, all in the direction of libertinism, have atomized British society, so that all social solidarity within families and communities, so protective in times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even acknowledge what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so would be to admit their past responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad. Better that millions should live in wretchedness and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselves—another aspect of the frivolity of evil. Moreover, if members of the elite acknowledged the social disaster brought about by their ideological libertinism, they might feel called upon to place restraints upon their own behavior, for you cannot long demand of others what you balk at doing yourself."
Strong families and strong communities are most important in hard times. They provide resilience and hold people together. With good times coming to an end we'll see how we can hope when they are so thoroughly atrophied.
"Burn Up is a nail-biting two-part thriller for BBC Two from the pen of multi-award-winning writer Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). It's a powerful story of love, commitment and divided loyalty… a thriller in which the stakes couldn't be higher.
This topical thriller sees oil executives, environmental activists and politicians collide in the battle between economic success and ecological responsibility.
Neve Campbell plays his colleague Holly, whose covert collaboration with environmentalists puts her in great jeopardy, and Bradley Whitford plays Tom's best friend Mack, a charismatic yet unscrupulous oil industry lobbyist.
Burn Up follows the trio's lives and loves as they hurtle towards a global climate change summit."
Somehow, I think a fair portrayal of the global debate over climate change policy is a bit unlikely. Will the debate over what to do be cast as anything other than a black and white moral issue largely ignoring the human cost of pushing up the price of energy? Will the programme reflect the fact that 'green' campaigners are far better resourced than sceptics? Will anyone opposing climate change alarmism have any motive that isn't purely mercenary?
After Live Earth and the planned Planet Relief no one can seriously argue that, on this issue at least, the BBC's political approach is anything but that of a left-wing pressure group. One funded, at vast expense, by the taxpayer.
Update: Here's the trailer from, I think, Canada (looking less classy than the one the BBC ran before Newsnight):
Apparently, they can't find a network interested in the States. Given how desperately bad it looks that's hardly a surprise. The BBC wouldn't let some minor issue like quality get in the way of their crusade though, would they?
Gracchi writes an interesting post describing how the academy used to interact more with the outsiders.
There are clearly two halves to this equation. The academy's influence on the outside world and outsiders' influence on the academy. I'm going to consider these separately as I'm not sure that they have waxed and waned simultaneously.
Input from the academy in the outside world
I'm not sure that scientists and academics really do have less influence on the world than they used to. Gracchi's main example here is Sir Alan Sugar:
"Sir Alan Sugar's derision for academics on the Apprentice is well known- the worrying thing is that such a bigot is advising the Prime Minister of the day."
I think Sir Alan's words could be heard from the mouth of practical entrepreneurs troughout the ages. What distinguishes contemporary business is how rare that attitude has become. Alan Sugar is retiring and one of the last of his kind; the poorly educated practical businessman is a dying breed. As more senior managers have been to university they are increasingly comfortable making use of academic expertise.
Few manufacturing companies are run without scientific expertise, either internal or bought from outside in some way. The basic methods of the social sciences are used in all kinds of businesses to varying degrees of sophistication. In the political world we're always looking to enlist science to our various sides. Even in debates like abortion where science doesn't really have a lot to offer.
I'm not saying the academics have it all their way, they never have and shouldn't, but they've probably got more of a voice now than they ever have.
The outside world's input in the academy
It's here where I do think there has been a decline. Gracchi cites Machiavelli, Gibbon, Le Carre and Cicero. You could just as easily cite examples from the natural sciences such as Priestley or even Einstein. Amateurs have made serious contributions to academic thought. It's hard to think of many examples of such amateur scientists today.
I think this change is driven by a rise in the amount of commitment, effort and particularly resources that are necessary to engage with the academic debate. The bar to serious academic investigation has risen over time for a number of reasons:
1) The onward march of empiricism. An ever increasing tendency to try and quantify everything means that there is a need to assemble and analyse data. This requires a set of specialist skills that most people don't have.
Even if you do possess those skills, or have the time to learn, it also requires access to data and software. While there are enough sources of free data for an amateur to do some great work they are at a serious disadvantage (even supranational organisations like the OECD charge for many of their sources) and the software used to perform sophisticated analyses can cost thousands of pounds.
2) The academic firewall. The best way to get involved in the academic debate is to read journals. Unless you have access to a university library or can focus on a few key publications this is practically impossible. You would have to buy so many to get a good grasp of most important subjects that the cost would quickly run to hundreds of pounds. Unfortunately, the charge for most journals operates quite effectively as a cover charge keeping out the amateur.
3) The increasingly narrow focus to academic research. I think there has been a movement towards research in narrower areas. Few academics are looking at the 'big picture' these days and most choose a small area in which to try and shed some light. I have one friend who has just completed a PhD studying religion in Cromwell's army, another who is studying the campaigning methods of a single American Senator. This all has to be rather bewildering for an outsider.
It isn't good for any institution, even one as fine as the university, to operate without outside input. Outsiders can bring fresh ideas and new perspectives that improve everyone's work.
In America, in particular, there is something of a solution. In the social sciences think tanks support work at, or near, academic standards. Research and development units at the corporations and in the military undertake significant research at the applied end of the natural sciences (Microsoft's work on quantum computing and the development of the Internet at DARPA shows how advanced this can get). Outside organisations replace amateurs as external influences on universities.
In Britain we are less fortunate. A smaller portion of our GDP is spent by British firms on research and development but the biggest divide is in the think tanks. Anthony Browne, head of Policy Exchange, wrote an interesting article for the Spectator setting out the sheer difference in scale. I was in Washington recently and noticed much the same thing. He focusses on their influence, longevity and scale but I've always been struck by the intellectual depth of their work. This article, by Donald Kagan (who I believe is also responsible for the idea of the 'surge') is a great example. Whether or not you agree with it that short piece is an incredible example of the kind of work the American think tanks sponsor. British think tanks don't have the resources to produce the same sort of output.
All this creates a problem. We have lost amateur intellectuals without enough of a replacement. British intellectual life is definitely poorer for that loss.
Monday, July 07, 2008
"Pakistani police say at least one person has died after a string of bombs exploded Monday in the southern city of Karachi.At least 25 others were injured when six small bombs were detonated within an hour of each other in neighborhoods dominated by ethnic Pashtuns."--
"A banquet fit for a 'martyr', this is how one of the July 7 suicide bombers was remembered today.
On the third anniversary of the terror attacks which killed 52 people and injured many more, the family of Shehzad Tanweer held a party to ‘celebrate his life’ and ‘remember him as a martyr’."
Before I refute his actual claim I need to deal with his accusation that I'm lying. Essentially he believes that I'm pretending the report's empirical evidence concerning the problem of crime justifies my recommendations when there is no clear link. Even if he were right then my error would be a non sequitur, not a dishonesty; a fallacy, not a lie. I just thought I should clear that up. Throwing accusations of dishonesty around without justification is unfortunate.
Now, to his main accusation. He describes my logic as the following:
Stage 1: Data analysis using government figures about costs of
different crimes, broken down by region to derive a cost per head of crimes in
Stage 2: (Mumble, mumble)
Stage 3: Therefore we need to cut bureaucracy and elect local police
chiefs, just as the Conservative Party want
It's pretty simple really. Our report is designed to illustrate the seriousness of the problem and how it varies between areas, so that forces can better be held to account. It does that with Stage 1 alone.
However, we can't leave it there. If we write a report that identifies a serious problem we are rightly going to be expected to have some ideas about a solution. I was asked, in every radio interview, something along the lines of "so, what do you think can be done to get this cost down". Having answers, however tentative, to that question in the report makes it more effective. It makes our analysis more positive and helpful.
It's really nothing more than that. Not all interesting empirical reports provide a neat case for one solution to a problem or another. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be accompanied by policy ideas.
Wasted food isn't to blame for high food prices, so why is Gordon Brown intervening in the kitchen?
Ordinary people do waste food. The efforts of environmentalists have made things worse by discouraging the use of packaging that prevents spoilage. A large part of the problem is simply that people are more likely to buy their food in a large weekly shop (due to long-term societal changes such as the increase in the number of women working) and have to estimate how much they'll need. They'll err on the side of having enough when food isn't that expensive, and another trip to the shops is an inconvenience, and food will be wasted.
However, with prices rising people will be more cautious and wastage should decrease. It isn't a significant problem that needs a political solution. Neither is it the cause of the current rapid rises in global food prices. The reason why Gordon Brown has suddenly decided this is an issue he should address isn't that he seriously thinks a sudden outbreak of wastefulness is making a major contribution to rising food prices. He's trying to send a message to hard-pressed families grappling with high food prices that he isn't to blame; it's their fault. If this doesn't work he'll probably move on to attack the supermarkets.
Brown is hoping that he can create enough of a distraction for voters to miss that it is the politicians who are the real problem. Here are five ways, among others, politicians contribute to high food prices:
- Biofuels. A leaked World Bank report suggests that biofuels have increased food prices by up to 75%. The United States is the biggest offender with its huge corn ethanol subsidies but our Government has just introduced the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation which will mean Britons are forced to burn large amounts of what could otherwise be food in their cars, driving up prices.
- The Common Agricultural Policy. High import tariffs keep out foreign competition and push up prices.
- Motoring taxes. Transporting food for production or to market is more costly when petrol prices are high. Taxes constitute two thirds of the price of petrol and, therefore, have a significant impact on the cost of bringing food from the field to the plate.
- Excessive food safety regulations. Christopher Booker and Richard North, in their recent book, describe how many companies involved in producing food have been crippled by excessive or unjustified regulation. This reduces competition and will push up prices.
- Energy taxes and regulations. At various stages in the process producing many foodstuffs uses substantial amounts of energy. Government regulations, such as the Renewables Obligation, increase the price of energy and therefore further drive up the cost of food. Ofgem estimate that green regulations make up 8% of the average household electricity bill and they will make a substantial contribution to industrial energy costs as well.
Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
I seem to have my stages of grief all out of order. The Archbishop's call for Sharia drove me to rage. The Lord Chief Justice's comments are merely depressing. He has endorsed Williams' post-backpedal position that Sharia should be used as a form of mediation for financial and marital disputes. He makes many of the mistakes I described in my initial response to the Archbishop; giving heart to Islamists and failing to understand that offering 'Muslim' and British options to British Muslim women is, for far too many, not to offer a free choice at all.