Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mission: Impossible 3

** Spoiler Warning - This film's plot isn't exactly important but if you do want to be surprised I'd skip over this review - then again, a better solution is to read the review then watch a better film **

This film was awful. Not just slightly awful, full on Batman-and-Robinesque hideous.

First, the action: It wasn't actually that good. It seems that substituting for any actual sense of drama is shaking the camera uncontrollably. This gives the impression of speed but, unfortunately, that is all it can give. Most of the set pieces sound impressive when they are described e.g. the part where Mr. Cruise swings between two skyscrapers. However this just turns out to be pictures of Cruise falling and hitting things without the slightest sense of grandeur. This means that the event becomes part of the background buzz of emotionless physicality to the film. Never will it make your spine tingle like good action should.

The location work on the film was unfortunately hackneyed. It started out with a decent picture of China with Shanghai lit up as the metropolis it is but then this film's stupidity kicks back in and the next seen reverts to a vague image of the Chinese suburbs with everyone dressed like extras from The Last Emperor and going about their vaguely agricultural business or playing Mah Jong. They change from slightly active players to being props for the Western story to fly past.

The film's bad guy is suitably nasty and pleasingly competent but, unfortunately, this is ruined by the final sequence in which he suddenly decides to give up all of his earlier caution and confront Mr. Cruise alone and relying upon a shock collar style device whose effectiveness clearly hasn't been properly tested. This means that the great achievement of beating him looks less genuine, he wasn't beaten at his prime, and the story's climax is a joke. Then again perhaps I just felt cheated because I really wanted him to win?

The love story is lame largely thanks to a combination of Cruise being utterly insipid and his love interest reminding me of Michael Jackson.

Finally, the shock twist was so poorly developed that it actually made me laugh out loud in the cinema. One character suddenly announces he is actually a horrible neo-con with a plot to fool his country into thinking an Arab state has weapons of mass destruction and needs to be attacked. Around a minute later he is unceremoniously shot and that entire story line is abruptly forgotten about. At the end the film tries to pull the Ronin trick of never telling you what the item was that its protagonists had struggled for only it couldn't quite pull it off due to the brief foray into politics making it clear that this was a NBC weapon of some kind; if you're going to have a mystery make sure you haven't told your audience the answer.

Don't go and see this film. It'll only encourage whoever pays to make this rubbish.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The local elections

Good times. The sun is shining and Conservatives are getting elected. The number of seats we won was important in terms of local governance but essentially a sideshow in terms of national politics as the benchmark for success is highly subjective. More significant is the proportion of the vote. It is best to be careful when predicting general elections from local polls but a few of the reasons why we had to suspect previous polls cannot be attached to this one.

The protest vote: When the Labour vote crashes it can just mean that people are vaguely pissed off rather than that their preferred government is changing. These votes, however, generally go to the Liberal Democrats or some other, nastier, minor party. People don't, or at least didn't, tend to protest by voting Conservative as we are still a party of the political establishment.

Transient issues: I don't think this election is simply a response to the specific charges of sleaze and incompetence surrounding Prescott and Clarke. Again the vote would probably go to minor parties. Also, we have specific poll evidence that the Conservatives have a leader and political platform which people are responding to; Cameron's high approval rating among the general public is particular evidence of this. Finally, a protest vote would see Labour hurt equally across the board whereas they were actually hurt most in the areas where you would expect a revival in response to new Tory support, i.e. not the northern cities.

It's no good so long as we aren't succeeding in the northern cities: It is important that the Conservatives become a political prescence in the entire country again but that is a long term project. Winning elections requires us to start winning the areas which deserted us in 1997 and probably relies more upon improving our desperately poor showing the large ABC1 social grouping than improving it among northern workers.

This is just a vote on European issues: This isn't a European election.

Conservatives should be genuinely pleased with this result. There is still plenty of work to be done but this is a good start.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Decision for the EU

The European Union's decision to end talks on membership with Serbia in response to its failure to produce indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic is a reminder of the positive role it can play in the world. Offering the carrot of EU membership has led to many countries adopting policies which have allowed them to emerge with liberal democratic traditions they might otherwise not have developed. Turkey has improved its treatment of the Kurds. Eastern Europe has emerged as one of the most economically successful regions in the world with massive growth and stable democracies, particularly by contrast with a return to authoritarianism in Russia.

Allowing the Common Agricultural Policy to stand in the way of the completion of the Doha trade round is an example of where the EU fails the world's disadvantaged. Equally, there are countless examples of where it fails its own people, from plain corruption to over-regulation to a lack of respect for the will of those who wish to limit infringements on their sovereignty. However, the success of helping Turkey avoid the fate of Pakistan or the Arab states counts for a lot. Helping the Eastern European nations emerge into prosperity is equally a legacy to be proud of. It is a record in building nations that makes US power look shallow and destructive.

The role of prospective EU membership for states like Turkey is similar to the role of Marshall Aid for Western Europe at the end of WWII. Both Turkey and Western Europe faced difficult political choices. Marshall Aid mitigated against the short term costs of choosing a liberal form of economic organisation for Western European nations. Prospective EU membership similarly alters the political balance and makes it far easier for those in favour of liberalisation to establish the necessary consensus for lasting reform. While there are economic benefits to becoming a member of the EU or receiving Marshall Aid the benefits of the liberalisation needed to join or receive that aid are usually more significant.

The problem is that as the EU grows ever larger and more diverse it becomes ever more difficult to continue the other European project; closer union. More states mean a greater number of conflicting objectives and make the task of forming policy to fit all the different circumstances increasingly daunting. This is why Britain, as a eurosceptic nation, has spent so much time successfully pushing for further expansion. New members make it more and more likely that the EU will have to remain closer to its original nature as a free trade zone.

For some time the issue has been fudged. New nations were admitted, Turkey was told to wait a little longer for decades and always did. Eventually, though they will give up on prospective membership leading anywhere and the EU will lose its ability to help further states along the path to membership. Of course, this had to happen eventually but it would be a shame if Turkey, with all of its strategic significance as a large Muslim state which might act as a model for so many others, was the state the EU gave up on.

Europe, therefore, faces a decision. It can admit Turkey and maintain its role as a promoter of human rights and liberal democracy or it can sacrifice the tremendous potential of Turkey as an EU member on the altar of the false dream of ever closer union.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The BBC's biased account of bias

Only the BBC could look at its coverage and conclude that the most worrying bias was a lack of coverage of the power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians. That imbalance is suspect as Israel is surrounded by the vastly more populous Arab states who cannot be considered neutral bystanders. Besides, Mr. Eugenides notes that at least one BBC news correspondent has demonstrated a massive pro-Palestinian bias.

The report, unfortunately, appears to have dismissed the wider problems of bias in the BBC. Their local government coverage a few years ago was a particularly awful example. Under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership the Conservatives had just won a huge number of council seats; clearly Labour was the party with questions to answer about its performance. However, the coverage, with Michael Howard as the lone voice in support of the Conservative party's performance, managed to turn the success into abject failure by focussing on the misgivings of one, previously unknown, member of the parliamentary Conservative party.

These examples show just why enforcing objectivity in TV news is such a bad idea. Everyone has there own sense not only of how to interpret facts but also of which facts are important and which are open to debate. The limitations of having this decided by a regulator can be seen in the case of the Fox News description of the BBC as 'left wing' getting it into trouble with the UK regulator. A free market in ideas and journalism as seen in the newspapers could lead to a more varied and fair TV news output.

J. K. Galbraith

The Guardian has managed to, inadvertantly, get the central point right in their account of J. K. Galbraith's life and legacy. A lot of what they said was the usual rubbish:
"A third was the convenient view, so entrenched in the 1980s, that while the rich ought to be given more to make them work harder, giving more to the worst-off would only make them work less. Hypocrisy will sleep more sweetly tonight for the knowledge that Galbraith is no longer around to look down from his very great height and skewer it."

Even the most basic understanding of incentives can tell you why jobs which very few people can do and which need to be done well pay far more than less skilled work for which there is less demand. This is the market's method of allocating scarce labour to the tasks which the economy needs done. It is not hypocrisy. That passage highlights where the Guardian's analysis of Galbraith was stronger:
"Consistently in his lectures and writings he put great themes into the language, themes which lit up the study of economics for those who had never been taught it."

His work on 1929 is a perfect example of this. The story of an irrational free market getting its inevitable comeuppance is a story which has wide currency in the wider world but can't survive economic and empirical analysis. Galbraith was a superb writer but a non-economist's economist.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Compulsory Voting

The new proposal from the ippr, which is attracting support from some ministers, to make voting compulsory is a dreadful infringement of liberty. Basic rights such as the freedom of thought and conscience are infringed by forcing people to endorse the political system by voting. Even with an option of none of the above the powerful signal that people simply do not care about politics is an important message and one they should be free to send by ignoring the polls. If local politics really is less important to most people than Big Brother (it currently isn't... the statistic that more votes are cast in Big Brother relies on that system allowing multiple votes where elections do not) then something has to be done to reform local government to make it relevant rather than forcing people to cast a meaningless vote on an issue where they do not care a jot. Election day is the time to be really careful about infringements of liberty.

If politicians want to combat falling turnout they should be working at explaining to voters why their party is worthy of the effort of a vote. To remove this responsibility can only lead to a reduced effort at keeping the attention and loyalty of voters and a less responsive electoral system. It is relevant that this proposal is being supported by ministers in a government which is clearly failing to enthuse the electorate and only being elected thanks to the prolonged crisis of the Conservative Party, thankfully this finally appears to be coming to an end. If Labour's crisis of imagination and talent means that the most positive reason to vote for them is Dave the Chameleon that does not suggest that turnout in their favour deserves the defence of the legal system. As the parties become more worthy of public support it seems entirely possible the decline in participation will cease.

I also have a problem with the philosophical premise of this report. By introducing a fine for failing to vote this move would remove the one element of sacrifice, a small amount of time, that is still involved in voting. Given the amount that has been sacrificed in order to uphold our right to vote and the gravity of the decision we are contributing to the idea of forcing anyone to take part seems morally indefensible. If someone does not wish to be involved in the electoral decision then they can accept the judgement of the wiser souls who are willing to do their part. I can't find my copy of the book in order to quote properly but the rough substitute used from the film Starship Troopers is enough "When you vote, you're exercising political authority. You're using force. And force, my friends, is violence, the supreme authority from which all other authority derives." What kind of society would force people to exercise such authority?

My MP, Oliver Heald, is opposing this report. Good work; he doesn't need to force me to vote for him.

Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day

May Day is always frustrating; London fills up with hippies on bicycles. I walked into university having to pass legions of vague idealists with unwashed hair and only the slightest grasp of reality never mind politics or economics. Can't we come up with some kind of capitalist solution here? The old Celtic festival of Beltane was a fire festival, surely such a thing could be corrupted into a frenzy of gift giving or fireworks?

When I get home I'm going to have to respond in the only sensible way. Drinking a Coke, eating a Mars Bar and watching the South Park episode Die Hippie, Die.

Becker on Inequality

I've been sending this article all over the place recently as it is one of the best explanations of why trends such as globalisation and increasing income inequality should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Becker has responded to some of the comments.

Are Europeans becoming extinct?

Many different ideologies find the idea of vast falls in the European population due to declining fertility convenient. It is a favourite of Mark Steyn who uses it as a device in 'warning' the US to avoid the cultural decadence which is destroying the old continent. Equally, it is a favourite of those who support unrestricted immigration, as seen in the comment on an earlier post on this blog. For this reason the idea often goes unchallenged. Fortunately, like most predictions of apocalypse, the evidence for a collapse in population is rather shaky.

Michael O'Hara is almost hysterical based on observations like the lack of children in Milan (people don't like to raise children in cities). While others make use of 'projections' for population to 2050. If you had projected what would happen to the British economy from 1972 to 2016 you would have honestly believed that we were staring down the barrel of an income around that of Malawi. Clive Davis challenges an overconfidence in predicting over such long time spans. This challenge is particularly important as changes in population are extremely likely to be self-regulating. If population falls too low then the chances of those children gaining a good income rise (labour shortages) and this could lead to more children.

The reason why people use predictions for 2050 is that if you look at the predictions for 2025, as noted by Joshi in Coleman's Europe's Population in the 1990s, it is for a fall in the European population from 0.5 to 0.49 billion. This hardly sounds like a catastrophe in a continent far more densely populated than similar areas like North America, let alone an apocalypse. For this reason commentators looking for a crisis are forced to rely on sketchy projections to 2050.

Early evidence suggests that the trend is likely not to be maintained into mid-century collapse. Calot and Blayo, in the journal Population Studies, describe how the common pattern across Europe has been for a fall in fertility since the Post-War high that has levelled off and/or slightly reversed since the late seventies. Equally, Baines in Schulze's Western Europe describes how a large part of the change has been a compression of family creation into a shorter period once the prospective mother's career has been established. This compression would create a temporary overestimation of declines in population.

Always best to be cautious when predicting the end of the world as we know it. Many have been wrong before and, while you only need to be right once, the world keeps on spinning.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Debating the House of Lords

Yesterday I was chief adjudicator for the Bristol Open. Only a small tournament but it had some first class speakers which made it a great experience for a judge. It was a lot of fun and gave me the luxury of setting motions which I knew I would see discussed in full. The motions set were the following:
  1. This house would drop the requirement for neutrality in private television.
  2. This house would introduce compulsory fat camp for obese children during the school summer holidays.
  3. This house would assassinate Mugabe.
  4. This house would make the House of Lords 100% elected with life terms.
Final. This house would admit temporary guest workers.

The competition was won by Matthew Kirk and Danny Riley. Congratulations to both.

Seeing the idea I put forward a month or so back on this blog for reforming the House of Lords debated was very interesting. Essentially the idea is to balance the House of Commons, which has all the advantages and disadvantages of being extremely accountable, with a body which is utterly unaccountable in order to avoid problems of pork and majoritarian stamping on civil liberties. That and the discussion I had with Dave Cole on the original thread suggest to me that the following are the biggest criticisms of the plan, none of which seem critical:
  1. It would remove the bishops. If a bishop really wants to run for this position then they are not prevented from doing so but I do not think that, with Church of England attendances so low, they deserve special treatment.
  2. It would remove the 'experts'. When electing a politician with limited powers, they would still only be able to temporarily block the Commons, and a long stay in office I think that people might be more inclined to favour less presentational candidates. Even if this isn't the case I think that the term expert is extremely subjective and they are rare enough in the Lords that democratic will should prevail.
  3. It would remove the Law Lords. I agree that this is an issue and I would suggest that as there are very few of them they could be tacked onto the system; i.e. 99% elected for life, 1% Law Lords.
  4. We might elect an utter lunatic (Galloway or the BNP) and wouldn't be able to get rid of them. Individual mistakes are one in over six hundred Lords and the errors of each generation would have a limited effect on the parliament thanks to the glacial rate of change.
  5. It would make the parties more powerful. I would actually think that those who needed to be elected once would be less dependent upon parties than those who were entirely appointed by the parties or who required regular re-election.
  6. The Lords do no work when unnaccountable. Other bodies without re-election like the Supreme Court in the US can hardly be accussed of slacking. The reason for the current low turnout in the Lords would seem to be that many of them never ran for election and wanted a legislative role but were given it as an honour.
  7. There would be a gridlock/a challenge to the primacy of the House of Commons. First, there clearly needs to be more of a challenge to the executive than there is now where there is very little to prevent rampant intrusions on civil liberties. Second, the change is limited as the Lords power itself is limited by current devices like the Parliament Act.
  8. Without accountability we lose one of the great assets of democracy in our ability to select for good leaders over time. We would retain the House of Commons that will remain accountable to popular views of the moment. Having another, less powerful, body not governing at the whim of the majority would seem a valuable safeguard.
One of the best arguments in the debate was raised in a Point Of Information supporting the motion which asked how this was different to a president in his second term. The answer was that such a president would generally want to secure a legacy and ensure that his party did well in future; of course both these objectives could also be true of the Lords and this provides a sound reason why the system would not produce a lazy or idiotic chamber. The difference to a president in his second term is that there would be no certain end date for them and, as such, they would not lose influence as a President does once people know he will soon no longer be a fount of patronage.

I think that my plan stood up well.


I was recently asked by the LSE Student Newspaper, the Beaver, to write an article defending BP from its critics (a critical piece was written for the same issue). As the editor didn't know the precise line of attack from the critical piece I responded to a couple of the most common critiques of BP. As the Beaver does not have an online edition here is the article:

Carnegie’s charitable endeavours have left libraries and cultural centres of various kinds all over America. However, his greatest contribution to the welfare of the rest of the United States and the world probably came not from this act of kindness but from while he was building his own wealth through industry. Innovation in the production of inexpensive steel to form the tracks for the railways played its part in making America a cohesive nation, created huge savings for passengers and, through savings in freight costs, savings in the costs of all manner of products for consumers. His work helped make the skyscrapers which crown New York. Similarly, those looking at the profitable corporation that is BP right now should be aware that its corporate activities have positive impacts which, while less obvious than handouts from governments or charity, are, nevertheless, massively important.

When listening to Gordon Brown’s complaints about how oil prices are hurting the UK economy it is important to remember that we have only just become net importers of oil and our net imports are negligible. The only way that high oil prices can cause trouble for the British economy is if they crash other economies, like the US, which are genuinely dependent upon imports of oil. As the US economy is still importing Britain’s economic sluggishness cannot be blamed on the oil price. This means that the effects, in the UK, of a high oil price are to shift income from motorists to the shareholders of oil firms like BP. Concerns about whether it can be fair for BP to be making so much profit, $22.3 billion last year while British motorists are facing stiff rises in the cost of petrol don’t stand up to scrutiny. BP dividends make up around 17% of the entire income of UK pension funds. When the introduction of means testing and tax raids on pension funds have led to a reduced incentive to save and a fiscal crisis looms on the horizon thanks to too many pensioners relying on tax income to provide for them in their, increasingly, old age increasing the income of pension funds has to be a good thing. A shift in income from motorists to pensioners cannot be seen as an injustice. Oil profits, which some commentators seem to view as money lost to the ether, actually help us get away with policy mistakes that discourage proper provision for old age.

BP’s environmental record is a bad one if compared with the environmentalist idyll of people giving up on foreign holidays and driving to work. However, if the reality that the world currently runs on oil is accepted as beyond BP control their record starts to look very good. Their investment of $8 billion over 10 years in alternative energy is a vast amount of money. It is also money being spent by a company interested in making alternative energy a practical and economical proposition rather than on basic research with only the vaguest of expectations that it will result in workable solutions. If hydrogen cars and solar power become a reality it will, most likely, be a result of investments by energy companies like BP, along with other big investors in alternative energy like Toyota. Equally, BP’s work on reducing emissions has been hugely successful, meeting its target of a 10% reduction eight years ahead of schedule, and has also been hugely beneficial to the company. BP has saved $600 million through the efficiency gains that have created this fall in emissions. Achieving significant cuts through emissions through this sort of efficiency provides a practical way forward, with current technology, in efforts to combat climate change.

The environmentalist movement can be its own worst enemy. Condemning BP is to attack on of the best hopes for improvement in the way we treat our environment. Equally, the Chancellor can be the worst enemy of the British economy. By putting in place windfall taxes on oil profits from the North Sea he hurts investment there and hastens the day when Britain’s economy can genuinely be wrecked by increases in the oil price. Taxing the profits which provide the incomes of pension funds further undermines any effort to overcome the economic challenge of our ageing population. British Petroleum is a company to be proud of.