Saturday, January 20, 2007

Banning Holocaust Denial

Excellent article by Timothy Garton Ash at Comment is Free on the proposed EU ban on holocaust denial. This excerpt is the best section but the rest is a comprehensive demolition of the case for such laws and well worth reading:

"So this additional restriction on free expression - an EU-wide ban on Holocaust denial and Nazi insignia - is justified because it will make a significant difference to combating racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia today.

But what is the evidence for that? Nine EU member states currently have laws against Holocaust denial: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. That happens to be a list of countries with some of the strongest rightwing xenophobic parties in the EU, from France's National Front and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium to the NPD in Germany and the Greater Romania party. Self-evidently those parties don't exist as a result of Holocaust denial laws. Indeed, the existence of such parties is one of the reasons given for having the laws, but the laws have obviously not prevented their vigorous and dangerous growth. If anything, the bans and resulting court cases have given them a nimbus of persecution, that far-right populists love to exploit.

The same thing has happened with the imprisonment of David Irving in Austria. Six years ago Irving lost, in the British high court, a spectacular libel case that he had himself initiated against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had described him as "one of the most prominent and dangerous Holocaust deniers". Mr Justice Gray concluded that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier". The last shreds of his reputation as a serious historian were torn apart - in a country that does not ban Holocaust denial. Now, having served time in Austria for statements he made there 16 years before, he can pose as a martyr for free speech and receives renewed publicity for his calumnies. At a press conference after his release, he reportedly endorsed the drunken anti-semitic comment of Mel Gibson that "the Jews" are responsible for all the wars in the world."

Apparently moves for such a law have always been defeated in the past. Hopefully this proposal will share the same fate.

It is important, though, to notice the difference between this threat to free speech and that posed by the violent response to the Danish cartoons. Holocaust denial laws are put in place democratically and can be opposed politically instead of being in place thanks to the violence of a minority and not subject to political challenge. This is why the best opposition to holocaust denial laws is through the democratic process whereas the only plausible opposition to restrictions on free speech imposed through the threat of violence is defiance. This makes the threat to free speech from holocaust denial laws less of a danger to a free society.

We're not having a good month...

Combine the national embarrassment that is Celebrity Big Brother with this from Marginal Revolution a few days ago:

"Last year Britons gave over $660 million to Nigerian-style scans, from Harpers Index, February issue."

I know that West African scam e-mails are an old story but the scale that statistic suggests is amazing. It doesn't seem credible that more than about $10,000 dollars can be taken on average from those who fall for these schemes; I can't believe that they are particularly attractive to the wealthy. If $10,000 dollars were the average that would imply 66,000 people have been caught out; this seems a conservative estimate. That makes it decidedly possible that one in a thousand people in the UK fall for e-mails like this one:

" I am Barrister Peter Van Smith, a solicitor at law. I was the personal
attorney to Eng, John McPherson, a national of your country who used to
work with an oil servicing company here in Amsterdam-Netherlands after
which be referred to as my client. Eng, John McPherson 62 years of age made
a fixed deposit of fund
valued at USD$14,500,000 (Fourteen Million, Five Hundred Thousand United
States Dollars Only) with a Security Company/Finance Firm here in Europe
and unfortunately lost his life in an Egyptian charter plane Boeing 737 .
which crashed into the Red Sea early on January 3 shortly after
taking off from the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all the 135
passengers and 13 crew members aboard, Ref: (View: ). He left
no clear beneficiary as Next of Kin except
some vital documents related to the deposit still in my possession.

Recently, the governing body of the Security Company/Finance Firm
contacted me on this matter, requesting that I should notify the next of
kin of
my late client to claim the funds and I am yet to provide the Next of Kin
to lay claims to the Fund. I know that my client had no living next
of kin but I went ahead and made several inquiries to your embassy to
locate any of my late clients extended relatives but this has proved
unsuccessful. Under a clear and legitimate agreement with you, I seek
your consent to present you as the next so that my late client's fund will
not be confiscated
by the Security Company.

You and I can share the money, you will be entitled to 50% of the total
fund for your role as the relative and next of kin of my late client,
40% for me while 10% is to be marked out for any expenses that will be
incurred during the clearance or process of transfer of the fund to
your bank account. Be informed that there is no risk involved as all
necessary legal document which will be used to back you up as the legal
and next of kin of my late client will be procured.
All I require is your sincerity, honesty, co-operation and utmost good
faiths to enable us see this deal through. I guarantee that this will
be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you from any
breach of the law. Kindly, get in touch with me by my e-mail
{ or telephone to enable us discuss further. You
may also send your telephone number so that I can call you. Do not
forget that a transaction of this magnitude require utmost confidentiality
and sincerity. I look forward to your urgent response.

Thank you,
Peter Van Smith

Oh my. It doesn't even make sense. All they want is your honesty and sincerity in a scheme to pose as the next of kin of a dead man. Another one sitting in my junk mail folder is all about how the woman sending the e-mail is dying from cancer and really wants her money to go to a Christian instead of an "unbeliever". That particular trickster is targetting the stupid but pious market evidently.

I guess most of the people who fall for this kind of thing are the old or otherwise vulnerable who lose, in a matter of weeks, savings they have spent a lifetime saving. That might actually mean the numbers falling for it are somewhat lower than I estimated earlier if the criminals often manage to entirely relieve someone of their retirement savings.

I'm not sure what you could do to stop this practice really beyond punishing those scammers caught very severely but even this isn't likely to work with so much money out there and a low likelihood of being caught. If the sentence were long enough you might still get a response, the Becker strategy, but even then the amount of money on offer to an enterprising West African would make this problem unlikely to go away. I guess there will always be tragic stories as people have the most saved at the end of their lives when they are most likely to also have their judgement impaired. These e-mails are far from the only way for the dishonest to prey upon the trusting.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Backwards Induction and Chinese Anti-Satellite Missiles

What is the function and impact of the new anti-satellite missile which the Chinese have been testing?

Conventional wisdom in the reporting of the test this morning is that the great danger is of an arms race but this seems a somewhat remote possibility to me. After all, two countries (Russia and the US) already have anti-satellite missiles and once you have them there isn't really anywhere else to race in terms of satellite destroying weaponry. Equally, I don't think the big difference will be in the military balance of power; this makes a limited difference to China's ability to fight the US in a conventional war.

To my mind the bigger impact would seem to be a change in how the game theory plays out with regards to a US intervention if a crisis were to develop such as a Chinese attack on Taiwan. At the moment China has no conventional means to attack the US directly and is restricted to attacking the military forces it has in theatre which would be a relatively hard target (although still vulnerable). If it were to use its nuclear weapons it would face a massive US nuclear retaliation which is a cost the US knows China is unlikely to endure for anything but a war of survival. As such, there is no credible deterrent to the US getting involved in a war in the Taiwan straights and the only costs it has to face are the actual military losses.

This is problematic for China because its airforce is massively undertrained and underequipped compared to the USAF and this is not likely to change any time soon as US technological development in fighter aircraft proceeds at a breakneck pace. A RAND study (you can read this online at that page without buying the report) into how a conflict over Taiwan might play out suggested that even a minimal US involvement would make China's chances of success extremely low.

What the satellite killing missiles offer China is an ability to seriously hurt US civilian interests, as well as possibly weakening their military capacity, without turning the conflict nuclear. As the US knows that this is a threat which the Chinese could go through with without facing nuclear annihilation it is much more credible than their nuclear forces and might make the US think again about intervening. This is particularly important if the question of going to war with the colossal Chinese military machine over a tiny state like Taiwan is already a pretty uncertain decision for the States. This could well tip the balance and cause the US to stay out of China's way.

If China has thought this through the same way I have the development of these missiles is a dangerous sign of Chinese intent to attack Taiwan militarily if it feels things are not going its way.

A New Blog for your Perusal

Go and take a look at Too Many of Us, a new group blog that I will be contributing to. I will still be writing for Sinclair's Musings just like normal but I'll be writing a few posts per week for the new group blog as well. The other members of the group have a variety of ideological positions from Centrist Democrats to hardcore Republicans along with Libertarian and conservative Conservatives. All very sharp though so it should be well worth keeping an eye on.

Doomsday Isn't What it Used to Be

While I hate to take on the rather impressive assembly of minds at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists I don't think this is entirely credible. How, exactly, are we ex ante closer to Armageddon than for large parts of the Cold War?

They cite the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes but how do these threaten global annihilation? Even if the worst comes to the worst you'll have a few cities plus one country gone; no fun at all but that is hardly the end of the world, is it?

Also, while climate change could conceivably wipe out the human race if it gets really hot not even those seriously worried about it, Stern for example, expect this to happen within the next hundred years. Falls in agricultural output and an increase in flooding aren't quite doomsday. Within this century global warming isn't an 'end of the world' event.

Peter Sutherland for Chair of LSE Court of Governors

There is currently a debate going among LSE students over Peter Sutherland's appointment to replace Lord Grabiner of Aldwych as Chair of the LSE Court of Governors and Council, the major non-executive decision making bodies of the school. This debate spilled over into direct action when a group of students blocked a speech he was due to give.

Interrupting the speech was a blatant violation of Sutherland's right to freedom of speech at the university. This deserved sanction but the Student's Union continued its run of failing to censure officers, even after a sabbatical vandalised the King's College Strand Campus last year, and did nothing about its trustees taking part in the protest. Now the debate is over whether someone with Sutherland's corporate connections should be offered such a prominent position and whether or not his appointment should be subject to student approval.

Sutherland's corporate connections are that he was Chairman of British Petroleum and Goldman Sachs. British Petroleum is proving the more contentious of the two and is the reason I wrote this piece in defence of BP for the LSE student newspaper earlier this year which details how, of course, the production of oil does, in the end, result in carbon dioxide emissions but if we accept that the supply of oil is currently both legal and necessary then BP's environmental record starts to look quite good.

There are more specific allegations; many are by proxy through its, non-controlling, share in Petro-China, problematic but not exactly a BP operation and their divesting would not improve matters. In another case Colombian Army units paid to secure BP sites against the FARC appear to have gone a bit off the rails. Baku-Tsibilsi-Ceyhan is a big project and there are concerns about compensation being paid to some along the route but given the size of the project there isn't too much reason to assume this is a systematic problem. What has to be remembered is that BP is a vast company with diverse operations dealing in developing countries; the only way to 100% avoid the risk of these problems is not to deal outside the developed world but this isn't exactly conducive to international development. Of course, BP should always do more to ensure integrity in its operations but to condemn Peter Sutherland for his involvement with the company is overreaction in the extreme.

His corporate qualifications make him an excellent candidate for the job with both experience in senior management of major organisations and the reputation to make an excellent ambassador for the school. It is hard to imagine a candidate with a more impressive CV short of a head of state. His time as Attorney General of Ireland may be controversial because of his role in assisting the preparation of an anti-abortion law but Attorney General is a neutral, civil service, role so this is not fair. That he has been in such a senior government role increases the depth of experience he brings to the job even further. His role at the WTO is even more prestigious although I understand that it upsets the extreme end of the anti-free trade movement. This is the kind of person who bolsters the reputation of the school; a reputation which matters to its student's futures and the school's academic potential.

The case that the students deserve to have a say in the appointment of the new chair is a little weak. The appointment comes from the executive staff of the school and is a part of its management. No one is forced to go to the LSE and its public money is conditional on government oversight not a general stakeholder involvement. Efficiency is ensured through competition with other universities rather than democratic accountability. Other school decisions are not subject to democratic vote either and it would be make management next to impossible if they were.

Sutherland is an excellent candidate for Chair of the Court of Governors and the minority of hard left students attempting to stop his appointment should appreciate that even if students were consulted they are more likely to be impressed by his CV than appalled. LSE is not a socialist infested institution anymore and looking at the numbers attending the events they run Goldman Sachs, at least, is rather popular with LSE students.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Menstrual Cycle Economics

Un-PC study of the month:

Why Can't a Woman Bid More Like a Man?
Yan Chen Peter Katuscak Emre Ozdenoren
March 15, 2005

We find systematic evidence that demographic characteristics,
especially gender, race and the number of siblings, education
backgrounds, as well as menstrual cycle, significantly affect bidder
behavior in the firstand second-price sealed-bid auction in the
laboratory. In particular, we find that women bid significantly higher
than men in the first-price auction, while the likelihood of dominant
strategy play in the secondprice auction is not different between men
and women. This finding provides support for the hypothesis that risk
attitude rather than cognitive ability is the main driving force for
the gender gap in competitive environments. At a biological level, we
find that, in the first-price auction, during menstruation, when
levels of estrogen and progesterone are the lowest, women do not bid
differently from men. The gender difference in the first-price auction
is driven by women during other phases of the menstrual cycle with
higher levels of estrogen and progesterone.

What is it about China that brings out the worst in left-wing commentators?

First, Stiglitz wrote what, I think, stands as the most idiotic article written by an occasionally serious academic and now Will Hutton brings us this analysis of the work of Mao. Most of the errors come from assuming that, had Mao not made it to the top, the Chinese would have spent the second half of the twentieth century twiddling their thumbs and waiting in vain for their socialist saviour to arrive. Only a cursory glance around the rest of East Asia today or China before and after Mao is needed to see that this would probably have not been the case.

"In the first place, there is context. Life in the China of the first half of the 20th century was cheap, as writer Lu Xun wrote after witnessing the nationalists clinically murder students in Shanghai in 1926. After the imperial throne fell on New Year's Day 1912, China imploded into territories dominated by warlords over whom the nationalist government never established proper dominion."

After millenia of royal power under the absolute system established by the first emperor to expect a clean transition would be optimistic but there are degrees of autocracy. The Kuomintang were not pleasant people but they were at the relatively human end of unpleasant autocrats and not in the same league as the big three mass murderers of the twentieth century that Mao forms a particularly lethal third of.

"China was in economic stasis. The Confucian gentry - mandarin officials, landlords and merchants - had so effectively delivered the stability that hundreds of millions of peasants craved, that together they became an obstacle to vitally needed change. The peasants were wedded to obsolete farming techniques on tiny plots; the Confucian gentry were wedded to a system that allowed them to become absentee landlords for around half of China. They continued to run the country at the behest of the warlords, still genuflecting before Confucian maxims that were now hopelessly outdated. Japan's invasion in 1931 could not be effectively opposed.

There was a craving for a decisive rupture with all that had produced this. Radical egalitarianism, a kind of transformed Confucianism, seemed the only way to respond. The Confucian mandarinate had to be broken. The land had to be taken off absentee landlords. Savings had to be mobilised in a collective effort to create a modern industrial base. There seemed no other viable prospectus."

This is just untrue. The Chinese economy grew at 13-14% in the 30s; faster even than it is today and far, far faster than under Mao's leadership. There was also significant progress in political reform with China holding its first and, so far, last elections, albeit only for local positions.

"Mao gave vent to this ambition. The negative side of the Maoist balance sheet is well-known: mass murder, famine, injustice, and economic waste. But there are less well-known positives. Industrial output climbed 13-fold, albeit from a tiny base. The rail network doubled. Half of Chinese land became irrigated. There was a dramatic lowering of illiteracy. Near universal healthcare was established. Life expectancy rose; and despite Mao's appetite for imperial-style concubines, women were given the same right to petition for divorce and education as men. Their position was transformed."

When you can see faster industrial growth before and after Mao why are we giving him such credit for the fact that China did manage some growth during under his leadership? For the rail network to double is similarly unimpressive. Britain's rail network doubled in a matter of years rather than decades without state involvement during our Industrial Revolution. I don't know much about irrigation but I would guess that is a similar story.

To claim falls in illiteracy as a Maoist achievement is pretty bold. As this article by Jasper Becker for the South China Morning Post describes significantly more was spent by Chiang Kai Shek, during a civil war, on education than by Mao during peacetime.

Healthcare under Mao was shockingly bad. While it may have been universal it was largely run by amateurs with neither proper equipment or training. It may have done as much harm as good.

As for women's rights. Movement on this, the abolition of footbinding for example, had begun in the last imperial years and, if one looks at the rest of Asia, there seems little reason to think that, without Mao, this process would not have continued.

"And if Mao created an economy that while desperate for reform at least existed to be reformed - a statement that could not be made in the hyperinflation of 1949 when the Communists took over - he also bequeathed an ideological legacy that would permit reform. The Maoist communist concept of the so-called mass line meant that ideology and policy would emerge from respecting local differences and conditions. As a result, state planning and collectivisation of agriculture could be reversed more quickly in China than in the Soviet Union, under the guise of respecting local autonomy and creating local responsibility. Deng Xiaoping, the mastermind of the reform programme, was punctilious in describing the first phase of market-led reforms and decollectivisation in these Maoist terms."

Hyperinflation just before a revolution? Remarkable. Is this, perhaps, not entirely independent of the popular knowledge that Mao was likely to come to power?

The idea that Maoism was particularly tolerant of local differences is truly staggering. Go to Tibet where the insistence that the proscribed high agriculture was the only path to prosperity wrecked its environment and starved its population. The Mao personality cult was an attempt to ensure that even differences between individuals were subsumed as far as possible in a collective never mind broader regional or cultural differences.

"Few western critics today appreciate the scale of the task confronting any moderniser of China in 1949. Western economies created the surpluses to finance industrialisation through incredible exploitation - of their own working class, and in the US via slavery. It was never likely that China could achieve self-sustaining economic growth without great collective pain to achieve its own surpluses, or that this could be done without the involvement of the state. Spontaneous market-led industrialisation is a myth."

During the Industrial Revolution British living standards, at the absolute low end of mainstream analysis, stagnated. This despite a population rising at the sort of rate which should have created awful Malthusian pressure. The working classes did just fine. US capital for industrialisation came largely from a combination of international borrowing, huge investment from the UK, and the transfer of savings within the North.

If you don't buy my analysis of Western industrialisation just ask yourself this question. Why, of all the East Asian countries, did China need to starve millions to death in order to obtain a surplus? Why was this not necessary in Taiwan (the closest to a "if Mao had never lived" case for China), Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong? Also, if hurting the poor is what allows rapid growth why did China grow more slowly than these countries which didn't starve their people to death?

"This is certainly how Mao saw the task, with egalitarianism and collectivism the means. The German sociologist Max Weber, in a famous essay, argued that statesmen facing these kinds of challenges - of winning a war or of master-minding economic development - have to be judged by different moral criteria. Their decisions are means to achieve this ultimate end, and their choices have to be judged by this criteria rather than their inherent moral worth. Truman, for example, justified dropping the atom bomb on the Japanese because of the value of the ultimate end. Mao would justify his radical egalitarianism in the same way. We know that he was wrong. He, authentically and passionately, did not."

Even under this criteria Mao is a failure. His objective was that China should become economically and, most importantly, militarily powerful in order to be able to confront the West. Thanks to the failure of his economic policies China, at the end of his rule, was far less able to stand up to the West than it might have been had it managed an economic performance even close to that seen in the rest of Asia.

"The condemnation of Mao that convinces the majority of Chinese they need to change has to be more subtle than simply joining, say, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book on Mao and seeing him as unrelievedly evil. Most Chinese are never likely to accept the verdict, not least because it is only a partial version of the truth. The better course is to build on Deng's description of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as China's " treasure", because they proved that radical egalitarianism was wrong."

This is just as absurd. Why exactly, for China, but not for the rest of humanity, were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution necessary to make the case for liberal democracy? Giving Mao credit for his actions being so shocklingly awful that people then chose a different path is like crediting Hitler with modern German liberal democracy.

"But the lesson Deng drew - that the party can remain in Leninist control of a market economy that needs no democratic institutions -was as wrong as Mao's. Today's China is in many ways going back. The healthcare that covered nearly all of rural China under Mao now covers just 5%. China spends less on education than other developing countries. Inequality is high. The country is sliding down international indices for good governance, corruption and business competitiveness. To return to Mao's solution to these issues would be wrong and immoral; but neither can China continue as it is. The best option is to embrace democratic institutions - and the path to doing that is not to repudiate Mao but to see him for what he was. Wrong and cruel, but part of China's groping to find a way to cross the river."

What? How on Earth is a more positive view of one of the most illiberal tyrants of the twentieth century the path to a greater respect for liberalism?

Also, Deng while wrong was not nearly as wrong as Mao. There are degrees of wrong and the wrong that kills millions of the people you are supposed to lead is the greater.

I continue to be amazed by the extent to which left wing academics are willing to attempt the most incredible intellectual acrobatics to cover for the Chinese Communist party's enormous abuse of its own people. Hutton defends Mao, Stiglitz eulogises the modern leadership. Instead of advocating that China continue to grope towards liberal democracy Hutton should note that the best solution, at every stage of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries was, and is, to open its eyes, look at the success stories all around it and learn some lessons.

Isn't the Beta period supposed to be over?

I'm looking at setting up a group blog with some friends and that has exposed me to new blogger. It is a massive improvement: so much easier, quicker and less fiddly. What on Earth is taking them so long getting it ready for use by active blogs?

It isn't like this blog is particularly huge. I've been going for about six months, not including the break for my Master's dissertation.

I don't really want to pay so I doubt I'll head off to Typepad any time soon, Wordpress looks fishy to me, but others certainly are and if this situation continues much longer I might reconsider; I'm prone to impulse buying. Old blogger is clunky, unreliable and behind the times in terms of features. That I'm being forced to make use of an inferior product because I'm an active and loyal user feels a bit unfair. Ah well.

Redwood on Tory Radio

I listened to my first Tory Radio 'broadcast' this evening. I'm not sure why I've never listened in before. I guess it's either that the colour scheme suggests to me a Cheeky plot or that I have a low tolerance for podcasts as I usually have music, TV or a film on while I'm reading blogs. Still, I am now sold and Tory Radio is firmly on the blogroll. The interview was done well and Redwood was great.

He was thoroughly positive about Cameron and made a very good, sound, case for the direction of Conservative policy. Apart from the environment his logic never sounded stretched. I'm sure that the cynics will write it off as careerism but it doesn't seem terribly credible to me that Redwood is the sort to bite his tongue in the hope of future advancement; he doesn't have the record of a careerist.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Interest Rates and Inflation

It would appear that the long run of slow interest rate rises may be coming to the end with the announcement of a market surprising rise from the MPC and the discovery of high inflation. This should be worrying for two big reasons. Any interest rate rise implies serious human costs in an economy with lots of personal debt; lost homes and bankruptcies. This interest rate rise is particularly problematic because all of the reasons that I cited in explaining why interest rate rises have been moderate up till now still apply. The manufacturing sector is still looking fragile and economic performance is still heavily dependent upon consumers keeping on spending.

Controlling inflation has become so imperative that these risks to economic performance have had to be taken. It is probably too early to start talking about stagflation and it is quite possible that this change in interest rates will bring inflation quickly under control. However, the Bank of England haven't been given much help in controlling inflation from fiscal policy for quite some time and if things don't go well we might be headed into dangerous territory. If Labour government ends in this kind of economic ruin again will the country forgive them?

Theodore Dalrymple on Doctor Johnson

Via Alykhan, I came across this article by Dalrymple on Samuel Johnson's claim to greatness a couple of days ago. It left me with a burning desire to fill the Doctor Johnson sized gap in my reading. As I had read Voltaire's Candide last summer I decided to read Rasselas and attempt to replicate Dalrymple's comparison.

Rasselas is an absolutely superb novel. The writing is beautiful without ever being ornamental. It has a philosophical depth to it thanks to an unwillingness to rely upon the outlandish tortures which give Candide force. This makes it a far more significant and lasting contribution as an inquiry into the human condition rather than a narrow rebuttal of a contemporary philosophy; in Dalrymple's words:

"Voltaire’s Candide, which has always had more renown than Johnson’s Rasselas, is nevertheless far the more superficial work, its irony crude and shallow compared with that of Rasselas. The surface similarities of the stories only underline their difference in depth. The one, Candide, attacks a philosophical doctrine; the other, Rasselas, addresses a human condition that is with us still. Portraits of the two authors reveal the difference in their character: Voltaire looks like an unregenerate cynic who wants to shock the world by sneering at it, while Johnson looks like a man determined to penetrate to the heart of human existence. The more serious man is also far the funnier."

I'm actually somewhat confused as to why I was never recommended to read Johnson's work in my youth. His style is easy and the novel is a short one. The lack of popular appreciation which so shocks Dalrymple is, or at least was in my case, not a matter of choice but ignorance and I'm unsure of why those who know better allow that ignorance to persist.

Read Dalrymple's article and, if you haven't already been so lucky, acquaint yourself with Doctor Johnson's work.

A Quick Study of English Customs and Rituals

If we are to get along in a multi-ethnic society others are going to have to accept our customs and way of life. In particular, there is a ritual that unites the English people, has been central to both our national glory and the personal development of generation upon generation.

Getting drunk and breaking things.

This video is a demonstration by a master of the art to some foreign students eager to learn the skills that built the Empire on which the sun never set:

Video via Jackart.

Anyone want to be added to the Blogroll?

I'm going to update my blogroll tonight I think. There are a few dead blogs and lots that deserve links. However, I may well miss some deserving candidates so, if you would like a link and can or have put a reciprocal link in place, please let me know. If this process introduces me to some new blogs that would be dandy.

Blog Catfighting Returns

Whereas the last blogging catfight (Iain Dale vs. EU Referendum) had some semblance of substance and dignity this is just ridiculous.

I'm just so utterly unsurprised. 5th November is a gossip site. Have you ever heard anyone gossip in an intelligent and well rounded manner?

Of course not. That's why all the best newspapers are vaguely embarassed when breaking a gossip story and dress it up as a public morality crisis. If someone's raison d'etre is discussing Prescott's sex life why are you expecting a model of enlightened discourse?

Guido's response has been the masterful "look at my traffic puny mortals... your attacks only make me stronger". I think the fact that a spat can make a significant difference to his readership suggests that, in the blogosphere, we're all in the gutter in readership terms. It isn't something to brag about.

If you don't want to read what Guido writes then don't. I only read his stuff when he says something interesting enough to reach ConservativeHome because I don't really want to know about Tom Watson's gerbil fetish or whatever the latest irrelevant scandal is. In the end, there are plenty of thoughtful blogs on the internet. Find them. Read them. Link to me. Do something more constructive and trust that the rest of the blogosphere can and will judge for themselves.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

300 Year Maintenance for the Union - English Edition

At the English end what can be done which might restore the health of the Union? The crucial problem would seem to be the inequity of finance and political representation between Scotland and England. To a certain extent there is, therefore, no single political fix but there must, instead, be an increasing recognition that England cannot be relied upon to accept such inequities and that the cross border subsidy must be reduced and the borders of seats redrawn to make each MP represent a similar number of electors. However, that still leaves the big inequity of Celtic votes on English matters; the devolution hangover. I think this inequity is the most novel and, as such, the most significant cause of falls in support for the Union in England.

The solution that appears most likely to be adopted by the major parties is to have Scottish members not vote on matters relating exclusively to England. However, this would seem to pose huge problems to the operation of government via the House of Commons. For one thing it would make a Scottish Prime Minister's position extremely difficult as any role they play in huge areas of legislation is an imposition by a Scottish MP. Secondly, it removes the equality between MPs within the House of Commons which would seem necessary in its role as the sole source of ministerial talent. These problems are largely why I am now coming around to the idea of an English parliament.

I have had reservations over the idea of an English parliament; hence my being in the rare position of a British right wing blogger not a member of the Witanagemot club. Firstly, I think that it will have the same corrosive effect as other devolutions in weakening people's ties to the United Kingdom. Particularly if an English parliament does what the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have not and performs well. Secondly, I think that part of the problem in the Scottish parliament is that a minor parliament attracts those without the ambition or ability to succeed in Westminster and that a similar problem could occur in an English parliament. The quality of its legislative work may be lower than if that work is left in the hands of the current Houses of Parliament.

However, as I do not think the House of Commons can function with formal distinctions between members of different regions and I do not wish to see it drastically restructured to make such inequities less problematic I think an English parliament is the less bad response to the constitutional problem created by devolution. Also, I think that some of the problems I have discussed above would be less problematic in an English parliament. The effect of dulling loyalty to the union is less significant because the English have less of a problem with the dual identity of English and British than the Celts do and are therefore less likely to lose their attachment to the remaining United Kingdom institutions. The quality of the parliament is also likely to be higher as England is still a large nation and the issues an English parliament would discuss would therefore be less parochial relative to the work of the Commons.

So, an English parliament it is. I've taken a while to be converted to the idea but the case for it now seems almost unavoidable.

300 Year Maintenance for the Union - Scottish Edition

Most nations would make quite a fuss for the 300th anniversary of their founding but all we've seen in Britain is Labour politicians giving earnest speeches about shared values that I'm unconvinced we share more with the Scots than anyone else in the broad sphere of the West. The public seems to be marginally less enthusiastic for celebrating the Union than they are for St. Georges Day. Meanwhile, the SNP appears likely to emerge victorious in elections for the Scottish parliament. Polls on the subject of Scottish independence are giving quite unstable results, particularly in England, and there is rarely a majority in favour of Scotland leaving but the Union is still, clearly, in very poor health.

Why don't we give the SNP the referendum they want? Pledge to hold a referendum and to make the question a fair one but to campaign for a "no" vote. That way we can steal the SNP's thunder and finally have the independence debate in the open. Given the nightmares of forming a new state and the financial benefits Scotland takes from the Union a "no" vote seems probable. I think we can hope that people might be encouraged to think about what the United Kingdom means more broadly along with practical considerations of economies of scale in states. Perhaps the debate might bring an appreciation for its achievements and the scope of ambition it makes possible for its people. If the Union then goes on to win, as I expect it would, then it is difficult to imagine massive positive changes not emerging from the Union having a popular mandate.

If the vote were to go the wrong way after a proper debate then it might be preferable to the simmering resentment that characterises the Union at the moment. Most of the ill effects would be felt north of the border by those choosing to face them. It would be a shame but it is, perhaps, worth risking that, fairly remote, chance of an end to the Union for the possibility of a resolution in its favour.

Cameron, Jackart and DK on Tax

Jackart is enthused by Cameron's promise to shrink the state:

"Calle Me "Dave" Cameron has just secured my vote. Writing in the Telegraph:

"It is why we are pledged to share the proceeds of economic growth between public services and lower taxes, thereby ensuring that over time the state takes a smaller share of national wealth."

If that is not a commitment to lower taxes, I don't know what is."

I don't know why he thinks this is new. It has been exactly the same pledge since the leadership election expressed in almost identical terms. It is significantly different to the Labour party's expansion of the state's share of national income. It is the reason why someone interested in lower taxes should be voting Conservative.

He then goes on to get a little... exuberant... in his rejection of the UKIP:

"You UKIP lot are an accessory to rape. Useful idiots helping our Cyclopean chancellor in his quest for total dominance."

Nice. This, rather predictably, got a reaction. Two parts of DKs response stand out:

"One vague promise to reduce taxes in a article designed to reassure the right of the party in a right wing paper does not a firm committment make."

The commitment is actually quite clear and unambiguous. It is imprecise thanks to the sensitivity of good fiscal policy to context. Also, it is a commitment that has been made repeatedly by both Cameron and Osborne on all manner of platforms.

"What is the Tory problem with UKIP? UKIP are promising the things that the Tories used to promise. They are therefore garnering the support of a great many traditional Tories. Why are you surprised or, as seems more fair, outraged?"

Members of UKIP all faced a choice between trying to convince the rank and file Conservatives who could then change the leadership or setting up a separate party and trying to electorally blackmail us into changing policy. That they chose the latter option upsets Conservatives because it is an insult to our collective intelligence. It implies not just that we are wrong but that we are so incapable of being convinced of the right course of action that rational argument amongst allies has to be replaced by party political open warfare.

Conservatives also see, as Jackart makes clear, the UKIP doing its best to increase the chances of a Labour government. If the UKIP is as successful as in Nigel Farage's wet dreams the result will be a more statist, more pro-EU, Labour government in place of the Conservatives. It is entirely understandable that the possibility conservative government will be sacrificed on the altar of uncompromising radicalism angers Conservatives.

Cameron in the Telegraph

Cameron's article in defence of the conservatism of the Conservative party he leads was a strong one. In particular, the section discussing Conservative policies should assuage the fears of those who worry there might be no significant difference between the two parties come election day. When you consider that the policy reviews have not even reported yet there is actually a fair amount of material. While they are not concrete policy plans they serve to illustrate the direction of the Conservative party going forward.

It appears to have panicked DK as his response is a bit disjointed:

"Businesses, parents, and local communities must be given more responsibility. I believe in social responsibility, not state control.

As I have asked before, what if people don't want it? Are you going to make them have it?"

Either DK is making an argument in favour of gilded cages or he is suggesting that Cameron is looking to force people to be Good Samaritans. The key is the comparison between social responsibility and state control; Cameron is discussing methods of avoiding the use of the heavy hand of the state.

"Instead of simply accepting the political consensus of the time, as Blair did, I am challenging it.

How? With your marvellous "hug a hoodie" campaign?"

Cameron doesn't run a "hug a hoodie" campaign. He argued, in a speech, that the problems of youth anti-social behaviour stemmed from social breakdown and that what these children lack is family love and support. This is a pretty conservative analysis.

"Why do we need a Bill Of Rights, exactly? In what way will it be different from the Human Rights Act, precisely?"

That Cameron is currently discussing broad principles and ideas rather than precise policy is a horse that has been dead for some time and I'm a little dissapointed it is still being beaten. Forming policy slowly is a mark of taking policy formation seriously and giving it time rather than rushing out plans which are not properly thought through. Now is the time to set out broad principles, as a member of the UKIP surely DK can see that there is a fundamental difference between defining rights in UK law and having them defined, and enforced, in Europe?

"It is why I have made the strongest commitment to supporting the family and marriage that any Conservative leader has made for a generation.

What commitment? You have part-published a report written by Duncan-Smith; I haven't heard any concrete policy deriving from that report yet."

The commitment was made during the leadership contest; that government should support marriage through the tax system. Why does a lack of detail make this commitment worthless?

"It is why we are pledged to share the proceeds of economic growth between public services and lower taxes, thereby ensuring that over time the state takes a smaller share of national wealth.

Lower taxes? When? How much? What taxes (since the number of taxes that he can cut is partly controlled by the EU)?

Share the proceeds of growth? How much growth does there have to be before we see tax cuts rather than more money pissed into the public services? What if there is "not enough growth"?

What about tax simplification?What about that Flat Tax that you were so keen on? What about raising the Personal Tax Allowance to a decent level in order to take the poorest out of the tax system? Where are your actual policies, Dave? Where are these clear answers?"

This is actually a pretty clear commitment that at the end of a Tory term the proportion of the economy being consumed by the state will be 0.X of whatever it is when the Tories take over. The state will shrink. While exactly how much (X) and how is not decided it probably shouldn't be. Deciding economic policy years before the event when the state of the public finances and the broader economy is not known would be economically risky and politically dangerous. Now is the time to state direction rather than how far we might be able to travel.

"When I see Cameron's detailed policy, then I might rethink."

Really? (Sorry, I'm just curious and there's at least some chance this post will get a response)

He then goes on to quote EU Referendum and the UKIP about how we can't leave the Social Chapter without the agreement of other members. This is a rather narrow way of looking at things. EU policy formation is a process of negotiation and if a priority of ours is no longer having to follow what was the Social Chapter then we may be able to secure agreement to that end. Particularly when the more integrationist states are accepting the idea that different nations may choose different levels of EU involvement (a multi-speed Europe).

"Our new Movement for European Reform is a pan-European campaign to promote a positive vision of an outward-looking Europe rather than an inward-looking EU obsessed with its own bureaucracy.

Yes, yes, yes; we have heard all of this before from assorted politicians; when will you learn that the EU is not reformable? Both Strange Stuff and EU Serf have discussed, at length and recently, why this should be."

I've rebutted the Serf's argument that it is impossible to reform the EU and I won't repeat myself now.

He then discusses the pledge to leave the EPP:

"The pledge is, in any case, a stupid one to make. If the EPP is unsuitable for Conservatives now, then they should withdraw now. It may, in two years' time, actually be the most suitable grouping for the Tories to be in (unlikely, but you get the picture); in which case, leaving in two years would be fucking stupid, wouldn't it?"

Forming a cross border political party takes time. In an ideal world it would be great to leave now but hurrying the process, making a mess of things and winding up forming a weaker alternative to the EPP than is possible if we take the time to get the new party right just leaves a weaker conservative voice in Europe.

"And Brown wants to keep the pound as our currency: what, precisely, are you offering, Davey-boy?"

Brown's position, in public at least, is that he wants to adopt the Euro when the economic conditions are right. "Davey-boy" does not want to adopt the Euro. Those two positions are rather different.

"But these Conservative intellectual foundations are just the start. We must now apply them to the hopes and aspirations of people and families today, just as Mrs Thatcher applied Conservative principles to the challenges of the 1980s.

How about just fucking off and letting the families apply these principles themselves, you evil, statist cunt?"

This is pretty hysterical. Cameron is arguing for applying the same, conservative, principles as Thatcher to modern problems. How on Earth is that statist?

"The reduction of Thatcherism into a sort of laissez-faire libertarianism does not do justice to her record. She was animated by a vision of the good society – a vision obscured by decades of economic dirigisme and cultural relativism. The task she set herself was to restore not only personal liberty in economic matters, but also a sense of duty, respect and moral obligation in social matters.

Yup. That's why most people talk about the 80s in the same breath as "rampant greed"."

That's actually the socialist caricature of Thatcherism and it is a shame that it has such a strong hold on the popular imagination. Striving to better the condition of yourself, your family and your community without state involvement is not selfish. That is what Thatcherism was trying to encourage.

"I, too, am animated by a vision of the good society.

Oh, god. Dave, what if my vision of a "good society" is not the same as your vision of a "good society", eh? Are you going to force me to accept your vision? I suspect that the answer is, "yes"."

Anyone with a political programme, including libertarians, has a vision of the good society. That good society may include the freedom to pursue your own vision of a good life.

I have some reservations over Conservative policy on a couple of issues, notably the NHS and the environment, but Cameron's leadership still offers the hope of a great conservative government.

Unintended Consequences to the End of the United Kingdom

A little while ago I wrote a post lamenting the end of the United Kingdom. One of the arguments was an appeal to the conservative fear of unintended consequences

"If conservativism can be defined at all then it is the view that human reason is limited and that faced with tasks as complicated as building a state we would do better to rely on the accumulated knowledge of ages.


In the United Kingdom we have the state that played a serious part in defeating Napoleon, the Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and Stalin, built the world's largest empire, abolished slavery, set up the international economy through an early push for free trade, spread institutions and infrastructure around the world in the biggest overseas investment ever and provided a unique environment which incubated the first Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth. Now, it may be that we don't think this was dependent upon the United Kingdom so much as it was on England, luck, coal or some other quality. However, it seems far more plausible that the geographical security and cultural variety of the United Kingdom were a serious asset which there might be unintended consequences to losing."

Trevor Phillips' article for the Telegraph yesterday argues that one of unintended consequences of fracturing the United Kingdom would be that the new nations would be ethnically defined and, hence, more difficult for new immigrants to become a part of. Certainly, most immigrants now tend to adopt the prefix British even if those the census describes as White British call themselves English or Scottish. However, I'm not sure the situation is as simple as Phillips is describing. There would seem to be two possible conclusions to a two or three state solution for the United Kingdom.

The first is the one that Phillips describes: nations defined as English, Scottish or Welsh, understood by the indigenous population to be the property of those of their ethnicity and less accepting of newcomers. In such a scenario immigrants might only be able to associate with their new national identity to the extent that they became more like the English, Scottish or Welsh and, therefore, feel the dilemma in choosing between their new and old cultures more acutely. The other, also plausible, possibility is that nations with a better sense of themselves would be easier to integrate into as immigrants might be more attracted to a better loved national identity and understand more easily what they need to do to integrate.

I don't think that any sufficently humble thinker can really claim to have a convincing case that either of these outcomes is much more likely than the other in the particular case of the 21st century UK fracturing. However, if you look at the rest of world it is hard to argue that Britain actually does a bad job of integrating newcomers and our various ethnic tribes get on relatively peacefully. The question we should be asking ourselves is clear; do we think we are wise enough to found a new state which would do better than the United Kingdom?

One thing I should finally mention is that the description Phillips offers for Britishness, that it asks you "to treat fellow citizens with respect and fairness, to share basic rules of conduct and to contribute to our common good", is desperately weak. I doubt that many civilised nations would say any different. A shared national identity has to be about something that people agree makes our national project special rather than a selection of close to universal homilies. In one of the very first posts on this blog I set out my vision of what that identity might be.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Liam Fox is not Winston Churchill

I don't think Guido's idea that Liam Fox should quit and become a wilderness figure in order to return as saviour if Cameron fails is a particularly good one.

a) If the leadership did tell him to stop being silly in arguing for Poland and Hungary to be suspended from NATO for spending too little on defence they are entirely right. Poland has been a good ally contributing to many of our recent foreign interventions and neither country's main contribution to the alliance is their military budget.

b) In terms of his own personal ambition quitting now would suggest serious, party hurting, disloyalty which is usually death to dreams of high office. Churchill was a product of a different era.

c) "As it is they treat him like a mushroom (kept in the dark with plenty of fertiliser), his profile is kept deliberately low." I'm not sure this is true. We've seen big Conservative initiatives on Armed Forces conditions recently which would seem to increase the prominence of the Shadow Defence Minister.

The Great Depression and the New Deal

After the gradual destruction of the conventional, Galbraithian view of what caused the Great Depression by Friedman, Bernanke, Sirkin and a host of other great twentieth century economists the right wing bandwagon is now moving on to what fixed it. In particular the New Deal is taking a hammering. Marginal Revolution has some great coverage. First, Alex Tabarrok:

"Imagine, increasing the power of unions to strike and raise wages during a time of mass strikes and mass unemployment. Imagine thinking that cartelizing whole industries thereby raising prices and reducing output could improve the economy. Not everything Roosevelt did was counterproductive - he did end prohibition (although in order to raise taxes) - but plenty was and worst of all was the uncertainty created by Roosevelt's vicious attacks on business."

The causes of the Great Depression are something I have studied at some length and it becomes increasingly clear the idea it was a matter of wildly irrational markets getting their comeuppance is increasingly hard to sustain. While I have not read into as much of the detail of the arguments surrounding the New Deal I think that people are right to be suspicious that policies which are so disastrous elsewhere worked so well in the thirties. I think that as the event was so traumatic and remains so iconic the conventional wisdom surrounding it can be an intimidating target for academic challenge.

Bryan Caplan puts an argument similar to Tabarrok's in rather robust terms by describing FDR as a much milder Mugabe in terms of economic policy. He defends his comparison like this:

"Think about it this way: Out of all the presidents the U.S. has ever had, which one had the scariest rhetoric and policies from the point of view of investors and the rich? As far as I can tell, Franklin Roosevelt is clearly at the top of the list by a wide margin. Who else is even in the running? Cousin Teddy? He was a lot more balanced, and the country wasn't in a crisis."

The comparison is overblown but does make the point that scaring the rich may be popular but has awful effects on the economy by taking capital out of active use; whether in Zimbabwe or the United States.

It's an interesting discussion. The debate on the causes of and solution to the depression started in 1929 and I expect it'll still be going strong for some time to come.