Saturday, January 27, 2007

Revealed Preferences in Venezuela

Experimental economics is usually treated with suspicion by mainstream economists because it relies upon behaviour in the artificial circumstances of the lab or upon survey data where people may not understand the question or how they might actually react in the situation they are asked to imagine.

That's why this statistic is interesting:
"Number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States in 1997, the year before Hugo Chavez came to power? 9

Number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States in 2004 and 2005? More than 2,000."

That's violations of people's liberty in action; that's a revealed preference to avoid the tyranny of Chavez. It's like the old retort to any socialist lunatic enough to argue Cubans have it better off than Americans "yeah, that's why all the Americans are trying to escape across the Gulf of Mexico on a floating door".

A More Plausible Surge

There are several reasons why the increase in troops and resources being committed to Afghanistan might prove more successful than the surge in Iraq.

Firstly, there aren't really any outside nations with an interest in an unstable Afghanistan. Whatever residual loyalty Pakistan might have felt towards the Taliban has to be pretty much gone after a long period of fighting in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Secondly, we know where the resources of the insurgents are coming from, the opium crop, and that makes it possible for us to attack the source of their funding. If we have sufficient resources we should be able to do this without creating too much ill-will. By contrast, in Iraq there is support from outside, Iran in particular, which is hard to stop without escalating the conflict.

Thirdly, the ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, while keenly felt, do not have the murderous anger which characterises those in Iraq. This is thanks to not having had a long period under the rule of one ethnic group as with the Sunni in Iraq. The Taliban were identified with the Pushtun but had not been in power for nearly so long and had built up a smaller legacy of the grievances and hatred that comes with autocratic, monoethnic, rule of a multiethnic state.

What the new plan is predicated on, correctly in my opinion, is that the crucial challenge will be establishing military authority and hurting the credibility of the Taliban by crushing their expected Spring offensive. As such, there is actually a defined mission for surge troops unlike the more general role envisioned for them in Iraq.

All of this suggests that we can make a success of Afghanistan and it would be a colossal achievement. This is a country with a population around the same size, a little larger according to the CIA World Factbook, as Iraq's, one whose population has suffered massively over the years and which provided a major base for international terror. This is no sideshow.

Are Citizenship Classes going to become Lessons in Liberal Guilt?

It sounds good doesn't it? More British History being taught in schools to give people a better idea of our collective history which might contribute to a shared national identity. Unfortunately, from looking at the subjects mentioned in the Guardian article, "the Commonwealth and empire, the slave trade and conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland", I doubt the result will be anything so positive.

Firstly, that list of subjects suggests that they've decided to avoid the challenge of trying to compose a history syllabus that might actually help children understand the broad sweep of British history. If that were the objective surely the Industrial Revolution would take central stage? The Glorious Revolution?

In fact, I would be interested in the results of a survey which attempted to gauge popular knowledge of the Glorious Revolution; I would guess that only a tiny minority have even heard of it. Despite this lack of awareness, I don't think any serious historian would argue it is less important to the British national identity than the conflict in Northern Ireland. The focus in the subjects chosen isn't on those which are important to understanding British national identity but on stories of past ethnic strife.

Bear in mind that the teaching of these events is unlikely to be balanced either. I, and many others, take the view that the practice of slavery was near universal throughout human history until the last two centuries and that Britain was distinctive in making a moral decision to abolish it. Whether or not you agree with this perspective it is unlikely to even be represented in the way the subject is taught in schools which will briefly mention Wilberforce but focus on enshrining slavery as an explanation for problems of the contemporary black community and another example of white evil. A choice of subjects which is biased towards examples of ethnic strife will be further biased by a left-wing teaching profession which sees these events as the result of a general white evil. The history of empire will be even more vulnerable to this bias.

Combine a focus upon periods of ethnic strife with the perspective that these problems are caused by white, Anglo-Saxon, evil and you have a recipe for lessons about how we should accept immigrants because of how awfully we mistreated their ancestors. Instead of trying to teach British national identity they're trying the old strategy of trying to guilt the white British population into playing nice; this is not a novel strategy and doesn't have the most impressive record of success.

An attempt to teach British children where their nation comes from, what it has achieved as well as where it has failed and the events that marked its formation, would be both noble and important. By giving people an understanding of what made Britain you might give them a better idea of a national identity they can unite around. However, how can national harmony be promoted by focussing unduly upon events characterised by ethnic conflict? Who would want to unite around a Britain whose achievements are the conflict in Northern Ireland, slavery and oppressing colonial peoples?

I expect it will take a Conservative government to recognise that it is a better knowledge of our achievements as well as our travails that can bind us together as a nation.

Friday, January 26, 2007

US Troops authorised to kill Iranian Operatives in Iraq

"In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority."

This may sound like common sense but the problem is that in any escalation of Iraq as a proxy war we stand a good chance of losing. The Iranians have more popular support and no troops directly in harms way. The idea that a few of their operatives getting shot will deter them is absurd but it might cause them to treat it more like a proxy war, at the moment it seems plausible they see their job largely as cementing the Shia advantage for a post-US involvement Iraq, which will make our job pacifying the country far harder.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Excellent Account of a Trip to the DMZ

There is an excellent account by Michael Jennings at Samizdata of his trip to the DMZ. It is a thoughtful and illuminating description of a place where a big military showdown, in the twentieth century style, is still going on.

It also contains a very sensible point about the possible costs of Korean unification:

"But that was it. As we drove back into and through South Korea, the English speaking guide had an informal chat with us, asking why we were in Korea and suggesting things that we might do in Seoul. We asked her about the South Korean attitude to possible reunification, and she told us that South Koreans generally did not want it. "Germany tried it, and they almost sent themselves bankrupt. We do not want that, although obviously we would prefer to have a normal, peaceful country to our north".

Personally, I am not sure that is the right interpretation of the German situation. Certainly, the implementation of German reunification has been disastrous, but I do not believe that this is a problem with reunification per se, as much as the way in which the Germans actually went about it. The advantage that East Germany should have had post-reunification was a cheaper and more flexible labour market than the west, although with lower productivity. By forcing western wages and the western welfare system on the east (and by spending lots of public money on infrastructure, which generally flowed back west because that was where the expertise to built it lay), the Germans created a system that looked generous in the short term (and which was horribly expensive for the west) but which in the long term only led to high unemployment and a business environment that no sane private sector company would choose to invest in. There is no reason whatsoever why Korean reunification would have to make the same mistakes. It would be a shame if the reaction to German mistakes was to swing so far in the opposite direction that entirely different mistakes were made."

The problem wasn't just the welfare state and wages but treating East German currency as of equal value to West German currency when the market exchange rate was massively different. This introduced an artificial Dutch disease in the East and meant, along with the factors Jennings points to, that the region had to be a burden. A better comparison to point the Koreans towards might be the reintegration of Eastern Europe into the European economy where liberal policy arrangements allowed the region to become an enormous success. One country, two systems, perhaps?

Henry Ford Democrats

Comment is Free carries a piece by Neil Clark attacking those who both espouse democracy and take issue with some, democratically elected, leaders. He likens this to Henry Ford's maxim that people could have his cars in any colour, so long as it was black (in reality the system ran batches of one colour for X number of cars).

This kind of democratic absolutism is massively ill-conceived. Imagine if we applied it to developed countries. Should the United States treat Britain and France exactly the same because it believes in democracy and both countries have democratically elected leaders?

The answer is clearly no. We do see it as preferable that people are allowed to elect their own leaders but these elections are choices and certain choices carry consequences. It is right that deciding to elect a party, like Hamas, which does not recognise the right of a neighbour to exist has consequences and it is right that we make those consequences clear.

Apply this to personal decisions. I believe in a person's right to gamble but I'm not going to compensate him for his losses. Protecting nations from the outcomes of their democratic choices takes positive liberty to a bizarre extreme.

Also, under the same "democracy is all" logic we should treat every non-democracy as a complete failure. Should we treat China like Myanmar, Pakistan like North Korea or modern Uganda like Uganda under Idi Amin? Probably not. Again, there are all sorts of things contributing to the question of how a state is good or bad that are not captured in democratic or not democratic and which should affect our policy response.

Democracy is, in principle, better than autocracy as it involves greater accountability, includes more people in decision making giving them a greater say over the conditions in which they live their lives and is less reliant upon the almost random choice of leaders chosen through heredity or through a military competition. However, that does not mean that the only divide between a good and bad country is whether or not it is democratic. As democratic countries can be have good and bad leaders it remains in the interests of ourselves, those democratic countries themselves and the world that we do our best to ensure that the good wins out.

Komodo Dragon > The Virgin Mary

Whereas the Virgin Mary only immaculately conceived once a Komodo Dragon has apparently managed it for quintuplets. Five little Komodo-messiahs are now apparently in rude health in Chester zoo; two more eggs are expected to hatch soon to make seven.

They're going to have to play elimination rock, paper, scissors for son of God then the rest can be disciples. Good times.

What I don't understand is this:

"Flora, who is part of a European breeding programme, was confirmed as a virgin mother-to-be last year when genetic fingerprinting on three of her eggs that collapsed showed she was both the mother and the father. The eggs are not clones, but all their DNA comes from Flora."


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Who's the greatest young(ish) Conservative blogger of them all?

PragueTory alerts me to a poll he is holding for the best young Conservative blogger. At twenty-three I still fit within this category thanks to the rather generous Tory intepretation of "young" and I am nominated. Go to his site and vote for me; it doesn't take a second and I'm clearly the best. Ha!

6 Weird Things About Me

I've been tagged by Jackart with a meme. It does what it says on the tin. Here goes:

1. Memoirs of a Geisha makes me think about Nietzsche.

2. I get inordinately frustrated by people who do anything but watch quietly during films, whether at the cinema or at home.

3. Every year I celebrate my birthday with close friends at an event called Mattmas which is a combination of a birthday party and Christmas Day held around December 10th (my birthday) but with a Christmas tree, turkey etc. It's sacrilicious.

4. I think Gladiator was a bad film. Really bad. On the other hand I think Kingdom of Heaven was utterly brilliant if, in some ways, flawed.

5. I have my own, real-life, catchphrases which get into the head of friends and then confuse strangers. A longstanding example is referring to everyone as "genius"; it works both affectionately and sarcastically and I can make it amusingly hard to tell the difference. I'd share more examples but they'll sound really strange, in person I can make the whole process somewhat verbally elegant.

6. I miss the Royal Festival Hall and regularly pine for its return despite only having gone there perhaps a dozen times.

I'll pass this one on to Dave Cole, Gracchii and Mr. Eugenides.

The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland is one of those rare films that isn't really very good but manages to avoid corrupting an absolutely magnificent central performance; this time from Forest Whitaker. Most of the film is a pretty clich├ęd tale of a young European being at first entranced then horrified by the contradictions of Africa. This story has been done many times before and much more convincingly. Equally, there is nothing terribly impressive about the artistic vision at work.

Equally, it is questionable whether the plot does its best to showcase Amin. It misses some of the more obvious events which might showcase the character; holding a press conference to rebut claims that he was a cannibal and feeding the assembled journalists people without their knowledge, for example. It also should have shown the rescue at Entebbe as the actual raid and Amin's response would have provided the film with important catharsis.

Still, Whitaker exudes such thorough and convincing instability and menace that he must surely be the favourite for the Oscar. He completely fills every room he is in. He actually makes the subservience of those around him credible which would seem the great challenge of playing a truly murderous dictator. I'm going to see Venus to confirm that Peter O'Toole hasn't done something marvellous to stop Whitaker deserving the prize but in any normal year it would clearly be his. Certainly DiCaprio for example, though an excellent actor, isn't in the same league in the role he is nominated for in The Departed.

First they came for the bloggers?

The ThunderDragon is promoting the UK Daily Pundit's e-petition to protect the blogosphere from censorship. I think that perhaps we overestimate our own importance. First, in terms of 'threat to the establishment' I'd think that Private Eye eclipses even Guido by such a distance as to make the blogosphere hardly worth the trouble of particular attention. Second, in a broader sense given that the British system is liberal enough to not "control the free flow of information, ideas and grassroots campaigns" offline why should we expect it to do so online?

Of course, the answer I'll get is that the voluntary code of conduct being proposed by the Press Complaints Commission is the start of a slippery slope towards censorship; "In November of last year the Press Complaints Commission called for a voluntary code of conduct covering blogs. This would undoubtedly be the first in a number of measures". Why exactly?

This is a particularly nebulous slippery slope because the PCC code of conduct has contributed to print journalism avoiding overly censorious government regulation by providing a less draconian means of restraint. The logic behind the argument that any call for restraint leads inexorably to control would seem to imply that the Euston manifesto was the first step towards the imprisonment of any socialist arguing for the appeasement of Islamism.

As the proposed code is voluntary it can't be enforced upon those who do not sign it. There is no reason to believe that we are more likely to get draconian control of blogging with it than without it. I might not sign up to the voluntary code but responding to it with petitions claiming free speech is fundamentally under attack is just melodramatic.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Labour let down the Armed Forces

Conservative Home links to a story in the Telegraph that UK defence spending is at its lowest level, as a proportion of national income, since 1930. This is an awesome failure of a Labour government which argues that Britain should remain a "war-fighting power" and which has deployed our military abroad liberally throughout its time in office. Those who give Blair credit for reconciling the Labour party to a robust foreign policy should note that military operations which are conducted without proper financial provision undermine the case for military action in future crises by giving the public the perception that Britain is not up to the task of war-fighting.

It is also an indictment of Brown's strategic vision which should cast doubt upon his suitability to become Prime Minister. That, while the other services have wasted large chunks of their huge influx of cash, the military has been forced to achieve so much without proper resources suggests that Brown was blindly following the Old Labour preference for welfare state services over security rather than attempting a more open-minded analysis which would have suggested that British foreign policy makes a substantial investment in our armed forces an absolute imperative.

Children and the Niqab

Mehrabian's classic study argued that in many common conversations 55% of communication is through body language; facial expression is by far the most important form of body language. Think about how much it would harm someone's interests to excise their vocal chords; wearing the Niqab has a similar effect on someone's ability to conduct social conversation although it is probably less significant in technical discussion. The importance of facial expression is illustrated by the incredible difficulties burn victims who lose the ability to smile face; it is instantly massively harder to set people at their ease or tell anything approaching a good joke and their relationships often suffer tragically.

Now, as adults people have a certain liberty to hurt their own interests in this way. Most of the harm to someone wearing the Niqab will be felt by themselves so there is little public good case to justify state intervention although Jack Straw was right to note that it undoubtedly harms race relations and others were right to argue that it was a very serious abuse of those pressured to wear it. However, the idea that a fourteen year old is able to make this choice is absurd and it is clearly a decision made by her parents. Now, while parental choice and authority is important we do take steps, such as the imposition of formal education, in order to ensure that parents cannot make their children unable to interact in mainstream society.

Iain Dale reported on Saturday that a School in Buckinghamshire is to face a legal challenge to its decision to prevent a student wearing the Niqab to school in contravention of its uniform policy. Iain focussed, in his article, upon the importance to discipline of the school's uniform being maintained but I think that it is, perhaps, more important that we defend this child's chance to grow up able to engage with those around her. While a ban on children wearing the Niqab might be too controversial not allowing it in school seems a fine way of ensuring that the child does at least have experience, and develops confidence, in engaging with those around her without the profound separation of hiding away her smile.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Will Hutton on the Chinese Satellite-Killer

This article is a lot more sensible, no great achievement, than his piece on Mao and focusses its analysis of the effects of the satellite-killer correctly upon the struggle over Taiwan. However, there is a lot of missing or flawed analysis and he sees the satellite-killer in purely military on military terms missing the deterrent effect which I think might be more important.

"China is the second largest military power in the world; it spends more than Britain, Germany and France combined. And the spending is very targeted. China is building up the arsenal it would need to invade Taiwan and hold off an attempt by the Americans and Japanese to relieve it, igniting one of the world's great flash points. No other explanation is possible."

Firstly, that statement about the military budget relative to the European powers is very contentious and based upon a Department of Defense estimate that has been challenged by a RAND study which suggests that Chinese military spending is still lower than that of the United Kingdom alone. In a broader analysis it should be remembered that it is still not even remotely close to US spending.

Secondly, the risks to China of a war are such, a broader war with the exceptionally well armed US and Japan, that the provisions it is making for a war are best understood not as a systematic plan aimed at recovering Taiwan but as contingency planning and deterrence building. It needs to do everything it can to both keep its options open in case of a crisis such as a Taiwanese declaration of independence and make its military threat such that the Taiwanese don't do so.

The next couple of paragraphs are an account of the fact that China these days is more nationalistic than communist and that Taiwan has great symbolic and political importance. All this is entirely sensible.

"But time is running out. Within Taiwan the use of the local Minnan dialect has soared, displacing Mandarin. Only 3 per cent of Taiwanese now support any form of re-unification. Since 2000 the Democratic Progressive party, pledged to a fully-fledged independent Taiwanese state, has won two presidential elections. Beijing is increasingly concerned that the possibility of recovering of Taiwan is slipping away."

The importance of the Minnan dialect reemerging is easy to overstate. Most Chinese regions have their own dialects and it would offer no obstacle to reintegration into a unified state. All it really indicates is a desire, on the part of the Taiwanese, to emphasise their own identity but this is unsurprising with a military threat from the mainland.

"An invasion would be high-risk. There is only operational airspace over Taiwan for 300 fourth-generation fighters; Taiwan has 300. It would take 1,000 landing craft up to a fortnight to move 30 infantry divisions across the Taiwan Strait - all the time exposed to American and Japanese retaliation. But if the US's command and control satellite network could be knocked out, suddenly the risks would be dramatically reduced. On top, the US is increasingly focusing its military effort in the Middle East. All China needs is a fortnight."

This underestimates the military risk China would take with attacking Taiwan. The RAND study which offers the best analysis of how an invasion might play out highlights serious weaknesses in the Chinese plans, in particular a massive deficiency in pilot training, inferiority of its fighter aircraft compared to the USAF and a lack of sufficient landing craft which makes an invasion without complete air superiority close to impossible.

While US satellites being knocked out would cause serious damage to US awareness and communications it would not, I believe, stop them fighting; they still have radar and radios. Equally, the Middle East is a red herring in this discussion because the US only needs a small fraction of its, vastly superior, airforce to make a Chinese invasion close to impossible and the main shortage being created by the Middle Eastern struggle is in infantry.

As such, the satellite killers make a difference but not a critical one in terms of the military struggle. Their most important effect has to be in terms of affecting the US will to fight both by making the military struggle more difficult and threatening significant costs to the US civilian infrastructure in retaliation for any US bombing of the mainland if the Chinese start firing these missiles indiscriminately.

"China says it wants treaties - it claims to want a treaty to prevent the militarisation of space - while pursuing balance-of-power politics. It will block India and Japan winning seats on the UN Security Council, thereby guaranteeing the ongoing dysfunctionality of the UN. China is the rogue state par excellence, all the while claiming it is quite the opposite.

Its unintended ally is George W Bush. China can make its plea for international treaties knowing that the unilateralist US will refuse. Bush then plays Bismarkian politics in Asia, backing Japan - but with dwindling military power. Talk of building a defence mechanism against a Chinese attack on American satellites is for the birds; the expense, given Iraq, and technological complexity make it impossible.

The pass has been sold. China can do what it wants. If there is unrest within, the party will turn increasingly to nationalism and perhaps even war. It shows that every aspect of globalisation, from space to trade, has to be governed by international treaty and the rule of law. The US reaction to last week should not be a star-wars arms race, but to comprehend the new realities and to respond by multilateral engagement. It won't, so it is no longer scaremongering to warn of the small, but growing risk, of a devastating Asian war."

Any description of US military power as "dwindling" should raise alarm bells. The US army may have proved ineffective in post-war management in Iraq but its collosal firepower should not be underestimated and would be the important quality in a defence of Taiwan. What may be dwindling is the US willingness to fight wars in defence of Western interests and the credibility that it will do so.

Of course, satellite defence may well be pie in the sky thinking but given that the Chinese were attacking their own satellite, removing targetting difficulties, the missile might not be perfectly effective. A sensible response might well be just to built greater redudancy into the satellite network. I.e. build more satellites so that if some get knocked out the military capability survives.

The final paragraph is pure boilerplate. Multilateralism with what objective exactly if China is unwaveringly focussed on recovering Taiwan and we do not want to abandon the island to that fate?

This whole casting of the problem as one of careful Bismarkian manoevring seems flawed to me. The CCP, at the moment, is focussed on growth rather than national glory because it can deliver breackneck growth and, while it does, its people will put demands for administrative reform on the back burner. However, the problem comes when this growth slows or stops and when China is tempted to look to nationalistic fervour to ensure its legitimacy. The danger isn't China's leaders imitating Bismark; the danger is that they will imitate Galtieri. The best response appears clear, to make it obvious, in a way it was not to Galtieri, that if Taiwan is attacked the Western alliance will fight.