Friday, April 06, 2007

DK sticks up for the Bloggers

This defence of blogging by DK is absolutely brilliant. He defends political blogging as the beautiful, varied mess that it is and should be. In particular, he is right to note the importance of links to sustaining a proper debate. I really can't think of much to add. Well, one thing:

"Fuck them: it's their loss. The rest of us will carry on commentating, linking to our sources, researching, analysing, hassling our elected representatives for answers, and attempting to tell the truth (from whatever political perspective that might come)."

Not only will we carry on. We'll win. Particularly for the young, the Internet is fast becoming one of the most important sources the public uses to get the news. As people become more comfortable with reading the news on the Internet they will then expect to complement reporting with analysis, comment and the like. The diversity and debate which can be found in the blogosphere will be very attractive.

UK political blogging is still in its infancy. The final shape of the blogosphere will probably be quite different to its form today. However, blogs are here to stay and are only going to become more important. DK has described why that is a very good thing.

Where have we gone wrong?

I recently spent the best part of three thousand words fisking a particular view of what has gone wrong with our society put forward by Tom Paine. Recently there was a similar effort from James Higham. I'll address two key issues; the rise of widespread private borrowing and infringements on civil liberties.

First civil liberties, a theme Paine also spent some time discussing. Fretting that our liberties may not survive our fear is a noble activity. There are certainly some alarming changes which could wind up creating a serious problem but, for the moment, I think a certain sense of perspective is needed. Some oscillation in our priorities between liberty and security is to be expected and I see no reason that this particular attack on civil liberties should be the end of freedom in Britain where so many others have proved transient.

Where Paine worried about government debt Higham is concerned by the growth of private borrowing. He notes that a relatively short time ago people might borrow for a car or a house but would rely on debt for little else. I think that his perspective is too narrow. It is not so long ago that the credit which allowed the masses to make those large scale purchases would have been thought impossible. Expanding the availability of credit is an emphatically good thing. It gives a huge number of people flexibility in their consumption. This is a good thing whether that flexibility is used to 'smooth out' occasional large purchases or to take advantage of a large expected future income.

This does, as Higham says, make many people more vulnerable to grand economic trends. Borrowing is a risky business. However, the system is not as fragile as he suggests. In order to make the expansion of credit possible a range of new checks and sources of information and security have been put in place. While there is risk and people can go bankrupt we are sufficiently able to ensure that this is rare and contained enough that these risks are well worth taking.

Does all this defending the status quo mean that I am contented, happy about where our society is going? No. However, if I were to choose one part of our current society which is really in shoddy shape, where the problems look genuinely intractable, I know where I'd look. The problem is in our culture. While culture is affected by politics and economics I think that it is important culture is understood to be the central issue. The seemingly inexorable death, among large chunks of the population, of the culture of honesty and hard work and the understanding that you should be the first person responsible for looking after yourself and your family is alarming. Certainly the death of those values would make it close to impossible to defend civil liberties, build a state good at what it does or maintain trustworthy politics.

Theodore Dalrymple is, to my mind, the most the most persuasive writer on this subject. His archive at City Journal is well worth perusing but, if forced to choose a single post, read The Frivolity of Evil from 2004. Despite his brilliance I'm not convinced Dalrymple really has a coherent programme to answer the issues he identifies; his contribution is to identify what is going wrong.

Fixing this problem is likely to be hard, complex and politically risky. The solutions to really serious problems invariably are. It will probably take time and a series of changes to our social and economic policy. However, the absence of easy answers should not be taken as a reason to focus only upon problems which are simpler and, hence, more conducive to getting angry.

Carnival of Cinema

A new Carnival of Cinema is up. Lots of good posts and it's nice to see I'm not alone in my opinion of Children of Men. Sinclair's Musings is represented by my post on The Blue Kite.

Video Blogging, Podcasting and other Sins

Video blogging, podcasting and any other means of blogging that doesn't involve text written into a web page makes me angry. It seems fair to make an exception for those with a genuine reason for a different medium. However, I think that most video blogs or podcasts are just a medium for the blogger to communicate their deep love for their own voice.

Reasons video blogging/podcasting is a bad idea:

1) It makes links impossible. Links are crucially important to making blogging an interactive forum for discussion. They allow the writer to introduce new writers, reference arguments and cite facts. Without them blogging is just a soapbox.

2) Most bloggers are bad at it. Either they're ugly or poor speakers who stutter, get lost and generally make a mess of their time in the 'spotlight'. To see a professional journalist juxtaposed with a blogger watch Guido's crushing encounter with Michael White and Jeremy Paxman.

3) It is creepy. When I'm reading and thinking about politics at three in the morning I already feel more than enough self-loathing for being a nerd. I don't need to feel like a voyeur as well. This is why the long monologue format is rarely used by TV or radio and why I read at night.

4) It forces me to turn off my music.

The Meaning in Children of Men

I’ve described Children of Men as, by some distance, the best film of last year. I’ve described V for Vendetta as a vapid apology for terrorism. Now, one of the best US blogs - the American Scene - endorses the view, expressed by Daniel Larison, that they are distinctly similar. The reviews they cite may not dislike V for Vendetta quite as much as I did but they see both films as being intellectually and spiritually empty (requires free registration). Children of Men is thought to have come off better only thanks to director Alfonse Cuaron’s consummate cinematic talent. I won’t bother rehashing my attack on V for Vendetta as it seems unnecessary but it seems important to leap to Children of Men’s defence.

A large part of my disagreement with the reviewers is that I actually think that the film’s portrayal of the government is somewhat sympathetic. The government in this film is compromised and commits some truly evil acts but, in the end, there was something heroic in their desperate but probably vain attempt to hold a dying society together. It portrays their crimes frequently and certainly does not seek to absolve them of guilt but this is only one element of their treatment. During the scenes where Theo meets his cousin, the Arts Minister, the effort to defend humanity’s greatest creations from our collapse might come across as futile to some. To me it seemed a heroic defiance of fate in the name of our higher instincts. Similarly, during the climactic fighting it is the rebels who restart the battle after it has been stopped by the child’s crying. This is a portrait of a society dying and a government doing all it can to defend the best in the society it stewards.

In this light the government’s deplorable actions come across somewhat differently. An anti-immigration stance may not make good economic sense with a rapidly declining population but if you are fighting a hopeless battle for stability is probably sensible. Sid and the other really unpleasant characters on the government side are those brutal men who do well out of brutal times requiring brutal measures. Their failure is not of being on the wrong side but of being uncaring and inhuman. The allusions to Abu Ghraib point to the same problem in Iraq. The coalition labours at the near impossible task of holding the Iraqi state together despite huge internal pressures and, in the process, succumbs to evil.

Similarly, if this film were really all about the evils of our tyrannical government the rebels would be portrayed as heroes fighting the good fight. Instead many are shown to be unrealistic, unfeeling and fractious. The morally best among them are forced out or killed by the bad. Neither the government nor the rebels have a ‘right’ answer of how to respond to the death of humanity because there is no right answer. The desperation that this creates as neither side can offer a solution turns the good intentions of many on both sides to evil.

The hero’s defining quality is, therefore, not that he is on the right side but that he avoids the moral failings present in both sides. Although his back story is that he used to be a rebel his first instinct on finding that the girl he is safeguarding is pregnant is to argue that she should be sent to the government as they can provide proper care. The claim from some of the rebels that this would result in the government removing the child from its mother is never substantiated. He is not the hero because he is on the right side, because he is particularly strong or otherwise able. He is a hero because he is caring and trustworthy. This is shown in one of the film’s more wonderful little details as dogs and cats sense that he can be trusted and take to him. In Children of Men evil doesn’t pass through political factions but through human hearts. That is why this film is so much more convincing and real than V for Vendetta. This is also a conservative understanding of humanity which, although this is a completely secular film, the religious should appreciate.

One of the charges laid against the film version is that it is rather small minded as it does not have a clear idea of what the meaning of a world without children is and the advent of a new child is largely a personal affair rather than socially important. However, I think that the importance of the lack of children is spelt out beautifully. Without children the world loses purpose. The loss of that hope for the future is what makes existence in Children of Men’s world so dismal. As such, while P. D. James’ book may have been about the loss of God this film offers a secular replacement; hope. That a new child is not expected to prove a panacea is an inspired change to the story from the original. What the new child offers is not a solution to all society’s problems but a new hope that there can be a purpose and meaning to our labours. This film is, perhaps, an important lesson in how terrible the fate of being the Last Man really is. This seems timely.

I can’t claim any special insight into Cuaron’s intentions in making Children of Men. It is possible that he meant to make a hackneyed moral opera like V for Vendetta but his cinematic instinct and source material got the better of him. If so I would be disappointed but it wouldn’t change anything. Cuaron has committed his film to the ages and it is indelibly marked with a far more noble understanding of morality than the false simplicities of V. This is a film about the qualities of real heroes. It is a film about the importance of purpose. A great film.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Blue Kite

"Hero" was one of the most beautiful films ever made but its politics are a little suspect. It treats the First Emperor, idol of Mao and most other Chinese tyrants, far too sympathetically. Its political content is a case for accepting the brutalities of your leaders in the name of unity and stability. Most Chinese films are not as obviously political and most have less sinister messages. Consider a couple of Zhang Yimou's other efforts: "House of Flying Daggers" is a story about a yearning to be free although it is never really drawn in political terms. "Not One Less" is a realist drama about the value of education. There is politics in these films if you wish to find it but they hardly constitute a defiance of the regime. Zhang Yimou's art is no challenge to the CCP.

Of course, his not challenging the regime is hardly a crime. Chinese people have been under the CCP's rule for some time and have to come to some kind of accomodation while direct pressure for change faces such poor odds. Resistance is a noble thing but not for everyone.

However, there is at least one really brave Chinese political film which provides a glimpse into the reality of China's troubled 20th century under Communism. "The Blue Kite", directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang, was banned and got its director barred from film-making for six years. It is rather hard to get hold of, you can get a VHS copy of an ICA edition via Amazon but that's it. It is about the sufferings of a family during the Anti-Rightist campaigns, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. The story revolves around a mother and child and how their family is torn apart by political currents beyond their control. The Blue Kite of the title is an allusion to this. Dragged hopelessly to its destruction on a tree. It is a similar story to Jung Chang's "Wild Swans".

The difference is that this story is told from the point of view of a child. This reduces the amount of historical detail which makes the film more manageable and heightens the emotional impact. There is a genuinely wrenching feel to the family's suffering and the betrayal of innocence involved. Accounts of the suffering of China in the twentieth century are, and might remain if the CCP remains in power beyond the death of most of those involved, very rare. This is a priceless insight into the emotional story of those times.

The acting is unpretentious and effective. Visually the film is largely realist but sometimes lets itself go and attains a real beauty. In particular, the iconic images of the blue kite itself or the children running with their toys. There is a beauty to this film which turns the emotional feel of the travails of the family from horror to real tragedy.

If you can find it do watch this film.

Hostages Freed

It has been announced that as a "gift" to Britain the 15 sailors captured by Iran will be freed. This is great news and some confirmation that a diplomatic approach was worth persevering with.

One interesting side effect of this crisis is that a lot of people have done a lot of thinking about how we can influence Iran without direct military action and even with limited multilateral support. Attacking export credit guarantees or attempting to cut off their gasoline supply through a blockade and attack on their one refinery were the most recent suggestions. Isn't it worth considering those as responses to the Iranian nuclear programme?

Another interesting side effect is a lot of questions about British power, the British military and the British spirit. A lot of questions have been raised but very few answers offered. Those answers are clearly a key project for the coming months and years. The importance of addressing these questions has been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis.

Some New Perspectives on Iran

First, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, writing for ConservativeHome, has a refined version of the policy put forward by EU Referendum. Instead of blanket trade sanctions he wants the EU to stop export credit guarantees to Iran. This is rather more consistent from Rifkind as he has some faith in the EU than it is coming from an EU nihilist. However, the problems seem similar. Firstly, the EU moves slowly particularly on issues like this where there is no real national interest for countries like Germany in favour of tough action against Iran. As the EU moves so slowly it would be very easy for the Iranians to use brinksmanship to undermine any ultimatum. Rifkind suspects that direct talks may be part of just such a strategy to delay and divide international opinion by appearing reasonable. The EU has a poor record in maintaining its unity in the face of calls for talks and other such delaying strategies.

Second, Newt Gingrich proposes the first thought out hardcore reaction I've heard:

"HH: Now let's get to the first major issue of the day, which is Iran. Mr. Speaker, if the United Kingdom feels obliged to use force, if diplomacy fails to get their people back, will you applaud?

NG: I think there are two very simple steps that should be taken. The first is to use a covert operation, or a special forces operation, to knock out the only gasoline producing refinery in Iran. There's only one. And the second is to simply intercede by naval force, and block any tankers from bringing gasoline to Iran ...

HH: Would you do? Would you urge them ...

NG: And say to the Iranians, you know, you can keep the sailors as long as you want, but in about 30 days, everybody in your country will be walking.

HH: So how long would you give them, to give them that ultimatum, the Iranians?

NG: I would literally do that. I would say to them, I would right now say to them privately, within the next week, your refinery will no longer work. And within the following week, there will be no tankers arriving. Now if you would like to avoid being humiliated publicly, we recommend you calmly and quietly give them back now. But frankly, if you'd prefer to show the planet that you're tiny and we're not, we're prepared to simply cut off your economy, and allow you to go back to walking and using oxen to pull carts, because you will have no gasoline left.

HH: I agree with that 100 percent. Would your recommendation to the United States president be the same if Iran seized our forces?

NG: Absolutely. I mean, the reason I say that, it is the least violent, least direct thing you can do. It uses our greatest strength ... you know, the mismatch in naval power is absolute. And so you don't have to send troops into Iran. Everybody on the left is waiting for conservatives to say things that allow them to run amok and parade in San Francisco, and claim that we're warmongers. I want to avoid war by intelligently using our power to eliminate the option of sustaining an economy, so that the Iranian dictatorship will be shown to be the hollow dictatorship it is, so the people of Iran decide they'd like to have a decent government with real electricity and real gasoline, so they overthrow it. And I want to do that without risking a single American life, or being engaged in a single direct confrontation. And naval power lets you do that."

There are a few questions I would raise over this proposal.

Firstly, this policy would almost certainly require US support. It seems plausible, although not certain, that the US would regard a possible backlash in Iraq as too big a risk to take over the hostages. Without US support our underfunding of the Navy would be exposed and we might suffer another Suez, forced to climb down in embarassing fashion. The only way around this would seem to be to make the hostages a package along with an end to the Iranian nuclear programme. Such a combination would involve a national interest sufficient to justify the expense and risks of a blockade.

Secondly, I'm honestly unsure as to the extent that Iran could avoid such a blockade by importing over land. Finally, if diplomacy can prove successful in securing the release of the hostages then this probably isn't the time we would choose for a serious confrontation with Iran. Our militaries are too stretched and insufficient time has been given to properly prepare the ground with our allies. Frum's argument that this crisis can be seen as a part of that process if handled well is convincing. Given that we are putting no serious obstacles in the way of their nuclear weapons programme at present a judgement has clearly been made that now is not the time for taking action against Iran. This caution is not going to be abandoned thanks to a small number of hostages.

A Nation of Monarchists

It shouldn't come as a surprise that, as a nation, we're staunchly supportive of the Queen but still these figures, via the Dude, are amazing:

"Q Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way the Queen is doing her job as Monarch?

Satisfied Dissatisfied Net satisfied
% % ±%
Dec 1992 75 17 +58
Feb 1996 74 16 +58
Dec 1997 72 21 +51
Mar 1998 66 20 +46
Aug 1998 73 18 +55
29-30 June 2000 71 17 +54
24-26 May 2002 82 12 +70
20-22 Apr 2006 85 8 +78"

These numbers might be thought to indicate that the monarchy will be vulnerable when the Queen is succeeded. Prince Charles is probably less popular but the monarchy as a whole should be fine. The public feels a lot of affection for the two princes thanks to the combination of their choosing to serve in the Army and sympathy for the loss of their late mother. Support for them will keep the monarchy just as popular as ever. Even without their popularity the monarchy does not seem vulnerable to the cynicism directed at other institutions. Britons are deeply attached to the Crown.

This could be an indication of a deep-seated patriotism which is failing to find expression. Rallying around the monarchy would seem to be a very British response to uncertainty about our place in the world. Until our political class can better articulate what our nation is about the monarchy will be an island of certainty and tradition in a sea of confusion and change.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The EU is investigating Apple

A little while ago the French came pretty close to ruling the tying of iTunes and iPods anti-competitive but backed down. In Microsoft's case it was ruled, in the US and Europe, to be acting unfairly by merely packaging Media Player in with Windows. Users could still delete or replace Media Player and the replacement would function with Windows. By comparison, iTunes and an iPod only work with each other and no other hardware or software. The difference in treatment can only really be explained as a delayed reaction on the part of the authorities or Apple's hippyish, anti-establishment brand allowing it to sneak under the radar. Part of the reason the French are thought to have backed off is that Apple threatened to withdraw the service from France on the grounds tying is essential to their licensing system.

I'm not convinced the case against Microsoft was ever that strong. There are plenty of alternatives to Windows and if being given Media Player was really such a hassle I expect PC suppliers and customers would move pretty quickly. In reality Microsoft were just adding functionality and if competitors were good enough their software would be added by users or PC manufacturers in addition to the Microsoft software. In much the same way, while Apple's lead in hard-disk MP3 players may look formidable right now there is no reason to suspect that customer ill-will cannot kill this pretty quickly. There are alternatives which mean people could avoid buying iPods.

Now the FT reports that the European Commission is investigating Apple but not in an investigation of tying. The EU Commission is actually sticking to its brief for once and ensuring that the common market functions properly. Apple is being investigated for not allowing EU customers to shop from any EU store. This came up after Which magazine found that British customers were being charged significantly more than customers in other EU countries. Apple's defence, that this was insisted upon in licensing negotiations, just raises more questions as that means the problem is a broader one in the music industry.

The hypothetical of the commission taking antitrust action against Apple over the same issue as the French would have been very interesting. It would have offered quite a test of the power of pooled sovereingty.

The Political Right's Separation Anxiety on TCS Daily

TCS Daily carries a piece I have written which argues that we need to renew the classical liberal-conservative alliance. Here's the blurb:

"The libertarian-conservative alliance is undergoing significant strain of late. But conservatism can strengthen classical liberalism by defending its gains in times of plenty. In return, classical liberals can give direction to conservatism and offer it prescriptions in hard times."

Go read.

Where is China headed?

This morning I read “Mr. China”, Tim Clissold’s account of the travails of a fund he was involved with investing in China between 1995 and 2002. He describes how Western investors lost their investment to incompetent or evasive managers and politics. It is a cautionary tale of optimism coming to grief in the face of a culture that the investors could not understand. Despite this I am not convinced that Westerners are the ones who should be most concerned by this book. Losing even staggering amounts of capital like the amount sunk into China is mostly a concern for those who lost it and has little lasting effect on our way of life. By contrast, the effects that the culture of venality which the book exposes will be having on China will already be huge and could become catastrophic.

The best account I’ve read of the origins of the Asian Financial Crisis is that provided by John Shuhe Li. He argues that it was the result of a move from relation-based to rules-based governance. Relation-based governance offers a sensible way to overcome transaction and information costs in a lesser developed economy as businesspeople gain a first hand knowledge of those they transact with. This allows them to trade and invest even when contracts are hard to specify and enforce and information on different supplies is scarce. Rules-based governance is more transparent and offer lower transactions costs later on as the advantages of more dispersed trading increase and information costs fall. The problem is with the transition where a business culture used to relation-based governance misuses the possibilities created by financial liberalisation. It was this transition going wrong that caused the Asian Financial Crisis.

Relation-based governance was smeared as “crony capitalism” by Krugman which did not give the system credit for what it did well. However, in China, where in much of the country “the hills are high and the emperor far away” as one character in Mr. China opines, it is closer to the truth. Unaccountable local officials still wield huge amounts of power in the economy. This will increase the misallocation of resources that, through a lack of transparency, is the major cost to relation-based governance. This, in turn will make the transition to a more liberal system still more risky.

I think that this source of crisis is the most plausible for China. However, even if this is not the final cause we can be sure that it can’t maintain its current rate of growth indefinitely. It could be a severe slowdown elsewhere in the global economy reducing demand, spikes in commodity prices or any one of a host of other factors. When this happens the political trade off in China with the Chinese accepting severe restrictions on their freedoms in return for a promise of high growth will be placed under severe stress. There will be political pressure and the government will be able to respond in one of three ways:

1. Crack down. Given their success in the past it might well be that the Party leadership will believe they can maintain order by force indefinitely. This is the tried and tested option but risks doing further damage to the economy or provoking a backlash and revolution.

2. The Galtieri strategy. Take an aggressive foreign policy stance and stoke up nationalistic fervour. This could actually be quite a sensible option from their point of view if it was thought that the West would not intervene to protect the target, probably Taiwan. If America is looking weak and it appears likely that it will not choose to bear the cost of war with the PRC to protect Taiwan then the prospect of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland and securing enormous popularity might be worth the risk. To prevent this option looking enticing the US needs to find some way of making a credible commitment to defend Taiwan. One way might be to station some fighter planes on the island in hardened bunkers. The US lead in that technology is so strong that even a small force would be significant and it would not need to be as vulnerable as the trigger forces in South Korea.

3. Liberalise. In particular, even if elections were limited to local officials that would make them accountable to the populace and might reduce petty abuse and corruption. These local officials and their misdemeanours are responsible for so many of the worst problems in China. However, this strategy or any other further liberalisation would probably be discredited by a crash and the Party are very wary of the trap Gorbachev fell into.

It is far from certain that China will experience a crash but it will experience a slowdown and this will cause an upsurge in the, already widespread, restlessness in large parts of China. I’d say that the chances of a Galtieri-style foreign policy adventure are quite low but the possibility is very real and the consequences could be truly dire. Good old fashioned deterrence is the way for the US to stop this happening. There isn’t a lot that the West can do to affect the chances that a liberal response will be preferred to an authoritarian one.

In the long-term I’m hopeful. The impression that I took away from my brief time in China was that there was no good reason that we should not get along. Clissold chose to end his book with the same message. There is no advantage to a confrontation for either side and the logic that great powers should necessarily clash seems small minded. We should not let the Chinese leadership imagine that we will allow them to abuse their new power but equally we should not treat a showdown with China as a foregone conclusion. Adding so many millions to the population of the rich, stable and free world is such an opportunity.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An Idea I Had

During a rather bizarre argument about foreign policy I had a brainwave. One of the major harms that could result from global warming is rising sea levels. This means our problem is too much water where we don't want it. We can either try to reduce the total amount of water so that levels don't rise, i.e. stop warming and ice-cap melting, or we can channel it somewhere else.

I.e. if we were to dig a really big hole at the bottom of the ocean all the water would drain there.

Can anyone give me a good reason why that wouldn't work?