Saturday, April 21, 2007


I have, at last, managed to move this blog to New Blogger. Very exciting.

Sorry there were no posts yesterday. A combination of being very tired and going on 18DoughtyStreet (combining the two is a bad idea). There probably won't be anything substantial today either as I'm off to the park, taking the train to Letchworth and then going drinking. Normal service should be resumed on Sunday.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gracchi's further thoughts on Labrador Conservatism

Gracchi responded again to my arguments for a 'Labrador conservatism'.

His first argument is that I have only confronted the soft judgement of pronouncing immoral someone who does not look after their children properly rather than someone who does but is unmarried. He is right that I cited the case of a man who serially abandoned his children which is an easier case. Now, of course marriage does not trump all other moral concerns. I know parents who have done a perfectly good job despite not being married. They are certainly morally superior to the married couple who beat their children or each other.

However, on balance marriage is a morally superior choice. Even if people can do a good job raising their children without being married that is a rejection of genuine commitment. Marriage isn't just one more way to reach the ideal of a stable family unit. It is inseparable from the taboos and standards that ensure commitment to family and children in our society. Rejecting a social commitment when children are involved is, all else equal, an immoral choice.

Of course, a single parent may be unmarried through no fault of their own thanks to avoiding some abuse, being abandoned or facing serious, irreconcilable, differences that makes marriage cause more harm than good. They clearly deserve little criticism. However, this doesn't invalidate the wider moral judgement. I can't be a philanthropist like Bill Gates but that doesn't mean his choice of philanthropy can't be a morally good thing.

He is right that I am supporting marriage to some end. However, this is as true for religious conservatives who see marriage as fulfilling God's design for human relations as for me believing it is a fine social arrangement. Very few people think of marriage as a good genuinely in itself.

Second, Gracchi sets up an absurd dichotomy on the idea of financial incentives to marriage. He argues I have to either believe that fiscal policy can make no difference to the marriage decision or that it will trap people into abuse. I've already set out my view on the true effects of fiscal incentives:

"I would argue that marginal financial incentives are unlikely to either 'create' marriages or sustain them through serious abuse. It will affect those marginal cases of marriages which have gone a little stale or are going through a rocky patch. In these cases the huge social costs of divorce suggest we should want people to err on the side of staying married. At the moment, with a tax system which will often leave people better off if they divorce, we do the opposite and incentivise divorce."

Apply Gracchi's dichotomy to the labour market. Does he believe that the salary someone is offered makes no difference to the job they take or that if offered a pound an hour more we'd all readily become human guinea pigs?

Gracchi's final argument is a mish-mash of returning to the question of whether I am willing to make a moral judgement about marriage and a consideration of the relationship between politics and policy. He has completely missed the point on the distinction between politics and policy. I'm not suggesting politicians should ignore the detailed impacts of policy. The debate we're having above is clearly crucial prior to putting in place fiscal incentives to marriage.

However, politics isn't just about policy. Politics should, and I'll quote myself again here, "embrace a broader debate over how our society should be ordered rather than treating every problem as a policy brain teaser." If David Cameron's talk of marriage results in no policy at all he will still have done the nation an enormous service if he can effectively make the case that we should not "treat criminals like victims, parents like children and moral judgement like some kind of plague." While good policies can make a difference changing social attitudes is the more crucial objective.

Obama should learn when to keep quiet

In trying to sound terribly profound Obama actually equates hearing the words of Don Imus and losing your job to outsourcing with being murdered in the Virginia Tech shootings:

"As you all know 33 people lost their lives today, this morning. Most of them were of the age of many of the young people in this audience, they were going to class, they had their lives in front of them, their parents were proud of them and looking forward to having them home for summer or visiting them on campus and their lives were cut short in a tragic and random fashion.


There's also another kind of violence though that we're gonna have to think about. It's not necessarily physical violence but that the violence that we perpetrate on each other in other ways. Last week, the big news, obviously, had to do with Imus and the verbal violence that was directed at young women who were role models for all of us, role models for my daughter. I spend, along with my wife, a lot of time making sure that my two young daughters, who are gorgeous and tall and I hope will get basketball scholarships, that they feel good about who they are and that they understand they can do whatever they can dream might be possible. And for them to be degraded, or to see someone who looks like them degraded, that's a form of violence - it may be quiet, it may not surface to the same level of the tragedy we read about today and we mourn, but it is violence nonethesame.

We [inaudible].... There's the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under 'em because their job has moved to another country. They've lost their job, they've lost their pension benefits, and they've lost their health care and they're having to compete against their teenage children for jobs at the local fast food place paying $7 an hour."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Brown's Air Passenger Duty Rise Increases Emissions

The Sun is terribly impressed by "Stormin' Gordon" pointing out that "the Tories have NO plans to reinstate the pensions dividend he axed in 1997". Given that the Tories have made clear they plan to put alternate arrangements in place to reverse the damage (ending stamp duty on shares has been suggested) this is a pretty lame rebuttal.

Barely a day goes by when evidence doesn't come to light of some new Brown incompetence. Now this research by Mayor and Tol (who was cited by the BBC protesting at Stern's misrepresentation of his work) for the Economic and Social Research Unit in Dublin suggests that Brown's increase in Air Passenger Duty was a shoddy idea even without applying it retroactively like a crazy person:

"We use a model of domestic and international tourist numbers and flows to estimate the impact of the recent and proposed changes in the Air Passenger Duty (APD) of the United Kingdom. We find that the recent doubling of the APD has the perverse effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions, albeit only slightly, because it reduces the relative price difference between near and far holidays."

That's right. He's doubled the tax on flights and succeeded in slightly increasing carbon dioxide emissions from air travel. Brilliant.

Apparently the Tory plans, which only tax flights beyond a certain number of miles per person, are better. The allowance for short range flights mitigates the Air Passenger Duty distortion. However, the Conservative proposal would have roughly the same effect as abolishing Air Passenger Duty. Why can't we just do that!

This is almost a textbook example of unintended consequences. A poorly worked out policy which will have the opposite effect to that intended. At the same time it places an increased burden on ordinary Britons taking well-earned holidays. Yet more evidence that Brown should be in mortal fear of losing his current job rather than expecting promotion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Labour's attack on the SNP

I've been looking for this advert. Good old fashioned negative advertising.

The SNP attacked this ad on the grounds one of the 'ordinary people' talking about the impact the SNP could have on their lives used to be a senior Labour official. While I'm no fan of the Labour Party this argument doesn't hold much water. Former Labour officials will pay, just like everyone else, if the SNP is elected and the Labour party right about the consequences.

In the end, the families are there to illustrate how ordinary families will be affected. Even if they were all actors they could still convey that message. The advert is honest if it gives an accurate portrayal of how ordinary people's lives would be changed by an SNP victory. Whether those in front of the camera are actually 'ordinary' is unimportant.

Don't mention the war...

I almost feel dirty for rebutting this idiocy. Hillary Benn is trying to stop people using the term 'War on Terror'.

The whole concept of making a decision to remove a term from common usage disturbs me. First, it betrays a complete failure to prioritise properly. Call the war on terror what you like. The Labour party should be thinking about how we win it and the idea the name is in any way central to that is an admission of a lack of serious ideas. Second, it is very Orwellian. Worried that your popularity has been hurt by the poor conduct of a war. There's a simple solution. Stop talking about it, diminish its existence and you can pretend those failures are far less important.

"Downing Street distanced itself yesterday from an attack by Hilary Benn on theBush administration's strategy for the "war on terror", in which he claimed military force alone would not defeat al-Qa'ida."

Of course military force alone won't defeat Al Qaeda. How many wars have been won by military force alone?

Even those wars fought againt well defined enemies and with the objective of unconditional surrender, such as the World Wars, are not entirely military. Diplomacy is important. Rallying your population such that your country does not drop out is important. Industrial capacity is, historically, more important than military brilliance.

In most counter-insurgency wars such as Malaya the importance of non-military actions to winning the war increases. Hearts and minds, the broader political struggle, is often the crucial battlefield with military action focussed on enabling this process to take place.

The Cold War was an ideological struggle as much as anything. Does that mean the term 'war' was innapropriate in that case as well?

Of course, the modern usage of the term 'war' doesn't necessarily imply any military struggle at all. We have a 'war on poverty', 'war on drugs' and 'price wars'. The headline in the Telegraph article I cited the other day when discussing the Euro was "Super-euro may spark a currency war while French battle the ECB". Does this mean that the French are planning on sending special forces to assassinate Mr. Trichet? Does this mean we'll see an ECB militia fighting French troops in the streets of Brussels? Probably not.

"The International Development Secretary called, during a visit to New York, for the strategy to be redirected at winning the trust and support of communities where the terrorists prospered. He said he would not use the phrase "war on terror" - a favourite expression of President George Bush - because it helped to unite fragmented terrorist groups under one banner."

There's little sign that 'terrorists' in general are uniting under one banner. The LTTE in Sri Lanka and Al Qaeda still have little to do with each other. Of course, we have seen the IRA and the FARC working together in Columbia but neither is traditionally labelled as a target of the War on Terror. If the problem were really that the 'War on Terror' united terrorists we would expect a general unity between terrorists which clearly isn't forming.

If our enemies do seek to unite why does Benn think they will rely upon our rhetoric? Al Qaeda has its own language of the Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb which is far more convenient to its objectives as it describes a united Islam against the rest. The War on Terror, by contrast, could only ever unite terrorists under one banner. It is a far less effective tool to recruit the greater body of the malcontented who you seek to turn into terrorists.

"Mr Benn risked a diplomatic rift by lecturing the White House about the need to develop a more intelligent response to the challenges posed by terrorism. He said relying entirely on "hard power" - military force or economic measures - would not work. What was needed, he said, was "soft power" - listening and finding common ground on values and ideas."

There is a good case that there does need to be a change in how the War on Terror is conducted but it is important to be rather careful about what you mean when you say "listening and finding common ground on values and ideas". Who are we finding common ground with? Do they want to find common ground with us? Benn is probably referring to non-terrorist Muslims but this can hardly act as a substitute for action against terrorists, can it? It would have to be a complement unless one wishes to just take whatever the terrorists throw at us.

"Mr Benn said: "In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone and because this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives. It is the vast majority of the people in the world ... against a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world. By letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength." He said later: "Words do count and that is why, since this is not something we can overcome by military means alone, we need to find other ways of describing what the challenge is.""

Again, the idea that 'war' must mean a purely military project.

Any action taken by terrorists or against them will make them feel a part of something bigger. 9/11 must have made Al Qaeda members feel a part of something rather epic. Being hunted through Tora Bora by the coalition militaries might have given them a similar feeling although they might not have enjoyed it in that case. Terrorists are a part of something rather big when they kill scores of people. We're not going to convince them otherwise by controlling our language.

Hillary Benn's intervention is supposed to be a call for subtlety and nuance. Instead, it betrays a complete lack of serious thinking.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Green Party Conference 2100

This cartoon captures the absurdity at the heart of the really hair-shirt 'Contraction and Convergence', hippy brigade.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rogue Chancellor: 2.4 Nick Leesons

Nick Leeson collapsed the Barings Bank by losing £827 million. He lost his job, went to prison for four years in Singapore and won't be managing other people's money any time soon.

By contrast, Gordon Brown has lost over twice as much, £2 billion and he's going to be promoted to Prime Minister. Given more authority. The difference is that Leeson only had an old and important bank's capital to lose. He didn't have recourse to extorting ever money from the taxpayer to cover his losses.

Brown has destroyed one of the world's best funded pension systems and lost £2 billion going against advice from the Bank of England. He should be under pressure to resign. Why on Earth is he still entrusted with taxpayers' money? How is he still the favourite to be the next Prime Minister?

I'll be judgemental if I want to...

I disagree with a lot of Gracchi's response to my Labrador Conservatism piece. I've had to cut a fair bit as he had some very long paragraphs. Hopefully he'll correct me if I've lost any of the meaning:

"Matt's argument is much more non-judgemental than the traditional social conservative line."

I hope not. My argument was for separating social conservatism's moral judgement from a particular religious code. I think this is both a politically sensible move for social conservatives and is more persuasive to me because I'm not religious. However, to separate social conservatism from moral judgement altogether would be to kill it.

Take this section from Dalrymple's The Frivolity of Evil:

"The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient I have just described, a man aged 25 came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession of them. (Had a packet burst, he would have died immediately.) As it happened, he had just left his latest girlfriend—one week after she had given birth to their child. They weren't getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an instant.

I asked him whether he had any other children.

"Four," he replied.

"How many mothers?"


"Do you see any of your children?"

He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how his patients have elected to live, but I think I may have raised my eyebrows slightly. At any rate, the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval.

"I know," he said. "I know. Don't tell me."

These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way."

If being non-judgemental is really such a virtue, as Gracchi suggests and the British left enshrines, does that extend to this man's behaviour? Is he a victim of some tragic circumstance or irresponsibly, frivolously evil?

Gracchi, with a mind trained by academia into almost fractal subtlety, is far too attracted to any doctrine which promises to be calm, understanding and non-judgemental. However, in chasing the fools gold of being 'non-judgemental' we have created a culture unwilling to condemn the barbaric.

Gracchi may respond that he is quite willing to judge someone who repeatedly abandons his children. However, I think that when he judges even a call for social conservatism like my article through the prism of how 'judgemental' it is he has become a part of the problem. A subscriber to an intellectual perspective which regards moral judgement as passé. The result is social decay as the standards which civilisation depends upon are undermined.

"Instinctively there is a lot of good in these attitudes- but there are problems too about Matt's article. He launches into what I think is an ill advised attack on Harriet Harman's recent critique of David Cameron's marriage policies in the Guardian."

Wrong Harriet Harman piece. This is what I was responding to (I'll respond to the Guardian article later as Gracchi seems to like it).

"By endeavouring to promote marriage by building up its fortifications- by say making it tax advantageous to be married or stiffening divorce law- you may make it difficult for people to escape from relationships that are harming them and harming their children (children who are brought up by parents that loathe each other are often damaged in the long term by that- their ideas of how you behave in a relationship can often be adversarial and manipulatory). Furthermore if Matt like me deems it more difficult to bring up a child on your own than with someone else- if we make it more difficult through tax breaks and like measures to do that then probably the kids who are left, through no fault of their own, with parents who may, for no fault of their own, be alone will be penalised even more than they already are."

A little perspective will make it clear that that a fiscal incentive to marriage doesn't mean trapping people in abusive relationships. You can't have it both ways and argue that "few people will marry because of an extra hundred quid of benefit" but that, for the same benefit, they will take "domestic violence of all kinds, affairs and [...] emotional abuse".

I would argue that marginal financial incentives are unlikely to either 'create' marriages or sustain them through serious abuse. It will affect those marginal cases of marriages which have gone a little stale or are going through a rocky patch. In these cases the huge social costs of divorce suggest we should want people to err on the side of staying married. At the moment, with a tax system which will often leave people better off if they divorce, we do the opposite and incentivise divorce.

Gracchi then talks about a lot of possible counselling the state could offer. I'll respond to Harman's idea for divorce support in my response to her Guardian article but all this talk of other things we could do to help marriage seems largely tangential. I'll leave it out.

"But it is upon the policies that we should judge labrador conservatism."

Actually, it isn't.

I've criticised Gracchi in another thread for treating politics as some kind of machine with policy as levers which you pull for certain effects. For neglecting the importance of the debate around values and ideals. Politics is bigger than policy and should be concerned with our collective values.

When we as a society treat criminals like victims, parents like children and moral judgement like some kind of plague the results are truly dismal. Changing the state's behaviour, new policy, matters. However, changing social attitudes is the most important function of a renewed social conservatism. Just as education board disciplinary procedures can't defend free inquiry the state can't save the family. Politics needs to embrace a broader debate over how our society should be ordered rather than treating every problem as a policy brain teaser.