Saturday, June 16, 2007

Dershowitz and Julius on the Boycott

This article on Times Online from Wednesday, addressing an issue I discussed on Thursday, is brilliant. It is the full-length version of a piece that appeared in the print version.

I'm not sure what else can be said in the intellectual case against the boycott. All that remains, as Daniel Finkelstein correctly points out, is to work out what we can do about it. My inclination is that some kind of protest would be a good idea. The UCU's Brittania Street headquarters looks like the right target.

Hamas and Fatah, Gaza and the West Bank

It would seem the best way to understand what's going on among the Palestinians right now is to combine Amir Taheri's piece for the Times and Con Coughlin's for the Telegraph.

First, the problem isn't that the Israeli, European and US cut in aid to Palestine has prevented Hamas properly governing the terroritories. As Coughlin notes there hasn't been a decline in donations to the Palestinians but there has been a redistribution of that income under Hamas:

"Hamas, on the other hand, sees economic deprivation as a form of political oppression. The World Bank reported that donors contributed about £375 million to the Palestinian territories in 2006, twice the amount they received in 2005. But since taking power, Hamas ensures any funds are spent on Islamic causes and its 6,000-strong militia, leaving the majority to fend for themselves."

Of course, the reason why Hamas have no interest in running the territories well is that they see them as a military base, as a staging post in the fight to destroy Israel. Few military bases are a pleasant place for a civilian to live. Taheri describes the problem:

"The constitution of Hamas, however, commits it to the creation of a single state. Gaza and the West Bank are regarded as bases from which the struggle for the liberation of the entire mandate of Palestine, that is to say the elimination of Israel, is pursued for as long as necessary."

Civilian suffering can even be an advantage if it provides helpful propaganda to assist the Hamas war machine, Coughlin:

"The bonus for Hamas is that, by forcing the majority of Palestinians to exist in dire poverty, it succeeds in attracting widespread sympathy from international do-gooders who do not understand the sadistic economic manipulation that is taking place."

Hamas is attempting to impose a Taliban-like state on areas under its control. From Taheri's article:

"Having won the general election 18 months ago, Hamas launched a drive to “Islamicise” Gaza, forcing women to wear the hijab and men to grow beards. It burnt down the last beer factory in Gaza and banned the sale of alcoholic drinks. Bands of youths calling themselves “Brigades of Enforcing the Good and Combating Evil” raid homes in search of alcohol, Western music and videos, unIslamic T-shirts and other “sinful items”. Young men and women found together in public, or even in private cars, are stopped and interrogated to make sure unmarried couples do not violate Sharia rules."

Hamas are far less interested in a struggle for a Palestinian state than they are in a general struggle for Islamist victory. This makes a stable two-state solution implausible as Hamas are unlikely to be satisfied with a Palestinian state. In fact, even if they were to achieve the destruction of Israel they are unlikely to be satisfied. Their interest is in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation of which they are a member, dream of worldwide domination.

What the West is going to have to realise, those that haven't already, is that the suffering of the Palestinians is emphatically not a result of Israeli policy. There have been numerous opportunities, most recently at Camp David, for the Palestinians to have a state within which they could work at building a better life for themselves. These were rejected. Now the Palestinian political leadership, elected freely and fairly by ordinary Palestinians, are setting out to ruin their people's chance at a better life preferring a struggle for the destruction of Israel. The suffering of the Palestinians, cause of so much self-righteous indignation in the corridors of the United Nations and the offices of the Guardian, is a consequence of choices they have made.

Israel's policy in the face of this has to be to look to its own defences. The logic behind the wall is looking stronger and stronger. The targetted application of military force can keep its enemies on the back foot. Western policy should be to do what we can to assist Israel in this task. In the longer term some kind of unilateral settlement with the Palestinians living in the non-state they've created for themselves and the Israelis doing their best to keep its affairs and theirs' separate might be the best outcome possible.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Discounting for Adaptation

Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change has been, politically, hugely important. It is regularly cited by politicians justifying stringent steps to curb emissions thanks to its headline estimate that the harms from climate change could cost 5-20% of global GDP “now and forever”.

Stern’s report has been politically important despite, or because of, making some rather suspect methodological choices. Many of these choices have since been heavily criticised by researchers. Richard Tol was cited throughout Stern’s report but branded it “alarmist and incompetent”. An example of this alarmism is Stern’s penchant for using “this could mean up to…” statements. In discussing the numbers of people facing flooding thanks to climate change and melting glaciers he describes how up to 200 million people could face homelessness. Applying the same standard to nuclear proliferation it would be easy to justify nearly any action on the grounds that damages could be as high as 100% of GDP lost and 100% of the human population dead. This is quite a common strategy in making a rhetorical argument in politics but has little place in a supposedly rigorous study.

However, no element of Stern’s methodology has been more controversial than the decision to use a near-zero discount rate:

Stern’s call for rapid action to curb emissions is based around treating harms and benefits across generations as equally important regardless of when they occur. The “now and forever” amount is actually a sort of average of harms over hundreds of years. The majority of the harms he bases his analysis of the total cost of climate change on occur after the year 2800. This is such a long time away that with even moderate discounting the estimate of harms would fall drastically. Relying upon such long time horizons has to raise some questions about the Stern report’s reliability. Firstly, there are philosophical questions over whether we should be treating harms to the environment of different eras with very different material conditions as equally important. These have been addressed throughout the literature but particularly by Nordhaus. One example, he describes how under the Rawlsian moral logic the current generation deserves preferable treatment to subsequent generations with the good fortune to be born in what will probably be much wealthier ages. This is the same logic used to justify helping the poor within the current generation. However, there are also less high-minded, more practical reasons to question how seriously harms hundreds of years into the future should be taken.

Nordhaus briefly raises the question of changing preferences. After hundreds of years will those who we are saving from emissions necessarily want the lower levels of carbon dioxide that we have provided for them?

Nordhaus’ gives examples of possible alternate priorities: perhaps people will prefer higher productivity so that they can “develop fiendish new weapons”. There are a host of reasons why our descendants might prefer that we maximise growth instead of making efforts to cut climate change. One more prosaic example could be the possibility that, in around fifty to a hundred years time, we perfect the process of generating power through nuclear fusion. That would allow for massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions at very little cost. A host of other technological changes could do the same job. That might cause our descendants to wish we had not taken action to curb emissions at a time when it is so expensive as we don’t have efficient alternatives to fossil fuels in place.

There are a host of other known unknowns and unknown unknowns that surround whether our descendants will value any cuts in carbon emissions we make. To illustrate the potential for surprises let’s pose a bizarre counterfactual. Suppose a Stern-like decision had been made during the Industrial Revolution. “We’re using coal at a dangerous rate and if it runs out we will lose a vital economic and strategic asset. To ensure that all generations take equal utility from limited stocks we have to impose taxes or rations on coal usage. Otherwise by the 21st century the UK will be utterly impoverished.” We would probably have a lot more coal right now but would be significantly poorer and history would not have looked kindly on those who made the decision.

Uncertainty over the value of decisions we make now to future generations is probably reason enough to be sceptical of near-zero discount rates. However, can we go beyond uncertainty and make an active case as to why our descendants are unlikely to value action now to curb climate change? I believe we can.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin laid out an important question. Why should we assume that our current level of emissions is the optimum?

“First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

It clearly depends upon the timescale one is referring to. In the long-term there probably isn’t much reason to think a little extra warmth and CO2 will be a good thing or a bad thing. Equatorial regions might suffer but it is entirely possible that this will be counterbalanced by areas like Greenland, which might become green again, and Siberia which will be better able to exploit its huge natural resources. However, in the short-term our society is built around a particular temperature. We have cities built in flood plains without proper protection, railways built in Siberia that will collapse if the permafrost melts. This is to be expected. Our society has been built with the context of a particular temperature and there will be costs if we ask it to adjust.

This balance of short and long-term harms highlights the true nature of the challenge of climate change: its transience. This has to be crucially important to any discussion of Stern’s discount rate. If we have no reason to assume that a higher temperature will be much better or much worse for humans apart from the transitional costs that come with social adaptation then the expected future harms from climate change should tend to zero over time. Working out just how long it should take before the change in climate has been adjusted to is a matter for some study but it seems unlikely it would take more than a couple of generations. Certainly the harms that Stern identifies beyond the year 2800 have to be written off as quite likely utterly irrelevant to humans who have learned to live with, or take advantage of, warmer climates.

If we make this adjustment it will make the estimate of the costs to climate change far more realistic. That realism should feed into our policy decisions. It should reinforce the impression that global warming is a change we should work to adapt to rather than a catastrophe worth ruining the world economy to avert.

600 Posts!

That last post on Professor Qvortrup was this blog's six hundredth post. I hope you've enjoyed them.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Yesterday I went to a Policy Exchange event with Theresa May and Professor Matt Qvortrop discussing the merits of referendums, or Citizen's Initiatives as he called them, and their capacity to reengage citizens with politics.

He was arguing for, as he described it, a "supply-side democracy". This is the idea that supplies of democracy create their own demand. If involved in decision making more often people will become more engaged in the political process. This seems fairly cogent. However, Qvortrup ruined his case with the methodology behind his paper The Voting Happiness Index which we were all given a copy of before the event.

I took a flick through it before the speech started and was alarmed. The report is filled with charts illustrating a correlation between various 'goods' from happiness to green politics to voter turnout. He used this as evidence that voter turnout led to all these good things.

Now, if you're going to argue that various good things are caused by voter initiatives a correlation is of very limited use. All a correlation suggests is some kind of relationship. It seems just as plausible that high democratic involvement, caused by some factor not in the study such as historical differences, was the driving force behind not just the other good things about Citizen's Initiative states but also the existence of Citizen's Initiatives in the first place. A state with a more democratically active citizenry is, after all, far more likely to be able to justify running referenda. This same taste for civic participation could also be the cause of all the other differences between Citizen's Initiative and non-Citizen's Initiative states. High voter engagement could be caused by any number of factors not included in the study.

In short, Qvortrup's study has no way to tell which factor is cause and which effect. It can do almost nothing to establish whether an increase in the amount, supply of voting makes any difference at all to the success of a democracy.

Also, he used happiness statistics and quoted Layard on how great they are. They aren't. Happiness statistics are shoddy and unreliable.

Finally, his evidence had clearly been cherry-picked. The Citizen's Initiative states may have been greener but I'm willing to put money on them also having been less fiscally disciplined.

I asked Qvortrup about these issues and he smiled genially and said he was just making the case for his side, of course he chose data that would strengthen his case. My heart sank a little. Partly because I was deeply aware that Qvortrup wasn't really doing anything particularly wrong. He hadn't claimed his data should change the world and the methodological weaknesses of his study pale in comparison with some other, far more prestigious, works.

I emerged from the talk neither more or less convinced of the case for making referendums a regular part of our political landscape. Instead, I came away with a renewed sense of how careful you need to be when told "studies show that..."

UCU Boycott of Israel

The boycott that the UCU has endorsed is utterly disgusting. It it an attack on academic values and freedom. It has deeply unpleasant undertones of anti-semitism in singling out a state which is defending itself against gross acts of terrorism and which would not rank among the top hundred states in terms of the volume of human rights abuses but does happen to be Jewish. In this it is rather similar to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The UCU's behaviour has wider repercussions as it speaks for staff at public institutions, many of whom are not anti-semitic, and tarnishes the reputation of the United Kingdom as an honest broker in the conflict.

In this Channel 4 video you can see Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz tearing apart the Brighton University academic who proposed the motion. Attempts by our man from Brighton to retreat to the idea that all he has done is propose a debate are facile. If you want a debate you don't pass a motion to distribute campaign literature from one side.

There is a fine, if very moderate, Early Day Motion on the issue:

"That this House regrets the motion passed at the congress of the University and College Union (UCU) on 30th May, which promotes a boycott of Israeli universities and a moratorium on research and cultural collaboration with Israel; agrees with Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, who has said previously that `I simply do not believe that the majority of UCU members support an academic boycott of Israel; most want us to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides-not just those we agree with'; supports the Government's response to the parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism which concludes that `calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange'; believes that boycotting Israeli education institutions and academics is damaging to the UK's reputation worldwide and does nothing to promote a settlement in the Middle East; and urges the UCU to conduct a full ballot of its 120,000 members before adopting the terms of the resolution as policy."

Write or e-mail your MP if they haven't signed it yet. Well worth your time.

Update: As he mentions in the comments Gracchi has a very good article on this subject over at Bits of News.

Joe Trippi on 'Politics 2.0'

Britain and America's summary of the event yesterday with Joe Trippi, author of Howard Dean's incredible Internet grassroots campaign, is a good one. My impression, though, is that we are a long way from seeing the sort of bottom up politics that the speakers were talking about rising to prominence in the UK.

Trippi's explanation for why the UK was lagging was that the relatively short election campaigns that are the result of flexible election timing, by comparison with the near permanent US campaign, prevent the proper use of the Internet and social networks by politicians and groups who want to influence an election. These networks take time to build and are not given that time by organisations that expect a result within the busy few weeks before an election.

I'd suggest a different explanation. The blogs are obsessed with the parties. Even high-minded blogs will devote at least a quarter of their output to what members of parliament are saying. I think this means that the dialogue can't really stand on its own. It isn't only the blogs that display this way of thinking. Think-tanks are far too prone to judge themselves by the extent that they can influence political parties rather than the extent to which they directly affect the broader public debate. You can see it in the rationale for the UKIP, the logic that if a party doesn't represent your views they are unrepresented. We see parties as almost the be all and end all of politics rather than a particular mechanism for building a majority to govern.

This obsession with parties Daniel Finkelstein, at the event as a sort of discussant, saw emerging out of a need to effectively ration the scarce resource of the media's attention, "shelf space" as he termed it. It seems equally plausible that party loyalty emerged out of a relatively uniform set of political divisions in the post-war period, a particular ideological struggle with the rise of the social democrats clashing with the conservative-liberal tradition. Either way, that the original rationale for party obsession is fading does not necessarily mean that we will automatically turn back to a less party-focussed politics.

If we wish to build a genuine bottom-up politics we will need to see a deeper change than the technological ability to self-publish. There will need to be a change in the British understanding of how politics is conducted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Communist Monopoly

Given that Monopoly was originally conceived of to demonstrate how rents enrich landlords and impoverish tenants, a critique of capitalism, it was always somewhat ironic that it became such a business. It has to be one of the first examples of capitalism co-opting its enemies. The early twentieth century equivalent of stores selling Ché Guevara t-shirts (although this article explains just how unpleasant hero worship of Guevara is).

Now this, deeply silly, YouTube video goes one step further and asks the question, what would Communist Monopoly look like?

Thatcher on the Falklands

A truly wonderful, inspirational, speech (click "Listen: Lady Thatcher" for the audio stream) from our greatest living Prime Minister.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Europe drifts right...

There appears to be something of a rightward drift in Western politics. The French first elected a right-wing President in an ideologically charged election and now have given the right a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. In Finland the right-wing coalition dominated the last elections. The same happened in Sweden on a more modest scale. In Belgium the right have just won a strong victory. In Britain the Conservatives have had a lead for some time although there has been no electoral test of their revival. The Germans have a right-wing government.

The obvious exceptions are Spain, Italy and the United States. Spain's result was due to an incredible miscalculation by the right-wing Prime Minister. Italy's politics always has a screw loose. In the US the Democrats are doing well but that has taken some pretty massive incompetence on the part of the Republicans. I'm not convinced that the current Democratic strength is the result of a real left-wing drift in American politics.

The trend right could just be a coincidence. Or a transient rejection of centre-left governments that swept to power in the heyday of the Third Way. I think it is something more. A rejection of the supposedly progressive values of the tranzi elite: Treating criminals like victims. Neglecting or showing disdain for the culture, history and values of the Western nations in deference to a self-hating multi-culturalism. Accepting the mass-migration of populations that Western states have proven unable to integrate as an inevitability. Submerging nation-states in unaccountable supranational bodies.

These values and objectives were never really shared by the population but became a kind of political consensus in the absence of a crisis that would remind Western peoples of what they had to lose. The combination of 9/11 and the Cartoons Crisis was a very effective wake-up call. That free-speech might be so endangered by cowardice in the face of a violent minority alarmed people used to taking such values for granted. The right is the major beneficiary because they have always been the most skeptical of the tranzi ideals. This gives right-wing parties, where they can see this trend and latch onto it, a significant advantage.

This zeitgeist will not provide the right with electoral victories on a platter. The right-wing leadership in each state will have to convince people that they can rebuild important values and cultural confidence. However, it appears to me that the opportunity is there for the taking.

Peter Singer hears about Contraction and Convergence over a decade late...

First, why on Earth did this get printed? It's just an unimaginative statement of the Contraction and Convergence policy. The Guardian could have just printed the Wikipedia entry. Isn't Peter Singer, the author, supposed to be an original thinker? Why is he just repeating an idea that has been endlessly repeated for over a decade?

It isn't even a good idea he's restating. The idea of cutting emissions in the developed world both enough to prevent global warming and to equalise emissions with the developing world or face large financial penalties. Now, while the US emits a lot of carbon per person it emits relatively little per unit of GDP. It doesn't have a lot more room to cut emissions without cutting its income. That means emissions reducing to the same level per capita of emissions as in the Chinese economy will do huge damage to US incomes.

What will happen to China's, export-driven, economy if the US economy is collapsed?

Prizes for Innovation

Prizes are a time-honoured method of rewarding inventions when industry associations, governments or other bodies want to encourage useful innovations. The practice was particularly common during the Industrial Revolution era. It works, essentially, by offering cash instead of the monopoly rights that come with a patent. In certain areas, where you know what you're looking for, it can be quite effective. The idea achieved some degree of fame recently with the success of the X-Prize for commercial spaceflight.

Some have argued that the principle should be deployed as a way of getting the private sector involved in creating innovative solutions to climate change. I'm not aware of this happening yet on a large scale but it seems only a matter of time before someone tries prizes as a response to climate change.

In a somewhat sad turn of events Microsoft is now offering a prize for studios to create a global warming video game. Instead of using prizes to address the actual issue they're going to be used to find the most innovative propaganda for eco-socialism. Ars Technica's prediction is "A platformer starring a polar bear being chased by the melting ice caps". My money is a game where you play George W. Bush using a gargantuan magnifying glass to hunt poor people or one where you play Zombé Guevara bombing Exxon plants.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Oceans 13

This film sees the series back on top form. The action takes a while to get into the swing of things as the detail is built up but is absolutely crackling once the film is at full pace. They have returned to the classic Jazz, Las Vegas and luxury themes that made the series great. They've ditched the celebrity cameos that were a somewhat self-indulgent distraction from the narrative. The scope of the scam is superb and some of the skits are inspired.

Ruthie on the constraints of parenthood

This post by Ruthie is a fine example of what makes her blog so great: an emotional openness that allows for some touching stories describing problems that face so many but are rarely articulated so clearly. In particular, this post concerns the challenges single motherhood creates for Ruthie in forming a new relationship. Unfortunately her fanbase is on the wrong side of the Atlantic but I think she'll still do fine...