Friday, July 27, 2007

Identity and the Blogosphere

Over the last month there have been a slow but steady stream of posts - first from Tom Paine, then from Gracchi, then finally Ruthie - discussing identity and the blogosphere. They all focussed essentially on the uses of anonymity. The extent to which you can express yourself free from the encumbrances of an ossified persona.

Sinclair's Musings is a rather different blog to the three above. It is not anonymous and never has been. I post in my own name, the blog is named after me and the tone is very similar to my style in 'real-life'. The background to this site's logo is a painting by my favourite artist, Salvator Rosa.

My blog was never anonymous for a few reasons:

  1. The freedom of being at university and then working at the TaxPayers' Alliance has meant that the blog has been beneficial to my career if anything.
  2. My tone is naturally moderate and relatively polite.
  3. Being in a political career I was going to be publicly identified with political stances anyway.
  4. I don't need anonymity to escape a persona which might cause people to write off my opinions; I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.
The main purpose behind my blogging has always been to keep myself engaged with a broad set of interests. I originally started it as I was embarking upon my Master's thesis and didn't want to have nothing but the effects of deficits in my head for months at a time. Since then it has kept me engaged on themes like foreign policy, philosophy and the likes that don't really fit into my work at the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Another function of my blog is to maintain a voice that is purely my own. While others blog to escape their identities I've always felt that I was confirming mine. The TaxPayers' Alliance is great and I have more freedom there to express myself than it would have been fair of me to expect. However, keeping a little corner of the Internet where I really have the freedom to explore any idea or passing interest that takes my fancy is still a joy. Few things are more satisfying than to see this blog, my thoughts, stirring the thoughts or changing the minds of others.

I think the common thread through the four posts in this thread is that the benefits we've all taken from blogging are based around it opening new channels. So often we are confined to narrow bounds of geography and social circumstance. The erosion of the importance of geographical distance alone is sufficient for blogging to open up incredible possibilities, not to mention engagement across social lines. Where else would a young Minnesota mother aspiring to be a journalist, a British expatriate in Russia exasperated at the direction British politics is moving, a PhD student with a taste for the classics and a pressure group staffer with diverse intellectual tastes find themselves engaged in discussion?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Very, very good.

There is an obvious reservation. This film is unlikely to change your life. You are unlikely to "emerge with a sense of wonder at the cinematic craft, horror at the life of the prostitute, and some vague questions about dark continents within the soul- of desire, truth and perception- continents whose baleful power has haunted the imagination of the West- over which the ignorant armies of human perception clash by night!"

In fact, I'm not quite sure what the political message was. Something like "saving the environment is good but the government's attempts to defend it are going to be scary and insane" which may not be what they were going for. The reason the political message is unclear, however, is that the film has sensibly focussed upon the emotional story at the heart of the Simpsons; family. It makes simple observations about why families drift apart and why they stay together in a warm and friendly way.

If you want edgy messages or a film that's a challenge to sit through you'll be dissapointed but the easy style the Simpsons deploys doesn't make it less worthwhile or significant. Ella Fitzgerald's music isn't less significant than KoRn's.

This film is very, very funny. I'll avoid spoilers but it compares well with the series near the top of its game throughout the film. No small achievement. The 'Spider Pig' moment is an obvious star but there are a host of others. Hilarious.

Visually they've taken advantage of the big screen. Huge glass domes and angry mobs alike have a real grandeur to them. You also get a better sense of the Simpsons' style than in the series. The scale and quality shows how distinctive the 'look' of the characters is.

A thoroughly enjoyable film, well worth the wait.

Update: I've replaced the dull, normal trailer with a SpiderPig trailer that makes me giggle.

Support for an English Parliament

Vino's argues against an English Parliament in some detail. I think, hopefully he'll correct me if I'm wrong, that his argument can be boiled down to the following:

"However, I strongly suspect that there is not much demand for an English parliament as an immediate constitutional aim among voters in England. [...] So, to sum up, I do not feel that the West Lothian Question poses any significant real political issues – although it does pose logical ones. The way to deal with it would be, indeed, to offer a referendum on an English Parliament and see what happens. Should there not be public demand for it, then it will not pass. There is no reason to give devolution to voters who do not wish it and who prefer powers to be exercised by the national government or by regional or local authorities rather than by an intermediate layer of government. That would in itself be undemocratic and be overriding their preference for the status quo."

I agree with Gracchi's response to Vino: that the central issue is the constitutional inequality created by unequal devolution. I disagree with his identification of a rising tide of English patriotism/nationalism as generally 'nasty'. I think it's an entirely legitimate sense of fellow feeling and see no evidence it is more likely to lead to nastiness than other group-loyalties.

On the issue of having a referendum on a new parliament:

I doubt you would find a single member of a group like the Campaign for an English Parliament or the Witanagemot club (hopefully they'll correct me if I'm wrong) who wouldn't be absolutely happy with a referendum. It is obviously the way to introduce such an important constitutional change and appears likely to return a 'yes' answer.

On 'demand' for an English parliament:

The reason those of us in favour of an English Parliament would be confident about winning a referendum is that there is strong demand for such a parliament, across the United Kingdom. This has been revealed in polls such as this one, from the Telegraph:

Unfortunately it isn't just Vino who has not yet noted the rising demand for giving English voters proper representation. Labour ministers are of the same opinion; that there is little demand for an English parliament. Their mistake is far less understandable and far more important.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Regional Income Inequalities

I think it can be hard to get your head around regional income inequalities; the sheer scale of them. Some graphs I found on the Eurostat site help.

This shows the actual regional inequalities; the data is here. British regions include some of the richest in Europe, Inner London is at 302.9% of the EU27 average, or Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire at 173.8%. Others are decidedly poor, West Wales and the Valleys at 80.3% or Merseyside at 87.3%.

This shows that the United Kingdom has the largest range of any EU country. Of course, a range is only so instructive, it would be nice to see the variance. I bet the UK would be at or near the top of that table as well though.

Finally, this map shows growth. The gaps are not being closed. Rich regions in the UK are increasing their distance from the poorer ones.

This is despite a massive subsidy, which Mike Denham established the scale of - for example the South pays 9% of its GDP. This subsidy is not new. It is clearly failing to create a revival in the North and needs to be reassessed if the poorer regions are to recover some of their nineteenth century glory. David B Smith establishes comprehensively how government spending, even financed by the South, can trap the Northern economy into dependence if it takes up too large a percentage of the economy. The public sector in the North makes up 58% of that region's 'GDP', close to the 75% that the Communist regime is thought to have managed to control in the old Soviet Union. Enough to crowd out private industry, keep the subsidy politically necessary by preventing a revival in the North's economic fortunes.

The more you look at regional inequalities the more two things become clear:

  1. Britain's GDP per capita is a rather weak statistic. There is too much variance for it to mean much.
  2. We really need to think about new approaches to improving the economic prospects of poorer regions.


Dave Cole has discovered Veblen and is finding conspicuous consumption a useful concept. I haven't been able to take Veblen seriously since I read Mencken's brilliantly funny attack on his work. I think Mencken's core critique, that once you get through the grand language Veblen's theories are pretty silly, has a fair amount of truth in it.

"Consider this specimen—the first paragraph of Chapter XIII of "The Theory of the Leisure Class":

"In an increasing proportion as time goes on, the anthropomorphic cult, with its code of devout observances, suffers a progressive disintegration through the stress of economic exigencies and the decay of the system of status. As this disintegration proceeds, there come to be associated and blended with the devout attitude certain other motives and impulses that are not always of an anthropomorphic origin, nor traceable to the habit of personal subservience. Not all of these subsidiary impulses that blend with the bait of devoutness in the later devotional life are altogether congruous with the devout attitude or with the anthropomorphic apprehension of sequence of phenomena. Their origin being not the same, their action upon the scheme of devout life is also not in the same direction. In many ways they traverse the underlying norm of subservience or vicarious life to which the code of devout observances and the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal institutions are to be traced as their substantial basis. Through the presence of these alien motives the social and industrial regime of status gradually disintegrates, and the canon of personal subservience loses the support derived from an unbroken tradition. Extraneous habits and proclivities encroach upon the field of action occupied by this canon, and it presently comes about that the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal structures are partially converted to other uses, in some measure alien to the purpose of the scheme of devout life as it stood in the days of the most vigorous and characteristic development of the priesthood."

Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor trying to say? Simply that in the course of time the worship of God is commonly corrupted by other enterprises, and that the church, ceasing to be a mere temple of adoration, becomes the headquarters of these other enterprises. More simply still, that men sometimes vary serving God by serving other men, which means, of course, serving themselves. This bald platitude, which must be obvious to any child who has ever been to a church bazaar, was here tortured, worried and run through rollers until it spread out to 241 words, of which fully 200 were unnecessary. The next paragraph was even worse. In it the master undertook to explain in his peculiar dialect the meaning of "that non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment which is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimination of its anthropomorphic content." Just what did he mean by this "non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity"? I studied the whole paragraph for three days, halting only for prayer and sleep, and I came to certain conclusions. What I concluded was this: he was trying to say that many people go to church, not because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the music, and like to look at the stained glass, the potted lilies and the rev. pastor. To get this profound and highly original observation upon paper, he wasted, not merely 241, but more than 300 words. To say what might have been said on a postage stamp he took more than a page in his book."

The later sections offer more substantive criticisms. Take a read of the full article. Read probably the twentieth century's greatest humorist in full flow.

I also share Tyler Cowen's impression that Veblen has been left behind by evolutionary biology. If he had the same analytical tools he might have reached the more interesting understanding that field has reached; Satoshi Kanazawa is a fun, populist example of the genre.



The BBC is careful to make it clear that, while a puffer fish puffs itself up when it feels threatened, this one was returned safely to the lake.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


From Gracchi:

"I agonised for months about the Afghanistan war and the ethics of supporting a war as an adult whilst not being willing to fight in it. There are circumstances in which it is possible to do that- most of the wars of today are fought with volunteer and not conscript armies- and there are people who whilst being incapable of holding a gun are definitely capable of holding a view. One of my best friends was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, but his coordination is such that if ever handed a gun his own safety would be in more danger than anyone else's! Having said that he is remarkably intelligent- to send him to war would be to endanger his life- whereas to have him say as a foreign office bureacrat would be to save others' lives.

The point though is that within Republican students and Republican commentators is a kind of resurgent masculinity- that going to war proves that you are manly and stand up for your principles- that not supporting a war in another country, like Iraq, is proving you hold 'girly' opinions or that you are a weedy academic. That war is good for its own sake- that all problems can be solved through the use of military force. It isn't in my view incumbent on Republicans to go to war to prove their credentials to advocate war- but I think they lay themselves open to the chicken hawk accusation by using these militaristic arguments- by demeaning those that oppose their justifications as traitors, by saying that support for war is a token of courage."

Many conservatives accused Miliband of political cowardice in not running for the Labour leadership against Gordon Brown. They weren't running themselves; "Chicken-Labourites!"

The chicken-hawk tag is inherently ridiculous. All of us with a mind to doing some service to our community choose how we can best contribute to the society in which we live. It was, and remains, my judgement that I can contribute more through working in politics than through becoming a soldier. If there is a war that will increase the need for soldiers, however, unless I think my choice between researcher and soldier was made near the margin that should not change my decision. Allowing fear to prevent you taking a risk that your community needs you to take can be called ‘cowardice’. Taking an unnecessary risk by following a career you are ill-suited for just to prove your courage should be called 'foolish'. Supporting a war that I do not expect to take part in is about as hypocritical as eating a burger made from a cow that I did not personally slaughter.

Now, on to Gracchi's assertion that the 'chicken-hawk' tag is appropriate for those who accuse ideological opponents of cowardice but are not soldiers:

Accussing a pacifist of physical cowardice is obviously ridiculous. Most pacifists aren't in the army so even if there was a war they wouldn't face any danger in a modern day, assymetrical, conflict. Don't call a non-soldier making an accusation of physical cowardice a 'chicken-hawk'; call them 'ridiculous'. Only when people start making the argument that we need to compromise some value or change some decision in order to appease terrorists does the accusation of a lack of physical courage start to make sense.

However, most people who call their ideological opponents' foreign policy stance cowardly are not accusing them of physical cowardice. Gracchi appears to have over simplified the nature of accusations of cowardice in foreign policy. The accusation is that the pacifist is morally cowardly. That they are unwilling to face the moral risk of war, the risk that the war will turn out poorly and we will be morally implicated in the ensuing problems. That they are saying, in effect, "people may be killed but it's okay so long as we don't have to do any killing".

Now, it may be that those who accuse pacifists of moral cowardice are wrong. It may be that the moral risk of war is not worth taking and the pacifists are right to be wary of it. It may be that many or all with pacifistic views on foreign policy oppose war for some other reason. However, the charge of cowardice in foreign policy, even when that charge is made by a politician or journalist is not necessarily hypocritical. Hawks are evidently quite willing to take the moral risk of war.

Monday, July 23, 2007

It's a funny old world

Do you ever get the feeling that the world is becoming increasingly difficult to parody? That it's all becoming one big Reductio Ad Absurdum?

A classic lazy strategy in an argument/debate is to say "what next? you'll be...". The problem is that its getting harder and harder to come up with ridiculous examples that aren't actually in British law. This trends manifests itself most in libertine liberalism and green politics. A couple of examples that have been exercising me of late:

1. The Law Commission wants to introduce compulsory marriage

For some reason people wanted 'equality' between the married and those cohabiting. Now any couple who spend a sufficient amount of time together are effectively treated as if they're married. Leaving aside the serious problem, the massive devaluing of the public commitment that comes with marriage, this is just unutterably bizarre. It's being proposed by the Law Commission, Daniel Finkelstein in June:

"The Commission believes that cohabiting couples should have the same rights and responsibilities as married. Let's unpack what this means, shall we?

A couple decide not to get married because they don't wish to make a commitment with each other in law. Now the state decides that they can't do this. They don't need to have guests, a reception and a cake with white icing, but the rest of marriage - the rights, the responsibilities, the legal bond - that they must accept. Whether they want to or not."

2. Blackle isn't an angry gesture of racial defiance but a 'green' Google.

Via Devils Kitchen.

World leaders unmasked

A friend sent this photo to me pointing out just how remarkable it is. The photographer has managed to take a picture of the most powerful people in the world and make them look utterly ordinary. It is almost impossible to look at them and imagine that the awkward bunch standing uncomfortably on a windswept harbour front are the ones whose decisions shape the grand sweep of geo-politics.

It also makes very clear the risks of the tieless, casual, look.