Thursday, August 30, 2007

Little Dragon

Thunderdragon posts to the Wardman Wire his explanation of why, despite being just 22, he has taken up political blogging.

I had to do a bit of a double-take. "Just" 22?

I started blogging at that age and didn't consider myself young at all. Thunderdragon is old enough to be not just a graduate but a postgraduate.

I'm 23 now, only one year older, and not only express my political opinions through blogging but also work in politics full-time. I'm not exceptional in that regard. While politicians themselves are usually older political parties, think-tanks and other political organisations tend to have a disproportionate number of staff fresh out of university.

Of course, anyone at age 22 has less experience of the world than a 40 or 60 year old but a graduate of 22 is more than able to sit at the grown-ups' table.

Louise Bagshawe on the Conservative Approach to the NHS

Louise Bagshawe, a Conservative candidate, argues on ConservativeHome in favour of the current Conservative strategy on the NHS. Essentially, she argues that the "Stop Brown's NHS Cuts" campaign has been a political success and is highlighting an important issue.

The problem is that, whatever the short-term results of the "Stop Brown’s NHS Cuts" campaign in the long-term it could hurt the Conservative Party’s credibility. With colossal increases in healthcare budgets over the last decade it will be hard, and very unwise, to claim that the Conservatives will spend more than Brown. Reform has been set serious limits thanks to the leadership conflating it with institutional instability – where the reality is that this is only true, in the medium term at least, with too many superficial reforms. Promises to cut waste without structural reform may hold water in the short-term but will not be sufficient during an election campaign when more concrete proposals for improvement will be expected.

This campaign may do the Conservatives good in the short-term by kicking Labour where they are vulnerable but in the long-term if they cannot propose substantial reforms they will be left looking shallow and opportunistic.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance Better Government blog.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Basic laws of economics

I think the first half of Simon Jenkins' article in today's Guardian is largely correct. Efforts to curb heroin supply from Afghanistan have gone poorly. I worry that he attributes too much of the failure to incompetence and not enough to conditions; like the shortage of troops last year when the Helmand insurgency really got going. Pointing out that wouldn't be worth a post though.

It is the second half of his article that troubles me as it is entirely premised on this little nugget:

"Every schoolchild economist knows demand will always attract supply."

Jenkins thinks he's really bloody clever but his little "basic law", as the blurb at the beginning of the article calls it, is clearly untrue. Consider this example:

I would love to own a talking taco that craps ice cream. There is clearly demand for such a product and yet I've never found a supplier. That's because it is impossible to produce. Similarly my demand for going into space is unlikely to be sated any time soon. It cannot be provided at a price I can afford to pay.

Now, drug demand will usually be relatively inelastic, it will only fall slowly with rising prices, because addiction makes addicts willing to absord quite a high increase in price, they'll steal if they need to. Still, the idea that it is impossible to seriously reduce the quantity of something bought and sold through increasing the cost of supply alone is obviously wrong. If we make using heroin as expensive as going to space then people won't be able to afford it and heroin addiction will plummet.

The important question is, therefore, whether it is practicable to increase the price enough that heroin users start giving up. Understanding that question requires the kind of hard analysis that simplistic and arrogant statements like Jenkins' are designed to avoid.

Cross-posted from CiF Watcher.

Ann Widdecombe at her best

Ann Widdecombe's 'direct' approach to politics has its weaknesses but when she has the right target in her sights it is brilliant. Here she identifies just what a craven business our benefits system can be. The kinds of attitudes it creates. She talks a little about workfare but that isn't really the point. Whatever direction you think change should take this programme should make absolutely sure no one watching can fool themselves into thinking there isn't a problem.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Shoot 'Em Up

This film looks hysterical.

Normally I'd be sceptical of any action film with such an absurd plot but Clive Owen has a good record for picking his roles and it seems unlikely he'd get it as wrong as this will be if done poorly.

Monday, August 27, 2007

More from the Great Global Warming Omni-Justification

The catalogue of things that the threat of climate change has been used to justify continues to lengthen. We've already had:

""China is already doing a lot," said Hu Tao, of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. He said China's one-child per couple policy introduced in the early 1980s, for instance, had a side-effect of braking global warming by limiting the population to 1.3 billion against a projected 1.6 billion without the policy."


"It's used as an argument for agricultural subsidies which take the form of ethanol subsidy (an absurd response to climate change) in the United States and an, albeit modified, continuation of the CAP subsidies in Europe.

It's used as an argument for vegetarianism. We already knew that vegetarianism usually means consuming less agricultural production but so does eating or otherwise consuming less in a range of ways; the efficiency challenge of global warming should surely be to maintain the highest level of consumption for a given level of warming? Eating less probably has more fringe benefits given obesity levels but no one proposes that as a solution to global warming, do they?

It is used as an argument for global governance instead of democratically accountable nations; the transnational elites that Steyn refers to.

It is used as an argument for 'soak the rich' socialism; most notably through the "contraction and convergence" doctrine.

It's used as an argument for greater taxation. While everyone argues the hypothetical of a neutral switch for non-green taxation it never quite seems to work out that way.

It's used as an argument against an expansion of airports and foreign travel for those on medium-low incomes; turning our back on one of the great achievements of the twentieth century in deference to narrow 'not in my backyard' opposition."

Now let's add voting for the BNP:

"The BNP claims that "immigration is creating an environmental disaster", and worries that if we let in more migrants Britain will become "a tarmac desert"."

As I've said before its simply a matter of political incentives. The hysteria of the climate change debate has allowed the green movement to pass off some truly shoddy policies. Other groups hope for a similarly easy ride.

The Morality of Capitalism

Vino argues, in the comments to my last post, that it is capitalism that is breaking down community and leading to the social catastrophe I lament. Essentially, his argument is that capitalism makes people callous about the interests of others. I profoundly disagree.

On the contrary, one of the great moral qualities of capitalism is that, unlike the caricature painted by both the Left and too many on the Right, it promotes less selfishness than any other system. The reason is explained in George Gilder's Reaganite classic 'Wealth and Poverty'.

In a capitalist system my well being depends upon anticipating and satisfying the needs of others. If I can do that then I will have a market and I will prosper. On the other hand, if I do not think of others then there will be no market and I will suffer. As such, the capitalist system has created an imperative for me to think about the desires of others and to try to help them. It has aligned my interests with theirs and, by making me care more about others, morally improved me.

Economists talk a lot about competition and this can further the impression that the process is a cut-throat one. However, this is only to look at the relationship between the competitors. Once one considers the bigger picture it should become apparent that the competitors are competing to be able to serve the market. They are fighting to be the ones best able to help others.

If this sounds too far fetched think of it in the same terms that Baumol argued for the dynamic potential of capitalism. Baumol's argument was that capitalism, by providing returns to productive enterprise, channelled entrepreneurial ability towards productive uses. In other societies it was channelled towards destruction, as in a feudal society where the best means of getting big rewards was to fight, kill and take or a socialist society where getting to the top meant political manoevring. A successful society is one that channels ambition and talent towards productive ends.

Baumol's argument illustrates why capitalist socieities have invariably been more inventive than others. It also illustrates why capitalist societies are more moral. A society in which a bright and resourceful man or woman who wants to get ahead will be most successful if they help others is one which will be, in the long term, more peaceful, more harmonious and morally superior.

Social breakdown has come not because of capitalism but because it has been endangered: By welfare dependency (both personal and regional) that means people can advance their interests best by scamming or politically manoevring for more welfare. By the breakdown of the institutions of law, order and tradition that separate any system of government - capitalism in this case - from anarchy. Restoring true capitalist order is the way we might see our society healed.

John O'Sullivan on the nature and effects of social acid

O'Sullivan's piece for the Telegraph is brilliant (while I will pick a few bits out you really should read the entire thing). This old quote is almost upsetting:

"In 1955, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer described this tranquillity in his book Exploring English Character: "When we think of our faults, we put first, and by a long way, any lapse from our standards of non-aggression, bad temper, nagging, swearing and the like. Public life is more gentle than that reported for any society of comparable size and industrial complexity.""

While Gorer's description may be an overexaggeration Britons certainly did used to be noted for a certain dignity and reserve. What a thing to lose. What a dismal trade we have made in selling such decency down the river for our modern, crummy libertinism.

His conclusion sets out how hard it will be to undo the damage:

"Rebuilding a united democratic nation that governs itself with decency will be a difficult task. As Geoffrey Gorer pointed out in 1955, however, his gentle Britain had been sculpted by the Victorians from the recalcitrant marble of a brutalised society very much like today's Britain.

It will take leaders in the Victorian mould to do it, though."

I'm not sure that he isn't overly optimistic. Is there an audience, a market, for leaders in the Victorian mould?

There probably is among the masses. The genuine shock at the decline of decent values among the broader mass of Britons is reflected in the right-wing press, which always outsells its left-wing rivals.

However, the danger is that any leader hoping to represent those masses and put the policies their good instincts recommend into practice would run straight into institutional quicksand. A Civil Service asked to manage new policies that they do not understand or agree with can make a mess of them. O'Sullivan describes how the "police have become little more than the paramilitary wing of The Guardian" - the same has become true of much of the rest of the criminal justice system. With such tools political leaders would find the going difficult even if they were cast in a Victorian mould. Of course this does not excuse our present leaders who instead of being frustrated in attempts to make things better have made them immeasurably worse but it should give conservatives attempting to tackle the problems of breakdown Britain pause for thought.

That may be why social conservatism, or at least the labrador conservative version I find most attractive, needs to think about seemingly unconnected themes like the way our public services are delivered. Leave aside the courts for now as I'm currently having something of an intellectual crisis over them. So long as services like the police and education are directed through centralised bureaucracies unnaccountable to the people they will have the means to impose cultural liberalism and to corrupt or frustrate any attempt at improvement. To think that they can be bent to our will by politicians of the Right is dangerous naivety.

Without reform of the way our State works no changing of its priorities is practicable.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"He'll make you wish you hadn't been Bourne"

If that had been the tagline I might have enjoyed the Bourne Ultimatum more. As it is I came out feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

The pace is kept up pretty well and the film keeps you on your toes. Unfortunately unlike in better thrillers where the pace of the action gives potency to the core drama in this film it seems designed to cover up for the lack of a compelling underlying plot.

The first five or so minutes are a Guardian writer's wet dream with all the unsubtle conspiracy theories that implies. According to the BBC, Greengrass, this film's director, is a "political filmmaker". Unfortunately his political thought does not rise above the dismal Hollywood norm. His criticism of the CIA is about as telling as Culture Club's attack on militarism: "The CIA, The CIA is stupid, and people are stupid".

The question I kept coming back to is simple: why should I care about Jason Bourne?

He does appear to have been treated pretty poorly by the CIA spooks but he's such a robot I don't feel much more empathy than I would for a mistreated vacuum cleaner. When the film tries to get to the emotional root of his character all we find is another robot.

My not caring fed into my regularly wanting the bad guys to win, always a bad sign. Particularly a North African CIA assassin called Desh who appeared to be using 'terrorist' techniques such as bombs detonated by mobile phone. The CIA terrorist was quite an interesting character and appeared to succeed through being cleverer than meathead Bourne. I wanted him to win.

This film is brainless Hollywood entertainment. If you can switch your brain off for a couple of hours you could really enjoy it. I couldn't which is, I guess, my problem.