Thursday, November 08, 2007

Automated HTML-synesthesia

This is Sinclair's Musings in visual form. Thanks to Tom Paine for the pointer to this Java applet. Watching the graphic unfold is actually strangely engrossing and I like the end result.

The problem with Rawls

I think it is hard to overestimate just how influential Rawls is on the modern Left. He both provides a systematic intellectual justification for their long held inclination that their opponents are essentially selfish and gave them a way to answer intuitive outrage at things like this.

For all that I think there are huge weaknesses in Rawls' theory. Essentially, his method is based upon taking two methodological assumptions and stretching them far beyond breaking point. His theory also doesn't answer the question of how we should help the poor and doesn't answer Nietzsche's great challenge to any theory of justice.

Assumption 1: Determinism

Just as science has roled back the number of everyday phenomena that religion is called upon to explain it has also rolled back the domain of free-will. If people make their choices because of their upbriningings, genes, vitamin deficiencies or brain chemistry what right do we have to punish them for their bad luck? Murderers tend to have similar differences in their brain chemistry. Why would we punish them for having a malfunctioning brain?

The problem is that there are huge gaps in our understanding of how the mind, and the physical world, works. Much that appears to be causing certain behaviours could actually be a response to it, or correlated with it but not a cause. There is plenty of room for free will yet. Once free will comes back into the picture Rawls' thought starts to seriously weaken. If someone chooses a less moral path they can deserve less favourable treatment.

Of course, that isn't true of many of the poor. Many of them did have an awful start and little chance to prove their quality. However, allowing some roll for free will both implies a more nuanced and discriminating policy than blanket redistribution and makes the proper question for any policy aimed at helping the worst off "how can we give people the chance to show their moral quality?"

Assumption 2: Risk aversion

People will usually, ceteris paribus, prefer to take less risk. I can believe that if, in an original position, they were offered a choice where most would be poor but a few would escape to relative riches they'd choose to make the poor better off at the rich's expense. However, your actual chances in society today aren't like that. Most people will be middle class and, while hardly raking it in, basically pretty alright. There is a core of 1/6 to 1/4 of the population who are in a pretty wretched state. There is then a small but significant portion of the population who do very well for themselves.

If faced by that choice I'm not convinced that most people would really want to pay that much to insure themselves against the possibility of poverty. They'd want to ensure that they are kept alive and in reasonable comfort against the elements but wouldn't want to hurt their fortunes if they drew the most likely result (somewhere in the broad swathe of the middle class). I'm not quite sure why I think this but it seems intuitively sensible to me and, here's the real beef, I know just as much about how people would feel in the hypothetical world of the original position as John Rawls or anyone else does.

How should you help

While I disagree with Rawls that doesn't mean that I don't see helping the poor as a broadly good thing. However, that doesn't necessarily imply a case for redistribution. The Citizens Basic Income can't do a lot of redistribution without becoming cripplingly expensive. It is more plausible as a safety net. Other forms of redistribution can hurt people's incentives to leave the unpleasant situation that is welfare dependency. In that way it can make them worse off.

Chris Dillow argues that the difficulty of using improved educational standards to create opportunity for unfortunate children shows that we should give up on educational opportunity. I'd argue that even if this is true (and I think that reform can make a significant difference) it doesn't imply that we should discard attempts to give people an opportunity to better themselves. Instead, it implies that other measures besides improving the education system have to be tried as a part of any coherent attempt to give people real opportunity. That's where the work of thinkers like Theodore Dalrymple and labrador conservatism comes in.


Art is cruelty. The quest for excellence and beauty for its own sake and in an attempt to understand the nature of humanity and the good life is expensive and impossible to justify under the Rawlsian system of justice. A Rawlsian may justify high culture on the grounds that it does some nebulous good for the economy or on some other spurious rationale but they are not being true to their principles. While a liberal Rawlsian might tolerate art they cannot really value it without admitting the bankruptcy of Rawls' ideology.

Nietzsche saw that art meant cruelty but chose art nonetheless. Any culture that is to be truly worthwhile has to make this choice, at least occassionally. Otherwise it denies what is best and most praiseworthy in humanity.

"Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality itself."

The real online home of the liberal Left

With all the excitement about Liberal Conspiracy and its continuing attempts to replace the English meaning of the word "liberal" with the liberal = leftie Americanism we shouldn't forget just how good the older left-liberal home on the net is. Spiked manages to combine a genuine liberalism with a left-wing outlook on life.

Right now take a read of some articles on how citizenship lessons are a pretty sinister and ineffective way of engaging people with democracy and society, your lifestyle isn't really very likely to give you cancer and an excellent philosophical critique of environmentalist morality. Endless good value.

Education is about more than economics

Gracchi writes that education should be about more than economics. He is absolutely right.

I went to a comprehensive school. I'm not going to tell you a sob story. It was in a nice town in Hertfordshire and I was never stabbed, no one tried to sell me drugs and I emerged with no serious personality defects I'm aware of. My school wasn't remarkably good or remarkably bad. It was pretty average. I'm middle class enough that I was never in any real danger of dropping out anyway.

However, in my time at LSE and since I've met people, Gracchi one of them, who went to the very best public schools. Some of the best in the country. They are much better educated than I am. I can see the truth in what Gracchi is saying in what I miss, the benefits that I might have taken from a better education and really wish I could enjoy.

I don't miss the exam results. I did pretty well, well enough to get into the LSE. While I could certainly have done better it seems an increasingly minor issue now I've entered work and am proving my ability more directly.

I don't miss the skills. When I arrived at LSE I had, despite having done no end of supposedly high-quality coursework, no real idea how to write and structure an essay. In other ways I definitely had a lot to learn of the basic skills required to be a successful student. That meant a lot of catching up in my first year. However, it doesn't seem likely to prove important in the long-term.

What I really miss is the broader education that those from a really good private school have enjoyed. I am absolutely certain I spent too much time being taught to the test. Not because my teachers were lazy or inept. I think they were generally very good and a few I have very fond memories of. Some of them had little else to offer but I think most taught to the test because the system created an imperative for them to prioritise the narrow understanding required to reach an adequate standard for exams instead of taking the longer, but ultimately far more rewarding, route that treats exams as important but not the central "point" of a really good education.

As a result I just haven't had the same broad exposure and introduction to subjects beyond the exam, to the broader current of human knowledge, that many public school students have. I labour at remedying this but I'm starting from quite a distance behind.

Now, it might seem that my support for a broad education which puts non-economic priorities at its heart contradicts my support for school choice, extending a market in education. After all, aren't markets supposed to kill or corrupt our higher instincts, isn't the vulgarity of the market supposed to diminish everything outside of the "cash nexus"?

Clearly not. Private schools, that need to attract fee-paying students to survive, are the ones that offer that broad education. When parents are given the choice right now over how their children are educated they choose the broad education with non-economic benefits that they do value. While some might say that this is only due to the character of the particular group of parents who are choosing right now I think it speaks to something deeper in most parents' aspirations for their children.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The real challenge of cutting emissions

In late September President Bush hosted a meeting of the world's largest 16 greenhouse gas emitting countries in late September. The CEI, for their Cooler Heads Digest (sign up on the left-hand bar), obtained the slides from a Power Point presentation that the White House Council on Environment Quality (CEQ) Chairman Jim Connaughton gave at that meeting. Apparently the Chinese and other developing country delegates were shocked - they were right to be. This data shows, in simple terms, just how painful the emissions curbs, Kyoto-plus, agenda would have to be for both developed and developing world.

Essentially, emissions under the Business As Usual scenario that so many global warming policies are hell-bent on preventing goes something like this:

Emissions nearly quadruple by 2095 with nearly all the growth in developing countries. Bear in mind that business as usual expects that the kind of efficiency gains we've been making so far continue - that's why the developed world is already forecast to stall emissions growth despite continuing economic growth.

That sets up a massive challenge for global warming policy that wants to cut emissions to 50 per cent of their levels now. In order to reach that 50 per cent target we would need to make a 15 gigatons of carbon per year cut to get the 2050 levels back down to the level we're at now. We would then need to make another 11 gigaton cut to reach the 50 per cent target. If you're after 60 per cent, as the British Government is, 80 per cent, as the Quality of Life policy group is, or the even stronger target the Lib Dems are aiming at things only get worse.

Cutting a gigaton of waste off what will already be vastly more efficient economies takes some doing. To get an idea of just what cutting a gigaton of carbon means see this table:

Once again, that's on top of expected "business as usual" efficiency gains. Doing any of these 26 times is utterly impractical without incomes taking a serious hit.

Perhaps you think that the developed world should be shouldering most of the work. You're prepared to see our income taking a kicking but don't want to deny the opportunity to develop to poor countries.

Even if you were to miraculously cut developed world emissions to zero, complete de-carbonisation, the developing countries would still need to cut their emissions by 9.5 gigatones, 46 per cent. Growth in poor countries will mean that the rich world just can't do all the work in cutting emissions. If your cut in developed world emissions is more realistic, two-thirds for example, then the developed countries would need to make a 74 per cent cut.

Without some kind of miracle technology you can only reduce emissions sufficiently by radically slashing incomes. There is just no way that the Chinese, or any other other big emitters, will possibly accept this. Cutting their long-term expected income in half, or more, is just not an option at all.

What does this mean for Britain? We already knew that our emissions weren't particularly important to global emissions growth. The UK just doesn't emit that much. Instead of actually changing anything by our actions we were supposed to be "leading". Showing others how it is done. That's pretty irrelevant now. Even if you were to, as some would like to, have the EU put massive trade sanctions on any country that doesn't sign up to our green agenda they're still not going to pay half of their long-term income for the right to trade with us. They certainly won't be shamed into it by Britain's selfless willingness to decimate its manufacturing sector.

Our response to the threat of climate change has to be based on the three sets of measures those of us on the free-market right have been advocating for some time now:

1) Technology - cutting emissions to the level Al Gore, Zac Goldsmith or even Chris Huhne would like isn't impossible. It just requires a miracle. Fortunately science has a history of providing what, to previous generations, would have seemed miracles. There are economical steps we can take that don't screw over our economy and might make such a miracle, or just an incremental technology that reduces our emissions a bit, more likely. Prizes for technological discovery, an alternative to patents that was very successful in encouraging important developments during the Industrial Revolution, are a good candidate that Jim Manzi proposed in a recent National Review article.

2) Adaptation - we can make sure our flood defences are in order, our crops will respond well to the new seasons and take other steps to prepare for the challenges of a warmer world. We can help poor countries do the same. This needn't be particularly expensive and we should avoid doing too much while we don't know precisely what we'll be adapting to but adaptation is clearly a central response to climate change under any sensible programme.

3) Resilience - Manzi put it well: "Wealth and technology are raw materials for options". The most important thing to do in order to be able to withstand an ecological crisis is make sure you're rich to start off with. Rich countries are so much better able to withstand the harms of global warming. If we screw up our economy in a vain attempt to avert climate change future generations will not thanks us.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Liberaltarian conspiracy

A lot of right-wingers are very curious about Liberal Conspiracy. All our favourite lefties and many of our favourite ideological curiosities are there.

I think the contradiction that will make it difficult to maintain is that some (I'm thinking Chris Dillow and Gracchi in particular) think "left-liberal" means a libertarian who isn't particularly content with some of the right-libertarian movement's underlying philosophy. Others clearly mean it to be more like an American liberaltarian: Basically a classic statist left-winger with a particular concern for civil liberties. Neither position is illegitimate but they lead to very different practical politics. The ultra-Hayekian viewpoint Dillow advocates, for example, would imply a very small state which is a project a liberaltarian will, at best, spend their time poking holes in.

Now, while I have to write up a long Coasean post and finally tangle with Chris on the economic efficiency of firms (and write more about Rawls) the only real policy difference I can see between him and the very right-wing is immigration. Even there you'll find plenty of pro-immigration libertarians - far more than anti-statist lefties I think. Over at Liberal Conspiracy, by contrast, writers are already writing that "why social and environmental justice are worth spending a lot of society’s money on" is self-evident which suggests statism is likely to rear its head sooner rather than later.

There are important reasons why libertarians and conservatives tend to find themselves in alliance. I detailed them in an article for TCS that I'm still very proud of.

Still, disagreement and controversy on a group blog isn't necessarily a problem. That's generally what drives the Corner's most interesting moments.

I'm not sure what interaction Liberal Conspiracy wants with right-wingers. At first I thought it must want to be a showcase for the best talent the left-wing blogosphere has to offer. Sort of like Comment is Free was originally intended to be. That intention is suggested by the ConservativeHome-like online magazine format and the fact that it has clearly been "marketed" pretty widely. If that is the intention then it could become a great place to go and find all my favourite left-wing bloggers to debate with. The site would want to attract right-wing comment so that the new ideas it purports to promote can be battle-hardened before heading out into the real world.

Unfortunately, one of its very first posts manages a combination of superficiality and self-righteousness that has utterly put me off the whole project. Apparently what Zohra really wants is to escape the real world with all those unpleasant and self-evidently wrong people who disagree - who she never discusses in any tone but utter disdainful incomprehension. She might get what she wants. Ideas and arguments there aren't going to get scrutiny from the Right if we have to wade through such empty-headed sanctimony to get to them.

I've nothing against a forum to discuss ideas among the like-minded. Sometimes you do want to get off arguments about principles. I doubt you'll get that from Liberal Conspiracy though. The Hayekian left is too different to the politics of "social and environmental justice". Also, I'd suggest that if you look at the output of Demos, the IPPR and the other left-wing think tanks and compare it to an organisation like the TaxPayers' Alliance the left needs to do less talking to itself not more - the editor of Prospect expressed the same opinion at their Think Tank Awards this year. Of course that will require Zohra to get over his/herself.

Update: So far the two substantive posts are why we should force students to stay at school longer and why we should ban smoking in public places. It appears the site is less a liberal conspiracy and more a conspiracy to steal the word liberal from its rightful owners.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Jonathan Evans' brilliant speech on MI5 and the terrorist threat

This (via Ben Brogan) is an absolutely superb speech. Well worth reading in full as the press have, very understandably, focussed on the number of potential terrorists and the news that 15 year olds are being enlisted by the terrorist movement. While those are the most sensational and novel claims in the speech this is the most analytically section important in my opinion:

"But before we look at the violent manifestation of that threat in the UK, we need to remember where this comes from. The violence directed against us is the product of a much wider extremist ideology, whose basic tenets are inimical to the tolerance and liberty which form the basis of our democracy. So although the most visible manifestations of this problem are the attacks and attempted attacks we have suffered in recent years, the root of the problem is ideological.

Why? Because the ideology underlying Al Qaida and other violent groups is extreme. It does not accept the legitimacy of other viewpoints. It is intolerant, and it believes in a form of government which is explicitly anti-democratic. And the more that this ideology spreads in our communities, the harder it will be to maintain the kind of society that the vast majority of us wish to live in."

As he describes there is little reason to view 9/11 or any subsequent event at the beginning of this challenge to our way of life and its end is not in sight. It is an attack on our values by those who hate them.

Dershowitz gets censored

This essay is absolutely shocking. Both the account of what's going on in the Oxford Union and the fact that it has been censored. I find the idea that a Harvard Professor of Law's original articles was really beyond the journalistic pale a little far-fetched.

Hutton is not the King

Will Hutton is such a shoddy thinker. His latest piece is little more than blanket assertion about what the best thing to do "obviously" is:

"What should have happened, of course, is that when the Bank of England found that it could not find a secret buyer for Northern Rock in the summer, it should have done what it did in the 1974 secondary banking crisis. It should have taken Northern Rock into the Bank of England's ownership."

He then does nothing to establish quite why this is so obvious. Having the Bank of England take control of a bank and then sell it is a bloody big deal with plenty of transaction costs and a huge signal to the market of weaknesses in the system. He discusses none of the potential problems with his little scheme.

He also doesn't even mention Mervyn King's (someone not only more expert on this matter but also more influential - there's no excuse) alternate explanation of why intervention was so costly. Mike Denham gives some details of King's account and a more conventional view of what went wrong with Northern Rock. For Hutton to write his article without even mentioning this is the height of rhetorical laziness.

The Left's narrative on globalisation

There is a deep perversity to the Left's criticism of global multi-national capitalism that is terribly frustrating.

First, they hold companies operating in the Third World to an unrealistically high standard.

If anything happens in a developed country, from Colombia to Chad, that would look out of place in Crawley they cry foul. I once spoke against a motion at the LSE Student's Union that was going to condemn the entire Coca Cola company because some of its staff in Colombia had murdered trade unionists. While I'm no fan of murdering trade unionists I had to point out that with the sky-high murder rate in Colombia and the sheer scale and breadth of Coca-Cola's global operation this event didn't necessarily signify a systemic problem.

What the lefties miss is what it means to ensure, in the developing world, that factories are as safe, company's dealings are as above board and working conditions are as pleasant as in the West:

It is more difficult, as local staff will be used to the working standards of their own country - often corrupt or unsafe, that's a major reason why the country is poor in the first place. Local staff are essential in most industries and it is utterly unrealistic to expect multi-nationals to maintain perfect control over them. Multi-nationals can change that over time but it can't happen all at once.

It is also fundamentally less sensible. There's no reason why workers in these factories should not accept working conditions worse than those in the West (but still usually better than work outside the multi-nationals) in return for an ability to compete with more productive workers.

I'm not saying that firms should do as they wish and never face criticism for shabby behaviour in poor countries. We should ensure they do what they can. The problem is that more often than not the criticism completely loses perspective and makes investing in poor countries a fools game. If firms take a PR hammering every time anything goes wrong in a Third World factory or if they are forced to provide standards of pay and working conditions that the poor country's productivity cannot afford then they will simply invest elsewhere. While wages in poor countries are low with weak protection of property rights they are often a risky place to invest anyway. The anti-globalisation movement can succeed in stopping multi-nationals investing in poor countries.

When they do that three things happen.

1) Without the capital, technology and exposure to Western business methods that the multi-nationals bring the poor countries stay poorer, longer. With the divide in international incomes closing more slowly the Left complains ever more fiercely about exploitation and inequality.

2) Poor countries have to work still harder to attract international capital that will invest far less in the developing world once the Left has made investing there almost a guarantee of a PR disaster. Working harder to attract that capital means both making investment a better deal and more reliable by going further than rich countries to establish their capital-friendly credentials. This looks, to the Left, like an unfair inequality so they write fierce denunciations of the unfairness of making poor countries adopt more radical pro-capital policies than ourselves. Actually that is just the only way poor and unstable countries can now attract vital capital whether they decide to do it themselves or are forced to by international institutions charged with not wasting donor countries' money.

3) Western capitalism gets criticised for not engaging with Africa. As if they'd get any credit if they did.

It's deeply ridiculous.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

More on the morality of capitalism

Both Ian at Imagined Community and Gracchi have offered up interesting responses to my morality of capitalism post. Here are my attempts at a response, first to Ian:

"Gracchi points us to a well-made argument from our newest colleague in Blogpower Matt Sinclair suggesting that capitalism actually promotes less selfishness than other ways of organising society, but I wonder if it is too abstract. He argues, for example, that "In a capitalist system my well being depends upon anticipating and satisfying the needs of others." Could it be the case that much actual commercial activity is devoted to persuading people they have needs they were previously unaware of that, just coincidentally, Acme corporation can meet with their new product."

This critique of capitalism, that it manufactures demand through advertising, has a lot of intuitive force to it. Marketing told me I had a drastic need for an iPod whose lack I never rued before. However, I think it oversimplifies the process of advertising somewhat.

I'll use the example of the Phillips Wake-up Light that I recently purchased as an example. I saw the advert on the tube before buying it. Before that I had no inclination to buy a wake-up light as a substitute for my alarm clock. I did have trouble getting up. However, I had accepted the unpleasantness of my mornings as a constant and gave it little thought. It was a part of life. Therefore, I was unaware of the need for an alarm clock with the wake-up light's particular method.

What the advertising did was suggest that things could be different and I bought that message. It was less about manufacturing a need and more about making me aware of a need by showing that the need was not simply one more cross I would have to bear. I suspect that this is often the function of advertising. The advertising tells us that we have a need because it convinces us that a part of our life we had given up on as unimprovable is actually highly malleable.

This works for other, more status oriented products as well. We long to improve our status but give up on the idea that clothes can do it for us. We are convinced otherwise. This perception isn't false, people are shallow and clothes can improve your social standing. The shallowness is in ourselves and not our advertising. Some of the earliest human tools found by archaeologists were vastly oversized axes that were clearly unusable but functioned as status symbols.

I'm a little unsure about Ian's next two paragraphs.

"Also, does it risk under-estimating the complexity and potential incompatibility of the recipient's needs?"

Sometimes peoples needs are complex. That's why capitalism's rewards are so much better at encouraging people to take care of each other than the social rewards of gifts and charity that they often develop out of. The price system provides information about which products are really valued and which are valued most.

Ian then talks about the potential of firms to abuse the contracting process. I'm not sure of the particular relevance to this discussion but I'd suggest two common responses:

1) When contracting is particularly difficult a common response is to internalise that work within the corporation. A classic example is research and development. It is hard to specify price and requirement for research and development contracts thanks to the uncertainty that is inherent to research work. That is why research and development has so often been done within the firm or bought in after the fact by purchasing small and innovative firms.

2) Reputation does matter. Even if there are only a couple of firms in the market a duopoly can still be highly competitive. Monopolies are rarer than people think. They tend to exist in either geographical or very small product niches. Even then the monopoly is only pernicious if others cannot enter the market. If others can enter the market an inefficient company will need to stay on top of their game to avoid new competition. True, unshakeable, monopolies are particularly rare without some form of state intervention.

"In fact, surely the tendency to remove restrictions on managed capitalism in the name of the free market has had a significant impact on social breakdown - traditional industries have collapsed, whilst only mcjobs have replaced them."

With so much welfare dependency so often set alongside a need for immigrants to fill jobs I don't think the problem is a decline in economic opportunity. Some communities have suffered with economic change, that will happen under any system as tastes and technologies move. However, the decline has gone too far in too many places where economic opportunity is abundant for economic pressures to explain social decline. I think Dalrymple's peerless essay "The Frivolity of Evil" captures the true cause of social decline far better.

Gracchi's contribution is more esoteric. I think this is the crucial paragraph:

"This is a fascinating film- and there is much more to it than just what I have written- as ever there are interesting things to think about here which I haven't touched on from sex to alcoholism and the nature of addiction. But central to it all I think is this perception of the corrosive influence of capitalism upon our habits, that living in an other regarding society can turn us all into fraudsters and destroy our closest relationships as we seek that popularity known as profit. The point is extreme and in its extremity wrong- not all employment is geekdom. But the point that capitalism undermines true sympathy is an accurate one- and the issue that that points to in morality is a central problem that we live with constantly. This is neither a Randian individualistic manifesto (we are looking for real sympathy and not to abolish sympathy) nor is it a particularly positive manifesto (these problems may be endemic). What it does though is offer a corrective to the too easy view that if an action is other regarding, it is sympathetic. Gresham and the director and actors suggest it isn't."

Gracchi's argument is a funny one as he isn't really arguing for anything. He doesn't claim a moral superiority for any other doctrine (I claim some credit for the proviso he inserts that he isn't really a Randian). In fact, I'm almost concerned that Gracchi has come to conflate any human flaw with some deformity of capitalism. In any political state of affairs our very best instincts can be turned to evil: Love can turn to jealousy. The ambition that drove the most sublime of art also brings us the evil of Macbeth.

Does the desire to be of value to others, engendered by a capitalist system that makes our fortunes contingent upon the fortunes of others, lose its quality because in some it becomes a desire to fool people? Capitalism offers no particular favours to the trickster and will often punish them brutally (losing a reputation for honesty is usually very expensive) if they are found out. I'm not naive enough to think this will always be sufficient but neither am I expecting utopia.

This is clearly a domain for private morality that must be sustained by values and traditions. While I would still disagree with it Gracchi's film may be a better case for the necessity of combining Christian morality with capitalism than for an inherent immorality in the capitalist system.