Saturday, November 24, 2007

How to smear a writer

Does Sunny think David Landes is a racist?

"Portuguese intellectual shortcomings soon became a byword: thus Diogo do Couto, referring in 1603 to "the meanness and lack of curiosity of this our Portuguese nation"; and Francis Parry, the English envoy at Lisbon in 1670, observing that "the people are so little curious that no man knows more than what is merely necessary for him"; and the eighteenth-century English visitor Mary Brearley who remarked that "the bulk of the people were disinclined to independence of thought and, in all but a few instances, too much averse from intellectual activity to question what they had learned.


Portugal had become a backward, weak country" (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, p. 135-136)

His attack on Martin Amis suggests he probably does.

He quotes Amis as saying "the impulse towards rational inquiry, is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male” quote. That's a generalisation but I don't think it is a racist one. It could be true or untrue but requires no particular hostility to Muslims. It is very similar to innumerable quotes that could be pulled from Landes' book. For example, "Portuguese intellectual shortcomings soon became a byword".

Sunny says that Amis' most offensive utterings were the following:

"The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

Sunny never links to the original interview from which these comments spring so I've had to do a bit of searching to get it. As a commenter on his Liberal Conspiracy post points out the actual quote starts with:

"There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say,"

These aren't Amis' recommendations, they're a guilty admission of thoughts that he regards as unacceptable. He is describing dark thoughts that civilised people control but that are not indicative of racism or any other quality worthy of condemnation. It is those who do not see them as problematic that we have to worry about.

Amis' crime, if he has committed one, is to be a literary figure without the depth of self-control expected of someone engaged in an intensely political debate. Sunny's only response to the commenter who pointed out the distortion was, essentially 'but Imams get taken out of context too'. That Sunny can be so brazen about his character assassination is disgusting.

Perhaps Imams also suffer Amis' fate sometimes, although often when Imams claim to have been taken out of context that turns out not to be the case, but I don't know of anyone who has actually defended the practice of taking people out of context.

The statement about demographics is also taken out of context. Sunny presents it as an appeal to nativist fears of being 'overrun'. Again, here's the introduction Bennett and Sunny miss out - from the same interview linked above:

"He and The Hitch were in Las Vegas the previous week, and shared their grim premonition that this could be the beginning of the end for Israel."

His concern about Muslim demographics isn't a generalised concern about "them" and "us" but a specific concern about the Western world's ability to defend Israel. He's concerned that demographic change will make that impossible. The preceding paragraph further sets that in context as part of a broader worry that the British set Israel up in an impossible position. Deep fears that the Muslim world are out to 'get' Israel can be attacked as unjustified but are not racist.

Racist is an unfortunate description to throw around. Just like anti-semitic and insane it is one that sticks to people and defies rebuttal. After all, it is an attack not on someone's arguments or even their interests. It is an attack on the inner workings of their mind, it alleges that their very soul is defective. There is no real way to open yourself up, to prove yourself a non-racist. The best anyone can really do is the "well, I've got lots of friends of other races" but that isn't allowed to stand. Friendly personal conduct, apparently, is no barrier to being deeply unpleasant in some larger way.

Accusing people of racism is a bankrupt and small-minded style of argument. It is a witch-hunting discourse that will favour those who don't express themselves, who shut up and then manoevre into positions of power after a career of quiet blandness. It is, in the deepest sense, anti-intellectual. It closes our minds.

Oil peak and trough hysteria

The rhetoric on Peak Oil is so desperately disingenuous it is hard to know where to start. First, the possibility of the oil price breaking the $100 barrier is taken to indicate that the arrival of Peak Oil is imminent. Given that there is currently a cartel among the major oil producing countries the oil price doesn't tell you anything significant about possible production. The oil price is the result of demand interacting with the cartel's chosen supply, which bears no resemblance to total possible supply.

Once OPEC is consigned to irrelevance by depleting supplies and rising demand all that will mean is that oil is one more scarce resource. Peak oil is no more threatening than that. As supply dwindles and the price rises a genuine incentive to use oil efficiently and look for substitutes will be created. If you're worried that this process will be challenging, which it might be, the last thing you would want to do is intervene to try and make us confront this challenge now. Keep the price as low as you can, as long as you can. Don't put green taxes in place. That way we will face the greatest challenges from declining oil stocks when we have more technological substitutes in place and, as a result, using less oil is less expensive. In fact, the best policy for Britain would be to take advantage of an expected high price and slash rates now on North Sea oil so that more is discovered there and we have a larger domestic supply going foward.

What's really ironic, though, is that the faster we expect oil stocks to diminish, the more credibility we attach to those expecting Peak Oil to arrive sooner rather than later, the less seriously we should take global warming. After all, if oil stocks are going to diminish faster than we expect then the world will have to stop using fossil fuels sooner rather than later. There will be an economic imperative, that the market will reflect without any government intervention at all, to cut fossil fuel use. There's no need to accept a massive expansion of state power if the job of increasing the price of using oil-derivative powered plains, trains and automobiles will be done by declining oil reserves anyway. We can avoid the waste and incompetence that has so far been associated with attempts to use the power of the state to control fossil fuel use.

$100 oil isn't really anything to do with Peak Oil or any other natural shortage of supply but the result of faster than expected demand growth, thanks to a strong world economy, that OPEC is unwilling to balance out. Oil stocks will decline but this will just make oil one more scarce resource. Markets are very good at making efficient use of scarce resources and human ingenuity, when put to good use by a free-market economy, is great at finding substitutes. We'll be fine.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lawyers and deterrence

I've long been opposed to the death penalty and I haven't changed my mind yet. However, this is incredible, from the New York Times:

"According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented."

I've heard it stated as fact by so many lawyer-debaters that the death penalty doesn't work as a deterrent I'd assumed that was actually what the evidence showed. Instead it appears to be just a lawyers' urban myth.

I'm increasingly of the opinion that lawyers just don't like the idea of deterrence. It doesn't fit with the highly individualistic understanding of justice that their profession encourages them to think in terms of. Their job is to deal with cases in isolation. The importance of the broader impacts of sentencing to create a deterrent just isn't apparent when you're looking through that prism. Given that they're a group given massive power and unnaccountable to the world around them such a systematic cognitive bias among the legal community is pretty bloody important.


I'm afraid I'm still ill. Just a messy, undignified cold. Which is no fun. I've got a host of things I want to do and write about but my brain is working at an absolute snails' pace.

On the plus side, I think I now 'get' Mutley's blog. This is genius.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A day's a long time in politics

When Dave wrote it (two days ago - I apologise for the title of this post - poetic license) this was a reasonable, if overly generous, account of what had gone wrong at HMRC. Now it looks like pretty much every argument in Darling's defence is completely invalid. At the same time it is becoming very apparent that this mistake will prove expensive for customers, banks and, when someone claims for compensation, the taxpayer. He might get away with it if the discs are found within the next few days and could hang on regardless but Darling should resign:

1) It wasn't just a random mistake

  • It was a decision that senior staff were aware of.
  • It wasn't the only such incident. 2,111 data protection breaches in the last year.
  • Junior staff shouldn't have the ability to do this sort of thing.
2) The Government bear a large measure of responsibility for organisational failure at the HMRC

  • There's nothing wrong with trying to slim the staff at a government department, operations can often be simplified and the need for massive bureaucracy reduced. However, combining staff cuts in the same department with a messy merger, the massive complexities of new IT systems and the ongoing debacle of an overly complicated tax credit system is a recipe for disaster.
  • The Government was warned that there were serious problems with data protection within Government departments. They ignored those warnings.

3) Darling's defence for the delay in letting everyone know the data was gone appears desperately weak

He said it was to give the banks time to prepare but why was there a delay before he told the police and then a further delay before he hold the banks? Why do the banks deny that they asked for time to prepare?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Jeff Randall Live

I'm afraid I've been very busy and am now feeling very ill. Hopefully I'll recover by the morning. In lieu of anything more substantial here is a transcript of the Shadow Chancellor, Peter Hahn - former director at Citigroup and now academic at the Cass business school and myself discussing Northern Rock on Jeff Randall Live, Sky News. A couple of extracts:

Matthew, let me bring you in, nationalisation, we don’t exactly have a great record with that do we? Looking back to all those car companies in the 70s and indeed the Dome more recently wasn’t exactly a great success.

Well indeed and talking about confidence, if you are going to make this issue entirely one of, make all of the control of Northern Rock the government’s, if we are going to make it entirely a government concern, then we need to have confidence in the government. How much confidence do we have in them, how much confidence would we have in their management, in their ability to take Northern Rock forward if this becomes entirely a matter of the government handling a huge amount of risk once it nationalises and takes over all of the risk connected to Northern Rock?


Matthew, Taxpayers Alliance, you sit there and watch the government’s every move, you count the pennies, what mistakes have been made here?

I think the problem we had here was not necessarily that the government went in and lent but it went in without a proper exit strategy and without a proper idea of how it would limit its commitment. This is analogous to the Iraq War, your problem isn’t the decision of whether you go in or not, your problem is what you do next and I don't think they ever had a very clear picture of what that was going to be."

Update: Thanks to Edmund for pointing out that the link went to an interview with Chris Langham. It now points to the right place.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Immigration and society

I have never been convinced that there is a particularly acute case for or against immigration on economic grounds. I would expect that the labour market's gain and the congestion problems would largely offset one another. This appears to be supported by the statistical work on the subject. Mike Denham links to a National Institute of Economic and Social Research study that found that immigration increased GDP by 3 per cent, it increased population by 3.8 per cent - GDP per capita fell a little. I don't think either side can honestly claim that the issue of immigration can be comprehensively settled by an appeal to economic logic alone.

My concerns over immigration are, instead, philosophically conservative. My premise is that a decent, peaceful and liberal society is a rarity whose defence is constantly in doubt. The libertarian approach to the pursuit of liberty - of trying to define and create the most pure liberal society possible - I sympathise with but regard as fundamentally mistaken. It leads them to prioritise transient victories, laws and constitutions.

Instead, I see the most important challenge as creating a nation able and willing to sustain and defend a liberal society. This project is always difficult due to a number of necessary structural weaknesses in liberal democracy. The logic of collective action demonstrates how minorities can capture the state thanks to the difficulty of mobilising a majority. Liberal values can be limiting when facing enemies facing no such constraints.

The challenge of defending Western values is currently particularly difficult thanks to relativism. Dalrymple sets out why the challenge of confronting threats to Western values is particularly acute:

"When faced by people who, quite mistakenly and with a combination of staggering ignorance and arrogance, believe themselves to be in possession of a truth that justifies almost any atrocity committed, if not by them, exactly, then by those whom they have indoctrinated, modern Western Europeans do not know how to react. They have either forgotten what it is to believe in anything, to such an extent that they cannot really believe that anyone else believes in anything, either; or their memories of belief are of belief in something so horrible—Communism, for example, or Nazism—that they no longer believe that they have the right to pass judgment on anything. This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction, brought about preferably at your own expense. First, you can't take them seriously; second, you suspect they might in any case be right."

Our weakness is immediately apparent if you look at the craven response by our media and political establishment to the Danish Cartoons Crisis. Massive and threatening protests across Europe and the Islamic world attacked freedom of speech and pronounced themselves grievously offended by cartoons published in a small newspaper in a small European country. Not a single British newspaper printed the cartoons and Jack Straw praised their cowardice as 'sensitivity'. Our most important values were coming under attack by those who hoped to use the threat of violence to intimidate others, to destroy free speech without a law in sight. Our supposedly fearless media was not willing to join Jyllands-Posten and a handful of other European newspapers in the trenches and make such a simple statement of collective defiance of the Islamist threats.

We need to be concerned about our ability to defend our values. I am often worried by the way integration is usually described: as a policy intended to ensure "community cohesion". That misses the point. You could theoretically create a very cohesive society, at least in the short term, by clamping down upon freedom of speech and just having everyone shut up about their differences. I don't think this would work in the long-term as a society lacking the catharsis of free speech would develop greater lingering resentments. More importantly, it implies sacrificing one of the West's most important values. Defending those values is more important than pursuing community cohesion for its own sake.

Importing huge numbers of people every year who often do not share those values is a very risky thing to do. 4.6 per cent of the British population have arrived here in the last ten years. A great many of those have arrived with values incompatible with the Western tradition that Britain is a part of. Unlike Iranian immigrants to America British immigrants from Pakistan, for example, are not drawn particularly disproportionately from a Westernised elite. Compare immigration to Britain now with previous waves of immigration that were smaller (the Huguenots were about one per cent of the British population) and didn't have the same clash of values and it is hard to see a parallel for the kind of challenge we already face. Further immigration at the same rate might make it utterly impossible to defend liberal values whose defence is already looking fragile.

An undermining of common values walks hand in hand with an undermining of national identity and the willingness to compromise. Compromise has to be based upon a certain measure of trust that your moderation will not be taken advantage of. Building trust is more difficult in a society where people cannot call upon shared experience and history. Integrating immigrants into that shared experience is harder when there are so many of them that they are unlikely to see an existing community of which they can form a part. Politics will become uglier and commerce more bureaucratic if people do not trust each other. A fractious politics could create differences of values even if they don't already exist.

Even leaving aside differences of values creating a nation where people trust each other enough to work and live together happily is a real challenge. I have no idea how we might go about creating such a spirit in a nation with so many new entrants. Anyone who supports immigration on the scale of the last ten years without a really good idea of how they'll turn the new population into a nation seems, to me, to be engaged in an exercise of utter irresponsibility.

So, to conclude, my problem with immigration is not economic. My biggest concern is not that immigrants will take jobs from indigenous Britons (although we should be very concerned about the impact on the lower paid) but that it will lead to the slow death of the values that define what is best in our society. That we will become more divided and untrusting.

I must, finally, comment briefly on whether we can limit immigration. I think we can. I've seen two suggestions of reasons why that might not be possible and both seem deeply spurious. First, Chris Dillow posits that we can't because our coatline is so much longer than the US-Mexico border that they're proposing to build a fence across. This rather misses the point that we already have a bloody great moat. As an island nation it is almost uniquely easy for us to defend our borders. Second, others suggest that international obligations prevent us controlling immigration. This just doesn't fit the numbers as those granted asylum and EU migrants combined are under 40 per cent of the last decade's inflow. Intra-EU migration is also less important with respect to the values clash as immigrants from European countries are more likely to share Western values like free speech.

As such, I think we can and should limit immigration in order to defend the fragile social order - already under severe strain - that has made Britain so successful, so worth migrating to.

Libertarian idealism in practice

I think sometimes the Austrian distaste for empirics has left libertarians too eager to construct theoretical expansions of the private sector instead of appealing to real world examples of private services in action. Here are a couple of examples that I think libertarians should use a lot more:

1) Turnpike trusts

The construction of the railways with private capital is the classic example of infrastructure being constructed, at an incredible pace, by the private sector. The private sector railways only fell into disrepair and then the clutches of government when they were wrecked by wartime use and poor maintenance.

However, the railways aren't the only example of the private sector managing basic transport infrastructure. Calls for the roads to be privatised may seem radical now but it wouldn't be without precedent.

In the seventeenth century the roads were the responsibility of parishes and in a poor state. With volumes of trade increasing they were being used more and more heavily and needed investment and proper maintenance. The solution was a libertarian's dream. Significant numbers of the most important roads were handed over to Turnpike Trusts that looked after the roads and charged a toll for their use. They produced a much improved trunk road network and played an important role in moving goods from canal and railheads in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

2) The lifeboats

An emergency service run successfully for hundreds of years on a charitable basis, in the libertarians' dreams surely?

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution runs an emergency service that saves 22 lives a day. Running a lifeboat service is obviously a massively capital intensive activity and one that needs to be on service permanently. Despite that it has been a private service funded philanthropically since its founding in 1824. While the Admiralty could not be persuaded to take an interest private society set the service up and legacies and other donations still provide it with the funds it needs to operate each year.