Thursday, January 24, 2008

The UK should withdraw from Durban II

Canada has become the first country to withdraw from Durban II, from the Canadian Press:

"The so-called Durban II conference "has gone completely off the rails" and Canada wants no part of it, said Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity.

"Canada is interested in combating racism, not promoting it," Kenney told The Canadian Press.

"We'll attend any conference that is opposed to racism and intolerance, not those that actually promote racism and intolerance.

"Our considered judgment, having participated in the preparatory meetings, was that we were set for a replay of Durban I. And Canada has no intention of lending its good name and resources to such a systematic promotion of hatred and bigotry."

There were a series of problems with Durban I that look likely to be repeated with Durban II.

Attacks on free speech

Durban I was marked by repeated attacks on the United States for its defence of the free speech guarantee in the US Constitution. The new conference is likely to, in a very similar way, be used as a platform to attack free speech.

UN Watch exposed, in an editorial for the Boston Globe, how the conference is to be used to attack the West for "religious defamation". This is an attempt to use the imprimatur of the UN to push for the banning of future Danish Cartoons, Satanic Verses and other free expression that we are right to defend. A speaker for Egypt described the Danish Cartoons as a "new and dangerous incitement against religion."

Anti-semitic abuse

At the last conference there was not just an obsessive focus on Israel - rather odd in itself for a conference supposedly focussed on racism. There were deeply unpleasant displays of extremist anti-semitic literature. This poster is one, particularly awful, example:

The Canadian government notes, in the Canadian Press, that:

"Furthermore, all of the non-governmental organizations invited to the first conference have been invited back to the second, including those that were at the "forefront of the hatred," some of which posted pro-Hitler posters at the 2001 gathering."

At best (worst?) this disgusting material will be displayed more subtly. More likely, things will be exactly the same.

Some of the world's worst regimes given prominent positions

Again, from UN Watch:

"Libya was elected as chair, and Iran and Cuba among the 19 vice-chairs."

With that kind of leadership...


At the earlier conference Canadian government policy had been that - through their presence at Durban - they could try to fight the numerous abuses. They have clearly realised that this will not work:

"Concluded Kenney: "If we felt there was any realistic chance that Canada could help to positively influence the process, we would stay involved. . . . By making this bold decision, Canada may send a wake-up call to the Durban organizers and other countries."

Britain should follow Canada's fine example.

An employment Huqabust?

Chris Dillow writes some really clever posts. He is one of the best UK bloggers of any type or ideological persuasion. Unfortunately, he has something of a penchant for pursuing arguments that he must know are decidedly silly. Elaborate houses of cards (like these).

Yesterday he gave us Konnie Huq's contribution to unemployment. As her pleasant appearance makes unemployment more enjoyable - "Why bother going out to work when you can stay home and look at her?" - she must have contributed to the social and economic costs attached to unemployment. This is the obviously silly bit in Chris's post. Despite her obvious charms no one is remaining unemployed in order to stay home and watch Konnie Huq.

So far, all good fun and I might sound like a bit of pedant to be writing about this at all. However, Chris argues there is a serious lesson to be learned from all this silliness:

"The point: does this seem absurd? It shouldn't. It's merely the logical consequence of the assumption that people on benefits could work if they want to. Perhaps it's this premise that's wonky."

That point doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The reason why it seems absurd that Konnie Huq created unemployment is that it is not plausible that she made a concrete difference to the utility attached to remaining unemployed. Images of beautiful women, on a screen, are easy to come by. The absurdity of a Konnie Huq effect on the unemployment figures says nothing about the likely effects of a more credible alteration to the conditions attached to unemployment - a change in unemployment benefit rates, for example.

I don't think it is a wonky premise that some people on benefits could work if they wanted to. Particularly given the number of immigrants, even to poor areas of the country, demonstrating that it is possible to find work here. A lot of those immigrants are low skilled so are not taking jobs beyond the locals.

In the end, the premise Chris attacks as possibly wonky is just saying that the unemployed are responding to incentives like anyone else. If the benefits to entering work aren't sufficiently high relative to the benefits of staying in unemployment (and those benefits include leisure time) for some people then there is a good chance they won't try and get work. Others might not look as hard or accept less than ideal jobs. It's a very simple intuition that is also behind iniatives that I know Chris supports, like the Citizen's Basic Income.

N.B. I apologise for the title of this post. It is a reference to the term "Huckaboom" used to describe Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise in the American opinion polls a little while back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The ongoing political saga of the three little pigs

Apparently the story of three little pigs is no longer acceptable. Having been slowly toned down over the years - the characters no longer eat each other - it has now fallen foul of some politically correct imperative to avoid any mention of pigs for fear of offending Muslims. A cartoon that attacks cowboy builders - The Three Little Cowboy Builders - was seen to "raise cultural issues", thanks to its portrayal of pigs, by Becta (the government's "educational technology agency" - whatever that is).

Bizarrely enough the story of the three little pigs has run into trouble with the PC-police before. The three little pigs were going to be recast as puppies for a school play in West Yorkshire before a councillor stepped in and restored sanity.

I'm pretty certain this is all utterly absurd. Muslims can't eat pork but there is no prohibition on pigs in the media. There is no suggestion that any Muslim has actually complained. Beyond that, Becta are clearly utter imbeciles as they assume the cartoon will offend builders - it won't. An attack on cowboy builders will be welcomed by the honest builders who lose business to the unscrupulous.

Despite the obvious silliness in this case it does illustrate a more serious issue. Attacks on free speech through the legal system, threats of violence (overt or implied) and hypersensitive protests at minor, perceived insults have a broad range of social effects. While we do need to be concerned that even the bravest - with something important to say - won't be able to speak their mind we should also be mindful of small concessions, some of them entirely irrational. Topics ruled out of bounds, self-censorship to be on the safe side. This isn't as dramatic and obviously important as the grand struggles over Salman Rushdie's book or the Danish Cartoons but it does matter.

We don't want a society where people are too cautious about what they say. A vibrant culture is built upon expression that is free in spirit. Where spontaneous creativity is not subjected to a political filter.

That kind of freedom of expression is worth defending. It makes the world a brighter, more interesting place.

Aaronovitch on Craig Murray and Internet abuse

This article is pretty good. Aaronovitch has hit upon a far more sensible response to blogosphere taunts than getting in a tantrum and calling the lawyers:

"A few weeks ago someone sent me a link to the website belonging to Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Last year I found myself debating against him at Trinity College, Dublin, on the Middle East. Though I didn't agree with him on much and wondered why he was wearing a kilt, I found him pleasant enough, especially when, afterwards, he rather disarmingly admitted that he didn't know a lot about Israel, about which he'd just been pontificating.

So to his site, where Mr Murray was highly critical of me being allowed by the BBC to interview Tony Blair last year on the basis that I was “a leading neocon, pro-war, pro-Zionist and anti-Muslim propagandist”. But if I was slightly saddened to see Mr Murray seduced by the adjectival Pavlovianism of the anti-war movement, I was staggered by what he said about me personally, describing me as “that sleazy fat neo-con slob Aaronovitch - someone should buy that man a picture for his attic”. Of course, I am too fat; “neocon” is the new all-purpose political accusation; though scrupulously clean, I occasionally underdress - and if Mr Murray feels so obviously superior in physical aesthetics, then I am sure The Times can provide the reader with photographs of us both to enable a comparison.


Now suppose, that I were to write an article for this paper in which I began by telling readers that Craig Murray was not just wrong and oddly ill-informed, but that he was also - let's say - a chinless, adulterous, anti-Semitic clown whose vanity and incontinence had led to him damaging those very causes that he claimed to care for so much. My editors wouldn't have stood for it, and the readers would have thought less of me for it. Yet in several of the more lionised and supposedly political websites that influence some of our journalists, this is exactly the level of debate. "

Update: What Gracchi said. Murray is clearly a complete fool making the kind of argument a complete fool should be expected to make.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Judicial Aristocracy

There are a great many topics I think about a lot that don't make it onto this blog. Judicial activism is one of those issues.

This article, an interview with Antonin Scalia, contains a brief version of a profound argument that continues ad nauseum in the United States:

"I am not happy about the intrusion of politics into the judicial appointment process in my country. But frankly, I prefer it to the alternative, which is government by judicial aristocracy."

This isn't a problem confined to the United States, though, and we need to take it more seriously. Douglas Carswell, in a chapter (PDF) from Direct Democracy, via Centre Right, sets out how judicial aristocracy in the UK has broken most of its reasonable limits in recent years.

I think that the basic cause of the problem is the cognitive bias created by a lawyer's career. They deal with individual cases and that encourages them to disregard broader social effects. When so focussed on an individual case it can seem brutal to think of the bigger picture. While many lawyers will accept that deterrence can be effective they will generally be more sceptical of its efficacy than the general population.

I think they're wrong. The evidence appears to be that deterrence is very effective. However, I don't want to predicate this post on that. It is quite possible that economists have a cognitive bias in the other direction. We see everything through the prism of data and tend to lose a lot of important detail in the aggregate. Beyond that, our subject works with incentives so we are predisposed to believe in their effectiveness. Given how hard it is to increase the probability of getting caught high sentences are the often most sensible public policy if you want to control crime.

This is one of those issues that we'll struggle to resolve rationally. The difference in views is rooted in the way in which economists and lawyers understand the world. Each group will sound unconvincing to the other. The lawyers will hear unrealistic generalisation and the economists will hear mushy anecdote when listening to their opposite numbers.

Now, both lawyers and economists have a host of rational and emotional arguments to support their case. The proper way, in a democracy, to resolve the question is to put it to the public. The problem is that the legal community maintains an entirely unnaccountable power through the judiciary.

The right can win the debate over law and order but it will be frustrated by the judiciary. The judicial aristocracy's distortion of the democratic decision is then exacerbated as their resistance often has the added effect of making deterrence-boosting legislation itself appear ineffective.

I don't have any policy solutions in mind. Ending the independence of the judiciary is a big step. That's why I don't write on the subject very often. However, the problem of the judicial aristocracy is a serious one that the right should be thinking very seriously about.

McCain's TV style

If there is one thing I'd expect an American politician to be good at it is coming across well on TV. It is a pretty basic competence and their politics is supposed to be more professional. However, I can't imagine any British politician being this bad:

There are two options on TV:

1) Stare down the camera. This is generally done when you're being interviewed remotely - "from our Westminster studio" - and you must on no account ever look away. If you look away even for an instant then you look shifty.

It's difficult. The questions will often be coming to you from a speaker to the side and the temptation to look at your questioner is a powerful natural reflex you've got to completely kill.

2) Look at whoever you're speaking to. Let the camera be a fly on the wall watching you give a speech to ordinary people. Don't look down the camera or you'll break the illusion of reality.

Either option works, neither is 'right', but you can't fudge the issue. The half way house McCain occupies in this speech makes him look shifty, nervous and amateurish.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Facebook can take their Bear Balloon and shove it!

I wouldn't normally write a blog about Facebook. Having seen a book about Facebook in WH Smiths while on my way back to Letchworth for the weekend I've become convinced the whole affair is a horrible cliché. Writing about it or otherwise making it out to be somehow important or profound is silly. The Facebook industry exploits poor, deluded and normally middle-aged people who buy into the idea their social life can be improved with better IT skills. The opposite is true.

However, my Facebook-blog embargo has to be broken thanks to the social milestone that is the $1 Bear Balloon. You see, a Bear Balloon is clearly just a regular balloon with ears attached. Balloons are cheap. I'm convinced you could buy one for less than a dollar. Particularly if you were willing to bulk buy.

That means that the imitation has become more valuable than the actual product. Not only are people willing to pay for an entirely imaginary product - they're willing to pay more!

The kind of virtualised life that William Gibson imagined a few years ago has existed at the fringes for a while - Second Life and online games - now it is reaching the mainstream. Soon we'll all be buying virtual tickets to virtual plays with virtual props bought from virtual designers. It's weird. I think the Bear Balloon is a vital step on the path to such a weird future.

While I'm breaking my Facebook-blog embargo, I think you can divide the Facebook community into the old guard and Facebook-proles. Facebook-proles can be identified by their "(no network)" tag, the old guard have a university network. The Facebook-proles brought with them all of the paraphenalia that they loved on - weird little games, the ability to bite people as a zombie and a host of other distractions from real life. Ironically, many of the Facebook-proles are middle-aged, middle class people. They're so obviously jumping on the bandwagon. They're not cool. If you're a Facebook-prole then feel ashamed!