Take abuse of expenses: the Tories were bang to rights, snouts in trough with Derek Conway, Tory MEPs and 61 Tory MPs employing family members for as much as £40,000 apiece. (19-Jul-08)Let's repeat this: our MPs are rarely corrupt. Our feral press, however, finds growing transparency and freedom of information - brought in by Labour - offers easy meat for cheap stories. These hyped up "scandals" are frivolous compared with serious investigations such as the Guardian's arduous and risky revelations on company tax avoidance. (31-Mar-09)And let us not forget that Jacqui Smith's husband is employed at, you guessed it, £40,000 p.a. Honestly, it is too easy. I could almost say, "Why the BBC takes Polly Toynbee seriously is beyond me," except it is not. Both think the same way. And both, let us be frank, are going to start to lose the respect of the Internet-savvy generation which sees more going on than either is willing to admit or talk about.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
G20 Meltdown, a protest organisation based at the soi-disant "Freedom Bookshop", about which there is evidently nothing free, has a "manifesto". The points are expressed in the form of questions, such as:
Can we guarantee everyone a job, a home, a future?Can we make capitalism history?YES WE CAN!No, you can't:
Is it capitalism which gave you the computer and Internet you are using to propagate your message?Is capitalism responsible for lifting more people out of poverty and giving them the chance to have a job, a home and a future?For the anarchists: Is capitalism the system which grew out of the freedom to pursue a profit?YES IT IS!As I have said before, I can take or leave "capitalism", if we mean the specific plant which has grown in the soil of the free market, a plant with stock exchanges and supermarkets. Historically it is what we have now, but it shall evolve over time, no doubt; in the meantime, I neither seek to establish nor to smash it. What underlies capitalism, though, is the rich soil of freedom, to work and to trade, to own and to enjoy the fruits of one's labour; this is precisely what the poorest need. We cannot make both poverty and capitalism history.
In the rows over salaries and allowances, we often hear MPs say that they could easily earn more than the £60,000 plus allowances in the private sector. Do you believe that of yourself? And would you like the opportunity to prove it?Some, of course, can say that they have already proved it, having come from highly well-paid careers in business: Vince Cable, for instance, must have made a pretty penny as Chief Economist at Shell, and similar must be true for not a few Tories and doubtless some Labour Members. Others can point to the fact that they have not claimed their full allowance even when the rules entitled them to do so.But that leaves a great number who have been simple lobby fodder for their entire careers, and whose claims record indicates that they have been taking every penny they conceivably could. And so the question for such MPs stands: could you earn your compensation outside Parliament, and why should we not give you the chance to do so?
Monday, March 30, 2009
Funny, this political history thing. Horror makes compulsive reading, and the Oswald Mosley hagiosite (link) is, for that reason, as compelling as they come. The more of it I read, the more I realise that fascism was, and is, very definitely a brother of communism in so many ways. The fascists stood for state control of industry; society stratified by occupation; economic well-being "guaranteed"; opposition to the private use of capital; state fixing of wages and prices; the subjection of the individual to the State's needs; and more besides.By contrast, I hold out for freedom in every sphere of life: economic, social, and civil. As a liberal, I believe in letting people live basically the way they want, so long as no-one else is made to pick up the tab. And as such, I am the polar opposite of a fascist; Mosley, in his pamphlets, recognised the same fact when he described liberalism as the great enemy of fascism.And yet, in our enlightened modern times, we let people say it is "liberal" to believe that liberty means guaranteed economic well-being  , that the state should control wages and prices  , and in class war . Laugh, or cry?
I quoted him before on nationalising the banks, and I am sure I shall quote him again. Ozzie Mosley and his fascisti proposed the following:
The essence of liberty is freedom to enjoy some of the fruits of life, a reasonable standard of life, a decent house, good wages, reasonable hours of leisure after hours of work short enough not to leave a man exhausted, unmolested private happiness with wife, children and friends and, finally, the hope of material success to set the seal on private ambition: these are the realities of liberty to the ordinary man. (src)I invite comparisons with Jack Straw's mooted idea to incorporate the welfare state into a bill of rights. Liberty, true liberty, means the chance to pursue these things, not the guarantee of them. I have days when the guarantee of a wife and family sounds like a plan, but I also remember the schoolyard jokes about the car which epitomised central planning, the Skoda. I would sooner take my chances in the free world.
Is the Jury Team all that it appears to be? The claim is made that it is a non-party party, but in fact, they do have a platform. There are twelve proposals which they make, all aimed ostensibly at making government more transparent and more efficient. I was not terribly impressed that they claim to have no platform and then set out a twelve-point plan, but my concerns deepened when I looked at the blurb for proposal number 10:
Departments will be run by a Board chaired by the senior departmental minister but on which at least half of the directors would be appointed by a panel of designated NGOs and other stakeholders relevant to consumer and producer interests in that sector.For comparison, here is someone else making a similar proposal:
Existing organisations such as trade unions and employers' federations will be woven into the fabric of the Corporate State, and will there find with official standing not a lesser but a greater sphere of activity. (src)In all candour, I read the Jury Team's proposal to co-opt "stakeholders" in the running of government departments, and I hear nothing more or less than an echo of Oswald Mosley. Worry me? You bet it does.
Some aspects of the welfare state are good and necessary. It is generally acknowledged that the principle that we all pitch in to ensure a decent education for children is a good thing. The principle of nationally-funded healthcare, likewise, is widely agreed-upon as being something we wish to preserve. We may argue fiercely about how to structure that provision, but the funding is agreed.But on the other side, we have a creeping expansion in the public sector and the slow creation of a benefits underclass (ref. Tom Harris, Lab Glasgow South; Times). It is a hard question, but I think it needs constantly asking whenever the state wishes to expand: to what extent is this an unnecessary and very British version of panem et circenses?Juvenal gave rise to the famed phrase to describe the state of a Roman plebeian class which has sold its support to whichever politician could promise the greatest largesse at the expense of the imperial exchequer. In fact, one might even see that as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire, a decline which took three centuries to come to fruition. It is not the benefits themselves, but the sense of entitlement they generate, which will be the downfall of the Western empire just as it was with the Romans.
Yes indeedy, Our Glorious Gordon has defended his Home Secretary (BBC). Of course, his positioning might be after the manner of Red Riding Hood's Wolf:
"My, Gordon, how well you're backing her up!""All the better to wield the knife, my dear."And yet this is not the Prime Minister's way. He may fume and plot, but he barely ever wields the knife. Witness the leadership challenge that never was, the election that never was… on goes the list. No, "Jacqu-boot" Smith is safe in post.More secure, but not more happy. As Michael Brown writes in this morning's Independent, "Our home secretary is now a joke". We can but hope that this may mean a break from yet more illiberal, ill-defined, ill-considered assaults on civil liberties, at least until the general election. And at that election, the good people of Redditch can have their say on whether they wish to continue to be represented by a Home Secretary who prefers her sister's home in London over her constituency house. With a majority of a mere 4.2%, I think she should start making inquiries as to whether ACPO needs a press officer.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
From the blurb to a short video (reason.tv) about some of NYC's latest bans:
Drew Carey wonders when so many of us turned into "ban-happy busybodies," and compliments the British on their more civilized approach to bans.Oh, how I laughed. Complimenting the country that has attacked free speech, protest, free association… aw, shucks, you know the List. Turns out, the only ban in the UK that he likes—hey, snap!—is the Barring of Alistair Darling.
Friday, March 27, 2009
People are talking about whether the Chancellor or the Governor is now running the economy. I know what the phrase is short-hand for, but really, it get used so often I think it erodes what little vestige of economic sense the public as a whole has left.The image that the phrase conjures up is a poor old dear (or a sozzled old drunk?) who could totter over at the slightest loss of balance, and the necessity of a Wise Man in Whitehall. But that is not what it means to live in a free market economy.In one sense, we might say that no-one runs the economy. That is the point of a free market: there is no Master Mind which controls it. But in fact, there is a better answer.We all run the economy, between us. We have jobs (most of us!), we carry on a trade or provide services or manufacture stuff, and people pay us for the goods and services we supply; we then use that income to purchase goods and services which are of value to us. We save money, which banks then lend on to borrowers; we invest money, which is used to expand business and improve productivity; we give money away to charities which help others in need. The economy is the product of all those transactions, and more besides.The marvel is that out of this total unpredictability, of individuals doing what they think best in their own circumstances, we get a functioning economy. The free market is the most democratic form of economy which exists—every time money changes hands, the participants in the transaction have cast a vote in its running.
Jeff Randall, writing in today's Telegraph, wonders out loud whether Harriet Harman's outrageous behaviour is not in fact a secret Tory plot to discredit Labour for a generation. He almost had me, as well, except for this paragraph:
Mysteriously, however, after a politics degree at York University, Miss Harman emerged as a fully paid-up member of Labour's moon gazers – Mad Hattie Harperson. Could it have been on York's pretty lakeside campus that a plot was hatched to insert an unprincipled student as a grinding cog in Labour's machinery? I like to think so.Plainly Randall has no idea whereof he writes. York's "lakeside" campus is far from pretty, let me assure you. A shame: but for that, his thesis would seem about the only rational explanation for the Leader of the House's recent pontifications. Harriet Harman, a latter-day Hushai the Arkite.
Regulator Ofqual has made exam boards take immediate action after finding science GCSE standards had fallen. Its evaluations involved not only the new general science GCSEs but also the separate physics GCSE. (BBC)The real news here is how long it took for Ofqual to cotton on: the rest of us have known for years.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
To comprehend the scale of the sickening task awaiting George Osborne if he becomes chancellor, consider the following. If he were to raise VAT to 25 per cent, double corporation tax, close the Foreign Office, cancel all international aid, disband the army and the police, release all prisoners, close every school and abolish unemployment benefit he would still be unable to close the gulf between what the UK government spends and what it raises in taxes. (src)Yes, I did just run the figures quickly, and they sound plausible. Thanks to the Fink, and no thanks to Gordon.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Oh, what a funny world she must live in. Polly Toynbee closed her latest column, detailing the financial woes of her august journal's parent group, with the following wonderful line:
Democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable. In the end, it's up to you. If you always read this on the web, go out and buy a copy, skinflint. Use it or lose it.'Cos Polly's been so scrutinous, so scrutineering, so scrutinatious of the government, hasn't she? All those articles detailing how Labour is failing and needs to be booted out of office to teach them a lesson, oh yes.So I know now what I shall do: tell every Guardian reader to use the website. Ha!(Thanks: Mr. Eugenides)
Harriet Harman was deputising for Gordon Brown today as he was in some sunny Latin American country, saving the world, or something. At the outset of her answers, she caused much derision by informing the House that the government tax deferral scheme had helped ninety-three businesses. Ooops, ninety-three thousand!Three weeks ago she was covering for Gordon as he went to be ritually humiliated by the President of the United States. William Hague was his usual witty self and completely floored her regarding the leadership; David Miliband, who was sat next to her, could be seen grinning from ear to ear as if all his Christmasses had come at once, and even Alistair Darling could be seen smirking. Today, Miliband was not in evidence at all, and Darling was conspicuously out of shot.After those PMQs, she was forced into an immediate climb-down after it was revealed that she had given an inaccurate answer (I thought this was called "misleading the House"?) to a question about her favourite Scotsman's knighthood; this week, she said that public spending in the Kingdom, Principality and Province was not being cut, when all three first ministers have said that this is happening. Understandably, the nationalist MPs were infuriated.Is she really up to the job?
The gilt market is nearing exhaustion. Today saw an auction of gilts—due to mature in forty years' time!—aiming to raise £1.75bn. Unfortunately, the market only supplied £1.627bn, bidding 0.93 times the funding sought (pdf). For contrast, the auction of £3bn of 2019 gilts was over-subscribed, with 2.06 times the funding sought (pdf). You can see that this is serious business.This issue came up at PMQs, and the head of the DMO was quoted as saying we ought not to draw hasty conclusions from one auction. He is correct. Nevertheless, this is a startling occurrence, the first for a long time, and one which we would do well to note. The markets are moving towards exhaustion, and as I wrote earlier, if I were at the Treasury, I would be worried sick at the prospect of a gilt strike. The UK government is slowly running out of rope with which to hang itself, and all this borrowing, which cannot in any event get us out of recession, will haunt children yet unborn."No more boom and bust," indeed.
The court of public opinion has handed down the only kind of sentence it knows (BBC). I much prefer my rule of law to your misrule of opinion.EDIT: Which leads me to a nice little PMQ:
Perhaps the Leader of the House has heard today's news of vandalism in Edinburgh, attacking the house of the former boss of the RBS. Does she accept the sentence of the court of public opinion?
As we know, Crash Gordon was in Europe yesterday, selling his idea that we can save the economy by pumping wealth out of the private sector into the public; meanwhile, back in Westminster, Mervyn King was telling Parliament that any such move would be foolhardy in the extreme. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP who sits outside the EPP, used his position to deliver a series of stinging criticisms. Clearly, Gordon Brown thought this merely a joke. Here is the video:
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Sometimes I wonder about the language we use to describe what it is we want. Jack Straw first announced (Guardian), then quickly shelved (Mail), plans for a "bill of rights" which would enshrines rights to things like free education, free healthcare, welfare and so on. Such "rights" are not cheap! And as someone else observed, Art. 39 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution read rather like Jack Straw's mooted articles might have done:
 Fair trial, of course, can never be demerited by definition; and freedom of movement is also limitable in cases of disease. But I am trying to generalise a little here.
Citizens of the USSR enjoy in full the social, economic, political and personal rights and freedoms proclaimed and guaranteed by the Constitution of the USSR and by Soviet laws. The socialist system ensures enlargement of the rights and freedoms of citizens and continuous improvement of their living standards as social, economic, and cultural development programmes are fulfilled.Enjoyment by citizens of their rights and freedoms must not be to the detriment of the interests of society or the state, or infringe the rights of other citizens.We all know how that turned out.I think there are two sorts of "rights" getting muddled up here. There are fundamental rights, and civic rights.The former, fundamental rights, we might call human rights, or even human liberties. As a general rule, they are cheap, even costless, and universal: we can imagine them being exercised in even the most primitive human societies, with no advanced technology or economic system. The list will include things like the liberty to speak your mind, the liberty to hold views of your own, the liberty to meet with other people, the liberty to move about without obstruction, and the liberty to enjoy the fruits of your own labour. Such human liberties are almost inalienable: they are certainly inalienable in the sense that you have to have done something seriously wrong in order to demerit them. On the other side, we have civic rights. These are rights we give people in law because we find that society rubs along better with them. They are not intrinsic to humanity, not least because some of them have not existed as long as humans! These are things like welfare, education, and healthcare. I would say that jury trials and the right to vote probably also come here: it is possible, I imagine, to have fair trials in other ways, but we in the UK have founded our system on the jury trial and altering that settlement is far harder than merely tinkering with the law.Some of these civic rights ought to be easier to take away from people, although it does not always appear that way! And there are some grey areas, too: the freedom to defend oneself and the right to be defended by the State are not so easy to work through. But I think the overall scheme is sound: two tiers of rights, one more fundamental and more universal than the other.Distinctively, whereas the fundamental rights tend to delimit what others, and particularly the powerful, may not do to you—they may not gag you, bind you, steal from you, etc.—the civic rights tend to define what the government has promised to do for you—give you healthcare, educate your children, help you out if you lose your job, let you decide whom you would like to get a Second Home Allowance for the next four-to-five years, etc. I do not think it is helpful to confuse the two, not least because the fundamental category is ours before and without any government to make them happen. Every man and woman is born free.And a brief word on responsibilities, because my title promises it. Many, perhaps most, responsibilities are simply the responsibility to exercise your freedom wisely. As PJ O'Rourke said,
There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences. (src)But when we start defining other sorts of responsibilities in law, we get into very sticky territory. There are a host of legal problems I can dimly perceive, but more importantly, it reverses the very intention of a bill of rights. Such a bill is intended to set forth the political sovereignty of the individual, but to enshrine rights and responsibilities with equal ultimacy is to make out that our rights are payment for responsibilities rendered. Such a move makes us to be no longer free men and women, but bonded labour. That alone is enough to make me repudiate any notion of a bill of responsibilities.So what do we need? We need a bill of rights, I think that has become abundantly clear. But the rights we need enshrining are the fundamental, liberal sort. The sort which proclaim that in the United Kingdom, people come first. Not "the People", not government programmes, not "community relations", not "the responsibility to pay taxes", but you. Me. Each of us.Footnotes An example of an intrinsic right which perhaps does not fit my rule of thumb ("Could a caveman exercise this?") is the right to a fair trial, although maybe I am wrong on that.
 Fair trial, of course, can never be demerited by definition; and freedom of movement is also limitable in cases of disease. But I am trying to generalise a little here.
Libertarian Alliance posted a link to last year's GCSE Physics paper (pdf). I encourage anyone bothered about UK education, and particularly about the "treatment" dished out to hard sciences, to read it and see how dumbed-down our age-16 education has become. The "Higher" tier begins on page 14, so make sure you start there: and when you do, marvel.Marvel at the complete lack of any serious calculations. There are a few occasions where students are expected to do a little "calculation", such as comparing 33% of 1500 with 50% of 3000, but no calculations of the famed, "A train leaves Edinburgh at 2:10pm" sort. I taught IGCSE Physics when I was on my gap year, and I made sure the children learnt Suvat, which was part of the curriculum. Conceptual understanding is important, but so is an ability to work out what you are looking at.Marvel at the ease of marking. The entire paper has been constructed (this is iniquitous) around making it quick and easy to mark. In fact, it seems to have been formatted for machine marking, with the possibility of a human check if the student changes their mind. So the student is no longer being assessed on the ability to communicate understanding in physics, but rather on the ability to choose the correct option of a list. These are "Higher" tier children: where is the problem-solving?Marvel at the politics. Four of nine questions are about the political side of energy and global warming: from questions tilted at the question of nuclear power, to a question about loft insulation. This is not science, this is indoctrination. Regardless of one's particular views on nuclear power, loft insulation, global warming or the benefits of small power stations, children should be taught the science which will let them make up their own minds, and not fed politics.
Marvel at the bad physics. The first "big question", 3, carries a graph which implies that heat loss through a pipe increases as the bore of the pipe increases. This is utter bilge! About the only thing anyone ever learns in GCSE Biology is that higher surface-area-to-volume ratio makes things go more quickly. In this case, energy will "go" more quickly if the pipe is thinner. This is why radiators have lots of crinkles, dimples and dents. When not even the exam-setters comprehend physics well enough to spot this kind of thing, we clearly have a significant problem. [The Fearsome Comrade comments that this is, in fact, not true. Back to my non-commutative operators; at least I understand them!]It is not enough to say that AQA needs to be abolished: what needs to happen is that schools need to be allowed to use whatever qualification they think is best for their children. Only then will dumbed-down exams, which motivate dumbed-down teaching and finish with dumbed-down children, begin to be pushed back.
The BBC tells us that the new counter-terrorism strategy document from the Home Office contains the following line:
challenge those who reject the rights to which we are committed, scorn the institutions and values of our parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance.Cool. Can I play? I'd like to start by challenging the implacable opponents of the following common values, please:
The association of the 1930s’ deflationary episode in the United Kingdom with a deep depression has led many commentators to demonise deflation, but it is important not to confuse the effects of the underlying shock (for example a credit crunch) with the effects of deflation itself. (BoE Quarterly Bulletin, p. 42, pdf)Ahem. The Bank of England published its quarterly bulletin earlier this month, and spent a whole chapter looking at the effects of deflation. On the day when RPI fell negative (BBC) for the first time in nearly fifty years, it is worth picking out a few features of this report. Firstly, as the quote above demonstrates, deflation needs to be disentangled from the cause (the Bank observes that a beneficial supply expansion is less bad than a credit crunch). The Bank look at several areas of potential costs to deflation, and conclude as follows:
- Menu costs (the cost of changing your pricing structure)
- Technology has probably mitigated this, and the costs are the same for inflation as well as deflation.
- Taxation effects
- Any disinflation is good, but the effect is small.
- Consumption postponement (that hoary old chestnut)
- "This argument is flawed at least in its simplest form". Ha!
- Downward nominal rigidities (nominal wages tend not to fall)
- Downward flexibility in pay settlements is higher than previously: e.g..
- Debt deflation (the Biggie, debt becoming more expensive)
- Disinflation is the problem here, not deflation per se.
The key element to the debt deflation channel is the transfer of wealth from debtors to creditors. Since debtors are likely to have a higher [marginal] propensity to consume than creditors, demand is likely to fall.It is a very dry, very serious statement, but it is the bed-rock from which the "ought" of quantitative easing springs. Because demand is likely to fall, Queasers conclude, we must induce inflation by any means possible. This will have the effect of transferring wealth from those with money to those without, who will then spend it. Or put in Robin Hood terms, the Bank will steal from the rich to give to the profligate.Is it really morally defensible to steal systematically from either group in that way? Surely it is better to aim for a zero inflation target, which favours neither group. Surely it is better that those of us who have savings should not feel as though economic policy-setters have us constantly in their sights?
Monday, March 23, 2009
Getting figures for government tax receipts is like getting blood out of a stone. (I may be about to demonstrate a reason why this is so.) I just about managed to extract some rough figures for Vehicle Excise Duty, the funky new name for what we laughably used to call the Road Tax. In 2004-05, the tax raised £4.75bn (pdf); the trail goes dead after that. (Seriously: the documents switch from deprecated to current, and VED is not carried over into the new documents. Spooky, eh?)Okay, so the "road tax" cost us £4.75bn. How much do the roads cost? Local councils are responsible for local roads, and that out of locally-raised funds, so we can ignore those and focus on the national roads. The Highways Agency spent £5bn (pdf, p. 82), but that figure needs a little explanation. The Treasury charges departments and agencies a notional interest rate on their assets, which are "lent" to them by the Treasury: in the case of the Highways Agency, that is chiefly the road network they maintain, and the Treasury charged £2.8bn. That's a fictional accounting number, so in reality, the Highways Agency only cost us about £2.2bn (even the HA discounts only the cost of capital charge), which is easily less than half the "road tax" receipts. The rate the Treasury used implied a capital value of about £80bn, a figure borne out by the balance sheet, which records a fixed asset value of £81bn in the previous year, and an uplift to £85bn this year.To sum up, road tax raises perhaps £5bn or so; the Highways Agency has assets of about £80bn, and cost us about £2.2bn last year. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Where am I going with this?Think the unthinkable with me for a moment. Sell off the motorway network to private companies. If the Treasury's estimate is fair, we would achieve about £80bn for the taxpayer in a one-off hit. And we can cut road tax, since the actual cost of the Highways Agency (£2.2bn) no longer exists, and the £80bn sale proceeds can be used risk-free to save something like £3.4bn by paying off government debt (£30bn in interest covered £700bn in debt, so £80bn of debt costs £3.4bn). In other words, I can find about as much savings as necessary in order to fund a tax cut of about £5bn.And what about the roads? People will be tolled for using the motorways, that is certain: but tolls are pay-per-use charges, so you will only pay for the motorways when you use them. Tolls will vary at different times of the day, so prices will reflect congestion levels: in that sense, it will be an automatic congestion charge. New roads will only be built where there is an obvious demand for them, since it will be private companies doing the building. Toll roads work well already: the M6 toll in the UK, for example, and even the French have a proposed toll tunnel in Paris, the A86W. But if a toll road will work well across one stretch, there is no earthly reason to think that the principle cannot, and ought not, be extended across the network. It will be more efficient, certainly; more transparent, by design; and in all likelihood, cheaper for the vast majority of British motorway users.
One of the rather fun stories which does the rounds among investors and people in business, is Gerald Ratner's famed after-dinner speech. He ripped into the jewellery his company, Ratners Group, sold, which got very good laughs at the time. Unfortunately, the press and customers heard, and concluded that he was insulting their taste and intelligence. Ratners had to re-brand as Signet, Ratner left his job, and "doing a Ratner" has entered the lexicon of British business.Iain Dale reports a rather fun piece of Westminster scuttlebutt: Paul Myners, Treasury minister, City slicker and all-round financial guru who is Just The Man to get us out of the hole we are in, was at a private function recently, where he informed the assembled great and good,
"I didn't know what [quantitative easing] was and had to look it up on Wikipedia."Perhaps from now on, admitting that you know next-to-nothing about your area of ministerial specialty should be doing a Myners?
Galileo's Finger is a book written by Peter Atkins, an Oxford chemist, about what he considers to be some of science's best ideas. By "best" he includes criteria such as elegance and fruitfulness in understanding (as opposed to fruitfulness in application). His list is, in order: evolution, DNA, energy, entropy, atoms, symmetry, quanta, cosmology, spacetime and arithmetic. Perhaps one may quibble here or there over whether these are "ideas", but as a list they stand as towering achievements in scientific endeavour.His choice of material is as heady as his prose, which generally sparkles without losing rigour or clarity. Once or twice I found myself stumbling over a sentence, but as a rule his writing is clear and genuinely engaging. I found the first two chapters more of a slog, probably because I am a mathematical physicist and was consequently more out of my depth in those two than in any of the others: it is a point of tribal pride that my own field of study covers two of these great ideas, touching on a further five! And yet, his clarity of explanation is such that I found myself learning things about my own area of expertise: ways of thinking about it, or facts which were cast in a new and distinctive light.There are three points of criticism I would make. The first is scientific: he does blunder once or twice in the text, as far as I could tell. The most major blunder is in his explanation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The old-fashioned explanation, derived directly from Heisenberg's seminal paper, is of what is named Heisenberg's microscope. The linked Wikipedia article gives (at the time of writing!) a discussion of why this explanation is not well-posed. The executive summary is that it assumes that the electron has a definite position and momentum, but quantum theory supposes no such thing.Secondly, Atkins does occasionally fail to distinguish scientific fact (in the sense of well-founded theory) from speculation. He engages in some private speculation on Wigner's Unreasonable Effectiveness problem in his epilogue, but my main concern was in his chapters on quantum theory and cosmology, where he appeared to accept without question the speculations of, respectively, many-worlds and inflation theorists. Neither is scientifically-established, and there are good reasons to be sceptical about both. Which leads me into my final criticism.This one is philosophical. In one of his less clear sentences, Atkins appears to claim that he does not think science is the unique mediator of perfect knowledge; however, he makes the claim that scientists should be "innately optimistic": precisely the claim he apparently disavows. I should have thought that the scientist's approach is innately sceptical, even of claims to the potential for absolute truth. As with his acceptance of speculations, Atkins drops what should be innate scientific scepticism for something of much less value: unfounded optimism. By getting wrapped up in blue-sky speculation and whiggish historiography, he misses the fact that "science" is done by people, who are inherently limited and finite, and therefore our abilities to probe will themselves have a limit. Making progress towards the limit: now there's the game!However, those criticisms are not intended to detract from what is a very impressive, readable and enjoyable book detailing some of the greatest achievements in science over the last few centuries. It is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys popular science books, as one of the élite of its genre, written by an author who manages to explain clearly and brilliantly without dumbing down. Five thumbs up.Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, Peter Atkins: OUP, 2004. 978-0198609414
Sunday, March 22, 2009
I think I referred to his words before, and I am sure I shall have reason to do so again: David Davis, at the Convention on Modern Liberty, said that if we find ourselves in a police state, it shall have been too late; he also said that the government is slowly accruing to itself all the tools of a police state. Here is another, "courtesy" of ZDNet:
The UK government is considering the mass surveillance and retention of all user communications on social-networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo.Home Office security minister Vernon Coaker said on Monday that the EU Data Retention Directive, under which ISPs must store communications data for 12 months, does not go far enough. Communications such as those on social networking sites and instant messaging could also be monitored, he said.This Government's approach to the citizen is one of constant suspicion, distrust and paternalism. We cannot be trusted to look after ourselves, and we cannot be allowed to live freely. It is clear that getting rid of Labour is now a necessary condition for the restitution of liberty, but it is by no means a sufficient condition. As Ken Livingstone said in an interview with Iain Dale,
The tragedy is that everyone below Cabinet level knows that the Permanent Secretary in their department does an annual assessment of their performance and sends it to the Chief Whip. It should be the other way around. They know if they go out on a limb, the civil servants will undermine them. Even if you’re John Prescott and all else fails, they’ll bring the Treasury in, or the lawyers to tell you you can’t do something. We’ve just got to break this. The civil service has its own agenda. In the end most ministers and most prime ministers go native and get sucked in by it.Getting rid of Labour is necessary, but the job will not be done until the Civil Service, and particularly the Home Office, has its back broken. Does anyone seriously think that the Tories will do a full and proper job with regard to that?
Friday, March 20, 2009
Oh no, its proponents assure us, people would never be made to die by their doctors. Forced euthanasia would never happen.Try telling that to the parents of Baby OT (BBC), who has a rare metabolic disorder, suffering brain damage and respiratory failure. They were today told by the High Court that it was in the boy's "best interests" to have life sustaining treatment removed. "Life sustaining treatment" can be something as simply as intravenous food and water, although it can mean much more as well. And yes, these cases do happen periodically.So accepting all that, and accepting that there is a difference between removing sustaining treatment and actively causing death, nevertheless is it so difficult to envisage a scenario in which the courts permit a doctor to kill a patient with "no hope of recovery"? The public debate when it transpires that the NHS could save £xbn a year if it just quietly killed off its teminally-ill patients?
A British MP has been banned from entering Canada on "security" grounds. And who could it be: none other than George "The Indefatigable" Galloway (BBC). So, will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office be protesting vigorously to the Canadian ambassador that it is an outrage that a parliamentarian from a close ally should be barred from entering the country in this manner?Perhaps the Home Office could be asked for a view as well.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
A Nottingham postmaster has said he will refuse to serve people in his post office if they cannot speak English. (BBC)There is a group of well-meaning but utterly muddled individuals in the United Kingdom who think that "multiculturalism" means ignoring the UK's history, values and language. They argue that forced marriages ought not to be tackled, because other cultures do things differently. They say that free speech should be sacrificed on the altar of not causing offence. They purge our language of references to Christmas, Easter, or Christian names, in case such things offend religious minorities . They insist that not only essential information, but everything must be published in minority languages.So quite how confused do you think such people will be, on learning that this postmaster is
Deva Kumarasiri, who moved to England from Sri Lanka 18 years ago.The conundrum: is he a racist, or is he not?Of course people need time to learn English, but for that reason, we should be very careful about opening up literally everything to translation, since the need to learn English will attenuate. Rather, essential services, and only essential services, should require translation. Everything else can get by using simple, clear English of the sort people learn in TEFL classes. In fact, those minorities are generally more offended by the kind of rampant secularism represented by this group of people than by the references to Christianity in events such as Christmas and Easter.
From today's Guardian: "Ed Balls seeks power to dictate what textbooks GCSE and A-level students must study". Note well, this is the Guardian running a story which paints a picture of the centre over-stepping its remit!And this power would extend not only to textbooks, but set texts as well. The Government's defence is that this would only be used in clear-cut cases, such as the preservation of Shakespeare. To allay fears, Comrade Balls has promised a memorandum of understanding concerning the use of the powers: why this memorandum does not merit the status of legislation is beyond the academics and politicians who are seriously concerned at yet another extension of state power.And why should the government have the power to set texts? It is bad enough that we have such a strictly-defined national curriculum: professionalism is slowly being eroded in favour of the political. The recent arguments about AQA's taste in poetry and music demonstrate this exactly: professional judgment, a muscle once well-exercised but now atrophied to the point of utter ineffectuality, could do nothing more than meekly acquiesce in the face of political expediency. Such a direction of travel has its end in banning the reading of "subversive literature" and in requiring schoolchildren to study Mein Kampf or the Little Red Book: for that reason alone, it must be resisted.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Greg Mankiw tells us that Jay Leno decided to put on a show in Detroit to help the depressed area, and put up free tickets so that unemployed people can get to see him. Some enterprising unemployed chappie took the view that Jay Leno won't put food on their tables, so got a free ticket and stuck it on eBay. Last we heard, a ticket was going for a heady $800.Now, if you were Jay Leno, seeing some unemployed folks taking the opportunity to make a few hundred dollars by selling something which was of little value to them but much value to someone else, what would you do?Yep. He requested that eBay pull the listings, which they have since done. Help for the unemployed, indeed.(Thanks: Netsmith.)
The old idea that the markets were efficient and could work things out by themselves [is] gone. (Guardian)So when market participants started shorting Northern Rock months before it collapsed, they were failing to work things out for themselves? When participants ceased lending to each other because they realised that there was widespread mispricing and malassessment of risk, they were being inefficient?As Matthew Parris said months ago, this crisis is not a failure of market economics, but precisely how market economics works. The secondary mortage market had existed in the US for decades without blowing up: what killed it was that dodgy loans were declared to be non-dodgy. Eventually these loans went bad and investors discovered they had over-valued them. As a result, people with money to lend to mortgage-lenders withdrew their capital and the bonds markets froze as investors found themselves incapable of accurately valuing assets for purchase and sale. To personify the market (which, as I often point out, is a category mistake), the market smoked out liars, eventually, and executed summary justice the only way it knew how: it pulled the plug on their money. The effects are plainly known and felt around the world."Liar loans", where people told whoppers in order get whopping mortgages, turned into "liar mortgages": these were sold on the markets as "liar bonds". But why was risk so systematically mis-priced? Partly a conflict of interest: ratings agencies were paid by the mortgage issuer to rate the bonds, and not by prospective purchasers. But there was also a major role for government policy. During the Clinton years, and later through Congressional obstruction during the Bush years, banks were persuaded to lend to poorer people; the place of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the securitisation process gave mortgage-market participants the idea that these loans all came with an implicit US government guarantee. Of course, however long you manage to keep the debt-collector off your back, sooner or later he will catch up with you. And when he does, then market participants will do what they do.In other words, the market was working perfectly when it caused the credit crunch: it was not working for the years before when the US government, and others around the world, carried on pumping the economy full of cheap money and easy credit. And had it been allowed to work properly earlier, then it would have corrected with less deleterious effects. It was not market particpants who failed, it was government.
Henry Porter commented a week ago on the heavy-handed policing of the Kingsnorth protestors, and the Liberal Democrats' report into the actions of Kent police. Yet, however outrageous the police's activities may seem in writing, it is nothing compared with video evidence. Admittedly not everything in this video is equally clear, but the picture as a whole is clearly of no mere heavy-handedness but of outright violence and oppression emerges. Batons are used against peaceful protestors, shields used as offensive weapons, legitimate public oversight rejected, legal observation blocked and local people harassed. In the name of upholding the law, police officers committed clear breaches of the law.
(Thanks: Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.)
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Under the headline, "Three As no longer enough for university", we are treated to the sub-headline, "New elitism row over entrance to top colleges". Well gee TC, I thought "top colleges" were elitist by definition. And elitism—top rewards for top achievers—is a good thing, although the treatment of Gail Trimble from University Challenge suggests that this is not a popular view.This secular increase in exam grades to enter the top universities is exactly what has to happen in a system where bad standards drive out good (Scott Clark remarked upon grade inflation yesterday). Unless the government grasps this nettle and opens the doors of competition in exam-setting, standards will continue to drop like a stone, just as Gresham's Law predicts. It can be inverted, but only by doing what is right, rather than what is popular.
Monday, March 16, 2009
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. (Jer. 31:33)Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts. (Isa. 51:7)Hmm… Might these people we call the Israelites have had some foretaste of this thing we call the new covenant?
Says the Telegraph, "FSA to cap mortgage borrowing" to three times salary, typically. Average price-to-earnings was 6.1 near the peak (src), and average deposits were 25.9% (src). So the average income multiple for mortgages was probably about 4.5 or so. That means that home-owners must experience, typically, a constriction of about 33% in mortgage supply. However, house prices have fallen about 10% or so, any loss in house price decreases the home-owners' deposits first, and deposit requirements are increasing.Like I say, the housing market is spannered.
Josh Strodtbeck hits it straight, hits it good, and hits it for six. And the argument really does boil down to that question: is it better to be rich, or to be free?Communism, and any ideology which engages in mass re-distribution, necessarily asserts that riches are better than freedom. This is inherently materialistic and reductionist with regard to human dignity. The great irony is that in order to re-distribute wealth, people are impoverished and enslaved simultaneously. Impoverished, because re-distribution tends to make society as a whole poorer; and enslaved, because I am made to work for someone else's goals rather than goals of my own choosing. Incidentally, a solidly communist state still needs workers, so do not forget that the gulags must await anyone who decides they wish to sponge off the collective.Liberalism (and here I mean the traditional sort), however, asserts that freedom is better than riches. As Josh put it,
the poor subsistence farmer living in a sod house in 19th century Kansas lives a far more noble life than the richest Roman slave precisely because he is free. If freedom is intrinsically noble, then there are few evils greater than taking it away.Thus liberalism is non-materialistic, since it asserts that human freedom is better than any material good. And though freedom bears the frightening prospect of failure, it carries also exhilarating potential for success. Why would you want the dim half-light of the nanny state, the database state, the stimulus state, when we could live in the full-colour world of freedom?
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Can someone explain to me what is so "liberal" about Liberal Democrat Don Foster's support for the Chief Meddling Officer? I recall reading a Lib Dem, probably David Laws, complaining that the party continually adopts illiberal measures, each of which separately may have some desirable public policy outcome, but which overall contributes to an impression that these soi-disant liberals are in fact far more illiberal than the other parties. And d'you know, he got a point.[MONDAY EDIT: So it turns out that the Scottish Lib Dems opposed a similar SNP proposal in the Scottish Parliament (src), while Nick Clegg called for this policy just last year (src). Of course, this is a natural effect of being a decentralised party; nevertheless, it does suggest that someone has got his liberal wires crossed. Over to you, Nick.]
They call it the new puritanism, but of course this a slur on the Puritans. Ralph Erskine, eighteenth-century Presbyterian, wrote a poem with the refrain Thus think, and smoke tobacco (full). The Pilgrim Fathers carried more beer than water on the Mayflower (src)! For sure, the Puritans were serious about "worldly entertainments", especially on the Lord's day, but they were not averse to enjoying themselves too, and at that, enjoying things which modern-day "puritans" think to be utterly sinful.Well, whatever we call it, Alcohol Concern has, unsurprisingly, swung behind the Chief Meddling Officer's whizz-o idea to make people pay more for their booze. But just as Alcohol Concern is worried about alcohol dependency, I am a member of what you might call Financial Concern: I worry about charities' financial dependency. You can see the figures in their annual report (pdf).And Alcohol Concern certainly has a money problem. Last year, they collected £900,000: of this, £515,000 came directly from the Department of Health (£115,000 was earmarked, and £400,000 was unrestricted grant). A mere £4,991 was collected in direct donations from individuals. In other words, AC is funded about 57% by the government, and only 0.56% by individuals. They are heavily dependent on the government for their finances; one might even say that they are addicted to taxpayers' money.With more than half their funding coming from the government, should we really expect them to do anything other than line up behind whatever damn fool idea the CMO comes up with to restrict alcohol?
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Before we start, here is a nice video from reason.tv about how getting rid of a ban on home-brewing jump-started the American beer industry and started a fight-back against the watery swill that Coors, Budweiser et al. produce. Can you believe that for decades, Americans could only drink light lagers? I shudder to think!And now for the serious stuff, as the British government appears to be deciding that the reason story above is not for them. Sir Liam Donaldson, the CMO, has decided that it would be a spiffing idea for alcohol to have a base price (BBC). Apparently, 50p per unit is his preferred standard, which would exempt my favourite tipples from a price rise (Owd Roger, Riggwelter). And where would this money go: the supermarket's coffers, or would it get lost in general taxation? Why should responsible drinkers be caught up in some kind of collective punishment for the sins of the minority?They call Donaldson the Chief Medical Officer. Chief Meddling Officer, more like. And as a civil servant, I don't suppose he is likely to go after the next election.Disclaimer: I hold shares in Marston's, the manufacturer of Owd Roger. But not Riggwelter. Both are simply excellent beers.
Hear ye the word of the BBC.Of course, this is all rather silly. It happened, get over it. As a good Reformed Christian, I do not agree that simply any infant should be baptised: the promise is "to you and your children", not "to you and anyone's children". So in all likelihood (and clearly, I do not know this chap's family background), he was not appropriately baptised in the first place. But nevertheless, it happened. One can no more "undo" a baptism than one can "undo" the Second World War [EDIT: or, as one person pointed out far more pertinently, than one can "undo" circumcision]. And in any case, the atheist is claiming that he has left the church and that the sacrament is meaningless: why should he expect the church he despises to scrub out the historical record for his sake?
Doubtless some ad-man would throw a wobbly at all sorts of technical details, and it plainly would not be very suitable for the Tories to use, as it is not good advertising technique to raise fears about your own product even in the context of doing down the opponent's. But for the Lib Dems in the South of England, perhaps?[THIS JUST IN: In the context of this story (Telegraph), this poster seems all the more apposite.]
I'm going to try and ask this as sensibly as I can, which is a struggle, given that the subject matter is about as serious as the eye-catchingly illustrated Daily Mail story which ran sometime during silly season last year.At Comment Central, the Fink calls attention to a study which showed that "men prefer heavier playments in a recession" (CC). Basically, the thesis seems to be that when men feel wealthier, they prefer women who are slimmer: these chaps spent a long time studying Playboy centrefolds, and worked out that
Is this effect, where wealth causes attraction to edge towards slimness, more universal and more long-term than we have thought? It has long been supposed that the changes in attitude to female physical beauty in non-Western countries have basically been due to cultural Westernisation: could it, in fact, be due more to affluence than influence? And what if we keep getting richer: where is the end-point?
when social and economic conditions were difficult, older, heavier, taller Playboy Playmates of the Year with larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to-waist ratios, and smaller body mass index values were selected.So here is the wind-up to my question: We have found clay pottery of female fertility figures who are not, shall we say, lacking in the BMI department, and it is well-known that there are cultures which are, currently at least, materially poorer than the West and in which women are considered more attractive as they put on weight. It is also known that as cultures get wealthier, the standard of beauty appears to move towards the Western notion. Finally, we have some evidence to suggest that the West itself used to have a conception of beauty which involved more body fat than now it does. And here is the question, or perhaps a lot of questions bound together:
I don't know if any of my UK readers caught Deborah 13 on BBC Three earlier this week (iPlayer), but it was an interesting documentary into a side of Christian life which we perhaps do not always see. It was about a girl called Deborah Drapper, who lives with her parents and an inordinate number of siblings in Dorset. The Drappers are plainly a very strict, theologically fundamentalist family, and in what they do there is much to commend, and much consider deeply.The interesting thing about the documentary is that it portrays the Drappers look as though they are isolationistic in their outlook: the children are home-schooled and the family has no television, although they do have computers and Internet access. And if true, then there is something of a difficulty in portraying this as traditional Christianity, which has always behaved as Mathetes wrote to Diognetus,
the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe: … inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct. (Ep. Diog., 5)Perhaps the most pressing suggestion of isolationism was the noticeable absence of any explicit mention of church attendance. After all, how could you film a documentary about a family professing deep Christian faith, and not make any mention of church attendance?Well, Jonathan Hunt reviewed it and has said that, as difficult to achieve as it may seem, they did manage to pull that off. The Drappers do go to church, and thus are insulated rather than isolated. It would be surprising that the documentary makers had not considered the effect such key information has on the audience's ability to work out what is going on. Perhaps, in fact, they had considered that, and omitted it deliberately.Apart from that, there were a some other issues I could see, mostly of theological balance and maturity, with some of which it is difficult to tell whether Deborah acquired her views from her parents, or from the American fundamentalist preachers to whose sermons she goes to sleep at night (it was interesting to observe the occasional slip into American rhoticity, suggesting that the influence is quite deep). But to close, here are my two favourite quotes from the documentary: one for its wonderfully novel approach to the concept of truth, and the other for its sheer profundity.The novel approach to truth came from a teenager who had been on the receiving end of Deborah's evangelistic technique, and said later, "I think what she said, it's probably true, but none of us believe in God." And although one might question some of father Drapper's means, you cannot fault his end: when asked what he was training his children for, he said simply, "Eternity."
Friday, March 13, 2009
The Swiss government has buckled under combined pressure from other Western nations to allow greater access to their banking books (BBC), ostensibly for the purposes of catching tax evaders. That is clearly not the main aim, however, because withholding taxes (like PAYE for earned incomes, and the withholding on interest) would solve most of the tax issues without the Clunking Fist needing to smash a neutral country into submission. No, this bullying of Switzerland is simply about Labour's war on privacy and their extension of government control.So let us be clear what has happened here. The government has declared war on people who seek financial privacy by moving their finances out of the country; and that on the day that we hear politicians are allowed to hide their financial interests from us by means of blind trusts (BBC).Labour: one rule for you, no rules for us.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
People in England will get more online powers to rate GPs, police, childcare and councils, Gordon Brown has said. He said it was wrong that consumer websites such as Amazon and eBay had "higher standards of transparency" than those for public services. (BBC)It sounds like a nice idea, but think about it: people do not need "more online powers to rate" public services: if they wanted a Web 2.0 way to rate local schools and hospitals, then the overwhelming likelihood is that it would already exist (indeed, some do:  ). That such services are not particularly well-known or well-used suggests that they are generally not required. And why might that be?Let us think about it. The reason that Amazon and eBay have ratings systems is not because they are jolly good fellows who think that transparency is a nice idea, or because they think people need somewhere to have a good old moan: they have these systems because they are running a marketplace, and customers want to share which products or providers are worth the money. These ratings systems thrive on competition, and only on competition.What is the use of being told that the only school your children can use is not as good as half a dozen others outside your catchment area? If my local police force is good or bad, so what: can I go to another one, or hold this one accountable? If York's hospitals are dirty, inefficient and unsafe, am I allowed to go to one of Leeds'?People can set up their own means of rating public services, and have done so, but what they cannot do is blow open the doors and allow the competition for public service provision which would make these ratings systems tick. They cannot change provider, and no-one can set up private provision paid on a per-use basis out of the public purse. Only the government can do that, but of course, this Government would never allow such a thing.
The Independent reported further despatches yesterday from the frontier of research into the so-called "God spot". Apparently, some kind of belief in God, god or gods is not hard-wired into the brain in one spot, as popular science previously had it, but is a part of several different areas of neural activity. This, some atheists are likely to contend, demonstrates that religious belief is merely a mental construct, and any kind of deity is only a figment of the warped and twisted imagination that humans possess. Others argue that the research must be flawed, since it provides some sort of scientific justification for a belief in God, and that cannot possibly be true. Some even allege that the scientists involved are biased, in a neat reversal of certain Christian groups' arguments against evolutionary theory.For the sake of argument, let us grant the first atheist's argument that the research proves that God is a figment of our imaginations, since the second is plainly arguing from atheology to science. If a normally-functioning brain believes in some kind of divine being, does it follow that Richard Dawkins has a mental deficiency?Or is it more likely that scientific research of this sort has no philosophical content at all?
Writing in today's Times, Jamie Whyte argues, very cogently, that his company's only cause is to make a profit. As he says, describing a conversation with an idealistic young student,
I explained that shareholders and employees are free to spend their personal incomes and spare time on whatever they like, including whatever she deems to constitute social justice and the community. But the idea that the company's resources should be devoted to some cause other than making a profit is outrageous. … I can think of no supposedly good cause to which some of my colleagues - and, I presume, many of our shareholders - are not actively hostile.Of course, businesses often treat their charitable activities as advertising (one is put in mind of Sir Humphrey's famous quip, "I am sure that businesses would be happy to sponsor sporting events anonymously, if they could announce the fact that they are supporting them anonymously."), and there is a legitimate debate about that. But I think Whyte's chief point, that there are all manner of causes which some of his employers—ultimately, I mean his shareholders—and also his employees would find objectionable is hard to gainsay.We as individuals have causes we want to support, and it is right, proper and good that we be charitable. But a company is a group of people who have come together with the object of making a profit by pursuing a certain line or area of business: they did not form a charitable trust, and the board should not make the company to behave like one.If a shareholder wants to support a particular charity out of the business' profits, then let her spend the dividend in that way; if she thinks it should not be supported, she is free not to do so. Likewise, an employee with his payslip. Surely it would be better for companies to spend their charitable budget on dividends and better pay, and let the individuals who thus benefit decide how it should be used?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Dead easy: make the degree kelvin smaller. If we shaved ten percent off the kelvin, then typical room temperature would go up from about 290K to roughly 320K, or from about 15°C to about 45°C. It will be a higher temperature, but how much hotter will it be? Think about it.And having worked that out, here is another one to ponder: how much richer will we all be if the Bank of England starts magically increasing its own balance, and spending it on government debt? Think about it.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Henry Porter, in his blog, covers a petition set up by a retired senior police officer, who has become appalled at the quiet revolution that the Government's legislative progamme has brought about. We can now be arrested for anything, regardless of whether it is an imprisonable offence. Perhaps we are not in a police state, but is this not one of its principal parts, to be able to arrest any member of the public under any pretext? And when an arrest automatically leads to a DNA sample being taken, is it little surprise that the police would like to have broad powers of arrest, so as to broaden their database?Porter asks in his post for the officer's email to be re-published, and for the request to sign the petition to go out; I am happy to do both. Please do sign it: not that it will have much immediate impact, but perhaps it will stiffen some sinews when it comes to debates within government, and also within the opposition.Please do read, and sign. And if so able, pass onto those who would be willing to do likewise.
From: David Gilbertson
Sent: 04 March 2009 14:02
Subject: Excessive Powers of Arrest by Police - Petition to the Prime Minister
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
PLEASE READ ON, THIS IS NOT A 'SPAM' MESSAGE
Most people are unaware that in 2005 a fundamental change in police powers was quietly passed into law; a change that directly affects the life and liberty of you and every person in this country.
Section 110 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 was 'tacked onto' an otherwise acceptable piece of legislation and allows ANY police officer in England and Wales to arrest, (i.e. physically detain, handcuff and take to a police station for a DNA sample), ANY person, for ANY offence, no matter how trivial and whether or not a power of arrest previously existed for that offence. People can now be, (and have been), arrested and detained under Section 110 for not wearing a seatbelt; dropping litter; shouting in the presence of a police officer, climbing a tree, and building a snowman. Whereas police officers used to have to justify every arrest and be aware of whether or not a particular piece of legislation gave them power, they no longer have to do so. The power to deprive someone of their liberty should only be exercised in the most extreme circumstances, yet young and inexperienced police officers, (and soon, PCSO's), are being trained that arrest and detention of a suspect is the first option in most encounters with the public. This sweeping power is being roundly abused on a daily basis in all of the 43 police forces in this country and puts you, your wife, husband or partner, your children and your friends at risk of arbitrary action by the police.
I spent 35 years of my adult life in the Police Service and am appalled by what it has become, largely as a result of powers such as those granted under Section 110.
Petitioning the Prime Minister will probably do little to stop the drift of this country to what has been described as a 'Stasi State' but I would nonetheless ask that you consider placing your signature on the petition - if only to see how the government responds to genuine concern from thoughtful citizens.
If you are sympathetic to this project, please forward this message and link to other friends, colleagues or bodies concerned about civil liberties.
The link to the petition is below:
David Gilbertson QPM
(formerly Assistant Inspector of Constabulary
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary,
Home Office (retired 2001))
Gordon Brown was on You and Yours this lunchtime, getting a customary "Prime Ministerial bludgeoning" (both St. Tony and She Who Must Be Obeyed had similar experiences). But what I would like to point up is not a low-political attack on him so much as a general complaint about the way that ministers, from Prime downwards, respond to individual difficulties. Here is a fictitious, but credible, example:
Thank you. Prime Minister, you talk a lot about this loan guarantee scheme, but I cannot see it. I have a brilliant idea for a business providing solid heating carbons to communities based on the Tyne, but not a single banking establishment will fund me. And all that after my highly successful trading expedition exporting solid water products to the Inuit! Why on earth is your scheme not working?The usual ministerial response is some variation on "You sound like a sensible businessperson whose plan does not deserve to fail. If you let me have your details, we shall look into this," which I am sure is some comfort to the caller but misses the point. Anecdotes are rarely isolated: for every caller who gets through to the Prime Minister to moan about some policy ineffectiveness which has affected her, there are probably dozens who were not so lucky. Moreover, it assumes that the businessperson is genuinely sensible, and that the banks are not all rejecting a woefully-inadequate business plan for good reasons.If their business plan is sound, then what is needed is not for people to be mollified by having a minister promise personal attention, but for them to go on the warpath and tell the politicians that their answer is not good enough, and that they do not wish for their business to make it simply because they were lucky enough to get through on You and Yours, or whichever programme it happened to be. Why should they survive but someone else sink, simply because the phone from the BBC rang in one house and not the other?Government policy must be blind in its application, which is a very good reason for cutting taxes and red tape. On the other hand, making business survival to be in the gift of government ministers is not the kind of economy which will get anyone very far.
Monday, March 09, 2009
You may need to click through to get to the full-sized picture. Look at the editorial headline, and then look at the advert at the bottom right. I know they are generated from a random, um, database, but given the Independent's editorial policy, it seems a rather odd record to be putting in their list of advertisers.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Jim Murphy warned against "credit crunch racism" (BBC) while condemning "irreponsible bankers on million pound bonuses." Last time around, those "irresponsible bankers" were mostly Jewish, and we all know where that kind of rhetoric ended up. Just a thought, Jim, while you're trying to avoid racism: you might like to avoid any sort of category-ism.
My ears had heard, but my eyes had not seen: Jehovah's Witnesses do not trust sources other than the Watchtower for anything. Seriously, not only for doctrine, which is perhaps unsurprising, but also for more general life guidance such as, Is it moral to invest in the stock market?, and even for things which you could quite easily get from elsewhere: how to make a perfect cup of coffee (WT)! This is one of the hardest things in talking with Jehovah's Witnesses, since anything you quote, apart from Scripture or their own materials, is immediately suspect.So when your friendly local JW says, as they have done to me, that the early church did not believe in the deity of Christ, I wonder how valuable it is to respond in the only way possible, saying, "Not true: read Mathetes' Epistle to Diognetus, or Justin's Dialogues, or Irenaeus' Against Heresies, all of which are first- and second-century Christian sources which proclaim Christ as God."Which is a shame, because they miss out on wonderful passages like,
As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him. (Diog. VII)Moreover, in the diapsalm of the forty-sixth Psalm [Ps. 47—Ed.], reference is thus made to Christ: ‘God went up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing ye to our God, sing ye: sing to our King, sing ye; for God is King of all the earth: sing with understanding. God has ruled over the nations. God sits upon His holy throne. The rulers of the nations were assembled along with the God of Abraham, for the strong ones of God are greatly exalted on the earth.’ (Dialogues, XXXVII)[Heretics'] doctrine departs from Him who is truly God, being ignorant that His only-begotten Word, who is always present with the human race, united to and mingled with His own creation, according to the Father’s pleasure, and who became flesh, is Himself Jesus Christ our Lord, who did also suffer for us, and rose again on our behalf, and who will come again in the glory of His Father, to raise up all flesh, and for the manifestation of salvation, and to apply the rule of just judgment to all who were made by Him. There is therefore, as I have pointed out, one God the Father, and one Christ Jesus. (Against Heresies, 3.16.6)Perhaps if they will not learn of Scripture itself, they would stop to listen to the early church fathers whom they so love to mis-quote; but I fear they shall keep learning to make perfect coffee from the Watchtower, and refuse to take lessons from either Scripture or history.
I had an exchange of letters with my MP over the Coroners and Justice Bill currently making its way through committee stage, in which I attempted to convince him that he should oppose the bill because of the data-sharing provisions which fundamentally alter the ownership of individual data. He halfway-conceded the point and acknowledged that the state needs to be limited in its handling of data, promising to look closely at the bill when it comes back for Third Reading.However, his response to my chief point, which was in turn a response to some questions he had raised in his letter, was rather amusing. He had asked whether it would not be good to save time and money by simply letting the DWP share data on benefits recipients with local councils in order to streamline the benefits process; I observed that this is currently legal, provided that people are given the opportunity to opt out (or in) for such a system. I hope he would not mind if I quote him in full:
I am afraid I do not agree that complicating the benefits system with an administrative opt-out would be sensible. As a former benefits Minister I know that apparently simple changes can end up costing millions - and sometimes hundreds of millions - of pounds, and lead to inaccuracies in decision making about benefits entitlement.Or, in translation: Look, we both know how incompetent ministers and civil servants are when it comes to data handling; given how bad they are at managing our data under the DPA's provisions, shouldn't we give them free rein? As I say, I found this quite amusing, especially coming from a former benefits minister.However, the best bit was not in his letter at all. It kept me chuckling last night for quite some time. His constituency bulletin had this to say about the credit crunch:
There is a growing recognition that the Thatcherite liberalisation of financial institutions contributed to the crisis and that tighter regulation of the banks is needed.For a loyal backbencher, this is quite shockingly off-message. Gordon goes around the country telling us all that it is America's fault (although when he was in the States, he told them it was a global problem, so "go figure"); in fact, our illustrious Prime Minister is affirming that he saw the need for a global regulator and tighter regulation ten years ago, if only the world would listen. And yet, when he gave his 2006 Mansion House speech to the assembled heads of the City, he talked about obtaining economic "stability through a predictable and light touch regulatory environment" and told them,
Let me say I see no case for a European single regulator and will continue to reject such a proposal, just as we will resist the new and unnecessary proposals to harmonisation corporate taxation in Europe. (Guardian)Of course, this same Gordon Brown now wants a new deal to clamp down on tax havens, like Antigua, and London. Anyway, if it is "Thatcherite liberalisation" which contributed to the crisis, then it cannot be the case that this is a problem "made in America" as Gordon Brown likes to tell us. In fact, Hugh Bayley's account appears to suggest that Brown was at the helm steering us straight towards the iceberg. And Bayley gets called a loyal backbencher. With friends like these, Gordon, I scarcely think you need enemies.
Saturday, March 07, 2009
Off the back of my last post, I thought I would compare the relative movement of prices and earnings in the UK. According to this MSN article, average nominal earnings for a full-time manual worker are 40 times greater today than in the early 1950s (£90 then, £360 now; decimalisation affected only the penny). However, my estimate of RPI is that prices have only grown by a factor of 25 over the same period (I estimate the index at 8.5 in 1950, and the ONS' figure for 2008 was 214.8).Therefore, if the typical consumer basket took a manual worker eight weeks to work for in 1951, it now only takes five weeks. Bearing in mind that we have shifted employment from manual to the more highly paid non-manual, and that the RPI's own "typical consumer basket" changes over time to reflect changing consumer tastes and technological advance, this indicates that the UK must have had a broadly similar experience to that of the US.One can only assume that Eastern European countries will be experiencing a rate of change which is even greater. Perhaps in another forty years or so, they will be able to do a similar sum and conclude that coming out of communism has saved them 90%, 95% or even 99% of their working week.
Mark Perry, an economist at U. Mich., has a startling post comparing the hours worked at the average wage in order to purchase various consumer items, the comparison being between 1950 and 2009. I highly recommend you have a gander. The total list would have taken nearly eight months to earn in 1950; now, it takes about one and a half months. That is a whopping eighty percent reduction in price over sixty years.To what do we attribute this amazing improvement? Technology, of course: without improvements in technology, productivity would not have risen so much, putting downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on wages. But that last clause points us to another causal factor, what Perry calls, "the miracle of the market economy". Without economic freedom, those gains would not have been transmitted to the massed population, and would instead have been held onto by a wealthy elite. Strange, eh?Perry's post dealt with consumer goods, as it is comparatively simple to hold quality and such like constant and only look at price. I wonder, however, what a similar table for consumer services would look like; and having wondered that, I also wonder how a table of government-run services would look. I have my own private speculations, of course, but I just wonder…(Thanks to Netsmith at the ASI blog.)
Friday, March 06, 2009
In our church Bible studies, we are doing a series from Tearfund on climate change. It was interesting to discover, last night, that some folk had happily not bumped into the view that the creation mandate, to rule over the earth and subdue it, means that humanity can rape the earth and pillage it. Clearly, since we are created in the image of God, this can hardly be the intent of the mandate, unless one would wish to argue that the God of the Bible would act similarly!Equally, there is an argument from the other end of history that because the earth will be re-created, we need not worry about looking after the planet. But as I argued, and I think correctly, this is the environmental version of saying that because we are saved, we are free to sin as much as we like.But beyond that, I get stuck in the middle. I cannot disagree with the proposition that climate change is an important issue, but I have concerns about the material. It is frequently only tenuously linked to Scripture, and it creeps its way from explaining biblical morality into propounding a political agenda, which Scripture in no place does. The church, as church, has no place to be propounding a political agenda of any sort, and particularly one which can make us sound as if we are marching to the world's drumbeat, since we have been given a distinctive agenda, unique to God's chosen people. Of course, as individual Christians, we are responsible for our actions, so while I am not unhappy in principle with tackling the topic in a home Bible study (in terms of understanding our theology of creation and so on), I would be worried if we were to involve ourselves in one of Tearfund's annual events, in which congregations are basically taught to be political campaigning organisations. For balance, I would be equally concerned if we were involved in a similar event (should one exist) from the Christian Institute. It seems rather ironic that it should be arguably the least baptistic member of the congregation who defends that "Baptist distinctive", the separation of church and state.
The slimy Business Secretary has been slimed (BBC). All rather amusing of course, but because rather a lot of people appear to think this is a legitimate use of freedom of expression, let us be clear: it is not. It was not a serious or debilitating physical attack, but understanding the lightness of the attack, it was nevertheless a physical attack. "Your right to swing your fist stops just short of my nose," goes the dictum, and as with fists, so also with cups of green custard. There is a fight for freedom of expression, and we must win it; but let us not think that legitimate "expression" includes direct harm to others, even if that other is Baron Mandelson.
Larry Elliott writes in today's Guardian about the Bank's plan for quantitative easing. He says,
Yet it all seems simple when the experts explain it. Britain is a £1.5tn economy – the total of the goods and services produced annually. In normal times, the value of what the economy produces (nominal GDP) increases by 5% a year, but these are not normal times. Nominal GDP is currently not growing at all, raising fears of deep recession and deflation.But nominal GDP does not measure output for the simple reason that you could double the prices of everything, doubling the money supply and thus doubling nominal GDP, without doubling output. The true measure of economic activity is real GDP, whose rate of change, to be fair, is negative. However, it is not as immediately obvious that printing money should stimulate economic activity. I am not saying it is definitely untrue, although I question the policy; I am merely saying that Elliott's refusal to challenge the "expert" explanation on his point counts against his analysis.Elliott goes on to say,
In these circumstances, what the government is doing is justified: the chances of a protracted slump are greater than of hyperinflation."What the Governor is doing," actually. But more to the point, this is not merely a question of chance, but of risk, which takes into account the magnitude of effects. If we had hyperinflation, would this be better or worse than a protracted slump? Hint: compare the US and Weimar Germany during the Great Depression. We are less likely to get an absolutely shocking event and more likely to get merely a very nasty one: the risks more nearly balance than Elliott suggests. I suspect that in addition to the degraded currency, there will be rather a lot of bad analysis floating around at the moment.In other news, the Independent reports "Osborne says Tories will end the 'money-for-nothing' society".Granting that many, most even, people on the various forms of unemployment benefit are deserving cases, who are hard workers temporarily on hard times, it is nevertheless universally acknowledged that there will always be some people on benefits who have done, and have every intention of doing, nothing to work for those benefits. Welfare has within it an inherent "money for nothing" culture.On the other extreme, the free market has no, or very little, "money for nothing" as you always have to earn your crust (perhaps inheritance is the only exception, although it is always possible to lose one's inheritance through folly or bad luck). Employers can turf out those who free-load on others' work, business investors can cut pay or sack top executives who fail to deliver, hospitals and schools serve only those who have earnt enough money to afford their services. Even mutual societies, which are a feature of free markets, deliver their services to their paying members. This is certainly the antithesis of the "money for nothing" society, which is always going to be with us as long as we have an economy with any mixture of welfare in it. Given that I think all of us are agreed that we should keep some element of welfare, no matter how far we wish for reform, Osborne's promise is a political promise: a direction of travel, rather than a destination.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
Writing in his local rag, Jack Straw tells us that his concern in terms of key freedom is the freedom from crime. Given that the government gets to decide what is criminal and what is not, this is a piece of simple special pleading: if the Government wishes to do something illegal to me, it can simply define what it wishes to do to be legal. Therefore, "freedom from crime", if it is to mean anything, ought to mean freedom from being a victim of State crime as well as personal crime, except this is too difficult for most politicians to grasp, since of course, if the State does it, it is not criminal by definition.Thus, taking data about me, provided for one purpose, and using it for another purpose, or taking my data and passing it onto a third party without my permission, are both illegal. Unless you are the Government, in which case the Coroners and Justice Bill will give you a completely free hand with my data, no matter who currently holds it.Taking a sample of my DNA and holding it without my permission and without this being part of any conviction for a crime should be illegal. Perhaps it even used to be illegal. But surprise! One of Jack's proudest achievements is to extend the database so that perfectly innocent citizens cannot get their samples removed. And all this, because of an "extraordinary injustice". To save one extraordinary injustice, the government has created potentially sixty million ordinary ones.It is very easy for authoritarian legislators to suborn the State, turning it into the most dangerous criminal in the land. Short of a written constitution, what can be used to stop them?