Sunday, May 31, 2009
I visited another local church (YEC) this evening and the sermon was on Peter's escape from chokey, Acts 12. It occurred to me, as the preacher was mentioning that some people are sceptical of the supernatural element in the story, that there is an argument in favour of its historicity which is analogous to the Resurrection's.The first person to know that Peter has escaped (after Peter, obviously) is the servant girl. Just like a first-century author would not have made the women the first people to see Jesus risen from the dead, so a first-century author would not have made a servant, and a girl at that, the first person to hear Peter's voice. And it matches, historically, that the people in the house did not believe her but in fact said she was seeing things, much like the reaction of some of the first hearers of the women's message on the first Easter Sunday: "Moreover, some women of our company amazed us."If Luke was making it up, he would have made something up which was far more credible than a mere servant girl hearing Peter's voice at the door.
Now that J. C. M. Dave has leapt on the Lib Dems' version of recall, in which wrongdoing must be shown, I suppose it behooves me to point out that the Lib Dems' version is about as scary for MPs as being savaged by a half-dead rabbit, probably by design. The idea is for the Parliamentary Standards jobbies to find against an MP, and only then for the public to get the right of recall. And how often does that happen?What I want to see is a right of recall for any reason whatsoever, with a sufficiently high proportion to avoid frivolous attempts, run along American lines. A petition to carry verifiable names of something like 15% of the electorate calling for a recall, followed by a recall referendum asking whether the MP should be recalled, and if that passes, then a recall election a few weeks after that. Easy, and none of this hand-wrining about needing to work out what cases are justified: let the electorate do that.The key question for me is this:
Suppose you had an MP who never returned letters, never answered the phone, never held surgery, never took up casework, never rebelled against the Whip, never listened, never helped and was in every way an absolutely rotten constituency MP: but had no significant wrongdoing held against him. Should you have to put up with that little blighter until the next election, or ought the public have the right of recall?I say they should. We employ our MPs, and therefore we have the right to sack them for any reason: "I don't like the way she dresses" is a legitimate reason, as far as I am concerned.
It is to a covenant-breaking people that this covenant-keeping God sends word of a covenant-confirming Messiah at the end of Daniel 9.And would you look at when he sends it! It is the evening sacrifice, the last of the day. As Daniel is praying for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, and as he is pleading for the wrath of God to be averted, here comes a message. Is it too much to hope that at the time of last sacrifice of the day, Danie could hear of the one who would offer the last sacrifice ever?The dispensationalists have managed to maul Gabriel's message here, seeing in it a reference to the end-times Antichrist. This is complete nonsense, not least because it makes a mockery of what Gabriel came to do. Daniel is praying for restoration and forgiveness: is Gabriel going to be sent with an incomprehensible message about a character of whom Daniel has never heard, promising only death and destruction with no hope of redemption? Come off it! Gabriel's message picks up themes and ideas present in Daniel's prayer, particularly the developing theme of God's covenant.The 'sevens', for instance, have their roots in Lev. 25—26, where the sabbath is set out. It was a sign of God's covenant with the people, Ex. 31:16, and a picture of rest and wholeness. Not only were the people to rest one day in seven, but the land was also to lie fallow one year in every seven. The year of Jubilee was a period of seven 'sevens', a greater picture of the peace and wholeness God promised. And in Lev. 26, God promised that when the people went into exile for their sin, the land would lie desolate and enjoy its sabbaths.So it all ties together, this idea of 'sevens' and covenant, and here we have not seven 'seven's, but seventy 'sevens', the tenth Jubilee. This is the great Jubilee, the great year of the Lord's favour when all his promises will be consummated and made good. He will finish their transgression and put an end to sin; he will atone for their wickedness, bring in everlasting righteousness, seal up vision and prophecy, and anoint the most holy.There will be an end to sin: no more will it be counted against the people, because atonement will be made. He will bring about a righteousness for the people which is everlasting; they will have that covenant faithfulness which currently God alone possesses. The hopes and dreams of the prophets will come true in this great year of the Lord’s favour, and God’s special presence will once again grace the face of the earth. How can all this come to pass?Without getting tangled up in sums and dates and all the rest of it, the message of the definite numbers is that God has his timetable and he will not be put off. His Anointed One—the word is the one which elsewhere is translated Messiah—will come as the king of Israel, but he will be cut off. The word for 'cut off' means killed, but it also has a technical meaning related to covenant. It refers to the curse for failure, the penalty in blood, and is therefore also used for that covenant initiation ceremony I mentioned in the introduction. So Gabriel saying that the Messiah will be cut off, in the context of all this very covenantal language, means that the Messiah will carry the covenant's curse for failure.But wait, we might think, he is the one through whom God will bring everlasting righteousness: he cannot deserve the curse. Indeed no, but we do. We are the covenant-breaking people who certainly deserve the curse owing to sin, and so this Messiah is doing something else provided for in the covenant, by acting as the substitutionary sacrifice, bearing the curse for the people. The one who brings in everlasting righteousness will also be the atoning sacrifice for sin.And in so doing, and dying, he will confirm a covenant with many. The word 'confirm' is also translated 'make strong': this covenant will not end in failure and curse, as the previous one did. How can it, when all the curse has been poured out on the Messiah? The people are therefore freed from sin to enjoy all the blessings of covenant with God. The sacrifices and the Temple and the priests are obsolete, because the true sacrifice has been offered by the great high priest, who himself embodies the true Temple. The Messiah has come and done everything Daniel could have hoped, and more beside.And we need hardly wonder at the identity of this Messiah. He redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us on the cross. He brought about everlasting righteousness for us, so that we might be counted as having a righteousness that is not our own, but comes by faith in him. And in him, we enjoy all the blessings of covenant with God, spelt out by Paul so beautifully in Eph. 1. Now, we too bear God's name and have his promises, and he has placed faith and hope in our hearts by turning our eyes to his Messiah, Jesus Christ.Hope in a pagan world is all and only to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ. He came once to redeem his people from their sins and to make a strong covenant of everlasting righteousness; he is coming again to spread that Jubilee year of the Lord’s favour right across the globe and to bring the heavenly Jerusalem down to earth that God’s dwelling-place may be among men. He was Daniel’s hope five centuries before his birth, and he is our hope, however many years before he comes again.(The fourth in the four-part series of posts adapted from a sermon preached on the 24th of May at York Baptist church.)
We have seen from Daniel 9 that we are a covenant-breaking people; we move next to hear of a covenant-keeping God.This chapter is the only chapter of Daniel where God's covenant name, YHWH, is used. It is a name which speaks volumes about God's faithfulness to the people of his choosing, the redeemed covenant community, and of his trustworthy promises. But it is interesting to note that as Daniel prays, he uses God's name in only two ways: either to contrast God's faithfulness with the people's unfaithfulness, or to assert God's righteousness in sending punishment.It is as though Daniel is wanting to put a big red circle around the fact that God's faithfulness to his covenant is the guarantee of punishment when the people sin. He is faithful in judgment, and his righteousness stands in stark contrast to the people's dire lack. The judge is in the right, the people are in the wrong, and what a gulf lies between them!But that same faithfulness which guarantees judgment is the faithfulness Daniel pleads in asking for forgiveness. The turning point of Daniel's prayer is in many ways when he turns and says, O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, verse 16. In keeping with God's righteous acts, his faithfulnesses to Israel, Daniel pleads that the wrath of God would be turned aside.As we see from verse 15, the faithful acts Daniel has in mind are particularly the bringing of the people out of Egypt. God saved them then; they have failed since, but he is not a different god. He who was the Saviour of Israel all those years ago is still the Saviour of his people today. As he said through Isaiah, using the image of a marriage relationship, In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you (Is. 54:8).For sure, the Temple lies in ruins, and this poses a problem for Daniel, but he has hope. If the Temple were still standing, then the way to plead for forgiveness would be obvious: repent from your sins and turn to God, offering the sacrifices which he commands. But there is no Temple, and no sacrificial system. But Daniel knows that God provided the sacrifices for Israel before, and even though the Temple is no longer standing, God will not leave things like that. Daniel perhaps is not entirely clear what God will do, but he is sure he will do something.Further, Daniel can plead the name of God. He made a name for himself bringing the people out of Egypt, verse 15, and now Daniel pleads for the city and the people who bear his name. They have no righteousness of their own, verse 18, but expect him to act because of his mercy. Daniel pleads God's acts in history, and his character as he has revealed himself. His hope stems from what God has done, and who he is. And this is true faith.Faith is not, as the American cynic H. L. Mencken put it, an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable; nor as Mark Twain said, believing what you know ain't so. Daniel's faith is not based on a fairy-tale, but grounded in history. He is not believing six impossible things before breakfast, but rather the God who has acted for Israel before and will do it again. His hope is no vague wish that things would work out all right in the end, but a rock-solid assurance that God is faithful. For God is the covenant-keeping God, whose threatened punishments must always be poured out, and whose righteous acts show him to be everlastingly faithful to save.(The third in the four-part series of posts adapted from a sermon preached on the 24th of May at York Baptist church.)
Having seen what a covenant is, the first point from Daniel 9 is that we are a covenant-breaking people.Daniel is not simply praying on his own behalf: although he says, "I was confessing my sin," he goes on to say, "and the sin of my people Israel" (v. 20). He is no isolated individual, but a part of the whole. His interest is their interest, and their interest is his. Even on his own, Daniel was never separate, but always a part of God's redeemed people. And what was true two-and-a-half thousand years ago is still true today, even for the shut-in, or the single parent, who often cannot make Sunday services very easily. They are a part of our community, too.And this people on whose behalf Daniel prayed were in Babylon, because of their sin. They had broken covenant with God, and Daniel is forthright in saying so. The curses in the law of Moses had fallen on them, because the people were treacherous. It is not that the covenant was at fault, and certainly as though God was! No, the people were the problem, and just look at the language Daniel uses to describe them.
We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name … we are covered with shame … all Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. (NIV)Strong stuff! Perhaps we might think too strong.Dominic Lawson wrote a column in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago (link), and took as his premiss what two social scientists calls 'bogus apologies'. Here are some examples:
- “substitute the general for the specific”, like “I’m sorry that the system is wrong”;
- “use the passive voice”, like “an irregularity occurred”;
- “smother the events in the language of attack”, “the woman you put here, she made me do it”;
- and “replace intentional unethical behaviour with the language of accident, misfortune and mistake”.
Sin is not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of covenant with one’s saviour. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond. (p. 12)The effect that sin has is truly serious. This is not just breaking some impersonal law, as bad as that would be; it is besmirching the divine covenant, a personal attack on the one who has only ever loved us. To take that marriage picture, it is worse than sharp words over dinner or forgetting to do the washing-up: it is as though we smash the wedding photos, or take off the ring and chuck it in the mud, or screw the certificate into a ball and throw it at his face. And you do it, and I do it. We all do it, daily.That is why it is important to confess our sin in private, but it is why we should also confess our sin together when we meet. Not one of us comes without sin needing forgiveness, so we confess with each other before God that we are all in the same boat. Of ourselves, we are hopeless and helpless, a covenant-breaking people.(The second in the four-part series of posts adapted from a sermon preached on the 24th of May at York Baptist church.)
From the passage Daniel 9.You don't have to look far for the evidence that the world is not as it should be: the House of Commons continues to fall apart like some slow-motion car crash, and the case of Baby P is a tragic demonstration of what happens when a mother's love for her son takes a back seat for something else.But it is not just the world out there. Whether you take the abuse of children by Irish Catholics, the Scottish Kirk's decision last Saturday, or the perpetual fleecing of the faithful by televangelists, churches of all shapes, sizes, and stripes are riven with sin. And not just churches out there, but churches like our own, too. Pastors and treasurers may be in positions of greater trust, but we all know that ordinary layfolk like us can cause equal problems.In a pagan world, and in a church that at times seems scarcely any better, we might ask, What hope can there be? We might even cry out to God, and implore him to act, to do something.It is for the benefit of such people that Daniel recorded his experiences here. And notice that Daniel knows where to turn to look for hope: he has his nose in the Bible. He tells us he has been reading Jeremiah, but he must also know about Isaiah's prophecy regarding Cyrus (Is. 45:1–13), and although Leviticus may not seem like a gripping read to you or me, he has found a real source of hope and comfort there. I shall come back briefly to Leviticus later.In fact, Daniel has not merely been reading Scripture, marking it, nor even simply inwardly digesting it: in fact, as he prays, allusions to Scripture tumble out of him. As Spurgeon said of Bunyan, cut him and he would bleed Bible. Would that I were like that! But we can dare to be a little like Daniel, studying Daniel 9 now.The passage is grounded thoroughly in God's covenant, particularly his covenant with Israel, so it is worth explaining what we mean by a covenant, because parts of this will come back again. We use marriage as a picture, and it rightly so, for it is one of the best day-to-day pictures we have of a covenant, but even marriage cannot capture the fullness of a biblical covenant. O. Palmer Robertson defined a biblical covenant as, "A bond in blood, sovereignly administered." Let me unpack that a little.
- "A bond" joines two parties together, just like marriage.
- "A bond in blood" carries penalties for failing to be faithful to the covenant. Often, the covenant was initiated by a ceremony where those penalties were symbolised in some sense, so for example when God made his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15), a symbol of God's presence passed through the carcasses of five different animals, as if to say, "Should I not keep my promise, may the same fate befall me as did these animals."
- That the covenant is "sovereignly" administered indicates that this is not an agreement between equals: we do not come to God saying, "We have this clever idea," nor does he come to us saying, "Take it or leave it." It is God's covenant with us.
- And this "bond in blood" is "sovereignly administered". It has real stipulations, real promises, real effects and real implications. It is like being married!
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Tim Worstall at the ASI blog has an interesting argument from climate change to freer trade. It goes like this:
- It may well be easier to help people adapt to climate change than try to engage in planet-scale engineering.
- The poor will be most imperilled by climate change.
- This is evidently true because poor people have fewer disposable resources, and therefore any danger they face must be faced with those fewer resources.
- Hence, to help the most imperilled adapt better to climate change, we wish to see them get richer and have more disposable resources (this is also good in other ways, naturally).
- The most sustainable, fairest and most rapid way to enrich the poor is to engage in trade with them, invest in their countries and so on.
- All that we can do, from our side, is drop our trade barriers.
I saw an advert at a polling blog for a new pressure group, asking whether people wanted the right to recall their MP, and touting for signatures on a petition for the same. The organisation is called 38 Degrees, and they say that they are a non-partisan group in favour of people power. But then you look at the people who set this up, and the things they are asking for support on, and you have to wonder.The founders are all involved, one way or another, in the environmentalist movement: I have no objection, in principle to environmentalism, but when all the founder members are environmentalists, this begins to look more like left-green entryism than a serious attempt to campaign on wide matters of policy and public engagement.The name comes, so they say, from the angle at which an avalanche starts: 38°. So the image is already one of a swell of people dragging along others who might not otherwise have been supportive: in one sense, a reasonable goal, but all to easy to turn into something more coercive and less inspiring. Look, for instance, at their list of 'issues' for which they are canvassing support:
- Stop Post Office privatisation - Stop the government privitising (sic) the Royal Mail. Keep the post public. [PJW: Privatise, privatise, privatise. Stupid idea, having a single monopoly provider owned and run by the government.]
- Invest in green jobs - The government should tackle climate change and the recession at the same time by investing more of its financial rescue package in green industries. [PJW: Oh, please, not more government 'investment'. Cut spending, cut taxes and let individual people decide.]
- European elections in June - Stop the BNP having their biggest ever victory at the local elections in June. Help to turn out the non-racist vote. [PJW: BNP are odious, but not a threat; stop puffing them up so much.]
- No to ID cards - We keep hearing that public finances are tight, so why waste billions on a scheme which erodes our civil liberties? [PJW: At last, something which can get unqualified support.]
- Back a strong climate deal at Copenhagen - world leaders meet in December to negotiate a global deal on climate change. Make sure the UK government does all it can to make it a good deal. [PJW: Yet more government meddling? Great.]
- Make every vote count - The design of the UK's voting system means that the number of MPs for each party is usually far larger that the share of the vote the party received. Change the rules to make all votes count. [PJW: Weasel words. Tell me what system you are proposing: many, including strict PR, are far worse than what we currently have.]
- Stop Home Repossessions - As the recession bites, tell the government it needs to do far more to keep families in their homes. [PJW: I rent because I can't afford to buy: do you think I have an awful lot of sympathy for people who bought when they couldn't afford it?]
Friday, May 29, 2009
Last night's Question Time had some good discussion around European issues. It was interesting to me to hear the views of the European immigrants who spoke; many had effectively fled their home countries, France or Italy, because of the turgid dirigisme and stifling economic climate it produces. They were, in a sense, economic and political asylum seekers within the EU: definitely in favour of the pan-European settlement which has resulted in free movement for goods, capital, services and persons, and equally in favour of the UK's policies and culture which encourage entrepreneurship, risk-taking and economic activity. They clearly saw the benefits of EU membership, but were equally clear-eyed about the drawbacks: the pettifogging regulation, the centralisation of power, and the democratic deficit.It reminded me of what is good about the UK, and what is good about the UK's membership of the EU, while still being able to criticise, sharply, the continental impulses which still drive so much of the EU's activity.But (to change my topic quite suddenly) at the end Caroline Lucas said something interesting at the end about the party to vote for, claiming the mantle of anti-globalisation, anti-liberalisation, anti-privatisation for the Greens, and she set me thinking:Essentially, the BNP's migration policy is the logical end-point of the right-wing: UKIP is a non-racist anti-immigrant party, and the Tories need not head off to their wilder extremes to find similarly non-racist anti-immigration campaigners.On the other hand, the BNP's economic policy is the logical end-point of the left-wing: if you hate the BNP's racism but want some good old-fashioned protectionism, you can always vote for the Greens, and Old Labour is equally suspicious of free trade.As for me, I abhor the BNP's social and economic policies. For whom do I vote?
I mentioned the Sabip report into illegal downloading. Here are a couple more gems from the BBC article.The report blames the wicked old Internet for confusing consumers about what is allowed:
The fact that so much on the internet is free only added to the confusion, it said.If only everyone charged for stuff, rather than giving it away out of the goodness of their hearts, we would never have got in this mess in the first place, eh?The BBC article also had the following to report:
The latest report for the SABIP said the new generation of broadband access at 50Mbps could deliver 200 MP3 files in five minutes, a DVD in three and the complete digitised works of Charles Dickens in less than 10.The complete works of Charles Dickens, of course, are in the public domain and therefore may legitimately be downloaded. Give it a couple of hundred years, unless the recording industries get the law changed in their favour, and most media produced today will be too. What will happen to copyright then?
- ,counter'factual, a.
- Pertaining to, or expressing, what has not in fact happened, but might, could, or would, in different conditions. So as n., a counterfactual conditional. (OED)
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
I wrote about Johann Hari's column earlier yesterday, and suggested that Hari's hand-selected, cherry-picked facts didn't even tell the story he wanted them to. Here's one of his 'facts', which comes mediated by Paul Krugman:
Hoover massively increased spending, while tax revenues fell off a cliff, and the Depression got worse. Now, what is it that Gordon Brown is proposing to do again?
Cameron is almost alone in the democratic world in disagreeing and demanding immediate cuts in public spending as the global economy grinds to a halt. When I asked this year's Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman whether this would make the recession worse, he replied: "Yes. For sure," and then added that Cameron's policies were "pure Herbert Hoover."Unfortunately, this is a slur on Hoover, who did no such thing in all the years he was President (1929—1933, since you asked). Read the 1935 Statistical Abstract of the United States, 04.3 (archive is available here as a very large series of .pdf). I have read these figures with my own eyeballs and copied them from there. You will find that the US federal receipts and spending—the portion for which Hoover was responsible—were as follows:
|Year||Tax receipts ($'000)||Income growth||Spending ($'000)||Expenditure growth|
Marcus du Sautoy does his bit for mathematical understanding in today's Times, telling us about the Chinese inventor who has used Reuleaux-type curves to build a bike which gives you more exercise. The Reuleaux triangle is a three-sided shape which has a constant width, and is the shape-of-constant-width covering the smallest area. (I know, I never knew such things existed either. If I get a calculus class next year, I've got me another set of nice examples for integration. If they have interesting derivatives, all the better…) Apparently, our seven-sided coinage is also based on a curve of constant width, so that you can get non-circular pieces which can still be measured by coin-operated machines.
Aw, Johann Hari, he's like a primary school child trying to commentate on politics. Here he is knocking so-called "supply-side economics":
The Tory leader has started advocating a form of economics so extreme it was derided even by the first George Bush as "voodoo economics".Okay, that would be the first George Bush who was the Republican version of a Tory 'wet', and famously had to be told by Mrs. T. not to 'go wobbly'? And yet this wet President who described the Laffer curve as 'voodoo economics' famously promised, "Read my lips: no new taxes." (He later broke the pledge.) Hari also forgets that the aforementioned PM was far happier with Reagan than with Bush, and it was Reagan's economic policies which Bush was describing as 'voodoo economics'. Historically, Reagan's and Thacher's policies, controversial though they still are, are not 'extreme'.I'm not a supply-sider myself, for much the same reason as I'm not a Keynesian: government spending is the real tax. It's no good cutting taxes without reining in the public sector, because the effect of that is to increase deficit spending which is completely bonkers. But to see Hari denounce supply-siders, who are entirely affable and friendly mainstreamers, as 'extreme' simply demonstrates that he is merely trying to plug his own brand of 'voodoo economics': government spending as the cure-all.For all his appeal to 'facts', and managing to pick the wrong ones on the way, he misses the key central fact: every experiment with ever-increasing government spending has collapsed. As Mrs. T. famously said,
The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The story is here.One of the statistics is that 36% of people my age are not currently contributing to a pension pot. What the survey does not clarify is how many of those are not contributing because they are financially illiterate, and how many are not contributing because, like me, they have calculated that a pension scheme is not in their better interests. There are a number of reasons why pension plans are not good, one of which I noted in February: you disinherit your heirs in favour of the life company. But there are other concerns, too, including the fact that the scheme is merely a tax deferral device, that extra charges deteriorate returns, and that you cannot use pension money for any other purpose. Pensions are useful for higher-rate taxpayers, but foisting them on basic-rate taxpayers is bad policy, pure and simple.As I say, how many of the 64% non-pension-paying public are thinking like that is not stated, although it is not likely to be many.I have to say, though, that my favourite part of the article is when they get the head of savings and pensions at a large life company to pass comment. Is the BBC so out-of-touch that they think a businessman can be relied upon to pass comment which does not talk his own book up?Saving for retirement is an important thing to do, and I am certainly doing it myself. I know better than to expect the taxpayer will stump up for my retirement, and I am aware that pensions are not the cure-all that successive governments have claimed. Although other media have started to catch up, and discuss the alternatives to pensions, such as Isas, the BBC remains wedded to the idea that government plans must work best.
J. C. M. Dave has a column in this morning's Guardian about his proposals for constitutional change. I have to say, listening to William Hague and reading Cameron's column, it does sound like they 'get it'. Hague spoke on television about how conservatism was at its best when it focussed on personal responsibility and putting people in charge of their own lives, and as a classical liberal I would say the same of my own tradition.There are some fair criticisms of Cameron's article, as the comments on it show. At the surface level, it is not a sparkling piece of writing, and he does not set out a clear policy agenda: however, I think the problem of style is because this article is written to support a speech (and so I suspect that most of it is simply lifted from that speech), and the lack of a policy agenda is because the article is the first of a series of four. In fairness, he does mention the Tory plan for schools, which gets a decent number of thumbs up from me. But if he were to get to the end of the four without discussing serious policy proposals, then there would be more to complain about.Fundamentally, I think he has recognised that the fury over MPs' expenses is about more than bathplugs and cable porn. It is even about more than asking, How dare they lecture us? It is about the fact that slowly and insidiously, power has been taken away from individuals and local communities, and centralised in Westminster and in Brussels. The feeling of impotence is what gives the rage added impetus, because the furious electorate can see no way to resolve the problem themselves.I referred to the comments on the column. Apart from the ones criticising his lack of policy or his inability to form sentences (as I say, I think both are easily explicable), they are, as you might expect, a mix of cynics who see politicians as reflecting their own cynicism and radicals who think this is not far enough. As such, the comments make for fairly depressing reading, but this one I think summarises fairly well what I think is a sensible response to Cameron's ideas:
I am as sceptical as anyone about Cameron, who seems to spin with every wind that blows. But he is responding to the demand for a new political system and Brown the old centraliser is not. And an older Toryism than Thatchers spoke for liberty against an over powerful state. Rather than re-stating our own smug cynicism, we should hold Cameron's feet to the fire and compel him and his party to be specific.It is true that we should not expect too much. New Labour was elected on a promise of marvellous constitutional reform, and twelve years later our constitution is probably more muddled than when they started. However, as I say, it does feel J. C. M. 'gets it' and his Shadow Cabinet are starting to 'get it' too. And as Hague said, setting Parliament over the executive, and putting people in charge of their own lives, is an inherently Conservative thing to do. So rather than complain that he does not go far enough, or that he will not do what he says, we need to hold him to his word, and look for a manifesto which contains specific, achievable goals for strengthening Parliament, making MPs more accountable to their constituents, and for returning power and choice to the people.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Blood, Sweat and Takeaways is a new series on BBC Three about the industrial complex which produces some of the food we eat (iPlayer; UK-only). The premiss is to take half a dozen British young people and dump them on some poor unsuspecting East Asian factory, to see the conditions in which people work and to appreciate the wages they earn. Some of the scenes are genuinely touching: the most so was when the girls on the team gave the factory worker with whom they were staying enough of their wages to make a surprise visit to her children, who had to stay with their grandparents because both parents were working hard just to be able to live and keep them.However, some of the story is very one-sided. It appears that the team chosen (and one was forced to leave altogether after an altercation more appropriate to Big Brother) was mostly chosen for the complete lack of overseas experience and their horrendously high expectations of life. With the exception of Mr. Strong, only one was said to have ventured beyond the borders of the UK and she had not been further than Europe. Hence, I rather think that the shock at the conditions in which others around the world live and work was in large part due to a wide-eyed naïveté. In fact, one wonders whether some of these people—I think I shall use the word kids, although they are all over eighteen—have ever done any factory or manual work in the UK. It seems like for the most part, they are pampered middle-class kids who have little idea or experience of working-class life in the UK, never mind the rougher side of life found in the developing world.Equally, the programme evinced little appreciation for what money is worth in developing countries. Until the very end, when the girls went shopping for treats, the value of money was not in evidence at all. And even when they went looking for things, they assumed that bread and jam was something of a simple staple, when Western food in Third World countries is a luxury. Chocolate, too, is a luxury and not a standard for Indonesian factory workers: we may wish this to be otherwise, but this cannot change overnight. After all, cocoa is grown in Third World countries as well.Although I shall probably return to discuss some of the other issues raised by subsequent episodes, my final comment on this one would be that, as JonnyN commented on the ASI blog post which alerted me to this programme, it has a disturbing lack of counter-factual. The girls were shocked to learn that the factory job was a good job in the town where they were, and that the ladies who worked there would be glad for their own children to grow up and work in the factory. In truth, it is a good job, and one thinks of young girls in India who work in sweatshops and who, if asked, would tell you that it is either making clothes for Western consumers, or prostitution. The stark fact is that for all the harshness of the life that these workers lead—and I hope that Indonesia is able to have the political and economic stability necessary for growth—in fact, the investors who got the factory built (Western, probably) have done something good for the local community which they appreciate, which is helping them out of grinding poverty, which is better than what they had before, and which is better than any of their other current option.I lied: one last thing. Perhaps I'm a becoming hardened old reactionary before my time, but the best thing about that programme was that even in genuinely hard conditions you could see that spark of the human spirit shine through. That lady I mentioned at the beginning had a dream, to be able to afford a place to live with her husband (working in a mine, elsewhere) and children. She was working hard because she wanted the best for her children. Sure, there were things we would wish were otherwise about the lives of those workers, but to see someone with a dream worth working for makes you realise that if we just give places like Indonesia the chance to develop industrially and trade with us, you'll not keep the people down.
In reply to my suggestion to send depositors to the head of the queue when allocating funds to failed banks (thus vitiating the issue of runs), the Fearsome Comrade commented about the Obama plan to make the unions senior to bondholders in baling out the car manufacturers. Of course, this is complete nonsense as a scheme, not that that should stop the President of the Known World. But why is it nonsense? Legally, of course, the answer is obvious (although the President can evidently nobble judges in the States, which is nice to know given it happens so regularly over here), but is there a case from something a little stronger than a simple appeal to law?Look at a bankruptcy this way: people have stumped up something in the running of the car firm, it has gone bust, now we work out who is owed what and how to compensate them. Some people supplied their labour, others capital, still more inputs like steel, plastic and rubber. Those who supplied goods can either be compensated by return of the shipments or by cash where those cannot be recovered, simple enough. Those who supplied capital can themselves be compensated by the supply of capital, although probably not to the same extent as the capital they risked (creditors can easily get less than fifty pence in the pound). But ought labour to be compensated?I say no. The people who lent money to the car firms had stumped up their own capital as an investment in that manufacturer, but the workers had not put their own capital at risk. They had simply supplied labour at an agreed price. Their "capital", if you will, is the skills and abilities they bring to their work, and those skills were not at risk, those skills have not been lost in the bankruptcy. They still have their skills, but do the creditors still have their capital?That is why labour does not need compensation in a bankruptcy: there is no loss to compensate.EDIT and POST-SCRIPT: while I remember, Division of Labour has news that major US investors are starting to re-think their ideas of lending to American, unionised industries. Too much risk of government meddling, you see. Yes, Mr. President, that's one heck of a successful policy to save US industry. Well done, sir.
Introducing a column about EU enlargement and the benefits it has brought for Polish workers, the BBC's man-in-Europe, Jonny Dymond, writes about a British lorry driver he met:
On the ferry between the UK and Sweden I ran into one of the truck drivers making the crossing. He was, he said, earning £14 an hour for his trips. But he was being undercut by Polish drivers who would work for £7 an hour. What was he to do?He concludes that he still had "no smart answer" for the driver. Fair enough, but Dymond could possibly avoid trying to spin his ignorance as a problem for the free market, when it is quite plainly his own problem. Moreover, I think a "smart answer" is less important than an honest one. So how about this for a relatively quick answer to a lorry driver concerned that opening the European labour market means he will lose his job?
The first thing I'd say to you is that you know how good the open market in goods is for your sector. As it becomes easier to move goods across borders, more people will want to do it; that generates demand for your services, so it's not been all bad for lorry drivers. An open market in labour is a part of having a single Europe-wide open market.But you're worried about your job, and I understand that. I'd say that you could start by looking back over history. A hundred years ago, you'd have used a horse-and-cart to carry your goods. You can well imagine that when the lorry was invented, the carters were up in arms that one trucker would do the work of maybe half a dozen carters! However, that invention has played its part in suppressing prices in shops and in making all of us wealthier and more prosperous; in fact, your own job is a part of that extra prosperity.Outsourcing transport jobs to Poles is not really all that different to inventing the lorry: both are simply ways of transporting goods around more cheaply. Opening the market to Polish labour will cause dislocation and pain for British lorry drivers, and I do understand that it is worrying for people like you who are being competed against, but in the longer-run the growth that opening the market brings will create more jobs than were destroyed by the dislocation. Keeping our labour markets closed, on the other hand, will actually stunt growth and stop new jobs from opening. Just look at North Korea!Open markets do cause temporary dislocation, and we need to be honest about that. Exulting in "creative destruction" to someone facing redundancy is not wise, but the idea the phrase encapsulates can be explained to such people, and needs to be.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Our illustrious Prime Minister, he who thinks elections would cause chaos (but mostly because he'd lose), tells us that we can't cut our way out of recession, we need to grow our way out of recession. So what is going through his head, that he thinks higher taxes on jobs, incomes, businesses and production are a pro-growth policy? Isn't "cutting" the only way out of the recession: cutting taxes, encouraging entrepreneurship and investment?
Friday, May 22, 2009
I got one of the BNP's leaflets through the door, and could tell that the photos accompanying the quotes about how great the fascists are weren't going to be exactly kosher. But I hadn't realised quite how non-conforming they'd be. Hattie Garlick at Comment Central has the story, as does (sorry about this, folks) the Sun. Their story is in fact the best of the four: the other three are just stock photography, which is unsurprising; but the soldier photographed really does exist, as one might expect, and described the BNP as "scumbags" for whom he would never vote "in a million years".I wonder whether using someone's image without their permission, ascribing to them words they never said, and implying something which the individual would consider to be offensive and derogatory, would be actionable in law?
On last night's Question Time (link available only in the UK, and only until the end of today), Ben Bradshaw observed the emerging factoid—for it is not quite established yet—that MPs in marginal seats appear not to have fiddled expenses as much as those in safe seats. Ben Bradshaw is broadly on the right side of the argument with regard to parliamentary transparency, constitutional reform and the like, but his conclusion was completely potty. He basically said that if marginalism in seating makes for better MPs, then proportional representation was the right system.But surely that is precisely the opposite from the correct conclusion. The various proportional representation systems do not make for more marginal seats, but create a safety ordering of seats towards the top of the list. In order for the electorate to dislodge a corrupt MP at the top of the list, it would be necessary for that MP's party to lose practically all its support. In short, you could not get rid of Hazel Blears without causing all manner of collateral damage on the way.While I'm at it, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown came out with some cracking bits of illogic. There was a good one a few days ago (link), when she argued that the left has a story of campaigning against racism and exclusion, and that in her opinion, Tories are all "amoral" "avaricious toffs", while left-wingers, blacks and Asians "have exploited and degraded their own testimonies of poverty, want, racism, exclusion, and lived socialism." I guess it's too much to ask her to be against racism when it's black and Asian people doing it, and against exclusionary prejudice when it's left-wingers doing it.Well, the first piece of Y. A-B illogic in last night's programme was to suggest that she is both against the possibility of the BNP even achieving a single seat and in favour of proportional representation. She cannot have both! In truth, PR would probably result in a small contingent of BNP MPs in any general election.Her second piece was to declare that the best thing for the British people to vote for in a general election would be a hung Parliament. Now, this has evidently passed me by in all the elections in which I have participated. Where's "Hung Parliament" on the ballot paper?
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Um, Polly Toynbee has finally lost it. She may not see it in these terms, but look at yesterday's column:
We need fewer [MPs], representing larger areas, to make them more powerful national figures.If there were, say 400, most would have a valuable role to play within their party and parliament.She is in serious danger of agreeing with J. C. M. Dave, who asked last week at PMQs, "The House of Commons has 646 MPs. … Should we not reduce the cost of politics by asking the next Boundary Commission to reduce the size of the House of Commons?"In danger, not merely of agreeing with the leader of the Conservative Party, but of thinking that he has not gone far enough. (I also agree that the Commons is far too large. But it is somewhat less shocking that I should be of such an opinion.) Where will this end? Let me tell you. She goes on to suggest that
there should be fewer ministerial posts and more emphasis on parliament.Fewer ministerial posts sounds suspiciously like smaller government to me. That is, after all, the only natural way to cut the size of Parliament. The payroll vote is too influential as things stand, especially taking select committee chairmen into account. Making Parliament smaller without removing the chairmanships from the Whips, and without drastically cutting the number of ministerial posts, would be a recipe for worse governance, not better. But if we have fewer ministers, departments must necessarily become smaller, which means government doing fewer things—but in all likelihood, doing those that are left far better. And if select committee chairmen are chosen by the House and not by Whips, then they will probably be far more effective in holding the government to account. At the least, they will be under far less direct pressure to conform.Furthermore, she argues that MPs spend too much time
as advocates for individual local cases on housing, benefits and vast numbers of immigration pleas,which is an entirely fair criticism. I have noticed that when MPs raise casework at PMQs or at other times in the House, they do not make the point forcefully or often enough that their example illustrates a wider failing, and that the inevitable response, "I (or another minister) shall meet with the hon. Member and see what can be done," does not address the underlying problem which is governmental inefficiency in general, and not a specific problem. Casework can help an MP if they can turn casework into a story of government failure; but all too often, it simply turns MPs into glorified social workers and distracts them from their real job, which is the holding to account of the government of the day.The casework load also means that resolution of individual cases is not dealt with fairly, but rather that individuals without support from their MP lose out to those with such support. It cannot be in any sense fair for people's support to be judged on their ability to play a political system, rather than on the merits of their claim.Polly Toynbee agrees with the Tory leader and wants smaller government with less social work by MPs. In fact, the only remotely left-wing part was her desire for multi-member constituencies with proportional representation. She thinks that a Labour Prime Minister is being too conservative, and that a Conservative leader should be more bold: what is happening?
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Okay, I'm something of a sceptic when it comes to the idea that Darwinian evolution is going to do a bang-up job of explaining humanity , so it's perhaps no surprise that I take the more breathless coverage of Ida with a pinch of salt. (This BBC article is rather less breathless than some. It's also got video footage of a very clever computer reconstruction of the bone structure.) But even if I were fully and finally convinced of the case for human evolution, who on earth are these ill-educated journalists telling us that the fossil is the "missing link"? Yes, Randerson, I'm looking at you.Firstly, the fossil's location on the tree is debatable: she may in fact be on the wrong side of the primate family. (You know, like Uncle Sylvester who lost all his money in Vegas and is currently doing time in a Mexican prison: wrong side of the family.)Secondly, given her forty-seven-million-year antiquity, she could be no better than an ancestor of an ancestor of an ancestor of… you get the picture. The missing link objection, which in fact is either so tight it cannot ever be met or so loose it cannot even be defined, requires a far more direct evolutionary ancestor of Homo sapiens than Ida ever could be.Thirdly, there is a sense in which every fossil is a missing link. On the assumption that species are always on the move from what they were to whatever it is they will end up as, any fossil is an intermediate step between its past and future.Perhaps a series of links will one day be found, although I shall retain my scepticism until then. But one thing is for sure: Ida won't be at the head of the queue. For the rest of the animal kingdom, I have fewer objections. As with all scientific theories, it is provisional and contingent on the observations, but I am quite happy to allow that the evolutionary story is at worst something like Newtonian mechanics: good enough for most things, but inadequate in some special situations which could be used to clarify and refine the theory. However, I cannot see what is gained by pressing the theory harder than it will in fact allow and requiring, against the evidence, that humans be as explicable as the rest of Animalia.
Monday, May 18, 2009
I was going to put this in the relevant comments, but I think it's worth publishing a little further abroad, and my thoughts did get rather long. The Fearsome Comrade put a helpful comment on my post linking Rand and Nietzsche,
I read the Fountainhead over the weekend and thought the whole time that Howard Roark sounded like an uebermensch. Glad to know I'm not the only person who sees the similarities between Rand and Nietzsche.My response:
I haven't read anything in full by Rand, but reading excerpts and reading around, you are right, it really is evident that she channels a heck of a lot of Nietzsche. So, for instance, this quote:Commenting further, there is a history, of which Hayek is a part, of distinguishing between the Continental and English classical-liberal traditions. Nietzsche and Rand are very definitely Continental: radical, Enlightenment, power-of-reason people who think that the potential for human nature is limitless in scope. The Anglo tradition is a lot more reformist (I hesitate to use the word conservative), and sceptical of individual reason. Oddly, though, that scepticism provides a strong basis for individual freedom, as illustrated by Hayek:My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. (Intro. to Atlas Shrugged, 35th ed., Wiki)How much more man-as-a-rope can you get?
Freedom for individual opinion was demanded precisely because every individual was regarded as fallible, and the discovery of the best knowledge was expected only from that continuous testing of all beliefs which free discussion secured. Or, to put this differently, it was not so much from the power of individual reason (which the genuine liberals distrusted), as from the results of the interpersonal process of discussion and criticism, that a progressive advance towards the truth was expected. (Liberalism, src; HT: John H)Anglo-Scottish 'common sense' philosophy is quite definitely the tradition I identify with, and Hayek's quote is a brilliant example of why. To roll out a Lewis quotation I love to bits,
Aristotle said some men are fit only to be slaves; I do not contradict him. But I am a democrat [and I would add, liberal - PJW] because I see no men fit to be masters.If individual human reason alone were able to master every problem, then the best solution would be to find a person capable of doing so and install him as dictator-for-life over the entire human race. It is telling that Nietzsche was scathing about liberalism, describing it as the transformation of mankind into cattle.If no individual human reason alone is so capable, however, then it follows than no-one can be trusted with absolute power, and consequently we must ensure as many freedoms for individuals as possible.
The new Web tool from Wolfram came out today, and it is rather impressive. Not as impressive as the media fluff made out: I think some journalists were expecting to be able to find the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything on it. [bad example - Ed.]The data are culled from various published sources, and I assume that this ensures some sort of fact-checking has gone on at some point in the life-cycle of each factoid, as opposed to Wikipedia's "mob-knowledge" approach. That necessarily results in some limitations on the dataset, and also on the questions which it can parse. For instance, asking for the population of sparrows in the United Kingdom flummoxes it, as does asking which of the UK and US economies grew faster between 1970 and 2000 or trying to get it to describe Green's Theorem. What it does, it does all right, I suppose.Here are some links to some searches I ran, along with a grade against each search for usefulness of result:
- marks & spencer. Some information on the shares of the nation's favourite retailer. The system has data on US companies' fundamentals, but not the UK, and the performance comparisons are against the American market. Currency conversions over time are seriously dubious. Gamma.
- 100*(uk exports/gdp - imports/gdp). UK trade imbalance as a percentage of GDP from 1970 onwards. Alpha appears to be rather idiosyncratic in its desired formatting for formulae, as "(uk exports - imports)/(uk gdp)" fails. Some indication of calculation approach would be of use. Beta.
- phthalocyanine. A page giving a chemical formula, molecular structure and some key figures. Not my specialist area, but seems good for a quick reference. Alpha.
- york, uk. A page giving some information, including up-to-the-minute information, about York. All fairly relevant and easily-convertible into sane units. Alpha+.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
S.1:2b. [The party] is pledged to the maintenance of a private-enterprise economy operating within a broad framework of national economic policy. It is opposed to international monopoly capitalism and to laissez-faire free trade and free movement of plant and capital. Social stability and contentment is best achieved by the many enjoying a personal stake in our society. Accordingly, we believe that private property should be encouraged and spread to as many individual members of our nation as possible. We recognise that Finance exists to serve the Nation and its industries rather than the other way around.Oh, go on, go on, go on, go on. Guess.(Answer.)
Well, I rang [them] and asked if there was a limit to what I could spend… and they said no. I did think at the time that was madness.So, is this:
Friday, May 15, 2009
Paul Walker at Anti-Dismal gives a wonderful quotation as part of a post on how competition authorities meddle no matter what a company does:
“Ronald [Coase] said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same they said it was tacit collusion.”–William Landes, “The Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Econ at Chicago”, JLE (1981) p. 193.Apparently, the EU has fined Intel for cutting its prices; the logic being that as the major market participant, Intel ought not to be allowed to use its profits to maintain market share because… [logic goes here] …and that would be bad for consumers. By contrast, here is the story as I see it: Intel is suffering constant challenge to its dominance, and the only way to keep the edge is to push prices down, which does put competitors out of business but never results in price increases because of the constant pressure from competition.
Gents,A few ideas I've been working on for our European election campaign. They're all bit flaky, but I think they can fit in somewhere.So, how about DC bites the heads of kittens? Or that the Tories want to murder all children under the age of two? I think we can run the stuff about Hogg drowning the local peasantry in his moat, too.Damian
These are absolutely totally brilliant Damian.DerekWell, all right, that probably didn't quite happen, but this did:
It's a thoroughly unpleasant advert, which reminds you how Labour's good points (and no, that wasn't a typo) have been buried by this stapler-hurling, printer-throwing bully. (src)
Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome has started a website opposing the policies and practices of the BNP. It is called NothingBritish.com, and is an attempt to form a centre-right response to the BNP which is distinct from the left and centre-left responses. They have some links to information about the BNP's woefully inept, and at times criminal, councillors. It all helpful information and demonstrates why people should not vote for the BNP.And yet most people who are running scared of the BNP, arguing that it would be a shame if they benefited from the expenses scandal. To an extent, I agree, in that I do not particularly want to see the odious racist toerags gain any sort of authority in the UK; but if the BNP benefits electorally from the scandal, the boost will be limited, shallow, and short-lived. I am therefore quite a bit more relaxed than others seemingly are about the prospect of a BNP MEP or MP, since any negative publicity which the member achieves during their tenure would quite possibly set the fascist cause back several years or even decades. Give them a seat, and the let the national newspapers cover stories like this, from Tuesday's Guardian, suggesting that the BNP's most high profile paid politician (Barnbrook, in the London Assembly) may be suspended for fabricating murders for the purpose of whipping up fear.If BNP is some kind of disease, a single MEP could be a highly potent inoculant.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I'm all in favour of gay adoption: all children should be given a loving, caring home regardless of sexual orientation. [I don't think that's what it means — Ed.]Let me try again. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering, a state-funded body, has described people—mostly Christians, it has to be said—who disapprove of adults in homosexual relationships adopting children as "retarded homophobes." (Mail) Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down so well with Christians; disability groups are also offended by the use of the word "retarded" which has been a dicta non grata for some time.Thus, in the cause of championing one group's "rights"—and I don't believe there is any such thing as a right to adopt; the child holds all the rights as far as I'm concerned—the BAAF has managed to trample on the "rights"—and I don't believe there is any such thing as a right not to be offended, either—of two other groups. Or, put another way, in their efforts to accommodate one group, they have disaccommodated two others. Still, that's all in a day's work for a former Guardian journalist, eh?
Oh, Internet trolls, aren't they wonderful? "Robert Lucas" at the Times' Money Central informs us, helpfully, that
investment is a sort of gambling wich is a sin it says so in the bible. sinners go to hell and burn there because they did not lisen to good sweet words of truth (src)A beautiful example of the art of the troll in action: mis-spelt, poorly punctuated, factually inaccurate and inflammatory. Of course, all newspapers attract their trolls (in the case of the Mail, they are called the readership), and a full classification would be a rather amusing exercise for a lazy Saturday, but it is evident that, pace Milligan, money does not buy you a higher class of Internet troll.
A group of prominent economists have written a letter to the Telegraph (link) in which they spell out, in their view, what caused it and what measures would help to stop something similar happening in future. Here are a few choice quotes, consistent with the analysis of this place over the last few months; more detail and more points for thought are available at the link above.
- The prevailing view amongst the commentariat that the financial crash of 2008 was caused by market failure is both wrong and dangerous.
- Government failure had a leading role in creating the conditions that led to the crash.
- Central banks created a monetary bubble that fed an asset price boom and distorted the pricing of risk.
- US government policy encouraged high-risk lending through support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
- Regulators and central bankers failed to use their considerable powers to stop risks building up.
- Much existing banking regulation exacerbated the crisis and reduced the effectiveness of market monitoring of banks. Solutions:
- No significant changes are needed to the regulatory environment surrounding hedge funds, short-selling, offshore banks, private equity or tax havens.
- Making bank depositors prior creditors.
- Provisions to ensure an orderly winding up, recapitalisation or sale of systemic financial institutions in difficulty. Banks must be allowed to fail.
- Enhancing market disclosure by ensuring that banks report relevant information to shareholders.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Edward Gottesman has a bright idea. Sunlight is free, and some people abuse theirs, by wasting it, directing it into others' eyes, or using it for evil and not good (like growing things they oughtn't). So in order to challenge people's profligacy and abuse of this amazing resource which is freely available, he proposes that the government tax sunlight. It would make people think about how they use it, you see, and that can't be a bad thing, can it?Actually, Gottesman's idea is about email, not sunlight, but he proposes, in all seriousness, exactly the same thing in Prospect (link). Email is free to use by technical specification, and he thinks that it is this free-ness which causes spam. Never mind that criminals tend not to pay their taxes; and never mind that imposing a minimum charge per email restricts people's ability to do their jobs, to arrange their lives, and to find information.Gottesman suggests that 20 emails a day, coming up to a daily tax of 40p or 50p, would not hurt a broadband user: but that is already £15 a month, which is as much as my own connection costs. In total, that is nearly £200 a year that Gottesman is proposing to impose as a tax, and more for businesses, although admittedly on a per-use basis. Does he think this will extend the availability of online services to the poor? Does he think that this will truly enhance business effectiveness? Does Gottesman, in fact, think? For a magazine aimed at academics, Gottesman's column is an embarrassing nonsense.
A handy hint for any MPs looking for somewhere to live: there is a property about a mile from Parliament for £1,040pcm including bills, which is about half a Member's additional costs allowance. (Rightmove)
Given it took me all of a few minutes to start finding properties an MP could easily use to bed down for a night, I am sure there are many people who, for a modest fee paid for out of an MP's staffing allowance, would be willing to act as book-keeper and property agent to ensure that justifiable claims are made in good order and suitable second homes obtained with minimal cost to the taxpayer and disruption to the MP.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
I mean the deliberate mistake apart from walking straight into the man-trap set by Labour stooge Foulkes.Yes, £92,000 is nowhere near twice £64,000; it is more like half as much again. It just goes to show that even a private education at Haberdashers' can't drag some people out of that bottom 20%.
Speaker Martin asked this rhetorical question of Kate Hoey and others yesterday:
Let me put this to the hon. Lady and to every hon. Member in this House: is it the case than an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing?Well, Mick, let's ask the Government, shall we? From the infamous, and since withdrawn, clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill:
Subject to the following provisions of this Part, a designated authority may by order (an “information-sharing order”) enable any person to share information which consists of or includes personal data.Certainly, the Government wanted—and still aspires to, so far as we can tell—the power to do precisely what the Speaker suggested was wholly improper for an employee of Parliament to do: to share any private data with any organisation of their choosing.
Terence Blacker, in today's Independent, asks, Since when has our freedom been so readily sacrificed? His thinking is occasioned by a new technological fix to speeding, involving a computer, a database and an automatic governor:
With the enthusiasm of a sales director, [TfL's] road safety manager has welcomed innovative technology which will save lives. There will be a report on the pilot scheme. It will find that, yes, almost certainly self-controlling cars cause fewer accidents. At some point, a brave politician will say that saving human life is too important to be left to choice. The system should be compulsory.It is not the noblest of civil liberties, the freedom to drive one's own car, and indeed may not matter that much, but the arguments used for greater regulation in this case are becoming worryingly familiar.I can do no better than to recommend reading John Halton's posts at Confessing Evangelical (link) on Ellul, technique and the slow degradation of human liberty: not so much the fault of technologies themselves as of people, who enjoy exercising petty power over others.It is a depressing thought, but in all likelihood true, that the public at large does not want freedom. They want to be coddled by a nanny state which will make decisions about their health and well-being for them; they want to be watched by a database state which will make sure nothing bad happens to them; and they want to be paid by a stimulus state which will shield them from the tides of the free market. The irony of fleeing to the State is that it cannot protect us from these things completely, and added to those woes we now have the over-bearing hand of Big Brother who stops us from doing what we would like, who watches us wherever we go, and who takes an ever-increasing share of the fruits of our own labours.As far as Christians are concerned, this trend should worry but not surprise us. Given that sin clouds our consciences, it is little surprise that people should desire some kind of comfort blanket to which they can turn in order to off-load responsibility for their own actions. (As a corollary, we should be willing to stand up for the principle of personal responsibility in society.) The State, ever on the look-out for more chances to exercise power, is a willing recipient of that responsibility. If I may draw a somewhat inappropriate lesson from a passage of Scripture, we become like the man in the parable, who evicted a demon from his house but put no good thing in its place; the demon returns with seven spirits more evil than itself, "and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
One of the interesting features of the MPs whose expenses have been scrutinised has been to see those who have behaved honourably. Predictably, party leaders have not abused the system, but there are also honest back-benchers.Margaret Moran definitely did not. The Labour MP for Luton South claimed for her family residence in Southampton, although her duties as an MP did not require her to spend any time there at all (the rules are quite explicit that the additional costs allowance is for necessary costs incurred in the performance of parliamentary duties). She argued that since her partner works in Southampton and she wants a family life, she should be allowed to claim for a house which makes that possible. I should like her to meet some junior medical friends of mine, who are separated for most of a week because one has been moved to work in a hospital in another city; the husband continues to work here in York. They don't get an allowance to rent a second flat, never mind to do maintenance work on a third home. Do MPs really deserve better treatment than people working on the front-line of the health service?By contrast, today's Telegraph profiles the claims of Kelvin Hopkins (link), who is Labour MP for Luton North and lives on the same street as his constituency neighbour for Luton South. He claimed very little indeed, preferring to live in Luton and commute into London; he accepts that some colleagues may prefer to live in London, though, and the article concludes with his proposed solution,
Mr Hopkins, a lifelong socialist, added: “The system is ridiculous. I have signed an Early Day Motion calling for the nationalisation of all second homes. If the state owned flats and rented them out to MPs, there wouldn’t be any problems about second home allowances or switching homes from one place to another and you wouldn’t have these problems with capital gains tax.”Kelvin Hopkins was a former trade unionist who took the view that he should be careful with public money; what a stark contrast with the reported comments of the Speaker of the House (Times), who allegedly said to a senior MP,
I have been a trade unionist all my life. I did not come into politics not to take what is owed to me.We should be thankful that there are at least some MPs who have taken a view diametrically opposed to that of Speaker Martin, who by-the-by does not deserve the continued confidence of the House. And the trade union movement should be grateful for Kelvin Hopkins.
Monday, May 11, 2009
The Government has decided to get a smart meter installed in every house by 2020 (Telegraph, BBC). Smart meters basically connect us all up to some centralised database to make it easier, quicker and cheaper for our gas and electric companies to see how much we've been using. Aha… the Home Office came up with this plan, didn't it?Anyway, beyond the rather obvious penchant for vast centralised databanks available for the government to suborn, the numbers do not exactly add up. The energy companies will be expected to foot the bill, which makes the scheme sound like a sneaky windfall tax to me, but of course, they will have to pass the cost onto consumers: they are not going, in the long term, to be able to absorb a capital investment of the order of £8bn which will, if all goes according to plan, decrease their revenues by more than it saves in costs!So this sneaky windfall tax will, necessarily, fall on consumers. The question, then, is is a smart meter worth it? The simple economist's answer is: Plainly not, because take-up is so slow. But let me show you some numbers. The estimated cost is about £320 for a household; the estimated saving is a few percent, maybe 3%, off bills. My energy bills for last calendar year were £345, so it would make me savings of maybe £10 pa , which is a 3% return on the investment (and will thus, on a non-discounted basis, take over 30 years to pay for itself). The best savings rate I can see for £320, and rates are about as low as they can get at present, is 2.65%, and higher-risk investments will return more.In other words, some people may think a smart meter a good investment and decide to obtain one; I could probably do as well just by sticking the money on deposit. So why not leave that option open to me, and let people who want to get a smart meter do so? The Government estimates a minimum of £4, ranging up to £100, with an average of something like £30; presumably the top-end figure represents people who hadn't yet found the Off button.
In a shocking twist to the expenses scandal, Parliament has been left reeling tonight as a senior constitutional figure was found to have acquired, entirely funded by the taxpayer, a large collection of jewellery, an entire regiment of personal security and a network of second, third and fourth homes all over the United Kingdom. You can read more on this story here.
Is it possible that you, or your mother or daughter or son, could ever be driven to commit a dreadful crime? Do we have that level of violence in ourselves?The answer is yes.Contrary to popular belief, we are born violent.…The [Milgram] experiment has often been used as the proof that we are all capable of violence within a certain framework. We struggle to accept this, but the science seems to suggest we are wrong. (BBC)We don't all struggle to accept this: Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand exulted in it, while orthodox Christians have proclaimed for centuries that our heritage and nature are only ever wickedness and violence, and as such we are in desperate need of salvation.There is an interesting parallel here with the Milgram experiment itself: when Christians say that each of us has Auschwitz in our hearts (as one preacher I have heard memorably put it), the world sticks its fingers in its ears and pretends not to listen; but when a scientist says it, the world bows in homage to the source of knowledge. This is all a part of the modern idolatry, I suppose, which has not changed since that pinnacle of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, with its Temple to Reason.
Ever get an odd case of Bible intuition? You know the thing: looking at a passage in detail, you start asking questions on the basis of a little evidence and a lot of guesswork, and when you get access to commentaries, it turns out to be a very good guess indeed. I have been looking at Daniel 9 (glutton for punishment, I) and managed to get two instances at once.Firstly, the whole chapter is pretty heavily covenantal in its language. Daniel's prayer, in particular, is chock-full of references to God's covenant with the people. I questioned whether that was that all there is to it, though: I had a feeling that Daniel's prayer was probably some kind of covenantal document.Secondly, Gabriel comes with God's answer at the time of the evening sacrifice. On reading that, my immediate response was that it is fairly unsurprising that the promise of the Messiah should come at the time of the last sacrifice of the day, since he is going to put an end to sacrifice. But do the commentaries pick up on that detail?Looking around various commentaries, the answer to the second is that Matthew Henry is about the only commentator who notes it:
The evening oblation was a type of the great sacrifice which Christ was to offer in the evening of the world, and it was in the virtue of that sacrifice that Daniel's prayer was accepted when he prayed for the Lord's sake; and for the sake of that this glorious discovery of redeeming love was made to him.It is always a little concerning when Henry is the only person one can find to back up an observation, since he is somewhat given over to pious fabrication. Nevertheless, at least I am not the first to have wondered about it, and it does seem a very reasonable observation to make.The first question I answered today, reading The Covenant of the Seventieth Week (Kline, pdf):
Analyzing a series of post-exilic prayers with identical structures, including Daniel 9:4-19, J. Harvey identifies them as belonging to the Todah genre. … The Todah-prayer was a response by the condemned vassal-people to the indictment of the Lord, admitting the justice of the sentence. This procedure was in keeping with ancient Near Eastern legal practice as attested particularly by the Babylonian "tablets of no-complaint."So there you go: Daniel really is doing something covenantal. (Or perhaps Kline just saw covenants everywhere. Hey, this is Reformed biblical theology, what did you expect us to see?)That theme of covenant is in fact the big 'E' on the eye-chart of Daniel 9, with Daniel's prayer and the Lord's message forming two halves of a dialogue. As we might expect, the Name is also a key theme: not only is the Name covenantal in its resonances, but Daniel 9 is the only passage in the whole book where God is referred to as YHWH. Interestingly, during Daniel's prayer Yahweh is explicitly referred to as such against condemnations of the people and confessions of his righteousness, while when pleading for mercy, Daniel uses the titles "God", "Lord" and "the Name"; perhaps the shift emphasises that even in judgment we have a "personal relationship", even a "covenantal relationship", with God, but not the right kind of relationship.The foundation for that right kind of relationship is only ever the cutting off of the Messiah (briefly, that means the falling of the covenant curse), which finishes transgression, ends sin, atones for wickedness, brings in everlasting righteousness, seals up vision and prophet, and anoints the most holy; he makes a strong covenant with many, and by faith in the same Messiah we are numbered in that multitude.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
It is quite evident that the expenses frenzy is indeed another of the British public's periodical fits of morality derided by Lord Macaulay. And he was right to do so. However, this fit of morality, for all its absurdity, does matter.Not for itself, since the figures are comparative trifles: 646 second homes allowances add up to about 1/12,000 of the UK budget deficit for this year. However, this allowance, together with money for this and money for that, represented a small slice of taxpayers' money lodged directly with MPs for their use, and so many of them appear simply to have blown the lot. What hope can there be for budgetary restraint and ministerial efficiency when they cannot even behave properly with money placed under their direct control?So when Alistair Darling, in that Treasury doublespeak beloved of Chancellors, tells us that he wants to achieve "efficiency savings" across government, he is not only being hopelessly optimistic about the effectiveness of cutting down on the number of paperclips, he is dreadfully underestimating the incompetence of most of his ministers. Some of them cannot even keep enough of a track on their personal finances to avoid claiming twice for things, or over-claiming on council tax. How ever can we expect a shower like that—and the opposition parties almost certainly have similar problems in similar proportions—to achieve efficiency savings?As I say, the allowance system does not matter in and of itself: I personally would sooner MPs rented accommodation and charged it to the taxpayer (with appropriate safeguards), since even if it ended up costing a bit more, it would be far more transparent. The issue is what this furore represents, which is that, with some honourable exceptions on all sides, MPs appear not to understand the imperative in government of using taxpayers' money efficiently, and appear to have missed the fundamental truth of fiscal discipline, which is that tax receipts are held in trust to be used on behalf of the nation. That matters a great deal.
Friday, May 08, 2009
I have not yet heard, and I should dearly love to hear, someone tackle Harriet Harman with the following question:
Ms. Harman, you made headlines a few months ago when you claimed that Sir Fred Goodwin deserved to have his own remuneration judged according to the court of public opinion, rather than the rules. Now, you are defending MPs' own behaviour as having been within the rules, when it is plain that your beloved court of public opinion is squarely set against practically the entire House.Can you explain to me how you arrive at the conclusion that employees of private companies should be judged by the public at large rather than the law and contracts they signed, while democratically-elected politicians should be judged by their private rules and not by public opinion?(For my overseas readers, here is a good place to start for the background.)
Johann Hari pleads in today's Independent, "Dear God, stop brainwashing children" (link)This strikes a particular chord with me, as yesterday in the Bible study group I attend we had a free-ranging discussion on the concept of human rights. (I'm not entirely certain where I shake out theologically, but it's something along the lines of human rights being a useful political shorthand but pretty sterile for talking about morality.) In informal conversation afterwards, someone shared with me their worry that it might not be all that long before we see evangelism in predominantly Muslim areas banned because it could cause problems, or see the "indoctrination of children" banned.Now, it is true that Hari is talking about state schools rather than Sunday schools, and on the narrow point of state schools, I would tend to agree that making children participate in religious observances is not a good idea (although I, naturally, reason differently from Hari; and to my mind it is absolutely necessary for children to learn about different religions as social phenomena). My fear, though, is that Hari's logic applies equally well to Sunday schools, mid-week church children's clubs; in fact, anything involving proclaiming the gospel to children as a fact to be believed, a truth to be embraced and a person to be trusted.He argues that there is no such thing as a "Christian child", and that therefore children ought not to be taught any sort of religion at school. I question the premiss, but more unfortunately, that line of reasoning does not stop at the school gate. After all, if no child is a Christian, then no child anywhere ought to be taught to trust the Saviour.The Chinese ban the "indoctrination" of the under-18s: is it only a matter of years and decades before the UK does the same? I hope not.