Tuesday, June 29, 2010
This Russian spy ring story that has blown up in the States is causing all sorts of amusement and comparisons with Mr. le Carré, as you might expect. However, the Telegraph, in its inimitable fashion, has managed to obtain a 'Pretty girl!' photo of one of the accused, ostensibly to go with the story (src). Interested readers can click through to the Telegraph's story and confirm that the lady in question, Anna Chapman (allegedly an alias), was indeed rather eye-catching — in the early Nineties, at least. (It is said that the Telegraph has a policy never to be without a 'Pretty girl!' photo on its website front page. I haven't been assiduously testing the theory, but the prominence of this photo on their front page is evidence in favour.)Part of my own amusement has been blown out of the water. In the early Nineties, Russia was home to bread queues and all sorts of direnesses. I was having good fun imagining quite how many Russian spooks would have volunteering to take a salaried twenty-year assignment in the home of capitalist decadence, and having — such a trial! — to take 'Ms Chapman' as a (common-law) wife. 'Da, Comrade, it would be a great trial, but I am willing to make this sacrifice for Mother Russia.' They would have been fending them off with sticks, I should think. But sadly (for the entertainment value, anyway) she wasn't arrested as one half of a couple, according to the BBC (src).More gladdeningly, that BBC article has given me another avenue for amusement. The mission, as you may be aware, was to infiltrate the world of policy wonkery and try to cause havoc, turning think-tanks and the like towards a more Russian view of the world. One of the people arrested went by the name of Richard Murphy. Are we sure they've got the right one?
Monday, June 28, 2010
I'm putting together a longer post with some thoughts on historical aspects of labour mobility and the Coalition proposals to offer help to unemployed, council-housed people wanting to move to find work (src), but here is one interesting political aspect which is worth flagging up. Towards the end of the BBC's story (28-Jun-2010, 12:43), we read:
Ed Balls accused Mr Duncan Smith of "on your bike" politics, a reference to former Tory minister Lord Tebbit telling the unemployed in 1981 to get on their bikes to look for work."It goes further than on your bike," he told Sky News. "It is on your bike and lose your home. That seems to be profoundly unfair and the wrong way to deal with the unemployment problem.""It is back to the 1980s," he added. "The idea somehow that the only solution to unemployment is to cut benefits and say to people, 'go and do it yourself'. We know that does not work."Instead, he said ministers should be focused on bringing more investment into unemployment blackspots to create jobs.There are at least two hypocrisies here. The first one is that Labour politicians are typically extremely wary of changing the benefits system. I know that they will always accuse the Tories of doing it to hurt the poor, even if that is not the intention, and even when they are in coalition with the Lib Dems. Ascribing malevolence to the Tories seems to be par for the course: it's always 'back to the Eighties'. However, even pricing in the customary Labourite suspicions, Labour is deeply reluctant to alter the benefits system at all. Any change to benefits is a bad change, in the eyes of the Labour party. And yet they accuse the Tories of being conservative!The other hypocrisy is Balls' final comment. Treat the Coalition's case charitably, especially given they haven't actually put down any concrete proposals yet: they want to empower the unemployed to move to where there is work, if they cannot find it in their local area first of all. Surely this is a positive thing to do? Surely a Labour politician would support empowering the unemployed?No, Balls supports empowering local businesses and, one imagines, particularly the local public sector. Rather than putting resources in the hands of the unemployed to help them the find work, he wants to see those who control a large amount of resources helped to employ those who control less. Which is more effective is another debate for another time, but here I would note simply that Balls' proposed solution is pure trickle-down economics: the rich employ the poor, so let's help the rich and thus help the poor. Such a sentiment is more usually associated with Simon Heffer. Balls is criticising Coalition policy from the right.I might add that a third hypocrisy is that MPs have often moved to get their jobs, and they get substantial taxpayer support in order to do so. Perhaps if Balls proposed scrapping MPs' moving allowances, he would have a more consistent case.Those who are in work enjoy the ability to move to obtain a job. We don't enjoy the moving, but we would enjoy not having work less still. The Coalition's proposals are intended to give the unemployed that same power. Benefits need reform, and since a conservative Labour party bottled thirteen years of chances, it is going to fall to Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians to do it.
Friday, June 25, 2010
We shall achieve in timeTom Harris MP, representing the interest of the Labour-Busybody alliance, in a highly informative post reveals to a world agog quite how tedious it is dealing with bureaucratic jobsworths (src, via).But for his timely intervention, we should never have known that bureaucrats can be really quite inefficient and incapable of processing the simplest information. To take my own case, I have never had the tax office send me from pillar to post, nor the local council lose an important piece of paperwork I had sent, nor suffered mutually inconsistent impositions from central bureaucrats at work. Nor can readers think of their own examples.Yes indeed, the punishment really should fit the crime. Perhaps Labour politicians will be less keen to impose bureaucratic intervention on the rest of us, having suffered it themselves. Or perhaps not: the politician's capacity for self-delusion is quite prodigious.And yet the sentiment is somewhat appropriate, seeing as it was politicians — Gladstone, no less, although at the beginning of his ministerial career in 1844  — whose meddling in the railways had effected the creation of the 'Parliamentary trains' (wiki) also mentioned in Gilbert's song: perhaps the Mikado should have condemned politicians also to ride on Parliamentary trains. Another of Gladstone's measures, from 1843, he defended in 1857 as a necessary evil, but later in 1883, he described it as 'the most Socialistic measure of the last half-century' (wiki). It does not sound as though the older man thought very highly of the younger.
To make the punishment fit the crime! (src)
Thursday, June 24, 2010
We all know that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence does a load of health economics work, calculating whether various drugs are cost-effective for the NHS. It's the centre of rows over drugs, often cancer drugs, which are denied to patients because they are too expensive for the benefit the drug provides.But what we sometimes forget is that Nice also does public health work, and just this week they have produced two reports endorsing a very New Labour, healthcare-authoritarian approach to two aspects of health. At the beginning of the week, they told us that it wasn't enough to educate people about transfats and nor enough to require that information about them be displayed on food packaging, both measures which are positive a pro-consumer health without interfering in choices. Now, they are calling for the government to ban them altogether (src).This morning, they have decided that it is not sufficient to warn pregnant women about the risks of smoking to their unborn children: midwives should be given smoking breath-test kits and instructed to test pregnant women to see if they are smoking (src). To their credit, the Royal College of Midwives has pointed out that Nice's proposals are a wasteful use of resources and that it is more productive to help pregnant women in a way which is not perceived to be judgmental or unsupportive.Previously, they have also proposed lowering the drink-drive limit and minimum pricing for alcohol, and the impression is given that we can expect Nice to step up its highly authoritarian campaign to tell the entire British public what they can and cannot do with their bodies.The public health section of Nice is clearly an unreconstructed part of the nanny state by which the previous Labour government attempted to control our choices. It also forms a part of the unpleasant spectacle of government lobbying government using taxpayers' money: an authoritarian government wants to pursue a certain, brave course of action but wants 'independent' cover, so a tame, publicly-funded quango magically produces a report advising ministers to do that which they wanted to do in the first place. The Coalition could save some money and make government more open, more transparent and more accountable by abolishing Nice's public health department.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
So… the Tory-Lib Dem coalition budget has raised Vat and cut corporation tax. Very well. And the left is having conniptions. Surprise, surprise. All this I understand. Labour would be having conniptions if the Tories had announced they were going to slaughter high financiers and sell their organs to sort out the deficit, simply because it was the Tories doing it.But here's where I lose the plot. Lower corporation taxes and higher consumption taxes is the tax mix the Swedes have. So the Tories and Lib Dems are making our taxation system more like social democratic Sweden, and the social democrats are having none of it. Did we go through the looking-glass when no-one was looking?
Hattie Garlick (who I keep thinking has walked out of a Sir Pterry book) at Comment Central links to a video showing some clips of Tony Hayward's performance in the Congressional committee recently. The fun starts about forty seconds in:
Hayward was lambasted for disclaiming knowledge of practically everything, so we are told. I thought his hands-in-pockets, whistling, insouciant schoolboy act was uncanny: a pitch for the next Just William film, surely.
(link for Facebook readers.)
(link for Facebook readers.)
'Huh, oil on me hands,' he muttered, darkly. 'I shouldn't think! Jus' sor'a came out, tha's all. An' Jumble enjoyed bein' used as a mop.'Actually, one wouldn't have expected him, and possibly not even his technical advisor, to have known details about mud recirculation in the Macondo well. They have engineers for that sort of thing, and as I understand it, most of BP's American engineers are somewhat busy at present. Something about a local difficulty in the Gulf of Mexico: perhaps the committee had heard a little of it on the news.Well, apparently some people were less impressed. But here's the thing. The news-chappie said Hayward faced the committee for seven hours, and only said 'I don't know' or 'I was not aware' thirty-three times. A mere thirty-three times in seven hours. If I spent seven hours being asked questions about my work, I'd say 'I don't know' a lot more than thirty-three times. And given I'm facing a PhD viva next month, that's less of an idle threat and more of a genuine fear…So Tony Hayward was, I suspect being more helpful than anyone else wanted to admit; the politicians and the media find it more conducive to their purposes to flag up the 'don't knows' rather than the times when he gave a dull but accurate answer. The only other option, you see, is that Hayward was only asked about thirty-three questions. But surely not even Congressmen can be such pompous windbags that it takes them seven hours to ask thirty-three questions? Surely?
Monday, June 21, 2010
The BBC, reporting on pre-Budget reactions (preactions?), tells us:
And Mr Miliband, one of the contenders to be Labour leader, said: "There is a very heavy responsibility on the government here... for this government to put Britain in danger of being a slow-growth Japan style economy is a grave dereliction of duty. (src, 21-Jun-10 14:39)For those counting, that is the first (and only) appearance of 'Mr Miliband' in the article. I don't know if the BBC copywriter has twigged this, what with it not having been the cause of widespread mirth among those who enjoy watching politics, but 'Mr Miliband' is in fact two of the contenders to be Labour leader.Or perhaps they are intending to run for the leadership as a single individual? There is precedent, of a sort.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Afghanistan continues to make the headlines in the UK, as we continue to pay in blood and treasure. Liam Fox was quickly knocked on the head for saying that we are not in Afghanistan 'for the sake of the education policy of a broken thirteenth-century country.' (src) But what about the religious policy?Scott Clark reproduces an open letter written by Afghan converts to Christianity who are currently refugees in India (src), and urges fellow believers to pray for Afghan Christians. Indeed, we should. You may recall the case of Abdul Rahman in 2006 (comment), who was placed on trial for being a Christian and who was eventually granted asylum by Italy. It was then that the dangers of allowing the Afghans to set themselves up as a formal Islamic Republic became apparent.And we read also now that the peace process, which aims to bring the Taliban on-side through talks, could not only have deleterious effects on women's education, but is inducing President Karzai into taking an even harder line on Afghan Christians (src). Our troops are in Afghanistan to defend liberty and all that stuff, so we are told. Does that mean liberty for all Afghans, or only the ones who toe the government's religious line?
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
How regulators get businesses coming, going and standing still:
You’re gouging on your pricesOne does wonder whether people in favour of wage and price controls stop to think about the implications of the full spectrum of their policy prescriptions. Don't charge more, don't charge less, and don't charge the same: actually, what they probably want is 'don't charge'. But that would almost inexorably result in a large amount of 'don't produce'. It would quite certainly result in 'don't produce what people really want'. Of course, 'don't produce' would eventuate in 'don't consume', which to many may still sound attractive, but if one stops to consider it, must put us in danger of 'don't survive'. And that would dampen the mood somewhat.
If you charge more than the rest,
But it’s unfair competition
If you think you can charge less!
A second point that we would make,
To help avoid confusion:
Don’t try to charge the same amount
For that would be collusion.(The Incredible Bread Machine, Grant, R. W.; src)
Monday, June 14, 2010
We've all heard that the new Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which is basically the Treasury forecasting unit hived off out of the Treasury and away from the meddling influence of ministers, has downgraded the growth forecasts for the next few years (src). It remains to be seen whether the OBR is any better at predicting the economy than, well, a chimp with a dartboard. I suspect the chimp is currently beating the aggregate of economists.But there's worse news. The OBR has downgraded the deficit from £166bn to £155bn. Which is bad news, because that means that the economy is £11bn smaller than it could have been. That's how it works, right, if you're a Labour party economics spokesman?For example, Alistair Darling is claiming that if the government cuts spending too quickly then we could go into a double dip recession. Ah, but then he's simultaneously maintaining that this reduction in borrowing shows Labour was being sensible. But he can't have it both ways. Either borrowing money is necessary, and coming up £11bn short is dangerous, or else borrowing money is unnecessary, and cutting spending is a good thing.Which is it to be?
Sunday, June 13, 2010
I sometimes feel as if what we need most is a sense of proportion in our presentation of the truth; a new sense of where the center of gravity in the gospel lies; a return to the ideal of Paul who determined not to know anything among the Corinthians save Jesus Christ and him crucified. This does not mean that every sermon which we preach must necessarily be what is technically called an evangelistic sermon. There may be frequent occasions when to do that would be out of place and when a discourse on some ethical or apologetic or social topic is distinctly called for. But whatever topic you preach on and whatever text you choose, there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.(Vos, G. Grace and Glory, ch. 12, link)That second sentence is critical. Too often we interpret the call for Christ-centred preaching as a call for more evangelistic preaching. Not necessarily: but a sermon cannot be called 'Christian' if its overall message would still hold had Jesus not died and risen. Which is what Vos is saying in that fourth and final sentence.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I've been reluctant to discuss the BP oil spill, not least because I have an interest as a small shareholder. Clearly, this is first and foremost a tragedy for the families of the eleven BP employees who lost their lives. Then it is a danger to the lives and livelihoods of people living on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It also poses the risk of an environmental disaster in the region.BP was clearly trying to get this under control, and independent experts are agreed that the only long-term resolution of the spill will be to siphon off excess oil through relief wells. Work on those began two weeks after the initial accident (src), which was likely about as soon as was practical. In the interim, BP was trying expensive and risky measures to stem the flow of oil, none of which sadly proved able to do more than slow the problem temporarily.That said, BP's attempts to represent its actions to the public have clearly not gone well. Their estimates of the damage being done were woefully understated. Running a live camera feed from the wellhead was, to put it mildly, a pretty inane thing to do. Tony Hayward might have benefited from taking advice on how to sounds less characteristically British when speaking to an angry American media.However, the pitchfork-waving, bandwagon-rolling crowd who want to make BP the villain, because the oil industry is an easy target for anyone, are missing another villainous actor on the stage. The behaviour of the United States government is becoming increasingly outrageous.Firstly, the administration has been keen to emphasise the Britishness of BP, as though this were nothing to do with the United States' regulatory regime or decisions. But the truth is very different. The ubiquitous, American firm Halliburton was involved in the running of the Deepwater Horizon, for a start, as was the Swiss Transocean, from whom the rig was leased by BP. It is not simply a case of British, or even generically foreign, malfeasance.But it gets worse. It is not entirely clear why the United States president has taken the view that he is entitled to run BP's dividend policy (src). Nor why he has taken the view that BP should pay the salaries of Chevron workers laid off as a result of regulatory tightening (src). He is making the United States into a dangerous place for the oil industry to do business, which is bad news for the United States, bad news for anyone with a car, and bad news for pension funds, especially British ones. Obama is contriving to deliver a shock to an economy which needs growth, and bad news to one which needs good news.So why is he directing so much fury at everyone except the United States government? How about this: the United States refused the help of no fewer than thirteen governments, including the United Kingdom, and the United Nations (src). The administration declared that it was able to cope using American resources and American skills, and is now finding that it cannot. This is doubly distressing, as it transpires that the world experts in oil spill clean-up are located — somewhat incredibly — in Belgium (src).The United States government's own response has not been pitch-perfect, and questions need to be asked of them. But so long as the public is willing to let their anger be played by the White House, and to let themselves be carried along in a fit of righteous indignation against a single company, the things which need to be done to resolve the problem will not be done.So, it is make-your-mind-up time. Do we enjoy making the oil industry the villain of the piece, because they are the easy target and always have been? Or do we acknowledge that in accidents like these, faults are sufficiently abundant to be shared around everyone? Because if desperate attempts to deflect criticism are a sign of a bad conscience, the truth is that Obama comes out looking far more shifty than BP.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
The Guardian reports:
Church poster showing Jesus in the womb criticised as seeming 'pro-life'The Christmas billboard campaign has drawn fire from secularists and praise from the anti-abortion lobby (src)Gosh, yes, because running an advert related to the politically-charged subject of abortion would be unacceptable, wouldn't it. Unless it's from a group which consistently advises women to abort and campaigns in favour of abortion, in which case it's all hunky-dory and no-one is allowed to criticise. Even though the group itself claims its advert is for 'abortion services' (src). Hypocrisy, thy name is militant atheism.Actually, neither advert is directly about abortion. That's not to say that if the NSS want to declare that abortion is inconsistent with Christian morality I shall either disagree or try to stop them: far from it. But if the Marie Stopes advert was legitimate, and I think it was, then the churches' advert cannot possibly be illegitimate.
The Establishment's dirty secret just leaked out: David Cameron has just said at PMQs that, in his words, 'elections used to be determined by a handful of civil servants in the Home Office; now there's a vast bureaucracy.' And we all thought they were determined by the British public…What, out of context? Me? Never!
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
One of the hobbies I have is playing board games, from a selection which swings beyond the usual family fare of Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble (although I do enjoy the latter two). I thought I'd provide a review of a game I've played a couple of times now, called Stone Age (link).The idea is that you are managing a village or tribe of primitive humans, and each turn, your people are able to carry out various actions to gather resources, to hunt food, to improve your tribe's technology or population, and to progress on the road towards civilisation. As you do so, you gain victory points, and points mean prizes. (First prize is this lovely wheel. The corners are especially sharp.)Gathering proceeds by assigning your limited pool of tribespeople to tasks, and then rolling dice according to the number of tribespeople. The total roll is then integer-divided by the difficulty of the task (food is the easiest to acquire, gold the hardest) and the resources taken. Tribespeople can also be assigned to use resources to construct buildings for victory points, or to develop civilisation cards, which come with points bonuses and immediate aids to the tribe's progress.One warning relates to something which tickles a perverse part of my sense of humour: I know it oughtn't, and I think this decision by the designer is a shame, but I cannot help finding it rather amusing, too. One mightn't have thought this possible, but Stone Age is genuinely vegan-unfriendly (and possibly vegetarian-unfriendly): it comes with a dice cup made from real leather. I'm sure the large numbers of Peta readers I have attracted will be glad to have heard this before rushing out to buy.Nevertheless, if you don't have scruples over buying a leather cup, you may very well find it a fun game. It has no direct aggression between players: the worst you can do to someone else is take up the last slot of an activity they wished to pursue, which is almost always accidental. The dice give an element of randomness, but this is what I would call 'managed luck', as you have a couple of ways of influencing the likelihood of doing well.The game is recommended for two to four players, aged ten and above, and for those who consider such things, it presents useful opportunities to learn about managing luck, and about assessing the benefits of actions relative to each other.
Monday, June 07, 2010
The way the Labour party leadership contest is currently panning out, the main candidates are all sounding quite negative on immigration. Ed Balls is slowly revealing his inner skinhead (some of us have perceived the tendency for a long time), Andy Burnham is immigrant-negative, and the Miliblands are seeking to close the doors now that their parents are safely ensconced. (John McDonnell is simply silly, and Diane Abbott would be about as wonderful an electoral gift to the Tories as Balls.)By contrast, the Lib Dems and Tories have been far more open about the benefits which immigrants have brought, both economically and socially. Balls' rhetoric, which is simply not backed up by the facts, was not the rhetoric even of Cameron prior to the election.So the question is simple: who's the nasty party?
Friday, June 04, 2010
Useless pedantry alert.The BBC website, at the time of writing, was carrying the following headline:
Star owner 'wants to buy the Sun'Surely this is megalomania of quite literally astronomical proportions?Or, possibly, does the editor mean 'The Sun' rather than 'the Sun'? What a difference a capital letter makes…
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Alex Massie strikes a hit, a very palpable hit in this blogpost (link), where he points out that the campaigners who want to cap the demographic figures either have to accept increasingly illiberal measures in order to control the population, or else to accept increasing impoverishment as the balance of the population tilts increasingly towards the elderly and infirm.Another way to keep immigration numbers under control is to make the country unattractive to immigrant workers. Turn the place into a living nightmare, with the four horsemen of the apocalypse given free rein, that sort of thing. Send the country to the dogs. That'll decrease immigration and keep the numbers under control.Of course, it's possibly a little counter-productive. But it's the logical conclusion of a cap on numbers: such a policy would make us all poorer and less free. On the other hand, letting go of control and leaving the numbers to fall out as they will is the way to make all of us better off, happier, and freer, both resident and immigrant. So which is more patriotic: to support a policy which makes British people poorer and less free, or one which makes us all better off and freer?
We have abolished it in the UK once already. When the universities had Parliamentary representation, Oxford, Cambridge, Combined English and Combined Scottish were all entitled to more than one seat (e.g.). They used to be elected using a block vote mechanism, but the Representation of the People Act 1918 changed the mechanism to the Single Transferable Vote. When the seats were abolished in 1950 following the Representation of the People Act 1948, Westminster STV died with them.Curiously, the university seats which retained a single member retained the first-past-the-post system and did not change to the alternative vote, the system to which STV reduces in a single-member constituency.The reason the university constituencies died was, of course, that we wished to defend more rigorously the principle of 'one person, one vote': nevertheless, it is an interesting historical curiosity that in addition to multi-member constituencies, which were common in the nineteenth century, we have already had, and already scrapped, the single transferable vote.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Scott Sumner has a brilliant post on fallacies of the left and the right (link, via). I encourage you to read it. One addition I would make is that his second 'fallacy' of the right, 'Denmark and Sweden are socialist countries' (and yes, it really is untrue), is equally well a fallacy of the left.Lefties assume that because Sweden and Denmark have all the wondrous social harmony stuff they dig as cool 'n' groovy, it therefore follows that Sweden and Denmark have followed their favoured policy prescriptions to get there. Allow me to grace the notion with a sound effect: .Actually, the Nordics are able to afford their extremely expensive welfare state (and they do have a massive welfare state) because their economic model is very dog-eat-dog. Famously, the Swedish government recently refused to intervene in the sale of Saab, and limited its involvement to guaranteeing a loan from the European Investment Bank: this in stark contrast to the 'capitalist' United States which took over large chunks of its own automobile industry.On taxation, Swedish tax rates are very dissimilar to the UK's, but not entirely in the ways which you might think. Figures for this section come from a Eurostat publication (pdf). They do, it is true, have an overall tax burden which was in '06 48.9% of GDP, in comparison with the UK's relatively stable 37.4%: so we have lower taxes in aggregate.However, the burden falls very differently. The implicit tax rate on consumption in Sweden was 28.1%, compared with the UK's 18.5%. On labour, the difference was even more marked: Sweden's 44.5% to the UK's 25.5%. Meanwhile, the implicit tax rates on capital (in '02, when the last figures were available for Sweden) were 29.5% (SE) to 37.1% (UK).Swedish direct taxes on labour are not vastly more than the UK's: a bit, but not much. It is clear enough that in the UK, the taxes on labour fall mostly directly; in Sweden, mechanisms akin to our own employer NI take most of the strain. Swedish employees see very little of the tax that they pay, because it never even goes onto their payslip. Meanwhile, consumption is taxed more heavily, something which British lefties dislike because, apparently, VAT is mildly regressive — although I had thought most of them were against the VAT cut because it is mildly progressive, which is confusing. And capital taxes are noticeably lower, although also more regularised: dividends and capital gains are taxed at the same rate, but overall the rates are lower.There are two stories here. The first story is that the Nordic governments are dashed efficient at what they do. If you gave an Anglosphere government the same level of taxation, you would get nowhere near the output of the Nordic governments.But the second story is as I said earlier. It is that Sweden is nothing like the socialist utopia lefties make it out to be: and it's nothing like the socialist hell-hole that righties make it out to be, either.