Saturday, October 30, 2010
When it comes to matters of security and intelligence, it is hard for me to believe in coincidences. Nevertheless, in this instance I suppose we ought: a couple of days ago, bosses at both British Airways and the British airports operator, BAA, were commenting on the unnecessary and intrusive security measures which have been progressively introduced at our airports, ostensibly to make us, the travelling public, safer.On Friday's Any Questions?, responding to these comments, Peter Hitchens was deliciously fulminatory in tone, attacking the security-political complex (my term, not his) for its desire to impose ever greater burdens on us and ever more demeaning procedures, all in the name of counter-terrorism, but which in truth cause more terror and do more harm than a bunch of beardy nutters  ever could. It was the very first question, and his was the very first answer: I recommend you listen to it, if you have not yet (link).We awoke this morning to hear that a plot to blow up planes by putting bombs through the international post had been foiled (src). (The addressee was a synagogue in Chicago. We can only presume that a plan to post bombs to synagogues in Manchester was called off after the plotters realised that it was 50-50 at best that the Royal Mail would not deliver them to a mosque by accident.) Is this a reason to discount the opinions of the airline and airports chiefs?Not at all. The intrusions remain as intrusive, and the pointless inspections remain as pointless. Most of these plots are foiled long before they arrive at the airport: only a tiny proportion actually get to the screening section of the terminal. I would hazard to guess that of the proportion of plots which get to the airport, a comparatively large proportion get through, precisely because all the real work is done before plotters get to the airport.In other words, the security measures at airports are more for show than for safety. And what do they show? Police with submachineguns don't make me, or most British citizens, feel any safer: almost uniquely in the Western world, we prefer our police to be unarmed. And 'porn scanners', which can electronically strip-search someone without removing any clothes, are not devices designed to enhance human dignity. No, the show is a show of force by the security-political complex over the public at large. The greatest irony, perhaps, is that by locating all our security in an overweening state, we destroy all our security by placing all those eggs in a single basket. Security policy at present is anti-democratic and illiberal, and we should be clear in saying so.And just as with previous plots, so also with this one. How was it foiled? By a tip-off to an SIS officer from a local, and presumably trusted, source (src). Not by scanning every piece of ail which passed through the border. Not by trying to listen to every conversation in the Middle East. Not by any of the high-profile and intrusive measures which our lords and masters wish to use, but by good, old-fashioned intelligence work, cultivating sources, using assets, assessing tip-offs, and acting sensibly.I much prefer the old way of keeping us safe over the new way of putting us at the mercy of the government. Having realised this could be ambiguous, I should clarify that I do not mean the Liberal Democrats. Although until May, no-one suspected that that particular rabble of beardy nutters would ever be capable of doing much damage to the UK either.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Paul Helm, writing on the Reformed distinction between the roles of the church and the state, tells me something which I certainly never knew. Having speculated on the possibility of Ryle's political Liberalism, which would be very interesting in an Anglican, I discover that Spurgeon had evident political leanings:
It is uncalled-for for the church to take any particular political stance, just as it was impudent and out of order for C.H. Spurgeon to advise his hearers at the Metropolitan Tabernacle to vote Liberal at a forthcoming election. What has that to do with him? As a minister of the gospel, it was none of his business. (src)Spurgeon really was a supporter of the Liberals, and even an activist, engaged in that most traditional of Liberal political activities: leafleting (src). I agree with Helm that commending the Liberals and attacking Disraeli from the pulpit was an abuse of the position, and I would encourage Christian readers especially to read Helm's whole post as it is an excellent summary of the issues at stake. Nevertheless, from an historical perspective it is quite nice to discover that the Prince of Preachers was also a firm Liberal and a political admirer of Mr. Gladstone's.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
I have a shocking revelation. But in order to get there, I have to relay something which Caroline Lucas came out with on this week's Question Time. It goes like this.Apparently, we can't sack 490,000 civil servants because it will cost more in terms of lost tax revenue and unemployment benefits than it would raise in terms of salaries lost. She may also be counting in some second-round effects in terms of VAT on spending and so on, but of course there would be second-round effects from spent unemployment benefit so it probably isn't a fair comparison to count in the second round.In any case, surely this cannot be right, if you consider the implied microeconomic situation. For if the government saves net salary but loses unemployment benefit and the total is negative, then the employee's calculation is identical but with a minus sign attached: in other words, the employee would be better off being sacked and going onto benefits. Of course, in the famed 490,000 there may be some for whom this is not true; but if Lucas is right, then there must be a great number for whom it most certainly does hold. But then, what to make of the fact that we do not see masses of public servants spontaneously deciding that they would be better off out of work?This enjoins upon us a choice. Either Caroline Lucas' economics is wonky, or as many as 490,000 public servants are deeply irrational, or both. The shocking conclusion is that, on the basis of Occam's Razor (and past performance), I am willing to make a charitable assumption of the half million, and question the economic prowess of the individual. Yes folks, the shock conclusion is that Caroline Lucas is not the world's most trustworthy source for matters economic.
Friday, October 22, 2010
One of the more topsy-turvy aspects of our political discourse is the way in which the trade unions can manage to make themselves sound about as out-of-touch as the worst of the nineteenth-century industrial barons. For example, Iain Duncan Smith made the eminently reasonable point that people who are out of work may have to move house to find it. The unions' response has been ferocious. Here is Len McCluskey of Unite:
While Iain Duncan Smith has been presented as the Government's Mister Nice, he cannot shake off the vicious Tory determination to make the poor suffer. (src)Naturally, they raise the spectre of Norman Tebbit. But the content of what Smith and Tebbit said (as opposed to the framing of it) is not only entirely reasonable, but desirable. To demonstrate this, let me put it another way, which I think may be more congenial to a left-wing mindset. Please note, there is no difference of analysis, content or implied policy proposals here: merely a different way of framing the same problem."One of the benefits that the middle classes enjoy is the ability to move to where there is work for them. Through a moderately flexible housing market and demand for professional skills, you can find girls from Canterbury working in Scotland and guys from Tyneside working in the City. A part of the poverty trap is that poorer people do not move to where the work is, and thus they find themselves caught in a cycle of out-of-work benefits when they could be in employment."The question we need to address is why they do not move as often: is it fundamentally a lack of ambition or a lack of assistance? Knowing the answer to that, what is the best way for public services to be formed so as to enable and encourage poorer people to use and enjoy something like the ability that the middle classes have to move to where the work is?"You see, opposing worker mobility, as the unions and some other left-wingers do almost unthinkingly, is truly reactionary. It is they who say 'Know your place' to the poor, by telling them that their 'place' is stuck in a council house on the dole, rather than encouraging them to look for a place with a job. Whereas we say we don't know what their place is, but we certainly hope it is somewhere far better than to be left on the scrapheap of benefits dependency.Not only is it reactionary, but it is also hypocritical: for how many of the screeching unionists benefited from labour market mobility? Almost all, I would expect. Most of the work in London. Most of them have regional accents. They enjoy salaries far higher than their parents. They enjoy salaries far higher than the industries which they left to become trade unionists! They have benefited from mobility, and they would deny it to others?And it is also counter-productive, since labour mobility and prosperity both personal and in aggregate, are broadly correlated. Which society is the more prosperous: the medieval, agrarian society where most of the population is legally bound to one farm, or the modern society where people can move to find work to which they are best suited? And when the Industrial Revolution, which is arguably the great source of our wealth, arrived, what happened to labour market mobility in the UK?Opponents of extending labour market mobility down to those who currently do not take advantage of it are reactionary, hypocritical and counter-productive. Well, I think that just about covers it.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The Telegraph reports,
Every email, phone call and website visit is to be recorded and stored after the Coalition Government revived controversial Big Brother snooping plans (src)I can't say I disagreed with those who predicted that eventually some of the worst policies from the Home Office vampire would be back in business under the Coalition. I must confess to having expected it to come rather closer to the end of the parliament than this. I think we can hold the government's feet to the fire on this one: the Lib Dems are meant to be Parliament's civil-libertarian conscience, and the Coalition agreement mentions the issue quite explicitly. If you have a Government MP, and lots of us will, write to them.
Monday, October 18, 2010
That's all I really have to say about Bruno Prior's piece at the IEA blog today (src). He needs to distinguish 'efficient' from 'less inefficient', and he perhaps needs to bear in mind why we fund education for children. After all, if it were purely a matter of economic efficiency, we wouldn't do that, either: but we recognise that there are some benefits to having educated children which go beyond pure economics, and so we pay. We pay for every child (in principle) because the education is compulsory.On the other hand, not every young person goes to university, so it is right that they should eventually bear some or much of the cost. But since there are benefits to having a decent number of university graduates beyond the purely economic, we subsidise an element of that cost. The Browne Review is quite a good way to provide this subsidy while ensuring that graduates bear most of the costs themselves in a fair way.All of which goes to show that we want nuance in thinking through these issues. Because while issues of allocative efficiency are always present and must be borne in mind while structuring policy, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in a purely economistic philosophy.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Because it would be a major mistake:
To make the shrinking business more attractive, the state will take over Royal Mail's £8bn pension black hole, assuming the fund's future liabilities of £34bn, but gaining assets of £26bn, which may be sold off to reduce the budget deficit.As I say, I hope the Indy is at fault here. Because, although I fear in this instance it is unlikely, the prospect is that someone in the government is not thinking clearly about how you manage public sector liabilities and pensions.Firstly, the accounting position is not clear. Not everyone counts in pensions (assets and liabilities), but if you do (and I would argue you ought), as a liability of a fully state-owned enterprise it probably ought already have been accounted for. So it wouldn't really have changed hands at all.Secondly, if you count in the pension assets, you should certainly count in the liabilities. It's no good setting money aside and counting it on your balance sheet to meet a certain obligation, but then conveniently forgetting to put the obligation on the other side of the balance sheet.Thirdly, even if you do this very dodgy manouevre of counting the assets but not the liabilities, you don't do much for the deficit by flogging off the assets: this would be a one-off bonus, rather than a reduction which recurs year to year. There would be some recurring effects as interest payments would be lowered, but on the other side the assets' income would be foregone. If the government suppressed its issue of gilts by £26bn at 2.2% interest, and sold £26bn of FTSE100 trackers to do this (for the sake of approximation), then the dividends lost would exceed the interest saved by some £260mn per annum — and dividends go up over time.Fourthly and finally, selling the assets would entail the government (in effect) selling some stocks and shares and buying gilts. This is not normally considered the most effective deployment of pension funds over the long term. I don't advocate the government borrowing to invest in the stock market as a general rule, but when it comes to public-sector occupational pensions, these should be funded: I know, for example, that this is true of the Teachers' Pension Scheme and the Universities' Superannuation Scheme. It is sensible for the Royal Mail pension scheme to be funded through assets which will generate a decent return, as opposed to effectively sinking the fund into gilts.Over all, I do hope that this is not the plan. Sticking another £34bn of unfunded pension liabilities onto the taxpayer's books, and doing so by selling productive assets in order to buy gilts, would be an incredibly dopey way to handle the public finances in what are tough circumstances.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Earlier on in the year, when Ireland was engaged in stark measures to cut its deficit in the face of market discipline, the left was telling us all that it was profoundly unfair to compare the UK's situation with Ireland's, as we have our own currency, we are a much larger economy, we are more diversified and so on. If a right-winger said that Ireland demonstrated the dangers of failing to come clean and engage honestly with the issue of expenditures exceeding revenues, some left-winger could be relied upon to tell the waiting world that the comparison was intellectually unjustifiable.And now?
Pointing to the Irish Republic's descent back towards recession, [Alan Johnson] said: "We don't have to look far to see what the effect can be of cutting too deep too soon." (src)Never mind, of course, that Ireland's problem is almost certainly that they have had to fire yet more rounds of hard cash into their banks, causing their deficit for this year to balloon again. Never mind that this demonstrates that the austerity side of the argument remains correct. Just focus on this: while Ireland was thought to show our side of the argument was correct, it was an unjustifiable comparison; now that Ireland can be argued to be evidence in their favour, the comparison is suddenly legitimate. Curious, isn't it?
Members of the public, when questioning policies aimed at permitting greater involvement by local communities in their schools, hospitals, police forces and so on, can frequently be heard declaring that it is the government's responsibility to educate their children, or to heal the sick, etc.It is not.Legally, and I would argue morally, it is and has ever remained the responsibility of the parents to educate their children. There is a reason why teachers are described as acting in loco parentis, after all: when the children are attending school, parents have delegated their responsibility to the teacher; at no point have they handed it over to politicians. I should think that the thought of a lot of dull MPs in close proximity to their little darlings would give even the hardiest of parents a nervous breakdown.Politicians are actually responsible for very little: merely ensuring that every parent can procure for their child an education of a standard with which they are satisfied. That is to say, with which the parent is satisfied, although since we are paying, taxpayers have a right to set some fairly broad and minimal standards as well. Similar terms apply to other services which are funded by the taxpayer, and if we bore this in mind, we would save ourselves an awful lot of political grief.Putting it that way reminds me of a nice quote, defending the thesis that the government doesn't need to run schools or hospitals. It was John Stuart Mill who once wrote,
If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. (On Liberty, ch. 5; src)
Sunday, October 10, 2010
I can't say I'll shed any tears for the policy (src). To be honest, it was a bit of a mystery why Liberal Democrats supported it in the first place: the graduate tax proposal was mathematically equivalent to the current system, with fees taken to be "infinite". As Nicola Dandridge of UUK, answering public suggestions, put it, "In my view the current system has many of the advantages - without some of the major disadvantages - of a graduate tax." (src) I really cannot see how one could oppose a higher cap on fees, but support (in effect) taking the cap off altogether, without some horrendous inconsistency.The other suggestion which sounds likely to make it to the light of day is charging higher earners a higher rate of interest on their loans, subsidising the loans made to students who go on to become lower earners. I would want to see some details before declaring myself entirely happy with such a system, but in principle I can see its benefits. It sounds like the government's universities policy is going in broadly the right direction.
Saturday, October 09, 2010
A nightmare scenario occurred to me today. Imagine living under a regime which insisted that all accounts, whether business or personal, had to be administered by a nationalised accountant. You couldn't have an immediate overview of your financial situation: instead, you have to go to a nationalised accounting service with all of your receipts and payslips, all your bank statements and invoices, and then a bean-counter, paid from the public purse, will produce a set of accounts for you.It would probably take rather a long time to get around to producing a set of accounts for you. If a wait of a few months were fine, then you may just about be content, but if you were in trouble with a credit card and needing urgently to review your personal accounts, it could be an expensive proposition.And the advice you would get from such an accountant would probably be distinctly unhelpful, if you were lucky enough to get it. For instance, he may very well try to advise you on how to maximise your tax liability. He wouldn't much care about whether he could identify areas of over-spending, or ways of increasing your earnings. He may very well not even have the expertise to tell you how you could improve sales or manage your overhead more effectively. But you don't get a choice: your accountant is chosen for you, remember. Of course, it's "free" — which is to say, paid for generally rather than specifically — but it's rotten.Did I call it a nightmare? Just think about how GPs' surgeries and PCTs relate to each other. Or how schools and LEAs relate to each other. If they have no choice about accounts and management expertise, is it any wonder that the public finances are a waking nightmare?
Saturday, October 02, 2010
While I'm on the subject, spot the similarity between the two sentences:
Many people found the resulting film extremely funny, but unfortunately some didn't and we sincerely apologise to anybody we have offended. (src)I can understand how our inclusion of Joel Osteen’s book in our stores may not please some people, but many people claim these books are helpful in their Christian journey. (src: private communication)Readers who know me in person may be able to guess at the provenance of the latter sentence. In both cases, the person wants to portray the complainant as part of a minority, a way to set themselves in the majority. I'm hardly a rampant postmodernist, but even I can see that this is a simple play for power using words: 'I have many people on my side; you only have some.' It doesn't matter that the video was clearly a dopey thing to put out, or that Joel Osteen's books are so devoid of any distinctively Christian content that even Wikipedia lists his major book as 'Self Help' (src): 'many' are on our side, but 'some' are on yours. And so even some Christian bookshops now appear to think that truth, taste, decency are all matters of majority vote.The 'many … some …' construction is a wonderful way to puff yourself up and to paint your position as more defensible than really it is. In fact, if you find yourself feeling a need to use it in order to locate yourself in the majority, the odds are that you're the one in the wrong. So let me encourage you, when you apologise (yes, when), not to use it. Apologise graciously, rather than attempting to justify your position by the back door.
You know: green on the outside, red on the inside. (Viewers of a sensitive disposition are warned that this video features supposedly 'comic' gore.)
I'm waiting for them to produce a version where dissidents are forced to walk to their new homes in Siberian camps, where they must work without electricity or labour-saving devices. Because that would be humorous too, right? The video's publishers, 10:10, retracted it shortly after its release yesterday (src).Videos of a genuinely alarmist nature have been a staple of the extremer end of the environmental movement for quite some time. You may recall the 'our children are all going to drown!' video that DECC put out a while back. I think they got a rap on the knuckles for that one. But even by the standards of climate change videos it's perhaps going rather too far to start blowing up dissenters. The context determines how a message is received, and what is acceptable in a Monty Python film does not translate at all well into a campaign video. One might have thought that a successful television comedy writer would be aware of that kind of issue, but there we go.The underlying message is also not pretty. I don't know enough about the theories of comedy, but I know that all forms of communication aim to deliver some kind of truth, or truth-as-we-perceive-it-to-be. I don't think a viewer would be being unreasonable, or particularly uncharitable, if she concluded that 10:10 believes anyone dissenting from their view of climate change deserves some kind of punishment. Perhaps she would be inaccurate, but she can hardly be blamed for a reasonable conclusion drawn from their publication.And so what purpose does this kind of crass output serve? It perhaps amuses some of those who are already fully sold on the watermelon environmental ideology, but it alienates blue greens and environmental capitalists. If they were as concerned about the environment as they claim, they would be less keen to alienate friends and co-belligerents from other political stables, and rather keener to find ways to reach out with a message which is underneath it all not unhelpful, environmentally: you can change things in your own life. Moreover, it gives succour to those who want to argue that the whole thing is a huge scam perpetrated on the rest of us by scientists eager for government funding.It is completely counter-productive, and it is a shame that 10:10 could only bring themselves to acknowledge that it 'offended' some people. The offence hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. What they should be really concerned about are (a) the implied view of dissenters which the video attributes to them, (b) the alienation of potential friends and co-belligerents, and (c) the undermining effect that it has on their overall case. None of those things appears to have registered with them yet.
Friday, October 01, 2010
Rawls would clearly vote Conservative, but for the wrong reason.Another interesting thought experiment is to think about what would happen if the income distribution were acted on by a process with one of these profiles indefinitely.
Let me commend Amol Rajan's reflections in the Independent on Burke's liberal-conservative legacy (src), and how his writings are the best touchstone for the current government: from the "Big Society" to the "little platoons", with a rhetoric which focusses on what we will leave to future generations. Along the way he makes several very good points, noting environmentalists' unwitting dependence on Burke and how a Burkean government would be suspicious of any claim to be philosophically grounded even in Burke.However, he does manage, I think, to spoil it on one point: Burke's opposition to the French Revolution, and particularly the Jacobins. Rajan writes,
Five "great, just and honourable causes" were the object of his devotion – not four, as David Marquand, the brilliant Left historian, put it in a superb essay for Prospect last week. First, the emancipation of the Commons from George III and the "King's friends"; second, the emancipation of Ireland; third, the emancipation of the American colonies; fourth, the emancipation of India from the corrupt and venal East India Company; and fifth, opposition to the Jacobinism of the French Revolution. In all but the final case, he was, in other words, clearly on the side of the oppressed, and against tyranny, colonialism, and the exercise of arbitrary power.I'm just not sure we can criticise, as Rajan appears to, Burke's opposition to the French Revolution (and, contrariwise, I don't think we should excuse Paine's defence of it). Even if it stuck out relative to his other positions, it doesn't seem clear that we should treat it (as Rajan does) as an outlier. For as Rajan goes on to say,
Warning that the new regime had destroyed something precious in French society, and would unleash horrors then unknown, his book was an immediate best-seller.Now, Burke was writing in 1790. Maybe I need only say the name «Robespierre» to conjure up the scenes which followed during la Terreur three years later; and even after the Revolution, the French were left with Napoleon. Given that Burke's direst warnings appeared to be fulfilled, would it not be safer to conclude that he had very good reasons to be profoundly sceptical of the French Revolution?