Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Taiwanese animated summaries of news events have become something of an Internet meme. Naturally, this makes me reluctant to post them here. However, one which was produced on the Irish situation made me laugh for one good reason: watch out for the entirely gratuitous Father Ted reference at the end.
(For those who aren't aware of the reference, you can see the relevant scene here.)
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Reuben Rosenberg at Third Estate makes a point, a very salient point, in attacking Nick Clegg's defence of government policy. Clegg pointed to NHS spending as an example of spending which goes mostly to poorer people and thus mitigates the effects of benefits cuts. Rosenberg writes,
The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to excersise [sic] a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed. (src)He is quite right: cash is special, because autonomy matters. Spending decisions which you make for yourself, with advice and help where appropriate, are generally better than decisions made by someone else for you. So why not roll up the welfare state, lock, stock and barrel, into a single cash payment to be used as the recipient sees fit?So if you would prefer to supplement the portion of the money which used to be 'NHS' with some of your own for you healthcare then you have that choice. Or maybe you want to go cheaper and put the money into a pension or use it to save up for a house. I don't know about you, you don't know about me, and no-one in Westminster or Whitehall knows about either of us. By making the spending decision on all our behalfs, the government does not allow us the personal financial flexibility and power over our own lives which Reuben clearly wants us to have.Of course, the government is not proposing this as a plan of action. But the Universal Credit is a weakened form of this thinking applied to other areas of welfare, and thus the same argument applies to it as to the idea of giving us our own NHS budget back. In other words, Reuben's argument against Nick Clegg's defence of the government's policies leads us, I would argue, to a deeper appreciation of what the Coalition government is aiming to do with its benefits policy and also a better understanding of how it could, and perhaps should, go further.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
After downloading a programme to watch through the BBC's iPlayer last night, I noticed that my computer had mysteriously lost a lot of free hard disk space over the past few months. I just spent the morning weeding out a load of programs (games, mostly) that I no longer use and freed up about 10GB before finding, on going to defragment, that the culprit was in fact none other than iPlayer itself.It stores videos in 'My Documents\My Videos\BBC iPlayer\repository\', and I found 11.8GB of old television programmes lying around which iPlayer had decided it wasn't going to bother deleting. I couldn't watch any of them, of course, but that did explain the mystery of the disappearing hard disk space, and they were deleted forthwith, with no ill effects on iPlayer's running. If you're watching telly through iPlayer, it may be worth checking that it hasn't done the same thing to you.[EDIT: Thanks to Mr Potarto in the comments who recommended a slightly different piece of software, I discovered Scanner (link), which is an absolutely tiny bit of freeware. It tots up and displays your folders in their various sizes on a 'sunburst' chart, kind of like a pie chart but then with sub-folders displayed at higher radii. I squeezed another 8GB out by using it to find my large folders and then deciding what I could painlessly lose.]
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I'm currently reading Ben Graham's Intelligent Investor, and he makes the point, not often enough made, that even expert businessmen and financial analysts are not always able consistently to pick winners. The application to government's inability to pick winners should be obvious: if the experts cannot be consistent, what hope politicians?Today, as if we need it, here is another example, courtesy of the BBC:
Millions of taxpayers' money has been funnelled into projects that did not seemingly take on board the the fact that hydrogen power would remain costly and polluting for some time to come. (src)I could have told them that. But government is government, and politicians are not exactly the world's experts at running businesses. (If they were, they'd be doing that, rather than politics.) Of course government can pick winners, in much the same way as a stopped clock can be right. But in neither case would you triumphantly declare that the mechanism was in sound working order. Better to leave the picking of winners to people who are risking real money, often their own: they still get it wrong from time to time, but there is a very great incentive on them not to.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Pestowire can exclusively reveal that:
Britain's biggest banks are talking to each about whether and how they can reduce the total amount of bonuses they would pay in the upcoming bonus season. (src)Left-wingers will, no doubt be jumping up and down with glee. But wait a minute, isn't this a conspiracy of capitalists to deprive the workers of the fruits of their labours? Isn't this akin to the kind of thing Smith had in mind when he warned about men of a business meeting together? I mean, I don't mind all that much: I hold shares in a British bank and wouldn't mind more of the earnings staying my pocket rather lining a banker's, if all else remains the same. But I predict that you will find the unions fighting the capitalists' corner on this one against the employees. A curious alliance, if ever there was one.Meanwhile, in better news, Unilever has announced that it will be putting social and environmental responsibility at the heart of its agenda (src). Of course, it is probably fair for people to file this in the "Believe it when I see it" category, but nevertheless it is encouraging to read ideas like:
change the hygiene habits of 1bn people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to help reduce diarrhoea – the word's second biggest cause of infant mortality. Unilever will push sales of its Lifebuoy soap brand and teach consumers when to wash their hands to achieve this aim.As a shareholder, I quite like the idea that my company will be making a profit by helping people to live healthier lives. It's a better way to earn a crust than killing them, that's for sure. But there is a section of society which is fundamentally opposed to turning a profit. Yes, it's the staff, and some of the foaming below-the-line commentators, at the Guardian. In Guardian-land, it is wrong to profit from killing people and it is wrong to profit from helping them to be healthier. Of course, in Guardian-land it is also wrong to make a profit selling newspapers, which explains an awful lot about their corporate accounts.Nevertheless, soap manufacturers need to make money somehow too. Better, surely, to have stable companies which promote good hygiene and make a reasonable profit (where reasonable is defined in the market, not by the Guardian) by producing and selling products which contribute towards that goal. Funny, how profit is often a motive towards doing the right thing. If I were at the Guardian, I wouldn't complain too hard. People might just become bankers, instead.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Spiked is not a magazine brimming with love for Christianity or the view of the world which Christians have. However, it can come up with some really quite surprisingly 'Christian' descriptions of some things. Brendan O'Neill, for instance, writing about the old Malthusian error (to which, proving that Christians have ever been wont to get things wrong, Tertullian was an adherent) and its deeply anti-human view of humanity, says this:
This popular depiction of mankind as gorging on nature’s fragile resources is not actually based on scientific fact or hard proof of widespread resource depletion. That is clear from the fact that even water is now included in the list of resources we should use rarely and sparingly – only a mad person could believe that water will ever run out. No, this view is based on a profound, philosophical shift in our attitudes towards ourselves, a shift from viewing humanity as the tamer of the planet and the creator of society, towards viewing humanity as a plague on the planet and the destroyer of our surroundings.It is a spectacularly one-sided view of people. Because we don’t only use resources; we also create them. We are not only consumers; we are also producers. In fact, I would argue that we have realised the potential of this planet. Without us it would just be another ball spinning through space stuffed with useless coal and pointless uranium. We extracted that coal and uranium and made something amazing with it: modern human society. We created the social conditions in which the Earth’s resources could be used to their full potential; we created the means for extracting and transforming those resources; we created cities, workplaces and homes on the back of those resources; and every time, we managed to get more and more stuff from fewer resources and created new resources along the way. (src)It is couched in a lot of the language of the modern atheist, but the idea is as old as Genesis itself: 'Fill the earth and subdue it.' It is a part of human nature at its deepest and oldest to shape the earth from something wild and unruly into something useful and beautiful. For sure, we get it wrong: Genesis 1 is followed by Genesis 3, after all. But we still carry out, in a flawed way, that original mandate as we develop the earth with respect for its own integrity. And as we turn the earth's naturally-occurring substance into useful resources, we are doing what was intended, not despoiling what was perfect. It was 'very good', but it was not unsusceptible of improvement: that was the purpose of humans.As I say, Spiked is hardly an in-house magazine for Christians. But even an old revolutionary Marxist turned techno-libertarian, it seems, still relies on the cultural legacy left by generations of people who believed that we have been made stewards of the earth, to improve it. It would be nice if people in the church realised the assonance between the cultural mandate and this positive vision of humanity's influence on the earth, too.
It is often said that the old joke, 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' was the live issue during the Reformation. Charles Hodge, replying to a general invitation from then Pope Pius IX to a council, explains why it was then and is still now the view of catholic Reformed Christians that the Pope is not catholic. Here is a taster; you can read the whole thing at the Banner of Truth website (src, via):
To Pius the Ninth, Bishop of Rome,By your encyclical letter dated 1869 you invite Protestants to send delegates to the Council called to meet at Rome during the month of December of the current year. That letter has been brought to the attention of the two General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Those Assemblies represent about five thousand ministers and a still larger number of Christian congregations.Believing as we do, that it is the will of Christ that his Church on earth should be united, and recognizing the duty of doing all we consistently can to promote Christian charity and fellowship, we deem it right briefly to present the reasons which forbid our participation in the deliberations of the approaching Council.It is not because we have renounced any article of the catholic faith. We are not heretics. We cordially receive all the doctrines contained in that Symbol which is known as the Apostles' Creed. We regard all doctrinal decisions of the first six ecumenical councils to be consistent with the Word of God, and because of that consistency, we receive them as expressing our faith.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Andre Geim, one of the UK-based physicists who shared this year's Nobel in physics for synthesising and studying graphene (wiki), was interviewed for this month's issue of the Institute of Physics' house publication, Physics World. In the context of the debates about university funding and the response of academics as well as students, I think it may be worth hearing what a Nobel-winning physicist has to say about the place of research and teaching. Geim comments,
The system puts pressure on vice-chancellors to appoint people who are good at research and then teaching becomes a secondary issue. … This forces people who are great teachers — who would rather teach a hundred percent of the time — to try to do quasi-research or whatever it takes. …An immediate and possible solution is to remove incentives for low-ranked universities [in research terms, presumably–PJW] to do research. Instead, such universities need incentives to concentrate on teaching. We should make it economically devastating for such universities to do research. … I do not have any disrespect for people working in low-ranked universities. Indeed, good people working at such universities could benefit from such reforms. People who want to teach could remain, whereas people who want to do research and are good at it would be able to move to top universities to take advantage of greater opportunities there.I think that this is all absolutely spot-on as an analysis of the way the academy's structure is misaligned, and of course it is exceptionally sound economics. Universities should play to their (comparative) advantages. In some, research is easier to produce than in others: so they should be research-led while others should be teaching-led. Presently, the system tries to squeeze every university into a single mould: the output and incentives for research correlate much more strongly, and are remuneratively, then the teaching quality. Only by encouraging universities which want to focus on teaching to respond to student needs, and by staking teaching funding on teaching quality, can the system be placed on a sounder footing.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I notice that at today's spectacle (Streets of Paris, showing in London for one day only), the anarchists were out in force. On some television news reports, the sprayed 'A' could clearly be seen on a building, and the presence of young men in black masks destroying the property of others is normally a dead giveaway.Well, I have a fairly simple confusion, which I'm sure someone can clear up for me. Anarchists are against any and all rulers, including the state. So why are they protesting about government cuts, and protesting in favour of state spending? A proper anarchist, surely, would be rubbing his bomb-throwing hands with glee at the prospect of decreasing the size of the state by whatever means possible. Relatedly, surely the Socialist Workers, alongside whom the anarchists were protesting, must be every bit as offensive to them given that socialists are really very keen on authority structures generally and the state quite particularly. Yet the government, committed to making the state spend less, is attacked while the socialists, committed to making the state vastly bigger, pass untouched.Or perhaps they're not really anarchists at all; just your common-or-garden anti-police thugs spoiling for a fight?
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
I have been meaning to post a list of names for a while: a call of honour, if you like, for the government backbench rebels who voted to force the government to reduce the payroll vote at least in line with the reduction in the number of MPs. (The vote was on the 25th of October.) There were twenty-one rebels: twenty Conservatives and (can you believe this) a single Liberal Democrat. Most of the Tories were what you would call the usual suspects: Carswell, Brady, Davies, Tyrie and so on, but there is at least one high profile new recruit to the benches, Zac Goldsmith, who plucked up the courage to defend the backbenches against the front. The full list is:
Steven Baker (Wycombe, Con)The government's line of defence was that the motion would only force them to do something which they intended to do anyway. Why this was an argument against passing the motion, instead of in favour of passing the motion, I could not quite see. It was defeated by a reasonable majority (290–238), but this was the biggest rebellion the government has yet faced, and on one of the right issues.The House of Commons can easily be smaller: Germany has 622 seats for a population of about 80mn, France has 577 for about 60mn, Italy 630 for about 60mn, and the US of course has 435 for about 310mn. So a reduction to 600 is hardly a great assault on democracy in itself. However, the positive developments in parliamentary democracy have always been a story of asserting parliamentary sovereignty over the executive, whether that executive was monarchical or democratic. The size of the government payroll must be reduced at least in line with the reduction of the House of Commons, and good for the twenty-one government backbenchers who were willing to say so.
Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Con)
Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West, Con)
Douglas Carswell (Clacton, Con)
Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Con)
Philip Davies (Shipley, Con)
Michael Ellis (Northampton North, Con)
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Con)
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Con)
James Gray (North Wiltshire, Con)
Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Con)
Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex, Con)
Anne Main (St Albans, Con)
David Nuttall (Bury North, Con)
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood, Con)
Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle, Con)
Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight, Con)
Andrew Tyrie (Chichester, Con)
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes, Con)
Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Con)
Adrian Sanders (Torbay, LD) (src)
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Chief Exec (ed: Chairman) of Redrow, a listed housebuilder, made the headlines today by blogging out loud during his AGM. He gave investors an ear-warming over practically everything from banks to governments, blaming them for problems in the housing market. I can, however, exclusively suggest an alternative. He said,
Every week we are forced to turn away potential purchasers simply because they do not have a deposit of 25% or more; people with excellent jobs who under normal circumstances would easily qualify for a mortgage. (src)Here's my suggestion: if people can't afford houses at current prices, maybe they need to be cheaper.Not what the bosses of housebuilders want to hear, I guess — and hopelessly unrealistic given that what really costs is planning permission — but all the same, that really is the only long-term solution. After all, even a 5% deposit on the average house now amounts to about £10,000, and a more reasonable figure of 15% is about £30,000. So how about it? Reform planning permission and make housing cheaper. Someone? Anyone?
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Regular readers will know I work in a university. You get to hear some of the ground-level opinion on things from students, including about tuition fees. One student I heard asking his seminar leader to be allowed to change group one week because he was attending a march in London against higher fees. Another commented, "£9,000 a year [tuition fees for Oxbridge]? It's not worth it!"Perhaps not. But if it is not worth it, it isn't worth it whether you are the one paying (eventually) or whether it is other taxpayers whom you are forcing, through the political system, to pay for it. I could understand someone saying, "It's worth it but I cannot afford it: someone else should pay."  However, that was not the position being taken. If you believe that the cost of a degree is not worth it and deduce that someone else should pay for you, surely that is not a position which is morally tenable. I would understand, but disagree. You don't have to have been here long to know that, as a graduate with a student loan of my own, I support the principle of graduates paying for their degrees.