Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The benefits of marriage

The Beatles were wrong: money can buy you love, it seems.

The Tories have reaffirmed their belief that the tax and benefits system should be used for social engineering:

“I think it's time to actually do more in the tax system and benefit system to recognise that we want couples to come together and stay together.”

And David Cameron added:

“If you support marriage, including through the tax system, that's not insulting very hard working single mums who are doing a brilliant job bringing up their children.”

He’s right: giving money to married parents isn’t in and of itself an insult to single parents. And as long as the money to pay for this falls out of the sky, then it won’t be an injury to single parents, either.

Whatever virtues marriage has as a source of stability for children is presumably very much to do with the attitudes of the parents: they are committed to raising their child well together, and their marriage (often) reflects this.

But what happens to the commitment-enabling properties of marriage when the state introduces financial incentives? This will introduce a new factor that distorts the parents’ attitudes.

Goodhart’s law will come into play: an indicator (marriage rates) that is made the target of government policy will, through this policy targeting, come to lose the significance that it originally held. By creating a link between getting married and receiving benefits, you weaken the link between wanting to make a responsible family commitment and getting married.

Children need good adult role models, preferably more than one – in fact, preferably as many as possible. But not all adults are good role models. Do we really think that these fathers (predominantly) who have looked into their own children’s eyes and not felt moved to act responsibly are going to suddenly become a good, caring influence by dint of having a bit of cash thrown at them?

If only there were some enlightened political leader who could open people’s eyes to “the distortion created by well-intentioned government targets”.

Update: Another thought has just occurred to me: if being married, for whatever reason, actually makes people more responsible and committed (rather than just reflecting a pre-existing commitment), then why not introduce forced marriages for antisocial youths for their moral betterment? As the old joke goes, marriage isn’t a word – it’s a sentence.


A faction in search of a purpose?

Today Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn have launched a website, which is “our attempt to help promote the necessary discussion and to focus that discussion upon the hard issues of the future”. I’m all for debating issues. If this turns out to be an ‘ultra-Blairite’/’über-Blairite’ (terms I’ve never quite understood) version of Compass, then they’ll produce some interesting ideas plus some daft and awkward sniping, and that’ll be a mixed blessing. If so, fair enough.

But if it’s an attempt to get David Miliband to be the ‘stop Gordon’ candidate, then it’s pathetic and he’d be well advised to avoid association with them – whether he ends up standing or not.

Clarke and Milburn, along with Stephen Byers and Frank Field, are widely known to be Brownophobes, and the tone of many of their remarks about him has been pretty hostile. Miliband has a lot going for him, but if he came to be seen as a front man for a gang of ex-ministers with frustrated ambitions then it would do him no end of damage. It would turn the leadership issue into one of personal rivalries and create more division than it resolves.

If they – along with John Reid – can’t muster a credible leadership candidate from among themselves, with all their Cabinet experience and political skills, then it suggests that their agenda, whatever precisely it is, just doesn’t have legs.

In a leadership election right now, I’d vote for Brown against anybody; and I don’t think anybody could beat him. Possibly things will change in the next few months, but I see no sign that anyone else would do better electorally. Miliband will certainly have a major part to play in Labour’s revival, but given that (I think) the most promising line of attack against David Cameron is that he’s an inexperienced lightweight not up to taking tough decisions, I doubt that Miliband is yet the most credible figure to lead such a charge.

By far the biggest ‘non-Brown’ political view within Labour is on the old left: those who either never liked or have now become sick of new Labour. A contest between Brown and, say, Michael Meacher, would be more representative of differences in the party than one based on the far slimmer political disagreements between the two new Labour ‘camps’. A big Brown victory over Meacher – followed by the promotion of bright young things like Miliband to prominent places – would be a confirmation that the party isn’t yearning to go back to the 1980s. But a failed challenge from the ultras/übers would give the Tories leeway to paint Brown as the old Labour throwback.

So yes, let’s talk about directions for the next five to ten years. But let’s try to be nice about it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Free thinking and cognitive intimidation

Ophelia Benson remarks on religious teachings that god punishes disbelief:

“what that means is that religions that do teach that are a racket… and also circular. ‘Believe in this god because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘But why should I believe that?’ ‘Because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘Yes but why should I believe that it’s this god that will punish me, what if it’s actually a different one that will punish me for believing this one?’ ‘Because this one will punish you if you believe that.’ And so on. … So anyway, it's circular, and a racket.”

I agree. Compare: ‘Vote for this candidate because when he’s elected he will punish people who didn’t vote for him.’ ‘But why should any of us vote for him anyway?’ ‘Because he will punish you if you don't.’ ‘Yes but why should I believe that it’s him who will come to power and punish me, what if it’s actually a different candidate that will punish me for voting for this one?’ ‘Because this one will punish you if you vote for another one.’ And so on.

She explains why this sort of cognitive intimidation is such a nasty racket:

“Because it systematically and deliberately disables one of the core human abilities: flexibility: the ability to change our minds.
“… I don't think we appreciate how horrible it is, because we're so used to it. But it is very horrible. Look, it's a privilege being human. … It's a privilege having such complicated minds, and flexibility is one of the luxury appointments of those minds. The ability to change them is a fantastic thing, and religion's short-circuiting of that ability is an appalling way of proceeding.”

You could add that any god willing to throw you in a furnace for making an honest mistake is the sort of tyrant you’d not want anything to do with.

Now, if I were god (and despite the sworn testimony of 37 ex-girlfriends, I’m not), I’d hope that people would use the intellect that I’d given them to think freely and critically; I’d take a dim view of people who made threats in my name; and I’d be especially chuffed with people who behaved nicely even though they didn’t believe in reward or punishment after death. (I’d also make chocolate grow on trees, but that’s a bit off-topic.)

‘Last Night’ by James Salter

This is a really good short story.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Here comes the science bit… concentrate!

When you see a headline like ‘MoD defends psychic powers study’, you know that coming into work today wasn’t a complete waste of time.

I’m going to try to make this more risible than it already is, but quoting verbatim is going to be a hard strategy to improve on:

“The Ministry of Defence has defended a decision to carry out tests to find out whether psychic powers could be used to detect hidden objects. The previously secret tests - conducted in 2002 - involved blind-folding volunteers and asking them about the contents of sealed brown envelopes.”

It’s a good rule of thumb that any political story involving brown envelopes will reflect badly on those involved. Also, the use of psychic powers to detect hidden objects goes a long way to explaining the quality of intelligence on those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

But I digress. You’ll be wanting to know the results of the study into psychological warfare. Prepare to be amazed!

“Most subjects consistently failed to establish what was in the envelopes.”

But it wasn’t a total washout:

“Some 28% of those tested managed a close guess at the contents of the envelopes, which included pictures of a knife, Mother Teresa and an ‘Asian individual’.”

So if ever the defence of the realm depends on getting a vague idea of the difference between a dead nun and an unnamed member of the most populous continent in the world, Britain’s superpower status is assured. Huzzah!

And this breathtaking display by the Mystic MoD yielded further evidence of psychological phenomena:

“However, most subjects produced guesses that were not close to the correct answer and one subject even fell asleep while he tried to focus on the envelope's content.”

Surely this technique could be developed to tackle Islamic extremism. If angry young men who feel hatred towards the West can be coaxed into participating in repeat studies, then the soporific powers of brown-envelope divination can be used to calm them down.

But perhaps the trials were doomed from the start:

“During the tests, defence experts attempted to recruit 12 ‘known’ psychics who had advertised their abilities on the internet. However, when they all refused to take part in the research, ‘novice’ volunteers were drafted in.”

This is what happens when you rely on amateurs. Presumably the real psychics didn’t want to damage their credibility by being associated with Geoff Hoon, rather than, say, by being exposed as frauds with less efficacy than a homeopath with a chocolate teapot. Clearly a failure to win hearts and minds.

The study cost £18,000.

‘Nurse, this man has telemedicolexical neuroabdication!’

It’s a cliché that television rots your brain. When people say this, they’re usually lamenting the low intellectual quality of most of the stuff that gets broadcast – Neighbours, Big Brother, ITV Evening News – and how too much consumption of this dross erodes the viewer’s IQ through lack of loftier stimulation.

But I think there’s another way TV can rot your brain. It occurred to me while watching ER the other day.

ER, by televisual standards, is intelligent. It’s not so highbrow as to deter a large audience, but it’s a good deal better than most of the stuff you see (or haughtily decide not to see).

However, there is one problem. It’s a medical drama, so as well as the personal plotlines, character development, exploring social issues etc, there’s a whole load of doctor talk.

There’s dialogue like ‘Blood pressure is 60 over 80’, ‘200 ccs of dilithium, stat’, ‘We need to do a translobectic epidermal’ and ‘No, if you devitalate the splenetic valve, you’ll give him endoglobular agonitis!’

You see, I don’t know what any of this means. And not only is it way over my head, but they say it all so damn quickly that I don’t even have the opportunity to work out what it might mean. I know that there’s no chance of my understanding it, so I don’t even try. I let it wash over me and just enjoy the sense that it’s all jolly clever and exciting.

And that’s what rots my brain: not exposure to idiocy, but the gladly resigned embracing of incomprehension.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

PMQT anorak corner: Blair misses a trick

At prime minister’s question time today David Cameron asked Tony Blair about the contest to become the next “deputy prime minister”.

The reason he phrased it that way was because of a (slightly odd) ruling a while ago by the speaker, Michael Martin, that Blair could not be asked about his successor as Labour leader because that was a party matter rather than a government one. Cameron duly rephrased his question in terms of Blair’s successor as prime minister, which Martin allowed.

As I say (and as others said at the time), that was a little odd on Martin’s part. Anyway, Cameron phrased his question today so as to avoid being slapped down again.

But: there is no race (nor will there be) to become deputy PM. Whether the next deputy leader is made deputy PM – not to mention whether the latter post will even exist – will be a matter for the next PM.

So Cameron’s question today was meaningless, and if he’d rephrased it to be meaningful, it would have been out of order. So there. Ha.

Did I mention that I’m a great conversationalist?

Culture vultures and power brokers

Terry Eagleton has a question: “why are so many of our politicians getting steamed up about the supposed dangers of multiculturalism?” And, by a happy coincidence, he’s got the answer, too:

“From the viewpoint of political power, culture is absolutely vital. … It is culture, in the sense of the everyday habits and beliefs of a people, which beds power down, makes it appear natural and inevitable, turns it into spontaneous reflex and response.
“Unless authority entwines itself with the roots of people's experience and identity, it will remain too abstract and aloof to win their loyalty. If it is to secure their allegiance, power must become the invisible colour of everyday life itself. And this is what we know as culture. …
“It is easy to see why a diversity of cultures should confront power with a problem. If culture is about plurality, power is about unity. How can it sell itself simultaneously to a whole range of life forms without being fatally diluted?”

Well, I agree that culture is vital to political power, but more in the sense that the “beliefs of a people” drive how they vote and thus who becomes “power” and what they do while in office. Sorry to suggest that British democracy is anything other than a trick to manipulate and placate those of the proletariat who are too ill-educated to see through it, but I’ve always been something of an imperialist stooge. (The pay’s great BTW. I’m typing this on a keyboard made out of conflict diamonds.)

And what’s this “culture is about plurality”? If so, then the phrase “a diversity of cultures” and even the word “multiculturalism” become pleonasms. But culture isn’t about diversity. It’s about, as Eagleton earlier notes, “everyday habits and beliefs”. It’s about how you understand the world and your place in it, and how you live your life.

Cultural difference is in itself worthless to anyone other than a tourist or an anthropologist. What is precious, though, is freedom of culture (to the extent that yours doesn’t harm other people). If you want to live life in much the same way as the majority of people, then fine: the lack of difference is beside the point. As it happens, diversity is bound to arise in any reasonably liberal society because people do in fact have different outlooks and preferences. But the right to be different is no more important than the right to be mainstream.

And if you happen to be a Member of the X Community, and the Leaders of the X Community think that Their People should live according to a certain version of X Culture, then it’s perfectly fine for you to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and live your life as you see fit. And if they (or anyone else) think otherwise, then they don’t believe, as Eagleton claims to, that “everyone is allowed to be in on the project of cooperatively shaping a common way of life”. They want separate ways of life that only connect with each other, and only connect to “power”, via the appropriate representatives.

Eagleton argues that superficial cultural differences are less important than the “shared moral values [that] run very deep in human beings”. And, in a sense, I’d agree. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that one of these deeply ingrained human values is, tragically, a tendency to form groups defined against outsiders. And if there are a bunch of pre-existing superficial differences within a society, then it becomes all the easier for political entrepreneurs to work up a system of identity politics.

Look, it’s true enough that a more fragmented society will make it harder for any government to command popular legitimacy. But the most pressing point is that the fragmentation is in itself bad.

If only there were some sort of publicly accountable national governing organisation where differences could be freely aired and compromises brokered for the sake of encouraging us all to hold together.

(David Thompson also has some sharp and shrewd words on Eagleton.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Right you are

Alex Stein wonders whether Israel has a “right to exist”. In fact, he wonders whether any state has a right to exist. But in particular reference to Israel, he argues that there’s been a conflation of recognising the fact of its existence and recognising its right to exist.

(Me, I’m wary of the notion of group rights. If pushed, I’d say that technically, no state has the moral right to exist – but the people who live in a certain territory should have the right to form a state with the power to defend them. Of course, then you get into the issue of precisely which territory…)

Anyway, Stein says:

“De facto recognition is a clear concept in international relations; actors in the international system (state, non-state and quasi-state) only have formal relations with one another once there is mutual recognition. If the Palestinian government refuses to recognise Israel, it cannot expect Israel (and by extension many of Israel's allies) to deal with it.”

But he argues that a state’s right to exist “is an unknown concept in the international system… Asking the Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist is akin to asking them to accept the moral legitimacy of its creation.”

And he approvingly quotes Noam Chomsky on the concept of legitimate statehood: “The question of legitimacy just doesn't arise. There is an international order in which it is essentially agreed that states have certain rights, but that provides them with no legitimacy, Israel or anyone else.”

This doesn’t add up. Certainly, two states can recognise one another’s existence and still murderously hate each other. But all the same, formal state recognition does carry a certain normativity with it. It’s not just a matter of sayng ‘I say, are you a state? You are? Ah, OK. Pity. Well, just wait there, we’ll be back in half an hour with our guns.’

If, as Chomsky rightly notes, states have a distinct legal status in the international system, then statehood has an inherent aspect of formal legitimacy. One could ‘recognise’ that certain warlords or militias have de facto control over an area, or that a certain state (or, as the parlance goes, an ‘entity’) has in fact occupied foreign land, but with this comes absolutely no legitimacy. State recognition is different.

But this isn’t the key issue here – or, at least, the way it’s usually phrased misleads as to the nature of the key issue.

What I daresay Israelis are more worried about in terms of rejectionist attitudes to their country is not the legalistic intransigence but the murderous hatred. So when Hamas (and various other states) are asked to recognise Israel’s “right to exist”, the concern that underlies this is that they should renounce their own supposed right to destroy Israel.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Young Conservatives, same old Tories

I don’t really care about David Cameron’s drug use and I don’t care about his rich upbringing. There’s more afoot here than poking fun at toffs and moral outrage at youthful snorting. Chris Dillow asks:

“How much do people change between the ages of 20 and 40? This question is the key to whether David Cameron is fit to hold any political office…
“At Oxford, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, which is pretty much the embodiment of the very worst of the public school character: an arrogant contempt towards the ‘lower orders’ (porters, waiters, scouts); a yobbish criminality; and a wallowing in utterly undeserved and unmerited privilege. It's viciousness tempered by cretinism…”

Now, a critic might wail that this is just character assassination. But given that Cameron has made his own sheer earnestness the defining feature of his party’s image, as well as licensing and perpetrating attacks on Gordon Brown’s character, I reckon it’s fair game.

But I think there’s more here than a question mark over how nice a guy he really is. I think this episode betrays his lack of judgement and unreconstructed Tory outlook.

We now know that he hung around with these plutocratic thugs just one year before he went to work for the Conservative Party:

“The club's notorious dinners typically involve members booking a private dining room (under an assumed name) and drinking themselves silly before destroying it elaborately. They wear royal blue tailcoats with ivory lapels, and - having made merry - pride themselves in politely paying the restaurant's owners compensation in high-denomination banknotes. …
“Yet the ‘high jinks’ that took place on the night the photo was taken (at Canterbury Quad, Christchurch) are up there with the best of them. At some point after the dinner, the group walked through Oxford when one… threw a plant pot through the window of a restaurant.
“The burglar alarm was activated and police descended with sniffer dogs. Six of the group were collared and spent the night at Cowley police station before being released without charge.”

And despite seeing for himself what these people are really like (even if he himself was never like that), he holds to this day a conviction that with great wealth comes great virtue. He talks about the captains of industry as good, decent, public-spirited chaps who’ll happily put social wellbeing before profit if he can just sit them down and have a reasonable chat – with no need for nasty leftist red tape to frustrate their benevolence.


“I believe that there is a role for politicians in using exhortation, rather than regulation, to talk up good practice and draw attention to bad practice. … Advocacy is not a wishy-washy cop-out as some would argue. It strikes the right balance and avoids the pitfalls of over-prescriptive government intervention. … We believe in trusting people and in sharing responsibility.”


“We want companies to create their own solutions to social and environmental challenges… So in a Conservative Britain, corporate responsibility will provide the best long-term answer to economic insecurity, well-being in the workplace, and environmental care.”

And his very own ‘Built to Last’, the statement of party aims and values, declares that the way to a better world is by implementing the Bullingdon philosophy that People Like Us can play by a different set of rules:

“Encouraging greater corporate responsibility by offering a lighter regulatory regime to companies who make a commitment to responsible business practice.”

If the men at the top of business can look him in the eye and promise that they’ll play fair, then that’s good enough for him. And if they don’t keep their promises, then by Jove, he’ll jolly well ask them nicely if they’ve got any better ideas.

[Update: I’ve just read Roy Hattersley on the Bullingdon bully-boys and laughed out loud: “No wonder Cameron urged his followers to ‘hug a hoodie’. He clearly identifies with young men who wear distinctive clothes as the badge of their incipient violence.” But the difference is that the Oxford asbohemians “were bought out of trouble by their rich families. They flaunted the idea that people with money can get away with anything.”]

Friday, February 16, 2007

Middle of the road

In the interests of balance…

You can sign the anti-road-pricing petition here: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy.”

Or there’s a pro-road-pricing petition here: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Introduce road pricing nationwide and channel the money into improving public transport and conditions for walking and cycling.”

But if roads aren’t a big issue for you, there’s always this: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to enter Darts in the 2012 London Olympics.”

I don’t know whether this means that darts should be in the Olympics or that Tony himself should be a competitor, but how could you possibly argue with either?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Back-slapping all round

Matt has tagged me with a Thinking Blogger Award. Ta muchly.

[Insert faux ‘I-don’t-usually-do-this-sort-of-thing-but-it-just-caught-my-eye’ disclaimer here.]

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote

I think I’ll skip the award logo, because I’m a low-tech oaf, but five blogs that make me think sounds like a good thing to mention. Actually, there are plenty of blogs that make me think. Some make me think ‘Why the hell are you blogging?’ But these five are a small selection of blogs that make me think in a good way:

Imagined Community
In Search of High Places
Small Town Scribbles
Westminster Wisdom

Champagne and smugness for everyone!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One for all and all for nothing

Ah, good old scientists!

"Potential partners who seem undiscriminating are a definite turnoff, and those who evoke the magic of feeling special are a big draw," said Paul W. Eastwick, the lead author of the study and a Northwestern graduate student in psychology.

"It suggests to us that romantic desire comes in two distinct flavors: selective and unselective," Eastwick added. "If your goal is to get someone to notice you, the unselective flavor is going to fail, and fast."

With that in mind, dear reader, I’d just like to say that I love you. Yes, you.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Poor timing

The Unicef report [PDF] on child wellbeing in rich countries in many ways makes gloomy reading for the UK. On probably the single most important measure it looks at – the proportion of children in relative poverty (below 50% median household income) – we’re rated 23rd out of 24.

But if you delve into the small print, you find that the data used – the most recent available that allows for international comparisons – comes from this OECD report [PDF], which only goes up to the year 2000. So the last seven years of tax crediting, minimum wageing and all the rest aren’t looked at.

The media, ever keen to confuse ‘when something is published’ with ‘when it refers to’, have predictably said things such as “British children are languishing at the bottom of an international league table” and that this is a “Damning verdict on the ordeal of growing up in Britain today” (italics added).

The usual suspects are running with this angle:

“The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, said: ‘This report tells the truth about Brown's Britain. After 10 years of his welfare and education policies, our children today have the lowest wellbeing in the developed world.’”

Or rather: ‘I tell lies about Brown’s Britain. After three years of his welfare and education policies, two of which were spent following my party’s spending plans, our children seven years ago had…’

So what accounts for the way things were? Another pundit has his own idle opinion:

“Between 1979 and 1999, children were relatively neglected in Britain, child poverty rates rose rapidly, those living in workless households soared and the numbers not in education or training also rose… Since then, there’s been a big increase in spending on health and childcare, which is making a difference, but we’re having to reverse two decades of neglect.”

(That’s Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, one of the authors of the Unicef report.)

Anyone who thinks that the report is an accurate reflection of the UK today is wrong. However, anyone who thinks that everything has become fine since 2000 is also wrong (although I’m not aware of anyone who does think that). There’s been historically substantial but still painfully limited improvement in recent years.

The government needs to step up a couple of gears. And frankly, it’d be nice if more of the public could rethink their priorities.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Indecent Proposal (Rebel Without a Cause)

Denis MacShane is, to the best of my slender knowledge, a good egg with a perfectly adequate number of brain cells to rub together. But in the Telegraph today, he makes an announcement almost as rum as Clare Short’s decision to resign the Labour whip in order to campaign for a hung parliament. He says:

“For the first time in my years as an MP I shall consciously vote against my Labour Government.”

The issue in question is House of Lords reform. He wants an elected upper chamber, and thinks the government’s ideas aren’t up to much. Well, that’s fair enough.

Actually, I tell a lie; this isn’t the issue he’s rebelling on. His beef is rarer:

“It is over the proposal to tear up more than seven centuries of history and require MPs to sit rather than stand to vote. The Government wants MPs to take a multiple-choice exam on its proposals to reform the House of Lords. Instead of MPs voting in lobbies for or against different proposals, scratch cards will be handed out, which we can take away to list in order of preference what the composition of the Lords might be.

“…Labour MPs are told they are on a three-line whip to destroy the way the Commons has always done business, but they are on a free vote on the question that will then follow which, because of the single transferable vote, will have to finish in a definite proposal.”

That’s right, folks: not only will a decision to use such a system for this one vote “destroy the way the Commons has always done business”, but the most horrific thing of all is that this constitutional grotesquerie will irrevocably result in nothing less than… a proposal.

Once this travesty has been perpetrated, the text of this proposal for Lords reform will be seared into the malnourished flesh of orphans before – oh, no, hang on – it’ll be looked over by the government and then (probably) put into a bill to be placed before parliament with a free vote in the usual way.

MacShane explains why this would be a travesty of everything we hold true and dear:

“For 700 years, the Commons has been a parliament - a place of talking. Presence and talking in the chamber, in the lobbies, in the tea and dining rooms is the sine qua non of British democracy. The votes are taken by men and women standing up and walking through lobbies, talking one to another as they move to vote. It is a physical act of propinquity that amazes politicians from other countries who do not have the intimate access to ministers and party bigwigs that lies at the heart of our parliamentary system.”

Kudos for “propinquity”, but is it perhaps just a tad melodramatic to say that 700 years of parliamentary democracy (most of which was pretty undemocratic) would be wrecked by members losing this single opportunity for a chinwag in order that they might produce an indicative, non-binding preference to form the basis of further discussion?

He adds:

“It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to vote in the way it has always done.”

Hands up if you know what body alone has the power to remove this right.

And if his view is that ordinary whipping removes the rights of the Commons, it’s hard to see why he so rates the place.

‘Denis, we’ve got the Being Tough On Crime (And Tough On The Causes Of Crime) Bill coming up next week. Naturally, there’s a three-line whip.’
‘No, I must resist. It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to reject the government’s bills.’
‘But this is just run-of-the-mill party whipping – it happens all the time! If you felt that way you’d have to constantly rebel, and as you said in your article, you’ve never voted against the government.’
‘No, I said I’d never “consciously” voted against.’
‘I see. And are you entirely conscious now?’

Seven remarks on alliances and influence

Andrew Rawnsley is right that Anglo-American relations have been harmed less by the ‘friendly fire’ killing of Lance Corporal Matty Hull than by the politicking that followed:

“The Pentagon obstructed the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull. His widow has had to wait four years until someone leaked the cockpit recording to find out how her husband was killed. The Ministry of Defence appeared unwilling to stand up to its American counterparts and dissembled about whether video footage of the attack existed. Not for the first time, Britain is made to look like a subservient satellite taken wretchedly for granted by the country that is supposed to be its closest ally.

“Tony Blair has been fixated with Washington because his guiding belief is that Britain maximises its global influence by flying as wingman to America.”

A few points. First of all, having a powerful ally with a good opinion of you does indeed improve your influence – both with the superpower in question and with other countries who see that you have this close relationship.

Secondly, maintaining any bond in international relations will sometimes involve you taking a course of action that you wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

Thirdly – and this is an important caveat to what follows – I don’t know what behind-the-scenes influence Blair may have exerted over Bush.

But fourthly, it’s a sound general principle that if your support for your more powerful ally is so frequent as to become taken for granted, then your closeness may be less likely to result in influence over them.

And fifthly, whatever does go on behind the scenes, if your support for your ally appears to the rest of the world to be so frequent as to be pretty much automatic, then your significance to other countries (beyond the role of a messenger) will diminish: why negotiate with the monkey rather than the organ-grinder?

So, sixthly, just as you might sometimes want to acquiesce purely for the sake of maintaining goodwill, so may keeping the modest distance that allows effective leverage sometimes involve stressing a point of difference for the sake of avoiding an appearance of slavishness. Tactical distancing can be useful in the same way that tactical closeness can. (As there’ll always be at least small points of genuine dissent, this shouldn’t mean putting it on.)

Of course, there’s the risk of misjudging it and going too far with either tactic, but fortunately – and seventhly – the substantial overlap of both interests and values between the US and the UK ensures that disputes are unlikely to become so large as to sour the relationship. The risk of appearing too close is another matter.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cameron’s revelation

Well, I think it’s wonderful. The fact that a teenage druggie from an estate (alright, a country estate rather than a council one) can rise all the way to become a major party leader attests to how social mobility has increased under Labour.

Under the last Tory government, the best that a former young offenders’ institution inmate could manage was junior ministerial aide.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t go to his head.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Boycott Saudi oil

Nestle baby milk? Gap sweatshops? South African Apartheid? Small fry.

Today’s right-on ethical consumers should challenge oil companies about how much of their product comes from this hell-hole (whose second-largest export industry is Wahhabi fanaticism), and then fill up their cars at petrol stations that don’t subsidise savagery.

Or we could just leave it to the politicians.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I am that I am

Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels notes that she is female. Also, she is American; she is heterosexual; she is white.

Which of these statements might be claims of identity and which are just descriptions of characteristics? As a clever man once said under different circumstances, “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”

Identity, in the more interesting sense, is a matter of the way you think about yourself. I rarely think of myself as white but more often think of myself as English.

So what makes you more likely to think about yourself in terms of a certain characteristic? Here are a few factors:

  1. If that characteristic is a shared by only a minority of the population.
  2. If others with that characteristic publicly relate to people in terms of whether they have or lack it, thus leading to an identity group and an out-group.
  3. Conversely, if people without that characteristic relate to people with it differently.
  4. If, in the case of a physical characteristic, it has an effect on what you can and can’t do (over and above any legal and social reactions to it).
  5. If that characteristic is a matter of personal beliefs and values.
  6. Following the above, if the attitudes associated with the characteristic include a tendency to view it as important.

Some of these interact, for instance: the rarer a characteristic is, the more likely you may be to think of yourself (and be thought of) in terms of it, but rarity also reduces the scope for an effective identity group to mobilise. The existence of a defined in-group also makes it likelier that certain attitudes will be associated with having the characteristic, and that people without it will themselves start to define themselves thus and to treat the in-group differently.

These factors also can vary in their scope. As Ophelia acknowledged, some of her characteristics come to seem more salient to how she thinks of herself in different situations – for instance, her nationality comes to the fore in the face of anti-Americanism. But different characteristics in different people take on more enduring centrality to their identity. This can be because life more regularly throws up circumstances in which a certain characteristic becomes relevant (regular racial discrimination can help to build a racial identity), or because of any attitudes constituting the characteristic that stress its significance (followers of a religion will not just hold particular beliefs but also believe that it’s vitally important to do so).

So, what are the prospects for people coming to think of themselves as party of humanity as a whole? How can you come to think of yourself as a human, or as an individual, first and foremost? Most of the factors above will be of little use in promoting such an identity. After all, we’re all individuals.

If so, and if we think a universalist politics that embraces people regardless of differences is desirable, then it won’t work as a type of identity politics itself (just at a higher level of identity than the others). So the ideal would be for politics to transcend identity – or, to put it another way, for identity to escape from identity politicians. Tough call.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tory MP high on speed, soft on crime

The BBC’s Nick Assinder reports: “Hemel [Hempstead]'s Tory MP Mike Penning has just about sewn up the motorists' vote with a new demand for the scrapping of thousands of speed cameras. … ‘Motorists are increasingly frustrated that many of them are installed as a cash raising mechanism,’ he says.”

Yes, how dare these politically correct nanny-state socialists penalise innocent law-abiding citizens by punishing them for breaking the law? Thank heavens the criminal element have a champion to stand up for their rights.

Penning is surely following his party leader in wanting less top-down regulation. The way to get people to behave better is to give them “social responsibility”. After all, who knows best whether I’m driving safely: a faceless bureaucrat with a bunch of TV screens, or me? The question answers itself. The sooner Britain’s roads are self-policing, the safer and freer we’ll all be. And if we can’t scrap the laws, let’s just ignore them.

This is an enduring bugbear for Penning. A couple of years back, he wrote that “more cameras have been deployed and sadly more people must have been caught and fined for breaking the speed laws.”

Yes, it’s very sad that more law-breakers are being caught and punished. It’s not sad that people are breaking the law. And it’s certainly not sad that over 3000 people a year are killed in road accidents.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Numbers that don’t mean anything: green taxes

(1) The proportion of the total tax take raised from green taxes

The point of levying ‘green taxes’ (or any other kind of ‘sin tax’) is to reduce the occurrence of certain undesirable behaviours – say, emitting CO2 – by specifically increasing the cost of engaging in them.

Actually, there are other possible reasons – you might want to raise money generally, to make your party look green, etc. – but the particular point of thinking about green taxes as green taxes is that they’re a tool to reduce emissions. (You might also levy a tax for the purpose of raising money to spend on reducing emissions, but that’s green spending rather than green taxing.)

So, the more of your tax take that comes from green taxes, the greener your tax policy, right? Wrong.

Say you make a big cut in income tax and hold other taxes constant. All of a sudden, your green taxes account for a higher proportion of your total tax take. Are you discouraging emissions any more than you were? Of course not. In fact, if the income tax cut stimulates economic activity, then you’re likely to end up with more CO2 being emitted. And because there’s more money in people’s pockets, they’re better able to spend their way past the green taxes that you do have in place.

So this leads us to…

(2) The proportion of GDP taken by green taxes

This is more promising, as it avoids the problem above. But it still doesn’t have the significance that people imagine it does.

Some activities are harder to discourage with taxes than others – stickiness vs elasticity, as the economists put it. If something is very important to people (or organisations), then you have to tax it fairly heavily to see much of a deterrent effect. On the other hand, if an activity is pretty insignificant, then even a modest tax will make a lot of people shrug and do something else instead.

So if you tax a sticky activity, you’re more likely to raise revenue than to change behaviour. If you tax an activity with high price elasticity, vice versa.

Tying this up with what I said about the point of green taxes, it’s clear that those levied on sticky activities are likely to fail. They may bring in the cash, but they’ll not do so well at discouraging CO2 emissions. Taxes on more elastic activities will succeed in their deterrent role, but bring in less and less money as more and more people change their behaviour.

The more successful a green tax is, the less revenue it will raise.

So the proportion of GDP taken by green taxes is a factor of how high those tax rates are combined with how unsuccessful they are at reducing emissions. In anything other than the short term (before people have had a chance to adjust their activities), it’s not an eco-virility symbol but a badge of failure.

This also means that the suggestion that higher green taxes should be matched by lower taxes elsewhere is either idiotic posturing or an underhand way of cutting the overall tax take.