Friday, August 31, 2007

Fond recollection of the departed

Ten years ago today, the nation – nay, the world – suffered the tragic loss of a much-loved icon. Joyless producers at BBC Radio 4’s PM programme took the opportunity of Princess Diana’s death to kill off the show’s opening signature tune. Racy and yet slightly naff, much like the dear Princess herself, it had brightened up the stuffy establishment setting it found itself in – but no longer.

Surely there could be no finer memorial to Diana’s utterly peripheral yet mildly cheering media presence in all our lives than to reinstate this melodious delight.

(Fast fact: Diana Spencer’s middle name was Frances, making her initials DFS. Truly, the people’s sofa designer.)

(And The Onion reports on popular tributes to her.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Such a thing as society (and anarchy)

Tom Hamilton and Unity have a very fine point.

The Tory crime policy document I mentioned yesterday contains what Tom calls “the most useless, inadequate, debased, offensive definition of ‘society’ I've ever seen”. It is:

Society occupies the space between the individual and the state: it is represented in voluntary organisations and businesses. These institutions exist to provide vital services and support to individuals and families.

One might suggest that businesses actually exist in order to make money, and that the product/service provision is purely instrumental, and that very many of these product and services are as far from being “vital” as the oils used in aromatherapy are from being “essential”, but never mind that.

Tom’s right. This is a completely inadequate conception of society. The central failing of it is, as Unity said recently, that David Cameron “cannot manage to distinguish between the generality of the concept of society and the considerably more limited concept of ‘civil society’ – which is what all the charity/community stuff is referring to”.

It seems obvious that Cameron is trying to muddy this water in order that his plans to farm welfare provision out to charities and businesses can be described as ‘giving power back to society’.

And another thing: he’s been using this “anarchy in the UK” soundbite a lot lately. I’ve heard him asked twice whether that’s really a fair description of the state of Britain, and both time’s he’s ducked the question by saying instead something along the lines that there are parts of the country in which there is a lack of order. He avoids having to justify the use of the word “anarchy”… and then goes on to keep saying it.

He used the word twice on Newsnight yesterday: once to describe Britain (followed by the non-backtracking backtracking) and once to describe Iraq. Iraq.There’s really no comparison. Like the old Tory jeers about us having “third-world public services”, this is a total disregard for the truth in the pursuit of apocalyptic rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Guff on crime

It’s a pleasant treat to find myself in complete agreement with Mr David Cameron. He says that “we must fight back against the attitude that treats rising crime as inevitable”.

Hear, hear! And allow me to join his campaign by pointing out: “The risk of becoming a victim of crime fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1995 to 23 per cent in 2005/06 in England and Wales, the lowest recorded level since the [British Crime Survey] began.” If he means what he says, then I look forward to seeing that quote on Tory posters.

He’s published a brochure on crime called ‘It’s time to fight back’, although disappointingly this particular fight isn’t going to be of the “bare-knuckle” variety. But we can be assured that fighting crime is very nearly as important to him as fighting Gordon Brown’s poll lead, so that’s something.

Anyway, in this brochure Cameron says that “fatal violence is a risk that can strike anyone at any time”. And technically, that’s true. It’s been technically true at every point in history in every society in the world. What is that risk?

In 2005/06 [table 1.01], there were 746 recorded homicides in England and Wales (including the 7/7 bombings), or 14 per million population. So your risk of being a victim of fatal violence was 0.0014%. In 1997 there were 11.8 homicides per million, a risk of 0.0012%.

If a rise of 0.0002 percentage points across nine years is the sort of surge to terrify you then you really shouldn’t be going out of doors (or reading the Daily Mail). And it’s not a story of consistent rises: the 2005/06 homicide rate is the lowest figure in seven years.

So yes, I strongly agree that we must fight despair about the inevitability of rising crime. I think that not burbling on about a “broken society” and “anarchy in the UK” would be a good way to do that.

(If you like number-crunching, I recommend this thorough and excellent analysis by Unity of the gun crime headlines. It turns out that the main rise has been due to incidents in which imitation firearms were used, and the main rise in gun violence has been in the category of “slight” injury not needing hospitalisation – the definition of which seems to include cases of no physical harm at all.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Jewdunnit?

Robert Fisk is definitely not a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Or so he says; Oliver Kamm thinks otherwise. Oliver remarks:

All conspiracy theories are alike in positing redundant explanations where straightforward ones will do, and in maintaining that known historical sources must be lies.

Once you dispense with the normal canons of evidence - not authority, but evidence - then you are prey to the irrational. Applied to politics, irrationalism and obscurantism have caused and still threaten horrors.

Clearly, conspiracy theories in politics are and ever have been formulated and propagated by people who already loathe the supposed conspirators. The theories are driven by prejudice, not evidence.

I sometimes wonder about the intersection between 9/11 conspiracy theorists and terrorist sympathisers. There are two different prejudices in play, and you’d think they might conflict. But you never hear anyone say:

I used to be an anti-Semite – but since Mossad destroyed the World Trade Center, I think the Jews are pretty kosher guys. Go Israel!

Odd, that.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Inheritance, family and the common good

It’s always nice to read something that helps you to crystallise a line of thought in your head – even if it’s not the line of thought that the writer intended.

Daniel Finkelstein thinks we should abolish inheritance tax. He argues that bequeathing money isn’t just any old transaction:

Most parents do not think of their children as just another set of economic actors. They look at them as an extension of themselves. They don’t think just of their own interests but how it will effect their family and future generations. And a good thing too.

That’s true. Parents do care disproportionately – and rightly so – for their own children. They don’t, of course, disdain everyone else’s importance, but there’s a perfectly natural and legitimate favouritism.

He suggests that untaxed inheritance is in fact redistributive:

The transfer of assets from one generation to the next… may not be a redistribution from rich to poor, but that’s not the only kind of redistribution that matters. Inheritance is a redistribution from old to young. And beyond that, the idea that the family’s wealth stays in the family is one way that we signal the obligation that the past has to the present and the present has to the future.
Perhaps you don’t think such signals matter? Well, in the debate on the environment we are constantly being encouraged to think of those who will inherit the Earth. What sort of planet, we are asked, will our children, our grandchildren, live on? …
And if I am expected to think this way in respect of the environment, then I should be allowed to think this way in respect of my estate.

Finkelstein’s got me there: I definitely believe in transferring a good environment to future generations. So, logically, I have to agree that we should transfer wealth to future generations as well. And I do agree.

But which members of those future generations? The thing about the environment is that it’s a public good. I can’t put ‘clean air’ or ‘a stable climate’ in my will, any more than my children could uniquely inherit such a thing (even if I try to specify ‘clean air in this garden’).

I’d want my children (we’re speaking hypothetically) to have a good environment. This, happily, is the same thing as wanting a good environment for everyone, so all our incentives are aligned (apart from those that involve wanting to drive 4x4s and take lots of air travel, but never mind).

So, what about wealth? I’d also want my children to be well-off and have a good quality of life. And, while I won’t care about them nearly as much, I’d quite like other people’s children to be well-off and have a good quality of life too.

Here, though, the analogy breaks down. While I don’t own my own chunk of clean air that I can bequeath as I wish, I will (unless drink and gambling get the better of me) have property to pass on as I wish. Naturally, I’ll want to direct this towards my own children rather than those of random strangers.

But I’m not completely inconsiderate of those other people. Perhaps I could help them out in some small way – but there are so many of them, and I don’t have all their names and addresses. What I really want is some sort of system that will get a little bit of help to these people without getting in the way of me strongly prioritising my own children.

Maybe a system that takes a minority share of the value of my property, over a certain value, and then parcels it out across the country – as cash payments or even in the form of services such as schools, healthcare, police, public infrastructure and the like (all of which my children will benefit from as well).

If say, 40% of any bequest over the value of £300,000 was used in this way, then from a £500,000 will, my children would get £420,000 or 84%. That’s not bad going, considering that there are 60 million people in the country who aren’t my children and probably only a very few who will be. If I have £1m of property, my children will still get a comfortable 72%; if I somehow manage to die with £10m, my children get 61.2% of it.

That’s definitely legitimate favouritism, but in the company of some small measure of wider social concern for the vast majority of ‘future generations’ who won’t be my offspring. All of my wealth will pass on to future generations, with my own children gaining vastly more of it than anyone else. That sounds like a good system. We could call it ‘inheritance tax’.

The wrong rights

Sometimes, especially in public discourse, certain words seem to lose all meaning beyond a vague evocation of some sort of goodness or badness. ‘Rights’ is one of those words.

I have no strong opinions about whether Philip Lawrence’s murderer, Learco Chindamo, should be deported to his native Italy once he’s served his prison sentence. What I don’t understand is the use of ‘rights’ prevalent in the media outrage.

Assorted politicians and pundits are talking about how the rights of the victim aren’t being respected. Mr Lawrence’s widow, Frances, has expressed this view as well.

I have no doubt that it must be a real body blow, even this long after the event, to be told that what matters in the tribunal ruling is the “right to family life” of the man who took that same right away from you. But which of the Lawrence family’s rights are being threatened by the no-deportation ruling?

The right to have one’s relative’s murderer deported following release from prison? No. Had Chindamo been British-born, deportation wouldn’t enter anybody’s head.

The right to have any foreign-born murderers of one’s relatives deported following release from prison? No. Had the Chindamo family (who moved here when he was six) chosen to become naturalised UK citizens, this issue wouldn’t arise.

The right to have any foreign-born murderers of one’s relatives who had not taken the opportunity to become UK citizens deported following release from prison? But this is too convoluted and hedged to have any coherent moral force as a right that somebody could have.

More to the point, all three of these proposals assume that victims of crime (or their relatives) should have not just the right to be heard by the authorities, not just the right to have the due process of law operate and not just the right to be kept informed about the progress of a case, but the right to have a say over sentencing.

Victims shouldn’t have that right. The whole point of a system of justice is that an offence against one of us is an offence against all of us, and we deal with criminals collectively through the institutions of the police, the courts and the prisons. It beats mob rule on both efficiency and fairness – and it has to be impartial and not driven by emotion. No doubt that can come across as uncaring to some victims, but that’s the price we pay for due process.

Now, of course, no victim of crime has any obligation to forgive, however repentant the criminal might be. But we wouldn’t be talking about this at all if Frances Lawrence had forgiven Chindamo and said that he shouldn’t be deported.

This is all very easy for me to say; what if it had been a member of my family killed? Well, of course I can’t know how I’d feel, but I’d guess that I wouldn’t want him deported. I wouldn’t want him to rot in jail his whole life. What I’d want is to personally wring the little bastard’s neck.

That might be satisfying, but deeply unjust.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Too much waste in public spending

So:

The Conservatives received individual donations of £4.6m [between April and June] - below Labour's £5m - but also got £1.7m of public money for policy development.

Now, Short money, which the opposition parties get to make up for the fact that the governing party has an army of civil servants to help it with policy development, is nothing new.

All the same, it’s nice to be able to connect this money with a concrete output. Like, for instance, the Conservatives’ 211-page Economic Competitiveness Policy Group report last week, which discovered that John Redwood likes tax cuts and deregulation.

And while we’re waiting for the reports from the Papal Denominational Verification Committee and the Ursine Defecation Location Confirmation Commission, we might take a moment to ponder the fact that the Tories are managing to waste taxpayers’ money without even needing to be in government to do it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Political halitosis and self-awareness

Quote of the day:

Ideology is like breath: one does not smell one’s own.
- Joan Robinson

Friday, August 17, 2007

Worldliness

I’ve just discovered Strange Maps, a curious and delightful blog that does exactly what it says on the tin. Here are a few that caught my eye:

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Exclusive: A-level standards falling

Another year, another round of A-level results, another flurry of media pictures of slim, attractive, middle-class white girls with good grades.

But are they really as pretty as the not-just-pretty-faces of yesteryear?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Diplomacy as public hand-washing

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published a report [PDF] this week on last summer’s Hezbollah–Israel conflict.

One of its complaints is:

We conclude that the [UK] Government’s decision not to call for a mutual and immediate cessation of hostilities early on in the Lebanon war has done significant damage to the UK’s reputation in much of the world. … We believe that such an approach could have led to reduced casualties amongst both Israeli and Lebanese civilians whilst still working towards a long-term solution to the crisis.

I was, and remain, sceptical of this line of argument on the grounds that Israel doesn’t tend to react positively to international cries of condemnation. And public denunciations that aren’t backed up by some solid form of leverage tend only to weaken one’s capacity for exerting future influence. (Over Hezbollah, I suspect that our diplomatic sway is even weaker.)

This is perfectly illustrated by another of the report’s criticisms, a few pages on:

Israeli overflights into sovereign Lebanese territory threaten to undermine and embarrass the Government of Lebanon… We are concerned that the [UK] Government’s calls on Israel to halt overflights are having little impact on its behaviour.

So: our diplomatic ‘calls to halt’ are ineffective with Israel.

That leaves the point about whether urging an immediate ceasefire, however impotently, and perhaps counterproductively, would have been better for “the UK’s reputation in much of the world”. Probably it would, in the short term at least. But is chanting “Not in our name” on the floor of the Security Council to placate the ‘Arab street’ really a responsible position for a government to take?

(The report also says that, while Israel has “an inalienable right to defend itself from terrorist threats”, its reaction to Hezbollah’s seizure of soldiers and firing of rockets across the border was “disproportionate”. This is a fair call, but it misses the broader point that the Israeli strategy was inadequate for confronting a nonstate group operating from a neighbouring country whose government wasn’t hostile. The fundamental problem with the strategy was not that it was excessive in scale; rather, it was misconceived in form. See, for instance, Israel’s own Winograd Commission report [PDF].)

My dog’s got two noses

Colonel John Blashford-Snell has spotted a rare breed of double-nosed Andean tiger hound in Bolivia.

Cue predictable puns.

(Hat tip to Mick.)

Also in the Crrrazy World of Wild Animals™: python swallows alligator, then explodes; and, if you missed it, lions vs buffalo vs crocodile on video.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Economics and psychology

Chris Dillow is enlightening the pages of the Times today:

Economists are everywhere. Steve Levitt, Tim Harford and Steven Landsburg use newspaper columns and best-selling books to show how economics can account for why drug dealers live with their mums, why you can’t find space to park, why school teachers cheat, why people share umbrellas and why sexually transmitted diseases are so rife. Simple economics, it seems, can explain everything.
Everything, that is, except the economy.

It’s common to hear people talk (often in relation to the names Chris mentions) about how we can apply economics to other walks of life. I think this gets things the wrong way round.

Economics, to the extent that it’s the study of financial decisions and actions, is actually a subdiscipline of psychology. As Stephen Dubner, Levitt’s collaborator, says: “It's about human behaviour, and about what incentives drive people.”

It just so happens that a lot of mathematically rigorous, data-driven work has gone on in economics that’s then been tested in real business and policy decisions – and I daresay the field has been better funded as well. This means that economics has often come up with ‘harder’ findings than has more traditional social psychology, say (it’s also come up with some dross, but never mind that).

But the idea of extending economics to other areas of human behaviour shouldn’t be taken to mean that psychology is being swallowed up by economics; it simply reflects the fact that economics is part of psychology and that many of the same principles and methods can be applied more broadly.

There is, of course, a risk of overgeneralisation; in particular, the Homo economicus view of humans, as wanting to maximise material wellbeing and able to logically process all available information to that end, is going to lead you seriously astray if you want to understand and predict what people do.

This applies even in economic contexts, and indeed the academic influence also flows from social and cognitive psychology into the field of behavioural economics.

The loneliness of the long-distance tax-cutter

Polly Toynbee writes, in advance of John Redwood’s ‘Economic Competitiveness’ Tory policy group report:

[David] Cameron is wisely staying away for the launch. [George] Osborne, as ever more reckless and openly rightwing, will stand beside Redwood, welcoming the review for showing "how we can deliver a low-tax, lower-regulation competitive economy".

And Redwood himself seems confident of a warm reaction:

"I think David Cameron has read it and George Osborne has certainly read it and worked with me on it and I am sure they support the general direction."

Osborne is certainly more openly rightwing than Cameron: you can often see the visceral glee in his eyes at the prospect of cuts when he talks about tax, regulation and public services. And he’s notably described a flat income tax as “a very exciting idea”.

Cameron would never endorse such a thing. Not any more, at least.

As a backbencher a few years ago, he condemned one of Gordon Brown’s budgets, backing the flat tax and yearning for tax credits to be scrapped:

He could simplified all our tax rates and produced one band, somewhere around 20%, that applied to spending, saving, capital gains and income. Imagine the serene simplicity. …
I long for a chancellor who stands up and introduces a Budget which abolishes all of Brown's endless reliefs and credits - and uses the money to cut tax rates at the same time. "My Budget has no title", the peroration would go, "it's your money, spend it as you choose." Am I alone?

Nowadays, of course, Cameron avoids talk of “up front” tax cuts, which has discombobulated many in his party. But give him time…

Monday, August 13, 2007

Not for love nor money

This week, the Tories will be releasing some proposals to reduce the number of forced marriages.

How about bribing people to get married, thus making force redundant?

Combat in the community

Quote of the day:

I can't believe that two cousins are fighting! You fight people in the street, not your own flesh and blood!
- Tom Hamilton’s neighbour

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On being pleased and clear of conscience

As Matt says, the comments on Neil Clark’s noxious CiF piece (which I noted here) are overwhelmingly critical.

But most damning, by a country mile, are Clark’s own responses to these comments. Such as:

I am pleased that Britain and the US have had a major setback in Iraq, in the same way I'm pleased that the German invasion of the Soviet Union was defeated. Britain and America were in the wrong on Iraq- and I will support no aspect of the invasion.

Pleased? There’s anything pleasing about this situation? Oh, come on. Here’s how a non-reprobate anti-war writer might have put that:

Just as I’m horrified at the vast number of Iraqis killed, I’m also aghast at the pointless deaths of many British, American and other troops in this calamity, which has somehow managed to produce an Iraq even worse than it was under Saddam. The only wretched excuse for a silver lining is that further US-UK militarism has been set back – but what a terrible price to pay.

There. That’s not difficult, is it? You just need a little perspective and a small amount of universal concern for human life.

(And of all the countries Hitler attacked, why would it immediately occur to Clark to be pleased that Stalin’s USSR survived in particular? I’m just saying.)

He also says:

I have NEVER advocated the killing of innocent civilians.

But, of course, Clark doesn’t think the interpreters are innocent civilians. He thinks they’re collaborators who are complicit in an illegal war and occupation; they are “self-centred mercenaries who betrayed their fellow countrymen and women”.

And, in response to a comment saying "Neil Clark wants these collaborators tortured and shot":

where do I say that? I merely said it's not a great surprise that many Iraqis feel ill-disposed towards them.
I hope the interpreters are not shot- but when it comes to their fate, my conscience is clear, I did not want to attack Iraq.

No, Clark didn’t “merely” say that it’s unsurprising the interpreters are in danger of violent death. He also said that we should “do all we can” to make sure that they stay in danger of violent death.

But I’m certainly willing to believe that his “conscience is clear”. He seems the kind of guy whose conscience usually is. Something else to be “pleased” about.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Careful talk disdains lives

Yesterday, Seamus Milne took great care to avoid saying: “I hope more British and American soldiers get killed in Iraq.” Instead, he said:

the price of staying in Iraq will have to rise still further if the US is going to be forced out and Iraq regain its independence.
Inside Iraq, that price can only be exacted by increased resistance.

The greatest danger to both the resistance and the wider campaign to end the occupation remains the Sunni-Shia split, fostered since the invasion in classic divide-and-rule mode.

The history of anti-colonial and anti-occupation resistance campaigns shows that success has almost always depended on broad-based national movements. But the embryonic resistance front has got to be a positive development if it holds together.

And today, Neil Clark takes great care to avoid saying: “I hope those Iraqi interpreters who worked for the British army get murdered.” Instead, he says:

all those who aided the occupation are complicit in what the Nuremburg judgment laid down as "the supreme international crime": the launching of an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign state.
The interpreters did not work for "us", the British people, but for themselves - they are paid around £16 a day, an excellent wage in Iraq - and for an illegal occupying force. Let's not cast them as heroes. The true heroes in Iraq are those who have resisted the invasion of their country.

History tells us that down through history, Quislings have - surprise, surprise - not been well received, and the Iraqi people's animosity towards those who collaborated with US and British forces is only to be expected.
…let's do all we can to keep self-centred mercenaries who betrayed their fellow countrymen and women for financial gain out of Britain.
If that means some of them may lose their lives, then the responsibility lies with those who planned and supported this wicked, deceitful and catastrophic war

What a veritable pair of Orwells for our age.

And now, the UN Security Council has just voted unanimously to extend and expand the UN’s mandate in Iraq. The new resolution:

will pave the way for the UN special envoy in Iraq to support and assist the Iraqi government in political, economic, electoral, and constitutional matters, and help settle disputed internal boundaries
The UN mission would also be asked to promote human rights and judicial and legal reforms and to assist the Iraqi government in planning for a national census.

This bid to legitimate the crusaders’ occupation and prop up the US puppet al-Vichy regime is surely imperialistic collaboration of the worst sort. Maybe some more resistance will be needed.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Brands and cultural redistribution

Richard Chappell notes: “Advertising makes us want stuff.” He’s right. So what?

The most obvious thought is to see it as a bad thing: marketing manipulates our preferences, effectively brainwashing us into wanting things that don't necessarily cohere with our most deeply-held values. On the other hand, it might be argued that advertising "creates value" by increasing the satisfaction we get from advertised products. …
Marketing aims to shape the cultural meaning of a brand. If someone wants to associate themselves with a particular lifestyle, buying an appropriately advertised label may be an easy way for them to send the desired signal. Advertised consumer goods thus serve people who want to brand themselves, perhaps to affirm their cultural identity or to gain status. Does this make advertising worthwhile after all?

But no. Richard thinks that even if we grant that branding helps to create the kind of cultural meaning that people value, “there's no reason to think that this meaning is best shaped by advertisers. A far more attractive alternative would be for such meanings to emerge from the distributed contributions of cultural citizens… We don't need advertisers to impose cultural meanings from On High.”

I agree, but there’s more to say. Let’s accept that advertising (of the cultural/lifestyle aspiration branding type rather than the ‘Smith’s Sprockets are guaranteed to last ten years’ type) does generate more opportunities for consumers to acquire cultural meaning along with their sprockets.

You still have to buy the damned stuff to get the real cultural value out of it. And you need money for that. So the lifestyle branding of products and services redistributes cultural value from poor to rich. It takes people’s material poverty (or wealth) and connects it more strongly to social poverty (or wealth).

You doubt me? Then ask yourself this: if someone uses supermarket own-brand shampoo, are they really ‘worth it’? Would you trust someone wearing unbranded trainers to ‘just do’ anything?

(But don’t worry. Eventually consumer capitalism will overreach itself and make resistance culturally attractive. Then the system will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and ultimate victory will go to the downtrodden workers, or at least to the advertisers who are best at branding their tat as anti-consumerist. Ah… Oh well. All together now: The people’s flag is a lifestyle choice/ Buying it means I don’t need a voice…)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Who do we vote for?

There are two-and-a-half interacting quirks to the British political system's psychology (though I’m sure they’re not unique to us).

First, we think as though we vote for parties when we actually elect individuals. This means that the quality of the candidates has fairly little bearing on how people vote. Every party has known times when their brilliant candidate has been crushed by a donkey with the right colour rosette. Party is the biggest factor in the polling booth, except in a few cases such as Martin Bell (Tatton, 1997) or Ken Livingstone (London, 2000). And of course a good/bad candidate can make the difference in a close race.

It also means that when MPs defect to a different party, there’s always a clamour (ritual but nonetheless sincere) for them to stand down and fight a byelection – more so than when they change any number of policy positions.

Second, we think as though we vote for a government when we actually elect a parliament. This leads to a double standard whereby manifestos are treated very differently post-election depending on which party forms the government. If the governing party drops some of its manifesto commitments, there are shrieks about ‘broken promises’. But if the main opposition party drops some of its commitments, nobody really cares (except for people in that party who liked the old policies and the various media and political opponents who enjoy mocking ‘U-turns’).

It’s broadly accepted that a party not in government has the perfect right to rethink its ideas: ‘the party lost the election’ – even though every opposition MP won their election, and did so on that set of manifesto pledges. Nobody seems to take the view that a party’s MPs have been elected to promote particular policies, regardless of whether they have a parliamentary majority or not.

(A partial qualification for minor parties: nobody votes Lib Dem expecting them to have a majority or even be in second place, so there may be more of a view among Lib Dem voters that they are electing a parliamentary pressure group to take certain positions.)

This is probably due to the facts that the composition of parliament determines the identity of the government and that hung parliaments are so very rare.

If the legislature and the executive were elected separately, no doubt the legislators of all parties would be held more tightly to their election positions. If hung parliaments were the norm, then inter-party negotiations would make it far clearer that the government derives from parliament. It would also be more accepted that no party could implement their manifesto in full, and so all parties would be equally expected to manoeuvre to advance their agendas.

The remaining half-oddity is that while we think of parties over individuals and governments over parliaments, one of the major factors in choosing which party to vote for is the identity of its leader. Brown vs Cameron vs Campbell, or Blair vs Howard vs Kennedy, is certainly much more important than comparisons of the manifesto details.

This means that when a governing party (although, again, not an opposition party) changes its leader mid-parliament, there are demands for a new election – more so than when the government drops a manifesto pledge or when the prime minister stays in place but reshuffles the Cabinet hugely.

(This is only half-peculiar, as constitutionally the identity of the government does derive from the identity of the leader of the majority party.)

The effect of all this is that we often think as though we’ve got an executive-focused electoral system in which the Commons is largely a device for annoying the government and reminding the opposition of the last election result. This goes well beyond whether a given prime minister has a ‘presidential’ style and how ruthless the whips are.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Aggression and illogic

Anonymous al-Qaida supporter:

If somebody commits an aggression against you, you are allowed [in Islam] to commit an aggression against him. Millions of Iraqi children were killed as a result of the [Western] embargo and no-fly zone and we have to treat those responsible in kind. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. And it is very clear in the Qur'an; make your punishment proportionate to what was done against you. …
[British Muslims] need to arm themselves to prevent the kaffir [non-believer] from coming into their home, terrorising their families, frightening their children and invading their privacy… they have to be prepared to pay the price and fight back.

Dispatches director Phil Rees:

Most in the UK would label [him] a terrorist and argue that his words are too shocking for the British audience to hear. …
After spending several hours discussing topics [with him]… it became clear that [he] is not "mindless" but a product of the political realities of our planet.

Too shocking to hear? What pompous drivel. From both of them. No, Nameless Jihad Coward Boy’s words are actually pretty banal. We’ve all heard this kind of self-serving pontification before. If he weren’t trying to get a load of people killed, his words would be too pathetic to care about.

And what the hell’s this “not ‘mindless’ but a product of the political realities” stuff? Has he freely chosen his position or not? Have Western imperialists (the only genuinely free agents) turned him into a mass-murder fan or not?

Scribbles, as usual, is right on the mark:

So, in this Dispatches programme, when [he] talked about "aggression" against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would have liked him to be confronted with the fact that the people responsible for the slaughter in these countries have been, and continue to be, Muslims. The Baathists, the Taliban, al-Qaida. Not agents of the West, but people whose faith is Islam, killing Islamic people, in the name of Islam. …
And the least a Channel4 programme that allows such people… to spout this kind of deeply offending nonsense can do is confront them with their illogic. And it must be confronted because this idea that the suffering of Muslims around the world is due exclusively to nasty Britain and America is widely believed, despite the fact that it is so obviously not the truth. And it is this widespread belief that allows people who blow up civilians in peacetime Britain to say it's about foreign policy.
Put simply, we are allowing the killing of people on our streets to be legitimised by a faux argument.
… Interview any student, Muslim or not, and you'll get much the same sort of rubbish.

What about this news, for instance? Where do we judge the ‘aggression against Muslims’ to be here:

US troops in Iraq say they have killed an al-Qaeda leader who masterminded the attacks on a Shia shrine that led to a major escalation in sectarian violence. Officials say Haitham al-Badri was behind the 2006 and 2007 attacks on the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which destroyed its golden dome and minarets.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Opposition disease: new outbreak

Stephen Newton has been rummaging through the comments boxes of Conservative blogs (a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it).

In a discussion of the foot and mouth outbreak, he finds a string of commenters speculating hopefully about how badly this would reflect on Labour. With hard facts thin on the ground, they jump from one gleeful blame-fantasy to another. Stephen suggests that “these Conservatives appear to have developed a form of Munchausen syndrome whereby they falsify the symptoms of such malaise and revel in any misfortune the country might suffer”.

A touch unpatriotic, you might think. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t new, and a Tory backbencher once wrote that in opposition, “part of you actually starts wanting things to get worse”. He described this as “opposition disease – and it is highly contagious”, and listed some of the symptoms:

…an enthusiastic Tory backbencher like me can hardly wait to switch on the Today programme every morning in order to listen to all the bad news. The health crisis has deepened, the rail network has gone pear-shaped and Tony Blair's mania for world tourism has made him a laughing stock.
… In this topsy-turvy world one frequently has to say the complete opposite of what one means. In calling for Mr Blair to "remember his manifesto, stay at home and put 'schools and hospitals' first", you are secretly hoping that he has forgotten all about the wretched document and is on the next plane to the Congo. …
When you say: "Stephen Byers should come back from India immediately and sort out the rail crisis." You actually mean: "I hope he gets stuck in Delhi airport and there's a general strike."

Most unbecoming. And if you really need to be told who this relentlessly positive, optimism-beating-pessimism, sunshine-winning-the-day Tory was…

Contiguous culling?

Mugabeconomics

Last Wednesday, Zimbabwe issued a new $200,000 note. You could buy a kilo of sugar with it.

According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, monthly inflation was 37.8% in February, 50.5% in March and 100.7% in April – an annual equivalent of nearly 619,000%. After that, they inexplicably stopped publishing the figures.

On the risible assumptions that these official numbers are accurate and that inflation hasn’t risen further since April, the new note should today be able to buy 887 grams of sugar. This time next week, 750 g. The week after, 635 g.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Desperate Dan, desperate measures

This is a PR stunt, right?

The world's longest running comic, The Dandy, has ceased to exist in its traditional format.
The weekly title has been changed to a fortnightly magazine called Dandy Xtreme.

Dandy editor Craig Graham said: "Following extensive research, we discovered The Dandy readers were struggling to schedule a weekly comic into their hectic lives. They just didn't have enough time. They're too busy gaming, surfing the net or watching TV, movies and DVDs."

"They required a guide, packed with the stuff kids need to know to stay in the loop - a lifestyle magazine attuned to their hectic lives, featuring all the latest trends, must-haves, must-sees and must-dos. They made us promise to retain comics, but suggested we make our characters cheekier, edgier, and more extreme."

Hmm.

(Hat tip to Andrew.)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Emergency exit

While I was researching that last post, I came across this little gem in Hansard.

Mr. Speaker: I call Sir Menzies Campbell. [Interruption.] Order. Would hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly?

Brown bounce? Cameron crumble?

Labour’s recent surge in the polls is all very jolly, but isn’t it just a honeymoon for Gordon Brown?

No doubt it is, in part. But it would be daft for anyone to imagine that something as significant as a change in Prime Minister isn’t likely to have a more lasting impact on public opinion.

And there seems to be another factor involved, too: as well as Labour’s and Brown’s ratings going up, we’ve also seen David Cameron’s personal ratings go down.

For instance, Populus regularly asks people to rate party leaders out of ten for their performance. Cameron averaged 5.20 last September, 5.11 this January, 4.95 in May and 4.81 in July. The timescale of this ongoing decline – and the fact that it’s not a comparative question about Cameron vs anyone else – means that this can’t be put down to a ‘Brown bounce’.

And YouGov found back in February that 43% thought Cameron was doing a good job as Conservative leader against 27% who thought not; this had reversed by July with 44% saying no and 27% yes.

So the change in voting intentions looks to be partly being driven by Cameron’s increasingly unimpressive performance – a real danger for the Tories in light of his strategy of personally embodying what the party stands for these days.

Back in December, I said:

The ‘Cameron effect’… has so far amounted to only modest leads. He has not created anything like the sort of popular approval comfort zone that Blair had. Because of this, the Tory core vote is far less forgiving of his modernising pitch towards the centre. This means that the coalition Cameron needs to forge is going to be harder to hold together.

Now that the Tories are behind in the polls, this is even more of a factor. Poor ratings can lead to internal dissent, which of course can lead to even poorer ratings. If he can’t compellingly assert his authority, the only other option is for Cameron to drift back to the party’s comfort zone by going on about things like marriage and Europe. Ahem.

What went down… must come up

But what about Brown? There’s a common view that after a temporary change to his ratings, things will largely settle back down to the status quo.

In a way, I think this could be right. But it’s arguable that the ‘Brown blip’ may actually have been his relative unpopularity over about 18 months.

Averaging results from YouGov polls gives Brown’s net satisfaction ratings through 2003 as +31%. Through 2004 he was at +32% and in the pre-election months of 2005 he was at +40%. But from the end of 2005 to early 2007, he averaged just +10%.

Now of course these relate to satisfaction with his performance as Chancellor, which doesn’t necessarily equate to overall approval, but the figures seem consistent with this hypothesis: rather than currently experiencing a ‘bounce’ in his ratings, which may well not last that long, Brown actually experienced a dip in his ratings, which may now have ended. This dip roughly coincided with the Cameron honeymoon and the increased Labour infighting that led up to Blair’s final party conference.

During this period, the Conservatives turned most of their guns onto Brown, who was hamstrung in his ability to respond by Blair’s continued presence, and Labour’s internal strife, which reflected badly on Brown (seen as masterminding various plots). Now this strange interregnum is over, Brown can get back to making the political weather.

Stealth clunking?

Tony Blair may well protest that he’s been misunderstood. I think he could be right, at least in the case of this remark in the Commons last November:

…because he [Cameron] has no interest in the substance of policy, he can neither understand the long-term challenges facing this country, nor meet them. The next election will be a flyweight versus a heavyweight. However much the right hon. Gentleman may dance around the ring beforehand, at some point, he will come within the reach of a big clunking fist, and you know what, he will be out on his feet, carried out of the ring - the fifth Tory leader to be carried out, and a fourth term Labour Government still standing.

Almost all commentators interpreted this as meaning that Brown would use his intellect, mastery of the facts, huge self-confidence and debating ferocity to land a string of spectacular knockout blows on Cameron in Parliament.

Obviously this hasn’t happened. But that’s not where Brown’s political strengths are. He’s more of a strategist than a performer, and he’s been shrewdly, quietly working away at changing the rules of the political game to favour himself and Labour over Cameron and the Tories. As impressed reactions from Dave Hill and Martin Bright suggest, it’s working.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Zombies, phenomenal judgements and consciousness

Revvvvvvd (aka Jonathan) raises a question about the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Well, this was the subject of my BA dissertation some years back, and as I’m a bit lacking in new things to blog about at the mo, I thought I’d post some lightly edited extracts. If philosophy of mind isn’t your bag, you might want to look away now…

Psychology and neuroscience have made staggering progress over the last century, and will doubtless continue to discover fascinating things about the mind. But there’s a common feeling that however much we might unearth about the workings of the brain, the processing of information, the production of behaviour and so on, that still won’t touch the ‘hard problem’: what philosophers sometimes call ‘phenomenal consciousness’, ‘qualia’, ‘what it’s like’ or ‘the way it feels’.

Some then think that this means consciousness must be non-physical; others accept that it may be physical yet utterly mysterious. The basic idea is that it seems coherent that there could be a universe physically identical to our own but without phenomenal consciousness. This is known as the ‘zombie hypothesis’, in which zombies are beings physically just like us – so they have all the perceptual, cognitive and behavioural abilities we do – but they wholly lack any phenomenally conscious experiences. There is nothing it’s like to be a zombie.

David Chalmers, who coined the phrase ‘hard problem’, takes it as a “conceptual point that the explanation of functions does not suffice for the explanation of experience”. Well, this tells us about a certain conception of consciousness - and I think this is really a misconception.

Concepts cohere for either of two reasons: that they are accurate representations of what is, or could be, true; or that they are open-ended and amorphous, too vague to clash with one another. It is not enough to say that something seems possible; one has to explain how it could be actual. So, what one finds ‘conceptually coherent’ is largely a matter of the concepts one has.

By trying to flesh out the notion of zombies, we can start to see that any physical (and therefore perceptual, cognitive and behavioural) replicas of us would be every bit as conscious as we are.

A zombie has several different sense modalities, by which it receives information about the world. It then processes this information in terms of the regularities it has learned exist among the objects in its environment, and categorises the stimuli as trees, chairs, televisions, parents, books, rainbows, broken legs and so forth. It will then act on its sensory judgements to fulfil its desires, perhaps after weighing up a number of alternatives and balancing immediate satisfaction against long-term plans. It has fluent use of language, and can access its own informational states with great speed and accuracy, making them subject to further cognitive processes. But it is not phenomenally conscious.

A zombie may talk about love, religion, the meaning of life, consciousness, and the possibility of zombies. It may pay close attention to great art, and then discuss it intently. When it finds its house has been broken into, its blood pressure will rise, it will clench its fists and teeth, it will shout words of outrage and anger that it does not feel, and ruminate on the event for much time to come. It will go to wine-tasting evenings, paying hard-earned money to swill liquid around the mouth and then spit it out, on the grounds that it likes the taste - not that it can taste anything. On hearing a good joke, it will laugh so much that it becomes aware of a cramped state of its abdomen eliciting mild aversion. It will sincerely claim that the hilarity causes pain, although it cannot feel either. After the death of its spouse, it will cry uncontrollably, lose motivation to get on with life, have little appetite for food, obsessively access memories of the deceased, and complain that it sees no point in living because it cannot stand the anguish that it does not in fact feel. Because, of course, it is not phenomenally conscious.

A zombie would pass the Turing test with flying colours, for which it will exploit its ability for self-monitoring and higher-order awareness of its own cognitive and perceptual states. Daniel Dennett argues:

[It] would (unconsciously) believe that it was in various mental states - precisely the mental states it is in a position to report about should we ask it questions. It would think it was conscious, even if it wasn’t! Any entity that could pass the Turing test would operate under the (mis?)apprehension that it was conscious.

The conclusion Dennett is pushing us towards is that the zombie example shows that the supposed ‘absent qualia’ have absolutely no effect on whether we claim or believe (beliefs are functional states and hence present in zombies) that we are conscious, or have such concepts as ‘consciousness’, ‘qualia’, and ‘phenomenology’. There is no reason, then, to think that these ‘zombies’ lack anything that we possess, or that they are any less conscious than us.

Chalmers picks up this argument, which he calls “the paradox of phenomenal judgment”, and runs with it. If a nonconscious entity such as a zombie or an incredibly sophisticated robot were asked how it knew that there was, say, a red tricycle in front of it, it would reply “I know there is a red tricycle because I see it there”. When asked how it knows it is seeing it, it would say “I just see it”.

When we ask how it knows that the tricycle is red, it would say the same sort of thing that we do: ‘It just looks red.’ If such a system were reflective, it might start wondering about how it is that things look red, and about why it is that red just is a particular way, and blue another. From the system’s point of view [this] is just a brute fact... Of course from our vantage point we know that this is just because red throws the system into one state, and blue throws it into another; but from the machine’s point of view this does not help.
As it reflected, it might start to wonder about the very fact that it seems to have some access to what it is thinking, and that it has a sense of self. ...[It] might very soon start wondering about the mysteries of consciousness... ‘Why is it that heat feels this way?’; ‘Why am I me, and not someone else?’; ‘I know my processes are just electronic circuits, but how does this explain my experience of thought and perception?’

But Chalmers does not accept that we should attribute phenomenal consciousness to such a system on the grounds that it thinks of itself as conscious - has phenomenal beliefs - just as we do. As a property dualist, he takes consciousness to be an explanandum above and beyond this: “It therefore does not matter if it turns out that consciousness is not required to do any work in explaining other phenomena. Our evidence for consciousness never lay with these other phenomena in the first place”. While our phenomenal beliefs are not caused by our conscious experiences, and thus present (but false) in zombies, they are justified in us. I know I am not a zombie “because of my direct first-personal acquaintance with my experiences”. Acquaintance, he says, “is to stand in a relationship to [the experience] more primitive than belief: it provides evidence for our beliefs, but it does not in itself constitute belief”.

I find Chalmers’ response to the paradox of phenomenal judgement far less convincing than his statement of it. ‘Acquaintance’ is defined as a relation between a conscious subject and an experience, not as an intrinsic property. But relational properties are inessential to the entities of which they are properties. Therefore it is possible for there to be an event or state which is a conscious experience of one’s, but of which one is wholly unaware. I take this to be a reductio ad absurdum of the notion.

Returning to the example of the entity that perceives and introspects ‘nonconsciously’, Chalmers argues that when it distinguishes between colours:

All that [its] central processes have access to is the color information itself, which is merely a location in a three-dimensional information space...
Indeed, as far as central processing is concerned, it simply finds itself in a location in this space. The system is able to make distinctions, and it knows it is... but it has no idea how it does it...
It is natural to suppose that [such] a system... will simply label the states as brutely and primitively different, differing in their ‘quality.’ Certainly, we should expect these differences to strike the system in an ‘immediate’ way: it is thrown into these states which in turn are immediately available for the direction of later processing; there is nothing inferential, for example, about its knowledge of which state it is in. And we should expect these states to be quite ‘ineffable’: the system lacks access to any further relevant information, so there is nothing it can say about the states beyond pointing to their similarities and differences with each other, and to the various associations they might have.

But rather than conclude that this is all that is going on in our own case, Chalmers repeatedly insists that consciousness is something more than phenomenal judgement, and that ‘acquaintance’ is our infallible evidence for it.

He seems to be driven by a conviction that to say that consciousness is nothing more than these phenomenal judgements is to say that consciousness is nothing, full stop. Given such a conviction, his manoeuvres are perhaps understandable. But he has no non-question-begging arguments for this conviction (indeed it seems clearly false), and I believe that phenomenal judgements are quite adequate as a conception of conscious experience.

For example, the last major passage cited from Chalmers showed that the purely physical entity with nothing more to its mind than cognitive processes (including phenomenal judgements) does not know how it finds itself in perceptual states - but neither do we. Nor can it describe these other than in terms of the ways they are similar to and different from each other - as is the case with us. Paul Churchland develops this take on ineffabilty (accepting it, whereas Chalmers rejects it) by introducing the notion of discriminational simples:

These are the features of the world where one is unable to say how it is that one discriminates one such feature from another; one simply can…
Such features must exist, if only to prevent an infinite regress of features discriminated by constituting subfeatures discriminated by constituting sub-subfeatures, and so on. ...Given any person at any time, there must be some set of features whose spontaneous or noninferential discrimination is currently basic for that person... In short, there must be something that counts, for that person, as a set of inarticulable qualia.

Such basic discriminatory states are to be expected in any physical organism which perceives; there is nothing special, nonphysical, or inexplicable about them. The ‘ineffable qualia’ which so seem to evade scientific explanation or objective description are simply a necessary consequence of the degree of access introspection can have to perceptual abilities.

Physically instantiated cognitive functioning (of a certain degree of sophistication) will lead to having concepts of consciousness, phenomenal character, and so forth, and to applying these concepts sincerely to the internal representational states that one becomes aware of via the operation of attention. Anything functioning like this will genuinely believe that it is conscious, and I think that these phenomenal judgements are the only phenomena of consciousness that we have reason to believe in.

Furthermore, this hypothesis can resolve the issue of how to relate experiences to the experiencer – an issue that can lead, via notions like ‘acquaintance’, to the infinite regress of the homunculus fallacy.

Representational states, arising as a result of perception, exist in the brain. When the deployment of attention to the stimulus - or even the state itself - brings such a state into awareness, the information that it carries can spread to higher functional areas in the brain, thus conceptualising that information (so any conscious state has conceptual content). Part, at least, of this process, will involve the use of phenomenal concepts. The state, when conceived of phenomenally, is phenomenal. So rather than having ‘acquaintance’ with an ‘experience’, one has higher-order awareness of a sensory representational state - and this just is an experience. This is to deny the view of some (such as Ned Block and Michael Tye) that one can have an experience without awareness; and it is not to say that an experience must be experienced in order to exist (which creates the intrinsic/relational difficulty and also threatens a regress). It is to say that a representation must be attentionally singled out in order for a conscious experience to exist.

[No doubt this could be better written, and better argued, but by undergraduate standards I still think it’s not bad…]

Blogger’s block

Well, I’m stumped this week and no mistake. Any requests?