Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cartoons

I’m still a bit too bloated to write, so I thought I’d just post a couple of things that have made me laugh out loud this week.

First, Scott Adams explains the securitisation of sub-prime mortgage assets:


And Jesus and Mo on why religion beats science:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Result


Hope everyone had a good one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cheap Extra value jokes

It’d be easy to fume about the Pope’s remarks about sexuality and gender, but really – what’d be the point? This sort of crap is part of his job description. And giving him the attention is exactly what he wants.

So I won’t rant, and I won’t poke snide fun at anyone’s Hitler Youth upbringing. I’m going to be classy. And what’s more, I’m going to let pass without any smirking comment at all a mention I’ve just heard on the news of the Vatican’s views on “deep-seated homosexuality”.

Not a word.

Anyway, I’m far more intrigued by what the following news item described, while I was typing the above, as “Britain’s invisible homeless population”.

I don’t know whether that’s cool or just frightening. I mean, there could be three of them in the room with me right now and I wouldn’t know! Unless the smell gave it away, of course. And, in fact, if they were in the room, they wouldn’t be homeless, they’d just be invisible.

Think I’ll stop now…

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hallelujah, a breath of fresh air

Half the world seems to have done a cover of that old Leonard Cohen number, and the other half seems to have taken up arms in support of one version or another.

IMHO, Jeff Buckley’s really is pretty damn good. Alexandra Burke clearly has a great voice, but this, like many of Cohen’s songs, evokes a depth of knowledge earned through slow suffering – I’m not sure any 20-year-old could really do it justice. Actually, while I like the song itself, I’m not all that wild about Cohen’s own version.

Anyway. I thought I’d get in on the act. Lacking instruments, recording equipment and anything resembling a singing voice, my take is to rewrite the lyrics.

Now I’ve heard the charts a thousand times
(Or at least I’ve seen the singers mime)
I’ll spin a song of satire, cos I know this

It goes like this: use bad breath as
A metaphor for boring, crass
And phony stinking music – halitosis
Halitosis, halitosis, halitosis, halitosis

It’s all alike and makes a stink
But before long we just can’t think
It’s filling up our ears and minds (and noses)

The theory is, if the whole world pongs
We’ll never know they aren’t fresh songs
We’ll hum along to the hum of halitosis
Halitosis, halitosis, halitosis, halitosis

Such formulaic tuneless hits
Are mass-produced by business shits
Who care nothing for art but how it grosses

They manufacture all our sounds
To fill the air and float around
A monkey could do this – who needs composers?
Halitosis, halitosis, halitosis, halitosis

But now and then it works out well
A sweet aroma breaks the smell
And lifts our voices up in Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

And if the masses buy a cover
When we’d prefer they bought another
Well sod it – Merry Christmas, Happy New Year
Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year
Happy New Year... [etc.]
Happy Neeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwww Year

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’

Rowan Williams is the leading intellectual of the Church of England, in much the same way that Prince Charles is the leading intellectual of the royal family. He (Williams) says:

The 20th century built up quite a list of casualties around ‘principles’ in [Karl] Barth’s sense. Various philosophies solemnly assured us that the human cost is really worth it, because history will vindicate the sufferings and sacrifices of the present. Keep your nerve, don’t be distracted by the human face of suffering, because it will be all right in the end; we know it will because the principles are clear.

How could anyone read such a passage – let alone write it – and not think of Christianity as the classic exemplar of the ‘keep your nerve… it will be all right in the end’ school of thought ?

He says that Barth was warning against “the temptation of unconditional loyalty to a system, a programme, a ‘cause’ which was essentially about ‘me and people like me’”. But he exempts Christianity: “everyone is capable of saying yes to this appeal, so no one is dispensable”.

There are indeed parts of Christian teaching that apply universally. There are other parts that place non-believers in a clearly inferior moral category. Williams (usually) chooses to emphasise the former parts; many other Christians prefer the latter. Williams’s choice here is, therefore, made on some basis other than being derivable from the Bible: his temperament? Or even principle? Because that’s what it is: a belief in the universal and unconditional worth of all people is a belief in a principle; it’s just one that he happens to think there’s a God who agrees with him about.

The mythology of the Gospels, and the institutional history of the Church, are pretty rickety vehicles for this principle (and they carry many less savoury passengers). But Williams loves these old bangers. Heigh ho.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

New laptop

It's sleek and it works and it exists and everything.

Excellent.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mindeth thy language

Jan Freeman (no relation) muses on clumsy archaisms:

Last weekend, I was ready to grouse and grumble once more about my fellow journalists' weakness for misusing ye olde Elizabethan verbs.
First there was Gail Collins in the New York Times: "I like thinking of next year's senate as a kind of mythic quest movie," she wrote, "in which a Democratic hero in need of a stimulus package or a Supreme Court confirmation is told: 'Go forth and seeketh the Women of Maine.' "
The next day, the Sunday Globe's main page one headline - on a story about the Bruins' resurgence - was "The icemen returneth."
My problem is not the archaism but the grammar: These constructions are as off-kilter as "They has a problem" or "We loves Christmas." That verb ending on seeketh and returneth is not a poetic flourish, but a mark of the third person singular: He, she, or it returneth. Thou return'st, if thou must, but for everyone else it's just return.

Fair call.

One of the few places we still see authentic archaisms is in Biblical quotation: “Thou shalt not kill”, “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” The King James Version had a huge influence on the development of English, although it of course reflected existing language use at the time (1611).

Thing is, for us to quote it now is a little bit phony. I can happily agree that its language is often very graceful (perhaps not surprising, as I’ve been brought up in its cultural wake). Compare, for instance, the New International Version (1970s): “You shall not murder”, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. Ugh. Probably better semantically (killing in self-defence is now acceptable), but there’s no poetry.

But there’s a phoniness involved in the archaic KJV quotes and readings that we hear: it’s old language; it feels old; thus it feels authentic. But it’s not. None of the characters in the Bible, including the ones that actually existed, spoke Early Modern English. They spoke appropriately contemporary language.

And then there’s the manner of speech. Take this passage:

But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. (KJV)

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’. (NIV)

Now, for my money, the KJV kicks arse. But it’s also ridiculous for us to be using it as a reference tool. Even though all the words are still in use, the phraseology is all wrong. Nobody now says ‘much displeased’ unless they’re intending to sound theatrically (or even Biblically) formal. Ditto constructions such as ‘forbid them not’. This usage of ‘suffer’ is near-extinct – and it would certainly be extinct if not for the famous texts, such as this, that use it.

Jesus, by all accounts, was not a lofty establishment figure. He was a man from a common background, without a privileged upbringing. That’s part of the point. There’s simply no way he would have spoken in such overwrought, self-consciously formal archaisms. The KJV, while it might have been reasonable in the 17th century, and while it might still have more resonance, now misleads us in this respect.

But for those of us who treat the Bible as a mish-mash of mythology, allegory, dodgy history, anachronistic diet tips, guesswork, fiction, genealogy and moral teachings that are intermittently wise, banal, arbitrary and bigoted, that’s fine. We can pick the version that reads the nicest (should we want to) and not worry about accuracy, because the whole fundamental premise of this odd collection of texts is itself wildly inaccurate.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Momentary failure of perspective

Standing in the supermarket, getting pissed off that all their wrapping paper is Christmas-themed, meaning that I can’t use it for birthday presents the rest of the year.

79p a roll.

I got over it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The kind of language he understands

You know, I think George Bush’s reaction to having shoes thrown at him was probably the finest moment of his presidency. He was quick, calm and cheery.

Watch it here.

Compare it with his agonising attempt to answer a question about what his biggest mistake has been and what lesson’s he’s learned. That was in 2004. And let’s not forget his educational response to the news of major terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

But flying shoes – well, he’s the man. Can you imagine Barack Obama handling that even a tenth as well? To Mount Rushmore, and don’t spare the chisels!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some powers are made for abuse

Everyone is crying corruption at the allegations that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. And corrupt that would indeed be, if it’s true.

But what’s more corrupt is the fact that he has the power to appoint a replacement at all. Blame the seventeenth amendment, which has this to say:

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

A state can call a quick by-election, but it need not. The Governor – if the state legislature agrees – can appoint anyone to fill the vacancy, unelected, often until the next set of normal biennial elections.

It’s a corrupt power, one of a number in US politics – presidential pardons being the most egregious example. It allows someone in one part of the system to meddle with the workings of a part that’s supposed to be separate, to the benefit of whomever that person likes.

(Not that other countries don’t also have systemic corruption – the UK, after all, has an entirely unelected upper house.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Campaign for Real Soap

Matthew Parris:

In the shower yesterday, I was struggling with some idiotic substance called “shower scrub”. (It was in a bottle that you couldn't hold, squeeze and collect from, while at the same time trying to wash yourself with the other hand. You lost most of it down the plughole.) And I remembered the late Alan Coren's column about things invented in the wrong order.
So here, Alan, is another for your list: that brilliant new invention for the shower: a washing agent in solid form; self-cleaning; economical; easily handled; no caps to lift or seal; no packaging but a discardable paper wrap; unable to be spilt down the plughole; and giving an all-day perfume to your bathroom! It's called “soap”.

Norm:

Apart from being handier than the alternatives, soap also has more admirable metaphysical properties: its solidity is reassuringly definite, giving users a thorough sense of the objectivity of the world; and it looks like what it is, rather than like any number of possible substances.

I completely agree.

And what’s more, without good old-fashioned bars of soap, this awful, awful joke wouldn’t work:

Two nuns are having a bath. One says: “Where’s the soap?” The other replies: “Yes, it does, doesn’t it?”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Timing

Heh:

Supreme Court Overturns Bush v. Gore

In an unexpected judicial turnaround, the Supreme Court this week reversed its 2000 ruling in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore, stripping George W. Bush of his earlier political victory, and declaring Albert Arnold Gore the 43rd president of the United States of America.
The court, which called its original decision to halt manual recounts in Florida "a ruling made in haste," voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of the 2000 Democratic nominee.
Gore will serve as commander in chief from Dec. 10 to Jan. 20.
...

Logical conclusions

David Cameron opposes temporary tax cuts to counter the recession:

we need to act now to set our economy and our public finances on a sustainable path - because doing so will help make the recession shorter and shallower.

If people know that they will be hit with massive tax rises in a couple of years, they’re less inclined to spend more now. If businesses know that Government borrowing is rising to unsustainable levels they know that will de-stabilise our economy and so they’re going to be wary about playing a more active role in that economy.

For these reasons, fiscal responsibility is the right economic strategy for the short-term as well as the long-term. It is right for today, as well as tomorrow. Dealing with Labour’s recession and dealing with Labour’s record debt are not separate priorities – one urgent, the other to be put on the back burner. They are intimately connected priorities and they are both urgent priorities.

Fair enough.

But if you believe that the quality of the recovery will be determined by the level of public borrowing, and that deficit reduction is thus an urgent matter, surely you should be pressing for immediate temporary tax rises – to be followed eventually by tax cuts only when you’ve achieved spending cuts already?

Dave?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Novice: ‘No time for a lightweight’

Were my laptop not in a coma, I’d have time to write a considered piece about the bills in the Queen’s Speech – or anything else, really. Instead, I’m reduced to plugging second-hand gossip for a cheap partisan chuckle:

On meeting Cameron, Obama was, according to diplomatic sources, "distinctly unimpressed", contrary to some reports (excitedly spun by the Conservatives) which suggested that the two men had formed an instant "bond". Instead, I have been told, Obama exclaimed of Cameron after their meeting: "What a lightweight!"

Tee-hee!

(Shame on me.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The ancient right of good chaps not to be bothered by the oiks in uniform

Paulie continues to offer a series of good posts on this Damian Green kerfuffle affront to democracy and incipient Stalinism. There is no more beautiful a sight than a clever blogger with a bee in his bonnet. Except for Salma Hayek, possibly.

And Luke points out footage of the Shadow Cabinet not seeming all that bothered…

And me? What with only being able to grab spare moments of computer time at work and none at home, I’m reduced to posting links and having cheap fun:



Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tumbleweed central

My laptop is critically (perhaps terminally) ill, so I’ll be doing little or no blogging until I can get it either nursed back to health or taken out to the back yard, shot and replaced.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Horses’ heads are for wimps

So. I’m on the third floor, wanting to go up to the fifth. I press the ‘up’ button and wait for one of the lifts to arrive. One does, and as its doors open some guy appears from somewhere behind me, breezes into it and presses ‘B’ (for basement - keep up, please).

Thrown momentarily, I neither follow him into the lift nor say ‘actually, that was my lift to go up’. I realise that the ‘up’ summons light has now gone off because the system expected this one to be going up. I need to call another, and as the doors to the hijacked lift close, I press ‘up’ again. The lift doors stop closing and reopen.

This lift clearly still thinks it’s supposed to be going up (which makes two of us), and it’ll think that until the doors have had a chance to close and new directions been given. Then it’ll take this miserable interloper down to his Basement of Treachery, and only after it’s set off will I be able to summon a new one. Or I could perfectly well just hop in to it, press ‘5’ and it’ll go to 5. But then I’ll have to share the lift with this shiftless cur, with each of us trying not to glower at and/or knife the other.

So I let the doors to the lift close again. Almost. Then I press ‘up’ again, and the doors reopen. Given where I’m standing, he can’t see me.

I do this to him another four times.

Then I let him go. Satisfied, I call another lift and get on with my day.

Do not cross me. My vengeance is swift and terribly silly.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Green fingered

I’d like to comment at some length on the propriety of the arrest of Damian Green, based on my detailed knowledge of the information the police acted on, what they found during their searches, the questions they asked him, the answers he gave, and the precise nature of his relationship with the civil servant in question.

Alas, I have no such detailed knowledge. So I’ll restrict myself to a few general thoughts.

Some elements of this story are lamentably predictable:

The laughable shrieks of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘police state’; the shocking revelation that police searches are unpleasant when conducted at the home of a well-connected Good Egg; friends of the arrested man protesting their bafflement that anyone could imagine he’d do any wrong; the lack of political savvy by the police; the apparent assumption among disgusted commentators that it’s the police’s primary task to have more political savvy; the eye-rolling near-certainty that the positions of the Labour and Tory leaderships would have been reversed had the latter been in power; and the declaration by Shami Chakrabarti that “It is always dangerous to speculate about ongoing investigations, but…”

More novel, and a potentially worrying precedent for any number of people, is the peculiarity of the Home Office permanent secretary’s calling in the police rather than investigating the leaks internally.

Paulie has some good points to make about this affair, in particular that there’s a relevant distinction not just between leaks that damage national security and those that cause political embarrassment, but also between leaks made on grounds of conscientious objection to ministerial secrecy and those made on grounds of being a de facto spy for the opposition.

Although I don’t agree that Parliamentary privilege should be quite as sacrosanct as he might like. As Vernon Bogdanor says:

MPs are subject to criminal law as much as the rest of us… Their parliamentary privilege only extends to speeches in the chamber, not their offices. If an MP were accused of theft and keeping stolen goods in his office at the House of Commons, should he be exempt from a police investigation?

Whether Green’s arrest was reasonable as part of an investigation depends utterly on the specifics of the case. I dunno those.

But I do agree that Parliament (particularly the elected half of it) must be sovereign, and that while of course nobody can be above the rule of law, the law itself must be subordinate to democracy. On this tension, I can’t improve on this comment from Owen Barder:

If MPs believe that the good functioning of democracy depends on more information being made available than is currently required and allowed by law, then they should change the law, not break it.
For the police to enforce the law, as passed by Parliament, is not an intrusion of police power into democracy. Enforcing the law is the job of the police; and if Parliament doesn’t like the law then they are in a peculiarly strong position to do something about it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Qatar hero

I’m always glad of the opportunity to pun. So thanks to the Economist (via Alice Fishburn) for this:

The [GDP growth] champion [in 2009], according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's forecasts… will be Qatar, whose gas-fired economy is forecast to grow by 13.4%.

Bravo, plucky little lead Qatar!

But wait:

Qatar will be a champion in other ways too: its population will grow by more than 14%, to 1.8m, thanks to the world's highest rate of immigration.

Er… if your population grows by over 14% and your GDP grows by 13.4%, your people are actually getting poorer. So even while it sits atop two league tables, Qatar gently weeps.

OK, I’m finished now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taxes, prices and bloggers

Two of the most interesting points I’ve seen made about the Pre-Budget Report are from bloggers. This should surprise no one other than those people in the mainstream media who are unable to grasp that prominence and salary are a poor guarantee of insight.

First, Snowflake responds to the argument that prices are falling a lot, so a smallish VAT cut won’t make any difference to consumers:

In the current tough retail climate, retailers are slashing prices… When retailers slash prices, they are in effect slashing their margins. But there is a limit as to how low they can slash. …
VAT represents a cost to business. So the 2.5% cut means that they should be able to maintain small margins even while discounting, and hence forstall the need to cut costs through letting employees go.

Second, Chris Dillow on a possible downside to these same falling prices:

inflation is highly likely to turn negative later next year…
This matters, because state pensions and social security benefits are usually changed in line with September’s inflation.
If the Chancellor were to do this next year, though, he’d have to cut benefits in nominal terms. In a rational world, this might or might not be feasible, But in our world, it is almost certainly politically unacceptable.
So he’ll have to announce a real rise in benefits. …
This rise would add to scepticism about whether Darling really has the stomach to cut spending. Which in turn might increase the pressure upon him to raise taxes.

There are some clever, well-informed, interesting people writing for the newspapers. But they’re often constrained by the editorial/business need for published stories to have a punchy narrative – not to mention the fixed deadlines and word counts. If you want sharp, uncommon insights presented for their own sake, blogs (the good ones) are hard to beat. Not that intelligent blogs don’t have good writing – indeed they’re less likely to OD on the clich├ęd rhetorical devices that are deemed to sell newspapers.

(Chris, I should note, does in fact have write for the mainstream media too – albeit a niche section of it. His Investors Chronicle pieces are good, but his blog’s better. Hope this remark doesn’t get him fired…)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

‘Didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining’

This is a pretty good soundbite the Tories have. They used it again yesterday. And why not? It’s punchy, and contains some truth about recent government borrowing – although the situation is a bit more complex.

I thought it might be interesting to take this roof/sunshine metaphor and see how it deals with economic policy over the Tory years.

When Margaret Thatcher took over the running of the house, it was not in good shape. And as the storm clouds gathered, she and Geoffrey Howe kicked everyone outside and locked the door. The rain poured down, and many of the residents tried to get back in through the windows, but Norman Tebbit chucked roof tiles at them until they stopped. It was for their own good.

Finally, the rains abated. The people, drenched and shivering, were gradually let back in to the now badly damaged house.

As the rainwater was slowly clearing, the Tories saw the sun starting to shine. So they sent people out into the garden to enjoy it. Then they pumped tons of CFCs into the air, creating an ozone hole above the house, making the sun far more dangerous. Then Nigel Lawson crept up onto the roof and coated it with flammable tar, while also setting up a series of large magnifying glasses mounted on poles around the gutter, pointing sunwards. Before long, the roof started to smoulder and burn.

Seeing this, most of the Tories rushed into the back yard and performed a rain dance, while a few of them scurried off to concrete over the nearby flood plains.

The rains came, in great quantity, and everyone scrambled inside (although by this point Thatcher had been forced out by her unruly maintenance team).

John Major instructed Norman Lamont to grab the biggest sledgehammer he could find and start smashing holes in the roof. This went on until George Soros reached in through one of the holes, grabbed the hammer, sold it, and in the process accidentally dropped a big tarpaulin over the roof.

Things gradually calmed down and started to dry out, although most of the furniture was wrecked by now. Major started chirping about ‘green shoots of recovery’, although as these shoots were coming up through the rotted, damp-sodden floorboards, not everyone was impressed. Ken Clarke got up on the roof and filled a few of the holes in, although the ash from his cigars did threaten to start small fires now and then.

The residents’ association finally replaced the management company.

In his first four years or so, Gordon Brown actually did a prodigious amount of roof-fixing. But his focus shifted to replacing the soiled furniture and dilapidated appliances, about which residents had for years been getting rightly angrier and angrier. The roof received less attention, although a couple of bouts of rotten weather came and went, which the house survived in better shape than many others in the neighbourhood.

Now it’s really pouring, and the roof could really be in better nick – although the idea that the neighbours all have much better roofs is way off the mark.

But – and now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to drop the metaphor, having dragged its carcass behind my pickup until only a bloody and formless mass remains – there’s one big difference between now and the last two recessions. The government may be somewhat restricted in how big and lasting a fiscal stimulus it can apply – as was also the case previously – but it’s not ruling it out ideologically. It’s doing what it can. And so too is there a hefty monetary loosening underway, as was ruled out by government policy in the last two recessions.

This government doesn’t believe that ‘if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working’. It isn’t obsessed with arcane money supply targets. It doesn’t treat the exchange rate as a virility symbol. And it doesn’t believe that mass unemployment is ‘a price well worth paying’ for short-term balancing the books.

It’s certainly made some mistakes, although it’s by no means alone in that. But now it’s doing more or less the right thing, and so for the first time in my lifetime, a recession will be fought with strongly counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policy.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Post-dated new top tax rate: like I said

The least important thing about today’s tax news is that I told you so:

In a pre-election Budget, Alistair Darling declares that now the economy is recovering, it’s possible (and desirable) to cut back on borrowing. So he announces a new income tax band for very high earners.
… The tax change could be set to come in the following year. So voters will still have their chance to accept or reject it as they like.

But I’m a shallow, vain little man, so I’m mentioning it anyway.

I was wrong about the timing of the announcement. And, on reflection, it makes more sense to say it now rather than later. For one thing, the markets want to see that the Government is serious about reducing the deficit in years to come. For another, the Tories would bang away on the ‘taxes will need to rise’ drum for month after month, and announcing this tax rate now sets the terms of that debate.

They’ll soon find that they too are trapped, along with Labour, by ‘taxes will need to rise’. So if they oppose the new top rate, they’ll have to explain why they favour the burden of tax rises falling more on people who aren’t very rich.

And kudos to Ewan Aitken, who plugged the political, social and economic wisdom of a higher income tax rate in light of the recession a good five days before me (although, as he notes, such a rate is not exactly a new idea).

(I’m assuming that the media reports are accurate. If not, then I’ve just made myself look pretty stupid.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

We don’t need a divine credit rating agency

Towards the end of a piece on souls and embryo research, Andrew Brown says:

It seems to me that one of the reasons that a moral philosopher might postulate God is that it doesn't make much sense to talk about things being valuable and worthwhile if you aren't prepared to suggest to whom or what they are valuable or worthwhile.
This is where the God of orthodox Christianity comes in handy, because he is by definition the only being who can value everything entirely for its own sake.

But something can be valuable without actually being valued. The kind of worth that’s generally associated with being a person is not the same as the kind that a credit rating agency assigns.

And if things (presumably people) are to be valuable entirely for their own sakes, then the notion of a third-party valuer is pointless: you can’t have intrinsic worth that is externally bestowed. If we need god to impart value to us, then that is subjective worth – and we must all be worthless in ourselves.

And if god values things for their own sakes, then why is a living child more valuable than a dead one? Both are ‘things’ in their own right. To make the distinction you need some criteria of worthiness – and once you have those, they can apply regardless of whether god’s in the picture.

The existence of god is of very little relevance to philosophical questions of worth, morality or purpose.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Listless BNP members

Ah, the BNP. Always good for a laugh – at least, in their gibberingly incompetent weirdo aspect rather than their detestable racist scum aspect.

Chris Applegate has had the brilliant idea of making lolcats images of Nick Griffin in his hour of need. Check out lolgriffin.

My own humble offering:

What did Lamont and Cameron get up to?

I was struck by a throwaway comment from David Cameron’s speech:

Neither do I think, as some do, that this recession means we should revoke the independence of the Bank of England in setting interest rates. I have seen at first hand the damage that political interference can bring.

Cameron was a political adviser to Norman Lamont in 1992–93, so he’d certainly have been able to see what went on inside the Treasury at first hand.

Of course, it wasn’t the sort of role where he’d have been seriously involved in making economic policy. But it was definitely a job where – if there was political interference to be done – he could play a part in it.

At the very least, this quote (coupled with his failure to resign in disgust at the time) implies that he was complicit in such shenanigans. Details, please!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The show-me state is still counting

Missouri, the so-called ‘show-me state’, has yet to show us who it voted for as president.

Last night, McCain led Obama by 1,444,947 to 1,440,543. At time of blogging, he’s ahead by 1,445,022 to 1,440,667. No indication of when they’ll be done (re)counting.

Had the election been closer across the rest of the country, Missouri – with its 11 electoral votes – might well have been the Florida of 2008. Think how nasty it could have got.

Tax cuts, then tax rises: an electoral scenario

David Cameron is right:

Gordon Brown knows that borrowing [to fund tax cuts] today means higher taxes tomorrow.

But he’s also wrong:

Everyone knows the prime minister is planning a Christmas tax giveaway, but tax cuts should be for life, not just for Christmas.

The thing about an anti-recession fiscal stimulus is that it can perfectly well be temporary. Then, when decent growth resumes, you can tighten the reins again.

So tax cuts now, presumably targeted at lower earners (and/or rises in tax credits) will need to be reversed later, right?

Wrong. Some fiscal tightening or other will be needed later on – but not necessarily in the same place. And this means there’s no reason for Brown to go into an election trying to claim that no tax rises are on the way.

Imagine this:

In a pre-election Budget, Alistair Darling declares that now the economy is recovering, it’s possible (and desirable) to cut back on borrowing. So he announces a new income tax band for very high earners.

But wait! Labour promised at the last election not to raise the top rate of tax! Surely a move such as this would ruin the Government?

No. I didn’t say they implement the higher tax rate, just that they announce it. The tax change could be set to come in the following year. So voters will still have their chance to accept or reject it as they like.

The package could be sweetened a little by adding to it a small cut in the basic rate of income tax, on the grounds that while the recession is past, many ‘hard-working families’ are still feeling the pinch and deserve some extra help. This will take up some of the money raised by the new top rate, but still allow most of it to go on reducing debt.

The Budget is passed; the election is called. How do the Tories fight this?

First of all, they’d have to take the side of the super-rich versus the vast majority in terms of who’d gain and lose. And secondly, as the policy would be enshrined in legislation (even if time-delayed), it would in effect be the status quo – undoing that always provokes more howls from the losers than proposing different future plans from the other lot. How do they fight it?

I wonder. Could Labour’s electoral chances really be helped by plans for higher income tax on top earners? It goes against new Labour’s founding principles. But these are very different times. Will the post-recession middle class feel more aspirational (against tax rises for the rich in the hope of becoming rich themselves) or consolidatory (supporting whatever will help their finances now)?

Whichever party can best adapt to the new climate will do well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Steamboat Itchy

Today is the 75th birthday of the world’s best-loved cartoon mouse, Itchy.

Trade-offs

Anticant posted this quote the other day:

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.
Oscar Ameringer

Which I hadn’t heard before. But it reminded me of this one:

Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to.
Hannen Swaffer

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The billionaires’ thinko

A lovely word (which I think might have been coined by Daniel Dennett) is ‘thinko’. This is when you think (and possibly also say or write or type) the wrong word. You say or write or type it perfectly well, it’s the thinking that’s gone astray. You know what you mean, and an instant’s reflection would alert you to your mistake, but your brain momentarily associates the wrong word with the right meaning, and it just slips through.

Here’s a nice one in the Independent (which also slipped past the sub):

Last year, the shadow Chancellor George Osborne won plaudits by pledging to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1bn.

There’s no way that ‘bn’ is a typo for ‘m’. And the writer, Andrew Grice, certainly knows his stuff. So, a thinko. Either that or it’s a great scoop and Osborne’s far more right-wing than I thought.

Update: And while we're on the subject of everyone's favourite shadow chancellor, I am almost willing to forgive the Mail everything on account of this story:

Embattled Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has had voice-coaching lessons from a £100-an-hour expert in London’s Harley Street in an attempt to improve his image, it was revealed last night.
Some observers claim that in the past year his voice has dropped in tone and his speaking style sounds less posh.

If it weren't 10.57pm on Sunday, I'd now launch into a spoof Osborne-as-cockney routine. Instead, I'll get some kip.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Welfare payments don’t kill babies; monstrous people kill babies

I don’t have much to say about the ‘Baby P’ case, mainly because the needless horror of it defies my ability to articulate.

But I want to make a small point about some of the commentary on it. This Times leader, a voice that strives for respectability, is a good example.

But this is not just a story about Haringey, or the child protection system. It is a story about Britain today. … Baby P was not killed by low-paid social workers, but at the hands of adults who were unimaginably depraved. These adults were part of Britain's dependency community.
… The story of Baby P provides a glimpse into the colossal failure of community, in which dependency on the State is a way of life.

The story of Baby P is one that will haunt Britain for years to come. But for some, its message is already all too clear: that this has become a country where the State's largesse can be a lifelong livelihood; where parents can have as many children with as many partners as they please without feeling obliged to care for any of them; and where the maximum penalty for a campaign of torture and sadism against a defenceless child is 14 years in prison.

You can find less temperate phrasing in the tabloids, but the basic point, and the sheer wrongness of it, are apparent here.

I’m happy to hear the argument that welfare can breed dependency, sapping both initiative and personal responsibility. Sometimes this case, one-sided as it is, has merits and sometimes not. But this use of it is really beyond the pale. The destruction of Baby P’s life is a crime of a wholly different magnitude from the ‘fecklessness’ that right-wingers denounce among welfare recipients. There is no continuum that slides from fiddling the dole to beating a baby to death.

It is an awful case; it may well be emblematic of the worst in British society and of the worst in human nature; but it is exceptional. That it has happened says far less about us than how we choose to respond.

They say that hard cases make bad laws; they can also make bad ideologies.

(And, with a little more poignancy than usual, it’s this time of year.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Unholy brain-teaser

To pass time in Heaven (there’s a lot of time around), Gabriel says to God: “Our Father, who art right here, might Thou deign to think of a number, any positive whole number, entirely at random?” God, being supremely benevolent, and also a bit bored, agrees. Gabriel says: “Now, if it doth please Thee, my Lord and shepherd, write the number down (or possibly carve it on stone tablet).” Again, God does so.

“And finally, O great and infinite creator of all that is good and true, Thy humble servant beseecheth Thee to hang around for a little while, for I am shortly going to ask Thee to think of a second, different number, any positive whole number, entirely at random. But don’t think of it just yet!” God murmurs: “THIS HAD BETTER BE GOING SOMEWHERE.”

“But it is, most svelte and magnificent one. I am going to bamboozle a newcomer.” Gabriel then turns to you (you’re in Heaven too, following a freak thumb-twiddling accident and perhaps, for all I know, a clerical error by St Peter) and says:

“Right. I’m taking bets on which of these two numbers will be larger. What do you say?”

(a) The first number will probably be larger than the second; I’ll bet a month’s supply of ambrosia.
(b) The second number will probably be larger than the first; I’ll bet a month’s supply of ambrosia.
(c) The first number will almost certainly be larger than the second; I’ll bet my immortal soul.
(d) The second number will almost certainly be larger than the first; I’ll bet my immortal soul.
(e) They’re both random! Either number is equally likely to be larger; I’m not betting on what’s basically a coin-toss.

So, assuming that God has followed Gabriel’s directions perfectly (He is perfect, after all) – and assuming that gambling isn’t sinful – what do you say? Why?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Bank’s self-falsifying projections

According to the Bank of England’s inflation report, we are projected to have a nasty but not horrendous recession over the next year or so. But the report also suggests that things won’t be as bad as projected.

Here’s the Bank’s projection for GDP growth, showing the economy shrinking around 2% from its peak (the darker area of the curve shows the central projection; the lighter bands show the range of outside possibilities):


It doesn’t look good. But you have to remember that this is not a prediction (‘we think this will happen’) but a projection (‘we think this would happen given certain assumptions’). And one of the key assumptions is what will happen with interest rates. As the report says:

This assumes that Bank Rate, following a path implied by market yields prevailing prior to the Committee’s November decision, falls from an average of 4% in the fourth quarter of this year to around 2.75% in the second half of next year, before picking back up to around 4% by 2011.

But this assumption is wrong. For one thing, rates are already lower than the assumed 4%, having been cut to 3% a week ago. For another, the Bank’s inflation projections suggest that larger rate cuts than those assumed are likely. Here’s the inflation graph:


So inflation is projected to fall very sharply, back to the Bank’s target of 2% by the middle of 2009, and then significantly below target – where it would stay for some time. This gives the Bank the opportunity – and indeed the mandate – to cut rates below the assumed level in order to avoid an inflation undershoot later next year and in 2010.

This projection makes it extremely likely that that the interest-rates assumption on which it is based will be false. So the unacceptability of the inflation projection makes it likely that the GDP projection is pessimistic. Rates will go lower, inflation won’t go so low, and the economy won’t contract quite so painfully.

That is, assuming that all the Bank’s other assumptions are right…

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pretty soon you’re talking real money (in Mandarin)

It wasn’t just the Olympics. When you don’t have voters and a free press to worry about, you can really push the publicly funded boat out a long way.

China is planning a fiscal stimulus over the next two years of $586 billion – that’s in the region of 15% of GDP.

Clearly, desperate times call for desperate measures: the IMF predicts Chinese economic growth will slow sharply next year to a measly 8.5%...

I don’t have any clever points to make – I’m just agog at the numbers. This century is going to be very different from the last.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Glenrothes byelection

Having stayed up late to watch the result come in, Barack Obama was first on the phone to congratulate Labour’s Lindsay Roy. “This is a watershed moment in British politics,” the President-Elect told the new MP. Mr Roy replied: “Aye, we can.”

The McCain campaign is sending the SNP’s Alex Salmond a gift of $250,000 worth of designer dresses (hardly worn) in an effort to console him.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Four and Twenty

A popular idea among inspiration-starved TV executives is to take an existing programme and set it in an earlier era (‘Edwardian Super Size Me’, ‘Dancing on Renaissance Ice’, ‘Restoration Restoration’ and the like).

So here’s my pitch for a new real-time action drama series, ‘Four and Twenty’, to be set in the Generic Period of English history (don’t want to demand too much knowledge of the viewers):

Knaves and vile Scotsmen plot to kill the King!

Kiefer, Earl of Sutherland, Head of the Household Counter-Catholic Unit, has but four and twenty hours in which to unmask the curs and thwart their monstrous treason. And yet his virginal daughter, the Lady Kimberley, is at risk of falling into the impious clutches of myriad nefarious brutes and varlets – her honour must be defended.

Will his lordship prevail? None can know – and yet one may dare to wager that this could indeed be the longest day of his life…

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

You betcha!

Ahhh... joy. Now we don’t have to pray daily for McCain’s good health.

I think it’s wonderful that despite all the sly smears, despite the grim cloud of prejudice, the voters of the USA have made history by electing their first Muslim president.

But seriously: the fact Obama’s been ahead in the polls for ages shouldn’t make us forget that this is extraordinary. And those two speeches last night were two of the best I’ve heard in a long time. Credit to McCain for his gracious, honourable concession. And Obama had me a bit moist-eyed at points. Probably the beer and tiredness helped there too.

Ahhh… everything will be perfect now.

But let’s bear in mind something Paul McCartney said recently: “Barack Obama will be the greatest next president of America”. I’d guess he meant that Obama would be the next president and would be the greatest, but taken literally it’s absolutely true. Obama, as a living metaphor for the future, is a quite brilliant receptacle for the nation’s hopes and dreams. How he’ll actually do in office is another matter.

I’m betting he’ll be an improvement on that guy they’ve got at the moment, though.

Stuff the West Wing – this rocks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama is going to win

A month ago, I tentatively predicted an Obama win. I don’t believe in ‘jinxing’, so all I risk here is making myself look stupid. Obama is going to win. (I’m not the only one saying this: I’ve cunningly positioned myself inside a giraffe enclosure before sticking my neck out.)

First, and briefly, the national polls (all numbers via RealClearPolitics). Here are the averages of Obama’s leads in the Rasmussen, Gallup, Zogby and Hotline daily tracking polls for the last three weeks – he has consistently been ahead, and has stretched his lead in the last few days:


But it’s all about the Electoral College, of course. You need 270 votes to win. How are they both doing?

Obama has been ahead in all the states John Kerry won in 2004: Oregon, California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, DC, Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin. All these leads have been comfortable, although in the last week Pennsylvania has narrowed – let’s come back to it later, so without it that’s 231 electoral votes for Obama.

Of the states Bush won in 2004, McCain has been more or less solidly ahead in Idaho, Alabama, Tennessee, Alaska, Kentucky, Texas, Mississippi, S Carolina, Arkansas, W Virginia, S Dakota, Kansas, Louisiana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma and Georgia. In Indiana, Arizona, N Dakota and Montana, Obama has narrowed McCain’s earlier lead substantially. Obama had been leading narrowly in N Carolina but McCain has very recently edged back ahead. Missouri has been swinging back and forth for a month and is now neck-and-neck. Let’s give all of these to McCain (I’m being a touch generous to him here), for a total of 200 electoral votes in the bank.

Iowa has gone strongly behind Obama. New Mexico has gone fairly well for him, as has Nevada. That takes Obama to 248 electoral votes – 22 short of a win.

What’s left? Five states. Here they are, with electoral votes and averages of the latest polls:

  • Florida: 27 ev, Obama +1.8%
  • Ohio: 20 ev, Obama +3.2%
  • Pennsylvania: 21 ev, Obama +7.6%
  • Virginia: 13 ev, Obama +4.3%
  • Colorado: 9 ev, Obama +5.5%

Florida alone, or any two of the others, will do it for Obama. It looks good for him. He could well sweep them all.

So: what if the polls are wrong?

It would take a lot of polls, by a lot of different pollsters, being wrong for McCain to really be ahead. In 2004, the averages of the final polls were fairly accurate:

  • National: Bush +2.0 (result Bush +2.4)
  • Florida: Bush +0.6 (result Bush +5.0)
  • Ohio: Bush +2.1 (result Bush +2.1)
  • Pennsylvania: Kerry +0.9 (result Kerry +2.5)

Florida was notably off, but McCain needs the polls to be quite a bit wronger than last time. If they are, Obama still has a decent cushion: he can drop five points off his lead in every state and still win with Colorado and Pennsylvania. I truly don’t think that race is biasing the polls towards Obama, and I’m not sure what other new factor might.

Finally, there’s one other way the polls could be wrong. They might be understating Obama’s support. They mostly survey so-called ‘likely voters’, who are generally defined demographically based on previous turnout among various social groups. But if Obama’s candidacy really can get young people and African-Americans to the polls in better than the usual low numbers, then he’d be on for a landslide. And the signs are that turnout will be higher than usual.

Barring massive electoral fraud, Obama is going to win. I’m confident. But rather more than my reputation as a seer is on the line, of course. And my fingers are still crossed...

3pm Update: A few extra polls came out this morning. They put Obama ahead by 2% in Ohio, 9 and 10% in Pennsylvania, 1 and 3% in Florida, 4 and 7% in Virginia; N Carolina and Missouri are tied; and nationally, Obama is 8, 9 and 11% ahead.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The winning formula

Andy Zaltzman is not only funny, he’s also very observant. On Saturday, he pointed out:

on the evidence of the past 40 years, the Democrats win elections only in years in which a British driver takes the Formula One world title, and British drivers only ever win Formula One titles in years in which the Democrats take the White House.
The Jimmy Carter-James Hunt ticket did the business in 1976. In 1992, Nigel Mansell and Bill Clinton saw each other to glory, and four years later, President Clinton and Damon Hill will have sent each other congratulatory boxes of chocolates in the post.

He’s right (and let’s not forget the John Surtees-LBJ dream team of 1964). Every British Formula One win in an election year has also seen a Democrat win the presidency.

So Barack Obama will of course be delighted by Lewis Hamilton’s great British victory yesterday (he’s also the first black – nay, the first mixed-race – driver to win Formula One).

Incidentally, someone – very possibly the man himself – has been having fun with Andy’s Wikipedia page:

Born and brought up in the Shire, Zaltzman is the son of Morgan Freeman and Anthea Turner. Zaltzman has repeatedly claimed that Turner was not his first choice of mother and that originally Dame Maggie Smith had been drafted in for the role, unfortunately due to a clash of commitments she had to pull out 6 months before Zaltzman's birth. Zaltzman took up acting at a young age, with walk on parts in such classics as "The Wizard of Oz", "Gone with the Wind" and "Pokemon 2000", but it was his role in "Piddling with Paxman" as the uncredited "Slice of Toast" that really won him plaudits. Indeed Mark Kermode described it as "The purest piece of acting that we have seen in a generation. He (Zaltzman) was more bready than Lulu during her "Boom-Bang-a-Bang" years."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Can apostrophes win votes? To be sure!

He’d have had this election sewn up months ago – never mind the twin implosions of Sarah Palin and the economy – if he’d just changed his name, ever so slightly, to… Barack O’Bama.

< comedy Irish accent >
“Is that the Galway O’Bamas, now, Barry? Ah, will you not come in and have a nice cup of tea – you put your feet up while I pop out and get the town to vote for you.”
< /comedy Irish accent >

And if you’ve got Irish roots, however spurious, ‘palling around with terrorists’ actually helps…

So don’t ever tell me that punctuation doesn’t matter.

Higher taxes: a missed opportunity?

I’ve heard quite a few people say that if interest rates had been higher over the last decade then the finance and housing sectors of the economy would have been steadier, and thus less likely to crash in a big way. I’ve also often heard it said that if public spending hadn’t increased so much, the government’s budget deficit would be smaller and so we’d have more scope for fiscal stimulus now.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has suggested that higher taxes (in the right place) might have helped to reduce both of these problems. Funny, that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

“Automatically vilifying a group of people simply because of their disposition”

Wow. I think we may have a winner for the hotly contested Most Frothingly Wrong Comment Ever Made On The Internet Award. Find out at Sadie’s.

The luck you’ve had: how to talk about redistribution

David Lammy thinks that Labour has a lot to learn from Barack Obama.

One thing worth learning is how to frame the debate about redistribution. (The near-silence from the Government last week when the OECD reported positively on the narrowing gap between rich and poor suggests they lack the confidence to tlak about it.) Linda Hirshman explains:

[Obama’s] idea is that people who are now successful should care for the ones left behind, because they were once the left-behind themselves.
Obama floated this idea for the first time in the exchange with the now-infamous Joe the Plumber. Why should he pay taxes just as he became successful? Joe asked. When Obama suggested the tax increase, at $900, was fairly small, Joe was having none of it: "I mean, I've worked hard. I'm a plumber. I work ten to twelve hours a day and I'm buying this company and I'm going to continue working that way. I'm getting taxed more and more while fulfilling the American dream."
… [Obama] made a deft move, telling Joe that he should consider his extra taxes like a transfer not to some stranger, but to his own, former, less successful self: "Over the last fifteen years, when you weren't making $250,000, you would have been given a tax cut from me, so you'd actually have more money, which means you would have saved more, which means you would have gotten to the point where you could build your small business quicker than under the current tax code.... Put yourself back ten years ago."
This is a brilliant strategy because it takes a middle ground between asking people to act from pure altruism toward others--as any redistributive scheme must ultimately do--and the purely selfish individualism that fueled the conservative movement. While former selves are not exactly us, they are linked to us through the chain of common memories that makes our life story. …
Framing the appeal as sympathy for your former self also invokes the idea of equality of opportunity, rather than equality of result, which conservatives have so effectively rendered illegitimate. Rather than take money from someone who finally made it and give it to people who will never make it, Obama's "former Joe strategy" suggests liberals are actually making opportunity for the striving would-be plumbing contractors to get to the rich (taxable) place faster.
… So what if the argument doesn't work with voters who were always rich (and who will be the majority of people taxed under Obama's scheme)? Trust fund babies, suck it up. There are, of course, people who will not entertain any progressive taxation, regardless of how it is framed. But framing is the business of political revival, and Obama just made a good, fresh move.

Yep. People (on the whole) strive to improve their lot in life. Along the way, everyone has good luck and bad luck; some have much more bad than good. Redistribution may not in itself make anyone more talented or hardworking, but it can smooth out some of the bad luck.

The flip side of ‘taxing success’ isn’t ‘rewarding failure’ but ‘reducing misfortune’. There can’t be many self-made people who couldn’t have gained from a bit less bad luck at some point in the past.

(This is just a way to frame the issue – there’s no one particular policy that it suggests.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy ‘Every Day Is Britishness Day’ Day!

There’s going to be no national Britishness day. I am forlorn, particularly given all the hard creative brainstorming work I’d done on how to brand such a day.

I’m tempted to venture a last, desperate suggestion that we institute a ‘Can’t Really Be Bothered, Don’t Want To Make A Fuss Day’ for October 27 in honour of this utterly predictable development, but given that the Government still refuses to pay me for my last lot of suggestions, I shan’t.

Instead, we must take solace in the fact that our great nation needs no fancy calendrical* artifice to celebrate its Britishness – we can do this every day. So I’d like to wish you a very happy, and a very British, today.

See you tomorrow.

* calendrical (adj.): of or pertaining to the calendar. Yes, really.

The Krusty the Clown theory of humanitarianism

Michael Williams takes up (verbal) arms against humanitarian organisations working in conflict-hit countries:

Once on the ground, humanitarian organisations are often there promoting western values, although they proclaim to be neutral. In realty, very few modern day humanitarian organisations are neutral. Instead, they are multimandate. This means in addition to providing humanitarian assistance (food, shelter, etc) they also work on programmes promoting the rights of women, literacy for children and sex education.

Horror of horrors.

Norm sighs at how Williams appears torn “between these concerns being a personal preference of his, and being the sort of thing you'd expect to find amongst upper-middle class white people, and being the product of 'western values'”.

Williams is clear that these concerns are, in one form or another, one that he holds dear, but hesitates to recognise their validity beyond ‘the West’: “I… believe in the rights of women, but one needs to keep in mind the cultural modernity of many of these countries where the west is involved.”

I’m not entirely sure what a ‘cultural modernity’ is, but I daresay that Afghanistan’s, for instance, would involve the fact that there are plenty of armed men there who oppose women’s rights. Whether this fact makes defending these rights more or less urgent will depend on whether keeping in mind the place’s cultural modernity is your top priority.

It seems that the ethos being proposed here is that we should (as upper-middle-class white Westerners) feel strongly and care deeply about women’s rights and the rest, but that this should not influence our actual behaviour in the countries where women find their rights the most sorely limited by a repressive (and often anything but modern) cultural modernity.

It reminds me of Krusty the Clown (from The Simpsons), who told his daughter, on declining to play with her:

I’m not really the kind of dad that does stuff, or says things, or looks at you – but the love is there.

Another oddity of Williams’s piece comes when he says:

these [humanitarian] organisations line up for government cash that further legitimises the conflicts especially in places like Iraq, even if they disagree with the focus or rationale for the intervention. Instead of challenging government about the legitimacy of their actions, they are complicit in the crime.

But hold on! I thought humanitarian organisations were supposed to stick to the food-and-shelter basics and not get involved in politics, picking sides and promoting values. Yet here Williams urges them to do just that. The difference, I suppose, is that it’s OK for them to do this when the baddies are the monstrous US and UK governments, but not when it’s just the Taliban or Saddam Hussein whose behaviour is less than ideal.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Trying to be as happy as Mary Kenny

The Atheist Bus Campaign, kicked off by Ariane Sherine, has been raising money to put ads on the sides of buses saying: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”


I think that’s a cracking idea. It probably won’t create all that many converts, but it should start a few conversations and raise a few smiles and/or eyebrows. It may well also offend some of those religious types who seem to take grim pleasure in being offended (it’s almost like self-oriented schadenfreude), but that’s their call.

But Mary Kenny, while not disapproving of the exercise of free speech by atheists, finds the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” slogan a bit incongruous:

Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where's the point of anything?

To which I can only recommend that Mary tries to meet a wider range of atheists.

I might have responded that most religious people I have encountered are fearful, blinkered blighters with a depressing and dehumanising outlook that we cannot create purpose in our own and in each other’s lives and that there’s only any point to anything if a being who has no detectable contact with humanity says so – but that’s just not true. Most religious people I know are every bit as lovely and fun as most atheists I know (there are exceptions in both groups).

Whatever Mary gets up to this weekend, and whomever she spends it with, I hope she has an enjoyable and worry-free time. Likewise to all of you.

Typo of the week

Coastal communities are threatened by rising seal levels

A grave concern indeed. But maybe we can avert this threat if we all club together…

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why there is no Bradley effect for Obama

The ‘Bradley effect’ is a supposed bias in opinion polls whereby black candidates appear to have more support than they actually do, because voters don’t like admitting their racial prejudice (or even being perceived as someone who votes on grounds of racial prejudice). It’s named after Tom Bradley, Democratic (and black) candidate in 1982 to be California’s Governor, who lost the election despite an exit poll putting him well ahead.

But the Huffington Post’s man from the Bradley campaign says that it was just a duff exit poll: it also falsely showed a win for the Democrats’ (white) senatorial candidate (hat tip to Danny).

And Kate Zernicke looks at data from a number of elections – including this year’s Democratic primaries – and finds no convincing evidence for such an effect.

Here’s my theory on why not.

People are likelier to lie to pollsters when they might feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit their true views. But this skews voting intention polls only when the candidate the voter really supports is widely seen as shamefully bad – not just when the other candidate is in some quarters opposed for shameful reasons.

When general questions are asked about race and willingness to support, the 6% or so who admit that they would not vote for a black candidate is certainly an underestimate. And as for the specific election that now looms, I think Obama’s personal ratings are probably exaggerated by the polls, but that voting intention figures are pretty much entirely free of racial bias.

Polls consistently find that about 55% of voters have a favourable opinion of Obama and about 35% an unfavourable opinion. I’d expect that there is a bias here, with people worried that their own dislike of media darling Obama could be seen as racially motivated (whether it actually is or not).

But the same polls find McCain’s ratings at about 50% favourable to 40% unfavourable. This is a separate question to that about Obama, so there’d be no racial bias here (unless people are afraid of being seen as anti-white?).

So there it is: plenty of people (say they) think well of McCain. More, in fact, than say they’ll vote for him over Obama. But as McCain is far from being despised, then there’s no shame in admitting to supporting him. And if 50ish% are unashamed to say they like him, then there’s no bar to their saying they’ll vote for him.

What’s more, except for a few noxious emissions around the Republican fringe, the McCain campaign has avoided playing the race card – so there’s no significant public narrative of race being the driving force in people supporting McCain over Obama.

It’s a certainty that Obama has forfeited some support due to prejudice. But there’s no reason to think the polls haven’t picked this up: there are plenty of ‘legitimate’, non-racial reasons that swing voters might have for preferring McCain to Obama: experience, ‘toughness’, his war record and any number of policy issues.

And it’s possible, of course, that the polls are wrong for other reasons. We’ll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Politics is showbiz for ugly people: two spoof songs

Chicago is my favourite musical – partly because it’s fantastic, and partly because I was once in a production of it at the Edinburgh Fringe (long ago, in the days when the concept of me singing and dancing was just a bad joke and not a crime against humanity).

Via Alix Mortimer, here’s a great take-off of the Chicago number ‘All I Care About is Love’ by Will Howells (over a year old but still good):

I don’t care about new policies
Climate change, celebrities
Don’t mean a thing
All I care about is Dave
That’s what I’m here for

I don’t care for building railway tracks
CO2, income tax
Don’t mean a thing
All I care about is Dave
(All he cares about is Dave)

What to do: Vote blue, get blue
Please just say “I’ll vote for you”
Make me heir to Tony Blair
But please don’t mention I’m a millionaire

I don’t care about us taxing less
Primary schools, the NHS
No, no, not me
All I care about is Dave
(All he cares about is Dave)

Show me good opinion polls
Show me that I’m on a roll
And when the papers big up DC
Forget elections, that’s enough for me

I would never cycle very far
With my workshoes coming in my car
No, no, not me
All I care about is
Getting myself in to Number Ten
Though I’ve no idea what I would do then
All I care about is Dave!

After I saw this, I wondered if there might be mileage in a Gordon Brown version of ‘Mr Cellophane’. And I think there is:

If someone stood up in the House
And squashed that Cameron like a mouse
And roared and thumped the despatch box
You’d vote for him

If someone on the evening news
Said “Let me now explain my views
I’ll save the world economy”
You’d vote for him

And even without charming like a Blair
Every leader gets fans here and there
Unless, of course, that poor leader should be
Unlikeable, unelectable me

Low-Acclaim, Mister Low-Acclaim
Shoulda been my name, Mister Low-Acclaim
'Cause you can hear my speeches
See my policies
And never know I'm right
I tell ya, Low-Acclaim, Mister Low-Acclaim
Shoulda been my name, Mister Low-Acclaim
'Cause you can hear my speeches
See my policies
And never know I'm right

Suppose you was a swing voter
Paying lots to run your motor
And the PM had a long-term plan
You’d vote for him

Suppose you was the media
And found politics seedier
Then came a man of principle
You’d vote for him

A Prime Minister’s made of more than spin
With all that substance, surely he can win
Unless that PM trying to please you
Is dour and gloomy, unengaging
You-know-who

Low-Acclaim, Mister Low-Acclaim
Shoulda been my name, Mister Low-Acclaim
'Cause you can hear my speeches
See my policies
And never know I'm right
I tell ya, Low-Acclaim, Mister Low-Acclaim
Shoulda been my name, Mister Low-Acclaim
'Cause you can hear my speeches
See my policies
And never know I'm right
Never even knoooooooooowww I’m right
(Hope I didn’t spend too much of your money)

(With apologies to John Kander and Fred Ebb)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to boost the economy, fight poverty, reduce crime and make yourself feel sick

Well, it looks like we’re having a recession. Anything we can do to soften the blow?

Maybe.

The Tories are suggesting a small cut in national insurance payments for very small businesses, lasting six months, as well as allowing small businesses to defer VAT payments for six months. It doesn’t seem like much, and it isn’t. Does anyone think the economy will be peachy again by April?

But they can’t propose anything significant in the way of fiscal stimulus – they’ve been pushing the too-much-public-borrowing line very hard, and have been insisting that “the cupboard is bare”. They have to say that, give or take a morsel, we’ll have to tough it out. And, indeed, even this modest, short-term NI cut is to be funded by cutting business tax reliefs and allowances elsewhere.

Labour, conversely, is planning to bring forward some public infrastructure projects a couple of years. This will have a bigger effect, but will be slower to enact.

A US study [PDF] of a range of different fiscal stimulus policies is telling here. Will Hutton sums it up:

Douglas Elmendorf and Jason Furman show that by far the quickest and most effective means is to put cash into the hands of the unemployed by raising unemployment benefit, increasing temporary cash payments to them for specific items such as food and clothing, and making benefit unconditional for longer. It is not just they need the cash; they spend it fastest.
The next most effective measure is to increase spending on the national infrastructure - housing, roads, ports, hospitals, schools. The trouble is that there tends to be such a long time between the decision to spend and execution, so that too frequently spending kicks in not during the recession but the upturn. Tax cuts are the least effective. None act quickly, although reducing the tax on employment - payroll and employer national insurance contributions - does moderately well.

So, boosting unemployment benefit, eh? On that subject, another study [PDF], by Stephen Machin and Olivier Marie of the LSE, has something to report. They looked at the effects on crime of introducing job seekers allowance in 1996, a less generous and more conditional system than its predecessor:

We study crime rates in areas more and less affected by the policy before and after JSA introduction. In the areas more affected by JSA introduction, crime rose by more. These were also the areas with higher outflows from unemployment and particularly to people dropping off the register but not into work or onto other benefits. Studying the relation between crime and sanctions after introduction also confirms that areas where more people were sanctioned were those where crime rose by more. As such these results seem to reflect that benefit cuts and sanctions in JSA shifted people off the benefit system and raised crime.

So there we are. More generous and less conditional unemployment benefit is a very cost-effective way of stimulating the economy, as well as the fact that it alleviates poverty among those who can’t find work, and it may also help to fight crime. Oh yes, and I said it could make you feel sick. Well, see what happens when you phrase it this way: increasing public borrowing even further so that we can pay feckless workshy scroungers with criminal tendencies not to nick stuff. Got the stomach for that?

Another thought is that similar effects (bar the nausea) might be achieved by introducing a citizen’s basic income.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Obama campaign hit by new attack ad

The US presidential race has been thrown into turmoil after a TV advertisement alleged that Democratic candidate Barack Obama was black. It is the latest in a series of personal attacks against him.

The 30-second spot, paid for by the independent campaign group Low-Melanin Patriots For Truth, includes a number of photographs and video clips of Senator Obama, purporting to show that his skin is darker than that of the average American. It ends with a voice-over saying: “Joe the plumber wants a president who shares his values, shares his concerns, and shares his pigmentation.”

Republican candidate John McCain has thus far avoided commenting on the charges, preferring to focus on why his experience as a pilot in Vietnam qualifies him to handle the economy. “I know all about crashes followed by long periods of extreme pain,” he snarled.

But at a rally in Ohio, his running-mate Sarah Palin alluded to the issue: “If you think of the presidents this country has been most proud of, like Ronald Reagan, Henry Ford, and the other ones, I don’t think that any of them tried to hide whether they were white. So it’s a shame that some liberals today, and their friends in the MEDIA!!!, don’t want to get into this.” Her head then rotated 360 degrees and she spewed ectoplasmic vomit over the adoring crowd, many of whom held ‘It’s the White House, Boy’ placards.

The Obama camp had been unsure how to respond, torn between not wanting to get bogged down in controversy and the imperative to rebut a smear quickly. But last night Senator Obama released a 40-page statement explaining that he was mixed-race, and that he had never sought to mislead anyone about the hue of his skin. He added that ethnicity was no bar to being “both verbose and dynamic, both aloof and inspirational, both pompous and all-healing,” and that with this blend of qualities, “I alone can unite America in My name”.

A Low-Melanin Patriots For Truth spokesman, J Klanforth Foxbile III, retorted: “Well, I don’t know what this ‘mixed-race’ thing is supposed to mean. It sounds too much like the flip-flopping double-talk that we’ve come to expect from the Washington-Hollywood elite. I think ordinary God-fearing Americans can tell when someone’s black. Half-white? Just look at the guy!”

A CBS/New York Times poll asked voters to describe their attitudes on the issue, with mixed findings:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Gripper licks Obama

Partly for the obvious reason, and partly because I’m not blogging about the US election this week, I have nothing to say about this photo, this real, undoctored photo:


Nothing at all.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Acorns of blood: the black squirrel will soon hold the whip hand

Travelling through Royston or possibly Letchworth the other day, I spotted what looked like a black squirrel.

Surely not, I thought.

But surely yes, says Wikipedia.


And horror of horrors, says the Daily Mail:

Scientists say the testosterone-charged black is fitter, faster and more fiercely competitive than both reds or greys. … It has already taken over in parts of England and appears to be spreading. … "They could overrun most of the Eastern counties within ten years."

Just so that you can calibrate the exact type of gibbering paranoia appropriate to this news, I should clarify that the black squirrels are mutants rather than immigrants. Although the grey squirrels that they’re mutated from were themselves immigrants.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Free us from the F-word

The Templeton Foundation asks: “Does the free market corrode moral character?” Thirteen writers answer with mini-essays (via Norm).

Probably at least some of these are interesting (I have yet to find out), but my beef is with the implication in the wording of the question.

The use of the phrase ‘free market’ is almost always misleading: free markets do not exist. For a market to function, there needs to be a set of regulations (property rights, contract law), defined and enforced by the state.

Beyond this bare minimum, in practice all governments of any political hue keep a large body of other regulation in place. Most obviously, there are restrictions on trade in weaponry and drugs, and then even the most deregulatory regimes still have some set of statutory labour rights, as well as laws relating to the formation and abuse of monopolies – not to mention the taxes levied on transactions.

Nobody within shrieking distance of the mainstream in any developed economy favours completely free (or even, if you prefer, maximally free) markets; the debate, rather, should be about how markets should be regulated. Not, by the way, ‘how much’ regulation there should be or ‘how free’ the market is – there’s no sensible way to quantify it. There’s nothing that could count as ‘overall market freedom’, of which France has this much and the USA that much; there’s just an indefinite list of market practices that may be either permitted or restricted in some way. (The World Bank does have an Ease of Doing Business index, but this is just an aggregate of a few particular pro-business indicators – one of which is how well contract law is enforced…)

The notion that there’s such a thing as ‘the free market’, which one is either for or against, is one of the many verbal traps that dull public debate.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Must bad politics drive out good?

Paulie has a good post up (which links to a few other good posts of his), asking something I don’t really know how to answer. Or rather, I don’t know how to get the answer I’d like.

He contrasts the standard ‘politician’ style of political representation – “slimy, scheming, backstabbers who will try and leave everyone with the short-term illusion that they are agreed with, and a longer-term sense of personal betrayal” – with another style, and he wonders whether it could work:

Do we want to be represented by people who are more prepared to show their working? More prepared to place themselves open to consultation, put stuff on the record, explain themselves, and be prepared to defend their decisions?

The question, as he says, boils down to that of whether representatives (and candidates) can be incentivised to act in this more discursive, nuanced way rather than in the standard populist manoeuvring way: can they win elections like this?

I suspect there’s a version of Gresham’s law in operation, by which bad politics drives out good. If you try to explain a complex and contentious position and how you reached it, you’re going to have a hard time up against someone who’s happy to hit you hard and fast with some punchy soundbites and pander to people’s prejudices.

Some discursive types do get elected, and most MPs I think do show some of those nobler qualities at least some of the time. But overall, our current political set-up has a strong tendency towards simplistic populism.

Another point: Paulie pitches his discussion at the level of the individual representative – but how many voters really know much about their MP or other candidates? The main factor in most voting decisions is party affiliation. And most of these voters’ changes in voting behaviour are largely driven by the activities of the party leaderships (as portrayed in the mass media). So either electoral politics – although not necessarily government itself – would have to become more decentralised, with local candidates and representatives having higher profiles and more independence from the party machine (fewer MPs with larger constituencies?), or the party leaderships would need to become more discursive etc. And the media would have to be on side. It seems unlikely.

The only other thing I can think of is some sort of ‘naming and shaming’ for those politicians who are particularly awful in terms of playing the standard political game, but I don’t know how that could be effective in practice. I don’t know how it could compete in terms of public attention with converse exercises that ridiculed the ‘gaffes’ that inevitably accompany thinking out loud.

Or am I underestimating the public’s tolerance of politicians who are “prepared to show their working”? I fear that while people might honestly say they’d like this, they’d probably not go for it when they saw it up against the status quo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Changing the record

Right. I’m not going to blog any more about either the economy or the US election for the rest of the week.

So…

Pretty autumnal weather we’re having, eh?

“The government will make pots and pots of money”

Here are three views on the UK financial rescue plan, two of which are very critical.

First, economist Tim Congdon, Treasury adviser from 1992 to 1997, on the BBC News at Ten yesterday:

The government isn’t losing money on this deal, the government will make pots and pots of money on it at the expense of the shareholders – that is thoroughly wrong.

Pretty much what I was saying yesterday, only more confident, more succinct, more professionally informed… and differently evaluated. I’d like to play this clip over and over to anyone outraged that we’re paying through the nose to bail out the bankers.

Second, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne says that this is “the final, sorry chapter of the Age of Irresponsibility”, in which Gordon Brown has been forced into “a necessary but desperate last-ditch attempt to prevent catastrophe” and “an angry taxpayer has had to step in and risk billions of pounds… to bail out the bankers”. But the Tories have “made the right judgment” and “showed the right leadership” in going along with this awful plan while simultaneously sniping at it.

He adds that Brown “presided over the biggest economic disaster of our lifetime”. Mr Osborne is thirty-seven.

Third, Paul Krugman, US economist, who just yesterday won the Nobel Prize for Economics, thinks that Brown and Darling “have defined the character of the worldwide rescue effort, with other wealthy nations playing catch-up”. He says that with a “combination of clarity and decisiveness… the British government went straight to the heart of the problem – and moved to address it with stunning speed”.

He’s scathing about the US approach to the crisis, and concludes:

But policy is, finally, being driven by a clear view of what needs to be done. Which raises the question, why did that clear view have to come from London rather than Washington?

Luckily for the world economy, however, Gordon Brown and his officials are making sense. And they may have shown us the way through this crisis.

As Don and Hopi point out, this isn’t the only time Krugman’s been positive about Brown. But I still think the Congdon quote is politically the most useful for Labour right now: it has punchy vernacular, it shreds the ‘taxpayer footing the bill’ myth and it has the added credibility of coming from a critic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The invisible hand gets an intangible handout

So, we’re committing £37 billion to sort out the banking system. But if we can afford such vast amounts of money – sending the national debt through the roof – to bail out greedy bankers, why can’t we find it for schools’n’hospitals, tax cuts for Hard-Working Families, etc.?

Well, it’s doesn’t quite work like that. Let’s start with a question so basic that even I can understand it:

Why is debt bad?

Pretty easy, really: debt is bad because you have to pay it back (with interest). And what do you get for these debt repayments? Nothing. Well, nothing other than the avoidance of bailiffs and the maintenance of your credit rating. You get all the benefits of debt right at the start: you borrowed the money to buy whatever it was, and now all you’ve got left is repayment after repayment.

In the case of public debt, there are various undesirable consequences for the future. More debt can mean, other things being equal:

  • higher taxes
  • lower spending
  • higher inflation
  • slower growth
  • uglier kittens.

How does the bank bailout compare?

The government is basically acting as an investor of last resort: it has put £37 billion into recapitalising the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB and HBOS (the latter two soon to merge). In return, it gets around a 60% stake in RBS and 43% in Lloyds/HBOS. It will hold ‘preference shares’, meaning that payment back from the banks to the government will take priority over paying out dividends to private shareholders. These shares will eventually be sold, when the market no longer needs the confidence boost of the government safety net.

In a way, it’s the exact opposite of debt: the government commits the money up front and then hopes to get a return on it over time. But on the other hand, the government will have to issue bonds to pay for these shares, although the rate of interest it pays on these is low. More importantly, the money committed through this is not simply being spent: the £37bn is quite literally staying true to that old Brown slogan: ‘borrow to invest’.

The only way that this money would be lost in full – in the way that normal debt has to be repaid in full, with nothing in return – would be if these banks immediately collapsed, leaving no assets. Every mortgage holder would have to default, and the properties the mortgages are secured against would have to lose all their value.

That’s not going to happen. Or rather, if these big banks do all go bust then £37bn on the public finances is really going to be the least of our worries.

Certainly, a fair chunk of the debts these banks hold are dodgy – it’s the fear of unknown amounts of bad debt that has been driving the credit crunch. But the market panic of recent weeks, while making some sense given the scale of the uncertainties facing the world’s banking systems, will surely prove to be out of proportion to the amount of truly irrecoverable debt in the long term.

There’s a fair chance that the government will not just get all this money back but even make a profit. In which case kittens will be cuter than ever before.

The £37bn may well be put by the auditors onto the public debt balance sheet – and there’s a prudent logic to counting it as a liability, as this sum has now been put at risk (however small this risk might eventually prove to be) so we will theoretically stand to lose it all – but that certainly doesn’t mean that this is just more ‘normal borrowing’.

Also, there’s the money involved in nationalising Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. Again, the government stands legally liable for the tens of billions of mortgage debt held by these banks – and, indeed, some of this debt will be bad. But most of it won’t: the Northern Rock loan book has been shrinking since nationalisation, as borrowers happily carry on making their repayments. It’s possible there may end up being losses here, but a profit is also very possible.

None of this means, though, that there are no government debt problems; there’s a recession, of what size we know not, that has probably already started. This mean less tax revenue and more benefit spending, and it comes at a point when the government’s annual borrowing was already on the high side (although overall national debt hadn’t got that bad).

This whole episode reminds us that the invisible hand of the market sometimes needs the guiding hand of the state to help it out. (Chris puts it very well: “Markets are themselves public goods. And public goods can be under-supplied by the market.” Shuggy and Andrew are also worth a read on this.)

But the huge sums of money apparently being thrown around are not simply being given to fat-cat bankers worried where their next yacht is coming from, and the odds of taxpayers actually having to meet the bill for all of this are low. The terrifying numbers will, barring utter catastrophe, gradually melt into air. This is, as the saying goes, a hand up not a handout.