Monday, June 30, 2008

Muslim schools and the stealth crusaders

Cristina Odone can’t – or just doesn’t want to – tell the difference between licentiousness and secularism:

The school life of Muslim children is the battlefield in which the culture wars between traditionalist Muslims and Britain's secular culture are waged. Muslim children are taught one set of values at home, and a very different one at school: the one demands segregation of the sexes, the other claims anything goes; Muslims require halal or vegetarian food, the secular school will have pork for school dinners, and so on.

If ‘claiming anything goes’ means ‘not demanding segregation of the sexes’, then she’s right. But she doesn’t mean that at all. And if secular schools deny Muslim children a halal/veggie option, then she’s right. But they don’t.

It’s a sneaky trick that the new religious militants are playing: parents who want their children to grow up sharing their own – often intolerant – dogmas should be ‘respected’. Attempts by the state to educate their children in a more tolerant, secular setting therefore actually constitute intolerance of the parents’ views.

Odone sings the praises of Muslim state schools: “Here children are educated in the basics of their faith in an environment in which being a Muslim does not risk earning them pariah status.”

Oh, come on. Kids are bastards: they’ll grant pariah status at the drop of a hat for any of a thousand reasons. I was a swot and I was shy and I was very, very spotty at school. This exposed me to a fair amount of ridicule and unpopularity, but it would have been preposterous to set up a new sort of school for kids like me. Nasty idiots of all sorts are part of life; you learn to deal with them.

And she’s making another classic educational error: children who go to schools of type X do well, so these schools are a good idea. But what happens to the rest of the schools in the neighbourhood? Devoid of Muslim classmates, how will the attitudes of their children fare? Segregating kids and telling them everyone’s equal – with a few token inter-group meetings – cannot compare to the power of showing them, daily and hourly, that they’re separate because they’re different.

Now, going back to Odone’s comment that this issue “is the battlefield in which the culture wars between traditionalist Muslims and Britain's secular culture are waged”. No: the former editor of the Catholic Herald has broader concerns than that.

The fact is that Islam is the battlefield on which increasingly politicised Christian groups are waging their culture war against liberal secularism. Because if religious concessions can be won in the name of a poor persecuted minority (think Rowan Williams on sharia), then logically concessions to Britain’s bigger religions will follow.

Secularists have to know that this is what’s going on, and we have to stand firm to resist it.

Heaven is other people

Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, reassures us that he does think atheists can be moral. Phew. But:

My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence…
This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.
Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions.


On the moral fallibility of the Bible and the mixed motives Christians can have in appealing to it, Alonzo Fyfe makes a good response to Fraser. As for my own two penn’orth:

Everyone, of whatever religious views, has experience of moral deliberation. Sometimes we do this with others, sometimes on our own. But even when alone, we still can and do think about the views of others and how these might inform our own thinking. And we are still informed by the moral influences in our lives, be they familial, societal, literary, theological or whatever.

Christians have access to the Bible to help them make moral decisions. But so do atheists: just as you don’t need to believe that there really was a ‘good Samaritan’ to appreciate the parable, so you don’t have to believe that Jesus was anything other than human to wonder (if he strikes you as a good moral example) ‘What would Jesus do?’ Atheists also have recourse to the opinions and examples of any number of political leaders, moral philosophers, fictional heroes and ordinary people. And so, although they downplay these in contrast to their scripture, do Christians.

We all have as many checks as we want against self-serving self-deception; and we all have to decide for ourselves how much use we want to make of those checks.

I’m regularly surprised by how flimsy are the claims of the religious to be not necessarily morally better than atheists but morally better resourced.

Fraser says:

Many of the atheists I get into discussion with seem content to perform an internal self-audit of their moral dispositions. … Perhaps that is what comes of having a moral vision shaped by little more than what one is against?

I can’t speak about his atheist acquaintances, but I can say that mine would think it bizarre to base a moral vision on disbelief in gods, ghosts, unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and the rest. All this disbelief does is to remove one kind of distraction from your moral thinking.

The only atheists I’m aware of who treat the absence of god as suggesting the absence of all external checks are those who used to be religious but became disenchanted and lost faith – and with it, they lost much else as well. If you build your morality on a fairytale, you take the risk that it could crumble if, one day, your theism does.

Post-theistic solipsism is a terrible mistake. Humanity may be alone in the universe, but individual humans are not; we don’t need god in his heaven to guide us on right and wrong when we have so much that we can learn from each other.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


That, consisting of 131,481 spoiled ballots and 233,000 votes for a non-existent candidate, is the imaginary number that Robert Mugabe’s cronies have chosen as the tally of courageous people in Zimbabwe.

Nation states: fellowship, not size

Chris Dillow asks: “What use are nation states?” He thinks that “nation states are just too small to solve some important problems”, but that “in other senses they are too big”.

Matthew Sinclair takes this up, arguing that “nation states are the best ultimate guarantor of individual rights”. Local communities are rich in direct personal connections, which “make them too easy to bias and sway unfairly”, whereas nation states are big enough to resist any one social network becoming too powerful.

This makes sense – but I think that ‘size’ is probably the wrong thing to ask about. There are two countries with populations over a billion, nine in about the 100-300m range and 12 in the 50-100m range, then 50-odd in the 10-50m range, 70 or so in the 1-10m range, and another 70-something below 1m.

These are not all states as such; there are 221 in this list against only 192 UN members – but even if we discount all the sub-1m territories, there’s still a staggering range of sizes.

Another way of looking at it: the Gini coefficient is often used to measure economic inequalities within a country: if one person has all the money, the Gini is 1; if everyone has the same amount, the Gini is 0. But you can use the measure to look at the population inequality of the world’s countries: using this calculator, I get a figure of 0.84 for all the 221; taking out the sub-1m territories, it’s still 0.76; taking out the two giants, India and China, it’s 0.64.

(For comparison, the country with the highest known income-inequality Gini is Namibia, with 0.74, followed by Lesotho’s 0.63; the USA is 0.41, the UK 0.36, France 0.33 and Denmark 0.25.)

So state size is incredibly varied, and it’s hard to see what policy issues a unit of 5m population and ones five, ten and twenty times that size would all be well-sized to deal with.

What matters in assessing a ‘nation state’ is fellow-feeling: do the people living under the state feel that they constitute a nation? The UK (pop. 60m) works passably well as a nation; Scotland (5m) would also work pretty well. The Republic of Ireland (4m) works well, but a united Ireland (6m) significantly less well. The British Isles together (65m) would fail, as it did in the past, when its population was much smaller.

One approach it is that a nation state is the largest political unit that would work as a legitimate democracy – in other words, the nationhood of a state could be measured by the extent to which any given minority would accept being (freely and fairly) outvoted by a majority. Of course, in countries with no tradition of genuine democracy, this approach breaks down.

So a nation state allows (at least in theory) for the government to be held accountable to the whole population: the electorate accept the government’s legitimacy because they accept each other’s legitimacy.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

You probably had to be there

Earlier today I had a truly fantastic cup of tea.

Just thought I’d mention it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Roving invective

Karl Rove, George Bush’s former Sewer Rat Knife Bastard (I think that was the job title), has been sharing his views of Barack Obama:

"Even if you never met him, you know this guy," he said at a Capitol Hill breakfast, according to ABC. "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone."

Ophelia really rips into this, tearing Rove a new arsehole (to go with the one in his arse, the one in his face that he talks out of, and the one he got put into the White House). It’s really very good. Go and read it.

Clegg the interventionist (expediency permitting)

Nick Clegg, speaking up for the principle of humanitarian intervention, says that “if a country is unwilling or unable to carry out its responsibility to prevent abuses of its own citizens, that responsibility must be transferred to the international community” – using military force if necessary. And he notes one of the key political problems with this ‘responsibility to protect’:

There may be times when it is nonetheless impossible to obtain a Resolution from the Security Council because political interests mean that it would be blocked by permanent members.
The authority of the United Nations is vital and we must always be wary of proceeding without its explicit authority. But we must recognise that it remains a flawed organisation in need of reform. Too often dominated by individual national interests.

Precisely. So Clegg recommends:

In considering action without UN authority, we have to find a way to distinguish between situations where a minority seeks to prevent the world from taking appropriate military action – as the Russians sought to do over Kosovo – from those where a minority wants to take inappropriate military action – as the Americans and UK did over Iraq in 2003. We must never confuse the two.

Well, there are two factors here in the situation that we must “find a way to distinguish between”. The first is whether a minority or a majority of states are proposing action. This is probably quite easy: most of us have enough fingers to tally a Security Council majority.

The second is whether the proposed action is “appropriate”, and here things get tricky. Because, of course, Clegg doesn’t countenance situations where a majority supports “inappropriate” action or where a minority supports “appropriate” action. These possibilities show that you simply cannot rely on weight of consensus or proper procedure to make these decisions.

Some proposals will be practically unworkable and some will be ruinously counterproductive; others will be theoretically feasible, but deeply unpopular among the governments of the UN. But unless you want to reduce “appropriate” and “inappropriate” to what’s politically acceptable, you really do have to start thinking in terms of right and wrong, however much of a crusader that may make you sound to some ears.

And I completely agree with Norm on this:

the regime of international law, that is, the framework of institutions that is meant to uphold international law, should be held in contempt by all those committed to democracy and human rights, so long as and to the extent that those institutions are merely a cover for inaction and/or connive at the most blatant criminality by states against their own peoples.

Law, in principle, is a splendid thing. In practice, it can be a real ass.

A dodgy dossier of sneers and smears

The nasty party modern, compassionate Conservatives have produced a dossier on Gordon Brown’s year as PM. It is, of course, highly critical, and nobody could deny that at least some of it hits the mark. But a lot of it is purest dross, often based on the seriously dishonest use of quotes.

A few choice nuggets rather than a full fisking. For instance:

While many countries are experiencing an economic slowdown, Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has warned that the UK economy is “more exposed” than the US economy to financial instability (The Daily Telegraph, 18 September 2007).

It’s awfully good of them to put the reference in. It lets you look up what Greenspan actually said:

Britain is more exposed than we are in that regard - in the sense that you have a good deal more adjustable-rate mortgages. Britain has done awfully well. If you look back, it’s been a big surprise. Nonetheless, it’s probably marginally more subject to credit problems than we are.

Which casts things in a rather different light. Also, when asked whether the UK had as serious a prospect of recession as the US, he said:

No, because one of the things that Gordon Brown has been pressing for for quite a long time is flexibility. Unlike even the US, Britain accepts foreign corporations coming in, buying up British assets. It may be one of the most competitive economies in the world.

Exhibit two:

Last June, Gordon Brown announced a new policy of providing “British jobs for British workers”, which he reiterated in his September Labour Conference speech (24 September 2007). But the proposals would be illegal under EU law.

Alas, no. The more intelligent among you may have noticed that “British jobs for British workers” is a verbless soundbite and not a policy. His conference speech remarks were clearly about training and skills rather than restricting the working rights of foreigners. And what he said last June was actually “British workers for… British jobs”. More precisely:

It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years and to make sure that people who are inactive and unemployed are able to get the new jobs on offer in our country.

Third up:

Pensioner poverty higher than in 1997. The number of pensioners living on below 60 per cent of the median income measured before housing costs… is 100,000 higher than in 1997 (DWP, Households Below Average Income, June 2008).

In reality, the number of pensioners below the poverty line so defined is either unchanged or 100,000 lower depending on whether they mean 1996/97 or 1997/98 when they say “1997” (hat tip). But it’s more seriously misleading than that.

This is the number of pensioners below the poverty line. And there are now six or seven hundred thousand more pensioners than there were back then, which means that the proportion of pensioners below this line is significantly down.

And a fourth:

On the day before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he said it was “frankly a good thing” that newspapers were briefed on key announcements before Parliament (The Independent, 27 June 2007).

You know the routine by now. What he said, when asked about policies being trailed in the papers, was:

If you think that's happened in the past, I'm sorry. But I think now we live in times when there is more external consultation on the formation of policy, and it's inevitable that there will be some kind of public discussion about policy issues before anyone stands up and makes a statement to Parliament. Frankly, I think that's a good thing. We can't have a return to a purdah system, where the Government refuses to consult anyone on the development of its policies.

But the Tory dossier covers a lot of ground, generally in scattershot fashion, and it certainly scores some legit hits (although some of those are pretty minor). There are also points that are purely differences of opinion, some that are irrelevant and some where the Tories could face similar criticism.

Then, though, it goes into tawdry attack mode.

There’s the ‘year in quotes’ section, consisting of people saying bad things about Brown (except for the ones from Jack Straw and Alan Johnson, which are saying utterly different things from what the dossier suggests). A fair few of them are anonymous, including that old favourite, “psychological flaws”. Nice. Classy.

Next up is ‘A year in pictures’, which reaches the intellectual heights you’d expect. Among the reasons that Brown has been a bad PM is that he “was pictured with his trouser leg tucked into his sock”. Worse, he hit a tennis ball with a “weird style and facial expression”. He was also “pictured outside Downing Street, with his hair apparently on fire”. Worst of all, on one occasion, Brown “looked as if he’d been targeted by aliens from planet orange”. I’m not making this up.

The following section is ‘A year of gaffes, tragedy and farce’, which is a mixture of unsubstantiated gossip culled second- and third-hand from the press, a couple of verbal slips, taking the piss out of his accent, Madame Tussauds not making a waxwork of him, a daft Hazel Blears idea (which went nowhere), an opinion poll, and one of the lyrics in a song he likes.

Then it gets even better. The ‘Jonah Brown’ section explains that Brown is a jinx: his presence is associated with sporting defeats, bad weather and minor injuries among those around him. Actually, only one of these three claims is made. Can you guess which? Does it even matter?

And that’s that. Oh yes, except that David Cameron describes the document as “robust”. Mmm.

It’s perfectly possible to deliver a firm and reasoned argument that Brown has failed in his first year, being critical of his personal qualities as well as his policies. You’d expect the Tories to be quite good at doing such a job. But this ain’t it. It’s cheap, flimsy and nasty.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Opposing states of mind

There are people on the right who accuse the left of thinking that things have to be done either under a government aegis or not at all – that official, state reality is the only reality that matters, whereas actually normal life carries on informally under the bureaucratic and ministerial radar.

On the other hand, though, there’s an equivalent, opposing blind spot that many of the same right-wingers have.

Today, Harriet Harman is plugging positive discrimination – letting employers prefer female or ethnic-minority candidates ‘of equal ability’. I’m a bit doubtful about this (declaration of interest: I’m a white man), but what occurs to me is this:

When the commentators of the right leap in to criticise this, many will be ignoring the unmeasured, unofficial, informal discrimination that goes the other way, and that policies like this are intended to counter.

It is ludicrous, as ludicrous as thinking that all good flows from the state, to think that all restrictions on freedom and opportunity come from the state. I doubt anybody actually believes either of these things, but all too many often talk – and make policy – as if they did.

Relatedly, Richard Reeves has an interesting piece out: “Cameronism is… critical of state initiatives to solve underlying social problems, lambasting Labour for nationalising social problems. … Cameron is quite right that Labour is very often guilty of a knee-jerk statism, but he is equally at risk of following an unthinking anti-statism.”

A lot of the reason that I dislike (Cameronite) conservatism comes out when I hear talk about “the economy”, “the state” and “society” as if they’re utterly distinct entities with pretty straightforward relationships: Thatcher fixed the economy by rolling back the state, and now Labour’s overuse of the state has broken society (the society–economy link appears to depend on which party growth happens under). But the three have intimate and complex interconnections.

Select Cuts

Highlights from Parliament’s select committees

This is very much a test run of an idea of mine: to offer a round-up of what’s been going on in the various parliamentary select committees – subject entirely to my judgement of what’s significant. So:

The Commons Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills has a report on Biosecurity in UK research laboratories, arguing that “there is a striking lack of co-ordination between organisations who sponsor and run high containment laboratories” and that “The Government must ensure that dependable funding is provided to maintain such facilities safely.”

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has a report on Providing budget support for developing countries. It finds that providing budget support directly to developing-country government has led to mixed results in terms of capacity-building. “While there is evidence of better policy-making and planning, there is very little evidence of improved performance in key areas such as financial management.” It says that “DFID has not established the effectiveness of budget support relative to other types of aid” and warns: “The financial risks of putting UK funds through weak national systems are often high.”

The Commons Justice Committee is looking at the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill (provisions relating to the Attorney General). It says that the draft bill “makes no substantial change to the current situation”, and believes that “transparency requires separating the political functions of the Attorney General from the legal functions”. It wants greater accountability for the AG and for the AG to be unable to stop Serious Fraud Office investigations. The Committee says that the draft bill “gives greater power to the Executive; and it does not add to transparency”. It also favours “a statutory duty being placed on ministers to observe the Rule of Law”.

The Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee reports on Renewable electricity-generation technologies, saying that “the Government’s targets for renewable electricity generation are wholly inadequate”; the Government must “remove current barriers to technology deployment, and develop a coherent policy framework to bring on the development of pre-commercial technologies”.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has a report on The reorganisation of neonatal services as it affects “vulnerable babies” in England. The new networks “have made progress in reducing the number of times babies have to be transferred long distance to obtain the necessary level of care”, but the Committee cautions that there are capacity constraints and staffing problems.

So that’s what I have. It feels a wee bit thin; I’ve generally gone back about two weeks for material, and I’ve ignored published transcripts of witness sessions and Government responses to earlier committee reports. Possibly any of these selection criteria are worth rethinking – although, of course, if I extend the timespan then the round-ups will become less frequent. And possibly this is just not of enough interest to anyone for it to be worth doing.

(Thanks to Liam for research tips.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public service announcement

FAO: People who do not take sugar in their tea or coffee but who from time to time make tea or coffee for other people who do take sugar.

Message reads: You need to stir it, please. Thank you. I know you’re good people really, just not always familiar with the ways of other cultures.

Message ends

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Zimbabwean motivations

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

conditions do not exist for free and fair elections right now in Zimbabwe. There has been too much violence, too much intimidation. A vote held in these conditions would lack all legitimacy.

Exactly right. But he adds:

the elections should be postponed until the right conditions are in place. I would strongly discourage the authorities from going ahead with the run-off on Friday. It will only deepen divisions within the country and produce a result that cannot be credible.

Strange advice to give, really – appealing to a better nature whose existence is constantly being refuted. Everyone knows Mugabe cares nothing for divisions in the country nor for the credibility of his sham election – so this amounts to saying ‘hold off on the elections, Bob, until you’ve become a nicer person’.

Democracy works when those involved are willing to be graceful losers and magnanimous winners. Mugabe is certainly neither, and it’s hard to say whether Tsvangirai and his allies would have been the latter. Zimbabwe isn’t going to become a well-functioning liberal democracy anyime soon. What it most urgently needs is a government that will rebuild the economy and meet humanitarian needs rather than brutalising the people, and it would have to be a government that won’t inspire significant armed resistance. Again, I don’t know whether the MDC could fulfil that role.

Unless Mugabe and his inner circle have an incentive to hand over power to someone more reasonable, it’s hard to see anything other than a continuing collapse.

“A knitting accident?”

It’s Tuesday, it’s time to cause offence to the pious.

Jesus and Mo discuss comparative revelation.

Playful brevity

Norm says:

I can enjoy a good short story. As a rule, however, I don't find the form as satisfying as that of the novel. The novel's power and its enduring in the memory are the greater just because of what can be accommodated by the greater length.

I agree: a really good novel can pick you up and carry you away to a far greater extent than a really good short story. The latter may have as much power, but its size means that the best it can manage is to knock you off your feet or toss you up in the air briefly.

But there are distinctive pleaures to short stories. You can have a purity of focus, building without interruption from start to end – hard if not impossible to sustain something like that throughout a decent-sized novel.

By way of example, if you have five to ten minutes to spare, you could do a lot worse than to read Anton Chekhov’s ‘A Play’. Chekhov is renowned for the gloominess of his stories – and, excellent though they are, he does tend to the bleak.

Not this one. I first came across it being read on the radio. The build-up is at exactly the right pace, and the final line is perfect. I laughed out loud.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Diversity is more diverse than that

Stephen Cave reviews Kenan Malik’s book on race and culture. Malik is scathing about “the cult of multiculturalism”. In Cave’s summary:

Whereas once progressive thinkers advocated treating everybody equally despite their differences, they now focus on treating people differently because of their differences. This misplaced respect for diversity leads us to brand complex communities with one mark, such as colour or creed. The consequence is not only to carve up society along ethnic lines, but also to strengthen the conservative forces within communities. Thus we have made the mullahs the mouthpiece of people who might previously have seen their Islamic heritage as only a part of their identity.

The community model of multiculturalism takes something of tremendous importance – the understanding that ethnic or religious differences do not mean differences of human worth, and that disadvantaging people on grounds of these is wrong – and distorts it terribly.

It does this by focusing on the ‘different’ part of ‘the freedom to be different’ rather than the ‘freedom’ part, and then by refusing to count more than one difference at a time, even where there is socially tricky diversity within a handily labelled ‘community’.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zimbabwe presidential election run-off

This is when the opposition are so harassed, threatened and brutalised that they run off.

This follows the extremely ‘partial recount’ that forced a second round.

Really, what can you say?

Rhetorical questions whose correct answers fail to support your argument

(In homage to Tom H’s excellent former blog, Let’s Be Sensible)

Phil Hall:

Is Britain on the slippery slope to dictatorship?

Do read the whole thing. It’s really very funny.

Religious correctness gone mad

Dear oh dear… more kerfuffle in the Church of England over gay clergy.

Two thoughts:

(1) The idea that communion with a supreme, perfect being should be mediated by a ramshackle, politics-ridden human institution is even harder to take seriously than the idea that there actually is such a supreme, perfect being.

(2) It’s political correctness gone mad – or rather, religious correctness. Whenever you see a straight bishop – or for that matter a male bishop – you can be sure that he only got the job because of the preposterous quota system (100% straight male). There are probably plenty of women and gay men that could have done the job ten times as well.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Godvertising standards

Ariane Sherine saw a Bible quote on the side of a London bus the other day; the ad plugged a website that tells atheists:

"You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)" (Matthew 25:41).

She ponders:

Now, if I wanted to run a bus ad saying "Beware – there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!" or "The 'bits' in orange juice aren't orange but plastic – don't drink them or you'll die!" I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists.

But, on calling up the Advertising Standards Authority, Sherine was told that “there's nothing in the advertising standards code to prohibit advertising a religious message”.

But wait! In to the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, under the heading ‘Decency’, it says:

Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability.

Now, you might try to get round the latter bit by arguing that atheism isn’t a religion, which is true, but surely the hellfire threat is also going to apply to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

There’s more. Under ‘Honesty’, it says:

Marketers should not exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience of consumers.

Under ‘Matters of opinion’:

Marketers may give a view about any matter, including the qualities or desirability of their products, provided it is clear that they are expressing their own opinion rather than stating a fact.

Under ‘Fear and distress’:

No marketing communication should cause fear or distress without good reason.

And under ‘Substantiation’ (no, not ‘Transubstantiation’):

Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.

If there is a significant division of informed opinion about any claims made in a marketing communication they should not be portrayed as generally agreed.

Let’s sue!

Funny? Peculiar…

On the Times’s Comment Central blog, Danny Finkelstein has been running a communist jokes contest (that is, jokes about Soviet communism – not that you had to be a communist to enter).

Somehow, I’ve won. Which is nice. So thanks to Danny.

You can read the top ten jokes here. I particularly like the ones from Lee Jakeman and from Mark.

One thing, though. When the contest was launched, a commenter called Gavin said:

I can't wait for the Nazi jokes, Khmer Rouge shaggy dog stories or Rwanda genocide themed knock knock jokes.

Fair point. The Soviet Union involved a vast bodycount. The purges and gulags and engineered famines and KGB and crushes of uprisings were not exactly a barrel of laughs. So why (at least, in Britain) is there vastly more of a tradition of Soviet jokes than, say, Nazi jokes?

Passing the buck and rocking the boat

Via David T, here’s the new House of Commons Library research paper [PDF] on the ‘Responsibility to Protect’.

The Responsibility to Protect is an emerging doctrine designed to provide an international framework of protection for civilians facing mass atrocities. … The Responsibility to Protect is a three-fold duty: to prevent, to react and to rebuild. This three-fold duty falls by default to the state concerned but should be assumed by the international community whenever there is a “manifest failure” of the state to discharge its responsibilities to its citizens

Given the UN’s founding on the principle of state sovereignty, the adoption of this principle by a UN summit in 2005 was quite a step – although, of course, it’s slightly easier to adopt principles than to actually do stop bad people doing bad things.

The most controversial element of the doctrine is the idea that the international community, authorised by the UN Security Council, could mount a military intervention in order to stop mass atrocities.

Controversial indeed, but think about the contrary view: it’s not exactly motherhood and apple pie to say that actually, on reflection, tyrants should be left to inflict whatever atrocities they like on their own people within their own borders.

Once you accept that protecting civilians from mass atrocities is important, then the question of what happens when a government is not protecting but butchering sections of its populace becomes pressing. In the case of such “manifest failure”, then the government in question forfeits any legitimacy it has to wield the nation’s sovereignty, and so that bar against military intervention (if the best viable option) is lifted.

It remains unclear whether in the event of Security Council paralysis, a unilateral intervention would prove legitimate or legal.

Legal, I’m pretty sure not. But legitimate? Well: once we establish the principle that “manifest failure” to protect civilians can mean a forfiture of legitimate authority, so that the UN can get involved in a nation’s purely domestic matters, surely the multilateralists have (morally, at least) sold the pass. The UN, of course, is occasionally susceptible to failure (to put it mildly). In cases when the UN manifestly fails to assume the protective responsibility that a brutal national government has manifestly failed to keep, then legitimacy passes away from the UN. Where it then may go cannot, by definition, be a matter for the UN to decide.

It might be countered that when the UN fails this way, the concept of legitimacy dissolves. But if so, then so does that of illegitimacy. Speaking of which:

There is considerable debate over the status and scope of the Responsibility to Protect. On balance, most observers and states believe that it remains a political commitment and has not yet acquired legal force.

Hmm: legal or political? The trouble is that international law, both as a general principle and at the specifics of Security Council resolutions, is based on politics. UN decisions just are the decisions of its members. What a group of governments decides to allow or forbid reflects primarily a confluence of their own interests; the fulfilment of higher principles is incidental.

All that staying within international law and the due process of its institutions gives you is consensus. And all that ‘legitimacy’ really amounts to is… consensus (but perhaps of a less formal sort). Consensus certainly has its virtues, but they only go so far. And when majority opinion is in the wrong, consensus can become a vice.

Two opposing pressures and two unusable policies

Mervyn King says that “we face the most difficult economic challenge for two decades”. This is largely because “growth and inflation are heading in opposite directions”.

Inflation is higher than it has been and is still going up, largely due to a rise in commodity prices (as King says, over 90% of the rise in inflation since December is due to “unanticipated increases in the prices of food, fuel, gas and electricity”). Growth, on the other hand, is dropping, largely arising from the housing market falls sparked by the credit crunch.

These two pressures are having their effects around the world, but it’s been said that the UK is particularly ill-prepared as our budget deficit is already fairly large, so there’s little or no room for fiscal manoeuvre.

But that may not matter. Look at monetary policy, and the dilemma that afflicts the Bank of England: it has been refusing to raise interest rates, even though inflation is well above target and predicted to continue rising. There’s a balance of risks, and it judges that higher inflation for a year or so is a price worth paying to avoid the potential recession and deflation that might arise were rates to go too high during this period of slowing growth. Likewise, a slowing economy would usually tend to mean lower rates, but the inflation trouble rules this out too. The two pressures would individually point to policy changes in different directions; in combination, they more or less cancel one another out.

Something similar is true of fiscal policy. When the economy slows, as it is now, cutting taxes and letting borrowing rise is often useful. But doing so when inflation is on the high side could contribute to a far more serious and sustained rise in prices. So it’s not clear that, given the two pressures, tax cuts would be a good idea now. Therefore the fact that there’s little or no scope for them doesn’t matter.

Indeed, the tight budgetary position may even be useful. If the Chancellor can tell public sector unions – quite obviously truthfully – that there’s no more money to spare, then that will help to keep a lid on public sector pay demands, which could feed more enduring and generalised inflation if wages were to jump in response to the current jump in energy and food prices.

I’m not saying that a high-ish budget deficit is all fine and dandy, just that it may not be the particular problem in this situation that some have suggested.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Atheism has all the answers

So, this Q&A’s been doing the rounds a fair bit this week. My turn:

Q1. How would you define 'atheism'?
Believing that there are no such things as gods. But I’m not going to excommunicate people who define it as a mere lack of belief in god(s) – I think they’re more accurate etymologically, but we still need a word that means positive disbelief. Sometimes ‘antitheism’ is suggested, but that sounds too hostile – it’d have to cover people who like the idea of a god but think it’s untrue, and who have a broadly positive attitude to religion. Pesky words.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
Not at all. I had some hymns, visiting vicars and stuff like that at primary school, but nothing systematic – in fact my old headmaster used to give us morning assembly readings from Aesop’s Fables! – and nothing religious from my family. I believed in God for a while in much the same way I believed in the Tooth Fairy, even though my evidence base for the latter was much stronger.

Q3. How would you describe 'Intelligent Design', using only one word?

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?
Neuropsychology. Infinitely richer and more fascinating than the notion of a ‘soul’.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the 'atheist community', what would it be and why?
The idea that there is, or should be, such a thing.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said 'I'm joining the clergy', what would be your first response?
“What do you mean? I don’t have any children!” More hypothetically, I’d be concerned to talk it over with them, and if they were sure it was what they’d really wanted, I’d hope they’d do really well.

Q7. What's your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
I call it the oncological argument, and it runs along the lines of: “My loved one got cancer and went into hospital; I prayed for them to get better and they did – thank the Lord!” But it comes in a lot of varieties, based on selectively interpreted personal experience. Unlike the ontological argument, which treats thinking of god as proof that he exists, this one treats refusing to think of any other explanation as proof that there isn’t any. I usually refute it by rolling my eyes ort, if really necessary, slapping my forehead.

Q8. What's your most 'controversial' (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
Dunno really. Not sure what those “general attitudes” would be. Has someone done a reliable survey of us?

Q9. Of the 'Four Horsemen' (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
I’ve never really read any Harris, and while I agree with Dawkins and Hitchens a lot, they often annoy me. Dawkins tries to do philosophy when it’s really not his field, and Hitchens at times often seems to have been overcome by his own – admittedly brilliant – rhetoric. Dennett is the most interesting, largely for his philosophy of mind work.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
I’m tempted to go with Ophelia and think of the person whose theism is causing the most suffering – she says King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – but I think an atheist convert in such a position would be either sidelined or forced to play along. So maybe my hypothetical child. But I think there are far more important things to convince people of than atheism.

Is there anyone I know left to tag with this? I guess Anticant, David and Scribbles would be good value for money. Not that I’m offering any. But no pressure – as I say, there are more important things in life.

Select committee round-ups

I’d hate to be an MP.

I’d hate knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them to give me a job. I’d hate doing constituency surgeries, dealing with the sometimes idiotic and sometimes tragic problems of a self-selecting sample of my many bosses. I’d hate the constant pressure to toe the party line. I’d hate the grandstanding in the Commons chamber. I’d hate the media interviews. I’d hate having to fend off the lobbying. I’d hate knowing that holding my job was based on my popularity among tens of thousands of people I’d mostly never met.

But I think I’d really like the select committee work, which is probably the least appreciated part of an MP’s job. They get to examine issues a lot more calmly and forensically there. Sure, there’s still partisan manoeuvring and petty egomania, but it seems a lot more subdued by the setting.

So, largely inspired by the Cassilis Think Tank Round-Up, I’m periodically going to post about interesting things to come out of the select committees of the Commons (and the Lords – they may be unelected, but some of them are quite bright, you know).

If this is already being done somewhere, I’d appreciate it if somebody could tell me. Would save a lot of time…

Now, ‘Select Committee Round-Up’, while a very Ronseal title, is a bit too close a rip-off of Cassilis for my pride to bear. So I reckon the feature should have some sort of punchy-yet-not-sickening name. Alas, ‘committee’ is the most tedious word in the English language.

I toyed with ‘Committee Selections’, ‘The Committee Stage’ and ‘In the Committee Room’ – all of which make me want to weep with shame and despair. So maybe something a bit more off-the-wall. I wondered about somehow cunningly adapting a relevant quote, such as Alec Issigonis’s “A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee”, Milton Berle’s “A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours” or GK Chesterton’s “I've searched all the parks in all the cities/And found no statues of committees”. I may even fancy ‘This Calls for Immediate Discussion!’ But who knows? Better ideas welcome.

First edition pretty soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Goodhart’s law and Brown’s poll collapse

In the middle of a piece about Gordon Brown, Jonathan Freedland says this:

All this came to a head of course with last autumn's phantom election. Besides the machinations clearly designed to give him a poll lead, the uncertainty created a new part of the Brown persona: that he was indecisive.

That short aside, “machinations clearly designed to give him a poll lead”, leapt out at me. I’ve argued before that Labour’s poll leads last summer and early autumn were artificial and illusory, but Freedland’s phrasing here makes me see more clearly some of the reason for this.

It’s Goodhart’s law (usually found in economics): when some visible measure has been used as a surrogate to indicate the level of some underlying phenomenon, and then is targeted directly by policy, it ceases to be a reliable indicator of what it used to be.

In this case, the early Brown strategy of presenting him as the calm, competent leader of the nation - with a flurry of smallish yet nice policy changes - served to shift the voting intention polls a fair amount. But during this period, general satisfaction with the Government stayed very low.

So, for a while, Brown’s newness broke the link between declared voting intention and deeper political attitudes – it produced a shift in the former at the cost of making it a poor indicator of the latter. Which is why, when the Tories got their act modestly together during their conference week, and Brown made a couple of presentational mis-steps, the whole thing came crashing down so suddenly.

As a ten-year Chancellor, perhaps Brown should have known about Goodhart’s law.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Laughably hypothetical poll produces meaningless yet still deeply unimpressive result

(And: A curious job title conundrum)

‘News’ just in:

David Davis has won significant support for his decision to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 days' detention, according to a survey for The Independent. The nationwide poll by IpsosMORI found that 35 per cent of people would vote for the former shadow home secretary if they lived in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency.

That’s one of the most ridiculous ifs I’ve ever seen in an opinion poll. It’s up there with ‘If John McCain were facing Jed Bartlet for the presidency, but Hillary Clinton still refused to accept that she hadn’t really got the Democratic nomination, and terrorists had filled the Grand Canyon with cream cheese, how would you vote?’

Also, the idea that 35% support is “significant” is pretty dubious. In 2005, when his party was nationally a little behind Labour rather than miles ahead, Davis won the votes of just over 33% of his local electorate. The difference is within the margin of error. And it’s bloody irrelevant anyway because the people polled don’t bloody live there!

Ahem. I’ve been pretty critical of Davis’s byelection move, partly because I think it purports to focus on an ‘issue’ but does so by yoking – and subordinating – the issue to a personality. So, just for balance, here’s the website he’s just launched, should you fancy a gander.

Curiously, the word ‘Conservative’ appears only once on the site, several paragraphs down the ‘About David Davis MP’ page. Actually, it’s not accurate – and I’m not entirely sure it’s legal – for him to call himself that, as the whole damn point of the resigning/byelection thing is that he isn’t now an MP.

Sorry, I criticised him again. Oh well. He’s a big boy.

[Update: I am completely and utterly wrong about that last point. See in the comments. Apologies for incompetence and borderline libel.]

[Update 2: It's 5pm on Wednesday, Davis definitely, officially resigned several hours ago, and the 'MP' tag is still on his website. So, much like a stopped clock, I have now become correct - at least until they realise and change it. Think I'll quit on this point while I'm ahead...]

Getting on the oil ladder

I’ve been trying, with varying levels of effort and unvarying levels of success, to buy a flat since last autumn. Prices, of course, are falling, so a lot of sellers are backing off, which makes things harder. And there’s also the risk that even if I buy at what seems a good price now, the drop will continue for another year or more.

Oil prices, however, have been hitting record highs, and are expected to keep rising. So there’s clearly an opportunity here.

Rather than buying a flat that’s only going to depreciate, what I could do is buy a load of oil – a much better investment, which I can then sell off at a fat profit in a year or so and trade up. I can use my deposit money, and quite frankly I think that once I’ve explained my foolproof plan to the bank they’ll give me credit to buy more on much better terms than you can get for a mortgage these days.

I mean, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get in on the oil price boom by buying even something small back in 2002, but I think there’s still a lot of potential in this rising market. China and India are still booming, which fuels demand, supply isn’t exactly shooting up, and at the higher end of the market there’s all that aviation fuel used up by diplomats flying to conferences on climate change – as climate change becomes more serious, this market is only going to expand. It’s what we economists call a bubble virtuous circle of perpetual growth and ever-higher returns.

If I make a few smart buys of oil in undesirable areas (Iraq, say) and carry out a few basic improvements to it (refinement, relocation, maybe some decking), I’ll quickly be able to trade my way up to one of the smaller yet well-approtioned Gulf states’ oilfields, or at least a good chunk of the Norwegian North Sea reserves (transport connections perhaps limited but the views are tremendous and there are no noisy neighbours).

At current prices, for the amount I’d have been spending on a flat, I reckon I could get over 3,000 barrels of brent crude. Now quite sure how to go about getting hold of these, as I’m a first-time buyer, but I’ll just have to register with a few oil agents and see what they’ve got. Oil agents are much like estate agents, only less oily.

There is a potential snag with the scheme, though: I’m going to need somewhere to put the stuff. Maybe I should buy a flat…

Monday, June 16, 2008

Half the population is boring

You wouldn’t think, in this day and age, that a middle-aged male Conservative MP could get away with writing something like this:

Are women boring? Do bears shit in the woods? I was well into my thirties before I realised that the key to success with women is the willingness to nod approvingly (until your head is ready to drop off) while they drone on about their shoes/their relationships/their diet/themselves. As an employer, I have noted women’s inability to properly concentrate on one thing at a time. And the distraction of choice for most women is themselves. But are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. And am I capable of being intrigued, excited and enchanted by women none the less? Yes.

Obviously it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and intended to be light-hearted, but still it’s pretty patronising.

Actually, it wasn’t a Conservative MP but a Labour one. And it wasn’t a man but a woman. And she didn’t say the above, but the following (yesterday’s Observer; no link available):

Are men boring? Do bears shit in the woods? I was well into my thirties before I realised that the key to success with men is the willingness to nod approvingly (until your head is ready to drop off) while they drone on about their car/their football team/their job/themselves. As an employer, I have noted men’s inability to hold more than one thought in their head at a time. And the thought of choice for most men is themselves. But are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. And am I capable of being intrigued, excited and enchanted by men none the less? Yes.

Good old Diane Abbott.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

McCain vs Obama vs Death

Time and age wither us all. And assassin’s bullets take a few of us. John McCain will be 72 in August, and Barack Obama must be painfully aware that some armed lunatics will take exception to the crime of Governing While Black.

Whoever the next Vice-President is, there must be a far higher risk than usual that he or she will end up in the top job.

A morbid thought, but there you go.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Which leader did Davis go to first?

Exhibit A:

As part of his preparations, Davis held a meeting with Clegg shortly after the votes on the 42-day plan on Wednesday evening. Davis successfully floated the idea that the Lib Dems might like to consider not fielding a candidate in the byelection because they agree on the 42-day issue.

Exhibit B:

He only informed Mr Cameron after Wednesday’s division on the 42-day power, which Mr Brown won by just nine votes. He presented it as a fait accompli and rebuffed Mr Cameron’s attempts to change his mind. … Mr Davis took the precaution of receiving a pledge from Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, that his party would not put up a candidate against him.

Caveat: you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.

[Right, I think three posts on this in 24 hours is probably enough now. Go read the poverty one instead: it’s much more important. Really. And you’ll feel so worthy afterwards, and you then can go out drinking with a tortured yet paradoxically clear conscience. ‘Oh, it’s awful, but oh, I’m so concerned about it, what a truly wonderful person I must be. Glug, glug, glug – hi, do you come here often? Hic.’]

Is Davis making any sense at all?

First of all, let’s credit David Davis with really, passionately believing in his case. And let’s also credit him with a lot of chutzpah.

But that’s all I’m giving him. His reasons for prompting the byelection, explained in his statement yesterday and an article today, are incoherent.

On Wednesday, we witnessed a severe blow to liberal democracy in this country. On the one hand, Gordon Brown extended the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 42 days, sacrificing one of the most fundamental freedoms of every British citizen - the right not to be held in prolonged police detention without being told the charges against you.

This isn’t true. First of all, Brown didn’t do it; the House of Commons did. Secondly, and more significantly, there’s an inexplicable omission – that last bit should read:

…sacrificing one of the most fundamental freedoms of every British citizen - the right not to be held in prolonged police detention without being told the charges against you for longer than 28 days.

Davis and his party supported 28-day pre-charge detention. This is a matter of degree – about which, sure, he feels strongly – and not a matter of fundamental principle. The “severe blow” dealt to liberal democracy adds a fortnight, equalling the previous severe blow that Davis inflicted when he helped to raise the limit from 14 to 28 days.

He says that “this campaign will be about leading a national debate”, but that’s rubbish. It will be an entirely local decision on who represents the constituency, involving 1 in 646 of the national electorate. The result will certainly allow him to claim a mandate for the positions he was holding already, but it will have no ramifications for any other MP. If he wanted a national debate, he should have used his prominent front-bench position to get one going before the actual Commons vote took place.

He says that he feels “duty bound to take a personal stand” against “the steady, insidious and relentless erosion of our freedoms”. And he thinks himself unable to do this without contesting a byelection, campaigning “against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government”.

And if they [his voters] do send me back here it will be with a single, simple message: that the monstrosity of a law that we passed yesterday will not stand.

Not true. An individual MP, however peculiarly he may get himself re-elected, does not have the constitutional power to overturn legislation.

But his whole assumption is wrong: a single candidate in a byelection does not get to decide what issue the election will be ‘about’ or what the result will ‘mean’. All the election will determine is the identity of Haltemprice and Howden’s MP. It’s perfectly possible that the local electorate like Davis personally, back the Tories generally and support 42-day detention but think it’s far from the most important issue in their lives, so they’ll vote for him anyway.

He says “I am fighting this byelection as the Conservative candidate, but on vital national issues that transcend party politics”, but then adds that “Labour must put up a candidate to debate and defend their draconian track record”. No: you can either have a party political fight or try to “transcend” the fray, but not both. If he wants to focus just on this issue, then Kelvin Mackenzie will be all the opposition he needs. Indeed, a media whore like Mackenzie will surely attract more national publicity for Davis’s “debate” than any bog-standard Labour candidate.

This is the reality: often in politicians, deeply held principle marches hand in hand with inflated self-importance. A vote in Parliament that Davis cared about didn’t go the way he wanted. A party leadership that he’d never been much enamoured of wasn’t taking the issue as seriously as he’d have liked. He thinks he should be listened to more on this, so he’s thrown his toys out of the pram.

Let’s not help him pick them up. Labour would be mad to field a candidate in this pantomime ego-trip, and should say so immediately, not give Davis a weekend to spin the refusal as cowardice. Let him mudwrestle with Mackenzie, and perhaps someone or other – maybe a local Lib Dem disgruntled at Clegg’s playing along with the charade – will be shrewd enough to stand as an independent, opposing Davis’s illiberal support for 28-day detention. Then Davis can slink back into Parliament and carve out whatever niche he can, trying to face up to the fact that his new mandate won’t – on his own terms – cover any positions he might take on tax, health, education, Europe, defence, welfare, transport, housing, the environment, immigration and all other policy areas.

This week’s poverty news

On Tuesday, the Households Below Average Income survey for 2006/07 was released. As ever, the Institute for Fiscal Studies went over the small print with a magnifying glass, a hefty dollop of brainpower and astonishing speed, producing on Wednesday morning a thorough report.

Later on Wednesday, Gordon Brown took PMQs in the Commons, where nobody mentioned the poverty figures. On Thursday, Brown held his monthly press conference, where nobody mentioned the poverty figures. I feel lonely sometimes. Oh well.

The headlines, you may have noticed, reported a small rise in child poverty as well as overall poverty from 2005/06, which makes the second year in a row we’ve had some bad news from these figures. Also there was a surprising (to the IFS) rise in pensioner poverty, which it puts down largely to the removal of age-related payments for pensioners in that year, as well as partly because of increased under-reporting of pension credits by recipients in the HBAI survey.

Something really did go wrong
On the rise in the number of children below the poverty line, Cassilis says that “we're looking at relatively small movements around an entirely arbitrary point used to define poverty”, and that “this sort of micro-management based on arbitrary poverty definition isn't really about impacting peoples lives - certainly not on any significant scale”. I almost wish this were right.

Yes, the Government’s headline 60% median income target is an arbitrary line, and when you have a target based on such a threshold, it can distort what you do. But Labour’s progress in reducing poverty – and then the setbacks in the most recent two years’ figures – are much broader than that. You can look at eight different ‘poverty lines’ (here I’m talking about the whole population) and see that the numbers below rose between 2004/05 and 2006/07 – these lines are 40%, 50%, 60% and 70% of median income, each measured either before or after housing costs (BHC or AHC).

If lines, however many, aren’t your thing, then look at it this way: dividing the population into income quintiles, from 1996/97 to 2004/05, the poorest fifth experienced (slightly) faster income growth than either the middle or the richest fifths; but from 04/05 to 06/07, the fastest gainers have been the top fifth and the real incomes of the bottom fifth have actually dropped.

This is a broader phenomenon than precision-targeting followed by target-missing. Alas.

Why have things gone awry over these two years? Unfortunately the IFS gives less detail than I’d like to corroborate this, but it does appear to be largely to do with benefit levels:

given that the majority of net income of individuals in the second and third deciles (roughly those just below and just above the poverty line) comes from state benefits and tax credits, this is a key determinant of what happens to relative poverty.

it is notable that child poverty has risen in the two years with particularly small rises in entitlements to benefits and tax credits.

If so, then redistribution works. And less redistribution works less well.

Things can only get better
Yes, my tongue was in the vicinity of my cheek as I typed this heading. But only in the vicinity. Given that rises in benefits and tax credits have been reducing poverty, and that slowing these rises had the opposite effect for two years, we can consider what’s to come given policies that have come into place since 2006/07 and those that will start in the next year or two:

IFS researchers predict a fall in the numbers of children in poverty [from 2.9 million in 2006/07] to 2.2 million (using incomes measured BHC) in 2010–11

That’s not far off double the average rate of fall over the preceding eight years. And yes, this is looking at that arbitrary poverty line, but I say again that it’s just not possible to get that many families across a line without having significant real improvements to their living standards and those of many others. Labour’s campaign against child poverty stumbled, needlessly, but it hasn’t collapsed; in fact, it looks like it’s already back up and running again. However, we won’t know for sure what progress is made until the figures come out in late spring 2012. That may not be much political use to Gordon…

It’s also worth mentioning that the Government isn’t simply trying to chuck ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money at poor people. Just as the Tories aren’t really going to cut all the poor off without a penny, so Labour hasn’t exactly been avoiding more punitive and pro-active measures to get people into work. There are big differences in emphasis, of course, but more solid comparisons are hampered by the facts that the Government supertanker turns slowly, and that the Tory polices are still often elusively vague.

One contrast: in 2006/07 a workless lone-parent household had a 57.5% risk of being below the 60% BHC poverty line. Moving into part-time work takes that risk down to 19.4% and full-time work down to 7.4%. Becoming a two-parent household, though, takes the risk down to only 46.6% if either or both parents work part-time, and 20.2% if one works full-time and one not at all. It seems that promoting employment is a better way to cut poverty than promoting marriage.

Some are more unequal than others
‘Inequality’ is a tricky beast to define, and the IFS looks at a number of different measures of it. It finds that the ’90:10 ratio’ – the income of the 10th richest percentile to the 10th poorest – has varied a bit but is basically unchaged under Labour. Likewise the 90:50 and 50:10 ratios. So income inequality for the middle 80% has remained pretty constant. It’s actually quite an achievement for Labour to have engineered continuing economic growth where the bulk of the population participate equally – under the Conservatives, periods of growth involved a general rise in inequality right across the spectrum.

On other measures of inequality, such as the Gini coefficient, there have been slight rises under Labour. What this means, in combination with the steady 90:10 ratio, is that the very richest are speeding away from the rest of us, and the very poorest aren’t keeping pace (although in absolute terms they’re mostly better off).

The IFS recently published a study (noted here) of the super-rich and how they get their income; a future paper, looking at the ‘super-poor’, was hinted at. Soon, I hope. It’s important to know what’s going on in these people’s lives that prevents them from getting more income – indeed, whether they’re even the same people years after year (see below) – and how things could be improved for them.

Poverty is becoming less of a trap
One other silver lining from the figures [PDF, table 7.1] is that regardless of the number of children in poverty in any given year, there’s more ‘churn’ than there was under the Tories – that is, fewer of those who are poor are staying poor for long periods. One might think that as the proportion of people below a given poverty line falls, you’re left with a ‘core’ who are harder to shift at all. That’s not supported by this data.

This graph (using my calculations from table 7.1 here and table 4.1tr here [PDFs]) shows the percentage of children in households below 60% of median income who have been in that same position for at least three out of the preceding four years, starting with the period 1998-2001 and running to 2002-05 (BHC in blue, AHC in red):

Child poverty (at least on this measure) has not only fallen, but those who still below the threshold are spending less time stuck there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

David Davis boldly risks a month’s pay

Really, really interesting. Quick thoughts:

He’s trying to do for civil liberties what Martin Bell did for sleaze. Can he do that from within the Conservative party?

Nick Clegg has already said the Lib Dems won’t be fielding a candidate, which suggests either astonishingly quick thinking or some undisclosed cosiness. How will local Lib Dems take this? (Does the Lib Dem leader actually have the power to order this?)

Davis is taking no risk at all with his seat: he comfortably beat the Lib Dems there in 2005 with a swing that bucked the national trend, and his party’s position is much stronger now. Will that mean this move is seen as a gimmick?

Denis MacShane’s suggestion that Labour shouldn’t contest it either sounds spot on. This is an election where Labour can only do badly. Davis’s statement that “I will not fight it on the government's general record… I will argue this byelection against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government” shows that he’s already spinning his certain victory as endorsing his views on this, when in fact people vote for hundreds of different reasons. Why let him get away with this? He can play his little ego game and then slink back into the Commons having bested Ukip and the Greens. As Gordon Brown may know, an victory without a real opponent doesn’t add much to your authority.

How much of a disagreement was there between Davis and Cameron over 42-day detention and this tactic? Why aren’t Cameron or any other Tories doing this – are they frit? Do they not really care?

Finally, if the tactic works, will anyone else try the same thing? I bet a few Tories would fancy becoming a national hero over, say, the EU treaty referendum. Would Cameron enjoy that?

‘Dear big business, please stop trying to make so much profit and be nicer, or else I’ll be forced to ask you again’

I pretty much agree with David Cameron about this:

For many parents, today's world can seem incredibly hostile. There are times when each shopping trip, advert break, magazine, film, TV programme or music video seems to conspire against you. If it's not enticing your children with the latest toy, it's introducing youngsters to sex, violence and adult emotional dilemmas at an incredibly early age.
So we - government, parents and society - have got to stand together and demand that all our businesses accept the influence they have over children and behave accordingly. I believe social pressure, not regulation, is the best way to do this.

All apart from the last sentence, a non sequitur that leaps from simple observation and common concern to ideological insistence. That lacuna dooms the whole enterprise. He goes on:

So yes, I will keep criticising irresponsible marketing for instance that gauntlet you have to run at the checkout with endless pushing of chocolate and sweets so parents cannot help but be pestered by their children when they're queuing. And I will speak out against any other commercial pressures that make life difficult for parents.

Cameron is sometimes said to be a 1980s free-market fundamentalist in sheep’s clothing. He isn’t: he truly believes, I’m sure, that there should be more restraints on the activities of business. But his deep-seated dislike of the state means that he wants this restraint to be voluntary: moral rather than legal. I really can’t see that working, though.

I suppose you could make an analogy with the public pressure on multinationals to observe better labour standards in developing countries than they strictly need to. Maybe. But that’s a case of giving these companies another relatively cheap way to sell themselves to their Western customers (‘look – we’re ethical! And if you wear our clothes, people will know you are too!’). It’s also had limited success.

But for the things Cameron’s talking about, I think there’s even less scope for voluntary, reputation-based change. The reason is that what he wants restrained is not the way products are produced but they way they’re sold; breaking the nexus between company and consumer in this way will mean fewer sales and nothing else – what business will go for that?

Cultural change would definitely be good to have here; I think children are too commercialised. But it’s not enough, and I doubt Government can drive it by exhortation, and without restricting what business and particularly the media can do, it just won’t happen.

[A while ago, Cassilis criticised those who claim that the changes under Cameron have been purely superficial. He’s right, and I keep meaning to respond (this isn’t a response, just an aside). I think the Tories have changed more than just their PR, but – if this makes much sense – the change is more in terms of how the party thinks of itself than it is an upheaval in policies. Yes, they talk more compassionately than ten or even five years ago, but I think they also feel, in themselves, more compassionate about social issues (or at least some of them do). This has led to policy change in some cases – although these are often at least as much a matter of expediently accepting the Labour agenda, as with the minimum wage and NHS spending – but the bigger effect is that often-familiar right-wing policies now get justified in different ways. Thus biasing the tax and benefit system towards marriage is a way to help families out of poverty, not a way to stop irresponsible single mothers sponging off the state. Or, in this case, a refusal to regulate business isn’t about slashing red tape but part of a desire to encourage “responsibility” by focusing on persuasion and cultural change. Just a thought.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

42 days? Sign me up!

Not that I have a vote in Parliament, but the Government has now successfully bought me off over 42-day detention:

Ministers are expected to offer a last-minute compensation deal to help push through plans to extend detention of terror suspects to 42 days. It involves compensation of £3,000 a day for those held for more than 28 days and eventually released without charge

So that works out as a tidy £42,000 if you go the whole 42 days. Nice. I should probably mention at this point that, for all anyone knows, I could potentially be connected with a number of terrorist cells and may well have vital information that requires my arrest and detention.

I reckon I can hold out for 42 days, protesting my innocence not quite convincingly enough to be released, and then rake it in. They’ll even provide bed and board! And then I get to go on Question Time and write columns in the Guardian about my ‘ordeal’!

The only problem would be if they charge me with wasting police time at the end and I get nothing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Damn, damn, damn

The income distribution figures for 2006/07 are out, and they’re just not bloody good enough.

Measured before housing costs, the proportion of children living below 60% of median earnings is unchanged on 2005/06; the proportion below 70% is unchanged and the proportion below 50% is up one percentage point (about 100,000 children).

After housing costs, the proportion below each of these thresholds is up one point.

There’s a lot to read, and I’m sure the IFS will have a lot to add in the next day or two, so I’ll hold off any more detail for the moment.

Public funding for political parties

In the audit-resistant world of EU finances, this may be small fry. But even so, it stinks:

A senior Tory MEP channelled more than £750,000 of parliamentary allowances into a family firm which then gave donations to the Conservative Party, The Independent has established.
Figures from the Electoral Commission show that MP Holdings, which is paid to give Den Dover secretarial and administrative support from European Parliament funds, gave the Chorley Conservative Party a donation of £1,200 in December last year. The firm, run by Mr Dover's wife Kathleen and daughter Amanda, also gave the North West Regional Conservative Party a donation in kind of printing worth £1,701 in 2004.
In company accounts up to April 2007, MP Holdings does not appear to have any other income except from the European Parliament.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Invented inverted snobbery

Educational snobbery, while it may reflect a person’s actual qualities a bit better than actual class snobbery, is still pretty nasty. Inverted educational snobbery, which consigns the supposedly arrogant beneficiaries of good schooling and wide reading to a pedestal so that they can be better pelted with rotten fruit, is as unthinkingly bad and also slanders the value of education.

Today, we see an example of invented inverted educational snobbery – someone well-educated feigning a man-of-the-people disdain for learning. Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary and product of a public school and then Oxford, is fiercely intelligent and impressively well-read. In today’s Times, he has this to say:

Das Kapital is one of those works, like J.M. Keynes's General Theory, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Lisbon treaty, Ulysses and Moby Dick that manage to be hugely influential without it being possible to find anyone who has actually read them.

It’s definitely possible that Gove hasn’t read any of these, but he will certainly have many friends and colleagues who have. Good for them. But please, don’t try to hide it. Invented inverted snobbery is not just nasty and denigrating of literacy; it’s also dishonest.

Why can’t we have politicians who’ll unashamedly champion a love of great yet perhaps less ‘accessible’ books? People like this:

If a week goes by without me spending some time in a bookshop I grow grumpy and agitated, like a cow that hasn’t been milked. I will purposely plot travel routes to allow time to visit towns that boast superb secondhand bookshops… I will truncate lunches and arrive late at parties to allow time for visits to bookshops that happen to be in the area in which I’m being entertained. …
I suppose I’d say that my trips to bookshops were the male equivalent of going for a treatment — half an hour spent rifling through the Everyman Classics inducing in me the same state of blissful relaxation as a session with a skilled reflexologist evokes in my wife. …
Given the scale, and intensity, of my addiction (I am to the classics what Pete Doherty was to Class As)… For me, the loss of an independent bookshop is like the loss of a single Spartan to Leonidas at Thermopylae — it’s not as though we have so many that we can afford to shrug off a single casualty.

Bravo, that man.

(Chris, though, takes Gove at his word, seeing this as evidence that “the Tory chuntering class is as stupid and ill-read as its Hampstead lefty counterpart”, and he defends Marx’s writing.)

Why secular humanists are neither Satan nor Stalin

One of the things I like about clergymen who demand a greater role for religion in public life is that it exposes their claims to proper scrutiny. It reminds us that they’re politicians as much as clerics and that their views can and should be treated as critically as those of any political party.

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, says:

This religious vision needs once more to become a political vision for all to create a more just society and usher in God's rule of justice upon earth.

In doing this, he forfeits any ability to make the (always-dubious) claim for uncritical ‘respect’ that religion often does. This is no matter of private conscience about which we may cheerfully agree to disagree; he wants his movement to have more say in the running of our country.

Also, a report for the C of E due out today is reportedly critical of the Government, but they’re big boys and girls: they can look after themselves. More importantly, the report (as billed) serves to attack secular politics and humanistic ethics – as does Sentamu’s speech.

At the start, he makes the obligatory concession in noting that “Organised religion… can be both an instrument for good or for great evil.” This contrast, though, skips past a lot of greyer territory. He is not committing great evil in the name of religion. But he is advancing an agenda that’s illiberal and tribalising, even as he imagines he’s being tolerant and inclusive.

As does much archepiscopal politicking, his case proceeds by means of obfuscation and spurious redefinition. He takes ‘liberty’ to mean “the principle of respect for personality in all people”, which is a new one to me. To explain this, he quotes William Temple, one of his predecessors at York: “if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society”.

This is no explanation at all. A notion of liberty that doesn’t mention being entitled to make one’s own decisions is a failure. Talking about worth in general is fine, but it’s something else. Talking about the worth of “each” is closer to equality than liberty.

But Sentamu’s thoughts on equality are also confused:

Temple believed that everyone had an equality of worth before God, but he did not see that this implied that everyone should occupy the same kind of position in society and be treated in the same kind of way. In his charge to the clergy of Manchester diocese he argued that:
"men are born with different capacities and different gifts, and if you insist upon the principle that everyone must be free to develop his own life [as William Temple did], the result will be an emphasis on Liberty, but there will be no Equality.
Whereas if you begin with an insistence that all are to be counted alike, however different their gifts and powers, then of necessity you will put great restraint upon many of the citizens and possibly on all."

Our current Government is in danger of sacrificing Liberty in favour of an abused form of equality – not a meaningful equality that enables the excluded to be brought into society, but rather an equality based on dictat and bureaucracy, which overreaches into the realm of personal conscience.

An A-level politics class could cut through this in under a minute on a hot Friday afternoon. Temple, as quoted, takes undeniable individual difference as his starting-point, and then notes that equality of opportunity (which he calls “Liberty”) will preclude equality of outcome (which he calls “Equality”). Then he notes that insisting on equality of outcome will require restrictions of liberty.

But hardly anyone – certainly not this Government – believes in equality of outcome. Most people – including this Government – believe in some form of equality of opportunity, and in using the resources of the state to advance this for those who find themselves lacking opportunity. To this end, resources come from tax, which restricts some of the economic liberty of those that pay it. The trade-off is broadly accepted. On the more general matter of equal moral worth, regardless of sex, race and all the other false grounds on which equality has been denied, there is majority agreement.

In some cases, though – sexuality being one in point – there are still too many who deny equal worth. Thus there’s also substantial agreement that the state should use some resources to prevent people from disadvantaging others based on prejudice such as homophobia. This, I am sure, is what Sentamu derides as “dictat and bureaucracy, which overreaches into the realm of personal conscience”. He is less liberal than he likes to think.

And his demands for religion to be more assertive in politics, as well as the overall style of his address, would do as much to divide society as any of his sweeter notions would do to unite it. He speaks as one Anglican addressing others; by preaching to the converted, he shuts out the rest of us and works to replace a national polity that can deliberate on its future as one with a culture in which tribal religions compete for influence.

Human rights without the safeguarding of a God-reference tends to set up rights which trump others' rights when the mood music changes.

This may mean that unless we stick to ancient scripture, then we might change our minds about things, or that relying on supernatural authority is a nice way to justify discriminating against gay people.

Many people do see religion as a bedrock for moral values; but for many more of us, it is the fog that obscures them. Take this quote again: “if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society”.

The first part serves only to weaken the second. For one thing, a lot of us are sure there’s no God and a lot more are pretty dubious about the idea, which makes it a poor notion to collectively lean on. For another, this transcendent ‘worth’ simply swaps human preference for divine preference as its basis, while never explaining why that should make a moral difference. For yet another, it falsely implies that the only concept of worth that an atheist can have is the crude one of generalised social usefulness, rather than true individual value. And for one more thing, we’re not talking about a god in the abstract but the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, replete with wrath and bigotry, smitings and arbitrary diktats. This narrative does contain some good moral teaching, but it also contains a lot to divert us from more careful and open consideration of what really counts in matters of right and wrong.

Sentamu quotes another of his predecessors, Stuart Blanch, with an analogy for secular humanists: the Devil. He “had chosen to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven; he preferred to be a law unto himself instead of an observer of the law of God; he had decided to pursue his own objectives rather than the objectives which God had prescribed for him.”

The analogy fails so pitifully because there was only one Devil; for him, the alternative to divine service was his own rule. But our situation isn’t like that: there are tens of millions in this democracy of ours, and over a hundred times more around the globe. As a human, I have vital needs and best interests; I am a barometer of what matters. In this capacity, I am equal to the rest of my species. So in saying that there is no greater good than humanity, I am bound to accept that I myself am no greater good than my fellows.

Christianity accepts the rule of God. Where Sentamu errs most fatally is in imagining that abandoning this myth requires us to create a different sort of absolutist power rather than a free and equal community.

As such, his view of collective godlessness is very low: as examples of what happens to “society without religion”, he gives “the Third Reich, the former Soviet Union and the present regimes of North Korea and Burma”. This is too tedious for words; what these are really examples of is what happens when brutal, tyrannical governments crush their people’s freedoms – including, yes, freedom of religion. And governments can be brutal in service of all sorts of ideologies, including religious ones.

Take this one further passage:

Social fellowship teaches responsibility and inter-dependence. It demonstrates the fallacy that people can live disconnected lives, isolated and individualised or atomised from one another. This social fellowship is expressed through family life, school, college, trade union, professional association, city, county, nation, church, synagogue, etc.
It is an understanding that we sink or swim together. That we are bonded together by our common humanity. That we are members of the one race: the human race.

Excellent. But it’s escaped his notice that most of the group types he lists have nothing to do with religion, and that our human unity has nothing to do with being ‘under God’. His myths and his institutions are not all bad, but they are just part of many flawed, human ways of understanding and structuring our world.

I cherish the Church’s right to preach and practise, but its claims for special public status are completely unfounded.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Going downmarket

The Guardian’s headline today, ‘House prices fall at fastest rate since 90s crash’, is wrong. They’re falling more quickly now.

The graph below shows the cumulative percentage fall in property prices month by month. The blue line runs from January 1991 to December 1992, and the red line starts in August 2007. I’m using averages of the Halifax and Nationwide indices.

What’s obvious is that this time around, prices are dropping a lot more suddenly than in the early 1990s (there were sporadic falls for some time before and after 1991-92, but interspersed with some faltering rises and general stagnation; those two years were when most of the action happened).

I don’t really know what this might suggest: maybe that prices will fall farther this time, maybe that the fall will end sooner, maybe a mixture of the two. The broader economic situations then and now, as well as the proximate causes of the house price falls, are very different. The average price-to-earnings ratio has grown much higher lately than in the late 1980s boom, but we don’t have to suffer today the brutal interest rates that ERM membership demanded until autumn 1992.

And, as Chris says, these figures are national averages – there’s plenty of variation by type of property, region and even neighbourhood. That said, I could well be out of my tiny mind to be trying to buy my first flat right now.

I may have just wasted a few hundred quid on a pointless survey and legal fees, but on the latest figures the average property is dropping by over a grand a week. Indeed, an academic analysis has found that falling prices may mean that property becomes cheaper and hence more affordable for first-time buyers. I wish I’d been paid to come up with that.

So all I have to do to avoid being hit by a price crash is wait an unknowable amount of time, or else cause it myself, by making obscenely low offers.