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."