Friday, July 31, 2009

Democracy is more than a constitution

Democracy is unstable as a political system as long as it remains a political system and nothing more, instead of being, as it should be, not only a form of government but a type of society, and a manner of life which is in harmony with that type. To make it a type of society requires an advance along two lines. It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress other, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income. It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into a servant of society, working within clearly defined limits and accountable for its actions to a public authority.

- RH Tawney, ‘Keeping Left’, 1950

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A tale of two house price crashes

How does the housing boom and bust that we’ve had this decade compare with the one of the late 80s/early 90s?

To see this, it’s best not to look at actual house prices: these declined only very gradually after the late 80s boom (although in a time of higher inflation, it felt like a bigger fall), and since about 1998, cash prices have been much higher than at the peak of the earlier boom. But of course people’s incomes have also got much higher.

We need to look at affordability. My graph below shows two key measures of this from the Halifax’s figures: the ratio of average house prices to earnings (the blue line, using the left scale), and the percentage of homeowners’ incomes taken up by mortgage repayments (red line, right scale).

A few things stand out:

  • The price/earnings ratio went a lot higher in the 2000s boom, although it increased more slowly than during the pre-bust 1988 surge. The later boom in fact had three phases: robust growth from 2001 to 2004, then a pause for a year or so, then resumed growth from late 2005 to early 2007.

  • The late 80s boom involved far higher mortgage costs than in the 2000s. This was partly because of the larger mortgages needed to buy the increasingly expensive houses, but was mostly due to the huge interest rate rises that the government used to snuff out the boom.

  • On the downside, the price/earnings ratio has fallen much faster this time than last time; these things always tend to overshoot, but it suggests that the overall period of falling won’t go on for as long as it did back then. A long period of stagnation seems likely, though.

  • Mortgage costs have also fallen far more quickly this time around, due to the unprecedentedly low interest rates. But this will partly be reversed as rates move back to more normal territory over the next couple of years.

All this illustrates that the two booms went bust for different reasons: in the earlier one, the government took harsh action to deal with high inflation and strong growth across the economy. The agonisingly high mortgage costs are what made the housing market fall. This time round, mortgages never got all that expensive, but once the credit crunch spread from the US, mortgages became much harder to get, which meant houses became much harder to buy; the fall in demand led to swift collapses both in prices and the number of sales. The relative lack of general inflationary pressure now has meant interest rates have been able to come down faster and farther.

In the US, an initial moderate downturn in the housing market from late 2006 is what sparked the credit crunch; this then caused further house price falls – among other things – both there and elsewhere. I suspect that if the US and the rest of the world had somehow carried on as was, then we would have had a similar situation – with a smaller home-grown credit crunch – before too long. In fact, the moderate inflation through 2008 would normally have meant higher interest rates, which could well have turned the housing market down.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Esther Rantzen becomes a politician

Ms Rantzen refused to say whether she had been approached by any of the main political parties to stand as their candidate.

"It's a question of whether I have been and whether I would tell you if I had," she said.

Now that’s the kind of straight talking Britain needs.

Cash for contracts: all shall have prizes

Why give money to a political party? Because you think it has the best vision for how to run the country and you want to help it win an election? Or because you want to cosy up to it in the hope of some sort of payback?

One obvious sign that it’s thinly disguised lobbying is when a donor supports more than one party at the same time.

Britain's top accountancy firms are channelling resources and staff worth hundreds of thousands of pounds into the Conservative Party ahead of an anticipated Tory government after the general election.

The firms involved already hold government contracts worth millions of pounds between them. More consultancy contracts would be on offer for auditors and consultants as the party would be forced to grapple with making vast savings across the public sector should it form the next government.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats also receive donations and services from auditors. However, there are signs that some firms have shifted their funding significantly in recent years. While the Tories have received £106,103 from KPMG since the start of 2008, it received just under £45,000 from the company in 2002-03. Meanwhile, donations from the firm to Labour have fallen from £90,000 in 2002-03 to £61,000 since the start of 2008.
…the Liberal Democrats also benefit from donations-in-kind from auditors, including more than £300,000 from KPMG since 2002.

As they keep doing it, year after year, these companies are clearly confident that their phoney donations are buying them influence.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

1 fr th rd

A very happy sixth birthday to Normblog. And on this fine day, Norm brings us this news:

A new study shows that 'when the drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting'. The lesson? You shouldn't text while driving. Well, I'm glad that's settled.

Yes, but we mustn’t forget the converse finding: when texters are driving, their typo rate is far greater than when not driving, as indeed is their risk of failing to complete their text message owing to involvement in a traffic accident.

Similarly, you shouldn’t drive and drink: there’s a far greater risk of spilling your pint.

(I know, I know, bad taste…)

Hubble pictures

I love space. It’s definitely one of my top two places.

Here are some pictures of it taken by the Hubble telescope.

The Crab Nebula.

Two galaxies playing gravitational tug-of-war with a third.

A pillar of dust and gas coming out of the Eagle Nebula. It’s a bit over 50 trillion miles long.

The Whirlpool Galaxy.

Some star, with dust around it. Pretty.

The Sombrero Galaxy. Nuff said.

Vote for me!

It’s time for the annual Freemania Blog Awards, and this year as ever the very finest the blogosphere has to offer is being judged across one category: Best Blog Written By Tom Freeman. Nominations have now closed, and I can announce that there is one contender for the trophy: Freemania.

I am, of course, deeply honoured to have made it this far, but I’m not complacent. There’s still the public vote to get through. You can vote for me, as you choose, and I very much hope that you will. There is a small fee to cover the admin costs of registering to vote, but I’m sure you’ll agree that you can’t put a price on democracy. Please send cheques for £50.00, payable to ‘Tom Freeman’, to the usual address along with your vote for Freemania.

Voting will close at the discretion of the returning officer, me, and the results will be announced once I’ve sobered up.

Thanks for your support!

Monday, July 27, 2009


The Guardian has published some readers’ jokes. My favourites:

I've just realised that tofu is overrated. It's literally just a curd to me.

Recent research has shown that six out of seven dwarves aren't happy.

How many Freudian psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Two. One to change it and the other to hold his penis. I mean ladder.

I also like The Onion’s buyout by the Chinese government:

Potato-Faced Youngster Lauded For Memorizing Primitive 26-Character Alphabet

Grandfather Disrespected In Own Home

Internet Adds 12th Website

Toddler Chokes To Death On Plastic Taiwanese-Made Toy

Sen on equalising capability

Danny Finkelstein is usually very astute, but here I think he misses the point. He’s talking about Amartya Sen’s views on “equality of capability” (as discussed by James Purnell), which is intended to be less money-centric than equality of outcome and more substantive than equality of opportunity:

Sen’s idea is that the correct goal for those seeking to further social justice is to remove barriers to people living the life that they choose and to give them the wherewithal to achieve what they can. Illiteracy, poor nutrition and discrimination are examples of ways in which people’s capabilities are damaged.

Danny likes this, but is concerned about the word ‘equality’ in this context:

Purnell used this word for political reasons, to reconnect Blairites with the Left. But it is hard to see it being helpful. In fact, the very idea of capability — which stresses individual differences that act as a barrier to them living a full life — pulls against the idea of equality.
And… although Purnell wants a debate about capability, he is going to get one about equality.

This suggests that Danny doesn’t know his Sen as well as he might. Purnell used the word because it’s the word Sen himself regularly uses. And the notions of capability and equality don’t pull in opposite directions at all. Consider this passage from Sen’s 1992 book Inequality Reexamined:

Libertarians must think it important that people should have liberty. Given this, questions would immediately arise regarding: who, how much, how distributed, how equal? Thus the issue of equality immediately arises as a supplement to the assertion of the importance of liberty.

It is neither accurate nor helpful to think of the difference…in terms of ‘liberty versus equality’.
Indeed, strictly speaking, posing the problems in terms of this latter contrast reflects a ‘category mistake’. They are not alternatives. Liberty is among the possible fields of application of equality, and equality is among the possible patterns of distribution of liberty.

Substitute ‘capability’ for ‘liberty’, and it’s just as true: capabilities can be distributed more or less equally. Of course Danny’s right that there are great individual differences, but that’s just the point: many people’s lives are blighted because they lack the capabilities that others take for granted.

And of course total equality - of income, opportunity, health, happiness, capability, almost anything - is a chimera whose unwavering pursuit would be folly, but Sen takes an ameliorative rather than a utopian approach, as these two reviews of his latest book make clear.

The idea is to identify specific cases where some people are prevented from making the most of their lives by obstacles that many others do not face and that can be feasibly removed through political action. We need not pre-define a perfectly just society in order to remove some of the most glaring injustices that exist. And the desire to prioritise people whose circumstances are the most fraught rather than the desire to promote capability generally, even among the already advantaged, is what motivates talk about equality of capability.

Purnell’s aim, I suspect, is less to spark an intra-left debate about the focus of equalisation than to muster strength for a left-right debate about the distribution of capability – although the former may be a stepping-stone towards the latter.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Norwich North: dire for Labour, OK for the Tories

The Independent reports:

The size of the anti-Labour swing almost matches that achieved by the Tories last year in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

Well, no. True, the 16.5% swing in Norwich compares to the 17.5% in Crewe, but those simple numbers conceal a big difference.

In Crewe and Nantwich last May, the Labour vote fell by 18.2% and the Tory vote rose by 16.9% - clearly a large shift from one to the other. But in Norwich, while the Labour vote collapsed by 26.7%, the Tory vote rose by the far less impressive 6.3% - the anti-Labour vote splintered, with UKIP and the Greens each putting on more votes than did the Tories.

But none of that detracts from the facts that Labour looks doomed, that the Tories look to be on for a comfortable general election win, and that congratulations are due to Chloe Smith, at 27 the new ‘Baby of the House’. I’m all for more younger MPs (although I’m less keen on more Tory MPs).

There seems to be no new momentum against Gordon Brown within the Labour Party, so things look likely to carry on much as they are. Perhaps the only good thing for Labour to come out of this byelection is that the strategy of shrieking ‘Tory cuts!’ has been shown to be ineffective.

(In the same way, Crewe and Nantwich tested to destruction the ‘Tory toffs!’ strategy, although frankly 30 seconds’ thought would have done the same.)

So, while Labour goes from weakness to weakness, the Tories only did passably well. But passable is enough to, well, pass. The Times gets it pretty much right:

The electorate, Labour feels certain, is unsure about the Conservative Party. This intuition is correct. It is also irrelevant so long as Labour itself is quite as unpopular as it is.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The slow death (by pie) of Labour and Tory Britain

Mark Reckons looks at the long-term decline in the share of the vote going to the two main parties, which has dropped from around 90% in the 1950s and 1960s to around 70% in the last couple of elections. He notes that (for the time being at least) the first-past-the-post voting system is keeping their overwhelming dominance in Parliament.

I would say that we are becoming increasingly pluralistic as an electorate. We have got used to voting for smaller parties and those often described as "others". I think the vote share of the two main parties will continue to decline and it will get harder and harder for them to justify the present system.

Mark’s post is titled ‘How low can we go?’, and I couldn’t resist thinking about an answer. What follows, as Peter Snow used to say, is just a bit of fun.

For reference, the 2005 election result:

C 33% (198 seats), L 36% (356), LD 23% (62), Others 8% (30)

Now, the latest Populus poll seems a fair place to start; feeding that into the seat calculator at Electoral Calculus, we get:

C 38% (341), L 26% (222), LD 20% (56), Oth 16% (31)

So despite a doubling of the minor parties’ vote, their seat tally is basically unchanged.

What I did next was gradually shift support away from the two main parties and towards the Lib Dems and others. I’ve taken a series of steps, each subtracting 1.5% from the Conservative vote and 1% from Labour and adding 1% to the Lib Dems and 1.5% to the others.

The result is s series of pie charts. The headings give the vote shares and the sizes of the slices show the number of MPs returned; the Conservatives are blue, Labour red, Lib Dems yellow and others green.

So, as the Labour/Tory vote erodes, the Lib Dems scoop up more and more seats, but the other parties hardly make headway, even at a quarter of the vote. And even when the Labour/Tory vote dips to 49%, they still hold just over three-quarters of the seats in parliament.

But then we reach what looks like a tipping point:

The Lib Dems continues their forward march (although even on becoming the most popular party, they still lag third in terms of seats), but now the minor parties really start to make advances as well.

From here on, the results splinter in all directions, and we can clearly say that even the three-party system is no more:

But of course this wouldn’t really happen, even if such mammoth shifts in votes did take place. There’d be massive local variation, and different minor parties would do well in different areas and against different main parties. But it’s an intriguing bit of Friday fun.

And now all this talk of pie has made me hungry...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meritocracy and the left

I’ve been thinking about meritocracy, partly in conversation with Liam, partly in relation to the left’s attitude to bad luck, and partly in response to something Don Paskini said:

In a meritocratic society, power is wielded by the minority who are judged to have the most 'merit'. Is that really what the left should be aiming for?

There’s a vital question hinted at here: who defines ‘merit’ and decides how much we all have?

In meritocratic theory, the market; in practice, the biggest market participants. (OK, Don was talking about political power rather than financial success, but the question can be posed of either; I’m looking at the latter.)

Now it’s true that, insofar as markets and their larger participants operate by catering to the desires of the many ordinary consumers, a market definition of merit will have some connection to public opinion. But there’s a vast difference between providing the products that customers want and treating the people involved in that process in a way that the customers deem fair.

And yes, markets will tend to favour people who, within a given line of work, are harder-working and more talented. Markets will also tend to favour those in lines of work where the necessary skills are rarer relative to the demand for them. These two features – especially the former – will seem fair to most, although there remains a huge question about people who, through no fault of their own, have limited skills for which there is either little demand or oversupply. Do they merit the pittance they can get?

More fundamentally, the means of developing the qualities that might count as ‘merit’ are distributed neither equally nor meritocratically (however defined); the distribution of merit isn’t independent of, say, the pre-existing distribution of power and wealth.

Meritocracy can thus become a hierarchy, with levels that shift in response to a series of market echoes of the prejudices of whoever had previously been in the strongest position.

That’s clearly not what the left should be aiming for.

So the questions for the left are: if we think that rewarding merit is to whatever extent reasonable, how do we promote non-market notions of merit? How much do we restrain the market’s freedom to punish those it deems lacking? How do we most widely spread the ability to acquire merit (of whatever type)? How far, in other words, can we go towards Tawney’s ‘equal start and an open road’?

Luck vs choice in the left-right divide

James Purnell’s Open Left project is interesting. It’s asking people on the left why they’re on the left rather than the right. Purnell’s own answer (set aside what you think of the man himself) contains some sound points:

First, the Right tolerates inequalities that the Left hates. …some people have it very easy in our society, others far too hard. The goal of policy should be to correct these inequalities in power. …
Second, I believe that governments succeed more often than they fail. People on the Right are more sceptical of government’s effectiveness. …
Third… People on the Left tend to have a vision of what society could be like, and believe it’s the role of democracy to try to make that a reality. People on the Right are more likely to value the status quo, believing it represents the tested wisdom of previous generations.

But these three may all originate in the same phenomenon: that the right is more inclined to see people’s circumstances as the results of their own choices, and the left is more inclined to see people’s circumstances as the results of factors beyond their own control. (You can see this view in, for instance, Chris Dillow's comment about Open Left.)

From this, it follows that the left desires to reduce the unfair effects of bad luck on people’s lives, whereas the right sees the natural order of things as fairer, and that change would likely be for the worse. The primary candidate to promote such change (by any number of direct or indirect means) is the state, and judgements of the state’s effectiveness tend to be in proportion to judgements of the merits of its aims.

Hence also the differences on the value of the status quo versus change (the Thatcherite revolution was an exception that proves the rule: it was mostly about changing a situation that previous governments had created).

So, is the left-right split just a difference in opinion on the roles of choice and luck? Almost certainly not. But I think there’s something in this.

(And, as I argue in another post today, the arbitrary and unequal role of bad luck is a good reason for the left to be wary of pure meritocracy.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I’ve signed up to Bloggers’ Circle, a sort of networking system for smaller-audience bloggers with an interest in public policy. It works like this:

  • Once a week you can submit your best / most interesting blogpost to the circle
  • Receive an email at about lunchtime when blogposts have been submitted by members of the circle
  • If other members of the circle find your post interesting or provocative they will write about it
  • In return, we ask you to write about a blog post promoted by another member of the circle twice a month

And, perhaps inevitably, I now have blogger’s block.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Friendly advice for Damian McBride

Shut up.

Stay shut up, and then shut up some more.

Every time that anything reminds the public that you exist, Labour loses votes.

Shut up and keep shutting up.

Otherwise, you’re doing great.

What’s new about ‘new atheism’?

HE Baber says (via Ophelia):

Most people I know are atheists. But they're atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.

Ophelia thinks that this is obviously false, and she’s right. But there is something new afoot.

So, what is ‘new atheism’? The phrase, apparently coined in 2006, seems mostly to be used pejoratively by critics, often accompanied by the words ‘strident’, ‘shrill’, ‘aggressive’, ‘intolerant’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘dogmatic’.

But what the term seems to refer to is people (there’s no coherent ‘new atheist’ movement) who believe, and are not afraid to say out loud, most if not all of the following: there is no god; belief in god is irrational; irrational faith is not good for the individual; religion is not good for society; religion is not good for government. Obviously, none of these positions is remotely new. But what’s new is the prominence of a few people taking these positions publicly and robustly (most notably Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins – see this article and this video). What’s also new, crucially, is the context in which they do so.

As far as I can make out, ‘new atheism’ is a fairly small cultural phenomenon, existing primarily in parts of the media and academia, which is largely a response to the changed dynamic between Christianity and Islam in Western countries over the last decade or two. The UK story, very roughly, runs as follows:

From around the Rushdie fatwa, Islam in the UK has been increasingly willing to assert itself as a social and political force. Muslims in the country had been and remain mostly of south Asian origin, facing prejudice and often great poverty. Until the late 1980s, though, talk had been more of ‘Asians’ than of ‘Muslims’. This was to change, and of course the religious aspect of their identities became more prominent and more politicised after 9/11.

The political mainstream - mostly Christian and post-Christian in culture if not religion – has mostly responded by seeking accommodation with non-extremists. Islamic organisations were nurtured and listened to eagerly, religious ‘community leaders’ sought out and put on official task forces, and visible efforts made to promote Islam as part of a ‘multi-faith’ society.

Many Christian leaders and commentators, though, didn’t like the way this was going. It seemed to them that their (majority) religion was being ignored, taken for granted and even demoted, and so they made the effort to speak out on political and cultural matters from a more self-confidently Christian perspective. No doubt they had always said such things, but they took advantage of a new climate in which religion – in the form of Islam – had become much more of a talking point, and of a press that was keen for another twist in the story of the decade.

Some of these ‘new Christians’ (as it’s equally absurd to call them) were openly critical of Islam; others were conciliatory, focusing on the need for people of faith to come together.

All of which left people of no faith out in the cold.

The rise of political Islam in the UK – sometimes in the slipstream of extremists abroad, sometimes in opposition to them – presented Western critics of religion with something new. There had been little mileage in taking on Christianity, which had usually seemed an inoffensive, unremarkable default setting: near-omnipresent yet barely visible.

But Islam, brought to public attention through the worst atrocities of its vilest adherents, created scope and appetite for discussing the flaws of religion afresh. For most Brits, it was an alien religion: people wanted to know more, they were inclined to greater suspicion, and it had no stock of cultural goodwill to draw upon.

Then the Christian reassertion came, and the government felt bound by even-handedness to listen to all ‘faith groups’ alike. Religious influence over public policy – most notably in education – grew, and a political fightback became more pressing. Atheists, secularists and humanists spoke out, saying that religion shouldn’t get special treatment in politics, that most ‘religious hatred’ is inspired by rival religions against each other, that people with ‘faith’ aren’t thereby more virtuous or insightful than those without, and indeed that this whole god idea is deeply suspect.

The reaction to that, of course, was righteous indignation at these strident, shrill, aggressive, intolerant, arrogant, dogmatic atheists for daring to disagree without pulling their punches.

There wasn’t a ‘new atheism’. There was a new need for atheism, and for the humanist values and secular politics that often go with it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Outside the instructions of some supervisory being

I don’t usually want people to persist in their mistakes, but I do hope that Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, keeps up his belief in God. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem able to conceive of how to be ethical without some big invisible bloke who runs a tablet-carving factory. This means that if Nichols ever lost his faith, he could well end up quite a nasty person.

This is occasioned by his comments on assisted suicide – a horrible enough issue without the Church wading in to further complicate (and oversimplify) it. But, believing that “life is a gift” from God, Nichols can straightforwardly say that this should never happen.

But without that assumption, he’s unable to stop himself slipping from the idea that it’s sometimes justifiable for someone who’s terminally and agonisingly ill to take their own life, possibly with assistance, to “an absolute moral entitlement to have whatever kind of death we choose” to “the philosophy that proclaims individual rights above all other considerations” to “the relativist insistence that what is good is a matter of personal judgment”.

And from there he can’t help but slide on to:

Is human life just something we produce, whether by sexual intercourse or in a laboratory, and ultimately to be created, aborted or disposed of at will?


Once life is reduced to the status of a product, the logical step is to see its creation and disposal in terms of quality control.


If my life has no objective value, then why should anyone else care for it?

Alas. Without God, he can’t distinguish between the views that (a) the individual human being is the fundamental unit of what matters and so we should be allowed to do with our lives what we judge to be best, taking into account the effects on others; and (b) nothing matters and we might as well treat ourselves and each other as commodities.

It’s a sad case in support of GK Chesterton’s view that “When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing – they believe in anything.” If so, the safest thing would be to not believe in God in the first place. That’s hardly useful advice for the existing believer, but it does suggest that it’s damnably risky to bring up children to base their morality on religion.

On a much lighter note, Mitchell and Webb’s Abraham puts it thus:

Like I have any chance of forming an independent basis of right and wrong outside the instructions of some supervisory being! No, Lord, I am your bitch!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

David Beckham and the Iraq war: down the rabbit-hole

I have just uncovered the awful truth about the most horrifying political conspiracy imaginable.

What triggered it off was my stumbling across an apparently silly remark by Jon McClure, a popular musician of whom I’d never heard:

If David Beckham had of spoken out about Iraq it wouldn't have happened, I honestly believe that hand on heart, or Britain certainly wouldn't have got involved. Beckham's cultural gravitas was as such in that period that if he'd have gone 'I don't want this war in Iraq, it's an awful thing, we should not do it', it wouldn't have happened, the public would've gone mad against it. But because he kept his gob shut, and everybody else did, it happened, we sleepwalked our way there.

My first reaction was to laugh and to blog something appropriately piss-taking – ‘Iraq war was Beckham’s fault’. Easy fun.

But then I dug a little deeper. I wondered to myself just how well Beckham had been playing in the run-up to the war – if he’d been messing up, that wouldn’t suggest much “cultural gravitas”, would it?

Now, I’m not much of a football fan, but even I remember this incident – perhaps you do too:

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has refused to apologise for the dressing room bust-up in which he injured David Beckham. … Beckham was hurt after a furious Ferguson kicked a boot in the dressing room which hit the midfielder in the face.

But do you remember when it happened?

Let me put it another way: can you guess on exactly which day it happened?

Yes. It was Saturday 15 February 2003:

Alex Ferguson, of course, is a longstanding Labour/Blair supporter. He is also rather pally with none other than Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s war-propagandist-in-chief.

I need hardly spell it out, so obvious is it. Ferguson got wind that Becks was planning to address one of the marches. He alerted Campbell, who feared that the England captain could topple the government with one flick of his Alice band. Blair told Campbell that Becks had to be stopped, and so the order went out for Fergie to take him down by any means necessary. Things were smoothed over for Fergie by one of the club’s then major shareholders, pro-war Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB.

Job done. Becks was cowed into submission while the war broke out, and he was further bribed with an OBE on 13 June of that year. The very next day, the US military launched a major new campaign against Iraqi insurgents.

Three days after that, on the very day that Robin Cook and Clare Short were giving evidence to a parliamentary enquiry into the war, Manchester United sold Becks to Real Madrid for £25 million. Becks himself was out of the country at the time. The move to Spain (whose government also backed the war) would keep him safely away from the UK political scene.

It gets murkier.

The transfer deal was brokered by Beckham’s management agency, SFX Entertainments, which is owned by the Texas-based media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.

Clear Channel’s politics is revealed by controversies such as the 2004 refusal of its outdoor advertising division to allow a billboard ad against the Iraq war. Many of its radio stations led the boycott of the Dixie Chicks’ music after their criticism of George Bush, and one of its TV stations rejected a paid-for ad by Cindy Sheehan protesting the war.

Most of Clear Channel’s talk radio stations are affiliated with Fox, and carry programmes by such ferocious right-wingers as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Lowry Mays, Founder and then Chairman/CEO of Clear Channel, was of course a Bush campaign donor.

At this point the evidence trail goes cold. I can’t yet prove that Lowry and Bush were personally involved in moving Becks out of the UK so he’d pose less of a threat to Blair’s premiership, but only a fool would doubt it.

(Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the horrific and preposterous power of the internet. The above is the result of me mucking around because there was nothing on the telly last night. Imagine what a group of truly dedicated paranoiacs could accomplish on a more serious subject.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sarah Palin: Islam is the one true religion

Well, I paraphrase. What she said was:

We are ripe for economic growth and energy independence if we responsibly tap the resources that God created right underfoot on American soil.

But we can conclude from this that God created oil reserves under particular lands for His own perfect reasons, and that those with the greatest oil reserves must therefore be the most divinely favoured – i.e the Muslims in the Middle East.

(A few years ago I thought of, but never got round to writing, a spoof piece about the Republicans splitting into two factions: the oil-backed business elite and the Bible-belters who found the very notion of ‘fossil fuels’ a blasphemous surrender to evolutionists. Palin is clearly trying to heal this rift.)

(And the phrase “right underfoot on American soil” suggests ignorance of kindergarten physics, never mind geology.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Armstronging Armstrong

Karen Armstrong says:

The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity…
All good religious teaching – including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to "believe" them.

But of course we’re not meant to believe that religion isn’t really about belief, because if we did that then we’d be wrong, as all the religious people who believe things could attest; instead, Armstrong’s piece is basically a summons to action, specifically to nod sagely to ourselves as if in recognition of some amorphous wisp of ineffable wisdom. To take her literally would be extraordinary and eccentric.

She goes on:

Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, the purpose of a creation myth was therapeutic; before the modern period no sensible person ever thought it gave an accurate account of the origins of life.

The purpose of this passage is therapeutic: it teaches us how to negotiate the obscure regions of the Guardian’s website. No sensible person thinks that such articles are to be regarded as primarily factual. Rather, they are insatiably self-consuming metaphors. As Wittgenstein so ably put it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must throw together boilerplate faux-profundities until one’s wordcount is reached.”

And she goes on:

Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Discussions of religion make no sense unless they are accompanied by such mental exercises as thinking, and knowing that religious doctrines are also the product of things written in ancient books that people hold to be true and then try to convince other people of. Without a factual belief in God’s existence, the concept of praying to him remains incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

And on:

But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied.

And during the post-post-(I lose count)-postmodern period, woolly hand-waving became so successful that rational thought and historical knowledge were discredited, convolutedly empty pick-n-mix mysticism became the only valid path to truth, and Armstrong claimed that pre-Newtonian theologians had denied it possible to prove God's existence, something that the 13th-century Thomas Aquinas and 11th-century St Anselm had vigorously denied.

(See also Norm and Shuggy on Armstrong.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Patronising populist Tory nonsense on aid

I expect bad policies (if any) from David Cameron, but this one has really taken my breath away:

The people are to be given a direct say in how Britain's aid budget is spent under a Tory government as part of an "X-Factor-style" competition allowing them to vote for their favourite overseas project.

Though an initial £40m will be placed in the "My Aid" fund in its first year, it may be expanded significantly… Under the plan, people will be invited to vote for one of 10 aid projects through the website of the Department for International Development (DFID).
… The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

Here are some of the reasons that this is a terrible idea:

  • Development projects need predictable continuity of funding rather than being subject to political whim – and the public mood is far more changeable than that of the government.

  • Aid works best when there’s coordination among donors, otherwise you get duplication of effort, neglected areas and multiplied bureaucracy for the applicants. The voting public is simply not going to coordinate with USAID, Unicef, the WHO and so on.

  • International development is much harder to do than domestic policy because the policy makers are farther removed from the people policy is aimed at. Most of us in rich countries know next to nothing about the realities of life in poor countries: we don’t understand the great variations in which local needs are greatest and which methods would be most effective. We don’t know about the relationships between the recipient-country government, the local NGO doing the work and the people in the communities it aims to serve. And we don’t know the details of the cultural, legal and infrastructural context that could determine whether a nice-sounding project can really work. Getting well-intentioned ignoramuses like me to make funding decisions is a recipe for failure.

  • ‘People power’ is a wonderful thing, but this policy would give power to the wrong people. There’s a case for voters in Luton having a direct say in how money is spent on services for Luton. But what’s the case for them having a direct say on services for Lusaka? Why not – if it’s at all feasible – get the people of Lusaka to vote instead? Putting a sheen on British political accountability isn’t what the international develop budget is for.

  • Because accountability and finance are linked, would-be applicants in developing countries would start to tailor their proposals more to UK public preferences than to local needs. Everyone will go misty-eyed over a health centre for kids, but who’ll get passionate about maintaining the roads that the medical supplies and ambulances need to travel along?

  • For the same reason, this policy would divert applicants’ time, effort and money on to producing PR campaigns for the UK public.

  • Receiving aid, while it can serve a vital purpose, is also a sign of dependency and inability on the part of the recipients. This is inherent in the aid dynamic, but it can be handled in ways that more greatly empower the recipients as genuine partners. But creating a system of publicly competitive begging could very easily patronise and demean all involved.

David Cameron has been keen that aid spending should be seen as a badge of his ‘modern, compassionate conservatism’. This move takes the best in British politics and blithely shackles it to the worst kind of populist feelgood circus. This policy – tellingly called ‘MyAid’ – makes international development more about how virtuous we are (led by Cameron, of course) than it is about the needs of the recipients and how best to promote development.

Swine flu hits Downing Street

Infected adviser now second least popular person at Number 10.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Actually, I’m now mixed-race Assyrian-Klingon

Our unfailingly brilliant HR department has sent round a letter to us all asking whether there’s been any change to our marital status, disability status… or ethnicity.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

BNP man goes native in Brussels

We’ve seen it so many times before – a political outsider with a reforming mission gets elected, only to succumb to the perks of office and the cosiness of the mainstream consensus.

It’s taken Nick Griffin precisely one month as an MEP to convert to the idea of a European superstate:

The EU should sink boats carrying illegal immigrants to prevent them entering Europe, British National Party leader Nick Griffin has told the BBC.
The MEP for the North-West of England said the EU had to get "very tough" with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Pressed on what should happen to those on board, he said: "Throw them a life raft and they can go back to Libya".

"If there's measures to set up some kind of force or to help, say the Italians, set up a force which actually blocks the Mediterranean then we'd support that."

So there you have it. While all reasonable people can surely agree on the merits of drowning darkies, it is sheer madness to suggest that the Royal Navy – trouncers of the Armada, victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo, sinkers of the Bismarck and the Belgrano – should be merged into a Single European Navy and tasked with guarding the Italian coastline.

The Tom Says: We have our own borders to protect, Mr Griffin – as well as our own sovereignty, history and pride. The sooner you and your new euro-chums remember that, the better.

The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit


They'll surely change the homepage soon. If so, you can find out more (if you really want to) here.

The quango state

There are too many MPs, those squabbling, thieving egomaniacs. There are too many ministers, those incompetent soundbiting bastards. And there are too many quangos, those unaccountable faceless bureaucracies.

The solution is obvious.

Sweep away all the anonymous little bodies that regulate this and administer that, and replace them with just one: Ofgov, whose sole responsibility will be to conduct the governing of the United Kingdom.

The need to have any ministers at all will disappear, and the need for MPs will be drastically reduced.

So we can cut the number of MPs to 12 – one per region. This should be just enough to fill the new Select Committee for Governmental Affairs, whose role will be to scrutinise the performance of Ofgov.

The vacated Commons chamber could be converted into something useful, such as a ping-pong stadium for the 2012 Olympics.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Stagnant days are here again!

It’s not time to break out the bubbly yet, but perhaps a nice cup of tea could be justified.

I was premature last month in thinking that the recession might already have ended. The latest growth estimates from the NIESR are out, and suggest that the economy shrank by 0.4% in the April-June quarter.

Not nice, although much better than the 2.4% drop in the previous quarter. As the press release puts it:

the UK economy is now stagnating rather than continuing to contract at a sharp pace

Which is something.

Indeed, breaking it down into monthly figures, GDP was up in June – perhaps the beginning of the end.

Voters aren’t convinced that cuts are imperative

This post is about opinion polls on the public finances.

Thank you both for reading on.

Last week I noted a couple of polls showing that more people thought the Tories could cut government spending without harming public services than thought Labour could. A bit of a blow for Labour, really.

Now another poll, by Ipsos MORI, heaps more bad news on Labour:
  • 62% agreed (27% disagreed) that “there are many public services that are a waste of money and can be cut”.
  • 79% agreed (13% disagreed) that “making public services more efficient can save enough money to help cut government spending, without damaging services the public receive”.
  • 40% thought that a Tory government “would be most effective in getting good value for the public money it spends” against 25% for Labour.

This confirms the picture from the other polls.

But all this – along with most political commentary on the matter – took for granted that reducing public spending is both desirable and necessary. The earlier YouGov poll did touch on this, though; it asked:

Many economists say that either taxes must rise sharply, or public spending must be cut sharply over the next few years in order to get Britain’s public finances in to balance. If a choice has to be made which would you favour?

12% favoured higher taxes, 31% lower public spending and 48% a mixture of the two.

The 48% is where Labour’s implicit position is: there are tax rises scheduled, as well as – if you look at the Budget small print rather than Gordon Brown’s witless evasions – cuts in spending. The Tories have been pitching strongly at the 31% of spending-cutters. The 12% who favour higher taxes would, you’d think, prefer the mix to the focus on spending cuts.

Back to the new Ipsos MORI poll.

People were given the statement: “There is a real need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the very high national debt we now have”. Only 40% agree but 51% disagree. This suggests that promising painful action to get the deficit down quickly may not be worth as many votes as it is opinion columns.

A couple of caveats: the question leaves the timing of cuts ambiguous – people may think there’s no need to cut right now but that there will be in years to come. And the phrase “spending on public services” rather than just “public spending” might bias some people against agreeing to cuts.

But this suggests that ‘reduce the deficit’ isn’t many people’s top priority – especially in light of another question asked, which specifically began by stating: “Government borrowing is now at record levels, and will need to be reduced in future.” The options then given were “Government borrowing should be reduced, even if it means spending on key public services is cut”, picked by 29%, “Spending on public services should be maintained, even if it means increasing the income tax I pay”, picked by 38%, and “Things should be left as they are”, picked by 31%.

The latter two groups – totalling 69% – may be more receptive to Labour’s position that to that of the Tories, other things being equal.

So, while many people may think that the Tories would be more efficient at cutting non-vital spending, a good many more are very wary of cuts at all. This may be a patch of ground on which Labour could stand firm against a Tory ‘bigger cuts, faster cuts’ position.

But that could only possibly work if enough people are prepared to listen with at least partly open minds to a deeply unpopular government. Can Labour achieve that with Brown in charge? Or even at all?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Cameron prepares to purge his government

David Cameron has pulled off a very neat trick:

Ministers in a future Tory government will be sacked if quangos under their control are found to be failing … David Cameron said ministers would no longer be able to hide behind quangos' "cloak of independence". …
"Even when power is delegated to a quango, with a Conservative government, the minister will remain responsible for the outcomes," said Mr Cameron. "They set the rules under which the quango operates. And they have the power to ensure those operating the quango are qualified to do the job."

But who will decide how serious a quango’s failure is and how severe a punishment the relevant minister deserves? The question answers itself.

Think how Cameron handled the expenses scandal: his allies were made to put on a public show of contrition and then allowed to carry on, while those MPs deemed politically inconvenient or otherwise expendable were cut loose to the mob.

He’s just given himself several truckloads of ammunition to deploy against potentially any minister, as he likes.


They say:
There is a good service on all London Underground lines.

They mean:

No, really, it’s supposed to be like this.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Telegraph: wrong on rape

Because it has big pages and uses longish words and employs writers with robustly middle-class names, I tend to think of the Telegraph as a respectable newspaper.

This story from Ben Goldacre suggests I may be wrong:

There is nothing like science for giving that objective, white-coat flavoured legitimacy to your prejudices, so it must have been a great day for Telegraph readers when they came across the headline: "Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists."
Ah, scientists. "Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester." Well there you go.
Oddly, though, the title of the press release for the same research was: "Promiscuous men more likely to rape." …
I rang Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester. …
Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? "This is completely inaccurate," Shaw said. "We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober."
And what about the Telegraph's next claim, or rather, the paper's reassuringly objective assertion, that it is scientists who claim that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?
"We have found that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can't say that's an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn't one of our main findings, you can't say that. It's not significant, which is why we're not reporting it in our main analysis."

Since I started sniffing around, and since Shaw's complaint, the Telegraph has quietly changed the online copy of the article, although there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate.


Housing market psychology

I’m getting better at this flat-hunting lark. When I first tried to buy one, it took a good couple of months for the deal to fall apart. More recently, I’d got the period between viewing a place I liked and someone else grabbing it down to just a day or two.

Yesterday I managed to spot a great-looking deal online and then discover it had already been snapped up within the space of 20 minutes. Every time, I manage to achieve nothing more and more quickly – although the periods of waiting between each opportunity for achieving nothing are getting longer and longer.

I think that ideally the next step is to ask the estate agents and property websites to send me details of flats only once they’ve been sold. That way, I can bypass this inefficient hope-anxiety-disappointment-gloom cycle entirely and consolidate all my emotions into one easy-to-manage instantaneous sense of permanent failure.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Audits and pundits

The Audit Commission is a public corporation that describes itself as “an independent watchdog, driving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in local public services to deliver better outcomes for everyone”. Its areas of work are: auditing local public services; carrying out performance assessments for councils, fire and rescue services, and housing organisations; producing research; and helping public bodies to detect fraud and error.

Its Chief Executive, Steve Bundred, has a comment piece in today’s Observer, in which he argues:

for British politicians it is not the recovery that is important - but voter reaction to the threat of cuts. That is why neither ministers nor opposition frontbenchers will be completely candid in the run-up to an election.

I agree. But what business does the CE of the Audit Commission have producing an opinion column speculating about public opinion and the motives and integrity of politicians? There are already vast numbers of pundits in the press and online writing stuff like this.

The bipartisan nature of his criticism doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s a political intervention (indeed, Nick Clegg on Wednesday accused Labour and the Tories of engaging in a “bogus debate about public spending…so that they can both avoid telling the truth”; Bundred’s comment could be seen to fit very neatly with that).

What may be even more alarming is that Bundred appears unable to count. Up to one. He mentions that the UK government has been “placed on negative watch by credit reference agencies”.

Agencies plural. Certainly, Standard & Poor’s put the UK’s AAA rating on a negative outlook in May, but the other agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, have held the rating stable.

It’s a pointlessly small mistake, from someone who should know much, much better. It’s the sort of slackness you’d expect from a journalistic pundit wanting a punchier sentence. Is that what he wants to be?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Aquarius: You will get a 3.6% pay rise but have to fork out £849 for your car’s MOT

Hopi bemoans the lamentable accuracy of economic forecasts, asking:

Why do governments bother making such definitive predictions of the future? Why not adopt a system of range forecasting, where we work within assumptions of probability of different outcomes?

And Chris suggests how this might look in practice:

So, if we assume that the £173bn forecast for PSNB in 2010-11 is the central point of the projection, a range forecast would take the form of saying something like:
There’s a roughly two-thirds chance PSNB will be within the range £143-£203bn, and a one-in-six chance it will be below this, and a one-in-six chance it’ll be above it.
It would, however, be impossible for a government to do this.
Every know-nothing numbskull and opportunist would claim that this is not what it is - a sensible recognition of the fact that the economic future is inherently unpredictable - but rather a confession of ignorance.

And he explains why politicians keep putting out such falsely precise figures:

One of the most important images is the illusion that they are "in charge", which requires that they deny the existence of uncertainty.

The thing is, though, that nobody believes official forecasts of GDP, spending, tax, debt, inflation, unemployment and so on. Nobody.

So, if maintaining the illusion of certainty is impossible, what role do these forecasts serve?

I think their main purpose is as media fodder. A specific number is much easier to communicate than a probability distribution, and for the media reporting a prediction, it does show that they know things in detail. A forecast of 2.5% growth may be disbelieved, it may turn out to be laughably wrong, but it can be reported with confident precision. ‘We know our stuff, because our stuff is simply what other people say, whether or not they know their stuff.’

It also allows for much more pointed challenges to be put to politicians: ‘Where are you going to find the extra £8.2 billion?’ seems a penetrating question that ought to require a detailed answer, but of course no credible detailed answers can be given, so the politician gets made to look a knave or a fool. The debate then gets conducted within the safe confines of a recorded and definite narrative, rather than out in the real world, where informed questions require you to know a lot more – including the limits of your own knowledge.

Which means that the reason politicians keep doing this is that they hope their own set of guesstimates will get picked up and used in questions to needle the other lot.

Oh, how edifying. Another way in which the news media and the political parties are symbiotic upon each other, and jointly parasitic upon the rest of us.

Exercise tip

You’ll burn calories very, very slowly just sitting around on the sofa. Which is why you have to do so very, very much of it to see results.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Cut it out

My suspicion that shouting ‘Tory cuts’ isn’t going to do Labour much good in the coming months is supported by two recent polls.

First, YouGov asked whether people thought is was possible “in principle” to reduce public spending by up to 10% "by running our public services more efficiently, and without reducing the quality of public services or the level of welfare benefits".

33% thought it definitely possible, 44% probably possible, 12% probably not possible and 3% definitely not possible.

In practice, though, the spending cuts that parties would actually make were judged less optimistically – but this finding won’t help Labour. YouGov asked whether the Conservatives could reduce public spending by up to 10% “while preserving the quality of public services and the level of welfare benefits”. 27% thought yes, 49% no. But for Labour, just 17% thought yes and 63% no.

Second, ComRes asked: “Which party do you trust most to decide where public spending cuts should be made?” 31% picked the Tories, 21% Labour and 14% the Lib Dems.

Labour is absolutely stuffed unless it can convince people that it will protect services while the public finances are squeezed. And there’s no way it can do this while hamstrung by the clumsily implausible Brown/Balls line that there wouldn’t be spending cuts under Labour. This slippery nonsense, to quote Talleyrand, “is worse than a crime: it’s a mistake”.

Picking a fight that you can’t win

Ed Balls is an idiot. He has clearly gained all his political communication skills from his longstanding boss and mentor, Gordon Brown.

Yesterday, Fraser Nelson (on his Spectator blog) accused Balls of lying about debt. (On the substance, I think he has at least half a point – although Hopi provides a zestful rebuttal, on which I’ve chipped in.)

Nelson went on to say:

Five years ago, you could lie like this on the radio and get away with it. Space is tight in newspapers, no one would devote hundreds of words and graphs - as we did - to expose a lie for what is. But the world has changed now. Blogging has brought new, hyper scrutiny. Blogs have infinite space, and people with endless energy, to expose political lying - no matter how small. Your claims can be instantly counter-checked, by anyone. If you stretch the truth, you can be exposed - by anyone.

I completely agree with this in principle, having done my own tiny share of anorakish fact-checking and dissecting of slipperiness here over the last couple of years (such as this). But there’s a big but: a blog, even a reasonably popular one such as the Spectator’s, doesn’t have anything like the impact of a newspaper front page splash.

The only way that bloggers’ forensic work will have any impact on the public is if the mainstream media pick up on it. Bear this in mind as you read Nelson’s description of what happened after he put his post up:

Ed Balls has just called me up about my post from this morning , hopping mad. He instructed me to "take that post down now". … "You should not call me a liar," said Balls. I told him that if he doesn't want to be called a liar, “he shouldn't tell lies”. …
Balls told me if I keep the post up, it will "expose" the sort of publication that we are - and our "political" bias. … You'd think Balls has perhaps by now worked out that The Spectator is rather pleased to consider itself a thorn in the side of this tawdry, mendacious government. "So you will take the post down?" Balls said. I just laughed. He hung up.

Hmm, Ed Balls. He’s a Cabinet minister, right? Probably gets a fair bit of media attention, eh? I wonder whether a furious spat between him and a blogger might be a much bigger news story than a blogger furiously criticising him and then him ignoring it...

Ooh look, there’s Fraser Nelson on Newsnight.