Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap and leap again: February the 30th

In 1699, King Karl XII of Sweden resolved to shift gradually from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, by means of skipping leap days for four decades until they aligned. This crackpot plan (imagine changing your country’s time zone by two minutes a year rather than doing the whole hour in one go) was knocked off course by the Great Northern War, which broke out the following year.

By 1712, Karl had decided to take Sweden back to the Julian calendar, which entailed having two leap days in that year – as the almanac shows:

People born on February 29th only get one true birthday every four years. But that’s an abundance compared with the people born that 30th who never got to celebrate theirs…

‘There Will Be Blood’, as reviewed by the Stop the War Coalition

It’s all about oil.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Publication bias and my brilliance at darts

I’m a brilliant darts player. But more on that later.

Thanks to Matt for pointing me towards Ben Goldacre’s blog, for people who like his Bad Science column in the Guardian but don’t want to wait a whole week for their next fix.

Why have SSRI antidepressants now been found to be largely ineffective? Or, to put it another way, why had they previously been thought to be more effective?

The answer is that a lot of the clinical trials are performed by the drugs companies on their own drugs – and, as Goldacre says, they “have repeatedly been shown to bury unflattering data”. The old studies weren’t wrong, they were just heavily cherry-picked. The new study uses the US Freedom of Information Act to include data from some of the unpublished trials, thus vastly diluting the previously published positive results and giving a more rounded picture.

Goldacre argues that this behaviour “breaks a key moral contract between patient and researcher” – patients participate in trials on the understanding that they’re helping to further understanding of which treatments do – and don’t – work.

He recommends: “Nobody should get ethical approval to perform a clinical trial unless there is a clear undertaking that the results will be published, in full, in a publicly available forum” and also that there should be a compulsory international trials register so that disappointing data can’t be hidden.

Good call.

Now, back to darts, at which I am brilliant. You doubt me? Fine: to prove my skill, I will post a video of me throwing a perfect 180.

Might take a while to film it, though. You needn’t worry about the out-takes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Evolutionary dead end

They’ve found a fearsome fossil:

"These animals were awesomely powerful predators," said plesiosaur palaeontologist Richard Forrest. … "A large pliosaur was big enough to pick up a small car in its jaws and bite it in half."

Unfortunately, small cars were scarce for most of the Jurassic, particularly in the sea, and the beast consequently died out.

Castro: a pharmacological analysis

In the week that a study finds SSRI antidepressants to work mostly through the placebo effect, I find myself wondering: what kind of drug is Fidel Castro?

Because he does seem to have an intoxicating effect on many of the left. Take, for instance, this crushingly stupid and shameful Q&A with Harriet Harman a couple of days ago:

Q. Fidel Castro: hero of the left, or dangerous authoritarian dictator?
A. Hero of the left – but time for Cuba to move on.

No, no, no. Danny Finkelstein provides a useful corrective, listing instances of Castro’s repressive villainy.

Why do Western lefties like him? It can’t just be the fact that he looks like a cross between Father Christmas and Captain Mainwaring, and while the CIA’s inventive failed assassinations can raise a chuckle, that hardly does it either.

Was Castro’s antidemocratic illiberalism just incidental to his economic and social policies? Was his communism a wonder drug with a few unfortunate side-effects? Many seem to think so, but no: the authoritarianism was integral. It should really come as no surprise that when there’s such widespread state control, the state will in fact be controlling.

Castro decided how he wanted his people to live and that the state should impose this on them. The values that might inspire such an idealised way of life quickly become beside the point, though: authoritarianism becomes the defining feature of the regime, maintained regardless of whether it can produce the results that its starry-eyed supporters may have wanted. The end doesn’t justify the means; the means become the end.

And, while his rule wasn’t devoid of achievements that look good, this holds true only in a certain light. As Ian Williams nicely puts it:

Cuban education was indeed successful in effecting near universal literacy - but there are strict limits on what anyone is allowed to read with their skills.

And, indeed, healthcare is pretty good considering how poor Cuba is. But then you have to consider the role of a command economy in maintaining a state of underdevelopment.

So why do some lefties in rich countries admire the man so? Reports of his efficacy on any criterion they’d use to judge their own governments turn out to be flawed. The answer, I think, lies in what he symbolises: socialist resistance to the US global military-industrial complex – the hope of another way. It’s the same reason people now cheer Hugo Chavez.

But this is a mirage: Cuba has offered no viable alternative to the market economy, and provided no notable check on US policies. Never mind the lack of achievement, though; you just have to believe in the possibility to enjoy the benefits of being in the fan club. Fidel Castro has been a placebo for the hard left’s depression.

It’s time to stop taking the tablets – and, as Harman says, to move on.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is democracy dying of consumption?

In a recent lecture, titled ‘A God of One’s Own’, Ulrich Beck proposes that there’s been a decline in people’s allegiance to religion (as a system or institution) but not in people’s tendency to religiosity (as an attitude or outlook).

He suggests that in developed countries, the religious impulse is taking a more individualised form, with an eclectic spiritual consumerism taking ground from authority, organisation and orthodoxy. This leads to people’s ‘faith’ becoming more personal, emotive and simplistic rather than being built around given sets of doctrine. As such, Beck argues that modernity is more about pluralism than secularism.

The same sort of thing’s been happening with public attitudes to politics.

As Gerry Stoker [PDF] puts it: “There is little evidence of a decline in interest in the content of politics in contrast to evidence of a decline of faith in the formal practice of politics.”

People still care about issues, but feel increasingly reluctant to get involved with the structures and processes of parties, elections and government. Let’s take an example.

‘That’s not what I ordered’

On the five-year anniversary this month of the large demonstrations against the Iraq war, John Harris wrote:

the march both dramatised and accelerated an ongoing disconnection between millions of Britons and the people who affect to speak in their name. In other words, you might like to think of Saturday February 15 2003 as the day that politics stopped working.

But the protest also represented something else, focused not so much on the issue of Iraq as on the sense that mainstream politics was drifting away from the public, and at least some of the marchers felt that in protesting, they might somehow drag Westminster back. …
To expect the energy created that day to find any long-lasting outlet was perhaps to misunderstand how modern politics works. In different times, some of the marchers might have been eventually propelled towards the Labour party, but the serial contortions of the Blair years surely ruled that out.

That last sentence is particularly stupid: no waffle about “serial contortions” is needed to see why a protest against government policy won’t propel people to join the governing party. Anti-war parties – most notably the Lib Dems and Respect – did attract some of the protestors, as evidenced by their performance at the 2005 election. But that support has not been sustained.

The rest of Harris’s argument – that “politics stopped working” and that “mainstream politics was drifting away from the public” – is well rebutted by Gerry Stoker (writing two years previously [subscription-only]). He notes a phenomenon, observable on both left and right, that he calls “the myth of a single ‘people’ with a single interest”:

Hence the naïve activist argument that because 1m people had demonstrated against the Iraq war, a large parliamentary majority for the intervention should be ignored. Politics by the largest number of people you can mobilise on the streets does not have an attractive record. Yet the government’s refusal to budge on Iraq is cited by many disappointed activists as proof that politics is not working.

But Harris is half on to something: the psychological gap between formal politics and the public has widened. This is not, though, because Westminster has drifted away.

Hell is other voters

Stoker’s view [PDF] is that political culture has become more individualistic and consumerist while political institutions – of necessity – have remained collectivist. His argument is worth quoting at length:

the increased discontent with formal politics is better explained by a number of misunderstandings of the political process that have taken hold in the discourse of democracies. The pressure comes from the increased prominence given to market-based consumerism in the culture of many democracies. As a result many citizens fail to fully appreciate that politics in the end involves the collective imposition of decisions, demands a complex communication process and generally produces messy compromise.

Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The political processes that are essential to steer government struggle to deliver against the lionization of individual choice in our societies. Democracy means that you can be involved in the decision but [that] the decision is not necessarily your choice yet you are expected to accept the decision. …

Second politics as a form of collective decision-making relies on voice rather than the market mechanism of exit to enable you make your views known. If you don’t like something you see in a shop you can go elsewhere but in politics the only way to get something is to use voice and that carries far more costs than exit. But expressing your interest or opinion is only the start of a more general challenge in politics that of communication. You have to not only make your views known, you also have to listen. Politics is not about individual choice it is about collective debate. Within it communication is a difficult time-consuming and problematic business. …

Politics often involves a stumbling search for solutions to particular problems. It is not the most edifying human experience. It’s rarely an experience of self-actualization and more often an experience of accepting second best. … The results tend to be messy, contingent and inevitably create a mix of winners and losers.

So it turns out that a propensity to disappoint is [an] inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies. I think that a substantial part of the discontent with politics is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result too many citizens fail [to] appreciate these inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this. Even in the cases of non-party movements that revel in their own communality and champion causes that are far from self-interested, many of those involved do seem to be acting as political consumers. They raise their voices with the aim of achieving a certain outcome, but if this isn’t forthcoming, or if they get an apparent breakthrough that turns out not to work out they way they’d have liked, or if the process of implementation takes time and negotiation, their engagement isn’t sustained.

(Make Poverty History springs to mind. How many wristband-wearers are still keeping tabs on development policy?)

Such political consumers seek to get what they want without much effort. If they can’t, then they get disillusioned with politics.

Exitism: getting out with your head held high

Actually, though, there’s another thing that can equally well happen to them. Some of them may well maintain their involvement to some degree – or at least their interest – but their disillusion will be with formal politics rather than politics itself. This reaction is still a form of political consumerism; but the aim isn’t to get policies implemented. The far narrower aim is to identify oneself (publicly and privately) with a certain position, to reaffirm one’s own values. Individualised consumerist politics can only work as a means of self-actualisation by dissociating the expression of ideals from the achievement of outcomes.

Consider the tens of thousands who quit Labour in the late 1990s and early 2000s because Tony Blair was taking the party too far to the right. Most of these people will have later been against the Iraq war, and many will have gone on the protests. In light of the failure to stop (British involvement in) the war, how many now regret their marching? Very few, I’m sure.

But I’ll bet virtually none now regrets leaving the party when they could have stayed and worked to keep its centre of gravity a bit more to the left. That would, I think, have been likelier to stop the war (or at least get a bigger parliamentary vote against). But, of course, it would have taken more time, effort and compromise.

‘Old Labour’ had problems with entryism by Trots who wanted to shift the party leftwards; ‘New Labour’ has had far more of its members to the left of the leadership. Many of the soft left, despite having strength of numbers and the inertial advantage of defending the status quo, chose not to remain and instead pursued a strategy of ‘exitism’. The result was a government even less to their liking. But they, at least, kept their hands clean.

When one’s aim in politics is simply to identify oneself as pro-this and anti-that, “the market mechanism of exit” will work just fine.

(The SDP defectors’ main achievements were a more leftwing Labour and a stronger Thatcherite government; but they did at least put the effort into forming their own centrist party.)

It’s often remarked that public engagement with politics these days is more likely to be through campaigning NGOs rather than parties contesting elections. Is this, if it’s sustained, an adequate replacement? I don’t think so. Of course, such groups are a vital part of civil society, but they can’t plug the gap: we still need people to legislate and govern, and so we still need electoral parties with as good connections to ordinary people as possible. A move from party membership to NGO membership means that the link between the grass roots and elected representatives becomes less direct.

Also, as Paul Skidmore [subscription-only] contends:

In the first place… civic groups have switched “from membership to management” over the last few decades. They are more professionalised, relying on media campaigns and lobbying rather than mass participation. Second, because they are issue-based and depend heavily on targeting national government through the media, these organisations tend not to have strong local roots or to offer their members the same training in the civic disciplines of organisation, negotiation and coalition-building. The effect is that their relationship with their members is closer to that of retailer and consumer than citizen.

Trammeled consumerism?

So, is consumerism an unstoppable threat to the culture of collective, deliberative politics? No: consumerism isn’t a universal acid but just one facet of the modern Western psyche.

As Ulrich Beck suggests about religion – that individualistic modernity has meant a decline in affiliation to religious institutions but not in personal faith – so it’s true that people’s political concerns for ‘the common good’ still exist despite falling formal involvement. And, indeed, the causation works both ways: politics influences the practices of consumption.

A paper by Alice Malpass, Clive Barnett, Nick Clarke and Paul Cloke [DOC] argues that “the archetypal individualised, rational, egoistical consumer” is a myth:

If consumerism is indeed an important contemporary political rationality, then it increasingly works not through the promotion of unfettered hedonism and self-interest, but by making problematic the exercise of consumer choice in terms of various, ever proliferating responsibilities and ethical imperatives. We argue that people are increasingly expected to treat their conduct as consumers as subject to all sorts of moral injunctions: in their capacity to exercise discretion through choice, in the everyday activities of social reproduction mediated through commodity consumption, and in relation to a very wide range of substantive concepts of the good life.

And Mark Bevir and Frank Trentmann [PDF] discuss “the well-documented social nature of consumption, where desiring, shopping, using up and throwing away are not viewed as separate individual acts of choice but as part of sociability, children’s health, family life, and so forth”. They construe consumerism not as an exercise in self-interest but as a form of social – and increasingly political – dynamic:

At a time when democracy and political parties are undergoing a crisis of legitimacy in several advanced affluent societies, choice and consumers offer a fresh resource for reinvigorating democratic culture. … [This] might be uncomfortable for established parties, but it is hard not to see that political consumerism has opened up fresh channels between private and public lives that had been blocked off in the older liberal model. If political consumerism has been criticized for its materialist characteristics and for failing the test of deliberative reason or creating a public consensus, its flexible, diversified mode has managed to expand the terrain of political action, identifying areas of change, and it has thus led to a more direct engagement with policy, holding policy-makers as well as companies accountable for problems such as high prices, poor working conditions, problems of public health, and environmental pollution. There are seeds here of a more interactive process of governance.

This is true: culture is more individual-focused (though not necessarily selfish), which opens up all sorts of possibilities for political reform. And yet, just as we aren’t purely consumers, so politics and government can’t become wholly consumerist. Sure, we might move towards a choice-based model of healthcare provision, let’s say. But the policy decisions to set up and fund such a model have to be made collectively and deliberatively. Gerry Stoker’s point stands: political consumerism can only have a viable role against a backdrop of complex, often-disappointing compromise arrived at collectively and then imposed.

We all know that consumerism can promote emotional, simplistic short-sightedness – but it doesn’t turn us entirely into infants. We still know that there’s a bigger picture. We still (most of us) know that public goods have to be provided based on negotiated settlements, which we won’t generally be directly involved with ourselves. We still know that we often won’t get the policies we want – and that it has to be this way.

We have to remember these things, and be reasonable in making political demands. It would help, too, if politicians, pressure groups, business and the media would show more maturity and humility.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Speaker and the whisperers

Sleazebuster extraordinaire Martin Bell explains why Common Speaker Michael Martin should resign.

You see, there are “so many controversies swirling around him that we are almost in a state of constitutional crisis”. There is a “principal charge against him” and also “a spate of allegations”. One of these, Bell gravely notes, “may or may not be a breach of the rules”.

This means that: “With every day that passes and every new scandal that is exposed, public trust in public life is eroded still further.” Therefore Martin should resign.

I remember the days when Bell was a champion of integrity in personal conduct. Perhaps he still is, but in this case he’s taking the lazy populist route of equating honour with image and acting as apologist for a media lynch mob.

Is Martin a competent Speaker? Has he behaved properly? Those are the questions that matter, but Bell shows no interest in the answers.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Concealing a lack of rigour

Mick notes that ‘wisdom’, while clearly a positive word, does have its weaselly side:

the term is open to abuse. Every half-baked alternative view offered up to our general post-Enlightenment world will loudly trumpet its wisdom - often enough ancient wisdom - which we in the West are sadly in danger of losing due to our over-reliance on science / materialism / left-brain thinking / whatever.

He quotes a man called Nicholas Maxwell (reviewing a book by a man also called Nicholas Maxwell):

science represses problematic assumptions concerning metaphysics, values and politics - assumptions that ought to be clearly acknowledged so that they can be thrown open to criticism, revision and improvement. The book argues that we need a new kind of science, and a new kind of academic inquiry having, as their basic aim, to help humanity learn how to become wiser and more civilized.

Meanwhile, Ophelia takes issue with John Polkinghorne, who says that “the experimental method… is science’s great secret weapon” (great, yes – but secret?). He goes on to say that “there is a whole swath of encounters with reality” in which this is inadequate:

Religion offers a broader and deeper understanding [than science]. … It just explains more.

Ophelia responds:

So in what sense does religion offer a broader and deeper understanding? I'm guessing that Polkinghorne means in the sense that he finds it more congenial and comforting, more emotionally satisfying. I say that because it isn't really intellectually satisfying (because of the infinite regress), yet believers always claim that religion 'explains better.' 'Better' must mean something like in a more friendly or anthropocentric or familiar way.


Both of these lines – on ‘wisdom’ and ‘broad, deep understanding’ – are about promising something that science doesn’t claim to do, but then failing to offer much in the way of substance. After nodding to the achievements of the scientific method, they then insist that the terms of debate be shifted, but in doing so they dismiss the rigorous intellectual standards of explanation that are as much a part of science as test-tubes and microscopes.

This sort of talk facilitates the shielding of flakier, vaguer views from criticism while still sounding reflective and inquisitive. It’s a nice trick – all the more effective for those who use it to stay in their comfort zones not realising its evasiveness.

Hush now. If you listen very carefully, you may be able to hear the words ‘holistic’ and ‘spiritual’ rushing over the hills towards us.

Neighbourly and businesslike

Two things I didn’t know last week:

(1) In the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Citizenship Surveys, the proportion of people who feel they belong strongly to their neighbourhood rose from 71% in 2003 to 75% in 2005 and 77% in 2007.

(2) The World Bank’s latest Doing Business report compares countries on an ‘ease of doing business’ ranking. The UK is sixth, behind Singapore in first place, then New Zealand, the USA, Hong Kong and Denmark. (Other ranks include Japan 12, Germany 20, France 31, South Africa 35, Italy 53, Poland 74, Pakistan 76, China 83, Russia 106, West Bank and Gaza 117, India 120, Brazil 122, Iran 135, Iraq 141, Zimbabwe 152 and DR Congo in last place at 178.)

I would have guessed lower for both. I don’t know my neighbours, and I can’t imagine how to run a business. But maybe that’s just me.

Vanity publishing

This is my 500th post – both chronologically and when ranked in descending order of quality.

As I said at the start, “I'm going to write some stuff and see how it goes, you know?”

Seems to be working so far.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Obama and Santos

If this is true, it’s a great story (if not, it’s an ingenious bit of PR):

Devotees of the West Wing have been talking about it for weeks: the uncanny similarity between the fictional presidential contest that dominated the final seasons of the acclaimed TV show and the real-life drama of this year's election.
Both the real and imagined campaigns have centred on a young, charismatic candidate from an ethnic minority, daring to take on an establishment workhorse with a promise to transcend race and heal America's partisan divide.
But there's a twist.
For what those West Wing fans stunned by the similarity between the fictitious Matthew Santos and the real-life Barack Obama have not known is that the resemblance is no coincidence. When the West Wing scriptwriters first devised their fictitious presidential candidate in the late summer of 2004, they modelled him in part on a young Illinois politician - not yet even a US senator - by the name of Barack Obama.
"I drew inspiration from him in drawing this character," West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie told the Guardian. "When I had to write, Obama was just appearing on the national scene. He had done a great speech at the convention [which nominated John Kerry] and people were beginning to talk about him."

[Update: spoilers in the comments.]

Find the gap

An unsatisfying opinion poll in the Guardian:

A large majority, 75%, say the gap between high and low incomes is too wide in Britain, the highest ever level found by ICM. Only 15% think the wealth gap is about right. That suggests public unease about the so-called super-rich

Well, it’s hard to know whether the response does suggest that – rather than unease about the rarely mentioned ‘super-poor’. The question asked was: “Thinking about income levels generally in Britain today, would you say that the gap between those on high incomes and those on low incomes is too large, about right or too small?”

‘The’ gap between rich and poor is a vague notion, and however defined comprises any number of lesser gaps. What would be much more useful would be to see what people had to say about the gap between those on high and those on middle incomes, and that between middle and low incomes.

It’d also be interesting to gauge roughly how much different groups would class as being high, middle or low income (I’d guess that most people up in the top 10% would imagine themselves to be ‘middle-income’).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cohesion and diversity

Last week, Chris Dillow mentioned a research paper suggesting that diversity within a community could theoretically improve social cohesion.

I’ve just discover a more concrete study to back that up, analysing data from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s biannual Citizenship Surveys.

It’s often been suggested that ethnically diverse areas are less cohesive, but one response to this has been that such areas tend to be poorer, and that it may be poverty that erodes cohesion.

The research directly addresses this, using as its measure of community cohesion people’s answers to the question “to what extent do you agree or disagree that this local area (within 15/20 minutes walking distance) is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together?” Here are a few findings:

  • Once other factors are accounted for ethnic diversity is, in most cases, positively associated with community cohesion.
  • However, the relationship between diversity and cohesion is complicated and the nature of this relationship is dependent on the type of ethnic mix in an area.
  • Living in an area which has a broad mix of residents from different ethnic groups was consistently shown to be a positive predictor of cohesion. However, having an increasing percentage of in-migrants born outside of the UK, is a negative predictor.
  • Irrespective of the level of ethnic diversity in a community, disadvantage consistently undermines perceptions of cohesion and operates in a similar fashion for all communities.
  • However, not all deprived areas have low cohesion.
  • Deprived, diverse areas have higher average cohesion scores than deprived, homogeneous White areas. It is thus deprivation that undermines cohesion, not diversity.

So: deprivation is bad for cohesion; ethnic diversity is not bad nor even neutral, but positively good; but increasing local immigration is not good.

This fits quite well with Chris’s take:

the existence of immigration throws the very question of social cohesion and social norms into open discussion. The questions "what does it mean to be British?" and "how can we increase social cohesion?" are responses to mass migration. And the effect of discussing these questions might be to increase trust among people by making hitherto implicit, tacit social norms more explicit.
It's possible, therefore, that immigration might actually be a force for social cohesion, at least in the long-run. Could it be then that the lack of social cohesion as a result of immigration is (just?) a temporary disequilibrium?

I agree that the visible fact of immigration serves to raise the questions about identity and cohesion. But these were questions that would have needed asking anyway, even if there’d be no postwar immigration and increase in ethnic diversity.

Following the rise of social liberalism since the 1960s and the economic liberalisation from the 1980s, British society has, very simply, become more diverse. People’s lifestyles have diverged, and there are fewer shared assumptions. White Britons have become, if you like, more multicultural. There’s been comparatively little discussion of this in itself, so the advent of new racial and religious minorities may have been very helpful indeed in getting us thinking about what can bind us all together.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An open wound

I do feel sorry for Mohamed Al Fayed. He seems to be a nasty, arrogant little man, but he’s also a man who’s been irreparably broken by tragedy.

It’s sad that he’s using his public position for paranoid ranting, it’s sad that the legal system is giving him a platform for this, and it’s sad that there’s all the media-fuelled chuckling and sneering.

Whether his case is malicious posturing or heartfelt delusion or a mixture of the two, it appears that Al Fayed has spent the last decade of his life stuck in that tunnel in Paris.

Because it leaves a foul taste

I’ve just seen an ad reading: ‘Free mouthwash with your Evening Standard’.

Now that’s what I call product placement.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The politics of Northern Rock

I’m not at all convinced that the Government is going to take much of a political hit for the nationalisation of Northern Rock.

Here (in full) is the Tory press release on the subject:

George Osborne has described the announcement that Northern Rock is to be nationalised as "the day Labour's reputation for economic competence died."

The Shadow Chancellor said the Conservatives would not back nationalisation, and would "not help Gordon Brown take this country back to the 1970s".
He slammed Labour for making the taxpayer bear the full risk of lending £100bn of mortgages in an "uncertain" housing market.
And he attacked the way the crisis had been handled, saying "Gordon Brown has dithered his way to the disaster of nationalisation."

There are two lines of attack here, but notably they don’t both work together. One is that the Government delayed indecisively for months until getting a resolution; the other is that the Government is preferring an old-left statist ideology to a market solution.

Clearly it’s taken a long time getting to this point, during which many people (including the Lib Dems) have been calling for more speed. The Government has spent months casting around for a suitable private buyer – and failing to find one. You might well call this dithering, but given that, you can’t also say that they’re eager to take Britain “back to the 1970s”.

(NB. I have literally no idea whether nationalising Northern Rock is a good plan, nor whether it was reasonable to wait this long in search of other options.)

Cassilis suggests:

these things have a habit of lingering in the public consciousness, becoming character-defining events that somehow typify the politicians in office when they occurred. This happens even when the events are actually pretty tangential to government policy.

Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see. Personally, I’d guess that the missing data discs from last autumn are likelier as an event of this sort.

This, incidentally, is what The Sun says:

THE GOVERNMENT tried desperately to find a private buyer for Northern Rock.
And they were right to do so.
No government should make a habit of propping up failed institutions with taxpayers’ cash.
But no private firm wanted to pay the right price. So there was no option but to take the bank into temporary public ownership.
It was the lesser of two evils, and the only sensible way forward.
Gordon Brown has been brave enough to get us out of the mess his Chancellor got us into.
The Prime Minister will have The Sun's support provided the nationalisation lasts no longer than is strictly necessary.
A good start has been made with the appointment of Ron Sandler to run Northern Rock.
There are some tough decisions ahead — and he is the only figure with the credibility to take them.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

It’s like a royal fart

Peter Stothard wonders why ‘the elephant in the room’ has become such a cliché lately:

According to our newspaper databases, The Times used the phrase only five times between 1995 and 2002 - but has hit the elephant button 62 times since 2003. The Sunday Times? A tenfold increase, from four to 41.
The Independent? Fifteenfold up. Three to 45. And The Guardian. One hundred and twelve times as many - albeit starting from the base of one appearance only before 2003.

I can’t say why British usage has increased so much (probably something to do with memes and tipping points and journalistic laziness – I bet you’d find similar figures for ‘quantum leap’ and ‘black hole’, as well as for ‘double whammy’ after 1992 and ‘fit for purpose’ in the last couple of years).

But, frankly, ‘the elephant in the room’ is a rotten metaphor. It just doesn’t work.

Michael Quinion, on his fine World Wide Words website, explains:

It refers to some a problem or controversial issue that’s obviously present but which everyone ignores or avoids mentioning, usually because it’s politically or socially embarrassing.
Marcel Berlins commented that he had traced the expression to a 1989 BBC television film whose director had said he had taken it from the Belfast writer Bernard MacLaverty. The latter had described the situation in Northern Ireland as like “having an elephant in your living room”, though with the sense of something difficult in your life that you got accustomed to and tried your best to ignore, as people in Northern Ireland did with the Troubles.

Indeed. But: think for a moment about actually having an elephant in your living room. Is there any credible reaction to this scenario other than hysteria? Why, exactly, would you find an elephant there and then let it stay? How on Earth could you possibly grow accustomed to its being there?

Quinion tries to trace the phrase’s origin, a search that suggests the phrase was originally a sensible metaphor:

The OED’s entry also notes an example from the New York Times of June 1959: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.” …
The idea seems to have been around for quite some time before it became common or took on its modern sense, most probably being reinvented from time to time by writers seeking a vigorous image.

The 1959 use makes excellent sense: you just can’t ignore an elephant in the room.

But the phrase has become corrupted into something implausible, unapt, and not fit for purpose (dammit! Sorry). We need a better phrase for something that’s problematic but too awkward to mention. So, as a public service, I have invented a new metaphor – one that, I hope, provides a “vigorous image”.

A group of you are meeting the Queen. You are in a smallish ill-ventilated room with her, shaking hands and making such polite small talk as one does with a monarch. Then she lets one rip. She makes no reaction, and not does her attendant. Then, another. It really stinks. And again. But dare you mention this royal flatulence? Of course not.

Thus: ‘it’s like a royal fart’.

Happy to help.

Friday, February 15, 2008

‘David Miliband will bomb your country and then shoot your children one by one until you get to mark a ballot paper’

Lile Cassilis, I thought David Miliband’s speech on democracy promotion earlier this week was pretty good.

He got some critical coverage, but the form this took is an interesting prism through which to look at what he actually said. There was a common theme to the media reaction, but it was largely (through dishonesty or ignorance or indifference or hastiness to publish) misconceived.

Adrian Hamilton complained that Miliband was “rejecting the criticism of those who doubt the West's right to impose ways of government on other nations”.

Brendan O’Neill sneered: “'Democracy' helicoptered in from overseas - whether it arrives courtesy of Bush's shock'n'awe or the new PC Milibandian militarism - makes people the passive recipients of western favour rather than free, self-determining individuals.”

Simon Jenkins sighed: “The new interventionism may differ from the old imperialism in not seeking to settle or rule countries. But it is the same in believing that western values can (and should) be imposed on often reluctant states through military occupation.”

And Conor Foley insisted: “No state, or group of states, is permitted to invade another country just because they do not like its system of government.” (Commedably, but somewhat comically, he added: “Perhaps I am relying too much on the extracts of the speech that I have read, since the whole text is not yet on the web.”)

Whatever their differences, the four agreed that Miliband’s proposals for imposing democracy on other countries were wrong.

Except for the small matter that he proposed no such thing. Here are some extracts of the speech:

We cannot impose democratic norms. But we can be clear about the desirability of government by the people and clear that without hubris or sanctimony we can play a role in backing demands for democratic governance and all that goes with it. …
I will argue that we should back demands among citizens for more freedom and power over their lives – whether that is reforming established democracies, or supporting transitions to democracy. …
…I mean not just more elections, but the rule of law and economic freedoms which are the basis of liberal democracy. …
The question, which is rightly raised by the pragmatic critique, is how should promote democracy? …
[First, w]e can and should support the creation of a free media and free debate. …

Second, we have very important, and potentially influential, financial and economic links. … Economic openness can drive political and social change. … 

Third, as a world leader in aid, we can ensure that aid supports democracy and good governance. …
Fourth, the attraction of becoming members of ‘clubs’ such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and NATO, can act as a powerful way of establishing democratic norms. …
Fifth and finally, there will be situations where the hard power of targeted sanctions, international criminal proceedings, security guarantees and military intervention will be necessary. …targeted sanctions can send a powerful signal about the legitimacy of a state’s actions, and offer substantive pressure for changes in behavior. … In some cases, sanctions are not enough. In extreme cases the failure of states to exercise their responsibility to protect their own civilians from genocide or ethnic cleansing warrant military intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Paul Collier argues in his forthcoming work on ‘democracy in dangerous places’, that the offer of a security guarantee to a new but fragile government, conditional on them abiding by democratic rules, could create a strong incentive for them to abide by the democratic process. To date, our only experience of security guarantees has been of the sort that NATO provides against external aggression. There are a whole range of reasons why Collier's idea would be difficult. How would you judge which regimes merit the guarantee for instance? How would you avoid perverse incentives? Who would intervene to put down the coup and how would they avoid complicating or exacerbating political divisions? But it is surely right that we consider carefully how best we can support fledgling, fragile democracies

Points one to four are wholly about encouragement of pro-democracy forces (including those promoting the rule of law and freedom more broadly). The fifth point comes to the use of military force, but mentions two very different types of circumstance: in the most relevant one, an elected government in a country with weak state capacity may face the threat of violent overthrow; the suggestion is that the UK and/or others might helpfully send in the armed forces to work with that government, ensuring security on the condition that democracy is upheld. This would be a matter of invitation and assistance, not occupation and imposition.

(The other circumstance in which forcible military intervention may be warranted, is an “extreme” instance of mass bloodshed. Such a move would be to save large numbers of lives rather than to create a new political system; it would be, to borrow Norm’s distinction, with an immediate “remedial” aim rather than a broader “utopian” one. Or, very crudely, it’s the difference between neoconservative and humanitarian interventionist views.)

Miliband certainly doesn’t have a clear view of how “security guarantees” would work, as he admits with his list of potential problems. But his basic principles are sound, and he’s asking the right questions.

David Cameron, who idiotically opines that “you cannot drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet,” could learn a lot here. But I’m not sure he’d want to.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Universal Thatcherism

I think there’s only one reasonable interpretation of this headline:

UK could overturn Thatcher space ban

That’s got to be the most ambitious, the most redundant and the most counter-productive asbo I’ve ever heard of. Why not let her blast off to trouble someone else instead?

Alas, when you click through from the Times home page, it becomes ‘UK could overturn Thatcher space ban on manned missions’. That’s no fun.

But the article does suggest she was planning to lead from the front:

Britain gave up on [the] idea of manned missions in 1986 after Mrs Thatcher, then Prime Minister, pulled out of the manned missions planned by the European Space Agency.

Yes, only one thing could have outweighed Maggie’s desire to conquer the universe: her horror at having to do it as part of a joint European project.

No! No! No!

Roses are red, violets are violet

To mark Valentine’s day, Norm asked readers to submit six-word love stories.

Six words isn’t much. You can ask wherefore Romeo is Romeo, but you can’t get as far as saying exactly what truth it is that is universally acknowledged.

But perhaps less is more. If you’ve forgotten to buy a present for your expectant other half today, you might want to consider using that line. And then running.

You can read the stories, including one of mine, here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Inequality, tax and spending

Can we reduce inequality without tackling the super-rich?

Yes, apparently. An interesting analysis by Lane Kenworthy (via Chris) suggests that redistributive government spending plays a much bigger role than progressive tax in reducing economic inequality.

He compares the Gini coefficient (measuring the degree of inequality) for household incomes in ten rich countries, but he does so both before and after tax, and both before and after government transfers. The amount of inequality reduction that the tax and redistribution systems achieve is shown here:

Two things are clear: income transfers reduce inequality by much more than tax does; and there is much more variation in the amount of equalisation that results from redistribution than in that from tax.

Lane also observes that the degree of inequality reduction does depend on the overall level of government spending, which of course depends strongly on the total tax take. These taxes need not be strongly progressive, though, in order for equalisation to take place.

I have two thoughts to add to this, by way of possible explanation.

First, increasing tax rates on the highest earners will only reduce their income by a proportion above the given threshold – it won’t put a cap on it. (And, as Vino says, the wealthy may be able to avoid many taxes, so reducing the scope for higher taxes on them to have real bite.) But redistributing to the poor guarantees their income won’t drop below the level of the benefits they receive. So the latter would seem likelier to have an effect on overall inequality.

Second, a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies study looked at high-income individuals in the UK. They found that the average income for all taxpayers (in 2004/05) was a little under £25,000. To get into the top 10% of earners, you needed to earn over £35,000. To get into the top 1%, you needed £100,000. And to get into the top 0.1%, you needed £351,000.

Clearly, the most striking inequalities are those appearing in the steepening curve at the top of the income scale; however, these inequalities involve a fairly small number of individuals.

To substantially cut inequality by taxing these people more, you’d need quite a large number of income tax bands at the top end of the income scale, each covering fewer and fewer people with higher and higher rates (a single high rate for the top 1% would ignore the huge inequalities within that group). Quite apart from whether this would be politically feasible or what economic effects it might have, it seems pretty impractical.

Conversely, though, to promote equalisation via benefits, you’d need to give the most to the poorest – which administratively (and politically) is much easier. There’s far less variation within the bottom 10% than there is in the top 10% – or even the top 1% – so precision targeting is far less of a problem.

What’s more, my own view is that the ‘poor people falling behind’ side of inequality is more troubling than the ‘rich people zooming ahead’ aspect. The Gini coefficient doesn’t distinguish between the two, but I think the former is obviously bad while the latter is very debatable.

(None of this is an argument against higher taxes on the very rich; it’s just to caution that this would not in itself reduce inequality by nearly as much as government redistribution could – whether the money comes from the top or across the board.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

The happy echoes of a good dream

Norm thinks that there’s an asymmetry in the ways good and bad dreams leave us feeling:

When you wake up from a bad dream, you feel relief; but this relief at finding that the dream was only a dream soon passes, and you're left with the shadow of what was bad in it. 'Oh, it was so horrible: there I was, stranded - and, all around, those scowling treevles.' If, on the other hand, you wake up from a wonderful dream, your primary feeling is disappointment. Oh no, it wasn't real; beautiful but snatched away. The disappointment outweighs the good memory of what it was you thought you had.

I agree with what he says about bad dreams, but not quite on the good ones. True, if what made a dream good was simply the state of affairs it portrayed, then realisation of its falsity will burst the bubble. But what about cases where what’s good is largely the quality of the experience?

Two examples, from my own brain (not rude):

One of my cats died a few years ago, which was very upsetting. Some months later, I had a dream with her in it (not in a miraculous back-from-the-dead way but mundanely, as if it she’d not died at all). It was utterly realistic, down to the details of the markings on her face, where on her back she liked being stroked, and so forth. On waking, I felt a little rueful and melancholy, but also very warmly, fondly pleased. It was almost like having had a last chance to see her, and I was glad for that, in a funny sort of way.

In a completely different vein, I occasionally dream about flying (à la Superman, not easyJet). To be frank, I’m not all that good at it – there’s a fair amount of arm-flapping, and my landings lack a certain grace – but it’s good, exhilarating fun. When I wake up, it’s hard to be seriously disappointed that I can’t really fly, because that’s such an obvious fact. What I get to keep, though, is the memory of the sensation of flying. Sure, I know full well it’s a phoney memory, but I still like having it.


If this is true, it’s one of the nastiest manifestations yet of Vladimir Putin’s ‘managed democracy’:

Mr [Artem] Basirov, 20, a university student, was among a group of pro-democracy activists planning a protest against President Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule ahead of last December's elections. But on the night before the planned demonstration, he was snatched by secret service officers, taken to a state psychiatric hospital and forced to undergo a month of "treatment", during which he was fed mind-numbing drugs.
Mr Basirov's incarceration inside the Soviet-era psycho-neurological clinic… is the latest case in which opponents of Kremlin rule have been hauled off to state-run mental institutions.
Reminiscent of the days of communism, when sectioning on mental health grounds was used to silence Kremlin critics, it is being seen as another tactic used by the government to intimidate the opposition ahead of next month's presidential elections.

Mr Basirov's case follows that of Larissa Arap, 49, a journalist from Murmansk who was detained in a psychiatric hospital for 46 days after she exposed the abuse of children at the very same unit. Another case involved Roman Nikolaichik, 27, from Tver, near Moscow, who is also a supporter of Other Russia.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A fair and balanced look at sharia

I think I may have been too hasty in criticising Rowan Williams’s thoughts on sharia yesterday.

The truth is more nuanced: on the one hand, sharia law has an image of Talibanesque/Saudi fundamentalism, with savage and brutal punishments, but on the other hand –


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams: slippery, sinister, incoherent – and wrong

When I saw the headline Sharia law in UK is ‘unavoidable’ I briefly imagined a force of Islamic police, relentlessly chasing infidel villains around the country, always getting their man (or, perhaps more likely, their woman) – a sort of cross between the Bow Street Runners, the Mounties and the Taliban.

My second reaction was to chuckle that Rowan Williams had gone and dropped himself in it again, with his woolly, convoluted faux profundities and clumsy lack of common sense and political nous.

Then I decided to go and read the speech.

I’m happy to accept that he’s got one of the finest academic minds in the Church of England, but if so, then it seems that he’s being quite slippery in this speech. Otherwise, the logic of his argument is incoherent.

He notes initially that “our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level”. This bottom level would be that of the single, universal law of the land.

But, he continues, there is a danger “when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity”. He describes “a position – not at all unfamiliar in contemporary discussion – which says that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private and of individual choice”.

So: within the space of just one paragraph he has slid slyly from our “social identities”, which obviously aren’t constituted or even dominated by our legal status, to “public and political identity”, which is a somewhat narrower but still multifacted notion, and then to what it means “to be a citizen” – which is narrower still.

In one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that our status as citizens is precisely a legal one; in other senses, citizenship might include such things as participation in community and political life, group affiliations and so on.

His argument for legal pluralism (not as bizarre an idea as it superficially sounds) requires that citizenship in the former sense is about much more than legality, though. But it isn’t.

Universal legal equality isn’t the be-all and end-all of one’s place within society, nor (for those of us who take it for granted, at least) is it even close to being the most important. But, just as breathing is to life, it’s part of the essential bare minimum.

Williams, in proposing a role for sharia, need to head off the extremists. He proposes that where communally based “supplementary jurisdictions” might be established, they couldn’t just be based on anything: there must be “a way of distinguishing purely cultural habits from seriously-rooted matters of faith and discipline, and distinguishing uninformed prejudice from religious prescription” – this is in order to rule out illiberal practices, of which he disapproves.

But the trouble with trying to draw a distinction between religion and culture in this way is that religion is part of culture. There has never been, nor could there ever be, a ‘pure essence’ of Islam abstracted from all cultural considerations. Even from the beginning, scripture of any sort is written within a specific cultural context.

Indeed, he gives the following example:

It is argued that the provision for the inheritance of widows under a strict application of sharia has the effect of disadvantaging them in what the majority community might regard as unacceptable ways. A legal (in fact Qur'anic) provision which in its time served very clearly to secure a widow's position at a time when this was practically unknown in the culture becomes, if taken absolutely literally, a generator of relative insecurity in a new context

You see – the Qur’an itself was addressing a particular cultural context. The “new [modern, liberal] context” in which UK sharia would operate is itself, of course, a particular culture too.

There’s a tendency for some people to regard ‘culture’ as something possessed by minority groups. The rest of us, in our Western mainstream, are just the default setting for human existence. It looks as though this is what’s going on here.

But Williams has another proposal for allowing Islamically based ‘legal’ systems to operate while avoiding a descent into repressiveness:

If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.

It seems fair enough that nobody should be able to find themselves into a position where they’ve lost their statutory rights, therefore sharia courts shouldn’t be able to pass any ruling that infringed these. But that’s not quite what he’s saying. He’s saying that nobody should lose access to their rights, which is a little more sinister. While he does seem to enjoy verbiage for its own sake, this is no mere turn of phrase. Later on in the speech, he says again that communal jurisdictions should not “[interfere] with liberties guaranteed by the wider society in such a way as definitively to block access to the exercise of those liberties”.

The picture that’s subtly being sketched is of a system in which entrants do in fact sign away some of their statutory rights on entering the supplementary jurisdiction, so that they can’t exercise them if the relevant sharia court says otherwise – but they would always be free to leave that jurisdiction for the normal legal system, where they would then regain the ability to exercise the standard set of rights.

But, once any institution has become established, a presumption in favour of it (as the staus quo) develops. There would be a community stigma against quitting such a jurisdiction, an action that would be portrayed by those it serves well as being akin to signing away your Islam - ‘How can you be a good Muslim and yet want to renounce Islamic law?’

Interestingly, Williams quotes the Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shachar, who discusses:

the risks of any model that ends up “franchising” a non-state jurisdiction so as to reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members: “we must be alert”, she writes, “to the potentially injurious effects of well-meaning external protections upon different categories of group members here – effects which may unwittingly exacerbate preexisting internal power hierarchies”.

Well, quite. But here are the two key questions: is it the case that in some Muslim communities, patriarchs and other ‘authority’ figures place strenuous social pressure on less powerful, younger and often female members of those communities to conform to illiberal norms? I suggest that the answer is yes. And, if so, do we want to use the legal system to give these people an extra edge in their ability to manipulate and pressurise others? I personally don’t.

I’m happy for people to voluntarily submit their affairs to non-state third-party arbitration for binding resolution – as long as the principles used in the arbitration are consistent with UK law and any tribunal’s procedures are subject to appeal and scrutiny by the legal system proper.

And I’m happy for such arbitration to draw on principles from ancient documents, whether Qur’anic verse or Aesop’s fables, as long as nobody’s statutory rights are thereby eroded.

But I’m not happy for those who want to turn a generally secular state into a network of sectarian doctrinal fiefdoms to be given the legitimacy and tools to push their ambitions forward.

The overwhelmingly negative responses to Williams’s speech – including those of Anglicans and Muslims, and those of a very great many bloggers whose judgement I respect – is heartwarming. Our country isn’t going to the dogs, and it isn’t going to the theocrats either.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The inconvenient truth

I’m so happy! I’m so happy I could, well, blog about it.

My train was delayed this morning. Not massively – a bit under ten minutes – but enough to make me scowlingly late for work. As we were pullling in to King’s Cross, we heard from the driver:

“I apologise for the inconvenience.”

You don’t often hear that last pair of words in a railway tannoy apology. They normally apologise for “any inconvenience”, as though it’s an unprovable conjecture whether anybody has really been put out by the train company’s failure to get a couple of hundred commuters where they’ve paid to go by the promised time.

But “the inconvenience” is a joy to hear – no craven mucking around with weaselly hypotheticals but a direct acknowledgement of the consequences of their incompetence.

“Any inconvenience”? Pah. It’s as if the admission that their drooling uselessness has caused some real, actually existing inconvenience to their paying customers would result in us rising up and charging at the company directors furiously, like hyenas ridden by lawyers and filled with bees, and tear their smug suits and pasty flesh into soggy confetti.

(Or, even worse, we might take our custom elsewhere and use one of the other train companies that runs the same route – oh, except there aren’t any, it’s a local monopoly. Well privatising that will really work, won’t it, by introducing the rigours of imaginary pretend competition…)

You never hear Osama bin Laden, in a post-bombing video, praising “any punishment” inflicted upon “any Western imperialist infidels”. You never hear Oscar winners thanking “any parents” for “any support” they’ve given.

But these institutional railway cowards, who have ‘Where there’s blame, there’s a claim’ engraved on their palsied cardboard hearts in crap sixth-form Latin, can’t bear anything that might threaten their delusions of respectability.

So all credit to the train driver this morning, who knew full well we’d been inconvenienced. Apology accepted. Now don’t do it again.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

British government: an American’s guide

After seeing this Venn diagram showing the difference between England, Great Britain, the UK, etc. (hat tip), I thought it’d be nice to offer a guide to the UK political system for Americans.

The British system of government is almost exactly like the US system. There are just a few small differences:

Our President is called the Monarch. Unlike the US, we have had several female presidents, including the current incumbent. We have yet to have a black President, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. The President doesn’t have any real power, though, and rather than being elected to serve a limited term, she inherited the job and reigns for life. Imagine a late-second-term lame-duck US President facing a hostile Congress, while anaesthetised and tied to a chair. It’s a really expensive chair, though.

In theory, our President can dissolve Congress whenever she likes, but in practice she doesn’t get involved: too much talk radio has convinced her that politicians are ‘all the same’. She doesn’t even bother voting.

The Vice-President is called the heir to the throne, and he holds that job for life (his mum’s). We also have a Vice-Vice-President, called Prince William, and a Vice-Vice-Vice-President, which is Prince Harry until William has children. And so on. I myself am about 37 million down the line.

Like the US Congress, the UK Parliament has two houses. Our House of Representatives is called the House of Commons. The Majority Leader is called the Prime Minister. The Majority Leader heads the Federal Government as well as the House majority group, and appoints Cabinet members, all of whom have to be members of Congress. We’re not quite so hot on separation of powers.

The House Minority Leader is called the Leader of the Opposition. His job is to say how bad the Majority Leader is.

The State of the Union Address is a bit different: our President does give a speech to Congress once a year, but really it’s just reading out a press release written by somebody in the Majority Leader’s office. While balancing the most expensive hat in the world on her head. This official display of bling is an attempt to engage da yoof with politics. And it works: many under-40s keenly glance at the highlights on the TV news.

Another fine example of how televisually edifying British politics is comes from the weekly half-hour session when the Majority Leader answers questions from the House. I say ‘answers questions’, but most of the answers aren’t really answers and most of the questions aren’t really questions.

Our Senate is called the House of Lords, and this is where things get interesting. The Senate isn’t elected – except for 92 members, who are descendants of former Senators and are now elected by each other. They serve for life, and if one of them dies, people who missed out on a place last time there was an election get to stand. The rest, who also serve for life, are appointed by the party leaders down in the House, subject to a committee deciding that they’re up to the job. The members of this committee appear as if by magic. There are some bishops and judges in the Senate, as well as some retired government officials, military officers and other ‘respected’ types. And a few others get in as well. Somehow. New Senators get to pick the districts that they represent, and then they don’t actually have to represent them.

The Senate tends to vote against the Government more often than the House, partly because the Government normally has a House majority by definition, partly because the Senators are unpaid (which makes them cranky) and partly because the Senators tend to be older (which makes them cranky). However, if the House and the Senate disagree, the House can always, eventually, win out.

The Senate is also the Supreme Court, more or less, although it generally does the legal stuff through subcommittees. See what I was saying about separation of powers?

Let’s shift away from Washington (which we call Westminster). There are 50 American states. We have four or possibly five, and they’re not called states. England and Scotland are ‘nations’, Wales is a ‘principality’ and Northern Ireland is a ‘province’. Arguably, London should be counted separately from the rest of England. London is a ‘city’.

State governments don’t have so much power over here. The Scottish one has a fair amount; the Welsh and Northern Irish ones less; the London one less still (they all have elected state congresses, although London is the only one to have a Governor: he’s called the Mayor). The non-London bit of England, which you may have seen in slow-paced films, doesn’t have state bodies of its own, and is run by the Federal Government and Congress. So I guess it’s a bit like DC, only with 70% of the country’s population rather than DC’s 0.2%.

We’re also part of the European Union. The EU, which has 26 other members, is basically a cross between NAFTA, the UN, Thanksgiving with the in-laws, a system of committees designed by a committee, a litigious travelling circus, and Belgium. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you’re not a superpower.

Otherwise, though, everything’s the same as in the US. Except that we don’t have an Electoral College: we’re not crazy, you know.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thoughts for the week

Cassilis has had a cracking idea: a weekly round-up of musings from the think-tanks. This week’s includes counterterrorism, unemployment on council estates, honour killings, and multiculturalism and Eurpean foreign policy.

Good effort!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Seamus Milne, scourge of warmongers everywhere in the West, explains:

The only real chance for peace in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of foreign forces as part of a wider political settlement, including the Taliban and neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan.

Therefore, we may conclude, the international forces must stay in Afghanistan until it’s clear that the Taliban are willing to make a wider political settlement (of which withdrawal can then be a part).

Super Shrove Tuesday

Today is pancake day, and also the day when the Clinton-Obama contest may effectively be decided.

Bit of a toss-up, really.

State size and active citizenship

Does a big state crowd out the space for a thriving voluntary sector, sap citizens’ engagement and erode ‘social responsibility’ (as that nice man on the telly puts it)?

Apparently not, according to the Demos paper I mentioned last week. The think-tank’s new ‘Everyday Democracy Index’ looks at “how important democratic principles and practices are to the cultures of workplaces, to people’s community life, to the way they interact with public services, and even to the way they talk to their friends and family”.

It’s quite interesting:

The primary problem with our political institutions is… that they have become cast adrift from the rest of our lives. That’s why attempting to solve our current democratic malaise through institutional reengineering, without due concern for the cultures that surround and support those institutions, will not work. … So we would do well to pay much more attention to which particular patterns and arrangements of everyday life tend to give rise to democratic habits, and which do not. …
If we want to renew democracy, we need to reconnect representative politics and the informal sphere of people’s everyday lives, so that the two support and sustain each other. No model of democracy can succeed in the long term if the effect of its nominal success is to anaesthetise its citizens from the awareness of collective possibility that made it possible in the first place.

One of the strands of their index is called ‘Activism and Civic Participation’, which they measure across the countries of the EU using four indicators, based on whether survey respondents had recently (a) signed a petition, (b) joined a boycott or (c) taken part in a legal demonstration, as well as (d) the average number of civic groups people were members of or volunteered for.

Demos’s international comparison yields this:

One interesting question… is about the controversial relationship between the size of government and the vibrancy of the civic sphere. Some on the right… have blamed the expansion of government for the oft-noted decline in associational life and other forms of social capital. The theory is that as government gets bigger it ‘crowds out’ active citizenship, community spirit and voluntary initiative. What do the results for the Activism and Participation dimension add to the evidence about these claims? Broadly… this relationship is nowhere near so clear cut, and that in fact bigger government is associated – although probably not causally – with a higher degree of active citizenship. Figure 5 plots countries’ score on the EDI Activism and Participation dimension against their government’s tax take as a share of GDP. The relationship is positive, if only moderately consistent: bigger governments have more, not less, active citizens. To reiterate, this does not mean that legislating for bigger government will lead to a more vibrant civil society. But it does suggest that simply legislating for smaller government probably will not.

That nice man off the telly also says that there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state – which is true enough. But that doesn’t mean that ‘rolling back the state’ will leading to the ‘rolling forward’ of society – it’s not a zero-sum game.

The two are utterly interdependent. The state (at least, the democratic state) can’t exist without reflecting the views and needs of society, and a free society can’t survive without the state to guarantee some level of order and support the position of the vulnerable.

(Likewise, to add the third face of the indivisible trinity, the market can’t function without the framework of rules and institutions provided by the state, nor without the values and customs prevalent in society; and the state can’t function, nor can society flourish, without the economic growth provided by the market.)

Monday, February 04, 2008


A wonderful word; you immediately know what it means. From Nick Davies:

Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have generally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.

Almost as good as Harold Rosenberg’s description of the media as “a herd of independent minds”.

Opinion polls: Cameron vs Kinnock?

The Tories’ poll leads have been dropping recently (one poll last week even put Labour ahead), and of course there’s much media comment on whether and why David Cameron’s efforts are stalling. I’ve also seen several pundits remark that Labour’s poll leads while in opposition were much more impressive.

Those of us of the anorak-wearing persuasion know that this is technically true, but deeply misleading, because polling methodologies have changed over the years to deal with the pro-Labour bias.

So, what follows is an effort – and it’s a bit rough and ready – to compare opinion polls now and earlier in the 1990s. Skip the first bit if you trust me completely and/or don’t care for nitty gritty.

I’m using ICM voting intention figures because they were first to start adjusting their polls after the 1992 result so surprised people. While other pollsters were routinely giving Tony Blair ludicrous leads in the 30s and even 40s, ICM were consistently more plausible. Since 1997, they’ve made further methodology changes (as have the others).

(Hat tip to Anthony Wells’s excellent UK Polling Report for the figures.)

I’ve taken the average of ICM ratings in the three months prior to the 1992, 1997 and 2005 elections being called – because all we have to go on at the moment are the hypothetical ‘how would you vote in an election tomorrow’ polls, and I want to compare like with like as far as possible. I’ve then looked at how these averages compare with the actual results to calculate how accuracy has changed over time.

Pre-campaign 1992 polls gave Labour a lead of 3 points, whereas the Tories finished 7.6 points up – a Labour bias of 10.6.

Pre-campaign 1997 polls gave Labour a lead of 17.8 points, whereas Labour finished 12.8 points up – a Labour bias of 5.

Pre-campaign 2005 polls gave Labour a lead of 5.5 points, whereas Labour finished 2.9 points up – a Labour bias of 2.6.

To convert older polls into new money, so we can compare them with contemporary polls, then, we need to subtract 8 points from Labour’s lead in pre-1992 polls, and to subtract 2.4 points in 1992-97 polls.

These are the poll leads/deficits for different oppositions, averaged over given periods and converted into contemporary equivalents (original figures in brackets):

Kinnock’s Labour
(last year of Thatcher, Dec 1989-Nov 1990)
+7.6 (+15.6 in old money)

Kinnock’s Labour
(Jan-Dec 1991)
–4.6 (+3.4 in old money)

Smith’s Labour
(last year of his life, Jun 1993-May 1994)
+7.5 (+9.9 in old money)

Blair’s Labour
(Jan 1995-Dec 1996)
+16.6 (+19 in old money)

Cameron’s Conservatives
(last year of Blair, Jul 2006-Jun 2007)

Cameron’s Conservatives
(post-‘non-election’, Oct 2007-Jan 2008)

So: since Gordon Brown contrived to end his own honeymoon, Cameron has been doing about as well as he had been against Blair (although the three ICM polls this January average a lead narrowing to 4.7 points). Cameron is doing a good deal better than Kinnock did against the new John Major, but not as well as Kinnock had done against the declining Thatcher nor John Smith against Major. He has come nowhere near Blair’s – very sustained – performance against Major.

I’ve not looked at the relevant numbers, but he’s certainly doing better than his three predecessors managed against Blair. The other thing to bear in mind is that he may also be doing a bit better, in reality, than the polls say, assuming that the small pro-Labour bias from early 2005 still exists.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Cameron on Thatcher: seeing through true-blue-tinted glasses

You have to smile at his chutzpah:

Today we know what Thatcherism meant for our country - victory in the Cold War, victory against unbridled trade union power, the sale of council houses, the liberation of the British economy. …
But today's circumstances are different. …the most fundamental long-term challenge we face is not the broken economy inherited by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, but our broken society, the consequence of years of failed state planning and the denial of social responsibility. Britain has falling school standards, the worst rate of family breakdown in Europe and an endemic crime problem in our inner cities.

Thatcher “liberated” the economy in much the same way that Bush and Rumsfeld liberated Fallujah – yes, high inflation was eventually reduced, but only at the cost of widespread devastation.

And really – the very idea that poverty, crime and the other ills of a “broken society” aren’t largely the legacy of Thatcherism is just embarrassing.

He still doesn’t get it

More from the Honourable Derek Conway:

Walking out of his mansion flat in central London, Mr Conway tried to play down the affair… saying of his sons : "Young people will be young people ... They have a right to a social life."

Not at my bloody expense, they don’t.

There’s a certain sort of arrogance that genuinely doesn’t suspect its own existence. This is it.

Nous allons aux chiens – mais je vais bien, Jacques

The think-tank Demos has put out an interesting-looking pamphlet based on its newly devised ‘Everyday Democracy Index’, comparing European countries:

The EDI is a tool for assessing the democratic health of European countries across many different dimensions. That includes not just formal dimensions of democracy but also more everyday features of democracy – how important democratic principles and practices are to the cultures of workplaces, to people’s community life, to the way they interact with public services, and even to the way they talk to their friends and family.

The results…show that countries which have done the best job of empowering individuals in these everyday domains are much more likely to maintain a vibrant democracy in traditional political settings.

I might blog about it next week, after I’ve had a chance to read it, but one finding caught my eye.

People across the EU were asked whether they expected their personal situation to improve or get worse in the course of the next five years. In the UK, the figure of those expecting improvement minus those expecting worsening was +43%. People were also asked whether they thought things were going in the right or wrong direction in their country; the UK net figure was –7%. This gives the UK an ‘optimism gap’ of 50% – Brits are, on average, much more positive about their own prospects than those of the country as a whole.

Is this a more general phenomenon? Yes: most EU populations have the same bias, although mostly not as much as we do. Here’s the (cliché alert) league table – a higher number indicates personal optimism and collective pessimism, and a negative number indicates the opposite:

Lithuania –7
Czech Republic –1
Ireland 0
Slovenia +1
Germany +5
Luxembourg +10
Greece +12
Denmark +13
Cyprus +15
Austria +23
Latvia +23
Netherlands +26
Belgium +27
Malta +29
Poland +29
Spain +29
Finland +34
Slovakia +36
Sweden +40
Italy +44
Estonia +47
Hungary +48
Portugal +49
UK +50
France +75

Make of that what you will. Only five or six countries show a decent connection between personal and national expectations, and hardly any are more positive collectively than individually. The gaps may be to do with misperceptions of how other people are doing, perhaps owing to media negativity; the strength of personal overconfidence may vary between countries; there may be differences in the extent to which people see the national condition as the sum of everyone’s personal conditions. There are probably a lot of factors at work.

I’m not surprised that people in the UK so strongly think ‘the country’s going to the dogs’ but ‘I’m all right, Jack’. I am surprised, though, that the French beat us by a mile. I don’t know why this should be.

The survey was conducted during May to July 2006, and towards the end of that period France lost the World Cup final after Zinedine Zidane was sent off for headbutting an Italian player. Despite the national defeat, he was cheered for defending his honour and that of his family. But that can’t be it, can it?