Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alright, but how does it affect me?

[evil self-interested guy]

As a subject of Constitutional Monarch Elizabeth Windsor, I don't really have any right to comment on who the citizens of the USA decide to choose to be their Supreme Overlord.

However I am entitled to ask "how does it affect me?"

As for individual Americans Barack Obama is the correct choice, in terms of healthcare, education, and general niceness, but obviously that is entirely irrelevant to me. Let the rednecks enjoy their quadrennial bend-over fest once again and let them keep their damned assault rifles. Psshft.

[/evil self-interested guy]

My compassion for all people is severely tested by George W Bush, and the idea that John McCain might be a good choice of President for the USA. Whatever.

[evil self-interested guy]

The only real way that US foreign policy has directly impinged on my own life is through the Iraq War, and namely the fact that I (or rather a bunch of my associates) will have to pay for a part of it as British tax payers. Also some soldiers probably got killed and the whole business has has the whole world crackin' wise about our mommas.

I suspect, however, that the experience of Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole land-war-in-Asia bit will deter most British politicos from similar adventures over the next few years, and as such even if John "Armageddon" McCain became Prez it would be unlikely I'd find myself paying for another war.

There's also this tiresome business with Russia, Georgia and some godforsaken miserable hole called South Ossetia. I don't much care for the whole damned situation. Our Foreign Secretary has been mouthing off about it in this unintentionally hilarious article in The Guardian:

Ukraine is a leading example of the benefits that accrue when a country takes charge of its own destiny, and seeks alliances with other countries.

So, if South Ossetia decides it wants to take charge of its own destiny and seeks an alliance with Russia that's OK? What is Miliband trying to say here?

Russia is fucked in the long run. Losing 700, 000 people a year to demographic change is the kind of thing you can't ignore, let alone cause you to collapse into nationalistic paranoia, from a BBC Article:

The seriousness of this [demographic] problem has led to an urgent, polarised and often angry debate in Russia about ways to tackle the problem.

Many medical specialists berate the government's apparent inaction over the country's health crisis. It is estimated that a third of Russian men abuse alcohol, while smoking rates are among the highest in the world. New threats, such as the rapid spread of HIV/Aids, merely compound an already bad situation, they say.

Politicians on the nationalist wing of the political spectrum see the hand of the West, and of Russia's "enemies" more widely, in the population decline.

Being briefly buoyed by oil 'n' gas revenues does not excuse completely ignoring the long-term prospects of your people. From Charles Grant in The Guardian:
Russia's Achilles heel is its economy. This has been growing fast, at over 7% a year. Wealth has spread out from the energy companies and the government, helping to create a prosperous middle class. But the economy remains dangerously dependent on energy and raw materials. Russia has very few high-tech industries, its record on innovation is appalling, it has too few small and medium-sized companies and its service industries are backward.
South Ossetia has a population of 70, 000 people! That's one-tenth of the number of people Russia needs to conquer every year to make up its population numbers!

If and when the governments of Eastern Europe and Britain get our act together and roll out our massive nuclear-reactor/clean-coal-plant building programme the whole question of energy security, global warming, and peak oil will sort itself out.

Let the Americans choose whoever they want.

[/evil self-interested guy]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Nice little add-on for Firefox from Mozilla - Ubiquity. Basically if you want to go from reading Guardian Unlimited to a particular page on Wikipedia, rather than go via a series of point-and-clicks through your browser's search bar you just press ctrl+space, raising a little black box on your browser, and type Wikipedia <some search term>:

This is just an early version, but I like the principle. It minimises the hassle of going from one particular webpage to another.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Problem of Prohibition

The fundamental problem with prohibition is that it is based on the assumption that, given sufficient policing, the sale of all illegal drugs within a country can be stopped.

This assumption is incorrect. Billions of dollars have gone into attempting to prevent the sale of illegal drugs in the UK and the USA over the past 30 years, and yet illegal drugs can still be bought easily.

Regardless of whether you believe that imbibing cocaine, marijuana, or alcohol for recreational purposes is morally correct, it has to be admitted that prohibition has not effectively solved the various social problems associated with drugs.

It's just a pen!

Prohibition may well have had negative consequences, like the rise of organised crime, and the waste of billions of dollars of US and UK taxpayer's money.

By legalising drugs like cannabis, heroin, and cocaine this money would no longer be going to waste, addicts would be encouraged to come forward and be rehabilitated, criminals and terrorists would no longer be in control of the supply of drugs, and the money made through the sale of the drugs would go to the state and be spent as directed by the democratically-elected representatives or the people, rather than the aforementioned terrorists and gangsters.

Then there is the problem that people draw a line between tobacco/alcohol and heroin/cannabis.

This artificial distinction is based more on the vested interests of politicians than on any real judgement on the relative health-problems associated with both sets of drugs.

Many politicians believe that any attempt made to legalise drugs would be attacked by tabloid newspapers and they would lose votes because of it.

I agree with the suggestion of Dr Nick Maurice in his letter in response to Julian Critchley's excellent article on the subject:

For those of us who have been at the forefront of helping people with drug problems for many years (in my case, as a GP and founder and first chairman of Druglink, the Swindon drugs advisory service), we feel desperate that after 20 years of campaigning, there is no political change.

There have to be two major pieces of work. The first is a clear and respected academic social and medical study of the causal effect of prohibition on drug-related crime and its impact and cost, and on the morbidity and mortality of drug users.

This study should be commissioned and "owned" by politicians from all political parties. We cannot, and should not, depend on anecdote to change people's minds, and I have many, including deaths of four young people in my practice over a six-year span caused ultimately by the prohibition of drug use.

Second, based on that research, those cross-party politicians have to be persuaded to collaborate over a drugs policy, using all the advice they can get from front-line workers and users, and make that a policy they can all sign up to, rather than kowtowing to the right-wing press to ensure they get into power at the next election.

It is essential that real, empirical evidence is assembled that reflects the reality of the War on Drugs.

[image from Lindsey Spirit on flickr]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Blogging my life away...

Paul Carr has some interesting points about the issue of how much having a blog/social networking page/online presence of any kind can damage your career/political prospects.

This is something that has bothered my slightly in the past.

Definitely not my style

Carr's solution is to simply accept that he will never be able to rise within a big company or become Prime Minister.

I, on the other hand, suspect hope that blogs will probably be pretty much irrelevant as far as politics/career prospects are concerned - everyone in my generation will have some kind of online presence - and anyone who doesn't will be, well, a bit weird...

Kinda like they thought they might run for office from the age of 12...

Obviously if there are any major racist/evil points then these will be a problem. But I haven't written anything like that.

I am a hard worker

But looking back over the stuff I've put online over the past few years, there's nothing I'm particularly ashamed of...

Maybe the £30 million thing...

But I would actually like £30 million! There's nothing wrong with that!

Also there's my relentless criticism of Middle England. I guess this pretty much disqualifies me from political office in England. Damn.

[images from the Sachs Report]

Monday, August 11, 2008

Offensive People

I just served a late-middle-aged woman whose response, when I informed her that we did not in fact sell stamps (although we do sell postcards) was a slightly sarcastic:

"Oh well that's helpful."

I have a problem with offensive people - it is not that I react badly to them - rather I am dismayed at the trail of misery and destruction these people must surely leave behind them, particularly as a result of encounters with people who are less outwardly tolerant than I.

I know people who would have responded extremely badly to this woman.


Nothing else to report.


Another late-middle aged woman enters in the company of a small pink-clothed child, declaiming in a loud voice:

Let's see if they have any tea-towels...

Mildly irritated that rather than ask me for the tea-towels she directed the question to the room at large (or possibly her small companion), thereby avoiding saying "please" and indeed directly addressing me personally in any way.

When I informed her of the price (£3.50) she informed me (or again, possibly her small companion or the room at large) that:

Oooh, well they're £2.50 in Wales, and they're the same material and everything...

If I were less tolerant I would have asked if they had tasteful pictures of local Stratford-upon-Avon landmarks on them. Once we had established that the Welsh alternative did not, I would have inquired as to the relevance of her comment and to the rationality of her purported desire to purchase such an item in Stratford rather than, say, Cardiff if she found the price difference so objectionable.

Fortunately I am extremely tolerant and she did in fact purchase one.

There's one born every minute.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A moment of history...

George Monbiot finally admits nuclear power might just be part of the solution:

"I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear.

Let it happen - as long as its total emissions are taken into account, we know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried, how much this will cost and who will pay, and there is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be used by the military.

We can no longer afford any rigid principle but one: that the harm done to people living now and in the future must be minimised by the most effective means, whatever they might be."
Huzzah for compromise!

Polly Toynbee's new book: "Unjust Rewards"

I've taken to reading newspapers so obsessively I sometimes have difficulty remembering that most of what is written in them is self-indulgent wank of a magnitude equaled only by my own bloviations.

In that spirit...

The area of political discussion in which I feel most conflicted is that of the distribution of wealth.

Polly Toynbee published a book today called Unjust Rewards. An excerpt from the book can be read here and another article discussing the same ideas can be read here.

History, many like to believe, is a Whiggish tale of wealth, social progress and fairer distribution, an onward march: we all wear the same clothes, meet on equal terms on Facebook.

[[[In terms of social deference, we are certainly more equal now.]]]

Yet background predicts who will run the banks and who will clean their floors. It's not happenstance; it is largely pre-programmed.

[[[This is an issue of education and social policy, rather than how much banks pay their employees.]]]

General mobility is a myth. The top 10% of income earners get 27.3% of the cake, while the bottom 10% get just 2.6%.

[[[The solution then, would be to work towards equality of opportunity.]]]

Twenty years ago the average chief executive of a FTSE 100 company earned 17 times the average employee's pay; now it is more than 75 times.
Toynbee uses a very specific line of attack. Rather than suggest that self-made entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Felix Dennis, or Alan Sugar should pay up she is attacking "fat cat" directors, wealthy lawyers, and bonus-acquiring bankers:

High-earners tend to be elusive, preserving their privacy at home and at work, journeying between them in expensive cars.

[[[Nice lifestyle.]]]

But in sessions conducted by Ipsos Mori over two evenings we did meet partners in a law firm of international renown and senior staff from equally world-famous merchant banks.

Their business is money, and they make it: the law partners earned between £500,000 and £1.5m per year, putting them in the top 0.1% of earners in the UK, while the merchant bankers ranged from £150,000 up to £10m.

[[[Good money if you can get it then.]]]

Toynbee is suggesting it is unfair that people should earn these amounts of money. She demonstrates that they are both ignorant of the plight of the poor, but are still highly opinionated on social policy:

How much, we asked our group, would it take to put someone in the top 10% of earners? They put the figure at £162,000.

In fact, in 2007 it was around £39,825, the point at which the top tax band began. Our group found it hard to believe that nine-tenths of the UK's 32m taxpayers earned less than that.

As for the poverty threshold, our lawyers and bankers fixed it at £22,000. But that sum was just under median earnings, which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay.

[[[Ignorance is no excuse for anything.]]]


Once our conversation turned to tax, the high-earners' arguments against rebalancing the system ranged from threat to bluster to attack.

Response one: we will leave, and you will be poorer. Or: we don't deserve to be forced to pay more. Or: even if we were taxed more, the money would all be wasted.

[[[Well these are fair points. Still, I reckon it would still be fairer if people paid a little more on earnings over, say, £100, 000]]]

Masters of the universe our groups might be, but their outlook was pure Daily Mail: "Single people . . . get pregnant and get a flat and more money. You just see everybody pushing prams, then they'll get more income and a little flat that they can stay in for life."

[[[Which only demonstrates that stupidity and ignorance is no barrier to success, which is reassuring.]]]

There was much talk of the perverse incentives for single parenthood, with one banker complaining that the 18-year-old mother on benefits "doesn't get that much less money than another 18-year-old working in a shop". It didn't seem to occur to this speaker that the shop worker's pay might also be too low.

[[[Well OK. But his basic point that there is a perverse incentive to state-dependence remains.]]]

They were contemptuous of anything that gave extra money directly to poorer people: "This thing of giving pregnant women £200 for dietary supplements. Like, as if they'll really spend it on fruit."

[[[Chocolates and crisps and cola and donuts.]]]

Most were adamant, along with this banker: "We don't think just chucking money at the welfare state is the answer."

From what I can gather this is a polemical rant, on Toynbee's part, rather than a constructive attempt to actually work things out.

I think on balance I dislike Toynbee's hectoring self-importance more than the ignorance and prejudice of the wealthy.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Political Narrative as I understand it

Following WWII there was something called the post war consensus. This involved something called Keynesianism.

Keynes was an economist who believed that nation states had an important part to play in the economy of a country. He said that nation states should invest in infrastructure and alter interest rates so as to minimise unemployment and keep inflation under control.

For some reason the UK didn't do so well between the late 1950s and late 1970s. I don't know why this is.

Whatever the cause, the result was inefficient, state-run industry dominated by powerful unions that enforced work practices that prevented the UK from developing economically.

Because the nation state controlled so many businesses and organisations they were more concerned with the affect of firing employees and cutting wages than with customer satisfaction and value-for-money.

This resulted in extreme economic problems in the late 1970s. This involved something called the Winter of Discontent.

Then there was Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher agreed with two people called Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Thatcher believed in free-market solutions and privatisation of state-run companies. She believed in reducing the size of the welfare state and in the importance of the individual choices rather than the will of the collective.

She was also a monetarist. I think that means that in order to control inflation, you have to control the supply of money by controlling interest rates.

Thatcher's policies had some positive effects. The UK was no longer called "the sick man of Europe."

Thatcher also used Britain's celebrated military might to reclaim the Falkland Islands. This was probably a good thing for the inhabitants of the Falklands, and meant that patriotic Brits and Middle England started to like Margaret Thatcher.

Because of the Falklands War, and a world-wide economic boom in the late 1980s, Thatcher become very popular.

She didn't like the EU very much. I think it was because she saw it as undemocratic and wasteful.

After Thatcher and John Major there came New Labour. New Labour was basically the old Labour party but re-branded so as to be appealing to Middle England.

Middle England consists of people who want extremely high-quality public services as well as low taxes. Middle England doesn't want to be bothered by the nation state but Middle Englanders have strong moral values that they believe should be enforced on people who like to take drugs, stupid criminals, people who like to have sex with other people of their own gender, and people who are simultaneously female and professionally successful. Middle England likes prisons because they believe prisons solve crime. Middle England likes animals but doesn't like foreigners. Middle Englanders believe taking drugs is wrong, but Middle England likes beer and wine. Middle England doesn't like immigrants.

Samuel Johnson recognised the kind of people who inhabit Middle England very early on:

"There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good."

Although Labour didn't like Middle England very much they needed Middle England to vote for them. New Labour adopted a lot of Tory ideas about fiscal policy, authoritarianism, and immigration, in order to appeal to Middle England.

New Labour promised to spend a lot of money on public services like the NHS, but promised not to raise taxes. They did raise indirect taxes, and they used tricks like Public Private Partnerships to raise debt but keep it off the balance sheet, and they also got into a lot of debt.

In order to put power and wealth in the hands of the many and not the few, New Labour introduced policies like family tax credits and education maintenance allowance.

This may or may not have been the largest state-backed redistribution of wealth in history.

In order to trick Middle England into voting for them New Labour had to pretend to believe in all the things Middle England believed in.

Now that Labour is unpopular, because the economy is apparently not doing so well and credit is difficult to get hold of the Media is saying that Labour is finished.

The presumption is the Tories are doing exactly what New Labour did, by tricking Middle England into voting for them they can gain power and do what they actually want.

The only difference is instead of giving money to poor people the Tories would give money to rich people.

My family receives family tax credits and I received the EMA. On the other hand my Father runs a small business. Hopefully the reduction in business rates that the Tories should introduce will offset the loss of the family tax credits.

The only two things I actually care about in politics are the creation of a sustainable and environmentally friendly society and a high standard of living and quality of life for everyone in every country on Earth.

I don't much see the point in feeling sentimentally attached to a particular country just because I happen to be born there. I am lucky to have been born in a Western liberal democracy, but I just don't see the point of patriotism.

I'm not sure what the best way of accomplishing these twin goals of environmental sustainability and global happiness. I don't know enough about economics and politics yet. However I suspect that an ideological approach is flawed.

By that I mean that instead of creating a political ideology, like Keynesianism, or Neoliberalism, and then trying to apply it to the real world. Why not just do things in a methodical way, see what works and what doesn't, and then apply the lessons you have learnt to new policy?

Obviously you'd have to base policy on empirical knowledge of economics, human behaviour, technology, politics, psychology, and heuristics.

Is suspect that the power of governments (as opposed to the state) is limited. Change is difficult and slow, and the only really big changes come from inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers.

Politicians are mostly left to tinker around the edges and waste money on wars.

It's bad form to finish an essay with a quotation, so here's two:

"Hey, this is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We snap our fingers at kings. We laugh at popes. When we have built up tyrants, we have brought them down. And we have nuclear *fucking* weapons."

-- Ken Macleod

"History is moved by big socio-economic things that individuals have no affect on. The best we can do is try to make a bit of cash.

-- Blackadder

There is no conspiracy

From today's Guardian:

[relevent stories here, here, and here]

Friday, August 01, 2008

What I read on my holidays...

For the last seven days of camping in Cornwall (or Kernow, in the sense that Burma should be called Myanmar) I aimed to clear up a huge chunk of my to read list.

As usual I overestimated how fast I could read. I managed the last two-hundred pages of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and the entire 730 pages of The Bonfire of the Vanities, as well as the first one-hundred pages of The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

In my copy the eye in "Tom" is part of an image on the inside cover

That's 284, 700 words in The Bonfire of the Vanities, plus 78, 000 of A Man in Full, bringing the total number of words by Tom Wolfe I read over the holidays to 362, 700. Then another 33, 000 words of Michael Chabon's brilliant The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

As to Wolfe - he writes superb prose, and is characterisation is excellent. The sense of reality that underpins the text makes his style even more compelling. The description of prison life in Santa Rita and the political machinations of the mayor in A Man in Full have a kind of real-world grittiness which, even if completely false, at least discourages me from ever trying to ascertain their truth for myself.

Spoiler alert:

As an aside, it is extraordinary how much of the plot of The Bonfire the Vanities would be implausible were the novel set in 2007 rather than 1987 (the date it was first published). The key event of the book involves a wealthy Wall Street bond trader getting lost in the Bronx in his luxury Mercedes. With satellite navigation built in to most luxury coupes this is an unlikely proposition in this century.

A narrative solution?

Another event is the selfsame Wall Street bond trader inadvertently dialling his home-number rather than that of his mistress from a pay phone outside his house.

Again, with ubiquitous mobile phones equipped with speed dial this is unlikely (the narrative equivalent would be the wife looking through her husband's text messages).

End of spoilers.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is rather superb. It's written in a present-tense, sing-song style that (according to Cory Doctorow) evokes the unique qualities of Yiddish speech.

As with Tom Wolfe's reporting-style nonfiction novels there is something reassuringly real about how Michael Chabon writes.
Nice cover art as well

There is a problem in a lot of classic or hard SF (I'm thinking specifically of most of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote, Stephen Baxter's Xeelee and Manifold series of books and pretty much everything written by Isaac Asimov) where the fantastic nature of the surroundings overwhelms any attempt at creating strong characters or building "reality" into the text.

Chabon creates an alternate world but rather than indulge in gratuitous info-dumping he drives the plot via a murder mystery and political intrigue.

[images from Unhindered by Talent,, and]