Sunday, September 27, 2009

From the pillar of fire and cloud

Moving from four to three submarines is bad for our defence – it leaves no margin for error, and makes it harder to maintain our present continuous undersea watch – but the move would not affect nuclear capability or be part of global negotiations. What President Obama wants cut are warheads. Britain has 160. This is already very low. France has 400, and the US and Russia have 2,700 each. Mr Brown (rightly) did not offer any cuts in warheads.

Occasionally you are presented with a mentality so different from your own that it is quite difficult to understand what the hell they are talking about.

In this case I do not think Charles Moore, who asserts that Trident "will give this country 50 years of security" (but not from global warming, climate change, asteroid strike, bird flu, terrorism, John Redwood, or any of the other realistic threats to the security of our nation) is as out-of-the-park meshugge as, say, the unresistingly imbecilic Melanie Phillips, but he is as close to that state of being as you can be whilst still being minimally coherent.

That nuclear weapons are expensive and unconscionable is by-the-by. What always surprises me about the likes of Moore and other cheerleaders of WMDs is that they choose to focus only on the nukes. Surely there are alternatives?

There must, surely, be cheaper ways of commiting retaliatory genocide than nuclear weapons? One possibility is for the British government to covertly secrete a sealed vial of anthrax, replete with satellite-bounced remote-control detonators, in the centre of every foreign city in the world. This would be cheaper than submarines and nuclear tipped ICBMs but still guarantee the possibility of the desired level of monstrous carnage.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will decide, but he won't debate

Listening to Iconoclast and reading Sunny Hundal's views on whether the BBC should allow BNP MEP Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time (preview: Sunny's agin' it) it occurs to me that most TV/radio debates are fundamentally flawed. On Iconoclast there were four guests and one chairman. IIRC Question Time has five guests + one Dimbleby brother + a studio audience.

Partly as a result of this Sunny Hundal describes Question Time as:

...basically a populist shouting match where facts and figures don't have time to get checked. Someone such as Dan Hannan MEP can claim 84% of our laws are made in Europe and no one calls him out on his rubbish. Nick Griffin could similarly claim he's not racist and repeat lies that go unchallenged live on air. BNP pamphlets have repeatedly featured lies in the past. Who will have the research on hand to challenge that? His fellow QT panellists won't.

My preference would be to limit the number of debaters to two, and have only a few distinct issues discussed for a reasonable period of time, say 20 minutes each for three issues in an hour-long show.

Assertions made by debaters would have to be based on robust, ideally peer-reviewed, evidence that is cited by the debaters before they go on the show. These citations would be made available to all some time before the programme is broadcast so that they can be analysed by a panel of experts appointed by the programme and those that are found wanting can be made inadmissable.

In other words more like a court or parliament.

This view may seem elitist, but it isn't really elitist to claim that the views of ordinary people aren't as valid as the evidence-based views of experts. We demand a high standard of evidence in medicine, so why not demand a high standard of evidence in political debate?

Deliberative democracy is not best served by treating the truth as something relative or subject to an individual opinion.

It annoys me when people conflate respect for democracy with the idea that everyone's opinions are valid and useful. Most people don't know enough about enough to be able to make meaningful contributions.

For my own part I know my ignorance of most matters is such that I should avoid commenting, but that does not mean I cannot take down the ideas of others I know to be false.

Call it the Statler and Waldorf school of political debate: ideas are cheap, but the truth is expensive.

As such it is the democratic duty of we bloggers to attack bad ideas and incorrect assertions. Negativity is a powerful creative force. Our society will only begin to evolve when bad ideas are allowed to be called bad ideas and dismissed as such.


As per badconscience's point in the comments "Question Time" is teh suck and I need to crank up the Mills and dial down the Plato.

Both philosophers are hovering somewhere in the middle of my prodigious to-read pile (Mills is definitely a serious contender for my next big Amazon raid [i.e. this has moved from "wish list" to "shopping basket"]).

For my part elitism does piss me off, but not nearly to the same extent as ignorance and crass populism.

Update update: actually reading badconscience's blog post over on Liberal Conspiracy he makes the same point but somewhat better.

For the frightened baby on some foreign beach

I'm currently listening to a recorded version of BBC 4's Iconoclasts.

In this episode economist and writer Philippe Legrain argues that Britain should abolish all immigration controls and institute a policy of "open borders".

He makes an admirable and coherent argument in favour of this position. Amongst the points he makes are:

1) Freedom: it is right that people should have the freedom to live and to move wherever they want. People should not be favoured or discriminated against simply because they happen to have been born in a particular country.

2) Economics: companies like Google and Yahoo! in the US were co-founded by immigrants. These people went to America and created extraordinary wealth and innovation in their adopted countries.

3) Public services: if public services are placed under strain because of an increase in population then those public services must be improved, made more robust, and more flexible.

4) Overcrowding: the idea that Britain is "full up" is nonsensical. London is the most crowded city in the UK, but no one advocates immigration controls around the M25 to prevent people in other parts of the country from going to live there.

5) Population control: inasmuch as population is a problem, it is not one that can be solved by arguing over where people are located on the surface of the globe. Population is a global problem. No one would advocate instituting a version of the Chinese one child policy in the UK to limit population, so why seek to limit the local UK population by reducing immigration?

Listening to the programme I became increasingly infuriated by the assumption, apparently shared by the chair Edward Stourton, that the idea of freedom of movement is some kind of wild and crazy idea.

As Chris Dillow points out, it is a mainstream and highly respectable idea.

The chap from Migrationwatch, Andrew Green, attempts to refute the point that immigrants bring economic benefits, but is allowed to get away with not actually producing any evidence that there are economic dangers to immigration. The burden of proof comes back to Legraine to support his point that immigration is good for the economy, which he does very ably, but why should Green get away with not explaining what the economic downsides of immigration are?

Then the MP, Ann Cryer, claims that immigrants might not be able to speak English, and might lack skills to work. Legrain makes the point that there is huge demand in this country for low-skilled labour. The notion that people lacking in "skills" are economically useless is absurd.

Then Green brings the argument back to numbers. He says "we cannot absorb this number of people" of the 7 million new immigrants that will arrive in Britain over the next 20 years. Fair enough. The question to ask is "why not?"

Green makes the good point that the government isn't building enough social housing or scaling up services to cope with the increase in numbers. I suspect part of the reason for this is that the government is terrified of being seen to do any of the following:

1) Reduce prices in the housing market by increasing supply, thus incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail readers and damaging the fundamental driver of the British economy, as detailed by Ross McKibbin.

2) Be seen to be soft on immigrants, which is stupid, if you think about it.

3) Increase public spending, thus incurring debt, which as Will Hutton explains isn't all that bad.

These are failings of government policy.

The debate moves on to the question of whether immigrants will come here to work or stay forever. Legraine highlights the point he makes in his book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, that when the USA had an open border with Mexico in the 1960s Mexicans would migrate back and forth over the open border, but once the border controls were tightened the migrants moved one-way, for fear they wouldn't get an opportunity to get back into the States if they moved back to their home countries.

Legraine makes the point that many immigrants want to be able to go home and live in their home countries after they have made money in Britain.

Andrew Green responded to this point by repeatedly asserting that he "couldn't imagine" that people from Sub-Saharan Africa would move back to their home countries after having lived in Britain. He had the gall to claim that "the facts are against" Legraine. The problem is Green has no facts to support his side of the argument. He goes unchallenged on this point.

Stourton also said a rather extraordinary thing: he claimed that this issue "does not easily lend itself to fact and figure." In fact it does. There are facts and figures surrounding immigration. This is the ballpark. Opinion, hearsay, and prejudice should have no place in this debate.

This is the most frustrating thing about so much political debate. Ultimately it should all come down to empirical data and observed facts. Opinions are irrelevant. And yet for some reason the misinformed opinion of the general public is seen as somehow valid and useful, when it isn't. This isn't a counter-democratic point, it's a pro-evidence point. Everyone is equal under the law, comment is free, but facts are sacred.

The programme ends with Green threatening to sue Legrain if Legrain doesn't retract an accusation of racism made against him.

The accusation was made by Legrain after Green's use of the term "there are limits to what the indigenous community will stand for".

Legraine immediately demanded an explanation of this term and accused Green of "ducking the race issue" and of being a racist. He asked Green if he felt that people who have "arrived in Britain in the last fifty years were British, yes or no?"

Green demanded a retraction of the accusation of racism and answered that he did feel that people who have moved to Britain in the last 50 years are British.

Legrain eventually retracted the accusation under threat of legal action

I have no opinion on Legrain's contention that the term "indigenous community" is inherently racist.

I will say that Legrain made a tactical error in falling into the trap of accusing Green of racism. He should not have lost his temper, as in doing so he gave Green the opportunity to threaten legal action, forcing Legrain to subsequently retract his point.

This highlights one of the problems with talking about immigration. The use of threats, slurs, and race-baiting tactics seems endemic to the discussion. This makes the debate far more emotionally charged than it should be.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bonuses for MPs

But how do we attract abler MPs? Pay them less and reduce their perks is Cameron's answer – I can't wait until he gets his hands on Afghanistan. Steve Punt did a bit of salary research for Radio 4's The Now Show and takes a different view: "Another way of looking at it is that they do a rather thankless and time-consuming job under relentless public criticism and yet they're paid less than the head of estate capacity procurement at the Ministry of Justice or the head of consumer services at Calderdale Council."

The problem, as David Mitchell points out, is not that MPs are exceptionally greedy, or even exceptionally stupid, it is that they are incentivised to appear frugal when they have no desire (and who would?) to engage in frugality.

So: a solution? Performance-linked bonuses. This would mean that how much an MP is paid is reflected in how well that MP is seen to do their job by their constituents.

So: pay MPs a base salary of something somewhat less than they are paid now (say: £50 000/year) then pay them a bonus on top of that.

The bonus is determined by the electorate. So if a voter thinks an MP has done a good job then they can tick the box saying "I wish to contribute £20 to the incumbent's bonus."

If the MP had done a really good job and 15000 of their constituents ticked the box then they'd get a payout of £300 000 on top of their £50 000 salary. This would work out to a salary of around £110 000/year.

One of the good things about this system is it would allow people like me to express personal support for our MP, despite the fact I would never consider voting for his party. It also means that MPs wouldn't have to be childless millionaires in order to get by.

This brilliant idea of performance-linked bonuses for MPs brilliant idea (c) the inestimable Daniel Davies

Update: thanks to @PaulGrahamRaven for this video of Dan Pink talking at TED on why financial incentivisation might actually harm and disrupt creative faculties.

In the speech Pink argues that the kind of non-mechanistic, creative industries of the 21st century will actually suffer under a traditional Taylorist regime of incentivisation. Pink highlights results of the candle-problem as evidence that the prospects of true creativity and innovation are damaged by gross financial incentive.

People, Pink argues, respond better when they are given autonomy: freedom to persue our own projects in our own time and in our own way.

It's a good point.

The question to ask then is: what kind of work are MPs supposed to be doing? Are they performing the (relatively) mechanistic tasks that a good constituency MP is supposed to be doing, like sorting out parking tickets, solving planning issues, and trying to help their constituents with their problems?

Or are MPs supposed to be doing the more abstract, creative job of crafting excellent pieces of legislation?

Considering how royally (no pun intended) screwed-up our political system is the effect (either positive or negative) of any kind of incentive structure would not show up against the huge systemic institutional failure of the safe-seats/marginal-constituency problem.

Dan Pink identifies what is wrong with managerialism in much the same way as Dillow does, with recourse to scientific fact, and offers much the same solutions: more freedom, less hierarchy, no meaningless targets and greater worker power.

Managerialists believe in hierarchy and manipulating symbols, they believe that people must be coralled and controlled and inventivised to work well and be productive.

The truth, as Dan Pink describes, is that people work better when they are simply given a task that they believe is important, and are given as much freedom to persue it as possible.

MPs obviously know what they do is important, so this is an argument for greater independence amongst MPs from the party machine, a weakening of the parliamentary whips, and a rebalancing of power away from the Crown towards parliament, and more independently-minded MPs in general.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The PC brigade - what you know and what you do not know

People ask us if We know the PC brigade.

There is a small vanguard of the population of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that seeks to destroy British values, flood the country with immigrants, ban all petrol-powered cars, legalise all currently illegal drugs, introduce a compulsory universal 50 km/h speed limit, replace Elizabeth Windsor with the Speaker of the House of Commons as Head of State, disinherit the Monarchy, replace all Imperial-fascist measurements with metric-ISO measurements, require that exactly half of all senior figures in business, government and the media be female, build wind turbines on every square metre of open countryside, break all diplomatic ties with the USA, increase taxes on the middle classes, impose multiculturalism on all, ban the display of all Christian artefacts in any public place, and replace Christmas with a non-denominational all-faiths and atheistic celebration called "Winterval."

Once these objectives have been accomplished this elite vanguard will cede all legislative authority to the European Union.

We know this because the PC brigade knows this.

And We are growing stronger.

It may surprise you to know this: after all our existence and Our aims are an open secret, you would imagine that those in Authority might do something about such an open group of subversives.

What you so not realise is that we have successfully entered the corridors of power. Every senior civil servant and government minister is part of the PCB. We have a stranglehold on the BBC, and every major national newspaper. Members of Our Loyal Opposition are mere placemen, already inculcated in Our ways and ready to do Our bidding.

Even those press organs, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, which appear to decry us, only do so on our explicit instructions. By allowing the lumpencommentariat such outlets for their helpless rage we have discovered that they can be kept in a state of torpid docility until such a time as we see fit to place them in one the Re-Education Camps.

I write this not to warn you, but rather to gloat at your hopelessness, and revel in the fact that Our power is of such an extent that we can talk of Our conspiracy against the British middle class openly and without fear of sanction.

We are, as ever, your imminent overpeople

The PC Brigade

Friday, September 04, 2009

Jenkins on prohibition

I've dissed Simon Jenkins in the past, but I really can't fault his latest article on the prohibition of drugs for total brilliance:

Push has finally come to shove. Last week the Argentine supreme court declared in a landmark ruling that it was "unconstitutional" to prosecute citizens for having drugs for their personal use. It asserted in ringing terms that "adults should be free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state". This classic statement of civil liberty comes not from some liberal British home secretary or Tory ideologue. They would not dare. The doctrine is adumbrated by a regime only 25 years from dictatorship.