Monday, 27 August 2007

Sweeney Vs the Nazis

I have no idea what posses someone to spend their weekends dressed in Waffen SS uniform re-enacting the most bloody conflict in human history. I have even less idea why they would consider it fun. Its tasteless, tacky and not a little weird. It really stretches Voltaire’s principle that ‘I may not like what you have to say but I will die for your right to say it’ to the limit because I really don’t like what they are doing and I would be rather reluctant to die for their right to do it. I will, however, happily write a blog piece defending their rights to do it.

Many European countries, mainly those that formed part of the Third Reich, have laws prohibiting expressions of support for Nazis and denying that the holocaust took place. These laws often include a ban on Nazi symbols and uniforms. There was a recent attempt by the German government to get this ban passed into EU law.

As a student of history such laws alarm me because if you are to have such a law it must cover historians if it is not to have an elephant sized loophole in it. Nazi memorabilia, books and the like are important historical sources. Even Nazi sympathisers have their value. The historian Ian Kershaw, the author of the definitive biography of Hitler, first became interested in the Nazi period after he encountered a former SS officer while studying in Germany and wanted to be able to explain his anti-Semitic rants. If we do not make use of all the sources at our disposal, our understanding of Nazism will be poorer and as a consequence we will be less able to learn the lessons of that dreadful period. And you know what they say about people who do not learn from history.

I am sympathetic to the idea that such a law would protect the feelings of
those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. What they must feel when they see some twerp condoning or trivialising what happened to them is unimaginable but banning things because they cause offence is a dangerous game to get into. A lot of things cause offence to a lot of people. If we can only say things that don’t offend people then we will end up living in silence.

The effectiveness of these laws in combating the far right is dubious. They are as likely to create neo-nazi martyrs as they are to prevent people from being corrupted by propaganda. Austria, the country that locked up David Irving for holocaust denial was also the first country in Europe is also the country where Jorg Haider’s Freedom party got into government. Jean Marie Le Penn was convicted of holocaust denial but still got into the run off of the French presidential election. If we are to beat these fascists then we need to fight them at the ballot box and in debating chamber rather than in the courts.

If free speech is to mean anything then it cannot just apply to views we agree with. Upholding the rights of people like David Irving, Nick griffin and their fellow pond life is not a pleasant thing to do but it is something that needs to be done. Defending freedom of speech is worth doing because it gives you the right to say just what you think of Nazis.

An amnesty: the next best thing

In Britain today there is an underclass of people excluded from mainstream society, who's sole crime is to have sought a better life for themselves and their families. These people are immigrants in the UK illegally and the home office estimates that there may be six hundred thousand of them.

Many protectionists continue to harbour dreams of deporting these people but this is hardly a practical option. Think of how much it would cost, the UK already spends £5bn a year on deporting people and this would have to be increased many times to deport everyone. The last thing overstretched police forces need is to have to spend yet more time chasing immigrants rather than real criminals. Can you imagine how many coaches and planes we would to get these people home? Not to mention all the jobs they are currently doing being left unfilled. It is a crazy idea.

These people are here and they are here to stay. This leaves us with a choice the status quo of six hundred thousand people living in an illegal twilight zone, not paying taxes and working in the shadow economy or do we give these people the chance to end their internal exile.

The amnesty that has been proposed by Nick Clegg over the past few days is certainly a step in the right direction as it would be expected to take a significant number of people out of the illegal underclass and allow them to work legally and pay taxes.

There are, however, plenty of problems. The incompetence of the immigration directorate is so great that they would struggle to administer an amnesty. More fundamentally, it is at best a temporary measure. People will continue coming to the UK as long as there are jobs for them to do and we will eventually have to deal with a new population of illegal immigrants who arrived after the amnesty.

Better by far would be to end immigration controls and stop punishing people for wanting to live and work in a country other than the one they were born in. This would not only allow people to escape from the illegal underclass but put an end to human trafficking, relieve labour shortages in certain sectors of the economy and allow us to take advantage of new skills and ideas.

Unfortunately, free trade in labour is not going to a practical political option any time soon and on the principle that the best should not be the enemy of the good. I am happy to support calls for an amnesty and say: 'keep up the good work Nick.'

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The murder kingdom

In an earlier post on Venezuela I mentioned something about Chavez's regime presiding over 'rising crime.' This turns out to be something of an understatement.

The murder rate has tripled under Hugo Chavez, so that now Venezuela has the highest murder rate in the world. So much for the socialist utopia.

Hat tip: Prospect magazine's fact and figures column.

The Left/Right Delusion

It is almost always a mistake to try to apply the mantra: Keep It Simple Stupid to our attempts to understand the society we live in. Human being are complex creatures and trying to give us all simple labels in the same way one would species of Jellyfish will inevitably lead you to an incorrect conclusions. Perhaps the best example of this is the rather annoying way that every political viewpoint gets classified as either left or right wing.

One of the least constructive lessons of my educational career was an A-level politics class that was entirely taken up with the lecturer trying to convey to the class what the difference between a left wing and a right wing view was. He was struggling because they are purely arbitrary labels with no real meaning: there is no logical reason why wanting to renationalise the railways means that you are opposed to the death penalty. So providing a clear definition of them was something of a challenge.

Thinking in terms of left and right is a certain way to stop political creativity. An effective policy maker should be able to use every tool at their disposal without worrying about whether it is left wing or right wing. The hugely positive reaction to the New Labour sound bite: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,’ suggests that this is something that most of us instinctively understand.

The idea that all political viewpoints are reducible to two simple opposites encourages the dangerous idea that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ An example of this is are the strange views of John Pilger, which I wrote about a few days ago. I suspect that part of what drives Pilger to the conclusion that the like of Chavez and Castro are good leaders is a train of thought that runs something like this: ‘I am a left-winger who is opposed to American conservatives who are right wingers. Castro and Chavez also oppose these right wingers so must be like me left wingers and therefore friends of mine.’ I would hope that it goes without saying that, this is not a particularly sensible approach.

The terms left and right come from post-revolutionary France. In the assembly that governed France after the overthrow of the monarchy, those who wanted to restore the King to the throne sat on the right while those who wanted to behead him sat on the left. In this context and this context only does right and left make sense. Otherwise it is a nonsense.

The specific context of these terms has become a particular problem as more attention is given to non-western politics. Where as the politics of countries that had been shaped in part by the French revolution could usually be forced into the left and right straightjacket, this became impossible in countries with their own distinct political traditions. Take Taiwan, the main divide in its politics is between those who support independence and those who wish to remain (formally at least) part of China. How can this divide possibly be related to the seating arrangement of a two centuries old French parliament?

As long as people insist in reducing politics to a simple dichotomy the enormous diversity of ideologies, interests and ideas that drives modern politics will be obscured and we will only ever have a partial picture.

Monday, 20 August 2007

They come here, they look after our grannies...

Those who say that this country does not benefit from immigration should really give some thought to what happens when the immigrants go home. Immigrants are such an integral part of our economy and our society that we often stop noticing the contribution they make and only remember if they leave.

An unlikely alliance of the Filipino Embassy, a Conservative MP and the English Community Care Association have highlighted the problems that many care homes will face due to changes in immigration laws that will leave many of their staff unable to get visas.

The problems faced by care homes clearly shows up the myth that the way to manage immigration is for government to try to choose 'skilled' workers to admit and then try to stop anyone else getting. This is the philosophy behind the home offices new points based immigration system that is endorsed by the big three parties. The problem with this system is that low skilled immigrants can also be good for our economy. There are low skilled jobs like working in care homes, being a farm hand and cleaning that have to be done but which few British people will do. Immigrants are often willing to do what seem to them to be well paid jobs and we are mad to try to stop them.

There is a far better system for regulating the the movement of people from country to country. It's called the market and it has shown time and again that it is the best way to control the movement of labour around countries and there is no reason to believe that it cannot do the same for movements between countries.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

The Apologist

Whatever else can be said about John Pilger (and there is plenty to say), he has definitely got guts. His attempt to whitewash Hugo Chavez’s record in Thursday's Guardian is bold, brazen and blatant. He casually downplays, excuse or outright ignores the abuses of Chavez’s regime, while overstating its success and doing everything in his power to make everything the fault of Americans.

In the week that Chavez has declared himself president for life (i.e: dictator), it is extraordinary that Pilger makes no mention of this. Nor for that matter does he mention Chavez replacing the independent judiciary with political cronies, riot police being set on peaceful protesters or the harassment suffered by voters who signed the petition calling for a recall referendum.

What he does manage to include are obligatory references to the Chilean coup of 1973 and the Iran-Contra scandal and darkly hint that there is some comparison between what is going on now and what happen then. The reality is rather different. The United States has not actively tried to overthrow. It is true that that the state department failed to condemn the attempted military coup against Chavez but this a far cry from sending the CIA in to topple the government as would once have happened.

Pilger attempts to excuse Chavez’s attempt to close RCTV on the grounds that ‘80% of TV stations are owned by private companies many of which are hostile to the regime is certainly creative but falls down on many grounds. If the Labour Government in Britain tried to close down the Independent, few would consider it a legitimate defence, if the government claimed: ‘well there are plenty of other opposition newspapers.’ What Pilger also ignores is the way that pressure has been put on the owners of other TV stations to avoid criticising the regime, for example, by passing a law requiring journalists to tell the ‘truth,’ a law which will be enforced by the Chavista judiciary. Pilger’s attempt to suggest that RCTV is being closed down because of its support for the coup rather than its criticism of Chavez, is dubious to say the least. If RCTV’s real crime had been to back the coup then why not punish them at the time rather than four years later?

Pilger is full of praise for Venzuela’s social program and rightly so: we can all support better healthcare and education. Where Pilger’s falls down is when he tries to use these programs to excuse the regimes human rights abuses and when he gives Chavez credit for these programs.

To justify the erosion of democracy and human rights because they have coincided with the construction of new schools, hospitals and universities is no different from claiming that Mussolini’s fascist regime was okay because it made the trains run on time. To follow this line of reasoning implies that democratic government and personal freedom are something that a government can dispose with if it finds them inconvenient rather than a non negotiable part of any just society.

It must also be borne in mind that the reason that these programs have come into existence is not because Chavez is a particularly benevolent ruler or because he has discovered a more just economic system but because rising oil prices have given him more money to play with than previous governments.

It is also worth bearing in mind that his record is a far from unblemished. Crime and corruption are up. Inflation is running at 20% and income inequality is rising.

A particularly cutting analysis of the logic of Pilger and his ilk is provided by Francis Wheen in his book ‘How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the world.’ He looks at Pilger’s attitude to East Timor. For twenty-five years Pilger lamented the West’s failure to intervene to protect the people of East Timor from their Indonesian oppressors. When an Australian led UN peacekeeping force was eventually dispatched to East Timor rather than rejoicing Pilger, condemned the intervention as a sign of Western imperialism. As Wheen puts it: ‘To Pilger … it is axiomatic that the west can never be right.’

Pilger’s conviction that the west is always wrong leads him to believe that only the West can do wrong and therefore that actions committed by opponents of the west are always right. This is a dangerous delusion that leads him to condone actions that run contrary to the values he claims to uphold. Shame on Pilger and shame on those believe his claim to be a fighter for the oppressed.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Strange Fruit

There's an excellent article in todays Guardian looking at the story of Billie Holiday's song 'a strange fruit.' It is written by a playwright who named a play 'Strange Fruit' unaware of the connotations it has for many people. He only found out when he found himself on a long car journey through Alabama with the father of a girl murdered by the Klu Klux Klan. It is a fascinating read and I recommend, nay insist, that you read it.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The vulcan attack on fairness

In an earlier post on inheritance tax, I suggested that we would need to decide: 'do we want a meritocracy or an aristocracy?' I am pleased to see that the Conservative party has made up its mind.

The changes in the tax system proposed by John Redwood's economic competitiveness task force do very little for those on low or average incomes. Instead they are focused on helping the small wealthy minority that pays a considerable amount of inheritance tax or stamp duty on shares. This not only fails to promote social justice but fails to achieve the committees stated aim of increasing 'economic competitiveness.'

One of the big drags on our economy at the moment is the incredibly high rates of marginal taxation that many low income family face due to a vicious combination of paying income tax and seeing the amount of tax credits they can claim drop of as they earn more. This prevents people from moving into higher paying jobs in which they would contribute more to the economy. This would problem seem to suggest that the best way to make our economy more competitive would be to reduce the amount of income tax paid by those on low incomes. Well at least someone has thought of that.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Don't attack Iran

Republican presidential candidate, John McCain is on record as saying "the only thing worse than an attack on Iran is a nuclear armed Iran." I beg to differ.

An attack on Iran would do more than anything else to further destabilise the middle east and strengthen the hand of the hardliners, while making life harder for the coalition troops in Iraq.

At present the Iranian government is unpopular at home and mistrusted at home. It has lost the support of its own people, who are increasingly chaffing at oppressive religious regulations and fed up with economic mismanagement. In much of the Arab world, especially amongst Arab government, Iran is treated with hostility because of its revolutionary designs and its Shia affiliation. A strike against Iran would change all this at a stroke. It would allow the regime to present itself as a victim of aggression, rally support at home and attract support from others hostile to the US. The best way to produce a peaceful relationship with Iran is to encourage reform within Iran itself, an attack would make life impossible for reformers.

Carrying out attacks against Irans nuclear facilities would pose real practical difficulties. They are scattered across hundreds of different facilities and it is doubtful that all of them could be pinpointed. These difficulties become particuarly acute if it is the Israelis rather than the Americans carrying out the strike since they would have to fly bombers across hundreds of miles of hostile territory just to reach their targets.

Iran borders Iraq and if the Iranians so wished they could easily retaliate against an attack by striking out against coalition troops in Iraq. They would have the option of doing so directly with the revolutionary guard or by stepping up their support for the Shia militias. Even if they did not decide to strike back, a recently bombed Iran is highly unlikely to be a constructive force in Iraq.

It should go without saying that any attack would put the lives of civilians and allied military personal at risk.

For me, however, the real problem with threatening military action is that it does not necessarily make it less likely that Iran will go on to develop a nuclear bomb. The possibility that might one day be attacked, is going to make Iran think twice about abandoning a program that might one day produce the most potent form of self defence known to man.

Though living with a nuclear armed Iran would be uncomfortable, plunging ourselves into an ill judged and ultimately counter productive war is not the way to stop this.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Orange book revisited

Anyone who attempts to understand the different factions within the Liberal Democrats by labeling people "left wing" or "right wing" is going to come to some rather strange conclusions. The reality is far more complicated than that and nothing shows this more clearly than the hysterical response to Orange Book.

It was not as many journalists and party members believe a call for the Liberal Democrats to become more like the Conservatives. Instead it is a demand for a return to more fool full blooded liberalism. Its proposals are far less dramatic than often assumed. Much of it is simply a restatement of existing policy, other parts propose things that could be described as 'left wing."

The one truly contreversial policy (in Liberal Democrat terms) proposed in the whole book is the creation of a national health insurance scheme but even this is hardly earth shattering. After all, it would left intact the principle of health care being free at the point of delivery.

Talking about 'local democracy, local accountability and local innovation' as Ed Davey does in his chapter is about the least contreversial that a Lib Dem can do, Nick Clegg's chapter on Europe is little more than a restatement of party policy and Paul Marshall on pensions is not that different from what Adair Turner proposed.

Mark Oaten's plan for more rehabilitation in prisons, a forunner to his plan to 'abolish all prisons,' would normally be considered 'left wing.' As would Steve Webbs call for more state support for families.

Vince Cable's chapter on the economy was widely trailed as a defence of the free market, which it is up to a point. That is, however, far from being the whole story. Dr Cable is a politician all too aware of the fact that there are nuances in any debate. Though he is broadly a free marketeer he acknowledges the need for state intervention in many circumstances. While suggesting we need to cut red tape, he concedes that there is a need for some, well designed legislation and that in some cases it may need to be extended.

Probably the chapter that has the most influence is Susan Kramer's examination of using market mechanisms to combat climate change, which forshadowed the Green tax switch. I doubt this could be seen as reight wing because the defence of the environment is less a question of left and right but of commonsense.

By now it should be clear that there is little that can painted that out and out right wing. So if it is not about creating a right wing party what is it about? The best indicators can be found in the two chapters written by the editors. They constantly refer to Mill, Gladstone, Beveridge and other liberal luminaries and criticise those deviating from the liberal path. In his introduction David Laws attacks those who engage in 'liberalism a la carte' that is 'willing to tolerate illiberal laws so long as they are well intentioned.' The demand for a clear liberal message is not exclusive to the free market wing of the party and does not deserve to be caricatured as "right-wing."

Blinded by empathy

The strategy we are pursuing to protect children is flawed because we misunderstand the nature of the danger they face. A series of high profile but atypical cases have led us to give too great an emphasis to the threat posed to children by strangers and not enough to the threat from their own family.

When I was at primary school, we were constantly warned about 'stranger danger.' This campaign was inspired in part by the murder of Jamie Bulger which had happened a few years before hand. The problem with this is that children are far more likely to be at risk from people they know.

The Home offices figures on homicides amongst the under-16s show that nearly half of them were committed by the victims parents and that an individual is three times as likely to be murder by someone they know than by a stranger. Even these figures do not tell the whole story because if you were to take out teenagers then the portion killed by strangers would fall still further.

Yet it is not the stories of children suffering at the hands of their families that makes the headlines. The murders of the Sarah Payne, Holy Wells and Jessica Chapman and now presumably Madeline McCan are all examples of the minority of cases where the killer is a stranger. This is probably because these cases play to the fears: many parents worry that they will be unable to protect their children, few fear that they will themselves be the source of the danger. It is far easier to comprehend some twisted stranger murdering a child than someone is supposed to love and protect them doing so.

This may be an unavoidable part of life but media attention should not be allowed to dictate public policy or public perception in the way that it all too often does. The revulsion at the murder of Sarah Payne led to demands led to demands for a 'Sarah's law' that would give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. Such a law is undesirable for a number of reasons: it encourages vigilante violence, it makes it harder to rehabilitate offenders but worst of all it encourages people to see pedophiles as the 'stranger danger' and consequently lowers our vigilance towards the danger from friends and family.

It is too easy to get pulled in by individual cases. The unfolding tragedy in Portugal is just the latest heart wrenching tale that can distort our view and lead us to make bad judgments about what we should be doing to protect children.

Update: This story has rather been overtaken by events. I think that my main point still stands even if the particular example may not.

Friday, 10 August 2007

The most dangerous man in the world?

We are not worried enough about Hugo Chavez. He may not have nuclear weapons (like Kim Il-Jong), he may not command a mighty army (like Vladiamir Putin) and he may not support terrorists (like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) but that does not stop him posing a real threat to his own people, to his region and ultimately to the rest of the world. He has a weapon that is far more dangerous than any WMD: showmanship. His talent for self promotion has made him the world's leading spokesperson for the anti-democratic populism that his regime practices at home and is trying to spread abroad.

Before we go any further let us be clear about what Hugo Chavez is and what he has done. He first sought power in a military coup and only sought power through elections once this had failed. Once he had gained power, he has been ruthless in ensuring that he would be able to hold onto it. Opposition activists have faced violence, free speech has been stifled and an independent judiciary replaced with political puppets.

This abysmal record should come as no surprise to anyone. For all his talk of socialism, Chavez cannot really be described as a socialist. His cultivation of a personality cult give the clearest indication of the fact that his true ideological home is Peronism. Which is itself modeled on Italian Fascism. He comes from a tradition that is deeply nationalistic and treats democracy, human rights and an open economy as worthless foreign imports.

Chavez's malevolent influence is felt far beyond Venezuela. Candidates modeling themselves on and funded by Chavez have won elections in Bolivia and Ecuador. They have come close to doing so in Peru and Mexico. Venezuela gives considerable support to the Cuba's communist government, without which it is doubtful that the regime could maintain the economic isolation that it uses to cut off its people. He is also more than happy to back Iran's appalling government.This influence is possible due to Venezuela's huge oil reserves, which give Mr Chavez the money to spend on Costa Rican elections, Iranian power stations and London's commuters.

What makes Chavez uniquely dangerous is the fact that he has successfully managed to present his record in Government as something worthy of emulation. Few people look at the totalitarian government of North Korea and wish that there country had its own 'dear leader.' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brand of repressive theocracy has a very narrow appeal and is increasingly unpopular even in Iran. Vladimir Putin tends to be feared rather loved by non-Russians. He has shown very little interest in public opinion outside of Russia and its immediate sphere of influence, which is just as well since he lacks Mr Chavez's charisma. By contrast the perception of Venezuela in many parts of the world is that it is an example of a successful socialist economy which has stood up to the United States. This is a model that particularly in Latin America many will wish to imitate.

The reality is, of course, very different. The success of Venzuala's economy is not the result of any move towards socialism. Inequality has actually risen under Mr Chavez and a new class of well connected, very wealthy businessmen known as 'Boligarchs' have emerged. Instead he has been fortunate enough to have his presidency coincide with a spike in the price of oil that has enabled him to pour money into his much vaunted anti-poverty programs that have led to big reductions in poverty. This mirage of success has given Chavez the chance to claim that he has produced a new model of 'bolivarian socialism' that other countries should imitate. The xenophobia and the suppression of political and economic freedom that this ideology implies is a deeply unwelcome and Chavez's role in unleashing it illustrates just how dangerous a charlatan with a bit of luck and a flair for presentation can be.


This will be my final potshot at the Sun over its absurd shark stories but I just can't resist posting something about the Sun's story turning out to be a hoax.

The video that sparked this whole thing was of a Great White shark, the only problem was that it was not in Newquay but Johannesburg. The film was taken by a night club bouncer while on holiday in South Africa, he sent it into the Sun as a joke, not expecting it to be taken seriously.

According to the Guardians report into the incident: "Newquay townsfolk seem to have thought the story was nonsense from the start. For one thing, the water looks mirror-like and it is usually choppy off north Cornwall. Nor did the angle look right if the shark had really been 100ft (30 metres) away.

A Newquay lifeguard, Paul Benney, said he had smiled because he had known Mr Keeble had just returned from South Africa. "He also has really bad eyesight so I laughed when I read he saw it from 100ft away. We have had a few kids a bit scared about sharks here but we told them not to worry. You are in far greater danger of being hurt by a weaver fish than a shark, he said."

I doubt that the Sun will mind being duped given how well its shark editions have sold but should the rest of us?

Some people have expressed concerns about the fear of shark attacks will drive away tourists. The Google searches that have led people to this site would support that. Nervous individuals are googling questions like: "how often do sharks attacks happen in the UK." However, I suspect that provided surfers don't start losing limbs that the fear this story has caused will pass.

What is has given us is a response next time the Sun runs a story about 'Gypsy beggar camps in Romania' or something similar, the voices of reason will have a perfect response: 'Oh and I suppose there is a Great White shark in Cornwall.'

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Why the Tories lose again and again

There's a fascinating article in today's Guardian about the role of emotion in politics. It looks at how the Democratic presidential candidates have failed to understand that voters react much more strongly to stories that politicians tell than to the arguments they make. Clinical logic is not enough, a successful vote winner requires something else. As the author puts it: 'the data is crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments.' You can watch the author discuss his ideas here.

In Britain it is not on the left but on the right that we find the people, who do not understand the emotional side of politics. The Labour party has successfully created a narrative, first around the idea that it was time for a change and then around providing successful, stable leadership. By contrast, the Conservatives have made a similar mistake to the Democrats. They looked at opinion polls, saw that the public appeared to share their hostility to immigration and the EU, went out and argued for their positions on those issues and were trounced. What they had failed to appreciate was that by carping on about those two issues without presenting any kind of positive vision, that voters would construct their own story about the Conservative party. Instead of being the heroes, the voters made them into negative thinking villains obsessed with foreigners. This was not the kind of party that anyone wants to vote for.

David Cameron understood the need to change the story and when it comes to convincing the public that he is a nice guy, he has succeeded. Opinion polls show that the public believe that Cameron is an affable, non threatening individual. The visits to the arctic and the hoody hugging have served their purpose. However, his attempt to construct a broader narrative about it being a time for a change and him being the man to deliver it has failed. This failure is at the heart of his recent trouble and it has come about for two very good reasons. Firstly, few people believe that he is really that different from the Government he is seeking to replace. It is not for nothing that his political opponents have seized on the similarity between him and Blair. A more significant problem stems from his reluctance to articulate policies, which means that he is unable to tell people what changes he wants. Unless he can produce a more convincing vision for Britain then like his unfortunate predecessors he will carry on losing.

As for the narrative that will propel British politics other perpetual losers back into power, uhh, can I get back to you on that one...

Monday, 6 August 2007

The least worst tax

There is something distasteful about massive fortunes acquired by a mere accident of birth. I will happily defend inequality, when it comes about as a result of some people working harder, showing more initiative and taken more risks than others but when it is based solely on certain individuals being lucky enough to inherit money then it is indefensible. So I am rather bemused why anyone would be campaigning to abolish inheritance tax. It is without a doubt one of the best ways of taxing people: it does not reduce incentives to work and is only paid by a wealthy minority. There would be a real cost to scrapping it because you would have to increase other taxes to pay for it.

A market economy rests on a bargain. The rewards for our labour (our wage) depend on the value put on our work by the market, which in turn reflects the demands of other members of society expressed by what they are willing to spend money on. In this way we are given incentives for people to do the type of work that the other members of our society think is most valuable. This results in a wide divergence in incomes but we accept this because it is in our interest to do so. It may irk us that a doctor is richer than we are but if the alternative is not getting medical care, then it is a price most people are willing to pay.

Inherited wealth does not provide any such incentives since it is acquired by being born into the right family rather than by actually doing anything. For this reason, a tax on it is an ideal way to help fund government spending.

Abolishing inheritance tax would create a bizarre situation, where somebody who goes out and earns a fortune has to hand over almost 40% of it to the taxman but the Paris Hiltons of this world, would pay no tax at all on money they have acquired for doing nothing other than being born.

The arguments usually used to argue for the abolition of inheritance tax tend either to be logically incoherent or factually inaccurate. Take, for example, the claim that it means someone paying tax twice on the same money. The problem with this reasoning is that the money has changed hands, the income tax is paid by the person who bequeaths the wealth and inheritance tax by the inheritor.

The claim it is a tax on the middle class is only true due to the rather elastic way we English define the middle class. There is no way a middle income family is going to pay it. The inland revenue estimate that a mere 4% of estates are eligible for inheritance tax, which makes it one of the most progressive taxes out there. This has posed a bit of a problem for those who want to scrap the tax because it is hard to get people worked up about a tax they are not going to pay. But do not fear many of these enterprising campaigners have found a way around this problem: lying. In his book, lies and the lying liars who tell them, the liberal comedian and journalist Al Franken, shows how Republicans campaigning for the repeal of the estate tax in the US consistently misled voters about who paid the tax. The estate tax affects an even smaller portion of the population than its UK equivalent yet Republican TV adverts showed people who own small farms, fretting about having to pay 'the death tax.' Here in the UK the role of the Republican party has been taken n by the Daily express, which constantly talks of ordinary families facing, what they have started calling 'the death tax.'

It is true that the number of people paying inheritance tax has increased in recent years. But what this represents is how the property boom has created many more large estates and pushed up levels of inequality. In this context, inheritance tax is more important than ever.

This is not to say that inheritance tax is perfect and that it could not be made to work better. A recent paper from IPPR sets out the kind of changes that are needed. Notably closing loopholes to reduce evasion and basing the tax on accessions rather than legacies

The debate over inheritance tax is part of a wider debate about the kind of society we want to live in. Do we want a meritocracy or an aristocracy. Do we want social justice or social privilege. Do we want a society united by opportunity or a society divided by inequality. There is no reason to scrap inheritance tax and every reason to keep. It is time to make the case for the least worst tax.

The Banality of Evil

On the 11th April 1961, Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. It could legitimately be described as the trial of the century. The man who organised the holocaust being put on trial by the people he had tried to destroy. The New Yorker magazine asked the philosopher, Hannah Ardent, to cover the trial. What she found was not a fanatic or a sadist or a psychopath but an ordinary, almost boring person playing by the rules of the society in which he lived. He was so apparently normal, that Ardent subtitled her classic account of the trial: 'report on the banality of evil.'

A similar feeling seems to have struck Observer columnist, Jasper Gerard while following the trial of Chris Langham. In todays Observer, he examines how it is possible that Langham 'is not the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang of red-top demonisation' but a man 'into carbon offsetting and charity fun runs.' He concludes that we need to comprehend as well as condemn, if we are to prevent people from turning into abusers.

The need to look into what causes people to commit unspeakable acts was underlined by an experiment conducted a few months after Eichmann's trial. A psychologist named Stanley Millgram wanted to find out if men like Eichmann could really have committed mass murder simply because they were following orders. A volunteer is presented with a 'teacher' asking questions of a 'student' (apparently another volunteer but in reality a member of the research team.) Every time the 'student' gets one of the questions wrong, the 'teacher' orders the volunteer to administer a large electronic shock to the 'student.' The results were startling; rather than as might be expected disobeying an order to cause another human being considerable pain, it appears that if an authority figure tells us to do something that in most cases we will obey.

This fundamentally altered our view of the perpetrators of the holocaust. It suggested that many, perhaps most of us, would in certain circumstances be willing to participate in an atrocity. This is not for a minute to excuse anybody. Just because we choose not to say no does not mean that we shouldn't. What it does do is force us to consider more complicated and more ambiguous explanations of how the holocaust came about. It forces us to examine how a situation came about, where mass murder was not only considered socially acceptable but to be civic duty.

To dismiss people like Eichmann and Langham as monsters is an understandable impulse, it allows us to avoid the uncomfortable truth that they are humans just like us. It is, however, a mistake because it allows us to forget that monsters are made not born and that the only way we can unmake them is to understand them. As distasteful a process as that may be.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

More Shark nonsense

JK Galbraith once joked that the 'economists exist to make astrologers look good.' I sometimes think that something similar goes on with Britain's trashier tabloids because there can be no reason for the Daily Star other than to make the Sun look good. Not to be outdone by the Sun's screw up over supposed sightings of a Great White Shark in Cornwall, the Star produces its own not terribly scary scare story.

Now you might think that in order to make the front page of a national newspaper it would have to have been spotted somewhere pretty unusual, like say the North Pole, the Falkland Islands or the River Thames. In fact, this sighting is in the Mediterranean, which is part of the Great Whites natural habitat.

The supposed danger posed to British tourists is also overplayed (I will overlook the Star's indifference to non-Brits being attacked). As the article admits the last shark attack in Spain occurred close to fifteen years ago and (they don't admit this) last year their were only sixty shark attacks across the entire world, of which a mere four were fatal. It is far more likely that a tourist will be killed by drowning than by a shark.

But you will be reassured to know that the Star still manages to blame Eastern Europeans for this.

Commander Crackpot for Mayor

It was an awfully nice idea. When Tony Blair created the office of mayor of London, he imagined that it would attract a new kind of politician, able to provide the city with visionary leadership. Instead the choice that Londoners will be presented with next year is between two distinctly unappealing examples of the old kind of politics. In the red corner, an apologist for Islamic extremism and in the blue, a reactionary buffoon who can barely read the autoque on have I got news for you.
I do not envy Londoners having to choose between them.

In these circumstances, the often asked question, what are the Liberal Democrats for? answers itself. The shear awfulness of the candidates from the major parties presents us with a unique opportunity to pull off a massive electoral upset. But this would require us to put forward a very strong candidate. This is something we have so far failed to do. We have already had to reopen to our selection once and the suggestions for candidates are getting odder and odder. So far only one candidate has been suggested who can really take on the gruesome twosome. That candidate is Deputy Assistant Commisioner Brian Paddick.

Paddick is one of Britain's most high profile police officers. As the Met's commander in the London Borough of Lambeth he oversaw a controversial but highly successful 'softly-softly' approach to possession of Cannabis, which paved the way for the reclassification of Cannabis as a Class C drug. He was a prominent figure in the response to the 21st July bombings. He is the most senior openly gay police officer. He is not a universally popular figure; the Daily Mail christened him Commander Crackpot for his comment that 'Anarchy held a certain appeal to him' and he was accused (and cleared) of taking drugs.

This background would help Paddick to overcome many of the problems that tend to afflict any Lib Dem. To the accusation that we are soft on crime, we could hit back with the fact that our candidate is a long serving and successful police officer. To the suggestion that we are a bunch of nice but woolly minded people who can't actually run anything, we could respond that our candidate had plenty of experience of management from his time in the police. Paddick's profile may not be as high as Ken and Boris's but it is still substantial and would go a long way to overcoming the perception that we can't win. He is certainly more recognisable than any of the other potential non-Lembit candidates.

The objections I would normally have to a police officer being a Lib Dem candidate, do not apply in Paddick's case. The stereotype of the authoritarian, socially conservative plod evidently does not apply to Paddick. I would also usually be concerned about how effective a communicator a police candidate would be but again this objection does not possibly apply. I do not think anyone could accuse Paddick of being camera shy and he has a reputation as a talented public speaker. A colleague said of him: "When he spoke at a meeting in the town hall in Brixton, it was the first time the community gave a senior police officer a standing ovation. He had them rolling around in peals of laughter with the borough commander rather than at the borough commander. He is a warm and friendly person, very human. He builds confidence, people trust him."

Paddick standing would pose serious problems for Boris Johnson because it would expose many of his weaknesses. I imagine that the targeted letter to Conservative supporters would have something like this: 'while Conservative candidate from Henley was being fired for lying by his own leader, Brian Paddick was working hard to make the streets safe for ordinary Londoners.' Boris's almost complete lack of management experience would be showed up by facing Paddick, who has held senior positions in the police force and Ken, who is already doing the job. Next to Paddick just how much of a featherweight Boris is would be painfully obvious.

Assuming they could get into second place, a Lib Dem candidate might find it easier to actually go on and win. Where as the second votes of Lib Dem supporters would be expected to split pretty evenly between the Tory and Labour candidates, the bulk of Tory second votes would probably to the Lib Dem. They would also take a much higher share of the transfers from Green and Respect voters than would a Conservative candidate.

Ken vs. Boris vs. DAC Paddick would certainly not be boring and at the end London might just have the mayor it deserves.

Friday, 3 August 2007

The Road from Serfdom

Cuba is a puzzle. How has Fidel Castro's regime survived, while other Communist governments have crumbled? Situated less than a hundred miles south of florida, it would appear to be uniquely vulnerable to American influence yet his hold on power is solid. By contrast communist rule has collapsed in the Soviet Union and has been shaken in China. The answer appears to be that Castro with the enthusiastic support of the US government has been able to keep Cuba in a state of economic isolation. This has insulated the Cuban people from outside influence which might encourage them to seek freedom.

In his best known work, the Road to Serfdom, the economist Frederich Hayek argued that the march of socialism posed a danger to the future of liberal democracy. Cuba demonstrates, how the opposite is also true: economic freedom is a danger to the rule of despots. If people win back the right to buy and sell as they wish then they are regaining control over an important part of their lives. If on the other hand the state retains control of the economy then that gives it enormous power over its people.

The most powerful tool available to a dictator is, as we've already seen, the ability to prevent your followers from trading with foreigners. This keeps outside influence to a minimum and limits reduces the flow of information from abroad that may challenge the regimes version of events. Trade with foreigners also helps to introduce technologies that can be exploited by opposition movements. For example, the Orange revolution in Ukraine was largely organised via mobile phones, which made it easier for the leaders of the protests to communicate and hence to co-ordinate their actions.

The free movement of people can also undermine one-party rule. The emergence of democracy in Taiwan can in part be attributed to the decision of the governing elite to send their children to American universities. This exposed them to life in a successful democracy, which encouraged them to demand the same for their own country.

It is not only by isolating people that dictators can use state intervention in the economy against their people. Nationalised industries provide them with an opportunity to dole out patronage to supporters and deny services to opponents.

This is a side to the argument about globalisation which we don't hear very much about and that has consequences. The anti-globalisation movement have been able to claim for themselves the mantle of the defenders of democracy, while opposing precisely the kind of changes that can do the most to promote political freedom.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

On ya Boat!

When I am asked, as all 'economic liberals' are occasionally: 'why don't you p*ss off and join the Tories?' My answer usually is 'immigration.' It makes a mockery of their claim to be the supporters of ambition, enterprise and the market.

To see just how badly a belief in the need for immigration controls fits with the values they are supposed to uphold consider the phrase that has come to sum up one of the Conservative parties most controversial politcians: 'On ya Bike.'

In the aftermath of the Brixton riots Norman Tebbit made a speech Legend has it that in this speech he told the unemployed to get on their bikes. This is actually a misrepresentation of what he said. He was not telling the unemployed to get lost but to look for work. The full quote is:

"I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. He did not riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he went on looking until he found it."

The issue this raises for me, is why then does Tebbitt condemn those migrants who get on a boat or plane and come looking for work here in the UK. Surely these are exactly the kind of hard working, entrepreneurial people that Conservatives would want in this country.

I imagine that Lord Tebbitts response to this argument would probably be to claim that immigrants do not come here to work but to claim benefits. But this is simply not the case. Immigrants are generally speaking of working age and are excluded from claiming many benefits, so far from being a drain on British taxpayers they are infact net contributers to the treasury's coffers.

This is not the only way we gain from immigration. The newcomers are likely to bring with them new skills and new ideas that will enrich the nation they are arriving in. This is not just an economic phenomenon: there is a strong link between cultural diversity and cultural dynamism. If it were not for immigrants cities like London and New York would be far less interesting places.

Immigration controls reduce opportunities for migrants and their potential destinations are poorer for their absense. We should lament their existense not demand their stengthening. They are one of the great injustices of our time and they need to go.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Dispatches from the Crooked Timbers

"Why is politics like sadomasochism?" is not a question you hear very often. It sounds like the start of a bad joke. In fact, it is the question that David Aaronovitch tries to answer in a new series on radio 4.

Via interviews with a range of politicians, academics and therapists, Aaronovitch explains why he believes that 'the electorate is need of psychiatric help.' His argument is that far from making decisions about who to vote for in rational manner, voters are swayed by a range of subconscious neurosis's. Though I am usually skeptical of psychoanalysis, quite a lot of it rings true. Aaronovitch suggests that voters create unrealistic explanations of politicians, so that they can feel a sense of grievance when they are disappointed. If this is true then it would explain the 'Mr/Mrs Angrys' who bombard politicians with furious complaints.

Aaronovitch is certainly not the only person to be suggesting that voters are not as rational as is often assumed. In his new book, the economist Bryan Caplan identifies a number of logical errors that voters commonly make. For example, they tend to equate prosperity with employment rather than consumption. This leads them to support policies that create work rather than wealth. An often cited (and rather extreme) example is a law passed in the state of Oregon that bans self service petrol stations, in order to protect the jobs of petrol pump attendants.

Now at this point you may be asking, so what? You didn't need David Aaronavitch to tell you that voters can be a bit strange at times. You and anyone else with a modicum of common sense already knew that. Well, the reason this matters is because an increasingly influential school of thought ignores this obvious fact.

Over the past few years, a previously obscure subject known as behavioral economics has become fashionable. It uses insights from psychology to understand economic decisions that are otherwise inexplicable. Behavioral economists have time and again shown that consumers and producers are not the rational calculating machines that traditional economics has often assumed them to be. The conclusion that some policy makers have drawn from this is that since economic agents are irrational, there is a case for state intervention to protect people from the consequences of their irrational choices.

The fatal flaw with replacing individual choice with government control in the name of reason is that the governments decisions are not necessarily going to be any more rational. The same people who are making irrational decisions about buying and selling are also electing the government and as we have already seen not going about it in a particularly rational way.

We cannot legislate against bad decisions and we should not sacrifice our freedom in the vain attempt to do so. Afterall, as Immanuel Kant once said: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."