Sunday, 23 September 2007

My first political memory

How Major, Attenborough, Blair, Ashdown and Milosevic turned me into a political junkie.

I've been tagged with a blog meme by Caroline Hunt. So I now need to right about my earliest political memory.

I dimly remember news stories and conversations from when I was very young (three or four). I now realise that the things I was witnessing were the 1992 General Election, the coup against Yeltsin and the war in Bosnia but at the time I had no idea what was going on, so these can hardly be considered formative.

The first important influence on my politics was an interest in environmental issues. I devoured nature programs as a child and it was not long before I became aware of the political challenges posed by hunting, the destruction of habitat and, most of all, by global warming.

The first political event that I took a real interest in was the 1997 General Election. Then as now, I was a Liberal Democrat supporter. I had been convinced by an edition of Newsround where children interviewed the three party leaders. Paddy Ashdown was clearly the only one to care about my great passion, the environment. Not that this did him much good as I couldn't vote and at my parents instructions helped to stuff Labour election addresses.

I remember the Dunblane massacre and being very keen on the hand gun ban.

What really turned me into a political anorak was the bombing of Kosovo. The war was an ideal story to draw in an eleven year old; events moved quickly, things blew up and there were clearly identifiable good and bad guys. That we should intervene to save the innocent victims of Serb aggression seemed obvious to me and I became something of an evangelist for the conflict, preaching the benefits of sending in ground troops to my classmates. I listened to tonnes of radio programs about current affairs to find out more about what was going on and what I learnt from them is still the foundation of my knowledge of political issues.

I am fortunate that throughout my life I have had parents, teachers and friends, who were willing to discuss social and political issues with me. Without them my life would have been so much duller.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The least worst option


Northern Rock does not not deserve a bail out but not giving them one could be a recipe for disaster

I wasn't planning to blog while I was at conference but I've changed my mind because of a rather extraordinary sight, I saw this morning. Out hunting for an internet cafe, I passed the Brighton branch of Northern Rock and one of the longest queuses I have ever seen. I had initially opposed the bail out of private bank with public bank but that sight has changed my mind. It brought home to me the danger of financial panics and how important it is we avoid them.

Northern Rock does not deserve a bail out. It took a gamble and lost. Rather than relying as most banks do on a combination of money from individual depositors and money borrowed from other banks, Northern Rock relied almost entirely on the later. This worked fine so long as interest rates in the inter-bank lending markets were low but when the credit crunch pushed borrowing rates up it found itself in trouble. Being so relieant on one source of finance was a risky move and if Northern Rock's shareholders do not pay the price when gambles such as this backfire, then that will have no incentive to be careful how they do buisiness. Economist call this a 'moral hazard.'

However, the queue has made me doubt this logic. We have hundreds of people pulling there money out of a perfectly safe bank. Not only has Northern Rock been declared safe by the bank of england but it has also been given access to the worlds biggest overdraft courtesy of the bailout. These withdrawls are pure panic.

My concern would be that if Northern Rock were to collapse, then people would panic and begin to loose confidence in the banking sector as a whole and we could start to see runs on other banks as well. This could become a particular problem if some of the other smaller banks that have run in trouble also collapsed. This is perhaps unlikely but the result would be so disastrous not just for the UK but perhaps for the world economy as a whole. We should do everything on our power to avoid it, including rewarding careless companies.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Hurray for conference

As a demonstration of political commitment and party democracy, conference is hard to beat.

After I came back from conference last year, I was asked to report for my local paper on what I had seen. I was unsure what to write beyond bland descriptions of what members from my local party had been up to. I was unsure how to get across what it is like to be at conference (while plugging the party.) My solution was to write about why I thought it was worthwhile:

If you had gone down to Brighton last week, you would have been greeted with a surprise: six thousand Liberal Democrats descending on the city for their autumn conference. This year’s conference has been the best attended and most eventful of recent years with many questions about the party’s policies, direction and leadership being resolved. From Charles Kennedy’s return to conference to Menzies Campbell’s triumphant leader’s speech via a defining debate on tax, the conference has not been dull. Next to these important pieces of high politics, the fact that this was my first conference seems rather small but I still hope that my experiences and impressions are informative.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole event is just, how democratic the whole it is. The most obvious sign of this is that party policy is decided not by the leadership, as is the case with Labour and the Conservatives, but by party members voting at conference. This gives members a real sense that their views matter and injects a dose of drama into debates, which would otherwise become dull and unimportant.

The other quality that comes across very clearly is the depth of political commitment amongst those attending conference. In a country where more people regularly go the opera than take part in party politics it is unusual to find thousands of people in one place, who are willing to give up a week of their lives to help make political parties, an essential element of our democracy, work. These people are not as all too many people would let you believe, motivated by ambition, greed or any of the other unsavoury traits often associated with politics, but by a sincere desire to improve life in their communities. For this reason conference is a great antidote to the cynicism and apathy that is too often allowed to corrode our political system.

I would stand by that still. Nothing makes me as cross as the claim that people are only in politics for what they can get out of it. People do not go around delivering leaflets in the cold and wet because they are power crazed lunatics but because they believe in something. Individual members can make Change things for the better and a party conference is one of the best places to do it.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

What shock doctrine?


Far from being the Marx of the twenty-first century, Naomi Klein is a conspiracy theorist whose work depends on a partial reading of history and offers no constructive vision.

Leon Trotsky once said ‘war is the engine of history.’ He was half right. The violence, chaos and confusion of armed conflict does indeed frequently result in extremely rapid social change. Trotsky had seen the Russian monarchy swept away and a communist regime erected in its place because of the carnage of the Great War. Where he was wrong was to suggest that it was only war that could cause this kind of change, when any kind of upheaval, be it natural disaster, economic collapse or industrial conflict is capable of changing a nation beyond recognition. Look at any significant change in the course of history and it will invariably involve a crisis of some kind.

This is not something Naomi Klein seems to understand. She looks at the fact that the forward march of the market is linked with a series of ‘shocks’ and sees not a historical fact of life but a conspiracy. She believes that followers of Milton Friedman (who she considers fundamentalists) have ruthlessly exploited shocks like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and the 1973 Chilean coup to force their view on the world. Furthermore, she suggests that Friedmanite policies can only be fully implemented in an authoritarian state. Hardly any of this stacks up.

Crises do not necessarily bring about a reduction in the size of the state. Without the trauma of World War II we would probably never have had an NHS. Without the Great Depression we would never have had Keynesianism and New Deal liberalism. Miss Klein is herself part of a political movement that has its roots in the upheaval caused by the Vietnam War.

Should you use crisis to further your political ends? Klein appears to believe that you should not but confuses the point by unhelpfully eliding the actions of the Friedmanites with people profiteering from tragedies. One is clearly reprehensible, the other is more debatable. If we focus only on people using crises for what they perceive to be the interests of society rather than their own, then Klein has a problem. Is she seriously suggesting that the world would be a better place if Millicent Fawcett had decided in 1917 that because of the war in Europe now was not the time to get women the vote or if Keynes had decided that it was unfair to use the backdrop of the depression to propose his new economic theory? ‘Making the best of a bad situation’ is normally considered a virtue not a vice.

To characterise Friedman as a fundamentalist is a bit of stretch. He is willing to support a large number of measures to support the poor such as state funded schools and a negative income tax. Market fundamentalists do exist but they tend to be marginal figures like Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand rather than the architects of Machiavellian conspiracies on a global scale.

Klein’s association of the market with violence and oppression does not stack up. By its very nature a market economy is less violent than its socialist alternative because it relies on voluntary co-operation rather than the coercive power of the state. The example that Klein relies on for this particular argument is the Pinochet regime in Chile, which is comparatively unusual. This is to my knowledge the only case where a regimes move from a command to a market economy has been accompanied by a significant increase in political violence. By contrast the construction of a command economy has hardly ever been achieved by a liberal democracy; it is almost invariably a product of dictatorship.

Probably the biggest problem with Klein’s work is that for all her evident passion and eloquence, she seems to have no interest of any kind in proposing a positive alternative to the market economy. An article in the Economist describes this flaw rather well:

“What is the superior alternative to capitalist development that Ms Klein proposes? She feels under no obligation to say. It is not her job to dictate to the movement. The most she can do, in all modesty, is to offer indications and observations; the people, thus empowered, must do the rest…Certainly, Ms Klein is for justice, “deep” decentralised democracy (not the false kind currently practised), autonomous spaces and diversity of every kind. All these things can presumably be reconciled with the ambitious goals she would doubtless wish to see pursued in welfare spending, environmental protection and income redistribution—aims which, on the face of it, call for a high degree of centralisation and some reduction in the amount of autonomous space—but readers and listeners are never told how this contradiction might be resolved.”

Klein's work gives a very distorted picture in which all the evil in the world is done at the bidding of Milton Friedman and the dubious record of her own side is never examined. It is ultimately a source of heat rather than light; making people angry but not suggesting what they should do about it. To use another Trotsky quote it is time to send the shock doctrine to the 'dustbin of history.'

Friday, 7 September 2007

The accidental racists

The view that accusations of racism are an attempt by liberals to shut down debate on immigration is wide of the mark. In reality they are our killer argument.

I want you to imagine something. What would happen if the Mayor of London decided that in order to protect the wages of ordinary Londoners, he was going to prevent people from outside London coming to work in the capital? This would be regarded not only as completely barmy but also deeply unfair; Why should jobs in London only be available, when there are plenty of people in the rest of the UK perfectly capable of doing them? Surely, this is a rather nasty form of discrimination? Now replace the word ‘London’ with ‘America/Europe’ and ‘UK’ with ‘world’ and you have a pretty good description of the iniquities of immigration controls.

I raise this issue because on one of my favorite blogs, Dizzy Thinks, there is an entry asking: ‘How can you sell any immigration policy…without being called a racist?’ The answer is that you can’t because these policies are inherently discriminatory. They rest on the assumption that it is legitimate to deny certain rights and opportunities to people solely on the basis of their nationality.

I am not suggesting for a minute that the people advocating these policies are all skin headed neo-Nazis. It is entirely possible to support tougher limits on immigration without meaning to support a racist policy. This is not about the intentions behind a policy but there impact. That is why I am endeavoring to talk about these policies as ‘discriminatory’ rather than ‘racist.’ The problem for these accidentals racists is that many people are going to assume that because they are promoting a policy with racist results that they have racist motives.

A possible response by those who want to reduce immigration is to suggest the fact that white migrants are affected by controls means that they aren’t racist. This is true but it misses the point. They do not necessarily discriminate on the basis of skin colour (though the bulk of people they effect are non-white) but nationality. To suggest that someone opportunities in life should be determined by what passport they hold is no better than suggesting it should be on the basis of their race. Both are largely the result of an accident of birth rather than personal decisions.

Another commonly used to defense is to claim that it is legitimate for us to place the interests of British nationals above those of foreigners because the state’s primary responsibility is to the people that make up the political community. This does not really rebut the claim that immigration controls are discriminatory but instead tries to provide a justification for it and it is not even a terribly convincing one. In the American South during the era of segregation, the state authorities that imposed the race laws were representing a political community composed of white Americans that did not entitle that state to take actions designed to uphold the dominance of the white majority. The states responsibilities to its citizens is not a license to infringe the rights of foreign nationals.

If all people are created free and equal, then jobs should not be denied to talented individuals simply because they are, say, Mexican rather than American. What we have done by trying to block global migration is to reintroduce segregation, only this time on a global scale. It is unjust and should be ended.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The myth of Zero tolerance

What connects a Scout leader from Manchester with an American presidential candidate?

As strange as it may seem the case of Kathleen Jenkins, a student, scout leader and general model citizen who has received a criminal conviction for putting her feet up on the seat of a train carriage is symptomatic of the way that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from Rudy Giuliani’s battle against crime in the Big Apple. Too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of so called ‘zero tolerance policing,’ the result has been that many policy makers have started to see a focus on minor infractions as a panacea for reducing crime. This has spawned a rash of bad policy, not least Labour’s war on anti-social behaviour.

Zero tolerance policing has its roots in ‘the broken windows’ theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They sought to show that if police were to maintain order then they could not afford to ignore apparently minor crimes. The theory takes its name from a particularly persuasive example the authors produced: "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”

The problem with this theory is not so much that its wrong but that it doesn’t get you very far. It is one thing to say that the police should tackle minor crimes, it is quite another to do it. The experience of New York shows how making the decision to implement a zero tolerance policy is far less important than having the means to implement it.

The reduction in crime during Giuliani’s time as mayor is indeed startling. In 1993 there 2420 murders, by 2002 that number had fallen to 909. It is certainly worthy of examination and imitation. What is surprising is how little of the reduction was down to zero tolerance. The drop did not even begin in Giuliani’s term but in that of his predecessor, David Dinkins. Zero tolerance was the brainchild of Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton and was not implemented until they came to power and is therefore highly unlikely to be responsible for the drop in crime.

If not zero tolerance then what? The (in)famous economist and author of ‘Freakonomics’ Steven J. Levitt, examined the drop in crime in New York and concluded that the major factor behind it was a massive increase in the size of the NYPD, which had begun under Dinkins. Put simply having more cops meant that the police were able to catch more crooks.

My local police force is currently so understaffed and consequently overstretched that it often struggles to investigate even fairly serious crimes like theft and burglary. They would only be able to begin tracking down litterlouts by ignoring other more unpleasant crimes. As long as police are forced to prioritise they will never be able to implement zero tolerance effectively.

This is not something our present government seems to have understood. While not giving the police the funding to recruit the officers they need to do their job effectively they have launched endless ineffective crackdowns on anti-social behaviour. The problems with these crackdowns is that they have started from the basis that what was needed was to punish minor infractions rather than a police force that was able to effectively enforce the law.

Apart from leading the government down a blind alley in terms of reducing crime, it has also had an alarming impact on our civil liberties. The search for ever more minor crimes to punish has had lead to criminalisation of many activities such as putting your feet up on the seat of a train that are annoying or distasteful rather than genuinely harmful. This phenomenon is described by Kathryn Hughes in an article for the Guardian:

There is a grave misunderstanding at the heart of all the cross-party rhetoric about stamping down on "yob culture". (Blair may have started it, but Boris Johnson was frothing it up nicely at the launch of his mayoral bid on Monday with that stirring promise to stamp out "casual ... incivility".) Yobbery may seem like an absolute condition, an obvious sin, the kind of thing on which all right-thinking people can agree as they scuttle terrified past a group of hoodies at a bus stop. But the fact is that it is a relative state, dependent on context. One person's loutishness is another's idea of chilling. Or to put it another way, yobbery is what other people do.

The police should deal with low-level crime but not for the reason that the proponents of zero tolerance propose. Only a minority of us will be murdered, raped or maimed but almost all of us will be victims of low level. These crimes have a real impact on many people’s quality of life and their perpetrators have been encouraged by the knowledge that an overstretched police force will be able to do little to stop them. What we need to tackle this blight is not more laws but more police.

Monday, 3 September 2007

The market and the masses

Winston Churchill once said: “Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle. ... Socialism seeks to pull down wealth, while Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty.” I was reminded of this quote while reading a comment piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot entitled ‘How the neo-liberals stitched up the wealth of nations for themselves.’ The premise of which is that a group of wicked rich people called ‘neo-liberals’ have tricked everyone into accepting economic policies that have hugely enriched a tiny super wealthy minority while leaving the rest of us behind.

The problem with this argument is that far from just benefiting the super rich, the gains from ‘neo-liberal’ reforms are widely dispersed and extend to even the poorest members of society. They do not benefit from the hyperinflation, high taxes and pricey imports that usually result from the kind of socialist and Keynesian policies that Monbiot admires. While ‘the neo-liberal’ trinity of sound finance, sound money and free trade are of real benefit to the most vulnerable members of a society.

In 1975, New York city was on the verge of bankruptcy. Years of profligate spending by successive mayors had pushed the city further and further into debt and it was now barely able to pay its bills. To avoid a financial catastrophe the city was forced to seek a bail out from the Federal government, the conditions of which was that the big apple had to balance its books. The only way to achieve this was through tax increases and painful cuts in public spending. The services that bore the brunt of these cuts were the police and fire department with predictable results for the safety of ordinary New Yorkers. Where did blame for this disaster lie? Monbiot implies that it lies with the ‘neo-liberals’ in the treasury department who added conditions to the federal assistance to the city. This is a rather strange idea. The city could not indefinitely spend more than it took in, in taxes. At some point the city was going to have to pay its debts, all the conditions did was bring that day forward. Ultimate responsibility for the crisis must lie with politicians in New York, who behaved more like a shopaholic with a credit card than responsible public officials. They pushed the city to the edge and the consequences of their actions should serve as a warning to anyone who believes that sound finance is something that only matters to bankers and accountants.

Inflation is one of the worst curses that can be inflicted on a nation. It pushes every citizen into a constant struggle to get by as the money in their pockets becomes worth less and less. The monetarist policies designed to tackle this great social ill are one of the most controversial but ultimately most beneficial parts of the ‘neo-liberal’ program. The vast majority of citizens suffer when levels of inflation are high because it becomes very difficult to save money and the constant changes in prices make it hard for consumers to compare the merits of different products. The pain is worse for the less well of because they find it harder middle class compatriots to protect the value of their savings from inflation, who can usually move their savings into a more stable foreign currency.

Free trade is often assumed to harm the poor. You would certainly get the impression it did if you listened to the populists who preach the benefits of protectionism but this is not necessarily the case. Free trade enables nations to specialise in the type of production that they have a comparative advantage in and helps to hold down prices by exposing domestic firms to competition from foreign firms. This should boost economic growth and leave the majority of people better off. The more credible critiques of free trade tend to argue that these gains do not spread to the poor because low skilled workers see their wages driven down because many of the industries that created a demand for their labour have been moved abroad. There are at least three problems with this critique. It sees things exclusively from the point of view of developed nations. The situation is rather different in developing world which have been gaining rather than losing low skilled jobs and in an number of cases has seen the gap between rich and poor reduced by international trade. It also sees things only from the point of view of poor workers when many of the poorest are those on living on benefits, who gain from lower prices (which mean that there money will go further) and higher growth (which usually leads to more tax revenues that can be used to pay for more benefits. It also ignores the possibility of redistribution of some of the wealth that is created by liberalising trade.

There is no law that states that because somebody is gaining, someone else must be losing. The huge fortunes gained by the wealthiest members of society are not a sign that the poor are losing out but that society as a whole is becoming wealthier. The claim that those who support the market care only for the rich is a nonsense. We simply think that the best way to help the less fortunate is to give them back the economic freedom that has been taken from them.