Friday, September 29, 2006

Is America really unspeakbly vile?

The US Congress has just approved the "compromise" bill legalising the mistreatment of detainees by the CIA.

For the record, this bill
  • legalizes certain forms of torture, including sleep deprivation, the use of stress positions, and induced hypothermia
  • strips the right to habeas corpus from non-US citizens, including legal immigrants in the US
  • allows alleged terrorists to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony
  • makes it impossible for any Court to review this

  • I am not an expert, but the New York Times thinks this is up there with the Alien and Sedition acts as the worst law ever passed by Congress.

    I can hardly think for outrage. Not torturing people is part of what it means to be a civilised society. Habeas Corpus has been a basic guarantee of liberty since the 1620's. As a sane person involved in student politics, I have spent much of the last few years defending America against lefties. I'm not sure I will be able to do that now.

    If the Democratic Representatives and Senators who voted "Aye" (and most of the Democrats facing tough re-election battles did vote "Aye") are right, the American voters are ready to punish their representatives at the ballot box for voting against torture. In other words, the conventional wisdom of the American political establishment (on both sides of the aisle) is that the American people are unspeakably vile. I can't help but worry that they might be right.

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    Barriers to commitment

    Another article, this time in the Telegraph about how twenty-somethings can't 'grow up'. What they skirt over is covered in this Grauniad article.

    This is an education/career-specific problem - people I was at primary school with who have no degree now have houses, cars and children. However, friends living in London from some of the best universities in the country flit between low paid or contract work, additional education (often MAs) and in some cases, periods of unemployment. London, incidently, has 45 % of graduate jobs. They have no hope of affording a house even if they could guarantee staying in one place long enough. This probably also contributes to low birth rates and unstable relationships - people move around and have few assets.

    I've accepted this unthinkingly and find the idea of a 'job-for-life' both strange and somewhat oppressive. But, really, the idea that qualified people end up working for nothing or as administrative staff for years whilst house-sharing with friends in the hope of 'making a break' is... not quite right [that said, you will notice it's predominantly particular sectors, e.g. charities, media. Multilingual PhD students are not fighting each other to work for firms of accountants for free]. It's a demonstration of calibre only in the same way that surviving walking across the Sahara desert is a demonstration of anything - triumph over grinding adversity. Insecurity, like everything else, is only exciting in moderation.

    Wednesday, September 27, 2006

    Welfare and society muppetry in Blair's Britain

    47,000 words of bunkum duly submitted end of last week, I've spent this week trying to get some temporary work and in the meantime have been duly dispatched to the Job Centre to apply for job seeker's allowance.

    The job seeker's allowance process has proved to be an exercise in bureaucratic muppetry par excellence, although I admit to being biased by the disillusioned, cynical and politically firey lady giving me an assessment (she was leaving at the end of the week). She spent 10 minutes doing the paperwork and a further 50 minutes discussing employment politics in Europe. In the best spirit of investigative journalism, I will recount some of the best examples of muppetry below.

    a) The end of the job seeker's allowance booklet reads:

    "Sometimes we may pay too much money into the account and you may be overpaid.

    If this is because of the way the system works for payments directly into an account, we have the right to recover any money you are not entitled to."

    But, you'll be happy to know, the government will warn the poor, impoverished s*d living hand-to-mouth before trying to reclaim the money Billy or Bernadette Unemployed has already accidently spent on paying council tax, or rent or food:

    'We will contact you first if we propose to recovery [typo] any money'

    Overpayment has been a problem with tax credits and you'd have thought the government would have learnt by now. If you give very poor people money they shouldn't have and it's your fault then you should TRY TO BE MORE COMPETENT IN FUTURE AND PAY THEM CORRECTLY instead of taking the money back... MUPPETS!

    b) The culture of the job centre is that the unemployed are expected to be free (as in 'having nothing more worthwhile to do than attend the job centre') at least 40 hours a week. This is due to fraud. If they didn't set utterly inflexible appointments then people might be working several days a week. But there's a point at which you really feel they need to sit down and rethink the system to limit financial loss per claim instead of introducing more and more hoops into the existing system. This is because if you employ someone, you have to provide information about them to the government. This means that most full-time employees could not apply fraudulently for JSA since they would be registered as employed. If they were doing work that wasn't being disclosed to the government, then making them come in once a fortnight isn't going to stop them fraudulently claiming benefit because they can probably arrange that work around their job centre visit. So why does Billy Unemployed attending the job centre reduce fraud? Was there a reason why unemployed people had to be physically present in the job centre, which has now been negated by automatic bank payments and the internet? Or is the idea that accessing any government help should be as difficult and intrusive as possible so that only the desperate will bother? Is this the right way to filter claimants? The more regulations and paperwork, the more difficulty the most confused and vulnerable will have and the more people needed to process the paperwork. Should we really have a tax credits system with a manual an inch and a half thick? (apparently). Surely it costs the same to accidently give some people extra money as it is to employ a whole bunch of government employees to ensure they don't?

    c) Not incomprehensibly given the sheer amount of information required to make a claim, there is a backlog of claims awaiting processing of three weeks to a month. So Billy Unemployed is expected to routinely attend the job centre for the first month... with no income. It costs me £6 each time I make a trip to the job centre. Billy Unemployed doesn't have enough savings to live on because if he did, he wouldn't be able to claim JSA. Further, Billy Unemployed has to be available to attend an interview within 48 hours which means if Billy Unemployed doesn't have a phone he has to keep going somewhere that does have a phone pretty much everyday. This will probably mean his next door neighbour but could theoretically mean a payphone or a trip to the job centre, again funded with fresh air for the first month.

    d) At the back of the job seeking booklet it is written that 'we aim to provide a high standard of customer service'. But inflexible appointments are not part of a customer service ethos. Just think if you ordered a washing machine and they told you they were going to deliver it at 10 am on a Saturday and they didn't care that you were on holiday. It's not a work ethos either because job seeker's allowance isn't a job. You're being paid to look for a job, not to attend the job centre. You could also see JSA as a public service - working people are paying taxes for benefits they may need in the future.

    It concerns me that welfare is a system that assumes all people are fraudsters regardless of how long they've been claiming a benefit and which fails to treats service users as customers. A good example of treating adults as naughty children I will refer to as jobpoint muppetry. Inside the job centre there are touch screen 'jobpoints' which access adverts posted at the job centre. They have no access to the internet. There are a series of free telephones for people to ring employers about adverts posted at the job centre. The job seekers agreement requires job seekers to attend the job centre 10 minutes early for their fortnightly appointment in order to use said jobpoints. My advisor told me that I had to be visibly using the jobpoints before the appointment. She agreed this was stupid. It's stupid for several reasons:

    1. If someone is making no effort to look for work, 10 minutes prattling about at a touch screen is going to make not a hint of a difference. There are 20160 minutes in a fortnight. If job hunting is happening for 10 minutes, and the job seeker is spending the remaining 20150 watching day-time TV then... well, frankly darling, you're p****g against the wind.

    2. If you are looking for work then the last place you want to look is the job centre. This is because only 15 - 20 % of positions are advertised (random job seeking statistic). Further, because people claiming job seekers allowance have to demonstrate they have applied for a couple of jobs a week, jobs advertised at the job centre will have far more applicants per job than other jobs. Since you are spending at least some of 20150 minutes job hunting then the 10 minutes you're spending playing with the jobpoint is an elaborate social charade that is wasting both your time and the advisors in the job centre.

    3. When you are looking for jobs then the most useful thing you should have access to is... the internet. You might want to look at local newspapers online, or send e-mails or register with recruitment agencies. None of these can you do from jobpoints. So if you don't have the internet at home then you've got to go to a public library and use a public phone booth or your mobile phone outside.

    4. Jobpoints are easier for non-computery types to use than windows, and it would take up advisor's time tutoring people in the use of the internet if they had computers and not jobpoints. But this kinda misses the point. If people can't use the internet or a computer then it limits the type of work they can do and their ability to job search. So spending 10 minutes loitering about a bank of internet terminals helping Billy Unemployed learn how to use a scroll bar is... erm, helping him have a better chance of getting work. Which is kinda what the job centre is there for.

    So unless you're *seen* to be looking for a job with someone looking over your shoulder then there's no expectation that you might actually be looking for jobs on your own. Why can't the government trust that someone can work out a good time to go to a jobpoint all by themselves... after all, if they can't, there isn't much hope for them in a job. And, more ironically, since most good job seeking occurs outside the job centre then time spent pretending you're job seeking for 10 minutes is actually time you could have spent somewhere else looking for a job.

    Some people are cradle to grave managed by the government. They may be in care. They may be long-term unemployed. If the government constantly treats people like children, and potential criminals then you are unlikely to create people with any dignity and self-respect who can make mature decisions. It sucks and it's sadly symptomatic of the way this government works in every aspect of society - from ID cards to obesity.

    Fancy a squirrel... it fell off the hull of the Titanic

    For those who don't watch the patchily excellent Bremmer, Bird and Fortune - switch on your television at 8:10 pm on Saturday. If you haven't got a television, go around and watch a friends' (or something).

    Last Saturday he picked up on this story from over the summer, questioning what happened if you simultaneously impersonated a traffic warden AND attempted to sell a grey squirrel. Kind of "Your car is illegally parked... erm, and fancy a squirrel". He also did this amusing sketch telling the British public how they would know a friend or family member was planning to enter the hull of the Titanic so they could alert the authorities.

    Monday, September 25, 2006

    More on affordable housing

    Huge thanks to the leader of South Shropshire DC whose left a comment for me; it's great to get informed debate going! I've added a comment in response which I'll elaborate on here.

    She made a very valid point about people working in rural areas, which I had assumed from my experience living in a rural area to be pretty much negligible. Most of the affordable housing debate in my area has been local people who want to live near their families (in some cases for ease of child care) but who mostly work outside the area. This means they do at least a 7 mile commute to the station each day and possibly up to a 17 mile commute to a nearby urban area. Pollution-aside, the urban area could do with more young families, etc. choosing to live there to revitalise it and stop it being a 'no-go' area at night when everyone goes home from work. This was one of the reasons I objected to the 'localness' clause for affordable rural housing - 'local' does not necessarily mean 'works there'.

    Understandably, I was particularly concerned about the combination of this type of policy with our just-passed policy on rural communities. This includes the line:

    Recognition that cars are often necessary in sparsely populated areas by granting a VED discount for those who most need it and examining the viability of EU derogation to permit lower excise duty on fuel in such areas.

    In a predominantly service-based economy in which around 1.8 % of the population of England work in primary industry (e.g. fishing, forestry, etc.) but where 15 % of the population live in rural areas then the remaining 13 % of people (well, fewer if you include carers, etc.) are living an environmentally prolifigate lifestyle that is more expensive to service due to low population concentration and transport costs. If you read State of the Countryside 2005, urban to rural migration is a major issue. This is due to lifestyle issues NOT work. If the Lib Dems are going to be proscriptive at all about UK housing in the future then we want people crowded into several major cities in high density housing, living close to both services and their work with few people living in the countryside (ideally also at medium-high density). This may not apply to South Shropshire (like any good Liberal I understand that one size doesn't fit all), but we need to be careful when talking about 'rural communities' because we are subsidising the right of urban dwellers to play Marie Antoinette without paying the full cost of this lifestyle choice. It's worth mentioning that the farm workers in my area tend not to own cars and cycle from small towns to work.

    The second reason I objected to the localness clause was that there is no assumption in urban areas that family living in, say, Belgravia entitles other family members to a right of residency. This is because urban areas are assumed to be vibrant, living areas. I fear the reference to 'localness' rather than purely to 'work' suggests a worldview in which rural areas are museum pieces in which people reenact age-old traditions, blah, blah.

    I obviously don't understand the exact circumstances but am concerned why when there is an obvious demand for houses for poorer rural workers, private firms are not fulfilling this need since second home owners and rural workers should have different housing needs. This may be due to a lack of family homes (which would appeal to second home owners) or maybe because of planning objections to more appropriate styles of housing since they may change the 'character' of an area (this often applies to higher density housing which is the only form of housing that generates the same return per hectare of land as a large detached). In some areas, using traditional building materials pushes house prices up even without housing demand from outside. Controversial, but this is something I don't have much sympathy for since the people who are often objecting to the building of these types of properties are incomers; local residents are more likely to be in favour since it is their children and families who are unable to afford existing properties that are in keeping with the surrounding area. Rural areas are real, functioning places - they are not there for the benefit of urban dwellers who've watched too many re-runs of Midsomer Murders. With a few exceptions (Battersea Power Station, very high towers), there are far fewer worries about 'traditional lifestyles', 'preservation' or 'character' in urban areas. I think the idea that rural areas need to be 'preserved' like museum pieces is bizarre and something that a progressive party shouldn't be pandering too.

    Sunday, September 24, 2006

    I can't believe we just passed that...

    There's a line in the Lib Dem PPC approval form that reads:

    Which elements of Liberal Democrat policy would you like to see changed and why?

    The Lib Dem policy on smacking was always my hot favourite answer to that question. Not because I'm in favour of clobbering small people or anything, the annoying little... [SNIP] but because I'm deeply uncomfortable about a debate which includes components of:

    "Won't this criminalise otherwise law-abiding parents who are in favour of smacking?"

    "No, because although the law says that it's really just a deterrent to say that smacking is unacceptable. We'd never actually prosecute decent, loving law-abiding parents who just happen to believe smacking is an appropriate way of disciplining children. Really we're just against child abuse and the beating of children."

    "Doesn't existing legislation cover that?"


    The times I've heard the 'I know this legislation *could* be used for... but we'd NEVER do that.' Just because Labour's done it, doesn't mean the Lib Dems should join in.

    But I've now got a new contender for "I can't believe we just passed that" and this is part of the Housing Policy paper ("Affordable Homes in Safer, Greener Communities") discussed at Autumn party conference. Here are some of the offending quotes:

    Many would-be first time buyers simply cannot buy in the area where they were brought up [page 9]

    A restricted market is created with conditions on who can purchase the house: key workers or people already living in the area for example.... but also could help address problems faced by key workers in London. [page 9]

    In South Shropshire, market pressures from tourists and retirement have pushed up local property prices, causing a shortage of affordable housing. The district council therefore created the concept of “golden shares” in affordable housing, to help local families to find homes in the area. Such a property can only be sold on to people with local needs... Such a person needs to fulfil three of the following criteria: born locally; schooled locally; lives or works locally; parents/children living locally or have the support of the town/parish council. [page 10]

    Sounds good? So why does it make me grit my teeth. Well, I live in an area where:

    affordable housing is not the problem. There are communities where housing is extremely cheap, or even worthless, because the housing market has collapsed or is on the brink of doing so. [page 13]

    This is because there are few professional jobs. The only decent jobs are solicitors, doctors and working for the public sector. People writing the free council news sheet are paid almost as much as a doctor; this is because council workers don't have regional weighting in salaries. This explains why 'key public sector workers' have so many housing problems in London - the lack of regional weighting means that they are paid too little to live in London yet are being paid professional salaries for the same job in sink areas ooop north.

    The lack of professional employment means that there's a net outflux of educated people who go and seek opportunities elsewhere. There isn't a demand for housing and the housing is cheap. It also means that an educated person can't live near their parents or in their place of birth and schooling without sacrificing their career. And this can't be solved by housing policy alone - a solution would need to tackle grinding poverty, urban decay, a lack of services and infrastructure, transport connections to the rest of England, a culture of low aspirations... it goes on and on.

    So why are we assuming that people in high housing demand should have an automatic right to live near their family/place of birth when this choice doesn't exist elsewhere in UK for less immediately obvious reasons? Further, why should 'being local' preference you over someone choosing to move into an area for work or retirement? Surely, if you're going to erect 'Sorry, we're full' signs then 'need' should be more important than 'localness'. If you were going to limit numbers of tourists visiting the Galapagos islands, you wouldn't put people from Ecuador first in the queue because they lived closer. You'd limit numbers by making people pre-book their holiday a long time in advance... or maybe only let scientists in. The focus on 'localness' as being a automatic ticket to the front of the queue is just... silly.

    There's a second reason why South Shropshire isn't like the Galapagos islands. It doesn't have a unique ecosystem and you can build there. So if the problem is a lack of housing... then surely the solution is... to build more houses. Simple, isn't it? Encourage high density housing on brownfield sites. The glut of housing should bring down costs and everyone, local or otherwise, should be able to find somewhere to live.

    Saturday, September 16, 2006

    Top 100 Lib Dem blogs

    F&M is 29th... despite us not posting very often (blushes all around).

    On a personal note, I'm hoping this changes very shortly since on Thursday I'm booked to submit ~ 46,000 words of badly written, poorly justified speculation cobbled together last minute, linked together by an utterly contrived theme and liberally illustrated with numerous incomprehensible diagrams that are referred to in passing without being elucidated further.

    LibertyCat has read (poor soul) more than 1/2 of it at various times and doesn't *seem* to think it's as bad as I do... but I think he's being nice.


    Monday, September 11, 2006

    5 years on

    5 years ago, a gang of religious fanatics bent on mass murder hijacked four scheduled flights. 2 of the aeroplanes were flown into the 110-storey twin towers of the World Trade Centre, a third was flown into the Pentagon, and a fourth was brought down in a field in Pennsylvania by the heroic action of the passengers, preventing a second attack on Washington D.C.

    Let us remember the victims of that attack. Remember the passengers and crew of American Flight 11, American Flight 77, and United Flight 175. Remember those who died on the ground, in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. May they rest in peace.

    Let us honour the heroes who responded to that attack. Honour the brave men of the New York Fire Department and New York Police Department, who rushed into a burning building and climbed up hundreds of flights of stairs in an attempt to rescue those who would not otherwise escape. Honour the passengers of United Flight 93, who courageously gave their lives that others would live. May their memory be an inspiration to us.

    That fateful day, many of us were astonished both by the depths of human depravity and the heights of human courage and generosity. But there were things that have become commonplace that should be even more astonishing. If you showed my first paragraph to an educated person of any period of human history before 1900, he would be most astonished by two ideas that you probably didn't notice: "scheduled flight" and "110-storey twin towers". That the world contained fanatics bent on murder would not have surprised him, and should not have surprised us.

    The twentieth century was unpleasant. But ultimately the good guys won - most obiously in 1945 and 1989, but also in countless small ways as concepts like Liberty, Equality and the Rule of Law were extended from middle-class white males who happened to live in one of a small number of enlightened countries to cover the majority of the world's population. With freedom came material prosperity. Not only can we fly through the air at 80% of the speed of sound, but this is so ordinary that it happens every day on a schedule. The net result of this material and moral progress is that mass murder is now shocking and powered flight commonplace, rather than the other way round.

    With that big picture in mind, the appropriate response to people who blow up airliners for God is derision. Kung Fu Monkey does derision particularly well.

    As a political blogger, it behoves me to pontificate on how to win the "war on terror". That means making sure that the historians of 2100 look back at the events of five years ago and still find "fanatics bent on murder" more surprising than "scheduled flight". And that means preserving the things that make Western Civilisation civilised. So I intend to pontificate about Liberalism.

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    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    Everything bad is good for you.

    I've just been reading the hot pink edition (seriously, it glows) of Everything Bad Is Good for You. The Grauniad wasn't impressed at all but I think they missed the point.

    I guess that's because I realised what Johnson meant by "smarter". He was talking about what's called systems or associative thinking. This is the skill that enables us to keep track of a huge web of social relationships in a sitcom, to be able to follow numerous interweaving subplots in a detective drama, to intuitively recognise alien attack patterns in computer games or be able to navigate webpages where linear text is interspersed with hyperlinks. Associative/systems thinking analyses the rules of a system as a function of its interconnections rather than separating all the parts and analysing each in turn. Systems thinking can include intuitive pattern recognition or drawing relationships between apparently unconnected concepts where the system is 'the life, the universe and everything'. System thinking depends on interconnections and is therefore non-linear. It's also the skill used in Raven's Progressive Matrices tests (which Johnson mentions in the book) - used to avoid cultural biasing in IQ tests.

    New media mediums such as the internet, computer games and film are primarily visual and visual mediums are a non-linear way of communicating information. This is why the question "What happens at the beginning of the Mona Lisa?" is meaningless. This differs from 'book' intelligence which is the ability to either create or follow a linearly developed argument, often presented verbally. Hence, the question "What happens at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice?" makes perfect sense. Johnson explains that in order to present a sequentially structured proposition, the best medium remains the book.

    Johnson has hit on an interesting point but the limited size of his book means he doesn't explore its wider significance. The whole issue of 'dumbing down' arises from western society's privileging of 'book' intelligence over systems thinking, which means that being good at Tetris or being able to navigate a game world is not regarded as a manifestation of intelligence. It's not all bad - Go is regarded as an 'intelligence' game and requires intuitive pattern recognition, but it's not as popular in the west as chess which tends to be more sequential; you can describe play using a sequence of moves. This is why computers can beat us at chess but not at Go. It is only very recently that people have started writing about the importance of a systems approach at all, and this has often been a bit controversial or cranky . Systems thinking has become increasingly well-regarded since discussions of climate change and sustainability have tended to take an earth systems approach; like The Natural Step. And people have seized on methods of associative thinking like mind mapping as a means of thinking around a problem (the diagrams in Johnson's book show how relationships between people in 24 and modern detective plots are better summarised by a mind map than an description).

    But a fair bit of educational attainment is still focused on the ability to construct a linear argument. This is the skill tested by essay writing. Scientific writing also assumes a reductionalist approach to problems in which progress is made through a series of sequential, linear steps. Since progress is rarely made in this fashion - most of the work of scientific writing tends to be in forcing non-linear relationships into a linear argument. Great works of literature are usually regarded as 'great' due to the quality or wit of their writing, rather than the complexity or imagination of the story. The former is verbal and linear, the latter is associative. A 100 % associative thinker wouldn't understand why Booker Prize winners are regarded as 'better' literature than, say, Sabriel.

    The focus on linear thinking is understandable since without computers or TVs to communicate complex ideas visually, the only way of testing intelligence was to test people's ability to communicate verbally. Unfortunately, it discriminates quite badly against associative/systems thinkers who have difficulty compacting their maps of relationships between things into a sequential narrative. Not being able to communicate linearly is indistinguishable from not having a clue; the difference is that associative thinkers can communicate their ideas perfectly on a poster or Powerpoint. Further, associative thinkers often cannot explain the explicit rules of a system. They just 'know' how it works. Johnson discusses this with relation to simple computer games like Pacman where players could guess the repetitive patterns generated in the programming and so consistently get high scores in the game. However, in an intellectual climate in which reason is defined as a plodding step-by-step progression you can't just 'know' that ghosts walk three times left and four times right. You've got to explain the reasoned steps you took to reach that conclusion and the exact nature of the rule. Good associative thinkers work backwards; they find the answer and figure out all the steps to get there afterwards.

    Penalising associative thinking actually a bit crazy in the 21st century because it is the most creative way of thinking about problems. A 100 % linear thinker, the person who could write a perfect essay could not produce truly creative or visionary work because they could not make new and interesting associations between apparently unconnected ideas. They could only synthesise existing ideas or work through a series of steps to examine a problem and solve it by referring to work relating to that problem. Real visionary thinking requires a 'web' world view in which everything is linked together in a vast tangle, a global mind map - ouboros are linked to benzene, and so on. That's not to say a 100 % linear thinker couldn't do original work but they would not be the person who caused a Kuhnian paradigm shifts; they would do the 'normal' work between shifts when it is sufficient to draw upon a local body of standard practice.

    So perhaps Johnson is wrong about the cultural renaissance. Maybe it will come when visual, non-linear media become so prevalent and powerful that they can be used to conceptualise the most difficult problems. It will be then that linear narrative will seem a clumsy way of communicating richness and complexity, and associative thinkers will inherit the earth.

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    For a slightly less intelligent view on the world...

    ...hours of fun or five minutes of fun including page refresh time if you inflict it on an unsuspecting friend and see how long it takes them to figure out that they're not talking to a real person.

    Political discussion is optional...

    [Wikipedia entry is here. And here's the BBC tech link and a Grauniad article].

    Come thy minarchists...

    I've been reading The Libertarian Reader by David Boaz, the Executive Vice President of the US Cato Institute. This is a series of selected essays or book extracts from authors the editor views as 'libertarian'.

    I've always found the 'libertarian'/'liberal' thing confusing in the US since 'liberal' in the US can mean statist, and thus more akin to the UK Labour party than the UK Liberal Democrat party. The Cato Institute is, however, minarchist which comes from a similar tradition to UK liberalism but is really quite different from the UK liberal beliefs outlined in Young, Free and Liberal [now available for free to download here].

    From reading an essay by Murray Rothbard (whose regarded as a radical libertarian by David Boaz and an anarcho-capitalist by wikipedia), I'm coming to the conclusion that the difference could lie in the way that minarchists regard the state. They regard it as uniquely oppressive because 'only the government obtains its income by coercion and violence... every othern person or group receives its income by voluntary payment... apart from criminal outlaws, only the government can use its funds to commit violence against its own or any other subjects'. The problem is that although this might be the case in practice or at the moment, if 'all goods and services, including law and justice [were] provided without coercive government' then other groups would soon fill the gap in provision. Yet private monopolies could be as much a danger to individual freedom as the government and unlike government are not accountable to everyone in theory, never mind in practice. This is the nightmare of the Blade Runner-esque dystopia. If you are going to argue that any welfare provision makes people unfree then what is the difference between that and a company town like Saltaire. Surely, a worker is just as unfree being given housing, education, etc. by their employer as by the state?

    The only person who is theoretically more free is Sir Titus Salt who, in theory, was free to build or not build Saltaire but who is compelled to contribute to welfare. I say, in theory, because workers are less productive in the absence of healthcare, education, decent housing, etc. So factory owners who didn't build places like Saltaire and chose not to be philanthropic in the absence of a welfare state were just free-riding. During a recession, various wealthy and philanthropic people would voluntarily try to help the disadvantaged. After the recession, non-philanthropic businessmen would reemploy those people. The health, welfare and ability to work of these workers was at least in part a result of other people's charity during their difficulty. Thus, the 'freedom' to choose not to be charitable in the absence of basic welfare is actually just an example of blatant free-riding on other people's generosity and kindness. It's like freedom to pollute - all very well in theory but actually it's not a 'freedom' because someone somewhere has their freedom of action reduced by your smog. For free-riding problems, you don't need a minarchist state, you need a light touch arbitrator to ensure people play fair. How you organise that light touch arbitrator to avoid it becoming a behemoth is, of course, a different question.

    The objection to state compulsion over tax is pretty weak too. If the minarchist state is going to force Titus Salt to pay taxes to provide a police force, then there can be no sensible objection (or I haven't thought of one yet) to the idea of further compulsion to pay for or subsidise services such as education or a basic welfare state. The Wikipedia article on minarchism points out that:

    Some believe that minarchism is inconsistent with libertarian belief and is a contradictory philosophy. Libertarianism, by definition, opposes the initiation of force or fraud against person or property. In order for a state to fund itself, it would have to tax people, which requires coercion and thus an initiation of force. Some libertarians argue that anarcho-capitalism is the only logically consistent form of libertarian belief. But supporters of minarchism counter that the government could survive on private donations and the creation trust funds without any form of taxation whatsoever.

    And the latter, of course, wouldn't work. Why pay for the state to pay people to administer your security badly when you can hire a couple of thugs to stand out front? So we're left with anarcho-capitalism... remove the state to leave a huge power void just waiting to be filled with some other pig... which chills an Actonian liberal to the bone. Anarcho-capitalism is much like communism... nice idea in theory, shame about the application.

    Monday, September 04, 2006

    I want these mother***** dinosaurs out the mother***** newspaper!

    Via the Britblog roundup, I found a feminist group blog and was surfing some of the links. I've always been uncomfortable with the 'dark' side of feminist discussion, the strand of feminism that views typical women's issues like abortion as being purely about women (the guy's just the doofus sperm donor), that high heels are patriarchial (ok, those shoes are silly and that blog's a spoof... I think) and that men are assumed to be benignly or secretly sexist.

    But feminism like most 'isms' isn't an 'ism', it's a range of different viewpoints. So it's a shame that the extremist feminism and its misrepresentations have caused a lot of women to say they're not feminists when gender issues haven't disappeared completely... we're still talking about them whereas we're not still talking about the earth being flat (mostly). Even the Telegraph and Daily Wail doesn't write articles yearning for a return to geocentricism. They do still publish articles claiming married couples are having less sex because women are working, saying men don't want paternity leave, that men are mad if they marry a 'career woman' ('career' woman being someone who has a degree, works over 16 hours a week and earns over £17,000... so about 70 % of the female population if you exclude the degree and at least 35 % otherwise) and that woman have HWS (Hurried Woman Syndrome) due to combining children and a career. And that's just the reactionary right. The statist left responds with articles complaining that women are objectifying themselves by taking up pole-dancing classes... oh, and that women are obsessed with being gauntly thin.

    Column inches are devoted to complaining that:

    there's a constant jockeying for position on the weight front among women, a competitive, low-grade bitchery (rarely expressed, but captured, often, on the cover of heat or Now) which reveres the dropping of a dress size and stigmatises the gaining of a kilo. Of course, if you're bright and grown-up and plugged into the issues of the day, you tend not to let on that you're fascinated by other women's bottoms. But you are. We are. We look. We compare.

    And asserting that:

    birth... doesn’t mean we suddenly want to fill our days with baby talk and the smell of nappies and moisturising cream... The early weeks and months of parenthood, you see, are women’s work. We men are almost entirely useless... If you stay at home, you don’t see nearly so many people. The quietness will drive you mad - if visiting family members have not already done so. A prominent war reporter once said that his job was 99 per cent boredom and one per cent terror. The statistics for looking after infants are much the same.

    Or that:

    'Until they programme men to notice you're out of toilet paper, a happy domestic life will always be up to women' - a sentiment almost unanimously held by the working mothers I know. What we've learnt during this 30-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing household tasks, but will not do them the way a woman would... They will... do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even - bless their hearts - surprised about this.

    So what's the sensible, liberal response to this. Well, it's quite simple. If assuming Muslims (2.7 % of the UK population) are a homogenous group is stupid then assuming women (~ 50 % of the UK population) are homogenous is downright crazy.

    To a liberal, it really doesn't matter if men are, on average, more intelligent than woman. Or whether men are, on average, more competitive than women. Because the average Canadian has one breast and one testicle. If you're interviewing someone for a job, you don't want to know the average characteristics of women or African-Americans or lesbians... you want to know whether the African-American lesbian woman sitting in front of you is more capable than the white heterosexual guy sitting outside. And if you're going to make that decision based on averages rather than interviewing the individual then the more fool you... and it's probably a lucky escape for the woman interviewee who has narrowly avoided being employed by a boss who doesn't understand the difference between a probability distribution and a random sample.

    So gender equality, to a liberal, is not about ensuring that there are equal numbers of men and women. It's about ensuring that, in this beautiful quote by Fiat Lux:

    to me, that is the essence of feminism -- the belief that women should be just as able to set and steer their own life's course as men are... even the most intelligent and self-aware women are not going to make the same choices in their lives. The problem lies when people, for whatever reason, think that not only are they are better able to decide what another person should or should not do, but that they have a better understanding of the underlying emotions and motivations that go into the choice.

    And that's why Caitlin 'she's never scrubbed her own bath' Flanagan and friends should just butt out of trying to tell me what women want to do, what women should be doing and what women are designed to do. Some women are maternal carers who remember to buy toilet paper, find cleaning therapeutic and want a man to support them. Others, erm, aren't... the only reason you'd put me in a kitchen is because you wanted to make an home insurance claim under the flood, fire and extreme weather clause and the only thing I know about babies is which end is up. The essence of liberal feminism is that knowing myself as I do, I should know better than the Daily Wail where to apply myself to be most useful to society... like an office where the only thing I can injure is a profit margin. So let me get on with it, stop whittering about the average woman and get the mother**** dinosaurs out of the mother**** newspaper.

    [NB: More discussion about that Forbes article here, here and here. Hat tip to Feministing].

    Sunday, September 03, 2006

    This is why politicians lie, or how saving the NHS caused the Iraq war

    Money should be 'no object' for NHS, says public


    The public are particularly stupid when you take into account that they are the same public that told the Taxpayers Alliance that the second largest problem (after crime) facing the UK was excessive taxes.

    Nothing is "regardless of cost". If your own mother needed life-saving treatment, you might say that you would pay up "regardless of cost", but you can afford to say that because you don't have the kind of money the government does. For most individuals, "regardless of cost" means "as long as it doesn't cost more than a few hundred thousand pounds", because if it cost a few million they wouldn't be able to afford it.

    Even if we are only talking about a half-million pound treatment, how many of the following would you prepared to do to pay for your mother's treatment?

    • Sell your house?
    • Take your child out of university?
    • Get your electricity cut off?
    • Sell your kidneys?

    For extra credit, what if the treatment only had a 10% chance of success?

    If any of those answers are "no", then you wouldn't provide healthcare for your own mother regardless of cost. So why should the rest of us?

    Actually, it gets worse than this. If their children's lives were at stake, most people would go through with some of the shocking money-raisers on my list. If their own lives were at stake, they would probably stop at selling the house. For an elderly parent, people spending their own money tend to give up on prolonging life relatively early and spend the money on palliative care instead. Do that in the NHS and you get hauled over the coals for age discrimination.

    Nevertheless, 71% of the electorate think that the NHS should be funded regardless of cost. Because the NHS plays the same role in British politics as God does in American politics, this means that politicians have to pretend to believe it too, or else we get drummed out of office for atheism. But we can't actually believe it, because it is such a damnfool thing to believe.

    Politicians in power have to make decisions about what the government will and won't pay for out of a limited budget - just like you do when Mum gets ill and the NHS won't pay for treatment. But we have to lie about it, because the voters make us. And if you have to lie to get ahead, then the profession of politics attracts talented liars - just like Tony Blair.

    Tony Blair got where he is because he told the electorate lies about tax and spending in 1997. If he didn't have the lying skills to tell those lies with total sincerity while still being trusted as a "pretty straight kind of guy" then he wouldn't have been elected. If he was the sort of person whose mother had told him not to lie, he wouldn't have been able to do it. Successful politicians are people who are prepared to tell the electorate a little white lie, over and over again, with no visible signs of guilt. People who don't feel guilty about telling little white lies are going to start telling slightly bigger lies. If they are talented liars, they will get away with it. Eventually they will tell some real whoppers. Things like these:

    • That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
    • That a major aim of the Iraq war was to bring democracy to the Iraqis
    • That the Iraqis would appreciate this, and shower us with flowers
    • That the Bush administration wasn't a bunch of clueless numpties

    So how can we fight back as non-lying politicians? In the short term, we can't. What the electorate want, the electorate will get. And the electorate want someone who whispers sweet nothings about saving the NHS "regardless of cost" without actually raising taxes or spending any money. What they get is someone who can lie shamelessly, and it just so happens that the current liar-in-chief finds lying about weapons of mass destruction far more fun than lying about budgets.

    In the long term, we can do two things. Firstly, challenge motherhood-and-apple-pie lies. When Gordon Brown gets up and says that he will provide free childcare for everyone, ask him how he is going to pay for it, and keep asking. When David Cameron says he can cut taxes without cutting services by getting rid of "waste and inefficiency", we should point and laugh. Then point out that our policies are fully costed and audited by the IFS, and the other parties' aren't. Unfortunately, this kind of negative-but-accurate campaigning is going to lower public trust in politics even further.

    So we have to try and change how the electorate thinks. Most of the "white lies" politicians have to tell are to do with spending priorities. We need to treat questions about spending priorities as questions about priorities, and not about right and wrong, or who has religion and who doesn't. There isn't a fundamental right to government-funded healthcare - and there can't be, because that would imply a government duty to pay for it, and sometimes the government can't or shouldn't pay. Anyone who uses the language of fundamental rights when talking about spending priorities in the NHS is (a) lying, and (b) teaching the electorate to expect other politicians to lie. We also need to stop pretending that there are vast pools of untapped cash like "cutting waste and inefficiency" or "taxing the rich". Large, centralised organisations will always be wasteful and inefficient. If the rich are overtaxed, they won't bother getting rich.

    The idea that decisions about priorities are just that is not difficult. Every family has to skimp on things that are important to them in order to be able to spend the money on something even more important. Unlike the other parties, Liberal Democrats can probably get away with saying so. The defining ideology of the Labour party is about spending priorities. The defining ideology of all successful centre-right parties is also based on financial priorities. The defining ideology of the Liberal Democrats is based around controlling power, and upholding real human rights. The right to free speech is not like the "right" to free healthcare. It exists (or should do) in the poorest societies just as much as the richest. Many people devoted their lives to the struggle for human rights. Others gave their lives in that struggle. That is what "regardless of cost" really means.