Where's the Pork?

March 18, 2005

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Fascinating interview with Oona King MP in the Evening Standard.

See her last comment, referring to the threat to her seat from Respect candidate George Galloway:

“He can bluff and bluster as much as he wants,” she says. “At the end of the day [if he is voted in] he will never persuade the Treasury to spend an extra ten pence in Tower Hamlets because he has no influence at all. And that worries many local people.”

We are familiar with the idea — “pork-barrel politics” as they call it in the States — that the role of an elected representative is to bring government money to their constituency (although a different term would be more suitable to King’s 55,000 Bangladeshi constituents).

This goes beyond that. She is implying that a Labour Government would punish the voters of Bethnal Green for not voting Labour.

This is not a particular criticsim of Oona King, who is gaining a reputation for saying things better left unsaid. There are, after all, better reasons for voting against George Galloway than the government’s blackmail. The blackmail is the effect of a centralised state controlling 40% of the economy. (In this country, even money spent by local authorities is mainly effectively controlled by Westminster).

We have only one vote for the government of this country. If we use up our vote in an attempt to influence the redistribution of wealth, we have no vote left with which to express our views about war, freedom, security, or the ever-vexed issue of school dress codes. That itself is a reason for separation of economy and state.


Bypassing grassroots

March 17, 2005

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Labour elite join pre-election rush for safe seats — Guardian

41 sitting Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. No big deal. 14 of the 41 have made the announcements too late for their constituency Labour parties to carry out their own selection procedures — with the result that the national party gets to pick the shortlist. The implication is that most of the 14 have delayed their announcement deliberately to move this power from local parties to the national party.

I can’t see how this would not be resented by Labour party branch members. For the Labour Party to repeatedly pull this stunt on them, either they must put up with it, or the national Party doesn’t care whether they put up with it or not. Either way, the situation indicates a great decrease in the significance of the Labour Party’s rank and file membership.

There is an inevitable, and universal, tension between party leadership and part grass-roots. The leadership want to get elected, and are willing to compromise their platform in order to gain power. The activists are also in favour of winning elections, but are likely to be much less willing to move to the political centre. A strong grass-roots organisation forcing the party away from the centre is an electoral liability.

Historically, the importance of the party membership has been in campaigning and fundraising. These tasks have been diminished by the rise of television and corporatism — if the party leadership can talk directly to the electorate, with money taken from industry (or, one day, state funds), the grass roots lose their traditional role.

The mass party is still essential in another role — one that used to be done so well that it wasn’t noticed, but is becoming difficult for modern diminished parties to fulfill. The party leadership is drawn from the rank and file. The Labour Party is still just about able to lay hands on sufficient high-calibre individuals to fill the front bench, and this is now proving one of its key advantages over the Opposition. Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett — whatever their faults, these are intelligent people, capable of managing underlings and gaining respect.

That generation, however, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, when selecting candidates and electing the NEC made the party membership more important, and presumably made membership of the party more fulfilling.

It may be that the old route — party member to councillor (or trade union official) to MP to senior figure — might be replaced by a career path that winds through the party headquarters: researcher, media advisor, policy advisor, whatever. It seems unlikely that this could provide as large a pool of potential candidates to draw on as did the constituency committees of old. What is the Labour leader of 2020 doing today?


Computons


The Economist:

Electricity is sold by the kilowatt-hour. Now a researcher has proposed that computing power be sold by the computon

If a 500MW power station could only be built by putting fifty thousand small 10kW generators in racks, with expensive complicated machinery to try to keep as many as possible fueled and running at once, then I don’t think the concept of an electricity grid would ever have caught on. But that’s what a “computing” power station looks like.

There are some slight economies of scale to computer hardware, mainly in management overhead, but compared to the cost of putting your own computer at the other end of a wide area network, they’re negligible.

The amazing thing is that this idea keeps cropping up, year after year, despite the fact that the basic technology just does not exist. Maybe it will one day, although currently it’s moving in the other direction.


Quick point on Terrorism Act

March 15, 2005

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One reason why the new Terrorism Act goes so much further than the old ones is that Islamist terrorists are more keen to kill large numbers of people than the IRA ever were. I don’t dispute that.

But there is another reason. In the Good Old Days, if the police believed that particular individuals in Britain were terrorists, but didn’t have the evidence to prove it, they didn’t just whine to the Prime Minister for more powers. No by Jimminy they didn’t.

No, like any self-respecting police throughout history, they got up off their arses and faked up some evidence. That’s the traditional way.

Modern forensic techniques and legal requirements make that more difficult these days.

So today, instead of having explosive residue planted on him, or being invited to sign a blank piece of paper on which will be written a contemporaneous account of his confession, our known terrorist will get a totally legal Control Order from Charles Clarke.

There’s one thing we know now about at least some of the people fitted up in the Good Old Days by the boys in blue.

They were completely innocent.

Just one little point to bear in mind.


Censorship as Expression

March 14, 2005

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Bouncing around random links from this week’s BritBlog Roundup, I ended up at a Mark Lawson piece in the Grauniad on censorship in the theatre.

There was a breathtaking exchange on a Radio 5 programme this week. A leader of the campaign to disrupt Jerry Springer: The Opera was interrupted by another guest in the studio who said: “But I’m also a Christian and I don’t believe that Jerry Springer should be banned.” The religious censor pounced: “Yes, but you can’t impose your interpretation of Christianity on everyone else.”

The key to understanding this exchange is that in the current media world, the most obvious way of expressing dislike for something is to try to ban it — to the point where it appears as the only way of expressing opposition. The first speaker in the passage above was expressing his opinion of Jerry Springer: The Opera by campaigning to ban it, and his opponent, by criticising that, was effectively saying the first speaker should not express himself, and thus attempting to censor him.

In an ideal world, the anti-Springerist should have been able to express his view of the work, and have that view publicised, without threatening to forcibly prevent people from seeing it. In this world, to achieve such a thing is so difficult it probably never occurred to him, and, if it did occur to him, he would rationally have been bound to discard it as a strategy. He would not have been able to get such views discussed at all, let alone on Radio 5. In our culture, it is difficult to get people to even understand the concept of opposing something without making it illegal, and if you succeed in getting the idea across, you will still lose impact and be seen as wishy-washy or over-complex. This is the problem for anti-prohibitionists in the drug debate, for example.

Again, in the ideal world, he could have taken out advertisments urging people not to go to watch the offending work, or campaigned for clergy to condemn it in the pulpit. I feel slightly silly even making these suggestions. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to demand a ban. If you don’t get it, that doesn’t matter so much. You will have expressed your view, and got media coverage, and you will have shown both your friends and your enemies the strength of your support.

How to get to my ideal world? I can see two approaches. One is to try to delegitimise censorship off the bat, and refuse to engage with the substantive opinion of someone demanding censorship. The second is the opposite, to treat the demand for censorship as purely formal, and have a debate only on the actual objections of the would-be censors, without taking seriously or considering the practicalities of how the censorship would actually happen.

Neither approach looks much like working to me. Does anyone have a better idea?

I suppose we should also ask how we got to this situation. I guess it’s just that greater democratisation of society, and greater access to mass media, has meant that a vocal minority actually can ban things, and that has made doing so the obvious way of expressing dislike.


More Northern Ireland

March 13, 2005

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Light is shone on the IRADaily Telegraph

This piece (h/t Tim Worstall) uses the McCartney murder to criticise the Northern Ireland peace process, and the British and Irish governments for supporting it.

I had an argument over at US blog Captain’s Quarters with a commenter making a similar point.

The peace process obviously makes no sense if you believe that the IRA was on the verge of comprehensive military defeat anyway. While British forces had achieved a number of operational victories in the years prior to the first cease-fire, I don’t think that was the case. Indeed, the current situation demonstrates that that was not the case.

The IRA could not be eliminated so long as they retained a measure of support in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. It might be possible to contain or suppress them under those conditions, but not to finally defeat them. Furthermore while it might be theoretically possible to carry out this containment without increasing resentment of the British forces and sympathy for the IRA, in practice it is unfeasable to do so. The daily routine of army patrols, house searches, and checkpoints (Iraq is not the only country where non-terrorists get shot at checkpoints) is enough to reinforce perception of the British as an occupying force.

The McCartney affair is at once a demonstration that the Provisional IRA retains a degree of legitimacy in its community, and the greatest blow to that legitimacy in its history. The line that the PSNI can take is: “Any time you want us to police your streets instead of these murderers, we’re ready to do the job”. If the murder of Robert McCartney (and the Northern Bank job) are enough to win the PSNI sufficient help to solve them, then this is the beginning of the end for the IRA. If they are not yet enough, the government will have to wait.

Kevin Myers in the Telegraph article says that, in return for the police reforms, Sinn Fein have given precisely nothing. Here I disagree. The fact that the government no longer has to police nationalist areas of Northern Ireland as an occupying army, as it previously needed to in order to protect the mainland and the rest of Northern Ireland, means that it can start to establish its own legitimacy to challenge that of the IRA. The fact that the IRA no longer has an enemy to fight, but is only an organised crime syndicate, simultaneously eats at its legitimacy. Unless the government overplays its hand, there can be only one long-term outcome.

One clarification: when I say that the IRA maintains its grip over its areas by the consent of the population, that could be interpreted as saying that those populations have chosen — and therefore deserve — to have the IRA rule them. That of course is not the case. The IRA does not need 100% local support, or even 50%. It may be as low as 10% or 20%. The rest are simply its victims, and deserve sympathy — especially when they show the courage of McCartney’s sisters. But it is an unfortunate fact that a liberal democracy is not able to function in a population where even a significant minority support armed resistance. There can be no quick victory, but I believe the slow victory is being won.

Update: via Slugger O’Toole, a piece from The Independent, with actual reporting, describing in detail the source of IRA’s legitimacy and the decay of that legitimacy.


Privacy or Freedom?

March 11, 2005

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Four immigrants have been removed from their homes in 2001 and imprisoned in Belmarsh Prison. They have not been charged or convicted of any crime. (They are free to return to their countries of origin, but cannot be forced to do so).

The Law Lords ruled that this was a breach of human rights. In an attempt to reduce the threat posed by their release, the government has tried to get a new law passed that it can use to restrict their freedoms and movement after release. This law is being held up in the House of Lords.

These four are therefore now being released.

Their names are “E”, “H”, “Q”, and “K”.

What?

Oh, we can’t be told their real names. That would violate their privacy.

HAS THE WORLD GONE FUCKING MAD?

The government is prepared to overrule basic principles of freedom in this case — both ancient ones (Magna Carta) and modern ones (ECHR). It says it is necessary to take these extraordinary steps to protect us from these men. It has imprisoned them for over three years without trying them. So why can’t it tell us who they are?

Talk about swallowing camels and straining at gnats.

If it is necessary to compromise our liberties in the face of the terrorist threat, and perhaps it is, then surely we should have some kind of scale of which rights we are more willing to lose and which we are more determined to keep.

The idea that someone subject to legal proceedings should have their identity protected is something which I would happily give away for nothing. Indeed, I think the legal process should be open and public.

The right of people anywhere in the world to stay in this country, even if they are believed to be a threat, if they would be in danger in their home country, is worth a bit more. I would quite like to keep that, or at least to require that some justification for the belief that they are a threat be presented. I am open to discussion of this matter, though.

The right of citizens of this country to be either tried for an offence or allowed to go freely about their business is incomparably more valuable. I am nowhere near being convinced that we need to compromise this at all.

So why have we jumped straight to abolishing that essential freedom, when the stated objective could be so easily attained at much less cost.

I am sure the Police and Security Services are sincere in their desire to do their very important jobs as well as possible, and are asking for the power they think they need. But the dynamics of their organisations are such that they will always be asking for the most power they have any chance of getting. I do not blame them for that, but it is the role of our elected government to make the important trade-offs, and not to hide behind “advice” of these agencies as an excuse for not making them.


Legislative Productivity


The main political news at the moment is the Government’s attempt to pass a controversial Anti-Terrorism bill through both houses of Parliament. It’s in a bit of a hurry — Blair wants the new law in force by Monday.

I’ve already stated my position on the law itself, but the spectacle of legislative process at full throttle raises other issues.

Parliament has a certain amount of time available to debate laws. It uses all of it. Also, at the end of every legislative session, there are usually laws that haven’t been passed because there wasn’t time.

Now, how many laws should be passed? Given that we get as many laws as possible, to the very limit of the time available, there is no reason to believe that the level of legislative production is exactly the ideal level. The behaviour of Parliament suggests that they think we need many, many more laws, but there just isn’t time.

If this is what they think, and they are right, we should surely be looking at some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently. To some extent, the addition of extra layers of government — regional and European — provides this opportunity, but I’ve never heard them advocated in these terms.

I suspect this is because no-one really believes that what this country needs is higher legislative production. But that leads to the question: if we don’t need more laws than Parliament has time for, why does Parliament pack as many as possible into the time it has?

I believe that it does so because it is in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to personally pass as much legislation as they can, independent of the interests of the public.

What are the effects of this conflict of interest?

First, obviously, that we get more laws than we really need. We could manage without a law to make it illegal to tidy up the countryside without a license.

Second, less obviously, there is less scrutiny than there should be of laws. This gives enormous power to the government and Civil Service, as they can “scale up” their resources without limit to the level of legislative production, and Parliament can not increase its “quality control” function to match.

What applies to Parliament, applies even more strongly to the public as a whole. If Parliament considered one bill per month, we could all hear about it and form an opinion. At the rate of legislation actually in force, only a specialist can even know what laws are being considered at a given time. If you are affected by a proposed bill, it takes time to gather a grass-roots campaign to influence it. At the present hectic rate of legislation, you do not have time to do this.

The legislative sprint is anti-democratic in another way. Because Parliament as a whole is trying to pass as many laws as it can, any attempt to modify a bill is resisted, not just by those who actively support the particular bill, but by the others who have no strong opinion, but do not want to “waste time” on your objections because of the knock-on effect on the schedules of other bills.

I think this is one of the problems we are seeing in the EU legislature with the software patent situation.

But this effect reaches a whole new level in the European Parliament, because of the rules governing it. Where, as in this case, the Council adopts a proposal different from that adopted by the Parliament on first reading, Parliament is assumed to approve the changes, unless it finds time within a three-month period to disagree! This truly is a revolution in legislative productivity. Imagine if, say, the US Senate worked under this rule. Rather than have to find time to pass the laws you want to pass, all laws will automatically pass except the ones you find time to oppose.

This obviously gives even more power to whoever arranges the Parliament’s business.

One other obsolete obstacle to legislative productivity is the “quorum”. In most debating chambers, a minimum number of members are needed to approve a measure. Once again, the EU throws off these shackles, with another innovative rule. In the EU Parliament, a minimum number of members are needed to stop a measure! If less than half the members oppose the bill, it passes, even if nobody supports it, and even if the Parliament has already rejected it once on first reading.

Oh, and all this will stay exactly the same if the proposed constitution is passed.

(p. 117 of this document)

Update: Matthew Yglesias makes a very similar point about the US legislative process.


Electoral Metaphysics


As General Election time rolls round again, it’s time to address the age-old question, is it really worthwhile to vote?

The case against is made most eloquently by Steven Landsburg in the context of last year’s US presidential election. The probability of one vote making a difference to the outcome is negligible — comparable to winning the lottery 1000 times in a row.

There are some objections that can be made to this, most obviously that the result of the election isn’t just who wins. The margin of victory has an effect on the actions of the government throughout their term. Indeed, in the US we have seen endless pontificating on what lessons parties should draw from the answers voters gave to pollsters on their way home.

There’s another objection, however, which attacks Landsburg’s reasoning directly:

Let’s get mathematical:

Let a be the result of the election ( candidate X votes – candidate Y votes, to be simple) if I don’t vote

Let b be the result of the election if I do vote (say for candidate X).
Now, b = a + 1, so the actual outcome of the election will only be different if a=0 or a=-1 (whatever the rules are for tied elections). This is Landsburg’s calculation.

But what is the real justification for saying b = a + 1?

We can assume that my vote doesn’t affect anyone else’s vote. After all, they’re not supposed to know.

But that’s not sufficent. For b to equal a + 1, the votes of other people have to be statistically independent from mine. Can I assume that?

Now we get philosophical. The common view of me as a mind with “free will” seems to imply the independence assumption. But it isn’t backed up by sociology or neurobiology. On the basis of either observation or a reductionist, mechanistic view of the human brain, my vote is likely to be significantly correlated with other peoples’ votes. That, after all, is the assumption behind opinion polling.

And based on that correlation, ba cannot be assumed to be 1. It might be 5, or 100, or 10000.

Imagine, as a thought experiment, that we are all identical robots. We process our various inputs, and reach our conclusions. In the simplest possible model, either we will all vote for the same candidate, or none of us will vote.

As one of those robots, my vote will not affect anyone else’s, but if I vote for X, X will win.

We are not identical, and we will not all vote the same. But the correlation, though less than one, is surely greater than zero.

The tricky question: If I use this argument, and therefore vote, will there really be more votes for my candidate? Again, the opinion pollsters believe so. I think they’re right.

Psychologically, we do not reach decisions entirely via explicit logic. In fact, we invent reasons to excuse the decisions we would have made anyway. If I am determined to vote, more other people will vote than if I am indifferent. If my candidate wins by 10 votes, I will say, “If I hadn’t voted, he wouldn’t have won.”

Of course, if you live in a safe constituency, your vote won’t alter the result. That makes the case for a better electoral system all the stronger, since it shows that many people are denied political influence in a way that other people are not.

In any case, I will vote for a fringe party, so my candidate won’t win. But the same effect will amplify the secondary effects of my vote. A good percentage will have a real impact on UK politics.


Why is the EU so corrupt?

March 8, 2005

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For the benefit of those surprised by the software patent scandal, it is worth asking, why is this style of behaviour so characteristic of the EU institutions? A caricature of a Eurosceptic might say that it is to be expected of “foreigners”, but in fact the EU is more corrupt than any of its member countries.

Like asking why some countries are poor, this is in a sense a reversal of the real question. It is normal for people to be poor, and it is normal for governments to be corrupt, and it is the exceptions that need explanations, not the normal case. Nonetheless, there is still a discrepancy to be explained, as the EU is unusually corrupt when compared to governemnts in the developed world.

I see two major reasons. First, necessity puts a lower limit on national governments’ corruption and incompentence. Even in the modern era of bloated state sectors, there is a lot which a national government does which is considered essential to the lives of its citizens. If the Italian government could not keep order in the cities, if it could not keep the state-run transport system and basic nationalised services running, it would collapse. It would be overthrown as its failure became obvious to everyone.

In contrast, absolutely nothing that the EU does is essential. Every member government is capable of running its own country, and some have done so for centuries. There is no minimum level of competence or effectiveness below which the EU cannot fall, no degree of corruption which is unsupportable.

Secondly, the EU has a huge weight of idealism supporting it. While other state enterprises are judged on their achievements and their merits, the EU project can count on a large body of support on the basis of its ideals, independently of its actual structure or behaviour. It can upset one group or another with indivdual acts of defiance of law and democracy, but there are always more people who assume, in ignorance, that it is a force for good. When it comes to a vote, the diffuse good feeling outweighs the outrage of those that have experienced the Eurocrats directly.

The weakness of these two arguments is that they apply equally to the USA. It also is a federal layer over states capable of running their own affairs, and it also commands a unionist idealism. While by no means free of corruption, it is not so mired as the EU.

It is important to recognise that the USA is unique in this. There have been a number of other superstates, but none of them have been democratically controlled except for the USA. They have all been effectively ruled, as the EU is, by nominal civil servants with control of the bureaucracy. Though an opponent of Communism, I think the problems of the USSR were as much the result of federalism as they were of Marxism.

So why has the USA succeeded? I think its exceptional status comes from a number of different elements, but here are a few:

  • It was founded on a principle of strictly limited government. The founders had a clearer idea of what they were against than of what they were for.
  • In particular, federal powers are much more sharply circumscribed by the Bill of Rights than by any vague doctrine of “subsidiarity” in the EU lexicon.
  • Its population does not consist of distinct nations (ignoring Native Americans, which they did). Citizens see the federal institutions as being part of their own country.
  • Americans have a more “legalistic” attitude than Europeans, who have a more “pragmatic” attitude to law. This pragmatism tends to dissolve separations of powers.

Related links:
Software Patent article
Why did the EU ever seem a good idea?
FFII
UKIP
Larry Siedentop – the argument about legalistic / pragmatic law is from him. I highly recommend his book as an insightful and non-partisan study of its subject.

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