Monday, 31 December 2012

Lord Bonkers at the cinema

Life of Pie

This drama set in Melton Mowbray’s pork pie industry tells the story of the hero’s rise from crust-raiser’s boy to that most trusted of positions – jelly man. Heartily recommended.


Cliché of the Year

As we reach the end of 2012, Liberator’s judges have been deliberating over a heavily contested field for the coveted title of ‘Cliché of the Year’.

Last year’s winner was The mess left by Labour, which fought off a stiff challenge by the ever-popular Elephant in the room and It’s a big ask. However, the awards were mired in controversy because of the judges’ decision to disqualify Alarm Clock Britain. This phrase had all the makings of a cliché but failed to become one because the only person who used it was Nick Clegg. Banality is not enough; a true cliché needs an excess of wear and tear.

Sadly, the Liberal Democrats did not learn their lesson and attempted to rig the competition again this year by producing a long list of ‘messages’. The party must learn that the best clichés are born, not made.

At least the Liberal Democrats did not perform as badly as the Conservatives or Labour. Chillax was well on the way to becoming a cliché until David Cameron used it and instantly killed it off. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s attempt to enter the field by reviving that old chestnut one nation did not even get off the starting blocks.

And so to the winners for 2012.

Sixth place is awarded to omnishambles. This was a brilliant creation when originally coined for the TV sitcom The Thick Of It. Subsequent overuse ensured that, by the end of the year, it was completely worn out.

Fifth place is taken by the claim of politicians to send a strong message. The judges were impressed by the combination of earnestness and meaninglessness. Users’ desire to send a strong message is matched only by their inability to send one.

In fourth place is iconic. Anything that is vaguely traditional, famous or popular has been elevated to the status of the Taj Mahal (the original, not your local curry house). Here’s a clue: If you have to describe or explain something, it is not iconic.

And now to the medal positions (and one must be careful here not to resort to the year’s new Olympic verb, to medal).

Third place goes to festive, used indiscriminately as an all-purpose adjective applied to anything remotely to do with Christmas. A special mention must go to Transport for London, whose e-mail circular earlier this month about disruptions to public transport during the holiday began, “I am writing to advise you about getting around London during the festive period.”

Second place is awarded to the word passionate for its ubiquity in TV cookery programmes. No contestant in any of the variants of Masterchef can hope to progress to the next round of the competition without claiming to be ‘passionate’ about food or cooking. Mere interest, ambition or enthusiasm won’t do. The hosts of every other TV cookery show are just as bad. It is not enough to like turnips; one must be ‘passionate’ about them.

There is a useful linguistic rule when it comes to expressing emotions: show, don’t tell. If anyone were genuinely passionate, it would be self-evident and should not need spelling out. But when anybody claims “I am passionate,” one doubts their word.

And finally, this year’s winner is [drum roll...] all of the clichés used by Nick Clegg in his recent speech to CentreForum. It was a truly bravura performance, and the judges could find no better example of what George Orwell called “staleness of imagery”. In the space of a few minutes, we were treated to “modern Britain”, “the centre ground”, “we’ve embraced the challenge”, “we’ve been on a journey”, all rounded off with the three-in-one genius of “there are no easy answers, no silver bullets, only tough choices”. Ambassador, with these clichés, you are really spoiling us.

What are the prizes for the winners? Ideally, each cliché should be permanently retired. As should the third-rate marketing and media hacks who perpetuate them.

If you fancy winning next year’s prize, do make copious use of these banned words and phrases.

The worst claim of 2012

Admit it. You always thought Jimmy Savile was a bit of a perv. You weren’t surprised when the allegations became public. You’d known all along.

Except that you didn’t know. Nobody knew, apart from Savile’s victims and a few people who worked closely with him who were too scared to talk.

Saturday’s Guardian ‘Weekend’ magazine perpetuates the myth that everybody knew, in an article by Oliver Burkeman ironically titled “Worst ideas of 2012: ignoring reality”:
Savile wasn’t a man who concealed his creepiness behind a respectable facade. Creepiness was his brand; looking back now, it’s as if he was daring the world to point out that he seemed so much like a sex offender.
This is utter bollocks. Savile was a genuinely trusted figure. That is why he was chosen to front advertising campaigns for British Rail (“This is the age of the train”) and road safety (“Clunk click every trip”). The advertising agencies that planned those campaigns knew what they were doing. In their search for the ideal front man, they would have been looking for a face that people trusted, and their audience research would have told them that Savile fitted the bill.

In the highly unlikely event that you actually knew Savile was a sex offender, you will by now have presented your evidence to the police. Otherwise, your claims that you ‘knew’ are a fantasy.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Is it a bird? Is it a plane...?

No, it’s the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is one of humanity’s greatest scientific and technological achievements, and a powerful symbol of international co-operation. It is also the third brightest object in the sky (after the sun and moon). If you have seen it without knowing what it is, you probably assumed it was an aircraft (although a very high and fast-moving one; it orbits at an altitude of over 200 miles at a speed of about 17,000 mph).

The light you can see from Earth is sunlight reflected from the ISS’s solar panels. For that reason, the ISS is visible with the naked eye just after dusk or just before dawn, when the sky is dark but the ISS is still in sunlight (it also helps if there’s no cloud). An overhead passage lasts about two to five minutes.

To find out when the ISS will be overhead, there are two good sources of information. First, go to NASA’s Spot The Station site and register for free e-mail alerts. Second, n2yo’s Real Time Satellite Tracking site provides predictions for the next five days, including maps.

It is fashionable to sneer at this sort of thing, so don’t go outside looking for the ISS if keeping your badge of ‘cool’ is important to you.

Junk science

One downside of our celebrity culture (are there any upsides?) is that celebrities’ opinions on all manner of topics are taken seriously, even when these celebrities are completely ignorant.

For example, BBC1’s Question Time regularly invites comedians onto the panel, presumably because someone in the BBC’s management thinks this will make the programme more ‘relevant’.

But celebrities need to be careful. They have a duty of care because many people are influenced by what they say. Celebrities’ opinions are widely reported, so that when they promote junk science such as unfounded health scares or quack remedies, they can cause widespread harm.

The charitable trust Sense About Science has just published Celebrities and Science 2012. This report charts the rise and fall of celebrity fads, endorsements and claims about science and evidence, and subjects a selection of these dubious claims to serious scientific review:
  • In 2011, Simon Cowell was responsible for the intravenous vitamin craze. This year, Cheryl Cole and Rihanna are reported to be following the trend.
  • Cowell meanwhile has moved on to inhaling pocket-sized oxygen shots and has also employed someone to ‘heal’ his house.
  • January Jones has been taking dried placenta pills.
  • Patsy Palmer has been rubbing coffee granules on her skin.
  • Goldie Hawn supports an education programme that aims to increase children’s emotional wellbeing with lessons about the brain.
  • Several athletes in the London Olympics were flaunting brightly coloured ‘Kinesio’ sports tape, which makes unfounded claims to help mend injuries.
But there has also been some progress, and the report gives due credit to celebrities who have set a good example by talking sense about food fads, vitamin supplements and alternative medicine.

One Liberal view of this issue is that, if people want to rub coffee granules on their skin, it is their business. But there is a vital distinction between making a purely personal choice to do something irrational and setting a bad example by promoting junk science or harmful behaviour.

This matters to Liberals because Liberalism can trace its roots to the Age of Enlightenment, when blind faith and superstition gave way to the power of knowledge based on empirical evidence and the scientific method, and when the human mind was liberated from a dogmatic state of ignorance that had shored up despotic rulers. Defending and promoting enlightenment values is something Liberals should continue to do.

Even Simon Cowell is not powerful enough to unravel several centuries of enlightenment, but celebrity promotion of junk science should be subject to scrutiny and ridicule, and Sense About Science is performing a public service by doing just that.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Junk economics

It is unfashionable in the internet age to recommend that anyone should read a 10,000-word essay. But in this instance, it is worth putting away childish things and appreciating the art of deferred gratification.

The so-called ‘Fiscal Cliff’ has prompted Michael Hudson to analyse why America’s economy (and therefore the world’s) is in such a mess. And the basic reason is a problem familiar to Liberals for well over a century: rent seeking. In this instance, it is the self-interest of the banking and financial sector, justified by the ‘junk economics’ promoted by Wall Street’s lobbyists:
Today’s central financial problem is that the banking system lends mainly for rent extraction opportunities rather than for tangible capital investment and economic growth to raise living standards. To maximize rent, it has lobbied to untax land and natural resources. At issue in today’s tax and financial crisis is thus whether the world is going to have an economy based on progressive industrial democracy or a financialized and polarizing rent-extracting society.
We are experiencing the end of a myth, or at least the end of an Orwellian rhetorical patter talk, about what free markets really are. They are not free if they are to pay rent-extractors rather than producers to cover the actual costs of production. Financial markets are not free if fraudsters are not punished for writing fictitious junk mortgages and paying ratings agencies to sell “opinions” that their clients’ predatory finance is sound wealth creation. A free market needs to be regulated from fraud and from rent seeking.
In other words, Wall Street (and its equivalents in the City of London and elsewhere) is creating a rentier economy and has become little more than a parasite on the productive economy. And Michael Hudson should know; he’s a Wall Street financial analyst.

Tough new policy on welfare cuts

It seems the coalition government’s policy on cutting welfare benefits has taken a novel turn.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Stay “on message” or be EXTERMINATED!

This morning, Liberal Democrat HQ sent an e-mail to parliamentarians, PPCs, council group leaders and various other office holders about the party’s new ‘message script’.

This e-mail is highly instructive, though not in the way party HQ intended. It reveals much about what is wrong with the way the Liberal Democrats are being run and the state of British politics in general.

Here is the full unexpurgated text (the italics, underlining and emboldening are as in the original):

I hope you’ve had a very enjoyable Christmas.
Today Nick Clegg will release his New Year message to the media. You can see it here now.
This broadcast is the first full external use of our new Party message script – the product of Ryan Coetzee’s research into what works with our electoral market and also an extensive consultation with many Party stakeholders.
The full message script is below.
If you’re at a post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull over the next couple of days – please take a look at this script – read it, learn it, work out how to use it.
In communications terms, we know that if we as a Party don’t collectively communicate one message clearly, the public end up hearing nothing.
It is therefore absolutely critical that we all focus on this message in the New Year and make it the basis for every communication we make – whether it is in the media, online, in leaflets or when speaking to an internal or external audience.
If we all stick to and get some volume behind this script, by this time next year our voters will know that the Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life. That Labour can’t be trusted with their money, and the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fair society. And also just a few of the things we have achieved in government.
So, if you make one New Year resolution this year, please make it to help us be “On Message, In Volume, Over Time” and communicate from this script at every opportunity.
Many thanks,
Tim Snowball
Director of Communications (LDHQ)

Building a Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society
The Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.
That’s why we have:
1. Fixed the mess left by Labour. We have reduced the deficit by a quarter, kept interest rates down and created over a million private sector jobs.
2. Ensured that 24 million people will not pay any income tax on the first £9,440 of earnings, putting £600 back into their pockets from April 2013.
3. Put an extra £2.5 billion into schools targeted at the least well-off pupils, raising standards for everyone.
4. Created a Green Investment Bank that will unlock billions of pounds of private investment in renewable energy and create thousands more jobs in the green economy.
5. Got young people off the dole and into work through apprenticeships, work placement or training with our £1 billion Youth Contract.
6. Delivered the biggest ever cash rise in the state pension.
The Labour Party can’t be trusted to manage the economy. Labour borrowed and borrowed and nearly bankrupted Britain. In power they cared more about bankers, media bosses and union barons than they did about ordinary, working people.
The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society. Until the Lib Dems got into government, no one could stop the Tories from looking after the super rich who fund their party, while ignoring the needs of normal people who struggle to make ends meet. That’s why we have blocked Tory plans to:
1. Allow bosses to fire staff at will.
2. Let local schools be run for profit.
3. Cut inheritance tax for millionaires.
4. Introduce lower rates of pay for public sector workers outside of the South East.
Now, with your support, we want to keep building a stronger economy in a fairer society. Over the next two years we will:
1. Increase our tax cut for low and middle earners to £700 for 24 million people.
2. Dramatically increase parents’ access to child care so that it’s easier for parents to get back into jobs.
3. Reform the welfare system to get people off benefits and into work.
4. Create tens of thousands of jobs across Britain in the new, green economy.
Let’s never go back to the way things were, because Labour can’t be trusted with your money, and the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fair society.
Only the Lib Dems can be trusted to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

Where to begin? Alarm bells start ringing in Tim Snowball’s introduction, which is littered with dreadful PR-speak (“electoral market”, “stakeholders”, “get some volume behind this script”, “on message”). The recipients of this e-mail are not political novices, yet they are treated like idiots by both the general tone and the didactic politics-by-numbers approach (“If you’re at a post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull over the next couple of days – please take a look at this script – read it, learn it, work out how to use it.”).

More fundamentally, there is the idea that we should all speak according to a ‘message script’ (moreover, a script that fails on its own terms because it contains far too many messages to achieve any focus or discipline, even if bits of it are written in bold type). For all “Ryan Coetzee’s research”, this sort of wooden language is precisely the thing that turns people off because it makes politicians sound rehearsed, false and insincere. It sounds scripted because it is scripted. Indeed, scripting isn’t a solution – it’s part of the problem because it makes politicians sound more like Daleks than human beings.

More fundamentally still, this set of instructions is the voice of a party in denial. The coalition government’s economic policy – the overarching policy of austerity that dwarfs everything else – is not working, for the reason the Liberal Democrats’ own 2010 manifesto said it wouldn’t. (More detailed explanation here). Because of a failed economic dogma, the economy isn’t getting stronger and the deficit isn’t being reduced. And this dogma means that the poorest people are paying the highest price for economic failure, so society isn’t getting fairer. All the Liberal Democrats have been able to do in government is ameliorate the situation – a valuable role but one that should not be oversold.

What we have here is an object lesson in how politics has been hollowed out and reduced to a matter of managerialism and public relations. It seems no-one at the top of the party has any intellectual grasp of the gravity of the situation. The global economy is in deep crisis and the problem cannot be reduced to facile slogans about “the mess left by Labour”. We are at an historical turning point where the global economy will undergo a fundamental transformation (as it has before in the 1880s-90s, 1930s-40s and 1970s-80s). This situation requires radical thinking and radical responses. Yet all the British political establishment can do is fret about staying “on message”.

And then politicians wonder why they continue to lose popular trust and support.

POSTSCRIPT (1): A perceptive response on Nick Barlow’s blog and an unbiased report by BBC News.

POSTSCRIPT (2): See the subsequent post on this topic.

POSTSCRIPT (3): The party has responded by trying to claim the credit for the media coverage of the leak.

Gosh! You mean grassroots campaigning actually works?

In the Boston Globe, Michael Kranish analyses the story behind Mitt Romney’s loss in this year’s presidential election campaign.

Amid a catalogue of errors, one mistake will stand out for most British Liberal Democrats:
Rich Beeson [one of Romney’s political directors] ...said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and ­offices,” Beeson said. “They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,” something that Romney did not have the staff to match.
One-to-one contact with voters? No kidding.

Admittedly, the Obama campaign’s grassroots techniques were somewhat more sophisticated than your average British local by-election operation:
Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophis­ticated field organization to turn them out. Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.
Nevertheless, the basic case for grassroots campaigning remains the same. A shame it was not understood by the Liberal Democrat leadership in the 2010 general election.

Nick Clegg elbowed Chris Rennard aside and installed a group of advertising and PR people to run the party’s campaign. These people had no serious experience of political campaigning but believed this did not matter. They were convinced that a ‘ground war’ (i.e. grassroots campaigning) was more or less redundant and that the Liberal Democrat campaign could rely on an ‘air war’ (i.e. a nationwide marketing campaign). The success of the first televised leaders’ debate and the ensuing ‘Cleggmania’ served only to reinforce their prejudices. When on polling day, support collapsed like a soufflé, they had no idea why.

Of course, general election campaigns (or any other nationwide campaign) cannot be conducted solely via a ‘ground war’ but require a judicious mix of ground and air tactics. But as voters become more individualised in their outlook, more consumer-savvy and more sceptical about politics, they will need and expect more human contact, not less.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Wisdom of the crowd or online lynch mobs?

It was not my original intention to publish a trilogy of posts (see the first and second) expressing scepticism about digital technology – not so much the technology as the associated shallow culture. But this, the third, was prompted by a remarkable interview with Jaron Lanier, one-time digital pioneer and visionary.

Lanier was one of the leading gurus of ‘Web 2.0’ futurism. Now, he sees the monster he helped create as a mortal threat to political discourse, economic stability, human dignity, and society in general.

The article is worth reading in full, but Lanier’s views on the effects of web culture on politics are particularly noteworthy. He is especially critical of the idea that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ will result in ever-upward enlightenment. It is just as likely that the crowd will degenerate into an online lynch mob:
As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture – the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites – as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
Most people have a capacity for cruelty but online anonymity enables them to unleash that cruelty with impunity. Worse, the web enables like-minded cruel people to cohere rapidly, via twitchy social networks, into a cruel mob.

On this blog, we have a relatively simple comments policy (see right-hand column). The kernel of that policy is to insist on everyone using their real, full name because it forces them to think twice before commenting. We refuse to accept anonymous or pseudonymous comments, not because all anonymous commenters are arseholes but because all arsehole commenters are anonymous.

The merchants of cyber-bollocks

Are you tired of self-appointed cyber-gurus? The digital quacks who claim to have seen the future and insist everyone must fit into their dystopian dream?

Steven Poole exposes these charlatans in a scathing piece in the New Statesman:
As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves.
Cybertheorists’ jargon often betrays an adolescent hatred of the world in which they find themselves. Jay Rosen, a prominent ‘future of news’ cyber-guru, takes care at every opportunity to sneer at publishing institutions by pasting to them the epithet ‘legacy’: ‘legacy newsrooms’, ‘legacy media’. Another favourite cyber-adjective is ‘disruptive’. For most of us, disruption is annoying, but for cyber-swamis the more disruptive of established practices technology becomes, the more exciting it is.
One target of Poole’s ire is cyber-thinkers who abuse the notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds’:
Cyber-thinkers have run with the wisdom-of-crowds notion to a place that bears little resemblance to reality as we know it, high-fiving each other among the rubble of reason in a fatuous kind of hi-tech, misanthropic herd-worship. It can now seriously be proposed that there are occasions when “the smartest person in the room is the room”, as the subtitle of the cybertheorist David Weinberger’s book Too Big to Know, published last January, claims. Its weirdly self-undermining idea (perfect for a Ted talk) is that books are outdated and useless ways of organising ‘information’ and that the sum total of information is now so overwhelming that we may as well throw up our hands and concede that ‘the network’ knows better than we do.
If Weinberger’s thesis were correct, then his book would be disposable, because a random cohort of bloggers could be expected to come up with something far superior in a couple of weeks. Weinberger’s book is also cyber-typical for its pseudo-democratic hatred of any kind of expertise, and its cartoonish intellectual history, in the service of pretending that our age is utterly novel. “The internet,” he opines grandly, “enables groups to develop ideas further than any individual could.” So have writing and talking, since time immemorial.
The intellectual weakness of cyber-thinkers is encapsulated in a single sentence:
Cybertheorists... daren’t attempt to distinguish information from knowledge, because to do so would require them to perform the kind of intellectual triage that their rhetorical success depends crucially on avoiding.
Exposing the cybertheorists as clothing-deficient emperors was long overdue. As Poole explains:
Cybertheorists love to apply the adjective ‘smart’ to one another but, as a group, they are the most prominent anti-intellectual cadre of our day – little Pol Pots of the touchscreen and Twitter.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Why 33⅓ rpm beats 160GB

If you found some sort of digital gadget among your Christmas presents yesterday, how did you feel? Overcome by excitement, or weary at the thought of having to plough through yet another instruction manual?

In today’s Guardian, John Harris argues that a revival in the sales of vinyl albums is a metaphor for a growing anti-digital rebellion, part of broader yearning for authenticity and human scale.

The evidence can be found not only in record-buying but also the Slow Food movement and a growth in the sales of craft beers at the expense of cheap lager. Books and magazines (the printed sort) were supposed to die out, yet sales are booming and reading groups thriving. Digital TV gives every viewer (even those with the minimum choice offered by Freeview) access to hundreds of channels, yet the five formerly analogue TV channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5) combined still attract over 50% of audience share. Plans to shut down analogue radio may be abandoned because of people’s stubborn attachment to analogue.

People are not rejecting digital technology (or any other technological change) per se but are responding to more fundamental issues:
  • superficiality, in which depth of thought and learning is replaced by a cacophony of stimuli and distractions;
  • impatience that never allows time for focus or contemplation, and which expresses a childlike inability to understand the concepts of deferred pleasure or acquired tastes;
  • instant redundancy, so that this year’s ‘must-have’ gadget will be hopelessly outmoded next year.
The objection therefore is not to change or progress but to shallowness and a frantic pace.

The Liberal Democrats’ most creative thinker David Boyle wrote about this trend eight years ago in his book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life. He points out that this is not a conservative trend, still less a Luddite rejection of all new technology. It is about feelings of alienation, a reaction against technological determinism and a belief that technology should be human scale and serve human needs.

If you agree, there is something you can do. Now that you’ve read this, switch off your computer and go and read a proper book.

Jeremy Hardy summarises British politics

In Red Pepper, comedian Jeremy Hardy neatly sums up the attitudes of the three main parties:
Tories delight in a spat with Brussels, because upsetting foreigners is second only to killing them in stimulating the pleasure centres of the Conservative Party. Liberals, on the other hand, love Europe. They adore anything continental: the cheeses, the voting systems, anything. Their party’s whole raison d’etre is the vast superiority of French campsites. I refer, obviously, to sleek, modern Liberals, not the old-fashioned radicals who were content with a good cheddar, a thermos and a wet walking holiday, reading a biography of Jo Grimond.
And to be fair to Liberals, all of them have always loved democracy. The left is ambivalent about it. We pay lip-service to it but can’t help suspecting that people might be too stupid to realise the high regard we have for them. And Conservatives, despite belligerently enthusing about western democratic values, have never truly been convinced by this country’s experiment with universal suffrage. Their greatest terror is the mob. That’s probably why they want the troops home from Afghanistan. They don’t want to be left without a squadron of dragoons when the millworkers get restless.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A moral tale for Christmas

Remember Frank Capra’s Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life?

Robert Reich reminds us how this film contrasts the decency and humanity of George Bailey (played by James Stewart) with the bullying and selfishness of Mr. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore). Reich believes this moral tale remains relevant for America now:
If Lionel Barrymore’s ‘Mr. Potter’ were alive today he’d call himself a ‘job creator’ and condemn George Bailey as a socialist. He’d be financing a fleet of lobbyists to get lower taxes on multi-millionaires like himself, overturn environmental laws, trample on workers’ rights, and shred social safety nets. He’d fight any form of gun control. He’d want the citizens of Pottersville to be economically insecure – living paycheck to paycheck and worried about losing their jobs – so they’d be dependent on his good graces.
There is basically the same moral conflict in British politics (only without the gun obsession). Britain’s ‘Mr. Potter’ tendency insists there is no alternative to its selfish values. Let’s prove them wrong.

The Twelve Myths of Christmas

“It’s health and safety gone mad!”

That is a favourite cry of outraged right-wing columnists on the Daily Express and Daily Mail, although the outrage is usually a manufactured response to a fabricated story. The British tabloids love to make up stories about health and safety regulations, when they are not making up stories about the European Union.

The Health and Safety Executive has responded by publishing The Twelve Myths of Christmas. If you are firm in the belief that workers have been banned from putting up Christmas decorations in the office, that children have been banned from throwing snowballs or that people have been banned from putting coins in Christmas puddings, then prepare to have your certainties punctured.

Rest assured, Christmas has not been banned, so try to have a merry one.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Monty Python on the problem of economism

Peter Cook was the father of British satire but he also knew its limits.

In the early 1960s, he described his satirical nightclub ‘The Establishment’ as “loosely based on the Berlin cabaret of the 1930s, which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler”.

In the early 1970s, Monty Python first broadcast this sketch, which in retrospect was extraordinarily prescient. As Cook might have said, it did so much to prevent the rise of amoral and economistic values in the subsequent three decades.

Let’s call it failure

Is the government’s economic policy working? Obviously not, but John Lanchester in the London Review of Books observes that “the scale and speed and completeness with which things are going wrong are numbing”.

Lanchester explains why the government’s austerity policy is failing on its own terms and the deficit remains stubbornly high. He also reminds us why treating a government’s finances as if they were a household’s is a disastrous mistake. A sobering read.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

And the Tories wonder why they are still toxic?

The Conservative Party has just launched an advertising campaign in 60 marginal Tory seats, which seeks to demonise unemployed people.

The advertisement simply asks, “Who do you think this government should be giving more support to?” – then confronts its audience with a stark choice: a perfect, “hard working” nuclear family with two children, all smiling lovingly at each other, or an unshaven young man in a lumberjack shirt lounging on a sofa who “won’t work”.

This ad is wrong on so many levels. Joe Penny of the New Economics Foundation explains why it is misleading, harmful and offensive – and why it is in breach of the Advertising Standards Authority’s policy on good advertising.

The ‘nasty party’ has clearly not lost its nasty streak. If Nick Clegg is looking for an effective differentiation tactic, he could do a lot worse than disown this sort of ugly and poisonous politics.

POSTSCRIPT: It turns out that the Tories’ “hard working” family is a stock photo, which has appeared in about 30 other places, including Danone yoghurt vouchers, a Christian home-schooling CD, and posters for cod liver oil and a Portuguese dentist. A hard working family indeed.

Leveson has let the politicians off the hook

I was really impressed by Leveson when he started work with such a clear but broad agenda and a wide grasp of critical and relevant issues. The pace and volume were quite impressive. For me, Leveson was a disappointment because he has let the politicians off the hook.

He set out broad themes clearly showing the links between the actions and bad behaviour of the press, politicians and the police. Module 1 covers the relationship between the press and the public. Module 2 covers the relationships between the press and police. Module 3 covers the relationship between press and politicians. While the first part was largely about phone hacking, the Inquiry was quite correctly much wider than this in what it actually covered.

I wrote submissions about the ethos of the police (re. Module 2) and the media and political behaviour (re. Module 3). What was disappointing is that, when Leveson reported, he returned to the narrow issues of any direct wrongdoing, except in relation to the behaviour of journalists themselves in unprofessional relationships with police officers or politicians. He completely ignored the fact that New Labour’s obsession with public relations and the media, their leaking and the bad behaviour by politicians and activists across political parties, but particularly at the top of the Labour and Conservative parties, contributed to the lack of standards. What the Inquiry basically said and concluded was right, but it was much narrower than the initial coverage appeared to suggest.

The BBC did summarise these points [under ‘Politicians’]:
  • Politicians of all parties had developed “too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”.
  • The relationship between politicians and press over the last three decades has damaged the perception of public affairs.
A flaw in the report is the lack of a proper useable Executive Summary (presumably the judge wanted to avoid selective extracts from the report but has made it less accessible) or even an obvious ‘at a glance’ explanation of what is in each of the four volumes – until you open one and read the 11 pages of contents.

The report is impressive and, yes, the Inquiry was hugely expensive and took a year and four months but it was nothing as wasteful as some have been and it did do a huge amount of work. It also was probably worth the cost in providing the media with copy, and the Twitterati and public relations and political classes with something to talk about continually for many months.

But Leveson has missed the chance to put ethical behaviour back at the heart of British public life – whether as a journalist, an MP, a spin doctor or special adviser, a minister or activist.

A report of 2,000 pages that does not include one mention of the Oldham case and the behaviour of Labour MP Phil Woolas (a government minister no less) lets politicians off the hook for their bad behaviour and fails even to mention the worst example of it relevant to why stones cannot just be thrown at the media (ignoring straight criminality of some MPs in the expenses scandal).

The phone hacking scandal showed that some apparent paranoid conspiracy theories of press intrusion against celebrities and ordinary members of the public caught in the news are true.

A graduate and trainee lawyer who has worked in the media, Sally Goodhall, responded to my ‘So what do you think about Levenson’ question. She argued, “Regulation and reform was always going to come about, and it would have come about without such a convoluted and costly process,” but I was less optimistic. After the Prime Minister’s head-in-the-sand attitude, I am still less optimistic.

How buying a round shows the limits of economics

Economics has limits. Its narrow focus cannot explain social phenomena. To understand this, John Kay in the Financial Times asks us to consider Christmas gift-giving or buying a round of drinks at the pub by comparing how anthropologists and economists interpret these social rituals:
For the anthropologists, the custom of standing a round represented ritual gift exchange. They drew an analogy with Native American potlatch festivals, where tribes would gather to eat, sing, dance and confer lavish presents – sometimes treasured or essential possessions – on each other. The economists preferred a more hard-nosed explanation. Buying drinks in rounds rather than individually was a means of reducing transaction costs. The number of dealings between the customers and the bar was reduced, and the need for small change diminished.
I proposed an empirical test between the competing hypotheses. Did you feel successful or unsuccessful if you had bought more drinks than had been bought for you? Unfortunately, the result was inconclusive. The anthropologists believed their generosity enhanced their status. The economists sought to maximise the difference between the number of drinks they had consumed and the number they had bought. They computed appropriate strategies for finite games and even for extended evenings of indeterminate length. The lesson is that if you want a good time at a bar, go with an anthropologist rather than an economist.
We can also see the limits of economics when we consider the act of starting a family:
The economists who argue that the rationale of the family is found in cost savings have a point. Two together can live more cheaply than two separately, if not as cheaply as one. But anyone who thinks the quest for scale economies is the primary explanation of the human desire for family life is strangely deficient in observational capacity, as well as common sense.
The ‘economics of the family’ is a prime example of an economic imperialism that seeks to account for all behaviour through a distorted concept of rationality, an extreme example of economists’ notorious physics envy. Some models developed in physics demonstrate a combination of simplicity and wide explanatory power so remarkable that it makes no sense to think about the world in any other way.
But such powerful explanations are rarely available in other natural sciences, and almost never in social sciences. Even the visit to the bar is governed by a complex and tacit collection of social conventions. How do you know that you have bought the beer but only rented the glass?
The point is not that economics has no value but that, by itself, it can neither fully explain nor provide a rounded understanding of human needs and human behaviour. The specific problem here is economism, the reductionist idea that all social phenomena can be reduced to economic dimensions. This reductionism enables believers in neoclassical economics to argue that the market outstrips or permits ignoring ethical, social, political or cultural values. It is why the orthodox economic ideology of the past three decades has, amongst other things, led to so much social corrosion.

Following the banking crisis of 2007/8, this orthodoxy is, in Adair Turner’s famous phrase, “a fairly complete train wreck of a predominant theory of economics and finance”. It is now only a matter of time before that predominance ends. But it would be a mistake, and ironically an economistic one, to view the old orthodoxy purely as a practical failure. It is also a moral failure, precisely because it is economistic.

The Liberal Democrats need to move on and develop radical alternatives (The Theory and Practice of Community Economics by David Boyle and Bernard Greaves is a good place to start). This is a vital element in any recovery strategy for the Liberal Democrats because the party will be doomed if it fights the other parties for the right to cling to the wreckage of TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’). Moving on, however, requires not just a Plan B, C or D but also an ethical and human dimension. This means a decisive rejection of economism, and an insistence that human welfare and human values come before ideological constructs.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The era of conspicuous consumption is over

Yesterday in a remaindered book shop, I saw a cookery book on offer at a knock-down price. Nothing new in that, but this one was called 501 Hints & Tips With Vinegar. A banner across the cover read, “The Only Vinegar Book You Will Ever Need!” which until recently would have been a blessed relief to customers agonising over how many to buy.

The fact that publishers are now having trouble selling such books is definitive evidence that consumer culture has finally turned a corner.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The true significance of ‘Plebgate’

Yesterday’s Guardian report of Plebgate hinted at the true significance of the story with its headline (“Plebgate rift opens between Tory party and Met police”) but failed to explore this angle further.

The thing that will have lasting significance is not what Andrew Mitchell did or did not say. It is that the Conservative Party has been wounded by the Police Federation’s ham-fisted lobbying campaign and will seek revenge.

Hell hath no fury like a Tory scorned. In 1974, the coal miners brought down Ted Heath’s Tory government. A decade later, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government destroyed the British coal industry.

This time, the Tories will not destroy the police but they are likely to pursue Tom Winsor’s proposed reforms with renewed vigour. These proposals are what the dispute between the Tories and the Police Federation is really about, since they will have a radical effect on police pay, pensions and working conditions. The government put down a marker several months before Plebgate by making Winsor HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, the first person from outside the police ever to be appointed to the job. Early next year, the Home Secretary will decide whether to implement the Winsor report’s proposals.

It helps to know that the upper classes have never liked the police because there is no officer class like there is in the military. Every police officer has to work his way up from the bottom, so ex-public school boys rarely join the police. One of Winsor’s key recommendations is that there should be direct entry into more senior ranks, which would create a de facto officer class. The Tories will not be satisfied until ‘people like us’ are running the show.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Oh no, not them again

If you thought that Neil and Christine Hamilton had left politics for good, think again.

Michael Crick reports that both are likely to become UKIP MEPs in 2014.

Neil Hamilton’s political career and subsequent disgrace in the cash-for-questions affair are now largely forgotten. He and especially Christine are much better known as regulars on the TV chat show/game show/reality show circuit.

But is politics to entertainment then back to politics a smart move? The only precedent for this career trajectory is not a happy one. Robert Kilroy-Silk moved from being a Labour MP to a daytime TV host to a UKIP MEP. He then fell out with UKIP (as UKIP MEPs so often do) and formed his own party (Veritas), which he also fell out with before disappearing into obscurity.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

No enjoyment, please, we’re British

Earlier this week, scientists from Newcastle University told us that the recipes of TV chefs are less healthy than ready meals. We were warned sternly:
The recipes seemed to be less healthy than the ready meals on several metrics. Per portion they contained significantly more energy, protein, fat and saturated fat and significantly less fibre than the ready meals.
Today, TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall replied, arguing that the problem was portion size.

This argument tells us more about the state of Britain’s mental health than its physical health.

As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy explained:
The history of every major galactic civilisation tends to pass through three distinct and recognisable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterised by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by ‘Where shall we have lunch?’.
If Douglas Adams were writing the Hitchhiker’s Guide today, he might well have added a fourth phase, Neurosis, and a corresponding question, “What is the risk?”

The healthiest diet is probably a Mediterranean one. But in Mediterranean countries, no one frets endlessly about “several metrics” like calories, protein, fat or fibre. Food is a source of daily communal pleasure, people sit down to eat proper meals rather than snacking all day, and they eat a varied diet using seasonal produce. They do this even though they are less affluent than us and lack the benefit of our middle class pretensions.

In Britain and America, people are far more neurotic about what they eat. Yet for all the calorie-counting, the problem of obesity is far worse than in Mediterranean countries. A combination of puritanical protestant guilt complexes about pleasure and a reliance on heavily processed foodstuffs is what harms our diets, not celebrity chefs. Because the truth is that most people who watch celebrity chefs on TV and buy their cookbooks never cook their recipes. TV cookery programmes are about entertainment and lifestyle, not practical instruction. Viewers watch Nigella or the Hairy Bikers, then phone for a pizza.

To be fair to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he does get to the heart of the matter:
Good food, and a healthy diet, is about variety and balance – and I think those of us who cook on television and publish cookbooks should uphold those fundamental pillars of sound nutrition. But that applies across the whole spectrum of our recipes. It doesn’t necessarily mean we should count all the calories in our recipes and strain to reduce fat at every opportunity.
Deliciousness, originality and excitement are what we are striving for. You can achieve that in recipes that are intended to be hearty main courses or comforting supper dishes, and you can achieve it in original salads that are bursting with fresh, crisp, raw vegetables and fruit. The balance comes in offering readers and viewers a tempting cross-section of all these kinds of dishes. What we can’t do is control which recipes our followers choose to cook, and which to ignore. We can only encourage a balanced approach by ensuring there is deliciousness right across the menu.
The British should learn to relax and enjoy food (and that means the food rather than the associated lifestyle trappings). And they should focus more on the quality than the quantity of life. There is little point in living to 100 if you’ve made every mealtime a misery. Because if you can never eat without consulting a calorie counter, you know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Crunchy Liberalism? Sorry, it’s out of stock...

Nick Clegg’s recent keynote speech marking the fifth anniversary of his leadership has attracted remarkably little criticism within the party, considering his unsupported assertions about his own party.

The main failings of the speech were a belief in an illusory ‘centre ground’ (which always begs the question, “Between what and what, exactly?”) and the implication that his members are politically immature and starry-eyed idealists who aren’t interested in power. Clegg also seems to have bought into the infantilisation of welfare claimants. The whole thing had the patronising air of a weary parent mildly scolding his children.

Rather than go on any further, I shall defer to Jonathan Calder, who laments Clegg’s abandonment of his once-professed ‘Crunchy Liberalism’.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ad Lib is not for you? Hmmm...

Last week, this blog commented unfavourably on the Liberal Democrats’ new monthly magazine Ad Lib. We were not the only ones to be mystified by its apparent lack of purpose or focus.

Then last Saturday, Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice came up with an explanation. Ad Lib is not for you. It is light and fluffy because it’s meant for ‘armchair’ members who don’t read political blogs and aren’t very interested in or knowledgeable about politics.

This excuse seemed implausible. Before the first edition was published, Ad Lib was widely trailed in the party as a replacement for the weekly newspaper Liberal Democrat News (a publication read by both active and armchair members). Nothing in any of this publicity even hinted that the magazine was aimed at armchair members. Nothing on the Ad Lib webpage or in the editor’s introduction on page 3 of the magazine suggested likewise. Nobody said that, if you are an active member or highly interested in politics, you can safely disregard this publication.

So when this explanation was first aired, more than a week after the first edition of Ad Lib landed on members’ doormats, it looked suspiciously like some sort of post-rationalisation. The argument “if you don’t like it, it’s not for you” also looked suspiciously like an attempt to pre-empt any criticism by invalidating it.

But let us be charitable. Let us suppose that Ad Lib really was conceived as a means for the party to communicate with armchair members. This raises several questions about the rationale behind this decision. If the party produces only one official periodical, why is it aimed primarily at inactive rather than active members? Is there a complementary communication strategy for active members? Is Ad Lib part of a coherent strategy to inform or motivate armchair members and, if so, with what expected outcome? Was any market research conducted to find out what type of communication armchair members prefer? Who took the decision to focus Ad Lib on armchair members and who else was consulted beforehand? And why is no evidence publicly available of the decision-making process behind the conception of Ad Lib?

The more you search for a clear rationale, the more it seems there was none. The simplest explanation is usually the likeliest, and in this case it simply looks like no one thought it through.

LATER: Grassroutes to Government’s Bulletin no.4 has just been published. It includes articles about Ad Lib by Phil Reilly (Ad Lib’s acting editor) and Jock Gallagher (who played a minor role by coming up with the idea for the magazine’s title). In neither article is there any mention of the armchair member strategy. Curiouser and curiouser.

Who was right? Ireland or Iceland?

Ireland took the austerity medicine. Iceland told bank creditors to take a hike. Guess which country has lost the confidence of the markets? Guess whose economy is recovering?

In the Irish Independent, Dan White observes of Iceland: burning the bank bondholders rather than taking these debts on to the national balance sheet, the Icelandic sovereign is in a far stronger position to repay any future debts.
In Ireland, meanwhile:
By being good boys did we retain the confidence of the markets? No we didn’t. We too were locked out of the markets and were bounced into accepting an EU/IMF bailout in November 2010. Far from doing better than the Icelandics, we have ended up with the worst of all possible worlds. We are still stuck with the banks’ legacy debts and, a few carefully choreographed fund raisings by the NTMA notwithstanding, the State remains largely reliant on official lenders to fund its activities.
He concludes:
Maybe, instead of being the good boys it’s time we followed the Icelandic example and indulged in some Viking-style plunder and pillage.

Monday, 17 December 2012

20 astounding gun ads

Last week’s shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, have once again raised the question of reform to America’s lax gun laws.

“We can’t tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end and to end them we must change,” President Obama told a prayer vigil in Newtown.

Presumably Obama plans some sort of reform, although he has not yet made any specific proposals. Paul Krugman suggests that reform is easier than most people imagine. I am not so sure.

Unlike in Britain, where the killings in Hungerford and Dunblane made legal reform popular, America’s gun culture is deeply embedded. It is not just the constitutional ‘right to bear arms’ or the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, but also a lingering frontier mentality.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik despairs of America’s gun lobby:
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value.
Meanwhile, America’s gun culture continues to leave the rest of the world puzzled. These 20 astounding gun ads can only add to our puzzlement.

When politics becomes too local

American politician Tip O’Neill famously said that “All politics is local”. Up to a point.

In the Hertfordshire village of Little Gaddesden, the vice-chairman of the parish council has just resigned on the grounds that the council’s discussions have become too, er, parochial.

A councillor for ten years, David Brattle complained that much of what the council debates has no impact on life in the village:
Everyone has got food on the table and can have the heating on when it’s cold, so I do not know why people make such a fuss about some things like why the green has been cut. We have not got people dying of hunger there.
Cllr Brattle’s resignation has created a second vacancy on the parish council. Today is the deadline if you’d like to apply for either of the seats.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

List of shame

Who are the absolute worst chief executives of 2012? At Bloomberg Businessweek, there is a report of business professor Sydney Finkelstein’s annual list of the worst CEOs.

Finkelstein’s list is a catalogue of incompetence, corruption and egotism. It serves as a reminder of just how far the reputation of business leaders has sunk since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when CEOs were treated as gods.

Back then, one major PR agency tried to cash in on this fad, going so far as to trademark the term ‘Building CEO Capital’. The idea was that the reputation of a company and its CEO were inseparable. This was true to an extent, since lousy CEOs can drag their company’s reputation down. But if it were the case that CEOs are vital to a company’s reputation, this should have forced companies to take greater care in who they appointed. Instead, there have been some spectacular failures, such as Tony Hayward at BP and Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin at RBS.

The cult of the CEO enabled business leaders to demand obscenely large salaries and fringe benefits, when their jobs usually involved little or no entrepreneurship or risk but were basically administrative roles more analogous to that of the head of a government department.

The CEO-as-god theory was always weak, since all leaders have feet of clay. What enables bad CEOs to survive is the absence of criticism. In Ancient Rome, when a conqueror returned and had his victory parade, a slave would repeatedly whisper in his ear, “memento homo” (“remember you are mortal”). Few CEOs would tolerate such advice today. Most business leaders feel insecure so they reinforce their egos by surrounding themselves with yes-men and generating a climate of fear. The trouble is, this culture is antithetical to the values of an open society, in which weak ideas are rooted out through scrutiny and criticism.

Whether business leaders like it or not, the open society is catching up on them. The main factors undermining the CEO-as-god are not the financial crisis or even high-profile individual failures, but the openness encouraged by the internet, a general decline in deference, and a trend to more flat and less hierarchical management structures.

The old business culture has not gone away (witness the TV programme The Apprentice, which still encourages the idea that management is basically about shouting at people). But it is on the way out. Rather than wait until business leaders fail, we should never defer to them in the first place.

Tomorrow’s World?

It is a sign of the times that there is a tendency to view scientific advance in pessimistic rather than optimistic terms.

But it’s not long ago that popular attitudes were very different. At the crest of the optimistic wave was the weekly TV programme Tomorrow’s World. This show began in 1965, in a visionary era when moon landings were being planned, and it was broadcast in prime time on BBC1 rather than shunted into a late slot on BBC2. Tomorrow’s World showcased various scientific and technological innovations and, although not all its predictions were realised, it tended to keep its feet on the ground.

Elsewhere, though, some predictions owed more to science fiction than science and seem very silly in retrospect. There were confident forecasts that, by now, we would be wearing aluminium suits, eating all our food in the form of pills, and travelling around in flying cars or with a jet pack on our backs. The interesting thing is not that such innovations are unfeasible (the technology already exists), but that there is no demand for them.

The change in popular attitudes that occurred 30 to 40 years ago was not a complete rejection of science, more a desire to have one’s organic cake and eat it. People nowadays rush to buy the latest iPhone or Kindle while maintaining a sentimental yearning for an illusory lost idyll of back-to-the-land and knit-your-own-yoghurt.

Given today’s cynical and pessimistic climate, it is refreshing to see that Popular Mechanics has just published 110 Predictions For the Next 110 Years, a list of potential scientific and technological innovations. It is probable that some of these predictions will not come true. But at least someone is thinking positively.

One predicted innovation not on Popular Mechanics’s list is the Orgasmatron but, to be fair to Woody Allen, Sleeper was set 200 years in the future, not merely 110.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Old Political Sayings No.643: You can’t polish a turd

You know what they say. You cannot polish a turd – or can you?

This proposition has finally been put to the test. The MythBusters applied rigorous scientific methods and have definitively answered this age-old question:

Please, whatever you do, don’t tell Nigel Farage.

Next week: You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

Why ‘The Economist’ sucks

I have never liked The Economist.

Granted, it’s a successful magazine. It sells much better than any other current affairs magazine in Britain (UK circulation: 210,000 printed edition plus another 6,000 digital). It also sells well abroad (global paid-for circulation of print plus digital editions is over 1.5 million) and it is influential (more among business people than politicians).

The reasons for its success are precisely why I dislike it:
  1. It trades on being a sort of upmarket version of the Reader’s Digest, a one-stop shop that saves readers the bother of having to be more widely read.
  2. Most of its articles are not bylined, which creates the illusion that its opinionated content is somehow neutral or objective.
  3. It perpetuates conventional wisdom and rarely challenges orthodox opinion, which helps its (small ‘c’) conservative readership know which opinions are safe to hold and which might cause raised eyebrows.
Like the Beano, besides the weekly edition there is also an annual, The World in 2013. The New York Times gently mocks its “confident and sophisticated accumulation of factoids and predictions for 2013 that can make you seem not only smart but also visionary”.

But it’s The Simpsons who best nail The Economist’s platitudes. Homer is handed a copy of the magazine on board a plane. “Look at me, I’m reading The Economist,” he boasts to Marge. “Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?”

Friday, 14 December 2012

Fracking: A warning from Rutland

A year ago Lord Bonkers wrote this in his Diary.

There has been a lot of nonsense written in recent weeks about ‘fracking’ – that is, drilling into hard shale rocks and then setting off small explosions to crack them and release the gas inside – which I have been practising here in Rutland. One local newspaper (not my own High Leicestershire Radical, I hasten to add) printed its report under the headline “IT’S FRACKING HELL SAY VILLAGERS”; I thought that was in particularly poor taste. Let me make it clear: Rutland has always been subject to earthquakes, as anyone who has studied its history will know. To connect them with my fracking is simply...

I am sorry, Meadowcroft came in just then, complaining that he had narrowly missed being hit on the head by a stone that had fallen from the battlements as he was digging in the kitchen garden. I pointed out that there is bound to be some settlement in old houses like mine and suggested that he got on with his work. He left mumbling something about Trotsky.

There has been, as I was pointing out, a lot of nonsense talked in recent weeks. In particular, the Revd Hughes’s refusal to mount the pulpit of St Asquith’s until he had been given a hard hat seemed to be particularly unfortunate. And did he have to take as his text Zechariah, xi, 2 “Howl, fir tree, for the mighty cedar is fallen”? It set a bad example to the choirboys...

I say, could anyone dig a chap out of all this rubble?

Don’t you wish more politicians spoke like this?

If you want evidence that politics has been hollowed out, consider the language many politicians use.

It has an other-worldly quality. It sounds scripted and insincere, not real or human. It is dishonest, but in a more subtle way than downright lies, relying instead on various forms of evasion: chicanery, obfuscation, weasel words, circumlocution, euphemism, platitudes, jargon and clichés.

It is the over-engineered and debased language of spin doctors and ‘messaging’. It is a language drained of meaning; surface not substance, marketing not politics.

(This problem is not new; George Orwell was complaining about politicians’ abuse of language in 1946).

And the irony is that, the more politicians try to gratify public opinion by contriving this sort of language, the less it works. Politicians are responding to what polls and focus groups tell them people want to hear. But the resulting language actually lowers popular trust in politicians because it sounds phoney.

So it is refreshing to hear a politician speak from the heart in real language. Steve Yolland reports:
In Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature succeeded in passing a new ‘right-to-work’ law, which weakens unions’ ability to negotiate and has serious negative implications for all workers in the state. They had no public meetings, no debate, no time for review, and most offensively had Republican staffers sit in seats in the gallery to block interested citizens from even being in the room to hear about it.
Representative Brandon Dillon (Democrat) decided to speak out against this abuse of power. And this is what he said:

Don’t you wish more politicians spoke like that?

The surprising decline in violence

“Everything you know is wrong,” says psychologist Steven Pinker in a lecture for TED.

Conventional wisdom says that the modern era, with its technological warfare, genocide and violent crime, is uniquely violent. Our tribal ancestors, meanwhile, lived in communal harmony.

“In fact,” says Pinker, “our ancestors were far more violent than we are, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

You can see the whole lecture here:

This lecture was recorded in 2007 and Pinker subsequently expanded his theory into the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Note that Pinker is not claiming that there is no violence today, rather that there is a lot less of it compared with most of human history. If, having watched the lecture, you still disagree with Pinker, read the comments thread here, where your points may already have been raised and answered.

Meanwhile, consider the question Pinker raises at the end of his lecture. The decline in violence should force us to ask not just “What are we doing wrong?” but also “What have we been doing right?”

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A piss-up in a brewery

Can the coalition organise a piss-up in a brewery? One thing’s for sure: a piss-up will be more expensive.

Yesterday, CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) led a demonstration at Westminster to protest against the fiscal escalator applied to beer. This policy, introduced by the last Labour government and maintained by the coalition, increases the duty on beer by inflation plus 2% each year. As a result, the tax on beer has increased by more than 40% since 2008.

CAMRA opposes the fiscal escalator because it is damaging a British growth industry, craft beers, and a vital community asset, the local pub. And with fewer pubs selling costlier beer, more drinkers are buying cut-price beer from the big supermarkets, which contributes to worse drink problems.

Which leads us to another controversial government alcohol policy, a proposed minimum price of 45p per unit (in England and Wales; things are more advanced in Scotland). How bad would this be?

Suppose you could not buy any alcoholic drink for less than 45p per unit. That would mean a minimum price for a pint of beer (average strength 5% = 2.8 units) of £1.26. In my local pubs, the price is around £2.80 to £3 a pint and it is closer to £4 in London. The minimum price for a standard-sized 75cl bottle of wine (average strength 12% = 9 units) would be £4.05. The cheapest bottle of wine I’ve seen lately in a British supermarket cost £3.99 and there’s usually nothing under about £4.50.

The only drink that would increase in price significantly is the cheap lager sold by supermarkets below cost price as a loss leader. Selling below cost is predatory pricing, and it is a major factor behind not only problem drinking but also pub closures.

But is a minimum price per unit the right strategy? The ‘unit’ is a notional measure unrelated to production costs, when the problem is the sale of drink below cost. And as we saw during the last Labour government, the unit value of a pint of beer was arbitrarily increased from 2 to nearly 3 units, and a bottle of wine from 6 to 9 units.

CAMRA instead suggests an alternative policy:
CAMRA supports a genuine ban on the sale of alcohol at below cost. This would take into account the cost of brewing and retailing beer. This would result in supermarkets being unable to sell beer below an average cost price of around 80p a pint. CAMRA does not support proposals for a minimum price unrelated to the costs of producing and selling beer.
An 80p per pint floor price would have no effect on real ale or pubs. Pubs, unlike supermarkets, need to make a profit on the beer that they sell and so would be unaffected by any action against below cost alcohol sales.
Blanket policies are disproportionate and treat the civilised majority of drinkers like children. CAMRA’s alternative would be much more focused on the real problem.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Man in Seat Sixty-One

Nobody seems to have a good word for Ryanair. But many people still use it. And that is a metaphor for attitudes to air travel in general.

Most passengers have mixed feelings about flying. They are conscious that it is not the most environmentally-friendly form of travel. They dislike the onerous and time-consuming security procedures. They dislike the cramped seating and the baggage restrictions. They dislike the hidden charges. Above all, they dislike the stress.

Air travel nowadays is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Let’s face it, the glamour of flying went long ago.

But feelings about flying remain mixed because it has two redeeming features, cost and convenience. Low-cost airlines have made flying a very cheap way to travel (despite the hidden charges). And booking a flight is easy, just a few minutes on an airline’s website. For more complex travel arrangements using regular scheduled airlines, any damn fool travel agent can book you a through ticket simply and quickly.

So most people travelling abroad choose to fly without giving the alternatives much thought.

But what if you want to keep your feet on terracotta (as John Prescott would say)? What if you would rather travel by train or ship? People are vaguely aware of the spread of high-speed trains throughout Europe, but could you reach Berlin or the Mediterranean coast in one day? How do you book tickets? What does it cost? And how do you get the best deals?

Admittedly, the answer is that it’s not as simple as booking air tickets. But one excellent website has made the procedure much easier, The Man in Seat Sixty-One. It explains how you can travel by train or ship anywhere in the world, provides tips on the best routes, times and fares, and includes links for buying tickets. You can also see photos of what various operators’ train seating, sleeping car berths or restaurant cars look like.

Whether it’s a simple journey from London to Paris or a week-long trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway; taking the sleeper to Scotland or vital tips for train travel in Mozambique; all the basic information you need is here in plain language. It’s what the internet is for.

Anyone whose main experience of train travel is a daily commute on the 08:13 from Staines to Waterloo may take some convincing. Personally, when I travel, I prefer to be able to see the passing scenery, to stretch my legs whenever I choose, to take my own booze and food, and (on increasing numbers of trains) to have access to wi-fi. It doesn’t matter what my suitcase weighs and I don’t have to pay a supplement for bringing it on board. Apart from Eurostar, there are no check-in deadlines or security procedures to worry about. And facilities for children and disabled people are much better.

So next time you travel, avoid the airport. And if you do, one other website you should bookmark is the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) journey planner (in English), where you can get train times for any journey throughout Europe, not just Germany. If your journey starts or ends in Germany, you can also use this site to check prices and book tickets. You can also waste time by doing silly things like planning a journey from Wick to Budapest. Or, if the fancy takes you, Budapest to Wick.

Finally, if you are planning some serious train travel across Europe, you’ll need one of these.

But promise me one thing. Throughout your train journey, never display the same smug expression as Michael Portillo.

Why robots are bad for your health

Here’s an interesting theory for what is going wrong with the economy, summarised in this FT Alphaville blog article [(free) registration required] by Izabella Kaminska. The article is well worth reading and includes lots of useful links.

The theory goes something like this. Originally, it was predicted that, as robots and computers took over more of the hard jobs, we would move to a more leisure-oriented society. Then economists forgot about that idea. And now they have remembered it again – but not in a good way.

Technological advance is causing abundance which depresses prices and threatens the return on capital. So the incumbent interests threatened by this trend have an increasing incentive to impose artificial scarcity. They are rationing new ideas by exploiting and extending the system of patents. As market power becomes more concentrated, incumbents are better able to stifle innovation and raise rents on the ideas they own. This ‘idea monopolisation’ has become a hugely counter-productive force in the economy. And this trend is manifest in the growth of companies that don’t produce anything but exist solely on the revenue of their patents.
So, robot and technology power is reducing the natural employment rate. But rather than our subsidising those who have lost jobs to technology, so as to spread that manna wealth that’s literally dropped onto the surface of the earth at no-one’s physical disadvantage, companies are using monopoly power to extort rents on the capital that is creating all that free wealth.
That’s why inequality is rising.
As technology proceeds in a patent-obsessed world, the fruits of innovation flow to the owners of the capital and invention, forming a whole new rentier class. The financial assets/debts that back the innovation technology, meanwhile, get disproportionally valuable as their purchasing power gets completely out of whack with the output they radically accelerate.
In other words, a rentier class of patent owners is hoarding ideas and extorting extravagant rents. Consequently wealth is concentrating instead of spreading outwards. Which is why those people who have been moved involuntarily into a ‘leisure-oriented society’ are finding they do not have the income to go with it. Perhaps that is why, as George Osborne alleges, they keep the curtains closed.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Do online political campaigns work?

The answer to this question is: it depends.

In a recent speech, Jeremy Heimans, co-founder of online petitions pioneer Avaaz, warned that online campaigners must build for the long term and that they should not confuse online tactics with a clear strategy:
Don’t fixate on technology. Movements are not internet memes, and one viral YouTube video does not make a movement. What we are trying to do in all these movements is build and consolidate power around important issues.
Heimans noted that recent responses to the subject of online campaigning have tended to polarise into two types, hyperventilation or sighing. The hyperventilators tend to make bold claims such “Twitter is changing the world, it made the Arab Spring happen”, while the sceptics dismiss online tools as less effective than real world, offline activism:
The funny thing about both of these extremes is neither of them tend to know very much about tools on offer.
This bears out what I learnt from master campaigner Des Wilson many years ago. Any activity deserving of the name ‘campaign’ should be (in Des’s words) “A planned, organised and sustained drive to persuade someone to do or give you what you want.” The internet and social media haven’t changed this; they can be highly effective campaign tools but they are still just tools in the box.

Losing my religion?

The results of last year’s census in England and Wales have been released today and the Guardian is running a useful live blog analysing the results. (Scotland and Northern Ireland hold their own censuses; Northern Ireland’s results will be released later today, while Scotland’s are out next week).

It is no surprise that home ownership has fallen by 7% since the previous census in 2001, given the inflated house prices and financial crisis of the past decade. What is surprising is how drastic this fall has been in London, where home ownership has collapsed by almost 40%.

The most striking figure, though, is the fall in religious affiliation, despite the fact that the 2011 census biased the results by asking a loaded question (“What is your religion?”).

Compared with 2001, people describing themselves as Christians are down 13 percentage points from 72% to 59%. Meanwhile, respondents with no religion are up 10 points from 15% to 25%. But these figures need to be read in conjunction with the results for ethnicity. The ‘white British’ group now accounts for 80% of the population, compared with 87% in 2001. Given that other ethnic groups tend to be more religious than average, this probably means that the fall in religious belief is even greater among white British people.

The census’s understatement of the decline in religion is borne out by the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey, which showed that 50.7% of people in Great Britain have no religion. In any case, one wonders what most of the census respondents who ticked the box marked ‘Christian’ actually meant, since only 6% of the UK population regularly attends church.

No religion has suffered a greater fall than the Jedi Knights. In the 2001 census, a write-in campaign secured 0.7% declaring their religion as Jedi, a bigger proportion than those who cited Buddhism, Judaism and Sikhism. This time, the figure is only 0.31%. Thankfully, the remaining 176,632 Jedi Knights still comfortably outnumber the 1,893 people who declared themselves Satanists.

Jedis or not, this sharp decline in religion makes the government’s support for faith schools look even more ridiculous than before. Not that the facts are likely to bother Michael Gove.

The debt we’re in

Each month, Credit Action publishes debt statistics for the UK and the latest figures are just out.

Headline statistics:
  • £53,912 was the average household debt (including mortgages) in October.
  • £166m was the daily amount of interest paid on personal debt in October.
  • 8,465 new debt problems were dealt with by the Citizens Advice Bureau each working day over the year to June.
  • 1,399 people people were made redundant every day between July and September.
  • 894,000 people had been unemployed for over a year between July and September.
  • £11.38m of loans are written-­off daily by UK banks and building societies.
  • Every 16 minutes 4 seconds, a property is repossessed.
  • Every 4 minutes 42 seconds, someone will be declared insolvent or bankrupt.
  • £1.362 billion was the daily value of all purchases made using plastic cards in September.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Bomb Sight

A website has just been launched called Bomb Sight, an interactive map of the bombing of London during the Blitz from October 1940 to June 1941.

During this period, the Luftwaffe bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. More than 20,000 civilians were killed and 1.4 million Londoners were left homeless.

Bomb Sight’s map enables you to zoom in on any part of London and see precisely where the bombs fell. We tend to think that the Blitz took place mainly in the East End, the docks and the City, and indeed those areas suffered most. The reason the maps appear to underestimate the damage done in those parts of London is that they show only where individual high explosive bombs and parachute mines fell. They do not chart the smaller incendiary bombs, which caused wider destruction by starting fires.

For the greatest visual impact, however, zoom out on the map. What is striking is that the whole of Greater London was affected, not just the East End. Not a single neighbourhood, even in the outermost suburbs, was untouched. This was clearly strategic area bombing rather than a campaign focused on specific military or industrial targets.

Zoom in, click on any individual bomb symbol and you can see how the website provides scope to collect photographs and personal memories of each individual incident. Capturing these memories is an urgent historical task, since the Blitz took place 72 years ago and not many witnesses are still alive.

If there are the resources to expand this project to cover the whole of the war and/or the whole of the UK, this would become a remarkable historical resource.

Oh no, not him again

A general election has been called in Italy, and there is a real possibility of Silvio Berlusconi returning as prime minister for a fourth time. This is despite the fact that he has recently been convicted of tax fraud and is appealing against a four-year jail sentence. It is also despite the fact that his party, the PdL, is currently scoring only 13.8% in the polls.

Helpfully, Time magazine has published a list of Berlusconi’s ten worst gaffes.

Berlsuconi is notorious, of course, for his voracious sexual appetite, but glamorous young women are not the only people he’s screwed.

You will probably not be interested in the paparazzi photos of goings-on at Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia, published in 2009 by the Spanish daily El País. In the unlikely event that you are, the mystery gentleman in photo no.5 is in fact Mirek Topolanek, former prime minister of the Czech Republic. Oddly, only Topolanek’s face is pixelated, which reminds me of a story about the Oxford don Maurice Bowra. One day, Bowra was with a group of men bathing naked at Parson’s Pleasure on the River Cherwell, when a female student floated past in a punt. All the bathers hurriedly covered their privates apart from Bowra, who put a flannel over his head. When the punt had passed, Bowra’s companions queried his behaviour. Bowra replied, “I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face.”

Sunday, 9 December 2012

“Green movement has been an abject failure”

Provocative stuff from Nick Feik in the Melbourne Age. Feik is no climate change denier; rather, he wants effective action. He argues that, while the environmental movement has changed hearts and minds, it has failed to bring in effective solutions to the threat of climate change and needs to rethink its strategy radically:
If the civil rights movement were as unsuccessful as the environmental movement has been, Rosa Parks’ granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus.
She might be secure in the knowledge that a global consensus had formed against racial discrimination, but she would still be sitting there.
Like the civil rights movement, environmentalism has changed the way we think. It has engendered a new respect for the natural world, an understanding of the delicate balance of life in our biosphere and mass engagement on the most important issue of all, climate change.
Yet it has failed in a profound way.
As a movement ushering in solutions to halt or slow climate change, it has been catastrophically ineffective.
Worst of all, it appears it’s now too late for environmentalists to win the fight.