Friday, 12 December 2014

Kill All Drug Users?

I don't know if any of you are on the YouGov site. But it is addictive. A bit like twitter, but with 500 characters. I wrote an Opinion on the Legalisation of Cannabis.

Why do we gift the most profitable industry in history to criminals? Successful Interdiction of supply is incompatible with a free society, so why bother? Legalise. Enjoy the benefits of police no-longer alienating swaths of the population enforcing ridiculous prohibition, who can be deployed elsewhere. Tax the trade. Enforce quality standards, Treat problem users medically rather than criminally. EVERYONE is better off.
I received the following comment
EXTERMINATE once the users , dealer and growers are suitably dead there will be no further problem And anyone calling for legalisation MUST be tested one trace and its guilty
So there we have it - some people getting high is more of a problem than a murderous state executing people without due process. That's the level of idiocy we're up against, people. And for the record, I suspect this is what he genuinely believes. I have come across plenty of police who think like this.

You cannot stop people desiring to get out of themselves chemically. Whether it's booze or narcotics. And in a free society, you cannot meaningfully interdict supply of psychoactive chemicals. To some people such as my correspondent above, that means a free society is the problem. Perhaps he needs some time in the salt-mines to learn the value of freedom?



Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Oil Price Collapse, & why No-One Starves in the West.

Two years after the fall of Soviet Communism, a visiting Russian official seeking to learn about how free market systems worked, asked the Cambridge economist Paul Seabright "Who is in charge of Bread Supply in London. He was astonished by the answer: "No-One".

No-one has starved in a free market system since the Potato Famine in Ireland in 1740-41, which happened because of the failure of a staple crop, and despite significant Government initial efforts to alleviate it. The free market failed there, for a huge number of reasons but that remains the only example, and much has been learned since. Many of the other famines in what were nominally free-market systems, like the Bengal Famine of 1943 can be put down directly to interventions in the markets such as the (democratically elected) Punjabi Government preventing the export of food to Bengal, whose other major source of food, Burma, was having a little local difficulty which became known to history as World War 2. Because of this intervention by the Punjabi government in the market in response to shortages, and subsequent inaction by the Indian Government, over a million people died.



The oil price rose throughout the '00s in response to the rise of Chinese demand, lower interest rates and increased car use in the developed and developing world. Then people started to hurt. Oil price protests rocked the world. The cost of maintaining subsidised petrol in the non-petro-state middle-east is one of the sparks that lit the 'Arab Spring'. In the west, cars got more efficient as the price (and taxes on petrol) rose. People bought smaller and more efficient cars. Highway speeds fell, as cars started to have 'fuel economy' displayed on the dashboard and people realised how much more it cost to drive at 90mph than 70. People changed their behaviour and drove less: 'Peak car' was in 2005 in the USA.

Meanwhile, engineers went looking. We had long known about 'Tight oil' (oil soaked into porous shale or tar-sands), but it was expensive to produce, and uneconomic to extract, until the prices rose. And when they did, engineers sought means to improve production efficiency. And they were successful. The spike of Oil prices in response to cheap money and the recovery from the credit crunch led to an enormous explosion of production in Texas and North Dakota in particular. The USA became the world's largest oil producer in 2013. Cost of tight-oil production in Texas is around $40 and falling. In much of the traditional reserves in the North Sea, it's $35.

There is the equivalent of five Saudi Arabias worth of reserves in the Eagle Ford shale in East Texas alone. (1.25tn Barrels of Oil Equivalent vs 255bn BOE) . And it is ALL economically viable to extract so long as oil remains above $50 per barrel. And there's the Bakken in North Dakota and others. Peak Oil? Um... no.

So the response to a temporary shortage of Oil was for people to use gradually less in response to a price signal, and for people to go looking for more, in response to the same price signal. And the result is the glut of Oil the world is currently enjoying as oil that was prospected when the price was $120 is now hitting the market. My guess is we can expect $45 or so and then stabilisation around $50-70. Having got used to Oil at twice that price, it will feel like a tax cut for the world. (Except Nigeria, Venezuala, and Russia...).

What is true of Oil - the price goes up when demand exceeds supply - is true of wheat, and pork bellies, and olive oil, and corn or Tea. And the substitutes, barley, chicken, rape-seed oil, Sorghum, coffee, and so forth get used instead. People economise and substitute. So long as the market remains, it will become increasingly profitable to move stock from places of low value to places of high value where things are scarce.

Even the much-maligned speculation, or what used to be called 'hoarding' helps, by creating a reserve  in anticipation of higher prices to come, to be released onto the market in response to shortages. Hoarding ensures the commodity is always available at a price. And so no-one starves.

And the lessons: how to grow crops or burn fuel more efficiently, cannot be unlearned. So when supply returns, prices often collapse, the speculators often get badly burned, but the economy as a whole is richer as a lot is being done more efficiently.

Ah... I hear you say... but what about Africa: how can Africans pay the same prices as Europeans? But 21st century famines in Africa are almost never SUPPLY problems, but DISTRIBUTION problems. This isn't about cash-crops being removed even as people starved, like Ireland in the 18th Century. We in the rich west are not taking African food because we can pay more, indeed quite the opposite. There's often plenty of food, grown in the region or supplied as Aid, but due to poor infrastructure or more often, war and banditry, it cannot get to where it is needed. Where the rich west is holding Africa down is by preventing much of the continent from developing a cash-crop economy. The Africans are actively prevented from supplying our markets with cheap food by rich-world Farm subsidies, So roads aren't built, and when the crops fail, food cannot get in from outside, either in response to rising prices or even Aid. Aid which often as a by-product, destroys the livelihoods of local farmers by undercutting them.

The European Union, USA and Japan, to name the most egregious examples have their boots on the face of Africa, keeping him down, but not in the way you'd think. African farmers cannot compete against our heavily subsidised farmers and so cannot invest or develop their production, even if they wanted to. The market for the end product isn't there. Without that bottom rung, the rest of the development ladder is much harder to climb. Then, by demanding Africa opens up their economies to everything, except the one thing they have a comparative advantage, African economies struggle to compete and struggle to develop.

The fact Africa now contains some of the Fastest-growing economies on earth is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Imagine how much better it'd be if we'd not retarded African development by to appease French farmers' selfishness. Every famine since 1740-41, everywhere in the world is BECAUSE, not despite a Government somewhere intervening in the market. And the same is true of poverty. The African governments and their trade partners who've worked this out are doing well. But it took millions of lives, and is still not widely understood.

Rising prices are merely the means by which no-one starves and the pumps still have petrol. Would you rather we ran out occasionally?



Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Gordon Brown's Legacy is Perpetual Austerity. Good.

"Why are you so ANGRY?", I am often asked. I don't mind people who disagree. But what I cannot stand are people for whom the managerialist, high-spending government IS THE ONLY WAY. These are the people who will, with graphs and "facts" confidently tell you that because investment fell while Brown was spending all the money, then Brown had to spend all the money BECAUSE THERE WAS NO CHOICE. The other option, that there was no investment, because Brown was hoovering up all the money and people which might have been used to invest, doesn't occur at all to them. They are dangerous because they are plausible. They sound reasonable. They are confident of their analysis. Many of them are extremely well respected, and they often have the weight of academia behind them.

They all tell you the deficit doesn't matter, that "austerity" is not necessary or self-defeating and we should instead be spending more.  And like Maggie's 364 economists, they are wholly, ridiculously wrong. They may be right in every detail. But they were still wrong - the German Army of WW2 can plausibly claim to have lost no tactical engagements. They too were right in detail. They still lost. The 364 economists' descendants defending the Blairite, last hurrah of the post-war welfare state are wrong because they're extensively trained in the status-quo, and can see no alternative.

The state is too big. It spends 50% of GDP, and takes 45% or so in Taxes. Before WW2, this was around 25%. The state now seriously considers the contents of school lunch boxes, how much middle-class people drink of an evening or the font on a packet of fags a reasonable part of its remit. We are over-governed.

It's trivially true, as the managerialists claim that Austerity's ideological, that deficit fetishism is silly, but that does not make the coalition's spending cuts insane. What was insane is testing the proposition that public services improvement was simply a matter of fire-hosing money. Most of the money spent went on wages - headcounts went up, and pay (especially if you include pensions) outstripped the private sector. "Austerity" is merely the bleating of a well-paid client state being forced to live within the country's means once more.

Some spending makes sense: Road and infrastructure building for example - borrow at low rates to build things which generate real economic return. It's a no-brainer to turn the A1 into a motorway or upgrade the A303 by Stonehenge. Deficit fetishists whinge. But there is no equivalent need to have public sector workers paid more than private sector workers. They enjoy better pensions and greater job security, so pay them less! Freeze their pay till they get the same as their equivalents in the private sector, whose wages are set by productivity, informed by markets.

There needs to be fewer public sector workers, doing less, and paid about the same as those whose salaries are not guaranteed by the tax-payer. No tax-funded salary should be more than the Prime-ministers'. The problem is the state is trying to do too much, and only a slow, continued squeeze on it will bring the public finances back on track. It is only when you come across the public sector at work - four hour meetings with eight people paid over £30,000 a year, in which no-one goes away with any actions, that you realise how much fat there is to cut. It's not a trim that's needed. A saw needs to be taken to whole arms of the state, giving PEOPLE back control of their own lives, for good or ill.

If you blew up every Sure-Start centre and fired their staff tomorrow, is there anyone who wouldn't be able to cope? How many people would be immediately worse off without the attentions of social workers? Of course some would miss it. But many would be better off - think of happy families ripped apart by over-zealous enforcement of state-employees' decisions. Victoria Climbe and Peter Connelly's murders happened despite the tender ministrations of the state in these families' lives. Ministrations which may encourage others in society to 'look the other way' in the face of horror, as someone's paid to think about that sort of thing. Too many people have persuaded themselves "vital" services are vital, when in fact they're part of the infantilisation of a population which is losing the ability to look after or make decisions for, itself.

On the day after Gordon Brown announced he's to step down, his legacy is a British public carrying a burden of a state he built, which achieved little, and at enormous cost. The private sector is getting on with doing what it does, creating wealth, and coming up with new ideas, but it is shackled to a imbecile obsessed with box-ticking, and getting in the way. Oh, and the lumbering imbecile is very, very powerful, armed to the teeth, and can pick the private-sector's pocket at will. Worse, the imbecile actually believes it runs things.

We need to find ways to reduce inequality which don't involve hundreds of thousands of civil servants. Luckily, there are good solutions: a Citizen's basic income (or similar ideas like a negative income tax) achieve redistribution, but don't need a huge bureaucracy to administer. The Coalition's universal credit is a baby step in the right direction, and very popular with the people to whom it so far applies. Do not be thinking this shrinking of the state will leave poor people out in the cold: on the contrary, it will FREE the poor FROM the social workers and benefits officers who blight their lives with forms and stress, just as the private sector needs to be freed from onerous regulation, which do little but create a vulnerable oligopoly where a chaotic but resilient market once existed.

The only thing we can thank Gordon Brown for is that no Future Chancellor will ever think they've abolished "Boom and Bust"; and he tested to destruction the idea that all that was wrong with public services is they had insufficient money or staff. That's it. Done. The high-point of the post-war welfare state was reached under Brown and Obama. Bless him, Hollande in France is right now demonstrating what happens if you continue dancing when the music stops. The next revolution is that radical idea that the state should be leaving people alone. "Austerity", in reality the self-interested bleating of people whose jobs to interfere in other people's lives, has only just begun.

Thanks to Gordon Brown' complete and total failure as Chancellor, as Prime-Minister, and as a man, "Austerity" is permanent. Good.



Monday, 1 December 2014

What Libertarians can learn from Antonio Gramsci and Why they Should Join the Tories.

I describe myself as a Libertarian, mainly because the traditional labels of 'left' and 'right' don't fully fit. As P.J. O'Rourke remarked "Turn right at Economics, Take a left at sex and drugs, straight ahead to paradise"*. The right are largely economically liberal, but socially authoritarian, and the left, the opposite. And this varies by time and place, influenced by history. Swedish neo-nazis for example are strongly in favour of that kingdom's generous welfare state. But I don't want to 'smash the state'. Shrink it, gradually, for sure. But I don't want a revolution. Nor do I see much fundamentally wrong with representative democracy.

Libertarians too often have an intellectual jump-off point at their state-free utopia. This isn't libertarianism, but anarchism, but these anarcho-capitalists hurl abuse at any libertarian whose ideas include working with existing institutions: not "real" libertarianism. There's no coherent plan to get from a state which takes 50% of GDP and thinks it reasonable to control the font on cigarette packets, or the contents of Children's lunch-boxes, to one where the state keeps to its reasonable functions. Thus libertarianism is a philosophy for spotty herberts, ranting in pubs, mainly to each other. And the An-caps are to blame.

Unless your intellectual jump-off point is our society and government, complete with problems, here and now, you will be ignored. This is why Labour was out of power for nearly two decades until they abandoned their marxist fantasy. The Tories fell into the trap of imagining an Elysium somewhere around 1953, which saw them out of power while Gordon Brown laid waste the economy. The party that wins power is the one with a clear solution to the problems of the country now, and an optimistic vision for the future sufficient to encourage people to vote.

The problems faced by the UK government are a deficit requiring spending cuts, and preventing tax-cuts. A population which appears to be obsessed by immigration (especially in the kind of places where there is little). This means the solutions are extraordinarily unpopular, as the left hate spending cuts, as the right thinks not giving tax-cuts is tantamount to socialism. Social liberalism, gay marriage for example seems to have brought out the right-authoritarians out in full-scale culture war. Immigrants are the first casualty, as they seek their fantasy '50s Britain.

Despite extraordinarily difficult political headwinds, the coalition's doing a good job. Taxes have even been cut, especially on the low-paid. In-work benefits are about the same or more generous, increasing the returns to work, and out of work benefits have been frozen or squeezed. This tax-cut, and benefit rise has been largely responsible for the missed deficit targets. But the effect has been profound. Added to the incentive effects, supply-side reforms, mainly making it easier to fire, and less costly to employ, have seen something of a jobs miracle. Despite a weak economy, millions have found work, and the coalition has mostly achieved this by increasing incentives to the out of work, and by reducing obstacles to jobs being provided. Even the jobs miracle is grotesquely unpopular. Ranty rigties and "libertarians" bemoan the increased in-work benefits bill. The left are having a right old froth about "zero-hours" contracts or the rise in self-under-employment.

But everywhere you look, the coalition's been shrinking the state's influence over economic life, and seen a flourishing of private sector economic activity. State headcount, the bean-counters and box-tickers of Gordon Brown's expensive client state, has been pared back to pre-1997 levels. The debate about the deficit has been comprehensively won - even Labour has abandoned its punk-keynsianism in rhetoric at least.

Ranty twitter libertarians often ask how I can stomach being a Conservative. It's simple. They do a good job in day-to-day government, and they do shrink the state overall. It is true Conservatives are not libertarians. The clue is in the name. But they are fellow-travellers, at least as far as they want to go, and especially so in matters economic. The Cameroons are also reasonably socially liberal. They do want to get the state out of the bedroom, and pursue a more reasonable set of drug laws. The Tory party has lost its ranty, EU-obsessed authoritarians to UKIP, who, one suspects, mostly hate the EU because it prevents bringing back hanging. And the Tory party looks a whole lot better without them.

Libertarians should offer a vision of a freer, richer, stronger UK, starting with the rich, free and strong UK we have now. We should do so by infiltrating the existing parties and making arguments for policies that work mainly by freeing people from state dependency and control. Citizens' Basic Income, protections to civil liberties, freedom of expression and association. If there were more libertarians making the arguments rather than stomping off in great huffs like David Davis, or Douglas Carswell, we might get somewhere.

But Libertarians are too selfish, immature and self-centred to compromise. We do have the answers. Libertarianism is right, good and helpful to people. But we are absolutely rubbish at making the arguments to those who matter because we couch the arguments in such absolutist terms. Libertarians need to get their shoulders to the wheel of debate, instead of standing at the sidelines shouting incoherent abuse to people trying to come up with solutions to problems faced by people in the here and now. Otherwise we leave policy-making in the here and now to Gramscian marxists who've already completed their long-march through the institutions.

Libertarians should join the Conservative party. Not because the Conservative party fully agrees with us, but because it should.

*if anyone can find the source for, or correct me on this quote, I'd be grateful.



Monday, 24 November 2014

Why the NHS is like a Porsche 911.

The Porsche 911 suffers a fundamental design flaw: it's engine is in the wrong place, over the rear axle, leaving the car struggling for grip at the front, and tail happy. Decades of development have seen the engine's weight move towards the middle (where it should be), and by the 1990s Porsche was successfully keeping stockbrokers from going backwards through hedges, while keeping the overall shape that people seem to like.


The NHS is a lot like this car

"The NHS is being Privatised" is one of those perpetual political tropes, wheeled out by the hard left when Labour's in power, and everyone to the left of David Cameron when the Tories are. This is an example of 'the political class' (broad definition; which probably includes political obsessives like me, who're reading this blog) speaking a different language to the average voter.

What the NHS means to most people is a healthcare system, funded out of general taxation, free at the point of delivery, at which they can rock up when ill, no questions asked. Whether or not it is state-owned matters not a jot, so long as they don't have to pay when they're hurt. What the NHS means to a left-wing political activist on the other hand is 'the only thing on earth which is both state-run, and popular'. The NHS, following the triumph of Thatcherism, and the utter failure of traditional, trades-unionised municipal socialism, is all that is left of Atlee's post-war consensus and so critical to the left's image of itself.

But contrary to the Lefties' belief, the NHS has always made use of significant private business. Thankfully, even Atlee didn't nationalise the pharmaceutical companies. Most GPs are private-sector businesses which generate their business through NHS contracts. Services like cleaning and catering are often outsourced to private companies and have been for decades. And following reforms by the Labour party, some medical services are now run by for-profit businesses too. So the NHS is being privatised, a bit, by piecemeal and where appropriate.

But since the basic 'free at the point of use' structure of the NHS is not under threat (even the morons of UKIP don't want to fight the electorate over this), the ranty lefty screaming about 'profit' just seems ridiculous. I too support free(ish) at the point of use healthcare funded out of taxation. But I suspect private businesses competing to deliver services, especially if reforms can mean money follows patient choices, will deliver improvements in the standard, efficiency and responsiveness of care. I hope the reforms continue, backing success and learning from failure. Eventually, the state will control the spine of the NHS, guarantee the principles, and provide funding; but leave the actual provision to people and companies who aren't owned or employed directly by the state.

Which also brings us neatly to the Private Finance Initiative - something the left thinks is 'privatisation' too and the right thinks is state spending "off balance-sheet". The purpose of PFI is to deliver hospitals now, with the private sector bearing the delivery risk, and generating the financing. In return, the state offers a long-term delivery contract. The contract rolls up the cost of delivering, managing, maintaining and often cleaning a facility, so cannot be compared directly to build costs.

The PFI is delivered by a special purpose vehicle, a company whose shareholders might include a bank, a construction company like Balfour Beaty, a service company like Capita and various others. Investors typically bear the delivery risk should costs over-run. And this is why PFI projects have a good track-record, better than that of the state, in bringing things in, on time and on budget. This is why the ONS said they were good value, despite slightly higher financing costs. The state is a lousy project manager; the private sector, when it stands to lose big money if a project over-runs, has a good track-record of delivery. The rapid spread of PFI round the world (another successful British innovation in political economy, like privatisation) wouldn't happen if it didn't deliver benefits.

And the NHS will survive, and the left will still rant and rage about "privatisation", and the public will still raise an eyebrow, suspicious of politicians' motives; but so long as the NHS remains free at the point of delivery, the electorate will demonstrate their 'false consciousness' by studiously ignoring the silly, shouty people demonstrating and their Socialist Workers' Party placards.

The NHS is slowly being "privatised" and has been since it was founded. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may open the NHS to American healthcare companies, if they aren't already here. This is a good thing. Standards improve with the input of new ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Hospitals are built with the input of private capital and project management. An internal market improves responsiveness to patients' needs. All this is ultimately underwritten and financed by the state from taxation. The problem with the NHS is not "privatisation", it's the fact it was ever nationalised in the first place. Like the Porsche 911, the NHS's engine is in a fundamentally wrong place (Way out behind the rear axle, on Whitehall, rather than somewhere between the patient and the GP), but with decades of development and tinkering, that design flaw is being been overcome, as the engine is moved closer to where it should be. The NHS will remain Free at the point of use, just as the Porsche keeps its shape, but however good they are now, no-one's copied the underlying design of either.



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Government and Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs

Life, even after a few years of falling wages, is pretty good in the west. Whatever the idiots of the left tell you, you need to pretty comprehensively screw your life up to be homeless in any developed western economy. Some people fall through the net, but they're exceptions who're often on the streets because they reject help. Starvation in the west, is almost always a result of mental illness, not want. This is why shroud waving about 'the bedroom tax' has fallen flat. It's just contrary to what people can see with their own eyes.

So, unlike almost every society preceding it, the west delivers all the physiological needs of food and water to all of its people, with near 100% reliability. Most do a pretty good job of providing affordable healthcare too.

With the bare necessities of life secure, a place to live is fairly high on the list of requirements. And very, very few people have nowhere to live. Some fall through the cracks, and for too many it's far too expensive to live reasonably near work. We build too few houses, and prices are too high for sure. But that's a problem soluble within the present system. Unlike many economies on earth, however almost everyone in the west has access to a secure house.

Other elements in 'security' are amply provided by western societies. We enjoy secure property rights. Few of us die of violence. There is justice, imperfect to be sure, but there is a reliable dispute resolution process. We can travel freely, and seek to do business worldwide, and assume contracts are honoured. Regulations ensure our homes and workplaces are safe. None of these are perfect, but by with centuries of problem-solving, things get better, in fits and starts.

This is the bread and butter of politics. The steady, patient accumulation of good ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Free market, democratic capitalism has delivered material wealth unimaginable to our forebears, and will continue to develop improvements, and hopefully find ways to distribute them better. Regulation, and robust institutions to enforce them, are necessary, in part so people don't have to re-invent the wheel every time they innovate. What works - from hard hats on building sites to banking capital adequacy is a reasonable function of government. And it's pretty dull. Much of this is supranational trade regulation, outsourced to bodies like the WTO and EU to enable bigger, and therefore more efficient markets. Too much regulation, of course strangles the golden goose. But that too is tested world wide and locally. Bad ideas like marking-to-market are abandoned, good ideas which seem to work, spread. This is only possible because people are allowed to question our rulers.

From Magna Carta in 1215 (and similar ideas in the Islamic world at about the same time) which put rulers under law, imperfectly, and with many retrograde steps, the idea that Government should obtain their people's consent gained traction. And because people are good at solving problems, the societies which governed by consent, and which broadened the stake in society, were far more successful than the autocracies with which they competed. We free people have seen off big, bad ideas: The divine right of kings, Bonapartism, religious absolutism, slavery, fascism, communism and we're having another competition with religious absolutism now, but no-one thinks seriously that Radical Islamists pose any existential threat to western democracies.

We, broadly if not universally, won. And if the Koreans or Japanese have caught up, it is by taking up our good ideas and applying them to their society. They now compete to generate the new ideas which help society improve. As more and more countries join us on the technological frontier - the former soviet Eastern Europe is catching up fast, as is China, and so more and more of humanity's creative endeavour will be applied to solving problems, creating solutions we can all share.

In politics, it's tempting for politicians to rubbish others' ideas and try to sell theirs as revolutionary. But because we've defeated all the really, really bad ideas, we're now arguing about ever smaller and smaller problems. This, in turn makes politicians look small and petty. We're no longer arguing about how to organise society, we're arguing about distributing success. This requires managers, not leaders. And so turnouts fall worldwide and people shift from parties of government to single-issue pressure groups. We hanker for the old, simple, black and white questions were WE could broadly persuade ourselves that WE were on the side of Angels, and THEY were the bad guys. And if you grew up with the cold war, in the democratic west, we were the ones outside the wall, asking the others to tear it down. And now, the Green movement is on the side of the planet against big, bad business, which is destroying the planet. Or UKIP blaming everything on the EU and the LIBLABCON Westminster clique.

Feeling part of something, especially AGAINST something self-evidently wicked, is more important in many ways than material and economic security. These are the social, love and esteem layers of Mazlow's Hierarchies of need. British elections in the 1980s were in part between those who sympathised with the communists, and those who identified with America. Parties were mass movements, and satisfying as a result. In success, politicians lost something to define themselves against, even as they maintain the forms of adversarial debate. When you're discussing potential nuclear holocaust, or how to defeat fascism, this is fine. But if you're trying to present £11 a week  off benefits as existential crisis, or a small change in tax-rates as a return to communism (guilty as charged...) you just look ridiculous.

While this was manageable during a long rise in living standards, it rapidly became less so when the great recession hit. Having got used to success, governments spent and spent to fund promises of ever greater services, and ever greater consumption. And eventually the money ran out. Insurgent parties then moved into the void across the world - UKIP, the Tea Party, Front National and others. Some more responsible than others, but each coming with their own comforting 'Them and Us' narrative.

Ultimately I think these parties, should they ever be confronted with the realities of Government will either end up looking exactly like the parties they claim to oppose, be absorbed by them, or will implode under the weight of their internal contradictions. The upper levels of the hierarchy of needs are not really deliverable by politicians. All they can do is promise to manage the ever shrinking portion of economies needed to deliver safety, security and possibly health to the people. It used to require the productive efforts of 95% of humanity just to provide food, a task delivered in the west by just 1% now.

People want to be listened to, as an inevitable consequence of having enough to eat and a place to eat it. But everyone wants something different. So we require a new politics, one that enables and facilitates, rather than seeking to impose a one-size fits all approach. Formal government needs to shrink, sharing, as David Cameron used to say in the good times, the proceeds of growth between tax-cuts and better services. This will leave people to seek the social, love and esteem without government interference, and with an ever-shrinking burden of taxation. You want freedom. Free people from want, let them feel secure, then watch our creative talents take man to the stars.

Yes, we (unfairly) despise politicians, because they have solved the major problems of life, and continue to do so. The answer isn't to return to them-and-us politics, but with smaller questions; Instead we must take more questions out of the politicians' purview. Their job is largely done, and they can recede, to be the people to whom we outsource the bin collections and sewage regulation. What they do is important. But it is now unglamourous.

One day perhaps we will give no more thought to the Government that delivers health services, organises some redistribution, funds education services and defends the realm than we do to the remarkable supply-chain that delivers our bread. Libertarianism will not come from destroying government, but by building on its successes something vaster and grander, and more satisfying to the people who live in it than any Government or bureaucrat could possibly imagine. Let us not despise democratic government, but reduce it over the next few centuries to the status of the monarchy in the UK now, a useful, decorative relic which doesn't get in the way much, while the free people get on with delivering what people actually want from each other.



Friday, 14 November 2014

On Being a "Real Conservative"

Tim Montgomerie, formerly doyen of Conservative home, now at the Times, has returned to his former bailiwick to explain why he's not joining UKIP. Basically, they're a bunch of clownish amateurs, however much he likes having his prejudices stroked by them. Despite not wanting to join them, he agrees with much of UKIP's analysis.

I feel – as many Tories do – that there is a cuckoo in the nest at present and he will be gone on either the day after the next election or a year or two afterwards...
Cameron is, of course, a great deal more popular than his party. Or more accurately, in this current toxic anti-politics mood, less unpopular. Cameron isn't the problem;  people like Montgomerie (and me...) are the problem. The parties, as they shrink are less the mass movements of ordinary people they once were, but clubs for political obsessives. The Tory fixation with Europe, or the endless Lib-Dem demands for PR as the answer to everything, or Labour's wibble about predistribution could never happen in a genuinely mass party.

He blames Cameron for failing to win an election against Brown. The UKIPish nutters, obsessed by Europe are far more to blame than the Prime Minister for conservative failure to win an election. The sheer insane kamikaze disloyalty they have shown has crippled the party for nearly two decades.
David Cameron is not a terrible conservative. He’s a little bit conservative in every respect. A little bit of a fiscal conservative. A little bit of a Eurosceptic. A little bit of a reformer. A little bit of a hawk on foreign policy
Montgomerie appears to be complaining that the Prime Minister who has cut state spending faster than any administration since Atlee is not savagely partisan enough. Cameron doesn't seem to enjoy being conservative enough. And that is the problem.  In the United states, the parties have become utterly polarised. Candidates must appear extreme to win nominations in primaries, then tack to the centre to win an election. Everyone ends up with something they didn't vote for, which further feeds dissatisfaction with politics. American Politics is utterly toxic and totally dysfunctional as a result, yet too many Tories look at the GOP today, and think "Gosh, I wish we looked like that".

As parties shrink, they become captured by vested interests: The Labour party is more in hock to the Unions than ever before, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unite. The Tories run the risk of being seen as being a subsidiary of their big-business donors. All this turns off the average voter, who feel, rightly at the moment that none of the parties speak for them. Hence the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens who all have messages which are angry, clear, simplistic and wrong.

The activists, like Montgomerie have to realise it's they (we...), not the much-derided "political class" who are the problem. Professional politicians have always existed, and the idea the country should be run by amateurs is laughable. Until activists can reach out in the spirit of compromise, seek to speak to people about what the people are interested in, not what the activists think the people ought to be interested in, politics will remain a minority pursuit. Most Tory councillors, who've experience of governing get this, but the activists, the enthusiasts, the door-knockers and bloggers who create the mood-music don't. "How can he think like this? If only he'd be more extreme, then all would be well."

How's Ed Miliband's 35% strategy working out?

Montgomerie blames Cameron for the rise of UKIP, which he says
is partly the product of both lousy party management and strategy by the current Tory leadership.
I think a better analogy is UKIP as the Tories' Militant Tendency. As Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have shown, the UKIPish backbenchers and activists are utterly unreconcilable - reaching out to them is utterly futile. They got the referendum they claimed to want, but it just encouraged them in to more tantrums of headbanging nuttiness A referendum in 2017? NO WE WANT ONE NEXT WEEK, WITH YOU CAMPAIGNING FOR 'OUT'!. They have got into the habit of rebellion, and lack the discipline to want to run the country, preferring the masturbatory pleasures of opposition, even while sitting on the Government benches. Compromise isn't unprincipled. Collective responsibility isn't dishonest. It's a recognition that there's competing interests in the country, and no-one gets everything they want.
There are divisions across the Right in all parts of the world but the lack of internal democracy has forced Tory divisions into the open and many natural Tories out of the party... Robust systems of internal democracy might have meant certain policies that I, personally, support – including equal marriage and the 0.7% aid target – might have been blocked. I would have argued for them but party members and MPs deserve to be consulted more often than at a once-in-a-decade leadership election. Every MP in the next parliament should have a job (running the UK equivalents of Battleground Texas, for example (of which more on another occasion)). There should be an elected Tory board and Chairman with the responsibility to think about the long-term health of the Tory Party. The whole party apparatus should not be obsessed with helping the current leader survive beyond the annual electoral cycle. Fundamental change is needed in party organisation if it is to think long-term about rebuilding in the northern cities, changing the profile of party candidates and – the previous theme – remoralising the Tory brand.
There are some good ideas about decentralising the party, but the problem remains: Tory activists do not look like the country and remain unhealthily obsessed with Europe. The country is socially liberal, the party is (mostly) not. To give too much power to the current ageing activist base risks accelerating the party's retreat from the electorate, and making it harder to govern - the one thing the electorate agrees on is it cannot stand a split party. The party must reach out first, try to make the activists look a little bit more like the country and learn to compromise again.

Purging the UKIPpers, who've been making Tories unelectable since 1992 is a good start.



Thursday, 13 November 2014

Landing a Probe on a Comet vs Tackling Poverty

On March 2, 2004, an Ariane 5 rocket took off from French Guiana containing the Rosetta spaceship. A few days later, having escaped the earth's gravity and put into a heliocentric orbit, Rosetta commenced a 10-year 6,500,000,000 km journey which involved taking slingshots off the earth (three times) and Mars (once) to rendez-vous  with a rubber-duck-shaped snowball the size of Cambridge 300,000,000 miles away, moving at 42,000 kmh, Having achieved the rendez-vous, a dishwasher sized probe with three harpooned legs was to be released to float down to the surface of the comet, as it hurtled through space. Touchdown was achieved on 12th November 2014. 


This is, quite simply a technical and scientific achievement equivalent to putting man on the moon. To my mind it is enough that it's there to do, but this isn't just an everest for rocket engineers. We will get data on the origins of the early solar system, and possibly the origins of life on earth from this mission. We will know more about what comets are made of. Much of this is pure science of little immediate or practical use. Put charitably "Why are we firing rockets at snowballs in space?" is a question about opportunity cost. What did society forgo to achieve this soft landing on a comet. And the answer is "not much".

There is a complaint that "we should be curing cancer" or "ending poverty" with the money spent on space exploration. "What good is it to me?" some ask. I'm tempted to dismiss such soulless utilitarianism as the bleatings of one who's already dead inside. The point about pure science is that it leads to who knows what future advances that solve real problems. Perhaps vital resources can be recovered from comets cheaply. We might learn a bit about the composition of objects that might hit earth, potentially generating knowledge that saves life on earth from extinction. To ask "what is this for?" is to betray a total lack of imagination. If nothing else a nine-year old might be watching the probe land on a planet and be enthused to become an engineer, and go on to do something we haven't even thought of yet.

"End Poverty"? Benefits paid to poor people are not where they are because they're the most that can be afforded. We could afford to pay the unemployed more to live on, or top up low wages by more. The reason they're low is because of the freeloader effect. The higher benefits are relative to work, the more attractive benefits become, and the lower the returns to work. People do not want to work hard to pay taxes to fund a comfortable life-style for those who don't. More people would choose benefits over work. Thus benefits are set at a level which means live subsisting on them is pretty rotten. Any more would be politically impossible to sustain. Besides, poverty isn't solved by cash transfers, but by work, and trade and free markets. This is the same thing that will ultimately cure disease. That and the application of pure science.

"Curing diseases?"Aids or Ebola will be cured by free trade with Africa, allowing their farmers access to our markets. Such trade will stimulate road building; roads, which unlike those to mines, go to where Africans live and work. Roads stimulate trade. With trade comes a cold-chain. That means vaccinations. Vaccinations mean healthier people. Healthier people do better in education, making them more productive. Being productive, means being richer, and being richer means people wear watches. And when people wear watches, they know when to take their anti-retrovirals. And if people take their anti-retrovirals, their HIV blood counts go down, making them less infectious. Less infectious means fewer infections. And fewer infections which become chronic rather than fatal conditions will lead to the steady decline in AIDS infection rates we've seen in the west. 

In developing all the above, a few decent health-centres and hospitals will mean Ebola will not spread when it's first identified. How much will this cost us? Less than we spend stopping it happening now. (Farm Subsidies like the CAP are, you see, wholly, genocidally evil). Trade you see is not Zero-Sum. Africans get richer because the market for their produce increases. We get richer because more people are competing to supply our markets so we get things cheaper (and vice versa). We're both richer. 

Cure cancer? It's difficult to see how a rocket engineer could help there. There's very little tangible that can be done in that regard that isn't being done now. There's already good money in curing cancer. So if we cannot give more money to the poor, cure Aids Ebola or Cancer with the money, why not give us something inspirational? To encourage us to let slip the surly bonds of earth and look out to the stars. That's a public good, that is. But to cure poverty or whatever, we need to stop the Government doing bad stuff to Africans, not stop it doing wholly amazing, inspirational science.



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

No, Abi, the Poppy Is Not associated with Racism, Nationalism and Islamophobia.

Abi Wilkinson, a generally thoughtful breed of lefty, has nevertheless, in this article, succumbed to the temptation of projecting her prejudices onto something she doesn't understand and in doing so caused some offence. I said I would explain why thought she had written a bad article.

The fact is, poppies have become less a symbol of genuine grief and recognition of the soldiers who have fallen fighting in our country’s armed forces, and more a compulsory signifier that a person is on ‘our side’.
The phrase "The fact is" rarely comes before a fact. But it is easy to see why people could think the Poppy divisive. The men in uniform, the pageantry, the national unity, are redolent to the triumphalism of empire which makes much of the left uncomfortable. They're wrong.

British history has its shameful moments, something the right is often guilty of ignoring, however Remembrance is not the season to dwell on these. Broadly, the British Empire was a force for good, trying to leave Cricket, the Rule of Law, democracy and Railways behind. That this was a stated aim of the British Empire is something the left is loathe to admit. Historians should not be seeking to impose a narrative based on today's values or seek to "prove" something for the benefit of one political view today; rather we should learn the lessons of history, so the horrors can be avoided, and the triumphs learned from. That requires admissions of failure as well as a celebration of successes.

The armed forces who have for four hundred years fought in support of one of the most stable and prosperous democracies on earth, have every right to take pride in the successes, and remember that our freedom is bought with a heavy price. This country took part in, but then dismantled the Global Slave trade, fought European dictators from Napoleon to Hitler, offered a parliamentary model of democracy which has proved itself far more stable than the presidential  model exported by France or the USA. A British soldier has died overseas in the service of his country every year since 1666, with one exception: 1968.

I grew up with the Cold War raging. We, as part of the Alliance of democracies beat international communism, as we defeated European Fascism. The Army I joined was trying to put the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone together. And the Army I have served has been in Far off Dusty places for the last decade and a half. The world is undoubtedly a better place for it, taken as a whole, though the merits of each campaign can be debated. Recently the mother lode of bad ideas making people miserable round the world stems from the creed of Radical Islamism. Abi's political ideas were formed when 'the enemy our boys are fighting' were mostly Muslims.

So from there it's a simple mental jump to regard the British Armed Forces are mostly a tool to fight Muslims, conveniently forgetting previous decades, and centuries of idealogies and enemies defeated. And to a limited extent, amongst some people, the poppy has become a 'them and us' symbol. If you don't wear the poppy you are one of "them". This was as true, and to the same extent, for the leftists and communists and Irish, as it is for  Muslims now. It has never been significant.
Propaganda images pitting our soldiers (deserving of state support) and ‘immigrants’ (greedy, reviled and a drain on state resources) are the bread and butter of this [Britain First].
Britain first are capable of putting together emotive Internet memes, but little more. But theirs is not, and will not be the majority or even significant view, though they are tapping into genuine if misinformed hostility to immigration. Most soldiers I know find Britain First's mawkish parasitism on their profession faintly ridiculous. The real experience of remembrance can instead be found at war memorials up and down the country you will see proud men and women, many wearing medal ribbons, remembering those they fought alongside who didn't come home.

Remembrance isn't about the  political posturing at the Cenotaph or people sharing memes on Facebook; and certainly not a Newspapers encouragement of a Poppy hijab. Instead it is about the smaller, more personal ceremonies at village memorials, regimental parade grounds and churches up and down the country. I think of the village on Skye where my Grandfather grew up. There are five houses and a pub. There are eight names on the war memorial. And five more from World War 2. You will not see any hostility there to anyone there. Just bow your head and reflect why we have the freedom to speak freely to our rulers and how dearly it has been bought.

Last year saw my Unit's wreath laid at Westminster Abby. The year before that, I was on an Army base. The year before that, with my Brother in Yorkshire. So my experience of Remembrance is likely to be very different to Abi's, who I suspect is not moved as I am by the sacrifices of our Soldiers, nor as proud of what they have achieved.

Wear a Poppy. Don't wear a poppy. Wear a  white poppy if you think such private pride and grief is really something you feel needs challenging. Thousands of men died in Normandy 70 years ago in part for your right to do so. Abi's journalistic mistake is to imagine her experience of Remembrance, filtered through a miasma of political beliefs, and distorted by selection bias and availability heuristic, and imagine it to be universal. I would invite her to Remembrance ceremony with me next year to see for herself.



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Obesity and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail's editor may or may not have been exhorted to "give them something to hate every day" by its proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, but today, the subject of the hate is fat people. Apparently 12,000 people are on disability benefit because of "metabolic disease", which the daily mail has taken as a proxy for "too fat to work" despite the fact not all the cases of diabetes will be due to blubber.

In a population of 70,000,000, 12,000 people is less than 0.02%. This really isn't very many, and some of whom will be ill without being fat. Obesity costs the NHS £9bn a year? I doubt that too. I suspect the Mail has just asked what heart disease, Diabetes and so forth costs the NHS and assumed that's all Obesity. In any case, in an NHS budget of £115bn, this too isn't that big a number. But the fat, like smokers die younger, costing the country less in pensions and die quicker, meaning they cost less the NHS less than a healthy person in their final years.

Having lied with statistics and asked the readers to blame the deficit and the breakdown of the NHS on salad-dodgers, we are then asked to blame the food industry. A nice, simple daily mail morality tale. Wicked businesses, allied to weak, stupid, gluttunous fat people (defined as 'people fatter than you') are costing YOU money. If only THEY could be made to behave, the problem would go away. Having waded through the article, I suspect most readers have got a very inaccurate impression as to the actual size of the problem of people who're "too fat to work", and the root causes of obesity.

The problem is obesity is not about sugary drinks or high calorie ready meals, or fast food. It's about a vast number of factors, most of which are not yet fully understood. Obesity has a genetic component. Some people have a greater propensity to put down fat than others. It has an environmental component: it's easier to eat healthily if you live in a relatively affluent area. Poor kids are less likely to have access to safe outdoor play. It has a life-style component. Active people don't tend to get fat.

But ultimately the problem is a combination of readily available high calorie food, and jobs that don't burn it off. We all have the appetite of a hunter-gatherer who roams miles in search of food, but we sit behind desks. Our jobs are stressful, which raises cortisol levels. Driving is stressful too. Yet our bodies do not get to make the "fight or flight" for which they are prepared, and instead lay down fat. And as our jobs get ever more sedentary, and ever more labour-saving devices are employed in the home, we will burn ever fewer calories as we move about.

There is a moral component to getting fat. It is possible to look in the mirror and say "I'm getting fat, and I must do something about it". But if you're fat as a 10 year-old, it's really not your fault. All studies show losing weight, and keeping it off is hard-to-impossible without lifestyle changes. Raising your activity levels isn't easy either. Having got fat, 'going for a run' puts an intolerable burden on knees and backs. Thighs will rub together and bleed. The extra activity needed to burn off the blubber is simply agony for the obese. 'Take daily exercise' isn't that simple.

It seems that at some point in development, your body decides how much fat it wants to carry, and this happens quite young. Most people get steadily fatter as they get older, and research suggests a bit of middle-aged spread isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly better than being underweight. What matters far more than Body Mass Index is how active you are. People who take regular, moderate exercise are much, much healthier than those who don't, even if they carry a few extra pounds.

This is why active transport - cycling and walking is so important. It will allow an increase in activity, without requiring the willpower to "go for a run". A bicycle is a labour saving device, relative to walking, and in any sensible society, should be the first choice of transport for journeys under a couple of miles. But as Daily Mail readers are viciously opposed to bicycles, as the transport of people they don't understand, the one thing that might reduce obesity will not be supported.

So the Daily Mail plays its vicious little morality play, feeding idiots' righteous indignation by lying with statistics, in order to fuel animus against THEM. All the while, being a significant part of the problem itself. The Daily Mail is a hateful little rag, which leaves its readers a little less informed, every single day.



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