Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Dangers Of Mass Debating

Flying Rodent clears this one up:

Everybody knows (x) = Idiots believe (x).

And here's tech support in 1100AD (hat tip: 2blowhards)

Paulie Popinjay

Inaugural Popinjay post here:

I'm turning the comments off on this post here to avoid confusion. Moan all you like about it over there though...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rugger buggers.

I thought that this optimistic article by Simon Barnes was well written and worth reading.

Only one observation - and not wanting to spoil the party or anything - but I'm not sure that a rugby crowd are that representative of the wider Ireland, however you want to define it.

In County Mayo, where my people come from, they call it 'The Protestant Game'. Or, as it was put to me, a game for Irish protestants, Welsh (deleted slur relating to bestiality and lamb) and English upper class .... (deleted homophobic slur).

Worth thinking about

"Younger people ..... are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact--quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up "putting themselves out there" and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it...."
From here -
Via Brian Micklethwait -

(Apologies. Blogger is buggering around with the HTML editor at the moment)

Do weblogs make Democracy more deliberative?

Seeing Mick's latest on CiF (which refers to this blog in passing), I think this is a good time to promote something that's been sitting in my drafts folder for a while.

Is representative democracy incompatible with the establishment of some kind of deliberative democracy? I would suggest - now that we have an emerging model for public deliberation and conversation (a small limb of which you are reading right now) - that it is no longer simply an option for exponents of representative democracy, but an essential component of history's most successful form of governance.

I say this because, when discussing representative democracy, there is a tendency to brood upon the rights that representatives exercise once they have been elected, and we spend a lot of our time convincing ourselves that they don't take their responsibilities as seriously as those rights. This, I would suggest, is the nub of most popular objections to representative democracy.

Most of the conversations I eavesdrop upon seem to ignore the role that we - the represented - play. Thus the regular schtick here about 'negativism'.

The result is the widely held conception of representative democracy. And it is a distorted one, as a reading of Edmund Burke's succinct - and I think, near-perfect - argument reveals.

Quoting from Burke, ...

" ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living"

The first sentence of that quote is, I believe, constantly overlooked. I suspect that representatives would find themselves less at odds with their electorate if they could have a higher quality of contact with the population than they currently have. But this requires that population to be more prepared for a meaningful dialogue on the subjects that are under deliberation.

Having worked for politicians, however, I can also confirm that the common view is that such a dialogue is currently a fools errand. Political suicide. And it's a view that I'd share.

So politicians naturally seek other, more mediated, forms of dialogue. At the moment, in the party that I belong to, we have either roundheads - those who are dominated by a crude availability bias - what 'our people' tell them on the doorsteps, or we have the exponents of management-speak, over-reliant upon the crude misanthropic tools of marketeers. Or - most often - a combination of the two.

Burke's point was, of course, that representatives shouldn't be focused upon giving people what they say they want. But, if you can't reason with the public, you end up having to act as their delegates. This is what Burke was worried about - and what should worry us today.

Here are a few questions that I think we could be asking in response to this quote:

  1. Do we over-focus on the ‘fairness’ justification for democracy, at the expense of justifications based upon the arguments that democratic policy-making is less sub-optimal than the alternatives? (My answer: Yes.)
  2. In that case, are elected representatives better at making decisions than plebiscites? I think that there is plenty of evidence that, at the moment, they are. There are plenty of objections to this argument (ones that involve advocacy of ‘demand revealing referenda’ – making spending decisions contingent upon questions that are placed before the public, and so on) - arguments such as those advanced by Chris here. But, as Chris acknowledges, there are no respectable worked-out proposals yet. So the answer to this one is a confident 'Yes - for now!'.
  3. The bigger question, however, is the suitability of any individual – no matter how clever – in using their judgement to take big decisions. Do any of us have the ability to make good decisions on highly complex issues? Can a large centralised state be managed in the way a puppet is? Are the number of levers small enough? Can anyone be born with, or acquire the skill needed, to know how those levers should be configured? My answer to this is no.
Is there a contradiction here? Clearly. Elected representatives aren’t perfect. They are better than government by referendum (the old "Direct Democracy is worse than Fascism – at least with Fascism you know who is in charge" argument applies here).

But it is quite possible that systems can be developed to improve the quality of decisions that representatives make. More to the point, it is, surely, possible to improve the system by which representatives are selected by their parties and elected by the public? This need is urgent, because society is becoming more complex.

Despite recent constitutional changes here in the UK (devolution, reform of The Lords, etc), the underlying forces that shape our democracy are causing it to become much more centralised than ever before. We are loading more decisions on to people who are becoming less qualified to make them. So, I've mentioned this emerging limb - the blogosphere - as one half of the solution (well, not half, exactly, but bear with me here). It has the potential to provide a useful popular conversation that elected representatives can tune into and learn from.

Is it doing this at the moment? Recent spats, and the 'bell-end' bloggers leave us with the impression that it isn't capable of doing so. But I wouldn't accept that this perception is an accurate one.

And, most importantly, is it beyond the wit of the blogosphere - or part of it - to establish a means by which high-quality high-content conversations can be encouraged and promoted? Or to establish a means by which mindless negativism, or a refusal to adopt a conversational approach can be discouraged?

Because - and let's be clear about this - few parliaments will ever vote for their own abolition. Anyone who wants a more deliberative democracy will have to first establish it, and make the case for it based upon its success. I suspect that a lot of (middle-ranking) politicians would welcome such an effort as an alternative to the demagoguery that masquerades as public debate at the moment.

Call me an optimist, but I think tougher nuts have been cracked in the past.

Update; The comments on Mick's post on CiF illustrate his point perfectly. Almost every response simply addresses the surface patina of his argument without directly engaging with his point about the need for consistency in argument. For an example of the narcissism implicit in negativism, have a look at this comment by one 'tonyellis'

Update 2: Michael White on Rory Bremner's hilarious spoof on Margaret Beckett:

"...a perfect example of different branches of our trade having its cake and eating it in a highly-collusive transaction for which it does not expect to be held to account."

(Hat tip: Guilliamus)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oh yes.

This blog has a new pin-up. Here he is. Prof Tony McWalter, an ex-Labour MP.

Now, before you stick a list of the Prof's shortcomings and perfidies in the comments box here, I'm basing this judgement purely on what he said on Saturday (24th Feb) morning's 'Today Programme' at 8.37am (I've only just checked that I wasn't dreaming and I've transcribed* some of it for you.

Discussing (alongside Tim Garton-Ash) whether politicians should be 'fighting the forces of evil', both discussants agreed that they should. McWalter's objection was to the means by which such decisions were reached. Tony Blair, he argued...

"...has a sense of mission that excludes him from taking advice or understanding that moral wisdom is distributed. He doesn't ask for advice very much."

"The PM ....doesn't understand the notion of argument. He has a conviction and he tries to see that conviction through. And that has all sorts of major consequences. His concept of democracy [that Tony Blair discussed with John Humphreys on an extended interview earlier in the week] is that 'we can can get rid of the government'. He doesn't understand that democracy is about distributed democracy and that moral wisdom is distributed just as scientific wisdom is. And what he has to understand is that the horrible disfigurement of our constitution - that has an office that is so authoritarian - has got to be broken up and replaced by a system in wich the PM is 'primus inter pares' - the first among equals."

Obviously, Humphrys wasn't interested in this line of thinking, so he goes back to the question of what Prime Ministers are supposed to do about 'bad guys' (this is what the Humphrys of this world are for). McWalter ploughs on:

"The sheer authoritarianism of Tony Blair's approach ultimately results in bad government. That is the real problem we've got. "

JH: "So what we want is someone with strong moral views, but someone who be tempered by, and will listen to the advice of others?... so there needs to be someone whispering in his ear?"

TM: "not whispering in his ear, no. Parliament shouts at him regularly but he absents himself from debates when he should be listening to the representatives of the people. I've talked about the PM needing a philosophy. What he needs to do is to read Tom Paine, because Tom Paine says that we need representative democracy.

We don't just need to get rid of people when we are fed up with them. We need constant contact between the representatives of the people and those who run the country. And Tony Blair has insulated himself hugely from those who represent the people in this country. We need a restoration of a truly representative democracy."
*This is a quick transcription that I've done. I've cut a few corners, but I'm confident that I've not altered any of McWalters' meaning here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

It cannae take the pedantry, Captain...

Further to the recently-started series on pedantry, Damian's slashdotty open-source geekness is being questioned in the comments here.

And from such a low bar. I spit on his claim to geekdom. Here's why.

I work with a load of techies. A few weeks ago, talking shop in the pub after work, someone pointed out that a new programmer (Dave) needed a password to a particular internal system.

As it wasn't one that needed a lot of security, it had to just be something that he would be able to remember easily for the sake of convenience. The sort of situation where you make '1066' the password (or in my case 20/01/53). *sob*

The conversation went like this:

Me: What could we give him as a password? What's he into?

Other: I dunno. He's a geek. How about something from Star Trek?

Me: OK. The Starship Enterprise must have had some number associated with it. But no-one is enough of a geek to know that off-hand, are they?

Other: Dave is. He'll know the answer straight away. But it's not a workable way of giving him a password.

Me: Why not?

Other: Try it. You'll see.


The next day:

Me: Dave, we've set you up with a password. I'm not going to say it out loud, because you'll know it. It's the registry number of the Starship Enterprise.

Dave: I'll need more information than that.

Me: (triumphant) I knew you wouldn't know it.

Dave: (indignant) Of course I know it. But you haven't told me which series you're talking about...

Still think you're a geek, Damian?

Thursday, February 22, 2007


How do you respond to the demands of crude individualism?

Is this a force that has an unstoppable momentum? Something that only a fool would resist?

Or is it possible to make - and assert - the case for collective decision-making and collective provision?

When I was trained as a salesman in the rip-roaring '80s, we were encouraged to use the 'presumptive close'. It's where you have a conversation with a customer that assumes that they've brought what you're selling already. Stuff like "how many of them shall I have delivered" and "will a yellow one do?"

And it's alright as long as the punter knows what you're selling them. But I've no idea what most self-styled libertarians are selling me. Yet I seem to spend more time reading articles that are designed to be a presumptive close from these berks.

Repeat after me: "Most determinists and shit at predicting things. Ignore them."

In the meantime, are there any psychologists out there who can save me the bother of having to work out 'why it's better to pretend you're a libertarian'? A case like this one?

Update: This question has now been answered correctly here. I'm beginning to like this kind of blogging. Instead of having to compose a post, you ask someone else to do it for you.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Serendipity and pedantry

Yesterday, I asked one of those 'does anyone know...' questions, trying to locate a half-remembered artifact.

There's another one of these that I've been meaning to ask for a while. In the mid-80s, someone I was working with did a compilation tape for me. Sonny Rollins on one side of a C60, Thelonious Monk on the other. He didn't bother with the track-listing though.

I played it 'til it tangled and the stand-out track, for me, was Rollins' lovely drawling take on Mack The Knife. It remains one of my favourite pieces of music and I've been desperate to get my hands on it again. For years, I've trawled the record bins looking for it without any luck, and when The-Bloke-Behind-The-Counter at Mole Jazz told me - with the authority that TBBTCs always muster - "Sonny Rollins has never recorded a track (or did he say 'side'?) called Mack The Knife", I gave up. I decided that a different artist had crept on to the C60 to confuse me. For some reason, I never Googled it.

And, I've always meant to get my hands on Saxophone Colossus - a gap in my collection. I've walked to the checkout with it a few times since the early 1990s (including at least once in Mole Jazz) only to change my mind and postpone the purchase in favour of something else. The main reason I didn't buy it was because I always said to myself that I'd get the Rollins LP with Mack The Knife on it instead when I found it.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I'd given up on ever finding it. So, yesterday, I downloaded Saxophone Colossus from E-Music. The last-but-one track is called Moritat, and it is the version of Mack The Knife that I've been looking for since about 1987.

The lesson. It is unthinkable that TBBTC doesn't know what he's talking about. The only suitable explanation is that he is a pedant.

Moritat is better than I remembered it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Direct Democracy: An interview with Chris Dillow.

This is a bit of an experiment.

I’ve noticed that some bloggers have quite a little agenda of their own developing. I’ve have one as well, in case you haven’t noticed – a collection of views on politics, government, journalism and representation that I think that very few people share. I started this blog to help myself develop these ideas (with visitors as a sounding board).

But, blogs aren’t that good for doing this. Posts have to be short (though I sometimes resist this temptation), and you often end up advancing or defending one small element of a wider argument – without readers necessarily understanding what that argument is.

As I’ve said, I’m not alone in this. Having noticed more than one other blogger advancing a position that needs a fair amount of justification, I’ve done an interview – in this case, with Chris Dillow of Stumbling & Mumbling

I’ve been reading his site for a while now, and I agree with a lot of what he says (and I like the way he says the bits I don’t agree with). But after a while, he alarmed me by starting to go on about what a fine idea Direct Democracy is – the single issue that keeps me awake at night more than any other. Even worse, I found myself agreeing with some of his pro-DD points as well.

This was a bit more worrying.

So I thought I’d try and get all of the contours of his argument out in the open. What follows is not intended to be particularly challenging or forensic. I’ve not really picked up on, or argued strongly with any of the points he makes beyond using them to bring up other aspects of the positions that I know that he takes.

The arguments can come later. For now, here goes….

Chris, you believe that democracy is, in some way, broken. What do you mean by that?

At a practical level, I mean the fact that voter turnout is falling, not just in the UK, and that there is, in David Miliband’s words a ”growing and potentially dangerous gap” between politicians and voters, with the former forming a separate class from the latter.

At a theoretical level, I mean that democracy, especially but only only in our first-past-the-post system, is a terrible way of translating preferences into policy. It gives too much weight to cheap ill-thought preferences relative to strong or well-formed preferences.

And in voting for parties rather than particular policies, we are forced to buy bundles of policies. This must be inefficient. As I said here , imagine if we bought our food simply by voting for Tesco or Sainsbury every five years.

And, reading your blog, you have a problem with authority?

Yes. Amateur psychoanalysts would come up with their own theories as to why. But the reasons (or rationalizations!) for my problem are many:

  1. In any complex organization, leaders will have imperfect information
  2. Even if they have perfect information, individual leaders are subject to countless cognitive biases. It’s possible – or at least worth considering – that groups are less subject to these, thanks to the wisdom of crowds
  3. More egalitarian decision-making schemes make people happier They’re good in themselves, therefore, even if they don’t yield better outcomes.
  4. Hierarchies can be lethal. There’s plenty of evidence that social inequalities hasten the deaths of those at the bottom of the ladder.
  5. Egalitarian decision-making could, in the long-run, transform our political culture for the better, making us better citizens and more self-reliant and creative – as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out

I suspect our belief that organizations must be hierarchic is partly just unthinking conservatism – things have always been this way, so we take it for granted that they must be. But it ain’t necessarily so.

I’d like to return to the observations about happiness and de Tocqueville’s aspirations in due course. On your first two points, to be clear, you are arguing that individuals that are placed in a position of authority may make decisions that are worse than the general public would – if asked?

Leaving aside – for now – your doubt about this, how could widespread public participation be given a practical expression – bearing in mind the common criticisms of referenda as a blunt instrument?

Yes – the key word there is “may”.

I don’t think it’s good enough to have merely yes/no referenda. One problem with these is that they allow the weak preferences of a majority to over-rule the strong preferences of a minority. This is inefficient, in the sense that in such cases the minority could in theory compensate the majority for adopting the minority position, with everyone ending up better off.

A further problem with simple referenda is that they give too much weight to cheap, ill-thought opinions.

The solution to both these problems is to use demand-revealing referenda

The essence of these is that people vote a sum of money, rather than a simple yes/no, to express the strength of their feeling.

Doing this will compel people to think more clearly: making people pay is a way of making them think. It will also allow for strong views to get their proper weight.

A further advantage is that it would take the hysteria out of politics. Asking people: “how much are you willing to pay for that opinion?” would force them to reflect on how strongly they should hold it.

One problem with even demand-revealing referenda is: on what issues should they be held? And: who decides? It would be unacceptable for them to be held simply on the whim of the government, but I’m not sure what constitutional rule could be used to trigger them.

But hey, I’m not meant to have all the answers or blueprints here. I’m just trying to suggest that there are alternatives to a representative democracy in which the political class is held in increasing contempt.

Fair enough. I’d agree that there are complications here. Aside from the question of who calls them, when and what about, there seems to me to be other issues as well. Do you think that you are bringing an economist’s cognitive bias to this discussion? Is Government simply the allocation of scarce resources? Are there not overarching strategic issues? Don’t government sometimes need to follow a strategy that involves a sequence of decisions (some of which would be unpopular) in order to achieve a desirable outcome?

I’m not at all sure that this short-term pain, long-term gain is a problem at all for direct democracy.

For concreteness, take the example of taxing carbon emissions to alleviate climate change. There are two circumstances in which this would be more feasible under representative than direct democracy:

1. If the public had shorter-time horizons than politicians.

2. If the public were less sure about the long-term gains of stopping climate change than the politicians.

(1) is probably false. Voters care about their (actual and potential) children and grandchildren, whereas politicians – qua politicians – care only about the next election. On this count, then, representative democracy militates against achieving longer-run strategic outcomes.

(2) is trickier. If the public are mistaken about the long-run benefits, the solution is genuine open debate. After all, if you’re right about something, you should be able to convince others of it – that’s what being right means.

But of course, it’s possible that the public are right instead…

This raises a few questions.

Let’s pick up (1) first. Do politicians really only care about the next election? Would you say that this incentive trumps all others? Do they not have longer-term worries about their reputations – the peer approval, the biographies to sell, the lecture-circuits to think about? Political biographies frequently reveal individuals who made ideological commitments fairly early in their lives and have been bound by them ever since.

Taking your climate-change example, would you agree that politicians are likely to have bureau-shaping instincts in which they would like to position themselves as being earlier adopters of ‘coming’ policies?

Also, are you saying that the individual conscience is not relevant here? I’d suggest that – collectively – our consciences are valued in the same way that anything that is held in common is. Surely this is an argument for us to choose someone who can demonstrate an impressive conscience?

I understand the wisdom of crowds argument, and how it applies to estimation of value. But is there an equivalent that covers matters of conscience?

I’d also be interested to see if there is evidence that people really do care about their children and grandchildren in the way you describe. If they do, it would certainly make a case for lowering of inheritance tax – a position that you oppose ;-)

Once we’ve dealt with this, we can come onto (2) from your previous answer.

I’m not saying politicians care only about the next election. But this does loom very large – the famous “look on Portillo’s face” in 1997 wasn’t one of joy or relief, was it?

And the political system is structured such that this is meant to be their dominant concern. Insofar as they have other concerns – ideology, legacy, conscience – these exist despite the system, not because of it, and are as likely to exist among the general public as among politicians.

I’m not convinced the bureau-shaping motive looms very large. It’s not obvious to me that many mainstream politicians are early adopters of coming policies. It’s think-tanks (for example, the influence of the IEA upon Thatcherism) that do this.

The methodological individualist in me rejects the notion of a collective conscience.

Indeed, individuals seem to value their consciences surprisingly highly in politics. They vote and demonstrate far more often than you’d expect them to, if they were narrowly self-interested.

Yes – the evidence that people care about the future does come from the fact that they care to leave bequests. It doesn’t follow, however, that such bequests are a legitimate form of caring about the future.

Going back to the second part of your earlier answer – about the suitability of public opinion in addressing strategic issues.

The traditional objection to investing open debate with legislative powers has always been the worry about emerging demagogues – in this case, pressure groups, journalists, newspaper proprietors, or various professional groups. Or quack-doctors? Or communalists? Does it also worry you that the likes of George Galloway or the late Pim Fortuyn may welcome the kind of settlement that you are proposing?

It seems to me that you are arguing against the republican notion of ‘politics’ – the need to reconcile competing interests, or to promote what Machiavelli described as virtù – the capacity for collective action and historical vitality.

And, given that liberal democracy has history’s greatest prolonged track-record of promoting peace, stability and prosperity, you would surely only be able to advocate this position if you were fairly confident that it would not privilege ‘opinion’ over ‘knowledge’ to a greater extent than the current settlement does? You could break quite a golden egg here if you’re not careful?

I’m not sure about any of these objections.

  1. The great bulwark against the public being led astray by demagogues and quacks is the principle behind demand-revealing referenda – that people must vote with money.This forces them to ask: how much am I willing to pay to back this man? It also forces demagogues to restrain their inflammatory rhetoric. Imagine if Galloway were asked: how much are you prepared to pay in a demand-revealing referendum for (say) troops to be withdrawn from Iraq?

  2. I’m certainly not arguing against the conception of politics as the reconciliation of conflicting interests. Quite the opposite. One virtue of proper democracy is that it gives fuller voice to interests that can get overlooked today, because they are not those of the median voter, or because they are only those of a minority.

  3. There is a danger of smashing the golden egg in any reform. This is why I’m not a fanatical proselytiser, but merely trying to raise questions.

Also we must remember that this egg isn’t as golden as we once thought – declining voter turnout, increased contempt for politicians and the emergence of a separate political class all suggest representative democracy is losing its lustre.

And I think we can read history a little differently. The history of the last 200 years is that of increasing democracy – its spread to countries that hadn’t tried it before, and the widening of the franchise to include women and the working class. These extensions have worked well. So why not extend democracy a little further and see what happens?

So far, we’ve covered whether a more direct democracy is practical and whether it could actually work without any reduction in the quality of public policy outcomes.

Finally, can we return to the points 3, 4 and 5 in your opening answer? These seem to summarise the attractions of a more democratic style of government.

But could these outcomes not be equally achieved in a model whereby some kind of formal deliberative process in which the public would be free to participate in could be used to provide the basis upon which elected representatives propose and enact legislation? Where the public engage in the kind of quality of conversation that is worth eavesdropping on?

How far do you think that your prescription is for a wholesale change when actually, many of the outcomes that you are seeking to achieve could be realised with fairly modest democratic reforms? By this, I mean the kind of ‘People’s Panels’ that the current government are trying. I mean decentralisation of power, steps to reduce the influence of political parties, reform of the electoral system, an elected second chamber, and so on?

It’s not obvious that piecemeal reform along these lines would work. For example:

  1. “People’s panels” are vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation – in selecting them, in framing the question put to them, in the evidence presented to them, and in whether their recommendations are accepted.

  2. Decentralisation, electoral reform and electing the Lords might actually increase the influence of the party system: This seems especially true of Jack Straw’s proposals to (partly) elect the Lords, but its also true of some sorts of PR - party list systems, for example.

Perhaps my biggest doubt about piecemeal reform, though, is that it’ll fail to reap the long-run gains, of re-engaging, empowering and reactivating the citizenry.

As de Tocquville said, institutions – eventually – affect culture and character. It’s largely because I’m so pessimistic about these that I’m so interested in the possibility of radical institutional change.

Comedy archives

This is a delightfully-titled Howard De Coursy Pathe clip from 1938 called 'Going Gay'

I've been looking everywhere for another old clip. I think it's also Howard De Coursy (but I may be wrong) - in which he lights a cigarette, has a drag on it, and throws it away. Then, when he looks at his hand, there's a new lighted fag. And then everytime he tries to throw one away, new ones appear - often in both hands. He ends up with a dozen in his mouth, about five in each hand and one in each ear - along with a load of stubbed out snouts at his feet.

It's one of the funniest visual gags I've ever seen, and it was on some long-forgotten TV documentary years ago.

Any signposts to it would be welcome.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Charles Clarke

Not odds-on for the leadership. Shame.
Radio 4's 'Very Special Relationship' - about new Labour's Faustian pact with News International is worth a listen if you missed it first time around.

In a programme in which it was almost universally accepted that Murdoch newspapers held a unique and powerful position, Clarke was the only participant who appeared to really believe that they could be defied.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Economics and usability

If you're interested in economics, but don't spend much time looking at websites about web-design, you may have (understandably) missed this.

Blogger hiccups

The previous post has a few typos in it. However, the Blogger system I use to manage it is so volatile at the moment, any amendments that I make seem to result in whole sentances randomly disappearing without warning. So the typos can stay for now.

It's free though, so I shouldn't moan I suppose.

Sorry about that.

Blog wars - continued

In case you missed this, Tim Ireland - AKA Manic of Bloggerheads (this link goes to his entire February archive because, as his name suggests, he's rather gone for it here) is in a three-way ruck with Guido and Iain Dale.

I like Slugger's account of this best and I don't object to much there apart from the general meme (as I've argued before) that right-wing bloggers are in the ascendency. I don't think that they are. I'd argue the bloggers have a more positive contribution to make.

(Update: Mick has posted again on this - worth a look)

Iain is attempting to throw oil over troubled waters while his commentators are - at the same time - chucking napalm. As Justin says, 'smooth'.

For me, the most interesting suggestion is that Tim is a nihilist. Tim wants an apology and he says he has half of one for now.

Now, I've met Tim a couple of times and he's quite a creative and interesting bloke. But I would place him fairly firmly in the 'negativist' camp - in that I think that he majors in what he is opposed to without saying what he's in favour of. I've now got a working / subject-to-confirmation definition of this word as well.

You see, I would argue that the aspect of political blogging that many people object to is the conflation of libertarianism and negativism. I don't think that they are the same thing (unless the libertarianism in question is the ultra-Conservatism that is Guido's position).

And this conflation may not actually be nihilism, but it sometimes looks like it (and that, for those of you with your eyes peeled, is a concession on my part).

The question is this: Do I now owe Tim an apology for saying that he is a 'negativist', or is it a compliment? And do I owe the world an apology for appearing to suggest that Iain Dale may have a point on something?

New York - latest

Having read Nick Cohen's book, I'm all-too-aware of the dangers of being left-wing AND expressing knee-jerk anti-Americanism, so I probably shouldn't be posting these links. But here goes....

  1. I'm all for banning people from using mobile phones when driving. But what about banning people from listening to music when crossing the road?
  2. And if you haven't already heard about 'The Worst Use of Lifelines Ever' already, here it is now. If this is a spoof, please let me know.

(ta Amanda)

Clarifying negativism

Apologies if you're here for posts about football, soul music, tenor banjos or decentralisation. You'll have to bear with me for a bit.

I've been reviewing the discussion of 'negativism' in recent posts here and elsewhere. In order to sidestep an increasingly intemperate debate, I thought it would be useful if I spelled out what I understand Daniel Davies means by the term 'negativism' (one that he endorses). I hope this will make the discussion more manageable.

I hope what follows is a fair summary of this position. I've tried to strip out as much argumentation as I can in order to get to the fundamentals. I've also added in words like 'generally', 'usually', 'normal' etc in order to remove any excessive dogmatism or inflexibility from the statement. I'm happy to adjust this statement if anyone can show me that I've misrepresented Daniel's position as set down in the relevant threads:
Negativism finds it's justification in the observation that few problems are so bad that they are not made worse by well-meaning attempts to solve them. Aside from the failure of such activism, these so-called solutions are always likely to have unintended side effects or consequences.

One should not generally propose solutions to problems (or endorse the solutions of others) beyond calling for those who claim to have solutions to desist and avoid making things worse.

One should usually either point out flaws in a proposal or say nothing. The only normal exception to this is when the person making the proposal has a particular expertise in the subject in hand - and their proposal should be concrete and specific.

General purpose experts almost never exist. This is another reason to distrust most non-expert commentators who are proposing a positive solution to a problem. In order to make negative comments about a particular proposal, one does not need to demonstrate a superior understanding of the subject in hand. If one has an expertise in a different field, this expertise can be used in criticism.

So, for instance, a specialist in economics or econometrics could attack the statistical elements of an argument in favor of, say, electoral reform. When making negative comments in this way, the commentator is under no obligation to establish what their own position on the matter in hand is. One's own position, in this case, is irrelevant.
Is this a fair summary? For now, could commenters please confine themselves to corrections in my interpretation of Daniel's position, referring only to differences between what I've set out (above) and the positions that he has described in the posts and comment-threads that I've linked to. We can argue about the merits or otherwise once we've agreed what we are arguing about.

In this thread, I'm doing a one-off rule change. I will delete comments that are not designed to clarify Daniel's position.

Friday, February 09, 2007

You come back now, y'hear?

One more bit of guilt-blogging.
You probably know these numbers, but reading them on the same page is interesting.

And has anyone done any research to find out how many of these clips are real, and how many are staged?

Title: Don't get drunk by the pool

Ta Ben for both.

Brit Soul

Still too preoccupied to do anything much here. I am, however, planning to stop whatever I'm doing to be in front of the box for the latest installment of BBC4's 'Soul Britannia'

If last week's is anything to go by, it's worth forgoing a night on the batter to watch it.

And this is the very special Carleen Anderson and The Young Disciples to be going on with.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Post of the week

Got a half-decent post on your blog that has gone un-noticed?

Nottingham (yay!) based Troubled Diva says "pimp it hard"

Modesty forbids .... etc etc.

Via Rullsenberg, the Pride of the Midlands who needs cheering up at the mo, by the looks of it.

Everyone else on 'demoralisation'

Still, sadly, up to the eyeballs in it (life). So here are more signposts-off.

First-off, demoralisation: SCWR offers a thought for the day (a few days ago - only just seen it tho')

Second-off, Baggage Reclaim and Aaro on depressing survey results.

"They're all the same and they're all in it for themselves."
Chris Dillow is also continuing his exasperating habit of not only saying things I've been meaning to say for a while - but adding good arguments that I would never have thought of.

Here, he rather bafflingly makes an excellent case for representative democracy while - at the same time - explaining why our current political culture undermines it:

"...we shouldn't judge politicians by such low standards. You can train a scabby dog to obey rules. There are millions of people who obey laws, but you'd cross the road to avoid them, and wouldn't trust them to so much as clean your car.

Instead, we should judge politicians by virtue, not rules. We should ask: are they people of great soul, worthy to represent our nation and to be entrusted with big decisions?"

This is absolutely the question that we should ask. One that few politicians would be able to answer very well. But it is the question that will not be asked because they have bigger questions to answer concerning the TOTALLY ILLEGAL receipt of a COWBOY HAT.

I say baffling, because he generally argues for a more direct democracy. It's always disconcerting when someone argues against you but can still come up with better arguments supporting your own position than you can.

More on this in subsequent posts.

Finally, abandoning the demoralisation theme, his argument in favour of inheritance tax also makes the case for a Citizens Basic Income rather well. But I expect he knows that already.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Negativist manifesto - part two

Back to D-Squared's justification for negativism.

It's long, and I said that I'd respond to it like you eat an elephant - piece-by-piece. I almost lost the will to live in covering part one, it really is so rare for anyone to attempt to justify the permasulk that dominates to lower levels of public debate these days. It needs to be understood.

In part two, we're offered a vaguely liberal justification. Paraphrasing, 'progressives' always want government to do things, and it often better to just leave well alone. Now, leaving aside the fact that I'd largely agree with this, and have argued as such quite a lot, I'm puzzled as to how this can be used as an argument for criticism of public figures and institutions on any particular issue that doesn't give a credible outline of why and how action can be avoided.

So, if you want politicians to do less, it is worth understanding why they do more than they should. If you can remove those reasons, then maybe you will get a government closer to your tastes.

Or you can, of course, take the easy option and decide that it's just because they are bad people.

A few of the supporting arguments are a bit odd as well. We're told that 'there is no such thing as a general purpose expert'. I agree, as does Mr Bourdieu (passim). Indeed, I've argued that political parties should be encouraged to cultivate specialists, not generalists. I've also argued that the media is packed full of commentators who seem to be able to turn their hands to everything. Much of the negativism in public debate can be traced directly to the process that Bourdieu referred to as 'demagogic simplification' - a process that relies largely upon the collaboration of political generalists.

For instance, I'd agree that it's impossible for any one individual to be expert enough to expect to be taken seriously on a very wide range of subjects. So, if someone were to comment authoritatively on MMR, how relations between Muslims and the wider civil society should be handled, Iraq, Religious Education, security and surveillance, microcredit, statistics, physics, business takeovers, humanitarian intervention, tax loopholes, global trade agreements, regulation of the water industry, IPOs, the NHS, youth employment, or the golden rule.

Here, we are being either being burdened with low-value commentary, or we’re in the presence of a brilliant polymath.

I'd be happy to read a balanced article on any of those subjects from an acknowledged expert, by the way. But I don't know which of these is expertise, which ones are throwaway opinion, and which ones are naughty polemic dressed up as expertise. I’d certainly struggle to find particularly good investigative reporting on any of these subjects, so we have to put up with agenda-driven commentary.

I'd go further: This country would be a better place if columnists in general were decimated (not killed, obviously, but redeployed). Some of them could be given jobs as reporters, but I doubt if most of them would be capable of writing anything without sneaking in some pet thesis or other.

We're also treated to a defence of criticism here ("... easier to spot the flaws in someone else's work"). The thing is, if you can surpass someone’s expertise, you can spot the flaws in their work and then point them out - with precision or with wit, or a combination of the two. And you will be taken seriously if you can demonstrate that you understand what the real wrong reasons why real wrong decisions were taken.

But most of what passes for comment simply has a sulky adolescent quality. So much of it simply stakes out an uncomplicated moral high ground in which the need for consistency goes out of the window. Flicking v-signs at politicians is not criticism. It's corrosive, counterproductive and ultimately stupid. I'd like to see more authoritative criticism in print. As Jean Seaton points out, the current snarky negativism plays into the hands of the most powerful people and institutions. They get protected, journalists get their vanity stroked for them, and everyone else is the loser from this negativism.

At the moment, most reasonable criticism gets lost in a white noise of snotty abuse or it gets spiked because it's not interestingly knockabout. It simply gets ignored most of the time.

Elsewhere, we are told that positive change just happens anyway and 'progressives' (them again) are not factors in that ... er... progress. If this were the case, and D-Squared's views really are an expression of a desire to thwart 'progressives' (and not a post-hoc justification for freebooting abuse in public debate), then we have a contradiction. If I believed what DSq purports to believe, I'd just shut up and let them get on with it. I'd ignore it, leave it all uncommented upon. But that isn't what happens, is it?

You see, there is a positive way to argue for smaller government: Government in which less is done. Government that has fewer powers and where those powers are mediated. And this can be done in a way that communicates that the critic would like to see this change happen enough to try and come up with a means by which it can be achieved some time within the foreseeable. It is quite possible to argue for exactly the kind of governance that D-Sq argues for without really resorting to negativism. Here's proof! Check it daily!

Let's not forget, this is really very simple. Argue civilly. Sensibly and fairly. Try and know what you're talking about and play the ball - not the man. Why is that so complicated?

I'm all out of energy now. There were references to Orwell and Karl Popper in there that need dealing with anon.

And the next section of this negativism manifesto - "why progressives are in general odious" will follow in due course. It may contain conclusive proof that this negativism is simply old fashioned misanthropy dressed up as rational argument. I've already argued that it steps party from cowardice and partly from narcissism.

Misanthropy may round the trinity off nicely.