Thursday, December 29, 2011

Technocrats versus Democracy?

Two recent posts from Chris Dillow - one on the irrelevance of politicians and another on the reluctance of politicians to make the robust moral decisions deserve another look, and not just because they're mostly right.

In both cases, they seem to be based upon the settled view of what politicians should be, rather than the principled description of what they could - and should - be.

In both cases, Chris doesn't start from the most important observation here: Politicians have rivals. Nominally, parliaments are sovereign (with lots of global caveats - here's ours). Nominally, they derive that sovereignty from us - 'nothing about us without us.'

Yet, I doubt if anyone would try to push the fiction that we all have equal influence over our Parliaments. I don't mean the simple aggregate of direct democracy either. As that line from The Putney Debates put it, "the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live" should expect his arguments to weigh as heavily with his MP as "the greatest hee".

Try it yourself. Knock up a few hundred words on Utilitarianism, the oppression of minorities, how parliaments should make policy and the question of who elected politicians should represent.

It's a surprisingly uncomplicated essay to write. Yet no-one would look at most democracies and say that this good balance isn't increasingly disfigured by burgeoning populism or distorted beyond recognition by pressure groups, bureaucratic interests or media owners.

There are clear parallels here with my last post here on the erosion of justice.

We knock politicians for their failure to regulate the finance sector, but I'd like to read the counterfactual history of Western democracies in which parliaments would have got away with calling time on that particular party. For all of my lack of understanding of the climate change debate, I suspect we'd be able to say the same about that one too.

If someone were to come before a court and was demonstrably incapable of making good decisions in their own interests because they had fallen under the influence of a bully, the court would appoint a someone with the independence to make those decisions. New Labour made an early admission of this kind when it make the Bank of England independent and Osborne has created his own ersatz version with the Office for Budget Responsibility.

There is nothing anti-democratic about a Parliament doing the same thing in other spheres - quite the opposite. The only point at which Parliament deserts its duties when it replaces a legitimacy-lite Prime Minster with a technocrat (and in our centralised modern states, that is all that has been happening) and then only gives them one task - to solve the problem that the bully has helped to create.

I'd go further. The most democratic thing a Parliament can do is to appoint someone who can make the decisions that they would make if they weren't under unbearable coercion.

This is not a defence of the current rise of technocrats though. Their mandate appears to be to solve the current crisis and then to restore the power relations that created it in the first place. If technocrats fail to create a long-term challenge to the forces that rival Parliaments, then they're no better than our increasingly centralised and presidential political leaders. But I don't suppose they're any worse than them either.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Justice simplified

Many of the anti-racists who have demanded an uncompromising response to the allegations of racism against John Terry and Luis Suarez will come to regret getting what they've asked for. This controversy also has implications for people with little interest in football.

I'm not sure we'll ever see all of the evidence related to these incidents, but I'm fairly certain that neither were simply one-way racial slurs. In both cases, we've seen clumsy claims in mitigation against a backdrop of an opaque process. The reputation of professional football, it seems, requires the hearings to be conducted in private while the sentences get handed down in public.

With the facts that we have, it's hard to understand why Liverpool FC are going to such lengths to demonstrate solidarity with Suarez. This may partly be because we don't have all the facts and Liverpool players have some that we don't.

I'm not going to make the case that the sentences that have/will be handed out are harsh or disproportionate. I can't know that. But I'm fairly sure that, in another workplace, this would be done differently. The result may have been more lenient or more harsh, but it's fairly clear that it'd be different.

The contrast with the (admittedly botched) justice that the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence will receive is a useful comparison here, on the day that the judge started summing up with a stout defence of the fair trail.

Here's my problem with this: High-profile people now appear to have been given a semi-constitutional status. Transactions that they're involved in have to combine an institution-saving opaqueness with the requirement to set an example.

It's more important that justice is seen to be done than that it's actually done. There's a parallel here in the way that it seems to be the settled view of almost everyone - even at the Leveson Enquiry - that someone who puts themselves in the public eye then loses certain privacy privileges.

It seems that justice - in the cases of people in the public eye - seems to be based upon what sentence the public will understand as being appropriate once they've seen a simplified version of events. This applies to footballers and general celebrities. It also applies to politicians, civil servants and other political players. It applies to anyone that newspaper proprietors and editors want it to apply to.

It reflects an increased willingness to pander to the demagogic demands of The Hive Mind. It gives a more mundane expression to some of the observations in Charlie Brooker's very good 'Black Mirror' series (especially the 'National Anthem' episode).

Decisions that affect us all are being made in the same way. Sharon Shoesmith's treatment at the hands of Ed Balls is a notable example. The court of public opinion is expanding its remit and no-one seems to be doing much to counteract this.

With Suarez, Terry and Shoesmith, we got the Dopamine-rush you get from swift justice. Children aren't safer as a result. Allegations of racism are now another disruptive tool that can be gamed wherever a celebrity is involved. 

It's another reason for Chris to conclude that politicians are irrelevant now. Why bother standing for office when unelected people with convening power can decide what decisions you are going to make in advance and then harass you until you make them?

The notion of 'the public interest' seems to have taken on a life of its own. Reversing this won't be easy. But it's possible.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I'm not an economist. The last time I had a hard look at the history and politics of Europe was some time in the mid-1990s. I don't have much by way of valuable analysis of the current European SNAFU.

What bothers me, though, is the shortage of useful commentary from the professionals.

We all have a bunch of lightly-held priors. Here are mine:

  • A European federalist settlement would be a great deal more democratic than the current settlement enjoyed by most - if not all - Europeans
  • Monetary union is an accelerant to political union, and therefore, European federalism (although political union and federalism aren't necessarily the same thing)
  • There's a cart-horse problem with monetary union - that it can only work in the presence of political union, but political union is unlikely unless it's created by the experience of the Euro. This appears to be what we're seeing, albeit in a hasty and risky form.
  • The Euro was implemented very badly. Allowing countries with large black economies to be part of it was potty in the first place (in my defence, I've spent the last decade telling everyone that I know that the Euro is ultimately doomed as long as it includes an unreformed Italy)
  • The presence of unreliable, anti-democratic governments like the Italian one within the Euro meant that it was only ever going to be a fiscally conservative union (and I'd add that, from what I can see, the case with Greece is slightly more complicated, but the conclusion is the same). A lack of cohesion makes this inevitable. 
  • Britain is a politically conservative place that won't vote for the democratic improvements that a federal Europe would bring. This can be partly explained by it's democratic shortcomings - ones that could be removed by a good federalist settlement. Cart and horse again.
  • Britain is, however, one of the most atlanticist forces within the EU and had a strong strategic interest in bringing Eastern European nations into the European sphere of influence. Bringing unequal economies into the EU may be a good move from the viewpoint of national governments seeing strategic alliances, but not good from the Federalist viewpoint. 

So, in the long run, I'm a federalist. But I'm also in favour of a Citizens' Basic Income and Land Value Tax. Both policies that I think would work very well, but ones that don't have an obvious route-map leading to them.

The problem with the way that this seems to be discussed - almost everywhere that I've seen - is that most commentators are letting their priors shape what they say. It's all wishful thinking rather than analysis.

As a federalist, I'm happy to consider the possibility that Cameron did the right thing for non-federalist Britain (though the description of his positioning and negotiating doesn't inspire much confidence). Similarly, I'd be interested to read a British Eurosceptic (sic) saying that the UK may have been out-manoevered quite badly.

The forecasts around the success of the Eurozone seem to be very wide-ranging. Why are Europhiles only capable of predicting success? And why are Eurosceptics only capable of predicting failure?

And why are editors incapable of finding Europhile Eurozone pessimists and their mirror image? We'd learn more if they could - and it'd be more interesting as well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Round-up of lefty blogs & social media nodes

I don't normally use this site for anything work-related, but I reckon the readers (if there are any left - it's very quiet these days) are the most likely to know the answer to this:

Here's a quick overview of prominent Labour & Trade Union social media initiatives for a talk I'm giving to TU organisers. I know I've not included 'False Economy' here yet, but are there any others that I've missed? (They are in no particular order btw):

Left Foot Forward: 80k unique visitors per month – winner of last two Total Politics 'Left Wing Blog of the Year'  - very effective myth-busting on pensions & has seized the economic agenda a few times recently
Liberal Conspiracy: 100k to 120k unique visitors a month. Liberal-left, pushed to take off advertisers from News of the World. Led anti-Rod Liddle campaign when he was being lined up as Independent Editor.
Compass:  Claims 50,000 members + contact with many ex-Labour members. Used to be very active on Facebook, but restrictions there may have reduced activity
Labour List:  60k – 70k unique visitors. Big-name occasional contributors (Ed Milliband, Ed Balls & Gordon Brown)
Labour Uncut: (still trying to get the figures)
Left Futures: Main Labour left blog. 6,500 unique visitors a month. Helps to create the community around the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – the parliamentary left
38 Degrees: Email subscription and crowdsourced campaigning. Notable successes on NHS Reform and forestry privatisation.

Any obvious omissions?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bayesianism and politics

I went to Westminster Skeptics last night to hear Dr Graeme Archer's very entertaining talk about evidence-based policy and the problems that there are with using statistical evidence to inform policymaking decisions.

Through necessity, Graeme skipped though quite a lot of it and I didn't fully follow everything, but broadly speaking, his talk appeared to give a concrete underpinning to a lot of views that I hold already.

Obviously, this is a very good thing. I appeared to have reached the same position by a bayesian process that he says that he has reached as a practicing statistician in the pharmaceuticals industry.

This may have come up after I left (I couldn't stick around for the questions after) but there was one thing that jarred. He seemed to think that an ability to treat statistical evidence to tweak bayesian priors rather than use it as a device by which we wipe previous assumptions out (and replace them with a beleif in whatever the 'evidence' tells us to beleive in) is a trait that is widely found in the political left but not the right (Graeme is a Tory).

A few quibbles:

Firstly, the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party was a good deal more Burkean than they have been since. Paraphrasing Burke very swiftly, he was clearly of the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' view, and that tradition (the Bayesianism of the most powerful sections of society?) needs an overwhelming case to be made before reform is acceptable. This appears to be the political manifestation of small-c conservatism.

Secondly, I think that he would have had a point if he'd argued that New Labour were particularly guilty of gathering evidence that appeared to support some radical-ish managerial approach, and using it to force through Year-Zero type policies, but there's a political context behind that which I will come to shortly.

Thirdly, if you're a big fan of market processes as a way of making decisions, then Graeme's (and my) views are comforting ones. I'm quite happy to sign up to this statement by way of a general creed:
The distributed wisdom of lots of small decisions will usually be a great deal better than less frequent big decisions made as a result of a formalised process. The main brake upon this means of making decisions should be a counterweight from elected bodies that apply distributed moral wisdom 
 (Apologies again for self-linking).

I accept that this view is held by socialists who aren't dismissive of the markets and by Tory wets, but probably not by Democratic Centralists and their fellow travellers on the left or the Tory right. As such, if you were to map it on a simple (fictional) linear left-right axis, the big bump would probably be on the centre-right.

My criticism of most Conservatives is that they're far to relaxed about the distorting power of monoplies on the economic side of this issue, and of commercial pressure-groups on the political elements.

And surely the phrase 'there is no alternative' rings a bell with any Conservative?

I'd also argue that politicians are behaving rationally (in that very particular definition of the word) when they embrace certaintly - particularly politicians who don't generally get an easy ride from the press. It's one of the reasons that the governing style of the current government is a good deal more superficially attractive than the the white-knuckled hyperactivity of the previous lot.

This may read like an excuse from a political grouping that is sick of constantly losing elections because of media hostility, but I can understand where it comes from.

Finally, to start another hare running, I think I'd be able to argue Graeme into a position where he'd oppose all future uses of referendums based on his views on this, but then I regard almost everything as an argument against referendums.

(This is another of my posts that is too long because I don't have time to boil it down and tidy it up - sorry)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Buyer-beware. Is populism finished?

Has Populism peaked? Probably not. But it may have reached the end of it's beginning.

It's hard to be comfortable about any form of collective punishment, but the Italian people are about to go through a spot of it at the hands of Super Mario. It will take effect as a punishment for picking the wrong government. For allowing the shallow appeal of Berlusconi to trump other considerations, the Italian people have enjoyed a level of economic growth that was only worsted by Zimbabwe and Haiti. And that's only the beginning of a story that may take decades to play out.

It's the demagogic politics of bread and circuses. When a polity is dominated by the politics of purely emotional appeal - and almost nowhere has been immune to it -these democratic shortcomings lead to sub-optimal government. Vote stupid? Pay later!

Berlusconi himself was the protege and beneficiary of previous corrupt Italian governments, and the world is now conspiring to replace him with a technocrat. In Russia, the debased democracy that followed the collapse of communism resulted in a return to the dictatorship-lite of the Putin years.

But in the past week, US Republicans have learned that support from The Tea Party is a two way street that may cost them the Presidency. Let's hope so.

Super Mario's appointment is far from being a cause for celebration. His alleged deal to pull back from breaking up Berlusconi's media holdings is particularly worrying.

This is a crisis that is less rooted in bad economics than the bad democracy that results in bad economics. The EU and the IMF are wrong to allow Italy to duck this bullet and it does not bode well that, everywhere, the symptoms and not the illnesses are being treated.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

James Murdoch: Parliament failed this week

If I owned a company and you worked for me, and you did something bad to an innocent third party, I'd have to take some responsibility whether I knew about it or not.

I'd deserve the appropriate sentence - a slap on the wrist, a modest fine, and in the worst cases, a short-ish spell inside. As Chris Bryant says of James Murdoch,

"No CEO of a construction firm could have passed the buck in the way you have tried to do. In the end it's your company, your employees, your profits and your responsibility."

Not that anyone believes James Murdoch's "never-done-nuffink-dead-when-I-found-it" defence either. But with a high burden of proof, he deserves no stricter sanction than the CEO of Chris's construction firm (a sanction that he has not had placed upon him, by the way - he's walked away from that one).

But if I were then to place surveillance on the injured third party's lawyers, and on politicians who had taken up the case, the guilt would have moved up the food chain. In the way that jury-tampering is a lot worse than serious theft, the gravity of the situation increases exponentially.

This was not a deniable shop-floor decision. It was a corporate one. It was taken in the part of the company that was directly responsible to the the highest level of managers. And it is a graver charge than the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone.

It is also a transgression that News Corp actually admitted to and apologised for this week. Parliament seems to be saying "thanks for the apology - now let's move on."

Historically, Parliament has failed to acquire the powers to deter corporations from behaving this way. That's bad. With notable exceptions in Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, Parliamentarians failed to respond to News Corp's astonishing apology this week with anything more than a quiet sigh.

What a waste of space an money. They might as well pack up their bags and go home.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google: "No pay? No play!"

So, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control” (source). It's a nice line, and one that sums up a lot of very profitable new tech businesses very nicely.

Reading this post by Gerry Morrissey* we see in News Corp a company that exercises monopolistic muscle and makes £100s of Millions in the UK out of it's ability to beat regulators - not beating competitors.

With Murdoch, it's easy to form judgements like this. Christ, the guy wears his Lex Luthor credentials so proudly on his sleeve where every European liberal can see them. We've spent the last six months screaming at anyone who will listen: "How did you not see this already you thick gits?"

But where Murdoch has adopted Machiavelli's injunction that 'it's better to be feared than loved', the big tech media players have gone the other route. By giving us shiny things that we like, they've been able to escape the grasp of regulators, because to regulate would be to deprive us all of the free-shiny that Apple and Google let us access.

So mp3 players as fantastically designed as the iPod are worth every penny of the £160 that it costs to buy. Why? Partly, because it allows us to listen to music in breach of the licence by which it was originally distributed - and it adds value to it with a cool user interface.

OK, those licences were daft, iniquitous and inflexible. Probably the optimal licencing regime for music would be some pay-per-listen, often funded through collecting companies and cushioned at the pay-point by bundling it into a complementary service (music in pubs shift beer - and hey presto! PRS!).

But two wrongs don't make a right. If I were a musician and you told me you were listening to my latest album on a file-shared mp3, I'd probably want to bite your head off and shit down your neck. And Apple have made $billions from the process that would have culminated in you having a turd poking out of your decapitated corpse.

My lovely shiny Humax box lets me time-shift and ad-skip. I love it. I've not watched an advert on TV for a long time. Thanks Humax! I just hope I don't run into a Channel 4 TV producer, screenwriter or director next time I spill that story or the same experience (head off, defecation etc) would be my just reward.

Humax have made $millions facilitating this process, crucifying the commercial Public Service Broadcasting model. As have TiVO and Sky+. Regulators with backbones would insist upon hardware and ISP levies to ofset this. But - hey! Hands off! Free-shiny!!

Google give us free tools. They're great! Or in the case of the one social media tool that I genuinely loved (Google Reader) it was great - until last week. I won't bore you with this one again, but I think that this issue raises profound questions about corporations that are given regulatory passes on the grounds that they're facilitating innovation.

Google, Apple Facebook give us nice things. There are huge social positives from what Google gives us for no noticeable charge. Like piracy or open data (the downsides of open data are under-discussed IMHO), these are game-changing processes. But because the innovation often results in positive game-changing and helps support important social strides, we give the corporations that make huge profits from them free-passes without treating them like the utilities that they often are.

And we don't acknowledge that these 'free' (at the point of use) services aren't actually free. They're part of a value-chain. And we don't acknowledge that their users have a right to access the data that they give to these services in a useable way. Google have monetised my sharing of data. They may have a strategic reason to change how it works to make more money, but they shouldn't have the right to simply deprive me of my archive.

There are parallels of course. Facebook have occasionally abused our expectations on privacy (and I doubt if most users yet understand the 'if you're not paying for it, you're part of the service being sold' argument. Millions of people may be consenting to things they wouldn't consent to if they understood them fully.

This is an issue that I'd expect journalists and politicians to take more seriously than they do. OK - politicans are crap at acting on issues they don't really understand - they have an excuse here.

But I've really written all of this because I've got into a debate with one quite-good tech/media commentator who seems to think it's alright for 'free' services that occupy monopolistic and incumbency position to suddenly turn to their users and say 'no pay - no play!'. 

It isn't alright. They're not free services. Normally, a company that has monopolistic and incumbency privileges wouldn't be allowed to do this. But because of the free-shiny, Google can. Like Apple and Google do.
"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

*Full disclosure: I do policy work for BECTU

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Google Reader changes: A minor disaster.

I don't usually complain about changes to social networking platforms, but I'm incensed about the Google Reader changes - particularly the removal of the 'share' function, the shared items page and the 'note in reader' browser button. I have loads of stuff in there and I use it to feed all kinds of things (including the sidebar of this blog). All gone now. Sign the petition - (ironically, in Google Docs) and, inevitably, there's this:


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Greece:If you tolerate this, then your children will be next?

I've seen a few things recently that underline the way that ideological warfare constantly struggles to avoid the kind of conclusions that good democracies reach.

Take Greece, for example. Unless Pete / Alex / Snowflake et al (below) haven't pulled these arguments out of their jacksies, then we have to conclude that Greece has been the butt of one of the most effective ideological assaults any of us have seen in a long time - world opinion being softened up to accept the long-term smashing of an economy to protect what the Occupy movement call the 1%.

It's a warning to us all. Ideological assaults happen. History is rewritten and reality is fabricated to protect and support the beneficiaries of the failures and shortcomings of democracy. Ideological assault seems to me to be something that the left rarely arms itself against, preferring to perfect it's own analysis. It's the equivalent of ignoring the opposition's team sheet and formation before a match.

I've got a few links below (bookmarks for myself as much as anything), but what's my conclusion? It's a lightly-held one, but it seems to me that Europe's problem isn't poor economic management. If the quality of democratic decisionmaking were better in the EU, we'd be able to share the pain of the little PIIGS fairly easily.

Europe's problem is the falling standards of liberal democracy that the EU is prepared to accept. This mess is the result of bad decisions that were forced by the unbridled demands of pressure groups.

Italy is the real problem - it should never have been allowed in the EU (never mind the Eurozone) and it's done plenty in the past decade alone to warrant expulsion (as I argued in one of my earliest posts here). If Italy were a functioning liberal democracy, we wouldn't be worried by the contagion from a Greek default. If Greece were one, it wouldn't be defaulting.

In the cases of Ireland, Greece and Italy to my certain knowledge, we've seen the consequences of a debased democracy - not a fundamentally malfunctioning economy. This is not restricted to those countries either. It's an explanation that fits the whole post-Lehmans crash, and right-wing populist movements such as the tea party have been given free rein to campaign for it's continued existance.

We've seen democracies and corporations distorted in their aims by the overwhelming demands from powerful interests groups and mangers respectively. This is the problem - and the EU's decision to sidestep it (not least with the individual culprits within Greece) while demanding unpayable penalties from the Greek people speaks volumes.

I don't know why the Occupy movement are thrashing around for a set of demands to unite behind. Surely 'a good democracy' and all that it entails is the answer?


Anyway; a few links. Firstly, this from Sturdyblog, written back in June during the demonstrations in Syntagma Square:

"The first bail-out was designed to stabilise and buy time for the Eurozone. It was designed to avoid another Lehman-Bros-type market shock, at a time when financial institutions were too weak to withstand it. In the words of BBC economist Stephanie Flanders: “Put it another way: Greece looks less able to repay than it did a year ago – while the system as a whole looks in better shape to withstand a default… From their perspective, buying time has worked for the eurozone. It just hasn’t been working out so well for Greece.” If the bail-out were designed to help Greece get out of debt, then France and Germany would not have insisted on future multi-billion military contracts. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the MEP and leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, explained: “In the past three months we have forced Greece to confirm several billion dollars in arms contracts."

... and..

"The figure of 53 years old as an average retirement age is being bandied about. So much, in fact, that it is being seen as fact. The figure actually originates from a lazy comment on the NY Times website. It was then repeated by Fox News and printed on other publications....... Looking at Eurostat’s data from 2005 the average age of exit from the labour force in Greece (indicated in the graph below as EL for Ellas) was 61.7; higher than Germany, France or Italy and higher than the EU27 average. Since then Greece have had to raise the minimum age of retirement twice under bail-out conditions and so this figure is likely to rise further."

That post did get a bit of blowback on some of the numbers though (here)

And then this from Snowflake 5:
"Why the consternation in the rest of Europe? Because a bailout will still have to take place - of the banks, shorn of the "cover" and pretence that they were really bailing out the Greeks. In turn this will accelerate the need to re-regulate the banks and separate retail banking from investment banking - in other words reversing the trend set in course by Margaret Thatcher when she de-regulated in the 1980's, and then exported the idea to the world."
Again, read the whole thing if you have time.

And surely Big Pete has something to say on this? This comment on Will Hutton's enthusiasm for the deal last week that was supposed to draw a line under all of this unpleasantness:
"I rather think that Hutton's enthusiasm gets the better of him, mistaking centralisation of power for federal integration. The view from much of Greece is of an economic dictat that will impose endless austerity. Maybe this is overstated and the debt write down certainly gives some breathing space. But what this deal does not seem to do is to reform the structural problems of monetary union and redistribute trade imbalances (as Yanis Varoufakis argues here). Instead it still suggests that the cause of the crisis lies in the moral failures of the peripheral states, requiring the constant supervision of the enlightened technocrats at the centre, whatever their previous record.

Even that would be acceptable if it were not for one thing. The theory - austerity and orthodoxy. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of failure, they are insisting on implementing their plan with a renewed intensity, even as the social fabric of the indebted nations tears apart."

Then there's this (but do read the whole thing if you have time)
"There’s only one word that adequately describes the majority of Dutch media reports on Greece right now: a witch hunt."

It concludes:
"In a solidary (sic) Europe, the question shouldn’t be: how do I get my money back with maximum profit? It should be: how do I help a country get out of a recession for which I am partly responsible, and who will foot the bill for that? In the first place, part of the money should be taken from those responsible for causing this mess — from the elite. The Greeks who have committed fraud for years on end, who evaded their taxes, who obfuscated their money and who speculated irresponsibly, are going free, partly thanks to a recent law on parliamentary immunity. It’s an eyesore to he Greek people that Papandreou has failed to sue even a single corrupt politician, to punish even a single entrepreneur or ship owner, and to recover even a single penny from the billions of euros that have disappeared into various pockets. And in no way does Brussels seem to be pushing for such measures. In fact, on this subject, Brussels has remained silent as the grave."
 I got a few of these links from Pete's roundup here from a while ago.

Monday, October 31, 2011

More on Managerialism

In the wake of last week's story about escalating Directors pay, this article is well worth a look. It opens paraphrasing a book written by the academic Henry Mintzberg back in 1983.
"Thirty years ago Mintzberg concluded that most of the evidence suggested that the power of senior management within corporations has massively expanded and that it was now they, rather than the technical owners – i.e. shareholders – who really controlled the organizations.

What Mintzberg did not say, because at that point it wasn’t quite so obvious, was that having seized power it was only a question of time before the new corporate ruling class also started to seize the money."

Now contrast this with people in state employment. It is very hard to dismiss the concept of a public sector stuffed with 'budget-maximising bureaucrats.'

Leaving aside the kleptocratic aspects of managerialism, and the anti-human soul-destroying rejection of expertise and human intelligence that it implies - especially when it's applied to the outsourced work of the state, I think that 'budget maximising bureaucracy' is a very good description of the modern corporation.

Even shareholders need protecting from this now, surely?

(H/T Shuggy for the 'Whitehall Watch' link)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What really went on there? We only have this excerpt.

Why is the economy in a mess? I've seen a number of explanations - some of them more convincing than others.

The first one is the Bad Banks one. Bankers have been bad. They've cooked the books, re-sold thin-air and drawn huge personal bonuses while doing so. They've then socialised the debt at gunpoint.

It's an attractive argument and one with a lot of popular appeal. But I think that focussing on it is a mistake because it's not really that good an account of what happened, and on reflection, most people won't buy it completely. It also gives us an excuse not to deal with the real problems.

The second culprit is the politics of the past thirty years or so. This article on Crooked Timber concludes that...
"the banks aren’t to blame for the crisis; Bush is. And the solution to the crisis isn’t to fix the banking sector, either through regulatory reform or continuing to bail out the banks, it’s to stop Bush-era economic policies."
It's a good line, and one we could extend to the Thatcher / Reagan era - the years when we were softened up for Bush-era economics. Certainly, the underlying problem in which household incomes have stagnated since the late 1970s with the impact being masked by ever-looser credit makes sense to a amateur economist like me.

The third culprit is democracy. Democracy has been degraded to the point at which Parliament is weaker than the well organised pressure groups. David Allen Green writing in the New Statesman today draws out the feeble grasp that many (most?) Parliamentarians now have of what Parliament is for. I know I've used this argument here before, but it's worth rehashing.  As Larry Elliot put it a while ago in reference to puny attempts to rein the finance sector in…. 
"...the exiguous nature of current reform proposals is explained by the institutional capture of governments by the investment banks, the world’s most powerful lobbying groups."
The thing is, all of these arguments are attractive in their own way. But I'd put the empasis somewhere different - somewhere that gives us an indication of what the left can offer by way of a response.

The Thatcher/Reagan era didn't just happen. It was the product of a few factors. There were the oil-shocks of the early 1970s and the subsequent downturn that affected Western economies. This, and the rapid social change that was taking place at the time allowed fiscal conservatism to piggy-back on popular socially conservative concerns (immigration, the breakdown of social heirarchies, the sexual revolution, uppity proles in the Unions, etc). All good stories to mask a ditching of Keynesianism.

But this era was also the product of an effective ideological assault led by deniable right-wing pressure groups (in the broadest meaning of the term) outside of the Conservative Party. The right wing press (even Stephen Glover has noticed now that the press is no longer Conservative, but right-wing) and the trench-warfare merchants of organisations like the Freedom Association and the Institute for Economic Affairs were able to create the circumstances in which the Conservative Party could be dragged to the right.

This tells us all we need to know about how important the manoevering of The Labour Party is at the moment. Until the left can come up with a comparable gravitational force outside of the party, it will continue to be forced to play every game away from home.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Social Democracy as a method

Insofar as anyone notices it, I suspect I've lost a few followers on Twitter and been tuned out elsewhere because of my monomania about referendums.

For the avoidance of doubt, I hate them, and regard opposition to them as an activity to which every democrat should give the highest priority. I've said why at some length here and think that the dangers associated with the gradual process of normalisation that they have undergone over the past quarter-century is being hugely underestimated.

Though democracy is supposed to be central to our way of life - advocacy of liberal democracy unites mainstream opinion in a way that it perhaps never has done before  - we're seeing it being degraded in a range of different ways without a squeak from anyone.

Alongside the normalisation of referendums, I'd include the crude way in which political transparency has been demanded as another example of how the political class (nominally, I suppose, the guardians of the principles of liberal democracy) have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Another way they were degraded was with the way that media-ownership rules were torn up in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. I while ago, I wrote about how the impact of the broadcasting of Parliament had been felt as an example of this, but there will be plenty more to cover once the history of the AV Referendum, the acceptance of semi-subliminal political advertising or campaign funding in the US or the Tories preference for elected officials here is assessed by history.

But for Social Democrats, democracy should be our method. Every single thing we set out to achieve can be done in the most effective and sustainable way by simply advocating the highest standards of democratic practice. Striking the right balance between a high level of public participation, the protection of minorities and good policymaking. Labour is the only party that has nothing to lose from this - yet the party is always perfectly happy to sidestep these standards whenever the opportunity for a short-term tactical victory is on offer.

Here are some questions that I think Labour should have automatic short answers for:

  • Should MPs communicate - even indirectly - with lobbyists of any kind?
  • Should lobbyists and pressure groups be obliged to meet much higher standards of regulation, governance and scrutiny?
  • Should MPs have a budget that allows them to commission research that will act as a counterbalance to the biassed and inductive findings of lobbyist-funded 'research'?
  • Should Labour press for a maximalist approach to reducing the concentration of media ownership?
  • Should Labour seek to apply global best-practice in the promotion of media pluralism as a high-profile priority when it next enters government?
  • When the issue of a referendum comes up in connection with a particular policy area, should the party support such a vote if the outcome is likely to result in Labour's broad aims being adopted?
  • Should Labour make it a priority to ensure that an economically sustainable free press exists - and should it take steps to ensure that the media can reverse it's increasing failure to be able to investigate or even report things - even if this means some state intervention to make the funding available for this?
  • Should we have a fully elected second chamber?
  • Is the democratic deficit one in which active citizens have too little influence - or one where inactive ones with mild preferences and unformed opinions are under-represented?
  • Should a Labour government seek to devolve powers to local councillors wherever possible?
  • Should a Labour government promote a higher standard of representation at local level as a priority?
  • Elected regional assemblies for every UK region without the need for ratification by a referendum; For or against?
  • Elected police chiefs - for or against?
  • Do MPs have a duty to go out of their way to find out the unexpressed and lightly-held views of their constituents as a counterweight to the views that are readily and repeatedly sent to them?
  • Should MPs ever read or respond to petitions? Should they ever change their position on something in response to one?
  • Should corporate governance rules be introduced to minimise the ability of commercial organisations to exert influence over policy? Should they be obliged to declare all lobbying - and should the lobbying services they pay for be fully labelled?
  • Should Civil Servants or MPs advisers be allowed to work for pressure groups or lobbyists without a 'decontamination period' of (say) five years?
  • Should Trades Unions be able to coerce Labour MPs to adopt policies against their better judgement on where the public interest lies? 
  • Should Trades Unions ever be given the impression that they can exercise special influence over Labour policy?
  • Should Labour create whatever checks and balances will most effectively ensure that party high-ups or officials can't influence local selection processes?
  • Should the Labour Party leadership seek to coerce MPs to adopt particular policies in their parliamentary work?
  • Should the Labour MPs continue to tolerate colleagues who don't conduct their policy deliberation in an inclusive and rigorous way? 
  • Should Sir Stuart Bell have the whip withdrawn from him immediately? Or will next week do?
I suppose I could go on like this all day, but I think that anyone who has seriously thought about what a good democracy should look like would have a fairly instant answer to all of those questions. Labour's answers should be the same.

Naturally, it's easy to read all of this as a set of demands for pie-in-the-sky. In all cases, these are questions of balance that need to be taken into account. You can't curb the influence of Unions without first taking measures against lobbyists and pressure groups. I suspect that a Labour Party that could answer these questions properly would be a lot more attractive to trades unions than the current situation in which the party takes the money and pays lip-service to Union expectations.

You can't introduce any of these ideas without first paving the way for them. You can't promote party pluralism without first making it difficult for other parties not to follow your lead. 

It doesn't make sense to underestimate our ability to introduce any of these approaches unilaterally without damaging the party 

My problem with Labour is that most of our party don't even think we should be preparing the ground on this. The last Labour government certainly had no interest in these questions and I don't see too many signs that the current leadership are pouncing on very good opportunities to advance these positions at the moment. Doing so would give many of the approaches we want to advocate a good deal more credibility.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

What to think about the Occupy Wall St movement?

The 'occupy' movement is mushrooming and largely unreported. This is because events like this one are either subject to a conspiracy from the mainstream media to deny them the oxygen of publicity, or they're widely seen as futile gestures.

You decide.

I honestly don't know what to think about them. On the one hand, there's the under-rated argument that....

  • Something must be done!
  • This is something...
  • So let's do this

There's also the question of mutual reinforcement. There may come a time when a progressive protest movement will be a genuinely useful catalyst for change, so let's keep the torch burning until then.

Also, in participating in them, people may become politicised and move into the ecosystem that influences political debate - diluting incumbents and bringing in fresh blood, etc etc.

But, on the other hand .... well, almost every dispassionate observation that I'd make would point to the view that I think that public protest is over-rated, largely pointless, and often more a bit of therapy for the participants than it is any threat to The Man.

Now, I don't like anyone having a pop at something unless they have an alternative plan of their own. So what extra-parliamentary activities do make a difference? I've banged on about deniable outriders here a lot so that's part of my answer. I think that the left has yet to understand the sophistication and effectiveness of outfits like The Taxpayers Alliance or the loose alliance of pseudo-libertarians that have congregated around the blogosphere in a way that exerts a good deal of influence of the mainstream media.

It's hard to know at the moment whether The Tea Party are a blessing or a curse on the US Republicans - whether they've achieved what I think Glenn Beck imagines that they've done to The Overton Window.

But the one conclusion I'd reach at the moment is this;

The left will not succeed if it focusses it's fire on the dubious morality or the unfairness of the political right in general, the Tories in particular or even of capitalism.

What will work is a focus on individual circumstances. Aggressive consumerism. An aggressive attack on bad management in the workplace (most of the people I know are not particularly well disposed to trade union militancy - but do think their manager is a wanker).

The other thing that I think can work is a determination to be as selective in our attacks on budget-maximising bureaucrats as the right have been. They're only capable of seeing these in the public sector, and we know that this is essentially the defining feature of the financial services industry and the consultancies that pick up the delivery of privatised services.

This has to be done from a consumerist or taxpayer viewpoint though. They're ripping everyone off. Taxpayers are funding useless services, etc.

Making a moral or economic argument is a waste of time. The moment you're even slightly politically selective, people smell a rat. The left needs to sharpen it's hatred of commercial rip-off and shoddy services of all kinds.

If there's one bit of court politics that I think would work, we can focus on lobbyists - and do so knowing that it will hurt Labour at bit into the bargain. The right knew instinctively that elected representatives needed weakening a few years ago. The MPs expenses farago was kicked off in the full knowledge that some Tory MPs would get caught in the crossfire. The left should take the same attitude to lobbyists.

I think that refocussing the inchoate anti-capitalist voices in this way would be productive. But I don't know many other people who think this....

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Possibly the single most stupid article ever written on how social media changes politics.

I've a fairly old 'don't fisk - it's rude' rule that I need to break because I may has stumbled upon the single most stupid article about how social media changes politics - the author claims to have had 100+ re-tweets - a commentary in itself on the quality of what spreads (as in 'if it doesn't spread it's dead') and the claims made in the article about the aptitude of the 'new governing body in town' to make sense of ... well ... anything.

It is, quite simply, the work of a fantasist. Let's just take this section as an illustration
Why Governments Fear Social Media – the Demise of Representational Democracy
When David Cameron, UK Prime Minister announced the Government were in talks with Twitter and Blackberry and so on to stop or block social media re organised riots, it wasn’t because the Government truly believes social media is the cause of unrest and should be stopped. 
Mr Cameron said talks were to be held with companies such as Twitter, BlackBerry and Facebook, as well as the intelligence services, to discuss actions that could limit their reach, to help prevent further disorder. Social networks were widely used by gangs to co-ordinate the riots across the country. 
He wasn’t just ignoring the fact that Twitter was also being used to do cleanup. No sirree, it was the fact the #riotcleanup hashtag was potentially even more devastating than the riots itself to his Parliament. 

OK. Let's break there for our first WTF? Representational (sic) Democracy? And "the #riotcleanup hashtag was potentially even more devastating than the riots itself to his Parliament"?  There's another one coming:
Why? Because communities only self organise when the incumbent organisers are ineffective (read: worthless). If the Police and Local Councils aren’t fixing the situation, then we will: thus spake the People. And once the People figure out they can self organise using online community tools, millions of people, why do we need Councils and Taxes?  From FixMyStreet to CatchALooter, we’ll sort it out ourselves, thanks very much.

Yes. That's exactly what happened. There was a riot, and then, once it was over, the cleanup was co-ordinated and completed entirely on a voluntary basis by active citizens using Twitter. The state stepped aside from this task, and - in addition - read-write media also went about catching, charging and convicting the perps.

Or more accurately, the response was largely similar to the riots in the early 1980s. Most of the cleanup was done by public sector employees and their contractors. Some was done or paid for by the property holders, their friends and families, often funded from their insurance claims. Some was done by the kind of active citizens who always turn out on occasions like this.

No question, a very large number of people relayed the sentiment on Twitter and factoring out the clicktivism, some of them turned up to help out because they were encouraged to do so by their peers on social media. Some of the people who would have done it anyway bragged about it on social media. All in all, the impact on the cleanup from social media was a nice feelgood story, some extra elbow-grease, and some a good bit of help, but the backbone? Hardly.

More to the point, "communities only self organise when the incumbent organisers are ineffective (read: worthless)." I've picked up nothing from commentary around the #riotcleanup to suggest that the participants believed that the clean-up wouldn't have happened without them.

It was more of an act of social solidarity than a model for any kind of Kropotkinite self-government. And with Cameron's attempt to redefine the traditional functions of the state into The Big Society, the idea that he would be uncomfortable with any of this is the opposite of the truth.

I'm not quite sure what role FixMyStreet played in any of this either. FMS is a tool that MySociety created to help people report low-level environmental issues (broken paving slabs, graffiti, etc) to a local authority. Think of it as a phone that doesn't take as long to use.

I'm not belittling FMS - it's a lot better designed than the system on most council websites and they usually (but not always) don't pay anything to get the benefit of it (it uses an open source business model where you pay for bespoke integration). My local council has integrated it into their system and then routinely ignore messages anyone leaves on it.

FMS is a good example of very narrow aspects of the state's role being done initially on a voluntary basis in a way that could be better than the state's own efforts. But that's all.

Fix My Street takes it's name from a request to The Man. As in "please The Man, use my tax-money and your legitimacy to Fix My Street" It doesn't fix streets. It asks the "ineffective" and "worthless" agencies of the state to do 100% the job in a way that voluntary action will rarely do.

Anyway. I'll leave you with this final nugget, for which all comment is superfluous:
NOTE: Representational (sic) Democracy arose in the time when a village nominated a runner to run around Ancient Greece to the big towns to cast a vote for the smaller community. Email and online voting does that a bit quicker these days. Do we really need a “representative” to collect our views and then filter them?  Must get back to Plato & The Republic one of these days.
David Cameron wasn’t being disingenuous. He was saving the political process as he knows it. Too little, too late in my book.
The rest of the article is as idiotic as this bit, but I'm out of time now. As we social media gurus say, "*facepalm*." :-/

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The subscription model of tax and benefits

I've posted a fair bit here and elsewhere over the last few years developing my own views on Labour, the left and deniable outriders - looking at how the network changes the sociology of politics, if that's not too grand a way of saying it.

I don't mind saying that Clifford Singer's thinking on all of this is a lot more developed than mine, and with projects like The Other Taxpayers Alliance, MyDavidCameron, False Economy under his belt, the experience and reading around this subject is nicely squeezed into this excellent post that everyone interested in this subject should read.

The one key related area that I think also needs more developed thinking on is on what Labour (and other non-darkside) politicians and formal structures need to do while the outriders are working their magic - adapting the notion of leadership closer to curation or convening and emphasising that individual representatives need to be the sum of their networks (I've picked Tom Watson as the obvious pin up on this one) and not the brand of reflexive budding demagogues that a lot of Labour's top-table seems to prefer.

However, another thing that occurs to me in Clifford's post is the way that writers like Lakoff and Westen look at the framing of the things that people care about.

New Labour ducked a lot of fights - perhaps understandably - but we could argue that they sometimes ducked the wrong ones. There was a common argument that public services had to be closely adapted to meet higher-earners expectations so that they would continue to see them as legitimate recipients of public funding.

As far as I can see, the Tories are moving ever-closer to a subscription model of the state - one where a higher-rate taxpayer expects a higher level of service, and where a freemium model of public service is advanced. You can almost see all politics as a tug-of-war in which active citizens game the tax and benefits system (I fleshed this out more here a few weeks ago).

To my poor mind, this isn't an argument or fight that can be ducked. Nor is it one on which we can't land heavy blows. Watching the way both the US and the EU are floundering at the moment, tracing the lack of historical vitality - governments that don't believe that they have the legitimacy to act - this isn't a trivial issue either.

Monday, September 26, 2011

How Labour should apologise (vested interests #2)

There's been a fair amount of comment over the weekend on how Labour should apologise for the state it left the country in. Ed Balls has been touring the interview suites this morning saying 'sorry' for regulatory weakness on the banks and on public spending. It all sounds a bit weak, and it's being done in a way that offers Labour no upside.

It sounds like a limp concession to the people in the party who are saying that we won't be taken seriously until we've done this properly.

Is this really the case? Personally, I doubt it. It imagines that our opponents in parliament and the press will say "OK - thanks for getting that out of the way. Now let's move on....."

As a good Catholic boy, I'd also attest that an act of contrition only really counts if it comes with a determination not to sin again.  This is where Labour's opportunity arises.

Labour didn't cover itself in glory by increasing borrowing during an economic upswing in the mid-noughties. The way to apologise to the public on this is the way that you would apologise to a driver if you've just put a dent in their wing a few minutes before a banker steamrollered the same car off a cliff.

If Labour did screw up badly - and demonstrably - it was in two big areas:
  1. Allowing the subjects of reguation to dictate their terms
  2. Procurement

Taking the latter first, IT contractors were allowed to corner government departments into writing blank cheques. Defence manufacturers were able to entirely capture limitless budgets with impunity.

The bill for all of this ran into the tens of £billions and Labour really does owe the voters a massive apology for it.

This was a failure to confront vested interests - one that Labour needs to deal with ruthlessly now to regain credibility in this area. It will also chime with Ed Milliband's 'vested interests' line of attack.

And continuing the departmental capture theme (and moving on to regulatory failure), the socially useless finance sector was allowed to write it's own regulations in a way that no government can ever permit again.

But how can Labour do this? Dan Hodges is sceptical of Ed's 'Ralph Nader' line of attack saying

"It's bold, it's brave, and it's politically suicidal. But you have to hand it to him. Ed Miliband is the new Ed Cojones. No compromise on Labour's economic message. No let up on the attacks on those at the top of society. No pandering to the right-wing press. Ed will be true to himself, and his party. 
There's only one problem. The rules of the game don't change. That's why they're the rules."

Dan's wrong. Labour just never really understood the rules. And the cowing of News International over the summer may have even changed them slightly anyway.

Labour really does need to get it's head around how well the Tories did using deniable outriders to carry it's attacks out for it when Labour was in government. Labour's line of attack shouldn't be coming from Milliband at all. He needs people with no formal link to the party to be saying a lot of it.

None of this happens without some degree of support from the party machine though. In our shoes, the Tories would be getting the right people to open up a loud line of enquiry into why a sloppy and politically biased media has been allowed to conduct it's lazy vendettas at the expense of the public interest for so long.

As long as electoral attack politics have existed in this country, we have a history of accepting that it's part of the Conservative Party's M.O. - the deniable outriders such as the real authors of the Zinoviev Letter, The postwar anti-rationing Housewives League, and latterly, The Taxpayers' Alliance.

The left's targets can be our heroic Fourth Estate, who fiddled while the government was forced to avoid burning the bondholders. Another socially useless little monopoly failed in ways that no modern state can afford.

We (not Labour) need to shift the focus beyond the shallow question of post-hoc regulation whenever newspapers really bugger someone's life up and focus on the bigger questions and start attacking the opponents of public service broadcasting - painting them for what they are: anti-social opportunists. But this can't come directly from Labour.

We can take steps to ensure that the financial sector can never again enjoy the ability to make well-timed policy-interventions defending their own interests.

Labour can heavily emphasise it's determination not to allow any of this to happen again in ways that would push the coalition out of their comfort zone.

We (i.e. Labour's supporters - not it's leadership) can demand a lot more transparency about lobbyists. We can make demands that push the coalition into a war with it's own departments (no government wants this, and the Tories forced us into a continual one - what goes around comes around!).

We can demand ever-more transparency and ethical standards from companies that bid for government work. No donating to political parties. No expenditure on lobbying. Corporate governance standards up the wazoo. Personal responsibility from senior executives with criminal-law penalties. No personal political donations from senior executives or major shareholders either. No meetings with ministers or party hacks. No sponsorship of political activities.

All 'evidence' that is submitted into the public domain by outfits like the British Bankers Association should go through a level of fact-checking first. If they do decide to spend money on research, they should pay a commensurate sum of money into a blind-trust that can then be spent either cross-checking their claims or commissioning relevant research as a counterbalance.

If anyone thinks that Labour is going to fall into the same traps again after that little lot, they'd struggle to make the case for it. And we'd be able to yell 'vested interest' back at them when they do.

And that's "we" - not Labour. When attacks find their target, then Ed can get on board. But not before. As I put it a while ago, Labour and the far-left need each other for the first time ever.

But before any of this can happen, Labour needs to re-examine it's traditional desire to take a leadership role all of the time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Labour & vested interests

Imagine you walked into a shop with a vague intention of buying a vacuum cleaner. You want one that's mid-price and durable. One that will do the job, last for a few years and not break the bank.

Your initial glance around the shelves tells you that there's one right there that probably fits the bill nicely (and indeed, it does - but you're not to know this yet).

Then imagine the salesperson doesn't pay any attention to what you're looking for, but instead starts banging on about a range of irrelevancies. The colour of the thing. The range of unwanted attachments and features. A range of special offers where you get a discount on a washing machine if you buy a particular model. The fashionable traction that a particular brand will bring to your home.

The salesperson also tries to pigeon-hole you into some irrelevant demographic and, on that basis, tries to hard-sell a model that you're instantly sure isn't right for you.

You went in with a simple need on a subject you don't care about that much. The shop could have taken £150 off you effortlessly if they had taken the trouble to look at it from your viewpoint for a few seconds. Instead, you leave the shop with your money and a plan to postpone your purchase and live with the dust for a while longer.


This week, I heard Ed Milliband and his team mention the words 'vested interests' in the sort of tone that suggests they're against them. There was a bit of muttering about energy companies and supermarkets. There are a range of consumerist, corporate and monopolitstic targets I was hoping to hear added to the list.

I reached for my wallet, so to speak. That's exactly what I'm looking for in a political party, and I doubt if I'm alone in this. I hate the very concept of 'zeitgeist', but if I didn't, I'd have to concede that Ed had hit a very zeitgeisty note with 'tackling vested interests'.

Then a shower of apparatchiks appeared on my radar, one after another, recommending a variety of tactical gambits that they imagine will get Labour across various lines.

To 'regain trust'. To be 'seen as being on people's side'. To 'offer the kind of leadership people are looking for'.

It all focussed upon imagined constituencies. My kremlinology is a bit rusty on this, but I think that the squeezed middle =Brownites, Middle England = Blairites and traditional working class = Blue Labour and so on?

Whatevah! No-one seems to have realised that if you tell everyone that you're on their side simultaneously today you'll get found out tomorrow.

We should offer all kinds of pledges, apparently. There is a parallel universe in which Ed's promise to cap tuition fees is 'genius', it seems.

We should also go around looking for ever-more convincing acts of contrition over our handling of the economy because we have "lost the argument" on that one.

There's even a 'Dragon's Den' event (Fabian Society, I think?) where there's a prize of the 'Election-winning idea'. It's what the term *facepalm* or the concept *flamethrower* was invented for.

If Ed wants to win the next election, I reckon he could do worse than scrapping the annual conference altogether. It's a magnet for paid-up wonks to drown out the conversation Labour needs to have with the public.

Pitching for votes and selling vacuum cleaners. They're jobs that have got a lot more in common than you'd think.

Ed. Do yourself a favour. Start banging on about vested interests all week. Speak of nothing else. For god's sake, give us an enemy that the public can identify with. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Johann Hari and interviewing

I'm not going to strain any ligaments defending Johann Hari - he just reminds me of what people say about his newspaper, The Independent: "The Daily Mail for people who recycle."

Hari just strikes me as a corduroy-jacketed version of John Gaunt. Massively overconfident in expressing poorly thought-out opinions.

Still, he's hardly unusual within his own profession in that respect, and his journalistic colleagues seem to be prepared to cut him a bit of slack for doctoring his interviews. In a lot of cases, I can't see that a pedantic sticking to verbatim quotes is all that important.

I reckon a spot of community service is more appropriate than ten years hard labour for what he's done here - but there are plenty of other people arguing about that elsewhere.

Anyhoo.... I quite like the idea of 'underarm interviews' - where the interviewer and interviewee collaborate - each editing their questions and answers intending to help each other refine the questions and answers: Stripping out the problems caused by inarticulacy or imprecision.

I did one some years ago with Chris Dillow here - I learned a good deal more about what his position was than I'd ever have got from reading his general writing, or any live interview that we could have done. We did it just updating a Google Doc - often revising an earlier point to help clarify the current one.

I think it worked well - both sides of the table have nowhere to hide. I wish there were more of them. Almost 'set piece' interviews.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Academic publishing, open data and business models

A few quick bookmarks - things I'm thinking about. I'd be interested in you're thinking about them as well?

Elected officials, joint subscription and historical vitality

I've recently discovered Jason O'Mahony's blog - a good political site focussed on Irish and EU politics.

There's a fair bit to agree with there and a few good provocations. I'd take issue with this post though - or at least two of the 11 things we'll be thankful to the recession for.

I started to take this up in the comments, but I think there's something a bit rude about hijacking someone's comment thread with very long responses so I decided to post it here. The two points I've a problem with are....
  • Point three: "We’ll have less politicians. And they’ll be cheaper." 
  • Point five:  "Borrowing will no longer be easy. Demanding extra spending will no longer pass without some challenge as to who pays?" 
 In the comments, Jason says:
"We have over 1600 elected officials in this country. We don’t have enough? As for joint subscription: It’s not unreasonable for people to know that if someone else wants something, someone else has to pay for it."
Ireland doesn't have 1600 elected officials (if that's the number). It has 1600 elected representatives. They're very different things. The problem is that, in Ireland more than the UK (for example) most of those representatives actually think that they're elected officials who don't have to do the unpleasant side of officialdom (eg 'work' or making decisions that involve trade-offs).

I spend a lot of time there, as it happens, and as far as I can see, it's a politics that is reduced to the functional 'pot-hole' populism where an elected 'representative' spends most of their time getting photographed next to items of public expenditure that they've brought home to the voters. They don't think that it's their job to deliberate in the public interest, to enquire into abuse, corruption or misuse of power.

They leave all of that to lobbyists and a handful of political fixers. And that would be slightly more acceptable if there was any really aggressive journalism going on, but that's on the way out as well. This is a good deal worse, by the way, in Ireland than it is in the UK. At least we have a well-funded 'public service broadcaster.'

Over the past 30 years, we've seen a de-ideologicalisation in politics (the 'end of history'?) in which (for example) no-one understands that there's a problem with 'joint subscription' - no-one sees how that makes collective action near-impossible. How it puts us all on the road to gated communities, 'free' schools and a politics that is only about gaming public expenditure so that it's directed towards particularly active groups of citizens.

How it hamstrings institutions like the EU (where the debate increasingly turns towards some kind of 'subscription' relationship in which value-for-money trumps the need for historic vitality) or the US where 'red states' are full of anti-tax campaigners who manage to also be the largest drawers upon federal budgets.

We're at a point in history when western democracies are starting to lose the automatic claim to being the best agents for prosperity (no-one's as interested in fairness as they used to be), and this is largely the product of enervated politics. As Burke put it...
"When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people." 
That's what you get when elected officials administer a 'joint subscription' model of government. We've never needed politicians more than we do now. And we've never had fewer of them.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Gotta getaway

This bothers me about as much as any other thing I can think about.

See this clip (4min 40secs in):

"I'd like to be invisible, be able to move around with having to explain it to anyone."
Do we underestimate the desire for invisibility?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Davy Graham - Cry me a river

I'm a bit of a Davy Graham fan - so much so that my modest guitar-playing skills are usually applied to the DADGAD tuning that he pioneered (annoyingly, called the 'Jimmy Page' tuning in a lot of the books).

I've just stumbled across this 1959 clip - didn't realise that there was footage this old of him - in this case, directed by Ken Russell: