Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ideological warfare & kleptocracy

Ideological warfare, to nick a phrase, is something that is there to ensure that you're fully prepared for any endgame when it appears on the horizon. It's outcomes are something the left are very good at arguing against (i.e. the prospect of disaster is all too evident to us) and poor at counteracting.

Take the current Greek crisis as a case in point. There's a comprehensive example of this as outlined by Alex Andreou over on Sturdyblog (more at Roarmag)

I'm no economist (i.e. I'm staying out of the Greece - in/out of the Euro argument) but even Capitalists@Work have tumbled how this whole thing could play out.
"...my vision of a bankrupt Greece is that state assets get sold anyway, only now the wealthy shipping owners, money safely in dollars in London banks, come back to their home country as 'saviours'; picking it up for a few drachma along the way."
Paul Mason's nightmare vision of Greece (and potentially, other European democracies) sliding into populist anti-politics is one consequence of the misdirection that puts the blame for this crisis on the swarthy slovenly 'garlic country' (© Geert Wilders) mediterraneans as opposed to the astonishing ransom that the Greek people are being forced to pay to thieving banks.

Another example is apparent in the United States. With a $14tn deficit debt (ta Tim), they are unable to raise the taxes they need to, or cut the healthcare costs that are grossly inflated by commercial bureaucracies.
"People who live in Alaska - and people who aspire to live in Alaska - imagine it is the last frontier, she says, "the place where rugged individuals go out and dig for oil and shoot caribou, and make money the way people did 100 years ago".

But in reality, Alaska is the most heavily subsidised state in the union. There is more social spending in Alaska than anywhere else.

To make it a place where decent lives can be lived, there is a huge transfer of money to Alaska from the US federal government which means of course from taxpayers in New York and Los Angeles and other places where less rugged folk live. Alaska is an organised hypocrisy.

Too many Americans behave like the Alaskans: they think of themselves as rugged individualists in no need of state help, but they take the money anyway in health care and pensions and all the other areas of American life where the federal government spends its cash"
It's an argument that I noticed being put more concisely last year in Good Magazine: 'The Anti-tax States Get a Great Deal on Taxes.'

We're seeing short-term land grabs going on. In Greece, state assets being sold at knock-down prices to wealthy local saviours (who can step in, as such, into the political vacuum). In the US, following the example of the kleptoparasite Ayn Rand, 'libertarian' is just a euphemism for rich benefit fraudster. It's also, mysteriously, allowed to occupy the first position in any public policy punchup.

It's happening here in our own very English maids-bicycling-to-communion-through-the-morning-mist sort of way. The free schools idea is all about pushy parents being able to send their kids to bespoke hipster versions of public schools at the taxpayers expense. We're seeing an asymmetrical transparency being applied to the public sector (at the point where the private sector has pulled of the greatest fraud in our history) attacking it at all points. Public sector pensions at the bottom end, public sector salaries at the top end.

Labour connived in the demoralising managerialist assault on the very legitimacy of the public sector. With it's historic link to the Unions, you would have expected a Labour Party with a fragment of ideological defensiveness to have been talking about a public service ethos within the public sector a long time before the Tories were banging on about The Big Society.

I don't have the figures, but I'm fairly sure that most public sector workers didn't vote Labour at the end of a decade in which Labour - alone - championed massive public investment.

It's worth seeing every aspect of public debate in this country - transparency, accountability, people-power, 'localism', the bait-and-switch nasty party populism/Big Society niceness as little battles in this ideological warfare.

I'm worried that the bed-blockers on the top floor of New Labour's hospital are just too thick to recognise any of this.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fanfair-Gotham Odyssey

Christopher Shale

It seems that a senior Tory on Cameron's own patch - Christopher Shale - has been found dead at Glastonbury in circumstances that can only be described as unhappy. I don't surpose there are happy circumstances in which to be found dead.

I don't think I've ever heard of him until today, but like everyone who dies in those circumstances, it's hard not to feel very sorry for the pain involved and sympathy for the family and friends left behind.

The quote attributed to him (published at around about the same time as his death) is one that quite leaped out at me and I beleive should apply at least as much - if not more - to Labour as it does to his own party.
"We must look different – when we communicate, when we're together. We must sound different – in what we say, how we say it, the language we use, our tone of voice. We must behave differently – try to see ourselves as others see us."

He claimed the country could be divided into two groups, "politics-heavy" people and "politics-light" ones who are not interested in the subject except at general elections.

He calculated that 98% of the population was "politics light" and that "politics heavy is a big turnoff for politics-light people".
I know people who work in politics are often accused of not getting it - of being out of touch with the doorsteps they knock on less and less. But it's true - and on a scale that I don't believe a lot of the political class (and I'm aware of notable exceptions) understand at all.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mamet's release

I've just seen Christopher Hitchens verygood write up of David Mamet's conversion to Paleopalinism (I googled it! No-one else has ever said it! It's mine!) and one thing occurs to me in Mamet's defence.

This line:
"Mr. Beck is among those thanked in Mamet’s acknowledgments for helping free him from “the bemused and sad paternalism” of the liberal airwaves."
Is it a burden to think that we're descended from monkeys and may be consuming resources in a way that could damage the planet in the near-ish future? Is a moral framework that involves me paying some taxes and sharing responsibilities for other people's social insurance an unbearable load?

I can understand the motivations that make up The Backfire Effect [pdf] (shorter version - find someone with strong opinions, show them evidence that refutes their case and it will usually strengthen the belief you are questioning). And I can kinda understand Mr Mamet's relief and the attraction of his dip into simplicity.

It's so much easier being a Republican when you're rich in America, innit?

(I also like Hitchens' accusation that Mamet has a 'pointlessly aggressive' style). This is Christopher Hitchens saying this, btw....

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power - Spring Heel Jack.

Just posting this here - not least because I want to bookmark it. I heard this on John Peel about 25 years ago, recorded it at the time and the tape lasted a short while before it tangled.

It's been hanging around my head ever since and I found it today by chance.

Of it's time, but very good all the same eh?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Henry Porter: a head explodes

If if recall correctly, from my reading of a recent issue of The Lancet, clinical tests have shown that Henry Porter is wrong about everything.

This has become a mainstream view, even among homeopaths and chiropracters, hasn't it?

So how can we explain his column in The Observer today in which he's absolutely right on all points?

Which brings me to the Hargreaves review of intellectual property which is sitting on my desk at the moment, awaiting a more detailed reading.

I've seen this sentence already (indeed, so have plenty of other readers):

"We urge Government to ensure that in future, policy on Intellectual Property issues is constructed on the basis of evidence, rather than weight of lobbying, and to ensure that the institutions upon which we depend to deliver intellectual property policy have clear mandates and adaptive capability."

It's widely been seen as a dig at the publishing/music/film industry's ability to dominate the copyright debate with special pleading and heavy lobbying.

However, there are a few big issues underneath this: Firstly, the question of media diversity. Does it make sense to allow large corporations to have interests in delivery and production of content? This is, after all, one of the issues that the whole News Corp/BSkyB takeover has stumbled upon.

Surely it is in the public interest to regulate to ensure that one company can either produce content or distribute it - avoiding the kind of market-rigging that owning large operations on both sides of this divide creates.

As this 2009 IPPR report shows, there's a strong logic to the use of hardware levies to remunerate content producers, seeing as hardware providers make $billions in profits from the added value that good content brings to their products. Almost everywhere else in the EU, this is a solution that has been embraced in some way.

It's a solution that BSkyB would oppose tooth and nail, but I'm sure that Hargreaves report will not register this fact at all and will contain a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of a solution that has been deemed beyond the pale in previous ages in which lobbyists rule subjects in or out of consideration.

Can't wait to get down to reading this....

Understanding copyright - the absence of accessible debate

I'm about to start some work that will involve knowledge of the copyright debate. It's a subject that I've taken more than a passing interest in at various times and I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into it.

One thing has helped. Quite by chance, while following some links, I stumbled across an Atlantic Monthly article called 'Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea' that I'd read (in hard copy, I think?) back in 1998.

I lost it soon after reading (and heavily annotating) it and I've missed it ever since. At face value, it's over-long. But it's value is in the fact that it lays out the basic problem of copyright in very straightforward terms.

There's a fair bit of tech-prediction (digital 'watermarking' of CDs, etc) that can be skipped along with some not-awful guesses at where the book trade would be in 2010. But the real value in the article is that it strings together a history of copyright, providing some useful overviews of why it evolved and asking big questions about quality in arts and entertainment, and the question of the sum of human knowledge (digging into the term 'information' and it's various definitions) and an understanding of the appropriate approach to the word 'property' in relation to data and the deductions and creations that we make from it.

It's written in ignorance of some concepts that are now very familiar to anyone writing about this nowadays - social bookmarking, collaborative authoring, collaborative filtering, the end-user mainstreaming of open-source software (i.e. beyond Apache servers), apps, proprietary browser-based services that offer access to nuggests of intellectual property (the obvious one being Spotify), etc.

There are some good encounters with John Perry Barlow and Esther Dyson and some healthy scepticism about some of the more ambitious claims from cyber-utopians.

But, for me, the valuable thing in this article - something that seems to be missing elsewhere - is the way it addresses lots of simple issues. It's actually a couple of dozen interesting blog-posts where a bit of information is presented and then pulled together with a summary. Most of the stuff I read on this subject either assumes I've already read an article like this, or it's written by someone who hasn't the breadth of understanding that reading an article like this would bring them.

Copyright (with attendant subjects of privacy and censorship) appears to be a huge issue of our age. It's very complex in moral and practical terms and it's one on which very few people have ever had a back-to-basics course.

I dunno. Maybe I'll start doing short posts pulling nuggets of that article out, investigating them a bit further and discussing them here. WDYT?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Unions, Tories and The Big Society

An interesting one over on Conservative Home from Robert Halfon MP - well worth a look. Here's a few snapshots:
"...union members and representatives are more likely to be volunteers and help to build social capital. And this is not just TUC propaganda: many other academic studies reach a similar conclusion Interestingly, a recent study in Sweden also showed that “trade union members are more likely to volunteer than non-members”. This is something we need to consider, as the Big Society reforms really get moving."
"unions are often simply businesses, like any other industrial group. Tories believe in free enterprise and choice. Workers should have the liberty to organise."
For the avoidance of doubt, I've no desire to see the Unions and the Tories getting closer together in the way that Mr Halfon is hoping for here, but it's interesting that some of them are talking and thinking like this (I know, I know, the comments thread under his post suggests otherwise...).

There is another potential opportunity for the Tories to reach for here: I often suspect I'd have more agreeing conversations among Tory wonks about the evils of managerialism than I would among Labour people. This is a bad thing. And it's an area where public sector workers have a right to feel disconnected from the Labour leadership.

The bloody awful lions-led-by-overpaid-donkeys perception (!) of public sector management is a real opportunity for the Tories - one that would impress prospective Labour voters as another sign that the Tories care more than Labour do about good government (the only electoral issue that matters, most of the time).

As it happens, I'm not sure that the Tories will grab this opportunity as firmly as they could do, but... you never know....

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The golden rule: a speech for Ed Milliband to make

Alex Massie's piece in the Spectator is well worth a look. Especially the stuff about "Family and Faith and Country" - this illiberal communitarian streak in both that really just seeks an easy way out of doing local community politics properly.

In the meantime, looking at the spat between Don Paskini and Dan Hodges/Labour Uncut, having heard a short report on the radio the other evening about the quicksand that Labour's apparent policy review has stumbled into, I thought I'd draft a short speech for Ed Milliband that could wake the whole thing up a little bit if he could find the time to read it aloud. It'd also help address this communitarian question.

Here goes:
"Er.... Hi! I'm Ed, and I'm the leader of The Labour Party. We're holding a consultation or something about what we need to do next and I'm a bit concerned that it's going around in circles.

So here's a little nudge in the right direction. Firstly lets ask what sort of party we are - why we were set up and what we're supposed to do.

Any fule kno that (no matter what Socialists / Fabians / Trades Unionists / Mutualists & Co-Operators / Methodists / anyone-elseists tell you) we weren't set up to forward any particular ideological agenda.

As a party, we sprang from the Labour Representation Committee - a group of people who were only really totally united around one question - that ordinary men (sorry ladies - this was a bit before you even got the vote!) should be able to exercise their democratic franchise properly and be able to stand for Parliament without starving to death as a consequence.

The Labour Party's foundation stone was that democracy shouldn't be rigged only in favour of the people who can afford to participate.

This traditional value has a modern setting. No-one should have more influence than anyone else because of what newspapers they own, what campaign groups they can finance, what donations they make to political parties, what school or University they went to, how much time they have on their hands, what their social status is generally - who they know or do business with, or even what they know.

If you have ten useful things to say - based on good evidence - and the person standing next to you has only one flicker of insight to offer, then of course there's no problem with you being ten times more evident in public life. But if I find that things are being driven only by social groups that can afford to produce evidence to support their demands, then I'll have to think of a way of incentivising the social groups that don't get involved to provide a counterbalance.

Anyway, that's it I think? There isn't much else to add. I'm not that bothered about any particular policies you want to argue about as long as nothing cuts across the little golden rule I've just outlined.

I'm fairly sure you're going to fairly busy for the foreseeable just redrafting everything you've written that contradicts this little admonition - obviously, do try and confine yourselves to policies that won't make me look daft when I read them out, but apart from that ...... anything goes!

I'm off on holiday now. See you in September!"

Monday, June 06, 2011

Chavs, Blue Labour and voting: Labour shouldn't be ashamed of its instincts

I've not read Owen Jones' 'Chavs - the demonisation of the working class' book yet, but I'm pleased that someone is bringing the subject up.

Everyone seems to have a different experience of the word being used, but in my case, I've only really seen it used as raw snobbery - often against children - breaking one of the cardinal sins of modern discourse: Criticise people for what they do and not what they are. In this respect, at least, it's every bit as pernicious as racist name-calling.

Anyhoo, one aspect of the discussion around it has intrigued me. This line from Carl Packman's post about it on Liberal Conspiracy.
"Jones reflects upon a staggering 1958 gallup poll showing how 71% of britons were opposed to interracial marriage, however it is today, not the fifties, that the BNP is the most successful far right party in the UK to date (pp.222-23). Now that the New Labour party panders to a ruling metropolitan elite community for its votes and support, the BNP have stepped in to raise people’s legitimate concerns (housing, immigration, schools) framing the debate in racial terms.

By and large, working class communities reject the appeals of the far right (they got a trumping in the last local elections), but the English Defence League are still making ground, tapping into local concerns, and Labour is still doing little to counter this."
This seems to have an odd set of assumptions underlying it; That people have traditionally regarded political parties as things that reflect their prejudices. I don't beleive that people voted Labour in 1958 on the unexamined view that the party shared their views on interracial marriage or on immigration, and it would be hard to demonstrate that this was the factor that led to the collapse of the consensus that shaped elections between 1956 and 1979.

This underestimates the sophistication of voters - then as now. UKIP and the BNP occassionally do OK in local elections or European Parliament votes - precisely because people regard it as a suitable point at which to register a protest. But would you, Mr & Mrs Sendembackhome, really want the clowns from UKIP or the knuckledraggers of the BNP (or latterly, the EDL) running the country?

In most cases, the answer would have, and will continue to be, 'no'. The same is true of hanging. Until very recently, the majority of voters have favoured capital punishment but have resisted voting for hangers. Remember the storm that followed Gordon Brown's "bigotted woman" banana skin? It didn't make any difference to opinion polling results.

The idea that people regard their votes in General Elections as things that they're prepared to barter on individual policies is a hugely over-rated one.

The reason Labour have won elections in the past, is because most people thought they'd be a better government than the alternative. It is a huge and continuing mistake to think that some petty bartering of individual policies will make a difference. Labour will regain power when it convinces the public that it is the most responsible steward of the economy and society at large. That's all.

I'd go further: Labour has traditionally felt a bit wary of discussing issues on which the instincts of it's leadership diverges from the general public - Europe, immigration, hanging, etc. I've argued before in some detail that these issues bring the worst out in the bonehead populists of the Tory right. Cameron certainly knows that these issues shouldn't be dominating the headlines and that they'd ruffle the sangfroid that is defining his premiership so far.

Labour needs to be confident about its own instincts on these subjects and be prepared to put up with being yelled at by bigots - appeasing them is a non-starter anyway.

And on these grounds alone, Blue Labour is largely irrelevant. Can we stop talking about it please?