Monday, June 30, 2003

Mickey Kaus is confused

"Kf on drugs: I'm confused!

1) I understand why,...drug companies need to make big profits on successful drugs if they are going to finance the risky research to discover new drugs, which involves following a lot of false leads....I also understand why, if there's a drug benefit within a government-run Medicare system...the government might use its massive buying power to demand low "dictated prices that don't cover" the costs of discovering those new and better drugs.

2) And I also understand why, ..."new entitlements always wind up costing far, far more than initial estimates," and the Medicare drug entitlement is likely to be no exception. I understand why, under the alternative, partly-privatized program initially proposed by President Bush, in which you could choose from a variety of private health plans, "[m]arket pressures" would "control costs."

3) What I don't understand is how both these right-wing critiques of the Senate's prescription drug entitlement can be true at the same time. How does the partly-privatized plan give more money to drug companies (solving problem #1) while simultaneously being cheaper (solving problem #2)? I should think that, as a crude first approximation, controlling costs through "market pressures" would involve controlling the cost of drugs (substituting generics, bargaining down prices, making sure treatment is warranted, etc.)--which would mean less money for the drug companies to use to reward investors and fund risky research.

Either the drug companies get more money or they get less money, right? A system that sends them more money will be more expensive, no? Or is the miracle of the market even more miraculous than I thought?"

Ok, not that he is going to read it here, I think I'd like to take a stab at this "conundrum".

The thing is, the drug companies cross-subsidise development of "false lead" drugs by "overcharging" on the "successful leads" drugs. But they are still operating in a market so they have to find the right level of cross-subsidy: just enough to fund all the research but not so much that their drug will be undercut by an opposing drug company.

The problems with the government controlled system are that the market is distorted by one big customer and the extra costs incurred by the government arise mostly from waste - my sister is a pharmacist and as part of her pharmacy she administers our government's medical card system. It is a regular occurrence for card-holders to obtain extra drugs, inhalers etc free on their card because they can't be bothered looking in their house for the drugs etc. they already have. They are facilitated in this by doctors who are paid a low flat fee for card-holders and prefer to prescribe longstanding patients in the absence of a consultation. This is obviously a clear example but in a "free" medical system there are less clearcut cases where medical assistance and drugs may or may not be needed but as they are "free" you might as well avail "just in case". The lack of a cost disincentive for medical care is a huge contributing factor to waste within a government controlled system.

In a freer market the drug companies will tend to be more efficient with their internal cross-subsidies. The conundrum arises from assuming that the drug companies will operate at the same level of efficiency regardless whether the bulk of their money is coming from a government contract or "earned" in the market.
Thoughts on Islam: Tony has an interesting theory in this week's issue of his Tallrite Blog which, however, ultimately fails to convince. He makes the valid point that strict dogma is not confined to this one of the three great monotheistic religions but is, in fact, a feature of all three. He notes that Judaism of, say, the first century AD and Medieval Christianity were just as harsh and brutal as the caricature of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia. The contention is that the characteristic of Radical Islam is that, being 600 years younger than Christianity, it hasn't "evolved" into an accomodating faith.

"The similarities of the extremes of Mediaeval Catholicism and today's Islam are indeed uncanny. ....Christianity and Judaism, in all their forms, are today religions whose sole purpose is to do good in the world and to provide guidance on lifestyle choices that will lead believers to heaven.... It took thousands of years for the religions to reach this sublime condition; Catholicism was still manifestly barbarous just 500 years ago...The point of this comparison is, therefore, to conclude that Islam will, in time, also calm down and become a rational movement that claims adherence, voluntarily, only by the demonstration of faith and the good example of existing practitioners.  The only force will be force of argument, not of arms. "

The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that it is the strident Wahaabist form of Islam, aggressively supported worldwide by Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of Radical Islam and this contemporary strain is more brutal and unforgiving than, say, the Islam of the Moors, never mind of the later Ottoman empire. To use his terms it has de-evolved.

Meanwhile The Economist finds optimistim in the fact that Sub-Saharan African Muslims have rejected the siren call of the jihadi and are proving to be more moderate.

"In recent years, a number of Islamic schools, many buoyed by Saudi funds, have been trying to spread a more a radical form of Islam in Africa. America's conquest of Iraq and support for Israel, which infuriate many African Muslims, doubtless fuel extremism somewhat. But hardly any Africans are signing up for the global jihad.....Attempts to impose Islamic states in Sudan and northern Nigeria are gradually fizzling out for lack of popular support. Fears that Somalia would replace Afghanistan as al-Qaeda's main stronghold have proven groundless."
Bush 2004: Dick is more cautious and thinks that GW could be challenged by Gen Wesley Clark (Ret'd) or even, heaven forfend, Hillary but I find John's scenario more plausible.

"I will stick my neck out right now and say Bush takes forty states in November 2004, and that's assuming the Dems nominate somebody electable like Lieberman. If Nader or somebody like Chomsky runs on the Green ticket and knocks a couple percent off the Dems' vote again, Bush wins forty-seven to fifty states.....See, the Dems have to move left, or at least they think they do, so that no one can out-left them this time around like Nader did last time. And, by doing that, they move even farther away from the center, which is where the votes grow and are just looking to be harvested by a war-winning President riding a strong economy. Their goofy far-left candidates....are going to pull the already very lefty Dem primary electorate even farther to the left by bringing out the university Socialist cadres and the Seattle antiglobo wackjobs, whether the mainstream Dems want it to happen or not. The Dems have tremendously high negatives; the Republicans don't. About half the people in the United States just cannot stand the sight of the Clintons or Algore; there's a hard core of 20-22% or so on the Left who hate Bush with a passion, but Bush's positives are well up in the 60s and his negatives are staying below 25%"

Of course what would be really cool would be Condi Rice in 2008!
Just following on from the post immediately below. There's another point in D'Souza's article that has a resonance with the discussion about third level fees in Ireland.

"Work and trade are respectable in America. Historically most cultures have despised the merchant and the laborer, regarding the former as vile and corrupt and the latter as degraded and vulgar....But the American founders altered this moral hierarchy. They established a society in which the life of the businessman, and of the people who worked for him, would be a noble calling. In the American view, there is nothing vile or degraded about serving your customers either as a CEO or as a waiter"

Now, I don't think there is a stigma about being a labourer (or indeed a merchant) in Ireland and if you are a plumber, or a bricklayer you will probably make more money than a University professor but there is still a residual middle class presumption that their children, no matter how ill-suited they are for further education, should go to some kind of third level institution on leaving school, no matter what. The thing is, the dropout rate is pretty high, especially in the Institutes of Technology. Subsidising third level education means that these decisions to enrol or drop out are taken very lightly. There is no incentive to think about whether the course is suitable or worthwhile. The view can easily be taken: "What have I got to lose". This has two significant costs to the overall economy. Obviously there is a colossal waste of taxpayers' money but also, the time spent before finally deciding to drop out or completing an irrelevant or unsuitable course is time that could be spent doing valuable, productive and rewarding (in both senses) work.
More on Relative Poverty: Dinesh D'Souza, in a great article, lists ten reasons why he is an "Anti-Anti-American" including at number one...

"America provides an amazingly good life for the ordinary guy. Rich people live well everywhere. But what distinguishes America is that it provides an impressively high standard of living for the "common man." We now live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a nonfat latte, where maids drive nice cars and where plumbers take their families on vacation to Europe....Indeed, newcomers to the United States are struck by the amenities enjoyed by "poor" people. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s when CBS television broadcast a documentary, "People Like Us," intended to show the miseries of the poor during an ongoing recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with a view to embarrassing the Reagan administration. But by the testimony of former Soviet leaders, it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans have TV sets, microwave ovens and cars."

You mean nobody gives a damn about the widening gap between rich and poor? Say it ain't so?

(via Tim Blair)
Let me explain my Gary Glitter analogy a little further. I will try to do this without using the words likely to draw Internet Commentator into the search results of putative Glitters. Eoin had a similar problem before, (wed 25 June post) although I don't know what he was thinking of using those two words together!

Discussion of this topic in the context of, let's euphemistically say, "adult material" puts the focus on how the material affects the user and as I said, places it on a spectrum as simply "a more extreme version" of consensually created "material". This takes the focus away from the victims involved and dilutes the discussion. This stuff is wrong because children are abused to create it. This is a much more important fact than it is wrong because it "corrupts", let's say, Gary Glitter. This why it should be considered evidence of crime rather than just as obscene material.

The comparison with the priviliged elite is that if a kleptocracy is evident in a particular country the focus should be on how their wealth was achieved and not the fact of that wealth. If it was obtained through cronyism and corruption that is the more pertinent fact than the simple observation of wealth. Narrowing the focus on the "theft" will reduce the risk of "non-kleptocrats" from getting drawn into the punitive measures.
More from Dick on Inequality/Venezuela/Ireland/EU/Education. I think he's probably right that we are running out of road on our little discussion so I'll try to restrict my comment to clarification of what I meant rather than try to persuade Dick over to moderate Libertarianism

Let me agree with Dick that Venezuela is in a parlous state and let me add that I wasn't necessarily prescribing a particular solution to that problem. I was observing that the type of solution Chavez has in mind, whatever his intentions or "mandate" is, is more likely to make things worse rather than better.

I think we can agree to disagree about minimum government and employment legislation. Dick considers that minimum wages and "equality legislation" help people at the bottom end. My view would be that, while these initiatives might help some people who are already in jobs, their ultimate effect is to discourage job creation so they aren't so great if you are unemployed.

Dick mentions my crack about expensive trainers but this is an actual example I've read cited as a "problem" with "relative poverty". My point is that many of the examples used to demonstrate the iniquities of the "wealth gap" are pretty specious and one way or another the pertinent ones all come back to absolute rather than relative poverty.

He also objects that I highlighted the CES scheme to demonstrate the inefficacy of these initiatives and contrasts it with the successful CERT scheme for the tourist industry. I don't really want to get into the nitty-gritty of particular schemes - while this last one has been relatively successful it is an undeniable fact that the Irish Tourism "product" is pretty crap and overpriced - my main point stands. That is that a big bunch of structural funds were thrown at us and the manner in which we obtained them encouraged the kind of ill-thought-out slush-fund projects we ended up with. I am not claiming that every last deutschmark was wasted, it would be bizarre if nothing good came out of the structural funds, but just throwing money at a problem is a pretty poor way of tackling it and it is far too simplistic to think that EU structural funds "bought" Irish prosperity.

Dick's last point about free education makes me wish I hadn't elided the distinction earlier between policies aimed to address income inequality and EU structural funds. There is, of course, a huge difference between a redistributive tax regime and the EU's project to help the less developed countries. I was too eager to rail against the commonly held fallacy about the structural funds' contribution to our prosperity that I let that pass. Now it has come back to bite me as Dick hauls in Ireland's "free" education system to bolster his argument about inequality initiatives. I actually posted a little about this before. I can actually see the benefit to widespread primary and secondary education in reducing the general level of ignorance. However, given the many crackpot theories expressed on the campuses I would hold that widespread third level education, particularly for those who are motivated less by education than the desire to put off starting work, contributes to increasing that level of ignorance right back up again!
Let them eat pie!

Dick responds to my inequality post below and makes some good points but I wanted to comment on a few things he says..

"To use Frank's 'big pie' analogy (which I'll come to later), Venezuela has a great big pie, which is controlled by a minority who, at present, have little incentive to share it and grow it (yes, pies can be grown). It’s a problem which exists to various degrees in many countries aside from Venezuela. This is the net result of decades of poor government and corruption, which allows a state's natural resources to be controlled by a small elite, who form the backbone of support for regimes. When you try to rectify this situation, you're going to have a backlash."

Ok, there's actually a lot with which I agree here, I would still maintain that the focus on inequality is obscuring the real problem which is "kleptocracy", i.e. a (previous) ruling elite and their cronies grab all the goodies for themselves. Now, it is perhaps pedantic of me to harp on about the inequality but my point is that by keeping the focus on "closing the gap between rich and poor" you run the risk of lumping in "deserving" wealth creators with the cronies (assuming there is a distinction) but maybe more worryingly you can damage the fundamentals of a successful economy: Private property and a tax regime which encourages growth. Now, I've commented before about the tax regime but it is just as important, if not more so, that the concept of private property be respected. If you start with the premise that Venezuela's natural resources "belong to the people" you are implicitly negating the idea of private property. It may be that some of those "resources" were stolen or "improperly acquired" in which case the "theft" should be the focus, and not the "ownership". To use a rather stretched analogy my feeling is that the way to deal with, let us say (to avoid undesired internet searches) the type of material that Gary Glitter was jailed for possessing, is as evidence of a crime rather than as, let us say, "adult entertainment". When you place it in the spectrum of "adult entertainment" you validate the notion that it is the same sort of thing, only "more extreme" when in fact it is a completely different thing relying not on acts between consenting adults but child abuse. Another stretched analogy is with "conflict resolution", it is often said that you can have Peace or Justice but not both. The selective inquiry culture which is developing in the North is inimical to stability. If the "improper acquisition" is not recent it may do more harm "rectifying" it than accepting it, a statute of limitations must apply. Unpalatable as it may be to contemplate, sometimes the interests of the elite, even the "undeserving", and the country as a whole can coincide. A more "equitable", though ruined, Venezuela would be a pyrrhic victory indeed.

"To put it simply, the role of governments I believe is to first make sure the pie grows and second makes sure that everyone gets a chance to get a piece. Now, giving people an equal slice of the pie doesn't work (see Soviet Union), but they at least have to get a decent amount. If you have a whole lot of people with no pie, well you get revolutions and other nasty things like that, where people will just take the pie (and ruin it in the process)."

[Image springs into my mind, unbidden, of Jason Biggs in "American Pie" performing an unnatural act to said dessert!] Ok, here's where Dick and I differ (only here? - ed) in that I would wish for a much smaller government not tasked to do either of these things. People, if you let them, will make that "pie" as big as you like. An economy unburdened by layers of bureaucracy and government interference will tend to provide opportunities for people to get plenty of pie. Dick conjures up this seductive feudalist narrative of the poor "sans-tartes" outside the palace while the rich inside gorge themselves on truffled foie gras....pie. The thing is, even this is an argument against the concept of relative poverty and an argument for concentrating on absolute poverty.

"As I mentioned before, I don't subscribe to the 'big static pie theory'. However, I do subscribe somewhat to the argument that relative poverty is a problem. Of course, the issue is the degree of relative poverty. The gap's huge in some countries while in others, such as our own, it's smaller. That's not to say that we should ignore it here."

I'm not clear whether Dick sees relative poverty as a moral problem (it's unfair) or a practical problem (envy breeds resentment equals social disorder) but to me it is one of those seductive fantasies which appeals to the imagination but is ultimately a chimera. Better to examine the varying consequences of the "gap between rich and poor" and decide each on its own merits. Is it a problem that you can't afford to match the expensive trainers worn by your child's classmates? maybe, for you. Is it a problem the government should be worrying about? No.

"I think Frank underplays the role EU membership has had upon economic climate."

Well, for starters I'd just like to clarify that I was referring to the so-called "structural funds" and not EU membership per se. I am no euro-phobe though I dislike the drift of power and sovereignty towards Brussels. The EU as a trading bloc and a common market has been great.

For a start, rightly or wrongly, CAP has propped up the agricultural sector in this country for years. Now, while I'd tend to agree with him that it's madness , the result is that the government hasn't had to deal with the fall out from a collapsing agricultural sector (which may have happened without CAP).

Ok, now I'm going to have to disagree again. What CAP has propped up is the "pattern" of farm holdings, not the agricultural sector as a whole. These subsidies have hampered irish agriculture by insulating it from the market. Non-viable farms that should have gone out of business long ago have limped along courtesy of these handouts.

"With regard to other EU funds, Frank alleges that an alarming large amount of money has had little or no effect. For example, since Ireland joined the EU, the ESF (European Social Fund) has invested over €5 billion in education, training and employment creation in Ireland."

Now, Dick is making my point for me: This €5 billion was not spent getting our primary and secondary schools in basic order, where it might have done some good, but on various worthless "schemes" including, I'll wager, the disastrous Community Employment Scheme which was nothing but a device to mask unemployment figures.

"Between, 1994 and 1999 alone approximately IR£4.35 billion was spent from EU structural funds . While some of this money did go on wishy-washy projects, a lot of it was spent on developing infrastructure, transport and on education initiatives."

We have a lot of expensive new roads and they are great, the rest of our transport infrastructure is pretty lamentable. But though the money is welcome, if German taxpayers are foolish enough to throw money at us we shouldn't be so foolish as to refuse it, it is not sufficient.

"While our low corporate tax rate did have much to do with the boom, the point is that the conditions had to be in place for this investment to happen. What the EU did was help bring the country up to speed and take advantage of investment opportunities. If we didn't have those shiny new roads and industrial parks and lacked the skilled workers to use them, I'm not sure if any rate of corporate tax would have been enough to create a boom."

I'm not going to maintain that low corporation tax in itself was enough but it was the most significant factor. After that would be our, then, relatively low wages, the fact that we are anglophone and have a reasonable education system. Ireland has been fortunate to have been insulated, up until now, from the disastrous teaching methods fashionable in our neighbour over the last few decades and this, in my view, has had a greater bearing on the quality of our education system than any money spent. In fact the money doesn't tend to get spent in the right places and many of our schools still have pretty lousy, yet expensive to maintain, school buildings.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Eoghan Harris name-checks InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds and reveals that he is a blog reader. Hmm, I wonder if he has noticed any Irish Blogs?

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Tom Utley cheers Barnet Council's decision to remove 1000 speed bumps (also known, somewhat awkwardly as "sleeping policemen") and sees this as a blow for freedom.

"Although humps probably prevent a few serious accidents, they also cause a great many minor ones. I am thinking particularly of those that are grouped in twos and threes, which encourage drivers to swerve into the middle of the road to avoid their worst effects. Humps are absolute hell.

All this, of course, helps to explain the strong attraction that they hold for a certain kind of mean-spirited local politician. For just as the private car is the embodiment of the concept of freedom, in metal and rubber, so the speed bump represents in tarmac the essence of regulation, nannying and political interference.

The sort of politician I have in mind stands for election swearing that he wants to make the world a better place. He will say that he is desperately concerned about the environment, and anxious above all to keep the public safe. But actually, he is in it only to boss us all around and to make our lives insufferable."

Really interesting post (in two parts) by C. Bloggerfeller on the Berbers and their interaction with Arabs.
Garret Fitzgerald is scathing about Dublin's disastrous Luas tram project.

"Why has this whole project turned into such an unmitigated disaster?

First, at no stage was there any economic input into the project, which seems to have been seen solely as an engineering undertaking. Second, there was a clear reluctance at Civil Service level in the mid-1990s to admit that the passage of time had made the initial plans quite inappropriate; a bureaucratic reluctance to admit a mistake.

And, third, at Government level there was a lack of decisiveness, a reluctance by all the previous ministers involved to take their responsibilities by rejecting inadequate advice given to them by civil servants unwilling to admit mistakes."

I have to say this is a subject which moves me to anger. It was obvious to anyone with half a brain that this was a disastrously misguided project before any money was spent and yet the project has wasted away billions of euros in construction costs and disruption to existing businesses and its only function will be to make Dublin's traffic even less bearable than it was before. Fitzgerald catalogues the many errors. What is frustrating is that all of these were predictable and yet Luas cheerleaders such as Fitzgerald's Irish Times colleague Frank McDonald, persisted with a campaign for these Buses with steel tyres, demonising anyone who dared object.

Here's McDonald in 1997 promoting Luas and arguing against the underground option, revealing that his real motivation for this is an impossibly quixotic desire to rid Dublin of cars.

"However, I would maintain that his [Fitzgerald's] campaign to put Luas underground in the city centre has - no doubt unintentionally on his part - provided much grist to the mill for those who are determined to preserve road space in the city for private cars...

..But even without road pricing, we need to reduce, rather than increase, the space available for cars. Take Amsterdam, for example. True, it has a metro, but the majority of public transport trips in the city are made by tram.

And Damrak, one of its main streets, consists of two wide footpaths, flanked by two wide cycleways, with a pair of tramlines in the middle and one lane for cars.

This is the kind of conscious choice about the allocation of space on urban streets which is made by a country - the Netherlands - which has a population of 15 million and no less than six mil- lion cars. The Dutch have chosen not to allow their cars to dominate their cities and the civilising impact is visible to all.

Mr Cathal MacCoille, the RTE journalist, wrote to me about the strong impression his first visit to Amsterdam made on him. Suddenly, he had "a sense of knowing vividly what Frank McDonald has been on about all these years" as he noticed the "body language and facial expressions of people moving about in a city designed to cater for them instead of the demon car".

That, surely, is the way to go."

Also from 1997, McDonald endorses an Environmental Impact Assessment which "rebutted" the sensible option of an underground system

"Study projects Luas underground option
The environmental impact statement on the Luas is the most detailed rebuttal yet of the underground option, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Correspondent
By FRANK MCDONALD, Environment Correspondent

PUTTING Luas underground in the centre of Dublin could cost up to twice as much as the on street proposal favoured by CIE and delay the project for two years which means that it would fail to meet the deadline to qualify for EU funding....

...."The construction timetable for an underground would be substantially longer than that for an onstreet LRT (light rail transit) system," it [EIS] says. Each of the eight underground stations proposed by the promoters of this option would take about 18 months to build.

"Under these circumstances, the overall schedule for the project would be approximately two years longer than the onstreet option," the EIS says. This would mean a completion date of 2003 - long after the current tranche of EU Structural Funds runs out.

Even a short length of tunnel, between Westmoreland Street and St Stephen's Green, would add an additional £27 million to the cost of the project. Putting the entire city centre stretch of the Luas underground within the canal ring would cost an extra £308 million."

Here's McDonald in 2003

"Expensive, late and unlinked: Luas is off track.

In six years the cost of Luas has risen from €288 million to €675 million, but its value as a transport system has fallen, argues Frank McDonald, Environment Editor."

Fancy that.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Nelson Ascher draws our attention to the unique feature of Radical Islam's war against "Western democracy": that this is the first time in History that war has been declared by a rival which is inferior in every way.

"The insight I’ve just had and which I hope to develop in some other occasion is that the Islamic or Islamicist revolt or revolution is, as far as I can tell, the only one where a culture or civilization has in such a scale openly challenged a rival that is its superior in each and every sense I can think of. Virtually their only advantage over us is that they prize life, both ours and their own, much less (or none at all) than we do and that they’re proud of this. That’s the only homemade and home developed weapon they can count on: all the others they have to buy or steal from us. (And, by the way, maybe this will prove the key to our eventual victory)."

The caricature of right-wingers is that they are brash opinionated and selfish in contrast to those thoughtful, considerate left-wingers. How then to explain Maureen Dowd's intemperate, not to mention racist, castigation of Clarence Thomas, incredibly, for being insufficiently grateful for Affirmative Action - MoDo also manages to fit in a bitchy attack on Ann Coulter - or Brad DeLong on the same subject, demanding that any american who wants to be considered a man should support Affirmative Action.

Andrew Sullivan responds to DeLong's arrogance, particularly the economist's patronising, borderline xenophobic, stance in attributing british-born Sullivan's position against AA to "ignorance". William Sjostrom cleverly points out to DeLong that, contrary to the "every american" rhetoric, the costs of AA programs are borne by a small minority of individuals and not society as a whole.
I wanted to write a bit more on why its important to resist the siren call of "Equality". It's not that I have a particular wish for ever greater inequality or that I am motivated to defend entrenched interests. Neither is it the case my objections arise out of a pedantic desire to correct misguided, but ultimately harmless campaigns. Rather that these crusades against inequality have a powerful, instinctive appeal. Most people understand the concept of "no pain, no gain", equally most people would prefer that their gain was achieved at someone else's pain and what better candidate for "pain" than "fat cats" or the "undeserving" rich.

The problem is that there are huge costs to "Inequality" initiatives and it is not only the case that they detract from paying attention to policies with more beneficial effects but prizing equality above everything else can have significant detrimental effects. I wrote before about how difficult it can be for governments to correctly assess the national interest, especially if seduced by national fantasies. Eliminating inequality is a kind of fantasy in that it is seductive, easy to understand yet likely, if ever achieved, to deliver no real benefit.

I am reminded of Ireland's approach to CAP reform. It is taken as given by politicians, media and, of course, farmers' unions that Ireland's pattern of small-holdings should continue at all costs. On the Last Word radio show yesterday evening I heard a farmers' union spokesman raise what he considered to be the appalling spectre of an Ireland of ranches. That is, not only does he think the prospect of our agriculture sector being comprised of large profitable farms is undesirable but he apparently believes that this goes without saying. If you start by saying that small farms = good, big farms = bad you are going to end up with a dog's breakfast of a policy trying to reconcile that with the fact that bigger farms produce the type of produce people want at the price they want to pay for it.

Sometime, a good Anglo-Saxon expletive can be the most eloquent distillation of an idea. Dick links to the Irish Times' obit of Denis Thatcher (The First Lady Gentleman?) with a quote and, although I'm appalled at his apparent enthusiasm for racial segregation, I can't help but be charmed by his summation of the vast nations of Canada and China succinctly as "Full of f**k-all". Likewise Tania, sadly destined to be evicted from the Big Brother house tonight, on discovering that she might be unpopular outside the house: "I don't give a f**king flying f**k!"

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Raul, ¿Diablo Rojo?

Be still my beating heart, surely this cannot be true?
In the light of the imprisonment of Jean Bove, The Dissident Frogman is depressed at the gullibility of his passive supporters....

"The terrorist Bové will soon become - at least in the minds of the anti-AmericanGMO ignoramuses - an oppressed trade unionist, a state prisoner unfairly convicted for his "non-violent union militantness", despite the actual permanent violence - physical and verbal - and the total disrespect for other people's rights and property that characterize his whole "career" and for which he was repeatedly found guilty - although frequently given a dispensation of punishment."

...and fears that this odious thug - I am surprised to learn that he trained in a Libyan "Direct Action" camp in 1976 - will receive a Presidential Pardon!

Just some thoughts on Carlos Queiroz following David Beckham from Old Trafford to the Bernabeu:

One of the reasons why Beckham fell from favour at United was that Alex Ferguson didn't feel the midfielder could be accommodated in the new 4-2-3-1 formation he wished to adopt. This new system differs from the traditional 4-4-2 in that midfield is composed of two central players capable of winning, holding and distributing the ball, three attacking midfielders capable of scoring goals, beating opponents and setting up goals and one lone striker. In the old formation, with two strikers, there is less of an onus on the wide midfielders to be creative. The old system is tailor-made for a player like Beckham whose inch-perfect crosses are likely to be met by one or other of the strikers. In the new system he is insufficiently creative to play as one of the three attacking midfielders, he can't dribble and rarely scores from open play. That leaves Beckham's favoured position, in the centre and again his skills are wanting. His tendency to go for the "hollywood ball", long eye-catching passes, mitigates against an effective holding role.

The irony is that the one person who has probably done the most to convince Ferguson to adopt the new system, sidelining Beckham is the England captain's new Boss, Queiroz. Indeed Beckham's likely replacement, Ronaldinho was identified by Ferguson's portuguese assistant as crucial to the new formation. Given that one of the most successful proponents of 4-2-3-1 is Real Madrid it will be interesting to see how Queiroz will accommodate Beckham, the conundrum he thought he had solved.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

I think that Irish Politics is in a state of flux at the moment. I mentioned before about the fact that many left-ish pundits and the Labour party have been hoping for a realignment of the political parties along a left-right divide. This seems hopelessly optimistic to me, it is based on the following sequence of events

1) Fine Gael implodes. Older supporters stay in a small rump. Younger supporters drift to other parties as follows, right-liberal to PDs, christian democrat to Fianna Fail, social democrat to Labour.

2) Right wing government is inevitable, probably FF majority or like present, FF-PD coalition, this time opposition is more clearly "Left wing".

3) Equilibrium requires a waning support for governing parties and burgeoning support for opposition sweeps Labour into power as head of left coalition

This is the fantasy that sustains the aging complacent Labour party. Several of the assumptions are just plain wrong. For starters, the public seems to be just as bored by Labour as they are by FG. Secondly FF is quite happy to be all things to all people and will not go along with being painted as the "right wing" party. Thirdly there's no reason to believe that opposition to a FF majority or FF led government will only be "from the left". Lastly there is precious little the current "left" parties agree on and they are competing with each other for votes, so a coherent opposition or "government in waiting" is a remote prospect.

For people unfamiliar with Irish politics, the system we have here is proportional representation. This means that for every constituency there are usually about 4 or 5 TDs. You vote for your first preference and then in turn second third etc. This is democratic in the sense that it gives a more accurate representation in the Dail of people's actual votes. The problem is that there is really no way of voting for the government you want, unless you want a FF overall majority. Another problem is that it gives greater voice to all sorts of crackpots like the socialist party and assorted single issue independents. Governments are usually coalitions which means that one party with a small representation can dictate a lot of government policy. For the moment that party has been the PDs whose policies are generally sane.

The thing is, there is not much ideological coherence among the political parties. I was thinking about this and it seems to me that there are only two parties who have a clear message that is understood, not only by voters but also by party members . One is the PDs - low tax, deregulation, socially liberal ("it's the economy, stupid"). and the other is Sinn Fein - a United Ireland ("it's a United Ireland, stupid"). None of the other main parties seem to know what they stand for.

Labour doesn't know if it is "New" or "Old" Labour, and wants to keep it's (New Labour) mainly middle class, complacent, declining base and add some new blood. It's not sure whether this new blood is "Old Labour" or "Anti-Globalisation"

Fine Gael really doesn't know what it is, it's original identity was "We are not Fianna Fail", somehow that just doesn't cut it any more. It has support from conservative and social democratic middle class who disdain FF, it also has support from Farmers, depending on government subsidies. I also reckon that it has support in areas simply because there is no PD candidate available. The thing is, FF vs FG used to be a big issue in Ireland going back to the civil war, families belonged to one tribe or the other, there is a residue of this in rural areas but it just isn't relevant any more.

I would predict that the party who will suffer the most from ideological incoherence is the Green party. They attract supporters who don't really know all that much about what they stand for. They have a significant middle class backing, people who care for the environment and are into organic produce. Their support is based on a vague notion that the Greens "care for the environment" I would wager that the average middle class green voter has no idea about the crackpot schemes put forward by the Greens. They also attract the nihilistic "Anti-Globalists" who will probably never be satisfied. I think that these gaps between the image and reality of the Greens will become more apparent, the more popular they become, or if, God forbid, they ever get into government.

The only party that benefits from ideological incoherence is Fianna Fail. They position themselves as party of the nation, all things to all people. They are really the only party who can get away with this. Their big tent encloses tax-cutting Charlie McCreevy and the bureaucrats' friend, Noel, more regulations, Dempsey.

I don't know how things will develop, but a lot depends on whether the second and third largest parties, FG and Labour, will continue their decline, or whether they can rebuild and put the smaller parties out of business. One possible way for FG would to have a long term aim of absorbing or merging with the PDs. As for Labour, they will have to realise that they are more threatened by SF, the Greens and the single issue independents. If they want to survive they will have to abandon their fantasy of being leaders of a left wing "government in waiting".
Dick comments on my post below about "Inequality". I wanted to respond to a few of his points.

"First of all, absolute poverty is a problem in Venezuela. And in a country which is tremendously rich in natural resources, but where relatively few benefit from it, then relative poverty is also a problem."

Dick's point displays flawed logic. This is equivalent to saying Venezualeans tend to be absolutely poor as well as relatively poor therefore relative poverty is a problem, this rather begs the question. That absolute poverty coincides with relative poverty doesn't negate the fact that it is the absolute poverty which matters.

To back up my assertion that "equality" initiatives can have a negative effect I noted (from the Telegraph) the contrast between the share of the tax burden of the top 1% in the UK from 11% in 1979, top tax rate to 22% today with a 40% top tax rate. Dick comments:

"Secondly, the statistics from the Telegraph don't show that policies to combat inequality have a deleterious effect. They create the impression that now Britain's wealthy segment are shouldering an even bigger proportion of the tax burden than before. In fact, they are now obliged to pay less than half the amount of tax than they were before. All the statistics show is that the top 1% is now even wealthier than it was in 1979."

This precisely the back-to-front thinking that I decry. Dick displays what my friend Adam calls the "Big Static Pie" fallacy. This fallacy, which is shared by many on the left, states that a given economy contains a fixed amount of "resources" and (I infer) this pie should be shared "equitably". In fact tax rates can have a major bearing on wealth creation. If you apply a punitive tax rate, this doesn't ensure a "more equitable share" it simply ensures that wealth which could have been earned, and presumably taxed, doesn't get created, or at least doesn't get created within that high-tax economy. The top 1%, in paying "less than half" are actually contributing more in absolute terms. This shows that, in cutting the rate, an initiative which increases "inequality" can have beneficial effects in absolute terms.

Dick bridles at my suggestion that the "socialist experiment" had failed.

"Finally, regarding his point about the 'whole socialist experiment', I feel he may be speaking too quickly. Like it or not, this country has been benefited from probably the most successful experiment in combating inequality. Despite all of our problems, Ireland is far better off than it was thirty years ago. One of the chief driving forces behind this was our receipt of EU funds, an initiative designed to level the playing field between member states. I'm sure the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Greeks may have something to say about it too. "

This is a commonly held view but no less fallacious for that. It is true that Ireland has "benefited" from EU structural funds which have in some cases helped our infrastructural development, roads etc. They have also contributed, alongside "Cross-Border" initiatives, to a slush-fund culture frittering away American and German taxpayers' money on a plethora of worthless projects. EU funds, however, have absolutely nothing to do with Ireland's relative economic success (Neither, indeed, has the myth of "social partnership"). Our low rate of corporation tax has had a far greater influence than any "experiment in combating inequality"

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

I really wanted to comment on Fintan O'Toole's typically confused and soggy piece on the organisation of the Special Olympics in today's Irish Times but with "Tintin" it really is hard to know where to start. There are usually so many flawed premises and dubious conclusions that resignation is the most common response. Luckily, Backseat Driver Jon Ihle has tackled it instead. As Jon shows, O'Toole is (characteristically) wrong in using the example of these games to back his (perpetual) argument for ever more government interference and regulation. On the contrary, the success of the special Olympics, organised independent of the government, proves the case for less government interference.
It is almost taken as a given from those "on the Left" that they "own" certain musical genres. They are happy to concede to the Right forms of music such as Country Music (an unhappy state of affairs for the Dixie Chicks), Power Ballads and Adult Orientated Rock. What is often referred to as "Black" music or, lately and even less elegantly or accurately, MOBO (Music of Black Origin) is assumed to be enjoyed solely by those who favour egalitarian, collectivist conformism. It is true that on the "intellectual" and experimental fringes of Jazz, Funk and Soul that overt political statements are overwhelmingly left wing, from Gil Scott Heron's agit-prop to the pacifism of Lonnie Liston Smith. The Black Power movement couldn't but impact on an African-American cultural forms and a lot of great music came out of this era, despite the dodgy politics. However the assumption of a general left-wing political outlook within "Black" music, and especially among its fans, analogous to the support assumed by the Democrat party from african-america is flawed.

I was reminded of this today as I listened to one of my favourite tunes: Stay Free by Ashford and Simpson. It is a stirring paen to freedom and individualism and it is impossible to hear it and not be moved. One other decidedly non-left wing tune is the strike-breaking plea for self-reliant community action in the face of public sector workers' action: Clean up the Ghetto by the Philadelphia Allstars but there are plenty more...
Look out for a fit of the vapours from the Old Lady of D'Olier Street: Mark Steyn is due to contribute to the Irish Times! I can't wait to read the letters, if they thought Kevin Myers was bad...
Flicking through the Guardian this morning I came across a review by one David Peshek of former Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy frontman Michael Franti perfoming live. The following lines really jumped out at me..

"Franti may be preaching to the converted, but he gets the audience dancing, albeit in that endearingly arrhythmic way that white people dance to funk. (Franti's audience in the UK has always been predominantly white and middle class.) "

Let's try and rephrase that

"Franti may be preaching to the converted, but he gets the audience dancing, albeit in that effortlessly fluid way that black people dance to funk. (Franti's audience in the UK has always been predominantly black and middle class.) "

If the former phrase doesn't jar with you the way the latter phrase does, it should. Such a blanket generalisation, apart from being false, is patronising to both black and white. One wonders about Peshek's suitability as a music critic if his only experience is of people of all races conforming rigidly to this outdated stereotype. Indeed, if he had watched Big Brother's contestants dancing last night he would have seen contradictory evidence. Those who were "arrhythmic" included (caucasian) Steph and Scott and (african) Gae while (mixed race) Ray and (caucasian) Tania demonstrated their "natural rhythm".

Monday, June 23, 2003

C. Bloggerfeller, rather brilliantly, on Ezra Pound:

" Pound was at least consistent. His economic essays constantly decried usury and one thing you can say about The Cantos is that the time and effort you invest in reading and trying to understand them will most certainly not be paid back with interest."
My father died of cancer in January 2002. Today would have been his 64th birthday. For some strange reason, I find it easy to talk about but it is still upsetting to write about his death. Perhaps it is because writing is inherently reflective while conversation can make it easy to avoid contemplation. In fact, while he was ill, Dad made it easy to avoid contemplating his death. He didn't want to be seen as "a sick person" and tried to enjoy life while he could. He was stubbornly optimistic and clung to the most benevolent interpretation of each assessment of his condition. The glass may have been three-quarters empty but, hey, it was a quarter full. Living without a spectre of gloom certainly made it easy for him but it also made it easy for all of us. The late writer John Diamond, who chronicled his own experience with cancer with great wit, affected to rubbish the common characterisation of cancer-sufferers as "brave". He claimed that, on the contrary, he was the most cowardly person he knew. He is unfair to himself and my father. I don't know that I would be brave enough - far easier to wallow in the comfort of despair - to face mortality and maintain the will to live, and live well.

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Inspired by the discussion of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, but not intended as a continuation of that particular discussion, I wanted to write a bit about why I bristled at the line

"...was elected on a mandate to create more equitable society."

Regardless of the particular context of Venezuela, such a statement is a trap. On the face of it, it seems fair enough, after all who is in favour of an "inequitable" society? But this is a problem which bedevills political thought everywhere. The thread that connects Chavez, Lula and those in the "poverty advocacy industry" in rich Western Countries is the fallacy that what matters is not poverty but relative poverty.

What matters to those in desperate cirumstances is surely their own conditions and not the gap between the richest and the poorest. If you can barely get by how does it improve your lot if there are progressively fewer rich people living in your country? Poverty and Destitution are problems, Inequality is not. Now if it could be shown that beggaring rich people inevitably enriches poor people there might be something to say for a crusade against Inequality. In fact, the whole socialist experiment demonstrated conclusively that this is not the case, yet bien pensant opinion takes this as a given, pace Peter Hain's recent comments. Policies which aim to address "inequality" can have a deleterious effect in absolute terms. Ian Cowie, in today's Telegraph notes that in 1979, Britain's top 1% of earners paid 11% of all income tax, this when the top tax-rate was an incredible 83%. Today, with a top tax-rate of 40%, the highest earning 1% pay a whopping 22% of all income tax.

Unpalatable as it may be to egalitarians, economies sufficiently vibrant to provide employment and opportunity for the poorest tend to have more inequality not less. It seems more admirable to me that an aspiring political leader resist the easy shot at "inequity" and instead concentrate on developing the economic conditions for prosperity.
Great post over at Blog Irish on the Euro, finding that Milton Friedman and "Euro"-sceptic Swedish Leftist Ulla Hoffman are in agreement. Their wisdom in this matter stands in striking contrast to the soggy consensus among Ireland's media and political elite.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Just following on from the Backseat Drivers/Iraq/Chomsky/Venezuela discussion: I wanted to expand on the notion of "the sufficiency of democracy". It is oft repeated that "No two democracies ever went to war". Now, I don't know whether a) this is completely true, b) there are exceptions which prove it as a rule or c) it's a load of cobblers but there is in it, as the cliche holds, a kernel of truth.

I posted before about how the sign of maturity in a political elite of any country was the ability to correctly identify the national interest and crucially, how to distinguish "actual" national interests from "fantasy" national interests. It seems to me that democracies tend to have greater success in this. Autocracies run by committee such as the Soviet Union or China are less successful and regimes directed according to the whims of a dictator are the least successful. Countries whose governments resist the lure of traditional national fantasies are least likely to initiate war against a similarly non-belligerent country. It is difficult to imagine a democratic Argentina invading the Falklands.

All this is by way of saying that should Iraq become a "normal" but anti-american democracy there is no reason to suppose that it will be a threat. The comparison with France - no matter what the French think of Bush and the US, the thought of a Franco-US war is absurd - was intended to demonstrate that. I should also note that I don't believe that Iraq will become anti-american. I would be surprised if gratitude towards those who deposed a hated dictator was confined to a minority.

As for Venezuela, it is a little disingenuous of Dick to claim that

"Chavez was elected on a mandate to create more equitable society. Since then, the wealthier sections of society of have done all they can to paralyse the country"

My comparison with Hitler (perhaps Mugabe might have been a better example) was intended to demonstrate that a good definition of a dictator is not whether he was elected but whether it is possible to get rid of him. It is patently obvious in the case of Chavez that he has lost the confidence of the majority of Venezuelans and not just the elite. It is too simplistic to simply view this using the traditional marxist analysis and conclude that "privilege" is opposing "equality". His behaviour in dealing with striking workers would shame the most hardened union-basher and his cronyism and determination to hang onto power even if it destroys his country speaks eloquently to his real intentions.

UPDATE: Dick has posted a little more on Venezuela, drily noting the source for his "marxist analysis" as that revolutionary organ The Economist! Chavez seems to me to be a Mugabe in waiting, Dick is more optimistic. Either way what is disingenuous is to paint this swaggering General as a pure political figure, a kind of Lula to the North - a man of the people bravely facing the forces of conservatism and privilege, (not to mention the sinister machinations of US Foreign Policy). That said, I want to be clear that none of this is an argument in favour of his removal from power by coup. 20/6/03 11:00PM
I've had to disable comments as they were preventing the page from loading, I'll reinstate later when Squawkbox is back online

Ok, commenting is back now.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

More on Backseat Drivers, Chomsky and Iraq: Jon and Dick have both responded to my post earlier. I should correct my earlier error, It was Dick and not Jon who initiated the intrablog discussion.

In reverse order, I'd like to respond to Jon's post first because there's a subtle distinction I'd like to point out.


"Chomsky's to insist that the perfect outcome is always achievable and then to attack outcomes that are merely good. In Iraq the coalition has improved a miserable situation. It should be said that even what has gone manageable and nowhere near as bad as the worst outcomes.... But Chomsky doesn't see things on such a continuum: either Iraq turns out like Switzerland or its a facsimile of the Baathist dictatorship. Well, it's neither.
To grossly overgeneralize: this sort of half-a-loaf-is-the-same-as-no-bread positioning is endemic to leftist critique, unless we're talking about Cuba or Venezuala, in which case all the thuggery and misery is excused by the honest revolutionary intentions of the strongmen. "

I agree that this type of criticism is endemic to leftist critique, however it's not the precise point I wish to make about Chomsky which is this: He assumes that the Bush Administration is seeking an, all or bust, best-case-scenario for (Chomsky's caricature of) US self-interest. This is what clouds his judgement. The thought hasn't occurred to him (neither, apparently, has it to Dick) that they might be prepared to settle for a good deal less than a US puppet government.

Which brings me onto Dick:

"I'd be of the opinion that Frank is far too charitable towards the Bush administration. I don't think the US would tolerate an anti-American democracy in such a strategically vital country. It's track record over the past fifty years is testament to this. In the case of the current administration, what went on in Venezuela last year is proof enough"

Perhaps I'm guilty of being charitable towards all those crazy neocons in Bush's administration or maybe it's that don't subscribe to the hypothesis of American imperialism. I think the reference to the "past fifty years" is a bit weak. One might as well blame Margaret Thatcher or Jim Callaghan for the latest bit of New Labour control-freakery. One of the difficulties I had, pre-war, in maintaining a coherent discussion with anti-war types was their resort to what-about-ery as a kind of rhetorical get-out-of-jail card. No sooner had one point been nailed or a specious assertion debunked than the person would go off on a tangent requiring me to defend each single instance of American iniquity if I was to approve of a single American action.

More useful in divining the present administration's, as opposed to previous administrations', intentions is the fact that Bush is patently a reluctant globe-straddler. Prior to 9-11 he embodied a general American desire not to intervene around the world. The point about Venezuela is well made, it was regrettable that Bush appeared to welcome the coup. Mutterings about CIA involvement in that coup are predictable and unconvincing. However, there is a huge difference between endorsing the removal of a loathsome, albeit (like Hitler) elected, tyrant from control of a nearby country and making the kind of long-term expensive and unpopular commitment necessary to ensure that Iraq is "perfectly" pro-US. One needn't be as "charitable" as I am. Taking a cold, cynical look it is easy to see that the costs of such a strategy outweigh the benefits. A democratic Iraq, as anti-American as, say, France or Jordan is still favourable to American interests.
Slugger notes a disturbing case of censorship (not to mention Soviet-style air-brushing from history). Irish American newspaper The Irish Echo would apparently rather withdraw an accurate article from its archives, causing its author Eamonn Lynch to resign, than offend the notoriously tetchy Sinn Fein propagandists at "newspaper", The Anderstown News.
The Backseat Drivers are having a little intrablog dispute about Democracy in Post-war Iraq. This was precipitated by Jon initially endorsing Noam "Truism"* Chomsky's (pre-war) observation that any democratic post-war Iraqi government would be resisted by the USA as Iraq's Shi-ite majority would push for closer ties to Iran.

It seems to me that both Jon and Dick are far too charitable towards Chomsky. This assertion of his is based on so many flawed premises, not least of which is the common misconception about the concept of "good enough". It is not necessary to achieve the best possible outcome and it is certainly undesirable to risk all in pursuit of that outcome. I am more confident that the Bush Administration understand that, while it may be desirable that a post-war Iraq be a good friend to the USA, should Iraq evolve into a pro-Iran, anti-American but non-belligerent peaceful country, that will still be a success. It is only if you share Chomsky's "Root Causes" thesis - that terrorism wells up spontaneously from a people who are "oppressed" (or even slighted) by "US Foreign Policy" and is therefore an authentic expression of popular sentiment - that you would fail to distinguish between belligerency and simple animosity.

I am reminded of Mark Steyn's observation about the crucial distinction between terrorism and simple anti-semitism.

"For the foreseeable future, the majority of the [Palestinian] population will hate Jews and Americans. But there are degrees of Jew hatred: an independent Palestine in which no one wanted Jews at the fancy country clubs would be an immense improvement over one which hands out school prizes to aspiring suicide bombers. "

* One of the many things that irritate me to distraction about Chomsky is his regular invocation of "Truisms". That is, an assertion is supported only by his statement that it is a truism.

"Of course, it is a truism that the Moon is made of green cheese. Given that, one should not be surprised that our government bla bla bla..."

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Nelson Ascher credits the blogosphere for a greater American awareness of the depth and breadth of animosity towards America in Europe. I am generally wary of these type of claims. For instance, I found absurd the theory, as expressed at LGF, that Salam Pax was some sort of Ba'athist agent, directed to use his pithy urbane observations to undermine America's war buildup. This rather assumed that Saddam's Mukhabarat intelligence agency shared bloggers' collective sense of self-importance. What those of us who read and write blogs tend to overlook is that this is still a pretty marginal activity. A minority of people have access to a phone line, a minority of those use the internet, a minority of internet users are aware of blogs and it is only a small bunch of them who regularly read blogs.

That said, I think that Nelson is onto something here. There are some types of issues where a little tilt by the blogs can budge the mainstream news agenda. Howell Raines' stewardship of The New York Times was one and European anti-American sentiment is another.
West Ham 'keeper, David "Calamity" James to make the switch to American Football???
Amir Taheri makes a persuasive case that "regime change" in Iran will come from within, though it may take some time.

"The Khomeinist Establishment is no longer strong enough to crush its opponents, as it routinely did throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The armed and police forces have made it clear that they will not shoot anti-regime demonstrators and the regime’s hired thugs, known as the Followers of the Party of God (Ansar Hezbollah), are not numerous enough or confident enough to beat opponents and disperse demonstrations. Yet Iran is not on the verge of a second revolution or civil war, as some commentators suggest. The volcano, hissing menacingly, is unlikely soon to erupt. "
Ann Clwyd asks for some perspective from those who are obsessed with WMDs and confronts them with the unspeakable nature of Saddam's deposed regime.

"On the streets of Baghdad, WMD is not an issue. “Thanks to Bush and Blair,” they cry. I ask what would have happened if they had spoken to me like this in the past on the streets of Baghdad. One man slowly drew his hand, palm down, across his throat. "
"Vegetarian cooking with just a hint of roast beef"
Eoin mentions that Starbucks is coming to Ireland and doesn't know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. All I can say is: Be warned!!!

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Surely not?

Ok, you are an energy company called Powergen and you set up in Italy. You need a dedicated local website. is already taken. So: What do you call your website?

via Samizdata
Johnathan Pearce has an interesting post at Samizdata defending Libertarianism following on from Aidan Rankin's attempt in The Spectator to recast Libertarianism as a kind of loonie-rightism analogous to the loonie left which wreaked so much havoc within Britain's Labour party in the early 1980s. I am sympathetic to Pearce's defence and endorse most of what he says. I posted before on my objection to the characterisation of taxation as "armed robbery" but this latest post, and particularly the comments added, prompted me to think bit more about where I part my ways with the arch-libertarians.

First, what I would say is that I generally agree with most of the libertarian philosophy, as expressed at Samizdata, particularly by the likes of Perry de Havilland. The reason I would stop short of defining myself as a Libertarian is nothing to do with "splitting the difference". It's not that I think their ideas are "too extreme" but rather my aversion to any kind of utopianism. Now, the samizdatas might claim not to be utopians but their anti-statism implicitly anticipates a free civil society in the absence of any kind of government. Now, I am no statist enthusiast but this seems to me to be an impossibly utopian ideal. Far better, it seems to me, to propose that the state should tend towards this without ever reaching it. Smaller government by increments, not to mention by consent, is a lot more appealing to me than a revolutionary destruction of the state.

Incidentally: much is made, in the comments, (by someone who calls himself "Giggles") of the fact that Libertarianism is a decidedly marginal political philosophy. This is, of course, true when you look at conventional political parties but the crucial difference between this "marginal" political philosophy and other minority political views, and a reason for optimism, is that a significant proportion of people actually act according to libertarian philosophy, even if they don't espouse it as a political view. Being left alone to do your own thing is something with widespread appeal, likewise: being free to choose how to spend your own money.
BBC two has a financial makeover series called "Your money or your life". As reality TV goes, it's pretty good. The host is Alvin Hall, a slightly camp American, who helps people get out of financial difficulties, principally by forcing them to confront the disastrous habits driving them to financial ruin. Its appeal is twofold. Its a pretty smart, snappy way of picking up good financial house-keeping tips. However, its most significant appeal is the staple of reality TV: voyeurism. It is frequently breath-taking to see the lengths people will go to delude themselves about their finances.

Anyway, the "victim" in tonight's program is actually my own cousin. I happen to know of a forthcoming Deus ex machina which should solve any of her financial problems in one foul swoop, I wonder whether she will mention it to Alvin.
Hey, I'm on Blog-Irish's blogroll

Thanks for the link!

Monday, June 16, 2003

Great post by Jon Ihle at Backseat Drivers on Maximalism in disputes such as Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine. Nationalist rhetoric by those within negotiations or an agreement will always be trumped by those outside so the agreement/negotiations should never be "sold" as anything more than an honourable compromise.
Gavin is all too eager to be convinced by Communist "Historian" Eric Hobsbawm's claim of American Imperial Delusion. More astute is Nelson Ascher in noting that it is Hobsbawm who exhibits delusion.
Sustainability Schmustainability. A while back I wrote about how I flinch at the words "Sustainable Development". This morning, I receive, in the post, the RIAI's in-house journal: "The Irish Architect", special issue: "Sustainability" and "Construct Ireland (for a sustainable future)" a glossy (and unrequested) magazine dedicated to....sustainability. There is even a government funded website called Aaargh!

The lead article in The Irish Architect pays lip service to the notion that this has become a bit of a hollow mantra but then goes on to reassert all the famiar tropes and clothes the sustainability imperative with a pretty transparent appeal to the "fun" design aspects. Nowhere is there any sense that the basic premise behind this philosophy is, to use the word correctly for once, unsustainable. The whole inelegant edifice of Sustainability is predicated on three assumptions: a) Global warming is taking place and is harmful, b) Human "Development" is the cause of it, c) We can do something about it without crippling the world economy/starving a huge chunk of the world's population. None of these assumptions have even approached "best guess" status, never mind proof. Iain Murray, guesting over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a pretty smart post which demonstrates, using a decision matrix, that the "Prevention" philosophy towards Global warming is only marginally beneficial in a worst case scenario and is actually harmful in every other scenario.
Hey! I made it onto Atlantic Blog's blogroll.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Great piece by Eilis O'Hanlon on the charade of "reconciliation".

" Loyalists have learned the benefits to be had from murmuring the same touchy-feely expressions of "regret" for past (and present) violence which issued so smoothly for years from the lips of republicans. The regret is meaningless since, as mass murderer Michael Stone repeatedly stressed as he stalked the chat-show circuit flogging his obscene book recently, he still thinks he was right......The same goes for Brighton bomber Pat Magee, whose own excursions down this road led first to meetings with the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of his victims, and now to the founding with her of a "reconciliation charity", the Causeway Project. Magee makes all the right noises, but the bottom line remains unaltered: "I do regret killing [her] father but I would still stand by the operation."...The journey which we are told Magee has been on since those days has clearly not taken him as far as we were led to believe, since it comes straight back round to his own self-justification; yet still there is this popular willingness to embrace the whole myth of reconciliation. We have fetishised forgiveness into an absolute good rather than just one of a range of valid responses. Real forgiveness, anyway, is impossible without truth, and truth is the last thing likely to emerge from the lips of those who fed off violence in the North so long and who now shriek with outrage when their own pasts come underscrutiny."

She really hits the nail on the head, we are so used to this idea of reconciliation that we ignore what the supposedly reformed characters are actually saying. I remember a radio interview a few years ago: Danny Morrison on Pat Kenny's show. Kenny clung to Morrison's admission that the armed struggle was wrong so tightly as evidence of "reconciliation" that he ignored Morrison's explanation. What Morrison meant was the violent campaign waged by the IRA was wrong tactically, not wrong morally. Kenny chose to take him as meaning the latter when Morrison quite clearly meant the former.
Liam Collins reports in today's Independent that Brian Looney, formerly of The Cork Examiner is to take over at my local paper: The Dundalk Democrat. Of course he doesn't mention that the Democrat is a competitor to Independent group's The Argus. Both local papers could do with smartening up their spelling and grammar and both suffer from "inverted commas-itis". I'm not going to say which paper but I was once introduced to a man described as "Our caretaker and proof-reader". Looney apparently intends to live in Carlingford. Hey!, Maybe he could buy my house?.
The back pages are still occupied by the Beckham saga. John Carlin is wearing the England-Fan goggles in over-praising Beckham and denigrating Sir Alex Ferguson, maintaining that the only winner is likely to be Real Madrid (presumably for acquiring such a star). Far better is David Walsh's analysis:

"Whatever the effects of his celebrity, it is certain that while Beckham has evolved as a player, he has not progressed....Amid all the outrage at his leaving United, few allude to the fact that he is paid £90,000 a week at a club where he is no longer certain to be in the first XI. For the four most important games United played last season — away to Arsenal and Newcastle, at home to Liverpool and Real Madrid — he was not picked."
I am appalled but sadly not surprised to learn of the proposal by Dublin's four local authorities (soon to be emulated nationwide, I'm sure) to levy a massive €10,000 tax on new homes. This is to be accompanied by a crushing tax of €80 per square metre for commercial developments (to get an idea of the scale of this: you could build a basic industrial unit for about five times that amount) It is my experience that Local Authorities use planning levies as a major source of income, a function not intended by the Planning Act. It is a kind of stealth development tax, where cherished Grand Projéts by Mitterand-style County managers are funded mostly by those who have to apply for planning permission. Well, I guess it is "stealth" no longer. Maybe, now that this is in the open, a debate can take place because I fail to see the logic in applying a punitive local tax only to new-house-buyers and startup businesses. One good way to curb local authority expenditure is if the local tax burden is shared. If you single out those who are engaged in development not only are you discouraging enterprise and competition but, as the tax burden is borne disproportionately by entrants to local housing and commercial markets, there is no incentive for established local residents and businesses to rein in local government spending.
Blog Irish marvels at Richard Haass' decision to remain in Ireland as President Bush's envoy to the "peace process". {As this appears to be a hand-tooled blog there are no permalinks, just scroll to Sunday June 15}

'I thought of Yeats' s remark about Roger Casement: "As long as he only bothers about present conditions, it doesn't matter; but Heaven help him if he fills his head with Ireland's past wrongs." '
Cartoon Nihilism from my hometown. {Parental Advisory: Obscene Language}

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Pardon my crassness but I can't help seeing the shipwreck of the boat used for RTE's ill-fated Cabin Fever TV series as a metaphor for Irish "Reality" TV programming. It has been my view that those who saw such TV formats as a logical fit for Irish TV were making the same mistake as those who imported "Who wants to be a Millionaire?". A harbinger for the latter show's doom might have been its cynical and futile money-saving switch, during the Euro changeover from a top prize of IR£1M (€1.3M) to just €1M. It is clear that, without the huge audience, advertising revenue couldn't afford to pay for the big prizes so the questions are significantly more difficult than those asked in any other country's version. This, of course, is boring to watch and crucially lacks the it-could-be-you plausibility factor.

The problem with all these shows, and something conveniently ignored by the boosterists in Irish Media, is that they are playing to a very small audience, and more importantly, drawing contestants from a very small pool. More people live in the Greater Manchester area than in Ireland. Imagine a Big Brother house whose occcupants were drawn exclusively from that metropolitan area and you get an idea of the futility of Irish reality TV. You need a huge population to have the right number of freaks and exhibitionists for these shows and we just don't have that in Ireland.
Mark Steyn compares Iraq and Canada and it's the Friendly Giant to the North which ain't looking too good.

"You want a heritage catastrophe? At the very moment the Baghdad Museum was being non-sacked, workers at the University of Toronto threw out 280 boxes of colonial and Indian artefacts dating back to the 15th century. What's left of them is now deep in a landfill in Michigan. I'm a Torontonian, so that's my heritage in there. Any takers? I thought not. Harder to pin on Bush and Blair....Interestingly, Toronto is not only more culturally desecrated than Iraq; it's also more diseased. There have been 238 cases of Sars in Toronto, with 32 deaths. There have been 66 cases of cholera in Basra, with three deaths. Basra public health officials, assuming there are any, are doing a much better job of controlling cholera than Toronto public health officials are of controlling Sars."
Comedienne Jackie Clunes "In"s herself in today's Guardian.

"Straight male friends were even more upset when I told them that no, actually, I didn't on the whole prefer being a lesbian. They'd look so disappointed,...My lesbian fans, when I first started leaking bits and bobs about my new status in my act, would hiss, boo and walk out. At first this hurt me deeply. It came as a huge shock that even though I was still me in my head - a complex mixture of gobby, shy, cynical, optimistic, hard-bitten and innocent - to them I was a two-dimensional entertainer with a "100% Lesbian Or Your Money Back" guarantee. I thought they had liked me for what I could do on stage, not in bed. "
Squawkbox, the elegantly named provider of my comments, is down at the moment. I have disabled comments as it was preventing the page from loading. I will check by later to see if it's back. Until then, please feel free to email me if you have any thoughts and I will add to the posts as an update.

UPDATE: Ok, scratch that, comments is back. 14/6/03 1:49 PM
I linked to Carrie/Ma Bear's piece yesterday on gang violence in LA and the parallels with sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In the comments section to her post she despaired of a solution to either problem. I thought I'd expand a little because I don't think either situation is as intractable as she thinks. To summarise the problem: Violence has become commonplace, and everybody has got used to it as a normal backdrop to quotidian life in these communities.

The first thing I would say is that one should generally resist the imperative to "do something" until one is reasonably sure that the "something" won't make things worse. The next thing that's important to note is what not to do because it is often the case that the "solutions" to these problems perpetuate and exacerbate them. There are two traps waiting for anyone seeking a solution to chronic gang/sectarian violence.

The first is the powerfully intuitive notion that "the people on the ground" have a unique wisdom in this matter and their views should prevail over those "outside". The problem with this analysis is that it is exactly wrong when you are talking about chronic violence. The people on the ground have valid individual concerns to be addressed but as they are so used to the background level of violence they are singularly unequipped to deal with the overall picture.

The second, related, trap is the instinct that a special solution of justice should apply in particular areas. What seems crucial to me is that "relativist" solutions should be resisted. I would object to the notion that the normal rule of law should not apply in, say, West Belfast or Compton because these are particular areas and a "culturally appropriate" method of justice should apply. These type of relativist systems violate principles of fairness and equal treatment and tend to be counterproductive due to their inevitable complexity. It is also inevitably the case that particularist solutions copper-fasten the status quo and accord a quasi-legitimacy to gangs and paramilitary groups.

Having noted what not to do, I would propose that the first concern should be the maintenance of law and order. Everything else flows from this. If there is a reasonable expectation that crimes will be punished there is a disincentive for the putative criminal but more importantly there is an incentive for the innocent bystander to co-operate. This means a universal, rather than relativist solution. The same law should apply whether you live on the Donegal road or the Shankill road, Beverly Hills or Watts. Now, this may introduce a problem, which is that in some areas, the police force "isn't welcome". I would suggest that any police force which shows itself to be acting fairly and achieving results will end up being welcomed. One sure way of preventing that from happening is to regularly consult self-appointed "community leaders" who have a vested interest in maintaining a low level distrust of the police.

Friday, June 13, 2003

And another Irish Blog: Back Seat Drivers.

UPDATE: Thanks for the link! 14/6/03 1:12PM
Another Irish blog: Eoin's Webpage, (p.s. thanks for the link!)

UPDATE: I should have noticed, of course, that Eoin's motto - "Pisces mortui solum cum flumine natant" - is a Latin translation of the words of Manchester United's Maximus: Roy Keane. 14/6/03 1:16 PM
"I don't know which is more bizarre, the agonizing extremes of violence.........or the passive acceptance of this enormous tragedy by so many people inside and outside the blood-drenched neighborhoods"

South Central L.A. or Belfast?

According to Ma Bear: it's the same difference.
Congrats to my brother and his wife on the birth, this morning, of their daughter Lily!
Quickie on Big Brother: Looks like Federico might get ejected this week after all, he has really cranked up the boorish unpleasantness over the last few days and last night's program concluded with a priceless discussion among the girls over the relative "endowment" of Federico and Ray. Turns out, the Irishman is "hung" while the Scot is, um, a bit lacking in that department, maybe he's been overcompensating? I can't wait to see his face when they replay that clip to him.
I have to say: I feel bad about Ciaran Cuffe's recent difficulties. William Sjostrom exhibits schadenfreude at Atlantic Blog over the Dun Laoghaire Green Party TD's resignation as environment spokesman (this even led to a mention on Instapundit!). Cuffe was asked to step down after it was revealed that he owned a significant stock portfolio which included shares in some decidedly un-Green companies. I feel bad because I know Ciaran and like him, we were at UCD School of Architecture together in the late 1980s. I also feel bad because I think the wrong conclusion has been drawn from this story. Ciaran has sold the shares concerned and so validates the idea that his offence was this association with these "multinational corporations". The Green Party is also embarrassed that their TD, who was previously disinclined to correct the impression that he was of modest means, is shown to have considerable wealth. The conclusion I would prefer to be drawn from this affair is that the Green Party's ersatz moral superiority and simplistic postures are wrong and not that an individual should bear responsibility for the actions of every company in which he holds shares, Green MEP Patricia McKenna's response is typically censorious in this regard. I hope that this pause might give Ciaran a chance to reconsider some of his policy proposals, especially those which demand massive government appropriation of private property (land) in the furtherance of egalitarian social engineering ("sustainable development", "social mix").

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Hey, I made onto Colby Cosh's blogroll!
Found another Irish Blog called, um, Blog Irish with more roundup from the Hacks' conference in Dublin. Via, of all places Andrew Sullivan

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

H-Dog style!

Emily puts a few blogs through Snoop's Shizzolator. Priceless stuff, especially Samizdata's Perry De Havilland.

UPDATE: Will Hutton...Shizzolated!

"Brown's supporters privately deride da pro-European case, ignoring, they be like, both da economics 'n da political reality that da public remain massively sceptical, know what I'm sayin'? Wrong n' shit. The pro-judgment, instead, is that da economics is right, 'n that decisive political leadership could make that shiznit mo' right, fo' example by addressing da housing market along wit reforming Europe's economic institutions n' shit. Whatever yo' ass may think of Big Baby Bush, tha dude is a political playmaker 'n agenda-setter, know what I'm sayin'? Tha dude has changed da dynamics of politics in both da US 'n da Middle East, know what I'm sayin'? Pro-Europeans want New Labour be a playmaker, too, 'n use political power constructively change both da dynamics of da euro argument - 'n da underlying economic realities n' shit."

11/6/03 11:19PM
Vincent Browne whinges about the Health system in the Irish Times. His main gripe is that Consultants are getting paid too much because of cushy contracts and that State partially subsidises those with private health insurance through tax-breaks and funding for Hospitals in which private health work is carried out. It doesn't occur to this statist pundit to consider that these issues result from government intervention into the health sector in the first place and that a "solution" might be to liberalise this sector. That way "cost" would tend to approach a general consensus of "value". Such an approach would be inconsistent with Browne's "Equality and Fairness" rhetoric but might end up with a more efficient health system capable of delivering care to everybody.
Ma Bear has moved from Blogspot. Check it out! (especially her post on the World Newspaper Congress in Dublin with lots of links)
More BB. As I guessed, Federico and Jon have been nominated for eviction but alongside them is yet another female: Sissy. Sisterly solidarity didn't stop two of her fellow female housemates from nominating her and, sorry to say as the gender balance is already skewed, she looks sure to be the third girl in a row to be evicted. I will cast my vote for Federico to be evicted but I think I will have to wait until next week to see this spineless, useless narcissist ejected. It is interesting to see the exacting standards demanded by female viewers of the female housemates. My sisters, for example, bristle at the mention of any of the girls in the house and tend to judge them harshly, the boys tend to get a free pass. Flirting, vanity and any kind of manipulation appear to be considered serious crimes yet boorish, childish behaviour as exhibited by the male contestants goes unremarked.
So Manchester United confirm that they have agreed a figure of £30m with Barcelona presidential candidate Joan Laporte for David Beckham. I can't help thinking that this "deal" is not intended by either party to proceed. It helps Laporte no end in his presidential bid to show that he has the clout to arrange such a deal. If elected he has two separate ready-made excuses not to sign Beckham - a) "I had no idea how bad our finances were until I came to office" or even better b) "We couldn't agree personal terms with Beckham". For United the advantage in confirming this "deal" is that it forces those with a genuine interest in signing the player to come up with a bid and soon (relieving them of a significant chunk of change in wages over the summer). The idea of Beckham going to their arch-rivals would really put it up to Real Madrid but if Laporte is prepared to stick his neck on the block and doesn't intend to sign the England captain he must have a good idea that Milan is Beckham's more likely destination.