Thursday, July 31, 2003

Well we are Green as well as, umm, Green.

Sinn Fein joins the ranks of the superstitious in seeking to keep evil GM crops from our shores.

(via Irish Eagle)
Dick reprimands William Sjostrom for his colourful though crude explanation of the devotion to Castro among the European Left. Dick is prepared to accept that Castro is a tinpot dictator but thinks it unfair that he gets singled out for criticism and posits the standard European understanding: that it is Cuba's proximity to the US, and by implication Castro's challenge to the US which is behind this.

I think he is a little bit off on this (as he is in taking at face value the regime's claims of "success" in health and education). It is certainly true that American commentators cannot ignore the nearest communist tyrant to them but Dick is wrong if he thinks that Fidel is singled out for criticism on this side of the Atlantic. On the contrary: his communist propaganda is eagerly lapped up by anyone only slightly left of centre in Europe (I posted a bit on this before). All the more reason for commentators like Sjostrom to disabuse us of the notion that life in Cuba's grim Stalinist "paradise" is like something out of a Bacardi Ad.

UPDATE: More on this from Samizdata's David Carr who notes that actual Cubans vote with their feet on the "social and political successes" hailed by the Guardian.

"Who, in their right minds, would want to risk being eaten by sharks in order to get away from first-class health-care and education? Don't these insane Cubans realise just how poor, miserable, stupid and sick they are going to be in America?"

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Dick concludes our little debate and has a few thoughts about the smoking ban. It is somewhat ironic that it is Dick, the smoker, who is (grudgingly) in favour of the smoking ban while I, a non-smoker, oppose it. In my haste to proffer the most elegant solution to the "problem" of smoky pubs: don't go into them (and I have to say that whatever I feel about smoky pubs, I hate smoky restaurants) I overlooked the second most elegant (and the most practical) solution which Dick notes here: better ventilation. To his credit he also notes that the health risks from second-hand smoke, widely taken for granted, are not exactly proven. It seems to me perfectly possible for pubs, especially the larger barn-style pubs common in Dublin, to have dedicated smoking areas with excellent ventilation, and perhaps Dick is right in suggesting that bar counter areas be non-smoking. Unfortunately the crude nature of the legislation doesn't allow for this. Interesting also to note the issue of compliance and likely level of same. As I noted before, "Catholic" countries, like Ireland, are not exactly noted for their devotion to full compliance with every government regulation*. I would be surprised to see majority (never mind full) compliance with the smoking ban, especially outside Dublin.

* One good indicator is our attitude to licencing hours. I wonder if a single one of our hale-fellow-well-met politicians, fond of meeting their constituents in the local pub but mostly opponents of more liberal licencing hours, has never been in a pub after official closing time. I doubt it.
Conor writes:


for a different take on the current debate surrounding the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's plan to develop a futures exchange on Middle East / terrorism events, check out:

This is not a political blog. This is a discussion board on a site dedicated to quantitative finance - the rocket scientist end of finance. I'm a relatively new browser on this site, but some of the contributors are esteemed finance professors. However, most of the respondents would be a combination of traders, risk analysts and other big brains with PhD's in Nuclear Physics and such like. Above all, these guys are analysing this idea from a purely market economic basis. The key concepts that concern them seem to be:
1) can one make money from this?
2) does it provide a form of self insurance for individuals against terrorist attacks (don't know how the backseat drivers will view this in light of the privatisation of welfare debate!)
3) would this market succeed in reducing informational asymmetries. i.e. will the market drive out the best information (and thereby inform the CIA of the most likely outcomes)
4) moral hazard: would such a market encourage people to commit acts of terrorism to collect on a bet?

The conclusions are mostly negative. Such a market would fail for various reasons
1) Contracting: the difficulty in constructing an efficient futures contract (What does a White House terror contract cover? What acts are excluded?)
2) A successful market needs a coincidence of wants and needs - or buyers and sellers. Although, agents may wish to purchase protection against such events happening, there are no natural sellers of terror protection on the other side of the deal. (unless you count oppressed peoples/nations/terrorist groups - this is similar in principle to the Kyoto carbon emissions trading idea currently in place)

A salient point raised is that this idea is not different (from a probabilistic POV) from the daily task of actuaries in insurance firms who calculate exactly at what age the policyholder is most likely to die, based on information and probability. This has no influence on the timing of death, but is seen as distasteful none the less by the public at large.

I'm not professing to be a proponent of this idea, but I think it's interesting to see where the DARPA research wonks were coming from when they dreamt this up.


Very interesting stuff, I guess that by putting a cost/gain on information and predictions this "market" weeds out the facile predictions and gaseous theories - If Bob Fisk's income was based on his reliability in predicting outcomes he might be forced to abandon his ideologically driven mindset and begin to assess things more rationally. As for whether this market will be able grow to the stage where it can become useful I don't know, The Kyoto emissions trading system is actually a pretty good example of the problems inherent in artificially created markets.

UPDATE: More on this from Colby Cosh. 31/7/03 0:00AM

FURTHER UPDATE: Even more on this from Atlantic Blog and "Edmund Burke" notes that it is already possible to bet on terror at TradeSports and for a lot cheaper than $8bn! 31/7/03 5:27:PM
Great post by Colby Cosh on climate change and enviromental regulation.

"There is nothing sacred about the present-day climate of the earth, this we do know: its natural background variance, which is shockingly large, somehow never enters into the discussion. We are much surer, I think, that things have been warmer for much of the past thousand years than we are of present-day anthropogenic net effects on climate. We know the Vikings traded, and indigenous people fought wars, in areas that are now icebound Gehennas. We know there were agricultural colonies in Greenland. We know there were vineyards in England in medieval times, and that you could grow melons in an English garden as recently as Pepys' time. None of this seems to have stopped relatively advanced civilizations from existing--before air conditioning--in Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East. And in the long run, humans ought to be more highly adaptable than ever to natural changes in climate...But I don't want to pretend to have an idea about the costs and benefits of climate change. What I do know is that if intensifying and multiplying regulation is going to always be the solution to any climate challenge, then we'll end up destroying high capitalism no matter how climate science evolves--it will be remembered, by some, that global cooling was the big fear in the 1970's, and the proposed solutions were all regulatory then, too. The proposed solutions are always regulatory, and it's that mechanism I object to"

Slugger links to a piece by Paul Dunne defending nationalism and "group rights" particularly against Henry McDonald's argument to which I referred below

"The fact of the matter is that McDonald, like all unionists, simply does not accept that the Irish population of the six counties is entitled to their national identity"

In criticising Henry McDonald Paul Dunne unwittingly provides eloquent demonstration of the problems of NI politics, based as it is on issues of group ethnic prestige. Dunne is obviously an intelligent thoughtful commentator (if distorted by animus towards "traitors" like McDonald) yet he cannot see outside of the binary distinctions of Nationalist vs. Unionist. This is why he consistently refers to McDonald as a "Unionist" and implies that The Observer commentator is a protestant when he surely knows that McDonald comes from the catholic/nationalist "community". McDonald was making the point that the primacy of "Group rights" leave no place for those who do not wish to be part of either group. Dunne demonstrated the mindset of the group rights advocate in lacking the ability to describe someone who is not nationalist without using the term "unionist".

"Wishing this national, i.e. group, identity away is foolish; on the other hand, there are real forces today destroying national identiy and replacing it with the very notiion of group rights that McDonald claims to deplore. Divide et impera. It is much easier to rule over an amorphous mass of individuals, or a number of "ethnic groups" competing for funding. But when you are ruled over, you have no rights, only privileges. To have rights, you must be part of a collectivity which can enforce your rights."

Dunne's makes two errors here. The first is to deliberately resist the characterisation of "Irish nationalism" as an ethnic group, claiming for it the grander term "National Identity". This is the classic flaw in Irish republicanism, it is a rhetorical ploy to avoid dealing with the issue of Northern Ireland's unionist "community". If you admit that the catholic/nationalist community is an ethnic group you must accept that the protestant/unionist community is also an ethnic group. This would force you to accept that the NI problem is principally about how to reconcile two ethnic communities with contradictory aims and not simply a "territorial" issue. Under the republican view those who describe themselves as "British" either exhibit "false identity" and in the event of a 32 county United Ireland would suddenly wake up and decide that they are Irish after all or are agents of the "occupying regime" who would flee in the event of unification. This characterisation, though deluded, permits the argument that all that is necessary is to resolve the territorial issue and all else falls into place. The problem with this is that those "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" would still prevail even under unification, the problem doesn't go away and this is the principal limitation in current republican thinking.

Dunne's second error is to assume that those opposed to group rights are opposed to group identification per se. Opponents of group rights are not criticising those who are glad to conform with the community norm but defending the rights of those who don't want to. This is an important distinction. Individual rights do not preclude special arrangements for ethnic groups. If, as Dunne argues, collective action is needed that collective should be formed voluntarily and not conscripted. Any system which consistently subordinates individual rights for the good of the ethnic group is a tyranny.
Eoin offers some interesting thoughts on Edward Said and his (ridiculous) notion that the mysteries of the orient remain inaccessible to the "Western" mind.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Dick has responded to my post below about welfare, Libertarianism and paternalistic government. He reckons I'm still not "happy" with him. I think that there is a difference of philosophy here, we have probably both realised that we will not convince the other completely but I am "happy" with our discussion. Dick feels that "private enterprise being self-interested would not ensure that nobody in a country would go hungry" and I am in total agreement, private enterprise would not "ensure" nobody goes hungry, people can do that all by themselves. Dick feels a bureaucracy is necessary for this function, I don't, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

As for government departments and intrusive regulations, I can give a few examples based on personal experience. Dick may be unfamiliar with the rafts of regulations which have been introduced over the last ten years to do with building and planning. Most of these have been in development for periods longer than that of an elected government and do not represent the views of one particular party but instead an ersatz consensus. Much of this is well intentioned, better access for people with disabilities, better structural and insulation standards, "better" (i.e. more bureaucratic) systems for dealing with planning applications. However good intentions are no guarantee of good outcome and the downside of the cumbersome bureaucracy (which overlaps with and duplicates, to a significant degree, private systems aready available*) far outweigh their supposed benefits. There is also with the regulations a top down set of standards which are to be applied regardless of individual needs.

One regulation, in particular cuts right across the notion of private property. All new houses are to be made wheelchair "visitable" and include bathroom facilities capable of accomodating a wheelchair. Now this may be a laudable, though intrusive, aim but the philosophical problem is that this applies not only to spec housing but also to new purpose built homes. The inbuilt assumption is that the government expects you to make your home accessible to strangers (if you have friends or family who use wheelchairs you will have decided to make the house wheelchair-friendly already) and the example given to me by a civil servant, in a talk about the regulations, was the visit of a social worker who was a wheelchair user. Now, it may be good manners and prudent design to make your home wheelchair accessible, not least because you may end up in a wheelchair yourself but this should be your choice and you should get to weigh up the cost versus the likely benefit. In addition, a person's home is their own private property and not an extension of a bureaucrat's workplace. Unless there is a search warrant, entry to private property is only by the owner's consent, this is an important point ignored in the thinking behind these regulations.

I'd just like to comment on the "utility" of paternalistic initiatives such as the ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. Dick lauds them as they are designed to "prevent people from harming their neighbours". The problem is that they are generally, as in the case of this one, an extreme response to a trivial problem which has significant costs to personal freedom. There is a much more elegant solution to the problem of smoky pubs: don't go into them. I am a non-smoker and consider it a filthy habit but I can't see why businesses should be prevented from provide "smoking" pubs for their customers just for my benefit. The proper solution to this should be provided by the market. If punters prefer non-smoking pubs then they will edge out the "smoking pubs" in popularity. If they don't it may be that the punters don't really give a stuff in which case why is the government introducing this intrusive regulation?

* Most housebuyers and most lending institutions expect that "Homebond" guarantee be provided for a new spec house. This is a non-government private guarantee system which is a lot more useful than simple compliance with building regulations.
Lots of good stuff over at Tallrite this week including a great summary of the history of Liberia.
More disingenuity from Dick

"To answer his question, we did. The plastic bag tax was part of Fianna Fail policy for several years before it became law. The levy was introduced in March 2002 by the Minister for the Environment, an elected politician. The same politicians who brought in the levy were promptly re-elected several months later. Nor was the smoking ban foisted upon us by the Civil Service. It was made possible by the Public Health (Tobacco) Bill of 2001, which once again was created by elected politicians, who were subsequently re-elected in 2002. Same goes for the Equality Authority, which was set up under the Employment Equality Act of 1998. The legislation was introduced by, yes your guessed it, the same group of politicians who were re-elected in 2002. The civil service doesn't create public policy, it merely implements it."

Ok, I could be really pedantic and point out that the fact that a large minority of the electorate voted for a party who published a manifesto containing specific initiatives is not the same as the electorate "consenting" to these policies. I agree it would be impractical in the extreme, not to say undesirable to govern by plebiscite and you cannot go and receive approval from the electorate for every piece of micropolicy. This is not the same as saying that all these busybody initiatives (which, despite Dick's attempt to suggest they derive from political parties, are still generated by civil service departments) represent the electorate's wishes. The point I wish to make about nobody voting for them is that no politician trumpeted their desire, except to vested interest groups, for these initiatives prior to election.

"Frank may be worried that I misrepresented libertarianism. I never said it was the same as communism, only that they suffered from the same fatal flaw, failing to take human nature into account."

How does Libertarianism discount human nature? Libertarians don't posit that individuals would act other than in self-interest. Adam Smith demonstrated, long before Marx, the positive effects of a free market composed of agents acting in self-interest. A company pursuing profits (and indeed employing individuals remunerated for their initiative) in a free market is in a much better position to provide a product people want or need (like, say, drugs to combat AIDS) at a reasonable cost than a government organisation composed of those whose income is guaranteed regardless of performance or result. This seems to me to be a better understanding of human nature: people resond to incentives and disincentives, than the notion that altruism and collective action come naturally and can be expected. Or indeed the left wing shibboleth: that those who choose to work in government-paid employment are motivated by "public service" and should be lauded, when in fact the reason government employment is desirable is that it is considered to be a relatively easy ride.

"Personal freedom is all about having the right to chose as part of an electorate what kind of country you want to live in.

No it's not. This is the statist fallacy. The right to choose which type of collectivism is demanded of you is not the same as enjoying personal freedom. It is an important right but it is way short of personal freedom. To explain this point I refer you to Lord Salisbury, (as I found before quoted on Samizdata

"By a free country, I mean a country where people are allowed, so long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they like. I do not mean a country where six men may make five men do exactly as they like."

This to me explains the gap between democracy and freedom.

"If measures such as state welfare are so abhorrent to our freedoms, why has no party come forward with a manifesto to abolish such institutions. If Frank's right, they'd be a shoe in."

I don't maintain there is populist support for welfare reform. People in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe remain (largely) rhetorically social-democratic if functionally conservative/libertarian. Having said that, there is a gap in the Irish political market for a "neo-conservative" (if not fully libertarian) party. If FG moved to the right and coalesced with the PDs there would be significant support for that party. Dick would be as mistaken as he takes me to be if he thinks that the social democratic consensus shared by the political and media elite extends to the wider electorate in anything other than a passive sense.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Well I don't think I'm going to be able to persuade Dick to leave the nice warm welfare consensus (and come outside into the light!) but I would like to comment on a few throwaway lines from his most recent post on this matter

"I'm in complete agreement. It's why big ideologies such as communism and libertarianism sound great on paper, but never work in practice. Relying on groups of people, whether it be the workers or the private sector to have a country's best interests are heart will always fail, because they'll prioritise their own interests. (Incidentally, his declaration doesn't tally with an earlier statement that individuals should behave responsibly towards 'society' and everyone else but this should not be enforced or coerced by the government. If people are selfish, they'll look out for themselves first and society last.)"

Ok, I cannot let pass the lumping in of libertarianism with communism. First thing is, I infer that Dick is confusing libertarianism with anarchy. Libertarians reject the paternalist statist premise: that the government is a benevolent institution which "protects" the people. That is not the same as saying that there should be no government at all. The minimum government favoured by Libertarians would protect people's freedom and property rights and national security. You can't very well have a functioning economy if there's no accepted standard of title to property. This is not the same as an overarching mechanism to control society as propounded by communists and fascists.

The significant flaw of communism is that it is necessarily coerced. If you go to join a kibbutz, you are volunteering for a collectivist experiment. If you don't like it you can leave. You don't get that choice in a communist country. To characterise communism's failure as "the workers don't have the country's best interest at heart" is to focus on a consequence and ignore the philosophical problem.

The most persuasive argument about the desirability of free markets has nothing to with the "private sector having the country's interest at heart" either, but personal freedom. If you choose to sell goods or services (including labour) to someone else it shouldn't be up to the government to determine what that price should be. Dick posits a contradiction between my statement that people should be responsible to others but not coerced by government into doing so and my recognition that human nature elevates self-interest above all. There is no contradiction, it can be in everyone's interest to act more or less altruistically as long as it doesn't clash with self interest. This is how society and behavioural norms have developed. The problems lie in either assuming that people can be made to act altruistically in a consistent and reliable manner or in attempting to enforce some kind of top-down standard of altruism. Coerced altruism is not altruism at all but autocracy. That is the philosophical objection but there is also a utilitarian objection. The fact is that programs directed from the centre by bureaucrats tend towards inefficacy. It is also, by the way, a huge stretch to say that the electorate has "opted for" and consents to the huge welfare apparatus which has developed over the decades*. I don't remember any party campaigning on this issue: "More taxes for better welfare!" is not exactly a vote-getting slogan.

*In fact: much of Irish government policy, particularly the various paternalist "initiatives", originates from within our huge civil service and is foisted on an electorate which had no say in the matter. Who voted for the plastic bag tax?, who voted for the smoking ban? who voted for the Equality Authority?
More on welfare privatisation: Dick has responded to my recent post and, as he has been away for a few days, I thought I'd refrain from an instant reply and compose a more considered installment.

"I still feel his idea is unworkable. The analogy between car insurance and employment insurance isn't very accurate. Car ownership is optional, having an income is not. In otherwords, if you can't afford a car and its insurance, it's no big deal, you can always take the bus. If you find yourself without a job and have no insurance or inadequate insurance, you've few alternatives."

Ok, I don't maintain that car insurance is an exact analogy, more a way of thinking about the shape of unemployment insurance. Maybe life assurance might have been a better fit. Not everyone has a car but everyone dies, (yet probably more people have car insurance than life assurance). The thing about car insurance is that it is something everyone who has a car has to, grudgingly, pay. There is also an appreciation that, (if you take out the rip-off we endure in Ireland) that the cost is graded to reflect the risk, and that the "no claims bonus" acts as a disincentive to make a claim. People who take out car insurance don't tend to consider it as a "contribution" towards something which they will eventually draw upon. I think we would all be better off thinking about unemployment "benefit" the same way.

"A privatised welfare system would only work with a certain segment of the unemployed. I'm thinking of someone who had a decent job, was laid off and needed a couple of months to a year to find something else."

The thing is, there's no incentive under the current system for such a person to take out unemployment insurance. The key is that whatever we say about welfare being a safety net for those who find themselves out of work the way the system is designed and managed is inimical to it working this way. The dole is considered to be part of the redistribution from rich to poor and the only discussion which takes place posits the fact that the primary consideration should be the comfort of those who receive unemployment benefits. There is little discussion about whether the system penalises those would take up work or acts as an incentive to remain on the dole or operate in the black economy. There is little discussion about whether a generous welfare system is affordable in the long term, given trends in birth rates. There is little discussion about whether the current system contributes towards stagnation and is incompatible with a dynamic entrepreneurial economy.

"Frank proposes a transitional arrangement for the long term unemployed. However, what of those who find themselves long term unemployed in the future?"

Ok, the problem here is that Dick and I differ as to the cause of the phenomenon of "long term unemployment". It is my view that this is a creature of a relatively comfortable welfare regime with attendant health and housing benefits. Most of the long term unemployed are making a rational decision to stay unemployed given the benefits available. This is in itself unremarkable, obvious even. It may well be that through years of unemployment they become "unemployable", growing unused to the regime of working a 37.5 hour week but in a reformed system the number of those who are "unemployable" would be small indeed.

"What happens if the employment insurance they could afford proved to be an inadequate means of support?"

I imagine that people will have to make an informed decision when taking out unemployment insurance and be prepared to judge the risk. Try it another way and try to think about unemployment not being a permanent state but being, to use the euphemism, "between jobs". Thus the issue is not whether someone is going to starve but what their short term cashflow is going to be like. What happens if someone pays too much for a house and cannot get by on their income after they pay their mortgage? - sell the house, What happens if the market collapses and they have "negative equity"?, well ummm. The thing is, a free society implies that people take personal responsibility for their actions and decisions, a government which micro-manages your cashflow is, for me, a paternalistic tyrannical nightmare.

"What happens to the person who leaves an abusive spouse and find themselves with no place to live and several children to look after. This kind of thing happens all too often still. Are they to be denied welfare because they hadn't worked enough or hadn't worked at all? There are plenty of cases which may not fit nicely into Frank's system."

There may well be "plenty of cases" which don't "fit in" to my system but I'm not so sure that they "fit in" with the existing unresponsive overbearing bureaucracy either. The question is not that because there are complications with family breakup that we have to accept the existing regime, warts and all, but are there other methods for dealing with hard cases such as this? I have no doubt that there are. My brand of (oxymoronically) moderate libertarianism would hold that the individual should have no government-mandated* responsibility towards "society" or anyone else... except children they have wittingly brought into the world.

*note that I believe individuals should behave responsibly towards "society" and everyone else but this should not be enforced or coerced by the government

"Can a private company be relied upon to look after their welfare? I'm not convinced and if this is the case, the end result is poverty, and not of the relative kind."

Dick betrays his managerialism with this question, he imagines that my privatised welfare regime would just be the same as the existing system except delivered by a private company in the manner of British privatised utilities (perhaps it could be called something like Signonia?). I'm suggesting that we get away from the notion that welfare is a service to be delivered.

"As Jon pointed out before, unemployment in Ireland is only 4.7pc. This isn't a massive burden on the state."

Ok, while I'm prepared to accept that Dick has hitherto made some good points in this post I'm afraid that he has descended into disingenuity in the last paragraph. Unemployment may only be 4.7% and this is as Jon said, nothing to be worried about. That is emphatically not the same thing as saying that this is not a burden on the taxpayer and the economy. In fact an argument can be made that a low unemployment level can mask the significant costs of the current welfare regime. Remember also that there are many costs to the system other than actual dole payments and there is a huge chunk of costly, benchmarked, public sector employment paid to administer the current regime.

"You'll never live like a king on welfare and I think its reasonable to say, both for Irish people and immigrants alike that most people would prefer a job than welfare."

Most people, all things being equal, would prefer a job to the dole but all things are not equal and the current system is what is keeping them on the dole.

" A state system does have the potential for fraud and abuse. I've no doubt that some people do take advantage of it. But you're talking about a minority of the aforementioned percentage. Isn't this inefficiency a small price to pay to ensure that no person will go hungry? I think so"

As for fraud and abuse, I am generally wary of schemes which assume the "perfect-ability" of human nature. It is safe to assume, remembering also our traditional reluctance towards full compliance with all that is requested of us by authority, that if you design a system capable of being defrauded it will be defrauded. It is self-deluding to dismiss this as a small minority. There is this reluctance to frame discussion about any public policy with any disparaging observations about human nature. It's as if it causes offence to a particular individual to recognise a fact about human nature which applies to that individual (as it does to all of us). So here's a little newsflash: People are selfish! yes, shocking as that might seem we are not all altruists. If that wasn't true we wouldn't have evolved. Sure most people have an idea of the common good, but that comes way after self-interest and that altruism should never be taken for granted. The safest assumption is always that people will tend to do what they can get away with.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Great piece by Henry McDonald in today's Observer reminding us that "group rights" are inimicable to human rights.

"A significant section of those who proclaim they are concerned with civil liberties in the north are seeking to re-design the definition of human rights. In essence, they argue for the primacy of groups' rights, that is that the aspirations, principally of unionists and nationalists must be central to any future Bill of Rights in the north...In other words the subjects..north of the border are themselves defined solely and primarily by their self-affirmed or perceived tribal national loyalties. The 'groups' rights' advocates point out that their definition merely reflects the true nature of northern society.....However, a simple verbal exercise should tell Harvey and the other less rational supporters of 'groups' rights', that their project will if successful re-write the internationally recognised concept of human rights and dump a 300-year-old tradition that puts man, individual man, at the centre of existence. Say it out loud and say it proud: human rights. The key to definition here is contained in the first word of that term. It is singular not plural and thus implies that the individual is the principal and most important social unit. "

This is something which a lot of people just don't get and it is profoundly depressing. Sectarian division has, if anything, deepened in the recent "peaceful" years. The reason for this is the elevation of community rights above all, Northern Ireland politics is almost exclusively about relative ethnic prestige. Civil society will only develop there when people feel free, upon being peer-pressured to conform to community norms, to quote Sam Goldwyn to their tribal chieftans: "Include me out!"
Emily has just concluded her blogathon, posting every half hour for 24 hours. There's loads of great stuff there including thoughts on films from Zoolander to Godfather III.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

I was going to comment on Edward Said's piece in yesterday's Irish Times but Blog Irish have got there first and really nailed it, "agreeing" with Said that..

"Yes, the Taliban was a paranoid hallucination, Mary Robinson was deluded in thinking that they did not treat their women well, and as for their destruction of the giant Buddha statues, well, degustibus non est disputandum. Wealthy Wahabis did not fund Koranic schools that served as recruiting grounds for Al Quaeda; and if bin Ladin pined for lost Andalus (1492!), well that was the Yanks' fault too. Saddam did not oppress the Shias, and the Shia theocracy does not employ thugs to abduct and beat students protesting for democracy in Iran. Palestinians did not dance in the streets over the Twin Towers and do not beat up pollsters who reveal that 90% of them have no interest in "returning" to Israel."

...and follow with some fascinating thoughts about Arab culture by way of exposition.

"We happened upon the most enlightening book on Arab culture in the months before Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf's fifteen minutes of fame. 'The Arab Mind' (1973) by Raphael Patai does not merit Said's scorn because Patai is neither an "Arabist" nor an "Orientalist", but a mere linguist. ..Most of his sources are Arabic, and he clearly has a respectful and affectionate relationship with his Arab colleagues. His exploration of "the Arab mind" is essentially an exercise in cultural anthropology. He examines social structures, language, child rearing, gender roles and the end result is that the whole coheres and is convincing. Unlike the ideological Said, he does not deny his data to make political points...Patai draws a distinction between "Arab" culture and "Islamic" culture, and posits the tribal, pastoralist Bedouin as the archetypal pre-Islamic Arab, still revered as a cultural icon by the urban Arab....After having read Patai, we were not in the least surprised by Saeed Al-Sahaf's performance, and were not surprised that most Al Jazeera viewers did not find his performance comical. It is a distinctive Arab trait, Patai tells us, to propound as fact, in flowery, poetic language, that which one would like to see be fact, without the slightest effort to make a connection between the statement and any action to bring about the fact. Patai convincingly links this to specific child rearing practices and gender roles in traditional Arab culture"

Friday, July 25, 2003

Ok, I would like to tackle the other issues from Gavin's post.

"What you seem to be saying is that American soldiers are being killed because Iraqi conscripts are being forced to kill Americans. In every case? Are you denying that Americans are somewhat disliked by Iraqis, Arabs or indeed Muslims in general? Maybe American soldiers were killed because Iraqis wanted to kill them? Just a thought."

Ok, I think there's a little bit of "quagmiring" going on here. The original post was about Private Jessica Lynch so I inferred that Gavin was talking about Iraqi soldiers fighting before Baghdad fell. In that case, the "regular" Iraqi army was largely composed of conscripts who showed little interest in fighting and allowed Coalition forces a clear run at Baghdad. After Baghdad fell and to date the only ones still fighting Coalition forces are "irregulars" composed of Al-Qaeda mercenaries (paid in "glory" rather than money) and die-hard Saddam loyalists who are so inextricably linked with the old regime that there is no future for them in a post-Saddam Iraq. The latter selection are fighting for ideological reasons.

"I guess its 'derisory' defence against the most advanced army in the world is a matter for debate among military historians. How long could any army withstand such an invasion? Anyway thats another debate."

I don't intend to insult but simply make an observation that one of the reasons for the stunning success, even given the disparity in resources, which by the way contrasted vividly with predictions of those opposed to the war, and speed of the advance on Baghdad was that the regular army felt little motivation to defend a hated dictator.

In reference to my charge of moral relativism in a comment at his blog - "Touch of the old moral relativism there Gavin, there is a huge qualitative difference between seeing terrorism as evil and seeing death and destruction as "glorification" of Allah. Bush doesn't insult Christianity by describing Saddam or Al-Qaeda as evil, Wahaabist clerics do insult Islam by using it to justify terrorism" - Gavin answers

"Again the subject is religion, and its effect on society, not the rights and wrongs of Christianity versus Islam. An example of religion in society is the rightousness prevalent in Bush's speeches with references to god, in god we trust, god save America, may god continue to bless America, etc."

Ok, and my point is nothing to do with the relative merits of either religion but a simple observation that a juxtaposition of the Religious Right in the US with Wahaabism obscures more than it reveals. They are emphatically not the same sort of thing

"Further, an example of religion in an Islamic society, is well a very mixed potion of religion and state, but ultimately the same belief that 'allah' or 'god' is on the side of them, as oppose to the invaders, who also happen to believe god to be on their side."

Again with the moral relativism, the "invaders" as Gavin tendentiously describes Coalition forces (why not liberators?) are not motivated by religion. They are a disciplined force carrying out the orders of democratic leaders.

"Whats at issue is not whether I would prefer to live in a state like say the UAE as oppose to America, but how religion is used by the state, in both cases and to different methods and extremes, as a method or tool of nationalism and patriotism, and as a method of control."

If you really think that religion is used by the state in the same way by USA and Saudi Arabia (note: not the more liberal UAE) I refer you back to my invitation: Consider the relative merits of living in, say, Riyadh, where all sorts of freedoms from minor to major are denied, to any equivalent-sized American city where you can live more or less as you please.
Another interesting post from Gavin on religion and agnosticism, following on from my post below and link to Colby Cosh. I'd like to make a few comments about it {There's another section about US, Iraq, Christianity and Islam about which I'd also like to comment, but I'll split that off into a separate post}

First I'd like to say that I deliberately didn't use Colby's, er, impolite description of agnostics as "chickenshit saddoes". I agree with Colby's overall sentiment: that agnosticism is a bit of a cop-out but don't wish to insult agnostics.

"I think what we are talking about here are the possibilities. Is it possible that god exists. However remote, is it possible? Is it possible that the majority are right; that most of the people on this planet are right about a greater entity? Is it logical, and rational to accept the possibility? I would say yes. It is reasonable to accept the possibility that god does indeed exist. There is no evidence in my view, but I must accept that I could be wrong. I must accept that the other 5.5 billion (or whatever the number is) people might just be right. Im not trying to cover my ass here, im trying to look at this logically. I remain sceptical, I will weigh the evidence and make a judgement. As of yet I have come across no evidence to support god's existence. There are some pointers that he might, just might, exist, but these are flimsy at best, and are argued exhaustively among philosophers. the honest truth, is that humans are a limited species. We simply don't know, I don't think anyone knows whether god exists or not. The possibility remains open, I just don't know. I dont think im sitting on the fence here. I dont know, nor do the theists, nor the atheists."

No absolute "proof" is available to demonstrate the existence, or otherwise, of God so you will wait in vain, however we can test various hypotheses and see which seem more sound. There is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, provided by science for how the universe began and how life evolved, that doesn't rely on a divine creator. This hypothesis requires no suspension of logic and offers a reasonable explanation for every phenomenon. Any hypothesis that a creator exists requires numerous leaps of faith and suspension of logic. Furthermore, it is clear that religion performs a valuable function. It is comforting to believe that there is a grand design and that there is life after death. Thus we shouldn't be surprised that religion has "evolved" to tell people what they want to hear. The fact that a certain number or proportion of people believe something is irrelevant. If 5 billion people believed the moon was made from cheese it would still be insufficient justification for a gouda-mining lunar expedition.
French-Bash with Panache, Priceless Lileks Bleat.

"...the French PM believes that the industry deserves to be subsidized, because French computer games reflect European values. Well, yes, if they’re subsidized, bought by no one. It got me to thinking about French versions of some popular games:

Half-Life. An interdimensional gateway opens up, and thousands of murderous creatures from another world spill through. Your mission: help them establish their own parallel society in your country

Doom: An interdimensional gateway opens up, and the minions of Hell itself enter a Martian moonbase. Your mission: nothing! Lucky you, they invaded in August, and that’s your month at the beach...."
Following my suggestion to privatise welfare below, Dick is confused:

"His reasoning behind it is that it would stop people who haven't contributed to the welfare system from taking advantage of it. Now, the context is a debate on immigration. Immigrants aside, such a move would impact on everyone. What of people who've never contributed to the welfare system or those who've contributions have run out. Should they eat cake?"

I suppose they could always eat Government Cheese!

I'd just like to say that while I might be "all for privatising welfare today" as Dick (slightly snidely) puts it, I was also all for it yesterday and may well be all for it tomorrow too. I would also say that Dick "mis-infers" my reasoning. The reason I would like welfare privatised is not to "stop people taking advantage of it". Rather I would prefer there was no "it" to take advantage of in the first place. One positive effect of a privatised welfare regime would be the effect on immigration - Ireland would be attractive for the opportunities it would provide more so than the "benefits" obtainable - but this is not the principal reason, just a happy consequence.

Dick's question about those who haven't contributed or whose contributions "run out" betrays his sympathy for the "managerial" approach to welfare traditional in Ireland. This approach looks at the unemployed as a static group whose "rights" needs to be addressed as opposed to unemployment being a transitory phase. The thing is, this way of looking at things hardens the divisions between the unemployed and those at work and sets the status quo in stone.

Try to look at it another way: let us say you have a car, you get into a crash. The government doesn't pay to fix up your car or the one in front. You are required to get car insurance before you can drive on the roads. Now try to imagine a system where as part of starting work you must take out unemployment insurance. It is crucial that this is private and not a government system as "contributions" (to use Dick's term) will inevitably get sucked into overall tax income. Also, by the way, "contributions" imply that you will get a payback at some stage, "insurance" is something that you hope you will not have to draw on. Your insurance package could be tailored to meet your needs, a cheap bare-bones package or an expensive generous one.

Now, in moving to a new system there may have to be special transition arrangements for existing long term unemployed but "life on the dole" is a phenomenon created by a "cradle to the grave" welfare system and not likely to be replicated in a private system. So, to answer Dick's question, people who haven't started work yet and therefore haven't taken out insurance will still be living off their parent(s), and people who become unemployed will live on whatever package they paid for while they are "between jobs". It may sound harsh to someone within the current consensus on welfare but there are still a lot of things that the government doesn't pay for. In general, any service provided "free" by the goverment will tend to be inefficiently delivered, wasteful and of a "one size fits all" nature. Welfare is no different.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Contrasting thoughts on religion and agnosticism: Gavin claims to be agnostic (but sounds more like an atheist!) and describes a street conversation with a bewildered Mormon recruiter. Colby Cosh reminds us that "agnostics" are really atheists who are afraid to admit it and makes the very good point that Faith is in very short supply among actual believers, most of whom consider their religiousness derived from direct revelation as opposed to blind faith.
Oh, those brutal psychopaths.

Merde in France demonstrates how France's TF1 News show isn't really all that bothered about actual news. Coming a poor 26th after gripping reports about camp sites, small claims judges, construction insurance and "striking artists and performers" {How do we know if they are striking?, maybe the "strike" is a performance?} and a full 31 minutes after the program begins, the French Nation is informed of the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein.
Here's a nice big bucket of cold water to throw over all my Celtic-supporting friends who patiently insist to me that the United skipper pines for a green and white hooped shirt: Roy Keane thinks Celtic lack class.

"The Champions League is hard. That’s where you need the top players and going by the UEFA Cup Final last season, Celtic lack that bit of magic....Celtic were also unlucky to lose the championship but that’s history and maybe you have to give Rangers a bit of credit. They had a great season to win a treble. "


Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Great post from Samizdata's David Carr on immigration

"There is an immigration problem in Britain but it is a problem caused by the fact that the regulation is based on the entirely wrong-headed premise that we should only permit 'political refugees' to settle here but keep 'economic migrants' out.....To my mind this is fluorescent absurdity. What we are really saying is that we must shut the door in the face of people like Charles Forte but extend a big, warm welcome to people like Abu Hamza. Surely this should work precisely the other way around?.....Of course the idea of letting in only political refugees is intimately related to the welfarist principle which, in my view, is the root of the poison. It is almost an article of faith among the 'chattering classes' that native British opposition to immigrants is driven by 'xenophobia' and 'racism' and is, therefore, all bad. However I disagree with this. I think a lot (maybe most) of the animus towards immigrants is in fact motivated by a wholly justified resentment of foreigners benefitting from a welfare system to which they have never contributed."

This to me is a crucial point - the intimate connection between immigration and welfare - and I'd bet that, if at a stroke welfare was privatised*, there would be little need to impose major restrictions on immigration and most of the resentment of immigrants would evaporate.

*This would actually be very easy to do (albeit, in Ireland politically impossible). All that would be needed is to abolish PRSI, and encourage people to take out private unemployment insurance instead, similar to motor insurance.
Mark Steyn's first article for the Irish Times - on the British men held in Camp X-Ray - is online!

"London is right. The British jihadi should certainly be treated differently: they should be subjected to much lengthier and more detailed interrogation. The mighty Pashtun warrior from Kandahar is an impressive figure, but in the grand scheme of things he’s unimportant. I doubt he knows much and I’m happy for him to be returned to his herd in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. But, with the British and French and Australian and Canadian al-Qa'eda volunteers, even the small fry are comparatively big fish. For a start, they’re a much larger threat to US interests: they know far more than the Afghan warlord’s idiot cousin about the weak points of the system – they know what papers you need to slip across the border from Montreal to Plattsburgh, who you need to hook up with in Virginia to get fake ID, etc. It’s the jihad networks in the west that give the movement its global reach. Shut them down and what’s left is just a bunch of losers frolicking in their own decrepit backyard."

Of course, the indignant spluttering has already commenced*, Bravo!

*Sample spluttering for those without IT subs:

"However, it was interesting to read first-hand the kind of racist invective that our American cousins are bombarded with daily by the powerful media. He makes it clear that he supports the neo-judicial system for Guantanamo detainees that reflects the utter contempt Bush and his cronies have for international humanitarian law...bla bla bla.."
So, "extremely unlikely" or not, Ronaldinho joins Barcelona instead of Manchester United.

I can't help thinking that nobody has really got what they wanted from this deal. Although it may be an exaggeration to say that it was a "lose-lose-lose-lose deal", it is clear that: 1) PSG have sold a player they wanted to keep and for less than was offered by the English champions, 2) Manchester United have missed out on one of their long-term targets having been assured by the player's agent that he wanted to go to Old Trafford and would cost as little as £10m, 3) Barcelona have been forced to pay a lot of money (which they don't have), in the current market, for a player who may not react too kindly to the Barca fan's unrealistic expectations, who will cost a lot of money in wages and who swells the ranks of non-EU nationals - restricted from playing - in the Barca squad, and 4) Ronaldinho is joining a team who are still in turmoil and who have not qualified for the Champions' league.

It is clear that the Brazilian's preference was to play in La Liga, but the team he wanted to join, Real Madrid, didn't want him. By choosing Barcelona he is admitting that the lure of living in a more glitzy city outweighs his footballing ambitions.

As a United fan, I have mixed feelings. Sir Alex Ferguson, in praising Real Madrid after United's exit from the Champions' League, noted that they have more players who are able to run at opponents with the ball and beat them. Real have Zidane, Figo, Raul and Ronaldo. United have Giggs. It is clear that Ferguson intends to improve that ratio and that informed the decision to let the "dribble-less" Beckham go. Ronaldinho would have fitted the bill, (as would have Duff but United sadly weren't prepared to enter an auction for him). However, Ronaldinho's similarity to Dwight Yorke doesn't stop with his appearance, he is also a renowned party animal and (unlike Duff) doesn't conform to Ferguson's preference for players with quite lives off the pitch. Also, Brazilians do not traditionally thrive in British football. It is quite possible that he could have seriously flopped at Old Trafford.
Eoghan Harris lays into the BBC in today's Telegraph.

"A culture of political bias cannot be countered by counting minutes of airtime. It is not susceptible to internal change because it is the ambient air that broadcasters breathe. And it is no use a Polly or a Trevor telling us that if the BBC is annoying both Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith "they must be doing something right".

By annoying both Blair and Duncan Smith, the BBC current affairs cabal is simply behaving like a political party: the New Labour Left - a party which dislikes both Blairite social democrats and conservatives and which is also consciously acting against the centrist culture of the West to which both Blair and Duncan Smith subscribe."

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Colby Cosh explains why Sex and the City, contrary to what Edmonton Health Authority's Dr Predy apparently believes, doesn't cause syphilis

Monday, July 21, 2003

Another thought on humanities education. C. Bloggerfeller links to a piece by Two Blowhards on the preposterousness of film theory.
Well, it was a little hard to find with their site design but I managed to find the latest Blog Irish posts which include a summary of the blog debate I've been having with Dick & John about employment, immigration and third level education, all of which was sparked off by a Blog Irish post on employment. Blog Irish are upset that the direction our discussion took was away from what they wanted to talk about which was Ireland's problem with alcohol.

Let me say that I agree that there is a problem, I think our culture is far too tolerant of excessive drinking and can tend towards disapproval of those who don't conform to the norm of binge drinking. Let me also agree that nobody wants to admit that "we" drink too much. We bridle so much at the stereotype of the drunken Irishman that we seek comfort in statistics which underplay the level of alcohol abuse by including Ireland's not insignificant amount of teetotallers in the overall consumption figures. Having noted the problem, however, I wouldn't agree with the "solution" suggested by many, which is to place further restrictions on alcohol consumption. I am not so deluded as to think that a "continental cafe style culture" would happen overnight with a mass liberalisation of public house licences, but nor do I think such a liberalisation would necessarily exacerbate Irish binge drinking. I am generally wary of well-meaning government initiatives to "do something" and think that any government action in this area should be negative rather than positive, as in "Is there anything we are already doing which is making this problem worse" rather than "What can we do to fix this?" Ultimately people must take responsibility for their actions and the best "cure" for binge drinking is the the realisation that the behaviour could risk loss of job, family or home.

Incidentally, I would like to respond to a comment made by Bran in this post:

"Displaying a quantum of compassionate conservatism that would have done Dubya proud, Frank noted that such constraints undercut the "risk premium" - better pay and working conditions - that "undesirable" jobs should attract. (We think he is slightly off on this: unrestricted immigration from countries full of desperate people would tend to drive wages down. Restricting the labour pool would force employers to pay more to get these dreary jobs done.)"

As a misanthropic libertarian, I am somewhat surprised to be labelled a compassionate conservative!, but I would like to defend my (perhaps, given the lack of appetite in Ireland for welfare reform, hypothetical) position. I was careful to note that unrestricted immigration be accompanied by a drastically reduced welfare system. The unavailability of state benefits would act as a "natural" market-based restriction on immigration. This would provide a better fit to the job market than an "artificial" government restriction.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Amir Taheri reports from Baghdad.

"THE Iraqi Intifada!" This is the cover story offered by Al- Watan Al-Arabi, a pro- Saddam Hussein weekly published in Paris. It finds an echo in the latest issue of America's Time magazine, which paints a bleak prospect for the newly liberated country. The daily Al Quds, another pro-Saddam paper, quotes from The Washington Post in support of its claim that "a popular war of resistance" is growing in Iraq. Some newspapers in the United States, Britain and "old Europe" go further by claiming that Iraq has become a "quagmire" or "another Vietnam." The Parisian daily Le Monde prefers the term "engrenage," which is both more chic and French. This chorus wants us to believe that most Iraqis regret the ancien regime, and are ready to kill and die to expel their liberators. Sorry, guys, this is not the case. Neither the wishful thinking of part of the Arab media, long in the pay of Saddam, nor the visceral dislike of part of the Western media for George W. Bush and Tony Blair changes the facts on the ground in Iraq. ONE fact is that a visitor to Iraq these days never finds anyone who wants Saddam back.... "

Via Tim Blair. Plus: Lots of other good stuff over there, including an Imam's ruling on auto-fondling of man-boobs, propriety of. Also Tim challenges Leftie bloggers Matt (from a bright cold day..)and Tim Dunlop on their callous attitude towards a teenager with cancer (illuminating comments thread to last post).
John translates a great piece from La Vanguardia by Quim Monzo on his Cola dilemma.

"Una buena hora para tomarme un raf: hielo, ginebra, una rodaja de limón, cola... Pero ¿con cuál me lo preparo? Si pongo Coca-Cola, estoy ayudando al símbolo por antonomasia del capitalismo malvado, perverso y malévolo de los malévolos, perversos y malvados yanquis. Está claro que Pepsi no me pondré; antes muerto. Casi que optaría por poner Mecca-Cola, para compensar la escasa solidaridad de “la población musulmana inmigrante” y para ser un 10 por ciento fraternal con la causa palestina en general y la empresa del francés de origen tunecino en particular. Pero, claro, si en las botellas ponen “Por favor, no la mezclen con alcohol” es que, para ellos, la mezcla con alcohol es algo así como una ofensa. O sea, que no sé qué hacer. Si al ron le añado Coca-Cola estoy por el imperialismo. Si le añado Mecca-Cola les ofendo. ¿Qué harían ustedes en mi lugar? "

"A good time to have myself a "raf"--ice, gin, a wedge of lemon, cola...But which cola do I use? If I add Coca-Cola, I am helping the maximum symbol of the malevolent, perverse, and evil Yankees' evil, perverse, and malevolent capitalism. Of course it's not going to be Pepsi--I'd rather die. I'd almost choose to put in Mecca-Cola, in order to compensate for the immigrant Muslim population's lack of solidarity and in order to be 10 percent fraternal with the Palestinian cause in general and the French businessman of Tunisian origin's company in particular. But if it says on the bottles, "Please do not mix with alcohol", that means, for them, mixing the drink with alcohol is some sort of offense. So I don't know what to do. If I put Coca-Cola in my rum I'm siding with imperialism. If I put in Mecca-Cola I'm offending them. What would you do in my place?"
Just following on from the European Commission's proposals in relation to VAT: Yesterday's Irish Times leader on the topic - Precis: "What's all the fuss?" - rather misses the point. I am no big fan of VAT (of which more later) and I agree that the application of a zero rate to certain items favoured by the public - here it's children's clothes, the UK has newspapers, Holland has cut flowers - is irrational. The problem is, as identified by the Department of Finance but ignored by "outraged" politicians and the media, that this will certainly set a marker for creeping EU tax harmonisation and the Eurocrats have our prosperity-inducing low corporation tax firmly in their sights. I would support a lowered VAT rate but not at Brussels' bidding.

Anyway, this got me thinking about VAT and the contrasting attitude of Catholic and Protestant societies towards compliance and regulation. The Guardian had an interesting article this week by the Anti-Globo's favourite economist Joseph Stiglitz {By the way, his adoption to their cause rather proves the notion that this is a dilettante unreflective movement: though he is rightly critical of the IMF he is no anti-capitalist}. Stiglitz makes the very good point that raising revenue by VAT in a "developing" country is not a prudent policy as it penalises the "formal" economy in favour of the vast black economy. I would extend Stiglitz' point from developing countries to developed countries which have a high tax regime, particularly those with high marginal income tax rates, and, even more particularly, those which are predominantly Catholic.

There are many very good reasons for keeping taxes low but one which is often overlooked is that lower tax rates encourage compliance. The lower the rate the less likely you are to bother avoiding or evading tax. Higher, progressive, taxes encourage a cash-based black economy. It is often baffling to British observers the amount of regulation tolerated by the "Latin" countries, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. It is easy to understand the desire for an orderly framework in northern, Protestant countries like Germany and Sweden but southern, Catholic countries are viewed as being more "relaxed", "emotional", "carefree", even. Surely these are countries with an enviable lifestyle and little regard for formal organisation?. The thing is, that caricature is not entirely false.

The difference is that, in Catholic countries, which includes Ireland, there is a greater importance attached to the symbolism of a particular piece of legislation than the enforcement of it and there is little expectation that full compliance will ensue. Thus, we might, say introduce a ban on unmuzzled dogs, (as there is in Ireland) without the slightest expectation that the streets will swarm with dog-muzzle-inspectors.

My guess is that growing up Catholic encourages a capacity to hold two opposing views at the same time: "We should keep tax rates high enough to fund public services" sits easily with "Hmm, that seems a bit steep, how much will you do it for cash?" The reason is most religious dogma, if taken literally, is pretty harsh and pretty soon comes up against human nature which encourages such "sins" as anger, sloth, gluttony, envy etc.. One solution to this is to reform the dogma to make it easier to stick to it, another is to cut back on the rules and have a more personal interpretation. What Catholicism offers is the possibility of paying lip service to the dogma, but not actually complying with it. You might feel bad about the sin but you can always wipe the slate clean with a trip to confession. A related issue is that of transubstantiation. A Catholic "believes" that the communion wafer has been physically transformed into the body of Christ while also knowing that it is still a piece of wafer. A Protestant recognises that the wafer only represents Christ's body and is not transformed in any way.

Unfortunately in a more centralised Europe this indifference in "Catholic" countries to ever more regulation, based on a false underestimate of enforcement, will be costly for all of the EU.

Cracking piece from Mark Steyn on the Democrats, Uranium and Niger.

"A canny Democrat would hammer Bush for wanting to tie the American people down in useless ‘anti-terror’ regulations while letting the pen-pushers carry on with business as usual.....Instead, Democrats are taking the side of the pen-pushers. Who knows what really happened in Africa? Maybe the CIA guy in Niamey (assuming they have one) filed a report on uranium in Niger and back at head office the assistant deputy paper-shuffler looked at it upside-down and said, ‘There’s something here about Saddam getting nigerium from Uranus,’ and the deputy assistant paper shuffler said, ‘Jeez, we need to go into full ass-covering mode.’"
The definitive quote on Blair and WMD, by Michael Portillo:

"I think we were bamboozled by the Prime Minister into doing the right thing."

From Samizdata
This Ronaldinho tranfer sage is getting ridiculous, I hope it gets wrapped up soon. The papers yesterday, staffed with hacks who grew up with Liverpool's dominance, gleefully seized upon Paris St. Germain President, Francis Graille's latest negotiating ploy: to state that Barcelona were in "pole position" to sign the Brazilian. The Catalan club's offer of "€30m" (which includes players PSG don't need or want), deemed unsuitable earlier on in the week, was now "superior" to United's. This is nothing but a blatant attempt to squeeze more money from United.

It seems extremely unlikely that Ronaldinho will go to the Nou Camp. For one, whatever Graille says, he wants cold hard cash not proven misfit players with exorbitant wages. Barca don't have the cash and they have two reason for offering Rochemback and Riquelme, firstly they will have to get rid of a few non-EU players to take Ronaldinho, having already signed Turkish keeper Rustu Recber and secondly they have to cut back their crippling wage bill. If Ronaldinho eventually goes to Barcelona it will only be under protest. Although a move to La Primera Liga might be desirable for the player, FC Barcelona, in disarray and out of next season's champions' League ,would not be a good career move. And as for all that sunny weather Barca VP Sandro Rosell claims is more suitable for the Brazilian than rainy Manchester, I've been to Catalonia in February and let me tell you: Rio it ain't. Barcelona in the middle of the season can be quite cold and rainy.

If United can't reach agreement with PSG, or even if they do, I hope they can torpedo Damien Duff's proposed move to Chelsea. It is clear he is stalling, waiting for an approach from Manchester United. Don't let him down!

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Some interesting thoughts about private versus state education and health:

Michael Gove makes the convincing case that state education has amounted to a "betrayal" of the working class and argues for a voucher system as proposed in the US.

"But of all the ways in which we fail the working class, none is so shameful as the failure of our education system. It is an ongoing story of promise betrayed, in which those who suffer most are silent. So let some dry numbers speak for them. One in four British children leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate. The statistics which suggest that literacy and numeracy are improving are being manipulated. The pass mark for 11-year-olds in their English and maths test has been cut to 44 per cent in English and 45 per cent in maths from 49 per cent for both tests last year...There is widespread concern that the examinations with which pupils leave school have been progressively devalued, a fear which has gathered pace with the replacement of proper tests at A level by “modules” that allow candidates huge scope to massage their work until it secures a pass. .... [Education Secretary] Mr Clarke’s answer to this, to be outlined tomorrow, is yet further dilution of academic standards with school-leaving examinations to be “broadened” to give marks for such activities as “playing for the local village cricket team” or being “involved in the production of the school play”. Instead of improving maths, English, science, history and languages, the bread and butter education working-class children need to compete in the modern world, Mr Clarke’s answer is to let them eat cake in the cricket pavilion."

Meanwhile, Janet Daley notes that public opinion is ahead of elite received wisdom on publicly funded healthcare and education.

"Most of these people also have at least the beginnings of an idea of why the old system is letting them down. It is becoming clear to them that governments are not very good at running the kind of individually tailored services that they want. They are not even very good at planning on a large scale, which is supposed to be its strong point. There is a staff shortage in healthcare now which will become more acute when the working time directive limits the hours that junior hospital doctors can work. The state made a mistake: it underestimated the future demand for healthcare. Instead of allowing as many suitable applicants as wanted it to have medical training, it rationed the number of places and excluded many would-be doctors from qualifications. Why? Because medical training is expensive and the state pays for it all. Ergo, it must not risk producing one more doctor than is strictly necessary. Allow diverse private financing to enter the picture and you could let as many people train to be doctors as the market demanded."

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Jon has an interesting contribution on the debate I've been having with his fellow Backseat Driver Dick. I have to respond to a few things, though.

"Frank characterises humanities courses as some sort of catch basin for the people who couldn't get into highly competitive professional courses (architecture, medicine, etc.) but nonetheless feel socio-culturally required to be in college."

Ok, I don't hold that this is the case for all those studying humanities but it is my impression that this is the case for a significant selection of them.

This, he argues, is an inefficient way of educating people, since those who graduate with humanities degrees aren't 'qualified' to do anything in particular; they'd do just as well to skip college and be unqualified without wasting state resources....Frank has a depressingly utilitarian view of what education is all about. While a humanities degree does not furnish its recipient with a clearly delineated and easily applicable body of professional knowledge, its value is not merely limited to cachet, as Frank derisively asserts. A humanities graduate should possess a skillset template consisting of critical thinking and clear communication that has applications in a number of fields, especially in the so-called knowledge economy.

The inefficiency is not so much that you are not qualified to do something in particular. Everything that Jon says about the benefits of a humanities degree is sound (indeed his description of the academic benefits of a humanities degree echoes my previous paen to mathematics). However what I mean is that a college education is an inefficient way of delivering the supposed non-academic benefits of being at college, "life experience", mixing with like-minded people, the social life, getting involved with student politics, and particularly: acquiring grand theories about the operation of capital and labour which are unsullied by contact with either capital or labour. I don't have a low opinion of humanities students or graduates, though I do have a low opinion of student politics.

"The second thing to say is that Frank's valorisation of professional training is misguided when it comes to certain professions. One need only look at the elevation of theory over practice in journalism or education courses to see that over-professionalisation is a real danger of following that line of thinking."

With the greatest of respect to Jon, this really isn't much of an argument. It is true that teacher training, particularly in the UK has succumbed to a lot of idiotic fashionable theories, it is hard to see how "under-professionalisation" would fix this. There's nothing to say that professional training and practical experience are mutually exclusive. Journalism school is a separate issue, there is a valid argument that J-School is not not very successful at producing good hacks. That is a first principle objection. Nobody is saying that teacher training colleges shouldn't exist. In any case, I don't intend to "valorise" professional training. I merely suggest that more places be made available for professional courses and less be made available for humanities. This would make it easier to get into the sought after courses and the humanities courses would accept only the most academically gifted students.

"Finally, it has to be said that Frank is setting up a straw man. To argue that the high points required to get into most professional courses is an objective reflection of their desirability is disingenuous. Surely Frank knows that artificially limited availability of places underlies this phenomenon, just as it underlies the salary levels graduates can expect. Because the State limits the number of physiotherapists, doctors, architects, lawyers, etc. that enter the job market every year, the remuneration for those professions is artificially inflated, making them artificially attractive relative to other jobs (teaching being a significant exception, I admit). If the number of places was unlimited, I believe we'd have a clearer picture of what is professionally desirable."

Ok, now who's being disingenuous. There is a clear relationship between the limited supply of places for professional courses and the demand for those places. This obviously drives up the points requirement. It is a lot more tenuous to say that this demand is generated by the supposed premium remuneration available due to limited supply of university places. For one, the fixed number of places may ultimately result in a static number entering the job market by graduating but the new crop of graduates each year is pretty small compared to the overall numbers employed for each profession. There is also the phenomenon of immigration into Ireland which also produces new entrants into the job market. Much as I would also wish more places be made available, a better indicator of whether salaries are "artificially inflated" would be whether there were restrictions in the market place which limit numbers in a particular profession and not the number of university places available. This is only the case in few professions, and not, I hasten to add, for architecture. Jon may be surprised to learn that the majority of buildings built in Ireland are not designed by architects.

"I think Frank has it backwards: it's not middle class social pressure to be in college that inefficiently skews Irish third level education, it's narrow professional acquisitiveness incentivised by central planning."

If we cannot agree on the reason for it - and I think Jon is mistaken in the level of control he believes "the professions" have over government planning - at least we can concur that Irish third level education is skewed. Backwards or forwards the same remedy seems to apply: more places available for "professional" courses.
I've managed to irk Backseat Drivers' Dick, all the way over in Las Vegas.

"I think its disingenuous to say that universities are filled with people pursuing humanities courses merely to avoid entering the jobs market. A huge proportion of successful people in today's workforce are humanities graduates. Although there isn't as clear a career path at the end of a humanities degree, it doesn't imply that it's a waste of time."

It may not be a waste of time but it may be a wasteful way of achieving that result. Who is to say that the "successful person" wouldn't be just as successful without that humanities degree? How often is the substance of the particular degree more relevant than the cachet that comes with being a graduate?

"I'm not sure if I understand his point here. Third level fees were only abolished in the mid-nineties. Up until then there was still a large portion of third level students pursuing humanities degrees, at a cost to either themselves or their parents. If I'm reading him correctly he then goes on to advocate a complete withdrawal of state funding for third level education in order to make the universities subject to market forces. Higher fees would only rule out third level education for an even larger proportion of people."

Not necessarily, there are other ways of opening up access to higher education short of a universal subsidy. You can have grants and scholarships for poorer students. Let me elaborate my main point: one indicator of the desirability of a course is the level of points required for entry. Humanities courses are relatively easy to get into when compared to "professional" courses. This suggests to me that there is an "over-supply" and that the primary function of these courses, at least from the point of view of many applicants and their parents, is a reason to "be at college". This is inefficient to say the least. I don't claim that state funding of universities is the only, or even primary, factor here, probably parental expectations are more important.

"As to tipping the balance in favour of the professions, I'm not sure if this will work. If someone doesn't want to be a solicitor or an architect, they won't study for it, no matter what the cost. The number of people who voted with their feet when fees were in place proves the point. They were high enough as it stood for it to be a factor in anybody's decision."

This is not quite correct. The fact that it is difficult to get into the "professional" courses suggests that there is an "under-supply": There are more applicants than places. Architecture isn't a particularly demanding course from purely academic point of view (it can be difficult if you don't have a facility for design but the leaving cert cannot "measure" this). Because it is considered to be a desirable career, it is, however, a difficult course to get into. The overall point is not that universities should abandon Humanities courses but that the primary function of these courses should be academic study and this may mean raising the entry threshold and restricting places.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Raff at Right-Wing Analysis bemoans the fact that HSBC are to offer a special mortgage package for British Muslims. I think he misses the point. These special mortgages are already available and are designed so as the borrower "doesn't pay interest" which is forbidden to devout Muslims. As I understand it there is an agreement that the building society hands retains ownership of the property for the period of the mortgage while the borrower 'rents' from them and hands over the property at the end, rather like many car "lease" arrangements. It is not that they are exempt from interest, just that the building society make back the equivalent of the interest in the agreed rent. I'm sure that this arrangement, in the unlikely event of it being required, would be available to any non-muslim applicant so it's not discriminatory. Think of it like Kosher food or Halal meat.
Shane O'Toole modifies his usual Irish-architecture-boosterism this week to praise the public sector for delivering the high quality architecture he maintains the private sector cannot. The basis for this assertion is the preponderance of "public buildings" in this year's Irish architecture awards. Provocatively he insists

"Two innovative, award-winning buildings out of 20 isn’t much of a haul for the free marketeers. Where is the private sector innovation Ireland needs to maintain the competitive momentum of recent years? Who would have thought that one of the great architectural legacies of the Celtic tiger, with its emphasis on the individual and wealth creation, would be a raft of fine local government buildings?"

As an architect, and indeed a "free marketeer", I feel bound to respond. Shane's analysis seems to me to be (at the risk of irritating William Sjostrom) simplistic. There's a few points which I'd like to make, ignoring for now the fact that many architects don't have the time to submit schemes for these awards so they may be an unreliable indicator of the breadth of Irish architecture.

Firstly, each of the examples of "fine local government buildings", were designed by private architectural firms and not by staff employed in-house by the local authority. This is an important distinction: If great claims are going to be made about "the public sector" versus "free marketeers" it is worth noting that, with honourable exceptions, architectural innovation tends to thrive not within public sector bureaucracies but in private sector architectural practices. Secondly, these designs were selected by a competition process, the majority of the assessors for which were from outside of the local authority concerned. This means that the "public sector" wasn't responsible for designing these buildings, or even mainly responsible for "procuring" them. The extent of public sector responsibility seems to have been for paying for them. Not only that, if Shane is to be believed, the public sector is paying over, what the private sector considers to be, the odds.

Let's try to look at Shane's argument from another angle. Let's say I am going to buy a car. I have limited funds available so I go for a compact hatchback, nothing fancy, but will get me from the proverbial a to b. Let's say my neighbour is flush with funds, maybe he even has to spend the money by a certain period of time. He takes a look at my not-so-hot hatch and figures it is somewhat lacking so he buys a beautifully designed Audi TT. It would seem somewhat perverse to castigate me for my unimaginative purchase and praise my neighbour for supporting better quality design without taking the contrasting financial situations into account.
Carrie/Ma Bear has a gripping post detailing the "Independence Day" raid on her house.

"At the end of the raid, they asked us had we any complaints. Of course we both said we’d like to complain about the fact they raided us to begin with, but that wasn’t the sort of complaint they meant. They started to file out the hallway, ready to leave, and asked if we’d any last words, just to be sure. “Yeah, get the hell out of my house, you bastards!” I said. Better late than never. They laughed. What could you do?"
The Irishman arrested in Israel on suspicion of assisting Palestinian terrorists isn't named in today's British and Irish papers but Ha'aretz don't mind telling us who he is. (via Eoin)

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Great article in todays Sunday Times: I noticed on Samizdata a while back that The Adam Smith Institute had done a bit of research into the myriad of fatuous administrative public sector jobs which are advertised each week in The Guardian's "Society" section. In one 12 month period, 30,000 jobs were sought at a cost of over £1bn. Following on from this, Gareth Walsh decided to apply for a few.

"With myriad targets set by the government, armies of managers are needed not only to chase progress but to collect data and fill in paperwork. I ran into an extreme example of this when I was being interviewed at Nottingham city council for the post of “monitoring and evaluation officer” of its children’s projects. Wiser by now to the ways of the public sector, I innocently asked John Seals, a programme manager, whether there were any plans for “evaluating evaluation”. To my amazement, he replied: “Yes . . . we will be combining this post internally with an external, arm’s-length evaluation programme as well, which will probably be conducted by a university or something like that. We are tendering at the moment."

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Via Emily, found another new Irish Blog: Right-Wing Analysis. Brave name: I mentioned before about how queasy we Irish are about being considered "right-wing".

Oh, and Emily also has a pretty good Toynbee Takedown.
One person who typifies the kind of smug, reflexive, British extreme-leftism that I abhor is "actor", "comedian", but above all, trotskyist agit-propper Jeremy Hardy. Imagine my amusement then to read in the Travel section of today's Guardian that, of all possible places to visit, the one most highly recommended by the humourless "humourist" is the village where I live.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Comrade George!

Words you didn't think you'd read:

"President Bush..'s much more of a socialist than he lets on."

Andrew Sullivan on agricultural subsidies. I think you're overstating your case there Andrew, just a tad.
I've been very busy "off-line" for the last few days so I missed the opportunity to comment on a few things that caught my eye. One of those was the leader in yesterday's Irish Times about housing. It really is breathtaking in its presumption, crazy stuff, yet it is remarkable how widely held such authoritarian and economically-illiterate ideas are.

"The Coalition Government's performance on housing has been a shambles."

Ok, I agree with this but not for the same reasons as the Irish Times.

"And last week's announcement that State land will be provided for the construction of affordable homes should be treated with caution."

Caution? how about dissent. This very proposal is a good example of the type of interventionist policies that contribute to the shambles.

"Of course, anything that alleviates the plight of first-time home-buyers is to be welcomed. But the Government's aspiration to provide 10,000 such homes during the three-year partnership programme, "Sustaining Progress", is likely to be dogged by planning, zoning, administrative and other delays. A more sober assessment by local authority officials is that 400 affordable homes will be built within two years in Dublin, and others at a later date.

Here's a little thought for the Irish Times, what if, God forbid, the government cut through all the red tape, all the "planning, zoning, administrative and other delays" for everyone. Ever think that maybe developers being "dogged" is one of the reasons why there aren't as many affordable houses available? It is a common misconception that builders act in a kind of cartel: House prices are kept high by the builders "agreeing" between themselves. This is just rubbish. The primary interest of any capitalist, as developers are, is to make money, not safeguard their competitors' income. If they can make money by undercutting the guy next door it won't cost them a second thought. The reason any house price is "high" is because someone is willing to pay that price. Increase the supply and builders might have to compete with each other on price.

"Earlier this year, the Coalition buckled under pressure from the building industry and changed a legal requirement whereby 20 per cent of all new development sites had to be set aside for social and affordable housing. That requirement had been upheld by the courts and was used effectively by Fingal and other county councils to provide low-cost housing. Builders are now being permitted to offer financial compensation to councils instead of housing."

This is a bit misleading. What the IT is referring to here is "Part 5 agreements" which, since 2000, are now required for every development greater than 4 residential units. What Part 5 agreements stipulate is that private developers must supply to the local authority, in addition to the houses or apartments they intend to build for sale, a selection of affordable houses and council houses up to 20% of the total. This obviously involves a massive extra cost. In addition there is a requirement to socially engineer these developments to provide a "social mix" i.e. developers cannot "ghettoise" the social or affordable housing and must place them alongside the private housing. This is a massively intrusive apparatus and as you might imagine, particularly outside Dublin, goes down like a lead balloon with developers and, more importantly, the market. Like it or not, most house-buyers don't particularly want "social mix". You may recoil at that sentiment but the cost of trying to enforce social mix, financially and in terms of personal freedom seriously outweigh the supposed benefits.

Additionally, the complexities involved administering the new system are horrendous and add significantly to the cost of making a planning application. You may also recoil at the idea of builders wanting to make money, you may even think "they have made enough money" but that is irrelevant, nobody is going to bother to build a single house unless they can make money doing it. The net effect of all of this has been to discourage housebuilding and many developers have looked abroad, particularly Spain and Portugal, for investments. The new regime still stipulates the social mix requirement but offers an option, at the local council's discretion to extract protection money take a financial contribution from the developer in lieu. This is still a bureaucratic nightmare.

This near-schizophrenic housing policy has been marked by the implementation and subsequent abandonment of various Bacon reports. Regulatory pressure was put on builders to provide more homes while, at the same time, a 60 per cent punitive tax on hoarded development land was scrapped.

I don't know what is more depressing, the fact that a supposedly centre-right government was even considering a 60% tax on an un-earning asset or a major newspaper like the Irish Times suggesting this as a reasonable proposal. Let us say some technocrat decided the IT hack's house was too big and an "inefficient use of scarce resource contributing to an alarmingly low housing density", how would they like it to receive a 60% tax bill for not dividing the house into two apartments? That is the whole point about private property you can decide what to do with it. Forcing someone to sell or develop land they don't wish to - and many of the people who would be affected by this are not builder/developers but often people who have been left farming land - is the mark of a tyranny, not a free society.

"Through it all, the cost of housing moved beyond the reach of average income earners. And the number of families on local authority waiting lists rose to 48,000. This is the Government's legacy. Tricking around with small parcels of State land will not change it."

No it will not, and neither will massive government intervention into the housing market or rafts of new regulations. The only thing that will "solve" the housing "crisis" is a more liberal planning regime. This might cut against the grain of those who believe any development is "unsustainable" but restricted and over-regulated development has a cost and that is high house prices.