Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Supporting Nick Clegg

Having maintained this blog as a beacon of untopicality for some time now, I am going to mention the leadership election. I have so far resisted doing this. Although I have supported Nick from the beginning, I'm not the sort to present my conclusions at the beginning of a campaign and expect other people to follow them. It is better form to be undecided for the duration of a campaign, follow the debates, and decide at the end. I don't live up to this standard myself, so crucify me.

First let me say that Chris is a capable candidate and would make a fine leader. His desperation to make the contest about policy was right up my street - I am the sort of person who would be happy to talk about nothing but policy. That it drove him to invent differences was unfortunate, but perhaps it was worth trying. As I have an interest in environmental policy, I particularly appreciate Chris's input and sharp elbows in that area. We disagree on a few details, but if we damned people for getting any policy details wrong, we would end up praising only those who say nothing about policy at all. On the other hand, if you make policy detail your selling point, you really ought to get it right. Perhaps this is a reason not to make policy detail your selling point.

And yet, even on this core issue Chris doesn't appeal to me more than Nick. As I said in the comments at the People's Republic of Mortimer
Chris, the charge isn’t that we aren’t scoring higher than other parties on our environmental policy.

The point here is that the environmental narrative is stuck in a rut - of too much that is small and symbolic, and not enough that will make a big difference - and frankly the preference for hair shirts and gloom over optimistic determination.

Now the zero carbon paper was quite good on these points, although I do have my problems with it, and I don’t think the measures proposed would add up to zero.

I think part of the environmental fatigue is down to governments passing the buck back to individuals, when there are a few simple, if expensive, measures that could be taken to significantly reduce carbon emissions, and that it is not individual sacrifices, but successful low carbon economies that will persuade the developing world to follow suit.

A well developed message along these lines will persuade more people to vote for the party with the better environmental policies.

This is much closer to Nick's position, when he talks about the frustration people feel when they try to do their bit, and government doesn't pull its weight.

What more could we ask of a leader than that he is like us, shares our interests, and advances our ideas more capably than we can? Doesn't Chris fit this mould best? I think it would be self-indulgent to prefer Chris to Nick. Yes, Chris is like us, but not always in the best way. Similarity to oneself has a halo effect on our judgement of people. Nick, on the other hand, is less like me, and more like what I aspire to be. He doesn't let his inner politician entirely take over his brain. He really listens, really thinks, and really engages. This is better (honestly) than fishing out a relevant quote from some US president or liberal philosopher. I think - and maybe this is a quirk of my personal philosophy - that it is a slight misapplication of values to always ask "how do my settled beliefs and values tell me to respond in this situation"?

To put it another way, Mill does not justify what we say in a political discourse. Rather, what we say should be justifying Mill. The former style ossifies our beliefs, and creates a distance between us and an interlocutor. Part of Nick's magic is breaking down that distance. While I've not discussed the finer points of this angle with either candidate, I find Nick's approach far more satisfying and refreshing than Chris's.

And where policy differences have appeared, I find myself agreeing with Nick. A pupil premium, yes. Effectively take that premium away from those presently most ill-served by giving it to everyone? No. As an aside, I wonder which of these policies is supposed to be the more left-wing. Nick's which explicitly addresses unfairness, or Chris's which just spends more public money overall. While obviously more money for education would be good, budgeting is difficult, and it would add more heat than light to a leadership debate for candidates to start promising more for this cause or that.

Don't renew Trident now? Yes. Develop a new nuclear weapon? No. I am still waiting for somebody to explain to me why developing a new nuclear system is better than buying one off the shelf, or, if you are buying one off the shelf, why you would tell the salesman in advance that you are not buying some alternative. If you are going to make an issue of a disagreement you have with party policy, I would expect it to be on something a little more substantial.

I doubt policy will have much impact at the end of the day on this contest; there are some differences, but no clear water of any colour. What I suggest makes a compelling reason to vote for Nick Clegg, and for that matter, to vote for the Liberal Democrats, is the chance to reach out and build a coalition around liberalism. I quite like the talk about "British liberalism", this is in many ways a very liberal country. When we see a schoolteacher in Sudan arrested for how her children wanted to name a teddy bear, this should remind the whole country of the vital importance of liberalism, and we need to be up there with the rallying cry. It is under attack, from Labour, from the Greens, from Conservatives, from tyrants and protectionists worldwide. This is where we stand and fight.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Child benefit data: Making the simple expensive

One thing that particularly appals me about this fiasco, on top of all the things that appal us all, is the revelation, here, that
Mr Leigh said the reason given for turning down the NAO request was that desensitising information would require an extra payment to data services provider EDS.
Have we really surrendered so much control over government IT to consultants, that simple operations on the data are now impossible?

A colleague of mine was working a few years ago, on a job which involved having customer information on a laptop, which he would carry about with him. One simple step he took before leaving the building was issue a command to his copy of the database, such as
UPDATE Customers SET BankAccountNo = '12345678'
This obliterated all the bank account numbers, replacing them with 12345678, thus rendering the laptop rather less sensitive. It would probably take 30 seconds to type and run. And it is not rocket science: you could learn sufficient SQL for this sort of operation on a 1 day course, if you were not smart enough to get it from the manual.

Even this, of course, was not good enough. The company should have had a security policy and a security system that prevented the bulk capture of this sort of data. He didn't need these bank account numbers in the first place - it was just simpler to copy the whole database.

The idea that such a simple operation might involve a significant cost is breathtaking. I can understand that if a consultant has to be called in, even for 30 seconds work, there are many ancillary costs, and a fairly hefty bill may be reasonable. But this just emphasises the importance of having some basic competence over your core activities. By all means outsource development projects, but don't outsource control or understanding.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 12: The Economy and Climate Change

As expected, Chris Huhne delivers the goods on this. He
advocates a package that can be constructed without hurting the poor or even compromising on redistribution.
Which is overselling a little - there is real competition for spend between social and environmental projects, and even if the green taxes levied are largely progressive or neutral, they will have knock on effects on product prices and the cost of living.

However, I can forgive Chris for getting a little carried away. (Hmm, change of house-style there. First names from now on.)

We start with a nice go at the Green Party's "eco-Marxist" or anti-growth position
Since growth is, in one view, the end result of so many other actions freely undertaken by individuals and companies, albeit within a framework set by government, this implies that we must abandon the principle that we are free to do as we will so long as the activity is not forbidden by law. It implies a process of licensing and permission that is deeply antithetical to liberal values. It would, indeed, be reminiscent of the Soviet Union's economic planning by Gosplan.
this is something I have been trying to say on this blog for some time, but Chris has put it better.

Most of the arguments that follow will be familiar to those who have read the zero carbon paper agreed at Brighton 2007. Carbon trading and green taxes are extolled. More direct measures are advocated in areas like home energy efficiency where many are locked to the assets they have and so pure price signals would generate much pain and little movement. We go on to such things feed-in tariffs, LVT, and leapfrog funds for developing nations.

The overall picture here is that we can decarbonise the economy, with technology that largely exists already, at not to great a cost, and that by doing this we can end any dilemmas about supporting development in the third world. This is a position I wholeheartedly endorse.

However, I do have a few issues with some of the details.

First Chris seems unduly keen on cap and trade and the EU ETS. He even suggests it comes before green taxes in the hierarchy of liberal economic instruments. I find this pretty breathtaking. Trading never beats taxation - sure it sounds better - but the two are equivalent in theory: a price is put on something that must be limited, to allow the market to place those limits in the most efficient places. In practise it is easier to calculate the right level for a pigovian tax and let the market find the level than calculate the right level and let the market find the price. A more stable price, futhermore, is a clear political signal and a better guide to investment that might be scared off by volatility.

The EU ETS goes further wrong in giving permits away, which is effectively giving public money away for nothing. And what does this mean? Windfall profits as the "opportunity costs" of not reselling these free permits is passed on to consumers. And new entrants to the market - just what we need to maximize innovation - are virtually kept out as they don't get these grandfathered freebies.

Finally, I would suggest that international agreements on national carbon limits and carbon trading will be vastly more difficult to reach - because it implies a divvying up of the climate commons - than an agreement that each country will simply tax its own emissions and keep the revenue. A lower rate for developing countries if they want, fine. Political transparency for which countries are pulling their weight, and which are freeloading? Yes, please.

Moving on. Chris advocates a legislative requirement on energy companies to sell less energy from one year to the next, hoping this would incentivise them to provide energy efficiency grants to customers. I find this pretty barmy. As long as the power is connected it is the consumer who chooses how much to use. Rather than legislate a duty on suppliers they don't have the power to meet, why not tax or ration or otherwise seek to influence the person with their finger on the switch. And any scheme like this inverts the normal incentives to sell your product with penalties and incentives will be highly gameable. There'll be more windfall profits here and no gains. A better insulated home is a public good and a good for the occupants. Why should an energy supplier (who we might rotate every 3 months) pay for this at all?

Feed-in tariffs are another measure, widely advocated for domestic microgen, but on which I am fairly cautious. I fully support the idea for big wind and so forth, where a couple of pence per unit will make all the difference. Chris suggests a feed-in tariff of 4 times the feed-out rate for domestic microgen. At that rate I could buy, or build, a flywheel and sell grid electricity back to the grid on a slight delay. We shouldn't feel such a need to pay for something - like tiny amounts of domestic microgen electricity - what is clearly a great deal more than it is worth. We should be doing the cheapest first, and will probably never get to give-away feed-in tariffs for domestic microgen. I dare say this position may be unpopular but it is part of my crusade to promote what is practical at the expense of what is symbolic.

These problems all exist in the zero carbon paper, which, furthermore didn't seem to propose enough to bring emissions down quite that far. Chris has his questionable zeros here too. I didn't seek to oppose or amend the paper because I think it has basically the right approach, as does this chapter.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Answering the Hung Parliament question

Our frustration at a quarter of Question Time being spent on the hung parliament question was palpable. Yet at the same time I think there is understandable frustration that neither candidate gave a what would seem to a non-party observer to be a straight answer.

This would be my 'straight' answer:
It is most unlikely that we would end up in a coalition with either party after the election, because I can't see either of them offering to implement anywhere near enough of our manifesto for it to be worth the grief and shame of having to support chunks of their manifesto in return.

However, it is absolutely vital not to rule anything in or out, not to publish any of our 'red lines', because to do so will diminish our leverage should there be any bargaining after an election, and would therefore be a betrayal of our voters and our values. We have no more duty to prop up a minority government than any other party, and we would be just as demanding as any other party in that situation.

There's no point asking us which of the other parties we are closer to, because we don't know what they stand for any more. Frankly, we doubt that they know what they stand for. We are not trying to win votes as a kind of indirect support for one of the other parties - if you support another party, then vote for it, but if you share our vision of a freer, fairer and greener Britain, then vote for us.

A bit painful to say? Perhaps. Might it stem the flow of this question a little? Perhaps. What's the worst that could happen? What am I missing here?

A Tory-Labour coalition might be the most logical, but too much tribal instinct is against it. So while we should suggest it as a natural outcome, it is not a likely outcome. And it is, still, a little evasive not to say more than this.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 11: Globalisation and the Role of the British State

David Hall-Matthews revisits and refers approvingly to the topic of Chris Huhne's chapter of the Orange Book. He makes many very good points that globalisation's detractors ought to be aware of. For instance, globalisation is largely enabled by governments, not imposed upon them.
...anti globalisers' fears about the loss of state control are exaggerated, but have political significance. On the other hand, the far more serious threat of future global recession, as part of normal - if unpredictable - economic cycles is arguably not discussed enough in political treatises on globalisation.
This is an important point. We must not let fear of the political consequences blind us to the benefits of trade. Nonetheless Hall-Matthews has some suggestions for achieving a balance between the promotion of trade and protecting people and the environment. Largely, they are familiar Liberal Democrat ideas: democracy, transparency, localism, protection of the vulnerable and so forth.

Only occasionally is the neck stuck out...
As Nicholas Stern showed in his analysis of the impact of climate change, it is possible - and politically necessary - to estimate the economic costs of failing to spend now to prevent future calamity. Calculating what is needed to maintain a motivated and adaptable workforce should therefore take priority over the desire to cap public spending as proposed by Vince Cable.
A slightly odd example, perhaps, since the production and exchange of more expensive low-carbon energy might all happen in the private sector, and not impact the size of the public sector at all. Let's not slip into the lazy error that good can only be done by the state. In any case Hall-Matthews is not addressing Cable's argument. Of course there are a great many compelling demands on public money - if there weren't we could talk about reducing taxes. Listing them does not address the need for discipline, if not at 40% then at some (what?) higher figure.

I am a little unsure of the tone of this chapter, that maybe it talks up the power of governments a little too much in distinguishing globalisation from anarchy. Perhaps there are some good ways in which governments are less powerful too. Still, the thrust is correct, that we do not need to surrender the good things that governments do.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 10: The Politics of Parenting: Confronting the F Word

Matthew "two chapters" Taylor returns with a chapter about how marvellous parents are for children.
In terms of policy it is crucial that welfare provision does not punish couples in relation to lone parents, but given the advantages to children of two-parent models [3 would be greedy], the state must take pains to ensure that tax and benefits do not discourage it, and that we do not allow the idea that children do just as well when mum is on her own. The fact is that on average they do worse and we need to admit it.
I will credit Taylor that when he says "do not allow the idea" he means "disagree with the idea", otherwise, ouch, this is suddenly all about crimethink.

The whole tone of the chapter is that this is a daring kind of position. The F word of the title is not fuck or federalism, but family. As if this couldn't be said without attacking single parents, which is nonsense. But I must say that I am utterly oblivious to the outrage that Taylor clearly expected this chapter to generate. Whether it is families, or "moral issues" or immigration, I am sick of people complaining that they "must be allowed" to talk about it. Stop bleating and just get on with talking about it, will you?

Taylor rightly attacks the Tory focus on marriage not children. The Labour determination to send single parents to work is a more difficult target. There are swings and roundabouts to working for a single parent, depending on many factors, and generalised judgements fail.

But the real problem with Taylor's argument, the conflict which he fails to address, is that if the system rewards the two-parent family, then by contrast it punishes those families most in need: the single-parent families. Yes, it is absurd that two parents on benefits will be better off if they split up, and much better off if one was working. It is also absurd to talk about the most disadvantaged children while targetting assistance at the more fortunate. There's a nettle here to grasp one way or the other - not of a moral assault on single parents, but a financial one.

Taylor rightly observes that we seem, as a society, to have low expectations of fathers when it comes to bringing up their children. So I am a little surprised that there is no discussion of the trend in Colorado family courts and elsewhere to award equal parenting time (duty) to each parent, and a presumption against deeming either parent 'absent'. This would seem to reflect the change in attitudes towards fathers that Taylor advocates. Perhaps there are problems with it too, but it is surely worth a mention.

Instead of tackling these difficult questions head on, the chapter spends most of its time on the safe and easy ground of the widely recognised crises in childhood and parenting: parent(s) always working, kids in front of the TV/Space Invaders, etc. And so often the answer lies in saying the f word, breaking the taboos that prevent governments addressing these problems, rather than what would be rather more useful: policy suggestions for actual interventions that might do some good. If you can't think of any such interventions, then perhaps what you are calling a taboo is in fact a sound division of labour between the family and the state.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 9: Status versus Friendship and the Common Good

I was hoping that now we are out of the "principles" section that chapters would contain less grumbling about the state of the world, and more putting it to rights. Lynne Featherstone lets me down somewhat.

The key question of the chapter is this:
How can we create structures and environments the value our human good qualities more and place less importance on wealth and status?
Unfortunately it doesn't appear until the tenth page. First we have 9 pages of analysis, some good, some not so good, largely in the vein of Brack, Taylor, Titley and Boyle.

These are the by-now familiar sentiments:
So, whilst it is undoubtedly more comfortable to be rich and miserable, we are all, in reality, miserable.
Wow. Speak for yourself.
...but the periods of relief provided by quick fix solutions or the momentary glow from retail therapy are getting shorter and shorter.
Is this supposed to show some self-awareness? It doesn't ring true. This is mere received wisdom about other people being too stupid to make the right decisions.

I don't suggest that there is no problem here, or even that politics should be indifferent to happiness, but if it were really this bad, if everybody were miserable, we probably ought to promote global warming or nuclear armageddon asap.
And what role, if any, does government have in all of this? This is tricky territory to tread; one false slip of the sentence and you open yourself up to pastiche for wanting a Ministry of Fun, or force-fed humour courses with every meal.
Right. So we are not looking to make fun for people, perhaps just leave them freer to pursue happiness instead of bargains. It may be difficult to see how to do this, but it is a prize worth pursuing.

Anyway Featherstone continues in a similar vein for some time, making some good points, but seemingly harking back to some past golden age that probably never actually existed.
So why, then, are the joys of life apparently in such short supply? Status has got out of kilter with friendship, and the common good has been crushed under a stampede of selfishness.
I am left wondering which historical period was less status-ridden, or served better the common good, than the present.
Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources.
No, that would be property and usufruct. Status and friendship are not about resources, but, rather are different kinds of social capital. They have a great deal to do with happiness, but, as Featherstone observes, getting your share of retail therapy (resources) is not what brings happiness.

I guess the idea is that if we were more equal, we could all be friends instead of being superiors and inferiors, and therefore we would be happier. I think this is a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, what suggestions do we have for making progress?
Government can hardly order people to talk to, or like, their neighbours, but at the micro scale, what about councils doing more to help and encourage the organisation of street parties so that people get to know each other?
Well cancel armageddon. Street parties will make us happy. A fine idea, although I suspect that they would become rapidly less appealing with each slight hint of state involvement. And I can't help but think this is something that the middle classes will do more, increasing the social capital gap between them and the poor. A benefit yes, but not one that tackles inequality.

There are two or three more good ideas of this sort of ilk. Do they begin to match the rhetoric of doom and gloom, of the lost Eden? No, but this was overblown in the first place. This mismatch between the scale of the problem and the power of the potential solutions demonstrates that the pursuit of happiness is principally something for individuals and communities and not for governments or politics.

Reinventing the State Chapter 8: Using Community Politics to Build a Liberal Society

We now move into the "individuals, communities and the state" section of the book, with Mark Pack's spirited advocacy of community politics. He makes some similar arguments to this excellent piece by James Graham - that we need to be willing to go beyond that which generates casework, to cut ourselves out of the loop where people have the chance to engage more directly with local government.

A few interesting points...
Certainly, I can take good care of my pet goldfish but in the overall cause of animal welfare, the question of whether or not I can influence my local council's meat purchasing policies is far more important. A lifetime of responsible goldfish tending will not begin to equal the influence of the local council. Altering my behaviour may be morally correct, virtuous and even help set a good example to others (which in turn may affect others, which in turn...) but it has major limitations.
I agree. What is interesting is how little this seems to have impacted on environmental politics. We don't seem to recognise somehow the near irrelevance of whether a single person flies, drives a tank, holds weekly bonfires or whatever it is. Instead there is a tendency to condemn someone who advocates the right policies if they don't meet a certain checklist of largely symbolic personal sacrifices.
the petitions on the 10 Downing Street website are - currently - an unfortunately good example of drive-by democracy ... the system essentially allows only just this very brief and superficial engagement with the issue.
Not to mention that the petitions themselves are mostly banal, bonkers or both. I sign a few myself from time to time, although I am not sure why. Pack contrasts this with the suggestion that councils might operate web forums to achieve better consultation and to make it easier for like minded people to find each other and form community groups. While I can only begin to imagine the pitfalls that might thwart such an initiative, the principle is breathtaking, exploding the quantity of public conversation, and the near invisibility of local politics.

While I don't appreciate everything Pack says; his dismissal of the importance of discussing the relative merits of the Meek and ERS forms of STV is particularly hurtful, I can only endorse this chapter of the book.