Tuesday, November 03, 2009

New Labour New Highs

In a masterful and courageous move, Labour has decreed that you do indeed get higher on cannabis than you do on mere class C drugs. Not as high as you would on a class A drug, of course, that is some serious shit, but if you find you only get a class C high, then I think you can report your dealer to trading standards.

At least that is, presumably the message Gordon Brown is trying to send. This is all about message after all, rather than inconvenient reality.

Unfortunately the message actually sent is that government drugs policy is arbitrary and not to be trusted. Science, it turns out, has a higher duty to the truth than it has to the tabloids, which makes it unsuitable as a guide to policy.

It gets worse. Had the message worked as intended, it would have implied that class C drugs are all broadly safer than cannabis and class B drugs about as dangerous as cannabis. That is to say the government wanted to send a message that it was soft on all drugs but cannabis - and softer indeed than the evidence would demand.

I am genuinely suprised that they do not reclassify all class C drugs as class B, all class B as class A, and all class A drugs as class A*. Grade inflation does the job in education, why not here. And it would prove that they are being tougher than ever on drugs.

Sign the petition.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Strange angle on road deaths

In the news today is a report showing that children in deprived areas are four times more likely to die in road accidents than those in wealthier locations, and that therefore deprived areas should get priority in funding for speed bumps, cameras etc.

On the face of it that sounds fair enough, but actually it is deeply confused and offensive. Funding for traffic calming should go to where it has the greatest benefit. If this correlates with poverty, then more of it will go to poor areas, as it should. But where there are accident hotspots in prosperous areas these should be dealt with on an equal basis.

The idea that poor areas should get priority just because poverty correlates with risk, is a bit like saying you should hire tall people when you want smart employees because height correlates with intelligence. (You shouldn't, you should test your applicants' intelligence.)

The suggestion here is that the life of a richer child is worth less than the life of a poor child, and that is grossly offensive. The implication is that reducing child deaths is not the policy goal, but rather equalising child deaths across the social divide, as if this were a front in the class war.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Greens and Keynes: total muddle

You'd think it would be a simple question. Do the Greens support the fiscal stimulus to get the economy growing again, or do they, like the Tories, consider it more important to balance the budget sooner?

Logically, as the Greens are not supposed to be that keen on economic growth anyway, you would expect the latter answer. But that has to be weighed against visceral knee-jerk opposition to the Tories.

So I've been intrepidly commenting on Green blogs trying to get to the bottom of this. Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon was cheering the return of Keynes but wouldn't explain whether she wanted the growth that Keynesianism is thought to deliver.

When Jim Jay attacked Cleggy over the "savage cuts" remark, I asked whether opposing growth won't mean even savager cuts in the long run. And I get some vague guff about a "paradigm shift away from a capitalist economy", which is a rather vague answer to quite a specific question.

And now Rupert Read adds mud to the water with a pithy condemnation of growth. So is he against the fiscal stimulus? He wouldn't say.

This muddle is all the more surprising when we consider that it would actually be quite easy for no-growth Greens to come up with a clear and consistent position. If you think that the Tories are correct that balancing the budget now is better for prosperity in the long run, then go with Keynsianism. And if you think the Keynsians are right that a fiscal stimulus now is better for prosperity in the long run then go with balancing the budget. You'd have to half agree with the Tories either way, and I guess this is the problem.

Now it turns out that growth figures are about how much the goods and services we supply each other are worth to us, and not about how much environment is destroyed, and so the greens really ought to be a bit more specific and focus their attentions on the actual destruction of the environment rather than on an aggregate statistic like GDP that includes a great many good and unobjectionable things.

But no. Far from being more specific, their solutions just get vaguer. Paradigm shifts. Alternatives to capitalism, as yet unspecified. Read's suggestion of a stimulus to stabilise the economy is at least specific, but suggests that his green new deal should stop dead as soon as growth figures go positive.

Often on specific policies the Greens sound like what is simply a high tax-and-spend party. And this too, would make sense particularly if you want to strangle the economy. But ask them about economics or political philosophy, and they will never say this. Why choose this vague waffle over a simple policy that meets your objectives? Is some deeply held contradiction at work here?

This is a breathtaking shortcoming for what claims to be a serious political party. What have they been thinking about for the last 20 years?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why MPs should stop complaining and pay up

Various MPs are disputing the fairness and legality of Thomas Legg's retrospective application of limits to cleaning and gardening expenses. They shouldn't. Their argument is that if you employer approved your expenses, they shouldn't later change the rules and ask for it back.

The problem with this picture is that the parliamentary fees office isn't the MPs' superior, it is their subordinate. You cannot pass the buck to a subordinate. This is not a case of your boss saying "you can claim for this". It is more like your secretary saying "oh yes I'd claim for that if I were you".

If the rules failed to specify appropriate limits for such things as cleaning then it is quite right for Legg to invent them. The rules are also MPs' property, and their flaws cannot be blamed on anyone else.

This is not to say that Legg has got it right. He seems to have ignored the real money-spinner of subsidsed mortgages. I'd rather my taxes pay for cleaning and gardening than for mortgages which fund capital gains that go straight into an MP's pocket. (Although having said that, surely you generate no more dirt by living in two places, so cleaning costs in one should be largely offset by savings in the other.)

Is it unfair? Perhaps if you are one of the noble few who tried to reform this system sooner. But if you're that noble, you can live with it. You can welcome the slow approach of sanity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The tyranny of the harm principle

So I and possibly half a dozen other people voted against the ban on airbrushing, which was not surprising given the one-sided nature of the debate, and the near-universal, it seems, misunderstanding of JS Mill's harm principle. With hindsight I should have tried to speak myself.

The harm principle is a prohibition on banning things that don't cause any harm to others. It is not a sufficient justification for banning anything. Some bans are worse than the harms they would prevent. And many bans are wrong because they are ineffective at preventing the harms they are intended to prevent.

The problem is that it can be difficult to be seen to agree completely that a cultural meme like body fascism is a big problem causing considerable harm to many people, while at the same time rejecting a particular social engineering solution to it. Speaker after speaker spoke of the harm done by unrealistic expectations of plastic beauty, as if this were the point of dispute.

Sure, there are those - the libertarians - who would interpret harm in the narrowest possible way - the initiation of force - in order to delegitimise almost every law. At the other extreme communists might argue that competition causes harm - which it does to those who lose - and reject economic liberalism. Both may claim, wrongly, to be good Millians.

The error both are making is in looking for a rules-based formula for when something ought to be banned or not, and then arguing over the interpretation of the rules. And if you misunderstand the harm principle as saying what must be banned, rather than what must not be banned, it is understandable that you might want to adopt a narrow concept of harm, to minimise the assault on liberty.

I suggest that the harm principle should be seen in the context of Mill's utilitarianism. Specifically, that goods or ills have to be weighed up against each other. Some precious liberty against some moderate harm? It's a judgement call, and the answer is often a boring compromise: 70mph; no parking between 9am and 6pm; hotels must have fire alarms...

And the most useful liberties - such as the freedom to compete in business - are thus justified in spite of the legions of bankrupted suicidal failures.

So the communist has a broad concept of harm and prohibits a great deal. The libertarian has a narrow concept of harm and prohibits little. I agree with the broad concept of harm, but I would still prohibit only a little, understanding that the harm principle does not demand a prohibition.

So back to the airbrush ban. I suggest that the correct and healthy attitude to have towards advertising, celebrity culture and so on is a skeptical one. What you are seeing is not real. The danger is that an airbrush ban might make you think it is real, compounding the negative impact of the image. I don't see a prohibition intended to increase the confidence you might have in the fidelity of body fascistic images in the media as worth any loss of liberty.

Meanwhile I am looking forward to the men's policy paper. I continually find my self-esteem undermined by the portrayal in the media of men who are richer and more powerful than I am. I worry about all the boys facing these impossible comparisons. Something must be done.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Libertarian tropes #1: self-ownership

This is going to be a thorough demolition of libertarianism in a handful of blog posts. Today self-ownership. What does it mean?

Devil's Kitchen, in a comment here, explains it to us.
a fundamental—actually, the fundamental—principle of libertarianism is that you own your body (and your life): it is your property (to claim otherwise is to claim that someone else has a higher claim on your life).

Any property which you have legitimately come by is as much yours as your body is—because it is by your body’s efforts (and your mind’s talents) that you have earned said property.
The idea of property, then, is being used to justify liberty. Nobody should interfere what is owned by another, and you own your body, therefore you are free.

It is a bit churlish to disagree because it is a good conclusion, as far as it goes. Although property - even the libertarian's absolutist view of property seems rather weaker than necessary. Self-something-much-stronger-than-ownership, would be closer to the mark. You can after all be sued for your property in settlement of a debt. The suggestion that "property which you have legitimately come by is as much yours as your body" therefore raises the spectre of slavery (for debtors) contrary to the first half of the argument.

More to the point, why argue that liberty is a kind of property at all? Why not argue, say, that property is a kind of liberty? Which it is: the liberty to stop somebody else using some stuff that is considered yours. So it is a liberty and a restraint on liberty at the same time.

Well to be fair, the appeal of the libertarian argument is precisely that property is a kind of liberty. If you are against slavery, you should be in favour of this notion of property of ours that is also against slavery. Other concepts of human rights aren't as much against slavery as ours is, so there. Ultimately we see this is circular thinking. But if you don't notice the circularity, everything seems very well established.

It is much better to argue for property and liberty on their merits, which are manifold. Why does it matter whether one is notionally based on the other? If A is good and we extend an analogy from A to get B, does this mean B is good? No.

The trouble is, that if you argue for liberty and property on their merits, then similar merits also support human rights and democracy, and other good liberal principles, which libertarians would like their concept of property to trump every time. The reason they bang on so much about something so obvious and uncontroversial as opposition to slavery (self-ownership) is that their particular formulation is opposed to a broader sense of human rights and democracy. It is tragically mistaken of course - democracy and broad human rights make slavery less not more likely.

And isn't there also something a little odd about deducing your beliefs about diverse questions of policy from a handful of very particular principles such as opposition to slavery? Would you deduce your position on free trade from your position on embryo research?

Time for an illustration from the comment thread I linked to earlier.

I said
DK, if your relationship to your body is merely ownership, and nothing stronger than that, does that mean if you owe me money, and have no other assets, I can sue you for your body. To feed my dogs or something.
DK replied
Well, in theory, yes;
(splutter) YES??!?!?! That's got tea all over my keyboard.
or, indeed, I could rent you my labour until the debt is repaid.
Well I'm glad its not the only alternative.
But, if there is a hierarchy in the principles, that of life is sacrosanct—thus, you may claim my labour to repay the debt, but you may not kill me.
IF??? So you're not sure whether I may kill you in redemption of a debt?

There is a philosophical principle at work here - a mistaken on in my view - called foundationalism. The idea is that knowledge is something that is deduced from obvious axioms. By this standard is it seen as principled rather than brutishly stubborn to stick to the conclusions you draw from your axioms, no matter how absurd or evil they seem. If anybody disagrees with those conclusions, then they are pro-slavery evil communists blah blah blah. More on this from James Graham.

It is better, I suggest, to reassess those axioms and that reasoning. Self-ownership is a poor relation of liberty.

Apologies are due to the other kinds of libertarians out there to whom this might not all apply: anarchists, geo-mutualists, etc. If there is a less ambiguous term available for the kind of libertarian I am talking about I would be happy to use it. "Right-wing libertarian" perhaps?

Further tropes are planned for non-initiation of force, and for the homestead principle. And I am open to requests.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The make-believe world of consultation

Last weekend I was invited, along with 70 odd other random members of the public, to a consultation event with the local PCT over the priorities for future healthcare in Sheffield. As usual I could not refuse an opportunity to put the world to rights. A free lunch and £50 "expenses" was only icing on the cake.

But what did the PCT get for its, er, your money?

After the introductory speeches and getting-to-know-you gubbins, session 1 was on the subject of improving the patient experience.

On my table, the three main issues raised were i) the difficulty of making appointments ii) access to the latest high-tech medicine and iii) cleanliness. Our discussion had to be distilled into a top three, then a top one bullet point, which would be fed to the factilitators to be further distilled, along with summaries from other tables, and then voted on with radio keypad things.

Our demand, to be able to make appointments at all/reasonably soon/without having to argue with receptionists even when the doctor has told us we will need to make an appointment for such and such a symptom - was thus "distilled" into a demand for Saturday surgeries - that none of us had asked for - but was clearly already on the PCT agenda.

Session 2 was about how to measure patient satisfaction. What sort of surveys should the PCT be sending out to everyone, or should they be listening to complaints instead? Or perhaps clinical follow-up is better. Again our main points - that not everything needs to be measured, and that clinical outcomes are more important than more subjective measures - did not get past distillation. Of course PCT officials know how to interpret a survey whereby a patient reports 'very satisified/satisfied/neither satisfied nor dissatisfied/...' on each aspect of a service. It is something they can do. They don't know how to judge clinical outcomes. They might know how to measure less, but what would that do to the feeling of being in charge of a process you don't understand?

Session 3, after lunch, was probably the worst of the lot with various unrelated issues lumped together under the heading of patient safety! Should we address patient safety with more staff training? (So they don't make mistakes.) Or should we beef up building security? Or put better labels on drugs? Most bizarrely, IT systems were listed as an issue here - because of a potential threat to the safety of patient data - but the IT issue mutated into a rival positive claim for safety dollars.

Positive suggestions from the group: help for people who can't remember whether they've taken their pills or not, and measures to keep infectious swine flu sufferers out of waiting rooms, didn't make it through distillation. Instead we had a pointless debate over whether staff training was more important than properly maintaining the lifts.

The last session was on the criteria for deciding spending priorities. Not, please, anything specific, like mental health, or hip replacements, but general criteria. So we had the usual suggestion that smokers and drug users should be penalised, and that sort of thing. I suggested that clinical effectiveness should be the main criterion, thus cutting funding for chaplains, homoeopathy, ritual circumcisions, etc. I could have but didn't include PCT bureaucracy this time. And I suggested that we probably have too much campaigning for healthy living - that people who haven't got the message by now, probably won't.

This was the most useless distillation of all - it resulted in the following six options, which we then had to vote on:
1. Quality of Life
2. Education/prevention
3. Based on need
4. Improving efficiency
5. The cost of long term care
6. Value for money

What do these mean? Even the facilitator introducing the vote didn't understand quite what a vote for each would mean, although he graciously explained that every £1 spent on education would save £10 later. And so education won 45% of the subsequent vote. Apocryphal as it is, the £1/£10 figure may be right, although it is clearly an average and not a marginal cost - which means that any cuts or increases in education at the edges would have far far less impact.

But frankly every option but education/prevention was so abstract that we had could have no idea quite what would be cut and what would be funded if we supported it. Given one option that seems good, and 5 that don't mean anything concrete, it is not surprising that it scores highly.

The voting on the outcomes of session 2 was also pretty shocking. The idea of measuring less hadn't made it through distillation, and the prime importance of clinical outcomes wasn't offered as a clear option, and instead we had a choice of seven ways of measuring soft outcomes. The faciliator gave a patronising little speech about how you might think this was obvious - if you are treated and get better that is a good outcome - but now you realise there is a lot more to it than that. Next time I will interrupt and demand a vote on hard v soft outcomes.

Not that I'm saying soft outcomes don't matter - they just shouldn't be used to justify much expense or paperwork.

So the session is wound up with speeches telling us how useful this has been. We even voted on whether it was it a good idea to hold this consultation (97% yes) and would you come again (100% yes). We were told by one PCT official that the next time he was in a meeting arguing some corner or other he could say that the people of Sheffield were in agreement with him. Just look at the figures. This is what the PCT gets for your money. Ammunition.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Buses v Dogma

We know that state provision of services is generally inefficient and unresponsive to customers' needs compared to the private sector. So if a service can reasonably be provided by the private sector, then it should be. This is why buses were deregulated in the 1980s and it was a disaster. Unlike, say, water or rail, there was no regulation of fares and these went through the roof, and are still rising year on year above inflation. Instead of profitable routes cross-subsidising unprofitable routes, extra public money had to be found to subsidise these routes. A very few routes enjoy competition, high frequencies and occasional discount fares. But the majority of profitable routes are not worth fighting over, and the customer is treated as a captive cash cow.

So why this discrepancy between theory and practise? Free markets are competitive, but attempts to introduce them so often seem to bring uncompetitive rip-off practises instead. We (rightly) aren't willing to stand the withdrawal of the only mobility option from millions of vulnerable people, so we try markets plus subsidies, which inevitably corrupts the markets. And for this, the publicly owned asset - the right to run buses on profitable routes - was given away for nothing.

Today government wants more people to take the bus instead of driving, and PTEs up and down the country will spend money on better bus stops and better bus lanes, and more subsidies. And up and down the country bus companies say "thanks very much, and by the way we're putting up the fares again, and cutting services", and there isn't a sausage that can be done about this but to offer even more subsidies.

Yes, my local service, the 86 is facing the axe. The government closed our post office earlier this year, many pensioners expected to walk miles uphill to another, or to catch the, er, bus. An angry local has postered the bus stop calling this cut barbaric, quite rightly. So we have a campaign of leaflets, petitions, complaints to the council, the PTE, the MP. The PTE write back offering an hourly daytime-only service, which is pretty miserable. When you can never entirely trust a bus to turn up at all, an hourly service is hardly worth using - with a 15 minute service such unreliability is not such a big deal.

The government has flirted a little with largely unusable powers for PTEs to take on regulation of fares and timetables, so there is some recognition of the problem, but clearly no determination to bring it to a resolution. It's another Labour failure and we know the Tories - the original culprits - will do nothing. And both will probably blame the Lib Dem council. This is a vital issue for millions of people, and for the environment, that we should be taking a strong lead on.

And all parties should learn the lesson that involving the private sector, and giving away public assets to the private sector, is not the same thing as introducting competition and markets; it doesn't bring any of the benefits, and if we're not careful we end up paying way over the odds for inferior services.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AV would be brilliant

Not so brilliant for the Lib Dems, but good for democracy. Not as good as STV of course, but let's face it, what is?

First Past the Post is the cornerstone of the brokenness of our politics. It has the power to subvert all your campaigning efforts for a good cause, making that cause weaker instead of stronger.

Support the environment? Vote Green where the Lib Dems could win and you do more harm than good.

Support Euro-nihilism? Vote UKIP where the Conservatives could win and you have the opposite effect.

Support socialism? Vote Socialist Labour, where Labour could win, and, well maybe the pattern breaks down there.

Want to stand as an independent? The problem is that whichever party it is you consider least bad, you will take more votes from them than from the others. So unless you can be very confident of winning, you will only make things worse.

AV fixes all this. It lets you stand and campaign for what you believe in without damaging the causes you support. It lets you vote for what you believe in without having to second guess what the result will be and support the lesser evil.

Sure, it's not proportional. That stinks. But proportionality is not the only important feature of an electoral system. If it were we would support list systems rather than STV. And this is the worst time of all to hold a referendum on a proportional system, when the BNP have just won seats.

If Brown and his few friends plump for AV, we will probably get it. We could even have it for the next general election - it is the only reform that won't require years of boundary commission work. And it may be a stepping stone to STV or AV+, but not towards party lists.

If they plump for PR, the whole thing will be quietly dropped, "after considered reflection", the next time Griffin gets some publicity. Or, even worse, we have a referendum on it after weeks of the Tory press giving publicity to the BNP at every opportunity in order to get a "no" vote. It would then be off the agenda for decades. This is the single worst time for a referendum on PR. Give it a few years when a couple more nazi MEPs won't have brought the world to an end.

See also: Anthony Hook, Mark Reckons, Himmelgarten Cafe, Jock Coats, Sunder Katwala, and Duncan Borrowman (already linked)

Monday, June 08, 2009

What you should have voted to keep the BNP out

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but too many people have been stupidly talking up the BNPs chances to the point of self-fullfilling prophecy - often in a genuine attempt to keep them out, but sometimes to frighten their own disillusioned supporters into turning out. The one thing the BNP had none of the resources to do - a get the vote out operation - was done for them by their opponents.

But what I want to do here is look at who, with the benefit of hindsight, the anti-BNP voter should have voted for. Mostly to shame everybody else who claimed it could only be them.

So in Yorkshire, that is Labour, who could have beaten the BNP to the last seat with an extra 10270 votes. The Greens would have needed 15684, UKIP 26528 and others more.

In the North West, UKIP would have needed only 2448 more votes to beat the BNP, the Greens 4961 more, the Lib Dems 28549 votes, and others more.

In regions where the BNP failed we can see who took the last seat, and see how many votes ahead of the BNP they were.

In East Midlands, this is the Lib Dems 45109 votes to the good of the BNP.

In East of England, this is UKIP, second seat 59947 votes ahead of the BNP.

In London, the Conservatives are 73259 ahead of the BNP with their 3rd seat.

In the North East, the Lib Dems are 50944 ahead of the BNP.

In Scotland, Labour (2nd seat) are 87779.5 ahead of the BNP.

In the South East, the Lib Dems (2nd seat) are 63401 ahead of the BNP.

In the South West, the Conservatives (3rd seat) are 95358 ahead of the BNP.

In Wales, UKIP are 50471 ahead of the BNP.

In the West Midlands, UKIP (2nd seat) are 28268 ahead of the BNP.

What can we learn from this? Mostly that it is guesswork, and you are best off just voting for whoever you actually support. But perhaps these things can be predicted. To vote otherwise just because somebody is only 50,000 ahead of the BNP seems unreasonable. But could the results in Yorkshire and the North West have been predicted and prevented? Not without vastly more accurate polling, region by region, than we had. Who would pay for such polling, and would we trust it? Based on the polling we had, my calculations suggested that the Lib Dems, Labour or the Tories would be the best bet to beat the BNP in the North West, not, as it turned out, UKIP and the Greens.

And the best tactical voting strategy in the world wouldn't compensate for another 0.5% vote going to the fascists.

So maybe instead our non-fascist political class just needs to get out on the streets and argue its corner a bit more. To make a case for liberty, tolerance and human rights. To think twice about adding more layers of distance, obfuscation and technocracy between the people and their public services. Not just to tell people that they don't have to be evil to have a voice and a stake in society, but to make sure that it's true. And when people choose to be evil anyway, to oppose and defy them at every turn.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Greenpartywatch: Greens admit their policies are weak

Anders Hanson picks up a story in the Times covering some blogging covering the various parties positions on science related policy questions, and generally bemoaning the Greens' medieval denialist attitude to any science that doesn't support their agenda.

Anders quotes Green MSP Patrick Harvey, and it is worth repeating

I recognise that the Green movement has taken some time to develop from a single issue group, and perhaps in some areas we’ve some way to go yet… The best way of supporting our continued development is to subject us to parliamentary scrutiny, so that our policies can be tested alongside the rest.

Oh dear. And Adam Ramsey [Edit: not Adrian Ramsey, a Green PPC in Norwich]
I am an active member of the Green Party, but this policy is frankly moronic. It is not a manifesto commitment, so MEPs elected this year will not be pushing for it. Please consider what Greens parties are going to prioritise rather than some out dated policy the party hasn’t got round to changing.

Oh dear. Make some allowances please, for a movement in its infancy. Except that it isn't. Founded in 1973, with policies of nuclear deterrence, anti-immigration, women should stay at home, etc, etc, it has clearly been a long road to here. 

Let's put that aside. Let's regard the Green Party as beginning with that big 15% vote share they got in the European elections of 1989. By then they had more or less the policies they have today. Perhaps they would support some roadbuilding, but not very much. That's 20 years ago. Since then there will have been 40 party conferences, and therefore probably around 80 to 100 major policy papers agreed.

Now the body of "outdated" policy that Ramsey refers to is called the Manifesto for a Sustainable Society and can be found here. This is where those 80 to 100 policy papers will have ended up. How many sections does it have? 37. So each of them has been updated on average 2 to 3 times since the party's coming of age in 1989.

Riiight. And you've still got some way to go. OK. What could possibly be the problem?

Well, I suggest that the problem is a great deal of incoherence at the heart of Green Party thinking. The core value, that economic activity is the cause of all our ills, is not reconciled with the desire for increased public spending on everything. The demand for social justice is not reconciled with their opposition to the economic and technological innovations that have freed or will free millions from serfdom and servitude. Their demand for a whole different kind of economic system is not tempered by any kind of detail on what that system would look like - not least because they can't agree.

Denialism on science, denialism on the benefits of free trade, wishful thinking on energy; they may not understand what is wrong with the world, but at least they have their comfort zones.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Conservatives launch barefacedness commission

This is from the text of the Conservative leaflet that came through the door of my home in Sheffield today:
Conservatives have launched a Transport Commission for the North of England to find out the transport priorities for South Yorkshire. The Commission was launched by William Hague and will examine how to improve all forms of transport including rail services. Conservatives have announced plans for high-speed rail links between Yorkshire and London taking just over an hour and a half.

What's wrong with this picture?

1. The proposed high speed rail runs from London to Leeds via Manchester, bypassing Sheffield completely. They should not for shame breathe a word of it round here.

2. This will be paid for by cutting to the bone maintenance and upgrades on the rest of the rail network, so we will see a degradation of our rail services.

3. The Midland Main line from Sheffield to London can run trains in 2 hours - the Master Cutler does this. But usually the trains stop everywhere, adding half an hour. Not great, but still not too bad. With upgrading and fewer stops this could be improved further.

The Conservatives have adopted a policy which is bad for Sheffield, and for most of the country, and shown no understanding of our transport situation - the real weaknesses are rail to Leeds and road and rail to Manchester. Trains to Manchester were quicker in the 1920s than they are now.

So they paste South Yorkshire into the text of a policy for Leeds, and hope nobody notices. This comes under the headline Working for you in South Yorkshire. No kidding. I dread to think what will happen when they start working against us, like Tories usually do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cameron's shoddy shallow election call

David Cameron was on radio 4 this morning, demanding a General Election, to sweep out the old, corrupt House of Commons and bring about a fresh start and a new dawn.

What is wrong with this picture? Of course opposition leaders must call for a general election, every day during the lame duck 5th year of a parliament. That's textbook. Of course they must use any issue that comes up to justify this call. That's obvious.

But this particular call is shabby and shameful. Firstly, it tries to identify in the public mind a cross-party scandal with the government. Yet his party is just as guilty. (As is UKIP.)

Second, do we really think the Telegraph is finished with us? Let the bright light of scrutiny shine on every corner of this issue before we jump to conclusions regarding how to deal with it, and who to elect or re-elect.

Third, let's give the parties time to deselect their wrongdoers. It would be absurd to hold an election so quickly that major culprits go unexposed or undeselected, and get to serve (themselves) a whole extra parliament.

There is a public mood that politicians are "all the same", based on a handful of serious concrete cases. Over time, we can but hope a distinction will be drawn between the guilty and the innocent, whatever party each is found in. Is that what Cameron wants to pre-empt?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Put the boot in harder, and aim better

It is difficult to put the boot in, to demand prosecution of expenses fraudsters, when you are in a grey area vulnerable position yourself, and the whole house is being condemned for the normal use of expenses, as if that were the same kind of thing as fraud. It is bothering me now that the frauds - of whom there have been a handful - are getting lumped together with those who are merely making use of the allowances they have been given as part of their job.

However I am not in a grey place so I can spell it out.

Having an allowance for buying TVs, hiring cleaners, etc, and using it is not fraudulent or corrupt. Asking whether you can buy item X on expenses and doing so if you are told you can, is not fraudulent or corrupt. If the allowances cover moats, swimming pools and chandeliers, then they are stupid, but that does not make using them fraudulent or corrupt. Waiving your expenses is a superogatory act, not a moral duty.

However claiming for a mortgage you have already paid off is fraud. An MP couple claiming 2nd home allowance on both their homes is fraud. "Flipping" to maximise allowance spend is fraud. Telling the tax office something different to the fees office is fraud.

These MPs should be expelled from their parties, deselected, and prosecuted, in no particular order. So far Labour have "suspended" two, and the Tories merely kicked one off the front bench. Luckily no frauds in the Lib Dems, so far.

The rest of them are not frauds. But giving yourself an allowance system more generous than it ought to be is corrupt. So judge them not by what they claim, but whether they voted to reform it or not. Whether they voted for transparency - or for the exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. Large numbers have voted both ways on this, but even those who voted the wrong way, may honestly think the package is not too generous.

People of similar seniority in the private sector are on 6 or 7 figure salaries, with bonuses and expense accounts that will make your eyes water. MPs could vote through the same for themselves, but they don't. Because it would be corrupt.

So this is what I want to see from the party leaders. Rather than being caught between trying to defend what is reasonable and condemn what is wrong, let's throw the handful of fraudsters to the lions, condemn the system, and condemn those who have voted to keep it secret and unreformed. And three cheers to the Telegraph, and the Freedom of Information Act for making reform possible. And shame on Cameron and Brown for ignoring the big money spinner of property speculation on the back of subsidised mortgages.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Labour: where can it go from here?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLabourology seems to be the rule at the moment. This excellent piece by Alex Wilcock is particularly pointed. "They won’t listen to your complaints. They won’t listen to your concerns. Now they’re telling you to clear off if you don’t agree with everything they ever do." Their sense of frustration is palpable. 12 years of Labour! Surely everything should be all right by now?

Speaking to Labour activists on occasion, what is most remarkable is this disconnect between what they percieve the Labour Party as being about, and what the government does. However much some of them disagree with the government, the Labour Party still has some hidden magical essence that is different. Total cobblers of course. The best way to judge the party is by what it does in government. That is what defines it. The rest is comfort food.

The 50p rate signals the end of the Blair project, which was to get the party to shut up about what it believed in, because that was largely wrong, and adopt a centrist position, or conservative or neo-con as necessary, to be elected and achieve the core agenda of pushing through big public spending, much of which has done some good, albeit inefficiently.

The problem with this was not where the party was moving away from, but where it was moving to. Labour instincts of opposing the bosses and capitalists at every turn had to be suppressed, but there was no real debate of these new centrist/neo-con values. Loyalty matters more than debate anyway. So now the project is ending the unresolved conflict re-emerges: between the moral superiority of socialism and the practical necessity of rejecting socialism. This is a dead debate, but I don't think the Labour Party knows how to have any other. It knows no other values by which it might criticise the rights and wrongs of a policy, but socialist values, and it knows it cannot trust itself to speak these values.

So when a party/government has a culture of a) no debate, or b) if there must be debate, a futile left-right one, it should be no surprise that it cannot listen, that it must become out of touch. Just as the Tories ignored all the sane advice on the mess they were making of railway privatisation, Labour cannot understand the mess of the tax credits system. Political good intentions trump any constructive criticism. And if a policy is wrong because it is illiberal, the same applies. They have put their values away because they are left wing and so can't be trusted.

And this value-free, debate-free politics leads naturally to the cult of managerialism. We know how to run public services, they said. But they didn't. Chris Dillow's book The End of Politics is good on this, where I have dipped into it.

So we have an autocratic value-free government/party incapable of listening, and that is enough - any such party would have to go badly wrong sooner or later. But that's only half the problem. They've also run out of money. In 1999 Gordon Brown was crowing about how he'd fixed the structural budget deficit that the Tories had left. But even before the financial crisis, the golden rule had gone and prudence was dead. Having no money means that New Labour deal - switch off your values and we will give you big public spending - can no longer work. So the party will descend into infighting as both sides renege. 

12 years. Where did it all go wrong? The New Labour deal - you can't have socialism, but you can have a bigger state - could only last so long. The working class may have been abandoned, but I don't think the class struggle mentality, or the Hegelian dialectic was. So centrist/neo-con Labour needed enemies and scapegoats as much as Old Labour did. But I suggest most of the problems our society faces are organic, spontaneous, not the result of a clash of interests, and so top-down confrontational answers do not work.

Even a party starting from a good place, which made a virtue of loyalty over debate, would inevitably go wrong over time. Add to that a belief in top-down micromanagement from a position of ignorance; an internal compromise that demands ever-ballooning state spending; adherence to some of the philosophical errors underpinning socialism, if not socialism itself; preference for a value-free attitude to business, rather than admitting your values were wrong; having no regard for liberalism; willingess to go to war on a lie;... etc, etc.

Frankly, it is amazing that things are not already much much worse than they are. Where should Labour go? What should it change? Or is the question: what on earth should it keep the same?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Emote with me!!!

I've been meaning to say this for a while - since attending the Social Liberal Forum meeting at the last Lib Dem conference. But it ties in nicely with Charlotte's revelation about the nature of the "progressive" and conservative debate, and how each side thinks they are doing what is right.

Speaker after speaker at the social liberal forum said how deeply they cared about the plight of underprivileged people, so much that the mood of the event could be described as a collective subvocal chant of emote with us! Having been a churchgoer (charismatic) in the past, and therefore having done that sort of thing in another context, I am deeply suspicious of it. It doesn't work for me. Yet these are important emotions to have. Empathy for the poor is better than contempt. It is still only a pale caricature of what the left - the Labour movement - was meant to be about, which was working people asserting themselves, not, as it is now, working people being patronised by the middle classes. I would attribute much of the BNP success to the way that where Labour seem to say "We care about you", the BNP say "We care about us."

But back to the Forum. A speaker goes "We care. We care. We care. 50p tax rate!" to a cheer. I can see how that policy absolutely feels right to people, but I am still left wanting the analysis that it would do any good. "It's a symbol" we are told, as if that were a good thing.

But of course it is not just the left that emotes like this. Only when Conservatives do it, it is something way nastier. Europe: boo. Foreigners: boo. Single parents: boo. I remember the Conservative election broadcasts in the 80s pushing the fear button over nuclear disarmament. Fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark side. Conservative emoting is all dark side of the force stuff.

Charlotte points out that Conservatives believe they are doing the right thing, and I would agree for the most part. But lets not slip into relativism here - just because people disagree over what the right thing is, it doesn't mean there is nothing to be said about it. Charlotte is right that politics would be better if it were more rational, but rationality alone doesn't give us values. Libertarians of the Ayn Rand school like to portray themselves as driven purely by reason, but this is based on sophistry, and Rand had no answer to David Hume's is-ought gap.

I've written before about the 2 or 5 foundations of morality in evolutionary psychology. These 5 instinctive traits do exist in us, and we can apply reason to ask the question: what are the consequences if we reinforce this instinct or suppress that one in the language that we use - the metaphors we choose - the buttons that we push - to explore and advance our political ideas.

So liberalism as I see it involves a recognition that promoting the wrong foundations - the deference to authority for example, or the ingroup (class/race/etc) - has bad consequences, and promoting the right foundations - reciprocity, no harm, etc, has good consequences. This relies on an assessment of the consequences of freedom or tyranny, class war or class peace, etc. Is this or that a consequence that I want? How do I feel about it? It is an emotional question.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet 3

We've reached the end of the series with two more ideas for fighting global warming.

First up, solar panels on satellites. The idea being that there is twice as much light up there as down here, and, if concentrated by fresnel lenses, many times more. Then the energy would be transmitted back to earth by microwaves, SimCity style.

This episode left many obvious questions unasked and unanswered:

1. How effficient is this microwave transmission of energy? Get twice as much energy from your solar panel, and lose half on the way down, and you haven't gained anything by being in space.

2. How many solar panels could we have on land for the price of putting one in orbit? My guess would be a number in three figures. Maybe less if you have to buy the land, but this world - even much of the West - is hardly short of deserts.

3. Launching objects into space is highly energy intensive, as is any subsequent maintenance. So what is the embedded carbon cost of one of these satellites? Compare this to a similar device, on land, albeit generating half the power, during daylight. It can't be good. How long will it have to last?

Of course you don't get answers to "how long will it last" while the whole project is at a mere proof of concept stage. But it seems to me very hard for these numbers to add up.

Finally we had a design for an active scrubber of CO2 from the atmosphere. Air blown into the device at one end would flow against a caustic soda solution, reacting with it, removing the carbon dioxide.

True to form, much was made of building the prototype - welding the blades on to the fan, setting the thing up in a football stadium, and staying up all night to see if the numbers - on the stadium scoreboard - indicated success, which they did. Success was defined as extracting more CO2 than is generated by the energy required to run the thing. A modest goal and clearly not the limit of ambition for efficiency.

What was less clear was how it could possibly be more efficient to extract CO2 from the air, where it is sparse, rather than from the exhausts of power stations where it is abundant. My understanding of CCS technology, such as it exists, is that it substantially diminishes the fuel efficiency of the plant, because the CCS process takes a lot of energy to run. Extracting CO2 from a lower concentration in air, the energy cost is surely even bigger.

The other issue ignored by the programme was where we get all this caustic soda (NaOH) from. All the machine is doing is stirring the reagents in this reaction:

CO2 + NaOH -> NaHCO3

Now - we are not told - the caustic soda can be reclaimed from the sodium bicarbonate by reacting with lime (CaO).

NaHCO3 + CaO -> NaOH + CaCO3 

What's that we've got now - CaCO3 - calcium carbonate (calcite/chalk). OK , the lime can be retrieved from this for reuse and the CO2 extracted for storage, by heating to 825 degrees C. 

 CaCO3 + heat -> CaO +  CO2 

Whew. But hang on there's a lot of processing here. A lot of energy, surely, required to heat the calcium carbonate, to compete the cycle. This sort of chemical cycle necessarily requires an energy input, even though the outputs are identical to the inputs. We are just using chemistry to move CO2 from A to B. And this, presumably, is why CCS has a high energy cost.

Finally, there is the issue of whether and how CO2  can be safely stored. This being the Discovery channel, the idea they tested was fabricating torpedos out of raw solid CO2 - dry ice - and dropping them into the ocean where they would embed themselves in the sediment of the ocean floor and stay there for a good long time. In theory. So we have a delivery mechanism that is cool and probably works, but nobody checked whether the CO2 actually stays put. There wasn't even a picture of the torpedo hitting the ocean floor. It wouldn't be difficult to drop a number of these torpedos, and then to dive down and dig one up every month and see how much it has shrunk. Actually it would be difficult and expensive, but it is the critical question. 

And even if it works, this is another energy intensive step in the process. It is the whole process that has to cover its whole footprint, preferably many times over, not just one step or another.


So where does this leave us? From the whole series I quite liked the wave powered pumps - although they may end up doing more for fish stocks than for global warming. But eating more fish may free up land for biofuels or renewables, so that could work. And I liked the cloud albedo management idea. The rest seemed just too weak. They stack up very poorly against existing renewable technologies, transport options, nuclear power, best energy efficiency practise and so on.

Maybe some of these ideas will come good. Further research should be encouraged, but banking on any would be madness. Our policies today should be based on technology that already exists.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet 2 - if it isn't beneath you

We've had two more episodes of the series Ways to Save the Planet, that I discussed earlier. And, surprisingly topical for once, the Greens' spring conference has unanimously passed a motion condemning geo-engineering.

For the full text see page 30 of this pdf, but I will bring you some edited highlights.
Ocean-fertilisation poses an unknown but potentially serious threat to marine biodiversity, which plays an essential role in regulating the global carbon cycle, as well as putting fishing communities at risk.
Pity they didn't see episode 1 of Ways to Save the Planet which fertilised the top layer of ocean with deep water nutrients, causing a previously empty bit of ocean to fill with life.  Remember that much of the Pacific is desert-like already in its lack of biodiversity. These wave-powered pumps, if they work in earnest, are a means to greatly increase biodiversity. It deserves better than knee-jerk opposition. There's more...
Climate geo-engineering by increasing the earth’s albedo poses a major and unknown new threat to the climate system, to biodiversity and to people.
Er, how do you know the threat is major, if it is also unknown? We have a major and known threat of global warming, and that means - why do I feel like I am talking to a 4 year old here - it would be good to have a controllable system for global cooling.

Sure, the future is unpredictable if we control the amount of cloud cover or its reflectivity to manage the global temperature. But here is the thing. The future is unpredicable full stop. And it is rather more predicatable if we deal with global warming than if we don't.

So, as I was saying, two new episodes. The first was about a design for a tethered high altitude helium balloon wind turbine. Strictly this is renewable energy rather than geo-engineering, but the ends are much the same. They built a scaled down prototype which worked after a fashion. It would take a full size prototype to test whether such a turbine would have the output predicted. If so, 9.5 million of them could generate all the world's electricity. They would need 2500 times the global annual production of helium, which might be an issue. 

In the same niche, there's a video on TED, suggesting kites can be used to generate power.

The second new episode was on increasing the reflectivity of clouds - stratocumulus over oceans - by spraying micron-size droplets of sea water at them. As usual there were some problems. First they insisted on unmanned radio-controlled low carbon boats to deploy the equipment, and so went for the somewhat oddball Flettner rotor propulsion system. Plenty to build and test there, and it worked surprisingly well. It's not clear how much power the rotors would need, or where it would come from. There were solar panels on the CGI ships, which wouldn't be much good under cloud - but then if it is cloudy, the ship is already in the right place, right?

There was less success actually making the droplets small enough, but you can't have everything.

But what I thought was most telling about this episode was the objections. At the end of each episode a handful of experts - presumably - in lab coats are asked why the proposal is a bad idea or wouldn't work. Usually, they have given sound objections. 16 trillion lenses in space, are you kidding? But this time, they were stuck. All they had was vague objections to the principle of geo-engineering, much like the stuff from the Greens. But unlike blankets on icecaps, robot ships could be turned off at the first sign of trouble.

Unlike, indeed, a massive tree-planting operation, if that is done for geo-engineering purposes. Come on people, show some sense of perspective. I know you can hug a tree more easily than a robot ship, but that is no guide to how best to save the planet.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet

Is there anything we can do to combat global warming other than reduce greenhouse gases? Actions which seek to cool the planet down directly, or sequester carbon from the atmosphere come under the heading geo-engineering. The little bolds and I have been following a series on the Discovery channel on this subject, called Ways to Save the Planet.

There are three basic responses to geo-engineering ideas:
1. Noooooo. Mucking about with the planet got us into this mess.
2. Aaaahhhhh. You see all we need is a little ingenuity, and everything will be back to normal. Global warming will be solved, if it is even happening at all anyway, which I doubt.
3. OK, will that work then?

I am firmly in camp number three. There is no reason in principle to reject geo-engineering. The planet is not God, and if it decides to kill us we are entitled to disagree and fight back. Even if global warming were halted by reduction in greenhouse gas emissions alone, we would probably need geo-engineering technology sooner or later anyway - nature has the power to turn nasty without our help. But any project has some enormous hurdles - that the earth is basically very very big, and any solution has to do an awful lot, and without using monumental amounts of energy.

There have been 4 episodes so far, all, unfortunately a little underwhelming. They follow the usual Discovery channel formula of injecting tension by having some mechanical thing go wrong, or threaten to do so, to dramatic background music and interviews with anxious engineers. Gripping.

And what were the ideas? A wave-powered pump bringing nutrient rich deep ocean water closer to the surface. Dangerous mucking about with the ecosystem? Not really - much of the Pacific is like the Sahara desert. Deep water nutrients would make an oasis - they would create an ecosystem where there is currently next to nothing. Greater plankton growth would mean faster carbon sequestration, and some of this carbon would find its way to the ocean floor for a reasonably long time.

Did it work? Briefly. But despite falling apart after a few hours, the location of the pump a week later was found teeming with life. So it looks like this idea could work. It's not going to do enough to change the nature of the challenge significantly, but can make some difference at a reasonable cost.

Next up covering the icecaps with reflective material to lower the albedo and thereby prevent melting and keep the earth's albedo lower. This one kinda puzzled me a bit. Surely you'll get more albedo bang for your buck covering something that isn't alraedy white. What I remember of the programme was an hour spent struggling with the practicalities of airlifting big rolls of white stuff to the arctic and unrolling it. Would it work? No idea.

Third was scattering the light from the sun with lenses in space. Discovery is in its comfort zone here with high tech lenses, rockets and so on. How many 60cm lenses are we going to need? 16 trillion! That's a whole lotta lenses. Well maybe if we make them 1 micron (0.001mm) thick, they'll be light enough that we can launch lots into space. Cue an hour of testing rockets and guns that might launch squillions of extremely fragile lenses without shaking them to bits. What fun. Did the rocket work? No. 

Clearly reducing the amount of light reaching the earth would reduce warming. A big lens in space - what could be simpler. But this idea involves a monumental space programme. How much, if it ever works at all, are 16,000,000,000,000 lenses going to cost to make and launch? Keep thinking, and lets not bank on this one.

Fourth was planting large numbers of trees by dropping seeds from an aircraft. Take a tree seed, in a lump of compost, wrap in a layer of wax, hard enough to break the ground surface, but which shatters on impact so doesn't impede the growth of the tree. Take 1000 of these in a cargo net under a helicopter and drop from a height and speed calculated to give a good spread pattern.

Again this was great fun, because the experiments involved aircraft, and dropping things out of them. The methods were ingenious, but I couldn't help wonder if - given the work that must be put into sourcing the seeds and assembling the wax canisters, and round tripping the helicopter (it would still take hundreds of trips to seed a square kilometre), whether it might not be easier to hire a few people with spades to plant the trees properly.

So we get to the dramatic final test of the idea. Did the seeds bury themselves in the ground at the right depth and the right distance apart from each other? Yes. Did they actually grow? No. Why not? Er, maybe the soil pH was wrong. Sigh. And maybe the guy with the spade would have known that.

Well that's all we've had so far. There's another 4 episodes, to come, and I hope they plan to end on a high note with some more promising ideas. Some geo-engineering ideas can be double-edged. If you lower the earth's temperature by controlling light or albedo, you do nothing for acidification of the oceans. So if it turned out that global warming wasn't a preeminent threat to us after all and was in fact no more serious than ocean acidification, then we may have to modify our strategy with this in mind. Much geo-engineering is diplomatically problematic. Whatever the global effect, there are likely to be local effects, that the locals may not like. Nonetheless, I think a common cause would be good for our diplomatic relations.

Yet I suggest this all has little significance yet for policy. Potential geo-engineering projects are much like potential technologies to save or generate energy. Some will work one day, some won't; we don't know yet which is which. Meanwhile we should apply the technologies and policy options we have. We are hardly at risk of doing more to combat climate change than might later prove to be necessary.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Gaining Faith in Twitter

Back from the Lib Dems spring conference in Harrogate, the greatest revelation for me was the use of twitter to comment on live proceedings. The 'back-channel' is the technical term for this kind of electronic muttering at the back of the room instead of paying attention to teacher. It has long been said about conferences that the main point is getting to meet people and talk to them, rather than the official speeches and whatnot. Twitter, it seems, brings some of the benefits of being able to talk, to a medium in which you are expected to sit, listen, and clap politely.

I signed up to Twitter a couple of years but didn't really see the point and didn't use it. And I still don't really - I probably won't use it again until the next conference. But during the debate on faith schools - and is this really yet another Lib Dem first? - I had to do what I could to sway the vote, and I had access probably to a handful of other delegates following the #ldconf tag.

I was energised by supporters of Amendment 3, including Vince Cable and Tim Farron, calling the original motion an attack on faith schools - which it was not - and calling for support for Amendment 3, as a "compromise". In fact the original text was a compromise - it respects parental choice of a faith school, and even allows new faith schools, but it demands of faith schools the same high standards of non-discrimination, tolerance and inclusivity, that are expected of all other taxpayer-funded schools. Extremists on both sides will argue that you can't trust the other lot to run schools at all. But that is prejudice. This position does not prejudge a school by the faith, or not, of its leadership, and is supported by a broad coalition of liberal believers and liberal atheists. This coalition is exactly the kind of initiative that is vital in today's society that is at risk of having walls go up between believers and unbelievers.

Rabbi Jonathon Romain spoke at the fringe meeting in support of this compromise, saying 
I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk back with an atheist - interacting with them and them getting to know what a Jewish child is like. Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.
A Rev Chad of St Chad's (no relation) also spoke at the fringe explaining that he felt the christian ethos was about reaching out to the community, not erecting barriers to keep it out.

It is hard to credit then, the arguments for amendment 3. I suppose if somebody comes to you and says "I represent Jews, or Catholics or Hindus..., and I say this policy is an assault on our faith schools", it is difficult to disagree. But it remains the case that opinion among believers is as divided on these questions as opinion always is, and anyone claiming that a faith speaks with one voice is being a little mischeivous.

Amendment 3, then, sought to maintain selection by faith, that is in Romain's words, to erect barriers not bridges, in part 1, and in part 2, to allow discrimination in employment against senior teachers (eg a head of chemistry) who were of the wrong faith, or who suffered a crisis of faith or the failure of a marriage. Part 1 passed, thanks to the the wrong "assualt on faith schools" hyperbole - that I can't blame delegates for buying in to. Part 2 fell, thank, er, Providence.

Overall I am satisfied with the outcome. I raised this whole issue a year ago on Lib Dem Voice, at a time when many in the party blogosphere were holding pointless and destructive arguments over the existence of God and the merits of religion. And even then I thought the selection by faith issue would be too tough to crack and suggested a compromise on it. It is a shame perhaps that my compromise wasn't put to conference. It allowed selection by faith, but insisted that a declaration of faith be considered sufficient. This addressed the problem of people having to go to church under false pretences, of believers missing out because some cleric or other thinks they don't believe well enough or objects to their lifestyle/social class, etc. It reflects the fact that faith is simply not visible to somebody outside one's own head, and does not justify giving unelected clerics, or anyone else, a gatekeeper role to public services that we have already paid for through taxation.

But the win, as far as I am concerned, is this coalition of liberals. I joined the Lib Dems to make common cause with other liberals, not with (or against) other atheists. The religion and faith schools questions seemed to threaten to divide this party. Blair and Bush might be mocked and condemned for their pro-war faith, but really it doesn't matter. Non-believers can be just as hawkish. What matters is your politics. 

I hope you understood all that from my tweets.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Greenpartywatch: GP candidate faces axe for trying to save the planet

A storm is brewing in the Green Party over an article by Chris Goodall, their PPC in Oxford West and Abingdon, arguing that nuclear power will be necessary as part of the solution to climate change.

He goes where Mark Lynas and Stephen Tindale have gone before. Many leading environmentalists now take the view that nuclear is just too useful a source of low-carbon energy to do without; that concerns over nuclear waste, while valid environmental concerns, pale into insignificance compared to climate change.

Opponents frame the debate as "nuclear v renewables", but this is just framing. Let's take as read support for renewables and efficiency. Then what? Where is the rest of our energy coming from?

Realistically, what nuclear is up against is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). A good idea, but not yet, and perhaps not ever, a technology ready to be deployed. If you are convinced that CCS will work, then you can probably afford to be anti-nuclear. But why would you be so convinced?

Here is a question I put to Steve Webb MP, in a Lib Dem Voice webchat way back.

Do you agree that we should be looking to make progress on carbon emissions, primarily with techonlogies that exist, such as wind, nuclear, CSP, CHP, rail, and smart meters rather than gambling on technologies that might never exist, such as CCS, much better PV, and particular road transport solutions? Where technologies look promising, but don't yet work, rather than buy inferior versions of them, supporting that inferiority, why don't we offer prizes to companies that bring them to viability?
And he responded

We should certainly use readily available technologies such as CHP and smart meters as far as possible. But Carbon Capture is essential to the planet. China and India are rolling out new unabated coal-fired power stations at an alarming rate. Unless those emissions get captured we are all in trouble. So investing in CCS research has got to be a priority. In terms of prizes for companies that bring forward new ideas, in a world of carbon rationing and carbon markets, there ought to be strong economic 'prizes' for green technology - the key is to remove the barriers which prevent them getting to the commercial viability stage.
The position on nuclear - too little too late - had been given previously.

To support this policy it seems necessary to believe that CCS will actually work, and to be willing to gamble the planet's future on it working. Carbon capture is essential to the planet? Nuclear is too little too late. One could just as well say the opposite. Nuclear is essential to the planet, and CCS is too little too late. The second position has the advantage that nuclear is known to work, and building CCS-ready plant actually means building dirty coal plant.

So we face the same questions the Greens do, and we will continue to debate them, just as the Greens, er, oh...

Mr Goodall’s remarks had left many party members “seriously concerned”, the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas, MEP, said last night. “It is of great concern to me that a candidate should be promoting a policy which is at odds with the party manifesto, and I shall be taking that forward,” she said. ...  Asked if this would include disciplinary action and possibly even de-selection as a candidate, Ms Lucas would only say: “We will be taking appropriate measures.”

What really bothers me about this - because of course parties should be able to remove candidates who reject their values - is that Goodall's position is being seen by the Green party not as a contribution to the debate on how to save the planet, but as a rejection of the idea that we should be saving the planet - as a rejection of the party's values.

And this way madness lies. If you happen to believe that technology A will do a job better than technology B, for empirical practical reasons, this says nothing about your political values. If, when you explain your reasons, people invoke disciplinary procedures, that does suggest a deliberate attempt to keep heads in the sand and protect sacred cows from any kind of criticism.

But as I have said in the past, it is only by debating these questions openly, by taking evidence on the chin when it hurts, that we stand any chance in the long run of getting the right answers.

Chris Goodall, if you're listening, have a look as well at some of the benefits of trade, enterprise, and science.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Principal Components of Principles

Alix and Jennie have resurrected the peculiar fascinating 2005 political compass, the one that suggets some odd-looking criteria for defining left and right.

I come out pretty close to Alix: left on the main axis of internationalism/rehabilitation, and right on the minor axis of free trade and war. I was against the war, so I must be really keen on free trade.

OK the fascinating thing about this survey is these axes were not chosen by the authors, but arose as a statistical outcome of the actual answers actual voters gave to the questions. Let me try to explain this a little bit.

Lets say you have a 1000 responses to a survey of 20 political questions with simple for/against type answers. What the principal components analysis does is find a formula for a number that would let you predict the answers to one survey, given no other information, with the greatest possible accuracy.

And it turns out that this number reflects opinions on hanging/flogging and nationalism. So this is the principal principle axis. What this means is that if you know somebody is, say -4, on this axis, you can predict their answers to the whole survey with, say, 80% accuracy.

Nobody chose hanging/flogging/internationalism - it is just that this formula and this number gives you the best predictive power. Some other formula might reflect different priorities, but only give 75% accuracy.

It gets a bit more complicated with two axes, but the principle (the principle of the principal principle?) remains the same. With a second formula and a second number, you can raise the predictive power to, say, 90%. A number reflecting views on war/free trade does this better than any other.

What does this mean - well it means that the data is telling us that views that belong together on an axis are highly correlated with each other. Supporters of hanging and flogging tend to be nationalist, and supporters of free markets tend to be pro-war. It also tells us how much the parties overlap, and therefore how difficult it is for any party to position itself clearly without alienating a lot of supporters.

OK that's the good and interesting. What's wrong with this picture? Well for starters, there were only 1 or 2 questions on war and 6 on economics. Having 6 similar questions means that those 6 are 30% of the data and will almost certainly be reflected in a principal component. War may have found itself tacked on as a statistical artefact but I suggest there should be 6 questions on war too before we read too much into this correlation.

Similarly there were 6 questions on inter/nationalism - another 30% of the data - and two on crime. So nationalism is going to come out of the analysis,  picking up one or two more questions in the same way.

So I think a safer interpretation is that there are two components or groupings by which answers are predictable: 1. nationalism and 2. economics, in a survey where a third of the questions are on nationalism, a third are on economics, and the last third are an assortment of other topics.

Oh. That's not exactly surprising is it? If we had a survey with 6 questions about electoral reform, 6 about income tax and 8 assorted others, I wonder what the two axes would be labelled then?