Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Champagne Humanist

Grr! Got the same as Devil's Kitchen. All credit to him though for alerting me to this excellent procrastination tool.

Anyone else think the picture looks like a Tony Blair cartoon?


You are one of life’s enjoyers, determined to get the most you can out of your brief spell on Earth. Probably what first attracted you to atheism was the prospect of liberation from the Ten Commandments, few of which are compatible with a life of pleasure. You play hard and work quite hard, have a strong sense of loyalty and a relaxed but consistent approach to your philosophy.

You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept though you might for a friend. Something of a champagne humanist, you admire George Bernard Shaw for his cheerful agnosticism and pursuit of sensual rewards and your Hollywood hero is Marlon Brando, who was beautiful, irascible and aimed for goodness in his own tortured way.

Sometimes you might be tempted to allow your own pleasures to take precedence over your ethics. But everyone is striving for that elusive balance between the good and the happy life. You’d probably open another bottle and say there’s no contest.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Bashing the other Blair

This is undeniably good news. Sir Ian Blair's conduct after the shooting Jean Charles de Menezes only served to muddy an already messy situation.

While controversial, the (always hyphenated) shoot-to-kill policy seems proportionate to the threat of a suicide bomber. As shown by the de Menezes case, mistakes happen but this should be a spur to more effective intelligence. The Economist put this point best with the headline "Excuse me, are you a suicide bomber?"

Incidentally, I realise the vacuity of the above suggestion. 'More effective intelligence' must be the most proposed and least well understood solution to the terrorist situation; especially as those putting it forward often furiously protest when attempts at giving more powers to the intelligence services are put forward, perhaps the best way of making intelligence more effective. 'Be more like Jack Bauer' is probably the most helpful that we armchair critics can be. Highlighting this paradox, however, does not mean that intelligence should not be more effective. However, like a Hummer through an emissions target, I shall leave these point in its shoddy form and return to Sir Ian.

Following the Stockwell shootings, Sir Ian pedalled so many different excuses in an attempt to confuse the public that he was telling the truth (same Blairism, different Blair). We were told, variously, that de Menezes had run from the police when asked to stop, that he vaulted a barrier, that his coat looked unseasonally warm. All of these claims have been discredited since. The claim that has yet to be overturned to my knowledge was that de Menezes was illegally staying in the country after his student visa ahd expired - and this was meant to be a mitigating factor.

Of course government enquiries usually play down offences by public officials, especially one that is so cosy with old Tone. If justice prevails, however, the Met chief will be discredited and forced to resign. But as a full member of the cronyship, I doubt it will be the last we see of him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Nuclear Power

I really haven't made up my mind on the issue of nuclear power. It seems generators that are becoming in their output of waste but it's the nature of the waste that sticks. Still you'd think Blair would change his tactics after his last embarassment. Haven't we heard this somewhere before?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Save the Cameo

Edinburgh bloggers are uniting to save the Cameo, one of the City's two alternative cinemas. Go and see what Tiny Judas has to say about it.

A reply to Worstall

There has been a wee flurry of comment over some of my points on free trade. I'll reply at greater length soon but I would like to take issue with one of Mr Worstall's assertions.

I doubt that there is actually a developing country with a multi-national with turnover twice GDP actually in its territory.

If by 'in its territory' he means 'has its headquarters' is probably right. If he simply means operating in (as I did) then he is sadly quite wrong, as this depressing account shows.

It also illustrates my point perfectly. Sao Tome has been hit by a wall of prosperity, leaving an inexperienced government ill-equipped to deal with this amount of money - chiefly due to underdeveloped institutions. Too much money, too little power in the face of it. Corruption is inevitable.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Free trade isn't fair

Tim Worstall's praise of today's Guardian leader is in need of some tempering. He rightly talks of European and US subsidies ad "both immoral and economic madness". What would be more madness, however, would be a world in which no trade barriers exist.

While I applaud any anecdote combining dog's piss and Peter Mandelson, Ricardo's often-peddled arguments for free trade are obsolete, due to their reliance on perfect mobility of capital and labour as well a complete disregard for the existence of time (see here for another example of what bad consequences this can have).

Economies have a history. There are industries which make them tons of cash today, which could be dead ducks tomorrow as technological advances abroad overtake domestic competencies. Trade barriers give countries useful breathing space to sustain their economies during this transition and hopefully allow the domestic market to find something better to do. In the meantime, consumer confidence can be sustained as protected industries can let workers down gently instead of creating mass employment that can paralyse regions and cause widespread misery.

The other part of the free trade argument is that it ignores all concepts of power. A developing country faced with a multinational with an annual turnover worth twice its GDP will not be able to keepit in check. Of course good governance is a (perhaps THE) major issue in development but one mitigating factor is surely that legal institutions aren't allowed to develop when the economic incentives distort them so much. What is more, studies of knowledge spillovers from multinationals to domestic industry have shown the latter does not gain from the presence of the former. (China's tactic was to use trade liberalisation to actively guide technology into domestic hands, a luxury not open to say Chad or Bangladesh) . Trade controls are therefore a check on the tremendous power faced by developing countries, which hampers their development of technical knowledge and appropriate legal/economic institutions.

Of course the CAP and its equivalents are completely mad; as Blair pointed out, half the EU budget is spent on 3% of its population. Personally, I'm often on the more liberal side of the argument, but to dismiss trade barriers entirely is to exclude an extremely important tool of development policy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Tory leadership contest

As the contenders for the Tory leadership tour the country in a series of hustings, David Davis is the man with the convincing to do.By congratulating TB on his education proposals, David Cameron has displayed an excellent grip on strategy by driving a wedge between Blair and the Labour Party.

Davis's attempt to paint Cameron as the new Blair may work with the party activists but will not hold with the wider electorate. People like blue-skies thinking and being swept along by grand visions. This has been Blair's greatest strength. What riles people is his inability to deliver and such contempt for due process that any public utterance is ignored in favour of greater policy scrutiny, as the heightened analysis of recent proposals has shown.

The other problem with Davis's tactic: Cameron won't be opposing Blair but Brown. A blue-eyed, blue-skies thinker will be far more appealing to an electorate than a dour intellectual thug, and may shake the faith of optimists who believe Britain has reached a socially progressive consensus.

China's 'democracy'

China’s democracy is a people’s democracy under the leadership of the CPC. China’s democracy is a democracy in which the overwhelming majority of the people act as masters of state affairs.

Now I'm not too well versed on the complexities of Modern Chinese history but I have a feeling this account of Chinese political democracy (authored by the CPC) is treating the truth a little too malleably.

A country whose rulers are elected by an impenetrable electoral college does not strike me as bearing the hallmarks of fair democracy. Perhaps we should respect the honesty of the system that doesn't fool the electorate into thinking it has a choice, as illustrated by Bill Hicks (via):
'I believe the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.' 'Well, I believe the puppet on the left is more to my liking.' Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding up both puppets! 'Go back to bed, America, your government is in control. Here's Love Connection, watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer.'"
Now the presence of democracy does not certify a fair system of governance, but if the people don't have votes and the government of the day doesn't have the chance of being thrown out every half-decade or so, there ain't no democracy.

As for the overwheliming majority of the people acting as masters of state affairs, the CPC seems to be confusing having the world's largest bureaucracy with actual power the people. Decisions must be taken with a large hierarchical consensus, and it must be conceded that this allows for some amount of consultation.

In view of the rising number of protests, however, it seems a population enjoying increasing prosperity and broader-based economic power is now looking for a little more political say without embarking on a career dependent on the state. It will take much more than a rehashing of history to curb these demands and the CPC is surely quaking at this knowledge.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Inter armes leges NON silent

Flabby Whitebeard, his political astuteness yet to suffer the erosion of that of his master, suggests that concessions will be made on the 90 day amendment to the Worthy Bill of Terror. Cassandra Blair retorts 'I see great woe to those who defy my wisdom. 90 days or else.'

Should our hero concede? For has not his master's judgement been tempered in the furnaces of Whitehall, Washington and Sedgefield? Has it not been sharpened on the whet stone of war, education and prevention of terrorism debates before? And has he not emerged triumphant?

A fool would resist such force of argument, such a hurricane of sagacity, and so Flabby relents.

But what's this? 49 loyal minions have defected! Could Tiberius Blair, he of shuttling diplomacy and presidential swagger, have erred in his advice? Moreover could the struggles of The Sun Newspaper of Delphi have got it so wrong?

Forsooth it is true!

Croaking recriminations, Tiberius retreats into his cave. One step further from reality, another step further from the masses who once heralded his every newborn son. With unbended will he goes to perfect his Cartesian mode of politics, from which the outside world is his only distraction.

Flabby Whitebeard stands loyally in the breeze as the stone rolls over, absorbing bodily the arrows for his master. Let us hope it is a vain attempt.

Those Labour reactions in full

The reactions to the Commons defeat yesterday speak volumes about this government.

"John Reid suggested Mr Blair's stature was enhanced. He said Tory leadership contenders David Cameron and David Davis had "crippled" themselves politically by supporting the 28-day compromise. "
This comment reminds me of a character in the film Kung Pow: "Oh that's just John Reid, take no notice of him. We trained him wrong - as a joke!"

Tony Blair: "worrying gap between parts of Parliament and the reality of the terrorist threat and public opinion".
OR "Well shit, it worked with Iraq, why can't you hippies trust me this time?"

Gordon Brown: "Tony Blair must continue to implement the agenda on which we were elected. It's only six months, you know, since there was a general election."
OR "And he's in this much shit already?"

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Amazon Purchase circles

Marginal Revolution has discovered this the 'purchase circles' which allow you to see what different groups of people like to buy such as General Electric, Halliburton and even the US marines.

Against intuition, General Electric people seem enthused by books on growth and doing business better whereas GE Capital are more interested in the like of 'The Life of Pi' and Harry Potter. I guess the boys with fat checks are just more chilled out.

Angry Economist Strikes Back!

The Angry Economist replied to my first post in a rather uncharitable way:
Russell said...
So far I'm unimpressed. You don't seem to like economics so you're proposing that the world should work some other way. Unfortunately, economics doesn't force the
world to work a certain way; economics (good economics at least) describes the
way the world actually does work. If you don't like that, then you don't like
how real people behave.

1) I really like economics. I get quite a kick out of my Masters degree in the subject, due for completion this year. Little more proof is needed than I'm happy to be identified as one in a society where economists are not exactly groovy.

2) The post upon which I was commenting made many assumptions about human behaviour.
Economic practice dictates that assumptions have to be made in order to simplify a chaotic world and allow fallible humans to make models, which can make reasonable predictions about future behaviour. If the model doesn't work, our assumptions need more careful scrutiny. All I did was to go along with the same assumptions Russell did and point out problems he hadn't considered in his account. Of course this is affected by opinions which sway the saliency of different economic arguments. Russell is also motivated by opinions which push him the other way. I don't see either of us as doing bad economics, merely using economic arguments to derive different opinions.

The danger is that orthodox economic theory has developed in such a way as to neglect important facts of nature. These theories are then used to make policy recommendations which can be devastating in their ignorance.

For example, most of its economic models are static, mainly because much of economic theory has developed for the convenience of mathemtics and the mathematical tools needed for dynamic analysis have only been recently discovered. As a result time is often neglected. Discussion is of states of the world and how to achieve them. Little is spoken of the evolution of such states and how the way in which something develops dramatically affects its current state. Now, most of Britain's industries are run in the private sector. This is mostly a good thing; the post-war central planning experiments were grossly ineffiecient. However, Britain has been able to develop appropriate legal frameworks and tacit accepted practices that control what businesses can get away with.

The Soviet Union had no such luxury. Overseen by Nobel laureate Jeffrey Sachs, the government was advised to privatise its assets to expose them to some market discipline. Good plan on paper. The enterprises were grossly inefficient and needed to be reformed to help insert some innovation into a sclerotic society, let alone economy (not that the two are separate entities but let's leave that for another time). Sold for rock bottom prices, what were formerly state assets were sold on at huge profit and the money flown out of the country, thus creating the notorious oligarchs, crippling Russia's infrastructure and impoverishing millions.

Now Prof. Sachs cannot be held to account for the oligarchs' immorality, but he should have recognised that the appropriate institutions were needed before Russia could successfully exploit the benefits of the market. To adopt the AE's argument, by neglecting the dimension of time, by ignoring learning processes necessary for competence and thereby failing to see how the world actually worked, Sachs was doing bad economics.

(This is not with the benefit of hindsight, either. A similar story occurred in Hungary a few years before. What is more, as director of Colombia's Earth Foundation, Sachs is once more making shock therapy cock-ups. In his book The End of Poverty his idea is implement decisive infrastructure projects and benefit programs to pull Africa out of poverty. One problem, this has been tried before, and little of the money was well spent. As economist William Easterly asserts, only by a system of gradual implementation could mistakes be corrected, lessons learnt and the money be effectively spent.)
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