Tag Archives: politics

Death and All of His Friends

The Government recently set up a website on which citizens can register petitions to the government; Parliament will debate any which cross a threshold of 100,000 signatures.

As of the time of writing, the issues with the most signatures are to bring back the death penalty, keep F1 free-to-air, and to retain the ban on the death penalty. Happily, the petition to retain the ban on the death penalty is absolutely spanking the petition to bring it back. Partly I’m happy about this because — please excuse the ad hominem — I find its originator, Paul Staines (who blogs under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes), to be a fairly unpleasant character whenever I come across his views.

Mostly though, I’m happy about this because I’m fundamentally opposed to the death penalty.

There are multiple dimensions to which you can analyse this debate: the purely practical issues of if it will be cheaper, or safer, for society in the long run to execute people rather than locking them up; and the moral dimension, is it fundamentally right to execute people?

I’m going to declare my bias: I think it’s morally wrong. It is an utterly appalling and regrettable thing for one human being to kill another, wherever and whenever it happens. There are, unfortunately, times when killing is necessary. Times when life must be taken in self-defence, or when it’s kill-or-be-killed, even occasionally in war: few would disagree that Hitler needed stopping.

But it’s important that when you fight monsters, you take care not to become a monster yourself. Hitler had to be stopped because he would have expanded Eastwards until either the Russians stopped him, or he’d enslaved or exterminated every single one of them. A little evil was committed to prevent a greater evil. There was no other choice.

Mostly, though, we do have a choice. When we catch a murderer, we can be better than they are. We don’t have to kill; we have a choice. We can lock them away so they’ll never do harm again. If we’re lucky, they’ll genuinely repent, and become useful members of society again. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and (even though I’m not religious, I like this bit) Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Be bigger, be better, be greater.

That’s the problem with execution; it’s not justice. It’s revenge. And revenge is, for lack of a better word, easy. It’s the easy thing to do, when you’ve been wronged, to gang up with your friends, with society at large, and exert your power upon the wrong-doer, and make them suffer. It’s a damned hard thing to do — and this is what I think Jesus was trying to get at — to resist the urge to do so.

I think one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever heard of is Rais Bhuiyan. In 2001, just after the attacks on 9/11, Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree, killing anybody he believed to be Muslim. Bhuiyan was shot in the face with a shotgun, but survived, although he lost the sight in one eye, and still has shotgun pellets embedded in his skull. Two others were killed. Stroman has since been put to death, despite Bhuiyan campaigning for him to be spared. I find Rais Bhuiyan’s example awe-inspiring.

Personally, I think that spending the rest of your life in prison, potentially decades, is a far more awful thing than to merely die. There an awful lot of things in life which are worse than mere death.

Then there’s the purely mechanical issues. Is is cheaper to just execute someone (nope), does it deter murder (probably not), will innocent people be executed by mistake (quite likely), but honestly those don’t bother me so much; they’re not my primary reason.

I think the very notion that the state be allowed to kill fundamentally brutalises our culture; it is a difference not in kind but merely of magnitude between hanging a murder in this country, and stoning to death an adulterer in Iran.

That all said, the theory and philosophy of punishment is an incredibly difficult topic; the death penalty really cuts to the heart of thinking about what punishment is for, and how best to achieve that end. It’s a topic I hope to return to.

The Madness of Investors

This post about photo start-up Color on the NY Times website makes me utterly despair for the nature of modern capitalism.

Before the company had launched even a single product, Color raised $41 million from investors. That seems, to me, an absolutely stupefying amount of money. Given that Color’s first product (a perplexing and unfathomable iPhone app) flopped horribly, it seems now like an incredibly grave error.

It all stems (the NY Times speculates) from a desire not to miss out on the next Facebook, or Twitter, or Google. That’s all well and good, but in some ways this amounts to a get rich scheme; if it was that easy to pick out the next winners from the next losers, then everyone would be doing it, and we’d all get rich.

In pursuit of easy money, they’re taking unconscionable risks. It feels like many of the bubbles of old; presumably what they’re hoping for is to fund a lot of companies, and then hope that the return on the investment is of such Facebookian proportions that it drowns the losses. It’s madness, because if that scale of success doesn’t materialise, you lose the money.

Finance is, essentially, a utility. The function of it is move money from places where it is in surplus to where it is needed. As always, I grasp towards a physics analogy: it’s supposed to move the market from a higher energy state, to a lower energy state through a path that would otherwise be low probability. In doing so, it allows work in the system; jobs created, products made. The finance industry, for its part, takes a small amount of the energy it releases for itself. Overall, the system, the market, the economy, is better off for the action.

The trouble is that the financial sector has given itself airs. They see themselves now as creators, and players in the system in their own right, rather than the facilitators and plumbers that they should be. So they take risks, play the system, create complicated schemes of financial instruments to manipulate the market to accrue money into their own hands.

The trouble with all of this is that banks can then create situations where they actually help to destroy value. We saw this sort of reckless stupidity in the credit crunch, and we see it here, too.

What we should be doing is encouraging companies to start small, and bootstrap themselves. Make a product, sell a product, make money. Use the money to grow. Take finance where you need it, but only when you need it to make more money, where a return is unlikely. Controlled, steady, sensible growth.

What banks seem to want is growth like an algal bloom, or an infection of smallpox. Big bang growth, get-rich-or-die-trying growth. Short-termist, irresponsible, madness.

I’m honestly a little surprised that the financial industry has survived the last recession relatively unscathed, and apparently with their ways throughly unmended. These people ought to be legally responsible for the harm they do, in the same way a plumber would be responsible for an explosion caused by a botched gas installation. Instead we let them get away with wreaking the most awful harm on our economies, and ruining lives.

In other news, I’m going to try and make a commitment to updating on a more regular schedule, and hopefully being a little more personal with it. Had a bit of a trend to the essayist in recent(ish) posts, so I’m going to steer away from it.

Basically, the problem is that I’m either working or I should be working on my PhD most of the time, so blogging has taken it in the neck. Haven’t even finished my new blog design yet…

Fond but Not in Love

I think that one of the prevailing problems with our political culture is that an awful lot of weight is put on ideology and tribalism, which is terribly detrimental to our political culture.

It’s one thing to disagree vociferously with your enemies when they’re wrong, but another to argue when they’re right. Too often is compromise seen as selling out, or attempting a dialogue seen as weakness.

I suppose that compromise especially is easier to spin, and easier to misconstrue. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the Lib Dem participation in the coalition is seen by many as a betrayal.

I’d like to see myself as a pragmatist. I’m unhappy with cuts, and with tuition fees, and I’d rather see them not there at all. With that said, I also don’t see what is possible to avoid them; my best answer would be something along the lines of “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”

As much as I hate the idea of the unelected, unaccountable, markets controlling our political destiny (and believe me, I really, really hate it), the plain ugly truth is that they do. Our government and our economy is kept turning by the money loaned to us by our creditors, and that gives them power over us. That’s what deficit means, after all; we could not pay our bills if that money wasn’t loaned to us. If we tried to break the chains as it stands now, in our hour of greatest weakness, we’d be plunged into an economic disaster that makes the cuts look like Christmas.

And the people who were the architects of this economic bondage are scoring points from the back of the cuts. It’s scandalous. I’m furious with Labour, frankly. I’m furious with their tribalism, their hypocrisy, their through selling out of the principles of liberty and socialism when they had untrammelled power for thirteen years. In boom times they brought in tuition fees, and in the years of plenty they spent more than we can afford. Living on money borrowed from capitalists is no socialism I recognise. They let, even encouraged, the markets to grow strong, and made us weak into the bargain. They have no right to carp on about betrayal!

The Lib Dems, by contrast, have had to compromise. Some elements of the manifesto were jettisoned, others watered down. That’s true. But many, many others were and are being enacted. It’s making the best of a bad job; being pragmatic, not just idealistic, and it’s being painted as a failure.

I bring this up partly because of the announcement of proposals for the reform of the House of Lords; I today received an email from Nick Clegg, which contains this paragraph:

It’s no secret that Liberal Democrats strongly favour a wholly-elected second chamber. That is the simplest, purest, and most democratic option. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the very good. That approach has stymied Lords reform for too long. And 80% is very much better than 0%; and a lot more than Labour managed in 13 years of governing alone.

I agree with him. Ultimately, getting this to pass is going to need horse-trading with the Conservatives, elements of whom are going to be very against this proposal. A lot of people vote Conservative. A lot of people think like they do (and some of them are even friends of mine), and so they have a lot of representation (although more than they deserve). It’s right and proper that it has to be watered down from what the Lib Dems want, because the Lib Dems have less votes and less representation. It’s a great shame that many people can’t see things that way; true democracy requires that you compromise with the people you disagree with. Make no mistake on my disagreement with the Tories; but too long have we lived with the tyranny of absolutist majoritarianism.

It’s depressing that outcome of all this could be a return, a bolstering, of what got us into this mess. Rather than fostering a heterogeneous environment of differing opinion, debate, and compromise, we could find ourselves going back to brutal tribalism, one party on the left, one party on the right, and to the victor (even if by a small margin), the spoils, the system that let us down so very awfully.

So I guess that answer, when anybody asks if I’m ashamed for voting Lib Dem, or joining the party, the answer, honestly, is no.

Why We Should Fear “The Big Society”

The Big Society is ostensibly the centerpiece feature of the Conservatives’ policy for this election; their manifesto was titled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain” in reference to it.

For such a centerpiece policy, it is breathtakingly vague. Nobody understands it properly, not even many people within the Conservative party. One shadow minister said: “The ‘big society’ needs to be turned into more practical, voter-friendly language. We need to turn Oliver Letwin’s Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.” When you’re using the phrase “Hegelian dialectic” to describe why something is tricky to understand, you know you’re in deep trouble.

Not many people (who don’t have philosophy degrees) are going to know that Hegel was German philosopher, one of Marx’s influences, and like the philosophy of Marx the ideas of the Big Society display an earnest idealism totally stripped of even a single iota of pragmatism.

The Big Society is supposed to conjure up an image of us as a country spontaneously coming together to fix “Broken Britain”, volunteering to fix our social ills, to cure a culture of entitlement, to restore power to the people, etc. It speaks of a social movement to bring about change, and in the face of the Big Society, the Big State will wither away.

That’s bollocks. It’s the same mad utopian dream as that of Communism.

There is no social movement, no grass-roots activism for the Big Society. Cameron didn’t even mention it in the debates, and their polling is hovering steady in the low thirties; this is no popular movement. It’s just words, words with nothing but vague appeals to working together for change. It’s all just political hot air.

The real intent, the real policy, is a return to something like the libertarian aspects of Thatcherism, or worse. The state will not be allowed to wither as vounteerism takes up the slack; the state will be hacked away with glee, cut to the bone. Provision for the poor, for the weak, will fall through the cracks as charities and volunteers struggle to cope. It’s a reversion to how things were a hundred years ago or more, before these functions were absorbed by the state. Police and Fire services were once run by dedicated volunteers, and there’s a damn good reason that we don’t do things like that any more. Similarly with social services; look at what’s happened in Hammersmith and Fulham as council provision has been stripped away. It’s ugly, so very ugly.

In many ways, the individualism inherent in Thatcherism, the belief that “There is no such thing as society” is part of the root of what is wrong with Britain today. We were told, as a nation, that we should look out for ourselves, that greed was good, individualism was king. Are we surprised that people took this to heart? That kids who grew up in that time, and in the time since, act as if they have no responsibility to anybody? There’s a thread running directly from Thatcherism to the rise of the ASBO.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for charity or volunteering; absolutely there is. It’s a noble thing to give of your time and money for a good cause, but it should be in addition to the services provided by the state, not an alternative. The richest and strongest have a responsibility to the poorest and weakest, whether they like it or not.

The Big Society is also economically nonsensical. The wealth of nations is at least partly based on the division of labour. If I do my job well, and efficiently, it will generate wealth. That wealth can partly be used to fund somebody whose job it is to provide social services, which they too will do efficiently. If social services are performed by volunteers, then they will be performing both their day job and their volunteer work, reducing overall efficiency.

Before I’m accused of being a mad Big Statist, I’d like to point out that I am a Liberal Democrat; the first paragraph of the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution includes the words “we aim to disperse power”. The state doesn’t need to be large, monolithic and centralised, and that has been a major failure of the current Labour government, but it also shouldn’t be wiped away entirely.

The free markets and spontaneous individual action are not, and cannot, be the solution. When individual initiative is allowed to run too far, unrestrained, the consequences are usually disaster. Look at the banking crisis. Look at the Roman civil wars in the first few decades B.C. Look at the dictatorships of the world. We have a democracy because we know that pluralism, not individualism, is the way forward. We are stronger together than we are apart.

Post-Election: A More Expert View

This article from the UK Polling Report is actually a much better guide to what might happen next than I could ever do, seeing as how it contains actual facts.

I think this bit is interesting:

The second issue is the Liberal Democrat party’s rules. Formally Cameron and Brown have a free hand in negotiations, Clegg does not. The Southport Resolution in the Lib Dem rules requires him to get the support of 75% of the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat party, and 75% of the party’s Federal executive (and failing that the support of two-thirds of the wider party) in order to enter into any agreement that “could affect the party’s independence of political action” – taken as meaning a coalition agreement. While all the leaders would in practice need to take their parties with them, only Clegg would have such a formal process to deal with somehow.

Post-Election

Since my crazy inflamed passion for politics is driving me crazy, I reckon if I just open a release valve, blog it out, I’ll be able to settle down and get some work done.

So here’s me, speculating on what might happen.

I think, barring a spectacular performance by Cameron over and above Clegg (and that’s not to discount Brown, who for all his faults has substantial economic nous) in the final leader’s debate on economics hosted by the BBC (who I confidently predict will have the least shit studio for the occasion) the poll numbers should hold steady going into the final approach to the election.

Unfortunately, because these waters are so uncharted, it’s hard to predict exactly how that’s going to translate into seats and votes on the night, but it seems like the most likely outcome will be a narrow margin between either the Tories or Labour as to who will be the overall largest party (probably the Tories) with a substantially increased Lib Dem contingent. I very much doubt any party will be able to form an overall majority.

That gives Brown first move, as he’s the incumbent. What he does with it will be interesting, and depends on the Lib Dem posture; there’s a reasonable chance that the Lib Dems would consider coalition, or at least a promise of support, at a price.

The Lib Dems are certain to want electoral reform. That is absolutely non-negotiable, and given the result is likely to be fairly absurd in terms of proportions of votes to seats, they’ll have a substantial popular mandate for moving to a more proportional, fairer, system.

A second condition is likely to be that Brown promptly fall onto his own sword. He’s a liability to his own party, let alone to the fortunes of a coalition. A  third condition might well be the installation of Vince Cable as the Chancellor, a move likely to be publically popular. I doubt the Lib Dems will win enough support to justify Clegg taking over as PM, but it’s an interesting possibility, especially in the power vacuum left by the Brown murder-suicide.

Note that those things get increasingly more unlikely as they go on; Clegg for PM is practically a fan-boy’s pipe-dream. But a Lib-Lab pact founded on electoral reform and the toppling of Brown is an attractive possibility.

What if conditions make it such that we end up with a Tory minority government? This is possible in the case of the Tories having a reasonable lead in seats over Labour, or Brown rebuffing the Lib Dems in attempt to claw onto power.

The Tories are going to be a lot warier of siding with the Lib Dems; electoral reform might well be a price too high for them to pay. It would mean the end of any hope of a Tory majority government ever again. Fundamentally this is a progressive, centre-left country; between them Labour and the Lib Dems have nearly 60% of the vote. If our votes were ever allowed to count equally, the Tories would never see power again.

In the absence of coalition, this would mean a weak and unstable government; Cameron would have to pull off some pretty damn good politicking to save his hide and win a proper majority in a hypothetical second election. Considering this the man who’s managed to turn what should have been a slam-dunk victory into a hung parliament, and almost brought his party to the point of being made irrelevant by proportional representation, it doesn’t look good for him.

That’s, of course, assuming his party doesn’t stab him in the back. The New Conservatives under Cameron (why that appellation isn’t more widely used I’m not sure) is much more of a surface veneer than the transformation of Labour under Blair, who truely fought for the heart and soul of the Labour party.

Cameron’s makeover of the Tories is mere lubrication designed to help him squeeze down the corridors of power. Which is possibly the most unpleasant metaphor I’ve ever written. There are lots of Tory backbenchers who are still the nasty Tories of old, untouched by Cameron’s campaign to change the party’s image; look at some of the homophobic statements that have leaked out in recent weeks. These people tolerate Dave because they believe that he can put them back into power, where they believe they belong. If he fails to deliver, they may well see Dave as expendable.

The more right-wing Tory who would replace him would, naturally be a lot less electable; this is the same party that tried tacking to the right three times before they realised it was a losing strategy.

Anyways, I guess the only really firm conclusion to be made is that this election is both incredibly interesting and unbelievably important; we could be on the threshold of real political change in this country.