Friday, February 29, 2008

Fox News: Terrorists may use Robots in future attacks

It can be tough for the good people at Fox News. They need to make sure that every American understands the infinite menace of the terrorist threat. So imagine their joy when they received a press release from the University of Sheffield, titled 'Killer military robots pose latest threat to humanity'. After a quick editorial meeting, they decided the headline was nearly perfect, except that it didn't make the link between terrorists and killer robots clear enough. So I give you 'Scientist: Terrorists may use robots in future attacks'.

Terrorists with killer military robots - that does sound pretty scary. The American army have a robot which is an unstoppable truck-sized surveillance robot, as well as flying robots which shoot missiles at terrorist leaders. Imagine if the terrorists got their hands on them and shot missiles at Prince Harry. The news article showed a picture of a Dalek - imagine if the terrorists allied with the Daleks. And what about the threat from the Decepticons, how much more deadly would Osama bin Laden be with Megatron at his side?

The news report says that this might be far fetched [surely not] but in fact iRobot, which makes the Roomba robots, also makes bomb-defusing and surveillance robots for the Pentagon. The company encourages reprogramming of the Roomba, and has even created a special version strictly for hackers and tinkerers (who could be terrorists).

But the Roomba robot turns out to be a good deal less scary than a Dalek or a Decepticon. A Roomba is, in fact, a cleaning robot. It is equally good at vacuum cleaning, floor washing and pool cleaning, with its powerful suction and rotation brushes. Even if a terrorist got hold of one of these and reprogrammed it, what's their plan? 'Now, with our unstoppable robot army which can self-adjust from carpets to hard floors and back again, we shall defeat the infidels and hoover up their freedoms. Mwahahaha!!!'

With thanks to Daily Kos.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Playing the race card

Here's a stupid and nasty article from a Lib Dem activist who is a former adviser to Nick Clegg. It goes something like this:

There is a shortage of social housing. Existing tenants would like their children to be able to live in the same area that they do. The Mayor of London has an adviser who has been criticised for giving grants to organisations run by black people, and who has been trying to make sure black people turn out to vote when there is an election on. This has nothing to do with the issue of social housing, but it will make people who are living in social housing think that the Mayor's housing policy is contrary to their interests. Also people in the suburbs might think that the inner cities are full of feral children, and vote Tory as a result.

Leaving aside the desperately limited understanding of housing policy (Brian Paddick doesn't seem to know much about housing, either, judging by his housing manifesto). there is something very unpleasant about the author projecting his own prejudices onto social housing tenants (while sharing a bit of his own prejudices about them in the process).

The basic message, stripped of all the hedging, leaps of logic and convoluted phrasing, is, 'I'm not a racist, but my neighbours, well, they think all the money and the housing goes to the blacks. This is all the Mayor's fault'. Every bit as repulsive, in other words, as Boris Johnson's repeated racist outbursts.

Full Circle

In the dying days of John Major's administration, the UK government was in discussions about giving a contract to a company called 'America Works' to get more lone parents into work. Labour came to power, cancelled the contract, and over the following ten years helped more lone parents than ever before in British history find jobs, through a mixture of good management of the economy, more help with childcare, and direct cash support through tax credits. Meanwhile, many 'customers' of America Works found it harder to find work once the American economy got worse after 2000, and discovered that even if they got a job, they still didn't have enough money to pay all the bills and support themselves and their families.

But why build on success or look at the evidence when there is the option of giving public money to private companies in the dogmatic belief that they can do things better. Our government has just announced how they are going to open up what their adviser calls the 'multi-billion pound welfare to work market' to companies like America Works. They've released the strategy which explains how to bid for the contracts to run the services for the long term unemployed, which has been written in such a way to ensure that small, community and voluntary organisations have no chance whatsoever in being able to compete for the core contracts with large multinationals, no matter how much experience or proven effectiveness the small, local group might have. It's a similar kind of arrangement to the one which worked so well with the railways.

So while sick and disabled people, and those with children, will be threatened with sanctions if they don't find work, an ever increasing proportion of the welfare bill will go to large foreign companies, which are already making preparations to grab their share of the handouts, on long term contracts.

If James Purnell had to disinter a policy from the John Major era, couldn't he have picked the cones hotline or something?

Good Old Boy #49

Quick quiz. Which journalist, in which newspaper, wrote this:

"If detectives identified a pattern whereby a specific race, religion, nationality, class or age-group were overwhelmingly responsible for violent crime they would target it.

So knowing there is a specific gender responsible, why not do the same?

Opponents of a nationwide DNA database say collecting 60 million samples would be an impossible task. Well let's start by halving that figure and applying the law solely to men.

Let's have King Herod-style hitsquads taking the DNA of every newborn male on the irrefutable grounds that it is overwhelmingly this 50 per cent of the population responsible for the worst crimes.

Let's accept that every male has the capacity to destroy human life in the vilest manner, but if you are part of the 99 per cent who will never fulfil that potential you have nothing to fear.

Those who object to being labelled a possible killer should think of the added safety they are giving to their wife or daughter.

They should think of the main perpetrators of crimes going on around them and admit that, due to our genetic make-up, all men need their DNA on record.

The alternative is to be like that apology for a man, Levi Bellfield, and admit you are a deluded coward who can't face up to the truth about what you are."


I can almost hear the furious tapping of keyboards, as angry men on the internet log in to the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' to hurl abuse at the female journalist who would dare to write this kind of anti-male, don't you know it is men who are the ones who are really discriminated against these days, this is an affront to our civil liberties sort of thing. But they'd be looking in the wrong place.

It's Brian Reade, in the Daily Mirror.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Duty calls

From here

Arguments for homelessness, parts one and two

Historian and wannabe Labour MP Tristram Hunt writes in the Guardian today. It is a mixture of phase one and phase two arguments in favour of homelessness.

Phase one arguments are those which discuss housing policy exclusively in terms of the need for conservation of the countryside without reference to issues of social justice. Thus, Hunt believes that the government should make a priority of conserving the countryside rather than building new homes to help people who are homeless or trapped in unsuitable housing (who don't get a mention), and he quotes Oliver Letwin, of all people, approvingly in support of this. Hunt's position appears to be that Labour should listen more to Oliver Letwin when it comes to their housing and environmental policies.

He combines this with a bit of phase two argument. In phase two, pro-homelessness campaigners state that of course they support building more homes, it's just that they oppose the schemes which are actually proposed and instead support 'alternatives' which are either utterly inadequate or totally impractical or unviable.

Thus, Hunt gives a couple of examples of schemes that he supports, and then runs through a summary of what nimbies from around the country say about schemes in their local area. He writes that "Meanwhile, in Oxfordshire, Kilbride Properties is seeking an eco-town exemption to put 5,000 houses on a site of special scientific interest in designated green belt. It really doesn't get less eco than that."

I actually know a bit about this site, in Shipton Quarry. It's the site which kept on being cited by the Oxford Green Party as an alternative to building an urban extension to Oxford. They said things like, "It's in the Green Belt, but retains the character of Oxford because it's a sufficient distance away from the city and is a sufficient size to be able to create a truly sustainable community", and tried to put forward amendments to Oxfordshire County Council's policies to support building on the quarry.

The Green Party at the time was having to appease its anti-homes, anti-jobs wing (their policy was that the only places where building new homes was ok would be if the alternative use for those places was employment). So when Hunt says of building on Shipton Quarry is that 'it really doesn't get less eco than that', he's got into a position where he claims to be in favour of more housing, but is more anti-development than the Green Party.

Libertarianism makes you stupid

There are a lot of libertarians on the internet, and many anti-government people who borrow libertarian arguments even if they don't believe the whole thing.

The wonderful thing about the internet, though, is that as well as vast screeds of libertarian drivel, there are also articles like the wonderful 'Libertarianism makes you stupid'

The Economist on Cuba

I was being unfair in caricaturing articles in the Economist as "its international coverage turns out to be articles from round the world about the need to cut taxes, privatise services and deregulate in [insert country here]". That was, of course, an over-exaggeration (this, for example, is a clear counter-example). But their lead article about what Cuba needs after Castro was a classic of the genre:

"Look a bit further ahead, and two broad scenarios seem possible in Cuba. The first is one in which the Communist Party oversees the introduction of capitalism while retaining political control—in the mould of China, Vietnam or, closer to home, Mexico in the heyday of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. That seems to be the route favoured by senior figures in the regime, few of whom show any signs of being closet democrats. The other scenario is the one long dreamed of in Miami and in Washington, of the regime's sudden collapse and, it is assumed with a confidence many Iraqis may find worryingly familiar, a swift move to liberal democracy.


America risks leaving the field to Mr Chávez, who wants Venezuela to become more like Cuba rather than the other way around (he is already giving Cuba fast internet access because America won't). And what if pressure “worked”? The result at the moment could be chaos and violence. Cuba needs not just to dismantle Fidel's Communism but to construct the state institutions that might underpin capitalist democracy. The country can prosper only if the two Cubas—the entrepreneurial diaspora of 1.5m Cuban-Americans and the 11m on the island—work together, rather than against each other. But that, too, will take time."

It's not that there is anything wrong with the Economist's case for dropping the American blockade of Cuba. But there seems to me to be one rather important omission in this analysis. Cuba might end up like China, or like Iraq. But much more enticing is the idea that it aims to ally, co-operate and learn from the experience of the various left and centre-left governments in South and Central America (with which Cuba has much more in common than either China or Iraq). This doesn't fit neatly into an analytic framework in which the only argument is about whether dictatorship or democracy is better for liberalising the economy, but hey.

Here, in contrast, is Conor Foley, courtesy of the 'unserious' Guardian, on what Brazil's President Lula is planning to do to help shape Cuba's future.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The story of Mrs Jones

I really enjoyed this, from activewiththeactivists:

"Mrs Jones, whose door I knocked on last week, was a great example. (It’s not her real name, but I’ll tell you where she lives if you e-mail me, before people cry Jennifer’s ear at me). She must have been in her mid-eighties. I met her husband first, who seemed unsure about how to answer any of my questions, but said that he would fetch ‘the mester’ (northern for the person in charge, similar to the gaffer if you don’t know). I was slightly apprehensive about this, as sometimes this has meant “I’m not that bothered but it would amuse me to fetch my partner to rant at you”. He was not one of those.

His wife came out and said how lovely it was to have us knock on her door and ask if there were any problems we could help with. Then she said that she would always vote Labour, for the simple reason that she compared her life with her mother’s life. When you look at it that way, you can see her point. Her comparison spanned the 20th century, and she was sure that the Labour party was the dominant progressive influence of those years. Sometimes we forget that. She then rolled off her reasons: the healthcare she had had. The houses she had lived in. The jobs she went through. The fact that she is still alive, and the fact that she is warm. If only I heard all these things brought up at my local Labour party meetings.

Now you can overstate her point. Not everything in her life was down to Labour. She worked hard, and must have been in the right place at the right time to feel the benefit of periods of prosperity. But she recognised politics as the agency which brought at least some of this to her life."

These are not very nice people

For anyone who thinks that the end of George Bush means an end to Republican smears and dirty tricks, or who believes the spin about him being a moderate, here's one of John McCain's 'jokes' from ten years ago which McCain told to Republican cronies. It's about Chelsea Clinton, and the punchline is, ta da, that Hilary Clinton is a lesbian and that's why her (18 year old) daughter is so ugly. Pretty classy, no?

And if you didn't realise, either, that Hilary Clinton is a fascist, then you need to read the best selling book called 'Liberal Fascism', or its hilarious accompanying blog.

But now it looks like Barack Obama will be the Democrat nominee instead of Clinton. So the Republicans are getting ready to fight a clean, high minded campaign based on the issues and their record in gov-, oh wait.

They started with the rumours about how Obama is a Muslim who was indoctrinated by radical Islamists in Indonesia. Then a bit of not very coded racism, like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly explaining that 'he wasn't going to join the Obama lynch mob'. The latest, though, takes the whole thing to an extraordinary new level. You can imagine the crazy right-wing thought processes - what's worse than being a black Muslim? Um, what if he was Jewish as well? Or, wait, what if he was a Communist? Or if he was linked to those blacks who steal our white women? Why hasn't the media reported on this? Of course, because of political correctness! Put it all together and you get...

"for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics...Political correctness was invented precisely to prevent the mainstream liberal media from persuing the questions which might arise about how Senator Obama's mother, from Kansas, came to marry an African graduate student. Love? Sure, why not? But what else was going on around them that made it feasible? Before readers level cheap accusations of racism — let's recall that the very question of interracial marriage only became a big issue later in the 1960s. The notion of a large group of mixed race Americans became an issue during and after the Vietnam War. Even the civil-rights movement kept this culturally explosive matter at arm's distance."

As one revolted reader put it:

"The truly beautiful thing about this is that it incoherently wavers between two poles of repulsive slander: is it Communist Negroes having sex with our white women? Or are Communist Jewesses subverting black Americans who, patriotic though modestly ill-treated, would have been able to resist had the party not offered them the tempting fruits of miscegenation?"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Good Old Boy #48

Fidel Castro has a beard, is a commie, annoys the Americans and is in the news today. Those are four good reasons to make him Good Old Boy of the day. For the most part, Cuba seems to have done pretty well compared to its neighbours under his leadership.

It's a funny kind of socialism, though, where the leader gets to hand over power to his brother. Even if his brother is probably also a bit of a G.O.B.

UPDATE: Best Castro joke so far:

"Some analysts believe that Castro will be succeeded by his brother, Raoul Castro. Others believe that his successor will be his idiot son, Fidel W. Castro"

I read it so you don't have to #2

From time to time I read Tory-supporting blogs, with a kind of horrified fascination. I found one just recently called 'Centre Right', where Tory MPs and activists discuss with each other the things which really bother them. For your viewing pleasure:

1. Discover why it is a bad idea to cut taxes for the poor, because it will make it harder in the future to cut taxes for rich people, which is the important thing, 'both morally and politically'.

2. Marvel at the vile, foaming racist drivel which the word 'multiculturalism' inspires in Tories. Featuring comments such as 'The fact is immigration is a form of invasion, this has to be said, this has to be understood. The immigrants come here and take our jobs, take our houses, take our country. This is a fact...This is our land, it belongs to us, it does not belong to the usurping immigrants who are stealing our birthright. This soil is ours.'

3. Pity the Northern Rock shareholders, victims of 'legalised theft'.

4. Find out how the Green Party are just like the BNP, based on some made up research by someone who, on the available evidence, isn't actually able to read. (It starts by explaining how the Green Party want to restrict immigration, linking to an article by the Green Party about how the immigration system is racist, and goes downhill from there).

Take from the poor and give to the rich, bash the immigrants, take more from the poor and give to the hedge funds, and smear your opponents. Welcome to 'Centre Right' Conservatives, 2008.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

'The Persistence of Poverty'

I got round to reading 'The Persistence of Poverty' by Charles Karelis, as recommended by Will Hutton. The Washington Post review summarises (accurately) Karelis' argument as follows:

'After doing lots of reading and giving it extensive thought, Karelis concluded that the reason some people are perpetually poor is that they don't have enough money.

Let me say that this isn't as self-evident, or tautological, a truth as it might appear. Rather, the argument goes something like this:

The reason the poor are poor is that they are more likely to not finish school, not work, not save, and get hooked on drugs and alcohol and run afoul of the law. Liberals tend to blame it on history (slavery) or lack of opportunity (poor schools, discrimination), while conservatives blame government (welfare) and personal failings (lack of discipline), but both sides agree that these behaviors are so contrary to self-interest that they must be irrational.

After all, the reason we study, work, save and generally behave ourselves is that these behaviors allow us to earn more money, and more money will improve our lives. And, by logic, that must be particularly true of the poor, for whom each extra dollar to be earned or saved for a rainy day is surely more valuable than it is for, say, Bill Gates.

In economics, this insight -- that the fifth ice cream sundae is less valuable than the first one -- is enshrined in the law of diminishing marginal utility.

But what if this iron law of economics is wrong? What if it doesn't apply at every point along the income scale? If you and everyone around you are desperately poor, maybe it's perfectly rational to think that an extra dollar or two won't make much of a difference in reducing your misery. Or that you won't be able to "study" your way out of the ghetto. Or that if you find a $100 bill on the street, maybe it's logical to blow it on one great night on the town rather than portion it out a dollar a day for 100 days.

On the other hand, maybe the point at which people are most willing to work hard, save and play by the rules isn't when they are very poor, or very rich, but in the neighborhoods on either side of the point you might call economic sufficiency -- a motivational sweet spot that, in statistical terms, might be defined as between 50 percent ($24,000) and 200 percent ($96,000) of median household income. And if that is so, then maybe the best way to break the cycle of poverty is to raise the hopes and expectations of the poor by putting them closer to the goal line.'

The argument that very poor people are behaving in an economically rational way is a very interesting one. Karelis light-heartedly suggests that the reason why economists believe that the same assumptions about what is rational apply to people who are well off as to people who aren't is because economists tend to be comfortably off themselves. He draws a distinction between spending aimed at increasing pleasure (the economics of the well-off), and spending aimed at mitigating or removing pain (the economics of the poor).

Some implications of this theory. Firstly, it challenges the idea that the way to make people who are out of work find jobs is by cutting benefits or imposing other sanctions. Anything that takes people further away from an adequate income is likely to reduce the likelihood that they will seek work, save money, acquire new skills, and other things that reduce the risk of poverty in the long term. In contrast, raising wages and government support which makes sure that low paid work offers people an adequate income is absolutely key in reducing poverty.

More than this, anything which raises the income of poor people, be it cash payments, cheap rent or childcare, help with utility bills or the cost of food is beneficial, and the positive effect gets greater the more help is given. This is a direct challenge to the theory of so-called 'welfare dependency', and it helps to explain a very puzzling phenomenon, which will also start to tell us if Karelis' argument is anything more than an interesting but meaningless academic theory from someone in their ivory tower.

Over the past thirty years, the relative levels of support for people out of work have fallen. Unemployment benefits are roughly £30/week in real terms lower than in 1977, rents are much higher for many people as the amount of social housing has fallen, and at the same time the standards of living for the better off have increased significantly. And yet to listen to the right-wing arguments, the problem of worklessness is caused by the generous level of benefits that so-called 'scroungers' receive.

Under Labour, billions of pounds have been spent on reducing child poverty, boosting the incomes of families both in and out of work, and introducing a whole range of subsidised services, provided through initiatives such as Sure Start. Now according to the theory of welfare dependency, the fact that, for example, lone parent families get much more money from the government and have less need to work as a result should have created an underclass, dependent on the state. And yet, over the same time period, the number of lone parents in work has increased. Indeed, the proportion of lone parents who have been in work at some point in the past three years is 80%, one of the highest in the world. Score one for Karelis.

In the past, the debate about poverty has tended to be a clash between a moral case that 'something must be done', and an economic case which has been sceptical of 'do-gooders'. What this work suggests is that there is a strong economic case for the principle of 'from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need'.

One objection is obvious. Karelis writes of this notion of an adequate income. But to make use of his theories, we need to know roughly how much this is. More on this soon, but there is some research out soon which attempts to answer exactly this question.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Myths about journals

Hopi Sen observes correctly that the New Statesman is not a very good magazine. It's like reading the comment and review section of the Observer, but without Andrew Rawnsley and at much higher cost (though at least both now seem to have dispensed with the services of Cristina Odone).

But he goes on to perpetuate the myth that its rival, the Spectator, is a better magazine. I am bitter about this, because I'd heard this from a number of people, and was once foolish enough to buy the Spectator and read it. None of the book reviews were interesting, and the articles in the front bit were generic right-wing pieces on the issues of the moment, none of which read like they had taken the author very long to write. Reading Fraser Nelson's thoughts on welfare reform spread across three pages isn't actually an improvement on reading exactly the same points made in his News of the World column.

The same goes for the Economist, which I've heard people say is very good because of its international coverage. On closer inspection, its international coverage turns out to be articles from round the world about the need to cut taxes, privatise services and deregulate in [insert country here]. Which I guess is comforting if you think that sort of thing is needed everywhere and all the time, but isn't really adding much.

I guess part of the problem is that political coverage on t'internet provides for free a much quicker response and much more detailed and informed analysis than any monthly political journal can offer. But if the New Statesman under its new editorship could manage to rise to the level of 'if I have nothing to read on the train, I will get this rather than save my money' then that would be an improvement on where it is now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Parallel worlds

Trevor Kavanagh, writing in the Sun, 'explains' who's to blame for Britain's economic woes:

"Thanks to Labour’s incompetence, there’s not a brass farthing in the kitty — and now the Government is in a panic.

So where has all our money gone?

It’s been squandered on costly, inefficient and irresponsible pet projects created almost entirely to appease the political Left.


They are the class warriors who still hanker for the good old days of union power and state ownership.

And they still have undue influence in the last bastions of socialist power in town halls and public services. But there is a price to pay for Left-wing ideology. And we have been paying it for the past eleven years."

Now, presumably Trevor Kavanagh does know, at some level, that the spending decisions of the past eleven years have not, in fact, been taken to appease the political Left. He knows this because he knows that the decisions were taken, with hardly any exceptions, to appease the Sun newspaper. He knows this because ministers spoke to him personally and to his boss to explain their spending decisions in the hope of getting good press coverage. Many of these decisions were, indeed, explicitly designed to annoy lefties, and Trevor has in the past explained this to his readers.

But that would be a bit tricky to explain now, so instead he's running the 'he who controls the present controls the past' gambit and conjuring up this parallel world in which the period from 1997-2008 saw the 'political Left and old style socialists' calling the shots.

One of the really weird things about this period of economic difficulty (not just in Britain but elsewhere in the world) is the way that right-wingers don't seem to have anything at all which is constructive or based in economic reality to offer. The Republicans are going to pick a candidate who doesn't know or care anything about the economy, and here the main concern of the Tories appears to be whether the state of the economy will prevent them cutting taxes for rich people as quickly as they would like, and trying to pin the blame for a worldwide recession on Gordon Brown and the lefties.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The mask slips

The government is currently proposing to charge wealthy foreigners who live in the UK £30,000 per year. A modest sum, you might think, given the benefits that they receive from living here. But as one correspondent to the Daily Telegraph explains, it's not about the money:

"Dear Sirs,

Being one of those people who earn rather a lot of money, invest everything in the UK and live there with my family, I am continually perplezed by the government's constant squirelling concerning other people, and in particular, those high flyers who generate a lot of money and prestige for the country. Have they not the slightest idea that far above my salary $30,000 is petty cash, but it's not about money at all? People who are at the top deserve a little respect and
if some snotty little creep think they can be pushed about, then it will be a sorry day when everyone of a certain group will simply get into a private jet and to hell with the UK. Have they considered the fall out of these proposals or does it take someone like me to be a little more obtuse and quote something from a grizzled old Texan -'money talks and bull s--t walks'? The goose and the golden egg yet again. These idiots could not run a stall in a market and this
pomposity will cost the country dear. The richest people in the land staging a brain drain does not bear consideration. As for expats, the day that threatened sickle swings will result in the loss of another huge amount of money presently being spent in Britain, because people like me will immediately sell up and move somewhere where our money and investments are welcomed, and trust me, most of us have worked and lived in such places. Britain beware, you are about to commit financial suicide if this group of lefties are not controlled, and you don't have to be Gordon Brown to work that one out.
Posted by Vivian J Phillips on February 12, 2008 3:48 AM"

No doubt overcome when writing this by a potent mix of rage and greed, Vivian Phillips' comments are very revealing (if not always fully coherent). Our taxation policy should be about respecting the 'people at the top' and if they don't feel that they are getting this respect, then 'to hell with the UK'. Asking them to contribute 'petty cash' is a grievous insult.

These people made their money thanks to the hard work of people who earn far less than them. If they want respect, then they can earn it by paying their fair share of taxes like the rest of us.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Following the muse

Sunday is usually a day for reading the Observer and getting cross at the stupid articles contained therein (like the two pages in the news bit uncritically telling us about the 'grassroots' campaign of pro-homelessness campaigners in rural England).

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to read a really good article by Barbara Ellen, 'At least when I was skint, Caroline Flint wasn't around to shatter my dreams'. Most articles in the papers about Flint's plans have come from the perspective of whether they are the correct policies that 'we' (people who work, pay our taxes etc.) ought to adopt to sort out the problems of 'them' (people who are out of work). This one is rather different:

"The point is that bumbling around in my late teens/early twenties, living in various squats, housing association homes and council flats, being poor continued to be do-able. Like all the other directionless idiots I knew, I signed on, claimed housing benefit and ate baked beans straight from the tin. The idea was somehow to keep afloat while one followed one's 'muse', which in my case was churning out music fanzines nobody wanted to read until I could get to college and get a degree I'd forget to collect. Could this happen today? One doubts it. Considering I spent four years signing on, qualifying as a 'long-term unemployed', one assumes my rent would have been stopped, my benefits frozen, someone like Flint coming to the conclusion that my 'commitment contract' was void. She would have been wrong.

For people like me, those years as welfare sloths counted among the most priceless and productive years of our lives. Those tiny cheques serving as a kind of grant, while, to paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, you became 'the creature you meant to be', welfare culture dovetailing with the counter-culture in a wonderful display of optimism and energy.

Indeed, if you weren't from a cookie-cutter, middle-class background, this was one of the ways you did it, how you made your great escape. Leastways, it used to be. It seems inconceivable that broke young people could get away with it now. Any young people, in fact."

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Good Old Boy #47: Breakthrough Chingford

Iain Duncan Smith wrote a report last year which drew on the fact that he had been to Glasgow and the people there were not living according to his sense of moral values.

Now one Scottish Nationalist MSP is planning to return the favour:

Wishart says he is to commission a study into social problems and issues confronting the good people of Chingford, IDS's constituency. "Breakthrough Chingford", says Wishy-Washy, will tackle the neglect of the area.

He says: "I'm passionate about the very real problems of this part of the London commuter belt and I am not prepared to stand idly by.

"Chingford suffers from problems experienced by the London commuter belt and it is totally unacceptable life expectancy and employ-ment are only slightly better than the national average. To me, this is not good enough and complacency has to be challenged."

He also wants to examine the history of gangs and petty crime in the area. "Those who lived through the 80s will never forget the words 'Chingford Skinhead' that struck fear into the very heart of the vulnerable. There was also the issue of widescale bike theft when three million people were urged to take to their bikes on the flimsiest pretext of finding work," he says

Burying good news

The government made a major policy announcement this week, which will have massive implications for the future of social housing, prompting a furious reaction from its opponents.

No, not Caroline Flint's speech about plans (already, it seems abandoned) to get new social housing tenants to commit to find work. The major policy change is an amendment to the Planning Bill which will make it easier to build new housing developments on the Green Belt. Daily Mail readers got to hear all about it in a thoughtful piece called 'Labour to strip rural voters of their right to stop green belt destruction'. The Tories joined in the condemnation of these plans, as did the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

If you know people who want to find somewhere affordable to live, people for whom owing a house is just a dream, or people trapped with their kids in desperately unsuitable housing which is making them sick, then you should support the government's changes because without them we won't build anything like the number of new homes that are needed. In the unlikely event that you don't know anyone in any of those situations, there's a short video here that you can watch about the misery of our housing crisis.

The problem is that although a huge majority of people want action taken to sort out the housing crisis, there are a powerful set of vested interests which are conspiring to frustrate and prevent the new homes from being built. On this issue, Labour is on the side of the majority of people, from people who are homeless to the aspirational floating voters in the South East and London, and the Tories are on the side of the rural home owner lobby.

But having the right policies isn't enough if you aren't prepared to fight for them. This new policy, this 'new homes not nimbies' amendment, was presented as an amendment to parliament, with no anouncement or explanation to support it. When asked about it, the government denied the accusations of the anti-homes lobby that this was about making it easier to build new affordable homes even if local people didn't want them. Denying unpopular policies is one thing, this appeared to be an attempt to bury good news.

People who oppose new housing developments may be a small minority, but they are geograpically concentrated, and follow the news closely. People who support new affordable housing are found all around the country, and don't follow the details of housing policy development. (I found out about this policy because of a link on Conservative Home to the Daily Mail article). It's the job of Labour MPs and Labour activists to explain and publicise the implications of our policies and the difference between us and the Tories. This also means rebutting the lies of the special interests. The Daily Mail claim that the new homes are needed because of immigration. The main reason that they are needed is because more people are living on their own. This is a matter of simple fact - and I'd love to hear the Tory policies to stop people choosing to live on their own, they can wheel Iain Duncan Smith back out to talk about marriage and stopping people getting divorced.

By pure coincidence, at the beginning of the week when this new amendment was presented to Parliament, the new Housing Minister had a high profile interview scheduled with the Guardian, ahead of a speech to the Fabian Society. She could have used this opportunity to start a public debate about what the government should do to solve the housing crisis, and explained that they were going to face down the Daily Mail, the Tory Party and the nimbies and make sure that the affordable homes that people need get built. Labour believes that everyone has the right to a decent home, the Daily Mail and the Tories believe that everyone should have the right to stop others having a decent home.

On the substance of policy, the idea that there is no difference between Labour and the Tories is complete and utter nonsense. But if Labour is to be re-elected, then instead of the stunts which divide the government against its natural supporters, we need to show how we are on the side of the people, and the Tories are on the side of wealthy special interests. Social housing tenants aren't a wealthy special interest, the Campaign for Rural England and its backers are.

On Jesus, swords and rocket launchers

More American political trivia:

Relevant magazine asked its readers which presidential candidate they thought Jesus would vote for. Relevant magazine's readers are Christian evangelicals, more than 3 in 4 of them voted for George Bush. These are the people who got Bush elected twice.

According to evangelicals, the message Jesus wants to hear this year is 'Yes, We Can'. More evangelicals thought Jesus would vote for Barack Obama, than those who thought it would be Mike Huckabee, who is explicitly the Christian evangelical candidate and used to be a pastor. Obama got more votes than Hilary Clinton and John McCain combined. If Obama is the Democratic candidate in the general election, there's going to be a lot of previously solid Republican votes up for grabs.

On the other hand, this is a brilliant explanation from one Democrat voter about why he's voting for Hillary:

"I like swords. Swords are cool. But if I’m going to a gunfight, I’m not bringing a sword. No matter how cool swords are, guns are better. Aesthetically less pleasing perhaps, but in the coming years, I would rather America be led by the smartest, most experienced person. America is in dire straights as far as I'm concerned. Obama is a knight weilding a sword and people are lining up behind him cheering. Filled with hope. Thats a great thing. Hilary is an evil genius with a rocket launcher.

I wish Obama all the best. I just think Hilary will be able to accomplish more thanks to her experience and attitude. Obama will try to reach across the aisle and will waste valuable time doing so. And it will get him nowhere. I think he'll spend his first two years in the White House learning the lessons Hillary already learned."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Out of work, out of benefit

Here's something chilling from America, just as the US is slipping into recession and more people are losing their jobs, 2 million people will run out of unemployment benefits later this year unless the time limit is extended, because unemployment benefits in America are time limited. They will be left with nothing to live on.

It started in the US with right-wing howls about welfare dependency, then both parties adopted the idea that 'tough love' was needed to get people into work rather than living their lives on benefits. And it has ended up with millions of people who have neither work nor unemployment benefits.

Let's make sure that we stop the people who want to make this happen here in the UK.

Caroline Flint and social housing

Today's fiasco has been Caroline Flint's decision to 'start a debate' about whether social housing tenants should have to look for work or lose their homes. It is an object lesson in why it is a bad idea for government ministers to come up with policies which they haven't understood or thought through.

There were other, much more sensible things that she had to say in her interview. She restated the commitment to building new homes, including social and affordable homes, to overcome the housing crisis. This is a dividing line between Labour (who support doing this) and the Tories (who are fanatically opposed), and we should make sure that as many people know that as possible, and also actually get on with building these homes so that people notice the difference. She also had some sensible things to suggest about improving the local support and services available in deprived areas. Again, this is something which people overwhelmingly support, and which the Tories would cut (when the Tories go on about reducing public spending, this is the sort of thing that they actually mean).

That's all that I've got to say which is positive. She will have known perfectly well that all of the above would have been overshadowed by her message of 'if you live in a council house, you are a second class citizen'. It is stupid and obnoxious to stigmatise people because of who their landlord is, especially coming from someone who owes her own job and career to the consistent support over the years of millions of people who live in social housing.

As the Tories spotted, her proposal can't be enforced legally. Something that might have been worth thinking about before floating the idea. Of course, the law could be changed. That would either mean people being evicted from their homes, then turning up at the council and being reallocated somewhere else to live (after a stay in temporary accommodation at higher cost to the taxpayer), or people having to sleep rough and families being broken up and children taken into care. It seems that neither Flint nor any of her advisers actually stopped to think how her idea would work, or what the implications would be before announcing it.

One specific example of how this hasn't been thought through. Both the Tory Party and the government agreed recently that lone parents shouldn't face having their benefits cut if they have children under five years old. Under Flint's plan, a parent with a child who is six weeks old would have to look for work, and face losing their home if they don't.

The reason why many new social housing tenants are not in work is because there is not very much social housing available, and therefore it is mostly people who are in the most desperate housing need who get allocated social housing. For example, people with mental health problems, drug or alcohol addictions, or young children. A couple in work with no kids on modest incomes, many of whom forty years ago would have rented from the council, end up having to rent privately because social housing has been turned over the past thirty years into a special needs service rather than a viable option for people in work who prefer to rent rather than buy. Who are these employers who are going to hire someone with a drug addiction or, indeed, mental health problems? All the evidence shows that getting homeless people somewhere decent and secure to live is essential before they are likely to be able to look for work successfully. Flint's plan would specifically undermine this.

As an example of bait and switch, making sure that social housing will be for people who are out of work by not building enough new homes to keep up with demand, and then stoking a moral panic about how social housing tenants are out of work and threatening them with homelessness is hard to beat. It's worth remembering that it wasn't long ago that the government floated the idea of means testing to get better off council tenants (i.e. those in work) to move into the private sector, or since ministers were talking about encouraging home ownership for 80% of people, with social housing just as an emergency short term service for people fallen on hard times.

It's quite right to want to reduce unemployment and poverty in areas of social housing. There's no shortage of policies which would achieve this, from accessible and affordable childcare, to good local services, to changing employers' attitudes (because at the moment, many employers won't hire new social housing tenants) and boosting the number of jobs available, to increasing the amount of social housing so that a much wider range of people can choose to rent from the council or housing association. But threatening people with homelessness if they don't look for a job is not only a repellent idea, but a totally ineffective one.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Old ideas

Thanks to Luke for pointing out Jackie Ashley's column in the Guardian today, 'more help for the poor is what we want to hear. The day this stops being a Labour issue is the day the party is finished.' Jackie Ashley wants the government to focus on social justice, rather than casting around for a new big idea suggested by a think tank. Luke adds that he'd like to see one or two major policy initiatives on poverty, of a scale comparable to the minimum wage.

Three thoughts:

1. First priority is to do what the End Child Poverty campaign are calling for, and halve child poverty, taking one million children and their families out of poverty through increases in Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. This is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the government promised to do this by 2010 back in 1999, and promises should be kept. Secondly, the direct benefit to those families would be enormous, giving these children a fair start in life and an equal chance to succeed alongside their richer classmates. Thirdly, putting more money in the pockets of poor families is exactly the right policy for the good of our economy. Fourthly, attitudes to poverty are divided between those who think it is inevitable ('the poor will always be with us'), those who think poverty is caused by bad luck, those who think it is a result of social injustice, and those who think it is because people are lazy. Taking one million children out of poverty shows that it is not inevitable, and that it isn't just about luck, and hence paves the way for greater support for future efforts to reduce poverty.

2. Childcare in this country is very expensive, and getting more so. Lots of people, particularly lone parents, would like to work, but can't because they can't afford the costs of having their kids looked after. Even families who are quite well off find it difficult to pay for the childcare that they need. So a really radical idea would be for the government to give every family a tax cut equal to the amount of money they spend on childcare for their children while they are at work, effectively making childcare free just as the NHS makes healthcare free. This helps families on low incomes and those with disabled children most of all, will help get people into work (good for them, good for their kids, good for the Exchequer), and is a fairly hefty tax cut for middle-class families, but one with positive social benefits, rather than negative effects like inheritance tax cuts. It's also effectively Tory-proof - if the Tories want to go into the next election opposing it, then all the better.

3. Does anyone else remember the windfall tax? It was popular and raised lots of money for the government to do good stuff. I'd have thought that now is exactly the time to do another windfall tax on the people whose incomes have grown massively in the past decade. The government needs to raise money, and it is only right that the people who have made a fortune thanks to the steady economic growth and stability of the past decade should help out the rest of us now that the world economy is in some trouble. Providing you targeted it at the people who middle-class people in London (particularly journalists) feel envious of, then this is one tax that could be really popular.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Nick Cohen: economist

Strange to say, the worst bit of Nick Cohen's column today isn't actually the bit where he does his fashion correspondent turn. It's this bit:

"Labour politicians brought up on Keynesian economics should know what to do to limit the potential misery. In the US, the unlikely figure of George W Bush is showing them the way by proposing tax cuts for business to revive the economy.


[H]ard questions and mocking gazes will also be directed at policies less fashionable men and women once took for granted. Who conned a Labour government into giving undeserved tax breaks to private equity billionaires? Why did it throw so much money at schools, hospitals and the police without first ascertaining that it would be wisely spent?"

Shorter Nick Cohen, tax cuts for business, when done by George Bush = good. Tax cuts for business, when done by Gordon Brown = undeserved con. Keynesian economics = good in theory. Increasing spending on health, education and police = a waste.

Oh, and those Bush tax cuts? Here's someone who, unlike Nick, knows what they are talking about, explaining why they won't work and what needs to be done instead.

There was a time when Nick Cohen wouldn't have recycled wacky Republican economic policy without any critical analysis. I guess once you've got used to arguing for Bush's foreign policy, the even worse economic policy kind of follows.

Martin Amis: Has Feminism cost us Europe?

A while ago, Martin Amis got into some trouble for 'adumbrating' 'an urge' to take collective action against Muslims. In an attempt to defend himself, he wrote to the Independent that "the mood, the retaliatory "urge" soon evaporated, and I went back to feeling that we must, of course, build all the bridges we can between ourselves and the Muslim majority, which we know to be moderate."

So how's the bridge building going?

He was interviewed last Tuesday by Johann Hari, again in the Independent. Amis had been reading a book by Mark Steyn, who I had not previously come across, but appears to be a Canadian racist who makes a living by writing about how the Islamists are going to take over Europe. I'll let Johann explain what happened next:

"Amis says Steyn is "a great sayer of the unsayable". Muslims are indeed reproducing at a faster rate than the rest of us, he says, and they will eventually outbreed us and become a majority: "One of the mathematical beauties of democracy is that you can look at the figures and be pretty sure how it's going to fall out. It's not PC. It's so saturated in revulsions that people can't go near it. [But] we should go near it... Just because there have been horrible abuses based on this [way of thinking] doesn't mean that it's not worth considering, or that it's so radioactive that you don't dare go near it. That is the defeat of reason."


"He then drags Steyn's arguments into a whole other swamp of reaction. "He doesn't even dare say it actually," he says, "but his thesis is that when you allow women to choose [through contraception and abortion], you will face demographic disaster, because they won't choose to have the necessary amount of children. The reason that America is the only First World country with a non-declining birth rate is because of all those things we hate about it, you know – [it's] patriarchal, church-going. I'm going to take this up because I think it's such an enormous question – has feminism cost us Europe?""

Building bridges with moderate Muslims? Not so much. "Has feminism cost us Europe?" Coming soon to a bookshop near you. It is greatly to Johann Hari's credit that he attempts to try to reason with this mad racist drivel, rather than edging away from Martin and doing a runner.

And here, right on cue, is Nick Cohen to explain how Martin Amis is much misunderstood and is being persecuted by the beserk libruls.

More on this here.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jobs for the boys

Daniel Finkelstein has a piece about how MPs should be banned from employing family members. This seems daft to me - the fact that a Tory MP has been fiddling public money and giving it to his kids for no work has no wider lesson except to remind us that Tories behave much as they always have.

When I worked in an MP's office, the hardest-working member was the MP's wife. The MP has a huge personal vote (as does his wife, who is a long-serving local councillor), and part of that is the fact that the office helped thousands and thousands of people every year. Far from paying people who don't do anything, the opposite was the case here - if there were still letters and e-mails to be answered come the end of the day, she took them home and made sure they were responded to, whether it meant working through the evening or over the weekend.

In fact, if we're going to be doing a witch hunt about professions where people often get jobs not based on their talents but because of who they are related to, I'd have thought that the place to start would be in the media. But it would be a brave journalist who'd make that point.

West Wing series 8 now playing across America

I watched the Democratic Presidential Debate a couple of days ago, and I thought it was fantastic. Two extremely able people discussing healthcare, immigration and foreign policy in a serious and thoughtful way. Either would make a great President.

The last month in American politics has been like a kind of West Wing series 8, with twists and turns for both Clinton and Obama which wouldn't have been believed if they had been in a story, and a supporting cast of caricature Republicans including John McCain as the token good Republican, Mitt Romney as the comedy bad corporate Republican and Mike Huckabee as the jolly Christian bigot Republican.

I don't know how the voting on Tuesday is going to go, but unless it gets really bitter and nasty, whichever out of Clinton and Obama gets the Democrat nomination will walk all over the massively over-rated John McCain in the general election.

There are some British lefties who disdain both Clinton and Obama as centrists, and complain that it is a sad indictment of American politics that the left-wingers John Edwards and Dennis Kuchinch had to drop out. I think it is a mug's game to try to construct some absolute standard of left-wing politics - the political context of a country where there is no universal healthcare, a constitution designed to prevent things from changing and where the right-wing have been totally dominant means that what centre-left politicians in America prioritise and argue for will be different from those in parts of Europe.

A story to reinforce this point. Back in 1983, a friend of a friend moved from Britain to Sweden. He had been an enthusiastic Bennite, and voted Labour in the election, arguing enthusiastically for their 'suicide note' manifesto. Upon arriving in Sweden, he studied the policies of the different parties. trying to find the Swedish equivalent of Michael Foot and Tony Benn's Labour Party.

He ended up voting for the Swedish Conservative Party.

Blessed are the peace-makers

Fair's fair - if Tony Blair brings peace to the Middle East (particularly as he is now doing peace-making part time while working in a bank), then surely it is only reasonable to make him President of Europe?

Freud the Fraud

If you want an example of how politicians are fascinated by even the most gormless and ignorant of businessmen, check out today's interview with investment banker and government adviser Sir David Freud.

Freud was hired by Tony Blair as an adviser on welfare refom, by his own admission, 'I knew nothing about welfare when I started'. He spent a total of three weeks researching and writing his report.

He estimates that 5-7% of people who are on incapacity benefit are also working, and that 1.4 million should not be on incapacity benefit. There is no published research or evidence which supports this. He believes 'we are due a recession, and should have one every six or seven years', and yet the reforms he proposes to get people into work require steady economic growth and don't work in times of recession.

His big solution to get people into work is to get private companies to replace Job Centre Plus in being responsible for people who are out of work. He believes that companies should be paid up to £60,000 per person that gets a job and keeps it for three years.

This will mean that private companies will decide who to support and who to leave on benefit based on how cheaply they can get their 'customers' a job. So people who are desperate to work, but who need a lot of help to do so will not be able to, because private companies won't make enough of a profit. This isn't leftie scaremongering, this is what Freud himself says - "The private sector will have to start making assessments about who they can get back into work at what cost.

If somebody is really clinically depressed, for example, [the company] might say, 'I'm not going to get this guy to hold down a job for three years because he's not up to it so I'm not going to expend my efforts on him at the moment'?."

The Tories and the Lib Dems are right behind Freud's proposals, and now it seems that Gordon Brown has reversed his position and is going along with this nonsense as well. Freud's proposals are an absolutely criminal fraud of public money which means handing over billions of pounds to private companies to pick and choose who should get a job and who shouldn't based on a report by a man who doesn't know what he is talkign about, with the ultimate aim of taking money away from sick and disabled people and giving it to private shareholders.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Good work, comrades

Friday morning: 'Labour modernisers' representing the Progress Pamphlet Tendency including Alan Milburn, Tessa Jowell, Hazel Blears and James Purnell leak to the Guardian that Labour government faces defeat at the hands of the Tories. and urges Gordon Brown to adopt radical Blairite reforms, else all is lost.

Friday lunchtime: Neal Lawson, chair of the Compass Pamphlet Tendency, writes that Labour government faces defeat at the hands of the Tories, and urges Gordon Brown to adopt radical Compass reforms, else all is lost.

Friday afternoon: Labour retake the lead in the opinion polls, polls suggest government now more popular than at the time of the 2005 election. It is not believed that any pamphlets were responsible for this. Derek Conway was unavailable for comment.