Saturday, May 31, 2003

Had to (rather late) recommend this Tim Garton-Ash article in the Guardian. As usual (always?) he gets it right, except that he probably doesn't take the argument to its logical conclusion. I've been very depressed over the last few days that people, ok bloggers, who you hoped would show more intelligence have been running around condemning the new European consitution as 'dangerous' or 'bad news' as if a) much of what they fear had not been in every constitution since Rome , b) Britain had nothing to do with its drafting and c) as if it's not still to be finalised. It's a typical -- and desperately sad -- British reaction to say 'not good', and hide for weeks hoping it will go away.

Anyway, so depressed that I am (add in the criminality in No. 10 and the White House and one feels really bad) that I did two things. First I went to France to look at Rubens in Lille. Unfortunately I misread the date on the advert and arrived a year too early. Second I decided that we do need a referendum. Not on the new constitution, but on our membership of the EU. It should be a simple question 'The European Union is a project to bring about ever-closer union between European countries. Should Britain be a part of it?'. If no, then we should withdraw. If yes, then we should hear a little less from the Daily Mail.

Incidentally, although I am in sympathy with D-Squared, and his plan to vote Conservative because Tony Blair lied to him, I still can't quite make the leap. After all according to the Conservatives, the last election was a vote on whether to save the pound, and it was lost comprehensively, so therefore I presume they believe the pound is lost. So even on their only clear issue they are all at sea. On that subject I must recommend re-reading the William Hague Paxman interview before the last election, in which I remember Hague just ending it for the last few minutes spouting 'Save the Pound, Jeremy, Save the Pound'. I actually like and admire William Hague, and on the few times I have met him (he did the same subject at the same college as me) have found him great company but I could never vote Conservative while that legacy of non-thinking anti-Europeanism still exists.

ps a good argument against a referendum is that we had one, in 1975 (?) and the result was a decisive vote of support for the EU, and ever greater union etc. But that was nearly 30 years ago, so even the youngest voter in that referendum is now approaching their 50s.

pps Another reason one cannot vote Tory is that although it's true that Tony Blair would jump into a lake if George Bush asked him to, one gets the impression that Iain Duncan Smith if asked would first drain the lake and then jump in head first just to prove how far he was willing to go.

Friday, May 30, 2003

There's a good article by Stanley Hoffman on the mess created by the Bush Administration in the current New York Review of Books.

Hoffman is particularly interesting on the French policy on Iraq, where he says:

"Colin Powell stated that Jacques Chirac had said that France wouldn't go to war against Iraq "under any circumstances." In fact, as Powell must have known, and as I have been told on very good authority, the French President had earmarked French forces for war if the inspectors, after a limited number of weeks and after having followed a series of "benchmarks" not dissimilar from those Tony Blair had demanded, concluded that Iraq did have forbidden weapons and could not be disarmed peacefully. French diplomacy could be faulted for not making its positions clearer; but Chirac's statement referred only to the text of the second resolution drafted by the US and Britain for submission to the Security Council, and then withdrawn. "

Monday, May 26, 2003

An incredibly odd article* in the Observer from British neo-conservative** David Aaranovitch. He basically says that any criticism of excessive CEO salaries is 'envy' and something to do with penis size.

A much better article was by John Kay in the FT noted that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve gets by on 100,000 a year, and yet there is a never a shortage of brilliant applicants for the position. As to the argument that no-one complains about Tiger Woods or JK Rowling (the author of Harry Potter) being richer, 'Being America's leading golfer or a successful writer is not a post but an achievement. Tiger Woods and J.K. Rowling have unique talents. Objective measures - the scores, the sales of the novels - demonstrate that they are not just good, but better than anyone else.

That is not true of Mr Garnier. His talents and achievements, while no doubt considerable, are not markedly different from those of a thousand other people. Tiger Woods and J.K. Rowling won their positions themselves and their earnings genuinely result from a market process. The chief executive of GSK is identified by a search committee and his earnings set by a remuneration committee. Committees are the hallmark of hierarchy, not markets.'

Thanks to Peter Cuthbertson for the Observer link, who notes that the article has nothing to say about whether or not the CEO is a success, and that **Stephen Pollard believes not complaining about CEO salaries makes you a neo-Conservative.

Whilst going through the Sunday papers this rather caught my eye:

"Yet the US arrogantly continues to ignore the Geneva Convention at its sinister prision camp at Guantanamo Bay. And US forces repeatedly slaughtered innocent civilians and coalition troops in trigger happy blunders during the recent war. Now, having lost control of Baghdad, American troops resort to the most extreme measures against looters there"

The Guardian? The BBC? The Daily Mirror? No... the Mail on Sunday.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Income of nations

It's well known that on mean GDP per capita the US remains about 40-50% higher than the the core European countries. This is due to a combination of a) higher productivity per worker hour, b) longer worker hours, c) more workers compared with non-workers.

Yet it is really rather misleading to use mean per capita GDP when trying to compare living average living standards. That Bill Gates has an income of $3bn a year (or whatever) doesn't really do much for most people's standard of living, but he does raise the average by about $10 on its own. Add a few of his friends in and your average is soaring (the top 25,000 earners increase the mean gdp per capita by about $1,000).

A better measure of the average is median per capita GDP, or basically the amount you would have to live on if 50% of the population were poorer than you, and 50% richer. These figures rare much harder to come by than average, as they are harder to calculate, requiring knowledge of everyone's income. However figures do exist for the late 1990s for median income per household.

Country's median income (US=100)

Belgium = 106
Denmark = 105
Canada = 95
France = 95
Germany = 80
UK = 76
Spain = 73
Average EU + Canada = 90

Clearly the gap is much smaller when measured in median income, and in some cases actually disappears. At the two extremes the differences are even more pronounced. At the level of those at the bottom 10%, the US is the second lowest, with median income of 32% of its median income. At the bottom is the UK at 30% of US median income. Norway at 62% of US median income, and France at 56% of US median income are the highest.

At the other end, the income to get you into the top 10%, the US is highest by far, at 189% of median income. The next highest is Belgium at 156%, and France at 146%. The UK is at 128%.

In terms of the gap between the incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 10%, the US has the largest, at 5.98 times, while Finland has the smallest at 2.13. The UK is second highest at 4.27.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

"Almost the entire Democratic membership of the Texas House of Representatives has fled to the neighbouring state of Oklahoma, pursued by Texas Rangers."

It's not April 1st so I assume this story must be true.

After the terrible attacks in Saudi Arabia, it's worth recalling not all suicide bombs get much publicity. Chechnya is largely forgotten, and news such as 59 people dying in a suicide bomb in Chechnya on Monday, and 20 today in another barely make the inside pages, let alone the headlines.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The Tory proposal to end tuition fees for the country's students is one of those type of things that you think the Tories should be doing in order to return to power, but when they actual do them you feel somewhat underwhelmed.

The first thing that I find odd is the proposed cost -- 700m. Is that all? It that's correct it rather makes you wonder why the government introduced them in the first place. Can it be correct though? If, as the article says, it will save students and their familes 3,000 pounds a year, then on my calculations that means only 233,000 students will benefit. Surely there are more students than that in the UK who pay tuition fees? There are around 1m students in total, so that would mean 3/4 don't pay the fees, or in other words this is a classic Tory middle-class bribe.

Not that there is anything wrong with middle-class bribes, this after all is why the Tories exist. In fact given the minimal cost for the maximum publicity it's a pretty good policy -- even if only 1/4 of students do pay the tuition fee, I bet most parents expect to pay the tutition fees and they'll be relieved.

Of course the policy doesn't do much for the Conservatives attempt to present a coherent tax and spending cutting outlook. Believing that it will pay for itself is clearly wishful thinking, and taken with other policies such as the plans to scrap any road pricing schemes, if there is any coherence it is that of the Scottish Assembly. Furthermore there must be a question mark over whether they would actually implement it when in government, all political parties have a terrible record of sticking to their promises on student finance.

ps There's clearly a few errors in my above calculation. I was assuming (from the BBC report) that the 3000 pounds per year would be a standard fee by 2005 (compared with 1100 pounds now) when actually it appears that only a few universities will be charging it as 'top up fees'. Or so we thought. Last night the Tories correctly pointed out that Labour's calculation about how many places the Tories will need to 'cut' to keep their promises seems to imply that more than half will charge top up fees (i.e. similar to my calculation), which is quite a revelation. However the Tories shouldn't crow too much -- if it is an uncomfortable truth about the required level of funding that has been revealed it is one the Tories have to come to terms with as well, and ruling out fees makes it much harder.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Peter Cuthbertson links to this online debate on Right-Wing News, and suggests that a similar debate among UK right-wing bloggers on the future of the Tory party would reap dividends. His idea's good , but if the debate is as similarly loopy as the RWN ones, I don't give the Tories much hope. A taster.

This is how it begins. Makes you optimistic for the debate to come.

"John Hawkins: To begin with, do you think the "Roadmap to Peace" can succeed?

Charles Johnson: Nope. That was easy.

Damian Penny: The Roadmap looks OK on paper, but it's meaningless until the Palestinian culture of hate is changed. That, more than anything else, is the real problem.

Charles Johnson: It's based on the same old denial of reality that has failed time and again. The reality of Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist.
Then it continues;

"John Hawkins: Do you think a majority of Palestinians want peace?

John Little: On their terms maybe.

Ben Shapiro: Their terms being no Israel.

Damian Penny: No. The problem is, most Palestinians simply do not want a two-state solution. They've been force-fed propaganda and myths about it for 50 years.

Charles Johnson: Every poll of Palestinians seems to indicate they are still caught up in the dream of destroying Israel."

This remark is probably the single most absurd;

"Allison Kaplan Sommer: The goal is for everyone to leave each other the heck alone. "

Or perhaps it's not. Here's the solution two of them come up with;

"Ben Shapiro: What I'm proposing is transferring the fanatics...all 3 million of them.

Damian Penny: The worst of the worst, the terror leaders, the genocide-inciters...I have no problem with transferring them."

Sunday, May 11, 2003

What's going on? The Washington Post is running a story that the US Army is basically giving up its search for WMD. This seems ridiculous -- are they just going to leave them in Iraq and run the risk that terrorist groups could get their hands on them?

Thursday, May 08, 2003

I've always intensely disliked Ken Livingstone, and never felt the need to vote for him given there is the far more amusing and left-wing option of Steve Norris around at each London mayoral election. However in becoming one of the few British politicans who makes an (initially) unpopular election manifesto promises and actually implements it (the congestion charge) he went up in my estimation. The state of London traffic was one of the Capital's most pressing problems.

Probably second most pressing however is the huge influx of tourists, mainly American*, who ruin the city in the Summer. I thought nothing cold be done, and there was nothing in Livingstone's manifesto. Yet just in the nick of time, in a stunning intervention Livingsone has triumphed again. According to the BBC and the Evening Standard, his attack on George Bush will have a 'negative effect' on American tourism. Hoorah!

Now we wait and see what the Great Man will do about the surplus of coffee shops.

* Clearly if you are an American tourist this is not meant to be an attack on you per se. But London is a very crowded city, and gets rather hot in summer and for us at work it's rather painful seeing people on holiday enjoying themselves. Why don't you try Birmingham, it's very nice?

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Well it's the evening again, and so there must be a Labour backbench rebellion. Yep, there it is. Not a particularly good one by the standards of the day -- probably give it a C+. Still, pretty embarassing for the government and a coup for the Tories.

Unless that is, there is some arcane Tory infighting that attracts attention away from Labour...

,,,oh here we are-- right on cue -- the unpleasant Barry Legg has been fired

Why is British politics so boring these days?

Saturday, May 03, 2003

The FT claims that senior US officials are downgrading the likelihood of finding major WMD in Iraq. I would caution the anti-war movement of getting too over excited about this, I sometimes wonder whether the Bush Administration plants such stories just before a major announcement in order to make its critics look foolish. Certainly however if its true that Iraq did not have WMD then everyone should welcome the news.

The other story of note is the disgraceful one that the Bush Administration is fighting tooth & nail to obstruct the investigation into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001. You have to wonder why?

As for the local elections, when they aren't in London it's hard to get too excited about them. However looking at how our tractor-driving, welly-wearing brethen voted, the only real conclusion is it's a good night for everyone in best Blairite fashion. It's clearly a good night for the Conservatives, as they did better than they expected (though one has to worry about IDS's ambition if he only expected a gain of 30 seats -- someone should ask him why) and local government is their only real hope at the moment (though few have mentioned their stunning -- that's the only word for it -- success in Scotland). The Lib Dems did ok too, particuarly in getting their vote out, though one wonders if that, couple with the low turnout, is the only reason they got a higher share than normal. For Labour it wasn't bad either, they avoided a Tory-style wipeout (though some commentators have said this as if everyone was expecting a Thatcher/Major style wipeout), and more importantly they are probably assured of IDS being the Opposition leader through to the general election, which guarantees they will win it.

One thing would worry me however if I were Labour tacticians, is whether Tony Blair is no longer an obvious electoral advantage? Probably he still wins them 10% of voters they wouldn't normally have from the centre-right, but is it now possible that he loses them 10% from the left?