Ginger rodent | 30.10.10
Come on, Harriet. Everyone knows...
PRRI poll | 30.10.10
Research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that
Two out of three Americans believe gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship, a survey released Thursday found.
More than four out of 10 Americans say the message coming out of churches about gay people is negative, and about the same number say those messages contribute "a lot" to negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people.
Catholics were the most critical of their own churches' messages on homosexuality, while white evangelical Christians gave their churches the highest grades, the survey found.
As a churchgoer I find this state of affairs shameful. And yet even in the sober, tea-soaked cloisters of the Church of England, Christians cloak themselves in silence and indifference dressed up as "tolerance" or "unity" (that'll be unity after the Soviet model, then) -- Rowan Williams being one of the setters of this pathetic trend.
Bagehot on Johnson | 29.10.10
Excellent Bagehot article in the Economist this week about the shadow chancellor Alan Johnson, arguing that his most challenging task is to restore Labour's credibility on managing the economy:
Like many political autodidacts, Mr Johnson began by reading Karl Marx. But he ended up on the right wing of the Labour Party. In 1994 he was the only major union leader to support Tony Blair's plan to rewrite Clause Four of Labour's constitution, which committed the party to national ownership of industry. And now, give or take a couple of relative unknowns, he is the most centrist member of Labour's shadow cabinet. [...]
There is an even bigger challenge facing Mr Johnson. Labour has spent months deploring the injustice of the cuts. “Fairness” and the plight of the “squeezed middle” are tirelessly invoked. The trouble is, voters have never doubted that Labour’s heart is in the right place; it has always been trusted to be more mindful of the poor than the Conservatives. Its problem is competence. Without restoring its fiscal and economic credibility, the party will not be heard on anything else.
Mr Johnson’s almost catatonically laid-back style should help check the rage against cuts that, on the Labour benches and in the left-leaning media, is at risk of becoming unhinged. But he will need to do more. When Gordon Brown was shadow chancellor in the 1990s, he toiled to win Labour a reputation for competence. The City was schmoozed assiduously, new fiscal rules were announced, colleagues who made uncosted spending pledges were not so much scolded as scalded.
A contemporary credibility strategy would have to look different. Mr Johnson could declare that it was wrong for the previous Labour government to go into a recession running a deficit. He could design updated fiscal rules, this time policed by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. He could outflank the coalition on waste. Some of this would be hard for his party to swallow. But the polls show that David Cameron and Mr Osborne are far more trusted to run the economy than him and Mr Miliband. Until that changes, Labour’s prospects are bleak.
One way in which Labour could start to rebuild its credibility is by listening to what the public actually thinks about welfare reform, and then adopting a more reasoned attitude to the present government proposals.
Offence and Intent | 29.10.10
Further to my post the other day, here's an example of "harmful speech", ie, "speech that is intended to cause or threaten psychological or physical intimidation or harm". What made Coss's speech (or in this case, writing) legally actionable was the intention to cause psychological distress, not the fact that what he wrote was "offensive" on someone's definition. In this case, freedom of speech is still seen to rest on the principle of harm, not on the principle that obscenity or offence should be restricted per se by the law. (Though we hope that it is routinely limited by the social conventions of a civilized society.)
Improving child benefit reform | 29.10.10
I've previously ranted at some length about why cutting child benefit for the top 15% of earners is a thoroughly progressive policy. But the way the government currently plans to implement this cut increasingly looks impractical. For a start, there is a well-documented anomaly that means some households earning over £88k will still receive child benefit, while some households earning £45k will not. This anomaly exists because child benefit is currently paid to a single nominated carer (usually the mother or father), meaning that eligibility will be calculated upon that person's income as an individual, not upon household income.
This is a problem. It means that, while the top 15% of individual earners are losing child benefit, it is not the top-earning 15% of households that lose the benefit: some in the top-earning 15% of households will still receive the full benefit under present plans, while some outside of the top-earning 15% of households will not. Therefore, people are right to say the policy is unfair, although it is still more progressive than the current situation.
The government's current plan to implement the policy also involves writing to all 4 million higher rate tax payers and asking them to declare whether they or their partner receives child benefit. This is, in itself, an expensive and cumbersome exercise that somewhat undermines the claim that this is primarily a money-saving exercise rather than an ideological move (although I personally favour an ideology stating that higher-rate tax payers should not receive benefits; and to say the least, it seems strangely self-defeating that the Labour party under Ed Miliband does not favour such an ideology).
So here's a solution eliminating both the anomaly I outlined and the clumsy writing-to-4-million-people exercise: split child benefit in half, and pay it to both parents. If there is one higher-rate tax payer and one non-higher-rate tax payer in a household, they will receive, as a household, 50% child benefit; if there are two non-higher-rate tax payers they will receive, as a household, 100% child benefit; and if there are two higher-rate tax payers, they will receive, as a household, no child benefit. It won't make the system totally fair, since it would not be directly derived from an absolute measure of household income, but it would be an improvement. To make the system totally fair, the only answer is household means-testing.
More Liberty | 26.10.10
Liberty have issued a further press release on the "illegal" Birmingham CCTV cameras.
Levinas on discourse and the State | 26.10.10
Does not the coherent discourse [...] owe its coherence to the State, which violently excludes subversive discourse?
— Levinas, Otherwise than Being 170
This struck me following yesterday's post on freedom of speech.
Rowan Williams on offence and "traditional values" | 25.10.10
The recent prominence of suiciding gay teens in the States (see previously: 1, 2, 3) has got me thinking again about the question of offence, and more specifically, about the right to offend. I have previously defended a hard libertarian line on the right to give offence. However, the recent limited public discussion around these issues reminded me of an excellent article by Rowan Williams in the Times Higher Education Supplement from 2006. At the time he was addressing the question of university Christian Unions holding and promoting "traditional values", and the problems this was raising for university administration. (There was around 2006 a small spate of student unions disaffiliating their Christian Unions for being "offensive".) Allow me to excerpt (at some length) both the beginning and end of his article:
What is still puzzling about the debate over Christian unions in some colleges and universities being refused recognition by student unions is the underlying assumption that seems to be at work. It's as if these student unions are saying that disagreement itself is disturbing - that having different convictions is so violently disruptive that no open exchange can be allowed. To avoid conflict and offence, there must be no possibility of certain views surfacing in the public sphere.
What this does is to focus our minds on the whole - sensitive - question of "offence". Are there views whose expression is automatically so hurtful to some that they have to be restricted for the sake of general good order and justice? Well, we legislate on that basis, certainly, where racism or holocaust denial or similar matters are concerned. Talking in a way that denies the human dignity of others - by racist abuse, by labelling Jewish survivors of the Shoah as liars - is outlawed. Such views are unjust: they place people at a disadvantage and deny due respect. And we quite rightly regard language abusing or dehumanising homosexual people in the same light: the language of contempt and disgust is not admissible. We recognise the reality and the atrocity of hate crimes in this context as in others, and we recognise that hateful speech is close enough to hateful action for it to deserve sanctions against it.
[...] The danger in issuing sanctions against a body whose views you disapprove of is that it looks like a fear of open argument. If disagreement is to be silenced because offence may be caused, that is not good for intellectual life; it personalises and "psychologises" all conflict of ideas and denies the possibility of appropriate detachment in debating issues. As I said earlier, there is such a thing as offence that is and should be legally actionable, offence that so undermines basic human respect that it in effect denies a person's or a group's dignity and puts them materially at risk. But a moral challenge to someone on the grounds of their choices is a tribute to human dignity: if I challenge what you do, I take you seriously as a moral agent, a free person whose choices matter, whether they are about sex, money or whether to take a job in the MoD.
A good institution of higher education is one in which students learn that their questions are not everyone's questions, and their answers are not everyone's answers. Simply in the fact of being alongside people who are following other academic disciplines, you learn that different people want to know different sorts of thing. You learn that your world is not the obviously right and true one just because you say it is. Whatever convictions you emerge with will have been tested by this critical exposure to other ways of seeing and other sorts of investigation. It would be very bad for such a climate if the idea were allowed to gain ground that a student union could be an arbiter of publicly acceptable belief, saying "yes" or "no" to this or that position. All very well when exercised in "liberal" causes, you may think; but students are as volatile as anyone else and as susceptible to manipulation: what happens if other views become dominant?
So this is not quite a storm in a teacup, nor is it simply about anti-religious prejudice looking for a soft target. It touches some basic political questions as well as raising issues about the ethics of education itself. No doubt some Christian unions might do well to undertake a little hard self-examination about whether their language is vulnerable to proper challenge; they may need to affirm more clearly and credibly the distinction between declaring behaviour unacceptable and in effect passing judgment on a whole category of persons. But that does not alter the fundamental point about freedom of association. The integrity of the whole educational process in a democracy depends on getting this right, and it should not be obscured by hasty and superficial reactions to what are regarded as unacceptable opinions by the fashion of the day.
Williams is right that this cuts to the heart of some serious questions in political theory about what we could call "harmful speech". Here I'd like briefly to defend a more physicalist concept of harm than Wiliams, and then consider what this might mean for the recent events in the USA.
Williams is also right to note that we typically deem certain kinds of speech legally actionable. But he defends really quite a broad notion of harm here, including "racism" (without unpacking exactly what he means), "holocaust denial", "talking [...] that denies human dignity" (again, without defining "human dignity"), "racist abuse", "labelling [holocaust survivors] as liars", "language abusing or dehumanising homosexual people". He sums up his notion of harmful speech by saying "the language of contempt and disgust is not admissible".
I think there is a problem with such a broad definition of harm, even if the law in the UK were to prohibit all the things he says it does (and, in fact, it does not). The problem is not hard to see. Banning "racist" speech, for example, creates a whole host of practical and political problems (as I have said before: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This is not to say, however, that the things Williams lists are not morally wrong; only that they should not necessarily be legally prohibited.
What principle should define "harmful speech", then? The conventional liberal/libertarian view, to which I subscribe, is physical harm. Classical liberal philosophers Humboldt and Locke subscibe to harm principles resembling the famous one in J.S. Mill's On Liberty:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
As science and society advanced over the last two centuries, the reality of psychological and emotional harm made the definition of harm more difficult. But do we need to go as far as Williams does? Could we not articulate a conceptually clearer harm principle that recognises human psychology?
The suicides in the States have obtained some prominence, I think, because they really do illustrate the importance of understanding the principle that determines where the threshold between legally permissible speech and legally impermissible speech lies. Much has been said about the "bullying" that led up to some of the suicides. Suppose by bullying we mean something like "speech that is intended to cause or threaten psychological or physical intimidation or harm". (A bit cumbersome, but I think it basically sums it up.) Would that not also be a reasonable definition for "harmful speech", ie, legally impermissible speech?
This distinction between harmful and non-harmful speech illustrates the importance of how things are said. I can express and advocate my "traditional values" in a way that is either harmful or non-harmful depending on how I express myself. So on the one hand, a conservative Christian group in the USA which delights in rallies proclaiming "DEATH TO FAGS" could well be judged legally impermissible on my definition; while on the other hand, a different but equally conservative Christian group that participates in public debate by saying "We believe that homosexuality is an abomination and deemed by God to be worthy of eternal damnation" should not, on my definition, be subject to legal sanction (though of course, they should be subject to the loudest possible rebuttals from liberal Christians and anyone who cares about safeguarding human rights).
Therefore, Rowan Williams' argument, I believe, ultimately misses the point. It is not the right to promote traditional values that needs explaining and defending, but rather the right to speak in a way that promotes views that are offensive but nevertheless non-harmful on my definition. The definition of harm that is latent in Williams' article is actually slightly self-contradictory: the "traditional values" which he defends the right to hold are precisely ones that might be outlawed under restrictions governing "racist" or "homophobic" speech.
Social Market Foundation on working tax credits | 25.10.10
Finally a bit of critique from the left that is focused enough to be worth listening to:
Parents will find work less financially rewarding following the Comprehensive Spending Review says the Social Market Foundation.
The decision to freeze all elements of the Working Tax Credit for three years and reduce the maximum level of money given to help pay for childcare support available to working parents will mean that low- and middle income working families will lose out. The SMF's calculations suggest a family with two or more children could lose up to £36.80 per week or up to £24.30 per week for one child.
Commenting, Director of the SMF Ian Mulheirn said:
"The Government has made a fanfare of its plans to make workpay. But freezing Working Tax Credits and reducing financial support for childcare will see many low and middle income working parents substantially worse off at the end of each month. This doesn't fit with the Government's rhetoric. Working Tax Credit was introduced to make it more financially rewarding to return to work. For parents on modest incomes this will be a major blow to their incentives to work."
* Childcare support through the tax credits system currently reimburses working parents for 80% of childcare costs, up to a maximum of £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for two or more children. The spending review announces that this proportion will be reduced to 70%.
* The spending review announces that the Working Tax Credit will be frozen for three years. The maximum award is currently £4,600 per year.
The SMF are right. It makes no sense to be reducing work incentives for those on low incomes. This is clearly going to be a battle of wills between Iain Duncan-Smith and the Treasury.
Labour lists | 21.10.10
I'm still reading through the Comprehensive Spending Review PDF and will write at some length about it in due course. But, 24 hours after the Review was presented to the Commons, am I the only one who gets the impression Labour are really struggling to respond to it? Miliband's performance yesterday at PMQs was truly dismal; he failed to sustain any convincing line of attack on the government's spending plans, and came across (again) as a petulant schoolboy with no real grasp of the issues. Even the Labour-aligned blog Left Foot Forward, which is free to loose its tongue, has been remarkably quiet on issues specifically related to the CSR, with only two posts directly dealing with the report so far. One of those posts queries the conceptual framework of the CSR's impact assessment. The point the authors make is, I think, valid but incomplete, and I'll return to it another time.
The weakness of the response from the opposition is troubling. However well the spending review has been conducted, there must remain many questions about the direct impact of cuts on the poor. It would be good for the country to hear more of a debate on these issues, but sadly Miliband has opted to go for the "squeezed middle" rubbish instead. This cynical reasoning from Labour has even led the shadow chancellor Alan Johnson to rule out further increases in personal taxation. It seems to me a modest rise in the basic rate of income tax, combined with the rises that are already planned for the tax-free personal allowance, would be a sensible and progressive way of reducing the burden on the poor. Yet Labour are resisting such common-sense alternatives in the hope of mopping up some middle-income disenchantment. It's stomach-churning stuff.
Liberals Gone Snoopin' | 21.10.10
The coalition government is backtracking on one of its key commitments on civil liberties. The Strategic Defence and Security Review includes the following:
We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework.
This programme is required to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public.
Communications data provides evidence in court to secure convictions of those engaged in activities that cause serious harm. It has played a role in every major Security Service counterterrorism operation and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations.
We will legislate to put in place the necessary regulations and safeguards to ensure that our response to this technology challenge is compatible with the Government’s approach to information storage and civil liberties.
Liberty and No2ID are on hand:
But Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said: "One of the early and welcome promises of the new Government was to ‘end the blanket storage of internet and email records’.
"Any move to amass more of our sensitive data and increase powers for processing would amount to a significant U-turn. The terrifying ambitions of a group of senior Whitehall technocrats must not trump the personal privacy of law abiding Britons.”
Guy Herbert, general secretary of the No2ID campaign group, said: "We should not be surprised that the interests of bureaucratic empires outrank liberty.
"It is disappointing that the new ministers seem to be continuing their predecessors' tradition of credulousness."
It certainly is disappointing. It seems the civil and security services have already overpowered the liberal elements in government. Only widespread public opposition has any chance of changing these most illiberal of government practices.
Denton Rail | 21.10.10
There was me earnestly searching for trains to Denton tomorrow morning. Unable to find any services, I did some research and found out that
Denton railway station is a station in Denton, Greater Manchester, on the Stockport-Stalybridge line, famous for having one train a week in one direction only (currently calling on Fridays at 09:31), christened the "Denton Flyer". This means it is technically still open.
Looks like I'll have to go by bike, then.
Equally accountable | 19.10.10
Watch out, there's more Stockholm pseudo-feminism about: this time, bizarrely, from a CPS lawyer prosecuting Tracey Dawber, who was yesterday found guilty of sexually assaulting a baby:
Ann Reddrop, the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer who dealt with all the cases, said: "Colin Blanchard turned out to be an evil man who controlled four women in one of the most sickening paedophile rings this country has seen.
"He encouraged these women to take and share ever more horrific images of the sexual abuse of children.
"As if that was not bad enough, he encouraged them to physically abuse children to produce those pictures.
"In the case of Vanessa George, this led to a hideous betrayal of trust of those parents who relied on her to look after their children at the nursery where she worked.
"She showed a complete disregard for the lives of the victims and their families, all of whom have been left devastated by these crimes.
We don't need to dispute the fact that Blanchard "encouraged" the women to maintain that this perspective on the woman's crime is skewed. Does the fact that Blanchard encouraged Dawber materially change the choice she was faced with, ie, either to assault or not-assault the children in question? If I encourage you to steal a chocolate bar, does that mean you choose any less freely when you do, in fact, steal the chocolate bar? And does my encouragement in any measure reduce your accountability for your actions? Of course not. It merely compounds my responsibility for my actions.
Reddrop's insinuations here perpetuate an old-fashioned view of women as passive recipients of male initiatives, second-class moral citizens especially vulnerable to "being led", less capable than men of free or rational action. Note that, according to Reddrop, it was not Vanessa George's choice-to-abuse that "led" to the "hideous betrayal of trust", but rather Blanchard's encouragement.
Feminism is a fight for equality. In the context of a society that has won the victory of women's liberation, that means recognising that women and men are equal actors in the landscape of human morality. Child abuse, which is first and foremost abuse of a position of power, is a crime of which both men and women in such positions are equally capable.
Odd, Odder, Oddie | 19.10.10
You'd be hard pressed to find a better example of bad-faith argument than this rubbish by William Oddie in the Catholic Herald:
Most of the cases of paedophile or (more often) ephebophile (teenage) sex abuse that have emerged over recent years took place decades ago, many in the 70s and 80s, when a very different view was taken by some of what we all without exception now know to be both a revolting crime and a sexual perversion particularly resistant to treatment or therapy. There really were some people who actually thought that paedophilia was a civil right. I was reminded of this by an accusation, made somewhere in cyberspace recently, against politicians supposedly guilty 30 years ago (I say nothing about whether this accusation was justified or not) of complicity in supporting paedophile organisations now long since dead.
A number of points. 1) Apparently, we are supposed to afford those Catholic priests, and their superiors at the time, the benefit of a kind of diachronic moral relativism that is routinely dismissed as debased in circumstances where it would be inconvenient to the church's theology. Think of the homosexuality question -- it's not as if the fact that social mores are now substantially different from fifty years ago makes any difference to the church's theological position; indeed, if it was allowed to make any such difference, the church would be "following society" or "adopting the fashions of the day" rather than remaining "faithful to scripture". (And as if, incidentally, the achievement of gay civil rights was an event as ephemeral and meaningless as a new line in Topman.)
2) Nevertheless, were social mores really that different? The age of consent was 16 then too -- it's not as if the law governing these acts has substantially changed since the 1970s. Indeed, the age of consent was in fact set a century ago. It may be that sex with teenagers was not as stigmatised fifty years ago as it is today. But what is at issue here is not so much the fact that there was illegal sexual contact in the statutory sense, but more that there was by definition a gross exploitation of trust, position and power in the actions of those priests. Do the Catholic authorities still not really understand the distinction? Oddie continues:
[...] the percentage of clergy involved is no higher than that in other religious denominations or in the population at large, with one notable survey emanating from Stamford [sic] University claiming that it was actually smaller (between three to five per cent of priests against eight per cent of males in the American population). That doesn’t make it any better for the victims of clerical abuse, of course: but we need to understand that the scandal is not that our priests are particularly prone to child abuse, but that we are all too representative as a sample of the population, when we should be setting an example to it.
3) Well, at least he acknowledges the obvious in this last sentence. But it is still to miss the point. "We should be setting an example," he says. Yes, of course. But this bare conclusion is to misrepresent the profound hypocrisy of those priests and of the superiors who covered for them. The widespread outrage and cynicism about this situation is not, I would suggest, down to an unfair expectation that every single priest will be whiter than white. Most people understand that there will be bad eggs in any institution, however pious. The outrage is at the perfectly adequate evidence that the church deliberately failed to deal with this problem for a period of decades. The outrage is at the hypocrisy of a church that can display such moral nonchalence towards its own practices while robustly condemning the values and actions of its congregation and the wider world. Oddie seems to want to claim credit for the church when it fulfils its duties, and yet to dismiss or diminish the occasions when it is in dereliction of those duties. What about Luke 17?
Jesus said to his disciples [...] "Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"
The outrage, in other words, is at a church that can produce arguments like this one by Oddie. In an attempt to show how the church is simply caught up in the same world as everyone else, he ends up showing how remote from that world it can sometimes be.
Impermissible Surveillance | 18.10.10
Liberty have issued an ultimatum to West Midlands Police to dismantle its illegal surveillance system:
West Midlands Police faces a judicial review of the unlawful, intrusive and discriminatory Project Champion scheme in Birmingham if a commitment is not given within 14 days to remove all associated cameras.
Liberty has today written to the architects of the Project Champion counter-terror scheme to inform them that they must to agree to dismantle the full surveillance infrastructure or proceedings will be commenced in the High Court. The force must also acknowledge that the decision to install the cameras was unlawful and in breach of residents’ rights under Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Last month an external report, commissioned by West Midlands Police, concurred with Liberty's view that both the surveillance system and the way it was imposed made it "intrusive, disciminatory and illegal". While acknowledging that report, WMP did not commit to dismantling the scheme. The latest Liberty action is an attempt to force WMP to do just that.
Robbin' The Squeezed Middle Hood | 15.10.10
The coalition government has taken child benefit from the rich and is now redistributing the proceeds to the poor. Nick Clegg is to announce that
Two-year-olds from poorer families in England will be offered 15 free hours of pre-school education a week [...] The deputy prime minister will outline the plan as part of £7bn extra to be spent on disadvantaged children over the next four years. [...]
The money is expected to support children from the poorest 20% of families, who are entitled to free school meals.
They will be offered 15 hours a week of free nursery education at two years old, on top of the 15 hours already available at ages three and four.
This could almost be mistaken for a Labour policy. So will they oppose it, given that we now know Labour In Opposition have taken out a subscription to the Daily Mail?
Miliband's Cheap Politics | 14.10.10
Were the media's elite really watching the same PMQs as me yesterday?
The country currently faces hefty cuts -- there is no disagreement between the parties on that fact. The disagreement is about how hefty they should be, and how quickly they should be made: Labour favours slower cuts, while the government favours quicker ones:
In these circumstances, the role of any opposition (but particularly a Labour opposition) is surely to challenge the fairness and effectiveness of such cuts. It has rightly been noted by critics of the government that cuts on this scale risk penalising the poor most -- for example, the increase in VAT will affect the poor disproportionately because low earners spend most of their income. Similarly, as economists at Pricewaterhousecoopers warned recently, public sector cuts (unlike benefit cuts) risk directly driving up unemployment, possibly leading Britain into a "jobless recovery" like that being experienced by the USA. Again, it is the lowest-paid workers who are the most expendible in these circumstances:
Those regions most dependent on the public sector will suffer the largest reductions in employment, peaking at 5.2 per cent of the workforce in Northern Ireland. However, the cumulative impact may be greatest in areas where manufacturing jobs, in particular, were shed most rapidly in the downturn, such as the West Midlands, where unemployment went above 10 per cent, as well as South Wales and the North-east.
The left has a key role to play in challenging the impact of cuts like these. The misery of redundancy and unemployment for those already on the lowest incomes is easily forgotten by senior Tories for whom unemployment has never been anything more than a number in the FT; and considering responsibly the psychological impact on people and communities who have lost their employment is simply where liberal economic models run out. For that reason, we have a welfare system to support people who fall through the hole of structural unemployment. This system is one of the great achievements of postwar British politics.
It is so frustrating, then, when the newly-elected Labour leader chooses to use his first PMQs as a platform to drone on about that change to child benefit. Remember, it's not a cut that affects the poor, nor is it a cut that causes anyone to lose their jobs. In fact, it affects only the top 15% of earners. For as long as Labour obsesses about making cheap political capital out of the "squeezed middle", it is failing the most vulnerable in British society at a time when they need a real Labour opposition the most.
Monbiotic Yogurt | 12.10.10
George Monbiot argues that the left needs to start proclaiming its "intrinsic values" over against the "extrinsic values" of The Man, etc:
Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish. [...]
People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.
This all sounds well and good, until you realise it has nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Drawing on some psychologese-lite issued by (of all people!) the WWF, Monbiot correctly notes that human nature is profoundly divided between self-interest and altruism. Is it not unrealistic, then, to advocate models of political action that rest on a belief that we can, simply by a collective act of will, choose only to use the altruistic bit? History teaches us that political systems which deny the fact that human nature is selfish as well as altruistic tend to wind up as tyrannies.
Does Monbiot think the kind of political decisions being debated at the moment are simple choices between "expediency" and "empathy"? If he does -- or more worryingly, if Ed Miliband does -- then Labour's prognosis is even worse than I thought. Even if Monbiot had a point, which he doesn't, we would still be faced with a distributive question: who should I empathise with? Is everyone equally worthy of my empathy and kindness? For instance, should we be as "kind" to parents earning £45,000 as we are to parents earning a quarter of that? Politics in the real world means considering a distribution not only of kindness, but also of expediency.
EDL defeated in Leicester | 9.10.10
Thankfully the EDL protests in Leicester today have passed without major incident. Instead, people have chosen to bear witness to the city's true character by attending peace vigils.
Abdulkarim Gheewala, of the Leicester Indian Muslim Association, said: "The EDL have singled us out, but I assure you I do not feel alone.
"When I see the crowds in front of me I'm proud to be in Leicester.
"You are proof that they will never be successful here – proof, in fact, that they have already been defeated."
Left Foot Forward on Child Benefit | 9.10.10
Sunder Katwala of Left Foot Forward has assembled ten objections to the proposed child benefit reforms. The first nine contain valid points, but they are basically about tweaking the coalition's proposals; and they could all be met by means-testing. The tenth objection puts the case for universal entitlements:
This is the central objection from the Fabian left: that the ‘common sense’ case for targeting resources on the poor fails, because in a democracy, the evidence strongly shows that it is much harder to. [sic]
Hence Richard Titmuss’ argument that “services for the poor will always be poor services” – as the post-war experience of the universal NHS versus social housing shows – and the Fabian Solidarity Society finding in the comparative international and historic evidence of the “poverty paradox” – that welfare states primarily concerned to address poverty (such as the US and Britain) had a much poorer poverty performance than broader and more inclusive welfare regimes (such as those in Scandinavia).
A problem with this way of looking at things is that child benefit is not a public service. It is a cash payment made from the state to an individual. What is currently under discussion with the child benefit proposals is simply "who should receive the money". The poor will receive exactly the same amount and "quality" of child benefit under the new proposals as under the old system. So how, exactly, does removing a universal entitlement to child benefit make things any worse for people who actually need that support? The poor do not receive a "poorer service" simply because the rich no longer receive it; on the contrary, they receive a better one, because their taxes are no longer subsidising the children of the rich. Katwala's argument is a good one for universal access to the NHS, but not for universal access to child benefit.
Barnado's backs child benefit reform | 8.10.10
This has been just about the strangest week in politics I've ever experienced. A Tory-led government imposes a de facto tax rise on middle and upper earners, and the supposedly redistributive Labour left is up in arms. Thankfully, Neera Sharma, assistant director of policy at the children's charity Barnado's, is on hand to reassure me that I have not gone insane:
Our proposals on child benefit are based on the same principle - that money must be redistributed from those not in need to those who are. This could be funded through substantial savings that the Government would realise from reforming universal benefits. Reducing income poverty through better benefit targeting will reduce the burden of savings to be found through the spending review alone, whilst protecting welfare payments to those most in need. The savings that could be achieved through reforming universal benefits could add up to £6.5 billion a year. Our options included scrapping child benefit and using it to increase child tax credits so that poor families do not lose out, saving £5.1 billion which can then go to reduce child poverty. [...]
Now is the time to question whether it is right to continue to give money to better off families based on the principles of universality rather than need. It is arguably a luxury we can no longer afford.
And there was me thinking that Marx's aphorism "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" would be one piece of worthwhile ideology that the Labour party might still hold on to. This week at least, it seems not.
Oregon Synod Prayer Request | 8.10.10
Well, at least one church is bothered to engage with the recent suicides of gay youths in the States: (thx, JH)
October 6, 2010
Dear Sisters and Brothers in the Oregon Synod,
Billy Lucas, age 15, Seth Walsh, age 13, Asher Brown, age 13, and Tyler Clementi, age 18. These young people have all been in the news these past two weeks. Each was gay. Each took their own life, and in every case friends or family members report bullying, anti-gay derision and overt acts of personal violation as contributing factors in their suicides.
Teenage suicide rates are alarmingly high. Suicide among gay and lesbian youth is even higher, two to four times the norm. I write today to ask for your prayers as a community of faith this Sunday. Please pray for the families of these four young men. Pray for all our children who face bullying, derision and fear in their daily lives. Pray that we as a church might never be content to let such violence pass unnoticed or unchallenged. [...]
Let us tend to our children. Let us speak out clearly on their behalf. Let us shape our homes, our schools and our congregations as safe havens for those whom the world will not value.
There is no more holy a calling for us to answer. Thank you.
With you in prayer,
Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke
Oregon Synod - ELCA
These sentiments of the Oregon Synod are welcome, and the prayers are too, if that's your thing. But it still feels like a lightweight and slightly platitudinous response to a serious ethical question. Sentiments and prayers are all well and good -- but there comes a point where you have to actually face head-on, in conversation and democratic conflict, those who apologise for skewed value-systems within the churches and wider society -- those who thus contribute to making the lives of some youngsters literally unbearable.
Benefiting richly | 8.10.10
Deborah Orr, another Grauniadista, comes out in support of the child benefit cuts:
I'm not against the ambush myself. It is difficult to tax the rich, we're often told, so it seems rather silly also to continue giving the rich unneeded benefits to spend on what are to many families quite unattainable luxuries. The idea is that child benefit makes the wealthy feel that the welfare state is on their side too. The reality is that too many of these buggers need reminding of how much they gain already. The "wealth creators" would be the first to complain if they, or the companies they work for, had to pay, from scratch, for the entire education of all staff – which they are currently merely happy to complain is not quite good enough. And that's just one of very many examples of how public services help everyone.
Harris on Miliband | 8.10.10
John Harris presents a (rather rosy) defence of Ed Miliband. He's right about two things. First, Cameron has no clue about what real life is like; and second, the "big society" is total bunkum:
Think about what is about to hit so many of these people: in the context of long-stagnating incomes, the dreaded effects of all those cuts. And then picture a prime minister who so little understands them that he stood up in Birmingham, evoked Lord Kitchener, and exhorted them to somehow carve out hours they simply do not possess, and become special constables, set up their own schools, start up their own businesses, and more.
These are the people Ed Miliband calls the "squeezed middle": modern successors to a crucial part of the coalition that kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. The question for Labour is whether the intervening two decades have so turned things around that it is social democracy that will give them a voice. Their new leader may have problems, but on this score, he's made a pretty impeccable start.
But Harris seems to think that Miliband can simultaneously stand up for the poor and defend the "squeezed middle"; and Miliband himself has indicated the need to stay close enough to the centre ground not to resort to punishing business and the rich. And all this while both opposing cuts of the order that are currently proposed and insisting Labour is capable of fiscal competence. Anyone with a trace of common sense knows it's not possible to do all of these things at the same time. A choice has to be made about who should bear the brunt, and surely the people it is fairest to "squeeze" are indeed those in the middle and upper reaches of the income spectrum.
I'd always thought Labour was a party that stood for redistribution to the poor. The fallout from the child benefit saga suggests to me that its agenda is more one of control and centralisation for its own sake, even when that means opposing measures that would shift the burden of cuts and taxation further up the income scale.
Fear and Atheism | 7.10.10
83% support | 7.10.10
Our latest poll for the Sun found overwhelming support for the principle of cutting child benefit for households where someone earns over £44,000. 83% of people said they supported the policy, with only 15% of people opposed.
However, respondents were less supportive of the details of the government's proposal. Child benefit payments will be stopped for any household where there is a top rate taxpayers, meaning that a couple both earning £30k would keep child benefit, while a couple where only one worked and earned £44k would not.
Child benefit to be means-tested | 7.10.10
Surely the Tories aren't scouring this blog for policies? Cos if they are, the country really is screwed.
10:10 Vision | 7.10.10
In any event, what is most significant about that film, apart from its moral ugliness, is the thought - humorously intended as may be - that a difference of political opinion is to be subjected to methods other than democratic persuasion for its resolution. As I've pointed out before, it's a theme that shows up repeatedly in this area of debate. As if taking a claim to knowledge - however sure of it you may be - as a licence for imposing your will on others hadn't already caused a spot of murderous bother as a political 'methodology'.
Take up our quarrel with the foe | 6.10.10
My loins girded, fresh from one of the most vitriolic Facebook-based slanging matches I have participated in, I note that I still have a thing for Stephanie Flanders. (Doesn't everyone?) And here she is giving a very timely piece of level-headed analysis on the child benefit controversy. Her conclusion? The same as mine:
The upshot is that the coalition is not going to be able to take a lot of money out of the system they inherited without leaving a lot of families worse off. Put it another way: "family-friendly" deficit cuts on the scale that Mr Osborne believes to be necessary are almost certainly a contradiction in terms.
In other words, it's no good complaining that someone is losing out every time a change is announced. It is, basically, inevitable. Rather, the more meaningful debate to have is about who should lose out -- and I find it very hard to accept that individuals earning over £45,000 should be the first priority for receiving child benefit.
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.
Gay Hatred and Suicide, II | 5.10.10
Classically Liberal has posted a follow-up to last week's post on the harm done to youths by religious bigotry. He focuses, rightly, on the reprehensible tactics of fundamentalist Christians in the mainstream.
What with the recent prominence on this blog of the Pope and his visit to the UK, it's worth me mentioning some important ways in which the Catholic position -- for all its moral pitfalls -- is nevertheless better than the fundamentalist/evangelical one. I remarked on the fact that the Pope defends the "human dignity" of homosexuals while maintaining his view that to practise homosexuality is to do wrong. This is a very important distinction, because it separates "rights" from "right"; in other words, it separates the question, "how should I be permitted by the law to behave?" from the question, "how should I behave?" The Pope's is in this sense a position entirely compatible with a liberal concept of law.
According to the logic of his own position, therefore, the Pope should support gay civil rights while (if this is his continuing wish) opposing homosexual practice on moral grounds. It's just, I think, that he doesn't follow (or doesn't want to follow) the logic of his own position this far; he would probably view it as a contradiction in terms, since "human dignity" is for the Catholic stance just another moral value, not an all-encompassing one. But in the real world, securing human dignity means securing human rights for all -- including those of gay people.
(Needless to say, it would be better if the Catholic church re-examined the theological reasoning that takes it to its homophobic conclusion. But that is a different argument from the one Classically Liberal and I are making; though I have commented on some theological considerations before.)
Why means-testing is still the answer | 5.10.10
Take a look at this run-down of UK benefits. Eight out of the ten benefits are currently means-tested. The current controversy about child benefit cuts -- to the extent that it is a genuine controversy -- hinges on the fact that the chancellor does not want to take the bureaucratic and costly step of introducing yet more means-testing to the system. A while back I suggested* the best solution to the Winter Fuel Payment -- another problem of expensive and unjust universal entitlement -- is also to be found in means-testing. So, that is potentially ten separate benefits subject to separate means tests.
Iain Duncan Smith will today outline proposals for rationalising some of these separate benefits into a single payment. Is there any reason why the separate means tests (which presumably gather only slightly different information from department to department) could not be rationalised in a similar way? The government seems to want a simpler correlation between income and benefit payments. So why not establish a single means test that is the basis for all benefit payments? Or perhaps two means tests would be required: one for individuals, and another for households. At any rate, two is better than ten, particularly if it means the state can stop paying the energy bills of millionaires.
* Warning: More Yvette Cooper
Yvette drivels | 5.10.10
Urgh. Don't some Labour MPs realise that when they attack government plans just for the sake of attacking government plans, they look like unprincipled idiots? They look even more like unprincipled idiots when the policy they attack is redder than they ever dared to pursue in office. Maybe it's the political equivalent of that psychological trait, found in some sexually frustrated folk, of attacking in others what you most resent about yourself. Labour had thirteen years in office to rebalance the welfare state by revoking the benefits paid totally unnecessarily, and unjustly, to the rich. They didn't. Now, in opposition, shadow work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper drivels:
Whatever people's income, it is families with children who are paying most - through cuts in child tax credit, maternity allowance, child benefit and housing benefit.
She's practising the black art of tautology-dressed-up-as-political-argument. No shit, Yvette, changes to child benefit affect families with children. As a Labour MP Cooper should support the government's policy, which is a de facto tax rise on the rich. No family with a household income of over £45,000 needs to receive child benefit, and it is little short of a scandal that such families currently do.
Meanwhile, perennial speaker of sense David Davis issued more rational critique of the policy:
Although in principle I have got no problem with reducing child benefit for the better off, I am not sure this is the wisest way to do it.
It would be fairer to consider family income rather than that of individuals. As it is, this does encourage wives or mothers to go out to work. It is an accidental piece of social policy.
Davis is absolutely right.
Typography as job creation | 4.10.10
New York City is replacing every single one of its road-signs to eliminate ALL-CAPS WORDS. Brilliant! A practical improvement in legibility means $27m of job creation. It's got to be better than building a bridge to nowhere, a truly egregious waste of public money once advocated by none other than Sarah Palin. (Fiscal conservative, that Sarah! I heard they were going to put a mosque on the other end of that bridge...)
Hutton and us | 4.10.10
Work Foundation chief executive Will Hutton has a new book out, entitled Them and Us, on his trademark themes of how a market economy can be reconciled with a belief in social justice:
"Politics, Greed & Inequality: Why We Need A Fair Society". Examines how our society has fragmented, and how fairness must be placed at the heart of the new capitalism.
As the Labour party considers where to go next, it's bound to be worth a look -- as much to consider in what ways Hutton might be wrong as to consider the ways in which he might be right.
Child benefit cut for the rich | 4.10.10
It's an excellent decision by the government to scrap the child benefit for higher earners, but it can't have been an intellectually demanding one to make. Why on earth should the state be taxing someone who has an annual salary of £6476 in order to pay child benefit to the wealthiest in society? The irony of a Conservative-led government enacting such a Labourite policy will be lost on neither the government nor the Labour party. And the irony of rich Tory delegates bemoaning their lost benefits will not be lost on the Liberals! And the irony that this whole package of reforms was triggered by Labour's fiscal incompetence is certainly not lost on the British public.
Having said that, the policy is going to need tweaking before coming into force in 2013. Because Osborne wants to avoid means testing, there is currently an anomaly. Entitlement to the child benefit will be assessed on the basis of individual incomes, presumably through the taxation system. Anyone paying upper rates of income tax will no longer be eligible for the benefit. But this means that a household with a large combined income will still be able to claim the benefit, if the individual earners in that household pay income tax at only the basic rate. Human nature being what it is, I don't expect Osborne's invitation to the rich -- simply not to claim the benefit in spite of being entitled to it -- to be widely taken up.
Rightly, this policy has met with approval from left-wing Grauniadistas. And another Grauniadista extols the virtue of scrapping all universal benefits along the lines of Osborne's child benefit reform. Could there be an emerging liberal consensus about a progressive tax-and-benefit system? Let's dare to dream.
An end to no-touch | 2.10.10
Last year, I wrote about that Stalinesque New Labour creation, the Independent Safeguarding Authority (an organisation sharing its name portentously with the Individual Savings Account and the Independent Sweeteners Association -- not that the National Union of Teachers would ever be in the business of saving their own skins or grabbing sweeteners):
It seems to me that the only purpose served by the ISA and by CRB checks is to protect organisations, local authorities and central government from litigation. This breeds an attitude amongst professionals that to have done my duty towards a child is to have "covered myself", legally speaking. In a world driven by this mentality, the opposite has now become true: in order to fulfil my many duties towards a child — duties of care, love, and affection — I often have to open myself up to litigation by having contact with children that is in some sense "unauthorised" because I am "unvetted" for that particularly bit of contact. It is profoundly sad.
I am delighted that, under simplified school discipline guidelines announced by the education secretary Michael Gove, the "no-touch" rule is to be scrapped. This is one step on the road to rehabilitating Britain's relationship with its children. We do all indeed owe duties of care, love, and affection to the children in our society -- and that means being free to touch them when it is appropriate to do so. Of course, being reassured of our legal liberty as individuals to touch children means investing adults with the responsibility only to touch children appropriately -- and rightly opens up those same adults to legal culpability when they touch children inappropriately. But thankfully, the legal right to make that judgement has today been returned to the individual.
Nutty Nadine | 2.10.10
Christ, I knew Tory MP Nadine Dorries was a little bit unhinged, but her latest attack on disabled users of Twitter is verging on the surreal. (By the way, Dorries has a record of threatening or defaming anyone who says anything about her -- nice democratic habit, that -- so if this post disappears, you'll know why.)
10:10 | 2.10.10
Putting the "mental" in environmentalism since 2010! "If you disagree with us, you deserve to die" is the basic message conveyed -- what a surprise that one didn't pay off. That this could have been thought a good idea by so many "mainstream" environmentalists shows just how divorced from reality that "mainstream" is. (Caution: shit.)
TB in the Telegraph | 1.10.10
My good friend TB -- no relation to the other TB -- has achieved the honour (who am I, sometime peruser of the Graun, to call it dubious!) of having a letter published in the Daily Telegraph twice in one week. Today,
Gay men on television
SIR – You report (September 30) the BBC’s research that one in five viewers would prefer not to see homosexual men portrayed on television, doing normal things such as holding hands – one minority thereby marginalising another, smaller, minority.
Surveys such as this show how far the fight for gay acceptance has still to go.
Personally, I find watching football uncomfortable, whether before or after 9pm. Happily, my television set is equipped with an off switch.
Dr Tony Bentley
And last weekend,
No pride in gay figures
SIR – You report research (September 24) which shows that one in 66 will admit to being gay or bisexual. I can’t believe that the three per cent who “did not know” or would not say are all straight.
Rather than raising questions about the focus on diversity (the implication being that there should be less attention on this), it raises serious concerns about the ongoing shame that a significant number of people still bear over their sexuality.
Dr Tony Bentley
I rejoice in Tony's proud flying of the flag on the lawn of homophobia, and enjoin him to continue fighting this battle. However dubious it is usually reasonable to consider the Telegraph, it is to the paper's credit that it has published these missives. Now they need to seal the deal and give TB his own column.
Miliband on BBC strike | 1.10.10
Ed Miliband goes up a notch in my estimation after this statement -- but it nevertheless demonstrates neatly the precarious position he is already in by day 6 of his leadership, having simultaneously to claim a reasonable centrism and to speak for the silly wing of the unions. (Not to mention the cynical and anti-democratic timing of the planned BBC strike.)
Liberty warns Hollobone of unlawful discrimination | 1.10.10
Liberty have written to Tory MP Philip Hollobone:
In July Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, told the media that he won't meet with constitutents who wear a burqa or niqab. We wrote to him pointing out that, as the burqa and niqab are a form of dress exclusively associated with Muslim women, this will amount to direct religious discrimination under the Equality Act 2006. Mr Hollobone has also brought a Private Members' Bill calling for a ban on women wearing the burqa in a public place.
Article 9 of the Human Rights Act provides that everyone has the freedom to manifest their religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Britain has a long nad noble tradition of religious tolerance. In our view restrictions on the way that people -- of whichever faith -- express [...] religious beliefs through [their] dress have to be strictly justified. We can see no justification for a general ban on women wearing the veil or for Philip Hollobone's refusal to meet with constituents wearing the burqa or niqab.
We are sceptical about any claims that veils should be banned in public in the name of women's rights, as any women who are being pressured into wearing a veil would be effectively trapped in their homes by a public ban. Common sense and decency suggest that neither freedom nor integration is achieved by cutting people off from their elected representatives or arresting them for walking down the street.
I can't find the article online, but it is available in Liberty's printed newsletter for Autumn 2010. People like Hollobone, who favour a ban on the burqa and niqab, must at the very least answer the reasoned argument that Liberty presents. If they cannot, their position is likely founded in prejudice, and has no place in the legislation of a liberal country.
One comment, though. The final paragraph of Liberty's story implies that the "women's rights" argument for a ban can be made consequentially, ie, by explaining the ways in which the likely unintended outcomes of a ban would de facto worsen women's status as regards their rights. In one way it's a perfectly good argument, and might win over the more utilitarian minds in our political spectrum to a liberal position on this issue. However, I think the ban should be opposed even if the opposite outcome was likely, ie, if a ban would more likely improve women's position in the home and in public than worsen it. Why?
When the state protects my rights, it does so partly to protect my right to choose actions (actions that fall within certain domains of personal discretion and that are physically non-harmful to others) that others might view as harmful to myself, or otherwise morally wrong. In other words, even if a woman's decision to wear the veil worsens her position in the home and in public, it is her right so to decide. Of course, where women's rights should be protected by the state in a different way is if the veil-wearing is itself not a result of a free choice but is rather a coerced act. In that case, the woman's rights are best defended by policing those acts of coercion, not by policing acts of veil-wearing. Otherwise, the consequentialist argument risks falling into logical fallacy; claiming to be protecting rights by extinguishing them.