Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cameron's right-wing agenda

The Tory blogs have been whining about the kid gloves with which “Mr Jackie Ashley” treated Gordon Brown last week. I hope they saw the easy ride the self-same Andrew Marr gave posh-boy David Cameron this morning. The interesting thing about the interview, I thought, was that when policy peeks through Cameron’s impressive showmanship it is pretty right wing. He is against the European Constitution and the single currency and repeats the Tory Eurosceptic mantra about the dangers of a “European super-state”. He rejects the “European social model” (so, of course, does Gordon Brown) and wants Britain to withdraw from the Social Chapter (recalling John Major’s “opt-outs” from the Maastricht Treaty). He wants all hospitals to be foundation trusts; and opposes national pay rates for public-sector employees. On tax the ambiguous “share the proceeds” formula is reiterated, and he also says that he favours green taxes, but without detail it is unclear what this would mean in practice. (Depending on how they are designed green taxes – like all taxes on consumption – can be regressive). And it is well-known that Osborne and others are toying with adopting a flat-tax policy. All this is dressed up in an unthreatening rhetoric: a “forward looking agenda”, a “forward-looking vision”, a “positive agenda”, a “social responsibility revolution”, and “getting the politics out” of the NHS (the last two are, I guess, euphemisms for further privatisation). Cameron also says he favours an early election after/if Brown becomes Prime Minister. (His claim that Brown would lack a “mandate” is disingenuous. In this country the Prime Minister is not directly elected. When Thatcher resigned in 1990 there was no election). And then, a chink in the curtain, a fleeting glimpse of the inner Tory skulking behind the PR man, when he says apropos of nothing, “…why don’t we teach British history properly in our schools”? Now that’s the real thing, it might have come from a Daily Mail editorial. Later on Radio 5 Tory blogger and A-lister Iain Dale dutifully tugs his forelock: “I support my Leader”. How sweet. But someone else (I didn’t quite catch her name) summed-up Cameron rather well: “He’s got a good head of hair”.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Arguments for a Land Tax

Ashley Seager in Monday’s Economics Guardian noted that the last ten years has seen a huge property boom with house prices tripling and that quite modest properties are now priced beyond the reach of many first-time buyers and those on modest incomes. (He cites Fred Harrison’s Ricardo’s Law: House Prices and the Great Tax Clawback Scam and Martin Weale’s The Housing Market and Government Policy both published last year).

Seager points out that residential property is an unproductive asset, and that the “windfall” from rising house prices is unearned and untaxed:

“Consider this. The government builds a new school in an area. The school is a success. This pushes up the house prices in the area leading to a windfall, untaxed gain for home owners as a direct result of government spending. The teachers in the school, on their modest salaries, will probably not be able to buy a house close to the school”.

Harrison says that the extension of the Jubilee Line increased adjoining land values by around £3 billion. Since the extension was funded out of taxation, this involved a huge transfer of wealth from the taxpayers in general to a small number of lucky property owners.

Nor do rising house prices make society as a whole any wealthier: they simply “transfer resources from people who will own houses in the future to those who own them at present” (Seager). Rising house prices lead to a huge rise in debt, a drop in savings and the “crowding-out” of investment in more productive enterprises. They also impede labour mobility (given that house prices are much higher in some areas, such as the south-east).

Harrison highlights the regressive impact of rising house prices. In Seagar’s summary:

“It works as follows. Someone in the bottom 20% of the income spectrum pays about £250,000 in taxes in their lifetime. Someone in the top 20% pays £1.2m in taxes. But those at the top will own property and see their total tax liability wiped out in just a couple of years by rising property values. This does not happen to the bottom 20% because they are renters”.

The Blair’s London house has risen by £1m in value in the past year alone (presumably they also made a tidy profit on their various Bristol properties). That £1m will be a “huge chunk” of the Blair’s “total lifetime tax payments”. Thus: “…the rich get a ride on the backs of the poor”.

Harrison and Weale both advocate a land tax. (This proposal has a venerable history: it was favoured by Lloyd-George and Churchill, and actually introduced by the second Labour Government, but the so-called National Government repealed the Act before it could come into effect). Weale favours a tax on residential property of 1% of its value each year, replacing council tax. This would tend to depress house prices since prospective buyers would “factor an annual tax of the value of the land under the house into calculations of what they would be prepared to pay for it”.

The proposal is not about raising more tax revenue: “The revenue from a land value tax would be used, for example, to scrap stamp duty and/or council tax or to reduce income tax or VAT, which is highly regressive”. Seager also argues that a land tax would encourage the productive use of land. He refers to the 13-hectacre Battersea Power Station site, which has been derelict since 1982: “It was sold last year for £400 million by a developer who bought it for £10 million in 1993. A yearly tax on its value would have focused owners’ minds on making better use of it”.

Politaholic is not an economist but these arguments sound pretty convincing to me. A quick Internet search reveals that there is a Labour Land Campaign, and that they favour Land Value Taxation. But the trouble, I suspect, is politics. Middle England – the arbiters of everything these days – worship rising house prices (many have no other topic of conversation) and Middle England is, in turn, worshipped by New Labour. They would squeal blue murder at the prospect of a land tax. And a Land Tax is not the sort of thing that can be done by “stealth”. Still, I am inclined to wish Labour’s Land Value Campaign good luck.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Idiocy Plumbs New Depths

Following the article by Lawson (see previous post) Saturday's Guardian contained an article of unsurpassed idiocy by some half-wit called Tobias Jones. This is what he says:

"...secular fundamentalists...are anti-God, and what they really want is the eradcation of religion, and believers, from the face of the earth".

That is simply a disgraceful thing to say and Jones should hang his empty head in shame. It all hangs on that word "eradication". What does he mean? Well, it seems to imply that "secular fundamentalists" (which he takes as synonomous with "atheists") favour some sort of holocaust. He cannot possibly mean that (can he?); but that is certainly the most natural reading of this passage. Well, I am quite convinced we will never see Richard Dawkins marching through London urging "Behead all those who criticise atheism". So far as I am aware Dawkins weapons are words, and words alone. Somehow the use of words to frame an argument merits denunciation (by Jones) as "totalitarian". As I say, the man is an idiot.

Suppose he doesn't mean that "secular fundamentalists" want to kill religious believers. What then does he mean? I suppose it could mean that atheists - the swine - are trying to persuade people of the merits of atheism. If atheists were wholly successful in their persuasive efforts I guess religious belief would disappear (I'm not holding my breath). But how exactly does this make atheists different from other people? I mean, if you are a devout Christian, and you believe Christ died on the cross for man's sins, and that the only way to eternal salvation is through Christ, then I suppose you want to convince others of this. If you were wholly successful then atheism would be "eradicated". But surely Jones doesn't simply mean that atheists, like other people, believe what they believe and argue in favour of what they believe? Why bother to say anything so obvious? (Mind you, atheists don't go door-to-door making a bloody nuisance of themselves).

Perhaps the most truly astonishing part of the article is the following:

"...(secular) fundamentalists....went on the offensive and sought to give offence. The subsequent reactions to the play Behzti in Birmingham, to Jerry Springer the Opera and to the Danish cartoons were wheeled out as examples of why religious groups are unable to live with our cherished freedom and tolerance..".

Eh? Run that past me again? Islamists urging that people be beheaded for publishing a cartoon is evidence of intolerance by atheists? (It is a small point but Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the author of Behtzi, is a Sihk who says - see her statement in the Guardian 13/1/05 -"my faith remains strong". The play as I understand it is not an attack on religion).

Jones sees the ban on the hijab in French schools as evidence of secular "totalitarianism". I'm not sure that the French ban is altogether wise (it is only a headscarf after all), but remember it is a ban on wearing the hijab in school (and in a country with a strong attachment to the separation of religion and state); it is not a ban per se. There is no ban on wearing the hijab outside school. Even if the school ban is judged unwise and heavy-handed, is it quite reasonable to call it "totalitarian"? Does Jones have any comprehension of what totalitarianism is?

Jones also compains that believers "are ridiculed for being, in contrast to the stupendously brainy atheists, very dim". I don't want to be rude but the social survey evidence does show that, as Dawkins puts it in his book, "...religiosity is indeed negatively correlated with education (more highly educated people are less likely to be religious). Religiosity is also negatively correlated with interest in science and (strongly) with political liberalism". Dawkins quotes a 2002 article by Paul Bell in which he concluded: "Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one's intelligence and/or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one's intelligence or educational level, the less one is likely to be religious...". I'm not disputing that there are some really very clever religious believers (clever people are quite capable of believing nonsense); although on the evidence of this article Tobias Jones is not among them.

Finally, a general point. It is becoming increasingly common to denounce atheists and secularists (such as Dawkins) as "totalitarian". So far as I can see this is an utterly fraudulent accusation. Secularists believe in the separation of church and state and some atheists - like Dawkins - are pretty vigorous in arguing their corner. I cannot for the life of me see how this is incompatible with political liberalism. Of course, religious believers should have the right to hold their views, practice their religion, argue their corner, and so on. Whoever said otherwise? All atheists are saying is that their beliefs are nonsense, and that is something we have the right to say. Most of us also say that their religious views ought not to be funded by the tax-payer. And - not least - that they do not have the right to threaten to murder people who criticise (or mock) their beliefs. If you want to mock my beliefs feel free. That is your right. Just as it is my right to mock yours. But you do not have the right to threaten to behead me because I have "offended" you. And how on earth my belief that you do not have the right to threaten murder counts as evidence of my intolerance is quite beyond me.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Lawson and Religion

Neil Lawson had an article on religion and morality in Wednesday’s Guardian. The overall thrust of his argument – such as it was – is that it is increasingly religious rather than political leaders who address the important moral questions of our day and who are prepared to speak against injustice, and that, against this background, the “aggressive secularism” of the “anti-religious left” is misplaced. He concludes that if religious leaders “preach the cause of the poor and the needy” then they “are my people”. Oh dear.

First, it somehow seems to have escaped Lawson’s attention that both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States are quite outspoken about their religious faith. In the last US Presidential election so-called “moral issues” (gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, etc) featured prominently in the Republican campaign. This helped to elect (I almost said “re-elect” but that would not be strictly accurate) a right-wing regime with very little sympathy for the poor or disadvantaged. The Bush Presidency has been described as the first “faith-based Presidency”. And, to take just one example, Bush opposes stem-cell research largely for reasons of religious dogma. Blair, for his part, promotes faith schools and never misses an opportunity for vacuous moralising. It seems to me we might benefit from rather less of this sort of thing.

Second, Lawson says that the “liberal elite” took the wrong side on the debate over the wearing of the veil. They were “alarmingly hostile in their condemnation of some of society’s most vulnerable people”. This is a lamentable argument. One could apply the same reasoning to e.g. female circumcision. My guess would be that female circumcision is more common among the poor and the ignorant than the wealthy and the educated. Does that make it any less abominable? I realise wear veiling is a much less draconian practice – although I believe it perpetuates the reduced status of (vulnerable?) women – but the point here is simply that because the poor do X (whatever X is) it does not follow that we cannot speak out against it.

Third, there is the following bizarre passage:
“So why are some on the left so hostile to faith? Perhaps it is an example of classic Freudian displacement activity as some progressives turn their political impotence and ire on religion. If their surrender to the nostrums of neoliberalism denies them moral purpose, then they will attack those who are prepared to stand with the poor and denounce the culture of greed at institutions such as Goldman Sachs.”

It’s hard to know where to start, but here goes:

(a) Lawson has a very peculiar notion of what is “left” if he thinks that people who “surrender to the nostrums of neo-liberalism” are on the left. I would not call “neoliberals” who are reluctant to criticise City greed “left-wing”. Who on earth does he mean? If he means the Blairites well, they are not left-wing, and they are not – at least Blair is not - secularist.

(b) The first two sentences might almost feature as a textbook example of the ad hominem fallacy. Let us generalise his method: “Why does Lawson despise the anti-religious left? Perhaps it is a Freudian displacement activity stemming from feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy, due to his failure to gain an A* in physics when at school, which finds an outlet in anger against those he sees as devoted to science”. Or maybe he was dropped on his head as a baby? Or his mother didn’t breast-feed him. Convinced? I shouldn’t have thought so. Interestingly the passage quoted above follows a description of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion as “just a gratuitous tirade against faith”. That is simply vulgar abuse. (Incidentally, what is the function of the word “gratuitous” here? If you have some strongly held views, and you argue against opposed views what’s “gratuitous" about it?). You can agree or disagree with Dawkins but in his book he sets out a number of arguments against religious faith. To respond with abuse, or pop psychology disguised as argument, is simply pathetic.

Fourth, it is true that religious people often “do good”, but I cannot agree that “the positive role of religion outweighs the negatives”, although that is an argument for another time. Furthermore, one does not need religion in order to hold strong moral views, and people without strong religious beliefs “do good” also. The three religious leaders Lawson mentions do not inspire much confidence. The Archbishop of Canterbury is doubtless a learned and well-meaning chap, but performs his crucial function of being inoffensive to the “powers that be” with aplomb. The Pope – Ratzinger – is an obscurantist reactionary. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor is an odd case; he does seem left-of-centre on what might be called “social issues”, but is quite reactionary when it comes to e.g. homosexuality or abortion where his dogma dictates illiberal views. In any case, why just these three? What of Pat Robinson and Ian Paisley and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? I suppose, in all fairness, if we stick to British examples only there are fewer horrors such as these. But let's not altogether forget the mobs who prevented the performance of Behzti, or who howled for "those who criticise Islam" to be beheaded, or the zealots in SPUC, or the creationist teachers in the Vardy schools, or the Christian fundamentalists who tried to prevent the staging of Jerry Springer: The Musical.

Fifth, Lawson says that “we live in a society of smug complacency” and all too often it is only religious leaders that criticise “the anaesthetised contentments of our consumerism”. Well, yes, religious leaders often do this. But, no, they are not the only ones: so do many environmentalists, feminists, and leftists of one sort or another. So, in all fairness, do certain types of conservative. Some of these may be motivated by religious belief, others not. In any case, one can criticise “materialism” (in the sense that “consumerism” is “materialist” – obviously I don’t mean “materialism” as an ontological doctrine) from an entirely secular and anti-religious point of view. Of course, if the Archbishop or the Cardinal speak out against poverty or inequality those of us on the left should voice our agreement; but why should this prevent us from also criticising their religious views? What in God’s name do their views on “social issues” (however commendable they may be) have to do with the truth-status of their faith-based claims about the supernatural?

Overall, I find Lawson’s argument extraordinarily muddled and wrong-headed.

Cameron looks immature and babyish

At Liverpool University's School of Biological Sciences, Anthony Little and colleagues have been researching how a politicians face affects his popularity. Thursday's Guardian reported that: "The bad news for David Cameron is that his rounded, babyish face may not convey the gravitas necessary to capture No. 10 back for the Tories". Dr. Little says "My gut feeling is that Cameron looks a little bit too jovial and almost immature". I only wish I could as much significance to this research as Dr. Little and his team.

Naseem the Coward

Tuesday's Guardian had a report on Naseem Hamed, who is a boxer. Last May he was convicted of dangerous driving. According to witnesses he was driving "like a maniac". His sports car smashed into another vehicle at 90 miles per hour. The driver of the other vehicle - Mr. Burgin - had every major bone in his body broken and suffered injuries to his brain. Hamed fled the scene - a cowardly and contemptible thing to do - leaving Mr. Burgin and his wife trapped in the wreckage of their car. Naseem was arrested at his home as he was trying to leave in another sports car. And for this? He was sentenced to a 15-month prison sentence and served a mere 16 weeks. People have gone to jail for longer periods for not paying their TV licence or for refusing to pay the poll tax. Why is it that these sort of road traffic offences appear not to be taken very seriously? Naseem could easily have killed Mr. Bulgin. No doubt he did not intend to kill anyone, but driving as he was, and running away afterwards, show that he didn't give a flying whatsit about the danger he posed to other people.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Iraqi Quagmire...

Yesterday's Guardian reported that the US and Britain "believe at least some members of the Iraq government are complicit in sectarian killings, particularly by members of the police force" on page 1) and (on page 4) that in Washington there is "a general disillusionment with the Shia Muslim-dominated government led by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is increasingly viewed as condoning - or at least failing to act against - sectarian killing". Apparently "the view of the US military in Iraq is that the police force is so riddled with sectarianism that the only possible course was to disband it and start again..."

Radio 4 this morning had John Prescott describe the manner of Saddam's execution as "totally deplorable".

George W Bush has described the execution as an important step in "democratising" Iraq.

On Sunday the Observer reported "...there is now a fear among Sunnis of an emerging Shia crescent formed by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, dominated by Teheran". Saudi Arabia has publicly criticised the timing of the execution (on Saturday, the first day of Eid al-Hada). So too have Tunisia and Egypt, while Libya has ordered 3 days of official mourning and flags have been lowered to half-mast on public buildings.

And Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish MP in Badhdad, has criticised the decision to execute Saddam before the Anfal trial. Saddam, he says, has taken many secrets to his grave including vital knowledge about "the foreign companies and countries that supplied the parts and expertise to make chemical weapons".

Monday, January 01, 2007

The execution of Saddam

The execution of Saddam Hussein is one death among so many: yesterdays Guardian reported that three bombs exploded after the hanging, killing 70. And that is a fairly typical day. I doubt that the execution has any great political significance. At this stage it is a bizarre sideshow. It is unlikely to be a turning point of any kind. It will not lessen the resistance to the occupation, and - although the execution will add fuel to the sectarian warfare - that is already well advanced. But there are several reasons for, at least, some disquiet about the execution.
First, the trial was farcical. Human Rights Watch has documented a series of departures from proper legal standards including inadequate protection for witnesses and defence lawyers (two of the latter were murdered), failure to disclose key evidence to the defendants, violations of the defendants right to question witnesses, and lack of independence of judges. Of course, in all frankness, we know that Saddam was guilty. Nevertheless it is important for the integrity of law that judges at least make an attempt to show professional detachment and that proper procedures are followed. This clearly did not happen in this case. Essentially this was a judicial lynching. Even at the end, the executioners behaved like a bunch of hoodlums: wearing balaclavas and taunting the prisoner. After he had been hanged there were (according to the Guardian) “spontaneous scenes of celebration” in the execution chamber. That must have been a macabre moment. Is it not shaming that this monster Saddam behaved with more dignity than his executioners? Hamas has described it as a “political assassination” and I suspect that view will be widespread among Sunni Arabs. The retort that Saddam Hussein did not give his victims a fair trial – that his crimes were monstrous – is not the point; we are supposed to set higher standards. It would have been better if Saddam had been lynched by a mob; at least that would not have been given the imprimatur of law.
Second, the precise crime of which Saddam was found guilty concerned his role in the murder of 148 Shia men and boys in Al-Dujail in 1982. It would be an interesting exercise to go through the 1982 newspapers to see what precisely the western reaction to this massacre was at the time. My guess would be that it was fairly muted (Rumsfeld would later visit Bagdad as a guest of Saddam in 1983 and 1984). Interestingly, the Kurds are not over-impressed by Saddam’s execution. They wanted him to stand trial for his crimes in southern Kurdistan during the Anfal campaign in the late 1980’s. That might have been embarrassing for the Americans – since they were at the time Saddam’s ally and a main source of huge supplies of arms. In any sort of fair trial one must presume that Saddam would have drawn attention to this fact. His death is enormously convenient for the United States, whose decision it was to hand him over for execution.
Third, I don’t buy the argument that the execution sends a message to dictators that one day they may face justice. That strikes me as Pollyannaish. The message it sends is: if you are a dictator you are OK so long as you keep the United States “on side” (or so long as you have nuclear weapons). The torturers and murderers in, for example, Uzbekistan are not shaking in their boots. They enjoy American (and British) good will. They will have observed that Pinochet died peacefully in his bed. They know that this is about power (and oil). They know it was “victor’s justice”. They know that the big mistake they must avoid is not to antagonise the United States. It a message of “double standards” and selective amnesia.
But, as I say, it is all of little import. Saddam was already finished. Despite what the Americans say the resistance is not Baathist. In yesterdays Guardian Ghaith Abdul-Ahad interviewed a “mid-level commander of an insurgency group in West Bagdad”. The execution of Saddam, he said, “is better for the jihad. Every time the mujahideen do an operation they say it’s the people of Saddam. Where is Saddam now? Let’s see if his death will affect the jihad. Of course it won’t”. One death and so many more to come.