Where’s it going to kick off next?

 

International: Ripe for rebellion? | The Economist.

The Economist’s rated 150 countries on a scale of 1-4 based on the likelihood of unrest that ‘poses a serious threat to governments or the existing political order.’ Britain as unstable as Equatorial Guinea.

Inequality laid bare

I watched this amazing video earlier today which shows, in graphical form, what Americans think the income distribution in that country is, and what it should be. Then it shows what it actually is. The video is well worth some minutes of your time:

It strikes me that these disjunctions between what people think of as fair, and how the world actually is, are growing more and more pronounced. And yet, at the same time, our ability to describe that lack of fairness, and even to propose solutions to it, seems to be weakening; even something mildly redistributive, such as Ed Miliband’s proposed energy freeze, is angrily dismissed as anti-capitalist or even socialist and thus, ipso facto, inherently and precisely wrong. I’m not saying Miliband’s idea is correct; for what it’s worth, I agree with Tim Harford that it’s probably wrong-headed. But that’s not how it’s been discussed: it’s either an attack on capitalism, or it isn’t, seems to be the extent of analysis in most places.

The great and growing failure of the Left is in articulating an alternative that is clear, non-ideological and rooted in people’s instinctive sense of fairness. These inequalities are great and they are growing.

So what are we going to do about it? And how are we going to describe what we’re going to do in words that won’t be immediately captured by vested interests?

The bigot next door has a vote, you know

There’s a scene in one of the forty million episodes of The West Wing in which Toby and Josh are arguing, for the forty millionth time, about policy in an elegantly expositional way, and Josh is complaining about how they can’t get a certain policy passed because most people in America don’t actually want it and what a terrible thing that is, and Toby says something along the lines of ‘we don’t get to choose what people think.’

That one line (which I’m probably misremembering) is something worth remembering when reading about today’s list of 40 proposed bills from right-wing Tory MPs, catchily titled ‘The Tory Taliban’ by the excellent LabourList. There’s some real shockers in there, but even the phrase ‘real shockers’ exposes me for what I am: a left-wing, urban-dwelling, right-on kind of fellow who would just like everyone to get on with each other.

I won’t list the proposals here. All I will say is that each and every one of the Tory MPs signing their name to them represents several thousand constituents, and that’s worth remembering. The peculiar make-up of British democracy does have this one characteristic: MPs can claim to be speaking directly for their constituents (at least the ones who voted for them), and in some ways this is perhaps more true of provincial conservative MPs than it is of urban Labour MPs, whose constituencies are often more tribal and more rooted in a vanished trade unionism communal ethic (this is why it’s somewhat easier for Labour to parachute in bright young professional politicians of the Miliband stripe into old working class constituencies, safe in the knowledge that the locals will vote for anyone with the red rosette).

It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognise that some of us hold views others violently disagree with, and that those views have the ability to enrage and to sicken. I’m quite sure my own views on gay marriage would sicken a fair few Tory constituents, and I know for certain that the views expressed by locals opposed to a London state school opening a boarding school in Sussex seriously led me to consider proposing poisoning their water supply. But when I took the time to think about it, what surprised me most about that boarding school story was not the appalling views expressed, but the genuine surprise of those expressing them when it was pointed out how appalling their views were. You could hear it in their voices: ‘but everyone thinks like this down here.’

And there’s the rub. Increasingly, I think, we choose where to live not just on the basis of the attractiveness of the view or the quality of the schools, but the acceptability to ourselves of the political views of those around us. I choose to live in London because, on balance, the views of most of my neighbours would fit into the same band of tolerance and active statehood as my own. It’s inevitable that this is the case – you have to have those views to live in London. So our constituency map grows ever deeper-coloured: safe Labour seats and safe Tory ones, communities of shared politics and shared views. This isn’t a good thing, by the way. It’s an ossifying process, and lies behind some of the basic problems the country has over stuff like planning laws.

I once worked at a company where the secretary was a Londoner of several generations standing who lived in Streatham. One day she said to me she was moving out to Morden. When I asked why, she replied: “Too many blacks in Streatham.” And then looked astonished when I expressed violent dislike for what she’d said. I still dislike what she said enormously, but I wonder if she quite meant it. I wonder if she meant that Streatham didn’t have enough people who had the same politics as her, however poisonous those politics were, and she wanted to find somewhere that did. It isn’t quite the same thing.

 

The little braveries of China

If you want to be inspired, depressed, amused and appalled all at the same time, I recommend that you read this article by Jake Maxwell Watts on Quartz. It tells the story of how some of China’s Internet users are sidestepping, with enormous creativity, the granite inhumanity of that country’s censors.

On China’s popular microblogging service Sina Weibo, authorities have banned a huge list of blocked search terms that might be potentially used to voice dissent or pay homage to the June 4 demonstrators. In past years online users have been able to refer to “May 35″ instead of “June 4,” but that’s no longer allowed either.

Censors, which are experimenting with increasingly sophisticated online methods, have refused to allow any references to today, yesterday or tomorrow. And also … ”big yellow duck.”

Why big yellow duck? Because of this use of Hong Kong’s giant duck installation:

tiananmen_duck

 

There’s another extraordinary example on the Quartz piece, dug up by buzzfeed from Chinese website Netease.com. This image was inserted into a slideshow about children’s toys which were released to celebrate Children’s Day in China on June 1.

tiananmanlego

Taken in isolation, these images are amusing, the stuff of Twitter chuckles over lunchtime sandwiches. But think for a second. Think of what it took to put these images online in a country where censors are both so sophisticated and so dumb that the phrase ‘big yellow duck’ starts being censored because of a single image. A country where, on the anniversary of Tiananmen, the word ‘today’ was censored.

China has become so central to our global economic wellbeing that we can forget this central fact about the country: that it attempts, day upon day, to engineer the way its people talk to each other and thus to engineer the way its people think. This is the essential infringement of human rights from which all other infringements flow. We cannot stop saying this, because if we do we dishonour the little but profound braveries of the people who put these images on the Chinese Internet.

And a final irony: a great deal of Lego is made in China, these days.

John Kay on the pointlessness of forecasting

When it comes to big urban projects, says John Kay, we’re never going to get the forecasting right. The only question worth asking is does the work leave the city in a better state than when it started. Kay’s example is London’s sewer system:

Yet if Bazalgette’s scheme had been subjected to current appraisal procedures, it is hard to imagine that it would have been built. Although the embankments are an amenity of enormous value to London, their construction had many negative consequences. The once magnificent river entrance to Somerset House, for example, now sits forlorn behind a main road. The gardens of the Inns of Court no longer give on to the Thames. Procedural objections would be innumerable and the delays interminable.

The project would also have been subject to the criteria laid down in the modern Treasury’s appraisal process, which requires a careful assessment of benefits over its expected life. Several hundred years I suppose, since the need for sewers seems likely to continue, but these benefits would be discounted at a rate of 3½ per cent a year.The civil servants would have been required to survey the impact of noxious smells on property values. But the principal issue would have been the consequences for health – they would have got this badly wrong, since Victorian physicians overestimated the ill effects of miasma from the atmosphere and underestimated the role of bugs you contract from contaminated water. The statisticians and consultants would have estimated the time saved if hansoms and sedans could make their way to the City along the Embankment rather than through clutter on Fleet Street. They would have struggled to analyse the likely traffic on the underground railway since none had ever been built.

Their estimates would have been completely wrong and irrelevant anyway. The salient fact is that London could never have become a great business and financial capital if its residents felt an urge to vomit every time they went outdoors.

via John Kay – London’s rise from sewer to spectacle.

Hot enough for you?

Temperatures are now so high in Australia that the weather scientists have had to adopt a new colour. This is the forecast for Monday:

Worried yet?

(link courtesy of Kottke and ftrain)

 

What’s wrong with British political storytelling?

Over on his blog Marbury there’s an excellent piece by Ian Marbury on his love of American politics, which was originally written for the RSA’s Fellowship newsletter. It includes this:

But if American politics got under my skin it wasn’t because it represented some noble democratic ideal, but because it was a source of the best and the biggest stories (I’m a writer, after all). An American presidential election is the highest narrative form democracy ever created. It is an epic drama, played out on the grandest of stages, containing all the Greek themes: power, money, war, fate, family, human ambition and human frailty. Its structure is essentially gladitorial: every four years, the combatants enter the arena knowing that by the end only one will be left standing. Their fortunes trace long, criss-crossing arcs that end in disappointment, disaster, or – for one man or woman and their legions of supporters – triumph. In dramatic terms, at least, it beats proportional representation.

When I returned to Britain in 2002, British politics seemed cramped and provincial by comparison. Front page headlines had the flavour of a gossip column in a local newspaper reporting on the machinations of the parish council. Was Gordon upset with Tony this week? It was hard to care.

Like Ian, I find myself fascinated with American politics, and follow it almost as much as I follow the British stuff. And like him, I find the American flavour stronger and more interesting. I’ve always thought the reason for this is at least partly the way mainstream British political coverage is set up to discuss ‘process’ (as Alistair Campbell used to call it) rather than policy.

We see this time and time again from the BBC and the main newspapers. Announcements are discussed not for their content, but for what they might suggest about the way politicians are positioning themselves. I saw it today, when the Coalition government pushed through the highest profile reduction of the welfare state in a generation, when the question being asked more than any other has been “what does this say about the Coalition’s chances at the next election?” Discussions of the merits of the policy, the economics of it, the effects on the ground, are few and far between.

I think political journalists somehow imagine that these tales of manoeuvring among politicos are somehow more compelling than the substantive debates over policy. I think they’re wrong, and I think American media has a different approach. To quote Mr Campbell again, we should cover politics with the same attention to detail, and the same resources, as we cover sport.

Even more, as John Rentoul stated in his recent Independent column, it’s events that dictate politics. Not the other way around:

My conclusion, therefore, is that the next election won’t depend on how far Labour is ahead now. Nor will it depend, in any quantifiable way, on how well the economy does over the next two years. Obviously, if people feel more secure in their jobs and more hopeful about their family finances, that will make it easier for the coalition parties, but it really depends on how much the Chancellor can persuade us that it was down to his stewardship and that he knows what to do next.

As a final point, this Tweet from Daniel Knowles of the Economist earlier today really resonated with me. Interestingly, the Economist is one of the few cultural affairs publications that puts policies above personalities.

 

Americans are as dumb as you are (or less so)

The Rest Of The World had a field day laughing at Americans last week. Ironically, the catalyst for this was the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare. Many people (particularly in Europe) seem to think that opposition to any kind of nationally operated healthcare system is a sign of brazen, deep American stupidity. So when the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare was not unconstitutional, and a good number of Americans complained about the decision, lots of people on this side of the pond laughed.

Picture by MattHurst on Flickr

Which is odd. Because what I saw was a smart country working its way through a complicated issue. I tried to imagine, say, Britain trying to introduce a national health service these days. I failed to see how it would. And I got more than a little irritated by the sneering assumption that Americans who don’t think like Europeans are somehow dumb.

I’ve met dumb Americans. I’ve met dumb French people. I’ve met seriously stupid English people. I’ve met some spectacularly idiotic Australians. There are dumb people everywhere.

But when I read things – history, literature, websites, even Tweets – I see Americans in the round as smart, connected, hard-working, resilient, articulate, well-educated, proud and self-aware people. Those of us who take pleasure in mocking those things which look “dumb” to Europeans – gun-ownership, say – make no attempt to understand American history and how it got where it is today. Even the most stupid Tea Party anti-tax goon knows more about American history than 99.9% of those mocking American decisions and American instincts from this side of the Atlantic. We Europeans fail to understand the fundamental differences in relations between individual and state in that country, and how they came about from its unique, glittering, epic history.

The depressing thing about stating this kind of very obvious truth is how inevitable the response will be. There are those for whom America is some overfed combination of dumb and evil, the big fat overstimulated teenage kid in the playground. Nothing anyone can say will convince those people of the wrongness of their prejudices. But they are wrong.

Stephen King would like to pay some more taxes

I’ve loved Stephen King’s work and admired Stephen King as a man for years now. So this doesn’t surprise me. But it’s still worth putting here – his heartfelt plea for taxation, and for the rich to pay more of it:

The Koch brothers are right-wing creepazoids, but they’re giving right-wing creepazoids. Here’s an example: 68 million fine American dollars to Deerfield Academy. Which is great for Deerfield Academy. But it won’t do squat for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where food fish are now showing up with black lesions. It won’t pay for stronger regulations to keep BP (or some other bunch of dipshit oil drillers) from doing it again. It won’t repair the levees surrounding New Orleans. It won’t improve education in Mississippi or Alabama. But what the hell—them li’l crackers ain’t never going to go to Deerfield Academy anyway. F–k em if they can’t take a joke.

via Stephen King: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake! – The Daily Beast.

When it comes to council tax, some honesty about cuts would be nice

I have a rather old-fashioned left-wing attitude to the current debate over cuts and services. It’s this: if you’ve run out of money for services which you’ve said for decades are vital, don’t cut them. Make us pay for them. Go on, grow a pair and put up taxes, and explain why that’s important.

In the long run, of course, that isn’t going to happen. The conversation just now is all about cutting back the Leviathan of the state – there’s a pretty good Economist section on it this week, and some of what is said in unarguable. If the government’s spending the equivalent of more than half of a country’s GDP, that just feels wrong. And if public sector workers really are retiring to a life on the Costa Brava in their mid-fifties, that feels wrong too. On the ground, it’s easy to see a new generation of senior public sector managers in their 30s and 40s who grew up under New Labour’s prescription of professional competence and reform, who believe that anyone taking money out of the public purse unfairly is somehow defrauding society. They’re the ones who’ll change things.

But I would just like to point out a broken bit of this conversation. Today, I received Lambeth’s council tax leaflet. There’s a picture of the cover to the right of this post. And what does it boast?

“Council tax frozen for third year!”

That’s it. That’s the only message from the cover. And it’s like a missive from a different world. Inside, the council explains that their central government funding is being cut by £79 million over three years, and that just makes me want to scream: “Why the hell are you not raising council tax then! Blame it on the government! Explain what services it protects! GROW A PAIR!” Everything about local government funding is driving me nuts. The fact that house prices haven’t been rerated for TWENTY YEARS, for instance. How can that possibly be fair or efficient?

So, if you want to close a library, look me in the eye and explain to me why you didn’t try and raise the money to keep it open. Show me now. Because the way we’re going, deficits are always only going to be about cuts, and never about taxation.