Christina Odone and the RCS: as bad as each other

November 29, 2007

The row between Christina Odone and the Royal Commonwealth Society reveals the deeply simplistic attitude even believers seem to hold towards religion. Odone and her cheerleaders (literally: upsettingly, she seems to be what passes for a pin-up in this crowd) attack “simplistic scientism” and “one track rationalism”. In reality, they are as brutely rationalist as the secularists.

Take Telegraph blogger Damian Thompson (he’s a friend of Christina’s, doncha know). According to him, “carols are unambiguously Christian: they celebrate the birth of the divine Messiah”.

OK…so, if, like me, you aren’t a believer but you still go to carol services, are you praying? Should you be allowed to sing – after all, these are “unambiguously Christian” tunes?


The principle here seems to be that Christianity is a set of rules that you either conform to or you do not. Not only is this patently ludicrous, given the doctrinal variations Christianity has seen over the centuries. But it is also a perplexingly rationalistic attitude to see from those who should understand that dogma’s flaws.

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PFI and People’s Pensions: an answer to the PPProblem?

November 28, 2007

PFI is looking more and more like an expensive mistake. How about this for an alternative?

Three facts that should be put together more often:
1. The Guardian reported yesterday that the taxpayer may have to pay up to £170billion for Private Finance Initiative schemes (PFI briefing here). Even a more moderate estimate of the cost still has Gordon Brown committing future governments to pay back £91billion by 2032 to banks, investors and private entrepreneurs.
2. In 1962 51% of total pension fund assets were invested in UK government bonds. In 1993 that figure was 7%. Today, it is just 3%.
3. The money in UK pension funds at present amounts to a capital stake of £750billion. The vast majority – over 70% – of that money is invested in shares issued by private companies.

How about this for an alternative to PFI? Link pension funds to local authorities, NHS Trusts, education authorities and the like. Let these bodies raise the money needed for infrastructure projects by effectively borrowing pension money off people. Let people with pensions choose the type of services they want in the area of their choice. Run the whole thing democratically on a mutual, not for profit basis.

This wouldn’t just sort out the PFI debacle. It wouldn’t just ameliorate the looming pensions crisis. It would square the most important circle in contemporary political life: the cavernous divide between people’s aspirations and what they do about them on a local level.

This isn’t an original idea – if only. The idea for locally-sponsored pensions was set out a few years ago in a paper by the New Economics Foundation, co-authored by Richard Murphy.

They even had a catchy name for them.

People’s Pensions. Not bad, eh?

Short-term thinking: blame the brain

November 26, 2007

Why do we insist on making decisions that only take short term consequences into account? Economist David Laibson thinks he has the answer.

Last year, David Laibson bought annual membership at his local gym. The membership cost him $1000. Over the course of the year, he went 6 times.

Laibson is an Economics Professor at Harvard, so he’s quite capable of working out that his 2006 gym visit cost him a bit over $160 each. It was, he admits, a supremely irrational act.

homer-donut.gifIt is also the kind of mistake we make all the time. Today, I’ve eaten two donuts and a big slice of carrot cake; not exactly the most forward-looking of diets. Meanwhile, the global economy is on the edge of collapse, all because a bunch of hubristic bankers – supposedly among humanity’s more rational brains – can’t see beyond the reach of their own noses. For supposedly sophisticated creatures, our horizons are impossibly short. We are little better than a bunch of Homers.

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How’s that Your Majesty?

November 24, 2007

It’s not often that a story emerges from Rwanda that leaves you with a smile. Rwanda officially completes its entry into the Commonwealth this week (and a big two-fingers to France) by attending the heads of government meeting as a full member. Despite no historical connection with the British Empire, you can’t fault its commitment to full-blooded membership of the great old boys’ club. Conscious of its parvenue status, Rwanda has been hard at work to sure up its Britishness. And what could be more British than the slap of leather on willow?

Aided by British NGO Cricket Without Boundaries, cricket has set up stumps in Kagali, and plans are afoot for Rwanda’s first ever international friendly against Uganda. A cyncial political ploy? Given that an early game had to be abandoned on the discovery of an unexploded landmine at silly mid-on, I say not.  As CWB argues, cricket’s unifying qualities can bring diverse and often polarized communities together. And let’s not forget, poor Paul Kagame doesn’t want to be caught out at his first Commonwealth conference not knowing his flipper from his googly. What would the neighbours think?

A Revisionist Thanksgiving

November 21, 2007

Not being American I have no particularly strong feelings about Thanksgiving (aside from a weakness for pumpkin pie) and I’ve only ever eaten one proper Thanksgiving dinner – after which I had to lie down for four hours. In fact, the bulk of my knowledge about the holiday derives solely from the West Wing.

Yet I do feel strongly about historical accuracy – and it’s a happy coincidence that the biggest Thanksgiving story of the year has, to my mind at any rate, a Jed Bartlet link.

According to the Washington Post we have been misled for years as regards the origins of the famous annual pre-Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardoning. The picture below has formed the basis of the near-universal belief that it was President Harry S. Truman who initiated the ceremony in 1947. But new research has come to light indicating that Truman was merely accepting a turkey as a gift from the National Turkey Federation rather than pardoning a condemned bird.

Truman Turkey

Shocking as it may seem, the first turkey pardoning actually took place only in 1989 on the first presidential Thanksgiving of President George H.W. Bush. What’s more, no-one really knows why he did it. Speculation has so far been muted, but I’m sure that once more people hear this story the public outcry will force the former president into making an explanation.

Unlike in the West Wing where C.J. was faced with the dilemma of which Turkey (out of two finalists) to have pardoned, it seems that the current (real life) president is perfectly happy to pardon turkeys in pairs. This year’s lucky gobblers were ‘May’ and ‘Flower’ – better names, the president quipped, than those suggested by the vice-president: ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’.

Gordon’s fake smile

November 19, 2007

Poor old Gordon. He can’t even smile properly.

Tio posted a comment down below drawing attention to his fake smile; his Bala Fria blog has a montage of Gordon’s most rictus-like grins.

Yeah – it’s as fake as anything. But there’s a reason for this.

Most people know that when Brown was sixteen he detached the retina in both eyes playing rugby, giving him the gargoyle squint we know and love today. Not everyone appears to know, however, that one of the four operations to try and restore his sight was botched, permanently affecting the nervous system in his face. After the operation, Gordon’s smile no longer triggered the appropriate facial muscles. Quite simply: he can’t smile.

As Jonathan Freedland notes in the NYRB, we have exchanged “a prime minister who smiled all the time to a prime minister who cannot smile naturally at all”.

All that glitters is not gold

November 16, 2007

I note with interest that Ron Paul attributes his dizzying recent fund-raising performance to his opposition to the Federal Reserve and support for the gold standard.

The dubious economic merits of a return to the gold standard have been discussed in detail elsewhere. Two facts are worth mentioning here. One: there’s not enough gold in the world anymore. With China and India expanding global wealth to levels never before seen, a relinking of money supply with existing gold stocks would require a massive global contraction of prices, severely retarding economic growth and development. Two: a gold standard system means workers have to accept periodic bouts of recession or deflation. The very reason most developed countries operate floating rates is that imposing such costs on labour became politically unfeasible in the latter half of the 20th century. Nothing suggests this has changed.

This notion of bearing costs leads us to the real problem with Ron Paul’s position. It’s statist and repressive. Libertarian philosophy tells us that the laissez-faire operation of the market (as would happen under a gold standard) is preferable to government intervention, because it preserves peoples’ natural freedom and keeps the state at arms length. Mr. Paul needs to pick up his Karl Polanyi; the association of laissez-faire with freedom is a myth. In its supposed heyday in the 19th century, laissez-faire was never so: it was a planned system designed to support a particular set of economic interests. And it involved significant statecraft to assert itself. Workers don’t enjoy sudden bouts of mass unemployment; farmers don’t relish the prospect of increased import competition; neither celebrates when entitlements to assistance are unilaterally cut. Making ordinary people bear the costs of the system requires repression; the state, far from giving people back their freedom, imposes its power over them even more.

If repression was needed to make 19th century workers – who had no labour representation, no unions, and no sympathetic ideology – adjust with the gold standard, what kind of state power would it take now? As far as I can see, Ron Paul’s libertarianism would mean the grossest intereference by the state in peoples’ lives. So no thanks Ron, I’ll keep my worthless piece of paper. And my freedom.