Never has so much been written about so little that’s been read by so few

January 18, 2008

Most people would say that shitting on your own doorstep is a bad idea…but here goes anyway…

Steven Stark of the not-particularly-reputable Boston Phoenix has written a piece that (mostly) hits the target on something that’s been concerning me for a while now: internet punditry in relation to the 2008 US presidential elections. Frankly, many of Stark’s points could apply equally to the print and broadcast media (particularly in the UK, where coverage is for the most part just plain offensive to anyone with even a little in-depth knowledge of the candidates, issues and processes), but Stark is right – the sheer volume, novelty and speed of internet commentators makes them worthy of special comment.

The problem seems to be two-fold. Firstly, there simply isn’t enough ‘news’ going on (and there aren’t enough astute commentators either). Secondly, the constant need to report something drives the pundits to fixate about deeply unimportant events in an effort to sustain public interest. They may commission a new poll or sponsor a debate just so as to be able to report it. In the worst cases they simply make things up.

(a typical online pundit at work)

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A nuclear waste

January 16, 2008

The government’s own environmental advisors launched a scathing attack yesterday on the Labour’s decision to give the go-ahead to a next generation of nuclear power stations. Their objection is essentially three-pronged:

  1. The costs in terms of construction, decommissioning, waste, public funding, and missed opportunity for investment in other renewables, far outweigh the benefits in terms of clean energy
  2. In making this decision, the government has shown a dispiriting lack of environmental leadership – “a blatant failure in moral vision”, in the SDC chief economist’s words. Given the opportunity to take a strong position in favour of a progressive, low-carbon economy, it has instead stepped backwards, succumbing to pressure form big energy companies and political expediency
  3. It is using the technological “metafix” of nuclear as a fig-leaf to cover its embarrassing lack of progress on the root cause of the environmental crisis, the attitude of Western societies towards consumption

This critique makes a powerful case against the project. But behind these arguments lie deeper tendencies and failings of government which are at the core of much the current environmental inertia.

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Alistair Darling at the RSA

January 15, 2008

Saw Alistair Darling – stocky, box-suited, occasionally wry, surprisingly nervous-looking – speak at the RSA today.

Benedict Brogan has managed to draw some juice out of it, calling it “thoughtful and uncharacteristically personal”, a declaration of political independence from Number 10. I guess seasoned political observers can spot this kind of thing.

So far as I could tell, it was just the usual ideas: economic growth as a way of achieving social ends; building an entrepreneurial culture; fostering aspiration; the challenge of globalisation and climate change. We got one titbit – “in a few weeks time sustainability will be at the heart of the budget”. It was fine.

darling.jpg

The real star of the show was Peter Riddell, who made a response. Reflecting on his 30+ years covering the Treasury, he compared Darling to Dennis Healey, his Labour predecessor as Chancellor as one. The aspirations were the same, he said, but the way of going about things had changed completely.

In the 1970s, the Treasury was solely a macroeconomic department – it didn’t even have a housing policy, let alone a child poverty one. Now, it is primarily a microeconomic department – and, through the tax credit system, a large public spender to boot.

Apparently the key turning points in this transformation were a report by Jeremy Heywood after Black Wednesday, and of course the Chancellorship of a certain G. Brown, notorious for poking his nose into everyone else’s business.

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the tendency to economise everything – education as a functional method of economic advancement; the fact that we need the Stern Report to wake us up to climate change.

I’ve always tended to attribute that to widespread social and cultural forces. Riddell gave an insight into its high political beginnings.

UPDATE: Peter Riddell’s political briefing in The Times today.


Decline and Fall of the English Murder

January 14, 2008

The front page of today’s Daily Mail asks: Why was wife killer [Garry Weddell] bailed? This is also the first day of Steve Wright’s trial for killing five prostitutes in Suffolk.

We are just as fascinated with violent and untimely death as we were in 1946, when George Orwell wrote his great essay Decline of the English Murder.

The question is: has the quality of our murders improved since then?

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The problem with automatic organ donation

January 13, 2008

BBC News: Gordon Brown says he wants a national debate on whether to change the system of organ donation. He believes thousands of lives would be saved if everyone was automatically placed on the donor register.

I see the use of default options becoming an increasingly common trend in coming years – it has already been suggested as a remedy for pensions problems, and may well end up being the way we fund our political parties.

It is undeniably effective. But I can’t help wondering if it is really the best way to go about things.

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Why Barack and Brown aren’t that different after all

January 9, 2008

barackindependent.jpg

There aren’t many things that connect Barack Obama to Gordon Brown. But Obama has just gone and made the same mistake in New Hampshire that Brown made at last year’s Labour conference. He believed the polls, and the hype, and he forgot the golden rule of politics: when deciding on your strategy, think, think twice, then downplay expectations.

1. Obama and his team looked cocky before the caucus. “The Obama Wave”: where did that come from? Even the famous Iowa speech sounds very hubristic now. Before Iowa, a two-point victory for Hilary in New Hampshire would have been a victory for Obama, one he could rightfully say was within the margin of error (as this post by the director of polling at ABC makes clear). Now, it looks like a big loss.

2. The print media went to town on an Obama win, and now they look like the biggest bunch of idiots this side of an Arsenal home game. Some will take it on the chin (Gerard Baker in The Times: grace in error). The rest will be looking at avenge their humiliation. At the moment, they’re turning on the pollsters. Will they also go for Obama and his over-confident team? That’s what happened to Brown; he’s still paying for his error.

Next week: why David Cameron is the new Hilary Clinton. (Hint: it’s all in the hair).


Kant attack ad

January 7, 2008

It’s getting vicious in New Hampshire:

Poor old Immanuel. It must be because of his recent conversion to environmentalism.