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Archive for October, 2010

Marie Antoinette à la Rose, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

In yesterday’s Guardian ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie complained that “elements of the Labour movement” engage in desperately overheated rhetoric, caricaturing Conservatives as being “a cross between Fagin and Goebbels” seeking to “press the faces of the poor into the dirt”. He asks readers,

 

Do you really think that Tory politicians take some sort of sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain on public sector workers and benefit claimants?

There are a number of pretty glib responses to this question: Have you seen the Tory press? Pick up a copy of the Daily Mail on any given day. Observe their treatment of the unions and the poor. Also springing to mind are John Major’s comment “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” or Norman Lamont’s argument that unemployment is a price worth paying – Conservative Chancellors have a history of, shall we say, insensitivity. Then-party chair Theresa May famously critiqued the Conservatives in 2002, telling the party conference, “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us — the Nasty Party.” (BBC). Is it any wonder that Tories’ political opponents would repeat back to them the “Nasty Party” label?

Far from the political knockabout, Greg Mankiw presents a far more sober assessment of right and left distinctions. In summary, he sees the opposing sides as providing different analysis when answering key questions like,

  1. How distortionary, if at all, are taxes?
  2. How frequent are market failures and how successful is government in addressing them?
  3. How much government intervention in markets is required for effective markets?
  4. How do we conceive of individuals decisions, as rational actors capable of protecting their interests or as making systematic errors requiring government protection?
  5. How effective is the government in allocating resources?
  6. How should the government approach income distribution, do markets produce largely fair or unfair outcomes?

In part, Montgomerie is complaining about the differences between the spheres of campaigning, commentary, and criticism. Campaigning admits emotive language readily. Often it is about pressing whatever buttons needed to excite core voters, win over independents, or smear opponents. Campaigning’s relationship with veracity and complexity is often tenuous. Commentary is a halfway house. At its best it can be informative, identifying trends, theorizing, or offering a précis of more thoroughly worked out arguments from the scholarly community. Often, commentary can get caught up in a closed loop of received wisdom. Criticism has footnotes. Scholarly contributions fall in the criticism basket. If you have a literature review or methodology section, it’s probably criticism. Daniel Drezner’s excellent post, Why do academics sound so pointy-headed?, explores some of the features of criticism; jargon being the coin of the realm helps in-group communication but locks non-specialists out of the discussion.

These different spheres of communication are often incompatible; a piece from one field fails by the standards of the other two fields. Campaigning is often simplistic. Can serious public policy discussion be held in a succession of 30 second TV ads and catchy slogans? Commentary is often superficial, cherry picking or mistranslating highly circumscribed academic work in services of fairly narrow ends; how do you compress a 30 page academic paper full of caveats into an op-ed piece? Criticism is often abstruse: For specialists, by specialists. That means a limited audience and a public unaware of known knowns.

Circling back to Montgomerie’s question, are the Tories sadists punishing the poor and public sector workers? As a piece of anti-Tory campaigning, the answer is clear: Yes! In terms of commentary, the picture is more nuanced, and in terms of criticism, the picture is more nuanced still (see Mankiw).

Just to end on a partisan note, the plans announced yesterday replacing the Child Trust Funds with Junior Isas (FT) is an example of Tories (and LibDems) pressing the faces of the poor into the dirt. The government is axing the state grant upon birth (£250 minimum, £500 for low income families) in favor of a tax free saving vehicle where those who have more will likely benefit more. All in all, the move is in keeping with the regressive spending review (BBC).

The nasty party is back, and this time they’ve brought their mates.
Yvette Cooper

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Palais des Nations, Geneva. Home of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

I’ll put it frankly, I supported the Iraq War before, during, and after. I continue to think that Bush and Blair were right to confront Saddam Hussein’s Iraq given the regime’s past behavior and a lower threshold for risk after 9/11. The Wikileaks Iraq War Log revelations have not shifted my position on the fundamental issue: removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right thing to do. At any given point in time, the run-up to and during the conflict, one can express dismay at the conduct of the Bush administration without contradicting support for removing Hussein from power.

However, being for the removal of Hussein does not mean being for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or conduct that shocks the conscience of mankind. Thus I agree with Chris Bertram’s pointed post (directed at “self-styled leftist erstwhile advocates of the Iraq War”) at Crooked Timber, “The US government has a duty to investigate and to bring those of its own officials and military responsible to justice.” I’d add, if the US does not investigate, the international institutions devoted to protecting and promoting human rights should probe US on compliance with its Convention Against Torture obligations.

Needless needling of allies, Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about “Old Europe”, violations of the spirit and letter of core human rights conventions, those “quaint” Geneva Conventions as assessed by Alberto Gonzales, utter incompetence in appointing officials in the reconstruction as documented by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City – how would it have been possible to know about this level of maladministration and mismanagement in advance?

When you advance a policy position, you tend to posit some basic level of competence. Were the Bush administration’s level of competence applied to nearly any policy area whatsoever, you would end up with profound embarrassment. Humiliation really. Conduct that vitiates the thrust of the human rights argument for removing Hussein, again, how would it be possible to know, with confidence, about such misconduct beforehand? Specifically, that the Bush administration would essentially give the finger to the laws of war and longstanding US human rights obligations. Not only that, but that the apparatus in place to prevent such conduct would be so weak as to allow him to do so – Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs, etc., etc. Where were the ethics, where were the standards, where was the professionalism (members of Congress, lawyers, medical professionals, military officers)? I can only share in Bertram’s call for investigation, explanation, and accountability. Thinking of what it would take to unseat my, now ossified, support for the Iraq War, probably the findings of a wide ranging inquiry, with even broader terms of reference than the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry. That would be a catalyst for rethinking my position in its entirety.

Just to close, here is part of an interview with Chandrasekaran,

It was a bunch of young kids — had no experience managing finances — who were given the task of running Iraq’s budget. It turned out that this group of kids who had come over together couldn’t quite figure out why they’d been chosen. They finally discovered that what had tied them together was that they had all applied for jobs at the Heritage Foundation, this conservative think tank in Washington.

What happened was that the hiring was done by the White House liaison to the Pentagon, an office of the Pentagon political appointee. This office served as the gatekeeper. Instead of casting out widely for people with knowledge of Arabic, knowledge of the Middle East, knowledge of post-conflict reconstruction, they went after the political loyalists and canvassed the offices of Republic congressmen, conservative think tanks and other places where they knew they would find people who would be unfailingly loyal to the president and to the president’s mission in Iraq. …

The hiring process involved questions that would have landed a private-sector employer in jail. They asked people what their views on Roe v. Wade were, whether they believed in capital punishment. A man of Middle Eastern descent was asked whether he was Muslim or Christian. People were asked who they voted for for president. …

Bremer, after some months in Iraq, realized he needed more people to help, and as a former guy from the private sector, he had a pragmatic streak in him, and he dispatched one of his deputies back to Washington to scour the country and get some of the best people sent over to Baghdad.

This deputy, who was a former Goldman Sachs banker, did what anybody in the private sector might do. He contacted a couple of his friends who work for large executive headhunting firms, and he asked them to come to the Pentagon and help identify promising candidates to go to Baghdad.

When the White House [liaison] office to the Pentagon found out about this, they freaked, and they ordered those guys to pack up and leave that same day. Bremer’s deputy interceded and managed to keep the headhunters around, but their jobs were relegated to sort of vetting people’s résumés. The actual decisions of who’s going to be brought in, that all rested with the White House and the White House’s people at the Pentagon, and with people like Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld. They were able to tap people.

So you wind up getting people like John Agresto to go run Iraq’s higher education system instead of getting somebody who had, let’s say, run a very large public university system. He was a former president of a small college in Santa Fe, N.M., with 500 students. But he had connections. He served on the National Endowment for the Humanities with Lynne Cheney; Joyce Rumsfeld sat on his board of directors at St. John’s College.

For [Iraq’s] primary and secondary education, [they] brought in a guy from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a very conservative think tank, who had written extensively on the need for school vouchers. This is not a guy who has any experience in rebuilding school systems in the Middle East.

We’ve talked about Jim Haveman, the guy from Michigan who had very little experience in public health, being brought over to rebuild Iraq’s health care system. And the list goes on — a bunch of political appointees with very little practical experience. (Frontline)

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Star of the Order of St. Michael and St. George

A particular line in George Osborne’s spending review speech yesterday stood out to me,

In some cases, the benefit bill of a single out-of-work family has amounted to the tax bills of 16 working families put together. (Hansard)

This line resonates with a certain kind of tabloid newspaper story about so-called work-shy benefits gluttons. These papers target particular families they paint as claiming thousands in benefits, living exceedingly well off the public purse. Similar tropes have been used to target recipients of benefits in the US, “welfare queens” in their Cadillacs buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

As in the US, in the UK these images are meant to illustrate the waste and abuse of the benefits system prior to hefty cutting. So it was yesterday, with Osborne announcing cuts of an additional £7 billion from the welfare budget. These cuts are on top of £11 billion in cuts announced earlier this year in the emergency budget.

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has so freely used anecdata in support of his policy prescription, capping benefits at the average family level and cutting the welfare budget, I thought I’d present an alternative anecdata point. Imagine a British billionaire businessman. He wants to transfer a large sum from his business to himself, but avoid all those pesky British taxes. Well, why not pay a dividend of more than £1 billion to his wife, a Monaco resident, and thus avoid about £300 million in British taxes (BBC). Unfortunately, this shouldn’t stretch your imagination too far because Sir Philip Green exists. In fact he provided advice to the government on more efficient management of its finances (BBC). I’d like to ask the Chancellor how many working families it takes to make up for the millions in taxes Sir Philip so deftly avoided?

Explaining the continued gulf between her values and Tory values, JK Rowling wrote that accountants present wealthy people with a choice, “would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.”(Times). In her piece, Rowling criticizes another billionaire Tory tax avoider, Michael Ashcroft (or Baron Ashcroft, of Chichester in the County of West Sussex). Ashcroft is former Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party. Yes, Minister would say Ashcroft has achieved “Kindly Call me God” status, being a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG). Though tax avoidance is legal, it’d be great if Conservatives cast their judgmental eyes on the tax avoiders in their midst. Perhaps tax avoiders could be dubbed immoral, or at least unworthy of gongs and Her Majesty’s honours like peerages and knighthoods.

As for the spending review more broadly, I agree with a Labour shadow minister who said it is, “a blueprint for a smaller, meaner, and nastier society”. Perhaps more on that later.

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