May 262010
 

I know lots of people have already remarked on this, but this Guardian blogpost about MPs’ expenses rules has my eyes literally burning with rage.

Not because of what the rules are, of course, but because of the unattributed comments from MPs about them.

We are being treated like benefit claimants. Why don’t they just put up a metal grille?

Implicit snobbery vis a vis benefits claimants, much? As Old Holborn has said, you are benefits claimants. The only difference between an MP’s pay and a benefit claimant’s handout is that the MP pretends to do work for it. Being an MP is obviously not a hardship in any way, despite some of the slogging they have to do (constituency work, natch). The non-monetary compensations are clearly huge, else there wouldn’t be nearly so many toes scrabbling their way up the greasy pole. MPs, don’t pretend your actions are self-sacrificing, or that you are in some way noble for doing the job. You’re not – you can quit at any time, and very likely go into some other job that pays much more. (At least, those MPs with actual talent and intelligence can). But you don’t, because there’s something about being an MP that gets you off, which other jobs wouldn’t do. You’re not serving the public; you’re serving yourself, and you’re doing it with our money. So get used to being treated like benefits claimants.

For Christ’s sake, what has happened if this bloody authority doesn’t believe me when I say my wife is my wife? A utility bill to prove co-habitation? Good God.

None of the bloody authorities believe the rest of us. You want special perks from the state because you’re married? Then you have to prove over and over again that you’re actually married, actually co-habiting – check out the list of documents Shane Greer had to hand over to the state when he wanted permission to marry a foreigner. And of course those all had to be originals. And I’m willing to bet the state kept them a hell of a lot longer than IPSA will be keeping MPs’ utility bills, marriage certificates, and birth certificates. Welcome to the world you helped create, MPs: if you have to hand over original documents to the state to prove every little thing, well, you’re only living the life you’ve imposed on the rest of us.

What happens on a January night in London? I suppose I will have to take the tube, then a bus and then a long walk home. That is not safe.

We just have to accept this because the public is not with us. It will take something really horrendous, such as a woman MP being stabbed on the streets of London because she is not entitled to take a taxi home late at night, before people wake up and realise how unfair this is.

You know what? FUCK YOU. How many winter nights in London have I had to take the tube, then a bus, then walk home? Not only that, I paid for it MYSELF. Let’s put into perspective what these fucking precious female MPs are whining about: before 11pm, they can only claim for travel on public transport. After 11pm, they can claim for taxis.

I’m a woman, I never get to claim for any of these ‘not safe’ journeys on the tube, bus, etc., let alone for the luxury of a fucking taxi, and nobody in parliament worries about me getting stabbed or raped or whatever as I pay my own costs on the ‘not safe’ way.

Ooh, of course, the public will wake up and realise how ‘unfair’ this all is when a woman MP is attacked. You know what? FUCK YOU AGAIN. Women all across London are attacked on a daily basis – it’s really unfair – and MPs refuse to wake up and give a shit about the astounding amount of criminality in Britain. If an exalted lady MP feels unsafe on the fucking BUS before 11pm, how does she think we proles feel about it?

What makes me angriest, however, is the fact that, actually, tube and bus etc. aren’t even that unsafe. I’m on them constantly at all hours – including January nights – and never once has anyone threatened me, harassed me, attacked me, or made me feel even remotely uncomfortable. And, unlike these lady MPs, I’m not going home to Islington, I’m going home to fucking Brixton. If I can walk from the bus stop to my flat in Brixton without a problem, I think these bitches can do the same, especially since they still won’t be paying for it themselves.

Assholes.

May 192010
 

[NB: This post was inspired by a Twitter discussion with @obotheclown and @John_Demetriou. There was a time-limit involved, so please excuse any errors.]

There is a stream of thought out there in the political troposphere that goes by the name of left-libertarianism. This flavour is usually summarised as supporting civil liberties while advocating economic redistribution in some form or manner so as to even out the material unfairnesses in society.

For the time being, let us dispense with the nomenclature and consider first principles. (I’ve been reading Mencius Moldbug lately as you all know, so I’m very much in the mood for thought experiment and first principles.)

Political thought can be summed up as the set of philosophies, opinions, and practices devoted to the question of how people should be governed or should govern themselves. By discussing politics at all, we are addressing the needs and concerns of society or other large and similarly defined groups of humans. We are automatically moving outside of the realm of the individual, which is problematic for the libertarian, of course, but as the population of the earth is not one libertarian, this is simply a pragmatic attitude.

Also, generally speaking, political thought revolves around two central questions: (I) what is good for people both as individuals and as groups? and (II) once we’ve identified the good, what methods or mechanisms do we employ to achieve it?

Despite seeming insurmountable, answering question (I) is generally pretty easy. Almost all humans, when asked, will conclude: (a) I wish to go about my business in the absence of violence or coercion, and (b) I wish to fulfil my material needs in the absence of same, preferably without damaging myself, and preferably without sacrificing (a). Of course, you find that the extent at which people define ‘needs’ and ‘damaging’ and ‘business’ differs from person to person, but this is where the maligned inequality thesis comes in. As long as people feel their effort does not exceed their compensation, and that other people’s business does not impede their own, they tend to be satisfied.

Of course you will always find people who disagree with our answer to (I) for some spurious Calvinist reason, typically either that wanting to go about one’s business is selfish and therefore evidence of evil, or that privation is a moral virtue. I discard them, because they are clearly insane.

Now we are left with question (II), namely, how do we achieve personal freedom from coercion and violence, as well as personal freedom from making ourselves miserable in the pursuit of sustenance? (All the ‘civil’ freedom in the world does not compensate for the mental and physical drain struggling for sustenance, contrary to Patrick Henry etc., but in fact true civil freedom has never been achieved anywhere, so this is more or less a moot point.)

Pace Rothbard, but I think it would be very difficult to achieve either of these things without some kind of overarching authority. Thus I am a minarchist rather than an anarchist. However. As a right-libertarian, I suppose, I see the role of the authority as defending the territory from external aggressors, and enforcing a set of laws that prohibits internal aggression and contract-breaking. These roles, in my view, are sufficient to maintain my civil freedom. I doubt your average left-libertarian would disagree with me on this.

So in the left-right libertarian struggle, we can actually agree on what we might call (II).1.

But what about (II).2, i.e. material freedom?

Your reasonable left-libertarian (thought I don’t presume to speak for such people, obviously) takes the position that just as the authority must enforce the conditions that preserve civil freedom, it must enforce the conditions that preserve material freedom.

(Again, keep in mind that neither of these has ever actually been achieved.)

As it happens, I agree with him on (II).2 as well.

Here’s where it breaks down. In my political schematic, all parts of question (2) are achieved by the same measures: that is to say, defending the territory and enforcing laws and contracts. You will note that my view does not require any particular type of authority–simply some entity with the authority to defend and enforce. It could be a parliament. It could be a dictator. As long as defending and enforcing are what the authority does, it could be the Slime Beast of Vega for all I care. And while I would like for everyone to be materially free, I recognise that the great variety of skills, talents, and needs may preclude this. Thus, for me, it is sufficient that everyone has the opportunity to be materially free, and no one is prevented from seeking material freedom (except with regard to everyone’s civil freedoms), and no one is assisted by the authority in achieving material freedom. In this way, the pursuit of material freedom is at least fair, if not equal in result.

This attitude is not shared by left-libertarians. For them, the authority has a role in ensuring that people achieve and maintain material freedom. Those whose talents and skills are accorded value on the market insufficient to providing material freedom must receive some support from the more talented and more skilled. Some of this support will be voluntary, of course, as there are still people who retain a conscience about this sort of thing. But history and demographics have shown us that the number of skilled people who possess a conscience is always smaller than the number of unskilled and low-skilled people, so the left-libertarian will refuse to rely solely on the voluntary action of people with conscience. He will insist on endowing all of the skilled with a faux conscience, and deploy the authority’s monopoly on force to make sure enough people are endowed with faux conscience to provide for the full support of all of the unskilled and low-skilled.

The left-libertarian will see no conflict in this, as almost by definition he does not believe that property ownership beyond body and mind is an aspect of civil freedom.

And frankly, if material freedom operated on the same basis as civil freedom, this would be entirely sensible.

Unfortunately, although he is consistent in his aims, this is where the left-libertarian becomes inconsistent in his methods: for while civil freedom consists of individuals refraining, a left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of individuals acting. Refraining requires only personal self-discipline and sensibility; acting requires deliberate intention if it is voluntary and deliberate force if it is involuntary. Moreover, civil freedom consists of everyone refraining from aggression, while the left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of some people acting or being forced to act, and is thus inherently unfair and unequal. To achieve civil freedom, everyone has the same personal responsibility; but to achieve the left-libertarian’s material freedom, only a certain portion of the population has a personal responsibility.

And in fact the left-libertarian position imposes a double responsibility, for not only must those with skills provide for others’ material needs, they must provide for their own as well. To the left-libertarian, this is only just, for anything else would condemn the unskilled to starve in the streets and the low-skilled to suffer a life of toil that greatly exceeds its rewards–damaging both body and mind.

The left-libertarian position, just like mine, demands no particular type of authority, nor is it inherently redistributive.

But in practice, his method of pursuing economic freedom requires redistribution. For unlike civil freedom, which depends upon individual acts of reason and will, material freedom is contingent upon the supply of goods and services, the demand for goods and services, the supply of labour, the demand for labour, and people’s willingness to enter into mutually voluntary transactions. It is also contingent upon the identification of some minimum level of material comfort below which is unfreedom and above which is freedom. And as material comfort is relative to both immediate neighbours and prevailing conditions, this is not an absolute and can only be determined by the subjective judgment of those with the power to enforce it.

Because of this, the left-libertarian position also requires an authority that is prepared to wield force against its own citizens or subjects, and there is a name for authorities like that.

So while I might find left-libertarian goals both humane and righteous, and in agreement with my own, I find left-libertarian methods to be internally inconsistent with regard to freedom as a concept and incompatible with reality.

But then, non-libertarians say that about all libertarian philosophy, left or right. And given that neither left-libertarianism nor right-libertarianism has ever been implemented, let alone successfully implemented, they may have a point.

Obnoxio the Clown’s case of left-libertarianism can be found here.

Jock Coats, a self-labelled left-libertarian, weighs in here.

And you can find John Demetriou’s assessment here.

May 162010
 

In light of various discussions taking place around the series of tubes regarding what parties did, or did not, get 150 votes and what their leaders should, or should not, go round saying and doing, this snippet bears the appearance of both wisdom and relevance:

For any kind of collective political action, whether capturing a state or creating a new one, a smaller, more cohesive, tightly disciplined and indoctrinated movement is much more powerful and effective than a larger, more amorphous, loosely organized and weakly indoctrinated one. Especially if the latter is heavily contaminated with actual opponents of your actual ideology – you know, the one you actually believe.

Anyone who does not read Mencius Moldbug is seriously missing out. He is bleach for the acidic brain, and a good dose will help neutralise any growing (and understandable, given the difficulty of eternal vigilance) instincts toward collaboration. This does not mean that I, too, have become an Orange reactionary; although he makes a good case, I’m not sure his remedy is the best of all possible remedies. His diagnosis, on the other hand, is pure veritas in veritate.

May 162010
 

Via Tim, I see that the United States has leapt into the rabbit hole.

The very same administration-to-be that campaigned on a platform of restoring the civil liberties eroded by Bushitler etc. to Americans and everybody they arrested is now, er, taking more of them away than even Bushitler did.

Several weeks ago I saw a story on a blog somewhere about Obama’s authorising the assassination of an American citizen abroad (sans due process, naturally) because he was suspected of terrorist activity. I didn’t write about it then because I was sure it was a right-wing conspiracy lie.

Apparently it’s not.

Other restorations of our civil liberties include proposals to deny terrorist suspects arrested on US soil their Miranda rights, strip American citizens accused of terrorism of their citizenship, and treating American citizens arrested for terrorism as enemy combatants and barring them from trial in normal American courts.

I’m a bit confused about this, because while I obviously think restoring civil rights is a wonderful thing, these plans all sound to me like stripping Americans of every possible legal and Constitutional protection based solely on an accusation of a particular crime.

Perhaps the definition of ‘civil liberties’ has Changed™ since 2008. Perhaps, as appears to be the case, this legislation has been proposed by eeeevil Republicans. But if the latter is so, why are the good and kind Democrats in charge not screaming bloody murder about it? Why are they not swearing with their every last breath to use their Congressional majority to kill these bills stone dead?

And why, in the name of all that is holy, has the era of Hope and Change not only not reversed any of the rights-abuses perpetrated by the previous administration, as was promised, but perpetrated new ones itself?

Not that I ever expected him to be, but Obama is surely not the saviour he tried to make us all believe he was. And I absolutely do not understand why it is an outrage for Bush to read our emails but it’s fine for Obama to authorise the assassination of an American citizen. I do not understand why it is an outrage for Bush to deny foreign terrorism suspects their rights but it’s fine for Obama to do the same to American citizens on American soil. I do not understand why it was good that Obama was going to try Kalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civil court in Manhattan (where he would never get a fair trial), and now it’s also good that Obama’s not going to try American terrorism suspects in civil courts (where they might just have had a chance at a fair trial). I do not understand how American Congressmen can even propose this sort of thing during the administration of a constitutional lawyer, when the merest idiot can see that it’s plainly unconstitutional. There are no exceptions for terrorism in the Bill of Rights.

Are Americans really that frightened of terrorism, that they’re willing to put up with this stuff? I mean, the last time our government started abusing its own citizens, we had a giant fucking war with it.

And to be fair to him, it’s not just Obama at fault. Given that Republicans (including would-be president John McCain) have proposed a lot of this legislation, I’m afeard for what will happen if they win a majority in the elections later this year.

In fact, I’m afeard, full stop. Maybe it’s time to look into getting British citizenship after all…

May 162010
 

For some reason I have this corny idea that for a political party in Britain to stand a parliamentary candidate in a parliamentary constituency, that party has to pay £500 to… somebody. And he must win 5% of the vote if he wants that money back.

Therefore to have even the hope of securing a parliamentary majority, a political party has to stump up a minimum of £163,000. And until recently there has been very little point in aiming for less than a majority. (Pace the Lib Dems, the true winners of the recent election despite coming, er, third.)

Assuming this corny idea is at all accurate (and trust me, I hope to be corrected on this point of fact), the only possible justification for it is that somebody, somewhere wishes to discourage what we might call ‘frivolous’ candidacies. That is to say, nobody shall stand for parliament for giggles, else he or his party shall lose £500.

The average size of a parliamentary constituency in the UK is 70,000 voters, at least according to Wikipedia, of which 5% is 3,500.

If we apply average voter turnout for the nation to the constituencies themselves (a rough and dirty approximation to be sure), then of the potential 70,000 voters in each, only 45,500 of them actually voted in this most recent election – meaning that to secure his £500 deposit, a candidate actually need only about 2,275 votes.

It is very difficult to know ahead of time whether acquiring this number of votes is possible for a small-party candidates, and indeed many majorities (Ed Balls’s, for instance) are smaller than this amount.

But what I’m getting at vis a vis my corny idea is that somebody, somewhere in the British government has decreed that if you can’t get 2,275 people to vote for your ass, you must pay up, sucka.

And if we carry the arithmetic just a little bit further, we see that the British government has essentially assigned a monetary value to every vote, and that value for the recent election was approximately £0.22.*

I’d say that’s about right, wouldn’t you?

P.S. Does anybody know what party expenditure was during this past campaign? I’m interested to know because, at that value per vote, one would expect a Tory party spend of some £2.3m, a Labour party spend of about £2m, and a Lib Dem spend of about £1.5m. Does those numbers sound close to reality?

*Merci, Dan.

May 152010
 

One of the most complex pieces of information I have ever tried to grasp is that of ancient cosmology, by which I mean that which prevailed as accepted knowledge before Kepler. Ancient cosmology has almost exactly the opposite ratio of complexity to modern cosmology: these days, the concepts are simple but the math is mind-bending; those days, the math was easy but the concepts were labyrinthine.

Imagine, if you will, what Ptolemy [the 2nd-century AD Greco-Roman whose works formed the basis of most medieval astronomy] and his Arabic successors were dealing with. Geometry, trigonometry, algebra (for the Arabs): we learn these as teenagers. But they were using these tools to explain and predict the actions of a cosmos they viewed as a vast and interlocking array of perfect circles which is nearly impossible for the casual investigator to envision, let alone comprehend its relationships. If you’ve ever seen an astrolabe, you will have a pretty good idea of what I mean, and an astrolabe is only a small and simplified model of the relationships obtaining between celestial bodies as the ancients understood them. (If you haven’t seen an astrolabe, may I recommend you visit the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford? It has as fine a collection of them as I’ve encountered.)

Ancient cosmology, like Aristotelian physics, has become a modern archetype for ‘wrong’ science, primarily because in our present-day arrogance we have applied Occam’s razor retrospectively and concluded that those old astronomers were idiots. (Funnily, Occam himself never applied his razor to astronomy, so there we are: we’re better at being Occam than Occam was.) But this is tremendously unfair, because actually the ancients weren’t wrong, at least not in the sense we usually mean.

Civilisations had been observing the skies for millennia and noticed certain patterns about the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky, none of which were wrong. The heavenly bodies really do move as observed thousands of years ago. Where they erred was not in the what, but in the how and why. Scientists then as now were keen to explain the mechanisms behind what they observed, and then as now they used as their test of correctness whether the mechanisms they hypothesised accurately predicted future behaviour.

And contrary to what you may have read or heard or taken on board in snooty science class where even Newton is ridiculed for being wrong, Ptolemy et al. came really close to accurate predictions in spite of their giant wrongness. Copernicus himself noted that Ptolemy’s mathematical tables resulted in predictions that were rarely more than 2 [geometrical] degrees off from observed measurements. Given that nobody at the time was relying on this information for anything really important – such as organising trips to the moon – this was an acceptable margin of error, and in the circumstances would not have mattered much but for the fact that (a) it was sloppy, and even pre-modern scientists found sloppiness annoying, and (b) more sophisticated tools for observing the heavens began to show us that ancient knowledge of the skies was, in fact, incomplete. Galileo saw things through his telescopes that the Egyptians never knew existed, because they didn’t have telescopes and couldn’t see them. The human eye is good, but not that good.

In the end, it was perfectionism and superior datasets that brought down the ancient cosmology, rather than its inherent ‘wrongness.’

And in fact the ancient cosmology was only wrong on one particular point: but it was a big, important point because it was the fundamental assumption on which everything else was based – and as we say today, garbage in, garbage out. You can have, as Ptolemy did, the most incredible and precise system for analysing data in the world, but if your inputs are crap, your outputs will be too. What’s astonishing and really worthy of admiration, in my view, is that Ptolemy’s outputs weren’t more crap than they were, considering how hilariously incorrect his starting point was. As noted before, he was always within 2 degrees of being accurate.

The reason Ptolemy’s system is the byword for bad science is actually the very thing that tells us what an incredible genius he must have been: the tortuous complexity of his data analysis system.

His point A, that incorrect starting point, was stationary geocentrism. His point B, those predictions, were mostly right. But the path from A to B is what gave us deferents, epicycles, equants, prograde and retrograde motions – terms which you only see used today, really, in astrology (which is one of the reasons why astrology is bunk).

You can’t exactly blame him, can you? To the naked-eye observer, it really does look as if the Earth stands still and everything else circles around it. We, who are so big on Occam’s razor, can hardly criticise the ancients for assuming this simplest of theories was the correct one. They saw what appeared to be the skies circling round the Earth. There was no good reason, at the time, to question this simple and elegant explanation of observed conditions.

Unfortunately, that simple starting point made it exponentially difficult to explain the mechanisms empirically or prove them mathematically. Every time someone thought they’d figured out the process, their predictions would turn out to be wrong – even if just a little – and then it was back to the drawing board to add on new layers of theories to account for those errors. Nobody thought to go back and examine point A, because why would they? Like good little scientists, they assumed the data were correct and the mistakes were theirs. They didn’t consider that stationary geocentrism was not a datum at all.

So the tiny fixes for the tiny errors built over time into a giant, interdependent, Escher-like edifice that was always just not quite right, a kaleidoscope picture just out of true no matter how one fiddled with it. Cosmology was a grand project, generation after generation always fixing, fixing, working away, convinced that just a tweak here, a jimmy there, and those minuscule errors would resolve into glorious perfection. After all, their margin of error was so tiny that their mistaken assumption must be tiny too. But in the process of fixing their tiny errors one by one, they hypothesised a cosmos that was no longer simple, no longer elegant, no longer perfect – instead it was complex, and virtually impenetrable, and exhausting: every scientist’s nightmare.

And that giant, unwieldy, hideous nightmare that was always not quite right turned out to be based on a fundamental assumption that was so mistaken it now occasions ridicule – and the vast unwieldy system is so archetypal that today we pretty much assume that the more complex your theory is, and the more tiny fixes it requires all over the place, the more likely it is you’ve made a mistake in your fundamental assumptions. You can alter this over here, and fiddle with that over there, and that will make everything more complicated, but nevertheless things will be better as a result, won’t they, and bring us closer to perfection, because we’re nearly there anyway, so surely that last step must be a small one.

Now, what does that remind you of?

Incidentally, I wasn’t re-reading my master’s dissertation before writing this post. I was reading Federalist No. 10.

May 082010
 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only way this brat could have received a polling card is if he deliberately falsified the electoral registration form that came to his parents’ house.

Whatever, his commentary is chilling:

Alfie went to his local polling station before school on Thursday, wearing a trench coat, glasses, jeans and smart shoes so officials would “think I was a Tory”.

“I knew they wouldn’t suspect an under-18 for voting Tory,” he said.

Alfie said he was “very serious” about politics and socialism, but decided to vote Liberal Democrat as a tactical option.

He said: “There’s not a socialist candidate in our area and unfortunately even if there was it would be a wasted vote. I’ve looked into it and the best option for a socialist is the Liberal Democrats.

“I did want to make a difference – unfortunately I didn’t.”

Police are investigating. Can we do 14-year-olds for electoral fraud? I do hope so. And for God’s sake, somebody give the kid’s mother a backbone:

Alfie’s mum, Nadine Wiseman, said she had asked him not to vote, after he received the polling card, but she “wasn’t surprised” when he did.

The captions below this little bastard’s photo says that Alfie is ‘very serious’ about politics. Too bad he’s not too fussed about, y’know, the law.

May 082010
 

Whenever constitutional reform is mooted here in the UK, the drive seems to be something along the lines of: the executive has too much power, MPs have too little, and oh yeah, unelected Lords have no place in a democratic nation. (Let’s pretend in this discussion, for the sake of simplicity, that the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t made Parliament redundant.)

What kind of reforms would be required, then, to address these perceived problems?

The House of Lords is easy: sweep out all of the old peers and bishops and allow people to stand for election. Presumably the old peers and bishops would be permitted to stand if they wanted to; certainly they would have to have the franchise returned to them.

It’s not as easy as that, though, is it? First of all, how many members of an elected Lords should there be? Will it be fixed, or determined by population the way Commons constituencies are? Should it even be called the ‘Lords’ any more? What will be the length of term – same as the Commons, or staggered, or fixed terms? What will its constitutional functions be?

At the moment, its high-court responsibilities having been snaffled away, the Lords exists primarily to scrutinise Commons legislation. Because the lords themselves are supposed to be non-partisan, they are meant to be able to judge legislation on its merits, rather than according to who drafted it and who’s whipping them into place. In reality, however, the Lords rarely scuppers Commons legislation. A part of the reason for this is probably because they are unelected, and Commons legislation is supposed to represent the will of the people. Another part is probably because, though supposedly non-partisan, a great many of the lords themselves are ex-party higher-ups. Does anyone really think Kinnock, Mandelson, and Martin, for example, have been busily scrutinising Commons legislation on its merits?

So we end up with a conundrum. The lords are granted the power to scrutinise legislation, but only because they are meant to be non-partisan. But non-partisan also means unelected, so they can’t scrutinise too closely or they’ll be usurping the power of the people as represented by the Commons. But if we start electing them, they’ll no longer be non-partisan, and there will no longer by any point in their scrutiny because it won’t even have the current veneer of disinterest.

Okay, that’s a little too tough for a Saturday afternoon. Let’s look at MPs and the executive, because they go hand in hand. Absent the European aspect, the reason MPs have so little power is because the executive has so much. The executive controls the parliamentary calendar of bills, it introduces bills, it whips its party’s MPs to vote on those bills. Ministers have extraordinary powers in their departments to introduce measures that don’t have to go before the Commons at all. This is why the executive is called the Government, and the Commons is just a bunch of fat-chewers.

The current hung parliament really throws this into stark relief. Why is there such consternation? Because Britain, at this precise moment, has no government. Or rather, no Government. The people have had their say, and there is certainly a legislature. But the legislature can’t act, because no executive exists to, well, execute any action. The executive is, by constitutional tradition, the leaders of whichever party holds a majority of the seats in the Commons. No majority means no executive means no Government means that, even though MPs have been duly elected all over the country, they are sat on their asses with nothing to do at the moment. They are, in a word, powerless.

Now, that’s weird, isn’t it? Normally MPs have no power because the executive is over-bearing. But then we discover that they also have no power when there is no executive at all. So what is the point of MPs, exactly?

Quite clearly, then, we see that the only purpose of MPs is to provide a count by which it is determined which party’s leaders will rule the country. The electorate are not choosing a person to represent their interests in the legislature; they are choosing a counter for the party’s leaders to whom they wish to give power. After an election, the party leaders tally up their counters, and whoever has more than half gets to be dictator for 4-5 years, as long as he maintains his number of counters. He gets to choose the rest of the executive, and the executive rules the nation.

We can see now how pathetically laughable are all of the ‘reforms’ that have been mooted to give some of the executive’s power back to the Commons. Committees? HA. Relaxing the whips? Slightly more muted, but still ha.

The only thing that will transfer power from the executive to MPs is to change the way the executive is chosen. And the obvious solution is for the people to elect the executive separately. We can even be generous and just elect the Prime Minister separately. Then parliament can approve, by vote, his or her Cabinet choices.

Except – wait! Remember that newly-elected House of Lords with little to do because their partisanship has destroyed their previous role? Hey, why don’t we let them ratify the Cabinet? Let’s let them ratify the executive’s choices of important judges, too, just for funsies. Keep them busy with something, since we’ll be paying them to sit there. And maybe they can still have their scrutiny of legislation, because the balance of parties in the Lords may be quite different from that in the Commons.

We can also open up the Commons a little bit too, now. The parties can still have their whips, of course – otherwise what’s the point of parties? And the executive can even decide the calendar. But instead of introducing legislation, the executive will have to get its MPs to do that – because of course the Prime Minister et all won’t be members of the legislature any more. So now the legislature will actually be able to control legislation. As it should be.

And so at the end of all of this, we get a less dictatorial executive, a legislature that is actually in charge of legislation, and a democratically elected House of Lords (or House of Whatever) that can act as a legitimate check on the power of the Commons. We’ve spread all of the power around, you see, and because every elected representative will have a greater say in what the government does, so will the people who elected him (or her). The democratic deficit is reduced, the parties become less tyrannical –

– and there are no more hung parliaments.

What’s not to like? Come on, you constitutional reformers out there: propose something like this, and maybe we can stop nominating you for Biggest Bullshitters of the Millenium award.

May 072010
 

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.