Sunday 5 September 2010

My Masters Dissertation - The Philosophical Nature of Human Relation to other Human Beings

After 2 months of solid work I have finally finished the Dissertation for my Masters.

It was one hell of a rush at the end, and during a difficult period of my life, but I'm proud of what I've done. After a month of reading, three weeks of note making and then 10 days of frantic writing, editing and referencing I have finally got 11,000 words, 4 sections and 111 references of Dissertation, all done and handed in.

That's my MA in Continental Philosophy finished. And now I only have to wait two weeks to see if I've passed. I'm hopeful, especially since I finally got some of my marks back and I got 71, 67 and 59 for the three essays I have got back so far. This is alright since a pass is 50, and I knew the 59 wasn't my best work. My dissertation is at least as good as that essay I reckon, so I should be fine.

My Dissertation is on the subject of the nature of Human Inter-Personal relation. This is the idea that the most important feature of human existence is not what we know, or what we earn, or what we think,but rather, it is the way we relate to other people, and also the rest of the world we encounter.

How and Why did Levinas consider Buber's Philosophy Insufficient as a Philosophy of Inter-Personal Encounter?

More precisely it is an investigation of the work of one Philosopher, Martin Buber, from the perspective of another, Emmanuel Levinas. Two of the great figures of 20th Century philosophy. Especially in the considering the nature of being human, and the choices in life that we all must make.

Buber and Levinas had a lot in common. They were both Jews who lived through the horrors of the middle of the 20th Century and the 2nd World War. They both held a fierce devotion to the Bible and the message of Judaism and saw their work as an attempt "to translate the Bible into Greek", meaning to express the ethical and spiritual message of Judaism, and especially the fierce call to justice of the Old Testament Prophets, in the language of Philosophy.

They share a deeply optimistic commitment to the worth and importance of the individual human being and the vital importance of considering the way we relate to other human beings for our morality and the priorities with which we structure our lives. They took the ideas of devotion and respect, of commitment with one's whole being, which the Bible described in relation to meetings with God, and daringly applied this language to meeting and interaction with God's images, human beings.

Levinas described a radical phenomenological approach to providing a philosophical justification for ethical duty while Buber concentrated on describing the two possible modes of human relation to other persons and also nature and Art. Their work is a genuinely enriching experience for anyone, challenging them to truly consider the manner in which they approach the world we all find ourselves placed in. I know I have learnt a lot from studying their ideas and the writing about them and the thinking that lays behind them.

Anyway, I can barely believe it's all over. Not just my Masters, but also my entire University career. It's been a long 4 years. I can barely say how long a time its felt. Or how different I feel than I did 4 years ago, when I first faced coming to University as an 18 year old kid, or how amazing an experience it has been thanks to many, many people. And now soon I'll be looking for a job. Scary.

Friday 30 July 2010


Now there's a phrase I never thought I'd write.
One of the more remarkable phenomena of the discussion around the budget has been the emergence of, what can only be called, Pop-Keynesianism among the left-wing media.  Now there's a phrase I never thought I would ever say.  The financial crisis in general was widely reported to have brought about a resurgence of interest in and influence of Keynesian policies.  At least nominal adherence to keynesianism was the principle mark of economical policy-making from the 2nd World War until the end of the 1970's.  Now, Keynes was a genius, and one of the very few most important figures in the history of economics.  His great insight was to argue that governments could have role to support economic activity by borrowing and spending in times of recession to boost the economy, by boosting general demand, and thus easing the effects of recession and supporting growth by combating the generally deflationary spiral of recessions.  But too often, though, keynesianism was used as merely an ideological cover for ever higher state spending, and this, among other things led to its discrediting as a driver for policy in the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980's.  With the coming of the recession, though, we have experienced a supposed revival of keynesianism, as governments turned to fiscal stimulus to combat the effects of recession.

More recently still, the banner of Keynesianism has been seized by those opposing the austerity plans of the Coalition and the Conservatives particularly.  In a way it is good to see debate on public policy being supported by appeal to scientific principles, rather than vague emotion as is far too common.  However, recently this has reached the stage of the ridiculous.  Indeed, there was a period shortly following the budget, when, for a few weeks, the Independent and Guardian seemed to be running a rent-a-keynesian contest to see if between them they could manage to have at least one commentator a day accusing the Coalition of forgetting the lessons of Keynes and reverting to what was variously called pre-keynesian barbarism, a reversion to the economics of the 1930's, and various other mindless insults.  All with the intention of insinuating that the fiscal hawks were seemingly just naively unaware of the great Keynes' achievements, the poor, simple dears, and were certainly going to tip us back into economic Armageddon.  Suddenly, every half-baked leftist political commentator was an economics major (for example).

But the credibility of these new experts as invaluable fonts of economic theory would be considerably greater were it not for two niggling issues.  The first problem is the repeated claim, by a number of smug commentators, about the madness and ignorance of seeking to enact savage cuts whilst in a recession.  This criticism, if true, would be pretty decisive. But it has just one small problem, which hopefully you can spot:  we are not actually in recession.  For me, personally, the ability to totally miss this basic fact about our economy shakes my faith in their pronouncements on policy.  No one has suggested cutting during a recession, and not only are we not in a recession (and have not been for 9 months), but these commentators have equally seemed to miss the fact that the coalition's plans for balancing the budget are not all coming into effect now.  They represent the plan for the next 5 years, and, the fiscal tightening does not begin in earnest for another year, at which point we will have not been in recession for 21 months.  One of the more irritating episodes of this problem came with the initial announcement of £6 billion of cuts by Osbourne and Laws.  The papers were full of commentators quoting economists to the effect that what was necessary was a gentle start to any deficit reduction plan, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is exactly what £6 billion is; whether you call it 6 out of £160 billion, 4% of the deficit, 6 out of £700 billion of public spending, or a 0.8% cut in public spending, this is a gradual start.  These people seem to suffer from a lack of awareness of economics and history and what Keynes was actually dealing with.  In the 1930's he was arguing against an economic approach of seeking to balance the budget during a recession, while the economy was still shrinking.  For someone to refer to a plan to balance a country's budget 5 years after a recession ends as "a return to pre-Keynesian history" suggest an ignorance of economics and history.

The second major hit to their credibility as Keynesians is the fact that pretty much to a man these are the same commentators who loudly demanded ever increasing public spending in the years leading up to the crisis, even though the government was running a deficit of around £30 billion before disaster struck, in direct contradiction to actual Keynesian theory.  Keynes sought to use governmental fiscal policy to smooth out the business cycle, by running a surplus in the good times, and thus cooling demand and the emergence of bubbles, so governments could afford to run a deficit in bad times, in order to help support growth and recovery.  He did not just advocate the idea that never-ending deficit spending on its own was a magical solution to all economics problems.  These commentators supported higher public spending and deficits in the good economic times and the bad economic times.  There seems to be literally no economic circumstance that they believe would not be helped by a healthy dose of central government spending more money and running a deficit.  The fact that these people do not seem to understand what keynesianism actually is, while being quite happy to act as its advocates, is the reason for labelling this Pop-Keynesianism.  What it really is, is a convenient scientific fig-leaf for their real aim, ever higher and more unsustainable public spending.  An ideological colour donned now it is convenient and presumably to be abandoned when it no longer is.  If these people were real Keynesians then they would argue for maintaining public spending for now while outlining their belief and awareness that once the economy has recovered public spending must be restrained and a budgetary surplus run to avoid us getting into this situation again.  Needless to say, they do not do this.    

If these people were real Keynesians then they would have supported the Conservative economic proposals at the 2005 election.  The Conservatives proposed £35 billion a year less public spending than Labour over the period of 2005-2010.  This smaller increase in public spending was shamefully labelled a plan for cuts, and widely shouted down in the media.  This figure is coincidentally just higher than the deficit labour ran until the recession.  Assuming the Conservatives would have followed a similar tax policy to Labour they would have run a near balanced budget, meaning that when the recession came we would have entered it with more than £100 billion less debt, having not artificially inflated the debt bubble further through government stimulus over the last few years, and with considerably more room to manoeuvre to stimulate the economy during the actual crisis.  Not to mention the fact that when the bubble popped that would have been £35 billion less cuts we now have to make.  In retrospect, it is clear that the Michael Howard's spending policy in 2005 was correct and Labour's was wrong, and all the media commentators who slammed the Conservatives were wrong too.

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Philosophy of Christian Focus

First, a quick disclaimer. This is just some of my thoughts about Christian Focus.  You'll have to excuse me if it is a bit idealistic and theoretical.  I'm not saying we actually manage do all these things.  But they are, rather what I feel we try to do, could do, and perhaps should be trying to do.  And, what we have to offer, as a society, as a community and as part of God's Church.  I'm not trying to tell anyone how to do their job (note to the current exec).  This is just some of my thoughts, I hope it will help people think about what we do and why and how we try to do it.

I feel that Christian Focus, as a society, has something unique to offer, to individuals, to campus, and to the Church in our area.  For me the philosophy of Christian Focus can be summed by saying that we aim to be a Welcoming and loving community to everyone who may want one.  We have two main meetings a week, which, conveniently for this schema, match up with these two ideas, of building a community of people and of seeking to learn from and about one another and the wider world. We are fundamentally open to the world.

For me, these are all the same.  I believe God created all things and loves all things and because of this the Gospel, God's witness to us all, speaks to the whole of our lives, the whole way we conduct ourselves, the way we organise ourselves, both personally, socially and worldwide.  The things we have to offer the community of Christians are similar to those we have to offer our entire human community.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said that the worst poverty in the world is not that there are people who have no money, but that there are people who are totally alone, who feel that no-one cares that they are alive.  One of the greatest features of Christian Focus is that it offers a welcome with no conditions attached.  With most societies you have to be able to, or want to, do some activity or be interest in some particular thing, whether rugby, singing, french culture, beer or whatever.  With Focus, though, we have always tried to make it a place where anyone can come, regardless of what they do, or what they are like or who they are, and they will be welcomed and included in the group and accepted for what they are at that moment, without any requirement (you don't even have to eat).  Most basically, to make somewhere where anyone can come and someone will show an interest in the fact that they are alive, regardless of how they're feeling or acting.  And for me one of the ways I have tried to do this, for example, is to just, occasionally, look around at Socials and check that there is no-one sitting on their own with no-one talking to them, especially any new person who may have come in.

More than this though, is to try to build a community of people who know each other and support each other and have fun together and to offer hospitality and rest to whoever comes in.  To make a place that is as nonthreatening as possible so people feel able to come in and take part and get to know people.  The Bible tells us to give to the person who asks of you, lend to a person who asks to borrow from you, and in all things that the person who serves others, God considers master over all, and so we try to attempt to make a space where people can come in to be what they want, not considering it ours, rather than asserting ourselves to get other people to conform to our way of doing things.  Jesus also said "Come to me if you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take the weight I give you. Put it on your shoulders and learn from me.  For I am gentle and humble, and with me you will find rest.  For the weight I give you is easy to bear, and my burden is light."  So we try to make a place which does this so, as much as possible, people may always leave more at peace and happy than when they arrive.      

To be honest, this is just a posh way of saying making friends and having fun together.  'Making friends' is a simple phrase that means a lot.  Getting to know people, getting relaxed around people,  appreciating people for who they are and what they bring into your life, people who know what's going on with your life, who know how you react, who you trust, without having to explain everything each time you meet.  Enjoying people's company and having fun.  It is such a commonplace thing, but it is also, almost, the most important thing of life.  These are the building blocks of any community, and especially God's Church.  We can solve all the big problems of the world: war, poverty, prejudice; but if we do not build a society where every person is remembered and appreciated and has somewhere to turn in times of trouble then we still do not have much, because there will still be people who are afraid and alone in times of trouble.  Also, part of being welcoming and including without conditions comes a commitment to respecting and appreciating diversity, to all the different possible people that we may meet. You can only offer a welcome to anyone who comes in if you are also willing to respect everyone's difference.  To make a community out of people who are very similar is easy, it is a harder and, hence, a better thing to try to bring together equally people who are different in all sorts of ways.  For me, this is building the Kingdom of God, where the lion will lie down in peace with the lamb, and people from every nation will live together without fear or violence, caring for one another as Lord Jesus cared and cares for us all.

Another part of community is the fact that everything we have as a society, everything we do, we try to share between us and do together.  We eat the same food, we try to make sure everyone can do the activities we do.  We don't try to make a profit from anything we do, we do everything at cost and try to keep the price as low as possible.  We are, as much as we can be, a good socialist community, as the first disciples were in the first days of Christianity, and as religious orders around the world are.  This is all part of standing together and being a loving community that supports one another, whose first aim is to do things together and to help one another, without entry requirements, so that a diverse range of people can be part of it, and in which each person has a place.  St Paul spoke about the Church being like a body, with each cell linked with every other, each organ having a role and a place as part of a larger whole along with every other.  John Donne said that "no man is an island, rather each a part of the mainland", and we try to do this by attempting to bring people from all different groups together, and also appreciating and integrating what every different person brings and the perspective they have and what they like to do, whether music, mathematics, frisbee, photography, football, webcomics or whatever.  

Jesus called his disciples to make disciples of all the nations, and at Pentecost the disciples received the gift of languages to speak to people in their own tongue.  Christianity, for me, is not only a religion for all people, in whatever time and place, but also can never be a religion that attempts to force people to speak with one voice, but rather embraces them in their diversity, as it is that diversity which adds up to give the richness that God created and loves. For me, it is important that Christian focus is a community made up of people from different groups and backgrounds.  This gives us a chance to learn from different people, whom we might not naturally spend much time with, and we strengthen, and compliment each other through our difference, more than we could if we were all the same.  All individuals are precious to God, all are his children, whether Christian or not and Christian Focus would be a weaker place if we were dominated by liberal Christians or evangelical Christians, religious or non-religious people, catholics or protestants, Christians or people of other faiths.  Together, though, we have more to offer one another and more ways to learn about and experience the depth and width of all that God has made.

This idea also motivates our talks, the desire to learn and understand more about the width and richness of the world we are part of and the issues it raises.  They give an opportunity to learn as much as possible about the many different sorts of issues we meet in the wider world, inspired by a Christian perspective.  University is a time to learn and to widen horizons and a wide range of talks gives us a chance to be challenged in many different ways, whether faced with a different religion and way of being spiritual, or the realities of complex moral issues, or the possibilities of new spiritual disciplines and perspectives we hadn't thought of before.  For me, this is about just appreciating and showing an interest in all the world contains.  God made us, and the gospels speaks to us, as creatures of body, mind, heart and soul and at my time at Christian focus we have had talks that have spoken to each one of these parts of our being.  It is dangerous to risk neglecting any one of these areas, as too often happens in our wider society and culture.  

To this end we have talks on many issues, whether intellectual or emotional, or theological.  We also make an atmosphere to discuss issues like these informally between people and, on the intellectual side, we create a chance for people to talk to those at University in other years and get help and advice with work, at times.  Or just reassurance that it is possible to get through your course without going nuts before coming out the other side.  On the side of the soul, We also have Time2Focus, prayer times and various reflections and meditative things.  we try to look at new and different ways to consider faith and spirituality.  We also have food on a weekly basis, though, and we come together to hang-out, to share each other's company, to relax and to end the week in calm.  This just about covers body, mind, heart and soul.  Feeding people is just as important as being able to learn through the talks, or experience community with the people, or take part in new forms of meditation and spirituality or prayer.  Showing hospitality, as simple, as it is, is such a gift and a useful thing in the world, and it is our commitment to this world, as well as the next.

The last thing about Christian Focus, for me, and in line with its diversity and its welcome, is that it is complementary, not exclusive.  Being a part of Christian Focus is entirely compatible with pretty much anything else, and, especially in the life of our Christian members.  We do not try to do everything good or useful for a Christian life, so that we can do the things we do do, better.  For example, Evangelism, spreading the Gospel, telling people about the things God did, and God revealed, in Jesus Christ, is such an important part of the Christian faith.  But we don't do it, at least not explicitly or as a group, because it would appear threatening to some people and reduce our ability to be unconditionally open and welcoming, so we deliberately give up this part of our nature so we are more able to be open.  But it is good that people can then be part of groups, as well, that do do those things we don't.  Different groups and activities and approaches can complement each other and we do not regard that as a problem, but an opportunity to, between us, do more and better than just one group on its own, doing things one way, could.  And, for me, personally, I really like doing different things in different groups, giving me a chance to do things different ways and with different people, rather than doing everything related to my faith through a single church, say, or other group.  This is also all part of the diversity of the thing as well.  We can all do and want to do different things, as Christians and in the ordinary sense, that is fine, because we can agree and come together on certain important things, the importance of pasta bake on a Sunday being one of them.

Excuse me, again, if this all sounds very theoretical.  What it all boils down to, though, is people.  Appreciating, showing an interest in and caring about people.  Beings so precious that God, who is so far above all things, and against whom stars and galaxies and space and time are mere trifles, gave himself over to humiliation and abuse and death to try to save them, in all their messiness and fallibility and complications.  It is, after all, the people who make any community, and whether they care, or are willing to help out, that will make somewhere great or just a pain, far more than any principles or ideas they may be trying to carry out.  
And, as this seems as good time as any to say this, at Christian Focus, over the last three years, I have met the most interesting, diverse, talented and friendly group of people that I have ever met anywhere.  I have to say, that my favourite part of each academic year is the start, because of the excitement about what unique, funny, kind, talented people the new academic year will bring.  It is a source of constant amazement to me that there can be so many people in the world but that each one can be so individual, so different to every single other one, though I guess this doesn't necessarily reveal anything more than my poor imagination.

On a personal note: I have immensely enjoyed my time at Christian Focus, even the year and 2/3 that I spent on the exec, and both the chance to work, relax and live alongside such amazing people.  Over the years the chaplaincy has become a home, and you have become like a family: numerous, argumentative and difficult at times, but always around.  And this has been more and more true the longer I have known you, and we've been around for good times, bad times, exams, holidays, relationships, journeys, illnesses, arguments, and God alone knows how many speakers and how much over cooked rice.  With any luck Christian Focus will continue to thrive for many years to come and have something unique to offer the world, the University, the Christian community, and all its members.


Sunday 18 July 2010

Possibly the Most Un-Sexy topic in the world: The true scale of our national debt. - Just how screwed are we?

The topic of our national debt and deficit has become in recent years one of the most important political issues our country faces. On a party political level it has been and continues to be the battleground of a consistent war between Labour, on one hand, and the Conservatives (and lately the Lib Dems), on the other.  It is an argument motivated by the explosion in the UK government deficit as a result of the recession of 08-09, and the crisis of confidence in government debt that has swept Europe and, to date, most dramatically affected Greece.  It is this issue that has motivated the recent government's emergency budget and the dramatic  package of cuts that will so define British political life over the next few years.

The basic problem is this. Like private individuals governments have to pay interest on their debts, which then sucks up revenue, forevermore, that could be spent on more useful things like public services.  Also, in a situation where market confidence begins to fall the interest rate we pay can start to rise sharply, which means that the costs of debt goes up sharply.  Further, as we are permanently running a deficit and our "loans" are only for about 15 years each, we are reliant on the markets not only to lend us more money (the deficit), but also to re-lend us all our current debt on a constant basis as those 15 year time limits runs out, and if the international market refuses to lend us more money except at a ruinous rate of interest then we could suffer what is basically a cash flow crisis, sending us bankrupt.  This is what happened to Greece before the EU stepped in to save them.  Other problems with ever increasing debts include that, for the above reasons, there is a practical limit on how much debt we can get in, and the more we borrow now the less room this gives us to borrow in any future crisis; and various externalities caused by the state borrowing so much, and hence effectively crowding out the private sector from credit, which then impacts the whole economy negatively.

All these are the reasons why more and more borrowing at the rate we are now, which in 2009-2010 will amount to £160 billion, is unsustainable in the long term.  One important measure of how sustainable this is in the short term, however, is, obviously, how much debt we already have.  You would think that this would be a simple question.  Surely we keep track of a figure as important as this?  The answer is, sadly, more complicated.  There is a figure commonly quoted as our national debt.  This is the figure for Public Sector Net Debt (PSND).  This is the amount of government bonds that have been issued, how much straight government debt is held by outside investors or governments.  However, there are other things to consider as well.  The last 20 years have seen the dramatic increase of what is known as "off balance sheet" liabilities, financial obligations run up that the government will have to pay in future years, but which aren't debt already issued.  Previously, though, there has been no official effort to properly calculate how much these off-balance sheet liabilities come to, until now.

In crude party political terms, the question is: did Labour take a responsible approach during their 13 years in power and leave us with a responsible level of debt, until the recession came along and sadly kiboshed all their plans?  Or, were they, as the Coalition accuses, wildly profligate, relying on fantasies of eternal growth and accounting tricks to avoid people noticing the debt, all to effectively bribe the voters with shiny new schools'n'hospitals in their years in power, but that would leave economic pain down the line?

A few days ago the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released their first attempt to calculate these liabilities (as well as the government's assets) and attempt to construct a full public sector balance sheet, revealing just how large these liabilities are.  This concluded that while the PSND is some £900 billion, the government also bears further off-balance sheet liabilities, previously un-collated, of some £3,800 billion. More than 4 times as much, a truly terrifying total, giving, with the actual 'National Debt', a total for public liabilities of £4.5 to £5.5 trillion.

The Independent ran with the story, with this headline, showing their usual love of pretty pictorial depictions of topics.  I remain amused by the Independent's love of of graphs and pictures. I still can't tell, though, whether these representations are merely a colourful attempt to grab people's attention on the newspaper stands, or whether the staff of the Independent just think their audience are actually stupid, and in fact can't really read.

Either way, the ONS' estimates for our national liabilities break down into:

- Future payments for the state old age pension: £1.1trn to £1.4trn
- Unfunded public sector pensions for teachers, NHS staff and civil servants: £770bn to £1.2trn
- Payments under private finance initiative contracts: £200bn
- Contingent liabilities (e.g. bank deposit guarantees): £500bn
- Nuclear power plant decommissioning: £45bn
- Impact of financial sector interventions: £1trn to £1.5trn
- The PSND: £900 billion (forecast to rise to £1.2 trillion over the next 4 years).

Which figure to go with then?  The relatively acceptable £900 billion, represented by the small coin, or the large, threatening £5 trillion, represented in the Independent's helpful picture by the big coin?  (Though they seem to have failed to add the PSND, making their entire headline semi-nonsense)

The Independent has gone with the most simplistic explanation of the ONS' findings, claiming the report reveals that the National Debt itself is 4 times what we previously thought.  However, in reality the situation is more complicated.  We are dealing with a number of different types of financial commitment that are more or less like the traditional national debt, and are hence less significant for the national finances.  These issues sound subtle but the difference they make is one of trillions of pounds. Sums that are not small beer, not even in the ridiculously bloated terms of bailouts and public sector budgets and national GDP.

The first and broadest issue is the difference between debt and a liability, which if you're anything like me is not something you are at all familiar with.  Basically, a debt is a type of liability. In accounting terms a liability is any financial commitment to pay out money in the future, which you enter into.  Examples include, purchasing from suppliers, debt repayments, taxes, pensions etc.  A debt is a particular type of liability.  A company's balance sheet is a comparison of their liabilities and their assets, which are stuff they own or people's commitments to pay them money in various forms.  A company is considered solvent if they have more assets than liabilities, i.e. if you ran through all the payments they had signed up for they would have any cash at the end.  It is in this broad sense of liability that the ONS has calculated we have £4.7 trillion of them.  This is not the same thing as a debt, though, and this can be seen by taking a quick look through the categories that make up this figure.

1. The PSND = £900 billion.

This is definitely actual debt.  It mostly consists of bonds held by foreign investors.  It has a well-documented rate of interest and strict limit on its maturity.

2. Unfunded Public Sector Pension (teachers, NHS staff, civil servants etc.) = £1 trillion

This is not actual debt held now.  But it is a legally binding commitment to hand over money at a future date.  The government cannot welsh on these promises without serious difficulties.  Mostly consists of the generous final salary schemes that continue to exist in the public sector but have practically disappeared elsewhere.  Government only requires relatively small contributions from its staff, the rest to be made up from general taxation.  This amount has ballooned from £450 billion in the early 2000's to around £1 trillion today, mainly due to the considerable expansion of the public sector.  This, combined with considerable pay rises, both of which push up pensions, has widened the gap between employee contributions and the actual financial commitments.

3. PFI contracts = £200 billion.

Another unavoidable and legally binding contractual commitment.  It doesn't come under the national debt, because it is only a commitment to pay various amounts of money, not an actual debt held by someone else.  In all practical terms, though, the equivalent of a mortgage, and so quite clearly debt.  PFI, the private finance initiative, was one of the  last government's favourite swindles (though in service of impartiality I'm ashamed to admit it began in the dying days of John Major's government).  It effectively meant getting a private company to build a school/hospital/other piece of infrastructure, and then the public sector renting it from them for a number of years, at the end of which, the piece of infrastructure would pass over to belonging to the government.  In practice, this meant the government could commission lots of shiny schools and hospitals now, for minimal cash outlay, only with the string that instead of shelling out £10 million for a school, now, the public sector would pay £30 million over the next 30 years.  This meant that the last government got to wow the electorate with all the shiny things they were building for them, the private contractors got a big wodge of guaranteed income, and the only people who lost were following governments and taxpayers who pay out the vastly inflated costs over the following years and decades.    

4. Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning = £45 billion.

Again, not debt, but a real unavoidable future financial commitment.  Why the figure is so high, considering how few nuclear power plants we have, though, is anyone's guess.

5. Future payments for the state old age pension = £1.1trn to £1.4trn

This is where it all gets a bit dubious.  Yes, we do have a liability for future state pension commitments.  But, in reality, these are paid out of current government income (taxes).  Ignoring, for a moment, the wisdom of running a general state pension like a Ponzi scheme, in a time of ageing population, these commitments are no different, really, to any other area of state spending.  As Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor, said, you could just as easily produce eye-watering figures for the liabilities the UK government is accepting for the commitment of providing everyone with free healthcare into the future.  The difference between the state pension commitment and the public sector pension commitments (or the PFI), though, is that whereas the public sector pensions are legally binding contractual employment commitments, which the government cannot easily get out of, the state pension is effectively a welfare benefit, if a universal one.  This means that the government can increase it, decrease it, postpone the age people receive it, or, theoretically, even abolish it, all as ways of keeping expenses down, at will.  All they have to do is stick the necessary clause in the annual budget.  The same is not true for public sector pension commitments.  Calling the state pension commitments debt is like saying I have a debt for all the food I need to buy in the future.  Realistically I can eat more or less, not eat for a while, or eat cheaper food, depending on my income.  It is a liability in the technical sense, but it is not really the same as actual debt.  If they mean the old-age pension is going to be more and more difficult to fund as the proportion of pensioners in the population rises, then that would be correct.  It's different to saying it is a debt obligation now though.

6&7. Bank Bailouts, deposit guarantees etc, etc. = £1.5 - £2 trillion.

This is even more dubious.  This is the remaining financial risk the taxpayers are exposed to due to the financial crisis interventions.  It is mostly the possible cost of paying out deposit guarantees on banks, and the notional loss currently held by the government holding vast quantities of shares in banks that are currently worth less than the government paid for them.  However, there's no reason to think that the vast majority of this money spent nationalising/propping up banks won't be reclaimed. It's only a risk if the banks are going to default (not likely as that's what the bailouts avoided) or the shares are never going to get back to the price the taxpayer paid for them, and hence the money reclaimed.  Neither of these are likely, assuming the recovery ever actually happens.  Similarly, it's unlikely at this point that the government is going to have to shell out much more on deposit protection.  The ONS is right to say that it does have these as liabilities: commitments to pay money on certain conditions.  But they are not debt, and they will probably never become so.  These liabilities will, in fact, hopefully disappear entirely painlessly in the next year or so.

Out of these 7 categories and the £4.7 trillion of liabilities we started with, only the PSND, PFI, Nuclear decommissioning, and unfunded public sector pension liabilities are really debt in a significant way.  The rest are liabilities in a vague technical sense but not the same as debt at all, like the future old age pension.

Even only including these figures, though, gives us the following amount:
£900 billion PSND + £200 billion PFI + £40 billion nuclear decommissioning + £1 trillion unfunded public sector pension commitments + £200 billion (perhaps) of financial sector commitments we're never likely to get back.
............................... = £2.3 trillion      

This is obviously considerably lower than the original figure, but it is still enough to scare anyone without coming up with the type of bogus figures that the Independent splashed all over its front page.

It is possible to be more discriminating still, though.  It is fair to point out that even though I have added some £1.4 trillion of "debt-like" liabilities onto the PSND, they are not actually the same.

Our national debt, as traditionally considered, is money held and owed by outside investors that we must pay a stated rate of interest on, and on which the interest rate may vary with market conditions.  It is the cost of this £900 billion that may sharply rise should the finance markets start to get Greece-like worries about us.  There is no prospect of this happening with PFI payments, for example.  They are set in stone.  It is possible, then, to give three categories of government indebtedness, reflecting this core public debt, the PSND, wider 'off-balance sheet' debt-like liabilities, and wider more general liabilities.  By all means we should have a proper, full cross-public sector balance sheet as well as the traditional 'national debt', more facts never hurt anyone.  But we should still distinguish between, at one end, the broad liabilities we have, at the other end, the current debt we have issued in bonds, and in the middle what is, arguably, really our actual national debt.  These three categories would break down as follows:

Public Sector Net Debt = £900 billion
Wider 'National Debt' = £2,300 billion
General Public Sector Liabilities = £5 trillion.

This approach allows us to have a more realistic debate about the scale of financial problems we are storing up for future generations instead of merely referring to the traditional figure for national debt (£900 billion), which leaves huge financial commitments conveniently out of view, or just referring to all public future liabilities as our 'debt'.  The barmy-ness of this second method is illustrated by the ONS' conclusion that the public sector is solvent.  We have more assets than liabilities (schools, hospitals, aircraft carriers, things like that). This doesn't mean we don't have to worry about the national debt, though, just as these daft inflated liability figures don't mean the end of the world anytime soon.

Thursday 1 July 2010

The Nature and Basis of 'Infinite Responsibility' in Levinas' Ethics

This is one of my recent MA Essays, on Levinas' theory of Infinite Ethical Responsibility.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century.

Levinas's main concern as a philosopher was Ethics, morality, the way we should act towards and treat one another.  He developed a radical philosophy of love and compassion, based on an overwhelming respect for the importance of the unique value of each human individual.

Levinas' philosophy was profoundly shaped by the reality of the 2nd World War, his internment for 4 years in a Prisoner of War camp and the murder of his entire family in the Holocaust in his native lithuania.  A different man may have surrendered to despair, about the world, humanity or God, but Levinas came out of the experience of the prison camp and the murder of his people with a profoundly optimistic, almost idealistic ethical philosophy.

Against the horror of the vast collectivist machine that sought to eradicate whole peoples, purely on the basis of their race, with total disregard for their lives as individuals, Levinas reacted by building a philosophy that placed the  individual and the encounter of one individual with another as the core moment, the core judgement on which all other thought and philosophy depended.  Levinas put his entire career at the service of  building a philosophical structure that guaranteed the importance, place and dignity of the unique human individual against all attempts to make him or her a disposable means to the larger ends of a group, system or purpose. 

For Levinas, the encounter with another individual was the event against which all other events paled into insignificance.  In the encounter with another person Levinas described the appearance of infinity, of height and majesty, of a thing that could never be fully comprehended.  He described the realisation of an infinite duty to that other individual, based on the infinity within him, that captures you and leaves enthralled by the other person.  He openly talked about building a wisdom of love instead of a philosophy, the love of wisdom. 

 In a century marked by atrocities, collectivist ideologies that judged people by the colour of their skin or their class, and a popular philosophical contempt for the ability and choice of the individual, Levinas stood consistently for the worth and value of individual humanity and created a unique phenomenologically based ethics and critique of the destructive tendencies of human civilisation and thought.        

Wednesday 30 June 2010

Sydney Shoemaker on Colour and Phenomenal Character

This is one of my recent MA Essays, on Sydney Shoemaker's theory of the role of colour perception in the constitution of the phenomenal character of perception.

For those of you who don't speak jargon, this is an essay about the manner in which we visually perceive colours as a particular part of the way we perceive the external world.

Colour perception has been a major subject of discussion in modern philosophy, as it gives a clear and accessible starting point to discussions about human perception and the extent to which we can say we know our perception of the external world to reflect objective external features and to what degree it may reflect the structure of

Most terms are explained in the essay.  There are two that just bare some explanation.
Philosophers divide perception up into two types of content: Representational content and Phenomenal character.
The Phenomenal Character of experience is the qualitative features of it, the things that you individually experience, the way hot and cold feels, the way blue looks etc, but are not necessarily comparable between people. We all call the same objects blue, hot, cold etc, but how that feature actually feels to us is almost impossible to compare between people (at least in theory). It is the qualitative featurs that we can't measure.
Representational content of experience, is the objects we experience and their properties that are comparable between people, things like size, shape. Things we can measure and give a quantity to.

Roughly with visual perception representational content is like a pencil drawing of what you see, shape, size, position, etc. and phenomenal character is the colour, the colouring in of those objects.

All other terms should be explained within the essay.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Dealing with the UK Deficit - What kind of numbers are we looking at here?

There has  been a great deal of discussion over the last year or so about the scale, and problem posed, by the record UK government deficit that has emerged as a result of the Recession, with the general consensus that this is one of the most important issues facing the UK over the next few years.  The issue of how important this is and if, when and how to close the deficit was a major election issue and a major dividing line between the parties, with a number of different prescriptions for the problem from Conservatives, Labour, Greens, Nationalists, UKIP etc.  Despite this, it was widely taken as read that any government elected would have to engage in large unprecedented cuts in public spending and, some commentators have predicted,  possibly suffer a massive public backlash as a result. 

This week we have seen the start of action on this issue of reducing the deficit, as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government announce £6 billion of cuts in public spending, as the Conservatives promised pre-election, as a first step in dealing with the problem. But how large is the actual deficit, how much does this £6 billion contribute to cutting the deficit, and how much of the coming public spending cuts does this constitute?

Just to get a first grip on the type of figures we're dealing with, UK GDP is currently about £1385 billion, having fallen by about 6% from £1460 billion to £1375 billion during the recession and now slightly recovered.  Out of this the government's plan at Labour's last budget in March was to spend £704 billion (or 51%).  However, even on Labour's relatively generous estimates for growth over the next year it only expected to receive £541 billion in tax leaving the £163 billion budget deficit, the amount the government will have to borrow to meet its spending commitments.  This figure is 23% of all government spending and 12% of GDP.

Why does this matter? 

Well, firstly because the government has to borrow money at interest, like anyone else, and this rate can vary depending on how likely international investors think it is that we'll screw up massively and have to effectively declare bankruptcy.  This interest rate is currently about 4%, meaning that, even if the interest rate stays put, once this money is borrowed in every future year the government will have to spend £7 billion just paying the interest, that's £7 billion we can't spend on public services for every year in perpetuity (as there's sod all chance we'll ever actually pay down any of the debt, the general plan to deal with it just to wait for inflation to steadily magic it away). 

Much worse than this though is the current fear about sovereign debt, the generally unthinkable event that countries might actually declare bankruptcy.  See Greece for the current focus of this worry.  What this means is that international investors are getting scared, and if it does not appear that we have a credible plan to get this deficit down, then there is the risk this interest rate will rise putting up the costs considerably, that £7 billion could easily become £10 billion.  Even more wonderfully, because of the way government debt is borrowed, if the interest rate goes up it does not just go up for any borrowing we make in the future, but rather also for all the money we've borrowed in the past as well, thus meaning that the cost of paying the interest on our debt can go up a lot quite quickly, in which case the £7 billion a year cost of all that borrowing could become more like £20 billion a year. 

Lastly, there is the connected problem that partially for the above reasons, a country can only accumulate so much debt.  The other reason for this is that although we don't currently plan to ever pay down our total debt we do only borrow each time for about 10, 20 years, meaning on a constant basis we are paying back our debts by borrowing the same amount of money again to do so.  If it is thought that we have no credible plan for bringing down borrowing then there may come a point when investors simply refuse to lend us the money to do this, except at ridiculous rates of interest, meaning that we can't refinance our current debt and we certainly struggle to increase that debt total (deficit) any further, and have effectively been declared insolvent.  Together these mean there is an effective ceiling of how much debt you can get, before it gets prohibitively expensive to borrow any more, especially in the current fragile economic climate.

Currently our national debt is about 62% of GDP, up from about 40% ten years ago and forecast at current rates to rise to 95% over the next 5 years.  Our government has historically had relatively low amounts of debt as a country, and this is itself beneficial, both because it reduces suffocating interest payments, and because it gives you more room to manoeuvre in the future.  What all this borrowing means is that we are losing our room to manoeuvre in any future crisis and reducing the competitiveness of our economy.  This is bad in the long-term, not to mention the more immediate risk of rising interest rates on our debt that may costs us significant sums over the next years that we will then not be able to spend on schools, hospitals, welfare and everything else the government does.

The media has widely reported that the £6 billion announced yesterday is only a down payment on the cuts that are coming, with varying degrees of sensibility or hyperbole in the language used depending on the source and their political allegiances.  It is important to get the figures correctly in perspective though. Yes, these cuts are only the first small part of what is coming, but not as small a part as some people seem to be suggesting.

£6.2 billion of cuts were announced of which £0.5 billion will be reinvested leaving a £5.7 billion cut this year. At last estimate that brings the deficit down from £159 billion to £153 billion, still extremely high but (partially thanks to better than thought tax revenues) already considerably lower than the £173 billion Labour were predicting for this year at the in the 2009 budget, when the scale of the debt problem first became apparent.

However, that is divided into the cyclical and the structural deficit. The idea is that the cyclical deficit is that part of the deficit effectively ’caused’ by the recession i.e. by the lower tax receipts and higher welfare spending it brings, and will naturally disappear as we return to steady growth (an admittedly reasonably large if).  The structural deficit, however, is that deficit that is not caused by the slump in taxes and hike in welfare due to the recession, but the long term difference between the government's year on year spending commitments to various areas, and the amount it is taking in taxes from the economy.

The Lib Dems and Conservatives before the election both only committed, roughly speaking, to eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit, that part of the deficit that will not disappear even with a return to steady growth, a still considerable £70 billion at last estimates.  (Labour only committed to removing half of the structural deficit)  They have both accepted £12 billion worth of Labour tax rises, put in place by Gordon Brown before the election, such as the 50p income tax rate. They have also made various tax cut commitments, but these are meant to be evened-out by other tax rises brought in, so in theory cancel out for the purpose of these calculations.

This gives us £58 billion of structural deficit not taken care of by tax rises. The Coalition has committed to eliminating the “bulk” of this over the next 5 years. No one has been willing to state precisely what that means, presumably because no-one can predict precisely what growth and hence tax revenues will be over the next few years and, hence, precisely what any given figure will achieve, so, quite understandably, no-one wants to make one. “Events dear boy, Events”, as Harold Macmillan once said. Or, in more technical terms, the margin of error on all these estimates is quite large, making precision not only impossible, but down-right misleading.

However, it is possible to have some idea. Before the Election the Conservatives said they wanted to deal with the deficit by cutting £4 for each £1 raised in extra taxation. Applying this to the £12 billion of tax rises accepted, we get £48 billion of cuts and a total structural deficit reduction of £60 billion over the next 5 years.

So, we’ve had £5.7 billion of cuts out of £48 billion, roughly . Or, given margin of error and government’s usual ability to over-estimate savings and under-estimate costs, about £5 billion out of £50 billion.

Either way, the cuts recently announced amount to about 10% of the total we are going to get over the next 5 years. Leaving £45 billion left over the 4 years after this one, or about £11 billion a year, unless economic growth severely exceeds expectations, or some other fiscal miracle occurs, and considering the difficulty this will cause public services and people who rely on them up and down the country, may we all pray that it will.

Saturday 15 May 2010

UK General Election 2010 - The Results.

Well, after hours of voting, weeks of campaigning, months of preparation and years of looking forward we've finally had the General Election. It was an incredibly mixed night, with all sorts of strange results. So lets see what happened:

MP's Share of Vote No of Votes
Conservatives: 307 (+97) 36.2% (+3.8) 10.7 million (+2 million)
Labour 258 (-91) 29% (-6.2) 8.6 million (- 0.9 million)
LibDem: 57 (-5) 23% (+1) 6.8 million (+0.9 million)
Others: 28 (-1) 11.8% (+1.4) 3.5 million (+0.6 million)

5% swing to the Conservatives.

GB Figures: Con 37, Lab 30, Lib Dem 24, Others 10. Pardon the rounding errors.
Final Opinion Poll Figures: Con 36, Lab 29, Lib Dem 26, Others 9.


MP's: 306 (+97) Vote Share: 36.2 (+3.9%) Vote No: 10.7 million (+2 million)

Without a doubt, the Conservatives won the election. They got 2.1 million more votes than the next largest party and 49 MP's. They achieved a 4% increase in their share of the vote and 2 million more votes than in 2005. They achieved their largest increase in MP's since 1931 and came decisively top in an election for the first time since 1992. However, their victory was not complete.

The big story of the night is that at the end of the day the Conservatives did not manage to achieve the majority that would allow them to govern safely on their own. They were close, considerably closer than anyone could have predicted from opinion polls a week ago, but they were still 16 off an effective majority. Considering the electoral mountain that the Conservatives had to climb, they still made massive progress,achieving swings as high as 10% in many Labour seats, even some they eventually failed to take. Their progress was deeply un-even,however.

In England they triumphed, achieving 40% of the vote and taking 298 out of 533 seats: A considerable majority of English seats. In England and Wales they achieved a swing of 5.6% from labour, including in areas deeply hostile to them, gaining a 6.8% swing in the North East,though it did them little good in seats. They also managed to almost entirely hold off the Lib Dems across the South and London, despite all the hysteria around Nick Clegg pre-election, achieving swings against the LibDems in both southern regions and taking several seats from them.

This solid progress in England and Wales contrasts sharply with a complete lack of progress in the rest of the UK. In Scotland they made zero progress, their share of the vote was up 0.9% and they didn't get a single seat, leaving them with a desperate 1 seat across all Scotland. In fact, incredibly, in an election where 20% of seats changed hands in England and Wales not a single seat changed hands in scotland. In NI there was dissapointment as well as their allies (since 2007), the Ulster Unionists, fighting under the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (UCU)banner, failed to gain a single seat, and lost the only seat they held in 2005 to the Independent incumbent.

Looking at the information closely, the swing figures mask the fact that the Conservatives widely gained around 40% of the share of vote lost by Labour over most of the country, apart from Scotland, a figure that itself masks the deeply uneven Conservative progress. In seats that they took the Conservatives regularly hoovered up 80, 90, even over 100% of the lost labour share, giving a significant number of impresssive 8-11% swings, however, in many other seats they made little progress at all, with the BNP hoovering up as much of labour's lost vote in some areas of the North, with the swing figures coming largely from Labour's lost share, rather than any actual transfer to the Conservatives. One thing they will be pleased with, however, is the fact that in seats they already held the Conservatives still achieved considerable swings,
meaning that a lot of these seats are now impressively safe. In fact, the Conservatives now have 125 seats with over 50% of the vote, though, on the other hand, their vote actually fell in 75 seats.

However, this should not detract from the scale of the Conservative achievement. They gained more than a million more votes than Blair in 2005, while Labour acheived 900,000 fewer than Michael Howard did, and if it was not for the skew in the system due to Labour constituencies being, on average, considerably smaller than Conservative ones, they would hold a majority today.


MP's: 258 (-91) Vote Share: 29% (-6.2) Vote No: 8.6 million (-0.9 million)

Labour lost and lost badly. The party suffered a historic defeat, losing 91 MP's, 900,000 votes, suffering a 6.2% drop, a 5% swing to their main rivals, their worse result (in terms of votes) since 1983 and their greatest fall in seats since 1931. It was grim. They finished off 2nd by 49 seats and 2.1 million votes.

It was the weirdest thing in the world, then, to hear Gordon Brown on the radio, around Friday lunchtime, sounding more confident and statesmanlike than I have heard him for a while, magnanimously declaring that the government must go on and that his ministers would be going to x conference to discuss y with z important other national leaders, as though he had just been returned with a healthy mandate. And the reason for this is very simple, because as badly as labour did (and they were creamed everywhere outside scotland and the North) expectations were so low that they did a hell of a lot better than most people expected, getting 2% more of the vote than opinion polls suggested and maintaining a healthy block of MP's, 39.6% of MP's on 29% of the vote, considerably more than the Conservatives got in 2005. Moreover, as the Conservatives failed to gain a majority, he remained Prime Minister until someone else could cobble together a majority.

Whereas in 1997 the Conservatives were not only beaten, but routed across the board, being reduced to a small rural English rump, in 2010, although securing a lower share of the vote even than John Major did in '97, labour were beaten but not routed, holding their ground in their heartlands and maintaining a significant number of MP's. All the party's leaders maintained their seats, sometimes even increasing their majorities, and, the Conservatives failed to gain their own parliamentary majority, putting them in a relatively weak position. Labour were lucky. Whereas the Conservative's '97 defeat was compounded by serious tactical voting, in 2010 there was almost no tactical voting against them, with the LibDems particularly failing to gain several seats they should have easily taken. Labour also managed to hold off Respect on their left, the SNP in Scotland, and avoid losing too many votes to Lib Dems or Greens, their opponents on the soft-left.

Labour's electoral strategy was, to the degree it was ever going to be, successful. Although their national figurehead campaign was a disaster, to an extent where even his enemies could not fail to feel sorry for Gordon Brown, their local campaigns were effective and professional. They ran a deeply negative attack campaign, hammering away at their one message, the Conservatives would engage in savage cuts, whereas labour could be trusted to protect public services. This approach combined two important pieces of deception, first just lying about what the Conservatives had said they would cut, especially in terms of benefits for the elderly, something Gordon Brown was called up on in the 3rd leadership debate, but generally Labour managed to widely engage in under the media radar, and, secondly, completely ignoring the fact that Labour themselves had committed to cuts, only slightly smaller than the Conservative's, after the election. Nonetheless this approach was mostly successful, uniting the left behind Labour, instead of seeing it fracturing to SNP, LibDems, Respect, Greens etc. and allowing Labour to avoid electoral meltdown.

Obviously, like the Conservatives, Labour's result varied greatly across the country, with almost the opposite picture to the Conservatives. In Scotland they held totally still, actually slightly increasing their share of the vote on 2005, and this success is the core of labour's relative survival in the whole election. Across England and Wales they suffered a 5.6% swing. In NI their allies the SDLP did well, holding their 3 seats.

Even in England and Wales, the result varies across the Country. The swing was surprisingly uniform, but still this means Labour continues to dominate the North, especially the NE, and is well ahead in Wales. They are also slightly ahead in Yorkshire and London and well behind in the East and West Midlands.

In the South of England, outside London, they are, however, in a terrible condition, as bad in percentage term as the Conservatives in Scotland but in a way in a far worse state as it is across a much larger area. Labour got about 17% of the vote across the South East, South West and Eastern regions of England, an area of some 18 million people, compared to 5 million in Scotland, the Conservative desert. They also painfully gained only 10/196 seats in these regions. As one Labour commentator mentioned after the election, there is now effectively a doughnut of complete Labour vacuum, around Inner London and before you reach the Labour strongholds further north. The thing he did not mention, however, is that this is a doughnut of some 220 seats, as another commentator said, some doughnut.

Liberal Democrats.

MP's: 57(-5) Vote Share: 23% (+1) Vote No: 6.8 million (+0.9 million)

If the big story of the night, in terms of immediate political importance, was the Conservative failure to gain a majority then the biggest surprise and biggest under-acheievement of expectation was still the almost complete collapse of the Lib Dem's sudden bubble of support. Without a doubt the big story of the campaign was Cleggomania, the sudden apparent outpouring of enthusiasm for the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg personally that followed the first ever UK prime ministerial TV debate. Taking the opinion polls going into the final night, the Conservative party was ahead but it was then a toss-up as to whether Labour or the Lib Dems came 2nd in share of the vote for the first time since 1918. There were widespread predictions for the Lib Dems to achieve a increase of 20 or 30 or 40 seats on their 2005 total.

The first sign that something had gone horribly wrong, was the exit poll, released at 10pm, that placed the Lib Dems on only 59 MP's, down 4 from the previous election. This was an ominous sign, but was widely disbelieved when it emerged. However, as it went into the early hours of the morning it became horrible apparent that it was all too true, as the Lib Dems failed to gain seats they should have walked through, and even lost seats they could have easily held onto. I can only imagine the sheer horror they must have felt at Lib Dem HQ as they saw the results come in and realised that it was all too true.

When the dust had finished settling the next morning the Lib Dems had managed to do even worse than the exit poll, itself seemingly incredible only 12 hours before, had suggested, finishing with 57 MP's. It was not merely a terrible quirk of FPTP either. The opinion polls that had only 36 hours before predicted a Lib Dem vote of 26% had proved wrong, with the Lib Dems ending up with only 23% of the vote, only 1% up on 2005 and 6% behind the Labour Party they had seemed so close to overtaking. The sense of a missed opportunity looms even more darkly in looking down the list of Lib Dem target seats, those seats that required the smallest swing to the Lib Dems to gain. Whereas the Conservative target list, 116 long, now has a healthy block of blue, the Lib Dem targets have been barely touched. Labour seats that required only a tiny swing to go remain red, after, in some cases the Lib Dem and Labour vote fell equally with it shifting straight to the Conservatives, though not enough to give them the seat, leaving labour in precarious first place.

This should not be taken to say that the result was entirely bad for the Lib Dems. Despite their poor result they did finally secure their main hope for the last 20 years, holding the balance of power in a hung parliament, one hell of a consolation prize. They will now almost certainly form an integral part of the next UK government, albeit either in coalition with, or through supporting, a much larger party. They also achieved their highest share and number of votes since 1987 and (apart from 2005) won the most seats since 1929. This is a more marked achievement when you realise that their 2005 share was considerably buoyed by protest over the Iraq war, to retain and actually increase on those votes was an achievement, and, if it were not for the bubble following the 1st debate it would be said that they did very well, compared to
how they were doing in polls pre-debates.

The Lib Dems fell back moderately in Scotland, though maintaining their tally of seats. They achieved a small swing against Labour across most of England, but, their small loss largely resulted from a moderate swing against them to the Conservatives across the South of England, where they now constitute the 2nd largest party behind the Conservative party, and especially in their traditional heartland of the South-West. Interestingly, they also achieved a sizeable increase in their tally of seats where they are either in 1st or 2nd place, i.e. seats where they are one of the two main parties in the running, a crucial position under FPTP. This figure rose from 250 to 299, suggesting a continued divergence of the country away from a straight Labour, Conservative battle and an improving Lib Dem position below the surface, so to speak.


MP's: 28 (-1) Vote Share: 11.8% (+1.4) Vote No: 3.5 million (+0.6 million)

The Other parties had an incredibly mixed general election, with some notable successes and notable failures, but no overwhelmingly positive or negative picture anywhere. In a number of cases a party either did well in votes but poorly in seats, or did well in seats but poorly in votes regardless. Following the 2009 European Election and the Expenses scandal there was a great deal of speculation that voters would abandon the major parties in considerable numbers and flock to the minor parties. This was one of the great debates of the opinion polling leading up to the election, with one block of polling companies forecasting votes of up to 18% and another block forecasting around 10%. The end result was 11.8%, so considerably closer to the figure suggested by the sceptics.

Moreover, the number of seats held by Others fell slightly. This is firstly because this category includes all NI seats, as neither Conservatives, Labour of Lib Dems are major players there, and so the figure takes no account of the changes there. In Scotland the SNP failed to take any seats, as previously said, Scotland was weirdly static at this general election, though their vote did increase modestly, at the expense of the Lib Dems. In Wales, Plaid Cymru managed to gain an extra seat from Labour, (increasing their representation by 50%) though their share of the vote fell slightly, though not doing as well as they'd hoped (they'd been after another seat). In England, both Independent MP's lost their seats, with those seats returning to what could be considered their natural homes, One Welsh independent labour rebel lost to Labour, one Kidderminster hospital concern lost to the Conservatives. Respect, the other minor party in the 2005 parliament also lost its seat in Bethnal Green and Bow. The party suffered badly at the election taking none of the three seats they had been in a good position to take from Labour, and losing its only representation.

The three major 'minor' parties in England had varyings nights at the polls. The big achievement of the night was the triumph of Caroline Lucas, Green party leader, in Brighton Pavilion, who squeaked home to become the UK's first ever Green Party MP. This was a real triumph for her personally and for the Greens. However, it masked a disappointing result nationwide, with the Green's over-all vote barely moving on 2005, in an election where it would be thought that their hard left-wing, environmentalist, populist line would be widely popular. The contrast is striking with the other two main 'minor' parties. The BNP failed miserably in their attempt to gain parliamentary seats, with Nick Griffin losing votes in Barking, as Labour's Margaret Hodge actually increased her vote after a successful anti-BNP campaign. Nationwide, however, in terms of votes, there was a very different story, with the BNP nearly tripling their vote, scoring 563,000 (up from 192,000 in 2005). There was a similar story for UKIP, arguably the UK's 4th largest party. Their flagship attempt to gain a seat failed, with Nigel Farage failing to unseat the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, and embarrassingly even coming 3rd in that seat to an explicitly Pro-EU Lib-Dem leaning candidate, little more than 24 hours after almost getting himself killed in an air-crash during some last minute polling day campaigning. Again, nationwide, and in terms of votes, UKIP triumphed, increasing their vote by 50% and scoring 917,000 votes, more than any minor party has ever done before and, for reference, well over triple the Green vote. It is, also, interesting to note that although UKIP are stronger the further south and west you go and the BNP stronger the further north and east you go (in England), their combined vote is actually quite similar across the country, uniformly polling 5-7% in every region and getting 6% over-all in England, and with the English Democrats (the other right-wing minor party) the ED/UKIP/BNP gained 1.5 million votes (up from 800,000 in '05).

In NI there was one dramatic switch of the election, with DUP leader and NI first minister Peter Robinson dramatically losing his seat to the Alliance, a small Lib-Dem aligned, non-sectarian party that has never before achieved Westminster representation. Apart from this though it was no-change, with Sinn Fein, SDLP and the DUP holding all their other seats. Sinn Fein did manage to achieve the closest win of the whole election, holding onto one seat by an, eye-wateringly close, 4 votes. As previously said the Conservative aligned UUP, running as Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (UCU) failed to make any breakthroughs. The TUV (traditional unionist voice) party, a hardline splinter from the DUP, that some had expected to cause the DUP serious trouble failed as well, getting a puny 4% of the NI vote.

Outside these parties, it was a good election for independents in some ways, with many gaining respectable shares of the vote, and standing in record numbers, and bad in other ways, as both the only two independent held seats fell, and most of the respectable independent totals were gained by former, disgruntled Labour or Conservative ex-MP's or hopeful candidates, who failed to gain their preferred party's nomination, generally either due to party discipline problems or intra-party ideological disputes.

The Hard Left did particularly badly at this election, despite hopes that it would be able to capitalise from Labour unpopularity, despite the hard-left in England and Wales coming together in the form of an electoral coalition. Both the Scottish Socialists and the TUSC (trade union and socialist coalition) polled badly, the TUSC getting a pitiful 0.04% of the vote in England. Respect also did badly, losing its only MP, as, as said before, Labour were surprisingly successful in consolidating the left-wing vote across the UK. The hard-left did especially badly compared to the 320,000 votes NO2EU and Socialist Laboiur managed only a year before in the European Elections.

Two other parties that did badly by this same metric were the Christian party and English democrats, who between them polled 530,000 votes in the European elections but at this election only managed some 82 thousand. This is to be compared to the BNP who gained 930,000 in the European Elections and then 540,000 votes this year.

Saturday 27 February 2010

What Christianity is all about.

Christianity is all about ‘more than you deserve’. The principle is that we are given more than we deserve by god, because he loves us. God is not just or fair by human standards, he is so much greater than we can ever imagine that he is completely divorced from our ideas of justice. God has given us, through the eternal sacrifice of Christ, more than we deserve. He has paid himself the debt that he is owed. This is why we are ordered to turn the other cheek. “If someone slaps you on your left cheek, turn to him the other cheek and let him slap it as well, if someone steals your coat, give him your shirt as well, if an occupation (roman) soldier forces you to carry his pack a mile, carry it two miles”. To accept the grace of god doing more for us than we deserve we have to give to others more than they deserve.

This isn’t just a good ideal either, it is the only practical way to heal the world. We have seen, bitterly played out, that an eye for an eye does not work. Just ask the Israelis and the Palestinians. Rather the way of the Gospel, of turning the other cheek, is the only way to ever completely gain peace. But still there are so many people who cry out for revenge, for a strike back, and the killing continues.

Saturday 13 February 2010

. . . One Eye on the Future

Compared to the widespread ignorance and disinterest in the past that characterises our society, it could be argued that we are in fact obsessed with the future. We are, after all, deep in the grip of the cult of youth: our popular culture is preoccupied with what is new and unheard of. Fashion, music, Art and wider culture are engaged in a process of constantly inventing new forms and attempting to replace what had been popular or regarded before. We are obssessed with new technology and the next innovation and gadget and live in eager anticipation of the promise and expectation of ever newer advances and technology. Our time has seen the furore over the turn of the millenium and the rise of the issue of Global Warming to worldwide political and social prominence. It would seem odd, therefore, to claim that our era is characterised by a lack of interest in the future. And indeed, I mean this in a very particular, but no less important for that, way.

On the level of individual people a claim that we are unconcerned with the future seems even stranger. People plan obsessively who and what they want to be. They dream about where they want to go with their lives and, on a more mundane level, they plan their holidays to come, their shopping tomorrow, their bills, their mortgage, their retirement, their love life. The issue here though is precisely this very fact though: People are concerned with my job, my life, will I find someone. People are intensely concerned with what faces them as individuals. Just as with our ignorance of the fact and lessons of history is really one of our amnesia at a societal level, rather than individual forgetfulness so with our societal future. We are, each of us, intensely concerned with my future, but we have lost, if we ever had it, an awareness and concern for our future and those things that must be affected primarily not as individuals but as a whole. We are unconcerned with the future, then, in a very particular sense.

Although our lack of concern with our social future is, to a degree, merely a matter of neglect, as I think is overwhelmingly the case with our past, it is partially also a matter of deliberate encouragement. Nothing is more uncertain than the future and, in the sense of unconnected specifics, nothing has been less successful than long term predictions of our future. This has led to an intellectual, and also in a vaguely connected manner, cultural antipathy to any kind of prediction concerning the future. This does have a legitimate basis. The type of predictions often popularly made about the future, whether about politics or the development of technology are normally excruciatingly poor. Even worse than this: the 20th Century was scarred by the advocates of explicitly historicist philosophies, who appealed to a certain necessary historical development to justify the most appalling violence and persecution in human history. Historicism, the belief that history as a whole is moving towards some inevitable conclusion is itself, when phrased in purely secular terms, everywhere and always a fallacy. The contingency of all natural occurences, including the development of human society, alone assures this. It is moreover deeply dangerous, even in the more limited, non-universal sense, in that it encourages complacency towards whatever end for which it is invoked, which is itself the most sure method of ensuring that end does not occur.

The problem with these types of future prediction is that they are, almost everywhere, dreams, which may or may not take place. They are hoped for possibilities, in the same sense of our personal hopes and daydreams for the future. They also often rest on a mistaken faith in the inevitability of certain complex events, which are in fact under the control of complex and varying forces. This phenomenon itself is familiar from our personal lives. How often do we see people, often ourselves, assuming that something: a job, an exam, a partner, a dream, a sucess, is in the bag, only to see it slip from our grip due to our naive underestimation of the complexity and difficulty involved. We take things for granted, that they will occur, that they will always be there, and thus fail in drawing the correct conclusions for what we must do to secure them. It is in this sense of failing to make the logical leap from where we are now to where we are going, to what we must do to get there, that our awareness of our social future fails. It is a sheer failure of our logical thinking. We are seemingly incapable, as a society, of considering what we are doing at the moment, looking at what the inevitable or likely long term consequences of these actions will be, and preparing for them accordingly.

When you start to think about it, this failure of our social thinking becomes glaringly obvious. We are embroiled in various problems as a society and as a species that can be traced directly back to our failure to consider the wider, likely consequences of the actions we are and have been taking, and to prepare for them accordingly. Just look at the major issues of our time. The Economic Crisis: An entirely avoidable global disaster brought on by our failure to take awareness of the simple fact that economic stability could not be maintained by taking up exponentially increasing levels of debt. The obvious consequence of this, that eventually we, as a society, would not be able to continue borrowing and to service our debts, was, indeed, obvious to many, but at a societal level the message did not seep through and together we failed to respond to this and avoid the inevitable. The War in Iraq: as clear an example as you could wish for of a failure of the consideration of the long term implications of our current actions. The invasion of Iraq was a complete success, but our leaders were so obssessed with getting to the war and completing the invasion they completely failed to take any account of the difficulty of the task that would come after it. This is a wide-ranging failure that both we and Iraq have then suffered from for years after. More examples come easily: The Demographic Crisis, as low birth rates mean our society ages and population declines; the Environmental Crisis, of the reckless destruction of priceless and irreplaceable species and habitat; the coming Energy Crisis, as oil continues to slowly run out and we do not have a plan to replace it. Even the Global Warming debate, which on the surface seems to represent our interest in our future, really betrays our inability to transform that casual interest into something more substantial. Many people see the possible dangers of Global warming, and it is given wide spread lip service as an issue of importance, but we seem incapable as a society of turning that knowledge into action, the difficult action, which that knowledge demands. We are incapable of turning our widespread individual knowledge into wider societal knowledge and action on the scale necessary and thus continue on much as before.

As in all these cases, this is not even just the case of the inertia of our society, with a small aware minority attempting to rouse a slumbering and foolish mass. Even those who are aware of the dangers of Global Warming, for example, and of the action that must be taken, are often the very same people who continue to fly, to drive and engage in various other actions that produce vast quantities of carbon. Each person deludes himself with the thought that my actions, alone, will do not nothing and then infers from this that therefore I have no responsibility to do anything, or often that this therefore means that the macro scenario will not itself occur. No one raindrop thinks that it is the cause of the flood. This is the fundamental failure of logic that is occurring here: The complete inability to reason from the society to myself, or my locality, or vice versa, from myself and the situation I see to the issues facing our entire society. We struggle with the fact that the macro issues that face society require our action, even if that individual action itself will not shift the whole issue. We are seemingly incapable of making the inference from our individual activity up the level of complexity to the action of our entire societal body.

What we fail with in each of the situations of these crises is not forecasting the future in the manner of a weather forecast, is not imagining the dreams we one day hope to have, but rather simply considering the inevitable consequences of where we are and what we are doing now. We do not need dreams about the "end of history" but what we do need is to do what, at the individual level, is considered an essential human skill: To consider the consequences of the actions we are undertaking, considering the state we wish to be in, and co-ordinating the one so that we meet the other. This is often a complicated process, requiring that we consider many variables and co-ordinate many smaller individual actions, but through its execution we are able to traverse our lives and accomplish what we seek to accomplish. THis same action is essential if we are to co-ordinate our society as a whole and interact with other societies. It is a process of checking where we are going, of keeping our eyes off our feet and on the road we are walking,so we don't trip up, to keep our eyes on the obvious consequences of our actions and to prepare for them, thoughtfully and properly, as we would instinctively do in our own lives.

It is a process of
If . . . then . . . ,
Given . . . then . . .

Obviously in all situations there will be a limit to what we are able to know about where our current path is taking us. The denial of this fact is the fortune telling, prediction of the future that is such a waste of time. Our inability to fortune tell our future does not take away our responsibility to consider the immediate consequences of our current actions and to act according to that knowledge. In all situations though there will be some facts and consequences that will be obvious, or at least calculable. Such investigations often require a great deal of academic work and understanding, at the level of the complex problems that face whole societies, or groups, but with all the resources that our societies have to muster we can do this and we must. What better use could there be for them? For if the Economic Crisis or the War in Iraq, or a whole manifold of other crises teach us anything, it is that it is considerably easier and cheaper to sort out a problem before it happens than to clean up the mess after it is made. It is easier and less painful to walk around, or step over an obstacle than it is to trip over it, hit the floor and have to pick yourself up again. Neither can this be considered a low priority. As we move forward into the future the economic, political, social choices we make will be and are having consequences, and it is of the greatest importance that we seek to consider and prepare for what consequences that are evident, with all the rigour and resources that our society can bring to this problem. We must stay focussed on our future, for we cannot afford the alternative.

This is not even a matter of merely reducing costs, but rather one of life and death. History is littered with the groups and societies and nations that failed and fell behind and died. Sometimes there was nothing they could do about this but too often it was a consequence of the actions they took and their failure to consider the evident consequences of the direction in which they were heading. They never thought it could happen to them, but it did, and if we do not pay attention to where we are heading, as well as where we came from, then eventually it will happen to us as well, if for the simple reason, that it is not the things behind you that normally trip you up, but rather the things in front of you that you are about to walk into.