Wednesday 12 January 2011

"Weak" Secularism.

Sometime ago I posted an article called "Weak" Democracy. This described my idea about what is sufficient for a way of organising society to hold democratic, moral legitimacy. Here I describe an analogous concept concerning the role of religion in society, and the extent to which it is necessary or desirable to exclude particular religious or ideological opinions from the public sphere (for a society to have fair, moral legitimacy), and also why this is important.

“There is no such thing as a right to pretend something you oppose doesn't exist, and no such thing as a right to be shielded from the fact that most people reject your values. So nonbelievers simply do not have a right to live in a society free of religious sentiment. And public displays of religious sentiment - the Ten Commandments, Nativity sets in public parks, the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - are a straightforward First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech, which is not, I believe, limited only to individuals. Government agencies and bodies have it too. The public exercises of religion listed above involve an absolutely trivial expenditure of public resources and don't infringe on the rights of non-Christians in the slightest. Opposing these exercises is not about protecting the rights of the minority but about suppressing the rights of a majority, using the courts because opponents have failed to make their case on its merits. But public displays of religious belief send an exclusionary message. Maybe. But the last time I checked, messages of all kinds were protected by the First Amendment. Even exclusionary ones. And if you find yourself being excluded, maybe you might even ask whether you're on the right side of the issues. You'd feel differently if you were in the minority. I've spent a total of two years of my life in Islamic countries. If you're expecting me to buy into the idea that it's a violation of my rights to have the majority express a different religious sentiment, you have definitely picked the wrong person.”
Professor Steve Dutch: Some Issues Where Liberals are missing the boat.

The above passage by Professor Dutch precisely encapsulates my beliefs on Secularism. I support Secularism. The Secularism that means giving each member of society a level playing field and avoiding all use or threat of force against them, or the restriction of basic opportunities on grounds of their faith or belief, is a good thing and an essential element of society.  The same is true of avoiding every type of discrimination on grounds except the direct defense of that same society from immediate force or the threat of immediate force; and the obvious discriminations we make daily on grounds of immediate merit.

This Secularism is about respecting the dignity of each person and that their potential to contribute to society is based on their fundamental and basic identity as an individual human person and not on the basis of belonging to any privileged group, whether defined by heritage or belief. This Secularism is based on the understanding that honest and good men may disagree about complicated issues without one being either evil or stupid, and that it is not the nature or even the coherence of the beliefs one holds, nor the backgrounds one identifies with, that makes a man good or evil, or competent or incompetent, but rather the specifically moral actions he takes and the words he speaks and the knowledge he holds and the merit for the task he outwardly displays.

The idea is to accept that each man holds his conscience in good faith and make as much accommodation for the fallen, fallible but essentially decent nature of humanity as possible. From this basis, and an appreciation of human dignity, secularism wishes to avoid forcing any man to become a martyr because of his conscience. To not force any man to give up his chance for opportunity because of what he believes or who he is.  In other words, to construct a society with the least force must be deployed as possible, on the basis that ideas are the correct means to combat ideas, words the correct means to combat words and force only correct when absolutely necessary to combat force or the immediate threat of force.  This is a pacifist notion, only desiring to use force when it is most necessary, to restrict other immediate force or threat of force, and to utilise different methods the rest of the time.

On the other hand, Secularism that is based on banning anything that may be of religious inspiration or association specifically from the “public sphere” is neither desirable nor necessary. It is the repression of cultural expression that serves no purpose apart from to harass a majority or minority. Culture and belief are almost universally things which have public expression written into their nature. A person’s beliefs should affect how they think and act and as far as a person or group has a public life the expression of a person’s or group’s religious or cultural identity will be public.

Furthermore a majority in a society, or even a minority with a position of authority has the right to express their belief or culture within the fabric of that society. There is no theory of the state or government that says everything it does or associates with must be acceptable to all members of that society, as long as it does not use force, threat of force, or discrimination of opportunity then those of different opinion have no grounds to object on the basis of a lack of moral legitimacy.

The difference between these two types of Secularism, the first I call "weak" secularism and the second "strong", is simple.  It is the difference between what they are trying to achieve.  My idea here is that the driving good behind secularism, and much secularisation that has occurred in society, is not that removing religion or other ideologies from a position of prominence or privilege in society is a good in itself, but rather that it is a good as far as it provides opportunity and space for all persons's to flourish and fulfil potential as their conscience dictates they must.  It is the principle of minimising the force needed to maintain society and maximising the space for opportunity it holds.  It is also a pluralist notion, to trim ideologies back to create as much space and freedom for merit and individual potential to flourish and shine.  

  Weak secularism is based on a mutual respect, and a desire to give each the space to express oneself. This applies both for an established and majority faith and belief for a different or individual faith and the different or individual faith for the majority faith or belief, even if it is embedded in society and the expression of that society. This respect and tolerance goes both ways. Each admits the other the chance to pursue opportunity and human flourishing as they believe they must. It seeks to maximise the possibility for expression, whether minority or majority, whether official or unofficial.

The 2nd, on the other hand, claims to seek to provide space for public expression and flourishing by restricting that same expression and flourishing. It, hence, seeks to restrict what expression may be acceptable just as much as any establishment of religion or another ideology. Its attempt is not to maximise freedom for all, which is the basis of a good secularism, but rather to restrict it. It hence fails as a basis for a society built around a core of eternal moral truth of seeking peaceful co-existence between people, that is seeking to build a society that provides all space, and works with the nature of human beings.

It must also be noted that this applies to other ideologies as well as religions.  As far as a way of organising society restricts potential for development for those who hold certain (metaphysical) views it is not secular, regardless of public religious content or not.  In this model the old Soviet Union was less secular than today's Britain, because in the first you must hold to certain official ideologies and pieties to be allowed space in society, whether Marxism or the rule of the Communist party, whereas in the 2nd you do not.  This is despite the official atheism and 'Secularism' of the first and the Established Religion, and Bishops in the legislature, of the 2nd.

The point is that restricting one type of expression is only a good as far as that expression is directly restricting another.  Beyond that it is just restricting expression for the sake of it and thus directly opposed to the creation of as free a society as possible, with as much opportunity as possible for all.  This is the true aim that makes so much secularisation a good thing, not the underlying removal of religious content and expression itself.  And it is only when we realise this true nature about what is good about the phenomena that we can realise precisely what to do to maximise this.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Dealing with the Deficit (5) - Is the Coalition's Plan "Progressive"? Is it Fair?

On being Progressive, distributional impact, fairness, cabbages and Kings (and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings - well, not really.)

This article follows on from previous articles outlining the economic arguments around the Coalition's budget plans, introducing the structure of the public finances and the plans for reducing the deficit, looking at the feasibility of closing the deficit by cutting military spending and an analysis of the taxation changes. This is the final article on the distributional impact and fairness of the government's plans.  I've separated them out to try to keep them shorter.

"Progressive", "Fair".

These are undoubtedly the words that have come to define politics in Britain over the last couple of years. Not necessarily in terms of actual policy enacted, but definitely in terms of the language of our political discussion.  We argue about whether policies are wise, whether they are affordable, whether they are right, but more and more we have come to argue about whether policies are fair or progressive. It has been one of the changes wrought by the 13 long years of Labour rule. Today these terms are thrown around like cheap confetti by almost every party and politician of whatever hue or stripe as basically synonymous terms.  This widespread usage by completely opposing politicians to describe contradictory policies may give you the impression that these terms are largely meaningless. And you would be right. But the question is, can we save any precise meaning at all from this avalanche of linguistic abuse?

'Fair' is one of the first words that any child learns, as any parent or child can tell you.  A sense of things be fair or unfair is one of the most basic of human judgements, and arguably the basis of much of our moral sense.  Like all such terms though it has no clear, definable meaning.  We all think we know fair and unfair when we see it.  Roughly, it means equitable, in proportion with what is right.  It is, in other words, a value judgment. In other words, referring to various policies as fair, is little more than declaring you think they are morally right and/or a good idea, i.e. it conveys almost no actual information, since we generally assume that if someone is pushing a policy they think it is good/right.  It would be bloody odd if politicians were pushing policies they personally thought were a load of immoral rubbish. Referring to a policy as 'fair' is generally useless. But what it can do, at best, is to imply a certain, not only efficient but also, moral judgement about the effects of a policy. But beyond that it's pretty empty.

'Progressive' is a slightly different (but equally annoying) kettle of fish. It has become, if anything, even more prominent than 'Fair'as a political descriptive. It sadly lacks 'Fair's basic and understandable connotations.  It is a technical term, just one with a vague definition. For a while after I heard it first it confused me because I had no idea what it meant. From context I could only tell that it seemed to mean 'good' in a vague sense, but I could not at first work out anymore than that. So I spent some time studying it. Taken literally progressive means to to support progress, but that is little more than a tautology. No politician claims to be opposing progress, any more than motherhood or apple pie. So where did this word come from?  The answer is that it came from America, and it became more and more popular first among Labour supporters and politicians in the 1990's to describe themselves, and then among others. As far as I could tell from some study these people seemed to use it to mean Socialism without the state ownership of industries (since that has been discredited since the 1970's). More generally it has come to mean fluffy and friendly and kind and good, and most importantly: us, as opposed to them.  On which basis it was also appropriated by first the Liberal Democrats and then more recently even the Conservatives, and particularly the current Coalition government.

In defence of some of those who use it though. There is one area where the term progressive can be said to have a precise meaning. That is, in reference to fiscal policy.  In particular, taxation.  A tax is progressive if it hits the rich harder than the poor.  This originally could mean just in terms of the amount raised.  these days however it generally means as a proportion of income.  That is, for a tax to be progressive it must take up a higher percentage of the income of the rich than the poor, rather than just a larger cash amount.  The opposite of this is regressive.  To give some examples: Income tax is progressive, because it is charged at higher rates the higher your income is;  VAT is more or less neutral, because rich and poor pay at the same percentage rate; The BBC licence fee is regressive, because it a flat amount charged regardless of income, and thus obviously takes a higher proportion of the income of the poor than the rich.

In extension to this financial system or policy of spending and taxation is progressive if it enhances the opportunity or chances of the least advantaged in society, generally in terms of redistributing money from the rich to the poor in society, or at least hitting the rich harder than the poor in percentage terms.  And is in this sense that we can analyse whether the Coalition's deficit reduction plan is progressive, as the Chancellor claimed, first at the June budget, and then at the CSR. This was an important point, after the Conservatives campaigned claiming Progressive credentials, and also to the Lib Dems

This is a big question.  Is it possible to have  major deficit reduction plan of tax rises and spending cuts that is also progressive, in the sense of hitting the rich proportionately financially harder than the poor?  Or, in other words, how does the government's deficit reduction plan impact people differently across the income distribution.

On the one hand the government has raised taxes on the rich and taken efforts to protect core areas of progressive spending on health, education, welfare and international aid, as well as for children and pensioners.  On these grounds it claims its plan is progressive.  But this has been strongly contested, to say the least, by other groups.  The analysis of the government's plans has been divided into two separate sections.  We have had distributional analyses of the impact of the changes in terms of taxes and benefits, and then separately the estimated impact of the spending cuts.  These can then be combined to give the over-all impact of government's deficit reduction program by income decile of the population (the poorest to richest tenths of the population).

My personal view has always been that the government has tried quite hard to make sure that we are "all in this together" in the sense of the pain of deficit reduction being shared across the population.  But that it would be almost impossible for any significant deficit reduction plan to actually impact the rich harder than the poor, without being mostly consisted of crippling tax rises.  If I had to guess I would say that the government's plan will likely hit the poor two to three times harder than the rich.  Because our system is so progressive anyway, meaning that the least well off benefit more from welfare and rely more on public services, and pay less in tax, pretty much any attempt to reign back what the state does will hit the poor harder in proportion to the rich.  That is, although the rich will contribute more to the deficit reduction plan in terms of cash this will still consist of a smaller portion of their income, due to the disparity in income, and the extent to which government spending is slanted to benefit the less well off, and that raising taxes on the rich is actually quite hard because they pay high taxes already.

Analysis of the distributional impact of the government's spending plans breaks down into two sections: Welfare and Tax changes, i.e. direct cash transfers, and departmental spending cuts i.e. estimated value lost from services received.  The first of these is relatively easy to estimate, as it involves actual cash transfers, whether in terms of welfare or taxes.  The second is somewhat more dubious, as is involves estimating the value people receive from public services in terms of a cash value, and then guessing how spending cuts may have affected this cash value.

The first off the blocks to attack the government's claims of the progressive nature of its deficit plan was the IFS.  The Institute of Fiscal Studies has actually been around for 35 years, but has recently seemed to appear into the media consciousness.  It is a think-tank that produces work looking at the details and effects of the financial and distributive effects of policy.  Since the Coalition took government its pronouncements on the impact of government policy have, for some reason, been received by the media with a degree of trust and authority generally reserved for Holy Writ. This slight oddity to one side though, it is true that the IFS' research is generally very good. And an excellent starting point.

The IFS produced a report on the distributional impact of the Tax and Welfare policy changes by income decile, but not the impact of the public spending changes.  The most relevant graphs is below.  It shows the impact of all the the tax and welfare changes proposed by the government up until the CSR in October, apart from the CGT rise and the Child benefit changes.

That means by income decile from poorest to richest the changes will mean a hit on income of:

DecileImpact (£/year)Impact as % of net income
2 -£750.00-5.0%
3 -£800.00-4.5%
4 -£850.00-4.3%
5 -£800.00-3.5%
6 -£900.00-3.6%
7 -£1,000.00-3.2%
8 -£1,000.00-2.8%
9 -£1,200.00-2.6%

From the graph it is clearly visible that by income decile the changes are somewhat regressive across the income distribution from the 1st-9th deciles, though the richest 10th do take a particularly large hit.  It is solidly progressive in reference to the amounts involved, but not progressive enough to make it progressive in terms of the percentage hit to income.

Friday 24 December 2010

What Christmas Means To Me

Just as my town is to this house, just as this country is to this town, just as this world is to this land; just as the sun is to this planet, just as this galaxy is to our sun just as the universe is to a galaxy, so is God to all the universe.  He is so much greater than all we see here, though all that we see is undoubtedly within him, carried safely within him.  Still, though so vast he holds the Universe in the palm of his hand and supports and sustains all that is; though he alone is great and holy and eternal, and the world is a small and sinful place; still he came and was born to a young girl, in a stable where only animals saw his birth.

God is greater than everything, yet he made himself almost nothing, entirely weak, entirely dependent on human hands, so the world may be filled with God.  We see so many Christmas scenes, so many little statues of the nativity, that it is easy to forget what it really is.

Throughout  history man has attempted to reach out to God to know him and be as One with him, to understand the most fundamental meaning and value and purpose of all existence.  To this end we have tried everything through the ages. We have built vast churches, temples, cathedrals and shrines; made beautiful Art, sculptures, paintings, murals; wrote songs, chanted, written classical symphonies and oratio, hymns, carols, strummed guitars and rock worship; formulated liturgies, services and prayers; given sacrifices, performed rituals, lived as hermits, prayed, fasted from meat, for a time, until the point of death; wore hair-shirts, sackcloth and ashes, habits of wool, elaborate robes; burnt incense and shared bread, kept vigils, entered trances, whipped ourselves into frenzies, meditated for years on end; danced and sung, begged, kept silence, built great institutions, spanning continents and centuries, held laws and statutes, raised leaders, revered prophets and saints, told stories and legends, crafted myths and philosophies; read books and nature, wrote and studied books after books for lives after lives, preached, taught, spoken and listened and listened, argued and argued; done works of charity and love, taken poverty and hoarded great wealth, travelled vast distances and changed the world, fought wars and conflicts, taken life and given life and given up our own life, loved and hated, hoped and trusted and clung on for lifetime after lifetime over century after century.

But for all our learning, studying, writing, speaking, listening and arguing we know and comprehend all but nothing of the depth of God who is infinite Truth. For all our praying, sacrificing, worshipping and ritual we barely brush the edges of his greatness.  For all our meditation, prayer, fasting and solitude we barely approach his essence.  For all our good deeds and charity and sacrifice to be holy we only come to realise how perfect, how Holy, how infinitely far beyond he truly is.  For all our mysticism, philosophy, frenzies and ceremony we barely glimpse him as through a thick mist.

Our greatest efforts could barely begin to approach God.  But God came down and was born as a tiny baby in a lowly stable.  And the fullness of Almighty, Infinite God was held tight in the arms of a virgin girl, and Invisible and Unseen God was seen clearly by those human eyes, and God who requires nothing from us received everything he needed in milk and warmth; And God who can not be known was known by those there. All of God who encloses the whole Universe was enclosed in her arms; God who no one fully knows was known by her, and raised by her and taught and loved by her.  And he grew and he walked amongst us and we could see him and touch him and speak to him face to face, and we knew him. And he taught us in plain words and ate with us and was there, and he was our friend.

God descended from his distance and came into the world as a man, and the whole world is sacred, because the Lord God experienced it.  This earth of matter is holy, because God descended into it.  Because it is a created thing and still God grew up from within it like a plant from the withered ground.

Without a doubt the two greatest deeds of God are the birth of the Universe and the birth of Christ.  The first creation and the new creation.  And the One Creation is much like the Other.  Through the Creation of the Universe we know of God at all, as St Paul says, "the whole world sings of the glory of God".  In the new creation we know of God perfectly, as his perfection enters a damaged world.  The Universe is vast and great and magnificent, but in new creation God,who is greater and vaster than all the Universe, is born into it, made himself enclosed and surrounded by it, as the tiniest part of it.

One Life grew and lived and loved and died and rose again.  So we are all reflected and sanctified by the life of Christ, who shared our body.  One Life, greater than all life, is born among us.  We who are beings may see Being, asleep in a manger, and we who love, may hold Love in our arms, a babe in a stable by an inn.

Christ the Son was born beautiful and grew and lived in love, and for a long time he was silent, but in later days he spoke out, but he died, but the Father raised him to greater glory, transformed into eternity, and he sits at the right hand of the Father. Like this the Universe was created, beautiful, and grew in beauty, but for a long time it was silent. Now in these later days have awoken the voice of the children of God among it.  But in the end it will come to destruction, but it will not pass away, but be transformed by God in to greater glory, to dwell, sanctified by him and with him and in him forever.  He gave us the sign of Christ, so we may know, and never fear again.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of Grace and Truth”

The Universe is a mystery, but God upholds it and secures it and sustains it.  And God is wrapped around everything that is and holds it within him, yet still he came within and so was held within himself.  God the Son who is beyond all Understanding  was sustained within the World, and the World is contained and sustained within and by the Father. And yet still more, for the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son, so the whole forms an eternal cycle and the Universe is held between and shot through with Godhood within and without and both and again. And so we have a Wonder containing a Mystery containing that same Wonder, again and again.

And that is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Dealing with the Deficit (4) - Tax is always bloody taxing.

On Tax Avoidance, Robin Hood, Bashing the Bankers, VAT, cabbages and Kings (and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings - well, not really.)

This article follows on from previous articles outlining the economic arguments around the Coalition's budget plans, introducing the structure of the public finances and the plans for reducing the deficit, and looking at the feasibility of closing the deficit by cutting military spending. It's followed by a final article on the distributional impact and fairness and (my) opinion of the government's plans.  I've separated them out to try to keep them shorter.

In dealing with our country's financial problems taxation is the obvious other element of the equation, along with spending and borrowing.  Even if we as a country manage to agree how much and how quickly we should reduce the deficit there is still the question of Tax; how big a contribution it should make to deficit reduction and what taxes should be raised.  The government does not currently get enough money in taxes, at previously agreed rates, to pay all its bills.  It must, hence, tax more, or spend less, or go on borrowing forever.  But no-one really thinks that last one is a viable option. In one form or another this is one of the eternal issues of politics, seeing as it relates to one of the most important things in human society: money.  It is one of the fundamental arguments of the Left and Right in politics.  Pretty much wherever you are, and whatever the precise figures and names involved, those on the right will be arguing that we should be taxed less and those on the left will be arguing we should be taxed more.  And this is one of those occasions, though the exact details are, as always, considerably more complicated.

The first question that must be answered is the extent to which a change in tax policy is required.  Most of the £155 billion deficit the UK currently has exists because tax revenues have collapsed due to the recession at the same time as spending on social services and welfare have dramatically risen due to the increase in unemployment.  Taxation is generally a skimming off the surface of economic activity.  It is the icing on top of the cake.  Things that are taxed strongly are things like profits, employment, income, capital gains, luxury spending, rather than the underlying substance of economic transactions and existing wealth.  Because of this when recession occurs and economic activity falls the decrease in tax revenue is proportionally much larger.

However, this in itself is not necessarily a good reason to increase tax rates, because after the recession economic activity will return to previous levels, and tax revenue accordingly. If this was all that happened then we could just borrow to make up the shortfall in the meantime until economic activity and tax revenues returned to normal and closed the gap. Unfortunately there is more to it than this. A deficit of this type, caused by a temporary fall in economic activity is the cyclical deficit, as it is caused the temporary affects of the economic cycle rather than any intrinsic mismatch between taxation levels and spending commitments. It is estimated that this accounts for around £50 billion of our deficit. The Other part of the deficit is the structural deficit, so called because it is down to the structural feature of our tax and spending system, rather than a transitory effect of the recession. This part of the deficit will not go away when the economy returns to normal. It must be dealt with either by raising tax rates permanently or by cutting spending. This is the serious part, and it is estimated that it is about £100 billion. But where has it come from?

Firstly, we were running a £30 billion deficit even before the recession. Secondly, the realisation that the boom in the housing and banking sectors was in fact an unsustainable bubble. Thus meaning the record tax revenues from these industries were also a bubble that will not be returning, lowering the estimate for the sustainable tax revenues under the current system.  This is about another £30 billion. The final element is the interest payments for all the debt we've built up due to the recession, which even if we eliminate the deficit we have already piled up and hence must pay interest on until we ever pay the debt off (unlikely), and which hence sucks up tax revenue we could otherwise use for services. This spending has increased from about £30 to £60 billion.  I have gone into this all in a bit more detail here. So that is the structural deficit. And it is what we cannot rely on a return to economic growth to remove. We have to cut spending commitments and projects and/or raise tax rates to get this hole filled in future. So what is the current role of Tax rises in the government's deficit reduction plan?

The government plans £110 billion of 'fiscal consolidation' over the next 5 years, of which £29 billion is tax rises and £81 billion is spending cuts.  That is a ratio of 24% tax rises to 76% spending cuts.

These figures are not in nominal money terms (actually figures spent), or in inflation adjusted real terms, but rather in real terms in comparison to current expectations if current policy is not changed.  In terms of the actual figures of pounds and pence the government plans to spend the plan is quite different.  Spending is forecast to rise by £70 billion from today.  Even in real terms this is equivalent to spending falling by only £25 billion, a fall of about 3.5%.  Tax revenue on the other hand is forecast (in nominal terms) to rise by £170 billion.  In other words the plan is to hold overall spending as roughly flat as possible, bringing it down slightly in real terms, while waiting for the economy to recover to bring tax revenues up until the point where they close the gap. This plan seems very different to the position in the popular media understanding, where 'savage cuts' are going to bring down the deficit.  The truth is though, that this plan does require hefty cuts, just to keep spending level, due to the constant upward pressure on government spending from changing demographics, the constant demand for more resources and rising interest payments.  Even under this plan many areas of spending will continue to naturally expand, thus necessitating the deep cut in programs and jobs to hold spending down sufficiently in some areas for it to naturally rise in others.

The Coalition is planning £29 billion of tax rises, which involves taking the £21 billion of tax rises Labour planned and adding £8 billion onto them.  Labour's plan basically involved whacking the rich with various schemes that massively reduced the generosity of pension rebates, removed personal allowances, and brought in a 50% tax rate; and pushing up NI, Labour's tax rise of choice, roughly from 11->12%.  NI is the 2nd largest tax in the UK and is very useful for raising money because it is paid by everyone and, in fact, paid twice for each person, by them and then again by their employer.  Hence raising NI brings in lots of money, and does it without raising the headline rates of income tax or VAT.  To this mix the Coalition kept all Labour's taxes on the rich, but removed part of the NI increase, while adding the increase in VAT (Britain's 3rd biggest Tax), a hike in Capital Gains Tax and a Bank Levy.  On the tax cut side they cut Corporation Tax, NI for businesses outside the South and raised the income tax threshold, giving a net increase of £8 billion on Labour's plans.

Saturday 11 December 2010

The Tution Fee Vote - How did it get this close?

Well, the motion to raise University Tuition fees from about £3500 to £6000-9000 a year passed.  For once I get to actually see how accurate one of my predictions was (which you can see in full just below this article).

I suggested there would be 296 Conservatives and 24 Lib Dems in favour giving 296+24=320 votes for.  And that there would be 8 Conservatives, 18 Lib Dems and everyone else voting against giving 281+8+18=307 votes against.

The actual result was 297+28=325 for and 277+21+6=304 against.  Pretty close.  I was almost exactly right on the number of Conservatives voting for, and everyone else voting against (no big surprise there), I underestimated how many lib dems would actually vote rather than abstain, but by about the same amount on each side, and a couple of Conservatives abstained rather than voting against, making the government's majority slightly larger than I predicted.  Still, not bad, not bad at all.  On the other hand since this was pretty much all using information that was easily in the public domain, I won't apply for my soothsayer's licence quite yet.

The government won.  But this was certainly the tightest vote since the Coalition began 6 months ago and offers a fascinating look at the truly unique parliamentary mechanics of this most unusual of British political organisations.  So, How did it get so close but still pass?  And, how did the government end up in this tricky situation on this of all issues?

In a normal government with a decent working majority the only way the government can lose is if the leadership propose to do something that runs so counter to either their parties natural instincts, or public opinion in general, to outrage a significant enough number of their MP's into rising out of their customary sheep-like slumber to vote against their own party, or just refuse to turn up to vote at all.

This basically only occurs when the party leadership gets so delusionally out of touch with either public opinion or their own party that they lose all sense of perspective and propose something completely barmy.

The reason this ever happens is in a usual one-party government in Britain what you generally have is a core group in around the leadership, generally those MP's in the government itself, that is thinking up plans and solutions and trying to drive the country in a certain direction, usually with one eye on what is pragmatically possible, one eye on what would be politically popular, and only their peripheral vision on  whatever their party might actually think about it.

You then, however, have all the mass of backbench MP's who actually give the government its majority, but have little other obvious purpose.  These simple creatures are kind of like a large inertial mass.  They sit around dozily content with whatever ideology and prejudices their party generally holds to, certain of their superior righteousness and intellect. Only rousing themselves to occasionally wave their order papers at the opposition at PMQ's and be herded by the government through the correct voting lobbies as needed.  They are generally a docile and unconcerned bunch but they do have two features that mean they can at times cause trouble for the leadership.

The first is that they are generally closer to ordinary party activists, particularly in terms of their prejudices and their beliefs, than the party leadership, who are generally an out of touch bunch with their heads more or less in the clouds, whatever the party.  This is probably a good thing, it means that meritocracy actually exists, and political parties generally choose their elite to lead them.  But elites, as night follows day, are generally distinct from the majority in most ways, not just their particular skill.  The other thing is that whereas a party leadership are generally insulated from public opinion by both their important ministerial jobs, which mean they have more important things to deal with, very important one might say, and by the fact they have generally found their way into very safe seats, which means they don't have to particularly worry about getting unelected.  Backbenchers on the other hand are often in marginal seats, and have little else to do but worry about their re-election.  These together mean that, however crudely, backbenchers are normally, as a mass, more concerned, in touch with, and likely to act upon public opinion, and more likely to want to act in accordance with their party's general beliefs and ideas.

This means that the dynamic of a government, as far as votes goes, is a struggle between the party leadership who are constantly trying to branch out in strange, new, and hopefully effective and vote-winning directions, and their mass of MP's, who want to sit around doing things that are either (or preferably both) popular and in accordance with their party's core ideas.  The MP's can generally be herded, as the leadership wants, through a mix of encouragement, threats, and motivational partisan slogans.  Sometimes though, as I've said, the leadership gets sufficiently delusional and/or out-of-touch that even their own MP's refuse to vote for their proposal and they are defeated in the Commons.

So that is the way things usually go in a one party government.  In the Coalition though things are different.  We have a leadership who are more or less coherent as a group with a plan, and then not one but two inertial masses of backbenchers with quite different underlying beliefs and prejudices: the Conservative backbenchers and the Lib Dems, both who are needed to make the government's majority.

MP's getting the Coalition up the mark and then the mass of 57 Lib Dem MP's pushing them comfortably over it.

The obvious problem though is that this mass of MP's is really made of two separate parts, coming from very different directions.  One would think that the surprising thing would be that this has not happened already.  The problem of coalitions according to the traditional wisdom then is that the government cannot afford to do anything that sufficiently annoys either part, or its majority will fail, and hence it is more hamstrung than a single party government.  Forced to stick to the lowest common denominator of policy.  The remarkable thing about this Coalition though is that this has not happened.

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Tuition Fees vote. - It's getting bloody close!

It's less than 5 hours to go and it's getting bloody close.

Today's the day for the Big Tuition Fee vote, the closest and most difficult vote since the Coalition was formed.  The Lib Dems managed to get themselves in a right bloody mess and today we get to see what they're going to do about it.

Everyone still expects the fees to pass, but it is going to be bloody close.

The government theoretically has 363 votes to everyone else's 281.  Easy.
Even without the Lib Dems though there are 306 Conservatives to an opposition of 281.  If the Lib Dems all abstain then the motion will pass.
If the Lib Dems all vote against it then it will fail 306 votes to 338.
But most Lib Dem ministers will vote for it, because they have drawn up the policy and have to as part of the government.  That gives 306+16=322 to 322 votes.  A tie.

If then any more Lib Dems asbtain rather than voting against the measure there are 322 votes for and fewer votes against.  The motion passes.  Given 16 Lib Dems voting for, perhaps 16 voting against and the rest abstaining the motion passes about 306+16=322 against 281+16=297 and it passes.

But that's all theory.  What reality are we facing?  Not all Conservatives will vote for it.  As many as 5 have already declared themselves against it and perhaps as many as 8 will vote it down.  Among the Lib Dems about 18 have declared they'll vote no.  That gives around 281+8+18=307 against.

The rest of the Conservatives will vote for it and the 17 or so Lib Dem ministers will vote for it as well as perhaps 8 backbenchers.  Nick Clegg expect 24 Lib Dem MP's to vote for it, the Conservatives expect at least 296 MP's to vote for it.  That's 296+24=320 votes for.

The fees should pass, as long as Nick Clegg has convinced as many of his colleagues to "walk through the fire together" as he thinks, and as long as more Conservatives do not vote against the government.  Of course whether you think that is a good thing or not will vary, to say the least.

Monday 29 November 2010

'Weak' Democracy - A Principle in Defence of Monarchy.

Considering recent discussion around the announcement of Prince William's wedding this seems as good a time as any for a good look at the underlying principles that support our Constitutional Monarchy system.

Those in favour of a Republic in this country often argue along the lines that a Monarchy is inherently illegitimate because it is unelected.  That is, neither I nor anyone else have ever placed a cross in a box with the Queen’s name in it.  I disagree with this, and my disagreement with this is based on a basic disagreement about our understanding of the nature of Democracy.  

I do not believe in the necessity of democracy in the terms that are being used in this argument for a republic, but rather what I shall call 'weak' democracy.  I believe this is the correct expression of political principle and it is one under which Monarchy is not essentially illegitimate.  In fact nor is pretty much any other system, except under certain particular stated restrictions.  

The first thing to point out though is that in referring to 'weak' democracy I am explicitly not making any value judgement about the concept or its correctness compared to anything else, or the system we have today.  I am fundamentally a democrat and believe in the central moral importance of Democracy in any political system.  But I believe something very particular by this.  And I not only believe 'weak' democracy is the more correct and full understanding of Democracy and the idea of legitimacy for a state than the 'strong' democratic idea implicit in some republican criticism but also that it is, really, the understanding practically implicitly instantiated in our, and indeed almost all, actual democratic systems both in our country and around the world.  The reference to 'weak' democracy merely refers to the fact that it is a logically weaker claim (in the sense of not requiring as strong assumptions) to make about what is necessary for Democracy than that implicit in the 'strong' democratic argument.    

The distinction between the ideas of 'strong' and 'weak' democracy is mostly the distinction between election and consent.  To exercise authority and power a leadership does not need election, as the republican criticism of monarchy seems to state.  It merely needs effective consent.  A Monarch does not have to be elected to be legitimate and have “weak” democratic consent, they must merely have the support and consent of their people to continue in that role in that system.  

Firstly, it must be conceded even that neither authority nor power necessarily needs our consent to hold legitimacy over us.  Ultimately, of course, all legitimacy, power and authority comes from God.  For believers God is then this thing, an authority over which they have no veto, for non-believers morality may be substituted.  Both hold a lawful authority over us without requiring our consent, let alone our election.  

In more earthly terms, though, our consent is required, due to our basic sovereign right as human beings.  This consent does not necessarily require explicit statement though, nor on a society wide level does it require each individual to like what is going on.  It merely requires the society in general to accept the structure of things as they are.  In Socratic terms we consent to the laws and constitution of the society we live in as long as we do not speak and act against them to change them, and hence cannot object when they act against us.  A more precise definition of the concept is difficult to fashion, precisely because it is  but we can more easily describe what it is not.         

My contention is that not only is the 'weak' democratic ideal superior, that it is actually the ideal that almost all human systems of democracy are based on, but that the implicit principle of 'strong' democracy is frankly ridiculous, and almost impossible.

We can look at the relations between smaller non-state human associations and organisations.  A person can lead a group, can lead an organisation, without having to rely on explicit democratic election or decision-making.  It would be nonsensical to demand that a group of friends meeting together could not legitimately decide where to go or what to do without a secret ballot, or to demand that a person can not lead a group, or be followed by that group, without his action being put to a ballot of all the concerned parties.  A requirement for consent is all that is required in all cases.  A group of people together self-evidently has the right to follow the commands of a person they designate as their leader, without requiring each decision taken to be put to a vote.  

This is relevant because I would argue that States are not essentially metaphysically different to other social bodies and human groupings.  They have international sovereignty, but even what that means is difficult to pin down.  They are still subject to the law, though they also shape it, as well as morality and the basic requirements of human decency and legitimacy.  States are of course different to other bodies, but then all bodies are different to other bodies.  A tribe is different to a family, a friendship group is different to a local government body, an international organisation is different to a national one.  But the state is not differently different in any metaphysically significant manner to other human social groupings such that radically different rules apply.  They are still figments of the human mind, a concept and institution invented and described to serve and represent a useful practical purpose.  The same basic standards of legitimacy and morality apply. 

When looking at the ideas of Monarchy and Republicanism, the more useful distinction we need is on the basis of Democratic consent and election or the lack thereof.  In other words, it is between governments where a single individual or individuals has unique sovereign power irrespective of consent or otherwise, one where consented and responsible “representatives” of one kind or another govern, and an absolute democracy where there is no group to which power is delegated, and everything must be done on the basis of election.  This scheme takes into account the relevant point, of direct election or consent, and in it one can obviously see that representative republican democracy and constitutional monarchy, however constitutionally strong that monarch may be, stand on the same strata. Note that by a constitutional monarch I mean one whereby the monarch is held to be himself responsible under the law to the same extent as his citizens, rather than having arbitrary power to act as he pleases, however few actual codified legal constraints there may be on the monarch’s power.  Such a restriction under law is itself, after all, again merely a phrased restriction under morality.  At it is this compliance with morality and the practical and effective nature of the system that matters when considering it.

Saturday 20 November 2010

A View on American Politics from a British Conservative - Secondly, Midterms, President Obama, Democrats and Republicans

It seems incredible that only two years after Barack Obama's meteoric rise in 2008, from barely known junior senator of Illinois to President-elect of the United States by the end of the year, we could be standing here watching Obama described as embattled, rejected by the voters, struggling and watching the Republicans surging back to take control of one half of Congress from the Democrats.  Barack Obama's rise was incredible, both in objective terms, and even more than this, in the sheer enthusiasm with which he was greeted by not only Democrats, not only Americans, but by people around the world.

I have never seen such a wave of public-goodwill to a politician.  After the division of the Bush Years, the War on Terror and the Financial Crisis, the election of an intelligent sounding, liberal, eloquent Black man to the position unofficially known as Leader of the Free World seemed to indicate a new dawn.  To a certain extent this was understandable.  George Bush was not popular round the world, a leader on the American left was always going to be more understandable to Europeans, where the centre of political gravity is considerably further to the left than America in general.  After the battering of the Financial Crisis and the War in Iraq people needed something to believe in.  On the other hand, it was also just ridiculously out of hand.  Neither media nor public seemed to be able to keep things in sensible levels.  By the time he was elected Obama had displayed consummate skill as an electioneering politician, but beyond that no more skills than making pretty speeches and coining particularly vacuous slogans.  Yelling "Change we can believe in" was bad enough, but "Yes, we can!" was taking vacuity to bold new levels, and with the other main theme of his campaign being 'Hope', to say Obama's campaigning was somewhat light on details is like saying Gordon Brown is a bit boring.  It was so successful that is tempted the British Conservatives to try a similar thing for our election earlier this year, though with notably less success.

This is not to say Obama did not have policies: Health Care reform, Economic Stimulus, Climate Chance legislation, finishing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ambitions enough for any politician to cover in 4 years.  But the level of hype was ridiculous.  Obama was being presented as a cross between the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King jr, and Abraham Lincoln.  This was a good for Obama at the time, because it meant all he had to do was exploit it, spout cliches, and not do anything too stupid.  Of course it helped that McCain, having started his campaign quite sensibly distancing himself from George Bush, went loopy and started spouting nonsense and somewhat crazed accusations of socialism and goodness knows what else.

The downside of all this though is that whatever Obama did, and he entered office at perhaps the most difficult time for any President since Reagan, he was bound to disappoint on a massive scale, unless he somehow pulled a few trillion dollars, a cure for AIDS, and peaceful solution for Israel-Palestine out his ass in his 1st year.  And, obviously he did not do these things, and so despite having moved heaven and earth as far as one man can over the last 2 years, he finds himself plummeting in the opinion polls and the Democrats on the back foot.  As far as he was not responsible for the hype that accompanied his election and the American political scene over the last few years it is quite unfair this has happened to him.  But to the extent he deliberately built up a wave of hype to surf to successful election he is getting what was coming to him when that wave comes crashing down.  The difference here between the experience over the last few years of the USA and the UK is interesting.  The Conservatives deliberately quite some time playing down expectations before our election, and after it, predicting gloom and doom for precisely the reason they knew there was no magic wand to wave and there has not been the same backlash against them, though there has been against the Liberal Democrats for other reasons.  Though, on the other hand, their election was certainly not greeted by the same outburst of joy as Obama's.

Some of the more enthusiastic and goldfish-brained commentators went beyond hype for Obama.  They did not only regard Obama as the second coming but also forecast, pretty much, the end of the Republicans as a threatening force.  After their loss of Congress in '06, the opprobrium of the end of the Bush years and Obama's massive victory, with the map painted Blue, it seemed that the Republicans were possibly doomed to retreat to a white, elderly hard-south and mid-west rump, unable to reach outside the shrinking white share of the population and even there restricted to relatively unsophisticated, largely poor, conservative,
areas.  Apparently all demographic trends were against them.  There was talk of a 'Liberal moment' for America.  This analysis was simple, seemed at least vaguely supported by events and, crucially, was vastly appealing to certain people.  Unfortunately, for some people, it was also dead wrong.  I remember thinking back in 2008 that it was extremely unlikely, though not outside the realms of possibility.

The problem seems to be that political commentators are not only generally  incapable of keeping a sense of perspective, and not only have a tendency to write in thick cliches, but also have an extreme short term memory problem.  The thing was, I could remember similar predictions being made, in the opposite direction, in 2004.  Then the evidence mustered was equally impressive.  Republicans had won 5 out of the last 7 presidential elections, they had held congress for 10 years, Americans were identifying as more conservative than ever, and the Democrats couldn't even win against as divisive and dubious a figure as George Bush.  America seemed to be moving in the red direction.  I also remembered at about the same time people making the same predictions about the Conservative Party here in 2005.  After 3 elections gaining 31, 32 and 33% of the vote, having failed to decapitate Tony Blair, even after Iraq, it seemed the Conservatives were stuck with their right-wing rhetoric attracting about 1/3 of the vote, unable to reach out to a more liberal, centrist Britain.  By 2008 though these predictions were already outdated, as under David Cameron the Conservatives loomed high over Labour in the polls, even as I contemplated the complete reversal, in only 4 years, of the predictions of Republican hegemony.  Looking a bit further back I knew similar things had been said about Labour after 1992, as they managed to fail to unseat the Conservatives, in seeming perfect circumstances, for the 4th time.  Those predictions were already falsified in dramatic style in 1997.  The other reason I had to be dubious about such predictions, apart from historical precedent, was that I could just about imagine the Republicans fading away if another party rose to replace them, as the Liberals did in Britain, with the rise of Labour in the 1920's.  But under America's stunningly two party system I just could not see it happening, and so I thought that in four years time we would probably see the Republicans back and alive, to give a decent challenge to Obama.

Not even I imagined though that in only 2 years the Republicans would be back, and if not sweeping all before them, then certainly in rude enough health to give Obama a bloody nose.  The answer to this conundrum seems to be simple: The Tea Party, and more broadly the economic malaise that continues to dominate American politics.  For all its weirdness, it is impossible to doubt that the Tea Party gave the Republicans a massive shot in the arm.  After it seemed they would sink from view for a while, trying to shake of the ignominy of the Bush years, the Tea Party roared into view, channeling opposition to Obama and firing up conservative leaning voters, and all without any connection to Bush.  This is not to say that the Tea Party has been an unadulterated success for the Republicans.  There are, perhaps, two very relieved Democrat senators today, who still have their seats because Tea Party activists were incapable of keeping their ideological enthusiasm in check, and selected candidates who were incapable of success where more mainstream Republicans could have succeeded (Cough, witch, cough).  But life isn't perfect, and overall the Republicans would be in a much worse place today politically were it not for the outpouring of enthusiasm the Tea Party produced.

What gave the Tea Party space to flourish though, and gain credibility, was not the Liberal-left, moderately social-democratic approach of president Obama, nor even the divisive health care legislation, though that started things off.  Rather it was the continuing malaise surrounding the American economy, that depressed confidence across the US and fired even relatively centrist, unideological voters away from the Democrats.  The American economy still seems to be in a morass.  Unemployment, in a country with historically lower unemployment than Britain or, God forbid, Europe, remains stubbornly high.  Debt continues to burst through the roof with a deficit measured in the trillions of dollars and with little obvious will to bring it down.  The Federal Reserve has just launched a further huge round of printing money in an attempt to ease credit and get the economy moving.  America seems stuck in a rut it cannot get out of.  And all the while the headlines are dominated by stories of Chinese and Indian success and dynamism, and America's continued seeming lack of an ability to score a decisive victory over a rag-tag of terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For the first time since the Cold War, America's global dominance seems challenged.  Realistically, its problems are not that bad.  Europe has a history of dealing with worse, and doing it considerably more phlegmatically.

But the fact is that so much of what America is, is just confidence.  That is the thing that marks America out, apart from from the French, its traditional overwhelming confidence; its belief, often justified, that it is the best, it is unique, it is better than anything else in the world.  Not in all my life, which has largely coincided with the period of unique American dominance globally, post cold war, have I seen that overwhelming cultural and economic confidence so battered as it seems at the moment.  It is not just the economic crisis either.  The quagmire in Iraq, the difficulties in Afghanistan, the scandal of Abu Ghraib, the feeling that America is falling behind as the world's most dynamic nation, faced with China's 10% a year growth and seemingly limitless potential, have undermined America's sheer self-belief.

Partially this sense of subconscious self-doubt was the reason Obama was greeted with such jubilation at first.  After the difficulties of the latter Bush years here was a saviour who would put everything to rights.  The fact that he has not done this, despite his seeming best efforts, not to mention trillions of dollars and a huge quantity of arguing, is the underlying reason why the American public seems to have fallen so quickly out of love with him.  There are less fundamental reasons as well of course.  Obama seems to have become as poor a communicator in office as he was a good one when campaigning for it.  Having excelled at poetry his whole administration seems to struggle in prose.  He seems to come across as what he, quite frankly, is, an aloof, well-educated, University professor, a member of the elite and having come down the mountain, now not the best man to seem to communicate with or relate to ordinary, working class Americans in the way Reagan, Clinton or even Bush seemed more able to.  This pales though beside the underlying sense of economic and social stall that America is struggling with.

All these reasons where why the Republicans, despite having no obvious solutions to these problems themselves, benefited so strongly in 2010.  Obama may have made all the right calls, but it doesn't feel like anything has particularly improved in America, and so Obama has received no credit for it.  The stimulus may have stopped America sliding even further into the morass, but a lot of voters don't feel better off from it, so it just seems like several hundred billion dollars spent with no benefit.  Americans hence look around to see what else might be on offer, and thus we get the Republicans surging back in the House, and only avoiding retaking the Senate by the fact its elected in 1/3rds, and is hence almost impossible in one go.  

At this point I should declare my interest in this.  I actually have no particular dog in this mid-term fight.  As a British Conservative I am nominally lined up along side the Republicans, as the fellow conservatives in America, and against the Democrats who are the vaguely liberal-left-ish party on offer.  However, as a British Conservative, which is these days a lot more like being a European conservative than an American one, I support things like a Socialist National Health Service, a strong welfare state, general social liberalism, and a state of such a size as most Republicans would find absolutely anathema.  And on all of which positions are actually well to the 'left' of even the official Democrat program.  On the other hand the Democrats are certainly not perfect either.  They seem to harbour various strange leftist and 'liberal' ideological threads, a closeness to trade unions, a loose fiscal approach that I find somewhat ridiculous.  Also I remember growing up amidst Bill Clinton's troubles with the law, hardly the Democrat party's most shining moment either.  To be honest as far as I can tell, given my own personal political preferences, I would be either, in American terms, a very liberal republican or a very conservative democrat.  Both beasts in considerably greater supply in prior times than today.

Back in 2008 when we had the election I wanted Obama to win, as did most of Europe, and I have generally agreed with what he's done.  The Republican opposition to Obama seems to have been confused and at times descending into the outright bizarre.  Accusations of Socialism, being a Muslim, and a particularly ludicrous conspiracy theory involving Obama's birth certificate, were pushing the boat out in terms of weirdness even for Americans.  Generally the Republicans seemed to largely descend into a confused haze, before picking themselves up somewhat before the Mid-terms, driven, presumably, by the need to look at least vaguely electable at an election time.  In this they seemed to be copying the strategy of Labour in the UK, becoming the party of 'No', opposing actually everything without bothering to ever state what they might do instead.

From my position as a British Conservative: Obama was right to push a cap and trade bill, right to attempt to widen the ludicrous system of American healthcare, right to commit more troops to Afghanistan and right to reach out to the Muslim world.  On a more trivial level he was right to attempt to close Guantanamo Bay, right to speak out in favour of the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque' and right to criticise Israel over its building policy.  The sign of a great man is that he (at least) attempts great things, rather than just stay in the shallow waters.  And Obama has shown the willing to do this.

On the other hand I also have some sympathy for the worries that the Tea Party raise, and that has motivated that movement, if certainly not with some of its more wacky fringes.  Obama was right to try to widen access to healthcare in the US, from around 80% to 90% of the population and try to end some of its more painful features, such as insurers refusing to touch people who had been already ill.  But it not only does little to bring down the incredible cost of US healthcare, about $4,500 per person, compared to $2000 in the UK and between about $1500-2500 across the rest of the developed world, but it actually will cost a trillion dollars more, and with the absence of the important public option for healthcare provision, was gutted in comparison to the original plans.  Obama hesitated in committing more troops to Afghanistan, he and his administration took an unnecessarily simplistic and jingoistic line over the BP oil spill, he ended the plans for NASA to return men to the moon.

All these are pretty minor quibbles though.  The biggest point where I disagree with the Democrats and agree with the direction the Tea Party argues for it is in terms of the economy.  What marks the British Conservatives out from European conservatives or (mostly) American conservatives, is that we have made true fiscal conservatism, in the form of a detailed program to reduce our deficit and move towards a balanced budget over the next 5 years, the core of the current government, and our platform at the last election.  The US, like Britain, and like the rest of Europe, risks drowning under a sea of debt, both private and most significantly Public, if serious measures are not taken.  We risk piling more and more liabilities onto following generations, at a time when our populations are aging generally, that risk undermining our economic position over the long term.  We especially risk losing the economic initiative to the more disciplined and hard-working emerging powers whether China, India, or others, if we take the easy way out of our current problems rather than facing up to the difficult issues.  And I believe that politically, considering the lack of stability and political maturity that is still so evident outside the western world, this is an extremely dangerous circumstance to be facing.

The American budget deficit is, as a % of GDP, about the same size as the current UK deficit, (10.7%) both of which are pretty much the largest in the world (apart from really screwed countries like Ireland or Greece).  The difference is that whereas the UK government is focusing on bringing this figure down over the medium term, and has committed to taking some pretty difficult decisions to make it happen, the US government seems to have no such plan.  Obama seems to be committing himself to some ultra-Keynesian effort, entirely relying on a $800 billion fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and America's pre-eminent economic position to bring the deficit down.  This just will not work though.  Stimulus on its own is not a painless solution.  Too much of the money gets lost, especially in America's leaky political system, with its pork-spending, earmarks and bridges to nowhere.  It will help to get America over the worst of the rut, but on its own is not a fiscal solution, that requires real hard decisions to restore America's fiscal credibility.  

This is not to say the Republicans have really done any better.  They started the deficit off, turning Bill Clinton's surplus into an impressive deficit even before the recession hit.  Bush signed off his own bizarre stimulus bill, to prop up, at massive public expense, America's car industry.  They have opposed the repealing of parts of the Bush tax cuts, as well as any serious spending cuts except in totemic areas like Obamacare or Obama's own stimulus, and are seemingly committed to their own bizarre Keynesian myth, that just cutting taxes enough will magically produce enough economic activity to cut the deficit, and over-ride the money lost by cutting taxes in the first place.  Now, when taken sensibly this is a perfectly economically reasonable substitution effect, famously known as the Laffer curve, and like a fiscal stimulus is a real effect.  When taxes are cut, more or less depending on the tax, economic activity will rise and thus also (relatively) revenue, going some of the way to cover the money lost by the initial cut.  Just like a stimulus though this alone is not nearly enough to cover the money lost, especially something as vast and varied as the US economy.  The US fiscal problems, like the UK's, is a deep seated structural problem and simplistic solutions, whether involving widening the deficit by boosting spending, or widening the deficit by cutting taxes, is just not going to do the job.

Only from the Tea Party has any outspoken voices coming actually suggesting that seriously cutting US spending may be necessary to get debt down and hopefully balance the books.  Or even that balancing the books should be a political priority over the next few years.  To Obama's credit he has planned to reverse the Bush tax cuts, undoubtedly a necessary step.  But he has seemed to express even less political willing than the Republicans to actually cut spending, or show particular leadership on this issue.  It is not his fault.  No-one in American politics seems particularly willing to face up to this issue, but he certainly does not seem to be leading the field.

To compare the situation to plans laid out by the Conservative-led Coalition government here.  Here the government has prioritised deficit reduction.  This has meant a measured program of tax rises, to the tune of £29 billion, or 2% of GDP, as well as a program of spending cuts over the next 4 years of £81 billion, or 5.8% of GDP.  The equivalent figures for America would be about $290 billion of tax rises and about $810 billion of spending cuts.  Also these measures have been spread widely across the population and across government spending.  Apart from state healthcare and International Aid, we have seen tax rises on the rich and on everyone else, and spending cuts across government departments, including education and defence, as well as significant cuts on welfare and spending on capital projects.  All these are necessary together if one is really serious about fiscal conservatism and restoring fiscal stability and almost no-one on in America seems willing to face up to these facts.

If anyone was really serious about restoring fiscal balance in America there are a number of clear opportunities.  Increasing taxes for a start, especially the efforts to repeal the Bush tax cuts that Obama is already intending.  Cutting social security, especially for the elderly, and cutting the military.  A good clean 10% cut on bloated defence spending would go a considerable way to solving America's budget problems, netting some $90 billion a year.  Chopping pensions back would help as well, as would ending the political culture of earmarks and pork and local bribes attached to every single government bill.  Real reform of healthcare would be essential as well.  Obamacare goes a little bit of the way, but US healthcare is still horrendously expensive.  And even though Obama's measure don't shift healthcare onto the government in anything like the way the NHS does in the UK, the US government still almost manages to spend the same amount as a % of GDP and it is arguable if Obamacare will bring this down at all.

Basically were I an American citizen I would feel honour bound to seek out my local candidates and try to vote on the grounds of which appeared saner on the above criteria.  These obviously cut across party lines to a certain degree.  I agree with most of the democrat platform on most policy issues, but I am naturally more fiscally conservative than either of the main party lines over recent periods.  A particularly fiscally conservative democrat would be perfect, a more reasonable, moderate fiscally conservative republican would do as well.  It would come down to the people involved, as it perhaps should in such elections.

How I would have voted if I had a vote is pretty irrelevant though.  The result of the election was clear, Republicans majorly up, Democrats majorly down, and I can draw a few points from it.  America seems to have, at the moment, a political atmosphere based considerably on a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things have been going, a wave of enthusiasm that seems to wash dramatically over the more prosaic policy disputes that actually exist beneath it.  I have mentioned before how the importance of confidence to America and this is something that seems to pervade American political life.  In both 2008 and 2010 American politics seemed to be motivated by, primarily, an anti-politician mood.  A feeling that the government is not working, that something is not working with America, in a manner that is almost not entirely conscious or consciously framed, but is real none-the-less.  In 2006 and 2008 this anti-establishment, anti-politician mood hit the Republicans, sweeping them from office, in 2010 it was now the Democrats turn to be the people in office, swept away under a tide of anti-government rhetoric.  In either case though it seems to be the same troubled mood that is underlies both.  In 2008 Obama was able to ride that wave to victory, posing as the quintessential outsider, totally different to the current administration.  Now Obama's Democrats are the ones battered by a wave of expectations, and falling victim to people playing the role of simple-talking common sense.

In a way, if I may be slightly rude, this seems a somewhat delusional atmosphere.  Americans feel that the world is changing and is slipping away from them but they don't yet seem entirely willing to face up to the harsh truths that means, whether higher taxes, lower spending, more expensive oil, or the fact their politicians cannot wave a magical wand and it make these issues go away.  On the other hand though, their politicians have to take a lot of the blame.  It is their job to provide leadership, it is their job to stand up and say the difficult things, whether people want to hear them or not.  That is the mark of a decent politician.  If politicians will offer simplistic solutions, telling their electorates they can achieve a balanced budget by cutting taxes, or by raising spending, then it is no surprise their electorate begins expecting magic solutions, and complaining when any pain comes along.  Even still, though, it seems that the American people somehow fundamentally know that something is wrong.  The consistently, shockingly low approval ratings for Congress point to it, the plunging of Obama's own approval ratings, the stunning low of Bush's before him, the emergence of the Tea Party outside the formal party structure, all point to the fact that the American people fundamentally feel something is deeply wrong with business as usual.  In elements of the Tea Party we have perhaps the start of the process of facing up to some difficult truths.  In President Obama's health care reforms we have a step in the right direction in another area, that an area of America's current social model might not in fact be the best choice, not just in terms of tinkering round the edges, but in terms of its fundamental structure.  And quite frankly, this is a good thing for any country, not just America, to face up to every now and again.

This is certainly not the end of the road for Obama though, not anything like it.  As said elsewhere, a split congress may actually help.  Now neither Republicans or Democrats can exclusively drape themselves with the colours of the outsiders, though they will both undoubtedly still try.  Republicans have power, but certainly not control, and a smart play by Obama can force them to play along, to a degree, and thus share some of the blame and credit rather than carping from the sidelines.  A congress and government with shared responsibility may improve Bi-partisan relations, at least in practical terms, if not in terms of rhetoric, as one side can no longer take the role of just trying to valiantly oppose everything.  Not being in a position of dominance, or eternal opposition is good for politicians.  It forces them to actually come up with new ideas and try to push new solutions, rather than just rehashing the same old chants and cliches.

Also, Obama is not a Prime Minister and is not facing a legislative general election in 2012, on which his re-election depends.  He is a President and as such he is only up against that particular other person whom the Republicans will scrape together to face him.  At this point he will be able to play to his strengths, and that Republican will very much have to present a better alternative.  George Bush did not exactly have positive qualities oozing from every pore on his skin, but he won because his Democrat alternative managed to be even less credible and inspiring, and offered no coherent positive alternative for the voters to rally.  Chances of Republican victory in 2012 rely on them finding a candidate that seems both competent, reasonable (if not outright moderate) but can still fire up conservative voters and carry at least the partial blessing of the insurgent Tea Party movement.  If they can get all these things together, and reconcile the contradictions inherit therein, they have a good chance of beating Obama, something that would have seem laughable only 2 years ago, when the general assumption seemed to be that Obama would cruise to a 2nd term without serious trouble.  It may still not be enough, but they would at least have a fighting chance, whereas if they pick a candidate that lacks the ability to inspire America, at least a little, and appears credible, to both their conservative base and moderate, centrist, independents, then Obama can sleep easy, knowing his re-election is almost assured.  To be quite blunt, without a credible candidate they will lose.  

Saturday 6 November 2010

A view on American politics from a British Conservative - Firstly, it's just plain confusing.

3rd November 2010, and across the Atlantic the opinion polls and the pundits were almost exactly right. The Republicans took more than 60 seats, taking a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats kept control of the Senate, though with a dramatically smaller majority.

President Obama and his Democrat administration face dealing with a legislature half controlled by a party bitterly opposed to almost everything they are trying to achieve. With the House of Representatives under Republican control, the Senate largely gridlocked by absurd filibuster rules and the Presidency Democrat there is a serious possibility of near total gridlock in the American federal government system over the next two years. Indeed, ironically, the Republicans retaking the House may help Obama's re-election in 2012, with Republicans once again forced to actually take responsibility for decisions, rather than merely carping from the sidelines.

This is fascinating from a British perspective, both in political and constitutional terms. The first thing to note though is that, to the British or European observer, more used to our politics, it is just plain confusing in so many ways. Just to give the general idea I'll give a few examples.

For the British even the names are confusing. We have a Parliament, and we use this word to describe the European equivalents, something that generally fits them. But it does not fit Congress at all, and so we call it Congress instead, and then try to work out what that means. The Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives, which is the lower house of congress, like the House of Commons in parliament, except it is not nearly as important as the House of commons, and, because 'House of Representatives' is too long a name and 'the Representatives' is still quite long, it is often just called 'the House', which is just unhelpful if you don't already know what it is.

The British media do not really know what to do with American congressional elections. They tend to roughly equate US presidential elections with our general elections, as the most important nation-wide election in a rough manner. But this doesn't work because our general elections are really like Congressional elections and Presidential elections rolled into one. But in America they are separate and one can have the situation where the Congress and the Presidency are controlled by opposing parties. To British and generally European minds that is bizarre. Commanding a majority in the main house of the legislature is what makes you a government in the UK. Without it you're nothing, you're in opposition, that graveyard of political impotence. No such thing as 'In Opposition' really exists in America, though if you don't have the Presidency then you are generally considered to be losing. In Britain, and most of Europe, to be in government you also have to be in parliament, otherwise you don't qualify. In America on the other hand, you cannot be both in Congress and the executive branch, it is against the law. Apart from the president nobody in the cabinet is elected, and they are actually not allowed to be.

Now 'the House' (House of what? People ask) is the lower house, and was broadly modelled on the British House of Commons and broadly is the democratically representative chamber (hence the name). But it is, if anything, the least important and prestigious branch of the government structure, compared to the Senate or the Presidency or even being the governor of a state. And the party that dominates it is led in political action and general machinations, not by a prime minister as in Britain and Europe, but by the Speaker of the House, which in Britain is a job which has no party political role and, in fact, is so scrupulously unbiased that the person in the job is not only has to renounce his party loyalty when he takes the job, but isn't even allowed to identify with a party afterwards when he leaves the job, or for the rest of his career. And the Speaker of the House in the US, who will now be a Republican, will now be spear-heading their battle against the President, who is also sort of like our Prime Minister, but has nothing to do with either house of the legislature. Right.

In Britain we only have one set of elections of any importance: General elections, which decide the legislature and the executive, parliament and government. We also have local councils and European elections, but they don't really seem to matter to that many people, partially because they have little control over major policy, and partially, because they have almost no control over money, almost of all which is decided by Parliament and the Government. This is not so in America, where there are Presidential elections and Congressional elections and also important State elections. There is even a great, unique word for the elections for state governors, the mini-presidents of individual states: Gubernational elections. A word that still makes me smile every single time I hear it.

Even the parties involved are odd. America maintains a stranglehold of a two party system that the two main parties in Britain could only dream of. No party has representation at the national level apart from Republicans and Democrats and hasn't for decades. These two parties have been dominant for 150 years, over which time they have almost entirely swapped geographic and demographic bases of support and ideology at least once. Until the 1920's there would have been barely a single black man in all America who would have voted for any party but the Republican party, a party explicitly founded to oppose slavery, which led America into a civil war for that purpose, which was based in the north east and the north industrial districts, and for almost a century never held a single state in the old South. Now, 93% of Blacks vote for the Democratic Party, the party of slavery, the party of the Confederacy, the party of the Klu Klux Klan, the party that held the loyalty of Southern Whites without question. Now the Republicans dominate the South and the democratic party is dominant in the North-East; now the Democratic party is the party of minorities and 'liberal' and 'progressive' society, and largely all thanks to one courageous decision taken by Lyndon Johnson, a politician for once putting principle and morality straight above electoral advantage.

And Americans continue to stick with their two parties. The Republican and Democrat parties continue to uniformly gain more than 95% of the vote in any nationwide or gubernational election, bar the very occasional independent. And despite record levels of discontent with their politicians and the whole political process neither does there seem any serious chance that any other parties will break through. It is a testimony to the sheer breadth of the two parties and the relative homogeneity of America, even in its diversity, that Americans seem quite willing identify with one banner or the other, whether from Oregon or Maine, Chicago or Texas, with none of the fragmentation on ethnic or local grounds we see in political systems elsewhere. Britain has three main nationwide parties, an additional major party that operates in each of wales and Scotland, and about 5 more parties that only operate in Northern Ireland. This is all for various complicated historical reasons. European countries tend to have anywhere between 3-12 main parties, who often get about 5-20% of the vote each, for every possible shade of the ideological spectrum, though they sometimes coalesce into two big ideological coalitions for the purposes of general elections, thus leaving everyone back pretty much where they started.

To British ears the names are odd as well. There is a Republican and a Democratic party and these are deeply opposed, except every single Republican would also claim to be a democrat, and every single Democrat would claim to be a republican (in the British sense) as well. It makes one more grateful for simple explanatory names like Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, who are generally respectively staffed and supported by conservatives, liberals and the working classes. It is especially strange that America has no Liberal or Conservative parties, despite the fact that in America a lot more people actually use and identify with these terms than here. In fairness, though, it must be said that European party names are often even worse, being both unnecessarily long and totally indecipherable. France, for example, (always a good example) is currently ruled by the 'Union for a Popular Movement' (whatever the hell that is) in coalition with (among others) 'the National center of Independents and Peasants' (Riiiight) and 'Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions', which is just bananas; but I suppose at least has the advantage of sounding quite dynamic, and lets face it is about as cool as any political party name is ever going to get.

To be fair, though, British politics is just as confusing for Americans, and for totally different reasons to the ones I have stated above. I remember talking to an American friend, who was astonished at sheer amount of the British constitution and legal system over which there is no codified, written, legal basis. And in fairness it does seem a bloody odd way of doing things at first glance. America, like most other countries in the modern world has a written constitution, which outlines how their political and legal system should operate. In Britain we have no such thing. There is nowhere one can go to find or to look up the rules on which the British legal and political system is based, no charter on which parliament is run and organised. No such document exists.

It is stranger than that though.  For example, until 13 years ago there was not British law guaranteeing freedom of speech. Another example: The most powerful person in Britain is the Prime Minister, but again there is no written legal basis for that position, it exists entirely by unwritten convention. The Prime Minister's own residence, 10 Downing Street is occupied by the Prime Minister, not on the legal basis of being Prime Minister, but rather by that of being 1st Lord of the Treasury, an entirely ceremonial position, which the prime minister holds so that he may have some official position in the hierarchy, since the position of Prime Minister has no written legal basis. This would seem an incredible way to run a state.

Americans also find it strange to realise that we have a whole house of parliament that is entirely occupied by unelected, appointed persons: The House of Lords.  And, not only this, but also until 1997 we had members of that House who were still there solely on grounds of inheriting an aristocratic title from their ancestors, i.e. being Earl of this, or Duke of that. We also still have Christian Bishops of the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords, able to vote on laws, even though no other religious group has this privilege and most of the population has long ceased to be part of the Church of England.

We have a Prime Minister, who is the most powerful man in the country, but is merely an MP, and is only actually elected by his own constituents. I have never voted for David Cameron, nor Gordon Brown before him, and I will almost certainly never have the chance to vote for any Prime Minister that comes after him. We also still have, not only a Monarchy, but a law banning the heir to the throne from marrying or being a Roman Catholic. That is right, we have no written law outlining the authority of our parliament, but we do have a written law banning our head of state from joining a certain religion or, indeed, marrying anyone who belongs to a certain religion. Moreover one held by millions of British citizens and one billion people worldwide. And what is even more weird is that practically no body in the entire country gets particularly upset about these facts.

Americans are also confused by the fact that we have almost no formal checks and balances. These are things that Americans are very proud of having, and they are all told at school that they are the cornerstone of any well constructed democracy. We have traditionally had almost none, though that has changed slightly, recently. Our Executive are all members of our legislature, indeed they have to be. Our most senior judges are all members of part of the Legislature: the House of Lords. The head of our judiciary is in the executive, and the legislature. Whereas Americans have always had a Bill of Rights and a complex series of powers given to the president, and the congress, and the individual state governments we have a Sovereign parliament. Parliament could, tomorrow (well, really in a few weeks), by a simple majority, vote to reintroduce slavery, or abolish local government, or end free speech, or ban trousers, or frankly anything else they pleased.  And with no more difficulty than passing a law demanding minimum standards for bus stops.

The only check against them doing this is that it would annoy a lot of people and they would be voted out at the next election. The only check against them voting to abolish elections is that we would all rise up and rebel if they did. There is no formal, legal constraint on them doing any of these things, no piece of paper anywhere saying they do not have the right to do it, only convention, meaning everyone knows it should not be done, and the assumed fact that no-one would vote/stand for it. To those few Americans who actually know what the British political system looks like this seems a somewhat lax way to run a country. We are leaving the freedom and stability of our political system down to the assumption everyone knows the rules and will abide by them. Our whole constitution operates on the level of a gentleman's agreement, and our entire political and legal system goes the way it does on little more concrete basis than that it is traditional to do it this way.

So in fairness, a decent amount of confusion goes both ways. It is a good thing to be aware of as well, we get so caught up in our own tensions we forget how indecipherable these things are to people who stand outside them. None of this is to say that there is not a good justification for the British way of doing things, nor more serious issues about the American way. And that's not to even begin on the particular political situation that comes up with the mid-terms, which was my original purpose (whoops, got sidetracked). But that is for another time.