Dodging asteroids

March 31, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I know it seems like nothing could be worse than being in a couple of wars, suffering an almighty recession and worrying about the effects of climate change, but you’d be wrong:

In troubled economic times, it’s often hard to convince the government to fund space science. Heck, at least those much-studied fruit flies live on our planet. But there’s one field of research that the public should be happy to support: keeping the Earth from being pummeled by asteroids. And there is no shortage of ideas for how to do this.

Earlier this month, a skyscraper-sized asteroid passed within 50,000 miles of Earth — a galactic hair’s breadth separating the planet from an impact like one that flattened 800 square miles of Siberian tundra in 1908.

Then there’s an asteroid spotted in 2004 and called Apophis. Astronomers originally thought it might hit Earth in 2029. Then they decided that it couldn’t. Finally they moved back the clock to 2036.

The uncertainty is understandable, but not exactly reassuring. And even if Apophis misses, some other rock big enough to put a serious dent in Earth and everything living here will take dead aim for us someday. It’s just a matter of time. Some researchers put the odds of a civilization-wrecker at one in the next 300,000 years, others at 1 in 10 for the next century.

But when our luck finally runs out, humanity will have something even more useful: guns. As described in the scheduled proceedings of the upcoming first International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense conference, engineers have come up with plenty of ways to nudge an Earth-bound asteroid off-course, or failing that, obliterate it from its existence. Here are some of their ideas.

NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March

Even the Americans hate British newspapers

March 31, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Posted in Media, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Quite an achievement:

“All British reporters bring to their reporting an impish desire to entertain as well as inform,” said Shipman, a graduate of Cambridge University who’s leaving Washington to cover Westminster politics for the Daily Mail. “Britain is very intensive newspaper market and you don’t get anywhere unless you tell your readers something extra. We take the view that politics ought to be fun.”

That isn’t the view of Democrats who have been burned by the Telegraph’s stories. “They use anonymous sources to a degree that makes you wonder if they actually have them,” said Bob Shrum, the retired political consultant who managed the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “I would have murdered someone from the Kerry campaign if they talked to the Daily Telegraph.”

Democrats have a long list of grievances with the Telegraph, the most recent examples all traceable to Shipman. In the past year he reported that close allies of Gore were pushing him into the Democratic race to end the Clinton-Obama standoff, that former President Bill Clinton warned that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama would have to “kiss his ass” to get an endorsement and that a source close to the new president worried that the insultingly cheap gift of DVDs he gave to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown meant that Obama was “overwhelmed” by his job. Democrats who worked with those campaigns told TWI that these stories were, respectively, “a total lie,” “just not true,” and “something nobody thinks is true.”

Dave Wiegel has more here.

Poverty stunts the brain.

March 31, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Brandon Keim reports an interesting study:

Growing up poor isn’t merely hard on kids. It might also be bad for their brains. A long-term study of cognitive development in lower- and middle-class students found strong links between childhood poverty, physiological stress and adult memory.

The findings support a neurobiological hypothesis for why impoverished children consistently fare worse than their middle-class counterparts in school, and eventually in life.

“Chronically elevated physiological stress is a plausible model for how poverty could get into the brain and eventually interfere with achievement,” wrote Cornell University child-development researchers Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For decades, education researchers have documented the disproportionately low academic performance of poor children and teenagers living in poverty. Called the achievement gap, its proposed sociological explanations are many. Compared to well-off kids, poor children tend to go to ill-equipped and ill-taught schools, have fewer educational resources at home, eat low-nutrition food, and have less access to health care.

[More here]

NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March

A few links on Pakistan/Afghanistan

March 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

Thanks to work-related stuff, blogging will be very light between now and Saturday, and non-existent for the week after (I’m off to the Lake District for a week, and those holiday cottages are apparently too precious to install broadband access), so anything I post between now and then will be little more than posts of analysis-free link dumping.

Since the failed seige at the Manawan police training school outside Lahore has forced the perilous situation in Pakistan back in the news, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve watched/read over the past day or so. The first is this helpful primer from a documentary Brave New Films has made about the Afghanistan conflict, and how closely it relates to the turmoil in their neighbouring state:

The next two are both from Reuters’ excellent blog on the region. This, from Myra MacDonald, outlines the extent of the distrust and the lack of co-operation between American and Pakistani security forces, and how that makes President Obama’s hopes of reducing the power of militant groups much more difficult:

General Ashfaq Kayani, now head of the Pakistan Army, tells a rather revealing story about this. He is quoted in Brian Cloughley’s book “War, Coups and Terror” as describing the case of a tribesman with a performing monkey who gathered an audience of turban-clad, rifle-bearing men around him in a village in 2005. The U.S. controllers of the drone mistook the event for a weapons-training session or military briefing and dropped a missile, killing many in the audience (he doesn’t say what happened to the monkey). “This, said the General, was an example of lack of cultural understanding,” writes Cloughley.

“The monkey incident, and other attacks by the U.S. within Pakistan,” adds Cloughley, “have convinced the population of North West Frontier Province and a disturbing number of other citizens, including many in uniform, that there is nothing to be gained by supporting the United States, which they consider to be overbearing and imperceptive in its engagement with the country.”

So has intelligence-sharing moved on since then?  If the United States wanted to be sure of hitting the right targets, it could ask the Pakistani military to help it guide the drones and then assess, on looking through the remote camera, whether they were on course.  Or as Foreign Minister Mahmood  Qureshi said last month, it could give Pakistan drones to carry out the task itself.

But intelligence-sharing is not easy at the best of times between different national armies. It’s particularly tough when you don’t trust your allies. Senior U.S. military officers say they believe elements in Pakistan’s Inter-Services intelligence, or ISI, provide support to Taliban or al Qaeda militants. Has Obama worked out how to square that circle? As yet, we don’t know.

And this incredibly illuminating post by Joshua Foust, who has just spent 10 weeks embedded with American troops in Afghanistan, highlights a weakness in American military procedures which actually amounts to reducing the incentives of success.

There are entire swaths of territory that have been ceded to the militants in Afghanistan. In some cases, entire districts are essentially “no go” areas, starved of development and even regular security resources. The abandonment of these areas – at a cost in Afghan lives – has not resulted in any punishments or reprimands of the commanders who did so. Rather, they were praised for reducing their own casualties.

It is a mindset bred into the very framework of the U.S. Army. If a soldier dies in combat, his or her commanding officer is investigated. A “15-6,” as they are called, is convened by Court Martial authority, and should any fault be found on the commander’s part, his or her career could be destroyed.

“No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” a Lieutenant Colonel who worked at the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Afghanistan recently said, “but if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”

Learning from your friends’ mistakes

March 29, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

An abandoned prison in Atlanta, taken by Flickr user erokCom (Creative Commons)

I don’t know if it’s because of her upbringing or because she spends hours making greetings cards in her spare time, but my mother’s always been a walking receptacle for homespun wisdom. Quite often, when she sees an upsetting news story about poverty or starvation or the ravages of war, she’ll sigh, then turn to me, my Dad or brother, and say “y’see love, there’s always someone worse off than you”. In a roundabout way, they’re meant as words of comfort & assurance; a reminder that no matter what hardship or worry one of us might have on a given day, our pains are small & blessings plentiful compared to the many millions of people who make up the great elsewhere. Trite as it may be, there are times when I wonder whether that truism should be this blog’s tagline.

Like most other political bloggers, I spend a lot of time on this these pages ruminating over various wrongs, whining over some perceived slight or trying to find ever more dramatic ways to convince my readers that what I’m writing about is The Most Important Thing You’ll Read All Day. Sure, there are some very serious posts about matters of life & death, and they’ll often warrant the weighty tone in which they’re written. But there are also days when you need to rediscover your sense of perspective.

Anyone who’s visited this place regularly will know that one of my pet arguments is about the need for profound reform of the criminal justice system, and in particular our prison service. I still believe that’s absolutely true, and there’s not one post on the topic that I’d wish to walk back or water down. But it’s also true that in the process of writing about it so frequently and constantly talking up the crises in the system, I give the slightly misleading impression that those things are unique to this country, or that Britain is the world’s worst offender. So just to rediscover our sense of perspective, let’s take a brief look across the Atlantic.

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The chart to the left shows the worldwide incarceration rate, which is the number of people in prison per 100,000 of the population. As you can see, England & Wales currently occupies the bronze medal position, but the gap between the number of people we imprison compared to the United States is just staggering. The chart’s taken from a slideshow prepared by the office of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who’s beginning to speak out about the need to look at root & branch reform of America’s entire criminal justice system.

Webb’s presentation shows that whilst America has only 5% of the world’s population, it boasts 25% of the world’s prison population. 2.4 Americans are currently incarcerated – a rate which is 5 times higher than the global average, and the correctional facilities costs the country a whopping $68 billion pounds a year. Makes you wonder why ‘fiscal conservatives’ aren’t all up in arms, doesn’t it?

For the British sympathiser, there are some factors to the American prison experience which we should be thankful aren’t yet replicated here. For one, sentences for drug offences are far stricter, under the delusion that tough sentencing acts as a deterrant. It was America which gave ‘get tough!’ lobbies around the world the idea of a “three strikes & you’re out” rule, which imposes mandatory life sentences for those find guilty of repeat offending. As a result of this and other ‘mandatory minimums’, the number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980, and, to the best of my knowledge, America still has an abundance of drugs, drug users and drug dealers. Deterrance this ain’t.

The racial disparities are also far more acute in America than in Britain,with African Americans far more likely to be arrested on drugs charges than other groups, and organised gangs have infiltrated much further into prisons than they’ve been able to in our jails. Finally, any attempts by the likes of Senator Webb to begin reform are much trickier to pull off, as America’s federal system of governance means that any change instigated in Washington won’t mean very much unless it’s followed by changes in policy at a state level. In a country where ‘soft on crime’ has been so many good politicians’ epitaphs, that’s an incredibly big ask.

But whilst there are big differences in the scale of the problems our countries face, I also think there’s much in the American example which should serve as a cautionary tale. It’s the American system of warehousing inmates in huge megajails which has provided the inspiration for the government’s much-criticised ‘Titan prisons‘ – a polcy that promises to do little to increase rehabilitation, but threatens to do much to increase drug use, violence & gang activity within prison walls. The American example also demonstrates the dangers of giving responsibility to the private sector; private prisons have proved no more efficient than their public-owned peers, and the culture of cost-cutting leads to more violence and successful escapes. The fact that a moderate Democrat in a conservative state is talking about the need for reform should tell progressives all they need to know about the dangers of mimicking the U.S.’ approach to punishment.

As always, my mum is right; there is always someone worse off than you. But if this post demonstrates anything, it’s that we should be eager to learn from the mistakes & misfortunes of our friends so that we can avoid repeating them. Unfortunately, there are still very few signs that we’re able to do that.

Individuals have rights, not religions

March 26, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

If the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were still alive to today, would they be happy with what the U.N. has become? Whilst we can’t ignore or dismiss its enormous humanitarian work and the countless lives saved as a result, what would they have made of UN’s record of defending the very principles which made these good works possible, and which remains the organisation’s one flawless foundation?

After reading the latest news, I suspect their judgement would not be kind. The U.N.’s Human Rights Council has finally approved a long-threatened motion calling on member states to outlaw the ‘defamation’ of religion. The proposal, which only mentions Islam and was backed by some of the planet’s most belligerent human rights abusers, has been widely-scorned as a quite naked attempt to protect religious belief & practices from the scrutiny and criticism which is our right under the Declaration of Human Rights. As Johann Hari wrote a few months ago:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated sixty years ago that “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest aspiration of the common people.” It was a Magna Carta for mankind — and loathed by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it “Western”, Robert Mugabe calls it “colonialist”, and Dick Cheney calls it “outdated.” The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it — but the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard against which to check ourselves. Until now.

The most offensive parts of the resolution can be found in paragraphs 9 and 12, which claim that whilst free speech is universal, the question of ‘how free?’ should be determined by governments:

9. Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law including articles 19 and 29 of UDHR and 19 and 20 of ICCPR, everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference, and has the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals, and general welfare. [Emphasis mine]

Next, having demanded that free speech be limited by states, it goes on to identify exactly where those limitations should be:

12. Urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs;

At this point, I’ll hand back to Johann:

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a ‘Prophet’ who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.

Now, before we all start getting riled up about our surrender to Jihadism, it’s worth remembering that this resolution is non-binding and certainly doesn’t spell the end for our right to watch Monty Python films. But it is still a dangerous precedent, and one which demonstrates how increasingly difficult it’s become for the U.N. to satisfy its highest human rights ideals when it’s populated by states intent on practicing the opposite.

Selected reading

March 25, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

I have a Netcast up at Liberal Conspiracy in the ‘morrow, but there was quite a bit of overspill, so here’s stuff I also could’ve included:

  • In The New Yorker, Atul Gawande has a magnificent essay on incarceration in America.
  • Matthew Cain describes his experience as a shareholder in the democratic experiment that is Ebbsfleet United football club.
  • Rejoice! The world might not end after all! Doomsayer extraordinaire Noriel Roubini kinda likes the Tim Geithner bank rescue plan.
  • Megan at Jezebel tackles the shady practice of trolling for prostitutes on the internet.
  • Stephen Walt asks: do the troops love Obama or hate him?
  • Dave Neiwert on the grotesque stalker antics of Bill O’Reilly’s news team.
  • Charles Homans writes about the story of Culture11, a now-defunct US conservative website which is much missed.
  • Justin Fox & Jon Taplin point out that Paul Krugman isn’t God.
  • At The Argument, Roseli Tardeli makes the Catholic case for condoms.
  • The NYT’s Room For Debate blog discusses the legacy of Sylvia Plath.

Quote of the day

March 25, 2009 at 7:37 am | Posted in Gay Rights | Leave a comment

I’ve heard the argument that this debate isn’t just about sexuality; that what we’re talking about now is the need for children to be brought up with certain gender roles filled. I’ve been told that a child needs a mother and a father to be okay, to be happy, to be educated and to be brought up right. I completely disagree, and on my own behalf, I know that if I were to have a child, I would do my best to make him or her a positive influence on the community. I would pack them a lunch, and always put a cookie or a brownie in to brighten their day. I would drop them off at soccer practice, or choir, or dance, or anything they wanted to do. I would sing them to sleep, I would push them on the swings, and when they were little, I would let them win races by no more than a centimeter. I would raise them the exact same way my amazing parents raised me. I would raise them to be no one but themselves, and I would raise them to respect the same in others.

James Neiley, 17 years old, testifying in favour of gay marriage in the state of Vermont.

[Video here]

Peace or justice in Darfur?

March 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Posted in International | 7 Comments

Should we prosecute murderous despots when they commit acts of genocide or crimes against humanity? At first glance, it’s a question so obvious, so morally clear-cut, that the only possible answer is an instant & unequivocal ‘yes’. So when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on the grounds of mass murder, rape & torture, it was widely welcomed as a warning to other tyrants that their time will also come. Finally, they thought, the murdered & displaced people of Sudan will have justice.

Except, as reports this week have shown, the situation in Darfur has gotten markedly worse since the warrant was announced. In response to the news, three weeks ago al-Bashir expelled 16 foreign aid organisations from Sudan. What little aid remains is completely inadquate to meet needs, the number of those without proper access to food, medicine & clean water has skyrocketed, and NGOs report increased interference from security forces coupled with a surge in attacks directed at aid workers. Just last week, in defiance of international pleas to reconsider, Khartoum went a step further and announced that all aid agencies must leave the country within a year.

Before I continue, I’d just like to make one thing clear: the fault for expelling these aid groups and worsening the situation in Darfur lies squarely with the President of Sudan; the ICC isn’t to blame if al-Bashir only cements his inhumanity by cutting the supply lines to those who’ve already suffered too much. But in light of a situation that continues to deteriorate and without any new international initiatives on the horizon, I think it’s right to ask whether the decision by the court to pursue justice before peace has, actually been detrimental those suffering at the hands of the President and his henchmen.

That was certainly the argument put forward earlier this month by Sudan experts Julie Flint & Alex De Waal. They point out that Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor at the ICC, repeatedly hinted that he’d received significant amounts of incriminating evidence from relief organisations; an indiscretion which al-Bashir seized-upon to kick them out of the country. Furthermore, they claim that the prosecution is based on an argument so flimsy that it could well see him acquitted, and point out that rather than toppling the regime in Khartoum, the warrant is likely to cement its bloody intransigence. Finally, they warn that if this is to mark an abandonment of a diplomatic approach, then the people of Darfur will be forced to forfeit peace & security for a pursuit of justice which might never be fulfilled.

On the other side, there’s an equally compelling case from Eric Reeves, who argues convincingly that revoking the arrest warrant now would only embolded the regime in Khartoum and send a dangerous message beyond Sudan that the ICC’s judgements should only be upheld when it is morally and politically expedient. Reeves notes that that regime’s flagrant violation of international law and harrassment of aid workers predates what’s currently happening in the region and and concludes that, rather than seeing the ICC’s prosecution as an obstacle towards saving Darfur, it should underline the pressing need to take more concerted action – at the end of the day, only justice will bring peace.

Just the fact that there are strong arguments on either side of the warrant issue should show how the ICC’s well-meaning intervention has complicated matters, and it still remains to be seen whether President Obama’s new special envoy to the region will have the authority, wisdom & resources to navigate through a disaster which currently seems intractible. And meanwhile, amidst all this haggling over whether the pursuit of peace or justice is more important, the people of Darfur – frightened, starving, dead – get neither. We really need to get a move on.

‘Locked Up Potential’

March 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 4 Comments

It’s not the kind of thing which wins you many friends on your own side, but I’ve tried to make a point of highlighting policy areas where the Conservative Party is starting to think more progressively than the current government. The subject of this reluctant love-bombing has mostly been Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, which has produced some excellent work over the past year, particularly on Early Intervention and the need to bring some blessed humanity into the asylum system. But of all their work so far, this new report into the prison system might just be the best thing the CSJ has published.

The first – and most important – thing this report contributes is its demolition of the well-worn myth that ‘prison works’. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, which costs the taxpayer over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At present, the contribution the prison system makes to our social well-being is practically non-existent.

So what do the report’s authors claim needs to be done? Well, the first step is to admit that, yes, we do need to build more prisons, but they also have to be much smaller and rooted in communities. The proposed (and overwhelmingly hated) ‘titan prisons’ should be scrapped and replaced with community prisons & a network of supervised ‘halfway houses’ for those who don’t pose a threat to the public, and for whom withdrawing from society altogether would be entirely detrimental. They also claim that the National Offender Management Service is unfit for purpose, and should be replaced by local prison trusts, run in much the same way as local NHS trusts.

For the first time, rehabilitation would be incentivised, and prison & rehabilitation officers – as well as the organisations they work for – would receive bonuses for the number of inmates they manage to get back on the straight ‘n narrow. On top of that, the rehab programmes themselves would be radically overhauled, and tailored towards an inmate’s specific circumstances; people end up in prison for a wide variety of reasons, and if you’re able to identify & resolve the problems which led them there, you stand a much better chance of reducing the risk they pose once released.

Other proposals include mentoring schemes for young prisoners on short sentences; improving resettlement support so that inmates aren’t as likely to end up on the streets once released; overhauling prisoner education so that those who enter jails without skills or qualifications at least re-enter society with something they can sell on the jobs market. Finally, the report points to the importance of extending restorative justice and making reparations to the victims of crime a much greater part of an offender’s rehabilitation. This is all very, very good stuff.

There’s a big difference, of course, between a report chaired by a former Tory minister for a think tank headed by a former Tory leader, and the current thinking on the Conservative Party’s front bench; whilst Cameron has made a few pleasing noises about scrapping Titans and incentivising rehabilitation, it remains to be seen whether the Tories can embrace this reformist agenda, or whether they’ll fall back on the tired old methods of the past which Labour has proved to be a failure. But if the proposals contained in this report can at least steer the conversation in a more progressive direction by offering real & achievable ideas for change, then that’s not something to be taken lightly.

As it happens, I quite like the slogan ‘prison works’; it’s a fine ideal that we should aspire to and work towards. But it’s also a slogan which has no bearing on the present situation, and unless we can begin to make prison work, we’ll only succeed in wasting yet more money and lives and opportunities doing that which has failed time and again. That two lifelong Tories can reach that conclusion before a Labour government says an awful lot.

No, we can’t. But why?

March 22, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Over at FP, Stephen Walt lists a few areas of international relations where there’s overwhelming evidence that the current policies are flawed & counter-productive, but will never be changed. Here he is on the ‘War on Drugs':

But there seems to be a growing consensus that the “war on drugs” (which we’ve been waging far longer than the “war on terrorism”) is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In the United States, as in many other countries, our anti-drug policies focus primarily on the supply-side: we go after growers, traffickers, dealers and users. And the United States is especially quick to incarcerate anyone who possesses narcotics, even for relatively minor offenses. The results are almost certainly worse than the problem itself: our policy helps enrich drug lords and make it possible for them to destabilize whole governments, as they are now doing in Mexico and Afghanistan. Criminalizing narcotics possession has created a burgeoning prison population that is expensive to maintain and whose long-term incarceration produces a host of other social ills. (For a depressing analysis of some of them, see sociologist Bruce Western’s Punishment and Equality in America). As The Economist recently argued, “the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.” Reasonable people still disagree on what a better approach might be, but decriminalizing narcotics possession and focusing on education and treatment programs would cost less and probably leave us no worse off in terms of addiction and its consequences. But a politician who seriously proposed such a course of action would almost certainly face a firestorm of criticism, so the current failed policy is likely to continue more-or-less unchanged.

Walt ends his post with a good question: “If a lot of stupid policies persist even when it is obvious they make little sense, what does that say about the capacity of democratic systems to learn from their mistakes?”

It’s a question which probably demands a longer response than the one I’m going to offer, but a few thoughts spring to mind. The first thing I’d say is that the legislatures of democratic nations are stuffed with politicians rather than policy wonks. Many have at least one eye on accruing more power for themselves, and those who are more interested in policy over partisanship will tend to specialise in certain areas. As a result, these issues aren’t talked about enough within governments, and that makes policy reform much tougher.

Secondly, there’s not enough of an electoral incentive to make changes. Of the issues Walt lists, electorates generally don’t see any negative impact upon their own lives, and if they don’t see how it’s detrimental to them, then it’s not an issue. One of the main reasons why it’s been such a slow trudge towards tackling climate change was the anxiousness about asking individuals & businesses to reduce their energy consumption; indeed, had we not witnessed eye-watering fuel prices over recent years, we might still be bickering over whether we should be taking action. Electorates mostly vote out of self-interest, not altruism.

I think we should also consider the role globalisation plays in discouraging international policy reform. For one country – even one as large & influential as the United States – to legalise drugs on its own would be a massive breakthrough, but it wouldn’t resolve the problems caused by the international drugs trade. Equally, if France & German offer farm subsidies, it’s in the interest of the British farming industry for its government to do the same. So the only way you’re going to change these failed policies would be by multilateral agreement, and that’s an even tougher trick to pull off.

Finally, in regards to the drugs trade, the consequences of our failure are often held up as reasons why the ‘war on drugs’ should be maintained or even escalated. A middle class kid dying from a drug overdose is used as proof that legalisation is madness; a mother’s gratuitous tell-all book offers evidence that even marijuana is a cancer on society; bloody feuds between rival gangs are added to the argument that the full force of the state should be used to stop them. The argument is both circular and self-reinforcing, and there’s absolutely no incentive for a mainstream politician to deviate from the script. All in all, this talk is a slightly depressive antidote to ‘Yes We Can’.

Beyond all that, this discussion leads us to an interesting off-shoot about the ability of democratic governments to avert crises. In the past decade, we’ve had plenty of warnings about international terrorism, climate change and the dangers of building an economy based on debt, but in none of those cases did our governments take pre-emptive action to reduce to the harm to their people. Despite the warnings, our governments only acted when these crises were in full swing, and, just to paraphrase Stephen Walt, I think there needs to be a lot of talk about what this says about the capacity for democratic governments to protect their people, and whether anything can be done to improve it.

Selected reading

March 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Other stuff I’ve seen today:

  • Apparently Britain really needs to kick the booze habit. Britain replies: “yeah, I’ll just get one more round in”.
  • Over at Refugee Council, there’s a simple, painless request: provide childcare during asylum interviews.
  • To solve university funding, the NUS proposes a tax on graduates.
  • Wired’s Danger Room on Russia’s “large scale re-arming.”
  • At FP, Will Inboden writes about how to get serious on Sudan.
  • Aaron Rowe on how to make a solar cell with donuts & tea.
  • Brad Plumer asks: can you have a green trade war?
  • Via Jim, one Nigerian’s attempt at re-branding his country suffers a slight mishap.
  • Myspace is streaming the new Pete Doherty album. Songs include such charming ditties as “A Little Death Around The Eyes”.
  • Whilst we’re on the topic of cheery music, Popmatters reconsiders Radiohead’s ’90’s output.
  • And lastly, a Russian ice cream maker is either racist or fond of hallucinogenics.

There’s a wee bit more at my link blog (hint: the sidebar to the left).

About those scroungers

March 18, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

I’ll try to write more about this later in the week, but I would hope that Amelia Gentleman’s brilliant (and awfully depressing) report into Breadline Britain will add something to the debates on poverty & welfare dependency:

Shopping at Morrisons doesn’t take very long. Louise has a simple formula: don’t buy anything that costs more than £1. This week, the budget bananas are finished, and the regular packet costs £1.29, so she doesn’t buy bananas. The cheap potatoes are also sold out, so she doesn’t buy potatoes. She fills a basket with Morrisons own-brand orange juice, 56p; reduced-sugar jam, 95p; peanut butter, 78p; yoghurt, £1.00; bread, 99p, granulated sugar, 93p; oven chips, 79p; two tins of eight hot dogs at 49p each; one bag of value apples, £1.00. Only the milk, biscuits and the cheese cost more. She ignores the faltering monologue from her son, who has been diagnosed with learning difficulties, just audible from beneath the pram’s hood. “Mum, I want flowers. Please buy flowers. I want the Bob the Builder egg. I want High School Musical chocolates . . .”

“It would be nice, on occasion, to buy them something on a whim – treats, cakes and biscuits. But if you do, you know you’re going to have to turn the heating off,” she says. Her face is pallid, and she has grey patches of exhaustion beneath her eyes.

She crosses the car park to Iceland to find cheaper bananas (brown and verging on rotten), pizza, cheese spread and chicken pies for £1 each.

“This will easily last me until next week, and there’ll be stuff left over,” she says confidently, although she concedes that things would be better still if she could spare £4 to make a bus trip into the city centre for the weekly Wednesday food handouts by nuns, who usually give her a couple of plastic bags of tins and pasta. Last harvest festival her daughter’s school was collecting for the nuns, so she sent in a few tins she had been given by them, and is half-expecting to see them come back full circle and return to her cupboard.

Do read the rest.

Rap, not Rand.

March 17, 2009 at 10:37 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera, U.S. Politics | 6 Comments

For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s a good thing to see the Republican Party rediscover its low-spending, small-state past. For one thing, nobody will be able to claim in either 2010 or 2012 that there’s no difference between the major parties, and I’d like to think that a focus on fiscal responsibility will, for a time at least, extinguish the power of the fundamentalist fringe. Sure, in the aftermath of the stupendous financial mismanagement of the Bush years, all the rhetoric coming out of Camp Elephant sounds hilariously hypocritical, but I suspect they were doomed to around 12 months of ridicule no matter what they said.

But one slightly more surprising consequence of all this political & economic change has been the explosion of interest in the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, which is staunchly defended in a piece by Bella Gerens which has been doing the rounds . Being one of those damned collectivists, there’s obviously not an awful lot I can relate to, but it’s still an excellent piece of writing.

On the topic of Ayn Rand: I suspect I’ll see the inside of a casket before I try to start Atlas Shrugged, but when you consider that my list of Books To Read Before Death only grows longer by the year, that’s not too much of a slight. Beyond that, I’m not going to pass comment on something I haven’t read, except to note that this book, like Orwell’s 1984 , is just a work of fiction.

Nevertheless, political fiction has a rare ability to make ideology come to life. When done right, it can turn abstract theories into practical scenarios and force readers to confront their established ways of thinking. Rand did libertarianism a great favour by novelising its key concepts, and there are plenty of people who describe themselves as libertarian today because of that book’s influence.

But the problem with Kids These Days is they don’t have the attention span to read anything longer than a Twitter feed, so how does a libertarian persuade the ‘Yes We Can’ generation to change their slogan to ‘Tax Is Theft’? As foolish as it might be to give a helping hand to a political foe, I think I have the answer: get ‘em listening to Gangsta Rap.

Yes, I am being serious. Whilst it’s suffering from a creative and commercial decline at the moment, hip hop remains one of the most listened-to musical forms on the planet, and reaches people far beyond the reach of most politicians, nevermind novelists. What’s more, the genre is full of themes which are suspiciously similar to libertarian ideals.

First, rap celebrates individualism. Rappers use the personal pronoun like hairdressers use a pair of scissors, and most songs speak of overcoming great adversity, celebrating triumph or just simply being ‘the shit’. Rap is about agency, not structure, and the message that anyone can make something of themselves if they work hard at it .

Rap is also idealised as the freest of free markets. In The Battle, rival MCs square off and verbally attack each other onstage, and the crowd roars its approval for whoever does the best job of destroying his/her rival. This old footage of Eminem shows how he overcame the white jokes by simply being far superior to those doing the taunting; towards the 3:40 mark, he splits his enemy in half by ad-libbing “everybody in this fucking place will miss you if you try to turn my facial tissue into a racial issue. Nobodys hearing you, you’re a whack liar; there, all your white jokes just backfired“. For anyone not au fait with rap, that’s quite exceptional lyricism, and shows that freestyle battling is one of the truest forms of meritocratic art. On stage, talent is all.

Gangsta rap is one of the few art forms where success is celebrated in song and entrepreneurship is sacrosanct. As Jay-Z reminds us, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” The Re-Up Gang speak of their recent past when they rap about a “million dollar corner from the school of the hard knocks, built an empire off of hard rock. The phrase “mind on my money & my money on my mind” is so often-used that it might as well be a cliche, and rappers regularly use sales figures to slap down their less successful rivals, like when Jay told Mobb Depp that “I sold what your whole album sold in my first week”. In gangsta rap, commercial success equals influence, validity, even virility.

There’s more: rappers can speak from first hand experience about the wretched war on drugs, as many made their millions from rapping about dealing them. And then there’s a fondness for the Second Amendment, and protecting their hard-earned property by ‘any means necessary ‘.

Individualistic, meritocratic, proud firearm owners, sworn enemies of the War on Drugs and possessing a mixture of social liberalism and personal responsibility – for a libertarian, what’s not to like?

Sure, the hip hop community, like the wider black community, is heavily affiliated with the Democratic Party, and some of the rappers mentioned in this post worked very hard to elect Barack Obama President. But if libertarians really wanted to try to expand their movement into some unlikely places, they could do a lot worse than appropriating some of the motifs and messages prevalent in thousands of million-selling rap songs.

There is one problem, however; what the hell rhymes with ‘libertarian’??

Vatican asserts control over raped 9-year-old’s uterus

March 16, 2009 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 1 Comment

Well, this makes for some eye-opening reading. Still under fire for lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust denier, the Vatican is now on the defensive for endorsing a Brazillian Archbishop’s decision to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who fell pregnant through rape and then had a ‘lifesaving’ abortion.

Let’s just ponder that for a moment: a Holocaust denier gets his Jeebus pass reinstated despite not really renouncing his views, but the mother and doctors of a raped 9-year old girl will now be refused communion because they conspired to perform an abortion. I normally take pains to make this place a swear-free zone, but seriously… what the fuck?

Now, contrary to certain views, having religious faith doesn’t mean you’re inherently irrational or malicious, and it’s nice to see that a man with whom I disagree with on plenty has argued that the girl should’ve been “treated with sweetness” and mercy rather than compounding her misery. As Jill reminds us, no church is monolothic and no faith can be applied dogmatically, regardless of context or circumstance. Problem is, that seems to be exactly what happened with these excommunications, and fits perfectly into a purification strategy which has seen the Vatican become ever more puritanical. The Church is free to set whatever moral course it likes, of course, but decisions like this just shows the hurt it can cause to those who least deserve it.

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