Friday, 26 August 2011

A terrible waste

Back in April, BBC News featured this story:

Oxford gardeners will soon have to pay to have their green waste recycled, with the council blaming government cuts for the decision.

The current scheme where green hessian sacks are emptied by the city council will be replaced by a chargeable service from 3 May.

Residents wishing to recycle will have to opt for a brown wheelie bin or purchase eco refuse sacks.

Councillor John Tanner said: "The new scheme is entirely voluntary."

He added "We hope people will continue to recycle."

Subscribing to the wheelie bin service will cost £35 per year. The eco sacks will be sold in packs of 10 for £25 and 20 for £35.

Mr Tanner, who is a board member for Cleaner, Greener Oxford, said: "The government cuts have forced us to introduce a paid-for garden waste service.


So this previously free service is now going to cost £35/year, but it's "entirely voluntary". Presumably I can burn my garden waste, leave it to rot in a heap, put it in ordinary black bin bags along with the food waste (verboten, of course), or ferry it to the tip myself. Nice.

The whole thing is reminiscent of another BBC story that came out on the 1st of April (sadly not a joke) about Somerset County Council charging people to use the tip.

Just think about all of the pointless activities they could have cut, rather than charging residents extra for a basic service. But their aim isn't to cushion local taxpayers from the impact of central government funding reductions. They have no desire to reconsider which of their functions are truly essential, how many people are required to deliver them, and what these people need to be paid. On the contrary, they want to make the cuts as painful as possible: "government cuts have forced us".

To top it all off, Oxford Council (having given away bins to people on various forms of benefit) now don't have enough of the brown bins to meet demand. We were told a couple of weeks ago that we'd have to wait until September. Can you imagine what would happen to a business that behaved this way?

Grade inflation

A good article from Katharine Birbalsingh:

When interviewed about the ever-improving A-level results last week, Andy Burnham said, ‘I think that young people these days are just working harder than they were in my day.’ He then went on to explain that he knows this because he visits schools and can see how hard children are working.

Presumably this means that every year, for the last 29 years, our 17-year-old children have been working harder and harder. It seems odd that somehow, 29 years ago, we rigged it so that every year, our children would work hard enough so that they were working harder than the year before, but not quite hard enough so as to deny room for the following year to improve on the previous year’s work.

I recommend the whole article.

Personally, I think the best course may be to do away with standardized testing altogether, and let universities set their own entrance criteria.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Gabb: reforming criminal justice

Sean Gabb has some good ideas for reforming our criminal justice system into one that properly deters criminals, while leaving the rest of us alone.
First, we need to abolish every so-called crime that doesn’t have an identifiable victim. This means relegalising drugs for adults, and respecting freedom of speech and association. It also means ignoring acts that may be preparations for crime, but are not in themselves attacks on life and property. It isn’t the business of the law if people smoke dope, or speak ill of minorities or refuse to do business with them, or if people keep guns at home, or collect books about bomb-making, or if they bribe foreign politicians, or even get involved in plots to kill them. Enforcing these laws leads straight to a police state and soaks up oceans of our money that could and should be spent on catching actual thieves and violent criminals.

Second, we need to go back to all those old common law rules that used to protect the innocent. We need the right to silence, and peremptory challenge of jurors – we need to stop the drift away from trial by jury. We need the rule against hearsay evidence, and the full presumption of innocence. Cutting down on these protections doesn’t make it easier to punish the guilty. It just enables more miscarriages of justice.

Third, we need to make sure that those found guilty of the remaining crimes are effectively punished. The idea that prison can reform bad character is stupid. People are what they are. If they go wrong, they should be punished in ways that the rest of us think just, and that scare them from reoffending.

It seems like a harder line than his previous post (Is Prison too Soft?). The idea of compensating victims has some merit, but as Gabb notes in his more recent article, compensation must go beyond simple replacement of the stolen goods:

For example, you’ve burgled me. Well, you’ve cost me £3,000 for lost property, plus £5,000 for the fear and anxiety of a violated home. So you pay me £8,000. If you don’t have the money, you’re set to work on digging the roads or stitching mailbags until you’ve earned it.

This is important not just for the "fear and anxiety", but because we have far less than a 100% conviction rate. A rational thief, if he judges that he has only a 1 in 100 chance of getting caught, would happily continue stealing unless he were forced to repay more than 100 times the value of the goods stolen. That could mean a lot of ditch digging and mailbag stitching. It also feels a bit too businesslike, as if there's nothing wrong with stealing so long as compensation is made.

Gabb does seem sympathetic to corporal punishment for violent offenders:

If you knocked me on the head when I found you in my home, you pay much more – and get a sound beating as well. After that, you’re set free.

I too think this might not be such a bad idea, and I'd be happy for the lashing to be conducted in public, but I imagine most people in modern Britain would find it a bit too barbaric.

What is clearly a stupid idea is locking criminals away with other criminals (some worse than themselves). In prison they experience an alternative morality, surrounded by people with no respect for the law. They become more callous and brutal, perhaps pick up a drug addiction, and meet future partners in crime.

Personally, I think prison done properly can play an important part in deterrence and rehabilitation. I'd like every prisoner's initial stay to be in solitary confinement. Let someone spend a 6 months in a windowless room, soundproof room, with bland food served by machines, and not even guards to talk to. Then they may begin to appreciate the benefits of human society. Let them then be released into a school-like prison, with the strictest standards of discipline. They would be taught the old fashioned way, to read, write, dress, and speak properly. They would have private cells, but unadorned with personal items. Any sign of disrespect to guards or fellow prisoners would earn them another spell in solitary. Contact with friends and relatives from the outside would only be allowed after many months, and these meetings would be closely monitored, with no physical contact possible. Interaction with fellow prisoners would be strictly limited to the classroom environment. Gradually, as the release date approaches, prisoners could be transferred to new units that more closely resemble the outside world, but any regression would still earn them a new spell in solitary.

Prison doesn't currently work, but it can be made to.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

An atheist libertarian

Turns out Penn Jillette is just like me: an atheist libertarian.

I discovered this excellent article via DK and Samizdata. The quote that DK highlighted bears repeating:
It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

People try to argue that government isn't really force. You believe that? Try not paying your taxes. (This is only a thought experiment—suggesting on that someone not pay his or her taxes is probably a federal offense, and I'm a nut, but I'm not crazy.). When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force—literally, not figuratively.

I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone. The fact that the majority thinks they have a way to get something good does not give them the right to use force on the minority that don't want to pay for it. If you have to use a gun, I don't believe you really know jack. Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks. It's just ganging up against the weird kid, and I'm always the weird kid.
I was also interested in the bit that gave the title to the article:

Last week I was interviewed for Piers Morgan's show (which used to be Larry King's show). Piers beat me up a bit for being an atheist (that's his job) and then beat me up a bit for being a libertarian (also his job). He did this by asking me impossible questions, questions that none of us, Harold, Richard, me, (or Piers), could ever answer.

He started with "How did you get here?" and I started talking about my road to showbiz and atheism and he interrupted and said he meant how the universe was created. I said, "I don't know."

He said, "God," an answer that meant Piers didn't know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.

Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, "No," he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.

He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn't know, but he thought that made me look mean ... even though I do care and do try to help.

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

I think I'll follow DK's recommendation and catch up on Penn and Teller's Bullshit series.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


Yesterday, James Delingpole wrote:
The law-abiding public are angry, of that there’s no doubt; and what’s clear is that they don’t want the thugs and agitators responsible for last week’s outrages let off the hook. But when they want tough sentencing, they want it for people like the thugs who steamed into the Ledbury restaurant and robbed the diners at knifepoint; the kind who burned down the Reeves store in Croydon; who mowed down those three young men in Birmingham. Not for people like the student who opportunistically helped himself for £3.50 of bottled water as he passed a looted store and ended up being sentenced to 18 months in prison. Not only is that sentence going to ruin a man’s life and cost the taxpayer at least £40,000 in valuable jail space but it creates the disconcerting impression that our justice system is arbitrary, cruel and out of touch.
And though I don't condone theft even of a bottle of water, it is indeed absurd that it should receive a harsher sentence during the 'riots' than at any other time.

Today, via DK, I discovered an excellent post from Bella Gerens:

From the Telegraph via Tim Worstall:

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were jailed for four years each for inciting the disorder on Facebook despite both being of previous good character.

From the same Telegraph article:

A fourth defendant, Linda Boyd, 31, who has 62 previous convictions, was given a 10 month jail term suspended for two years after she was caught trying to drag away a £500 haul of alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco.

I’m not sure I need to make this comment, but: what kind of justice is this when two people of previous good character receive lengthy custodial sentences for making remarks on Facebook, but a third person who has a long, long history of criminal behaviour is given a suspended sentence for being caught with stolen goods?

I understand that these were different courts with different judges in different regional jurisdictions, but there still seems to be a massive disparity in the interpretation of sentencing guidelines here.

She concludes:

It is outrageous that remarks on Facebook merit a longer, harsher jail sentence than some rapes and murders, let alone theft and looting.

But what is really outrageous is that making remarks on Facebook can be criminalised at all. Perhaps Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan can band together with Paul Chambers and his supporters to help stamp out this fascist British tendency toward criminalisation of speech.


To my admittedly prejudiced eye, Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan do look like a couple of thugs.

Perhaps they're guilty of many crimes for which they have not been convicted. But the crime for which they've actually been convicted shouldn't exist at all.

I'm reminded of a characteristically eloquent post by Tom Paine from February 2009: Should "egging on" be a crime?.

Now it seems you don't even need to be physically present to be held liable for the actions of others. We live in dark times.

Let them eat carbon

  • Green taxes raised over £40 billion in 2010
  • Even after accounting for the cost of road building and greenhouse gas emissions, they were excessive by over £13 billion

The biggest threat to taxpayers right now is expensive new green taxes and subsidies. In the first ever mainstream book on this subject – published Thursday 18 August – TaxPayers’ Alliance Director Matthew Sinclair has exposed how this is the critical new threat to family finances. With rising fuel bills and petrol prices, it will be a defining feature of the political landscape over the coming year.

Sounds very promising.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

NHS for SA?

BBC News reports

South Africa's government has set out its plans to introduce a universal health care scheme.

A pilot scheme in 10 areas is to start in April 2012, and will then be phased in nationally over the next 14 years.

"These first steps towards establishing national health insurance are truly historic," the health minister said.

Analysts say South Africa is one of the world's most unequal societies, where quality health care is skewed towards the private sector.

Oh dear, not the ghastly private sector!

Onward Socialist Soldiers!
"If you earn above a certain income you will be required by law to make a contribution to the NHI Fund. It will not be possible to opt out of this responsibility," he said.
Coercion! That's what we like to see!
"The central challenge to the stability and well-being of our nation is reducing the deep inequality between rich and poor, between privilege and deprivation. This goes to the heart of South Africa's future," Mr Motsoaledi said.
Ah yes, inequality: the root of all evil. Except not.

Let's just hope the South Africans aren't foolish enough to emulate our Soviet-style healthcare system. Here in the UK, the government is not content to confiscate wealth from some of its citizens in order to pay for the healthcare of others. That works for most other western democracies, but not us. Here we're apparently convinced that the government does a much better job of running things than the private sector, so the government must provide healthcare, as well as requisitioning the funds for it.

It's such a great idea, I wonder why we don't bring back the National Coal Board.

China freezes new rail projects

BBC News reports:
Chinese officials have ordered a temporary halt on new high-speed rail projects, as the fallout continues from last month's fatal crash near Wenzhou.
Evil capitalists showing no concern for their customers?

No. The fingerprints of the dead hand of government are all over this tragedy.
An official diktat ordering journalists in state-run media groups not to investigate the causes of the crash was leaked on the internet, leading to allegations of a cover-up.

Workers clear wreckage of mangled carriages after a Chinese high-speed train derailed, July 24, 2011 Four carriages were shunted off a viaduct after an apparent signal failure

And a government order was leaked advising local lawyers that they needed authorisation to take on compensation cases of victims.

The high-speed rail network is one of the country's flagship projects.

But critics have accused the government of ignoring safety warnings in its rush to complete the construction.
When you think back to China's empty cities, this isn't at all surprising.

But it is amusing to see BBC reporters use the term 'diktat' and to bemoan 'state-run' media groups.

Demingifying Lion's Address Book and iCal

I'm still greatly enjoying OSX Lion.

I've disabled the "Show Dashboard as Space" option, but have otherwise stuck largely with the defaults. "Natural" scroll now feels truly natural, and I confuse myself when using my wife's MacBook.

However, I was truly shocked the first time I opened iCal:
Much as I like The Flintstones, this isn't the sort of interface I want to work with every day.

Address Book (which use much less often) was equally hideous:

Who at Apple thought this would be a good idea? And have they been sacked?

Thankfully the blogosphere has its share of aesthetes, and one of them was good enough to hack this leathery mess into a form more concordant with the beautiful aluminium frame.

Much better!

Many thanks to MacNix.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Regional development

In the comment section on a recent article by Daniel Hannan, Jedibeeftrix wrote:
A nation-state is effectively a collective agreement that a people are a family, who have sufficient trust in each other to accept indirect governance from representatives of the prevailing will of a majority, it is also a collective agreement to work together for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual. In short it is a marriage which results in a transfer union.

Inevitably there will be richer and poorer parts of the nation-states economy, and if that economy is not to tear itself apart from the strife resulting from a polarising divergence in wealth then there must be a compact agreed by the people that national taxation will be redistributed in a manner the assists less advantaged areas. In short
the rich pay for the poor.

This compact is seen in every developed country, by way of social benefits applied equally throughout the territory, by way of regional development funds to promote wealth creation in poor performing areas, and by concentrating public sector activity in areas of reduced economic potential. It is fundamental to the cohesion and harmony of the society.
I replied:
Though I agree that minimal benefits (hostels, soup kitchens, basic education, basic healthcare) should be available to all citizens, I don't think the government should treat different regions of the country differently.

It is folly to concentrate public sector activity in areas of "reduced economic potential".

Firstly, who determines that the economic potential is reduced? The private sector will do a much better job of this than the government, especially since the economic potential changes over time in response to technological advances.

Secondly, with free movement of people, there's no reason why job-seekers can't move to areas with more economic potential.

Thirdly, areas where there is a large public sector presence become dependent on that presence (in the same way that individuals get trapped on benefits). What happens when we want to vastly reduce the responsibilities of a government department, or eliminate it altogether? What happens if the government simply runs out of money? Far better that the residents are employed in the private sector, doing things that people are willing to voluntarily pay for. And just as living on handouts is bad for the soul, hundreds of government non-jobs are unlikely to boost the spirit of a community.

Finally, note that the government department in the depressed area will be competing with local private enterprises for employees. This will discourage wealth-generating activities, making it harder for the area to return to sustainable prosperity.

"Regional development funds" are a bad idea for similar reasons, but with added scope for corruption.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Right Wing ist verboten

Regular readers will know that I've long been concerned about the term 'far right'. Whether used carelessly or cynically, it seems to suggest that Norman Tebbit and Daniel Hannan are closet BNP supporters. In fact, Fascism has much more in common with the authoritarian left than it does with small-state conservatism.

Ever since the Breivik incident, the BBC has taken to openly condemning not just the 'extreme' or 'far' right, but those who dare to identify themselves simply as 'right wing'.

Take this article:

Trojan T-shirt targets German right-wing rock fans

Music fans who took souvenir T-shirts from a rock festival in Gera, eastern Germany, have discovered they hold a secret message
The stunt was organised by a left-wing group called Exit, which seeks to reduce the influence of the right-wing in Germany.

"What your T-shirt can do, so can you - we'll help you break with right-wing extremism," the message reads, and provides a contact number for the group.

On its website, Exit said it had made contact with the organisers of the Rock For Germany festival, in its ninth year, using a false name and had offered the T-shirts for free.

The group's founder, Bernd Wagner, said the group hoped its actions would raise awareness among young festival-goers.

"With these T-shirts, we aimed to make ourselves known among right-wingers, especially among young ones who are not yet fully committed to the extreme right," he said, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

The Rock For Germany festival had as its slogan "Never again communism - Freedom for Germany".
What an offensive slogan! Thank Gaia that some good left wingers were on hand to steer them back in a socially responsible direction!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Was Tottenham's riot a cry of rage?

... a typically BBC question!

Was Saturday night an orgy of mindless violence or a cry of rage from a marginalised, disaffected part of society?
The images of youths torching buildings and cars, attacking police and laying waste to a community rightly anger. Never mind the sight of adults old enough to know better filling their cars with looted TVs and stolen clothes.

But it took place in a part of London where resentment by some against the police had been building for days after a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by officers in an incident the circumstances of which may not be fully understood until an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation is completed.

For BBC journalists, there is no question of personal responsibility. People simply react, like underprivileged automata, to poverty and marginalisation.

No BBC article is complete without a reference to Coalition Cuts, and they somberly report that police budgets "are being squeezed by 20%" and that "Haringey Council, the borough that contains Tottenham, has seen its youth service budget slashed by 75%".

However, this paragraph stood out to me:
... if it were poverty alone were the driving factor, one would expect communities in the cities of the north of Britain, not the south, to have been in flames on Saturday night.
There are two politically incorrect answers: that those involved are genetically predisposed to violence, and that they are culturally that way inclined. A rational, dispassionate observer would not dismiss either possibility out of hand, but both theories are taboo in modern Britain.

Whatever the truth, I like to think that no man is a slave to his genes, and that cultural attitudes can be changed. People do respond to incentives, but what's needed here is not more Diversity Outreach Advisors, handouts, or special exemptions to university admissions standards.

Rather than encouraging a sense of victimhood, we need to ensure that work pays, and that teenagers don't see pregnancy as a route to income and housing.

Nothing fosters resentment like welfare dependency and the enduring poverty it brings. And nothing engenders self-respect and social integration like personal enrichment through voluntary exchange with other members of society.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Lawson on Thatcher's support for the IPCC

From The Australian:

Lord Lawson -- energy secretary from 1981 to 1983 and then chancellor until 1989 -- said that he was not surprised by Mr Cameron's letter to Julia Gillard last week praising her for sending a "strong and clear signal that Australia is determined to make its contribution to address this challenge".


Comments in Australia about Baroness Thatcher's position as one of the pioneers of action against climate change were "not an accurate portrayal", he said.

"I was as close to Margaret Thatcher as anybody at the time. The fact is initially she felt this issue needed to be looked into, but she was agnostic as to whether it was a serious problem or not.

"She was instrumental in having the IPCC set up, but it has changed greatly from what she intended as a fact finding organisation to become a lobby group."

Lord Lawson said Baroness Thatcher made her position clear in her memoirs and her later book Statecraft.

"She did have reason for highlighting the possibility of global warming because the biggest threat to the UK energy security at the time was the stranglehold the Marxist National Union of Mine Workers had on the coal industry.

"She felt Britain should not be so dependent on coal. She was in favour of building up nuclear energy to break the dependence on coal and the main opposition to nuclear came from the environment movement. Mrs Thatcher thought she could trap them with the carbon emissions argument."

So that was Thatcher's excuse. What's Cameron's?

Friday, 5 August 2011

Euro crisis rolls on, double dip looms

BBC News reports:

Wall Street had its worst day for almost three years as shares tumbled on fears about the eurozone debt crisis and the US economic recovery.

The Dow Jones index closed down more than 500 points, or 4.3%, and came after the leading European bourses fell more than 3%.

It was the biggest one-day fall for the Dow since December 2008.

Those of us who believe that fundamental economic problems are worsened rather than fixed by government intervention won't be surprised that things are taking a turn for the worse.

If we do now fall into a full-blown depression, let us be glad that technological progress over the last 80 years will limit the impact on those worst affected. People may suffer, but they shouldn't starve.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Hannan: Eurocrats declared crisis to be over, but the pesky markets weren't listening

So much to blog, so little time!

Daniel Hannan has written lots of good articles recently, but his latest is worth noting for posterity:

On Saturday, the European President, Herman Van Rompuy wrote an unintentionally hilarious piece in The Guardian in which he chided the markets for not doing what they were told. “Astonishingly, since our summit the cost of borrowing has increased again for a number of euro area countries.”

Those pesky bond traders! Weren’t they listening? Eurocrats have officially declared the crisis to be over!

Spanish and Italian bond yields have now risen to a higher level than before the summit, and are close to the point which triggered the Irish, Greek and Portuguese bailouts. The graphs below show the price of, respectively, Italian and Spanish debt,