Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Rise of Stupid Politics

When people take a position in any argument, in principle they should base their views upon a platform of facts. Sometimes those facts might be interpreted in different ways, but as the old Guardian motto had it, "Comment is Free, but facts are sacred". This "Dialectic" has been the basis for rational argument for centuries.

Not any more.

We are seeing the rise of political comment and political practice that is not based on any kinds of facts at all. "Evidence based policy" is so rare that these days it has to be specially commented on. The fact is that, from Donald Trump to Katie Hopkins, emotion and not truth is now becoming the primary source of policy.

OK Katie Hopkins makes her money from being a pantomime villain, but in fact very few people get the joke. Her opinions, like those of Donald Trump, or most of the Brexiters in the UK are not based on facts- they are almost entirely made up, and border on the irrational. In a single speech that Donald Trump made recently, he made the largest number of factual errors that Factcheck had ever seen.

In fact these are not mistakes: they are outrageous, brazen lies, which he does not retract.

The same applies to most of the comment from the Leave camp. The twisted logic that says that the Brussels bomb attacks prove that the EU is a threat to the Queen's peace in Britain is utterly outrageous.

This info graphic provides the facts as to why. The level of terrorism in Europe is actually at a fairly low point compared to most of the last forty years. In that time of course, well over half of terrorist murders were in the UK as a result of Irish terrorism. Given that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU would probably restore a working border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it is far more likely that leaving the EU would increase direct terrorism against the UK itself. The risk is obvious, but as they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

Only a spectacularly stupid commentator like, say, Katie Hopkins would deny the truth of that risk.

Meanwhile in Scotland, stupidity runs riot. Today, March 24th 2016, was the proposed independence day for Scotland. During the referendum campaign the SNP made a case for economic independence that was totally dishonest. Yet the implosion of practically every single economic statement ever made by the SNP is met with a barrage of denial from separatist fanatics. It seems the majority of Scots are still prepared to vote for a party that not only got it wrong, it actively mislead the Scottish people. If there is any case for Scottish independence, it must be built on reality, in other words one built on real sacrifice and hardship, not on the easy lies of the SNP. Worse, those who raise rational arguments with the SNP are subjected to a brutal hate campaign led by thugs. It is irrational at best, at worst, it is a threat to the very basis of freedom.  

If today had been independence day, Scotland would be in a very serious crisis, and not only an economic one, but a political one too. Even the most lurid issues raised by "project fear" would have been nothing compared to the grim reality.

Likewise, if the UK votes to leave the EU, the most lurid problems raised by the so-called EU "project fear" may also be as nothing compared to the reality- and the Brexit supporters do not have any idea how to address the problems that their disastrous miscalculation could create. Most of the "facts" raised by the Leave faction are in fact provably not true.

Some of the more patronising political figures complain that the issues are blurred by "politics" and so, for example, Tom Hunter is printing at his own expense a guide to the issues. OK fair enough, but frankly it is up to the voters to do more to educate themselves- indeed they have a civic responsibility to do so.

In the end, the voters get the stupidity they deserve. It is nearly three thousand years since the Greeks established the rules for searching for the truth, the dialectic, which was popularized by Plato's Socratic Dialogues. Voters who do not use the dialectic end up like the wife of the Monty Python Professor of Logic: totally screwed.

The poisonous irrationality of the politics of the stupid needs to be addressed and defeated. Otherwise irrational Fascism and irrational Communism may prove to be the forerunner of a far darker hell, and one from which our species might not recover from. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Justification by Faith


Next Sunday- Palm Sunday- Holy Week begins. It is a time when the long fast of Lent reaches its conclusion and the critical events of the Passion of Christ are remembered. 

Personally I find it a sombre and powerful time.

Yet for many in the West the idea of commemorating the crucifixion is absurd and possibly dangerous. For many, to ascribe power to the legendary judicial death of an obscure Jewish carpenter is to ignore the truths that we see all around us. Christ does not mention the things we know today, because he did not know them, therefore he must be merely a product of his time, and therefore not transcendent or divine. Some go further and suggest that Christians or indeed any other religious follower are self deluding or arrogant because they refuse to accept the truths of science.

Personally I do accept the truths of science. I accept the sceptical method. I am in awe of the majesty of the the vastness and stunning beauty we see in the heavens- and the science that helps us start to understand it.

I also know that we know so little. In a Universe where even the Milky Way itself is a mote of dust in the near infinity of space, our perception of reality is limited and partial. Beholding the Universe is something that is essentially impossible, and even the attempt puts us in a position of utter humility. The scale and power of what is out there is quite literally beyond our comprehension.

As a small boy I watched the launch of the Apollo Moon missions, and for me the names of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Jack Sigert, Al Shepherd, Ed Mitchell, Stu Roosa,  Dave Scott, James Irwin, Al Worden, John Young, Charlie Duke, Ken Mattingly, Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt and Ron Evans carried an almost mystical magic. These men, together with Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Tom Stafford are the only humans have have ever seen the whole of the Earth with their own eyes. Their reflections on the meaning of their mission, notably in the film "The Shadow of the Moon", express profound truths about our place in the Universe. All of them express a sense of spirituality in the way they describe our home Planet in the vacuum of space. Many of them indeed followed spiritual or religious paths on their return home.

Learning more compels us to understand that most truth contains quibbles and qualifications. We need to learn humility. For some the idea of religious faith is the opposite of humility, it is irrational certainty. Perhaps for some it is. I certainly don't feel that way. I accept that faith seems to demand a belief in the impossible. Almost by definition I question this faith at every turn. Yet recently, since the beginning of the liturgical year in Advent, I have attended the Lutheran service in Tallinn. The pattern of Confession, Kyrie, Gloria, Lessons, Sermon, Creed, Sanctus, Lord's Prayer, Pax, Agnus Dei, Nunc Dimittis, Benediction and Postlude is an ancient one. In the mediaeval church of the Holy Spirit, though the congregation is very small in this most secular of societies, the Lutheran music tradition is strong and beautiful. Taking Communion should objectively not mean too much, but in fact I feel considerable emotion. I am moved by the idea that the Universe might have a presiding spirit within it and that our existence may not be merely from some random course of events. The service makes me mindful of my fellow congregants, of wider humanity, the world and the worlds beyond the worlds. I take in the message of peace, forgiveness and trust that is distilled from the approved version of the Christian story. Whatever the details of the origins of Christianity, whatever the complete truth of the New Testament, the faith that is preached today is a subtle and sophisticated analysis of human frailty and human strength. 

In the symbols of the liturgy I am actually surprised to find not an empty, dust-filled irrelevance, but a profound sense of purpose. I do not claim that Christianity is the only religious way to encounter the purpose of existence, in fact I do not claim that religious faith of any kind is necessary. I only claim that for some, such faith is and has been a positive force.

Therefore I will ask of others only what I would offer myself: a sense of respect. I would ask that you do not denigrate faith as a "conversation with an invisible sky fairy". I would ask that you accept that others have different points of view and that these points of view may have a value that you may not understand or believe. I would ask for tolerance and an open mind. Even, at a stretch, I would ask for kindness.

We live in a staggering Universe. We should all show humility to the living things that share our stunningly beautiful Planet- a living jewel of Earth hung in the blackness of space.

As Eastertide begins, I remember a Good Friday radio broadcast on the BBC from years ago. It was a retelling of the Passion and used Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis as incidental music. When I hear it, I think of my homeland and my family, many of them now living under the eaves of the green hills of Gloucestershire where Vaughan Williams was born. I also think of the passage of time that makes music possible and the Spacetime that we all exist within.

Truth is founded on doubt and uncertainty, it is a way to attempt to understand, even when there are inevitable limits to our understanding- such limits exist even deep at the heart of quantum mechanics. I think the same fundamental conditions apply to faith too.

Maybe understanding doubt is the most profound lesson we can learn from the time we are given here.

So as Holy Week begins, I wish you patience, understanding and joy.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Taking the long road

George Osborne's budget was an incoherent collection of gimmicks. It was not designed with any other purpose but the promotion of its author and a certain faux stability ahead of the EU referendum in three months time. 

So, easy to criticize, but the fact is that at the moment, no political party in the UK is prepared to suggest the kind of reforms that are needed. The political cycle is too short for any government to reap the reward of the kind of radical changes that are required, but not long enough for the same government to avoid the negative consequences that such radical reform will inevitably bring with it. So, successive governments merely tinker with the system, knowing that to do more carries greater risks and limited rewards in the short term.

The cost of tax administration in the UK continues to increase, and the ever more complicated system imposes greater fiscal drag and ever more distortion of the economy. Incomes remain heavily taxed, while land is barely taxed at all- a distortion that has helped to create an increasingly dysfunctional housing market. Addressing the tax of land and property would help to release the significant percentage of the housing stock that is empty because there is no incentive to let it or sell it. "Buy-to-leave" has become a major problem across the country, but especially in London. It is a national scandal and one which Mr. Osborne's supporters have a vested interest in perpetuating. It is well beyond bizarre that HMRC's own office buildings are held in tax avoiding off-shore trusts, and high time that assets such as land and property were taxed in the same way, or at least to the same degree as income.

As for income tax itself, the highly regressive nature of the UK tax burden remains disguised by the nominally progressive setting of different tax rates, but it is still the case that the tax burden falls excessively on the lower and middle income groups. A wholesale reform and simplification of tax is long overdue. The current administrative cost of the collection of tax at over £20 billion is nearly five times greater than the fiscal gap that Mr. Osborne sought to plug with his regressive cuts to disability allowance and other benefits. The burden on the private sector is greater still. A flat tax with a tax threshold that is set at median income, so that only the top earners pay income tax is both far cheaper to administer and far fairer than the current system.

The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to build a programme of effective, efficient and fair taxation. Now is the time for the policy teams to embrace a genuinely radical platform that unites taxation and benefits, as we have long advocated, but also to build in local and national accountability into the tax system. The original idea of pension and welfare insurance must surely be restored, and the promotion of savings and investment made fashionable once again. We have the opportunity- and as Mr. Osborne now, and Mr. Brown in the past show- no one else is prepared to offer leadership. Yet without reform, future chancellors too will be reduced to the ineffectual tinkering that George Osborne has presented to the House of Commons this week.

As the clouds of the next financial crisis gather, the time for action is already getting late in the day. We must set out on the long road to reform as soon as we can.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Tory Troubles.

With 100 days or so left until the EU referendum, it is clear that David Cameron is getting a good air war. The "leave" campaign is a shambles, and through a mixture of incompetence (Boris Johnson) and his own ruthlessness (Michael Gove), the Prime Minister is seeing off his political enemies. The betting is all one way, and perhaps the PM will maintain his position as one of the luckier and more astute political figures of the past decade.

However, post referendum, the clouds are already beginning to darken for both the Prime Minister and his party. Mr. Cameron has already said he will stand down before the election due in 2020. When and how he does so will dictate not only the future fortunes of the Conservative Party, but even, quite possibly, its survival.

The problem is that the Tories remain split top-to-bottom on the subject of the EU. More than half of Conservative MPs and probably a far higher percentage of the party membership are strongly in the "leave" camp. Only the senior echelon of the party, in the Cabinet and the payroll vote, does "remain" hold a solid lead. In a sense that is quite right, because the closer your are to the process of interaction between the EU and the UK government, the more you understand of the actual nature of the relationship (as opposed to the tabloid fantasies), and the more you are likely to support our continued membership. However, for a certain kind of Conservative activist, opposition to EU membership has become a Shibboleth that is deeply and viscerally emotional. The fact that the party leaders are so much more pro-"remain" is an act of basest treachery. There is growing and considerable bitterness at the ruthlessness that Mr. Cameron has demonstrated, and in certain quarters a belief that the entire referendum process has been denied fairness as the result of the support that Mr. Cameron has shown to "remain".

This "stab in the back" sense of victimhood that is out there may cause real problems for the Conservatives in the future, for if it continues then the referendum will not be the end of the crisis in the Tories, but the beginning of its break up.