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Showing posts from 2015

Ethics and ethicists

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosophy professor at the University of California has an article in Aeon Magazine discussing his series of investigations into whether academics who study ethics tend to behave more ethically than ordinary people. It's very interesting and well worth reading.

The headline finding is that they don't. Being a professor of ethics or moral philosophy doesn't make you any more likely to be ethical - to vote in elections, be vegetarian, donating blood or organs, giving to charity, or even staying in touch with your parents. This is a finding that's been around for a while and occasionally pops up in articles - usually not as good as this one - which are shared by students who don't want to write their ethics essays.

I find it hard to see what the paradox or surprise is meant to be here, because I see basically no reason to expect that academic ethicists would be better at following moral rules. Schwitzgebel talks in the article about discussions w…

Don't blame the Confederacy

As a disclaimer, I don't often write about race, and this post expresses a controversial opinion which is shared (at least in part) by a lot of people who are vile and hold mostly unacceptable opinions. I think that the point I'm making is correct and that I'm expressing it in a clear and reasonable way, but if anything in the post makes you think otherwise, then please tell me and I'll see what might need changing.

Last week, a 21-year old man took a gun and killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He's now been arrested, and in the aftermath it's been discovered that he has a history of support for the ideology of white supremacy: he posed with the flags of the Confederacy, Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, posted a racist manifesto on an anonymous website, and was arrested in a car with a Confederate States of America bumper sticker.

For a while after the shooting, before most of this history was unearthed, some people …

Sub fusc and the limits of liberalism

Here is a brief and absurd canter across some ground in political philosophy, through the lens of the sub fusc referendum.

If you don't know what that means, fair enough. Sub fusc is the traditional academic dress of Oxford University. It looks like this, and the current university rules are that you have to wear it, along with an academic gown and mortarboard, when you're taking exams. Currently, the Student Union is holding a referendum on whether that rule should be abolished so that sub fusc will be non-compulsory.

You can read the official cases for and against the change, but actually they're kind of misleading, because the real division is whether you think the fact of tradition, just taken by itself, has any value. If you do, then more or less nebulous concerns about projecting an image of elitism won't worry you; if you don't, then there's no real benefit to sub fusc, and so the worries about access (nebulous or not) are good enough a reason to get rid…

The Labour Party is in fine shape

There, I said it.

I may be the only person who thinks this. The debate happening now is raging between people who think that Labour needs to move to its left, and abandon its partial endorsement of austerity at this election, and people who think it needs to move right, back to the Blairite New Labour centre.

It seems to me that the New Labour camp is winning this fight. But the whole fight is driven by a peculiar version of the pundit's fallacy. People who think Labour should be more centrist also think this is the key to electoral success. People who think it should be more left-wing also think that is its only path to victory.

Among actual pundits, a slightly more nuanced story is taking shape, in which Labour is in deep trouble because it needs to tack left to regain seats in Scotland, and right to win more seats in England. This story is also wrong.

Labour's bloodletting, distilled

Prompted by Ben and Ed, a clarification on what Labour should be thinking about after this election.

There are two outcomes that need explaining:
(A) Why Labour lost this election  (B) Why Labour did so badly at this election And, broadly, three explanations available:
(1) Labour was facing a first-term government, only a few years after a 13-year period of dominance which ended with it presiding over a serious economic crash. (2) Labour was wiped out in Scotland by the SNP.  (3) Labour was too left-wing and too far away from Blairite 'New Labour'.
What I think is this.
(A) is essentially fully explained by (1). It may be that (3) also had a role, but there is at the moment basically no evidence for this. If the more left-wing, Miliband message had produced a result like this in 2020, then there'd be more reason to go for (3). But a result in which Labour makes modest net gains on the Tories in England, but not enough to seriously threaten their government, is more or less…

Democracy in the UK #6: Picking up the pieces

Well, nobody expected that. The final projections are still in my spreadsheet, here, and now look like a snapshot of a strange collective delusion. Even the numbers that looked most positive for the Tories underestimated their eventual tally of seats by 35; everybody had Labour and the Lib Dems well above where they eventually ended up. Pollsters - not to mention Labour Party members - are thoroughly shell-shocked. It's a result so surprising, in several different ways, that it can't be boiled down to one key point; but here are a few things to think about.

1. How did this happen? The main story is just that Labour didn't pick up anywhere near as many votes as it had to, or as it was expected to. They went from 29% at the last election to 30.4% this week, rather than the 33-35% most people were expecting. That would have produced a modest increase in Labour seats, made up of gains from the Tories and Lib Dems in England and Wales almost cancelled out by losses to the SNP in…

Don't go there, Europe

Another boat, carrying hundreds of people, sinks. The second in a week. Though none of them really want to welcome or deal with these migrants, politicians recognise they have to do something. Existing policies were supposed to deter people from trying to make this fatal crossing, but they've failed. So solemn statements are issued, emergency sessions scheduled, while people scramble to figure out what needs to be done.

It's April 2015, in Europe. But it could be the end of June 2012, in Australia, the month we cracked once and for all. Two boats sank off Christmas Island, and the spectre of more drownings forced action. We had detention centres. We had frozen asylum applications from war-torn, repressive countries. This was supposed to make a difference, but apparently it didn't, because - in the Coalition's vile phrase - there was still "sugar on the table". Back to 'offshore processing': taking these people, putting them somewhere else, to be locked…

Updated election tables

I have made a few updates: for one thing, just plugging in the most recent numbers, which I'll do every few days from now on. More importantly, I've added a column to say who the largest party would be in a parliamentary scenario - which matters, because it's fairly likely the leader of that party will get the first chance to try to form a government.

The spreadsheet is below the break, or you can get at it directly here.

Democracy in the UK #4: Calling it

Who's going to be Prime Minister?

It's tricky, because polling averages are showing Labour and the Conservatives both stuck at around the 33-34% mark. That hasn't changed for a long time, and if it's reproduced at the election there'll definitely be a hung parliament - so the question turns on predictions about how politicians will behave, which are always dicey, rather than just interpreting polls.

So, first things first, what are the possibilities? I've taken six election models and looked at their predictions about who'll win seats in the new parliament. Three (The Guardian, May2015, and Electoral Calculus) average national, regional and constituency polls to show what would happen if an election was held today; three more (Election Forecast, Elections Etc, and Polling Observatory) are genuine forecasts of what will happen on May 7th, which predict organic shifts over the remainder of the campaign based on history.

323 seats are needed to win a confidenc…

Democracy in the UK #3: the age of the hung Parliament

I'm about to sit down and watch an election debate which will feature seven people. The two men who are in the running to become British Prime Minister - the Conservatives' David Cameron, and Labour's Ed Miliband - will line up alongside the leaders of the Liberal Democrats (current partners in the coalition government), United Kingdom Independence Party (Eurosceptic populists), Greens (much the same as the Australian version, but less significant), Scottish National Party (surging and coalitionally important Scottish nationalists), and Plaid Cymru (not surging and not coalitionally important Welsh nationalists).

So it's as good a time as any to investigate why the overall majority seems to be dead, and hence why all these scattered parties are getting their time in the sun.

In 2010, for the first time since 1974, the general election didn't produce a majority for any single party. Eventually, the Conservatives - the largest single party - made a coalition agreemen…

Democracy in the UK #2: Who's afraid of the SNP?

Tony Crook was an MP for three years. He didn't do much in that time, and is mostly significant for what happened immediately after he was elected in 2010, during negotiations over who would form government in a hung parliament. Crook was a member of the Western Australian National Party - their only MP - and he became notable for insisting that, although he had been elected on an ideological platform basically the same as the Nationals in the rest of the country, as a West Australian National he wouldn't be joining the Nationals partyroom nor, necessarily, supporting the Liberal-National coalition to form a government.

Crook became pretty insignificant pretty quickly. But in the upcoming UK election, the odd spectacle of a previously unimportant regional difference driving a wedge between two ideologically very closely related parliamentary blocs is rearing its hard in a much bigger form: the Scottish National Party.

The SNP is perhaps slightly further left than the Labour Pa…

Everyone's wrong about the Intergenerational Report

Remember the 2010 Intergenerational Report? If you don’t, it’s not because you’re forgetful: a quick Google reveals that, apart from on the website of the Treasury itself, almost nothing was published about it at the time of its release. This year, it’s all over the news, and the reason is no mystery: Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott think that this report might be the start of a solution to the intense unpopularity of last year’s budget.
So, how big really are the differences between this year’s report and the last one? One of the biggest changes is in the presentation. Take the Forewords, written by the Treasurer of the day: Wayne Swan in 2010 noted that the report presents challenges which are “substantial, but … not beyond a nation like ours”, and briefly mentioned some of the government’s recent changes. Hockey, this year, repeatedly highlights the importance of reducing the debt burden, criticises the previous government, and praises the government’s economic plan for enabling Austra…
For the Financial Times graduate trainee programme. This is an edited version, for length & clarity, of an original piece written in 2015.
This week saw the release, to intense fanfare, of the 2015 Intergenerational Report on government debt. Its high profile might have surprised connoisseurs of previous Intergenerational Reports, except that there aren’t really any: the 2010 report got almost no coverage at the time of its release.
The difference is that prime minister Tony Abbott and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, think the new IGR (as it’s known) could help them push back against the intense unpopularity of last year’s budget. One hint of that is in the forewords, written by the treasurer of the day. In the 2010 report, Labor’s Wayne Swan fairly neutrally noted the deficit as a challenge “not beyond a nation like ours”. Hockey, by contrast, criticises the previous government and includes a chart on which one projection ominously shows the debt burden approaching Greece’s.

Democracy in the UK: #1 - How to vote / it's not easy being Green

For the next couple of months, in the runup to the general election here, I'm going to be writing a series of posts about politics in the United Kingdom, from the perspective of an outsider who's by now reasonably familiar with, but still slightly bemused by, the quirks of British democracy. Read them all here.

The place you have to start, coming from Australia, is the voting system. The lower house of the British Parliament - the House of Commons - is elected using first-past-the-post voting, rather than instant-runoff voting as used in the Australian House of Representatives. There are no preferences: you mark your first choice, and whichever candidate is the first choice of the most voters wins election. In 2011 there was a referendum on whether to switch from FPTP to an optional-preferential version of instant-runoff voting, here called the "Alternative Vote". FPTP was endorsed by 67% of people who voted.

To me, and I think to most people who've grown up in t…

Who is Gillian Triggs anyway?

That is the question that might well have been on people's lips for the last couple of weeks, in a not-that-wacky alternative universe. There was no need for the release of the Human Rights Commission's report on children in detention to be even vaguely difficult for the government to handle. But the Coalition has somehow contrived to turn the release of a critical but eminently manageable report into a full-blown political disaster and an investigation by the Australian Federal Police.

Put aside, for the moment, the morality and culpability of various people embroiled in this dispute. For the record, my own view is this: Gillian Triggs did handle this report in a slightly strange way, and that's probably not unrelated to the fact that her political sympathies are closer to the ALP than the Liberal Party. That doesn't make any difference to the merits of the report or the importance of responding to it rather than slandering its author, and trying to convince an indepe…

How the Australian press drags down Prime Ministers

I'm enjoying watching the Liberal Party squirm and tear itself up as much as anyone. I think Tony Abbott is a pretty laughable Prime Minister and that his government is a terrible and regressive one. And Coalition politicians really did say a lot of stuff about Labor navel-gazing which is now pretty hilarious. So the schadenfreude is fun.

But this was a problem when it happened to Julia Gillard, and it's a problem now. The Australia media has become very good at destroying Prime Ministers, and very eager to do just that. This is a PM I, and many of the people who'll read this, detest. But that doesn't change the fact that we now seem to have a basically rabid press gallery who are more than happy to gin up a leadership crisis from the barest of source material.

Obviously the situation is not that the media have invented this out of nothing. The government is very unpopular, and Abbott has made a series of increasingly comical missteps that seem to have sown genuine doubt…

Don't splash cartoons of Muhammad today

Yesterday morning, the editors at the Independent, Berliner Kurier, Berliner Zeitung, and a handful of other newspapers around the world were not intending to publish cartoons of Muhammad on their covers today. The reason was no doubt partly that they would have had no relevance to anything those newspapers wanted to cover – though that didn’t, of course, stop the Danish Jyllands-Posten or well over a hundred newspapers across the world publishing cartoons in 2005.
Part of the reason may also have been that such cartoons would have been gratuitously insulting. There’s a good case to be made that depictions like Charlie Hebdo’s are frequently racist and contribute to the demonization people – Muslims in France – who are already marginalised. But even putting that aside, nobody denies that ridiculing cartoons of Muhammad are offensive to Muslims who believe that images of the Prophet – especially mocking ones – are forbidden.
That offence isn’t a good reason to prohibit newspapers from…