Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?


fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline. says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Since I have half an hour to spare and my Obamacare post has triggered some discussion of GOP presidential hopefuls, I thought I’d chuck out two random musings (or questions) on the next US presidential election.

Was George Bush’s apparent stupidity reassuring to “moderates”?

A lot of hay was made in the shining sun of Bush’s apparent bumbling stupidity[1]. But I wonder if this wasn’t actually reassuring to non-conspiracy-theory-minded “independents” and “moderates” that he could be trusted in power. While worried leftists assumed that his stupidity meant he was a puppet for the evil shadow-govt of Cthulhu-worshipping Republican activists[2], for people less inclined to worry about threats from beyond space and time they might have actually been inclined to think “this dude seems pretty thick, but also like a nice guy, maybe he’ll put a little more faith in his advisors than the previous guy did”? I don’t know to what extent Clinton was beginning to grate on the electorate in 2000, but I have a vague memory of Republican attacks on him invoking the “he’s too smart by half” kind of approach, and certainly in Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 I remember attempts to portray Kerry as too thoughtful and out of touch. The only thing worse than an incompetent dude in the presidency is an incompetent dude in the presidency who thinks he is smart. Whereas a dumb shmuck who appears humble enough to trust his advisors might actually not be so bad – and back then in 2000 the Republican rhetorical trick of claiming that all government policy-makers and advisors were corrupt and untrustworthy was not yet in full swing, so voters might still have had the idea that government sometimes actually gets things right. In that case, some “independents” and “moderates” might have actually been convinced that Bush could do okay. And sometimes he did: PEPFAR was his Bush’s response to HIV/AIDS in Africa and has been one of the most successful global health interventions in history. It’s my belief that Bush introduced PEPFAR because he wanted an alternative to condom promotion and behavioral interventions that accepted the existence of pre-marital sex, but by consulting with his advisors he actually came up with a policy that worked. Of course, he also consulted with his advisors on Iraq, so he didn’t always have quality advisors … but in 2000 voters were judging presidential candidates at the End of History, and the idea you’d have some thick idiot in the presidency making decisions about multiple wars on foreign soil probably didn’t really seem plausible.

Would a similar thick “man-of-the-people” rescue the Republicans from Clinton?

I don’t think a similar approach would work with current potential candidates (e.g. Paul Ryan). People thought it might work with Sarah Palin (which I think is part of the reason they made her VP for Romney), but it didn’t. I think there’s a simple reason for this: compared to the modern crop of post-tea party idiots, George Bush was not an ideological candidate. “Independents” and “moderates” could vote for him as an alternative to too-lefty, too-smart-by-half Gore on the assumption that he wouldn’t be an idiot in charge of a radical ideology. Sarah Palin, on the other hand – in addition to being brazenly, openly stupid and probably proud of it – is clearly driven by an ideology she only seems capable of understanding on a visceral level. You have to be pretty crazy to think that having someone like that with their finger over the Big Red Button is a good idea[3].

Are Republican leaders completely adrift from their intellectual roots?

During his election campaign Romney made a famous gaffe, talking about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax and calling them moochers. He didn’t intend this comment for public consumption, but put it out there in a conversation on political theory for private backers. I find it interesting that the inheritor of a conservative (US-style) political tradition could be so naive about the intellectual history of his own party as to make this comparison at a theoretical level. It has been the goal of conservative politics since at least Reagan to remove people from the federal income tax system. A “compassionate conservative” like Bush would consider it his or her goal to reduce the proportion of people paying income tax, while ensuring that those taxes that were collected supported a compassionate society. A “movement conservative” from the Reagan era would consider the removal of ordinary Americans from the income tax system to be a goal in and of itself. Under the ideology of movement conservatism these people have been liberated from a form of tyranny. In that conversation, if he had any understanding of conservative history at all, Romney should have been saying something along the lines of “our side of politics liberated a lot of that 47% from paying income tax, and I intend to use that achievement to win their votes” or “I consider it a failure of modern conservative rhetoric that we have failed to win votes from people who we liberated from income tax.” Instead he turns on people who are the beneficiaries of conservative political action, compares them with scroungers, and suggests that they are natural friends of the Democrats because they’re all on welfare, rather than keeping the money they worked to earn as Reagan intended. To me this suggests that modern Republican leaders – even the supposedly moderate ones like Romney – are completely out of touch with their conservative intellectual roots. Given the support Romney received from some quarters of the right for this comment, it also seems that a lot of modern conservative pundits have lost it. In place of reasoned political action from a conservative intellectual tradition, they have fetishized a few symbolic components of that tradition (taxes! freedom!) and deploy them as rhetorical weapons in any debate without any consideration for why they are important to conservative tradition, or what the limits of debate about these topics might be.

It is this intellectual drift which I think makes Republicans vulnerable on healthcare, and so badly unable to handle a post-Obamacare world. Serious health policy planners, Obama and his advisors looked at the problem of moving towards universal health care at affordable cost from the perspective of what is possible, what can be achieved, what needs to be done and how it can be paid for[4]. Republicans looked at the problem in terms of TAXES! FREEDOM!!!1!

A sad note on Bush’s legacy

Reviewing Republican behavior in the post-Tea Party World, one almost yearns for a return to the simpler years of Bush. And here I have to say I’m a bit sad about how badly he let himself down. If Bush had not invaded Iraq he would have left a mixed legacy, that would have left historians praising him on some aspects and learning lessons from his era. Instead, he killed a million Iraqis and unleashed the gates of hell in the Middle East: today Obama is considering air strikes on the Islamic State to save the lives of some tens of thousands of christians, who have been left adrift in the chaotic world Bush created. Absent his massive Iraq stupidity, Bush would have been assessed in terms of his compassionate conservatism and his poor management skills, which would have meant:

  • Plaudits and universal acclaim for the success of the Presidents Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, which Bush initiated and which has been hugely successful in containing HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Criticism for his poor handling of the Afghan war, but acceptance that any US president would likely have to have invaded Afghanistan given the circumstances, and most importantly assessment of the war on its own merits rather than in the shadow of his huge mistakes in Iraq
  • Criticism of his handling of Hurricane Katrina, tempered with the recognition that many institutions at many levels of government and in the private sector were not ready for that event, and that the lessons learned were really important for handling subsequent disasters
  • Plaudits for his engagement with minorities, both through his promotion of (and in my opinion, respect for) black leadership figures like Rice and Powell, and for his willingness to fight his own party over amnesty for Latin Americans living illegally in the USA

Obviously given that the GFC happened on his watch, he massively incresed the deficit and his tax cut ideas were stupid beyond despair, he would never be heralded as the greatest president who ever lived, but it would be nice if his achievements and ordinary failings could be assessed without having to presage them all with his war crimes. When I was at the AIDS conference watching Bill Clinton speak, I kept thinking to myself that it would have been nice if Bush could have been there in his place, to talk about the achievements of PEPFAR as it came to an end, and to urge people to commit to preserving the gains that arose from his legacy. Indeed, his recent speech in Africa, while a bit emarrassingly stilted, was an admirable example of his genuine concern for the health of people on that continent. But of course Bush could never come to a conference like the AIDS conference, because everywhere he goes the shadow of his act of mass murder hangs over him.

And I think it was at that point – or somewhere between there and the GFC – that everything went wrong with the Republican party. Who knows what would have happened in the healthcare debate if Obama had been challenged by an inheritor of Bush’s compassionate conservative, rather than a hyper-wealthy free market nutjob or a bloodthirsty lunatic mummy and his bloodthirsty lunatic Alaskan sidekick? We will never know, because they cocked it up, and Bush destroyed his own legacy with his insane and criminal decision to invade Iraq.

fn1: I say apparent because I’m not convinced he was as stupid as he acted, and a lack of ability to do basic book learning is not a sign of stupidity anyway

fn2: Please note, I make no contention that these “people” do not exist.

fn3: And let’s just think for a moment about how things would be unfolding in Ukraine now if Sarah Palin was President.

fn4: Within the sad confines of modern politics, obviously

The Affordable Care Act has been in place for a while now, and after the initial teething problems it is beginning to settle down into something resembling a functioning system, and serious health policy researchers are beginning to report on its progress. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported in July on a series of measures of progress under Obamacare, and the results were generally positive.

The NEJM article covers some of the more controversial aspects of Obamacare, and also shows how hard it is to understand health financing policy (and outcomes of that policy) in the USA. It notes that 7.8 million young Americans are now covered under their parents’ health insurance where previously they wouldn’t have been, and also notes that this policy has been one of the most popular aspects of Obamacare. In calculating coverage more generally it has to consider the conflicting effects of the medicaid expansion and the newly-affordable bronze plans on the one hand, and cancellations of existing plans on the other. In total, the article concludes

Taking all existing coverage expansions together, we estimate that 20 million Americans have gained coverage as of May 1 under the ACA.We do not know yet exactly how many of these people were previously uninsured, but it seems certain that many were. Recent national surveys seem to confirm this presumption. The CBO projects that the law will decrease the number of uninsured people by 12 million this year and by 26 million by 2017. Early polling data from Gallup, RAND, and the Urban Institute indicate that the number of uninsured people may have already declined by 5 million to 9 million and that the proportion of U.S. adults lacking insurance has fallen from 18% in the third quarter of 2013 to 13.4% in May 2014.

On the one hand this appears to be a huge gain (though it depends on your perspective; see below). On the other hand, coverage of health insurance remains at 87% after the ACA (including so-called bronze plans); in comparison, China has 90% coverage of health insurance, and most of the rest of the OECD is up around 98-100%. It may not seem fair to compare America with countries as advanced in health financing as the Europeans, but consider this: Ghana has 65% coverage of its National Health Insurance Scheme, though private payments still make up 66% of total health expenditure, and Ghana is planning on gradually increasing this figure. I don’t mean to belittle Ghanaians by comparing them with a country as disfunctional as the USA, but given the relative wealth disparities it seems that the USA could do better than 87% coverage. Especially when you consider the political cost to the government of implementing this law.

On the topic of canceled policies, the NEJM can’t provide figures (the studies are not available), but it does point out that many of these policies would not have been canceled if the Republicans hadn’t stymied introduction of the law[1]. The grandfathering clause applied to policies extant when the law was signed in March 2010, but no one expected it to take 3.5 years to implement the law, and had it sailed smoothly through congress presumably most people would have been able to retain their (sub-standard) plans. The NEJM also points out that turnover in health insurance markets is huge, and in the absence of the ACA most of the people whose plans were canceled would likely have changed their plans anyway:

Health-policy expert Benjamin Sommers and colleagues point out that there was significant turnover in the individual market before the ACA went into effect: between 2008 and 2011, only 42% of people who started out with such coverage still had it after 1 year[2].

It’s also worth remembering that the reason these plans were forcibly canceled is that they didn’t meet minimum standards – and it’s worth bearing in mind that the ACA’s minimum standards would be considered reprehensible in any other OECD country. I have reported before on the NEJM’s findings about the poor performance of ACA-rated “bronze” plans, but the canceled policies were canceled because they didn’t live up to the standards of these highly flawed bronze plans. Complaining about having your insurance plan canceled even though it is basically an exercise in extortion seems counter-productive to me …

The other big issue for Obamacare is the risk pool. Obamacare included a “mandate,” a set of rules intended to punish young adults who did not sign on to health insurance before a certain date, with the intention of increasing the number of healthy people paying into the health insurance pools. This is done to ensure that people at low risk of illness are basically subsidizing the sick and elderly, a problem solved in other countries by simply providing financing for health through taxation. The big challenge of market-based systems is that young people won’t pay for insurance they don’t really need, but under a market-based system there is no way to make them. Obamacare is meant to close this loophole and the “moral hazard” associated with it, but it appears that it hasn’t been hugely successful. The NEJM reports that

enrollment among 18-to-34-year-olds surged as the March 31 deadline approached, climbing from 27% of total enrollment in February to 31% in the month of March. It is widely agreed that there is no single desired rate of young-adult participation. What really matters is whether the observed rate turns out to be consistent with the projections of insurance companies for any period — that is, whether the 31% participation is about what the companies expected for 2014. If young-adult participation fell short of expectations, this could prompt rate increases in 2015. However, even if participation in the pools skews to an older age than companies predicted, an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 2015 premiums might increase by only 1 to 2% to offset higher-than-expected costs. This modest projected effect of an older pool reflects the fact that under the law, health plans can still charge an older person a higher premium than a younger person.

This suggests (though not very clearly) that the mandate has served its purpose, but has only increased the proportion of total enrolment by young people by about 15%, and no one knows if this is enough[3]. I wouldn’t take this small increase as a sign of great success, and it suggests that in the future insurance premiums will rise, even though one goal of Obamacare was cost containment. It’s also worth noting that there is a large pool of young Americans with pre-existing conditions who were not previously eligible for health insurance (or not at reasonable prices) and some proportion of the increase under Obamacare is likely to be people with pre-existing conditions grabbing the chance to sign on[4]. These people are not going to lower the cost of insurance. But the ACA seems to have included a subtle get-out-of-jail clause for the insurers:

Carriers with higher-than-expected claims will receive reinsurance payments, for example. This factor alone reduced premiums by 10% in 2014 and will continue to play an important role in limiting premium increases in 2015.

So, the insurers are protected against the worst effects of signing up a bunch of sick people and failing to recruit young and healthy people. All these premiums, tax breaks, cross-subsidies and protections seem incredibly complicated, and it really does seem like it would be simpler just to introduce a single payer and let them slowly take over the health landscape. But that would be … anti-freedom, or something. Because reasons. So here we are …

… Which brings us to the question of the future of Obamacare. The NEJM is treating it as a fait-accompli, and is now beginning to publish articles on healthcare policy in the Obamacare world[5], though their articles seem to be predicated on the assumption that Obamacare is fundamentally flawed (they say “major ACA provisions don’t work”, which is surely medical-journal-speak for “you really screwed the pooch”), but they do seem to be accepting the new health financing landscape. My opinion is that the ACA is here to stay, and it seems to be surviving most of the legal challenges. This doesn’t surprise me, because it doesn’t seem to me that Americans have any stomach for genuinely radical (to them) healthcare reform, and it tells me that health policy makers in the USA – on both sides of the political spectrum – are going to have to accept the ACA as the new political landscape, and work within it to reform it rather than trying to overturn it, whether their goal is to overturn it for free-market or single-payer reasons. I don’t think the ACA will ever be as successful as more rational programs in other countries, but if reasonable politicians work within its framework they can continue to improve insurance coverage and, if they can make the cost containment elements work, they can probably improve quality of insurance too. Unfortunately the ACA is complex, works across multiple sectors of the private and public health system, and depends on a lot of goodwill, so it will be very easy for the Tea Party Tendency to undermine it from within government…

Fortunately, however, the ACA contains the key to its own success. If the NEJM is right, something like 20 million people have gained health insurance where previously they were either unable to pass the hurdles, or unable to afford it. That is 20 million potential Democrat voters at the next election, and I really don’t think one can underestimate the power of security in health care as a voting incentive. These people will be looking at a revolutionary change to their own lives, and the Republicans are going to campaign in the next election on a direct promise to revoke that revolution. On top of that, a lot of big American companies are desperate for healthcare financing reform, and the ACA has proven to those companies without a shadow of doubt that only one party in the US system is serious about delivering healthcare reform. This, plus the demographic slide slowly eating the Republicans, and their lack of talented presidential candidates, suggests to me that the next elections are going to be Democrat victories, and the ACA will be locked in as the health financing policy for the USA for the foreseeable future. In my opinion this is not the best outcome for Americans, but it is certainly a vast improvement on the past. Let’s hope the Tea Party and their apparatchiks in the popular media don’t wreck this chance for ordinary Americans to finally achieve security in healthcare, one of the fundamental goals of modern developed nations.


It appears more evidence is beginning to come in from government reports and independent surveys. The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money has a post suggesting that 60% of California’s uninsured have managed to get insurance through the ACA, and that the majority of these are through medicaid, which indicates they probably were uninsured due to financial problems rather than pre-existing conditions (there’s a link to Krugman in the blog, and also some kind of conspiracy theory screed on the Naked Capitalism blog). I also found (through the same bog) a vox article showing striking changes in Kentucky’s proportion of uninsured. The chart in that article is quite powerful, and apparently Kentucky had a functioning exchange from the beginning with an aggressive campaign to get people signed up. I wonder if voters in states that chose to reject the ACA’s medicaid provisions and exchanges might start to look askance at the priorities of their current legislatures …?

fn1: Well, it doesn’t quite say that … this is my straightforward interpretation of the language of the paragraph.

fn2: I should mention here that if you can’t read the original article due to a paywall, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that these statements aren’t referenced. I remove the references when I copy and paste text from the original article, because I can’t be bothered also copying and pasting the references.

fn3: It’s worth noting here that because most developed countries have universal health care systems based on taxation and national insurance, there are very few countries outside of America where research can be done on private insurance financing. So in addition to running a system that from the outside looks to be incredibly inefficient and low quality, the USA is also running a system that cannot benefit from the research outputs of the rest of the world.

fn4: The pre-existing condition issue has always seemed to me to be the easiest example of why the USA needs to change its system, and also the most obvious example of how inhumane and cruel the US system is. No one is responsible for their own genetics, but in the USA the market for healthcare is basically designed to exclude people with certain random background traits. That’s just mean.

fn5: For some reason they insist on calling it the “Affordable Care Act.” Weirdos.

Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

This is a tale of how I successfully broke all the rules in the travel advisory, and lived to tell the tale of a tear-gassing and a close encounter with a riot policeman. It’s also the high point of the long series of disasters that was my Turkish trip – starting with booking the ticket for the wrong month, and finishing with my shoes falling apart late on Monday evening – with 4 weeks of my round-the-world trip still to go …

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

I am on a round-the-world trip in which I am making three stops for work-related training: a week in Konstanz, 2 days in Switzerland, 10 days in London and a week in Seattle. Each training trip is a week apart, but to return to Japan between each trip would be both ludicrously exhausting and ludicrously expensive, and since I haven’t had any time off in a year it seemed like a good idea to fill the in-between weeks with holidays. The first of these is three days in Istanbul. My trip here is so stupidly unplanned that I a) booked my ticket from Zurich for the wrong month (and had to rebook when I got to the airport!) and b) didn’t check the political situation in Turkey. When I booked my hotel I found myself thinking “Taksim square – sounds really familiar” but I didn’t bother to check, and so didn’t discover that protesters have been targeting Taksim square since May last year.

It's just not cricket!

It’s just not cricket!

So I arrived at Taksim square after an enlightening taxi ride, dumped my stuff and went out for dinner. Returning from dinner, I was near my hotel door (like, literally) when my throat started burning and my eyes watering. Now, in Tokyo we sometimes have these things that I call “Shibuya moments” – you can be standing at a very sophisticated part of town, surrounded by classically sophisticated Japanese people, and suddenly be overwhelmed by this huge stench as if the universe had farted on you. So my first thought was “is this the Istanbul version of a Shibuya moment? Because if so they really need some environmental planning laws!” But then my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry kicked in and I thought “no, that’s impossible!” Then my rudimentary knowledge of Europe kicked in, and I thought – “tear gas! … football riot!” The last football riot I saw (in London) was very entertaining – watching arseholes having their arsehole bitten off by dogs is hugely entertaining. So, naturally, I headed towards what I thought was a football riot.

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

My investigation led me into a long shopping street called Istiklal, and I soon realized that this was not a football riot, and it was serious. For starters, there were a royal crapton of riot police. Every side street entering Istiklal was blocked by a single phalanx, and there were probably 100 at the top of the street (near my hotel!) where I first smelt the tear gas. In addition, they had turned up with more equipment than you would usually need outside of the South Korean riots of the 1980s (or Ukraine of the week before) – Armoured Personnel Carriers and a handful of water tanks, plus every policeman had a gas mask and every five or so had a rubber bullet gun. Furthermore, their buses were guarded by men armed with uzis or some kind of even bigger automatic rifle (being Australian, I’m not really familiar with this stuff).

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Mostly everything was calm, and remarkably everyone was just wandering around doing their shopping, ignoring the whole thing. But every now and then you could hear this loud banging, and get a whiff of the tear gas (with immediate coughing and eye pain, just from the merest tendrils of the stuff!) And down the far end of the street there was a definite growing tension, and the sound of chanting. I found myself next to two young women who explained that this was a rally against some kind of nasty new internet censorship law (in which the government would get access to your browser history!), and part of a long-running campaign against authoritarianism that had begun last May and so far had seen six protesters die. I didn’t find out more though because as they were telling me this, a beer bottle came sailing sedately through the air and shattered on a nearby riot policeman’s helmet. At this point everyone started running, including the two girls I had been talking to (who had been at previous demos), and I opted for discretion over valour and ducked around a corner. At this point nothing bad had happened to me or anyone else I had seen.

These men endorse Bjork's approach to papparazzi

These men endorse Bjork’s approach to papparazzi

From here I did a bit of exploring and emerged in a new alleyway facing onto Istiklal. There was a wall of riot police between me and the main street and they didn’t seem interested in letting anyone through, so I stayed in the alley and took a photo. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lone riot policeman behind me, and turned around to hear him yelling at me and advancing rapidly towards me, baton in one hand and attitude in the other. By now everyone was strung out on the tension, and this guy had probably just been in a fight, he wasn’t impressed by my little 7000 yen camera. I backed up with my arms spread and said clearly and slowly “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish,” and that immediately calmed him down but he was still fuming – he started yelling at me in the international language of “fuck off” (fortunately now obviously not intending to cave my head in) and I decided to take his sage advice. I probably should have taken, earlier, the advice of my embassy and not hung around large and aggressive gatherings, but hey … so far so good, right?

Not a romantic mist

Not a romantic mist

So now I found myself in another alley, and slightly lost. I wandered around briefly and found a group of people standing at the end of  a street, watching some guy firing a flare gun at the riot police. I guessed this wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved and moved on. I soon found another street that seemed more peaceful, and I was trying to find out how to move back towards my hotel when a group came around the corner, in hot debate with a couple of riot cops. As I watched, these cops grabbed a guy in the group and started wrestling with him, and everyone in the street screamed and started running at the same time. When in Rome, and all that – I headed off with them. I didn’t have much time to see what was going on, but the afflicted guy seemed like one of the gypsy-type characters who hang around the square, one of his assailants was unslinging a plastic bullet gun, and as I headed around the corner I heard a loud bang. My guess is that chap – who seemed entirely innocent – is currently nursing a deep and unpleasant bruise.

An essential truce

An essential truce

From here I ran around a corner to discover another street filled with tear gas, fortunately far enough away that again I only got its outlying tendrils – and again developed stinging eyes and a rapid cough. That stuff is nasty, and the excitement was rapidly becoming warying. Things also seemed to be heating up, and I had the impression that the cops were going to start getting indiscriminate, so I ducked into a nearby pub. Here I found football and beer, and whiled away a pleasant 45 minutes watching Galatasaray win their game. Because Turkish soccer is quite violent the second half had 10 minutes of injury time, so I ducked out after five. On the street I found the above scene, of riot police gathered at the nearby cafe to watch the last five minutes of the game. Only in Europe …

So, I’ve confirmed that you can safely ignore all your government’s travel advisories. Or, more likely, I was very lucky. That first encounter with the riot policeman could have been a holiday-spoiling (not to mention life-spoiling) moment, and I really shouldn’t have gone sniffing out trouble. I get the impression that this campaign against corruption is a pretty reasonable thing, and the goals of the demonstrators generally laudable. But regardless of who is right on whatever issues beset Turkey (and I think there may be many) I hope that it gets resolved soon, without further loss of life (or interruptions of football viewing). My impression is that Turkey has a rocky but ultimately peaceful and successful future waiting for it. I hope these riots turn out to be a positive influence on that future…

There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

I have got involved in a Saturday-morning stoush about genetically modified (GM) crops at Professor Quiggin’s blog[1]. For those who don’t know him, John Quiggin is a left-wing economist and blogger who wrote the book Zombie Economics, and I think is generally well-respected for his sensible policy views, though he can be spectacularly wrong. I like to think that John and I share a kind of “scientific” leftism, that is a generally left-wing outlook that is informed by evidence and reason. For example I support the criminalization of heroin use, think that nuclear power has a potential role in mitigating anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and is safer than many believe, and of course I accept the science of AGW. One thing I have noticed about scientific leftists though is that they tend to have a tense relationship with the environmental movement, and especially with the more ratbaggy, dreadlocked and “deep eco” arm of it. This friction is most obvious in the disagreements many scientific leftists have with the environmental movement over GM crops, and I think this friction is both generally misguided and misguided in the specific instance of GM crops. In this post I’m going to explore why I think anti-GM leftists have a valid point based in science, and I’m also going to explore why these scientific leftists are so often uncomfortable with their patchouli-scented fellow travellers.

First though I’d like to review the successes and history of the modern environmental movement, because it seems to me that just going on the balance of probabilities, disagreeing with the environmental movement is a good sign that you are probably wrong. I mean this purely in a probabilistic sense, not in a logical sense (I really shouldn’t have to clarify this, but it is the internet). Let’s look at some of the major successes of the environmental movement:

  • They predicted DDT was very bad, and excessive use of DDT for general crop spraying led to the development of resistance in mosquitos, with sad consequences for malaria-endemic countries until pyrethrims were put into controlled use (and note that modern use of anti-malarial sprays follows exactly the guidelines that should have been followed with DDT)
  • They were right about acid rain
  • They were right about GFCs and the ozone layer
  • They were spectacularly right about AGW
  • The clean air act
  • Meat and cancer
  • Meat and malnutrition in the developing world
  • They predicted the collapse of the Grand Banks cod population and after they lost the battle to preserve the fisheries, the entire community that depended on those fisheries died
  • In Australia the Greens and others predicted the collapse of the old growth woodchip industry due to competition from overseas plantations and tried to develop an industry assistance plan based on plantation forests, but the CFMEU fought it because jobs! and now – surprise! – the big woodchipping companies are going under due to overseas plantation competition

The environmental movement has, of course, been spectacularly wrong about nuclear power. Note also that in some cases – like DDT and AGW – we can now say that the movement was more right than it realized at the time. We now know that the consequences of AGW are going to be way way more serious than originally suggested, and since the advent of the global burden of disease studies we have strong evidence that coal is really really bad for human health – vindicating the intentions of the original clean air act in the USA and various campaigns in other countries. So, just on the balance of probabilities, taking a side against the environmental movement on their big ticket issues is likely to make you wrong more often than right. And of course scientific leftists like John Quiggin will look at all the entries on that list and be firmly in favour of the environmental movement’s position on them – except meat. So why are they so suspicious of the anti-GM movement?  And why do they accuse anti-GM campaigners of being “anti-science” so easily, when the history of the environmental movement is that it has had science on its side?

Before I address that, let’s look at the anti-GM movement. John Quiggin suggests in his post that they are only concerned about human consumption of GM foods, and constructs a classic straw environmentalist with this attack:

It would be more effective and more honest for GM opponents to come out and say “we don’t like the idea of tinkering with DNA. We don’t care what the evidence is, or whether there is any observable difference from ‘natural’ foods, we just don’t want to eat this stuff”.

By doing this he ignores substantive issues that environmental campaigners have raised about the potential threats to the environment from GM crops, and the risk to human health through environmental contamination (rather than simply consumption). He wants us to believe that anti-GM campaigners are scared of eating modified DNA because reasons, and doesn’t want us to think that there might be any other reasons for opposing GM crops. But there are other reasons – much more significant than the food safety reasons – and the environmental movement is clear about these reasons. For example Greenpeace Australia has a long FAQ about GM crops and most of the points are not about food safety. The two other big issues with GM crops – environmental contamination and international food inequality – are very important in that FAQ.

The science connected with environmental contamination is fairly solid and self-evident. For example, Farm Industry News reports on the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the USA, based on a study funded by Monsanto (who make round-up resistant crops), and the clear recommendation of this scientific research is that farmers need to rotate their roundup-resistant crops in order to reduce the development of resistance. The article states that

the rate at which glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading is gaining momentum, increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012

and pins the blame on overuse of roundup on roundup-resistant crops. This is a classic case of the need for community action: no matter how sensible you might be on your farm, if your neighbours are over-spraying then eventually you will get infected with their roundup-resistant weeds, with serious consequences (some of these weeds can destroy an entire crop). This kind of over-spraying is also going to contaminate river-water (through runoff) and groundwater, and scientists are developing standards for river-water based on the risks to animal and human health. For example, these South African scientists are developing standards for river water based on the harm to river fish; a search of pubmed will reveal studies showing the potential for glyphosate to interfere with human reproduction, which suggests that consumption through contaminated water is a risk to human health. None of this research is anti-science and all of it supports the need to be very careful about the use of these crops.

It’s not as if we don’t have a precedent for this either. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, leading to a movement to ban widespread spraying with DDT. She identified the risk of DDT-resistance, and despite widespread opposition by industry to her findings that is exactly what happened. Why people like John Quiggin think it is anti-science to see the same risk in roundup resistant crops is a mystery to me – I don’t think he can be ignorant of the history of DDT or the toxic debate that has surrounded this chemical in the last 10 years. So why repeat these errors and object to a similar approach to GM crops? And instead of lambasting the anti-GM movement for criminal vandalism and anti-science ideology, why not engage with it to try and produce a constructive, scientific-based approach to the regulation and management of GM crops? I doubt, for example, that John is particularly supportive of overturning the generally-agreed upon ban on geo-engineering. But we could probably develop some kind of horrible plankton or algae that would eat CO2 and stabilize it – surely it’s not anti-science to try? Yet the scientific consensus is that this could be very very dangerous, and no one supports such an effort. What’s the difference?

I think the difference is the activists connected with the movement, and a kind of innate discomfort that a lot of scientific leftists have with their more radical allies who actually do the dirty work on the ground. The anti-GM movement’s foot-soldiers are drawn from the same ranks of dreadlocked hippies as the radical animal rights movement and the anti-forestry movement, and I think scientific leftists – being primarily academics or middle-class professionals – are inherently uncomfortable with the behavior of these scary-looking weirdos. But the reality is that those ratbag activists have achieved a great deal for the environmental movement, which won a great many of its victories through criminal behavior and property damage. This is nowhere more true than in the animal rights movement, which though much-maligned by mainstream leftists has been the most successful international political movement since feminism and has achieved almost all of its gains from a starting point of criminal property damage and theft. In the 1980s animal liberation front (ALF) invasions of vivisection labs produced shocking examples of cruelty that led to the complete revision of ethical guidelines towards animal experiments. Their continued actions against vivisection labs in the 1980s and 1990s forced the practice of animal experimentation into the public mind, and radically changed the way it was done. Similar achievements were gained in slaughterhouses, the live animal trade, factory farming, the fur industry, the pet industry, and especially the cosmetics industry. Laws were rewritten, food production practices changed, and attitudes towards animals revolutionized. Every single one of these campaigns started from direct action and vandalism, often perpetrated by dreadlocked society drop-outs. Many of them involved campaigns against academics – something that obviously won’t appeal to scientific leftists like John Quiggin who are firmly within the establishment academy. But let’s not make any bones about this: those academics needed to be challenged, and this was not happening within the law. The video Hidden Crimes, released in 1986, contains extensive footage of the kind of cowboy behavior and blatant cruelty of these early vivisectionists, and it certainly does not make for pleasant viewing. The great achievement of the animal rights movement has been to force these cruelties into the open, and to completely reshape the institutional landscape within which these crimes are committed. The same is true of the campaign against whaling: while reasonable people talk pointlessly in meetings of the IWC, the sea shepherds are preventing the Japanese from actually catching actual whales. In his biography, Paul Watson makes clear that this action is conducted precisely because no one is willing to act, and before Japan he targeted the USSR and US allies in south America. The whaling issue would be completely under the radar if it weren’t for the behavior of people like Paul Watson, and it is as a direct result of the public pressure arising from Watson’s behavior that Australia raised the whaling issue in the international criminal court.

Of course, this fringe-dwelling hippy radical movement has its fair share of anti-vaccinationists, fluoride conspiracy theorists and new world order nutcases. The anti-vivisection movement was soon hijacked by Hans Ruesch and his anti-medicine cohorts, just as the Union of Concerned Scientists is heavily influenced by anti-nuclear doctors. Every movement that runs up against powerful institutions attracts these people (and I would suggest the anti-AGW movement has been most vulnerable to these types of people – witness Monckton the birther and Agenda21 conspiracist as one of their central figures). But these people acting as the uncontrolled foot-soldiers of a social movement doesn’t make the ideas behind the movement itself wrong, and it’s dangerous to throw out the lessons of the broader movement just because you don’t like the look and feel of a few of its members. Had this approach been taken by Peter Singer towards animal rights, for example, he would have been essentially arguing that any amount of cruelty is legitimate in the pursuit of science. Instead he wrote Animal Liberation and developed a theory of ethics that is easy to apply, practical and enormously influential inside and outside the academy. Peter Singer chose to engage with the movement that his ideas describe, and indeed now many of the ideas the ALF espouse that were once considered extreme and dangerous are now well within the mainstream – as are many of the ideas espoused by earlier generations of environmental activists about hunting and food production. But always these groups are lampooned as anti-science extremists when they first get involved in an issue.

I guess moderate rightist academics do the same thing in respect of their fringe-dwelling nazis and street thugs, though I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the cultural sphere where centrist approaches to immigration theory are developed – I get the impression that moderate right-wing academia is strongly opposed to the views of its street-level thugs on immigration, but I don’t really know much about it. I don’t know if the same situation applies there. But in debates about science and the management of scientific processes, I think it’s far far better for scientific leftists to engage with and try to understand the environmental movement than just to reject it out of hand as anti-science, as John Quiggin does in this case. The Peter Singer model of offering academic structure and guidance to the theoretical background of a movement is, in my opinion, far better than what John Quiggin and many other scientific leftists do with GM crops, which is to construct an anti-science straw movement and then knock it down. This isn’t going to move debate forward and it certainly isn’t going to stop the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

fn1: My last comment appears to have gone into moderation and disappeared.

Many people have pondered the real reasons for the Iraq war, the stated reasons being so blatantly false. Most critics have claimed it was a war for oil; some have suggested it was a stupid mistake by a clique of idiots; others have proposed the darker conspiracy theory that it was intended to unleash chaos specifically to keep the oil in the ground. Well, today Tony Blair revealed the truth: it was a crusade by Protestant extremists. In a piece for the observer, Tony “the Vampire” Blair gives his considered opinion of wars in the 21st century, and decides that they will be primarily driven by religious extremism.

Well, the Iraq war was the second war of the 21st century, its longest-running new war, and certainly a fairly serious business. Before it was invaded, Iraq was a secular dictatorship. It was invaded by a ragtag coalition of Christians, and the leaders of the coalition of the willing were two Protestant nations. Surely we should apply the Vampire’s logic to the big war that he started? Western religious extremism is surely the greatest threat to world peace …

We can do better than that though, can’t we? Now we can look to the religious roots of the Senkaku Islands conflict, driven by the irreconcilable differences between Confucian fascists on the one hand and Shinto Extremists on the other. The increasingly tense dispute between Indonesia and Australia is not really over boat people, but over interpretations of whether Jesus was the son of God. And what is this shit about the conflict in the Central African Republic being ethnically based? It’s clearly a threeway fight to the death between born-again christian fanatics, shamanic exterminationists, and moderate Islam. Right?

History tells me that people in the UK voted in quite large numbers for Tony Blair, several times. I find this hard to believe. Was there ever a time when if he opened his mouth, lies or garbage didn’t come out? Because I don’t remember it, but surely millions of British voters (adults, apparently!) couldn’t have been so easily fooled? Once again there can only be one explanation: Tony Blair is an extremely powerful vampire, with incredible powers of mass hypnosis. Put a stake through that beast! Or at least, keep its hideous rantings off the pages of national newspapers …

I have a friend in Sydney, Australia who has things a little tough. She has a decent professional job – though its a job in a woman’s career, so it doesn’t pay as well as professional jobs should – and she’s a good worker. She has been working ever since I met her without a break, and keeps the same job for years at a time, so no problems with her work life. Unfortunately she’s a single mother, not because she’s one of those dirty sluts who pop out sprogs by the month to get on welfare, but because after the birth of her child her husband turned into a weirdo Men’s Rights Activist and became insufferable, so they divorced. They have a custody arrangement (one week each) so she doesn’t fall afoul of any of the Men’s Right’s Movement demands for Good Women, but that’s not enough for him: when her child is at her ex’s house he denigrates her verbally, and he refuses to pay for any kind of extra-curricula or developmental activity, so if her child wants piano or ballet or rugby lessons, she has to fork it out herself. Nonetheless, her child is well-adjusted and she’s a good parent.

Unfortunately she has a minor mental disability which, although it doesn’t stop her working and raising children, means that she isn’t so good with money and she’s had a long history of financial troubles. It also means that she has a “pre-existing condition,” and anyone who has lived in Sydney knows that rents are punishing and being dodgy with money is not an easy trait to live with. She’s lucky because she has a good job, but for every person like my friend you can bet there’s another similar person whose job is not so great, who has serious financial troubles and is, as they say, a single pay-cheque away from disaster.

I think I know what this situation is like, though I can’t imagine the additional stress that gets piled on when you have a child, and I can imagine that my friend comes home from work sometimes, sits down and lets out one of those slow breaths, the one’s where you’re mentally thinking “Fuuuuuuck” as you wonder at what you can do and worry about what will happen to you if you don’t do it.

Fortunately, however, my friend lives in Australia, so she is guaranteed health care. She knows that no matter how badly things go, even if she isn’t working (which she is), neither she nor her child are going to lose their health. Which means that if it becomes her goal to shift down from her professional job to a manual labourer, cleaner or bar worker – she will still have guaranteed healthcare. Those weekly worries where she sits down and thinks about what she has to juggle don’t extend to her or her child’s health.

Not so in the USA. The same woman in the USA – changed jobs as an adult, pre-existing condition, child with same pre-existing condition – is likely unable to get health insurance even if she can afford it. The same woman in the USA will come home and she won’t just think “can I afford anything nice for my child this weekend or next,” but will also think “I hope I don’t get seriously sick before my child becomes an adult,” because if she does she will be facing ruin, and her child’s future will take a massive nose dive. Even though she can afford health insurance in any other country in the world, in the USA she will be denied it, or her entire income will be blown on it. And she’s not alone, nor is her case limited to single mothers who had the importunacy to refuse to tolerate Men’s Rights Movement husbands – there are between 10 and 40 million Americans who can’t get health insurance, and for a sizable proportion of them the problem is either that they have a pre-existing condition, or that as sole business operators or independent contractors they don’t have group purchasing power, and simply can’t afford individual insurance.

But not anymore. On Monday Obamacare started, and those millions of people have access to the health insurance exchanges. Insurance companies can no longer refuse them insurance, but have to offer them a basic plan, and the government will subsidize some plans. Medicaid has been expanded to cover the working poor. The primary beneficiaries of Obamacare will be the working poor, the lower middle class, and those with pre-existing conditions. The estimate for the first year is that 7 million people will gain access to health insurance, and the total number of people expected to gain access over the long term is 28 million. This isn’t a flight of fancy either – the Health Insurance Exchanges have been overwhelmed by the unexpected number of customers, just as happened to the NHS when it first opened.

This scares the Republicans. The next presidential election is in two years and they desperately need to win it, but they have a problem: they are implacably opposed to Obamacare. The election is in two years, and the prediction is that in one year 7 million people will take it up. This means that by the time of the election 7 million people will be benefiting from a Democratic policy that the Republicans will be campaigning to abolish. Judging by the scramble to the exchanges, many of those people will have been receiving their insurance for more than a year. For those people, that Friday night collapse onto the couch and “oh, what am I gonna do!?” will no longer include worries about healthcare. If they have two years to experience this level of relaxation and then, at the next election, the GOP and its Tea Party mates rock up claiming a virtue of abolishing the law, what are those 7 million people going to think? Will some of them perhaps think one option is voting?

Furthermore, the biggest beneficiaries of Obamacare are going to be working and lower-middle class white males with families. These are the stalwarts of the Tea Party’s campaign, and in the long term they are going to be looking at convincing up to 40 million people that gaining access to health insurance – including subsidies for the working poor – is a bad idea. What are their chances?

This is why they have to throw down now. This is why their specific condition was that Obamacare be delayed a year. They need those 7 million people to be naive, fresh to Obamacare, not yet settled in their new comfort zone, so that they can go to the election with a slogan that appeals to their base and doesn’t simultaneously alienate – or worse still, activate – 7 million early adopters. With a one year delay they have a chance; if Obamacare is enacted now they lose. And if they lose, they lose the following election too, because whoever wins the White House (Hilary Clinton?) is going to be able to say to more than 7 million new Democrat voters “do you trust these people? Last election they said they would remove your health insurance. Do you trust them this election?”

That’s why the GOP is willing to shut down the government, because in two years time they risk irrelevance. They have to destroy the tea party and accept universal health coverage, or they have to fight. And if they choose to fight there is going to be no room for compromise. Will they go so far as to force a default? Do they have any political reason not to, if they are facing a sea change at the next election? I guess not …


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