Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Crime doesn’t pay, unless it’s online

[link] Sunday, March 29th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Now I know that there are lies, damned lies and crime statistics, but everyone in the UK, including the Office for National Statistics, seems to agree that recorded crime is decreasing – and has been for quite a while. This is one of the arguments the government is using to justify its savage cuts in police budgets. Given that we’ve got crime on the run (so the argument goes) all we have to do now is to get the coppers to become more efficient – working smarter, making better use of information technology and computers, etc. Reduction in crime means we don’t need so many police officers. QED.

The only fly in this rosy ointment is that it’s based on a false premise. Recorded crime is declining, but that’s largely due to the fact that crime has moved on – specifically from the physical world to cyberspace. And there’s a very simple reason for this: cybercrime is a much safer and more lucrative activity than its real-world counterpart. The rewards are much greater, and the risks of being caught and convicted are vanishingly small. So if you’re a rational criminal with a reasonable IQ, why would you bother mugging people, breaking into houses, nicking cars and doing all the other things that old-style crooks do – and that old-style cops are good at catching them doing?

Read on

The fightback begins here

[link] Friday, March 27th, 2015

At last!

After Nigel Farage’s exclusion from a television programme and the assassination of Jeremy Clarkson, elections have been suspended and traditional British common sense has been classed as hate speech.

Toynbee said: “We namby-pambies, we do-gooders, we pinkos have emerged from our ivory towers and hypocritically large houses to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of the Chipping Norton set.

“From now on, you think only what our think-pieces tell you to think.”

Resistance leaders Rod Liddle and Peter Hitchens have gone underground using a secret network of national newspapers to continue bravely saying the things they say they are not allowed to say.

Alas, only a spoof

The Cameron-Blair nexus

[link] Friday, March 27th, 2015

Who owns your data? Hint: not you

[link] Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Nice video from Jon Crowcroft and his colleagues on the HAT Project.

Osborne’s real plan

[link] Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Nice blog post by Simon Wren-Lewis arguing that the obsession with deficit-reduction is actually just a smokescreen for shrinking the state. Sample:

However perhaps we should have taken the chancellor at his word when he says that there has been no change to his long-term plan. The mistake was to misunderstand what this plan was. In reality it may have had nothing to do with the deficit, but instead was all about shrinking the size of the state over a ten-year period.

The problem the Conservatives faced in 2010 was that there was no public appetite for a smaller state. Surveys continued to show many more people wanted higher government spending and taxes than wanted the opposite (with a large percentage wanting neither). A focus on the government deficit presented them with an ideal opportunity to achieve a smaller state by the back door.


The only problem with this strategy is that, as we saw in the coalition’s first two years, it would seriously damage the economy, just as Keynes would have predicted. The chancellor has never rejected Keynesian analysis, so perhaps he was well aware of this. So the plan may have always included a temporary pause to austerity before the election, giving the economy time to recover and the chancellor scope for what he hoped would be election winning tax giveaways.

So the real long-term plan was an initial two years of sharp cuts to public spending and the deficit, to be followed by budgets involving tax cuts that would allow growth to resume but rather less deficit reduction. If this combination was enough to win the subsequent election, the recipe could be repeated all over again. Indeed, this is what George Osborne’s post-2015 plans look like. All done in the name of deficit reduction, when the real aim is to reduce the size of the state.

For this plan to work, you need one extra ingredient: a compliant media that buys into the idea that deficit reduction is all important, and that recent growth somehow vindicates the earlier austerity.

Well, we certainly have that ingredient — a compliant media.

How politics gets hollowed out

[link] Sunday, March 15th, 2015

From Brewster Kahle’s blog:

A recent paper from Princeton evaluated of over 1700 federal government policy decisions made in the last 30 years and found “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Therefore, according to this research, the vast majority of the population has little or no say in how the federal government makes policy decisions. Similarly discouraging is the economic analysis over the last 30 years that found that the increase in American wealth went to only the wealthiest 1% of the population, with the other 99% essentially staying even. Therefore, there has not been equal opportunity for economic success in the United States for the vast majority of the population.

Getting to bedrock

[link] Sunday, March 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The implication of these latest revelations is stark: the capabilities and ambitions of the intelligence services mean that no electronic communications device can now be regarded as trustworthy. It’s not only your mobile phone that might betray you: your hard disk could harbour a snake in the grass, too.

No wonder Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, used to say that “only the paranoid survive” in the technology business. Given that we have become totally dependent on his industry’s products, that knowledge may not provide much consolation. But we now know where we stand. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for that.

Read on

Technology and the election

[link] Thursday, March 5th, 2015

My colleague David Runciman — who is Professor of Politics in Cambridge — had the great idea of doing a weekly podcast from now until the UK has a new government with the aim of holding different kinds of discussions than are possible on mainstream media in the run-up to an election. This week he and I had a long conversation about: whether Facebook could conceivably influence the outcome; about why the current campaign seems so dated (because it seems still to be entirely focussed on ‘old’ media); on why surveillance doesn’t figure as an issue in the campaign; on whether UKIP could be regarded as disruptive in the way that Uber is; and on lots of other stuff.

Straw and Rifkind had nothing to hide, but…

[link] Sunday, March 1st, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The really sinister thing about the nothing-to-hide argument is its underlying assumption that privacy is really about hiding bad things. As the computer-security guru Bruce Schneier once observed, the nothing-to-hide mantra stems from “a faulty premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong”. But surveillance can have a chilling effect by inhibiting perfectly lawful activities (lawful in democracies anyway) such as free speech, anonymous reading and having confidential conversations.

So the long-term message for citizens of democracies is: if you don’t want to be a potential object of attention by the authorities, then make sure you don’t do anything that might make them – or their algorithms – want to take a second look at you. Like encrypting your email, for example; or using Tor for anonymous browsing. Which essentially means that only people who don’t want to question or oppose those in power are the ones who should be entirely relaxed about surveillance.

We need to reboot the discourse about democracy and surveillance. And we should start by jettisoning the cant about nothing-to-hide. The truth is that we all have things to hide – perfectly legitimately. Just as our disgraced former foreign secretaries had.

Read on

The economics of Wolf Hall

[link] Monday, February 23rd, 2015

As I’ve observed, Peter Kosminski’s wonderful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels has lots of contemporary resonances. In today’s Guardian the paper’s Economics Editor, Larry Elliott, picks up on some of the points the series makes about economics and social mobility. Sample:

What the small screen adaptation can’t really capture from Wolf Hall and the follow-up volume, Bring Up The Bodies, is the book’s broader themes. Mantel’s Cromwell tells us a lot about power and intrigue at the Tudor court. But he also tells us about class, the rise of capitalism and an economy in flux.

The period of transition from feudalism to modern capitalism was long. Economic growth in the 16th century barely kept pace with the growing population. The economy had its ups and down but broadly flatlined between 1500 and 1600. More than two centuries would pass before the advent of the wave of technological progress associated with the start of the industrial revolution.

Even so, the economy was gradually being transformed. Cromwell was not a member of the old aristocratic families: a Suffolk or a Norfolk. He was a blacksmith’s son from Putney made good. Like his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, he did not have a privileged upbringing but had talent and ambition. Karl Marx would have seen Cromwell as a classic example of the new bourgeoisie. Mantel draws a contrast between the fanatically devout Thomas More and the worldly wise Cromwell: the one settling in for a day’s scourging, the other off to get the day’s exchange rate in the City’s Lombard Street, where all the big banking houses had their home.

The inference is clear. Men like More are the past. A new breed of men, pragmatic and servants of the state not the church, are on the rise. “He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit.”

This, of course, is fiction not fact. But the challenge to the status quo from men like Cromwell was real enough…

A key factor in the story, of course, is the fact that Cromwell was an early Protestant. Elliott goes on to draw on the work of David Landes who argued in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, that the challenge to the Vatican from the new religion was a major influence because it signified the dawning of a more secular age.

Once he had made Henry supreme over the Church of England and disposed of Anne Boleyn, he set to work on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Rather like the privatisation programme of the 1980s, the main reason for the assault on the monasteries was financial: Henry was short of money and wanted the funds to fight his expensive wars. Cromwell could justify what was effectively the enforced nationalisation of church lands by pointing to the corruption of the monastic ideal, but this was of secondary importance.

Nothing really changes. Governments always seem to be short of money. A modern Cromwell charged with sorting out the public finances might conclude that the financial sector – rich, arrogant and with a lamentable record of corruption – was ripe for the picking. No question: if Cromwell was alive today, the former chief executive of HSBC, Stephen Green, would be in chains in the Tower and the Dissolution of the Banks would be in full swing.

Great stuff.