Saturday, June 11, 2011

No sex please, we want politics

Well, maybe I'm the exception here. I'm as entertained as anyone by public figures making idiots out of themselves, but is there any sound theory of democracy that requires marital fidelity of our representatives? What exactly would we gain by removing all sexual misbehaviour from the democratic institutions? Are over-sexed politicians really more likely to lie to the people than the chaste (Italians: compare Andreotti and Berlusconi. Who is more honest?)? This is just a huge distraction from the issues that actually matter to people, and we really shouldn't pretend otherwise.

Weiner didn't sexually assault, or even meet, the women involved here. He didn't pay for sex, or have sex, with any of them. They were not minors. Neither does it appear that they were at all unhappy about what he was tweeting. It's embarrassing in the extreme, and his wife could well feel cheated (virtually) and humiliated, but all in all it's hardly in the Clinton/Gingrich league. Having said that, knowing not to use an open messaging service like Twitter to send reserved information to one person is a sign of serious foolishness, which maybe should disqualify Weiner from public office.

But overall, there is a serious problem here, in that new social media are recording ever greater amounts of information about what we do, think or say, and preserving it for ever. So the search for sexual scandal is going to intensify, and the democratic process - and indeed society in general - is unlikely to benefit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Played like a fiddle

The fiddle is Nick Clegg, the player, the Tory party. Clegg negotiated a referendum he was unlikely to win, and in exchange gave up a large chunk of his small parliamentary delegation. The man's a genius.

A good time for a European government

It's pretty amazing that in the current climate, serious people are calling for an enhancement of the European Union's political clout. There are good reasons for the EU becoming more of a political union, but there are two big - correction, colossal and insurmountable - problems.

Problem One: imagine the result of a referendum in Ireland on the creation of a European Finance Ministry. Or indeed, in Germany.

Problem Two: do we really think that giving someone like Jean- Claude Trichet more power is going to solve our problems? The political union that would work would involve German taxpayers absorbing Greek liabilities. That's not on the table, now or ever.

So we're still stuck. Europe has too much power, and not enough. And the only way out that is politically feasible is: less Europe.

So much for austerity

Well, well, well. Doesn't look good for growth-friendly fiscal consolidation. Will they bottle it? I think so. Will this be enough? Hmmm.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Generation Rent

Suddenly people are taking an interest in housing. About time, since as well as its key role in the collapse of the Great Moderation, housing is one area where the UK could do with a serious rethink: let's face it, British housing is either incredibly expensive or of lousy quality, and often both.

Andrew Rawnsley presents what is actually a pretty sound analysis of the housing issue in today's Observer. His conclusion: we need to build more houses. He's right of course, but there is a problem. First, this government will never allow the planning liberalization that is required, because its voters are key beneficiaries of the current situation. Second, the places where we need housing to be built are already occupied - basically London and the South-East, and the more vibrant northern cities. Although southern England is nowhere near as full as some people suggest, there isn't a whole lot of free land waiting to be built on.

So, the answers are tricky - which of course is why nothing has been done about the problem so far. And, as ever, our social fractures and secular backwardness in infrastructure are big obstacles. People pay heavily to live in places where social problems are less serious; if we could deal with social problems, new areas of housing would become available. People could commute from empty to full parts of the country if we had decent infrastructure. But the measures required to achieve all this are expensive and politically difficult.

This is one of the many areas of British politics where policy change proves impossible - the Westminster model, despite its supposed concentration of power at the centre, actually contains myriad veto points on closer inspection.

Good inflation, bad inflation

There is good inflation, and there is bad inflation. Good inflation is asset price inflation, because it makes powerful and middling groups richer. Bad inflation is wage-push inflation, caused by workers getting pay rises in excess of average productivity gains. As long as you have that straight, then you will have understood current economic policy orthodoxy, which is otherwise mind-bogglingly confusing.

Dean Baker is as ever the best source of analysis on this: the points he makes here, which are obvious now (although still beyond those in charge of policy), were less obvious back in 2006, when he was already making them.

So, we live in a world were rising fuel prices are bad (even though they effectively discourage us from doing things we should be doing less, like polluting and congesting), but rising house prices are good. Now, if we think about it, rising house prices are only unambiguously good for people who own multiple properties, or people with no or few children. People on middle incomes who have made big gains in the housing market, have not really gained that much, unless they are happy to move to a remote area to live in a mobile home. And if they have kids, their kids will be worse off, and will probably never leave home.

So, in these inflation-phobic times, we really should be targeting zero house price growth. But what chance is there that that will happen?

Friday, June 3, 2011

What's in their tea?

At the risk of sounding a bit naive, the news that John Edwards is being prosecuted for misusing campaign funds to hide the fact that he had a secret mistress and child set me wondering. Exactly why are so many (male) politicians caught out by this kind of scandal? I mean, can you really expect to become President of the United States these days without anyone noticing that you have undeclared children? Add this case to Berlusconi, Strauss-Kahn and Newt Gingrich and suddenly Bill Clinton starts to look like a pretty reliable kind of guy.

So what's going on? Well one possibility is that politicians are up to what everyone else is up to, and that I've led a sheltered life. So the scandals are just a typical sample of the peccadillos offered up by the general population. But somehow I'm not sure - I mean, how many people do you know who've left not one, but two wives because they each had the misfortune to fall ill?

Second, politicians get caught out because they're no more monogamous than the general population, but more likely to try and cover up their flaws, leading to Clintonesque scenarios where the crime becomes lying about it.

Third, and most intriguing, is the hypothesis that politicians - or at least male ones, which for the moment still means most of the pack - are testosterone-addled crazies, and that's why they go into politics. Certainly, politics is about craving adulation as much as anything else, and the same traits might lead to an over-representation of philandering in high office.

Either way, the more we obsess about this kind of thing, the less time is left to argue about how to drag ourselves out of the morass of economic depression, climate change and social injustice. Maybe that's what Newt's up to.

If we just ignore it, it will go away

What? The crisis of the Eurozone, of course, and in particular the huge dilemma posed by the insolvency of the Eurozone periphery, and therefore of the French, German and other banks that lent them the money.

So here's the next installment. I give Greece a year.