Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Why the Welsh Conservative leader is wrong on taxes

Wales may just get the power to determine some of its own taxes if the recommendations of the Silk Commission are implemented. So the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Assembly has fired its first salvo. Unfortunately, he missed.

At the weekend, R.T. Davies suggested that the Welsh Government should, if it gained tax varying powers, reduce the higher rate of income tax (currently 40%) for people in Wales to stimulate the economy. He couldn't be more wrong on the issue. Evidence clearly suggests that higher rate tax payers are not re-investing any additional disposable income into investment. The most productive way to stimulate demand in an demand-driven service-oriented economy as the Welsh one is to lower the tax of those at the bottom of the income scale. That's simply because they spend a far higher proportion of their income on goods and services than those at the top. Income tax changes at the bottom of the income scale thus directly translate into economic stimulation. Reducing tax rates for higher earners usually only increases the savings rate, not something Wales or the UK need at the moment with a sluggishly performing demand.

If Davies's suggestion is bad economics, it is also bad politics. Wales is an Old Labour heartland. Welsh people have a very acute egalitarian instinct, and lowering the higher marginal tax rate is unlikely to play well with the Welsh electorate. So what Davies was thinking went he flew this kite, no one knows. With a bit more thinking he might just get his next salvo bang on target.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Afghan dilemma

In less than a year, US combat troops will draw down their engagement in Afghanistan for good. By then, Western military forces will have been in the country for more than a dozen years. With mixed results. As a documentary by the BBC revealed last night, law enforcement is riddled with corruption and police commanders of the Western trained Afghan forces stand accused of serious human rights violations. While the picture varies considerably across the country, the despair about the humanitarian dilemma was clearly written into the expression of the US commander who talked about the ongoing corruption and criminal behaviour amongst his Afghan colleagues.

So, the question is: what should the West do? Is it really time to leave, or may a premature withdrawal risk creating more suffering in a corner of the world that surely had more than its share of human misery?

Tony Blair often said that policies should be guided by principles, so let us try to find out if principles can assist us to identify a solution for the Afghan issue.

There are essentially two broad guiding principles that divide the field of argument about the Western engagement in Afghanistan. Interestingly, they cut across the ideological divide between left and right.

First, there are those who argue that humanitarian interventionism remains the overriding tenet which should define foreign policy of the US and the Western allies in Afghanistan. Any hasty withdrawal jeopardises the gains in security for the local population, and the limited progress there may have been. Humanitarian interventionism is paradoxically sustained not only by principles of international justice and a globalised vision of human rights, trumping as it were the rights of national governments, but also finds some support from neo-conservatives who argue to fight terrorism at the source and thereby protect national interests. George W. Bush's policy in Afghanistan and Iraq therefore paradoxically coincided with some of the more left-leaning rhetoric about humanitarian interventionism (and tainted its application in the view of some).

The other side of the argument is populated by those who take a realist position coupled with more libertarian instincts. Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan appears justified in their eyes because the world resembles a continuous fight of all against all, which Western governments are incapable of doing much about. The best we can hope for is an increase in security for Western populations and laying the foundations for the Afghan people to solve their own problems with reason and mutual respect.

It seems to be that neither of these principles offer much guidance in the case of Afghanistan. While the humanitarian instinct recognises the need to protect civilians from their own national government, advocates of this position do not tell us much about why Western soldiers should lay down their lives in far flung countries in order to prevent humanitarian disasters. Whilst it appeals to a deep seated moral desire to prevent atrocities or systematically perpetrated injustices, humanitarians seem to fail to factor in the loss of the lives of soldiers or the civilian costs of military engagement of Western countries. Military engagements to stop humanitarian disasters are portrayed as added sum games in which everybody wins.

Libertarian (or laissez faire) isolationism on the other hand fails to tells us much about the global costs of not intervening. The focus of utilitarian calculation is narrower here, concentrating on the gain for Western populations only. Global implications of humanitarian disasters are outside the scope of this argument.

If neither of these, admittedly rather crude, arguments assists us any further, perhaps we should look more deeply at what both principles lack. Both care very little about the perspective of the Afghan population itself. In essence, both arguments are myopic by focusing on Western benefits, be it a gain in moral standing or in narrow, nationally defined utility.

What remains excluded from the picture is the decision making capacity and will of those we are supposedly helping (or failing to help). The biggest barrier to factoring in the will of the Afghan people is of course the lack of a functioning democracy. Yet, is this a reason to dismiss it? If we do, we may end up in a deeply patronising position, where either our help or our refrain from assistance neglects the importance of the views of those we want to engage. Clearly, even amongst Afghans there will always be a multitude of views about when the West should militarily disengage. Yet, adopting a solely Western perspective leaves us open to the charge of pursuing self-interested policies.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Why Wales is so far behind

I am in Spain at the moment, in Valencia, to be precise. Spain consists of largely autonomous regions and Valencia is the capital of one of those. This makes Valencia roughly comparable to Cardiff in Wales. It has a regional government with a parliament, and decides most of its own affairs, from health to local government.

Taking the train here in Valencia to a nearby city however reminded me once again what's wrong with Wales. Leaving the main central station here in Valencia, the train quickly gathered speed, and arrived at the next stop without any hitch. You think this would be how it is in Wales as well, but far from it. Regional trains in Spain are electrified, whilst Welsh trains run on diesel engines, most of them built in the 1980s. Take the train from Cardiff to Holyhead and you know why most Welsh politicians (who can afford it since they claim it on their expenses) prefer to take the plane if they want to get from South Wales to North Wales.

But it gets worse. Arriva Wales Trains which won the contract for Wales also runs the regional connections to the valleys. I am not sure if you have ever experienced any of the valley trains but if you have you know what I am talking about. The trains are filthy, slow and break down frequently. Not that Arriva Trains would care about the dire service. Their investment in the rolling stock and train stations (in an abysmal state, up and down the country) has been practically zero since they won the franchise in 2003.

Arriva Wales Train in the Welsh valleys

This contrasts starkly with Spain. There are some gaps in the high speed railway network yet overall the trains here are fast, reliable and clean.

This is what you would get if you took a train in Valencia

So why is Wales so far behind? People cite usually two reasons. First, transport policy is not a prerogative of the Welsh Government but decided in London. Second, the geographical terrain in Wales makes fast trains difficult.

Both reasons border on feeble excuses. Transport policy does not differ in Spain from the UK. Most decisions are taken by the centre, that is in London or Madrid respectively. Yet, nothing prevents Carwin Jones and his Welsh Government to build a strong regional alliance of local councils to make a case in London for electrification and investment in Welsh trains. So far, his only response to the dire state of the Welsh railways has been: silence.

The second reason is even more spurious. It seems to me Swiss engineers may face even more difficult challenges in terms of terrain yet the Swiss railways are electrified at 100%. Yes, all of the Swiss railways are electrified which makes them one of the most reliable train networks in the world.

You may say this is all about to change since the Welsh Government has just announced that it will take a more robust stance in transport policy. But not so fast. After almost 15 years of silence on the issue, what did Carwin Jones decide to focus on? Cardiff Airport.

He wants to spend more than £20 million of the Welsh budget to buy (yes you are reading right: 'buy') the moribund Cardiff Airport. This is just the purchase price for an Airport that is practically dead in the water. Why? Since many of the ministers in his government have a constituency in the north of Wales it is essential that they can fly from Holyhead to Cardiff Airport. If Cardiff Airport would shut (which it is about to do) they would have to take the train. God forbid!

So, there we go again. The Welsh Government will spend £20 million on a dead airport with no transport links while we can hop on and off filthy trains in the valleys. That's transport priorities of Labour for you.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

On plagiarism

A specter is going round in German ministries of education. The specter of plagiarism. A second minister has been pushed into the political wilderness today after it was 'discovered' that she had plagiarised parts of her doctoral dissertation submitted more than 30 years ago.

I am in two minds about it. On the one hand I am outraged as anybody else that somebody (the minister for education of all persons!) managed to pass off the work of others as her own. However, looking more deeply at the issue, the 'Schavan' affair is by no means clear-cut. It seems that she may not have lifted whole sections from other people's publications and placed them in her own dissertation without acknowledging the source, but had in fact re-phrased other people's writings and failed to give appropriate citations.

Thinking about my own practice over the last 20 years, I can safely say that I enjoy writing my own words far too much to simply copy and paste. Writing is an almost cathartic experience, something that requires thinking about what to say as much as how to say it. It's the phrasing and discarding of thoughts and the subsequent formulating that is both fun and challenge. Adopting the words of others diminishes this labour of love and that's why I fail to understand the motive for plagiarism. Lifting words from others into your own work simply takes away the joy of writing that comes with having achieved something.

However, there is another dimension to the issue. My first supervisor, Wolfgang Hardtwig, at the Humboldt University always said: 'Reading saves you from discovering new things'. This has special relevance in the field of doctoral studies where students are asked to contribute something novel to the body of knowledge. The less you read other people's work, the more you feel that you have discovered something utterly new. The fact is that work in the humanities is as much about re-interpreting as it is about saying something genuinely new. And the more you familiarise yourself with the work of others, the more you discover that pretty much everything has been said at least once by somebody who came before you.

Simply too early to have been plagiarised?

What does this have to do with plagiarism? Well, students are at the very outset of their academic life and it is a fact of life, that you simply have not read as much as a 22 year old as you did when you reached my age. Hence the fascination with claiming 'discoveries' left right and centre as you engage with academic work and get to grips with the huge body of knowledge out there.

I remember one particularly experience which gave me food for thought. in 1993 I spent weeks of reading and writing for a lengthy essay on Augustine's City of God for a seminar at the Free University Berlin. I loved the work, delving into the primary sources as well as secondary writings by Ratzinger (yes, the current Pope Benedict published extensively on religious thought, no surprise there). After submitting my essay, a densely typed manuscript of about 20 pages with plenty of footnotes, I was simply proud of my work (though I somehow struggle today to recall the main argument of this undoubtedly groundbreaking work!). My examiner duly rewarded me with a 'first', the highest mark you could get, but then proceeded to cast some doubt on the provenance of the argument. After praising the essay, he said: 'I think I have read this before somewhere.'

I was devastated. The suspicion hit me like a train. After weeks of laborious effort, all I had come up with was something that had already been written somewhere. And, despite all my reading, I had somehow missed this too!

You may say he simply wanted to tease out whether or not I had plagiarised the essay, which I clearly had not (the strenuous and over-complicated grammar in my essay should have been a give-away). Yet, the incident casts a light on the difficulties of writing genuinely 'new' things. Humanities are to a large extent an interpretive science, i.e. a re-arranging of the deck-chairs. And perhaps plagiarism, while a despicable practice, is just the price we pay for having said so much already.

Alban Berg's Lulu by the Welsh National Opera

Ever feeling slightly apprehensive when going to a modern classical music concert? And what about a Stravinsky opera? Whatever your thoughts, all my worries were almost literally blown away by the high quality acting and the drama of last night's Lulu by the Welsh National Opera.

Marie Arnet as Lulu

Written in 1934, it had to wait almost thirty years to see its UK premiere at Sadler's Wells. Last night's performance may well have been a first for a Welsh audience, but the venue was almost sold out.

Alban Berg's opera Lulu is full of cliches but nothing short of drama. And given the thoroughly modern score, it was not surprising that the first act may have tempted some to nod off. Yet, as the action (and the killing) gathers pace, the twists and turns of the psychological dimensions multiply. The personas largely remain somewhat flat but that's to be expected in an opera that had anti-capitalism as its main motif. As money takes its toll on the social relationships in the narrative, you wonder why Berg sketched only the main protagonist as the one who always ends up on top. Yet, eventually Lulu's days are numbered too, murdered by Jack the Ripper as she and her numerous lovers (or pimps?) descend into the morass of London's underworld.

Musically there is a certain flow and smoothness to the third act that is lacking in the first and second. And the plot takes on speed in the third at the expense of logic. But the drama is palpable and makes you overlook the (at times inverted) stereotyping of the main characters.

All in all, a really impressive piece that was well acted by the cast and well sung by most of them. The WNO orchestra played it safe under the leadership of Lothar Koenigs, and kept the tension throughout, which is a real feat given the opera's length of 3 hours. Special mention should be made how well choreographed the entrances and movements were. The only drawback was the central piece of the setting, a huge cage which allowed the cast to play on several levels but cluttered the view of the choreography.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The French view of Europe - solidarity one way

President Hollande has fired the first shot across the bow of the British Prime Minister. He said that Europe should not suffer from an 'a la carte' attitude of its members.

Without any doubt, Hollande is referring (not very subtly) to the desire of the British Prime Minister to give the British people a voice in the process of ever closer union in Europe. Presumably, for Hollande, Europe is not an affair that requires public support but something that is stitched up between the political elites of France and Germany.

Yet, his 'a la carte' comment is also of curious provenance given that France is doing exactly that when it comes to defending its own national interests in the annual budget negotiations. At present, French negotiators are celebrating because they are close to pass legislation in the European Parliament which will reward French farmers twice (yes, TWICE) for the same services. Which services? Not to farm anything.

Unbelievable as it sounds, it is true. French farmers want to receive European subsidies twice over for not farming their fields. British and German taxpayers will pay for this little extra for the French, but of course, asking British people whether they would like to do this, is an outrage in the mind of the French president. As always, for the French political class, solidarity is a one way street.

Yet, Hollande's real fear is not the referendum Cameron offered the British people. His real concern is that the paymasters of Europe, the Germans, will finally wake up and realise how they have been blackmailed by the French political class over the last 60 years to support an undemocratic and illegitimate political circus in Brussels and Strasbourg. Hollande does not want to put the European Union on a democratic foundation. After all, if they were ever asked, the peoples of Europe may decide to have no track with this 'free for all' for French farmers at the expense of everyone else.