Saturday, 29 August 2015

60th Anniversary of Emmett Till's murder

It was exactly 60 years ago that Emmett Till was abducted and murdered by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam from the Mississippi Delta town of Delta. The brutal murder and subsequent acquittal of the two men by an all white all male jury made headlines around the world and contributed to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. 

Emmett Till (1941- 1955)

Although neither of the murderers ever faced justice for the killing to which they confessed in an interview only weeks after their acquittal, the trial did witness the incredible bravery of Till's great-uncle Mose Wright and a young cotton picker, Willie Reed, who testified in court. Both had to leave Mississippi right after their court appearance for fear of retribution. 

The case gained national and international media attention partly because of the decision by Till's mother to have an open the casket at the public funeral service in Chicago. Whilst the image of Till's face at the time of the funeral is harrowing, her decision allowed Till's body to bear testimony to the incredible savagery of racial hatred. 

Why socialism does not need democracy

In the current debate about the radical left candidates in the US and the UK, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, one argument in support of their policies is heard again and again: their policies can command widespread popular demand. Corbyn's call for the nationalisation of the railways regularly tots up polling support in the high 60 percent.

The argument about popular support always struck me as dubious. There are quite a few nutty policies that would probably gain popular support if put to the electorates in the UK, such as capital punishment for rapists and murderers.  What supporters of Sanders and Corbyn tend to neglect is that modern democracy is not a mechanism to identify and implement the will of the majority. In fact, the Federalists had grave misgivings about what the majority of citizens may lead politicians to decide. Their doubt about the reason and rationality of majority rule was instrumental in carefully constructing and safeguarding minority rights.

Yet, the most fundamental discomfort of cautious liberals with the popular argument has deeper roots. It is anchored in the concern that too many of radical socialist policies with seemingly popular support claim to be 'scientifically' true, making negotiations between social and political interests in society redundant. The main thrust of socialism was its alleged 'scientific' nature, which relegated public debate to the status of a post-hoc democratic justification by an electorate possessing the 'right consciousness'.

It is this presumption of righteousness that renders the socialist alternatives a la Corbyn and Sanders fundamentally anti-democratic. After all, for socialists, all the important questions have already been decided. Liberalism's antithesis to this un-democratic impulse of socialism is animated by the will to question everything anew, preserving the possibility to arrive at a different solution any day of the week. It is this openness of the political process and the uncertainty of outcomes that is hard to stomach for socialists.

On partisan media

In the age of digital media it has become relatively easy to listen to radio programmes of other countries and I listen quite a bit to US based radio shows. What strikes me again and again when I listen in to the New York Times Book Reviews or other shows is the incredible partisan character of their contents. Discussing things such as the Supreme Court or the Voting Rights Act and its legacy today, the various positions are often characterised not by the merits of their arguments but by the (alleged) ideological position of their proponents. So any change to the setup of the Supreme Court becomes a Conservative (or Liberal) transformation due to the conservative or liberal leaning of the president appointing the justices, and any change in voting right legislation is a reactionary undermining of the achievements of the civil rights movement by virtue of the progressive nature of the original Act.

This partiality in media broadcasting may simply be a function of the partisan nature of the outlets themselves but I would argue that it has more to do with the quality of journalism. To me, it brings into stark relief the enormously high standards of the BBC, which are accomplished simply by ensuring that every position articulated on its programmes receives a riposte from one of its opponents. The deliberate juxtaposition of ideas and thoughts empowers the recipients, the wider public, who are called upon to make up their mind themselves on the merits of the arguments presented. This simple journalistic practice has better chances to bring about informed decision making than, I would argue, pleasing your audience with things it likes to hear.

Friday, 28 August 2015

On effective scrutiny

The House of Lords is back in the news with the latest round of appointments going mainly to the electoral rejects of the political classes. It is widely agreed that the appointment system is untenable due to the unrepresentative nature of the second chamber and its ridiculous size. What is more difficult to say is what should take its place.

Electing the second chamber has its supporters but I would argue that adding simply a second elected chamber to the first one would only reduce parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, the only thing the current second chamber is still doing well (research shows that the House of Lords has been more rebellious since 2010 than it has ever been in its history).

Moreover, the argument over scrutiny has another side. Scrutiny by parliamentarians is informed by their position in society and who they represent. This is the essence of representation and creates the balance of interests in society. To make the second chamber mirror the first chamber would align the House of Lords with the House of Commons, and in effect, align it with the will of the government.

Looking at other examples of second chambers this point becomes a bit clearer. The German Bundesrat (the second chamber) works well because it represents the interests of the Laender (the German States and Free Cities). The interests of the (elected) deputies of the Bundesrat are hence different to the elected parliamentarians sitting in the Bundestag (the first chamber).

The effect is that, where the interests of the Laender are concerned, the Bundesrat offers an effective opposition, scrutinising national legislation and counter-balancing the will of the national government.

Hence, an elected House of Lord along the electoral lines of the House of Commons would only create a mirror image of the latter, removing the counter-balancing function of any second chamber through its representative function for different interests to those of the political parties.

Reforming the House of Lords within the only partially federal system of the UK may hence be trickier than thought. Perhaps that's the reason that the House has been one of the most reform-resistant pieces of political architecture in this country.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Is contemporary classical music 'likeable'?

As facebook 'likes' are concerned, the latest release of Mauricio Kagel's piece 'Rrrrrr...: I. Rrrrrrrr...'  is probably not going to ratch up a lot. Neither will it be graced with a platinum disc any time soon. But perhaps measuring contemporary classical music by its instant appeal to the wider audience may be unfair. Some of Berlioz's operas were not exactly joyfully embraced by contemporary audiences, and Bach's music wasn't even played much in music halls for more than a century after his death.

The argument that undercuts this view to see lack of popularity as a sign of quality is of course Mozart. Mozart's music did not just enrapture its audiences, he deliberately tried to please them to achieve popularity as a way to be commercially successful (amongst other things).

So, where does that leave contemporary classical music? As I have argued before, there are essentially two types of music afficiniados. The first type tries to 'understand' the music and believes that its appeal lies somewhere buried in the minutiae of harmonic construction. The second type sees music as a tool to evoke emotions. Doubtless there are both of these types in many of us, but I have to confess that my 'understanding' of Bach's fugues does not extend much beyond the first motif.

This leaves me with the oddity that I might actually enjoy what some call the 'noise' of contemporary classical music. Affirmative! The most recent manifestation of this strange fascination of mine is Ginastera's Second Cello Concerto, something you rarely hear in concert halls, even the most adventurous ones.

Still, I think that basing any musical appeal on the belief that obscure musical constructions can be 'understood' is to indulge in a questionable form of joy. It's a bit like the member in the audience who all of a sudden laughs out loud while watching a cryptic piece of modern dance. His enjoyment is likely to be a pretty solitary affair. Trusting the emotional appeal of contemporary classical music may just give us a more secure foundation. After all, we are all strangers in the realm of the aesthetics of sound.

The perception gap

It must have been about four years ago on the campaign trail in Wales that I decided not to become a politician. I had stood for local election and Welsh Assembly elections before as so-called paper candidate and I was (and still am) fascinated by politics, even though not particularly enamoured of the glad handing that politicians have to do. It was not the contact with ordinary folk on the doorsteps when canvassing that made me decide against a political career. It was the conversations with fellow campaigners.

My view of politics has always been shaped by what politicians say and do in the public eye. Coming from a country where coalition government is the norm, I always liked the idea of compromise and consensus. The politician's craft, as I saw it, was to bring about change by forging robust majorities around a policy, embarking on the hard slog of bending your principles and beliefs to make them fit reality.

Yet, compared to politicians, campaigners are a lucky bunch. They have the privilege of articulating (and sticking to) ostensibly 'true' and 'logical' political positions, oblivious of the straightjacket of political reality.

Party volunteers also tend to be the 'purest' in belief and outlook. Who else would come out on a cold and miserable rainy January day to push party political leaflets through letter boxes of strangers? You have to be fired up by something for that level of commitment. Consensus and compromise may not be top campaign motivators.

All this conspires to something we are currently witnessing, the Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump phenomenon. Times like these, when parties are essentially looking inward to select their candidate in primaries, are the play ground of the party faithful, those campaigners fired up to take on their opponents on the other side of the political spectrum. It's also a time (and the only time in the political cycle) when the chorus of purist political posturing may sound convincing to the few who listen.

The cruel reality of modern politics is however that party political campaigners are a small bunch of people, and that the conventional laws of human attitudinal behaviour still apply once the circus of party political navel gazing is over. The electorate, here as in the US, has opinions and views that conform to the shape of a bell curve, with the large majority of people clustered around the centre of politics. It's this iron law of the normal attitudinal distribution amongst voters that will come down like a ton of bricks on the Corbyns and Trumps of this world once they stop talking to their supporters and have to face the wider public.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The trouble with the NHS

Two years ago the American author David Goldhill caused quite a stir in the US media with his book 'Catastrophic Care'. At the time, Obamacare was being implemented yet Goldhill argued that the extension of coverage to millions of Americans was a sideshow. His critique of the health care system focused instead on the conundrum of rising costs at times of increasing competition (which should drive down costs).

To any observer from the UK, this may appear a worry too far. Since 1948, the UK operates a monopolistic tax funded health care system without insurance intermediaries. Competition is a dirty word here, with politicians of all colour consistently arguing that it's the strong monopolistic position of the NHS that allows it to negotiate low prices with all health economy providers (we will return to this point in a moment).

Yet, Goldhill also showed clearly that all modern health systems suffered the same ills. Profits in health care provision did not amount to anything resembling the mountains of gold presumed by defenders of socialist health care. In fact, 'all the profits of the famously greedy health insurance companies ... would pay for four days of health care for all Americans. Add in the profits of the ten biggest 'rapacious' drug companies: another thirteen days. Indeed, confiscating all the profits of all American companies, in every industry, would cover only seven months of our health care expenses.' (Goldhill, p.53)

In other words, profiteering in health care provision is a red herring when it comes to the magnitude of the cost explosion.

British and European health care systems don't fare much better. Whilst productivity is slowly rising in all UK industries, the NHS is notoriously the only industry where productivity has steadily been falling. The argument has always been that medical care is a labour intensive industry. But does that mean that it is an industry like no other, exempt from the conventional laws of efficiency?

Productivity down, costs up - and still no happy Unions - NHS unions in 2007

Health care appears to be the only part in society that we positively excuse when it operates at a loss to us as taxpayers. As technology has made things easier for everyone from the local plumber to the car mechanic, health care providers appear to be saying that the more technology they introduce, the more expensive things will become for us as consumers. In fact, we are so used to this argument that, reading this, you may not even have spotted the flawed logic in this sentence. It is only in health care that technology makes things MORE expensive, when, in all other contexts, the aim of introducing technology is the opposite: to make things cheaper by increasing productivity.

So, what's going wrong? What's at the heart of the cost explosion of the NHS? The first issue is that the NHS, as any modern health care in the Western world, deliberately severed the link between patient behaviour and costs. People are not rewarded if they visit their GP less. On the contrary, the more a patient turns up at the local GP practice, the more tests (most of them often useless or positively harmful, as Atul Gawande argued) and clinical interventions are showered on her or him. The system also rewards the absence of self-management of illnesses and almost expects a lack of responsibility for our own well being.

Yet, even more important, what was supposed to be a risk sharing model for acute care needs has become a model of comprehensive health care. Once, illness was narrowly defined as urgent medical attention in cases of life threatening diseases. The NHS was founded as a response to large scale epidemics such as TB. Fast forward to the 21st century and the NHS has become the nanny for all  discomforts in life, for free!

The original model of sharing risks at times of acute medical needs, many of those very expensive, has given way to a model of comprehensive care for everything from a brain tumors to blisters on the feet. The health care systems are thus not risk sharing mechanisms anymore, helping the poorest to spread the costs of acute care needs, but a dispensary of all round care for free.

The fact that we don't share risks anymore but appear happy to pay for everything for everybody has important consequences to health care costs. It distorts positive health orientated behaviour (hence the discussion about obesity and gastroband surgery on the NHS), but it also undermines the possibility of establishing truly risk spreading mechanisms that would help share the costs in adjacent fields such as social care. Social care insurance will remain unviable in the UK, as long as much of what goes for care needs is met by the NHS or local authorities (soon helping themselves to NHS budgets in devolved areas).

The advantages of having a strong negotiating position vis-a-vis pharmaceutical industries are puny in comparison to the costs of health care in a dis-incentivised context. Not least because allegedly lower prices of medicines are likely to be cancelled out by the expansive prescribing of low or non-effective pharmaceuticals. As long as we think we have a right to free all round care, we won't be restoring the link between what we do to keep ourselves healthy and what we spend on our health.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

To name and shame?

For any liberal-minded citizen there is hardly anything more galling than the discrepancy between the way we first react to reports of injustice and our willingness to concede the possibility of redemption. Hearing about a callous murder, we think about the death sentence. Reading about a brutal rape, nothing less than capital punishment will do.

As the initial rage cools and emotional distance exerts its inevitability, we are often left with a sense of two irreconcilable reactions to the same deed, one that is animated by our immediate feelings and another one that speaks to our exercise of rationality. New forms of justice may just bridge this yawning gap.

In the US, some judges have for some time now imposed 'name and shame' sentences on criminals. Instead of incarceration, they require criminals to put up signs in their front garden, announcing publicly either the nature of their sentence or, alternatively, warning the public of the presumed nature of the person himself. The practice of naming and shaming has also won more supporters in the UK over the last couple of years and the media have (within the rules of the justice system) adopted similar tactics.

You are the executioner... enforcing sentences in Florida in 2013

The arguments against naming and shaming appear feeble. Why not do it if it prevents future crimes? The practice also appears to go hand in hand with a growing willingness to 'self-confess' and voluntary public exposure, exemplified by shows such as Jeremy Kyle and others.

Yet, I would argue that we should be careful about the effects of 'name and shame'. The first argument against it comes from our lack of knowledge about what motivates and regulates human behaviour. Naming and shaming may have a temporary deterrent effect but we do not know whether, in the long run, it may only lower the threshold of acceptability for everyone. People learn to live with all sorts of situations and adapt quickly. Our fabric of social norms may just be too flexible to make 'naming and shaming' an effective tool for crime prevention.

The other, more powerful, argument is more philosophical. It was made many years ago by Michael Pawlik (FAZ, 17.November 2004, p35). Pawlik argued that 'name and shame' would alter the role of the public in the justice system. Whilst court cases are open to public scrutiny, the role of the public in this context is not to pass judgement itself, but to validate the correctness of the judicial proceedings, a point to whose importance anybody living in a country without proper and independent judiciary can attest to. In effect, the gazing public in the court is scrutinising the procedure, not passing judgement itself. That is the fundamental meaning of court proceedings 'open to the public'.

The case is different for naming and shaming. It only works if the public adopts the role of judge and executioner at the same time, reinforcing public condemnation of the crime committed by marginalising the criminal within the public sphere. In this scenario, the public plays a different role. It undercuts the separation of powers that is ingrained in the justice system between judgement and executing the sentence.

Pawlik is sceptical about the ability of modern societies to resist naming and shaming. He points out that, in the long run, justice systems are likely to approximate prevalent sensibilities (or lack thereof) about what constitutes good and proper punishment. If he is right, we have one more reason to mistrust our initial feelings when we hear about abhorrent crimes. We may not be the best judges of either the deed or the most reliable enforcer of any future sentence.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

On 'principled' politics

The political scientist Samuel Finer once noticed a simple truth about French political parties. Their names were inversely related to their actual position on the political spectrum. The 'Radical Party' was nothing like radical and the Socialist Party was anything but socialist.

I was reminded of this observation when listening to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, the Jesus Christ superstar of the New Left in the UK. The tenor of their answer when asked why they support Corbyn is that he is a man of principles, standing up for what he believes in.

The implication is that the other candidates (and politicians in general) are not principled and that this makes for bad politics. I disagree. Politics is the art of the possible and good politicians are those that can jettison their principles at the right moment. So why are Corbyn's supporters so enamoured with 'principled politics'?

I believe there are two aspects of modern politics that have always been difficult to accept for the wider public. The first one is pluralism and diversity of opinions, the second is the notion of the public good as a result of bargaining or negotiation between collective interests.

The first aspect is underpinned by the popular belief that everybody must have the same views as me. Political psychologists call this confirmation bias and it manifests itself in the way we select which TV News we listen to just as much as who we choose as our friends. We prefer having our own opinions validated by others. And, saturated by views similar to our own, we start to believe that there are only people like us in the world. Dianne Abbott's support for Jeremy Corbyn is a good example. Only a few weeks ago she still believed that Corbyn could never win an election. Having attended (too many?) meetings of his supporters she is now adamant that he will sweep to victory in 2020.

Incidentally, the issue of a pluralist society containing a range of diverse views does not bother anybody of socialist conviction. Those on the extreme left have a simple retort to those disagreeing with them. Dissenters are simply mistaken and taken in by bourgeois propaganda, espousing a 'false consciousness'.

The second, more complex, issue is the fact that in a society with differing views and interests, any consensus about the public good is inevitably a result of negotiation and bargaining, with painful compromises for all sides. This is anathema for purists of the political process. They deplore principles being the bargaining tools in the political process. As uncomfortable as this may sound to any advocate of principled politics, this second aspect of modern politics flows naturally from the first, if you throw in the only principle that cannot be jettisoned in any modern society: the freedom to make up your own mind and to express it in public. This is why, to Corbyn's supporters, confirmation bias, plurality of opinions and negotiations are non-sensical. For them, freedom to think differently is just an awkward logical error on the way to a future where we naturally all think the same. So when Corbyn's supporters praise his principled stance, what they actually rail against is the freedom to have your own mind.