The best things I’ve read lately (22/05/15)

This week: Simon Pegg, Bernie Sanders and Vince Cable.

Simon Pegg’s Comic Book and Sci-Fi Movie Comments Aren’t Entirely Wrong by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

There are also many examples recently of science fiction movies being both smart and spectacular. Last year was what I considered the Summer of Good Sci-fi and it contained movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Snowpiercer which were big, spectacle movies–a comic book movie in the first case–that also engaged with societal issues like racism, segregation, rights for “others,” fear of “others,” and classism.

Will Star Wars deal with these heady issues? Probably not, but many others do. If anything, it gets some people who wouldn’t normally think about the world in these terms to think about the issues and ingest the knowledge because they think they’re just going to see Magneto move a baseball stadium with his magnet powers. In the 1950s, science fiction was used to comment on everything from McCarthyism and the Red Scare to overpopulation and nuclear annihilation. Films are doing much the same today, even if they have a huge behemoth like Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, or DC Comics as their backdrops.

To be fair, and probably because of all the negative reactions he received, Pegg wrote a rebuttal to himself on his own site this morning, wherein he clarified a lot of the statements and take out much of the pull-quote harshness. It’s a very good piece you should certainly read, but some of the takeaways are things like Travis Bickle was real-person-dark as opposed to Bruce Wayne’s kind-of-dark, that more people were talking about the Star Wars and Batman V Superman trailers than they were the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election, and “the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.”

People want an escape; they want to be entertained, and studios are banking on 15-50 year-olds wanting to be bombarded with awesome, recognizable characters and properties. While Pegg’s initial statements seemed blanketed and dismissive, he didn’t mean them that way, and whether or not the tone was dismissive and haughty, the statements aren’t entirely false. But within that cynicism, there’s still plenty of room for science fiction and comic book movies to make us ponder our own world even as we’re watching a galaxy far, far away.

Bernie Sanders has picked a terrible argument against the TPP by Dylan Matthews (Vox)

Sanders is suggesting that TPP would be bad because it would force US workers to compete with workers in Vietnam — implicitly, that it’s bad because it expands economic opportunity for poor workers in Vietnam at the expense of significantly richer workers in the United States.

The factual basis for this claim is pretty dubious. Even economists who think trade has significantly hurt US manufacturing workers tend to think the damage is already done, and that future trade deals will involve sectors of the economy in which the US does more exporting than importing (namely, services and agriculture). Moreover, insofar as the deal would advantage imports, that would lower prices for US consumers, particularly poor and middle-class consumers for whom spending on manufactured goods and clothes eats up a bigger share of income. And how much it expands opportunity in Vietnam depends a lot on the specific “rules of origin” in the deal.

But even if the deal did, on net, hurt American workers, Sanders is implicitly arguing that it’s worth impoverishing desperately poor people abroad so that far richer people in the United States can be slightly better off. I don’t think Sanders bears any ill will toward developing-world workers; he’s consistently supported raising labor standards abroad, and during the debate over CAFTA he explicitly stated that he thought the deal would be a “disaster for the people of Central America,” as well as for the US.

But he’s simply mistaken about what’s best for the developing world. “Forc[ing] American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage workers around the world” is not just good for those “desperate and low-wage workers”; it’s actually a demand placed on developed countries by the UN Millennium Development Goals, which call for “tariff- and quota-free access for Least Developed Countries’ exports.” No members of theofficial least developed countries list are actually part of TPP — they’re even poorer, and thus, on Sanders’s logic, more dangerous as trading competition to the US………………….. A true anti-poverty trade agenda would be the exact opposite of what Sanders wants. It would directly put US workers in competition with more — and poorer — workers abroad. The effects on US workers would likely be small, but even if they weren’t, that trade is worth making. Fighting desperate poverty in the developing world is more important than marginally boosting the US middle class. And there are many, many ways to help the American middle class that don’t involve keeping the world’s poorest people in a state of total immiseration.

Vince Cable on the Lib Dem collapse: the Tories won because fear triumphed over hope by Vincent Cable (The New Statesman)

The politics of fear may come back to haunt the Tories. It has unleashed English – alongside Scottish – nationalism. Ultimately this may prove more dangerous to them than the traditional enemies of Conservatism. They have started a fire and clever Lynton Crosby will no longer be around to advise them on how to put it out.

Whether the fire can be contained at all will depend in large measure on whether the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats can recover and offer plausible alternatives. Both for now are in a very bad way politically, and it is possible that the Labour Party’s advantage over the Lib Dems is merely that it is bigger, and that it has more to lose and further to fall.

My own party, I hope, will progress soon from shock and gallows humour to rebuilding from the rubble. Our stock price is so low that it offers a buying opportunity and we have had a flood of 10,000 enthusiastic new members within days of defeat. My own team is back on the doorstep recruiting and is finding it difficult to find anyone who will own up to voting Conservative, though many claim to agree with us while looking at the floor. We already know that many of those who were frightened into voting Conservative are suffering buyers’ remorse, or soon will be, and will be less easily intimidated next time. We know that many of our basic values and messages have enduring value.
And my video of the week:

Why I’m not quite yet convinced it’s #TimeForTim

Where I am now.

So it looks like the Lib Dem leadership race will come down to a choice between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb.

In that event, I am strongly inclined to back Farron. Both men are admirable individuals and, as someone whose struggled with depression in past, Lamb’s work on mental illness is one for which I feel a great deal of personal gratitude. However, Farron seems like the leader we need at the moment.

We have gone from being part of the government to an opposition party with less than 2% of the MPs. We are therefore no longer in a position to demand attention from the media; we need a leader they will want to cover. Farron’s gifts as a communicator fit that bill. He has a similar ability to Nigel Farage to deliver the party line while appearing to be just talking his mind. That means, if I had to guess, there’s an 80% chance I’ll wind up voting for Farron.

However, the choice would be easier were it not for three concerns:

1. Equal marriage

There’s no getting around the fact that for someone wanting to be leader of a liberal party having abstained on equal marriage and voted to delay its passage is awkward. Equality is a cultural touchstone for the kind of cosmopolitan voters the party needs to win in order to rebuild itself as a cultural force. So being perceived to be less than fully committed to it is potentially very damaging.

Now Farron has an explanation for these votes. While I find it unpersuasive as a piece of policy analysis – fears of churches being forced to conduct same sex marriages are in my modestly legally trained opinion ludicrously overblown – it’s an effective refutation of the notion that he is a secret opponent of gay rights.

However, the very fact that he might potentially have to explain this is a problem. As Ronald Reagan said “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”. If Farron has to defend himself against this charge then that’s a distraction, and there’s always the risk some voters remember the accusation but not the refutation.

I’d therefore be more comfortable voting for Farron, if he has a plan to avoid having to repeatedly explain his record.

2. Differentiation from Labour

Farron is (to put the issue far more crudely than it deserves to be) on the left of the party. That means to (be equally crude) under his leadership we’d be likely to adopt an economic policy more closely resembling Labour’s. In that event we need to have an answer of what we are offering that is distinct enough from Labour to justify gambling a vote on a party with just 8 MPs.

Unfortunately, the answer probably can’t be the obvious things: civil liberties, electoral reform, being more ardent on Europe and the environment. They may be important but the group of voters who seem them as such is probably relatively narrow. What else if Farron going to offer to broaden our appeal.

3. Nuclear power

One of the ways the Party was improved by being in Coalition was that it precipitated us shedding our longstanding opposition to Nuclear Power. For a party that takes climate change seriously, it was simply not viable to be opposing the source of up to 70% of the UK’s low carbon electricity.

Some of Farron’s past statements on the issue make me concerned that under his leadership, we would revert from our new sensible position to our old incoherent one.

Where I want to be

I’ve mostly sold myself on Farron as the next leader. I invite any of his supporters who are reading this to see if they can get me the rest of the way.

Can you tell me if your guy knows how he’ll avoid being bogged down explaining his positions on gay rights and how he’ll make us distinct from Labour? Or alternatively, do you think I’m wrong to be worried about these things?

Update (18/05/2015):

An encouraging response from the man himself:

A familiar face makes an appearance on the Daily Show

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Regular readers of this blog will have come across my friend and fellow campaigner Robin McGhee before. I’ve featured his writing on subjects as diverse as atheism, Orwell and Russell Brand. But now he’s made an appearance in a much more widely seen arena: the Daily Show.

And here’s more of the Daily Show on the General Election.

2015-05-02 12.06.27

Vientiane: the city out of place

In Laos’ remarkably mellow capital it becomes possible to day dream of a simpler past.

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South-East Asia is changing at an astonishing pace. Travelling in China’s slipstream the region has experienced similarly breakneck economic growth. That in turn is pulling people into urban areas at an equally astonishing pace. They’ve not really had time to adapt. As a result South-East Asian cities tend to be crowded, chaotic and noisy.*

So to find a city, let alone a capital city, as relaxed as Vientiane is pretty remarkable. Indeed, it feels less like an Asian city than a modest provincial town in the south of France. It has the requisite hot weather, gentle traffic and with around two hundred thousand people it’s about the right size.But more than that it’s the architecture, the excellent selection of bakeries and brasseries and the fact that most public buildings still have signs written in French.

It is not an exact replica of course. Rather than Catholic Churches, there are some extraordinary Buddhist Temples. And the locals have a decidedly un-Gallic enthusiasm for speaking English. However, overall the preservation is remarkably pristine. The croissants that come out of those bakeries would make any baker from Bordeaux proud. Vientiane thus gives the impression of being more European than Asian despite being located just an hour’s drive from the Thai border.

The reasons for this are routed in a history of French colonialism but that’s not in itself a sufficient explanation. All of what used to be called Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). Yet hardly anywhere is that influence as apparent today as it is in Vientiane. Indeed, my neighbourhood in Hanoi appears more influenced by South Korea than France. The difference is I suspect down to tourism. For backpackers there’s a novelty to finding the Mediterranean on the Mekong, for expats it’s a balm for homesickness and the new middle-class of Asia it is a chance to indulge retro fantasies of an ancien regime.** There are thus good financial reasons to keep the town feeling French.

For me, what Vientiane did was allow for a rather different fantasy. I had arrived in the city from Cambodia where’d I’d visited a number of sites linked with the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. These crimes were the apogee of the suffering that the people of Indochina endured during the twentieth century. But in Vientiane all that darkness seemed implausible. Instead, it seemed more realistic to imagine that France and its colony had drifted apart much as Britain and Australia had done. And a result there had been no wars for national liberation, no civil wars between communists and anti-communists, no American military intervention, no botched collectivisation and no helter skelter liberalisation.

Even in Vientiane, that’s a total fantasy. It endured all those things and its people doubtless bear the scars of them. Yet somehow it exudes an ambience that’s so relaxed that it seems to deny the possibility of turmoil and instead indicates that its history must have been perfectly placid.

*There’s a flipside of course. One could equally describe them as bustling, exciting and vibrant.

Actually, I’d rather Lib Dems didn’t rediscover our radical hearts

Edmund Burke: Whig MP and perhaps the first conservative thinker.

A lot of Lib Dem friends, from all wings of the party, have been enthusiastically recommending an article by long time Lib Dem activist and thinker David Boyle. It essentially contrasts what he believes the party represented at the point he joined, with how it presented itself in the election campaign just gone:

I remember how thrilled I was to sweep through a neighbourhood delivering Focus leaflets with 20 or so other young people, at a jog. We believed in the inevitability of the cause – to take power in order to give it away. We felt like the political wing of the counterculture that grew up at the same time. Since then, I’ve watched those I ran with age at the same rate as me (possibly even faster) and take their seats in parliament. I saw them wrestle with government.

What happened? There was a clue in the email I received yesterday morning from one of the party’s radical stars of the 1990s, taking exception to the slogan “stability, unity, decency”.

“I joined the Liberal party because I hungered for change,” he wrote, “radical change to make the world a better place, not to keep things as they are.” The problem is that the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history, with all the hallmarks of having been written in Whitehall.

They say that Labour’s left-leaning campaign has been tested to destruction. That may be so, but the opposite is true for the Lib Dems. The idea that they could win territory campaigning just to mollify the extremes of the others has also now been tested to destruction. In fact, I’m not sure there is a role for the party unless it rediscovers its capacity for crusading in the country, rather than just quietly in the corridors of power. Nobody else could have performed with the skill and charisma that Nick Clegg has, and I’m proud of what my party achieved in power, but there appear to be no votes in compromise – at least for its own sake.

I understand the appeal of this idea. However, it is one I recoil from. Indeed I would prefer that our default position was to “keep things as they are”.

A strain of conservatism entered my thinking at a very specific moment. It would have been some time in March 2009, when I was still a councillor in Oxford. The County Council had invited us to a briefing on plans to pedestrianise the city centre. One side effect of this was going to be re-routing the coaches to London. During the discussion, one of my colleagues warned that there would be complaints from commuters who’d bought houses along the existing route so they could easily get the coach.

T his was a fair though hardly decisive point. It was in all honestly a side issue affecting a modest number of people. However, for me it illuminated a larger truth. Whether or not a policy, even one as trivial as bus routes, is good or bad people will still make plans based on it. And when you change the policy, you disrupt those plans.

This conservative idea actually has had a significant place in the Liberal tradition. Edmund Burke, who injected it into political consciousness with his critique of the French Revolution, was a Whig not a Tory.  His ideas would underpin much of the Victorian Liberal Party’s ideas about the British constitution: they saw its stability and tendency to gradual evolution to be one of its chief virtues. Then in the mid-Twentieth Century, Isaiah Berlin would, with more than one eye on Communism and Fascism, argue that the plurality liberals so valued demanded that politicians be modest in their aims; utopianism was doomed to fail because we could not agree what utopia would look like. And then in the 1980s, Roy Jenkins would argue that there needed to be a third party to restrain Labour and the Tories from taking Britain on an ‘ideological big dipper’. It also came through strongly in the party’s resistance to the Blair government constantly attempting to reinvent public services.

While this way of thinking is more present in the liberal tradition than one might expect, it is substantially less so within the conservative movement. This is most obvious in America, where the dogmatism and revolutionary zeal of the Republican Party leads them to absurdly utopian conclusions about their ability to, for example, transform Iraq into a democracy or heal all social ills with tax cuts for the rich.

Nonetheless, it applies in Britain as well. The voter who told Conservative MP David Willetts that “you guys are the wrecking crew” was onto something. The Conservative Party at least since Thatcher has been very happy with radical social engineering, provided it is towards ends they approve of. Indeed, in the last parliament we saw Conservatives attempt massively ambitious overhauls of health, education, community law and welfare. The incoming administration seems set on continuing these and bringing about another one to our constitution.

My feeling is that the Liberal Democrats would be in a stronger position now, both morally and electorally, if we had expended more political capital on stopping these unnecessary pieces of Tory radicalism rather than on our own radical plans for constitutional reform.*

None of this is means we can’t make reforms when appropriate. There will be many cases in which the benefits of reforms will be large enough that they outweigh the cost of the disruption that ensues. And sometimes the status quo may prove unsustainable and reform may become necessary in order to prevent more disruptive change down the line. I suspect we are approaching just such a situation with our electoral system.  Indeed, Burke himself wrote that “a  state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.

It is, however, perfectly possible to recognise that sometimes policy has to change but still see an intrinsic value to stability. Its presence allows people to adjust to their environments and form useful habits. By contrast, radicalism is at best a necessary evil justified only by the need to rectify great iniquities or avoid impending catastrophe. We should never mistake it for an end in and of itself. Therefore, tempering the radical excesses of other parties would indeed be a most worthy role for the Lib Dems, if the only electorate would allow us to fulfill it.

*I am of course not denying that as it was we did restrain these plans. But a lot of damage was still done while we were fiddling around with the AV referendum and an elected House of Lords.

The best things I’ve read lately (General Election hot takes edition)

Labour didn’t lose the election because of Scotland by James Bloodworth (Left Foot Forward)

it would be a mistake to claim the election was lost in Scotland. Labour has performed disastrously right across the UK due to a lacklustre campaign that was big on financial bean counting but devoid of vision. Miliband ditched New Labour but, beyond a basket of populist gimmicks he struggled to find anything with which to replace it. He paid lip service to inequality but convinced few people that he had the mettle to challenge it. He zigzagged on immigration in an attempt to please everyone and predictably pleased no-one. As for foreign policy – well, did anybody even know?

Faced with a resurgent Conservative party that will now believe it has carte blanche to hack away at what’s left of the welfare state, the General Election isn’t just a calamity for the Labour party; it’s a disaster for the country. Think more food banks, bourgeoning inequality and a further deterioration of the NHS. Nick Clegg may have been the left-wing bogeyman of the last five years, but we may look back on the recent coalition as a period of civility and restraint when compared to what’s about to follow.

7 key facts about austerity and the UK election by Matthew Yglesias (Vox)

Regardless of what you think of David Cameron, it looks clear that the United Kingdom is notcurrently in a severe labor market recession. That means that on a forward-looking basis, there are no real grounds for an ongoing austerity debate.

The real debate concerns the past. Cameron and his coalition partner Nick Clegg say that had they not moved to swift fiscal consolidation in the past, the United Kingdom would have been at risk of a Greek-style financial market panic and total meltdown.

It is difficult, in practice, to see how this would have happened. A loss of investor confidence in the fiscal position of the government would have resulted in a falling value of the pound and an expansion/inflationary monetary environment. A falling pound and an expansionary/inflationary monetary environment are exactly what the UK got under austerity. On the other hand, the success of the Bank of England in achieving an expansionary monetary environment in the context of fiscal austerity suggests that fears of austerity crushing the economy were also somewhat misplaced.

Austerity was neither necessary to avoid a meltdown nor sufficient to wreck the labor market. It was simply a policy choice to emphasize small government, less spending, and more employment in the private service sector rather than a more expansive welfare state with more public sector employment.

History will judge Nick Clegg more kindly than the voters have by James Kirkup (Daily Telegraph)

In a cynical age, a lot of people think politicians are entirely self-serving, creatures who just do things to win votes, score points and advance their own careers. The Lib Dem decision to go into government in 2010 is at least a partial challenge to that notion. Yes, the Lib Dems were rewarded for that decision, enjoying ministerial careers many had never even dared to dream of. But they paid a terrible price for it and many knew they would too. They hoped to be thanked for the Coalition’s successes, but feared being punished for its shortcomings. They didn’t stay just for ministerial red box and a chauffeur-driven car; only a few Lib Dems actually got ministerial jobs. Yet even the grassroots activists far removed from the centre of power stuck resolutely with the coalition, believing to doing so was in the interests of people other than themselves.

4 ways the past 5 years vindicate the Liberal Democrats

The five years since the last general election have been brutal for the Liberal Democrat’s popularity. But in key areas they have proved the party right.

1. Coalitions can work

Our first peace time coalition in decades survived for a full term. It retained a working majority and had little trouble delivering its legislative agenda. Ministers from different parties worked together more constructively than Blairites and Brownites from the same party did.

Even accepting those points, you may still disapprove of what the Coalition has done. But in that it’s worth asking, whether your objection to the government arises from the fact it was a coalition or rather the fact it was mostly composed of Conservative MPs?

I’d suggest that this past parliament is a clear demonstration that coalition is a viable form of government.

2. First-past-the-post sucks!!!

Voters may have decisively rejected changing the electoral system but that just demonstrates their fallibility.

The advantage of our current electoral system is supposed to be that it delivers strong, stable governments with clear majorities. If you are still expecting one of those come May 8th, then may I ask: would you be interested in buying these tickets to Danny Alexander’s reelection party?

The mood of voters is such that they are no longer going to be corralled into a binary Labour/Conservative choice by the electoral system. Trying to make them do so will, however, produce perverse results. Like how the SNP will probably wind up with fewer votes than any of UKIP, the Lib Dems or Greens but more seats than them all combined.

The Lib Dems have been warning you about this for a very long time indeed.

3. We can wield power

There used to be people who scoffed that we were a party for people who didn’t take politics seriously and were doomed to perpetual irrelevance in opposition. They proved to be wrong on both counts.

Not only did we enter government in 2010 – and may yet reenter it in 2015 – but it turned out we knew how to behave when we got there.

Our ministers were on average at least as component as their Conservative counterparts. The not normally Lib Dem friendly Telegraph called Steve Webb, ‘the best minister in the coalition‘ and suggested he stay on in his job whoever forms the next government.

And our backbenchers have proved decidedly more disciplined than their surprisingly rebellious and at times positively petulant Tory backbenches.

Which has all been the means by which we achieved these ends:

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4. The middle ground needs filling again

Back in 2006, Polly Toynbee wrote a piece for the Guardian comparing the SDP with the Liberal Democrats. She pronounced that:
“The vast space between the extremes of Foot and Thatcher left a great need for a new progressive party…[but]…Where once there was a great savannah of available political space, now the air is too thin to breathe between New Labour and Cameron Tories.”

Boy has that changed. Both parties have turned away from each other to try and shore up their core votes. The differences between their economic plans are now vast. And the siren call of UKIP and the SNP is likely to draw them towards even further apart.

Without the Lib Dems to provide a balancing force in the middle then we are likely to see the return of what Roy Jenkins called the ‘ideological big dipper‘. His worry was that if governments with sharply differentiated platforms alternated in power then there would be constant upheavals as they reversed each others programmes. Jenkins thought we needed a third party to balance the other two and thereby provide some continuity. With some adjustments that’s a role that still needs filling.

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Of course, I’m not bringing this up now (just) to say ‘we told you so’. Rather, I am making a point about the elections on Thursday. We are in a state of constitutional and electoral flux. It is going to be a challenging time for our political system. And it is more likely to respond constructively if it has input from a party that has understood these issues and has the right instincts for dealing with them.