PEGI: Pan-European Game Information

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No its not the newest cute character for the "family friendly" Wii, PEGI is the new censorship system for games. Instead of having PEGI competing with Britain's BBFC, the Labour government has surrendered yet more power to Brussels.

MCV reports that Tanya Byron, author of last year's Byron Review: Safer Children In A Digital World, has welcomed the adoption of this new system. The Byron review was not exactly welcomed by many in the gaming world including me. It should be a bit worrying that a "TV expert" with no experience with the gaming industry has had her recommendations made into policy by the government.

In the light of the moves in Germany and Europe to ban "violent" video games it remains to be seen if this is good news for computer games companies in the UK like Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto etc) and others.

Amend the smoking ban

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I joined TV chef Antony Worrall Thompson and other celebs in pulling pints at the Duke of Buckingham pub near Buckingham Palace yesterday, to celebrate the launch of a new campaign – Save our Pubs and Clubs.

It seems that pubs are closing at the rate of 50 a week, and one of the things that is doing in this normally recession-proof industry is the smoking ban that has been in place for two years. People who would once go out to the pub for a drink and a cigarette now load up at the supermarket, it seems, and go home and fill the family home with fumes. I'd have thought it would have been better all round for them to be out of sight of the kids, in an air-conditioned pub, with a landlord telling them if they're a bit the worse for wear. The very worst thing is to drive smokers out on to the streets, where the local authority has to clear up the cigarette butts, and where kids can see them happily smoking. Those are the daft, unintended consequences of the blanket ban.

The new campaign's leaders say we should have something more like Spain. Smoking there is allowed in designated smoking rooms, or landlords can opt to have their whole premises made 'smoking' or 'non-smoking', so you know what you're in for. I'd certainly have no problem going into a pub with a designated smoking room and the latest high-tech air filtration. Quite probably, in our city centres at least, the air would be cleaner inside than it would be on the street.

The campaign has cross-party support, with Greg Knight (Conservative),  David Clelland (Labour), and even Nigel Farage (UKIP) all there at the launch event. They've got cool things like beermats and t-shirts declaring the message. Visit www.amendthesmokingban.com to find out more.
 

Human rights, political bias

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According to mainstream human rights thinking all human rights are “indivisible". Therefore, this mantra insists, economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to an adequate living and the right to social security should not be treated differently from classic freedom rights such as free speech and habeas corpus. This conflation of very different rights is a fallacy. No Western state has built its wealth on constitutional rights to social goods. However, Western freedom has in large part been built on individual freedom rights protecting against arbitrary and authoritarian state action.  The so called indivisibility also reveals a marked political bias. Much literature and jurisprudence on social rights emphasize the importance of state involvement in the economy, increased public spending and the limitation or even abolishment of free market initiatives.

But claiming that a certain way of addressing poverty is a human rights obligation simply serves to elevate such political views to moral and legal imperatives that trump competing views. On the other hand, in a liberal democracy political opponents from left and right will generally agree that is incompatible with basic human rights to censor the media or use torture.

Social rights institutionalize a vision of society based on a specific political agenda, which excludes political pluralism and undermines the rule of law and separation of powers. Moreover, rather than restraining government action, social rights require governments to take prime responsibility for large parts of human life that would otherwise be left to the individual. Ultimately, therefore, social rights endanger the freedom secured by freedom rights. Such a development represents a huge step backwards from hard-won liberties.  It is therefore high time that advocates of human rights resist their politicization and focus on fighting for the right of everyone to live in freedom. To that end, freedom rights should be embraced and social rights rejected.

Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS and external lecturer of international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen. His briefing paper – The War on Capitalism: Human rights, political bias – is published by the ASI today. Click here to download a PDF. You can also watch Jacob making his case to Amnesty International here.

Climate change models

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Last Friday's papers had blanket coverage of the latest government-sponsored projections of climate change in the UK. Summers, particularly in the South East, are set to get hotter, and winters generally wetter. London will become (even more) unbearable in summer, coasts will erode faster than ever and hundreds of thousands of homes will be at risk of flooding. However, although this is put forward as authoritative research, it is actually just the revised projections of computer models. In the world of climate science, hard evidence is replaced by computer output.

These models, flawed and incomplete as they are, are compromised further by being fed with doubtful input data. In particular, unrealistic assumptions are made about the amount of oil, gas and coal likely to be economically extractable. By some reckoning, even the most conservative of the IPCC's scenarios assumes cumulative fossil fuel use by 2100 of greater than the likely reserves; the more extreme scenarios project their use still to be accelerating at that point! If reserves really are effectively limited, there is simply insufficient oil, gas and coal available to raise average temperatures by more than 2° Celcius, even using the IPCC's assumptions for climate sensitivity. And if so, the projections for the UK's climate are simply nonsense.

For more detail, see the latest Scientific Alliance newsletter.

Ideas on healthcare reform

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At times, rule by the demos leaves me feeling desperately frustrated. Especially when their instincts are entirely wrong. Take healthcare for example. How could any political party – even if they wanted to – stand up for radical reform of healthcare in this country and expect to be elected? The people are some way from voting for this, despite the manifest failures of the NHS.

What rational person could disagree with the following statement?

Unlike government coverage or coverage purchased through employers, private coverage purchased directly by individuals encourages people to choose between health coverage and all other goods. It controls health spending by pricing individual risk, encourages substantial variation in plan design to accommodate differences in individual risk tolerance, and provides incentives for cost minimization.

And yet, there appears to be a pervading collectivist approach to health care that is not accepted in any other facet of human relations in this country.

Murray Rothbard once made a great speech arguing for the power of ideas to change the world. The work of libertarians across the world is driven by this premise; great men and women have devoted their lives to this end and people in this country are as yet not ready to hear the truth.

With top-ups, the strictures of a national health service are slowly being overcome. Yet it will take a sea change in popular feelings towards the institution before radical reform can take place. Given its increasingly visible costs and failures, this is only a matter of time.

 

Is Schwarzenegger back?

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A good friend of mine, a judge at the civil justice court of Hamburg, once surprised me stating he would not socialize with teachers. Although such a statement is of course untenable as a generalization it was a fairly just conclusion given the disastrous role teachers have played in the state of Hamburg and other advanced Western states. This seems to be the lesson Arnold Schwarzenegger has finally absorbed. Indeed, no one has probably paid out more to the teacher unions than the famous body builder, turned actor, turned governor of California. Over the last couple of years, Schwarzenegger's weakness at the hands of the powerful teacher unions of California has wrecked his entire reform agenda. But to most people's surprise, with California’s facing bankruptcy, Schwarzenegger is back in full terminator mode:

California is so broken that we must look at every bold proposal out there, no matter how daring or radical -- including the idea of a flat tax"…Mr. Schwarzenegger has shocked nearly everyone in Sacramento by embracing some seismic policy changes to fix the California budget for the long term. These reforms include a flat-rate income tax, a spending limitation measure with teeth, and deep cuts in wasteful spending.

Schwarzenegger will create a bipartisan tax reform commission which will work on his proposal of a uniform tax for everyone of 6%. Against this only very few deductions will be allowed. Everyone who has spent days with their UK tax return will have to envy Californians. Edmund Burke was right to defend prejudices as the quickest guide for our actions if there is no time to reflect in full depth which way to go.

The Recession: Causes and Cures

  • The recession was neither unforeseeable nor inexplicable. On the contrary, it was the direct and unavoidable result of the credit-fuelled boom that preceded it.
  • Governments and their central banks contributed to the boom by: (1) keeping interest rates too low for too long, allowing asset-price bubbles to build; (2) giving implicit guarantees to the banks and other borrowers; (3) failing in their functions of prudential supervision and financial market regulation; and (4) by encouraging borrowing by those least able to afford it.
  • These mistakes originated in a misunderstanding by central bankers and Treasury officials on both sides of the Atlantic of the nature of the economic cycle, and in their consequent hubristic belief that they had solved the problem of how to prevent recessions.
  • The only way to avoid a recession is to restrain the antecedent boom. However, once a recession is under way, there may be ways to mitigate its worst effects and bring it more quickly to an end. The key is to re-establish a climate of business confidence.
  • The best way to do that is to set a long-term course for lower corporate and personal tax rates, and stick to it. In the medium term, higher taxes can only be limited by reducing government expenditure, not by borrowing. Large-scale borrowing does not inspire confidence, because it gives rise to an expectation of future tax rises which discourages investment.
  • In contrast, the three principal measures that have been adopted by the US and UK Governments to mitigate the recession are of marginal benefit and may prove harmful. These are: injecting taxpayers' money into the banks, artificially expanding the money supply, and attempting to provide a 'fiscal stimulus'.
  • While one can understand why Governments felt the need to bail out certain institutions when they did, attempting to bail out all the banks is unwise. An orderly liquidation of the insolvent banks would have left sound banks in a stronger market position, allowing them to expand their lending to creditworthy borrowers more rapidly. No financial institution should be allowed to believe it is too big to fail.
  • Expanding excessively the supply of money is unlikely to have a positive impact. In the long-term, it poses an inflationary threat which may be difficult for central banks to counter.
  • The prescription of an across-the-board fiscal stimulus as a remedy is equally misconceived. The present recession is not the result of a deficiency in aggregate demand which was growing steadily until the summer of 2007. Nor is the recession's impact evenly distributed across the economy. There may be a case for targeted assistance to alleviate hardship and ease adjustment, but government must be careful not to support unsuccessful firms at the expense of successful ones.
  • A notable feature of the boom was the misalignment of incentives in financial markets, which encouraged excessive risk-taking. This is largely attributable to the persistent failure of institutional shareholders to hold directors and senior managers to account. This may perhaps be the biggest flaw in the operation of Western market economies at the present time, and needs to be addressed by legislation.
  • The present crisis has cast into doubt the ability of national governments to control the supply of money and credit. In the short term, new monetary and fiscal policies will have to be formulated. If these don’t work, then in the longer term some form of commodity reserve system for currencies may need to be considered.
     
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In our latest publication, The Recession: Causes and Cures, economist David Simpson examines the current recession and the government's responses to it. I'd highly recommend reading the whole thing if you have time (PDF available here) – the analysis of the financial crisis is one of the best I've read – but for now you can click read more for the executive summary.