Bearing gifts to Greeks

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Aren't we lucky little boys and girls, to be offered the opportunity to bail out Greece? Yes, I know, no one's quite said it outright as yet but we can all see what's coming, can't we? Some combination of us, the Germans, the eurozone, the IMF, is going to have to send money to Greece so that the three taverna lunch can live on.

Which is absolutely fine, I have no problem with that. Those who wish to ensure that a nation with one of the longest lifespans in Europe can continue to have one of the lowest retirement ages, well, have fun and get on with it. Where I do object is the idea that those who do not wish to do so will be forced to by having the money taxed out of their hides. Which means that I'm not in favour of an ECB, EMF, EU or E anything else solution.

Fortunately for me (and for you, my fellow taxpayers) the Bank of Greece has come to our rescue. There is a solution!

Pursuant to Bank of Greece Governor’s Act 271/4.3.2010, an account entitled “SOLIDARITY ACCOUNT FOR REPAYMENT OF PUBLIC DEBT"  has been opened at the Bank’s Head Office, Public Entities Accounts Section, for voluntary deposits, to be used exclusively for the repayment of Greece’s public debt.

Deposits to the account shall be accepted, starting 5 March 2010.

The details of the solidarity account are as follows:
IBAN: GR 04 010 0024 0000000026132462
SWIFT/BIC: BNGRGRAA.

That is it, the problem is solved. If we all, individually and collectively, think that paying off Greece's debt is a good idea then we can do so, voluntarily. That we have paid it off will be the signal that we wished to. That we don't pay it off will be the signal that we don't wish to: and thus should not be taxed in order to do so. Democracy in action, the will of the people made flesh.

I hereby declare the Greek debt crisis to be solved: no further action is necessary.

Wolfgang Schauble: A man worth knowing

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Assuming George Osborne will, indeed, be the next Chancellor after the election, he’s going to need all the friends he can get if he’s to seriously cut the budget deficit. Within weeks, if not days, of taking office he will be beset by trade unions, civil servants, the “quangocracy”, the BBC….the list goes on of all those with a vested interest in high government spending.

Mr Osborne, though, might consider making friends with one person who could stave off problems from at least one direction, Europe and that person is Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister. To be sure, Mr Schauble is a devoted believer in the euro and in greater integration within the eurozone but, last Friday, his proposal for a European Monetary Fund published in The Financial Times suggested a no-nonsense tough cookie who understands the scale of the solutions required to get government spending under control.

An early clue to Mr Schauble’s instincts comes with this statement: "I have the impression that global financial markets seem to be speaking far more plainly than many of the voices from the political sphere". When’s the last time you heard a politician give due credit to financial markets?

Other gems crop up throughout his article:

From now on, a member state with an excessive deficit should not receive EU cohesion funds if it is not making sufficient savings.

Strict conditions and a prohibitive price tag must be attached so that aid is only drawn in the case of emergencies that present a threat to the financial stability of the whole euro area. This effect should be further reinforced by excluding the country concerned from the decision-making process – aid must be the last resort.

A country whose finances are in disarray must not be allowed to participate in decisions regarding the finances of another euro member. Should a eurozone member ultimately find itself unable to consolidate its budgets or restore its competitiveness, this country should, as a last resort, exit the monetary union while being able to remain a member of the EU.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of heavy-handed federalism that’s in Britain’s interest nor is it likely the eurozone would implement such drastic proposals. However, Mr Schauble is unlikely to give up on such strictures without a fight and if that keeps the EU bogged down from other mischief-making for the next couple of years, so much the better. He clearly understands the need for fiscal discipline and, in these tough times, that’s a soul mate Mr Osborne could find useful.

For a new Conservative government, a Polish ally is all well and good but a hard-nosed realist at the heart of the German government is something else. Mr Osborne should make a flying visit to the German hospital where Mr Schauble is recuperating from an operation while still running his huge department. This is a relationship worth cultivating.

Free speech on TV

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Before I started at the ASI, I knew relatively little about the libertarian movement in the UK. Most of what I had read or watched was US-centric. I suspect that at least part of the reason for this is that YouTube and the news channels are awash with American TV presenters espousing libertarian ideas. Why are there not at least some British commentators arguing along the same lines on our television?

Well, it may (but most likely won’t) surprise you to know that Ofcom forbids British journalists from arguing for a particular point of view when reporting the news. This makes no sense whatsoever.

We can already see opinionated journalists from other countries on cable television, or on the Internet, so the rule against British broadcasters doing the same thing is hardly ‘protecting’ us in typical nanny-state fashion. Furthermore, newsprint journalists and magazine writers are allowed to write from opinionated positions: my favourite Yes Prime Minister monologue was the one about ‘who reads the papers’. All this considered, this Ofcom regulation seems pretty pointless, even by the low standards set by most government regulation.

However, it is worse than just pointless, it is harmful. It contravenes a fundamental right – free expression. If I ignore the regulation, and start broadcasting on British TV from a particular viewpoint, it wont be long before the police are knocking on my door. Arguing for a particular point of view or political philosophy is hardly akin to shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or inciting violent criminal acts, but it is policed the same way.

The government should, at most, be in the business of regulating political speech only when it will cause immediate harm to other people. Any political commentator who wants to give their opinion on the news should be able to challenge a speech-control diktat in the courts. The wording of Article 10 of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights allows the state to licence TV, but shouldn’t cover it forbidding political speech because it isn’t ‘impartial’ or gives ‘undue prominence’ to certain views, as Ofcom does.

Perhaps it was just naïve of me to think that the Council of Europe’s Convention, and the UK’s Human Rights Act were actually there to protect our fundamental liberties, like free speech, rather than to entrench a collectivist social policy, but I would be interested to see these regulations challenged on an Article 10 basis.

Brown study

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It pays to study Gordon Brown's record, since his current campaign largely glosses over it. I am not just talking about Britain "best placed to face this recession" and then being last to emerge from it. Nor am I talking about "A Labour government pledges not to increase tax rates," before it raised income tax, firstly be removing the cap on National Insurance and then by increasing the top rate of income tax from 40 to 50 percent.

I am not talking about the government that "abolished boom and bust" before presiding over the biggest bust in history. Nor do I refer to the self-imposed rules about "only borrowing to invest" before borrowing more money to spend than previous governments have ever borrowed or spent. We can gloss over the pledge to "balance the budget over the course of a cycle" First he redefined the cycle to fudge the discrepancy, and then abandoned it altogether, blaming foreigners.

Promising financial prudence, he sold Britain's gold reserves at the trough of the market, about a quarter of its current level). He promised to keep his predecessor's budget targets, but raided the pension funds for over £5bn a year, took a windfall £23bn in 3G licence fees, using the proceeds to fund his spending.

Mr Brown likes spending. It creates dependent public sector workers and makes everyone more dependent on his largesse. But spending takes money, and that means taxation and borrowing. Jeff Randall has a very good piece in which he relates an early conversation with (then) Chancellor Brown.

He told me: "Interest payments on the national debt are £25 billion a year. We're spending more on national debt repayment than on schools or law and order, and that is a situation I don't want as a hallmark of a Labour government... The public borrowing requirement was £23 billion last year. We plan to get it down very substantially."

Randall points out that the current deficit is £180bn, with interest payments coming up to £40bn, more than is spent on defence.

Brown now tells us that it's all about character, and that he has it, being a plain, straightforward guy. Unfortunately for him, that is on the record, too. He has been exposed as a bully with no regard for the truth. What on earth did we do to deserve him?

Playing with crime figures

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No, no, don't worry, I'm not about to wade into which set of crime figures are correct, the survey or what the police write down. Nor even about which political party is tripping over its own feet least in playing football with the figures. No, rather, I just want to address a particular point that's often made.

While the definitions of some crimes may have changed over time, or be either way crimes, murder is murder so that's the gold standard to look at. Changes in the murder rate will therefore be the best guide to whether crime is increasing or not.

This isn't, I sorry to have to say, entirely true. Yes, we can indeed measure murder rather better than we can all other crimes. But we're still missing something. That is that medical treatment of trauma victims has got a great deal better over the decades: people attacked who would have died in earlier times (ie, would have been murdered) now survive (and are thus not murdered). So by counting only the number of people successfully murdered we're confusing two entirely different things. The number of people attacked so that they might be killed and the number of those who survive or succumb to such attacks. Yes, this is just a newspaper report, but the estimates of how important this is are large:

Improvements in emergency care over the last 40 years have helped to lower the death rate among assault victims by nearly 70 percent, a new study says.

Those figures are for 1960 to the turn of the century. Over that time (page 9 here) murders have gone from 300 ish a year to 600 ish a year (one year's figures are no good for one event, a bombing, or Harold Shipman, can change the figures hugely). Population has also changed of course, from 48 million or so to what, 65 million today?

Now quite how you want to crunch all of those figures together is up to you but the number of murders has doubled while population has risen by only 35%...and we would expect, as a result of better medical care, the number of murders (assuming assaults of equal severity taking place) to have fallen substantially.

All of which leads to two points. Murder is, by definition, successfully killing someone and if the rate of success changes then we cannot use the simple number of murders as our standard by which to measure crime rates. And when we adjust by one way of looking at that success rate, the medical care which prevents such success, then it really does look at if Britain has become a much more violent place over the decades. For murder should have fallen and it's risen.

Banning the burqa

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Under David Cameron’s leadership the Conservative party has taken great pains to rebrand itself as a multicultural, more socially liberal party. However, there will always be individuals that will let this front down, and most recently this has been done through the comments of Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering.

According to The Telegraph, Hollobone used a Commons debate on International Women’s day to state: ''I seriously think that a ban on wearing the burqa in public should be considered.'' He reveals he realized “how inappropriate and, frankly, offensive, it is for people to wear this apparel in the 21st century'', when he stumbled across a burqa’d woman in a park. For a start, the context for this ‘revelation’ seems to suggest how little exposure Mr Hollobone has to Britain’s veiled Muslim population, making one wonder how informed his judgment of the burqa can be. However, it is his suggestion that the burqa should be banned because he, and others, find it offensive that is his mistake.

Freedom of expression and freedom of worship help form the bedrock of a free, open and tolerant society. For Hollobone to say, therefore, that the burqa “goes against the British way of life” is at best absurd, and at worst rather worrying.

By choosing International Women’s Day to highlight his opposition to the more restrictive forms of Islam, Hollobone may have believed he was championing women’s rights. However, his ill-thought plan to ban the burqa would cause more harm than good, by attacking a visible symptom of an illiberal movement and not the roots. Making it illegal to wear the burqa in public would do nothing to change the opinion of those who believe it is essential for women to remain covered, and would simply see women confined to the walls of their homes.

Labour "will not increase taxes"

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Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has said that if Labour wins the election, there will be no tax increases. This is a straight lie, of course, and everyone should say that. It's what they said last time. They said they would not raise income tax rates, and then did so. Brown actually said at one stage – and sent his spin doctors out to back him with a meaningless gibberish of false statistics – that he had reduced taxes.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already said that Labour cannot deliver this. They say that there will have to be tax rises or even deeper spending cuts than those already trailed, or both. City experts are already spelling out the scale of tax rises Labour will have to impose simply to keep its current spending proposals.

In fact Brown has taken Britain from being one of the low tax countries of the EU to one of its highest, from being an attractive place to do business to being one which businesses are deserting. He has corrupted the honesty of the system by his use of stealth taxes which people do not realize they are paying. Of course Labour will raise taxes. It is what they do. They favour government spending because they can control and direct it, rather than have us spending on ourselves in ways they can neither predict not control.

One can readily imagine Brown trying to brazen it out, "and that is why I have allocated an additional £427m of resources to secure the reduction of 21,000 taxes, directed at the most needy elements of society..."

Fortunately the false promise of no Labour tax increases , the latest of many, is unlikely to be put to the test. Parties which do not expect to be elected have few restraints on the glib promises they can make.

Should we have open-carry?

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The BBC news on Thursday night featured a report on the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the Chicago gun ban; litigation launched after the successful case of DC v Heller, which overturned a similar outright prohibition on handguns in Washington DC.

The legal argument is actually very interesting, and detailed opinions on it can be accessed at the Cato Institute here. However, even for those who don’t share my academic interest in 2nd Amendment jurisprudence, the BBC’s report was worth watching. It largely focussed on the effect of laws already in force in Wisconsin, which allow the open-carry, but not concealed-carry, of handguns. It showed how responsible, law-abiding citizens carrying guns openly leads to people both feeling and being safer.

The story that ran slightly later in the news concerned the jobs due to be lost at train station ticket offices across London, chiefly because of the advent of the automated Oyster card. The RMT Union gave its predictable little spiel arguing in effect for swapping motor cars for cycle rickshaws, because they don’t understand the economic benefits of technological advancement. However, a lot of customers interviewed by the reporter did seem genuinely concerned that a lack of visible staff at stations would lead to an increase in crime.

That’s when the connexion between the stories struck me. Why don’t we stop relying on low-paid staff at stations to provide visible security, and instead have open-carry firearms laws?

Open-carry is very ‘visible’ – far more so than staff in neon jackets on station platforms, or standing behind ticket counters. It allows people to take charge of their own security. In addition, it empowers people to look out for one another as good neighbours, rather than relying on there always being someone official on hand to bail them out. It also means that criminals, who in our country seem to have no qualms about carrying and using knives to assault innocent citizens, would be placed at a disadvantage – far more of a disadvantage, in fact, than they are if, carrying knives, they are confronted by a station clerk, not carrying a knife.

Beating the bully briefs

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Some commentators have pointed out that as the election nears, the Downing Street attack dogs have been unleashed again. The tactics are those of the off-the-record briefing which contains the smear, what Alistair Darling referred to as "the forces of hell." It is very effective because it serves both the media and the government. A chosen journalist is favoured with an inside story which he or she then runs, earning praise from their editor and the envy of their colleagues. So when the anti-bullying help-line boss reveals that Downing Street employees have called for help, within minutes the story is twisted to one of 'breach of confidentiality,' with various figures trotted out to back the new slant and trash the charity concerned.

This is not something just done to benefit the Guardian and the BBC. The centre-right press has proved just as gullible in reproducing stories they have been given to support the government version of events.

There is something that might be done. As we found with expenses, there is nothing like daylight to send insects scuttling. If this were publicized every time it happened, with names named, it might begin to lose its effectiveness. Step forward Guido Fawkes. Mr Fawkes has long denounced the lobby system and the confidential briefings. Those appalled by what the system is doing should now make it their business to report every case to Mr Fawkes, anonymously of course, naming the journalist and the person who did the briefing. They could even tip off Guido when they have been given such a story themselves, doing it in third person to make it appear that someone else has exposed them.

Once it became routine for these so-called 'briefings' to appear on the Guido Fawkes site, complete with the names of the guilty parties, its dishonesty would become transparent, and people might think twice about doing it. Over to you, Mr Fawkes.

Social care for the elderly

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It was reported yesterday that the government is considering the introduction of an additional death tax to fund their aspiration to create a 'National Care Service', which would provide universal, free-at-the-point of use care for the elderly. It would be levied at 10% of the deceased's estate, up to a maximum of £50,000. According to The Times:

All three parties agree that the current system of means-tested care is unfair, and have promised to introduce legislation in the next Parliament to ensure that in future people will not have to remortgage or sell their homes or spend their savings to fund the costs of residential care or other services.

Surprisingly enough, I don't agree with any of the parties. Their position amounts to saying that even if you have the cash to pay your own way, or even if you have assets that could be liquidated to allow you to do the same, someone else should be forced to pay for you. And what is 'fair' about that?

You'd think they would have learned something from the failings of the NHS, and that rather than creating a social care equivalent, they might think about doing something to promote private saving and insurance, and above all personal responsibility. People need to get the message that cradle-to-grave welfare is not sustainable, and that increasingly people are going to have to provide for themselves.

I'm sure there are people out there who will read this and accuse me of not caring about the elderly. In reality, however, I think the lack of respect and dignity accorded to the aged is one of the most depressing aspects of British society. I just don't think more collectivism is the answer.

People should save for their retirement while they are earning, and not expect current workers to pay their bills. Families should be far more prepared to look after their own, rather than passing the buck to the rest of us. Those who care about the elderly should be far more willing to fund voluntary care organizations. And the state should only step in as a last resort, to help those who really have no other options.