Two evils

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As I was riding the tube a couple of weeks ago I noticed one of the “text" polls in the paper as I was thumbing through it. The question was straight forward, “Do you Trust David Cameron?" the results, while admittedly not scientific, were both astonishing and yet not surprising. An overwhelming amount of respondents, over 75%, voted No.

While your average bloke on the street could tell you that most people don’t trust Cameron it is surprising to me how much we would rather jump from one boiling pot to another instead of just jumping off the stove. It is a sad state of affairs when we vote for a particular candidate or party that we distrust because we distrust the other more. I believe that democracy cannot continue to survive if it is reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils because it fundamentally undermines the purpose of the vote.

To a large extent political parties are responsible for this democratic failure by eliminating the need for individual beliefs in elections. Political parties may ultimately prove to be the end of government accountability to the people. Politicians realize that money means more than a happy constituency so they respond more to the party than to the people. Any individual with real aspirations to make the world a better place must first conform to the party standards if they have any hopes of ever reaching political office. This not only waters down the quality of candidates, but reverses the role of government from employee to employer of the people.

It is no coincidence that the countries with the most powerful political parties are the most authoritarian. Perhaps it is time for people to look outside the political box, and maybe we can find a candidate that is truly trustworthy.

Yes, you can have too much education

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Yes, it really is possible to have too much education. Not just in the sense of the absent minded professor either (as the saying goes, the more educated you become you know more and more about less and less until as a senior professor you know everything about nothing).

It is entirely possible for both an individual to have too much education and for a society to be educating too many people too highly:

The oversupply of college graduates started in 1999 when Chinese leaders decided to counter some of the effects of the Asian financial crisis by boosting university enrollments. They had hoped that a generation of well-heeled educated urbanites would boost domestic consumption and help reduce China's dependence on exports. Enrollment rose quickly, from 3% of college-age students in the 1980s to 20% today......Some 6.1 million graduates entered the job market this summer, 540,000 more than last year. In 2008 the employment rate for graduates was less than 70%. This year nearly two million of graduates, many of them postgraduate diploma holders, are expected to be left without job placements......An explosive report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in September said earnings of graduates were now at par and even lower than those of migrant laborers.

That has to be a blow, the highly educated scions of the urban middle classes are valued at less (for their labour at least) than the peasants just in from the fields. Yes, education itself is valuable and life enhancing, but this idea that we should push as many as possible through the universities simply does not make economic sense. Our own experience in the UK is that trying to get 50% of all to have a degree is, well, it's already been reported that an Arts degree for a man is not cost effective, it detracts from lifetime income. It's one thing to say that education is good (as I've said it is, as part of personal development) but this mania that it will be the economic salvation of us is nonsense.

For us to take people out of the workforce for three years, at great expense to both themselves and the taxpayer, simply doesn't work as part of economic development. We are actually destroying value, not building it, by doing so.

As is so often true the American vernacular seems to have recognised this long before the policy makers (how about that for the wisdom of the crowds?). One discussion on the correct form for the plural of Starbuck's barista (baristae? baristas? baristi?) ended with the sage observation that it was in fact "liberal arts graduates".

Capitalism in crisis?

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On my way to work this week I sighted a number of posters stuck up around Victoria Street. Advertising Socialism 2009, these flyers proudly bear the slogan “Capitalism in Crisis: Marx was Right". An remarkable claim. A look down the road shows hundreds of commuters striding to their destinations. Everywhere shops are opening, and little cafes are overflowing. The inescapable truth is that capitalism is valiantly ploughing on; and everybody seems determined in supporting it.

The economic crisis sent shockwaves across the world, and recessions have thrown national economies completely off-kilter. It has been painful and faintly embarrassing; how did we fail to see this coming? Capitalism as practiced is a cyclical affair; with centralized attempts to temper fluctuations causing increased and prolonged destruction further down the line. Marxists are absolutely salivating because the banks are a mess, the UK are still in recession, unemployment is rising. In the mix, political freedom allows expression of opinion, and technology brings those of a similar mind together. The circumstances are perfect for ‘spontaneous revolution’.

But where is it? The truth is, society does not want a new economic and social order. What people want from the back of this crisis is a return to normality, and a return to the markets that have served us well and made countries richer for generations. People do not feel oppressed and exploited by capitalism, because it works for them.

Socialism 2009 is held with pride, despite the obvious failure of central planning across the world. As we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, believers in individualism, liberty and competition should make their voices heard without any embarrassment. Free markets have made lifted untold millions out of poverty, given us all more goods and opportunities and entrenched freedom and diversity. These are reasons people continue to choose the market. Roll on Capitalism 2010.

Dealing with the EU

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So, after years of handwringing, it has finally happened: the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty has been fully ratified and will now come into force. The Tories say there is no point in Britain holding a post-facto referendum, because it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. The position is that when they’re in government, they will seek to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and repatriate certain powers from Brussels. The opt-out from the Social Chapter will be restored, and so on.

Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. As Fraser Nelson has written on the Spectator’s CoffeeHouse blog, it is more than likely that the EU will be kicked into the long grass as a political issue and that superficially attractive measures like the proposed Sovereignty Bill will be largely symbolic. Meanwhile the Lisbon Treaty will have created a federal superstate without any real constraints on its growth. Brussels will accrue more powers, British sovereignty will continue to ebb away, and the regulations and directives will keep piling up.

That, sadly, is the reality of the situation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What we need is a completely different set of tactics for dealing with the EU. Polite negotiation will get us nowhere. We should simply repatriate powers unilaterally. We don’t want the Common Agricultural Policy? Fine, scrap it in Britain and withhold the part of our EU contribution that would have gone towards it. Want a real opt-out from the social chapter? OK, just state that no EU measure related to social and employment policy will have any effect in Britain.

The EU won’t like it. They’ll make a fuss and snub British politicians at gravy-train summits. The European Court of Justice will hold that we are acting illegally. But at the end of the day, who cares? The EU only has legitimacy in so far as we acknowledge its legitimacy. Like all matters of international law, the EU depends entirely on the consent of those bound by it, or the willingness/ability of some to impose their will on others by force.

To restate my case plainly: if the Tories want renegotiation, they must present their desired relationship with the EU as a fait accompli. Doing things the traditional way will get them nowhere.

UK banks – payback time

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As Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds (with HBOS) went round Go to collect a combined £37 billion of recapitalisation funds – courtesy of the hard-pressed taxpayer – it was inevitable that, one day, payback time would arrive.

Due primarily to EU pressure, RBS is now being forced to dispose of hundreds of its branches and its two high-quality insurance businesses – Churchill and Direct Line. Lloyds, too, has not escaped: its Cheltenham and Gloucester franchise is to be sold.

And why, pray, has the unelected Dutch bureaucrat, Neelie Kroes, become the key player in restructuring the UK banking sector, which is seeking new high quality entrants, such as Tesco, Virgin and Spain’s BBVA?

What has raised eyebrows, though, is the staggering amount of money involved. In Lloyds’ case, there is good news since a heavily discounted rights issue will enable it to exit the Government’s Asset Protection Scheme (GAPS).

Originally, GAPS was planned to cover toxic liabilities of £585 billion. With Lloyds now exiting, the new £282 billion figure is wholly attributable to RBS.

To reduce GAPS’ liability by over 50% is to be welcomed – unwinding GAPS was one of the ‘Ten Economic Priorities’ identified in an ASI publication last May.

The level of financial support for RBS defies belief. Following the latest announcement, the total figure – a financial record-breaker - is a staggering £53.5 billion, including the £8 billion recapitalisation option. It puts into perspective the subsidies controversially paid to British Leyland all those years ago.

As such, the Government’s stake in RBS would move to 84%, with financial support being close to £1,000 for each UK person.

Moreover, RBS is not out of the woods yet - its share price continues to fall following the EU’s rulings.

Those responsible for RBS’ unbelievable plight bear a heavy burden. How will history judge them?

Forced sex education

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Ed Balls has announced that parents can no longer pull their children out of sex education classes in England once they  turn 15.

It is a move away from the government’s position in 2008, when Schools Minister Jim Knight stated that:

I think it's important for individual parents' views to be taken into account in some of these sensitive areas and their right to withdraw from parts of education in those areas that they do not feel comply with their moral views and beliefs and that they will be better dealing with in the home…That would be something that would take us a lot of persuading to move away from.

This is yet more meddling in education. Ed Balls justifies the move by the facts that the age of consent is 16 and the voting age 18. How this relates to forcing even independent schools to teach sex education to 15 year olds is beyond a rational mind.

By taking increasing amounts of power away from schools and parents, this policy is weakening the individuals and institutions that will enable children to be brought up in a way that is fitting for their needs. If schools wish to offer an abundance of sex and relationship advice, then parents should be free to send their children to those schools. However, if instead the parent wishes to offer their child a slower jolt into adulthood than most children get at present, I can think of no reason why the state should be involved in this decision. Depending on the circumstances and the child, different approaches will be appropriate.

Ed Balls argues that this policy will only impact upon a "very small minority" who currently choose to opt out; their wishes are to be sacrificed so he can build  "a strong consensus". Without wishing to come across as too conservative on these matters, much of the strong consensus that makes up the statist fabric of 21st century mores, is worth opting your children out of. As such, on this as with all aspects of education, the state should leave well alone.

Time to reform Parliament – or blow it up?

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If Guy Fawkes came back today and blew up Parliament, would we notice any difference? In a new briefing published today, ASI fellows Tim Ambler and Keith Boyfield say they're not so sure.

The EU writes our most important laws, and ministers are more accountable to the media than to MPs. New regulations, like those giving councils the power to search our homes and freeze our bank accounts, are never even debated. MPs vote as the party whips tell them, not as their constituents want. No wonder 80% of Brits think that Parliament has lost the plot.

According to their paper, Knaves and Fawkes, MPs keep themselves busy – and not just on fiddling their expenses. But much of their time is wasted on trivia, leaving them overwhelmed by the deluge of new law coming from Brussels and Downing Street. Parliament's founding purposes – to make laws, restrain public spending, hold ministers to account, and represent the public – now exist only in name.

But tempting as it is to blow up Parliament and sell the land to reduce the National Debt, Ambler and Boyfield say we should put aside the gunpowder, because these are vital democratic protections that need to be re-asserted.

However, nobody will trust MPs until they clean up their expenses act, and streamline their operation. Britain has 646 MPs while the United States, with five times the population, has just 435 Members of the House of Representatives. David Cameron's proposed 10% cut in MP numbers does not go far enough, believe the authors, who suggest a far more radical reduction.

And instead of spending hours discussing road closures and drains, the time devoted to both UK and EU legislation should be proportionate to its importance, says the paper. EU regulations should be more effectively scrutinised, and MPs should be told which of the annual 3,500 'statutory instruments' that currently go through on the nod embody serious legislative changes rather than trivial amendments, so that they can be discussed and voted on.

Ambler and Boyfield would strengthen accountability by making regulators like Ofgem, which sets gas and electricity prices, answerable to MPs, and MPs should be able to question civil-servants directly, rather than having to go through ministers. And Opposition MPs should chair the main parliamentary committees to ensure close scrutiny of ministers and officials.

As Eamonn puts it, "Parliament today has lost its power and significance. It should reform itself and not wait to be told what to do by Whitehall, Downing Street, or Brussels – none of whom would be sorry to see it go. Otherwise, they might find the electorate putting a large keg of gunpowder under them all."