Archive for April, 2004


April 18, 2004

Breaking with the D2Digest format for this one. It probably ought to have been a Crooked Timber post, but I thought it was slightly unfair to the rest of the CT gang to put it up there as it’s basically part of a debate that I’m having in which they might not want to be on my side. I’ve removed most of the personal attacks …

Help! I’m Being Repressed!

A response to the debate over Scott Lucas’s book, “The Betrayal of Dissent“, and much blogospheric venting over the same issue. I’ve avoided references to specific people below (other than three journalists) because I’ve argued publicly with a lot of them, and I don’t want to excessively personalise this piece (yes yes well you should have seen the first draft)

The whole debate about whether anyone is “shutting down the debate” over the Iraq War seems to me to be conducted on both sides in somewhat less than good faith. Although that doesn�t mean that I think the blame is equally distributed.

On the factual point, people like Christopher Hitchens are right; it�s pretty easy to get anti-war opinions published in the left-wing press, and probably a bit more difficult to get pro-war ones printed (though one has to say, for all that people bang on about the horrible horribleness of the Guardian, the fact is that the Guardian Media Group publishes David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen once a week, and Hitchens pretty regularly). But this factual point is pretty trivial, and I�m surprised that anyone thinks it worth hiding behind.

As always, analogise it to your everyday life and all the complexities fall away like scales. If you and I and a bunch of our mates were to be having a discussion in the pub, say about the merits of League versus Union, or some such, and half way through the argument you noticed that every time you opened your mouth, I stuck my fingers in my ears and started shouting “LALALALALA CAN�T HEAR YOU”, then you might scribble on a beermat something along the lines of:

“For Christ�s sake, what have you got against me? Why won�t you let me take part in this discussion?”

And if I were to reply:

“It�s ludicrous to suggest that I�m trying to silence you! You have ample opportunity to express yourself! LALALALA CAN�T HEAR YOU EYES CLOSED NOW!”

Then I think everyone would agree that this was a punch-in-the-mouth situation, and that while you may or may not technically have been “silenced”, it was obvious that the person who was genuinely trying to avoid a debate was me.

It�s this behaviour that I, and I believe the rest of the anti-(This)war(Now) left are complaining about. Except that instead of “LALALALA I CAN�T HEAR YOU”, the phrase used is “OF COURSE YOU WOULD RATHER STILL HAVE SADDAM HUSSEIN IN POWER”.

The wording here is important, because OCYWRSHSHIP is similar to in its literal meaning, but very different from in its rhetorical impact, an entirely valid argument, which is of equally general purpose in that, like OCYWRSHSHIP, it is more or less relevant to any anti-war point about the dangers of creeping imperialism, the corruption of domestic political culture by the untruths told in support of the war, the facts on the ground in Iraq etc. That argument would be:

“But nevertheless, the people of Iraq have been freed from Saddam Hussein, and that is a very great benefit which needs to be set against all the disbenefits you are talking about”.

Which is a fair enough point; it�s the starting point for a sensible discussion about the specific vilenesses of the Hussein regime, how well the post-war has been handled, and the longer-term political issues.

OCYWRSHSHIP, however, is not a starting point for a discussion. It�s an insult aimed at your interlocutor, basically trying to accuse him of being a closet Saddamist, and an implicit demand that he admit that he was a horrible person for supporting Saddam Hussein against the forces of good, before any debate will carry on.

Analysed as an argument, to be honest, I don�t think it�s any good; the fact remains that Human Rights Watch did not consider this to be a humanitarian intervention, so I�ve no damn idea why I should. But analysed as a debating tactic, which is what it is, it�s just ghastly; OCYWRSHSHIP is simply a version of LLLLLICHY.

In my personal assessment, David Aaronovich has almost always been scrupulous in using the second, fair version of the two arguments. Nick Cohen has tried to play the ball and not the man but has often allowed his combative nature to get the better of him. Christopher Hitchens, as far as I can tell, stuck his fingers in his ears around the beginning of 2003 and has been warbling ever since.

So to return to my original subject, the “pro-war left” (interestingly, the pro-war right, and Americans, have been in my experience much more willing to justify the invasion on their own assessment of the facts; OCYWRSHSHIP is for the most part a feature of the Left and of the British Left in particular) are not “trying to stifle debate”. They�re trying to avoid getting themselves involved in a debate which, to be blunt, they fear they would lose. To coin a phrase, they�re “frit“. They got themselves involved in what they thought would be a well-run internationalist humanitarian operation, and they found out that it wasn�t well-run, it wasn�t internationalist and it wasn�t a humanitarian intervention (sorry for repeating the HRW link, but I do think it�s vital to drive this point home. There are squatters on the moral high ground, and the owners of the real estate do not recognise their claim).

It�s never nice to have your Johnny Rotten moment (“Ever get the feeling you�ve been conned?”). It’s never nice to have to admit that you’ve been made a monkey of, which is why large sections of the pro-war left have taken to defending more or less any action of the Bush/Blair governments, the CPA and the US military, without considering whether they make sense or not. And since they’ve got used to the feeling of using it, OCYWRSHSHIP comes out as the weapon of choice in all those debates too. Having been adopted in the beginning as a last resort, a tactic only to be used against genuinely dreadful foes like George Galloway and ANSWER, it’s now the first resort against anyone who steps out of line � funny the way that the self-styled heirs of George Orwell often tend to be pig-blind to their own behaviour, innit?

So anyway, next time I get the OCYWRSHSHIP chucked at me (for what it’s worth, yes I would, as part of the “Anti This War Now” position, as I doubt that a credible and well-thought-out war proposal would have been made available by now), it’s not going to be “shutting down debate” I’m talking about. It’s gonna be three words. Frit. Frit. And Frit.

Update See this is exaclty the sort of thing I’m talking about

Stop the War meant no war. No war meant Saddam in power. Saddam in power meant, well you know the rest.

Well no. They don’t “know the rest”. If the cruise-missile liberals “knew the rest”, then they would have to get to grips with the fact that Iraq was not a humanitarian intervention. I have yet to see a single bomber make the honest humanitarian case – that it was worth fighting a war in order to prevent the 2,000 murders per year1 that were happening. I’ve seen fucking loads of war-liberals making arguments about Iraq which include the words “mass graves”, implying that massacres in 1991 are a reason to fight a war in 2003. This is exactly what I mean by “squatters on the moral high ground”. The words “you know the rest” are weasel; it’s an attempt to suggest that very terrible things would have happened in Iraq if we hadn’t had a war right now in 1Q03, without wanting to get into a discussion about exactly what those things might have been. The squatters don’t want to get into that discussion, of course, because they’re frit.

1Plus torture and suppression of free speech; these have to be recognised as part of the moral equation, though I’ve not seen anyone argue that a war could be justified on these grounds either.


April 15, 2004

Classical Economics Reconsidered, by Thomas Sowell � D2Digest

Sowell’s book gives a good, solid defence of the Classical economists; in particular, he argues strongly that Keynes was attacking a straw man in his passages on Say’s Law. But the theme of the book that really struck me was the somewhat ingenuous contraposition of intelligent and humane statements from Smith, Locke, Jevons et al, and wide-eyed wondering “why is it that modern leftists demonise these wonderful people who thought so much about the misfortunes of the poor?”. Sowell does this enough in the book to have irritated me, because he knows damn well how it is.

I’ve come across this trope in a couple of other books on the classicals; more often it’s from a left-wing perspective “Adam Smith, hero of the free market right, actually believed in state education for all!” and so forth. The fact is that, some time after The Wealth of Nations, we all started talking about political economy in terms of conflicting interests between classes. Then a while later, we started thinking about the whole issue in terms of marginal returns and productivity. Then we started talking about a managed economy and the role of money, credit and demand. And then later, we started putting the whole thing into axiomatic mathematical form. Each time we had a shift in the terms of the debate, we had to decide which “side” all previous figures in history would have been on and adjust our views of what they were saying accordingly. So now, two hundred and fifty years later, we can see that Adam Smith is talking about a lot of the same things that we read about in our economics textbooks, but we’re asking a lot of questions that he would not have recognised as questions, and answering him with things that Adam Smith said about entirely different, but superficially similar, questions of his own day. In the famous “Invisible Hand” passage, for example, it is not at all clear that Adam Smith meant the same thing as he do when he used the phrase “employ his capital”.

The fact of the matter is that it is incredibly hard for us to have any idea of which side Adam Smith might really have been on in any modern policy debate, because the laissez-faire debate of the nineteenth century really does not map at all well onto any modern debate about “free- market capitalism”. The word “capitalism” is less than a hundred years old in its etymology and the concept which it names is probably one that came into being in the mid nineteenth century, because it was only around then that class became an important unit of analysis in political economy.

This is a problem I just don’t see a solution to. It’s the devil’s own job to do honest intellectual history in political economy, because the very words we use to discuss the issues shape the way that we think about them. Or to put it another way:

We have no real hope of understanding Adam Smith, because half-way between him and us stands Marx.

We have no hope of understanding Marx, because half-way between him and us stands Marshall.

We are unlikely to understand Marshall properly, because between him and us stands Keynes.

And we have very little hope of understanding Keynes, because half-way between him and us stands Paul Samuelson.

And so economics makes its Zeno-like progress, with no very clear evidence that we are getting any nearer to anywhere we might want to go. One might have thought that it would have helped for people to be scrupulously punctilious about scholarship, clearing up questions of exactly what people said and what they meant by it. But that’s exactly what Sowell did, and it didn’t help one bit, because in order for there to be any point in writing the book in the first place, he still needs to shoehorn the classical economists into today’s categories.

DD sez: I doubt that this is a problem which is confined to the history of economic thought, which is why I tend to think that the “postmodernists” might be more likely to be on to something than do most of my friends.


April 1, 2004

More innovations … below I’m trying out a new “black-letter” format, mixing up the “black” D2Ds (summaries of official texts) with “blue” (my summaries of current issues).

Communique of the 130th OPEC conference – D2 Digest

High oil price levels are a consequence of long futures positions held by speculators …

Note in this context that, from the point of view of OPEC, the US Government�s Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be considered a “speculator” as it buys oil in order to affect the price rather than to use it. This is an important point; “it’s because of the SPR” and “it’s because of hedge funds” are not two independent explanations. If there’s a single, large, forced buyer acquiring large quantities of oil out of practically unlimited financial resources, then of course the hedge funds are going to be buying futures. It would be crazy of them not to.

… and uncertainties arising from prevailing geopolitical concerns.

I remember the good old days when you fought a war in the Middle East and the oil price went down. Note that, contra a couple of warbloggers, the fact that the oil price is rising does not prove that this was not a war for oil. It proves that either the war was not about oil or the war was at least partly about oil, but the oil part was badly managed.

Notwithstanding prevailing high prices, the crude oil market remains more than well-supplied, and crude stocks have been increasing going into the spring.

Here it comes …

Therefore OPEC reaffirmed the new production ceiling of 23.5mb/d, which will allow for normal seasonal stockbuilding.

Opec to world economy: Does this hurt? How about this?

DD sez: This is all rather nasty. I suspect that the OPEC guys are assuming, probably correctly, that there is no sense in negotiating with the current US administration in the mood it’s in, so why not just try to make hay while the sun shines. I’d also note that with OPEC cutting back and oil heading upward in an election year, I wouldn’t give a tupenny bun for Hugo Chavez’ chances of seeing the year out without a US-backed coup.