Friday, 17 September 2004

International pricing

Lynne Kiesling notes that the British consumer goods price markup is a pretty standard practice—the “dollar sign becomes a pound sign” policy is, and has been, quite common over the years, even as the exchange rate has varied between near-parity and 2:1.

The fact that VAT is built into British prices, while state sales taxes are not incorporated in the “sticker” price in the U.S., accounts for 17.5% of the price differential—in the case of iTunes, about half of the difference between U.S. and British pricing, depending on the day’s exchange rate. Perhaps more interestingly, the remainder of the difference between U.S. and U.K. prices is about the same as the difference between British and Euro-zone pricing (which would also incorporate the quasi-standard European VAT rate), which seems to suggest that British adoption of the Euro would reduce consumer goods prices substantially, and thus significantly improve Britian’s GDP at purchasing power parity.

Sunday, 27 June 2004

The Westminster House Rules

Eric Grey attempts to describe the rules for forming a minority government. There are a few points worth mentioning:

  • The rules vary among parliamentary democracies. Some democracies, like Germany, require constructive votes of no confidence; in other words, to get rid of an existing government, you have to nominate a new one, which necessarily increases the stability of the system. In some other parliamentary democracies, the government falls if any government proposal is defeated on a party-line vote (i.e. not a “free” vote). Canada generally follows Westminster tradition, where “confidence” is a customary rather than a legal requirement; since only the Prime Minister (well, technically, the sovereign) can dissolve parliament and call elections, essentially this system is equivalent to the German system—although, since a government could only be replaced by a plurality vote, the PM is more likely than not to call new elections before such a vote could take place.
  • Minority governments are somewhat more common than one might suspect. Notably, Israel’s government is currently a minority government. Britain and Canada each have had a few since World War II. Interestingly, minority governments are much more common than coalitions in countries with first-past-the-post (plurality) elections.

An interesting study of coalition government, by the way, is Multiparty Government by Michael Laver and Norman Schofield. Laver and Ken Shepsle’s Making and Breaking Governments is probably also worthwhile (from a more game-theoretic perspective, as is Shepsle’s bent), but, alas, I haven’t read it.

Incidentally, I’d appreciate recommendations on a scholarly text (or even a textbook) on Canadian politics, perhaps something comparable to Philip Norton’s The British Polity. For now, it’s just an idle scholarly interest, but maybe an employer one of these decades will be desperate enough to let me teach some comparative courses.

Friday, 9 April 2004

Sure, we'll get right on that

If anyone ever tells you to take seriously the comments of a former British cabinet member, here’s a new counterexample to add to your arsenal (along with the ravings of Robin Cook and Claire Short):

[Former Northern Ireland secretary] Mo Mowlam has called on the British and American governments to open talks with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Bear in mind, of course, that Ms. Mowlam’s former bailiwick (i.e. trying to stop the Provos and Loyalists from killing one another and returning responsible government to Ulster) is hardly a model of efficiency and good order, even today. It might also be worth bearing in mind that, to open talks with Mr. bin Laden, first we’d probably have to find him. Even the peacenik Liberal Democrats aren’t buying this lousy bill of goods:

Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell criticised Ms Mowlam’s remarks.

“What possible result would there be from sitting down with al-Qaeda?” he asked.

“Their intention is to destroy the liberal values upon which our way of life is based.

“You cannot negotiate with those whose aim is your own destruction.”

It’s nice to see good sense is alive and well in at least some quarters across the pond.

Link via Jeremy of Who Knew?

Thursday, 19 February 2004

Zippergate redux

Since John Kerry’s alleged “zipper problem” has been debunked, Andrew Sullivan notes that Sid Blumenthal (not to be confused with Atrios) thinks John Kerry should sue the Sun for libel. Funnily enough, Jeffrey Archer had much the same idea under similar circumstances, but it didn’t quite work out the way he planned…

Update: Conrad has thoughts in a similar vein. And thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link!

Friday, 30 January 2004

Gilligan gone

USA Today reports that Andrew Gilligan has “sexed up” his resignation letter to the BBC into a plaintive declaration of his innocence. To borrow from John Kerry’s overused stump soundbite, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Incidentally, I’m guessing the over/under on Gilligan finding another job in “respectable” journalism is three weeks. As for the over/under on Paul Krugman conceding that state-owned broadcasters are no more impartial than their commercial counterparts—well, I have a bridge in Princeton to sell you.

Via Jane Galt and Jeff Jarvis.

Monday, 19 January 2004

Crime and punishment

You’ll be hard-pressed to find it in Daniel Davies’ account, but the case of Katharine Gun, a former British intelligence officer who has become something of the “Valerie Plame” of the anti-war movement on the other side of the pond, seems rather open-and-shut.

Gun, an admitted opponent of the war in Iraq, is charged with violating the Official Secrets Act by leaking a memo, apparently from the NSA, soliciting help from their British counterparts at GCHQ in conducting intelligence operations against several U.N. delegations—something which, to the best of my knowledge, is not illegal in either the United States or Britain. But, you know, she’s being made a “scapegoat” (i.e. being charged with a crime she’s almost certainly guilty of) because of the “embarrassment” to the government (i.e. she broke the fricking law).

Anyway, if you’re inclined to venerate criminal acts, you’ll probably enjoy this Bob Herbert op-ed which plays the martyr card to the hilt. If not, well… scroll down, there’s better stuff here to read.

Update: Jacob Levy also has an interesting take on Mr. Davies’ clarion call.

Wednesday, 29 October 2003

IDS jettisoned

CalPundit notes the demise of the inept Iain Duncan-Smith as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Four or five years ago I would have recommended Chris Patten for the thankless job of replacing him, but I think he’s since caught Mad Bureaucrat Disease (aka Brussels Spongiform Encephalopathy). Ah well, there’s always Lord Jeffrey Archer—as a convicted pathological liar, he’s well-qualified to be a British political leader.

Monday, 25 August 2003

Gilligan's Suspended

InstaPundit passes on word from The Guardian that Andrew “008” Gilligan, the reporter at the center of the David Kelly scandal in Britain, has been removed from his day-to-day reporting duties to prepare for his likely grilling by the inquiry investigating Kelly’s death. Quoth The Guardian:

BBC executives denied that Gilligan’s departure from day-to-day reporting on the Radio 4 Today programme was linked to revelations last week that he sent emails to two MPs on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee suggesting questions they could ask Kelly that would be ‘devastating’ for the Government. ...

Gilligan sent his emails to a Liberal Democrat and a Conservative on the committee. The messages came to light when the Liberal Democrats forwarded their copy to the inquiry.

In related news, I have a very nice bridge over the Thames I’d be willing to sell you.

Nevertheless, government ministers have apparently decided to start making nice with the BBC by planning to continue to exempt it from government oversight:

Critics have long urged the Government to bring the BBC under the ambit of the new communications watchdog, Ofcom, which is to regulate all other broadcasters.

But following extensive lobbying from the commercial sector, the Government rejected this suggestion on the grounds that the BBC needs to remain independent of any government.

Of course, if Ofcom is going to regulate the behavior of other broadcasters, doesn’t it seem rather silly that the tax-financed BBC will be less regulated—and hence less subject to political meddling—than broadcasters who don’t receive their funds via the government treasury?

Thursday, 31 July 2003

Making your opponents' points for them

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry (via Michael J. Totten, where a good discussion continues in comments) notes the attempted war crimes prosecution being brought before the International Criminal Court (not to be confused with the International Court of Justice or the International House of Pancakes) by a group of Greek lawyers over the war in Iraq. The target? Not Saddam Hussein or any of his henchmen (you know, real war criminals). Instead, it’s Tony Blair.

As Michael writes:

Say what you will about the Iraq war. Say it wasn’t worth it if you must. Gripe about proceduralism if that’s what you care about most.

But liberating an enslaved people from a genocidal monster is not a crime against humanity. It put an end to crimes against humanity.

Placing bleeding-heart liberals like Tony Blair in the same moral category as Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot won’t garner a whit of sympathy from the United States for any court that might take such arguments seriously.

Meanwhile, Matthew is concerned that the court is just another forum for lefty whinging against Global Capitalism:

I don’t like the ICC for reasons like the scenario played out in the story above; as it stands now, too many leftists view international courts as just another protest venue. While some of them break storefront windows in Montreal, and others clash with police officers in Genoa, still others make themselves heard by issuing asinine charges of “crimes against humanity” against persons whose primary crime is disagreeing with the left-wing worldview. For them, the ICC is less a criminal court and more an International Illiberal Activities Committee, which begs the question, who are the McCarthyites now?

Now, the ICC statute (for all its faults) does have safeguards against gratuitous prosecutions, including allowing the U.N. Security Council a virtual veto over any prosecution by the ICC. And, as Kevin Drum points out in Michael’s comments, “If the fact that idiots can file lawsuits were enough to discredit a court, we’d be reduced to settling cases in the United States by peering at goat entrails.” (Of course, the fact idiots can file lawsuits has been one of the major arguments for “loser pays” and other tort reform proposals in the U.S.)

But, the safeguards have limits. If the ICC accepted a frivolous prosecution against a signatory state, and a U.N. Security Council member decided to veto a prosecution against one of its own citizens (for example, if Britain vetoed the Blair prosecution, or charges were brought against Jacques Chirac over France’s intervention in Cameroon and France decided to veto), people would legitimately be concerned about a “cover up.” So the bias of the court, and the Security Council, will be to pursue even the most frivolous prosecutions against Security Council members, so the court will retain the appearance of neutrality.

Perhaps the ICC will deny this particular prosecution on the grounds than U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 authorized member states to take decisive action against Iraq. But if it does so, it risks undermining its credibility with its core constituency—the internationalist activists, like those who brought this prosecution, who genuinely believe that International Law (as decided solely by them; democracy be damned) can and will be made to justly govern nations.

Sunday, 20 July 2003

Why the American press shouldn't behave like Britain's

One common refrain, particularly from the left of late*, is that our press isn’t adversarial enough when dealing with politicians; they look to the British press, and in particular the BBC (as that is the only example sizeable numbers of Americans have been exposed to), as an exemplar of the adversarial style they want to see emulated.

Those who advocate this style, however, may want to consider Jeff Jarvis’s damning collection of links that suggest that the Beeb’s quest for sensationalism and ratings—if not an ideological bias—led it to claim that the Blair government had “sexed up” reports on Iraq’s weapons capabilities before the war. At the center of the controversy is a dead weapons inspector, David Kelly, and one of the BBC’s wartime correspondents in Baghdad, Andrew Gilligan, whose performance in a pathetic cloak-and-dagger display I belittled during the war. Now, some portions of the American media are hardly better—the reliance on barely-sourced, anonymous information from deep background has become a staple of reporting in “flagship” newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, perhaps due to every reporter thinking he’s going to become a star like Bob Woodward—but outside the most partisan papers (the occasional crusades of the Raines-era NYT, the Washington Times and the New York Post spring to mind), no American outlets have matched the Beeb’s propensity for grinding its ideological axe.

Moreover, as Peter Mandelson (no stranger to the harsh spotlight of Fleet Street and the Beeb) points out, the British media have contributed to a decline in public discourse in that country:

The viciousness that characterises the relationship between the media and politicians is turning people off politics and corroding our democracy. Everything in Britain is conducted in an overly adversarial way, from our courts to our Parliament, our industrial relations and our select committees. It is good theatre, but does it produce good outcomes? In this case, patently not.

The pervasive cynicism of the BBC and its fellow British media almost certainly have an effect on public perceptions of democracy. As a professional cynic myself, I can’t help but believe part of that attitude was formed as a result of my political socialization at the hands of the Beeb and ITN (the only other television news provider in pre-satellite-TV Britain). A healthy skepticism about the veracity of a government’s claims is good for democracy, but the consistent and corrosive cynicism embodied in the reporting on the motives of everyone and anyone in government or the public eye by the British media seems detrimental to that country’s long-term future.

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry has more on the blame game surrounding Kelly’s death.