The Chancellor’s reputation has taken a severe battering over the last year. Few believe his growth forecasts, and few believe that the Chancellor’s reputation for prudence is a sufficient basis for belief in his budget.
The UK economy is gathering pace, and looks set for a robust performance this year, output figures have shown. Preliminary gross domestic product (GDP) estimates show the economy growing at an annual 3% in the first three months of 2004. Although this is slower than some forecasts, it leaves the economy poised to meet the Treasury growth forecast of 3-3.5% for the year as a whole.
There is an extraordinary article in today's Guardian from one Richard Adams moralising about the case of the secretary at Goldman Sachs, Joyti DeLaurey, who stole £4 million from her employers without their noticing. Because the victims of the crime were very rich, Adams disdains them:
As crimes go, this was a victimless one. Goldman Sachs's official reaction to the verdict on Tuesday was that this was "an extremely unpleasant incident". Unpleasant? So is halitosis, but people don't get sent to jail for it. Although maybe they should.
Merely because the proceeds of a theft amount to small proportion of the victim's disposable income doesn't make it a victimless crime. Adams affects to be making a sociological observation leavened by humour, but what clearly animates him is regret that others are much richer than he is. It isn't even class envy - that staple, usually misplaced, of conservative imagining - for the bankers at Goldman Sachs aren't the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. Instead, it's a scarcely-latent snobbery about those who make their living from 'trade'. You don't need to believe that the distribution of rewards in a modern market economy is sacrosanct in order to find this a trivial and unintelligent sentiment.
(For the record, I hold that it is a task of government to redistribute income from the affluent and middle-income earners to the poor - though without altering relativities - and to provide public goods from general taxation. I doubt, however, that much revenue would accrue from substantially raising marginal rates of personal taxation on the wealthy, who are almost by definition the best-informed segment of the tax base about ways of minimising tax liabilities.)
But what really stands out in this article is Adams's attempt to infer macroeconomic lessons from his cautionary tale:
De-Laurey was doing [her victims] a favour. The trio were far too busy with their 6am meetings and long-distance business trips to enjoy or even know how much money they had. It was just lying dormant in their accounts, doing nothing. Instead, De-Laurey took out their money for a brisk trot down to the shops - like exercising a dog, really.
Frankly, it was much better for the economy that the £4m was in circulation, providing employment and creating profits, being recycled into other hands.
So according to this Guardian columnist, domestic savings have no function in providing employment and creating profits: they just lie around 'doing nothing'. The notion that there might possibly be some connection between savings and investment, and investment and growth, surely must have occurred to him sometime, but perhaps he imagines that if he pretends otherwise in the interests of not spoiling his daring contrarian conceits then the average Guardian reader won't notice. Perhaps he's even right, though I hope not.
There is an episode in economic history (in the 1930s) when - in the words of the late Franco Modigliani, from his Nobel Prize lecture in 1985 - 'saving came to be seen with suspicion, as potentially disruptive to the economy and harmful to social welfare' on account of its potentially reducing consumption, without 'automatically and systematically giving rise to an offsetting expansion in investment.' But I have an idea that Richard Adams hasn't reasoned his way as far as this notion, which is contradicted by the striking correlation over time between countries' investment rates and their domestic savings rates. (See also diagram 2 on page 6 of Modigliani's lecture, showing a scatterplot of selected countries' compound growth rates in per capita disposable income against their savings rates. The line of best fit will come as a surprise to Adams.) In any case, Adams would be well-advised to avoid attempting such startling apercus in future by considering that investment is merely deferred consumption, that those he scorns in his article perform a useful service in channelling savings into investment products, and that putting together those who have capital with those who may use it productively is far from a socially parasitic act.
Twenty years ago the New Statesman came up with a cracking wheeze to mock the notions of a neoclassical economist and supposed intellectual influence on Thatcherite policy called Leon Walrus. The NS's cartoonist, doubtless chortling as he went, added to the gaiety by providing a picture of - ho, ho - a big walrus. Except the man's name wasn't Walrus at all, but Walras. As one reader wrote in, more in sorrow than in anger, if you're going to make a joke you just end up looking silly if you don't trouble to get your facts right first. Agreed, Mr Adams?
I've only just alighted on an article in The Guardian earlier this week by one David Clark, formerly adviser to Robin Cook, entitled This Thatcherite lurch will take the Lib Dems nowhere. Clark complains of the 'insidious political consequences' of the Liberal Democrats, but oddly enough he's not alluding to Charles Kennedy's willingness in February last year to speak from the platform of the Stop the War Coalition, a front organisation for the totalitarian and antisemitic Socialist Workers' Party. Instead he means this:
Last autumn's frontbench reshuffle, which led to the promotion of free-marketers Vince Cable and Mark Oaten to the treasury and home affairs briefs, has been matched by a pronounced lurch to the right on a range of issues.
On Europe, where the Lib Dems had been alone in maintaining principled support for integration, Cable now opines that Brussels has got too big for its boots and that social and environmental policy should be repatriated to the member states; Europe should be little more than a bankers' playground.
The party's economic policy has a shrill, Thatcherite tone. Britain (one of the most deregulated economies in the industrialised world) is smothered in red tape, the DTI and its industrial support functions should be scrapped and above-inflation increases in the minimum wage are unaffordable.
Even the party's long-standing commitment to a 50p top rate of tax for high earners is being finessed out of existence. We are told that it will now include national insurance and a replacement for the council tax, blunting its redistributive effect and making very little difference to the status quo.
This all sounds quite promising, until you realise the intellectual idleness that underlies Clark's lament. A writer who, without a trace of irony, employs serial cliches such as 'too big for its boots', 'bankers' playground' and 'the status quo' is unlikely to have invested much thought in his analysis. All that he's really identified is that the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman is undeniably a capable and thoughtful economist. Unfortunately, Vincent Cable's views have nothing in common with those of the rest of his party, as I argued when he took up his present post. The overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrats, from my observation, share David Clark's prejudiced and tendentious historical misconceptions:
But they should remember that their tradition includes the New Liberalism of the early 20th century and the achievements of Beveridge and Keynes, not to mention an important strand of British social democracy. The thread linking these contributions has been an understanding that liberty and the good society cannot be secured by legal equality and free markets alone, and may sometimes be imperilled by the latter. It is a perspective that needs to be restored to the political mainstream.
I don't know of anyone in British politics who believes that liberty and the good society can be achieved by legal equality and free markets alone. I know of literally nobody outside a tiny fringe who denies the existence of public goods such as defence (i.e. things that have, in the economist's definition, the properties of non-rivalrous consumption and non-excludability). The proper dispute is between what counts as a public good and what does not; some things that have traditionally been counted a public good, such as higher education, are in fact more like hybrid goods, because they benefit principally those who consume the good rather than the public generally - their positive externalities, in other words, are fewer than has commonly been assumed.
On these questions, the modern Liberal Democrats may derive inspiration from the New Liberalism of Hobhouse and others, but they have almost nothing in common with the tradition of Keynes and Beveridge. Keynes's central insight was that market economies were cyclically unstable, and that those fluctuations needed to be countered by the operation of fiscal and monetary policy. The corollary of his premise was that governments should balance their budgets over the course of the business cycle; the modern Liberal Democrats , by contrast, condemned the current Government for alleged 'fiscal flagellation' in running budget surpluses as a result of sticking to the Tories' public expenditure targets on taking office. Beveridge proposed an insurance-based system that balanced rights with contributions, not an ever-expanding system of entitlements. Whenever the current Government, and its predecessor, have attempted to align the welfare state with this principle the Liberal Democrats have ritually opposed such measures.
In the last Parliament, I advised the Independent MP Martin Bell to vote at every opportunity in support of the Government's welfare reforms, including the cuts in benefit, and I'm pleased to say that he generally followed that course. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have been for years the very embodiment of reaction and unthinking conservatism. Here, to take an example almost at random, is their spokesman on Work and Pensions, 'Steve' Webb, denouncing cuts in incapacity benefit early in the current Parliament:
The Government has been talking for years about the million disabled people who want to work, but has made no progress. Now they are threatening to withhold benefit from disabled people who are unfit for work, unless they come in to talk about job prospects. Given the many barriers to work already faced by disabled people, and the discrimination that many suffer, forcing them to discuss jobs on pain of loss of benefit is cruel and unnecessary.
I can imagine that someone even with a severe disability but who has managed to build a successful career (David Blunkett, for example) would feel patronised by that sort of emotional blackmail. You can’t blame a politician for playing politics, but Professor Webb's remarks reflect an unwillingness to exercise discrimination between, say, someone with a severe wasting disease such as MS and someone with a bad back problem that makes it difficult for him to do manual labour (a genuine example of the extension of incapacity benefit, by the way). More important, they reflect an assumption that runs throughout this debate that state benefit is an entitlement rather than a contractual arrangement. And that assumption is unwarranted. It is a moral imperative that a decent society make provision for the disabled, but it does not follow from that that society has no interest in seeing that money distributed effectively. Government has no money of its own to distribute: all it does is to provide the means to transfer income from one group of citizens to another. The Liberal Democrats' attack should not be on the Government (which is neither ‘generous’ nor ‘stingy’, precisely because it has no money of its own to dispense), but on taxpayers for expecting their money to be used effectively.
I must with reluctance therefore provide answers to the two questions that head this post: they are 'no' and 'the query is undiplomatic'.
Stephen Pollard offers an interesting analysis of the reasons for Tony Blair’s change of mind over a referendum on the proposed EU constitution:
His reputation is now severely damaged as a result of Iraq and the failure of any significant public service reforms. So he has two options for the constitution: try to force it through (which he may not even be able to manage in the Commons, let alone the Lords) and then leave office despised on the three fronts which matter to him (EU, reform, and Iraq); or adopt the ‘with one bound, he was free’ tactic, and allow a referendum.
This seems to me both a plausible explanation and a rational strategy. The Tory charge of opportunism is not an intelligent ploy, as plainly the Prime Minister considers this is the most effective way of advancing an aim he strongly believes in, and is well-positioned to depict it as sensitivity to public opinion. In his hoped-for outcome, the nearest equivalent I can think of is the Spanish referendum on membership of Nato in 1986 – one of my favourite political memories of that decade. The Socialists had won an election on a programme of withdrawal from Nato; the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez – an immeasurably weightier figure than the current incumbent – then changed his mind and campaigned, almost alone, for continued membership (though not as part of the alliance’s integrated military command). Against all predictions and to the anguish of the peace movement. He won the referendum handsomely and was a transformed political figure as a result.
My view on the constitution itself is ambivalent, as is my view on most matters to do with European integration. My main concern is with its aims in foreign policy. There can be no question but that the constitution is seen by its advocates as, and will be used as a vehicle for, an assertion of political counterweight to the Atlantic alliance. Given that I believe the United States was right to overthrow tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is right to formulate a doctrine of pre-emptive military action against terrorist groups and the states that give them succour, I am not sympathetic to such a role for the EU. But I’m not especially worried about it either. The EU is plainly hopelessly divided in its members’ views on foreign policy, and will remain so. Consider the most absurd remark of the day on this subject, from Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, in The Independent:
[The Prime Minister] came to power promising to put us at the "heart of Europe". But his record has been lamentable - allowing his neighbour in Number 11 to dictate the pace over entry into the euro and his "friend" in Washington to divide us from European allies over Iraq.
Leave aside for the moment the question of the euro and consider the preposterousness of that remark about European policy on Iraq. Kennedy of course campaigned strongly for leaving Saddam Hussein in power, but numerous current and prospective EU members took a different view. Though it is an axiom of the proposed constitution that there be a common European foreign and defence policy, it’s obvious that no such arrangement will come to pass on issues that matter. It can be argued – and certainly will be by the Prime Minister – that the constitution implicitly recognises this reality by stipulating that the EU is ‘subsidiary’ to member states. The EU is not the behemoth that its critics fear. If it behaves as it did over Iraq, it will merely make itself ridiculous rather than be pernicious; member states such as the UK and Denmark that have a wise and principled approach to international security issues will continue to expound it without constraint, whatever the EU constitution says.
My concern is thus that the EU as it currently stands will be a nuisance rather than a hindrance - but that’s still a cost that’s worth avoiding. The attempt over the past 20 years by the European Union – in its successive incarnations – to mount a Middle East policy independent of the United States has done better as a comedy routine than a contribution to statesmanship, but it’s created unnecessary mischief nonetheless. I foresee the prospect of greater grandstanding rather than calm deliberation if the EU assumes a formal constitution crafted by those who understand it as a means of constraining rather than assisting the United States in tasks that only the United States, by virtue of her economic and military strength, can perform.
Economic and monetary integration is another issue, but as I’ve deliberately steered clear of it in this blog so far I’ll state briefly my view. I do not believe there is a compelling economic case either way. Eurosceptics of the Left, such as the late Peter Shore (for whom Stephen Pollard once worked), used to argue that we needed to stay out of the euro because of the European Central Bank’s narrow remit to target inflation (rather than, say, employment or output growth). You don’t hear that argument so often now that the British government has given the Bank of England responsibility to fulfil a similar remit, and rightly so. There is a widespread view among economists, and it’s one that I hold, that the aim of monetary policy should be to meet an inflation target (though some commentators argue instead for targeting nominal GDP) rather than pursue a wider array of policy aims that would in practice undermine the accountability of monetary authorities. The adoption by the UK of a similar framework since 1997 in my view weakens the one really strong argument for euro membership – that it would be a means to the end of a sound monetary policy. Likewise, the Chancellor’s Golden Rule in fiscal policy is in principle a better policy instrument than the inflexible Growth and Stability Pact in the euro zone. The strongest argument I can find against British membership is simply that the policy framework in the UK works reasonably well as it is. Over the past 12 years – since sterling’s departure from the ERM and under governments of both parties – monetary and fiscal policy has evolved into a framework of rules in preference to discretionary intervention. Coupling this framework with the degree of economic flexibility that a floating exchange rate provides is not a bad policy mix.
The advantages of a floating exchange rate ought not to be overstated, however, and they certainly are by the eurosceptic camp. The single stupidest argument I’ve yet encountered from an anti-euro campaigner comes from a Liberal Democrat MP, Paul Marsden. In a letter to The Times in September 2001 (unaccountably that august newspaper failed to publish it, but the MP put it on his web site anyway), Marsden wrote:
[W]ith spin and bluster the British people may think that for the ease of European holidays the euro is a good thing. But a yes vote in a referendum means that when times are tough the Bank of England can not do much to help save jobs or lower mortgage rates. Who is easier to hold to account: a British Chancellor or the European Central Bank?
It’s difficult to credit, but Marsden appears to believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for setting interest rates, whereas he is in fact responsible for setting the range that the rate of inflation may not exceed or fall below. Marsden also apparently considers that monetary policy ‘saves jobs’ (employment in the long run depends on the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, which in turns reflects supply-side rather than demand-side factors) and that monetary authorities ought to have as a central goal of policy the financial well-being of home-owners. (Marsden was a Labour MP at the time he wrote this ridiculous letter, defecting to the Liberal Democrats later in the year in protest at Tony Blair’s support for the liberation of Afghanistan. Marsden was then in the uncomfortable position of having made strident criticisms of the euro shortly before joining a party that advocated Britain’s entering into it. He seems to have quietened down on the subject since, much to my disappointment.)
There is a degree of flexibility that a floating exchange rate confers, but in practice it’s limited if you consider that monetary authorities ought not to tolerate high inflation. The eurosceptics' economic argument from 'sovereignty' and 'self-government' is consequently not strong. Over the long term interest rates reflect the international real rate and a premium for expected inflation. If you believe that the inflation rate targeted by the European Central Bank is a broadly sensible policy – as it is – then you might as well set a similar monetary stance for the UK. Business cycles diverge, and it’s unlikely that the business cycle will ever be abolished – but it ought to be policy to damp down oscillations within the cycle, and indeed an important part of Keynesian policy is concerned with the operation of ‘automatic stabilisers’ (monetary and fiscal policy).
I’m also swayed by the fact that in the referendum campaign on the EU constitution, and presumably the later one on euro membership, the No camp will include some of the most unpleasant people anywhere on the political spectrum - the xenophobe Right and the extreme Left. As things stand today, I would probably, strictly on the issues, cast a No vote myself. But my pleasure at being once again on the opposite side to the Liberal Democrats would hardly be unalloyed.
Politics is an activity unsuited to the young, not on account of their vices but on account of what I at least consider to be their virtues.... Everybody's young days are a dream, a delightful insanity, a sweet solipsism. Nothing in them has fixed shape, nothing a fixed price; everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept.... Some unfortunate people, like Pitt (laughably called 'the Younger'), are born old, and are eligible to engage in politics almost in their cradles; others, perhaps more fortunate, belie the saying that one is young only once, they never grow up. But these are exceptions. For most there is what Conrad called the 'shadow line' which, when we pass it, discloses a solid world of things, each with its fixed shape, each with its own point of balance, each with its price; a world of fact, not poetic image, in which what we have spent on one thing we cannot spend on another; a world inhabited by others besides ourselves who cannot be reduced to mere reflections of our own emotions. And coming to be at home in this commonplace world qualifies us (as no knowledge of 'political science' can ever qualify us), if we are so inclined and have nothing better to think about, to engage in what the man of conservative disposition understands to be political activity.
If 56% of MPs think that the voting age should not be cut it is just another indication of how out of touch they are. Perhaps these MPs should get out of Westminster a bit more and actually engage with young people.
Matthew Green MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman on young people, press release, 19 April 2004
The syllabus in schools must involve young people in ways that reflect their experiences. London must say goodbye to Mr Chips and hello to Ms Dynamite.
Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, press release, 19 April 2004
Here, on the other hand, is the embodiment of wisdom, speaking last week:
Mo Mowlam has called on the British and American governments to open talks with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.... Asked if she could imagine "al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden arriving at the negotiating table," she replied: "You have to do that. If you do not you condemn large parts of the world to war forever.
"Some people couldn't conceive of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness getting to the table but they did."
It's easy to caricature this as an obtuse and embittered ex-ministerial idiosyncrasy, but that would be a mistake. In reality it’s a potent critique of a fallacy that Dr Mowlam once herself did much to promote at the Northern Ireland office.
Of course it’s risible to suppose that theocratic fascism can be stemmed by bilateral negotiation. When Islamist terrorists slam aeroplanes into office blocks and blow up commuter trains they are not issuing negotiable demands. They have the less abstruse goal of destroying western civilisation. Their barbarities are not a cry for help, but acts of total war. Dr Mowlam’s ironic ululation that “if you do not [talk] you condemn large parts of the world to war forever” is thus exactly wrong. The reason large parts of the world are condemned to war is that radical Islamists declare it, and will not desist till they are literally fought to the death.
But the principle of a negotiated resolution of violent conflicts is tenacious, and plausible, where a terrorist movement – IRA, ETA, FARC, arguably even Hamas – pursues less absolutist goals. Dr Mowlam’s remarks brilliantly expose its hollowness.
True, not all terrorist groups are alike. Some exemplify apocalyptic nihilism. Others might conceivably be weaned to constitutional politics, just as the old Official IRA eventually metamorphosed into the Workers’ Party. But a democratic polity cannot know in advance which terrorist groups fall into which category. The most reliable way to find out is to force the choice upon them by treating them without differentiation as if they are all inveterate and enduring enemies of civilisation.
This turns on its head the philosophy that Dr Mowlam practised in government. Instead of matching a suspension of terrorist violence with political concessions, it offers no concessions at all. Its rationale is to convince terrorists that their goals are unattainable and thus that their alternatives are to sue for peace or face extirpation. Its message is not “extend your ceasefire”, but “abandon violence irrevocably or we will hit you again and again, not to contain you but to destroy you”.
It is a myth that IRA terrorism proved impervious to such an approach. An earlier Labour Northern Ireland Secretary, Roy Mason, came to office in 1976 eschewing political initiatives and promising to roll up the IRA ‘like a tube of toothpaste’. His efforts had a devastating effect on the IRA’s operational effectiveness and precipitated a drastic reduction in terrorist activity. An earlier IRA campaign, begun in 1957, was repelled by the Irish Government by internment, among other indelicate means. Conor Cruise O’Brien, a Cabinet minister in the 1970s, later reflected, “I am convinced that if the later IRA offensive, begun in 1971, had been met with the same determination in the Republic, it too could have been brought to an early end.”
Similarly, Israel’s much-criticised assassination of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin continues a pragmatic policy of inflicting heavy costs on terrorist groups. That approach caused Hizbollah to reassess its use of suicide-bombing, a technique it had initiated in the early 1980s, on a straightforward calculus that it wasn’t working. Attacking Hamas directly while withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza settlements could hardly be bettered as a pacific policy: it demonstrates seriousness about territorial accommodation while discharging the Palestinian Authority’s own treaty obligations – never observed – to crack down on terrorism.
Any peace process worthy of the name must respect the role of deterrence rather than affect to supersede it. If diplomacy has no limit then terrorists will understand it as an opportunity to gain political advantage by continuing with indiscriminate carnage. By invoking a reductio ad absurdum of negotiations with al-Qaeda, Dr Mowlam evidences a personal philosophical journey that is far advanced from her earlier espousal of the politics of the group hug. The candour of her implied self-rebuke is admirable.
Apologies for my having been away for longer than I’d expected. Normal service now resumes. My thanks for the many comments appended to my post disclaiming any possibility of my concluding the Iraq war was a mistake – I hope to post in the next few days a reply to the criticisms.
Among the things I have noted in the past few days is the identity of the Chump of the Week (indeed this or any other week). His name is Rupert Read, and he signs himself as Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Last Sunday he had a letter published in the Telegraph:
I was sorry to read the spiteful and misinformed attack on the late Sir Peter Ustinov by my one-time ally (in our student-politics days), Stephen Pollard (Comment, Apr 4).
Mr Pollard appears to think that stringing together a bunch of misleading attacks on Ustinov (eg Mr Pollard repeats the laughable canard that Ustinov's opposition to the Bush-Blair attack on Iraq constitutes his having been a supporter of the barbaric Saddam regime) will make him appear to be a radical and contrarian "intellectual". On the contrary, Ustinov had far the better claim to having been an intellectual.
One of his greatest ever quips was on the eve of the Iraq misadventure when he said: "War is the terrorism of the rich; terrorism is the war of the poor." If Mr Pollard ever produces a sentence as important, true and elegant as that, I will happily work with him again. Sadly, I'm not holding my breath.
If that’s what counts as important, true and elegant, than I’ll settle for banality, falsehood and gracelessness – anything, in fact, so long as no one mistook the sentiment for one of mine. By contrast, Dr Read was so smugly impressed with the aphorism that he cited it again two days later in a letter to The Independent, evidently not having had, on this subject at least, a critical thought in his head in the interim.
If you contend that war is terrorism then you are eliding the distinction between the indiscriminate violence (as between military and civilian targets) characteristic of terrorism and the limited warfare, attempting to avoid civilian casualties, practised in Iraq by Coalition forces. You can argue that that distinction is otiose anyway (though that’s not a view I hold), but to avoid mentioning it altogether is to overlook one of the most influential principles in moral reflection on warfare in western philosophy, namely the Thomist principle of double effect. Targeting civilians in warfare is morally wrong, but warfare that causes civilian deaths is not necessarily wrong where those deaths are an unintended and secondary consequence of an attack on a military target. Whether it is or not depends on other criteria applied in particular cases. I would expect an academic philosopher to be willing to engage in that discussion, or alternatively indicate the nature of his disagreement with that type of moral reasoning, rather than assume the question away.
Conversely, Dr Read’s contention that it is true and important to describe terrorism as the weapon of the poor demonstrates an undoubted capacity for imagination. The instigator of the attack on the World Trade Center is (or at least certain human remains in the Tora Bora mountains are those of) the scion of a billionaire Saudi construction dynasty. What animates Osama bin Laden’s movement is not poverty but ideology: a pitiless and fanatical commitment to kill those it regards as infidels, including all Americans and all Jews.
To point this out is, of course, to have no effect at all. Prejudices are durable, and there is none more so than the conceit that terrorist attacks on the citizens of western democracies must have some [cliché alert] root cause attributable to us. Here, taken almost at random, is yet another example of a dogmatic assertion of a speculative hypothesis presented as self-evident truth: it’s a statement issued by the President of the Methodist Conference, Rev. Dr Neil Richardson, immediately after the Madrid bombings:
The perpetrators of the Madrid bombings, and their particular motivations, have not yet been identified. But what is incontestable is that global terrorism, of which Spain is the most recent victim, is bred by injustice and deprivation. Western nations, therefore, need critically to examine their foreign policy.
It is certainly not incontestable. I have linked before to a study by the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and his Czech collaborator Jitka Maleckova, published the US National Bureau of Economic Research, on precisely this question, and do so again now because of its importance and originality. The paper, entitled Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? is available here for a small fee; a non-technical summary is available here. Finally, a non-technical version of the paper, published in The New Republic, can be read for free here.
Krueger and Maleckova’s research is not easy to reconcile with what the President of the Methodist Conference believes to be incontestable. I quote from the summary.
The core of the study entails a comparison of the characteristics of members of Hezbollah (or Party of God), which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization, with those of the general population of Lebanon. Their analysis indicates that members of Hezbollah's militant wing who were killed in action in the 1980s and early 1990s were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities.
The authors, being economists, make no claims about the relevance of their research for matters of politics. But they do make an important point about the potential economic damage of assuming a causal link between poverty and terrorism where none exists. Again, this is from the summary:
The authors are concerned that drawing a connection between poverty and terrorism - if it is not justified - is potentially quite dangerous because the international community may lose interest in providing support to developing nations when the imminent threat of terrorism recedes. That support, they note, waned in the aftermath of the Cold War. Connecting foreign aid with terrorism also risks the possibility of humiliating many in less developed countries, who are implicitly told they only receive foreign aid to prevent them from committing acts of terror. Further, premising aid on the threat of terrorism could create perverse incentives for some groups to engage in terrorism to increase their prospect of receiving aid. "Alleviating poverty is reason enough to pressure economically advanced countries to provide more aid than they are currently giving," Krueger and Maleckova write.
Those who follow debates on economic policy in the US will know Professor Krueger’s earlier highly influential work on the economics of the minimum wage. In a book entitled Myth and Measurement he and his collaborator David Card argued that increases in the minimum wage had not had the adverse effect on employment traditionally hypothesised in economic theory. I make no comment here on that debate; I cite it merely to indicate that Krueger’s approach is empirical: he looks at data, and he is expert in handling them. I have no idea whether Professor Krueger is an admirer of the wisdom of Peter Ustinov, but I suspect that someone of his cast of mind is liable to be a lot less susceptible than Dr Rupert Read to nonsense dressed up as profundity.
Jenny writes that we can take the issues of animal cruelty and factory farming seriously, while continuing to eat animals. Well maybe. But let me ask you this: could you take the issue of cruel treatment of concentration camp inmates seriously, while continuing to buy shoes made out of human skin?
I don't usually link to things without commenting on them, but in this case I don't know what to say.
A new campaign has been launched by a body I have written about before, the World Council of Churches. The WCC is an international ecumenical body of Protestant and Orthodox Churches, established after World War II. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but has worked closely with the WCC, especially on social teaching, at various times - notably from the mid-60s to the early 70s, when quite radical economic views were promulgated in papal encyclicals (principally Populorum Progressio, 1967).
The WCC's new venture is called EAPPI, which stands for Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. I can see nothing wrong and much of value in the Christian Churches' visiting and learning about a region of such religious and historical importance, especially when concerned to encourage the supersession of violence. Unfortunately, EAPPI doesn't seem to have religion or history much on its collective mind at the moment, as it turns out to be merely a subsidiary of a wider body called - with an exquisite regard for critical inquiry and prayerful reflection - the 'Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine'. The notion that Israel might have any legitimate claims whatsoever in final status negotiations is clearly one that doesn't bear entertaining; likewise what must be a disconcerting historical circumstance that every Israeli government for 37 years has maintained the juridical separation of the occupied territories from Israel, while the last Israeli government went to extreme lengths to secure a sovereign independent Palestinian state there.
The aims of this campaign are predictable for what they say:
1. Expose the violence of the occupation.
2. End the brutality, humiliation and violence against civilians.
3. Construct a stronger global advocacy network.
4. Ensure the respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.
5. Influence public opinion in home country and affect foreign policy on Middle East in order to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian State.
6. Express solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists and empower local Palestinian communities/churches.
7. Be an active witness that an alternative, non-violent struggle for justice and peace is possible to end the illegal occupation of Palestine.
Still more predictable is what this tendentious and portentous statement omits. When it refers to 'violence against civilians' it means, astonishingly, the party in the conflict that doesn't target civilians in the first place. This ecumenical Christian venture that supposedly aims at an end of violence has literally nothing to say about the suicide-murders practised by Hamas and other terrorists. It can't even bring itself to express sympathy with the victims and the bereaved, let alone condemn the act of bombing buses or shopping malls.
The WCC's theological premises in this - if one can dignify its thinking with such terms - have been refined (or rather, recycled) over many years, and haven't been scrutinised enough by outsiders (or indeed insiders). One of the few recent Christian ethicists - in this country at least - who really understood global politics and economics, the late Canon Ronald Preston, Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology at Manchester University, did seriously analyse the WCC's thinking. Preston was a Christian Socialist who strongly sympathised with the ecumenical movement but found himself perplexed by some of its vacuities. He wrote a study of the WCC's social thinking aptly entitled Confusions in Christian Social Ethics, in which he observed, of the organisation's statements on world peace at its international assembly in Canberra in 1991:
[T]he content of the reports was thin, and betrayed a utopian naivete which was increasingly to characterize WCC documents. I have already quoted the sentence 'Without justice for all everywhere we shall never have peace anywhere'. As a statement of eschatological fulfilment, of an ultimate hope and one much more likely to be realized celestially than terrestrially, it expresses a conviction at the heart of the Christian faith that 'in the end' God's good purposes for humanity will not be frustrated. However, as a guide to the careful policy judgments that responsible statesmen and citizens have to make at any given time, it is no help at all.
You can say that again. Just how little help it was to the World Council of Churches can be gleaned from an episode that ought to be better-known than it is. In 1978 the WCC gave a grant of $85,000 to the Patriotic Front of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, an organisation comprising two groups led by, respectively, Joshua Nkomo and ... Robert Mugabe. The name of the venture under which Zimbabwe's future murderous tyrant and prize xenophobe was accorded such largesse was - no, really - the WCC's 'Programme to Combat Racism'.
This is perhaps not the most appropriate note on which to extend good wishes for Passover or Easter to those of my readers who celebrate either, but I do so anyway. I shall return next week.