A Word From Me

For three months from August 29th I will be filling in as the Comment Editor at The Hill newspaper in Washington DC. The Hill newspaper has built up a fine reputation as a serious news publication, one that is really fair and balanced. It welcomes on its opinion and comment pages all major political views — as it does so also for the opinion departments of its online product. Columnists, for example, are drawn from both sides of the political aisle.

The Hill’s comment editor functions in many ways as a ringmaster. It would be unfair for a ringmaster to comment publicly on the acts. And so for the duration of my time at The Hill I will be refraining from commenting here on this blog on domestic U.S. politics. But I will continue to blog on politics outside the U.S. and also to share some opinions on economics.

Tea Party: Putting God In Government

Last year, I wrote a piece for the Daily Caller suggesting that libertarians and economic conservatives would be unwise to align with the Tea Party. My point was that what underlines the Tea Party movement is social conservatism.

In short, the Tea Party isn’t a movement full of supporters of gay marriage, immigration reform, etc, I suggested.

Last weekend, academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam disclosed in the New York Times some of their long-running research into national political attitudes. They used interviews with 3000 people going back to 2006 to identify the type joining the Tea Party. Their research enabled them to “look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”

And what did they find? Their analysis cast doubt on the idea that the movement was fueled by “nonpartisan political neophytes”. In fact, Tea Party supporters were highly partisan Republicans. “More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”

The academics conclude: “The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”




From Trauma To Drama: Reading The Riot Act

Britain’s top cops have become extraordinary drama queens in the past couple of days, and all because the country’s political leaders said what was obvious to everyone – namely, that the police lost control of urban streets for several nights and changed their tactics far too late in combating the recent riots.

And now they are all in a fit because David Cameron is turning to US super-cop Bill Bratton for advice on how to confront street gangs. Admittedly, Bratton could be a bit more diplomatic in his comments to British newspapers – he is engaged in a certain amount of grandstanding.

But a little humility from Britain’s senior police officers wouldn’t go amiss.

Alas, that’s not what they’re offering. Four Chief Constables now have attacked openly Prime Minister David Cameron. And it is hard not to hear those very British sounds of complacency. Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, argued that moves like calling in Bratton had “really come across as almost people disrespecting what we have already achieved in this country.” Disrespecting? He sounds like a gangsta!

Hearing that remark and it is hard not to be sympathetic to Bratton’s suggestion that there is a “parochial” element to the British police’s dislike of seeing counsel being sought from overseas.

I am sure there have been police achievements but last week’s riots and the police response to them was not one of the Peelers’ finest moments. I am pretty sure that will be the view of homeowners, tenants, shopkeepers who were caught up in the flash riots and pleaded to no avail for police assistance.

According to Fahy there is a risk that the rhetoric coming from the British Government over the riots is losing the confidence of police chiefs. What the police should understand is that they are losing the confidence of the public, which wasn’t high as they confronted the disorder. Met Police incompetence was very much on show in the previous weeks over the handling of probes into tabloid phone hacking. And there was a distinct whiff of corruption at Scotland Yard thrown up by the hacking scandal.

Clearly, the police are particularly offended at the idea that police tactics changed because of government intervention. I suppose they feel that this reflects poorly on their professionalism. Both the prime minister and Home Secretary Theresa May have indicated that they were the ones who read the riot act, so to speak, to the cops.

May insists that it was the politicians who drove the change in tactics from softly-softly to a much more muscular approach. “The Prime Minister and I were very clear about two things: we wanted to see a presence on the streets; we also wanted to see a tough arrest policy. That has been followed through,” she said.

Obviously, the politicians have a vested interest in presenting themselves as having been very much on the ball. They after all reacted far too slowly to the disorder, too, and Cameron, May, and London Mayor Boris Johnson should have returned from their vacations much sooner.

An abiding memory of the early (and it wasn’t that early) political reaction to the riots was the hesitant and inadequate press conference of a clearly nervous Lynne Featherstone, a junior Home Office minister, 16 hours after the Tottenham riot had started.

Even so, the timeline would suggest that it was the politicians who caused the change in police tactics, which remained softly-softly for the first three nights of the rioting. The tenor, tempo and pro-activeness of the police only really started on the Tuesday after ministers and officials met under the auspices of the national security Cobra Committee.

Quite rightly, May has made it abundantly clear where authority lies. “Ministers must ensure the police know what the public expect of them,” she said over the weekend.

Of course, if it is true that the police shifted their tactics at the behest of their political masters, then it reflects not just poorly on the police — they should have realized earlier they had to make changes — but on the tardiness on the part of the holidaying politicians.


Shape Up

World Bank’s Robert Zoellick talks on a theme dear to this blogger’s heart – namely, that the political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic just are not performing and collectively are one of the main causes for the loss of confidence and market turmoil and economic malaise.

“What’s happened in the past couple of weeks is there is a convergence of some events in Europe and the United States that has led many market participants to lose confidence in economic leadership of some of the key countries,” he said.

So let’s see what happens at the summit between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel and whether they are able to lead and forge a way out of the Eurozone crisis. There is only one realistic alternative now: closer fiscal integration and a serious Eurobond system to bail out the weaker members. If that doesn’t happen, then the markets are going to starting testing with the targets again being Italy and Spain.


Pray For Rain In Absence Of Leadership

So it has taken three nights of riots and looting in London to prompt British Prime Minister David Cameron to interrupt his Tuscan vacation, get on a plane and return to a burning London. And not even the meltdown of the European stock markets, including the London Stock Exchange, has been able to encourage the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, to return to the UK from his LA summer holidays.

Economic crisis and riots have exposed the lack of leadership — a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister, a Chancellor, a Home Secretary and a London Mayor all away on vacation at the same time and determined to ensure their vacations are undisturbed. The government flacks have been eager to say that all have been in contact, that new technology means you don’t have to be on the spot. Of course, you can receive information and issues orders, but without being present you can’t really appreciate the gravity of the situation, or ensure your orders are carried out, or adapt quickly when circumstances change or be able to reassure the public that you are leading by your very presence.

The three nights of rioting in London certainly prompts the question: where are the parents? But then why should they be present and controlling their teenagers when the politicians show such disdain for their duty of care?

These London riots are reaping the whirlwind of a couple of decades of increasing amorality – from top to bottom, from bottom to top. The London rioters are not the European equivalent of Egyptian protesters or demonstrators in Tunisia or Bahrain or Yemen. This is not a “British Spring” or about democracy or risking your life for the right to dignity.

The London riots are thuggish in nature and purpose. The rioters aren’t calling for greater democracy and they are not expressing their opposition to cuts (which have not even taken effect yet). They are about selfishness and wanting a lark. They aren’t interested in democracy but grabbing for nothing a pair of trainers or a 42′ plasma TV.

And, of course, they are a subterranean expression of collective failure — failure in parenting, failure in community leadership, failure in political leadership going back years. Bankers, celebrities, football players (and their wives) have all led the way too, grabbing what they wanted without regard.

No doubt, some commentators and politicians will heap the blame on capitalism. But capitalism is about societal cooperation and discipline — it is not about lawlessness. What Britain has been living for years is just pure selfishness and the lack of discipline. And now its youngsters are just aping their parents.

Competence, too, has gone. What is the police strategy? And without leadership and effective policing all Londoners can do tonight is pray that rain comes and dampens the riots.



In Defense of Hacking and Blagging

Forbes’ media blogger Jeff Bercovici today takes issue with a public interest defense for journalists to phone hack. The prompt for his post is a 2006 admission voluntarily made by The Guardian’s top investigative reporter David Leigh that he had listened to voicemails of people he was targeting and lied about his identity on phone calls to secure information. Lying about your identity is known in the trade as blagging.

Bercovici notes the irony in this considering that The Guardian was the newspaper most responsible for bringing to light the appalling phone hacking of celebrities and the bereaved by the News of the World. Although he doesn’t himself condemn Leigh or dismiss a public interest defense, he turns to the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, who apparently teaches media ethics. And she does the condemning for him.

He asked her whether Leigh’s public interest defense holds water? And she dismisses the defense pretty much out of hand. “The problem with that is he’s suggesting that the ends justify the means. In most ethical reasoning it doesn’t because it’s a subjective call. For him, it’s exposing bribery and corruption. For somebody else it might be exposing that some pop star lip synchs over his songs.”

He then paraphrases her, saying that “breaking the law in pursuit of a story — or committing a legal breach of journalistic ethics, such as misrepresenting one’s identity — is only excusable if it’s a story that’s not only in the public interest but impossible to get at through other means.” And that McBride is sure “almost never happens.”

Apparently, a “diligent enough reporter with good enough sources can always get the story with above-board methods.”

I suspect neither Bercovici nor McBride have much knowledge of David Leigh’s journalism. They seem also to have little understanding of the legal situation in the UK, where courts have upheld a public interest defense, or the ethics code of the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.

And I am pretty sure after researching the careers of both that neither has spent that much time investigating international gunrunners, spies, drug cartels or public corruption. On Poynter’s website there is mention that McBride, while a local reporter in Idaho, wrote some stories on white supremacists and the meth trade, but most of her reporting has been on religion.

First, to David Leigh’s journalism: His work back in the 1970s and 1980s did a lot to bring to light the attempts by some in British intelligence to destabilize the Wilson government. In the 1990s, his journalism led to the jailing for perjury of former UK Conservative defense minister Jonathan Aitken. In the 1990s, he wrote with Rob Evans a series of corruption articles on the international arms giant BAE Systems – articles that prompted prosecutions on both sides of the Atlantic and led the company to be fined more than $500 million. I don’t see anything from Bercovici or McBride that would compete with this quality of work — so some respect may be in order here.

Is McBride suggesting that none of these stories could be considered to be in the public interest? Could any intelligent judge for one moment fear that these kind of articles could be confused for a second with tabloid tittle-tattle about celebrities, or that even a tabloid journalist would not be red-faced in trying to suggest that there was an equal public interest in exposing the fact that some pop star lip synchs over his songs?

(On a broader ethical point, it is not always wrong to justify the means by the ends. In real life, it depends on the circumstances. And when it comes to formal philosophy I assume as an ethicist McBride is aware of the theory of consequentialism, a term coined by the Cambridge philosopher GEM Anscombe in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy to describe a central error in some moral theories put forward by JS Mill and Sidgwick. Consequentialism now refers to moral theories which hold that the consequences of actions are the true basis for judgments about the morality of conduct. So there is a debate about this for ethicists)

Second, McBride should be careful in assuming that the laws in the UK and the US are the same. David Leigh is right. There is a public interest defense contained in the UK’s Data Protection Act.

And there is also a public interest clause available in the journalism ethics code of the Press Complaints Commission. For example, the code says this: “Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.” So, Leigh has grounds for arguing that he broke no ethical guidelines of his profession.

For McBride subterfuge should only rarely be invoked — hell, if you are a half-decent journalist you should always be able to get the sources and the stories without subterfuge, she sniffed, remember. But it really does depend on what journalism you are doing.

Like David Leigh I have resorted in the past to subterfuge to secure information on Mexican drug cartels, Russian crime syndicates, terrorist groups, intelligence operations, human trafficking and public corruption. I don’t think it would have been a good idea, for example, to wander around Juarez or other Mexican border towns or in Colombia on various stories and be that open about my identity and what I was doing. Not only would I have failed to secure the information I was hoping to get but I would have also endangered my life and the lives of those who were assisting me.

Have I listened to voicemails? Yes, from tapes supplied (unofficially) to me by US law enforcement agents and Colombian police of intercepted conversations between drug traffickers. Was that questionable? No, there was a clear public interest in the journalism I was doing.

Have I ever hacked a phone myself? Yes, for a big investigation back in 1992 for The Times of London on how easy it was to hack cell phone conversations using a cheap scanner sold in British high street stores and costing then about $30. This was back in the analogue days of mobile telecommunications and the industry was claiming that you couldn’t hack cell phones and, maybe, if you could, only one side of the conversation could be eavesdropped on.

I spent a week listening to hundreds of conversations. You could only do this at random but the information I secure was deeply disturbing. I was able to secure credit card and bank details galore. I knew when the top civil servant in Northern Ireland was due to land at Heathrow airport and where he would be going and then his time of departure back to Belfast (this was when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still very much on). I discovered where police anti-terrorist checkpoints were planned for in London. I listened into several calls from MPs, and heard an extraordinary row between the lead singer of a major pop group and the band’s agent.

What did we do with all of this information? Of course, we didn’t publish the details of credit cards or bank accounts nor did we name the pop band, etc. We did indicate what kind of information we had received and played up the security aspect of the dangers of cell phone conversations.

In short, without hacking we could not illustrate our public interest point – use cell phones with care, you don’t know who might be listening and you could be giving away vital information. The BBC followed our expose, and the mobile telecommunications industry was left embarrassed. Sorry, Ms. McBride, we didn’t think getting sources to say how easy it was to hack would have quite the same impact as doing it.

On blagging, I could give several personal examples. But one may suffice. Back in the mid-1990s I was writing for the Washington Times Corp. a series of articles on organized crime in Germany and central Europe. One concerned human trafficking. To be more specific, it focused on the trafficking of young women from further east, especially Ukraine and Russia. To be able to secure interviews and to get around pimps and guards, I did not reveal my purpose or my job. Was that wrong?

What is curious — or maybe not — about Bercovici’s post is he doesn’t mention the examples David Leigh uses to illustate his point about public interest journalism and phone hacking and blagging.

Here they are:

“I, too, once listened to the mobile phone messages of a corrupt arms company executive.” And,

“I still treasure the moment when I rang up Mark Thatcher in Downing Street. Thatcher was secretly on the payroll of a firm trying to get a construction deal in Oman. But at the time, we could not yet prove a link between him and the Middle East fixer concerned, whose name was Jamil Amyuni. ‘Who’s calling?’ said the Downing Street switchboard. I said ‘Tell him it’s Jamil Amyuni’. In two seconds flat, Mark came on the line, and shouted cheerily ‘Hi, Jamil!’ We had our story. Was I wrong to do that? Surely not. We were successfully exposing what many people thought was misbehaviour by the then prime minister’s son, who was shamelessly exploiting his position.”

Of course, offering the detail David Leigh supplied would have weakened the Forbes’ post. I assume that is why the author chose to leave them out.

What the News of the World was up to in hacking the voicemail systems of celebrities and the bereaved parents of British soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan was outrageous. The paper had no public interest defense in hacking the voice mails left on the phone of a missing girl, either. It was illegal and ethically indefensible. But let’s take care not to throw the baby out with the dirty bath water. Public interest journalism can entail the need for hacking and blagging.



The Big Lie of US Health Care

I like to keep an eye on the comparative health-care statistics that the OECD publishes annually on the costs and medical outcomes of industrialized nations. It makes for fascinating (and frustrating) reading, especially when you bear in mind how convinced opponents of so-called Obama-care are that the U.S. has the superior health-care system.

Well, on the majority of indicators that’s just not true. About the only indicator the U.S. leads on is expenditure.

The OECD releases the comparative figures in June. I’m late this year. According to the OECD, U.S. health-care costs have increased yet again. The country is spending now 17.4 per cent of GDP on health. The U.K. is spending 9.8 percent and Italy 7.9 percent.

No doubt that massive gap benefits Americans in terms of outcomes and life expectancy or in the number of doctors, say, per 1000 of population. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. Americans will live longer on the whole than Mexicans or Turks, who can expect to live respectively until they are 75.5 and 73.4 years old. Americans on average will make it to 78.1. But they lag behind Britons and Italians with their national health-systems. Britons outlive Americans by 14 months. And Italians can expect to live for 81.4 years.

And the density of doctors? In the U.S. there are 2.4 physicians per 1000 people. Italy, again, is better with 3.4.

Agreed, the Italian diet is healthier than most Americans enjoy, what with all that fresh simple food, excellent red wine (good for the heart) and low-fat diets. But Britons? They live as unhealthily as Americans!

The fact is, of course, Americans are not getting value for money for what they pay; despite paying a lot more than others their life expectancy, access to physicians and medical outcomes are lagging. A lot of the increased cost in the U.S. is tied up with the expenses of medical education and insurance. Tort reform would presumably help to reduce costs. The greed of the U.S. medical profession is also a clear factor.  Another factor is the sweetheart deal big Pharma gets in the U.S., where prices, unlike in Europe, are not really negotiated.

Strip out “socialized” medicine for a second. Even when it comes to private insurance comparisons the U.S. doesn’t look good. My private health-care insurance costs me $600 a month in the U.S. (And try to get reimbursed when you pay up front. I am still waiting for Aetna to pay the contracted share of some dental bills after filing a claim 5 months ago). In Italy, a good policy costs me 1700 euros a year. That’s about $2400 a year compared to $7200.

Oh, by the way, maternity costs are basically free in Italy whether you pay into the state system or not or whether you have private insurance or not. And, unsurprisingly, Italy does much better when it comes to infant mortality rates. According to the OECD, infant mortality runs at 3.7 per cent per 1000 births, while in the U.S. it is 6.7 percent.

So even when you take out arguments about morality and fairness and social solidarity, the U.S. still doesn’t compare well. The plain fact is in the U.S. there’s an inefficient allocation of resources when it comes to the health-care system. In short, there’s a market failure.