Monday, 17 August 2009

I disagree with you, you Nazi.

“God” speed to m’colleague who has traversed the oceans to prepare his next message to you fine people. He is in the Land of the Free in order to carefully prepare his second, much-anticipated musing on the nature of moral relativism. As well he might, because something is afoot over there. Yes, thanks to the inauguration of a (relatively) liberal Democrat president, it’s crazy right-wing morning again in America.

I refer mainly to the current desire on the part of some in the media to liken Mr Obama and his healthcare policies to that of the vilest dictator who ever lived. Classy.

Civility in political discourse makes me happy. I like it when people disagree, but are pleasant, engaging, friendly and informative while doing so. God knows, m’colleague and I don’t agree on everything (the things I could tell you about his voting record) and yet by our arguing, debating and discussing I know I am far better informed, and far more sure of my own arguments than I would otherwise be.

It is perfectly proper, and indeed comforting, that the right wing, including the Republican Party, opposes what President Obama is trying to achieve with his healthcare reform. It is expected also that the GOPs allies in the media including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh should support them and oppose Obama. It is not expected, or acceptable, for them to liken the President’s desire to stop millions of Americans being uninsured as fascist or Nazi-like.

Do I really need to point out that German Nazis murdered 3 million people in extermination camps and that Mr Obama is seeking to save people’s lives? Do I really?

By virtue of the name-calling and virtual hair-pulling it seems to me that the Right have certainly conceded the high ground and the argument too. Godwin’s Law is not always applicable (sometimes a Nazi analogy is apt) but it is in this case. If you invoke Hitler, you better have a bloody good reason.

All of this characteristic blather is to say that we should be nice to each other in our political discourse. It is likely that no political discussion in the US will be as important or fundamental over the next four years as this, and it is the duty of those with a mouthpiece to enlighten, to educate and to inform.

Civility, in other words, is almost a duty of the media.

It is time to name names. Joe Scarborough is an MSNBC morning anchor and a conservative opposed to the President’s agenda. His discussions, though, are lively, interesting and useful to the American public. He brings people in who agree with him and who disagree and he has spoken out (on Twitter in particular) again these vicious attacks, while pointing out the substantive reasons for his opposition. I bet my TV buddy, Tucker Carlson, would do the same if he were still anchoring. And the wonderful liberal Rachael Maddow uses her platform to bring to light the President’s aims and to broadly support them, while pointing out the deficiencies in the Right’s position. (Caveat: Maddow is utterly and completely wrong on Afghanistan -- a subject for another time)

Sometimes, anger and hatred can be entertaining, and occasionally useful for example the Galloway vs Hitchens debate on Iraq. But more often than not it creates more heat than light and is actually off-putting for those of us with a desire to learn, debate and discuss. Let’s have more of that please, folks.

By the way, we are not opposed to a bit of blog-based hatred, so if you want to shout abuse at us in the comments (I’m looking at you, “Dave Fishwick”) please feel free!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Voting for a Qualified Majority

In 1983 it was election time in the United Kingdom. After two rough years for Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister elected in 1979, she had found popularity as the self-styled defender of the Falkland Islands.

Francis Pym, the Foreign Secretary at the time (a role that was significantly involved in the Falkland's conflict) appeared on the UK panel current-affairs television show Question Time. Talking about the approaching election, he famously stated "Landslides don't on the whole produce successful governments".

Mrs Thatcher was not pleased, although she had little to fear. The Conservatives won a thumping majority and Mr Pym was removed from post two days later. Nonetheless this unease with power is a common theme amongst politicians. More than two decades later, when the hapless Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office, he was widely praised by his own back-benchers for proposing measures that transferred power away from the executive and towards the legislature. We have been trained to think of a concentration of power for too long, or in too unbalanced a proportion to be an undesirable occurrence.

So it will come as a surprise to many that the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) has been in power in Japan almost non-stop since its founding in 1955. It was not until 2007 that the party lost control of the upper house - for the first time ever.

What does this say for Japanese politics? What ability is there for such a model of representation to reflect citizens' changing expectations of the state. The answer is not clear cut - Japan is far from a dictatorship. It is a (quite) vibrant, democratic country. Yet the voters have continually voted for the LDP, despite rising dissatisfaction. Most notably in 2005, in the face of widespread frustration at the glacial pace of reform (brought to ahead by the attempted privatisation of Japan Post), Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) snatched a victory after a dramatic dissolution of parliament, after Mr Koizumi successfully painted the opposition as reckless over their plans to pull out from Iraq and not ready for government.

This time again the obituary of the LDP is being written. The Democratic Party of Japan (民主党) has a real chance, with polls showing a 20% gap now between the parties. The election is still weeks away, and all could change, but your writer hopes that this is the time for Japan to finally show its true democratic credentials. Be it huge majorities or single-party rule, power vested in one party without suitable balance is bad for democracy, and it is notable that Japan has failed to enact some market liberalisation that would have served it well as its less efficient manufacturing companies placed a drain on its economy. Worse, long, large-majority government has left Japanese politics too controlled by special interests. Structural problems (notably the ageing population and lack of support for women to enter to workforce) need support from a government, and the LDP seems out of ideas, or too torporific to enact them.

So WATM wishes the DPJ well, and will be following the election closely (not that any election doesn't get closely watched by the WATM team). We're watching you, Swedish Social Democratic Party.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

On the wings of a pair

The maiden flight of Boeing’s new 787 aircraft has been delayed – again. It was meant to enter service in May 2008, but will not even get airborne for the first time at all this year, and now is unlikely to enter service before the end of 2010 – more than two years late.

If, dear WATMers, you think that this post is going to be a screed about Airbus’ superiority over Boeing, you’d be wrong. Airbus’ mega-jumbo A380 suffered similar delays, and the company’s delivery schedule has been paired down so that only 18 of the aircraft will be delivered to airlines in 2009 – a paltry number really.

This is very frustrating for airlines. Clearly aircraft acquisition is one of the major costs for an airline, and decisions are taken carefully and seriously. To make such decisions and then see the planning proved useless by delays in delivery causes huge inefficiencies in the air travel industry. It is also virtually impossible to switch suppliers as a result of such delays when airlines have committed to a fleet strategy and have committed serious cash to getting the job done.

Neither the airline business, nor the consumer, is well served by the effective Boing/Airbus duopoly. You want a medium-to-long-haul medium capacity airliner? Well you’ll be going for the B767 (or its newer replacement) or the A330 (or its newer replacement). While it is true there is fierce competition between the two manufacturers, there is almost no other company competing for that market, or for the large-capacity airliner market anywhere in the world. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t think Ilyushin or Tupolev will get many orders from the West any time soon.

Other American manufacturers like McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed used to be in the large civil airliner business too before they were bought up by Boeing, or gave up the passenger transport game respectively.

There are some pesky little irritants like Brazil’s Embraer who are just about competing with the A320 and B737 series at the larger end of their E-Jet series, and have had some success attracting airlines like LOT Polish, but they are very much at the periphery.

And there is a lot of competition between companies at the regional-jet end of the market where the big two choose not to operate.

Innovation, efficiency and customer service (for the client airlines) would all undoubtedly improve with a third or fourth competitor. In particular, efforts to make air travel less environmentally damaging could and should be massively improved. It is a shame that a new large aircraft manufacturer looks unlikely to emerge given the astoundingly difficult market entrant requirements.

However, a political prescription, and a practical policy which should emanate from this discussion, is that, given the relatively healthy market environment that these two firms operate in, there really is very little justification for the continued state support they both receive in terms of massive government contracts (although from whom else military transports could be bought is another question left unresolved) and direct grants as Airbus has had.

Boeing and Airbus are both interesting and innovative companies kept on their toes by the presence of the other. They would both be better still if their competition was broader, though.