Friday, August 28, 2009

Less For More The Rail Way

Last year's changes to the train ticket system were supposed to signal a radical shake-up of the sorry mess that had gone before. How are they doing? January's news about split tickets (a Lib Dem rail story I unaccountably missed) didn't exactly bode well, but my journey today pretty much sums up just how far we've come;

Cardiff Central - Gloucester Off-Peak Return - £18.30
Cardiff Central - Gloucester Anytime Return - £15.50

The prosecution rests, m'lud...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

When You Go, Will You Send Back...

So the NHS has had quite a week, between Graham Linehan's defence of it and Peripheral Vision's attempt to get rid of it (or is it Liberal Vision's attempt? I've read through both websites and I still can't see any reason for the distinction beyond Mark Littlewood trying to become Darth Vision by establishing a Stelios-like grip on the word...) For those of us who have been watching the progress of US healthcare reform for a while, it's nice to have you all on board at last.

It's been particularly strange watching those developments from Wales, the one place where socialism in the NHS still lives and breathes, where Aneurin Bevan is not so much respected as worshipped. Indeed, the Welsh perspective makes the argument that we shouldn't run headlong into unconditional defence of the NHS even easier to understand. But equally, we should reflect on what #welovetheNHS is doing and why.

The Republican Party is dying. Conservatism in America is alive and well, but is now led by the cast of the multimedia conservative freak show; Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Beck, Coulter. Meanwhile, the Congressional Republican leadership is an irrelevance and the only Republican outside Congress offering any leadership is the one Republican outside Congress incapable of delivering any (or, indeed, any form of independent thought.) In the face of such organisational decay, the Republicans are being dragged to the extremist fringe in a way we probably haven't seen since Labour's pits of despair between 1979 and 1983.

Healthcare, however, is an issue they can unite behind and one where they can unleash their favourite weapon; fear. They've got plenty of practice using it too; Republicans have been having Democrats kill your grandmother since 1993, when Harry and Louise famously destroyed Bill and Hillary's reform package, albeit at the cost of one of the great comic moments in political history;

Today's Republicans, on the other hand, aren't nearly clever enough to deliver another Harry and Louise. All they have is rage, not at the relative merits of particular policies, but at the very idea of actually doing anything at all. The Obama plan isn't not as good as what they've come up with, because they haven't come up with anything at all. Instead, the Obama plan has to be tantamount to treason, fundamentally anti-American and the first step on the road to the United Soviet Socialist Republic of America. And so, while the Obama plan has almost nothing to do with the NHS, because the NHS is supposedly the anti-thesis of the American (read: anarcho-capitalist) way it becomes the exemplar, the font of all horror stories, the inexorable consequence of the thin end of the Obama wedge.

If the debate remains locked in that cycle of paranoia, reform is doomed to fail. What America needs is a debate about the reality of its healthcare system. I wish I could remember exactly who it was who described American healthcare as a Rolls-Royce system; able to do anything so long as you can afford it. For all the miracle pharmaceuticals developed and all the multiple-transplant surgeries it develops, American healthcare continues to deliver measurably worse outcomes on almost all chronic conditions at almost all income levels; the headline figure of the uninsured is scary enough, but the relationship between income and healthcare outcome at all levels is positively terrifying. What's more, you don't need me to tell you that it does so at the highest cost (both relative and absolute) on the planet.

But even more importantly, while the debate is about the morality of a supposedly un-American system it won't manage to be about a fundamentally un-Christian one. To me this is the most confusing element of the lot; Republicans have absolutely no proposals for healthcare reform, save virtually indemnifying doctors from malpractice suits to reduce insurance premiums (although at the expense of accountability for medical competence.) And yet the Christian base of the Republican party continues to support a party platform that condemns millions of Americans to death and suffering. If that base can be made to think of that for a moment, it might notice that actually, the Republican position is according to their morality positively evil and will lead to them rotting in hell.

So by all means let's have a real debate about the future direction of the NHS and let's be honest about what it can and must do better. Equally, however, let's remember that the way the NHS is being portrayed by Republicans right now is positively fraudulent and that if we allow such criminal distortion of the truth to continue, we will all be just as culpable for the millions of Americans living in real fear, not of socialised medicine, but of no medicine at all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

R&A and IRB vs. IOC

Honestly, people are going to have to stop doing things I want them to do, that's twice in one lifetime now... Then again, with the IOC Executive Board's decision to recommend that golf and rugby sevens join the Olympic programme in 2016 still needing to be ratified by the IOC congress in October in one of the most political arenas in world sports, it's worth taking this opportunity to restate the case for their inclusion.

With sevens the headline case is simple; nothing will make the main stadium, the great elephant on the back of all Olympic legacies, come alive once the athletics is over than a sevens tournament. The Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games tournaments have been fiestas for the game and an Olympic tournament should be even more so; the increase in foreign visitors to the Games will I'm sure have been a major factor in the recommendation.

The effect on rugby in general will also be enormous. Sevens is already pushing the frontiers of the game outwards, with Argentina and Kenya having real medal chances for 2016 and places like Portugal showing genuine promise. The lure of Olympic places might also stem the damaging flow of talent from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to New Zealand, bringing those nations back to the fore at both seven and fifteen-a-side.

The real prize from Olympic sevens, however, is the USA. With American Football leaving increasing numbers of college players on the scrapheap, Olympic funding for sevens should give that talented athlete base an alternative avenue for their skills. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to see the odd NFL player try for a place at the big show (the timing of the Games fits reasonably well, there's no lack of patriotism in the league and plenty of open-field running skills that should transfer nicely to sevens.)

Golf is a more difficult case and one where I fear the governing bodies may already have shot themselves in the foot somewhat. The fundamental criticism that an Olympic tournament won't be as important as the majors isn't unreasonable, at least on the men's side; as was the case with baseball and softball I suspect the women's title will be somewhat more relatively prestigious.

As much as anything, however, it's a problem of lack of imagination in the format. With golf and tennis, the Olympic tournament is only bigger than the four majors because of the gold medal at the end of it, but that doesn't matter so much so long as the tournament leading into it is of the same physical and competitive rigour. Unfortunately, the tournament the R&A and USGA are proposing isn't; three of this year's four majors had 156 competitors (the Masters had 96) but the Olympic tournament would have just 60. I suspect part of that will be down to concerns over the quality of the field; in individual sports countries are usually restricted to four entrants, something that will seriously affect the field in golf (where the USA has 19 of the world's top 60 and 64 of the top 156). I'd tell golf to instead embrace that limitation and allow the golfers of the world to compete against players they'd usually have no chance of sharing a course with; realistically, you're going to have a cut after two days and no-one will mind so long as the field after the cut is good enough. (The same is true of tennis, but I'll save that argument for the IOC congress...)

The headline case for golf is even more about the legacy aspect. Olympic host cities are by definition international cities, living on a diet of high finance and international commerce. Would any such city not benefit from a world-class facility for the business community's pastime par excellence? It may not be as cuddly as the regeneration-led legacy London are trying to push, but at least you can count on it.

As I say I'm sure I'll return to this topic as the IOC Congress approaches, but this a battle for sports lovers to start fighting now and right up until those delegates push the right buttons in Copenhagen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Notes From The Witchsmeller Pursuivant

James Graham's excellent contribution on libertarianism reminds me that I've said some fairly nasty things about libertarianism in the past (I believe I went for "it commits gross historical and sociological negligence" the last time) but haven't taken the opportunity to extend and revise those remarks.

It's worth reflecting, however, that I come at this as something of an amateur political philosopher. I'm sitting here with two degrees in physical sciences and with prior accusations of technocracy (charges that do tend to stick somewhat) and so with less of an interest in the minutiae of Mill, Hobbes, Locke et al. Nevertheless, I can see where libertarianism is coming from. The rights it proclaims and the moral philosophy it declares are hard to argue against.

The problem, however, is that the philosophy is exactly that; moral, not political. For all the talk of consistency in the libertarian position, where does maintenance of that position lead? Didn't the last country that tried to do things that way end with mobs carrying flaming torches and pitchforks leading noblemen to guillotines? Doesn't maintaining order in such a country require either a military police force that Stalin would have admired or a social hierarchy The Party would be familiar with? (This is where the historical and sociological negligence comes in, in case you were wondering...)

It's at this point that the religiosity of libertarian belief James points out betrays it. By obsessing over the righteousness of the morals they have identified, libertarians pointedly ignore the lessons of two hundred years of democracy in its various implementations; that people will guard their rights and ignore their responsibilities, that the exercise of those rights can constitute an assault on others even where none is intended and that there is a role for government in establishing not just fairness, but justice.

Not that libertarian philosophies are irrelevant by any means. They must inform our decisions, reminding us that government should be about enablement rather than coercion. Nevertheless we must be clear that libertarianism is not some pure, untainted version of liberalism that we should return to; rather, it represents an old ideal that liberalism has grown out of through sometimes bitter experience.

If such an arrangement will not suffice, however, I'd refer you to my original point; in a constitutional system that is broken, the Liberal Democrats must be a strong enough coalition to deliver the genuine reform we need and not the sticking plasters ordered by the decrepit hulks on the red and blue sides. For that, we must unite against the common enemy (no, not the Judean People's Front...)