Patrick Kennedy, the chief executive of bookmaker Paddy Power, has been invited to address the upcoming Fine Gael think-in to be held in Galway.  Mr Kennedy is a very fine fellow and a first-rate businessman, but the invitation to him should be politely withdrawn.

Firstly, a new betting tax regime is to be the subject of legislation in the near future. Kennedy has been vocal (in letters to the Irish Times and elsewhere) in setting out his views of how best this should work.  Betting tax has been reduced over the years from 10 per cent in stages down to 1 per cent, mainly on the initiative of former finance minister Charles McCreevy.  The government is reviewing a possible increase, and the extension of betting tax to online betting.  This is still all up for grabs, so it seems wrong that a major industry player should be given a platform at a sensitive time.  A hostage to fortune is being given, and FG may regret the perceived “contamination” if the legislation is judged to be soft on the betting industry.

Secondly, without being unduly po-faced or prim about it, gambling is still a controversial business, and causes a lot of hardship and unhappiness in many homes around the country.  I am not in favour of a general prohibition on gambling (I enjoy a flutter myself), although I do not believe that casinos should be legalised as they attract criminals and other undesirables like bees to honey.

Thirdly,  betting and gambling do not add value to society in an economic sense in the way agriculture, manufacturing or certain service industries do.  It is a zero-sum game.  The lure of riches through gambling is as illusory as the delusion we suffered during the boom that we could become rich by selling houses to each other; both are economically worthless.

There are many other chief executives that could have been invited to speak to FG members next month, so it seems a pity that the person chosen represents an industry which, while at best providing harmless amusement, is usually never far from controversy and which should , with legislation imminent,  be treated as a bit of a hot potato at this time.

Peter Mair, who died recently, was a leading political scientist, well known in Ireland and Europe. The Irish Times last Saturday published an edited version of his recent address to the MacGill Summer School. Part of it dealt with the Irish electorate’s attitude to the State and with our dysfunctional voting system.

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.

That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours . . . We have in Ireland an electoral system that you might call amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else…..

We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, we have lost sight of that a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments.

And the result is a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre of the stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies – we are too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.

Mair said the first change that was needed is a change in our electoral system (which of course is one of my hobby horses).

From my point of view there are at least three things which should be done. These are small things and relatively easy to do but if you look across Europe, maybe important things to do.

The first is we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multiseat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to amoral localism and this aggregates our voices. Michael D Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor – it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests.

I’m not sure that I agree that changing our electoral system is a small thing and relatively easy to do: firstly, turkeys are not accustomed to voting for Christmas so the present incumbents are likely to oppose change in a system which has worked well for them; and secondly, when alternative systems are proposed we find that they are shot down as not being perfectly suited to Irish conditions – as Voltaire supposedly said, “the best is the enemy of the good”.

I have posted on this subject a number of times, for instance here and here.  Good to see that the late Peter Mair was of the same mind.

I recently met a friend whom I tend to envy, not because he is wealthy (although he is that), or successful with women (he doesn’t seem to be too concerned with such matters) but because his outlook on life seems untrammeled by any caution-giving uncertainties or by any debilitating doubts.  Every time we discuss a topical question, his views are expressed forcefully and in a manner which, even if it sometimes leaves room for further debate, makes it clear that his views will not be varied by such debate, and that for me to argue against him would just be misguided and/or silly.

But my envy is usually short-lived, and fades away in the light of even the most cursory reflection.  In fact, on such occasions I am reminded of the saying (of unknown provenance) that “I wish I was as certain about anything, as he is about everything”.

In reality, I prefer a more nuanced, analytical frame of mind, an attitude nicely expressed in a Frank Conroy essay, “Think About It”:

Indeed, in our intellectual lives, our creative lives, it is perhaps those problems that will never resolve that rightly claim the lion’s share of our energies. The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.

Even the super-controlling business hero Steve Jobs once admitted:
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Obviously, as Yeats knew, it can be dangerous to lack conviction about one’s beliefs :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So lack of conviction is to be regretted?   Arguably so, assuming one’s beliefs are of a democratic and peaceful nature.  But Yeats himself was anti-democratic and was even regarded as an admirer of fascism.  So there’s a dilemma here:  for society to progress, or even for it to be managed properly, we need people of conviction, “men of action”.  But such men or women are just as likely to be wrong-headed or evil as they are to be clever and benign.

In a multimedia age, where the soundbite is king, voters can too easily confuse certainty with smartness.  TV current affairs and news programme producers avoid panellists/interviewees who express views with caution, and choose instead those who have strongly held views of a black-and-white nature.  Hedgehogs, not foxes.

I have great admiration for public figures and commentators who are prepared to admit that they are unsure of the answer to any given question.  I think I do, at any rate.

From the Little Things That Annoy Me department.

Is it just me, or are book reviewers increasingly using their allotted space as an opportunity to show off their own erudition, style and sense of humour, and failing in their basic duty of telling us whether the reviewed work is actually worth spending our precious time reading?

Maybe it was always thus, and I notice it more now that I am in “intimations of mortality” territory, and have become acutely conscious that I don’t want to waste any remaining hours or days on badly written books.   Maybe the reviewer is a friend of the writer and so is wary of giving a stinker the bad review it deserves.  Maybe certain critics are victims of cultural relativism and instinctively avoid any suggestion that a given work is superior to another.  Whatever the reason, it’s just not good enough, you hear?!

Another bad habit of book reviewers is to go into excessive detail about what the book actually contains, and to argue at tedious length for/against the author’s view of the world.  As I get older, what matters more is how well the book is written, not what it’s about.   I would read anything by certain writers: Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Paul Theroux, Martin Amis (well, almost anything), Robert Hughes, Clive James, Simon Gray, Francis Wheen, Alan Bennett, Gore Vidal.

The non-fiction work of the last-mentioned (Vidal) proves the following point, to me at least: the content may be daft, but a good stylist can be forgiven everything.

So come on, reviewers, stop showing off and stop telling us everything the book is about. Just make sure your review tells us what we most need to know: is the book well written, is it a pleasure to read?

I’m just throwing out for your delectation a few links that caught my eye in recent weeks.  The common theme is that they challenge the views of our religious or superstitious (is that tautological?) brethren.

Kim Harris (link here) is entertaining (in a nicely grumpy way) on Astrology:

…when Frasier Crane introduced the aura-sensitive Daphne Moon to his crowd he did it with the following semi-gallantry: “This is Daphne, everybody. She’s psychic and we’ve decided to find it charming”  ……… Just as Philosophy begins where Religion ends, and Chemistry begins where Alchemy ends, so Astronomy begins where Astrology ends. Like Theology, astrology is a sovereign waste of time. It is the purest bobbins. Pants, drivel and mental vom just about sum it up. It is the Piers Morgan of pastimes.

A. Z. Myers and his Pharyngula blog has a Wikipedia entry:

Eventually, Myers summarized his stance by invoking “Blake’s Law“, which he named for the blogger who first codified it. Blake’s Law is an adage that frequent Pharyngula commentator Blake Stacey formulated in 2007, based in concept on Godwin’s Law. The law states:   In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.    As has become the tradition with Godwin’s Law, the person who compares the atheist to a religious fundamentalist is considered to have lost the argument.

Myers also featured in the special New Statesman survey where Andrew Zak Williams, having earlier asked various public figures why they believe in God (see here) turned the floor over to well-known atheists to explain why they don’t (see here).   Myers didn’t pull his punches:

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren’t, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

In the same feature, Richard Dawkins has a go at Cherie Blair, who had contributed to the earlier article:

Equally unconvincing are those who believe because it comforts them (why should truth be consoling?) or because it “feels right”. Cherie Blair may stand for the “feels right” brigade. She bases her belief on “an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true”.  She aspires to be a judge.  M’lud, I cannot provide the evidence you require. My head cannot explain why, but my heart knows it to be true.  Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?

From Ambrose Bierce‘s Devil’s Dictionary:

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. 

Finally, (at least for now), Steven Weinberg addressing the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. (April 1999):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This short paper (Smart Taxes: An Open Invitation to Join the Pigou Club) is worth reading for its discussion of Pigovian taxes, of gasoline taxes (in a USA context), and generally of “topics about which there is a large gap between the beliefs of economists and those of the general public”. It’s written by an economist whom I have mentioned previously, Gregory Mankiw.

As the financial world goes into meltdown mode, the following extract from Mankiw’s paper struck me as an encapsulation of where it all went  wrong for free-market democracies in most of the western world.

In a democracy, of course, economic policy is set not by economists but by the general public. One of my favorite books of recent years is Bryan Caplan’s treatise The Myth of the Rational Voter, subtitled Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. The answer Caplan offers is that voters are worse than ignorant about basic economic principles of good policy. Ignorance, at least, would have the virtue of being random and so perhaps would average out to zero in a large population. Instead of being merely ignorant, voters hold onto systematically mistaken beliefs. And politicians, whose main job is to get elected, mold those mistaken beliefs into bad public policy. To quote Caplan, “What happens if fully rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters–specifically, voters with irrational beliefs about the effects of various policies? It is a recipe for mendacity.”

Of course, while admitting that free-market democracies are having it tough, it must also be emphasised that alternative systems work even less well, at least in anything other than the short term – as the USSR found out, and as China undoubtedly will in the near future.  That’s why it’s distressing to find commentators wobbling in their support for free-market solutions.  See, for instance, the Telegraph’s Charles  Moore who wrote a recent article* headlined “I’m starting to think that the Left might actually be right”.  Just the bathwater, please, not the baby too.

Not surprisingly, there’s no easy solution to this crisis of economics and politics. But any long-term fix must include a much more rigorous teaching of the basic principles of economics to all citizens. We allow all those of a certain age to vote for whatever government they want, yet we fail to educate those voters properly about the economic consequences of so doing. We should not then be surprised when (as Caplan noted) rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters with ultimately calamitous policies.

*Although one is tempted to have some sympathy with Moore’s views on banks: “…. when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants,  complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.”

Gombeen Nation blog, writing last month about recent “Gaeliban” excesses, had this:

Not long ago, plans to provide Dubliners with real-time signage indicating when buses were due had to be put on ice after complaints were made to An Coimisinéir Teanga …. This particular quango was set up to enforce Eamon O’Cuiv’s Official Languages Act, which stipulated that public signage and documentation must be in Gaelic as well as the spoken language of the country, English.  Gaelic must appear first of course.  As a result, crank complaints from Irish language careerists and hobbyists must now be taken seriously, and bus-using Dubliners must stand at stops in ignorance of when their transport will arrive.  The system, planned 10 years ago, would have used existing GPS data to inform those long-suffering customers of just how late their buses were running.

The Evening Herald reported on this here, under the headline “Gaeilgeoir protests delay new bus signs”.

It would take somebody like Jonathan Swift to deal properly with this madness.   The blog author is surely right in calling for ” a complete repeal of the wasteful Official Languages Act, at a time when we can scarcely afford such an extravagance of Official Ireland nonsense”.  I discussed this in December 2009 here.

While we are on the subject, I saw A.A.Gill in the Sunday Times of 31st July, writing about Pobol y Cwm, a Welsh-language soap opera:

I watched with incomprehension, which is how 99.9% of the world would see it. The point of Welsh-language telly is not that it brings entertainment to a minority who wouldn’t otherwise get any, but that it excludes a monoglot majority.

Sounds like TG4?