Tuesday 26 February 2008

Mouth/Trousers Distribution Error

Recent news that Britain leads the world in the number of "skilled workers" choosing to emigrate has caused some concern, not to least to Matt Sinclair:
"Ever higher levels of tax; little to show by way of public service results for that huge drain on private incomes; an overly meddlesome state that leaves people bereft of control over their own lives. Yesterday's emigration numbers should be a wake-up call for a nation whose government is attempting to do too much and doing a very poor job of it. "
You might think that's reading a lot into emigration statistics. And you might think Matt doesn't rate the UK, or its government. But you'd be wrong. As Matt himself says, it's not what you say, but what you do that matters:
"Surveys, opinion polls, personal anecdote and other ways in which people express their opinion can often be misleading or distorted … It is often better to look at revealed preferences; how people actually behave when faced with actual decisions in real life…"
Given which, the following point cannot be over-stressed: Matt Sinclair lives and works in the UK.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Choices, choices

Mr Eugenides is on good form here, attacking proposals to stop supermarkets from marketing booze "like candy" and thus forcing people "to make a conscious decision to buy". Mr E's got a point - it's ridiculous, on the face of it, to suggest that people are so collectively stupid that they buy booze they don't "really mean" to buy, and can be tricked into becoming alcoholics.

But of course, supermarkets do things the way they do for a reason. So we can't say that fiendish marketing techniques like putting booze near the entrance, or 3 for 2 offers, or great big displays "make people choose to buy" What we can say, however, is that these techniques do "make booze sales go up". It was very recently my job to help beer companies sell more beer and they had two basic retail techniques:

1) Sell it cheaper.
2) Get it in people's faces as they walk round the shop.

It's no surprise that 1) works. The only problem is that this race to the bottom had hit the stage where even major brands were struggling to be profitable (20 cans for £16 was bad enough - when it moved to 30 for £22 margins were membrane thin). So that left 2) - hitting more eyeballs. This devolved into first fighting for space in the beer aisle (both against rival beers and against wines and spirits) and secondly going for "dual-siting" - e.g. out of the beer aisle and next to food, next to the entrance, by the till - basically anywhere else, just so long as shoppers would stumble over it.

This works. And it doesn't just work for booze. Replace the extra stacks of Carling with Andrex, and I guarantee you'll sell more toilet paper. Why? Do people start making the rational, independent decision that they're going to wipe more? Are we unearthing a deep-seated need for cleaner bottoms that people somehow forgot about until a teetering stack of tissue paper rose up in their peripheral vision? Let's hope not.

What's happening, of course, is that the supermarkets aren't neutrally presenting a set of items which might buy and we might not. They're framing the experience so that buying beer seems like the obvious thing to do.
... the term framing refers to an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual's perception...
The more often you make people think about putting beer in their trolley, the more often they'll do it. Supermarkets aren't going to be shy about encouraging people to buy their wares. (And if they do the same thing with fruit and veg, we don't object at all.)

The point isn't that Mr Eugenides is wrong to oppose these proposals to tell supermarkets how they can sell beer. But the fiercely individualistic psychology he proposes, whereby people can't be swayed, influenced or cajoled into making decisions they otherwise wouldn't isn't necessarily the best way to argue the point.

Friday 22 February 2008

Tedious political pointscoring

Here's a knotty question: is it better for government to be rapidly decisive, or to review its policies in depth before committing to action? It's a difficult one to get right, as witness the following two criticisms of the government. First, the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition gives us a stirring call to action:

Mr. Cameron: When will the Prime Minister understand that it is not reviews but decisions that people want?

Secondly, no less a person than the Shadow Chancellor demonstrates his own preferred means of policy formulation:

Former chancellor Lord Howe is to lead a review of taxation policy for the Conservative Party.

To be honest though, this isn't really this week's news, because the review was launched in 2006:

"Second, I am very attracted to the proposals in the Report to change for good the way tax law is made in this country. I have sat on Finance Committees and watched in dismay as this Treasury produces hasty and ill-thought-out changes to our tax code that then pass into law with little consultation and no scrutiny. That has to change. I am minded to accept the recommendations in this area. The distinguished former Chancellor, and chair of the Tax Law Rewrite Project, Geoffrey Howe has agreed to head a small group that will produce a detailed implementation plan - and I am most grateful to him for that."

George Osborne, Tax Reform Commission Report Launch, 19 October 2006

So, do the people want reviews or not? Difficult to say, clearly, but let's hope so:

"Soon after becoming Tory leader in December 2005, David Cameron announced that he would be setting up policy review groups covering six areas to help the party produce its next manifesto. None of the groups' recommendations are binding on the leadership. This week's [13 Sept 2007] environment group is the final one to report back."

Apparently, some Labour supporters have been heard to mutter that there'd be nothing wrong with a short term in Opposition. They're wrong, but faced so often with the temptation of being able to say any bloody thing without fear of consequence, can you really blame them?

Thursday 14 February 2008

Common ground

Because the Guardian is at the cutting edge of British intellectual life, it offers us a debate between Richard Dawkins and Madeleine Bunting.

It starts badly, because whoever is in charge of this penetrating series of no-holds-barred intellectual smackdowns forgot to specify an actual topic of debate. "Religion and Science and stuff" seems to be as far as they got. But it's worth listening to a) because in intellectual combat terms it's a bit like watching a grizzly bear eviscerate a three-legged puppy and b) because of this money quote from Bunting, in regards to Dawkins unrestrained ridicule of religion:
"this enormous global responsibility we all have to communicate with each other and try to find common solutions"
Communicating with each other - fine. That this is something we should all do - fine. But the common solutions part has its limitations. There are sometimes more important goals than finding common solutions, and there are issues where, with the best will in the world, there simply isn't room for compromise. Rowan Williams' apparent willingness to gloss over this point got him into trouble last week: he didn't actually call for the stoning of adulteresses, as some tabloids' reactions might have suggested, but he didn't seem to draw any bright lines either.

I chose the name of this blog because I wanted to hint at the idea that most of what appears here is probably mistaken in some way, that a rigid certainty about all opinions can be dangerous, and a willingness to revisit your ideas is a good thing. (If I didn't succeed in communicating all that first time round, I can only apologise, and then refer your attention once more to the title.) But there are areas where you have to stick your neck out, some of them apparently controversial. Because compromising on these leaves you adrift in the fog - no bearings, no destination, just vague good intentions. To paraphrase a view on compromise from a Tom Holt novel: Halfway between right and wrong is still wrong.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Clerical error

I've struggled to write anything on the whole "Sharia law inevitable" brouhaha, mainly because I find the whole thing so damn depressing. I'm honestly not sure which was worse:

1) An intelligent and highly educated man failing to understand the importance of the concepts "equality before the law" and "inalienable rights".

2) The hideous knee-jerk airing of some fairly ignorant and offensive stereotypes that immediately followed it, including: "What have the Muslims done for us?", "If they don't like it they can go back where they came from" and "You'd think more people would actually join the BNP and stand up for their country".

Rarely have I felt so damn proud to be British.

So in part I feel sorry for Williams, whose opinion of the standard of public debate in this country is clearly an order of magnitude or two higher than is merited. But then I re-read his speech. I have two basic problems with it: he doesn't recognise the difference between acknowledging problems and dealing with them; secondly, (and understandably given his position) he's altogether too optimistic about the role religion could play in a secular legal system.

So in the first instance, he acknowledges relatively minor issues, such as 'vexatious' claims (e.g. refusing to sell Bibles, despite working in a bookshop) and more major ones, such as the risk of entrenching oppression by limiting victims' access to legal remedy. But there's no attempt to deal with these problems. Of the first, he says "The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance." Fine - but how? Let's say that a member of the Wee Frees, working in the waste disposal industry, refuses to service Catholic homes, is fired and brings the matter to a tribunal. Is this "real, legally and religiously serious"? Let's assume the offender is clearly sincere in his belief. But is it a legitimate belief? His Minister says so - so is that OK? It'll be a brave cleric who publicly admits that a clearly devout member of his flock is somehow ignorant of his religion. Or if we don't accept believers' word on what constitutes a "proper" religious objection, shall we ask non-believers? I can't imagine that would be an acceptable substitute: "We checked your story with a rabbi, an atheist and an imam - and they all think you're talking nonsense."

In the second instance, let's say a divorce goes through a sharia court in which the woman gets a massively inequitable settlement. So she brings the matter to the "universal" courts. In defence, the husband produces a signed agreement that sharia law will apply to any divorce. "Ah" says the wife, "I was coerced into signing that by my father, brothers and husband-to-be." What then? Obviously agreements signed under duress are no agreements at all - but what's the standard of proof for duress? If you simply have to claim it to overturn a sharia ruling, then the whole exercise is pointless. If you have to prove the content of conversations that took place years ago, you're basically doomed. And more importantly of course, what of the women who never complain, because they are still under duress? From one perspective, they're no worse off under the new system than they are now (that is, very badly off indeed) but now there's a patina of respectability covering their situation - the law connives at the pretence that this what they want. Otherwise, of course, they'd have brought the matter the courts, and we'd have dealt with it - like a shot, by golly.

Finally, there's the Archbishop's insistence that there is a greater role for theology in law, and that the Enlightenment values which gave us the rule of law, human rights, etc. are all an elaborate trap which will deny our very humanity and bring us to a new Cultural Revolution. This is where I get depressed again. Those Enlightenment values were in direct opposition to theology in law (e.g. Divine Right) and far from denying humanity give us all the basic freedom (or "space" to use the Archbishop's jargon) to exercise that humanity. Freedom that will be lacking once God starts telling us what to do.

Sunday 3 February 2008

When soundbites bite back

Inspired, apparently, by the Dutch (a tendency which could lead to some really interesting policy announcements) the Tories want to give every mother a free maternity nurse. When I say give, I mean of course, pay for out of general taxation. As some sharp thinker realised, this might seem to contradict a key piece of Conservative rhetoric:
"The leadership accepts that the policy marks a big step, but insists that it is not adopting the 'nanny state'."
Heaven forfend.

Incidentally, the duties of these putative Poppinses (for all mothers, whether they need it or not) include:
  • Showing new mothers how to breastfeed and bathe their baby;
  • Looking after older children and making sure healthy meals are provided;
  • Taking care of laundry and light household cleaning;
  • Monitoring visitors to the mother's home to ensure that rest times are not interrupted;
  • Keeping a diary with details of the mother and baby's progress for use by doctors and midwives.
The astonished italics are mine - is the government really going to pay for people to have a personal servant/bodyguard? A tax-paid maid? And what if you are already well-off enough to hire a nanny of your own? Might she become tax-deductable? How splendid.

Still, it's good to know the electoral strategy of bribing the middle-classes is still well-favoured. If you're reading Dave, I'll take the £20/week marriage bribe and the free nanny - find some way of paying for my holiday in Tuscany and you've got yourself a vote.