Wednesday 26 August 2009

Don't matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin' the same.

Chris Grayling has taken a certain amount of flack for comparing "broken" Britain to Official Best Ever TV Show "The Wire". This is a mistake. I don't mean that it wasn't a mind-numbingly stupid comparison to make - clearly it was. Whether you focus on the massive disparity between crime rates in Baltimore and Manchester, or the deep unwisdom of using as political ammunition a show which dwells heavily and negatively on opportunistic politicians who'll say anything to get elected, it was a bloody silly thing to say.

But focusing on this superficial stupidity runs the risk of ignoring the much greater, and more dangerous, fundamental stupidity that lurks deep within Grayling's full speech. I say stupidity: I'm tempted to add "and lies". But it's possibly just a cock-up.

Ostensibly, this speech was prompted by an eye-opening evening spent with a special police unit in Manchester. After Grayling's breathless anecdote about what life's really like on the mean streets, he starts tying his own in-depth experience to the grim reality, as revealed by statistics:
Since Labour came to power, the level of violent crime in Britain has risen dramatically, by 70 per cent.

This is, as far I can tell, complete bollocks. Crime figures, happily, are released in July - here is the trend in violent crime:

Those of you not trained in statistics may not see it immediately, but the important point to note is that while Grayling said the figures were going up, they are in fact doing something statisticians refer to as "going down". They have been doing so since just before Labour came into power. They are now at their lowest level since 1981. Grayling could hardly have been more wrong. But hey, "duking the stats" must be one of those trends that comes over the Atlantic too.

In case you're wondering, that's not the really stupid bit. Because, armed with his anecdotes and his tendentious statistics, Grayling goes on to make the following observations:

"We have delved deep into the small print of the official figures on crime and social deprivation - and the picture that emerges is stark...Nationally every single one of the areas that rank at the top of the list for deprivation is in the top ten percent for crime...Because it is the social breakdown in our most deprived communities that creates the environment in which crime can flourish, in which disillusioned young people turn to a gang culture, in which violence just becomes a norm. "

Let the word go forth from this time and place: in August 2009, the Conservatives finally realised there was a link between deprivation and crime. I know, I know. I didn't think it would ever happen either. But surprised as Grayling clearly is by this unprecedented finding, and as tragic as it must seem to him that no-one had ever before thought to "delve into the small print of the official figures" to wrest this nugget of wisdom from the murk, he isn't letting it put him off his game. Here he stands, appalled by the uncanny similarities between modern Britain and a headline-bait TV program, gripped by an insight that revolutionises our understanding of criminology, fired up with the need to change this cycle of neglect - what revolutionary answers does he offer us?
  1. Bribing couples to get married;
  2. Locking up more teenagers and/or teaching them to kayak;
  3. Getting people off benefits into jobs that don't exist, using American policies shown not to work.

Just so we're all clear, this is the actual policy of the people who will be in power this time next year. So while the idiotic comparison to The Wire is worth a little pointing and laughing, the real message of this speech is a lot less amusing. This is the same approach the Tories had last time they were in power - if you're wondering how it worked out, the graph above should offer a hint.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Plus ca change

Seeing as the world and his wife covered the Stephen Hawking blooper, I'm shooting for something that falls on the other side of the good/original dichotomy. Specifically, contrived historical parallels.

Here we have a modern account of life among the private security contractors of the Green Zone:

Along with having young men armed to the teeth, most of their outfits have bars ... A couple of years ago at one of the compounds inside the British embassy, around 50 young guys got into a fist fight. They were young and obnoxious, many were on steroids and there they were with guns and beer, which should never mix ... Another time, I was in one of the compounds celebrating a birthday for one of the lads and it was obvious all night that something was going to kick off. There were the tight T-shirts, the Americans, the Brits and the attitude. Sure enough, a brawl erupted.

And here we have Dumas' description of the Musketeers and their ethos*:

Loose, half-drunk, imposing, the king’s Musketeers, or rather M. de TrĂ©ville’s, spread themselves about in the cabarets, in the public walks, and the public sports, shouting, twisting their mustaches, clanking their swords, and taking great pleasure in annoying the Guards of the cardinal whenever they could fall in with them; then drawing in the open streets, as if it were the best of all possible sports; sometimes killed, but sure in that case to be both wept and avenged; often killing others, but then certain of not rotting in prison...

Assuming for the moment that this parallel has any merit, should we conclude that:

a) we're all a lot more susceptible to the influence of our surrounding than we like to think and that given the right circumstances any of us could degenerate into a hard-drinking street-brawler, or
b) there's always going to be a group of nasty bastards who are attracted to situations that offer them weapons, booze, an arbitrary tribe, regular opportunities for mayhem and a distinct lack of oversight, and that dealing with these apes is just one of those perennial problems any society worth the name has to cope with?

And if it is b) is there some way we can continue the plan of corraling them into a secure compound equipped with numerous and well-stocked bars and arsensals and just letting them have at it - but without involving the locals?

*Ethos was of course the "Fifth Musketeer", but his career never recovered from being cut out of the final draft.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

We'd probably have killed Douglas Bader too

As the US lurches towards some form of national health-care provision, there are many among its more intelligent and perceptive citizens who worry about the possible ramifications of having the government involved in medical decisions. Sarah Palin, for example, has already spoken out against the "death panel" model of universal healthcare, which had hitherto enjoyed widespread support.

But perhaps the clearest argument against government involvement comes from this piece in the Investors Business Daily which looks to some rather worrying implications of the UK model:

The U.K.'s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) basically figures out who deserves treatment by using a cost-utility analysis based on the "quality adjusted life year." ...
People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Although, to be fair, it's not like his accent gives him away.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

People - what use could they possibly be?

The new proposals on citizenship have kicked off the usual well-informed and dispassionate debate about immigration and integration. Perhaps the bizarrest response was Frank Field's, in which he seemed to assert that the UK has all the people it's going to need for the next 25 years, so we can stop letting any more in now:

It is the growth in population that is the major challenge.
The UK population will, on the government's own estimates, grow to more than 70 million in less than a quarter of a century. Seventy per cent of this growth will be due to migration. This increase of 7 million is equivalent to the building of seven new Birminghams

Now, I admit, at first glance that sounds pretty bad. Seven new Birminghams? Isn't that over-egging the pudding just a little? But consider this - these new Birminghams will be populated by people who are not Brummies. Given our apparent concern over citizens who don't speak English properly, these new-fangled Birminghams already represent clear progress.

Impenetrable accent aside, just what does Frank hold against Birmingham? What's so horrifying about the prospect of more of them? It's a large, thriving city, the third best place in the UK to start a business, the fourth-most visited city by foreign visitors and, apparently, the 55th best city to live in in the world. (He said, carefully maintaining his poker face.)

Throughout his article, Frank proceeds from the assumption that, somehow or other, if we let in too many people, Britain will be imperilled and/or impoverished. Or something. He doesn't present any justification for thinking this, nor does he spell out exactly what these negative consequences are. He just takes it as read that the last thing Britain can afford is any kind of population growth - particularly if it's driven by immigration. Now, for all I know, this may be true. But it may equally be unfounded, knee-jerk parochialism. Without more of an argument, it's difficult to tell.

One of his underlying arguments might be (and I'm guessing here) that too rapid population growth will stretch our resources, and effectively impoverish us all. After all, if population growth outstrips the performance of the economy, we can only end up worse off. Happily, Frank has given us some figures to help us work out how likely this is. The UK population is currently 61 million. In "less than quarter of a century" it will be "over 70 million." Assuming that "less than quarter of a century" means "24 years" and that "over 70 million" means "71 million", this handy Compound Annual Growth Calculator tells us that under this nightmare scenario, the UK population is going to grow by - brace yourselves - 0.63% a year.

I know, I know! An unnerving prospect that ought to strike panic into the heart of every man, woman and child across this fair land. But stiffen that upper-lip for a second like the true-bred Brit you are, or aspire to be, and consider what this implies for Frank Field's argument. He genuinely believes that over the next 25 years, Britain's GDP will be virtually stagnant; that this apparent economic underperformance will in no way affect the number of people who wish to come to live in this country; that GDP will grow faster with a static population than a rising one; that new citizens can only be a net drain on GDP. Either that, or he's not really thought about what he's saying.