Thursday 10 June 2010

Questions to which the answer is quite clearly "No"

Following in others' footsteps here, but this (from, where else, the Mail) is too good an example of the genre to pass up:

Dear Mrs Clegg, Is your Spanish employer's plan to despoil what is left of our countryside with horrid wind turbines revenge for the defeat of the Armada?

Although before we scoff too hard maybe we should remember that "Revenge is a dish best served cold" is originally a Spanish proverb. Damme those dogs of Spain!

Friday 21 May 2010

Epimenides the Cretan rides again

Men lie more than women. We know, because we asked women how often they lie and they said they hardly ever did. By contrast, men admitted fully to all their many lies.

Methodologically speaking, sometimes you just can't win.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Now is not a good time

I know intellectually that I won't have every election over the course of my lifetime go the way I want it. Frankly, that would be as unhealthy for the country as it would be freakishly unlikely. So I accept that from time to time, party/ies I don't want in power will be in power.

It's just that I very much see this as something that happens at an unspecified point in the future. They can win some other election that hasn't happened yet. I'll settle for winning those that take place in the present. That's only fair, right?

Tuesday 11 May 2010

God is on the side of the big battalions

Hilarious as it's been to watch the Tory and media reaction to the Lib Dem's sudden revelation that they know the value of the cards they're holding - and it really, really has been - the sad truth is that, like its namesake, a rainbow coalition is more illusion than reality.

It's not enough to scrape across the threshold of parliamentary majority - to actually govern in any meaningful sense you need a majority that can withstand the occasional shock. Such as heart attacks, sex scandals, sex scandals involving heart attacks, expenses fiddling or (entirely principled and in no way motivated by bribes of high office) defections. It's also a bonus if every disgruntled MP in your party (not to mention each of your "progressive" partners) doesn't know for a stone cold fact that there's a blank cheque with their name on it to be cashed at their leisure.

Tory + Lib Dem = working majority. Lab + Lib Dem + Green + PC + Uncle Tom Cobbleigh doesn't. Whether Brown's still around or not isn't the big issue. Whether they can actually govern is. The best possible outcome for a rainbow coalition is that they go more than a year before the wheels come off - at which point they'll have achieved a) an austerity budget that gets everybody upset and angry, b) some major compromises on each main party's core issues, c) nothing else.

There are many political and electoral arguments against a rainbow coalition. But the biggest obstacle is basic arithmetic.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Decisions, decisions

Astonishingly, the campaign seems to be over. As the everyone and his brother have remarked, it's been a lot more interesting than it should have been. When it started, I was faced by two very tempting arguments for doing something other than I've done in the last three elections I've been able to vote in.

The first tempation was not to vote. Not something I ever thought I'd find myself contemplating, but it was strangely beguiling. For one, I live in what is pretty much a safe seat - an initial impression daily strengthened by the complete absence of Tory or Lib Dem activity as the campaign wore on. There's been a lot of talk about how this makes my vote meaningless - the flip side of that is that abstaining comes at a low cost. Essentially, I can duck the whole issue without worrying that I'm failing to influence a crucial election. But this of course is just moral cowardice. Whether or not the future of the UK hinges on my vote, failure to exercise it just makes me a free rider. Someone has to vote, to use the power that ultimately rests with the citizen - letting other people do the hard work of choosing while I hold myself aloof is beyond apathetic. As much as anything else, I want the right to complain about the next government and I don't get to do that if I didn't participate.

The second temptation was not to vote Labour. This, frankly, was much stronger. There's a long list of reasons not to, which have been rehashed to the point of tedium over the past 4 weeks. For a Labour supporter disillusioned with some aspects of the Blair/Brown government, the most dangerous temptation runs something like this: "Labour are a force for good, but they've lost their way. Let them have some time in Opposition to clear out the dead wood, reinvigorate themselves and rediscover their political soul." In that way, you see, a vote against Labour is really truly a vote for Labour, if you think about it. Except of course it's not. There might be times where it seems like it doesn't really matter who's in power over the next five years, so that you can afford to take time to regroup. This is not one of those times. Whatever way you vote, you have to be voting for the party best placed to govern now. Other considerations are just jam tomorrow.

But this raises another much more fundamental question, which is what good government is. For a lot of people, the measure of good government is how much their own lot in life improves. But I find it difficult to use this as a yardstick. I'm a middle-class mortgage payer in a dual-income household with job security. Yes, the effect the next government has on the economy will have a knock-on effect on my finances, but not as much as for other people. And that's not to say that I don't get any value from e.g. childcare vouchers, because I do. But I am not a priority for government action and to vote as if I were would be narcissistic. So my concern for what the next government will or won't do isn't whether it will make my life better, because frankly there are limits under any vaguely centrist government to how bad my life can get.* It's whether it will make life better for people who's lives can go from bad to worse, or bad to good, or tough to impossible. Now, there's quite a large extent to which the general health of the economy will contribute to that, so if the choice were between a party I thought would ruin the economy and one that would save it there would be no choice at all. But not being in that situation, my concern is to vote for the party that will do it's best to a) make sure that the pain of recovery is mitigated for those most vulnerable to it and b) make sure the gains of recovery are shared beyond those best placed to benefit.

I can't make myself believe the Tories fit that bill. And while I agree with the Lib Dems on lesser issues, I don't see that this is their priority. And for all that Labour have got things wrong in their 13 years, their record on fighting poverty and providing services is pretty good. More to the point, I think it'll continue to be better than the alternatives.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Brass trio

I figure I can get away with this on the grounds that I'm blowing other people's trumpets as well as my own. Anyhow, from Facebook:

Me: I don't know if there's an official term for people stranded by volcanic activity, but if there isn't I would humbly commend the phrase "Ash-strays" to your attention
Jon: For employers who are very relaxed about the impact on their business, and won't dock pay or enforce paid leave of stranded staff, might we call them magmanimous?
Tom: Incidentally, I assume Conservative supporters who are trapped overseas by the ash cloud and concerned they may not get back in time to vote in the election are blocked lavatories.

...I've just thought of one: if you're trapped by volcanic activity, that's a Pompeii circumstance.

If there any more entries in this narrow field of linguistics, please share them...

Friday 16 April 2010

I met a man the other day who told me...

...that Nick Clegg won the debate. So I suppose that makes that true.

That's a little unfair - he probably did win it. But now that everybody is telling everybody that he won it, he definitely won it.

In no particular order, here are the things that struck me about/during last night:

1) There are two more of these things to go. What will there possibly be left to say by the third?
2) Given that it was widely acknowledged that Vince Cable won the Chancellors debate because the Red and Blue candidates spent their time beating each other up and thus letting him rise above the fray, why did we get to watch the exact same thing happen this time? What price these debate strategists we hear so much about.
3) When Cameron was going on about "they'll waste your money to put up taxes", wouldn't it have been great for Brown if he had that very day had his position (i.e. thatCameron's plan threatened the recovery) endorsed by 55 leading economists? And had used those big guns to counter Cameron's pet business leaders, thus at least neutralising his opponent's Appeal to Authority? Sadly, he just didn't have that opportunity.
4) Some people can integrate pre-written jokes seamlessly into apparently extempore remarks. Brown can't, and should stop trying. I mean, seriously, read this transcript:

Now, there's been a 75% success in this project, so you can bring the reoffending rate down. But I do come back to this central problem that we face - I'm grateful, by the way, David, for you putting up these posters about me and about crime and about everything else. You know, there's no newspaper editor done as much for me in the last two years, because my face is smiling on these posters, and I'm very grateful to you and Lord Ashcroft for funding that.

What in Christ's name? Was it the word "face" that prompted him to abandon "the central problem" for an ill-constructed jape about Ashcroft and posters and ... stuff? You've only got a minute to answer, so don't waste it on laboured jokes. Play to your goddam strengths.
5) The challenge to provide guarantees on Education, Policing and Health. Apparently, it is Labour investment vs Tory cuts after all. It might work as a way to put Cameron on the spot once, on a question about the economy. Levering the police and schools into a question on health specifically just makes you look like you're not actually discussing the issue you've been asked about. What's really amazing is that it was Clegg, not Cameron, who walked through the open door of "being honest with the public" and promising big cuts and not just flannel. I suppose it's because Cameron is now being positive about the future and "Age of Austerity" stuff doesn't fit in with that - if so, that suggests that Labour are going back to the position that didn't work, while the Tories abandon the position that did.
6) Speaking of health, someone needs to hammer the Tories on the whole "making cancer drugs available" thing. For a man whose current mantra is the need for government spending to be efficient ("I think it's really important that we start focusing on what we get out of the money that we put in, because if we think that the future is just spending more and more money, we're profoundly wrong.") he seems strangely blind to the notion that some very expensive drugs are far from guaranteed to be effective and that there might be better (i.e. more effective i.e. making more people healthier) options to spend that money on. Such as MRI machines to improve screening services. Or a specialist nurse. Or a paediatric intensive care unit. It's almost as if these decisions combine fearfully complex cost-benefit analyses with agonising moral dilemmas. And I would give your eye teeth to see Cameron made to admit that.
7) Cameron's mum was a magistrate. I bet she was. Plenty of spare time and a firm belief that her judgement was what was needed to sort out the local riff-raff. She may even have been right. But this is where Cameron's Big Society leads - power flowing to people who are a) convinced of their own acumen and b) easily able to afford the time to run a school. This is not a random sampling of the population at all.
8) There are two more of these to go.

For reasons that will hopefully never become clear, I should stress that the above are all personal opinions and in no way a reflection of my employer's position.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Like Quasimodo, it's misconceived but it does ring a bell

So today's big idea is the National Citizens Service for 16 year olds, a radical plan for changing the lives of young people that will offer them the hitherto undreamt of opportunity to spend two whole months of their summer on:
  • a residential course,
  • "team building exercises"
  • local volunteering
Why hasn't anyone else thought about trying this before? Volunteering. For 16 year olds. With residential courses. To pick a name at random, the Duke of Edinburgh must be kicking himself. Or didn't they do that at Eton?

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Vote Tory or the cancer patient gets it

One of the really fun things about having a kid is that you get to see just how hard-wired some of our more irrational behaviours are. Take my first stab at a genetic legacy (please): having learned that he could use his hands to maneouvre slices of banana into his face all by himself, he (as we all did) started trying this trick with everything: breadsticks, bacon, chips (fine), olives (hilarious), pickled beetroot (messy but fun, in a "vampire baby" kind of way), spoons, wooden balls, rabbit poo and assorted choking hazards (panic inducing, primarily for obvious reasons and secondarily in a "can I clean this up before his mother sees him" kind of way). Similarly, he's learnt that crying is a good way to a) alert us to genuine pain or discomfort or b) get attention when he's mildly bored. The point being that once we find a trick that works, we'll keep reusing it until either we run it into the ground or someone's pulling a lego brick out of our throat.

As with my incontinent, wobbly, emotionally manipulative offspring, so with the Tories. This latest wheeze of not raising National Insurance after all seems to have struck a chord (surprisingly for a cynical pre-electoral bribe), and so it's being used to attack Labour not only on the economy, which at least makes a crazy kind of sense, but also on health, which is both bizarre and unseemly. It's bizarre because it seems we're now to rely on efficiency savings paying for both reduced tax reciepts and extra spending on healthcare at the same time.* It's unseemly because it makes a simplistic, populist billboard slogan out of the genuinely complex issue of how we choose to fund treatments on the NHS. To hear the Tories tell it, you'd think that the only reason cancer patients die in this country is that a coterie of evil bureaucrats and soulless beancounters won't let them near the medicine cabinet full of wonder-drugs that will cure their disease, grow their hair back and improve digestive transit to boot. In reality of course, there is no such cabinet - there's a number of drugs which have shown some success in some patients with some specific conditions. Their manufacturers are only too keen to trumpet their efficacy, but more disinterested observers are less convinced that we'd actually see any benefit for our money. In a time when efficiency is all the rage you might think the Tories would want to establish what kind of value for money they were getting, but apparently that's not the point.

Well no. The point is rather distasteful - to use the suffering of cancer patients as just one more improvised weapon in the ongoing bar-brawl that is a general election. It's hefty, it's near at hand, so break that Ming vase over your opponent's head and finer feelings be damned.

*As far as I can work out, the argument goes something like this: We fund the NI non-rise by finding cuts and "efficiency savings", but because NHS-as-employer isn't paying tax to the government, it can now spend that money on cancer drugs in its role as NHS-as-provider-of-state-funded-healthcare. Meanwhile the government has less money because it isn't getting that tax but the overall NHS budget hasn't changed. So effectively the NHS has become more expensive, especially as any savings made within the Department of Health are already ear-marked for funding front-line services, so the savings that are paying for keeping NI static and thus for more cancer drugs are being made by quite different departments. I can see that Paul's come out of the deal quite well, but Peter seems a little out of pocket. Now, if the Tories simply came out and said that they were going to increase spending to fund these drugs, that would be one thing, but given both the current situation and their rhetoric over the past 18 months, they can't. So we get this three-card trick whereby efficiency savings pay for both reduced tax reciepts and extra expenditure at the same time.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

What is "fair" anyhow?

While trying to work up some enthusiasm for the budget, I made the mistake of looking at the Mail. Inevitably, I learned that those most at risk from today's announcements were the middle class. But I learned something else as well:

If we stretched ourselves to buy a house near a good school, we were called pushy. So, to punish us for being caring parents, they introduced a lottery for school places so all would be equal. That's equally stupid.

That's right - I learned that the purpose letting poor children go to good schools is to punish rich parents who love their kids. After all, what other reason could there possibly be?

Thursday 18 March 2010

Complex problems require window-dressing and handwaving

That's the message from David Cameron's article on black Britain. He lays out the problems impressively enough. (Hey, that's opposition for you.) It's when it comes to solutions that you're left wondering just when this masterly grasp of the issue slackened off. Here's the problem:

Research has shown that almost a third of black people in England want to start their own business, compared with just 9% of the white population. However, only 4% of black people do manage to launch a startup – a level lower than any other ethnic group.

Accessing finance and advice are the key challenges for would-be black entrepreneurs. According to one study, black entrepreneurs are four times more likely to be denied a bank loan outright than white entrepreneurs, while the UK Survey of Small and Medium Enterprises shows that as many as a quarter of black entrepreneurs report problems in accessing finance.

So, we need better access to finance right? Seems pretty clear. Here's the solution:

This will include funding for a national mentoring programme for black people who want to start a business. It will provide would-be black entrepreneurs with the targeted support, advice – and, crucially, role models – they need to access finance and work for themselves. We've selected successful black entrepreneurs – people like Sam Gyimah, Wilfred Emmanuel Jones and Helen Grant – as our candidates: not in Labour-held inner city seats, but in Surrey, Wiltshire and Kent. They'll help inspire a new generation of black people to take on the world.

This is how we solve a big problem? Black entrepreneurs are being denied access to funding on a massive scale, and the answer is to have a black MP in Surrey? That's going to open the floodgates of lending?

If black people are regularly being denied access to business loans then either there is degree of institutional racism in the lending industry or black entrepreneurs are disproportionately likely to be a bad risk. Dave seems to have ruled out the first option, or indeed any suggestion that lenders may want to critically examine their practices. Well and good - let's assume for the moment that he's got a good reason for doing so, even if he hasn't shared it with us.

This leaves us with the maybe slightly uncomfortable notion that black entrepreneurs struggle to borrow money because they're objectively a bad risk, or they at least present themselves as such. Now perhaps, for those entrepreneurs who have basically sound business plans that need a little refinement, some "targeted" advice might help them fix a couple of flaws in the business plan or present it in a more persuasive way. For some proportion of the others, as for all entrepreneurs, the best advice will be, "Stop kidding yourself". But is it really likely that the reason black entrepreneurs struggle to borrow is because they're that much worse than white people at writing business plans?

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the reason black entrepreneurs don't see a lot of bank managers thrusting cheques into their hands is that they lack collateral. And what do you know, someone who actually looked at the issue agrees with me:

Lack of collateral/location in deprived areas - Due to lack of information relating to the borrower’s creditworthiness, lenders may require borrowers to post collateral on loans which can be liquidated in the event of default (see e.g., Bester, 1985). The report highlights collateral shortages (home ownership) amongst Caribbean and Bangladeshi entrepreneurs as a possible explanation for poorer access to finance amongst these ethnic groups. The collateral issue is closely related to the greater tendency of Caribbean and Bangladeshi businesses to be located in deprived inner city areas. Deprivation may create further obstacles for EMBs through skills shortages, higher levels of crime and poorer health/access to health care.

Banks don't lend fledgling businesses money because they think the business will make money - they lend because they think the business will make money, or the bank will get the founder's house. If you don't have a house, or your parents' house, or a few spare acres of land, you're going to struggle to get the bank to trust you. And what do you know - Saying, "but I was inspired by the new MP for Farnborough" won't really cut it.

So if this is a big problem (and it must be, because Dave wouldn't be getting the state involved otherwise) it might be worth a big solution. Maybe the government could set up its own venture capital fund, making unsecured loans to "inner-city" start ups. Maybe it could guarantee the loans under some sort of scheme for guaranteeing finance for enterprise. That would probably go some way to solving our big problem - access to finance. But sadly, it wouldn't address the much more fundamental problem - that when a young, thrusting black entrepreneur looks around for inspiration at a crucial time by flicking to BBC parliament, the member for Chippenham is lily-white. And with that, ambition dies.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

As above, so below

Paul Sagar has an interesting post on the bullying scandal here. He argues that, despite the obvious ulterior motives of various involved parties, it's a good thing that the accusations against Brown have come out, and specifically that it's a good thing they've come out now.

His argument is that whereas pretty much every other boss in every other office in the country can be held to account, either via internal processes or by resort to an industrial tribunal, there is not, and should not be, any similar mechanism to control a prime minister. His office is solely in the gift of the electorate, and for any other body to have the power to sack him for misconduct or harrassment would be a gross violation of democracy.

I don't agree. The reasons I don't agree are largely the same reasons I don't care about this particular "scandal".

1) There is no way the electorate are being given a full, unbiased and accurate picture of the issue. A full independent inquiry presented to the electorate with the minimum of spin, leaks, tendentious reporting and distortion might be one thing; the current rumour-fest turns the idea that I'm in position to sit in judgement on Brown's conduct to colleagues and underlings into a bad joke.
2) I don't need to allegations of bullying to tell me that Brown is a bad leader. The evidence for that is ample, and has been piling up since roughly autumn 2007. I don't mean previous leaks about "tantrums", or anonymous briefings against ministers; I mean the observably poor leadership of the country over the past 2.5 years. As a voter, my concerns about potential PMs should only relate to how they'll run the country. It's bad enough when I'm also asked to form a judgement on their personal morality; now I'm apparently in the position of enforcing HR policy in Number 10 to boot. "He'll treat his special advisers with respect and humanity" is so far down the reasons to vote for any party leader it's jostling for position with "his wife is rather pretty" and "he's a dog person".

The only thing that would make this whole farrago interesting would be if Brown were in fact a competent PM - if he had set out an agenda, pushed it through against opposition with a mixture of diplomacy, consensus-seeking and force, brought the country round to his vision and was now popular and respected. If he'd done that and were still revealed as a horrendous bully who shattered both the morale and the faces of his underlings, there'd be a real moral dilemma for voters to face up to. However, this is fundamentally unlikely. Competence in running the country would be a result of running a well-functioning internal team, not a completely unrelated phenomenon. If the allegations weren't about bullying, then they'd be about some other appalling management failure. If Brown can't run the country, how the hell can we expect him to run an office?

Thursday 28 January 2010

Duking the stats, redux

A while back I had a bit of a go at Chris Grayling's claim that "under Labour violent crime had risen 70%", on the grounds that it was total nonsense. But I wasn't able to find out what the shaky basis for his claim was.

Happily Mark Easton has rather more clout with Conservative Central Office than I do* and so when he made the same challenge to David Cameron recently, they very kindly provided him with the figures they used.

They're appalling. Transparent horseshit. Do read the full analysis, but the headline version of how you turn a consistent fall in violent crime into a 70% rise is:
  • Compare figures that you have been explicitly told are not comparable
  • Cherry-pick your comparison years so that downward trends become upward leaps
  • Have the unmitigated gall to pretend this is a meaningful contribution to political debate
It's not even sophisticated statistical bullshit. It's out and out manipulation of the figures to argue that fewer stabbings are really more stabbings, fewer shootings are actually more shootings, less crime is more crime.

I'm sure Grayling and Cameron weren't the architects of this. But you have to wonder if, when they were told that the violent crime stats were exactly what they wanted them to be, they even asked themselves whether they ought to check that their researchers hadn't been a little too helpful. Or whether they really cared - it's not very likely they're about to change their policies or rhetoric to match the evidence.

*A low bar there, to be sure.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Lawful Stupid

This is probably the geekiest analogy I'll ever make; an error compounded by the fact I'm basing it entirely on second hand knowledge. Which is a rather feeble way of saying that even though I'm about to talk about Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, I've never actually played any.

One of the character types you can choose to play is the paladin: a knight dedicated to the service of a deity, from whom - this being D&D - he derives various mystical powers. It is a necessary characteristic of the paladin that he is both Lawful and Good (as opposed to Chaotic and/or Evil). More than that, while other characters could start off Good but find themselves slipping into Evil (by e.g. stealing useful equipmment, killing defenceless villains, lying to potential allies to get them onside etc.) the paladin is constrained always to be Lawful Good, otherwise they lose their god-granted powers. All clear so far? Awesome.

This constraint has led to the development of the term Lawful Stupid - what you get when paladins are so wrapped up in maintaining their alignment that they actively sabotage their own goals. For example, by waking up sleeping guards because it's evil to murder people in their sleep. Or by insisting on a daylight frontal assualt on the Evil Baron's fortress to recover the MacGuffin rather than just stealing it under cover of darkness. In general, Lawful Stupid means being willing to hand the forces of evil a major tactical advantage rather than sully your purity.

There's a point coming up, and I hope for all our sakes it's worth it.

Anjem Choudary's latest wheeze has stirred up all the predictable reactions, no doubt to his great consternation. Among those is the emergence of the free speech champions, reluctantly defending his right to march. They're not on his side, they know if it ever goes ahead there'll be a major shitstorm, but dammit, principles are principles. This is a position which cuts across the right/left diving lines, although the modes of expression are a little different. Longrider is clearly troubled by the dilemma raised:
So, welcome to Britain, the land of free speech. Free speech means allowing speech that you find offensive – and, let me restate it for those who are a little slow on the uptake; there is no right not to be offended...However, vile, obnoxious cunt though he is, Andrem Choudary must be allowed to voice his opinions. Out in the open, we can see him for the vile, obnoxious cunt that he is – sunshine being the best bleach. Let the world see and revile his views, let him remind us what waits for those who would find themselves living in his desired Caliphate. And, let us remind ourselves that freedom of speech means just that – freedom to speak openly, no matter how vile those opinions, no matter how upsetting, offensive or “inappropriate”.
And David Osler has his robust say-so here:
All of this leaves the principled humanist secular left with a huge headache. After all, if we do not uphold the elementary argument for freedom of speech, who will? So here we are, forced to extend our efforts in support of a manifestation of execrable religious bigotry. It is an obvious sucker punch, and we can even see it coming, but we have no alternative but to walk straight into it.

All of which leaves me asking - what's so great about free speech?

Seriously, what's the point? Why do we rate it so highly? It comes down to one of two reasons - it produces some end that we find desirable, or it's just an end in itself - it's good to have free speech because free speech is good, regardless of whether it actually benefits anybody.

I don't think anyone really believes the latter. Every proponent of free speech will tell you that there are tangible advantages to be gained (e.g. Longrider's "sunshine is the best bleach") from letting everyone have their say. And quite right - if you're going to argue that free speech is valuable, you have to show what that value consists in. Otherwise it all seems very arbitrary.

So fine - we value free speech because it creates the kind of society we want to live in. It's the cornerstone of the kind of society we want, in fact. Until it isn't. If we're supporting free speech because it produces results for us then we're entitled - required, really - to check that it's actually delivering for us. If it's not, insisting on it nevertheless is just a little Lawful Stupid.

Nor is this controversial. The well-worn example is that you don't have the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, because the advantages of sticking with the principle of free speech are outweighed by the disadvantages of panicky mob death. But wait! What have we here? A situation where deliberately inflammatory speech in a particularly volatile arena is rightly banned because it creates avoidable problems. Gosh. I wonder if that has any applicability to a anti-troops march through Wooton Bassett?