Wednesday, December 21, 2011

He moves in implausible ways

There’s an oddly lovely exhibition at Wellcome Collection at the moment of ‘Mexican Miracle Paintings’ – votive offerings from people in small towns in Mexico, dating back over a century, expressing thanks for the assistance of God and his saints in times of trouble.

The art isn’t world-class and nor is the prose of the messages that go with each picture, but the whole point is that these are heartfelt expressions of ordinary people’s hopes and fears – and the whole effect is quite touching.

That said – and far be it from me to judge other people’s faith, especially at Christmastime – a few of the stories didn’t leave me completely convinced that divine intervention really was at work:

I thank Our Lady of Zapopan for giving me back my health. I was suffering cancer of the face and on 17 September 1936 it was considered to be incurable. I pleaded to the Holy Virgin of Zapopan and on 17 March 1941 I was completely cured through the intervention of the Holy Virgin and the doctor Edmundo Aviña.

Miracle granted by Our Holy Mother of San Juan to Antonia Lopez on that memorable 18 January 1888…while, during the flooding in Leon, seeing herself and her family in great danger along with 15 other people, implored with all her heart to the Holy Mother of San Juan. On hearing her prayer, our Divine Lady intervened and they were miraculously saved by climbing a tree and for such a great miracle she dedicates this retablo.

In Matehuala on 7 January 1937, Juan Hernández became so drunk that he completely lost his senses, to the point of walking into the mountains where he passed out all night. The following morning he returned and headed for the train station, but before getting there he felt so ill that he kept thinking he was going to die. Nevertheless, he managed to get back home. His wife Lazara Alonso, noticing what a serious state he was in, pleaded with all her heart to Saint Francis of Assisi of Catorce to restore his health as he had to support her and her child. If he would intervene then she would commission a retablo for such a great favour and, because it was granted exactly as asked, she presents this retablo giving a truthful testimony of the work of his divine majesty in this evident miracle.

Thanks to God All Mighty Saint Francis of Assisi, the Seraphim I thank you with all my heart for this miraculous accomplishment: a warehouse with multiple uses. “Potrero del Moro” Ranch, C del Oro, Zac. For the resistant structure (foundations, columns, walls, internal structure, window frames, beams and paving slabs). He thanks you with all his heart.


Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cameron’s bad faith

This is (some of) what David Cameron had to say about religion and secularism yesterday:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. … Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities - these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour.
I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.
…those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code. …for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by faith or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.

And this adapted version illustrates how utterly wrong he is:

The Conservative Party has helped to shape the values which define our country. … Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities - these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Conservative values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every party and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Conservative country and standing up for Conservative values we are somehow doing down other parties. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour.
I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.
…those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality or the role that party politics can play in helping people to have a moral code. …for people who do have a party, their party can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by party politics or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.

Cameron’s abuse of the term “secular neutrality” is striking: it means religious neutrality, not – as he seems to think – moral neutrality. This isn’t a petty point about semantics, much as I enjoy those. I’m actually trying to take him at his word and offer some helpful advice (he’s a regular reader here, and he knows I’m a big fan).

The final sentence of the quote (in either version) is, I agree, the most important. But it’s crippled by the rest.

If what you’re trying to promote is a moral code, a set of values that most of us agree are pretty sound even if we often don’t live up to them, you do not do it by branding those values with a sectarian label that lots of people don’t accept.

Yes, he litters the speech with polite caveats that of course people who aren’t religious can be moral. But his central argument rests on the opposite (and false) assumption that you can’t steer clear of religion without also abandoning morality.

Christianity has been a huge factor in British history. It’s still a big presence, but it’s fallen a long way. In terms of what British people today believe and practise (or don’t), it’s hardly accurate or helpful to say we’re “a Christian country”. If he can’t think of a way to promote morality without talking about “Christian values”, he’s doomed to fail.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Calling for delayed cuts means delayed calling for cuts

Something interesting is happening to the Labour leadership. They’re starting to realise that their current ‘cuts later’ position means that later – at the next election, say – they’ll have to be for ‘cuts now’.

They’re also starting to think about the relationship between the image they project now and the image they’ll want to project come 2015.

If they carry on as they have, using most of their airtime to attack cuts that they genuinely see as too fast and too deep (but that they cannot possibly stop), they’ll establish themselves in the public mind as anti-cuts. They can certainly win some support like this, but the trouble is that when they get to ‘later’, they’re going to have to say ‘OK, we’re pro-cuts now’.

At that point, their anti-cuts supporters will lose enthusiasm, and much of the rest of the electorate – who will be more pro-cuts – will be deeply unconvinced by this late conversion from the party that’s been so vocally anti-cuts all this time.

But, as I say, they seem to be shifting their emphasis. Ed Miliband recently gave a speech in which the most-reported line was that “the next Labour government is likely to inherit borrowing levels that still need to be reduced. So even then resources will have to be focused significantly on paying down that deficit.”

And Ed Balls, writing this week, makes a similar point, but still gives the impression that he wants to slow down this repositioning: “it is so important that we set out before the next election tough fiscal rules that the next Labour government will have to stick to – to get our country’s current budget back into balance and national debt on a downward path”.

Before the election, yes, but how long before it?

Balls argues for “combining stimulus now to get the economy moving with a tough but balanced medium-term deficit plan”. But this leaves the question of what happens when we get to the medium term. He will have to say ‘You know that stimulus we wanted? Well, even though we didn’t get it, it’s too late now, so now we want cuts instead.’

Changing tone like that as an election nears is a very hard sell – as David Cameron found when, having spent a few years promoting a more caring, less anti-public-sector image, ended up campaigning on a much more conventionally right-wing platform in 2010. The difference is that Cameron’s about-turn arose from an unexpected crisis, while Balls is implicitly promising his in advance.

Labour will have to choose between arguing for what they would be doing/have done during this Parliament and arguing for what they want to do in the next.

Their struggle to make this choice is a symptom of a deeper tension: parties can respond to being kicked out of power by telling voters ‘we didn’t deserve to lose your trust’ or by telling them ‘we now deserve to regain your trust’. Miliband and Balls have preferred the former but are now fitfully edging towards the latter.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

George Osborne has forgotten what Nigel Lawson learned

Last week I argued that the cost of UK government borrowing is determined mainly by wider economic conditions – on an international scale – and that increases in the amount the government is borrowing appears to have had no negative effect on the interest rate paid.

Now, via an FT article by Samuel Brittan, I find I’m in surprising company:

The chancellor’s main argument against fiscal stimulus was that it would raise interest rates and thus be self defeating. … Mr Osborne vastly exaggerates the effect of the UK Budget deficit on long-term rates. He need not take my word for it. Lord Lawson reports that a similar argument was used in the run-up to the tough Geoffrey Howe Budget of 1981. But he later thought better of it. He writes in The View from No.11, published 11 years later: “Long-term interest rates ... are determined by the balance of supply and demand in the capital market. As the capital market was becoming increasingly a single global market the public borrowing in any one country [with the exception of the US] had a correspondingly diminished effect.” He was right second time round.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The confidence trick

This is the heart of the narrative that holds the government’s economic policy together:

Towards the end of Labour’s time in office, government borrowing was threatening to spiral out of control. Questions were being raised about our national credit rating, and the bond markets were pushing up the cost of borrowing. The coalition’s determined programme of larger and faster spending cuts has rescued the UK, creating much-needed confidence in the prospects for deficit reduction and, as a result, economic growth.

So: what’s the evidence?

I’ve looked at the yield on 10-year government bonds – a standard measure of the interest rate the government pays to borrow – and worked out how it changed when a select half-dozen events happened. I’ve taken the average bond yield over five trading days before each event and over five days after, to smooth out the effect of momentary blips, and compared each pair:

  1. On 29 March 2009, credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s warned that without a stronger deficit-reduction strategy, the government’s AAA credit rating might be at risk. Between the five days before this and the five days after, 10-year bond yields rose by 0.06%, making borrowing a bit more expensive.
  2. On 21 May 2009, Standard & Poor’s formally moved the UK government from a “stable” outlook for its credit rating to “negative”. Bond yields rose by 0.38%.
  3. On 26 January 2010, the fund management firm Pimco (a major player in the global bond markets) said that UK national debt was a “must to avoid” as it was “resting on a bed of nitroglycerine”. Bond yields rose 0.002%.
  4. Coalition negotiations meant that the change of government took longer than usual. But between the five days before the election (6 May 2010) and the five days after David Cameron became PM (11 May), bond yields fell by 0.21%, making it cheaper for the government to borrow.
  5. On 22 June 2010, George Osborne produced his first Budget. Bond yields fell by 0.18%.
  6. On 22 November 2010, the government published its full spending review. Bond yields fell by 0.04%.

Well, this all seems to support the government’s case. There’s only one small problem: all these numbers are for US government bonds, not UK ones.

Here, by contrast, is what happened to UK government bond yields:

So in all six cases, when there was supposedly bad news for UK bonds, US bonds took a bigger hit, and when there was supposedly good news for UK bonds, US bonds got a bigger boost.

[Update: For a longer perspective than five days, I’ve averaged over the six months before the election (November 2009–April 2010) and the following six months (May–October 2010). From the first period to the second, UK government bond yields fell by 0.64%, but this was beaten by US bonds, which fell 0.75%. This simply does not support the claim that the coalition and its policies have been key to keeping UK borrowing costs down.]

In fact, US and UK government borrowing costs are very strongly correlated these days (since 2008, a massive +0.9):

So, unless the US markets are hypersensitive to what happens in Britain, something much bigger has been going on.

Before I get into what that is, let’s see how the actual amount of government borrowing relates to the cost of borrowing. The government’s story says that these are positively correlated – as does common sense. Surely, the more you borrow, the bigger a credit risk you become and people will charge higher rates to lend to you. So, if the amount of money the government is expected to borrow rises or falls, bond yields should move in the same direction.

Let’s see.

Every month, the Treasury collates the latest set of independent economic forecasts. Sometimes these look only two years ahead and sometimes they look farther, so the data I’ve put together is a bit irregular.

First of all, in Labour’s final year, there were five sets of independent forecasts of government borrowing that covered 2010/11 and 2011/12. This chart shows these alongside monthly averages for government bond yields (yes, UK ones):

As Labour’s time in office drew to a close, independent expectations of government borrowing were falling, not rising. The correlation between the level and cost of borrowing (albeit from a tiny sample size) was strongly negative. This means that fears of higher deficits could not have been responsible for the rise in bond yields that happened during this time. (And bear in mind that US bond yields also rose over this period.)

Secondly, over the lifetime of the coalition, here’s a chart showing monthly bond yields alongside independent forecasts of government borrowing across 2011/12 and 2012/13:

Again, the correlation is negative. As borrowing expectations have risen over the last six months, the cost of borrowing has fallen. This means that increased confidence about lower deficits could not have been responsible for the fall in bond yields. (And bear in mind that US bond yields also fell over this period.)

I’ve shown one chart for before the election and one chart for after. Wouldn’t that miss the change between the two governments, when both borrowing forecasts and the cost of borrowing both fell? Yes. But this fall in UK bond yields was matched – in fact, exceeded – by the simultaneous fall in US bond yields, which really can’t be explained by changes to UK fiscal policy. Something bigger is going on. But what?

The answer has two parts. For the first part, we can turn to Nick Clegg.

After the election, the Lib Dems abandoned their more gradual manifesto proposals for reducing the deficit and signed up to the Tories’ plans for faster, bigger cuts. Clegg said that the situation in Greece, which exploded shortly before the election, had changed things. In that, at least, he was right. However, he meant that there was a danger of the sovereign debt crisis spreading to us, so we had to be extra cautious with our finances. But the real lesson is different.

Investors have to put their money somewhere. Bonds issued by developed-country governments are normally seen as ultra-safe, and the yields paid on these bonds are normally quite low, as the safety is their main selling point. For higher returns, you can make a higher-risk investment elsewhere, if you dare. But the crisis in the eurozone meant that the risk-averse large institutional investors lost their appetite for Greek (and later Portguese, Spanish and Italian) government bonds.

So they needed to invest somewhere else.

On 23 April 2010, the Greek government requested an IMF/EU bailout. Between the five trading days before this desperate act and the five after, UK government bond yields fell by 0.07% and US bond yields by 0.04%. Rather than a fear of contagion hitting all sovereign debt, those countries that the markets saw as nowhere near the danger zone – including the UK – found that they could borrow more cheaply. Increased demand from fleeing investors brought down our bond yields.

And this persisted: 23 April 2010 was the day that US and UK bond yields both began a largely uninterrupted four-month fall.

The second part of the answer – what bigger thing is going on to make non-eurozone government borrowing so cheap even while so much of the stuff piles? – is the condition of the economy more broadly. But it relies on the same principle: investors have to put their money somewhere.

Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research reasons that lower bond yields would be a sign of confidence and economic strength if they were associated with a better stock-market performance; but they’d be a sign of weakness if they went hand in hand with stock-market falls. He finds that, since the coalition was formed, there’s a “strong, significant and positive” correlation: bond yields fall when the stock market does as well.

He’s right. I’ve checked, and from June 2010, government bond yields and the FTSE have shown a correlation of +0.56. The persistent weakness of the economy as a whole (in Britain and elsewhere) means that private-sector investment prospects look poor. The result of this pessimism – as with the flight from Greek bonds, although at a less frantic rate – is that investors who might have put their money in the stock market are instead going for government bonds, further pulling yields down.

This can also explain the counterintuitive positive correlation I noted earlier between the cost and the predicted amount of government borrowing. As the economy falters, investors move from stocks and shares to the safety of government bonds, driving down the yield on them. But a weaker economy also means lower tax receipts and higher welfare spending, so borrowing forecasts go up.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. The government can borrow so much so cheaply not because its plans (which keep getting rewritten for the worse) inspire such stunning confidence but because the rest of the economy inspires so little. It’s a sign of failure, not success. The story the government’s trying to spin us is entirely the wrong way round.

A few closing remarks, because I’m not in this post advocating any particular fiscal policy over another:

  • While the government’s deficit-reduction plan has had little discernible effect on the cost of its borrowing, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between safe and risky borrowing. There is. Both this government and the last have clearly been seen as being on the right side of the line – by the markets if not by the commentators. Despite the political rows, the difference between the Osborne plan and the Darling plan wasn’t massive.
  • While nobody knows exactly where the line is, it’s clear that a few extra tens of billions of borrowing wouldn’t spark a crisis; indeed, feeble growth and high inflation mean this is exactly what’s happening. But, conversely, it’s far from clear whether a few tens of billions of stimulus would really make much difference to growth.
  • Crisis avoidance isn’t the only reason to reduce borrowing as quickly as we reasonably can. A 12-digit deficit, even on a low interest rate, still costs a lot, and servicing debt interest isn’t the most socially or economically useful thing to do with taxpayers’ money.
  • Economics isn’t the only reason to be sceptical about the virtues of rapid public spending cuts. It’s not just faceless bureaucrats and feckless scroungers that will suffer as a result.

Update: Chris Dillow also ponders what low bond yields mean and what the stock market can tell us. but he looks at the FTSE small caps index rather than the more globalised FTSE 100. I think the lesson is that the economic slowdown that's pushing bond yields down is not confined to the UK - just as my chart of US and UK bond yields would suggest.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Poor school results

One of the biggest things affecting a school’s exam results is not what happens inside the classrooms: it’s the backgrounds and circumstances of the children the school lets through its gates in the first place. The more children from poorer families a school has, the worse its exam results tend to be.

The graph below shows almost every state secondary school in England [1]. It plots how many of each school’s pupils qualify to receive free school meals against how many of each school’s pupils get at least five A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths. Roughly speaking, it plots poverty against results [2].

There’s a pretty good correlation, of -0.57, between how many pupils are on free school meals and how many get five A*-Cs including English and maths. As poverty rises, exam results fall (although this fall levels out after around the point where a fifth of a school’s pupils qualify for free meals).

The grammar schools skew the picture – but only a little. Among comprehensives, the correlation is -0.55 – only slightly lower.

Most grammar schools are clumped up in the top left corner of the graph. They get very good results, which is hardly surprising given their intake. But selecting for ability also tends to select for wealth. The average selective school has just 2.6% of its pupils on free meals, while comprehensives average 16.7%. In fact, there’s not a single grammar school in all the land with even three-quarters as many kids on free school meals as the average comprehensive.

The next graph tells a similar story to the first, but it just covers comps, and it gets rid of a lot of the noise by grouping together schools by how many children on free meals they have (0-0.9%, 1-1.9%, 2-2.9%, 3-3.9% etc.) and shows the average results score for each such group:

But the correlation figures above understate the strength of the relationship. There are wide regional variations in prosperity across England, and of course parents don’t navigate the education system on a national scale: school choice works locally.

So by breaking the figures down into individual local education authorities (LEAs), we can see how strong the relationship is between poverty and results on a scale more relevant to parents’ choices about which neighbourhood to live in and which schools to apply to.

I’ve checked every LEA with 20 or more secondary schools (the smaller they are, the less reliable the correlation stats become [3]). There are 45 such LEAs, out of a total of 150.

The correlations range from -0.57 (Cornwall) to -0.90 (Leeds) – with an average of -0.76. So if you look into an individual LEA, the local link between poverty and results is usually much stronger than across England as a whole [4].

(LEAs with selective schools appear to have only slightly stronger poverty-results correlations than all-comprehensive LEAs.)

All this just shows how strong the link between poverty and GCSE results is. The exact nature of the causation is more complex to untangle, but it’s going to involve the fact that struggling to make ends meet makes it harder to devote time and resources to one’s children’s development. It’ll also, conversely, involve the fact that schools with good results become oversubscribed, driving local house prices up so that these schools become fuller and fuller of children with well-to-do parents.

One way to stop the education system from segregating children is to prevent popular, higher-scoring schools from cherry-picking the most promising ones. Banding and lotteries are efforts to achieve this, but I’m not aware of any compelling evidence either way on their effects.

The government’s big plan is the pupil premium, Nick Clegg’s favourite boast but something that appeared in all three main party manifestos in 2010. It’s an interesting way to motivate higher-scoring schools to admit more poorer pupils. Whether it succeeds or fails will depend on whether the extra cash can overcome the fear of being dragged down by the chavs.

[1] 2009/10 data, from the ‘Secondary’ tab of the ‘School spending – all data’ spreadsheet produced by the Department for Education. I’ve had to take 23 schools out of the calculations as there aren’t exam results figures for them.

[2] Qualifying for free school meals is an imperfect measure of poverty, related as it is to receipt of certain benefits. But it’s a decent indicator. Also, there are many other ways to measure how good a school’s results are than the number of kids getting five A*-Cs including maths and English: you could raise or lower that bar as you liked. This, however, is the data I have.

[3] Out of curiosity, I also looked at each of the 26 LEAs with under 10 schools in the data set. All have similarly strong negative correlations, for whatever that’s worth – except for the odd (but tiny) outlier of the Isle of Wight, whose five schools form a decent line sloping the other way, for a correlation of +0.51. I don’t know what, if anything beyond random variation, is going on there.

[4] How can pretty much every LEA have a stronger correlation between poverty and results than the national figure? Simple. This chart shows the schools in Bradford and Northamptonshire:

The red dots are pretty clearly grouped around a line (Northants has a correlation of -0.81), and so are the blue dots (Bradford’s is -0.76). But they’re different lines: Bradford is, on the whole, poorer and has more schools getting lower results, but with increasing poverty making less of a difference among its schools than in Northants.

So putting all the dots together blurs the clarity of the lines a bit: the overall correlation across the two LEAs between poverty and results is -0.73 – still high, but lower then either alone. The same thing happens, on larger scale, when looking at all the schools across England together.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Over on my other blog, I've got some limericks about language, grammar and editing.

Because silliness is better than politics.

(It'll help you with the first one if you know that 'stet' is a proofreading term meaning 'leave it the way it was'.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Brown’s fiscal mistake

Labour’s time in power can be divided into three periods, as far as the public finances go. First, borrowing was reduced to zero and below, cutting the national debt from 42.5% of GDP in 1996/97 to 29.7% in 2001/02. Then, a period of borrowing 2.3-3.3% of GDP a year, raising the national debt to 36.5% of GDP in 2007/08. And finally, all hell broke loose.

It’s the middle six years that are now the most contentious, when the government ran deficits that weren’t huge but were still on the large side given that the economy was doing well.

That said, there was a world economic slowdown around 2001-03, and the fiscal stimulus that resulted from extra borrowing probably helped the UK come through in pretty good shape. Indeed, Chris Dillow goes further, arguing that the longer pre-crisis period was one where government spending was an important prop to the economy – tighter fiscal policy would have meant less growth and potentially a bigger housing boom if interest rates had been cut to compensate.

It’s also debatable how much less bad things would now be if we’d gone into the crisis with a balanced budget rather than a 2.4% deficit. We could have had a bigger stimulus (and, hopefully, a smaller recession), or had the same stimulus with less borrowing overall (so smaller interest payments and, hopefully, slower spending cuts now) – which would have been better. But the flipside of going into the crisis in better fiscal shape, as Chris argues, is that we might have been in worse shape in other ways.

But there is one sense in which Gordon Brown unarguably got it wrong.

This graph shows government revenues relative to GDP (thick black line) compared with a series of Brown’s Budget forecasts (dotted coloured lines):

Year after year, Brown predicted the Treasury’s income was about to rise to 40% of GDP and above; in reality, it never even reached 39%. Now, public borrowing is hard to predict, and so a couple of years of undershooting is acceptable margin-of-error stuff. But by, say, 2004, it must have been clear that something was wrong with the forecasting assumptions: the money consistently wasn’t appearing as expected.

Brown should have rethought his tax and spending plans or at the very least his predictions. After several good years, the Treasury had – like the financial sector – become optimistic to the point of complacency. And so, as they don’t like to mention, had the Conservatives, who in 2007 signed up to Labour’s spending plans for the following years.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Zeno’s paradox of fiscal policy and Osborne’s prophet motive

As Duncan reminds us, the central aim – the “fiscal mandate” – of the government’s fiscal policy is this, as set out by George Osborne in last June’s Budget:

the structural current deficit should be in balance in the final year of the five-year forecast period, which is 2015-16 in this Budget.

The thing about the fiscal mandate is that it’s a rolling target. In June 2010, the end of “the five-year forecast period” was 2015/16. Now it’s 2016/17. During the next election campaign, it’ll be 2020/21.

(Also note that it covers cyclically adjusted borrowing, excluding capital spending. These caveats take out a hefty chunk of the actual deficit. And yes, Brown was just as bad, with his ‘borrow only to invest over the course of the economic cycle’ Golden Rule.)

Which means that the notion of ‘hitting’ this particular target collapses – like the protagonists in Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, we’ll never reach the end of the rolling five-year period and see where it hits. But if Osborne can’t ever hit (or miss) the target, all we can do is judge whether he’s ‘on course’ to hit it.

This is why the Office for Budget Responsibility is so important to him: the official central objective of fiscal policy is for the announcement of that policy to induce the OBR to make a favourable forecast. That’s all.

It is, of course, ridiculous to think that government borrowing can be accurately predicted that far ahead. Osborne and the rest, whatever their faults, are (mostly) not mentally subnormal. And the OBR shows no signs of being any more accurate a coven of seers than the in-house Treasury forecasters used to be.

All of which means that the fiscal mandate in itself is a convenient fiction. Nobody cares about a few billion pounds here or there several years down the line. The real aim of this device is to persuade the king’s prophets to pull something out of the entrails that will give the troops confidence for the fight. And, given the sheer amount of ‘eliminate the deficit by the end of this parliament’ coverage that’s followed, it’s working. Politically, at least. Temporarily, at least.

Because Osborne has allowed an impression to take hold that the target is more rigorous than it really is. That suits him for the time being. But those simplified headlines, which he’s hardly rushed to correct, may end up as embarrassing for him as “Brits 45 mins from DOOM” became for Blair. In early 2015, when we’re still borrowing however much, it’ll look like a failure.

(And, as Duncan also points out, there’s also a ‘supplementary’ target that does have a fixed date: for government debt as a share of GDP to be falling by 2015/16.)

Updte: here's a chart showing what happens to the deficit when you adjust for the economic cycle and then take out capital spending (predictions as per Budget 2011):

Note that Osborne's taget measure (the green line) excludes roughly half of public borrowing at the moment. This cyclically adjusted current deficit was hardly out of control before the credit crunch hit; indeed, Labour had it lower going into their recession than the Tories had it going into theirs at the start of the 1990s. I raise this not to imply that everything was fine in 2007 but to point out that Osborne's choice of target doesn't necessarily do the political work he'd like it to.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Well, quite

I’ve just noticed that David Cameron began his speech about the riots and looting with this line:

It is time for our country to take stock.

The labour market

Just been listening to Peter Lilley on Radio 4 explaining why we need to force the workshy to get jobs.

Good luck with that.

Update: I should have included my data source. From the Office for National Statistics, select option 21.1 (Vacancies and unemployment). Then data series AP2Y is total UK vacancies, MGSC is seasonally adjusted LFS unemployment among those aged 16+, and JPC5 is the ratio (excluding agriculture, forestry and fishing for a reason that escapes me – perhaps there are a couple of million lumberjack vacancies that could save the day). Thanks to CH and friends for reminding me to add this.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How I tried to incite a riot using the mainstream media, and got away with it, by Tom Freeman (aged 18¼)

What with the recent rioting and looting – and the four-year sentences given to two morons who tried (and failed) to whip up a bit more trouble by posting on Facebook – I was reminded of my own murky past.

In 1995, when I should have been revising for my A levels but found everything else somehow more interesting, I noticed a letter in the Guardian from a man complaining about how unaccountable our rulers were. I don’t remember whether the idea came to me immediately or crept up on me over a few hours, but my reply was published on May 31:

In answer to Joe Phillips (Letters, May 30), I’m afraid there are very few ways in which we can vent our dissatisfaction at the monarchy, or the House of Lords, or even the Government between elections. We have opinion polls, where we can say what we like but get dismissed as unrepresentative, and we can write letter to politicians and newspapers but get dismissed as cranks.
However, there is a third way. At 2.30 tomorrow afternoon I will be conducting a violent and bloody revolution at the Palace of Westminster. All welcome. Refreshments will be served and crèche facilities will be available. Weather permitting.
Tom Freeman

Nobody could possibly take that seriously, just as nobody could possibly take seriously a jokey tweet pretending to threaten Robin Hood Airport with destruction if it didn’t clear the snow and reopen quickly.

Later that day, I received a phone call from a man from Stoke. (Back then, the Guardian printed its correspondents’ full addresses, so he’d clearly rung directory enquiries.) This polite and, from the sound it, ageing class warrior wanted to know about travel arrangements.

I let him down gently, and he had the decency to chuckle. But I realised that further explanation was needed, and so on June 2 the Guardian was good enough to print this:

My fellow anarchists and I apologise to readers for the failure of the planned “violent and bloody revolution” (Letters, May 31). The oppressed masses we had hired for the event were held up by traffic cones on the M4, and so the uprising was inquorate. The regulator Offcoup has recently revoked our Chartermark: with the loss of such government approval, we were unable to recruit enough passers-by to smash the state.
Tom Freeman

The police have yet to come a-knocking.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A quiet quinquennial

Five years ago today I started this blog. This, according to my powers of pretext detection, justifies cake.

But it’s obvious that my heart’s not been in it lately:

I don’t exactly know why the decline. Probably a whole bunch of things.

For most of these five years I’ve been expressing my opinions faster than I’ve been forming new ones, so eventually I was bound to feel I was running out of fresh things to say.

My work has been more demanding lately, leaving me less mental energy for other things. Oh, and I got a new widescreen TV with more channels than I could ever have dreamed of. My IQ drops 10 points when I’m even in the same room as it.

My main subject matter, politics, grabs me less than it used to. I’m still interested enough to read, but not usually enough to chew things over, to chase up some background info, and to write.

The biggest issue these days is how the government’s plans will affect the economy, but economic prediction is a mug’s game. And even once we’ve waited and seen what’s happened, it can damned tricky to untangle what caused what. So all most of us have are our broader views on different fiscal doctrines. And mine are not nearly as well-informed or lucid as plenty of other people’s.

More generally, the novelty of the coalition has faded and the novelty of Ed Miliband’s leadership never quite managed to arrive. I find it hard to care all that much about the supercilious progress of the Tory campaign to disguise power as necessity, or about Labour’s fitful drifting between trying to find a way to be noticed and trying to find a way to be. Balance requires that I also mention the Lib Dems here.

And then, of course, there’s the Blogger’s Ruin, luring so many of us away from the precious paragraphs we once took such earnest pride in researching and sculpting, Twitter. (That said, I’m taking this week off Twitter, so it’s possible that in a couple of days I’ll crack and post 3000 words here about Syria or something.) (I won’t.)

But I’m not quitting. I’ve noticed that bloggers who announce they’re quitting are often back, a few weeks later, as prolific as ever. Maybe I should try that? No, I can’t trick myself if I know what the trick is. So I’ll carry on, posting bits and pieces when the mood takes me. But I can’t promise my former regular readers – I’m no longer a regular writer, therefore I can’t have regular readers any more – the kind of output I once produced.

Either way, thanks for dropping by.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Demons at News International

Usually, when I rewrite a song, I’m trying to raise a chuckle or two. But the News of the World phone-hacking scandal doesn’t really deserve ridicule; it deserves contempt and disgust. So I hope the tone of this is right.

To the tune of ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams.


I hear your pain
Do the fear and grief drive you insane?
And do you know
The lengths to which I’ll go
To get your tale told?
But my heart’s not cold
I’m just selling things that can be sold
So when I hear that you’re in dread
Your hope has all but fled
All those desperate things you’ve said
I’m feeding demons instead

And through it all I offer a great story
All heartbreaking and gory
Whether I’m right or wrong
And down the mobile phone
Wherever it may take me
I know how much you’ll make me
When you try to call
You won’t escape me
I’m feeding demons instead

When you’re feeling grief
And you’re yearning for some dear relief
I’ll be right here
And you know I’ll always give you my ear
And as the story grows
I’ll rake over the bones
And when love is dead
I’ll see the demons are fed

And through it all I offer a great story
All heartbreaking and gory
Whether I’m right or wrong
And down the mobile phone
Wherever it may take me
I know how much you’ll make me
When you try to call
You won’t escape me
I’m feeding demons instead

Friday, July 01, 2011

Brothers in arms

The origins of the First World War is a classic history exam question. One issue that comes into many answers is the web of allegiances and rivalries among the interrelated royal families of Europe.

The Independent’s picture editors have taken the occasion of this book review to reveal the real family dispute that explains the War:


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Banks, but no banks

I quite like the idea of giving everyone shares in Lloyds and RBS, because there is a nice neatness (almost a sense of closure) to the concept of us getting something back from the banks we saved. But at the same time I think it’s an unworkable stinker – quite apart from the issue of whether it wouldn’t be better for the government to sell the shares normally and use the proceeds to cut public borrowing.

Mr Clegg said that it was “psychologically immensely important” for people to be given a stake in the banks … to turn RBS and Lloyds Banking Group into “people’s banks”. … “The idea is that people could buy or sell shares over time.” … Mr Clegg said the proposal would create an army of private shareholders that could hold some of the big banks to account, replacing institutional investors who had done too little to curb boardroom excess.

I see his point. But I don’t think it’ll work. He’s reckoning that people will think:

Ooh, shares in a couple of banks that almost went catastrophically bust! That’ll definitely be a good investment, I’ll hang onto those for the long term and certainly not sell them immediately.
And I’m sure everyone else won’t be selling them immediately either, because that would (a) depress the price of the shares, limiting the benefit that people would get and hitting public confidence in the whole exercise, and (b) quickly concentrate ownership of the banks back in the hands of large institutions.
What’s more, now that I own 0.0000018% of RBS and 0.0000009% of Lloyds, I can use my spare time to become an active shareholder and contribute to how these banks are run. It’ll be like the Big Society meets the minutiae of financial corporate governance – I can’t wait!

I suppose it’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Last year I thought David Miliband would be a more capable Labour leader than Ed; I still do. But I worry about the idea of (somehow) replacing the one with the other.

The main thing most people know about Ed is that he beat his brother to get the job – and they think that’s a bit odd, and maybe a bit suspicious. That’s a pity. But for Labour to go on to dump Ed and install David would magnify this ‘dysfunctional family’ thing a thousandfold. And it could make the party look very short of talent. Speaking of which...

If there were another credible leader in the wings, the dynamic might be different, but I don’t see who that would be. So, for the time being, we’re stuck with Ed.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The timelessness of news values

My colleague K, who is trawling through old newspapers for her dissertation, has just unearthed this report from the Daily Express in 1965:

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rhyme and reasoning

I know! I can fob them off with some stuff I wrote somewhere else a couple of months ago!

Ahem. A while back, Jams O Donnell asked his blog readers for philosophy poems. Among the responses were a few from me.

First, a pair of limericks advocating and rejecting Descartes’s ‘real distinction’ between mind and body:

A skeptical Frenchman did find
He couldn’t deny his own mind,
But his brain he could doubt
So he therefore ruled out
That the two things were of the same kind.

But Lois thought Clark was a clot
While Superman surely was not;
So they differ, she’d claim,
And yet they’re the same –
So distinctness from thought can’t be got.

First-year undergrad stuff, to be sure, but that’s about all I can remember these days. And they’re bloody limericks, how much sophistication do you expect?

And then I tried a haiku based on David Hume’s view about the standards of evidence needed to establish that a miracle had really happened:

Water into wine
Or wine into witnesses:
Which would you swallow?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Raise rates to cut inflation? It may not be so simple

Higher interest rates do, other things being equal, lead to lower inflation – but this effect takes time to work its way through the economy. What doesn’t take time is the rise in mortgage costs when rates go up. So, in the short term, a rate rise increases rather than lowers the cost of living as most people understand it.

The Bank of England’s target measure of inflation is the CPI. This differs from the previous target measure (up to 2003), the RPI-X, but both have in common that they don’t include mortgage interest payments. The RPI measure does include these (the X that RPI-X leaves out).

This table shows correlations between changes to the Bank’s base rate and changes in the three inflation measures:

(Data from the Bank and the ONS; going from January 1997, before which CPI figures are only estimates, to September 2008, after which we had the extraordinary bout of rate-slashing followed by two years and counting of no change.)

So rate rises are, in the short term, associated with barely lower CPI and RPI-X but substantially higher RPI. A 1 percentage point rise in the base rate over the course of up to a year is on average associated with a 0.7–0.9 point rise in RPI.

Of course, there are plenty of things that affect inflation on any measure – the pressures that might prompt a rate rise are likely to persist – so we have to be careful drawing conclusions about causation. But the difference between RPI and RPI-X is very telling. The two measures should be subject to the same pressures except for those to do with mortgage costs. So this comparison is a pretty good control, suggesting that the Bank’s rate rises cause a much bigger short-term rise in the RPI – and in mortgage-holders’ experienced cost of living – than they cause a reduction in the other components of overall inflation.

This means that if the current high inflation (on any measure) is only temporary, as is often suggested, then rate rises are not just an unnecessary response but a positively counterproductive one. If the inflationary pressures (from e.g. the VAT rise and higher energy costs) are going to drop out of the figures before too long, the only real danger is if these permanently raise people’s inflation expectations and fuel a wage-price spiral.

Given that, an extra jump in the RPI via higher mortgage costs would only add to the risk.

(On the other hand, if the inflationary pressures are likely to endure, then the longer-term disinflationary effects of higher rates may outweigh the short-term risk.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

VAT: the inflationary fiscal contraction

Plenty of us are worried about George Osborne’s doctrine of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’ – that as he cuts public spending and raises taxes, the economy will not weaken but strengthen.

His theory is that the financial markets will ease as the government borrows less, so that businesses and households will be able to borrow more cheaply and thus spend more, because the now perfectly healthy banks have oodles of spare money to lend and the last few years have absolutely not made any of us debt-averse. This will boost growth and certainly not store up any kind of trouble because rising private debt never leads to economic problems. What’s more, by laying off hundreds of thousands of its own workforce, the government will free up productive capacity and stop ‘crowding out’ our frustrated private sector, which has been desperate to hire more people but just can’t find anyone who’s unemployed.

Well, maybe. But I’m thinking about yesterday’s inflation figures. CPI is up to 4.5%, well above the 2% target, and it’s expected to go higher. As Duncan notes, without the effects of the VAT rise and other indirect taxes, inflation would be a more manageable 3%. Three-fifths of the above-target inflation is the government’s fault.

Pretty much all tax rises slow the economy down. Mostly, they also reduce inflation, as producers and retailers adapt to lower demand by cutting prices. But the government has discovered the ingenious double whammy of a tax hike that raises prices as well as hitting growth: an inflationary fiscal contraction. Both of these things are bad in themselves, but there are two further bad consequences.

First, the combination of them makes life very hard for the Bank of England. Inflation is way above target, but interest-rate rises – the tool for reducing inflation – are risky given the weakness of the economy. The theory was that loose monetary policy could offset ever-tighter fiscal policy, but with fiscal policy creating higher inflation, the Bank will probably have to put rates up sooner rather than later.

Second, state pensions and a number of benefits are linked to inflation. Putting up VAT is supposed to reduce the deficit, but the resultant higher inflation means that a fair amount of the money raised will just end up being paid out again: as a revenue-raiser, it’s inefficient. This will mean the deficit stays higher for longer – unless Osborne, who takes pride in refusing to budge from his Plan A, tightens further still.

Lucky us.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Crossing out and counting in

As the dullest farce in British history crawls to a close, those of us still in the audience grow gloomily aware that we need to write its ending. This flat, tetchy, flimsy spectacle of a referendum campaign is going to have to have a winner. And what rotten, wooden characters to choose from, reciting lines so outrageous they almost threaten to rouse us from the torpor they send us into.

But I don’t know how to abstain. So I have to try to focus: Alternative Vote or First-Past-The-Post?

Throw off the pious fantasies of the ‘yes’ campaign – as if reshaping the ballot paper would make politicians more decent and diligent, as if we could fashion saints using origami. Cast aside the paranoid fallacies of the ‘no’ campaign – as if some people would get more votes than others, as if a vote counts for more when it’s forced to move downmarket than when it can stay with its first true love. Focus.

As you’d expect from a man of his political acumen, David Cameron cuts to the heart of the matter. He says he will vote against a system that is “a confusing mess of preferences, probabilities and permutations”. And so will I.

Under FPTP, you pick which candidate you like the most. Then you try to estimate whether they have a chance of winning, based on your calculations of how other people are going to vote (all the harder given the big boundary changes for 2015). If you assess that they’re unlikely to win, you have to decide whether it’s more important for you to register your support for them or to pick one plausible winner that you prefer to another such. You mentally compile a list of the candidates that you judge to have a fair probability of winning and decide how much you like or dislike each of them. Then you compare how strongly you feel about your favourite candidate with how strongly you feel about the difference between your most and least preferred of the serious contenders.

And then you distil all this down to one cross in one box. One cross, whether you’re wildly keen or glumly tolerant, whether this is your first choice or just the lesser of two evils.

Yes, AV is more complex than FPTP. That’s something it has in common with us: we are more complex than FPTP, and AV lets us show it without having to second-guess whether our favourite is in with a chance. Because AV is more sophisticated, it allows us to be sophisticated too; it doesn’t force us to feign a single, all-or-nothing partisan identity.

And I’m not just talking about political anoraks like me. Most voters don’t have an overwhelming party allegiance. A poll for the Institute for Public Policy Research finds that just 18% of people are strongly attached to one party; 60% of us have some sympathy for a number of parties.

But is AV too complex to understand? Well, the Aussies seem to manage. Londoners seem to manage with the preferential voting system for the mayor. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish seem to manage with the assorted proportional systems for their devolved bodies. And the 2010 British Election Study (cited by the IPPR) gave 13,000 people a mock AV ballot: of those who voted in it, more than 90% picked a second preference, over 80% picked a third and over 70% picked a fourth. It seems that most of us have the nous, as well as the range of opinions, to do this.

It’s true, AV will need more explaining than FPTP. But it’s not nearly as hard as people are being led to believe. Alas, the Electoral Commission’s official explanation is dry and abstract; my own effort was also a bit abstract, as well as being handicapped by its own words-of-one-syllable gimmick.

But I have seen one very good showcase for AV – a three-minute video of people picking where to go for a drink. It ingeniously uses ‘voting to make a choice’ as a metaphor for ‘voting to make a choice’. It applies AV and FPTP in an easy-to-understand context, and shows how AV can stop a minority from beating a majority who are divided by less than what unites them.

So I like the process. What about the results?

The concrete effects AV would have are hard to guess. The safest prediction seems to be: (some) more seats for the Lib Dems, making hung parliaments and thus coalition governments (some degree) more common.

I don’t think coalitions are good or bad per se. I’m no fan of the current one, but I don’t imagine I’d like a Tory majority any more. There’s a view, though, that the process of coalition-making is undemocratic. As Janet Daley puts it, “no political leader can be held to account for his pre-election commitments because they must all be up for grabs in the post-election horse-trading”.

The Lib Dem poll ratings disprove this. There’s a world of difference between political leaders feeling able to say ‘don’t blame me, it’s a necessary coalition compromise’ and voters accepting that.

What’s more, with parties competing for lower preferences as well as first ones, campaigns – and our whole political culture – are likely to become less absolutist. Without the dogma of the immaculate election, as the sanctity of the unsullied party ebbs, so the idea of coalition will become less alien. I don’t say this is good or bad, just that if AV does produce coalitions, it’ll do so by a process that gets us thinking in that direction anyway.

So I’m voting ‘yes’. While AV does cost us some clarity, a lot of that clarity is phoney or forced. AV lets us say more. It allows us to think a little more broadly, to do a little more than dump all our reproachful hopes at one person’s door. People who truly do love one party and hate the rest can carry on putting a ‘1’ and nothing else; people who see shades of grey can be as discerning as they please.

There’s a lot more that could be said about either system; I’ve just focused here on the points that keep leaping out to me. And there are plenty of failings in British democracy, both constitutionally and culturally, that a change of voting system won’t solve. But AV or FPTP is the choice we’ve got to make this week. So, however this ends, after the curtain falls and we shuffle back into the daylight, let’s not conclude that ‘reform is done’ or ‘reform is dead’. Let’s try to do politics better.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Jack Bauer, copyeditor

If you share my sense of humour and fondness for grammar, you might like this what I wrote. (If you don’t, you probably won’t.)

Update 2/5: And here’s a topical second episode, revealing Jack’s role in bringing bin Laden to editorial justice.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

AV and minor parties

What would happen to minor parties under the Alternative Vote?

It’s well known that, under First-Past-The-Post, there are people who vote tactically: for a tolerable party that stands a decent chance of winning rather than for a favourite party that doesn’t. This means we can reasonably expect that parties placed low down the poll would get more first preferences under AV than they do votes under FPTP.

How many more votes would the small parties get under AV? This is impossible to quantify in advance, but one thing worth noting is that this question is the mirror of another: How many votes do minor parties currently lose to tactical voting?

Another fair assumption is that the current tactical switching (from a no-hoper to a serious contender) is likelier when one of the big parties is politically closer to the smaller party in question. Thus Green supporters may vote tactically for the Lib Dems (or, these days, perhaps more likely Labour) and UKIP supporters vote Conservative. The more extreme a smaller party is – in terms of distance from the larger parties – the less likely its supporters will be to find one of those larger parties a tolerable compromise.

And so, conversely, introducing AV would be likelier to boost those smaller parties that are closer to large ones, as the tactical voters instead follow their hearts with their first preferences.

This suggests that BNP supporters are currently less likely to vote tactically, and thus there would be fewer of them to switch to voting BNP under AV. One important caveat, though: this assumes that BNP supporters share the mainstream view of the party as being in a league of its own rather than part of the normal political spectrum. This may not be the case.

But so far this is all about votes. What about how smaller parties would do in terms of seats won?

This is even harder to tell. If there are massed ranks of people who’d like to back these parties but don’t, because they think their ranks aren’t all that massed, then AV could mean quite a big rise in these parties’ votes – in some cases, perhaps enough to put them into contention for winning a seat. In that case, if they can attract the lion’s share of second, third etc. preferences from other eliminated candidates, they can win the seat.

I suspect that in most seats, these two ifs would be too big. And again, parties perceived as more extreme would be less likely to pick up second etc. preferences.

So my reasoning is that minor parties would get more first preferences under AV than they get votes under FPTP (with those that are seen as very different from the bigger parties gaining the least). And my hunch is that this will translate into very few extra seats in parliament for them.

If so, this could actually promote disillusionment with the system. The gap between minor-party representation and actual minor-party support would shrink a bit, but the gap between minor-party representation and visible minor-party support would grow significantly. What’s more, the rise in visible support for minor parties may give their spokespeople greater moral authority given the larger share of the electorate they could claim to speak for.

Monday, April 04, 2011


This is one of the most damning opinion poll findings I’ve seen in a long while:

Friday, April 01, 2011

Love makes fools of us all

Having shared the good news with my friends on Facebook this morning, I thought I’d announce it to the rest of the world:

It’s been a whirlwind romance. We met while stuck in a kettle at the protest last weekend. We were already quite emotional having heard Ed Miliband's uplifting speech, and one thing led to another...

Apparently she had been seeing some other guy, but “he’s just not classy like you are, Tom”. Ah, that’s my Kate. There’s something special about her. It’s as if she somehow embodies the entire nation’s dreariest hopes and dreams.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Labour ponders shooting itself in the other foot

I’ve said it before, but reality unaccountably failed to bend to my will, so as it’s in the news again I’ll say it again.

Labour’s electoral college for choosing its leader means there can be a split result (party members voting one way but union members and/or MPs voting more strongly the other way), and a new leader can come to office facing jeers of ‘you’re the choice of the unions, your own party members didn’t want you’. This is what happened to Ed Miliband and it’s embarrassing.

Now there are moves afoot to give the wider public a say in leadership elections, by allowing them to register as supporters for free:

How registered supporters could be involved in leadership elections will not be detailed tomorrow, but [Peter] Hain said they could be given their own section in the electoral college of MPs, individual members and affiliates.

Please, no. The party should scrap the electoral college and have everyone’s vote going into the same pot. Otherwise the risk of embarrassment will grow.

Making a big show of reaching out to members of the public who are not normally into party politics is fine. But if they’re going to be given a say in party elections, it will risk looking terrible if they can then be outvoted.

Don’t put the party in a position where a future leader can come to office facing the even more embarrassing jeers of ‘you’re the choice of the party machine, the public didn’t want you’.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Libyan aftermath: not in his name

What follows is rather jumping the gun – and a lot more firepower besides – but it struck me as potentially significant, so here you go:

I do believe that David Cameron wants Libya to become safe, peaceful, stable, free and democratic, and he’s made a difficult decision sincerely in support of that. But I’m less sure about his deeper political position.

Before all this, his occasional speeches on foreign affairs had been notable for their implicit sneers at (a caricature of) Blair and Bush: “I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet”.

His push for military action therefore struck many as a change of heart. But the same scepticism of foreign entanglements is still there. I was struck by one thing he said in the debate yesterday:

This is different from Iraq. This is not going into a country and knocking over its Government, and then owning and being responsible for everything that happens subsequently.

I find this unsavoury: it sounds as though the key point is not whether Libya goes to hell after the bombing is done but whether we (or, in practice, he) can avoid blame if it does.

Probably the greatest failing of the Iraq war was the negligent planning for post-Saddam. The result was bloody. One lesson you could take from that is that we should stay out of the Middle East; another lesson is that if we do go to war, we need to be very aware of the social, religious, ethnic and institutional background and think much more thoroughly about what follows any military action.

A third possible lesson, which might appeal to a consummate politician, is that when it’s hard to predict what will happen beyond the short term, you should take care to establish that people won’t say it’s your fault.

I hope we don’t get to find out who would be blamed for disaster.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Resolution 1973 allows the use of “all necessary measures… excluding a foreign occupation force” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” and to “enforce compliance with the ban on flights”.

So, as David Cameron says, “the action has the full and unambiguous legal authority of the United Nations”.

The thing is (and never mind exactly how one defines “occupation” and “civilians”): who decides which measures do and don’t count as “necessary”? In practice, the governments taking those measures get to make those calls. One couldn’t rule on every possible path through the fog of war in advance, and there’ll be no UN tribunal at the end of it to assess every bomb dropped. So, in reality, “unambiguous legal authority” blurs into what the governments think they can make plausible. Bombing tanks outside Benghazi? Taking out air force bases? Destroying a government compound in Tripoli? Killing Gaddafi?

What is Cameron’s rationale in establishing what’s necessary? This:

Targets must be fully consistent with the UN Security Council resolution. We therefore choose our targets to stop attacks on civilians and to implement the no-fly zone, but we should not give a running commentary on targeting and I do not propose to say any more on the subject than that.

(And just look at this poor wretch of a Foreign Office minister getting Paxmanned [from about 27’00].)

There’s something of a Humpty Dumpty-ish “it means just what I choose it to mean” quality to this. While bombings and raids are ongoing, Cameron will often refuse to elaborate, implicitly demanding our trust. More broadly, he’ll come up with whatever justifications are needed to maintain a sense of legitimacy about this campaign. Every war leader does this.

International law is a morass of grey areas. In the end, the only authority that will matter to him is moral authority, as defined partly by him and partly by public opinion.

But I hope it works. I hope the cost in lives is minimal. I hope Gaddafi is deposed quickly; given the coverage of the amateurish-looking rebels, it appears that the likeliest way for that to happen is for the army leadership to turn against him. And I hope the successor regime is benevolent.

If I have to be on one side of the fence, then I’ll come down in favour: with no military intervention, Gaddafi would have finished crushing the rebellion and then redoubled his repression. As it is, some other series of events will happen. In the short term, things will be better (or less bad); in the long term, nobody knows. But I hope people smarter than me are thinking hard about it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The weight of a vote and the strength of a preference

“And for dessert, sir?” the waiter asked. I ummed and ah-ed and then said: “The chocolate cake, please.” “An excellent choice.”

Two minutes later he returned to tell me they’d run out. I looked at the menu a little longer, and picked the sticky toffee pudding. “Certainly, sir, another fine dish.” And he was right: in fact, their selection was generally pretty good all round.

Shortly, he came back, a little sheepish, to tell me the toffee had come unstuck. I pondered again. “Then I’ll take the crème brulée.”

Alas, it turned out that the blowtorch had blown a fuse. After he’d finished grovelling, I looked at what they did have left – hot fudge sundae or nettle tart – and found my decision very easy. So hot fudge sundae I had, and while it was no better than passable, I was deeply glad to have avoided the nettle.

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Danny Finkelstein [£] makes a number of sound points about the AV referendum campaign, including a sensible response to one common canard about AV (which he opposes):

I don't agree with the "no" campaigners that I am voting more than once. Everyone gets the same right to express their other preferences.

Quite right. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying:

But there is a serious - in my view, fatal - objection… The system gives my fourth preference the same weight as someone else's first preference. And it shouldn't.

Two things:

First of all, it’s a mistake to think that what matters most to a voter is the pick of their favourite. What about someone who thinks Labour is marginally better than the Greens, the Greens marginally better than the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems marginally better than the Tories and the Tories vastly better than the BNP? Here, the real passion, the strongest choice, only appears at the fourth preference. Just as I found in my badly stocked restaurant.

Under AV, picking a first preference is answering the question ‘Who do you like the most?’ Picking a second preference is answering the question ‘With your first choice unavailable, who do you like the most?’ And so on. I don’t see why the later questions should be less important and people’s answers accordingly less significant.

Secondly, under first-past-the-post, we already have people picking their second, third and lower preferences – it’s called tactical voting. Plenty of people have done it at one point or another. Under this system, you look at all the candidates, mentally rank them in order of preference, then pick the highest-ranked one who you think has a real chance of winning and write an ‘X’ next to their name.

And your second- or third- or fourth-preference vote will carry as much weight as my first-preference vote. So the putative unfairness Danny attributes to AV also exists under FPTP, albeit in a less obvious form. But I don’t think it’s unfair.

Unless we require voters to award each candidate marks out of 100 (and do it honestly, which of course is unenforceable), there is no way for a ballot paper to distinguish enthusiastic, overwhelming endorsement from grudging, borderline, best-of-a-bad-bunch acceptance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I’ve got a little list

Nick Clegg, September 2010:

Clegg feels he is "constantly being urged by commentators, by party activists" to "express identity by tearing strips off the Tories" and by brandishing "trophies of achievement to show the Liberal Democrats have secured this or that concession".
One of the big points he wants to make to his party is that "this temptation" ought to be resisted. "The moment we get drawn into that sort of dynamic, two things will happen. Firstly, it will actually make us seem more irrelevant than we are because it will perpetuate the idea that the point of being in the coalition for the Liberal Democrats is to have a little shopping list of achievements, the assumption being the rest of it is Conservative policy. The truth is much more radical than that. All the big judgments are genuinely jointly taken by David Cameron and myself. That's why I didn't want to have a department, that's why I'm a hop and a skip from his office."

Nick Clegg, March 2011:

Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have ended child detention? Got an extra ten billion out of the banks? Would it have held a referendum on the voting system? Or put up capital gains tax? Ordered an inquiry into torture? Brought in a pupil premium? Or replaced Control Orders? Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for the poorest?
I don’t think so.

I can’t see the Tories being happy with this.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stroppy editing

I reckon that what my psyche really needs is a bit more fragmentation. So I’ve started another blog, focusing on things I’ve come across in my work as a copyeditor/proofreader/general editorial dogsbody. All anonymised, to spare the blushes (and the sacking).

I like my work in theory, but in practice it often annoys me. Hence the title: The Stroppy Editor. It’s of niche interest, but it’s my niche, so there.

Political meanderings and intermittent silliness will continue here as usual. But posts like this and this and this will in future appear in the other place.

War and democracy

A propos of Libya, Tony Benn, John Pilger and others write to the Guardian warning against any military action. One thing they say is:

The disaster in Iraq should have taught us that military intervention cannot hasten democracy.

For one thing, this seems an overgeneralisation from one example. West Germany post-1945 springs rather quickly to mind.

But more than that, one may agree that the Iraq war caused a disastrous loss of life and was utterly wrong while still doubting that the country would have made faster progress towards democracy if there had been no war.

War does not in itself bring democracy, but can – in some circumstances – remove obstacles to it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Vegetables, rodents and the man responsible for a Mickey Mouse government

Matthew d’Ancona says:

One of the great Spitting Image sketches portrayed Margaret Thatcher dining out with the Cabinet. “Steak, please,” she says. “How would you like it?” inquires the waiter. “Raw,” replies the Iron Lady. “And what about the vegetables?” he asks. “Oh,” she says, “they’ll have the same as me.”
One of Mrs Thatcher’s most cunning tactics was to distance herself from the government she led when it was under-performing. Routinely, she would refer to her own administration as “they” – signalling that her deeper loyalty lay with the electorate. Now, in a smoother, less combative fashion, David Cameron is borrowing this very technique.

And, a day later, Cameron pops up on the One Show. When asked about the “bit of a rodent problem at Number 10”, he joked:

Don’t talk about the Cabinet like that!

A couple of months back there was much chatter in and around Labour circles about whether using the phrase “Tory-led government” would make criticisms stick better than “coalition”. I joined in myself. On reflection, this was inane.

The government’s (and the Conservative party’s) strongest political asset, and the name that Labour needs to tar with all government failures, is David Cameron. Never mind Clegg: there are more votes and more seats that need to be won from the Tories and that will require knocking down their figurehead. He can’t be allowed to float above the day-to-day grind of governing, a hands-off national leader rather than a politician. Because whether he delegates or micromanages, he’s still in charge and he’s still responsible.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A long time ago in an office far, far away...

I’ve staged a few more Lego Death Star office scenes. By making it a satire on working life, I’ve convinced myself that playing with toys is a legitimate pastime for a 34-year-old. Result!

I’m going to try to do one of these every Monday. I imagine they’ll be hit and miss, which is at least better than a stormtrooper’s shooting.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

C what he means

Damian (who, incidentally, made a point worth taking seriously about my AV explanation) has just tweeted this:

It’s not what you think it is.

(In that post, he asks: “Is the World ever going to grow the fuck up about sex?” I believe I’ve proved that the answer is no.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

No flies on Gaddafi

One of the most troubling things about the situation in Libya is the proposal to make the country a ‘no-fly zone’. The sheer amount of pesticide required would surely bankrupt NATO, as well as causing severe harm to the environment and public health.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Alternative Vote system explained in words of one syllable

This isn’t an attempt to plug AV, nor to speculate on what would happen under it, but just to knock down the notion that it’s fiendishly complex.

(Update 26/4: I'm getting quite a bit of Google traffic to this post, which is nice, but I should say that this video featuring Dan Snow is a much better explanation of the difference between AV and FPTP. It's not neutral, but I'm sure you're smart enough to separate out the 'how it works' from the 'why it's good'.)

How to vote
Anne, Bob, Claire, Doug and Eve all want you to vote for them. So who do you like the most? Pick one (Bob, say) and put a ‘1’ next to their name: that’s your first choice. Then, pick which of the rest of them you’d like the most if Bob were out of the race (Eve, say) and put a ‘2’ next to their name. Then, pick which of the rest you’d like the most if Bob and Eve were out of the race – and so on.

You can go all the way and put ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’ and ‘5’ next to each name, or you can stop at the point where you don’t have a view on which of the rest is best. You can just put ‘1’ and leave at it that, if you don’t care for the rest of them at all. Then you’re done.

How to count the votes to see who wins
We put all the votes that mark Anne as the first choice in a pile. And then the ones for Bob and Claire and so on. If one of them has more than half the votes, they win.

If not, then the one placed last (say it’s Bob) gets knocked out and we move to round two. Round two, at root, asks: ‘Who do you like the most out of Anne, Claire, Doug and Eve?’

We look at all the votes from Bob’s pile to see who’s the next choice on each. If you marked Bob ‘1’ and left it at that, then you’ve said you have no view on the rest of them, so your vote gets put to the side. If you marked, say, Eve ‘2’, your vote goes on her pile. We move all the Bob votes that do have a ‘2’ marked to the piles for Anne, Claire, Doug or Eve. The votes these four had from round one still count this time, of course: those who cast them still have the same first choice in a race with no Bob.

And if one of them has more than half the votes, they win.

If not, we do the same thing: say Anne is last this time. She gets knocked out and for round three the votes in her pile get moved to Claire’s, Doug’s and Eve’s piles, as marked. And if one of these three has more than half the votes, they win. If not, we knock out the one placed last and go to round four, in the same way. When we get to the point where one of them has more than half the votes, they win. And that’s that.

(Number three in an extremely occasional series.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mass uprisings against hated regimes – they’re all the rage

If I had anything of substance that half as clever as that pun to say about Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and wherever else, I’d say it here. But there’s a limit to the number of countries on which I can quickly get myself up to the level of expertise needed for a pub conversation, let alone meaningful blogging. And that number is one, give or take.

I’ll just make the very general point that booting out a dictator isn’t the be-all and end-all of democratisation. If you can wring concessions out of him that seriously and permanently constrain his power, it may not be needed at all. And if he does go, what most matters for how the country then fares is the incentives faced by those (such as the Egyptian military) who find themselves in charge. Do they have greater motive to push for deeper constitutional reform or to consolidate their newfound power?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Are you smarter than David Cameron (thinks you are)?

I’m still undecided about voting systems, but I am starting to think that the FPTP campaign (or, more accurately, the anti-AV campaign) is arguing in a marginally more annoying way than the AV campaign (or, more accurately, the anti-FPTP campaign). I’ll try not to let this bias me.

One thing FPTP certainly has going for it is that it’s simpler: simpler to vote and simpler to count. But I don’t think the difference is really all that big, and I’d treat this as a small factor that would only come into play if I couldn’t decide otherwise.

But David Cameron thinks AV is far too complicated to understand:

Here's a passage from a book detailing how the Alternative Vote system works:
"As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates."
Do you understand that? I didn't. And I've read it many times.

I understood it straight away. Now, Cameron has a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, so unless he’s been in mental decline since his Bullingdon days, he really should be able to get it. Or, as I suspect, he gets it perfectly well and is just playing dumb because he thinks everyone else is.

That said, the passage is much, much longer than it needs to be. But that’s bad writing, not inherent complexity. Here’s my shorter version:

When a candidate is eliminated, each of their votes is allocated to that voter’s highest preference among the remaining candidates. Preferences for candidates that have already been eliminated are skipped over.

And you could cut the second sentence; it’s implicit in the first.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Here I stand; I can do no other

Norm asks for a second opinion on the anthropic principle, in relation to our existence, the laws of physics and the ‘multiverse’. He seeks input from “someone who understands the science”. Well, that definitely isn’t me, but I think I do at least understand the logic (and I think Norm does too, really).

If life-supporting physics is extremely unlikely (and I make no claim about whether that’s so or whether it’s even knowable), then the fact that our universe has just that is, to say the least, curious. Possible explanations are: random chance; deliberate design; or a change of perspective that makes this unlikely situation less remarkable. (The other option is that the physical laws we actually have are in some way necessary – that is, to deny the antecedent.)

The first and second options are the sort of thing that scientists will only seriously settle on if they’ve exhausted all other possibilities, the first being no explanation at all and the second simply shifting the missing explanation back a stage and magnifying it in the process. The third route, which the multiverse hypothesis takes, say that if there is a vast multitude of physical universes, then there are bound to be some life-supporting ones. The fact that we’re in such a universe is no more surprising than the fact that fish are found in seas and not in deserts.

Of course, a multiverse would be quite a thing, and naturally the people from Occam’s Razors Ltd are hesitant to invest. But which is the more extravagant hypothesis: lots and lots and lots more physical stuff, or a creator?

(I don’t rule out other possibilities; I’m no more a scientist than Jennifer Aniston. And I’m also not saying that an atheistic desire to resist the design argument is motivating the idea: the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics gets us into that sort of territory.)

The idea that Norm rightly identifies as unreasonable is that “our physical laws might be explained ‘anthropically,’ meaning that they are as they are because if they were otherwise, no one would be around to notice them”. This of course is rubbish (and backwards causation at that).

All the anthropic principle can give us is the weaker, epistemic conclusion that any observed physical laws must be such as to enable the existence of lifeforms that can observe them. But that’s nothing special: it’s like saying that all instances of drunks recovering their dropped car keys take place under lamp-posts (because when the keys get dropped somewhere dark, they remain unfound).