Polly\’s Politics II

Aaaaand, abracadabra!

Ed Balls addressed them yesterday before launching his much-heralded Children\’s Plan in the Commons today. Before his arrival, they were glum: they feared weaselling and prevarication. But once he spoke those vital words, there was an outburst of relief and applause.

He committed the government unequivocally to hitting its 2010 target for halving child poverty, and abolishing it by 2020. "It is not going to be easy," he said, but "we\’re not going to abandon those goals just because the going has got tough. This is when we need to make sure we try even harder." So there was the promise – though with no word as to how it is to be done.

I will do such things – What they are yet I know not. . .

Shall we book in a pony for each of us as well then?

So how can Labour now reach the halfway goal by 2010? It will cost £4.5bn, to be found in the 2008 and 2009 budgets: Ed Balls declared that the chancellor had signed up to it. Where will it come from? The government could raise that sum from taxing the richest 1.5% of taxpayers on earnings over £100,000 by another 10%.

Err, Polly, you seem not to have grasped the point about marginal tax rates. They do in fact change behaviour. No, I\’m not going to insist that a rise to a 50% marginal rate will lead to a reduction in revenues in the short term, just that there isn\’t a straight line relationship between raising rates and raising revenues. You need dynamic analysis of such changes, not static. And you also need to make sure that the revenues will last into the long term…..because people\’s behaviour does change over time more than it does immediately.

Depressing research from the Department for Work and Pensions finds public sympathy for the poor has regressed in the last decade. Voters are less likely to believe anyone is poor, and more likely to blame the poor themselves. Opinion polls and Rowntree Foundation research tell the same story, as do the hostile bloggers invading the Guardian\’s website after articles such as this. Labour\’s decade of soaring affluence for the 70% property owners has bred a newly virulent despising of the families where 30% of children live below the poverty line.

That\’s because people are beginning to work out that the poverty you\’re talking about is relative poverty, not absolute. Yes, I know that in correctly thinking circles it is relative poverty that is decried (and I\’m even willing to agree that it\’s an interesting concept) but it doesn\’t in fact strike the Great Unwashed in quite the same way. Asking the average bloke on the Barnes Bendy Bus whether children should live in deprivation and the answer is no. Ask whether it\’s similarly appalling that some children have less than others and the answer is again no. The Demos simply isn\’t as worried about relative poverty as you are.

Yet Labour\’s great failing has been in never persuading the well-off that those left behind have any claim on their sympathy or concern.

Quite. As I say, the people don\’t actually give a damn. So why should their money be spent the way you want, rather than the way they want?

I Bet You Are Jeremy

This isn\’t a surprise:

The latest pull-out has annoyed rival business leaders at London-based Solar Century and local Indian operation, Orb Energy, who fear the impact of a high-profile company selling off solar business. Jeremy Leggett, chief executive of Solarcentury and a leading voice in renewable energy circles, said Shell was undermining the credibility of the business world in its fight against global warming.

If a well known and canny company gets out of a business: well, it devalues the reputations of those still in it, doesn\’t it?

You\’d think that Leggett would welcome the opportunity for his own business to step into the gap in the marketlace really, but he seems to be more worried about the wider message than that.

Wonder how Solar Century is doing?

On Target

Yup:

The cost of policing and security for the London 2012 Olympics has risen to £1.2 billion, it has emerged, as the Government admitted it could not guarantee that the overall bill will not exceed the £9.3 billion announced earlier this year.

I think we\’re still on target to get to Tyler\’s budget of £20 billion all in.

Conrad Black Sentence

Not given up yet, has he?

Shortly before he was sentenced, Black read a short statement to the court.

It said: "I do wish to express very profound regret and sadness at the severe hardship suffered by all the shareholders, including employees, by the evaporation of $1.85 billion (£90.3 million) in shareholder value under my successors [at Hollinger.]"

His successors in the UK seem to have pared the subs budget just a little too much as well.

The Horrors of Portugal

I pottered out tonight….the wifie is away doing that pre-Christmas grandmother thing in England.

Had dinner in the cafe at the end of the road. Got to order it, the day before, so they can get the stock in sort of thing.

I ended up with a bottle of not very good red wine. About a lb or so of not all that good beef, slowly cooked with garlic and onions. Boiled potatoes, a tomato and onion salad (they\’d peeled the tomatoes, I should add), bread, dessert of a couple of fresh pears (I was greedy and asked for a third) and a cafezino (for the uninitiated, an espresso and a local brandy).

No, there\’s better food out there in this world. There\’s even better food than this in England.

I got charged €10 for the lot.

The horrors of Portugal, let me tell you.

 

It\’s The Way He Tells \’em

Murphy again:

It’s simply the amount that it is claimed non-doms spend in the UK, which is not the same thing. In fact, it’s far from it. By this definition all people the world over who buy our exports ‘contribute’ to the British economy. It does not justify their having preferential tax treatment.

People who buy our exports do indeed get preferential tax treatment. They don\’t pay VAT (nor, of course, income tax, national insurance, fuel duty, etc, etc etc.) So if Murphy is correct in that these are the same things, then non-doms shouldn\’t be paying VAT, income tax, national insurance…..

Getting Greg Clark Wrong.

Via both Sullivan and Lost Legacy, this review in the NY Times of Greg Clark\’s " A Farewell to Alms".

Second, Darwinian evolution is usually seen as a process that works over very long periods of time, with consequences for humans that we can observe only by looking far into the past.

Well, yes, but Clark is careful not to insist that it is Darwinian evolution which is the mechanism by which the change came about.

One frustrating aspect of Clark’s argument is that while he insists on the “biological basis” of the mechanism by which the survival of the richest fostered new human attributes and insists on the Darwinian nature of this process, he repeatedly shies away from saying whether the changes he has in mind are actually genetic. “Just as people were shaping economies,” he writes in a typical formulation, “the economy of the preindustrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically” (emphasis added). Nor does he introduce any evidence, of the kind that normally lies at the core of such debates, that traits like the capacity for hard work are heritable in the sense in which biologists use the term.

Quite, so he\’s not in fact talking about Darwinian evolution then, so why blame him for not proving that it was caused by Darwinian evolution?

The issue here is not merely a matter of too often writing “perhaps” or “maybe.” If the traits to which Clark assigns primary importance in bringing about the Industrial Revolution are acquired traits, rather than inherited ones, there are many non-Darwinian mechanisms by which a society can impart them, ranging from schools and churches to legal institutions and informal social practices.

Indeed, and we\’ll come to that.

But if the traits on which his story hinges are genetic, his account of differential childbearing and survival is necessarily central.

Ah, and there is the central error in Friedman\’s argument. For Darwinian evolution is not in fact the only sort of evolution that has been posited, nor is it the only form of evolution which we can argue actually works.

Now, let me back up slightly here. I\’m not about to get all kooky on you and insist that because your father learnt to play the guitar then so can you already play the guitar via your genes. But there has been another form of evolution posited, Lamarckian. As it turns out, with the genetic attributes of humans and other animals it turns out to be wrong. But in Deirdrie McCloskey\’s review of the same book, the issue is indeed nailed as being entirely central to the thesis (and no, she doesn\’t agree with it):

…unless they fit his notion of the material if social inheritance of acquired characteristics (“and perhaps even the genes,” says he).

The inheritance of acquired characteristics is, in evolutionary terms, referred to as Lamarckian: and as above, with reference to genes, it\’s wrong. However, with reference to culture it most certainly is not wrong.

No, I\’m not going to try and prove that culture is transmitted in a Lamarckian manner. Rather, I\’m going to prove that you and everyone else already believe it is.

For I think we all agree that the children of teenage mothers are more likely to themselves become teenage parents? That is the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. We note that children who grow up in a home without books do badly at school: and then go on to note that those who do badly at school tend to have few books at home to instruct their own children. We note that the middle classes tend to transmit their social success across the generations: it\’s most unfashionable these days to attribute that to genes, rather, to social networks, to the privilege that a secure upbringing and a decent education provide. We note that children whose parents have a university education are more likely to get a university education themselves. Anyone pondering the family networks that infest UK journalism, or the Law, will be observing exactly the same thing. No, we don\’t believe that the ability to write leader columns has been genetically transmitted from Lord Rees Mogg to Annunziata Rees Mogg (he at The Times, she at The Telegraph: and having once read one of hers where she refers to "sclerosis of the liver", if we did I\’d be expecting someone to be having a very serious and intimate chat with Lady Rees Mogg sometime soon) but we do indeed believe that a combination of education and the extended network of the family have contributed to the daughter following in the old man\’s footsteps.

Indeed, this is one of the arguments forcefully put forward againt the existence of private schools in the UK: that they permit the transmission of exactly this form of cultural inheritance and thus privileged positions.

So we believe this about our society now: that attitudes, mindsets, extended networks, are indeed transmitted across the generations, not via Darwinian evolution, but in a way that can best be described as Lamarckian. The inheritance by the next generation of characteristics acquired by the previous one.

So we all already actually agree that Clark\’s mechanism is indeed a possible one (I personally regard it, now that\’s he\’s written the book to explain it, as obvious, but as I didn\’t see it before I read the book perhaps not that obvious.): all he needs to really prove is that the people who were transmitting the petit- and not so petit- bourgeois cultural values were indeed outbreeding those who didn\’t and the basic argument seems secure. Those bourgeois cultural values were indeed spreading through society via an evolutionary mechanism, just that of Lamarck, not Darwin.

Now, whether that actually caused the Industrial Revolution is another matter, but the transmission mechanism is one that, as above, we all already think is true.

Update. One further thought. I\’m really not sure where that idea that Darwinian evolution is only evident in humans over very long periods of time comes from. We need to divide evolution into two different things. The first is the accumulation of random mutations which lead to diversity in the population (which in itself can be divided into two. Those that kill the fetus or child, which are most of them, and those that don\’t). This does indeed take a long time and it happens at a reasonably well known rate. So much so that we actually use the existence of such diversity to count backwards and tell us when populations split in the past. Now most such mutations (those that don\’t kill) make very little or no difference at all to reproductive success. Others do make a difference. But there\’s a third set and those are those that make no difference now, but might at some point in the future. Yes, the accumulation of these mutations does indeed take a long time.

Well, you might ask, how can something not make a difference to reproductive success now but do so in the future? This brings us to our second "thing" about evolution. It\’s the changing environment which determines which traits lead to that increased reproductive success. Sure, things like melanin enhancement in skin to deal with sunnier climes take a long time to become evident. But environments can change rather rapidly.

For example, what if there were some random mutation that conferred immunity (or an increased chance of survival) to smallpox? Or bubonic plague? I\’ve no idea whether there is or has been (that there are such mutations for better immune systems is obvious, but they proffer immediate increased success, except where they don\’t) but I wouldn\’t be at all surprised if there had been. And then in Justinian\’s time (around 500 AD, for smallpox) or the 1350s, for bubonic plague, possession or not of those genes becomes very evident in a very short period of time. Those with them are still alive, those without are not.

Yes, OK, it\’s a quibble, but it\’s a boring Monday afternoon here.

 

 

New Climate Change Report

I\’ve had a quick look for this new report but can\’t find a copy. Let me know if you can:

Britain is responsible for hundreds of millions more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions than official figures admit, according to a new report that undermines UK claims to lead the world on action against global warming.

The analysis says pollution from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism, which are not measured in the official figures, means that UK carbon consumption has risen significantly over the past decade, and that the government\’s claims to have tackled global warming are an "illusion".

This is, of course, entirely possible. The interesting question is whether it is true or not. Until I see he report I can\’t say really, but this doesn\’t fill me with a great deal of hope:

The new analysis measures the UK\’s consumption of carbon, rather than production. It includes energy consumed to make products and ship them to the UK from countries such as China, as well as the carbon footprint of British citizens abroad.

The first question has to be whether they are deducting the carbon used to manufacture goods and services for export: not to do so while counting the carbon in imports would be a fairly gross form of double counting.

Rather more mindboggling is the idea that my carbon emissions down here in Portugal (actually rather low, almost no heating, no air con, petrol usage of perhaps a tankful every fortnight) should be added to the UK\’s numbers. For if we\’re going to do that then we also have to remove from the UK numbers the emissions from non-UK citizens actually living in the UK. As migration numbers in are higher than those out, this would rather make me think that doing so would reduce total UK emissions, not increase them (plus, of course, the Lisboan banker in the City would have vastly higher emissions than I do down here).

If anyone sees a copy of that report, do let me know would you? Love to see what they\’re actually saying.

Update: I\’ve now got a copy of the paper from the author and no, he doesn\’t make those mistakes. It\’s the journalist who isn\’t clear with what\’s going on.

Measuring emissions on the consumption basis rather than the production basis makes sense (well, it\’s certainly interesting to compare the two methods) and he does use net figures (ie, imports minus exports, UK residents abroad minus non-residents in the UK etc). There\’s an interesting implication of all this though which I\’ll write up a little later, possibly at another place. I\’ve got more here now.

Boosting Growth

I do have to wonder:

Gordon Brown plans to harness at least 20 of the world\’s biggest multinational companies, including Google and Vodafone, to tackle a "development emergency" in the world\’s poorest countries and put the international community back on course to achieve seven UN development goals by 2015.

As a UN report released today shows limited progress in hitting goals intended to tackle poverty, education, health and sanitation, the prime minister has been holding talks with the internet and telecoms giants as well as other international companies including Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart in an attempt to find ways of increasing growth in poor countries

Yes, of course such companies can play a role in increasing growth in poor countries. WalMart, for example, by entering a market and revolutionising the distribution system (as it has done over the decades in the US), could greatly increase growth. It\’s actually tried to do so in India (I think I\’m remembering this correctly) but has been stopped from doing so by the Indian Government.

But trivia like that aside, what these companies can do to aid growth is to go there, invest, build things, sell their services, try to make money. Act, in fact, as they do at home: creating a product that people want to buy and thereby making a profit.

Although the prominence given to multinationals is likely to be controversial with parts of the development community,

Indeed, there\’s a very vocal part of the "development community" that insists that such companies should be prevented from doing exactly that. Why isn\’t all that certain: my own assumption is that they\’re either cretins or socialists: but I repeat myself.

Also worth noting Vodaphone there. There\’s actually a direct link between the number of mobile phones in a country and the growth rate. Looking at countries without a decent landline network it\’s (again, from memory) something like a rise of 10 per 100 of the population having handsets leads to a 0.5% increase in growth. Further, there\’s a direct relationship between how many competing providers of services there are and the penetration per head. So we can see a pretty simple idea forming here. Governments should issue multiple competing licences for mobile telecoms. Some still have single monopolies (Ethiopia, Angola, again, from memory).

The problem isn\’t with Vodaphone, it\’s with the host governments not allowing them to enter the market.

But this is the part of the press release that I love the most. It shows Brown\’s thinking so clearly:

Brown told the Guardian: "We are half way to the target date of 2015, but a long way off track to our goals and face a development emergency. 2008 should be a development year and mark a call to action from everyone – not just rich and poor governments but civil society, faith groups, trade unions and even the private sector."

We\’re talking about growth here, the creation of wealth. The moving of resources from low value uses to higher value ones (which is, after all, the very definition of growth). And we get "even the private sector"?

The truth is of course that the best method of getting that desired growth is to let the private sector rip. Remove the current barriers to capitalism red in tooth and claw. We could aid that ourselves by removing the limits placed upon imports into the UK. You know, allow people to buy goods made by poor people in poor countres, we know that boosts wealth.

It might even be something useful that the UK Government themselves could do: if we hadn\’t given the right to determine our trade policies to the European Union that is.

Organ Transplants

There\’s good and bad in everything:

Hundreds of below standard hearts, lungs and kidneys have been taken from drug addicts and transplanted into critically-ill patients, The Daily Telegraph has been told.

That\’s the bad.

"We are getting desperate," he said. "We were much more careful 10 or 15 years ago because there were more donors. The age of donors is going up.

That\’s the good. Fewer people are dying of accidents at a young age (the most likely source for transplant organs).

Why Bother?

President Robert Mugabe has pledged to uphold "democracy and the rule of law" when a raft of African autocrats signed a declaration supposedly heralding a new era of open politics.

Why bother even paying for the paper this was written on? Anyone think that the robber barons who run those African countries are going to take any notice?

Yes. It\’s Govt IT Again

What is it with these people?

THOUSANDS of servicemen and women, including many fighting on the front line, are being underpaid because of failures in a new computerised pay system.

Some soldiers have gone without full pay for up to five months and, with Christmas only weeks away, are being forced to turn to regiment hardship funds to cover household bills.

Special forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as ordinary soldiers have been hit by the fiasco. For some officers, it is costing £580 a month.

This weekend the Ministry of Defence admitted that more than 16,000 members of the forces were underpaid in August, the latest month for which official data is available.

So they\’re actually admitting (and thus we can expect the true number to be much higher) that some 10% of staff were underpaid. Yes?

Two-thirds of an entire intake of officers who graduated from Sandhurst three years ago are still being paid their junior rank despite being promoted – an underpayment of £19 a day or £580 a month.

Jeebus….

It is not only full-time soldiers but also reservists who have been affected. The chaos is such that thousands of soldiers have also been overpaid, with the money having to be clawed back. Many have spent the money unaware that they would have to repay it, leaving them short of money. According to the MoD, a total of 38,529 were wrongly paid between April and August, the only months for which the ministry has full figures.

Now it\’s 20% wrongly paid?

The computer system, known as Joint Personnel Administration (JPA), was introduced in March last year in the Royal Navy and saw a flood of complaints from sailors not being paid their full pay. The RAF was taken on to the system in October last year, followed by the Army in April this year. The £250m system was implemented by EDS, which was widely criticised for its computerisation of the Child Support Agency.

Can one of you technical people out there tell me something? Payroll systems are somthing that the computer industry has pretty much got licked, aren\’t they? They\’ve been around for a few decades and there are companies of the same sort of size as the Armed Forces (150,000- 200,000 people or so) that manage to get it right, aren\’t there? So two questions: is £250 million over the top or about right for such a system? And, is this the normal sort of chaos or is it worse than normal (or even better)?

One of the key problems with the system is that it requires senior officers to log in to authorise payments, which means that if they are away on operations, the whole procedure grinds to a halt. “The system is based on the design for a civilian pay system and takes no account of the complexities of the armed forces pay system,” one officer said.

Or is that actually the fault: bad design to start with?

This is a Liberal?

Nick Clegg mouths off:

It is time for people to own our criminal justice system once again. New community courts should be set up in every town and city in Britain. Those who commit minor but visible offences such as vandalism should have to explain themselves to victims and members of the community. Together they will be able to decide how offenders can make up for the damage they have caused.

Erm, we have these already. Called Magistrates Courts. Staffed by unpaid volunteers, serving their community.

And if Britain is to be prepared for emergencies, I believe we need to re-establish some form of civil defence organisation. It must be community-based, community-led and engage people. I want to explore how we get people to learn skills to serve their community, and share the skills they have, so when emergencies happen, from flooding to terrorism, it isn\’t just a small, professional elite who step up, it\’s everyone. As leader, I will set up a group to look at how best to structure this sort of community resilience force.

Someone tell him about St. John\’s Ambulance will they?

Could someone also tell me how advocating the replacement of a voluntary community organisation with a State led one is liberal in any manner?

The Appallingness of the BBC

Mary Riddell points out that the BBC really isn\’t living up to its public broadcasting role. This is a rejection letter sent tosomeone making a film about Vaughan Williams:

Dear Mr Palmer, Thank you for your enquiry about the composer Mr V Williams. Having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share, we came to the conclusion that a film about Mr Williams would not be appropriate at this time. This is essentially because we are… reconstructing the architecture of bbc.co.uk, and to do that, we need to maximise the routes to content.\’We must establish the tools that allow shared behaviours, and so harness the power of the audience and our network to make our content more findable. We have decided to take a radically new approach… and therefore free resources for projects of real ambition… So, given that this is the new vision for Vision, you will understand why a film about Mr V Williams such as you have proposed does not fit our remit. But good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr V Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.

OK, fine, the BBC is not fit for purpose. Let\’s sell it then, shall we?

Most Odd

Dan Roberts does a column on confidence in the economy, the importance of it in fact.

But he doesn\’t mention the most famous economist to have commented upon the matter, Keynes, with his comments about "animal spirits".

Not important, just odd not to do so.

Music Trivia

Noddy Holder was Robert Plant\’s roadie?

Robert Plant, born in West Bromwich, was 19 and, having abandoned plans to become a chartered accountant, was desperate for a break in the music business. With nowhere to live, he was sleeping in a spare room in a pub in Wolverhampton – opposite, as it happened, the window cleaning business run by Noddy Holder\’s father. "Noddy was our roadie," remembers Plant. "We used to go to gigs with his dad\’s buckets banging around on top of the van. And that is when I met Pagey."

Makes an interesting start to an alternative history, don\’t it? What if Jimmy Page had hired the other one? Guitarists the world over massacre the famous solo from "Cum on Feel the Noize" and every Christmas is celebrated with the Top of the Pops performance (and re-release) of Stairway to Heaven with the bloke in the gold topper?