January 2010

Bleedin\’ \’ell

SPIN doctors at Ben Bradshaw’s Culture Media and Sport department are being paid an average of £64,000 a year…

Now I\’ve done that job….not for a govt department, to be sure….and even including the NI payments as they say, that\’s one hell of a pay rate.

Hmm, given that I\’ve been half of a press team that got a political party to number 2 in a national election, think anyone would like to hire me? Maybe offer me a higher rate?

I\’ve even ghosted pieces for the Express, Sport, Guardian, Telegraph, New Statesman and Times….

Hmm, no, not quite I think

This rather goes to the heart of one\’s ideas about how society works:

The really interesting stuff in the BSA survey is in our changing attitudes to homosexuality and cohabitation. Of those questioned, 45% said it made “no difference” whether a child’s parents were married or living together — up from 38% in 1998. Where two decades ago we were hissing at otherness from the sidelines and poking at it with sharp sticks, we’re now cuddling it and saying, “Come in, otherness, we’ve made you some camomile tea.”

The increase in tolerance of same-sex couples is a genuine achievement of the current administration, and of the preceding one, with the end of section 28, the arrival of civil partnerships and the acceptance of gay people in the army and in government. There has been a kind of mini-revolution with regard to gay rights that will have played a part in reshaping our ideas about what is and isn’t “wrong”.

I see two very different sides here.

1) People have become more tolerant because the law has changed.

2) People have become more tolerant therefore it has been possible to change the law.

I\’m very much in the second camp. I really don\’t believe that because civil partnerships are now available that people have become more tolerant of not heteronormative sexuality. I think that the tolerance has been increasing for decades (and closely matching at least in public the decline of strongly held religious views).

By analogy it\’s like the question of whether newspapers shape readers\’ views or pursue them. And the research there seems to show chase, not form.

I don\’t think this is a left or right issue either: I think perhaps it tracks the statist/non-statist mind set though (and there are just as many statists in Tory ranks as there are Labour). There are those who certainly act as if they believe the State, the law, is a vanguard in such matters: there are those like myself who think it simply follows (however imperfectly) changes in the underlying society.

We might test this: there\’s been little to no change in the law over the decades about cannabis smoking of cocaine usage. Yet tolerance of these has markedly increased: which would seem to indicate that it\’s the society bit that\’s important, not the State or law bit.

There is a joke that can be made about India Knight being the columnist that notes these things but I won\’t make it, \’coz I\’m tolerant, see?

I\’m not entirely convinced

At a special \”review conference\” in Kampala, Uganda, the nations which have signed up to the court, including Britain, will consider a proposal to let the court try the \”crime of aggression\” – the offence allegedly committed by Tony Blair.

If the proposal, backed by more than 70 countries, passes, national leaders alleged to have launched \”illegal\” wars could be seized, transported to the Hague, tried and imprisoned.

Not because I\’m all that in favour of wars of aggression. But because I\’m against what I think would come next: an expansion of what is the definition of aggression….even of war in fact.

There are already those who call the US embargo against trade with Cuba \”war\” and \”aggression\” and while I too think it\’s very stupid and entirely counter-productive, I don\’t quite think that it is a war of aggression.

And the problem really comes in with, well, who is it that, over time, gets to decide what is indeed the definition of \”war\” and \”aggression\”? That would be the nation states of the world. And have you looked at the governance systems of them? I\’ve not got the exact numbers to hand but less than 50% of them are even what could be loosely termed democracies, let alone roughly liberal capitalist ones like all of us here in Europe.

Essentially, I\’m really not sure that I want to be subject to a system of law drawn up by the majority of those who currently run nation states. Yes, I realise that rather puts the entirety of international law into something of a grey area but really: do you want Ghaddaffi (no, I don\’t know how to spell it but apparently just about any collection of g,d and f works), Kim Jong Il, Teddy Obiang and Nazarbayev to each have a vote on what laws a British Prime Minister will be subject to? For that is indeed what the current set up of creating new international law means.

I just don\’t see it myself.

New York Times economics fail

In a sidebar about the GDP figures:

\”The fact is, companies clearing out their warehouses boosts G.D.P., but doesn’t do much for those out of a job.\”

Something of a pity that the article itself is actually about how the restocking of warehouses boosts GDP…..and about how previous company clearing out their warehouses contributed to the decline in GDP.

Remember this when you next read an NYT editorial on how the economy should be run. At least some of the people at the newspaper really have no idea what they\’re talking about.

Fascinating stuff

You know all those wibbles about the US Military not allowing aid flights to land? About how it is is troops that get priority etc, and this shows that there\’s a military takeover going on?

Well, geek is as geek does and this is well geeked.

It\’s all about the shortage of forklifts in Haiti (I paraphrase).

Well, yes….

We all knew that Thatcher had more balls than hte rest of the Cabinet put together but odd of The Times to spell it out quite so blatantly:

Going to work on an egg

Margaret Thatcher ate little else as he changed Bitain, archive reveals

Environment Agency\’s inflation prediction


More than half a million homes are at \”significant\” risk of flooding and the cost of protecting them will double to £1bn a year by 2035, according to the latest data from the Environment Agency (EA).

Current spending is about £570 million a year. If costs remained static in real terms then that cost, at 2.5% inflation, would be a £1 billion in 2035.

Therefore the EA is predicting 2.5% inflation over the next 25 years.

Jeremy Warner: logic fail

Inequality between economies, and within advanced economies, has never been greater – witness this week\’s statistics on the widening wealth gap in the UK.

Fact fail first: inequality between economies has been falling as inequality within them rises. Fact fail second: the report mentioned says that the wealth gap is as high as it has been since WWII. That\’s not, as you might recognise \”ever\”.

But here\’s the logic failure:

So self-evidently desirable and beneficial are these pillars of the market economy that even China, after years of fighting them, is embracing them as quickly as it dares. But China wants the benefits, not the excesses, and so far, in this giant experiment in market liberalisation, it seems to be getting them.

Inequality in China is higher than it is here or than it is in any other major economy. So either China hasn\’t dodged this excess or inequality isn\’t such an excess to be dodged. Either of which make the contentions a little strange.

Oh dear

Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, has signalled a regulatory crackdown on foreign exchange carry trades which he insisted served little or no useful social and wider economic purpose.

Here we go, trying to pick winners again.

The wise, the omniscient, the benevolent, dictator will make everything better for us. But where do we find such wise, omniscient and benevolent people?

Anyone got any bright ideas here? For I\’ve absolutely no idea at all how we sort through the millions upon millions in the country to find those few who know enough and are selfless enough to be able to do this correctly for us.

Just as one example, we\’ve a Prime Minister who we are told has saved us all by boosting Keynesian spending to prevent a recession turning into a depression. How excellent, chalk one up for the Great Man thesis of government.

But this very same man, as Chancellor, was responsible for over-spending in the boom years (yes, even Ritchie agrees here). When, under those same Keynesian rules, he should have been fiscally contracting he was fiscally expanding.

So even if we find people who are sometimes right, the power being bestowed upon them requires that they are always right: and how and where do we find such Gods?

For if we manage only to uncover those with feet of clay and yet give them such powers we\’re not going to be any better off than we are now, are we? Perhaps worse off in fact…..

Osborne: he\’s going to be Chancellor in a few months and it\’s not going to be pretty

Osborne teams up with Richard Thaler: latest exponent of the drear conviction that we\’re all little idiot baa lambs and have to be driven into behaving properly. You know, managed, prodded, but all for our own good of course.

But perhaps most significantly, the crisis has finally put to rest the assumption, which underpinned Labour\’s entire system of financial regulation, that individual behaviour is always entirely rational…

Who has ever said that individual behaviour is entirely rational? That we attempt to be so, that we attempt to reach our desired goals in the best manners available to us given the information about the world that we have plus the inevitable imperfect information about the future, sure….but the leap to perfect rationality from that is something of a straw man.

and that market prices always reflect intrinsic values.

What? What in buggery are \”intrinsic values\”? If we\’re all the way back to Thomas Aquinas and \”true value\” then we\’re about to march off a very steep cliff. For there isn\’t and aren\’t any such things. The value of something depends upon the value of everything else: we cannot say that 1 kg of gold is worth $12,000, or x tonnes of wheat, or y tonnes of fresh water or z numbers of smiling babies, without having some idea of the relative values of fresh water and smiling babies. Which in turn depend upon the state of knowledge (medical knowledge tells us what our forefathers did not know, that unfresh water leads to definitely not smiling and in fact dead babies) and the state of technology (how much effort do we have to put into freshening water to get smiling babies?) and indeed where we are at any one time (less effort if we\’re by a clear mountain stream, more if we\’re on a boat out in the ocean).

Values are thus relative, always, all the time, not intrinsic.

We can just about side step this and go for a much weaker meaning of \”intrinsic\” which is \”what people think these values are\” but then by definition market prices are the average of what everyone does think these values are.

So we\’re not off to a good start here.

A classic example is the way that Gordon Brown\’s tax credits system was initially designed. Obviously, we are in favour of tax credits, but when the system was first introduced it was assumed that people would promptly inform HM Revenue and Customs of any change in their income. That must have seemed so plausible on a spreadsheet on the then chancellor of the exchequer\’s desk. But of course, as it turned out, people don\’t quite behave like figures on a Treasury spreadsheet, and as a result billions of pounds were lost on overpayments.

So if we recognise that people do not always act rationally, what does this mean for public policy?

Eh? What is irrational about keeping overpayments to you? At least once (and I think more than that) they\’ve been written off. So this behaviour is in fact entirely rational. You might have to pay the money back, you might not. So hang on to it and wait and see. You can\’t be worse off by doing so and you might be better off by doing so. This is rational action, not irrational.

That Osborne and Thaler (and of course Brown himself) cannot see that this is rational behaviour really rather bites at the arse of the idea that politicians are going to be more rational than we are now doesn\’t it?

They then maunder off into behavioural economics which is a very different thing.

So if we recognise that people do not always act rationally, what does this mean for public policy? This is where behavioural economics and social psychology – an academic field that has already garnered Nobel prizes for the likes of Daniel Kahneman – comes in. These disciplines are enabling us to develop a new approach to policymaking, based on empirical evidence about how people really behave.

Here is one example. Over the past decade, the UK government has spent billions of pounds trying to encourage households to become more energy efficient. These efforts have largely failed, but it doesn\’t have to be like this. In Sacramento, an energy company has harnessed the insights of behavioural science, and prints information on energy bills that allows households to compare their energy use with similar homes. This simple change led to a fall in overall energy consumption as homes using more energy than their neighbours quickly adjusted their behaviour to fit in with the norm.

In what way does this undermine the thought that people at least attmept to behave rationally? What you\’ve just done there is increase the information available to people, OK, great. But you\’re then still depending upon them acting upon that information in a rational manner, aren\’t you? You\’ve again undermined your assumption of irrational behaviour: indeed, the very success of this scheme obliterates that assumption as with new information people are acting upon it rationally.

Jebus, if this is how the Shadow Cabinet thinks then we\’re fucked, aren\’t we?

Behavioural economics is all very well (\”Hey, wow, you mean that\’s the way people actually behave?\”) but none of it leads on to the idea that people aren\’t rational within the bubble of their own desires and the information available to them. Nor to anything quite so medieval  as \”intrinsic values\”.

And most certainly not to the idea that the bloke who\’s good at kissing babies in Tatton is more rational than we are when faced with our choices about our lives.

Not entirely convinced here

A world away from home Andy Murray keeps hopes of a nation at arm\’s length

Australian Open finalist plays down the pressure of a chance to be the first British man to win a Grand Slam in 74 years

Maybe it\’s me that\’s got it wrong. I thought there were four major tournaments, each of which can be called a \”slam\”. A Grand Slam\” is winning all four of them in the same year (or perhaps over the years).


Aaargh, ghastly, terrible, suburban horrors!

Tristram Hunt:

Over one hundred acres of US farmland is currently being withdrawn every hour from agricultural use for development.

We\’re so much better with our Green Belt etc etc etc. How lucky we are to be saved by bureacratic technocrats who know so much better than we do what to do with our own land.

Oh Yes.

Total farmland area of the US:

922,000,000 acres.

Worth noting that area of pastureland is increasing, forest stable (that\’s forest on farms, not the great forests) and arable land falling presumably as farming becomes more efficient.

Just think, in 1,052 years it will all be gone at this rate. Nothing but suburbs.

It\’s like King Eadwig worrying about the rate at which the churls were clearing the forests for charcoal.

Growing olives in Chichester

Well, yes, umm….

Stephen and Sarah Nunn are believed to be the first people to sell olives grown in Britain……The couple’s glass-covered grove has yielded 200 kilos of olives, which are worth a total of about £4,000 and are being sold for £3.50 pounds per 100g, four times as much as their Mediterranean rivals.

Oh aye? You could pick 200 kg from the wild trees around here for purely the labour of picking them (one friend did just that a few weeks back just or the giggle). You\’d get 20 litres of oil from the local mill, 20 litres that you could buy from the supermarket for about €40.

It\’s an interesting little demonstration of Adam Smith\’s point about grapes, glasshouses, Scotland and wine really, isn\’t it? Better not to try and be all local and self-sufficient, but to trade with places with comparative advantage.

Of course, people should be entirely free to waste their time in this manner, to build greenhouses for olive trees,…but I would be interested to know whether they\’ve got EU quota there for olive growing is indeed one of those industries where you do need permission.

However, for true stupidity, try this:

Once picked, the olives are drained in water for 10 days before being placed in brine for nine weeks, until they are ready to eat.

Yes, you don\’t eat them fresh.

John Clint, owner of Hornets Provisions village store, which is selling the olives, said: “People are buying them in great numbers because they like buying local food. They have that lovely fresh taste that only comes from locally grown produce.”

Fresh? They\’ve just been pickled for nine weeks!