50% at University

I\’ll admit that I rather struggle to understand this.

Labour will keep its target of sending half of all school-leavers to university despite figures showing that participation in higher education is falling, ministers have insisted.

No, not the failure to hit the target, but the target itself. Other than having been plucked from the air, what is so magical about 50% of the age group going to university?

All I can see that has happened is a degrading of the graduate premium (arts majors fo men now seem to have a negative return for example) and an expansion of Mickey Mouse degree courses. Plus, of course, a vast expansion of credentialism. Does a nurse, for example, really need a university degree? Do, as argued only last week, nursery staff need one? Do teachers need a post-graduate one?

I can see huge value in people doing degrees: either as a rite of passage or for the sheer joy of learning, but outside a rather small section of jobs (I\’m thinking about certain sciences and engineering disciplines) the economic value of a degree (which is what I think the justification used for that target is) seems to me to be very weak.

So where did that target come from and what is used to justify it?

"The Knowledge Economy" doesn\’t cut it I\’m afraid. That requires that all doing such degrees are in fact aquiting knowledge of economic value, which I don\’t see as being true.

Umm, Polly?

Interestingly, however, this is not a programme the present Swedish conservative government is expanding; only about 10% of Swedish children attend "free" schools, and Reinfeldt\’s ministers say their energy is directed to improving ordinary state schools. "Free" schools have proved socially divisive, attracting more middle-class families and ethnic minorities, many have restrictive academic admissions criteria, and there is intense unease over new segregated faith schools.

Here is an example of how "choice" can also restrict choice: a former social democrat minister tells me he is sad he feels he no longer has the choice to send his child to the once socially mixed neighbourhood school that he attended. Instead she travels miles away to a "free" school, where the brightest children have congregated, making his old school much worse. It\’s an irony that the Swedish conservatives no longer promote the "free" schools that Cameron will make his centrepiece policy: expect similarly divisive effects.

I\’m sorry, but how can anyone actually look at that description of the Swedish school system and say that choice restricts choice?

David Selbourne

I\’m not in fact sure whether this David Selbourne fella is being serious or not.

Instead, modern free societies, the freest history has known, are gradually disintegrating from abuse of their freedoms. The harms being done to them by exploitation of their liberties are real; the harms being caused to them by the erosion of those liberties are largely imaginary.

It is here too that most of the left, whose socialist ideals have largely been displaced by an open-ended libertarianism, should take care. For the vacuous notion of liberty they now espouse is really a claim to the right to do as one pleases. This is the same idea about liberty as the "free marketeer" who brooks no interference with "choice", even if it wrecks society and the planet.

Liberty is indeed defined as the right to do as one pleases: as long as you are not harming others or restricting their rights to also find their own path from here to the grave. It\’s a very simple concept.

To expect the fulfilment by the citizen of his or her duties is no impertinence. It is essential to liberal democracy. Indeed, government ministers today speak hesitantly of a need for "constitutional renewal" or for a more "contractual" relationship between citizen and state. Under it, the performance of civic duties would be made a condition for the gaining of rights, many of the latter now routinely and shamelessly exploited by rich and poor alike.

So simple a concept that Selbourne doesn\’t in fact understand it. He prefers rather a feudal construction of the State. Yes, My Lord will indeed provide justice for me, but at a price: that I farm his desmense for him. Yes, My Lord will indeed defend me from foreigners, but at the expense of my fighting for him against the next Baron over. My Lord will indeed defend my rights to the common land: at the expense of his taking a tallage and a scutage of my production and of my belongings at my death.

We lived that way for some centuries, us Brits and English. And our ancestors decided, in their wisdom, that this wasn\’t the way that free men live. So they constructed a system of rights: these are not things which the State grants in return for duties to it, they are things which each and every man has as a simple corollary of being human. It took some centuries to build this system, to be sure, and no one would try to suggest that at any point along that long path that it has been perfect.

But to give up on that experiment? That noble journey towards that very freedom and liberty decried above? My right, as yours, to tread the path through this one time experience of life as I choose and not as is chosen for me, as long as I do not infringe upon the similar rights of others to do the same?

To return to a feudal system in which I owe duties to My Noble Lords in return for whatever rights they might see fit to grant me?

Fuck that quite frankly.

Minor Point

Talking about the hedge fund world:

In addition, TCI, is estimated to have increased funds under management from $8bn in 2006 to $11bn by the end of 2007, a year in which the fund reported a net return of 40pc.

Umm, if you start with 8 and grow it by 40%, don\’t you end up with 11.2? So, in fact, people withdrew $200 million from the fund?

Or am I just being pendantic about numeracy here?

Binge Drinking

So, not a new problem then, not something caused by the alienation of a neo-liberal economy or whatever the current trope is:

The English, who are now among the worst binge-drinkers in Europe, were also renowned as drunks in the Middle Ages.

"A surviving 12th-century Latin manuscript refers disapprovingly to \’Potatrix Anglia\’ – \’England the drunken\’," said Prof Bartlett, who is presenting the series Inside the Medieval Mind on BBC4, starting next Thursday.

This might be the first recorded case: but actually I\’m really rather doubtful about that:

He will reveal the opening of the North-South divide, with the first recorded case – in 1120 – of a southerner complaining that he is unable to understand the speech of a northerner.

I think it would be quite common for someone to make such a complaint in 9th century England, what with the northerners speaking Norse and the southerners Anglo Saxon.

Costs and Benefits

I\’ve no view either way on this idea of replacing council tax with a local income tax in Scotland. But this I\’m afraid is outrageous:

Alex Salmond\’s plans for a local income tax would cut tens of millions of pounds from NHS and council budgets – enough to employ dozens of teachers and medics, it has been claimed.

Government figures show that it would cost Scotland\’s local authorities, health boards and charities almost £15 million to change their payroll systems to collect the levy, which the SNP wants to set nationally at 3p in the pound.

It would cost them a further £5 million a year to administer the system, by deducting the tax from employees\’ payrolls and forwarding the proceeds to the taxman.

Is that true? Probably so.

The figures have been calculated by civil servants at the Scotland Office amid a growing furore over the SNP\’s plans to replace council tax with a local income tax in 2011.

But horribly, horribly, misleading.

Yes, of course there will be collection costs for a tax. But you\’ve got to do a proper cost benefit analysis, not just look at costs.

How much will be saved by not having to run the council tax collection system?

Her Majesty\’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have so far indicated that they will not collect the levy, meaning a separate and expensive Scottish system for doing so would have to be set up.

And there\’s that as well.

So, what we\’ve got is the usual electoral battle between Labour and the SNP in Scotland. And Labour at the Union level is deliberately stymying an SNP Scottish policy, by insisting (anyone who doubts this is a political decision is being naive) that HMRC doesn\’t do the collecting and then, further, that civil servants in the Scottish Office produce such lop sided and partisan figures.

This simply isn\’t playing the game with any semblance of honesty or honour. Worse, it\’s simply not British.

Can we hang them all yet?

Celebrating Britishness

Aren\’t we suppoed to be celebrating it? The things which historically have bound us together?

give an airing to Britain\’s vibrant tradition of racism.

Or isn\’t that what Maddy means*?


*Working out what Maddy actually does mean is a task too complex for me, apologies.

Climate Change, Umm, Alarmism?

Yup, we\’re all gonna dieeeeee!

One of the world\’s leading climate scientists warns today that the EU and its international partners must urgently rethink targets for cutting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of fears they have grossly underestimated the scale of the problem.

In a startling reappraisal of the threat, James Hansen, head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, calls for a sharp reduction in C02 limits.

Hansen says the EU target of 550 parts per million of C02 – the most stringent in the world – should be slashed to 350ppm. He argues the cut is needed if "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed". A final version of the paper Hansen co-authored with eight other climate scientists, is posted today on the Archive website. Instead of using theoretical models to estimate the sensitivity of the climate, his team turned to evidence from the Earth\’s history, which they say gives a much more accurate picture.

Interesting to note that 350 ppm is actually lower than the current concentration: we thus need to have negative carbon usage. Good luck with that on any short to medium term basis.

But the major point here is about climate sensitivity. How much temperature rise do we get from a doubling of CO2 levels? That in turn depends upon whether we have positive feedbacks or negative ones.

Well, OK, we know that we have both positive and negative: what\’s the overall effect though?

Hansen here is assuming highly positive feedbacks.

Other climate scientists are not so sure. Like James Annan for example. (I think that paper had a great deal of difficulty getting published. You\’ll need to scroll around those archives to get the full story).

Just a note to the gorbal wormening enthusiasts: we\’re supposed to be dealing with the scientific consensus, remember, not the results of one outlying paper that no one has had a chance to read yet.

Wind Power Lies

Now if wind power did indeed turn out to be both low carbon and economic then I\’d cheer: the things is though, will it ever be so?

Wind power ticks more good boxes than almost any other option. It is clean, nearly silent, emits no CO2, pays its way, and is "home made" – no small matter as Europe\’s reliance on imported gas jumps from 54pc to 80pc over the next 15 years.

Unfortunately, there\’s two errors in that (at least). Wind does not emit no CO2. Over the lifecycle it emits around and about the same as nuclear, about the same as large scale hydro. It\’s low CO2 as compared to coal and soon, for sure, but we still use cement to stick the things into the ground….

Secondly, it doesn\’t actually pay its way:

E.On is coy about profit margins. The European operations are flirting with break-even cost, but the company\’s huge 10-mile wind farms in the Texas outback have reached the magical level of €50 per megawatt hour (with US government subsidies), far below natural gas at the current market price.

How much is that subsidy? It doesn\’t actually pay its way until it is competitive without subsidy now, does it? We can of course at this point go off and argue about whether the externality of gas\’ CO2 emissions are a subsidy, one slowly being addressed by the cap and trade (or cabon tax) proposals, but it\’s amuch more complex calculation than just saying that wind is competitive now.

And finally, we\’ve got the great big bugbear of wind energy. What happens when the wind is too weak or too strong:

Yet the International Energy Agency says 3.5pc is more realistic. A report from the UK\’s Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that wind power still costs two to three times more than nuclear energy, even after decommissioning. The dispute centres on the back-up needs when the wind is not blowing.

This is something I\’ve still not seen explained in a manner simple enough for me to grasp. Yes, there\’s those who point out that we only get the energy from the mills 30% of the time and that we\’ve got to have other sources to back them up. I get that.

What puzzles me is that I\’ve never seen an attempted refutation of that point. Why? Is it because no refutation is possible? Or because there\’s something in that argument that means it doesn\’t need refuting?

Anyone actually able to guide me to a discussion of both sides of this?


They never do seem to think through the consequences of their actions, do they, these political types?

Gordon Brown is considering repealing the 1701 Act of Settlement as a way of healing a historic injustice by ending the prohibition against Catholics taking the throne.

But doing so would have the unforeseen consequence of making a 74-year-old German aristocrat the new King of England and Scotland.

Perhaps here are things wrong with the British Constitution as she is: but the whole thing is so interwoven that you can\’t just strike out one part of it without revealing gaping holes in other parts.

As, indeed, they found when they tried to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor.



On being asked to comment on the idea that the 28 year old mistress of the 66 year old Czech President is pregnant the spokesman said:

I am a civil servant and not a valet.