Month: May 2009

The Hole in the Ceiling

I do wonder how it is that people are able to support democracy, while at the same time having any understanding of the outside world.

A partial explanation has appeared in the comments to my post on Nadine Dorries’ lucid and mostly accurate explanation of the MPs’ expenses issue.

If the voters support a good policy, that’s what you expect.

If the voters support a bad policy, that’s not because voters are incompetent, it’s because of the media brainwashing them.

Therefore, all the policies that the voters actually support are good, and once we stop the media from getting them to support bad policies, everything will be fine.

The thing is that this has already happened. The establishment – the civil service, the BBC, the state education system – tells people what to vote for, and they do. The results are considerably better than would be the case if voters simply made up their minds based on the facts. The most damaging options are not even offered to the voters.

But the control of the establishment is not complete – notably, unlike in America, it does not control the newspapers. Usually, the business interests behind the newspapers stay in line, but on this occasion – and this is precisely Nadine Dorries’ complaint – the Telegraph stepped out of line, and told the voters that MPs had taken effectively twice the pay increase they admitted to since 1991, in the form of allowances.

That is what happened. I say so, Nadine Dorries says so, the commentator who was arguing says so. Why are we arguing?

I am arguing that what this shows is that the system of government in this country is a pretence. The establishment tells the voters what to vote for, the voters do it, and we thereby get a bad but not catastrophically bad government.

I suggest taking the voters out of the loop. Their independent influence is small, as we all agree, since we all agree that one newspaper read by 2% of the electorate is the real decisive factor in this story. Small as it is, I see no reason to assume the influence is beneficial. However, the necessity of keeping up the pretence leads to astonishingly bad policies, such as, in the most extreme case, trying to export the voting part of our system to countries which don’t even have a civil service/media establishment to tell the voters what to vote for! I mean, how is that ever going to work?

I want a ruler, or ruling establishment, that treats this country like an asset. I want them to say “this is my country and I’ll take what I want from it”, whether that be duck islands or third homes or 76 Rolls-Royces. If they did that, they wouldn’t need to lie to us from the cradle to grave to keep us from voting against them. They wouldn’t need to turn half the population into dependents on state handouts to keep them from voting against them. They would only need to run the country efficiently so as to maximise their loot.

Of course, this can’t happen. And the reason it can’t happen is because such a government would have to waste an even larger chunk of the country’s potential in defending itself from the mob, which believes a government is legitimate if and only if it lets them draw a cross on a piece of paper twice a decade.

The hole in the ruling establishment caused by the Telegraph letting the expenses cat out of the bag is not the point. It is a hole that shows us that the ceiling is not the sky.

The Rise of the BNP

Fraser Nelson has an article in the current Spectator on the rise of the BNP.

The story he tells is that “Britain has never been racist”, but that voters are being deceived by the BNP’s “devious ploy: distracting public attention from the racist reality of the BNP by representing itself as ‘the helpful party'”

Nelson’s estimate of the stupidity of the ordinary Briton is impressive, but I suspect it is he that is being deceived. My own impression (not, I confess, based on any very deep connection to the man in the street) is that at the very least a large minority of the British white working class is quite racist, but knows perfectly well that it is not allowed to say so. Previous far-right political movements have failed, not because voters have disagreed with their racism, but because they have perceived accurately that the movements will be crushed by the establishment by any means necessary. The public likes a strong horse.

The BNP’s current softer facade is succeeding, not because voters are fooled by it, but because they see that it makes the BNP harder to exclude (and because the weakened establishment has itself lost authority). They can look an elite political journalist in the eye and tell him that they will vote BNP, but they’re not racist, oh no, that would be wrong, and they can suppress a smirk, and think to themselves, “yes, this time we might actually be going to get away with it”.

Maybe I’m the only one to think of this possibility, but I don’t think so, because it is the only thing that explains the establishment’s terror at what is, by the numbers, still very much a fringe movement. I really don’t know how many people in Britain are racist, and nobody else does either, because those who are are afraid to say so. If the political momentum ever goes to the BNP, then its secret followers will feel free to stand up and say what they believe. I would not rule out the possibility that they are already a majority, but don’t know it. The anti-racist consensus might be blown away like Ceaucescu if they speak up and find that they are strong. That would make the determination of the establishment to clamp down on every racist squeak a necessity rather than an overreaction.

Ah, the dilemma of the left-winger, who believes that the working class is entitled to rule, and yet unfit to do so. I would laugh aloud at their discomfiture, if the stakes were not so high.

Update: BNP Failure

The Welfare State We’re In

30th May 2009


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The Welfare State We’re In

I’ve been aware of this book since it was launched, and have followed the accompanying blog, but only now have I actually got around to buying a copy and reading it.

It’s a book that very much needed to be written. I have been critical of the approach of the IEA and the like, but they have a valuable role to play in supporting work like this.

The book is slightly mistitled. It does indeed describe the welfare state we’re in, but hell-in-a-handbasket tracts are ten a penny, and this is much more. What the book describes is the welfare nation we’re not in – the combination of insurance-based and charitable welfare institutions which, until they were supplanted by state welfare, were not only better than almost anyone today would imagine, but improving very rapidly.

That is what I was looking for, but there was another, unexpected historical perspective – the ebb and flow of welfare provision over the centuries, as suffering of the poor led to more generous provision, which led to abuse and social disruption, producing a backlash against dependency culture and root-and-branch cuts. There are debates from two hundred years ago that could be taken from today’s newspapers.

The first chapter makes the case that our current society is one where violence and what could loosely be called “social decay” is more prevalent than before. This is a difficult subject to handle, and the author recognises the difficulties. On the one hand, statistics are not comparable for a number of reasons, and on the other, anecdotal reminiscences are not only unreliable, but impossible to set into context – how typical are one person’s experiences of a society that was structured quite differently to our own?

In spite of the difficulties, the chapter left me more persuaded than previously that there has been a marked drop in the amount of peace and trust that most people experience in their community. Here the point is not so much that the past few decades are exceptionally bad, but that the century before was exceptionally good.

Other chapters cover education, health, unemployment, housing. There is a very powerful chapter on the family; the sheer magnitude of secondary harm done by broken families is covered shockingly. I personally believe, on principle, that people should be free to adopt whatever domestic arrangements they choose, but I believe on the same principle that they should be free to take whatever food, medicines or jobs they choose. That a government which makes such effort to shape our behaviour in socially insignificant fields at the same time is not able to avoid subsidising family disintegration, with social costs at least an order of magnitude greater, is quite indefensible.

The writer is very cautious about explaining the failure of the welfare state, which is wise. One common theme in the narrative which struck me without having been explicitly drawn out was the destruction of tacit knowledge when existing institutions were replaced or taken over by the state. That is probably worth a chapter of some other book.

This book is readable and informative, and I recommend it strongly. However, it is only a start, the beginning of the debate, not the last word. It is written as polemic, for the interested layman, and while it provides references for its claims it makes occasional jumps that would be seized on in a debate. It needs first to be challenged by defenders of the welfare state, and then to be supported with more academic, more precise work that activists can rely on when facing opponents.

Time to Tax Email

Prospect Magazine is written and edited by people who don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t care:

“A penny charge for every email would stop spam, and fill the empty public purse” – lead article by Edward Gottesman

If he – or the editor, had read my very brief little primer in email for novices and government ministers he would know that

Email is an addressing system and message format by which messages can be sent between users over the internet.

ISPs provide internet service. Sometimes they also provide web or email services over the internet as an add-on, and sometimes they don’t.

It is quite possible to send and receive email messages without one’s ISP even being aware of the fact. Indeed, most people do. If you have a large site, you probably run your own email servers. You emails go over your ISP’s internet service, but do not use your ISP’s email service, even if it has one.

Conversely, if you use webmail, your email does not reach your network in the form of messages – only web pages. Your messages originate or terminate with your webmail provider, who may well not even be in this country.

Only if you use the old-fashioned POP3+SMTP setup, or your ISP’s webmail service, will your ISP see your email as email. In some cases it might be possible for them, by searching your entire network traffic, to identify and extract email from your network flow. That involves a whole lot of processing that they would otherwise not need to do.

If you use an offshore webmail provider, they can’t even do that, because the traffic between you and the webmail provider is encrypted.

If he had done the smallest amount of research he would have known all that. If he had done, say, a day’s research, he would have already seen the check-the-boxes form objection to stupid spam-fighting schemes that inevitably landed on the prospect discussion blog.

There are of course many other reasons why it’s a moronic idea. But it only needs one.

Dear Ms Rantzen

28th May 2009


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I have just listened to your World at One interview, in which you said that, in spite of Margaret Moran MP’s announcement that she will not contest the next election, you will stand as an independent if the people of Luton South want you to.

I am only one of those people, but speaking for myself, I would prefer that you did not.

It is often the case that a parliamentary election is something of a formality, where everyone knows in advance what the result will be. Unusually, that is not likely to be the case here next time; the indications are that Luton South will be very much in play, and we voters will have an opportunity to have a real say in which party will make up the next government.

I am not likely to avail myself of that opportunity, by voting for a leading party, but that is not because I see the need for a “non-partisan” or “non-political” MP. On the contrary, the major parties are not political enough for me. I will use my vote to express my strongly-held political views.

If the circumstances were different — in particular, if Margaret Moran appeared likely to retain a safe Labour seat — then your candidacy, by providing the option of a very strong and visible protest vote, would be about the best thing that could happen. Fortunately, that is not the case.

It is conceivable that your intervention was decisive in persuading the incumbent to step down, in which case you have already achieved something worthwhile. And of course, you have a perfect right to construct a political platform and stand on it, just as I have, or anybody else.

But as for standing as a non-descript “alternative” or “non-partisan” candidate — thanks but no thanks.

Ten-year-old mystery solved

Thanks to Michael Brush at MSN (and the Economist), we now know the answer to a question that has been outstanding since December 1998.

Greenspan reasons that because hardly anyone actually sees a guy’s undies, they’re the first thing men stop buying when the economy tightens. (He told this to National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich years ago.)

By extension, pent-up demand means underwear sales should be among the early risers when growth returns and consumers feel confident enough to shrug off “frugal fatigue,” says Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst with NPD Group, which tracks consumer behavior.

So now we know:

1. Collect underpants
2. Examine their condition, and use the degree of wear as a leading indicator of the price of risky assets, guiding your investment decisions.
3. Profit!

Thank you.

Chris Woodhead

25th May 2009


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Chris Woodhead, former head of OFSTED, has said that OFSTED is an irrelevance and part of the problem in education.

The quote that caught my eye is that inspection is “an exercise driven by analysis of the data”

I think that is a wonderful point (not that his other arguments are bad). One of the key changes of the last twenty years or so is the large advance that has been made in analysing data, due to cheap computer power and modern statistical techniques.

These techniques are powerful enough to quantify and compensate for a degree of inaccuracy in the original data. However, I fear that demand for data has been met by abandoning quality to a degree few people realise.

This is not just about education. This, after all, is the story of the credit bubble. It is the story of the endless senseless health scares. It is also, I would suggest, the story of climate modelling. In each case there is a machine which demands data, day in, day out. If you don’t have good data, you give it whatever you’ve got.

Never before has so much data been collected with so little concern for its real value. The statistical techniques were initially used on data that had been collected by enthusiasts the way philatelists collect stamps, and they were so successful that they led to the modern hunger for datasets. Surveyors and inspectors now amass raw data by the megabyte, and whether the data is good or bad, their pay is just the same. Once it’s in the computer, and I speak from experience here, it’s always easier and more satisfying to refine the processing than to check the input, but if the inputs are bad enough, the processing is worthless.

Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries (Conservative MP for Mid Beds) said the following:

No Prime Minister has ever had the political courage to award MPs an appropriate level of pay commensurate with their experience, qualifications and position; as recommended by the SSRB, year after year.

Prior to my intake in 2005, MPs were sat down by the establishment and told that the ACA was an allowance, not an expense, it was the MP’s property, in lieu of pay; and the job of the fees office was to help them claim it.

I find this quite believable. More, I genuinely sympathise. It is a reasonable explanation of what happened — MPs weren’t paid as much as they and everyone around them thought they should be paid, so “the establishment” found a solution in letting them take money under the table on the additional costs allowance.

That’s a perfectly good explanation to me, but that’s because I don’t believe in democracy. To a democrat, however, MPs are the establishment. If they are not able to pass a law giving them a higher salary, that means the electorate doesn’t want them to have a higher salary. If they conspire with officals to take the extra money anyway, then they are thieves and usurpers.

So here’s the situation: If we live in a democracy, then our MPs are thieves and usurpers. If we don’t, then… what the hell are our MPs? Not anything good, surely.

Dorries’ further point, and the reason her blog that I took the quote from exists now only on Google’s cache, is that the press were in on this all along but the Telegraph decided to blow it open only now, in order to cause a sea change in British Society by getting a few more minor party candidates elected as MEPs, or something. Personally I think having sharks with laser beams attached to their heads would be a better strategy, but there you go.

The real story here is this: MPs did not believe that voters had the right to determine what they were to be paid. MPs did believe that some “establishment” consisting of party whips and civil servants did have the right to determine what MPs were to be paid. The MPs worked for this “establishment”, and not for the voters. Therefore our democracy is a complete fraud. If voters can’t be allowed to decide what MPs get paid, what can they be allowed to decide? If nothing, what are MPs for anyway?

The normal conclusion to draw is what I was told this afternoon by the “No2EU” party (which turns out to be an alliance of the RMT and a few minor leftist parties) — that we need to “restore” our democracy. Of course, I disagree. The voters really aren’t capable of making sensible decisions, about MPs pay or anything else. The conclusion that should be drawn is that we need to abandon our democracy, and the establishment that runs the country needs to stop pretending.

But since most people still believe we should have a democracy, admitting that we don’t is just asking for trouble. Is that Dorries’ point? I don’t think so.

On reflection, she probably believes that we have a democracy that works adequately for everything except deciding MPs’ salaries. It’s a possibility that didn’t initially occur to me, but might make sense to MPs.

MPs Expenses

23rd May 2009


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Let’s bring back blame.

The natural response when something has gone wrong is to find out whose fault it was and, in some way, punish them.

That’s not always the right thing to do. But it’s not always the wrong thing either.

However, within an institution, throwing blame around is unpleasant, and not just for the blamed. It can go too far, so that people are always worried about being blamed for something, rightly or wrongly. Participants in the institution can attempt to shape it by getting other people blamed for things.

We therefore don’t like to blame people. However, when something has gone wrong, some kind of response needs to be made. The natural response today is to say “we have changed the system so that this cannot happen again”.

Sometimes that’s the best response. But if the problem isn’t the system (by which I mean the institutional rules), but the people, then it’s the wrong response.

The current problem is that many MPs have taken manifestly excessive expenses. Therefore, they are now talking about changing the system so this can’t happen again.

This is clearly the wrong response. More than almost anybody, MPs are supposed to be personally responsible for their actions. Their actions were wrong, they were found out. They can be blamed, and again, more than almost anyone else in our society, there is a mechanism for acting on that – it’s called an election.

If the responsibility is moved to anyone else at all, it will be moved to someone less easily blamed than an MP.

The system worked. For once, the people who really are responsible for some problem are the very people who can be held responsible for it. If they are re-elected despite this, so be it.

The only problem with the system was that they nearly got away with it, and indeed did get away with it for a while, before they were found out. But the change that needs to be made already has been made – it’s the freedom of information act that allowed us to find out about the expenses.

Therefore, the only changes to the system that need to be considered are changes to prevent the actions of MP from being kept secret. And, since the precedent has now been set, that means no further change is needed. Any change that allows MPs to keep more secrets can be presumed to be a fix to the problem that they got caught, not the problem that they took too much money.

The problem, as I said, with always finding someone to blame for any problem is that the corrupt can use the allocation of blame to shape the institution for his own ends. But how much more true is that of changing rules in response to any problem. We should be more suspicious of “changes will be made to procedures” than we are of “the people responsible have been sacked”.

And the broader lesson is not anything about forms of system or organisation, it is that we must not expect too much of those who are supposed to work on our behalf. Their personal interests and their group interests will compete with our own, and while our diligence and their openness will help to hold them to our interests rather than theirs, there are limits to this and the limits are not very high. The best we can hope of government is that it will do a few things and get them right.

Previously: MP’s discipline, Cheques and Balances, Margaret Moran