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Making eye contact with strangers

If you're looking for a New Year's resolution how about this one: make more eye contact with strangers.

I was reading this powerful little list of Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century by some Professor of History. One idea that struck me is a very simple one:

11: Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.

In a large city like the one I live in, eye contact and small talk are rare. They're even rarer thanks to smartphones, of course - although, twenty years ago, Londoners were still avoiding each other, but using newspapers, novels and Gameboys instead. Anyway I do think smartphones create a mode of interaction which reduces incidental eye contact etc.

So I decided to take the advice. Over the past month or so I took those little opportunities - at the bus stop, at the pedestrian crossing, at the supermarket. A bit of eye contact, a few words about the traffic or whatever. I was surprised how many opportunities for effortless (and not awkward!) tiny bits of smalltalk there were and how worthwhile it was to take them. After the year we've had, this is a little tweak you can try, and who knows, it might help.

Saturday 31st December 2016 | politics | Permalink

Govt report on implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report into the implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research. The report is accompanied by a set of conclusions and recommendations.

By the way: the implications of Brexit (if indeed the UK ends up going through with it! So much is uncertain, even now) are massive and widespread. Science and engineering are only one of the many big issues that need to be considered. But as a UK sci/eng researcher I have good reasons to pay attention to this side of things! It's not about how much money I get. It's about whether the UK will be maintaining its attractive leading edge in research, as I said before the vote.

There are some really sound recommendations in there. Recommendation #4 is good: the Government should articulate a "genuinely comprehensive strategy for communicating its messages of ongoing support for science and research in the context of its plans for leaving the EU and the negotiations to follow." Why is this important? Because the Brexit vote itself send a message round the world about what kind of place Britain was, to existing and potential researchers. On top of that, really unfortunate messages were sent when certain government ministers talked casually about whether or not EU nationals would be allowed to stay in the country. So the Government has some work to do, to make sure the researchers of the future - currently planning to apply for PhDs, choosing courses/locations, and looking at global politics with eyebrows raised - understand that we want to work with them and we plan to treat them honourably.

This goes hand-in-hand with recommendation #6 and #7: mobility is crucial for research, and it'd be shooting ourselves in the foot to forget that. The Government's choice of negotiating position is going to make a massive difference here: how will they balance freedom-of-movement (though it's not my own wish to reduce it, a Brexit would be rather hollow if it didn't do so) against the access to market/finance which they seem to be expending the most energy worrying about? But in order for UK research to flourish, researchers from other countries - both present and future - need to know that they're welcome here and not threatened by uncertainty.


Frankly, though, I'm still left with the feeling "Why the hell are we still going through with this stupid idea?" I respect the outcome of the referendum but it expressed the nation's preferences, not any actual plan - and the elephant in the room is that any actual specific choice of Brexit is going to be one that the majority of people think is stupid and unjust - both the ones who voted for it as well as the ones who voted against it.


Read the recommendations in full - they are sensible.

Monday 21st November 2016 | politics | Permalink

Remembering the run-up to the Iraq War

The LRB has an excellent article by Philippe Sands about the Chilcot Report and the Iraq War.

The UK had a key role in the Iraq War, and even before it happened there were millions of us on the streets marching against it: we said in advance that it was unjustified and would escalate terrorism in the region. (There's a video going round at the moment of Jeremy Corbyn back in the day, saying exactly that.) Now, looking back from a 2016 in which we have Isis/Da'esh and waves of refugees, there's no pleasure in the confirmation that we were right. The consequences reverberated not just through the region, but through to the EU and the UK too. Millions of us ignored, and so many killed (not least, directly killed in the war), because Tony Blair had pledged to Bush: "I'm with you, whatever".

Some quotes from the article:

"[The inquiry said] 'we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council's authority.'"

The inquiry received 37 legal responses regarding the war's legality, "reflecting the views of 57 expert individuals and six organisations. Just one of them supported the claim that the war was lawful."

"On 31 January [2003], Blair met Bush and offered a commitment that contradicted the legal advice given to him by Goldsmith the previous day."

"[Goldsmith's] formal advice - the 7 March document permeated with an understanding of the uncertainty and risk involved in going to war - was deliberately withheld from cabinet."

Our government (and related organisations such as the UN Security Council) are built with checks and balances, so that things such as ill-advised wars on the basis of misconstrued information should be less likely.

The article is well worth a read.

Friday 5th August 2016 | politics | Permalink

Brexit vs the science around me: the first month

Just before the Brexit referendum I was wondering how Brexit would affect the kind of people coming to work with us. That's a long-term effect and very hard to measure. But really, like most of the country I hadn't really thought deeply about the direct practical consequences of an Exit vote, in this case the consequences for research that would show themselves within the first month.

The effect is on EU funding in particular. Since the UK hasn't actually left the EU, you might think that things carry on "as normal" until that point - existing projects continue, and you can even apply for new projects. (In fact, that's essentially the official guidance so far.) The problem is that collaborative EU grants are the lifeblood of a lot of research, and they're also very competitive. I know of at least one colleague who's been taken off a grant proposal (which is being organised by someone in another EU country), because a UK partner now means a risk factor that could easily cause a reviewer or a programme administrator to mark the proposal down.

Similarly, at least two colleagues who have been leading on EU grant proposals, they're now in a difficult situation. After having put a lot of work into preparing a proposal, do they submit and risk getting marked down as a risk factor? Do they rewrite the proposal with Brexit backup strategies? Do they stop and wait to see what happens?

(I'm not writing this down to change anyone's mind about Brexit, by the way. Just documenting.)

Less concrete, but in my own first-hand experience: we were intending to invite a good researcher to come and work with us under the Marie Sklodowska Curie scheme (which funds researchers to spend time in another country), but I'm not sure how we can do that now. The funding is still there, but apart from the "risk factor" effect mentioned above, the potential researchers would obviously need to know how it affects their right to work in the UK (will they need a visa?) and what career options might follow on afterwards; and there's pretty much nothing we can say in answer to such questions.

This Guardian article, "UK scientists dropped from EU projects because of post-Brexit funding fears" puts the same phenomena in a wider context. This quote, for example:

Joe Gorman, a senior scientist at Sintef, Norway's leading research institute, said he believed UK industry and universities would see "a fairly drastic and immediate reduction in the number of invitations to join consortiums. [...] I strongly suspect that UK politicians simply don’t understand this, and think it is 'business as usual', at least until negotiations have been completed. They are wrong, the problems start right now."

Wednesday 13th July 2016 | politics | Permalink

Remainers, referendums, parliament

Many "Remainers" are writing to their MPs, emphasising the referendum was "advisory" and sometimes demanding a second referendum. I think both of those are damaging and alienating ideas to cling to, they won't help to fix our politics.

The ideal way forward is for the next PM to get some informal outline, the likely shape of a UK/EU deal, and put it to Parliament at the same time as a bill authorising them to trigger Article 50. We know that the Leave campaign's fairytale deal is not going to be on the table. So, armed with better information, Parliament could then choose to enable or refuse the triggering of Article 50. I don't know what the outcome would be; but it would be the right way for our democracy to work, and it leaves open a route "back into the EU" now that some of the referendum's consequences (not least, for the future of the UK as a union) are crystal clear.

Thursday 7th July 2016 | politics | Permalink

Brexit vs the science in my office

So, fine, there's a letter in The Times signed by over 5500 scientists arguing that UK science would suffer in the event of Brexit. They talk about funding, and collaboration, and shared infrastructure. There are cited sources for their evidence. I agree with the letter. I even signed it. But it's so boring and abstract. And all this stuff about financial stuff just disappears into the mist of the general economic to-and-fro.

Then the other day it hit me:

In our research group, in the exact office I work in every day, we have researchers from all sorts of countries, but mostly from the EU. Would they all be here if the UK had divorced itself from the EU? I don't think so. Have you seen the bureaucracy that an American has to go through to work or study in the UK? (I say "American" (meaning USA) to emphasise that the burden is there even for the richer countries.) I don't know how they maintain the energy to go through that!

So if it was much more hassle to study here than in Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, it's clear to me that we'd lose some proportion of those scientific minds coming over to collaborate or to study. I'm not even talking about the people who are directly funded by the EU, and nor am I assuming some massive limitation on free movement. We'd lose out from the multiple little frictions of no longer being part of the big club that makes so easy the sharing of people who have good ideas.

Some people would counter this with suggestions about collaborating with other countries instead: the Commonwealth, China, India. Well guess what? We already do plenty of that too. It's not a zero-sum game.

So yes, our excellent science definitely benefits from the free movement of people in the EU. But if I say it like that, it sounds so abstract again. - The great people I've encountered in my research career, the great ideas they've come up with and developed together, which of them would not be there?

Monday 20th June 2016 | politics | Permalink

The Tower Hamlets Local Plan

If you live or work in Tower Hamlets then please give them feedback on the "Local Plan" they're developing. It's a plan for the next 10-15 years of development in the borough.

So... what's the point of a Local Plan? In practice, it's a document which gives councils/developers/mayors the written "excuses" they need in order to do things or to block things. So the content of the Local Plan will indeed shape what happens.

Some comments from me:

  • Really important, in my opinion, are local markets for normal people. In TH we have great ones: Whitechapel Market, Roman Road Market, Chrisp Street Market, even the tiny little Globetown Market. These are all places where people can buy their fruit and veg and other stuff. They're great for local business, great for community cohesion, great for healthy eating. TH should preserve our local markets and make sure they thrive. There are a couple of threats to local markets: one is the commercial pressure from supermarkets and/or delivery services. Another risk coming from the overhyping of Shoreditch is the transformation of a market from a useful local place to a poncey market for expensive home decorations or what-have-you; could also be a risk of a market turning touristy I guess.
  • Cycling provision for all. The Cycle Superhighway is a bit controversial at the moment: lots of drivers on Mile End Road hate it, because of the congestion, but what they haven't realised is that the congestion is caused by the building works, not the cycle lanes themselves. Once it all settles down it'll be great for everyone. TH should maintain the great public cycle provision - the segregated cycle-lanes, the bike-hire stands. But also, the council needs to encourage all parts of society to take advantage of these things that the borough and the city have built. The facilities are mainly used by men, mainly within a certain age bracket, and I think also there are some ethnic groups that aren't benefitting too. So TH needs to keep up this provision but also do some outreach to get people using it.
  • Safeguard social housing - in fact safeguard all council / housing-association property. There are intense pressures on housing in London, and councils are generally put in a position where many of their options are shut off, but the current government is happy to say "Hey, why not sell of some of your stock, that'd help with cashflow." So there's a strong bias in favour of selling off the family silver. But in order to make sure ordinary working people can live in TH in future, the council and the housing associations need to maintain their position, at the very least, and ideally provide more social housing.
  • Improve the leisure walking routes in Tower Hamlets. There are some decent walking routes around here, e.g. from the Olympic Park down to Cody Dock, or along the Thames, but the provision is really quite fragmentary, and it'd be great to have a real consolidated network of pleasant right-of-way footpaths. For example, you can't currently walk all the way down the River Lea to the Thames. You can get some of the way but then you have to do a big diversion round the Tesco, and then a bit later a big diversion round the industrial estate. The supposed "Greenway" out of the Olympic Park has been blocked off by building work for many years, making it more theoretical than actual. Imagine how many people would reap the benefits if there were more consolidated leisure wlaking routes, taking advantage of our rivers and canals.
  • Some people complain about the number of tower blocks being built. I think it's more complicated than that - there are some excellent, really well thought-out new high rise areas in TH, while also there are some rush-job maximum-density useless blocks too. The council should ensure that developments are designed for living, providing amenities such as playgrounds and little parks, good public spaces and designated room for neighbourhood shops. And also ensure that private and social housing are mixed together, not divided into enclaves. In my opinion the St. Andrew's Hospital Redevelopment in Bromley-by-Bow is a great example of a well-designed modern housing area.
  • Planners need to remember that the Shoreditch hype is well over by now. How can they ensure that Shoreditch's new personality, after the trendy phase and then the gentrifying phase, works well over the next two decades? Retains some of its vibrancy? Frankly I don't know. But Shoreditch's trajectory over the next ten years is going to be completely different from the last ten years.

Also some things I found while reading around this topic:

  • There's a "Poplar Riverside Housing Zone" which is designated for housing development. "Future sites include Chrisp Street, Leamounth North and Aberfeldy" it says here. However I can't work out exactly where it is - they've not published a map. Does "riverside" mean by the Thames or by the Lea? I strongly suspect it's by the side of the Lea (approximately here) since that's the bit that's still basically industrial and not recently developed - can anyone confirm?
  • Looks like there are plans to build a "fashion hub" in Poplar.
  • There's some kind of Bromley-by-Bow Masterplan Supplementary Planning Document adopted in 2012 which relates to the area around Bromley-by-Bow. What does it imply? Well I don't know for sure, but: it labels some specific areas for regeneration, including the Stroudley Walk area and Empson Street; and it has a fair amount of development planned along the West bank of the river - including a "future green space" where Tesco's is! In fact, the other half of the area where Tesco's is is marked as "New District Centre: New town centre with mix of uses including retail, community uses, residential dwellings and commercial uses." Gosh. Oh and it also plans to fix one of my bugbears: the lack of connection between the West-bank towpath and Twelvetrees Crescent bridge (fixing that will really help join the riverside walking routes up).

But anyway, like I said, give them feedback on the Local Plan.

Saturday 30th January 2016 | politics | Permalink

Poverty: demolish sink estates or not?

David Cameron wrote an article today saying that knocking down poor people's homes is how to make their lives better. ("David Cameron vows to 'blitz' poverty by demolishing UK's worst sink estates").

There's a short version of my response to this: go and read Anne Power who's studied housing and regeneration a lot, and has concrete recommendations for the best way to handle all this stuff. Read this article: "Housing and sustainability: demolition or refurbishment?"

I was undecided about all this stuff in 2014 when I went to see the Carpenters Estate protests. If you're not involved, it sort of sounds like a good idea. "Ooh those scary estates. If we knock them down and replace them with shinier ones, that's the neatest way to fix the situation up, and the residents can come back and live in them so they won't be any worse off."

But then you go down to the estates and meet people, and you read about how these regenerations happen in reality, and you realise it's not as neat as that. Firstly, in modern times regeneration usually involves selling off a fraction of the estate for private development, and the community doesn't really get to be rehoused back together, many get scattered to random locations over which they have no choice. Community cohesion is lost, i.e. part of the social fabric that keeps everyone safe. Secondly, demolition has unhelpful side-effects on the area around it (house prices, antisocial stuff, disrepair, local services leaving). Thirdly, there are alternatives to demolition (renovation, infill building) which avoid many of these downsides, are more sustainable, and are good for the local economy because local small-scale builders can do them.

Cameron said three out of four rioters in 2011 came from sink estates. "The riots of 2011 didn’t emerge from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings. The rioters came overwhelmingly from these postwar estates. That’s not a coincidence," he wrote.

David Cameron, your logical fallacy is: False Cause. The people he's talking about are poor and disenfranchised, and that's the common cause of both things. It's the cause of living in the less popular estates, and it's an important cause of the rioting. It's not the shape of the buildings which caused the riots!

The current UK government is acting from a position of strength, and they are really taking their opportunity to make bold moves in the directions they want. Putting money into improving housing can be a good thing - the biggest risk I see is that this initiative will end up pushing poor people out of the way and fragmenting their communities. We can do it better. Read this article: "Housing and sustainability: demolition or refurbishment?"

Sunday 10th January 2016 | politics | Permalink

Carpenters Estate - Is it viable or not?

Newham Council has handled the current Carpenters Estate protest shockingly badly. Issuing a press release describing the protesting mothers as "agitators and hangers-on" is just idiotically bad handling.

BUT they have also described Carpenters Estate as not "viable", and many commentators (such as Zoe Williams, Russell Brand) have lampooned them for it. After all, they can see the protesting mothers occupying a perfectly decent-looking little home. How can it be not "viable"?

Are they judging viability compared against the market rate for selling off the land? That's what Zoe Williams says, and that's what I assumed too from some conversations. But that's not it at all.

Newham's current problem with the Carpenters Estate is basically caused by the two different types of housing stock on the estate:

  • They have some tall old tower blocks which housed many hundreds of people, but they can't renovate them to a basic decent standard - the council can't afford to do it themselves and the leaseholders couldn't afford to shoulder the costs. (In council reports it's been calculated that the renovation cost per flat would cost more than the value of the flat itself - which means that the private leaseholders totally wouldn't be able to get a mortgage for the renovations.)
  • All the little two-storey houses next to the tower blocks are basically viable, at least in the sense that they should be easy to refurbish. However, they can't just leave people in those houses if they intend to demolish the tower blocks. I'm no expert in demolition but I assume it'd be impossible to demolish the 23-storey block next door while keeping the surrounding houses safe, and that's why Doran Walk is also slated for demolition.

So "not viable" means they can't find any way to refurbish those tower blocks to basic living standards - especially not in the face of the Tory cuts to council budgets - and that affects the whole estate as well as just the tower blocks. This appears to be the fundamental reason they're "decanting" people, in order to demolish and redevelop the whole place. (Discussed eg in minutes from 2012.) It's also the reason they have a big PR problem right now, because those two-storey houses appear "viable" and perfectly decent homes, yet they do indeed have a reason to get everyone out of them!

After the UCL plan for Carpenters Estate fell through it's understandable that they're still casting around for development plans, and we might charitably assume the development plans would be required to include plenty of social housing and affordable housing. You can see from the council minutes that they do take this stuff seriously when they approve/reject plans.

(Could the council simply build a whole new estate there, develop a plan itself, without casting around for partners? Well yes, it's what councils used to do before the 1980s. It's not their habit these days, and there may be financial constraints that make it implausible, but in principle I guess it must be an option. Either way, that doesn't really affect the question of viability, which is about the current un-demolished estate.)

But the lack of a plan has meant that there's no obvious "story" of what's supposed to be happening with the estate, which just leaves space for people to draw their own conclusions. I don't think anyone's deliberately misrepresenting what the council means when they talk about viability. I think the council failed badly in some of its early communication, and that led to misunderstandings that fed too easily into a narrative of bureaucratic excuses.

Wednesday 1st October 2014 | politics | Permalink

Carpenters Estate, Stratford - some background

"A group of local mothers are squatting next to London’s Olympic Park to tell the government we need social housing, not social cleansing" as featured in the Guardian and on Russell Brand's Youtube channel. The estate is Carpenters Estate, Stratford.

"Carpenters Estate," I thought to myself, "that rings a bell..."

It turns out Carpenters Estate is the one that UCL had proposed in 2011 to redevelop into a new university campus. The Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood "has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2010". "All proposals will take into account existing commitments made by the Council to those people affected by the re-housing programme." However, locals raised concerns, as did UCL's own Bartlett School (architecture/planning school) students and staff. (There's a full report here written by Bartlett students.) In mid-2013 negotiations broke down between Newham and UCL and the idea was ditched.

It seems that the council, the locals and others have been stuck in disagreement about the future of the estate for a while. At first the council promised to re-house people without breaking up the community too much, then it realised it didn't know how to do that, and eventually it came to the point where it's just gradually "decanting" people from the area and hoping that other things such as "affordable housing" (a shadow of a substitute for social housing) will mop things up. I can see how they got here and I can see how they can't find a good resolution of all this. But the Focus E15 mothers campaign makes a really good point, that irrespective of the high land prices (which probably mean Newham Council get offered some tempting offers), the one thing East London needs is social housing to prevent low-income groups and long-time locals from being forced out of London by gentrification.

The gentrification was already well underway before the London Olympic bid was won, but that had also added extremely predictable extra heat to the housing market around there. One part of the Olympic plan included plenty of "affordable housing" on the site afterwards - in August 2012, housing charity Shelter said it was good that "almost half" of the new homes built in the Athlete's Village would be "affordable housing". Oh but then they calculated that it wouldn't be that affordable after all, since the rules had been relaxed so the prices could go as high as 80% of market rate. (80% of bonkers is still crazy.)

Oh and it wasn't "almost half" (even though in the Olympic Bid they had said it would be 50% of 9,000 homes), by this point the target had been scaled back officially to about 40%. In November 2012 Boris Johnson insisted "that more than a third of the 7,000 new homes in the Olympic Park would be affordable". The Mayor said: 'There’s no point in doing this unless you can accommodate all income groups.'"

Oh but then in January 2014 Boris Johnson announced that they were changing their mind, and instead of 40% affordable housing, it's now going to be 30%. "Fewer homes will be built overall, and a smaller than promised percentage of those would be affordable." ("The dream of affordable housing is fading," said Nicky Gavron.) The new target contravenes the House of Lords Select Committee on Olympic Legacy report 2013-14 which said "It is important that a fair proportion, at least [...] 35%, of this housing is affordable for, and accessible to, local residents". Boris Johnson said it was a "price well worth paying" as a trade off for more economic activity. Strange assertion to make, since East London has bucketloads of economic activity and a crisis in social and affordable housing!

P.S. and guess why they decided not to build as many homes as they had planned? It's to make room for a cultural centre codenamed Olympicopolis. (Compare against this 2010 map of planned housing in the park.) Plans for this are led by... UCL! Hello again UCL, welcome back into the story. I love UCL as much as anyone - I worked there for years - but we need to fix the housing crisis a billion times more than we need to solve UCL's real-estate issues.

Saturday 27th September 2014 | politics | Permalink

Background reading on Israel and Palestine

I'm going to try and avoid ranting about Israel and Palestine because there's much more heat than light right now. But I want to recommend some background reading that seems useful, and it's historical/background stuff rather than partisan:

I also want to point to a more "one-sided" piece (in the sense that it criticises one "side" specifically - I've no idea about the author's actual motivations): Five Israeli Talking Points on Gaza - Debunked. I recommend it because it raises some interesting points about international law and the like, and we in the UK don't seem to hear these issues filled out on the radio.

Also this interview with Ex-Israeli Security Chief Diskin. Again I don't know Diskin's backstory - clearly he's opposed to the current Israeli Prime Minister (Netanyahu), but the interview has some detail.

As usual, please don't assume anyone is purely pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, and don't confuse criticism of Israel/Hamas with criticism of Judaism/Islam. The topic is hard to talk about (especially on the internet) without the conversation spiralling into extremes.

Thursday 31st July 2014 | politics | Permalink

A reminder: you CAN take photographs of police officers and buildings

There's an article in the Big Issue this week about some of the laws that can catch people out. Including this:

"Under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 you can be arrested for taking photographs of police officers or buildings. It's an offence, you see, to photograph something that may be useful to someone committing or preparing to commit an act of terrorism."

People have indeed been arrested for this. That's an awful state of affairs. BUT! In 2009 there were legal challenges, and the Met Police updated their guidelines to clarify that you CAN take photographs of police officers and buildings. The guidance says:

"Officers do not have the power to delete digital images, destroy film or to prevent photography in a public place under either power [Sec 43 or Sec 44]. Equally, officers are also reminded that under these powers they must not access text messages, voicemails or emails." [Source]

However, during a stop-and-search the police can to some extent look at your photos:

"View digital images contained in mobile telephones or cameras carried by a person searched, provided that the viewing is to determine whether the images contained in the camera or mobile telephone are connected with terrorism."

You should watch this amazing short cartoon, from which I learnt about all this: www.actofterrordocumentary.com

Saturday 31st August 2013 | politics | Permalink

Happy UK live music day

Happy UK live music day! On the news this morning they announced that one of the regulations removed in the government's so-called "bonfire of the regulations" is the law that you can't have live music in the UK without a specific licence.

This is great news. The licensing was proper onerous - you used to need a licence that covered the exact rooms you had in mind. I remember a few years ago when a new arts centre opened up right next to my house. I was developing some generative musical ideas at the time, and I thought, aha, they have a CD playing in the bar area, I can propose some generative music for them which would be an interesting arty thing.

Unfortunately, the art centre couldn't do it, because they had a music licence that allowed live music only in the theatre, but not in the bar, or the gallery, or...

This has cropped up in other contexts too. The exact rule, if I remember right, was that you could have unaccompanied unamplified singing, but anything more than that (even accompaniment with a single acoustic guitar, etc) was banned except in these licensed rooms, and many many places in the UK couldn't be bothered to apply for licences if it wasn't part of their main line of business.

So. More interesting little bits of musical happening, I hope.

Monday 1st October 2012 | politics | Permalink

The Olympics can be both successful AND unjust ...lessons for Rio?

There was a lot of negative press in the run-up to the Olympics, with the G4S security cockup, the ever-inflating costs, and the Zil lanes. But after a spectacular opening ceremony, nice weather and some lovely stories of Olympics winners, the mood has swung really positive.

This has led to a major anti-whingeing press offensive. For example this Independent article described "a great festival of pre-emptive whingeing followed by people having a surprisingly good time" and concluded "It is time for the country to put its doubts to one side." Of course Boris Johnson put it more pithily when he wrote in The Sun "Oh come off it, everybody - enough whimpering."

The main argument of the anti-whingeing offensive is to point out how well it's all gone: no public transport problems, no security calamities, and so on. (Let's put aside for now the fact that all London businesses outside the olympic venues have had a surprising drought of business, which is a bit of a fail that I guess the London organisers could have helped prevent.) But there's an unfortunate problem with this: most of the nay-sayers did not say the Olympics would fail, they said that the Olympics was a bad deal, in both the moral and the financial senses.

Not every criticism has equal weight. Personally, I don't think it's particularly awful that some commuter routes and cycle routes are disrupted, or that police are brought in from the counties to help police the event, for example. We need to take a balanced view of things: we recognise that London changes a bit when the world's biggest sport festival is happening here.

But that doesn't mean that we should sacrifice our civil liberties on the altar of the event. We have British values such as liberty, decency and fair-mindedness, which we believe are reflected in the way we run our policing etc. If we don't make sure the Olympics lives up to these values when it's here, what chance do we have of helping it behave that way when it's in other countries?

So yes, it's good that lots of people are enjoying a smooth-running Olympics, and the British medal success has made it a particularly jolly affair for the country. But the end does not justify the means, and for the purposes of memory I'd like to summarise three types of unpleasantness that were completely unneccessary to build into the the Olympics:

  1. The sponsors' dictatorship and the militant denial of small businesses' / communities' participation
  2. Security clampdowns and chilling effects on civil liberties
  3. Financial weaselings

But the most important thing right at this moment is what lessons can we pass on to Rio, which I'll consider at the end of this post.

1: The sponsors' dictatorship

The sponsors' dictatorship has been extensively covered in the press. For example, an Oxfordshire farm supplying local produce is not only banned from mentioning its association with the Olympics, but banned from doing it for the next ten years. (Source). (Similarly for the UK plastics industry apparently and they're not happy about it either.)

Butchers have been banned from displaying Olympic rings made of sausages, pubs warned they can't advertise the fact that they're showing the Olympics on telly, and cafes banned from selling a "flaming torch breakfast baguette" (source). This is all supposed to be to protect the sponsors' investment - but the rather extreme policing is completely out of proportion to the following fact:

The money from sponsorship covered a tiny fragment of the costs of the Olympics: around 7%.
(Data sources: Parliametary Accounts Committee, Sponsors list at Guardian)

The suppression of UK businesses' benefiting from the Olympics in perfectly ordinary ways is a refusal to recognise this balance. The amount of money coming from UK taxpaying businesses is comparable with the amount of money coming from the official sponsors (since around 12% of UK tax income is directly from businesses). So this heavy-handedness should not be tolerated. The sponsors, maybe their participation is fine (though some argue they're not even needed - that the 7% could have been trimmed or come from elsewhere, and of course the brand-policing costs would have evaporated immediately). But assuming that we don't mind sponsorship, we should accept it without trampling over local businesses' ordinary grassroots involvement.

Incidentally, Jeremy Hunt (the government minister for the Olympics) has made very different pronouncements on the importance of the sponsors: "the sponsors are actually paying for about half of the cost of hosting the Olympics." This is a direct quote from him speaking on Radio 4 (2012-07-23 13:32, World At One), but it is so clearly out of line with the known figures that I can't think of any explanation other than it's propaganda designed to blunt opposition to the olympic brand police, which was the issue under discussion at the time.

A large cause of the branding strictness is because of ambush marketing, where rival non-sponsors essentially embarrass the sponsors by smuggling their own branding opportunities into the event. So the IOC introduced rules (as did FIFA and other such bodies) to try and prevent this. Unfortunately the consequences have swung far too far in the sponsors' favour.

One thing that seems crazy to me is that you're not allowed to use non-Visa cards to buy Olympic tickets, and ATMs have been forced to close, replaced with a (smaller) number of Visa-only machines. This is actually very different from sponsorship - it means that you cannot be a spectator at the games without signing up with Visa. You can keep out of the McDonalds, you can frown at Dow Chemicals, but you simply won't be allowed in without a Visa card. Why hasn't this been mentioned more often in the media? It's an abusive monopoly.


2: Security clampdowns and chilling effects on civil liberties

There are already "chilling effects" described above in the sponsor/logo ridiculousness: for example, the police wasted time emptying their crisps into clear plastic bags in case they ired the sponsors. But much worse than this is the chilling effect on free speech and other civil rights.

Very notable has been the intimidation and disruption of photographers. Many different people have reported that G4S and sometimes the police have stopped journalists taking pictures in a public place, using fairly vague ideas about it being a security issue. The Guardian has a video of it happening.

But it's not just photographers:

  • People who had done nothing wrong at all were arrested, had their homes raided & forbidden to use public transport. These were ex-graffiti artists arrested just-in-case. Unfortunately, this pre-emptive rounding up of people who "might" cause trouble was recently supported by the High Court, who dismissed complaints about police arresting various people who had done nothing wrong just in case they caused controversy during the day of the royal wedding. It's difficult for the police to respond to modern phenomena such as flashmobs but this sounds like plain injustice to me: people who have done nothing wrong detained on the basis of their political beliefs. There's a delicate balance needed here, to protect people's democratic rights.
  • Groups of two or more people (or young people at night) are banned from the Stratford area under specific regulations which I guess must have quite an impact on people who live in Stratford. "A Met spokesman admitted that previous dispersal orders in the area had transferred problems to other areas, but said the force hoped it would not happen this time."
  • A woman received a police warning for a Facebook joke about squirting the Olympic flame with a water pistol.
  • A man in Surrey was arrested (later freed without charge) "based on his manner, his state of dress and his proximity to the [cycling] course". The press summarised it as arrested in Leatherhead for 'not smiling'.

This kind of heavy-handedness is used not only to reduce the chance of flashmobs and other disruption, but also to suppress dissent. The absolute peak of this: police even arrested three protestors for pouring custard over their own heads in Trafalgar Square. As a distilled example of the British spirit right now - critical awareness and up-yours spirit paired with the chilling effects of policing heavy-handedness - I don't know how anyone can top this.


3: Financial weaselings

I don't need to reinforce the fact that the costs of the Olympics ballooned beyond original estimates. That's almost inevitable. And no, no-one expects that money to come back in increased tourism and business - it hasn't done that in the past and that was never the point.

I just want to mention some of the smaller-scale unfairnesses that sneaked under the radar a little:

There's also an issue of the land used for Olympic developments is being developed with public money, and ending up in private hands. The Olympic Park will turn into the "Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park", but it will not be a Royal Park (not managed by the Royal Parks Agency), and I'm not entirely clear on how the ownership is managed but a lot of it will be technically private (source). And the Olympic village has already been sold to a company which will use it for private rental housing, apparently at a loss to the taxpayer. Hm. (The loss-making side of this venture is at least in part a consequence of the economic crash.)


What lessons can we pass on to Rio?

The Olympics is a strange travelling carnival, but it's one that has unprecedented power: it can reroute an entire capital city, it can force countries to pass new laws, and it can consume billions of pounds from the taxpayer.

But because it is travelling, it is largely unaccountable. Having learnt from our experiences, we Londoners and our elected representatives are in no position to change the way the Olympics works - for example to rebalance the sponsorship barminess.

Rio is the site for the next games. I guess they've already undertaken to pass a bizarre olympic logos-and-words-and-sponsors law. But can the citizens of Rio learn from us? Would we British not have said anything, if we'd noticed when a law was being passed that banned small businesses from offering an "olympic breakfast" or using the words "Summer" and "Gold" in promotional material? And will the number of gold medals we won really make us forget the heavy-handed and half-competent security clampdown we've been through, with its chilling effects on journalism, free speech, local business and civil liberties?

(I should acknowledge that there's no reason to think the 2012 Olympics have been particularly "worse" than, say, the 2008 Olympics. I don't know much about the Beijing organisation, but there are stories of communities being moved wholesale out of their homes etc.)

It would be a big shame if the lesson for Rio is "don't worry about any criticism - as long as you can pull it off no-one minds how you do it." How can we help Rio, and future olympic venues, to have an enjoyable games without compromising their values to the unaccountable juggernaut that carries it along?

Sunday 12th August 2012 | politics | Permalink

The politicians' problem with the riots

The political parties are not the only ones trying to dissect the causes of the riots and looting that happened across English cities recently, but they're the ones who feel they have to comment vociferously on what they think must be done.

Some of them are using it to justify proposals such as blocking social networks or evicting looters' families from council housing - strategies very similar to those which, only months ago, we looked on in dismay as they happened in uprisings in Zimbabwe, Syria, etc.

The biggest problem for the political parties is that they probably don't need to do anything. We already have appropriate and proportionate laws (and case law) in the UK, and the police service has learnt the lesson from the mistake they made at the start which allowed a big group-think to develop along the lines that the time was now for rioting/looting with little consequence. (See this interesting article about the role of Blackberry messaging.)

But social networking is not a new and terrifying phenomenon that upends our legal system, it's just a faster and sort-of-decentralised way of communicating. There is no need for the law to change, or for the balance of freedom and surveillance to be reconsidered. (In fact the UK already monitors its citizens more closely than most other EU countries, so clearly a lack of surveillance cannot have been the deciding factor in the riots.)

The rioting and looting clearly reveals social problems in the UK, problems about alienation, gangs, and class. (I never rated Russell Brand before but his blog about the riots hits on some of the power/class issues involved. Oh and I don't generally think about UK society in terms of "class" but it's hard to find a concept that better fits.)

These social problems are in part what the tories' "big society" idea is aiming at, but I'm afraid I think it relies on some pretty wooly thinking - and when you put it together with a too-rapid cuts programme and some really unhelpful rhetoric which obscures understanding about the riots, there's simply no way that the "big society" is ever going to expand to include the groups of people it would need to, to fix these problems. The big society will not hug a hoodie.

(New Labour are also responsible for the mess, of course, though they did have some programmes which went a little way towards social inclusion.)

But anyway: I'm not so naive as to think the main parties might reconsider some of their ideologies in light of recent events. And given their ideologies, the riots don't actually signal any need for them to change tactics, and certainly no need to bring in drastic laws. The police are learning how to work with socially-networked events, and we all need to think long-term about what's going on, longer-term than the 4-year cycle of party politics.

Sunday 14th August 2011 | politics | Permalink

The Biggest Lie in British Politics isn't a lie

Last week I retweeted Johann Hari's piece "The Biggest Lie in British Politics" - he says that the commonly-accepted idea that the UK's national debt is massive and troublesome is basically a bare-faced lie. But since then I've decided he's wrong, and here's why:

Firstly, is the debt big? Hari says:

Lets start with a fact that should be on billboards across the land. As a proportion of GDP, Britains national debt has been higher than it is now for 200 of the past 250 years. Read that sentence again. Check it on any graph by any historian.

He's right - you can check it on any graph such as this chart of UK national debt since 1692. But why was it so high in the past? Look at the graph for 1900 up to the present day and it becomes obvious. The first world war, then the second world war, triggered massive massive leaps in national debt which took decades to come back down.

For the pre-1900 data, apparently the peaks were related to other wars such as the Napoleonic wars, but frankly I think if we go back beyond 1900 the relevance really diminishes - after all, Britain had an empire, financial markets were very different, etc etc.

So the UK national debt is currently above 50% of GDP. It was below 50% from 1888 through to 1915, and then also from 1973 through to 2009. The big spike up in 2009/2010 is clearly visible on the graph, and is clearly quite a difference from what's been happening over the past 40 years.

--

Secondly, is the debt bigger than other countries'? Hari says:

it is not high by international standards. For example, Japans national debt is three times bigger than ours, and they are still borrowing at good rates.

That "for example" is a naughty little weasel-word. Japan is not an "example", it's an outlier - Japan has had a worryingly big national debt for a long time, supported in part by the Japanese people's tendency to save more, but still a cause for concern in Japan. If you look at the list of sovereign states by public debt you can see Japan topping out that list, with a national debt bigger (in proportion) than everyone, including badly-broken Zimbabwe's economy.

Personally, I would like to compare the UK against other states where the comparison feels similar, which to me generally means Western Europe. So which of those countries have a higher national debt than us? Well: Greece, Italy, Belgium, Ireland -- oh dear, this is not looking particularly reassuring!

But then: France and Germany - they both have larger national debt than the UK (at least according to the 2010 figures I'm looking at). Is there anyone here who thinks France and Germany are dodgy financial examples?

So I think Johann Hari is behaving particularly weaselly in using Japan as a "for example". The UK's national debt is indeed higher than quite a lot of other nations - but it's not freakishly high. However, the historical data I mentioned above show that the banking crisis has affected our national debt in a way that probably does imply some measures need to be taken -- I know -- what about a robin hood tax?

--

If you're reading this you might wonder if I now agree with the Tory / Lib Dem cuts agenda, since I think Johann Hari's position is wrong. Well I don't: cutting savagely and fast seems to me most likely to harm the chances of a smooth recovery, and I believe they're cutting so fast for two reasons: (1) they have the rhetorical momentum right now to cut whatever they want, it's harder to argue against a single cut when there are dozens more happening at the same time; and (2) they're trying to get it out of the way fast so that the public forgets by the time of the next general election. (Why else front-load such a massive portion of the cuts into the first year?)

Saturday 2nd April 2011 | politics | Permalink

On choice

The next mistake was to embrace 'choice'. The belief in choice followed naturally from a belief in the efficacy of the market, which was taken for granted by the people Labour ministers listened to. This had very damaging consequences both in education and in health. In education it predicated parental choice as the foundation of policy. It gave parents unique rights. But why should parents have such rights? In the jargon, education is a 'social good' not a 'private good'. How and where our children are taught must be a collective not an individual decision; and that is the view of most parents. They want their children to get a good education, but they are prepared to let the professionals do it, as surveys have repeatedly confirmed. Despite this, the right to choose was thought paramount by New Labour and was to be encouraged by creating an array of different kinds of school where efficient parents could find what they wanted. Except, of course, that they couldn't. Only some got their choice, and they were often the best connected, best informed. Attempts to correct this via lotteries only outraged the losers even more. Far from encouraging social harmony, choice encouraged a war of all against all. Far from solidifying the Labour vote, choice undermined it. And it left the way open for the Conservative Party's silly proposals for 'free schools': parent-run, state-financed independent schools spuriously claimed to empower the poor. (Excerpted from an article by Ross McKibbin.)

This has always baffled me, the political assertion that people want choice in schools and hospitals. No-one in the media seems to make the obvious counter-argument, why in the world would we want to choose hospitals, we just want to get fixed.

Anyway, when I last posted about "choice" Jack mentioned this fantastic radio programme about the psychology of choice - it's an amazing programme, I highly recommend you listen.

Tuesday 8th June 2010 | politics | Permalink

Random sample democracy

On the radio this morning an interesting idea to improve the "power" of voting: instead of everyone having a vote, a random sample of (say) 1000 people in the country get chosen each time, and they vote.

Why? Under our current system, many people feel that their vote doesn't make a decisive difference, because the number of voters is so large that their individual vote won't change the general sway towards whichever party. They don't therefore put a lot of effort in to exploring the options, the manifestos etc - but if their vote was one of only a few, they would have the power to change the election with their single vote and would therefore have much greater incentive to work out how each party's policies would actually affect them etc. The idea is that by increasing the personal investment the voters feel in the outcome, the amount of "oversight" increases.

Essentially it would make voting a lot like jury duty. The danger of jury-rigging and suchlike would be massive, I guess, so it'd require loads of bureaucratic hoops about fair selection of people and isolating the jury from undue influences. So it's kind of crazy.

But the inspiration apparently comes from the financial world: when a set of accounts is inspected by many people, there's actually not much oversight because no-one feels responsible for signing off the accounts. Instead, they have one person to inspect the accounts and one other person to double-check, and so you get much greater oversight. For an election you can't just have one person because people have different opinions and priorities, so you choose some small number that's still big enough for a single vote to influence the outcome.

Sunday 2nd May 2010 | politics | Permalink

Great moment for Iraqi independence!

Seems Iraqis really know how to express their independence from the US. Two stories today: first, in the town of Tikrit, they've unveiled a 10-foot statue of the shoe that Muntadar al-Zaidi threw at George Bush:

Muntadar al-Zaidi is still in jail for what he did, but it seems it's set to become a heartwarming moment in the collective memory...

The other story is less quirky but still symbolic. Iraq announced that they're kicking Blackwater out of the country. The company provides bodyguarding and suchlike for various US activities, but they've apparently been accused more than once of trampling/machine-gunning civilians in the course of their duties (see the above link for info). Having them out of the country will be a headache for the US, so it hints at the independent mind of the Iraqi goverment...

Friday 30th January 2009 | politics | Permalink

Whose crime initiative?

Slightly confusingly, the London Lite today says that the large fall in annual tube-robberies (from 399 to 192) vindicates Mayor Boris's zero-tolerance approach to knife crime. But... the fall is from 2006 to 2007, i.e. quite a few months before Boris got into office!

(BTW the fall is a good thing, but since it comes from a policy of random screenings at tube stations, it's quite likely to have simply shifted the problem out of the underground and onto the streets, surely? Let's hope not. But it means we can't really know if a more general screening programme would have the same effect...)

Wednesday 28th May 2008 | politics | Permalink

Incompetent cartoon character

Great great great. A combination of events (international economy, 10p tax idiocy) has allowed a careerist clown with no experience to run London.

Ken has not been 100% perfect but he's done some incredibly good bold moves - e.g. the congestion charging zone - and reduced crime, improved community relations, etc. Boris might look harmless but since he has strong Thatcherite views, no relevant experience, and no particular connection to London, I hope you'll forgive me for saying that whoever voted for him is a gullible idiot.

Saturday 3rd May 2008 | politics | Permalink

Jeremy Clarkson and his bank

This is my favourite news story for a long, long time, check it out:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7174760.stm

Tuesday 8th January 2008 | politics | Permalink

Pouring fire into the Middle East

The USA has announced a massive sending of weaponry to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, allegedly to shore them up against "influences" from Iran and from groups like Hizbollah and Al Quaida. (The weaponry is being sold to Saudi Arabia, but seems to be being donated to Israel.) Sounds like a great way to ensure peace and stability, yes? Well, maybe it's some consolation prize for having created a complete hornet's nest in their neighbouring Iraq, as well as being backed by the US's apparent fear of Iran. But giving away missile guidance systems to warlike (Israel) or wahhabi (Saudi Arabia) nations strikes me as a strange way to try and pacify the situation.

Tuesday 31st July 2007 | politics | Permalink

Boris makes me shiver

The contrast between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingston is pretty sinister.

Ken Livingston has been amazingly effective as Mayor of London, and in interviews he's very reasonable and understanding, but he doesn't project himself very well in the media. Boris Johnson does project himself very well in the media, but in interviews he tends to hedge around everything he's talking about and he's quite an ineffective person. The idea that the Tory leadership thinks Londoners might want him running our infrastructure makes me shiver.

Tuesday 17th July 2007 | politics | Permalink

Hooray for Alan Johnston

Hooray for Alan Johnston, released after 4 months held hostage by a rebel Palestinian group.

I was worried for a while that there wasn't much point holding out hope. But then when Hamas regained strength in Gaza and seemed to be working to try and get him freed, it occurred to me that Hamas had quite strong motives for trying to achieve this. For one they could really benefit from being in the good books of the West, which cut funding to them when they were democratically elected to run Palestine. This sort of action shows that they're more than just a "terrorist organsation", however that's defined. Also, having taken control of Gaza they want to show they have some kind of control over what's going on there. On the radio this morning it also seems that various Hamas leaders had genuine moral motivations to free Alan Johnston because they respected his position as one of the only people willing to stay in Palestine and report from it, which is very encouraging. So, very good news...

Wednesday 4th July 2007 | politics | Permalink

Hamas, Palestine, etc

It seems clear to me we had a golden opportunity to bring Palestine towards peaceful statehood. When Hamas won the democratic election in 2006 there was consternation in various places, including the ministers of the European Union: could we continue to send development aid to Palestine, now it was run by a group officially designated as a terrorist organisation?

The decision that the EU arrived at was "no", and it was a terrible, terrible mistake. The "yes" option would have supported peace and stability in Palestine, supported democracy, and helped encourage Hamas away from militancy and begun the process of converting it to a civil organisation. (That would never have happened immediately, but it could eventually have happened.) The "no" option means that the EU has effectively joined in Israel's choking of the machinery of Palestinian statehood, meaning that civil institutions can't pay their staff etc. This breakdown directly caused the recent Hamas/Fatah infighting and territorial conflict.

The situation is complex. But what we all want (don't we?) is a peaceful democratic state as the end result. Various militant or terrorist groups have been able to convert to peaceful contexts, but it's never happened by trying to choke off those groups - that only leads to hardening of divisions. Yes, Hamas was officially designated a terrorist organisation, but its strong democratic support in the 2006 elections (winning with 56% of the parliamentary seats), as well as its work in Palestine to improve living conditions, showed its potential to become a civil institution. Yes, Hamas doesn't officially recognise Israel's right to exist as a state, but Israel doesn't allow Palestine to exist as a state, so it's hardly fair to use this as the diplomatic sticking-point.

The USA has trumpeted the ideal of democracy as being a necessary goal to spread throughout the world. Democracy is said to defeat terrorism and militancy; and I do think and hope that's true. This is the one perfect test case: if the US as well as the EU and others had made the promotion of democracy the core of its dealings with Palestine, we could be in a much better situation right now.

Monday 18th June 2007 | politics | Permalink

Blair

  • Irish peace process: +1000
  • Smoking ban: +50
  • Economy: +0
  • NHS: +0
  • Climate change: +0
  • Millenium dome: -1
  • Cash-for-honours: -40
  • University tuition fees: -100
  • Secondary education: -200
  • Gap between rich and poor: -350
  • ID cards: -400
  • Iraq: -100,001

TOTAL SCORE: -99,242

Thursday 10th May 2007 | politics | Permalink

"The Trap"

The Trap is a very thought-provoking documentary programme. It's made by the same bloke who made the enormously thought-provoking and damning series The Power Of Nightmares which was about the current political use of fear rather than optimism, and how it developed into movements like the American neo-cons and the Islamic fundamentalists.

This time it's about the confluence of ideas from economics, genetics, and psychology leading towards a bleak politics in which people are seen purely as self-interested autonomous entities. It's very careful to make sure its main message comes across, which is that the oversimplified models which economists and politicians use to model you and me have drastic effects on the way people are treated. Incentivisation of hospital waiting-lists leads to "game-playing" hospital managers arranging things in perverse and unfair ways; school "league-tables", intended to incentivise improvements in schools, lead to growing inequality rather than reducing inequality, as the well-off buy houses in strategic locations for accessing the "good" schools; and psychological checklists unintentionally make it a medical problem to experience ordinary human emotions.

It makes its point forcefully, and it ties together things that I'd never tied together before (such as connecting Richard-Dawkins-style "selfish gene" biology with market liberalisation). But I was often a bit confused about whether it was connecting things together just as analogies (e.g. at the same time the economists were coming up with game theory, the biologists were coming up with selfish gene theory), or as causally-connected (e.g. the biologists came up with selfish gene theory after reading about game theory).

Democracy, free markets, and efficiency

One big point was about the economists' idea that free-market economics was "more efficient" than democratic politics. This was apparently justification for actions during the 1990s such as freeing the UK interest rate from political control (coincidentally, discussed in the LRB last week in an article considering whether democracy or "elitism" was a better way to run things like the Lords or the Bank of England).

The argument about efficiency is very very easy to understand:

  • In democracy, you have to vote for your representatives and then hope that they work in your interest in future, with no guarantees that they won't (intentionally or not) be more comfortable working in their own interest.
  • On the other hand, in a free market, the providers need to be constantly satisfying your needs, because if they don't you can simply transfer your spending to a competitor who will do it better. The efficiency is built in because (in a free market with no problems with information flow) the providers' success is directly tied to their ability to satisfy your desires appropriately.

What wasn't mentioned in the TV programme was the obvious flaw in this argument, which is that although efficiency helps reduce wasted effort etc, efficiency comes second to fairness. Democracy is fair because of the inalienable right to vote, whereas your free-market "vote" depends on how much money you have; and of course there are some people with much more money than the majority, and many people with no money at all. So free-market economics simply cannot satisfy the "average will" of the population (however you define that), because the "centre of mass" of the economic power is never anywhere near the "centre of mass" of the population.

The programme said that the simplified economics of the recent past was starting to fall out of favour, making the point that some recent Nobel Prizes in Economics had been awarded to economists who had shown that free markets do not neccessarily lead to stability or efficiency. (I don't know which economists he was referring to. Amartya Sen? Joseph Stiglitz? Not sure. Would like to know.)

I'm specifically interested in this point because one of the magazines I read occasionally is The Economist, which has a very rational view of the world and makes very good points about all kinds of politically-tinged things, but it's always in favour of free markets. It often claims that free markets should be encouraged because they lead to a general uplift in living conditions. I'm really not sure what the basis is for such an argument. Maybe, to them, the various examples of market liberalisation leading to problems for the poor and otherwise powerless, are examples of insufficiently efficient situations (e.g. caused by information asymmetries or legislation interfering with the fluidity of the market? Or perhaps they're looking at general trends like a general increase in average measures of wellbeing, and are less interested in growing differences between rich and poor.

They're not stupid and not immoral so I don't think it's a case of blinkeredness. I would like to understand why they think that free-market economics improves the lot of the average person.

Incentives and "game-playing"

The programme related a catalogue of examples of government targets and incentives having led to perverse "game-playing" behaviour from those who were supposed to meet their targets. It didn't mention, but it reminded me of, the story about (a tiny minority of) American soldiers in the Vietnam war shooting innocent villagers to meet "kill quotas". Its examples were from British government, such as the hospitals choosing to schedule the "easy" operations first, rather than the important ones, or re-designating hospital trolleys as hospital "beds". Our own GP surgery indulges in the same kind of game-playing: they refuse to give you an appointment for later in the week, insisting instead that you turn up at 8:15 the next morning to get one of the morning slots reserved for same-day bookings. This has the statistical effect of making it look as if I've got an appointment within a couple of hours of asking for one, whereas in fact I've been sent away the first time I've asked for one and so my waiting time is much longer than will appear in the figures. Besides which I can't plan in advance to take time off work because I don't know when I'll be able to get an appointment.

The programme's critique is that this incentivisation is all due to the economists' managerial approach to government. But the strange thing is that economists know that incentives cause game-playing and cheating. I found this very relevant quote from Freakonomics, in the chapter discussing various forms of cheating to meet targets:

"Cheating is more common in the face of a bright-line incentive (the line between winning and losing, for instance) than with a murky incentive." (p39)

So even if we put aside the programme's allegation, that this incentive-based approach to government is based on a dehumanising view of humanity, the incentivising approach makes the incentives much clearer and brighter than other sorts of approaches (based on morals, social duties, etc). So presumably it leads to more cheating. Incentives are like single lines which can be dodged around, while morals and social imperatives are much fuzzier, which, yes, makes them harder to pin down, but also makes them much less suitable for ducking and weaving to get round in dubious ways.

To paraphrase Churchill, social ties may be the worst way of organising groups of people, "except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Monday 19th March 2007 | politics | Permalink

Iraq: In or Out?

Just like most people, I was agianst the war on Iraq from the very beginning, and I went on marches to try and get the point across. After Saddam was toppled, the anti-war organisations started campaigning to get the troops out immediately, but my position was that having made such an awful bloody mess of someone's country, our troops should stay around to help fix it. (It's not the troops' fault of course, but Tony Blair's hardly going to go and repair the bridges and power stations himself.)

Now over the past couple of months, the US and UK governments have been changing their tune. before, the line was, "We have to stay in Iraq until the job's done, and/or until the Iraq government asks us to leave." Now, the line is, "Our troops will mostly be out of Iraq within a year or so." (Example)

Iraq is not getting better, and if the news is to be believed it's getting worse, slowly sliding towards civil war. Kofi Annan warned about this just recently; lots of commentators share this view. In such a situation, why would anyone decide that the time was ripe for pulling out the troops?

I'm 100% sure that the governments haven't been listening to the Stop The War Coalition on this one. Being charitable, I could guess that they have had some sound advice that removing the antagonism of a foreign army from the mix could help deflate tensions - but I don't honestly believe that to be likely. Alternatively, perhaps it's for the benefit of voters whose sons and daughters are sent to Iraq to face mortal danger every day - but if so, why now rather than years ago? My worry is that the scaling back of the commitment to Iraq is to free up capacity, to give the leaders the capability to threaten or even launch a new military adventure. Presumably not against Iran, because they're trying to butter up Iran to convince them to provide military support in Iraq when they leave - which is itself a hint that they're trying to pull out prematurely.

Tuesday 28th November 2006 | politics | Permalink

Immigration: Everyone's wrong

The Daily Star today has a prominent article stating boldly that UK taxpayers are losing out because of immigration - apparently 80% of immigrants are not net contributors to the budget. This is based on a "Migrationwatch" press release about their briefing paper. Their calculation is that you need to earn £27,000 a year in order to be a net contributor to the economy, and that only 20% of immigrants earn this much. The Daily Star takes this to mean that immigrants are a big drain on the UK economy, but of course that's a completely false inference. Not even Migrationwatch (!) is suggesting that immigrants are taking four times as much as they put in. Rather, they quibble with the government's analysis that migrants ever-so-slightly increase GDP per head, claiming that immigrants ever-so-slightly decrease GDP per head.

The other side of the political spectrum can be just as bad. The Independent had a front-page splash claiming to tell "the truth about immigration" and debunk the negative headlines (22nd Aug issue). Their specific debunkings were unbelievably weaselly: debunking the Daily Mail's "East Europe migrants help take jobless to six-year high" they say, "the number of people in work grew [...] to reach 28.94 million - the highest number of people in work since records began in 1971". But the number of people in work is irrelevant, given the trend of population growth - the percentage of people in work is the important figure. And unfortunately, UK unemployment has indeed been rising over the past couple of years.

The Independent's weaselling is bizarre, especially given there are perfectly good arguments in favour of open immigration. The Guardian put it very well last week: I didn't keep the paper so I can't quote any, but they have an excellent trove of online articles about immigration, far more level-headed than either The Independent or The Daily Star. The Economist is also very nicely level-headed, and its clear presentation of statistics completely outranks all the other newspapers/magazines I've seen. A couple of months ago they presented clear evidence showing that the countries which had welcomed migrants had benefited economically, while the countries which didn't, didn't do so well.

I'm instinctively in favour of a more open immigration policy, partly on moral grounds and partly because of the various evidence which seems to me to show that the Polish immigration, despite involving massively more immigrants than anyone ever expected, has not overall been bad for the country. However, I am worried by the potential for a large pool of unskilled labour to push wages down for manual workers etc, down towards the minimum wage. The Independent weaselled out of this by saying that the annual growth rate in average wages has increased over the past month, but: (a) we need a longer time-span than a month (see this official graph which shows that growth is kind of steady on a more sensible timescale); and (b) we need average wages specifically for manual workers, since larger trends might obscure what's going on in that sector. I don't know where to find those statistics so I can't fill in the details I'm afraid.

Wednesday 30th August 2006 | politics | Permalink

Survey of one billion muslims

The Gallup surveying company is conducting perhaps the biggest survey of muslim opinion ever: "the study will reflect the views of more than one billion Muslims in nearly 40 countries, about 90 percent of the world’s Muslim population".

Read the article and the illustration covering the preliminary findings. It's got some really interesting nuances, like what people think about the US's stated aims to promote democracy (hint: muslims don't seem to be convinced) and what they admire most about the West. Also very interesting is the difference of opinion between moderates and extremists, which turns up some surprises.

Wednesday 30th August 2006 | politics | Permalink

Dangerous and facile Kim Howells

  • Muslim leaders wrote an open letter to the prime minister, saying that British foreign policy is putting its citizens at risk
  • Kim Howells dismissed the letter as "dangerous and facile"
  • Kim Howells is an idiot.

As someone living and working in London I'm one of the people being put particularly at risk and I can't stand it when idiots like Howells deny that the motivation of these terrorists can possibly go any deeper than George Bush's beloved and meaningless "They hate our freedom".

The methods of these terrorists are despicable but the people involved are still human. They aren't reacting because they froth at the mouth when they hear about a country where people are free, they're reacting to perceived injustices, some of which are genuine injustices.

"There is no way of rationalising that" says Kim Howells. But only by understanding why people do things like this can we ever hope to stop them. The investigative work to halt specific plots before they're carried out is absolutely laudable, but it treats the symptoms rather than the disease.

Sunday 13th August 2006 | politics | Permalink

LRB on Israel/Lebanon

Two excellent articles about the current Israeli war on Lebanon. Firstly Siege Notes, By Rasha Salti - a very personal account of living in Beirut while Israel bombs it.

Also an article by Karim Makdisi putting paid to Israel's rather successful spin-doctoring of its offensive. For example:

The ultimate irony is the Israeli claim that the purpose of this war is the 'implementation' of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for the disarming of 'militias' in Lebanon): this from a country that has an unrivalled record in defying UN resolutions.

Reading these articles doesn't make me optimistic about the situation at all, but it does at least reassure me that there are people willing to talk sense about it.

Wednesday 9th August 2006 | politics | Permalink

Ceasefire != peace ???

I'm absolutely in despair about the UK government's refusal to call for a ceasefire in the developing Israel/Lebanon war. Kim Howells, on the radio this morning, tried to claim that the government wanted to "work towards a lasting peace" and seemed to be implying that a ceasefire would somehow get in the way of this mysterious and unexplained "lasting peace". Irrespective of whether peace should be achieved by more complex means - redrawing borders, disarming certain factions, who knows - surely it's a good idea to stop the killing and destruction now?
Saturday 22nd July 2006 | politics | Permalink

Venezuela eradicates illiteracy

Found an interesting titbit in my UCU magazine today, mentioning in passing that "UNESCO has confirmed that Venezuela has now eradicated illiteracy". Wow!

Some brief internet searching seems to confirm this. According to UNESCO, Latin America generally has illiteracy rates of about 10%. Of course you're never going to get a country where absolutely every individual is literate, but Venezuela's radical programmes have demonstrably reduced illiteracy to about 2%, which is about the same as the average estimate for developed countries. This UNESCO graph shows literacy in Latin America, with Venezuela at about 7%, but that's for 2000-2004. This news article describes a little of the programmes used, and the quote about UNESCO's results for 2005. Nice one Chavez...

Monday 19th June 2006 | politics | Permalink

Pulling out

I've just been sent an article by Richard Overy, from an Evening Standard journalist. He emphasises the point that while the "coalition" forces stay in Iraq, they give the guerrilla insurgency a target and a motive, and perhaps that pulling the troops out would deflate the insurgency and help speed Iraq back towards peace. He also describes very well how the aim and method of "exporting democracy" is fundamentally misguided, and that the most hopeful examples in recent history are of change coming from within (e.g. South Africa - although there were obvious external pressures acting as well).

It's an interesting argument that the troops should pull out in order to remove the purpose from the insurgents. But the article leaves out the fact that the US/Britain/others need to maintain a commitment to Iraq in terms of making reparations for the destruction of the country's infrastructure. Most Iraqis don't have access to the acceptable standard of water, electricity, or medical facilities that they did before the war. The invading nations have an absolute obigation to ensure that they do, and they need to do it using their own money and resources (not with Iraqi oil money, as the provisional authority has been doing).

I fear that to pull out altogether, and to attempt reparations purely at a distance (e.g. just by pumping money in), would have two problems. Firstly, it's vulnerable to corruption taking the money away from its intended targets. Secondly, it makes it easy for reparations to slide out of the Western public consciousness, and for our governments to cut back their support.

So we need to push forward on projects to (re)build medical centres and schools. Whether Iraq eventually becomes a real democracy or not, that's the only way to win hearts and minds and ensure that this terrible misadventure doesn't create many more enemies than we already had.

Thursday 2nd February 2006 | politics | Permalink

Blunkett back below the parapet

David Blunkett has (again) resigned his Cabinet post, under fire over his breaking of the ministerial rules. Both he and Tony Blair have refused to admit that any actual wrong-doing has been involved.

This is really frustrating. The refusal to acknowledge wrong-doing opens the way up for Blunkett to slip back into government, whenever Blair decides that enough time has passed for the fickle public to forget what went before. I am not looking forward to the day Blunkett is re-appointed, despite his proven wrongdoings in this government post and the last one.

Thursday 3rd November 2005 | politics | Permalink

London under a blanket

London is a horrible place to travel around at the moment. Police in high-visibility jackets guard every entrance and platform at every tube station. Helicopters lurk overhead. It feels dangerous from both sides: we could be blown up by a bomb, or we could be shot dead by a policeman who misinterprets some slightly unusual action.

After the first round of bombs, everything largely swung back to normal very quickly, just as I remember it did in Manchester after the IRA bomb a few years back. (For those who lost loved ones, of course this isn't true.) After the second round of attempted bombs, then the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, things are different.

The police and the other emergency services have done their jobs admirably through all of this - I don't mean to say anything against them as institutions or individuals. But for a citizen caught up in this it's no fun at all. It's an intimidating atmosphere, and even worse for young men with asian or african complexions - they have to put up with bag-searches every time they travel from A to B with anything remotely bulky.

I can only hope the anti-terrorist investigation reaches its conclusion sooner rather than later, and also that UK law and liberty don't emerge too badly damaged from this crisis.

Thursday 4th August 2005 | politics | Permalink

What I said about the bombs

An email I wrote to Radio 4's PM programme after the 7th July bombings, which they kindly decided to put on their website...:

I work in an office just round the corner from where the bus-bomb was detonated. I have to say that I can't help blaming George Bush and Tony Blair. When we marched in our millions against the Iraq War, we said even then that it would increase rather than decrease the threat from terrorism. It was obvious.

Of course, the deluded and callous people who took part in the bomb plot are the actual villains of the piece - but on a historical scale it's easy to see the Iraq War's causal connection.

To pull out of Iraq without making reparations and ensuring stability would be idiotic. The deed is done. I just hope that in years to come, long after Tony Blair has retired from politics, he can bring himself to admit the gravity of the mistake.

Sunday 24th July 2005 | politics | Permalink
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